ENCINO, Calif. — Sean McVay said he’d be leaving his home for work Saturday at 4:15 a.m., Insane Standard Time. But there he was, on Coughlin Time, at 4:10, opening his Range Rover driver-side door in this silent neighborhood in the hills north of Los Angeles.
“I felt bad about you waiting out here,” said McVay, perky even two hours before dawn.
Truth is, I had no idea if he’d be on time or a half-hour early for our date, a ride to his office on the last day of Super Bowl LIII preparation at the Rams’ home base. So I got to his place at 3:30 a.m. PT and waited. McVay, about to be the youngest coach in Super Bowl history (he turned 33 last Thursday), is so excited about his job, it’s hard for him to sleep. On this night, he got about four-and-a-half hours. “I gotta do better,” he said. “Big week coming up.”
For the Rams, Super Bowl week is a stunning culmination of the franchise turnaround executed by the energetic McVay. But it’s no time for McVay, exactly half Bill Belichick’s age, to turn all doe-eyed about the craziness of what he and the Rams (26-9 under McVay) have done. Though he is gee-whiz about it all—and you’ll hear that plenty in the next few minutes—you could feel a more chip-on-his-shoulder McVay when I asked him, “How do you think you guys will play next week?”
“If we continue to prepare like we have, I think we’ll play well,” he said. “Our guys have a nice confidence and respect for the Patriots. But I don’t think for a second this game will be too big for our team. I know that we don’t have a lot of the experience New England has, and I respect that. But we’re confident. The Patriots are a great team but I think we’re pretty good too.”
The Lead: McVay
Entering the 101 North, headed to the Rams training facility.
“What would you be doing right now if you were alone in the car?”
“Maybe calling my parents, or friends back east,” McVay said, steering the truck into the right lane in the darkness. “Probably, I’d be listening to a book on tape that my grandfather [former Niners executive John McVay] got me: Mike Lombardi’s ‘Gridiron Genius.’ It’s focused on Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick—Mike worked for both of them. It’s got a lot of great stuff. I’ve read all Bill Walsh’s books just based on my grandfather’s history and so much of what we do stems from a lot of the things that they did. But now I’ve gotten to know Bill [Belichick]—we talked at the combine last year—so that’s been cool.
“He was really great in the conversation we had, really enlightening. This is wild: This season, he has basically texted me after every one of our games. After we beat Minnesota in September, he texted, ‘Man, you guys are really explosive and impressive and fun to watch. Congratulations—keep it rolling.’ For him to even take the time to say congrats, it’s pretty cool. That’s one of the things I like about our business, our fraternity of coaches. As competitive as it is, guys find time to share when they can. I’m still young, still figuring it out. That stuff’s been really helpful to me.”
Maybe it’s not just the professor, Belichick, giving the answers to the test to the student, McVay. McVay’s got a lot to share too. I’ve met two other current head coaches (not in the McVay’s NFC West) who have sought advice on offensive trends and schemes from him, though he’s more than a decade younger than they are. Belichick keeps relationships with lots of coaches who aren’t just the big-name guys. He wants to learn what’s new and what’s next.
All sorts of NFL traditions are being broken in the modern game. If short quarterbacks can play, and Drew Brees, Russell Wilson and Baker Mayfield obviously can, then why can’t a 5-foot-9-and-change passer like Kyler Murray get picked in the first round and make it? “I see Murray going in the mid-first round,” draft authority Gil Brandt said the other day. And if kid coaches can lead and prove to players they can make them better, players will follow. Last week, star Rams wideout Brandin Cooks called McVay “Einstein.”
There’s an allegorical story that’s important to why McVay is here. It has to do with running a bit more of a democracy than some old-time coaches would be comfortable. In high school, McVay was an option quarterback at Brookhaven (Ga.) Marist School, and, as a senior in 2003, his team trailed a defensively superior team, Shaw High, 17-12, in the fourth quarter of a state quarterfinal game. Marist had the ball at the Shaw 5-yard line. Third-and-goal. Timeout. McVay went to the sidelines. Coaches wanted to call a power-run to the right. McVay’s suggestion of a naked bootleg won.
“That’s kind of a blur right now,” McVay said, eyes straight ahead on the 101. “This was one of the best defenses in the state—they’d dominated everybody they had played. And we ran a couple plays where you could feel they were pursuing hard off their edges. We just kinda had an intuition that if we just sold out to the power run … we were a power wishbone team … if I kept that ball and just hid it right on my stomach and booted it wide left, there was a chance we’d walk in. So we called it. We called ‘Fake 32 Wham Naked Left.’ Our backs did such a good job selling [the fake] that the Shaw guys tackled everybody and they were celebrating like they’d won the game right there when I was running into the opposite end of the end zone. We won 18-17.”
Moral of the story?
“Listen to players,” McVay said. “Players have the best feel for the game. Especially guys who have the right insight and the right understanding of what’s going on. Giving them that ownership, they’re likely to make it work.
“Players get an intricate feel being out there, more than I have as a coach on the sideline. There are nuances of the game that I can’t feel on the sideline.”
“Got an example? Maybe something Jared Goff felt last week in New Orleans?” I asked.
“Hundred percent,” McVay said. “So this was arguably one of Jared’s best throws, where he throws the deep out to Cooks in the third quarter.”
First down Rams, at their 37, 7:06 left in the third quarter. Saints 20, Rams 10. Goff, at the line, stepped back from center. He gathered himself, and for about two seconds, he starred at the ground like he was concentrating, maybe trying to hear something. He was trying to hear, in fact … the voice of his coach. With 21 seconds left on the play clock before coach-to-quarterback communication shut off at 15 seconds, McVay called the “Blaze Out” play. Goff yelled something and signaled to the lone receiver to the left, Cooks. Three receivers in a bunch right next to the right tackle—wideouts Robert Woods and Josh Reynolds, and tight end Gerald Everett—leaned in to get the new call.
As McVay explained: “Jared had suggested that because he felt like some of the underneath zoning defenders were making him feel like, ‘I gotta really layer this ball, and I’d rather be able to drive it to Brandin.’ Usually, Brandin runs an in-breaking route there, but I could tell from talking to Jared, he’d feel a lot better throwing an out-route to the sideline.“
Translation: In this one-by-three-receiver formation, instead of Goff aiming to throw to one of the three men in the bunch with more traffic around them, and having to “layer” the ball, or throw it with touch between the linebackers and the safeties, he preferred to throw it against the Saints’ best cover player, Marshon Lattimore, because there’d likely be no cover help on that side. Cooks, running what the Rams called a “Blaze Out,” would win that battle. If he ran inside, linebacker A.J. Klein would be there creating traffic, and Goff would have to “layer” the ball over him and under Lattimore. Not optimal.
