The 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers are why, in the NFL, it’s never over till it’s over. A month ago today, they were in final prep mode for a game in California against the Chargers. They were 1-4, floundering without the injured Ben Roethlisberger and the departed Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Their starting quarterback, Devlin Hodges, the 2018 Alabama state duck-calling champion, would be making his first NFL appearance.
They’re 4-0 since, of course. They just beat the NFC’s 2018 Super Bowl representative.
Roethlisberger, on IR with an elbow injury, is trying to make himself useful on the sidelines. Bell is averaging 3.1 yards per carry, a lost (but rich) sheep in New Jersey with the Jets. Brown, a serial miscreant, is probably out for the season after being accused of sexual assault by a Florida woman and later charged with it.
But the Steelers, they go on like metronomes. They even trade now; did you hear? They added a long-term and desperately needed middle linebacker in the draft, and Troy Polamalu 2.0 in a rich deal in September. Devin Bush and Minkah Fitzpatrick have re-made their defense. “Our defense is playing like the ’85 Bears,” quarterback Mason Rudolph told me Sunday night. Or maybe the ’76 Steelers.
If the playoffs started today, Pittsburgh would be the AFC’s sixth seed, a charming wild-card team.
Don’t chortle. Pittsburgh’s next six foes are a combined 17-37-1. You think they won’t be in the playoff hunt with Cleveland, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Arizona, Buffalo and the Jets between now and Christmas?
It’s a new world in Pittsburgh, a totally unexpected one. The Steelers are 5-4, the same record as the Rams, Eagles, Cowboys and Raiders. One big difference: The Rams, Eagles, Cowboys and Raiders have had their franchise quarterbacks playing all season. Crazy NFL world.
The Lead: Pittsburgh
What a weekend. Started with the overly smitten Oakland crowd, in the most impressive display of home-field love all weekend, carrying the Raiders to a win over the snakebitten (but not leaving) Chargers, continued Sunday with one of the weirdest rushing lines by a superstar in NFL history and Lamar Jackson taking breath away, and will end tonight with one of the most compelling matchups on Monday night in years between the (combined 15-2) Seahawks and the Niners. There’s more.
• Matt Moore of the Chiefs beat the Vikings, Patrick Mahomes of the Chiefs lost to the Titans.
• The Dolphins look to be on the way to losing the Joe Burrow Bowl.
• Heavy odds on the 0-9 Bengals “earning” the first draft pick. They’re not a big trading team.
• Adam Vinatieri, walk-in Hall of Famer, is killing the Colts.
• The Browns, off life support for a week, are still in guarded condition.
• Dallas (5-4) leads Philadelphia (5-4) by tiebreaker only in the NFC East, and I don’t see the Cowboys keeping that lead.
• The Rams are 5-5 since Super Bowl Sunday, and Jared Goff is off. In a big way. They’re not imposing on offense anymore.
• Inexplicably, the Falcons held the Saints without a touchdown in New Orleans. (Oh, and in the battle of Louisiana: LSU 46, Saints 9.)
Have I mentioned the Steelers, with their 17-12 win over the Rams? Pittsburgh has such a deep defense, with two legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidates in Fitzpatrick (five interceptions, two touchdowns) and pass-rusher T.J. Watt (9.5 sacks). Their guys come at you in waves. Goff singled out Joe Haden (five pass breakups, one pick), but he could have mentioned Cam Heyward, Mark Barron, Terrell Edmunds. The Rams’ leading wideout, Cooper Kupp, came into Heinz Field with 58 catches. He left with 58 catches and probably a few welts.
This Steelers team is like lots of the old ones: carried by the defense while the offense tries to catch up. It’s a bit like Roethlisberger’s rookie year, 2004, when the defense held 12 of 16 foes to 21 points or less, while seven times they scored less than three touchdowns. “Or like the Cowher days,” said former Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch, now a Steeler analyst in the local media. “I think until Mason makes that jump, this is the way they’re going to play—relying on their defense. Since they made the trade for Minkah, they’re playing low-scoring games, and I think they’re comfortable with that style. It works for them.”
“But will Rudolph make the jump?” I asked Batch.
“I think so, but not till they solve their running-back issues,” Batch said. “They’ve got to get healthy at running back.” James Conner (shoulder) missed the Rams game, and it will be a challenge for him to be ready for Thursday night’s game in Cleveland.
Rudolph’s been adequate, a 65-percent passer with a 93.0 rating—but only 6.6 yards per attempt. He sounded chagrined when we spoke—perhaps feeling he’s not holding up his end of the deal—and honored to be the quarterback for a place that loves football so much. “Honestly, this all is so new for me,” said Rudolph, a third-round pick from Oklahoma State in 2018. “In the Big 12, we played shootouts every week. Here, it’s a totally different feel. We’re without our Hall of Fame quarterback, and I’m trying to be the best I can be. I think I’m developing every week, and [offensive coordinator] Randy [Fichtner] is doing a good job of correcting my mistakes. Obviously, it’s great to be playing with a defense that produces points every week.”
It’s got to be a heavy load, playing quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, in a place where the team is so interconnected with the psyche of the region. As the late owner Dan Rooney once told me: “You can walk down the street in Pittsburgh on a fall Monday morning and right away be able to tell if we won the game on Sunday. The people’s faces will tell you.” It’s got to be hard, too, when Brown and Bell are gone, and Jaylen Samuels and Diontae Johnson are trying to get up to speed to replace them. Fast.
“The standard is the standard,” Rudolph said from Pittsburgh. “The standard of excellence and greatness I understand and I don’t take lightly. I am motivated to uphold that standard. People live and die for the Steelers here. I want to make the legends proud.”
Around Pittsburgh, the legends have always been okay with defensive greatness ruling the Steelers. This is the first year in a while that seems destined for the defense to carry the team into important January games.
The Rest of Week 1010
Big game tonight. Seattle (7-2) at San Francisco (8-0). Last year it was 9-1 Kansas City at the 9-1 Rams, but before that, you’d have to go back to 1990, Giants-Niners, to find a matchup with such shiny records as these two games. I love a game when the underdog (Seattle, in this case) has a quarterback and team leader who absolutely will not be denied. Russell Wilson is a Brady type. Game’s never over. So even if the Niners cave in the Seattle offensive line—likely, early and often—and sprint out to a lead, I believe Wilson will keep Seattle in it for the duration. But the key guy in this game, I believe, is San Francisco running back Matt Breida. With tight end and Garoppolo security blanket George Kittle likely out tonight, watch for the undrafted and quick Breida—in his third year from Georgia Southern—to be used by Kyle Shanahan to beat the excellent Seattle linebackers on some wide runs and some matchup routes of the backfield.
Seattle’s been a tough match for Breida. Since opening day 2018, Breida’s averaged 5.4 yards per rush against the rest of the league and 2.5 yards against Seattle. The instincts of Bobby Wagner, the coverage ability of K.J. Wright, and the versatility of Mychal Kendricks are hard to cope with. The Niners wish they had Kittle to challenge those ‘backers. I asked Breida about facing those ‘backers. “Their whole linebacker group is great, a big challenge,” he told me from Santa Clara on Saturday. “Bobby Wagner’s intelligence—he’s been doing it forever—seems to get better every year. I watch him and he’s better.” But he’s not intimidated by the size of the game or the greatness of the Seahawk linebackers. “I’m the guy who’s always had a chip on his shoulder, because people didn’t believe in me. It’s been like that for me since I was little. And now I’m in a dream offense for a running back—Kyle calling plays, [longtime RB coach] Bobby Turner teaching me football and how to be a man.” The Niners lead football in rushing attempts, with a 56-44 percent run-pass ratio through their 8-0 start. It’ll be very interesting to see the Shanahan-Wagner chess match tonight, with Breida being the chess piece.
