Football needed Week 4. It was getting a little too easy for the Patriots and Chiefs. The Rams, Green Bay, Detroit, Dallas and Buffalo hadn’t lost yet, and you know how the NFL likes to pull the good teams to the middle. There was a lot of pulling this weekend.
October’s not even here yet, and the NFL has only three unbeaten teams left: New England, Kansas City (both 4-0) and the 3-0 Niners. After the weekend of upheaval, I’ll do the exercise that inflames the masses even more than Coffeenerdness: I’ll rank the teams 1 to 32 a quarter of the way through the season.
What interested me about this weekend: how many depth players, forgotten players and emerging players, ruled the weekend. Such as:
• J.C. Jackson of the Patriots had two interceptions and a blocked punt-turned-touchdown in New England’s surprisingly hard 16-10 win at Buffalo. For a day, the undrafted cornerback from Maryland was the best player on the best team in football.
• Nick Chubb—not Odell or Baker or Myles—was the difference in the stunning Browns’ rout of the Ravens in Baltimore. I didn’t know he was a legit sprinter till I saw his 88-yard TD sprint that broke open the game.
• The 2015 1-2 draft twins, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, had stunning road wins. The careers of both are on the line in this last year before free agency. Winston put up 55 points and shocked the Rams. Mariota beat the Falcons by 14.
• Chicago backup quarterback Chase Daniel, who has started four games in a comfy 10-year career, saw Mitchell Trubisky get hurt 10 feet away from him three minutes into the Minnesota game. No time to warm up. Just time to lead the Bears on an immediate touchdown drive and, ultimately, win the game. It’s Daniel’s job now, with Trubisky out indefinitely with a left shoulder injury.
• Frank Gore, 36, became the fourth back in history to rush for 15,000 yards, and he did it on a 38-yard run against the best defense in football, New England’s.
Thirteen teams are 2-2, including every one in the AFC South. As I watched football Sunday, with the great teams and the great players struggling in so many games, I thought: That’s part of what makes it fun. When I spoke with Daniel, who’s never really had his 15 minutes of fame in a benchy decade in the NFL, I said, “Isn’t that what makes this fun? The unpredictability of it?”
Daniel, who turns 33 next week, was standing near coach Matt Nagy early in the first quarter, helping with personnel groups like he always does. In front of him, on a third down, Trubisky got sacked. He tried to get up, twice. He couldn’t. “I thought it might be a concussion,” Daniel said. Medics and Nagy checked on Trubisky, and Daniel figured he’d better start throwing.
“Chase, you’re in!” Nagy said to him seconds later.
Because it had been third down, Daniels started throwing with practice squad QB Tyler Bray as Trubisky came off. But he missed the penalty flag on Minnesota, giving the Bears a fresh set of downs.
“No! No!” a voice yelled. “We got the ball! You’re in NOW!”
The life of a backup. Huge division game between two 2-1 teams. No time to warm up.
“Mitch and I threw before the game, and not much time had passed, so I felt pretty good,” Daniel said. “It was fine. You’re excited, of course, and it happens all of a sudden. Matt was like, You know the offense. Just go out there and be you. He was super-positive the whole game.”
On the first series, on fourth-and-one from the Viking 43, Nagy called a sneak for Daniel, who liked the faith his coach had in him to get a yard. He got it. Daniel really liked it when Nagy, on a first down from the Viking 30, called a deep throw down the left side for Allen Robinson. Everyone in the quarterback room during the week thought it was a perfect call against the Minnesota defense, sure that Robinson could beat the coverage. He did. “I never repped it in practice,” Daniel said, “but I loved the call. We felt like it’d be a touchdown.” Robinson made it to the 5-yard line, and after a flag for a false start, Daniel led Tarik Cohen with a pass just over the line, and Cohen did the rest. The Bears were on their way, and Daniel (22 of 30, 195 yards one TD, no picks) was a huge reason.
“I’m about to turn 33,” Daniel said, “and I’ve been in it 11 years now. But I feel like I’m 25. And I love this offense. I feel the offense. This is my fifth or sixth year in it. I was in Kansas City, in Philadelphia, and it’s basically the same offense. Very quarterback-friendly. The quarterback’s a point guard out there. I’ve always felt I was an accurate passer, and not just dink-and-dunk. We took some shots out there today—that shot to Robinson on the first drive, and others.”
And now the reins of a very good team are Daniel’s. This is the first time in his life he’s been handed an NFL team for any length of time, and he’s in a weird spot. He and Trubisky have become good friends. Daniel helps him ID coverages and trends between series during games. And he knows Trubisky has had his struggles. But in Daniel’s position, none of that matters now. He’s playing till they take him off the field. “I think Matt feels comfortable calling a game with me,” Daniel said. “Any time you get a chance to play, at least for me, it’s a great opportunity, especially with this defense. I’m thinking, Be aggressive, but take care of the football. All the other stuff, I’m aware of all the talk going on around town, and how outsiders view us, but I don’t care about it. For now, all I care about is going to London [Bears versus Raiders on Sunday in London] and keep the main thing the main thing. Worry about winning a game before our bye.”
Before we get to the rankings, a quick word on the big day for Jameis Winston, who threw four touchdowns at the NFC champions’ house, a performance he desperately needed. Afterward, he FaceTimed the GM who drafted him. Bucs GM Jason Licht was in Nebraska on Sunday after the sudden death of his father Saturday. “I texted him last night,” Winston said. “I told him he was a great example of his father’s legacy.”
Tampa lost last week when kicker Matt Gay missed a chip-shot field goal against the Giants. So they flew west and manhandled the Rams with 55-40 beatdown. Go figure. But there was a big test for Winston in this game. Midway through the fourth quarter, he did what he’d done so often in his four-plus years as a Buc—he threw an ill-advised pass that was picked. The interception, by Marcus Peters, was returned for a touchdown. Bucs 45, Rams 40. Uh-oh.
“So I throw that pick-six,” Winston said, “and we get the ball back, and now we’ve got a third-and-long. We can’t give the ball back to them. I was going based on the coverage I saw, and I saw Mike Evans open first, and I hit him. First down. That sort of catapulted us to a scoring drive [field goal] and they didn’t score again.”
“Do you ever feel the pressure of your situation?” I asked. “Knowing the Bucs have to make a decision on you long-term by the end of this season?”
“No sir,” Winston said. “I wake up every morning thinking, ‘How can we win this game? How can I best the best player I can be.’ I’m just trying to play football at the highest level I can.”
If he has a few more games like Sunday’s, he’ll make the decision easy for the Bucs.
In May, I ranked the teams 1 to 32. Today I do it again, noting where I had each team back in the spring, after teams were formed for the season. It was a fun exercise. Love the rankings? Hate ‘em? Let me know.
1. New England 4-0 (May ranking: 2). This likely isn’t Bill Belichick’s best Patriots team—yet—because they don’t have the offensive weapons they’ve had in many prior years. But the defense is so good it can afford to go without a top-three defensive piece in Dont’a Hightower and still have enough great contributors to shut down another foe. The D allowed its first touchdown of the season (one and only one). Cleveland, Kansas City and Dallas come to Foxboro in the next three months, and New England goes to Baltimore, Philadelphia and Houston; all six of those teams, with quarterbacks who can make plays with their feet, should be interesting tests for the impregnable Patriots.
2. Kansas City 4-0 (May ranking: 1). The Chiefs have had two gut-check wins in a row: 33-28 over Baltimore and 34-30 at Detroit. And though Patrick Mahomes wasn’t his best Sunday, he made enough plays to win, particularly on the late 79-yard drive that clinched the game. The Chiefs’ D is a worry, and they’ll probably have to score in the thirties to ensure winning January games. But that’s what Mahomes does. I figured out Sunday that Mahomes, in his first 23 NFL starts, has thrown for 1,431 more yards than Dan Marino in his first 23 starts. Sheesh. The Chiefs will be a tough out in January, either in Foxboro or Kansas City … or in south Florida, site of the Super Bowl.
3. Los Angeles Rams 3-1 (May ranking: 4). Anyone worried about Jared Goff? Six TD passes and seven picks in his last five games, and completing just 62 percent over that term, low for a Sean McVay offense. “The Rams have been forced to become a dropback football team—and they aren’t,” former QB Dan Orlovsky tweeted with the Rams down to Tampa 21-0 Sunday. “16 [Goff] isn’t seeing underneath coverage guys.” Kind of strange that Goff threw for 517 yards Sunday and didn’t play particularly well. His three interceptions led to 21 Tampa points. This game had such a bizarre feel—it’s hard to know what conclusions to draw from it. I’ve seen the Rams play too well too often to push them down too far; I just think McVay is smart enough to figure out how to fix Goff. Better hurry—Seattle and San Francisco are up in the next two weeks.
4. New Orleans 3-1. (May ranking: 6). Coach of the quarter: 1) Sean Payton, 2) Bill Belichick, 3) Sean McDermott, 4) Matt Patricia. Payton loses Drew Brees, gets drubbed by the nemesis Rams, and then, with Teddy Bridgewater playing serious minutes for the first time in four years, the Saints beat the previously unbeaten Seahawks in Seattle, then come home and beat the previously unbeaten Cowboys. I watched Brees and Payton in a long quarterback meeting last season the night before a game, and it is fair to say they completed each other’s sentences; they spoke in a code that mortal men will never understand. Payton doesn’t have the same relationship with Bridgewater, but the new QB doesn’t turn it over much and though his accuracy isn’t Brees-like, it’s good enough to make the offense go.