The ball traveled with heat, and 24 yards in the air, straight to Cooks on the sideline at the Saints’ 49-yard line. Gain of 14. Perfect throw, in tight coverage. “Best throw he’s made all day,” Troy Aikman said on TV.
“So,” McVay said, “the drive before he had asked me, Can we throw the Blaze Out? I said, ‘Hey, if you feel comfortable with it, your ownership. You’re more likely to make it work.’
“That’s a level of trust right there. If he hadn’t said he wanted to throw the Blaze Out, I wouldn’t have called it.”
First time in my life I found myself wishing for traffic on a highway. Thick, snarled traffic. I had 48 more topics to discuss, but with each story McVay detailed, the tributaries grew, and they all were interesting.
But I really wanted to hear what happened on Nov. 8, 2015, in Foxboro.
“2015,” I said. “New England 27, Washington 10. You’re the offensive coordinator for Washington, and I think that’s the only time in your five years as a play-caller you’ve faced Belichick.”
Rueful smile behind the wheel.
“Oh yeah, that was a … I’ll tell you what. Not good. And our touchdown that day was a cheap touchdown, last minute, in a two-minute drive when the game was over. Coach Belichick and [defensive coordinator Matt] Patricia took us to the woodshed. Very humbling day.
“Couple things. That was the first time I’d been to Foxboro. You come out for warmups, before actual team warmups. That song by Jay-Z, ‘My name is Hov,’ starts blasting in the stadium, and you see Tom Brady walking out by himself. Fans are going crazy. I’m in the corner of the field like, Oh man! I wanna clap for him! Then you’re thinking, like, Oh crap. How we gonna win this one?
“This is something that I haven’t said to anybody really other than some coaches. But it really gives you an appreciation for just the experience factor of the Patriots. My first year as offensive coordinator, Jay’s first year as the head coach in Washington, 2014, we practiced against the Patriots in training camp. I remember watching their operation. The efficiency … not a single minute wasted. When we would have the special-teams period—every single player with the Patriots, if you’re not involved with an urgency in special teams, the offensive coaches and defensive coaches had their own individual drills set up where they’re maximizing every minute. If you knew nothing about football—not a thing—and you just watched them, you’d say, ‘There’s something different about that team.’ A well-oiled machine. You’re just thinking, ‘This is the team we gotta compete with, man. We gotta get to their level.’
“That was the only time I had gotten that exposure. I knew this: That’s what it looks like when it’s done right.”
I wasn’t sure if McVay would recall a moment from his team’s low point this year. So I asked. You beat the Lions on the road, but it’s kind of shaky, and then you lose to Chicago there and lose to the Eagles on a Sunday night at home, and in those two losses, Goff throws no TDs and five picks. After that Philly game, at your press conference, you really looked shaken. Do you recall felling that way?
“I can’t remember the exact emotion,” McVay said, “That Chicago loss was a game unlike anything we’ve experienced in our two years. Then Philly … We’re down 30-13 and Nick Foles is driving to blow it open, and Aqib Talib makes a big-time [interception] to get us back in it. But we lose. I do remember thinking it’s easy to talk about your traits, your characteristics, your core values that you want to embody as a team. You gotta be what you say. If I’m really gonna be the leader that I expect to be for this team and be mentally tough like I talk to the players about, there’s a real chance to demonstrate that right now.
“When I deal with players, it’s not just the hokey ‘Oh you’re great, man, I love you, I believe in you.’ It’s, ‘Let’s look at why we didn’t have success.’ Jared is a pretty mentally tough guy anyway. He’s pretty unshaken. Last week I think was the greatest example of his mental toughness where we’re down 13-nothing, and that place was f—ing loud! When we were there earlier this year, it was not even close. Those fans had an extra buzz. I mean, it was unbelievable. I used to get this headache that was a killer after games. Last week was the first time as a coach I’ve had a headache like that after a game.”
McVay was off the highway now, driving onto the campus of Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. He was itching to walk through the door. Close to 5 a.m. now. I could tell … Still cordial, but feeling late.
“And what they did was genius during that game. Our players get interviewed in the week leading up. ‘Hey, is the noise gonna be a factor?’ So Robert Woods says, ‘You know, we don’t expect it to be. Their defense has to deal with it too.’ So in the stadium, they put that Robert Woods interview up there in between break. The fans go even crazier then, and I’m looking at Robert. Why the hell did you say that? Anyway, Jared just dealt with it. Figured a way and dealt with it. He’s about doing more than saying.”
Now at his parking space. Time, fleeting. We haven’t talked game-planning, or playing the Super Bowl in the backyard of his youth, or very much about his love of John Wooden and the Pyramid of Success. And he’s meh about why Belichick’s teams are masterful with two weeks to prepare this time of year.
But one thing sticks with me, one of the last things he said. A throwaway line. McVay has this ridiculous memory of plays he’s called and plays he’s seen, and he can rip off details in staccato bursts, like they’d just happened and he was watching them on replay. The subject: imaginative play-design. I mention how impressive I found it that New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels installed eight new plays on the day of the AFC title game last week, and the Patriots did a quick walk-through of them six-and-a-half hours before the game. New England used four or five in the game, all for positive yards. That’s when you know you’ve got a smart team, with veteran coaches who can complete each other’s sentences.
Then I bring up the winning touchdown pass by the Eagles in last year’s Super Bowl, the 11-yard Foles-to-Zach Ertz game-winning touchdown pass out of the weird Philly formation New England had never seen, the play the coaching staff invented the week of the game, a week after the regular game plan had been installed.
“The four-by-one,” McVay interrupted, suddenly remembering it. “Yeah.”
The Eagles used the odd formation 51 weeks ago—one receiver (Ertz) to the left, four to the right, and Foles picking the one over the four in traffic. McVay’s instant recall of the play that flummoxed the Patriots stood out because it gave me an idea of his mindset now. Which is: I bet he’s thinking of distinctive plays like this today. A reminder of how this messed with the Pats: Patricia, the defensive coordinator, was caught by NFL Films before the play saying, “We’re gonna have to double 86.” Ertz. They never did. The coverage got lost in translation. But McVay’s reflexive recall in the California darkness reinforced to me that, as with the Eagles and Doug Pederson last year, the latest of this new cadre of young (very young, in this case) and imaginative offensive thinkers will test Belichick.
