FOXBORO, Mass. — The top of this column is going to have Rupert Murdoch and Mick Jagger and John Lennon and Alex Cora and Vince Lombardi in it, and the anti-Patriot faction is just going to hate it.
That’s what I call a tease!
The Patriots are 7-2 and on the way to their 13th playoff bye in the 18-year Kraft-Belichick-Brady run. Sunday night: Patriots 31, Packers 17, in a quite anti-climactic match of the quarterback titans, Brady versus Aaron Rodgers. For the second week in a row, the Pack got betrayed by a dumb fourth-quarter fumble from an unreliable back, and Rodgers never got to make his magic.
So Brady—who told me after the game he fully intends to be around for the 2022 Brady-Rodgers match—this year has beaten the Tweens (Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes), the middle-aged (Andrew Luck) and the legend type (Rodgers). With seven games left, they can win the AFC East blindfolded.
Last December, when the franchise was being Wickershamed with the end-is-near storyline of a dying dynasty, it seemed hard to imagine the team would make an eighth Super Bowl this century and spend the next year seriously contending for a ninth. But here we are, with new stars we never saw coming, for a franchise on which new stars are an annual way of life.
“This is the best of the best,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who, a week after winning the World Series, watched the game from a 40-yard-line suite with some of his players. “To keep winning the way they do, year after year, is amazing. Somebody leaves, somebody comes in, boom, they keep winning. They don’t care. They do work. They just work. It’s pretty impressive.”
The Lead: Patriots
Now for the bold-face names in what might be another bold-face season.
Jagger and Lennon
One veteran Patriot told me after the game, “We’re not the type of team that buys into hype. And so we didn’t really take the Aaron Rodgers versus Tom Brady thing too seriously. But as the week went on, and the game began to grow, I have to admit we felt it. We started to realize: This is the Rolling Stones and the Beatles meeting. Mick Jagger and John Lennon. It’s not gonna happen again, ever. It’s happening this week, and it’s kind of fun.”
That’s not something Bill Belichick or Brady buy into, but it was fun. Brady is 41, and Rodgers turns 35 in a month. They’d never met in Foxboro before and considering that the Packers and Pats would meet in Massachusetts next in 2026 when Brady would be 49 … well, yes, Sunday’s game was a one-shot deal.
But Brady’s not exactly age-predictable, of course. That’s one of the reasons the Patriots are in the 18th season of the most incredible owner-coach-quarterback run of all time. DeBartolo-Walsh-Montana lasted 10 years. There’s a legitimate chance Kraft-Belichick-Brady will double that.
“What’s different about this year?” I asked owner Robert Kraft in his office two hours before the game. “What’s new?”
Kraft, 77, struggled to answer, because he couldn’t think of anything exactly new or different. But he answered in a bit of a different way.
“There are two people I know accomplishing far more than people their age would normally accomplish. [News Corp. CEO] Rupert Murdoch—he’s a guy going on 88, and he’s still making brilliant business deals. I know guys 10 years younger than me who are just hanging on till retirement. And there’s Tommy, who’s still playing great football at 41, and he’s going to keep going. Forty-one, and three Super Bowls in the last four years, and he’s still going.
“What these two men have accomplished, it’s just sick. They defy the normal rules of business, the normal rules of life.”
“Rupert Murdoch!” Brady said when I told him post-game, and he phewed out a whisp of air.
This game was a struggle for Brady after a brilliant up-tempo opening drive of 59 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown. But he rebounded in the fourth quarter for two touchdown drives, including a 55-yard insurance touchdown to Josh Gordon, one of those players the Patriots find and no other team can. “It’s the culture,” tight end Dwayne Allen said. “You come here, you’ve got to fit in.” Gordon, suspended multiple times by the Browns in a disappointing career in Cleveland, has shut up and worked here—so far.
It was just as much a struggle for Rodgers, again betrayed by a huge fourth-quarter turnover. Eventually these mistakes—the misbegotten Ty Montgomery kickoff-return fumble in L.A. last week, the Patriots’ Lawrence Guy stripping Aaron Jones on the first play of the fourth quarter in Foxboro—could get Mike McCarthy fired. For now, they’ve gotten the Pack to below .500 at 3-4-1. But the Brady-Rodgers duel was just OK; neither threw for 300 yards, and in a year when touchdown passing is through the roof, they combined for three scoring passes.
After the game, though, Brady, who broke the record for combined regular-season and post-season passing yardage, wasn’t much of a stat guy. He never has been. Player after player walked by him toward the New England night as he talked to me, and he pumped them up, telling them how great they played.
He was particularly glowing around Gordon, who scored once, and Cordarrelle Patterson, the 6-2, 230-pound receiver/returner-turned-running back. In the first 88 games of Patterson’s NFL life, he’d never run the ball 10 times in a game. Last week in Buffalo, he ran it 10 times. And Sunday night, 11 more. “We thought we had good depth at running back and we did at one point in the year,” Belichick said. “But depth in August and depth in November are two different things.”
Brady told me: “A lot of guys have watched us play for a long time. I think they know they’re going to an organization that it’s really just about winning, about being selfless. If you gotta play running back, like CP [Patterson], you play running back. If you gotta block because you’re a receiver, you block. You gotta run a clearing route, you clear.”
Murdoch at 87 is ancient for a big deal-maker. Brady is simply old for football, not ancient, because he and guys like Drew Brees, 39, keep raising the bar. But he still sounds very much like a long-termer Sunday night, reveling in this win. “I’d like to go till I’m 45,” Brady said. “I know I said that hundred times, and no one believes me. But I mean, I feel good. I could go play another game tomorrow. I know what to do. It’s fun. What else would you rather do than run out in front of 70,000 people and throw a football?”
Almost sheepishly, Cora showed me the front of his ballcap during the first quarter Sunday night. A University of Miami cap. “I’m a Ray Lewis and Ed Reed guy,” Cora said. Cora went to the U, and he was a third-round pick of the Dodgers six weeks after Lewis was a first-round pick of the Ravens in 1996.
But Cora has watched his counterpart on the Patriot sidelines, and though he doesn’t know Belichick well, he admires one thing in particular.
“The way you see him in silence,” Cora said, just outside the raucous Gillette box with eight of his players and a few club officials.
