Five things that early in the 2020 season you never expected to see in the NFL in the first week of December:
• The Giants taking over first place in the NFC East without Saquon Barkley and Daniel Jones, winning in Seattle, winning four straight . . . and people actually starting to think, You know, you really might not want to play the Giants in January.
• The Browns looking like playoff locks, and Baker Mayfield looking like how the first pick in a draft should look.
• The MVP race finally getting some clarity with almost 75 percent of the season in the books, and Russell Wilson on the outside looking in.
• Two defensive coordinators that only the analytics crowd knows well, Brandon Staley (Rams) and Patrick Graham (Giants), muscling their way into a foggy picture of head-coach candidates.
• Four weeks left in the NFL regular season after tomorrow, with none of the 192 games in the first 13 weeks postponed till after the season. COVID-19 is a deadly scourge. Surely there’d be six, eight, 10 games postponed till “Week 18,” and quite possibly some teams might play 12 or 14 games instead of 16. Making the 2020 sausage has been ugly at times—often times—but, knock on formica, the regular season just might get done on time.
There’s one other thing it’s likely no one saw coming, one person no one saw as a breakout Week 13 star.
Steve Kornacki, the khakied one, knows voting trends in Ashtabula County and the uber-red Florida counties and the left-leaning Philly burbs. He knows football too. So NBC put him on the big (playoff) board Sunday night in the Football Night in America studio. Using Pro Football Focus playoff-probability stats, Kornacki broke down the playoff races in both conferences, and he did it in his inimitable sleeves-rolled-up-and-fired-up way.
Kornacki at the NFL Big Board was trending on Twitter, right alongside the latest Cardi B news and Rudy Giuliani contracting COVID. “Steve Kornacki has to be on every Sunday night front now on,” tweeted Judy Battista of NFL Digital Media.
That’s the plan, Judy.
Exactly a month earlier, Kornacki was at the NBC and MSNBC big boards, doing the political version of forecasting the playoffs. The political things might have been slightly more important . . . except to Browns fans swooning over their team finally being respectable enough to get the Kornacki playoff seal of approval. On his drive home from the NBC studio Sunday night, Kornacki said this felt like figuring out if Maricopa County indeed was going to flip to Biden.
“This feels like the Road to 270, except this is for the playoffs,” Kornacki said. “We did a segment tonight where we were talking about the Cardinals falling to the eighth spot in the playoffs, and Minnesota moves into number seven, but the model still likes Arizona’s chances over Minnesota. It’s like looking at, Well you know in Michigan, right now, Trump is 12 points ahead—but if you look at the ballots that are still to be counted, where they’re coming from, it says Biden.” It’s a very similar thing to election night. I felt it right away.”
The Giants, the Browns, COVID, Brandon Staley, Steve Kornacki. What a long strange trip it’s been.
Eight weeks ago, the Giants lost 37-34 in Dallas to fall to 0-5. Looked very much like a lost season, even in the wasteland that was the NFC East. But that’s not how the head coach, Joe Judge, saw it. In his post-game press conference, he said with no resignation: “All that really matters, to be honest with you, is the progress that we’re making right now. The record will come in time. Obviously, we’re not happy about losses—that’s not what we do here—but I’ve seen a lot of progress on all fronts and all units.”
The next day, he was similarly even, businesslike and not seeming concerned about 0-5. “I’m not a rainbows-and-sunshine type of guy,” Judge said. “I’m also not a browbeat-you-and-rub-your-nose in it guy, either. It’s, ‘This is what it is. Understand what we’re doing good that we can build on.” But this, from Oct. 12, is the most important thing Judge said, and really what his team has heard since he got hired last winter: “You hear a lot about that expression, ‘Learn to win.’ To me, you can make a lot about the 60th minute of the game, when really it starts in the first 59 minutes of the game. You learn to win by doing your assignment on a consistent basis.”
And really, the process is what Judge learned in his years coaching under Nick Saban at Alabama and Bill Belichick in New England. No one wants to hear endlessly about the process because it’s boring and it doesn’t come with magic, quick results. It’s like what Drew Brees once told me when I asked him about his advice to young quarterbacks. He thought for a minute, then answered earnestly in a way the best coaches would truly appreciate. What Brees said: “So much of our league is about results, right? We’re in a results-driven business. But truly, it is about the process. If you focus on the process, the result will take care of itself. Develop your process. Focus on that process. Too many times, we get frustrated because the result didn’t match up with the process. But if you just focus on the process, eventually you get to the point where good process will consistently equal good result.”
That’s what we’re seeing with the Giants now. Since that 0-5 start, the Giants are 5-2, with the two losses agonizing ones traced to turnovers. In those seven games, in the midst of one of the biggest offensive seasons in NFL history, New York is giving up 18.9 points per game, led by defensive coordinator Patrick Graham. On Sunday, against 11-point-favorite Seattle, the Giants defensed Russell Wilson into one of the most frustrating days of his nine-year career. He had no peace all day, hounded by a Giants front seven with overlooked and doubted vets (Leonard Williams, Jabaal Sheard) and rookies (seventh-round rookie linebackers Carter Coughlin and Tae Crowder). Interesting, really, that public enemy number one for Giants’ fans, GM Dave Gettleman, has worked well with Judge and gotten him the caliber of player Judge wants. You could criticize Gettleman’s previous Giants’ player acquisition, and certainly picking Barkley second overall, but being critical this year is disingenuous. Gettleman’s drafts, particularly on defense, have been very good.
On Sunday, the oft-magical Wilson wasn’t much of a factor, and his favorite receiver, DK Metcalf, wasn’t either. On play after play, when Wilson pirouetted left, a linebacker was there. Williams, in particular, wouldn’t let Wilson have enough time to find Metcalf or Tyler Lockett with the kind of zinged passes that had taken Seattle to an 8-3 record.
“Creating that spiderweb around Russell Wilson,” Leonard Williams said from Seattle post-game, “was huge. Just not letting him out of the pocket, not letting him run around freely, doing whatever he wants. Get some hits on him. Make him uncomfortable. Don’t let him scramble too much. Obviously, he’s a good player. But that’s where that grit and togetherness and being locked in comes in handy.
“I think a lot of it has to do with scheme obviously. I think Pat Graham is a great coordinator. But I think majority of it has to do with I think how much people are just bought in on this team. The overall team energy of how we come to work every day, how we come to practice, how we take losses and how we take wins is like we don’t listen to any outside noise. We come to work. We’re not reading any pats on the back out there. We’re not reading any doubters out there. We know who we have in the building and we come to work every day and I think just over time, it just creates such a good culture of hard work and just grit.”
Two things about Judge:
• He believes in regular sleep. Most NFL teams, on West-to-East or East-to-West trips, get out of town as fast as they can and get home often times at odd hours. Had the Giants left Seattle on Sunday night, they’d have gotten in their New Jersey beds by maybe 4:30 a.m. ET after the flight home. The Giants stayed in Seattle overnight Sunday. They would have a normal night’s sleep Sunday, then wake up and probably do a short team meeting, virtually, at their hotel. They’d fly home, and players would be back home by about 7:30 p.m. ET. Then the off day Tuesday, and another normal sleep night, then back at work Wednesday preparing for the next game. Instead of two iffy nights of sleep and then a recovery one Tuesday night, the Giants, theoretically, wouldn’t have a bad night of sleep leading into the next game week.
