What a Sunday. In some order:
- Derrick Henry steamrolls the skidding Ravens (again)
- Carson Wentz is lost at sea (and on Lake Erie)
- Poor Joe Burrow
- The Steelers are 10-0 and the ’72 Fins are getting nervous
- Taysom Hill slam-dunks the haters
- Tuamania, paused
- The Cowboys have a pulse
- Colts stymie Rodgers
- And by the way, how fun is it, watching Patrick Mahomes cut out a rival’s heart?
But first . . .
We need Thanksgiving in our country this year, for so many reasons. We need Alex Smith, and I don’t mean to make the middle game of the Thanksgiving tripleheader on Thursday—Washington, with Smith at quarterback, at Dallas—watchable. We need Smith and his family and his story to remind us that in the midst of whatever craziness we all have in our lives, we have much to be thankful. We might not be with family this year, fearful of the spread of COVID-19; we might have someone we love ill with the virus; we might have lost jobs or businesses or ways of life because of the pandemic; we might be distraught over the election.
Two years ago this week, in a game four days before Thanksgiving, Alex Smith suffered a grotesque broken leg that required immediate surgery. Three days later, hours before Smith was to be released, flesh-eating bacteria slowly began consuming his right leg. Within hours, doctors rushed him into a Thanksgiving-morning surgery to save his leg, and his life. “Thanksgiving, two years ago,” Smith told me. “When life forever changed.”
On Sunday, after 17 surgeries on the right leg, Alex Smith started at quarterback for Washington, his first start on that same field since J.J. Watt snapped two of his leg bones on the fateful 2018 sack. Smith and Washington beat Cincinnati, 20-9.
“As you approach this Thanksgiving,” I asked Smith the other day, “what are you thankful for?”
“Yeah.” Pause. Sigh. “Um. So tough to put into words.
“I think certainly first and foremost, grateful for my health right now and my family’s health. You realize looking back what a privileged life I led and had never really faced a challenge like that. To have a partner by my side in my wife . . . I was out of it when things got really scary. Certainly amputation was right on the doorstep, even probably hours away from it at one point.
“[I’m] thankful for her . . . And then the two years afterward, when I was in different states of helplessness, her strength, obviously I’m incredibly thankful and grateful for.
“My kids are so special to me, being able to play with them. I’m so thankful that I can do that every day.
“And it’s still so surreal to me that I get to lace up cleats and put a helmet on. Yeah, I gotta wear this brace to do it, but how amazing it is that every day I get to go do this, how awesome that it’s progressed this far.
“I’m just lucky.”
This column is not going to be a recitation of Smith’s incredible story; that’s been told. I’ll pick up Smith’s story, the football part, later in this column, and you can hear my full conversation with him Wednesday when “The Peter King Podcast,” Thanksgiving edition, drops. So much in an eventful football weekend to get to first. Still, so interesting to hear Smith muse about Thanksgiving 2018, Thanksgiving 2020, giving Aaron Donald a piggyback ride in his first football contact in two years, and, overall, his gratitude about one of the most arduous journeys a football player has ever had back from injury.
We Are Watching Jordan
It happened again, the chemistry on the Kansas City sideline that led to a very big win. Remember in the Super Bowl, when Kansas City was down 10 midway through the fourth quarter to the Niners? Patrick Mahomes went to the sidelines—third-and-15, season on the line—and said to offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy: “Do we have time to run Wasp?” And 2-3 Jet Chip Wasp was the call, and a 44-yard completion to Tyreek Hill resulted, sparking the 31-21 KC victory.
Sunday night, the moment wasn’t as dramatic. The season wasn’t on the line, but the pesky Raiders were becoming a problem, and they were up 31-28 in their new stadium in Nevada, threatening to sweep the season series, when the Chiefs called their last timeout. Second-and-seven, ball on the Vegas 22, just 34 seconds left.
“Actually,” Mahomes said from the KC locker room 50 minutes after the game, “there was a funny moment in that timeout.”
Mahomes came to the sideline with a definite idea—just like in the Super Bowl. He had a play he really wanted to run, and now he had to sell it to coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy. Mahomes told Bieniemy the play he liked. “And Coach Bieniemy said to me, ‘Well, I like that play, but I really like this other one better.’ He tells me the play, and I think about it for a second. I said, ‘Hey, I like that play a lot.’ That’s what I love about our offense. We communicate. We’re a good team.”
The play Bieniemy liked was designed for Hill running to the left corner, but when Mahomes took the snap and looked for Hill, there was a cornerback right with him; Mahomes thought he saw a safety over the top, but that must have been a ghost; on replay, it’s only precocious rookie corner Damon Arnette blanketing Hill. Then the route called for Kelce trolling the middle end zone, and then Demarcus Robinson on a stop route to the right, with Mecole Hardman the extra route-runner up the right seam.
“I scrambled to the right, kind of to stretch the play out,” Mahomes said. “I peeked [to Kelce] and I see the safety coming up, running at me. Kelce’s wide open.”
GO AHEAD @PatrickMahomes!!!
— Sunday Night Football (@SNFonNBC) November 23, 2020
Incredibly wide open, actually. The threat of Mahomes’ athleticism to make the first down caused safety Johnathan Abram to abandon Kelce. Middle linebacker Nick Kwiatkowski was stuck in no man’s land, not sure whether to chase Kelce (he’d have been too late) or to rush Mahomes (useless). Abram must have thought he had help other than Kwiatkowski. But the only help was Arnette, in panic city, leaving Hill to run toward Kelce. No time. Mahomes flicked one to mid-end zone for the easy 22-yard TD to Kelce to win the game. Kansas City 35, Vegas 31. Chiefs 9-1, Raiders 6-4, and the AFC West all but decided with six games to play.
For defenses, this play is the dilemma of the Kansas City offense. Four weapons spread across 45 yards of field near the goal line. If the quarterback was a stationary target, or just moderately mobile, the defense wouldn’t have to spy him. But because Abram had to make a fatal choice—leave Kelce, and it’s a TD; stay with Kelce and it’s at the very least a first-down run, and Mahomes clocks it maybe at the 10-yard line with 20 seconds left. What’s a defense to do?
“That play, that situation,” Mahomes mused in the locker room in Vegas, “those are the moments competitors love. These are the moments you dream of. Honestly, I dreamed of nights like this when I was a kid.”
Let’s give the Raiders some credit here. They beat KC 40-32 at Arrowhead on Oct. 11, and they were up 17-14, 24-21 and 31-28 in the second half in Las Vegas on Sunday night. Mahomes and his mates responded to those three deficits with 93, 91 and 75-yard drives to scores touchdowns. How disheartening must that be for the Raiders?
Still, Las Vegas is going to be trouble for AFC power brokers down the stretch. The Raiders are just 6-4, and their spot in the playoff isn’t assured, but they’re going to be a very hard out if they get there. “That’s the best Raiders team they’ve had since I got here,” said Kelce, the veteran tight end. Mahomes said, “Our franchise has a deep history with the Raiders, and we can feel it come back now.”
KC needs the Raiders, the way the Yankees need the Red Sox (or vice versa). The game Sunday night … we’ll take it three times a year. Who wouldn’t sign up for a third Raiders-Chiefs game in January? We can hope it lasts. For the Raiders and every team in the AFC, getting past Mahomes is going to be a headache for every AFC team for the next, what? Ten years? Fifteen? The kid’s just 25.
