LEDGEVIEW, Wis. — It would be unfair to say that Mike McCarthy has reinvented himself in the 54 weeks since getting fired by the Green Bay Packers. However, as he prepares for what he hopes will be a second chance to be an NFL coach come January, tinkering is most definitely happening. He works many days in silence on his 20-acre place eight miles from Lambeau Field, with his 2-year-old lab Gus keeping him company in the corner of his office on the second floor of a huge refurbished barn/garage/full-court basketball floor, analyzing NFL trends from 2019 gametape and prepping his detailed plan for the next gig. LESS VOLUME, MORE CREATIVITY is one of the signs at his desk. He’s taken it seriously. When you go 23-23-1 in your last three years with Aaron Rodgers as your quarterback in all but five games, you know you’d better adapt—or you’ll remain an ex-coach.
In the span of three meetings with the 56-year-old McCarthy in the tundra last week, one slide on his deck spoke volumes about where he’s at with the future. It’s his football tech plan.
There’s a flow chart for his proposed 14-person Football Technology Department, including a six-person video unit and an eight-person analytics team. The Chief of Football Technology tops the department, which will run both video and analytics. The top analytics lieutenants will be a Coordinator of Database Management, Coordinator of Football Analytics and Coordinator of Mathematical Innovation. Below them: Football Technology Engineer and two Football Technology Analysts. And finally, a Football Technology Intern. McCarthy spent a day last summer at Pro Football Focus offices in Cincinnati, discovering how much more data is available than he realized. PFF data will be a key component of his analytics tree, as will GPS tracking of players and Next Gen Stats.
The mathematical innovation hire will be crucial. “This guy here has to see the world differently,” McCarthy said, pointing to that job on the flow chart. “He will be very, very important.”
During his Green Bay tenure, McCarthy once asked an analytics candidate for a Packer job to spend a couple of days observing everything they do on the football side of the business. Come up with a few suggestions how we could do things better, McCarthy asked this young math guy from Harvard. He observed a ball-stripping drill, where defenders tomahawked down on the ball, trying to force fumbles. The guy came back a few days later, with math formulas suggesting that it would be more efficient to punch from below the football in the ballcarrier’s arms. McCarthy was convinced. The Packers changed the drill.
I asked McCarthy if he watched “Jeopardy.” He didn’t. I mentioned the summer run of the brilliant James Holzhauer, who obliterated opponents for 32 straight games and won $2.7 million. Holzhauer’s model: be very aggressive, very fast, and always bet big. I met Holzhauer in July and wrote about him, and he had different ideas about football strategy and football betting that I hadn’t heard before. McCarthy knew of him, and when I told him Holzhauer told me last summer he wanted a job in analytics for a baseball or football team, the coach perked up.
“I want to talk to him,” McCarthy said.
The column will be different today, because of my trip to Wisconsin. I’ll cover the events of the weekend in a few moments. But if you can’t wait, scroll down. I hope you don’t, because you’ll learn a few things about McCarthy and his gap year that I found interesting.
In transit with McCarthy on Wednesday evening in Green Bay, we drove past the west side of Lambeau Field on Ridge Road. What a scene. The stadium used to be pretty much a football stadium with office space for the team; to the west, a drab strip mall. Now the stadium is fully modernized, lit up with event space, statues and the bells and whistles of modern stadia. Across the street is the Titletown development, including a state-of-the-art hotel, a tubing and snowboarding hill, skating rink, brew pub and restaurant, with a park and football field. Just off Ron Wolf Way is a planned residential development with homes and condos.
McCarthy coached the team for 13 seasons, longer than any coach in Packers history since Curly Lambeau’s 29-year run ended in 1949. McCarthy was 50 games over .500, and even though it ended poorly, he makes it clear—riding his truck through the streets of Green Bay—he doesn’t want to move on from the memories of football nirvana. Ever.
“Hits you right here,” he said, patting his chest discussing his feelings driving by the old place. “I love the place. I loved every day there. It’ll always be that way for me, and nothing can change it—not even the way it ended. I’m proud of that place. You know what? I had a little bit to do with the expansion of that place. I used to talk about it to our team. We had a stretch of maybe seven, eight years where there was construction every offseason. I used that as a little chip of motivation. ‘You guys are a part of this. We’re making this place better for future generations. Be appreciative for the opportunity to be a part of such a great place, with such great history.’ “
So NFL-odd, when you look at the McCarthy life. You work at a place for 13 years, and basically run the show, and then one night, Dec. 2, 2018, you’re fired, and after the next day, you never step foot in the place again. He and his wife, Jessica, who is from Green Bay, decided to stay here with their school-aged blended family of four kids (McCarthy’s adult daughter from a previous marriage, Alex, lives in Los Angeles). “We never considered leaving,” McCarthy said. “This will always be home base for us.” Never in the past year has he heard anything negative out in public, which has been a boost. Never: Why didn’t you get more than one Super Bowl out of Aaron Rodgers? Did you get stale? So I asked it.
“I think [getting stale] is a convenient criticism,” he said, sitting in his office on a 6-degree Wisconsin afternoon. “I don’t agree with it, but like with anything when you are criticized, you need to shed a light on it and look at it. I think this time with the other coaches has given me that opportunity, and you have to be honest. We got away from motion and shifts and multiple personnel groups that we used in the past, so you look at the why . . . and quite frankly you apply it to the next opportunity.”
So he has worked alone some days, and other days with three other coaches—including former Saints head coach Jim Haslett, who commutes from his home in Cincinnati—who he hopes will be the nucleus of his next coaching staff. Never would McCarthy have said this a year ago, and he’s a little surprised he feels this way now. But he told me in life and in football, he calls this year “a gift.”
“I am so thankful for the time it has given me personally,” McCarthy said. “To be an NFL coach for a long time, just being in the coaching profession, just to have the ability to step away and be a normal father, be a normal husband, that has been incredible. Just the quality moments that we were able to have . . . sitting with my two [elementary-school] daughters by the fireplace for 15 minutes before bed, it’s such a wonderful opportunity. . . . But quite frankly it’s also given me a great opportunity to take a deep dive professionally.”