5. Dallas 3-1 (May ranking: 16). The loss at New Orleans doesn’t bother me much. It was a quicksand game for the offense, with nine possessions and only one gaining more than 35 yards, and Ezekiel Elliott the most pedestrian he’s looked all season. Too many pluses here in the first month to get overwhelmed with a road loss to a very good team. Also: Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has been revelatory, adding an element of imagination to the Dallas play-calling that has brought out the best in Dak Prescott. After a month, the Cowboys have morphed from the only contender-type with a running back as the most valuable player to now Prescott and Zeke Elliott being equally important to the cause, or perhaps Prescott the more significant one.
6. Chicago 3-1 (May ranking: 9). Lots of good defenses in the league right now. New England, of course. The Saints and Dallas are good. The deepest defense might reside in Chicago. Standouts in Sunday’s pounding of the Vikings: Nick Kwiatkoski, Nick Williams, Roy Robertson-Harris, Prince Amukamara … and Khalil Mack. These will be interesting times in Chicago coming up, with Chase Daniel replacing Mitchell Trubisky (mercifully, perhaps) at quarterback. Seems crazy to consider, but for the reason I elucidated up top, the Bears could be better with Daniel, and not just for the short term. The NFC North will be one of the most fascinating division races in years, because any team can play a great game on any Sunday. Not good, great. And I count Chicago there, even with the unknown Daniel, because he knows this offense so well and has the deep trust of his head coach and play-caller.
7. San Francisco 3-0 (May ranking: 7). Play along with me here. Niners are a rested 3-0. You don’t really know what they are, because they’ve beaten three teams with a combined 2-8 record. In the next five weeks, they’ve got Cleveland at home, Rams and Washington on the road, Carolina at home, Arizona on the road. It’s possible, certainly, to come out of that stretch winning four of five. And then how interesting would the West be with San Francisco at 7-1 … and starting the second half of the season with three straight in Santa Clara? I mean, I’m just saying.
8. Philadelphia 2-2 (May ranking: 8). The Eagles are scoring enough (27.5 points per game), and Carson Wentz is healthy enough. He’s not what he was in mid-2017 … yet. What would concern me is a defense allowing 26 points and 386 yards per game, a defense with three sacks in four games. I don’t mean to harp on pushing the Eagles to trade for unhappy Jags cornerback Jalen Ramsey, but he’d really help this secondary right now, even though the pricetag probably makes GM Howie Roseman want to puke.
9. Green Bay 3-1 (May ranking: 14). The defense had given up 35 total points before Thursday night. Then the Eagles got 34. The Pack struggles to run. The best receiver by far, Davante Adams, could miss some time with a turf toe now. The division is top-heavy; even if you discount Minnesota with its passing problems, the Bears and Lions can beat any team any week. I put my trust here in a renewed Aaron Rodgers—though no team in football has a tougher looming five weeks: at Dallas, Detroit, Oakland, at Kansas City, at the Chargers. Somehow, I think they’ll be standing at the end, playing in January.
10. Seattle 3-1 (May ranking: 13). Seattle’s not the dominant rushing team it was last year (4.8 per rush last year, 4.0 this year), and the receiver group is still a tick off with no Doug Baldwin. But Russell Wilson’s pretty good deodorant. He’s on his way to his top year in accuracy (72.9 percent) and rating (118.7), while learning his new targets. This is a compelling team, rebuilt on the fly all except at quarterback and linebacker, but I’ll be surprised even with a tough looming schedule (Rams, at Cleveland, Baltimore) if they don’t win 10 or 11 games.
11. Detroit 2-1-1 (May ranking: 27). The Lions’ last three weeks: Detroit 70, Chargers/Eagles/Chiefs 68. Imagine your opposing quarterbacks in this era of passer-rating-inflation have been Kyler Murray, Phillip Rivers, Carson Wentz and Patrick Mahomes, and you’ve held them to a composite (and stingy) 80.3 rating. They were a misguided Kerryon Johnson stretch-the-ball-for-the-goal-line dumb play from shocking the world Sunday. I don’t know if the Lions’ can play January football this season, because of their division and because, well, they’re the Lions, but I watched 75 percent of their game Sunday and they’re legit. With Matthew Stafford’s bum hip, it seems like a good time for the Detroit bye this week.
12. Buffalo 3-1 (May ranking: 23). The Bills were Rocky Balboa in the first “Rocky.” Tom Brady was Apollo Creed. Could have sworn I heard Brady whisper to Josh McDaniels, “Ain’t gonna be no rematch.” Kidding! Kidding! Brady will be fired up about the Week 16 meeting in Foxboro. But boy, did the Bills give Brady everything he could handle. Now where do the Bills stand? Crucial game at Tennessee on Sunday before their bye weekend, and who knows if Josh Allen will be ready to play, or if he’ll need a week off after the beating he took Sunday. Hard to trust Matt Barkley to win a big game after being in mothballs for so long. The Bills’ season could go many ways in the next three months. Could be a roller coaster.
13. Cleveland 2-2 (May ranking: 11). One thing we learned about the Browns: Nick Chubb can take over a game; I never knew that before Sunday. Baker Mayfield’s going to be a good NFL quarterback and he’s going to be the kind of leader teammates love, because he dares you to knock that chip off his shoulder. But he’s also going to need bailing out at times, as all good quarterbacks do. That’s what Chubb did Sunday, particularly on that jet-fueled 88-yard touchdown run. Imagine Chubb and Kareem Hunt in the same backfield, or Chubb in the backfield and Hunt split out or slotted the way the Chiefs used to do with him. If the Browns are hanging around by Thanksgiving, they could be great to watch and very hard to stop.
14. Baltimore 2-2 (May ranking: 12). I’m befuddled by the Ravens. Coming into Sunday, I thought they were one of the teams that could go into Kansas City or Foxboro in January and win, and it wouldn’t be a stunning upset. But then Cleveland, formerly shaky, rabbit-eared Cleveland, came to Crabcakeville and ran for 6.7 yards per rush, threw for 342 yards, and gained 530. A brutal loss, the kind of game that had to make the Ravens wonder who exactly they are. Maybe every team in the league is like this, even the good ones. Maybe every team has a monthly clunker. Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in the next two weeks should help Baltimore recover, but the Ravens aren’t winning many games playing the way they did Sunday.
15. Minnesota 2-2 (May ranking: 10). I could have put the Vikings 20th, which is shocking, because I simply do not trust the passing game. Kirk Cousins’ world is crumbling. Twenty games into what is very likely to be a three-year Vikings career—and might even be two—it’s clear he’s losing the confidence of the locker room. As Chad Graff of The Athletic reported Sunday night, this was Adam Thielen after he was pretty open in a crucial late moment at Soldier Field and Cousins overthrew him: “He made a great read of finding me open, and just didn’t complete the pass. It’s as simple as that. … At some point, you’re not going to be able to run the ball for 180 yards, even with the best running back in the NFL. That’s when you have to be able to throw the ball … You have to be able to hit the deep balls.” Can’t get much uglier in Minny, particularly with road games against Detroit, Kansas City and Dallas coming in the next six weeks.
16. Los Angeles Chargers 2-2 (May ranking: 5). Strange team. Injury-ravaged team. Tied 10-10 with Miami with five minutes left in the first quarter. Somehow, the Chargers have to build up some equity in the standings in the next three weeks (Denver, Pittsburgh, at Tennessee) so the death march of a month that follows that (at Chicago, Green Bay, at Oakland, Kansas City) will matter. I’ll always give them a chance with Phillip Rivers and a deep backfield, but the volume of injuries leaves them zero margin for error.
17. Indianapolis 2-2 (May ranking: 3). Guess what? I have absolutely no idea what team’s the best in the AFC South. Seriously: One could be four, four could be one, and I really couldn’t argue with you. The Colts pulled a no-show Sunday against the Raiders, allowing Oakland to run for 188 yards, dominate time of possession … and watching Jacoby Brissett pull his first true bonehead play of the year, the pick-six thrown right to Erik Harris. The Colts probably have had too many important people either retire (Luck) or get hurt (Leonard, Hilton) to be a real contender this year.
18. Houston 2-2 (May ranking: 15). I keep thinking they’re better than they play, but that’s the biggest lie in sports. The old philosopher Bill Parcells used to say six times a week: “You are what your record says you are.” They’re better on the offensive line this year, but not fixed. They struggle to be consistent on offense every year. And they’re 17-20 since opening day 2014, including a loss to Kyle Allen and the Carolina Panthers at home Sunday. Four of their next five are winnable, so all is not lost for the Texans—if they can protect Deshaun Watson.
19. Tampa Bay 2-2 (May ranking: 29). You figure out the Bucs. Lose at home to the Giants when they can’t make a chippy field goal, then score 55 points on a defense that had held foes to 16 points a game this year. They’re 0-2 at home, 2-0 on the road. Jameis Winston has a couple of big-league receivers in Chris Godwin and Mike Evans. I watched a lot of their beatdown of the Rams, and what impressed me, frankly, was Winston not blowing it after throwing the pick-six to narrow the lead to five points with eight minutes left. That’s new.
