SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Me to Richard Sherman at his locker Sunday night, post-drubbing-of-the-Packers: “So the next two weeks, back East, you’ve got these two mega-games—”
“Not to us,” he said quickly. “We don’t care if we’re playing on the moon. And we don’t care who we’re playing. We had a tough game against Tampa, who moved it on us in the heat. We had a frickin’ monsoon game in Washington. We don’t care. We play as hard as we can, as fast as we can, and let the chips fall.”
Next Sunday: San Francisco (10-1) at Baltimore (8-2, at Rams tonight). The following Sunday: San Francisco at New Orleans (9-2).
In the past eight days, I watched the Ravens beat Houston by 34. Baltimore’s the best team, I thought. I watched the Niners beat Green Bay 37-8. Maybe that’s the best team, I thought. New England’s an odd great team, but 10-1 is 10-1. Who cares who’s best in Thanksgiving Week? The Patriots are steaming toward AFC home-field, and they always figure it out by January, I thought.
In the NFL, it’s always smart to have recency bias. I don’t know how you watch an Aaron Rodgers-led team convert 0 of 13 third downs and not think San Francisco is capable of running the table, all the way to the Super Bowl. You see the impact George Kittle had (six catches, 129 yards), playing with a chipped bone in his ankle, and you see the defensive depth. This is a scary team.
Right now, for the sake of great competition, America would love a San Francisco-Baltimore Super Bowl. If that happens, consider Week 13 in Baltimore the appetizer. You know the crazy thing? Niners-Ravens isn’t a prime-time game next week. It’s not a network doubleheader game, to be seen by 75 percent of the country. It’s on FOX, one of eight games Sunday scheduled at 1 p.m. ET.
At 1 p.m.! How amazing. Ask 500 fans right now, “What’s the NFL matchup you’d most like to see right now?” I bet Niners-Ravens would be close to number one. You can count on the NFL to maximize the TV audience in a given week 90 percent of the time. But it’s a CBS doubleheader week, with Raiders-Chiefs the big attraction, and flexing to Sunday night didn’t make sense because the ratings-magnet Patriots were scheduled for Sunday prime-time (at Houston). Still, putting this game against seven others for attention in the early window? Just odd.
As the Niners have emerged this year from their Kyle Shanahan/John Lynch cocoon, I point to the patience the team had. When CEO Jed York recruited coach and GM, he dangled six-year contracts to both as a show of (very) good faith. So if going 10-22 in the first two years tested York’s resolve, he didn’t show it. Nor was the NFL information superhighway abuzz with rumors of Shanahan’s demise. Even when the quarterback gets hurt, as happened here, impatience in the fan base is usually a thing. There was some of that on the outside, but never internally.
Shanahan paused a half-hour after the game Sunday night to consider his good fortune.
“That’s why I’m happy where I’m at—it’s the organization we have,” he said. “We went through some tough times in our first two years, especially starting 0-9. I think the next year was 1-7. When you start that way, it’s very hard for a place not to splinter. That’s what was so different here in our first two years. Going 0-9 and finishing 6-10 helped finish with some momentum. Last year, never once throughout the year did you ever feel like the defense was against the offense or vice versa. Never once did I have an owner crushing me with, ‘Hey, we gotta change this guy.’ I mean, everyone here really just believed in each other. That was really tested with some of the times we went through but I think that was the neatest thing about it. We knew we had the right people around. We just had to get a couple difference-makers and stay healthy.”
Jimmy Garoppolo making all 11 starts after missing 13 last year (knee) has been huge. But I view five pieces either new or just rapidly ascending as being just as big. Nick Bosa, the second pick in the draft, and trade acquisition Dee Ford gave the Niners the best defensive-line depth in football. In 41 pass-drops Sunday night, Rodgers was sacked five times, pressured six times and hit twice more, per PFF. The most significant hit was probably the first—and that brings us to the third relatively new guy who’s exploded for the Niners: middle linebacker Fred Warner.
“I’m a San Diego kid,” Warner told me, gripping his post-game NBC player of the game football in his arm like he didn’t want to let it go. “I loved Junior Seau. I was a Shawne Merriman fan.”
He did his best Seau on the fifth play of the game, blowing up the Green Bay protection in the middle of the line on third-and-10 at the Packer 25-yard line, sacking Rodgers, forcing a fumble and setting up the first Niners touchdown. Since San Francisco lost playmaking linebacker Kwon Alexander with a torn pectoral a month ago, Warner has taken over his explosive playmaking. He’s led the team in tackles in each of the last four games, recorded three sacks and forced two fumbles. And he’s smart, running the defense in his second year out of Brigham Young. “We’ve got a bunch of checks we had to make all game, and Fred didn’t miss one all night,” Shanahan said. “We love the guy. Love his talent. Love his brain. And then our coaches, who really know linebackers, [defensive coordinator] Robert Saleh and [position coach] DeMeco Ryans, could really tell us how he fit in our scheme, and I think it was great for John Lynch to go get him in the draft.”
Two other newbies: Free safety Jimmie Ward’s a six-year vet, but he’s been hurt so much the Niners couldn’t rely on him. This year, he’s joined the fast-rising secondary as a big hitter who excels in coverage. He made the play of the game in the secondary, going up with Jimmy Graham to break up the pass. Graham looked to come down with it, but Ward fought with him coming down and the ball came loose a split-second after Graham landed. (If the Packers challenged the play, called an incompletion, they might have overturned it.) “It was basically who wanted it more,” said Ward.
Finally, Deebo Samuel’s been a godsend to the offense. The rookie second-rounder (must have been a tremendous draft for this guy to go in the second round) broke up the game just before the half with a 42-yard streaking touchdown that left the Green Bay defenders in the dust. “I was worried I’d never learn the offense when I first got here—the playbook is so big,” Samuel told me. “But I’m good with it now. I love this offense.”
The team’s got a little bit of the Shanahan ethos. America doesn’t know him yet. He’s not as polished as his dad, veteran coach Mike Shanahan, was. Then again, he’s 39. He’s got time. What he is, is tough and an excellent play-designer and play-caller. He won’t say it, but he’s the kind of a just-try-to-knock-this-chip-off-my-shoulder coach who players respect. And they respect Shanahan because they know he puts them in the best position to win.