The Chiefs, even with Mahomes, could be in big trouble. They’re just one game ahead of hot Oakland. Look at Week 11: Chiefs-Chargers in Mexico City (bumpy game for K.C.), while rest Oakland hosts winless Cincinnati. Kansas City got gashed on the ground again, giving up 8.7 yards per carry to Derrick Henry and the Titans. If that doesn’t get better, and if the special teams don’t get fixed, I doubt the Chiefs will win the division, even with a healthy Mahomes, who was terrific on a 446-yard performance in Nashville. He deserved a better fate. The Chiefs, today, are the fourth seed in the AFC. Deservedly.
The Rams are in bigger trouble. The Rams went into their bye with routs of Atlanta and Cincinnati, and, facing Mason Rudolph and Mitchell Trubisky coming out of it, looked to be able to get on a roll. But their offensive line leaked all evening in Pittsburgh, Todd Gurley’s usage (12 carries Sunday, 13 on average through nine games) continues to suggest he’s not whole, and Goff just isn’t the Goff of the first three months of last year. He’s on a streak of five straight sub-60-percent passing games, and he’s got five touchdown passes in five games. The Steelers were determined to erase Goff’s favorite weapon, Cooper Kupp, and they did; he had zero catches. The Rams have Baltimore, Seattle, Dallas and San Francisco left to play, and at 5-4, they’re 1.5 game behind current sixth-seed Minnesota. “We’ve got some time to make up some ground,” Goff said post-game. It’s pretty strange, though, to wake up on Nov. 11 and see the Rams four game behind the Niners in the loss column.
Cleveland lives. But it could be too late. At 3-6 with 11 teams ahead of them in the AFC playoff race, it probably is too late. But the Browns, down four with five minutes left against a good defensive team in Buffalo, showed a little bit of what they were supposed to show all season. “I just remember going through the sideline and just saying, ‘We been here before. Winning is in our spirit,’ “ Jarvis Landry told me from Cleveland. “A lot of the things that we’ve been through has prepared us for this moment. Nobody in the huddle was nervous. Nobody in the huddle was feeling pressure. Everybody had that look in their eyes like they were ready to make a play.” Landry made the biggest play—a twisting catch on a hard-to-find arcing pass from Baker Mayfield for 24 yards to the Buffalo 7-yard line just inside of two minutes. Could this be the game to get the Browns out of their lethargy? Maybe, but the Browns likely have to be perfect in a schedule stretch that looked so friendly a month ago—vs. Pittsburgh, vs. Miami, at Pittsburgh. Tough ask, especially in this season when consistency is Cleveland’s enemy.
The future of Cam Newton. The Panthers, wisely, won’t make any decisions about Newton till after the season. GM Marty Hurney and coach Ron Rivera want to see how Kyle Allen finishes the year. But anyone who watched Allen on Sunday in the swirling snow at Lambeau Field has to be more than encouraged. Allen is starting to show he can be a good NFL starting quarterback. With the weather at its worst in the fourth quarter, he drove Carolina 82 yards to a touchdown and then 88 yards at the end only to be stopped at the Packers 1-yard line as time expired. His fourth-and-10 conversion pass to D.J. Moore in tight coverage on the left sideline with 50 seconds left was the kind of pass very good quarterbacks make. It’s logical to suggest that saving $19 million on the cap by cutting Newton in March could be money used to help extend vital players like Christian McCaffrey, and that’s true. But I think if Carolina moves on from Newton, it’ll because they’re not sure exactly what he is as a quarterback going forward after major shoulder and foot injuries, and because they are fairly sure that Allen can be at the very least a quality bridge to the future—and maybe more.
• Ryan Tannehill, one of the good guys in football, had his best post-Miami moment, throwing the go-ahead TD to Adam Humphries with 23 seconds left, then bowling over a defender for the two-point conversion to give Tennessee a 35-32 lead over the vaunted Chiefs. That was the final score. “I just said to our guys, ‘Let’s go win this thing. We’ve got no other choice,” Tannehill said. If he has a few more moments like this one for the 5-5 and still-contending Titans, Tannehill will play his way into consideration for the 2020 starting job.
• I was really impressed with Kyler Murray in the Cards’ 30-27 loss at Tampa Bay. Murray won three straight, then lost three, all narrowly, to the Saints, Niners and Bucs. “Reminiscent of a young Russell Wilson, but faster,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians told me from Tampa. “He’s so dangerous coming out of the pocket. Very, very impressed with him.”
• I asked Arians if he was sure Jameis Winston, in his fifth year and entering an offseason when the Bucs have to decide whether to pay him market money, would be the Bucs’ quarterback of the future. “He’s taken us down the field to win or tie the game the last two weeks in the last two minutes,” Arians said. “That’s the maturity of a young quarterback you’re looking for. If he plays like he has the last two weeks for the rest of the season, I’d say there’s a really good chance.”
• The Packers had a clunker in Los Angeles. The Patriots had a clunker in Baltimore. Now New Orleans has had its clunker—the stunning 26-9 loss to previously 1-7 Atlanta. I wouldn’t think it’s worrisome, same as I don’t think New England’s loss is the start of a trend.
The NFL Century
During pro football’s 100th season, I’ll re-visit important games, plays, players and events from NFL history.
1969: James Harris becomes the first African-American to open a pro season as starting quarterback
Fifty years ago, Harris, an eighth-round rookie from Grambling who played under legendary coach Eddie Robinson, entered Bills training camp seventh on the quarterback depth chart in Buffalo. The previous year, Denver’s Marlon Briscoe became the first black starting quarterback in a pro game, but not at the start of a season. Harris, after the AFL-NFL merger a year later, became the first black quarterback to start an NFL season, in Buffalo in 1971.
We spoke not only about winning the Bills job a half-century ago, but also about how he feels now, seeing African-Americans Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson at the front of the class for the league MVP 50 years later.
“When I got drafted in the eighth round by the Bills, I figured I wasn’t going to play. I figured if I was a first or second-rounder, I’d have a real chance … but eighth? I didn’t really see the chance. But I decided to go and take my chance. Coach Robinson said, ‘If you go, don’t expect it to be fair. You’ll have to be better.’ So I figured, the only way to make it would be out-throw everybody, and come in totally prepared. I threw so many that summer. Maybe 50 deep outs a day. I was ready when I got to camp, because I didn’t feel I could have a bad day.
“The hardest thing for me, being from Monroe, La., and going to Grambling, was I never really talked to white people. And here I was, in a huddle with them. If I could just get to the passing part of it, I knew I’d be fine. But I get in the huddle and call the play, and all my linemen were white. That adjustment was tough. My first call, I call the play to both sides of the huddle, and I’m not looking at anyone, just saying the play. They said, “WHAT?” And I had to repeat it. That wasn’t easy for me. You’re fighting a lot of things people said about black quarterbacks at the time—we couldn’t lead, weren’t smart enough, worried about our character.
“The competition was rough. Jack Kemp, Tom Flores, Dan Darragh, Kay Stephenson—all established guys. I felt like I was fighting for a job every day. Every day, at 6 the next morning, they were knocking on the doors [in the players’ dorm]. Everyday it could have been me. Training camp was long in those days—it started right after the Fourth of July. So every day, you wake up, lay in bed, and you hear the knocks. My room was in the middle of the hall. So you hear the knocks starting on one end and going down the hall. You’re just hoping, Skip my door. And they did—every day. Actually, one day they did knock, and I thought that was it. Turned out it was for my roommate. I got named the starter.
