This was the 37th NFL regular season I’ve covered. It was the weirdest, of course, and not a single other one was close for second place.
Washington and Philadelphia played in Week 1, with Dwayne Haskins’ season of great promise beginning in the nation’s capital, and Carson Wentz primed to continue his ascent to consistent greatness for the playoff-bound Eagles.
Wow. Less than four months ago.
Washington and Philadelphia played in NFL game 256, the season finale in Week 17 in damp and cold Philadelphia. Haskins got fired six days before the game, for playing lousy and trying to hide a maskless strip club road trip. Wentz was a healthy scratch, yanked last month after a baffling three-month run of bad play, not even in uniform for the last game. ESPN reported he would soon ask for a trade.
Of course it devolved into the weird. It wouldn’t have been 2020 with a normal endgame.
Washington, 6-9 entering the night, needed a victory to win a historically bad NFC East. A loss would hand the division to similarly 6-10 New York via tiebreaker, and so the Giants players and fans hung on as Washington entered the fourth quarter clinging to a 17-14 lead. Philly ball, 12:35 to go, and semi-phenom rookie Jalen Hurts would have two or three more shots to win the game. But out came . . . Nate Sudfeld, who had not played in a football game in 105 weeks.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson had hinted he might play Sudfeld in this game that meant nothing to the team but draft seeding. He said he thought Sudfeld “deserved an opportunity to get some snaps.” Sudfeld looked like a nerve-wracked JV backup thrust into a varsity state title game, turning it over twice and being sacked twice in his first 11 snaps.
“I personally could not have done what Philadelphia did,” Cris Collinsworth said on NBC.
Normally, I’m a you-gotta-do-what’s-in-your-team’s-best-interests guy. But there was something about this that I thought broke the honor code among teams. Down 13 in the fourth quarter, up 17, with nothing at stake, do what you want. Fine. But in a three-point game with a dangerous mobile QB who’d already run for two touchdowns in the game, with another team on the edge of its seat, dreaming of a playoff berth, and Nate Sudfeld? I hated it. Everything about it felt wrong. “A big middle finger to the New York Giants,” Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders tweeted.
Ninety miles to the northeast, Giantworld revolted. “This is why we don’t like the Eagles,” Eli Manning tweeted.
Wideout Golden Tate was active too:
— Golden Tate (@ShowtimeTate) January 4, 2021
Washington 20, Philadelphia 14. WFT wins the NFC East at 7-9. Fifteen minutes after the game, I got veteran Giants DB Logan Ryan on the phone. I’d hoped he’d come out with barrels blazing. “Wish I could give you the explosive stuff you wanted,” Ryan said a few minutes before midnight. “There will be a lot of opinions about whether they were trying to win. You want to play the game to win, but I don’t play for the Eagles, I don’t coach for the Eagles. It’s their team. Winning six games doesn’t give us much right to get pissed off about this. We didn’t play consistent enough all year to earn it.”
What Ryan wanted to talk about: “Honestly, my hat’s off to us and to the league for getting this done this year, getting these games played. To play competitive with no fans, no practice, virtual meetings, no coaches in one game, no quarterbacks in one game . . . This is the toughest time Americans have faced, and we got through it.”
And, Ryan said: “Give credit to Washington. Ron Rivera, what he’s been through, and Alex Smith, his journey. Wow.”
So much is up. Such as:
• The expanded Wild-Card weekend, three games Saturday and three Sunday, the first six-game playoff weekend in NFL history. Day one: Indy and old Bills hero Frank Reich returning to Buffalo, the Rams and Seahawks meeting for round three in Seattle, and Tom Brady making a triumphant return to the playoffs for Tampa Bay in Washington. Day two: A Ravens-Titans playoff rematch, this time in Nashville, Bears-Saints in Brees’ likely last stand, and finally a quick-turnaround Browns-Steelers rematch.
• Washington, with a cancer-surviving coach who didn’t know if he’d have the energy to make it through the season and a quarterback who nearly had his right leg amputated two years ago, with a team in the middle of a roiling #MeToo scandal . . . They not only made it through the season but they won the NFC East in the Philly strangeness Sunday night. Asked by NBC’s Michele Tafoya post-game if he’d have believed this at the start of the season, quarterback Alex Smith said, “Not in a million years.” Ron Rivera, sounding weary over the phone post-game, told me: “Now all we gotta do is face Tom Brady.”
