FOXBORO, Mass. — I would not describe Tom Brady as giddy, or overly bubbly, about the prospect of playing football with the great but troubled wide receiver he’ll meet today, Antonio Brown. When I met Brady for a few minutes in an office just off the Patriots locker room around 12:20 this morning, an hour after the Patriots finished a stunning 33-3 pasting of the surprisingly docile Steelers in the 2019 season-opening Sunday-nighter, I’d describe him as pleased that the Patriots went out on a limb and invested millions in Brown.
Pleased … but pleased in the way you get when you’ve finished raking a third of the yard. Hardly satisfied. Lots left to do.
“There was a lot of positive emotion when it happened,” Brady said, “but you know, everybody says, Whoa, this is what it can be, and what potential they have. But you know, the teams I’ve been on, they go to work.
“The NFL’s a competitive place. Lots of moving parts. Lots of adjustment, constantly. Week to week, a guy gets hurt, a guy gets picked up you don’t know, you’re constantly manipulating your team. We lost our right tackle [Marcus Cannon, with a shoulder injury] tonight for who knows how long. Like, oh sh–, that’s a big deal. Now we’ll add Antonio, and he’s got to … there’s a lot to learn. … The point is, it’s one thing to talk about, it’s another thing to go do it. Let’s go do it. That’s what my attitude is.”
Of course, that’s why this place works so well. The Patriots have won six Super Bowls in 18 years because Bill Belichick’s a dour metronome of preparation and utter consistency, and his GOAT disciple, Brady, plays the most important position at the same level of preparedness and attitude. So sometime before the Brown deal is announced Monday, Belichick will tell Brown something like this: Welcome to the team. Great to have you. Follow the rules. Those who have heard the Belichick welcome say it’s not particularly long nor emotional. But there will be an understanding that if Brown continues to act like the petulant child he was in Oakland, he won’t last here, even if it means it’ll cost New England owner Robert Kraft millions to jettison him.
As Brady says, We’ll add Antonio, and he’s got to … there’s a lot to learn.
Left unspoken: We’ll add Antonio, and he’s got to be the same as everyone else here. A Team Guy.
“The expectations are high,” Brady said. “Coach always says, ‘I’m not going to congratulate you for doing your job. You’re not going to get a lot of pats on the back because you completed a pass. That’s why you’re here.’ And if you screw up, he’s gonna tell you. I mean, he knows so much football. He wants it done right. Josh [McDaniels, offensive coordinator] wants it done right. That’s what we’re gonna try to do now.”
I said: “Seems like it’s got a pretty good chance to work, based on your history here.”
“I hope so. I don’t think this team would make a decision like that if they doubt it’s going to work. We’re gonna work as hard as we can to make it work to contribute to what we’re trying to achieve.”
Brown hijacked the first week of pro football’s 100th season—it didn’t feel very celebratory, what with Brown secretly and illegally recording his old coach in Oakland to demean Jon Gruden on social media and shoot his way out of Oakland on Friday night—but we had some compelling stuff Sunday nonetheless. Ten headlines:
• Cleveland, the team practically deeded a playoff berth in August, was downright awful and lost at home by 30 to Tennessee.
• The Dolphins might be the worst team in the NFL in years, and Hard Rock Stadium was already pockmarked by swaths of empty seats on opening day.
• Austin Ekeler. Learn that name. (You’ll learn about him in “The Profile” lower in the column.) His third touchdown for the Chargers beat the Colts in overtime. Maybe the Spanoses can make “Melvin Who?” T-shirts.
• Poor Nick Foles. Lasted one quarter as the Great Jags Hope. Broken clavicle. Surgery today. Likely out till November.
• The Eagles had the guts Doug Pederson used to win a Super Bowl in 2017 in a 32-27 comebacker over Washington.
• Jameis Winston was who we thought he was.
• Minnesota was the best team in the NFC North on opening weekend, pulverizing Atlanta till garbage time in a 28-12 rout.
• Christian McCaffrey, in defeat, was a 209-yard Superman. The Rams survived in Carolina, 30-27, as McCaffrey accounted for 61 percent of the Panthers’ yards.
The 11th headline would be, in western Pennsylvania: Are the Steelers really this bad?
Or in the six states of New England: Who needs Antonio Brown?
Today, the Patriots are expected to announce the signing of Brown, whom they hope will buttress a team without a deep threat they can count on (Josh Gordon is one, but substance abuse has limited him to 18 games in the last four years) as they chase a record seventh Super Bowl title. We all know Brown’s issues. They bore us now. So now we wonder if Brown can put down his precious social tools and, as Gruden apparently pleaded to Brown in the infamous (and illegal) Friday night post: “Please stop this s— and just play football.”
The two players in the Belichick era who resemble Brown’s arrival—though neither were as downright disruptive pre-New England—were running back Corey Dillon, traded from Cincinnati in 2004, and wide receiver Randy Moss, acquired from the Raiders in 2007. Each had multiple prime years left. Moss had the best year of his life with the Pats in their 16-0 regular season in 2007, catching a league-record 23 touchdown passes.
The Moss story is vivid and so much like Brown’s. The draft was held over two days in 2007 (first three rounds on Saturday, last four rounds on Sunday), and Oakland owner Al Davis was trying to unload the 30-year-old Moss for a third-round pick. The Patriots said no, as did other potential trade targets, and when the draft ended, Davis said he’d take a four for Moss. That was okay with the Patriots, but Belichick wanted to speak with Moss first. So Moss flew overnight to Boston, and on Sunday morning met with Belichick and VP of personnel Scott Pioli. Moss was due $20.8 million over the last two years of his contract; Pioli said if he’d take a major pay cut (one year at $3 million, with $2 million in makeable incentives), they’d do the deal with Oakland.
“Bro, I don’t care what the deal is,” Moss told Pioli. “Just get it done.”
The Patriots traded the four to Oakland for Moss. “Same thing with Corey Dillon,” Pioli said. “Those guys should get credit for humbling themselves and taking a lot less money so they could try to win a Super Bowl.”
There’s another element—the most important one, the one Antonio Brown is about to experience. Another new receiver to the Patriots in 2007, Donte’ Stallworth, told me he and Moss were stunned in the first team meeting by Belichick’s equal-opportunity wrath-sharing.
