In chilly Owings Mills, Md., Sunday evening, on the bucolic grounds of the Baltimore Ravens training center, the strangest week in recent NFL history was beginning to wind down. A voluntary conditioning workout was underway, with maybe half the non-COVID-positive players on the team. The reality of the 2020 NFL season was setting in for anyone who didn’t quite understand it.
The Ravens hadn’t practiced in nine days. They had an estimated 20 players on their COVID reserve list. They were down 10 starters, including their MVP quarterback, best defensive lineman, best pass-rusher and two best running backs, lost to the virus wracking America and now the NFL. And whatever was left of the Ravens would be traveling to Pittsburgh to play the 10-0 Steelers, maybe the most powerful of the Pittsburgh teams since the dynastic teams of the seventies.
Think of it: Not only are the Ravens down half of their starters, but the remaining neophytes like Trystan Colon-Castillo—he’s a center likely to see his first action Wednesday, probably with Cam Heyward frothing to get his shot at the green kid—will have zero practice time before facing an undefeated team.
There was no expectation around the team that the league would postpone the game, because the NFL won’t. On Sunday, the NFL began emphasizing with its media partners a memo sent from Roger Goodell to teams on Oct. 13 that said, basically, that the league would play games if enough warm bodies were available to fill the uniforms and an internal-team contagion wasn’t in progress. “Medical considerations and government directives will be paramount in determining when a game should be postponed,” the directive to all teams from Goodell said. “In light of the substantial additional roster flexibility in place for this season, absent medical considerations, games will not be postponed or rescheduled simply to avoid roster issues caused by injury or illness affecting multiple players, even within a position group.”
A head coach and two GMs were fired in a 28-hour span over the weekend, but COVID events blew those three headliners away. Baltimore being down 20 players going to Pittsburgh; Denver suddenly losing all four quarterbacks to COVID protocols and having to play an NFL game without an NFL quarterback; and the 49ers being told suddenly they were being booted out of their home because of county protocols and forced to find a new place to play (San Diego? Phoenix? Dallas? Oakland?) with two “home” games in the next 13 days.
But really, what did you expect?
In a country that never took the raging virus seriously enough, and with a full-speed-ahead ethos coming from the commissioner, what did you expect?
In the middle of the NFL laying the groundwork for the next round of billion-dollar media negotiations, with a country voracious for some normalcy like NFL games, what did you expect?
It’s up to the teams to somehow, some way, make it work. So there was this strange sight in the press-conference room adjacent to the Denver Broncos locker room at their home field Sunday afternoon, four hours before kickoff against the Saints: Quarterback coach Mike Shula and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur were working with presumptive quarterback Kendall Hinton—who hadn’t played the position since losing the job at Wake Forest two years ago—on about 10 percent of the playbook, making sure he had his mechanics and a few plays down. Hinton played 25 snaps against the league’s third-rated defense. He completed one of nine passes for 13 yards, with two picks and a Blutarski rating. Zero point zero.
What did you expect?
On Sunday, the NFL passed the two-thirds point of the regular season. When Green Bay’s beatdown of Chicago was done late Sunday night, the NFL was finished with 175 of its 256 regular-season games—68.4 percent—with five weeks to go. And zero games postponed to a possible murky Week 18 on Jan. 10—the Sunday on what currently is scheduled to be Wild-Card Weekend.
“I’m absolutely amazed that we’ve done as well as we have,” Bill Polian, the Hall of Fame GM and adviser to Goodell, told me Sunday afternoon. “The incredible adaptability that [league officials] have shown, and the clubs of course have cooperated tremendously. Who would ever think that you’d have virtual meetings? It’s just beyond anything we’ve had to do before. The fact that it’s gone as well as it has is incredible to me.”
Not sure I’d use “incredible” in an altogether great way. The spectacle in Denver on Sunday wasn’t really a football game so much as one of 256 the NFL had to get out of the way. And Ravens-Steelers might look great on the NBC marquee Wednesday afternoon, but it won’t look so good in the ratings unless Baltimore finds some way to play a competitive game. Which I’m dubious about.
Four points about where the NFL is right now:
• You were warned. In May, I wrote about the wholly unfair season on the horizon. Not my idea; it was what I was being told by influencers in high places—league office, Competition Committee, one owner with sway. “I think you have to look at 2020 as an experimental year that is off-kilter,” one club executive told me after the draft. “It’s a litmus test in how we adapt.” If you want to have a season, another club official said, accept the fact that your team is going to have some hardships you can’t do anything about. Don’t complain about the things you’d normally complain about; be thankful there’s a season.
• The football’s been good, mostly. You know what’s struck me? Some of the best games have been played under pretty tough circumstances. Think, for instance, of Atlanta’s best game of the season (well, maybe till the rout of the Raiders on Sunday). The Falcons were 0-5, fired the coach and the GM, had the following week disrupted by some COVID cases, practiced only once, and went to Minnesota and routed the Vikings 40-23. Tennessee went 17 days without practicing during its early-season outbreak, and responded by beating Buffalo 42-16. New England had to fly to Kansas City on the day of the game in Week 4, without starting quarterback Cam Newton, and 40 minutes into the game, mighty KC was up by three. Scoring’s up, penalties are down. Players seem happier not beating themselves up as much in practice.
• Virtual football is weird, but it has its advantages. Juju Smith-Schuster told me last week his dog Boujee wonders why he’s home so much. He used to be gone from about 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. or so on weekdays. Now the Steelers do their morning classroom meetings by videoconference, with players home for them, and Smith-Schuster leaves the house around 11 for practice and he’s home by 2:45-ish. “Sometimes he looks at me like, ‘Why you still here?’ ‘’ Smith-Schuster said of Boujee.
Virtual learning hasn’t been as much of a chore as you think. “The little things for special teams, offense and defense throughout the week—that’s something we miss,” Smith-Schuster said. “But the thing with virtual that helps a lot—it gives us time to be separated, to stay at home in our own comfortable space, avoiding COVID and also gives us time to rest our bodies, or do treatment while we’re in meetings. As far as my teammates and how we like it, so far we love it.”
• The forfeit concept doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a part of the game. Lots of issues with it, even if a team suffers some positive tests by ignoring strict adherence to protocols. If a game’s not played, does the perpetrating team get a loss in the standings, and does its foe that week get a win just for having the good fortune of being on the schedule that week? If a game’s not played, by agreement with the players union, players are not paid that week; that’s not going to work. The NFL seems to believe a bit in Hammurabi’s Code this season: If the Broncos’ quarterbacks messed up in protocol behavior (they admit to being lax with mask-wearing in an off-day film session with one positive player in the room who they didn’t know had the virus at the time), then the Broncos should suffer for it. That’s not the reason the NFL gave for not allowing Denver to push Sunday’s game back a day or two, but it’s a sort of eye-for-an-eye byproduct. The NFL said if the Broncos had enough able-bodied players, well, tough luck.
Earlier in the column I addressed the October letter to teams from Goodell. But the Denver-New Orleans game filled my email box with messages from (if I may generalize) ticked-off Broncos fans. Wrote Dan Wilson: “I’m hoping in your column this week you can give some insight into why Broncos fans were subjected to the travesty of what should have been a football game, but really didn’t resemble much of one. Why would the NFL reschedule other games but not this one? Why single out the Broncos?”
