Football 2020: Weird and glorious and argumentative and ticked-at-the-officials and fulfilling and full of stories and the same old Browns and Trubisky the Magnificent and Brady down and Cam up and did I mention weird? Average attendance in the 13 NFL Week 1 games Sunday in Pandemic America: 1,085. Attendance in Foxboro: zero. “This felt more like a high school scrimmage,” said Jason McCourty of the Patriots. “Your parents come, but no other fans.”
This is a morning for football, so here it comes.
The Good from NFL Week 1
1. The Washington PA system. When the Eagles took the field at WFT (I hate that acronym almost as much as I hate It is what it is, but it is what it is), crickets chirped out of every speaker in the empty place. Suitably inspired, Washington beat Philly 27-17.
2. Aaron Rodgers put up 43 points at Minnesota. He threw for 364 and four TDs, effortlessly. The Pack owned the Vikes. Jordan Love had to be standing on the sidelines Sunday saying, “What am I doing here?”
3. Gardner Minshew is real, and he’s spectacular. He completed 19 of 20. The Jags stunned the Colts. Trevor Lawrence had to be watching on TV saying, “I guess Jacksonville’s out.”
5. Belichick 1, Brady 0. I hate that storyline, but it’s there. Cam Newton looked good as Brady’s heir. He created offense that Brady never could. It’s just one day, but an encouraging one day in the new world of the Patriots.
The Bad from NFL Week 1
1. The Browns. The Lions. I don’t know how those fans keep coming back for more. Cleveland was the sexy pick a year ago, lost by 30 in the opener, and was never heard from all season. This year, Cleveland was the sneaky pick and lost by 32 in the opener. Enough of optimism in Cleveland, of we’re-finally-turning-the-corner. The corner is 362 miles away. As for Detroit: Lions led by 15 with 14 minutes left in last year’s opener and tied. Lions led by 17 with 14 minutes left in this year’s opener and lost. Jim Caldwell won nine games in 2017 and got fired. Matt Patricia has nine wins in the 33 games since, and, well, he better win some more. Soon.
2. My Super Bowl pick. I should look on the bright side about the Bucs. Tom Brady’s first huddle in Tampa Bay was one month ago today. (Seriously.) That was one ugly pick-six to Janoris Jenkins in the 34-23 loss to New Orleans, though. Brady’s best friend could be the schedule. Next four games: Carolina, at Denver, L.A. Chargers, at Chicago.
3. Wentz and Garoppolo. It’s only one game, but Carson Wentz and a discombobulated line were out of sorts in Washington, and Jimmy Garoppolo’s timing with lesser-light receivers was way off against Arizona. Two very bad losses for NFC contenders.
4. J-E-T-S! MESS MESS MESS! New York was down 21-0 in Buffalo, Sam Darnold faded left, threw across his body into a pack of three Bills and one Jet, and guess who caught it? Not the Jet. The final (27-17) was respectable, but the Jets’ play was not.
5. The Colts cannot be losing at Jacksonville. Bad pick at a crucial time for Philip Rivers in his Indy debut. New time zone, same result.
Lots of stories. For me, you can’t top the Mitchell Trubisky one.
“Whew!” Foles said. “What a month we’ve been through!”
Longer than that, really, for Trubisky. The Bears didn’t pick up Trubisky’s fifth-year option in the spring. The quarterback picked before Mahomes and Watson, now the two highest-paid players in history, and now he had an expiration date. The Bears traded for Foles and agreed to pay him $24-million over three years; when coach Matt Nagy put Foles and Trubisky in competition for the starting job, it looked like he was setting the stage for Foles to win the job. Then a funny thing happened. After five weeks in competition, Trubisky won the job. But he didn’t win the job forever. And when he was firing high and wide again in the first half Sunday in Detroit, Bears fans agonized anew. Same old Trubisky.
Detroit 23, Chicago 6, 18 minutes left.
“How do you avoid falling into thinking, Here we go again?” I wondered Sunday night. Trubisky, back in Chicago, was driving home now.
“You can’t go back to that dark place,” Trubisky said. “You can’t go back to, My stats aren’t any good. It’s happening again. At times like that, I find myself focusing on my teammates, the guys you grind with. Our relationships run deep. We lean on each other. And I think you’ve just got to believe in yourself, believe you can do it, there’s still time.”
Allen Robinson made an acrobatic catch for 22 yards to key the ensuing drive, and Trubisky threw a two-yard box-out TD to Jimmy Graham to start the rally. On TV, Dick Stockton said the Bears getting their offense going was “like pulling teeth in the dentist chair.” And that’s what the day’d been like. The next drive was like that, Trubisky taking an 18-yard sack to make it fourth-and-41. Then he engineered a 55-yard scoring drive, finishing it with a one-yard TD to Javon Wims. Now it was getting interesting. And when Matthew Stafford threw a tipped pick just before the two-minute warning, the Bears had a shot from 37 yards away to win it.
With first-and-10 at the Detroit 27 at the two-minute warning, Trubisky and Nagy talked on the sideline. The call was a corner route to Miller, the third-year wideout from Memphis.
“Dude,” Nagy told Trubisky, “you’re gonna throw a friggin’ touchdown here!”
“I’ll tell you what was crazy,” Trubisky said Sunday night. “I was watching the game on the plane home from Detroit, and that play came up, and the receivers coach, Mike Furrey, said to me, ‘You see what 12 did?’ “
Twelve for the Bears is wideout Allen Robinson. Said Trubisky: “Allen Robinson’s got his back turned to the ball, can’t see it, but has his arms raised in the air before the ball even gets to Anthony Miller. He knew.”
