Struck by so many things out of game 256, and out of San Francisco-Seattle in general.
I cannot believe how fast things happened down the stretch, how bizarre they were, how officiating played a gigantic role in another mega-game, and how the Seahawks will wonder for years how they messed up this great chance with two accurate fourth-down bullets from Russell Wilson to the goal line and . . .
I hate the cliché, “There’s a lot to unpack.” That’s used in every sports story with some complexity these days. But I am going to make an exception here, because there are seven large suitcases to unpack from this game, as we figure out how San Francisco won the West and the top seed in the NFC and a week off, and Seattle got the five seed . . . and a 2,814-mile reward: a trip to play the quixotic Eagles in a wild-card game in Pennsylvania on Sunday.
What hit me at 2 this morning, digesting this game:
How did Seattle mess up two goal-line snaps with the NFC West on the line? Crazy enough that Russell Wilson hit a player on fourth-and-10 who never caught a pass before (seventh-round rookie John Ursua) to give Seattle first-and-goal from the half-yard line with 30 seconds left. But with San Francisco in scramble mode, Seattle with no timeouts left, and the Seahawks’ best chance to win running a play fast, they had to wait for tackle George Fant to hobble to the line, wasting about eight seconds. Instead of running a real play, Wilson spiked it with 22 seconds left. Then Marshawn Lynch jogged onto the field, the crowd going nuts, thinking, Now Marshawn’s going to get the revenge-chance to run it in from a yard out to win a mega-game for Seattle, to make up for being bypassed in the Super Bowl from the one five years ago. But wait—Seattle couldn’t do this, because if Lynch didn’t make it, they’d be in danger of having to rush to the line to run a final play in panic mode, or spiking it with a few seconds left and run a fourth-down desperation play. Flag. Delay of game. Seattle took too long. Now Lynch, who probably shouldn’t have been on the field to begin with, jogged off, and the ball got moved back to the five-and-a-half-yard line. “Honestly, I was shocked a little bit,” Niners corner Richard Sherman told me after the game. “I’m sure they regret whatever they did.”
Pete Carroll. Marshawn Lynch. Crucial game. Final moments. Another controversy. As with ignoring Lynch as the goal line in the Super Bowl, Seattle will live with regrets over this. “We didn’t get the substitution done properly, and we were late, and there wasn’t enough time to get the play off,” Carroll said of the delay call. But that sounds rational. What was bizarre is that the Seahawks weren’t even close to running a play, and there was no good reason for Lynch to be on the field, unless Seattle planned to run play-action with him. Just very, very odd.
The non-interference call in the end zone with 15 seconds left. There was excessive contact between Seattle tight end Jacob Hollister and San Francisco linebacker Fred Warner on a Wilson attempt to Hollister. It was either incidental contact or significantly more than that. “Nothing which rises to the level of a foul based on visual evidence,” NFL VP for officiating Al Riveron said post-game. As the ball whizzed past Hollister, he and Warner were seriously jousting. Hard to believe there was nothing there.
Cruelty evens out. Two of the 49ers’ last three games came down to five-yard TDs or four-yard gains nudging the goal line by the opposition in the last 10 seconds, with the Niners up five points each time, with a booth review deciding the winner of each game. Two weeks ago, the review ruled Atlanta’s Julio Jones broke the plane of the goal line by inches. Sunday night, the review ruled Seattle’s Jacob Hollister was inches short. “We think we found every way to win a game,” Kyle Shanahan told his team afterward. “Now we found another.”
I mean . . . all of that happened in about 24 seconds of game time. Just amazing. As crazy as it all was, I think the best team won.
When this iteration of the 49ers was born two-and-a-half years ago, I spent a weekend inside the team and the draft room for their first draft. I noted how close coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch were, as they embarked on a mission to rebuild a downtrodden franchise. That weekend, Lynch showed what a team guy he was when Shanahan wanted a troubled running back named Joe Williams in the fourth round. Lynch thought it was a reach, a major reach. But he deferred to Shanahan, figuring he knew what he wanted in a running back more than Lynch did. Forget that Williams never turned out to be worth it. The point was Lynch understood that he wasn’t going to strong-arm a coach he respected so much, particularly in the first draft they spent together. Shanahan wouldn’t strong-arm Lynch either.
I was reminded of that weekend when I saw video Sunday night of Shanahan seeking out Lynch in the locker room in Seattle post-game, and giving him the kind of long embrace you give someone when you’ve been through a lot and you have a moment of triumph. Like winning the NFC West on the road, in the toughest place in the league to win.
The 49ers deserved this victory. Right now, even though they got the benefit of some weirdness down the stretch, they’re better overall on both lines. Russell Wilson is the great (and I mean great) equalizer, and in this case he came within inches—Six? Two?—of winning it on the throw to Hollister at the goal line.
“Going into this year,” Sherman said in summation, “we had a great group already. We had a great group of coaches. And our players, we got a little banged up last year but I thought the foundation was here. I knew if we just could stay healthy and put it together, we’d be hard to deal with. And that’s been the case. I think it’s just huge for this team to know what it feels like to win close games and to win meaningful games. I’m happy that we were able to do it.”
The reward is great: two home games to get to the Super Bowl rather than three road games. The NFL can be cruel, and opportunistic, that way.
Encapsulating the four wild-card games is a funny business. All but Vikings-Saints appear to be close to a toss up. And what follows could be delicious: A New England victory over Tennessee puts the Patriots in Kansas City for the fourth Pats-Chiefs game in 14 months. And wins by the Saints and Seahawks on wild-card weekend sets up the third Seattle-San Francisco matchup in nine weeks. On with the first four playoff games:
Buffalo (10-6, 5th seed, AFC) at Houston (10-6, 4th seed, AFC)
4:35 p.m. ET, NRG Stadium, Houston, TV: ESPN
Houston favored by 3.5
Houston has made the playoffs six times in its 18-year history. This will be the sixth time the Texans have played the postseason-opening 3:35 p.m. CT Saturday game in Houston. The Texans have hope that J.J. Watt could return from a torn pectoral to buttress a defensive front that’s had trouble stopping big-armed quarterbacks like Buffalo’s Josh Allen—Houston’s given up 33 touchdown passes—and stopping running games of all sorts. The Texans are surrendering 4.8 yards per rush, which bodes well for Devin Singletary of the Bills. He’s basically sidelined Frank Gore in the past month or so with his versatility, running inside with power and outside with the ability to make defenders miss. Buffalo will need to pen in Deshaun Watson and pressure him to throw quick, so he can’t win this game with his legs. If Houston gets back the oft-injured Will Fuller (groin), he likely won’t be full-speed, and that will hurt their chances because it puts more pressure on DeAndre Hopkins. The key to the game might be Buffalo wideout John Brown, who’s become a legitimate deep threat for Josh Allen and will certainly challenge the beatable Houston secondary.
Tennessee (9-7, 6th seed, AFC) at New England (12-4, 3rd seed, AFC)
8:15 p.m. ET, Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass., TV: CBS
New England favored by 4.5
The stats don’t love New England here. The Brady/Belichick Patriots have made the Super Bowl nine times, and each time they made it as a 1 or 2 seed in the AFC. In the three years they haven’t had a bye, they’ve lost prior to the Super Bowl. Look at their path here: Tennessee with rushing champ Derrick Henry and resurgent quarterback Ryan Tannehill first, then a potential hellscape of a run to the Super Bowl, potentially at Kansas City and at Baltimore in the span of eight days. First, New England will have to dispatch the power-running Titans and the 247-pound Henry; in four of his last six starts, Henry has battered foes for 149 rushing yards or more, including Sunday’s 211-yard job at Houston. The Patriots also will need a secondary more vulnerable than earlier in the season to clamp down on rookie star A.J. Brown and his gaudy 20.2-yards-per-catch average. Everything’s been a struggle for New England offensively. At this point, the Patriots are probably best-suited to win a power game with Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead trying to control the clock. That’s what it’s come to for the Patriots, who have one receiver or tight end with more than 30 catches. Hard to imagine that in an offense with Tom Brady under center, but that’s the reality of the 2019 Patriots.