20. Jacksonville 2-2 (May ranking: 20). The Jags have to solve the Jalen Ramsey conundrum, or risk him wrecking a season that has hope because of Gardner Minshew, of all people. Tea leaves make it seem like the Jags are holding out for two first-round picks, which I’d never pay for a guy quite possibly destined to spend the rest of 2019 and all of 2020 (and no more) on his second NFL team. I get the impression he wants to be a free-agent in 2021, when the new CBA is negotiated and there could be riches to be had that we don’t know about now. If I’m Jacksonville GM Dave Caldwell, I’m taking a first-round pick and a good starting player, preferably a corner, for Ramsey and being done with him now.
21. Tennessee 2-2 (May ranking: 25). The most amazing stat (now that Denver isn’t sackless anymore) of the first quarter of the season is Marcus Mariota’s stat line: 62.2 percent accuracy (average), 7-0 TD-to-pick ratio (uh, really?), 7.8 yards per attempt (better than Brady and Rodgers), 106.2 passer rating (better than Brady and Rodgers). As you can see, Jameis Winston’s not the only 2015 very high pick trying to salvage his career with the team that drafted him. Very impressive performance at Atlanta on Sunday.
22. Oakland 2-2 (May ranking: 19). A couple of days before the Antonio Brown thing blew up, respected ESPN analyst Louis Riddick told me, “The Raiders are my surprise team of 2019. I can’t think of any team that has done more to improve since the end of last season.” Riddick was onto something, because GM Mike Mayock ignored the noise (drafting Clelin Ferrell fourth overall, for instance) to build for the future. At the very least, Derek Carr has had a good if unspectacular first quarter of the season, and Oakland has found three long-term offensive keepers to build around: running back Josh Jacobs, tight end Darren Waller and pricy but blot-out-the-sun left tackle Trent Brown. The win at Indy on Sunday at least gives the Raiders life for the next month or so, though I can’t imagine much better than 1-2 coming out of their remaining road slog (Chicago in London, at Green Bay, at Houston).
23. Carolina 2-2 (May ranking: 21). I wouldn’t be passing any major judgment on Cam Newton. Coming off shoulder surgery, he hurt his foot in late August and entered the season adjusting to a different style of football. So he played two games poorly. And now he’s out while his foot heals. It’s just wrong-headed to be thinking about life after Cam. Let the former MVP come back and play and see what he is. You don’t throw a 30-year-old stalwart player out after two bad games, and you also don’t make the definitive judgment that without his legs he can’t be a star quarterback. Kyle Allen is a compelling story and has shown in his 3-0 starting tenure with the Panthers that he deserves more than a passing mention. If nothing else, the Panthers are going to get a sense whether Allen can be a Foles-type presence and player for them while Newton heals.
24. New York Giants 2-2 (May ranking: 28). The news is good with Daniel Jones, certainly, and if the defense could be trusted, the Giants would be higher than 25. A rising quarterback means you’ve always got a chance, in every game. But my guess is the next five weeks will confirm the Giants are playing for a brighter 2020: Minnesota, at New England, Arizona, at Detroit, Dallas.
25. Atlanta 1-3 (May ranking: 17). Since noon on the February 2017 Pats-Falcons Super Bowl Sunday, Atlanta’s record is 19-20. In that fateful Super Bowl, the one with the blown 28-3 third-quarter lead by the Falcons, Atlanta started Julio Jones, Mahamed Sanu, Jake Matthews, Alex Mack, Matt Ryan and Devonta Freeman among its significant offensive starters. On defense, Grady Jarrett (who tormented Tom Brady all day), Vic Beasley, Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell and Ricardo Allen started. Those 11 key starters also started Sunday when Tennessee walked into the Mercedes Benz Dome in Atlanta and whipped the Falcons. A very bad loss. And the seat gets scalding for coach Dan Quinn. Arthur Blank didn’t pay Matt Ryan and Julio Jones a jillion dollars to be 1-3 … or to be absolutely mediocre in the past 39 games. Eleven of the, say, 14 or 15 most significant starters on a Super Bowl team are still playing today, and they are a .500 group. Some of that has to come down to coaching.
26. Pittsburgh 0-3 (May ranking: 18). This is the most un-Pittsburgh year I can ever remember, with more risks than the conservative Steelers ever take. Not only are the Steelers perilously close to being out of playoff contention by Oct. 1 (a loss to Cincinnati tonight would do it), but the tidal wave of draft-pick trades (four since April) is totally out of character for this team. The Steelers could be facing, say, a 5-11 finish with many holes to fill in 2020. As of today, they’ll have one draft pick in the top 100, after trading a first, a third and two fifth-round picks since April. With a record like that, the Steelers would pick around 40th overall, and not again till about 110. Dealing what could be a top 10 pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick will be fine if he has Jalen Ramsey-type impact. But it’s not going to look very good if Mason Rudolph tanks this fall and the Steelers enter next season with 38-year-old Ben Roethlisberger coming off elbow surgery and one lonely pick in the top 100, leaving them no ability to draft his legitimate heir … unless they want to mortgage the 2021 draft too.
27. Denver 0-4 (May ranking: 24). I’m still on board with the Vic Fangio hire. It was a smart, long-haul move to bring in a no-nonsense, respected adult in the room by John Elway. But the most stunning aspect of his early tenure is that in the first three games, the first 29 drives, his ace pass-rushers, Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, have zero sacks and three quarterback hits. By Thursday, Miller, normally affable, was so fed up with the local media’s questions (what did you expect?) about the disappearing pass-rush that he read a statement and refused to take questions. What I’ve noticed, particularly Week 1 at Oakland, is passers are focused on getting the ball out fast because they fear the impact of Miller and Chubb off the edge. And because the Broncos have most often been playing from behind, foes (especially Chicago in Week 2) have been living on the run. The pass rush was better Sunday in the 26-24 loss to the Jags. But the Broncos still are feeble, 0-8 since December and nothing they can count on.
28. Cincinnati 0-3 (May ranking: 30). The Bengals are who we thought they were, though two of the losses were late one-possession jobs. If I’m rookie coach Zac Taylor, I can see where the passing game will get better when A.J. Green comes back from an ankle injury in a few weeks; Tyler Boyd and the resurgent John Ross have been strong targets for Andy Dalton. But it’s the miserable running game, averaging just 2.4 yards per rush, that’s hamstringing this offense. Back in the day, Cincinnati always had a road-grading offensive line and a most often a top-10 NFL running game. No more.
29. Arizona 0-3-1 (May ranking: 31). Grade: incomplete. Kliff Kingsbury’s offense is still new to everyone on the team except Kyler Murray and maybe his long-term top target, Christian Kirk. To run this offense behind a feeble offensive line just exacerbates the time it will take for mastery of the offense.
30. Washington 0-4 (May ranking: 22). Three questions: What is the point of having Trent Williams on the roster? Who, exactly, wins by wasting a season of a 31-year-old tackle who’s missed 15 games in the last four years with injury, and when clearly Washington could have gotten a first-round pick on Labor Day weekend for him? Now the ransom-payer, Houston, doesn’t need a left tackle anymore. Bad decision by Bruce Allen and Doug Williams … When will the head coach walk the plank? Jay Gruden is 35-48-1, with zero playoff wins in his sixth year. No coach has a hotter seat … Does any team repel prime time more than this one? Last four Washington prime-time appearances: lost by 16, lost by 24, lost by 15, lost by 24. And by the way, the first game for Dwayne Haskins was a big-league dud. Franchise adrift.
31. New York Jets 0-3 (May ranking: 26). No team will be very good starting three quarterbacks in three games, none of whom has a résumé of sustained success. But any team will be bad behind an offensive line that will continue to hamstring this team. The Jets, through September, have no guard or tackle in the top 40 of their position ratings by PFF, and center Ryan Kalil, brought out of retirement to be an upgrade over Jonotthan Harrison, is the 31st-rated center out of 32. Even though Le’Veon Bell has come back to football as eager as when he was a Steelers rookie, it’s tough to run behind that line: Bell’s averaging just 2.9 yards per rush. All of this is one way of saying the Jets’ most important player in the next seven months is not a player. It’s GM Joe Douglas, stolen with a rich six-year contract from the Eagles in the offseason. He’s got a lot of holes to fill.
32. Miami 0-4 (May ranking: 32). Never thought I’d see a team this bad. The 2008 Lions, the first winless team of this century, lost by an average of 15.6 points a game. Another winless team of the last 50 years, the 1976 Bucs, lost by an average of 20.5 points a game. Dolphins’ average loss in September: 34.3 points. I keep hearing Brian Flores is still glad he took the job, and if you think this is the worst thing he’s been through in his hardscrabble life, think again. The Dolphins were at least competitive in the 30-10 loss to the Chargers on Sunday. But he’s got three months left to stand in front of his team and tell them why they should give their all every Sunday. No coach will have a tougher job than Flores—a stranger to everyone in that locker room eight months ago—in the season’s last 13 weeks.
Play of the Week
Sometimes you see a play that’s so odd, so not for this particular moment, and you wonder: Why did that just happen?
