Summer 2017: First day of the Chargers in Los Angeles, first day of training camp. Kobe Bryant came in to talk to the team about playing in Los Angeles. He talked for 45 minutes, the majority of time in Q&A form. One player asked Bryant: “What’s your favorite book?” He said, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” Hmmm. The book is about a seagull who wants more out of life than swooping down and fighting his fellows for food. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a non-conformist who wants to perfect his flying technique, and wants to branch out into other passions.
It is not what the Chargers expected. But it was great.
Bryant’s point: The way to be great is not to be in the pack, but to strive to be better every day of your life. It’s cool you’re in the NFL. But now what are you going to do? How great can you become?
“I think half the team went out and bought ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ that day,” Chargers VP of Communications Josh Rupprecht said.
After something so senseless as Bryant and eight others dying in a helicopter crash Sunday near L.A., I prefer to remember how great Bryant the player was, and how great Bryant the father and person was becoming. He was trying to be Jonathan Livingston Seagull in his next life. Let’s take that from the life and times of Kobe Bryant.
KANSAS CITY — Football coaches: strange breed. I asked to ride to work one morning in the Super Bowl off week with Kansas City coach Andy Reid. Sure, he said. Pick you up at your hotel at 3:15.
Reid, in khaki shorts (Lord—it’s six degrees outside), plush moccasins, a puffy black parka and black ski cap, pulled up in his blue pickup at 3:07.
When Reid, 61, wakes up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, that’s usually around 3, and so he just stays up and gets in his truck and goes to work. “No phone, no one knocking at the door,” he said. “You get two, three hours of quality work done before the real world begins.”
He doesn’t drive fast, and he doesn’t run yellow lights. He likes to think. On the 14-minute drive to his parking spot in the pitch black of the Chiefs training facility next to Arrowhead Stadium, 11 other vehicles were on the road, total.
In my 51 minutes with him, no question bugged him—not one about the 2012 death of his son Garrett, not one about getting fired in Philadelphia, not one about the pain of telling Alex Smith he was about to draft his successor, not one about never winning The Big One, despite being the sixth-winningest coach in NFL history. (Head-coaching seasons for Reid: 21. Championships: 0. Titles won by the five winningest NFL coaches ever: 26.) Let’s start there. By the time I ask, we’re at his parking space. It’s about 3:40. The game plan, which he’d left in mid-plan three-and-a-half hours earlier, sat on his desk, waiting.
“How much do you think about what the outside world thinks?” I asked. “Which is: Reid’s a hell of a coach, but he’s never won a championship. He can’t really be one of the great ones. How much do you hear that, and does the narrative bother you?”
“No, listen,” Reid said, like he’s answering a question about the weather. Routine. “I try in every game, for that two hours, to rip your heart out the best I can. Right? I love doing this. I love the competition. That’s why we all do this.
“You just took the drive that I take every day and there’s nothing to the outside world right there. It’s calm, it’s dark, and then I go in this building and I study. Then when I leave it’s dark. It’s calm, and I go home and sleep and rest and then come back and do it again. That to me, is what’s real. That’s what I enjoy. I don’t worry about the other stuff. I don’t go there. Everybody’s gonna have their opinion on whether you can coach or can’t coach. Or this or that. I’ve been doing it a long time. Loved every minute. I love the relationships maybe most of all. I love putting the strategy together with my young coaches. I get in there and grind with them. I got some great minds that love to study and be creative.
“Everything else? Eh. It is what it is.”
The Lead: Andy Reid
It’s the Joe Montana Super Bowl! Niners-Chiefs, six days away. Best pass rush in football and ridiculously ascending run game versus toughest-to-defend quarterback and ascending D. Anybody’s game. Vegas says Chiefs by 1. It’s a coin flip to me. More about the game, and about a frenetic week as the focus shifts to Super Bowl LIV in Miami. First event: Mediafest tonight in Marlins Stadium, with both teams meeting the press between 7 and 10 ET.
First: my time with Reid, who will be interesting but likely cautious this week, when the world invades his space and 3,000 Super Bowl-accredited media people will ask him everything. When I went looking for something that said “Reid” but not many people knew, I found it deep in his past, around 1970 or ’71. He was 10 or 12 years old—he didn’t recall exactly—living in the shadow of the movie and TV studios in Los Angeles, where his dad worked as an artist.
The story involves sweet and sour meatballs, and John Wayne.
Reid’s dad shopped at a meat store in Hollywood, and the shop catered the green rooms for various studio shows. His dad was big on the two Reid boys having jobs, and the shopkeepers needed a hand, and so many days, young Andy would be an extra set of hands. He proved responsible early, so the caterers gave him a job on some days: He’d be the gatekeeper for the sweet-and-sour meatballs. Three, max, per person. Young Andy was a big sports fan, so if an athlete was in a green room before a show (he remembers doing “The Merv Griffin Show,” with Wilt Chamberlain as a guest once), he’d look the other way when the guy wanted more meatballs. But not Hollywood folk. Just three then.
“They weren’t huge meatballs,” Reid said. “So like one time, John Wayne, he wanted a couple more meatballs. If I knew he played football I would’ve given him as many as he wanted. But I was told, I was instructed, to give three meatballs or we were gonna run out. You’re getting three meatballs.”
You said no to Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit?” Kid, do you want to live? You denied the Duke extra meatballs?
Yes he did. And that wasn’t the only time. “I always looked down when I did it,” Reid said. “I never made eye contact—just, ‘Three meatballs.’ “
What’s the segue to that?
I fast-forwarded to the weird 2004 Super Bowl in Jacksonville, and the way his only Super Bowl as head coach ended. The Eagles trailed the Patriots 24-14 with 5:40 left in the fourth quarter, and Donovan McNabb moved the team at a maddeningly glacial pace to a touchdown. Playing with zero urgency, McNabb took 3:45 to drive for a touchdown. I asked Reid if he was telling McNabb to hurry it up. “Yeah, I probably was. It’s my responsibility to do that.” Reid on the game: “I wanted Donovan to have a great game. It didn’t work out that way. He took the blame for it when he didn’t deserve the blame. We were all part of that thing. Unfortunately, the quarterback takes the blame. He had a heck of a career there. He played a heck of a year that year. Couple balls got away from him in that game so didn’t look the best, but it wasn’t because of these stories out there that ‘he choked’ or ‘threw up’ or any of this stuff.”