“He’s thinking. He’s calm, very calm. That’s what people say about me. Don’t show emotion, don’t get too high, don’t get too low. Biggest moments of the game, be the same.”
Cora will meet back up with Belichick before spring training, he hopes. He asked Belichick for advice Sunday night, when they talked pre-game. “I told him, ‘We have to catch up because you know a lot about this back to back stuff. You have to fill me in how we keep the team focused and how can we do this.’”
Every year this place sheds some skin, and you show up in Foxboro, and new guys are doing the winners’ press conferences. Left tackle Trent Brown, acquired from the Niners in an April trade. Patterson, who came in a trade from Oakland. And Gordon, he of the six prior suspensions, who came in a trade from Cleveland.
“They learn quickly,” said tight end Dwayne Allen, in his second year as a Patriot. “It’s a culture, built off hard work and selflessness. We hate to lose more than we love to win. We hate to lose. We hate it. You have to love work. You have to love football. If you don’t, this isn’t going to work. This isn’t the place for you.
“This is hard. This is HARD. Some days, we’re like, ENOUGH! Enough football. But you look at a night like tonight, and you see Cordarrelle Patterson, who really had to buy in, and the best returner in football is a running back now. He bought in.
“We buy in. I watched that Vince Lombardi [documentary], and he had this saying, ‘Gentlemen, we will chase perfection relentlessly. We know we can’t reach it. But we will catch excellence.’ That’s us.”
Year after year, it’s hard to argue with the program. On a night when it was Brady versus Rodgers, the New England defense and some players who got here 15 minutes ago carried the day. No one was surprised.
Now you know why the Saints want to be home in January
It’s not just Seattle that’s a decibel graveyard for visitors in very big games. If you heard the crowd in the Superdome on Sunday for the visit of the previously undefeated Rams, you know why home-field advantage in the NFC is so important.
“You could feel it be a factor,” said tight end Benjamin Watson from New Orleans an hour after the Saints’ rollicking 45-35 win over the Rams. “We certainly got energy from it.”
Nine years ago, the Saints discovered what home-field in the NFC meant. The Superdome gave them a jolt in a divisional playoff rout of Arizona, and blew away some Vikings in the stunning NFC Championship win a week later. There are three prime contenders for top seed in the NFC—the 8-1 Rams, 7-1 Saints and 6-2 Panthers—but none would have a home-field edge like the Saints would.
I think the NFC home-field team will have no more than three losses.
• The Rams have the toughest single game left—in Mexico two weeks from tonight against the 8-1 Chiefs. But there’s only one other team with a current winning record, Chicago (5-3). Finishing with the Cards and Niners helps tremendously.
• The Saints, obviously, will have the tiebreaker edge against Los Angeles by virtue of Sunday’s head-to-head win. But they have a game against Atlanta and finish with a tough trio (at Carolina, Pittsburgh at home, Carolina at home).
• The Panthers have a short-week Thursday-nighter at Pittsburgh, winners of four straight, this week. And they finish thusly: Saints, Falcons, at Saints. And Carolina has to catch up and pass two one-loss teams.
“The Rams did a great job of coming back from 18 points down today,” Watson said. “They’re a really good team. We have a lot of weapons too. The one thing I like when I watch our team practice is how hard the young guys work. They know what it takes to be great. Every play in practice, Michael Thomas runs full-speed with the ball, just like it’s a game.”
Watching a good bit of that Saints’ win here before Pack-Pats, it’s hard not to wish for a January rematch. Imagine title games of New England at Kansas City, and New Orleans at Los Angeles. There were 83 points in the first game between those AFC foes Oct. 14. There were 80 points scored Sunday in Rams-Saints. That doubleheader would be a referendum on whether the league needs to put defense back in pro football. My guess: The NFL would sign up (and root for) 43-40 and 45-35 conference title games. Right now.
The Steel Curse
The last six Browns coaches to be fired have this in common: They were fired within 24 hours of losing by double-digits to Pittsburgh.
That sounds preposterous, which it is. Impossible, which it almost is.
But I’ll prove it to you. One decade, six really bad post-Steeler hangovers:
• Dec. 29, 2008: Pittsburgh 31, Cleveland 0. The next day, owner Randy Lerner fired Romeo Crennel after four playoff-less seasons and a 24-40 record. “I would like to think we’re a more compelling organization to be a part of now,” Lerner said (whatever that means) in making the announcement.
• Jan. 2, 2011: Pittsburgh 41, Cleveland 9. The next day, owner Randy Lerner fired Eric Mangini after two playoff-less seasons and a 10-22 record. Mangini said: “Our goal was to build a team for long-term success. The core characteristics we were dedicated to, I believe, will help achieve that goal.”
• Dec. 30, 2012: Pittsburgh 24, Cleveland 10. The next day, owner Jimmy Haslam fired Pat Shurmur after two playoff-less seasons and a 9-23 record. Shurmur said: “This group of players will achieve success soon, and part of me will feel very good when that happens.”
• Dec. 29, 2013: Pittsburgh 20, Cleveland 7. That night, after word of a coaching change leaked via text messages and solid rumors on the Browns’ bus back from Pittsburgh, owner Jimmy Haslam fired coach Rob Chudzinski after one playoff-less season and a 4-12 record. “One year? One year? C’mon. You don’t fire a coach after one year,” linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said.
• Jan. 3, 2016: Pittsburgh 29, Cleveland 12. That night, owner Jimmy Haslam fired Mike Pettine after two playoff-less seasons and a 10-22 record. A team statement said: “We don’t believe our team was positioned well for the future.”
• Oct. 28, 2018: Pittsburgh 33, Cleveland 18. The next day, owner Jimmy Haslam fired Hue Jackson after 2.5 playoff-less years and a 3-36-1 record. Jackson told Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer: “Cleveland is currently the Mount Everest of the NFL.”
Truest words of the last decade.
By the way, the Browns are believed to be the only team in NFL history to employ seven coaches and seven general managers in a 10-year period. Coaches: Crennel, Mangini, Shurmur, Chudzinski, Pettine, Jackson, Gregg Williams. GMs: Well, wait. Name them, and I’ll list them down in No. 10 of Ten Things I Think I Think.
Goodbye, Dr. Z20
Requiem for a heavyweight: Paul Zimmerman, 1932-2018
“What’s Dr. Z like?”
