FMIA: Football in the Fall? Dr. Fauci: ‘The Virus Will Make Decision For Us’

Toward the end of a 20-minute telephone interview Saturday evening with America’s COVID-19 expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, I asked a question about testing, and about NFL teams playing football this fall.

“Suppose,” I asked, “you test a team of 53 players on a Saturday night and four are positive. Is there a level at which—”

Fauci, the director of the National Institutes for Health since 1984, interrupted. “You got a problem there,” he said. “You know why? Because it is likely that if four of them are positive and they’ve been hanging around together, that the other ones that are negative are really positive. So I mean, if you have one outlier [only one player testing positive], I think you might get away. But once you wind up having a situation where it looks like it’s spread within a team, you got a real problem. You gotta shut it down.”

Shut it down. Quarantine the team, he means. For 14 days. The next two games for that team? Cancelled or postponed. That could be life in the NFL in 2020.

“Also,” I said, “I take it that teams have to be willing to say, If Patrick Mahomes tests positive on a Saturday night, he’s got to disappear for two weeks.

“Absolutely, absolutely,” Fauci said. “It would be malpractice in medicine to put him on the field, absolutely.”

Talking to Fauci was enlightening, if only to reinforce what most people in America who care to be informed about this coronavirus are thinking right now: We don’t know the future. Anthony Fauci doesn’t know the future either. Our fate, and certainly the NFL’s fate in 2020, depends on so many things we can’t know now—how long this spread will last, how severe the second wave of it will be later this year or early in 2021, whether we can go into a football season, college or pro, with any certainty it will play out till its conclusion, whether fans will attend no games or all of them this season. I wanted Fauci to tell me, and tell the country, whether we’ll be able to play out the 256-game regular season the NFL just announced, with a February Super Bowl, and some bit of normalcy back in this abnormal world.

But Dr. Fauci couldn’t say, because no one can.

“The virus,” he said, “will make the decision for us.”

The Lead: Dr. Fauci

Fauci on the NFL trumps all today (no pun intended), but please take time to read a dozen Don Shula stories from storytellers close to him after the death of the NFL’s winningest coach last week. Also in the column: The schedule, the big favor the NFL did for ESPN, the virtual learning, the Dolphins quirks, the making of a new national team (hint: the coach wears Kangols), the new world of Greg Olsen . . . lots to read today.

This interview with Fauci, which was off and on and off and finally on late in the day Saturday, was done with the idea that I’d get a good picture of what the NFL faces in the coming months. I think I did—but that doesn’t mean it’s a clear picture.

“How can I help you?” Fauci began when we connected.

Dr. Anthony Fauci. (NBC Sports Graphic / Getty Images)

The question we all have, I believe, is whether it makes sense to aim for negative-testing pro football players to compete in empty stadiums starting in September. Fauci suggested stadiums might not have to be empty all season.

“I think it’s feasible that negative testing players could play to an empty stadium,” Fauci said. “Is it guaranteed? No way . . . There will be virus out there and you will know your players are negative at the time they step onto the field. You’re not endangering . . . Also, if the virus is so low that even in the general community the risk is low, then I could see filling a third of the stadium or half the stadium so people could be six feet apart. I mean, that’s something that is again feasible depending on the level of infection. I keep getting back to that: It’s going to depend. Like, right now, if you fast forward, and it is now September. The season starts. I say you can’t have a season—it’s impossible. There’s too much infection out there. It doesn’t matter what you do. But I would hope that by the time you get to September it’s not gonna be the way it is right now.”

It’s clear he thinks the NFL has time on its side. Not just because he sees the virus waning by Labor Day, certainly, but because of other factors that are calendar-friendly. One: The availability of tests should make massive testing by August and September easier. Two: We should be far more prepared to handle the disease as it loosens its grip on society, even with the prospect of a second wave hitting later in the fall. Three: Increased Antogen testing might increase the prospect that a significant segment of society—including, presumably, football players—could be made immune to the virus by plasma donations.

The biggest factor on the NFL’s side might be this: We’re going to be smarter about everything related to the disease in three months, when teams hope to gather for some sort of team training. Think of where we were two months ago today. On March 11, we were still dining out, still shaking hands, still driving to and from work. Three months from now, on Aug. 11, we really don’t know where we’ll be, because three months is an eternity in the race to conquer this virus.

Take testing, for example. I said to Dr. Fauci that if the 32 NFL teams tested players, coach and vital personnel twice a week, that would probably consume about 200,000 COVID-19 tests for the season. I asked Dr. Fauci if that might be reasonable by mid- to late-August, or a bit piggish?

“That’s a great question,” he said. “Right now, it would be overwhelmingly piggish. But by the end of August, we should have in place antigen testings . . . You could test millions of people, millions of people. But again, we have to make sure that the companies that are doing these tests actually produce them. Which given the country that we have, such a rich country, I would be very surprised if we can’t do that.”

Football’s a different sport than many trying to figure a route back to play. With so much physical contact, I wondered, could the virus be transmissible more in this game than others, with players sweating on each other and gripping and tackling each other?

“Sweat does not do it,” Fauci said. “This is a respiratory virus, so it’s going to be spread by shedding virus. The problem with virus shedding is that if I have it in my nasal pharynx, and it sheds and I wipe my hand against my nose—now it’s on my hand. You see, then I touch my chest or my thigh, then it’s on my chest or my thigh for at least a few hours. Sweat as such won’t transmit it. But if people are in such close contact as football players are on every single play, then that’s the perfect set up for spreading. I would think that if there is an infected football player on the field—a middle linebacker, a tackle, whoever it is it—as soon as they hit the next guy, the chances are that they will be shedding virus all over that person.

“If you really want to be in a situation where you want to be absolutely certain, you’d test all the players before the game. And you say, Those who are infected: Sorry, you’re sidelined. Those who are free: Get in there and play.

And test more than once a week, if you can.

“If I test today, and I’m negative, you don’t know if I got exposed tomorrow . . . There’s no guarantee that you’re going to get exposed and be positive the next day. To give you an example, you’re probably reading in the newspapers that there’s an infection in the White House. I was exposed to that person. So I immediately got tested. I am negative. So, I’m negative yesterday. I don’t know if I’m going to be negative Monday. Understand? It’s almost an impossible situation. To be 100 percent sure, you’ve got to test every day. But that’s not practical and that’s never going to happen. But you can diminish dramatically by testing everybody Saturday night, Sunday morning, and say OK, only negative players play.”

Whether fans will be allowed at NFL games in 2020 remains to be seen. (Getty Images)

Fauci said two weeks ago that it’s “inevitable” the virus will return in the fall, and it could make “for a bad fall and a bad winter.” That begs the natural question about how it could affect whether the NFL would be able to get in a full season.

“The answer is not going to be black and white,” Fauci said. “When I said there’s no doubt the virus is going to return, that is in response to some who have said ‘Oh, it’s just going to disappear.’ So, unlike the virus SARS, back in 2002, when we had an outbreak of about 8,000 people and close to 800 deaths, and then the virus just essentially petered out by good public health measures by the simple reason that it wasn’t efficiently or effectively transmitted from one person to another. In other words, it was not an efficient spreader. So that when you tamp down on it with public health measures, it actually got to the point where it disappeared.

“That’s not the case with this novel coronavirus. It is so transmissible, and it is so widespread throughout the world, that even if our infections get well controlled and go down dramatically during the summer, there is virtually no chance it will be eradicated. Which means there will be infections in the Southern Hemisphere, in South Africa, in Argentina, places like that. And with the travel, the global travel, every single day, of literally hundreds of thousands of people coming into the United States every day from all over, there’s no chance we’re going to be virus-free.”

No chance. Which leaves NFL teams under tremendous pressure to create pristine environments in places that, traditionally, are hardly pristine.

“As for the football season and what the fall is going to be: It will be entirely dependent on the effectiveness with which we as a society respond to the inevitable outbreak that will occur. So what are the options? If we let it just go, and we don’t have a good response, you can have an outbreak somewhat similar. Probably not as bad, because we got hit really with a 1-2 punch, particularly in New York City and New Orleans and Chicago. But we can expect an outbreak that would be serious. That’s if we do nothing. So it’s inconceivable that we would do nothing. What we’re saying is what is going to be the effectiveness of our response? . . .