If I’m an owner or club president the first week of January, my questions will stem from that. McCarthy’s 22 years older than one NFC wunderkind, Sean McVay, and 15 years older than another, Kyle Shanahan. And another bright young mind, 40-year-old Matt LaFleur, has the Packers 11-3 and steaming toward a strong playoff run in his rookie coaching season. McCarthy will need to show he’s going to be better, and more innovative, than he was at the end in Green Bay.
Drinking his morning health-boost celery juice Thursday, he thought, It’s time, it’s exciting, and I’m ready.
Regarding the new . . . let’s start with the center snap.
Last year, the Packers played shotgun on 72.2 percent of their offensive snaps, seventh in the league. It fit Aaron Rodgers early, because he hurt his knee in Week 1 and wasn’t as mobile as normal. And Rodgers is excellent in shotgun, so it became a matter of course most of the season. But McCarthy would rather the quarterback play under center 50 to 60 percent of the time. Better for play-action, number one. And better for the epidemic of jet motions sweeping the league, he thinks. A little thing? Maybe. But his coaching group studied every offensive snap of the top 10 offenses last year, and they’ve continued dissecting the best teams this year. And they’ve found how the smart offensive teams—the Rams, the Niners, even the Bills—are using varieties of motion speeds, and different snap-points, and frustrating defenses.
“As a play-caller, you’ve got to stress the defense,” McCarthy said, “and one of the things watching all these teams has shown us is how good some teams are at challenging the eye discipline of the defense. Makes ‘em think at the snap of the ball, which is huge. This bullet-motion sweep, this jet motion, at different tempos, different speeds. I just really like what it does to a defense. We call those things ‘nuisances’ for the defense.”
McCarthy will add more than just a play or two of this, he said. “You can take the same exact formation, and a shift and a jet motion will look exactly the same to the defense. Then you figure all the plays you can run off that formation—run strong, run weak, an RPO [run-pass option for the quarterback], a quarterback-keep, and a full fake with a downfield pass. When Frank [Cignetti, his offensive co-designer] and I are designing the offense, we say let’s have five plays, or maybe a six-pack of plays, that fit a distinct shift and motion with different purposes.”
When McCarthy showed me some plays to illustrate what he’d import into his offense, the one I liked most came from the third play of the Cowboys 2019 season. “RPO Dover” is what McCarthy called this. On second-and-eight from the Dallas 40, the Cowboys lined up in a power-run formation and design—seven across the offensive line, Ezekiel Elliott motioning from the left flank into a sidecar to Dak Prescott, with two seeming distractions only, Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup, split wide left. The Giants had a cornerback eight yards off Gallup, outside the numbers, and a safety 10 yards off Cooper, who was inside of Gallup. At the snap, Prescott play-actioned to Elliott, flowing to his right. Nine Giants flowed to that side. Prescott pulled the ball out of Elliott’s gut. Both receivers ran quick in-routes, unchallenged by defenders, and Prescott flipped to Cooper, inside, for one of the easiest nine-yard gains of his life. First down.
McCarthy was visibly excited by the play. “The beauty of it,” he said excitedly, “is you can still run. It’s a clean run. But the free yards on the pass . . . that is such a smart design.”
If McCarthy gets a job, expect to see that play, and lots of different motion concepts, in 2020.
He’d also stress the two-minute offense (along with a defense more skilled in defending the two-minute offense) from the first day of mini-camp. “So many advantages to playing fast,” he said.
He is not forceful about the kind of organization he’d like to have, and whether he’d get to import a GM with him or work with an existing one. “It’s about the right fit,” he said. One thing we discussed that’s fascinating to me: the concept of a “futures” coaches, or a research coach on each side of the ball. For the last few years, some colleges have hired coaches between jobs to be “coaching analysts,” coaches who can’t be on the sidelines but can work on projects and future plays and schemes to help the existing staff. Such coaches, McCarthy believes, could do the kinds of projects and research he and his coaches are doing this year. For instance, Alabama’s Nick Saban has had offensive and defensive brains (in 2018, for instance, ex-Tennessee coach Butch Jones for defense, current Carolina running backs coach Jake Peetz on offense) to help the staff stay current.
“If you have an owner who’d allow you to hire a futures coach on both sides of the ball, that could really help,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy will also stress something if/when a team wants to talk: his mechanical work with quarterbacks. He’s got quarterback footwork video of Joe Montana’s drop from his time as an offensive assistant in Kansas City in 1994 . . . all the way up to Rodgers video in Green Bay. In 2006, that Rodgers video shows him rounding out his pass-drop, holding the ball high and looking imprecise. A more recent camp video shows a lean and fit Rodgers confidently and precisely dropping back with good ball placement and perfect steps. “It’s a quarterback business,” McCarthy said, “and the first thing my next quarterback’s going to see are the quarterback tapes.”
McCarthy doesn’t fit the recent mold of young and new and off the Shanahan/McVay tree. But he’s had a year of continuing education to remake the guy fired after a bad end in Green Bay. Will that be enough? One club executive who will probably be in the market for a new coach asked me a lot of questions about McCarthy last Friday. No idea if he’ll ask to interview him. But we’ll know soon enough. The coach-interview season is two weeks away.
Early games Sunday: Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Late games Sunday: HOLY #$%*!
Night game Sunday: Man, you don’t want to draw the Bills in the playoffs.
My take on the news, and the games, of the day:
Cool for the Bills . . . but the division title is pretty unlikely
Buffalo’s four-pick night won the survivalist game in Pittsburgh, 17-10, and clinched a playoff berth. Tre’Davious White, smart and anticipatory and tough, bolstered his all-pro campaign with two more interceptions off Devlin Hodges. The 10-4 Bills play the 11-3 Patriots next Saturday afternoon in Foxboro, but the Bills have to go 2-0 down the stretch and New England 0-2 for Buffalo to win the AFC East for the first time since 1995. (New England has the common-foe tiebreaker by virtue of beating Philly and Cleveland, while Buffalo lost to both.) If the Bills, who clinched a playoff spot Sunday night, make the playoffs as the fifth seed, it’s possible they could have to beat Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes—all on the road—to get to the Super Bowl. Yikes. For a team that hasn’t won a playoff game in this century, that’s a big task.
“Like coach [Sean] McDermott has told us, ‘This team is not connected to the past,’ “ White told me from Pittsburgh post-game. “We’re our own team. We want to write our own story. When we go to New England, it’s a big game, but we’ll do what we’ve done all year. Don’t try to be nobody we’re not. Run to the ball. Be one of 11. Go into the game and just do what we do. It’s been good for us so far.”
