A couple weeks ago, after practice, the two longest-tenured Buffalo Bills sat in the locker room, suitably spaced out, discussing what seemed impossible. Long-snapper Reid Ferguson, on the Bills practice squad when Sean McDermott was named coach in January 2017, told defensive end Jerry Hughes, the only active player left on the roster from that day, that they were the only pre-McDermotts left.
“Impossible!” Hughes said. “No way!”
Way. Ferguson and Hughes started naming names. The relative old-timers—defensive tackle Kyle Williams, kicker Steven Hauschka, punter Colton Schmidt—all gone. They brought up player after player in the locker room, but none was there before 2017. Just two of the 79 active, practice-squad and IR players on the 2020 Bills were in this locker room four years earlier. Two!
“We sat there 15 minutes,” Hughes told me Saturday night, “and thinking about it just blew my mind. We really are the Last of the Mohicans.”
Another way to look at it: Buffalo is an expansion team with a star quarterback and some great personnel decisions made by GM Brandon Beane and McDermott. On Saturday in Denver, the Bills finally summited Mount Belichick, the mountain this franchise has been climbing through seven separate coaching administrations since New England and coach Bill Belichick began division dominance in 2001. The 48-19 obliteration of the outmanned Broncos in Denver on Saturday broke the Patriots’ stranglehold on the division (11 straight East titles, and 16 of the last 17) and gave the remade Bills their first AFC division title in a quarter-century. Think of it this way: The last time the Bills won the AFC East, in 1995, most of us didn’t use email.
The Bills are an interesting case study for teams in a rebuild. The classic NFL structure has a team hiring a GM first, then the GM (in conjunction with ownership and maybe a club president) hires the coach. But that structure over the last decade has had some notable, and successful, exceptions. Kansas City (Andy Reid), Seattle (Pete Carroll) and San Francisco (Kyle Shanahan) hired the coach first, and the coach helped find the GM. Buffalo did the same. Four months after giving McDermott a five-year deal to coach the team, owners Terry and Kim Pegula gave Beane a five-year deal to be the general manager.
Talking to Beane on Saturday night, I found it interesting that he brought one very specific point in his interview with the Pegulas. It’s something they wanted to hear, and needed to hear, from a bright and respected young (40 years old) personnel man on the cusp of getting a GM job somewhere.
“When I interviewed with the Pegulas—and I think Sean’s interview was probably similar—we were talking about stability and it’s gonna take time,” Beane said. “We’re gonna revamp this roster. You can’t sit there and say, ‘In four years we’ll win a division championship. In six years, an AFC Championship.’
“One thing we discussed in that interview was how many head coaches, how many GMs, had been through here? I said, ‘You just bought the team. This is not on you. But every time we turn over the coach, every time we turn over the GM, we’re doing Coach Belichick and his great staff a favor. Every AFC East team that churns their head coach and GM over, that’s doing him a favor because stability is so important.’ Look at the teams that constantly win: New England, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Green Bay. Stability was the number one, most important thing to me—stability and then just drafting, and staying true to the culture we’d try to build and foster.”
Saturday’s rout of the Broncos was fitting in a lot of ways to what this team has become, right down to the bus ride to Empower Field. “Our fans can’t even go to the games this year,” Hughes said, “but when we boarded the buses this morning at the hotel—thousands of miles from home, in Denver, Colorado—we’ve got Buffalo Bills fans cheering for us. I mean, COVID sucks, and I feel for our fans because they can’t be there in this great season. But they find ways to support us.”
Josh Allen threw for 359 yards and two touchdowns and ran for two more, but he wasn’t the only Buffalo pulverizer. The Bills grinded out 182 rushing yards too, and they’ll need to be able to do more balanced offensive things to be a great team in the postseason.
The Allen story is a rarity—a quarterback who had major accuracy issues in college and his first two years as a pro, but went to school in the offseason to fix it. He consulted mechanics maven Tony Romo and his own throwing tutor, Jordan Palmer, in the offseason. (“To make drastic changes in your mechanics, you’ve got to be coachable. And Josh worked on it every day,” Palmer said). Allen’s 70-percent day in Denver typified his season. He’s up 10 percentage points in accuracy (.588 last year, .687 this year) and 10 touchdowns (20 last year, 30 this year, with two games left) and looks like a much more comfortable player than he was.
When Allen broke into the NFL two seasons ago, he relied too much on his fastball. But Saturday he showed the range he’s developed. When he needed the fastball, like on the 22-yard touchdown dart to Jake Kumerow fit perfectly between two Broncos, he had it. Allen also had the perfect loft on a 27-yard completion under a heavy Denver rush.
And, of course, Allen has a franchise receiver now in Stefon Diggs. The 11-catch, 147-yard day for Diggs went almost unnoticed because Diggs seems to do it every week. He leads the NFL in catches (111) and receiving yards (1,314), when every defense he sees lines up to try to stop him.
I told Beane I’d been critical of how much he traded to Minnesota to get Diggs: the 22nd pick in the first round, plus fourth, fifth and sixth-round picks. (The Vikings threw back a seventh-rounder to Buffalo in addition to Diggs.) There was the point of a favorable contract—a deal that runs through 2023 at an annual average of $14.4 million—and this factor I hadn’t considered.
“We were picking at 22,” Beane said. “By what we gave up in a draft, on the draft-trade value chart, giving up the five and the six and then the four next year, and getting back the seven, would’ve got us to about the 17th position. In my mind, I wasn’t convinced that we were gonna find a player of his caliber at 17, 18, wherever we could’ve traded up to get. That was the genesis for it.”
The pre-draft gossip had the three top receivers in the draft—Henry Ruggs, CeeDee Lamb and Jerry Jeudy—gone by about mid-round. The next guy, probably, was Justin Jefferson. In retrospect, Beane couldn’t have known he’d have been able to get Jefferson at 22, and obviously didn’t think he was worth the price to trade up to ensure getting him. Of course, Jefferson has been the best rookie receiver in football, picked by Minnesota in the slot Buffalo dealt. One more factor, from Beane: “This was an offseason that the pandemic was starting and we weren’t sure what kind of offseason we were gonna have. How much of an impact was a rookie receiver going to be able to make? We got a quarterback on a rookie contract. I just thought it made sense for us to add a proven commodity and Stefon was looking for a fresh start.”
The Bills not only might have the best wide receiver in the game this season in Diggs, but also the best slot receiver in Cole Beasley. The ex-Cowboy is having a sneaky great year: 79 catches, 950 yards, while making a team-friendly $4.4 million.
One last point I find interesting about the Bills: their reverence for special teams, their high regard for field-position football. When you have an explosive offense like the Bills, it’s rare to hear the GM get asked about one or two significant under-the-radar player acquisitions and have him mention . . . the return specialist?
“Andre Roberts,” Beane said. “He’s really changed field position a lot for us. Our special teams coming into this game, we’ve ranked in the top 10 in all four main ones—punt and punt return, kick and kick return. Most people talk offense, defense. People don’t talk about our special teams enough.”
