KANSAS CITY — Think of a crazier, more dramatic game day in your years watching the NFL. I can’t, and I’ve covered the league since 1984. Two championship games decided in sudden death, after only five conference title games had gone to overtime since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. The first time in those 48 years that both one seeds lost on Championship Sunday. One huge officiating gaffe, admitted by the league, that quite possibly kept the Saints from making the Super Bowl. And the Patriots, so admired, so reviled, so incredibly good for so long, making their ninth Super Bowl in 18 years … and surviving this phenom Patrick Mahomes and his 24-point fourth quarter.
A zebra-made heartbreak for the Saints. A Brady-made heartbreak for the Chiefs.
I sat with Tom Brady at his locker for seven minutes after the Patriots’ 37-31 AFC Championship Game victory, and I can tell you he was dazed. Slightly dazed. Three really crazy things happened in this game that he was trying to process, still, about 50 minutes after his ninth championship game victory.
“We’ll remember this one forever,” Brady said, equal parts incredulous and grateful as he sat on a wooden stool stamped with the Chiefs logo. “It’s one of the great wins in franchise history.”
• The pass play to Gronkowski, which gave the Patriots a first down at the Chiefs’ 15, was not in the game plan. New England has run the Gronk slant before, but hadn’t planned to run it here, and the only play they called that wasn’t planned turned out quite possibly to be the biggest play of their day. As the 40-second play clock wound down, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called the play they hadn’t practiced during the week because the coaches saw a coverage deficiency by Kansas City safety Eric Berry on Gronkowski.
• “We just put in eight new plays in the game plan this morning,” Brady told me. At the team hotel, the Westin Crown Center in Kansas City, the offensive players were greeted at the 11 a.m. meeting with the news that eight new plays were being installed for the game. That happens, but not every week, and not eight plays’ worth. They walked through the plays in a hotel ballroom, then ran four or five of them during the game—all for positive yards.
“Aren’t you a little shocked?” I asked. “All of it—converting three third-and-10s in overtime, making another Super Bowl in a league that pushes everyone to the middle, surviving Mahomes …”
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s hard for me to imagine. Nine Super Bowls. I know. It’s ridiculous.”
Surviving Mahomes. In October, Mahomes trailed Brady by 15 at halftime and tied the game at 40 before losing on the last play of the game. On Sunday, Mahomes trailed Brady by 14 in the second quarter before losing on the last play of the game. Brady told team officials after the game, “I want to see Patrick.” Brady was taken through the bowels of Arrowhead Stadium and into the back door of the Chiefs’ locker room, where he became the consoler-in-chief to a kid 18 years his junior … a kid Brady doesn’t know well but knows he’d like a lot.
Consider the greatness of Mahomes, who has made Brady and Belichick sweat profusely twice in four months (well, maybe not sweat on this 5-degree wind-chill evening, but at least be very nervous): He led scoring drives of 75, 23, 68 and 48 yards (in 28 seconds) culminating in 24 fourth-quarter points. Then he watched as Patriots captain Matthew Slater called “Heads! We want the ball!” And ref Clete Blakeman flipped a heads, and Brady led New England on an improbable 75-yard scoring drive, and Mahomes, on the heated bench with a thermal cape, never saw the field again.
With apologies to Teri Hatcher in the famous “Seinfeld” episode, Mahomes is real, and he’s spectacular. He lost this game, and he missed his share of throws in a 16-of-31 performance, but he won a city. After 19 starts for the Chiefs over the past 13 months, Mahomes can do no wrong in Kansas City. This fandom knows it has its franchise player for the next decade-and-a-half, even if Chiefs Kingdom went to bed weepy Sunday night.
“I just went and saw him,” Brady said. “I mean, he’s feeling like you think he’d feel when you lose a game like this. It hurts. He’s a hell of a … I mean, what a great young player. So impressed with his poise, his leadership. He is spectacular.”
Back to the final drive. What was so interesting about it is that the Patriots had their share of failure on the 13-play, 75-yard drive that will go down in Brady history as one of his greatest. Brady threw five incompletions out of nine passes. But his completions won the game. Third-and-10 from the Pats’ 35, crowd in full throat: a perfect strike on a crosser to Julian Edelman, who gets crunched. Gain of 20. Incomplete, incomplete. Now, Edelman in tight coverage, but Brady confident in fitting the ball into a very tight window to a guy who he throws with at his Montana hideaway every summer, just the two of them … gain of 15. Now New England’s in Stephen Gostkowski field-goal range, at the K.C. 30.
On the bench, one young Pats’ defender asked vet Jason McCourty, “If we score, is it over?” McCourty, correctly, said they had to score a touchdown for the game to end.
Two more incompletions. Third-and-10 again, and the crowd, for one last weary time, mustered up a big cheer.
But here’s the funny thing about this play. Two players in the locker room said they were surprised to hear Brady’s play-call of the slant to Gronk—because it wasn’t on the playsheet, hadn’t been practiced all week, and, as one said, “I don’t know when’s the last time we ran it.”
Remember late in the fourth quarter, on the Patriots’ last scoring drive of regulation time? Brady threw a fade to Gronkowski down to the Chiefs’ 4-yard line, and Berry, the K.C. safety, played Gronk’s outside shoulder, giving the Patriots a clue to what to do in OT. That’s my guess, anyway. That had to have been the reason why McDaniels called the most stunning play of the game, a play they didn’t have on the playsheet entering the game.
At the snap of the ball, with the New England tight end lined up to left of the formation, Brady saw Berry playing Gronkowski’s outside shoulder to the left, and Gronkowski ran a slant inside, shielding Berry from the ball, catching it, and gaining 15. Really, it was a pretty easy completion. And a vital one. First down, New England, at the Chiefs’ 15.
“Gronk almost broke out of it—great route by him,” Brady told me. “Almost a touchdown. Great call by Josh. You know, Josh, what he’s formulated for us is huge. He puts in endless hours just to find little scheme things for us. Like those plays we put in this morning. You know, the continuity here has been so important. Dante Scarnecchia, on the offensive line; Ivan Fears, with the running backs; Josh, making it all work. And then coach Belichick finds guys he likes—Gronk, Julian—and he says, ‘All right, you’re going to be here a while.’ “
Belichick is in his 19th year coaching the Patriots. McDaniels has been on the staff for 15 of those 19; Scarnecchia, 17 of the 19; Fears, 19 of the 19. Now you don’t have to wonder, with the quarterback and head coach in New England since 2000, why New England can change things up so efficiently on the fly.