The Bills have allowed just 14.3 points per game in their recent 5-2 run, and they showed Sunday night they’re going to be tough for any team to beat. Stout run defense and a heck of a secondary, led by White, will keep them in most games. “The football gods have been blessing me all year,” White told me. “I just try to be the best version of myself every week.”
Very bad loss for the Niners. Or was it?
The San Francisco locker room was disconsolate Sunday, after the weird ending of a 29-22 loss to Atlanta. The Falcons scored two touchdowns in the last three seconds to stun the Niners. So even though San Francisco qualified for the playoffs Sunday night for the first time since 2013 (by virtue of the Rams’ loss at Dallas), the players didn’t feel much like partying. “What? We clinched? That’s weird,” veteran tackle Joe Staley said post-game.
The loss left San Francisco (11-3) as the fifth seed in the NFC tournament, for now, while boosting 11-3 Seattle to number one. But here’s the good news: San Francisco wins the division with a 2-0 finish. Sounds easy enough, till you remember the 49ers play the Rams and Seahawks to end to the season. Week 17 finds Seattle hosting San Francisco. What a schedule the Niners have had this year, and they get tripped up by the flouncy Falcons.
The Patriots saga gets a public vetting
Jay Glazer, who has some friends in very high places, again procured a piece of video we all wanted to see, a piece of the evidence that shows New England operatives taped the Cincinnati sidelines during a game eight days ago, in advance of Sunday’s Patriots-Bengals game. The video didn’t change the story much . . . except it ratcheted up the anger from many team people who are convinced the Patriots are guilty.
One club official asked me Sunday: “The NFL has told us that anyone on our sidelines doing anything illegal or wrong—that falls on the head coach. So why doesn’t this fall on Bill Belichick?” It might, though Mark Maske of the Washington Post reports it seems the league is leaning toward a softer punishment of a stiff fine and also a loss of a lower draft choice or reduction in value of a draft choice. That would seem to say the league believes the Patriots when they say video crew had nothing to do with the football-ops side of the building. We’ll see how that goes.
New England suspended the videographer, Dave Mondillo, a full-time employee of the over-arching Kraft Sports and Entertainment group, but that probably won’t have much meaning in the investigation. At the league meetings last week, I’m told there wasn’t much angst from club officials over the taping, but some sticklers—nothing wrong with sticklers—think the Patriots should get the book thrown at them. It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.
Jameis makes his case
The Bucs are suddenly dangerous. They’ve won five of six, averaging 31 points per game in that impressive run, and no matter who they play at wide receiver, Jameis Winston finds a way to hit them. On Sunday in Detroit, he became the first quarterback ever to throw for more than 450 yards in back-to-back games. The only negative is that Winston leads the league in interceptions (24) as well as passing yards (4,573), and he just doesn’t seem to be able to make those stop.
“The one thing I have to work on is protecting the football,” Winston told me from Detroit after Tampa’s 38-17 rout of the Lions. He’s right. If I’m Bucs GM Jason Licht, I try to do a bridge deal with Winston—maybe two years near the top of the market—while seeing if coaches Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich can coach the giveaways out of him. But I don’t let him go. Would you have let a bombs-away Matthew Stafford or Philip Rivers get away after five seasons? “Of course I want to be in Tampa,” he said. “But we’ve got to finish the season first. Whoever makes that decision, I hope it ends up with me staying.”
The other issue: With the Bucs 7-7 now, they’re unlikely to have a top-10 draft choice, and unlikely to be in position to take a top-three QB in the 2020 draft. It’s all lining up for Winston to enter a sixth year as Tampa quarterback in 2020, and rightfully so.
Burrow gets fitted for stripes
Boomer Esiason handed Heisman winner Joe Burrow a Bengals helmet on the set of the NFL Today on Sunday. In four months Burrow should be getting his real one. Cincinnati (1-13) needs one loss in its final two games—at Miami, Cleveland at home—to clinch the first pick in the April 2020 draft, and a two-game winning streak seems pretty unlikely, even against two squads with a combined 9-19 record. The Bengals have done some strange draft things in the history of the franchise (passing on Steve Young, for instance), but it’s almost impossible to fathom that they’d pass on Burrow or trade the pick.
Memories might be all they’ve got left
Eli Manning went first overall in the 2004 draft. Larry Fitzgerald went third. On Sunday, it seemed like they both were saying goodbye. After the Giants beat Miami with Manning starting for perhaps the last time in his career, he hugged his family on the field as the shutters clicked. When he got the game ball, he turned wistful: “There’s not a better feeling than a win in the locker room on a Sunday, boys.” It’s likely but not certain that Daniel Jones (ankle sprain) will be back under center for the Giants for the last two games if he can play, and Manning may not return to football, or to the Giants, in 2020.
In Arizona, after the Cards’ final home game of the year, Fitzgerald, the greatest Cardinal since the franchise moved west in 1987, said Sunday: “Everybody’s replaceable. There’ll be another number 11 here in a couple months after I leave. He might not be as handsome as I am though.” Fitzgerald’s the second-leading receiver in history (180 receptions behind Jerry Rice) and has insisted to me he won’t hang around for the record. He’s been a good security blanket for Kyler Murray, and his 67 catches this year leads the Cardinals at age 36. I’d guess the Giants will want to move on from Manning unless he’d stay for backup money, but I’m not so sure about Fitzgerald yet. I’ve heard the Cardinals would like him back.
Greg Ward has a day
How great was it to see Greg Ward Jr., the former University of Houston quarterback, catch a brilliant arcing TD pass from Carson Wentz to beat Washington? The amazing thing about the Ward touchdown—his first in the NFL after converting to wideout and nearly three years on the practice squad learning his craft—is it came against a proven vet, Josh Norman. And “they were trying to spring me open,” Ward told me, after Philly expected heavy coverage on Zach Ertz. “Just unreal,” he said from the Eagles locker room. “I’ve been praying on this. It’s taken a ton of work. A ton, in the film room, the weight room. The grind never stops. But my mindset’s been, as long as I get in, I’m not leaving.” He can’t leave now. The Eagles have a division title game next Sunday at home against similarly 7-7 Dallas.
