We spend way too much time talking about the officials. I don’t know what the solution is. The stories are huge this morning. Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees might really be hurt. The Bills and Niners might be good. The Patriots might be the Steel Curtain. The finishes in Denver, Atlanta and Houston: fantastic. But what we are talking about? Another craptastically blown call in a Saints game, causing Sean Payton to spin into orbit, justifiably. A couple of controversial calls in the last-second (literally) Chicago win over Denver. The inability to get pass-interference right.
When a rookie referee, Adrian Hill, makes two awful roughing-the-passer calls (the second of which was huge in Chicago coming back to beat Denver), it’s not a shock; seven of the league’s 17 refs are in their first or second year, and they’re clearly green. But when the worst call of the weekend is made by one of the best in the game, 17-year referee Walt Anderson, what hope is there?
Writing about it seems fruitless. Raging about it, equally fruitless. Nothing’s going to change. The league might (probably will) make reviewing pass-interference calls and non-calls a one-and-done monument to unintended consequences and kill it after one year. There’s not much momentum either to expand replay or to eliminate it; bad calls would exist regardless. Of course we should just live with them, but when you see what’s happened to the Saints in their last three games—the blown interference non-call in the NFC title game, the mysterious disappearance of 15 seconds on the clock in Week 1, and the inadvertent whistle that cost the Saints an 87-yard touchdown in a 3-3 game Sunday against the Rams—raging against the machine seems proper.
The Lead: Officiating
With six minutes left in the second quarter of Saints-Rams, L.A. had the ball at the Saints 11-yard line. Jared Goff was pressured heavily. He cranked his arm to throw and, before he did, the ball fluttered out of his grasp. Saints defensive end Cam Jordan picked it up at the 13 and started to run. But the play was ruled dead, apparently because of a whistle blown by Anderson.
When the whistle blows, regardless why, play is dead. With no whistle blown and the ball free, a defender can pick it up and run with it—and the play needs to be reviewed and called back; that’s why there’s replay. “We tell the referees to let it play out because we can always come back and make it an incomplete pass,” NFL officiating VP Al Riveron told pool reporter Larry Holder after Anderson’s gaffe. “As happened here, we blow the whistle early, so the most we can do is give the ball to the defense.” With no return.
The game was tied 3-3. Instead of the Saints going up 10-3, they turned it over on downs and the Rams kicked a field goal. So they weren’t up seven late in the first half. They were down three. Ten-point swing. And probably New Orleans, without the injured Brees, would have lost anyway; the final was Rams 27, Saints 9. But no one knows.
“What I did as a referee,” said NBC’s rules expert, Terry McAulay, “and what refs should do unless they know what happened unequivocally, is just stay away from it and let it play out. This was a critical error.”
“You get no chance to redeem yourself if you blow the whistle,” said FOX’s rulesmeister, Mike Pereira. “Walt is a good official. He will be sick about this. He won’t just be sick for a week. He’ll be sick about it for years, every time he thinks of this play.”
In Denver, Hill appeared to be doing what the league asks officials to do—trying to protect the quarterback. But he flagged Chicago’s Eddie Goldman for a clean tackle to the midsection of Joe Flacco just as he released the ball. And he flagged Denver’s Bradley Chubb for tackling Mitchell at his moment of release.
Was Hill flagging each guy for the dreaded “body-weight-on-the-quarterback sack?” Maybe, but neither was a good enough example of that to call. The Chubb call, with 24 seconds left in the game, was crucial. Denver led 13-12 and Chicago needed to gain about 35 yards to have a decent shot at the game-winning field goal. The Chubb call gave the Bears nearly half of that, 15 yards, to the Chicago 45. The Bears got to the Denver 35 with a second left, and Eddy Pineiro’s 53-yard field goal won it.
FOX’s Mark Schlereth was apoplectic about each call. “Garbage call, but that’s the world we live in today,” he said after the Goldman play. And post-Chubb, Schlereth noted: “I guess we’re gonna legislate contact out of a contact sport.”
Maybe not contact entirely. But most contact on a quarterback—that’s for sure. The refs, almost solely responsible for quarterbacks hits and quarterback safety on the field, have had it drilled into them to err on the side of over-protecting the quarterback so much that they get whistle-happy when there’s a crowd around the passer, or when a passer gets hit hard legally. The refs have a tough job. But particularly in the case of the Anderson call jobbing the Saints, there’s simply no excuse for it. It’s stunning an official of Anderson’s résumé blew it.
That Was a Fun Sunday10
Ten thoughts encapsulating the first eighth of the season:
1. It’s not hard to shut out the Dolphins these days, but the Patriots, in their last three games (including Super Bowl 53), have not allowed a touchdown. New England’s given up 3, 3 and zero points.
2. Patrick Mahomes is averaging a 410-yard passing game. He had a four-touchdown second quarter Sunday.
3. Quarterbacks never get beat up anymore, but Drew Brees (thumb) and Ben Roethlisberger (elbow) will have MRIs today, Sam Darnold will miss a month or so with mono and Carson Wentz might have a rib issue.
4. The faith index is low on Kirk Cousins, Doug Marrone, Marcus Mariota, player faith in anything Dolphin-related, and Adam Vinatieri.
5. The faith index is high on Dallas, John Ross, Dalvin Cook, the Niners and Lamar Jackson.
6. In eight days, the Ravens have taken ownership, basically undisputed, of the AFC North.
7. Most impressive first two weeks (non-New England division): San Francisco going on the road to Tampa Bay, Youngstown (practicing for the week at the home of the Youngstown State Penguins) and Cincinnati, and winning by 14 and 24, mostly due to third and fourth running backs and a stout defense.
8. The Steelers, 0-2, have two tough West Coast trips (Niners, Chargers) and a match with Baltimore in the next month. If they have to navigate that road with Mason Rudolph instead of Roethlisberger, it could get late early in Pittsburgh.
9. Kyler Murray is up and down and raw, but I’d pay to watch him play.
10. Antonio Brown has hijacked the first two weeks of pro football’s 100th season, and not much should change this week as allegations of assault against him are investigated by the league. In other news, he’s a good football player. He dominated a couple of series at Miami with four days of practice on a new team. If he plays, he easily could be a redux of the 2007 Randy Moss in New England.