• He believes in listening to his players. Most NFL teams have turned to virtual team and position meetings through the week, a nod to doing everything possible to limit the internal spread of the coronavirus. Judge did it both ways—virtual meetings for the most part, and then in-person meetings two days a week. The Giants converted half of their cavernous field house in East Rutherford, N.J., into a huge meeting room for the in-person meetings. Recently, he asked his captains what they thought. You might have expected them to say, Let us keep meeting virtually from our homes. But they said they wanted the in-person meetings twice a week. So that’s how the Giants do business each Wednesday and Friday, masked and spread apart in the huge fieldhouse.
“When we first got Judge, honestly, we realized how hard he was on us,” said Williams. “And then some guys were like ‘Ugh, this is so hard.’ But then we realized how much he cares about winning and he cares about us being successful. He just does such a good job of getting guys to buy in. It’s hard to be a leader and get that many people bought in, in a short amount of time as well. And I think he did a great job of doing that even when we were losing and could’ve fallen apart.”
The new-look Giants have a tough fourth quarter of the season—Arizona, Cleveland, at Baltimore, Dallas—but the defense will keep them in every game. Amazing, really, that New York has two more wins than both Philadelphia and Dallas entering the last four weeks. In the NFL, nothing is forever. Even bad Giants football.
So: Kornacki is a Patriots fan. “But not a recent one,” he said. “I’m a Pats fan from the 1-15 years.” But he got to be a political nerd growing up in a politics hotbed, eastern Massachusetts, and this running the election boards at NBC, obviously, is perfect for him. He loves everything about the process of knowing voter trends and learning the voting habits of counties and states. “I took my dad to Ohio on a driving tour for two weeks in 2018,” Kornacki said. “I just wanted to get to know the state.” Now that’s dedication to job.
Soon after the election this year, NBC Sports called NBC News to see if Kornacki—who’d become a sensation during the presidential election—might want to do some football forecasting. “I got a call from my boss, I wanna say, a week after the election just saying that like NBC Sports had some ideas, wanted to talk. I’d say about the last two weeks, we put it together.”
Once the playoff race started to be defined, Kornacki would do several segments in the NBC studio on Sunday night. He debuted Sunday night, taking Pro Football Focus data—Cris Collinsworth is majority owner of the analytics site—to project the playoffs. Kornacki did it the same way as with the electoral map, tapping on a big board to bring up AFC and NFC playoff data, and excitedly projecting and circling and tapping to make his points. The three takeaways from his first week of playoff forecasting:
Minnesota vs. Arizona. Tiebreakers put the 6-6 Vikings as the seventh seed in the NFC this morning, with 6-6 Arizona out of the money at eight. But the PFF data suggest Arizona has a 52 percent chance to make the playoffs and Minnesota 32 percent—mostly because the Vikes play two of their last four on the road at Tampa and New Orleans. “When I saw those numbers,” Kornacki said, “I did a double take. I went back to Pro Football Focus. I said, ‘Are you sure about this?’ In my mind, I’d put them even right now.” I agree, in part because one game that looked soft two or three weeks ago, Arizona at the Giants this weekend, now looks really tough for the Cardinals.
Chicago plummets. PFF has the Bears, 5-7, having a 6 percent shot to make the playoffs. And with the next three games against .500 or less teams—Houston, at Minnesota, at Jacksonville—the offensive offensiveness of Chicago makes 6 percent “sound about right” to Kornacki, he said.
Rise of the Giants. New York entered the day 4-7 and with a 32 percent chance of making the playoffs. That rose to 45 percent with the win over the Seahawks, and will rise more if Washington (4-7) loses this evening in Pittsburgh. “Assuming that Pittsburgh beats Washington, I think the Giants probability number would probably move north of 50 percent,” Kornacki said.
Kornacki was smooth on TV, and smooth with me. He might have a future in this business.
What I like about the Browns this morning:
Baker Mayfield was legit in a big game. I’ve been negative on Mayfield, particularly his inaccuracy downfield. He was marvelous on those deep balls Sunday in building a huge lead. His TD throws to Donovan Peoples-Jones (45 yards in the air) and Rashard Higgins (33) were both perfect. Forget the numbers, which were very good. This was about Mayfield hitting open receivers in stride, which is vital for the Browns down the stretch. Cleveland now is the fifth seed in the AFC at 9-3. Seeing that they might have to beat explosive teams like Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Kansas City—perhaps in that order—should they make the playoffs having a big-strike offense is almost essential to January success.
The mindset of a team not feeling too good about itself. Coach Kevin Stefanski has been maniacal about the “just go 1-0 this week” ethos, and the players are buying. Really, what else matters? “No one’s playing for stats,” defensive end Myles Garrett told me post-game. “We’re just looking to be 1-0 and to win the day. That’s not just Sundays, that’s every day in practice competing, making sure that we’re there with that one mission in mind. We just go out there and play. Not much thinking, just being out there playing.”
I don’t like the defense barely finishing the job, but credit to the D for holding Derrick Henry to 60 rushing yards. Cleveland got outscored 28-3 in the second half, but not letting Henry take over the game paid off. The assignment, Garrett said, was no arm-tackling but to “show up violently against him, and grab a body part. You gotta ride him and knock him to the ground. For the most part, we did a good job.”
Garrett (10 games, 10.5 sacks) made an effective return from two weeks gone with COVID-19. He had a sack and three tackles, though he didn’t feel a strong as he usually is. “Having COVID,” he said, “is a helpless feeling, and not only being helpless to help my team but being so weak, so tired. Just so sore, that I just don’t wanna move. My body’s just hurting for no reason. Just random body parts, headache, eyes hurt, and you’re just trying to fight for however long this thing’s gonna be up on you.” I asked how he was feeling. “Pretty dang tired,” Garrett said. “But get back home, recover a little bit, get on the Peloton, start getting my wind back.”
He’d better hurry. Baltimore comes to Cleveland on Monday night, and the Ravens will have some desperation, needing three or four wins down the stretch to make the playoffs. “We are Cleveland,” Garrett said, “and we’re gonna try to make them proud.”
1. COVID scoreboard: As of this morning, 189 of 256 regular-season games have been played. If the last three games of the weekend are played (Washington-Pittsburgh and Buffalo-San Francisco tonight, Dallas-Baltimore tomorrow), that means 75 percent of the schedule is done—192 of 256 games. In the last four weekends of the season, with no byes, there are 16 games scheduled per week. Now the challenging part: getting the last 64 games in while the pandemic spreads and people move inside.
2. Someday we’ll find out how, in a game the Patriots won by 45 points, their starting quarterback threw for 69 yards and the New Englander with the most receptions (James White, 3) had one yard receiving. Man, football’s weird.
3. Someday we’ll find out why Miami coach Brian Flores let defensive coordinator Patrick Graham walk away after one season. Whatever happened, the Giants are grateful.
4. I don’t know how the Vikings won that game, but Dan Bailey (his two missed PATs forced the Vikings to barely survive in OT over the Jags) scares me, and I’m sure he scares Mike Zimmer too.