Chiefs-Lions, Kansas City ball, first play of the fourth quarter, Detroit up 23-20, second-and-12 at the Detroit 46.
Patrick Mahomes throws to tight end Travis Kelce over the middle. Kelce’s going to have enough for the first down. He’s about to begin going down, facing back toward the line of scrimmage when LeSean McCoy, uncovered, appears in his vision. As he goes down, almost as a reflex, he laterals the ball to McCoy. I’m guessing Kelce would have been down at about the Detroit 34. The stunning lateral, caught by McCoy, advanced to the Detroit 23.
“I don’t know why, really,” Kelce said from the Chiefs’ locker room after the game. “It just popped into my head.”
He said: “Uh, everybody’s asking me that. It was about just making a play. Maybe giving us a spark Shady [McCoy] is unbelievable. He is ready for the unexpected.”
I asked: “You never ran it before?”
“I never ran hook-and-lateral since middle school. It might cross my mind sometimes, but I never did it. And here, I really don’t know. But it worked. I just didn’t think anything bad would happen if I did it.”
Notes from an hour spent with the NFL’s chief strategy and growth officer, Chris Halpin, on the verge of the league beginning its five-game 2019 international series with the Chicago-Oakland game Sunday at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London:
• The Tottenham stadium seats 65,000 and begins a 10-year deal with the NFL. The league is required to play a minimum of two games per year there. Across town, Jacksonville is the sort of “anchor tenant” of Wembley Stadium, with the Jags playing one game a year there (versus Houston on Nov. 3 this year), and the NFL playing a second game there. (The Wembley deal expires after the 2020 season.) The Tottenham stadium houses the Tottenham Hotspur Premier League team, with a natural-grass pitch laying over the field turf field the NFL team will use; the grass field will be removed from the stadium on the two weekends the NFL games are played—with Carolina-Tampa Bay Oct. 13 the other game this year. The Tottenham locker rooms will feature changing facilities for women, with the rise of women on coaching staffs.
• Halpin said the two games at Tottenham sold out in 45 minutes, and the demand for the tickets was 12 times availability. Of the 28 regular-season games played in London through this season, 27 have sold out.
• It’s very likely the NFL will play four more London games in 2020, and the league is talking to Mexico officials about playing in Azteca Stadium once in 2020. Nothing certain there.
• Carolina and Houston are the 30th and 31st franchises to play outside the United States in the 38 regular-season games played internationally. The lone holdout: Green Bay. “We are excited to get there [book Green Bay for an international game] at some point,” Halpin said. “The London fans—that’s an annual question in any fan forum: when the Packers will be there.” It’s a question of when, not if.
• My guess: Green Bay has to be a prime contender for a game in London in 2020. The NFL has had one built-in home team in England—Jacksonville, which has played one game a year there, willingly, since 2013. And over the last four seasons, including this year, the three transient teams on the way to new stadia (Rams, Raiders, Chargers) have played or will play in London six times. But because each of those three teams was eligible to play in London while in transition to a new stadium, and all are due to be in their new permanent homes in 2020, the NFL will need new teams to fill what is expected to be five international game slots in 2020. Jacksonville is one team. Which are the other nine? The Packers, as most teams, are loathe to give up a home game, and are so attractive on the road that Green Bay is the last home game teams want to lose if they play the Packers very occasionally. Next year’s non-division Packer hosts: Indy, Houston, New Orleans, Tampa Bay. Those are four battles the league would have to fight—unless it can convince Green Bay to move one home game to London or Mexico City.
• “Teams have fully bought in to playing internationally,” Halpin said. “The next generation of players want to be global athletes.” But five teams—Jacksonville plus four more—still have to give up a home game to play outside the United States, and that’s a constant challenge for the NFL to find. It’s clear the owners like the money and the exposure in new markets that the international games bring. “Where do we go with the games, and the volume of games, going forward?” Halpin said. “That’s a point of discussion right now.”
• Halpin said “absolutely” the league could play a regular-season game much further away, such as China or Australia. “Doing a one-off game without marketing programs that drive into it and build off it is a stunt that is not worth it,” he said. But the NFL has an office in Shanghai, has a strong streaming presence there, and the league estimates there are about 10,000 Chinese flag-football players. There’s a 12-hour time difference between New York and Beijing. But if the league played a game at 9:30 p.m. on a Sunday in Shanghai, that game would start at 9:30 a.m. ET—the same time as several recent London games began.
• The league is also fact-finding on German sites and stadiums, and will hold its annual international combine in Germany this fall. The German pro football league placed a player with the Patriots this month: 250-pound fullback Jakob Johnson, who is from Stuttgart and played college football at Tennessee. Johnson started for the Patriots on Sunday in Buffalo.
• The NFL has kept a close eye on Azteca Stadium in Mexico City after the awful field conditions last year forced the Rams-Chiefs game to be moved from Mexico City to the L.A. Coliseum days before the game because of awful field conditions. Halpin said the hybrid grass/artificial turf field was torn up and replaced with a grass field. There’s been a regular slate of soccer games and no recent concerts and decent weather. Last year, there were too many events, a concert that scarred the field, and too much rain. Chiefs-Chargers on Monday, Nov. 18, ought to be a good spectacle. Mexico has some rabid NFL fans who were crushed to miss the Rams and Chiefs, with Mahomes mania in full bloom, last year. So here he is now.
• The NFL is seeing gains in its TV ratings in Europe and China. Halpin said the per-minute audience for the Red Zone channel in Great Britain has doubled since last year, from an average of 70,000 viewers to 140,000 on Sunday evening in England. And the approximate number for cumulative audience per week, including games, Red Zone and BBC highlight programs, is 1.4 million, meaning about 2 percent of the British population is watching some NFL each week.
Offensive Players of the Week
Leonard Fournette, running back, Jacksonville. Wow. Did you see him bisect the Denver defense on the 81-yard run? Fournette was the man the Jags expected when they used the fourth overall pick on him in 2017, rushing 29 times for 225 yards in the altitude in a 26-24 last-second win.
Nick Chubb, running back, Cleveland. Wow. Did you see him bisect the Baltimore defense on the 88-yard touchdown sprint in the fourth quarter? He was not touched. Chubb had a terrific game overall, rushing for 165 yards on 20 carries against a good defense. Where he shined was in the second half, with an incredible performance: 10 carries, 131 yards, three rushing touchdowns. Chubb’s 14-yard TD run midway through the third quarter gave the underdog Browns a 17-10 lead. His two-yard TD run at the end of the quarter made it 24-10, and, right after the Ravens cut the lead to six, Chubb sprinted up the right side of the field 88 yards, looking very much like a fleet wide receiver. That clinched the game for the Browns.
Frank Gore, running back, Buffalo. I believe Gore is the only player in the NFL (at least in the time I’ve covered it) to have undergone reconstructive surgery on both knees and both shoulders. Did you know Sunday was his 200th game since the last of those four surgeries? That is only slightly amazing. More amazing is the fact that, at 36, Gore became the fourth player in NFL history to surpass 15,000 rushing yards—and the oldest player ever to rush for 100 yards in a game. He did it against the NFL’s top-rated defense. Man, what a day for Gore: 17 carries, 109 yards. That leaves him at number four on the all-time rushing list, with 15,021 yards … 248 yards from passing the immortal Barry Sanders for third place. The only smudge on his day: Gore was stopped for a one-yard loss in a one-score game in the fourth quarter from the Patriots’ 2-yard line.
Defensive Player of the Week
Shaq Barrett, defensive end, Tampa Bay. Had three significant pressures of Jared Goff as the Bucs built up a 31-20 lead over the Rams in Los Angeles. Then, with 18 minutes left in the game and the Rams driving to make it a one-score game, Goff threw a pass in the right flat, sort of a rainbow, and Barrett leaped high in the air to pluck the interception.
Kyle Van Noy, linebacker, New England. On a day of excellent performances across the board in Buffalo—by Patriots players and Bills players both—Van Noy stood out. Then again, he almost always does. One of the best acquisitions of the Belichick Era, Van Noy had two sacks and a team-high eight tackles as the Patriots rode the defense and special teams to a 16-10 win.
Erik Harris, safety, Oakland. With 2:17 left, and the Raiders nursing a 24-17 lead, the Colts started at their 25-yard line. Jacoby Brissett threw a quick out to Zach Pascal … and Harris, from tiny California (Pa.), stepped in front of Pascal for a smooth interception and 30-yard touchdown return, untouched. There were some hairy moments at the end, but the Raiders held on for a 31-24 win on week two of the road trip from hell, the 43-day odyssey away from Oakland.
Jabrill Peppers, safety, New York Giants. Wearing number 21 (the old number of star Giants safety Landon Collins), with Collins watching from the Washington sidelines, Peppers jumped into the flight path of a Dwayne Haskins pass at the Washington and returned it for a 32-yard TD, his first as a Giant. That wasn’t the first time Peppers tormented Haskins, in the Washington rookie’s first game as an NFL quarterback. In the second quarter, from the Giants’ one-yard line, Peppers made a clutch breakup of what looked to be the first TD pass of the kid’s career, saving a sure six points.