Plus, McVay knows Belichick will test him. McVay has great admiration for Belichick, but he also knows business is business. Last April, McVay thought he had this deal in place with the Patriots: Rams trade their first-round pick to New England for Brandin Cooks and a fourth-round pick. But when McVay went to finalize the deal, the Rams ended up throwing in a sixth-round pick at Belichick’s request. So it turned out to be Cooks and a four from New England to the Rams for first- and sixth-round picks. (The Patriots, not surprisingly, turned that sixth-round pick into two seventh-rounders in 2018 and another seventh-rounder in 2019.) Still, a deal the Rams were happy to make. But a good lesson for McVay.
There’s no doubt in my mind that McVay and offensive coordinator Zac Taylor have used this week to mine for things the Patriots have never seen in formations and plays and maybe even personnel groupings, and so won’t have been able to prepare for them. The Eagles used that approach last year, and it worked.
If I’m McVay, I’m thinking Brady’s gonna Brady; in their last three playoff games, the Patriots have averaged 37 points and 399 Brady passing yards. The Rams are probably going to have to score in the thirties to win, or to have a chance to win. It won’t help this week that they’ll hear some version of Are you sure you belong here after that non-call in New Orleans? (This, by the way, is how McVay addressed it with me, and it’s what I think will be something close to his response: “We understand the Saints and their fans are upset. Clearly that was pass-interference. But it’s not the only thing that led to the outcome of the game. The way we are with our team is that we have the mindset of it’s always about the next play, and you can’t control what the officials do. We can’t control it, but we can try to control the next play, and that’s how we played.” In other words, there will be no apology, no regrets from the Rams. It’s not their place.)
The Rams have been good at ignoring the noise in two seasons with McVay, and when he walked into his office at 5 Saturday morning to prep for his last pre-Atlanta practice of the week, he didn’t seem too uptight. He seemed excited.
I don’t think for a second this game will be too big for our team.
Probably not for the youngest Super Bowl coach ever, either.
Where's Roger, Again?10
Hard to know where to start when discussing the eight-day-old officiating decision heard-round-the-NFL that played a major role in the Rams winning the NFC title game. I think we should start at silence … silence from the NFL, and from commissioner Roger Goodell, and (mostly) from vice president for officiating Al Riveron.
It is disconcerting that Goodell, who entered the league as a PR intern three-and-a-half decades ago, has been so weak-kneed in hiding from the onslaught of this controversy. It started with an obvious pass interference infraction that went uncalled in the Superdome eight days ago, advanced to the chambers of the U.S. Senate on Friday, and will dog Goodell till he acknowledges the momentous error, presumably at his state-of-the-league press conference Wednesday.
Goodell has a new high-powered PR team around him, but he’s never been one to take much advice in how to respond to public crises. That frustrated some of his now departed PR appointees, who found that he listened to their advice but usually did what he wanted regardless. But what seems so tone-deaf and arrogant about ignoring the no-call in New Orleans is … well, let me enumerate:
• It flies in the face of what the NFL has done for years. Searching the internet Friday, I found 15 occasions (I bet it’s closer to 30) since 2003 that the NFL admitted an officiating error publicly—either in a statement, or on the league’s in-house NFL Network, or on Twitter. The NFL has not commented publicly since Nickell Robey-Coleman of the Rams slammed into Saints wideout Tommylee Lewis before the ball arrived with 1:43 left in a tied NFC title game at the L.A. 6-yard line. The Saints, had the obvious infraction been flagged, could have run the clock down to about 20 to 25 seconds, kicked the go-ahead chip-shot field goal, then kicked off to the Rams, who had no timeouts left. Suffice to say that it’s more likely than not that the Saints would have won the game. After the game, Saints coach Sean Payton said Riveron admitted the mistake to him over the phone. But that’s all we’ve heard about the most important officiating mistake in years.
It’s so different from recent history. The league’s three officiating czars in the last 16 years—Mike Pereira, Dean Blandino and Riveron—have publicly admitted errors large and small and often have apologized for them, including a huge missed defensive pass-interference error at the end of the 49ers’ 39-38 wild-card win over the Giants in January 2003. “The game [should] have been extended by one untimed down,” a league statement said. Take it all the way to last month, when Riveron admitted the officials blew a Bobby Wagner illegal leap to block a Vikings field goal in Seattle. “This is a foul,” Riveron said. But now, nothing. The sounds of silence, disgracefully, on the worst missed call in the league in years. The message: The NFL will admit mistake after mistake after mistake, significant ones, but when it comes to a colossal gaffe, league officials will hide in their Park Avenue fortress.
• What good would it do? Not much. But in a league that asks for the public trust and holds itself up as a sporting model of propriety, it’s called doing the right thing. It’s a simple public statement Goodell could issue; he should make it, because the buck stops with him. Or he could do it on camera with someone like Judy Battista or Ian Rapoport of NFL Network. He could deliver a simple message:
We appreciate the passion of the Saints and their fans, who are some of the best fans in the league. We’re lucky to have them. There was a mistake made by our officials at the end of the NFC Championship Game at a crucial point of the game, and it’s a mistake we don‘t take lightly. We regret the error. We know that doesn’t fix the mistake. But we want fans of the Saints and fans of our league to know we’ll work hard to improve our officiating. This takes nothing away from the efforts of the Los Angeles Rams, who deserve the victory and will be worthy representatives of the NFC in the Super Bowl. We’re now going to re-double our efforts to make sure we close the loophole that allowed this to happen. All options are on the table for improving officiating, and our Competition Committee will work immediately to figure out the best way to help our officials be even better in 2019 and beyond.”
• It’s totally disrespectful to fans—in Louisiana and across the country—to ignore the story. Let’s now count how many places Goodell must need extra security—if he even shows his face in public there. New England. St. Louis. San Diego. Oakland. Louisiana. Anywhere the draft is held. As for the Saints: It’s hard to go to New Orleans and not be wowed by the passion of the fans. When a third of the metro area population went away following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the fans of a bad Saints team responded by selling out the Superdome for 2006—and every year since. I go to all the cities and see all the teams. I can tell you there is no place more passionate than Louisiana about its team. They’re hurting. They’re angry. They’re despondent. What do they get from the NFL? The back of its hand.
I spoke to retiring Saints tight end Benjamin Watson the same day he issued his impassioned where-is-Roger statement. He echoed it to me, pretty much. “This an imperfect game, coached by imperfect people, played by imperfect people, reffed by imperfect people,” Watson said. “This is simply a case where one of those imperfect people made a huge mistake and impacted a team and a city and a lot of passionate fans. The commissioner should say something. This is an NFL franchise. These are some of your most passionate fans. This is not a franchise on the fringe, or an expansion franchise. For him to sit there and not say anything, for him to be silent, is disheartening for the fans. Not just for Saints fans but football fans. They want to know the game is not rigged. Plus, it is disrespectful to the men in both locker rooms, who deserve the truth. Instead, all we get is silence.”