All opponents can be beaten. All opponents we respect. We can find something in everyone we play to exploit. Who does that sound like? “I’ve never met a coach who reminds me of Bill Belichick as much as Kyle,” said former Patriots and Falcons front-office man Scott Pioli, who has worked with both.
“Assume you’ll be watching Lamar Jackson against the Rams,” I said to Shanahan on Sunday night.
“We won’t have a fun Monday/Tuesday preparing for him,” he said. “But we’ll be ready by Sunday.”
Carson Wentz sure doesn’t look like the pre-injuries Carson Wentz
In the significantly playoff-crippling 17-9 loss to Seattle, Wentz played at times like he had a case of the yips. They started early. Midway through the first quarter, on third-and-nine from the Seattle 10-yard line, Wentz had running back Miles Sanders alone in the left flat, just a few yards away, with an open path to the goal line. It was 50-50, at least, that he’d have turned this gimme completion into a touchdown. The ball, looking like it was forced by Wentz, sailed five feet over Sanders’ head. Startling misfire.
“It wasn’t the wind, it wasn’t the — it was nothing. I have to do better,” Wentz said about that and other misfires.
The recent spate of uncharacteristic inaccuracy and unsustainable drives caused the Eagle crowd to do what it traditionally does when it’s been let down: boo. Wentz wasn’t crying about it afterward. “You never want to hear it, but it is what it is,” he said. “That’s this city, that’s the fan base.”
Four of Philly’s last five games are eminently winnable—at Miami, Giants, at Washington, at Giants—and the Eagles have to sweep those to have even a remote shot to make the playoffs. Then Dallas, at home, Dec. 22. But the Eagles aren’t going 4-1 or 5-0 down the stretch with Wentz playing like this, and Doug Pederson knows it.
With five weeks to go, the MVP is a two-man race
Obviously that could change, but it’s Russell Wilson of Seattle and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson in some order for the award this morning, with a cadre of men in striking distance but unlikely to catch them: Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, New Orleans wide receiver Michael Thomas, Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott (though the Cowboys’ dud at New England won’t help), Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey, and quarterbacks Kirk Cousins (Vikings), Deshaun Watson (Texans) and Patrtick Mahomes (Chiefs). The cases for Wilson and Jackson:
• Wilson, of the 9-2 Seahawks.
- The numbers: 67.3 percent accuracy, 8.3 yards per attempt, 24 TDs, 3 interceptions, 112.1 rating
- Biggest pros: Wilson, with Seattle’s ninth win of the season on Sunday, became the first quarterback in NFL history to post a winning record in each of his first eight seasons. Think of no one ever doing that before
- He’s 6-0 on the road, with four of those coming in Eastern Time; the last two were the toughest of the year—at the Niners and the Eagles
- He’s done it with a middling line and after the retirement of his favorite career weapon, wideout Doug Baldwin. All but one of his completions to a tight end or wide receiver Sunday were to pass-catchers in their first or second years in Seattle
- Crazy as it sounds, the race in the NFC West and for MVP could come down to one game: San Francisco at Seattle, Week 17.
• Jackson, of the 8-2 Ravens.
- The numbers: 66.3 percent accuracy, 8.1 yards per attempt, 19 TDs, 5 interceptions, 106.3 rating—plus a team-high 781 rushing yards with six rushing TDs
- Plays at the Rams tonight, looking to extend a six-game winning streak and maintain his leadership of the best offense in football
- Beat Wilson head-to-head, and his team has routed Seattle (by 14), New England (by 17), Cincinnati (by 36) and Houston (by 34) in the last four games, buttressing his case
- The most electrifying and exciting player in football this year, if that counts. He’s proven he’s not just a running quarterback, but rather a great runner and an accurate thrower who can make the kind of passes big-time quarterback need to make to win games
- Facing a crucial seven-day trial for his MVP chances: at L.A. tonight, landing back in Baltimore at 6 a.m. ET for a short week of prep to face one of the league’s best defenses, San Francisco.
This story should be dead now
Myles Garrett swung a helmet maniacally and cracked Mason Rudolph in the head. Garrett was suspended indefinitely, at least through the end of the year, after which he’ll apply for reinstatement to Roger Goodell. Garrett appealed, claiming (per ESPN) that Rudolph called him a racial slur. Garrett’s ban was upheld. Rudolph denied using a slur. The league said it had no evidence confirming Garrett’s account. You’re up to date.
As of now, there’s no reason for the story to bubble up again—unless another player comes forward to confirm Garrett’s claim. It does Garrett no good to keep it going, and I doubt he will, barring another player backing him on the record. So each side would be smart to let it die. The two teams play Sunday in Pittsburgh, and it will be a good test of Freddie Kitchens’ hold on his team to see if the Browns can simply play a game of football without engaging in scuffles. Steelers too.
I still stay what I said last week: Garrett by all accounts has been a good man on and off the field. He flipped out. If he shows remorse and makes strides to be sure it never happens again, Roger Goodell should reinstate him for opening day in 2020. (Hopefully not against the Steelers.)
The Gore Story
The most amazing thing about Frank Gore is not that he’s still contributing to a strong playoff contender as a running back at age 36. Or that he passed Barry Sanders into third place on the all-time rushing list Sunday in Buffalo. Or that of all the running backs in the 100 years of professional football, only two have more rushing yards. To me, the most impressive thing about Gore is that he had both knees reconstructed while playing at the University of Miami, and then, after his rookie year in the NFL in 2005, he had labrum tears in both shoulders repaired. And after having all four of his vital body parts surgically repaired, he went on to rush for 14,681 yards.
I can’t get over that.
“On a day like today,” Gore said after rushing for 65 yards in 8-3 Buffalo’s 20-3 win over Denver, “I think about all the times I could have walked away. Like, at Miami, after I tore my second knee, I was going to quit. My running backs coach, Don Soldinger, told me, ‘Man, you’re crazy. My goal is to get you to the NFL.”
Now he’s passed Barry Sanders on the all-time rushing list. It left him almost speechless Sunday evening—but not quite. “Come on,” he said before leaving the stadium Sunday. “Let’s be real. Come on. I respect everyone in this game—everyone. But Barry Sanders? Growing up, watching him … 15,000 yards in 10 years �� This was an unbelievable football player. Like no other.”
“And you just passed him on the all-time rushing list,” I said.