“First game was against Joe Namath, coming off the Super Bowl. It was in Buffalo. I’d been through quite a bit of fanfare already—people coming to the hotels, wanting to meet me, coming to the stadium early to see me. That day, I’ll always remember Joe walking across the field to find me and shake my hand, wish me luck. I appreciated that.”
Harris became the first black quarterback to start in the NFL for three franchises: the Bills (1971), Rams (1974) and Chargers (1977). In ‘74, playing for the Rams, he won a playoff game and made the Pro Bowl. He became a long-time scout and personnel official for several teams. Now 72 and living in Florida, Williams is thoughtful about the state of quarterbacking. I thought when I called him to talk about what happened 50 years ago, he might talk about how his career helped pave the way for black quarterbacks. But instead he said: “I can’t help but think about all the guys who didn’t get the chance. I mean, there were black quarterbacks who were really good back then—not just marginal guys who could make a roster, but good quarterbacks who could have started in the NFL for a long time if they got a fair shot.
“Marlon Briscoe was like Russell Wilson is today—he could have been every bit the player Russell is. Eldridge Dickey of Tennessee State [first-round pick by the Raiders in 1968 who got moved to wide receiver in his first training camp] was one of the best quarterbacks I ever saw. Could have been a lot like Steve McNair, only faster. David Mays of Texas Southern, Matthew Reed who followed me at Grambling—best high school quarterback I have ever seen, Parnell Dickinson from Mississippi Valley State, Roy Curry of Jackson State, Jefferson Street Joe Gilliam … all could have been NFL quarterbacks. All of them.
“When Doug Williams had the great Super Bowl he did [Williams threw for four touchdowns and was the Super Bowl 22 MVP], that impacted the next group of black quarterbacks. It was huge—he did it on the biggest stage. Then Warren Moon, playing well enough to make the Hall of Fame.”
I asked: “What does it mean to you that Wilson, Jackson and Watson might be 1-2-3 for MVP right now, and Mahomes might be in the running before the end of the year?”
“It proves only one thing,” said one of the singular figures in black quarterback history. “That it’s always been about opportunity.
“The black quarterback didn’t just come of age recently. We didn’t have the opportunity. As I’ve traveled around playing, scouting, meeting players, it’s always touched me: These guys, so many guys, didn’t get a chance to play because they were black. And I think, That could have been me. We all grew up, we dreamed of playing football, playing quarterback, and in the end, the dream became a nightmare for so many. Today, the dream is realistic. The dream can be fulfilled.”
The Award Section20
Offensive Players of the Week
Lamar Jackson, quarterback, Baltimore. Two incompletions. Perfect passer rating. Maybe the rushing touchdown of the year, an ankle-breaker from 47 yards out. Three touchdowns, no picks. The definition of total control of a football game. It came in a 49-13 win over the Bengals, and we’re not supposed to have jaws hit the floor watching people when they play the 0-9 Cincinnatians. Can’t help it. Lamar Jackson played close to a perfect game Sunday, and he is on the verge of knocking Russell Wilson from his MVP perch. At age 22.
Mitchell Trubisky, quarterback, Chicago. With the weight of the world (and, presumably, the weight of every TV in Halas Hall) falling heavy on his shoulders, Trubisky suffered through a typically maddening first half, throwing for 15 yards in the first 25 minutes. But he recovered before halftime with one TD drive, and he threw lovely TD passes to Tarik Cohen and Taylor Gabriel in the third quarter. That was enough to silence the wolves (including the one typing these words) for at least another week. Hand it to Trubisky (16 of 23, 173 yards, three TDs, no picks, 131.0 rating) for performing under the greatest pressure a quarterback could have. You can’t tell me he wasn’t wondering deep down if the guys on his own team trusted him to walk their dogs. And he came through with a good performance in a 20-13 win over the Lions.
Defensive Players of the Week
Minkah Fitzpatrick, safety, Pittsburgh. What an acquisition; we’ll have plenty of time to see if the Steelers uncharacteristically giving up a first-round pick for a player in-season turns out to be Dan Rooney-wise, but Fitzpatrick couldn’t be off to a better seven-game start in black and gold. His 43-yard return of a fumble for a touchdown in the second quarter against the Rams gave Pittsburgh its second touchdown, and those 14 points would be all they’d need to win. Then Fitzpatrick capped it on the Rams’ last-gasp drive in the last seconds, picking off Jared Goff to end it. Fitzpatrick has five picks for the Steelers now. They had eight as a team in 2018.
Jamal Adams, safety, New York Jets. This is the kind of instinctive play by a smart player that makes a Jets fan think, “Don’t you dare even think of trading Jamal Adams.” On the first series of the third quarter, Adams burst through the Giants line on a safety blitz and didn’t settle for knocking Giants QB Daniel Jones to the ground. He plucked the ball from Jones at the Giants’ 25-yard line, and, before the Giants knew what was happening, Adams was sprinting to the end zone. Perfect play, and it came at the right time, in the midst of his tit-for-tat with Jets brass. “He gives you everything he has from the start of the game till the end,” coach Adam Gase said. Adams added another sack. Which is precisely the reason why you don’t trade this kind of player and this kind of leader and this kind of centerpiece for your long-term future.
Grady Jarrett, defensive tackle, Atlanta. Out of absolutely nowhere, the vastly underachieving Falcons walked into the home of their arch-rivals in New Orleans and held Drew Brees without a touchdown for the first time since Brees was 4. Something like that. In a 26-9 rout, the Falcons sacked Brees six times, and the under-appreciated Jarrett had 2.5 of them. A great day for Atlanta, and one of the best days for the hard-charging Jarrett in his NFL life.
Marcus Peters, cornerback, Baltimore. Not that the Ravens needed a big defensive play in a 49-13 win at Cincinnati, but Peters baited his second quarterback in three weeks as a Raven (Russell Wilson got baited in Peters game one), and had his second pick-six in three games since being acquired from the Rams. This was a baiting job of Ryan Finley in the Bengal rookie’s first start, and Peters darted 89 yards down the left sideline easily for the touchdown. Not bad for a trade that cost the Ravens a fifth-round pick and a backup linebacker.
Erik Harris, safety, Oakland. Two interceptions of Philip Rivers in the first nine minutes Thursday, both aided by great pressure from the Raiders defensive front. The first, on an overthrown ball at the Oakland 10-yard line, resulted in a 59-yard return that set up the Raiders for a Daniel Carlson field goal, making it 3-0. The second, after tight end Hunter Henry fell down at the Raider 44, was plucked by Harris, who sprinted up the right sideline for a touchdown. Before halftime, Harris broke up a potential TD pass in the end zone, and had a third interception called back due to a ticky-tack encroachment call on the Raiders. What a half. What a game.
Special Teams Players of the Week
Joshua Kalu, cornerback, Tennessee. Was he offside? Was he not? Close. But Kalu got no flag when he sprinted around left end with three seconds left in Chiefs-Titans in Nashville and had the Block Heard ‘Round Tennessee. Kalu was a 6-foot missile coming from Kansas City kicker Harrison Butker’s right, laying out and smothering the 52-yard field-goal try on the last play of the game, preserving a 35-32 upset by the Titans.
Jaylen Waddle, punt-returner, Alabama. (I mean, LSU-‘Bama was an NFL game, right?) Late in the first quarter in Tuscaloosa, Waddle, the leading punt-returner in the country, made one of the best returns I’ve seen in years. He fielded the LSU punt at the Alabama 23, and immediately was grabbed by the face mask by LSU gunner Racey McMath, whose momentum and mask-grab spun a presumably startled Waddle back to his own 13. There, with the other 10 ‘Bama punt-teamers now in position to make a play for a loss, Waddle sprinted left, avoided tacklers and roared up the sideline, cutting back toward the middle of the field around the LSU 20 and scoring, at the end, fairly easily. A great run, particularly after almost getting his head torn off.