Minnesota (10-6, 6th seed, NFC) at New Orleans (13-3, 3rd seed, NFC)
1:05 p.m. ET, Superdome, New Orleans, TV: FOX
New Orleans favored by 7.5
Some day, Kirk Cousins is going to have to win one of these Kirk Cousins Referendum Games. He’s 0-9 on Monday Night Football, 0-2 in playoff games, and his reward for his first playoff game as a Vikings quarterback is to play the best team standing on wild-card weekend, in the toughest place to win on wild-card weekend. The good news for Minnesota will be having Dalvin Cook (chest, shoulder pain) back after missing the last two games of the season, which should give the offense a chance because the game won’t be solely in Cousins’ hands. But I just can’t see the Vikings knocking off the Saints. Drew Brees is his classic self in recent weeks, leading the Saints to 36.2 points a game in the last seven weeks, with 22 touchdowns and just one pick. I don’t trust Cousins to get in a shootout with Brees—who would?—and I don’t see the Viking secondary being able to slow the New Orleans attack. The Saints are PFF’s highest-rated team through the regular-season, slightly ahead of Baltimore, and a good part of that is New Orleans’ top-special teams. They can win with kicker Wil Lutz, punter Thomas Morstead and a sudden returner, Deonte Harris. Hard to see many edges in this matchup on the Vikings’ side.
Seattle (11-5, 5th seed, NFC) at Philadelphia (9-7, 4th seed, NFC)
4:40 p.m. ET, Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, TV: NBC
Seattle favored by 1.5
Five weeks ago, when it appeared the Eagles were sliding out of any realistic playoff shot, Seattle came to the Linc and won a 17-9 slugfest; the Seahawks survived a dropped TD that day and clearly were the better team. Since then, the Eagles have been wasted by injuries; I’ve never seen a playoff team with skill players more beat up than Philly’s are right now. Yet, since trailing the Giants 17-3 at the half in week 14, perilously close at 5-7 to being out of the playoff chase, the Eagles have outscored four foes 108-53 and gone 4-0. At the same time, Seattle stumbled to a 1-3 finish, been outscored in those games by 29 points, and over-relied on Russell Wilson to save them almost every week. The Seahawks lost 1,600 yards of rushing prowess when Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny—healthy in the first Eagle meeting—were lost for the year with injuries. This game likely will come down to which supporting cast can help a hot quarterback more. The Eagles are likely to put more pressure on Wilson than the Seahawks on Carson Wentz, who has come alive with the weight of a franchise on his shoulders. I think this is the game of the weekend, and the NFL wisely put it in the window that usually garners the highest ratings.
Not exactly a black Monday, because we won’t have a bunch of big firings. And the Browns put Freddie Kitchens out of his misery Sunday night when the Browns landed back in Cleveland from yet another disaster.
The other day, after the Falcons announced Dan Quinn would be back for his sixth season as coach in 2020, owner Arthur Blank told me he thought this season might be the start of a trend with teams sticking with coaches after tough seasons rather than continually starting over. “The words consistency and continuity are important,” Blank said. “I think staying the course often makes sense. These quick fixes—sometimes they’re not quick fixes. Sometimes they appear to be. If you look at the history of the NFL, the organizations that have stayed their course, even through some tough times, are the smart ones. New Orleans had three seasons where they were 7-9. They stayed the course with Sean Payton. Sean Payton’s been a great coach. Now look at them. It’s been the truth in Pittsburgh as well.”
I can tell you that Cleveland owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam hated firing Kitchens because they hate what it says. The Browns are about to employ their ninth coach in 12 years, and nothing good comes from having an organizational circus like that. They know it. But that’s how bad the Kitchens experience was. The Browns were undisciplined, from being third in the NFL with 152 flags thrown against them, to the ugliest on-field incident of the season—the Myles Garrett helmet attack on Mason Rudolph, and then to Kitchens preaching to his team to just treat the rematch against Pittsburgh as a game and then being photographed in public with a PITTSBURGH STARTED IT T-shirt . . . and then doubling down and saying he’d do it again after the game.
On the field, Kitchens still had a chance to stay entering the last three weeks of the season. But losing to the previously 3-9-1 Cardinals by 14, then losing to previously 1-14 Cincinnati by 10 Sunday showed Kitchens didn’t have a way to turn this team around. Taking the season as a whole, after adding deep-threat Odell Beckham Jr., the decline in the offense was shocking: 28 fewer offensive yards per game, 1.5 fewer points, and a steep decline in the performance of the man Kitchens was most responsible for improving, Baker Mayfield. From start to finish, Mayfield’s decline was precipitous. His rating was 15 points lower in 2019, his completion rate plummeting from .638 to .594, his TD-to-pick ratio going from plus-13 last year to plus-one this year. Mayfield was petulant, arguing with a stupid fan in the tunnel in Cincinnati on Sunday among other childish things. This is the kind of stuff a smart and prepared coach handles, and Kitchens never did.
The Browns now have to figure out if GM John Dorsey, who drafted the reeling Mayfield, traded for the so-so Beckham and committed to Kitchens after half a season as offensive coordinator, is the man to continue the construction of the franchise. Dorsey’s disappearing act the second half of this season, when the sky was falling, couldn’t have given ownership faith that all is well in the GM office. The Browns find themselves in depths entering another new year, and this year hurts more than others. This year, Cleveland was supposed to be good again. Being the same old Browns just makes the pain more acute.
Elsewhere around the league . . .
What seems likely
• The Giants fire Pat Shurmur. Being 9-23, and combative, isn’t a great way to keep a job. Not so sure about GM Dave Gettleman, who may get to come back for a third draft, with some pressure to be over .500 in 2020 and to work with a new head coach he may not know well. Not ideal if the Giants keep Gettleman if, say, he’s paired with a more modern thinker like Josh McDaniels or Matt Rhule. Shurmur made some progress with Daniel Jones, to be sure, but the Giants’ inconsistency across the board was maddening. “If I’m back,” Shurmur said after the Giants got drubbed by the M*A*S*H-unit Eagles, “I’m looking forward to working with this young talent. If I’m not, whoever is coaching this team has got a great group of young players, the dead money goes away, there’s going to be cap space, we’ve got picks. So, there’s ways to improve the team.”
• The Cowboys part ways with Jason Garrett. His contract is up, so technically it’s not a firing. The Jason Witten rumors seem weird, and really not smart. As bright as Witten is, to put a first-time coach of any sort in the middle of that circus would be a huge mistake. If I’m Jerry Jones, I’d take a hard look at Mike McCarthy—who has been there on the big stage and won and been beaten up his share and learned from it—or Lincoln Riley if he’d consider leaving his dream in Oklahoma. Riley does so many disruptive and smarts things on offense that he’d have a great marriage with a bright and voracious quarterback like Dak Prescott.
What is a little less likely
Jacksonville keeps Doug Marrone. Word on the street was Marrone, despite his 11-21 record since having the Jags in the AFC title game 23 months ago, would survive because owner Shad Khan wanted to see how Marrone would do without the long shadow of Tom Coughlin dogging him. ESPN reported Saturday that Marrone is a goner; the Jags denied that. It’s more likely than not the Jags keep him, despite his worrisome record of losing two of every three games in the last two years. You shouldn’t be a batted pass away from the Super Bowl, then lose in double-digits the next two years and keep your job. But Khan is a patient man. He’s going to think about this for a couple of days, and I think it could be Wednesday or Thursday before we hear either way on Marrone.