“A big reason,” said Gore, “is I came to a great place, man. Everything is right here. I remember when I signed here, some people said, ‘You’re going there for the yards. You’re chasing yards.’ For me, this was the right offense, the right team, the right coaches. This is a tough, hard-nosed brand of football, the kind I’ve played my whole life. It’s my type of team, my type of football. And I’m still having success, still contributing, at this age.”
That’s the best thing about these yards he’s getting now. He’s getting them for a surging darkhorse in the playoffs. Because if the Bills are going to make it to January and then win a game or two, it’s likely not going to be done solely with Josh Allen filling the air with footballs. It’s going to be Devin Singletary and Gore grinding out the tough yards, just the way Gore loves.
If the first batch of players revealed on the NFL’s Top 100 list is any indication, history will be served. Six of the 12 running backs chosen on the team played in the first 50 years of the professional game, and a seventh, O.J. Simpson, was a rookie in the league’s 50th anniversary season in 1969. It shows the 25 voters looked at the full century of football and not on the gaudy numbers of the past three decades or so, with longer schedules and longer careers.
The running backs were made public Friday night, on the first of six one-hour shows on NFL Network (Fridays through Dec. 27, 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT; front seven players are on the docket this Friday). The 25-member committee that voted for the 100 best players put Steve Van Buren, Dutch Clark, Lenny Moore and Marion Motley—none among the top 90 rushers of all time—on the list of 12 and skipped Marshall Faulk, Adrian Peterson, Tony Dorsett and LaDainian Tomlinson—all in the top 15.
I feel for the great players of the TV era who got left off. (I was one of the voters.) I voted for the last running back to win the league MVP, Peterson, and not Campbell. I gave strong consideration to Faulk and Tomlinson. The way it ended up, Emmitt Smith was the only back who played in this century to make it, and he played only the last five of his 15 seasons after 2000. I don’t love that. But I’m glad greats from the early days were honored. Van Buren, a four-time NFL rushing champion in an era when every team ran the majority of the snaps, deserved his spot. Moore was the best runner-receiver of the first 60 years of the pro game, with 63 rushing TDs and 48 through the air; he averaged 128 scrimmage yards a game in the Colts’ championship season of 1958, and ranked in the top 10 in the league in both rushing and receiving yards for an iconic team. Paul Zimmerman called Motley the best running back he’d seen.
It’s tough to measure the contribution of Clark, who rushed for 2,772 yards for the Lions in the 1930s, to Tomlinson, who rushed for 11,000 yards more seven decades later. In those days, backs threw and ran and caught. Clark was probably the best all-around back of his day, a six-time all-pro in seven seasons. He was the game’s best drop-kicker, which was a thing then. Clark played only seven years, but that’s how football was in those days … not a lot of long careers. Still, a great player in the 1930s, when the game was growing most often painfully, mattered to me as much as a great player in the 1990s.
Whittling to 100 was hard too. “This could easily have been 500,” voter Bill Belichick said. Another voter, well-respected Dallas writer Rick Gosselin, said: “The toughest part was keeping in mind that the NFL has been around for 100 years, not just the last 30 or 40, and that there were great players in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s when there wasn’t a lot of tape to watch, nor was statistic-keeping at a premium like it is today. How do you judge an Al Wistert against an Anthony Munoz, an Ed Sprinkle against a Reggie White, a Red Grange against a Walter Payton, a Sammy Baugh against a Brett Favre? In each case, both players were dominant in their eras. But in each case, one player played on television and the other didn’t. Does the heightened visibility of the game’s modern era dictate that one player should be declared better than another? I felt strongly there needed to be a mix of the old with the new.”
The most surprising things about the process? I’d guess—no one was keeping a clock—that the most talkative voter among the 25 was Belichick. A task like this was right up his alley. He has a Ph.D in football history, and it showed in the meetings, when he talked more about the players from the first 30 years of pro football than the last 30. In some cases, he and another influential voter, John Madden, educated the room on why the old timers matter.
One thing that’s notable about the team: We voted for a set number of players at each position group, and we voted in no order. In other words, we didn’t rank running backs 1 to 12 on our ballots; we just voted for 12. There will be 10 quarterbacks, 12 backs, 10 wideouts, five tight ends, seven tackles, seven guards, four centers, seven defensive ends, seven defensive tackles, six middle/inside linebacker, six outside linebackers, seven corners, six safeties, two kickers, two punters and two returners. Do the math and you may howl. We elected 55 players on offense and 39 on defense, with six on special teams. Some may argue it should have been 50-50, or closer than 55-39 offense, and I’d appreciate the argument. But that’s how it was laid out to us.
The committee of 25 had two long conference calls in April 2018 to handle the nominating process. Belichick and Madden were tabbed to pore over film and their own knowledge to issue a report to the committee on the players in the early years of the league. There was a vote to trim the list to 160 in mid-May, after considering the true old-timers recommended by Belichick and Madden. Over a long meeting in late May, final discussions and debates were held. Our votes were due June 15, 2018.
As for the TV show: The NFL matched a professional and smart host, Rich Eisen, with the equally smart Cris Collinsworth and Belichick to host this series. I screened the first two shows, and they’re a good and natural trio. (Eisen and Collinsworth engage Belichick on his love of football cards in show two—that’s a keeper.) Some of the selections, Jim Brown and Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders in the first show, appear on set. Belichick showed he’ll have a future in TV if he ever wants it. He’s into it, and his stories are very insider. A natural love of the game flows from him. Watching Belichick gush over running-back pick Emmitt Smith—with Smith sitting there on set—showed he doesn’t have to be professionally dour.
“I tell you, I never, I’m just … I’m absolutely flabbergasted at the way you could consistently run the ball for positive yards,” Belichick said, in a fanboy voice that I wasn’t sure existed in him. “I’ve never seen anybody take so many two-yard gains and turn ‘em into eight-yard plays.”
Smith, the all-time leading rusher, was clearly moved by what Belichick said. “Bill, coming from you, that is monumental.”
Then a couple of Smith clips were shown, and Belichick took over the conversation, asking Smith: “Tell us how you ran the ball … Tell me what you saw.”
Best thing about the science of his game I’ve heard from Smith. He said: “For me, it was always playing chess against a defensive player, trying to get the defensive player to be undisciplined. Force him to make a decision that’s really not the right decision. And that is pressing the line of scrimmage, pressing the run play as far as I can, to get him out of position and overcommit.”
