Usually, Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles takes a fairly long nap at the team hotel before road night games. It’s a good way to kill time and be fresh so he can help the starter, Carson Wentz, on the sidelines during games.
But Sunday, even in the comfy Omni Los Angeles Hotel, with hours to kill before the 1:50 p.m. team bus to the Coliseum, Foles was buzzing. He read the Bible, which he does every morning; on the road he uses a Bible app on his phone. He read devotionals. “I knew there’d be adversity today, so I read what I thought would help me,” Foles said. He journaled on his iPad, a hobby that helps him feel connected to his family when he’s away. He Facetimed with wife Tori and baby daughter Lily. “And Henry,” Foles added. That’s the family golden doodle, who reportedly is a good boy.
“Today I couldn’t nap,” Foles said from the Eagles’ locker room in Los Angeles late Sunday night. “I tried, but I had too much on my mind. Too many butterflies.”
That would give Foles a lot in common with the city of Philadelphia. Earlier in the week, Wentz, the Eagles’ franchise quarterback, got struck down for the second year in a row. Last year, it was a knee injury in the Coliseum against the Rams—exactly 53 weeks removed from this game—that kayoed Wentz. This year, reports say Wentz has a fractured vertebrae in his back; it’s more likely than not Wentz will be out for the season. Coming off a Super Bowl run last year, nothing has come easy for the Eagles, including a well-played and fluky tipped ball that handed the Cowboys a heartbreaking overtime win over Philadelphia a week ago. That left the Eagles 6-7 and, particularly with the news of the Wentz injury, dead for 2018.
But here came Foles, and for much of the evening, it felt like last January again. First eight Philadelphia drives of the night: field goal, field goal, failed fourth-down conversion, touchdown, punt, touchdown, field goal, touchdown. After those eight drives, behind the steady hand of Foles and the unsteady hands and feet of the Rams, the Eagles led 30-13. When it was over, the Eagles, 13-point dogs (and I don’t mean Henry) had a 30-23 victory over the stumbling Rams, losers of two straight for the first time in the 31-game Sean McVay Era of good fun.
This is an Eagles section of the column, mostly, but if you saw McVay at his post-game presser, you saw a worried man, a man with legitimate concerns about an offense, and a team, that’s lost its mojo. Completely. “We’ve got to be able to figure this out and figure it out fast, because we’re doing things these last couple of weeks that are totally uncharacteristic of what good football teams do, of what we’ve done,” McVay said. “ … It’s guys making mistakes we typically haven’t seen.” Like plummeting Jared Goff, making a ridiculous stumble, fumble and nervous-looking interception with 17 minutes left that led to a crucial Eagles touchdown. Like receivers staying in bounds with the clock running and no timeouts in the last 90 seconds of a seven-point game. Man, some dumb stuff by a team that should be much smarter.
But the Eagles … maybe they were due a break. Just as everything Doug Pederson touched turned to touchdowns last year, everything this franchise has touched has turned to BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO by its infamous fandom this year. Foles took over in this same stadium last year and got the save in the NFC East-clinching victory while Wentz was in the locker room with two torn knee ligaments. This year, it was Wentz, wearing an earpiece to hear the playcalls and offer advice, on the sideline helping Foles.
“The huddle’s my sanctuary,” Foles said. “Today you’ve got phones, Instagram, Twitter. It’s hard to just be in the moment. But I like to be in the moment, be present. Today I was able to block everything about the significance of this—being back in the same place it started last year, playing on a big Sunday night game, playing for our playoffs [hopes]—and just focusing on one moment. One play. Then the next play. I called on my experience on playing in high-pressure games last year and succeeding. I think it helped.”
The Eagles’ playoff hopes still hang by a thread. For Philly to win the division, Dallas must lose to the Bucs and Giants, and the Eagles must beat Houston and Washington. Um, not likely. But to make the playoffs, the Eagles need to go 2-0 while Washington, Minnesota and Carolina all lose at least one game. Possible. Not likely, but Nick Foles has been in this situation before in what is becoming a downright weird career. The book he wrote last year after the Super Bowl was called “Believe It.” But if Foles has another run in him, and there’s a sequel to his first book, I’m going to push for this title: “Even I Can’t Believe It.”
Until 10:30 p.m. ET or so Sunday night, I’d planned to write the top of the column on the compelling story of the Cleveland Browns—They have won six football games, people!—and the instant maturation of Baker Mayfield and the influence of new offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens, and the play that illustrates the perfection of their relationship. That’s coming, in just a few sentences. But the Foles story, and the Eagles’ resuscitation, was just too good.
This is also a Monday to fete the Bears’ first division title since 2010, to wonder if the Chargers can catch the Chiefs, to cover the saving of the Steelers’ season, to observe New England fretting about New England, to appreciate J.J. Watt, and to give a nod to the rarest of NFL things: shutouts. The Colts and Titans had a pair on Sunday. Those in a little bit, but first—the Browns.
There is a reason, if you live in Ohio, to thank the heavens that Cleveland GM John Dorsey fell in love with Baker Mayfield last fall. There is also a reason to be thankful that Freddie Kitchens was handed the reins of the Browns offense seven weeks ago.
On Oct. 29, Gregg Williams took over as coach for the fired Hue Jackson, and Kitchens took over as offensive coordinator for the fired Todd Haley. The Browns are 4-2 since. Four wins. Four Mayfield fist-pumping, howling-at-the-moon wins. Previous 164 weeks: four wins.
Mayfield/Kitchens. Rarely does an NFL shotgun marriage work, never-mind flourish. “Why has it worked so well?” I asked Kitchens on Friday.
“Because Baker is starved for knowledge,” Kitchens said in his Alabama twang, the accent Mayfield imitates almost daily. “He loves learning. I’ve told him, ‘Your work in progress is never gonna be complete, ever. There’s always gonna be things you can work on, new things.’ Why limit what he can become? He loves that. You see that every week, how much he loves it.”
We saw it in real time Saturday night in Denver, with the game clock and play clock running; 12 minutes remaining, Cleveland down 13-10, first-and-goal at the Denver 2-yard line.
The Browns didn’t huddle at first, preferring to keep the Broncos in their sub defense with two defensive linemen and five defensive backs; Cleveland had run the ball well against that Denver defense, so Mayfield didn’t want them to be able to substitute. This was going to be a run by Duke Johnson, with a tight end next to the right tackle. But with 26 seconds left on the play clock, Kitchens called for him to huddle to call the play, to ensure everyone was on the same page. Quick; don’t let Denver have time to substitute, he told Mayfield. The QB hustled his 10 mates in and out of a quick huddle, looking at the Denver defense while he called the play. The Broncos had a sub—from TV, it looked like corner Bradley Roby—ready to come in, but … “Get to the line!” Kitchens yelled into Mayfield’s helmet before the sideline-to-quarterback communication shut off at 15 seconds. No defensive changes.