“Now, even if the virus goes down dramatically in June and July and August, as the virus starts returning in the fall, it would be in my mind, shame on us if we don’t have in place all of the mechanisms to prevent it from blowing up again. In other words, enough testing to test everybody that needs to be tested. Enough testing so that when someone gets infected, you could immediately do contact tracing and isolation to prevent the infection from going to a couple of infections to hundreds of infections. That’s how you control an outbreak.

“So, practically speaking, the success or failure, the ability or not, to actually have a football season is going to depend on just on what I said . . . but what I’m really saying is it’s unpredictable depending upon how we respond in the fall.”

I asked this about working with President Trump, who has been pretty clear that he wants sports, and normalcy, to return to the country: How much does that have to whether football will be played this fall?

“No, well, you know,” he said, a bit cautiously, “I could only give my medical advice. If there’s infection out there, and I say I think that we should lock down or not, I’m just an opinion among many. Whether people listen to my public health opinion or override it, that’s out of my hands.”

Fauci said the NFL hasn’t reached out to talk to him. But if Roger Goodell or chief medical officer Allen Sills did, Fauci said he’d say much of what he said here. And this, about sports in the United States this fall and winter: “It is uncertain. You’ll have to play it by ear according to the level of infection in the community.”

(Editor’s note: Listen to the full interview with Dr. Fauci here)

The 2020 Schedule


For the past five years, I’ve done a big schedule story—an inside-the-process deep dive into how the sausage got made. I tried this year but got turned down, and I get it: There would have been too many questions on the maybes, and with Roger Goodell trying to shut down the hypotheticals this year, it was best to close the door on the cute angles and just present the schedule as the league did Thursday night.

I did find 15 good angles, however, in the 2020 NFL slate:

1. The NFL did a big solid for ESPN. Regular-season game of the year: Kansas City-Baltimore. Mahomes-Jackson. AFC rights-holder CBS really wanted it. CBS, having lost the game’s biggest drawing cards (Peyton Manning and Tom Brady) in the last five years, was the favorite; NBC, the biggest TV draw in the NFL, really wanted it for Sunday night. ESPN really wanted it for Monday night. ESPN got it. Why? Those in the TV business are convinced it’s because ESPN has come up so big for the NFL in the last two months—treating free agency as a big-league sport in the opening days of the coronavirus, then choreographing the most popular draft in NFL history by seamlessly merging with NFL Network and turning the glitzy draft into the feel-good sports story of the pandemic—from the ESPN studios in Connecticut. Giving the best game of the year to ESPN was a back-pat from the league.

2. But business is business. Couldn’t help but notice the NFL scheduled a late-afternoon Christmas game for 4:30 p.m. ET on Friday, Dec. 25—Vikings at Saints. Christmas Day football on FOX. Why? Because the NFL saw the chance for an extra window, and heading into big TV negotiations (likely to get serious after the 2020 season), this was one big way to goose the ratings instead of just making this game a Sunday doubleheader game opposite Philadelphia-Dallas. I highlight this game because Christmas Day is an NBA day, an ESPN/ABC day. The NBA plays games at noon, 2:30 p.m., 5 p.m., 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m., all ET, on ESPN or ABC. Vikings-Saints will steal viewers from the second half of NBA game two and all of game three. Suppose ESPN wants Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans to play on Christmas, and it almost surely will. Zion will either be on the road in game one, four or five, I’d think. So ESPN has to be euphoric it got Chiefs-Ravens and nauseous that 3.5 hours of Christmas will be pilfered by the NFL.

3. Flex scheduling expansion. NBC has flex scheduling in Weeks 5 through 16; a game can be switched with the scheduled Sunday night game up to 12 days prior to that Sunday. (In Week 17, no game is scheduled for Sunday night, and the league chooses a playoff-impacting game for Sunday night six or seven days prior to the final day of the season.) But if there are weeks when no fans are in the stands, why wouldn’t the league make it an option to flex games up to the Monday prior to the game? It would be good for ratings in this important ratings season, and also good for fans. Come to think of it, why not try it for ESPN on select Monday nights too? If ESPN got a taste of flex scheduling, what might they pay for it in the next TV contract?

4. The international games. I believe if the NFL released the schedule in mid-April, as was the pre-pandemic plan, the five international games would have remained intact. But with too much travel/COVID-19 uncertainty, it was impossible to be sure those games would be played, and would be played with fans. Thus, the NFL eliminated the four London and one Mexico games. No long-term impact on international ball, though. Those games should return in 2021.

5. This was an easier schedule to build—much easier. In the past, I’ve written about how a Papal visit to Philadelphia in-season, college games at the L.A. Coliseum, a game by the All Blacks at Soldier Field, and conflicts with the baseball stadium in Oakland have made the rubric of the NFL schedule so tough to navigate. Not so this year. There are no large public gatherings happening, anywhere. The Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney, Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber tours all had NFL stadia holds in the fall dropped because no concerts are happening. The Raiders aren’t in Oakland anymore. The Rams aren’t at the Coliseum. The longer the NFL waited to build this schedule, the easier the job became.

6. Who got jobbed? Detroit. Not terribly, but the Lions have one home game in September, one home game in October, three home games in November, and three home games after Dec. 1. Detroit is home one day between Sept. 13 and Halloween. Not optimal. If they start 1-5, the Lions will be playing for the draft for two months.

7. Super Bowl LV. Scheduled for Feb. 7 in Tampa. Could be held in Raymond James Stadium, easily, on Feb. 14, 21 or 28.

8. Portability. The NFL will be just like society. It will be ruled by the virus. It’s fruitless to guess now. The league could be interrupted by a fall or winter second wave of COVID-19, as Dr. Anthony Fauci explained higher in this column. As I’ve written in the past couple of weeks, the league has a convenient way to push the season back four weeks. With no byes in the first four weeks, the NFL could open the season on Thursday, Oct. 8—the scheduled first game of Week 5—and have Week 17 on Sunday, Jan. 31. That would mean a Feb. 28 Super Bowl, if the league would go without the Pro Bowl and the week between conference title games and the Super Bowl. All sort of scheduling blips can happen, but the virus will rule those blips.

9. Home field. If there are fan-less games, what teams lose? Seattle, to be sure. Imagine empty stadiums in the first half of the season; the Seahawks would lose home-field advantage with New England (Week 2), Dallas (Week 3), Minnesota (Week 5) and, importantly, San Francisco (Week 8). Will they even need a home-field edge in December, when the Giants, Jets and Rams come calling?

Cowboys-Giants, Nov. 2019. (Getty Images)

10. Weird cross-flex. Not only do the Giants not play on Sunday night for the second straight year, but did you notice in Week 5, the New York-Dallas game is a doubleheader game and was cross-flexed to CBS? Cool that Texan Tony Romo gets a rare home game that week (which I say optimistically, because it’s certainly possible that TV teams will be at remote sites this year), but for both Cowboys-Giants games to not be in prime time or in a big FOX window is just weird. And telling about the state of the Giants.

11. Two games, one trip. I heard that eight teams asked to have two distant games paired so those teams could take one long road trip instead of two. The Chargers (at Bucs, Saints), Rams (at Eagles, Bills), Jets (at Seahawks, Rams), Dolphins (at 49ers, Broncos), Cardinals (at Panthers, Jets) and Raiders (at Falcons, Jets) all got their road requests answered. My favorite two: San Francisco plays in MetLife Stadium in Weeks 2 and 3—at Jets on Sept. 20, at Giants on Sept. 27, both 10 a.m. PT body-clock games. And New England has the rarest of two-game trips. The itinerary:

• Depart Providence, Saturday Dec. 5.
• Play Chargers at SoFi Stadium, Los Angeles, Sunday Dec. 6.
• Practice in southern California two or three days.
• Play Rams at SoFi Stadium, Los Angeles, Thursday Dec. 10.
• Arrive Providence, Friday Dec 11.

Not bad. The Patriots knock off two of their three long trips of the season in a six-day span, and get to practice in SoCal in December. That’s about the best schedule a team could ask for, especially when two L.A. trips are on the slate. Plus, they’ll get to visit Mozza and eat the best pizza in Western Civilization in the process.   

12. Quirk of the Year. The Jets and Dolphins are such pals anyway, and this year, they play consecutive games against each other. They should spend Thanksgiving together. Nov. 15, New York at Miami. Nov. 22, bye. Nov. 26, Thanksgiving. Nov. 29, Miami at New York. Come on, Adam Gase! Open your Jersey home to those Dolphins! You know you love them.

