WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — It’s late Saturday morning six days after the greatest football day of Julian Edelman’s life, and you can feel L.A. here in his West Coast residence. Through a broad window on the second floor of Edelman’s bright and art nouveau home off Sunset Boulevard, a billboard a few blocks above traffic to the south screams an ad for Sunday’s Grammy Awards. Apt. Edelman would be a Grammys presenter.
It’s pretty unbelievable, Edelman being a beautiful person in Hollywood right now, on the red carpet with Drake and Lady Gaga.
You know where Edelman was 10 years ago this week? Trying to re-invent himself at a well-worn gym in Euclid, Ohio, for an NFL roster shot, maybe going to some team’s camp as a scrappy receiver, running back or safety. His more likely options: trying out as an option quarterback in Canada for the B.C. Lions … or becoming a fire-fighter in Cincinnati.
You know where Edelman was five months ago this week? In exile in Boston, separated from the New England Patriots by a four-game PED suspension, working out at the Boston Celtics facility after dawn and then simulating the Patriots practices he was missing on football fields at Harvard and Boston College.
You know where Edelman was one week ago? Posing as the Super Bowl MVP with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
You know where Edelman was four days ago? Getting his foresty nine-month-old beard shaved on national TV by Ellen DeGeneres, to benefit the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston.
Been quite a week, year, decade. But there’s a reason Edelman, 32, is the perfect Patriot. He’s already talking about winning a seventh Super Bowl, when the sixth still hasn’t sunk in. One sentence from our 80 minutes together stuck out to me as I drove away Saturday afternoon:
“We still got meat on the bone.”
And maybe these three more:
“I’m ready. I wanna get started. I wanna get started!”
Just what America wants to hear: Pick against the 2019 Patriots in the NFL’s 100th season at your own risk.
It’s easy to choose Tom Brady as the face of the Patriots dynasty. In so many ways he is — a sixth-round pick in 2000 who has given the Patriots sustained greatness at the game’s most important position. But the key to this franchise, I’ve always thought, is the collection of Julian Edelmans the Patriots have made a consistent priority.
Troy Brown, Otis Smith, David Givens, Rob Ninkovich, Dan Koppen, Matthew Slater, James White, David Andrews. Many more. None drafted earlier than the 130th pick in any draft, if they were drafted at all. All did what the Patriots demand: shut their mouths, do what the coaches say, care nothing about individual glory, work at your craft, love the process as much as the Super Bowls. All played or are playing major parts in the Patriots’ dynastic 18-year run atop the NFL, with Bill Belichick the forever and unquestioned leader.
To be a championship team, the middle class on your NFL franchise must produce, and must be great. Often, greatness must be developed. “The secret sauce in New England is in player development,” said Mike Lombardi, who worked on Belichick’s personnel staff from 2014 to 2017. “Look at this Super Bowl. Jason McCourty and Danny Shelton, from 0-16 with the Browns last year, start against the Rams and make big plays in the game. The staff figured roles for them and made them great at their roles. Julian fits that criteria. He’d walk off the practice field sometimes, see me, and say, ‘What can I work on? How can I get better? You see anything?’ That culture starts with Bill, and it permeates the organization.”
Edelman, the 232nd pick of the 2009 draft, spent the three months before the draft yo-yoing from one workout and one prospective role to another. He worked out as a safety, backpedaling for the first time in his life in drills. He worked out as a third-down back, as a slot receiver, a wide receiver, with the idea that, whatever his new position, he’d have to be a keystone of some team’s kicking game. More and more he worked as a receiver, catching balls from former Browns QB Charlie Frye. Edelman threw 706 passes in three seasons at Kent State and ran the ball 502 times and caught one pass, but he truly had no idea what his pro career would turn into when the “508” number (Foxboro’s area code) showed up on his phone on April 26, 2009, during the seventh round of the draft. Edelman answered, and a Belichick aide told him they were about to draft him and handed the phone to Belichick. Per Edelman, Belichick said:
“Hey well, uh, you’re a hell of a football player. We don’t know what you’re gonna play but we’ll see you at rookie camp.”
Will I be a receiver? Returner? Running back? Defensive back?
Receiver, as it turned out. Edelman showed he had some rare quickness and toughness to be a slot receiver, but so much of the rest of it would be up to him. He’d have to outwork people and never miss a Tom Brady throwing session in the offseason, wherever it was, and he’d have to do silly tennis-ball-catching exercises endlessly for hand-eye coordination, and he’d have to work on receiving mechanics with position coach Chad O’Shea (for all 10 seasons) and on the fine points of route detail and when to adjust—without throwing off Brady—from offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels (for the last seven years). Edelman just showed up every day, willing to be molded into a Belichick Patriot.