Rex Burkhead ran it three times for 15 yards to end it. Pats, 37-31.
One more thing I wanted to do with Brady. I had a chart … well, I’ll show you what I showed him in the jammed Patriots’ locker room, about his staying power in this game. Comparing Brady in the 14 postseason games he played in his twenties versus Brady in the five postseason games he’s played in his forties:
Brady smiled. “When you first started your job, compared to you now, are you better?” he said. “You have a lot more experience. That’s what this is. Experience. So I don’t think it is all that surprising. We have been fighting uphill all year. This game is hard to win. The next game is harder to win. This game, you just celebrate it for what it is. Then we go to work on the Rams.
“I never imagined any of this, believe me. This is beyond. I mean, who could ever imagine this? Nine Super Bowls? I just take it for what it is and enjoy it. I love my teammates. I love my coaches. I love my family. It takes a lot of people to support you for all of us. I’m just happy for all of us.”
And, apparently, it’s never going to end.
Observations on Rams 26, Saints 23:
The play. Rams 20, Saints 20 … 1:49 left in the fourth quarter … third-and-10 at the Rams’ 13-yard line … Drew Brees throws to the right sideline, near the goal line, and as the ball comes near Saints wideout Tommylee Lewis, Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman interferes with Lewis, slamming into him near the 6-yard-line. No flag. Saints go crazy. Clearly the Saints should have had first-and-goal with a pass-interference call there. The strategy then would have been to kneel three times if you’re the Saints—to avoid the chance of a fumble and to avoid the Rams allowing a touchdown there so they’d have time to score in the last 90 seconds. So the Saints likely would have had a chip-shot field goal to make with about 25 seconds left, and the Rams would have had to drive about 40 yards in 20 seconds with no timeouts to try a tying field goal. In other words, it’s not certain but it is more likely than not that if the flag gets thrown on Robey-Coleman, the Saints are going to the Super Bowl. And with the NFL admitting to Sean Payton that it was a blown call, it’s clearly one of the costliest blown calls in NFL history, and the kind of call that could spur major changes in officiating and replay.
This is a huge moment for officiating. Will side judge Gary Cavaletto or down judge Patrick Turner, or both, be fired, for missing the most obvious pass interference penalty in playoff history? If the call gets made, it’s conceivable and perhaps likely that the Saints would have made the Super Bowl.
The upshot. As soon as this call got made, I heard from a couple of acquaintances/sources about the impact of it. “Al Riveron [EVP of Officiating] is gone,” one said. “He can’t survive this.” Another said the league will have to pay big to bring back Dean Blandino or Mike Pereira (less likely). I think Riveron was on thin ice before Sunday. What the NFL should do, if it decides to dump Riveron, is pay realistic money to get Blandino back from his cushy gig at FOX. He’s a trusted and trustworthy guy.
Expand replay. Don’t expand the number of challenges a coach can have during a game. Just allow him to challenge a terrible call that he curently cannot challenge.
Let’s not forget Greg the Leg. His 48-yard field goal at the end of regulation tied the game at 23. When the Rams got the ball in overtime, Greg Zuerlein, as is his custom, began to kick the ball into the net on the sideline. When the shaky Drew Brees got picked off on the first drive of overtime, the Rams had a shot. It resulted in a 57-yard field goal try in OT. How amazing it was that the kick went halfway up the net and would have been good from 68 or 70 yards. “I don’t think about that,” Zeurlein said from New Orleans. “An inch or a mile … if it’s good, it’s good. I don’t think about how much it might have been good from. I just knew I hit that one great.”
One by one in the early days of the new year, coaching candidates were grilled by the Browns’ braintrust (owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam, GM John Dorsey, strategist Paul DePodesta, EVP J.W. Johnson, personnel people Eliot Wolf, Alonzo Highsmith, Andrew Berry), the interviews lasting six to eight hours apiece. Interim coach Gregg Williams first, then ex-Colts and -Lions coach Jim Caldwell, Minnesota offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, Saints assistant head coach Dan Campbell, Pats linebackers coach Brian Flores, Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus … and last, interim offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens.
The Browns were looking for a leader of men, a respected man who knew their team, and not the best available offensive mind, which was the flavor of the month. They were looking for the best coach, in terms of presence, building a team, and scheming a modern offense and defense. That is why I respect what Cleveland did in hiring Freddie Kitchens, who, despite his success as offensive coordinator in the second half of the season with Baker Mayfield, had to be better than six other men who spent at least six hours apiece with the interviewers over the course of eight days. This is a coach no one currently in the organization knew—and I am not exaggerating—when he was hired to coach the Browns’ running backs last winter. I don’t know if Kitchens will succeed or fail. But I do know this: The Browns worked to identify strong candidates, ignored the most obvious one (Mike McCarthy, despite his closeness with Dorsey) on the market, and did not know at the start of the process three weeks ago who they would hire.
If you think the fix was in for Kitchens, consider that the buzz around the team, before the Kitchens interview, was that Stefanski of the Vikings was the favorite. They loved Stefanski’s interview and thought he’d be a good match for Mayfield. Then Kitchens had a blunt and boffo interview, and Stefanski and Kitchens were the two leaders in the clubhouse, and they came back for second interviews, and Kitchens won it.
Shouldn’t that be the way teams hire coaches? Denver GM John Elway told me last week, effectively, that the fix was in on Vance Joseph. Elway had “pre-drawn” (his wording) the case for Joseph entering the 2017 coach search after Gary Kubiak, and Elway said he’d never do that again. In this case, if the Browns had a list of 100 names on their head-coach list at the start of the 2018 season, Kitchens would not have been on it. Ditto GM Chris Ballard in Indianapolis last year; he didn’t have Frank Reich anywhere near his list at the end of the 2017 season, and Reich ended up with the job, and he led the Colts from 1-5 to a playoff victory in 2018.
I asked Kitchens last week for the short version of what he said to the Browns’ committee when he met with them Jan. 7.