Then . . . the end of Reid’s Eagles career. In August 2012, at training camp, his son Garrett, a camp assistant to the strength and conditioning staff, was found dead of a heroin overdose in his room. Then the Eagles floundered, finishing 4-12. Reid got fired on New Year’s Eve 2012. Wouldn’t this have been a good time to step back, decompress, ponder life, stare at the ocean and do whatever for a while? Not for Reid. Seven days after Reid was fired in Philadelphia (and five weeks after Kansas City had a tragedy of its own, with linebacker Jovan Belcher murdering his girlfriend and then killing himself), the Chiefs introduced him as the successor to Romeo Crennel.
“Yeah, we lost Garrett,” Reid said. “Had a rough football year. I understood why people felt that way. I didn’t feel that way. My wife supported me on that, Tammy. I just had no desire to take time off at that time. I was sad for what took place. I don’t wish that on anybody. But I also felt that the game could help heal [me]. Coming here they had issues here where they could heal me and I could heal them. It was kind of a joint union there.”
“How much did Garrett’s death affect you personally and as a coach?” I asked.
“I’m sure it did,” he said. “I’m sure somewhere in there it has [affected me]. I think that along with age. I’m sure all these events affect in some way or another. Make you better. Make you more patient. Make you keep your eyes open a little bit better, more. Try to help get people second chances. All those things. I think those are all probably because of those type of events that happen in your life. We’ve all had something there that makes us what we are. I think it was probably something like that to it.”
Reid’s other son, Britt, had drug problems of his own. [He’s now the Chiefs’ defensive line coach.] I reminded Reid that, in 2009, he told me Garrett and Britt advised him to give Michael Vick a second chance at football when he’d been released from prison after his dog-fighting and animal-cruelty convictions. Reid asked both to weigh in on Vick, and Britt Reid talked to Vick.
“What they said was, he’s admitting that he was wrong,” Reid said. “He’s done it publicly; he’s done it to them. That he sat in his cell and thought about it. He’ll never come back. There was conviction in that. . . . [He would] never come back to jail. He was determined. And then the other part was that he said he was willing to work and not in the NFL, but have a job, whatever it was to prove to people that he was back. He’ll work like crazy to do whatever it takes to get back in.”
With the approval of owner Jeffrey Lurie, and against a loud disapproval of the animal-rights community (and picketing), the Eagles signed Vick, who did as much as he could to make good on his second NFL chance. “There was always a kind heart in there underneath all the pressure of being the second coming of Elvis,” Reid said. Vick led the Eagles to the 2010 NFC East title, and in his sixth start back played arguably the greatest game of his life on Monday Night Football. Remember? He threw for four touchdowns, ran for two more, and Philly creamed Washington 59-28.
Would another coach ever have signed the toxic Vick? My guess is no. Being an Eagle for five years, and being a front-facing advocate for animal rights after doing so much wrong, contributed mightily to Vick moving back into the football and public mainstream in the decade since leaving prison. Imagine the NFL appointing Vick one of two Pro Bowl captains 10 years after walking out of prison, and imagine NFL partner FOX signing Vick to do some television work. Unimaginable 10 years ago. Reid is proud of what Vick has done with his second chance.
And in his second chance, in Kansas City, Reid needed his own Elvis.
Alex Smith was Reid’s first quarterback in Kansas City, and he went 53-27 in five seasons as a Chief, with a stellar 102-33 touchdown-to-interception ratio, making the playoffs in four of five seasons. Smith was a dream student, leader and executor of the offense. But he won only one playoff game. He had a ceiling, and it looked like he’d reached it. There was a drumbeat inside the organization—and certainly in the stands at Arrowhead Stadium—to upgrade at quarterback as 2016 turned into 2017. As Reid said, “Alex is no dummy.” He could feel it too.
One day in the spring of 2016—after the third of Smith’s five years as starter—Reid walked down to the scouting area and saw co-director of player personnel Brett Veach studying some tape. “I’m watching our next quarterback,” Veach told Reid. It was tape of Mahomes as a Texas Tech sophomore. Reid watched the strong arm and command and mobility of Mahomes for five or 10 minutes. “Coach,” Veach said, “I can only imagine what he’d do in this offense.”
Veach would text highlights of Mahomes to Reid’s phone in the fall. “At one point that December,” Veach said, “I remember Coach calling me into his office and showing me a Kiper/McShay mock first round. He said, ‘Your guy’s not even in the first round!’ They didn’t have Patrick in the round. I just said, ‘Coach, it’s perfect! Don’t worry. You don’t want him on these lists now. It sets up perfect for us.’ “
Reid hired Veach, a former wideout at Delaware (he caught passes from quarterback Matt Nagy) to be his personal assistant with the Eagles in 2007, and he came to trust his personnel acumen. “If you know Brett,” Reid said, “he can wear you out when he gets on a player. When he gets on a guy, I listen.”
“The thing about Andy that people who work for him will tell you is he’s got no ego,” Veach said. “The first year I’m in Philadelphia, I’m the lowest guy on the totem pole—literally. And I’d have little [scouting] projects and Andy would say, ‘You like this guy? If I’m gonna watch his best game, what would it be?’ “
The clincher for Veach—and for Reid, as it turned out—came in Mahomes’ second-to-last college game, in Ames, Iowa. In the first half, Mahomes got knocked out with a shoulder injury, and though he came back before halftime, Iowa State was up 45-3 at the half. Game over. Texas Tech was about to be 4-7, and Veach had seen enough. He gathered his stuff, put his coat on, and prepared to leave. But on the field late in halftime, Mahomes was loosening up his arm. This pro prospect, with a bum shoulder, was going to play in a blowout. Veach couldn’t wait to tell Reid. “Now you look back and you see how meaningful that was,” Veach said. “In the Denver game this year, his kneecap pops out, and the son of a buck wants to go back in the game!”
The Chiefs low-keyed their interest in Mahomes; Reid didn’t go to Mahomes’ Pro Day, or dig into his background with Texas Tech coaches. “That would have set off fire alarms,” Veach said. There was a natural trade partner—needy Buffalo—sitting at number 10, wanting volume. It didn’t hurt that Reid gave Bills coach Sean McDermott his first job in the NFL in 1999 in Philadelphia. Veach and GM John Dorsey did enough intel on the scouting trail to know that the two competitors for Mahomes were the Saints (picking 11th) and the Cardinals (13th), and the teams from six through nine didn’t seem keen on trading. Reid said Veach “CIA’d the whole thing.” The Chiefs targeted Buffalo’s pick, and when Mahomes was there, KC dealt two first-round picks and a third-rounder to move up 17 spots to pick Mahomes.