“We’re trying to get better and better,” Mahomes told me, “so we have a chance to make a run at the Super Bowl.”
Multiple Super Bowls, I’d say.
When the first start of Taysom Hill’s NFL career was over, he saw Drew Brees, leaving the field at the Superdome after a 24-9 win over rival Atlanta. At that moment, Brees had 11 fractured ribs and a very wide grin, and he gently hugged Hill.
“I love you,” Brees said into Hill’s ear. “You deserve this.”
Hill is a modest guy, but truth be told, he thought so too. In the last eight years, four college seasons at Brigham Young had ended in injury for Hill, he’d gone undrafted, got signed and soon cut by the Packers, landed with the Saints to be a special-teamer and perhaps a gadget player. Hill played very sparingly for three years, until Brees got waylaid by the rib injury last week. Coach Sean Payton picked Hill to start over the first pick of the 2015 draft, Jameis Winston, for a couple of reasons: He felt he owed it to him and told him he was next in line; and Payton truly felt Hill had a chance to be a new-wave quarterback, runner and thrower, who could capably replace Brees when he retired—likely at the end of this season. Why not find out if he was the real deal?
And so with Brees out for at least three weeks, Hill got the nod from Payton. And he got the Brees treatment. Every Saturday night, Payton and Brees, who’d been together since 2006, reviving a floundering franchise and making it relevant, met in the team hotel and went through the game plan. “The Dot Meeting,” Payton called it. Payton would have maybe 225 plays on his laminated play sheet in different categories (red zone, short-yardage, etc.). Payton liked most of them. Brees would pick his favorites, maybe 40, and Payton would put a black Sharpie dot next to the play, then try to call most of them the next day. Ditto with Hill.
Both liked a play that would send Michael Thomas in motion and get him a crosser completion.
On Sunday, Payton called it first—the first call of Hill’s starting career.
“Box Right Nasty, X Out, Q-8 Smash,” Payton told me after the game. “and Taysom called it wrong! He forgot the motion!! First play of the game!”
Wrong call and all, inauspicious as it was, maybe it was karma. Hill completed the short throw to the right of the formation for eight yards.
“I didn’t want to run him early,” Payton said. “You know what people think of him—they think he’s a runner. I think he’s a quarterback. And I wanted him to play quarterback early.”
Hill threw 13 passes in the first half, got sacked twice, and scrambled on a pass play once. Sixteen of the 17 plays in the first half with the ball in Hill’s hands were just what Payton wanted—pass plays. In the second half, the full Hill happened, including a smooth 10-yard TD run to his left that looked so natural. “He runs that touchdown to the left, and it was so easy,” Payton said. “He looked so good. I watched that and I was like, ‘Wow.’
Hill tallied 233 passing yards, ran for 51 (and two TDs), and completed 18 of 23 with two drops and one quite-underthrown deep ball. He’ll start next week at Denver and almost certainly the following week at Atlanta. And then, who knows? Brees could be back.
“There was a lot of pressure on him,” Payton said. “A lot. I felt it too.”
“I always felt I was capable of playing quarterback, and starting, in this league,” Hill told me. “But of course, until you do it, that’s just talk.”
The play I thought was the key to the entire day happened on the first drive of the third quarter. The Saints led 10-9, and the outcome was very much in doubt. On first down from the Saints’ 41, Hill was under center, received the snap, and took his drop. His favorite target, Thomas, posted up about nine yards upfield. And here came linebacker Deion Jones, unblocked, steaming straight ahead at Hill.
This is the kind of play that tells you much about a quarterback. Would he hang in and take the hit, a whopper that could knock the wind out of a man and maybe do something worse? Or would he tuck the ball and try to run around end—which, absolutely, is not the call here.
“That play,” Hill said. “I remember it. I can see it. It’s the type of play you’ve got to make as a quarterback. Trust yourself, trust the receiver. I didn’t see Michael catch it, but I did put the ball there for him.” Hill didn’t see it, because he got slammed by Jones. But it was complete. Gain of nine. Seven plays later, Hills scampered around right end for a touchdown and a 17-9 lead.
“You know what I liked about that play?” Payton said. “Deion hid what he was doing. Taysom didn’t know he was coming. But he came, Taysom had to adjust, and he did, he got the ball out, and it was right on target. Important play for him. Those are the tough plays for a quarterback. He just . . . made it.”
In the locker room, Hill got another hug: from Payton. This time there were no words.
“He didn’t have to say anything,” Hill said. “I appreciate him. I appreciate his support, ever since I’ve been here.”
A.J. Brown‘s Play of the Day
All kinds of macho stuff in the match of desperadoes Sunday in Baltimore. Sometimes in football, that’s what it comes down to—who’s the toughest, the strongest, the most powerful, when the game is on the line.
- Even teams. Tennessee, 6-3, at Baltimore, 6-3.
- Slumping teams. Titans 1-3 in their last four; Ravens 1-2 in their last three.
- Angry teams. A little pushing and shoving, pre-game, near midfield.
- Vengeful teams. Baltimore, top seed in the AFC, lost to sixth-seed Tennessee 28-12 in the divisional round last January.
“You could just sort of feel it out there,” Tennessee wide receiver A.J. Brown told me. “To be honest, nobody knew how this game was going to go. They’re a real good team. We’re pretty even teams.”
Baltimore was more desperate. Already three games behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North, the Ravens would have virtually no chance to catch the Steelers with a loss Sunday. Baltimore built a 21-16 lead midway through the fourth quarter, and was a play or two away from winning this. With 2:26 left in the fourth quarter and the Ravens up five, Tennessee faced a crucial third down at the Baltimore 14 with quarterback Ryan Tannehill under center.
“So I go the line and get ready to run my route,” Brown said, “and Ryan kind of gave me the look. Everyone knows that look. He double-winked at me. Gave me those big eyes. Like, the ball’s coming to you. At the time, we just really need the first down.”
AJ BROWN IS A CHEAT CODE 🤯
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) November 22, 2020
Brown caught it up the right seam at the 9. Safety Chuck Clark plowed into him first. “That first guy almost got me, and I thought I was gonna be short. But I think his momentum made him come off.” Then came tackle Marcus Peters, surprisingly physical, and corner Marlon Humphrey both with a shot to bring him down around the 8-yard line. “I don’t know,” said Brown. “I kind of turned into Beastmode or whatever. I saw the end zone, and I just went for it.” He dragged/pushed first-round linebacker Patrick Queen into the end zone. Touchdown. It’s one of the best touchdowns of the year, one of the most football-perfect touchdowns of the year, coming at a time when the AFC South is there to be won for the Titans.
Mike Vrabel prides Tennessee on a physical nature. Tennessee and Indianapolis, both 7-3, meet for the division lead Sunday in Indiana. May the toughest team win.
Twenty things that hit me this weekend:
1. Not a great night for Patrick Peterson on Thursday in Seattle, whiffing on coverage of Tyler Lockett on one Seattle TD, getting a 46-yard defensive pass interference on DK Metcalf that set up a gimme field goal for Jason Myers going into halftime, and missing a tackle on a Metcalf completion in the third quarter. Peterson’s making $12.55 million this year, will be a free agent in his age-31 season next year, and is giving up 65-percent completions through 11 weeks. Not good if he wants a big deal next spring.
2. The eighth pick of the April draft, monster defensive back Isaiah Simmons, is out of the witness protection program. He could be a big factor for the Cards in the last six weeks.
