MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Tyreek Hill, rushing through his last interview of the night near his locker, heard a mystery man behind him making an exultant guttural noise. Hill couldn’t escape Patrick Mahomes’ clutches. Mahomes bear-hugged him from behind, almost lifting the 180-pound Hill off the ground.
“AAAAAARRRRRRGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!” was the approximate noise that came out of Mahomes’ mouth. “WE DID IT!!!!”
Then Mahomes went on to the defensive backs, and then to some coaches, then to GM Brett Veach, then to each member of the offensive line, and to anyone else in his path. The general and his troops, sharing six-second snippets of love after Kansas City broke its half-century championship drought with a 31-20 victory over the they-didn’t-know-what-hit-them 49ers in Super Bowl LIV.
But the Hill hug seemed most emotional, most meaningful, most moving. That was fitting. Mahomes and Hill will always be connected by this play and this game, the way Bradshaw and Swann are remembered for Super Bowl X, the way Montana and Taylor are connected by Super Bowl XXIII, the way Young and Rice are bonded by Super Bowl XXIX, and the way Manning and Tyree will always have Super Bowl XLII.
Mahomes and Hill will always have third-and-15.
They’ll always have “2-3 Jet Chip Wasp.” That’s the 44-yard pass from Mahomes to Hill with the Chiefs down 10 on third-and-15 with 7:13 to play. It’s the play that wobbled the 49ers’ formidable defense, the biggest play of Mahomes’ life and certainly of Hill’s . . . and, as it turned out, the biggest play of Andy Reid’s career too.
“We call it ‘Wasp,’ “ Reid told me in the solitude of his office post-game. “Literally put the stinger on ‘em.”
“Crazy thing is,” quarterbacks coach Mike Kafka said, “Patrick called it. He asked for it, and Andy called it.”
That’s just perfect. How many Super Bowls have had a clear goat after three quarters turn into a clear MVP after four quarters? How many Super Bowls have had that person not only make the biggest play of the game—at age 24, no less—but be most responsible for running the play that won it?
Sunday night was quite a night, quite a way to cap the 100th season of professional football in the United States.
The Lead: KC Wins LIV
We haven’t even mentioned that Andy Reid can win the big one. Winning his 222nd NFL game on 2-2-20, and even pilfering a play from Kyle Shanahan’s playbook in the process (more about that later), the Chiefs actually played a perfect game, for them. This is why:
• They were behind by double-digits. KC rallied from 0-24 to beat Houston in the AFC divisional round, 7-17 to beat Tennessee in the AFC Championship Game, and 10-20 Sunday night in the Super Bowl. The difference this time: The first two deficits were in the first half. The Chiefs trailed the Niners by 10 with eight minutes to play in the fourth quarter.
• Reid’s play-design and play-calling, his best traits, were huge. Not just on “Wasp,” but on several back-and-forths on the sidelines with Mahomes, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and Kafka. “That’s one of the advantages of sitting over there with [Mahomes],” Reid said. “You get a feel for what he likes.” All the coaches, and Mahomes, liked the play Shanahan first ran when he was offensive coordinator in Washington in 2010, overloading the offensive line with an extra receiver in a tight formation, and then having the receiver (in this case Sammy Watkins) leak out to an open seam up the left side. Mahomes to Watkins, gain of 28. Every week, Reid has his offensive staff draw up plays on the white board in his office, and in preparing for this game, that’s one of the plays they loved. In fairness, Shanahan called it first, but many teams call it now. And it came back to bite Shanahan on Sunday, on a second-quarter Chiefs field goal.
• Mahomes did what great quarterbacks do and what he’s done so often since being drafted 10th overall in 2017: He forgot the bad plays, fast. He threw the first two picks of his postseason life on consecutive series in the second half. One: A ridiculous throw right into the arms of Niners linebacker Fred Warner in Niner territory. Two: He threw a pass behind Hill, it was tipped, and it was picked. When I asked him about those at his locker, a couple of Chiefs officials shielding him from a small crowd, the look on his face was more embarrassment than anything else. Right here, the way this game turned reminded me of Russell Wilson in the 2014 NFC Championship Game. Remember? Wilson threw four picks to put Seattle in a huge hole against Green Bay, then led two TD drives to send the game to overtime, and won it with a laser touchdown throw to Jermaine Kearse. Wilson’s indomitable. Mahomes is getting to be on that level too, with three touchdown drives in the last half of the last quarter of the season.
“We got MVPat on our side!” defensive tackle Chris Jones crowed. “We don’t care if he throws a damn interception. He always comes back.”
The rest of the world . . . well, maybe we all weren’t so sure. This being a night game, and this column being ridiculously long, much has to be done as the game is in progress. Early in the fourth quarter, with the Niners up 20-10, Mahomes threw his second straight interception, and I went to the Award Section of the column. In the GOAT OF THE WEEK section, I typed in Mahomes’ name and wrote: “A bummer of a game—certainly the worst big game he’s played in his three NFL seasons—for the most dangerous quarterback in the NFL. With no indication that such a stinker was coming.”
Ooops. Good thing there’s a delete button on this laptop.
But when I got a few minutes with Mahomes post-game, he sounded like he’d have given himself GOAT OF THE WEEK if, in some other life, he’d been a sports writer with a silly column. When he talked about the interceptions, he was clearly pained.