I agree that it would have been more equitable, without much of a downside except for inconveniencing the Saints, to push the game to Tuesday, when three of the Denver quarterbacks, had they continued to test negative, would have been eligible to play because they’d have tested negative for five days since last being in close contact with the positive player. The NFL moved the Baltimore game (three times, as of Monday afternoon) because the league said it wanted to get past the period that players would most likely test positive for the same strain of the virus that was sweeping the team. Dawn Aponte of the league’s football operations team told me Sunday that when the league approved 16-man Practice Squads, part of the reasoning was that the league “would not postpone or reschedule a game simply because of perceived or actual competitive implications—and that went all the way through multiple players up to an entire position group.”
Added Polian: “So it’s up to each club to make sure that they have enough players to cover any kind of occurrence that would take place. In this particular case, they [the Broncos] did have four quarterbacks, but if you’ll remember that [Bucs coach] Bruce Arians at the very beginning of training camp talked about quarantining one quarterback, keeping him out of the line of fire, so that he’s available in case this very thing should happen. Denver did not do that.”
Starting quarterback Drew Lock put the blame on his shoulders Sunday on social media for not being disciplined enough when the quarterbacks came in last Tuesday for some voluntary tape study. Masks were worn, but not all the time. Distance was fudged, the players not keeping six feet apart at all times, and it was clear from someone who watched the tape of the session, with the four quarterbacks in the room, that Lock and the quarterbacks were too comfortable with each other. Lock stepping up didn’t absolve him in the eyes of his coach, whose staff had to figure out a game plan with no quarterbacks, to play against one of the best teams in football. Not optimal. “I was disappointed on a couple levels,” coach Vic Fangio said. “That our quarterbacks put us in this position and that our quarterbacks put the league in this position. We count on them to be the leaders of the team and leaders of the offense and those guys made a mistake and that is disappointing . . . There was a failing there and that’s disappointing.”
Back to the Baltimore story. This was a fast-moving story, as you’ll be able to tell by looking at the timeline of the changing of the game—twice. The changes were due to the virus infecting several players and staff members, and then not slowing down in time to play either Thursday or Sunday in the league’s estimation.
Wednesday, 12:30 p.m., Pittsburgh: The NBC production meeting with the Ravens for the Thanksgiving night game was in progress. The NBC crew and staff in town to do the Thursday game were in a Pittsburgh hotel, in separate rooms on videoconference with the Ravens. NFL schedule czar Howard Katz called Sunday Night Football executive producer Fred Gaudelli, who was on the videoconference, to say the game was moving to Sunday because of more positives in Baltimore. Bummer. The Thanksgiving night game is a huge ratings draw and Black Friday ad hub.
Wednesday, 12:45 p.m. Gaudelli and Katz talk again, with the NFLer asking if NBC wanted to do the game Sunday afternoon. Gaudelli said he’d call him back. A few minutes later, Gaudelli tells Katz that NBC wants the game, but now he has to find a truck to do the game—the regular SNF truck would now have to leave for Green Bay to do Bears-Packers Sunday night, to, presumably, a bigger audience.
Wednesday, 3:05 p.m. Gaudelli gets a truck, gets his bosses’ okay and tells Katz yes, we’ll take the Sunday afternoon game. So now it’s a waiting game, Gaudelli and crew waiting in Pittsburgh now till Sunday, not just Thursday. Quiet time. Gaudelli and director Drew Esocoff eat takeout from Morton’s two nights in a row in a big meeting room, socially distanced.
Thursday, 8 p.m. “We’ve had some grim holiday meals over the years,” Gaudelli tells Esocoff, as they ate Thanksgiving dinner together in an empty conference room, “but this might be the grimmest.” Add this to the festivities: Katz calls and says they’d have to move the game to Tuesday night for COVID reasons. Crazy time. More phone calls from Gaudelli to bosses. Early Friday afternoon, the NFL announces the game is moved to Tuesday, on NBC.
Monday, 4 p.m. Now the game is moved again, to Wednesday, at 3:40 p.m. on NBC, with the league deeming the Ravens need an extra day to be sure their spread is over. Why the odd time? To accommodate the NBC Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree lighting ceremony Wednesday night. Which we might need more than a football game right now.
I’ve been told the Ravens are okay with taking their medicine. They’d prefer, of course, to switch the game to Jan. 10, but also realize they don’t have much of a leg to stand on, because reportedly it’s one of the coaches in the strength-and-conditioning area who may have violated COVID protocols with mask-wearing in the building and another protocol violation or two. They’re owning the problem.
A couple of other issues: The league told the Ravens late in the week that the virus was in its late stages . . . and then two more players tested positive Saturday and another Sunday. Plus, no practice for so many unproven or inexperienced players bugs the team.
Who knows? Maybe this will be a galvanizing thing for the slumping Ravens and give them the spark they’ve been missing much of the year. We’d all be naïve to think the Ravens will be the last team to get hit.
Tonight, Seattle at Philadelphia, is game 176. Wednesday afternoon in Pittsburgh, the league hopes, will be game 177.
Thursday morning: 79 games left. Eyes on the prize. Eyes on 256, then 13 in the playoffs. Delays only mean more days to swab out positive tests. The 2020 season isn’t art. It’s an endurance test.
1. Sense I get from conversations with two veteran team executives over the weekend: The field of general managers is significantly better than the field of coaches this year. “The GM list is very impressive—very impressive,” one said. “Coaches are okay. But I won’t be surprised to see a team on the fence with their current [GM] willing to get rid of him because of the crop of candidates out there.” Rick Smith (ex of Houston), ESPN’s Louis Riddick (lost out to Dave Gettleman with Giants), riser Champ Kelly, Indy’s Ed Dodds and Will McClay of Dallas are all strong, and there’s a pool of six or eight more that some teams are investigating.
2. Sixteen minutes to go Sunday night. Green Bay, 41-10. Mitchell Trubisky, three turnovers to that point, erasing any hope that “the best week of practice” (per Matt Nagy) would have any meaning when staring down the barrel of the arch-rivals. Two garbage-time scoring drives made the final a congenial 41-25. Trubisky’s a fine guy and all, and if the Bears want to afford him one or two more chances that, pressed to the wall, he can discover something no one’s seen since 2018, I guess their mammoth investment in him is worth it. But barring a Hail Mary, it’s over for Trubisky in Chicago.
3. That Daniel Jones hamstring injury did not look good for the Giants. Nor did Colt McCoy in relief. With Washington about to embark on a three-week dungstorm of a schedule (at Pittsburgh, at San Francisco, Seattle), my guess is six wins takes the NFC East.
4. Eight straight games for Jared Goff scoring 30 or less. In this scoreathon season, Sean McVay’s got to be in pain—in part for being 3-3 in his last six, in part for the Rams averaging 21.2 points a game in that stretch.
5. Just what the Bucs need: The bye, to marinate over two home losses (Rams, Chiefs) in eight days.
6. Here comes the strangest road trip of the year: Pats at Chargers on Sunday, Pats in isolation at L.A. hotel for three days (other than to practice), Pats at Rams on Thursday. New England kills two of its three 2020 Pacific Time road games in one six-day trip.
7. San Francisco rookie Javon Kinlaw (27-yard pick-six of Jared Goff in Los Angeles) is not quite making anyone forget DeForest Buckner, who was traded in a financial move to Indy last spring. But Kinlaw, the defensive tackle who took Buckner’s spot, has adjusted well to the NFL game, and Niner fans should not pine for Buckner, if only for team-building reasons. Buckner’s 2020 cap number with the Colts: $23.38 million. Kinlaw’s four-year contract, in total: $15.49 million.