4. Not the most important thing, but Myles Garrett missing one and maybe two games with COVID-19 could well cost him a good shot at defensive player of the year. Entering the weekend, Garrett led the league with 9.5 sacks. Aaron Donald and T.J. Watt were next with nine each. Garrett missed Week 11 against Philadelphia, which had allowed 3.5 sacks a game in the first 10 weeks. Next week’s opponent, Jacksonville, is giving up 3.0 per game.
5. Do the New York Jets really want a coach who needed three overtimes to beat Rutgers? Man, Jim Harbaugh is doing something to his rep this fall.
6. Had a good conversation with Dan Quinn on Saturday night. The fired Falcons coach has done something I think is really bright. “I did a 360 on myself,” Quinn said. He asked TV journalist/analyst Laura Okmin to reach out to 30 to 40 people Quinn had either coached with, coached, or knew well in his NFL life. Quinn asked Okmin to talk to these 30 or so people about what the coach needed to do better. No names; Quinn wanted honesty, and told Okmin to grant anonymity. “I wanted to know my blind spots,” Quinn said. “Most often, when you’re the head coach, people tell you what they think you want to hear. I wanted to get the truth, right between the eyes.” So Okmin reached out and reported back to Quinn. He was a bit coy about what exactly he learned, but one thing he discovered is he didn’t have the kind of pipeline that a coach needs to have to last a long time in one place. He needed to develop—as coaches like Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin and Andy Reid have done—an ethos that every coach and player in the organization buys into. The self-scouting thing is helping Quinn, but it does not beat the alternative. “It sucks being out,” said Quinn, who normally is Mr. Positive. “I’m hurting.”
7. I’m not normally a fan of second contracts for running backs, but I’ll make an exception for Alvin Kamara, who got a five-year, $75-million extension from the Saints in September. He’s 25. He scored his 50th NFL touchdown Sunday in the middle of his fourth year, and he’s probably two weeks away from his fourth straight season of 80 catches of more. The biggest reason, though? Drew Brees is very likely gone after this year, and whoever quarterbacks this team is going to need that great all-purpose security blanket that Kamara is.
8. For someone who’s been playing quarterback most of his adolescent and adult life, Baker Mayfield has poor pocket presence. Waiting, waiting, waiting while the pocket collapsed around him early in the third quarter, Mayfield got the ball stripped by Fletcher Cox; the Eagles recovered inside the 20, and scored the first offensive TD seconds later. Mayfield handed them the touchdown.
9. How much longer can Matt Patricia last? After 6-10 and 3-12-1 in his first two years, the Lions fell to 4-6 with quite likely the ugliest loss of Patricia’s 28: They were shut out by a backup quarterback making his first NFL start, P.J. Walker. Lack of Discipline of the Week: Carolina was going to punt late in the fourth quarter. Fourth-and-five. On consecutive snaps, Romeo Okwara and Nick Williams were called for encroachment. First down, Carolina. Victory formation. End of game. How embarrassing for this once-proud franchise. Can’t wait to see the Lions play on Thanksgiving.
10. Best line I heard on TV Sunday: “Sometimes you watch Patrick Mahomes backpedaling, and it’s a piece of art,” from Cris Collinsworth. Perfect.
11. Eagles record since beating New England 41-33 in Super Bowl LII: 22-21-1 (with Seattle, Green Bay and New Orleans in the next three weeks).
12. Number of times Eagles and their $128-million quarterback have scored 40 points in a game since the Super Bowl: zero.
13. I just hate the pass-interference rule. Detest would be the better word. With 27 seconds left in the second quarter at Indy and Green Bay up 21-14, Aaron Rodgers threw a beautiful rainbow to Marquez Valdez-Scantling that came down at about the Colts’ 1-yard line. Valdez-Scantling and Indy cornerback Rock Ya-Sin were jousting, and Ya-Sin at the last minute had Scantling’s right arm grabbed, and Ya-Sin punched the ball away just over the goal line. Flag. Deserved. Defensive pass interference. But 51 yards? Absurd. A short Rodgers TD made the margin 28-14 with 10 seconds left. If screaming would help, I’d scream that DPI should be a 15-yard infraction, not a spot foul to radically affect close, important games. I cannot believe the powers of the NFL don’t see how much this infringes on competitive balance.
14. Chargers QB Justin Herbert might have won the Offensive Rookie of the Year if Joe Burrow played a 16-game season. Now that Burrow will miss the final six, the award is probably Herbert’s . . . unless Justin Jefferson has an out-of-control stretch run.
15. Pittsburgh, with a four-game lead over Baltimore entering Thanksgiving Week. Now that’s a stunner.
16. Lots of strange things about the Steelers. Averaging just 3.9 yards per rush. One receiver has been a consistent deep threat—Chase Claypool (the only wideout averaging more than 12 yards a catch). But only nine turnovers, Ben Roethlisberger with a 24-to-5 TD-to-pick ratio, a defense that can be suffocating at all three levels. That’s a legit 10-0 team. Toughest game left: either a desperate Baltimore team coming to Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving night, or a game at resurgent Cleveland in 20 days.
17. I can tell you one official who will be getting a downgrade in his performance email this week: side judge Mearl Robinson, who ruled a touchdown for Denver in the fourth quarter on a Melvin Gordon run—despite Gordon appearing clearly to fumble at about the four-foot line. Robinson probably couldn’t see the fumble (which seems obvious) because of being shielded by Gordon’s body. But the thing all officials are told at all levels of football is: “Don’t officiate what you can’t see.” That was almost a disaster, but fortunately a couple of camera views on replay saw Gordon fumble well shy of the goal line.
18. The Saints have their fingers crossed that Drew Brees will be ready to return for the last four regular-season games, beginning Dec. 13 at Philadelphia.
19. The Raiders play football like the seventies Raiders: fast and violent.
20. The view at 2 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 23: Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Las Vegas—pick any two of those out of a hat for the AFC title game, and America will be grateful. (I reserve the right to change my mind.)
Alex Smith’s first game back, a just-get-in-there relief job Oct. 11 against the Rams when Kyle Allen went down, was grim, with the L.A. defensive front sacking Smith six times in 32 minutes. But before Sunday’s game against the Bengals, Smith had done better in relief of Allen, with a league-high 715 passing yards over the previous two games and a predictably efficient 71-percent accuracy mark. But Smith ruined Washington’s chances to beat the Giants Nov. 8 with two bad picks in the last three minutes.
So, at 36, there’s been some good, there’s been some bad, and with the warm-and-fuzzies wearing off, Smith knows he has to play well to keep his job for this year and beyond.
That’s the thing about football. It’s sentimental for about five minutes, and then you’ve got to play well. Or Dwayne Haskins will get a last chance, or Washington will draft a quarterback in April. Or both. Though coach Ron Rivera has left open the chance that Smith can win the job long-term, it’s hard to imagine without a great run by Smith in the last six weeks that Washington will put its future at quarterback in his hands. “I know I’m an old dinosaur in the football world at 36, but in the spectrum of life, I got a lot ahead of me—at least I hope I do,” Smith told me.
“Do you have any different emotion under center now?” I asked Smith on Friday. “Does fear ever enter your mind?”
“There’s obviously an element,” he said. “In football, there’s real repercussions. It’s a physical game. There’s always been that element even before this injury. That’s part of what is amazing about football, playing on that edge, that feeling of being alive. It’s intoxicating. Really, that’s also part of the reason I wanted to come back and see if I could.”