“The first one,” Mahomes said, “was horrible. I tried to do too much, stretching the guy [Warner] and trying to make a perfect throw, which I probably should’ve never done. Hit him right between the 5 and the 4. [Warner is number 54.] And then the second one, to be in field-goal range and then to throw a tipped interception . . . I thought that was gonna hurt us a lot more than it did. It was definitely something that made me very sick.”
With 8:53 left in the game, Mahomes trotted out to the huddle. He told the other 10 guys to keep fighting, keep believing. “You gotta believe, 10,” he said to Tyreek Hill, who is number 10. Maybe he did, or maybe he didn’t. But if the Chiefs were to come back, they’d need Hill’s speed and the greatest moves of any receiver in football.
On second-and-15 from the KC 35-yard line, Mahomes underthrew Hill on a 16-yard stop route up the right seam. Like, really underthrew him. Hill dove for it and it was ruled a good catch . . . but at the last second, Shanahan threw the challenge flag. He won the challenge. Third-and-15 now.
Earlier in the half, in those sideline confabs you always see Reid having with Mahomes (and Bieniemy and Kafka), Mahomes told Reid he loved Wasp. “Yeah, yeah,” Mahomes told me. “I just wanted to run it to get it out there and give Tyreek a chance to make a play. How they were playing, I knew it would be Tyreek one on one with the safety.”
This was the same play Mahomes used in the AFC Championship Game last year. The Patriots blanketed Hill, holding him to one catch for 42 yards. That one catch came on the Wasp play. On the play, KC uses a three-by-one formation. Wideout Sammy Watkins is wide left, Hill inside, and Travis Kelce inside of Hill. On the right side is backup tight end Blake Bell. So the Chiefs ran the play in the first half. “A set-up,” Kafka the quarterback coach said. Deep safety Jimmie Ward, in the first half, saw Hill run right at him. And so midway through the fourth quarter, with the same play-call and same formation, Ward obviously assumed Hill was coming at him again. With Watkins running a short in-cut and Kelce idling through the middle to attract attention, Hill sprinted at Ward.
Then Hill cut to the corner. Ward wasn’t ready for that.
The line of scrimmage was the Chiefs’ 35. Mahomes, who’d taken a Pistol snap at his 30, ambled back to the 22 (“The line had to give me a bunch of time, and those guys did,” Mahomes said, correctly). Meanwhile, Hill was floating into a spot around the 25-yard line of the Niners, absolutely wide open. San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh will have nightmares about this play that ruined his heretofore superb defensive plan. From the Chiefs 22 to the Niners 22, that’s how far this ball traveled—56 yards in the air. And it landed right on Hill, with Ward arriving a half-second too late. Gain of 44.
That led to a rollout one-yard TD pass to Kelce. And when Jimmy Garoppolo couldn’t come up with a drive on the ensuing Niners possession, Mahomes responded with a 65-yard drive in two-and-a-half minutes to take the lead. Damien Williams scored the last two TDs for the Chiefs, and he won the battle of undrafted running backs: Williams, 104 yards and two scores to Raheem Mostert’s 58 yards and one touchdown run.
This was a perfect game for the Chiefs not because they played a perfect game. It’s because the game illustrated everything Reid has built in Kansas City. He has the quarterback who, though just 24, has become a part of the decision-making process. Reid built a team that trusts he’ll put them in the best position to win. He built a team that’s all-for-one, one-for-all; even after this game, he was still harkening back 54 weeks, to the AFC title game loss to New England, when the departed Dee Ford jumped offside, enabling the Patriots to have life late. “It wasn’t Dee Ford,” Reid said. “It was all of us. We were all four inches off.” That kind of stuff is corny and all, but his players know it’s Reid. The same way he deflects blame for the Donovan McNabb Super Bowl faux pas slow-play 15 years ago is the way he takes on the heavy stuff to this day.
“Can I tell him the practice story?” Kansas City medical czar and longtime Reid confidant Rick Burkholder said in Reid’s office post-game.
“Go ahead,” Reid said.
“So it’s 10 degrees outside the Wednesday before the [AFC title game], and Andy tells the team practice would be outside,” Burkholder said. “They don’t flinch. They figured there must be a reason for it, I guess.”
“I paused after telling them,” Reid told me, “and nobody gasped.”
“What’d you do? Practice inside?” I asked.
“Yeah, like always,” Reid said.
“The point is, they want to win it for him, and he wants to win it for everybody else,” Burkholder said.
Reid is one of those sunny-side-of-the-street guys. He might doubt his players sometimes. But he’ll never say he doubts them. I told him Mahomes threw a ball right to Fred Warner, and another behind Hill, and maybe it just wasn’t his day.
“I never think that,” Reid said. “I always think with him, keep firing. I’ve seen this before. Right when you don’t think he’s gonna do something, he rips your heart out with great plays. You saw that with Larry Bird. Larry Bird might’ve gone cold for a little bit but he kept shooting. That’s what you do with the great ones. This kid’s young, but he’s great. He’s gonna do nothing but get better.”
“Luckily,” Mahomes said, “I got to bounce back in the fourth quarter and get the win.”
There’s not a lot of luck involved with Patrick Lavon Mahomes II, the son of major league pitcher Pat Mahomes and godson of major league pitcher LaTroy Hawkins. He once took batting practice with Alex Rodriguez, and was a 37th-round pick of the Tigers in 2014. He first thought of winning a Super Bowl as a goal in middle school, when he heard players say, “I’m going to Disney World.”