13. Robert Kraft Note of the Week. New England might be in for a correction, but the league is giving the benefit of the doubt to the Patriots. They’re scheduled for the maximum five prime-time games—two Sunday nights, two Monday nights and one Thursday-nighter.

14. Howard Katz Knows What He’s Doing Note. The VP of broadcasting and scheduling honcho can’t make every week of the season shine. A few of them have to be blasé. Like Week 13 this year: Cowboys-Ravens, Broncos-Chiefs, Bills-Niners are the prime-time affairs, and all could be good, or all could have one meh team. Hard to say. But there’s a hidden gem that could really spice up the week: Cincinnati at Miami. Joe Burrow at Tua Tagovailoa, perhaps? In the first matchup of the two megastars from the 2020 draft? Who knows what the future holds. Could be Burrow-Ryan Fitzpatrick too. But it’s just one of those interesting place-holders I’ll be watching.

15. The best Sunday of the year. I may need one Sunday off, with a bucket of Peronis by my side in the easy chair. Oct. 25 would be the day. At 1, I’ll flip between Steelers-Ravens and Joe Brady/Teddy Bridgewater at Sean Payton/Drew Brees. In the late window, I’ll do picture-in-picture between Jimmy G’s reunion tour at the Patriots and the Chiefs testing their offensive imitators in Denver for the first time. At night, it’s Tom Brady at Jon Gruden, in the new Vegas stadium. And imagine if the World Series is going on just then . . . Yanks at Dodgers. In between Brady barking at Chucky, I flip over and there’s Mookie Betts with the bases loaded against Gerrit Cole. Transfixed for 10.5 hours.

Man, I hope we’ve got sports back by then, in full.

Don Shula, 1930-2020

The winningest coach in NFL history died last Monday at 90. Don Shula was persnickety, exacting, disciplined, demanding, competitive, beloved by his players more in retirement (some, not all; and some didn’t like him long after retirement) than while playing. He had a long memory. He called out detractors. He remembered slights. He changed Miami forever. He endured. He was surprisingly and occasionally emotional. After one of the biggest losses an NFL coach ever suffered, the 16-7 Super Bowl III loss to the Jets, he won two Super Bowls and 282 football games. He became a head coach at 33 during the Kennedy Administration, and coached 33 years, through eight presidents. He had two losing seasons.

In 100 NFL seasons, only one team in one year has won every game it played: Shula’s 1972 Dolphins—14-0 in the regular season, 3-0 in the playoffs. The all-time NFL winner, and the only coach to ever have a perfect season, deserves your time this morning.

The life of Don Shula, in a dozen stories:

Don Shula, 1986. (Getty Images)

1965: The Kid

In his third season as a head coach, Shula had a quarterback crisis with the Baltimore Colts. Starter John Unitas and backup Gary Cuozzo were down with injuries entering a playoff game at Green Bay. NFL rules declared that unless a player was a member of a team’s roster on Dec. 1 of that season, he was ineligible to play in the postseason. So Shula in December began getting running back Tom Matte—a part-time quarterback at Ohio State in 1960—ready for a potential playoff game. That game came against tremendous odds: in the Western Conference playoff game, at Lambeau Field, on a windy 22-degree Sunday, against the great Lombardi, Starr, Davis and Nitschke. Shula had Matte wear a wristband with his 12 plays for the game written on it.

Tom Matte:

“At Ohio State, Woody Hayes converted me to quarterback, and he assigned [assistant coach] Bo Schembechler to work with me to learn the position. But I had a small hand. Luckily that college ball was smaller than the NFL ball. I really didn’t want to be a quarterback. I told Woody, ‘I really don’t want to play quarterback. I’m a running back.’ Woody said: ‘Do you want your scholarship?’

“In Baltimore, Unitas used to laugh at me when I’d throw a long pass—not exactly a tight spiral. So when John went down, Shula had me take a few snaps. I’d throw five-, seven-, 10-yard down-and-outs. Nothing too deep. But going into that Green Bay game, when they were both hurt, there was quite a bit of pressure on me. I thought, Now I REALLY have to learn how to play the position. But Johnny got me ready, and I could tell Shula had faith in me. I was a competitor. I was not intimidated going in there, at all. The advantage I had was the defense really didn’t know what was coming. I was kind of a curveball. I could step back and just follow a pulling guard through a hole. I could run a quarterback draw. I could throw a little.”

The Colts built a 10-0 halftime lead, and Matte got them to overtime. In a 10-10 game in OT, a Don Chandler field goal (that the Colts swore was wide) gave Green Bay a 13-10 win.

“I really appreciated Don Shula because he had so much confidence in me. If I was out there, he was going to put me in position to win. That was how he coached. If you were playing, there were no excuses. He used me everywhere—running back, quarterback, defensive back, backup punter. He took good, athletic players in the draft and got us ready to win.”

1969: The Upset

Shula’s Baltimore Colts, with a 15-1 record after routing the Browns 34-0 in the ’68 NFL Championship Game, were 18-point favorites over the Jets in Super Bowl III. In the week prior to the game, of course, Jets quarterback Joe Namath famously guaranteed a victory. That made Jets coach Weeb Ewbank furious.

Joe Namath:

“It’s funny—we were Colts fans in Beaver Falls [Namath grew up in Beaver Falls, Pa.] because Jim Mutscheller, a tight end for the Colts, was from Beaver Falls.

“I never thought they were overconfident entering that game, but I did watch them on film and I thought, ‘They are not gonna change for us.’ After I said what I said, the next day at practice, Coach Ewbank was pretty mad. He told me, ‘We had ‘em right where we wanted ‘em! And you say that! Coach Shula is gonna use that with his team! He’ll use those press clippings to motivate his team!’ “

Jets 16, Colts 7. “I really was devastated,” Shula told writer Ian O’Connor years later. “I just told my players . . . ‘The most important thing is what we do from here on out, how we atone for it.’ “

“I remember one of the first things coach Bear Bryant told us when I started at Alabama, ‘We’re gonna win a lot of games here, a lot of games. But I can tell you—you’ll remember the ones we lost.’ Damn if he wasn’t absolutely right. When I think of my college career, I think of the four games we lost. Some memory comes up, years later, a memory I won’t tell anyone about, and I think of one of those losses. I’m sure it was the same with Coach Shula. A flash comes up one day, something you might not even be thinking of, and he thinks of one of his setbacks. Maybe that [Super Bowl]. It had to bother him. But he went on. And man, did he win a lot of games.

Shula, with Baltimore Colts’ Johnny Unitas and Earl Morrall, in an undated picture. (Getty Images)

“What a man he was. Years later, I’m working in TV, and it’s the week before that big game in 1985, when the undefeated Bears are going into Miami. The week of the game, I brought my dad to practice, and Coach Shula was so kind to my father. I introduced my dad to him, and Coach Shula starts talking Hungarian to him. [Shula and Janos Namath were both of Hungarian descent.] And they walk off together, talking Hungarian, deep in conversation! I will never forget that.”

Later in life, Shula and Namath, both living in south Florida, would share a suite with family members at some Super Bowls. Flying home after one of the games, Shula taught Jessica Namath, one of Joe’s daughters, how to play rummy.

“I hadn’t thought about that for a long time. Coach Shula actually played cards with [Jessica] on the way home, and he won the card game. He said, ‘Well, at least I beat one Namath!’

“A respectful, righteous man. Such a good man. I just marvel at how he endured. It was his life, man.

“I am thankful you called.”

1972: The P Word

Six months after losing 24-3 to Dallas in Super Bowl VI, safety Dick Anderson and his Dolphins mates gathered for training camp to prepare for a season in an increasingly competitive AFC. The Raiders and Steelers were burgeoning powers; the aging Chiefs and pesky Browns were tough.

Dick Anderson:

“In our first meeting that summer, the first words out of Coach Shula’s mouth were, ‘I just want you to remember: Nobody ever remembers who finished second in the Super Bowl.’ The focus was on only one thing—the game that week. I do not remember one time any conversation with the guys about being undefeated. That wasn’t the goal. The goal was winning the Super Bowl, so being undefeated was immaterial. We didn’t lose a game in the regular season, but no one talked about that, because we still had three games left. That’s a tribute to Coach Shula.