5. Good for the Raiders for finding a way to win, but it was the winless Jets, and Derek Carr was 3-for-11 and missed some throws he needed in the last 4:50 before finding Henry Ruggs for the thrilling winner. They’ve given up 71 points to teams with a combined 4-20 record in the last two Sundays. It’s fairly nuts that the Falcons and Jets outscored the Raiders by 34 in the last two weeks, and the Raiders outscored the Chiefs in their two games this year.
6. Just 35 short months ago, the Jaguars had a 20-10 lead with 10 minutes left in the AFC title game at Foxboro. This blows me away: The Jags are 12-33 since.
7. Future’s not looking so good for Anthony Lynn. New England 45, Chargers 0, and yes, it was that ugly. His team is imploding before our eyes. On the heels of a 5-11 season in 2019, going 3-9 (with losing streaks of four, three and two games) in another lost season is bad enough for Lynn. But the Chargers might not be able to be loyal to him entering an offseason of intense ticket-selling in a huge market that hasn’t been altogether welcoming.
8. I mean, Lynn’s got three wins: over the two-win Bengals, the one-win Jags and the zero-win Jets. And that’s with an explosive quarterback who came out of the box playing like a young Dan Fouts.
9. The Bears last won seven weeks ago. With that defense! Two years after winning Coach of the Year, Matt Nagy could be a victim of the Save Mitchell Trubisky Campaign gone awry.
10. Not that this week was the best for the interim coaches (1-2, with the two losses late and agonizing ones by Houston and Atlanta), but it’s been a good year for the seat-holders. Dan Quinn, Bill O’Brien and Matt Patricia, combined, were 4-16. Raheem Morris, Romeo Crennel and Darrell Bevell are 9-7.
11. So much for Derrick Henry’s stretch-run MVP campaign.
12. Excellent player we don’t talk enough about: Miami tight end Mike Gesicki. Productive, quasi-acrobatic, superb hands. With two Bengals bearing down on him in the open field in the third quarter, Gesicki stuck his long right arm into the sky and one-hand-caught a Tua Tagovailoa pass that 95 percent of the pass-catchers in the league would not have come down with. Amazing catch. I see a lot of those out of Gesicki, the 6-foot-6 ex-Nittany Lion. “Like he had a catcher’s mitt on to snag that,” James Lofton said, aptly, on CBS.
GESICKI DOES IT AGAIN. #FinsUp
— NFL (@NFL) December 6, 2020
13. The more I watch Vikings wideout Justin Jefferson (61 catches, 1,039 yards, 17.0 per catch), the more I think we’re watching the next superstar in the NFL.
14. It’s been a weird year for NFL coverage, sitting home every week instead of being at the occasional big game; I haven’t traveled on NFL business since a four-camp swing in mid-August. My home setup has a TV on my work desk, plus I stream a game on this laptop, plus I use a third screen from 1 to 7:20ish p.m. that stays on NFL RedZone, the NFL Network whiparound show hosted by Scott Hanson that had its 200th show on Sunday. Thanks for that, Scott Hanson. Your show is invaluable.
15. I get a kick out of Hanson’s fantasy football team name: the Iron Bladders. The owner must go eight hours without leaving the set on his commercial-free show. Now perhaps you get the fantasy name.
16. No idea how many chances Zane Gonzalez gets in Arizona, but it’s already been too many. If you can’t make a 48-yard field goal in weather-free conditions, after a slew of misses in big spots, it’s time to search for a new kicker.
17. And on the third start, Taysom Hill played quarterback. Thirty-seven throws, zero picks. In relief of the apparently returning Drew Brees, Hill has gone 3-0. Looks like Brees returns to inflict more punishment on Philadelphia next week.
18. My story celebrating the Hail Murray has really aged well. He’s 0-3 since the holy pass to DeAndre Hopkins beat Buffalo, with 61 rushing yards and a sub-pedestrian 204 passing yards per game. And now the Cards have to fly east to the Meadowlands on Sunday to face the sneaky-great (just ask Russell Wilson) Giants Defense. The Giants’ rush puts a spider-web-like mesh around the pocket. Murray’s not going to like being hemmed in.
19. Coach of the Year at the 74-percent mark of the season: 1) Mike Tomlin, 2) Kevin Stefanski, 3) Brian Flores.
20. In the last 40 days, Buffalo has traveled twice: to Arizona to play the Cardinals and to Arizona to play the Niners.
Every NFL team has a COVID-related story, or two, or three, to tell in 2020. The defending NFC champs might have the most interesting tale.
As the 49ers team plane prepped to take off nine days ago, on the way from San Jose to Los Angeles for a vital game against the Rams, GM John Lynch took the cabin mic from one of the flight attendants. In the buses on the way to the airport, they heard the county of Santa Clara was essentially evicting the Niners for at least three weeks and likely for the season, as a result of a ban on all public gatherings and team sports. Wives and girlfriends and family were blowing up the cellphones of players and coaches and staffers—Seriously, we’ve all got to relocate for Christmas and New Year’s?—and Lynch felt the need to calm the troubled waters.
“I asked the lead flight attendant who’s always with us on our charters, ‘Can I get on and make an announcement?’ “ Lynch said Sunday morning. “I said, ‘Here’s the situation. We’re all learning it real-time. There’s a lot of ramifications to it but we’ll focus on that. We preach all the time having each others’ backs. We preach all the time focusing on what we can control. This is the ultimate test of that. Here’s our commitment to you: We’ll find a situation that works and works well. We’ll look long and hard. We’ll look at every one and we’ll find the best one. I don’t have the answers but you guys focus on taking care of business in this game and then that will make the coming weeks a lot more fun for everyone.’ “
As Lynch spoke on Sunday, he could look out the windows of the 49ers’ new home away from home, the Renaissance in Glendale, across the parking lot, and see State Farm Stadium. There already was a little beehive of activity there: Rams at Cardinals, Sunday afternoon, in advance of the Niners-Bills game tonight—a San Francisco home game 717 miles southeast of Levi’s Stadium.
That game will have postseason implications for the 49ers because of what happened last weekend, when the presumably distracted/ticked-off Niners got their biggest win of the year, 23-20 over the Rams. “It’s the proudest I’ve been of our organization after any game we’ve played, considering everything, since we’ve been here,” Lynch said Sunday. At 5-6, San Francisco has a playoff prayer now.
The county had been in discussions with the Niners that week to create a soft bubble—an agreement that every person in the organization would go from home to the stadium and football facility and back, only. No visits to restaurants or stores or anywhere. The players weren’t thrilled, but understood the alternative was a shutdown. Then the shutdown “came as a complete surprise,” Lynch said. There were early considerations of playing in Oakland and San Diego, but not knowing if a state shutdown loomed made either impractical. The fact that the Cardinals were willing to welcome their division rivals and had a solid setup was the deciding factor. The Cards hold training camp between the Renaissance and the stadium. Everything’s within walking distance. There was no conflict with the remaining home games for the Cardinals and the 49ers. And the team brought four of its BioReference Labs COVID-testers with them, so the daily testing has been done on-site since the team arrived in Glendale on Wednesday.
Inside the hotel is 15,000 square feet of meeting space, which the Niners converted in equal areas to a weight room, a locker room and a trainers’ room. The Niners were given the practice field outside the stadium to use, and their hosts, led by Arizona owner Michael Bidwill, laid out the (Cardinal) red carpet.