“I was sitting next to Randy,” Stallworth said Sunday, “and Bill was showing some plays from the previous season. The Patriots blew a big lead and lost to the Colts in the AFC Championship Game, and he was showing plays where the guys made some mistakes. He gets to Tom, and I remember Bill showing a short pass to a wide receiver that Tom threw really short. Just a bad pass. Bill says, ‘What the f— is this?’ And he says something like, I can get a kid from Foxboro High to make that throw! Randy and I looked at each other. He kinds of sits up real straight in his chair and we had this look like, Holy s—! Is this real?
“That day, we learned the truth about New England: If Tom Brady was getting it, no one was safe.”
So, I asked Stallworth: Is the guy so sensitive to every perceived slight, the guy who seems to trust no one, going to be okay getting called out if he runs an imprecise route—which Brown tends to do. Is Antonio Brown going to be able to take Belichick’s stuff?
“I really think he’ll be okay,” Stallworth said. “You’ve got to remember too that there’s something about playing with Brady. They’ll find things in common with each other. They’ve already got a connection, right? Both sixth-round picks with chips on their shoulders?”
Actually: Brady went to college in Michigan and was the 199th overall pick in 2000. Brown went to college in Michigan and was the 195th pick in 2010.
“I know people are talking about the money he lost,” Stallworth said. “Money’s great. But when you can be a Super Bowl contender, and when you can play for maybe the greatest coach ever in team sports, and you can play with the greatest quarterback, maybe ever, I’ll just tell you, the way players think, that is something money can’t buy. That appeals to players.
“Antonio’s got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But when you get to New England, you have to accept being a cog in the wheel. I think if Antonio buys in, he’s going to have a great year. If he doesn’t, the experience will be over pretty quick.”
I don’t want to forget the non-football stuff here. It’s ugly, and it should not be forgotten. In order:
Something just doesn’t feel right about a player who gets traded, is happy to be traded and happy where he goes, and because he can’t follow some pretty simple rules (like wearing a safer helmet), he goes batcrap crazy and skips a walkthrough practice and never really feels like a full-time member of the team because he missed so much time (after said team handed him $30 million guaranteed). In preparing for tonight’s Raiders-Broncos game on ESPN, the crew heard an interesting admission from Jon Gruden. Reporter Dianna Russini told me Sunday night that Gruden said Brown was never really all-in because he wasn’t there a lot. “We felt for Jon,” Russini said. “He looked like he’d been through hell. I sensed relief that it was over, but it really took a toll on him.”
But I blame Gruden too. He behaved like an enabler too often. In the phone call leaked by Brown on Friday night, before pleading with him to just play, he told Brown how misunderstood he was. And in the same week Brown went after GM Mike Mayock at least verbally, and then released an apparent private conversation in violation of the law, and then was cut … After all that, Gruden said on Saturday: “He’s a good guy. He’s misunderstood by a lot of people.” Man. THAT’S your response to Brown after taking that much abuse?
Then there’s the matter of how convenient it is that Brown signed with New England so quickly. Belichick and Brown’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, have been making deals forever. And from the time Brown was cut by the Raiders on Saturday to the time word leaked that he’d agreed to terms with New England, about half a day passed. Is it possible that there was no contact between the two sides, and that Rosenhaus made the deal quickly, in an hour or so, with the Patriots? Rosenhaus was in Massachusetts on Sunday night, but he refused comment on all things Brown when I reached him. Word has surfaced that at least one other team was seriously interested in Brown on Saturday. Could the dueling deals have been worked in such a short time? It’s possible. I was told by a league source that the league had no plans to investigate Brown’s behavior or the signing with New England, or whether it set a precedent that if a star player doesn’t like where he is, he can act up for three or four days and drive a team so crazy that it will release him. If I were Mike Tomlin or Eric DeCosta or Andy Reid or Chris Ballard, say, big men on big AFC teams, the way this whole story went would really bother me.
The events will stand, and life will go on, and the Patriots, who have played in four of the past five Super Bowls, seem favored to reach another one. New England’s defense is terrific, with a secondary that is football’s best and a front seven that puts just enough pressure on the passer to be dangerous. And if Brown is right, the receiving corps could have Josh Gordon and Brown outside and Julian Edelman in the slot. Those are big ifs, of course, because of the history of Gordon and Brown. “You gotta love football here,” Edelman said Sunday night. “We like football players who love football.” That’s Brown’s reputation. Oakland never saw much of it, though.
More from Brady. I asked him: “Do quarterbacks look at receivers and say, ‘I’d love to throw to that guy?’“
“Absolutely, absolutely!” he said. “I watched Josh Gordon play for a while. I watched DeMaryius [Thomas] play with Peyton [Manning] when Peyton was throwing 55 touchdowns, and I’d say, “Damn!’ I was playing with Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan—I mean, I’ve never lacked for great players. But yeah, I watched him [Brown].”
I wondered about that story with Moss and Stallworth, and Brady smiled about it; he’s been on that end of the Belichick knife a few times. Who knows? Maybe it helped in the perfect regular season in ’07. “That 2007 team, with all the great players, we just went to work. I played with Hall of Famers. Moss. Rodney Harrison, who should be in the Hall of Fame, Asante Samuel, Eugene Wilson. Junior Seau, for God’s sake. We just showed up every day, every week and competed and worked. Randy really worked. And that year it worked out pretty good, till a couple of those last plays at the end [of the Super Bowl loss to the Giants]. Still a great experience.
“Even though that one still eats at me. But now … another year.”
And another Belichick project. The Antonio Brown show comes to New England today, and it could be New England’s most challenging one yet.
At 4:15 Sunday afternoon in Cleveland, after Tennessee shocked the Browns with a 30-point pummeling, the diehards filed out of First Energy Stadium and a very light rain began to fall on the lakefront. Even the sky was crying at the Browns performance, which included three Baker Mayfield interceptions in the fourth quarter, 18 Browns penalties for 182 yards, one score in Cleveland’s last 13 drives, and a trusted tackle (Greg Robinson) ejected for kicking a Titan in the helmet.
Talk about a letdown.