“I knew I wanted to do that,” Mahomes said. “Now that I’m here, I also know I wanted to win one for this coach. He’s one of the greatest coaches of all time, and I don’t think he needed the Lombardi Trophy to prove that. But now it puts all doubt aside.”
Indeed: Reid’s the sixth-winningest coach in NFL history. But his 222nd victory was his first Super Bowl title. The five coaches above him on the all-time list have won 26 championships collectively.
Reid might have said it didn’t matter to him as much as the outside world thought. But sitting in his office in a foreign stadium, the big red coaching clothes still damp with Gatorade from the on-field shower he took 90 minutes earlier, he really wanted to soak in this one.
“I’m not sure it’s sunk in quite yet but it’s sunk in enough to where I appreciate it,” Reid told me. “You’re humbled by it because so many people and so many years have been involved with it. I understand though, I truly understand that the game is not about one person. I’ve been fortunate to be around a lot of people, great people. It’s special. We’re in it to win it, right? That’s one of the reasons you’re coaching football, is so that you can get to the finals with that team, build that team, get together with that team and enjoy that fight to winning the world championship. From that standpoint, I’m thrilled. I’m very excited. That was one of our goals. As a football team that was one of our goals. Not about one guy. It was one of our goals as a team.”
Time to go. Long past time to go. His VP of communications, Ted Crews, told him the buses were waiting for him.
Reid is a polite man. But on this night, it looked like he wanted to sit and talk about this game, and this life, all night.
“Ted,” Reid said, “we can take an Uber. Don’t worry. We’re good.”
The Award Section10
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Patrick Mahomes, quarterback, Kansas City. As I wrote, he went from the goat to the star in about 15 minutes. The way he played in the fourth quarter is exactly why the Chiefs will one day soon make him a $40-million-a-year quarterback and be thankful for every dime they spend on that deal. His stats (26 of 42 passing, 286 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions) are not exemplary, but you had to see the game. This is a great player who made two or three bad decisions in the biggest game of his life. Judging by his fourth quarter, I will forgive him.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Nick Bosa, defensive end, San Francisco. I thought what was so interesting about Bosa’s game was that for 52 minutes, he was probably the best player in the game. He was constantly nipping at Mahomes’ heels—five pressures, one sack—and showed what a franchise pass-rusher is. Some of the Chiefs had very good defensive games, but none of them matched Bosa’s impact.
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Byron Pringle, wide receiver, Kansas City. After the Chiefs took a lead of 24-20 inside of three minutes left, they kicked off to San Francisco. Pringle nailed Richie James Jr., the return man, in a vital play. James went down at his 15, meaning the Niners were 85 yards away from the endzone. Pringle had a game-high (for special teams) three solo tackles for the Chiefs.
COACH OF THE WEEK
Andy Reid, head coach, Kansas City. For ending his 21-year run of always being a bridesmaid. (That is certainly a scary vision.) Reid had support from a wide array of NFL, college and high school coaches, from fans in two rabid NFL markets—including Philadelphia, where he was fired seven years ago—and from many in the public who just felt bad for him because he had a son die of a drug overdose in 2012. But let’s just talk football for a second. On Sunday, Reid was gutsy on fourth down, he was smart in play-calling and he out-coached 40-year-old Kyle Shanahan, who is going to be one of the best coaches in football for awhile. Give it up to Reid for winning his first Super Bowl.
GOAT OF THE WEEK
Kyle Shanahan, head coach, San Francisco. I’m sure Shanahan will say that his clock management at the end of the first half was some combination of not wanting to give the ball back to Mahomes and knowing he was going to get the ball back to start the second half. But regardless of what is said, against a team as powerful offensively as Kansas City, you don’t give up a possession. With 90 seconds left and three timeouts, Shanahan could have taken enough small chances to put up at least three points before halftime. This decision didn’t lose the game, but any opportunity to score in the Super Bowl should be taken.
Quotes of the Week
“We’ll lick our wounds, and we’ll get over this.”
—San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan, after the fourth-quarter collapse ruined the Niners.
“You’ve gotta fight … for your right … to Lom-BARRRRRDI!”
—Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce, channeling his inner Beastie Boys.
“I’m fixing to get drunk.”
—Kansas City defensive tackle Chris Jones, asked how he plans to celebrate the Super Bowl victory.
“That’s a personal foul on number 99 of the defense. After he tackled the quarterback, he’s giving him the business down there. That’s a 15-yard penalty!”
—Former NFL referee Ben Dreith, in 1986, when Marty Lyons of the Jets was flagged for elbowing Jim Kelly of the Bills when they were on the ground.
Dreith, the most colorful penalty-caller in NFL history, turned 95 on Saturday. Don’t miss the video.
“When something goes wrong, who takes responsibility? Their answer: ‘Well, that’s what the data told us.’ What a crock. That’s what got ’em 1-31.”
—Hall of Fame GM Ron Wolf, on the Cleveland Browns’ use of analytics, to Chris Mortensen of ESPN.
His son, Browns assistant GM Eliot Wolf, “parted ways” with the Browns last week, per Mortensen.
Richard Sherman • San Francisco cornerback • Photographed in Santa Clara, Calif.