“My respect for Michael Bidwill was already immense,” Lynch said. “We’re division rivals in the thick of this playoff thing. But what he’s done? Incredible. The first day we were here, I wanted to go walk the practice field and see how it was. It’s like 7:15 a.m., and their groundskeeper [Cards sports turf manager Andy Levy] is on his knees there with two other people putting in our goalposts. And they had practice that day [at the Cards’ practice facility in Tempe]. I said, ‘You gotta take care of your own team! We’ll figure this out.’ Andy said, ‘Mr. Bidwill said treat you guys like you’re our team.’ Kind of heartwarming.”
Here’s the craziest thing of this Arizona experience: Santa Clara County has said it will reconsider lifting the lockdown as early as Dec. 21. If it were lifted and the Niners could return home, that would mean the team would be home for four days and then have to get back on a plane Christmas afternoon for the scheduled Dec. 26 road game—at Arizona.
“One of the things that came from our players,” said Lynch, “is they’d been talking as a group. We had kind of told them, we’ll see after the 21st about this county order. We told them, wherever it is, Arizona or back home, you’ll be with your families at Christmas. We committed to them. Our players said, basically, Can you just call that now? Rather than wait around for our county, can we just make the call now to stay here so that we can make plans? I said, ‘Of course, absolutely.’ I was proud of them for figuring that out.”
Wait—there might be one thing that’s crazier. “There is one silver lining to this whole thing,” a Niners player told me over the weekend.
The state income tax in California is 13 percent. In Arizona, it’s 4.5 percent. Let’s say the Niners play their final three home games in Glendale. Players are taxed where they train and play. So that would mean that 3/17ths of each players’ per-week salary would be taxed at Arizona rates instead of California. For example, left tackle Trent Williams has a base salary of $12.5 million. That’s 17 weekly pay installments of $735,294. Each week of a home game, that would mean Williams would have $95,588 deducted for California taxes. But that number would shrink to $33,088 weekly in Arizona. So the three-game savings for Williams—admittedly one of the highest-paid players on the team—would be $187,500. Not a bad consolation prize for the inconvenienced players.
“The whole thing has been a monumental undertaking, and our organization has handled the logistics so well,” Lynch said. “But you can’t really revel in that. We’ve got an excellent team coming here in the Bills. I think our minds are in the right place, though.”
Offensive Players of the Week
Darren Waller, tight end, Las Vegas. The Raiders got saved by the rainbow TD pass from Derek Carr to Henry Ruggs, but it was Waller who was the life-preserver for four quarters for Las Vegas: eight catches for 123 yards and two TDs in the first half, five for 77 and none in the second half. What a matchup problem he was for the Jets all day.
Baker Mayfield, quarterback, Cleveland. Not the best final 20 minutes or so for Mayfield, but four touchdown passes, including two thrown wonderfully to lead receivers in coverage, keyed the Browns’ 41-35 win over Tennessee. Mayfield’s four TDs came over 13 minutes in the first half, on passes of 2, 1, 17 and 75 yards. As importantly, Mayfield’s penchant for throwing high balls wasn’t there in the Browns’ most significant victory of the year. The first pick in the 2017 draft completed 25 of 33 throws for 334 yards with no interceptions. More games like that and the Browns will not only make the playoffs but also be a factor in them. First Cleveland quarterback to throw four first-half TDs since the great Otto Graham in 1951.
Defensive Players of the Week
Kenny Moore II, cornerback, Indianapolis. With the Texans driving in Indy territory late in the third quarter, down 24-20, Deshaun Watson, who hadn’t thrown an interception in eight weeks, really didn’t throw one here either. Watson found Brandin Cooks for what looked to be a clear completion. One problem. On Cooks’ way down to the turf, Moore, a waiver-wire pickup from the Patriots in 2017, stole the ball. It’s a pick, but an awfully odd one.
Leonard Williams, defensive tackle, New York Giants. After being a lost sheep for much of his first five years in the league, Williams has been invigorated in defensive coordinator Patrick Graham’s scheme with the Giants this fall. Russell Wilson just couldn’t avoid him in Seattle. Williams had 2.5 sacks for 25.5 yards, and three more significant pressures in the Giants’ stunning 17-12 win.
Leonard Williams has won my heart pic.twitter.com/G0YgqIr8eE
— Alex Wilson (@AlexWilsonESM) December 7, 2020
Kyle Van Noy, linebacker, Miami. He doubled his sack total for the season—from three to six—with a dominant performance in Miami’s 19-7 win over the Bengals, and added eight tackles and two additional tackles for loss. With Miami’s offense struggling almost weekly, the 8-4 Dolphins are going to need more defensive performances like Sunday’s in south Florida.
Tyrann Mathieu, safety, Kansas City. Bookended the narrow 22-16 win over Denver with an interception on the Broncos’ first drive and one on their last. The first came 10 yards from the KC end zone, and the second at midfield. On a day when the Chiefs didn’t get the usual offensive firepower from Patrick Mahomes, Mathieu gave them the big plays they had to have to win.
Special Teams Players of the Week
Devin McCourty, safety, New England. Bill Belichick loves using key starters on special teams; normally you wouldn’t see a veteran leader of the defense on the punt-rush team. McCourty was in the right place at the right time as the second-quarter clock ran down to :00 in Los Angeles. After fellow defender Cody Davis blocked a Charger field-goal, McCourty picked it up and sprinted 44 yards for the touchdown that put the Chargers away, 28-0.
Gunner Olszewski, punt-returner/receiver, New England. His balletic 70-yard punt-return for touchdown gave the Patriots a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter. The second-year undrafted free agent from Bemidji State in Minnesota was within millimeters of the right sideline for the final 16 yards of the return, but managed to stay inbounds. Huge play in a game that, at the time, was offensively pathetic.
Jason Sanders, kicker, Miami. More of a season achievement award for Sanders, who is a league-best 96.6 percent accurate in field goals (28 of 29). He was four of four in the 19-7 win over Cincinnati, from 25, 48, 23 and 19 yards.
Coach of the Week
Patrick Graham, defensive coordinator, New York Giants. What a game plan Graham cooked up against the master Seattle chef, Russell Wilson. I watched almost every snap of this game, and Wilson was never comfortable. Not for a single play. Graham’s front seven built a trap around Wilson and never let him breathe, sacking him five times for 47 yards (some very big losses among those sacks), holding Seattle to 4-of-15 on third and fourth downs, and holding Wilson to one drive of longer than 60 yards. Think of how crazy this is: The Giants traveled to a team vying for the top seed in the NFC, and played without Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley . . . and won. Much of that was due to a defense that lines up new players every week and finds a way to suffocate foes.
Goat of the Week
Nick Martin, center, Houston. With 1:28 left against Indianapolis, Texans ball at the Colt 2-yard line, Texans down six, the unthinkable—Martin low-balled the shotgun snap back to Deshaun Watson. The Colts attacked the pocket and linebacker Anthony Walker dove for the ball, beating Watson to it. Amazing turn of events. Gutting mistake by a good player, Martin. “I should have caught that snap,” Watson said. Maybe, but it was a lousy snap at a crucial time.