In his last 12 New England playoff games, including three Super Bowl victories, no one but Brady has been more important to the cause. Edelman has 100 catches for 1,253 yards. Brady has targeted him 152 times in those 10 games. He caught the game-winner in the Super Bowl against Seattle, made one of the most unlikely catches in Super Bowl history to help win the Super Bowl against Atlanta, and was the MVP last week in his third Super Bowl win.
Of all the great Patriots in Belichick’s 19 years, Edelman is the poster child for showing up on campus, taking his own considerable ability and metronome-like work ethic and becoming an excellent player.
Sitting on his couch, occasionally distracted by the noise of the leaf-blower out on his lawn and the clatter of a Shabbat lunch prep downstairs (Edelman is the first Jew in 53 Super Bowls to be named MVP, and he wears a prominent silver Star of David around his neck), Edelman thought how he would put his role in perspective.
“I think they [the Patriots] grade people differently, honestly,” Edelman said. “They don’t want distractions. They want guys that are versatile. They want mentally tough football players. That’s what I’ve seen through my career being there. They want a smart, physical, tough football player. If you don’t have that, you’re probably not gonna be there. So I’ve been fortunate to have a bunch of teammates—pretty much all the teammates I’ve had have been pretty good guys. You’ve got these young kids out here that have to learn, but you learn from the guys above you. I learned from the Kevin Faulks. I learned from the Toms, the Wes Welkers, the guys that worked hard that were there that were playing at a high level consistently. If you don’t, they usually get rid of you.”
The triumph of the end of this season comes in stark contrast to the beginning of it. Actually, longer than that. Edelman missed 19 New England games (16 regular season, three postseason) after tearing his ACL in August 2017, and then four more from a PED suspension in September 2018. Twenty-three missed games, in what should have been the prime of his football life … that still bugs Edelman.
The suspension is a sore subject, and I could not tell whether it’s because of the embarrassment of getting caught or because he disagreed with the findings of his NFL-administered positive test. Edelman discussed it with me, but I didn’t leave thoroughly enlightened.
“After going through this whole year,” he said, “these last 24 months of my life have been a roller coaster. You go out and you tear an ACL. Then all of a sudden you have a suspension that you’re facing. A lot of things go down and then you end up … a huge low of your life. Because football is life. That’s what people don’t understand with me. This is what I am. This is what I was put here to do. This is what I sacrificed all my time for—my friends, my family, everything like that … And then when you’re told you can’t play football for four weeks because of something that happened that you really can’t get into because you really don’t know what happened, it’s tough. You learn a lot from that.
“When that happened, I had a strong corner behind me. My father and I kind of just sat back and said, All right, we have a problem here. What’s this problem? Let’s make sure this never happens again. Let’s own up to it. Let’s take your penalty like a man, regardless of the circumstances.’ … From this whole thing, I’ve learned that you’ve just got to stay in your routine, and you’ve just got to work your way out of it.
“People don’t know what happened. I can’t sit here and [due to] the league rules say what happened.”
(Actually, a player has the freedom to say what he wants about a league suspension, but he may open himself to an NFL challenge if he alleges something the league disagrees.)
“Do you feel like the suspension was at all unjust?” I said.
“I’m not going down that road. I served what I had to serve and I accept that. I know a lot of people were disappointed in me for it. I apologize. It’ll never happen again.”
Edelman said he knows many people will look at his accomplishments this year as tainted. Nothing he can do about that now. He said, “They’re going to feel that way. I’m not going to worry about that … Everyone goes down a road that they’re not supposed to go down. You can do two things from it. You can keep going down that road and go to a dark place. Or you can turn and go up the hill and go to the top—try to go to the top.”
Coming off the ACL tear, Edelman had a strong training camp. But the month in exile from his team—Labor Day, Sept. 3, to the Sunday of Week 4, Sept. 30—was important not just because he wanted to stay in football shape, but because he wasn’t mentally 100 percent a year after the ACL surgery. The Patriots expected Edelman to come back ready to play in Week 5. And the Patriots had a Thursday night game that first week.
So Edelman didn’t just do weights and ball drills and cardio in those four weeks. He got an old friend, and a fellow Patriots Super Bowl winner, to help.
For four weeks, daily, Edelman went to the Boston Celtics training facility near dawn—coach Brad Stevens is friends with Belichick and McDaniels—to work out, often with Celtics trainer Brian Dolan. Then, also daily, Edelman would go to one of several local fields (the Harvard football complex, or the Boston College soccer field, mostly) and go through the kind of practice work he’d be getting if he were in Foxboro.
Edelman wore pads. He asked one of ex-mates, former New England linebacker Rob Ninkovich, to come to the workouts and play him physically, the way he might get banged around during real games when he returned. Ninkovich played eight years for the Pats, walking away after the Super Bowl win over Atlanta two years ago.