Where the other jobs stand
Washington will be doing the right thing to move quick on Ron Rivera, and all indications point to the team trying to hire Rivera today. Good for owner Daniel Snyder, who I hear realizes his football operation, and organizational culture, is broken. The Washington job, even without the apparently soon-to-be-jettisoned Bruce Allen atop football operations, is not a gem. The franchise hasn’t won a playoff game in the last 14 seasons, and hasn’t won more than 10 games in a season in a quarter-century. Adam Schefter reported Sunday night that Rivera will be interviewed by the team today, and I hear they will be willing to move fast on him if the conversation goes well. The team won’t want him to hit the interview circuit, and Rivera—with no other job a sure thing—may want the bird in the hand if the job is offered, and if he can have some control over who his GM will be.
Carolina is still wide open. Interesting that the Panthers entered their interview with Mike McCarthy thinking they probably wouldn’t like him . . . but they did. He’s more progressive today than he was a year ago. Will that be enough to get him this job, or maybe the one in Dallas?
The Chargers seem—and “seem” is the correct word here—likely to keep Anthony Lynn. With nine of 11 losses by a touchdown or less, management is more likely to give Lynn a mulligan after he went 22-12 in his first two years.
Detroit has announced Matt Patricia is back, and I don’t suppose the Lions will reconsider. But he’s a lucky man. The Lions are 6-19-1 in Patricia’s last 26 games, allowing a defensively generous 24.0 points per game and ending this season on a nine-game losing streak. Patricia, of course, is a defensive coach, and he hasn’t build a strong defense, or even close to one. The Lions in 2019 allowed less than 19 points in one game all season. Patricia’s fortunate he went to work for a patient organization.
Atlanta: Dan Quinn saved his job by being flexible. The Falcons, 1-7 in the first half, were 6-2 in the second half. “I think a lot of our early problems were to some extent self-inflicted,” Blank told me. “I think there were some things that the coach to his credit has got tremendous humility and self-awareness. I think he realized that being the defensive coordinator on top of being the head coach was asking too much of himself. And I don’t think he had time to do the job as a head coach that he needs to do. I think the moving around of some of the coaches, position-wise, and who’s calling the defensive signals made a big difference as well. It’s a great credit to the players and a great credit to all the coaches. The changes, and players hanging in, I believe that those things can all carry over to next year.”
Notes about two coaches:
This seems like the year Josh McDaniels should move, if he’s going to ever leave New England. No longer the young wunderkind at 43 (Kyle Shanahan, Matt LaFleur and Sean McVay are three, three and 10 years younger than McDaniels), McDaniels got demerits for backing out of the Indy job two years ago. But people who take time to learn why he did that, and those who will study the performance of his offense during a decline in personnel—winning 11 and 12 games in the past two years, and winning the Super Bowl last year—will see a cutting-edge coach adjusting to new challenges pretty consistently. The other day, one of the most respected position coaches in the league, Dante Scarnecchia, said of McDaniels: “I would never have come back [in 2016 after two years of retirement] if he was not here. He’s very bright, he’s a football guy through and through, he’s a coach’s son, he’s born in the game. Someone is going to be very lucky to have him as a head coach. He’s a good coach, boy.”
I could see McDaniels and Daniel Jones having a great relationship, and McDaniels taking every Tom Brady lesson and drilling it into Jones, who has shown he has a chance to be very good for a long time. For the Giants’ sake, I hope if they change coaches they do a long study of McDaniels.
One other offensive coach is an interesting case too—Kansas City coordinator Eric Bieniemy. He reminds me of something Bill Parcells told me last year, when teams were hiring lots of young offensive coaches without years of experience. Bieniemy has been an assistant in college and pro football for 21 years, and Andy Reid says he’s one of the best leaders on any staff he’s had. Bieniemy does something unique for Reid: He memorizes the offensive play sheet each week. The Chiefs call plays from Reid to Bieniemy, and Bieniemy calls them into Patrick Mahomes. On my podcast this week (dropping Wednesday), Bieniemy told me why he does it. “It takes a lot of time,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I want to make sure I am accountable to the entire coaching staff and to the entire organization. My job is to have the ability to spit those plays out and know everything about them, inside and out. I’m always talking to our players about the importance of taking work home. It’s my job to have a completed understanding of everything that’s on that call sheet.”
“I’ve been dreaming about this opportunity [to be a head coach] all my life,” he said. “I feel that I am ready. You want to make sure . . . that people can see how you command a room, how you approach the day-to-day business, how you command everything that’s taking place within that building, how you deal with people, how you handle each situation that comes up.” Bieniemy is another guy who should talk to multiple teams.
A conversation, annotated at times, with Kyler Murray, the first pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Murray played the season finale at the Rams with a strained hamstring suffered in his biggest win—a 27-13 upset of the Seahawks in Seattle—and he finished the year with 20 passing touchdowns and 12 interceptions, and a 5-10-1 record. The Cardinals were 2.5 wins better than last year with Murray at quarterback and Kliff Kingsbury as coach—averaging 100 more total yards per game as an offense, with a 60 percent increase in points, compared to 2018.
“There’s been a lot of leeway with Coach Kingsbury. Gave me a lot of freedom. Obviously he’s played quarterback and he understands the quarterback’s got to be comfortable to be successful. The offense had a lot of similarities to what I was used to, which is why I kind of felt so comfortable at the beginning. Right away I felt I came to the right place.”
On the pressure of living up to the top pick
Murray struggled to answer this question, I think because the idea of feeling pressure playing quarterback is foreign to him.
“Honestly . . . I don’t even think there was . . . I don’t want to say pressure . . . This is something I’ve dreamed of, something that I always wanted to be my whole life growing up is playing quarterback in the NFL, to be one of the best to ever play the game. I don’t feel the pressure because I’m blessed to be in this position. Obviously, being young in the league you’re going to have ups and downs, but it was never because of pressure. I’m just kind of living the dream, you know?”
On his first game, coming back from down 24-6 in the fourth quarter to tie Detroit
“I got a lot of memories from that game. When it was going bad, in my head, because I’m pretty realistic about myself, I remember thinking, ‘God, like, this is terrible.’
“I was laughing in my head. I was thinking people are probably watching this saying, ‘Man, you should have played baseball.’
“But one of the things I learned is that with our offense, we’re never really out of it. We tied it, then in overtime [on the second play of OT] I throw that deep ball to Larry Fitzgerald [for 45 yards] and I’m thinking, ‘We got this, we got the momentum, we’ve been uptempo and their defense has to be tired.’ We ended up tying, but other than that, it was a good day, a good first game. But that game moved pretty fast and I didn’t play as well as I wanted to for the whole game. The next week was different. We went to Baltimore.”
Baltimore 23, Arizona 17. Week 2. Murray threw for 349 yards and had the ball twice in the fourth quarter, down six, with a win in sight.
“That’s the game I felt like I could really do this. Playing a really good team at their place, with a chance to win in the fourth quarter. We’re just scratching and clawing to sustain drives, but we’re in it. For me personally, that was one of my better games. Sort of taught me that even though we’re a building program, we can compete with anybody.”
On Brees and Wilson, and size
Week 8, at New Orleans, playing one of his idols.
“One week that taught me a lot, for sure, was playing in New Orleans, watching Drew Brees. Everybody obviously talks to me a lot about my size—I don’t really think about it too much. But I have always loved the way Drew plays—the precision, the decisiveness. I watched him closely that game. Just his determination, his confidence. He knows he’s gonna make plays, no matter what the defense does. Watching him that day was a learning experience. After the game I was looking at him on the field, eye to eye. That’s a big deal too. One of the best to ever play the position, and we’re eye to eye. I don’t remember exactly what he said to me, but it was something along the lines of, ‘It’s a long career.’ Like, there’s better days ahead and that he [loves] watching me play.