Longtime season-ticket-holder Preston Hoge said from Cleveland on Sunday night: “It’s the loudest crowd I’ve ever heard in that stadium at the beginning of a game, and the quietest crowd I’ve heard at the end.”
“It reminded me of a college crowd,” cornerback Logan Ryan of Tennessee said. “The fans are there at 9 a.m., drinking, and there’s a lot of them. And they were really loud, especially at the beginning.”
Give credit to Tennessee, though. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees sent multiple looks at quarterback Baker Mayfield (sacked five times, intercepted three) all day. You wouldn’t have known Marcus Mariota has the hot breath of Ryan Tannehill on his neck; he was 14-of-24 for three touchdowns and no picks. The Titans were more than solid on both sides of the ball, and their picks of Mayfield came on three straight series that ruined the game for the Browns.
Ryan’s pick, in particular, was an example of how well one team played and how poorly the other one did. “We were in a zone,” Ryan told me from Cleveland, “and it was third-and-four, and I knew they liked to go to Jarvis [Landry] in those cases when they can. I was on Jarvis. I’ve played him so many times. We know each other so well. He’s their third-down guy.”
Ryan was not going to let Landry catch the ball at the sticks for the first down. “They like to run routes at the sticks,” Ryan said. “And Baker takes chances. That’s his M.O. He’s a gunslinger. He’s fearless. I was covering Jarvis tight, and I cut at the ball at the right time.” The pick reminded me of the physical interception Malcolm Butler made to win the Super Bowl for the Patriots five years ago. Interesting that after Ryan made his pick, Butler made a pick-six for the Titans off Mayfield.
All teams can say it’s only one game. That would seem particularly important to the Browns today. And to their fans.
“The hype was a little over the top,” Hoge said. “This game was a wakeup call. One loss is not going to rip the heart out of these fans.”
Finally, you may have seen the above video, or bits and pieces of it, over the weekend or at halftime of the Patriots-Steelers game on NBC. It’s Patrick Mahomes and Brett Favre playing catch, and then trying no-look passes into a net, in August at the Chiefs’ facility.
Interesting how it happened. At NBC, we have offseason story-idea meetings for the football programs—Football Night in America pregames and halftimes. Last spring, I wondered about getting Favre and Mahomes together in Kansas City, with the mentor for both men, Andy Reid, to talk football. (Reid was Favre’s quarterback coach during his third MVP season in the 90s in Green Bay, and he’s Mahomes’ head coach and tutor now.) Favre was in, and Reid and Mahomes said yes too.
So Favre came to Kansas City one players’ off-day last month after the Chiefs broke camp. We did a little skull session first, broke for lunch, and then I’d asked Favre and Mahomes if they’d be willing to throw the ball around a little bit afterward. They both said yes. What was interesting: In many stories like this, it’s tough to get enough time to really do it right. And I never felt either quarterback pushing to end it, or to get out the door fast. They both loved it. Mahomes and Favre threw it around. Favre’s a month shy of 50, and he can really whip it. “He can THROW it,” Mahomes said walking away when it was over. So that was a fun afternoon. Hope you enjoy the video.
GM of the Week
Mike Mayock, Oakland. An adult in the middle of the playpen. One day we’ll know the truth about precisely what happened, but in the end, Mayock realized he blew it by trading third-round and fifth-round picks for an incendiary device named Antonio Brown. Before Brown could ruin Oakland’s 2019 season, Mayock drew his personal line in the sand and said if Brown was going to play in Oakland he’d have to accept proper discipline. Brown not only didn’t accept the discipline but also released a private conversation with Jon Gruden (illegal, by the way) in which Gruden pleaded with Brown to cut out the nonsense and just play football. Still, I don’t give Gruden much credit for this, at all. If Gruden ran everything, the Raiders would have scotch-taped this abject disaster together and found some misguided way for Brown to stay. Mayock refused to continue enabling the player who had been enabled for most of his career. Good for Mayock—regardless what happens with Brown going forward.
Offensive Players of the Week
Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore. Disclaimer: The Ravens’ 59-10 win at Miami came, well, over Miami. But the Ravens spent the offseason working on Jackson the passer (he threw 170 passes last year) taking over for Jackson the runner (147 rushes last year). After one week, it seems that offensive coordinator Greg Roman and quarterbacks coach James Urban were on-target with their work with Jackson. Using the sprinter’s speed of rookie Hollywood Brown for 47-yard and 83-yard TD passes, Jackson finished 17 of 20 for 324 yards, five touchdowns and no picks … for a perfect 158.3 passer rating. He rushed three times for six yards. Consider the transformation of Lamar Jackson off to a flying start.
Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas. With owner Jerry Jones describing a new contract for Prescott, a fourth-round pick in 2016, as “imminent,” Prescott had one of the best games of his young career: 25 of 32 for 405 yards (his second 400-yard passing game in 52 career games), with four touchdowns and no interceptions … also for a perfect 158.3 passer rating. “It felt like a well-oiled machine,” Prescott said. The quarterback’s a pretty important piece.
Defensive Players of the Week
Adrian Amos, FS, Green Bay. The Packers got a free agency gem last spring with Amos, the seventh and second-rated safety in the NFL over the past two seasons, per PFF, signing him away from the Bears for a deal worth four years and $36 million—pretty reasonable for a player of his résumé. In his first game as a Packer, Amos made the play of the game. There was 2:03 left in the fourth quarter, and Green Bay leading 10-3 with Chicago holding the ball at the Pack 16-yard line. At the snap, Amos read Mitchell Trubisky’s eyes perfectly, which wasn’t hard because Trubisky stared down Allen Robinson breaking to the left in the back of the end zone. Trubisky airmailed a throw over Robinson, and Amos picked it off. Ballgame.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Jermaine Carter, LB, Carolina. Carter, with the Panthers down to the Rams 23-13 a minute into the fourth quarter, lined up on the line of the Carolina punt-block team. L.A. had fourth-and-12 at the Rams 23. Carter broke through the line of one of the best special-teams units in football, coached by John Fassel, and smothered the punt of Johnny Hekker. (It was only the second blocked Hekker punt in his career.) The Panthers recovered at the 5 and scored two plays later, making it a game. A great turn of events in Charlotte, sparked by the Carter block.