Special Teams Player of the Week
J.C. Jackson, defensive back, New England. Had a first quarter of his dreams. Rushing from the punter’s left, he blew past wide blocker Patrick DeMarco of the Bills and smothered a Corey Bojorquez punt; Matthew Slater recovered and scored the first touchdown of his career. New England, 13-0. Late in the quarter, with the Bills driving, Jackson made a pretty pick of Josh Allen at the Patriots’ 10, keeping it a 13-0 game. He had another pick in the second half, rounding out the best game, by far, of his brief NFL career. Not bad for an undrafted college free agent from Maryland, plucked after the 2018 draft by the Patriots.
Joey Slye, kicker, Carolina. The rookie replacement for Graham Gano kicked a 48-yard field goal in the first quarter to open the scoring at Houston. With the game tied at 10 entering the fourth quarter, his 55-yarder put the Panthers up, and his 26-yarder iced it with 26 seconds left.
Coach of the Week
Freddie Kitchens, head coach, Cleveland. After a mostly ugly loss to the Rams last Sunday night in Cleveland, Kitchens openly questioned his own play-calling, and the Browns got into a war of words with ESPN’s Rex Ryan. (Why oh why do you pay any attention to what the guys on TV say, and why oh why do you continue to discuss it even after a huge win, Baker Mayfield?) But in the three hours when football mattered Sunday, the Browns played mostly their A game, and the team certainly looked like the best in the division. That’s the players, of course. But’s it also the coach’s job to have them ready in a tough environment, with a brutal schedule to come. That was a very important win for the Browns. Credit to Kitchens for having his team ready.
“I’m just upset I lost my earring.”
—Browns receiver Odell Beckham Jr., regarding the scuffle with Ravens defensive back Marlon Humphrey during Sunday’s game. Beckham took a swing at Humphrey, who then pounced on Beckham and grabbed his neck before the two were separated. Humphrey said after the game he apologized to Beckham.
“There’s no room in football for a play like the hit on Josh Allen.”
—Bills coach Sean McDermott, on the hit by Patriots defensive back Jonathan Jones that knocked Buffalo’s quarterback out of the game. Jones was flagged for the hit, but NFL officiating head Al Riveron told the Buffalo News that the play didn’t warrant a disqualification.
“A dog that poop fast don’t poop for long.”
—Bears linebacker Khalil Mack, making the point that Chicago shouldn’t get too proud of itself after beating rival Minnesota on Sunday.
Larry Fitzgerald • Arizona wide receiver • Photographed in Tempe, Ariz.
Another new coaching staff, another new offense, another new quarterback. After four weeks, Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, 36, playing with a crew of 25-and-under wideouts, leads Arizona in catches and receiving yards. Rebuilding, again. All the newness, again. What motivates Fitzgerald to keep coming back, and to do so with the enthusiasm—at least seemingly, as it looks from the outside—of a kid?
“One of the things I want to be known for is my reliability. I want people to be able to count on me. If your wife tells you, ‘Can you pick up some diapers on the way home?’ you want her to know she doesn’t even have to think about it—you’ll do it. So I want this new coach [Kliff Kingsbury] and this new quarterback [Kyler Murray] to know that about me. I’ll be here every day, working, and they can count on me. They can count on me to know the offense and to be in the right place no matter what play is called. It’s been fun for me. Coach Kingsbury’s offense is great for a receiver. Kyler’s so exciting to be around—he just wants to be great. Three weeks into the season, only one receiver had played more snaps than me. I’m having a great time, and I’m not just hanging around—I’m still being featured in this offense.”
On the spate of players talking their way off their teams, or trying to.
“We’re kind of getting like the NBA. But I do think players having more power is good thing. Patrick Mahomes could be the first $200-million player. The numbers are getting crazy. Now you see the NFL partnership with Draft Kings [in daily fantasy sports], and the league talking about maybe a 17 or 18-game schedule. That’s billions more, potentially, in revenue. So players need to share in that. It just feels like a different time. When Le’Veon Bell turns down $14 million to play for one season and sits out, wow. Whatever you thought of that, it shows the power of the player.
“I’m not the kind of guy who thinks the grass is always greener. I’m really not that interested in moving around. I get to pick up my son from school. I just went to his flag-football game. If I lived and played somewhere else for a season or two, how would that be handled? So I’m not too interested in moving around. I have a lot of equity here. I love it here. My charity is thriving. People here get behind my projects. I am in the fabric of the community, and that’s something I love. It would be impossible somewhere else. I am going to be retired a lot longer than I am going to play football.
“In some ways, I have modeled myself after the way Jerome Bettis handled himself, handled his business. When I was at Pitt, our football facilities were next to each other. So I would see him all the time during the season, and he’d eat lunch with our guys all the time, giving advice and being there as a resource person for all these guys in college. He saw the big picture about being a big part of the community. He was beloved in Pittsburgh. I watched that and I learned.
“I don’t get into how other players handle their business. That’s their life. My first agent, [the late] Eugene Parker, also told me, ‘Always conduct your business in private.’ So you’re not going to hear about my contract and my negotiations from me. You’d always lose in public opinion.”
Chasing Jerry Rice is a long and lonely road. With five catches Sunday giving him 1,326 for his 16-year career, Larry Fitzgerald passed Tony Gonzalez into second place on the all-time receptions list. The top three in receptions in NFL history:
Rice was 42 in his last season, 2004. Fitzgerald is 36, and healthy. In his four seasons between age 32 and 35, Fitzgerald averaged 98.5 catches per year, and missed no games due to injury. Any way he’ll hang around long enough to challenge the Rice record Fitzgerald has long said is unassailable?
Fitzgerald told me: “That’s Jerry’s record. For me, it’s just not something that really … Two hundred more catches—what does that mean? I’m more into trying to help build this team into a championship team than the individual records. The thing about Jerry I covet is his three championships. But think about what he accomplished. Think about averaging 100 catches a year for 16 years, which is what you’d have to do to break his record. Think about having 1,000 receiving yards for 21 years to catch his yardage record. And 199 TDs. If you play 200 games, you’ve got to average a touchdown a game, 16 touchdowns a year. That doesn’t happen.”
Of all wide receivers currently on active rosters in the NFL, the closest to Larry Fitzgerald in career catches is 605 away.
Julio Jones: 721
The New England-Buffalo game Sunday in western New York broke a three-year streak of having a sex toy thrown on the turf during the Patriots’ annual visit to New Era Field. And kudos to Tim Graham of The Athletic, for his excellent story on the, ahem, dildonic tradition at Bills games. From a Bills exec: “It’s Patriots week, and the fact that we have to contemplate if some fan is going to throw a dildo on the field is ridiculous.” I mean, that might be quote of the century, Tim Graham.
It’s hard to comprehend what Rutgers gets out of being in the Big Ten, other than weekly embarrassment and some checks for said embarrassment.
Since the start of 2016, Rutgers is 0-7 against Michigan and Ohio State, with the average loss to Michigan by 46.5 points and the average loss to Ohio State by 54.3 points.
The composite scores:
Ohio State 166, Rutgers 3.
Michigan 207, Rutgers 21.
Coach Chris Ash was fired Sunday by the Rutgers athletic department.
During pro football’s 100th season, I’ll re-visit important games, plays and events from NFL history.
2010: The biggest onside kick in Super Bowl history revives the Saints
We’re approaching the 10-year anniversary of Super Bowl 44. Indianapolis led New Orleans 10-6 at the half, with the Colts and Peyton Manning due to receive the second-half kickoff. Rookie punter Thomas Morstead also handled the kickoff duties.
Morstead’s recollection of the first play of the third quarter of that Super Bowl, 10 years later:
“We would always have fakes in the game plan that whole year. We never ran them because we were always winning. You don’t want to burn good things you have planned. But the night before the game, here it was again. Coaches said, Hey, we’re gonna run this. We’re gonna run ‘Ambush.’
“Ambush was the name of the call. And I did not believe it. Not a chance we were running it in the Super Bowl. Come on. But at halftime—long halftime—Sean [Payton] bursts through the defensive room. He just walked right by me, just in passing, no big deal, and he says, ‘We’re running Ambush to start the half.’ And he doesn’t stop. There’s not a conversation. He’s gone. I’m telling you, my heart rate just went through the roof. I was kinda pissed at him. I remember having to sit on this for like 30 minutes. I would’ve rather known right before. But now, I think I’m glad he told me early because I did not have a good attitude. I wasn’t feeling great about it in the moment. I had to flush all those negative thoughts out.
“My special-teams coach in college, Frank Gansz Sr., who’s one of the all-time greats in NFL history, died the day after I got drafted. But I kept a big picture of him in my locker my rookie year. He was a godsend for me. So I’m just pacing and I was just kinda frantic. I wasn’t doing well. I just looked up at his photo. One of his favorite acronyms was ACDC. The basic meaning of it was the more aggressive team normally wins. And I thought, well this is pretty f—ing aggressive. And I relaxed. And then I thought, every time coach had me run this the past two weeks, I hit it how I wanted it. That gave me some confidence.
“But you know the thing that sucks about an onside kick in a football game? You can’t practice it. The first time you hit it is when you hit it in the game. And now I’m being asked to do it in the Super Bowl!