“The Cliff’s Notes version … okay,” Kitchens said Friday from Cleveland, the southern twang still prominent in his voice 21 years after he left the University of Alabama, where he played quarterback. “I am going to get to know the players. I am going to ask the players their opinions, and I am going to listen to their input. I am going to convince them that we’re all in this together, and I can’t do it without them. They are going to trust me and respect me. Once they know you trust them and respect them, you can have tough conversations. It’s nothing personal. It’s just real. It doesn’t mean you’re a players’ coach. If I’m a players’ coach, I never would have been able to work for coach [Bill] Parcells [in Dallas in 2006]. I’ll make every decision based on the team and on the player. This is truly, probably, the ultimate people business. Coaches like to make it about themselves, but coaches aren’t playing the game. It’s a players’ game. A coach might survive two or three years without the buy-in of the players, but without that, it’s over and they’ll have to move on to the next team.”
Pause. “That’s about it,” Kitchens said. “When I had the chance to run the offense this year [after Hue Jackson was fired in midseason], I felt the players respected me and trusted me. I haven’t invented the wheel. Trust me. It’s football, and a lot of people are great at teaching and coaching football. But this team, this offense, I felt we had respect for each other and I felt like we were getting results.”
Kitchens was amazed at the people the Browns called to fact-find about him. Adrian Peterson and David Johnson (coached by Kitchens in Arizona in 2017), Patrick Peterson and Larry Fitzgerald (who witnessed him for several years), Carson Palmer (coached by Kitchens from 2013-16), Kurt Warner, Bill Parcells (Kitchens was on his last Dallas staff in 2006) … and A.Q. Shipley.
“I see this number come up that I don’t recognize, and I almost didn’t answer,” said Shipley, a center for the Cardinals since 2015. “Then I pick up, and this guy says, This is so-and-so from the Cleveland Browns, and I was hoping I could ask you a couple of things about Freddie Kitchens. I thought, ‘Wow. They must be serious about Freddie, calling me.’ But I love Freddie. And I told them that. When I got to Arizona, Freddie was the QB coach at the time, and for the first time I’d seen this in football, the quarterback coach, the offensive coordinator, the quarterback—Carson Palmer—and the center—me—would meet during the week. Communication between the center and the quarterback is so important for protections and other stuff, and Freddie understood it would be a good idea to communicate multiple times every week, between Wednesday morning and Saturday night. It was a great idea. They also asked me how I thought Freddie would be up in front of the full team. I told ‘em he’ll be great with players. I think they must have already known that, from how Freddie did with Baker Mayfield late in the year.”
“What are you calling me for?” Parcells told the Browns. “You been around this guy for the last nine months. You know him.”
When Kitchens heard Cleveland would interview six coaches before him, and that he’d be last, he loved both of those things. When he heard all the people they’d called about him, he loved that too.
“I really was wanting them to have a thorough search,” Kitchens said. “One reason and one reason only: I wanted the organization, and I mean everyone in the room, to think, ‘He’s our guy.’ I didn’t want them to have any doubt. I didn’t want them thinking they wished they’d interviewed other guys. So if I got the job, I got the job because I was the best man. I got it for the right reasons. That’s what impressed me about this process. I didn’t know John Dorsey when I got here a year ago. He didn’t hire one of his friends. He didn’t hire someone to win the press conferences. He hired who he thought was the best coach for his team. He saw something in me I was always hoping someone would see—13 years coaching in the NFL, seven years coaching in college, just doing my job, trying to make players better. Nothing else. If nobody ever saw that, I’d have been fine, because I always liked my job.”
Curious: Mayfield was a top 10 NFL quarterback the second half of the season under Kitchens. What did Mayfield think of him getting the job?
Coachspeak. In-house. Time to be the head coach.
“You’ll have to ask him,” Kitchens said. “But I am pretty sure he’s not disappointed.”
The stark reality of the Adam Gase coaching job with his quarterbacks is that, in three years, the Dolphins went from Ryan Tannehill to Matt Moore to Jay Cutler to Moore to Cutler to Moore to Cutler to David Fales to Tannehill to Brock Osweiler to Tannehill. Correct: Gase, due to injury and performance, changed his starting quarterback 10 times in 49 games as Miami coach.
If that happens again in New Jersey, and Sam Darnold misses as much time as Tannehill did (24 of 49 starts), Gase will be lucky to last three years. Gase needs to get very good results with Darnold, to be sure, to show the Miami years were overwhelmingly affected by injury and not the result of bad coaching. Miami finished 30th, 18th and 26th in passing yards in Gase’s three Miami seasons, and 26th, 28th and 17th in scoring. Gase got to be known as a quarterback-whisperer over the years, and the fact that he and Peyton Manning bonded so well and produced great numbers in Gase’s three years coaching Manning in Denver gave the Jets the belief he’d be a great teacher for the formative Darnold.
“When all the stuff is happening with your quarterbacks, and you’re in the moment, you think of just one word: adjust,” Gase said the other day from New Jersey. “The first year, Ryan gets hurt and Matt rallies us and we make the playoffs. The second year, we’re having a great offseason period with Ryan, and we tailor our offense to one quarterback, and he tears his ACL in August, and then we adjust to Jay. This year, again, we’re shifting quarterbacks [due to injury]. When you don’t have consistency at quarterback, it puts everything out of whack.
“The great thing about getting to coach Sam is I’ve never gotten a chance to experience coaching a guy this young. [Darnold is 21.] Watching the tape, you could see him getting better game by game. He hasn’t come close to his peak, and I’ve been told he’s a great guy to work with, so I’m excited. April [the start of the Jets’ offseason program] can’t come fast enough.”
The Jets, per the respected Jason Fitzgerald’s Over The Cap, have the second-most cap room in the league in 2019, $93.8 million. That could lead them to test the market in trade for the high-priced Antonio Brown, or in free agency for a back like Le’Veon Bell, who just took the year off from football. It’s too early, just days into his tenure, to tell if Gase will favor the big-money solution to the Jets’ offense shortcomings and urge GM Mike Maccagnan to spend, spend, spend. “Having the amount of cap space we have allows you the flexibility to build the way you want to build,” Tase said. “It’s hard to predict right now which way it goes for us.”