Matt Prater, kicker, Detroit. The Lions’ secret weapon this year has a league-leading six field goals from 50 yards and beyond (missing only one) and his sixth, a 54-yarder, gave the Lions a 6-0 lead over the at-the-time-toothless Bears in the second quarter.
Jason Sanders, kicker, Miami. Heroic, quietly, in the Dolphins’ second straight win. (Whether they like it or not.) Field goals of 47, 48 and 48 yards, without missing, and the final two coming in the last six minutes to erase a 12-10 Indy lead. Those last two field goals created a 16-12 Miami win.
Coach of the Week
Brian Flores, head coach, Miami. Miami was given up for dead after dealing away good players in the summer and early fall, losing their first four by an average of 34 points. But in the last four weeks, the Dolphins have led Buffalo on the road in the third quarter, led Pittsburgh on the road in the third quarter, beat the Jets by eight and, Sunday at Indy, beat the Colts by four. There’s a reason Miami brass was camped out in the Patriots Super Bowl hotel at 9 a.m. the morning after the Super Bowl, And that’s because Ross and Co., wanted to be sure they had Flores signed, sealed and delivered. Now, even with smart people wondering if the Dolphins are truly happy to be winning these mid-season games because it hurts their draft position, Flores doesn’t care. He’s on a two-game winning streak, piloting a tough-playing defensive team with an offense that usually doesn’t beat itself.
Goats of the Week
The Kansas City field-goal unit. The Chiefs blew two field goals in the last two minutes—and lost by three to Tennessee. The first came on a groundball snap from center James Winchester that holder Dustin Colquitt apparently was not expecting. Colquitt responded with a dumb intentional-grounding throw. One lost opportunity. The second: Harrison Butker’s 52-yard field-goal try on the last play of the game was blocked by wing rusher Joshua Kalu of the Titans. Not a good look for traditionally one of the best special-teams units in football, coached by the highly respected Dave Toub.
Adam Vinatieri, kicker, Indianapolis. His sixth missed PAT of the season ruined the game for the Colts in a four-point loss to the formerly 1-7 Dolphins at home. This is getting: a) impossible to pooh-pooh anymore by Frank Reich, and b) really sad for a kicker likely to walk into the Pro Football Hall of Fame virtually unopposed. Vinatieri pulled the extra point wide left with 11:34 left in the game after the Colts took a 12-10 lead. And after the Dolphins made a pair of field goals to take a 16-12 lead, that meant Indy, on its final drive behind backup quarterback Brian Hoyer, had to score a touchdown instead of trying for a field goal to force overtime. On fourth-and-10 from the Miami 16 in the final minute, the 34-yard field goal would have done no good, so Hoyer completed a pass to Eric Ebron. But it came up two yards short of the first down. Ballgame. Vinatieri has missed 11 kicks in nine games, an outlandish sum. The only other season he missed that many as a pro: 23 years ago, when, as a 24-year-old rookie getting stared down by Patriots coach Bill Parcells, Vinatieri lived in fear for his job for much of the season. As a soon-to-be 47-year-old, he might be living in a similar fear again.
Quotes of the Week
“I said to the offensive coaches on the phones, ‘They’ll be watching that run for decades and decades.’ “
—Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, on the amazing 47-yard touchdown run by quarterback Lamar Jackson at Cincinnati.
“My penalties are a f—ing problem. It’s killing the team. No one needs to call me me out on that. I got it, boys! I am completely screwing the team with the amount of penalties I’ve had.”
—Tennessee tackle Taylor Lewan, whistled for three fouls in the Titans’ win Sunday—and nine in the last five games.
“I remember when Russell Wilson went to Wisconsin. I said, ‘Why would you go to Wisconsin if you’re a quarterback?’ And then when Joe Burrow chose LSU, I go, Really? Quarterbacks go there to die! Not Joe Burrow. He changed it, along with his head coach.”
—CBS analyst Gary Danielson, on the LSU-Alabama game on CBS Saturday.
“It’s a lot of crap. We’re not going to London. We’re not going anywhere. We plan to be in L.A. for a long f—king time. That was bull—-, that story. We’re not going to London. We’re not going anywhere. If you want me to say it again, I’ll say it again. F—ing bull—- that story. Okay? Thank you.”
—Chargers owner Dean Spanos, in one of the shortest press conferences in NFL history, responding to a story in The Athletic saying that “the possibility of the Chargers moving to London has been broached among league personnel,” and “the Chargers would listen” if the league was interested.
Not my story, but I found nothing to support it in phone calls after it came out, including one incredulous denial from a highly placed source. We’ll see.
“I hate this. I don’t believe in this Thursday football.”
—Oakland coach Jon Gruden, before playing in a Thursday football game.
“You may beat us, but we’re gonna be a hard out. I am exhausted. Two games in four days, I hate.”
—Oakland coach Jon Gruden, after playing in a Thursday football.
Dan Patrick • Host, “The Dan Patrick Show” • Photographed in New York City
I consider Patrick to be a peerless interviewer, to the point where I’ve asked him for advice on it. Now I’m going to let the former ESPN and NBC star studio host share his best interview tips with you.
“I remember reading an article about a man in Canada, maybe 15 or so years ago. His name was John Sawatsky, the interviewing guru. This is a guy who teaches people how to interview. I read the article. I was at ESPN then. I went to [ESPN editorial content czar and executive VP] John Walsh and said, ‘We have to get this guy on campus.’ So John Sawartsky came. He actually spent five days, eight hours a day, on interviewing. I’m not sure my friends at ESPN were very happy with me, all that time spent on this one thing. But it’s the best five days I ever spent in my career. He taught simple things … How to ask the question. How to set up a question. How to put down breadcrumbs to get to the answer that you want. How to ask open-ended questions. Get somebody talking, and then listen to what they’re saying. The follow-up shouldn’t be scripted. Listen to what your subject is saying first, then decide what to ask.
“I think about it every single day. I think about the process. Listen. Listen to what they’re saying, and then have a conversation. I tell broadcast students, ‘Do your research, but I don’t like scripted questions. If it’s a conversation, you’ll tell me more than if it’s just a set Q+A. If you’re conversing, they forget what they’re doing. They can get lost in the conversation.
“The process doesn’t change. I read a lot about a subject. This week, we had Russell Wilson on. Russell’s tough. Great guy, but a tough interview because he can take the interview in the direction he wants. We spent probably four minutes on the mental aspect of playing quarterback, and he talked about the mentalist he works with. We talked about Halloween—I asked him if any kid came to his house dressed as a quarterback who was not Russell Wilson. I gotta challenge him. Get him off-balance a bit. I am doing it live. Lots of times in TV, it’s taped, and they can clean it up and pick out what they want. Not on our show. It just runs. With Russell, I almost have to surprise him.
“It doesn’t always work. One time, I asked Jonah Hill, after he lost a bunch of weight, if people looked at him differently now, or whether people looked at him as being funnier when he was heavier or disheveled. He said, Dan, I can’t believe you asked that. He was disappointed. I wasn’t being mean-spirited—I really wanted to know. But it didn’t work.
“One other thing: don’t be compromised. One time, when Barry Bonds was going to start being a nice guy, we arranged an interview with him. Right before the interview, his guy called and said, ‘No steroid questions.’ I said, ‘No interview.’ He said, ‘You serious?’ And I was. That was the end of that.
“And stay away from Wikipedia. Research elsewhere. Everybody goes to Wikipedia, so your subject already knows all those questions.”