8. News item: Jaguars fire GM Dave Caldwell. That’s all? Caldwell survived eight years (well, eight years minus a month) despise losing 12, 13, 11, 13, 6, 11, 10 and 10 games in his eight years. Amazing to be able to keep a job in the dog-eat-dog world of the NFL with seven double-digit-loss seasons out of eight. But that one season, coming within 10 minutes of a Super Bowl in 2017, allowed Caldwell to hang around this long. A matter of time before the same fate befalls coach Doug Marrone.
9. Can we have challenge flags on measurements? Did you see where the nose of the ball was in Cleveland-Jacksonville, ball at the Jags’ 42, 5:42 left in a one-score game?
Upon review, not a first down? pic.twitter.com/JCFnrVs9zl
— Daryl Ruiter (@RuiterWrongFAN) November 29, 2020
10. Anthony Lynn needs to take a few classes at Clock Management University. Man, the wasted timeouts by the Chargers.
12. You saw it right: The Vikings covered a 4.36-second receiver, Robby Anderson, on a short crosser with a defensive end. Minnesota deserved to give up a touchdown on that play, and that’s what happened.
13. Nothing should be off the table for the moribund Lions, including divorcing Matthew Stafford. I’m not positive it should happen, but it’s crazy to say to new coach/GM candidates: You’ve got to keep Stafford. Stafford has a $10-million roster bonus due on the fifth day of the 2021 league year. His 2021 cap number is $34.95 million, which is 20 percent of the projected $175-million NFL salary cap in 2021. By cutting or trading Stafford, Detroit would incur in 2021 a dead cap hit of $24.85 million, which obviously must be considered. This must also be considered:
- The Lions have not won a division title in Stafford’s 12 seasons.
- The Lions have not won a playoff game—nor hosted one—in Stafford’s 12 seasons.
- The Lions appear headed for their third straight fourth-place finish in the NFC North, and their seventh straight year outside of the NFL’s top-10 yardage teams.
The simple fact is that sometimes in football, a franchise needs to be blown up. The Patriots did it in 2000, and Drew Bledsoe, the highest-paid player in football at the time, was gone a little more than a year later. The Ravens did it in 2007, a year after going 13-3 with the stable Brian Billick scotch-taping the QB position together. Carolina did it in the past year, dumping Ron Rivera and Cam Newton in a matter of months. Those are anecdotal stories. But they are also proof that if something just feels wrong, why continue to try to make it work? Break free. Start over. At least look at the possibilities.
The Lions have not won a playoff game in 29 years. That point shouldn’t have much to do with a decision on Stafford. But on a team with holes as deep as the one Detroit has dug, nothing should be off the table.
14. So the Texans are 4-3 since firing Bill O’Brien, and though they won’t have the juice barring a miracle to mount a playoff run, they’ve at least shown they’re an attractive job for the next coach. Maybe they give Romeo Crennel a shot at the full-time gig, but seeing that he’ll be 73 next opening day, it’s probably more likely they open the job to all comers. Though it’s a factor that the front office is in shambles and they’ll be at a major draft disadvantage with first and second-round picks in 2021 traded away, Deshaun Watson is a fantastic magnet. In the midst of all the Houston mayhem, Watson’s having his best year.
15. I’d love to see Eric Bieniemy graduate from Patrick Mahomes’ offensive coordinator to be Watson’s head coach/mentor.
16. The last five days of the 2020 Lions, now 4-7 and headed for the third straight non-playoff, sub-.500 season:
- Shut out by a Panthers team on a five-game losing streak starting a quarterback, P.J. Walker, making his first NFL start
- Lost to a previously 3-7 Texans team with an interim coach and the league’s 30th-rated defense, scoring one touchdown in the last 40 minutes
- Got one touchdown pass in eight quarters from Stafford, a garbage-time TD with six minutes left against Houston
17. Mike McCarthy is finding out there’s an occasional downside to listening to his maverick special-teams coordinator, John “Bones” Fassel. I can’t think of a smart time to call a fake punt backed up and down four points with 10 yards to get, and it’s especially a bad idea when everyone on the defense is looking for a fake. Every opposing special-teams coach in football knows it’s possible that in each game Fassel’s special-teams unit likely will try a fake or some sleight-of-hand. “When you play Bones, you expect the fake EVERY snap,” tweeted former Dallas running back and special-teamer Phillip Tanner. Even in unlikely fake times, the opponent will be alert for it on a Fassel-coached unit, so the fact it was fourth-and-10 from the Dallas 24-yard line with 12 minutes left in the game, Dallas down 20-16, didn’t matter. Soon after the snap, as the reverse to Cedrick Wilson was in progress, video shows seven Washington defenders guarding for the odd play. It had no chance.
18. Guess the Vegas odds, one year ago today, for this sentence to be true: Washington starting quarterback Alex Smith, on a two-game winning streak, has Washington tied for the NFC East lead in Week 12 of the 2020 season. I wouldn’t know, but I do know someone who would.
19. Brent Musburger, TV legend, managing editor of sports-betting network VSIN and Las Vegas resident: “Well, good question. Nobody probably could have foreseen Alex Smith being a starting quarterback, and for Washington to be on a two-game win streak is unlikely, and for Washington to be ahead of Dallas and Philadelphia at this point, at least going into the Seattle-Philly game Monday night . . . You’re up there in the 1,000-to-1 range.”
20. What causes the Steelers to grind teeth, aside from getting yanked around with the Ravens game from Thursday to Sunday to Tuesday: having two weekends of their schedule fudged around (Week 4 from playing Tennessee to a bye; Week 7 from a bye to playing Tennessee; Week 12 shifting the game back five days). Then there’s this under-appreciated nugget: The Washington Football Team is Pittsburgh’s Week 13 game. WFT is playing well, and is in contention to win its division. Days between the previous game and the WFT-Pittsburgh game: Washington 10, Pittsburgh five. And the Steelers will be coming off a testy smackdown with its most physical rival.
I didn’t know Markus Paul, the Dallas strength and conditioning coordinator who died last Wednesday after suffering a medical emergency on the job Tuesday morning. But I’m blown away by the league-wide tributes to the man and the player (the man mostly) after a four-year career at safety for Syracuse, a five-year NFL run with Chicago and Tampa Bay, and a 23-season career as a strength and conditioning coach with the Saints, Patriots, Jets, Giants and Cowboys.
I am guilty sometimes, after someone dies too young or tragically, of saying, “How awful,” and then just moving on. Something about the tenor of hurt upon Paul’s death made me sad that I never got to meet or know him. What I learned from his friends and peers, and players he coached:
Syracuse fullback, co-captain with Paul, 1988
“People ask me sometimes, ‘Who hit you the hardest in your football career?’ Three guys: One, Ronnie Lott. Two, Chuck Cecil. Those wouldn’t surprise anybody. But three, Markus Paul. Back in the eighties, spring football was pretty serious. You got padded up. Practices were like games. One practice, I ran the ball through the middle, kind of got stood up there, and here comes Markus. Wham! Sort of smiled and said, ‘I got you good.’ It was the kind of hit where my whole circuitboard shut down, burner down my right side. What a hit.
“As captains, I was the emotional one, he was the calm one. He was the voice of reason everyone went to. He assessed each situation and knew exactly the right words to say. He was so great at disarming any situation with a huge smile and his voice of reason. I can tell you that most of the guys on that team really had Markus up on a pedestal and felt like I did: ‘Why can’t I be more like Markus?’