• Five coach vacancies, assuming Doug Marrone gets word in Jacksonville today. One club official on a team with a vacancy told me over the weekend, “There may only be five.” The Jets, Detroit, Atlanta, Houston and Jacksonville. Anthony Lynn may have saved his job with a season-ending four-game winning streak with the Chargers. Urban Meyer’s the hot name in Jacksonville. He reminds me of another college hotshot: Nick Saban.
• Derrick Henry won his second straight rushing title (with 2,027 yards), and Stefon Diggs led the league in receptions (127) and receiving yards (1,535). Miami’s Xavien Howard had 10 picks, the first double-digit interception season since 2007. This was the league’s highest-scoring season ever (49.6 points), way up from 45.6 last year. Seven new teams made the playoffs this year.
• The NFL made it through 256 games without one being postponed into January. COVID roiled the league—26 players were either out Sunday or missed time last week on the reserve list. Later in the column, I’ll have my 20 major influencers on the 2020 season, and they include the NFL chief medical officer, an epidemiologist/contact-tracer, head athletic trainer and front-line medic. While cases nationwide explode, the NFL will try to make it through 13 more games in the playoffs.
• Great story in Cleveland, where the Browns, three years removed from 0-16, beat rival Pittsburgh 24-22 to make the playoffs for the first time in 18 years and earn a game next Sunday night . . . in Heinz Field, against the Steelers. Led by a coach who got passed over for the Browns job two years ago and got it, finally, a year ago. “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” Kevin Stefanski said from his car on the ride home from the game Sunday, kids in the back seat. “I wasn’t supposed to get the job then.”
• Great story in Tampa, where old man Brady threw his 40th touchdown pass Sunday, his high bar since 2007. Coach Bruce Arians said he’d hoped Brady would throw 40 (that was Arians’ exact goal). “I was expecting practice, I was expecting OTAs,” he said. “What he’s done with none of that is incredible.”
• Great story: The Bills are averaging 47 a game over the last three weeks, and Josh Allen has played himself into the MVP race with a strong second half. He’ll need a lot to overtake Aaron Rodgers (48-5 TD-to-pick margin, second-highest rating ever). The 50 MVP votes are due to the Associated Press on Wednesday.
It was the weirdest of times, it was the most tumultuous of times. The year 2020 tried the NFL’s soul. Here, I’ll hold up a mirror to the league, and highlight the most influential people in what happened on the field, and how the virus wracked it, and how social issues awakened a sleepy league, and how the business of the game was impacted. Some of those named here represent a group of people—an epidemiologist, for instance, and an Infection Control Officer, charged with keeping the virus outside his team’s door, and a Black coach. I could have picked many from each group.
I figured the year would be an offbeat one when, on a late-February morning at the NFL Scouting Combine, a GM fist-bumped me instead of shaking my hand. “Just being careful,” he said. Happened one other time in Indianapolis too. The virus was already on NFL minds, and within two weeks it would invade everyone’s psyche.
The 20 influencers (21, counting a combo-journalism entry) included some names unknown by most last January—and a few you don’t know today.
1. Roger Goodell, NFL commissioner
When Goodell looks back at his career, 2020 will probably be his most satisfying season. He was pushed to delay free agency in March and the draft in April because of COVID, but did neither; the folksy in-home NFL Draft—featuring home shots of Bill Belichick’s dog Nike—showed business as (un)usual could be done in a pandemic. When money was no object, of course. Goodell ran the draft from his suburban New York basement. Regarding the season: He had help from a persistent union, and from the actions of Infection Control Officers on the 32 teams, but Goodell was the CEO of the system that got all 256 games played in 17 weeks. With, of course, a bottomless budget—and don’t let anyone tell you that wasn’t huge. Goodell told me on Labor Day weekend: “I think we have a plan that will get us there.” Thirteen postseason games to go.