Just a great discussion about how a great running back did his job.
Belichick drops some interesting news in the show airing this Friday about Mick Jagger and a Rolling Stones tour from the early 1970s that impacted football history. (Belichick the reporter, discussing a Stones concert, with Mick Jagger being carried offstage in the midst of some mayhem … I’ll say no more, other than there’s a story I never thought I’d hear.)
One other thing about more recent football history that I never realized, per Belichick: In April 1995, when Belichick was the Cleveland coach and de facto personnel czar, he made a draft-day trade with San Francisco. Belichick dealt the 10th pick in the first round to the Niners for first, third and fourth-round picks in 1995 and San Francisco’s first-round pick in 1996. The Browns, of course, shocked the football world in November 1995 by announcing a move to Baltimore. Belichick was fired at the end of 1995, and the franchise started over in Baltimore. The new team, christened the Ravens, had one parting gift from Belichick—the 49ers’ first-round pick in 1996. That pick turned out to be the 26th pick in the 1996 draft, and it turned out to be a player who would torment Belichick in his next head-coaching job in New England for 13 seasons: Ray Lewis.
The first two shows I screened amounted to a celebration of football, and of football history. We’ll be arguing about the results, and maybe about the process. But the TV result looks very good.
Offensive Players of the Week
Derrick Henry, running back, Tennessee. The Titans, on a season-saving two-game winning streak to get to 6-5, have figured out how to make their attack go: Hand the ball to Henry and get out of the way. Tennessee was averaging just 15.6 points a game over an eight-game stretch before the Chiefs came to town in Week 10. Henry’s 188 yards and two touchdowns led Tennessee over Kansas City. After a bye last week, Henry resumed his dominance, steamrolling Jacksonville for 19 rushes and 159 yards and two more scores. Henry averaged 8.2 yards per rush against the Chiefs and 8.4 Sunday versus the Jags. No wonder Tennessee scored 35 and 42 points and look like a completely different team, and Henry looks like an NFL rushing champion. He’s 132 yards behind Christian McCaffrey, but the way he’s run recently, don’t count him out.
Chris Godwin, wide receiver, Tampa Bay. There’s no way Godwin can stay unknown much longer. Can he? After catching seven balls for 184 yards and two more touchdowns in the beatdown of Atlanta, Godwin, the third-year former third-rounder from Penn State, stands second in the NFL with 1,071 receiving yards, fourth with 70 catches and first with nine receiving touchdowns. What’s made Godwin such a threat for Tampa Bay is his ability to be both a deep and intermediate threat. His 15.3-yard average is better than both Michael Thomas and Julio Jones.
Defensive Player of the Week
Shaq Lawson, defensive end, Buffalo. The Bills are such an excellent unit on defense that individually their guys don’t stand out every week. Everyone contributes. But when you hold an NFL team to 134 yards, without a 50-yard drive in the game, as Buffalo did in the 20-3 suffocation of Denver, I’m going to single out a guy. Lawson had two sacks and three more pressures, and the Broncos never seriously threatened.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Steven Sims Jr., kick returner, Washington. Talk about a franchise hungry for a play in the kicking game. Till Sunday at FedEx, Washington did not have a touchdown on special teams since September 2016. With the game against Detroit tied at 3 early in the second quarter, Sims, an undrafted rookie wideout from Kansas, muffed the kickoff at his own 6-yard line. He recovered, and ran 91 yards through the Lions’ coverage team for a touchdown. Man, three-and-a-half seasons without a special-teams score. Incredible.
Coach of the Week
Adam Gase, head coach, New York Jets. Looking like lost causes at 1-7, the Jets have won three straight by seven, 17 and 31 points (Sunday, on a dreary Jersey day against an actually decent team, the Raiders), and that’s a credit to Gase preventing the team from having a loser’s-lament attitude with 80 percent of New York calling for his head. This is what I liked about Sunday’s win: the first drive of the third quarter, when Gase showed his smart-coaching chops. On first down from the New York 30, Gase had a triple-bunch formation to the right, with Braxton Berrios in the bunch. Berrios snuck out for a post-route to his left, and Sam Darnold found him in the middle of the field, and Berrios sprinted 69 yards to the Oakland 1.
On the next play, with the entire Jets and Raiders teams following a Darnold rollout right, Darnold stopped dead in his tracks and threw to his left, to tight end Ryan Griffin for the easiest touchdown of this NFL season. This is not just Gase having the Jets ready in what was a lost season. It’s about him putting his play-designing and play-calling on display against a pretty good team. Good sign for the Jets.
Goat of the Week
Joey Slye, kicker, Carolina. Easiest goat pick in years. In a vital 34-31 loss to the division-leading Saints, Slye was either directly or indirectly responsible for the loss of seven points. If he was even normal on this day in the weather-less Superdome, Carolina would be 6-5 this morning, two games behind the Saints with five to play. He missed a PAT late in the first quarter wide right. Just before halftime, Ron Rivera chased points and went for two after a touchdown that brought the Panthers within 17-15. The Kyle Allen pass failed. Late in the third quarter, Carolina scored to pull within seven; Slye missed his second PAT of the day. Did I mention this game was in a dome? No wind? No divots in the field? In a tie game, 31-all, with two minutes left, Slye was out to redeem himself, with a kick for the potential winning field goal from five yards closer. Wide right. The Saints won on a field goal as the clock hit :00. Count the seven points I “credit” to Slye: missed PAT, missed two-point conversion, missed PAT, missed 28-yard field goal. (The two-point conversion was tried because of the first missed PAT, of course.)
“Special teams is totally a reflection of coaching.”
—Jerry Jones, Dallas owner, sounding ticked off after a mediocre performance in the kicking game contributed to a loss at New England and to a 6-5 Dallas record with five games to play.
“He’s the greatest coach in the history of professional football, clear and simple. It all started with Paul Brown. He took football from being a sport to being a profession.”
—Bill Belichick on Paul Brown, named one of the top 10 coaches of all time by the panel that selected the best 100 players and best 10 coaches in NFL history in this, the 100th year of pro football, in the NFL Network show Friday night revealing the top running backs and coaches in NFL history.
“It wasn’t our best game. By far, it wasn’t their best game. Quite honestly, it wasn’t New York’s best game.”