There is nothing scientific about watching one game and thinking the winner of that one game should be the first pick in the NFL Draft in 24 weeks. I have no idea if he should, or will, be ahead of Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert in the first round next April. But a few things about LSU quarterback Joe Burrow to keep in mind after his starry performance in LSU’s 46-41 win over Alabama:
• He put up 46 points on seven offensive scoring drives against the best defensive mind in college football, in Tuscaloosa.
• He completed his first 13 passes.
• Through nine games, he’s completing 78.9 percent of his passes, which is 4.5 percentage points better than the NFL record (Drew Brees, 74.4.)
• He’s not a dink-and-dunker. His yards-per-attempt is 10.7. NFL leader Patrick Mahomes is at 9.0 yards per attempt.
• His passing-game coordinator is 30-year-old Joe Brady, who came to LSU last winter after two years as a low-level but very precocious offensive assistant for the Saints. You may recall a year ago, I went behind the scenes of the Saints’ Saturday night game-planning sessions with the offensive coaches. Brady was there. And that night before the Saints played the Eagles, as I wrote, Sean Payton had a bullseye on one player: cornerback Sidney Jones of the Eagles.
“We gotta run right at 22 [Jones] and we gotta throw at 22,” Payton said in a coaches meeting that night. “We’re gonna make him defend the run on the first play. We’re going after him on three of the first eight plays.” Saints 48, Eagles 7.
So now, listen to Brady on ESPN Radio in New Orleans last spring: “I think they do an unbelievable job in New Orleans … to exploit mismatches in the defenses based upon what they know about what a guy does best. When you are game-planning, you are figuring out where the weakness is in the defense, and not only are we attacking a coverage, but who can we attack within the coverage. That’s something I have learned from these guys.”
You can bet the Brady hire was huge in who to attack on the ‘Bama defense, and has been huge in the development and maturation of Burrow into a strong pro prospect.
Since last Dec. 20:
• Bengals games: 11.
• Bengals win: 0.
• Bengals rushing touchdowns: 0.
The workload of Josh Jacobs in his last two seasons at Alabama versus his first nine games in Oakland:
• Alabama, 2017-18: 26 games, 166 carries, 924 yards, 6.4 rushes per game, 5 TDs
• Oakland, 2019: 9 games, 168 carries, 811 yards, 18.7 rushes per game, 7 TDs
Everyone’s going to say to Jon Gruden: Keep riding Josh Jacobs. Gruden probably will, and he probably should. But for a running back who had one college game of 20 carries or more, and who now is averaging almost 20 carries a game in a tougher league … well, this is definitely not a lock, that Jacobs can keep up this pace.
Saquon Barkley, the 2018 NFL Offensive rookie of the Year, averaged 2.77 inches per rush against the Jets on Sunday.
Thirteen carries, one yard.
There were 22 NFL scouts in the press box at LSU-Alabama on Saturday, per Charlie Potter of Bama Online 247, including three from the Miami Dolphins. Three. Not sure I’ve ever heard of a team sending three personnel people to scout one college game.
Won’t Be Long Before College Basketball Starts On Labor Day Weekend Dept.:
UCLA won the national title in 1970-’71, and its season lasted 3 months, 23 days (114 days).
Michigan State, ranked number one entering this season, played its first game last Tuesday, Nov. 5. If the Spartans play in the national championship game April 6 in Atlanta, their season will last 5 months, 2 days (154 days).
Dave Shula, 1992-1996: Head coach, Bengals.
Dave Shula, 1997-2018: Executive, Shula’s Restaurants, with more than 25 locations.
Dave Shula, 2018-2019: Wide receivers coach, Dartmouth.
Tweets of the Week
Mark Kaboly cover the Steelers for The Athletic.
Michael David Smith is the manager editor of Pro Football Talk. He tweeted after the early window of games.
Ralph Vacchiano is a veteran New York Giants beat reporter.
Tyler Dunne, of Bleacher Report, is based in the Buffalo area. His tweet is about the Bills through 10 weeks.
Query is an Indianapolis talk show host.
Strategy of the Week50
Each week, with the aid of Pro Football Focus research, I’ll take a big call in a game from the weekend and explain whether it made sense from an analytical view.
Game: Detroit at Chicago.
Situation: Bears with a fourth-and-one at their 29-yard line, 3:21 left in the first half. Detroit led 6-0, and Chicago’s first four drives had gained 25 yards and produced one first down.
The decision: Chicago coach Matt Nagy, weary of the terrible Chicago offense, decided to go for it.
The thought process: Nothing complex. “We needed a spark,” Nagy said. He’s not Riverboat Matt. But as bad as his offense has been, when would the Bears have a chance to burrow for a yard to get a first down?
The analytics: The decision, per PFF, was sound analytically. The NFL average on a fourth-and-one from that area of the field is 70.6 percent makeable, and making it increased their chances of winning by 6.5 percent. Not making the first down would have decreased their chances of winning by 6 percent, meaning there was a 12.5-percentage point risk on the line.
The result: The Bears barely made the yard, getting maybe four feet on a run over guard by rookie back David Montgomery. The decision proved prescient, because the Bears continued the drive, ending in a Mitchell Trubisky touchdown pass. You could easily argue that going for it and making it was a huge play in the game. The Bears scored touchdowns on three straight possessions, starting with this one.
A PFF Elite subscription gives you access to performance metrics the pros use.
Send emails on any topic to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find me on Twitter @peter_king.
On McCaffrey for MVP: From Jason Ullrich, via Twitter: “If Christian McCaffery isn’t in the MVP discussion, why not just call it the best QB award instead of MVP? Every year the entire conversation is which quarterback is the MVP. Hard to believe the Panthers would have any wins without McCaffrey.”
Maybe. On the Panthers, there is little doubt he is the team MVP. And I would put him fourth or fifth right now, so it’s not like he can’t win it. Three backs in the last 15 years—Shaun Alexander (2005), LaDainian Tomlinson (2006) and Adrian Peterson (2012)—have been voted MVP; it’s not impossible. The way I look at it is the MVP should not be the player who has put up the best numbers, or had the starriest season necessarily, though often the winner is the man with the best numbers. It’s the man who has meant the most to one of the best teams in the league. Not necessarily the best. In the case of Russell Wilson, I doubt anyone would say the Seahawks today are the best team in football, but they’re one of the best handful, and Wilson has been at the center of each of their seven wins. Seattle’s 7-2, and I could see the Seahawks being 2-7 if backup Geno Smith were playing quarterback.
On mediocre kicking. From Zak Kretchmer, of Minneapolis: “I had to chuckle at your screed about kickers missing all of these extra points as “madness”—when you were one of the chief proponents for making it more difficult, because the old way was “too easy.”
You’re right. Weird irony. I still find it odd and not rationally explainable that some kickers are more accurate from further out than from 33 yards. I have heard some feeble explanations, most notably that kickers struggle with the fact that they’ve had their gimmes taken away. I’d be shocked to hear Adam Vinatieri missing five PATs at 56, never mind 46. And yes, I was a fan of pushing the line back and still am. A play that is 99.3 percent true should not be in any sport. It means that play is too easy.
On the impact of Pro Bowls for the Hall of Fame. From Robert Kline: “Do Hall of Fame voters take into account that there are so many more Pro Bowl selections now due to additional selections because players from Super Bowl teams don’t play and many others choose not to play? Sometimes now middle-tier players end up playing.”
Good question, Robert. Because the Pro Bowl has become a non-event to me in the last quarter-century, and because many players find an excuse to not play, I have placed very little value when I consider a player’s Hall of Fame case in number of Pro Bowls over the last 20 or 25 years.