2. Allen Sills, NFL chief medical officer
The most important meetings in the league this year? For seven days a week for the last five months, there have been two: the 7 a.m. conference calls for the six or so contact-tracers to discuss that day’s positive tests that have been reported on overnight test results from the 32 teams, and the 8:30 a.m. calls to map out that day’s plans with 12 or so participants on what Sills calls “the SWAT team” of epidemiologists, league officials, tracers, and infectious-disease experts. (Each meeting starts an hour earlier on Sunday, in case issues including game-day rapid testing must be addressed.) Sills’ meeting of storm-chasers, often run virtually from his home in Nashville because of the crazy year, has kept the trains mostly running on time in a pandemic.
3. Tom Brady, Tampa Bay quarterback
One year ago today, in an AFC Wild-Card game, Tennessee stunned the Patriots 20-13, and Brady looked like a man who knew he was finished in New England. But not finished period. “I think a lot of other people who are great at what they do—great artists or great actors or great businessmen—don’t have to stop doing what they love. I know there’s football still in here,” he said. Eleven weeks later, he was a Buc. At 43, there were some hiccups on the way, but he piloted Tampa to an 11-5 record and the fifth seed in the NFC tournament, and he finished third in the league in passing yards (4,633). Only once in his career (2007) has he thrown for more TDs than his 40 this year. Not bad for the 16th-highest-paid quarterback in football.
4. J.C. Tretter, NFLPA president
The common-sense, sees-both-sides Browns center was voted president of the NFL Players Association in March. “This is what I’m passionate about,” he said when elected. Tretter actually trained for this at Cornell, studying in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. Tretter and the union insisted and won daily testing in the summer when the league wasn’t yet for it. In December, Tretter pointed to the increase in scoring and decrease in penalties after a virtual offseason to call for the elimination of offseason minicamps and practices. “We are the only major sports league with an offseason program,” Tretter wrote on the NFLPA website. “The most physically demanding sport is the only league that brings their players back for extra practices outside of the season . . . Football is at its best when we have healthy players playing at their best.” Food for thought—that coaches will absolutely hate.
5. Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City quarterback
In the 18 games he started in the calendar year, Mahomes went 17-1, including leading Kansas City from a 10-point deficit with eight minutes to play to a 31-20 victory over the Niners in Super Bowl 54. He’ll remember one other thing fondly about this year: partnering with LeBron James in his national campaign to get out the vote, and through his foundation 15 and the Mahomies partnering with his team to make Arrowhead Stadium a polling place. They bought 25 voting machines and paid the cost of 30 poll workers to run the site, at a cost to the foundation of more than $100,000. Andy Reid voted there. At 25, Mahomes has shown that his future, in football and social issues and philanthropy, is bright.
6. DeMaurice Smith, NFLPA executive director
Something unprecedented happened in February and March. Angry that the NFLPA agreed in bargaining talks with owners to the imposition of a 17th regular-season game, the union’s executive council of players voted 6-5 to not recommend to membership Smith’s deal. It included a 20-percent increase in minimum salaries through 2031, advances in pension for 11,000 former players, 1 percent more of the NFL gross revenue for players, and discipline cases taken from Roger Goodell and put in the hands of a neutral arbitrator. When put to a vote of all players, the deal passed by a 51.5-percent majority of players—basically, about two players per team—and solidified Smith’s power. In retrospect, timing was good for the players because owners likely wouldn’t have been as forthcoming in negotiations during or post-pandemic; the game’s 2020 finances have been battered. Smith calculated that his players wouldn’t be willing to strike over the 17th-game issue, and that owners would make no deal without it. Sometimes leaders have to make unpopular decisions, and this was one by Smith. It led to 11 years of labor peace.
7. Crystal Echo Hawk, Native American activist
Echo Hawk, of Oklahoma’s Pawnee Nation, applied pressure for years on a 38-year Native American issue—that Washington should drop the team name “Redskins” because it was racist. And when owner Daniel Snyder finally said he would discontinue it, it was as much or more for economic reasons, with sponsors like FedEx demanding the name be changed. But the frequent rallies and political pressure on the team and sponsors led by Echo Hawk (and the movement started by native leaders Suzan Shown Harjo and Amanda Blackhorse) was a burr in the franchise’s, and the league’s, saddle that never went away. Echo Hawk told NPR when Snyder caved: “It’s a remarkable, historic day for native peoples. I commend the NFL and the Washington team for finally doing the right thing.” After 87 years known as the R-word, the franchise suddenly became the Washington Football Team.