• The league’s valuation of the vice president of officiating position is dumb, and should be re-thought, even if it means Riveron goes. Football Zebras, the NFL officiating watchdog site, estimates that the officiating VP post a salary of about $350,000 a year. From Labor Day to early February, a span of more than five months, the job is the second-most important in pro football administration, behind one person—Goodell. It is beyond ridiculous that the second-most important guy in the league office for the season, the face of the league in many weeks, makes 1 percent of Roger Goodell’s annual compensation.
Let’s say the NFL moves to strengthen the internal operations of officiating. Let’s say they begin to pay this job for what the headaches and brickbats and cover-the-NFL’s-rear part of the job are worth. My recommendation: Call Blandino and his employer, network partner FOX, and see if a signing bonus of $1 million and annual salary of $1 million could convince him to jump back to the league, where he is missed. Convince FOX it’s for the good of the game. (Blandino recently said he’ll stay in television, but I’d like to see what he’d do if offered $2 million for his services in 2019.) Keep Riveron, if he’ll stay, as Blandino’s number two, which he used to be.
One last thing: Put everything on the table for discussion at the league’s March meeting in Phoenix, but decide nothing. Give it the proper consideration. Then convene a week-long post-draft power meeting in New York with the Competition Committee and other influential league pillars, like Belichick. Put everything on the table. Bring in John Madden, Ozzie Newsome, Ed Hochuli and the respected idea people to figure out the best way to proceed on new officiating strictures.
With most every significant league figure in Atlanta for at least part of this week, this should be the start of an idea period. I’ll share one that I got from an active NFL coach last week, in a text. “Rules need to be changed for the playoffs,” the coach wrote. “Coaches need to have more challenge and be able to challenge more types of calls, like P.I. It’s too important to say, ‘Well, we’ve never done that before.’ It’s the playoffs. All that matters is we get it right!”
Head Trauma Progress
It was easy to get lost in the officiating- and league-office-bashing last week, but the NFL and the NFL Players Association actually had some positive news to report on concussions and head trauma: In training camp and preseason and regular-season games in 2018, players suffered 67 fewer concussions than NFL players had in 2017, a drop of 23.8 percent. The totals over the past four years:
2015: 38 preseason, 237 regular-season — 275 total.
2016: 32, 211 — 243 total.
2017: 57, 224 — 281 total.
2018: 53, 161 — 214 total.
2018 could be an outlier. We’ll see what the next couple of years brings. But the number of documented concussions—8.78 per team last year, 6.69 per team this year, per the NFL’s data—shows progress doing what the league and the NFLPA (partners in this effort) have been focused on.
One: This season was the first when players were told they had to transition from helmets that didn’t pass the NFL/NFLPA safety tests. Last offseason, the league passed out helmet-testing data from NFL and NFLPA testers, telling players which helmets they deemed safest and which didn’t pass muster. Players were given one grandfathered season—this one—to wear whatever helmet they wanted. By Week 17, only 32 players NFL players were wearing the non-approved helmets. “They’ll all have to be in approved helmets opening day next year,” said the NFL’s VP for health and safety, Jeff Miller. That includes the most notable player of all, New England quarterback Tom Brady, one of the helmet holdouts. I’m working on a helmet project, and I can tell you the work being done in that area, with both upstart companies like VICIS of Seattle and traditional companies like Riddell, looks to be a big contributor to the decline in concussions. But again, this is one year, and it could be an outlier.
Two: Players seem to be getting used to the sideline watchdogs with the authority to force woozy-looking players to the sideline medical tents. Said the president of the NFL Physicians Society, Ravens orthopedist Leigh Ann Curl: “There is a low threshold for putting a player in the tent … In general, there is less resistance to be checked out [during games]. It’s just, ‘You’re going to the tent,’ and players just start walking that way.”
There were 538 concussion evaluations by NFL teams in 2018, the league said, and 75 percent resulted in players not being diagnosed with concussions.
Miller also said the NFL anticipates nine or 10 new helmet models from new and traditional companies will hit the market in 2019, giving players more choices. Soon, Miller said, helmets could begin to be position-specific for the first time.
Big Calls, Neutral Voice20
There was one mega-call and three big calls in the conference championship games that people have had a hard time getting over. So I asked the most neutral of parties—Ben Austro, the founder and editor of Football Zebras, which for 10 years has been injecting sanity into NFL officiating issues—for his view on the four debated plays:
NEW ENGLAND-KANSAS CITY
• The offside call on Dee Ford that negated a possible game-clinching Chiefs interception with 54 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Austro: “It’s clearly offside, and the argument that you kind of get a mulligan during the game … well, typically first quarter and maybe into the second, an official might let it go, then during the next stoppage, the line judge or down judge might either warn the coach about it or say to the player, ‘Scooch back a little. You’re too close.’ It’s preventive officiating. By the time you get to the fourth quarter, whether the game is on the line or not, they’ll just call it. Officiated correctly. It wasn’t even borderline.”
• The reversal of the Julian Edelman punt muff midway through the fourth quarter; instead of the Chiefs recovering on a short field, New England got a first down where it was grabbed by Kansas City. Austro: “If we’re looking at it three times, and we’re really not close to seeing a clear angle to overturn, that would be one thing. But no matter how many times I saw it, there was no evidence that the ball touched Edelman. I thought they got it right. I agreed with the reversal, but it was so close I would not have had any quibble if it stood.”
LOS ANGELES-NEW ORLEANS
• The non-call of a facemask penalty on the Saints against Jared Goff on a fourth-quarter drive near the New Orleans’ five-yard line. Austro: ”My immediate reaction was the Saints defender and comes in, hits the facemask, moves it—but it doesn’t mean there was a pull or a grab. It was incidental. Looked back at it again, and I never saw anything more than an open hand coming in and incidental contact with the facemask. There has to be a clear grab and control of the facemask. I didn’t see it. I thought no-call was correct.”
• The non-call of defensive pass-interference against the Rams’ Nickell Robey-Coleman with 1:45 left in the fourth quarter. Austro: “There is only one way to look at it—a miscall. We looked at the video. On one angle, we can see Patrick Turner, the down judge, mouth the words ‘Bang bang.’ You can have contact just barely immediately before the ball arrives, but this was obviously before the ball arrived. It just makes you wonder: Was there some direction from the officiating department that said: In the playoffs, are we going to be more lenient on pass interference?”
I’d agree with Austro on every call but the reversal on the Edelman punt muff. Austro says there’s no clear evidence that the ball touched Edelman. True. But that isn’t the point of replay. On that play, there needed to be indisputable evidence that the ball did not touch him. I saw some very close views on replay, but I did not see clear and irrefutable evidence that the ball did not touch Edelman. I think that call should have stood.