The Bills will be a formidable foe in January, with a strong-armed and maturing quarterback, a defense allowing 21.5 points a game over the last half-season and those special teams. A shame they won’t have their fans in-house for their first home playoff game in forever (a 1996 loss to Jacksonville), but, as Hughes said, “They’re the Bills Mafia. They’ll figure out some way to celebrate this.” It started with a 1 a.m. airport-welcome for the team Sunday, fans not socially distant but appearing masked on a 23-degree night. As the Bills deplaned and headed home to sleep, it felt like the start of something big in Buffalo.
The late Nick Cafardo, writing in the Boston Globe, used to have updates on nine baseball people many weeks in his Sunday notes column. As an homage to Cafardo, I borrow his cool column section, expanding it to football starters like he did with baseball, and looking at 11 people in football who made an impact—positive or negative—this weekend:
1. Andy Reid. Kansas City is 22-1 since mid-November 2019, following the 32-29 survival test at the Superdome against the Saints on Sunday. With Atlanta and the Chargers left at home, the Chiefs could be on a 24-1 run, with the AFC’s lone bye, heading into divisional play on the weekend of Jan. 16-17. Funny that they’ve won six straight by less than a touchdown, but I don’t put much stock into “the Chiefs are slipping;” four of those have come on the road against playoff contenders. I asked Reid why his team never had that Super Bowl slump that so many champions get lulled into the season after. “I know it’s a cliché,” Reid said from his office in the ‘Dome. “But our guys like each other. We have good leaders. They’re resilient.”
It’s tough to single out one play from a 61-point game, but I always look for the unusual play with Reid’s teams, often coming from some combination of Reid, Patrick Mahomes, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and QB coach Mike Kafka. This week, it was the two-handed basketball chest pass from Mahomes to tight end Travis Kelce for a one-yard TD. “Where’d that come from?” I wondered. Reid said that sometimes, the shortest throws are the toughest throws. “One day in practice, Patrick did it and I said to him, ‘How’d that feel?’ He said good. So I said to him, ‘Good. Keep doing it.’ Not too complicated. We just try to do the things that make sense.”
2. Cam Newton. He is so off, stunningly so, that it’s hard to figure out where to start to diagnose it. His throwing motion is messy; on some of his throws, it looks like he’s almost pushing the ball. In his last 17 starts, dating back two years, Newton has five touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. Five TDs in 17 games, covering 498 throws, most having come after arthroscopic rotator cuff surgery after the 2018 season. Aaron Rodgers has 40 touchdowns this year in 477 attempts. The Patriots obviously need to address quarterback in the offseason, and, at 6-8 with two games to go, they may be in no-man’s land on draft weekend to get one of the three best QBs in college football. A 7-9 team picks around 11 to 15. Maybe the shortened season of North Dakota State’s Trey Lance will push him down into the Patriot draft zone. Whatever, Newton’s crash to earth has made quarterback an urgent need for New England.
3. Frank Gore. At 37, Gore set the NFL record for games played by a running back Sunday, with his 240th. (Number two: Lorenzo Neal, 239.) Of course Gore is a place-holder for the Jets’ future back. But in the franchise’s lone win of 2020, it was Gore who was the key man down the stretch. Very cool to see. Gore’s been beloved on every team he’s played.
He got the last five touches to bleed the clock and preserve New York’s 23-20 stunner over the Rams. The Jets got the ball with 3:54 to play, leading by three, at their 37-yard line, and the Rams had two timeouts left. Two first downs, and they could go into victory formation. Gore for three on first down to the right, then Gore for eight and a first down. Then Gore for four—timeout, Rams—and Gore stoned for zero—timeout Rams, with 2:17 left. Third-and-six now. Darnold takes the snap, looks, looks, looks—and sees Gore jumping up over the middle, waiving for the ball at the L.A. 42, the first-down line to gain. Darnold threw, Gore caught his only ball of the game, and the Jets had their first down to end it. Gore had 23 carries for 59 yards, but the numbers didn’t matter much. Gore the closer mattered.
4. Chris Spielman. Hired as the special assistant to Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp, Spielman walked out of the FOX booth and into the front office, something Lions fans have wanted him to do for years. He’ll be one of my guests on The Peter King Podcast this week, and we talked the other day about what he can contribute to a wayward franchise, one that next season will “celebrate” the 30-year anniversary of its last playoff victory.
Spielman told me: “I just want to be an outside set of eyes. ‘You know, this is something you might wanna look at.’ . . . I’m not there ever to tell a coach what to do. I’m not there ever to tell anybody how to do it, or a GM. I’m just there to be a support system for them. If the coach was walking out to the practice field and coach said, ‘Shoot, I left my call sheet up on my desk,’ I’m the first one sprinting to get the call sheet off his desk. I mean, I believe that’s the servants’ attitude in a very big, multiple, complex world. If you can get everybody with that servants’ attitude, then you have the best chance.”
5. Aqib Talib. In the category of great 2020 NFL TV inventions, FOX putting Talib in the booth is right there with Steve Kornacki at the NBC big board doing playoff projections. As the color guy in Philly-Arizona, Talib was so real—part fan, part analyst, part realist. The best thing might be that he’s not polished. At times he just spews. Watching Jalen Hurts blow up for the second straight week in place of Carson Wentz, Talib said, “This might be the new guy in Philly. I don’t know how it can’t be.” On the Jets’ upset of the Rams: “Nobody seen that one coming. I don’t think THE JETS seen that one coming.” The former corner, after a TD catch by ex-COVID patient Larry Fitzgerald, said Fitzgerald had “the best hands for a wideout I have ever seen. Came back from the COVID nine pounds lighter. Looks like he’s got a little bounce to him.” He also wore one of the great suits in TV booth history, a loud checked job that fit him like a rubber glove. I’ve known Talib as the kind of honest broker who was a go-to guy for me in locker rooms over the years. He sounded very much like that on TV on Sunday.
Put Talib in the Hall Of Fame just off this suit pic.twitter.com/7yHx0sPOaq
— Eddie Francis (@yourboyeddie) December 21, 2020
6. Trevor Lawrence/Justin Fields. After Clemson’s beatdown of Notre Dame and Ohio State’s road-grading of Northwestern in weekend conference title games, the divide between Clemson’s Lawrence and Ohio State’s Fields is significant. Lawrence seems headed for Jacksonville with the top pick in the April draft; that much seems sure, assuming the Jags lose to Chicago and Indianapolis to finish with a 15-game losing streak. But what of the Jets, presumably picking two? Would they deal the second pick for two or three high choices and stick with Sam Darnold? Plus, who coaches Jacksonville next year, and will he be able to maximize Lawrence assuming he’s the pick? Who coaches the Jets, and will he be smitten with Fields?