Gase won’t be afraid of managing the big personalities like Bell or Brown. With the interchangeability of backs these days, I’d probably rather spend big on Antonio Brown if the Steelers’ price isn’t prohibitive. Which it may be.
New Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, the former pro quarterback, enters his third year as an NFL assistant coach and first as a full-time play-caller, and he’ll be tasked with polishing Jameis Winston’s inconsistent game under head coach Bruce Arians. (Leftwich called plays in Arizona last year for the final nine games of the season, after offensive coordinator Mike McCoy was fired.) He’ll have another task too, and one he didn’t ask for: Following a hiring cycle in which five of the league’s seven African-American head coach were fired and only one (Miami is due to hire Patriots linebacker coach Brian Flores after the season) was hired, the focus will be on the pipeline that produces NFL coach candidates. With owners and GMs strongly favoring the offensive side of the ball for head coaches now, Leftwich and Kansas City’s Eric Bienemy are the only two minority coordinators in the league. So the spotlight will be on Leftwich as a beacon for future African-American quarterback coaches and offensive coordinators who have head-coaching aspirations.
“The pressure, if that’s what you’d call it, is fine. Perfectly fine. I am okay with that. I’m fortunate to get this opportunity in the business, and wherever that leads us, that’s where it leads. I am going to do one thing and one thing only: try to make these players better so we can win football games. You’d be a fool to think of anything else. This is too hard a job to approach it any other way.
“But I do understand my responsibility as one of two [minority offensive coordinators]. Honestly, I’m glad it’s me. I can take it; I can handle the pressure. As a quarterback, I was fine with the pressure. Same thing here. I love the challenge of working with Jameis. I think he’s a really good player. Pressure … If people see it that way, fine. I just see this as a chance to work with a good young quarterback and this offense, and I am ready for the challenge.
“What I’ve learned in coaching so far—and you know this as a player, but you really see it as a coach—is that every play has a thought process. My first year  on Bruce’s staff, he was great at explaining the thought process behind every play on the playsheet. Why are we calling this play, and why are we calling it at this time? BA would tell you, and you’d see his reason. Coaches are teachers. Coaching is teaching. And how Bruce gets his point across is simple and clean and easy to understand. A lot of people see the yelling and fussing when they see Bruce. Not me. I see 8 o’clock at night, creating plays, explaining to his coaches why. It’ll be great call the plays now, and have Bruce to lean on for advice.”
Give me another coach who has been influential to you, and tell me what you’ve learned from him.
“Mike Tomlin. [Leftwich had two late-career stints backing up Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh.] That’s easy for me. He is a unique guy, a great leader of men. My time in Pittsburgh was great and so valuable. I learned so much from coach Tomlin about how to handle the entire team. But mostly, what makes him so good is that he is a leader of men. That’s something that’s hard to explain, but you know it when you see it.”
Offensive Players of the Week
Trent Brown, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon, offensive line, New England. Former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz, brother of Chiefs tackle Mitchell Schwartz, watched the game from the stands at Arrowhead and said afterward, “I’ll tell you the real MVPs of this game—the New England offensive linemen. They were masterful.” The Patriots ran 94 offensive plays, including 46 passes by Tom Brady—and New England had one negative play, a Brady kneeldown, and allowed zero sacks and one significant quarterback hit. Amazing performance for the second straight week by a unit that should get more credit for being one of the best offensive fronts in football.
Jared Goff, quarterback, L.A. Rams. As I wrote in Week 3 (and I questioned this in Goff’s shaky December), it was “time to start recognizing that Goff is playing really good football under Sean McVay, not just caretaking football.” Goff entered the day a clear number two quarterback in the game to Drew Brees, but then outplayed Brees. Goff justified being the first overall pick in the 2016 draft by leading his team to the Super Bowl in his third pro season. He finished 25 for 40 for 297 yards, throwing one touchdown and one interception. That included lovely completions of 36, 33 and 39 yards.
Defensive Players of the Week
An odd confluence of defensive stars. Sorensen and Van Noy were Brigham Young teammates in 2013.
Daniel Sorensen, safety, Kansas City. Two huge plays for a glue guy in the K.C. secondary that were huge. He knifed through the New England line on a Patriot fourth-and-one run by Rex Burkhead, stoning Burkhead for no gain and turning the ball over to the Chiefs. Then Sorensen picked off Tom Brady midway through the fourth quarter, leading to a K.C. TD. And he had 14 tackles. Must be nice, playing the best game of your life in the biggest game of your life.
Kyle Van Noy, linebacker, New England. The Patriots have made some killer trades in the Belichick Era, but this morning, not many look better than the ripoff job they did with Detroit before the 2016 trade deadline. They traded a sixth-round pick to Detroit for Van Noy and a seventh-round pick. In other words, they dropped down 24 slots on day three in the 2017 draft for the guy who wrecked the Chiefs in the first half of the AFC title game Sunday. Van Noy sacked Patrick Mahomes for losses of 14 and 10 yards before intermission, forcing a fumble on the second, while leading the Pats on the day with 10 tackles.
Special Teams Players of the Week
Greg Zuerlein, kicker, L.A. Rams. A 24-yard field goal to tie the NFC title game at 20 with 5:03 left to play. A 48-yard field goal to tie the NFC title game at 23 with 15 seconds left to play. A 57-yard field goal to win the NFC title game, 26-23, three minutes into overtime. A performance for the ages for Greg the Leg.
Johnny Hekker, punter, L.A. Rams. How similar are the Saints and Rams? They both just love to run risky fake punts in their own territory. New Orleans did it last week down 14-0, with Taysom Hill bulling ahead for a first-down run. In the title game, the Rams were down 13-0 a minute into the second quarter and had a fourth-and-five at their 30-yard line. Anytime Hekker steps on the field, the defense should be wary of the fake; he’d thrown from punt formation nine times in the previous three years. Here, he did it again, firing it to right gunner Sam Shields for a gain of 12 and the first down. The Rams went on to score to cut the lead to 13-3. That’s the second Hekker-to-Shields fake-punt conversion this season, and both completions went for 12 yards.