What I Learned
Benjamin Watson, a 15-year NFL veteran who is retiring, thought he’d have one more game to play. The Saints tight end sat out the NFC title game after spending two days in the hospital before the game with appendicitis; he’d hoped that Super Bowl LIII would be his final game, but the Rams, and an officiating fiasco, ended that hope. Watson, after playing football for three-quarters of his life, and in the NFL for New England, Cleveland, Baltimore and New Orleans, on the lessons he takes from a lifetime in the game.
“I woke up this morning [Thursday] feeling, ‘I can’t believe my life in football is going to end like this. It’s kind of scary. For my entire adult life, it’s been about where am I going to play, when do OTAs start, when does camp start. My entire married life, 13 years, has been predicated on the schedule of football. So there is a little fear moving into this next phase of my life, but there is also some anticipation. Guys tell me it’s going to be tough for a couple years. But life isn’t ending.
“Would I trade the life I’ve had for a life of a profession right out of college, even though I’d be way ahead of where I am right now if I did? Of course not. People change careers all the time. The guys you went to college with, they’ve been doing their professions for 15 years. I have this starting-over feel about being a rookie again, and not only as a rookie, but as a rookie in a business I don’t know yet. You just have to trust and rely that when one door closes, another one opens. It’s about having discipline and sticking to the pillars I’ve used in my life that have served me well. The scary thing is not knowing what it’s going to be.
“The first lesson of today: The train’s going to keep on moving. And I’m not in the engine anymore. It’s a sobering feeling. But football goes on without me. It’s a life lesson.
“From my earliest memories, I wanted to play football. At home, I’d go into the closet, close the door, my father would announce my name and I would burst out of the closet like I was running out of the tunnel into the stadium. But one of the big lessons came early. My parents moved our family from Virginia to Rock Hill, S.C., and I wasn’t happy about it. But the lesson is, You never know what’s coming around the corner, so be open to change. I loved football, and from a football standpoint, moving to Rock Hill was the best thing for me. They had Friday Night Lights, great coaches, players, and a lot of guys from that area went to the NFL. It was excellent for my career.
“I learned about the business of football when I was drafted by New England [round one, 2004]. They wanted to sign me to a 6-year deal, which I didn’t want, and then I tore my ACL as a rookie and had to watch while we won the Super Bowl. I learned how much of my identity was tied up in football and it didn’t need to be. I was a jerk to my parents and my fiance at the time.
“There were pros and cons to New England for me. I learned the template for excellence. Bill Belichick put signs up in the building—“Do your job,” “Manage expectations—don’t believe the hype”—and he’d even quiz us on the signs. He’d say, “What’s on the door?” It set the tone for who we were. Those core values have helped the Patriots stay great for all this time because it’s what they believe, and how they operate every day. On the flip side, I struggled while I was there, mentally, because of the way Coach Belichick coaches. It’s so demanding. If I went back now, knowing what I know, experiencing what I’ve experienced, I’d be fine. I struggled then, coming to work every day. I was miserable. I felt so much anxiety. I saw a psychiatrist around year five, and that really helped me handle the pressure and the anxiety. One thing I would tell young players is don’t be afraid to seek help. That was important for me. I look back with mixed feelings on New England, but a lot of gratitude.
“I learned something about myself in 2014, entering free agency going into my 10th year. The Saints wanted me as in-line tight end with Jimmy Graham getting a lot of the catches outside. That was tough for me. I wanted to be the guy taking all the snaps, and I wasn’t, which was frustrating.
“I wanted football to be the thing I was known for my whole life. But now I had to adjust. I am not a great football player. I am not a Hall of Famer. But I learned that’s okay. I’m steady. I’m reliable. And I have other interests. I am a strong Christian. I am interested in lots of other issues in life. Then, I got to be known for some of the things I wrote, some of the things I said. God was working at that time. He can lift your name up and make you known. Or you’ve got a different role. It sucks sometimes. I would have loved to be running those slant-and-go’s for big yards, but it wasn’t my time. On the other hand, I was speaking on the things happening in the country. It opened doors for me in terms of helping people. I learned this from God: ‘Be faithful when your name is in lights. Be faithful when your name is not in lights.’
“My parents always taught me about perseverance. Life is not going to be what you want it to be all the time. Sometimes I feel I’ve had more unfulfilled dreams than actual success. Now that I look back, football helps you deal with that disappointment. If there are tough times ahead, and I don’t know what I am going to do now … but whether I go into an office job or team setting or something else, I think I’ll be ready.
“Some of the most precious times I have had in the NFL have been in the last few years, talking to young teammates. Maybe at practice or in the locker room … maybe they’re about to have their first baby, or they’re going through things with their parents or their wife, or they’re really disturbed by something happening in the country. I’ve been able to go away from the football part of the job and go into the human side. I cherish those times. Football can be a very lonely place sometimes, and it’s really important to take time with the people we’re around every day—to talk, to listen, to encourage them. I’ve learned a lot in my football life, and that’s been one of the greatest things I’ve learned that I know I’ll take into the rest of my life.”
Quotes of the Week30
“Unfortunately, I get older, but Tom Brady doesn’t.”
—Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
“You have a bunch of people who come together from all walks of life and come together for the common good, which in our case is football, and being a great football team. Man, I’ll go ahead and say it: The leaders of our country could learn a lot from football.”
—Baltimore coach John Harbaugh.
“Mr. President, with the seriousness of [the Government shutdown], I also want to address one other issue, which is particularly serious to folks in Louisiana. And I hope it doesn’t seem out of place with the shutdown, but I can tell you, to folks back home, it is something which continues to disturb them. Mr. President, I’d like to bring up the NFC Championship Game.”
—U.S. Sen Bill Cassidy (R-La.), on the floor of the Senate Friday, on the Saints getting jobbed in the NFC Championship Game last week.
“The disappointment will never go away. The pain will never go away. This goes under the category of, ‘Life’s not fair.’ “
—Saints GM Mickey Loomis, days after the non-called pass interference in the NFC title game.
“Get the f— out of my office.”
—Browns coach Hue Jackson, having just been fired, to the man who did the firing, Cleveland GM John Dorsey, in a scene from Seth Wickersham’s story about the dysfunction in the Browns under owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam.
“You get into the last two minutes and watch greatness and excellence like that … it seems like you’re watching a rerun to a movie under the highest stakes, pressure, all those things. I just enjoyed watching the sideline when they showed a picture of him [Bill Belichick] and it just looked like he was Buddha on the mountaintop in Zen getting ready for his next push. I can’t say I was rooting for them, but you respect it. Man, it’s incredible what he [Tom Brady] is doing.”
—Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe, commenting on the final minutes of the Patriots’ 37-31 AFC title game victory in Kansas City eight days ago.
Rams’ points-per-game in Sean McVay’s first 35 games: 30.69.
Rams’ points-per-game in Jeff Fisher’s last 35 games: 15.51.
Improvement in points-per-game, McVay vs. Fisher: 15.18.
In the past 16 regular seasons, the New England Patriots have averaged 12.50 wins per season—5.47 more wins per year than any other team in the division.
Dating back to the Patriots’ Super Bowl win over Atlanta, New England has played six playoff games, and averaged 34 points and 494 yards per game.
Starting with each team’s 11th game of the regular season, here are the last eight results for the Super Bowl teams:
Pats: win, win, loss, loss, win, win, win, win.
Rams: win, win, loss, loss, win, win, win, win.
Fifty years ago Sunday, the Steelers named Chuck Noll their head coach.
In the half-century since, Pittsburgh has had three head coaches.
The 27 other NFL teams in business since the seventies have had a total of 376 coaches since Noll got the job.
Five Tony Dungy Factoids of the Week about the former NFL safety, former NFL coach, current NBC analyst and current author (“The Soul of a Team,” written with Nathan Whitaker for Tyndale Press, is Dungy’s seventh book and was released last week):
• Dungy’s last position coach as an NFL player, trying to make the Giants on special teams as a safety in training camp in 1980, was special teams coach Bill Belichick. Dungy was 25 that summer, Belichick 28. “Bill was meticulous and very detailed even then,” Dungy said.
• In 1977 and ’78, Dungy’s head coach for the Steelers was Hall of Famer Chuck Noll, who won four Super Bowls. In 1979, Dungy’s head coach on the 49ers was future Hall of Famer Bill Walsh, who won three Super Bowls. And Belichick, of course, has won five as a head and two as a New York Giants defensive coordinator. Not bad: three seasons and one training camp for Dungy, coached by three men with a combined 12 Super Bowl wins.
• In 1980, the 49ers and Giants made a four-player trade, with Dungy and running back Mike Hogan going to New York and wideout Jimmy Robinson and defensive back Ray Rhodes going to San Francisco. It’s quite possibly the only player trade in NFL history involving two future head coaches. In 1999, Green Bay coach Rhodes and Tampa Bay coach Dungy split the only two games they ever coached against each other.
• Dungy had one of the most interesting games by a player in modern NFL history on Oct. 9, 1977, at the Astrodome in Houston. Terry Bradshaw broke his wrist on a hit by Elvin Bethea, and backup Mike Kruczek got a separated shoulder on the last play of the third quarter. Dungy, a college quarterback at Minnesota, was the emergency QB, and he played the fourth quarter. He threw completions, one apiece, to Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, but also threw two picks. “I always tell John and Lynn that it was my completion that got them into the Hall,” Dungy said. “I threw two picks, but but also completed passes in the NFL without ever practicing one second at quarterback.” That’s not all: Dungy, playing nickel back that day, intercepted Houston quarterback Dan Pastorini. So in one game, Dungy intercepted a pass, completed passes to two Hall of Famers, and was intercepted twice.
• Dungy’s mother was a high school English teacher, but he didn’t like to write as a kid. He now has written seven books with Whitaker for Tyndale Press, one of which reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list. “My mother would be shocked,” Dungy said.
One last thing, about Dungy-Belichick. I always thought their relationship was pretty chilly. They weren’t close (which big-rival coaches are close when they’re trying to beat each other every year?), but Dungy left no doubt on my podcast this week of his feeling for Belichick, going back to Dungy’s son James’ death by suicide in 2005.
“When my son died,” Dungy said, “Bill sent me a note, a hand-written note. It was one of the first ones to come. So that’s the side that people don’t see.”
And this: Remember the “Monday Night Football” incident in 2004 when one of the “Desperate Housewives,” clad only in a towel, jumped into Terrell Owens’ arms and asked him to skip the game to be with her. At the time, Bears coach Lovie Smith called it “pretty close to pornographic,” and Dungy said, “If that’s what we have to do to get ratings, I’d rather not get them.”
Now, the rest of the story:
“I went off on ABC,” Dungy said last week. “I said it was disgraceful for them to open a prime-time broadcast like that. I took a lot of heat, and Bill was the first coach to come to my defense. He said he would give back part of his salary if it meant not having to bow down to the wishes of sponsors.”
So there’s a section of things you might not have known about Tony Dungy, Bill Belichick and an October day in 1977 in the Astrodome.
King of the Road
I am a geography nerd.
Whenever “Geography” or some such comes up as a category on Jeopardy, I perk up and get ready to get all five answers correct. I fail sometimes, but not often. So on Friday, for my New York-to-Los Angeles trip to see Sean McVay (I do understand my sanity is in question for flying six hours, being in L.A. for 15 hours including sleep, flying home six hours), while writing a portion of this column, I put my flight, American Airlines Flight 117, on the coolest in-flight schematic map and fly-along-with-the-pilots device I’ve seen on any of the seatback video monitors. The places we flew over:
(Canada now) London, Ontario
(Back in the U.S.) Lansing, Mich.
Mason City, Iowa
(Skirting the Iowa-Nebraska-South Dakota confluence) Yankton, S.D., home of Tom Brokaw.
I remember riding cross-country, from the Bay Area to Manhattan, on John Madden’s Madden Cruiser in 1990 for Sports Illustrated. One of my great experiences as a writer. Madden, pre-Collinsworth, pre-Romo, was the best TV analyst in the NFL, and he bused at first because he feared flying. But then he got to love the travel, and he loved seeing the country from the ground. I looked up a story he told me in that story. Here it is:
“We had to stop in Beaver Crossing, Nebraska [pop. 480] once, to use the phone for a radio show,” Madden said. “It’s near Lincoln. Some guy comes across the street from a gas station and introduces himself. Roger Hannon. He was the mayor, and it was his gas station. The next thing I know, we’re in front of city hall, and the people start coming out, and they want to see the bus. One woman brought me a rhubarb pie. I didn’t even know what rhubarb pie was, but it was great. The whole town came out. There were only about 10 of them, but they were the whole town. I remember asking them, ‘What do houses sell for here?’ They said the last house that sold was right down on the corner—three bedrooms, three baths, a picket fence, for $8,000.”
Two days after Madden’s visit to Beaver Crossing, the Omaha World-Herald ran a story on page 3 with the headline: MADDEN STOPS TO USE THE PHONE.
I always liked that.
End of interlude
Greeley, Colo. (home of the University of Northern Colorado)
Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado)
Capital Reef National Park (Utah) at dusk
Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.
Los Angeles International Airport.
Fun way to pass the time.