“The first day it was 90-something degrees, and you’re in pads, and it’s tough,” Ninkovich said Sunday. “I’d be tough on him. I’d lean on him, not like maybe he’d get hit in a game, but he’d feel my body presence, and that’s important when you’re coming back from an ACL. He wouldn’t just catch two or three in a row. He’d keep going. Like, 10 passes in a row. Once he dropped one and I said, ‘Bro! Catch it! Concentrate! Squeeze it!’ “
“Just trying to simulate drives,” Edelman said. “Leaning on a guy, getting tired, blocking, doing 10-play drives, throw, throw, throw, block, block, block, throw. You know what I mean? … Being able to go out and run routes on air [with no defenders], that’s fun; that’s cute. But when you have a 240-pound linebacker hitting you after you catch a ball, twisting, you can’t simulate those types of things.”
Edelman needed that. “It helped me keep my mind out of the gutter. It’s easy to go there, that route. Especially nowadays with all this social media and this noise. If you want to find noise, you could find noise.”
Ten catches (eight for first downs), 141 yards. MVP numbers in the Super Bowl. Edelman would have been surprised, honestly, if the day produced much less. In his previous 11 playoff games, he caught 10, 8, 9, 9, 10, 7, 8, 8, 5, 9, and 7 passes from Brady. Edelman: “Did I think I’d have 10 catches? Going into the week, with the game plan we had, and how they played defense and going against [Rams defensive coordinator] Wade Phillips a few times … the running back or guys in my position have a lot of catches. You go in thinking that there’s a possibility you could have a game. With a solid week of practice, two weeks of practice that we had, I felt great. Confidence was high. Thinking on it right now, I wasn’t surprised. The MVP? Didn’t really think about that. Didn’t really think that that was gonna come to fruition.”
But he had a game-week conversation with McDaniels in which, according to Edelman, the coordinator said to him: “You’re going to have to perform well for us to win.” Edelman didn’t have a signature catch, but he did convert four catches into first downs on Rams ace corner Aqib Talib. But Edelman did say he’s got too much in front of him as a player to back-pat about the MVP.
“Down the road, when I’m having a beer in Tahiti when I’m 44 and my daughter’s running around on the beach, that’s when I can probably sit back and think about that,” he said.
Now life interceded, and here came that daughter, 2-year-old Lily, into the room, and Edelman talked about the coming months, which will included a trip to Brazil. He lifted Lily, said, “Let’s go change you,” and left. Not before saying music to the ears of a region that can’t get enough championships.
“Ultimately,” Edelman said, “I can’t wait to jump back on the horse.”
Don’t you always wonder what it’s like for a man to coach in the Super Bowl, then, a day or two later, get introduced as the new coach of Team X? It’s crazy. Happened twice last week. The Patriots found it odd that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross was in their Atlanta lobby at 9 a.m. Monday, 5.5 hours after the Super Bowl victory party ended, to ferry new coach Brian Flores (ex-Patriots defensive coordinator) to south Florida to be introduced as coach Monday afternoon. Zac Taylor had a few more hours to get his family to Cincinnati. The former Rams quarterback coach’s introductory press conference was Tuesday.
So it was interesting to hear Taylor’s reaction over the weekend when I asked him: “How disappointing was it to play the way your offense played in the Super Bowl?”
“I haven’t had a chance to process it, quite honestly,” he said from Cincinnati. “There just hasn’t been time. I haven’t watched the game. Honestly, I’m conflicted. It’s devastating to work so hard to get to the championship game, and for your entire team to pour everything they’ve got into it, and then to lose like that.
“But five or six hours after the game, I’m on a plane to Cincinnati, on the way to fulfill a dream I’ve had for so long—to be a head coach in the NFL. And then your brain goes there. It’s just … it’s just the way it is, and you’ve got to turn the page.”
There was some discomfort in his voice, bordering on pain. It’s easy to sit back and say, Buck up, buddy. You’re about to make millions to coach a football team. True, but if you’ve been a football coach for a while, and you help your team get to the Super Bowl, regardless of the outcome, it’s got to be odd to just walk out the door a few hours after the biggest game of all of your lives, no time to process or adjust, and you move on while everyone else wallows.
One other question. I asked Taylor if he’d had much of a chance to consider how close the Rams came to taking a lead with four minutes left in the third quarter, when Jason McCourty, panic-stricken, ran 20 yards in 2.4 seconds (per NFL Next Gen Stats) to bat a decisive touchdown away from Brandin Cooks in the back of the end zone. If Jared Goff was a millisecond quicker with his throw, the touchdown would have given LA a 7-3 lead and put huge pressure on New England. Instead, the Rams settled for a field goal to tie it, 3-3.
“In football, you just miss by inch sometimes,” he said. “You can be an inch from … “
“That’s football in a nutshell. That’s football.”