Coach of the Week
Bill Belichick, head coach, New England. For a few things: leading New England to its ninth Super Bowl appearance, most than any coach in NFL history, in the last 18 years … for a great defensive game plan against the Chiefs for 40 minutes (the Chiefs had seven points in their first six drives) … and for finding and molding players to the Belichick Way yet again. In Week 6, when the Patriots beat K.C. 43-40 on a last-second field goal in Foxboro, the game was a Brady victory; he was masterful that night. In the championship game, the game felt like as much a coaching victory as one by the players. Belichick and Brian Flores choreographed a smart and different plan against Mahomes, which frustrated him early. You watch the Patriots play, and you just know they’ll come up with something against these newfangled offensive wrinkles run by the Chiefs and their phenom quarterback. With two weeks to prep for the Rams, expect Belichick to figure out how to stop that offense too.
Goat of the Week
The Bill Vinovich crew. Specifically side judge Gary Cavaletto and down judge Patrick Turner, who didn’t call the most obvious pass-interference foul late in the fourth quarter of the Saints’ loss to the Rams. As you saw and as I documented, there’s a very good chance the outcome of the game would have changed if that call was made. “It’s a game-changing call, and they blew the call,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. It’ll be interesting to see what fate faces Cavaletto, who officiating authorities feel was in the best position to make the call, and whether VP of Officiating Al Riveron will face similar heat for the non-call. That just cannot happen, but it did.
“What a f—— game! What a f—— game!”
—New England coach Bill Belichick, to Tom Brady, per Tom Curran of NBCSports Boston, when Brady and Belichick found each other on the field after the Pats’ 37-31 overtime victory over Kansas City.
“Yes, I got there too early. I was beat, and I was trying to save the touchdown.”
—Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman, on the worst non-call of 2018, the call that likely prevented the Saints from going to the Super Bowl, to Robert Klemko of The MMQB.
“You know, at the end of the day, you know, you can call me unpatriotic but you come to my neighborhood and you’ll see me take the shirt off my back and give it to someone in need. I mean, what would you call that?”
—Marshawn Lynch, on “Real Time with Bill Maher” on HBO Friday night, asked by Maher his reaction to Donald Trump calling some NFL players including Lynch—who has been one of the anthem protesters in the NFL—unpatriotic for not standing at attention during the playing of the national anthem.
“He has never asked me that question, but if he did, I would be like, ‘Shut the hell up. You have many years to go still.’ “
—David Ortiz, on what he would say to Tom Brady if the latter asked for retirement advice, to WEEI’s Lou Merloni and Greg Dickerson on Saturday.
“I’m a dinosaur, one of the last guys on the bridge that goes from Jack Buck and Vin Scully and Ernie Harwell. The young breed is incredibly different … There’s a greater emphasis today on being a fan of the team you work for. That’s another reason it’s a good time for me to get out. There is a line you do not cross. What’s the definition of that line? I don’t know. I just know intuitively where I can go and where I can’t.”
—Marty Brennaman, the Cincinnati Reds radio play-by-play broadcaster for the past 46 years, to Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer. Brennaman announced last week that he would retire at the end of the 2019 season.
“I have fought long and hard for all my life, from walking back hallways, from marching with our social leaders, from using my voice for good. I have been at the forefront of this battle longer than most of those voicing their opinions to win the right to sing our country’s national anthem on a stage as large as the Super Bowl.”
—Gladys Knight, in a statement firing back at those critical of her for agreeing to sing the anthem at the Super Bowl because they believe it flies in the face of those NFL players and ex-players who protested racial injustice during the playing of the anthem before NFL games in the last two seasons.
Early thoughts on the Super Bowl matchup from George Chahrouri and Eric Eager of Pro Football Focus:
Some help for Belichick. Of course the Patriots coach needs us to tell him how to formulate a gameplan. The Rams are very imaginative but also offensively predictable to some degree. In 2018, the Rams were in “11” personnel—one back, one tight end, three wides—91 percent of the snaps, more than any team in the league … they used play-action on 35 percent of Jared Goff’s pass drops, more than any team in the league … and they used Jet motion on 17 percent of the snaps, most in the league.
Pressuring Goff is huge. With a clean pocket, Goff was second in the league in PFF grade; under pressure, he was 23rd.
Cover Zero. New England ran cover zero (no safeties deep for coverage insurance) 67 times in the regular season, 31 times more than any team in football, and allowed 42-percent completions with that defense. Might be a good idea to show that Goff, who faced cover zero on 14 snaps all season.
Man coverage. New England (51 percent) was the only team to play man coverage more than half the defensive snaps. The Rams will try to beat that with speedy Brandin Cooks, the New England alum.
Slowing Donald. New England tried to slow the Philadelphia front in the Super Bowl last year by running play-action on 46 percent of Tom Brady’s pass-drops, the most in any NFL game in 2017. Could they do that again to mitigate against Aaron Donald’s relentless rush?
Speedy Brady. Brady released his passes in an average of 2.23 seconds Sunday, which is very fast. He was pressured on only six of 46 pass plays. Brady has not been sacked in 90 pass drops this postseason, and he is the only quarterback since PFF began keeping these numbers in 2006 to not have been sacked in the playoffs with at least 75 pass drops. That plus great line play has made the New England backfield impregnable. Your move, Wade Phillips.
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In 1996 and 1997, Alabama quarterback Freddie Kitchens dueled Tennessee’s Peyton Manning twice. Yes, Kitchens was Alabama’s starting quarterback in 1996 and 1997.
1996: In Knoxville, before a then-college-record crowd of 106,700, Alabama built a 13-0 lead in the third quarter, but Manning and the Vols came back for a 20-13 victory.
1997: In Birmingham, with rookie offensive coordinator Bruce Arians calling the plays, Alabama was blown out by Manning, 38-21.
Speaking of Arians: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ new coaching staff features 21 assistant coaches, four of whom are very familiar to new head coach Arians. Four of the assistants were captains at Temple between 1983 and 1988, when Arians served as head coach:
Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles (Temple captain, 1985)
Special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong (Temple captain, 1986)
Cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross (Temple captain, 1983)
Running backs coach Todd McNair (Temple captain, 1988)
“I’ve known ‘em forever,” Arians told me last week. “They’re all excellent teachers.”