Think of the significance of that. Trubisky would have to throw this corner route to Miller about 35 yards in the air. It’s likely Miller would have a cornerback in close coverage. If you saw Trubisky on Sunday, or most of last year, it’s not entirely logical to have confidence in Trubisky to throw an accurate pass 35 yards through the air. But Robinson did have confidence, evidently.
.@AnthonyMiller_3 FOR DA LEAD!!!
— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) September 13, 2020
The throw was a strike. Chicago was the beneficiary of rookie Lions back D’Andre Swift dropping the potential winning touchdown pass in the final seconds, but no one was raining on Trubisky’s parade Sunday night. A rally like this one, and a strike like the winning throw to Miller, was, for one building-block week, something the Bears needed desperately. Nagy needed it too. He’s joined at the hip with Trubisky, and was when he made the starting call 10 days ago.
“Coach called me in on a Friday, and he kind of was building up to telling me for a long time,” Trubisky said. “I kind of didn’t believe it at first. I was very detailed in my work. My back was against the wall, obviously, in camp, and all you can do is fight and move forward and show my teammates I can still be the guy.
“I was quiet, but I was happy. Really happy. Playing in the NFL is a dream come true for me. I will never take it for granted. At the same time, I’m totally grateful for Nick. He’a an amazing teammate. Here we are, in this competition this summer, and he’d say to me out on the field, ‘Wow, great throw! Awesome! You’re trusting it now, you’re seeing it.’ He’s given me so many enlightening points. He’s a guy I want in my corner.”
One game doesn’t make a comeback. Trubisky has to stack a bunch of quarters like this fourth quarter together. He still looks tentative at times, and on too many throws Sunday was not accurate. That’s got to improve for him to be the long-term guy, anywhere. But for one week at least, the promise of 2017 lives.
“It’s crazy,” Trubisky said. “I do catch a lot of crap. But like coach says, you’ve got to enjoy the wins in the NFL, and I’m going to. This was a special day. I’m thankful for what I have in life, especially now, with COVID-19 and social injustice everywhere. I’m really grateful just to be playing football right now.
“The game’s made me a better man, a better person. It’s made me tougher. It’s why I never gave up today.”
Just before he got off the phone, Trubisky said, “It’s good to see hard work pay off.”
You might love the Bears, or hate the Bears. You might have given up on Trubisky long ago. But in a time when we weren’t sure football would happen at all—and with so much uncertainty about the pandemic facing us—you take the stories like this one and say, “Good to have football back.”
Balancing no crowds and low crowds, policing mask-wearing and social-distancing, with some of the people who made 2020 NFL Week 1 the event that it was.
Houston at Kansas City
“I don’t know where to begin,” Blakeman said, about the bizarre offseason and the fairly clean opening-night game.
Begin here: Blakeman got a reconfigured crew once the NFL decided to shuffle the eight-man groups (including replay official) into regional crews to limit travel because of COVID-19; all seven officials on the Blakeman crew were new to him from 2019. The first time he saw them in-person was on the bus from the hotel to the stadium Thursday afternoon—all previous meetings were on Zoom. Plus, no preseason work. Blakeman, who lives in Omaha, asked the coach at Westside High in Omaha if he could go to a few practices to visualize football flow. “I probably went to six or seven practices,” Blakeman told me Saturday.
Then there was the rookie field judge, Joe Blubaugh, making his first regular-season appearance. Pretty tough gig, not even meeting the guys on your crew till three hours before the game. “Just work your position,” Blakeman told Blubaugh before the game. “Fall back on what you’ve done. If we need to bail you out, we’ll bail you out. You’ll do fine.”
In the days before the game, Blakeman convened a Zoom meeting with his crew and put up these numbers: “2012.” That was the year the NFL locked out the officials and used replacements for the first three weeks. When refs returned in Week 4, they had to hit the ground running—the same way Blakeman’s crew would have to do in Kansas City. “Think back to 2012,” Blakeman told his veteran (except for Blubaugh) crew. “We performed. This has happened before.”
As for the game, the best thing you can say is the officials—mostly—were not noticed. Two first-half touchdowns were reversed on review, both on plays hard to diagnose in real time. Blubaugh ruled a touchdown on the second, though it was overturned when Sammy Watkins’ elbow was shown to hit the turf about six inches from the goal line as he stretched to score. As Blakeman vowed, Al Riveron bailed out Blubaugh with a reversal from New York. Neither had much to do with the outcome of the game. The crowd of 15,000 felt odd to the crew, which was masked. “It did feel like a game,” said Blakeman, “but there was a different kind of energy. For me, a [tough thing] was, ‘How do I blow this whistle—lift up the mask? Pull it down?’ ” Turns out on sudden needs to blow it, Blakeman pulled the mask down with his left hand and blew, and when he knew he was about to blow, he pulled the whistle up into his mouth, lanyard hanging down.
After the game, in the officials locker room, Blakeman told his crew: This is one of those games where they won’t be talking about us on ESPN tonight, or writing about us tomorrow in USA Today. We controlled it.
The crew gave Blubaugh a game ball.
Rick Peterson, Derrick Norman
New York Jets at Buffalo
Peterson and Norman, both 54 and Bills’ season-ticket-holders since 2001, missed attending their first Bills home opener in 30 years. Normally, they’d be in line to enter the stadium parking lot in their 35-foot RV by dawn Saturday, and they’d cook, commune, and relax (and maybe sleep a little) for 30 hours before heading to their seats in section 126, row 1, in the corner of the end zone. But this weekend, they met at Peterson’s Buffalo-area home Saturday morning, grilled some ribs and sausages, and then reconvened Sunday at Norman’s home to watch the game on the big screen with a few friends. Norman wore his Tre’Davious White jersey, number 27. Peterson went with a classic—Thurman Thomas, 34.