“Listen,” Reid said. “I love Alex Smith. Not because he’s just a great football player. But great person. Highly, highly intelligent. One of the best I’d ever been around. I mean, I wish I would’ve had him when he was younger in this offense. He would’ve been spectacular. Even more so than what he was. Go back and look at what he did here for those few years. We were bringing Pat Mahomes in. We were drafting him to sit for a year or two potentially, to learn from Alex and these coaches that we’ve got . . . Didn’t ask Alex to teach him. But Alex opened it up to do that. He learned, followed him everywhere. Whether it was talking about how he took his notes in the classroom to how he trained to what he did when he went home to study. Everything. Every little thing that goes into being a great quarterback in the NFL. The whole time, Alex knowing that this kid had talent just by watching him practice . . . Alex had his best year with this kid on his tail, in theory.”
Reid got 538 texts in the hours after Kansas City’s AFC Championship victory over Tennessee last week. One was from Alex Smith.
Reid recalls, “[Alex] goes, ‘Phenomenal win. The kid was unbelievable.’ He’s his biggest fan. That’s what’s weird about it. And Patrick’s his biggest fan.”
Time to go to work. The security guy, the only other person on the property at 3:55 in the morning, kept peering out of the Chiefs’ lobby, wondering what Reid could be doing in his truck.
I told Reid that Niners coach Kyle Shanahan is like a young Andy Reid—imaginative and inventive, hard to game plan for. “I think he grew up with a phenomenal football-coach father who I have a ton of respect for,” Reid said, speaking of two-time Super Bowl-winning coach Mike Shanahan. “He loves coaching. He loves the strategy part of it . . . I’d love to get him on the board, see what the stuff is. I love that. That’s the best part of it. He has a philosophy. It’s direct. It’s easy to understand for his players—‘This is where we’re going.’ “
“Think you’re going to win the game?” I asked.
“I’m gonna tell you,” Reid said. “I go into every game thinking we’re gonna win and rip your heart out. That’s every game. Right or wrong. You can talk to the sports psychiatrist or psychologist and they’ll probably tell you that’s the wrong way to go. But that’s the way I go. I’ve gone that way everything I’ve done. I try to do it humbly because that’s how I roll. But yeah, that’s why we work this hard. We don’t work this hard to lose.”
The LIV Storylines10
Aside from the major stories of the week, here are some 49er-related angles (other than, “Hey Kyle, how’d the Falcons blow a 25-point lead in the Super Bowl three years ago?”) we’ll be chasing prior to the Super Bowl:
• The Garoppolo Factor. Kyle Shanahan, mad genius . . . in the run game? Late in the first half of the divisional win over Minnesota, Jimmy Garoppolo threw a bad interception (are there good ones?), and since then, Shanahan has Bob-Griesed the offense to two routs. In the 86 San Francisco snaps over the past six quarters, Garoppolo has thrown 14 passes. In those six quarters, Niners backs have gained 410 rushing yards with five touchdowns, the passing game 103 yards and zero touchdowns. (Interesting to note that over the Chiefs’ last 86 snaps, they’ve been in symphonic balance, with 43 Patrick Mahomes passes.) This is a gut feeling I have, based on a little knowledge but mostly feel for Shanahan: He’s not going to hide Garoppolo in this game. He hasn’t hidden him all season—why start in the playoffs? The play-calling has much more to do with the dominance of the run game than any fear in Garoppolo’s performance. If you were able to rush for 6.2 yards per carry over six quarters, wouldn’t you keep running it?
Regarding Garoppolo in big spots: I remember him being shaky in parts of the Monday night loss to Seattle in November. But look at the toughest three-game stretch any team had in this regular season: Green Bay, at Baltimore, at New Orleans. Garoppolo completed 72.4 percent of his throws with seven touchdowns and one pick, and a gaudy 10.1 yards-per-attempt. Would you bury Garoppolo in the game plan if you were Kyle Shanahan, limiting the impact of the great George Kittle and big-game Emmanuel Sanders? I sure wouldn’t—unless the run game is gashing Kansas City the way it gashed the Vikings and Packers.
• San Francisco’s unsung hero. Bobby Turner, the 49ers’ 70-year-old running backs coach, is an amazing story. This is his 25th season as an NFL backfield coach, having broken in on the Denver staff of Mike Shanahan in 1995. Over a quarter-century coaching in Denver, Washington and Atlanta before arriving in San Francisco in 2017, Turner’s backs have produced 16 seasons of 1,000 yards rushing by eight different players—and that doesn’t include the 1,015 yards by Raheem Mostert this year because Mostert’s total includes playoff games and the others do not. Six of those eight backs came to Turner either off the street or drafted in the fourth round or later: Terrell Davis (196th pick), Olandis Gary (127th), Mike Anderson (189th pick), Reuben Droughns (off waivers), Alfred Morris (173rd pick) and Devonta Freeman (103rd pick). His rushing leaders with the Niners in 2018 and ‘19, Matt Breida and Mostert, were undrafted.
The Turner coaching style fits both Shanahans’ one-cut-and-get-upfield ethos. He’s so valuable because coaches know every year before the draft he’ll find a tarnished or underrated gem. It was Turner, the rookie NFL coach, who was adamant in the sixth round of his first draft: Take this kid from Georgia, Terrell Davis. He’s an every-down back. Great running backs don’t have to be the shiniest prospects. As Turner once said: “It’s like with your wife or girlfriend—when you see her, I mean, it’s like love.”
With the top backs on the Niner depth chart, Jerick McKinnon and Tevin Coleman, battling injuries for much of their collective time in San Francisco, Turner has honchoed Mostert and Breida into Super Bowl staples—although no one will know till game day whether the main back this week will be Coleman (shoulder) or Mostert.