“When I heard what happened, I was fortunate enough to be able to go to the hospital to see Markus. I just really wanted to say goodbye. I’m so happy I was able to do that. He looked so peaceful. Like Markus was.”
Syracuse graduate assistant coach, 1988
“Before there was Philip Rivers getting mic’d up by NFL Films and saying, ‘Dadgummit!’ and never swearing, that was Markus as the leader of that defense at Syracuse. He’d get mad out on the field and you’d hear, ‘Golly gee willakers,’ or something like that. He never swore.
“I’ve been around football for a long time now. This might sound amazing because of my years in New England, but Markus and Daryl Johnston were the best two football captains, together, I’ve ever been around. Markus, a black country kid from Florida, and Daryl, a white guy from a town in western New York. Two different sets of friends, totally, two different worlds. Captains are really important on a football team. Especially in college, with impressionable kids who need to be set straight sometimes, you’ve got to have strong, strong captains. As a 23-year-old first-time coach, I saw how they set the standard for what captains were supposed to look like, sound like, feel like, smell like. Markus always talked people into doing the right thing.”
Chicago Bears defensive end, teammate of Paul, 1989-93
“His nickname was ‘The Greyhound.’ Dan Hampton gave it to him—he was tall and fast and rangy. That was a veteran defense, with really tough guys. The vets ate the young. Most of the young guys were just numbers to the vets. To get a nickname, that had to mean Markus was really impressive.”
Bears incumbent free safety when Paul arrived in the fourth round in 1989
“When he was drafted, we were stacked in the secondary. Dave Duerson, Vestee Jackson, so many good players, and we drafted Donnell Woolford in the first round that year. But the difference with Markus, almost right away, was that he would talk to his contemporaries, the rookies, saying the same things we’d be saying as the vets. Sometimes, the young guys would cut corners, but Markus would be there to correct them. It was as if we took a step back and let Markus lead. Off the field, Markus would talk to the rookies about making the right decision. Such a positive guy.
“He backed me up. So we’d be talking before games about different plays or the opponent, and I could tell he was almost listening to me out of courtesy. He knew the defense and the game plan just like I did.
“Last night, I was looking at an old tape of us playing the Vikings. Late in the game, watching the plays he made, he fit in with us. We used him down in the box. They had Herschel Walker, and it was a really physical game. There was Markus, flying in, no hesitation.
“To think about this now, as I reflect, the bond between players is so strong. So many guys from those teams are hurting from this, because that bond is always there. Your teammates stand up for you at your wedding. Your teammates carry you to your final resting place. Doesn’t matter if you haven’t talked to them for a year or two, or more.”
Bears wideout, teammate of Paul, 1989-93
“We had a vicious defense and a tough secondary to practice against—Markus, Vestee Jackson, Mark Carrier, Shaun Gayle, Maurice Douglass. That defense was filled with great trash-talkers, but Markus never cussed, never trash-talked at all. He’d tackle you and get up and then he’d put his hand down to help you up. Not a lot of guys do that.
“This is a gut punch, an absolute gut punch. He’s honestly as sincere, true, honest and wonderful teammate as I ever had.”
Assistant coach at Syracuse when Paul played
Running backs coach in New England (2000-04) when Paul was assistant strength coach
I was supposed to hear from Fears, still the Patriots’ running backs coach, on Thursday. The phone didn’t ring till late Friday afternoon.
“I couldn’t call yesterday. I just couldn’t talk. He was like a son to me.
“The way the strength and conditioning programs work is those guys are supposed to get the players to buy in without getting the assistant coaches involved. Mike Woicik and Markus were the strength coaches for us then [2000 to 2004], and I trusted them, and if any of my players ever came to me complaining, I’d have told them, ‘I trust those guys, and I don’t want to hear any s—.’ But not once in his time in New England did Markus ever come to me and tell me one of my guys isn’t doing the work. Markus and Mike, they handled their business. They got guys to buy in.
“From the time I first got to know him, Markus always did the right thing. Always. True to himself. Real. When he was in the middle of a divorce from his first wife, he never ventured out, never strayed. Just honorable. That’s the word for Markus.”
New York Giants defensive end (2007) when Paul was assistant strength coach
“We’d be on the team bus, going to games, all dressed up—that was a big deal, how good you looked on the trips. Markus would come up and say, ‘Yo! Got my special shoes on today!’ And those shoes were not attractive at all. I started calling him Mr. Markus. I don’t know why; just did. And one of my teammates said, ‘Hey, Mr. Markus is the name of a porn star!’ I didn’t know! And Markus was a Christian man, but he never minded.
“Markus just touched you. There was so much of him you admired. The smile, how he soothed you. We’ll miss him . . . [voice trailing off] Miss him.”
Giants center (2007-2010) when Paul was assistant strength coach
When Paul became the Giants’ assistant strength and conditioning coach in early 2007, he brought resistance-bands with him. He was a resistance-band crusader, believing them crucial in stretching, increased flexibility and decreased muscle soreness.
“Right away, every day, the post-practice stretch was his baby. He was passionate about it. ‘GET YOUR BANDS READY’ is what he’d yell, something to that effect. He just believed it was crucial in keeping players flexible and keeping some of those nagging injuries away.”
Did it work?
“Well, we won the Super Bowl that year. We were healthy that year. And that was the year we started a streak of consecutive starts on the offensive line [32 straight regular-season starts for the five linemen] that was huge for us.”
Of the Giants’ offensive core in 2006 and 2007—quarterback, two wideouts, five offensive linemen—three played 16-game seasons in 2006, the year before Paul arrived. All eight played 16 games in Paul’s first season and, as O’Hara said, the Giants won the Super Bowl.
Giants safety (2010-14) when Paul was assistant strength coach
“He was [sigh, deep exhale] a breath of fresh air. How do I put this? Extremely real. As a coach, he was gonna make sure he got every single ounce out of you, every day. No settling with Markus. You know how there are some guys you can just talk your way out of things? No matter how much I was his boy—and I was his boy—he would never let me get out of anything.
“We had certain workout bonuses in our contracts. We had to complete a certain number of days, do a certain number of runs and other things. A few years, I had to make up some days. And I remember this one time, it was just me and Markus in the fieldhouse at the Giants’ facility. So that day, I had to do, I think, 16 110s. [Sixteen sprints of 110 yards.] All 16 of those 110s I had to do in less than 14 seconds. I get to 10. I say to Markus: ‘Come on. Can I just do 10?’ You know, just me and him there.
“No. He made me hit all 16. I’m like, ‘Damn, man! You can’t gimme a break? No one here! Ain’t no one watching!’
“But that was Markus Paul. Always held it down. He wasn’t gonna let me cheat him, wasn’t gonna let me cheat the team, wasn’t gonna let me cheat myself. He made me a better man. He held me accountable the same way he held himself accountable. At that time, he was so influential to help make me the man I was—and the man I wanted to be.”
Dallas Cowboys cornerback in Paul’s three seasons (2018-20) as strength coach
“We keep our records in the weight room on these lift cards, and if you got your personal best, Coach Markus would be sure we rang a bell. That was kind of the tradition in the weight room. I got my last one on Monday. It was on the bench [press]. I got 280 [pounds], and Coach Markus said, ‘That might be your personal best!’ And I don’t know—I didn’t check right then to be sure it was my personal best. I just kept lifting. Kept my head down. Kept trying to get better. Now I wish we rang the bell that last time. But that was my last personal best with him.