7. Troy Aikman. Think of the last time there was so much angst over who would end up with a great quarterback at the top of the draft. It wasn’t in 1998, when Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf dueled to be the top pick. It’s surprising now, but there were NFL people, and many in the media, who liked Leaf over Manning entering that draft season. The Colts, 3-13 in 1997, won the right to pick first, and Manning was their man. I’m referring to the 1989 draft. With two weeks left in the 1988 season, Dallas and Green Bay were 2-12, in contention for the first overall pick. Both wanted Aikman. But the Packers beat the Vikings (who finished 11-5) and Cardinals (7-9) in the last two weeks, while the Cowboys went 1-1 to win the number one pick in the ’89 draft. Dallas picked Aikman. Green Bay picked Tony Mandarich, one of the worst busts in draft history. But Aikman in Green Bay would have meant the Pack never would have traded for Brett Favre in 1992. So the last two weeks of the 1988 season, for two bad teams, had many long-lasting tentacles—as I’m sure the Jets’ upset of the Rams will have for years in New York, Jacksonville and who knows where else.
8. Derrick Henry. Barring injury, the Titan of Tennessee is headed for his second straight rushing title; he’d be the first to win back-to-back rushing championships since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006 and 2007. Henry’s 147-yard shredding of the Lions in Nashville on Sunday gave him a 195-yard edge over Dalvin Cook with road games at Green Bay and Houston remaining. “We’re not done,” Henry said after the 46-25 shelling of the Lions. Henry is averaging 111 rushing yards and 1.1 touchdowns per game since opening day 2019. What a trail he’s leaving.
9. SpongeBob SquarePants. To quote Wikipedia: “SpongeBob SquarePants is an energetic and optimistic sea sponge who lives in a submerged pineapple with his pet snail Gary, who meows like a cat.” Okay then. The news item of the NFL TV week was that CBS will air a version of a regular playoff game on Wild Card weekend in a kid-themed Nickelodeon telecast. (Nickelodeon and CBS have the same parent company, and Nickeodeon’s highest-rated series ever is SpongeBob SquarePants, and you’ll see vestiges of it woven through this NFL game, somehow.) You’ll be able to watch an alternate feed of the game on Nickelodeon, basically. Or, rather, your kids will. As CBS said, that telecast will be “Nick-ified” by catering to young kids.
It’s cute and an interesting story, but throwing green-slime on the screen during a playoff game has a bigger reason, as someone who knows the NFL and the TV business told me the other day. “The NFL is losing the very young demographic,” this person said. “The kids of this generation aren’t into football the way past generations were, and the theory is that you don’t want to see what happens down the road if 8, 10, 12-year-old kids grow up playing video games and not watching football.” Reaching young people is tough for the NFL, in part because TV is less of a factor in their lives. Nickelodeon is a TV island that can consistently attract the kid demographic. Why does it matter? It may not be a big deal for this round of TV negotiations, which are ongoing. But for the next round, a decade from now? If fourth-graders who don’t watch the NFL become college sophomores who don’t watch the NFL, the league’s going to have a problem with media rights.
10. Tom Brady. Threw for 320 yards in the second half to beat the Falcons, who must have been having nightmares about another Brady comeback. This one didn’t matter as much; Atlanta’s playing out the string of a lousy season, and blowing a 17-0 halftime lead in an unimportant game is not exactly the same as blowing a 28-3 lead in the second half of a Super Bowl. As for Brady, it’s ironic that he has his most productive day as a Buc (390 yards, 110.4 rating) the day the Patriots are eliminated from the playoffs for the first time 2008. He’s headed for a season, at 43, when he’ll be better statistically in all categories—yards, TD passes, accuracy and rating—than he was last year in New England.
The Bucs are looking like a five or six seed in the NFC, meaning they could travel to the NFC East survivor, or maybe New Orleans or the NFC West winner, on Wild Card weekend. They could use two more good tuneups—at Detroit, home with Atlanta—before the playoffs begin.
11. Baker Mayfield. This is the player GM John Dorsey swore he was getting with the first pick in the 2018 draft—the guy who goes on a hot streak in big moments of the season (last four games in the 10-4 Browns’ playoff drive: 10 touchdowns, one interception), the guy who can hide even little mistakes with excellent plays. Example of the latter: With tight end David Njoku open at the goal line for a short touchdown late in the second quarter, Mayfield instead chose a covered Jarvis Landry trolling the end line at the back of the end zone. Mayfield fired a perfect throw, Landry came down with it, and Cleveland had its second of three TDs in the 20-6 Sunday night win over the Giants.
After a weekend of watching the Bills and Browns and Ravens and Titans rout foes and look like serious January threats, I don’t think Kansas City’s going to have an easy road to its second Super Bowl. Cleveland’s run game and Mayfield’s maturity as a player will make Cleveland a tough out.
1. Historic day in a bad way for New England, but one we all could see coming. Watching the Patriots, isn’t it surprising they’ve won six games? New England’s 22-12 loss in Miami evicted them from the playoffs for the first time in 12 years and ensured their first non-winning season in 20 years, since Belichick’s first Patriots team went 5-11 in 2000. Amazing: 5-11 in the last season pre-Brady, 6-8 (with two to play) in the first season post-Brady. “It stinks to lose,” said Devin McCourty after the loss Sunday, “but I think the way we have played has been most disappointing. It just really hasn’t developed for us all year.”
2. Kansas City’s a barrel of fun to watch, as if you didn’t know that. Patrick Mahomes threw a two-handed chest pass to Travis Kelce for a touchdown. See that? Not the first time he’s done that, but the first time for a TD. In nearly every game there’s some different and imaginative play.
Drew it up perfectly ⏰🏹
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) December 20, 2020
3. Truly, if I’m Trevor Lawrence, and the two options are Jets and Jags, I have no idea if I’m rooting for Jets or Rams sitting in my apartment at Clemson on Sunday evening. Now that it’s Jags 1 and Jets 2 headed into the last two weeks, I’ve got no clue which team will be in better shape after the hiring cycle this winter. I mean, the Jets just ended a 13-game losing streak, and the Jags are currently on one, and do I have faith in either team to pick a great coach? But with the NFL draft, unless you pull an Elway or an Eli, none of it matters. You cast your fate to the wind and whoever picks you, picks you.
4. Lord, how was this measurement at a crucial juncture of the fourth quarter of Bucs-Falcons called a first down? The NFL is playing with fire with this quaint and stupid tradition of using a chain gang and totally inexact science to determine first downs in a $16-billion business.
This was a bad spot to begin with, but how is this a first down? pic.twitter.com/p9mJXXsZyK
— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) December 20, 2020
5. Watched a chunk of the second half of Jets-Rams. Not a good fourth quarter for Jared Goff, at all. He had the ball twice in the last 12 minutes, down six points, drove for one field goal, and then, on third-and-four and fourth-and-four with about four minutes left, threw incomplete and not particularly close on both passes. This offense has too much weaponry to score 17, 20 and 20 points in losses over the past seven weeks.