Anthony Levine, S, Baltimore. Hate to give kudos to someone for doing something with a 35-3 lead, but Levine’s run on a fake punt in the second quarter at Miami on Sunday was just so beautifully executed. Playing upback on the punt, Levine took the direct snap from center Morgan Cox, plowed through a surprised Miami defensive front, and sprinted 60 yards to the Miami 10-yard line. That set up the seventh (!) touchdown of the half for Baltimore on its way to a 59-10 rout of Miami.
Coach of the Week
Mike Pettine, defensive coordinator, Green Bay. “They do a great job at creating a lot of chaos,” Mitchell Trubisky said of the Green Bay defense. Credit new additions Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith, who, combined, caused 16 quarterbacks disruptions (sacks, hits, significant hurries) of Trubisky, per PFF. The NFL is an interesting place for coaches. Pettine got whacked by the Browns after going 10-22 in 2014 and 2015. He didn’t work in 2016. He consulted for Seattle in 2017. He was Mike McCarty’s defensive coordinator in 2018, and the Packers were 18th in the league last year on defense. But new coach Matt LaFleur chose to retain Pettine, buttressing his defense with first-round thumping safety Darnell Savage and unrestricted free-agents P. Smith, Z. Smith and Adrain Amos. Funny what happens when the play-calling is smart, and the talent gets better and the secondary matures. Pettine’s D held the Bears to three points and 254 yards.
Goat of the Week
Baker Mayfield, QB, Cleveland. Fourth quarter, 14:21 left. Browns down 22-13. Need two scores to stop the boo-birds. On his next four possessions, Mayfield:
- Threw an interception that morphed into a Marcus Mariota-to-Delanie Walker touchdown and a 29-13 lead.
- Threw an interception that morphed into a Mariota-to-Walker touchdown and a 36-13 lead.
- Turned the ball over on downs.
- Threw an interception returned for a touchdown by Malcolm Butler, giving Tennessee a 43-13 lead.
In 12 minutes, Mayfield turned a competitive game—driving for a score down nine points—to a rout, the Browns losing by 30.
“If we have a game where we think we can run the ball 55 times in a game in an I-formation, then sure, I’ll get him up.”
—Jay Gruden, in discussing why Adrian Peterson was not active Sunday, in a quote that is sure to burn the hair on the back of Adrian Peterson’s neck.
“Everybody is going to throw us in the trash. I think that’s good. I know how we’re going to react. I think what we’re going to do. We’re going to bounce back.”
—Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield, after the Browns, in the most highly anticipated home opener since the franchise was rebooted in 1999, got blown out by 30 points. By Tennessee.
“Not bad for a running back.”
—Lamar Jackson, the Baltimore quarterback who ran it an average of nine times per game last year,threw it 20 times and ran it three times in the 59-10 win over the Dolphins.
“Three points is ridiculous.”
—Chicago coach Matt Nagy, on the output of his offense in the first game of the season.
“Well, he got my name right. He used to call me Kee-lan. It must mean I’m doing something right.”
—New Dallas offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, to David Moore of the Dallas Morning News, after the Cowboy’s 35-point, 494-yard output in the 18-point victory over the Giants, referring to owner Jerry Jones praising him after the game.
Austin Ekeler • Chargers running back • Photographed in Costa Mesa, Calif.
With Melvin Gordon holding out in a contract dispute, the Chargers opened their season with a 30-24 overtime win over the Colts Sunday with two lesser lights—2018 seventh-round pick Justin Jackson and 2017 undrafted free-agent Austin Ekeler of Division II Western Colorado University—rushing a combined 18 times for 115 yards. Ekeler was the star of the show, scoring three touchdowns, the third on a 7-yard run to win the game in overtime.
The Ekeler story is amazing. The Chargers were going to sign one undrafted running back after the ’17 draft, and coach Anthony Lynn liked Corey Clement from Wisconsin. But in a surprising turn, the Eagles offered a $10,000 signing bonus and $25,000 guaranteed to Clement, high for a player who might be cut. Ekeler chose the Chargers ($5,000 to sign, no other guarantees), and the Chargers are glad he did. In training camp, Ekeler wasn’t going home without a fight for a roster spot. One day he approached Lynn during training camp and said, “Coach, what do I have to do to make this team?” Lynn told him to keep working, and just concentrate on that. “I didn’t even know who he was,” Lynn admitted later.
Ekeler’s story is like so many other longshots—only this one, so far, has had a happy ending.
“I grew up on a ranch in Colorado. It was always sports during school, and building fence all summer. I learned how to work hard. I came up the hard way: Division II school, undrafted. Was the competition in college any good? I left school early. I just trained for football. When I first got to the Chargers, I was all-in on just this moment. I told my family when I got here, ‘Don’t text me, don’t call me, I’ll be studying.’ I was the sixth-string running back. I was getting, like, three plays a practice. Where I was getting noticed was on scout team special teams. I’m not even on the regular special teams—I’m on the scout team for special teams! When Coach Stew [special teams coordinator George Stewart] said, ‘All right, we’re full go,’ I don’t care if I’m scout team, I’m gonna make a play. I’m literally flying down the field. I’m wearing number 3. I remember afterward, Coach Lynn coming into our meeting, watching tape, I’m steaming down the field, and Coach Lynn says, ‘Hey Stew, who’s number 3?’ Stew says, ‘That’s Austin Ekeler, coach. Been doing it all day.’ Coach Lynn’s like, ‘Okay, okay.’ I’m like, yeah! A little motivation right there.
“That’s why I told everyone in my life to chill, basically leave me alone. I needed to be all-in on this moment.”
I asked Ekeler: “What’s the moral of your story?”
“I would say make sure football is really what you want to do before you even start in college. You have to make sure you’re in the right presence of mind, and you’re gonna commit to this all the way. Find something in your life, even if it’s not football. Find something in your life that you really want, and just go for it. That’s what’s going to get you there.”
Each week, with the aid of PFF research, I’ll take a big call in a game from the weekend and explain the whys, and whether it made sense from an analytical view.
Game: Washington at Philadelphia, Sunday.
Situation: Washington up 20-7, third quarter, 13:03 left, Eagles ball fourth-and-one at the Eagles 34-yard line.