This will get lost in the mania over the officiating at the end the NFC Championship Game, and maybe it should. But consider these things about the top seed in the NFC down the stretch of the 2018 season:
• Over their last seven games—five regular season, two postseason—the Saints, with a supposedly great offense, averaged a measly 19.7 points per game and went 4-3 (pockmarked by the huge no-call, of course).
• Last seven games: Saints 138, Foes 137.
• Drew Brees played six of the seven games. In those six, he had no games with three or more touchdown passes. In his first 11 games this year, he had seven games with three or more TD passes.
Last Monday, before leaving New Orleans after the Saints playoff game, I witnessed a scene that makes New Orleans such a warm city. I am not saying this would not happen in other cities in America, but I do see kindnesses like this in New Orleans quite often when I am there.
Revelator Coffee on Tchoupitoulas Street (one of the great American street names—pronounced “CHOP-a-TOO-lis), in the Warehouse District of the city, is a small and welcoming place. I sat in there drinking an espresso with milk at 11 last Monday when a man, maybe 30, slightly unkempt, walked in and asked the barista at the counter: “Pardon me—could I use your rest room?”
“Sure,” the barista said, pointing to the back of the narrow shop. “Back there and to the left.”
“Thanks,” the man said, and walked back. Three or four minutes later, the guy walked back to the front of the shop and said, “Hey, thanks. Appreciate it.”
“No problem,” the barista said. “Have a good day!”
The man bought nothing. Not a huge moral to the story, except maybe that part of doing business today should be (when possible, and I realize it is not always possible) to do the right thing and allow people in your neighborhood to use the rest room. This was just a nice, humane thing in a nice, humane city that is not perfect … and no city is.
I thought it best to let readers vent after the non-call in New Orleans that gave the Rams a valuable assist in their NFC title victory. Some of the reaction from more than 200 emails Sunday night:
Doing it for the fans. From Jack F.: “Tell me the league didn’t want Rams in the Super Bowl 53 for television ratings and fan base rebuilding purposes. How does the league explain the no pass interference call against the Rams near the end of the championship game that hurt New Orleans’s chances to score a touchdown? It can’t.”
No favoritism, just incompetence. From Mark Z.: “As a Saints fan that attended today’s game, we are still in the ‘did-that-really-happen?’ mood. It is hard to believe that anyone with an unbiased view would not call PI, and now the league office admitted to Coach Payton that it was helmet to helmet, too. I do not think the refs favored the Rams, just pure incompetence. How can this multi-billion-dollar business preach fairness yet there is no recourse or accountability for this? Just ‘We blew it.’”
One possible fix. From Kevin Z.: “Give teams three challenges per game, and every play is reviewable. If it adds 10 minutes per game, so be it. (Although coaches could be more frugal in using challenges to hold onto them for more important plays late in the game). It’s a small price to pay to ensure career-altering calls are correct.”
Might only get worse. From Billy Q.: “Gambling, in its many easily accessible forms to come, will only exacerbate the emotions around these game altering blown calls.”
Think of the big picture. From Dean W.: “A single call does not lose games. Great game plan by the Rams to slow the game down and put pressure on Brees when it mattered.”
1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of Championship Sunday:
a. Today is the 25th anniversary of Robert Kraft buying the Patriots. Imagine if you told Kraft on that January day in 1995 that his team, lovable losers for most of their existence, would make the Super Bowl 10 times in his first 25 years as owner. He’d have fainted. Happily. Kudos to the Kraft family on a great era.
b. It will always be remembered for the most significant officiating call in a playoff game since the Tuck Rule.
c. The end of both games reminded me of a playoff baseball game with your heart racing on every pitch in the ninth inning.
d. Great comment from former Packers linebacker Brady Poppinga last night on Patrick Mahomes: “Mahomes does stuff that I have never seen Favre or Rodgers do. I have seen 100,000 plays of those guys live playing against them in practice and watching them on games from the sidelines. That baseball background has helped him.”
e. Man, that roughing-the-passer call to extend the crucial Patriots’ drive with seven minutes left on Chris Jones of the Chiefs. Brutal. Total phantom call.
f. What a catch by Chris Hogan on the same drive, the diving one-hander. Now that was a real catch.
g. One of the reasons the league won’t be crying over the officiating fiascos: The ratings for these two games should be ridiculously high.
j. Tough to give backup Saints tight end Dan Arnold a drop on that end-zone miss—he had to reach high to bring it down as he was falling. But the Fargo kid will re-live the one that got away this offseason.
k. Caught part of the Westwood One radiocast of Rams-Saints. Interesting sideline report from Ed Werder after a first-quarter series by the Rams. Werder said the sideline was “frantic” in trying to fix communication issues with QB Jared Goff’s helmet. Said he tried on three different helmets trying to get one that would allow him the plays called into his helmet by Sean McVay. Nice reporting.
l. Then Kurt Warner, in the booth, late in the first quarter: “Really surprised there wasn’t better preparation [for the noise] by the Rams.”
m. Michael Brockers, Michael Brockers. You cannot be undisciplined against the Saints, period. But on fourth-and-two at the Rams 10-yard line? Awful job there.
n. Is it just me, or did Bill Vinovich’s crew in New Orleans swallow the whistles in the second half? Look at Nickell Robey-Coleman holding Ted Ginn Jr., on a crucial third-down chance at the start of the fourth quarter. Obvious interference there. Ignored.
o. What a lovely throw, the 36-yard Jared Goff drop-into-a-bucket to Brandin Cooks late in the first half. Best throw of the day in New Orleans.
p. Ndamukong Suh was a major impact player for the Rams. He’s playing well late this season.
q. Smart primer on the Nick Foles situation in Philadelphia by Zach Berman of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
r. Also, good intelligence on the state of Foles from former Eagles president Joe Banner—who knows all the players in the drama—this week on “The Peter King Podcast.”
s. BTW, happy 30th birthday, Nick Foles. (It was Sunday.) Bet he wishes he was playing football rather than eating cake last night.
t. My guess: Foles to the Jags.
2. I think it is just amazing that franchise back Todd Gurley will finish the 2018 season in a job-share with C.J. Anderson, cut three times by losing teams in the previous nine months.
3. I think I don’t do this often (once in my career have I picked the Super Bowl teams in the preseason—Green Bay versus Pittsburgh in 2010) so I will make note of it here. My prediction column from Sept. 3 correctly predicted a Rams-Patriots matchup in the Super Bowl.
