In 1954, the Steelers drafted the Heisman Trophy-winning running back from Notre Dame, Johnny Lattner, in the first round. Wearing number 41, Lattner had a fine rookie season for Pittsburgh, making the Pro Bowl and scoring a touchdown in the Steelers’ biggest win of the year, a rout of the NFL champion Cleveland Browns at Forbes Field. Lattner enlisted in the Air Force in 1955 and that was the end of football for him.
Johnny Lattner’s grandson was in training camp with the Steelers in 2019, and, as a very marginal player in camp, he was one of two players issued number 49; the other was an undrafted sixth-string tight end. “Believe me,” his grandson said Sunday evening, “you’re grateful for any number when you get signed to the 90-man roster. I was thrilled they signed me.”
Johnny Lattner’s grandson got cut in camp in 2019, then signed to the Pittsburgh practice squad, then was promoted to the active roster to be a special-teamer, mostly. “So I had a chance to pick another number, and I asked if 41 was available,” he said. “It was, so I took it. Any chance to honor my grandfather.”
On the third play of Pittsburgh’s rivalry game with bitter foe Baltimore on Sunday, number 41 dropped in coverage on the backside of where Lamar Jackson intended to throw. When Jackson’s eyes moved to the right and he cocked his arm to throw, number 41 timed his move. He broke in front of Ravens rookie receiver James Proche, picked it off at the Baltimore 33-yard line and ran in untouched for the first points of the game.
First touchdown of Robert Spillane’s NFL life. He’s only six behind his grandfather’s 1954 Steeler total now.
.@14rspillane putting us on the board quick!!
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) November 1, 2020
“My grandfather passed in 2016,” Spillane told me from the Steelers’ locker room after the 28-24 win over the Ravens. “He was a big part of my life. He would have loved this. He watched so many of my games growing up, and now to play for the team he played for, it’s pretty amazing.”
This is the 14th season of the coach Mike Tomlin/GM Kevin Colbert collaboration in Pittsburgh, and the first time in their era that Pittsburgh has started 7-0. The Steelers haven’t played their best in either of their last two wins, at Tennessee and at Baltimore, but it says something about a team when you can play a B game and beat two of the best teams in the game. And it says something when they do it with new pieces fitting into an excellent defense.
The ascension of Spillane to playmaker—he also recovered Jackson’s fourth turnover of the game, a fumble late in the fourth quarter—is so fitting. On a day Pittsburgh’s offense sputtered to a 221-yard day of frustration, Spillane’s 11 tackles and two takeaways and two passes defensed comprised the best defensive day by any player on the field. Spillane, an undrafted free agent from Western Michigan of the Mid-American Conference (“We like our MAC football,” Tomlin said), was playing and wearing the signal-calling green dot on the helmet only because of the season-ending injury to linebacker Devin Bush.
But the young and unknown didn’t end with Spillane. Third-round rookie linebacker Alex Highsmith’s pick of Jackson gave the Steelers a short field and an easy touchdown early in the third quarter. And run-stuffing defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs stoned Jackson on fourth-and-three at the Steelers’ 8-yard line at the two-minute warning of the game, Pittsburgh desperately hanging on to its 28-24 lead.
The Steelers love the young and hungry. They did pick up some veteran linebacker insurance Sunday night that could impact Spillane’s life, dealing a draft pick to the Jets for seven-year vet Avery Williamson. Time will tell how this affects playing time. But for as long as Tomlin has run the show, he hasn’t minded force-feeding the kids. The list is long of such chances given—perhaps most notably to sixth-round pick Antonio Brown in his rookie camp in 2010 as a returner. That faith shown comes with a price. If you don’t produce, you’re out. Next man up. Eyebrows got raised when Tomlin said, after the Bush injury, that he was going with the totally untested Spillane. “Coach T’s a football genius,” Spillane said. “If he’d have put somebody else out there, I’d have trusted that was the right call.” Tomlin saw the desire if not the very same athleticism in Spillane as he’d seen in Bush.
Most teams in all sports have a Spillane, the last-guy-on-the-roster type who absolutely refuses to be sent home, who always looks for some way to get an edge. Such as this year, in the COVID offseason. Spillane lived in a Pittsburgh apartment complex with an adjacent parking garage. Parks and the Steeler facility were off-limits for spring workouts, so he and some buddies improvised.
“For the first 10 days of COVID,” Spillane said, “we had nowhere to go, so we worked out on the top of the parking garage, running on the concrete. We looked at it as a winning thing. We figured other guys weren’t working out, so this was our edge.”
At Western Michigan, his coach, P.J. Fleck, used to preach that every week is the Super Bowl. That’s how Spillane focuses. He had no time for back-pats Sunday night; those couldn’t help him now. Now he had to get ready for Dallas. But, I wondered, how great was it to play a big role in the best rivalry in the NFL, the blood-and-guts Steelers-Ravens rivalry, wearing the same number his beloved grandfather had worn in Pittsburgh 66 years earlier?
“Seven-and-oh’s amazing, but next week’s our Super Bowl. Now we gotta beat Dallas.”
Back in June, I did the fruitless annual 1-to-32 ranking of the NFL teams. Not sure which pick outraged the masses most, but it was either ranking Tampa Bay fifth or New England 21st.
Looks like I was way off. Had the Bucs too low, and I might have had the Patriots too high.
With 12 teams at the halfway point (the Bucs and Giants will make that 14 tonight), I’ve re-stacked the board here. (You’ll never guess 32.) After the highest-scoring first seven weeks of any NFL season, I’m prioritizing defense at the top. “You know me—I like defense,” Bill Parcells told me the other day. “Hard to find these days. Defense usually wins in the playoffs.”
Listed in parentheses: My June ranking, team’s current record.
I. Best of the Best
1. Pittsburgh (10th, 7-0)
Only thing that worries me is Ben Roethlisberger making it through 19 games. I shouldn’t say “only thing.” Injuries and the tremendous depth at the top of the AFC are threats too. But for the Steelers to get to Roethlisberger’s fourth Super Bowl—and his first in 10 years—he and his surgically repaired elbow are going to have to stay whole, and his bulky 38-year-old body is going to have to stay out of harm’s way. This is quite possibly Ben’s last best chance to win a third ring, and to win the Steelers’ seventh. Why do I say that? Because it’s hard to go 7-0. The Steelers haven’t been 7-0 since 1978. They’ve got the team to win it all. That’s obvious by the last two weeks—playing pretty well but not great and still beating two of the top five teams in the conference. It’ll be a fascinating finish.
2. Tampa Bay (5th, 5-2)
Brady, explosive, 32 points a game, weaponry, Arians, Antonio, blah blah blah. Justifiably, there’s been so much talk about the efficient and explosive offense, but the Bucs are here because the defense is maturing at the perfect time. Hard to imagine this changing tonight at the 1-6 Giants—the Bucs and Steelers have the best defenses in the league headed into the second half (the Colts are great numerically but haven’t played a great offense yet), and you’re not going to play deep into January without being able to stonewall good teams on defense. Already stout against the run, Bucs GM Jason Licht fortified that by picking up nose man Steve McClendon from the Jets; Tampa’s allowing a league-low (by a lot) 3.0 yards per rush. Devin White and Lavonte David are two of the best linebackers in football, and the young secondary played one of the best games against Aaron Rodgers in recent years in the Week 6 rout of the Packers. “Nothing scares us,” cornerback Jamel Dean said. “We face Tom Brady in practice every day.” It’s still early, but I like my preseason NFC Super Bowl choice. (Don’t screw it up, Antonio.)
3. Kansas City (1st, 7-1)
Nerd-out with me on the schedule here. KC has the Panthers at home Sunday. Looks like a good chance to be 8-1 heading into the Week 10 bye. But then . . . next five games: at Las Vegas (lone KC loss this year), at Tampa Bay (could be hottest team in football then), Denver, at Miami (rising, ferocious defense), at New Orleans (could have healthy Michael Thomas). Now that’s tough. Imagine the Steelers and Chiefs meeting for the AFC title, both with 13 or more wins. Or 14. That really could happen.