The Bills Can’t Wait to Get Home
You’re going to love my factoid (I hope) about the Bills opening the season with identical road trips to Jersey City/East Rutherford. New Jersey, said quarterback Josh Allen, “started to feel like home, I’m not gonna lie. But now we get to go to our real home, and the crowd will be fantastic for us next Sunday against Cincinnati. At home, you don’t have to use your silent snap count, and you can just focus on playing.” Check out the slate for the 2-0 Bills between now and Nov. 3: Cincinnati home, New England home, at Tennessee, bye, Miami home, Philadelphia home, Washington home. Five of six in the land of Bills Mafia. It’s dream-like, but is there any reason this team can’t be 6-2 at the halfway point?
One of the things I noticed watching Allen on Sunday, intermittently, is he seems to be getting out of the habit of forcing the ball. Late in the game against the Giants, trying to add to a 21-14 lead, he rolled right and really wanted to hit one of two targets in the end zone. But they windows were too small. He threw it away. “We were up seven, and a field goal puts us up two scores, and the defense can finish it off for us,” he said. “The big lesson for me this year is be smart with the football. I feel like [offensive coordinator] Brian Daboll and coach [Sean] McDermott have spent a lot of time teaching me how to play football. They’ve really coached me in the little things.”
“Have you noticed the Patriots have won their first two games by a thousand points?” I asked.
“That’s not on our radar,” Allen said. “I’m focused on enjoying this one and playing Cincinnati.” Good answer.
The Rams Showed Who They Are
Watch that incredible 66-yard Cooper Kupp catch and run from the fourth quarter of the Rams’ 27-9 win over the Saints in Sunday’s NFC title game rematch.
At first, it looks like Kupp is Mark Bavaro circa 1986. But run it back a few times. Kupp was outstanding and physical and instinctive. But he had help. Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods, two stars, were sprinting along with him like they were running for the end zone. At the Saints’ 40, Woods leveled safety Marcus Williams. At the 26, Cooks blocked corner P.J. Williams off the play. Near the goal line, Woods hit linebacker A.J. Klein, deflecting him while he was trying to tackle Kupp.
Before I watched it 12 or 15 times, I talked to Kupp from the Rams’ locker room. “I’ll tell you what—watch that play over a few times,” he said. “You’ll see Cooks and Woods go down and make blocks downfield. They’re sprinting with me. That is the essence of the team, the connectivity of the team. That play says they care about the team, even when they don’t have the ball in their hands.”
It’s exactly as Kupp says. To see Cooks and Woods blocking the length of the field for Kupp isn’t something you see out of every receiver group, particularly out of receivers who’ve arrived, as those two guys have. But Sunday was Kupp’s turn for the big numbers—five catches, 120 yards—and he had 13 yards more than Cooks and Woods combined. That’s okay. They know they’ll get theirs another Sunday. It’s also a good example of the culture Sean McVay has set up.
The 49ers Can Win in Different Ways
How far the Niners go this year probably depends on the continued maturation of Jimmy Garoppolo, who started his 12th NFL game at 27 on Sunday in Cincinnati. Garoppolo threw touchdown passes of 38, 39 and two yards to three receivers, showed a good command of the Kyle Shanahan offense, and was cool with being a co-star on a 41-points, 572-yard day.
“What was the play you were most proud of?” I asked Shanahan.
“When he didn’t throw it—and he ran for the first down,” Shanahan said. That was on San Francisco’s second scoring drive. First quarter, third-and-six from the Niners’ 34, and Garoppolo took off up the middle. “He’s never scrambled a ton, but you want him to be comfortable enough to do when he has to. And coming off the ACL, it’s good to see him have the confidence to make a play like that.”
What I think is really good for this team: with Jerick McKinnon and Tevin Coleman injured, the third and fourth backs, Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert, combined for 204 rushing yards on 25 carries Sunday in Cincinnati. On the other side, the 49ers held two good backs, Joe Mixon and Gio Bernard, to 23 yards on 17 rushes. “What’s good about these two wins is we’ve won two different ways, with two different styles,” Shanahan said. “We’ve gotten a lot better on defense, and young guys like [linebacker] Fred Warner and [cornerback] Ahkello Witherspoon, who got forced into playing early, are now better players because of it.”
The negative: A very good left tackle, Joe Staley, suffered a broken leg Sunday and will miss six to eight weeks. Sixth-round rookie Justin Skule will step in, but he’s got the Steelers and the Rams on the horizon in two of the next three games. For San Francisco, 2-0 is good, but with four games against Seattle and the Rams, and road shows at Baltimore and New Orleans, this is going to be a tough road to the first playoff berth of the Shanahan/Lynch era.
Vinatieri Might Have Hit a Wall
Colts coach Frank Reich said he has “zero concern” about Adam Vinatieri after another bad game for the 46-year-old kicker in the Colts’ 19-17 victory over the Titans in Nashville. At the same time, Pro Football Talk reported Sunday night that “signs are pointing toward a retirement announcement on Monday.” Vinatieri missed a PAT and two field goals last week, and he missed two of three PATs on Sunday. Going back to the last game of the last season, when Vinatieri missed two more PATs, he’s missed an alarming seven kicks in the last three games.
This is how historically sure a foot Vinatieri has had in his career: The only other time he missed seven kicks in a three-game span happened in his second, third and fourth NFL games, in September 1996 in New England. That was 23 years ago. He was 23 then. Half his life he’s kicked for two NFL teams, the Patriots and Colts. We’ll see if he has anything left.
Imagine. The last time he was this shaky was in games 2, 3 and 4. His last three were games 384, 385 and 386. Surely he has to be crushed by his recent performance. But his legacy, regardless what this week brings, will end with a yellow jacket and bronze bust.