I got that question over the years as much as I was ever asked the same thing about, say, Brett Favre or Tom Brady. And the answer was … It’s complicated.
He didn’t know me the first time I called him. I was a rookie beat guy in Cincinnati in 1984, the Bengals had three first-round picks, and I called him out of nowhere after the draft to get his take on how the Bengals did. I have no recollection what he said, but he took 45 minutes to say it, and it was gold to a rookie from the sticks.
Two years later, I was covering the Giants for Newsday. They were in the Super Bowl against Denver, and Zim was on the prowl the week before the game. He heard I had coffee one day before dawn with Bill Parcells, in the lobby of the Westin South Coast Plaza in Orange County. “How did you do that?” he asked. I said I just guessed Parcells, a notorious early riser and coffee-aholic, would find the coffee in the team hotel, and I went down there Tuesday around 5:30, and there he was, in a corner chair, pre-Starbucks days, Styrofoam cup in hand. The next day, there Zim was too, carrying his ever-present gym bag full of notebooks and pens, a stopwatch and a white towel (no idea why), pretending he just happened to be in a hotel lobby in southern California at 5:15 in the morning.
Anyway, when I got to Sports Illustrated in 1989, I had some credit in the Dr. Z Bank and Trust. And I knew the rules: When you sat next to him in a press box, only talk during pregame, halftime or timeouts or when he spoke to you, and give him plenty of room for his rainbow pens and wide notebook with the expansive hieroglyphics. There were lots of lessons: Watch the game, don’t miss a snap, shut up, don’t be a slave to the TV. In the locker room afterward: Talk to the offensive lineman (they’re the smartest guys), never go to the scrum around the stars, don’t share your stuff with anyone, be confident in your opinions—sometimes the best reactions from players come when you stand your ground on an opinion, and even if it’s wrong, you’ll get great stuff in a snappy retort from a player or coach.
I loved the fact that he embraced the complexity of the game. He hated simple. He hated relying on others to tell the story that he saw. “Think for yourself,” he said to me 56 times. “You saw the game. Write what you saw.” And use players and coaches to flesh that out—but not to tell the story for you.
Last year, Paul was nine years into his Great Fog, the series of three strokes in 2008 that left him unable to communicate by speaking or writing, and we hadn’t seen each other much in recent years. I saw him once or twice a year in the last years, and though he couldn’t contribute the way he wanted, he loved sitting around listening to stories from friends like Matt Millen and Dick Vermeil and Joel Bussert, the longtime personnel man in the league office. But when I wrote my post-Super Bowl column, eight days after the Eagles’ win over New England, I thought of Paul. A lot. I spent 4,320 words describing one play, 383 X follow Y slant, the winning touchdown pass from Nick Foles to Zach Ertz, and so much of the science of it was inspired by Zim. Philadelphia used a play New England had never seen because it hadn’t been run before, with a type of motion the Eagles had used only 12 times all season, and it was a play they invented the week of the game, on an educated whim, and it worked brilliantly. Anyway, the imagination and the science and the intrigue—it’s something I really wish Zim would have seen, because he would have loved it. That column, in so many ways, was the best way I could pay tribute to him.
So I said it was complicated. It is. I got royally pissed off at Zim a few times in my life. He deserved it. He sometime treated people like crap; no need for that, and I’d tell him. A chunk of people at SI hated him because of his tendency to not understand things like expense accounts and editors—or to understand and simply not accept the realities of our business.
We served on the Hall of Fame voting committee for about 15 years together. Paul had passion about the Hall of Fame debates, and when we were on the committee, I appreciated so much his no-BS approach. If he thought a guy belonged, he’d be his biggest salesman. If he thought a guy was borderline, he’d listen to the debate and voted his conscience. If he thought a guy absolutely didn’t belong, he’d be blunt in his critique. (That is a nice way to put it.) We are not allowed to discuss specifics of the debates, but I can say one time I was strongly in favor of a candidate, and he ripped the candidate up one side and down the other. Zim demolished the guy, and then jumped on him some more. He made it personal. We walked out of the meeting and I got in his face and said, “What the bleep is wrong with you?!” And some more was said. We didn’t talk for a while after that. The guy might not have belonged in the Hall. But Paul’s harangue was out of control, and I told him.
I never met anyone like him. I saw him the way he saw football: with complexity and appreciation.
We’re all flawed. That’s the conclusion. We all have our gifts. That’s the conclusion too. Zim’s was being the most curious person in every room, and an immensely talented football writer and talented writer, period. He gets proper due for his football stuff. He should get much more for his feature stories. Go back and read him on Joe Montana, on Chuck Noll, on Jack Lambert. They come to life right there on the page. Read this on Lambert moving from a 4-3 middle ‘backer to a 3-4 inside ‘backer, from his 1984 Lambert piece:
At one time middle linebackers roamed the league like Goliaths. Nitschke, Butkus, Schmidt—names as tough as the people who carried them. Willie Lanier, with that pad he wore on the front of his helmet. Mike Curtis, the Animal. Bob Griese talks about staring across the line at Butkus and feeling his legs turn to jelly. But then a few years ago something sad happened to these great middle linebackers. The 3-4 defense robbed them of their identity. They divided, like an amoeba. Instead of one, there were two of them, inside strong and inside weak, or, in the Steelers’ case, left and right. The great gunfighters of the past had gone corporate. It was as if Wyatt Earp had taken on a job with Pinkerton’s, or Bat Masterson had become director of security for the First National Bank. The last of them, the last of the great old middle linebackers, Jack Lambert, got his two years ago.
“Oh yes, Mr. Lambert, I’ve heard of you. And what position do you play, Mr. Lambert?” And instead of snarling out “middle linebacker” through chipped and broken teeth, Lambert would answer “inside linebacker left.” Sounds like a traffic signal.
We won’t be reading that anymore. A shame. But this is the bright side: There are scores of people in the business who grew up on Dr. Z. They won’t write like he could, but they will interpret the game taught by him and inspired by him. That’s a gift for future generations.
What I Learned
Linda Zimmerman, The Flaming Redhead, on her husband Paul, the longtime pro football writer, who died Thursday at 86.