I thought that would be it from Taylor, but he brightened, as his mentor Sean McVay would have. Taylor continued, “Criticism, pressure, adversity. We want our staff and our players to understand that this is the NFL. This is why you do this job. The energy, the camaraderie, can’t be duplicated, except maybe at the craps table in Vegas when you’re on a roll.”
The Bengals have needed some energy, and an offensive spur. I’m looking forward to seeing what Taylor can provide. (More, by the way, later in the column in “What I Learned.”)
HBO has a great documentary that debuts Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET called “The Many Lives of Nick Buoniconti.” I screened it last week. It’s a story of one of the most interesting lives in football history—and how grateful Buoniconti is for it, and at the same time how tormented he is by what football did to his family. His son, Marc, was paralyzed in a football game for The Citadel 33 years ago and remains in a wheelchair today. Buoniconti, 78, is struggling with dementia, living out his final years on the east end of Long Island, knowing the likelihood that his condition is due at least in part to a life playing the game.
The director of the film, Bentley Weiner, does a superb job of not being judgmental about the game, but rather letting family members describe it. Marc and his brother Nick Jr. are powerful presences in the story. Marc, smart and poignant and accepting of his life in the chair, says: “When we were growing up, football gave everything to us. And then look what it did to me. And now look what it’s doing to him. I mean, do you love the game? Do you hate the game? Do you love it and hate it?”
It’s impossible to say it more perfectly if you’re in the Buoniconti family.
But the film is more than that. Buoniconti, the son of a baker in working-class Springfield, Mass., used football to get out—to Notre Dame; to the American Football League and later the perfect 17-0 Dolphins in 1972; to law school while he was playing; to practicing law while he was playing; to being a sports agent (I never knew he negotiated baseball Hall of Famer Andre Dawson’s contracts, including a six-year, $6-million deal with the Montreal Expos, or that George Steinbrenner called him the toughest negotiator he ever dealt with); to being an executive with a tobacco company that led him to defend smokeless tobacco to Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes; to a 23-year career on HBO’s Inside the NFL; and to raising more than $500 million for spinal cord research for The Miami Project. What a life.
When I got the documentary to view it last week, I saw it was 74 minutes long. I thought, “No way is this going to hold me for 74 minutes.” But it did, all the way to the last 20 seconds, when Buoniconti stops speaking, looks to his right, a home-health aide walks into the room, helps him up, and the camera follows them out of the room until there is … just the room, empty, and this powerful man is gone.
Two other strong moments from the documentary stand out. Marc Buoniconti’s spinal injury on a football field at East Tennessee State in 1985 torments his father to this day. “Still vivid,” Nick said softly. “Still vivid. Still vivid. Like it happened yesterday. Still have nightmares about that.” And when Nick describes himself as being a renaissance man, because he had to reinvent himself so many times to be an agent, lawyer, Fortune 500 exec, TV guy, Miami Project pitchman, his son Nick Jr. scoffed. “That’s horse—-,” Nick Jr., said. “He’s no renaissance man. He’s a street-fighter from Springfield, Mass., and that’s what got him where he was.”
I’ve known Bentley Weiner from our days together on “Inside the NFL” at HBO. She’s an excellent deep-dive story-teller, a person who gets so deep into the weeds on a story that she finds out every last detail. In this story, she lets eloquent, emotional people tell a deep story of life’s highs and lows.
“It’s a classic story about what football has given a man and a family and what football has taken away,” Weiner said Saturday. “You love it, you hate it. That is the thing I really want to get across. I mean, football got Nick to Notre Dame, and he preached to his kids about the importance of education. He never wanted to get by on football, and he didn’t. He didn’t want his kids to get by on football, and they didn’t. He realizes that, and he’s grateful, but he’s angry too.
“It’s just … complicated.”
It makes for compelling TV.
During Super Bowl week, the group of player activists known as the Players Coalition—the Malcolm Jenkins/Anquan Boldin-led organization advocating action on civic and political and police issues mostly in inner cities—gave out six grants totaling $2 million to non-profit organizations fighting for change. It’s rewarding enough for the Players Coalition to see things like member Devin McCourty fight—and succeed—to raise the state prosecution age in Massachusetts from 7 to 12. It’s another thing to see players be involved in funding groups promoting better police/community relations; in helping restore voting rights to some 1.4 million former prison inmates; in meeting with legislators to spur criminal-justice reform; and in working for educational opportunities in schools where few exist.
Jenkins’ involvement is not about pushing his brand, but rather pushing civic idealism in areas that often go ignored. The publicity of having football players doesn’t hurt. “We’re finding that our brand of advocacy and activism helps situations we think are important,” Jenkins said. “Some of these causes are not likely to get a lot of attention from the public, but where we go, cameras often follow. And if that helps, good.”