4. Seattle (6th, 6-1)
Very telling game Sunday, the 37-27 win over the Niners, with some garbage points late for San Francisco. Telling, because the defense showed Legion of Boom signs; Bobby Wagner played his best game in a while. In the next couple of weeks (at Bills, at Rams), Seattle should add safety Jamal Adams, defensive end Carlos Dunlap (ex-Bengal acquired in trade) and run-stopper Snacks Harrison to the D. Those are all major pieces, and important ones, seeing that Seattle has allowed between 23 and 37 points in every game. Russ can cook, but he can’t rush the passer.
5. Baltimore (2nd, 5-2)
This was not a good week for the Ravens, even with the acquisition of a fine defensive end, Yannick Ngakoue, for minimal compensation (third and fifth-round picks). Left tackle Ronnie Stanley, the best man on Baltimore’s line, was lost for the season with an ankle injury. The Ravens lost to Pittsburgh, and quarterback Lamar Jackson was pretty bad, again, in another big game. Not that home field has been Baltimore’s friend, but now, barring Pittsburgh losing a two-game lead in the division with nine games to play, the Ravens could have to win three road games to make it to the Super Bowl. Very hard to do, especially when two of the road sites could be Kansas City and/or Pittsburgh. The good news is the Ravens, without Stanley, ran it well against a great run-defense team Sunday. The weekend takeaway: Lamar Jackson must be better, or the year will end in disappointment again.
6. Tennessee (7th, 5-2)
I trust the Titans to snap out of the two-game bummer. But if they don’t do it quick, they could face the same playoff minefield as in 2019—all road games in January. The Titans and Colts are tied atop the AFC South, and Philip Rivers has played better of late, so the South is no lock to be Tennessee’s. I’d still pick them, because I trust Ryan Tannehill/Derrick Henry more than Philip Rivers/Indy backfield, but it’s close.
II. Could Break Through
7. Green Bay (12th, 5-2)
Worrisome defense, though the Pack is probably good enough to win the NFC North even if the D keeps allowing 4.7 yards per rush and an opponent passer rating of 110. That, of course, would require Aaron Rodgers to put up 30 a game regularly. A third trip to San Francisco in 50 weeks should tell a lot about where the Packers. The first two didn’t go so well.
8. New Orleans (3rd, 5-2)
Squeaked by for four straight wins—by 6, 3, 3 and 3—without Michael Thomas. Dangerous to keep saying Thomas will fix all woes whenever he does return, but unless the Saints think they can run the table with three road playoff wins in January, they need the best receiver Drew Brees has had in his 15 Saints seasons to return fast. Like, this week. Saints at Bucs, Sunday.
9. Buffalo (13th, 6-2)
Kudos on finally lassoing the Patriots, though it wasn’t the kind of win over wounded New England that should make western New York breathe easy. The temptation is to say the Bills, with a 1.5-game lead on the weakish AFC East, are home free for their first division title in a quarter-century. I’d mostly agree, except for three things. One, the schedule. Buffalo’s next five games: Seattle, at Arizona, Chargers, at San Francisco, Pittsburgh. Two, Josh Allen. Legit MVP candidate in the first four weeks (31 points per game for Buffalo, 12-to-1 TD-to-interception rate, 70-percent passer), average dude the last four (19 points per game, 4-to-4 TD-to-pick ratio, 63-percent passer). Buffalo won shootouts in September, and now the Bills struggle to put away the Jets. If Allen doesn’t get right, the Bills might win their first playoff game since 1995, but they’d be hard-pressed to go further. Three, Miami’s coming.
10. Miami (19th, 4-3)
What a strange game, the 28-17 victory over the Rams in Tua Tagovailoa’s first start. You’d see the score and say that must have been a good opener for Tua. Uh, no. Miami was awful on offense, with eight first downs and 145 total yards. For now, it’s going to be Miami’s defense that leads the way. It has to be this way, until Tagovailoa starts playing the way he did as a force of nature at Alabama, or until Brian Flores decides Ryan Fitzpatrick is a steadier hand. Flores won’t hesitate to do what he has to do. Miami is higher than you might think they should be because of all these defensive guys—Wilkins, Van Ginkel, Baker, Ogbah—you don’t know well. “We’ve got an emphasis not just to get to the quarterback and get a sack,” said Jerome Baker, the third-year Ohio State linebacker, “but to create takeaways. You drop an interception around here, it’s a sin.” The Dolphins, with defense like they played Sunday, could make it very hard for Buffalo to win the East.
11. Arizona (18th, 5-2)
There are lots of exciting players in football. Kyler Murray edges Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson for number one. Doesn’t mean he’s the best player in football, because he’s way behind Wilson and Mahomes there. But he’s such a whirling dervish, a player who can make something big happen on any play. Problem I see with the Cardinals busting through to have a big January this year is the schedule. Not a lot of gimme weeks the rest of the way, starting with the first five out of the bye: Miami, Buffalo, at Seattle, at New England, Rams. Might be one year away.
12. L.A. Rams (16th, 5-3)
What a grind the first eight weeks have been—four East Coast 10 a.m. bodyclock games—but the Rams have come out of it well. Only one debacle, and that was Sunday at Miami, when the line couldn’t keep out the young and unstoppable Dolphins rush. I like the Rams, and I think if they protect Jared Goff, they can win any game they play.
13. Indianapolis (15th, 5-2)
The good Philip Rivers has shown up the last two weeks, and if he keeps showing up in the brutal stretch coming up—Baltimore, at Tennessee, Green Bay, Tennessee—then the Colts will give the Titans a great fight for the title of the AFC South.
III. On The Cusp
14. San Francisco (4th, 4-4)
Some years, it’s just not your year. This is a solid franchise with an excellent backbone of talent. Unfortunately, much of the talent is hurt. Imagine going to Seattle without Bosa and Sherman and Mostert and Samuel and Richburg and Ford, then losing Garoppolo and Kittle during the game. Now 2.5 games plus a tiebreaker out of first place, it’s going to be tough for the Niners to win the West, obviously—and it might be tough for them to make the playoffs with how good their own division is.
15. Chicago (17th, 5-2)
Sometimes, I’ve got to think Matt Nagy looks out at his offense—particularly the line and the quarterback—and just thinks, “How did this happen? I’m a smart guy. I soaked up every offense idea Andy Reid has in his head. What in the world is going on here?” Just goes to show that you’re not going anywhere in the NFL without a relatively consistent quarterback. The Bears just don’t have one.
16. Las Vegas (8th, 4-3)
Sleeper six or seven seed in the AFC, and that win Sunday was absolutely huge because it give the Raiders the tiebreaker over another three-loss AFC team, Cleveland.
17. Cleveland (24th, 5-3)
After 2.5 seasons, do the Browns really know if they have their quarterback of the future? Big question to answer in the second half of the season, and they should have some nice footing coming out of the bye, with Houston and Philly at home, then Jacksonville on the road. The Browns still have a great chance to be one of the three AFC wild cards.
IV. The Meh Group
18. Carolina (29th, 3-5)
Encouraging first year for Matt Rhule. He’s found that Teddy Bridgewater can play, and Robby Anderson can be part of a three-headed outstanding receiver group, and that the Panthers can win without Christian McCaffrey. Owner David Tepper has to feel good that he trumped the Giants and others by racing to overpay Rhule before he could hit the market and play the field. Smart business decision.
19. Minnesota (11th, 2-5)
Nice win in Green Bay, and that Dalvin sure can Cook. Seems crazy to say, but the rest of this year, in part, has to be spent seeing if Kirk Cousins should be the quarterback in 2021.
20. Cincinnati (27th, 2-5-1)
You’ve got a bunch of vets who don’t want to be in Cincinnati—surprise!—but anyone who does choose to hang around is going to be in for one wild ride. Joe Burrow, on pace for a 4,544-yard rookie passing season, has put up 30 or more points in four of eight games, and he’s scared of nothing. I’m actually optimistic about the Bengals if they could just build a respectable defense and not make it so good players and citizens like Carlos Dunlap want out so often.
21. L.A. Chargers (23th, 2-5)
Go ahead. Slap me around for putting the Chargers in the land of respectability. I know the games are not 29 and 36 minutes long in the NFL. But I’ve seen the Chargers, four games in a row, build 24-3, 16-0, 20-3 and 24-7 leads, then, obviously, blow them. But I think the Chargers will be a tough out the rest of the way as Justin Herbert learns more and more that turnovers in the NFL are death, and with a defense that I think can play better.