“The biggest thing I learned with Paul over the years: loyalty. Like my daughter would say, ‘With Paul, you were either in or you were out.’ Before Paul had his strokes, he’d go into the same place to get his newspapers every day, and the owner there knew Paul as this blunt pain in the ass. Once, we ran into the guy and his wife at a restaurant, and I’m sure the guy is thinking, ‘Oh my God, what is he going to say to my wife?’ And Paul grabbed her hand, kissed it and said some really nice things. He was loyal to the newspaper guy, who was there every day for him.
“There is no one who will ever be like him. You just never knew what you were going to get with him. Paul was like 10 cats in a pillowcase. They’re all in there, fighting it out. Just when you think you’d know what he’d think or say, it was always totally different. He was always a surprise. But what a person to be married to. He made me feel so accepted, so loved. It’s absolutely incredible to be loved like that.
“He had this saying about death, ‘Nobody’s beaten it yet.’ Poor Paul, the way he struggled and the way he suffered the last few years. But he was such a fighter. I finally looked at him recently and I said, ‘Nobody’s beaten it yet—except Paul Zimmerman.’
“I learned you can love football without having a favorite team. People would ask me all the time, ‘What is his favorite team?’ He didn’t have one. He was not a fan—of any team. He was analytical, loved the game, respected the game, respected the strategy. He was so brilliant, he would have been bored by an easy game. He liked complex sports. He liked rugby for its honest brutality. But he loved football for its complexity.
“I learned that—and this is horrible for all the football people, because I am not a sports person—I could learn to love football. He was such a good writer. He could write about anything, and I loved reading it. Sometimes I just sat there, astounded by what I was reading. We could go on a trip, do something totally apart from football, and he would not mention football for weeks. If he was doing something else, he would talk about that—wine, books, travel, movies. He liked everything. One Super Bowl week, he took a few of us to a graveyard. He wanted to read the headstones!
“It was incredibly frustrating, obviously, for him to not be able to communicate the way he used to. But he still found humor in things. When there was that benefit for him a couple of months after his strokes, I said to him, ‘This is the best memorial ever! They’re saying all these nice things about you—and they’re paying you!’ He loved that.
“So what I really learned about him in the last 10 years is what a great man he was. In fact, one of the last things I told him was, ‘I knew I married an incredible man, but I didn’t really find out how incredible till the last 10 years.’ The grace he showed in fighting this. The work … all the effort he made to forge ahead. I told him, ‘I am so proud to be your wife.’
“I can’t think of him in the past tense. I won’t.”
The Award Section30
Offensive Players of the Week
Michael Thomas, wide receiver, New Orleans. His dumb touchdown celebration aside—he’s lucky it didn’t hurt the Saints more than it did—Thomas had one of the greatest games a New Orleans receiver has ever had. His 211 yards (on 12 catches) set a franchise record and his 72-yard catch-and-run touchdown sealed the first loss for the Rams this season. What a day for New Orleans, which loud and clearly announced itself as a favorite to represent the NFC in Super Bowl 53 in Atlanta.
Nick Mullens, quarterback, San Francisco. Not a bad NFL debut (16 of 22, 73-percent accuracy, three touchdowns, no picks, 151.9 rating) for a kid from Brett Favre U (Southern Miss). What I noticed about Mullens was how bizarrely confident he looked throughout. He stepped into his throws and picked receivers confidently, like he’d been doing this for six years. And no one, from Kyle Shanahan to the guys he barely knows on defense, were surprised. “Not at all,” Richard Sherman said. “It was cool that he didn’t change in the big lights under the circumstances. He’s the scout-team quarterback, and in the walk-through, he’ll get upset when we pick the ball off. He’s trying to shred us in a walk-through seven-on-seven.” A cool series of moments in a Oakland-San Francisco game that meant nothing—except to Mullens.
Defensive Player of the Week
Danielle Hunter, defensive end, Minnesota. He picked a good day—a division game the Vikings had to have, with the offense struggling—to play the best game of his career. Hunter sacked Matthew Stafford 3.5 times and had nine tackles in all, and he saved his best for last. Hunter scooped up an ill-advised pitch-turned-fumble by Stafford and sprinted 32 yards down the left side for a touchdown, icing the 24-9 Vike win.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Matt Haack, punter, Miami. There’s a good chance this was the best punting performance of the season. Haack, a second-year undrafted punter from Arizona State, punted nine times for a fairly pedestrian 44.7-yard average (42.8-yard net). But consider that it was a field-position game, with two bad offenses playing, and Jets returner Andre Roberts was having the best return season in the league coming into the game. Roberts got only 17 return yards on nine punts. And Haack made the Jets start the nine drives after his punts at the Jets;’ 15-yard line, 12, 16, 14, 20, 18, 15, 18 and 11. Wow.
Damian Williams, running back, Kansas City. This is what you need to do to ensure a roster spot as an insurance running back: You need to listen to the Chiefs’ special teams guru, Dave Toub, who tells you the keys to blocking a punt. And then you need to execute the way Williams did against the Browns. Williams broke through the Cleveland line, got one arm on a Britton Colquitt punt, chased it out of bounds at the Browns’ 21, and two plays later, Kareem Hunt ran for the insurance touchdown.
Coach of the Week
Kyle Shanahan, head coach, San Francisco. Starting an undrafted quarterback who had never played a snap in an NFL game (his third starting quarterback in nine games), Shanahan and his staff coached up Nick Mullens and a broken offense to a 34-3 win over the fractured (but still an NFL franchise, at least for now) Raiders. Shanahan gets tremendous credit in my book for having his team this ready to play in a game that meant very little.
Goats of the Week
Matthew Stafford, quarterback, Detroit. Shell-shocked? Brain fart? Whatever, Stafford, midway through the fourth quarter and down 11 at Minnesota, took off on a scramble, was about to hit some traffic wide right, saw Kerryon Johnson out of the corner of his eye, attempted a quick pitch to the rookie runner. The ball went off Johnson’s hands, and Danielle Hunter of the Vikings picked it up and ran it back 32 yards for an insurance touchdown. “I don’t know what Matthew Stafford is thinking!” Chris Spielman exclaimed on CBS. Neither did the state of Michigan.
Jon Gruden, head coach, Oakland. Indianapolis and San Francisco, in all games not played against Oakland this year, are 3-12. The composite score in Oakland’s last five quarters of football: Colts/Niners 55, Raiders 3. That is all.
