Before the Chiefs and Steelers met Sunday at Heinz Field, Pat Mahomes the dad met Patrick Mahomes the son for their traditional pre-game hug. Pat Mahomes the retired baseball pitcher and Patrick Mahomes (yes, “Patrick;” his mom has decreed the son will be called a different name than the father) the young Chiefs quarterback have been doing this since seventh grade. If dad is at the game, he’s hugging his son and saying the same thing on this breezy 80-degree afternoon at one of the coolest places to play pro football—the confluence of the Three Rivers—that he’s said before youth, high school and college football games.
“Players make plays,” Pat Mahomes said to his son. “Go out there and have fun.”
Pat Mahomes’ 11-year major-league career ended just down the street 15 years earlier—his last MLB stop was with the Pirates in 2003—but he wasn’t thinking much about that sitting in his normal-fan end-zone seat Sunday. Mostly, he was thinking about the eerie calm of his son.
“It’s just crazy,” said Pat Mahomes late Sunday night after his flight home to Texas landed in Dallas. “Watching him, he’s so calm. The thing that’s funny to me is he really doesn’t realize what he just did. He went into Pittsburgh, where they’ve won more Super Bowls than any team in history, and he won. He really doesn’t think about that stuff. He doesn’t think about being in Heinz Field playing Roethlisberger. He just goes and plays football.”
Players make plays. Patrick Mahomes leads the NFL in making them. He’s quickly becoming the big story of this NFL season. In the Chiefs’ 42-37 win over the Steelers—the first win for Kansas City in Pittsburgh since 1986—Mahomes threw six touchdown passes and no interceptions. Watching a good portion of it on CBS, I’m surprised Ian Eagle finished the game with a voice. What Mahomes is doing has never been done. No player, never mind a player in his second and third NFL starts, has opened a season with a 10-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio in two games. Now, it’s only an eighth of the season, but Mahomes has gone on the road twice, played playoff contenders with Hall of Fame-contender quarterbacks (Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger), gone 2-0, put up 80 points, and thrown touchdown passes to four wideouts, a tight end, a running back and a fullback.
It’s not just the raw numbers. It’s the way he’s done it. Watch Mahomes play, and you see an eight-year vet, or someone who plays like one. No happy feet, no real highs of emotion, calm in the pocket even when there’s traffic. He’s in such a perfect system, with speedy and talented wideouts, the defending NFL rushing champion and a tight end bettered in today’s game only by the great Gronk. Andy Reid just spreads the field—five of the six touchdown passes Sunday came on two-by-two formations—and lets Mahomes find the open guy. He doesn’t care who it is.
I spoke to Patrick Mahomes while he and his dad walked to the team bus after the game. Patrick Mahomes was polite. He dished out credit like John Stockton dished the basketball. He sounded absolutely unsurprised by what’s happened in the first two games.
“What’s happened speaks to Coach Reid and everything he’s taught me in the last year,” Mahomes said. “He’s prepared me to go out and play fast. In this system, if you can play fast, you can take advantage of things against the defense. And the talent and the legends I have around me—I’m just really trying to get the ball out of my hands and into these playmakers’ hands.”
This was an odd game. The Chiefs went up 21-0 on three TD throws from Mahomes in the first quarter. The Steelers came back with a 21-0 second quarter, on three TD throws from Roethlisberger. So the Steelers, and their crowd, came out revved up when the Chiefs got to the ball to start the third quarter.
Bang: first play, Mahomes to Tyreek Hill for 36 yards. Four plays later came Mahomes’ favorite play of the day. From the Steeler 25, two receivers left (tight end Travis Kelce on the inside) and two split right, Mahomes took a shotgun snap and stared down Chris Conley, the receiver to Kelce’s left. That seemed to keep rookie safety Terrell Edmunds outside, on Conley. Now came Mahomes’ eyes back to center field, to Kelce. He zinged a laser to Kelce up the left seam. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Mahomes go to either receiver on his right, really; the spacing on this play, and in this offense in general, is superb.
“I kind of eyed the safety off,” Mahomes said, “and that gave Travis enough room. I actually threw it a little low, but he made a heck of a play to catch it.”
“I thought that was the amazing part of the game,” dad Pat Mahomes said later. “The Steelers come back to tie it, and on the first series out of halftime, he just drives the length of the field and throws another one. Right there, everybody realizes he’s a player.”
We see. “I mean, there’s a little bit of a surprise,” Patrick Mahomes said. “I knew with this offense anything could happen, but coming out of the gate like this, it’s pretty awesome.”
I wondered what Pat Mahomes the pitcher thought of how his son had been schooled so far. He praised Reid lavishly (“He’s taught my son how to be a professional”) but he saved special praise for Alex Smith. Last year, Smith knew when the Chiefs traded the 2018 first-round pick to move up in the 2017 first round to take Mahomes his days were numbered. Smith, of course, lasted one more season. But he taught Mahomes what he knew about football. “How to prepare, mostly,” Mahomes the quarterback told me. “He taught me how to make sure I was ready for any situation that presented itself in a game. I owe him a lot.”
Dads understand and appreciate help given to their children. So Pat Mahomes told Smith several times last year how much he appreciated what he did for his boy. Unspoken was the fact that they both knew Patrick was there to take Smith’s job.
“That’s what’s so admirable about what Alex did all season for him,” Pat Mahomes said. “I know how it was when I came up [to the Minnesota Twins, in 1992]. I remember one time that year asking Jack Morris how he threw his split-finger fastball. He said, ‘Get away from me, you little MF. You’ll be trying to take my job next year.’ ”
When Patrick was 6, in 2001, his father played for the Texas Rangers. Alex Rodriguez was a first-year Ranger, having signed a $252-million deal to move from Seattle. “Alex would take Patrick down to the cage, and he’d take batting practice, and then he’d break down the tape with Patrick and teach him about his swing. Patrick loves A-Rod,” Pat Mahomes said. “Being around those clubhouses was great for him. It taught him the value of hard work in sports, and how professional athletes should act.”
The lessons worked. Patrick fell in love with football, and football is loving him back right about now. “We’re not done,” offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy told Mahomes after the game in Pittsburgh.