One of the six grantees by the Players Coalition is The Justice Collaborative, a non-profit organization asking public to reform part of the justice system it deems unfair to minorities. This year, the Justice Collaborative is working to put into office prosecutors and district attorneys who won’t continue the practice of mass incarceration. The senior legal counsel for the Justice Collaborative, John Matthews II, said there were 200,000 Americans in state and federal prisons 40 years ago; that number is eight times higher today.
“Today is very big day for us,” Matthews said, on the day the Players Coalition grant was announced. For the money, yes; but for the partnership too. “Partnering with the players involves activism we haven’t seen from athletes in a long time. When we’re with the athletes, we’re putting public officials on record in a different way than we’re able to most often … Some of the legislators we’ve met with along with players thought it was going to be a meet-and-greet, but these players had very specific questions for them. They had to respond, and act.
“Every non-profit in the world is struggling. Some causes are sexy—the 2020 election, for instance. But we have big issues too. We are gearing up for district attorney elections in California, Texas, Florida—and the opportunity to shift the conversation on mass incarceration and to make a difference in how many people get sent to prison. This money from Players Coalition helps our fight immensely.”
Stick to football? We should all be glad these players care enough not to.
“I saw it late.”
—Rams quarterback Jared Goff, as captured by NFL Films on the “Turning Point” show, on missing the throw to a wide-open Brandin Cooks in the end zone late in the third quarter. The pass, broken up by Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty on a great play at the back of the end zone, would have given the Rams a 7-3 lead. Instead they settled for a field goal, their only points in a 13-3 loss.
“The first year we knocked on the door. This year we beat on the door. Next year we’re gonna kick the son of a bitch in.”
—Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to Mark Berman of Fox26 TV in Houston.
“I wish the 2019 season started tomorrow. It’s been a tough January for me. I haven’t been sleeping well.”
—Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins, to Sid Hartman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, after a major disappointment of a first year in Minnesota. The Vikings went 8-7-1, including a 2-3 mark in December, missing the playoffs and scoring but 27 points in their three December losses.
“It does seem very dramatic. It’s like somebody that’s watching the Kardashians, and I can call one of the Kardashians. I’ll call my brother, I see everything on TV, and I’ll be like, ‘OK, give me the real story.’ And it’s pretty wild. It’s pretty wild.”
—Houston’s J.J. Watt, to Seth Meyers, on the NBC “Late Night with Seth Meyers” show, via Pro Football Talk, on the Le’Veon Bell/Antonio Brown issues in Pittsburgh, which Watt says he has discussed with his brother, Steelers pass-rusher T.J. Watt.
“It beats being a plumber.”
—Bill Belichick, responding to an off-hand comment by Julian Edelman that the coach sure must like football after Edelman saw him leaving the Patriots facility one night in his rookie year about 11 p.m.
New Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor, on what he learned about Cincinnati, and about the arch-conservative Bengals organization, that convinced him that this was the head-coaching job he wanted above all:
“So I’m an Oklahoma guy, a midwestern guy, and [in 2016] I coached a season at the University of Cincinnati, and my wife and I fell in love with the city. It’s the place for us. And after my interview with the Bengals, I knew this was the job for me. A couple of things I learned. It’s a loyal organization. The Brown family is very big on loyalty in a cut-throat, bottom-line, dog-eat-dog league, when often you might just get two years to turn a program around. I just felt this was the right place at the right time. They hadn’t changed coaches in 16 years, and if they were going to change, this organization had the values I embraced.
“A lot of coaches wouldn’t look at this place the way I did among the jobs that were available this year. For me, this would be close to the number one job.
“No. This IS the number one job. It’s exactly what I want in a coaching job, everything I hoped for.
“One of the things I learned in my time as an assistant is you need to prepare this book about what you’d do if you got an interview to be a head coach. Your staff, your schedules, your philosophy, everything. You put it together, and it becomes a big book. So in this process [interviewing for the Bengals job], I sat there … and I never opened the book. I just talked to them. No, wait. I did open it once, in three interviews—to pull out a schedule I would be using. They just wanted to know what I believed, and how I’d be standing in front of 53 men, in front of 90 men [at the start of training camp].
“My father-in-law is [former Packers and Texas A&M coach] Mike Sherman. His best advice to me: ‘Be yourself.’ That’s what the Bengals are going to get.”
The owner of the 2019 NFL Draft? Oakland, with rookie GM Mike Mayock, who counts Bill Belichick as one of his best friends in football.
The power broker, potentially, of the 2019 NFL Draft? New England, which will have the ammo to move up, down and sideways—and Belichick has always loved wheeling and dealing on draft weekend.
The Raiders have four picks in the top 35. The Patriots have one pick in the top 55. But that’s a misleading part of the story. There’s great depth in this draft from pick 25 to 100 and even deeper, some scouts at the Senior Bowl thought. So there could be fine value in the Patriot picks when they are slated to choose five times in a 45-pick span from 56 to 101.