8. Michael Thomas, New Orleans wide receiver
I’ve never seen such a collection of mega-stars in any sport do what Thomas, Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Odell Beckham Jr., Ezekiel Elliott and others did in the 71-second June mashup video in calling on Roger Goodell to back the Black Lives Matter movement. Thomas’ star was rising as 2020 dawned, after he set the NFL record for receptions in a season with 149 in 2019. He began to be outspoken after the May death of George Floyd at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. On June 3, Thomas received an Instagram direct message from an NFL social-media producer, Bryndon Minter, offering to work with him to allow his voice in a well-produced video to be heard. Thomas wrote back in 23 minutes, and a collaboration began. Thomas got mega-NFL stars to record snippet-quotes on smart phones to be formed into a video calling on the league, and Goodell, to be more attentive to the Floyd murder. It worked. The next day, Goodell told his staff, “I’m going to make a video.”
9. Bryndon Minter, NFL social-media creative producer
Last week, thinking back on the 28 hours from idea-germination/DM-to-Thomas to complete video with 20 NFL stars standing up for themselves, Minter, who invented and produced the piece, still seems dazed that he ever got it done. “That is still such a crazy time in my life,” he said. “When I think back on it now, it strikes me as a moment that was a catalyst in allowing players to be voices, not just numbers, in the social-justice space.” He and a few peers who work for the NFL were motivated by the word-salad response the league had to the George Floyd murder. Even if helping players call out his big boss would have cost him his job, Minter, 27, thought it would be worth it—and he knew this was not the kind of thing in the buttoned-up NFL that he’d ever get approval. So he just did it. Props to Minter for his principles, and for seeing the big picture. The 23 million people who have watched on social media platforms (led by 3.7 million on Saquon Barkley’s Twitter account) send their thanks.
10. Jamal Adams, Seattle safety
Adams demanded a traded from the Jets in June, concerned about what losing was doing to his mental health. He got his wish in July, going to Seattle for two first-round picks and a third-rounder, and responded by setting the NFL record for sacks by a defensive back (9.5) in a season. But the 2020 image of Adams most will remember is from the Thomas/Minter video. Adams stared into his smart phone in his car and taped these words: “We the NFL condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black people,” followed by a fisted Black power salute. That’s what he couldn’t say or do growing up in Texas, and why 2020 was liberating for Adams and many Black players. “I buried it for a long time,” he told me. “I still remember to this day people who have said racial slurs towards me. Now, before every game, I’m always holding up my fist. Because I am happy to be a Black man. I’m proud that I took that stand.”
11. Howard Katz, NFL senior VP of broadcasting
Imagine you’re Katz, and it’s the morning of Wednesday, Dec. 2. Some background: Katz spent months with a four-person crew drawing up the 256-game regular-season schedule, announced May 7 in the middle of a pandemic. Katz and crew then spent weeks during the summer inventing all sorts of alternative slates, preparing for scenarios like what if the season at the start is delayed by a week or two, or paused for a month, or a week has to be moved to January. So now it’s Wednesday, Dec. 2, and the NFL has already moved the Thanksgiving night Baltimore-Pittsburgh game from Thursday to Sunday, and from Sunday to Tuesday, and from Tuesday to Wednesday because of a Ravens outbreak. The game is at the odd time of 3:40 p.m. ET because of NBC programming. So now everyone is waiting for the Ravens’ morning COVID test results to come in because if they have multiple positives, Katz and company will probably have to reschedule the game again, maybe to the dreaded Week 18. Finally, at 11 a.m. ET, the results come back. All clean. Crisis of the year averted. You are Howard Katz, and you can breathe again.