Sam Darnold, quarterback, New York Jets. Took the ball with 11 minutes left at Miami, down 6-3, and these were his last four drives: pick-six, field goal, interception, interception. That fourth quarter could well have sealed the fate of coach Todd Bowles as head coach in a 3-6 season, and Darnold has to take a big part of the responsibility. In 25 possessions against Miami this year, Darnold drove for one touchdown.
Quotes of the Week
“We both try to copy each other, I think. I heard him using a cadence I know it sounds pretty similar to mine. I know he switched up his feet during a shotgun. But I’ve definitely stole some stuff from him for sure, (like) pocket movement.”
—Aaron Rodgers on Tom Brady, in an interview with Mike Tirico of NBC’s “Football Night in America” on Sunday night.
“Paul was a great ambassador for professional football … He was a great guy. I mean, really got a lot of respect for him. I just had a great relationship with him. I had a lot of trust in him. He was always honest and whatever he told you, you could take to the bank.”
—New England coach Bill Belichick, on the late Paul Zimmerman.
“When I came in, I gave ‘em the playbook and said, ‘It will be on my desk. What you do with it is on you.’ “
—NFL Network analyst Steve Smith, on “Good Morning Football” Sunday, pressed on what he did with his Carolina Panthers playbook when he signed with Baltimore late in his career … before the Ravens played a game against the Panthers.
Smith said the playbook disappeared for a couple of days, then reappeared.
The 2014 result: Baltimore 38, Carolina 10.
“How to make a cocktail.”
—Newly appointed Cleveland offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens, asked what he learned from Bruce Arians in five years on the Arizona staff with Arians.
“Do me a favor. Just kind of sit up. Just like, have a little respect for the process.”
—Lions coach Matt Patricia, at his Wednesday news conference, apparently unhappy with the posture of a reporter asking him a question.
Now, I have to say that, in 35 seasons covering the NFL, that’s a first for me. Never heard a coach admonish a reporter for poor posture. The Detroit News sure had some fun with it, though.
Head-coaching records in their last 50 games:
Jay Gruden: 26-23-1.
Jon Gruden: 21-29.
One thing has become pretty obvious about the bizarre holdout of Le’Veon Bell, and the resulting impact on the Steelers’ season: It’s not having much of an effect on the team he hoped would miss him terribly.
The easy thing to say about Bell’s decision to stay away from the team through the first nine weeks of the season is that he’s preserving himself for his run at free agency in 2019, when he will be a 27-year-old player in search of the biggest contract an NFL running back has ever received. Some team may well pay him handsomely. But the Steelers so far have saved more than $7 million (Bell’s missed pay: $7.68 million; James Conner’s entire salary this year; $578,000) by Bell not being on the team.
Through eight games—half a season—since Bell entered the league in 2013, the relative production of Conner versus Bell is just about a wash. There is one asterisk, as noted on Bell’s 2016 and 2013 totals. He was suspended for the first three games in 2016 for violating the league’s substance abuse policy; in 2013, he missed the first three games of the seasons with a mid-foot sprain. In each season, I chose to use the totals from his first eight games of the season (games four through 11).
Conner, 2018 189 touches, 1,085 yards, 5.74 yards per touch, 10 TD.
Bell, 2017 229 touches, 979 yards, 4.28 yards per touch, 5 TD.
Bell, 2016 208 touches, 1,136 yards, 5.46 yards per touch, 4 TD.*
Bell, 2015 Active for only six games.
Bell, 2014 183 touches, 1,086 yards, 5.93 yards per touch, 2 TDs.
Bell, 2013 169 touches, 711 yards, 4.21 yards per rush, 4 TDs*
On average, Bell’s first eight games of the four seasons: 197 touches, 978 yards, 4.96 yards per touch, 3.8 touchdowns.
Conner’s first eight games this season: 189 touches, 1,085 yards, 5.74 yards per touch, 10 touchdowns.
In essence, Bell has gambled $7.68 million to prove his worth. Other than keeping him fresher for free agency in 2019, which is certainly part of this, Bell has lost his gamble.
Los Angeles football: 14-3. New York football: 4-13.
The biggest reason Adrian Peterson has found new life in Washington?
Because of running back injuries, Washington worked out Darkwa, the former Giant, on Aug. 19, and tried to sign him. The team offered Darkwa the NFL minimum salary, and because he started 11 games for the Giants last year, he felt he was worth more. So Darkwa turned down the deal. Still needing a back, senior VP of player personnel Doug Williams and senior VP of football operations Eric Schaffer went over options. Peterson’s agent had been pushing Washington to bring in his 33-year-old client for a workout. Williams and Schaffer were dubious. But now they were pretty far down their list of options, past the Orleans Darkwa stage. So Peterson and two others worked out on Aug. 20. Club officials noticed Peterson in a 30-minute workout not even seem to breathe hard. The other two backs, on a couple of occasions, were bent over, semi-gasping. “I don’t know what his workout would have looked like at 23 or 24, but I know what it looked like at 33,” Williams told me. “And it was really impressive.”
Washington offered the veteran minimum, one year at $1.015 million. Peterson grabbed it. After eight weeks, he was fifth in the NFL with 587 rushing yards, for an in-his-prime 4.6-yard average per rush.
Would Darkwa have been as productive? Doubtful, but we’ll never know. Peterson is on the perfect team for him—a power-running team with a coach, Jay Gruden, who likes to wear down the opposition late in games when he can with a physical run game. Peterson, for instance, had 18 of his 26 carries and 123 of his 149 rushing yards against the Giants in Week 8 in the second half.
One thing is crystal clear: “If we sign Darkwa, we wouldn’t have signed Adrian,” Williams said.
Jimmy and Dee Haslam have owned the Cleveland Browns for six years (since Oct. 16, 2012). Assuming current interim coach Gregg Williams is not named the permanent coach after this season, the head coach the Browns hire will be the sixth that the Haslams have employed.
Since the Haslams took over, eight franchises—Baltimore, Cincinnati, New England, Pittsburgh, Carolina, Dallas, Green Bay, Seattle—have employed one coach.