Sherman, L.A. native and Kobe Bryant fan, got close to Bryant late in his life. It’s clear that Bryant’s legacy—playing without regard to pain, seeking greatness in a chosen field, then trying to be better in an athlete’s second life than the first—will rule Sherman as a football player and beyond. In a quiet moment late in Super Bowl week, Sherman reflected on Bryant’s impact on him, starting with laying on the field as a Seahawk in November 2017, knowing he’d torn his Achilles.
“Honestly, laying there, knowing it was torn, Kobe was the first thing that went through my mind. He tore his Achilles [in 2013] and knew his team needed him, and he still shot a free throw after the injury. I was like, I gotta find a way to get up and walk it off. And [Seahawks safety] Kam Chancellor’s like, ‘Get up! Get up!’ So I got up. I could feel my foot just fall. I couldn’t pull it back up. I couldn’t get it to pull back up so it was just kind of dragging on the ground. I knew it was totally ruptured but man, Kobe walked it off so I gotta walk it off.
“He was my mentor. He . . . I don’t like saying ‘was.’ Is, is. Guess I gotta say ‘was’ now. Hmmmm.”
[Pause to collect himself.]
“He was . . . he was the reason my mentality was the way it was. His mentality, his mindset and the way he pushed me and the way he pushed himself was the reason that I pushed through so much in the first place. You have to be able to control your body. Your mind has to be able to overcome any ailments that your body can have outside of the instability of muscle and tears and ligaments. You can’t physiologically overcome that but if I’m saying my Achilles is in so much pain I can barely walk every day, but in my mind I can still walk and my body can still push off and I can still function the way it normally functions, then I should be able to play. That’s the mentality that I got from him. No matter what, you cannot accept no. You cannot accept no. You cannot accept loss for an answer. And so I didn’t, until I couldn’t. Without Kobe’s influence, I probably would’ve went off on a cart, honestly.
“It taught me no matter how great you are, now you want to be the greatest to ever play your sport. You want to put everything you can into it: blood, sweat and tears. Be obsessive over it to the point where’s it’s odd and you’re an oddball. People look at you like, Man, you take it too seriously. Then, once you’re done, you want to be so great in your second life that they look at what you did in sports as secondary. That’s what I got out of it and that’s what I got out of his career and what he was starting to do outside of basketball. That’s what I’ll try to do whenever I’m done with football. . . . Whatever it is. Whatever it is, you have to be the greatest at it. And that really . . . the mentality that you take from sports, the competitiveness, the drive, the consistent work ethic, should apply to everywhere you go. It should apply to being a father. It should apply to being a commentator or a journalist. I have no idea. I’ve got some options but me and the wife are going to sit down and talk about it in a couple years. Hopefully, God willing, I stay healthy and can play that long.
On why Bryant’s death hit so many so hard . . .
“There are certain pillars in life and certain icons . . . such a common, everyday theme in your life that when they disappear, I think subconsciously it’s a greater loss than people you know. It’s like Tom Brady—if something happened to Tom. Or like when Muhammad Ali was in his prime and after he had retired, something had happened to him then. Certain people that give you a comfort of being there even there you don’t know them. Sometimes you don’t even think about them. But you just know they’re there and it’s in your life and it’s foundational: This guy’s gonna be there. Kobe, Jordan. They’re gonna talk about Jeter. They’re gonna talk about Muhammad Ali. Certain greats in these sports you almost think are invincible. Same with Kobe. When they show their mortality, it kind of gives everybody a more than a wake-up call. It’s like an earthshake. And he’s shaking the world.”
On Saturday night, Lamar Jackson became the second player in history to be a unanimous MVP, collecting all 50 votes from a national media panel selected by the Associated Press. There are not second or third-place votes. The 50 voters are asked to pick one MVP at the end of each regular season.
• Is the second-leading quarterback in passer rating (101.2) in NFL history.
• Has started all 143 Seattle games (128 regular season, 15 playoffs) since the day he was drafted by the Seahawks.
• Has quarterbacked Seattle to the playoffs in seven of his eight seasons as a pro, and taken the team to two Super Bowls.
• Has a better winning percentage (.668) in regular season and postseason games than all-timers Aarons Rodgers (.645) and Drew Brees (.590).
• Has never received an MVP vote.
Martha Stewart, Joel Osteen and Jenny McCarthy hosted talk shows on radio row at the Super Bowl.
In the first 54 years of Pro Football Hall of Fame voting, seven pure safeties were enshrined.
In the last 54 weeks of Pro Football Hall of Fame voting, seven pure safeties were enshrined.
Omen of the Week: Yankees manager Aaron Boone picked the Chiefs to win the game, 31-20.
Patrick Mahomes is the youngest player to win a Super Bowl MVP, 95 days younger than Emmitt Smith when he won the MVP in the 1993 season.
The Super Bowl series is tied in number of wins: AFC 27, NFC 27.
Fan of the Week
Flying his 28th bombing mission in the Vietnam War in July 1966, 28-year-old Air Force Col. Edward Lee Hubbard of Shawnee Mission, Kans., was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese. Hubbard was put in a six-foot-by-six-foot cell and held for 2,420 days, just over six-and-a-half years. His weight dropped from 175 to 98 pounds in his first five months. He was regularly beaten by the guards. The only contact he had with the outside world was six letters from his wife over the years that were allowed to be delivered, and also occasional care packages with hidden news about home, always in code. “That’s how we found out we landed on the moon,” Hubbard said the other day from his retirement home in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. Another time, a tube of toothpaste was sent, and when he squeezed it, a capsule came out. Inside the capsule was a piece of microfiche with some news and the ball scores on it. But he’d go months without finding out a scrap of information about home.