The decision: If Eagles coach Doug Pederson goes for it and fails, he leaves Washington (and hot quarterback Case Keenum) a short field to make it a three-score game. If he punts, he could leave Washington 80 yards from a touchdown, but short-circuiting this possession would leave him with one less chance to score in what could end up being a shootout.
The thought process: In training camp, Pederson told me he coached too conservatively last year, unlike his bold 2017 season that ended in the Eagles’ first Super Bowl victory. “I want to coach aggressive,” Pederson told me on my camp visit. “That’s what I gotta get back to. Last year was not my mentality. I’ve learned from that.” And on Sunday, Pederson said post-game he thought it was “a no-brainer. It was just inside a yard [to go]. I knew I was gonna go for it. We had success on the QB sneaks early in the game. I was coming right back to it.”
The analytics: Eric Eager of PFF reports: “There have been fewer than 130 plays when a team went for it on fourth down before the fourth quarter and inside of their own 35 since 2006. The play carried significant weight for the Eagles, roughly a 33 percent proposition to win the game at the time. Punting in that situation would have made the Eagles probability of winning the game the same, while converting the first down would increase their win probability to 40 percent. Converting on all run plays for a team with the strengths of the Eagles against a team with the strength of Washington is roughly a 73-percent proposition, and given the historical rates of quarterback sneaks, likely higher in this instance. Thus, going for it did have some risk, but the benefits outweighed the cost.”
The result: Carson Wentz converted the first down on a two-yard QB sneak. Eight plays later, the Eagles scored to make it 20-14, and on their next series, they scored another touchdown to go ahead for good. No doubt Pederson will be similarly emboldened the rest of the season, the way he was in 2017.
New England plays at Miami on Sunday afternoon.
Antonio Brown went to Norland High School in Miami Gardens, Fla.
The Dolphins home field, Hard Rock Stadium, is in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Norland High is a 24-minute walk from Hard Rock Stadium.
The Oakland Raiders, 12 years apart, have been the donors of two of the best receivers in recent NFL history, Randy Moss and Antonio Brown, to the New England Patriots.
The Patriots, of course, paid nothing for Brown, signing him an a free-agent after the Raiders cut him Saturday. A thoroughly devalued Moss, age 30, was acquired from Oakland in 2007 for a fourth-round draft choice. So in exchange for jettisoning Moss and Brown, the Raiders total haul was a reserve defensive back from the University of Cincinnati, John Bowie, chosen with the 110th pick of the 2007 NFL Draft.
Moss and Brown, combined, have caught 1,815 passes for 26,499 yards and 230 touchdowns in 348 NFL games.
Bowie, in five career NFL games (no starts), had two tackles and no other statistics.
Entering Sunday’s game against the Chargers, Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, 47, played in 314 games in the 21st century. Sunday, in his 315th, Vinatieri missed three kicks in a game for the first time this century. He missed a PAT wide right, and kicked 46-yard and 29-yard field-goal tries wide left.
His last three-miss game came on Dec. 26, 1999, his last game of the 20th Century. Kicking for New England, he missed three field goals against the Bills.
My wife and I got away for a couple of days last week to southern Rhode Island, which is lovely. On our way home, via Amtrak regional train from Westerly, R.I., to New York, we had some time to kill in the Americana town of Westerly, on the Rhody-Connecticut border, and happened into a beautiful bookstore: the Savoy Bookshop and Café. It’s a three-year-old bookstore in a lovingly renovated 133-year-old former hotel. I am a bit of a book nerd, and I love local bookstores. The moment we walked into this one, I thought to myself: In Westerly, Rhode Island? There’s not a bookstore more beautiful and well-appointed and thoughtful in Manhattan. Hardwood floors, what appeared to be an ancient tin ceiling, old-time hanging light fixtures that look like they’re from a forties movie, and big windows letting lots of light in to the first floor. On the lower floor is a children’s book area crammed with age-specific choices. On the main floor, so many reviews by locals, recommending books from all genres. And a good café, with espresso from a Rhody roaster, Dave’s Coffee, with locally baked pastries. What a civilization we’d have if every city and town and village had a Savoy Bookshop and Café.
This sounds crazy, but if you’re on the regional train from New York to Boston, or vice versa, or if you’re driving the same route, it’s well worth stopping for a couple of hours at the Savoy. It’s a two-minute walk from the train station, and five minutes off I-95 exit. If you go, or if you’ve gone, please write to me and let me know your thoughts.
During pro football’s 100th season, I’ll report weekly snippets from the history of the game.
On this date in 1960, the AFL began play.
On a sticky 76-degree evening, with the game on local radio with no TV, at Nickerson Field on the campus of Boston University, the Denver Broncos kicked off to the Boston Patriots in the first game in American Football League history. In just 10 years, the AFL would rise to such prominence that the NFL would be forced to merge with it by 1970. But there wasn’t much evidence of the grand future on this night. The attendance was 21,597, not including some fans the players saw jumping a fence to get in.
“Oh, I remember,” said Larry Garron, a Patriots running back who carried the ball seven times in that first game, a 13-10 Denver win. Garron is 82 and living in Massachusetts now. “It was quite the introduction to pro football in New England. It’s nice to feel a part of something so groundbreaking. When we started, we knew we could catch up with the NFL—we hit just as hard as them.”
Here’s what was so groundbreaking about that first AFL season: The eight AFL owners pilfered eight of the 12 NFL first-round picks in 1960, firing the shot across the bow that began a six-year war with the NFL and led to the AFL-NFL merger. Amazing what happened that year. In that era, the NFL held its draft during the season. On Nov. 30, 1959, Rams GM Pete Rozelle (yes, that Pete Rozelle) picked LSU running back Billy Cannon with the first pick in the draft. Cannon would win the Heisman Trophy that year. And Rozelle signed Cannon for the Rams soon after the draft. A month later, on New Year’s Day 1960, Cannon played his last college game in the Sugar Bowl, and after the game, on the field, he signed a contract with the AFL’s Houston Oilers: three years, $100,000, plus a $10,000 signing bonus—and a Cadillac for Cannon’s dad. The Rams sued, claiming Cannon had to honor his NFL contract. As the case wound through federal court, the NFL named Rozelle commissioner in December 1960. In June, federal judge William J. Lindberg awarded Cannon to the Oilers and criticized Rozelle in the process for rushing Cannon into signing the contract right after the draft. Cannon, the judge said, “was exceptionally naïve, a provincial lad untutored and unwise in the ways of the business world.”