“Kind of the same thing when we played Seattle, watching Russell. It’s surreal almost every week, playing some team and looking over there thinking, I’ve watched that guy play my whole life. Last week at the Seahawks, that game kind of made me stop and look around in that incredible environment for football, like, ‘Damn. You’re really in the NFL. And you’re playing Russell Wilson.’ That day, starting in warmups, whenever I got a chance, I was watching him on the field, trying to learn from him. What’s he doing in certain situations, that kind of stuff. But that day was one I’ll always remember. That place was like [Oklahoma-Texas] in the Cotton Bowl. Or Bedlam [the OU-Oklahoma State game].”
On Larry Fitzgerald
“Best I can say is Larry, he doesn’t make it feel like he’s Larry Fitzgerald. Honestly, he kind of blends in. He’s one of the guys. Me being 22—how old’s Larry?”
“To me, he just feels like an older brother. He tries to give us as much advice as possible. I’ve tried to get close to him, talk to him as much as I could so I could see how this thing works. Man, he’s a great guy, obviously. Everybody knows that. They don’t really see how he is inside the locker room and on the field. He’s always joking around. On the field, when things aren’t there, he’s just, throw him the damn ball. He tells me that all the time. Whether he’s open or not, throw him the ball. He’ll even try to call plays. That doesn’t work out too well. But he’s really taught us how to be pros.”
“Everybody’s always wondering about me because I’m always chillin,’ always kinda to myself. I keep a tight circle. Not really a partier. It’s been like that my whole life. I can’t go out without being, not harassed, but a lot of people noticing me. Started in high school. I’m used to it at this point. Sometimes it sucks, but it is what it is.”
Murray, an outfielder, was the first-round pick of the Oakland A’s in 2018. After a hard sales pitch from Oakland, he turned down baseball and was all-in with the NFL.
Did you watch the World Series?
“Who was in it this year? Houston and … uh … “
Five, seven seconds. Thinking.
“Nationals. Yeah. Houston and the Nationals. No, I didn’t get to watch.”
Did you ever find yourself, even for 10 minutes, missing baseball?
“No. To be honest, no. I didn’t really have time to think about baseball. Trying to be as good as I can be at this game, you’ve got to put everything into it and it takes up a lot of your time. I got boys that still play baseball so when I talk to them, it kind of brings back memories. Obviously, I feel like I can still play but it is what it is at this point. But no, I really haven’t thought about it too much.”
On his future in the NFL
“This year was just, sort of, laying the foundation. We just didn’t win enough, obviously. Next year, I really believe we’ll come back with a vengeance and have a better year, and win.”
Twelve men who made their mark on football departed in 2019—some tragically, some dramatically, some in the normal course of football events. (Actually, there were many more than 12. This list could be three times that. Twelve who stood out to me:
Andrew Luck retires at 29. At 9:29 p.m. on Aug. 24, Adam Schefter tweeted that Luck would retire immediately. One of Luck’s closest football friends, Matt Hasselbeck, said, “I thought Adam got hacked.” That’s how much this retirement shocked the world. But should it have? For about 42 of the 47 months prior to his announcement, dating back to a shoulder injury in September 2015, football meant pain to Andrew Luck. “It’s been unceasing, unrelenting, both in-season and off-season . . . Taken the joy out of the game. And after 2016, when I played in pain and was unable to regularly practice, I made a vow to myself that I will not go down that path again,” he said. Five days before the retirement, he walked into owner Jim Irsay’s office and didn’t say he was thinking of retiring. He said it was over; he was retiring. “My mind’s made up,” he said. Luck left a good $200 million in future earnings on the table, but he didn’t care. Still doesn’t apparently. I’m told he’s had very few thoughts of playing again, ever.
Rob Gronkowski retires at 30. Gronk’s career average catch: 15.1 yards. Tyreek Hill’s career average catch: 14.6 yards. One of the most amazing things about the 2019 season is the Patriots never replaced Gronk—the free-agent class was stripped bare by the time he retired March 24—and were an offensive shell of themselves, and went 12-4 this fall with a 42-year-old quarterback and a make-it-up-as-you-go-along receiving corps. As with Luck, there’s no indication that Gronk the Wildman will ever play football again.
Bart Starr (1934-2019) dies. He won the last nine playoff games he ever played, including three NFL championship games and the first two Super Bowls. Touchdown passes in those games: 14. Interceptions: 3. One of the classiest players in NFL history, he signed every autograph meticulously, as though he were trying to win a penmanship contest. I asked him about that late in life. “Why would you want to do it any other way?” he said. “That’s the only way I know.”
Ron Rivera is fired in Carolina. A 29-32 record with no playoff wins in his last four seasons doomed him, but he coached the Panthers to one of the best regular-seasons in recent years: 15-1 in 2015, with the highest-scoring offense and the league’s sixth-ranked defense. Rivera’s got a great human touch, and would be high on the list if you asked the 1,600 NFL players, “Who’s the coach you’d most like to play for?” He’ll be a strong candidate for teams seeking coaches this week.
Don Banks (1962-2019) dies. One of the most crushing blows of this, or any, year for me came when my friend Sam Farmer called me one day when I was on my training-camp trip in Indiana and said absolutely out of the blue, “Don is dead.” One day before that, Don, a veteran NFL scribe with the scruples of Job, had his first story for his new NFL gig at the Las Vegas Review Journal, and he said to me with excitement over the phone, “I’m back, baby!” He was calling from a hotel room in Canton, where he was for the Hall of Fame enshrinement. He went to bed that night and never woke up. Heart attack. Don’s 21-year-old son, Micah, a student at George Washington, said it best: “Remember the Boston Globe baseball writer who died last spring, Nick Cafardo? I was hanging out with my dad when that happened. Nick died on the job one day, covering the Red Sox. I remember my dad saying, ‘Well, that’s the way to go, doing what you love.’ That seems sort of fitting now—my dad, doing what he loved in Canton, Ohio.”
Julius Peppers retires. With the fourth-most sacks since it became a stat (18 more than Michael Strahan, 20 more than Jason Taylor), there’s little doubt that Peppers will wear a gold jacket one day. I love how consistent he was. He had 11 sacks in 2004, at age 24; 11 sacks in 2011, at age 31; and 11 sacks in 2017, at age 37.
Gino Marchetti (1926-2019) dies. He made one of the biggest, and most controversial, tackles in NFL history. In the 1958 NFL Championship Game at Yankee Stadium, with the Giants leading the Colts 17-14, New York was trying to run out the clock in one of the biggest games in football history to that point. Marchetti tackled Frank Gifford, and the ball was marked just short of a first down—the Giants screamed that the spot was awful, and they should have been awarded a first down. Meanwhile, Marchetti was on the field, in agony. He had a broken ankle. The Giants had to punt on fourth and inches with two minutes left. John Unitas drove the Colts to a tying field goal with seven seconds left, and the Colts won in overtime. Without Marchetti’s tackle, it’s very likely the Giants would have won that game. Interesting. Unitas and the Colts won the title again in 1959. That was his last ever. If Marchetti doesn’t make the tackle in ’58, do the Colts win in ’59? And does the NFL become the incredible spectator sport it became without that great theater in New York in 1958?