Hubbard was a Chiefs’ fan dating from their earliest days after the franchise moved from Dallas. It wasn’t until he was released in March 1973 and debriefed for days afterward at a U.S. base in the Philippines that he learned what happened on Jan. 11, 1970: The Chiefs had won the championship of professional football, 23-7 over the Vikings. At the base, there were TV recordings of seminal events that Hubbard binge-watched, including the moon landing. And Super Bowl IV, the big Chiefs win.
“I didn’t even know it was called the Super Bowl,” Hubbard said. “I had never seen color television. I think the only player on the Chiefs I knew was Lenny Dawson. Watching all of it, you have to realize we were having some emotional issues, seeing everything that’s happened in the world for seven years in a matter of days. It was like stepping out of a dark closet for the first time in years.”
He got a hero’s welcome back home, and Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt invited him to tour the new Arrowhead Stadium and meet the players. When he got home that day, his son, a big Chiefs fan, asked if he’d gotten any autographs. “No,” Hubbard said, “but they got mine.”
So he resumed his military career. He never saw a Chiefs’ game in person. But after the AFC title game two weeks ago, he thought he might do anything to be able to go to this Super Bowl. A friend reached out to the NFL to tell his story, and that friend surprised him one day last week by connecting him via Skype with commissioner Roger Goodell. As Hubbard watched his screen, Goodell held up a football with the words, “Congratulations. You’re going to the Super Bowl.”
Hubbard is 81 now. Sunday was the first NFL game he ever attended. His football team was in the big game for the first time since he was imprisoned, emaciated, half a world away. Two days before the game, I asked him how he would feel when the national anthem would be played before this Super Bowl.
“I’ll just be so happy,” Hubbard said. “And I will cry.”
King of the Road40
The logistics of this Super Bowl were, shall we say, challenging for the news media. Far-flung hotels for the media, both in Miami Beach and near the Miami Airport, buses not serving all the media hotels, etc. Whatever. So I drove to the game and parked in a lot near a 30-foot wide creek north of Hark Rock Stadium. On the way to the media gate around 1:40 p.m., I looked over at the creek, and a huge manatee surfaced. Before the manatee dove beneath the surface, I did manage to gawk and utter some sort of Holy $#1+!
Tweets of the Week
Kapadia covers the NFL for The Athletic.
1340 is a radio station in the D.C. area.
ITV News is a British-based news network.
While we all cavorted in Miami for the past week, one of the seven continents in the world remained ablaze. There are uncontained fires raging in 30 percent of the continent.
Just be you. From Gary Grennan: “Your column with the Kobe Bryant story helped me in a simple way with my basketball-playing 14-year-old son. I handed him a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull and explained that it was Kobe’s favorite book and it’s a source of inspiration for improvement. Thanks to those few lines in your article this week, I have a teenager who’s channelling the weird feeling of being so sad about a complete stranger by excitedly reading a self-improvement book. Thank you for all of your writing. Don’t ever stay in your lane. I’m a big fan of the multi-lane highway that you pave every week.”
Thanks so much, Gary. I appreciate the input. Had a few people tell me this week they ordered “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” which is a cool tribute to a very different man.
VICIS must not die. From Brad Mehl: “The NFL should buy VICIS if they are truly committed to player safety for current players and the next generation of NFL players. They have an ethical and financial responsibility to support the best technology available for the entire tackle football community.”
From your lips to Roger Goodell’s ears, Brad.
10 Things I Think I Think
Special Pro Football Hall of Fame edition of 10 Things, after Denver safety Steve Atwater, St. Louis receiver Isaac Bruce, Indianapolis running back Edgerrin James, Seattle/Minnesota guard Steve Hutchinson and Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu were elected.
1. I think Saturday’s 6-hour, 33-minute meeting at the Loews Hotel Miami Beach was one of the most interesting meetings in my 29 years as a voter. That’s because I walked in thinking I knew only one somewhat sure thing—Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu—in the 15-member class, but also thinking I loved the list of candidates. Just loved it. I felt there were at least 12 or 13 worthy candidates; the max for entry in a year is five modern-era candidates. I believe all three offensive linemen on the list (Tony Boselli, Steve Hutchinson, Alan Faneca) belonged, as did all four safeties (Polamalu, Steve Atwater, John Lynch, LeRoy Butler). My hope going into the meeting was three of those seven players would make it, and three did. Because next year’s first-time-eligible players include some very strong ones—Peyton Manning, Charles Woodson, Calvin Johnson—the players who didn’t make it this year will face an uphill struggle with such a strong group next year. It’s possible that there could be only two spots open if those three mega-stars enter on the first ballot.
Regarding this year’s class: Atwater, one of the last killer strong safeties with instincts to match, has deserved this for several years. Bruce is one of the great route-runners, deep threats and beloved teammates of his time. What always impressed me about James, one of the very few rushing champs his first two years in the NFL, was the pride he took in blocking and being a complete player. Hutchinson had the mean streak, but also the intelligent streak, that a great guard should have—and Seattle wasn’t the same team when he left in free agency after five seasons, in 2005 at age 28. And Polamalu was instinctive and tone-setting and, in my opinion, the most important Steeler when they had the greatest rivalry in football with the Ravens a decade or so ago.