Over the next six years, the deep-pocketed AFL would steal enough NFL draftees so that a merger became smart business for the senior league. Over the next 29 years, Rozelle’s commissionership would have some very similar (and distasteful) court losses.
What’s your best habit, Houston cornerback Jonathan Joseph?
“I learn from my mistakes. Proud that I never make the same mistake twice. That’s one of the biggest lessons from my dad.”
What’s your worst habit?
“Eating. Every day, it’s burgers, chicken tenders, pizza. I eat like a kid. I never had a salad in my life. When I played at South Carolina, [coach] Steve Spurrier found out I wasn’t eating on game day. There was nothing for me that I liked. Coach Spurrier would notice I got tired in the fourth quarter. That’s because I didn’t eat before the game. I never liked pasta, macaroni, the stuff on the training table. I was a real picky eater. Finally, they would bring me McDonalds. I would eat double cheeseburgers to death.
“But I never had a beer in my life. It just tastes bad.”
Jettisoning Antonio Brown is good for the Raiders. From Robbie Crowder: “Thank God AB’s gone. I’m glad to see Mayock stuck to his guns, but I can’t help but think this just shows more ineptitude from Jon Gruden. This is the second year in a row the Raiders get rid of their best player, almost to the day. While AB is talented, he’s a cancer. What person, who is mentally well, dies on a $50,000 hill when $30 million is at stake?”
That is one of the great questions of all this. It’s amazing to me that Brown could not take a deep breath and realize he was about to blow $30 million if he couldn’t exist within the team structure, the way 52 other guys in Oakland are apparently doing. Still, he ended up on a Super Bowl contender with a third of the money, so it’s not like he ruined his career.
On me calling SB 54 the Fairness Super Bowl in the wake of the Chiefs and Saints losing title games last year. From Chris Earnshaw: “Fair would be to stop the Patriots on third and 10 in OT.”
I’ve consistently written for years that overtime rules should assure each team at least one possession in OT. That’s what the fairness thing for Kansas City was all about. In a game of this magnitude, I believe it’s wrong that a coin flip is so influential in the outcome of the game. I’d have said the same thing if the Chiefs had won the flip to start overtime. Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs scored three touchdowns and a field goal in the fourth quarter. The coin flip played too important a role in which team won a championship game.
Separation of church and state. From Mark Caudill: “If the Dolphins are tanking, why wouldn’t they play Josh Rosen?”
I doubt GM Chris Grier tells coach Brian Flores who to play, and Flores thinks Ryan Fitzpatrick gives his moribund roster the best chance to win right now. Grier’s job is to build the best team he can for 2021. Flores’ job is to win as many games now so he’ll be the coach of the team in 2021.
On Luck’s case for the Hall. From Len Janssen: “You said: ‘About Andrew Luck’s Hall of Fame case, and the cases of others who retire early, I think it would be tough to make the case that a quarterback who never got to a Super Bowl but who had very good numbers in a short career deserves to be in Canton.’ In the ultimate team game, you seem to be saying that a player, no matter how great, can’t make the HOF if he happens to be part of a dysfunctional organization … I’m reminded of great players on terrible teams that have never made the Hall. It seems like, in an effort to find some screening measure to rule players out, Super Bowl wins get overvalued.”
Len, I agree—lots of great players made the Hall of Fame without winning a Super Bowl. But part of the Hall of Fame discussion is longevity. Andrew Luck played five-and-a-half NFL seasons, and he never won a conference title or Super Bowl title. Luck played 94 games. Look at all the quarterbacks from the last 20 years he would have to compete with to make the Hall. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, locks. Good résumés: Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning (has played 150 more games than Luck, and won two Super Bowls), Philip Rivers (has played 223 games with no end to his career in sight). Matt Ryan, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson are off to good starts. Wilson has already played 125 games and won two conference titles and one Super Bowl. I’ve named 10 quarterbacks from the first 20 years of this century who would be more qualified than Luck. We’ll see, but Luck’s shot at the Hall of Fame is a long one.
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 1:
a. The Packers going 1-0, with five of the next six at home. Weeks 2-4: Minnesota, Denver, Philadelphia home. Week 5: at Dallas. Weeks 6-7: Detroit, Oakland home.
b. With the very early results in, Andy Dalton and Zac Taylor look like quite a good marriage. Dalton was confident and accurate all day in Seattle.
c. Larry Fitzgerald playing in his Cardinal franchise-record 235th regular-season game. Some great symmetry to Fitzgerald’s year, if he plays all 16 games at age 36: That would give him 250 NFL games, excluding playoffs.
d. Of course the first touchdown of Sunday in Week 1 was a Patrick Mahomes pass to one of his speed demons, Sammy Watkins. Bad coverage and tackling by Jacksonville, but you can’t tackle speed.
e. Mahomes in the first 13 minutes at Jacksonville: 211 passing yards, two TD passes, 17 points.
f. Mahomes has more passing yards and touchdowns (5,759 yards, 53 TDs) in his first 18 games than any quarterback in history. Actually, no quarterback has as many yards or TDs in his first 20 games.
g. Wow, Gardner Minshew. Didn’t know you had a nine-for-nine NFL half in you, and a competitive game against the defending top seed in the AFC. Good for you.
i. And how about A.J. Brown, the physical rookie second-round receiver for Tennessee? Did you see that 51-yard juke-and-run reception from Marcus Mariota setting up a third-quarter field goal? That guy’s a keeper.
j. All of you who thought the Eagles got a steal with Penn State running back Miles Sanders with the 53rd overall pick? Amen.
k. Hollywood Brown, wideout, Baltimore … First quarter of his pro career at Miami: Three catches, 144 yards, touchdown grabs of 83 and 47 yards.
l. Sammy Watkins, wideout, Kansas City … First quarter of Chiefs-Jags at Jacksonville: Four catches, 141 yards, touchdown grabs of 49 and 68 yards.
m. Wow, Vernon Davis. That hurdling-and-run-after-the-catch was the play of Week 1.
o. Keenan Allen’s going to have a monster year. His physical touchdown catch against the Colts was an apt opening act to his season. Great hands, good speed, more physical than people think.
p. Le’Veon Bell played every offensive snap for the Jets (67 of them), and had 92 yards on 23 touches. Nice game, not a great one. But he absolutely did not look rusty.
q. Not a bad debut for Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson, who had the most productive debut for a tight in NFL history—124 receiving yards.