“I know,” Patrick Mahomes said. “I’ve got a long way to go.”
The path looks pretty clear.
It’s been quite a fortnight.
Buffalo cornerback Vontae Davis, who made the Pro Bowl three years ago, walked into the locker room at halftime Sunday in western New York and quit football. He didn’t tell his teammates. He just took off his uniform and walked away from the game.
In non-quitting news:
• Florida is 6-0. New York/New Jersey is 1-5.
• Teams are scoring eight points per game more through two weeks, and an all-pro defender, Calais Campbell, has a theory.
• Marcus Mariota (elbow) was on the bench Sunday, and his fellow top-of-the-draft quarterback in 2015, Jameis Winston, may join him there when he comes off suspension in eight days.
Let’s dive in:
Fitzpatrick, Bucs Ball Out; Winston Texts: ‘Awesome game!’
When Tampa Bay players came back to the locker room after conquering the Super Bowl champion Eagles at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday afternoon, the receiver group found a group text on their phones. “Awesome game!” was the message … from Jameis Winston. Of course, Winston is missing the first three games of the season because of league discipline stemming from his alleged groping of an Uber driver in 2016, and Ryan Fitzpatrick has Tampa Bay off to a 2-0 start with the kind of quarterbacking that’s put Winston’s starting job in jeopardy. “That was great to hear from him,” said wideout Mike Evans from the Bucs’ locker room. “Jameis did an awesome job in camp, and he supported Fitz all the way. But he’s a team guy.”
Tampa Bay hosts Pittsburgh next Monday. When Winston returns to the team the next day after the suspension lapses, the Bucs will have a short week to prepare for a road game in Chicago in Week 4. Then their bye comes. So coach Dirk Koetter will have a ready-made reason to stay with Fitzmagic—It’d be unfair to stick Jameis in the lineup after being off for three weeks and then preparing in a short week—before having a real decision to make when, in Week 6, the Bucs travel to Atlanta. Still, it’s hard to imagine Koetter going back to Winston the way Fitzpatrick is playing. In the first 133 games of Fitzpatrick’s 13-year career, he had one 400-yard passing game. He’s had two in his last two games.
“We can be as explosive as any team in the league,” Evans said. “We’re not surprised by this success. I think there’s a lot more out there. Ryan’s working really hard, spreading the ball around, and he’s playing great football with great playmakers around him.” All true. Hard to imagine Koetter fiddling with that success when the top pick of the 2015 draft returns in eight days.
Cousins Picks Fine Time To Be Great
“I don’t really know how to feel after a tie,” Kirk Cousins said from Green Bay on Sunday after Vikings 29, Packers 29. Let me help: Angry, because Vikings kicker Daniel Carlson missed 49 and 35-yard field goals in the scoreless OT … Fortunate, because a bad roughing-the-passer call on Green Bay’s Clay Matthews wiped away a Cousins interception in the final two minutes with the Packers up eight … Proud, because the Packers are THE rival for Minnesota, and Cousins played the kind of game befitting a three-year, $84-million quarterback.
Quite a weekend for Cousins. The Vikings stayed at the Red Lion Hotel Paper Valley in Appleton, a half hour drive from Lambeau. Lots of teams stay there. “I came to Lambeau in 2003 for a game in 2003 as a high-school freshman, and I stayed at the same hotel I stayed at last night,” Cousins told me. “It hasn’t changed much.” (I can attest to that. My first time at the Paper Valley was in 1990, and when I returned a couple of years ago, a quarter-century hadn’t brought a significant facelift.) Then the game. If you’ve been able to doubt Cousins on one major element, it’s his play in very big games, or in playoff-deciding games. His uninspired performance in a Week-17 loss to the Giants in 2016—I’ll always believe—is one reason why Washington was okay acquiring Alex Smith and watching Cousins sign with Minnesota last March.
But a 425-yard game, four-touchdown, 118.8-point rating game put a pretty big dent in that narrative for Cousins. Down 20-7 entering the fourth quarter, Cousins threw three touchdown passes, the last with 31 seconds left in the game to Adam Thielen. Amazing throw. Two Packer defenders had a shot to tip it away at the goal line, but the ball threaded some invisible needle and landed perfectly in Thielen’s gut.
“I knew it was gonna be tight,’’ Cousins told me. “I got hit as I threw, so I didn’t even see it, but I knew when I threw it Adam might have to play DB and knock it away.” But that just made it 29-27. Cousins had to execute a two-point play to tie. His fade to Stefon Diggs in the left end was perfect. But it wasn’t good enough. Carlson couldn’t hit the winner.
Now for the Matthews penalty. With 1:45 left in the game and the Vikes trailing 29-21, Green Bay’s Jaire Alexander picked off Cousins and returned it to the Minnesota 18. But ref Tony Corrente called roughing the passer on Clay Matthews; Corrente said later Matthews “lifted [Cousins] and drove him into the ground.” If Matthews did lift Cousins, and it’s not clear he did, it was maybe an inch. And the “drove him into the ground part?” It looked very much like the kind of safe tackle the league is encouraging players to make in these days of uber-caution around touching the quarterback. Said Cousins: “I haven’t seen it. I’m sure it was probably a generous call, and two or three years ago, it probably doesn’t get flagged. But that’s one of those plays the Packers felt made a huge difference in the game, and there are some we felt made a huge difference in the game. Both sides can point to several plays I’m sure.”
He’s right. It’s not the only call on this day that influenced a game. But this is Green Bay-Minnesota. The big calls in this rivalry get magnified, and they’ll be talked about in Mankato and Manitowoc for years.
Jags-Pats: Revenge is sweet
Regardless what Doug Marrone says, he’s got to have some regret over going conservative in the fourth quarter of the AFC title game. The Jags led New England 20-10 early in the fourth quarter, but sandwiched around two Patriot touchdown drives, Jacksonville tried to play clockball instead of football. New England won 24-20.