22. Philadelphia (15th, 3-4-1)
Did you know that in four starts this year, Mitchell Trubisky has turned it over three times, and that in eight starts, Carson Wentz has turned it over 16 times? Sixteen turnovers at midseason. It’s positively Jameis-like. The Eagles should win the worst division in recent history, and probably easily. But that won’t mean Doug Pederson and Howie Roseman will feel great about Wentz heading into 2021. No very good quarterback has regressed like Wentz has this year, and the Eagles won’t be a good team until they can fix what ails him.
23. New England (21st, 2-5)
It is cruel yet simplistic: Cam Newton is finding out exactly why Tom Brady wanted to end his career somewhere that respected offensive weaponry. Brady wasn’t a bum last year, when the offense went south, the same way Newton’s not a bum now with the worst set of offensive skill players in the NFL—excepting maybe the Jets. At least Jacksonville has D.J. Chark. Washington has Terry McLaurin. The Jets (well, there’s some competition here, honestly) have Jamison Crowder, but okay, that’s arguable. Newton’s turning it over too much, but it’s hard not to feel for him with a Toledo Mudhens group of receivers out there. The results are not good, after New England’s fourth straight loss. The Patriots’ team passer rating at midseason: 67.0. In 1991, the team passer rating was 69.7—with Hugh Millen and Tom Hodson the quarterbacks.
24. Detroit (26th, 3-4)
Who knows how this year will end, other than not in the playoffs, and with the Lions running their non-championship streak to 63 straight years. But giving up 41 to the Colts—a nice offensive team but not a powerhouse—means the Lions, with defensive coach Matt Patricia at the helm, are surrendering a desultory 29.4 points per game in the third year of his regime. That is not good, if you want there to a be fourth year of the regime.
25. Washington (31st, 2-5)
Tough team to figure. Very tough. The best element is the defensive front, by far. Washington has the kind of schedule coming out of the bye (Giants, at Lions, Bengals, at Cowboys), with one win over the Eagles and a week 17 game remaining, that could put them neck and neck with the Eagles for the division title. How crazy would this be on the afternoon of Jan. 9 for a wild-card matchup: NFC fifth seed New Orleans (12-4) at NFC fourth-seed Washington (6-10).
V. It’s Over, For Now
26. Denver (20th, 3-4)
The Broncos are 11 games under .500 since Peyton Manning walked out of the building, and barring a stunning turn, this will be their fifth straight non-playoff year for Denver. The Broncos’ long playoff history makes this fact really odd: Denver’s headed for its 10th year of the last 15 to be out of the playoffs. That’s worrisome enough. Drew Lock is not certain to be the quarterback of the future in Denver, and the Broncos could be in competition for the 2021 crop of QBs with a bunch of teams that could be in the quarterback market in April: New England, Washington, Minnesota, Jacksonville, and, of course, the Jets. At some point pretty soon, John Elway has to get his quarterback of the future or he’s not going to be picking the players anymore.
27. Atlanta (25th, 2-6)
The Falcons are 27-31 since the painful Super Bowl LI loss to New England and seem intent on bringing back Matt Ryan and Julio Jones (who will be 36 and 32 on opening day 2021) to be the centerpieces to the rebuild. Questionable thinking, but perhaps necessary because of their heavy cap hits. Will Raheem Morris (2-1 in his interim run) be part of it? Considering his last six tests this season—at New Orleans, Las Vegas, New Orleans, at the Chargers, Tampa Bay, at Kansas City, at Tampa Bay—I have my doubts.
28. Houston (22nd, 1-6)
No one thinks it’s particularly fair to fire—after four games—a coach who won four division titles in six years. But parting with Bill O’Brien had to happen; deep down, I bet part of him was relieved. What now? The franchise is in the pits, with no GM, significantly over the cap in 2021, and no first or second-round pick next April. But Deshaun Watson at age 25 is good bait to attract a good coach for a rebuild.
29. Dallas (9th, 2-6)
Well, let’s see. Heading into a crucial Week 8 Sunday-nighter at Philadelphia, the Dallas quarterback was the pride of James Madison University, Ben DiNucci; the starting tackles were Terence Steele and Cam Erving, and the top tight end was Dalton Schultz. The fans seem ready to run Mike McCarthy out of town. The defense is on track to be all-time worst in Cowboys history (16 TDs surrendered in seven games, 5.2 yards per carry by opposing backs). But at least Jerry Jones is doing his best Animal House Kevin Bacon. “All is well! All is well!”
30. N.Y. Giants (30th, 1-6)
Hand this to the Giants: They’re playing hard for Joe Judge—scoring margins of last four games: 8, 3, 1 and 1—and, particularly on defense, there’s some young talent to build around. But they’re 10-29 in the Dave Gettleman Era, with some major swings and misses, and for there to be more than nine games left in the Gettleman Era, New York will need a couple of signature wins against a tough slate down the stretch. You can’t be winning at a 25-percent clip, particularly with the Giants’ history of the last nine seasons. Remember that second Super Bowl win over the Patriots, in the 2011 season? That’s the last New York playoff victory. Thus John Mara’s impatience with his player acquisition.
31. Jacksonville (32nd, 1-6)
Shad Khan is the epitome of fair. But I don’t know how much sense it makes—with Atlanta and divisional rival Houston off to head starts in the 2021 coaching derby—to not make a coaching change before the end of the year. Doug Marrone has presided over a 12-27 disaster since having the Jags minutes from an AFC championship three years ago, and Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Baltimore await in the second half. Why delay the inevitable? Start the coaching search now.
VI. Alone. So Alone
32. New York Jets (28th, 0-8)
Reaction from a buddy who loves the Jets after the 35-9 loss in KC: “Could have been worse.” Find a game on the rest of the schedule the Jets should win. Check out this road slate in November and December: Chargers, Seattle, Rams, New England. Point is, the Jets are favorites for the first pick in the 2021 draft, and that’s going to put some heavy pressure on GM Joe Douglas. He’ll either have to stand squarely behind Sam Darnold entering year four in ’21 and try to get a bounty for the Trevor Lawrence pick. Or he’ll have to try to get more than 30 cents on the dollar for a tarnished Darnold, who does not deserve most of the tarnish. He has played valiantly most often, but Darnold’s mistakes and lack of field vision cannot be ignored either. Since Darnold was drafted in 2018, there are 28 quarterbacks with at least 20 starts; Darnold’s passer rating, 78.1, is 28th out of 28. Long-suffering Jets beat man Mark Cannizzaro entombed the Jets this way after they gave up 37 points at home to a practice-squad QB, Brett Rypien, on national TV in Week 4: “Someday, perhaps a long, long time from now, there will be a study — like one of those archaeological digs — examining the Jets and their perpetual propensity to tease and torture. With the emphasis on torture.”
DK Metcalf is not a perfect player. Against Dallas early this season, he celebrated too soon after catching a bomb from Russell Wilson and the ball was punched out of his right hand near the goal line. No touchdown; turnover. Maybe that was in his brain eight days ago when he ran 114 yards (via NFL Next Gen Stats) in a great display of hustle to catch Arizona safety Budda Baker after Baker returned a Wilson pick 90 yards.
I mean, are you freaking kidding me?
— Sunday Night Football (@SNFonNBC) October 26, 2020
So I reached out on Twitter to my followers, asking if any parents, coaches, teachers used the play as a teaching moment. This is what I heard:
Paul Stinson, soccer coach, Bryn Mawr (Pa.) College
“This play is one I’m going to show in our next team meeting to highlight DK’s speed of transition. In soccer we talk a lot about the ebb and flow from offense to defense, and the transitions between them. That DK switched gears that fast from running a route to running down Budda left me gob-smacked. Just unreal focus and recognition of the new context of the game, and no hesitation to ‘do the next right thing,’ a phrase I use a lot in my coaching.”
Mike Welsch, father, West Des Moines, Iowa
“I showed it my daughters, 8 and 5, Monday morning. Their reaction was awe at first to DK’s physical abilities and speed. Then my wife, an elementary school guidance counselor, quickly joined me in helping them with the message behind just the play itself. As we talked through the mindset behind not giving up and how that rubs off on your friends and teammates I think they understood that what he did meant more than the outcome of the play. My oldest, Allison, said that even if he didn’t catch him, his teammates would be proud of his effort and would want to keep him on their team.”