Joe Horrigan retires. When Horrigan, the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s historian, archivist and keeper-of-the-flame, surprisingly retired last spring, he left the Hall with a legacy of caring about one thing: that the deep roots of the game will never be forgotten. Horrigan honchoed the founding and formation of the Ralph C. Wilson Pro Football Research and Preservation Center, with more than 40 million pages of documents and contracts going back a century and including the minutes from the meeting in Canton that formed the NFL in 1920. “There is nobody more knowledgeable about the 100 years of pro football than Joe Horrigan,” John Madden told me last spring. “It’s is not even close. You can’t replace that brain.”
Pat Bowlen (1944-2019) dies. In the three decades he owned the Broncos (before stepping away due to Alzheimer’s disease in 2014), the franchise played in six Super Bowls and had five losing seasons . . . and the Elway/Manning Broncos, born when Bowlen was still in control in 2012, won the Super Bowl the year after Bowlen left. His deft handling of the team meant not overreacting to a bad season, and giving football people like Mike Shanahan the resources they need to win. Not to mention his influence in league activities. Bowlen was the driving force behind the league adding another prime-time window, Sunday night football, and giving the NBC show the great games it needed to dominate network TV.
Darren Sproles retires. “My body is telling me it’s time to step away from the game,” Sproles, 36, said in a statement 10 days ago. He was so good, so valuable, for so long. He was good enough in five San Diego seasons to be named to the Chargers’ all-time team. In New Orleans (for just three years; seemed like seven or eight), he set an NFL record for all-purposes yards in 2011 with 2,696, with 603 rushing yards at 6.9 yards per rush, 86 catches for 710 yards, 29 punt returns for a 10.1-yard average, 40 kick returns for a 27.2-yard average. His humility and his 21 touchdowns in his thirties as an Eagle made him beloved in that locker room too. There can’t be an NFL player in this era who got more out of his body, at 5-6 and 190, than Sproles did.
Forrest Gregg (1933-2019) dies. The Hall of Fame Packer tackle was famous, of course, for being the player Vince Lombardi called the best he ever coached. But in his second life, as a coach, he did something historic too: While 14 NFL teams flunked USC left tackle Anthony Munoz on his pre-draft physical because of a bad knee in 1980, Gregg, the Cincinnati head coach, went to Los Angeles to work out Munoz—for two hours—and came back to Cincinnati swearing by Munoz. The Bengals picked him third overall in 1980, and Munoz turned out to be one of the best tackles in NFL history. Lots of lessons he learned from Gregg too. “After I got selected to the Pro Bowl [in 1981], he called me into his office,” Munoz told me. “He put his arm around me. He said, ‘Congratulations. You’ve been selected to the Pro Bowl. Now you have to understand that every player you play in practice is going to measure himself against you because you’re a Pro Bowl player. Every player who plays you in a game is going to do the same thing. You’ve got to play every play like a Pro Bowler. You can’t relax.’ So I thought, okay, I’m going to hold myself accountable every play I ever play, for the rest of my career.” Just as his mentor did.
Sonny Jurgensen retires. Hard to imagine any single person who had a more varied and more influential run in a town than Sonny had in Washington. He watched football from the couch this year at 85 for the first time in forever. “It’s been a great 55 years in Washington,” he said when he retired last summer. Jurgensen played the final 11 years of a Hall of Famer career at quarterback for the team from 1964 to 1974, stayed close to the team till being named one of the club’s radio color men in 1981, advised owner Daniel Snyder more recently, and stayed a beloved radio partner till age 84, in 2018. I’ll always remember him with an unlit cigar, in the booth and in so many locker rooms post-game.
Offensive Players of the Week
Deebo Samuel, wide receiver, San Francisco. Backed up in their territory late in the first quarter of game 256 Sunday night, the 49ers got two huge plays from the rookie receiver from South Carolina. Samuel took a pass from Jimmy Garoppolo and sped 30 yards up the middle to get the Niners to midfield. Three plays later, from the Seattle 30-yard line, Samuel took a pitch around left end and stayed in microscopically on the left sideline, scoring on a 30-yard run. Samuel, at 6-0 and 208, is bigger than a smurfy guy, but he has the moves of a scatback and showed them in the NFC West championship game. For the game, Samuel finished with 135 total yards and the rushing touchdown.
Derrick Henry, running back, Tennessee. The newly minted NFL rushing champion of the NFL’s 100th season keyed the playoff-enabling victory for Tennessee against rival Houston. With Henry’s 32-carry, 211-yard performance in Houston, and his rushing touchdowns of three, one and 53 yards in the second half, the Titans won 35-14 and earned a trip to Foxboro for a wild-card game they could actually win.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, quarterback, Miami. A few observations: Miami, quite likely, will pick a quarterback in the first round next April, but there’s no way the Dolphins should not have Fitzpatrick back as the bridge quarterback to the future. He’s a reliable player, a great influence on a growing team, and a pretty good player. Miami had little to play for Sunday, and the mighty Patriots had a first-round bye at stake. This is what Fitzpatrick did in a 10-10 game in the second half: drove 83 yards in nine plays for a touchdown; drove 22 yards to a punt; drove 45 yards to a field goal; and then, trailing 24-20 with four minutes left, drove 13 plays for 75 yards and the winning touchdown pass. For the day, 28 of 41 for 320 yards. Not bad.
Elandon Roberts, linebacker/running back, New England. Classic example, a la Mike Vrabel and Troy Brown, of necessity being the mother of invention in New England. He was the blocking back who paved the way for the first New England touchdown, a four-yard Sony Michel run, with a block of Miami’s Eric Rowe at the goal line. Then he caught a 38-yard TD pass from Tom Brady, the only bright spot in another desultory Patriots performance down the stretch of a season that just looks like it’ll end in a disappointing way in January—despite 12 regular-season wins.
Defensive Players of the Week
Dre Greenlaw, linebacker, San Francisco. The rookie from Arkansas made the play of his life when his team needed it the most. On fourth and goal with 12 seconds left, Seahawks tight end Jacob Hollister caught the ball at the 1-yard line and turned to find the end zone. Instead, he found Greenlaw’s right shoulder. The 2019 fifth-round pick buried Hollister, who fell an inch shy of the goal line. Greenlaw finished the game with 13 tackles, and his last gave the 49ers the NFC’s top seed.
Shaq Barrett, outside linebacker, Tampa Bay. Trailing Chandler Jones for the league sack lead entering Sunday’s play, Barrett sacked Matt Ryan three times, then had to sit and wait for Jones’ game at the Rams to see if his 19.5 sacks would be enough to win the title. And it was—Jones got shut out at Los Angeles. Even though the Bucs lost a bummer of a game in overtime, winning the sack title had to be sweet for Barrett, who always was the forgotten guy to Von Miller in Denver.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Mecole Hardman, wide receiver/kick returner, Kansas City. How prescient, Chiefs GM Brett Veach and coach Andy Reid using the 56th pick in the 2019 draft (and the first pick for the Chiefs) on the speedy Hardman, from Georgia. At the time, it was Tyreek Hill insurance. But now he’s become an essential part of the offense and the return game. Named to the AFC Pro Bowl team a couple weeks ago, Hardman made the difference-making play in the Chiefs’ 12th victory of the season. His 104-yard kickoff return for touchdown put the Chiefs ahead of the Chargers for good, and catapulted Kansas City to the second seed in the AFC tournament.
Coach of the Week
Steve Spagnuolo, defensive coordinator, Kansas City. In midseason, it appeared the defense would doom the Chiefs. KC went 2-4 between Oct. 6 and Nov. 10, allowing 24.1 points a game, with the Titans gashing them by 35. Since then, Spagnuolo’s scheme has clicked and the Chiefs have gotten healthier and Patrick Mahomes has the offense playing well. In KC’s six-game winning streak, Spagnuolo’s D has allowed just 11.5 points a game. With a rest week coming up, you’ve got to like the Chiefs’ chances to get to the AFC title game.