At the line, Mayfield got a hint the Broncos could be playing man coverage with four safeties and one corner (due to injury and an ejection). With 10, nine, eight seconds left on the play clock, Mayfield changed the play to a pass, turned around, and moved Johnson from his right to his left—physically moved him, with his hand on Johnson’s shoulder. Denver linebacker Todd Davis inched across the formation, trying not to give away what Mayfield saw: man coverage. To Mayfield’s left was a pure safety, Justin Simmons, with two games of some experience playing slot corner in his three-year career. Not outside corner, where the fleet fly. Simmons has average speed, and his man, Antonio Callaway, is a 4.4 wideout. Big edge, Browns. Mayfield knew.
Play clock at :02. Snap. Callaway got inside Simmons, easily, and broke inside on a quick slant to the middle of the field. No safety help. Easy. Pitch-and-catch, Mayfield and Callaway. Winning touchdown. Cleveland 17, Denver 16.
“What happened on that play was far beyond elementary thinking,” backup Browns quarterback Drew Stanton told me.
This single play represented huge next-level growth for Mayfield, and seven weeks of chemistry between Kitchens and Mayfield. Now, at the line, Mayfield has been given the freedom to change plays (even very late on the play clock). That’s because he’s a sponge, and has worked to learn all pre-snap contingencies, and Kitchens trusts his judgment.
In about 28 seconds, Mayfield went from run to huddle to run to moving the back physically to spying indicators of man coverage to changing the play to a pass to the winning touchdown pass to celebrating like a uniformed Tarzan, pounding his chest.
You know what I saw in that moment of intense celebration, almost over-the-top celebration, by Mayfield? Not I just put a dagger in the Broncos on the road with a huge play. To me, it was more Mayfield thinking, I am learning some serious s— right now, and I am executing it at the highest level of my profession. And I just got here.
The Browns are factors in December. Baker is starved for knowledge.
Those two things are related.
The impact of the 44-year-old Kitchens on this NFL season is so cool. He’s been touched by some strong and historic and innovative coaches. The Alabama kid played quarterback for three years under Gene Stallings in the 90s … Worked as a grad assistant on Nick Saban’s LSU staff in 2000 … Coached the tight ends (including Jason Witten) in 2006 on Bill Parcells’ last Dallas staff. “Incredibly important year,” Kitchens said. “I learned how to manage a team. I wish I had more time to learn from him. Jason Witten taught me, just by seeing him work on the field and in the film room and the meeting room, how to be an NFL coach.” … Then Kitchens went to Arizona, staying for 11 years under Ken Whisenhunt and Bruce Arians. He was quarterback coach for Carson Palmer’s four Arizona seasons.
Take that quarter-century of football experience, and you can see the results in Kitchens today. He’s no-nonsense and tough, like Stallings and Saban and Parcells. He’s quiet off the field. He’s the furthest thing from a self-promoter, which could have hurt him climbing the NFL ladder. He’s imaginative, the way Saban is on defense and Arians is on offense. He’s got a way of reaching players, even if it’s in a gravelly way, like Parcells.
“When he first took over the offense here,” said Stanton, who was Palmer’s backup in Arizona, “he was absolutely sick about Todd Haley getting fired. That’s who brought him here. But that’s Freddie. In his first meeting with the offense, he said, ‘We’re gonna be as good as everyone in this room is.’ He wanted ideas. He asked the offensive linemen, ‘What runs do you guys like?’ I’d never seen that before.”
The offense was in the bottom quartile in most categories when Kitchens took over. But in these six games, Kitchens has installed the kind of stuff Sean Payton experiments with weekly in New Orleans. Against the Panthers eight days ago, the Browns ran one of the weirdest misdirection plays of the year. Before the snap, Breshad Perriman came in motion from right to left in front of Mayfield, who was in shotgun. At the snap, Perriman turned back where he came from and got a fake handoff from Mayfield. Then Mayfield began to run left … but Jarvis Landry, also cutting from left to right, sped by Mayfield and Mayfield handed him the ball almost imperceptibly while Mayfield continued to run left with the rest of the offense, like he was going to run a keep to his left. Luke Kuechly and the Panther defense stretched with Mayfield … and Landry had an easy touchdown. Just weird. Kuechly’s never confused. But he was on this play. Clearly it was a surprise to the most instinctive linebacker in football.
“Why?” Stanton said. “Because Luke Kuechly is one of the smartest players in the league. You don’t fool him. You’ve got to show him stuff to make him think.”
In his second game as coordinator, against Atlanta, Kitchens ran the oddest running formation of the NFL year—three backs with Mayfield in a bunch formation in the shotgun. With that alignment on the field, the Browns gained nine, six and 17 yards. On ESPN the other day, Dan Orlovsky, the former NFL quarterback showed the Browns in “13” personnel—one back, three tight ends. “Are they tight ends? Is one a sixth offensive lineman? Is one split out wide like a receiver?” Orlovsky said. “They played 13 personnel five times against Carolina—and Baker went five for five. They’re doing so much imaginative stuff that Baker’s had more time to throw, from the pocket, that any quarterback in the league in the last six weeks.”
Make the defense think, and even the fastest and most instinctive defenders have to pause. “Freddie might be the Sean Payton of 13 years ago, when he got hired by New Orleans,” Orlovsky said.
“I know this: You have to have creativity to create confusion, and maybe hesitation, for the defense in this game today,” Kitchens told me. “So the team we’re gonna play next week is gonna have to work on a lotta stuff we won’t even have in the game plan.”
Kitchens sounds exactly like the kind of coach teams in a coaching search should investigate. Everyone’s looking for the next Payton, the next Sean McVay. Could it be the barrel-chested Alabamian who, despite never having been a coordinator before, has turned the Cleveland offense into must-see TV in his seven weeks on the job?
As for those aspirations, it seems ridiculously quick. And Kitchens is having none of it. “I don’t think about it,” he said. “I truly don’t. I am here to do a job at this present time. It is no different than any other job I have had. Carson had four of the best years of his life with me, and the single best year of his life with me. But I don’t clamor for attention. I never advertised for a job, never sent out propaganda for a job. I never will.”
After the touchdown strike in the fourth quarter in Denver, Mayfield went to the sideline and hugged Kitchens for four or five seconds. After the game, on NFL Network, Mayfield did a bad Kitchens-with-Alabama-accent impression. It’s clear from what they say and how they interact that no matter what caused this shotgun wedding, it’s working out well. The pictures say it, and the numbers scream it. Mayfield was 2-4 with Hue Jackson running the offense; he’s 4-2 under Kitchens. The relevant numbers, with six games started under each play-caller:
With Jackson: 58.3 percent completions, 6.59 yards per pass, 20 sacks, 78.9 rating.
With Kitchens: 71.8 percent complestions, 8.66 yards per pass, 5 sacks, 111.1 rating.
So GM John Dorsey’s got a tough decision on his hands after the season. Does he:
• Blow up the whole coaching staff and start over with a hot candidate like Josh McDaniels or Lincoln Riley, giving Mayfield his third offensive boss in nine months—and perhaps risking alienating the franchise quarterback, who has grown to like and respect Kitchens?
• Keep Gregg Williams as head coach and try to keep Kitchens as offensive coordinator, and build a staff around them?
• Keep Kitchens as offensive coordinator and find a head coach who would allow Kitchens offensive autonomy?