A Feel-Good Story
In the second quarter of Tampa-Carolina on Thursday, Panthers punt returner Ray-Ray McCloud burst through the Bucs coverage team, and by the time he passed midfield, it looked like he might go all the way. One blocker in front of him, two flat-footed Buccaneers left to beat. From behind, Bucs long-snapper Zach Triner sprinted into the picture, diving at McCloud, desperation-tackling him at the Bucs’ 42. Not bad for Triner, who until this summer hadn’t played in a real football game since 2014, with tiny NCAA Division II Assumption (Mass.) College. As Triner (pronounced Trinner) told me Friday: “For my first tackle in the NFL, it was pretty awesome.”
Same for Triner’s trip to an NFL roster. He dreamed of being a pro football player since fifth grade, gave up football after high school in Massachusetts because he needed scholarship money lacrosse could provide, meandered from Sacred Heart to Siena in the northeast playing it, then, re-smitten with football, transferred again to play defensive end for three years (2012-14) at Assumption—long-snapping for the 2014 season only. Then, 13 times in the next four years, he had NFL tryouts, workouts or attended camp with New England (2015); the Jets, Jacksonville and Houston (2016); the Jets and Green Bay (2017); and, in an arduous and soul-crushing 2018, with Green Bay, Houston, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Carolina, Green Bay again, Detroit and Tampa Bay. Eight trials. Six months. No contract for an active roster.
He kept practicing, four days a week, 40 to 60 snaps a day. Last season, he found high school and college long-snappers in eastern Massachusetts and offered to tutor them in exchange for them catching his snaps. He quit his job as an investment consultant for Fidelity because he was so determined to give snapping his full-time attention. His coach at Assumption, Bob Chesney, preached if you want to be great at something, pursue it without reservation. “Burn the boats,” Triner said. “There’s no going back.”
Competing in Green Bay in 2018 with a drafted snapper, Hunter Bradley, “I knew I could do it at the NFL level then, and I knew there would be opportunities. I kept thinking, ‘Keep pushing. You’re gonna get a spot.’ “ This offseason, signed by Tampa, the Bucs didn’t bring another snapper to camp. It was Triner’s job unless he screwed it up. On cutdown weekend, he still didn’t know. Rosters had to be set at 4 p.m. Tampa time on Saturday of Labor Day weekend. Triner and high-school-sweetheart wife Carissa went grocery-shopping that afternoon in Tampa instead of just waiting for the phone to ring. Would he make it? Would he not?
“Carissa and I held our breath all day,” he said.
The phone never rang. No one from the Bucs called and said, The GM wants to see you, and bring your playbook. No one from the Bucs called and said, Congrats. You made it. Zach Triner, after 13 times hearing no, never heard yes. But silence was golden. When it was a little after 4 and he hadn’t heard, he turned to Carissa and said, “I think we made it.”
On opening day, at Tampa Bay, Triner, a big country music fan, jogged out for pregame warmups. Tim McGraw was playing a concert behind the end zone. McGraw played “Live Like You Were Dying.“ Triner was stunned; it’s one of his favorite songs, and a personal anthem. A man’s father learns he has a life-threatening illness, and advises his son to live life like tomorrow’s not guaranteed. McGraw’s words—I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying, like tomorrow was a gift—hit Triner, warming up. That’s how Triner had been living. Hearing it just before he played his first NFL game … kismet.
And then, four days later, the tackle from behind of the runaway return man, and Joe Buck saying he saved a touchdown on national TV. Quite a week.
“What I’ve learned,” Triner said, “is it’s so easy to do the right thing when things are going your way. My mom lived life like, Life’s not always gonna go your way. How hard will you work when it’s not going good? How hard will you work when people aren’t watching? My mom never complained. She just worked harder. For these three or four years, that’s what I did. I cut ties with all the doubt. My wife trusted. I trusted.”
The Award Section20
Offensive Players of the Week
Patrick Mahomes, quarterback, Kansas City. For the second quarter alone at Oakland. In the first quarter, the Black Hole was going nuts, watching the Raiders go up and dominate 10-0. But the second quarter showed why Mahomes is the most dominant player in football right now, and no one is close for second. He led touchdown drives of 72, 95, 94 and 39 yards, finishing them with touchdown throws of 44, 42, 27 and 39 yards. In the second quarter, he was 12 of 17 for 278 yards, four TDs and no picks. (How could he have a pick? Four drives, four TD throws.) The Chiefs had 200 net yards and 13 first downs on those four drives. I haven’t seen a quarterback in my 36 seasons covering the NFL burst out of the gate at the start of a career as explosively as Mahomes.
David Quessenberry, tackle, Tennessee. You may recognize that name. Quessenberry, drafted in the sixth round by Houston in 2013, was diagnosed with lymphoma and a mass in his lungs in April 2014 and spent the next three-and-a-half years battling the cancer. Last year he was on the Titans’ practiced squad. This year, he made Tennessee’s active roster, and on Sunday, on the first play of the second quarter, the Titans were at the Colts’ 1-yard line on second down. Offensive coordinator Arthur Smith put Quessenberry in the game as an extra blocker on the offensive line, and he reported to the official as eligible. Marcus Mariota ran play-action, and Quessenberry slithered off the line (can a 307-pound man “slither?”), and Mariota tossed it to him for an easy touchdown. David, whatever happens in your career from here, you’ll always have your NFL touchdown.
Defensive Players of the Week
Justin Reid, safety, Houston. When Leonard Fournette came charging up the middle with the result of the Jags-Texans game in his hands, it was clear that Jacksonville—down 13-12, choosing to try a two-point conversion to win the game with 30 seconds left instead of playing it safe and playing for overtime—felt its best option was brute strength up the gut with its 228-pound physical back. So here came Reid, the second line of defense, to meet Fournette at about the half-yard line, and to prevent Fournette from stretching his arm with the football to break the plane of the goal line. Reid, all 203 pounds of him, did his job with his own brute strength, stopping Fournette and the football maybe 12 or so inches from the goal line. Houston 13, Jacksonville 12. “The D-line did a great job pushing the pile, opening it up to where basically it was just me and him,” Reid said. “Just had to bow up and make a play.”