—New Orleans coach Sean Payton, after the 34-31 win over Carolina gave the Saints a four-game lead over the Panthers in the NFC South—but still upset about a replay review that the league’s New York officiating center called pass interference on the Saints late in the fourth quarter.
“We looked at it and found no such evidence.”
—NFL vice president of communications Brian McCarthy, to Cleveland.com, on Myles Garrett’s claim that Pittsburgh quarterback Mason Rudolph used a racial slur against him before Garrett attacked Rudolph with his own helmet 11 days ago.
“I just saw Bob Seger at Madison Square Garden. I’m going to see Elton John in Boston. Looks like they’re having such a good time out there on their farewell tours. This is kind of Tommy and me doing our last tour too.”
—Chris Berman, to me, on reprising his NFL highlights show on ESPN+ with Tom Jackson this fall.
Julie Ertz • U.S. Women’s National Team midfielder • Photographed in Philadelphia
Ertz, married to Eagles tight end Zach Ertz, on what she’s learned from watching her husband prepare for football games:
“I would say how important it is to pay attention to detail. If somebody is in the wrong spot the whole play is kind of messed up. It just allows me to stay more aware where I am on the field … Also, obviously Zach is watching film all the time and they’re saying, Oh, cut one more yard off your route here. His awareness how to be that much better leads me to, ‘Well, if I was in this position I can help my team this much more. Obviously the sports are different but at the same thing I have been able to learn kind of how he looks at the game and how I can implement that in mine. I’ve definitely watched more film starting in Zach’s rookie year. That’s when I was a few years into the national team and trying to break in … and noticing how much he was doing it and how much it helped him. I wanted to do that. The second I started to do that it totally changed my view of my game in the sense of being able to see plays in a faster moment, which allowed me to play faster, which allowed me to get my team the ball in a better position on the field.
“The thing with film is it doesn’t lie. When I watch it I can see which pockets are available, which space I can take. You can almost do it without having to overthink. You can just naturally do it because you studied it and understand it. And the more prepared we feel the more confident we are. That is how I feel every time I step on the field.
My conversation with Zach and Julie Ertz can be heard in full on “The Peter King Podcast,” which drops on Tuesday, a day earlier than so that you can listen in transit to/from your Thanksgiving holiday. We taped this special Thanksgiving podcast two weeks ago at the Ertz home in Philadelphia. When we were finished and chatting, I asked Julie Ertz if she’d ever gotten a red card in a game. She hadn’t. “Show him that play on your phone,” Zach told his wife, and she pulled out her phone to show me a play from this year’s World Cup that should have been carded but was apparently unseen by the officials. An opponent, with the play headed in the opposite direction, jogged toward Julie Ertz and shoved her down from behind. No call.
“What’d you do to her? How’d you get back at her?” I said.
“I didn’t do anything,” she said.
“Nothing? Why?” I said.
She paused for a couple of seconds. She looked at me. It was a cold look. She said: “I just win.”
Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta of ESPN.com reported that the cost overruns at the new Rams-Chargers stadium and property in Los Angeles now exceed $3.1 billion. Imagine: SoFi Stadium and the adjoining development was projected to cost $1.86 billion in 2015 and later revised by the Rams to $2.4 billion. The cost now: an estimated $5 billion. And, of course, there could be cost overruns on the cost overruns: Per Wickersham/Van Natta, the parent company of the project, StadCo, calls it “our $6 billion stadium” when speaking to owners and NFL execs.
Here is one way to look at the stunning insanity of that:
• To build AT&T Stadium (Cowboys, in Arlington, Texas), Lucas Oil Stadium (Colts, in Indianapolis) and Lincoln Financial Field (Eagles, in Philadelphia) cost a total of $2.832 billion, total. Which means the cost overruns at the new L.A. stadium will end up being more than it cost to build the shiny and still near-state-of-the-art football stadiums housing the Cowboys, Colts and Eagles.
Midfielder Julie Ertz, featured in “The Profile” this week, played every minute of all 13 United States World Cup games in 2015 and 2019.
It cost Mason Rudolph $11,279 to play the game against Cleveland in Week 11. Do the math: He makes $658,267 this season, which comes out to $38,721 per week for 17 weeks of the season. He was fined $50,000 for his part in the brawl in Cleveland.
From a weekend trip to San Francisco, where my wife and I babysat King Freddy and Queen Hazel, the grandchildren:
• Delta agent, checking us in for our flight at JFK on Thursday, checked in an emotional support Terrier right before us. Cute dog. I asked the agent: What’s the most unusual pet you’ve ever checked in? She said it was a bird. A large bird. This bird was an emotional support animal for a handicapped child in a wheelchair. And she said when she was finished checking in the family and the bird, the bird’s owners said it had to go to the bathroom; was there an open garbage can nearby? There was, and the bird propped itself on the edge of the can using its talons and proceeded to do its business directly and neatly into the can. The family took the bird off the can and put it back in its cage. Off to the security line.
• We took Freddy and Hazel to Target on Saturday. Target is currently the target of Freddy’s obsession. He could spend all day in there, wandering around, staring at the toothpastes, the TVs, the array of Thomas The Tank Engine things, the checkout counters. On this trip, for the price of $5.95, we picked up the Edward engine; he’s one of Thomas’ friends. Freddy, almost 3, wouldn’t let it go till we could get it out of the little box back home, even transferring it from hand to hand as I buckled him into his car seat. As we drove out of the parking lot, he said these words: “Goodbye Target. I love you. Goodbye Target. I love you.”
During pro football’s 100th season, I’ll re-visit important games, plays, players and events from NFL history.
2000: The first completion of Tom Brady’s life, 19 years ago this week.
On Thanksgiving Day 2000, with 4:13 left in the fourth quarter, Detroit led New England 34-9. Drew Bledsoe had just thrown a pick-six. Ballgame over. Most of the 77,923 in the old Silverdome headed to the exits, if they already weren’t in cars headed home.
(Gary Moeller 34, Bill Belichick 9, by the way.)
On the verge of being 3-9, the Patriots yanked franchise QB Bledsoe and sent in a skinny sixth-round rookie for his first NFL snaps, playing out the string in a nothing game. Tom Brady was the fourth quarterback used by Belichick that season, following Bledsoe, Michael Bishop and John Friesz; the coach was just trying to see who he had for the future.