• Keep Williams as head coach, hope Kitchens chooses to stay, but if he doesn’t, allow Williams to hire his own offensive coordinator?
Compared to the alternatives, those are relatively nice problems to have. But they won’t be easy to solve. For now, it’s best to let this incredible year play out. The Browns, for the first time since the outlier 10-6 season, are playing for something the week before Christmas, and this fun offense is a big reason why.
The Bears, The Bears, The Bears
“Ninety-eight days ago,” Chicago coach Matt Nagy said over the phone Sunday night.
Hmmmm. What happened three months ago or so?
“That’s the night we lost in Green Bay,” Nagy said after the Bears beat the Packers at Soldier Field and won the NFC North for the first time in eight years. Sunday’s win avenged that Week 1 loss to Green Bay. Remember? Aaron Rodgers came back from what appeared to be a knee injury to lead Green Bay to a stirring 24-23 victory—and the Bears were left with enormous regrets. The biggest: a Rodgers throw into cornerback Kyle Fuller’s breadbasket with 2:40 left in the game that could have ended the game. But Fuller dropped it.
“I will remember that night for the rest of my life,” Nagy said. “I will remember the look in those players’ eyes. I looked at those 50 guys and told them, ‘This is happening for a reason. You’re not gonna trust me right now, but this is a long season, and we’re only at Week 1 right now, and we’ll be okay.’ I wanted them to feel it for six hours, and then, next morning, to walk in with a smile on their faces.”
Nagy reminded his team of that night before Sunday’s 24-17 win. He reminded Fuller of the interception he dropped—not to torment him, but to talk about how he came back from it. “You rebounded to lead the league in interceptions,” Nagy told him. This morning, Fuller and Miami’s Xavien Howard are tied for the league lead with seven interceptions.
Nagy’s the first Bears coach since George Halas 98 years ago to win 10 games in his first season. He loves history, and he’s blown away by his place in the Bears pantheon. But none of that’s going to matter if he can’t get the up-and-down Mitchell Trubisky to play an efficient game in January. The Bears will be a tough out because they’re so good on defense. But Trubisky’s the X factor to how far they can go in the postseason.
Who is Jaylen Samuels?
The Interview of the Week came after a running back that only Matthew Berry could love rushed 19 times for 142 carries in Pittsburgh’s season-preserving 17-10 win over New England. Rookie Jaylen Samuels also had two catches for 30 yards. Those 172 yards from scrimmage were 83 more than Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster combined to gain.
Samuels, a fifth-round rookie from North Carolina State, is not used to meeting the press. He’s not used to starring. He’s certainly not used to wearing down the defense of the greatest coach in the game, which he did for four quarters at Heinz Field.
The substance of it:
Have you had that kind of workload before?
Samuels: “No, I never rushed for 100 yards on the ground.”
How about 19 carries?
“No, I never had that … I never had 19 carries in a game.”
Not even in high school?
“No, not in high school.”
It’s a great example of how we invent reasons why there can’t be another back as good as Le’Veon Bell, and when his backup, James Conner, is out too, we say the Steelers are doomed. But the fast and physical Samuels showed Sunday that the Steelers can win with him, and that he can be a huge part of a vital victory. He had 80 scrimmage yards in the first half, 92 in the second half. He had enough left in the last quarter to give the Steelers 29 yards on their insurance field-goal drive. Conner should return sometime in the next two weeks, but the Steelers know they’ve got the kind of insurance they’ll need to win playoff games in Samuel.
Comeback Player of the Year … For Now
Tough call this year. Andrew Luck was either sidelined or tormented by shoulder maladies in 2015, ’16 and ’17, and J.J. Watt had back and neck problems that derailed his 2016 season, and a broken leg that ruined 2017. It’s very close, and I think either of the two would make a good choice for the award. But with two weeks left, it’s close to a tie with the two. And if pressed I’d probably take Watt. I think his career was endangered, whereas I think Luck was always going to come back—though it might have taken longer than he’d have expected.
Watt missed 24 of the Texans’ 32 games in 2016 and 2017. But he’s back in full-time mode this year. On his 66th of 70 defensive snaps Saturday against the Jets, with N.Y. down seven on a last-gasp drive at the two-minute warning, Watt powered through the Jets line and smothered Sam Darnold for a seven-yard loss. His second sack of the day gave him 14.5 for the season, two behind NFL leader Aaron Donald.
“I learned a lot over the last two years,” Watt said Saturday night. “I didn’t push [training] as hard as I had before. There are some things that create higher risk than others. I still train with the same intensity. I’m just smarter. It’s been continuous growth the entire way.
“Really, I just want to move past the ‘comeback’ thing. I just want it to be about football. In late December, these are the things you dream about—playoff football, winning, playing big games. I’m contributing now, and I’m happy about that.”
“Contributing,” no. “Dominating as he was in 2015,” yes.
About that call …
It’s probably a credit to thinking people, and to analytics, that Chargers coach Anthony Lynn’s decision to go for two Thursday night after they scored a touchdown with four seconds left to trail Kansas City 28-27 was celebrated, but didn’t quite win him the Nobel Prize for Football Thought.
However, let me not take credit away from Lynn for having the forethought to start preparing for this moment in training camp, and continuing on every Thursday this season. I’ll get to that in a moment.
What Lynn knew as he considered what to do (which he really didn’t do much of; he had decided to go for two well before the touchdown from Philip Rivers to Mike Williams that cut Kansas City’s lead to one):
- His team converted PATs 82 percent of the time this year, a poor 32 of 39 when kicking for one point.
- His team had made five of seven two-point conversions this year.
- He had a veteran quarterback who had a history with him of clutch plays in big situations.
- The Chiefs were an explosive team, and if Kansas City won the coin flip to start overtime and scored a touchdown, the game would be over without the Chargers touching the ball again.
- Even if the Chiefs won the toss and managed only a field goal but took seven or eight minutes off the clock in the process, it would dent the Chargers’ chances to score a touchdown.
- He knew his team overwhelmingly favored the two-point option.
I asked Lynn about his thought process, and, interestingly, he credited Doug Pederson’s approach during the Eagles’ Super Bowl season. “When the NFL moved the extra point back to the 33, it made more sense to go for two,’’ Lynn said. He meant that the extra point, with the line of scrimmage now the 15-yard line, becomes the equivalent of a 33-yard field goal. “When I studied the Eagles, they went for it a lot on fourth down—fourth-and-two, fourth-and-short—at places on the field that we hadn’t been used to seeing teams go for it. So I thought it was smart. We started it in training camp. We did it a lot more practicing of the play. During the season, we have Competition Thursday, offense against defense. We always practice a two-point play. Somebody’s gonna win, somebody’s gonna lose. I want my players’ mindset to be, Been there, done that. I want them to expect success on the play.
“One of the things I’ve learned about being a coach is this: You just get what you emphasize.”
Lynn is one of those Sinatra coaches. That’s how I think of guys who think, This is my shot, maybe my one shot, and I’m going to do it my way.