On Oct. 11 at FedEx Field, late in the second quarter, Smith hardly had time to throw a couple of warmup passes on the sideline when he was called in for the injured Allen. On the third snap of his first series, something happened, a piggyback sack, and this one from a 285-pound man, that hadn’t happened to Smith in his professional career, since being drafted first overall in 2005.
“It’d been two years since I had been hit,” he said. “The last time I did, my leg broke. I just spent the previous almost two years doing everything I could to protect my leg, and then all of a sudden now I’m running out onto a field to play tackle football again. There was certainly an element there of those first tackles . . . Aaron Donald jumping on my back. How was I gonna handle that?”
Seemingly well. Smith said that play was “kind of ripping the band-aid off.” And the win over Cincinnati on Sunday brought Smith full circle, winning on the same field where he’d nearly lost his leg.
“I can’t think of another word for it, other than incredible,” center Chase Roullier said Sunday evening. He was on the field for the disastrous broken leg, and for the win two years later, on Sunday. “Lots of guys on our team and other teams have injuries, but our tough injuries are nothing compared to this. To our team, Alex coming back the way he has is one of the great moments in sports history.”
Offensive Players of the Week
A.J. Brown, wide receiver, Tennessee. The stats were pedestrian: four catches, 62 yards, one touchdown. But Tennessee, having lost three of four coming into the game, was down 21-16 with 2:26 left, and Ryan Tannehill had just taken an eight-yard sack pushing the Titans back to the Baltimore 14-yard line. Now it was third-and-10. Last-gasp city. Brown got “the double-wink” from Tannehill at the line (“Oh, he was coming to me,” Brown told me later), took a pass from Tannehill at the 9-yard line and powered through four Ravens on the way to the toughest Tennessee touchdown of the season. The Titans won in overtime.
P.J. Walker, quarterback, Carolina. After Teddy Bridgewater went through warmups before the game, team medics told coach Matt Rhule that Bridgewater was healthy enough to play. Nope, said Rhule. “I don’t feel like that position—moving 80, 85 percent, especially with his history on the left knee—that was the right thing to do.” So here came Walker, Rhule’s former starting quarterback at Temple, to make his first NFL start. Walker threw two terrible end-zone interceptions that, in another week, might have landed him in Goat of the Week territory. But his 24-of-34 day, for 258 yards and a TD, and his presence running around the backfield confidently, made Rhule know he made the right call in the 20-0 win over Detroit.
Taysom Hill, quarterback, New Orleans. Hill’s waited three-and-a-half years for this moment, since being bypassed in the 2017 draft and waived by the Packers as an undrafted free agent and signing with the Saints and waiting, waiting, waiting. The moment came, and Hill completed 18 of 23 (with two drops) for 233 yards, no TDs and no picks—while running 10 times for 51 yards and two touchdowns. It wasn’t a flashy debut, but the Saints will take a 15-point win over their most hated rival any day.
Defensive Players of the Week
Justin Simmons, safety, Denver. With the Broncos up 20-13 and the Dolphins trying to force overtime, Ryan Fitzpatrick had the ball at the Denver 15-yard line with 70 seconds left. Fitzpatrick had DeVante Parker with a step on his man four yards deep in the end zone on a crossing route. Fitzpatrick threw a dart . . . and Simmons darted in front of Parker. The sight was incredible on instant replay: Parker reached up, fully expecting to catch the tying touchdown pass—and three inches before he could, Simmons burst in front of Parker and picked it off. It was the decisive play in Denver’s 20-13 upset, snapping Miami’s five-game winning streak.
Justin Simmons' fourth INT of the season is a CLUTCH one. #BroncosCountry
— NFL (@NFL) November 23, 2020
Olivier Vernon, pass-rusher, Cleveland. No Myles Garrett, no problem. Vernon sacked Carson Wentz three times—his first three-sack game since 2013 and second of his career—and one of the sacks was a third-quarter safety that was huge in the 22-17 win over the Eagles. The Browns are 7-3, and good teams don’t fold when their best defensive player suddenly is lost for the game. (Garrett has COVID-19.) Excellent time for Vernon to play his best game as a Brown.
J.J. Watt, defensive end, Houston. Watt batted down four Cam Newton passes in a very retro-J.J. performance. The last one was the most important. With New England down seven with 80 seconds left and a third-and-four at the Houston 24, N’Keal Harry got free just past the line and Newton aimed a short throw for him. But Watt swatted it away, and Newton’s fourth-down throw fell incomplete too. The Patriots moved the ball well during the game, but Watt and safety Justin Reid were huge all day in the win.
Carlos Dunlap, pass-rusher, Seattle. “They brought me here to do one job,” Dunlap said after his third game as a Seahawk. “I was happy to get it done.” Traded from Cincinnati in October, Dunlap had the kind of impact Seattle GM John Schneider dreamed. In the 28-21 win over Arizona, Dunlap made his biggest play yet. The situation: Seattle up seven, 38 seconds left in the fourth quarter, fourth-and-10, Arizona ball on the Seahawk 27. Dunlap spun around Arizona right tackle Kelvin Beachum, who was left grasping at air, and enveloped Kyler Murray before the QB could make another Hail Murray happen. Two sacks for Dunlap on the night, and 3.5 in three games at a Seahawk. I really thought Seattle should have paid bigger for Ryan Kerrigan and wrested him from Washington. Looks like I was wrong.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Logan Woodside, quarterback/personal-protector, Tennessee. A strange fake punt that worked in the Baltimore-Tennessee game led to three unexpected points late in the first half of a tight game that, of course, ended in overtime. On fourth-and-seven from the Tennessee 49, Woodside lined up as the upback in punt formation, took the snap, rolled right, and found gunner Nick Westbrook-Ikhine for seven yards. Three minutes later, the Titans snuck in a field goal before halftime. Good roster management. Two undrafted free-agents combine for a key play in a very tight game.
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) November 22, 2020
Coach of the Week
Phil Snow, defensive coordinator, Carolina. How does a team come back from giving up 46 points and 544 yards to Tampa Bay, facing an explosive quarterback in his own right in Matthew Stafford? Well, the Panthers held Detroit to zero points, 185 yards, zero trips to the red zone and three of 14 third-down conversions in shutting out the Lions 20-0. Snow, who came from Baylor with coach Matt Rhule this season, let loose with some different blitzes and not being so married to his three-man front. Terrific job all around in Charlotte.
Matt Eberflus, defensive coordinator, Indianapolis. Odd, seeing that the Colts gave up 31 points and were almost run out of the building in the first half. But this is about what the Indianapolis did in the last 33 minutes of the game. They gave up three points in six series after halftime (punt, punt, fumble, turnover on downs, field goal, fumble). Four of the six Aaron Rodgers-led drives went for less than 10 yards. Great job by Eberflus and the number-one ranked defense through 10 weeks.
Goats of the Week
Carson Wentz, quarterback, Philadelphia. Another discombobulating game by the quarterback who looks less and less like a franchise player every week. Wentz threw an ugly pop-up interception that Cleveland linebacker Sione Takitaki returned 50 yards for a TD to open the scoring on a miserable day by Lake Erie. Then Wentz took a dumb safety to put the Eagles down five in the third quarter. In a 22-17 game—that was the final in Cleveland’s favor—the quarterback can’t hand the other team nine points. It left coach Doug Pederson to answer for whether he’s thinking of playing Jalen Hurts now. Pederson said no. But seriously: How can he not be thinking about it?