“We’re treating it like an away game,” said Peterson, a Buffalo transit worker. “I’ve only missed one game since 2001, but I’m trying to stay even-keel. It’s out of our hands. It’s a pandemic.”
“It’s killing me,” said Norman, a Buffalo firefighter.
Norman got up at 5 (“I couldn’t sleep—too antsy!”) and started cooking with his wife: mac-and-cheese, yams, deep-fried egg rolls, potato salad, fried chicken. It’s the food they’d have feasted on in the parking lot a few miles away; but today, it’s a huge spread in his own house. By halftime, with the home team up 21-3, Peterson and Norman were too giddy to complain about not being in section 126, row 1.
“Can you imagine?” Norman said, gearing up for the second half. “Can you imagine if we were there today, and the place was packed? Pandemonium! We’d be going crazy!”
Miami at New England
No fans in Foxboro. So weird, seeing the empty parking lots, the empty four-lane Route 1 alongside Gillette Stadium on game day (it’s usually packed like a parking lot before and after the game), hearing the silence that welcomed the six-time Super Bowl champs when they came out for pre-game warmups.
“The atmosphere,” McCourty told me after New England opened the post-Brady era with a 21-11 win over Miami, “from the time we came out of the tunnel, was unlike anything any of us have felt . . . You can’t really envision what an NFL game is like without fans. This felt more like a high school scrimmage. Maybe you travel somewhere for a scrimmage, and your parents come, but no other fans. When you play in a stadium with no fans, no noise, you’ve got to bring your own energy for three hours.”
On the sidelines, it was a constant topic of conversation. “Guys were like, ‘This ain’t it,’“ McCourty said. “And you win, nobody to high-five, no kid to throw your gloves to. You come to the realization that we’re going to have to do a lot of this ourselves, generate a lot of the energy ourselves.”
CBS play-by-play announcer
Cleveland at Baltimore
Eagle’s broadcast partner changed last spring, from Dan Fouts to Charles Davis. Usually, new partners meet a few times in the offseason, get to know each other, talk about how they like to work. Not in a pandemic. CBS had 16 weekly Zoom calls for the Eagle/Davis broadcast team in the spring and early summer. “It was like 12 hours of speed-dating for me and Charles,” Eagle said. Their first face-to-face? Saturday afternoon, sitting outside at a deli in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, socially distant, for 45 minutes.
On an average weekend, the broadcast team watches home team practice Friday; interviews home team coach and players in person Friday; interviews visiting team coach and players in person Saturday. Lots of time to be social with the crew at dinner Friday or Saturday, lots of time to study or nap. Now, everything is done virtually. Eagle lives in north Jersey, 193 miles from downtown Baltimore, and so he did his Ravens interviews Friday before driving to the hotel. Then a COVID test Saturday morning at the hotel, then virtual interviews with the Browns late Saturday afternoon. Then the game.
The first weird thing: the plexiglass partition between Eagle and Davis. “Sometimes you want to touch your broadcast partner,” he said Sunday evening. “Today, we made eye contact instead.” Usually there’s a procession of friends and well-wishers streaming through the booth. Not Sunday. The door closed before the game and didn’t open till the end of the game, with Eagle, Davis, audio tech Al Boleau and spotter Jim Stamos the only ones in the booth; statman Butch Baird was in the empty stands, three rows ahead of the booth, per league rule.
“It’s a little eerie,” Eagle said. “Usually in Baltimore there’s 70,000 juiced-up fans in one of the unique venues in the NFL, just a great atmosphere for a game. Like, Lamar Jackson does something in the moment, and if I miss a little something, the crowd picks it up and draws my attention to it. But today, obviously, not there. They’re keeping score, though, and so you do get into it.”
Eagle said this is one of the stadiums that broadcasters have to walk into “the teeming masses of people” around the stadium to get to the parking lot at the end of the game. Last year, after a game in Baltimore, it took him one hour to inch his car onto I-95 for the trip home to north Jersey. “Today, no one. Took me 90 seconds to get to 95,” he said. Thank God the New Jersey state troopers weren’t out around dinnertime Sunday. Eagle made it home at 7:03, in time for the dying moments of Bucs-Saints.
Coach, Los Angeles Chargers
L.A at Cincinnati
The Chargers traveled Friday, arriving at their Cincinnati hotel at 11 p.m. Players were advised to not leave the hotel, but they weren’t banned from taking a walk. But in the 38 hours before they took buses to the stadium on Sunday in Cincinnati for the late-afternoon game, well, Lynn didn’t want his players to be prisoners.
“To me, travel is the real test this year,” Lynn told me from the bus on the way to the airport Sunday evening after the Chargers edged the Bengals 16-13. “How disciplined can we be? How patient? How understanding of the inconveniences? So we’re not going to have many in-person meetings when we travel. Here, the offense had a 15, 20-minute meeting in the meeting room at the hotel Saturday night, then the defense had one. Specials teams were on Zoom. The other meetings, Zoom. Coaches want to have their hands on the player. I get that. But these are different times.”
As for the game: “Just different. Really different. I had to watch what I was saying, and be careful how loud I was, because I didn’t want their guys [the Bengals] to hear me, obviously. Being on the sideline, I felt like I could hear every word guys were saying on the field. The other thing is the fans. Without the fans and the noise, it was such a different feeling. Fans are a big part of the game, and I think we’re starting to realize just how big after seeing a stadium without fans. It has an impact.”