4. I think this one caught my attention. In his first mock draft, NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah, who is smart, had Kyler Murray to the Patriots late in round one. Not stunning, based on the fact that the Patriots were very interested in smallish Baker Mayfield last April. Say Tom Brady plays two more years, minimum, which seems realistic. And say Murray goes to the Pats and Bill Belichick tells him: Soak in everything for a while, we’ll find some valuable role for you, get bigger and stronger, and you’ll have a chance to the be the quarterback here long after I’m gone.
5. I think the most damaging coaching loss this month was Mike Munchak, who made a lateral move (line coach to line coach) from Pittsburgh to Denver after finishing second to Vic Fangio for the Broncos head-coaching job. Family reasons did influence the move, but the loss to Pittsburgh’s rock-solid line, and the loss of a rock-solid person on a shaky Steeler team right now is not good.
6. I think my favorite Pro Football Talk post of the week, coated in irony the way Frosted Flakes are coated in sugar, comes from Mike Florio’s story entitled, “Patrick Mahomes fires up the marketing machine.” Via Brooke Pryor of the Kansas City Star, Florio writes about Mahomes:
Mahomes has deal with Hunt’s, Adidas, CommunityAmerica Credit Union, Panini Trading Cards, Airshare, SSM Auctions, TicketsForLess, Bose headphones, Hyvee, Advocare, and Goodcents Deli Fresh Sub. Mahomes also has become involved in a virtual-reality experience in which football is played from Mahomes’s point of view. Mahomes also will have a cereal bearing his name. “It’s been renamed Mahomes Magic Crunch,” agent Leigh Steinberg told Pryor. “We were originally going with Patty Flakes, but they tested out names and that’s sort of where it’s at.”
Steinberg wants to avoid oversaturating the market with Mahomes’ name and likeness.
Looks that way.
7. I think the moral of the story of the John Harbaugh extension (as reported by Chris Mortensen) is that Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti is going to pay market value for quality, which he always has done. Anyone who works for Bisciotti will tell you how fair he is. And whatever the money ends up being for Harbaugh—my guess is it’s in the ballpark of $10 million to $11 million per year—I think the big question is how many years on the extension. I have always thought Harbaugh could be the Chuck Noll of the Ravens, a guy who could have staying power in Baltimore because of his youth and his relationship with his players and the fact that Bisciotti is not a kneejerk owner. Noll coached the Steelers for 23 years. Harbaugh has coached Baltimore for 11. He’s 56 and could pass for 45. Just guessing this deal, if he completes it, could take him to around year 15, when he’ll be 60. Coaching 15 years in one spot today, with the pressures on the modern head coach, is pretty amazing. Bill Belichick and Marvin Lewis have done it, though Cincinnati is a unique situation because the owner there values familiarity more than other owners. Good for the Ravens for making this happen, because I thought there was a real chance Harbaugh, a very confident man, would coach out his final year and see what he was really worth as a coaching free agent a year from now.
8. I think one of the really weird things about this week—Senior Bowl week in Mobile, Ala., a must-go for all teams and scouts and draftnik media—will be Mike Mayock in a Raiders windbreaker. Instead of sharing info and player gossip with 32 teams, Mayock now will have an audience of one: Jon Gruden.
9. I think this stood out to me among the Tampa Bay hires on Bruce Arians’ new staff: the appointment of Antwaan Randle El as an offensive assistant. Randle El, 39, was drafted in both football and baseball, and played for the Steelers and Washington for nine NFL seasons. Asked in 2016 by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette if he would choose to play football at a high level if he had it to do over again: “If I could go back, I wouldn’t. I would play baseball. … Don’t get me wrong, I love the game of football. But right now, I still could be playing baseball.”
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. My Favorite Story of the Week: Kent Babb of the Washington Post on the complicated story and life of Andy Reid.
b. Memo to anyone in journalism school (or, for that matter, any professional in our business too): If you want to know how to write a detailed, gripping, complete story on a complex character, read Kent Babb on Andy Reid.
c. Media Project of the Week: by Elizabeth D. Herman and Celeste Sloman for the New York Times, portraits and words of the women of the 116th Congress. Herman and Sloman got 130 of the 131 female legislators to sit for portraits over the last two months, and paired the photos with words about their duties and their significance.
d. I can’t recommend this highly enough. It’s inspirational to see the progress of so many women, such as the first Somali-America legislator in our history, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, elected in November: “The disconnect between the America I heard about in the refugee camp, a land of opportunity where everyone had an equal shot at a better life, compared to the one I found has motivated me since the first day I arrived.”
e. If you’re a parent of a young daughter, or of any child for that matter, I think the significance of these pictures and these words could have a great impact. Email the link to your kids, or text it to them. Kudos to Herman and Sloman for fantastic work.
f. Football Story of the Week: Michael Rosenberg of Sports Illustrated on the weird and sad and unfortunate lives of former first-round quarterback Todd Marinovich and his domineering dad, Marv.
g. Excellent and enlightening work about the “raging beast of a father” that should be a cautionary tale for sporting helicopter parents everywhere.
h. Football/Health Story of the Week: by Ken Belson of the New York Times. Really smart read about linemen after football—those who can shed the unwanted weight that leads to health problems later in life, and those who remain obese. Excellent stuff about the post-career struggle, and how for some, such as Joe Thomas of the Browns, the after-football weight loss is pretty matter-of-fact.
i. Podcast of the Week: “The Big One: Your Survival Guide,” by Jacob Margolis, Misha Euceph, Arwen Champion Nicks and Megan Garvey of public radio station KPCC in Pasadena, Calif. A great primer on the chance of a killer earthquake in southern California sometime in the next 30 years (a 50 percent chance, per the pod), and well worth the listen wherever you live. It’s a smart mix of science and what happens to a region when a giant quake hits.
j. As one Los Angeles-area earthquake expert says: “We’re better prepared for the big one than any big city in America, which is to say we’re woefully unprepared.”
k. TV Story of the Week: Jeff Glor of CBS Evening News, on the wonderful story of how the life of a Tuskegee airman has been carried on by a family that didn’t know him.