Goat of the Week
Jameis Winston, quarterback, Tampa Bay. How perfectly fitting. Winston’s 30th interception of the season came on the last play of Tampa Bay’s season and on the first play of overtime. Winston stared down tight end Cameron Brate, fired a pass to him at the Bucs’ 28, and Deion Jones stepped in front of Brate on not a particularly great play, picked it off, and ran it back for a walkoff pick-six. For the year, Winston, angling for a $30-million-a-year contract, became the first quarterback in history to have a 30/30 season: 33 touchdown passes, 30 interceptions and a gaudy 5,109 yards . . . and seven pick-sixes. Tom Brady has one in the last two years. Winston’s 30-interception season is the first in the NFL since 1988.
“I plan to play football. Where that’s going to be, that will get sorted out in the next three months.”
—Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who started every game for the last 14 years for the franchise, including Sunday’s 31-21 loss to Kansas City.
More below about Rivers and the Chargers in Ten Things I Think I Think.
“There’s so much good and so much outright terrible.”
—Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians, on Jameis Winston’s 33-touchdown, 30-interception season.
“Sometimes the writing’s on the wall. There hasn’t been anything official, but . . . I just wanted to make sure I didn’t have any regrets on how this year ended, in the event that was the last time I play.”
—Carolina tight end Greg Olsen, 34, after the last game of his 13th NFL season, on the possibility he’ll retire.
If that’s it for Olsen, he’ll finish fifth all-time among tight ends in receptions with 718—behind Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, Antonio Gates and Shannon Sharpe.
“This was expected.”
—LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, to Laura Rutledge of ESPN, after throwing seven touchdown passes and the Tigers beating Oklahoma by 35 points in the college football semifinal in Atlanta.
“Tom, I just want to let you know you had a pretty good year.”
—Bill Belichick, to Tom Brady, on the morning after the Patriots’ first Super Bowl win in February 2002. Brady told this story, about getting this pat on the back from Belichick, on NFL Network’s top 100 show revealing the quarterbacks voted the top 10 of all time, with Brady being one of them.
Numbers dancing through Jimmy Haslam’s head this morning, in the 12 NFL seasons since 2008:
After firing Ron Rivera, the Panthers lost their last four games by 20, 6, 32 and 32 points.
The last six Chicago-at-Minnesota regular-season meetings have been on Dec. 28, Dec. 20, Jan. 1, Dec. 31, Dec. 30 and Dec. 29.
Maybe someone in the league office loves the Bears and has family in Minnesota and loves the Christmas season. I don’t know.
The Patriots will play two games in the new SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles next year, visiting both the Chargers and Rams.
I wonder who will be quarterbacking the Chargers when the Patriots come to town.
Let the record show that Tom Brady and Peyton Manning were tied entering Sunday with 539 career regular-season touchdown passes, and let the record further show that Brady’s 540th came on a 38-yard pass to a linebacker, Elandon Roberts.
It was a San Francisco Christmas for the King family, totally spoiling the grandchildren. Fun times. On Friday morning, we took the kids to the cool, fairly new playground in the Panhandle. On the walk there, there was a Kombucha stop (not for me) at the Haight Street Market, near the corner of Haight and Ashbury. It always has an interesting clientele.
I waited outside with Crosby, the rescue owned by Laura and wife Kim. Sitting at one of the tables outside the grocery store, a 55ish-year-old man was Face-Timing someone. He was a pugnacious type, from the sound of him.
Two of the more interesting things he said in my five minutes standing nearby:
• “You’ve got to understand I’m a third-generation alcoholic.”
• “So I met a guy here in the Haight, and we got into it a little bit, you know, and he said, ‘I am going to mess you up.’ I said to him, ‘I am a Marine. So while you’re messing me up, you should know that I am going to kill you.”
(Moved five steps away.)
I’ve had it with Airbnb. Overpriced, photographically misleading, and did I mention overpriced and photographically misleading? The problem is, my daughter lives in a hotel-poor neighborhood, and it you want to be close/walking-distance, you delve into Airbnb. The hosts have been fine people, and no one forced me to rent the places I’ve rented in the neighborhoods around Laura’s home. But I’ve learned my lesson after another exceedingly meh rental: Give us hotels and a drive, or give us couches in her apartment.
Wickersham covers the NFL for ESPN.
Person, who covers the Panthers for The Athletic, tweeted with the Panthers, at home, training New Orleans by 35 in the second quarter. What a disgraceful December for Carolina.
Bouchette covers the Steelers for The Athletic.
Middlekauff, a former NFL scout, writes and talks about sports in the Bay Area. He tweeted in the midst of Joe Burrow’s seven-touchdown-pass first half in the NCAA semifinal game.
You know who Ricky Gervais is.
Machota covers the Cowboys for The Athletic.
On 17- or 18-game schedules. From Derek Schlamel: “I can’t help but think as a fan I’d oppose an 18-game schedule. Too much of a brutal sport to add games for the players and a war of attrition for teams still alive (Seattle, Philadelphia).”
You watch Seattle struggle with fourth and fifth running backs and with a crushing left tackle injury, and you watch the Eagles invent receivers down the stretch because of an epidemic of injuries, and you wonder why anyone in his right mind in the league office would think, “Hey, I got an idea! Let’s add a 17th game!” Except we know why. Concern over players’ health is tertiary to, number one, money, and number two, more money. And we all know that.
On “Openers.” From George Evanko: “In response to using an ‘opener’ at quarterback instead of the starter, it’s been done before. In the 50’s, the Giants would keep Charlie Conerly out of the game for at least the first series and let Don Heinrich play. The theory was, Conerly could use the time to watch what the defense was doing and apply the strategy when he got in there, since quarterbacks called the plays back then. Look at Pro Football Reference’s starting lineups for the 1958 championship game, the legendary overtime game with the Colts. Heinrich is listed as the starter. He went 2-of-4 passing and then Conerly took over. The Giants’ offensive coordinator that year, the guy using the ‘opener’ at quarterback, was Vince Lombardi.”
I love my readers. Four of them pointed out this exact nugget of info. Thanks.
Wow. Thank you. From Steve Savarese: “Having grown up in Boston with McDonough, Fitzgerald, Montville, Gammons, Ryan, Whiteside, Powers, Rosa and Collins, I’ve had the pleasure of reading some of the best ever on a daily basis. As a regular reader of yours for the past 30 years, it is quite easy to say that you are included in that group. I thank you for the many stories that have entertained, offered insight about the people and events and taught me about the game. On Monday mornings, from the beginning of the season through the Super Bowl, your article is the first thing read. So again, thank you. Sincerely. Joe Burrow and Athens, Ohio. Best story of the year.”
Steve, I am humbled, and I thank you sincerely.
And this take, after I led the column last week with Carson Wentz. From Alex, of Durango, Mexico. “Can’t wait to read it . . . See a mediocre NFC East team in the front page AGAIN . . . Close browser.”
Three points, Alex:
1. I am happy you look forward to my column every Monday.
2. Last Monday was my 24th column of the season since training camp started. It was the second one with a lead on the NFC East, or on an NFC East team, and it came after the most important game in the NFL in Week 16.
3. Last week’s column was 11,108 words long. The Eagles chunk was 875 words. I say this all the time to those who don’t like something or another in the column: There’s a lot of stuff in the column every week, not just at the top.
1. I think, watching Philip Rivers get all emotional after the 11th loss of a lost Chargers’ season, with so much riding on 2020 for the franchise, there are lots of questions. For the first time, he spoke openly about the chance that he might be a goner with the Chargers. But he also said he definitely wanted to play somewhere in 2020. The possibilities as I see them:
• Rivers returns for his 17th season with the franchise, maybe on a two-year deal while the Chargers figure out their long-term future at the position. He is an unrestricted free agent in March if not signed by the Chargers before then, so a new contract would have to be negotiated, and coming off this season, and four straight seasons with a low cap number, that might be a problem.