“So I’m out there on the field and Pat McAfee, who was a rookie that year for the Colts, is their kickoff guy. And I’m out there kicking off next to him. The adrenaline is just coursing through me. And I just toss out, ‘Tell your returner to not even bother bringing this out. Doesn’t matter how you line this up. I’m putting this out the back of the end zone.’ Like I’m just trying to sell the Kool Aid to anybody I can. Maybe I can fool myself into thinking I can really do this! Juices flowing. I go over to our sideline. And John Carney, our former kicker who by that time had been made a coach, he always used to tell me on onside kicks, ‘Ten percent.’ Like, hit it 10 percent of a normal kick. And he grabbed me right before I went out by the shoulder and he yanked me around and he said:
“ ‘T-Mo! One percent!’
“He knew I was just jacked up. And I just went out there and I put that ball on the tee. I had this routine: I take my steps, I always go to the same spot, make it look exactly the same as a deep kickoff, always kick to the right. So I had the initials FG—for Frank Gansz—on the heel of one of my cleats. I had this little thing I’d do, thinking back to Frank, I just said at that moment, ‘Frank, I hope you’re with me.’
“And I don’t remember anything after that. I kinda blacked out. I just remember seeing [Saints special-teams ace] Chris Reis with the ball as I was running at the pile, thinking, ‘Please God, hold onto that.’
“Have you seen ‘Remember the Titans?’ At the end of the movie, they win, and they hold the ball up, and it’s right in the light and it’s kind of blocked out by the light? When we pulled Chris out of that pile, and he held that ball up, it was right in the lights just like in that movie. And I remember hugging him from the back just saying, ‘I love you Chris!’ It was just such a big gamble and it was everything.
“You should have seen Chris in the showers after the game. He had claw marks, scratches, he was bruised. I mean, Chris has marks all over his body. Guys were fighting to get that ball. I think it was a good 60, 65 seconds, the pile. Guys are doing everything. You don’t know what goes on in the pile sometimes. You get 10 guys there, you know, guys are fighting to get a ring. He was battered. It was crazy.
“When I really go through the whole thing, I can’t help but get goosebumps. I got ‘em right now.
“As a specialist, you deal with all sorts of mental things about your performance. That onside kick was a blessing for me for the rest of my career. If you’re feeling it, you feel great. Sometimes you’re not feeling. Your confidence isn’t there. But if I’m having those doubts, you go back to that time and you remind yourself that you are good enough and you have the whatever-it-is to handle the pressure and handle the moment.
“There will never be a moment bigger in my football career than that moment. Like I said, ever since, it allows me to artificially create a little confidence when I’m not as confident, if that makes sense.”
The Saints drove 58 yards after the onside kick for a touchdown, and the kick was clearly the turning point of the game. New Orleans won its first Super Bowl, 31-17.
“Shortest kick of my life. Glad it was a good one.”
What’s your best habit, Lions linebacker Devon Kennard?
“I think it’s the concept of going the extra mile in my interactions with people. I am deliberate and good at reaching out with people. I network. Often times, if you’re an athlete, you don’t think you need to be cool with people and reach and say thanks when they’ve done something good for you. But I want to build relationships with people.”
And your worst?
“First thing I do every morning when I wake up is check my phone. I don’t know what big event I think I missed in the world in the eight hours I’ve been asleep. But I get up, I check Instagram or Twitter or some news feed, to see what amazing thing happened overnight. I am let down every day.
“I am working on staying on my phone less. You know how your iPhone can tell you how much you’re on this week compared to last week? I use that. This week, my phone time was down 15 percent. I saw that and I said ‘Yes!’ “
Belichick Fan Club checks in. From Laurra Maddock: “Gotta disagree with your support of bottom-feeding ‘reporters’ who perpetually embarrass themselves and their shaky, tenuous ‘profession.’ You said, ‘Dana Jacobson’s pregame on-camera question to Bill Belichick: “I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask, what was the final straw with Antonio Brown?” Perfect. Not dramatic. Just 17 words that needed to be said/asked.’ I say, BULL. GIVE IT A REST. GO SNUFFLE AROUND IN THE DUMPSTER FOR ANOTHER STORY. After three days of not answering reporters’ stupid-ass questions, how clear does it have to be that the Pats and BB aren’t going to say another word about Brown? How about finding a REAL story instead of proving what an idiot you are? I swear—99% of you NFL reporters are worthless. Elbowing each other relentlessly to see who can ask the stupidest questions. You all deserve to be ignored. Go get a real job.”
So you are in favor of this approach: If there’s a huge story and the people involved in that story are evasive in answering questions, we should simply stop asking questions about it. Not the way journalism works. In journalism, uncomfortable questions are going to be asked after the greatest franchise in sports picks up a superstar on the street and cuts him 12 days later when he’s been charged in a civil suit with three counts of sexual assault, and then another woman comes forward and makes another sex-harassment accusation. That’s not a “stupid” question, Laurra. That’s a “valid” question, an “important” question.
Interesting comp for Eli Manning. From David Israel: “Cal Ripken. Cal’s stats aren’t all that exciting.Career .276 hitter, 431 home runs in 21 seasons, .488 slugging, .788 OPS, ordinary defensively, played on a lot of losing teams. But showing up for work mattered, and Ripken was elected to the Hall, first ballot, 98.5 percent of the vote. Eli has never missed a game with injury, not once in his career. The only times he did not play, it was a coach’s decision. Showing up for work should matter in the NFL, as well.”
Really smart analogy. Ripken strikes me as a better offensive player than Manning was, but overall it works, because both put up great numbers and had the sort of indomitable spirit and common decency off the field that we love in our stars.
Roger and me. From Roger Davis: “I did not enjoy the lead in this week’s FMIA. It was an exercise in East Coast bias and fan servicing NYC. Neither team in NYC is any good, nor have they been for years. The Giants victory was due solely to a missed chip shot field goal by Tampa and is not the top NFL story of the week. Only those in NYC, the most self-absorbed city in the country, would think otherwise. I would prefer more sports journalism instead of media hype. I’m not a Detroit native or fan but I find the fact they are undefeated and won a road game against a playoff team much more significant.”
Good point about the Lions. My points about writing the Giants: I have not written about them since draft weekend, the 15-year starting quarterback with two Super Bowl MVPs got benched, the most controversial pick in the draft was given the job, the most controversial pick in the draft had a hell of a game and threw for two touchdowns and ran for two (including the winner on fourth down with 1:21 left), they lucked out when the Bucs kicker missed a chippie field goal, and I absolutely, unequivocally, positively would make the same editorial decision, 100 Mondays out of 100.
On the SNF music. From Dan McHenry, of Springfield, Pa.: “I’m a big music lover and I have always appreciated the music selections that are played during Sunday Night Football on NBC. I’ve noticed over the years that wherever the game is played, the transition music tends to be hometown artists or a song whose theme is based on that particular city. I have also noticed that songs sometimes are selected that represent something that is currently happening in the pop culture world. For example, during the Week 2 broadcast, (Philadelphia at Atlanta), there was a song played by the Black Crowes, a Georgia band. During the next break transition, a song by The Cars was used, on the night their lead singer, Ric Ocasek died. Who makes those selections? I would love to hear about the process.”
This from the executive producer of the Sunday night games, Fred Gaudelli, from his guest column in this space in June:
“Wendel Stevens is our chief audio technician, but he could easily be called music producer or DJ. Wendel spends all week examining our matchup and researching songs that might help us better tell a story. Examples:
- During Eagles-Seahawks game in 2017, amidst what looked like an MVP season for second-year quarterback Carson Wentz, Wendell planned to use the INXS song, “New Sensation.” Halfway thru the third quarter, Wentz made an impossible completion rolling to his right and throwing practically from his knees for about 30 yards down the right sideline. Three plays later he hit Nelson Agholor for a touchdown. Wendel heard me say we were going to commercial break with Wentz’s TD pass and celebration. So as the replays began, “New Sensation” formed the perfect soundtrack. It just adds a real fun element to the story not to mention add editorial exclamation.
- Wendell is also fast on his feet. Last season Dalvin Cook scored a touchdown versus Green Bay and the team celebration was a Limbo line. It was the first time the Vikings broke this out all season. Obviously, there was no way Wendell could know it was coming. Maybe 30 seconds passed before we went to break. I asked Wendell: “Have any Limbo music?” Truly, I was just teasing. Wouldn’t you know as we go to break with Cook doing the Limbo, Wendel is playing the 1962 Chubby Checker song, “Limbo Rock.” Limbo music. The entire truck laughed hysterically. “How’d you do it?” I asked. Wendel, with no air of accomplishment, said, “I played it live off the internet.” Amazing.
On Ryan O’Callaghan and his story about coming out. From R.H. in Florida: “Thanks for the story on Ryan O’Callaghan—it’s more important than you can know. Earlier this year my 20-year-old nephew threatened to kill himself on Facebook—thanks be to God we caught it and got him help. I shared your story with him (he’s struggling with sexuality, maybe gay, maybe trans) to let him know that his family is 100% behind him NO MATTER WHAT and to let him know he’s not alone in the ‘How do I deal with this?’ category.”
That will make Ryan happy. One of the reasons he wrote his book is to tell people like your nephew there is life after admitting the truth about your sexuality. Thanks for writing, and good luck to your nephew.