“I honestly don’t remember thinking anything about a perfect season until 1985, when Miami beat Chicago to give the Bears their first loss. I don’t think we talked about it for those 13 years.”

1972: The Guts

Back in the day, playoff home field was determined by rotation, not record, and so the 15-0 Dolphins flew to Pittsburgh to play the 12-3 Steelers for the AFC Championship on Christmas Eve 1972. The son of Miami owner Joe Robbie, Tim Robbie, was a high school senior at the time, and appointed by Shula to chart plays and formations during games on the sidelines. So he was on the sideline that fateful day at Three Rivers Stadium, as the Earl Morrall-led Miami offense sputtered into halftime, tied 7-7. Morrall played most of the season, after starter Bob Griese went down with a broken leg in week five.

Tim Robbie:

“I was a very lucky kid, charting plays as a high school senior on the sidelines for the only undefeated season ever. When they show the pictures of Coach Shula from the games that season, [offensive assistant] Monte Clark is behind him, and next to him, the kid with the long hair and clipboard is me.

“In Pittsburgh that day, we were struggling in the first half. We came into the locker room at halftime, and I remember Coach Shula telling the team he was making a change. The way he sold it, in a very calm voice, was reassuring. He told them how great Earl had been for us all season . . . we’d never be here without him. But he was going with [Bob Griese] to start the second half. I’m sitting there thinking, Wow!!! He’s benching Earl! If this backfires, he’s REALLY going to be second-guessed. But the team really believed in him. If Coach Shula said it was the right thing to do, if he believed it, then it must be the right thing.

President Barack Obama hosted Shula and the 1972 team at the White House in 2013. (Getty Images)

“We go out for the third quarter, and I remember still being a state of shock . . . until Bob took the field. He was always confident. I watched him throw. Sharp, confident, like always. He hit Paul Warfield on a slant early on, and it was like he never left. We went on to win. I’ll never forget that decision.”

1973: The Game Plan

The season after the perfect season, Miami was 1-0 and a road trip to Oakland was on the schedule. Fullback Larry Csonka was a key piece of the Miami offense.

Larry Csonka:

“We went into Oakland on a Friday and we were gonna practice there on Saturday. But because of construction in the stadium, we had to use their training room. They had practiced earlier in the day, they cleared out, and we used their locker room. I picked [defensive lineman] Art Thoms’ locker, because I’d played with him in college at Syracuse. I was gonna leave him a note in his locker—dead fish or something, mess with him a little bit. So I’m sitting in his locker, going through it to find something to write on. I find the Oakland Raiders game plan. Now that can be construed a couple of different ways. Knowing what they’re going to do . . . it’s their fault for leaving it there. Is it the right thing to do? Unquestionably it’s not the right thing to do. Was it cheating? I don’t know. It’s a fine line. I went and handed that report, quite quietly, to [offensive line coach and Shula confidant] Monte Clark. He said, ‘What’s this?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I’ve never seen it before.’ I walked away.

“Here’s the bottom line: We lost the game. Even with the game report, we lost the game. After the game, I’m riding on the bus. Monte Clark sits down next to me on the bus. I said, ‘Monte, what the hell did you do with the game report?’ He said, ‘I took it to Shula and when he asked what it was, I told him. He said, ‘Tear it up. If we can’t beat ‘em straight up, we shouldn’t beat ‘em.’ ”

“You can’t find a guy more sincere about winning, but only winning within the rules.”

Late ‘70s: The Influence

In the years after the Super Bowl victory—pre-Heat, pre-Marlins, pre-Panthers, pre-powerhouse-Hurricanes, even pre-Miami Vice—the Dolphins were everything in south Florida. They, and their coach, became major life influencers to many, including a powerful future pen and voice in sports media. His family joined a wave of exiles from Cuba to the U.S. a few years earlier.

Dan Le Batard:

“I was starved for sports in the late seventies. But I had no access to sports, really. My dad worked as a plant manager at a factory in Hialeah, and occasionally he’d get two tickets to a Dolphins game. Nobody ever wanted Bills tickets, so he got two of those one year. He really wanted to see O.J. Simpson play. He took me to the Orange Bowl. It’s the first place I remember having any real connection to sports. I really didn’t know what sports were. We walked into the Orange Bowl that day, my tiny hand in his big hand, and we sat near the top of the stadium, watching that Dolphins team, hearing that big stadium noise for the first time.

“That noise is what I spent the rest of my life chasing. That noise was all because of Don Shula and what he brought to south Florida.

“Later in life, I become the Miami Herald sports columnist. I’m young, in my twenties. The Dolphins just lost a playoff game to San Diego [in the 1994 season], and I wrote [Miami Hurricanes coach] Jimmy Johnson would be a good replacement for Shula, and Jimmy was available. Shula asks to see me. So I go into his office, say hello, stick my hand across his desk . . . and he just stares at my hand. I asked him, ‘Is this what you brought me in here to do?’ What I remember specifically is, he was trying to make me feel small, and he succeeded. To him, what I wrote was profound disrespect.

“I learned to have a gentler voice later in life. We had no issues the last 20 years of his life. He was much softer when out of the job that when in it. He aged gracefully and warmly. He learned how to love later in life more deeply.

“When he died, selfishly, the first thing I thought of was my own mortality. It was a piece of my childhood, a vital piece, literally dying.” 

1982: The Father

Against the odds in 1981, free-agent wide receiver Dave Shula, from Dartmouth, made the Baltimore Colts roster as a return man and receiver after a great preseason. But the Colts had better receivers/returns in the 1982 camp, and Shula was on the bubble. Near the end of camp, first-year GM Ernie Accorsi of the Colts made a tough call.

Ernie Accorsi:

“In ’81, we had six preseason games, and in one of them—the Saints, I think—Dave had a long return, a spectacular catch. I don’t think he dropped a pass all summer. He made our team, justifiably. But the next year we added some talent there, and he wasn’t going to make it. I told the coach, ‘Before we tell Dave, let me call Don first.’ I thought we owed him that respect.

Dave Shula, running with players at Dolphins training camp, in 1973. (Getty Images)

“I called Don down in Miami and I told him I was sorry, this was a tough phone call, but we have to let Dave go. There was a long pause. Don broke down. It was pretty emotional. He just said, ‘Thank you for telling me,’ and he got off the phone. Then I called Dave in and told him.

“For Don, a pure football guy, it was just heartbreaking.”

1982: The Rules

Two memorable events happened in the strike-shortened 1982 season that linger to this day. In a December snowstorm in New England, Pats coach Ron Meyer waved a snowplow operator and his machine on the field before a fourth-quarter New England field-goal try in a 0-0 game to clean a spot for his kicker. Ever after, Shula referred to Meyer as “that coach up north.” And in the AFC title game in Miami six weeks later, a morning deluge left the field a muddy mess; to this day, Jets fans blame their 14-0 loss on Shula purposely negating New York’s team speed by keeping the field uncovered and making the game a mud bowl. Miami linebacker/defensive end Kim Bokamper played in both games.

Kim Bokamper:

“I remember that snowy day vividly. I was a California kid, and I remember waking up that morning in our hotel in Boston seeing more snow that I’d ever seen other than on a ski slope. As the game went on, that snowplow would come on the field during timeouts to clean off the yard markers. I don’t remember anyone getting close to a touchdown the whole day; we didn’t have those long cleats in those days, just the short nub-type cleat. Nobody got traction. So the Patriots get in position for a field goal late in the game. Here comes the plow again. I’m on that side of the field. I don’t think anything of it. But the guy made a hard left instead of staying on the yard stripe, and the plow goes right over the spot where their kicker is going to kick. I look over at our sideline, and Coach Shula is livid. He’s on the field, pointing to the plow and screaming at the ref. I mean, you could see the veins on the side of his neck. Livid! They made the field goal from the clean spot, and we lost 3-0. He really pressed the league on that for days. He’d rather get beat 45-0 by somebody than feel he was cheated and lose 3-0.”

Regarding the AFC Championship Game:

“We didn’t have a tarp at that [Orange Bowl] field. In all my years playing for the Dolphins, there never was a tarp on that field. We never covered the field. It had the kind of turf with an excellent drainage system. I meet Jets fans to this day who complain we flooded the field, and I can’t reason with them. I just say, ‘We beat you three times that season. If you were a great team, couldn’t you have beaten us just once?