Frederick Wasson, offensive coordinator, Eureka (Mo.) High School
“Last Friday night, we lost to our biggest rival, Kirkwood, in the last minute of the game. On our final scoring drive, to take the lead with under 1:30 left, we broke a big run and on film all 10 players were jogging downfield well behind the play. We got tackled at the 3-yard line, and who knows what would have happened if all 10 players screamed to the ball to push him. We may have scored. Instead, we had to run four plays to score the touchdown. When we gave up an 80-yard touchdown three plays later, there was wasn’t enough time for us to answer.
“Our head coach’s motto to kids during this difficult time is ‘maximize the moment.’ Two nights later, when we saw the DK Metcalf play, we all immediately said that’s a perfect visual depiction of what ‘maximize the moment’ looks like. In that play, DK shows what our staff believed to be the epitome of that motto. So when our kids came in Monday, we had the Metcalf play cued up, along with that play with our 10 players jogging from Friday night. It was so easy to sell them on what we’re looking for: selflessness, pride, effort and maximizing the moment. Get the most out of every play that your mind and body will allow. That clip has been our most teachable moment.”
Keith Rhodes, passing game coordinator, Black Hills High School, Tumwater, Wash.
“This week during our practices, I talked about that play—the heart and effort that play took. I mentioned that to that point in the game, as good of a season as DK has had, he had one catch for 17 yards. I talked about how easy it would have been for DK to be mad and get disengaged with the game. You don’t make that play being disengaged. You don’t make that play being selfish. You make that play with heart, effort, and by putting your team above yourself. Unfortunately due to COVID, we are not yet able to have full practices with our athletes. Our practices are weight-lifting, conditioning and agility drills. So I mentioned to our players the 114 yards DK ran on that play, and the fact he finally caught Budda Baker one to two steps away from scoring. I mentioned how even with how big and fast DK is, you don’t make that play without getting your body in shape and pushing it to find new limits, so when you are in a similar situation, you can give everything you have and make a difference.”
Mark Lieberman, associated head basketball coach, Southeastern Louisiana
“We showed the play to our team. We often show clips from the previous workouts, or something that applies to our philosophy and identity. Converting from offense to defense in basketball, especially after a turnover or bad shot, is something we work on all the time. We showed the DK clip after a poor defensive transition. Erase the mistake! is big in our talks, and this was a perfect example of that. Watch DK’s first three steps—the emphasis on defense—and then the incredible effort. Great lesson for our team: Never take a play off.”
Terry O’Toole, father, Cincinnati
“As I watched DK Metcalf chase down Budda Baker, I sat awestruck of Metcalf’s physical skill, utter determination, and competitive drive. I must have watched the replay 10 or 20 times. More important than the physical skills demonstrated was the true grit, drive, and determination. I showed that replay to both my kids [daughter, 13 and son, 11], who play sports, explaining that grit and determination are invaluable skills to carry with them throughout their lives. Hopefully the message was received.”
Andrew Clark, offensive coordinator, San Pasqual High School, Escondido, Calif.
“While we haven’t been allowed to start actual football yet, part of our curricular day is a Football PE class. We have about 85 sophomores through seniors in two classes that currently meet virtually twice a week. DK Metcalf’s play was the first thing we talked about Tuesday morning. We pointed out this wasn’t about speed or athleticism. I get how cliché this sounds, but that concrete example of your effort being something that’s always completely under your control was a great jumping-off point for a discussion on other ways that show up on the field, in the classroom and in life outside of school. Nerding out on how football teaches us about life is just one of those things football folks love.”
Offensive Players of the Week
Russell Wilson, quarterback, Seattle. After a 27-of-37, 261-yard, four-TD, zero-pick day against the Niners that pushed the Seattle record to 6-1, the 2020 NFL MVP is Wilson’s to lose. His career high for touchdowns in a season is 34. He’s on pace for 59. Case closed.
Dalvin Cook, running back, Minnesota. The combination of speed, instincts and toughness in this great back was on full display Sunday in the Vikings’ 28-22 upset of the Packers. On the day, he totaled 226 yards—163 rushing, 63 receiving—on 32 touches, with four touchdowns. The Vikings made it clear Sunday that the winning offense for them goes through Cook, and not Kirk Cousins.
Joe Burrow, quarterback, Cincinnati. It’s amazing that the Bengals are 2-5-1, on their way to another lousy season, and yet they have the kind of hope that only a long-term quarterback can bring a franchise. Cincinnati beat the vaunted Titans 31-20 Sunday, and anyone who watched the game wouldn’t have thought that score fluky, because the Bengals outplayed Tennessee. They did so because of the precocious Burrow (26 of 37, 249 yards, two TDs, no picks, 106.7 rating), who has many more days like this ahead.
Defensive Players of the Week
Christian Wilkins, defensive tackle; Emmanuel Ogbah, defensive end; Andrew Van Ginkel, linebacker; Jerome Baker, linebacker; Eric Rowe, cornerback; Shaq Lawson, defensive end; Kyle Van Noy, linebacker, Miami. How do you pick one Dolphin defender after seven different Dolphins took turns dominating the game and taking it over in the second quarter in south Florida Sunday? The Rams were up 7-0 late in the first quarter when Wilkins picked off a Jared Goff pass; Tua Tagovailoa’s first NFL TD pass came moments later. Then Ogbah striped Goff, and Van Ginkel returned it 78 yards for a score. Then the Jakeem Grant punt return for touchdown. Then the Lawson forced fumble, and Van Noy running it back 28 yards to the Rams’ 1. Yikes. What a quarter of football. The Miami defense is really good.
Bobby Wagner, linebacker, Seattle. Wagner might have two or three good years left; you never know when a physical, fly-around player like Wagner gets to be 30. But he was the best defensive player on the field in a big NFC West game Sunday against the Niners, and it wasn’t close. It’s going to be hard to keep Wagner out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day. Eleven tackles, two sacks, four quarterback hits/pressures. What a command performance when his struggling defense really needed it.
Robert Spillane, linebacker, Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh pipeline is so good that an undrafted player can replace a first-rounder (Spillane for Devin Bush), and Spillane can have a pick-six, a fumble recovery, a game-high 11 tackles and two passes broken up . . . and the Steelers can win an intense rivalry game with Baltimore 28-24 while playing pretty damn average on offense.
Special Teams Players of the Week
Jakeem Grant, wide receiver/punt-returner, Miami. The longest punt-return for TD in Miami history, 88 yards, broke open the floodgates against the Rams in south Florida and gave Miami a 21-10 lead over the Rams. To see it was pretty great. Grant ran through the Rams like Usain Bolt.
JAKEEM GRANT HOUSE CALL 🏠 📞
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 1, 2020
Tommy Townsend, punter, Kansas City. A rookie free-agent from Florida, Townsend is noted for his hang time; as a Gator last year, his punts were returned for a total of nine yards all season. Now he’ll be noted for his arm. With two minutes left in the first quarter against the Jets, Townsend threw a fake-punt pass for a 13-yard gain to Byron Pringle—a perfect line drive of a spiral that gave KC a first down at the New York 36. On the next snap, Patrick Mahomes threw a 36-yard TD pass to Tyreek Hill. Nice assist, Townsend.
Miles Killebrew, safety, Detroit. Early in a game that had the makings of a field-position battle of good defenses, Killebrew made the special teams play of the game. Bursting through the right side of the Colts’ punt-team line, Killebrew got the first blocked punt for the Lions since 2007, smothering the try from Rigoberto Sanchez. The Lions took over at the Colt 32, and two plays later they had the first touchdown of what became a very sad game for them.
Coach of the Week
Brian Flores, coach, Miami. The job done by Flores over the past 12 months has been sensational. After starting his head-coaching career 0-7, Flores and the Dolphins are 9-7 since, navigating a quarterback change and a reconfigured schedule/bye through no fault of their own. “We’re just jelling,” linebacker Jerome Baker said post-game. “We’re a young team, all growing together.” Owner Stephen Ross and GM Chris Grier picked the right man for a young and growing team. Flores is tough, a very good teacher, well-respected, and understands the symphonic way a football team has to be built, trying to win today while keeping an eye on the future. He’s a good builder of a defense too.