“We’ve got a little bit of a different style now,” defensive lineman Calais Campbell said Sunday night. “We’re more confident. We saw how close we got last year, and we know we’re better.” That carried into Sunday, when the Jags gained a gaudy 481 total yards, and Blake Bortles threw for a gaudier 377 against the Bill Belichick defense. Jags 31, Pats 20. And when it was 24-3 with 20 minutes to go, most of America probably turned the channel.
I thought it was a redemptive day for Bortles, the 26-year-old quarterback who might just have needed more time to establish himself than the average Mahomes. Because Bortles certainly looks good now. He balances when the throw and when to run, and he’s become smart at each. Amazing, too, that with three key receivers from recent seasons (Marqise Lee, Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns) missing this year, Bortles has found a new nucleus, led by the acrobatic Keelan Cole. “We compete at practice every day,” Campbell said. “We’re a pretty good defense, and I can tell you, Blake makes us struggle a lot. We’ve got a good group that we know can compete with any of the top offenses.”
With Tennessee and the Jets at home on the horizon before a tough October stretch, the Jags could put some distance between themselves and the rest of a mortal AFC South by month’s end.
One way you can tell that writer Mark Leibovich knows his stuff comes early in his new book “Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times” (Penguin Press). Writing about the feverish pace of the NFL’s supposed annual downtime, Leibovich touches on how the league has a four-month regular season but a 12-month obsession with calendar control, devouring every sport and leisure pursuit in its way. Writes Leibovich: “‘Off-season’ has in fact become a misnomer and even a dirty word inside the modern NFL. ‘Off’-anything is an affront to the manifest destiny of a sport whose mission is predicated year-round upon the conquering of American downtime. No hour of the year should be safe from the league’s revenue grabs.”
That’s what I really like about “Big Game.” Leibovich, 53, has covered Washington politics for 17 years for the New York Times (now) and formerly the Washington Post. He took on the book project, in part, for a rest from the Washington grind and the novelty of writing about a sport he loves. He brought a semi-cynical, oft-disgusted and altogether fresh set of eyes to a view of the league and the incredibly wealthy men who run it. The cynical part I thought was vital.
• On comparing Lambeau Field to Gillette Stadium: “If Lambeau was the NFL’s Louvre, Gillette … was like going to Hooters for a nightcap.”
• On why the owners stand behind their embattled commissioner: “Goodell is clearly gifted at working the members. He makes them feel important and heard. And he is especially good at gratifying the older members, whom he cultivates as mentors, even quasi-father figures … When you hear Goodell speak around his owner-bosses, he can evince a similar tone of an approval-seeking son.” This is as spot-on as anything he writes in the book.
• On how Goodell handled Leibovich’s question about whether he had regrets on the handling of Deflategate: “‘Fans want to know that we’re going to make sure that the rules are enforced across all 32 teams,’ Goodell lectured me. He is, after all, the last line of integrity against all enemies of the shield, foreign and domestic. ‘Thank you for looking after the game,’ people tell him. ‘I hear that a lot,’ Goodell said. ‘I hear that all around the country, all the time.’ This explains why Goodell is so beloved in fan surveys.”
• Quoting Tom Brady Sr., on how the end will come for his son in New England: “It will end badly. It’s a cold business. And for as much as you want it to be familial, it isn’t.”
• On the late Dan Rooney, quite possibly the only owner in the league to be spared the sharp spear of Leibovich’s keyboard: “Rooney was never comfortable with the big business and audacious commercialism that had overtaken the modern NFL.”
I met with Leibovich a few times over the past three years, and what I liked about him was his genuine curiosity and desire to get things right. That really shows up in the book. He met people, sized them up, listened to their words, watched their actions, and then put it all down on paper, unfiltered. He didn’t enter this project with the idea of slapping Robert Kraft around, because Leibovich grew up (and still is) a Patriots fan. But slap Kraft, Goodell, Jerry Richardson and, a bit less, Jerry Jones he did. He also slapped around the business of covering the NFL—“the nugget business,” he called it—finding, and I am taking this farther than Leibovich did in the book, the business of “off the record” between journalists and sources in the NFL to be out of control. I will admit there’s something to that. But that’s why this book is important. It’s an impartial, smart and journalistic voice examining an insular business. I liked this book a lot, even just to show all of us in the business that it’s good to step back once in a while and say, Open your eyes.
Leibovich is new at this, and a very good reporter, and he sees problems with the game he loves.
Two quibbles: The book is over-Patrioted; time and again Leibovich keeps coming back to New England themes. I’d have preferred to read more about the other 31 teams. (Ironic I’m saying that; many of you who see me as Mr. New England will chortle.) And it’s too short. It’s 354 pages. We needed 654.
This book takes its place alongside the exhaustive living history tome “America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation,” by Michael MacCambridge as works telling us how America’s favorite sport became The Game. As someone who’s covered the league for three decades and knows how difficult it is to get behind the curtain, I can tell you “Big Game” is genuine and important—and a great read.
Offensive Players of the Week
Patrick Mahomes, quarterback, Kansas City. “Looks like Kansas City hit a home run with Mahomes,” Tony Romo said during Jags-Pats. You think? Mahomes, with his dad the former big-league pitcher in the stands at Heinz Field watching, threw for 326 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. Andy Reid is putting a load on Mahomes’ plate early on, and all the kid’s doing is responding big-time.
Blake Bortles, quarterback, Jacksonville. He outplayed Tom Brady. Seriously. Now Bortles had help from his pressure defense. But Bortles had the game in hand by halftime (17 of 25, 200 yards, three touchdowns, no picks) and did everything he could to avenge the toughest loss in Jags’ history—the 24-20 AFC Championship Game in Foxboro eight months ago. For the game, Bortles threw for 377 yards, four touchdowns and one pick. Revenge is sweet.
Kirk Cousins, quarterback, Minnesota. Cousins is 30, grew up in the Midwest, is a football lifer … and this was the first time he played football at Lambeau Field. Nice debut. He threw for 425 yards (144 more than Aaron Rodgers), four touchdowns (three more than Rodgers), for a 118.8 rating (21.4 points higher than Rodgers) in the 29-29 tie. With the Vikings down by 13 entering the fourth quarter, Cousins forced OT with touchdown throws of 3, 75 and 22 yards—then put the Vikes in position for two overtime field goals, both of which were missed. A rather amazing chapter in Cousins’ football life.