6. Anyone still knocking Howie Roseman for using the 53rd pick in the 2020 draft on Jalen Hurts?
7. Like anyone who knows football will tell you: Players don’t tank. They might be put into position to lose games, but there is no motivation to tank for a player. Can you imagine what Frank Gore would say to Chris Johnson or Joe Douglas or Adam Gase if they sidled up to him and suggested he might not try his hardest in a game?
8. Mitchell Trubisky (74 percent passing, one pick in the last three games) is auditioning for his next gig, it would seem, and putting some excellent football on tape for a new team in 2021. The Bears wouldn’t think of giving him one more year, would they? Imagine, for a second, Trubisky becoming a solid starter for team number two beginning next summer. Talk about torture for Ryan Pace.
9. Name I’ve heard prominently for two teams with a GM opening: Saints assistant GM/pro personnel Terry Fontenot, a veteran of the strong New Orleans personnel-acquisition system. Fontenot put his rep on the line inside the Saints early in 2018 for an underachieving linebacker with the Jets, Demario Davis. The Saints signed him, and he became an all-pro in 2019. There are other good Fontenot signing stories, but his work is being noticed, and I expect him to get a serious shot for one of the GM jobs.
10. COVID toteboard — Regular-season games played: 223. Remaining: 33. That’s 87.1 percent of the schedule finis in a pandemic. It’ll be 87.5 percent (seven-eighths of the schedule) if Steelers-Bengals goes off as slated tonight.
11. Whoa! Brian Burns of the Panthers: two sacks, four hurries, a gigantic impact in holding Green Bay to three points in its last eight possessions. He’s a big-time keeper. Great pick, Marty Hurney. (Re the Monday dismissal of Hurney: It’s probably sensible for all parties, particularly because owner David Tepper wants a different and more analytics-driven GM. Now he gives Hurney a chance, in Washington perhaps, to move on with his life while the Panthers move on with theirs.)
12. I’m not going to give Matt Rhule goat of the week, though I thought seriously about it. His team showed up and held the almighty Green Bay offense to 291 total yards and made Aaron Rodgers suffer for the last seven drives of the game (punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, field goal, punt) in Green Bay’s 24-16 struggle of a win. But, and this is a big but, Rhule has to have a meeting with his analytics people this week.
- The situation: Carolina, down 11 with 2:08 to go, FIRST down at the Green Bay 15-yard line. Panthers had one timeout left.
- The decision: Panthers kick a field goal to make it 24-16. Then they opted against an onside kick.
Per Pro Football Focus, Carolina had a 5.5 percent chance to win on first down from the 15 . . . and then a 4.1 percent chance after the Panthers kicked the field goal. Kicking to Aaron Rodgers mattered, of course, but being down eight and getting the ball back (which Carolina did with 55 seconds left) still meant the Panthers needed a touchdown plus a two-point conversion simply to force overtime. Moral of the story: Don’t settle for going down eight against Aaron Rodgers.
13. Sorry to kick Jon Gruden when he’s down, but barring a 2-0 finish and lots of help from some AFC losers, this will be his ninth straight year as a head coach (six with Bucs, three with Raiders) with zero playoff wins. In those nine seasons, his teams are 17 games under .500.
14. If the NFL doesn’t move to a 17-game schedule per team in 2021, my name’s Joe Don Looney.
15. I love listening to Derek Carr bark out his signals for the Raiders. It made watching a not-so-vital Thursday night tilt worth it. The best playcall at the line Thursday against the Chargers: “DAMIAN LILLARD! RICHARD NIXON!”
16. It’s been both rewarding and rough to be Marcus Mariota the NFL player. Drafted number two overall by the Titans in 2015, Mariota had some bright days—I remember that November 2016 day in Nashville when he threw for four TDs and the Titans routed Aaron Rodgers and the Packers—but the next few years were very shaky, and Mike Vrabel pulled the plug. Mariota, reputation sufficiently damaged, limped to Vegas as a backup to Derek Carr and was invisible for all of this season. The second pick in the draft five-and-a-half years ago fell off the face of the earth. And then . . .
17. Mariota’s first drive as a Raider: Early second quarter, barely time to warm up after Carr pulled his groin on the last Vegas offensive play of the first quarter. First pass: Mariota rolls left on second-and-eight, his speed a problem for the Charger front, throwing a line drive across his body for tight end Foster Moreau. A perfect strike, 26 yards in the air to Moreau, closely covered. Then Mariota hit a closely covered Darren Waller over the middle for 13. Then an RPO sprint around right end for 11, ending with a physical dive for the first down. This was the full array of the Chip Kelly prodigy on display here, in one diverse series. Mariota capped it with a perfect throw 39 yards in the air down the left side to Waller. Touchdown. Imagine playing important snaps for the first time in 14 months, and you walk into a game with major playoff implications, and you look precisely like the quarterback you were drafted to be but never consistently were. Good for Mariota. Happy for a guy who’s never done anything but try.
18. Some big-time throws by Drew Lock against Buffalo, especially the pre-halftime six-yard TD to Noah Fant, dropped perfectly in the left corner of the end zone in tight coverage. Just not enough of them.
19. I love Teddy Bridgewater the story. I love Teddy Bridgewater the leader. I don’t love Teddy Bridgewater the quarterback. The Panthers might have to decide, sitting there with a top-seven pick in the draft, whether they want to pick a quarterback. Bridgewater has made some nice throws, but he’s limited in the way that Alex Smith is limited as a thrower. And when you stretch the ball across the goal line, you’d better have a vice-grip on it. Saturday was not a good night for the Carolina future of Bridgewater.
20. Lots of people will say the 24-16 win over Carolina was Green Bay playing down to its opponent. I will say the game encouraged me about the Packers Defense, particularly the secondary. The back end was a huge factor in the win; that’s a feisty, competitive, physical group. When Aaron Rodgers isn’t a miracle man, Green Bay can still win.
Offensive Player of the Week
Kyler Murray, quarterback, Arizona. Trying to save a playoff berth out of the insane NFC West, the 2018 Oklahoma quarterback won a shootout with the 2019 Oklahoma quarterback, Jalen Hurts of Philadelphia. Amazingly, Murray and Hurts each accounted for more than 400 rushing-passing yards, and each accounted for three passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown. There can be only one winner, and Hurts’ Hail Mary got knocked away in the final seconds, and Murray had one of his biggest wins in two years piloting the tough-to-put-away Cards. His final numbers: 27 of 36, 406 yards, three TDs, one pick; eight rushes, 29 yards, one TD.
Defensive Players of the Week
Devin White, middle linebacker, Tampa Bay. I continue to be amazed that White is just 22 years old, in his second season as the nerve center of the Bucs defense. And Sunday in Atlanta was his best day as a pro: three sacks, 12 tackles, two passes defensed. He got the save in the final three minutes, the Falcons desperately trying to drive for the winning score. On second-and-10 from the Falcons’ 12, White broke through to sack Matt Ryan for a six-yard loss, putting the comeback out of reach.