Best of the rest
• The only way Tennessee can win the AFC South is to sweep its final two games (New Orleans, at Houston) while Houston loses to the Bucs and Titans. Not likely.
• Can’t imagine there’d be a better game 256 (the Sunday-nighter in Week 17) than Niners-Seahawks at Century Link if the winner gets a bye in the NFC playoffs and the loser is the fifth or sixth seed. I’d guess the only way that gets trumped is a Tennessee-Houston AFC South Championship Game.
• Ugly end to the Raiders in Oakland, with fans throwing stuff from the black hole and even some booing of the team after the surprising loss to Jacksonville. I’ll say it for the 38th time: It’s a travesty, regardless of the behavior Sunday, that Oakland will not have an NFL franchise anymore, and probably never will again. The passion and the love of team and sport is something exceeded in very few NFL markets.
• Cleveland losing Sunday assured the Browns will finish the last 10 seasons (2010-19) as the only team without a winning record over that span. The beat goes on.
• I keep wondering if Philip Rivers will be the quarterback to usher in the Chargers to their new home in L.A., or if the franchise will rip the bandaid off and start with someone new (Cam Newton? Teddy Bridgewater?), or someone exciting and temporary (Tom Brady?), knowing that whoever it is is going to sell a whole lot of tickets. Either way, it’s really getting ugly for Rivers on the field.
Team of the Week
Newtown High School football team, Newtown, Conn. Seven years to the day after the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown killed 26 elementary-school children and staff, Newtown faced off against Darien High School in the Class LL high school championship game. With 3.6 seconds left in a 7-7 game, and the ball at the Darien 36-yard line, quarterback Jack Street threw deep down the right side to wideout Riley Ward, who scored the walkoff touchdown. And great on NBC for importing the team, coaching staff, cheerleaders and mascot into the NBC Studios for a tribute at halftime of the Sunday night game. “The great thing about football, and sports in general, is moments like this bring people together,” coach Bobby Pattison told Mike Tirico. Tremendous win, and great job by NBC celebrating the moment.
Offensive Players of the Week
Julio Jones, wide receiver, Atlanta. There are impressive stats, and then there is this: Julio Jones, in his first nine years in the NFL (with two games left), just passed Jerry Rice for yards receiving in the first nine years of a career. Jones: 11,881 yards; Rice: 11,776 yards. Now that’s pretty cool. That came in a 13-catch, 134-yard, two-TD afternoon in Santa Clara, in the Falcons’ huge upset of the Niners. It was Jones’ catch and piercing of the goal line with two seconds left to play that handed Atlanta the shocking result—after a replay review that got it right.
Kenyan Drake, running back, Arizona. Coach Kliff Kingsbury was supposed to have an explosive passing game, right? But it’s the running game that’s actually been better in 2019, averaging near the top of the NFL all season, currently with a 4.9-yard average per rush. Drake had the game of his dreams Sunday in the Cards’ victory over Cleveland that broke a six-game losing streak. He scored rushing touchdowns in each quarter (on runs of 5, 1, 1 and 17 yards), while rushing 22 times for 137 yards. He seemed almost embarrassed by it, which is his M.O. Total team guy, and has a future in the desert after his midseason acquisition from Miami.
Jameis Winston, quarterback, Tampa Bay. Still takes too many chances, but he’s so productive, and with so many different receivers. Winston became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for more than 450 yards in consecutive weeks (456 last week against Indy, 458 Sunday against the Lions) as the Bucs extended their competency streak to five wins in the last six weeks. Four Winston touchdown passes and only one pick helped in Detroit.
Malcolm Perry, quarterback, Navy. Navy football is so cool. In the 31-7 rout of Army on Saturday, the Midshipmen ran the ball 55 times and threw it once. That’s right. 1932 football works. And in the biggest game of his life, Perry, a senior, ran 29 times for 304 yards, including a 55-yard touchdown run early that set the tone for the kind of game this would be. “This was the biggest game I’ve played in my life,” said Perry. It showed.
Defensive Players of the Week
Tre’Davious White, cornerback, Buffalo. The Bills had four picks Sunday night in their first prime-time win in forever, and two came from the instinctive rising star third-year corner from LSU. As Cris Collinsworth said throughout the telecast, White is an emerging superstar who’s playing a vital role—that of shutdown corner—for a team that will likely have to beat Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes (and maybe Tom Brady) to reach the promised land this year.
Yannick Ngakoue, defensive end, Jacksonville. His two sacks for 15 yards in losses were big factors in the 20-16 defeat of the Raiders in the last game in Oakland. But just as big was his constant presence in the Oakland backfield, with three significant pressures and a batted pass. Derek Carr was under pressure much of the day, and it was a big part of the Jaguars’ first win in seven weeks.
Special Teams Players of the Week
Colby Wadman, punter, Denver. Hard to be a player of the week in a 20-point loss, but a punter punting in the snow and wind who has a superb day . . . well, he’s not doing a lot of defending or scoring, so let’s tell his story from the 23-3 loss to Kansas City. Wadman punted four times for a 43.3-yard average in a field-position game—and his four punts made the Chiefs start drives at their own 16, 16, 25 and 16-yard line. A superb job on a tough day to punt by a kid born in Bangor, Maine.
Angelo Blackson, defensive end, Houston. In a game that tilted the AFC South to his Texans, Blackson, fighting to break through the Titans’ field-goal team, kept the game scoreless in the first quarter by blocking a Tennessee field-goal try. Houston won by three . . . so Blackson made a pretty huge play.
Coach of the Week
Doug Pederson, head coach, Philadelphia. Playing with a crew dominated by backups, the Eagles’ offense, sputtering for much of the year, scored 60 points in its last 86 minutes between the Monday night comeback over the Giants and the Sunday beatdown of Washington on the road. Philly scored the last 20 points in a 23-17 overtime win over the Giants, then put up 37 in the win at Eagle-crazy FedEx. Pederson and offensive coordinator Mike Groh deserve credit for getting a bunch of green Eagles to play big in playoff-type games in December.
Goat of the Week
Jordan Berry, punter, Pittsburgh. Berry’s an Aussie, but I would assume he knows the definition of a “field-position football game.” His 22-yard floater gave the ball to Buffalo at the Pittsburgh 40 in a scoreless first quarter, and the Bills responded with a short-field touchdown to start the scoring. Buffalo won by seven, so that was a bad time for a lousy punt.