Defensive Players of the Week
Darius Leonard, linebacker, Indianapolis. The rookie second-round pick from South Carolina State had the kind of game prospects can only dream of: 18 tackles, a sack, a pass defensed, a forced fumble and a tackle for loss. The Colts held Washington to nine points—no touchdowns—in its home opener.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Kevin Byard, safety, Tennessee. The third-year safety, a Pro Bowler last year, is the upback on the Titans’ punt team. Surprisingly, on the Titans’ first punt of the game, the snap wen to Byard, a southpaw, and he threw a little pushed shotput kind of throw up the right side of the field, traveling 27 yards in the air. It fell where gunner Dane Cruikshank was running, right at midfield, and Cruikshank sprinted up the right side for the last 50 yards. Touchdown.
Geronimo Allison, wide receiver, Green Bay. It can’t be all glamour and Aaron Rodgers touchdown passes for Pack wide receivers. Sometimes, as happened Sunday in the first half of the big rivalry game with Minnesota, you’ve got to be on the punt-block team and smother a Viking punt for a touchdown. Heck of a hustle play by Allison.
Coach of the Week
Dave Toub, special teams coach, Kansas City. He called the coolest punt-return play I’ve seen in a while, and it worked. In Pittsburgh, knowing the Steeleras wouold have great respect for Tyreek Hill in the return game, Toub put De’Anthony Thomas about 10 yards ahead of him, and when the Steelers made their first punt of the game, Hill gave way to Thomas, who surprised the Steelers and returned the punt from the Chiefs’ 42 to the Pittsburgh 10. There’s a reason why Toub has had head-coach interviews. He’s smart, he’s bold, and innovative in a part of the game that smart teams take advantage of.
Bill Lazor, offensive coordinator, Cincinnati. This offense sputtered too much last season, and the Bengals seriously considered drafting Lamar Jackson to pressure Andy Dalton so 2018 wouldn’t be Groundhog Day again in Cincinnati. Lazor has emphasized precision and balance, and so far, the 2-0 Bengals have had both. They’re rushing for 4.4 yards a carry (Joe Mixon: 38 for 179 yards), and Dalton’s two-game rating is 108.5, with six TDs and a single pick. Replacing Ken Zampese with Lazor when the Bengals were 0-2 last year was messy for Marvin Lewis, but it’s paying off this year.
Goat of the Week
Zane Gonzalez, kicker, Cleveland (not for much longer). Last week, he had the potential game-winning field goal blocked in overtime. Yesterday, in New Orleans, he missed, in order, in the last 23 minutes: an extra point, wide left; a 44-yard field goal, wide left; an extra point, wide left, that would have given the Browns a lead with 1:24 left; and a 52-yard field goal, wide right, that would have forced overtime at the gun. I cannot imagine what Zane Gonzalez—or 23 million Browns fans around the planet—must feel like this morning.
Daniel Carlson, kicker, Minnesota. The fifth-round kicker from Auburn might not be the Vikings’ kicker much longer. He missed three field goals in the 29-29 tie at Green Bay, including 49- and 35-yard kicks in overtime. Both were wide right. And the second one hurt badly. The Vikings got the ball right in the center of the field for Carlson, and let the clock run down to four seconds. On a beautiful day with light-to-no wind, Carlson shanked it.
Damontae Kazee, safety, Atlanta. I know the Falcons won, but Kazee’s play and resulting ejection really rankled me. Eighteen minutes into a game that began with a debilitated defense (including the injury absence of crucial safety Keanu Neal), Kazee, starting because Neal was out, made a stupid and totally uncalled for hit on Cam Newton. Kazee dove head-first at a sliding Newton, who was clearly giving himself up. The hit left Newton shaken and laid out on the ground. Kazee, rightfully, was ejected … leaving the Falcons down two safeties five quarters into the 2018 season, in an important division game. His teammates saved Kazee’s bacon with the 31-24 win.
“Never heard of it. Never seen it. Completely disrespectful.”
—Buffalo linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, after Bills cornerback Vontae Davis quit at halftime of the Bills’ home opener Sunday.
“We’re fine. If you’re one of the guys, one of the fans, one of the people hitting the panic button, then that’s on y’all.”
—Deshaun Watson, pointedly, after the Texans fell to 0-2. They played poorly in a 20-17 loss at Tennessee.
“I don’t know what else to do. You tell me. I thought I hit him within his waist to chest … To call it at that point in the game is unbelievable.”
—Green Bay pass-rusher Clay Matthews, after he was flagged for a huge roughing-the-passer penalty with 1:37 left in the fourth quarter and the Packers up 29-21. Kirk Cousins was intercepted on the play, and Green Bay might have been able to run out the clock on the ensuing possession. Instead, the Vikings tied the game, forced overtime, and it ended in a 29-29 tie.
“Sad to say, I was a Jets fan growing up … Watching Curtis Martin and Thomas Jones, and the Mark Sanchez era, and just visualizing myself being there one day, and playing at MetLife. Obviously, I had a vision of the green, putting on the green.”
—Giants running back Saquon Barkley, who now wears blue instead, playing for the other New Jersey team Sunday night in Dallas.
“I won’t speak for the NFL; I’ll speak for the NBA. We believe our players should express themselves. I encourage our players: Use your platforms. Speak.”
—Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, on Bill Maher’s HBO show Friday night, on the NFL’s anthem situation.
“If this offensive line won’t protect Andy Dalton, Walt Coleman certainly will.”
—FOX/NFL Network color analyst Troy Aikman, after Coleman’s 18th roughing-the-passer penalty since the start of 2017—which FOX said was most of any referee in the NFL—gave the Bengals a first down in the first half of their win over the Ravens on Thursday night.
‘Sleep is my P.E.D.’
Six-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda, who turned 34 on Saturday, on extending an NFL career while trying to preserve his health for life after football.