• The Lynch-Shanahan merger. Kyle Shanahan got the 49ers job three years ago, and he agreed to the gig before finding a GM. How’d he make a match with John Lynch, a FOX color man for NFL games? “I had just called his divisional playoff game [Falcons 36, Seahawks 20] in Atlanta,” Lynch told me on this week’s “The Peter King Podcast.” “I thought he did a brilliant job. I said so on air. I called him and said, ‘Sounds like you’re gonna have a great shot at this San Francisco [job]. Good luck in the NFC Championship.’ I remember in the conversation Kyle saying, The one thing I’m working through—I can’t find a GM I’d like to work with. Something was gnawing at me. I couldn’t go to sleep for about four days. I was supposed to be kind of on vacation because my TV season was over. I woke up one morning and I said, ‘What’s gnawing at me is what Kyle said.’ ” Lynch called Shanahan a couple of days before the NFC Championship Game. The conversation, as Lynch recalled, went like this:
Lynch: “What about me?”
Shanahan: “What are you talking about?”
Lynch: “What about me for the GM job?”
Shanahan: “Why would you do that? You’ve got a great job.”
Lynch, post-playing career, thought one day he might go to work with John Elway in Denver, because they’re friends and they’d discussed it before, or in San Diego, which he loved, and which was home. But before he knew it, Shanahan got CEO Jed York on a three-way call, and York and Lynch met in northern California about the job, and the match was made. It probably never happens if Lynch hadn’t picked up the phone after some sleepless nights three years ago.
• The challenge of the 49er pass rush. I asked my friends at Pro Football Focus for some statistical help this week on the formidable San Francisco pass-rush, which has nine sacks and 26 hits/significant hurries on the quarterback in two postseason games. Logically, with the Niners front healthy and playing productively, you’d figure it could be the biggest factor in the Super Bowl. Now I’m not so sure. With a fit front in these playoffs, San Francisco pressured Kirk Cousins, on average, 2.43 seconds after the snap; and, with Aaron Rodgers, 2.58 seconds after the snap. On average, that means San Francisco is pressuring the quarterback about 2.5 seconds after every passing snap. Patrick Mahomes, over the past two years, has a 120.3 rating and 5,248 passing yards when throwing in 2.5 seconds or faster. That’s the best in the NFL since the start of 2018.
For the Niners, it’s a very good thing that the secondary has ramped up its game. PFF figured that the San Francisco secondary had the NFL’s second-best season-long grade when quarterbacks threw in 2.5 seconds or less. Translation: Against the Niners, Mahomes won’t be home free just because most weeks he throws efficiently when pressured. Most weeks you’re not facing Richard Sherman.
Shanahan: Mr. Mensa
With due respect to the defenses, and the defensive bosses, this Super Bowl is a Mensa match between Reid and 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan. Though nearly 22 years younger than Reid, Shanahan is on his level as a play-caller and play-designer, a brilliant young coach with a great base of knowledge on both sides of the ball. “Facing Kyle,” said veteran NFL defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who just retired as the Titans’ defensive boss last week, “the big thing is you’ve got to be disciplined all day, every play. He’ll runs plays that you’ve seen before, but they never look the same because he might have a different formation, or different motion.”
Shanahan has a lot of Bill Belichick in him. (Sacrilegious? Maybe, but true.) Belichick spent time in his youth hanging around his dad, Navy assistant coach and scout Steve Belichick, and soaking up football knowledge from the great Roger Staubach and other players at Navy practices. Shanahan spent much of his youth hanging around his dad, Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, and soaking up football knowledge from the great John Elway and others at Broncos practices.
When Shanahan was a backup receiver at Texas in 2001 and 2002, quarterback Chris Simms said he brought techniques from Denver wideouts Ed McCaffrey and Rod Smith to practice. Shanahan caught 14 balls in two seasons with the Longhorns, but, like Belichick (an overachieving center at Wesleyan University in Connecticut), it would be the X’s and O’s that distinguished him after college. Two years after they hung around together at Texas, Shanahan and Simms were reunited under Jon Gruden with Tampa Bay. Shanahan was the offensive quality-control coach, Simms and Brian Griese the quarterbacks. In Austin, Shanahan needed Simms to throw him the ball. In Tampa, Simms needed Shanahan to advance his pro career.
“Kyle was crucial for me,” Simms said Saturday. “What he was great at was being a middleman between the quarterbacks and Jon Gruden. Jon was a psycho—in a good way. More plays! Big plays! That was Jon. Details would get lost. Maybe you were supposed to run the slant at seven steps, and the receiver would run it at six, or five. Kyle would make hard and fast rules. Receivers knew precisely what they were supposed to do. Kyle was great in the little nuances and clues and coverages. I’d come off the field, and I wouldn’t know if what I just saw was cover 4 or cover 2. Kyle would say, ‘Look at the nickel slot in coverage. If he’s inside, it’s cover 4. Outside, it’s cover 2.” Next series, you’d get out there and you’d see it.
“That was a great time for Kyle to learn the whole game. Our defensive coaching staff was just incredible then—Monte Kiffin, Rod Marinelli, Mike Tomlin, Joe Barry, Raheem Morris. I’d be leaving the facility, 7 or 7:30 at night, and I’d be walking by the defensive team room and there, sitting on the floor in the back of the room, all the time, was Kyle. Sitting there, elbows on knees, taking it all in, learning how to stop what offenses did. If the offense was predictable, that defense would win, all the time.”
Shanahan, in those two seasons, took the “tip sheets” created by Marinelli and Tomlin—keys to look for against that week’s opponents—and learned the thought process of the defense. So in those two years, it wasn’t just getting a ph.D in the Gruden passing game; it was about learning how the defense thought too.
Moving on, Shanahan learned disguises too. At 29, as the precocious offensive coordinator of the Texans under coach Gary Kubiak, Shanahan invented a play he loved but Kubiak was dubious. The play had a seven or eight-man offensive front, with two receivers (or a receiver and a tight end) at the end of the line on the right. The quarterback would take the snap under center, run play-action, then roll right as the mass of bodies up front would roll left, and one of the two receivers/tight ends would leak out of the mayhem to a spot up the left seam that by design should have been wide open. Shanahan never ran it with the Texans. But when he got to Washington in 2010 to be coordinator under father Mike Shanahan, Kyle put it in the game plan in Week 2 . . . against Houston. Late in the second quarter, from the mayhem on the right side of the line, tight end Fred Davis snuck out and behind the tackle, up the left seam, and no Texan went with him. Donovan McNabb lofted an easy completion to Davis, totally uncovered. Gain of 62.