“Coming from southeast Ohio, it’s a very impoverished area. The poverty rate is almost two times the national average. There’s so many people there that don’t have a lot. I’m up here for all those kids in Athens and Athens County that go home—not a lot of food on the table, hungry after school. You guys can be up here too.”
—LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, accepting the 2019 Heisman Trophy, in one of the most stirring and selfless and aware speeches a Heisman winner has ever given.
“I was under contract in Miami. And they were talking like, ‘Hey, we’re gonna move you.’ But that was all I knew. … Free agency had opened up. I wanted to have a starting opportunity. And those spots really kinda filled up quickly. I get the call I’m getting traded to the Titans … for a backup role. So it was a tough pill to swallow. To take, not a lateral step, but really a step back, it was hard.”
—Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill, in a remarkably candid interview with ESPN’s Jeff Darlington that aired Sunday.
“He has worked aggressively with the Humane Society and other institutions to deal with animal rights and to make sure people don’t make the same mistake he made. I admire that. I know that there are people out there that will never forgive him. He knows that. I think this is a young man that has really taken his life in a positive direction and we support that. I don’t anticipate any change, no.”
—NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, on the protests in some quarters of the NFL’s decision to make Michael Vick a team captain at the Pro Bowl this season. Vick served 17 months in federal prison and went bankrupt due to dog-fighting and animal-abuse convictions 12 years ago.
“I barely go on social media anymore. Just anywhere I go, it’s like fantasy has blown up. Everyone knows it’s all about fantasy now. And it’s taking a toll on everyone.”
—Arizona running back David Johnson, on fantasy football.
Hard to argue with Johnson, who’s got to be a target for every fantasy-football player who has drafted him in the last two years.
“Hey, your steaks don’t look too good right now. Worry about your frickin’ meat.”
—Saints coach Sean Payton on WWL radio, describing his comments (in jest, he said) to a butcher at Whole Foods in New Orleans while he shopped for his dinner last week. The butcher wondered why Payton went for two after a late touchdown against the 49ers.
Tony Dungy • NBC NFL analyst • Photographed in Stamford, Conn.
Dungy, 64, has now been on NBC’s Football Night in America for almost as many years (11) as he was an NFL head coach (13). On missing his old life, embracing his new one, and whether anything would make him go back to coaching:
“No, no, no, no! The closest I came was a few years back. [Detroit GM] Martin Mayhew was asking about Jim Caldwell for their coaching opening. We talked, and he said, ‘I know you’re from here, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you if there was any interest.’ I said Martin, if my dad was still alive—the biggest Lions fan in the world, I grew up in that area—it would’ve been a thrill to coach the Lions. You know, maybe at another time I’d have been ready to do it. But that was the closest I got to even thinking about it. That was only a 30-second thought.
“Life is good for me. It’s different in that during the week, I have a lot of freedom. I can make choices as to what to do. I’m still involved with football. The weekends are pretty much the same as they’ve always been—all football. I just have so much more flexibility during the week, during the offseason, to do things with the family, go around the country and see things. I miss the game. I miss the sidelines. I miss those relationships. But I wouldn’t change this part for anything. I’m really enjoying the flexibility of just being a normal human again. You know, I don’t miss Sunday at 1 o’clock so much because I still get the thrill of watching the games, and seeing what’s going on, and putting myself in the moment when we’re watching those games. What I do miss is during the week, when you were planning and strategizing and saying, How can we do this? How can we get a little edge here? How can we win this game? What’s the formula this week? What are the players like? I miss that Tuesday to Saturday preparation. But on Sunday, it’s pretty much the same thing—watching the game, trying to put yourself in the moment, trying to figure out why teams win and lose.”
I’m not sure anyone realizes what an impressive mark Seattle set Sunday in Charlotte. The Seahawks beat the Panthers, 30-24. The game was Seattle’s fifth this year in the Eastern Time Zone. Not only did the Seahawks go 5-0 in those games, but every one of them was played at 10 a.m. Pacific Time on the players’ body clocks.
Margins of victory in the 5-0 run in mid-morning games: 2, 4, 7, 8 and 6 points.
Drafted in the second and third rounds by the Rams in 2012, Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson developed into a strong cornerback tandem in St. Louis. Jenkins signed a rich free-agent deal with the Giants in 2016, and Johnson followed to the Jets with a big contract in 2018.
Johnson has been an utter failure for the Jets and is finishing his second (and likely last) season with the Jets on IR. In four inconsistent seasons with the Giants, Jenkins, cut after calling a Twitter critic a “retard” last week, played to a top level only once, making the Pro Bowl in 2016.
The fallout shows why so many teams stay out of the over-payment pool early in free agency.
Total compensation paid Jenkins and Johnson by Giants/Jets: $85.25 million.
Combined seasons as Giants/Jet: 6 (Jenkins four, Johnson two).
Team record while employed by Giants/Jets: 30-62 (Jenkins 21-41 with Giants, Johnson 9-21 with Jets).
Playoff wins by Giants/Jets since signing Jenkins/Johnson: 0.
Average PFF rankings among cornerbacks while with the Giants and Jets: Jenkins 44th, Johnson 62nd.
Practices skipped to celebrate a birthday: 1. Jenkins didn’t show up on his birthday in 2017, preferring to celebrate it by not going to work.
Regular-season appearances on “Sunday Night Football,” prior to last night, in the 13-year history of the NBC series:
Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane, who drafted Kyler Murray ninth overall in the 2018 baseball draft, chose Murray to be his fantasy football quarterback this fall, per Pete Abraham of the Boston Globe.
“I texted him,” Beane told Abraham. “I said, ‘I got you again.’ “
A few notes from a wacky four-day travelogue, prancing across the United States from home in Brooklyn on Wednesday morning, to Green Bay on Wednesday afternoon (to check in on Mike McCarthy) to Los Angeles late Thursday (for a Friday appearance on NFL Network to discuss the NFL 100-year team), to New York City on Saturday morning (redeye from L.A.), to Providence on Saturday (for the annual extended King family Christmas dinner), to New York on Saturday night, back home to monitor Week 15:
• Missed connections. I’ve gotten better at lowering the pissed-off quotient at the weather and the airlines. Swirling snow and de-icing in New York caused me to miss my connection to Green Bay and have to fly to Appleton, Wisc., instead. Three-hour delay. The next day, another tardy landing in Minneapolis after weather-related circling. Three hours late to LAX. Gives me more reason to drive almost everywhere on my training-camp trip. And don’t think summer makes much difference. It doesn’t. Relying on airplanes at any time of year is not prudent.