“Ain’t no doubt about that,’’ he said. “If the play doesn’t work, I’ll get killed for it. Why didn’t you kick the point and win in overtime! And that’s part of the deal. I want to ride away one day, just like Sinatra, and think I did it my way.”
The rest of the story you know: The Chiefs screwed up the coverage, Williams was wide open in the end zone, Rivers hit him easily, and the Chargers won, 29-28.
Writer’s Note: Ten years ago, Matt Nagy’s pro football dreams seemed over. After an Arena League career as a quarterback, Nagy watched as the original Arena League folded in 2008. Nagy couldn’t get a shot with an NFL team, and he had a young and growing family, so he transitioned to selling real estate in Annville, Pa., at age 33.
Rookie Bears coach Matt Nagy, after the Bears clinched their first division title since 2010, on his road to being a head coach:
“So I was always having to prove myself. Growing up, I was a kid that wasn’t highly recruited out of high school, and I took a I-AA offer to Delaware. I always thought, ‘I’m not going to be one of those guys who just hangs on and plays semi-pro ball or whatever.’ Throughout those years, there were some blows. Twice in high school we lost in the Pennsylvania state semis to the same team. At Delaware, I was crushed to never be able to win a national championship. I felt that if someone just believed in me, if someone just gave me a chance, I could have made the NFL. But nobody gave me that chance. I go to the Arena League, and boom, that league folds.
“I’ve got a family, the recession hits in real estate, and football’s gone. So it was tough times. And working that real estate job, the one thing I always said, ‘I don’t want a job.’ I had a coach in the Arena League, Doug Plank, who once told us, ‘See those people you pass on the road on the way to work? Ninety-five percent of them hate their jobs. You’re part of the 5 percent. You’re lucky.’ Here I was. I wanted to do what I loved. I liked real estate, but I didn’t love it.
“Sometimes things in life happen for a reason, even when you don’t know why you’re going through it. And one day, I was sitting in the garage of a spec house in Annville, Pa., and the phone rang with a 215 area code, and it’s Andy Reid. I had a friend, Brett Veach, who I went to Delaware with and played football with, and he caught on with the Eagles, and he helped me there. Andy said, ‘I’m gonna give you an entry-level job.’ It was a quality control job.
“Once I got the call, I knew I was set. I knew I would make it. I didn’t care about all the long drives, driving 99 miles each way to Philly for a year, waking up every day at 3:30 am, sleeping in the office some nights. I was given an opportunity by one of the greatest coaches in the National Football League. That is all I needed.
“To anyone in my shoes now … Obviously, I got a break. But I was just going to keep going. I just always believed things happened for a reason, and I was going to work my way out of it.”
Offensive Players of the Week
Derrick Henry, running back, Tennessee. In the last two weeks, Henry has given the 8-6 Titans the identity coach Mike Vrabel has longed for all season. Henry’s ridiculous numbers—50 carries, 408 yards, 8.2 yards per rush, six touchdowns—against the Jags and Giants led to wins of 21 and 17 points for the Titans. On the back of Henry, Tennessee is contending for the sixth seed in the playoffs.
Marlon Mack, running back, Indianapolis. For a 6-foot, 210-pound back, Mack has shown major physicality for the Colts, particularly in a stunning 23-0 shutout of the NFC East-leading Cowboys. The Colts have re-made their image into a bruising bunch on both sides of the ball, and they showed it in a 178-yard rushing day for the team. Credit the 2017 fourth-rounder from South Florida, Mack, for 139 yards and two touchdowns on the ground in a statement game for Indianapolis.
Philip Rivers, quarterback, Los Angeles Chargers. He’ll want to put that fourth-and-7 dime to Travis Benjamin on the Chargers’ biggest drive of the year—the winning TD drive in Kansas City Thursday night—in his career time capsule. What a great throw. Great game too, leading the Chargers to two touchdowns and 15 points in the last eight minutes of the game that kept the Chargers alive for the AFC West title.
Defensive Players of the Week
Jabrill Peppers, safety, Cleveland. Ever see a walkoff sack? You saw one Saturday night. Peppers made two of the biggest drive-killing plays in the Browns’ 17-16 win—acrobatically picking off a Case Keenum pass in the end zone late in the first half; then, on fourth-and-10 with 43 seconds left in the game and the Broncos at midfield, steaming through the right guard/tackle gap untouched to sack Keenum and end the game. I can only imagine the decibel level in northeast Ohio on Saturday night at 11:27 when Peppers bowled over Keenum. Women yelling. Men shrieking. Kids, woken up, crying. Dogs howling. Jabrill Peppers, you made a city scream.
Joe Haden, cornerback, Pittsburgh. The Patriots, down 14-10 with eight minutes left in the game, had momentum in their favor. From the Steelers 16, facing a good rush, Brady let one fly toward the right pylon, hoping Rob Gronkowski could make a Gronk play in traffic. No dice. Haden leaped high and, smashed simultaneously by 460 pounds of Patriot (Gronk, Julian Edelman), Haden vice-gripped the ball in both palms as he fell to the ground. Play of the game for the Pittsburgh defense, a pick of Brady in the red zone. Haden led all defenders in the game with 12 tackles too.
Chris Jones, defensive tackle, Kansas City. Not just for his 2.5 sacks, five hits of Philip Rivers and one pressure and one batted pass Thursday night. But it’s the run he’s on too. Jones has sacks in 10 consecutive games, and he leads the AFC with 14.0 sacks entering the last two weeks of the season. Sacks in the last 10: 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 1.5, 1, 2.5. He’s getting better as the year progresses. Beware these last two weeks, Seattle and Oakland.
Derwin James, safety, Los Angeles Chargers. Made the biggest tackle of his rookie year, a Troy Polamalu-corralling-takedown of Travis Kelce to halt a Chiefs drive late in the third quarter with KC trying to add to a 21-14 lead. James, 215 pounds; Kelce, 260. Beautiful form tackle, both arms around Kelce’s gut, stoning him after a one-yard gain. This is a tough vote in the Defensive Rookie race between James and Indy linebacker Darius Leonard (league tackles leader, plus seven sacks) and Dallas linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, with Denzel Ward and Jaire Alexander just behind the top three. Good year for the defensive rookies this season, and James has come in to be the most important man in the 11-3 Chargers’ back end.
Special Teams Players of the Week
Jonathan Jones and Rex Burkhead, punt-coverage, New England. As a Ryan Allen punt bounded toward the end zone, Jones leaped over the line (without his feet ever touching the goal line) and kept the bouncing punt alive by flipping it in the air while diving; Burkhead then dove over the line himself, never having touched the line, and, with the ball two yards deep, Burkhead flipped it to trailing coverage player Ramon Humber, who downed it at the Pittsburgh 1-yard line. Can’t play a punt better near the goal line.
Tavierre Thomas, cornerback, Cleveland. I haven’t seen a better pursuit and tackle of a punt-returner this year than the one Thomas made on the first play of the fourth quarter while being blocked in the back at Denver. Thomas was in hot pursuit of Denver returner (and first-team FMIA all-name team member) River Cracraft, who caught the punt at his 32. While going down from the block in the back, Thomas reached out his right arm and caused Cracraft to careen backward for a two-year loss. Add in the 10 yards for the illegal block in the back, and Thomas created a 12-yard loss on the punt play in a game Cleveland trailed 13-10.