• The Chargers could draft a successor in April and re-sign Rivers for one year as a bridge to 2021.
• The Chargers, who need a billboard player as they move into a new stadium with major fiscal challenges (in tickets sales and suite sales and sponsorships), could pursue a jolt of quarterback adrenalin: Cam Newton in trade with Carolina, or perhaps Teddy Bridgewater in free agency—though Bridgewater is likely not going to move the needle as much as bringing back Rivers.
• The Chargers could try to talk Drew Brees, who is scheduled to be a free agent in March, into a second act with the franchise. The record-setter was a Chargers draft choice in 2001 and preceded Rivers as the starter before going to New Orleans as a free agent in 2006. I’m skeptical of that. I think he’ll re-sign with New Orleans. But never say never. Brees has a home in San Diego and loves it there, and could do the commuting thing that Rivers did to get to practice in Orange County.
• The Chargers could try to talk Tom Brady, also scheduled to be free in March, into coming west. I’m skeptical of this too, but this will be the first time Brady’s ever been unsigned and ineligible to be franchised entering an offseason, and he might want to see what life is like outside Belichickland.
As for Rivers: He is from northern Alabama and went to college at North Carolina State, starting for four seasons. What if the Panthers had their doubts about the oft-injured Cam Newton and aggressively pursued Rivers to play out his last two or three seasons in Charlotte? They could do this with the understanding that the franchise would have to prepare for the future and draft a young passer, or prepare Will Grier as a possible starter.
Rivers is such a gamer, and such a great locker-room presence, so beloved by his teammates. That could transfer to another place, surely. It was tough to see him emotional after the last game of the Chargers’ awful 5-11 season Sunday, as Rivers acknowledged for the first time that this could be it for him in southern California. “If it’s the last time [as a Charger] . . . I can say I gave it everything I had, every week,” he said, almost breaking down near the end of a longer-than-usual post-game presser. “Maybe it means an interception when it’s fourth-and-18, and you’re down 10. Cuz I don’t care if it’s gonna say ‘two interceptions’ [on the stat sheet]. I ain’t quittin’. I think that, doing it with so many guys, over 14 years, and going to the locker room, and saying, dadgum it, we fell short, or we won, but shoot, I couldn’t have tried any harder.”
2. I think it’s become clear that though this might not be the end of the great Patriots run, it’s certainly the end of something in New England. We just won’t know what that is for a while, till we see if Josh McDaniels or Tom Brady, or both, leave the organization.
3. I think that was a class move by the Panthers in Charlotte on Sunday, paying tribute before the game against the Saints with a moment of silence and scoreboard recognition to the young Louisiana-based reporter, Carley McCord, 30, who was killed in a plane crash Saturday. McCord worked for a New Orleans TV station and for the Saints and Pelicans as an in-game host. “We’re devastated,” Sean Payton said. “Tough news. I think all of us in Louisiana felt the same way.” Two terrible losses for the media fraternity last week, McCord and ESPN college football reporter Edward Aschoff, who died suddenly at 34. Tragic losses, two bright lights gone too soon.
4. I think I would love to know how this happens:
a. Backup tackle Ty Sambrailo reports as a tackle-eligible for Atlanta at Tampa Bay, with the ball at the Bucs’ 35.
b. Sambrailo, the sixth offensive lineman on the play, lines up between the right tackle and tight end for Atlanta.
c. Sambrailo runs straight downfield, up the right seam.
d. No one on the Bucs covers Sambrailo.
e. Matt Ryan throws a pass to Sambrailo, who catches it at the Tampa 22.
f. No one on the Bucs touches Sambrailo till he gets to the end zone. Touchdown, Atlanta.
I mean, does defensive coordinator Todd Bowles warn his players to watch for the tackle-eligible running off the line? I assume he must. If so, how in the world does no one cover a wide-open receiver with nothing but space around him?
5. I think if Baltimore wins the Super Bowl, and if the NFL had both guts and foresight, the opening game next year would be Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals at Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens.
6. I think my first thought after seeing the Saints work out Antonio Brown the other day was: They get a free look at him now, and in the unlikely event that he skates after the NFL’s investigation into him, they get a franchise player cheap. Now, I’d never have Brown on my team. Just too much smoke around him, and he’s not a good person. I doubt he’ll ever play a snap for New Orleans. But I get their interest in doing homework on a severely devalued player. Let’s see what the future brings. If it’s confirmed in an NFL investigation or a courtroom that he engaged in sexual assault, the Saints should steer clear, to be sure.
7. I think these are my observations about the 10 quarterbacks selected on the NFL’s all-time team of 100 best players:
• Historically, I do not mind the split of three quarterbacks (Sammy Baugh, Otto Graham, John Unitas) in the first 50 seasons, one (Staubach) in the next 10 years, and six (Tom Brady, John Elway, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, Joe Montana) in the last 40 years. The first 50 seasons, in my opinion, needed a minimum of three to be even close to historically balanced.
• Exclusions: Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Sid Luckman, Fran Tarkenton, Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman, Warren Moon, Dan Fouts.
• I knew this would be the position that ticked off the most people. And rightfully so. When the NFL finished its 75th regular season, Tarkenton was the all-time leader in passing yards (47,003) and touchdown passes (342). As the NFL finishes its 100th season, Brees is the all-time leader in passing yards (77,163) and touchdown passes (544). In 1994, Tarkenton was not voted to the NFL’s 75th anniversary all-time team. (Four quarterbacks were—Sammy Baugh, Otto Graham, John Unitas, Joe Montana.) And this year, Brees did not make the 100-year team. That is not to justify the picks. It is to simply make an observation about how stats did not rule the vote then, or now. And also . . .
• For those who live in Louisiana or are otherwise in some state of apoplexy over Brees’ omission: The final vote took place in June 2018. So the two most accurate seasons in Brees’ career (2018 and 2019) are not included, nor are his last 56 touchdowns or final 7,000 passing yards. The vote being a year-and-a-half ago clearly had some effect on the outcome. Had the committee of 26 voted this week, my guess is Brees would have been chosen over Roger Staubach.
• One Packers QB. Brett Favre, who is deserving to be sure. But I can tell you, from being in the debate, that Starr and Rodgers had their share of champions in the room. I had Favre over each of the others because of longevity and greatness for such a long period, but obviously it was a tough call.
• Re Baugh and Graham: Baugh’s the only player from the first 25 years of pro football history on this list. The game was vastly different then, of course, and it’s easy to say that a player who played before integration and with his prime years in the World War II era is somehow diminished compared to players of today. But you’ve got to judge players in their era. And I would contend that Baugh had the single best season an NFL player ever had. In 1943, he was the NFL’s most accurate passer, was voted first-team all-pro, led the NFL with 11 interceptions (playing safety), and led the NFL for the fourth straight year with a 45.9-yard average as a punter. If you do not reward that, as eclectic a season as it was, you don’t appreciate the 100 years of football. . . . As for Graham, he played 10 professional seasons (six in the NFL, four in the All-America Football Conference) with the Cleveland Browns and played in the championship game of his league all 10 seasons, winning seven.
• I have no patience for the he-couldn’t-play-in-this-era crowd. We weren’t judging whether Baugh’s game would translate to today. We were judging dominance in an era. Baugh showed dominance in his, Graham in his, Brady in his.