“The first thing I learned is how far I had to come when I got to the NFL. I was a junior college transfer, so I was a raw player even as a senior at Iowa—then I was gone after two years there. In my first training camp with the Ravens I was so awful I thought they might cut me, even though I was a third-round pick. So my first, second, third, fourth year in the NFL, I kept attacking practice every day. Some players peak when they’re seniors in college, or their first or second year in the NFL. I was not peaking. I kept getting better as the years went by. I’ve achieved stuff I never knew I could—Pro Bowl, all-pro—but I didn’t think about that stuff. I took care of today. I took care of the weights. I took care of practice. I took care of watching film.
“I’ve learned how much I love this game. It’s just more important to me every year so I just continue to grind out every little thing that’s gonna make me better, whether that’s eating, sleeping, lifting, whatever I can do. A great meal for me has changed. I’m into quinoa now for my carbs. So I’ll eat quinoa, and my protein is chicken, and then I use a Vitamix blender and I blend up spinach and kale for my vegetables.
“Kale is ruthless. It is! I don’t like drinking it. I put a little hot sauce in there too, to try and give it some zing so you can drink it.
“I eat brown and white rice, a mixture. I bought a rice cooker a couple of years ago, and you can cook the quinoa in there too. Also, I drink a gallon of water every day.
“Sleep is huge. Sleep is my P.E.D., my performance-enhancing drug. I’m usually asleep by 9:30. Sleep experts say you want to stay on a schedule. You want to try to go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time.
“For pain management and flexibility, I picked up yoga this offseason. I did it twice a week. For stretching and range of motion, like range of motion in my hips, it’s good. My hips are looser. In my stance, I just feel a little bit loose and a little more spring in my steps. With my shoulders too … stretching my shoulders is big now. We lift all these weights all the time and it’s always build and build and build and they get you to stretch, but usually I stretch after I lift and I’m fatigued from my lift, I don’t want to necessarily stretch like you should. I kind of go through it fast because I’m tired and I just want to get to the shower and relax. But now I literally spend an hour on stretching, deep stretches, and I definitely feel like I’ve gotten more range of motion and I feel better in my hips and my knees and my shoulders.
“I think about my health more as I get older. I’ve been fortunate—and I’m knocking on wood—I haven’t had any head or neck injuries, and no concussions. That’s pretty amazing. I still think the good of the game and what the game has given me, and how many experiences that the people I’ve gotten to meet, and the neat stuff that I’ve gotten to experience, and my entire family’s gotten to experience, will end up outweighing the stiffness and the soreness and stuff as I get older. The longer I’ve been in the game, I’m learning what I’m doing now is going to help me not only stay in football longer but help my health later in life.”
The NFL is just 31 games into a 256-game regular season, but something interesting, and perhaps very predictable, is happening. Offense is exploding. Entering the final game of Week 2, check out this trend/outlier through two weeks of this season and last:
Games Played: 32
Points Scored: 1,249
Average Per Game: 39.03
Games Played: 31
Points Scored: 1,465
Average Per Game: 47.26
Point Per Game Differential: +8.23
Again, it’s too early to call this the new normal. But in the offseason, the NFL took more pains to protect the quarterback (we saw it with calls like the Clay Matthews “roughing the passer” on Kirk Cousins at a crucial moment in Green Bay on Sunday) and to penalize players for using their helmets on tackles, which is likely going to adversely affect defenders.
And when I asked respected veteran defensive lineman Calais Campbell on Sunday night about the eight-point rise in scoring early this year, he said: “Look at the rules. I know the NFL is trying to make the game safer, but the safer they make it, the easier they make it for the offense. Offense makes good TV. The quarterbacks are the rock stars of the league, and they want to protect them. My job’s harder.”
Since Week 6 of 2015, the Cleveland Browns are:
- 2-1 versus teams from California.
- 0-41-1 versus teams from the other 49 states.
Notes: Cleveland is on a 22-game road losing streak … The Browns beat the Niners in ’15, the Chargers in ’16 … The Browns’ last road win came in Week 5 of 2015, when there were still 15 months remaining in the Barack Obama presidency, and Josh McCown threw for a franchise-record 457 yards in a 33-30 overtime win in Baltimore … The next best chance to break the 22-game road schneid: Sept. 30, at Oakland (a team from California—for now).
Not to over-Brown you, but …
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who threw six touchdown passes Sunday; running back Kareem Hunt, who led the Chiefs with 75 rushing yards; and the five pass-catchers who scored the six Chiefs touchdowns Sunday to beat Pittsburgh (Travis Kelce, Chris Conley, Tyreek Hill, Hunt and Demarcus Robinson) all were drafted by John Dorsey.
No big trips this week, so I’ll give you one New York-life snippet: I usually go to SoulCycle, the chain of stationary-bike studios, where you pay $37 for a 45-minute session with an instructor/abuser and very loud music, once a week when I’m home. Most of the people who ride are half my age (61) or less, from the looks of it. I rode the other day in a SoulCycle on the West Side, and the pleasant woman leading the session said to us: “Talk to your bike. Have a conversation with your bike.”
I didn’t quite know how to do that, having never talked to a bike before, but I tried.
“Hey bike! How’s life?” I said.
“Shut up and ride, old man,’’ the bike said. “I only talk to riders under 50.”
We rode in silence the rest of the way. Probably better that way.
Tonight’s the Soldier Field debut of star pass-rusher Khalil Mack, who had a smashing first game last week in the 24-23 loss at Green Bay: sack, forced fumble, recovered fumble, pick-six, three tackles, all in 40 snaps.
Mack could have the same kind of impact in game two. When he rushes from his customary left outside linebacker spot, he’ll be trying to beat Seattle right tackle Germain Ifedi. While it’s not quite Max Scherzer against the number eight batter for the Marlins, it’s a pretty major mismatch. Pro Football Focus quantified it for FMIA.
Seattle will give help to Ifedi on Mack. Last week in Denver, on six of the seven Russell Wilson dropback passes on third-and-long or fourth-and-long, Ifedi had a tight end on his side chipping or helping versus Von Miller. (Last year, Ifedi allowed pressure on 12.6 percent of third or fourth-and-long plays.)