Fast forward to 2019. Week 2 again . . . at Cincinnati. Now Marquise Goodwin was one of the two receivers on the right, and now it was play-action by Jimmy Garoppolo, who faded to the right with the line mosh-pitting left, and Goodwin snuck behind the masses up the left seam. Garoppolo threw it, no one within 15 yards of Goodwin.
The ball was three feet out of Garoppolo’s hands and . . . “Touchdown,” Chris Spielman said on the game broadcast.
Nine Septembers apart, the two plays are the same, run just the way Shanahan drew them up — 2010 | 2019
Why does that play work, and why has it worked for Shanahan for 10 seasons? Because if the defense is not disciplined, and if you take your eyes for a split second off a Davis or a Goodwin, you’ll lose the play. The receiver will come clean out of the mosh pit, and Shanahan will scheme a totally open area so they can be wide open.
And that, those who know Shanahan well, can happen four or five times a week with different plays, if they’re run properly. “That play you’re talking about,” Pees said, “I’ve had to defend against it. We saw it four or five times this year. It’s really smart. I told our defense all week, ‘You CANNOT take your eyes off your man for a second or we’ll get burned.’ “
One of the things that’s going to happen in the Super Bowl is that one of the defensive coordinators—Robert Saleh of the 49ers or Steve Spagnuolo of the Chiefs—is going to look up at some point in the game, probably early, and say, Never saw that coming. That’s a commonality when teams play both of these coaches. Every week in game prep, several times, Reid has three or four offensive coaches on the white board in his office and prods them to come up with stuff they might not have run all season that might work in the next game. By the end of the week, Reid’s white board looks like an inner-city screen of MapQuest, with different-colored lines zigging everywhere. Many of those lines represent plays Reid loves, plays he’ll use in the game. But Reid is not stubborn. The Chiefs had lots of RPO stuff in the game plan last week against Tennessee, and came out with RPOs on the first two snaps. Mahomes pulled the first one, and lunged for two yards. Mahomes pulled the second one, and got sacked for minus-two. Two plays, two RPOs, zero yards. The rest of the game: 62 plays, zero RPOs, 35 points, 404 yards.
Shanahan is just as inventive, and flexible. If his quarterback is on, this game could be a chess match for the ages.
Quotes of the Week20
“Kobe Bryant is gone, and those are the hardest words I’ve ever had to write for this newspaper, and I still don’t believe them as I’m writing them. This can’t be true.”
—Los Angeles Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke, in a sobering piece posted Sunday night.
“One key to success for a quarterback is to study a lot of film in order to understand defensive tendencies . . . But that never worked against Troy. He was one of the most distinctive and disruptive players I have ever played against. Outside of his incredible athleticism, his greatest skill was his unpredictability. . . . If you wanted to find Troy, you just looked for where the ball was going and you’d always find him.”
—Tom Brady on 2020 Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist Troy Polamalu.
More on the 2020 Hall of Fame elections this week in Ten Things I Think I Think.
“No Giant will ever wear number 10 again.”
—Giants co-owner John Mara, at the Friday retirement ceremony of Eli Manning, who wore the number for the last 16 years.
“Wellington Mara said, ‘Once a Giants, always a Giant.’ For me, it’s ‘Only a Giant.’ “
—Manning, referring to the late former owner Wellington Mara, who owned the team when Manning was drafted in 2004.
“It’s the owners. We have spectacular candidates, and we still have decision-making [by owners] that is irrational … It’s hard to justify Freddie Kitchens being hired and overlooking Eric Bieniemy.”
—Cyrus Mehri, co-founder of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, to Jason Reid of The Undefeated, at the Senior Bowl in Mobile about the paucity of black hires for NFL head-coaching jobs in 2020.
“I’m old, not dead.”
—Jerry Izenberg, writing in the Newark Star-Ledger as he has for decades, announcing Sunday he will not be attending the Super Bowl this year. At 89, Izenberg thus ends a streak of covering every Super Bowl.
Dean Pees • Retired Tennessee defensive coordinator • Photographed in Nashville, Tenn.
Pees, 70, retired last week after finishing his 47th year of coaching at the high school, college and NFL level. It’s one of the most interesting careers in coaching history. Not only because he got to coach under two legends, Nick Saban and Bill Belichick, but he also got to coach under two coaches he coached as players—John Harbaugh (Miami of Ohio, then the Ravens) and Mike Vrabel (the Patriots, then the Titans). Thirteen jobs in 47 years, and . . .
“I’ve never applied for a job. I never got fired from a job. I never really sought another job. I never said, ‘I’m going to climb the ladder.’ I just did the job I had at the time, did the best I could. And I was lucky: I loved every job I had.”
Starting in Bloomingdale, Ohio (pop: 754), at little Elmwood High School.
“I played in a winter basketball league in [northwest] Ohio after college, when I met the principal at Elmwood High School. I was running a men’s clothing store in Bowling Green, Ohio. They had some openings on the football staff at Elmwood and he asked me if I wanted to coach. I said sure. I was hired to coach the secondary and be the track coach. But at our first meeting, the head coach made me the defensive coordinator. I did that two years, then became the head coach for four. Then I went to Findlay College as defensive coordinator and head track coach in 1979. After my first year, I went to Miami of Ohio to learn about their defense—which was the same defense we ran—from their coordinator, Tim Rose. In 1983, he got the head job there and hired me to be his defensive coordinator. Stayed there four years, and then Elliott Uzelac, the coach at Navy, called and hired me to coach the secondary. He got my name from Lloyd Carr, who I’d done some clinics with.
“After the ’89 season, Nick Saban called me. He was the secondary coach with the Oilers then, but he’d just been hired as the Toledo coach. He asked me to fly down to Houston, just to talk. He got my name from [longtime Navy assistant] Steve Belichick. So I flew down, and he offered me the defensive coordinator job at Toledo. Loved working with Nick—so good to me and my family. He left to coach with Bill [Belichick] and the Browns after one year, but Gary Pinkell was hired by Toledo and he kept the staff. I stayed three more years. After signing day [in 1994], Gary said to me one day, ‘[Notre Dame coach] Lou Holtz is on the phone. He’s gonna offer you a job.’ I picked up the phone, and Lou offered me the linebacker job. Then he said, ‘I hate to ask you this, but can you be here this afternoon?’ I said sure, I’ll call my wife on the way. So I was at Notre Dame one year. Then Nick takes the Michigan State job, and he hires me as his defensive coordinator. I was there from ‘95 to ’97. Kent State fires their coach after the ’97 season, and their AD flies up to meet me. We have breakfast, and I guess you could call that an interview, but it basically was a conversation—he just wanted to get to know me. He offered me the job over the phone.