2. I think it’s always significant to see how long the 48 voters—including me—took in the discussion phase of the meeting, prior to the vote. For the record (thanks to Hall voter Clark Judge of Talk of Fame Network for keeping me honest on the times), here’s how long each discussion lasted, in descending order, and in minutes and seconds:
Boselli 36:00, Lynch 26:51, linebacker Sam Mills 24:43, James 23:51, Bruce 22:08, Hutchinson 21:20, Atwater 19:50, linebacker Zach Thomas 19:05, defensive lineman Richard Seymour 16:43, wide receiver Holt 16:05, Polamalu 13:09, wide receiver Reggie Wayne 12:10, defensive tackle Bryant Young 12:06, Butler 11:51, Faneca 9:28.
For Boselli and Lynch, it was fortifying for cases that have sometimes flagged in recent years. The consideration for them was real.
3. I think these are four men, I believe, who exit this year’s meeting with momentum for the near future:
• Zach Thomas. The Miami linebacker gets great support from Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher, peers from his day. I think he’ll get in at some point.
• Tony Boselli. When I walked out of the room Saturday, after listening to such positive discussion about Boselli’s 97-game career, I thought he’d make it. We seem to be over the career-length argument (Boselli, six premier seasons; Terrell Davis, four, plus his great playoff history). This year, Hutchinson and Faneca were such formidable competitors, and rightfully so. I do think how he handled the greatest pass-rushers of his day, Bruce Smith and Derrick Thomas, will continue to resonate till he gets in.
• Alan Faneca. Will be stunned if he doesn’t get in the next two or three years.
• John Lynch. There was a good feeling in the room for Lynch. Voters seems to believe Warren Sapp up front, Derrick Brooks in the middle and Lynch in the back were tri-keys to the Bucs having the best sustained defense in the NFC around the turn of the century. What really impresses me: The Bucs were 3-1 versus the Rams at the peak of the Greatest Show on Turf, and Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner—bullish on Lynch’s Hall case—threw four TD passes with 12 interceptions in those four games. Lynch saved two of those three Tampa wins with last-drive, fourth-quarter picks of Warner, both on passes intended for Hall finalist Torry Holt.
4. I think with 20 people entering the Hall this year, it’s a bit unwieldy. So the Hall will have two enshrinements: Aug. 7, the weekend of the traditional Hall of Fame Game, and another enshrinement on Sept. 17, a Thursday, and the 100th anniversary of the first pro football game ever. Not sure how it will be divided yet.
5. I think, in the interest of full disclosure, I believe in publishing my ballot. The process works this way: The group of 48 voters listens to discussions on all 15 finalists. Then the voters are asked by secret ballot to cut the list to 10. When the top 10 vote-getters are tabulated, then we’re asked to vote by secret ballot to cut the list to five. (For this year, because the Hall wanted to ensure “20 for ’20,” so to speak (five modern-era enshrines, 15 “Centennial Class” winners, the Board mandated that we would not vote yes or no on the final five, as we usually do). That’s the second exception to the rules made this year. First, the Centennial Class was neither voted on by the regular selectors nor approved by the regular selectors, and now the five survivors didn’t have to pass a final muster, as has been the case in the voting for years. Feels like too many asterisks are going to be in the books for the 2020 class. Anyway . . . here is how I voted:
• On the cut to 10, I voted for Atwater, Boselli, Bruce, Faneca, Hutchinson, James, Lynch, Mills, Polamalu and Thomas.
• On the cut to five, I voted for Atwater, Boselli, Hutchinson, James and Lynch.
6. I think an explanation for the lack of vote for Polamalu on the final five is necessary. I believe he was one of the top five candidates this year, and I believe in voting for the best five candidates. But because I felt certain Polamalu would make it regardless of my vote, I decided to vote for three players I felt were marginal after listening to the deliberations—Atwater, Boselli and Lynch. I don’t feel great about doing that, honestly. Our jobs are to vote for the best five, and I was totally on the fence about the fifth yea vote had I marked down Polamalu. It still bothers me a little bit. But I felt so strongly about the cases of Atwater, Boselli and Lynch, who were exceedingly close in my eyes, that I wanted to vote for them, knowing that a vote not for Polamalu was not going to keep him out. I’ve done this a couple of times before, and I absolutely do not want to make it a habit. It just felt like the right thing to do this year.
7. I think this was the Hall of Fame Dichotomy of the Week: During the week, Deion Sanders was critical of the Hall of Fame process on The Dan Patrick Show. He said: “Every Tom, Dick and Harry, you’re a Hall of Famer, you’re a Hall of Famer, you’re a Hall of Famer. They let everybody in this thing. It’s not exclusive anymore. And I don’t like it.” And Saturday night, Sanders joined Steve Young and Rich Eisen introducing the bloated class of 20 for 2020. Deion had to be thinking, “How’d I ever get this assignment?”