l. Humanitarian of the Week: Jack Bogle, the founder of investment giant Vanguard, died last week and the Philadelphia Inquirer—his hometown paper—feted him well.
m. “Jack could have been a multibillionaire on a par with Gates and Buffett,” one Oregon investment manager told the Inquirer. But Vanguard, instead, was essentially owned by the investors in the mutual funds Vanguard selected. “He basically chose to forgo an enormous fortune to do something right for millions of people. I don’t know any other story like it in American business history.”
n. Coffeenerdness: This is just an appeal from a Peet’s fan stranded in New York City, where there are no Peet’s shops and no Peet’s available other than at JFK. (Those airport Peet’s are pretty meh.) Bring me a big Peet’s, Peet’s. Come to New York.
o. Beernerdness: Fortunate to have tried Second Line Saison (aka “A Saison Named Desire) from Second Line Brewing in New Orleans. Sort of a classic saison with more of an orange tint than I expected. Tasty and light. If it wasn’t lunch, I’d have had two.
p. Tuesday’s going to be a good evening. Have tickets to “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
q. NBA Note of the Week: In the Nets’ 145-142 OT win over the Rockets (Nets are pretty good, by the way), Brooklyn and Houston combined to attempt 106 three-point shots.
r. Imagine: 2.2 three-balls per minute.
s. The rest of Ten Things Number 10 … Cincinnati-centric.
t. RIP, Turk Schonert. He died of a heart attack Thursday in South Carolina at 62. Got to know him when he was a backup quarterback for the Bengals in my one year covering the team, 1984. Great quarterback room—Ken Anderson, Boomer Esiason, Schonert. Schonert was a quiet, sandy-haired, carefree guy who had a few starts (the biggie: as a Falcon QB, he beat Dan Marino head-to-head in the Orange Bowl in 1986) and stayed around because he was egoless and the perfect backup, always helpful to the guys playing over him.
u. My Turk story: Our young family lived on the east side of Cincinnati, and there was a large group foster home there with about 200 boys. Toward the end of the ’84 season, I got the nutty idea that it would be nice to get a couple of players and maybe even the coach, Sam Wyche, to come by and wish the kids Merry Christmas. So I asked Wyche, who was an amateur magician, Cris Collinsworth and Schonert if they’d come by one December weeknight. All said yes. Wyche came in a magician’s tux and put on a 20-minute show. Remember the Sony Walkman? That was the first widely available portable music player (at least the first one I recall), and in the early eighties, kids just had to have them. Leave it to Collinsworth to know what those needy kids would love—he went out and bought a Walkman for every one of them, and he and Schonert and two of the team’s cheerleaders got them wrapped and gave them to the kids. When they opened those gifts, the boys went nuts. I remember that night Schonert thanked me for including him; he just loved it, and he was in his element doing something good for the kids. Esiason always loved Schonert because, as a backup, you can either be submarining the starter or helping him. Schonert always was selfless.
v. Imagine a coach, especially, doing that today. I can’t. I think it was during the season, but I can’t swear to it, because the Cincinnati season ended that year on Dec. 16. But either way … times have changed.
w. A note about Marty Brennaman, who, as I noted in Quotes of the Week, will retire as the Reds’ radio play-by-play guy after 46 years at the end of this season. I got to Cincinnati in Brennaman’s seventh season; I was a low-level sports reporter at the Cincinnati Enquirer, and one of my assignment was to back up Ray Buck covering the Reds. So I got to know Brennaman, who already was the Big Man on Campus around the fading Bed Red Machine, and he was wonderful to me—in part by giving me crap the same way he’d give it to Johnny Bench. I’ll always remember in my fourth and last year covering the team, in August 1983, our daughter Laura was born in Cincinnati. I don’t recall how Marty found out, but I do recall this: That night, on Aug. 23, 1983, the Reds were in Chicago, and I (probably unwisely) was listening to the game in the hospital, and Marty Brennaman told Cincinnati and the entire Midwest on 50,000-watt radio giant WLW: “Congratulations to Peter King of the Cincinnati Enquirer and his wife Ann on the birth of their daughter Laura. Hope they’re all doing well tonight on this great occasion. Welcome to the world, Laura Phyllis King.” (I’m doing that from memory—so it’s close if not verbatim.) He’s one of the best baseball play-by-play guys ever, too.
x. Always thought this was interesting: Brennaman has done about 7,500 Reds games since 1974. In the first half-inning of the first game he ever did, the 1974 opener against Atlanta, Brennaman broadcast the 714th home run of the great Hank Aaron’s career at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. That home run tied Aaron with Babe Ruth for the most homers in major-league history. And that’s how long Marty Brennaman has been the voice of the Reds.
Thursday … New York City. The NFL will release its injury data report for the regular season in the league’s midtown Manhattan offices. It’ll be interesting to see if concussions, which spiked north last year, went down in 2018—and what role the NFL’s new helmet rules may have played in the head-trauma results. This is the first season the NFL and NFLPA combined to ask players to wear the helmet types that were judged the safest, and to urge players who wore low-performing helmets in prior seasons to wear safer ones this year. The ones that tested below the NFL/NFLPA standard were grandfathered in this year. Next year, the league/union helmet standard won’t be a recommendation—it’ll be a rule. Only the helmets with NFL/NFLPA approval will be allowed to be worn in NFL games.
Sunday … Pittsburgh. On this day 50 years ago, the Steelers named little-known Colts assistant Chuck Noll as their head coach, and introduced him to the media at the Roosevelt Hotel in Pittsburgh. Noll got the post after the Steelers considered Penn State coach Joe Paterno (who didn’t want the job) and Cleveland assistant Nick Skorich (who did), and became the Steelers’ fourth coach in six years. As Michael MacCambridge wrote in his excellent Noll bio, “Chuck Noll: His Life’s Work,” Noll was asked at that press conference how it felt to come to a city of losers. “A city of losers?” Noll said. “That’s a lot of nonsense. Geography has nothing to do with winning. Winning is a product of work and attitude.” You know the rest of the story: The Steelers have had three coaches—Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin—in the half-century since, and the franchise’s six Super Bowl titles are the most in the Super Bowl era. It all started with Cool Hand Noll.
One hell of a day.
Sean Payton: apoplectic.
As all Saints should be.