Marquez Valdez-Scantling, wide receiver, Green Bay. On the second snap of OT in a 31-31 game at Indianapolis, Valdez-Scantling caught a swing pass to the left from Aaron Rodgers. Indy third-round rookie safety Julian Blackmon darted in from the right and punched the ball out of Valdez-Scantling’s grasp. DeForest Buckner recovered the fumble. Cardinal rule of overtime play for ballcarriers: secure the football. MVS did not, and the Colts’ rookie kicker, Rodrigo Blankenship, survived an icing timeout and won it with a 39-yard field goal in the third minute of the extra period.
Dre Kirkpatrick, cornerback, Arizona. Dumb play in crunch time of a huge NFC West game Thursday night. With Seattle up 16-14 and five minutes left on third down in the third quarter, Russell Wilson threw complete to Tyler Lockett, but it was two yards short of a first down; a long field goal try, likely, awaited. But then Kirkpatrick got into a scrape near the Seattle sideline, threw a weak punch at DK Metcalf, and got called for taunting. Fifteen yards. Seattle scored a touchdown two plays later. Kirkpatrick losing his cool in a tight game likely cost Arizona seven points. “We’ve just got to be more composed,” secondary-mate Budda Baker said. Winners usually are.
“This is hard to swallow right now.”
—Las Vegas coach Jon Gruden, after the 35-31 loss to Kansas City in Vegas on Sunday night.
“Ooooh. King James watching. Everybody watching.”
—Washington pass-rusher Chase Young, on his team playing Thanksgiving Day at Dallas.
“It hasn’t really ever [been sore]. Ever since I was a pitcher back in the day with my dad, they would always want me to ice my arm. And I was like, ‘I don’t need it. I don’t get sore.’ I usually just go out there have fun slinging the football around and I’m able to go the next day after.”
—Patrick Mahomes to Liam McHugh of NBC in an interview on “Football Night in America” before the KC-Vegas game Sunday night.
Mahomes was good in this Q&A, and the fact that his arm is never sore was the thing that stuck out to me.
“Saints about to get whip trying us with taysom hill at qb we about to snack them.”
—Roddy White, tweeting prior to the Falcons getting beat decisively by Taysom Hill and the Saints, is a former Atlanta wide receiver.
Best part? Saints coach Sean Payton retweeted the White tweet less than an hour after the win.
“I can eat really healthy right now, and it doesn’t matter because I can’t taste it.”
—Dallas quarterback Andy Dalton, who says he has not regained his sense of taste after a bout with COVID-19.
“There’s an adage, ‘You can’t be it if you can’t see it.’ I suggest to [girls and young women], now you can see it. I look forward to hearing their stories and how inspired they are to now pursue a job in sports, a job in baseball.”
—New Miami Marlins GM Kim Ng.
One of the most interesting trades of recent seasons was Stefon Diggs going from Minnesota to Buffalo in March. The primary reason it was interesting: Minnesota chose a weapon in similar position and stature, LSU wide receiver Justin Jefferson, with the first-round draft choice acquired in the Diggs trade. So it’s a logical comparison to make, Diggs versus Jefferson, now and in the future.
The Vikings and Bills have played 10 games apiece. Time to compare:
There’s no way to minimize the impact of Diggs on the Bills. He has been great. He’s very likely a 10-week all-pro, meaning he’s been one of the two best wideouts in football this year. He’s a huge reason why the Bills are in the driver’s seat in the AFC East. So it is impossible to say this was a bad deal for Buffalo. It wasn’t.
We’ll see if Diggs will be better and more cost-effective than Jefferson through the end of their current contracts, 2023. Over the next four seasons (including this one), Diggs will cost the Bills $49.8 million, total, on the cap; Jefferson will cost the Vikings a total of $13.1 million. In 2024, when it’s time for new contracts for both players (barring a re-do for Diggs), Diggs will be in his age-31 season, Jefferson in his age-25 season.
Prayers up!!! @JoeyB 🙏🏽🙏🏽
— Patrick Mahomes II (@PatrickMahomes) November 22, 2020
Mahomes, echoing the quarterback fraternity after seeing the injury to Joe Burrow.
Josh Jacobs will have you in the training room with ice on both shoulders after playing against him. Powerful af.
— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) November 23, 2020
ESPN analyst Riddick, in the fourth quarter of KC-Vegas. Just watching Jacobs dish it out hurts.
All I want for Christmas is to not feel dead inside while watching the Eagles
— Colleen Wolfe (@ColleenWolfe) November 22, 2020
NFL Network host Colleen Wolfe is a Philadelphia native.
I’m grown as hell Tyler. I do what I want. https://t.co/4fZPrkWX3x
— Damon Harrison Sr. (@snacks) November 20, 2020
Damon Harrison, the Seattle defensive tackle, chose the Seahawks over other offers when he returned to the NFL in October.
George Carlin is a gem.
— Tyrann Mathieu (@Mathieu_Era) November 18, 2020
Tyrann Mathieu with the unexpected Tweet of the Week, and a wise one.
Chargers to start 14-year-old QB vs Jets. https://t.co/E23POwl5B8
— Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) November 18, 2020
Siciliano, an NFL Network host, with the winner in the Justin Herbert Haircut Tweetstakes.
The uniqueness of Mike Tomlin. From Russ McKinley: “Great backstory on the Steelers and Mike Tomlin both finding their perfect match. I certainly appreciate you keeping the movement going and I’m hopeful that NFL teams will start to take action in changing the lopsided demographics among head coaches. But as I read that I couldn’t help but notice how unique all of that was. The Steelers being the team they are, Mike Tomlin being the man and coach that he is, the presence of a superstar quarterback and the contributions of Tony Dungy. Unfortunately, very little or none of that will be in play the next time a team interviews a Black coaching candidate. I don’t know what the solution is but I know that even if teams take your advice, the outcome will not necessarily be the same because of the rare circumstances that led to Mike Tomlin’s success.”
Great points. My hope in writing that, frankly, is that decision-makers might look at the coach-hiring process slightly differently. Look outside their own comfort zones, consider coaches they don’t know at all, truly have an open mind. Then let the chips fall.
On the Rooney Rule. From Matt Simmons, of Asheville, N.C.: “I have long thought that requiring teams to interview minority candidates could be viewed as racist in itself when, many times the teams already have an idea of who they want to hire and are only interviewing the minority in order to satisfy the rule (the Raiders with Jon Gruden, for instance). This feels disingenuous to the person of color, who must know that he is only there because the league requires the minimum to be met. Secondly, are we really to believe that NFL teams in the 21st century are really not hiring minorities just because they are minorities? I just can’t see any NFL team choosing the white candidate just because he is white when the black candidate would possibly win more games.”
In 2007, the Steelers interviewed Mike Tomlin despite having never met him and knowing next to nothing about him. As I wrote last week, they went in with a totally open mind. I think that football mirrors society in many ways, and this is one of them: When white people are making the hiring decisions, and white people are doing the interviews, and white people are the clear majority of candidates in the pool, most often those hired will be white people. I see nothing wrong with the NFL trying to change that in a work force that is 77 percent Black.