I asked Lynn: “What do you think of the NFL testing 3,600 people from 30 teams, players and staff, on Saturday, and not a single person testing positive?”
Lynn was blunt. “It’s pretty simple: We want to play football.”
Seahawks beat writer, Seattle Times
Seattle at Atlanta
I don’t know how many beat writers did what Condotta did Sunday morning in Seattle—set up in his living room, laptop on his lap, watching the team he covers play on his 55-inch TV—but it was more than a few. Welcome to NFL coverage 2020, the same as MLB and NBA and NHL coverage for many media outlets in the pandemic. With reporters now cut off from locker-room access at home and on the road, and cut off from sidling up to players and coaches to get little tidbits to make or break stories, Condotta, for the time being, is covering road games from his home in Auburn, Wash. He’ll be in the Seahawks’ press box for home games. Most access to players and coach Pete Carroll will come via videconference. After covering the team home and away weekly since 2013, this is Condotta’s new world.
As the Seahawks were routing the Falcons 2,600 miles away, Condotta said: “I miss the pre-game, seeing how the guys look. You don’t see on TV all the time what defense they’re in, or who’s on the field, whether the defense is in nickel or dime. Today part of the story was what the team did before the game, and I think Jamal Adams raised a fist, and Russell Wilson was in a prayer circle—but I’ll find out about those things.
“But I’m not upset. I think we’ve all come to the realization that there are many, many bigger problems in this world than me not covering a football game.”
At the bottom of his story in today’s Times, there was this editor’s note: “The Times declined to send reporter Bob Condotta to Atlanta for this game because of COVID-19 safety concerns.”
Offensive Players of the Week
Mitchell Trubisky, quarterback, Chicago. Down 23-6 entering the fourth quarter, Trubisky didn’t have to imagine what Bears fans worldwide were saying about him; he knew. All he did in the fourth quarter was throw three TD passes and lead the Bears to the most unlikely win of his star-crossed young career.
Gardner Minshew, quarterback, Jacksonville. This is how magic gets made. The Jaguars, given up for dead in 2020 by most people who have watched at least one football game in their lives (including me), beat up the favored Colts 27-20. The quarterback everyone wants to tank away from, Minshew, completed 19 of 20 passes for 173 yards and three touchdowns, including the 22-yard strike to Keelan Cole for the winning points with six minutes left in the game.
Russell Wilson, quarterback, Seattle. Another case of incredible efficiency by an incredible quarterback. Four touchdown passes, four incompletions. Wilson, in the first game of his ninth NFL season (man, where has the time gone?), completed 31 of 35 throws for 322 yards, with the four TDs and no picks, all while being pressured or sacked 13 times. Maybe this is finally the year Wilson wins his elusive MVP, or at least gets his first MVP vote.
Defensive Players of the Week
Aldon Smith, pass-rusher, Dallas. Interesting—on the official NFL play-by-play from Sunday night’s 20-17 Rams win over the Cowboys, Smith is listed in the starting lineup as DPR. “Designated Pass-Rusher.” He was more than that in his first NFL game in four years and 10 months. Smith, lost to football and adrift as a person back in 2015 because of substance-abuse issues, re-dedicated himself to sobriety and football, and it showed Sunday night. He led the Cowboys with 11 tackles, one sack, two quarterback pressures and a tackle for loss. “I’m tough on myself, but I did some things well,” Smith said. An auspicious reappearance by a once-great player who may be back on the road to greatness.
C.J. Henderson, cornerback, Jacksonville. In his first NFL game, the ninth overall pick, playing a short drive from his college campus at Florida, had three passes broken up and an interception of Philip Rivers in the upset of Indianapolis. I watched a lot of this game, and the thing I noticed about Henderson is how comfortable he was in his first game on pro soil. Imagine no tuneups before your first NFL start, and imagine facing a 38-year-old quarterback with 16 years of experience, and imagine being as cool as the other side of the pillow. I can see why the Jags loved Henderson.
— NFL (@NFL) September 13, 2020
Jamal Adams, safety, Seattle. Let’s hope those three big draft choices Jets GM Joe Douglas got for this latter-day Kam Chancellor pay off. Adams was great in his Seahawks debut as Seattle beat the Falcons 38-25, leading all tacklers with 12, sacking Matt Ryan once and pressuring him twice more, with two more tackles for loss. He made his presence felt with a huge first-half hit on Julio Jones. Adams’ best play of the day: With Calvin Ridley on a Jet sweep at the Seattle 19-yard line, Adams swooped in and stoned Ridley for a loss of one.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Margus Hunt, defensive lineman, New Orleans. The 6-8 Estonian, who played with the Colts last year, got so high on his leap to block a Ryan Succop field-goal try late in the first half that the football hit him in the elbows and chin. Instead of having the Bucs cut into the lead and make it 14-10, Hunt’s block gave the Saints a first down at their 45 with 3:18 left in the half, and New Orleans was able to drive for a field goal before the half.
Justin Hardee Sr, defensive back, New Orleans. The four-year vet from Illinois made a huge play late in the game, with the Bucs trying desperately to get back in the game. Thomas Morstead punted to Bucs return man Jaydon Mickens at the Tampa 10-yard line, and Hardee steamed through Jamel Dean of the Bucs to drop Mickens in his tracks—gain of zero—a millisecond after the punt landed in Mickens’ hands. What a tremendous instinctive play by Hardee.