Richie James Jr., kick returner, San Francisco. The Niners’ seventh-round rookie, an explosive player with iffy hands, finally broke one. His 97-yard kick return against Seattle gave the Niners an early 7-6 lead and was the first kick return for touchdown by a San Franciscan in 124 games.
Logan Cooke, punter, Jacksonville. The seventh-round rookie from Mississippi State had his day of days: five punts, 52.4-yard average (50.2 net), dropping three inside the 20-yard line in a field-position game. Long of 72. Cooke will remember this day, just not the score, for a long time. (Washington 16, Jacksonville 13.)
Coach of the Week
Dean Pees, defensive coordinator, Tennessee. Four weeks after being hospitalized in Indianapolis with an undisclosed illness and spending a short time away from the team, Pees choreographed one of the great defensive performances by a Titans team. Tennessee shut out the Giants 17-0 in the rain in New Jersey, holding the Giants to 260 yards, 3-of-13 on third downs, and limiting the red-hot Saquon Barkley to 56 scrimmage yards. “It’s not easy being a defensive coordinator,” coach Mike Vrabel said of Pees. “His players play very hard for him.”
Matt Eberflus, defensive coordinator, Indianapolis. For seven years, Eberflus served on Jason Garrett’s coaching staff, and he longed to be a defensive coordinator. He thought he was going to have that chance with Josh McDaniels in Indianapolis, but McDaniels withdrew from the job after the Super Bowl, and Eberflus was left hanging … but the Colts honored the job offer and paired him with Frank Reich. They’re glad they did. The reward for Eberflus: a 23-0 shutout of the Cowboys in Indianapolis on Sunday. That had to feel pretty good.
Mensch of the Week
Robert Kraft, owner, New England. Kraft flew to Pittsburgh ahead of the team Saturday morning, according to NFL Network’s Aditi Kinkhabwala, and went to pay his respects at the Tree of Life synagogue, where 11 worshipers were massacred in October. Kinkhabwala reported Kraft was invited to speak at the service, did so, and spoke partly in Hebrew. The service was held at a temporary meeting place because Tree of Life is unavailable, presumably due to the investigation and repairs that must be made there. Kraft has been so moved by the tragedy that he and Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich agreed to play a May exhibition in Foxboro, with both contributing $1 million from the proceeds to fight antisemitism. On Saturday, Kraft attended services with son Josh Kraft.
Goats of the Week
Jared Goff, quarterback, Los Angeles Rams. This says it all.
Vance Joseph, coach, Denver. The coaching world has moved on to modernity. Vance Joseph is in 2012. Denver was down four to Cleveland with 4:39 left in the fourth quarter, on fourth-and-1 from the Cleveland 6 … and Joseph sent out the field-goal team. Brandon McManus made it. Cleveland 17, Denver 16. A lot happened after that. Final score: Cleveland 17, Denver 16. With the wacky offense Cleveland runs, there’s no way Joseph could have been so confident about his D holding the Browns, though that’s what he said afterward. And this is a man who loves going for it on fourth down. Wrong call in a game that will help decide Joseph’s fate. Hard to be optimistic about him returning in 2019.
Orlando Scandrick, cornerback, Kansas City Chiefs. Rough year for Scandrick, and a very rough game against the Chargers. It’s Scandrick who gave up the jump-ball touchdown to Mike Williams with four seconds left in the fourth quarter, drawing the Chargers to within one points. And it’s Scandrick, the outside cover man, who let Williams leak loose to the right on the two-point conversion pass, leaving him uncovered for the winning points. “They busted a coverage,” said Philip Rivers. Boy, did they.
“It’s incredible. You see how many false starts they had? The get-off we were allowed to get because of our fans … what an atmosphere to play football. What a great night.”
—Steelers pass-rusher T.J. Watt, on the advantage his team had because of the noise in a 17-10 win over the Patriots at Heinz Field.
The Patriots, who entered the game with the fewest penalties in football through 14 weeks, had eight pre-snap penalties alone in Pittsburgh.
“Does it matter? Nobody cares.”
—Miami coach Adam Gase, after the Dolphins fell to 7-7 with a dispiriting 24-point loss at Minnesota, asked about the injuries his team suffered Sunday.
“Philly Special, I didn’t even know until I went and watched it after the game. I saw a lot of replays and said, ‘I don’t even remember that play.’ “
—Larry Foles, father of Nick, to Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times, on not seeing the most famous play of his son’s NFL life in the Super Bowl last year. Cool story.
—Eric Dickerson, to TMZ, on whether he wants Saquon Barkley to break his rookie records, the most notable of which is Dickerson’s record of 2,212 yards from scrimmage as a rookie. With two games left, Barkley has 1,809 yards from scrimmage, meaning he needs 404 yards to break the Dickerson mark.
“I oughta make some plays! I’ve been doing this for 206 games!”
—Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, to NFL Network, after the stunner in Kansas City.
Coaching wins for John Madden (including playoffs) in 10 years with the Raiders: 112.
Coaching wins for John Harbaugh (including playoffs) in 11 years with the Ravens: 112.
“We are not the same old Chargers,” Anthony Lynn said after the Thursday night win over the Chiefs. The coach is not the same old Chargers coach either. How Lynn ranks with the best coaching records in the NFL over the past 21 games, including regular-season and playoff games:
Anthony Lynn, Chargers: 17-4
Sean McVay, Rams: 15-5
Andy Reid, Kansas City: 15-6
Sean Payton, New Orleans: 15-6
Bill Belichick, New England: 14-6
This is a totally arbitrary number, 21 games. But the record is a mark of how good the Chargers have been over the last 13 months, and what a good job Lynn has done.
Connie and John Watt flew from Wisconsin to Kansas City to watch their son Derek Watt play fullback and special teams for the Chargers in their 29-28 win over Kansas City on Thursday.
Connie and John Watt flew from Kansas City to New Jersey to watch their son J.J. Watt play defensive end for the Texans in their 29-22 win over the Jets on Saturday.
Connie and John Watt flew from New Jersey to Pittsburgh to watch their son T.J. play linebacker for the Steelers in their 17-10 win over New England on Sunday.
Have you seen Philip Rivers after a game, or at a press conference, wearing a hat or shirt with these two Latin words: Nunc Coepi? If you watched post-game Thursday night, you saw him with a hat with those two words. And maybe you’ve wondered what they mean.
Pronounced “Noonk Cheppi,” it’s a Latin phrase meaning, “Now I begin.” That is Rivers’ ethos for football and for life. Every day is a fresh start; make it a great one. Every game is a fresh start; make it a great one. Your past mistakes, your past successes, they’re things that prepare you for the next day. This two-minute story by Dan Graziano of ESPN will explain it neatly.
I thought with Rivers’ bulling his way into the MVP race with his 15-points-in-four-minutes performance Thursday night, you might have wondered what it means, and why it seems to be so omnipresent in Rivers’ gear and in his life.