Shaq Barrett, pass rusher, Tampa Bay. Three sacks and a crucial pressure in the 20-14 Tampa Bay victory at Carolina. Give credit where it’s due, even though Carolina left tackle Daryl Williams was awful in the second half of the game that dropped the Panthers to 0-2. In the third quarter, Barrett wrecked two Carolina drives into Tampa territory with three sacks, every one of them speed rushes against Williams. Then, in the fourth quarter, with Carolina Riverboat-Ronning on a fourth-and-one with 11:45 left in Tampa territory again, Barrett, unblocked, wrecked the play and forced Cam Newton to throw incomplete to the left. For some reason, Williams blocked to the interior of the line and left Barrett naked. I debated whether to give an award to Barrett for being terrific or to put the goat horns on Williams, which he deserves. But three sacks and a crucial pressure—that’s Barrett’s job, and he did it well Thursday night.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Eddy Pineiro, kicker, Chicago. Pressure kick of the early season: Bears down 14-13, one second left, ball at the Denver 35. Pineiro, the winner of the bizarro-world Bears kicking derby, comes on to try a 53-yard field goal. If he makes it, crisis averted, Bears are 1-1, and maybe they’ve actually found an heir to Robbie Gould. If he misses, well, it could get ugly early in Chicago. Drilled it. Perfect kick. Add his 40 and 52-yarders, and it was quite a day for the Miami kid, born to parents who immigrated to America from Cuba (dad) and Nicaragua (mom).
Coach of the Week
Bill Belichick, head coach, New England. Two straight years he’s lost his defensive chiefs (Matt Patricia, Brian Flores), and in the first two games of the season, New England has held Pittsburgh and (Triple-A) Miami to three points in eight quarters. People expected the Patriots to be good, and they expected a rout of Miami on Sunday, but did anyone expect New England 76, Foes 3 in the first two weeks?
Goat of the Week
Kirk Cousins, quarterback, Minnesota. “I can’t believe Cousins would throw that ball!” Chris Myers said on FOX. Have you been watching the Vikings for the last 13 months? With 5:17 left and Minnesota down 21-16 in Green Bay, Cousins had first-and-goal from the Packers’ 8-yard line. He threw in the direction of tightly covered Stefon Diggs in the right corner of the end zone—not a throw he ever should have tried in that situation, with four downs to play with particularly—and Kevin King picked it off for Green Bay. Cousins has been a disappointment in big moments for the Vikings. That might be the understatement of the month.
Quotes of the Week
“A lot of emotion in the game … I don’t know. I can’t recall.”
—Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone, on what led to him verbally jousting with Jalen Ramsey on the sideline during the game.
“I can’t recall.” That’s a good one.
“He’s as good as any offensive coach ever, in my opinion.”
—CBS analyst Tony Romo, on Kansas City coach Andy Reid.
That’s a wow.
“Football for me may have an expiration date. But the friendships and relationships that I formed over the years are forever. I’m blessed to be able to walk away from this game with most of my health, a clear mind and a grateful heart.”
—Wide receiver Torrey Smith, announcing his retirement in a video posted by Uninterrupted.
“I can’t stand players like Antonio Brown. I wish the heck they [the Steelers] would have gotten rid of him a long time ago.”
—Terry Bradshaw, one great former Steelers, on another great former Steeler, to Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
“These days, the Patriot Way is about looking the other way.”
—Shirley Leung, columnist for the Boston Globe.
Joe Flacco • Denver quarterback • Photographed in Englewood, Colo.
Flacco was christened Joe Cool for his even demeanor in Baltimore. He’s got an athlete he looks up to for his even-keel approach.
“I love watching Roger Federer. I have grown to love watching Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic too. But I love watching Federer so much that maybe I don’t truly appreciate those other guys. They’re all so great. It’s such a cool sport. The way they move, the way they control their emotions, the way they play so long at such a high level. The way they’re out there all alone. They don’t have teammates. They don’t have a coaching staff out there on the court with them. To stay locked in for five hours, to play at that high a level consistently for that long is amazing. And with Federer, to do it showing such little emotion, all of his energy devoted to tennis, nothing else. That’s how I want to be. That’s how I want to play.”
So you want to know why Melvin Gordon is holding out. You want to know why the Chargers are not being aggressive in trying to get Gordon back in the fold.
This is why: Chargers GM Tom Telesco is willing to pay Gordon a contract averaging about $10-$11 million per year, per Adam Schefter. Let’s say it’s $10 million. The combined earnings of the two backs taking Gordon’s place, Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson, is $1.3 million this year. So, Ekeler and Jackson, combined, are making about 13 percent of what the Chargers would pay Gordon.
For one-eighth of the money they’d pay Gordon, let’s see what the Chargers are getting. The production, per touch from scrimmage, of Gordon versus Ekeler and Jackson combined, since opening day 2018:
For 13 percent of what the Chargers would pay Gordon on average, they’re getting better production out of Ekeler and Jackson.
Over the next 48 days, the Raiders have no games in Oakland.
They have games in three time zones—in Minneapolis, Indianapolis, London, Green Bay and Houston. Every one of the five games is more than 1,900 miles away from Oakland.
On the first two weekends of the NFL season—Sept. 7-8 and Sept. 14-15—there was a sameness for the Buffalo Bills, who played road games against the Jets and the Giants in New Jersey on the first two Sundays of the season.
On two straight Saturdays, the Bills had a 2 p.m. departure on a United Airlines charter from the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, flying to Newark International Airport.
On two straight Saturdays, the Bills checked into the Westin Jersey City shortly after 4 p.m.
On two straight Saturdays, quarterback Josh Allen checked into room 701 at the Westin Jersey City.
On two straight Saturdays, between 4:15 and 5:15 p.m., Bills coach Sean McDermott and a few key players had their network production meeting with the CBS TV crews doing the games in the Constellation Room on the fourth floor of the hotel.
On two straight Saturdays, Josh Allen ordered the barbecued ribs from room service for dinner.
On two straight Saturdays, at 8:30 p.m., McDermott convened the weekly team meeting in the hotel’s Newport 1 ballroom.