A postscript on Saturday, from a league official at that 1982 title game: “Don Shula had nothing to do with the condition of the field that day. The league always controlled the stadium and the playing surface the week of championship games. They had a system at the old Orange Bowl that sucked the water from the field from underneath, but that was the worst rain I’d ever seen in my life. The system got overwhelmed.”

“Talk about Coach Shula and the rules . . . [In 1981] we came in one day and saw terrycloth robes in our lockers. He told us we were going to start allowing women reporters in the locker room after games. He told us, ‘When you come off the field after a game, get undressed, put the robe on, go to the shower, take your shower, get dry, put the robe back on, go to your locker, put your underwear on, then you take the robe off and get dressed.’ He even coached us on how to use that robe!”

1989: The Competitor

Shula loved coaching against former players and coaches on other staffs. It brought out the competitor in him. Early in the ’89 season, Miami traveled to New England to play the Patriots, coached by Raymond Berry. Shula had great respect for Berry, the Hall of Fame Colts receiver who Shula coached years earlier in Baltimore. But now Berry, as Patriots coach, had won seven straight matchups against Shula. One Wednesday evening at Dolphins camp, Shula stopped into special-teams coach Mike Westhoff’s office.

Mike Westhoff:

“Coach Shula was a schedule person. Every Wednesday night that I coached with him, at exactly 6:30, he’d come into my office. I had a great big easy chair in my office, and Coach Shula was the only one who ever sat in it. He’d walk in and say, ‘Okay. Whadda we got?’ He’d be in there exactly 45 minutes, then be off to his next meeting at exactly 7:15. Every week. In my 32 years as a coach, he’s the only guy I knew who could coach every position, who could draw the plays for every position. He called the plays for that high-powered Marino offense—no script. Just did it from memory. So when he came into my office, I knew I better have my ‘A’ game, every week.

“On this Wednesday night, he comes in and says, ‘What can we do that the Patriots haven’t seen? Can we get them on a punt block?’ He loved Raymond Berry, but he really loved beating him too. Reminds me of ‘The Last Dance,’ with Michael Jordan. You can see how much he admires Magic, but he loves beating him too. Brings out the best in him. Coach Shula loved Berry, but now Berry was in his arena.

“I got up on the board, a chalk board. The chalk dust is flying, we’re putting a few ideas together. On our [punt-return] team, we’d have eight in the box, two guys wide across from their punt-team gunners, or flyers as we called ‘em, and the returner. We thought, what if we brought our guy in from the right and just left the wide flyer alone, try to bait them into running or throwing it over there? It’s a split-second call. What would they do? Coach Shula liked it. He said, ‘Let’s go for it.’

“So we get into the game, and on their first punt, we bring our defender in from the right tight to the formation. Their guy’s alone.”

New England punter Jeff Feagles, seeing the opportunity, rushed a throw to his left. Incomplete. Miami took over at the New England 20 and drove for a quick touchdown to take a 14-0 lead. On the ensuing series, the Patriots went three-and-out.

“I go to Coach Shula and I say, ‘Coach, I wanna run it again.’ He said, ‘Do it.’ He was such a competitor!”

Feagles dropped the snap, recovered it, and threw a hurried incompletion. On another short field, Miami drove for a field goal to go up 17-0, on the way to a 24-10 win.

“All he said after was, ‘Pretty good, Mike,’ or something like that. He never gloated. Never. For him, it was always onto the next game.”

1989: The Defender

NFL Films czar Steve Sabol fed statistics of the best single-season teams of all time into a computer, with the idea to play a computerized game and match the results to video. Twenty teams were cut down to two in the simulated tournament. The last teams standing: the ’72 Dolphins and the ’78 Steelers. Before the “Dream Bowl” aired, Sabol called veteran Miami PR chief Harvey Greene with the result of the “game:” Pittsburgh 21, Miami 20.

Harvey Greene:

“Shula relished the accomplishment of the perfect team not only for what it represented, but also how it was achieved—through hard work, determination, intelligence and unselfishness. Traits that defined his life and what he meant by ‘The Winning Edge.’ That’s why he inscribed that mantra into the team’s Super Bowl rings that year.

“Sabol told me the winner was the Steelers. And when I passed that on to Shula, I got the reaction I expected. He went nuts. ‘How the [expletive] could Sabol do that?’ he yelled. ‘What kind of stats did he look at? And what the hell were you doing when you found out he was holding that tournament? Did you even call him to remind him that besides going undefeated, we were one of the very few teams ever to lead the league in both offense and defense the same season? Get him on the goddamned phone!’

Shula, in 1989. (Getty Images)

“Sabol knew what was coming and braced for it, but it was too late. As soon as I put Shula on, he yelled at Sabol so loudly that you could hear it throughout the entire building.

“ ‘How the hell did the Steelers beat us? No one else ever did. There is no way a computer could do something that was never accomplished on the field. Garbage in, garbage out!’

“And then he slammed the phone down.

“Their friendship survived that, but Shula never forgot it. And the league didn’t make the same mistake again. When the NFL picked the greatest team in its 100-year history, this time they chose the perfect season team. When I talked to Shula about it, he was proud that his ’72 team finally was officially recognized as the best there ever was.

“Then he said to me, ‘We still should have won that damn game Sabol put together.’ ”

1994: The Father-Son Bowl

The Bengals, in 1992, tried to make Shula history repeat. They hired Dave Shula, and he coached his first season in Cincinnati at 33. By year three, son was struggling to turn around the Bengals, and dad was on his way to a division title. Miami played at Cincinnati on a Sunday night early in 1994.

Dave Shula:

“I think it’s still the only time a dad coached against his son—and we did it the next year too. In ’94, we weren’t very good, and we were just trying to get a win. All week, I was immersed in the game-planning, but it was a pretty big deal, obviously, me coaching against my father. I tried to make it all about the game. But I remember standing on the sideline during the anthem, and I looked over at their sideline, and I saw him, and I thought, ‘Wow. That’s right. There he is.’ This was Dad’s team. How much I really would have loved to beat him. Having grown up around the team, being a gym rat every summer being a ballboy in camp, watching him deal with equipment managers, players, coaches, the media, everything. It’s how I learned to be a coach.”

Miami 23, Cincinnati 7.

“I don’t think my Dad knew this, but everybody in the family was rooting for me. But, you know, my Dad had Dan Marino. After the game, we met in a private room at the stadium. [Miami owner] Wayne Huizenga was there, my dad, [wife] Mary Anne, my wife Leslie. All night, I was fine. I was fine during the game, I was fine with the media. Nobody knows this story, but there we were in the room, and I guess it all just hit me, the emotion of the week. I just broke down. I’m thinking, ‘Wow, Mr. Huizenga must think I’m an emotionally unstable person.’ My dad put his arm around me, said a couple of things. He knew. He knew what it must have been like for me.

“They beat us again the next year, so I was 0-2 against him. I don’t think I’m the only coach who went ‘ofer’ against him, I’ll tell you that. Actually, when I played for the Colts, we lost both games against him that year. And as an assistant coach, my teams lost to him twice. So I was 0-6 against him. I really learned how to be a competitor from watching him, from being around him. And I did have one thing over him. In Cincinnati, I had a winning record against the Raiders—2-1. He had a losing record against the Raiders. So I had that one thing, and I loved reminding him of it.”

2017: The Twilight

Shula late in life agreed to send his football archive—playbooks, game plans, personal notes—to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Hall VP Joe Horrigan spent a day going through the treasure trove in Shula’s home with Don, Mary Anne Shula and Saleem Choudhry of the Hall.

Joe Horrigan:

“His office in his home was his mancave, if you will, with his office desk, game balls, mementos from his life in football. His archive was meticulously maintained, and Mary Anne had done such a wonderful job of organizing it all. I thought what I might find was just boxes of all this old stuff, but Mary Anne had every little piece catalogued. We were going through his game-plan notebooks. They were in the spiral binders, with loose-leaf pages . . . looked like they were out of the Miami Dolphins team shop. At one point I said to Don, ‘I’m glad you went to Catholic school. Your penmanship is excellent.’ He even had personal hand-written notes for his pregame speeches to the team. All of it hand-written. Just a wealth of information.