“Whenever I’m about to do something, I think to myself, ‘Would an idiot do that?‘ And if they would, then I don’t do that.”
—Baker Mayfield, after one of his best games as a pro, the 41-35 win at Tennessee. If you’re not familiar with the quote, it’s from Dwight Schrute, the beet farmer.
“I think we could have been in a better call in that situation.”
—Jets safety Marcus Maye, after New York rushed eight and left undrafted free-agent rookie cornerback Lamar Jackson in single coverage, resulting in the winning TD pass with five seconds left Sunday.
“That was one of the worst football games I’ve been involved with in my 30 years in the NFL as a player and coach.”
—Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, after New England 45, Chargers 0.
“Do you expect to be the coach of the Chargers tomorrow?”
—Reporter, post-game, to Lynn on Sunday.
For the record, Lynn said yes, he did.
“In their beginning years, they’re like a fart in a skillet. They’re just bouncing around everywhere, like popcorn.”
—Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, describing his group of young wide receivers.
Must say I’ve never heard that analogy in my 63 years on the planet.
Gregg Williams has been a defensive coordinator for the Browns and Jets since 2017. (He was DC in 2018 for Cleveland for eight games and interim head coach for eight games.) The record of each team with Williams as defensive coordinator since opening day 2017:
Browns: 2-21-1, including 0-16 in 2017.
Jets: 7-21, including 0-12 in 2020.
Wins: 9, in 52 games.
What seemed incredible Sunday, but very Williams-like, was the winning touchdown by the Raiders. The Jets led 28-24 with 13 seconds left, and the Raiders had third-and-10 at the New York 46. The Raiders had most likely two plays left, max, with no timeouts. So Williams called an eight-man rush, zero safeties deep. Dangerous. More dangerous: Henry Ruggs, the fastest man in the draft this year, was split left against an undrafted free agent corner from Nebraska, Lamar Jackson. This was not a fair fight, Ruggs on the undrafted rookie. One double-move later, Ruggs had two steps on Jackson, Derek Carr dropped a perfect throw into Ruggs, and the Jets had one of the most bitter defeats in recent franchise history.
That’s saying something.
The Bengals, in their last 20 road games, are 0-19-1.
Pittsburgh tight end Eric Ebron was angry last week that the Steelers’ game was postponed multiple times so Pittsburgh would have to play consecutively on Wednesday-Monday-Sunday. On the Uninterrupted 17 Weeks podcast, he said of this year’s NFL schedule: “Nobody thought you would play three games in 12 days. Think about that. That’s us . . . Oh my God. They’re trying to see us fail, bro.” He implied he would rather lose a game check than play three times in 12 days.
Ebron needs to be refreshed. This is the sixth time in a seven-year NFL career that he’s played three games in 12 days:
In 2014, 2015 and 2017 with Detroit, all around the Lions’ annual Thanksgiving Day game.
In 2018 and 2019 with the Colts.
The majority of players in the NFL play three games in 12 days in most seasons, because more than half the players in the NFL play one Thursday game per year. So: Sunday to Sunday to Thursday, the usual way this falls unless your bye is in the middle of it, is 12 days. That means players would get six days rest between games one and two, three days rest between games two and three. Thursday games have been collectively bargained between owners and players; Ebron’s union, then, has signed off on the concept of three games in 12 days.
The Steelers, in this case, will have a Wednesday to Monday to Sunday slate—four days’ rest between games one and two, five days rest between games two and three.
One other point: Steelers, in 12 days, play home-home-at Buffalo (49-minute flight).
Green Bay this year, in 12 days, was at Houston-home-at San Francisco. That’s a 3:18 flight to Houston, 4:33 flight to San Francisco (on a short week).
Denver this year, in 12 days, was at Pittsburgh-home-at New York Jets. That’s a 2:50 flight to Pittsburgh, 3:32 flight to Newark (on a short week).
Noteworthy about the third games in the 12-days span for the Packers and Broncos: Green Bay, after the long haul west, beat the Niners by 17. Denver, after the long haul east, beat the Jets by nine.
In 2018, the Jets played three games in 11 days. The Titans did too. Both had Monday-Sunday-Thursday slates.
I don’t recall any players from those teams playing three games in 12 days or three in 11 saying, “They’re trying to see us fail.”
The Chicago Cubs have named Craig Breslow Vice President of Pitching.
Doug Pederson declined to say after the game whether Jalen Hurts or Carson Wentz will be the Eagles' starter at QB moving forward.
— MarkMaske (@MarkMaske) December 7, 2020
Maske covers the NFL for the Washington Post.
Hmmmmm. I see.
I think Green Bay is glad they hired one of those “had a cup of coffee with Sean McVay” coaches.
— Sage Rosenfels (@SageRosenfels18) December 7, 2020
Rosenfels, a former NFL quarterback, covers the game for The Athletic.
Rams are now 6-0 in Bone.
— Rich Hammond (@Rich_Hammond) December 7, 2020
Rich Hammond is an editor and writer for The Athletic Los Angeles. “Bone” is the off-white color featured in some Rams uniforms.
A very 2020 moment for University of Buffalo football. They were 2.5 hours into their bus ride to Athens, Ohio, when Ohio U called and said the game was off. The UB busses stopped at a rest stop on I-90 in Mentor, Ohio, between Erie and Cleveland and turned around.
— Pete Thamel (@PeteThamel) December 4, 2020
Thamel, who covers college football for Yahoo Sports, on how the Saturday game for Mid-American Conference East superiority got called off due to COVID concerns.
Emmanuel Duron, Edinburg High defensive end and top area wrestler is ejected from tonight's game versus PSJA and subsequently attacks the referee.
— KRGV Sports (@KRGVSports) December 4, 2020
KRGV is a TV station in Weslaco, Texas, covering this awful assault on a referee in a high school game.
No asterisk, but a mental one, maybe. From Dave Borasky, of Durham, N.C.: “Will the outcomes of this season have an asterisk next to them and be viewed as at best devalued and at worst illegitimate? For example, if the Steelers go undefeated, but their wins include a victory over a decimated Ravens team, will that diminish the achievement? Similarly, if my beloved Bills win the Super Bowl, will the naysayers forever contend that it was an anomaly that would not have happened outside of the pandemic?”
No asterisks. If there were no asterisks put on the nine-game season in 1982, or the 15-game “strike-team” season in 1987 (each team played three games with pickup teams), then a season affected by the coronavirus—unless it can’t be played to completion—won’t have one.
Good point about Mahomes. From Don Brophy, of The Villages, Fla.: “Patrick Mahomes is really a basketball point guard playing fast break offense in a football setting, considering his vision and multiple angle passing skills. He is the Bob Cousy of our time (dated reference, I know, but wouldn’t be lost on those who watched Cousy’s wizardry). Other quarterbacks have some point guard skills, but nothing like Mahomes. Mahomes and Reid bring back memories of the great Russian hockey coach Victor Tikhonov, who incorporated basketball concepts into the Russian hockey program.”
What a great point, Don. Thanks for making it. Mahomes is such a unique player, and your point about him dishing he ball out like a great point guard is so spot on.