“I’m just messed up right now. I was so close to him. He was more than just a coach. He taught me how to be a better athlete. We’d finish lifting and a few us would just sit there, maybe for an hour or more, and listen to his stories. They were about football and his career, but also about life. He talked to me about the divorce he went through and how tough it was, and that was important to me—I went through a similar situation with a lady. It was hard. But he told me it gets better, and how happy he is with his second wife. He told me, ‘I’m so blessed to have a second chance.’ “
When was your last conversation with him? Monday in the weight room?
“Actually, it was out on the field, after the lift. We go out after lifting and do a ‘flush run’ just to loosen up. We do some striders.
“We got a young DB room now. And pretty much the last thing he said to us was, ‘Time to step up. I need some leaders in that DB room.’ “
Offensive Players of the Week
Tyreek Hill, wide receiver, Kansas City. Seven catches for 203 yards, with touchdowns of 75 and 44 yards . . . in the first 14 minutes of the game. Man, the gift of speed is being used wonderfully by Hill, with an assist from a quarterback who lays the ball out for him so perfectly. Check out Hill’s first-quarter receptions alone, in yards gained: 34, 23, 1, 75, 19, 7 and 44. For the game, Hill totaled 13 catches for 269 yards and three touchdowns.
Derrick Henry, running back, Tennessee. The more I watch Henry, the more I think he’s got the physicality and the hole-picking of Earl Campbell. What power, and what balance. Henry is also like Patrick Mahomes in this way: He has so many ridiculously impactful games that when you see him rush 27 times for 178 yards (6.6 per carry) and three touchdowns, you just ho-hum it and say, Yeah, seen that a lot. But he’s run the Titans to the top of the AFC South with five games left. “Derrick for MVP!” A.J. Brown said on NFL Network.
Deshaun Watson, quarterback, Houston. Another great job leading an offense with a meh running game (17 of 25, 318 yards, four TD, no picks, 150.4 rating), in the 41-25 Thanksgiving Day win at Detroit. In the seven games since Houston changed coaches after starting 0-4, Watson has been exemplary. How he compares to two great quarterbacks of the day, Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers, since Week 5:
Accuracy: Watson 70.6 percent, Mahomes 69.6, Rodgers 67.4.
Passing yards: Mahomes 2,363, Watson 2,109, Rodgers 1,886.
Touchdown-to-interception differential: Mahomes plus-17, Watson plus-16, Rodgers plus-16.
Rating: Watson 120.3, Mahomes 116.3, Rodgers 111.4.
Antonio Gibson, running back, Washington. At Dallas, Gibson, the former college receiver, broke up the Thanksgiving Day game at Dallas with 23- and 37-yard sprint touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Had an odd college career at Memphis mostly as a receiver—2019: 38 catches, 33 rushes—but Washington saw enough of him to think he could morph into an NFL running back. After his 20-carry, 115-yard, three-TD effort against the Cowboys, Gibson is 355 yards away from a 1,000-yard rushing season in his first year as a full-time running back, with five games left to get it.
Defensive Players of the Week
Jeremy Chinn, safety, Carolina. Unlikely, in NFL history that a defensive player has scored touchdowns on consecutive plays. But in the span of 10 seconds in the third quarter at Minnesota, Chinn did just that. The rookie second-round pick from Southern Illinois picked up a fumble off a strip-sack of Kirk Cousins at the Minnesota 17-yard line and ran it back for a touchdown with 14:01 left in the third quarter. On the first play after the ensuing kickoff, in a scrum, the ball got stripped from Dalvin Cook, and Chinn picked that one up and ran it in for a touchdown with 13:51 left in the third. What’s that saying about every time you watch a game you’ll see something you never saw before? Pretty sure the two-TDs-in-two-defensive-plays qualifies. What a day for Chinn in the awful 28-27 loss: 13 tackles too.
— Sunday Night Football (@SNFonNBC) November 29, 2020
Jimmie Ward, safety, San Francisco. Ward continues to be one of the most impactful players and one of the league’s most under-appreciated ones. In the first half at L.A., Ward stripped running back Malcolm Brown of the Rams to force turnover number one. Turnover number two: In the final minute of the first half, Ward put a crushing blow on quarterback Jared Goff, forcing a fumble recovered by the Niners. Not his fault that the San Francisco offense converted neither turnover into points.
Jabal Sheard, defensive end, New York Giants. A game the Giants had to have was perilously close to disaster in the final minute. With the Giants leading 19-17, the Bengals had the ball at midfield needing maybe 17 yards for a good shot at a game-winning field goal. A loss here, and all the good the Giants had done in their recent 3-2 run would have dissolved. Pffft. Sheard, signed off the Jacksonville practice squad a month ago, steamed around the Bengals’ left side and strip-sacked quarterback Brandon Allen. The Giants recovered, preserving the two-point win. And this morning, strange as it seems, the New York Giants are in the first place in the NFC East, a division they haven’t won in nine years.
Special Teams Players of the Week
Brandon Wilson, safety/kick-returner, Cincinnati. For the second season in a row, Wilson, a sixth-round safety from Houston drafted in 2017, returned a kickoff for a touchdown. This time, it was a 103-yard return aided by perfect blocking up the middle by the Bengals return team. The only Giant with a chance at Wilson, near midfield? Kicker Graham Gano. No contest. That single play kept the undermanned Bengals in the game.
D.J. Wonnum, defensive end, Minnesota. The fourth-round rookie from South Carolina made a huge play with the Vikings teetering on the brink against Carolina. He blocked a chippy 28-yard Joey Slye field-goal try that would have put Carolina up 24-10 late in the third quarter. Maybe it wasn’t the biggest play in a 28-27 Minnesota comeback win, but it was one of them, and helped keep the Vikings close before the offense got hot in the fourth quarter.
Coach of the Week
Arthur Smith, offensive coordinator, Tennessee. Twenty-two seconds left, first half, Tennessee ball at the Indy 1-yard line. To this point, Derrick Henry had been a steamroller, with 17 carries for 140 yards and three touchdowns. Of course he’s getting the ball to finish off this masterpiece of a half. At the snap, Ryan Tannehill put the ball into Henry’s gut in a perfect play-action fake, then took it out, and Henry charged to the goal line over left tackle. Six Colts went with him. No lie. Six. And there has never been an easier touchdown than the one Tannehill jogged in to score. Remember the story I told you about Smith from training camp? GM Jon Robinson told me, “He zigs when the defense zags.” Such an apt description of Smith in general, and of this play specifically.
KEEPER! 😜 @ryantannehill1
— Tennessee Titans (@Titans) November 29, 2020
Goat of the Week
Zane Gonzalez, kicker, Arizona. Ended November the way he started it. In a 17-17 game with 1:52 left in the fourth quarter, Gonzalez, with a light breeze on the field in Foxboro, pushed a 45-yard field goal to the right; two minutes later, Nick Folk won it for the Patriots on a 50-yard field goal. Back on Nov. 8, with the Cards down three at the two-minute warning, Gonzalez was short on a 45-yard field goal that could have pushed the Miami-Arizona game to overtime. Arizona is 6-5, and I won’t be surprised if GM Steve Keim works out kickers this week.
“I felt bad for the cardboard fans.”
—Saints coach Sean Payton, after New Orleans routed the quarterback-less Broncos 31-3 before the cutout fans in Denver.
“Our football operation needs new leadership, and we will have it with a new general manager in 2021.”
—Jacksonville owner Shad Khan, announcing the firing of GM Dave Caldwell after he went 37-86 in eight years as GM.