Since being cut loose by Chicago after the 2015 season, Robbie Gould has made 78 of 81 field goals (96.3 percent) at ages 34, 35 and 36.
I did not travel this week, so this is more of an Americana note. But it is the single thing in the week of Michael Cohen and all the bizarre political stuff in our world that blew me away the most.
My daughter Laura and her wife Kim took children Freddy and Hazel on Saturday to see Santa Claus at a Bay Area mall. Freddy, a month shy of 2, dressed in his reindeer sweater, was extremely fired up. They got to the mall, and they found out it they would have to spend at least $40 in a mall photo package to sit on Santa’s lap. You could walk by Santa for free, and he would greet the child and be a nice guy, but there would be no “Have you been a good little boy this year?” conversation.
I mean, wow.
So they decided not to do the sitting-on-Santa’s-lap part of it, and do the walk-by instead, and Santa was nice to Freddy and it was a fine experience. But $40 to sit on Santa’s lap and get photos you’d rather take yourself? How did that happen? Is that a thing now?
React, please. I’d love to hear from you. I may be totally out of touch with the Santa-of-today stuff.
This thought occurred to me examining the PFF grades at each position through 14 weeks: If I were a GM and needed help on the offensive line in 2019, I might look extra harder at the draft. The five richest contracts given to free-agent offensive linemen last spring, and how they have performed in 2018:
Nate Solder, tackle, N.Y. Giants, $15.5-million average compensation. Played better lately, but the highest-paid tackle in NFL history is only the 17th-best left tackle and 36th-best overall tackle, per PFF ratings.
Andrew Norwell, guard, Jacksonville, $13.3-million average compensation. Better than Solder, but the second-highest-paid guard of all-time is PFF’s 13th-rated guard in the NFL this year.
Ryan Jensen, center, Tampa Bay, $10.5-million average compensation. Only three starting centers in the league are rated lower than Jensen, who has flopped in Tampa. He’s been penalized nine times and given up nine QB hits, each the most in the league for a center.
Weston Richburg, center, San Francisco, $9.5-million average compensation. Just three spots better than Jensen, Richburg is the 32nd-rated center in the league, and has allowed a porous 27 sacks/hits/significant pressures.
Justin Pugh, guard, Arizona, $9-million average compensation. His season ended in mid-November with a knee injury that forced him to IR. But he hadn’t been playing well, and PFF has him the 53rd-rated guard in the league. And this is the fourth season in a row that Pugh’s total snaps have been less than the season before.
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Very good question. From Gene C., of Malvern, Pa.: “So much going on in the NFL, yet not a peep from Roger Goodell. Where is he? Have the owners gagged him? Is he sick? Has been kidnapped by aliens? Why the silence?”
I had a longtime NFL source tell me recently: “If you think it’s a coincidence Roger has been out of sight, you’re crazy.” Goodell, he said, gets a pile of crap thrown on him every time he’s in a large group of people, or in most public situations, and gets pummeled by the columnists after many of his public statements, so why do it? Let the games rule. Let the coaches and players be the out-front people. So the ratings are up, and the public is piling on only one element of the league office: the officiating department. The disappearing act is working for Goodell, and I expect it to continue.
Interesting, but I question the practicality. From Ryan S.: “Long-time reader of your column, first-time writer. I’ve been reading about the City of Oakland suing the Raiders and the NFL for the way they handled the Las Vegas relocation and the Raiders’ response to accelerate their departure and play elsewhere in 2019. Potential options I’ve read about are using other NFL venues like San Francisco, college venues, and San Antonio’s Alamodome. Why wouldn’t the Raiders and the NFL consider London as an option? London has shown an appetite to purchase tickets, it would give the NFL an opportunity to collect more data and increase their visibility in a location they’re trying to expand. The facilities are up to NFL standards. It seems like the idea has the potential to turn the lemon-sour relationship between the city of Oakland and the Raiders into NFL expansion lemonade.”
Great idea, Ryan. But here are the issues I see:
• Jon Gruden would hate this, and I doubt Mark Davis would force him to accept it. Gruden hated the travel once from Oakland to London this year. Imagine—even the league cut this into two three-game trips and one two-game trip from London to the United States for the Raiders’ eight road games—how much Gruden would moan about having to do this for a season.
• Tough duty to ask your players to either move to London for four months or keep their practice base in Oakland and commute to London three or four times during the season simply to play games.
• The Players Association would almost assuredly fight it.
• Imagine the eight teams on the Raiders’ home schedule getting the news that they’d have a trip to Europe during the season. And imagine the Chargers—who already have one foreign-soil game next season—learning they might have to go to London twice.
With two weeks and one significant game (tonight’s Panthers-Saints tilt) left, here’s my MVP ballot today:
T-1. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City. This has now turned into a three-horse race. The leaders of three 11-win teams (Drew Brees could win a 12th tonight at Carolina) have cases close enough now that it’s possible that Mahomes, Brees or Philip Rivers could win. Mahomes’ electric play and his 45 touchdown passes (14 more than Brees and Rivers) puts him in the race till the end.
T-1. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. It’s so close. Brees’ year is right with Mahomes. Passer rating is just an OK stat for judging quarterbacks, but Brees’ 120.8 mark is 10 points better than in any of Brees’ 17 previous years. Completion percentage isn’t everything, but his 75.7 percent mark would be the highest in the NFL’s 99 years if the season ended today. He’s never had fewer than seven picks in a full season; with three games left, Brees has four. In a terrific QB barometer, average yards per attempt, Brees’ 9.4 yards per pass is half-a-yard better than any season of his life. Brees turns 40 in four weeks, and he’s having the season of his life. It’s still a race, and if Brees goes down, he’ll go down fighting.
3. Philip Rivers, QB, L.A. Chargers. The Thursday night game helped put Rivers smack in the race, as does the fact that he’s throwing the ball for chunk plays better than any quarterback in football. In yards-per-attempt, Rivers’ 8.84 per throw is better than Mahomes and Brees.
4. This space left vacant. I don’t see any others close right now.
1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of Week 15:
a. The week should not go by without a hearty congratulations to Hannah Storm and Andrea Kremer, who just finished a series of 11 games as the first all-woman broadcast team in NFL history. Storm and Kremer teamed up for the Thursday night Amazon Prime telecasts, concluding their season with the Chargers-Chiefs gem in Kansas City.
b. You can hear their stories, and the story of their season in the booth, on my podcast this week, dropping Wednesday morning.
c. Texans are going to have to succeed in spite of the offensive line. Deshaun Watson’s been sacked 52 times. For some perspective, Drew Brees, Andrew Luck and Tom Brady have been sacked 48 times, collectively.
d. Breshad Perriman, with the best catch of what so far has been a hugely disappointing NFL career, hanging on in tight coverage in the end zone for Cleveland to open the scoring in Denver. A former Raven, being huge for the Browns … sacrilege!
e. Most unimpressive start of any team in Week 15: Denver. First eight plays from scrimmage: zero-yard rush, sack for minus-8, reception for minus-5, 40-yard punt, one-yard rush, incomplete under pressure, incomplete under pressure, 38-yard punt. First two series: minus-12 yards, and two crappy punts.