If it seems like the Seattle offensive line has improved this year under the direction of first-year line coach Mike Solari and first-year coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, you’re right. Recently, I wrote about the “win” rates of offensive-line play (whether a lineman succeeds on a pass play in not allowing a sack or pressure by the man he’s blocking), and the left and right tackles for the Seahawks this year (Duane Brown and Germain Ifedi, mostly) are winning more this year than last year, through eight weeks. The Seattle left tackle is winning on 92.9 percent of the pass-rush snaps, compared to 87.5 percent last year. At right tackle, the win rate is up from 89.6 percent last year to 92.9 percent this year.
That has contributed mightily to this improvement:
Percentage of Wilson’s dropbacks when pressured, 2017: 41.4 percent.
Percentage of Wilson’s dropbacks when pressured, 2018: 19.4 percent.
Now, Seattle will face some better rush teams in the next five weeks (Rams, Panthers, Vikings), but for now, the dam has not broken.
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King of the Road
Amtrak regional train Sunday morning. New York to Providence. Sitting alone. Behind me: A woman, about 40, and her son, about 11 or 12.
Left the station at 9 a.m. sharp. Woman, speaking in German, began reading to the boy. Pleasant voice. About 45 minutes into it, the boy nodded off. The reading stopped. Maybe an hour later, he woke up, and the reading continued. I know nothing about the subject or the situation or the relationship, but it seemed like sweet parenting to me.
Tweets of the Week40
Not sure if Gregg Willams realized when he said it how absurd that sounds. I am sure he does now.
To comment on the column, or to say anything about anything, you can reach me by email.
• Down on John Harbaugh. From Kevin W., of Boulder, Colo.: “Do the last two weeks herald the end of Harbaugh in Baltimore, barring an unlikely 6-1 or 7-0 finish to make the playoffs? Brian Billick was let go after a similar run of futility after a Super Bowl win. I appreciate owner Steve Biscotti’s patience, but as a long-time fan I have to say I enjoyed the Kyle Boller era more than these last couple of years.”
Interesting question, and a pressing one, obviously, having lost three in a row now. What would hurt Harbaugh is a fourth straight non-playoff season, along with his chief ally Ozzie Newsome walking away as team architect after the season. It hurts, too, that over the last three-and-a-half seasons, Baltimore is just 26-32. But I’ll give you the big matzo ball hanging over this decision: Can you imagine if the Ravens fire Harbaugh the day after the regular season ends, and the Cleveland Browns scoop him up and make him their coach of the future, with a promising young quarterback and four or five franchise pieces on defense? Do not ignore that as you ponder what the Ravens should do about Harbaugh in the wake of such a dispiriting loss as the one to Pittsburgh on Sunday
• I am charged with being tone-deaf. From Tara H.: “As a 45-year-old black woman, I can truthfully say you have no right to comment on this [Eric Reid-Malcolm Jenkins] argument. You are a 60-something white man. When have you ever experienced the humiliation of driving/shopping/walking/living while black? What child/spouse/relative/friend have you mourned after their death at the hands of law enforcement? Colin Kaepernick, not Jenkins or Josh Norman, chose to highlight the soul-crushing injustice of police violence against people of color by kneeling. You chose to highlight a police officer’s take on the Reid/Jenkins dustup. Do you even comprehend how insulting that is? … From where I sit, as the member of the segment of American society Kap’s protest represented, you have been stunningly tone-deaf.”
Thanks for writing, Tara. As I do with many letters, I abridged yours, which was about 1,000 words, but tried to keep the spirit intact. There are many things I have not experienced, and I write about them nonetheless. I haven’t been tackled by a 290-pound man, but I have written about things like that for 35 years. Here, I see a group of men (who did take money from the NFL to do so) working on things like police-community relations and sentencing reform, trying to improve lives in American cities. I don’t think that work should be discounted as a waste of time. I am white, and I cannot fathom what it must be like to be unjustly accused and harassed and worse, as so many black people in this country have felt. You seem to be saying that only black people should comment on a dispute between two black men. I disagree.
• I got 50 or so similar notes or texts on Paul Zimmerman. From Lee L.: “On the passing of Dr. Z: It’s a sad day for lovers of football and the written word. He was responsible for my love of the inner workings and strategy of football. He was a must-read for many years for me. He was sorely missed after his strokes and I always held out hope that he would make it back. I’m appreciative of what he gave me (and what I’ve passed along to my daughters) as probably are countless others who read his work. RIP, Dr. Z. I hope you enjoy drinking the wine and getting under everyone’s skin where you are now.”
My MVP ballot today:
1. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City. Last week: 1. In his first year, he continues to play with the poise of a Brees.
2. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. Last week: 3. In his 18th year, he continues to play with the zeal and youth of a Mahomes.
3. Todd Gurley, RB, L.A. Rams. Last week: 2. His first mortal game of the year—79 scrimmage yards and one touchdown. But he’s been so good for so long he drops only spot.
4. Philip Rivers, QB, L.A. Chargers. Last week: 4. “Somebody’s gotta start talking about Phil as MVP,” cornerback Casey Hayward. Okay. Right here, right now. Chargers are 6-2, and Rivers has never been better through half a season: 19 TDs, three picks, a 116.5 rating.
10 Things I Think I Think
1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of Week 9:
a. Well, Marcus Peters sure got Breesed on that last touchdown pass to Michael Thomas.
b. First touchdown of 2018 for Julio Jones came on Nov. 4 at 3:53 p.m.—late in the fourth quarter of Week 9. Now that’s something I wouldn’t have predicted on Labor Day Weekend.
c. Football in the biggest city in the world is over till draft weekend in April. Giants, 1-7. Jets, 3-6. In fact, in the last 14 months, the two New York franchises are especially pungent, at a combined 12-37.
d. Why did the Browns cut Carl Nassib? Are you telling me they’ve got four better pass-rushers than Nassib? I call crappola on that.
e. Adam Thielen’s miracle run is over. Four catches, 22 yards, a touchdown. Fun while it lasted.
f. I don’t want to make too much of this. Maybe Joe Flacco simply didn’t see the most wide-open receiver all day for an easy touchdown, with Lamar Jackson waving his right hand calling for the ball, all alone a few yards from the end zone, and instead throwing the ball high over heavy coverage in the middle of the end zone. But man, why Flacco didn’t see Jackson, with no Steeler within 10 yards, makes me wonder if Flacco didn’t want to see Jackson.
g. Not saying it’s true. Just saying it makes me wonder.