Shula with wife Mary Anne and Pro Football Hall of Fame employees Joe Horrigan and Saleem Choudhry. (HOF)

“This was such a memorable day. Don took teams that needed to be rebuilt, where he not only had to find the right players but coach them up; no free agency in those days. Never fired in 33 years. Two losing seasons in 33 years. What’s a coach supposed to do? Win. No one won more. On this day, you could tell he absolutely loved looking back at these things. Three or four times that day, he said to Mary Anne, ‘Where have you been hiding this?’ We were talking about this game and that game, and it was such a good feeling, seeing this man get to appreciate these games and to relive them a bit. At one point, he was looking at a particular notebook from a game long ago, and he just said, ‘I haven’t thought about this game for so long.’ And I looked over at him, and there was a tear rolling down his cheek.”

Classroom: Seattle


This is the second in a series on how NFL teams are conducting their offseason programs, and installing their 2020 plays virtually. Last week: the Chargers offensive line. Today: the Seattle tight ends.

This spring, the NFL allows two hours of classroom work virtually for veteran players four days per week. The Seahawks as a team meet from 10 a.m. to noon PT four days a week, usually starting with a short team meeting and breaking down into smaller groups—the offense for some play installations, then maybe just the quarterback, tight ends and receivers, and then the tight ends, via video conference. The two-hour session is tightly controlled by director of team operations Matt Capurro, who flashes “time remaining” alerts on the screen as the last half-hour of the session winds down.

The scene: Seattle’s tight-end room, with two coaches and five veterans, stretches over three time zones and five states, connected by Zoom videoconference.

Zoom top row—Assistant TE coach Dave Canales, Renton, Wash.; [empty]; Greg Olsen, Charlotte, N.C.

Zoom middle row—Jacob Hollister, Bend, Ore.; Justin Johnson, Minneapolis; TE coach Pat McPherson, Gig Harbor, Wash.

Zoom bottom row—Luke Willson, Los Angeles; Will Dissly, Hermosa Beach, Calif.

The coach: Pat McPherson, 51, entering his 23rd year as an NFL assistant and 11th in Seattle. He’s bright and cheery and tries to be imaginative so his players don’t get bored in this weird year of learning virtually. One recent day last week, McPherson, at his home, set out scrimmage props in the yard, intending to show via iPad camera the way he wanted his guys to take certain steps off the line of scrimmage. Then rain moved in, and he had to run out to bring the props inside . . . and a few minutes later it stopped, so he moved the teaching back outside. All the while, he had to watch the clock, because teams cannot go over the two-hour daily “classroom” limit with veterans.

McPherson said, “It’s pretty crazy to be coaching boxes on a screen. But we’re making it work. We try to keep it interesting. The other day, [head coach] Pete [Carroll] started the meeting by calling on two veterans, Duane Brown and Bobby Wagner, and asking them what they’re learning from the Jordan documentary. Everybody’s watching it. A guy like Pete, he uses everything as a learning and teaching tool. This was right up Bobby’s alley—he said it was interesting to watch how Jordan developed not only as a player but a leader. That’s something a guy like Bobby, a true leader, would get a lot out of.”

In one session with all offensive personnel, quarterback Russell Wilson’s box on Zoom was highlighted, and he demonstrated his non-verbal signals and gyrations. Obviously, it’d be better to have Wilson standing in front of the offense in the same room, but the same message gets across on Zoom.

The teaching doesn’t stop at the end of those two hours. McPherson works with his four rookies in individual Zoom sessions: draft picks Colby Parkinson, connecting from northern California and Stephen Sullivan, from Baton Rouge, La.; and undrafted tight ends Tyler Mabry (Bradenton, Fla.) and Dominick Wood-Anderson (San Diego).

The veteran: Greg Olsen, 35, entering his 14th year as an NFL tight end and first in Seattle after spurning TV interest and signing a one-year contract with the team in March. This is where the football and the real life butt heads.

“I was really looking forward to the offseason, getting familiar with culture and flow and the people,” Olsen, the nine-year Panther, said by phone from Charlotte. “When you’re in one place for so long, you take for granted the equipment guy, the security guy, the inside jokes. Now, like the new kid at school, you get the new locker, and the new class—and you can’t go into the school yet. But obviously, the circumstances are out of my control. I’ve gotten to do a lot with Russell and the receivers in [Zoom] sessions on our own, which has been really helpful.

“We have a lease on a Seattle apartment, and we’re really excited. When we decided to do this—me, my wife, three young kids—we said, ‘Let’s just jump. Let’s take a family adventure.’ There’s something great about at this point of my career having a new sense of purpose. It’s all so different, learning this way and meeting my teammates this way. But what’s really cool about it is it’s caused me to dive into this offense and this new group of teammates, and caused me to be super-engaged. So that’s actually been a big advantage to a very strange offseason.”

Quotes of the Week


“The past few months have been among the most uncertain times that any of us has experienced. It is impossible to project what the next few months will bring.”

—Commissioner Roger Goodell, in a memo to teams last week.

Goodell continued: “Uninformed commentary that speculates on how individual clubs or the league will address a range of hypothetical contingencies serves no constructive purpose and instead confuses our fans and business partners, complicates the operations of other clubs, and distracts from the careful planning that is needed right now.”


“As Jerry says, ‘As money gets bigger, deals get harder.’ “

—Cowboys VP Stephen Jones to Mike Florio, on the difficulty of getting a long-term contract done for quarterback Dak Prescott.


“I prescribe to the approach of competitive fairness within our game, and that is everybody gets an opportunity. Our game is extremely competitive. It’s one of the things that make football at this level so attractive to our fans. I’m committed to preserving and protecting that, and so all teams getting an opportunity to start on the same footing is a core element of that.”

—Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, opining last week that all teams should begin using their facilities at the same time.

In a season when inequities will flourish, I prescribe to the approach of not making a big deal about things like when teams can get into their facilities.


“Get the sports leagues back. Let’s play.”

—President Trump, in a recorded message before the UFC 249 event Saturday night in Jacksonville, fought before an empty arena.


“I believe the franchise tag can be your friend.”

—Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, who has used the friendship of the franchise tag to be a top-five earner in the NFL over the past five years.

Numbers Game


Comparing New England’s national appeal coming off their last three Super Bowl victories to Tampa Bay’s in the first 11 weeks this season is rather stunning. Adding up the prime-time and network doubleheader-window games in the first 11 weeks after New England won its last three Super Bowls, compared to Tampa Bay’s draw in the schedule this year:

7 national TV games — New England, 2015, after winning Super Bowl 49 against the Seahawks
5 national TV games — New England, 2017, after winning Super Bowl 51 against the Falcons
6 national TV games — New England, 2018, after winning Super Bowl 53 against the Rams
9 national TV games — Tampa Bay, 2020, after Tom Brady signed with the Bucs in free agency
5 national TV games — New England, 2020, in their first season without Tom Brady

Note: National games include prime-time games plus all games in the late-Sunday-afternoon doubleheader window. There is one week this season, Week 3, that the Bucs may not be a national game despite being in the late window. The Dallas-Seattle late-window game on FOX is likely to go to more homes than the Tampa Bay-Denver game in the same FOX timeslot.

Moral of the story: The hot new beau is always the most popular beau.



The Baltimore Ravens will never be on a plane between Sept. 21 and Nov. 7.

They have three home games, a bye week and two road games in that period. The road games:

At Washington, Week 4: A 31-mile bus ride.

At Philadelphia, Week 6: A 106-mile bus ride.

The Ravens will fly five times in the last nine weeks of the season. The trips:

At Indianapolis, Week 9: A 82-minute flight.

At New England (Providence airport), Week 10: A 52-minute flight.

At Pittsburgh, Week 12: A 38-minute flight.

At Cleveland, Week 14: A 54-minute flight.

At Cincinnati, Week 17: A 71-minute flight.

Pretty crazy that every road trip for an NFL team for the last 15 weeks of a season would be little more than a puddle jump, or a short drive.


Assuming good health and the schedule playing out as it stands now …

Aaron Rodgers played three games at San Francisco in the 12 years beginning in 2007.

Aaron Rodgers will play three games at San Francisco in the 12 months beginning in late November 2019.

King of the Road


Not traveling much, other than about a 10-block perimeter of our Brooklyn apartment, so this is my second . . .


(From fall 2007, when I was working for both Sports Illustrated and HBO)

On my Continental puddle-jumper from Newark to Providence last week to do a Patriots story for HBO, the man in front of me passed gas uncontrollably, constantly, and without any shame throughout the flight. After about 15 minutes of this, the man across the aisle looked at the Wall Street Journal-reading farter and said: “Do you think you might be able to control that?”