On Markus Paul. From Andrew Lill: “Thank you for sharing Markus Paul with all of your readers. He was a super nice person. He was my favorite player to watch while a student at that time. What has always stuck with me was Markus the person and fellow student. I had the fortune to have crossed paths with him several times. He was the kindest, nicest person, always smiling and kind words and engaging other kids when he had his own things to get to. He just was a gracious person.”
Thanks, Andrew. The section on Markus Paul last week was something I felt driven to do. You knew him, but I didn’t—at least till I read over and over from coaches, players, PR people, all of whom who deeply affected by the loss of Paul. It motivated me to get in touch with those whose lives have been forever changed by the man.
I could not agree more about the use of inexact first-down measurements. From Jeff Rutherford: “I know it’s been covered before, but perhaps another story is warranted about why in 2020, we’re relying on this relic of a measurement system when we’re a country awash in digital technology and engineering expertise. There’s zero reason two guys with sticks should be doing this in 2020. We have the technology to know exactly where the ball traveled and stopped. Ugh.”
I don’t mind the visual of the chain gang. It’s cute, and mindful of the old days of football. But the game is too advanced, with too much riding on the vagaries of the close calls on first-down measurements, to be using the chains as the final arbiter of whether a team has made a big first down late in a game.
The Princeton story gets some praise. From Chris: “Senior 17 [the story of the 17 Princeton seniors who chose to take a leave of absence so they can play together one last season in 2021] is such a cool story. Thanks for bringing it to light. The dedication those guys have to the game and to each other is so cool to see. We often criticize millennials for lack of drive and commitment. These guys have it in spades. They deferred life for love of the game and for each other and that’s a great story, regardless of generation and especially now in these crazy times. Thanks to you and Annie Koeblitz!”
Thanks. That story was Koeblitz through and through—she was the motor that made it happen. What I really appreciate about getting to know those players a bit, and learning about their collective ethos, is that these seniors decided, We are not going out this way, and we’re going to do something about it. Good for them. They took control of their lives. I also appreciate the fact the coach, Bob Surace, is dealing with stuff coaches don’t have to deal with very often: the mentally debilitating things like loneliness and guys who would be in school this year having to take part-time and full-time jobs to help support their families. That’s the stuff I appreciate about the players in that program, how they’ve dealt with such a different world.
1. I think there finally is some clarity about the 2020 MVP race. Russell Wilson and Derrick Henry fell by the side of the road Sunday in disappointing performances in losses. Aaron Rodgers was his typical great self, and Patrick Mahomes survived. I would also have Ben Roethlisberger in the race—for the Steelers being unbeaten, and for the Steelers showing how much of a difference there is with and without Big Ben, 2019 versus 2020—but probably third entering the last month.
When you look at value, it’s very hard to choose between Rodgers and Mahomes. Rodgers has a slight edge in accuracy (.689 to .683), TD-to-pick differential (plus-32 versus plus-29), and a lead in rating (118.5 to 113.8). Mahomes has a healthy lead in passing yards, 3,815 to 3,395. Mahomes is piloting the better team (11-1 to Rodgers’ 9-3), though some would say Rodgers should get more credit because he has lesser weapons. Four weeks to go, and I think it’s Mahomes-Rodgers-Roethlisberger, with Mahomes-Rodgers very much still a race.
2. I think Rodgers had the best reaction when asked after the Packers’ win over Philly what’s next for him after becoming the quarterback to get to 400 touchdown passes the fastest in NFL history. (He has 400 career TD passes and 88 interceptions.) “I’m going to see if I can get to 500 before I throw 100 picks,” he said. Beautiful. I mean, who’d be shocked if he actually did that?
3. I think the twinbill tonight is fascinating. Rested Washington at ticked-off Pittsburgh, then Buffalo at San Francisco at Arizona, if you know what I mean. Buffalo’s better, particularly at quarterback, but the Niner defense is resuscitated with Richard Sherman back and Kerry Hyder doing his best Bosa imitation. And San Francisco feels like it’s an us-against-the-world team. The first game might be a rout, but the second game’s going to be a gem, I think.
4. I think the NFL will miss LeGarrette Blount, one of the best running backs you never appreciated. LeGarrette Blount retired Saturday, on his 34th birthday, in a long Instagram post. Blount had one of the most interesting and varied careers by a running back in recent NFL times. I remember seeing him in post-game Patriots playoff locker rooms, and what a happy guy he was. Saw him bearhug Pats president Jonathan Kraft, thanking him sincerely for bringing him on the team. There was the punching out of a Boise State player in college that likely kept him from being drafted, and the marijuana-smoking incident that likely led to his short (11 games) career for the Steelers. But think of these highlights:
• He had 100-yard rushing games for four of the five teams he played, matching Frank Gore, the number three rusher of all time, who has done exactly the same.
• As a Buc, Blount gashed Seattle for 164 yards in 2011. As a Patriot, he rushed for 189 against the Bills in 2013. As a Steeler, he hit Carolina for 118 yards in 2014. As an Eagle, he rushed for 136 against the Chargers in 2017.
• You want playoffs? In the 2013 playoffs, for New England, he rushed 166 yards and four touchdowns in a divisional game against Indianapolis. In the 2014 playoffs, for New England, he rushed for 148 yards and three touchdowns in a championship game against Indianapolis.
• Three Super Bowl rings—two for the Patriots, and the third in the Eagles’ shocker over the Patriots. Remember his TD for the Eagles that day? The 21-yard TD sprint that game Philly its biggest lead of the day, 15-3, over the Pats.
• In 2016, regular season and postseason, he played 19 games for New England, with 19 rushing touchdowns.
5. I think last Wednesday, prior to one of the great rivalry games in football, Baltimore-Pittsburgh, this is what I’m thinking about: Just get the game in. Not, Fired up about the game and one of the best rivalries in sports. That bugs me. That’s one of the hazards about this season—that the league is racing to finish the 256 regular-season games, without the inconvenience of a Week 18, and the byproduct is zero enjoyment of some of the big games. The joy of the games is often a Pandemic casualty. The two Baltimore-Pittsburgh games are football holidays. Last week, Baltimore-Pittsburgh felt like a burden to be overcome.
6. I think I am not alone. One top team executive said to me Friday: “Are we going to be able to enjoy the games the rest of the way, or just tiptoe through the carnage and get it finished?”
7. I think this was the best nine seconds of the Zoom Press Conference Week in the NFL, from the Pittsburgh 19, Baltimore 14 post-game:
Reporter: “You had some red zone failures and a number of dropped passes. What do you attribute that to? Anything in particular?”
Tomlin: “Us sucking.”
8. I think these factoids are fairly insane about Pro Bowl voting:
• You cannot vote for a player on IR, even in a season with the Pandemic-spawned three-week IR that has been invented in 2020.
• You can vote for six quarterbacks (because, I guess, there are six Pro Bowl quarterbacks named). When I checked the Pro Bowl ballot for 2020 Friday night, I found 30 QBs eligible.
• Drew Brees, who has thrown for more yards than any quarterback in the 101-year history of pro football, and who is likely in his last season of pro football before retiring, is not on the ballot.
• Of the 30 quarterbacks on the ballot, none plays for the top seed in the NFC, New Orleans. But the 0-12 Jets and 1-11 Jags are represented.