There are going to be two big stars in this Super Bowl, and I do not mean Aaron Donald and Tom Brady. Of course they will be, but thanks to the advanced metrics and study of Pro Football Focus, here are two more. They are the two left tackles in the game: Andrew Whitworth of the Rams and Trent Brown of the Patriots.
One of the things that makes the difference between winning and losing is the front-office re-stocking of teams, particularly with moves that don’t look so impactful at the time of the deal. Another thing is scheming. You’ve got to give credit to Whitworth for great play, and to Rams GM Les Snead for what was a pricey deal for Whitworth in 2017 (three years, $33.8 million), and to Sean McVay for using Whitworth well. In New England, kudos to Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio for pinpointing Brown with the Niners in trade, and to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels for his quick-pass game-planning so Brown plays a little better than maybe he is.
• Through two postseason games, Whitworth has played 145 snaps and allowed zero sacks, zero hits, and zero pressures of Jared Goff.
• Through two postseason games, Brown has played 179 snaps and allowed zero sacks, zero hits and two pressures of Brady (blocking Melvin Ingram and Dee Ford).
Those are wow stats.
You know what else I think when I consider Whitworth and Brown? I wonder if Whitworth would ever have been signed if former first-round left tackle Greg Robinson hadn’t busted with the Rams. And I wonder if Brown would be the starting left tackle if first-round rookie tackle Isaiah Wynn hadn’t torn his Achilles in New England’s preseason opener in August. The best teams are ones that adjust.
A PFF Elite subscription gives you access to performance metrics the pros use.
Tweets of the Week
Master Tesfatsion of Bleacher Report used to cover the Washington franchise for the Washington Post.
To comment on the column, or to say anything about anything, you can reach me by email.
This is quite a good idea. From Robert B.: “Replay idea: no automatic reviews. Everything is reviewable. Coaches get unlimited challenges, until they get one wrong, then they have one left. Thoughts?”
I like it, Robert. Particularly because it rewards teams for not making marginal challenges, but rather using them on legit ones.
Good question. From Robert B.: “How are the current overtime rules logical. As a diehard Chiefs fan I will concede that the Chiefs had three opportunities to force a punt or field goal in overtime and didn’t do so and so they fairly lost under the current rules. But I can’t understand the rationale to deny the Chiefs the same opportunity to score that the Patriots had simply because of which team won the coin toss.”
Thank you. I’ve said this to people all week: There’s very little question—with the Patriots having gone up and down the field all day with Tom Brady, and with Patrick Mahomes putting up three touchdowns and a field goal in the fourth quarter—that the team winning the coin toss at the start of overtime was very likely to win the game. Particularly in the postseason, I do not understand why the NFL doesn’t give each team a chance to possess the ball … and to take the inherent unfairness of the flip of a coin out of an athletic contest played to determine which teams moves on in a quest to win the Super Bowl. Baffling to me.
Should she renew her NFL season tickets? From Heather P.: “I’m still grappling with the non-call in New Orleans. I am consumed with the question, Why? Is there an answer that preserves the integrity of the NFL? The two answers that keep popping into my mind are that the refs were swayed either by Vegas interests that wanted the game to stay within the point spread or a direction of some sort from the NFL (to keep it close, that overtime would be great for ratings, that a win for the Rams would be great to develop the Los Angeles fandom / to make that market more profitable after the new stadium investment, etc). I’m deeply conflicted about paying to renew my season tickets when it feels as though the fix is in.”
There is another possibility, Heather, one that I believe has plenty of merit. What if the officials were told at some point in the season—maybe late in the year, maybe before the playoffs—that their calls for pass-interference have been a little ticky-tack, and so before you throw a flag for it, be sure you see absolute legitimate pass interference. That’s a lot more likely than either of the other thoughts, in my opinion. If you’ve been told an infraction for pass interference has to be egregious or quite obvious, I could see how the officials in New Orleans saw a bang-bang play rather than the reality, which was an obvious interference call.
On DPI as a spot foul. From Joel R.: “You have long advocated for DPI to be a 15-yard penalty instead of a spot foul. Admittedly the spot of the foul wasn’t a critical issue in the foul by Nickell Robey-Coleman, but does his admission that he intentionally fouled Tommylee Lewis because he was beaten on the play have an affect on your opinion?”
Yes, Joel, I believe defensive pass interference should be a spot foul. I also believe if the NFL was willing to make it a 15-yard penalty with one proviso—that purposeful, obvious interference on defenders be made either a spot foul or 15 yards, whichever advantages the offense the most.
10 Things I Think I Think
1. I think one of the dumbest things I’ve heard in a while—and no reflection on Adam Schefter, because he’s reporting what he’s hearing—is that some around the NFL have, according to Schefter, “some concern that four officials in NFC Championship Game live in Southern California.” Unless you can find some evidence of residence causing game-fixing, please take what happened for what it is: two officials made the biggest mistake of their careers, honestly. Got proof of malfeasance? Something beyond sports-talk conspiracy suspicion? Then shut up.
2. I think I never heard, once, that Gene Steratore should not do a Steelers game because he lives 25 miles south of Heinz Field, or Ed Hochuli should ref a Cardinals’ game because he lives in Phoenix. Where would that stop, exactly? Would one of the best back judges in the league, Dino Paganelli, who is from Grand Rapids, Mich., be banned from doing a Lions game because it’s the team most people in western Michigan root for? That narrative has some issues. Paganelli is the official who ruled against the Lions and threw the flag on Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, negating a touchdown for not completing the act of a catch, at Soldier Field.
3. I think you should know this: The Saints would love for there to be a bogeyman in this case, but there is not one. Even the Saints haven’t raised the issue of residency on this play.
4. I think these are a few Senior Bowl things I picked from those on the scene:
a. Asked one longtime personnel man to grade the level of talent at the game this year. “A-minus,” he said. “Players all over the board. We got good looks at a lot of guys who will go in the first three rounds.”
b. Quarterback Drew Lock of Missouri helped himself the most among quarterbacks, practicing and meeting teams well enough to likely earn a first-round look.
c. Big buzz on Kyler Murray cracking the top 10. For the record, teams who will be interested in quarterbacks, and where they pick in round one: Oakland (4, 24, 27), Giants (6), Jacksonville (7), Denver (10), Miami (13), Washington (15), Chargers (28), New England (31 or 32).
d. Lots of suspicion that Jon Gruden/Mike Mayock will take a quarterback high (they’ve got three first-round picks) and NOT trade Derek Carr. As one personnel guy told me, the Kansas City model of having a young guy learn under a willing veteran as Patrick Mahomes had with Alex Smith could be tempting. Now Smith is a special case; he’s generous to a fault. Not sure Carr would be that willing to help a young kid take his job.
e. After Ohio State’s Nick Bosa, the best edge rusher seems clear: Kentucky’s Josh Allen.