Goat of the Week
Javon Wims, wide receiver, Chicago. The two dirtiest plays of the 2020 season belong to Wims, who absolutely lost his mind against Saints safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson. The game was chippy from the start, and Gardner-Johnson, who has a knack for getting under receivers’ skin (ask Michael Thomas), was playing that role early and often. After a short Nick Foles completion five minutes into the second half, Wims approached Gardner-Johnson and threw a roundhouse right, connecting with Gardner-Johnson’s helmet. Then he did it again, as jaws dropped nationwide. Wims was ejected. It didn’t take long for his Wikipedia page to get edited. “He made his professional boxing debut against the New Orleans Saints,” it read. Won’t be so funny when Wims gets suspended by the NFL this week—and I hope it’s for multiple weeks. For those who may ask, there is no limit to how many games the league could suspend Wims.
“I am jeopardizing this team’s success because of my lackluster performance of protecting the football.”
—New England quarterback Cam Newton, who had the ball stripped from him on a rushing play with 31 seconds left, down three, in Buffalo at the Bills’ 14-yard line.
“The Russ for MVP train is back on the tracks.”
—Seattle wide receiver DK Metcalf, on quarterback Russell Wilson’s four-TD, no-interception performance in the 37-27 rivalry win over San Francisco.
“This is where you miss Mitch Trubisky.”
—Troy Aikman on FOX, in overtime of Saints-Bears, uttering words I never thought I would hear by an NFL analyst for the rest of time.
Aikman was referring to the lead-footed Nick Foles being sacked by the Saints, when it was clear that Trubisky might have been able to get out of the way of the rush. But still . . .
“That’s a very good football team. People forget that because they haven’t won a game.”
—Kansas City’s Chris Jones, before facing Sunday’s foe, the 0-7 (now 0-8) New York Jets.
This is why 68.51 percent of every word a player says about that week’s foe should be flushed down the garbage disposal as soon as it’s uttered.
“Take a bow, baseball. You screwed up the best game in the world and now you have to wonder if the game ever can be fixed again. The Nerds are not only running the asylum. They have chased away [the] experience-based coaches and managers.”
—Longtime baseball writer Kevin Kernan, writing for ballnine.com, after this year’s World Series and the Blake Snell debacle in Game 6.
The mighty have fallen.
Over the next 21 days, the Rams will play one game.
Over the 18 days after that, the Rams will play four games.
• The Rams landed in L.A. late Sunday night from Miami and began their bye week.
• Between Nov. 2 and 22, they play one game: Seattle, at home, Nov. 15.
• Between Nov. 23 and Dec. 10: Nov. 23 at Tampa Bay, Nov. 29 (home, Niners), Dec. 6 (at Cards), Dec. 10, Thursday night (home, Patriots).
Jon Lester had his 2021 option declined by the Chicago Cubs over the weekend. So he will be a free agent, and he may or may not be a Cub next year. He deserves a hat-tip for whatever happens, for his 4-1, 1.77 ERA résumé and his clutch playoff performances.
Anyway, check out his nine years in Boston versus six years in Chicago:
Red Sox: .636 winning percentage, 3.64 ERA (110-63 record)
Cubbies: .636 winning percentage, 3.64 ERA (77-44 record)
When Joe Buck flew home Sunday night after doing the Saints-Bears late-window doubleheader game on FOX—Chicago to St. Louis—it ended a 17-games-in-21-days stretch for Buck. That’s a normal October for him as the voice of baseball and football at FOX. This year, he did games 14 days in a row: six NLCS games in Dallas, Packers-Bucs, Chiefs-Bills, World Series Games 1 and 2, Giants-Eagles, World Series Games 3, 4 and 5. Then an off-day in Dallas, then World Series Game 6, then an off day, then Falcons-Panthers, then two off days, and then Saints-Bears.
We caught up for The Peter King Podcast. A few highlights:
On sleep: “I can let you in on my own personal secret. I made a pact with myself that for the last two-plus weeks now, going on three weeks, I wasn’t gonna have a drink. Which to me is a big deal. My wife and I, Michelle Beisner, who works at ESPN, we like to, when we put our two-and-a-half-year-old twins down, we like to share a bottle of wine and watch whatever the hell we’re binge-watching at the time. This is the first time I’ve done that . . . I wear this WHOOP thing, that tracks my sleep, tracks my calories, tracks the strain so to speak on my day. My REM sleep has been off the charts. I’ve . . . had more sleep here than I’ve had in two-and-a-half years.”
On caring for his voice: “Well, I don’t smoke. That helps. We keep talking about my dad, but when I started in the broadcast booth, I was 21 with the Cardinals. My dad smoked, [analyst] Mike Shannon smoked, the radio engineer smoked. Everybody in the booth smoked. And that’s why my dad ended up sounded like this [imitating gravelly voice]. That was just a part of life back then . . . I’ve been lucky. I had the one year in 2011 where I had a paralyzed vocal cord and I thought my career was over. I got over that and I feel actually like the longer I talk, the more I talk, the more I get swelling with those vocal cords and then they actually touch easier. I know about the apparatus way too much.”
What he drinks on broadcast days: “Coffee. Coffee’s terrible for your voice but I cannot live without it. And then during the game, I have this thing which is called a Contigo [holds up a sleek thermal cup] which keeps everything hot in it. It’s like a Yeti. And I drink tea or I’ll just drink water, room temperature water. My bladder—which is on record as being one of the smallest in the history of broadcasting—is an issue. So if I’m just pounding water all game, I’m constantly running back and forth and trying to beat the commercial back before I sit down. There have been many times where I have left the booth to go to the bathroom and waited for the stage manager to count backward from 5, wait til he gets to 3, just to see how much [John] Smoltz and [Troy] Aikman freak out knowing that if I’m not sitting there, they have to bring it back from commercial break. But I’ve made it about 99 percent of the time.
On connecting with his young twins from the road: “FaceTime, which is the way now to connect now with my two-and-a-half-year-olds—which, by the way, they’re punishing me. They’re running away every time I FaceTime because they’re mad that I’m gone.”
One other thing: Buck, and FOX, have heard criticism for the network pulling him off Game 7 of the NLCS (Braves-Dodgers) two weeks ago for the FOX doubleheader game (Packers-Bucs) that preceded it. Seems pretty logical: The football game had an audience of 22.3 million; the baseball game drew a very good rating, but 9.7 million viewers was less than half Aaron Rodgers-Tom Brady. “I go where they tell me,” Buck said. “That was determined two months [ago].”
Unsure if this Cowboys' season is supposed to be a comedy or tragedy. Maybe a dark comedy. Ben DiNucci strip-sacked by linebacker T.J. Edwards. S Rodney McLeod scooped and returned for a 53-yard TD. Play stands after automatic review. Eagles up 21-9.
— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) November 2, 2020
Michael Gehlken, Tweeting on Halloween weekend, covers the Cowboys for the Dallas Morning News.
I'm trapped in a toxic relationship with the Chargers
— Colleen Wolfe (@ColleenWolfe) November 2, 2020
Wolfe is an NFL Network host who has much in common with many southern Californians.
For Halloween, I dressed up as the pandemic's most annoying catch-phrase: an abundance of caution. pic.twitter.com/HF4wpp8As2
— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) November 1, 2020
Paul Lukas runs Uni Watch, a fun site featuring the good and bad of all uniforms.
So who gets to pull the manager? #worldseries
— Noah Syndergaard (@Noahsyndergaard) October 28, 2020
The Mets’ right-hander tweeted after Tampa manager Kevin Cash pulled starter Blake Snell in Game 6 of the World Series, a move that had bricks flying at TV screens from Islamorada to Issaquah.
Write for Tuesday. From Linus Williams: “Why not publish on Tuesday? I’m heavily involved in fantasy and pickem leagues, and for us, our week starts on Tuesday. It would let you write much more in depth about anything interesting that happened Monday night. And it wouldn’t keep you up until 4 a.m. Monday trying to rush a piece out. I know I’d still look forward to and read your column on Tuesday. There’s plenty of ‘What happened on Sunday’ coverage out there. I’d rather you be able to devote time to sources and writing and come out with something on Tuesday rather than rushing.”