Raiders and Patriots picks in the top 110 overall choices of the draft, as of today:
• New England: 1st round, 32nd overall; 2-56; 2-64; 3-73; 3-97^; 3-101^
• Oakland: 1st round, 4th overall; 1-24; 1-27; 2-35; 3-66; 4-106
Now that Miami has made it official and hired Brian Flores as coach, I can update this never-ending and ridiculous factoid.
Head coaches in the AFC East since January 2000
New England: 1.
Buffalo, Miami, Jets (total): 26.
I am not a foodie, and in the city that Jonathan Gold made restaurant-famous, I feel totally inadequate in telling you where to eat. But after seeing Edelman on Saturday, and before going to the airport to write and wait for my redeye home (I thought I might be able to make the last non-stop to New York, but I dawdled at Edelman’s place, and I had no chance), I detoured to my favorite pizza place in the world: Pizzeria Mozza in West Hollywood. The crust is perfect—crispy and not too thick—and the ingredients (tomatoes and basil from California) taste so fresh, like they just got picked. The mista salad is perfect too. I washed it down with the Italian Cabernet from Tuscany.
I really hoped, for convenience sake, that Edelman would have been in Massachusetts for another day or two so I could have made this a one-day trip on the heels of a travel-filled playoff season. But I was not in mourning when he said Los Angeles, and when I found out where he lived.
I do think if I had one meal left on earth, it would be eaten at the corner of Melrose and North Highland in Los Angeles, at Mozza, and it would be the Margherita pizza with the organic tomatoes, and extra basil.
Don’t you love the high-quality football content you get in this column?
Mail call. Lots to sort through, but two Hall of Fame emails make the cut this week.
On Tony Boselli and the Hall, from his former offensive line coach. From Mike Maser, of Marvin, N.C. (Maser was Boselli’s only NFL line coach, from 1995 to 2001, in Jacksonville.) “My problem is the selection process for the Hall of Fame. I find it a little ludicrous that a group of writers have the final word on who’s going to be enshrined, and who isn’t. I’m pretty sure most of the selectors have never played the game, or understand the complexities of the various positions they’re sitting in judgment of. For you people to select a center over a prototype left tackle is unbelievable. Having had the good fortune of coaching for 41 years, and having only coached offensive linemen, I find it a little incredulous to take a guy who’s biggest feat was having played for a long time [Kevin Mawae] over a guy who was also an all-decade team member, and played for a shorter period, while being one of the most dominant left tackles of his era. Playing tackle, especially left tackle is an exercise in technique, where week in and week out you face the best pass rushers each team has. I know I am biased because I coached him, but for him not to be selected is a travesty, and for him to be bypassed for a center is a slight that is unimaginable for a guy who had a franchise built around him. Having played only seven years is no longer an excuse. Quality of performance, not quantity, should be the major criteria.”
Great letter, Mike. A few points to make:
• I understand your frustration about the selection process, and the fact that you believe sports media should not be the selectors. (Dan Fouts and James Lofton have been on the 48-member selection committee for three years now.) I would understand if the Hall went another way with the voters, and I am absolutely not saying that we know the game as well as those who coached or played or scouted it did. But I do not think having players or coaches or GMs exclusively would be nirvana either—unless they were excused from voting when teammates or former players were involved. I do think, however, that Fouts and Lofton have been godsends to the committee. They’re smart and passionate and don’t just extol the virtues of their teammates or former coaches.
• Just one man’s opinion (mine), and I am a voter who strongly believes Boselli belongs in the Hall of Fame. But I also think length of career matters. Boselli’s 97 games played is 39 percent the number of Mawae’s games (248), 44 percent of Faneca’s (206), and 53 percent of Hutchinson’s (169). I do not know exactly how to quantify this, but is it not fair to ask this question: If Mawae was a first-team all-decade center, and Boselli a second-team all-decade tackle (both are true), and if Mawae played at a high level at his position almost 10 years long, shouldn’t that be a major factor in the vote?
• I do believe Boselli was the best NFL tackle of a very good group in the second half of the nineties. And I believe he will make the Hall eventually—perhaps even next year, when only Troy Polamalu among the newly eligible class of players seems more likely than not to be elected. I will continue to speak and write in his favor. I was in your stadium in Week 2 1998, when Derrick Thomas of Chiefs came in after a six-sack opening game against Oakland, and against Boselli, he never touched Mark Brunell all game—and you and Tom Coughlin didn’t give Boselli help all day. He was on an island, and he dominated the NFL’s heir to Lawrence Taylor. That’s pretty important to me.
On the Steelers. From John S.: “Sadly your comment about the opening game regarding the Steelers-Pats (‘Drama Queens vs. Model Franchise’) was right on. The truth is until very recently The Steelers WERE the model franchise. The Pats, far from it, if you consider their unethical practice of systematically bending/skirting/breaking rules to win. Compared to Chuck Noll getting the Oilers Playbook before the game and telling the team that he wasn’t going to open it—only one example but there is further supporting evidence. My point being, how quickly things can change. I’m 63 and it’s the first time I’ve been embarrassed being a Steelers fan.”