“It’s Turkey Bowl football with the family on Thanksgiving weekend, trying to find an open person. He still hasn’t found one. Hinton is 0-for-six.”
—Scott Hanson of NFL Network, host of NFL RedZone, watching the Broncos and their first-time NFL quarterback Kendall Hinton in the first half Sunday
“I just want to say like, literally, to the girls out there: You can do anything you set your minds to.”
—Sarah Fuller, who became the first woman to play in a Power Five conference football game Saturday, kicking off to start the second half in Vanderbilt’s loss at Missouri.
“He could have easily been the best ever to play the position.”
—Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, noting the 13th anniversary of the former Washington safety Sean Taylor’s death Friday.
“Wow. I never thought that would be broken. Thought that would stand the test of time. DiMaggio’s 56 … “
—Tony Romo on CBS on Thanksgiving, when CBS showed one of the all-time silly graphics in the second quarter of Houston-Detroit: record for touchdown passes on Thanksgiving. Romo 18, Matthew Stafford 17.
Wow, you’d think Dallas and Detroit play on Thanksgiving every year. Romo’s tone, to me, was him saying to his graphics team, Oh, come on.
If it seems to you like the COVID numbers are multiplying in recent weeks, you’re right. The NFL every day tests approximately 70 players and approximately 100 player-facing employees per team (coaches, training staff, equipment staff, etc.).
In three months of testing, from Aug. 1 to Oct. 31, 63 players and 99 team staffers tested positive for COVID-19, a total of 162 positives.
In three weeks of testing, from Nov. 1 to Nov. 21, 60 players and 118 team staffers tested positive for COVID-19, a total of 178 positives.
Let’s look at it week by week. It’s amazing how symmetrical to the national COVID numbers the NFL numbers are—and how November in the NFL is so similar to November across the United States.
Nightmare in the Motor City Dept.:
The Lions hired defensive wunderkind Matt Patricia in 2018 to turn the franchise into a consistent contender (isn’t that the quest of every organization hiring a coach?), and Patricia took to it right away. He said he was on a mission to eliminate bad football. Instead, the Lions are on their way to a third straight last-place finish in the NFC North, and Patricia (presumably) cleaned out his office over the weekend after getting the ax.
This mission to eliminate bad football flamed out, and it’s not apparent just because of the 13-29-1 record in Patricia’s 2.7 seasons.
On defense, the Lions, after a lost 2018 season, thought they entered 2019 on a playoff track. In the last two seasons, they’re 31st and 27th in the league in yards allowed. This was the unit that surely would have been shored up by the defensive mastermind.
In penalties, the Lions are last in the NFC North over the past two years. Flags thrown, per game, since the start of the 2019 season, against each team in the division: Minnesota 6.82, Green Bay 7.11, Chicago 7.69, Detroit 7.96.
In disorganization, the Lions have been at the head of the class too. Detroit played two snaps in Week 8 against Indianapolis with 10 men on defense. In Week 9, it happened again. Ten men on the field when Vikings back Dalvin Cook gashed Detroit for 70 yards and a touchdown. What made the Cook play so spectacularly awful: It was the first play of a series, so it’s not like Detroit got caught in a bad substitution. Minnesota’s play design matched up perfectly with the missing right defensive end (either Everson Griffen or Romeo Okwara), and you could see immediately that the Lions knew they were cooked. Just before the snap, Jamie Collins, the right outside ‘backer, saw there was no one at the end and frantically motioned to the sideline for someone to run onto the field. Too late. One last thing: Minnesota was in a perfect power formation—two tight end and a lead fullback to pave the way for Cook. It would have been an upset if Cook didn’t score on the play.
I sense a trend.
• Thanksgiving Week 2019: Raiders, 6-4, travel to the Eastern Time Zone to face a three-win team playing out the string and get blown out. Final: Jets 34, Raiders 3.
• Thanksgiving Week 2020: Raiders, 6-4, travel to the Eastern Time Zone to face a three-win team playing out the string and get blown out. Final: Falcons 43, Raiders 6.
NFL players usually do some generous things at Thanksgiving. This deed impressed me: An undrafted rookie practice-squad player recently elevated to the Arizona active roster, cornerback Jace Whittaker, donated $2,500 to feed 40 families in need from a Tempe, Ariz., middle school. An NFL practice-squad player, if kept at that classification, makes about $142,800 a year. That number rises if the player is promoted to the active roster. As of this week, Whittaker’s projected annual salary is $252,000. Nice gesture from a player who has no idea if he even has a future in the NFL, and good of the Cardinals to point him in the direction of a school in need.
“I don’t have a big contract,” Whittaker said Saturday. “But we are all God’s children. I understand the world today, with the pandemic and the employment situation, is in need. This is my first real job ever, and my family and I thought it would be a good thing to help people. My parents raised me to be kind to everyone. Football, thankfully, is helping me do something like this.”
Michigan native Robert Saleh should have a missed call waiting for him from the Lions organization when he gets back to the locker room. #49ers
— Trent Dilfer (@DilfersDimes) November 29, 2020
Trent Dilfer is a former NFL quarterback and commentator.
The Kansas City Chiefs just kicked a 19-yard field goal? In this economy?
— Aaron Schatz 🏈 (@FO_ASchatz) November 29, 2020
Aaron Schatz, who runs Football Outsiders, witnessing KC bypassing a fourth-and-goal from the one-foot line for a field goal.
AJ Brown has been tackled but no one who has done it lived to tell the tale.
— Kevin Clark (@bykevinclark) November 29, 2020
Clark covers the NFL for The Ringer.
I watched Sarah Fuller kick off with my two girls, and we all clapped and my eyes welled with tears. … As a child, I sat on the couch with my dad so many years ago wishing I could play football, too. Seeing this moment with my own daughters, it defies words.
— Andrea Adelson (@aadelsonESPN) November 28, 2020
Andrea Adelson is a reporter for ESPN.
— ABC News (@ABC) November 25, 2020
The ABC News account, doubtless fascinated by the eyes on this great owl. You will be too.
This was so interesting to me. This owl was cared for and rehabbed for seven or eight days, and then the caretakers took the owl to a wooded area, held the owl’s talons while extending an arm, and the owl trusted the human so much that it just sat there for a moment. I found the owl’s trust in the human amazing.
Good question about the Ravens-Steelers moves. From Steve Abbott, via Twitter: “I understand the safety concerns that keeps moving Steelers-Ravens, but why keep Steelers-Washington for Sunday for five days between, but give Ravens the extra day with a move to Monday and six days between?”
Smart question, Steve. I believe there are three logical reasons. One: Moving Cowboys-Ravens to Monday at 5 p.m. ET allows FOX to keep the game near prime time, and the Cowboys in the evening, regardless of their record, is always an attractive game for ratings
Two: The NFL has already asked networks and teams to move games and gametimes a lot during the season. If it was urgently required to move a game, the NFL would likely try to do it. In this case, I think if FOX—which also has the Washington-Pittsburgh game in the early window Sunday—really wanted the games to be switched, and Baltimore-Dallas moved to Sunday with the Steelers going to Monday, the NFL would try to do it. But I don’t think FOX wants to lose Dallas in an evening window.
Three: The NFL is in the midst of long-term media rights negotiations with the networks. For such a minimal return as an extra day of rest for the Steelers, I doubt the league would browbeat FOX to do something the network would not want to do.