“I’m at Kent six years. One day I had a question about defense for Bill Belichick, and I called him. He called me back and said, ‘I’m losing a linebacker coach. Ever thought about leaving college?’ We met at the scouting combine. He offered me the linebacker job. Great experience, with [Tedy] Bruschi, [Willie] McGinest, [Mike] Vrabel. In 2006, he made me the coordinator. Just a great experience, to see how the very best do it. But after four years as the coordinator, I needed a break. I made a smooth exit from New England. Then John Harbaugh offered me the linebacker job in Baltimore, which is what I needed at the time. How great that was, coaching Ray Lewis. Then John named me the coordinator in 2012. After ’16, I’m thinking of retiring. John said, ‘How about one more year?’ But after the ’17 season, that was it. I retired.
“So we [Pees and wife Melody] went up to our lake house in Michigan. It’s a Thursday night in January. We went out to dinner with our financial adviser, and we’re figuring out the NFL pension and how we’re going to live. Melody was planning this river cruise in Europe. The next morning, the phone rang. I said, ‘Hi Mike,’ and she knew. Mike Vrabel. He’d just gotten the Tennessee head-coaching job. He needed someone with experience to run the defense. He wanted me to be the coordinator.”
Pees’ only son, Matt Pees, was a high school coach in Denver. Dean Pees might have taken the Titans job anyway, but he asked Vrabel if he could bring Matt as defensive quality control coach. Vrabel checked, called the next day to say Matt was welcome on the staff, and the deal got done. Father and son coached together in 2018 and 2019.
“Of course losing at Kansas City was disappointing. But winning at New England and winning at Baltimore in the playoffs, against two coaches I have so much respect for, was an incredible way to go out. That goal-line stand in the second quarter at New England is a career highlight. But this time, I’m done coaching. Forty-seven years is enough. Not saying I’d never do some other job in football, but not coaching.
“It’s been a great career. Very, very blessed. My wife’s been fantastic. My kids have been fantastic—their whole lives, they just take off one jersey and put on another. I’m looking at my grandson right now—he’s 8, and he’s wearing a Titans cap.
“People ask me, ‘What’s your favorite place you coached?’ All of ‘em. They ask, ‘Who’s your favorite player?’ All of ‘em.
“In this football business, who can say they never got fired? Who can say they loved every job they had? For 47 years!”
If the Chiefs win Super Bowl LIV, Andy Reid would get victory 222 on 2-2-20.
At the annual New York Baseball Writers dinner Saturday night, the biggest Mets fan in creation, Jerry Seinfeld, awarded Pete Alonso of the Mets the National League Rookie of the Year award.
The biggest Eagles fan in creation, Mike Trout, received the American League Most Valuable Player award from his favorite player—former Eagle Brian Westbrook.
The NFL released its preseason and regular-season concussion data Thursday. The news was fairly good. Reported and confirmed concussions were up by 10 from 2018 to 2019, from 214 to 224; that may not sound good, but there was an average of 266 concussions per year from 2015 to 2017, so two straight years of 214 and 224 is an improvement on recent history. The annual numbers, reported by the NFL:
The NFL, however, does have one major issue regarding head trauma. The upstart helmet company VICIS, which forced the helmet establishment to work harder to devise better helmet technology over the past five years, is in receivership and likely to go out of business. VICIS couldn’t make enough of a dent in the youth football helmet trade, and though it made some of the best helmets on the NFL market, still had only about 225 players wear its helmets in 2019.
In the league’s health-and-safety briefing for the media Thursday, executives were mum on the impact of VICIS’ demise. But they didn’t have to say much. When they put up a slide on the top-performing helmets in the most recent NFL/NFLPA combine helmet testing, the VICIS Zero1 tested the best of 27 league-approved helmets in lab testing.
Tweets of the Week40
Jamal Adams is a safety for the Jets.
Ryan Williams is an agent for NFL players.
DeMarcus Lawrence is a pass-rusher for the Cowboys.
Patrick Peterson is a cornerback for the Cardinals.
Kanell is a former NFL quarterback and current talk-show host.
Send me your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter.
Last week, I asked for thoughts on expanding the NFL schedule to 17 or 18 games, and 256 of you replied. A few of your responses:
Players max out at 16 games. From Joe Miller: “How about adding more games, but only allowing players to play in 16 games. The team chooses which 16 games a player participates in. I see both benefits and drawbacks. You keep players from being exposed to more games and potential injuries. It creates some uncertainty, but it may also create interest. A lot of water cooler talk about who the team is going to have play in games near the end of the season. Or you keep a “star” out of an early or mid-season game of what appears to be a weak opponent and that opponent has greater chance of competing. This might not be popular with coaches as it may impact the dynamics of who plays together. But good coaches always find a way to adjust to rules changes.”
Expand the playoffs, not the regular season. From Marc Mastro: “Going to a 17-game schedule doesn’t seem to make sense from a variety of standpoints, not to mention how it creates an imbalance in scheduling which is about as perfect as it can be now. My question is why haven’t we heard much about expanding the playoffs? Couldn’t there be a suitable enough financial return by adding four teams to the playoffs and eliminating the top two teams in each conference getting a bye week? The first week of the playoffs can feature eight games instead of four with the biggest hurdle being scheduling.”
Play 16. From J.J.: “I am an avid NFL fan, season-ticket holder of the Giants, and the type of person who centers Sundays in the fall on the NFL. I adamantly oppose the expansion of the regular season. It feels like nothing but an attempt to grab more money. The schedule makes sense. The fact that there are only 16 games makes it fun to be fan. Second, player safety. In a climate where there is so much noise surrounding the health of the game, what message does expanding the regular season send?”