10 Things I Think I Think40
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 10:
a. The front page of the Sunday New York Post, six days after the cat that captivated the Meadowlands and America surfaced, and hours before the bad Giants and bad Jets were due to meet:
b. Minnesota linebacker Eric Kendricks with the defensive play of the night, deflecting a Dak Prescott pass away from Ezekiel Elliott on the Cowboys’ last real chance to win in the fourth quarter.
c. Holy cow: Steelers backed up early fourth quarter, inside their 10, and in his homecoming, Pittsburgher Aaron Donald beats David DeCastro for a sack. Rams creep to within 14-12.
d. Kyler Murray is not just a runner, FYI. He is a very good thrower of the football. On Sunday in Tampa, he made two beautiful TD throws to Christian Kirk, from 33 and 69 yards. He was accurate and poised and looked very much like a franchise quarterback.
e. How did Tre’Quan Smith hold onto that third-quarter pass from Drew Brees, on the helmet-eliminating completely legal pop from Falcons safety Damontae Kazee? Great hit, great presence of mind to hang on by Smith.
f. Tampa Bay rookie linebacker Devin White’s crushing tackle for loss on Arizona’s David Johnson. White is such a physical presence in the middle of that defense.
g. Taysom Hill, the Saints’ number three quarterback, with the perfect back-shoulder fade to Michael Thomas. Nice to have depth at the toughest position to scout and acquire in the NFL.
h. Marshon Lattimore separating Julio Jones from the football with one of the most physical hits of Lattimore’s Saints tenure.
i. Zane Gonzalez with a 54-yard field goal that could have been good from 68.
j. Matt Millen, heart-transplant recipient 10.5 months ago, lighting the Raider end zone torch Thursday night. Looking good, Millen.
k. Man, who gave the B-12 shot to Melvin Gordon? Looked like a different back from Melvin the Holdout.
l. It’s official: Clelin Ferrell (2.5 sacks versus Chargers) is no bust.
m. Derek Carr on his game-winning TD drive, putting the Raiders ahead 26-24: 5-for-7, 53 yards. Philip Rivers on the ensuing, game-losing drive: 0-for-8, 0 yards.
n. Great nugget from Ian Rapoport on Deion Sanders’ candidacy for the Florida State coaching job.
o. Ronald Jones looks like a starting NFL running back. Good decision by the Bucs in making him one.
p. A 17-play TD drive by the Falcons at New Orleans. Signs of life for the Falcons.
q. Prescience of the Weekend: James Lofton of CBS before a snap at Cleveland, with Josh Allen and Buffalo at the Browns’ 10: “He has four touchdowns on the ground in the Red Zone. He can use his arm, but his legs are dangerous down here also.” Allen took the snap and ran up the middle for a 10-yard TD. Attaway, Lofton.
r. Excellent (but close) DPI call on Detroit’s Darius Slay against Chicago’s Allen Robinson, setting up a vital Tarik Cohen touchdown run.
s. Kevin Harlan on the amazing Lamar Jackson 47-yard TD run in the second half at Cincinnati: “HE IS HOUDINI! WHAT A PLAY! WOW!!!”
t. One of the game under-appreciated players, Ravens cornerback Brandon Carr, starting his 185th straight game.
u. Wonderful pass breakup by Adoree' Jackson of the Titans, stripping Tyreek Hill on what would have been a big pass play.
v. Allen Lazard and Jake Kumerow, undrafted wideouts for the Packers. Lazard and Kumerow, worker bees, earned Aaron Rodgers’ trust. And on Sunday, even with Davante Adams back and playing a full load, Lazard and Kumerow were making very big plays for the Pack.
w. Preston Smith, who is significantly outplaying his 2018 self in Washington in the first year of his free-agent deal in Green Bay. His second-quarter drive-killing sack of Kyle Allen at Lambeau Field was his ninth of the season, and he had his 10th in the fourth quarter in a big spot. And he’s done it in 10 games. (He had four last year in Washington.) What a signing by GM Brian Gutekunst.
x. Greg Olsen (eight for 98 at Green Bay) going over 700 career catches. He’s got 701.
2. I think this is what I did not like about Week 10:
a. I will never figure out why Dallas punt returner Tavon Austin fair-caught a punt in the final seconds near mid-field, instead of taking an easy 15 yards because the Vikings were so focused on not getting the punt blocked in the final minute. Makes no sense. That was 15 free yards.
b. Philip Rivers at the end of Raiders 26, Chargers 24. I don’t think I’m exaggerating here—I don’t remember such a Jekyll and Hyde performance in a short period by a quarterback. In the last 20 minutes of the game, the Chargers had three possessions. First: Rivers completes three of three and drives the Chargers to a field goal. Second: Rivers completes five of five and drives the Chargers to a touchdown. Three: Rivers throws eight balls with these results: incomplete, incomplete, incomplete, incomplete (a Raider penalty nullifies the incompletion and results in a first down), incomplete, incomplete, incomplete, interception. In 40 seconds, Rivers throws eight passes, and a career 65-percent passer completes none. Well, at least none to his own players.
c. It’s not the biggest deal in the world, but just wondering who is feeding NFL information to Verizon. You see that commercial, with these common folk saying how cool it is that Verizon can get them into all these cool concerts and exclusive NFL things? And this guy says, all excited, “Verizon got me into the NFL combine! They don’t even sell tickets to this thing!”
d. Very technically they don’t. It’s a lot easier. The NFL gives them away. My friends—the Sixes, of Fishers, Ind.—have gotten tickets to the Combine twice, and it was not a chore. Such a perk, Verizon!
e. Chargers losses this year have been by 3, 7, 7, 7, 3 and 2 points.
f. No idea what the officials were seeing in Nashville when Ryan Tannehill was strip-sacked, fell to the ground, had his hand on top of the ball next to him when he was laying there, and a Chiefs’ defender came up and scooped up the ball. Should have been dead, refs.
g. The mustard-hoody sideline apparel for coaches. Sheesh, those were ugly.
h. What happened to teams wearing their colors? And coaches wearing their team’s colors?
i. Four hands-to-the-face penalties against the Saints in the first 41 minutes of the game against Atlanta. Teams go four weeks with four of those flags, and New Orleans got four in two-thirds of a game.
j. Tre’Davious White, the Buffalo corner, had some good defensive plays at Cleveland, but he also dropped a second-half interception of Baker Mayfield in a three-point game.
k. Jon Gruden, 0-for-7 on coaches challenges this year. Time to re-think your upstairs challenge-flag adviser, coach.
l. Kansas City’s defensive front was simply too pliable.
m. Bad personal foul call by Jerome Boger late in the first half at Green Bay, on a Gerald McCoy roughing of Aaron Rodgers. “This is one that should not have been called,” said FOX’s Mike Pereira. Again and again the common-sense calls are not made in cases of hitting the quarterback, because the league is being over-protective. Lucky for the Panthers, and for Boger really, that on the last play of the half, McCoy stoned Aaron Jones at the Carolina 1-yard line so the Pack didn’t score. But the penalty likely prevented Carolina from scoring a tough or field goal before the half.
n. Packers, second-and-26, third quarter. Carolina cornerback Donte Jackson covering Davante Adams, who does either a double-move or a post-corner route. Jackson looks back at Aaron Rodgers for longer than a smart cornerback should. And Rodgers throws a strike, a dagger, to Adams. Gain of 38. Huge error by Jackson.
o. Rams get way too cute with Johnny Hekker. Having him in the shotgun, attempting a real pass that everyone sees coming on fourth down, and failing. That kind of stuff doesn’t make me feel good about Ram decision-making.