Coach of the Week
Bill Belichick, head coach, New England. Brought on a quarterback in late June to replace Tom Brady; had to retool (with Josh McDaniels) so much of what they do on offense with Cam Newton playing instead of Tom Brady. Newton ran for two touchdowns Sunday in the 21-11 win over Miami in NFL Week 1. Replaced all four starting linebackers and held Miami to 269 yards. Great coaches take what they have and figure a way to win. Belichick’s only been doing it for most of his adult life, and his first chapter post-Brady was a heck of a good one.
Goats of the Week
D’Andre Swift, running back, Detroit. The second-round rookie from Georgia lost his first NFL game. No exaggeration there. Down 27-23 with six seconds to play, Swift got behind two Chicago defenders and Matthew Stafford found him with a perfect strike in Swift’s chest—and the ball bounced haplessly off Swift’s hands in the end zone. Lots of players contributed to the outcome of their games. But the painful truth about this stunning dropped ball by an open D’Andre Swift is simple: If he catches it, the Lions win. But he dropped it, and the Lions lost.
Philip Rivers, quarterback, Indianapolis. Tough, but familiar-looking way to start his new life as a Hoosier. In the last five minutes at Jacksonville, Rivers threw an interception that was his fault, setting up an insurance field goal, then threw three incompletions in the final minute to lose the ball on downs. That is not what GM Chris Ballard paid $25 million for.
The Browns. Did you watch the 32-point loss to Baltimore?
“From the moment I walked into this building, man, I felt something special about this team. I know we got what it takes to get what we want. But it’s one day at a time. Let’s keep working.”
—Arizona wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins
“It was clear as day.”
NFL Officiating agreed:
— NFL Officiating (@NFLOfficiating) September 14, 2020
—Several players, heard on the TV broadcasts over the white noise (particularly in Bucs-Saints) of the fan-less games throughout the NFL on Sunday.
“Pylon cam, doubtful to return. Upper body injury.”
—Scott Hanson of NFL RedZone, after Cam Newton plowed over the pylon cam on a third-quarter rushing TD, his second rushing TD for the Patriots.
“If I get another chance, someone will be hiring a better person than the person who walked out the door that night on Aug. 19.”
—Thom Brennaman to the New York Post, two weeks after being suspended for uttering a gay slur on a Cincinnati Reds baseball telecast Aug. 19. FOX Sports Ohio suspended him, and FOX’s NFL team dropped him from his play-by-play job.
“It’s been difficult. I want to be here, but I don’t know if the feeling is mutual.”
—Eagles tight end Zach Ertz. He and the team broke off contract talks recently, leading to speculation that Ertz won’t sign a long-term extension.
Interesting news from Ian Rapoport on Sunday. He reported that Ertz and GM Howie Roseman had a raised-voices dispute one day last week.
“I’m not used to seeing that.”
—Jamal Adams, new Seattle safety, after the 38-25 win at Atlanta, on the Seahakws putting up 38 points. Adams used to play for the Jets, who, as he noted, didn’t score 38 very often—in fact, only four times in the 49 games since Adams entered the NFL in 2017.
Rushing totals for last two Kansas City opening-night rookie starters at running back:
Sept. 7, 2017
17 carries, 148 yards, 8.7 yards per carry, 1 TD
Sept. 10, 2020
25 carries, 138 yards, 5.5 yards per carry, 1 TD
Hunt went on to win the 2017 rushing title.
Seems almost too good to be true. The NFL tested approximately 120 players, staff and essential team personnel on 30 teams Saturday morning (all but the Thursday night teams), plus about 90 stadium workers (officiating crew, chain gang, locker room attendants, stadium security) for the 15 stadiums in play Sunday and Monday. That’s about 5,000 people. And, per the NFL, all tested negative for COVID-19.
In the prestigious New York Times Book Review section for Sept. 20, the Hardcover Nonfiction list of best-sellers has a fairly typical (for the times we live in) top 10.
There are five books in the Trump/2020 election genre, three in the social-justice space, one memoir … and one about professional football. “The Dynasty,” Jeff Benedict’s thorough book about the rich 25-year history of the Patriots’ Super Bowl era, is number 10 in its first week eligible for the list.
Thursday is a big anniversary day in professional football. It is the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the NFL. (Actually, the league was called the American Professional Football Association for the first two seasons, but changed to the National Football League in 1922 because, as league president Joe Carr said, “It sounded more professional.”)
On Sept. 17, 1920, 15 men representing 10 football teams in the Midwest met in an auto showroom owned by Canton (Ohio) car dealer Ralph Hay, also the owner of the fledgling pro team the Canton Bulldogs. The turnout surprised Hay, who’d put out notice to football organizations that he was forming a league. He didn’t expect 15 men to show, and he didn’t have the meeting space for them, so they gathered in the showroom. Young George Halas, representing an interested team from Chicago, the Decatur Staleys, sat on the running board of one car; one of the most famous athletes in America, two-time Olympic Gold medalist Jim Thorpe (he won the decathlon and pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics in Sweden), representing the Canton Bulldogs, sat on another running board.
It was all so different then. Teams joined the league for a cost of $100, they started playing each other 16 days later, and Thorpe—to capitalize on his fame—was named league president. Imagine that: a player/president. That lasted for one season, while Thorpe played 13 games for the Bulldogs.
An eerie side note: The league might have started a couple of years earlier, in 1918, but a number of players on professional teams went to fight in World War I, and many cities in the country banned large gatherings because of the pandemic sweeping the United States in 1918. Back then, it was the Spanish Flu—the last pandemic to sweep the United States for 102 years. Till this one.