“All I remember,” said New England’s second-year center, Damien Woody, “is we’re getting our teeth kicked in at the Silverdome. Lotta fights in the stands that day. Very rowdy.”
Brady’s first pass: off the hands of running back J.R. Redmond; incomplete. Second pass: an out route to the right, incomplete for the late Terry Glenn. Third pass: a completion to Redmond, negated by a Patriot penalty.
Brady’s third official pass: complete to tight end Rod Rutledge in the right flat for six yards. That was the lone completion of Brady’s rookie season.
“I get this question all time,” Rutledge said the other day. “ ‘What do you remember about the play?’ My answer is always the same: Not very much. The moment was insignificant. Nothing to look at. I remember Tom being calm and cool in the huddle, but it was just a regular football play. I caught it, and onto the next play.”
The next season, Brady’s determination and work ethic kept catching Belichick’s eyes, and he earned the backup job to Bledsoe. “Bill was purging the roster, and adding guys, and Tom kept leapfrogging guys,” Woody said. “He leapfrogged Friesz, and Bishop. He was just methodical. Every day he kept playing and doing things right.”
My call to Rutledge was only the 4,000th reminder about this one moment that seemed so insignificant at the time, in one game that was a lost cause, in one season that was a trial for the future.
“People see on my Wikipedia page I caught the first completion of Tom’s career,” Rutledge said from Alabama, where he is in real estate. “So it’s a conversation-starter. Then they’ll say, ‘Do you still have the ball? Did you keep the ball?’ Did I keep the ball? Are you kidding? It was just a play.”
Normally in this space, with the aid of PFF research, I take a big call in a game from the weekend and explain the whys, and whether it made sense from an analytical view. This week, I asked PFF’s George Chahrouri to figure out the rise in teams going for it on fourth down in manageable situations during games.
Maybe it’s having the unpredictable Lamar Jackson at quarterback now, and maybe it’s seeing Doug Pederson up the road in Philadelphia be bold on fourth down, and maybe it’s the rise in influence in his analytics aides. But John Harbaugh is getting significantly bolder in his old age. In Harbaugh’s first four seasons as coach of the Ravens, his teams went for it on fourth down 48 times (regular and post-season) in 57 games. Since the start of last season, he’s gone for it on fourth down 38 times in 27 games. “The analytics guys will tell you I don’t follow the analytics nearly enough,” Harbaugh said earlier this year. But it’s surely much more than before.
• Going for it on fourth down in his first four years: 0.84 times per game.
• Going for it on fourth down in his last two years: 1.41 time per game.
That’s all fourth downs, not fourth-and-manageable. PFF broke it down further. In an email, Chahrouri wrote: “No team has increased its chances of winning on fourth-down decisions as much as the Ravens have this season. But the Ravens are not the only team going for it on fourth-and-short at a higher rate than ever before. When Pederson and the Eagles leveraged two huge fourth-and-one conversions to win the Super Bowl with a backup quarterback two seasons ago, they set off an alarm to the entire league: Stop making the opposing team happy by sending out your kickers and punters. Limiting our sample to situations where the score is within 14 points, in the first three quarters and the ball is not inside the offense’s own 30 yard-line the go-for-it rate on fourth-and-two or less is 48.8 percent, the highest since we began measuring NFL data in 2006.”
Look at the rise in coaches going for it on fourth-and-two or less, in a two-score game, in the first three quarters, in this decade:
2011: 27.2 percent.
Fairly amazing. NFL teams were going for it on fourth-and-short a quarter of the time early in this decade. Now they’re going for it almost half the time.
Robinson covers the NFL for Yahoo Sports.
Darlington is an ESPN reporter who covered Dallas-New England on Sunday evening.
Brian Klaas is a London-based Washington Post reporter
Mike Tannenbaum of ESPN is a former NFL general manager.
Lots of comments in the past week about the Colin Kaepernick workout, and the alleged fix-was-in waiver from the NFL, and me writing how hard it is to understand why Kaepernick didn’t do the workout at which 20 or so NFL teams would have been present. The vast majority of you disagreed with my opinion.
Disappointed with me on Kaepernick. From Antonin Tokatlian, of France: “About the workout, you barely mention how it is clearly a trap by the NFL, how the whole organization is fishy with a workout on a Saturday with only low-level scouts and very specific settings and how that league has been unfair to him for years. Most of the information going out of this workout shows how the NFL set him up to fail. I’ll always keep reading you, but I am really disappointed.”
Thanks for writing, Antonin. My answer is going to be a bit long, but I figured I would cover all things Kaepernick in this space this week. I disagree with you that the workout was clearly a trap. Why, on the day after the game of the year in the NFL (Seattle over San Francisco in overtime) and after the best football weekend of the season (Falcons shocking Saints, Titans stunning Chiefs, Lamar Jackson with the run of the year at Cincinnati, Minnesota over Dallas in a Sunday-night doozy) would NFL execs divert attention from the game on the field to a player who’d been a huge headache for them—and who no one in the football world had been discussing all season? I believe the story of Jay-Z influencing Roger Goodell to give Kaepernick a league-organized workout, and I believe Goodell thought Kaepernick not being in the league was a very bad look for the NFL. No one could feel good about how he’d been blackballed for the past three seasons.
I find fault with both sides here. The NFL is supposed to have smart lawyers. Why in the world were they, and league execs, in such a rush to schedule and announce this workout? They had to know the Kaepernick side had less than zero trust in anything the NFL does or says. This should never have been announced until everything was agreed and signed—who could videotape the workout, what exactly the workout waiver said, who would run the workout, who could attend … everything. That way, each side could feel fine going into the workout. I also think it’s folly to think that whenever the workout would have been scheduled during the season that any head coaches and many GMs would fly somewhere to attend a throwing session for a backup quarterback. The best time for the workout would have been in Florida the day before the league meetings begin next March. I also think the Kaepernick side, in delaying its rejection till hours before the workout, sent away many of the teams that would have attended angry. How does that improve his chances of getting some team to bite on bringing him to camp for the last month of this season or training camp next year?
She’s onto something. From Ashlee Yuille, of Portland, Ore.: “One more example of a story that will not receive near the media attention as a man being almost assaulted.”