In support of the Detroit owner. From Clifford Traisman, of Seattle. “Watch the press conference of Detroit Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp, particularly the first few minutes, and tell me if most male owners would have been as direct and forthcoming as she was in discussing the firings of her top football heads. I found it an illuminating contrast. Well done Ms. Ford Hamp for your honest and direct approach.”
It’s not difficult to speak the obvious—that the Lions are in tatters. Now there is work to be done to find two exemplary football people and leaders who can build the kind of cooperative and great team that Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn could not, and to figure out what to do with Matthew Stafford. I did watch, and she did fine. That was the easy part.
1. I think I hope you can take a few moments to watch a project NBC producer Annie Koeblitz and I have been working on for a few weeks. When the Ivy League cancelled the football season in July, a group of 17 senior Princeton players got together to say, essentially, Not us. We’re not going out this way. The Senior 17 did something about it, which you’ll see in the piece we did. “The kids on this team really make me emotional sometimes,” Princeton football coach Bob Surace told me. “I’m grateful to be their coach. We have players working full-time in the pandemic to help support their families. It’s a difficult burden for some of them, and it’s tough to not be around your friends and not know when you’ll see them again. Some of the players, many of them, are struggling with isolation. It’s hard when you’re used to a connective culture.” But I didn’t come away from this story feeling sorry for the players. I came away being boosted by them. Watch the video:
2. I think this is some Week 12 standings detritus:
• Amazing to see that the 12-week AFC wild cards would be Cleveland, Miami and Indy—just ahead of Baltimore, Las Vegas, New England.
• Cleveland a five seed. Wild.
• With everything they’ve been through, the 5-6 Niners have a real chance to get hot and steal a Wild Card spot. Only a game out.
• One thing plaguing Pittsburgh? The Steelers are 10-0, yet have just a half-game lead on KC for the AFC top seed.
• Two very big things may depend on Tampa’s two meetings with Atlanta in the final three weeks of the season: a playoff berth for the Bucs, and the realistic chances of Raheem Morris to get the full-time gig with the Falcons.
• God rest ye merry football fans: The Dec. 25 late-afternoon Friday game, Minnesota at New Orleans, could have huge meaning for both teams. Could mean playoffs or no playoffs for the Vikes, and could influence home-field for the Saints.
3. I think you’ll enjoy this about the NFC East. The four teams are a combined 14-28-1, and in the next seven days, they’re underdogs in every game: Seattle at Philadelphia (tonight), and, next week, Philadelphia at Green Bay, Washington at Pittsburgh, Giants at Seattle, Dallas at Baltimore (assuming Baltimore gets some of its players back). The leader in the NFC East could enter Week 14 with a 4-8 record.
4. I think kudos this week go to Sarah Fuller, the Vanderbilt kicker with PLAY LIKE A GIRL emblazoned on the back of her helmet. Fuller, the first woman to play in a Power Five conference game, kicked off to start the second half of a 41-0 loss at Vanderbilt (it was Vandy’s only kickoff opportunity of the day), a low line-drive kick that was recovered and downed by Missouri at its 35-yard line.
Fuller got the vitriol you’d expect on some social channels before the game—publicity stunt, a girl has no business on the field with guys who will take shots at her, etc. But she got backed by her new mates. “Trust me when I say no one on the team is offended or upset,” tweeted quarterback Mike Wright of the Commodores. “We are excited Sarah is a part of our team. . . . To the people who believe this is an issue, look in the mirror and you’ll see the actual problem.” Love that. Congrats to Fuller, and I hope it’s not a one-week deal. Vandy at Georgia between the hedges next week, and Fuller could have an Act II.
5. I think there are days, and Sunday was one of them, when I think Tennessee could beat Kansas City or Pittsburgh to reach the Super Bowl. The Titans may have to beat both on the road in an eight-day span to get to the Super Bowl. Part of that faith is rooted in Derrick Henry, who has 14 games of 100 rushing yards or more in his last 20.
6. I think the 37-point loss to Atlanta on Sunday might prove to be the game the Raiders look back and say, That’s the game that cost us. I know Jon Gruden is trying, but he’s got to get the ball to Henry Ruggs more than 17 times in 12 weeks. When you look at the pace Justin Jefferson is on in Minnesota—76 catches, 1,335 yards, 17.7-yard average—it just makes you wonder why Ruggs won’t even be close. I know he’s had some trouble getting off press coverage. They’ve just got to try harder to get him the ball.
7. I think the prescient column of the month belongs to Kalyn Kahler of Bleacher Report. Fifteen days before the Lions fired Matt Patricia, she wrote this. And when you read that, you likely felt it was just a matter of time for Patricia.
8. I think there is a golden ethos I learned from Bill Parcells about how to treat players. Once you’ve won a title, or won big, you’ve got what Parcells called “a pelt on the wall,” and you can act your way, because if the players don’t like it, the coach will find players who want to play for a winner. But if you haven’t won anything significant, and you feel the coach is disrespectful, there’s going to be a gap between coach and players that can grow into a major problem. This was the money quote Kahler got from former Lions safety Glover Quin on that: “When you are cursing me like I am a little boy—hold on bro, you don’t have to talk to me like that to get your point across. We are partners, we are working together. When you are dealing with grown men, we are going to talk to each other like men. Don’t talk to me like you own me.” Judging by the reaction of former Lions to the firing, Quin was not alone.
9. I think the Saturday afternoon news dump worked quite well for the most anonymous owner in recent NFL history, Sheila Hamp Ford. Imagine cleaning house, firing your lightning-rod coach and the GM too, and it’s the third story in the news cycle. Maybe fourth. You be the judge: 1) COVID gone wild in Baltimore. 2) Broncos playing the equipment man at QB. 3) Lions’ mess. 4) Niners have to move out of Santa Clara for a while. The Detroit story is huge in Michigan, but because we knew it was going to happen, not sure it’s a big deal anywhere else.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Podcast of the Week: “A Day at the Food Pantry,” by Nikita Stewart, Annie Brown and Stella Tan of The Daily, a New York Times podcast. They spent a day at a Brooklyn food bank. How the system of feeding people is teetering on collapse across the country while Washington fiddles is disgraceful.
b. Stewart, a reporter at the Times covering poverty, and Brown and Tan, audio producers, walk the swollen line of locals waiting for food. Their stories, wrenching. Worth your time. And then Stewart riffs:
For most of my life, I tried not to think about this stuff. I didn’t want to think about poverty. So most of my journalistic career, I spent covering politics and political corruption. And then, in 2015, The Times asked me if I would be interested in covering social services. And I had to ask myself why I hadn’t covered social services in all the years that I had been a reporter. And I realized that it was just because it hit too close to home.
My family went in and out of poverty. Sometimes there were these great, prosperous times, and there were other times that we were on food stamps. And I have those memories of going to pick up my free lunch card. Sometimes I didn’t go pick it up, because I was afraid someone would see me. And other kids would be like, oh, why aren’t you eating today? And I’d be like, oh, I’m not hungry. And that was so not true. I was starving. And for the most part my family kept food. But there were times when the food stamps had run out and it wasn’t the first of the month yet. And I remember this time when my mom was at work. My sister and I, we opened the refrigerator, we opened the freezer, and there was very little there except for these two frozen burritos. We had been washing the dishes. And when I went to open my burrito, it fell into the soapy water and I couldn’t eat it. And I remember my sister split her burrito with me. And that’s what we ate that day. (Through tears) And it’s something I’ll never forget. Just thinking about that sharing and the necessity of sharing. And so it’s really hit me during the pandemic, reporting on the people who’ve been in the lines. Because I think about those frozen burritos.