On two straight Sundays, the first of four team buses left the Westin Jersey City at 9:15 a.m. for the 25-minute ride to MetLife Stadium.
On two straight Sundays, the Bills kicked off minutes after 1 p.m. at MetLife Stadium, under mostly sunny skies with temperatures in the high seventies.
On two straight Sundays, Allen threw for 250 yards and change (254 against the Jets, 253 against the Giants).
On two straight Sundays, the Bills won road games in New Jersey.
On two straight Sundays, the Bills finished within a minute of the same time: at 4:14 p.m. against the Jets, at 4:13 p.m. against the Giants.
On two straight Sundays, the Bills’ United Airlines charter left Newark International Airport and landed back in Buffalo within five minutes of each other. Arrival last week: 7:27 p.m. Arrival this week: 7:22 p.m.
King of the Road
Saturday evening was special. My wife Ann and I went to the wedding of Jackson Bowers and Kate Stevens just outside of Charlottesville, Va., at the Keswick Vineyards. Jackson is the son of our good friends Jack Bowers and Karin Nelson. Jack is 67. In February 2009, he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer of the appendix, a dangerous cancer with limited options for removal and treatment. Before he went in for surgery in April 2009, one of the things he told me was he hoped that whatever happened, he’d be around to see his children—Amanda, then a 21-year-old senior at Virginia, and Jackson, an 18-year-old freshman at Maryland—graduate from college, have success, and get married. More surgery—in 2010, 2013, 2014—kept Jack in the game, tenuously for a while. And now, for the past two years, he’s been on an aggressive new chemotherapy drug that manages the cancer. “Patients use a term, ‘the new normal,’ “ said Jack, before the disease a big golfer, fitness buff and co-coach with me for seven years of a girls softball travel team in Montclair, N.J. “This life is difficult sometimes. There are negatives. You’re sapped of energy so often. But life goes on. And I want to live.”
Amanda graduated from UVA and is a rising-star producer in the TV/movie biz; she produced “It’s Bruno,” a Netflix comedy series that was nominated for a 2019 Emmy in the Short-Form Comedy or Drama Series category. Jack beams when talking about Amanda. Jackson graduated as a Terp, went to work in Washington, and met a great girl. The marriage Saturday night next to a picturesque vineyard was joyous. Similar beaming about Jackson.
Watching Jack and Karin at the wedding was the highlight for me. I remembered some grim days for Jack. His life was on the line for a while.
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KESWICK, Va.-A little more than 10 years ago, my friend Jack Bowers was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. He hoped, somehow, to see his daughter and son graduate from college, have success and happiness, and one day get married. Saturday night, at a lovely vineyard outside Charlottesville, Jackson Bowers and Kate Stevens got married. It was a good night.
“The overwhelming aspect of being hit with a disease like this,” Jack said, “is you’re thrown into this medical world with experts and terms you’ve never heard of and hearing opinions from different doctors. What do you do? Which direction do you go? It was a tidal wave. You’ve got to find your way in the dark to make it all right.” One of the things Jack has found rewarding: advising newly diagnosed patients in a Facebook group about what they’re about to experience. Coaching with me, Jack was always the one who’d take me away from the crowd of parents and kids and advise me when I was about to make a dumb decision. Which was often. So I know he must be good at telling new patients what’s coming and how to best prepare for the tidal wave. That’s why seeing Jack in the front row Saturday night, living his new normal, was so cool.
The NFL Century50
During pro football’s 100th season, I’ll report snippets from the history of the game.
2001: The NFL tries to become terror-proof.
Eighteen years ago today, five days after the attacks that eviscerated the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center and changed our worlds forever, I saw NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue cry. He was in his office that Saturday in 2001, doing league business on one of the most unusual weekends in league history, days after 2,900 people were killed when terrorists turned four airplanes into killing missiles. He just had a conference call a couple of days earlier with league owners in which he said: “This is not the Kennedy assassination. This is not Pearl Harbor. It’s worse.”
The NFL skipped Week 2, pushing those games to the weekend that was supposed to be wild-card weekend. And the Super Bowl was pushed back a week in New Orleans. And Tagliabue, with lieutenants Roger Goodell and Jeff Pash, spent much of that fall trying to ensure that the league wouldn’t fall victim to some terrorist attack. In November, he wrote an internal memo that included this: “Years ago the astute military analyst Herman Kahn wrote a book about nuclear war—’Thinking About the Unthinkable.’ This is where we are in thinking about anti-terrorism measures.”
This part of the story slapped me in the face:
In the fall of 2001, an NFL team was doing a site study of the Superdome in New Orleans. The team saw huge cooling fans at the base of the dome, several of them, designed to blow cool air into a building on the often hot and sticky Gulf Coast. They told Saints and Superdome official they would have to ratchet up security for the cooling fans, and very soon. Because of sarin. Sarin is a lethal nerve agent, colorless and odorless. If inhaled, sarin could paralyzes the lungs and cause death in less than 15 minutes. Some inside the U.S. intelligence community thought sarin could be used by terrorists sometime in the weeks or months after 9/11. Imagine the terror if sarin wafted up from the cooling fans into the dome, with 73,000 fans and the two teams and 3,000 media members and 1,500 league employees and those performing at the halftime extravaganza. The 9/11 terror was horrible enough. Multiply the death toll, potentially, by 25.
The NFL installed massive concrete barriers around the cooling fans, and staffed the area with round-the-clock security. And when the Patriots and unknown quarterback Tom Brady stunned the Rams in that Super Bowl, the stories were all about the amazing upset and the crazy poise of the sixth-round quarterback from Michigan … and not about the security that included major protection against the threat of a deadly nerve agent. The NFL had entered a new era. Security was as important as the game.
The Best. The Worst
What’s your best habit, ESPN analyst Louis Riddick?
“Consistency in working out. I just turned 50 in March. If I miss a couple of days, my body goes to s—. So I do 30 to 35 minutes of some cardio every day. Stairmaster, elliptical. My joints just can’t handle running. I do a lot of lifting for my shoulders and my back. For me, conditioning is as much mental as it is physical.”