2. I think this is what I didn’t like about Week 1:
a. Same old Jets.
b. Browns: 18 penalties for 182 yards. Three fourth-quarter interceptions by Baker Mayfield leading to 21 Tennessee points.
c. Man, did that tie feel like a loss for Detroit.
d. I find it heartbreaking for Nick Foles that he is the classic relief pitcher two straight years in Philadelphia, wins a Super Bowl in one of them, chooses a good team to try to take one more shot being a starter, spends all off-season being a leader, great teammate, etc., and then, in his first half with his new and promising team, he suffers an injury (broken clavicle) that could sideline him for two months. Just a bummer.
e. The strange story of Kaare Vedvik, Norwegian kicking phenom, keeps getting stranger. He attempted two kicks in his first regular-season game as a pro for the Jets. On a first-quarter PAT, Vedvik clanged it off the left upright. On a second-quarter 45-yard field-goal try, he booted it wide right.
f. Matt Ryan forcing it to Julio Jones. That caused Ryan’s first pick of the season.
g. Miami fans, in midseason form, booing the home team in the first quarter. It’s Sept. 9, and it looks like it’ll be a very long season in south Florida.
h. Jalen Ramsey is a little cheap and chippy for my liking.
i. Trumaine Johnson just gives way too much cushion. He looks like a corner playing with zero confidence.
j. Not sure what was more one-sided: Oklahoma 70, Murray State 14 or Baltimore 59, Miami 10.
k. I’ll tell you what will be the most unfair firing: if the Dolphins fired Brian Flores after denuding the team this year.
l. Come on, Myles Jack. You’re ticked off at getting thrown out for throwing a punch at a Chief? Did you miss the information that throwing a punch is cause for ejection in an NFL game?
m. You deserved the ejection, too, Kwon Alexander, for using your helmet as a torpedo on Jameis Winston. That was one heck of a homecoming.
3. I think I don’t want to put a coach on the hot seat after one week, but man, that was an ugly opener for the Falcons’ head coach who took over as defensive coordinator this year. Dan Quinn watched the Falcons get gashed for 120 rushing yards and 21 points in the first half alone at Minnesota. That was a borderline non-competitive game. Since the morning of Super Bowl LI, Atlanta is 18-18. And if you think Arthur Blank is a patient man about such things, you do not know Arthur Blank.
4. I think what tells you the most about the NFL, circa 2019, is that CBS assigned Jim Nantz and Tony Romo to Tennessee-Cleveland in the first week of the season. Nothing is forever in the NFL
5. I think I’ve got three observations about the Jared Goff contract:
• I get the raised eyebrows over paying Goff $110 million guaranteed, but consider that just before Sean McVay got his contract extension with the Rams in late July, McVay told Rams brass: I just want to be sure we’re going to extend Goff too. I want him around as long as I’m around. McVay is sure he can win with Goff, and, as transcendent a coaching talent as McVay is, you’ve got to trust him.
• The cap has gone up an average of $10.8 million a year over the past seven seasons. It is $188.2 million this year. Even though the cap could fluctuate wildly with the next CBA being negotiated now, let’s just assume $10.8 million growth per year on the NFL cap. That would mean Goff’s cap numbers would take up these percentages of the Rams’ salary cap over the next six years, starting with 2019: 3.0 percent, 17.2 percent, 14.7 percent, 13.2 percent, 12.4 percent, 10.3 percent. The Rams usually don’t let star players play to the end of their contracts. Even if the last year ends up being rolled into a new deal, it’s a big plus if your quarterback, in his prime, is taking up 13.2 and 12.4 percent of the team’s cap, as Goff would at age 28 and 29.
• Please, please, please: Understand that the money quarterbacks make is monopoly money, and consider the percentage of the cap and not the raw dollars, because the percentage of the cap is all that truly matters.
6. I think—and I’m not sure you’ve noticed—that the Patriots have, oh, a decent chance to win the AFC East this year. (Ten straight AFC East titles for the Evil Empire, with margins of 1, 3, 5, 5, 4, 3, 2, 4, 4, 4 games in those 10 seasons.) Judging by the first weekend, when the Jets and Bills took turns handing a game to each other, and the Dolphins look to have their worst team in a decade at least, and judging by the man who will be introduced as the new Patriot today, it’s not going to be much fun watching the AFC East “race” this year. Longtime Rochester Democrat & Chronicle scribe Sal Maiorana didn’t seem too happy about it Sunday even when he tweeted: “The NFL is pointless. The despicable empire is just going to roll all the way to another title. No one is gonna beat this team and they haven’t even dressed the despicable wide receiver yet.” I see.
7. I think one of the stories that will get lost (because his team lost, mostly) is that a sixth-round rookie, who barely practiced with the first unit in his first summer with the team, had to play most of Sunday’s season-opener for the Jaguars. And Washington State’s Gardner Minshew went 22 of 25 for 275 and two touchdowns, with one interception and a 122.5 rating against a changeup-playing defense. Mike Leach must be smiling this morning.
8. I think these teams I underrated: Dallas, Minnesota. Hard to tell, because the Giants were so easy to move the ball on, and the Falcons looked so awful. But if Dak Prescott is that accurate and dynamic in and out of the pocket, and if the Vikings’ running game can take pressure off Kirk Cousins so effectively as it did Sunday … well, both of those teams could win January games.