• Green Bay Thing That Surprised Me: On his 20-acres property in Ledgeview, just outside Green Bay, Mike McCarthy has a full-court basketball court, with an NCAA-approved floor (the UW-Green Bay men’s team has practiced there), that is used for several things, including occasional basketball practices for the teams of his elementary-school daughters. There were two of those after school Wednesday.
• Miscellany: Get the ribeye at Republic Steakhouse, Green Bay. I recommend the peppercorn-encrusted version . . . Lodge Kohler, across the street from Lambeau Field, continues to be the hotel gem of the NFL. When Matt LaFleur was named coach, he stayed at the place for a couple of months before moving his family to the area . . . Something strange about walking on the promenade in Santa Monica 20 hours after being in minus-4 windchill in Green Bay . . . Strongly recommend the fresh pasta at Trattoria Zooma in Providence . . . Planes were not on time for the weekend, but the trains, New York to Providence and back, ran like clockwork Saturday.
During pro football’s 100th season, I’ll re-visit important games, plays, players and events from NFL history.
1969: In his last NFL game, wheezing and coughing, cancer-stricken Brian Piccolo scores a touchdown as Gale Sayers’ backfield partner.
Piccolo was a little-known NFL back from Wake Forest, the backup to Gale Sayers, and wasn’t feeling well in November 1969 when the Bears flew to Atlanta for a playing-out-the-string game against the Falcons, in their fourth year of existence. In a desultory 48-31 loss, Piccolo finished the scoring for the Bears with a one-yard scoring run. That would be the last of his four NFL touchdowns, and the last game of his four-year, 51-game career. “After scoring the touchdown against the Falcons, Brian took himself out of the game, coughing and complaining of chest pain,” Dan Pompei wrote this week in his excellent remembrance of Piccolo for The Athletic. “An X-ray two days later showed a spot on his lung. It was diagnosed as embryonal carcinoma, which usually occurs in the testes. On Nov. 28, a malignant tumor the size of a grapefruit was removed from his breastbone at Sloan Kettering.”
Seven months to the day after that touchdown, Piccolo died in the hospital. He left a wife, three children, and, as Pompei wrote, a legacy that had little to do with football. He was a leader in race-relations at Wake Forest; in 1963, the only black player in the ACC, Maryland’s Darryl Hill, was being taunted in a game at Wake Forest—until Piccolo went to Hill and put his arm around his shoulder. Piccolo encouraged the Bears to assign roommates by position in 1969 to avoid teammates being roomed more conveniently by race. That led to Sayers and Piccolo rooming together and forming an even tighter friendship than they’d already had. Two books were written by the Sayers-Piccolo relationship. Sayers was devastated when Piccolo died.
Piccolo was a beloved teammate and rose to Bears’ captain because of his pluck and honor and because he’d do whatever was asked, whenever. George Halas, his first coach, simply loved him, and when Piccolo died, Halas paid for the funeral, made sure his mortgage was forgiven, and even oversaw his widow’s choice of a new husband three years after Piccolo’s death. James Caan played Piccolo in the inspirational movie “Brian’s Song” about the close relationship between Sayers and Piccolo. Two schools are named after him—including Brian Piccolo Middle School 53 in New York City, which happened after students saw “Brian’s Song” in 1972.
Since his death, millions of dollars have been raised for research into his form of cancer, leading Pompei to write: “Brian did not die in vain. ‘It’s powerful, the number of people who have approached us and said, ‘I’m alive because of your dad.’ If we need a reason for why it happened, that’s it,’ ” daughter Traci said.
Corbett, a veteran NFL writer, after Devlin Hodges threw an end-zone interception to seal Buffalo’s 17-10 win in Pittsburgh.
Steven Jackson is a former NFL running back.
Dave Zangaro covers the Eagles for NBC Sports Philadelphia.
Michael David Smith is the managing editor of Pro Football Talk.
Blackhurst directs films.
A son’s tribute to his father. From Brent Yekisa of Blacklick, Ohio: “My father is the first person in our family to graduate from college. Dad was always proud of his father who had an eighth-grade education, began sweeping floors at General Motors and eventually became the foreman. Fortunately, when my dad nearly flunked out of college, my grandfather was able to get him a summer job that instilled a renewed commitment to focus more on his eventual English degree than becoming the best ping-pong player on campus. As life evolved, I became more and more like my father. He was always an avid reader and eventually we enjoyed reading and discussing John Grisham, Rick Reilly and Peter King articles, and debating the topics of the day. Eventually, I became busier with my family and career while he was starting to near retirement. Our conversations became fewer and farther between and I thought it was simply due to my busy life. With my family, I eventually discovered this year in February that the changes I had experienced in my relationship with dad had nothing to do with his lack of interest or my busy life, but were caused by his aggressive symptoms from Alzheimer’s.
“Throughout my childhood, dad and I played many matches of ping-pong in our basement, participated in countless hours of ping-pong tournaments at Thanksgiving [with family]. While the matches were always great, Dad was the best. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t played regularly in 30 years and that most of these times I was actively playing ping-pong at college. After the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, I tried to find things to do with Dad to make life feel the same. Golf wasn’t as enjoyable because he isn’t as good and seemed frustrated by playing. Discussing the ball games we watched on TV was short and concise because of his inability to communicate effectively. The local mall where my father lives has an area with two ping-pong tables, ping-pong balls and paddles. We’ve played six or seven times, but the tables don’t seem to get a lot of use. This makes spur of the moment matches available to us.
“Dad can’t effectively button shirts, struggles to tie his shoes and can’t shave his face without help. But for whatever reason, he still has the coordination to play ping-pong, maintains a strong back-hand and the focus required to play at a level better than most. Ping pong is the only time when Dad and I feel whole. He can still keep score relatively well, enjoys the time together and his competitive streak still shines through when the score is close. The light in the midst of my darkness and grief is found standing 10 feet apart from my Dad, as he hits backhands and I return forehands. Then I drive him home, shake his hand, tell him “good game” and remind him that I love him.