Adrian Amos, safety, Green Bay. Saturday night was the 90th game of Amos’ solid NFL career, and quite possibly his most impactful in six seasons with the Bears and Packers. In Green Bay’s much closer than anticipated 24-16 win over the Panthers, the Pack stoned Carolina on its disheartening last drive of the first half with three straight passes broken up: two by Amos—one on tight end Ian Thomas, the second on wideout Curtis Samuel. Green Bay went into the half with a commanding 21-3 lead. But the Panthers hung around. Amos sacked Bridgewater on the first Carolina series of the second half, leading to a Panther punt. And with the game 21-10 early in the fourth quarter, a Bridgewater pass to Robbie Anderson in the end zone looked like a touchdown—until Amos dove and broke it up; Carolina settled for a field goal. His three PBUs were huge, as were his seven tackles and a sack. The 91.2 PFF grade was the best single-game grade of Amos’ six-year NFC North career.
Special Teams Players of the Week
J.T. Hassell, safety, New York Jets. If you’re like me, and you looked up late in the first quarter of KC-New Orleans around 5 p.m. ET and saw JETS 13, RAMS 0, the first thing you said was, Are you %^*# kidding me? A huge play came from Hassell in his first game as a Jet, after coming over from the Patriots practice squad. Hassell, from the football factory known as Florida Tech, slithered through the right side of the Rams’ punt team and smothered a Johnny Hekker punt. The Jets recovered at the Ram 27, and went on to kick a field goal. And won by three. Great awareness and quickness by Hassell.
J.T. Hassell making plays in his first game as a Jet 🛫
— New York Jets (@nyjets) December 20, 2020
Andy Lee, punter, Arizona. Fourth quarter, 14:56 left, fourth-and-two, Arizona 33-yard line. Cards 26, Eagles 26. Lee takes the punt snap and throws it to the right, to a linebacker, Ezekiel Turner, who runs for 26 yards and a first down. The Cards didn’t convert it into points, but the guts of the call and the coolness of the 38-year-old Lee deserve recognition. Good day punting too. Lee averaged 47.7 on three boots.
Coach of the Week
Sean McDermott, head coach, Buffalo. When the Bills hired him 47 months ago, no way McDermott was expected to make the playoffs in three of his first four years and finally beat back New England for the division title in year four. But he’s done that, and developed a team ethos that the veterans recognize as special. “He puts guys on the team who love football and get along,” defensive end Jerry Hughes said Saturday night. As I wrote in the top to this column, even in an ever-changing NFL, the Bills have ripped it up and rebuilt on the fly in an unprecedented way in McDermott’s four seasons. Of the 53 men on the active roster Saturday in Denver only one—Hughes—was on the active roster when McDermott was hired in January 2017. He’s 37-27 since taking the job, with the chance to get to 40 (including playoffs) in the next month.
“One thing I can say: I never went 0-16.”
—Running back Frank Gore of the no-longer 0-13 Jets, after their 23-20 upset of the Rams.
“This hat’s fine and dandy. This hat and shirt’s fine and dandy. I want the one that says, f—ing Super Bowl Champion!”
—Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen, in the locker room, to his teammates, after the Bills won their first AFC East championship in 25 years Saturday in Denver.
“He’s done a lot of work to get to this point. Just proud of him, his focus and how he’s prioritized different things. As quarterback, it’s tough sometimes because you have a lot of guys open and you’ve got to distribute it to different guys. Mike [Evans] gets a lot of looks, Chris [Godwin] gets looks, A.B. (Brown) gets looks and as quarterback there’s one ball. You can’t split it in three or four.”
—Tom Brady, praising Antonio Brown after Brown caught the winning 46-yard TD pass from Brady to beat Atlanta on Sunday.
“His parents did good.”
—FOX analyst Troy Aikman, on the maturity and early NFL success of Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert.
“DON’T SIT ME!”
—Chargers receiver Keenan Allen, hollering into a camera before the L.A.-Las Vegas game, sounding very much like he was speaking to Fantasy Football owners everywhere, in the fantasy playoffs.
Hope you didn’t listen. In just 24 snaps, Allen caught one pass for 17 yards. No TDs.
Raiders tight end Darren Waller is on a historically productive run. Depending on how you measure, it could be the most productive three-game stretch of a great tight end, ever. There are seven tight ends on the top 100 list for receptions in NFL history. I compared the current three-game stretch for Waller, of the Raiders, to the best three-game stretches for each tight end in the top 100. (And for a bonus, I included Rob Gronkowski, who entered the weekend 108th on the list, 12 receptions from cracking the top 100.) Tight ends are listed by receiving yards in their best three games.
Waller’s hot streak—13 catches for 200 yards against the Jets, seven for 75 (Colts), and nine for 150 (Chargers)—will be tough to extend in Week 16. The Dolphins bring a strong secondary to Vegas on Saturday night. But the Raiders found a premier tight end in Waller, whose first two seasons as a full-time starter will both be seasons of 90 catches or more.
The last time the Bills won the AFC East before Saturday, in December 1995:
• Tom Brady, following his senior baseball season at Serra High School in San Mateo, Calif., was the 18th-round pick of the Montreal Expos, as a power-hitting left-handed-batting catcher. Brady chose football, and was a semester into his freshman year at Michigan.
• Lavonne Allen was four months pregnant with the current Bills quarterback.
• Kendall Jenner was seven weeks old.
• Barack Obama was a constitutional law teacher at the University of Chicago Law School.
• “Seinfeld” was in its seventh season, and on the Thursday following the Bills’ last playoff win, Jan. 4, 1996, one of the underrated episodes ever, “The Rye,” debuted on NBC. Kramer was a driving a horse-drawn cab, and fed the horse (“Rusty”) Beef-A-Reeno, and the horse became flatulent, and it was very bad for business, and Jerry stole a marble rye from a feisty old lady, and Frank Costanza got confused about hens and chickens and roosters, and Elaine dated a weird saxophonist.
On day three of the 2017 NFL Draft, midway through the seventh round, Miami used the 237th overall pick to pick Virginia Tech wideout Isaiah Ford.
Seven weeks in the life of a seventh-round draft choice:
• Nov. 3: New England traded a seventh-round pick in 2021 (that could rise to a sixth if play-time figures were met) to Miami for Ford.
• Nov. 29: For the third straight game as a Patriot, Ford did not play against Arizona.
• Dec. 5: Patriots cut Ford. Snaps played: zero. Cost to New England: seventh-round pick in 2021.
• Dec. 8: Miami re-signed Ford to the practice squad.
• Dec. 19: The day before the Dolphins host New England, Miami moved Ford to the active roster.
• Dec. 20: In his eighth game of the season for Miami, Ford played a season-high 55 snaps and caught three passes for 18 yards in the 22-12 win over the team that fired him without playing him.