5. I think this may have been the most consequential statement of the week: “I think I got a handful left.” That came from Philip Rivers, asked about his future by his former center, Nick Hardwick, and co-host Judson Richards on XTRA Radio in San Diego. If that’s the case, and Rivers gives the game, say, three more years, hard to image a guy who will be top-five in history in most of the major passing categories doesn’t get a gold jacket one day.
6. I think you’ve probably read the story of the week, Seth Wickersham’s piece about the helter-skelter ownership of Jimmy and Dee Haslam of the Browns, but if not, here it is. Just for emphasis, some historical perspective on the reign of the Haslams, who have owned the team since October 2012:
• In six years and three months, they have had six head coaches (Shurmur, Chudzinski, Pettine, Jackson, Williams, Kitchens).
• In six years and three months, they have had five general managers (Heckert, Lombardi, Farmer, Brown, Dorsey).
• In six years and three months, they have had 14 starting quarterbacks (Weeden, Lewis, Campbell, Hoyer, Manziel, Shaw, McCown, Davis, Kessler, Griffin III, Kizer, Hogan, Taylor, Mayfield).
• Fourteen starting quarterbacks in 6.5 years!
7. I think it’s such a shame the Super Bowl was in Minneapolis last year and not this year. The forecasted low temperatures for the next five nights—not wind chill, but simply the temperature: minus-15, minus-25, minus-23, minus-13, minus-4. The windchill overnight Tuesday is supposed to be around minus-50.
8. I think it’s fruitless for me to project what I think is going to happen in the Hall of Fame room Saturday when 48 selectors (I am one) gather to pick the Hall’s class of 2019. Many of you have asked, so I’ll tell you what I think going in:
a. Senior candidate (must get 80 percent of the vote): There is one. Johnny Robinson, a Chiefs runner/receiver-turned-defensive back in the sixties, likely gets in; voters trust the work of the senior committee.
b. Contributor candidates (must get 80 percent of the vote): There are two. Longtime Denver owner Pat Bowlen is a heavy favorite, and former Dallas scout and executive Gil Brandt, who has done a lot of everything in his 62-year NFL career, is probable.
c. Modern-era candidates: There are 15. There’s discussion on all 15, then a secret vote taken to eliminate five. Then another secret vote to eliminate five more. Then, the five remaining finalists are voted, one by one, yea or nay, and a finalist must get 80 percent of the vote to be elected. Tight end Tony Gonzalez and safety Ed Reed are heavy favorites. Washington/Denver corner Champ Bailey I’d say is next. After that, truly, it’s anyone’s guess. The committee could try to break the logjam on the offensive line, where Tony Boselli, Alan Faneca, Steve Hutchinson and Kevin Mawae all seem worthy. Steve Atwater, John Lynch and Ty Law all have support in the secondary, but might get wait-listed if Reed and Bailey make the final five. Don Coryell and Tom Flores have fervent support in some corners. I think the last two in the modern group are mysteries.
d. So I’d guess Robinson, Bowlen, Brandt, Gonzalez, Reed, Bailey … and two mystery men.
9. I think most of you don’t know Joe Horrigan, the longtime Pro Football Hall of Fame executive director and historian. He retired last week (effective June 1) after 42 years as archivist and chief historian and, as I like to call him, the Keeper of the Flame. I have covered the league for 35 years, and in that time there have been two Keepers of the Flame: Steve Sabol and Joe Horrigan. Lots of people know the NFL of the last 25 years. Horrigan knows the NFL of the last 100 years. He will be more than missed. His knowledge is a treasure. Personally, I am deeply indebted to him for so many things and for so much knowledge. Thanks for it all, Joe.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Football Story of the Week: “How a Cow Becomes a Football,” by Kalyn Kahler of The MMQB, in Sports Illustrated, edited by Matt Gagne, with terrific photos from David E. Klutho. (You can’t access it till late this week online, so I urge you to either buy Sports Illustrated or check back when it’s live online.) No mystery to this story. It’s exactly what the title says. Kahler takes you from the cow whose hide is on its way to be a football in Bluffton, Ohio, through various steps in the football-making process all the way to Andy Dalton trying it out for use in a game and to Bengals kicker Randy Bullock warming up with it in Week 4.
b. PETA, beware. A warning label on this story: This story contains descriptions from inside an animal slaughterhouse that some readers may find disturbing.
c. Klutho’s opening double-truck photo of cows being affectionate with a football is worth the price of the mag.
d. Did you know that during the process of making footballs, the hides at one point are light blue?
e. It’s a terrific piece. Highly recommended. It’s the kind of different story about a sport that is consistently over-covered that you’ve never read before.
f. Play of the Week: “To Kill a Mockingbird,” with Jeff Daniels (Atticus Finch), Celia Keenan-Bolger (Scout) and LaTanya Richdarson Jackson (Calpurnia, the Finch housekeeper), is just great. I saw it the other night with my wife, and, at the end, I found myself weeping, and having no idea exactly why. It was tragic and uplifting at the same time, and I think I also was in awe of Keenan-Bolger’s performance too (I never heard of her before that night) and of Daniels’ closing statement at trial. Those things contributed. Daniels was so good in that moment, and so powerful, that you could see the spittle shooting from his mouth in his closing. How moving.
g. It’s different from the book. Aaron Sorkin had to make it that way, I suspect, with Scout and Jem being older and looking back, because you can’t ask a 10-year-old to be that great for more than two hours a night. But he had to make it that way too because Harper Lee’s novel, while tremendous, was thoughtful and meandering, and it’s hard to see how that exact portrayal could have worked in a nice two-hour Broadway package. This thing had action, and it was tight.
h. Be proud, Christian and Sam Ponder, that you named your daughter Scout. She is inspirational in the Harper Lee book, tremendous in this play, and the kind of character you want your child to be like.
i. Coffeenerdness: I know I shouldn’t do it, because I realize I do not know where the water is coming from, but the Starbucks version of Delta coffee is a flying treat.
j. Beernerdness: I got to Atlanta late Sunday afternoon, and I’m so glad to be in the home of Sweetwater Blue (Sweetwater Brewing Company, Atlanta, Ga.) for the week. This is one of the best fruity wheat beers in the world because it doesn’t overdo the blueberry element (distinctive but not overwhelming) while keeping the wheat beer part of the bargain honest and delicious. Love this beer.
k. This is my 35th Super Bowl. I am stunned that I’ve been at all but 18 of them.
The Adieu Haiku30
My take on Pro Bowl:
Seventeen syllables is
all that sham is worth.