There’s this tendency for people like me, who’ve experienced poverty, to not talk about it. You want to forget about it, like it didn’t happen. But if we all keep this secret, it creates this stigma where there shouldn’t be one. So I’m glad I’m able to talk about my family’s poverty now, at least a little bit.
c. Such a valuable piece of audio journalism.
d. RIP, Diego Maradona. What a life. Impossible to capture in 1,500 words, but Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated does it quite well here.
e. One of the most complex characters of the last 50 years, Maradona is most famous for his play in the 1986 World Cup against England. Writes Wahl:
Maradona scored two goals four minutes apart that could be described as the greatest and most notorious World Cup goals of all time. On the first, Maradona leaped in the air and beat English goalkeeper Peter Shilton to the ball, surreptitiously (and illegally) using his left fist to punch the ball into the goal. Maradona would later say the goal had been scored by “la mano de Dios,” and it was forever known as the Hand of God goal.
But Maradona’s second goal that day was a distillation of all the qualities—superhuman ball control, next-level speed of thought and the sheer audacity of his imagination—that made him perhaps the sport’s greatest genius. Receiving the ball in his own half near midfield, Maradona spun and flicked it with his left foot to elude two defenders, then embarked on a glorious 60-yard run at speed, never touching the ball with his right foot, beating four more hapless English interlopers before sliding the ball past Shilton into the net. The television call from Argentine commentator Víctor Hugo Morales remains indelible: “What planet did you come from?”
f. Wahl lives the game. I can visualize him typing those words, effortlessly and passionately.
g. Radio Story of the Week: NPR’s “Morning Edition” on the cost of the pandemic for one New Mexico family, Matt and Susan Simonds and daughters. The sadness that drips through this piece—Matt lost his distillery business because of financial pressure brought on by the pandemic—is heartbreaking. A snippet from the Simondses and host David Greene:
Matt Simonds: “We were down to a staff of three people, and these are employees that have been with me. Some of them have family at home. And more than anything, they believed in me. And yeah, there’s a sense of failure.”
Greene: “I don’t think you should feel like a failure.”
Susan Simonds: “I don’t think he should either. I don’t think it’s his fault. These are circumstances beyond what any of us could have foreseen. And, you know, we’re not the only business failing.”
Matt Simonds: “The part that gets me is this isn’t just my livelihood, but this is staff. This is my suppliers, people that have relied on me to order ingredients, to order supplies. And it’s not just me. It’s businesses across the city and the state and the country that are all facing down the same barrel. And what could I have done differently to protect all these people?
h. Historic couple of weeks for Jaret Patterson. Never heard of him? He’s the Buffalo running back (Buffalo, as in Mid-American Conference) who compiled this stat line in two wins against Bowling Green and Kent State:
Average yards per carry: 9.22
i. Big game Saturday in Athens at the alma mater: Buffalo (4-0) at Ohio (2-1), 3:30 p.m.
j. Speaking of the alma mater: Congrats to the Ohio women’s basketball team for the upset win over Notre Dame on Friday.
k. And speaking of athletic accomplishments: Nice season for UMass football. Finished 0-4, scored 12 points in 16 quarters, and had these results: Georgia Southern 41, UMass 0 . . . Marshall 51, UMass 10 . . . Florida Atlantic 24, UMass 2 . . . Liberty 45, UMass 0. Add that to 1-11 last year, and it might be logical to wonder how a football team that plays in the same state as the six-time Super Bowl champs is so consistently awful.
l. Sports Story of the Week: Steve Rushin of Sports Illustrated on the death of the sports bar. Masterful and so interesting. Rushin is fantastic at looking at a story happening before our very eyes that many of us don’t think of as a story, and writing it superbly, and making it sing.
m. The Fours, in Boston, was named America’s best sports bar in 2005, and it’s gone. Rushin on The Fours, and on owner Peter Colton:
The nationwide lockdown arrived in March, the best time for sports bars, when March Madness, St. Patrick’s Day, MLB’s Opening Day and—for The Fours, at least—college hockey pay the freight for the leaner summer months of the NBA and NHL offseasons. As a result, perishable inventories were high when the bars shut down.
Even before COVID-19, as flex schedules and work-from-home killed the business lunch, and smartphones proliferated, communal experience was drying up. The first thing patrons do upon entering is slap a phone on the bar, just as cowboys did their guns in Western saloons. “Families come out to dinner and everyone has their phone out and no one’s talking,” says Colton. “It changed. It’s strange.”
Before every pocket concealed a camera, Celtics greats Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Bill Walton would come in and sit at the bar like a living diorama. “They’d bust each other’s chops,” Colton says. (The 1979 press release announcing Bird’s signing with the Celtics, typewritten on yellowing letterhead, is framed above the bar.) These athletes used to literally give The Fours the shirts off their backs, but those shirts have become too valuable now and go to wealthy collectors or to charity auctions. “Guys used to say, ‘I’d love to have my shirt up there,’” says Colton. “Nowadays, it’s a different era.”
n. Citizen of the Week: Aaron Van Langevelde, who, per Politico chief political correspondent Tim Alberta, ended the political drama in Michigan this way:
In the end, it wasn’t a senator or a judge or a general who stood up to the leader of the free world. There was no dramatic, made-for-Hollywood collision of cosmic egos. Rather, the death knell of Trump’s presidency was sounded by a baby-faced lawyer, looking over his glasses on a grainy Zoom feed on a gloomy Monday afternoon, reading from a statement that reflected a courage and moral clarity that has gone AWOL from his party, pleading with the tens of thousands of people watching online to understand that some lines can never be uncrossed.
“We must not attempt to exercise power we simply don’t have,” declared Van Langevelde, a member of Michigan’s board of state canvassers, the ministerial body with sole authority to make official Joe Biden’s victory over Trump. “As John Adams once said, ‘We are a government of laws, not men.’ This board needs to adhere to that principle here today. This board must do its part to uphold the rule of law and comply with our legal duty to certify this election.”
Van Langevelde is a Republican. He works for Republicans in the Statehouse. He gives legal guidance to advance Republican causes and win Republican campaigns. As a Republican, his mandate for Monday’s hearing—handed down from the state party chair, the national party chair and the president himself—was straightforward. They wanted Michigan’s board of canvassers to delay certification of Biden’s victory. Never mind that Trump lost by more than 154,000 votes, or that results were already certified in all 83 counties.
o. Writes Alberta:
“… Election Day, in the eyes of veteran clerks and poll workers across the state, was the smoothest it had ever been. Like clockwork, one can always depend on controversies—sometimes mini-scandals—to spring up by noontime on any given Election Day. But not in 2020. There were no documented instances of voter intimidation. No outcry over precincts opening late or closing early. Heck, in the state’s biggest and busiest voting jurisdictions, there were no lines to complain about. The day was eerily uneventful.”
p. Hat tip to a reader, Bert Katz, for pointing out that Politico story.
q. Truth wins.
r. Beernerdness: The Thanksgiving beer was Other Half Superfun! Pale Ale (Other Half Brewing Co., Brooklyn, N.Y.), and it was a good one. We ate dinner late in the afternoon, so I had two 16-ounce frosted glasses of this, from a growler over a three-hour period. Perfect fall beer. Flavorful (with citrus and hops prevalent), and so fresh. Liked it a lot.
A GM told me,
It’s not only a chapter.
This season’s a book.