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 4:
b. The open-field tackling of the Packers. Safety Darnell Savage is fearless at it. But the best example in the first half against Philly: Carson Wentz scrambles on a third-and-nine, looks like he can juke the one guy, safety Adrian Amos, and get 10 or 12 yards for the first down. But Amos, unjukable, corrals Wentz and brings him down, forcing a punt. If a team has 12 possessions in a game, and Amos can snuff one of them out with a great play in the open field, well, that’s a great play in an important game.
c. The field microphones in Eagles-Packers. Excellent at picking up Aaron Rodgers’ cadence. If you think you heard him yell out, “Hard count,” you’re right. This is how I transcribed one of his pre-snap counts, trying to draw the Eagles offside: “Blue 58! Blue fifty-eiggggghhhhhhht! Blue58hardcount! Hut! Blue 19! Blue19hut!” Four minutes later, on a hard count, Aaron Rodgers to Davante Adams, gain of 39. That was good TV.
d. The officials and the league reaching agreement through the 2026 season on a new CBA. I don’t care about the terms. No one will call a sports talk show and ask, “Hey, any idea how much of a raise Clete Blakeman’s getting in the new ref CBA?” But to be sure there won’t be replacement refs in a game for at least seven more seasons is the point.
e. “Peyton’s Places.” Consistently great. Manning’s 30-episode series about the history of pro football is just so good. His trip to the Wilson Football factory in Ada, Ohio … a gem.
f. Good for Dak Prescott, apparently gambling on himself and not rushing into signing a deal with Dallas.
g. Ole Miss wideout A.J. Brown lasting till the 51st pick for Tennessee was a gift from the heavens. That guy is a big-league receiver.
i. No! The Real Catch of the Day: Christian McCaffrey tipping it once, tipping it twice, laying out parallel to the ground, and grabbing it for a catch just before crashing to the ground in Houston.
j. Kyle Van Noy makes about five plays every week to help New England win.
k. Jarvis Landry: an overlooked eight catches for 167 yards. He’s so good, so steady.
m. It’s getting long past time to talk about D.J. Chark as a top-15 all-around receiver in the NFL.
n. And for Gardner Minshew to evade/escape four Broncos on his third-quarter touchdown pass in Denver … I’ll just say that this is not your garden-variety backup. Someday, he’ll lead a team and get paid in the NFL.
o. Minshew on a go-ahead TD pass in Denver: fake a throw left, fake a throw right, find James O’Shaughnessy alone over the middle, touchdown.
p. Fantastic road performance, Raiders.
q. I do not write enough about Russell Wilson. Without Doug Baldwin, and manufacturing a passing game on the fly, Wilson continued doing what a winning quarterback does, being accurate and efficient and moving in the pocket when, as usual, it consistently broke down. A 27-10 win won’t go down in his time capsule of great wins, but it was perfectly Wilson.
r. Kenny Golladay was the best wideout on the field in Detroit—and Kansas City’s got some good wideouts.
s. If that’s Austin Ekeler’s last game as the prime Chargers back, he looked every bit an NFL starter.
2. I think this is what I didn’t like about Week 4:
a. I loved what the Lions did Sunday—limiting Patrick Mahomes to no touchdown passes, continually coming back, physically winning so many matchups against one of the best teams in the league. But Kerryon Johnson, reaching for the goal line and losing control of the ball, allowing the Chiefs to pick up a dumb fumble and returning it 100 yards. Just a poor sense by Johnson of where he was on the field.
b. The Rams—at home—giving up 55 to the formerly 1-2 Bucs and their high-wire quarterback.
c. Anointed the Packers D too soon. Against a good line Thursday night, Green Bay had zero sacks and two hits of Carson Wentz, per Pro Football Focus.
d. Week 4 byes. Man, I’d hate the early bye if I were the Jets and 49ers. Now you’re healthy, relatively, and you’ve got to play 13 straight weekends. It’s a competitive issue that doesn’t get talked about enough.
e. Will you please get rid of the ball, Josh Allen.
f. Late first half, Buffalo down 13-3 in New England territory. Allen takes a shotgun snap, and holds, and holds, and gets sacked. He held it for 6.42 seconds. Man, this is the NFL. You don’t have 6.42 seconds.
g. You need to cover Will Dissly, Arizona.
h. The Jalen Ramsey-less secondary beat for two Joe Flacco TD passes in the first half at Denver.
i. The Khalil Mack trade 13 months ago? Still indefensible by the Raiders.
j. Lord, the helmet-to-helmet hit by Tampa Bay tackle Donovan Smith on Marcus Peters, on Peters’ interception return for TD at the Coliseum was vicious. Where was the flag? Why are hits like being missed, again and again?
k. Tom Brady: 18 of 39 for 150 yards in Buffalo. A rating of 32.2.
l. Good thing the Patriots played special teams Sunday.
m. Hard to put the goat horns on Tre Herndon, being pressed into service with the absence of Jalen Ramsey. But Joe Flacco picked on Herndon for two touchdowns and a two-point conversion.
n. The Falcons are 1-3. Most disappointing team in football.
3. I think I’m hearing the Chargers might get into the Jalen Ramsey sweepstakes, which is smart on many levels. The second team in L.A. will need some juice, and signing a top-three cornerback would help them moving into the new stadium next fall, even if Ramsey is Charger property only through the end of 2020. Still think the Chiefs and Ravens are involved too. Now we have to figure out if Ramsey will make it hot enough on Jacksonville for the Jaguars to trade him. Which I still think he could do.
4. I think this is the most interesting thing I learned this week: There’s a doctor in Florida who is working to develop a topical cream for football players to use pre-game to reduce the effects of head trauma during the game, and also a nasal spray to be used after a concussive blow, to lessen the length of time for recovery from a concussion. The doctor, Jake VanLandingham of Florida State, is in the trial phase with these medications. These medications wouldn’t be solely for football either—the military, with its history of concussive incidents in combat, is interested as well.
“It would be good for football, and good for the military,” VanLandingham said. “But it’d also be good for the U.S. health-care industry. We could save billions in health-care costs.”
The savings could come, VanLandingham thinks, if the recovery time for a concussion went from 10 or 12 days to five, which is his forecast with the nasal spray after a concussion is suffered … and, if the brain had been pre-treated with the trans-dermal cream on the side of the neck before a concussive blow, the effect of the hit would be lessened because a neurological anti-inflammatory had been used. “It’s like a brain shield,” VanLandingham said of the pre-game trans-dermal cream.
He expects a couple of college football programs to be using some of the medication by 2020. This is one of the most hopeful things I’ve heard about concussion treatment in years.
5. I think there should not be an increase in the number of regular-season games. Sixteen’s enough. (Daniel Kaplan of The Athletic reported the league and union are negotiating the possibility of a 17-game regular-season schedule in 2021 CBA talks.) And if the NFL goes to 17, without some limit to the number of snaps every player can play, don’t let me hear one word about how much the commissioner and the owners care about the health and safety of the players. It’ll be nonsense. And the union had better work on its rationale for putting players at risk for more snaps per season—unless, of course, players are limited to a set number of snaps that approximates what they’d experience in a 16-game season.
This was NFLPA executive director De Smith to ESPN in July, on the prospect of adding more games to the regular season: “For us, it comes down to who players are as men, and is it good for us. If a coal miner is willing to spend more time in the hole, does it likely result in more money? Yeah. Is that a good thing for him as a person? Probably not. That’s the question nobody confronts. It’s easy to say it’s more money. But is it good for us? The answer is no.”
6. I think it’s laughable to suggest, Well, if there are two preseason games instead of four, you expose players to less harm in August, so it’s fair to add one regular-season game. Problem with that is, of course, that a rising number of coaches are playing their starters a very short period, or not at all, in the preseason. Four starting quarterbacks (Jared Goff, Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz, Philip Rivers) did not play a snap in the preseason, and many of the prominent Rams didn’t either. If 32 snaps is equal to about two quarters of a regular-season game, 19 of the 32 starting NFL quarterbacks played less than a half of a football in the four-game preseason this summer. So no, don’t compare the equity of two missed preseason games with adding one game that counts. Don’t try.
7. I think coaches should not be challenging ticky-tack, close pass-interference calls. Or marginal calls. That’s not why the new rule was invented. Matt LaFleur and Doug Pederson both challenged plays that were not called pass interference on the field—one a semi-mugging by Avonte Maddox, the other Green Bay’s Kevin King clearly pushing the left hand of Alshon Jeffery with the pass approaching. Slow-mo replays confirmed that both were close calls, but both should have been DPI calls in real time. They weren’t. But I don’t want, and the league doesn’t either, Al Riveron going down the Zapruder-film rabbit hole on mid-game calls that aren’t egregious. There’s a lesson to coaches here too. If there’s a clear blown interference call, throw the red flag. If it’s close in real time, let it go.