“Control what?” Mr. Fart said.

“The farting,” Mr. Across-the-Aisle-But-Speaking-for-Everyone said.

“Jesus,” Mr. Fart said, sounding apologetic. “I’m sorry.”

But he couldn’t stop, and we suffered with the acrid fumes for most of the 47-minute flight. 

Tweets of the Week


Scott Soshnick is editor of Sportico


Mike Lombardi is a former NFL front-office man for several teams.



Michael David Smith is managing editor of Pro Football Talk


Bruce Arians and his mother . . . priceless.



Be in touch with me at, or on Twitter.

I disagree. From Paul Dorrian, via Twitter: “NFL too quick to ditch London. Twenty thousand deaths in NYC, while 5500 in London. No guarantee stadiums open in London. Same goes for California. Nope it’s just too problematic. Unlike the cognoscenti however, fans realize they’ve been dumped on. A breaking of faith.”

Sorry Paul. The NFL loves Great Britain. Read my column last week. We’re in a pandemic, and people had better get used to minor and major inequities like this. Not playing games in England or Mexico this year is one of about 40 things with pro football that falls into this category. Planning to play games in London and Mexico City requires lots of organization, and NFL types flying to and from England and Mexico often and freely. Would you recommend doing that now, and in the coming months? I wouldn’t. Plus, there’s no guarantee that by October there will be fans at games anyway. How smart would it be for the Falcons and Broncos to fly to London and play in front of crickets? Of course losing the London games for one year is unfortunate, but it’s life these days.

On writing. From Michael Burge, of Escondido, Calif.: “Like you, I’m a professional writer, having worked in a newsroom as a reporter and editor from the 1980s until my job was squeezed out of existence in 2010 during the calamitous contraction of our nation’s newspaper industry. Reporting and delivering the news was a very gratifying career. I think the advice you gave Sachin Patro was spot on. When I wrote on a daily deadline I knew I wasn’t producing poetry, but I was communicating ideas at a fast pace and I had no time to entertain any notion of a writer’s block. I’m not Philip Roth either, but like you I learned that good writing consists of building your story brick by brick, systematically, until you have a solid and presentable house. I’m so pleased you told it to Sachin that way, because too many people either oversimplify or overcomplicate the writing process, when it is precisely as you describe it: Tell the most important details of a story first, then tell the lesser details, writing logically and simply, until you have told the whole story. If there’s one thing I would add it’s the old ‘Kansas City Milkman’ advice: Write as if you’re telling a story to the Kansas City milkman. Sadly, there are no more Kansas City milkmen, just like soon there will be no more newspaper reporters.”

Sigh. Thanks so much for the valuable addition to my advice, Michael.

I don’t think so. From Scott Fargo, of Fort Worth, Texas: “Can Frank Gore hang on for enough years to go from number three all-time in rushing to the top spot?”

Doubt it, Scott, but let’s look at the factors involved. Gore turns 37 on Thursday. He has 15,347 yards, and stands 3,009 yards from breaking Emmitt Smith’s record of 18,355 career rushing yards. His rushing totals have fallen three straight years—from 1,025 to 961 to 722 to 588—and got left behind late last season as Devin Singletary commandeered the number one back job in Buffalo. Gore’s last six Bills’ games: 37 carries, 80 yards, 2.2 yards per rush. That doesn’t diminish the amazing career of Frank Gore, though. He’s played his last 221 NFL games over 14 seasons with two knee reconstructions and two shoulder reconstructions. He’s one of the great players, and stories, of the modern era.

10 Things I Think I Think

1. I think there’s more than one team right now thinking that, in the age of the virus, any road trip that is a two-hour flight or shorter will be day-of-game travel. As of now, the league has every road team go in the day before to make sure weather doesn’t interfere with any game. Look at my note above about Baltimore; the Ravens could do day-of-game travel on seven of eight road trips this season. In Week 1, 10 of 16 games would qualify as trips of two hours or less, and a seventh (Tennessee at Denver) is close.

Last week I wrote about how this is an imperfect season and teams had better get used to it, and this falls into that category. It’s inconvenient and not altogether restful for the Bears to have 6 a.m. wakeup calls in Chicago, hustle to the airport for an 7:15 a.m. charter to Detroit, land at 9:15 a.m. with the time change and get to the stadium at 10:15 a.m. for the 1 p.m. game. But life won’t be perfect for the 256 road teams in 2020 . . . if the NFL allows day-of-game travel, figuring it’s better to avoid hotels and hotel meals and a couple of extra bus rides than to just stay at home most Saturday nights.

2. I think it was inevitable that the NFL would kill the pass-interference-review rule this year. Inevitable because the league screwed it up from the start. If you’re going to pass a rule that allows coaches to appeal PI calls and non-calls, and then the league office figures it should only be called in the event of pure assault five seconds before the ball arrives in a receiver’s zip code, well, of course you’re going to have coaches and players howling about what a dumb rule it is.

3. I think it wasn’t a dumb rule. I think the administration of the rule was inconsistent and dumb.

4. I think I feel for Booger McFarland. As Richard Deitsch of The Athletic reported Saturday, McFarland and “Monday Night Football” partner Joe Tessitore will not return for the 2020 season. ESPN has been snakebitten trying to get a booth on the level of the other networks. McFarland’s a smart guy and good analyst, but he was still getting much-needed TV reps when he was placed on the huge primetime stage with the weird Boogermobile or whatever that thing was in 2018. Just goes to show the Tony Romos of the TV world are a rarity, and also goes to show the smart people are the ones who start on the smaller stages—which Jason Witten should have done in 2018. Instead of starting in the Monday night booth, Witten should have gone to a studio show or mid-level college TV job, so he could have learned without the free world passing judgment on him after his first three or four games ever. Drew Brees will do it right when he does Notre Dame football and the NBC studio show—if that’s indeed what happens—after he retires.

5. I think the Monday night booth has a bit of a jinx thing going on. Check out the last six years of broadcast teams in that booth:

2015: Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Gerry Austin (rules analyst)
2016: Sean McDonough, Gruden, Austin
2017: McDonough, Gruden, Austin
2018: Joe Tessitore, Jason Witten, Booger McFarland, Jeff Triplette (rules)
2019: Tessitore, McFarland, John Parry (rules)
2020: TBA

I’d love to see a three-man booth with Dan Orlovsky and Louis Riddick doing analysis.

6. I think Greg Olsen would have been a Monday night candidate if he’d walked away from football this year. I asked him why he didn’t. “A lot of teams asked me that too,” Olsen said. “We heard from a lot of teams. Countless GMs and coaches asked me, ‘You sure you want to keep playing?’ They knew about the interest TV had in me. But honestly, if I wanted to take a TV deal, I could have done in it 2017. I’ve had ops each year since then. I just knew there’s no going back. I know the case of Jason [Witten], obviously. But I knew it wasn’t out of me. When I sat down to talk about it with my family, I just knew I still love playing football, and if there was a great opportunity for me, then I’d be 100 percent into it. If the team or the op was not right, I’d know I would have exhausted every option. Seattle was a great option for me. I knew I wanted to play. I don’t HAVE to do this. But there was a great vibe to the Seahawks, and I thought it was a perfect place for me.”

7. I think the Jets, unfortunately, will regret their $19.6-million investment in wide receiver Quincy Enunwa between 2017 and 2020. With a back injury that could end his career, it could be that Enunwa will cost the Jets that much over those four seasons, while producing only 39 catches and one touchdown over that time.

8. I think Miami getting one prime-time game—and on NFL Network only in Week 3 against the Jaguars, the kind of game stuck in an early-season window to get two teams’ prime-time appearances out of the way—surprised me. Miami had a better record than New England after Halloween last year and has a quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, who will be playing at some point this season. I thought Miami would be a good October game, maybe hosting the Seahawks, or at Denver.

9. I think when I posted to Twitter on Sunday evening that I’d have an interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci in this column, the comments showed how divided we are, and how little we trust science and seem much more willing to believe COVID-19 is a vastly overrated malady. A few of the reactions:

  • From @DE_GRO: “Let’s stop relying on that dude. He’s been wrong at every step.”
  • From @MikeLacivita: “The second wave, the second wave, that’s all we hear about now. Give it a rest.”
  • From @DWalkRed14: “Anthony Fauci is a fraud. Have done 15 minutes of research on him?”
  • From @Stein_Time: “More fear mongering by the media.”