John, the Steelers have some work to do in the offseason to make their franchise right. Knowing the backbone of the Rooney family, I bet they’ll do it—with or without Antonio Brown. And if he comes back, he’ll be in a one-strike-and-you’re-gone situation.
On Jim Plunkett and the Hall. From Patrick R.: “Jim Plunkett came out of Stanford as the first pick of the draft to the Pats and he proceeded to get clobbered physically by non-existent offensive line play. Considered washed up, useful only as a backup, Plunkett got a chance to start for the Raiders when Dan Pastorini broke a leg. Plunkett went on to win two Super Bowls. Jim Plunkett is the Rodney Dangerfield of quarterbacks. He should be in the Hall of Fame. Quarterbacks with one Super Bowl win have made it but Plunkett hasn’t with two.”
That’s because victories in Super Bowls, while being major factors on a player’s résumé (and, to some, the most important factor), are not the only factor determining Hall of Fame status. If we gave credit to players for being good players but going to the wrong place and getting abused and playing for a loser, then Archie Manning would be a great candidate, and so many others who were very good and toiled on bad teams. Plunkett did some exemplary things as an NFL player, obviously. But he would not get my vote. The two titles do not outweigh the 52.5 percent accuracy, or never throwing for 3,000 yards in a season, and throwing 34 more interceptions than touchdowns.
Many have brought up Joe Namath’s case relative to Plunkett’s, because Namath’s percentage was lousy, and he threw 47 more interceptions than touchdowns. But Namath was the first man ever to throw for 4,000 yards in a season—he did it in 1967, in a 14-game season, and no quarterback did it again till after the league moved to a 16-game season 11 years later. He choreographed the biggest and most meaningful upset in pro football history, the 16-3 Super Bowl win over the powerful Colts, when the AFL proved it could be the equal of the NFL. It’s certainly arguable whether Namath deserves a spot in the Hall, but I’d vote for him 10 times out of 10 because of his significance to pro football history and for engineering the AFL’s biggest victory.
1. I think I can’t make any major conclusions on the quality of the AAF product after one weekend, because I just saw snippets. (I’ll watch more in the coming weeks.) But some of the rules I like a lot. No kickoffs or PATs; teams take possession at their 25-yard line and have to go for two after each TD. No onside kick; teams can try to keep possession after a score by making at least a 12-yard gain with the ball placed at the team’s own 28-yard line. I don’t like the ball starting at the 10-yard line in overtime. Seems gimmicky. We’ll see how that plays out.
2. I think this struck me as odd in my 20 hours in Los Angeles over the weekend: very little Rams gear being worn. I drove a rental car about 35 miles between Friday night and early Saturday evening and saw no Rams stuff. I mean, I don’t remember seeing a soul with team gear. Not saying the city didn’t get fired up over the Rams as the season went on, but I am saying there wasn’t any visible sign six days after the Super Bowl of Rams fever. I find that odd with a product as exciting as this team was.
3. I think this was an interesting note from XFL commissioner and CEO Oliver Luck, from a news briefing announcing Bob Stoops as the coach of the Dallas franchise in 2020, when the XFL will begin play: The new league could be the first pro football league in the U.S. to draft or sign players younger than the NFL does. “We will sign folks who are not eligible for the NFL,” Luck said. “I don’t think it will be a cornerstone of our league, but if we believe a young man is physically mature enough, mentally mature enough, emotionally mature enough to play professional football then I won’t have any hesitation to sign that individual.” The NFL does not draft or sign players till they have exhausted three years of college eligibility. It’ll be interesting to see if any top prospects leave college after a year or two. I doubt many or any will, but it’s something to watch.
4. I think the market for Antonio Brown might be so low the Steelers could find their best option is to keep him—even if it means they may have to cut him in October if he becomes disruptive again. Brown’s a gamble, but the upside if he can be reined in could well be better than a getting 30 cents on the dollar in a trade because teams don’t trust him.
5. I think it’s unnerving to see how Nick Buoniconti is still haunted by his son’s spinal injury 33 years later. (Watch the HBO doc on Buoniconti, and read my section on it above. Well worth your time.)
6. I think free agency will be more fun than usual, because of the quality of players available, many of whom will not be tagged by their teams. The one guy I’d be all over in the unlikely event he is not franchised by Atlanta: defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. Line-wrecker. Pass-rusher Za’Darius Smith of the Ravens is a fascinating prospect too, after recording 60 quarterback disruptions in 2018 … and keeping in mind that Baltimore loves compensatory picks and may be inclined to hope some team spends big on Smith in a market that could see most of the pass-rush talent get tagged.