12. Kyle Johnston, Miami head athletic trainer
The Dolphins didn’t have the fewest positive tests in the league, but they were probably the most aggressive team in going beyond league protocols to try to keep COVID at bay. Many teams were vigilant. In Miami, coach Brian Flores encouraged Johnston to add extra safeguards. Johnston did, and shared some with the NFL, to pass along to other teams. Such as this one: To be sure all players and employees were wearing Kinexon tracing and social-distancing devices while at the team facility, Miami installed sensors in doorways to ensure no one left the Kinexon thingie in a locker or desk. By midseason, every Dolphins meeting was on Zoom (limiting close contact between players), no player took a shower at the facility, all dressed in the 100-yard bubble instead of the locker room . . . and coaches wore the more expensive and more protective KN95 masks during games. “Kyle Johnston and our medical staff have done a tremendous job,” Flores said last week. “He’s all over us about masks and distancing.” To be clear: I could have written about several proactive teams: Seattle, Atlanta, Carolina, others. I’d just heard several good things during the year about Johnston and his staff.
13. Josh Allen, Buffalo quarterback
The Bills matter, in a big way, in year three of Allen’s NFL career. Buffalo ended the year on a six-game winning streak, winning the AFC East for the first time in 25 years, finally vanquishing New England—the Bills swept the Pats this year after being 5-33 against them since the turn of the century. Buffalo is poised for a run of greatness if Allen, this season’s breakout star, continues on his bright path. Allen tinkered with his mechanics in the offseason, started strong, went into a month-long valley when he hurt his shoulder, and finished the year on a 9-1 run as a prime MVP candidate, with Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes. Think of it: Entering the postseason, Allen belongs with the big boys (Mahomes, Rodgers, Wilson, Brady, Roethlisberger, Jackson, Brees) who could own January. And February.
14. Will Hobson and Liz Clarke, Washington Post reporters
Not a good year for Daniel Snyder. But a just year, in part because of the work of Hobson, Clarke and their Washington Post reporter peers who uncovered a seedy boys-will-be-boys club among team executives in how they treated female employees, cheerleaders and female reporters who covered the team. The Post found 40 women to confirm the #MeToo atmosphere, and later reported that the team paid a former female employee $1.6 million in 2009 to settle a sexual-misconduct suit stemming from an incident on Snyder’s private plane. Hobson and Clarke got a former marketing coordinator with the team, Emily Applegate, to reveal the frequent harassment she and another female employee experienced. They wrote of the two employees: “They cried about the realization that their dream job of working in the NFL came with what they characterized as relentless sexual harassment and verbal abuse that was ignored — and, in some cases, condoned — by top team executives.” Goodell’s next tough decision as commissioner may be whether to force Snyder to sell the franchise. The reporting by Hobson and Clarke will be a big factor in that.
15. Christina Mack, epidemiologist/contact tracer
Contact-tracing in 2020, Dr. Sills said, “is absolutely foundational for us . . . the element almost nobody is talking about.” Dr. Mack, who works for longtime NFL health-technology partner IQVIA, is one of the tips of the spear. I could have used NFL tracers Molly Delaney, Leah Triola or Paul Blalock as the headliner too. They’re among the the bloodhounds who have found 36 additional COVID-positive cases within the league to isolate from the general population. Example of the contact-tracing efficiency: Mack noticed one team had a large number of close-contact cases around 3 p.m. on a Wednesday, and was told that was the time players were coming in from practice, with position groups all close to each other. The team changed locker positions so that no player in a position group was near another player in his group in the locker room for the rest of the season. “Felt like a bullet dodged,” Dr. Mack said.
16. Kendall Hinton, Denver “quarterback”
The most 2020 moment, easy, was in Denver on Nov. 29. Saints at Broncos. The day before the game, the NFL ruled that three Denver quarterbacks (all healthy ones on the roster, basically) would not be eligible to play because of sloppy mask-wearing and protocol-adherence. At 5 p.m. that day, 21 hours before the game, receivers coach Zach Azzanni called practice-squad wideout Hinton, who’d never been on an NFL field, and told him: “Get ready, you’re suiting up at quarterback tomorrow.” Hinton played quarterback briefly at Wake Forest but hadn’t thrown a pass on any level in two years. But the Broncos had no one else, and the league was adamant: Play the game with whoever at quarterback. And so it came to be that two hours before the game, QB coach Mike Shula and coordinator Pat Shurmur worked with the quiet Hinton on, of all things, how he spoke in the huddle. “Enunciate,” Hinton was told. “Make sure you’re loud.” It went about as you’d think: Saints 31, Broncos 3. Hinton, one of nine passing. It’s actually surprising there weren’t more of these debacles in the season of COVID.