Ms. Yuille wrote last week, after the Myles Garrett helmet attack on Mason Rudolph: “When a domestic violence incident occurs and a player assaults a woman, there is never this amount of collective outrage. It’s crickets.” The last few days of coverage prove she’s right. Mark Walton, a Monday night stalwart less than a month earlier for Miami, is accused of punching the pregnant mother of his child, and it’s a blip on the football radar, a paragraph in that day’s NFL roundup. Good for her, pointing this out.
You’re absolutely right. From Marc Falk, of Iowa City, Iowa: “Long-time reader, and generally love the column. I’m writing to encourage you to retire the phrase ‘got stones,’ as used in your column last week about the Ravens: ‘But I’ll give you two other reasons. One: They’re smart on draft day. Two: They’ve got stones on draft day.’ As the father of a daughter, like yourself (twice!), I don’t see why the idea of ‘bravery’ or ‘risk-taking’ or ‘rolling the dice and taking a bold chance’ should be gendered. Our daughters are bold, take chances, and do brave and risky things, and it’s got nothing to do with having ‘stones.’ It may seem like a small thing, but the words we choose, the way we use them, and the messages they send, are important.”
Marc, you’re spot on. It’s not needed, and I appreciate you calling me on it. I’ll definitely retire it. And if for some reason I forget down the road, please call me on it.
Hello, Newman. From Dave Hinton, of Rantoul, Ill.: “What is the origin of ‘Newman!’ in your column?
Hi Dave. Ever watch Seinfeld? There’s a character in there, Newman, who is a letter-carrier of ill repute. Since I’m a Seinfeldaholic, it seemed appropriate to name the email portion of my column after the portly postman.
1. I think these men are coaching for their jobs in the last five weeks of the season (not including Bill Callahan, who has less of a chance to coach Washington than I have of succeeding Bruce Allen):
• Dan Quinn, Atlanta. Well, no kidding. Falcons are 1-4 at home, including some terrible losses—such as Sunday’s no-show against Tampa Bay. Talent like theirs cannot go 3-8.
• Jason Garrett, Dallas. Jerry Jones truly does not want to fire Garrett. He loves him. But the sound of his voice after a listless loss in Foxboro on Sunday evening tells me the Cowboys had better get very hot very fast or Jones will be putting out feelers to Lincoln Riley and who knows who else in five or six weeks.
• Doug Marrone, Jacksonville. Shad Khan’s not giving Marrone a mulligan this season after giving him one last year. Since losing a heartbreaker to the Patriots in the 2017 AFC title game, the Jags have played 27 games. They’ve lost two-thirds of them. Going 9-18 with a good team for a veteran coach with no titles to his name is not good.
• Ron Rivera, Carolina. Not saying this should happen, because Rivera’s a good coach and he’s had to play with a backup QB after the stunning loss of Cam Newton. But David Tepper, the new owner, is an impatient man, and you got the impression he was thinking of making a move last January but held off. The Panthers finish with the Seahawks, Colts and Saints, and it won’t be easy for Rivera to end strong.
2. I think there are a few others whose seats are a little less hot, but also worth mentioning. They are:
• Pat Shurmur, N.Y. Giants. He probably returns, but John Mara’s angry at the development of his team, and New York has lost seven in a row. Merits watching.
• Freddie Kitchens, Cleveland. He isn’t totally in the clear. To ensure he returns, Browns will have to be more disciplined and win more games down the stretch.
• Zac Taylor, Cincinnati. It’s not like Cincinnati owner Mike Brown to be impatient—he did allow Dave Shula to coach his team for 4.5 years—but we’ll see if Taylor goes 0-16.
• Matt Patricia, Detroit. Normally I’d say no way, and I really doubt the Lions will act here. But he just lost to the worst team in NFC on Sunday, and he’s 1-7 in the last two months. And the great Matt Patricia defense? Lions have given up 28.8 points a game in the last eight games.
3. I think, speaking of Detroit, someday I’d like to figure out why they traded one of the game’s most underrated players, safety Quandre Diggs, to Seattle for a fifth-round pick last month. Bizarre trade then, and now. “He helps other players,” Pete Carroll said Sunday after Diggs played a big role in the Seattle win at Philadelphia. “Guys around him play better.”
4. I think these two things, in modern football, cannot be overplayed:
• Bill Belichick has had two 21-game win streaks in New England
• The Patriots, on Sunday, ensured their 17th straight season of at least 10 wins.
I don’t care if you’re playing with Joe Montana at quarterback, with Bill Walsh the offensive coordinator and Belichick coaching the D, and all-pros at the two tackle spots and two cornerback spots—I never see anyone equaling these incredible feats.
5. I think you could give coach of the year to any of a slew of coaches this year, but let me say a few things about Mike Tomlin, the coach of the Steelers, and what his team did in beating a division rival Sunday (and I will agree that the Bengals are awful):
• Pittsburgh hasn’t scored 30 points all year, is playing without the three biggest offensive weapons Tomlins has had (Roethlisberger, Brown and Bell), and is 6-5.
• The Steelers won a division game Sunday by starting an undrafted center (B.J. Finney), an undrafted wideout (Johnny Holton), a third-string running back (Benny Snell Jr.), and they won with an undrafted rookie quarterback (Devlin Hodges).
• They won without a very good back (James Conner) and franchise receiver (JuJu Smith-Schuster), both hurt, and with another good receiver (Diontae Johnson) not a major factor coming off a concussion.
I mean, no one’s worried about the Steelers making a January run. But sometimes the best coaching jobs happen on teams that should be 3-13 and end up 9-7. That’s might be the story of the 2019 Steelers.
6. I think that Hodges should be the Pittsburgh quarterback going forward. Pittsburgh’s got some games coming up that will be competitive (Cleveland, Arizona, the Jets), and no one who’s watched the Steelers in the past month would tell you Mason Rudolph gives them a better chance to win than Hodges.
7. I think the one thing I learned Sunday night is Deebo Samuel going 36th in the draft will turn out to be the best value pick in the 2019 second round. And when Jalen Hurd is healthy next year, the Niners will have a couple of cornerstone receivers for the future. They won’t need to spend a dime in free agency on the receiver position.
8. I think the best thing I’ve seen a football team do recently to reach into a weeping community and help, truly help, came when the Eagles invited the two teams whose high school football game was interrupted by a fatal shooting to finish the game at Lincoln Financial Field. Read this. And watch the embedded videos. It’s powerful.