On day three of the 2021 NFL Draft, Miami is scheduled to use New England’s seventh-round pick, the pick it acquired to loan its 2017 seventh-round pick to the Patriots for three weeks and zero plays.
— Wolf Blitzer (@wolfblitzer) December 20, 2020
Wolf, a Bills fan forever, is a CNN newsman.
I promise you that when the Eagles benched Wentz they discussed his reaction and how they felt about it. The fact that he is upset and may not want to return was thoroughly discussed before decision was made to sit him.
— Joe Banner (@JoeBanner13) December 20, 2020
Banner is a former Eagles president and ESPN analyst, and I would trust what he says on Carson Wentz.
Notre Dame gets the honor of getting blown out by Alabama
— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) December 20, 2020
Michael David Smith is the manager of Pro Football Talk.
Well, my daughter just dropped Jesus in the school play. 🤦🏻♂️ pic.twitter.com/OglOVsFQwf
— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) December 17, 2020
Darlington, a reporter for ESPN, did what everyone who watched this did: chortle.
But seriously idk how anybody plays it and seriously thinks they have a clue of what could happen any given Sunday. Or be upset at individual statistics when guys lay it on the line every game for the greatest TEAM sport in the world. Asinine IMO
— Kenyan Drake™ (@KDx32) December 17, 2020
The Cardinals running back on fantasy football.
Side effects since receiving my vaccine:
– severe relief
– urge to hug people#GetVaccinated
— Michelle Romeo, MD (@doctormromeo) December 19, 2020
Dr. Michelle Romeo is the chief emergency medicine resident at NYU/Bellevue Hospital in New York City.
Boatload (well, at least a canoe-load) of reaction to John Knapp saying he wanted me to limit my Awards to one per category per week, in email to email@example.com. One for 13 on his side.
Reader in France is not pleased. From Antonin Tokatlian, of Marseille, France: “What Mr. John Knapp says about the players of the week section is a bunch of nonsense. Why would we want less of your input on players? I love that you select a lot of players to show all the good performances around the league. Limiting yourself makes no sense. Why don’t you rank the performances? Mr. Knapp won’t think you’ve watered down the section since there will be one winner and several runners up. Everyone wins!”
Hmmm. Thanks, Antonin. How about this compromise: I’ll keep it to John Knapp’s preferred methodology this week, then next week I’ll plan to do it your way: a winner and one or two runners up per week. And we’ll see what the readers think.
Reader in Australia is inquisitive. From Brent Goldstein, of Melbourne, Australia: “Wake up every Tuesday morning and read your column over coffee. Is the issue about taking running backs in the first round, or simply the running backs taken? Derrick Henry, Nick Chubb, Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara—would there be any question marks around these players if they were first-round picks? These guys are so crucial to their side.”
The point, Brent, is they weren’t first-round picks. I should have been clearer. When Derrick Henry is there in the draft at 45 overall, J.K. Dobbins at 55, Alvin Kamara at 67 and Kareem Hunt at 86, it is hard to defend using a high first-round pick on a back. Now, Christian McCaffrey may turn out to be the exception there, and who knows? I may one day eat my words about the Giants picking any back at number two overall. I just don’t think it’s a smart use of resources when you can clearly find good backs on days two and three of the draft.
Reader in New Zealand has an intriguing question. From Hamish Johnstone, of New Zealand: “What if Patrick Mahomes catches COVID a few days before the Super Bowl? It feels like the whole season could rest on one or two key players not catching the virus, or risk a very anticlimactic Super Bowl.”
Assuming KC’s in the Super Bowl, of course? A whole lot of feature stories are going to be written about Chad Henne on Super Bowl weekend. The Chiefs would play, and Henne would be the quarterback—unless Andy Reid does something else as backup quarterback between now and the first week of February. If the NFL didn’t play the game, it would be going against the league’s pattern for the season. Baltimore played without the reigning MVP. That’s life in 2020. Play on.
Reader in Italy feels for Tyrod Taylor. From Antonio Montagna, of Venezia, Italy: “Former Chargers QB Tyrod Taylor lost his job, early in the season, not for a lack of production, or an injury, but for a punctured lung in the pre-game treatment, for ribs ailing. Justin Herbert has been a good player so far, and Tyrod Taylor would have probably lost his job anyway but right now his career is looming gray. He has declined to sue the medical staff. Was maybe there a sort of compensatory agreement with the team, to put this unfortunate event in the oblivion?”
Antonio! I love the way you write! It’s so Italian! There’s a chance Taylor and the team came to some sort of legal agreement—I do not know—but I do think the fact that Taylor didn’t make a big deal of it publicly speaks to his team-first character. Anthony Lynn was pretty public when this happened that Taylor was classy about it (implying he forgave the doctor who did it), and I find it interesting that now, three months after it happened, Taylor is still a team captain and goes out for every coin flip and still is an important locker-room voice.
1. I think the most revealing piece of information in Adam’s Schefter’s Sunday report about Carson Wentz and his demotion in Philadelphia was this sentence: “Wentz is not pleased with the way events have unfolded in the organization.” Man, talk about being tone-deaf. Three reasons:
• Even if Wentz feels that way—and I trust implicitly that he does if Schefter reports it—it’s ridiculous if any reps or friends of the QB let that leak out. (I doubt sincerely that Wentz is talking to anyone outside his sphere right now.) However it got out, I trust it. And however it did, Wentz looks selfish and totally unaware of how bad the offense was with him leading it, and how poorly he was playing.
• Wentz leads all quarterbacks with 19 giveaways this season. As NFL Media’s Bucky Brooks said Sunday, a starting quarterback job is not a lifetime appointment. Jobs are on the line here—maybe the head coach’s and his entire staff. They should do what they think gives the team the best chance to win—which, last week against New Orleans, promoting Jalen Hurts clearly did.
• Wentz goes to the bench, his backup wins the biggest game of the Eagles season, and it comes out that “Wentz is not pleased with the way events have unfolded.” Well, the Eagles are not pleased that his TD-to-pick differential, plus-26 in 2017, is plus-1 this year, and his completion percentage is the worst in the league, and only Sam Darnold’s passer rating is lower. Of course there are reasons, and the offensive line stinks. But very bad look here. The only things that minimized Sunday’s damage? Wentz was more involved on the sidelines in Arizona on Sunday, looking like he was helping Hurts.
2. I think the odds of Wentz playing elsewhere in 2021—too early to tell where, but my early money’s on Indy—just went from 34 percent to 52 percent.
3. I think it’s hard to not appreciate the first two starts of Jalen Hurts, particularly when he says these two things after the 33-26 loss to Arizona: “I hate losing more than I love winning.” And: “I don’t want to hear the young stuff, second-start stuff, rookie stuff. We have a standard we want to play to.” It’s like what his coach at Oklahoma, Lincoln Riley, told me last week: You can’t give Hurts too much to master, and there won’t be anyone more prepared or more earnest about winning. Those words he said? They’re just like the way he’s played. Nothing’s too big for him.