Refs step over the line by coaching, he says. From Bob Overlander: “When did refs decide to take on the role of a coach during a game? Early in the Rams-Seahawks game either Troy Aikman or Joe Buck pointed out that a ref was on the Rams’ sideline telling Jared Goff that he was bobbing his head too much during hard counts and will get flagged for a false start if he doesn’t stop. That’s a coach’s job, not a ref’s. The only way a ref should educate a player on the field during a game is by throwing the yellow flag and telling the player why afterwards. Not preemptively. It’s actions like this that call into question the neutrality of a ref and they should never put themselves into that position.”
I actually don’t mind it, Bob. It cuts down on marginal infractions being called. Officials very often—I would bet it happens multiple times in every game—will tell players, You’re close to lining up in the neutral zone; be careful; or, to a cornerback, Too much handfighting in your coverage. I’m calling it next time. The point is, officials don’t want to call penalties. They’d rather educate so they don’t have to call ticky-tack fouls.
Doug Pederson made the right call, he says. From David Comings, of Elgin, Ill: “You stated: ‘Doug Pederson going for two with 20 minutes left in the game and down to the Giants by four points was an absurd strategic decision.’ The analytics say Pederson absolutely made the right strategic decision to go for two. Coaches should not be criticized when the decision increases their chances of winning the game, and fans should expect that the decision supported by analytics should be the default position to guide a coach’s decision, as happened with Pederson here. Here’s a helpful guide from four years ago on when coaches should go for two and when they should kick the extra point.”
Thanks for writing, David. There should not be a one-size-fits-all guide for when to go for two in, say, the last 20 minutes of a game. If you have the wizardry of a Mahomes at QB, for instance, that’s far different than having a struggling quarterback like Carson Wentz as the key man in making or missing on a two-point play. I would not have said a word about Pederson’s call in 2017, because the Eagles were rolling and so many of the edgy decisions were coming up successful. Frankly, I do not trust the 2020 Eagles Offense. I would rather have the lock of being down a field goal with 20 minutes left than the (likely) less than 50 percent chance of converting a two-point play with a quarterback who I don’t trust right now, leaving the team down by four points.
Generally, I think coaches should go for two as a matter of course until you enter a strategic point of the game—as the Eagles were. The idea is to score as many points as possible, and if you score, say, 50 touchdowns in a season and make two-play plays a point of emphasis in practice every week, I believe most teams would end up converting more than 50 percent of the time. That would mean, of course, that most teams would score a few more points than if they were to have just gone for the PAT automatically.
On my amazement that Tommy Heinsohn and Bill Russell once combined for 56 points and 55 rebounds in a game. From Dan Lange: “The stats sound great. But they are the stats of just another day on the court for Wilt Chamberlain.”
I checked Basketball Reference, Dan. Wilt Chamberlain played 1,205 games, including playoffs, in his career. He never had 50 points and 50 rebounds in the same game.
1. I think, for those keeping score at home—and I believe only nerds like me are—this is the current state of play in this virus-affected season:
• Sunday was the last day of the schedule shift to accommodate postponed games. Tonight’s game (Rams at Bucs) and the final six weeks are scheduled to be played as they were assigned in April.
• Regular-season games played through Sunday: 160. Regular-season games remaining: 96. That means 62.5 percent of games have been played and 37.5 percent remain. Assuming the game tonight is played, that means 95 games over the final six weekends remain to be played.
• Only two byes remain: Carolina and Tampa Bay on the quite late weekend of Dec. 6 (Week 13). Final byes last year were in Week 12. The fact that 30 or 32 teams do not have an open date down the stretch means that if a game is to be postponed to a later date, that later date would have to be an invented “Week 18” on the weekend of Jan. 10, which is currently scheduled to be the wild-card weekend.
2. I think I’m not going to criticize Zac Taylor for the injury to Joe Burrow. That’s unfair. But I do think that, if he self-scouts his second year as an NFL coach and his first year with a franchise quarterback, Taylor may come to the conclusion that he put Burrow in harm’s way too much. If you count pass attempts, sacks and rushes, Burrow had an average of 49.8 “exposures” per game (473 passes, runs and sacks in 9.5 games). Kyler Murray (46.1) never seems to take a huge hit, Russell Wilson (45.0) has learned to manage his physical punishment, Aaron Rodgers (38.0) seems to take fewer big ones than he used to, Deshaun Watson (41.8) has been helped by a real left tackle, Laremy Tunsil, and Lamar Jackson (40.3) is on almost exactly the same path as 2019, when he took 40.0 exposures per game. Taylor certainly looked at his first 10 game plans and knew his best chance was with the ball in Burrow’s hands. I get it. But if I’m Taylor, my focus is getting the rehabbed Burrow exposed a good 10 times per game less in 2021.
3. I think, after watching the Raiders for eight quarters against Kansas City this year, I’m adding Derek Carr to my “MVP Watch” ballot. Carr, Mahomes, Wilson, Rodgers, Roethlisberger, Murray, Josh Allen . . . and maybe Derrick Henry, Brady, Kamara. With six weeks to go, it’s a pretty open competition. Funny how you get affected by a team losing, or winning, even if that player wasn’t, say, the culprit in the loss. Green Bay loses to Indy, in large part because of an overtime fumble by Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and you think, Why should Rodgers get marked down for that? Of course he doesn’t, but putting up three points in the last six Green Bay drives—that’s on Rodgers. Anyway, keep this in mind: It’s a 16-game award. We shouldn’t know the winner after Week 11.
4. I think what I loved about the Miami move to Ryan Fitzpatrick when Tua Tagovailoa was struggling in Denver on Sunday was this: Fans and some in the media say when a quarterback is benched, Well, that’s it. You can’t go back to the benched guy now. You’ve cast your lot. Why? Why can’t a benched quarterback be like a benched goalie in hockey? It should be. Tagovailoa should play his best when the coach says, “Get in there.” And if he’s on the sideline, he shouldn’t sulk about it. (Which he doesn’t, from all indications.) Give the coach the ability to use the quarterback the way he uses other players on the field. If he’s not playing well, it’s not a tenured job. Yank him.
5. I think congrats are in order for ESPN reporter Ed Werder, who has been all over the Drew Brees rib story. First Werder had it confirmed that five ribs were broken, and then, upon further review, from Brees himself, Werder reported that 11 of Brees’ 24 ribs (that’s how many we have) were cracked. It’s amazing, really, to think Brees played some snaps in an NFL game eight days ago with 11 rib fractures. Eleven! How does one breathe and move and evade people who want to do you harm and throw a spiral with 11 cracked ribs? Anyway, the moment should not pass without an attaway-Ed nod to Werder.
6. I think I’d like to commiserate with everyone in Canada this morning. For the first time in 101 years, the Grey Cup was not played. The championship game of the Canadian Football League was due to be contested Sunday in Regina, Saskatchewan, on a clear evening with a wind-chill temperature around 12 degrees. Football weather! I really feel for everyone who loves the CFL, because the game is a centerpiece to a great celebration in the city it’s held. I found that out in 1991, covering the Grey Cup in Winnipeg for Sports Illustrated, when a man rode a horse into the lobby of the headquarters hotel for the game in Winnipeg. Tradition, I found out. I covered the game because that was the season the projected number one player in the draft, Notre Dame receiver/returner Rocket Ismail, signed with the Toronto Argonauts, and the Argos made the Grey Cup. When the game got tight in the fourth quarter, it helped my cause to write a separate story instead of a short Scorecard item when Ismail clinched the game on a frigid field (it was below zero wind chill) with an 87-yard kickoff return for touchdown. Read the story.