We’re asking kids to endure shootings at schools across the country, and we’re asking them to keep going to school and keep doing their extracurriculars even though the adult society is doing absolutely nothing about these shootings. And then two high school football teams have it happen in the middle of a playoff game, and a child hit by a stray bullet dies, and these kids are supposed to go on like nothing happened. The Eagles stepped in and volunteered to host the rest of the game, and the two schools agreed, and it happened the other day at the Linc.
But this happened too: Doug Pederson led his players to the stadium after practice, and the kids lined up, and Eagle after Eagle walked down the line of players, hugging and hand-slapping and supporting. Just a wonderful thing. Kudos to the Eagles, from top to bottom of the organization, for giving some grieving and emotionally wounded high school kids a memory they’ll have forever.
9. I think Dwayne Haskins, after he missed the last play of his first NFL win, should do much more than say, “I thought the game was over with, but I’ll get it next time.” Dude. The correct response would have been: “I’m embarrassed, totally embarrassed, that I did something that unprofessional at the end of the game. I apologize to our ownership and our fans, and I’m going to apologize to my coaches and teammates, and I can promise you that nothing like this will ever happen again.” You’ve got 60 minutes, once a week, to concentrate on the game making you a millionaire. Take it a little more seriously, please.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Herman Edwards. What a win. I wonder what he’d consider a bigger victory for him personally: the Miracle at the Meadowlands 41 years ago as a player, shocking the Chargers in the playoffs, in San Diego, as Jets coach in 2004, or, as the man trying to rebuild a dormant college program at Arizona State, beating Oregon as a 14-point home dog Saturday.
b. Sports Story of the Week: A gem from Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com, on how Jeff David, a mid-level Sacramento Kings exec, stole $13-million from the team, and very nearly got away with it. Wrote Arnovitz:
“The Kings had given David an autonomy he could exploit. He had launched the first in a series of grifts that would grow from thousands to millions of dollars. It was audacious and, in David’s mind, airtight. And in more than two dozen interviews, colleagues, friends, neighbors, family, law enforcement and Sacramento businesspeople could offer no explanation as to why he did it. When asked for the motivation behind the theft, David, years later, gives no unified theory. ‘Curiosity? Stupidity?’ “
c. Kaepernick Story of the Week: Adam Kilgore and Mark Maske of the Washington Post, with some good reporting on the Colin Kaepernick affair.
d. Football Story of the Week: Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta on the Rams-Chargers relationship as they both try to make inroads in Los Angeles. The story paints a picture of infighting and disharmony between the two organizations—which has been an open secret in the NFL for the past couple of years.
e. It also paints the Chargers as still struggling mightily to gain a foothold in the L.A. market. Wickersham and Van Natta write:
“On Jan. 18, 2017, the Chargers held a fan rally at the Forum in Inglewood to officially announce the move to L.A. Only a small section of the arena was open, and it was nowhere close to full. On a huge screen, Chargers highlights played, accompanied by the soundtrack from ‘Top Gun,’ which was set in San Diego. Superstar quarterback Philip Rivers looked dour on stage, like a child who had been dragged to a party by his parents, and would later proudly refuse to move his family to L.A. Twice, Goodell praised Kroenke, who was not in attendance, and his vision for the palatial new stadium before mentioning Spanos, who was seated nearest to the commissioner. When it was Spanos’ turn to speak, he surveyed the scarce and scattered Chargers fans. ‘This is surreal!’ he said. A group of fans flipped him off.”
f. PBS, on the insidious dangers of youth vaping, including three times as many middle-school students vaping as two years ago. Horrifying.
g. And another one from PBS (great show on Friday), on the unlikely partnership between Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys in the new movie about the life of Mister Rogers, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
h. News Profile of the Week: Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times with a revealing look at Fiona Hill, the president’s lead adviser on Europe and Russia.
i. Read that story, and continue to think of excuses why you think multiple people who have come forward in the impeachment investigation over the last two weeks are lying. The former West Point grad, fifth in his class, is lying, and a Purple Heart recipient is lying and this heroic woman, Fiona Hill, is lying. They’re not liars. They’re true American heroes, lying. Writes Stolberg:
“Dr. Hill, 54, had an unusual path to academia. The daughter of a coal miner and a midwife, she had a hardscrabble childhood in northeast England — a childhood that bred toughness, her friends say. Once, when she was 11, a boy in her class set one of her pigtails on fire while she was taking a test. She put the fire out with her hands, and finished the test.”
j. Loved the protest at the Yale-Harvard game over climate change, and loved the backing from the Harvard captain, Wesley Ogsbury, who came out in vocal support of the demonstration that delayed the second half of the game by an hour.
k. Coffeenerdness: Always good to get to California and re-fall in love with Peet’s. The holiday spice latte is a bit too sugary and clove-y for my taste, though.
l. Beernerdness: Had a Trumer Pils (Trumer Brewery, Berkeley, Calif.) the other night, and it was reminiscent of the German pilsner it tries to be. Hoppy and bitter, with as clean a taste as a pilsner can offer. We’ve gotten so used to beer being all things to all people. This beer’s a great example of the go-to pilsner I got used to drinking years ago.
m. Searching my brain, trying to figure out why, in 2019, there would be a series of racist, anti-Semitic acts on an American college campus, causing Greek life to shutter, and causing fearful and outraged students to shudder. I don’t remember such a sustained series of incidents, say, four years ago, or 14.
Today: Los Angeles. Ravens at Rams tonight in the Coliseum. Lamar Jackson hits Hollywood! Rams fight for their playoff lives! Marcus Peters plots his third pick-six in the last 20 minutes! Kawhi and Paul George and Clayton Kershaw and Cody Bellinger in the house! (Just kidding on the last one—I think.)
Thursday: Arlington, Texas. Just to solidify the belief in western New York that the Buffalo Bills get no respect, they’re the only NFL team this year that was not scheduled for a prime-time game. This is the closest they get—at the Cowboys in their traditional Thanksgiving Day afternoon game. This is the first Thanksgiving game for Buffalo in 25 years. The last one was ignominious. Dave Kreig of the Lions outdueled Jim Kelly in the Pontiac Silverdome in a 35-21 Detroit win.
Friday: Seattle. Happy 31st birthday, Russell Wilson.
Sunday: Pittsburgh. Browns at Steelers, 17 days after the Myles Garrett-Mason Rudolph incident. Should be interesting.
word to describe how Niners
rocked Mister Rodgers.