In the last 100 minutes of play between Houston and Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium, KC has had 18 offensive possessions. In order: TD, TD, TD, TD, TD, TD, TD, field goal, punt, punt, TD, TD, field goal, TD, punt, TD, punt, field goal. Six-plus quarters, 85 points.
Fans such a big part of game…. Cities & Teams have to figure out a way to get them involved, safely of course..
— Tyrann Mathieu (@Mathieu_Era) September 14, 2020
Mathieu is a safety and captain for Kansas City.
This what y’all wanted to see🤝
— Deandre Hopkins (@DeAndreHopkins) September 13, 2020
Arizona wide receiver Hopkins, after his 14-catch performance keyed Arizona to a 24-20 upset NFC champ San Francisco in Santa Clara.
My God, the Jets stink. They're getting outcoached, outplayed, out-everything'd. #NYJvsBUF
— Rich Cimini (@RichCimini) September 13, 2020
Cimini, the veteran Jets’ scribe, writing with the season one hour old and New York trailing in Buffalo 21-0.
— Judy Battista (@judybattista) September 12, 2020
Battista covers the NFL for NFL.com and NFL Network.
We don't deserve dogs. pic.twitter.com/ISzqaCxDO8
— Akki (@akkitwts) September 11, 2020
Thinks the column has gotten too long. From Dave Smith: “You have been my ‘must read’ guy for years. However, I am becoming less interested in your reporting as time passes. Your articles seem to be getting longer, and longer, and longer. I suppose I prefer the Readers Digest version of reporting. So, now I find myself reading less and less of what you write, skimming rather than sinking my teeth into your excellent work.”
I really appreciate the note, Dave. The columns have been longer than ever, on average, in the past few months, and you’re not the only one who says, Man, I can’t read 11,000 words. Edit yourself. This note is going to make me think more and more about whether an idea that I have is really worthy. For instance, last week, I really wanted to do something relevant on the death of John Thompson. So I got Tony Dungy to contribute what I consider valuable thoughts about Thompson’s importance to Black coaches in all sports, at all levels. Those are the kinds of column chunks that end up fattening up my piece. But I do think I can be more economical. Appreciate you sending a reminder.
Thinks McCown is endangered. From Tiffaney O’Dell of Gresham, Ore.: “I’m wondering why the Eagles think Josh McCown is ‘safe’ from COVID in Texas with his sons playing high school football. Seems like high risk activity to me.”
Never thought of that, Tiffaney. Interesting. But all along, McCown was an insurance policy for the Eagles that they hope they don’t have to use, and they couldn’t have gotten him if they told him, Quarantine for the year, because he wasn’t going to leave his family.
Thinks the Niners-Packers scheduling is unfair. From Lawrence Jones, of Rochester, N.Y.: “From your past columns, I know that creating the NFL schedule is an exceedingly complicated venture, with many constraints and factors that come into play. For example, the actual opponents are chosen based upon a team’s final record and a four-part formula. But what about home field parity? I think the Packers are getting robbed, having to go west to play the 49ers at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara two years in a row. Fairness would dictate that San Francisco should come east to brave the wilds of Lambeau Field. Given how important each game is in a season, how can the NFL not care more about home-field parity?”
A four-year snapshot: SF-GB at Lambeau, 2018 . . . GB-SF in Santa Clara, 2019 and 2020 . . . SF-GB at Lambeau, scheduled for 2021. In the regular season between 2010 and 2021, Green Bay hosted or will host San Francisco four times, San Francisco hosted or will host Green Bay four times. This used to be talked about all the time in the Pats-Colts series. Colts at Pats, 2004, ’05, ’06; Pats at Colts, 2007, ’08, ’09; Colts at Pats, 2010, ’11, ’12; Pats at Colts, 2014, ’15. These things tend to even out.
Thinks the Walt Anderson fixes are smart. From Jamie Sims: “Walt Anderson discussed adjustments that NFL officials will be making this season. What caught my attention is that trying to slow down/stop when a play happens is not a new philosophy to professional officiating. Being still when a play happens is a fundamental tenant of MLB officials. As an amateur baseball official, there are a couple key teaching phrases (based on MLB principles) that are emphasized over and over: 1) be still when the play happens, and 2) angle is more important than distance. I applaud the NFL for working to make the game better.”
Good point, Jamie.
1. I think Washington coach Ron Rivera deserves a back-pat today for staying the course—and for aiding in the construction of a defensive front that absolutely abused Carson Wentz in NFL Week 1. Eight sacks by seven different players, and an additional 14 quarterback pressures or hits. After the Eagles scored a touchdown and field goal on their two first-quarter drives, this was Washington’s game, all the way. “This game validates their resilience,” Rivera told me after the game. “I congratulated them after the game, but I also said, ‘Who played in the first quarter?’“ For the WFT, it was good to start playing sports again. The scandals wore on the players. “The thing I tried to get across, to people inside and outside the organization, is we made a lot of mistakes, and we’re trying to correct them,” Rivera said. “We’ll learn from the past, but we won’t be stuck in the past. And the players seem to have bought into that.”
2. I think Rivera had a good point on the good COVID record with so few positive tests over the past month. “The whole idea of testing every day has really kept the players where they need to be. Like this weekend, they got tested Saturday morning with a temperature check, they got up this morning, another temperature check, got to the stadium, another temperature check. Having that hanging over them can be a good thing—they don’t want to be the one to let down their teammates. Hopefully, what we’re doing here can inspire some people. To me, it kind of speaks in a totally different way to the era of the greatest generation. Obviously not the same, but people did what they absolutely had to do to get things done. They didn’t want to let down their fellow citizens.”