7. I think it would be marvelous to be a fan of the Indianapolis Colts for the next five years.
8. I think this is my Frank Constanza Serenity Now Note of the Week: Russell Wilson and Alex Rodriguez are opening a chain of fitness and yoga studios, per the Seattle Times. Go to the ATM to finance said serenity. Monthly fee for the peace and fitness: $179.
9. I think I didn’t see this coming: Charles Woodson out on ESPN’s pregame show. I’m not a big pregame show-watcher, but I liked Woodson’s presence on the air. He’s smart, and he doesn’t have to yell to make a point.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Column of the Week: by my friend and football historian nonpareil, Rick Gosselin, the last one as a regular columnist for the Dallas Morning News.
b. Gosselin: “At some point in every story, I wanted my reader to think, ‘I didn’t know that.’ If I accomplished that, I succeeded as a writer that day.”
c. Never read a story by Goose that didn’t teach me multiple things. He has enriched our profession.
d. Radio Conversation of the Week: Writer Tommy Tomlinson, author of “Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America,” on WNYC’s “All of It” midday show with host Alison Stewart.
e. Just terrific. Tomlinson is one America’s great writers—I devour everything he reads, and I will be getting his book. And for him to come clean about his lifelong struggle with food and with weight, to discuss his addiction to food so openly and so painfully, and to describe how he is making progress to live a better life … it’s all just tremendous whether you’ve got a weight issue or whether you just love stories about the human condition.
f. Football Story of the Week: So much respect for Rich Cimini, the longtime beat man of the Jets, now with ESPN, and this is a great example. He breaks down why watching the Jets’ coaching staff this year might be as entertaining as watching the Jets games.
g. Intelligentsia Story of the Week: Boredom is good for your child, by Pamela Paul of the New York Times.
h. Life is not an amusement park. Someone said that once. (Or maybe I just did.) It’s good for uber-involved parents to know that. Very often, imagination is borne out of a quiet mind.
i. Football Column of the Week: Tara Sullivan of the Boston Globe on the Patriots’ hire of Greg Schiano as defensive coordinator through the eyes of a former players at Rutgers. You’ll recognize the story.
j. Triple-take Football Column of the Week: We’re all entitled to our opinions, and USA Today’s Steven Ruiz has an interesting one in the wake of the Super Bowl. Some of you may think he makes a valid point in this column headlined: “Super Bowl LIII was more proof Bill Belichick never needed Tom Brady to win a ring.”
k. To think the Patriots would have six Super Bowl victories with Bill Belichick as coach without Tom Brady, well, that’s a heck of a take right there.
l. As you know, I know nothing about the NBA. But I was glad to see the Pelicans sit on Anthony Davis. And I don’t know how the organization works, but I do know that Mickey Loomis can take the heat and the roundhouse punches that will come with making a decision like this one. Loomis is the Pelicans’ EVP of Basketball Operations, and Dell Demps is the GM, so Demps manages the team day-to-day. So I’m quite sure if Loomis was involved, it was to say to Demps: You’re running this franchise, not Anthony Davis or his agent. And the only thing you should do is the best thing for the long-term best interest of this team.
m. How do teams like Charlotte, Orlando, New Orleans, Atlanta, and I’m sure many others even have hope?
n. Coffeenerdness: Battled a cold much of last week, and so I turned to tea. Tell you what does the trick three times a day: Tazo orange tea with a large wedge of lemon.
o. Beernerdness: Extra Stout (Zero Gravity Craft Brewery, Burlington, Vt.), an Irish Stout that’s about as black as coal, found in the aptly named Dive Bar on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, was a treat on a frigid night when experimentation in beernerdness was the key. A hint of chocolate and a jolt of espresso hit my taste buds, and I was happy to nurse this pint for 45 minutes. Very good winter beer.
p. Happy retirement, Dale Robertson (of the Houston Chronicle). You have been a gem for decades, and Houston’s been lucky to have you as a sports columnist. Man, 46 years. What a career.
q. RIP, Frank Robinson. Or F.Robby, as I used to write in my scorebook when I’d go to a Red Sox-Orioles game in my youth. (F.Robby and B.Robby, of course. Frank and Brooks.) What a hitter. Fearless and feared. Rookie of the Year, National League MVP, American League MVP, Triple Crown winner. Wow. Just wow.
r. I never met him. So I think it best if I passed along the best column I read on the major influencer, Robinson, in the past few days, after he died at 83 on Thursday. It’s by Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post.
s. Great column. So vivid. “Good ball, Barry.”
t. Movie of the Week: “The Catcher was a Spy,” about a catcher who was a spy. I read this book, by Nicholas Dawidoff, a while ago, and loved it. (A Red Sox catcher, Moe Berg, went on to work for the government, spying during World War II.) The movie does it justice.
So, the AAF
got boffo week one reviews.
XFL did too.