Interesting thought, Linus. This is my 24th year writing on Mondays. For a while at SI, after my Monday column, I produced a leftovers column/mailbag on Tuesdays. When NBC hired me, it was to write one column per week and some TV and video work. I was starting to get burned out writing so many days and administrating as well. So the one-column-a-week deal was attractive to me. If NBC came to me and suggest a Tuesday column instead of Monday, I’d certainly listen and frankly, I’d probably do it. The problems, as I see it:
• If I get something really cool/exclusive (Tom Brady alone after his playoff loss last January, Andy Reid drawing and explaining the key play of the Super Bowl 75 minutes after it happened), I’m not going to want to sit on that while the rest of the world is weighing in on those issues.
• If I did write to post on Tuesday morning, I could still probably work most of Saturday (which I do now) and then spend Sunday writing less but watching probably even more football
• Writing Tuesday would mean a long Saturday, a long Sunday and long Monday—because things happen on Monday (benchings, injuries, newsy things) that I’d have to chase. I really don’t want to report on how serious Michael Thomas’ hamstring injury is at this stage of my life.
Having said all that, if NBC wanted me to do that, and if there was evidence that a Tuesday column would get more traffic, I’d be open to it.
He thinks I’m being disingenuous for saying I’m open to readers’ suggestions. From Daniel Cochran: “You’re not, but you like to pretend you are. You just want to write about what you want to write about. You’ve more or less earned that right. But your columns are monotonous and dull as s—, and I stopped reading them about 15 years ago. So my advice, if you actually care (spoiler alert: you don’t): stop writing like an octogenarian.”
I like the fact that, last Monday, in a column you haven’t read for 15 years, you made it to the 8,488th word, when I told readers, “I’m open to your ideas/suggestions.”
He thinks I am hung up on myself. From Jeff Cannon Sr.: “How many words talking about yourself in [the Oct. 26 column]? It has always struck me as funny that you sports writers blame the internet for the death of the newspaper, weekly or monthly periodical for the utter devastation of your trade. You ever consider that the reader just wants the information and doesn’t give an iota about you as a person or your opinions on anything—mostly politics that somehow you either outright spew it or passively imply your liberalism into the narratives? If you weren’t Goodell’s mouthpiece there wouldn’t be much of a reason to read you anymore but you are the only writer left that knows what the league is planning so I keep you around.”
Now that is one of the most interesting compliments I’ve ever gotten. Objections noted.
She thinks (and she’s right) men should be outraged by Antonio Brown too. From Stephanie: “I am a middle-age (plus) mom who has enjoyed your columns and the perspectives therein since Mary Beth’s softball days. I got caught on a phrase you chose in your column, in the Antonio Brown section: ‘Women will be furious (many already are, and they should be) because of the abuse allegations Brown is currently fighting.’ I think that not only women should have a reaction to abuse allegations. I think men and non-binary alike should also find abuse allegations disturbing. I think the field you work in and the specific sport you cover are prone to dismiss this fury as a women’s issue. It is really, simply, a human issue.”
You are 100 percent right. I was wrong there, and I appreciate you pointing it out.
Thanks. From Sam Mattox: “Thank you for consistently gifting your fellow sports nerds with access to detailed, long-form football writing. As sports coverage continues to shift to video and Twitter, I appreciate more than ever the amount of effort that goes into producing your behemoth of a column every Sunday night. I want you to know how much I look forward to settling in with a big cup of coffee to read it every Monday morning. The mailbag section has been making me sad lately, so I want to make sure you hear from someone like me who really values what you do. The NFL is huge, and you cover a lot of ground each week, both past and present. I certainly don’t expect you to allot equal space to every team, nor did you (or any of us) choose for politics and sports to become such an ugly mix. Frankly, I think the people who write to you to complain should find better ways to spend their time. I hope that more writers will follow your example and cater to sports fans whose attention span is longer than a tweet.”
Appreciate that, Sam. And I do feel the feeling from many readers that you express. One of the reasons I choose to run the critical letters in the column is that critics have a right to vent too. It’s America. All should be heard.
1. I think it’s time to be worried about Lamar Jackson’s ability to perform when the spotlight is brightest. Let’s look at the three biggest games he has played in this calendar year, going back to the divisional playoff game in January against the Titans, then at the 2020 regular-season games with Kansas City and Pittsburgh:
To sum up: Eight turnovers in three games. A putrid rating. Three losses in 10 months to rivals the Ravens have to beat to win the AFC. And, by the way, a 51-percent completion rate.
When I watch Jackson, I see a player who errs at some of the simple things. Take the pick-six by Robert Spillane of the Steelers, a minute into Sunday’s loss to Pittsburgh. Jackson looks-looks-looks left/center, then darts to the near right, to receiver James Proche, and Spillane can see it coming a mile away. If Jackson is going to throw that ball, he’s got to throw a line drive, not a touch pass. I was okay with all the Jackson runs (16, for 65 yards) because while you don’t want him running 16 times a week, it’s okay when the run is essential to winning a big game. Two completions to Hollywood Brown and one to Devin Duvernay, his downfield weapons . . . it’s just not good enough. Baltimore has built a deep-strike offense that’s not striking deep enough. Two targets to Hollywood Brown in a game that might determine top seed in the AFC? Ridiculous.
One last note: All three of the 2020 big games were in Baltimore.
2. I think I’m surprised—not shocked, but certainly surprised—that the NFL will finish eight weeks of football tonight, with nine weeks left, and so far there’s not a single game that needs to be made up in a “Week 18” scenario. With the virus spreading and seemingly getting more virulent, I would expect more in future weeks than what we saw this weekend, two Denver coaches and two unnamed Cardinals (on the bye week) sidelined by COVID-19. Think about this: The NFL tests about 2,460 players and 3,200 team personnel daily.
3. I think I have no idea what Cleveland is. Six points? Against the 31st-ranked scoring defense in football? And don’t tell me about the wind and the cold. You’re a cold-weather team. Sometimes it’s windy. Sometimes it’s cold. It’s got to be maddening to root for the Browns.
4. I think the Niners might have the toughest Sunday-to-Thursday turnaround of any team this season—they were at Seattle on Sunday, and now they get Aaron Rodgers at home on Thursday. And with injuries to Jimmy Garoppolo, George Kittle and Raheem Mostert, San Francisco might have to rely on Nick Mullens, Ross Dwelley and JaMycal Hasty to have a chance in Green Bay. What a deadly season of injuries for the Niners.
5. I think it’s so surprising that the world overplayed the “revenge match” of Le’Veon Bell versus the Jets. For the record: six carries, seven yards; three catches, 31 yards. Bell was responsible for 38 of 496 Kansas City yards on Sunday, with zero impact. Not trying to dump on Bell, but he was not brought into Kansas City to be a savior. KC has one—Patrick Mahomes. KC also has a number one running back—Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Bell will be a change-of-pace pass-catching back who might have a little impact. The clock cannot be wound back.
6. I think scheduling decisions for the NFL are tough (I have seen the arduous deliberations) but playing the game of the weekend, Pittsburgh at Baltimore, at 1 p.m. ET Sunday was just not smart. With Ben Roethlisberger coming back for Pittsburgh, with a great Steeler defense, with Baltimore coming off a 14-2 season, how is this great rivalry not on TV in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Denver, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Detroit, Columbus, Nashville and Memphis? Every Pittsburgh-Baltimore game, till further notice, must be a late-window doubleheader game or a national prime-time game. Luckily for us, the rematch this season is Thanksgiving night, the NBC national window.
7. I think Jim Harbaugh couldn’t be regarded much lower right now at Michigan. After losing at home to Michigan State (an 11-point loser at home to Rutgers last week), Michigan has these ignominious numbers, per Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports: He’s 1-3 at home against arch-rival Michigan State, 0-5 against arch-rival Ohio State, and 2-10 against Top 10 teams. In big games, Michigan is a flouncy and totally untrustworthy team. A 48-19 record (Harbaugh’s at Michigan) sounds wonderful at most coaching locales, but at Michigan, this is the won-loss number that truly matters: 1-6. That’s Harbaugh’s record at Michigan Stadium against Ohio State and Michigan State in his six years as coach of the Wolverines. Imagine if John Harbaugh had that sort of record against Pittsburgh and Cleveland in his tenure with the Ravens. (He doesn’t; Baltimore is 17-8 at home against its two biggest rivals.)