3. I think the most impactful new player on any team Sunday was Jamal Adams. He brought a ferocity to the Seattle secondary I hadn’t seen since Kam Chancellor’s run, and if you know Pete Carroll, you know he wants a rangy, hitting secondary.
4. I think I didn’t like Lamar Jackson getting hit as much as he did last year (199 combined rushes/sacks) and I didn’t like the couple of big whacks I saw Sunday against Cleveland. I know he’s so effective playing this way. I just want him to last.
5. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an NFL back who runs more violently than the 5-10, 220-pound Alexander Mattison. That guy is a top 25 NFL back who just happens to play behind a top five back, Dalvin Cook.
6. I think I know why Bill Belichick called Aqib Talib, 34, last week and offered him, in Talib’s words, “the role of a lifetime.” Talib thought about it, but said no, and announced his retirement. Not only was Talib a very good cover corner and as competitive a corner as the league has employed in my time covering football, but he was a great team guy. Belichick knew that, from having coached Talib for two mid-career seasons. So what’s a team guy? It’s not a cliché, at least not in this case. I’ll tell you a story.
In 2017, before a Giants-Broncos Sunday night game on NBC, I went to Denver to do a story on upstart young quarterback Trevor Siemian. We arranged to have his car outfitted with a bunch of Go-Pros, to interview and shoot him driving to work one morning around 5:30. We got it done, and I was preparing to leave the players’ parking lot around 5:55 a.m. A vehicle pulled in. Talib got out. Second player at work that day, first on defense. “Aqib!” I said. “You’re early.” He smiled, we chatted for a bit, and he let me know, basically, that This is every day.
As for his playing legacy, after 12 years and 159 games, with 35 picks and a remarkable 10 touchdowns on interception returns: I loved watching him cover. I swore he knew when back judges were looking and when they weren’t, because he played to the very edge of the rules for contact. Two plays stick out to me, both from the end of the AFC Championship Game in Denver against the Patriots in January 2016:
• With the Pats down eight on fourth down deep in Denver territory, Tom Brady threw for Rob Gronkowski in the back of the end zone, with Talib in coverage behind Gronk, his right arm deep around Gronk’s ribcage; Brady threw, Talib jumped higher than Gronkowski, and he batted the high ball away. But the Pats had one last chance after scoring with 12 seconds left to make it 20-18, Denver.
• On the two-point conversion try, Talib, at left corner, was singled on Julian Edelman, split wide, Edelman at the snap, ran a shallow cross, trying to use a Denver defender to rub off Talib, who powered through it. Brady threw for Edelman at the goal line, and here came Talib, flying into the play, tipping the pass away, and right into the hands of Denver’s Bradley Roby. Ballgame.
That was the real Super Bowl for Denver, beating Brady and the Pats. They went on, of course to beat Carolina in Super Bowl 50. But on the two biggest defensive plays of the AFC title game, Talib batted away Brady throws for points. That’s how I’ll remember Talib.
7. I think my Twitter feed is filled with people saying they’re finished with the NFL because of the hum of social-justice issues before and during games. Three comments:
a. There’s a good chance many of them are lying. Though the Thursday night Houston-Kansas City opener was down in viewership from last year’s Packers-Bears (22.3 million for two national teams in 2019, 20.3 million for two less attractive teams nationally, though with marquee QBs, this year), this year’s opener drew 1.3 million more than Falcons-Eagles two years ago. And this game was not at all dramatic, pretty much over at 24-7 five minutes into the second half.
b. I don’t doubt some people who say they won’t watch football will actually follow through. But let’s see the evidence first. A cratering of ratings, 25 to 30 percent, would be bad news for the league at a time when the NFL is negotiating long-term TV and streaming extensions with networks and media companies. But it’s hard for me to think, as the season goes on, that a couple of minutes spent on society’s ills in a three-hour, 15-minute telecast, and some end-zone words (END RACISM, for instance), would cause millions of people to stop watching football.
c. Would a Cowboys fan, angry at some players on his favorite team kneeling for the anthem, not tune in to see the early-December Thursday nighter between the Cowboys and Ravens if Dallas was a Super Bowl contender? When TV ratings for football go down appreciably in Texas, that’s when we’ll know the league has a problem.
8. I think this essay from Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News is what we—and you, directly—are missing this season, and let us hope this is only one unique season when it comes to media access. Gehlken writes:
“Last Thanksgiving, I was among a group of reporters who stood outside the Cowboys’ locker room following a loss to the Buffalo Bills. We heard screaming inside the closed room. A voice we did not recognize tore into players. Only a few words were decipherable. Not all were printable in a newspaper. Minutes passed. The screaming stopped. The locker room finally opened to media.
“As a reporter, I needed to figure out who that was, what exactly was said and how it was received. After several conversations in about 20 minutes, I ascertained it was Michael Bennett, a defensive lineman whom the Cowboys acquired recently in a trade. I interviewed him and wrote a story. This season, those screams would not be heard. The locker room would not be worked. There’d be no interview with Bennett. No story.”