Play 16 in 18 weeks. From Jason Miller: “Instead of going to a 17-game regular season, perhaps the NFL should consider adding an 18th week to the schedule. That would add an extra television week without adding an extra set of games—and, importantly, a second in-season bye week opportunity for players. It could also provide an opportunity to solve the Thursday game dilemma with the NFLPA. Each team could play in one Thursday game during the season with the second ‘mini-bye’ week preceding this game, thereby eliminating the unpopular four-day turnaround that currently exists for most teams.”
More games. From Tom Irvin, of York, Pa.: “Absolutely give me a longer season. More Sunday afternoon football, more fantasy football, it’s what fans want. Ongoing rule changes and helmet technology will minimize the safety factor.”
The 17th game is an international game. From Jean-Luc Beaudry: “Make the 17th game an international game for all teams. All of those games would be interconference games, so that teams do not lose valuable conference or division home games. The opponent would be determined by the position finish in the division a team played against 2 years ago. For example, the NFC East played the AFC East this year, the South last year, the West in 2017, and will play the North for 2020. For a theoretical 17th game of 2020, they would draw the corresponding seed in this year’s AFC South, yielding these matchups: Philadelphia-Houston, Dallas-Tennessee, New York-Indianapolis, and Washington-Jacksonville. They wouldn’t otherwise see each other until 2022! Why an international (or, at the very least, a neutral site) game? That is the only way to grow the sport.”
I dig it. From Jack Cheng: “I’m on an archaeological excavation in northern Sudan and my internet connection isn’t great. However, I got my teenage son to email me your column (stripped of all video and images) so I could read about the championship games. I’ll be back to the States in time to watch the Super Bowl but just wanted to send you a note to tell you how addicted I am to hearing your thoughts from week to week. Travelnerdness indeed!”
Wow. That is one of the coolest emails I’ve ever gotten. Thanks for reading, Jack.
10 Things I Think I Think50
1. I think one of the reasons why Halls of Fame should have a five-year waiting period is it causes the 48 voters for the Hall to not have to make a decision on a player the day or week or month after he retires. You don’t need a day or week or month to decide on Joe Montana or Emmitt Smith. But I maintain you need that time, and longer, to wait out the emotion, and to decide on players like Kurt Warner and Terrell Davis. It’s smart to take some time for the emotional masses to NOT dictate either way the case of Eli Manning, in or out.
In: He did play two of the best 10 postseasons by a player in NFL history, in my opinion . . . first, beating Brett Favre is sub-zero Lambeau in Favre’s last game as a Packer, then making the 18-0 Patriots 18-1 in a Super Bowl for the ages; second, beating Aaron Rodgers and the 15-1 Packers at Lambeau, playing 90 bruising/killer snaps against the Niners in an NFC title victory, then beating the Patriots again.
Out: He’s a .500 regular-season QB, exactly, and he was 19 below .500 in his last eight NFL seasons, and never in 16 seasons was he first or second-team all-pro, and never was he top three in passing yards, yards per attempt or QB rating. So it’s a good thing to wait. Judge the man against his peers, and judge him for everything. If you decide that two postseasons and his historic durability are enough, so be it.
2. I think an applicable Tweet of the Week for the Eli story would be this, from Jim Trotter of NFL Media: “Is there an actual medical term for ‘Is Eli a Hall of Famer’ exhaustion?” Brilliant, Jim.
3. I think, by the way, I loved Manning’s response to the question at his press conference about what it would mean to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “That’s not a concern,” he said. “My focus now is just reliving the great moments and the great memories with my teammates and my family, and let everything else work out from there.” Perfect. In other words: Not my concern, nothing I can do about it, and I’m not going to let my life be affected one way or the other by something like that. Life’s pretty good for me right now.
4. I think, as one of the 48 voters for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I’ve got a few thoughts about Hall voting this week for the five modern-era candidates in the class of 2020:
• Keep in mind that I never predict HoF classes well—at all—but I like Troy Polamalu’s chances above all. He’s one of the most instinctive and punishing safeties who ever lived. “Outside of his incredible athleticism, his greatest skill was his unpredictability,” Tom Brady said. Absolutely right. If he’s in, that leaves four spots of the five max who can make it.
• I’d like to see one more safety (of the three remaining) and one offensive linemen (of the three remaining) make it. The cases for Steve Atwater, John Lynch and LeRoy Butler are all strong, as are the cases of Steve Hutchinson, Alan Faneca and Tony Boselli. Most if not all of those six are Hall-worthy. If we can chip away at those groups and put one of each in this year, that means on my logic, that three are in now. Two left.
• I love the candidacies of playmaking linebackers Sam Mills and Zach Thomas. I’d love to see at least one get in. Mills was not just an inspirational small player, he was a great player. Thomas is the same. One of those—admittedly a longshot—would leave one slot left.
• So many good skill players—Edgerrin James and Isaac Bruce especially; one deserves the nod, at least. James (two rushing titles, an offensive rookie of the year, all-decade player) is hard to leave out. Very hard.
5. I think I’m fine with Aaron Rodgers saying he’s an atheist. A person should be whatever he or she wants. But I’m not sure Wisconsin is going to be so fine with that.
6. I think Justin Herbert, the Oregon quarterback, helped himself more than any high-profile player at the Senior Bowl. Herbert, entering the week, was a clear three at quarterback, behind Joe Burrow and Tua Taigovailoa. He may still be three. But as one veteran scout at practices last week told me, the biggest advantage to Herbert’s play went to Washington, with the second overall pick. “Now Washington can sit at two and take [Ohio State pass-rusher] Chase Young, or they can get rich with picks by dealing it for three or four high picks,” the scout said. “Now there are three premier guys left at number two. Justin solidified who he is, and now no one can argue if he goes top five.”
7. I think that was a master class in gamesmanship by Kyle Shanahan, in the NFL Films clip of him telling side judge Eugene Hall to watch for George Kittle getting abused late in Packers-Niners. Shanahan said Kittle won’t be able to break away from the line cleanly because Packers corner Will Redmond will obstruct him. Redmond, Shanahan told the ref, will be holding Kittle. And boom, the foul happened, and the officials called the penalty.
8. I think this is the significant lead of the week, from Jason Reid of The Undefeated, reporting from the Senior Bowl:
“MOBILE, Ala. — Infuriated about the deplorable state of inclusive hiring at the club level throughout the NFL, black executives and coaches are eager to support more aggressive measures in hope of spurring positive change, many said in a Fritz Pollard Alliance town hall meeting Tuesday.”