“Losing to Dad has never felt better. I love it and him more than ever.”
Touching tribute, Brent. Thank you for sharing.
Vick should not be glorified. From Ken Hansberry: “Is it possible that Michael Vick should be respected for his rehabilitation without being honored? The whole situation comes across as fighting for extremes: He’s wonderful versus he’s terrible. Seems the NFL could have found another honorary captain from the literally hundreds of less divisive former Pro Bowl players without this ever having happened.”
Certainly the NFL had a choice. The league chose to allow Vick, 12 years after being imprisoned for dog-fighting, to be one of the captains for this game, which seemed fair to me. Not sure anyone’s calling him wonderful. He’s just like any other former big star trying to make his way in life post-football—except he’s got this terrible asterisk that to some is unforgivable. It’s not unforgivable to me.
He doesn’t like Vick, or me. From Nick Bisanz: “I’d call you amoral but you might like it. Congrats with siding with a sociopath. Torturing animals is not a mistake. It is the sign of an evil narcissistic sociopath.”
My belief is this: If you do wrong, and you’re sentenced to some time, and you serve your time, and you’re released back into society, you deserve to work your way back into the world. That’s how I see it, you don’t, life moves on, and some of us are even respectful about it.
Game: Atlanta at San Francisco, Sunday.
Situation: Fourth-and-one, San Francisco ball at the Atlanta 25-yard line, with 1:53 left in the fourth quarter. Niners 19, Falcons 17.
The decision: Niners coach Kyle Shanahan decided to try a Robbie Gould field goal from 43 yards out rather than try to convert.
The thought process: Asked if he considered going for it on fourth down, Shanahan said: “I didn’t. If it would have been inside one [-yard to convert] . . . From what I saw, I thought it was closer to two. I wanted them to go the length of the field to see if they could get a touchdown.”
The analytics: PFF numbers say the 49ers had a 64.5 percent chance to convert the fourth down by a run play, and 59.5 percent by throwing. Because Atlanta had only one timeout left, it’s highly likely the 49ers would have run out the clock if they’d converted the fourth down. The previous fourth-quarter runs by San Francisco tailbacks had gained 2, 8, 2 and 4 yards, a factor that may haunt Shanahan.
The result: Gould made the 43-yard field goal, giving San Francisco a 22-17 lead with 1:48 to play. (That gave San Francisco a win probability of 84.1 percent.) But the Falcons went 70 yards in 10 plays, winning it on a touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Julio Jones with two seconds left.
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1. I think the true oddity of this football season will go down as the Atlanta Falcons, the most disappointing team of the season, winning at two of the three best teams in the conference, San Francisco and New Orleans.
2. I think the line of the day came from Gardner Minshew, after Jacksonville ruined the final game in Oakland’s NFL history, 20-16. “I probably saw more middle fingers today than I have in my life. It was fun to ruin it for them,” he said.
3. I think we bash the officials about the head quite a bit. But the three mega-issues Sunday, I thought, were adjudicated fairly. The Julio Jones catch at the goal line, ruled shy of the goal line by the officials on the field, was correctly changed to a touchdown. The play preceding that was very close, but the fact that contacting the ground with the ball caused Austin Hooper to slightly lose control of the catch did mean that should have been an incompletion—which is how Al Riveron ruled in New York, changing that call as well.
Now as for the coin flip controversy in Dallas, these are the facts: At some point during the pregame coin flip, Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott said the word “defer,” but then twice he said Dallas wanted to kick off, and ref Walt Anderson said he never heard the word “defer” from Prescott. Thus, Dallas kicked off at the start of the game, and was slated to kick off at the start of the second half because Anderson said he thought Prescott never said “defer” the choice to the start of the second half. (That means the other team can receive at the start of the second half.) FOX audio did have Prescott, in pre-game, saying “defer,” and after it was analyzed at halftime, the New York command center and Anderson changed to Dallas receiving the second-half kickoff. I see no problem with the league getting it right, even if it’s an odd use of officials using replay for resolution of administrative issues.
4. I think I don’t buy coaching votes of confidence for embattled coaches in December. Ever. I don’t know if Freddie Kitchens will return for a second year in Cleveland in 2020, but hearing that the Browns are leaning toward bringing him back and are very confident in sticking with him through this growth process . . . we shall see. Let’s revisit in the first week of January.
5. I think the AFC North is going to be one of the most interesting quarterback divisions of all time in 2020, if things go as they seem. Likely MVP Lamar Jackson (23 on opening day 2020) in Baltimore . . . Baker Mayfield (whoever the coach is), 25, in Cleveland . . . Likely top overall pick Joe Burrow, 23, in Cincinnati . . . And the ancient mariner, Ben Roethlisberger, trying to make a comeback from injury at 38 in Pittsburgh. If he does not, maybe this interesting Duck person, Devlin Hodges (24 in April), wins the Steeler job with a great defense. Imagine if Roethlisberger struggles, or simply doesn’t come back. The quarterbacks in the AFC North next September could be 23, 23, 24 and 25.
6. I think Lamar Jackson’s taking too many hits. He is the brightest light in the 100th season of the NFL, and nothing is even close to his selfless stardom. I do not comment on the number of hits to be a nag or a naysayer, but simply to say if he keeps taking the kind of hit he took Thursday night—a sledgehammer, straight-on slam to the torso from 237-pounds Jets inside linebacker Neville Hewitt—he’s going to have a hard time playing full seasons.
7. I think Antonio Brown slays me. Let’s looks at two social media posts by Brown, six days apart:
• The Oh-I-Am-So-Repentant-in-Something-Someone-Wrote-For-Me Instagram Post. From Dec. 6: “I’d like to apologize to my family, friends and anyone who I offended. I never once meant to make anyone feel like I wasn’t thankful and appreciative of the opportunity that I was afforded to play the game I love. I’ve worked hard over the years to earn a chance to compete in the greatest game on earth. Over the years I was met with challenges and I can honestly say I didn’t handle those challenges in the manner that I should have. Over the past few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to think about everything that’s transpired and I am deeply sorry to all who I’ve offended. While my behavior was inexcusable, sometimes when people are coming at you with false information and allegations, we handle ourselves in ways that we sometimes regret. I do take full responsibility for my actions and I’m working everyday to repair what I broke.”