f. Who put the M-80s in Cleveland linebacker Joe Schobert’s shoes? Wow.
g. Get to know Adam Gotsis, the best defensive lineman on the Broncos. Aussie by way of Georgia Tech. The third-year pro is a force. What a perfect knife-through-the-line tackle of Nick Chubb on fourth down to give the Broncos a chance.
h. Don’t sour on Carson Wentz, Philly. He’s going to be an excellent quarterback for a long time.
i. I remember when Phil Simms, after getting hurt four times in his first five Giants seasons, got the “injury-prone” tag. Turned out to be one of the ironmen in Giants history. Only the Eagles know for sure, but the knee injury happens. The back injury? Whether it’s anything but a fluky football injury is something the doctors have to divine, and if so, it’ll affect how married the team will be to him. But unless there’s some evidence it’s chronic, I see Wentz being the quarterback there for the next 12 years and giving the Eagles a chance to win big every year.
j. Public service announcement for all media folk reporting or announcing on the new NFC North kingpins: The Bear coach’s correct pronunciation is Matt “Neggy.” I asked him, and he pronounced it exactly that way.
k. Darius Leonard bolstered his Defensive Rookie of the Year case with an 11-tackle, two-passes-defensed outing against Dallas. He needed to keep up with Derwin James after his great job Thursday night.
l. One of the best acquisitions by a GM last offseason was Jets GM Mike Maccagnan’s pickup of defensive end Henry Anderson when Indy cut him loose. Three sacks against the Texans. Not every day a foe out-sacks J.J. Watt.
m. Speaking of great pickups of guys on the street: Poona Ford, the 5-10, 315-pound rookie defensive tackle (undrafted too) is making plays for Seattle. Charging through the Niners line and erasing Matt Breida in the third quarter … impressive.
n. Seattle was way too undisciplined at San Francisco.
o. I can buy the possibility of the Ravens moving on from Joe Flacco, as Ian Rapoport reported Sunday. He’s got one playoff win since he quarterbacked the Ravens to the Super Bowl win, and is 43-42 since. Certainly not all his fault, but there’s a reason Baltimore used a first-round pick on a quarterback last April.
p. Landing sports for Flacco? Look to Florida. Miami, Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and the Giants all should have interest—particularly if the Bucs let Jameis Winston walk.
q. Ka’imi Fairbairn is good. On kicks of less than 40 yards this year, including extra points, the Texans’ Fairbairn has made 52 of 53 kicks.
r. Very unlike Tom Brady to not get a throwaway out of bounds. That mid-fourth-quarter pick really cost the Patriots.
s. “When it comes to that 50-50 ball for most receivers, it’s an 80-20 ball for DeAndre Hopkins.” That’s Nate Burleson, speaking truth on NFL Network during Texans-Jets. Hopkins displays the best combination of physicality, hands and grace among NFL wideouts.
t. Trenton (Shot Out Of A) Cannon on punt-coverage for the Jets.
u. Jahleel Addae, the Chargers safety, dropped what would have been the easiest pick of his football life Thursday night. Hit him in a terrible spot—the hands, right in front of his facemask. Would have been a keeper too—off Patrick Mahomes, at Arrowhead, in the veritable AFC West title game.
2. I think the officiating by the Walt Anderson crew Thursday was so ticky-tack (last 16 minutes: 11 flags) that it made a farce of a crucial Chargers-Chiefs game with the game on the line.
3. I think the one thing I dislike about football in December is the proliferation of mock drafts, which are done at this time of year for one reason and one reason only: clicks. Deceiving clicks. This is not just me screaming Get off my lawn either. Here’s why I hate autumnal mocks:
• We don’t know which players with college eligibility remaining will enter the draft. In the 2018 draft, eight of the top 13 picks were underclassmen; 19 underclassmen went in the first round. Those declarations are not due for another month; some players with eligibility left have already said they’re entering the draft. And there is educated speculation, of course, of who will declare. But if you don’t know the pool, how do you know who’s picking whom?
• We don’t know the draft order. When I searched for mock drafts from this fall, I saw one, a month or so old, with the Giants picking second. The Giants entered this weekend sitting in 10th position, and that could change by multiple spots, obviously, in the next two weeks.
4. I think it’s folly enough to think you can have a good idea about the first round four days before the draft; I prove that every year. Thinking that you can know much of anything before teams even begin to set their draft boards, and before they know the pool of players, is wholly misleading to readers.
5. I think Tom Telesco has really done well building this iteration of the Chargers. Look at the 26-and-younger core players Telesco has imported since becoming GM in 2013: Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Tyrell Williams, Hunter Henry, Melvin Gordon, Joey Bosa, Derwin James, Desmond King. I like the mentality of the players—obviously including Philip Rivers—at the core of this team. When you’re got virtually zero home-field edge and you win games in London, Seattle, Pittsburgh and Kansas City in a nine-week stretch, physical and mental toughness helps a lot.
6. I think if there’s one positive thing in a negative year for the Raiders—and make no mistake about it, it’s been a very negative year—it has nothing to do with the draft choices acquired. It’s more about Jon Gruden and Derek Carr getting on the same page for the long term. Michael Gehlken in the Las Vegas Review Journal had a good analysis of how they’ve made it through this trying year, and I trust Gehlken. Smart guy. Good beat guy. The best line, from Gruden: “I felt maybe I inhibited him. Free yourself, free yourself from me, free your mind, trust your instincts, and go play. Don’t overthink these plays. Don’t overthink these situations. I just didn’t want to paralyze him with too many thoughts.”
7. I think the Jets need a huge amount of help elsewhere on the roster—20 players? More?—but they do not need a quarterback. Sam Darnold has shown enough with a D-minus offensive cast to make every Jet fan think he’s the quarterback the franchise has been seeking. For years.
8. I think if I have two takeaways from Saturday, they are:
• The Browns are good. They’re competitive. They’re not fooling around on defense. They enter Christmas weekend with playoff life—slim, but life nonetheless. They need one more weapon on offense, some offensive-line reinforcement, some linebacker depth, and another cover corner. If they get those prior to opening day 2019, or at least a couple of those four or five legit players, I fully expect the Browns to be playing in January next year. Heck, they might be this year.
• Yes, Gary Gramling, my old pal of The MMQB, yes! Regarding the idea of the Chargers or Chiefs having to play a roadie in the wild-card round at a team that will have won two or three games fewer, I’ve said for years the NFL has to do something about clearly better teams being disadvantaged by playing on the road in the first round of the playoffs. Gramling on Sunday: “NFL owners seem to be madly in love with the idea of division winners getting to host a playoff game, and it is neat to emphasize rivalries. But perhaps it’s time to put in a condition that, if the wild-card team finished more than a game ahead of the division winner in the standings, the wild-card team is awarded the higher seed.” Co-sign.