8. I think, as one Hall of Famer once told me, Saturday evening after the Hall vote includes five euphoric people and families, “and 10 pissed-off ones.” On Sunday, I wondered exactly how ticked-off the HoF runners-up were. So I texted Boselli, and we connected before his Westwood One Super Bowl sideline assignment began. His Saturday:
“I came into this week wanting to enjoy it, rather than driving myself crazy, which puts my family and friends on pins and needles. We had 15 or 20 people in the room at the Loews Hotel [site of the vote], friends and family, my wife, my kids, my parents, some of my best friends. This year, I thought, ‘I’m going to enjoy the moment, whatever happens, with the people closest to me.’ When everybody got there, I said, ‘Here’s the deal, guys. We are going to have a great time. Regardless of the outcome, we’re gonna celebrate this moment. Let’s enjoy each other.’ Kids were singing, we’re telling stories, and it was pretty damn cool. Then I got the phone call.
“Not gonna lie. It hurt. I was disappointed, a little frustrated. I’m a competitor. But I was like, it’s okay, we’re here together. Last year was different. I was like, Not going to NFL Honors. Not going to dinner. Quitting Westwood One. Let’s just go home. This year, because I was determined to enjoy everything, it felt different. I got a call from one of the guys I had some great battles with—Michael McCrary of the Ravens. So much respect for him. He said, ‘I know what happened on the field, and you know. You’re one of the greatest ever.’ Those are the moments that matter, words like that from the guys you respect most.
“We went to dinner and really had a great time. Walking back to the hotel, I was kind of by myself, in back, everybody in front of me. I’m thinking, ‘If I made the Hall of Fame, it’d be life-changing, emotional, great. But nothing’s changed with the people who matter. Still a husband, a dad, a son, a friend. It’s okay.’ “
9. I think I’ve got one point to make regarding a man who will once knock on Canton’s door: Richard Sherman. Rumors swirl about players and owner making real progress on getting a new collective bargaining agreement done. That’s a good thing. But a bad thing would be owners insisting on a 17th regular-season game per team . . . and the players capitulating. Listen to Sherman from Super Bowl week:
“I don’t think it’s something players are interested in, honestly. And if that’s the point [owners are] negotiating on, then I think these negotiations are going to go a lot longer than anticipated. It’s always odd when you hear player safety is (the league’s) biggest concern. They’re really standing up for player safety, player safety, player safety, but it seems like player safety has a price tag. Owners think that players have a price tag on their health, and I don’t think we’re in the same ballpark in that regard. Players have been more aware of player safety and longevity and just life after football. The league kinda pretends that they’re interested in it, pretends that they care about it, makes all these rules, but then still proposes players to play an extra game. And not just 17—they’re really just saying 17 so that they can get to 18. And so that’s two more opportunities for player to risk their bodies, to put their bodies on the line. And that’s what’s so ridiculous about it—nobody calls them out. Nobody calls out the hypocrisy.”
Keep talking, Richard Sherman. Why would players agree to a system with 6 percent more snaps per season for starters, 6 percent better chance to get hurt? I don’t know, but I am firmly in the 16-game camp. No expansion.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Football Story of the Week: Yahoo Sports’ Terez Paylor on what goes into the choreography of Andy Reid’s first 15 plays. Educational and interesting, which is very hard to do during Super Bowl week. Wrote Paylor:
“The first goal of Reid’s first 15 plays script — which applies to first and second down, and excludes third downs and red-zone plays — is to move the ball down the field and score, all while setting a tone for the rest of the game. ‘The game has so many ebbs and flows,’ [longtime Reid assistant Brad] Childress said. ‘Obviously, it’s important to get your quarterback some easy completions to start with, if there is such a thing. Maybe you’re wanting to get over the top and send a message. Or maybe, because of nerves, you’re just wanting to let your offensive line screw their heels in the ground, and be able to fire off on somebody and run the ball.’ The second purpose is the critical gathering of intel. Even when the Chiefs’ early play-calling goes nowhere (as it has in their past two playoff games), the amount of thought Reid has put into it means that every play Kansas City runs gives it a chance to pick up a defensive tell that can pay off later in the game. This happens the moment the play clock begins, starting with who defenses put on the field. That’s why Reid needs his assistants to identify them correctly.”
b. Really good meat-and-potatoes football reporting by Paylor, a rising star in our business.
c. News Story of the Week: Will Englund of the Washington Post on a bizarre double murder of journalists. A mystery, and very involved, and very well told.
d. An ode to 91-year-old Jerry Green, the last man standing, the last reporter to cover all 54 Super Bowls.
e. Green’s memory of the first title game, between Green Bay and Kansas City:
“Pete Rozelle, the NFL commissioner who had been referring to the AFL as ‘the Other League,’ had tossed a press party that first year on the eve of the championship game. I have a vivid memory picture. Writers from our NFL cities sitting clustered on one side of the LA Statler Hilton ballroom and writers from the AFL towns clustered on the other side. We glowered at each other across the dance floor.”
f. Story of the Week: “They Heard Kobe Bryant’s Helicopter Go Down. Then They Prayed,” by John Branch of the New York Times.
g. Such a great you-are-there by Branch, mostly centered around the nearby Church of the Canyon:
“Out of a corner of her eye, from the driver’s side window, Howland Forrest saw a flash that spun her head toward the hills. The men outside heard it less as a boom and more as a thud — abrupt, a quick beat of shattering parts, and utter silence. It burst through the walls of the church.