• The Apparently More Real Post. From Dec. 11: “The owners sent the hit to the media; media carried it out; as The agent and nflpa witness me go down no help no protection full take down on us every time !”
Tell me: Even if Brown got a clean bill of legal health from the league and was allowed to play (Roger Goodell said last week the league’s investigation into Brown was not complete), why oh why would a team sign this incendiary device?
8. I think I did not want the fact that this event happened seven days ago to eliminate me from commenting on it, and what it means in the larger picture. The event, Philadelphia’s overtime victory over the Giants last Monday, sticks in my craw for this reason: The Eagles were playing a heavily backup crew of offensive players (due to injury) on the last play of the game: converted college quarterback Greg Ward Jr., Josh Perkins, Boston Scott, Dallas Goedert—and the only prime weapon in the arsenal of Carson Wentz, tight end Zach Ertz. Ertz came in motion from the right to just outside the right tackle, and at the snap of the ball, turned upfield into the end zone. No one covered him. Wentz lobbed the easiest touchdown he’ll ever throw in his life to the only weapon with any résumé—and it’s a great résumé; Ertz caught more passes in 2018 than any tight end in a single season ever—in the Eagles arsenal.
Okay. It’s one thing for the Giants to say, Our guy missed coverage on the play. Busted coverage. But there is one absolute about this play, and that is that the Giants, from head coach Pat Shurmur to defensive coordinator/play-caller James Bettcher, had to have mandated to the defense that Ertz be doubled. He was not. While Ertz was uncovered, Goedert (career average: 2.6 receptions per game, 26.1 receiving yards per game) had two Giants trailing him, while Ertz (historically, Wentz’s favorite target) had zero. The first question is, How does a mistake that gargantuan happen on the decisive, and last, play of the game? The second: This head coach, and coaching staff, were on thin ice before blowing a 17-3 lead with 20 minutes left—and so how does it survive a ninth straight loss in such a disorganized and undisciplined way? I doubt it does.
9. I think Janoris Jenkins should be ashamed of himself. Three reasons: for calling a fan “a retard,” and for having no idea why people were up in arms about the word, and then for being given the chance to sincerely apologize and not taking it.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. The most 62 thing I can say this week: SantaCon must go.
b. Just another excuse to drink heavily, with one difference: The drinking starts in the morning, and the vomiting on city sidewalks is in full gag by 2 p.m. How noble.
c. Football Story of the Week: A good primer by Ken Belson of the New York Times on the hurdles/issues/atmosphere in the new home of the Raiders, Las Vegas.
d. Raiders Story of the Week: A jilted fan, after the last game in Oakland, sounds off, by Elliott Almond of the Bay Area News Group.
e. “It’s nice to have a new stadium but I love our little craphole here.”
f. People, that just about says it all about the Oakland Raiders and their loyalists.
g. TV Story of the Week: Richard Deitsch of The Athletic spent a weekend with the number one CBS NFL crew, and the result was informative and enlightening, Deitsch at his best.
h. Some golden detail (Jim Nantz asking for change for a $100 bill at a Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru, real nitty-gritty on how good detail work by the crew makes it to air), and this gem from Nantz about the soon-to-be free-agent color guy Tony Romo as the finish their third year as a broadcast team: “If we could get 15 years, that would be a career goal for me. That would cover five or six Super Bowls in that span. I am 60 and Tony is not even 40 yet. He turns 40 in April. He’s like three years younger than Tom Brady! At that point, I would be 75. How I would love to be able to play this out for a generation of games together.”
i. The detail in the Deitsch story reminded me of the detail in NBC Sunday Night Football executive producer Fred Gaudelli’s column in this space last June. The work that goes into a three-hour football telecast is staggering, and so football-nerdy.
j. A pitcher who will be 30 years old on opening day next year just signed a nine-year contract and will make about $1.2 million per start, even if he’s a workhorse. Congrats on a great deal, Gerrit Cole.
k. Baseball does some really dumb contracts, even if they won’t seem dumb for the next four years or so.
l. Love the fact that baseball rosters expand to 28 in September 2020, down from 40. Hooray. No more 18-man pitching staffs.
m. Coffeenerdness: You know you’re a pretty big deal in the community when Caribou Coffee makes a blend for your team and it sells big-time. Look at the Skol Blend. Even got the colors right. Wish I could have had some passing through the MSP Airport the other day, but it wasn’t being brewed at Caribou.
n. Beernerdness: What? Two stouts in a row? That’s right, folks. In Green Bay the other night, I had the Luna Coffee Stout (Hinterland Brewery, Green Bay, Wis.). Pretty sure I’ve documented this stout before, and I had it again because of my fond memories of it. The coffee is notable but not overwhelming. It’s almost got a little bit of a licorice tinge to me, but it’s as smooth as Guinness on tap. Excellent stout.
o. Sympathy to Rich Eisen on the death of his dad on Friday. Joel Eisen was 82. Must have been a good man, because he raised one heck of a son.
Today: New Orleans. Colts-Saints, on the 10th-anniversary weekend of the Saints’ Super Bowl celebration. Is it me, or is there hardly any drama to one of the big records in NFL annals? Entering tonight, this is how the top three in touchdown passes all-time stands: Peyton Manning 539, Tom Brady 538, Drew Brees 537. We’ve gotten inured to passing-game mega-numbers that, even though Brees is likely to break the all-time touchdown-pass record tonight, no one’s talking about it. Also: Do the Colts have a last gasp in them? And do they have it against a rested, mostly healthy Saints team with Brees having just thrown five touchdown passes against the top-rated defense in the league?
Saturday. Happy 50th, Leon Searcy.
Saturday. Glorious Saturday football, with three games (all on NFL Network) that matter at least a little bit.
1 p.m. ET: Houston at Tampa Bay. Texans win the AFC South with a victory, Jameis Winston moves closer to a new contract with a Bucs victory.
4:30 p.m. ET: Buffalo at New England. Buffalo has faint hopes to win the AFC East, but they’ve already clinched a second playoff spot in three years for Sean McDermott’s Bills.
8:15 p.m. ET: L.A. Rams at San Francisco. Herculean for the Rams to sneak in as the sixth seed after the dispiriting loss to Dallas. Niners in driver’s seat for top NFC seed, but that’s likely to come down to Week 17 in Seattle.
Been hard on Eli.
But he is one class person.
Loved that win for him.