Three other points I’m sure Seattle offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer knows entering tonight’s fray:
• Since entering the league in 2016, Ifedi is rated 216th out of 229 offensive linemen with at least 500 snaps on the PFF scale, which grades players’ performances on every snap they play.
• Mack’s PFF grade since opening day 2016 ranks first out of 117 edge defenders.
• The Bears had 16 sacks/pressures/hits of Green Bay quarterbacks last week, and that came against a better offensive line than Seattle’s. You hate to put such pressure on Wilson every week, but there’s no question if the Seahawks have much of a chance to night, it’s going to have to be with Wilson making plays on the move.
A PFF Elite subscription gives you access to performance metrics the pros use.
Mail call from readers.
Hue’s not getting whacked. From Ken K.: “If the Browns lose on Thursday to go 0-2-1, do you think this spells the end for Hue Jackson? Or do they ride with things a few more weeks to see if they can turn it around? If so, is Todd Haley the clear-cut choice to take over?”
I don’t see the Browns making a coaching change three weeks into the season, when they’d be 2-0 if they had a competent field goal unit and a kicker who hadn’t cracked. If the Browns were losing badly and not competitive, I could understand impatience with Jackson. But the end of these last two games is pretty hard to pin on the head coach. As far as the next Browns coach, I see Jackson making it through the end of this year, at least.
Stop promoting hotels and such. From Ricky T.: “Why do you randomly promote businesses in your column? Do they pay you for these shoutouts you give them? That would be a serious breach of ethics, would it not?”
I am not getting paid, and have never gotten paid, for anything I have written in the 22-year history of this column (including the previous iteration when it was Monday Morning Quarterback). I write about the hotel in Green Bay or the beer in Spartanburg, S.C., because they are things I come across and like and want to share. I try in this space to inform about football for 85 to 90 percent of the time, and also try in a much smaller way to bring you along with me as a I travel across the country covering the NFL.
I must just hate the Rocky Mountains. From Troy H.: “Why are you biased [against] the Denver Broncos?”
I’m not. Many people in Colorado believe I’m anti-Bronco because of the delay in Pat Bowlen’s Hall of Fame candidacy, and because of a talented Denver trio (Randy Gradishar, Karl Mecklenburg, Steve Atwater) not being in the Hall. Some people believe because I have lived in the New York area for much of my professional life, I’m unfairly partial to New York teams. I would point out one thing: In the last 15 years, four Broncos (Elway, Zimmerman, Little, Davis, and a good chance for a fifth in Bowlen) have been elected to the Hall of Fame, while three Giants (Carson, Parcells, Strahan) and one Jet (Curtis Martin), combined, have been elected.
As for the snub of Von Miller as a player of the week last week, I probably should have included him, and I said that on Twitter the other day. I often miss great performances in the course of a Sunday. But it’s not hating Team X; it’s getting overwhelmed with information as the day goes on and the work piles up.
In semi-regular installments throughout the season, I’ll give you my ranking of the five most valuable players in the NFL. Expect weekly fluctuation to ensue.
1. Pat Mahomes, quarterback, Kansas City. Two weeks, two road wins over playoff contenders, 10 touchdown passes, 80 points produced. I mean, right now, it’s not even close for the MVP.
2. Ryan Fitzpatrick, quarterback, Tampa Bay. Two 400-yard passing games in his first two weeks, plus a conquest of the defending Super Bowl champs. That’s a wow, and in most other years, he’d be in the lead for MVP one-eighth of the season in.
3. Aaron Rodgers, quarterback, Green Bay. Extra credit for, on one leg, leading the Packers back from a 17-point deficit (for the first time in franchise history) at the start of the fourth quarter in Week 1.
4. Todd Gurley, running back, Rams. Two routs, 220 scrimmage yards, four touchdowns so far.
5. Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati. Frame this, Bengal fans. Not sure Cincy will have an MVP rep on this list the rest of the year.
1. I think it’s crazy and sad that the first thought among so many in our business and so many fans once Josh Gordon’s looming release became public Saturday was this: Should our team sign him? Gordon, one of the most troubled substance-abusers in recent NFL annals, on Saturday gave the Browns concern “that perhaps he was struggling again with his sobriety or on the verge of relapsing,” according to Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. To refresh memories:
• Gordon was suspended two games for substance-abuse in September 2013.
• He was suspended 10 games for substance-abuse in August 2014.
• He was suspended for the final game of 2014 by the Browns for an undisclosed violation of team rules.
• He was suspended for the full season in 2015 for substance abuse.
• After being reinstated for the 2016 season, he was suspended for the first four games of the season.
• Before finishing his 2016 suspension, he entered an in-patient substance-abuse facility. He missed all 16 games in 2016.
• He was reinstated midway through 2017 and played five games for the Browns.
• He missed much of training camp this season “as part of my overall health and treatment plan,” he said in July.
• He played the first game this season, against Pittsburgh, and reported to the team facility Saturday with a hamstring injury the team believed did not happen at practice during the week.
• He has played in six games since Christmas Day 2014, a total of six games out of the Browns’ last 51.
Jay Glazer reported Sunday that Browns GM John Dorsey had received feelers from three teams about dealing Gordon, with the likelihood he will be traded Monday.
Two questions: Can we let a 27-year-old man try to conquer his addictive demons first? And what is the rush to do this—have the teams drooling over Gordon taken time to consider that, since entering the league six years ago, he has been suspended five times and at least once was self-admitted to a rehab facility? I’m not suggesting Gordon be banned from football for life. I am suggesting that there is evidence—circumstantial evidence, but there’s some heavy smoke here—that there’s something amiss with Gordon. And this is moving way too fast for any team to satisfactorily examine Gordon.
2. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts from Week 2:
a. Catch of the Year: the 22-yard one-hander by Jacksonville’s Beckham impersonator, Keelan Cole.
c. Cleveland’s defense means business. The Browns will win a few games this year, and soon. Unless they’re incredibly, ridiculously, stupidly cursed.
d. Things are just peachy in Buffalo, where the Bills are 0-2 and a guy retired at halftime of the home opener.
e. Great stat/factoid by CBS: Blake Bortles has the third-highest career quarterback rushing average, behind Mike Vick and Bobby Douglass. Never would have predicted that.
f. That roughing-the-passer call on Clay Matthews that enabled the Vikings to tie the game late in the fourth quarter at Lambeau? A gift. Not roughing-the-passer. Not close. Well, it’s close in the NFL in 2018, but in real football, that should never have been called.
g. Ref Tony Corrente in an NFL pool report, on that call: “When he hit the quarterback, he lifted him and drove him into the ground.” Not how I saw it. I saw Matthews hit Kirk Cousins a split second after the ball was released, and not violently drive him to the ground at all.
h. Ravens: 42-42, with one playoff appearance, since winning the Super Bowl in the 2012 season.
i. Geno Atkins has already played 120 snaps in two games, and he looks as dominant as ever.
j. I picked the Bengals to win the AFC North, so I think what we’re seeing is real. But I do not expect Cincinnati to average 34 points a game.
k. You’ve got to be better than that, Joe Flacco.
l. One day, about 15 years from now, a few years after Adam Vinatieri enters the Pro Football Hall of Fame, we’ll ask: Who was the better kicker—Vinatieri or Justin Tucker? “Justin Tucker hits 55-yard field goals as casually as I start my car.” Great line, Will Brinson.
m. Two games, four sacks for Von Miller. Quite a start. You’re catching up, Myles Garrett, but you’re not there yet.
n. Pretty nimble, Matt Ryan.
o. If Philip Rivers’ weapons stay healthy, the Chargers will make the playoffs. Book it.
p. How scary is the Kansas City offense at full strength? The weaponry is just so diverse and so good, a defense can’t devote itself to stopping any one player.
q. Jon Gruden had to have gotten on the plane last night in Denver and said to himself, “This is what I came back for? And now I gotta back on the plane this weekend to go play the 2-0 Dolphins?”
r. Incredible to think the Browns could be 2-0 with a reliable kicker.
s. Houston shouldn’t be worried. Concerned, yes. The Texans just lost to Blaine Gabbert, outgained the Titans by 154 yards, got embarrassed on a trick special-teams play, and sacked the quarterback only one time. This team’s better than that—or should be at least.
t. Brandin Cooks, 12 catches for 246 yards, a 20.5-yard average through two games. Sean McVay is euphoric.
u. Michael Thomas, 28 catches (in two weeks!) for 269 yards. Sean Payton would be euphoric about that if he weren’t so concerned about his drab team.
v. I didn’t think the Lions would have allowed 78 points in the first two games, that’s for sure.
w. Congrats to Frank Reich, who won his first NFL game as a head coach about 10 miles from where he played college football (FedEx Field to College Park). That’s a much better defensive team than we thought in Indy.
3. I think you probably know if Le’Veon Bell holds out till Week 10—the last point at which he can report to the Steelers and still become a 2019 free-agent—he saves the most wear-and-tear on his body heading for the free market next March. That’s the only way this holdout, now, makes any sense. Blowing $853,000 per week by not reporting … man, that is one luxurious way to go by Bell. Imagine: Bell has to be thinking he’s going to going to make almost $8 million more next March by not playing the first half of this season than he would by playing through Week 9 and putting up his typical rich numbers. What a weird holdout.
4. I think I’m not trying to be Mr. Negative here, but the Giants looked so bad Sunday night, and so incapable of protecting Eli Manning and blocking for Saquon Barkley, that I could see them starting 0-7. On the docket the next five weeks: at Houston, where the 0-2 Texans will be a desperate team in the home opener; New Orleans at home; at Carolina, with a formidable rush; the Eagles and their deep defensive front on a short-week Thursday at home, and then at Atlanta on a Monday night.
5. I think I want to know who among you had the Bucs as the most explosive team in the NFC with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback after two weeks. Come on. Who?
6. I think the ticky-tack, overly generous, totally field-tilting penalty of defensive pass interference reared its head again Thursday in Cincinnati. Joe Flacco, from the Bengals’ 32-yard line, threw a rainbow ball to John Brown in the end zone, and Bengals corner Dre Kirkpatrick grabbed Brown’s jersey. Lightly grabbed would be a better term. He certainly didn’t impede Brown from making a catch. Mike Pereira, the FOX rules analyst, said in the booth he’d never have thrown the flag: “There was a slight grab, but it didn’t affect his ability to get to the pass.” And for this marginal call, the Ravens got a first down at the Cincinnati 1-yard line … and soon had a touchdown before the half, cutting a 21-point deficit to 14.
7. I think even 15 yards, in this case, would have been excessive. But 31? Just way excessive. There are two or three of these every week, and the league refuses to change the rule because the old-timers think defensive coaches would abuse the rule by coaching up corners to grab receivers or tackle them whenever defenders are clearly beaten downfield. Then give back judges the freedom to make flagrant DPI a spot foul; if an official sees a defender tackling a receiver downfield, call the flagrant foul and place the ball at the spot of the foul. But I can tell you this: Last year, I asked Stanford coach David Shaw about whether he sees coaches abuse the rule in college football—which does not have DPI be a spot foul. He said he doesn’t see it much at all.
8. I think, finally, for all those who will say leave well enough alone or there’s not any real reason to make this change, I’ll ask you the same question I asked when the NFL was discussing moving the extra-point ball-placement line from the 2-yard line (where teams were about 99-percent accurate on PATs) to the 15-yard-line. I asked: If you were inventing a game, would you include a play with 99-percent certainty of scoring a point? Of course not. Same in this. In inventing football, would you make the maximum offensive pass-interference call a 10-yard penalty and leave open the penalty yardage for defensive pass interference—so the same degree of interference on defense could be 55 yards while it maxes out at 10 yards for the offense? You wouldn’t do that, if you had any sense of competitive fairness.