8. I think if the NFL dies—and I don’t think it will in my lifetime—three plays from the Thursday night game should be recalled. These plays happened in what is supposed to be an enlightened time in the NFL, when players understand the future of the sport is under fire. Any parent who in considering whether to allow a child to play tackle football and who was watching on the sixth and seventh play of the game, a prime-time game rightfully would wonder whether the NFL is simply paying lip service to gratuitous and vicious hits but doesn’t really want to take them out of the game. The plays:
• First punt of the game: Eagle punt-teamer Rudy Ford flew down the field and smashed into returner Darrius Shepherd. The helmet-to-helmet hit was fast and audible. No flag. The lowering-the-helmet-to-initiate contact foul instituted in 2018 was made to penalize the play Ford made. The fact that there was no flag is beyond worrisome. The back judge, Gregory Wilson, stood about 12 yards away from the hit, on the goal line, staring at the contact between Ford and Shepherd. Maybe the play happened too fast; maybe that’s what the back judge will say in his defense. Or maybe he thought it was the crack of shoulder pads hitting, not helmet. It’s a tough game to officiate in real time. But if an official misses a call like that with no traffic between him and a huge helmet-to-helmet hit, the league should ask why one of the 17 best back judges in the sport missed a call staring right at it.
• On the next play, defensive end Derek Barnett of the Eagles took a five-yard running start at a scrum of two Eagles in a stalemate with ballcarrier Jamaal Williams of the Packers. When Barnett was a step away, whistles blew; you can argue it was too late for Barnett to stop. But Williams barreled into the threesome at full speed, making helmet-to-helmet contact with Williams. Barnett was penalized for unnecessary roughness, which is good. Barnett was not ejected, which was debateable. Players should not sprint headlong at full-speed into scrums. Players should not be coached to sprint headlong into scrums. Williams was immobilized, strapped to a cart, and wheeled off the field.
• Late in the game, the entire Eagles team came onto the field after another frightening collision. Eagles safety Andrew Sendejo sprinted into a tackle by teammate and cornerback Avonte Maddox and basically sent Maddox flying. No flag, because it was Eagle-on-Eagle contact. But it was carelessly violent. Sendejo missed the receiver and hit his own man. Maddox was immobilized, and after a delay, strapped to a cart and wheeled off, a replay of what happened in the first quarter.
The Eagles are a class team, and I’m sure there was no intent to be dirty or to injure. But those are plays that have no place in football. If they continue, they’ll be a part of more and more parents saying, Enough. My kid’s playing soccer.
9. I think Melvin Gordon ending one of the most ill-advised holdouts in recent NFL annals couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that, combined, Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson, combined, had a 5.39-yards-per-carry average in his absence, could it?
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Right call, Mack Brown. Liked it.
b. Smart Concussion Story of the Week: by the New York Times’ Ken Belson, who traveled to Australia to report on the plague of brain trauma to former Australian Rules Football players, and he found lots of stonewalling from league leaders, much like the NFL a generation ago.
c. Really good and illuminating story by Belson, who writes:
More than 100 retired A.F.L. players are accusing the league of failing to protect them from the known dangers of repeated collisions and of resisting calls to pay for their health care costs. “We have retired players now in their fifties and sixties with structural damage to their brains—exactly what has happened in the States—but we have a position of continual denial from the A.F.L.” said Peter Jess, a player agent and advocate for the players.
d. Great ad by the democratic presidential candidates about gun control and safety in schools.
e. Column of the Week: by Jennifer Weiner, in the New York Times, about her newfound love of gardening, and about how life changes.
f. “My job as a mother has shifted from watching them grow to letting them go.” That is a perfect sentence from a mom whose life job is changing before her eyes, daily.
g. Cool Foodie Story of the Week: by Aurelien Breden of the New York Times, on the move of an outraged French chef to sue the famed Michelin guide for dropping his restaurant down one star in its 2019 guide.
h. The horror!
i. Loved this line about the international head of the Michelin guides, fighting the perception from the aggrieved chef that Michelin didn’t know the kind of cheese that was in the special restaurant dish: “He also denied the Cheddar-related accusations.”
j. Coffeenerdness: I received three notes this week (I expected more) agreeing with my woe about no more newspapers in Starbucks. It’s not too late, Seattle. Reinstate the newspapers!
k. Beernerdness: It is truly time to take stock of my life. In mid-August, after a long training camp driving trip, I came home to Brooklyn with a case of Spotted Cow from New Glarus Brewing in Wisconsin. That’s the beer sold only in Wisconsin. Well, as of this morning, there are two of the 12-ounce heifers left in the fridge. Not sure how to go on without a stockpile of Cows. That next road trip to Green Bay? Might be a real road trip.
l. Old man situation: Last Wednesday, as I do every morning around 4, I got up to use the bathroom. Usually I check my phone (stupid habit). And I scrolled through the baseball scores … and the Cards and Diamondbacks are still playing. They were in the bottom of the 18th. Turns out it ended at 4:34 a.m. ET. And now no more box scores to skim every morning, with the end of the regular season. Bummer.
m. Eight radio broadcasters in MLB history have done 45 years of baseball with one team, and one of them retired last week: Cincinnati legend Marty Brennaman, who did his last Reds game of a 46-year run on Thursday. He’s retiring, of his own volition. The thing about Brennaman—he was feisty, honest, and total opposite of the house man that some team announcers are. Recently, he was asked how he wanted to be remembered. “If I have nothing else but my credibility, I’ll be happy,” he said. Oh, he has that.
n. “This one belongs to the Reds.” I’ve heard that 300 times, 500 times, who knows how many times. In my five years living in Cincinnati out of college, 1980 to 1985, the Reds on radio were a very big deal. And with one of my jobs being the sports radio/TV columnist for the Cincinnati Enquirer, I listened to scores of games with Marty Brennaman and Joe Nuxhall on the call. And “This one belongs to the Reds” was Brennaman’s signature call after the final out of every win.
o. Happy trails, Marty.
p. MLB Awards time. So you know, for the MVP, I give an edge to the players who have played very well on contenders and playoff teams. I would have had a tough call with Mike Trout had he finished the season uninjured and not missed 17 percent of the year—because his numbers would have been absurd. As it was, he had 45 jacks and a 1.083 OPS. I’ve got no problem with those who will vote Trout the MVP; I just feel, particularly with a guy who missed 28 games, that players on winners should be recognized unless the player from a losing team put up such incredible numbers that he can’t be ignored. That’s how I do my football voting as well. Now, D.J. LeMahieu missed 17 games with the Yankees, but on the plus side, he was the ultimate utility player, playing 39 games or more at first base, second base and third base as the Yankees, shredded by injury, plug-and-played LeMahieu where he was most needed daily. He contended for the batting title all season, finished with 108 runs and 194 hits and career highs by a mile in homers (26) and RBI (102) … and he made just eight errors shuffling between three positions. Okay. Off my soapbox on the value of LeMahieu.
AL MVP: 1. Alex Bregman, Houston • 2. D.J. LeMahieu, Yankees • 3. Marcus Semien, Oakland.
NL MVP: 1. Cody Bellinger, Dodgers • 2. Christian Yelich, Milwaukee • 3. Ronald Acuna Jr., Atlanta.
AL Cy Young: 1. Justin Verlander, Houston • 2. Gerrit Cole, Houston • 3. Charlie Morton, Tampa Bay.
NL Cy Young: 1. Jacob deGrom, Mets • 2. Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dodgers • 3. Jack Flaherty, St. Louis.
AL Rookie: 1. Yordan Alvarez, Houston • 2. Cavan Biggio, Toronto • 3. John Means, Baltimore.
NL Rookie: 1. Pete Alonso, Mets • 2. Mike Soroka, Atlanta • 3. Bryan Reynolds, Pittsburgh. (Could I vote Alonso 1-2-3?)
AL Manager: 1. Aaron Boone, Yankees • 2. Rocco Baldelli, Minnesota • 3. Kevin Cash, Tampa Bay. Lord. Twins won 101 games. What a time to be alive.
NL Manager: 1. Brian Snitker, Atlanta • 2. Mike Shildt, St. Louis • 3. Dave Roberts, Dodgers.
q. Have any two teammates been this similarly sensational in a season:
Boston third baseman Rafael Devers: .311 batting average, 201 hits, 54 doubles, 32 homers, 115 RBI, 5.6 WAR
Shortstop Xander Bogaerts: .309 batting average, 190 hits, 52 doubles, 33 homers, 117 RBI, 5.2 WAR.
r. One last fun baseball comparison between Manny Machado, billionaire San Diegan and one of the men who replace him in Baltimore, Renato Nunez, a household name only in his own household. Offense only:
Machado: 21 doubles, 32 homers, 85 RBI, .796 OPS.
Nunez: 24 doubles, 31 homers, 90 RBI, .771 OPS.
s. That’s baseball, Suzyn.
Tonight, Pittsburgh. The Loser Bowl is actually The Survival Bowl. Year’s over for the team that starts 0-4. Bengals (0-3) at Steelers (0-3). Get your extra material ready for the second half, Booger.
Friday, Washington, D.C. Raise a glass. Happy 85th birthday, Sam Huff.
Sunday, London. Bears-Raiders, 10 a.m. PT. It’s a Raiders home game! Only 5,345 miles from Oakland! The shame of the league choosing the Bears as the opponent for the Raiders’ international game? It means Khalil Mack will never play another game in Oakland. In fact, there’s a good chance Mack will never play in Raider land. The next time the Raiders host the Bears will be in Nevada, in 2028. Mack will be 37.
It’s just cool when a
career backup gets his shot.
Good luck, Chase Daniel.