What’s your worst habit?
“Frowning. I frown even when I’m happy. People look at me and wonder: Is he pissed? I am gonna die looking like I am pissed off.
Tweets of the Week40
Strategy of the Week
Each week, with the aid of Pro Football Focus 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: Jacksonville at Houston, Sunday.
Situation: Houston up 13-12, fourth quarter, 30 seconds left, Jacksonville has just scored to make it a one-point game before the conversion.
The decision: Jags coach Doug Marrone can choose to kick the extra point and likely but not certainly send the game to overtime. Houston has a timeout left, meaning the Texans might have enough time to get into field-goal position in the waning seconds. Or Marrone can go for two. If Jacksonville doesn’t convert, it’s a loss. If Jacksonville converts to go up 14-13, it’s likely a win.
The thought process: Marrone said he had decided prior to the final Jacksonville possession that he’d go for two “with a certain amount of time left.” (Likely something less than a minute, so it would be tough for Houston to come back and kick a field goal.) Clearly, Marrone felt better about Jacksonville’s chances to make two points from two yards away that he did in kicking the PAT, being sure they could prevent Houston from kicking a field goal in the last 30 seconds, and then winning in overtime. (I think I would too.)
The analytics: PFF analysis says the Jacksonville offense had a 40 percent chance to convert the two-point conversion, with the Texans having a 9 percent chance of kicking a field goal in the closing seconds if Jacksonville either tied the game or went ahead with 30 seconds to play. Here’s where the analytics get tricky. PFF numbers say the Jaguars would have had a 35 percent chance to win the game in overtime, with Houston having a 60 percent chance. There was a 5 percent chance that the game would end in a tie. So if the Jags had a 40 percent chance to convert, and a 35 percent chance to win in overtime, it was probably—narrowly—the right call to go for two. What may not have been the right call was an unimaginative run up the gut.
The result: Leonard Fournette, 228 pounds, took a handoff from Gardner Minshew and tried to make the two yards necessary by bursting behind center. Fournette was stopped about a half-yard short. Jacksonville fell to 0-2 heading into a must-win short-week Thursday-nighter against Tennessee at home.
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Saints fans are fuming, and who can blame them? From Scott Hampton: “Full disclosure, I am a Saints fan. I am NOT a conspiracy theorist and I am the last guy in the world to lay the outcome of the game on the referees. But this is getting ridiculous. I understand that officiating is an incredibly difficult task. However, how much longer will this kind of officiating be allowed to continue? How can a team (ANY team, not just the Saints) be expected to overcome horrible, game-changing calls three games in a row, with no end in sight?”
You have every reason to be ticked off. At one point during the Rams game, if I’m reading lips well, it appeared that Sean Payton said, “I’m sick of this.” I have no idea how the NFL can make this right. The league assigned one of its most trusted veteran refs, Walt Anderson, to that game Sunday and, I reported higher in the column, he personally made the call that changed the momentum of this game in a huge way. We’re all throwing our hands in the air, Scott.
This woman she can’t watch the Patriots anymore. From anonymous, of Massachusetts: “I’m a Pats fan. Have been since the early seventies. But I just cannot watch with Antonio Brown on the field. His two emails alone show harassment that would disqualify him from employment in any other setting. Or would at least lead to an administrative leave while the investigation is underway. I recently became part of a harassment complaint and, until I did, I had no idea of how the reporting process protects the harasser at the expense of those who report. I was astonished to discover that this is the case in 2019. The NFL keeps reaching out to expand its female fan base. Now, I can only imagine how many they lose because they do not have a cogent, consistent policy for players who harass and abuse anyone (not just women). I don’t know how best to describe it; for some it triggers, for others it enrages or disappoints. All leads to flipping the switch to something besides the NFL. I’d looked forward to this season, but just cannot watch the Pats now.”
I respect your decision. I feel confident you’re not the only one. I will be surprised if Brown’s season continues uninterrupted, and those text messages are a reason—if it is found with certainty that Brown did send them. They are abhorrent. While I do understand your frustration and anger, I also think Brown deserves to have his side heard. Apparently the police were not called in any of these incidents, and no criminal charges were ever brought. So there needs to be more fact-finding in this case. One thing to keep in mind too: Tyreek Hill was not suspended after being caught on tape issuing an ominous threat and strong language against his fiancé. It’ll be interesting in this case if the NFL uses the Hill non-ban as a precedent when considering the highly offensive texts in this case.
The Dour Metronomes will win handily. From Paul Owers: “As a fellow journalist, I laughed out loud at your description of Bill Belichick in last week’s column as a ‘dour metronome.’ And I immediately determined I must make that my fantasy team name. The Dour Metronomes cannot be stopped. I’ll be sure to give you a cut of my winnings.”
Thanks, Paul. I feel even the Dour Metronome himself would find it appropriate.
The Savoy Bookshop in Westerly, R.I., has some fans—I got more than 200 pieces of mail and Tweets about it. From Zack Garceau, of Westerly, R.I.: “My wife, Anna, was the bookseller who helped you at Savoy last week. I also happened to be there when you stopped in and you met my dog, Comet, as well. Anna and the whole staff at Savoy work very hard to make it such a pleasant and welcoming environment. At a time when Amazon, which recently made the news for ignoring an embargo on the new Margaret Atwood book, is trying to kill small, independent bookstores, it is always great to see these bookstores promoted on a big stage. I wanted to personally thank you for mentioning your trip and providing such a wonderful reference.”
Thanks, Zack. I love that place—and I can tell how many other people love it too, from the tenor of the emails I got about the story and about Westerly. And about independent bookstores as well. The environment in the Savoy was so wonderful and welcoming; I wish my wife and I had four hours in there, not 45 minutes, before our Amtrak train at the station next door.