4. I think the gesture of the holiday season goes to Chargers owner Dean Spanos. On Friday, about 110 Chargers employees (the business and community side, not football) got what could be called a COVID hardship allowance in their paychecks. No idea what it amounted to, but I’m told it varied depending on years of service and was a good chunk of supplementary income for many who are struggling.
“This year,” Spanos said from California on Friday afternoon, “I can’t even begin to imagine what so many of our employees are going through. There wasn’t any one specific thing that led to it, but when you look back over the last year, you have to feel for the people who work for you. Everyone in the workforce is worried ‘Am I going to have a job next week?’ This was just a small token to say thank you and for enduring the last year. You don’t see your people everyday now, and it’s hard to know how everyone is doing. You might see them on a Zoom call. I just wanted them to know we appreciate what they do, especially in a difficult year like this.”
5. I think these are a few things you could learn from this week’s The Peter King Podcast about one of my guests, Steve Kornacki, in his words:
• Loves football. Grew up a Pats fan in Massachusetts. “My favorite player all-time will always be Doug Flutie. In the 1988 season, Flutie stepped in for the Patriots and there was a little bit of Flutie magic. They ended up missing the playoffs by one game. But they overachieved. Lots of kids like me just became huge Doug Flutie fans. When he came back about a decade later, late nineties to the Bills, you had that two-year run there, I will say I was kind of a Bills fan for those two years.”
• Has an election-night North Star. “Definitely, the answer is Tim Russert. I love going back and just watching, you know, going through the archives . . . Twenty years ago it was Bush/Gore. It was the Florida recount. It was the endless election. All of that. Our election night coverage, they didn’t really have a touch screen. Russert wasn’t there at the touch screen saying, ‘Hey this county in Florida.’ They had a board where they would actually paste or whatever tiles. Russert was there narrating all of it and I think he was a riveting narrator. That’s what really drew me in.”
• Doesn’t like rehearsing. “The more it’s rehearsed, and the more you’re like, here’s the line, because I’ve done that. I’ve made that mistake a number of times I think, where I’ll come up with a line that I want to use that I think is pithy or funny. I think half the time, at least, I end up mangling the line. I’m trying to deliver it on the air as I’ve already heard it in my head. I think it’s much more valuable to do your research, to know the material, to build that kind of repetition, where you’re really familiarizing yourself with the material.”
• Is sanguine about fame. “This was unexpected and I’m not quite sure how I feel about it. But I think it’s a good time for this to happen because in the middle of a pandemic, there aren’t too many people on the street. I’m not exactly going into restaurants or anything. I haven’t had a ton of experiences. I’ve had some people come up to me outside. I walk to and from the office. I think it’s great to hear from people who enjoy what I do and say nice things. I think my sense of this very much is it’s fleeting. You know, fads come and go. Tastes come and go. Enjoy it for a few months and you know, in a few months, there’ll be other obsessions. Hopefully I’ll still be doing some things I enjoy.”
• Doesn’t watch his competition, like CNN’s John King. “I probably should. I honestly don’t. The reason is, it’s probably a dumb reason. I’m almost afraid of what I’ll see because I feel like I’ll see five things right away that they did better. It’ll drive me crazy that I didn’t do them.”
6. I think, regarding the prospect of a 17th game per team, these are the Peter King rules I’d recommend the NFL abide by:
• AFC vs. NFC, in every matchup. The NFL projects this to be the format, so there we agree. But . . .
• Make the matchups malleable each spring, based on attractive games. DO NOT make the matchups formulaic. The league said the other day the games would match, say, the third-place AFC West team versus the third-place NFC North team. Not smart. Create the games that make the most sense, year by year, with only this in mind: Teams cannot play a team from the opposite-conference division they played in the previous year, or from the division they’re slated to play this year. For example: The Chiefs played the four teams from the NFC South in 2020, and are scheduled to play the four teams from the NFC East in 2021. So the teams in the AFC West would have to play an NFC West or NFC North team in 2021.
• “Some matchups will stink,” you say? So what. Better to make, say, 10 games with good to great storylines than casting all the storylines to chance. You’re going to have a few Bengals-Panthers games. But you can diminish those by waiting till mid-March to set the matchups—particularly now that the league has set the precedent of a May schedule release. That way, you can factor in new coaches facing their old teams, or star players facing their old teams . . . and wait out things like whether Tom Brady will play a second year in Tampa.
• Examples in 2021 why this is the best way to go. KC-Green Bay (Mahomes v Rodgers), San Francisco-L.A. Chargers (Bosa v Bosa), Miami-Philly (Tua v Hurts if Hurts is the Eagles’ looming man in ’21), Arizona-Baltimore (Murray v Lamar). And that still leaves the league rising-star teams like Buffalo and Indy and Cleveland, and rising stars like Joe Burrow, and standard draws like Seattle, New England, and Dallas for big ratings games.
7. I think I hadn’t seen the Jacobs-Berry kerfuffle till reader Paul Rozecki wrote to ask, “Would love to hear your thoughts on the shots fired [figuratively] from Josh Jacobs to Matthew Berry. Doesn’t it seem that players should embrace the fantasy culture?” So I googled. Jacobs, angry that he was getting heat from fantasy owners for his performance, said on Instagram he wouldn’t be active against Indianapolis. Then Jacobs was active, and he obviously took more heat for trolling fantasy players. Jacobs responded with a middle-finger emoji to fantasyland, and Berry went on TV to criticize Jacobs by saying he should not be slapping at fans “who’ve done nothing, Josh, but show you love.”
My two cents: Jacobs should never have flashed the middle-finger emoji to people online. It’s bush-league. A friend or Raider PR person has to get to him and tell him to knock it off. But I do get the enmity from players about fantasy football. Berry was mostly right to call him out. But saying fans have done nothing but show Jacobs love? Come on. Why would Jacobs have started this nonsense if he’d been getting nothing but love?
8. I think the NFL website headline of the week came from the New York Post, regarding Lamar Jackson being forced to the locker room for a quarter because of cramping and proverbial “intestinal discomfort.” Actually quite just-the-facts: “NFL star denies pooping during ‘Monday Night Football.’ “
9. I think this was an excellent, and sad point, by Greg Bedard of Boston Sports Journal the other day: Imagine the end of 34-year-old Julian Edelman’s career, the last game of his New England life, coming in an empty stadium in Week 17 against the 1-14 New York Jets. It’s not certain he’ll play at all in the last two weeks because of knee soreness. But if he does, something about that scenario just seems wrong, for a guy who caught 738 balls in his career, all in New England (Calvin Johnson caught 748, all in Detroit), and faces an uncertain future; if Edelman wants to play next year, he may have to move on from New England. Just a lousy way to end, if it’s the end.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Story of the Season: Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe, on what became of a tragic loss of a life, a family finding meaning in that loss, and how good people responded to the loss by doing something great.
b. Grace Rett of Holy Cross died in the middle of a college crew trip last winter. Crew was her passion. Wrote Shaughnessy:
Grace Rett was the heart of the team. If you roomed with her on a road trip and there were two beds and a cot, Grace would take the cot. If you had to miss morning lift because of ROTC commitments, Grace would meet you at the campus gym at 10 p.m. and do her fourth workout of the day, just to keep you company. She was dedicated, smart, funny and noble. She was also prompt, which is maybe why she wound up riding shotgun in the lead van when the Holy Cross women’s rowing team set out for morning practice on a local lagoon in Vero Beach, Fla., in January.