9. I think I like Gregg Williams. I like his penchant to use the zero blitz at big points of games. But my sweet Lord. With 1:53 left and Cleveland up 17-16 and the Browns having a fourth-and-one at the Denver 10, Williams chose to go for it. Fine decision. You make it, and the game’s over. You don’t make it, and Denver has to drive 55 yards without a timeout to try a makeable field goal to win. While his quarterback is doing his best hard count, an Aaron Rodgers style hard count, Williams goes sprinting down the sideline to call a timeout during said hard count, and just as he is granted the timeout, the Broncos jump offside. That should have been the end of the game! The Browns got the timeout. The Browns didn’t get the neutral-zone call because Williams wanted the timeout. Man, that was crazy. It didn’t cost him, but Williams is lucky it didn’t. It’s like the head coach was working against the offense. Just weird.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Story of the Week (and it’s not close): The Washington Post’s Eli Saslow, six years after the Newtown horror, on the life of one forever altered family.
b. The excruciating detail makes this a tough read. But it’s important too, to realize how such a senseless and horrific tragedy affects people for years and years.
c. Story of the Week II: The boy on the bridge, by Jessica Contrera of the Washington Post, on teen suicide and an incredible tale of collateral damage.
d. Contrera, who does a terrific job on a complex series of events, on the family of a victim who was NOT the suicide victim, and what they were told by police: “The 12-year-old who crashed through your daughter’s windshield is alive. Because he is a minor, that is all we can say.” And they never found out much more.
e. Radio Story of the Week: From the outstanding “Only a Game” show on WBUR in Boston, a tale of Charles Barkley’s long friendship with an average guy he met in a bar in California. It’s touching.
f. Football Story of the Week: Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer, on his heart-pumping encounter with Rae Carruth, the former first-round Panther who served time for his role in the death of his pregnant girlfriend.
g. A surprised Carruth upon seeing Fowler: “I had a feeling you might pop up sometime.”
h. Podcast Interview of the Week: Terry Gross, the host of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” with Keri Blakinger, a Houston Chronicle reporter who rebuilt her life after being convicted of heroin possession and serving 21 months in prison.
i. The prison stuff is compelling enough. But I was drawn to Blakinger’s story about what happened to her dog when she was suddenly gone for 21 months. I finished this pod thinking if this woman can rebuild her life, so many others caught up in the plague of drug use can re-make their lives too.
j. RIP Bill Fralic, the longtime Falcons tackle selected second overall in 1985 draft (14 spots ahead of Jerry Rice), who died last week of cancer at 56. Fralic got a lot of attention in 1990, when he told me for a Sports Illustrated story that the NFL had to do something about the scourge of steroids on the game.
k. Fralic, an admitted former steroid user at Pitt, spilled this to me in 1990: “Steroids are football’s big secret. They’re something that people will lie to the grave about because they cast a shadow over what players have accomplished.” He told commissioner Pete Rozelle in 1986 he should do something about steroids, then worked with Paul Tagliabue after he took the commissioner job in 1989 to act further on it. And he told the Senate Judiciary Committee at that time that he thought 75 percent of NFL linemen had used or were using.
l. It made Fralic a major pariah. I remember thinking at the time how some guys in his own locker room would hate his guts for it. Specifically, I remember Fralic telling Tagliabue how important random testing was, that players should have to produce a urine sample pretty much on the spot, so there was no room for players to cheat the test.
m. Fralic also had this on his career résumé: He was thrown out of the ring during Wrestlemania II in 1986 … by the Iron Sheik.
n. The baseball winter meetings. What a dud.
o. Alexander Ovechkin, with back-to-back hat tricks at 33. Wow. He’s a marked man every night and still produces like no player in hockey.
p. I’m only six years behind the cool movies. Saw 50/50 the other night. Loved it. Had never heard of it. Which got me to thinking how many good movies there must be out there that we never hear about. Seth Rogan good. Anna Kendrick superb. The whole cast was good.
q. Excellent soundtrack. Ending with “Yellow Ledbetter” by Pearl Jam was perfect.
r. “Yellow Ledbetter.” One of the great FMIA-writing songs at 1:47 a.m. ET
s. Coffeenerdness: The egg nog latte at Starbucks is an annual adventure in madness. Never tastes the same. Rarely tastes very good. But I’ve got a hankering for egg nog at this time of year, I always fall into the egg nog latte trap. I’ve had two so far, and the review is easy: Crap egg nog makes a bad egg nog latte.
t. Beernerdness: How about a quick Winenerdness? The J. Lohr Paso Robles Cabernet (Napa Valley), at $18 a bottle even in New York wine shops, is the best bargain in good red wine.
u. This is why I wouldn’t make a very good baseball GM: Considering the money I’d have to spend, and the years I’d have to be committed to Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, I’d rather sign Jed Lowrie for three years than Bryce Harper or Manny Machado for a significantly longer term—which Harper and Machado seem sure to get. All played more than 150 games last year, all had OPS’s between .801 and .889, all had between 99 and 107 RBI. On-base: Harper .393, Lowrie .353, Machado .338. Lowrie had only 23 homers, versus 37 for Machado and 34 for Harper.
v. Just saying I’m not breaking the bank for Harper or Machado.
w. Nice football season, Maine Black Bears. And your players got to see the world if nothing else in the NCAA playoffs. Dec. 1: 55-27 win over Jacksonville State in Orono, Maine … Dec. 8, 23-18 win over Weber State in Ogden, Utah … Dec. 15 (Saturday), 50-19 loss the Eastern Washington on the bright red turf in Cheney, Wash.
x. TV Story of the Week: from Mark Strassmann of CBS News, on the trouble some elderly are having trying to retire. Tough story.
New Orleans 30, Carolina 25. Pretty odd, the first time two divisional foes meeting in a season coming on Dec. 17 (and the second just 13 days later). I’m tired of calling Panthers games must-win affairs. It’s truly amazing, having lost five in a row beginning in November, that a team can still be in the playoff race, but thanks to the Vikings’ badness, Carolina can still make it by getting hot in the next 14 days. Margins of victory in this series since 2015: 5, 3, 3, 3, 21, 10, 5. One other even-steven note … The Panthers and Saints have played each other 46 times since Carolina started play in 1995. Composite score in those 46 games: Carolina 1,014, New Orleans 1,013. It would be justice if the two teams could play by Canadian rules for the first few minutes, with the Saints scoring a rouge* right out of the box.
*Rouge: Also known as a “single” in Canadian football, the rouge happens when a ball is kicked into the opposing end zone and the receiving team doesn’t run or kick the ball back out of the end zone. The rouge counts as one point for the kicking team.
Friday … Costa Mesa, Calif. Happy 50th birthday, Anthony Lynn.
Saturday … Nashville. Who’d have thought Washington (7-7, one game behind Dallas in the NFC East) and Tennessee (8-6, a tiebreaker behind AFC sixth seed Baltimore) would both have strong playoff chances entering Week 16? One, maybe, but both? Dallas has a big edge, with the one-game lead and games remaining with Tampa and the Giants. But maybe there’s a Josh Johnson miracle coming.
Saturday … Carson, Calif. The 8-6 but dangerous Ravens have lost once since Election Day, that moral-victory loss in Kansas City eight days ago. With the AFC North and West titles still open, the 8 p.m. ET match at the Chargers on NFL Network is huge for both teams.
So loud … even in
my home office. Now THAT was
a real Steeler crowd.