The Pro Bowl is silly anyway; the voting has been a joke for years. But in a year when the NFL is making up the rules as it goes along, why on earth would you keep on the books a rule designed to combat voting for a player who gets hurt early and is out for the year? The rule has been totally face-lifted. Drew Brees has started nine games, thrown 298 passes, and will likely be activated for the last three or four games of the year. Which means he’s likely to throw more than 400 passes, easy.
There’s no Pro Bowl game this year. It’s being played on Madden. It’s a fake game. And the NFL would rather see Brees off the ballot so that in what is likely his last season of one of the great careers in NFL history, fans cannot vote for him for the ceremonial Pro Bowl. Voting ends next Saturday. Brees might not be off IR till late this week, or maybe the following week.
Is anybody home? Anybody out there paying attention to this?
9. I think the school of higher learning that produced Peter Lucas of the Lowell Sun must be so proud of his depth of thinking. Read this, um, insightful set of words published in an American newspaper. Lucas suggests, if Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is given a job in the Biden administration, that the governor of Massachusetts should appoint Bill Belichick to replace Warren. Belichick spoke recently about an event of international import for two minutes. Ergo, he should be a senator.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Matthew Berry! Get well soon!
b. How is Tom Allen of Indiana NOT the coach of the year in college football?
c. Whoa! The end of the BYU-Coastal Carolina game was fantastic. BYU goes the length of the field, minus four feet, to lose at :00 of the fourth quarter, 22-17. The crazy thing is, this game got made last Thursday, a match of 9-0 on-the-outside-of-the-Final-Four teams. How much scouting and prep could there have been? And the Coastals make it to 10-0 against a legit team and a legit quarterback. Cool scene. Zach Wilson, the Brigham Young quarterback, is going to be a first-round pick. I think he’ll be a good one.
d. Bummer Anniversary of the Week: John Lennon was murdered outside his New York apartment building, the Dakota (later, also the part-time home of John Madden), 40 years ago tomorrow. Michael Kaplan, in the New York Post, wrote about Lennon’s last days. The man who photographed Lennon most in his New York years, Bob Gruen, with a great line in the piece:
“John was so good with the one liners. One of my favorites from him was, ‘Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted.’ He would have been fantastic on Twitter.”
Did you know that millions of people got the news of Lennon’s killing from Howard Cosell? He was shot at 10:50 on a Monday night, and Cosell dropped the news during the fourth quarter of a Patriots-Dolphins game.
e. The Great British Baking Show is so incredibly good. I know I’ve praised the show a couple of times in this space. But in case you hadn’t noticed, we live in a crazy world, and if you have the wherewithal and the time to lose yourself for 55 minutes in a group of clever people with British accents baking things you’d have no idea how to bake, well, it’s great TV. These people are invariably happy and helpful, and you just leave the show (last Friday we watched a doubleheader of Series 10, with Steph dominating the Star Baker competition) feeling happy—and better than when you clicked it on.
f. That’s a nice way to feel these days.
g. Speaking of interesting British-based shows, I’ve got a few bones to pick with “The Crown,” season four. As do people who live in Great Britain, per Christine Boyle of the Los Angeles Times. She writes a story from London about the show through British eyes: “‘Very entertaining’ or ‘a lie with a capital L.’“
h. “The Crown,” which covers in four incredibly real-looking seasons the 68-year reign of Queen Elizabeth over the United Kingdom, is wonderful TV. I loved the historical seasons, teaching about events we never knew, such as the mining accident in Wales that the Queen and the government were wholly ineffective at responding, and the reaction of Prince Philip to the Americans who landed on the moon—and his shock that they were not noblemen with worldly goals but rather men who accomplished task after task that the world was mesmerized by. Seeing the history, even though it surely was polished and/or embellished, was educational.
i. What I don’t like about the current season is we have no idea how real it is when we see the Queen and Margaret Thatcher semi-jousting, or Charles and Diana living in separate worlds. Of course we know Chuck and Di were at each other’s throats. But the intramural squabbles—like the time the Queen called them in to act as marriage counselor—I mean, did that happen? Is it totally phony? I really like the show. I’m just not crazy wondering what’s close to reality and what’s preposterous. Writes Boyle:
The blurry line between fact and fiction in Season 4 of “The Crown” has even led some to accuse the streaming giant of ghoulishly taking advantage of the royal family’s pain for financial gain. Never mind that Britain’s tabloids routinely do the same.
This is “trolling with a Hollywood budget,” an unidentified palace source huffed to the British press. Friends of the 72-year-old Prince Charles, who comes off poorly in the series, broke with protocol by publicly jumping to his defense and complaining that the royals were being “hijacked and exploited.”
j. Football Story of the Week: Daniel Brown of The Athletic on one retired 49ers’ defensive stalwart, Patrick Willis, helping another retired 49ers defensive stalwart, Lawrence Pillers, fight his battle against COVID-19.
k. Willis did not know who Pillers was a few months ago. (Pillers was a key defensive piece for San Francisco at the start of the Niner dynasty in the eighties.) But when Willis found out this was going on, he felt he had to help. Writes Brown:
At the Pillers family home in Jackson, Miss., the little thermometer in the medicine cabinet only goes so high. Chante Pillers used it in late March to take Lawrence’s temperature and it registered as incomplete — he maxed out the mercury reading. Concerned, Chante whisked her 67-year-old husband to St. Dominic Memorial Hospital. She can remember his precise fever when he checked in, 103.9, because it scared her and she can recall the date, March 29, because that’s the day she spent wiping away tears in the parking lot.
“I couldn’t go into the hospital with him,” Chante said in a recent phone interview. “That was when (the pandemic) first started, and nobody knew what to do. I had to sit in the parking lot and get myself together because I’m normally with him.”
That was seven months ago. Her voice catches still.
“Not being able to go in there with him,” Chante said, “was just very heartbreaking to me.”
The fever was hardly out of nowhere. Lawrence started coughing several days earlier. “Didn’t want to go to the doctor,” Pillers says now. “But I was so sick and weak that I went. That’s when they said, ‘You got it.’ “
Even then, “it” required no elaboration. Doctors moved Pillers to an isolation ward, as they did with the other COVID-19 patients. For the next 11 days, he was confined to a hushed room where, Pillers recalls, “the food always came up cold.”
l. Great story of what teammates do, even when not on the same team in the same era.
m. Good News of the Week: Chad and Dana Akenhead have a Christmas Tree farm in Corrales, N.M. ABC News chronicled how the Akenheads changed their business model this year in a way that might surprise you. What good people the Akenheads are.
n. Steve Serby is amazing. Are you familiar with Serb? Prolific sports columnist and writer for the New York Post. On Sunday, he had four pieces in the paper: a Q+A with emerging Giants back Wayne Gallman (in which he says Eli Manning once walked by his locker and slyly farted in his face); a primer on Giants QB-for-the-week Colt McCoy; a deep dive into the history of red-hot running back Derrick Henry; and on the day of Raiders-Jets a historical piece (with a Joe Namath interview) on the Raiders-Jets rivalry—which used to be one of the greatest in football. Really admire Serb’s passion for his job.