Grace was killed when Holy Cross’s rented team transport van was struck by a red pickup driving north on Indian River Boulevard in Vero Beach. The Holy Cross head coach — who’d been driving — and six other members of the team were hospitalized after the crash, three of the young women transported via helicopter. No one who was there that day will ever be the same, but this weekend the survivors of the crash, all members of the Holy Cross team, and the expansive Grace Rett Community will engage in a virtual rowing challenge designed to honor Grace’s record and build a gym in her name at Our Lady of the Valley Regional School in Uxbridge, Mass.
Grace attended OLV, a school with no gym, from grades K-8 and told her parents that she would like to put a gym on the site someday if she ever had the means. With help from an anonymous donor who pledged $1 million, the school has raised $2.5 million and hopes to get closer to the $3.5 million finish line this weekend. If all goes according to plan, crews will break ground on the G.R.A.C.E. Center in April with the first events scheduled for the fall of 2021.
At long last: home games for Our Lady of the Valley.
c. Good luck in your new gig at FOX, Tom Rinaldi. Remember those CNNSI days?
d. So many lovely tributes to Rinaldi over the last few days, as he leaves ESPN after a wonderful run as a preeminent storyteller. From my experience with Tom in the late nineties, when he was a TV pup, I can tell you he’s that good of a person, and that diligent at his craft.
e. Great interview Thursday night with Justin Herbert by FOX’s Charissa Thompson. Never knew Herbert used to walk one mile home from Oregon football games when he was a kid.
f. Column of the Week: Jerry Izenberg, emeritus sports columnist of the (Newark) Star-Ledger, on the news that stats of Negro League players would now be included with the stats of major-league baseball, acknowledged after years of being ignored by MLB. Wrote Izenberg:
Baseball did a good thing Wednesday. But there are some stains that good intentions can never totally erase. I am thinking this morning of a day in mid-March of 1995, when a retired pitcher from the Negro National League drove down Interstate 95 from South Jersey to Baltimore to visit an old friend in the hospital. The pitcher was named Max Manning and the patient was another retired pitcher from that team, Leon Day, who was dying and Max knew it. In truth, Day would be gone in a matter of days.
Day had been the best pitcher in the league and if baseball had joined the real world early enough, he would have proven it. Monte Irvin, another teammate, said he was faster than Gibson. Larry Doby, who integrated the American League, said, “I never saw anyone better — even in the Major Leagues.”
The two old friends sat in that sterile hospital room . . . They recalled Opening Day in 1946, with Day back from World War II combat. Day threw a no-hitter against the Philadelphia Stars. And in the bottom of the ninth, he grabbed a bat, muttered, “We better do something or we’ll be here all night,” and then he drilled the game-winning home run.
Then, according to Manning, a nurse came in holding a baseball and introduced a reporter from the Baltimore Sun.
“Mr. Manning,” the guy said, “it’s my honor to tell you that you were voted in the Hall of Fame today and I’d like to interview you.”
“Well, that’s nice,” Day said. “What do you want to know?”
“Well, I know you will understand why I have to ask this, but does this make up for you never playing in the big leagues?”
As Manning said years ago when he repeated what happened, “That’s when Leon winked at me, then looked at the guy and said: ‘Young man, you have been seriously misinformed. I did play in the big leagues. I can’t rightly say whether those white boys could have made it in ours.’ “
g. Miss you, Jerry. Hope life is good for you.
h. Glad to hear Al Michaels is feeling good—he played 18 holes of golf Thursday, walking the course—the day before going on the NBC COVID list. I would expect him to be back on the job soon, hopefully by Titans-Packers next Sunday in Green Bay.
i. Janice Huff, a meteorologist for WNBC-TV in New York, is the best local forecaster I have ever seen.
j. Odd thing to comment on, I know, but I have been watching Huff for years, and just wanted to give her props for being smart, cheerful, and for educating the public on weather things none of us would ever know well. I took meteorology in college and realize how complex it is. Huff is as calm and cool and conversational on this nerdy weather stuff as Steve Kornacki is on the electoral map.
k. Coffeenerdness: Why did I wait 63 years and six months to use a French Press, and to make coffee that delightful way? I’ve used French Press a time or three at restaurants over the years, but never at home. Just thought it would be fun to try. Fun, as it turned out, and great. Using Peet’s Major Dickason’s Blend, I’ve done the coffee that way three times in the past week. It’s a tad more labor intensive, but a cool experience, and the coffee is just great. So it’ll go into my coffee rotation now.
l. Beernerdness: Trumer Pils (Trumer Brewing Company, Berkeley, Calif.) was the beer of choice the other night. Love crisp, basic pilsners, and this is a good one.
m. Podcast of the Week: “American Prodigy: Freddy Adu,” by Grant Wahl, produced by Blue Wire Podcasts. It’s a seven-episode series (five are out now), diving into why soccer phenom Freddy Adu failed. I hate typing those words, because it’s sad and seems over the top for a kid who never asked for the fame before he earned it. (Though he did sign a big Nike deal before he earned anything.) But it’s the harsh reality. Wahl’s podcast delves into it all—I urge you in particular to listen to episode five, “All Falls Down.”
n. How about Nike founder Phil Knight once saying to Wahl that the 13-year-old Adu could make a bigger impact on soccer than Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods were to their sports? And how about Adu, as he began his slide from relevance, being too big to even go get his own furniture and TV?
o. 14 teams in 13 years. Fourteen teams! Adu: “The expectations, it was a lot, man. This stuff messes with your mind as a young player.”
p. Parents of phenom athletes: Listen to this podcast and learn what not to do, and learn that, in the immortal words of the late Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler, all success stems from belief in “The team, the team, the team.”
q. Over-under on number of hours on sports-talk radio this week, on whether Notre Dame deserved that spot in the college playoffs: 11,638.
r. What do I think? I follow that as much as I follow The Bachelorette. Ohio State (a shaky three, though any team that runs for 399 against a good team can do something right on offense) and Notre Dame (a shakier four) should probably be the last two teams in the college football playoff, even with Texas A&M a good candidate without a wow win at 8-1 and Cincinnati at 8-0. What Joel Klatt tweeted about Texas A&M’s case makes sense to me:
Folks, if the most impressive section on your resume reads "we played Alabama….and lost by 28" that is not a strong resume
— Joel Klatt (@joelklatt) December 20, 2020
Just what can Brown do for you?
Score the winning points.