8. I think Larry Fitzgerald has been fairly quiet about his future, dropping a couple of hints that the end is near but keeping things fairly mysterious. I believe it’s better than 50-50 than he returns for a 17th season in 2020. He likes the life, he likes the game, he is well-compensated for it, and he is beloved in Arizona. A few thoughts about his remarkable career: He played his 250th regular-season game on Sunday in Los Angeles . . . He has missed six games due to injury in 16 seasons. He’s played the Cardinals’ last 84 regular-season games, every one since Dec. 1, 2014 . . . Still a prime guy, and important to the development of Kyler Murray. Targets in the last six games: Stefon Diggs 40, Fitzgerald 39 . . . A free agent after the season, I’d be surprised if the Cardinals—with $66 million in cap room heading into 2020—didn’t pony up for him. He made $11.25 million this year . . . Fitzgerald has told me many times that no one will ever break Jerry Rice’s record of 1,549 catches. But Fitzgerald exits this season with 1,378 receptions, 172 from breaking the record. It would be very hard for him to break that in two seasons, and it’s hard to envision him playing more than two more years. But “very hard” is not “impossible.”
9. I think it’s going to be interesting to see what the Indianapolis Colts do after a sobering end to their 2019 season, and with a league-high $98.7 million in cap room in 2020. I’m looking at Jacoby Brissett, who had a very strange year, in part because he hasn’t been healthy for the second half of it. But he threw four touchdown passes to beat Houston in Week 7—and then four in the next eight weeks combined. It might be smart for Houston to bring in competition for Brissett, due to make $15 million in cash next season, either in the form of a high draft pick or top backup. What if Jacksonville punts on Nick Foles? Or Teddy Bridgewater doesn’t have the starting market he thought he’d have in 2020? Or if Cam Newton comes on the market? Or if Philip Rivers suddenly needs a home? Or if Eli Manning wants one last shot?
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Football Story of the Week: Tyler Dunne of Bleacher Report on the influence of Mike Tomlin on the 2019 Steelers.
b. Dunne writes about the 1-4 start, and playing the rest of 2019 without Ben, Bell and Brown:
“What appeared disastrous to outsiders wasn’t close to disastrous inside. Because of Tomlin. As the season careened off a cliff, the coach maintained his stern calm. The coach repeated one of his go-to lines—’Don’t tell people about your problems, because they’re either glad you got ’em or don’t want to hear ’em’—and kept on supplying brutal truths after each loss. ‘This is why you lost. This is why you didn’t capitalize on this,’ guard Ramon Foster remembers. ‘Have you ever had a talk with somebody like, you’re cool with them but you don’t want to piss him off? That’s him. He’s that uncle who gives you the leash, like, ‘Hey, go do your thing, run around the neighborhood. But if you break a window, I’m going to have to sit your ass.’ You don’t want to let him down.”
c. Football Story of the Week II: A gem from Ian O’Connor about Eli Manning, in the twilight.
d. It takes an excellent reporter to ferret out a story like Manning finding himself in the exclusive Manhattan eatery Rao’s after winning his first Super Bowl, and having his table back-to-back with Yogi Berra’s. And O’Connor is an excellent reporter. Writes O’Connor:
“The old catcher congratulated the young quarterback on his first title, and then said, ‘Just so you know, you have nine more to go.’ Manning was floored by the fact that Berra had won 10 World Series rings with the Yankees. ‘Five in a row, too,’ Berra told him. At the end of the night Manning, Berra, Giants center Shaun O’Hara and restaurant owner Frank Pellegrino were locked arm in arm while singing ‘New York, New York’ before a rollicking packed house.
e. Eli Manning, people. There’s a side of him I guarantee you’ve never read.
f. Football Business Story of the Week: Dan Kaplan of The Athletic on the demise of the most imaginative helmet manufacturer in the business, VICIS, with its innovative CEO, Dave Marver.
g. Sorry it’s behind a paywall. But excellent reporting by Kaplan, including this:
“Founded in 2013 as a research offshoot of the University of Washington, VICIS won $1.1 million in NFL grant money for its innovative helmet design. The helmet, which has a soft outer shell, won awards and quickly gained NFL market share as a highly-touted safer helmet with about 150 to 200 NFL players wearing it. But in USA Football, Pop Warner and America Youth Football (AYF), three of the principal youth football vehicles, Marver found organizations financially aligned with Riddell, controlling the gateway to the hundreds of thousands — if not more — parents and coaches those groups communicate with. Access to coaches’ conventions; emails to parents and coaches; information about helmet safety; all are handled through an exclusive relationship with Riddell.”
h. Kaplan reported that Marver was frustrated in trying to make headway in youth football helmets, particularly with Pop Warner, finding out that Pop Warner was affiliated with the Riddell company. Pop Warner wouldn’t allow its flag-football programs to work with VICIS on its well-reviewed flag-football headgear either. Wrote Kaplan:
“Marver, speaking shortly before he left the company in late November, acerbically commented, ‘Even though Riddell doesn’t have flag.’ “
i. Great. Don’t think about the kids. Don’t think about the future of the sport. Just think about business. It’s the American way. Important work by Kaplan.
j. Story of the Week: (Sorry this one’s behind a paywall too, in the Wall Street Journal.) Natasha Khan with a superb you-are-there about life in Hong Kong during the massive and continuing street protests over Chinese rule these days.
k. Khan writes:
“Across the city, ATMs are boarded up, traffic lights broken and once-reliable subways erratic. Social outings are curtailed, special events canceled and plans shelved. Some weeks, schools have closed. Shop and restaurant workers have lost jobs to a dying nightlife and slowing commerce. Political arguments darken family dinners. Conversations end, ‘Stay safe.’ “
l. I think the only time I’ve ever been nervous being on a talk show was in 1990 or ’91, when Sports Illustrated put me on WFAN in New York with Don Imus one morning from the Super Bowl. An intimidating guy, particularly with people he didn’t know. I made it through, I think because of one piece of advice I got before the appearance: Give it back to him if he challenges you. So I did. I was never on the show again, but I can always say I ran the gauntlet once. RIP, Imus.
m. Even though, of course, Imus was way too scorched-earth and went far over the line too often and was at times a race-baiter (he got fired when he called the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos”). Those moments absolutely should not be forgotten in considering the impact of his career.
n. Awful reversal in the Clemson-Ohio State game, taking away an Ohio State touchdown. You saw it. Awkward catch by a Clemson receiver, who took three steps while the Buckeye defender was trying to rip the ball away and tackle him. The ball came loose and it was returned for an OSU touchdown. If the call had been incomplete on the field, I would not have thought it should have been overturned. But the call was complete on the field—and that’s how it looked to me—and then replay overturned it. Just a harrowing mistake that may well have cost Ohio State a spot in the national title game against LSU. There was not indisputable evidence to overturn the play. And that’s a great illustration of why so much about replay is flawed, on the college and pro levels.
o. Coffeenerdness: Ever been to Philz Coffee? Locations all over San Francisco and other cities, specializing in pour-over coffee. Love how each coffee is made individually, with scalding water enveloping a filter with freshly ground beans. I tried the Jacob’s Wonderbar dark roast. They said it’s got notes of dark chocolate and smoke. All I know is it was rich and very dark. Loved it.
p. Beernerdness: Speaking of San Francisco treats, you’ve got to try Barebottle Brewing Company, and its fun warehouse/gameroom/dog-friendly/kid-friendly tap room. Tried two beers: the Bareclaw Stout (“like a candy bar in a glass,” the bartender said), which was a combination of sweetness and Guinness. Interesting. And also had the Prima Tangerina, a dry pilsner with a whiff of tangerine, which I really liked. The whole scene is worth your time.
q. Happy New Year, everyone. It’ll be strange when we have to start writing 2020 on checks.
Great friggin’ ballgame.
We can ask for one reward:
Game Three in two weeks.