8. I think I find it hard to believe that a team would trade anything but a day-three draft pick for Dwayne Haskins by Tuesday’s trading deadline. First, he was not universally loved coming out of Ohio State, and most people around Washington believe owner Daniel Snyder had his fingers on the draft-grade scale before the team picked him 15th overall in 2019. Second, he hasn’t played well, although you certainly can’t draw any firm conclusions after 11 starts. Third, what would you think as an evaluator if the team that drafted Haskins 15th overall in 2019 demoted him to number three quarterback early in 2020?
9. I think I would say three things about Bo Jackson saying he’d average between 350 and 400 yards a game if he played today:
• No one in the 101-year history of professional football has rushed for 300 yards or more in a single game.
• Jackson played 39 NFL games of pro football, never carried more than 22 times in a game, and had eight 100-yard rushing games. He was a meteor across the NFL sky, a great talent whose career was cut short by a hip injury. But part of being a dominant back week after week is to pound defenses physically and run around them too. Bo Jackson averaged 13.4 carries a game. So unless he could have averaged 25 yards per carry . . .
• I do think he could rush for 350 a game against 12-year-olds, however.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. I am late to this, but I did want to recognize Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank for granting $20 million to the University of Texas to found the Arthur M. Blank Center for Stuttering Education and Research. The center will study the nature and treatment of stuttering, the best treatments for stutterers, and work to bind clinicians and researchers so such treatment can be shared worldwide. Joe Biden has spoken of his experience with stuttering; it still afflicts him at times. Blank stuttered as a boy. I stuttered as a boy, badly. What a limiting affliction it is, and how often I was ridiculed as a kid growing up in Connecticut because of it. And not just by other kids. In fifth grade, we used to have to read aloud in the class once a week. The thought of having to do it terrorized me, and of course the more I thought about it, the worse my stuttering got. So one day, my teacher, a big man with a booming voice, tolerated by hems and haws and stops and starts, and my “B-b-b-b-b-but” or whatever word I couldn’t get through that day. “SPIT IT OUT, KING!” he said, way too loud. (That really helped.) So I appreciate the acknowledgement of Blank and the authorities at Texas, most notably Dr. Courtney Byrd, for the important grant and the work they will do. “My mother was determined to hear everything I said, no matter how long it took for me to say it, and I was fortunate,” Blank said. “I hope we’ll be able to better understand the roots of stuttering so we can help people overcome it.” We sometimes gloss over billionaires giving away millions. In this case, something debilitating for so many will be affected, and I’m grateful to Blank for doing it.
b. Football Story of the Week: Tyler Tynes of The Ringer on the struggle of Black coaches to rise in the NFL.
c. You really need to read this story.
d. When you see another story about the plight of Black coaches, you wonder what possibly hasn’t been written about a business that is upwardly mobile for so many white coaches but not for many minority coaches. Tynes does a terrific job finding the frustration of long-time Black coaches in college football who can’t find a path upward. There’s a connection between the frustrated college coaches and the frustrated NFL coaches, and Tynes found it on a Zoom call run by San Jose State assistant coach Alonzo Carter, who is Black. Tynes writes of these “Zoom therapy sessions:”
The conversation about improving diversity at the highest levels of football coaching often centers on the “pipeline,” or the pool of available candidates of color. Strengthen the “pipeline” and we’ll see more coaches of color get opportunities for the highest-ranking jobs. It’s an enticing argument but a gross oversimplification of the problem: A “pipeline” implies a system designed to facilitate movement. In reality, many Black coaches are presented with only the illusion of mobility. Instead, they are stymied and stifled, and efforts to improve the system have repeatedly failed. What’s clear is that the sport’s hiring practices are not working for Black coaches, especially in the NFL.
Carter knows this—it’s partly why he and his friend Kefense Hynson, a wide receivers coach at Oregon State, created their version of a coaches’ support group. “There’s not too many African American slash minority coaches that have shown or been able to have upward movement,” Carter told me on the phone from his office in San Jose in August. He calls it the “game within the game” and said, “We weren’t talking about no techniques. We just weren’t talking about how to score a touchdown or how to stop somebody. No, we were talking about, ‘How do we grow? How do we elevate? How do we help each other?’” It started in the spring as a series of friendly phone calls among Division I coaches on the West Coast. The coronavirus pandemic had shut down regular football activities, so coaches had time on their hands and needed an outlet. It grew quickly: Hundreds have participated in Carter and Hynson’s Zoom therapy sessions, including Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, Stanford head coach David Shaw, Maryland head coach Mike Locksley, as well as NFL coaches including the Dolphins’ Brian Flores and the Chargers’ Anthony Lynn.
The calls are a safe haven: Mike London, the head coach at William & Mary, and the only Black head coach in the Colonial Athletic Conference, told me they are a reminder of the need for more coaches who “look like myself.” Florida A&M coach Willie Simmons said Black coaches have been judged by different standards than their white peers for too long. “It’s disheartening to know that our hard work, our sacrifices, the same things that our white counterparts are doing, aren’t getting noticed by decision-makers, and that’s something that we’re all working very hard to try to change.” Some coaches I spoke with said they lost hope after repeatedly noticing the signals blocking them from the head coaching chair.
e. Every team with an opening this season—no, every NFL executive—should read Tynes’ piece.
f. Story of the Week: Tom Keane of the Boston Globe, on losing his wife to younger-onset Alzheimer’s, and how the reaction from his readers made him feel less alone. Writes Keane, using first names of those who contacted him with empathetic stories:
The disease also takes a financial toll. For those who have to leave their jobs to become caregivers, the hit to incomes is hard to manage. So too is the cost of care, whether it’s in-home, adult day care, or residential. The sad truth is that traditional health insurance doesn’t typically cover the costs of caring for someone with dementia. Long-term care insurance can help, but it’s expensive and, by the time you know you need it, the insurance company would no longer sell it to you. And government-paid care—such as Medicaid—is usually only for those with almost no resources. The well-off, of course, have more care options. But the “in-betweeners”—as the Alzheimer’s Association’s Nicole McGurin, calls them—have few.
“We’re just now trying to figure out long term care for [my mother],” wrote Celeste, “and are shocked by the cost—$10,000 a month—which we can’t afford but . . . it’s what we have to try to figure out somehow. It’s cruel to slowly watch someone you love disappear before your eyes and then feel like there’s no affordable support or solution.”
g. Don’t read the papers, or the internet, for the next three months, Kevin Cash.
h. “Third time through the order.” . . . Baseball analytics . . . I don’t hate analytics, at all. I just don’t like when analytics decide everything about a baseball game. And I certainly don’t like when a decision based on an over-reliance on statistics plays a gigantic role in determining the outcome of the damn World Series.
i. First two times through the top of the order for the Dodgers in Game 6 of the World Series: Mookie Betts, strikeout, strikeout. Corey Seager, strikeout, strikeout. Justin Turner, strikeout, strikeout. There is not in-game video analysis for hitters in the 2020 MLB season. So Betts, Seager and Turner can do nothing but think that this time in the order will be different. But would it be? With one out in the Dodger sixth, ninth-place hitter Austin Barnes singled to center. Runner on first, one out, Snell at 73 pitches.
j. Was Snell losing it? MPH of Snell’s first five fastballs of the game, per ESPN: 94, 95, 96, 96, 95. MPH of Snell’s last five fastballs of the game: 94, 95, 96, 95, 96. Overworked? Snell was at 73 pitches, pitching on five days’ rest. Pitch counts of previous five starts in this postseason: 92, 84, 105, 82, 88. It did not matter that Snell apparently had lots left in the tank in the biggest game of his life, the game any pitcher with competitive zeal pines to pitch. The Tampa Bay manager had decided. “I didn’t want Mookie or Corey Seager seeing Blake for a third time,” Cash said.