7. I think that blood-freezing cold day stands out as a great sportswriting memory for me, having little to do with the game. The CFL was in financial trouble before the season, and the Argos got bought by California businessman Bruce McNall, Wayne Gretzky and John Candy. Now that was quite a threesome of ownership. Candy—28 months before his untimely death—watched the end of the game from the Argos sideline in a gigantic fur coat, and I walked down from the press box to chat with him for my story. Great interviewer that I am, I began telling him I thought “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” got a bad rap by the critics, and it was a great film. That got his attention. “Damn right it was!” he said. I wrote the piece back at the horse hotel and flew home the next day. I thawed out about four days later.
8. I think Giants head coach Joe Judge dismissing offensive line coach Marc Colombo last week for insubordination is two things:
a. Understandable, because Colombo called Judge a highly disrespectful curse word.
b. Weird and surprising, because the offensive line was one of the key elements in the Giants’ recent 3-2 turnaround.
I am left wondering why, in the wake of the line playing better and the results being better, Judge couldn’t have made peace, at least for the next couple of months, with an assistant who by all reports was working well with his linemen. (Last five games: no Saquon Barkley, 143 rushes, 710 rushing yards, 4.97 yards per carry.) Instead Judge decided to import a line coach he formerly worked with in New England, Dave DeGuglielmo, as a consultant. Not saying every offensive line coach would lash out in response to being told an OL coach the head coach knows well was coming in to consult, but it’s pretty obvious how many of them would react. This did not go over well with Colombo, known to have a short fuse anyway. What did Judge expect, particularly after the line’s performance improved? And now, the line will have to adjust to a new coach more than halfway through a weird COVID-affected season, as the Giants make a surprising run to a possible division title.
I don’t know Judge well, but I like what I’ve seen as his first year has progressed. He has a plan, he has a presence, and he’s imbued his team with a toughness that was much needed. This seems like a disagreement between two men that festered and Judge had enough.
No one can predict how DeGuglielmo will do, but a few thoughts here. If he was a great line coach, would he be unemployed in 2013, unemployed in 2017 till replacing Chris Foerster in Miami in midseason that year, and unemployed till November of this year? In three of the last eight years, he wasn’t working when the season kicked off. Would a great line coach have been fired by Frank Reich after one year in Indianapolis (2018), and dismissed after one year in Miami by Brian Flores last winter? Would a great line coach have lasted an average of 23 games per job in his last seven stops before East Rutherford?
I can’t tell you if this is a debacle or not. I do know that most of what Judge has done so far passes the smell test, and a head coach can do what he wants, and should do what he wants, if the move is in the best interests of the team. Judge obviously feels this was. We’ll see. Something about it just doesn’t feel right, that’s all.
9. I think there’s no quarterback I’d rather have playing for my team after a bad game than Russell Wilson.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Bless you, doctors and nurses and health-care workers and all who work at hospitals in this hard time. Bless you. I will give thanks for all of you at Thanksgiving. I do every day. So many of us appreciate your immense sacrifices.
b. I love Thanksgiving. Always my favorite holiday. The food, for one thing, and having a long day together with those closest to me and my wife. Sad this year that we’ll be in Brooklyn, one daughter and family in California, the other daughter and husband in Seattle. Hoping we get to see each other, somehow, probably after some combo of testing and isolating, at Christmas.
c. Stan Musial was born a century ago Saturday (Nov. 21, 1920), which brought two things to mind over the weekend:
d. The seven-time National League batting champion finished his 22-year Cardinals career with 3,630 hits—1,815 at home, 1,815 on the road.
e. In 2003, I was invited to play in a charity golf outing in St. Louis, and Musial attended the after-party at Mike Martz’s house. As it turned to evening, Musial pulled out a harmonica and played America the Beautiful, My Country Tis of Thee, and Wabash Cannonball. At 82, he was spry and the life of the party, and played one hell of a harmonica. And Wabash Cannonball? “Where’d you learn that one?” I asked. He said, “Dizzy Dean taught me that one.” Talk about straddling eras. Here’s Musial, talking about a pitcher who won 30 games with the Cardinals 69 years earlier.
f. Baseball Story of the Week: This is excellent, by Alex Speier of the Boston Globe, on the unfinished legacy of 46-year-old Theo Epstein.
g. Excellent, because Epstein is realistic about what some of his imprint on the game has done, and why it might be a good time to modify baseball a bit. From Speier and Epstein:
Epstein has assembled some of the most dynamic, character-filled clubhouses in recent memory — particularly those of the 2003-04 Red Sox and 2015-16 Cubs. But he’s also played a role in the clinical idea of “optimizing player performance,” a phenomenon that has drained personality from the game and made the extraordinary abilities of players at times seem confusingly interchangeable. And he also winced at the notion that his gut-and-renovate success with the Cubs helped popularize rebuilding —and the acceptance by too many teams of non-competitiveness.
“It is the greatest game in the world, but there are some threats to it just because of the way the game is evolving. I take some responsibility for that,” said Epstein. “Executives like me who have spent a lot of time using analytics and other measures to try to optimize individual and team performance have unwittingly had a negative impact on the aesthetic value of the game and the entertainment value of the game in some respects.
“Clearly, the strikeout rate is a little bit out of control. We need to find a way to get more action in the game, get the ball in play a little more often, allow players to show their athleticism some more, give the fans more of what they want. Maybe there’s a way to do that through changes over time to put the game back in the hands of the players and let them do their thing on the field . . . When you’re with a club, you don’t necessarily have the ability to be objective and contribute to that discourse. Maybe now that I won’t be with a club anymore, I can find a way to do that in some fashion.”
h. Does anyone else think it’s insane that Robinson Cano will be suspended for PEDs for the second time and miss the entire 2021 season . . . and then he has two years at a guaranteed total of $48 million that he will be paid in 2022 and 2023? That’ll be a nice exit check for new owner Steve Cohen to write in a year.
i. Gordon Hayward, four years and $120 million, for a guy who averaged 13.9 points a game as a Celtic. Nice guy, has had a black-cloud run recently. But man, the NBA.
j. Happy to be two episodes into the fourth season of “The Crown” on Netflix. Terrific, as usual. Going to discuss a spoiler here, but if you haven’t watched and don’t want clues, bypass this note. Will continue further down the alphabet in this section.
k. Sometimes when writing late on a Saturday night, I go down rabbit holes of the music of my youth. I got into Joni Mitchell as a kid in the early seventies. I got her album “Blue” in high school and took it to college. That voice. Anyway, my favorite song on the album, “California,” got stuck in my head over the weekend, and I hope it gets stuck in yours—Joni and her dulcimer. That BBC recording is 50 years old. I still had to play it eight times Saturday night. The voice. Just listen.
l. College Story of the Week: Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports on the coach who might be the next Matt Rhule, Iowa State’s Matt Campbell. His players have the kind of bond with him that other coaches should envy. Writes Thamel of what made an early impact on the impressionable Campbell, then a young player at Pitt:
Driving home from a week of workouts following an underwhelming freshman season on the football team at the University of Pittsburgh, Campbell’s truck pulled up to an intersection in Alliance, Ohio. There on State Street, he came upon a crossroads in both the road and his life. Campbell’s journey to becoming one of most successful young coaches in college football can be distilled to that moment near the Mount Union campus. On that day back in 1999, he saw a group of 40 Mount Union football players walking down State Street after a voluntary workout for the Division III juggernaut. Campbell gazed in envy.