9. I think this is not Gehlken crying about the restraints on the job in 2020. This is Gehlken telling you the reality of extremely restrictive (understandably so) media policies that will make reporting on the game significantly less colorful and insightful. That is all.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Happy birthday, Roger Angell. The legendary baseball writer for The New Yorker turns 100 on Saturday, and writer Mark Singers journeyed to the party in Brooklin, Maine (pop.: 824) this summer, complete with a speech from Maine Gov. Janet Mills celebrating Angell’s life.
b. Angell wrote this six years ago, at age 94, after the Giants beat the Royals to win the World Series:
“I missed Christy Mathewson somehow but caught almost everyone else, down the years—Lefty Grove, Carl Hubbell, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Jack Morris, Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson—but here was the best. Madison Bumgarner, the Giants’ left-handed ace, coming on in relief last night in the fifth inning of the deciding seventh game of this vibrant World Series, gave up a little opening single, then retired fourteen straight Kansas City batters, gave up another hit, and then closed the deal. The Giants won, 3–2, claiming their third World Championship in five years. It was almost his third victory of this Series—the scorers had it that way for a time, then gave the W back to Jeremy Affeldt, the left-handed reliever who was still the pitcher of record when the Giants went ahead in the fourth. Bumgarner, who lost a game along the way, in the Divisionals, on a little throwing error of his own, winds up at 4-1 for his October. He had won a game in each of the Giants’ World Championships, in 2012 and 2010, and now, at twenty-five, stands at 4-0 in the classic, with an earned-run average of 0.25. He was pitching on two days’ rest but also on manna: possibly the best October pitcher of them all.
“Sure, we can talk about this: we’ve got all winter.”
c. Angell is one of those people I’ve read since discovering him 40-some years ago, one of those people who would force me to stop any time I saw his byline. Happy birthday, Mr. Angell, and many more.
d. There’s too much fighting in hockey.
e. You’ve got my respect, Kyle Lowry. You too, Marcus Smart.
f. If you didn’t like Game 6 of the Celtics-Raptors Eastern Conference semis, you don’t like sports.
g. Explicatory Forest Fire Story of the Week: Richard Read of the Los Angeles Times on the explosive fires ravaging Oregon, and why they’re terrible this year. This is a good primer on exactly what is happening in the West to make conditions unprecedented. Writes Read, from Eugene, Ore.:
“Nearly nine months pregnant, Elisha Goodrick was cooking chicken piccata Monday evening when she noticed something eerie — weather like she had never experienced in western Oregon.
“It was strange enough to see ash falling like snow outside her kitchen window as a wildfire galloped through mountainsides somewhere above.
“But what alarmed her was the pounding on the roof as an extraordinary wind raged in the tops of Douglas firs, raining branches on the blue-shingled house. It wasn’t long before a volunteer-firefighter friend called.
‘Get out now,’ he said.”
h. Oregon state climatologist Larry O’Neill, to Read: “Climate change is not an abstract concept anymore. This is what it looks like.”
i. Heartbreaking Story of the Week: Capi Lynn of the Salem (Ore.) Statesman-Journal, on a father losing his son in one of the Oregon fires.
j. Tough read. (H/T, Sunday Long Reads, for steering me to that.)
k. Frightening Story of the Week: Charlotte Alter of Time on the danger of so many people in America believing total, absolute nonsense. Writes Alter:
“Democracy relies on an informed and engaged public responding in rational ways to the real-life facts and challenges before us. But a growing number of Americans are untethered from that. ‘They’re not on the same epistemological grounding, they’re not living in the same worlds,’ says Whitney Phillips, a professor at Syracuse who studies online disinformation. ‘You cannot have a functioning democracy when people are not at the very least occupying the same solar system.’ “
l. In the wake of this horrible week for thousands and thousands of people left homeless by devastating fires comes this news.
m. You have got to be kidding me. Tell me this is a joke. Tell this to families who have lost loved ones to the fires, or who have lost homes. Or both.
n. “He’s not just in left field, he’s not even near the ballpark.”
o. Watched a very good documentary last week: “Class Action Park,” on HBO Max, on the defunct New Jersey water park that was ridiculously dangerous and poorly regulated. Lucky for me as a New Jersey parent, the park was gone by the time my kids would have been of age to risk their lives there. The 90-minute show is really a harrowing balancing act. You spend the first half of this doc thinking how cool it must have been to survive Action Park with its too-dangerous rides and spate of injuries and deaths, and the second half feeling guilty that you thought it was Jersey Cool to wink at the danger.
Pittsburgh 30, New York Giants 16. The last time Ben Roethlisberger was healthy, in 2018, he led the NFL in passing yards and had the deadly duo of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster to torment defenses. Now it’s Smith-Schuster with Diontae Johnson, an impressive rookie last year, and tight-end-sized rookie wideout Chase Claypool, who had a great training camp. With a healthy Roethlisberger, the Steelers should contend for the playoffs, and this is a good time to get the Giants. Joe Judge seems to be making progress in Jersey, but it’s hard to see bright spots when the left tackle opted out, the best young corner got fired over an armed-robbery charge, and the defense doesn’t seem markedly better than the 30th-best scoring defense from a year ago.
Tennessee 23, Denver 20. Nice debut for the explosive Denver offense, but not quite nice enough. I keep thinking about the Denver pass-rush, which was supposed to be one of the league’s most dangerous with the drafting of Bradley Chubb in 2018 to team with Von Miller. Poor Vic Fangio, the defensive coach hired to play chess with Miller and Chubb. They played four game together last year, then Chubb was gone with a torn ACL. Miller suffered a possible season-ending ankle injury last week. That means that this potentially great 1-2 pass-rush punch (how would we know?) might be Fangio’s to use for four games in his first two seasons as coach. Plus, Chubb enters tonight managing some residual ACL soreness. “It’s going to be a little challenging,” Chubb said Saturday. Not what you want to hear from the only stud pass-rusher you’ve got left on the eve of the season, against a Titans team with a rising passing game.
Gotta love Minshew.
Sixth-round, cowboy-hatted bro.
Have met him. Good dude.