10 Things I Think I Think
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 2:
a. The Tampa Bay secondary. Feisty and tough and skilled.
b. Love Mike Sando’s new Monday column, full of instant and quality analysis, at The Athletic.
c. We remember Torrey Smith for his activism, which is good. But Smith, who announced his retirement Friday, was pretty good when it counted too. In 11 playoff games (including Super Bowl victories for Baltimore and Philadelphia), he averaged 17.3 yards per catch and had five touchdowns. Kudos to Smith for playing the game right, and taking advantage of the gifts football gave him.
d. Jeff Darlington’s info on ESPN that Antonio Brown turned down a settlement offer of $2 million with his accuser to make the sexual-assault case go away. Good get by Darlington. We’re all on the outside looking in here, and maybe turning down the $2-mill will prove to be the right decision because maybe he has been unjustly accused. But as of this morning, my feeling is that would have been $2 million well spent by Brown.
e. Brett Favre escorting the widow of Bart Starr, Cherry Starr, on the field through the players’ tunnel before Vikes-Packers.
f. Perfect throw, a laser, from Aaron Rodgers to Geronimo Allison, in the new tempo offense of Matt LaFleur.
g. Phillip Dorsett‘s great diving catch on third-and-17, when the New England offense was struggling.
h. What a throw, Lamar Jackson to Hollywood Brown, Jackson dropping it into a basket down the right side, to ensure the Ravens’ win. That was terrific.
i. Brandon Graham is such a load to block. The Eagle were smart to extend him through his prime.
j. “The great Grady Jarrett—almost impossible to block.” True that, Cris Collinsworth.
k. The completion while being tackled by Carson Wentz.
2. I think this is what I did not like about Week 2:
a. The Dolphins damage from the first two Sundays—both at home, no less: Foes 102, Miami 10.
b. Cam Newton’s accuracy.
c. Remember Newton’s words to me in the summer: “So at this point in my career, it’s not about velocity. It’s not about throwing a ball 70 yards. It’s about efficient football that’s gonna win football games.” The point is: Newton is changing. He looks bad now, but give him time to change, and let’s see where he is in, say, Week 6 or 7.
d. Newton is still a work in progress, nine months after shoulder surgery. I think it’s wrong to micro-analyze him every week.
e. Michael Irvin’s shirt and tie.
f. O.J. Howard’s production. The 19th pick of the 2017 draft played 60 snaps at Carolina, with zero catches. “He can play a heck of a lot better than he’s playing,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said.
g. Curse of Kaare Vedvik Dept.: Minnesota’s Dan Bailey wide with a 47-yard field goal early at Green Bay, and a missed PAT.
h. Field goal kicking. Anecdotally, it stinks.
i. Uh, Jimmy Garoppolo threw a pick to Bengals cornerback William Jackson … in the middle of five Cincinnati defenders.
j. Another desultory performance from Eli Manning.
k. Something’s up with Adam Vinatieri. Another two missed PATs. On one hand, you think he should be able to work his way out of it, having seen so much for so long. On the other hand, he’s 46, and he’ll be 47 in three months. So …
l. The Titans just had to have that game. Division game, home, so many chances, and just one-for-10 on third down.
m. Marcus Mariota: If you’re Tennessee, do you sign him long-term? If I had to answer today, I’d say no.
n. Horrible roughing-the-passer call on Bradley Chubb in the final seconds to give Chicago life. Just horrible.
o. Garrett Bolles (four holding calls, two accepted) is a disaster at left tackle in Denver.
p. The Saints, without Drew Brees, look pretty darn mortal.
3. I think when a player snaps back at the head coach, the way Jalen Ramsey snapped back at Doug Marrone, it says something about the discipline on the team and about a coach who may not have the respect of his players. Ramsey’s an independent guy, but the way he had to be separated from his coach … that’s a little more than flaring of tempers to me.
4. I think my over-under on Daniel Jones taking over for Eli Manning is Week 7. The Giants would be, say, 1-5, coming off a loss at New England, with Arizona coming to New Jersey. Manning will have something to say about it, of course. But he doesn’t seem able to elevate his game, particularly when his receiving corps is so poor.
5. I think it’s cool and well-earned that Sean Payton got a new five-year deal to coach the Saints (per Jay Glazer of FOX). I had a feeling six weeks ago, when I stopped at Saints camp and Payton gave me and videomeisters Annie Koeblitz and Nicole Granito a proud-papa kind of tour of all new multi-million-dollar bells and whistles in the Saints training facility, that this was not just a walk through the building to show off show off some new construction. Payton was genuinely proud of what GM Mickey Loomis and he were building, backed by owner Gayle Benson. I remember leaving there that day thinking he just might turn out to be the Chuck Noll of New Orleans. And who knows? If he coaches out this new deal in New Orleans, it’d give him 19 years coaching the team; Noll coached the Steelers for 23. So we’ll see.
6. I think this reeks of recency bias, but Dalvin Cook (41 carries, 265 yards, 6.46 yards per rush) is the best running back in football through an eighth of the season.
7. I think one of the reasons why Odell Beckham Jr. just doesn’t get it, and why the Giants (for good or bad) are happy to be rid of him, is this stupid watch episode. For two days last week, the fact that Beckham wore one of the most expensive watches in the world during the season-opener was a story. Basically, it was THE story around the Browns after a horrible loss in the highly anticipated season-opener. Dude, you lost the opener by 30. No one cares about this grave injustice of not being able to wear a watch during a game. Just play football. The league prohibits players wearing hard objects during games. Instead of saying it’s no big deal, and he’ll just take it off for three hours during games (like the other 1,698 players in the league do with timepieces) and wear it the rest of the week, Beckham said, “I’ll still be wearing it,” and he bitched that the league was picking on him. Poor, poor Odell.
8. I think Antonio Brown is alive and well in the psyche of Odell Beckham, Jr..
9. I think longtime former NFL executive Mike Lombardi—late of the Patriots—dropped some interesting knowledge on the current episode of “The Peter King Podcast” this week. He said there are four team rules players see every day when they come to work in Foxboro:
Do your job
Put the team first
Speak for yourself
“It’s pretty simple,” said Lombardi, now co-host with Adnan Virk of “The GM Shuffle” on Cadence 13. “Those are the four rules in the building. Those are the only four rules in the building.”