9. I think lots of fan bases will be hugely disappointed this morning. Cleveland’s at the top of that list. Then Atlanta, Miami (but Fin fans had to know it was going to be bad), Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh … but I’d also put Tampa Bay high on that list. Bruce Arians got hired to fix the quarterback, and he brought his new quarterback-whisperer, Byron Leftwich, with him to be hand-in-hand with Jameis Winston. Arians and Leftwich stressed taking care of the ball with Winston, and Sunday’s 31-17 loss to San Francisco was the big test. Winston failed. Three interceptions, two returned for touchdowns. The Bucs have to make a decision on whether to sign Winston long-term by the end of the season, and many more afternoons like Sunday’s will put him on the free-agent market in 2020—and put the Bucs back in the market for a franchise quarterback. Again.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Story of the Week: NPR’s Frank Langfitt on the challenges of being a foreign reporter in China.
b. Fascinating, disturbing, imaginative, innovative. Such an interesting look at one side of life in China.
c. A great journalism lesson too. Langfitt was frustrated at every turn by the government spying on his reporting, and following him, even detaining him once and expelling him from an area where he’d gone to look into a double-murder.
Given the growing repression, getting people to open up was not easy during my five years with NPR in Shanghai,” Langfitt reported. “My solution was to give free taxi service, offering rides in exchange for conversation. I got the idea from my time as a taxi driver in the 1980s in Philadelphia, where I found passengers were candid and sometimes treated the cab like a confessional. My Shanghai free taxi turned the normal foreign reporting experience in China on its head — instead of me asking the questions, my passengers sometimes interviewed me. When we reached their destination, most passengers asked to exchange contact info on WeChat, China’s ubiquitous social media app. Some invited me to dinner. If I’d been operating traditionally, interviewing them on the street, they might have recoiled.
d. There is always a way.
e. Football Story of the Week: by Ian O’Connor of ESPN.com, on Cherry Starr’s life with her beloved husband Bart, who died in May after a long illness stemming from a stroke.
f. O’Connor’s passage from the last night of Bart Starr’s life was particularly riveting:
Though she assumed Bart could no longer hear, Cherry put her face next to his cheek and whispered into his ear, “Bart, darling, I love you so much. Thank you for giving me such a beautiful life.”
“I love you too,” he whispered back.
Bryan Bartlett Starr, 85, died the moment he finished saying those four words.
g. Interview of the Week: Dan Kaplan of The Athletic, with a Q&A with Bill Cowher the tennis fan. Good line by Cowher to Kaplan on the tanking Dolphins:
I just hope that they have a plan in place with the players that are on the team right now. Because I think you’re doing them a disservice. And it’s, you know, it’s not fair to the players to ask them to commit themselves to you this year when your thinking is in two or three years’ time.
h. Baseball Story of the Week: Stephanie Apstein of Sports Illustrated on Pete Alonso, the majors’ home-run leader, and its leader in optimism too. He’s an amiable sort and carries a big stick. Apstein writes:
During a June series at Wrigley Field, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant asked Alonso if he could spare an extra Dove Tail PA20 bat. Bryant used it for about a week before exhaustion set in. He was having trouble dragging the 34-inch, 32-ounce lumber through the zone.
i. Stephanie Apstein is a gem. So many good stories from her to make baseball breathe.
j. David Begnaud of CBS News, reporter on the disenfranchised, is absolutely great.
k. Speaking of journalism, this is great.
l. Kudos, Jamil Smith of Rolling Stone, on this piercing NFL social-justice column.
m. And have you heard the one about the 82-year-old burglar who thieved New York buildings on holidays? It’s a doozy.
n. I don’t get upset by all the home runs. But it’s fairly Brady Andersonish to see Eugenio Suarez, Max Kepler, Franmil Reyes and Xander Bogaerts all over 30 jacks with three weeks to play.
o. Two games: Wisconsin 110, Foes 0.
p. Ahhhhh, Nick Saban. With his team up by 52 over New Mexico State late, and the temperature at 97 degrees, Saban saw the stands emptying in Tuscaloosa. He disapproved. “Are they willing to do everything to be number one?” Saban said later. “You can ask them that. I don’t know the answer.” Nick, they’ll stay for the end of the Alabama-Clemson game in January. Pretty sure of that.
q. Saw a great documentary Saturday in New York … “Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins,” the longtime rabble-rousing, truth-telling columnist from Texas. Just a story of a woman way ahead of her time, standing up for truth and justice as she saw it. So glad movies on people like Molly Ivins are getting made.
r. Where have I been, and how have I missed “The Great British Bake Off” on Netflix? (Could be that until my niece Laila showed my wife and me how to, you know, use Netflix that we missed everything on it.) We just finished watching Series 9, with the shy and totally unconfident Rahul beating Kim-Joy and Ruby for the crown. I think it’s a wonderful show. I totally got into the characters, earnest and truly good, and loved the oft-acerbic judges. Makes me want to bake.
s. Wow, Bianca Andreescu. What a win. The great thing about her U.S. Open victory over Serena Williams, in Williams’ country and with the crowd 99 percent in Williams’ favor, was Andreescu up 5-1 in the second set, then losing four straight games to go 5-5, then winning the last two to win the set 7-5, and the match. That is one tough player.
t. Classy move by the Patriots last night. My thanks and appreciation to the organization:
• Today, Oakland. Broncos at Raiders, 10:20 p.m. ET. Final game of Week 1, and I’m looking forward to hearing Louis Riddick do color in the booth for ESPN. Riddick on Denver’s other pass-rusher, Bradley Chubb: “Bradley Chubb will have a monster, breakout year. He told me, ‘I’m gonna be used a little bit like Khalil Mack in Chicago.’ ” Keep those coming tonight, Louis—plus some insight on the Antonio Brown weirdness.
• Wednesday, Foxboro. The first full practice for the Patriots prepping for the game at Miami. Antonio Brown stops by Tom Brady’s locker before practice. What Brady won’t say: You better not pull that s— here, dude. What Brady will be thinking: You better not pull that s— here, dude.”
• Thursday, Charlotte. Thirty-four weeks to the day after shoulder surgery, Cam Newton plays a short-week game against the Bucs. It’ll be his second game in five days, and the strain of this mashed-up schedule should tell us everything we need to know about the fitness of his right wing.
• Sunday, Los Angeles. Saints at Rams, the rematch, 1:25 p.m. PT. The Tommylee Lewis Bowl.
Dolphins: House afire.
A four-alarm inferno.
Poor Brian Flores.