h. The most unaptly named person in the NFL: Wink Martindale, the Baltimore defensive coordinator.
i. Doesn’t fit. “Wink Martindale” is the former radio DJ and game show host. “Bronco” Martindale would be much better.
j. Great television, CBS showing Pittsburgh kicker Chris Boswell consistently missing kicks wide right after he botched a PAT wide right.
k. Cam Wake turns 37 in January. He’s still able to torment the quarterback, as he did Sunday with two sacks of Sam Darnold.
l. The Niners were without their top two quarterbacks and best running back, and lost their third running back during the game, and their second back (Matt Breida) isn’t fully healthy. And they win by 31.
m. It didn’t end in a W, but that was some furious comeback attempt by Seattle against the Chargers. That was vintage Russell Wilson, scrambling around, running for first downs and firing BBs in tight windows.
n. With the Rams’ loss and the Chargers’ win, focus out west could swing to the Bolts, who looked mighty impressive in a huge road win at Seattle. That Philip Rivers-Melvin Gordon–Keenan Allen trio might be the best QB-RB-WR group in the league.
o. But man oh man, do the Chargers need to fix their kicking game. Caleb Sturgis, just back from a quad injury, missed a 42-yard field goal and two extra points.
p. Odd seeing Demaryius Thomas in a Texans jersey at Mile High on Sunday. Odder even seeing Marshall Manning, son of Peyton, in a Texans jersey as well.
q. Cam Newton is having fun again in Carolina, and that is a good offense he’s leading. Those 35 first-half points against Tampa set a Panthers franchise record.
r. Sad to hear about the passing of Vince Manuwai, the former Jaguars offensive lineman. He died suddenly in Hawaii on Sunday at age 38.
2. I think I need to know more about this odd Reshad Jones situation in Miami, where the veteran safety apparently pulled himself out of Sunday’s game against the Jets. Jones left the game in the first quarter and never returned; the Dolphins said his absence wasn’t injury-related. “I’ve got to look at that and find out what everything entails. It sounds like he pulled himself out,” coach Adam Gase said. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that Jones was slated to play less Sunday because the team wanted to get more snaps for rookie Minkah Fitzpatrick. Did that irritate Jones? Expect to hear more about this story in the coming days.
3. I think the NFL has to do something about the legal and illegal picks teams are mostly getting away with. Team after team after team have these “accidental” picks, with receivers preventing defensive backs from covering their receivers by getting in their way fully or partially. I wrote about it last week; it’s a part of the Rams’ offense. And Sunday, at Washington, Atlanta got one touchdown by Calvin Ridley with the help of a pick, and then, on a later touchdown, the Falcons got flagged for it. That should be on Al Riveron’s video tape for his officiating crews this week. Heaven knows he’s got enough examples he can show the officials.
4. I think it’s cruel and unusual punishment, what’s happening to the Bills’ just-keep-the-seat-warm quarterback, Nathan Peterman. Buffalo shouldn’t be playing him right now, and he probably shouldn’t be in the league, but the Bills mistakenly traded A.J. McCarron just before the start of the season, and prize rookie Josh Allen is hurt, and off-the-street quarterback Derek Anderson is hurt, so Peterman was back.
He had another Peterman of a game Sunday as the punchless Bills lost horribly to Chicago at home, 41-9. But there’s this good news: The zero-TD, three-interception game raised Peterman’s passer rating … from 31.4 entering the game to 32.5 exiting it.
5. I think I have not seen a team dissolve in two months of a season the way the Raiders from Sept. 1 to Saturday, when the news came down that Bruce Irvin got whacked. Last year’s top two pass-rushers, Khalil Mack (traded) and Irvin, gone. Top receiver Amari Cooper, gone. Top back Marshawn Lynch, gone (injured). Offensive line, in tatters. Jon Gruden has an immense amount of pressure on him after getting the biggest coaching contract in NFL history last January.
6. I think $15,937,500 doesn’t buy what it used to. That’s what Sam Bradford made for three starts in Arizona—$5.3-million per start.
7. I think—and I don’t mean to beat a dead Cardinal—this was an insane contract from the start. The oft-injured Bradford started only 38 of his teams’ 80 games over the previous five years. He was 19-19. He finished 2017 as a healthy scratch to Case Keenum. Who knows what the competition was for him in the offseason, but if Bradford had someone offering him more than $5 million, Arizona GM Steve Keim should have walked away and said good luck. Instead, Keim guaranteed him $15 million, plus another $5 million in per-game, active-roster bonuses. Bradford was active for three games. For that money, he went 0-3 and got yanked for rookie Josh Rosen.
8. I think it was quite the interesting dichotomy in Denver on Sunday. The Broncos started the season 2-0 and now have fallen on hard times, winning one game since to fall to 3-6. Vance Joseph’s seat is red-hot. Contrast that to the Texans, who started the season 0-3 and haven’t lost since, rocketing to the top of the AFC South. Bill O’Brien’s seat, hot as it gets in late September, has now cooled considerably.
9. I think the Saints shouldn’t get too comfortable atop the NFC South, not with the way Carolina is playing. With offensive coordinator Norv Turner mixing things up, Newton has made the most of the young weapons surrounding him—Christian McCaffrey, Curtis Samuel and DJ Moore among them. Carolina has won three straight and with both games against New Orleans still remaining—Week 15 in Carolina, Week 17 at the Superdome—that division is still very much up for grabs.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
b. Column of the Week: from Bari Weiss (two weeks in a row here for her), painting the picture of her Pittsburgh community post-mass murder.
c. “I want to tell you what it is like when your neighborhood becomes the scene of a mass murder.” Excellent work, particularly describing the galvanizing emotions she’ll never forget.
d. Front Page of the Week, from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Touching and spot-on in the wake of the massacre at the Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the paper’s executive editor explains why he did it.
e. Story of the Week: Zach Schonbrun of the New York Times, on the declining numbers of players in high school football in New Jersey, a former hotbed of the game.
f. The New York Times obituary on Paul Zimmerman, by Richard Sandomir.
g. Baseball Story of the Week: by Alex Speier of the Boston Globe, on how the chemistry of the 2018 Red Sox mattered.