“ ‘Oh, dear Lord,’ Pastor Bob said. ‘Something happened.’ “
h. Real Super Bowl Scene Story of the Week: Bryan Curtis of The Ringer on the madness that is Radio Row at the Super Bowl. I’ve tried to verbalize how weird this place is for five days of Super Bowl week, and Curtis does it so well. The end of his story, talking with former Saints tackle Kyle Turley:
“I asked Turley, ‘What’s the trick to surviving Radio Row?’
“ ‘Weed,’ he said.”
i. Love what LeBron James said about Kobe Bryant, including his getaway to see his son play on a game day: “I didn’t feel bad in Boston, when I went to go see my son two hours away in Springfield, and we had a game that night.” His words:
j. Podcast of the Week: The New York Times’ “The Daily,” on the Coronavirus.
k. I am a podcast person. “The Daily” is fantastic. I’m out here in my own little world and far too often from August till early February, I miss so many things a citizen should not miss. The other night at the Super Bowl, I had a few minutes before bed—I do not turn on the TV in my room very much on the road; just a later-in-life quirk that I do not want the TV on, because it’s most often a time-suck—and I turned on the episode of the Times’ podcast “A virus’s journey across China,” with host Michael Barbaro and reporter Javier Hernandez. They gave me an A to Z education on the virus that is touching the world: how it started, how it spread, how the concerns of many people on the ground floor of the disease in China were ignored. But I was left with the question, My Lord, Javier Hernandez—after visiting Wuhan and conversing and coming into contact with so many people close to the disease, aren’t you afraid of contracting it? And then Barbaro broached it.
Barbaro: “Javier, what are you thinking and feeling at this moment? Because you’re in this city. You’re interacting with people who are taking care of those who are sickened and infected by this illness. Are you anxious?”
Hernandez: “Well, I’m beginning to feel like this is much worse than I thought. And I think a sense of paranoia can easily settle in sometimes in these situations. I had masks. I was washing my hands all the time. But I couldn’t help but think about every button in the elevator that I touched, every surface and every cough or sniffle that I saw around me. The virus could be anywhere, so I had to be careful.”
l. Enlightening work with a story we’re all so curious about.
m. Happy for Jacksonville’s Calais Campbell, the winner of the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award at NFL Honors. Such a good and generous man.
n. And congrats to Donnie Edwards, a very good man, for his noble work with veterans, taking so many on trips around the world to the places where they fought for this country.
o. Beernerdness: On Thursday evening, I had the pleasure of hosting an event for BreakingT, the moment-driven sports apparel company, in Miami’s Wynwood arts district. The location and the guest were fun: The Concrete Beach Brewery and Jacksonville quarterback Gardner Minshew, who wore the coolest Stetson hat, made for a good combination. Tried the Suh-Wheat Ale, a blood-orange wheat beer with a good bite. Minshew is a delightful guy. You may have heard he took an RV across the country and then back after the season. We discussed what it was like for an NFL quarterback to drive from one side of the country to the other, and back, and got some highlights. “Anything for free was kind of the slogan of the trip,” Minshew said. The crowd liked that one.
p. Coffeenerdness: Had two thimble-fulls of Cuban coffee in the media center during the week. Immediately flew to the moon. That is some adrenalin-rush coffee right there.
q. Yowza. Friday night in Brooklyn, in 32 minutes: Kyrie Irving with 54 points . . . on 19-of-23 shooting.
r. Seven of nine on threes.
s. Then, 24 hours later, at Washington, the obligatory Woj Tweet: “Irving will undergo an MRI on right knee Sunday, per source.” It’s a league rule that Kyrie gets hurt once a month.
t. Thanks to the NFL for remembering Don Banks Saturday night in the NFL Honors show. It was touching to see Banks included in a montage of players and coaches and people with NFL ties who died in 2019. And the NFL remembered him again Sunday, with an honorary seat in the press box.
u. Speaking of Banks, I wanted to remember him too, on this weekend of football excess. We used to get a kick out of what the Super Bowl had become, and I was reminded of him a few times, looking over the sea of Radio Row crappola especially. I’ve missed him all season, since his death in early August at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Canton. Thought I’d remind you of a couple of things. Last year, during Super Bowl week, working for Patriots.com, Banks thought Julian Edelman had a very good chance to win MVP honors (I forget why, honestly, but it was slightly prescient) against the Rams. Not the only thing that he saw coming. Shortly before he died, Donnie Brasco was musing about the future of the new 2019 instant-replay rules and wrote:
“We won’t know anything for sure until the preseason games start and the calls start being made, but does anyone seem to have a good feeling about how the new replay review rules for pass interference are going to play out? The general prevailing opinion at the moment is that the league over-reacted to the blown non-call in the Rams-Saints NFC title game and you’re never going to get an inherently subjective judgment call to be seen uniformly by multiple people. Thus more replay is only muddling the situation, not illuminating it. It certainly sounds like a mess in the making.”
v. And that, folks, is why the football-writing and reading world misses Don Banks.
w. The people who loved him can think of a lot of non-football reasons why they miss him too.
x. Hey, thanks for taking this ride with me through my second season writing Football Morning in America at NBC Sports and Pro Football Talk. It’s been fabulous to write for you all season. This column will not go away just because game number 267 is over. You can read Football Morning in America throughout the offseason, right here, every Monday. I usually have a good one on the Monday eight days after the Super Bowl, so please come back next week and every week in the offseason.
The Adieu Haiku40
Deebo, Jimmy G.
That defensive front. So strong.
Some future, Niners.