k. In defense of Cash: Snell had given up runs in the fifth inning of two straight games. Not a big-enough sample size, but notable. Not in defense of Cash: With a 1-0 lead in an elimination game, in the biggest game he’d ever managed, with 10 outs to get to see a game seven, Cash chose to yank Snell, who’d retired eight of his previous nine batters (four by strikeout) and summon Nick Anderson, who, in his five previous relief appearances, had allowed a run in every one, with a 7.71 ERA and a 2.14 WHIP. Anderson needed a strikeout, or two. Yet in those previous five outings, Anderson faced 33 batters and struck out three.
l. The result: It took six pitches—including a line double to Betts, a wild pitch scoring the first run, a groundout scoring the second run—for the Rays to be down 2-1. The final was 3-1. Now you can say the Rays weren’t good enough the beat the Dodgers, and I would mostly agree with you. The Dodgers in almost all ways were the superior team and deserved to win this Series. That is not the point. The point is the Tampa Bay manager did not put his team in the best position to win. Managers should manage using all available data and baseball-feel. To me, this was the worst managerial mismanagement in October since Grady Little left Pedro Martinez in way too long to self-immolate and ruin the 2003 ALCS for Boston.
m. Having said all that . . . Congrats to the Dodgers, a deserving team, and congrats to Mookie Betts, who is the kind of superstar fans of every team can root for because all he does is play hard every inning of every game, and congrats to my editor, Dom Bonvissuto, who loves the Dodgers almost as much as he loves the late Sunday nights editing my column. As for Justin Turner: Sometimes, you’ve just got to be an adult. Last Tuesday night, he wasn’t, and he should pray that no one suffers because of it.
n. Beernerdness: Another guest beernerd review as I reach the end of sober October. Brad Green of Boston headlined his offering with “The only beer review you need this week,” and so of course I opened it. Very Green (Treehouse Brewing, Charlton, Mass.), a New England IPA: “It’s a rainy Thursday night in Boston. The puppy just peed on the couch, I’m trying to make dinner, uncertainty surrounding the election and COVID are swirling. I need a beer. Tonight the nod goes to Very Green, a double IPA by Treehouse Brewing Company. It’s hazy, almost orange juice looking, 8.3 percent alcohol, flavorful, velvety, and just what I needed.”
o. Now that’s what I call a great beer review.
p. You might expect one last clarion call in this space about the election. I decided against it. Really, what’s left to say? And who possibly could be undecided about the choice for president on Nov. 2? I just hope for one thing: I hope truth wins. We need to get back to truth-telling in this country.
q. Thanks to the NBA, and to the Brooklyn Nets, for making Barclays Center in Brooklyn available for early voting. My wife and I planned to vote early in our neighborhood; we live not far from the home of the Nets. On one of our daily Brooklyn walks with Chuck the dog last Monday, we were surprised to see virtually no line waiting to get in to vote. So I held Chuck outside, and my wife voted. Then she came out, and I got in line and voted. The whole process—getting in line, showing my voter ID, signing a tablet with a stylus pen, waiting for the signature to be verified, then printing out my bar-coded ballot, then filling out the little ovals with my choices, and finally feeding my ballot into a voting machine—took me seven minutes. I feel for those who had such long waits. It’s not right. But I’m heartened to see the millions who voted early, in person.
r. Podcast of the Week: Episode five of Ben Reiter’s Astros scandal-explainer “The Edge,” with a party I’d not known was involved, ex-White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar. And featuring a huge Astros fan and truth-teller, Tony Adams, whose study of game-by-game video yielded conclusive findings that added a final layer of proof to the scandal. Adams, in particular, comes across as virtuous and important; he was driven to explore every pitch because he knew he couldn’t enjoy the Astros’ first World Series title if the chance existed that the team cheated to win it. “I’ll be an Astros fan till the day I die,” Adams told Reiter. “I just hope I can to see them win one when they’re not cheating.”
s. RIP, Herb Adderley, the Hall of Fame Packer and Cowboy who is part of a rare group: He’s one of four players to win six NFL championships. Amazing career: He was drafted in the first round by Green Bay in 1961 as a running back, and got switched to corner because an injury to a starter there. Four first-team all-pro berths would follow. He was on five title teams in Titletown, then one for the Cowboys.
t. RIP, Jimmy Orr. The 13-year NFL receiver (Pittsburgh three years, Baltimore 10) three times led the NFL in yards per catch, and finished with a 19.9-yard average on 400 career catches. Three notable things: At a time when rules about numbers were lax, Orr wore number 28. (I always remembered that from my early days watching football.) Though he ran an estimated 4.8-second 40-yard dash, Orr was quick and had a great knack for getting open deep. He averaged .443 touchdown catches per game in 149 career games. In 132 career games, Julio Jones has averaged .447. And Orr was a tough fellow. This from the Washington Post obit on Orr the other day:
Mr. Orr’s toughness and team-first approach were respected by all of Baltimore. Injured early in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles in 1965, he was rushed to Union Memorial Hospital at halftime for X-rays.
“There were 17 people ahead of me in the emergency room at Union Memorial,” he told the Baltimore Sun in 2009. “But they had the game on the radio and when someone recognized me, all of those people sent me to the front of the line.”
Mr. Orr was diagnosed with a separated shoulder but got back to the stadium by the fourth quarter and caught a 22-yard touchdown from John Unitas to secure a 34-24 win.
u. Just amazing how many great people in sports have died in recent weeks: Gale Sayers, Fred Dean, Larry Wilson, Matt Blair, Adderley, Orr (football); Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Joe Morgan (baseball); John Thompson, Lute Olson (basketball). Look at those baseball names. Wow.
v. Finally, RIP Travis Roy, who died at 45 last week. Roy was 11 seconds into a promising college hockey career at Boston University in 1995 when, as part of a body-check of an opposing player, went head-first into the boards and was paralyzed. He spent the next 25 years inspiring people, first by graduating from BU in four years (“faster than some of my teammates,” he’d joke), then becoming a motivational speaker, then by raising $12 million for paralysis research and equipment for those in need. And always by having a stunningly most-often-sunny, sometimes-bummed, always-real approach to life. I listened to parts of a couple of his talks in recent years, about the accident, his pleas to not ignore the handicapped as he often was when he returned to BU as a wheelchair-bound student, about happiness. In Travis Roy’s words:
“This is the challenge that chose me.
“For months, I laid in a hospital bed in Boston, looking up at white cork ceiling tiles. I wondered, ‘Is this what the rest of my life is going to be like?’ It’s a feeling we have at some points in each of our lives . . . We just can’t take any more. We don’t have an ounce of energy left to face another challenge, let alone overcome another obstacle. But we can. Each one of you, each one of us, we have this inner spirit that allows us to do things in life we never imagined. It’s a matter of sheer will. It’s a matter of determination. Yes, sometimes the challenges do choose us. That’s when it takes everything we’ve got to face them, to make the right choices and define who we are. The choices we make really say so much about who we are. Who you are at the core is what’s going to get you through life’s challenges. Having a passion can drive you to do great things. Having pride in everything you do can make most anything possible. Having a positive attitude will help you through some of the darkest days of your life.
“Once, a little boy broke open his piggy bank and gave [the Travis Roy Foundation] $7.23. An angel. Don’t think you can’t make a difference. All of you can make a difference. If I can encourage you to do one thing, when you come across a person with a disability, maybe they’re just a little bit different. Have compassion. Put a smile on your face. Say hello! That’s all I wanted—to have someone come up and say hi to me, to see that I was still the same Travis Roy. It’s what’s inside us that makes us who we are.
“… What surprises me is how productive I’ve become. I had a chance to write a book, Eleven Seconds. Neat experience. Graduated from BU with a degree in communications. Did it in four years. I was pretty proud of that. I am able to make a living. Started the Travis Roy Foundation. It’s incredible what people with disabilities can do these days if they just have the right technology. We’ve raised $11, almost $12 million at the Travis Roy Foundation.
“I still have my goals. I get to spend a lot of time with my family, my friends. Maybe I can’t do the physical things I used to. But I can still laugh, I can still cry, I can still enjoy the people around me. You tell me: What’s more important than that? I’m still the same Travis Roy I’ve always been, except now I’m rolling through life instead of skating through it.”
Lamar? Be worried.
Wentz? Well, I’d be petrified.
Mahomes? Nah. All good.