h. Wrote Speier: “Two days before the season, the sense of shared purpose was solidified in what many members of the team referenced as a landmark event. Pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez, in exchange for getting the uniform No. 57 (that of countryman and friend Johan Santana) from third base coach Carlos Febles, agreed to host a team dinner in St. Petersburg, Fla. Fifty-six members of the team showed up.
i. Who pays free-agent pitcher Nathan Eovaldi? He’ll be 29 in February, and since the middle of September, here’s his line: 3-1 (with the 1 that memorable six-inning relief job ended by Max Muncy’s homer in the 18th in Game 3, the loss that might be the best game of Eovaldi’s life, given the circumstances), 1.27 ERA, 0.77 WHIP, 35 strikeouts in 35.1 innings.
j. As Tom Verducci deftly wrote in SI (unnecessary adverb, of course; everything Verducci writes is composed deftly), Eovaldi is one of the biggest horses in the game. This from Verducci, on the tail end of the description of Eovaldi’s six-plus innings (on top of one inning in relief Tuesday, and one inning in relief Wednesday): “It was at 8:30 a.m., just eight hours after he threw the last pitch to Muncy, that Eovaldi, holding his four-year-old son, Jace, whose name is stitched into his glove, walked into the (team breakfast) room and found Cora. “I’m good to go tonight,” he told his manager.
k. In New England, regardless where Eovaldi is employed in 2019 and beyond (Yankees excepted, I’m assuming), he’ll get a standing ovation anytime he appears in Fenway Park.
l. Alex Cora makes $800,000? My Lord. That is outrageous. There’s an SEC defensive coordinator making three times that much. Fix that, Red Sox.
m. One of the reasons baseball is so much fun, and also so maddening, is the capriciousness of it. Steve Pearce, a journeyman in and out of the Toronto lineup because of injuries and performance, got traded to the Red Sox in June. From Aug. 4 till the end of the regular season, he hit .225 with two homers. And in the last 11 innings of the season, batting third in the World Series, Pearce hit a double, three home runs and knocked in seven.
n. Earlier in the column I mentioned the Browns have had seven coaches and seven general managers in the last decade, since November 2008. I told you the coaches. I’d be exceedingly impressed if you got all seven Cleveland GMs in the last decade: Phil Savage, George Kokinis, Tom Heckert, Michael Lombardi, Ray Farmer, Sashi Brown, John Dorsey.
o. We watched “The Post,” for the second time the other night. What a valuable, important movie to see, particularly in the times we’re in. Meryl Streep, you’re the best.
p. Somehow, I don’t believe Meryl Streep reads FMIA. I mean, she should, of course.
q. Coffeenerdness: Run, do not walk, to Peet’s Coffee, and try the vanilla cardamom latte. Cardamom is a perfect add to an autumn coffee.
r. Beernerdness: As you know, it is no longer October. And so I can once again give you a good beer recommendation, with Sober October in the rearview. Try this one: Victory Festbier (Victory Brewing, Downingtown, Pa.), an Oktoberfest beer from a family of really good beers. It’s quite autumnal, malty and oaky. It’s going to take you a while to drink it, which is good. You don’t want to rush the interesting flavor.
s. Man, the deaths lately in our business. Dave Anderson, Paul Zimmerman and also last week Frank Litsky of the New York Times. You may not recall him, because he hasn’t written football in some time, and because he was a chronicler of so many sports. But he was one of my all-time favorites. When I arrived in New York in 1985 to cover the Giants for Newsday, Frank was the Welcome Wagon in that press corps, a happy and professional and inclusive guy who made me feel at home immediately upon walking into the press room in the bowels of Giants Stadium. Not an easy job for a 28-year-old newbie (fairly) to the game, walking into a beat with 19 daily papers and a tough coach, Bill Parcells, and a superstar linebacker who’d bite your head off, Lawrence Taylor. Frank always made sure I had what I needed (within competitive reason), loved and always asked about my two daughters, and was the best traveling companion. I’d ask about dinner on a random Saturday night before a road game, and if he didn’t have a place in mind, it was always, “Where do you want to eat?” Just a swell human being, and a pro’s pro.
u. Vote on Tuesday, wherever you are. As veteran Saints tight end Benjamin Watson, father of five (with twins on the way), says: “This summer, I took my two daughters to Selma, Ala., for the 53rd anniversary of the march to fight for the right to vote. There was blood shed for that right to vote; we know what that right means. So when it comes to the privilege of voting, we need to take it very, very seriously. No matter what your status in life, you have a voice. If you’re wealthy, you have a voice when you vote. If you’re in poverty, you have a voice when you vote. So we all need to exercise that right. We all need to be heard.”
Dallas 23, Tennessee 16. Amari Cooper should be nothing if not incredibly well-rested tonight, when he debuts for the Cowboys and gets his first significant action playing football in 29 days. On Oct. 7, Cooper caught his last pass in a mercurial career as a Raider, a 10-yard throw from Derek Carr in the first quarter against the Chargers. He was shut out the last three quarters on Oct. 7, was totally shut out in London against the Seahawks Oct. 14, had his Raider bye week Oct. 21, got traded to Dallas Oct. 22, had his Dallas bye week Oct. 28, and had the extra day before this Monday night game. In the last 28 days, this supposed number one receiver has not missed a game but has not caught a football.
The Week Ahead
• Wednesday … Costa Mesa, Calif. Is this the week Joey Bosa finally practices, after missing nine weeks (eight games) with a severe bone bruise in his foot? Seeing that he just began running full speed straight ahead in cleats last week, probably not. The Chargers think he’ll return this year, and big Bosa-factor games loom Dec. 2 (at Pittsburgh) and Dec. 13 (at Kansas City).
• Thursday … East Rutherford, N.J. The Giants have enough problems of their own, and so I doubt they’d be celebrating the 71st birthday of one of the enigmas of my sweet-spot Giants fandom as a kid—Bermudian sprinter Rocky Thompson, one of the strangest draft choices in team history, picked 18th overall in the first round in 1971. Jack Tatum went 19th, Jack Youngblood 20th, Jack Ham 34th, Dan Dierdorf 43rd. Thompson lasted two years, scored three touchdowns, and disappeared into the anonymity where so many Giants of that lousy era ended up.
• Thursday … Pittsburgh. Cam Newton at Ben Roethlisberger, for their second-ever meeting.
The Adieu Haiku10
Quite strange for a Rodgers team.
But not for Hundley.