3. I think when Minnesota running back Dalvin Cook gets going, he’s a freight train.
4. I think the last play of the Cards-Bucs game should certainly have been flagged for interference, and it’s just another reason why I believe the league will not vote pass-interference challenges into a second season. Kyler Murray threw deep for Pharoh Cooper, and it was not a Hail Mary throw—simply a deep throw down the left sideline. Bucs cornerback Jamel Dean hit Cooper significantly before the ball arrived, the ball fell incomplete, and there was no flag. Not only no flag, but no replay review generated by the league. According to Pro Football Talk, the reason there was no official review of the play is because it was determined the play would not have been overturned on review. That means only one thing: A clear pass-interference foul was missed (or ignored) on the field, the New York review determined the clear interference was not interference, and so clear interference was not called by the attending officials or the league officials led by Al Riveron designed to correct obvious wrongs. Makes perfect sense. Man, this system has to be killed, and the sooner the better.
5. I think the New York Times’ series on the decline of high school football participation in America, and the football establishment’s attempt to reverse the alarming trend had some impressive numbers in its first installment over the weekend. Since 2009, participation in high school football is down, for instance, 10 percent in strong football states California, Georgia and Texas, and significantly more in other moderate football states—28 percent down in New York, 24 percent in Nebraska, 16 percent on both Iowa and Wisconsin. The Times’ figures stunned me in other states. Over a 10-year period, high school football participation is down:
- 27 percent in Ohio, one of the six or eight true football hotbeds in the United States. The Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland areas all have schools with traditionally strong national programs.
- 22 percent in Illinois, another strong football state.
- 18 percent in Oklahoma (since 2013), and 19 percent in Arizona, two good football states.
“Parents are scared of head injuries, and rightly so,” one North Carolina athletic director told the paper. Yes, and I’d bet that’s the primary reason for the drop; it sure would be for me if I were a parent having to make a decision about my child playing tackle football. Looking forward to the rest of the series.
6. I think Kevin Harlan is an American treasure. Who else does the play-by-play of the black cat on the field hustling toward the end zone in the Cowboys-Giants Monday-nighter last week, while doing the play-by-play of the game too, with Westwood One radio partner Kurt Warner playing along? Who else? I’ve got a feeling that most announcers, vet and neophyte, would have said something like,There’s a cat on the field. We’re delayed here at the Meadowlands. Now a word from Toyota. Right? Here’s Harlan’s call, from the middle of the second quarter Monday night.
I mean, the guy read the ad copy. “The cat is in the CDW Red Zone. CDW, people who get it.” Imagine being so in the moment you remember to read the ad copy when the cat enters the Red Zone.
I talked to Harlan, a do-everything announcer, after he did Celtics-Hornets on Thursday night.
“So the Giants, before that play, were about to enter the CDW Red Zone,” said Harlan. CDW is an IT security company. “Howard Deneroff, who is producing the game, hands me the card, reminding me about the CDW read when the Giants are in the Red Zone. You’re so focused, you’re so into it, you know you’ve got to get the read in, so here comes the cat, and he’s in the Red Zone, and you notice nothing else. The pacing was in sync, and there was the cat. That’s the whole read: ‘CDW, people who get it.’ So I got it in.”
The commercial read—that’s number two on the significance list of Harlan’s call. The man called a black cat coming out of nowhere running, walking, stopping, starting, scoring a touchdown.
“When you’re doing radio,” Harlan said. “you’re describing everything you see, from the wind direction of the orange tell-tale flags on top of goalposts, to the grass stains on the pants, to the moon rising over the edge of the stadium. So the game’s going on. On one end of the field the Giants, who are still very much in this game, are driving to score a touchdown. On the other end is this cat, darting down the field. So there’s the cat, and then there’s a catch-and-run, and the cat running. I remember three years ago when we had the drunk on the field [a drunk ran onto the field in Rams-Niners in 2016, and Harlan did the same play-by-play, yelling at one point, “THE GUY IS DRUNK”], play was stopped, the guy was running down the field like he was a slot receiver. This was different. Had I really thought about it, I could have schmaltzed it out a little more. But I called it the way I saw it. The officials stopped play after the Giants catch and run, and the players just stood around, hands on hips, I called what I saw, along with the delayed reaction of the policemen. I mean, Go get the cat! And Kurt’s so great, a fun-loving guy, great sense of humor. We had fun with it.”
I kept thinking of a long-haul trucker, listening to the NFL game at 10 at night on I-70 in the middle of Kansas, just trying to stay awake, and here comes Harlan yelling about a cat, and, well, that’s the beauty of radio calls and the people who describe precisely what they see so you picture it in your mind.
“I got back to my airport hotel that night, and I’ve got 30 to 40 text messages, buddies in the business, Mike Tirico checked in … and you know, you try for just the right words on the game-winning touchdown pass, and here comes a cat that everyone’s smitten with. Just goes to show you, I guess.”
Show you what?
“Thirty-five years of doing play-by-play in the NFL, and I’m gonna be known for drunks and cats!”
Perhaps. But he’ll be known too for his comfort with the craft, and mastery of it. I called Tirico on Saturday to ask him about the call.
“I loved it,” Tirico said. “I’ve had a chance to do games on the radio for Westwood One. Such a different challenge than TV. On a professional level, when I heard Kevin’s call, it was ultimate respect, because what I heard was complete command of the broadcast. What I heard was exactly what happened on the field. Perfect. Complete with the ad read! When I talk to college students, one of the things you tell the kids is when you’re on the air, you’ve got to be in complete command. Something happened, you’re documenting it, you’re in control, you drop in the sponsor read. That is what the craft is all about.”
7. I think I am amazed at the love the Raider fans have for their soon-to-be Las Vegas Raiders. Watching the 26-24 win over the Chargers, and the aftermath of said win, I kept thinking it’s impossible that this rabid, incredible working-class fandom has to be one of the top five fan groups in the NFL … and it’s got only three more games, ever, to shower that love on the team. Jon Gruden getting affectionately mugged in the end zone tunnel post-game by the loyalists, player after player being agog at the fans in the stands still going batcrap over the team five to seven minutes after the game, absolutely no sign of bitterness over the team leaving town in two months. I think Vegas is going to love this team, and go nuts for it too. But what is happening in Oakland shows this market never, ever should have had the team pilfered.
8. I think Trumaine Johnson is the cautionary story of paying through the nose for a player at a need position in free agency. In 2017, Johnson struggled through a season with the Rams, the 78th-rated cornerback in football by Pro Football Focus, and entered the free-agent market in early 2018 as a scarred player. No matter. You just can’t find good veteran corners. So he was tremendously overvalued. The Jets overpaid him, five years at $17.5-million a year. He had a mediocre (at best) rookie year, and team insiders questioned his love for football. More of the same this year, including being benched for a spell, before being placed on IR last week with injuries to both ankles. It’s unlikely he’ll be brought back next season. Damage incurred by the Jets:
- Money paid to Johnson over his 18-month Jets career: $34 million.
- Games played: 17.
- Interceptions: 5.
- Completion percentage allowed: 68.6 percent.
- Composite PFF rating over two years among NFL corners: 58th.
- Dead cap money for Jets in 2020 if they cut Johnson: $12 million.
- Percentage of 2020 cap eaten up by Johnson: 6.0 percent (estimated).
That’s one nice tidy little going-away gift from fired GM Mike Maccagnan.