9. I think it’s pretty interesting and slightly surprising to read this polling number. A Quinnipiac University poll of 1,038 registered voters asked: “Regardless of whether or not you approve of the protests, do you think NFL players have the right to protest in this way or not?” Yes: 67 percent. No: 30 percent. People 18 to 34 were 84 percent in favor; people 65 and over were 57 percent in favor. That says to me the average American is more tolerant about the Kaepernick effect than the public might think. I also realize 30 percent means three out of every 10 people are against the protests. I just thought it would be more than that, based on the hue and cry.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Magazine Cover Story of the Week: Time with a stunning and smart cover and story on the plight of teachers in America … including this sad gem from one teacher: “I have a master’s degree, 16 years of experience, work two extra jobs and donate blood plasma to pay the bills. I’m a teacher in America.”
b. Read these tales from the classrooms of America. They might make you cry, but we need to acknowledge how some of most valuable citizens are valued by their communities across the country.
c. Classic story of the Week: by Tom Junod, for Esquire, “The Falling Man: An unforgettable story.” The story goes into painstaking detail about the photo of a man who jumped from the top of one of the Twin Towers when it was hopeless and before the tower fell on Sept. 11, 2001. Just great reporting and empathetic story-telling by one of the American masters today, Junod.
d. Radio Story of the Week: I love “StoryCorps,” the five-minute weekly piece airing on NPR’s “Morning Edition” every Friday. The series has normal Americans record the stories of their lives, archives them for posterity, and NPR chooses the most compelling and airs them to get us all emotional and feeling. On Friday, we learned about the life and death of Balbir Singh Sodhi, an Indian immigrant who owned a gas station in Arizona. Four days after 9/11, a man drove by the service station, saw Sodhi, wearing a turban, and, apparently assuming Sodhi was Muslim, shot and murdered him. It is a harrowing and emotional tale—one with humanity that will surprise you.
e. I had to play Connect Four with Saquon Barkley on Wednesday. I first had to find out what Connect Four was.
f. How many of you just spat out your coffee?
g. Before Tuesday—when I learned I would be challenging the self-proclaimed GOAT of Connect Four—I did not know what the game was.
h. I heard from several on my NBC crew that this is entirely pathetic.
i. Class move by the Colgate football program, and coach Dan Hunt, after its football game at Furman (in Greenville, S.C., in the path of Hurricane Florence) had to be called off Saturday. “We immediately gave up our hotel rooms so that more rooms are now available to those coming inland,” Hunt said. “But we still bought the meals we were going to have and requested that the hotel serve those meals to the people who have been relocated, on us.”
j. Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs did something fun the other day. The Cubs had a one-game road makeup at Washington on Thursday, in between home games Wednesday and Friday. So when Rizzo left the clubhouse at Wrigley on Wednesday night for the bus to the airport and the flight to D.C., he brought no clothes. He wore his road gray uniform on the airplane, then to the hotel, then in the hotel, then on the bus to the ballpark in Washington, then while batting leadoff and playing first base in the 10-inning game, then back on the bus to the airport, then on the airplane back to Chicago, then back in Chicago. I am just guessing, but I will guess Rizzo did not wear his uniform to bed. Either at the hotel in Washington or the home back in Illinois.
k. I don’t think Boston is the best team in baseball as of this morning—I’ll take Houston—but the Red Sox will certainly have a good shot as the team with home-field edge in the American League. I do enjoy following the Red Sox this year, a lot. And not just because of the first 100-win season for the franchise since 1946. It’s because of players like utility man Brock Holt. I had a conversation with Sean McVay in training camp about Holt. I told him Cooper Kupp reminded me of Holt—a versatile guy who’ll play any role for the team his coach asks.
l. Watched “All The President’s Men” the other night for the fifth or sixth time. Seemed appropriate. What a great and inspiring movie.
m. Coffeenerdness: Big fan of the Starbucks Almond Protein Blended Cold Brew, FWIW. Sweet, but not too.
n. So I take it if Villanova beat Temple by two, Temple beat Maryland by 21, and Maryland beat Texas by five, then Villanova (in football, mind you) would beat Texas by four touchdowns.
o. Last two weeks: Foes 107, Rutgers 17 … and the second drubbing was administered by Kansas. The Big Ten has to be thrilled with the Scarlet Knights. That New York TV market! What an addition!
Chicago 27, Seattle 16. But the Bears are going to have to work for it, if only because of the field-position game. Did you see what rookie freak punter Michael Dickson did for the Seahawks last week in his NFL debut at Denver? His six punts went for 60, 59, 46, 69, 57 and 63—with as combined return of nine yards on the six punts. Net punting average: 57.5 yards. Dickson might have a chance in this league. But the bigger story tonight, unless you’re Rich Eisen or Chris Kluwe, is going to be whether the Seahawks can find a way to keep Khalil Mack (in his Soldier Field debut), Akiem Hicks, Leonard Floyd and Roy (Where Did He Come From) Robertson-Harris out of Russell Wilson’s face. I doubt they can.
Thursday … New York City. Today marks Day 120: Commissioner Held Hostage. Since Roger Goodell spoke at the NFL spring meetings May 23, he has not made a public pronouncement of any sort, from what I can tell. No fan forums (he always does these things, in season and in training camp), no training-camp confabs with teams or reporters, nothing on opening night (though he was in Philly for it), nothing on the day earlier this month when his tenure entered its 13th season. This is very unlike Goodell, who, despite being the most booed commissioner in modern sports, has always faced the music regularly. I can’t recall him being in hiding this long, ever.
Thursday … Cleveland. Be still, all Namathian hearts. The New York Jets, on the first day of Week 3, Anno Domini 2018, could be 2-1. Jets at Browns, 8:20 p.m. See, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman? You thought you’d just be doing a crappy September Thursday-nighter, knocking two not-ready-for-prime-timers off the NFL’s list (the league likes to give all 32 teams at least one prime-time window) before the records got too garish. Now? Time to make Sam Darnold famous.
Sunday … Detroit. Yikes. The NFL thought it was doing the Lions a favor by putting their opener on Monday night football and their second home game on Sunday night football … against the Patriots and Matt Patricia’s mentor, Bill Belichick. Want a do-over, Howard Katz? Lions, 0-2. First two games: Foes 78, Lions 44.
Roughing the passer
is really out of control.
QBs: china dolls.