It’s sad, of course. Perhaps one day we’ll live in a world that values truth and science more than it does now.

10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:

a. TV Story of the Week: Jeffrey Brown of the PBS NewsHour, on smaller newspapers (in Anchorage and Louisville) winning Pulitzers. The story is tinged with sadness, though, because a newspaper industry in decline is falling off a cliff in the economic downturns. Good discussion led by Brown on the importance of missing local reportage.

b. Radio Story of the Week: Scott Simon, on NPR’s “Weekend Edition Saturday,” with a cool interview with the former National League MVP, Andre Dawson, now a funeral-home director in Miami in the time of coronavirus.

c. The Hawk! An undertaker!

d. Dawson, who has such a calming voice, to Simon:

“This is different. This is not fans cheering, not fun and excitement. I learned from the game itself how humbling life can be, and how you can be on top of the world and the next day you cause your ballclub to lose a game. You gotta stay humble. This business is what it is. It’s what I signed up for. I spend a lot of time in deep thought. I don’t pretend to know it all, or to know a great deal. This is not about me. This is about being able to provide the necessary means for people to get through their struggle.”

e. Much respect, Hawk.

f. Tomorrow is the two-month anniversary of when I last shook someone’s hand.

g. I wonder if handshaking is gone forever.

h. Story of the Week: Michael Specter of the New Yorker, with an excellent deep dive into the life and times of Dr. Anthony Fauci, “How Anthony Fauci became America’s doctor.”

i. Fauci is from Brooklyn. While an undergrad at Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., he worked construction jobs during the summers, and around 1960, he recalled to Specter:

One year, he found himself assigned to a crew that was building a new library at Cornell Medical College, on the Upper East Side. “On lunch break, when the crew were eating their hero sandwiches and making catcalls to nurses, I snuck into the auditorium to take a peek,” Fauci recalled in 1998, at the medical school’s centennial celebration. “I got goosebumps as I entered, looked around the empty room, and imagined what it would be like to attend this extraordinary institution. After a few minutes at the doorway, a guard came and politely told me to leave, since my dirty boots were soiling the floor. I looked at him and said proudly that I would be attending this institution a year from now. He laughed and said, ‘Right, kid, and next year I am going to be Police Commissioner.’ ”

j. Amazing to read that, early in the AIDS epidemic, Fauci, then director of the National Institutes of Health, was public enemy number one for the NIH’s perceived inaction on the growing mystery disease. Interesting to read how it changed his life—and how so much of the AIDS activists grew to have a deep respect for him.

k. Shula Story of the Week: From Christine Brennan of USA Today, about the time 39 years ago when Don Shula opened his locker room to women—before the league ordered teams to do so.

l. Coffeenerdness: Our local coffee shop, Gran Caffe De Martini in Brooklyn, is open on weekends for to-go orders. It’s doing a brisk breakfast business with those delivery services, which is so good to see. My go-to: the Cortado. Ever had one? Two shots of espresso, two shots of steamed milk. Quite low-cal, quite delicious.

m. Beernerdness: This, from Dave Sanford of Bradenton, Fla.: “I didn’t see the beer and coffeenerdness comments in this week’s FMIA column. Did I just miss them or now left out? Always enjoyed your comments and recommendations.” Nice of you to say, Dave. I guess I dropped them, or have just used them sparingly, because I haven’t been anywhere but the 10-block orbit around my home for two months. I will say the 5:30 p.m. Peroni, four or five days a week, is a very welcome transition from “work day” to “leisure day.”

n. Lead of the Week: Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times, on the Michael Flynn case:

WASHINGTON—Shortly after admitting guilt to a federal judge in December 2017 for lying to the F.B.I., Michael T. Flynn issued a statement saying what he did was wrong, and ‘through my faith in God, I am working to set things right.’ It turns out that the only higher power that Mr. Flynn needed was Attorney General William P. Barr.

o. You know who’s a mensch? Ken Belson of the New York Times.

p. Happy Mother’s Day! (Belatedly.) My mom, who died in 2003, would have been 97 today. Phyllis King would have spent the day doing the crossword, watching “Jeopardy,” reading a book and being very, very happy. We would have talked at some point and she would have asked how my job is going. “Hey Mom,” I’d have said. “I interviewed Dr. Fauci yesterday.” She’d have loved it. She never needed to be entertained. Miss you, Mom.

q. One Last Story of the Week: Soumya Karlamangla of the Los Angeles Times, on the hero nurse who faced a life-or-death choice, made the choice to treat a Covid-19-positive patient, and died from that decision. An amazing piece of journalism.

The Adieu Haiku


Never thought quizzing an
immunologist would be
a scoop in this biz.

15 responses to “FMIA: Football in the Fall? Dr. Fauci: ‘The Virus Will Make Decision For Us’

  1. Handling this virus will take finesse, not bullheadedness. I hope NFL ad NFLPA can work together to find a way forward that keeps players and fans safe. It’s a test for each.

  2. Every week your column is good but this one is why I read it at 5am on Monday mornings. The Shula stories were so heartfelt and entertaining. Well done, sir.

  3. if it will never be eradicated as fauci says, then thats it for sports until there is a vaccine. realistically, if they found a potential vaccine today, it would still be 12-18 months before it could be tested and verified that it works.

  4. Ok. The virus hasn’t “told us enough” already? What else do we need, or expect to learn in the next three months? I certainly don’t know the appropriate way to handle this, but I’m pretty sure nothing will change significantly in the next 3 months. No vaccine, no accepted evidence, and therefore no consistent utilization of a drug that will provide effective treatment and containment. Again, I don’t know the right way to address the NFL season, but whatever protocol they deem to be safe if they do decide to proceed, could be determined to be realistic or not, right now, with the the information we have. Information that’s not drastically changing in 3 months. What will change in the next 3 months is the amount of tolerance our society has to remain in lockdown. Right or wrong, that’s what “will make the decision for us”.

  5. Seattle hasn’t had much of a home field advantage in years. It’s the main reason for their post season mediocrity.

  6. Bringing the fans into the stadiums to see the players they adore only increases the chances those same players get infected. Keep the fans home so we can all benefit from the games.

  7. Biggest news of the week was Dave Portnoy winning silent auction to watch MNF in Goodell’s basement man cave. What I’d pay to be a cricket on the wall

  8. I loved reading the Shula remembrances, but my biggest takeaway this week is that, even at my advancing age (60), fart stories are always funny.

  9. skcrooged says:
    May 11, 2020 at 10:21 am

    Bringing the fans into the stadiums to see the players they adore only increases the chances those same players get infected. Keep the fans home so we can all benefit from the games.


    You really don’t understand how infection happens if you believe that fans in the stands can infect players on the field.

  10. South Korea recently started up the baseball league and the soccer league. The leagues are playing without fans for now, but at least they are playing. South Korea has a rigorous system of testing, tracing, and isolating. They also have daily press briefings given by medical experts who inform citizens about the importance of social distancing and wearing masks.

    So when people claim that the virus will determine when we play sports again, this is somewhat inaccurate. The way national leadership responds (or doesn’t respond) to the virus determines when we play sports again.

  11. South Korea just shut down over 2100 bars and nightclubs again.. This virus is not over or contained in anyway

  12. every player and coach and staff at game get’s own hotel room. no sharing

  13. Please, no to flexing games from Sunday to Monday. What about ticket holders who have Sundays off but work second-shift on Mondays? Or people who travel to see the games?

  14. edukator44 says:
    May 11, 2020 at 8:54 am

    if it will never be eradicated as fauci says, then thats it for sports until there is a vaccine. realistically, if they found a potential vaccine today, it would still be 12-18 months before it could be tested and verified that it works.


    This is an extreme overreaction to the severity of the disease. Covid-19 has been far less severe than the 1918 Spanish Flu. It has been more severe than any epidemic since then, but not to a huge degree over the Asian Flu in the 1950’s and the Hong Kong flue in the 1960’s. Remember when comparing numbers that there are far more people in the world today than there were then. There would be far less loss of life with Covid-19 if the public health efforts had been focused on nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

    I would bet a large sum of money that there will not be a universally available vaccine by the start of the 2021 NFL season and also that the 2021 NFL season will move forward with full stadiums.

  15. ABC/ESPN doesn’t have to worry about Christmas game…Zion will be out hurt….

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