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Column of the Week (and perhaps the year): The Antonio Brown story, and how his language toward women dooms him, by Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post.
b. Lead of the Week (and perhaps the year): “Skank whore here, checking in. Dumb ass bitch, reporting for work.”
c. The essence of the Jenkins piece, which is perfect:
You want to be thought of as a good man falsely accused? Then don’t talk like a crude, rapacious brute. I’m sick of athletes (and their worshipers) who apparently never learned a primary language beyond misogyny, a language that treats women as punchable sex dolls, and excuses violence because the hoe had it coming.
d. Football Story of the Week: by Tim Layden of NBC Sports, on what recently retired players really think of football, and of their new lives.
e. Max Unger, the ex-Saint and -Seahawk, to Layden:
The games are not enjoyable. My whole thing was, just don’t get beat. That was the driving factor on Sunday … The day-to-day operation of playing offensive line in the NFL. We do the craziest s— in the world. I don’t miss that.
f. It’s interesting to read how players, particularly players who have money, can compartmentalize their feelings for football and for life so soon after they walk away. Interesting too that, with these five respected veterans, there isn’t the love of football (maybe except for Jordy Nelson) that you’d figure they’d have.
g. El Clowno Story of the Week: Ebony Bowden of the New York Post on a man in Australia, Joshua Jack, fearing he was being summoned by his bosses to be fired at work, bringing an emotional support clown to the office with him.
h. Emotional support clown.
i. The $200-a-job clown’s name is Joe. Joe the Clown.
j. “Jack did get fired in the end … The clown mimed crying as Jack’s employers slid the severance paperwork across the table—and he also created a balloon unicorn and poodle at the meeting to lighten the mood.”
k. Obit of the Week: Eddie Money, by the Associated Press, in the San Jose Mercury News.
l. How great is this nugget from the AP story, about his early hit, “Two Tickets to Paradise”:
Money was signed by Columbia Records and by the end of the decade was a big enough act to open for the Rolling Stones, although the job didn’t last as long as expected.
“I had a hit with ‘Two Tickets’ and everybody loved me; I was getting too many encores,” Money told hippopress.com. “We were supposed to have six dates (with the Stones), and we only worked four. The way I see it is this — if you’re gonna get fired from a Rolling Stones tour, get fired for being too good.”
m. Always thought it was cool that in “Take Me Home Tonight,” the woman warbling “Be my little baby,” was Ronnie Spector, and it helped her career at a time of personal crisis for her.
n. TV Story of the Week: CBS’ Steve Hartman, on the man in Pittsburgh who is so infected with the volunteer/giving spirit that … well, don’t let me spoil the surprise for you. It’s a Hartman classic. (I’m actually a week late on this one; saw it 10 days ago on the CBS Evening News.)
o. And kudos to you, Lester Holt of NBC Nightly News, for taking us into a prison and showing us what the life is like. That was an ambitious and smart project by Holt, with some unvarnished prison truths from inmates.
p. Re-discovered this song over the weekend. Good writing song from Jackson Browne.
q. RIP, Larry Garron. I just talked to the former Patriots running back, who played in the first game in American Football League history, for this column last week. He died Friday in Massachusetts.
r. Noah Syndergaard has an 11.78 ERA in his last three starts pitching to Wilson Ramos. Maybe Wilson Ramos should have the day off when Syndergaard pitches.
s. If the Red Sox, post-Dave Dombrowski, are entering the build-through-the-farm-system phase, I’m for it. It’s fun to watch kids develop. The Dodgers are such an interesting model. Until Alex Verdugo got hurt, he was so fun to watch. And the other night, flipping the channels, I saw this phenom shortstop, Gavin Lux, hit a laser three-run homer to center field off Syndergaard. The best, and most fun, teams are not always bought. And I’m not saying the Red Sox bought theirs. They did buy Sale, Price and J.D. Martinez, but they also developed the majority of their World Series-winning team: Betts, Bogaerts, Bradley, Benintendi, Vasquez, Devers. Pitching is so hard to draft and develop, and that has vexed the best teams in baseball, with the exception of the Dodgers and perhaps Cleveland.
t. Gut feeling: Mookie Betts will leave via trade or free agency sometime in the next 18 months.
u. I went to Mets-DBacks Wednesday night, on the 18th anniversary of 9/11. Two points: Excellent job by the Mets and Diamondbacks players, standing with scores of firefighters, police officers and first responders commemorating the day. New York does remembrances like this right. As for baseball, these guys aren’t even swinging hard and the homers are flying out of the park. Todd Frazier looks like Jim Rice. He three-quarter-swung a ball way over the center-field fence. I really don’t mind the home runs, but man, there’ve been a bunch of cheapies this year.
v. How heartbreaking and humiliating the Felicity Huffman story is. She does deserve the sentence of 14 days in prison and a fine and 250 hours of community service for fixing her daughter’s admission to college—no disputing that. It’s a classic case of helicopter parents not allowing their kids to grow up. When she addressed the judge at sentencing Friday, she told the judge how her daughter reacted when she found out what Huffman had done. “She said to me, ‘I don’t know who you are anymore, Mom.’ “ This whole college admissions scandal is a cautionary tale for every parent of adolescents headed to college.
w. Beernerdness: Taste-tested two familiar white beers on successive nights last week: Ommegang Witte (Brewery Ommegang, Cooperstown, N.Y.) and Allagash White (Allagash Brewing, Portland, Maine). You can guess which one won. The Ommegang Witte is a little mild and disappointing, without the taste of a classic witbier. Allagash never disappoints. The coriander and orange peel in Allagash White are more noticeable (yet not overwhelming) than in the Ommegang model. I’m impressed that, living in Brooklyn now, you can find a great selection of so many regional beers at almost every bar/restaurant in the neighborhood, by the way.
x. Coffeenerdness: No newspapers in Starbucks anymore. Booooooooooooo.
y. RIP Rick Ocasek. Man, The Cars front man was 75.
z. Best Cars songs ever: 1. “Magic.” 2. “You Might Think.” 3. “Just What I Needed.”
The Adieu Haiku20
I’m just wondering:
Would football be better if
there was no replay?