“They looked like they were having a blast,” Campbell said. “And I was leaving a place on scholarship where it’s miserable, half the guys are showing up for workouts and half the guys aren’t. I think back on that moment to this day. Man, that made such a big impact on me.”
m. First Graf of the Week: Natalie Musumeci of the New York Post after the president of Turkmenistan had built a 19-foot sculpture of his favorite dog breed, the Central Asian shepherd — Who’s a gold boy?
n. Okay. “The Crown.” Really interesting story about Princess Diana and bulimia in the Washington Post by a writer, Amanda Long, who has suffered from bulimia. Writes Long (and good for you, Amanda Long):
In figuring out how to address her bulimia, Netflix worked with a United Kingdom eating disorder charity, the Beat. The charity advised Netflix to add a trigger warning at the beginning of certain episodes. And the actress playing Diana, Emma Corrin, championed for the bulimia scenes to be more developed, so that Diana’s voice could be heard. I want to amplify that voice: You are not alone. You deserve help.
Seeing Diana alone in Buckingham Palace, feeling completely out of place and unaccepted, sent me right back to college, when — overwhelmed by a campus 10 times the size of my hometown, J. Crew-outfitted classmates and a Greek scene that confounded and refused me — I sought the only levers of control I could find. I studied and studied and studied. I exercised twice a day, and I knew the location of every toilet on the Indiana University campus. In that Gothic student union, I’d run the faucet and throw up in the bathroom at the top of the tower, hoping no one would hear me. I bet Diana knew all the palace toilets.
o. I have no kids in school anymore, but I’m really bothered by school systems that go to a huge amount of trouble to open schools and then—in New York City, for instance, when the positivity of COVID tests reach 3 percent of the population—close them when a certain threshold is reached. Three percent? Come now. I disagree with the New York City shutdown at that minimal level; I believe it’s more important for kids to be in school after missing so much time—barring a legitimate outbreak.
p. And how tiring is Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s dismissive tone in his press conferences. After New York City had delayed for hours the announcement of whether it would close schools, one reporter Wednesday pressed Cuomo when he wouldn’t answer whether schools in the nation’s largest school system would be closed. Cuomo criticized the tone of the question as obnoxious, and another reporter said the question was not obnoxious, and would you please just answer the question. “Well, I don’t really care what you think,” Cuomo told the second reporter.
q. Parochial of me because most of you don’t live in New York state. This is a tense time for everyone. Government officials like Cuomo—who has done lots of good with his mask-mandates and strict emphasis on pandemic rules and daily COVID updates in the spring and early summer—make it worse with their imperiousness.
r. Confession of the Week: Amber Elliott, a county health director in rural Missouri, as told to Eli Saslow of the Washington Post, about what a nightmare her job is in COVID times. Writes Elliott:
This job is nonpartisan. I’m not political in any way. I go off of facts and evidence-based science, and right now, all the data in Missouri is scary bad. We only have about 70,000 people in St. Francois County, but we’ve had more than 900 new cases in the last few weeks. Our positivity rate is 25 percent and rising. The hospital is already at capacity. They’ve basically run out of staff. We can’t keep up. It’s an uncontrolled spread. I have these moments when it feels like I’m a nurse at the bedside, and my patient is dying, and I’m trying every possible intervention to save them. More social distancing. More masks. More contact tracing. Warnings and more warnings. What else can we try? But in the end, it doesn’t matter how much you do. Nothing will work, because it almost seems like the patient is resisting your help.
I get the same comments all the time over Facebook or email. “Oh, she’s blowing it out of proportion.” “She’s a communist.” “She’s a bitch.” “She’s pushing her agenda.” Okay, fine. I do have an agenda. I want disease transmission to go down. I want to keep this community safe. I want fewer people to die. Why is that controversial?
The more I talk about the facts, the more it seems to put a target on my back.
“We’re tracking your movements.” “Don’t do something you’ll regret.” “We’ll protest at your house.”
s. What has happened to our country?
t. You can’t tell a communicable disease that has killed 250,000 people in the United States, “You’re full of s—. I don’t believe in you.” Well, you can tell it that, as tens of millions do every day, but then it will just laugh and strike you down.
u. Truth will win. It always does, eventually, even between rounds of golf.
Tampa Bay 30, L.A. Rams 24. Including this jaunt to Florida, the Rams have made five trips to the Eastern Time Zone in their last nine games. “Really sick of it,” punter Johnny Hekker told me last week. Speaking of Hekker, while the focus is on two intergalactic passing games, let’s focus on the state-of-the-art punter in football. All-pro punting seasons: Hekker 4, Ray Guy 3. Had Hekker on my podcast last week, and we got to the new punting thing he does called the Watermelon punt. He first did it in 2017 against the Colts—he twists the ball sideways just before he punts and boots it so that it will go sideways end-over-end and not fly into the end zone. You can see it here, from the Monday night game against the Bears in October:
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) October 27, 2020
FMIA: Before we get to punting, an odd question first about the times we’re living in and how the Rams fit in. It’s interesting that you guys have been borderline fantastic with COVID—just one positive test since August. Why do you think you guys have done a good job?
Hekker: “A lot of it definitely could be attested to us moving meeting rooms outside. Getting the air flow kind of in our giant tent. Our head trainer called it the Cirque du Soleil tent. A giant tent set up covering about 100 parking spots. Having that ability to meet in bigger groups but stay spread out—as well as kind of an added walkthrough space if we need it—has been great for us. I think our coaches have done a great job of buying in. Our strength and conditioning staff as well as our medical staff worked their tails off to keep things sanitized and just follow every protocol to a T as much as they can. We try and make sure that we look at ourselves critically in that way as well. We’re just trying to be an accountable organization from top to bottom. Shout out to our cleaning guys, Carlos and Fernando. Two guys that really hold it down for us.”
FMIA: One game you played this year, a Monday nighter against the Bears—you had punts land at the 10, the 7, the 1, the 5, and the 6. I’m sure in your world things really couldn’t have gone better that night. What do you remember about that game?
Hekker: “I remember getting lucky bounces. There have been games where I’ve felt like I hit the ball better. Had better placement, and things of that sort. But sometimes you just don’t get bounces or sometimes the ball—with how strangely the ball’s shaped—bounces away from somebody or just bounces straight into the end zone right past your gunner that’s waiting there. It’s a weird shaped object, so trying to stop it and predict where it’s gonna go is difficult. It was just one of those nights where things just went right.”
FMIA: What’s the reason for the watermelon punt?
Hekker: “Yeah. So you like to do that one because I can show right and then hit an end-over-end ball to the left. I usually have a strong tendency to hit going in [inside-the-20] balls to the left side of the field, so the returning team’s right side. Then I kind of developed the banana ball as a changeup to that, where I show left, and then hit the ball and it’s almost like fading a golf ball. It starts trajectory left and then just fades right and keeps fading right because the ball’s spinning sideways. It’s just a really tough ball to track. It comes down weird to the returner. Also has a pretty predictable bounce pattern for the gunners.”
So tonight, don’t go to the bathroom when the Rams are in a punting situation. Root for the Watermelon Punt.
Football is so fun
when Mahomes is playing it.
KC signed him cheap.