9. I think I know why Dak Prescott isn’t too concerned about his contract. It’s because he’s set the NFL record for commercials this year.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Thanks to all the veterans on this Veterans Day. This piece on NBC Nightly News is a great example of one athlete with the perspective we all should have on this day.
b. Late in saying this: Heartfelt thanks to the firefighters in California for working so selflessly and for such long hours in attacking the destructive blazes all over the state. Incredibly dedicated people. We owe so much to them, wherever we live.
c. Story/Video Project of the Week: The powerful and important words and video by Lindsay Crouse and Alexander Stockton.
d. Words in print can be powerful, of course. The title is powerful: “I was the fastest girl in America, until I joined Nike.” But to hear a thoughtful, smart and convincing woman like Mary Cain speak them into a camera gives these words more heft, as she describes giving over her running life to Alberto Salazar and his running team at Nike, trusting that he could help make her one of the great athletes in American history. “Instead,” she says into the camera, “I was emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by Alberto and endorsed by Nike.”
e. The experience nearly killed her. “I started to have suicidal thoughts. I started to cut myself. Nobody really did anything or said anything. I wasn’t even trying to make the Olympics anymore. I was trying to survive,” Cain told Crouse and Stockton. I cannot recommend this highly enough. Great work by Crouse and Stockton.
f. TV Story of the Week: CBS News’ Steve Hartman, on a nurse saving a 26-year-old autistic heart patient, in so many ways.
g. “His fate was sealed. Basically, death … by loneliness.”
h. Column of the Week: Nina Lelyveld of the Los Angeles Times with a you-are-there, very real story about two dream-seekers from Detroit, Bri and Loxk, who ended up homeless in Los Angeles. Writes Lelyveld:
“At the end of the day, there are the people who go inside and the people who stay outside. No matter what I think of myself, I couldn’t think of myself as better than another person on the street because we were on the street,” Bri told me. “Some homeless people are really mad at the people who go inside.”
“Like really, really mad,” said Loxk.
“Like they owe them something,” Bri said.
They tried not to feel that way, but it didn’t always work.
“The only people that you talk to are people who have mental illness. The only people you talk to are people on drugs. And those are the only things going back and forth in your head, those voices, and it’s just not ideal to keep a peace of mind. You start to get mad because the only things you hear are negative and so you start to get negative,” Bri said. “We were both kind of losing our minds at some point.”
i. Semi-heartbreaking Story of the Week: Jack Healy of the New York Times on the disappearing middle-America grocery store.
j. Said one grocer: “It’s more important than just my little grocery store. It adds to the destruction of rural America — not supporting rural farmers or rural people.”
k. Offbeat Story of the Week: Jody Rosen, writing for the New York Times, on The Knowledge of London, the most difficult exam in the world for a person hoping to get a taxi-driver’s license. (HT to reader Martin Shaw from Edinburgh, Scotland for pointing it out.) Rosen writes:
“The six-mile radius from Charing Cross, the putative center-point of London marked by an equestrian statue of King Charles I, takes in some 25,000 streets. London cabbies need to know all of those streets, and how to drive them — the direction they run, which are one-way, which are dead ends, where to enter and exit traffic circles, and so on. But cabbies also need to know everything on the streets. Examiners may ask a would-be cabbie to identify the location of any restaurant in London. Any pub, any shop, any landmark, no matter how small or obscure — all are fair game. Test-takers have been asked to name the whereabouts of flower stands, of laundromats, of commemorative plaques. One taxi driver told me that he was asked the location of a statue, just a foot tall, depicting two mice sharing a piece of cheese.”
l. Journalism Story of the Week: Chris Faraone of Boston Magazine on what the crisis in local journalism means to small and big towns alike—in this case, in Massachusetts. Faraone writes:
“Look at Worcester, New England’s second-most-populous city. As the area embarks on expensive renovations of iconic structures, welcomes a minor-league baseball team, and becomes a booming center for the recreational cannabis industry, there’s more cash—and temptation for graft—than ever. Unfortunately, the city is left without a watchdog. The regional paper of record, the Telegram & Gazette, was bought by John Henry from the New York Times. Henry then sold it to Halifax Media Group, which sold the paper to Gatehouse. The paper eliminated its last long-standing byline, 26-year T&G veteran Clive McFarlane, in August. The arts-and-entertainment-focused Worcester Magazine has been stripped down to a single staffer. Mayor Joseph Petty recently lamented to radio host Hank Stolz, of the bootstrap podcast Talk of the Commonwealth, that ‘there is no more real newspaper in the city of Worcester.’ “
m. I mean, that is the second-largest city in a six-state region, with a paper stripped down to the bones.
n. I say it over and over and over: Whatever you think of the press, America’s towns and cities need watchdogs. And so many of them are going away.
o. Happy 50th birthday, “Sesame Street.” Guessing I spent two hours a week, roughly, for nine years watching the show (or snoozing while sitting with my kids) between 1985 and 1994. There cannot be a better show ever invented—well, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” is very close—for children, both to teach pre-school things and to teach empathy and excellent values. (“Sesame Street” debuted 50 years ago Sunday.)
p. Coffeenerdness: I might be a little lax in the coffee department, unless I start drinking decaf—and maybe I should. I’ve got a touch of vertigo, and part of the treatment for it is to drink a lot of water and just one cup of coffee a day. Bummer. Real bummer. There goes my four-shot macchiato, at least for the time being.
q. I’ve only had one bout of vertigo—scary enough; had to hold onto a counter to not fall—and doing some counter-vertigo stuff has been doing the trick. Seems like it’s under control.
r. Beernerdness: “Sell The Team!” is a double West Coast IPA (alcohol content: 9.5 percent) from Harpers Ferry Brewing (Hillsboro, Va.). “Bitter and slightly disappointing, like a day at FedEx Field,” is about as good a beer review as I’ve read—and it’s the review from the brewery itself, pointed directly at the owner of the local football team, Daniel Snyder. Haven’t tried it yet, but I’ll let you know about it when I do. I’m actually hoping it’s bitter and very disappointing.
The Week Ahead
Today: Jacksonville: First Jaguars practice, about 80 minutes in duration, of Week 11. Quarterback Nick Foles, who broke his collarbone on Jacksonville’s 11th offensive snap of the season, finally gets to re-take his rightful starting job, 64 days after he last played a game of football. Sixth-round rookie Gardner Minshew was a captivating but inconsistent 4-4 as Foles’ replacement, and saved his worst for last in the awful loss to Houston in London last week. Now Foles has seven games to prove the $88-million deal he signed with the Jags last March was smart for both player and team, starting and ending with tests against the Colts.
Tuesday: Colorado Springs, Colo. The Chargers begin their practice week at the Air Force Academy (elevation 6,035 feet) for their Monday night game against the Chiefs in Mexico City (elevation 7,349 feet), in an effort to get acclimated to the altitude. After the debacle of last year and the league switching the Mexico City game to L.A., I hear the field in Mexico’s in good shape. Kansas City, by the way, will practice all week at their regular facility in Missouri.
Thursday: Cleveland.Steelers at Browns. The fourth (and very likely last) prime-time game of 3-6 Cleveland’s melodramatic season.
Sunday: Baltimore: Texans at Ravens. (See James Harris, above.) The first NFL matchup of two of the NFL’s next wave of star quarterbacks—Deshaun Watson, 24, versus Lamar Jackson, 22—very likely won’t be as scintillating as the only previous time they met as starting quarterbacks. Oct. 1, 2016, Louisville (4-0) at Clemson (4-0), seven future NFL first-round picks in the game. Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell sacked Lamar Jackson twice in the game; Louisville’s Jaire Alexander intercepted Deshaun Watson twice. Louisville, behind 457 passing/rushing yards from Jackson, led Clemson 36-28 with 7:30 left in the fourth quarter. In his next two possessions, Watson threw his fourth and fifth TD passes of the game. Clemson won 42-36, on the way to the 2016 national championship. Though Watson won the top two individual quarterback awards in 2016, Jackson beat out second-place Watson for the Heisman Trophy. How interesting would it be—this year or several times in the future—if Watson and Jackson battled for AFC titles and MVP awards?
The Adieu Haiku30
Niners: Last perfect
team standing. Could @Dangeruss
be their kryptonite?