9. I think you should come have a beer and a chat with me and Gardner Minshew in Miami on Thursday. A handful of tickets are still available for the fun, interactive Q&A at Concrete Beach Brewery in the Wynwood arts district. The casual event, hosted by BreakingT, goes from 5-7 p.m. Tickets start at $30.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Didn’t know Kobe Bryant. Never met him. But what a genius with a basketball. And he was doing such good things with his life after basketball, including this “Detail” series. I always thought how wonderful it was that NBA player after player after player, past and present, seemed to revere him. When LeBron James passed him on the NBA scoring list Saturday night in Philadelphia, LeBron spoke post-game with such love and respect.
b. Football Story of the Week: Bo Wulf of The Athletic with a terrific idea executed well. Wulf spent time with veteran Eagles center Jason Kelce every week during the season to see how he was doing physically. His report on one of the best offensive linemen in football—who played every snap of every Eagles game in 2019, at age 32.
c. Kelce is surprisingly and educationally open about anti-inflammatories, as Wulf writes:
“Kelce often refers to the anti-inflammatories he takes during the season. Throughout the week, that means diclofenac, which is a more powerful NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug) than ibuprofen. Before games, it’s something else. He’d prefer not to mention it by name, but it’s not hard to figure out he means Toradol. ‘The main reason I do it before every game isn’t because I have any injuries,’ he says. ‘It’s really so my knees, hips and ankles feel like I’m 21 years old again.’
“There is a pending lawsuit between former NFL players and the league over the widespread prescription of Toradol, which alleges the drug masks concussion symptoms, though that has not been proven. On all things, Kelce is perpetually curious, analytical and skeptical. His eyes are fully open when it comes to what he puts in his body. He knows that most concussion studies indicate the accumulation of sub-concussive blows is more likely to cause long-term harm than actual concussions. He knows that chronic medication use can lead to liver failure or organ degeneration, and he’s thankful the Eagles do specific liver tests twice a year. Kelce makes it a habit to get his blood work done as often as possible, and he’s never been flagged for anything out of the ordinary. So, for every NFL game he can remember, Kelce’s routine is to ingest three 10 milligram tablets of Toradol about one hour before he and the team leave the locker room for warmups. “Right from the get-go, I get to go out to warmups and I don’t have to spend 10 minutes trying to get my hip to feel normal again,’ he says.”
d. Important piece by Wulf. Really good job. I always think the best thing we can do in our jobs is to take people where they cannot go and tell them things they cannot know. This story’s a great illustration of that.
e. Sad to see the death of “Monty Python” star Terry Jones last week. In his honor, I watched “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and laughed for three days. Brave, brave Sir Robin . . . Sir Robin turned tail and fled . . .
f. Great scene of a normal woman on trial for being a witch. Guy says:
“She turned me into a newt!”
“I got better.”
g. We’re behind you, Mary Louise Kelly.
h. Concussion Story of the Week: A top-notch reporting job by Will Hobson of the Washington Post, digging into the background and current activities of Dr. Bennet Omalu, whose life was the basis for “Concussion” the movie. Writes Hobson:
“Omalu has withdrawn from the CTE research community and remade himself as an evangelist, traveling the world selling his frightening version of what scientists know about CTE and contact sports. In paid speaking engagements, expert witness testimony and in several books he has authored, Omalu portrays CTE as an epidemic and himself as a crusader, fighting against not just the NFL but also the medical science community, which he claims is too corrupted to acknowledge clear-cut evidence that contact sports destroy lives. After more than a decade of intensive research by scientists from around the globe, the state of scientific knowledge of CTE remains one of uncertainty. Among CTE experts, many important aspects of the disease — from what symptoms it causes, to how prevalent or rare it is — remain the subject of research and debate.
“But across the brain science community, there is wide consensus on one thing: Omalu, the man considered by many the public face of CTE research, routinely exaggerates his accomplishments and dramatically overstates the known risks of CTE and contact sports, fueling misconceptions about the disease.”
i. Dateline and Animal Story of the Week: Reporting from Kangaroo Island, Australia, Scott Wilson of the Washington Post wrote a heart-wrenching tale of the dead wildlife from the infernos there.
“There in the crook of the tree was a koala, mildly burned and all alone.
“His patch of wood, shared once by hundreds of other koalas, kangaroos and the occasional wombat, had been scorched black in the recent wildfires. For the moment, he was safe there about 50 feet up. But there was no water or food; the eucalyptus leaves that koalas eat had vanished in the flames.
“On the ground, there was only black earth and carcasses. Dozens of carcasses, babies and adults, teens and what a rescuer said looked like twins — all so burned even the carrion birds would not touch them. The fires that roared through southeastern Australia for months razed hundreds of houses and killed more than 20 people, including several firefighters. A scar the size of Portugal now marks the land.”
j. Beernerdness: Had a good winter brown brew the other night in Brooklyn—the Hibernator, a heavy Scottish Ale (Long Trail Brewing, Bridgewater Corner, Vt.) that defines “winter warmer.” Only had one, but I feel sure after the second I’d have been full. Malty and very good.
k. Who can believe the Kobe news. So deflating.
The Week Ahead
Today . . . Foxboro, Mass. It’s the 20th anniversary of Robert Kraft trading the 16th pick in the first round of the 2000 NFL Draft for the rights to hire Bill Belichick as coach. Not a bad deal. Pats under Belichick have averaged 13.4 wins a year and won six Super Bowls. The Jets did get Shaun Ellis out of the trade, though.
Saturday . . . Miami. The 48 Pro Football Hall of Fame voters will meet at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel at 7:30 a.m. to select the 2020 Pro Football Hall of Fame class of modern-era players. A max of five will be picked. . . . Not much drama at NFL Honors, with Lamar Jackson set to win MVP over Russell Wilson in a walk. Defensive player of the year (Chandler Jones, Aaron Donald, Shaq Barrett are candidates) and offensive rookie (Kyler Murray, Josh Jacobs, among others) could be close.
Sunday . . . Miami Gardens, Fla. Miami hosts its first Super Bowl in a decade. Last one: Saints 31, Colts 17. The Sean Payton/Thomas Morstead onside-kick Super Bowl . . . Oh, and George Halas was born 125 years ago, on this day.
The Adieu Haiku40
Kobe. I love how
he was making his second
life starry also.