o. Speaking of talented Posties, interesting story from Andrew Marchand on the ESPN radio programming decision to put a local morning show up against the WFAN morning show featuring Boomer Esiason. The local ESPN show will be on from 5-8 a.m., and then the ESPN national show (including Keyshawn Johnson) will air from 8-10 a.m. Radio programming is not my thing, but I do have one question: Why in the world would you take your morning show off the air at 8 a.m.? Either go full-bore or don’t do it. Who are they programming for, farmers?
p. I got a few—maybe 10 or so—negative reactions to this line in the top to the column last weekend: “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?” Most readers found that exceedingly negative, like: What do you mean, we didn’t take the virus seriously?! I mean, we didn’t take the virus seriously enough. Some did, most didn’t. I said last spring we lacked the will as a country to fix this, and the evidence is all around us. Where I live, in New York City, 80 or 90 percent of the people I pass wear masks; it is a sign of good citizenship and caring about your neighbor (and yourself). However, in parts of the country, and in parts of Congress, mask-wearing is viewed as a theft of freedom. Not taking the virus seriously is why so many people got robbed of family Thanksgivings, and why many will be alone for the holiday season.
q. This Hanna Krueger story in the Boston Globe illustrates the point perfectly: Infectious disease experts face disillusionment as pandemic worsens. Harvard epidemiologist Dr. Caroline Buckee said scientists knew months ago that mask-wearing was vital, and indoor dining and large gatherings were bad. But citizens weren’t the only ones to largely ignore the advice, or downplay it. Regulatory bodies and politicians did too. Buckee, after being strident about COVID, was getting so much blowback and social-media threats from anti-COVID truthers that she turned her attention to other plagues, like malaria, and moved away from the study of the coronavirus.
r. Krueger quotes Harvard epidemiologist Michael Mina this way:
“I’m just astounded by the dysfunction, the willingness to just stay the course as hundreds of thousands of people die, and the unwillingness to innovate in literally any way. I’ve realized that when we need to rise up as a country, we have truly no moral capacity to do it. It’s just the most mind-bending, complete Twilight Zone experience that makes you ask why the hell we even bother.”
s. So now we turn to the vaccines, which seem promising. But of course, millions of Americans won’t take them, because of distrust and no-one-‘s-telling-me-what-to-do and oh, whatever. Such disheartening nonsense, as 2,500 people die every day, and our medical professionals cry out in the wilderness for people to take the virus seriously. I mean, literally cry out. I saw two nurses bawling on national newscasts last week, begging for relief.
t. On that happy note . . .
u. In November, respected NFL writer Tyler Dunne branched out after working more standard writing jobs at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Buffalo News and Bleacher Report and founded a longform site called Go Long, at a cost of $7 per month or $70 per year. I asked Dunne, 33, about his decision, and about the future of our business.
FMIA: Why’d you do this?
Dunne: “This felt like the absolute perfect time to just go for it, to bet on longform and bet on myself. I sincerely believe there is a massive appetite for enterprising pro football reporting and writing — that there are folks, everywhere, who’ll stop whatever they’re doing to sit down and read a story. My goal is to relentlessly pursue that story. I’ve been fortunate to have developed many relationships this past decade covering the Packers at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Bills at the Buffalo News, and the entire NFL the last four years at Bleacher Report and felt ready to take this on 100 miles an hour. Go Long will cover the sport through a uniquely longform lens. I’ll keep talking to dozens of people for those stories that dig into the inner-workings of a team. Humanizing profiles will be a major pillar of Go Long, too. Having conversations more than interviews. It’s not exactly a secret that much of sports media is now funneled through a much different lens — the social media lens — in the form of quips and memes and gifs and, hey, that can be fun I suppose. But does TikTok-ifying football do the fan justice? The reader?
“And the biggest reason I’m doing this is probably my Dad. He’s a petroleum geologist who took a gigantic risk for our family by forming his own company. To see him bust his ass daily left a lasting impression on me that’s really hard to put into words. The entrepreneurial instinct is in our blood, I think.
“Being a Dad—I became one in October 2019—sure does change your perspective a bit. You’d rather bet on yourself, for your family’s sake, than any sports media outlet that could change its direction on a dime or go under.”
FMIA: Microsites are hard. Do you think this can work long-term?
Dunne: “Absolutely. I’m in this for the long haul. I’m not treating this as an experiment. I’ll be pouring my heart and soul into Go Long every day so I’m very confident it will succeed. I believe longform endures. Go Long will be solely dedicated to this enterprising approach with a cadence of four pieces per week, and soon a podcast. Hopefully people will subscribe to learn something they didn’t know before. The why and the how will always matter because human beings are inherently curious and want to learn.”
FMIA: What does your site say about the future of sports journalism?
Dunne: “It’s a whole new world, that’s for sure. I can still remember talking to all my buddies at our college newspaper at Syracuse, The Daily Orange. We were all trying like hell to get a job at a paper and then climb the ladder, beat to beat to beat. All the rules we thought about sports journalism have changed. Sadly, this is a difficult time for newspapers, and so many web outlets are migrating away from words. Further, this year with COVID, it seems like so much pro football coverage is being derived from group Zoom calls. Which, I believe, creates an opportunity for something that is different.
“Going independent is liberating as a writer, of course, but I think it’s the best-case scenario for a reader. You have more options. You can invest into someone and something you believe in. That gives me great hope for the future of journalism.”
v. Man, thinking back to when I was 33, in 1990, in my second year at Sports Illustrated, and thinking about the prospect of going out on my own. That’s gutsy. Good luck to so many who have done that in recent years, continuing to write valuable stuff, and good luck to Tyler Dunne. He does really good work.
w. RIP, Bill Spanswick, the only major-league baseball player to come from my hometown, Enfield, Conn. Claim to fame: in Spanswick’s only MLB season, 1964, he struck out Roger Maris. Always the guy in my youth kids looked up to in the late sixties, early seventies.
x. Coffeenerdness: It’s so hard to buy a bike in New York City these days (four-month waits are typical) that my bicycling brother-in-law in Massachusetts suggested a bike shop up there to find a nice Cannondale. So we drove up the other day to pick it up at Family Bicycle Shop in East Longmeadow, Mass. That meant, of course, a large Dunkin’ Donuts Dark Roast blend on the way home, when traffic was a pain. I love that dark roast. Superb.
y. Finally, this story from one morning last week, when daughter Laura was driving our grandkids, Freddy and Hazel, to nursery school in San Francisco. Laura was playing Christmas songs in the car. Frank Sinatra was singing, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Freddy liked the song. He asked Laura who was singing. Frank Sinatra, Laura said. Freddy then asked: “Is Frank Sinatra dead?” Laura thought quickly. She suggested a call to Papa Peter (that’s what the kids call me) was in order. So here came the call. Laura told me they’d listened to a Sinatra song, and Freddy had a question for me.
Me: “Freddy! What’s up?!”
No time for pleasantries.
Freddy: “Papa Peter! Is Frank Sinatra dead?”
Me: “Well … Freddy, you heard Frank Sinatra sing, right? That was a recording of his voice. All of these songs are recordings of peoples’ voices. So that was Frank Sinatra. But yes, Frank Sinatra is dead. But you can hear his music forever.”
Freddy: “Oh. Okay.”
Laura: “Thanks, Papa Peter!”
And that was the end of the Frank Sinatra death discussion for the day.
NFL. So weird.
A month ago, who’d have feared
the playoff Giants?