17. Eric Bieniemy, Kansas City offensive coordinator
Despite learning from the offensive master, Andy Reid, for nine years and being the offensive coordinator on an explosive Super Bowl winner, Bieniemy, who is Black and yearns to be a head coach, hasn’t gotten a job. He’s the top example of the diversity crisis facing the NFL. In 2003, when the Rooney Rule was enacted—requiring teams with a head-coach vacancy to interview at least one minority candidate for the opening—there were three Black head coaches in the league. Starting the 2020 season, there were three Black head coaches in the league. “We don’t talk about it. We don’t like to talk about it,” said Troy Vincent, the NFL’s highest-ranking Black person in football operations. The league passed three rules intending to broaden the pool, including requiring a second minority coach to interview for each vacancy. Will it help Bieniemy and a pool of justifiably frustrated minority candidates? This hiring cycle will tell.
18. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, Kansas City guard/COVID front-line medic
In July, Duvernay-Tardif did what a doctor, not a football player, would do when he opted out of starting on the offensive line for the defending Super Bowl champions in Kansas City. He chose to continue his work as an orderly in a long-term care facility in his native Quebec, helping fight the coronavirus, while also taking online med school classes from Harvard. It was a noble decision, but as Andy Reid said after he spoke at length to Duvernay-Tardif, it’s the decision a medical professional at the time of a pandemic would make. “I’m a huge fan of his, and I was also raised by a doctor,” said Reid, whose mother was a doctor. “I understand the dedication.” I doubt Duvernay-Tardif thought much about the $2.75 million he’d be bypassing on the field to work with long-term patients. He’s earned more, repaid to him in international karma.
19. Jason Licht, Tampa Bay GM
This is strange. But I talked to quite a few GMs—John Lynch, Tom Telesco, Thomas Dimitroff, Brett Veach, Mickey Loomis—who didn’t hate being out of the office for long weeks of the offseason, didn’t hate working remotely, and didn’t hate doing meetings and drafting by videoconference. There was a peacefulness to it, a feeling that they could get a lot of work done when people weren’t walking in and out of the office all day. After the draft, Licht told me: “I’m almost to the point where I like working this way, I’m getting so much done. Going back to the office—it’s going to be different.” Licht had one of the busiest pandemic springs of any GM. He wooed and signed Tom Brady. He traded for Ron Gronkowski. (How was your offseason? Pretty good. Signed two of the top 100 players of all time.) Like his peers, Licht scouted virtually. And on draft night, working the phone from the playroom of his three children, Licht was between trade feelers with Minnesota and Las Vegas when, through a wall, a scream of “MOMMY!!!” rang into the room. Hey, it’s after 9 on a Thursday. Kids are antsy. The highlight, though: Licht traded from 14 to 13 with the Niners and drafted the guy he wanted, tackle Tristan Wirf of Iowa. “First trade ever in a virtual NFL Draft!” Licht cackled. Weird night. Charming night, in a way.
20. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Miami quarterback
Hate to end this with a bummer. On Dec. 26, 38-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick, Miami’s 2020 Mariano Rivera, came in for an ineffective Tua Tagovailoa at Las Vegas with 10 minutes to go and led field goal, touchdown and field goal drives to win the game. In the final 10 seconds, he completed a 34-yard pass while getting his head twisted by face-mask a la The Exorcist, and the 15-yard foul set up a makeable winning field goal with two seconds left. Now Miami was on the verge of a Wild Card berth, and Fitzpatrick had never gotten that far in his 15 previous seasons. “I am well aware that I’ve never been to the playoffs, I promise you,” he said after the game. On Thursday, the Dolphins learned Fitzpatrick tested positive for COVID-19. A positive test requires 10 days away from the team, so even if the Dolphins had made the postseason, Fitzpatrick might have missed it all. Lots of sad things about this sad time in American life, and Ryan Fitzpatrick’s positive test is probably not high on the list. But like so many things in COVID America, it just stinks.
Just missed the cut:
21. Baker Mayfield, Cleveland quarterback. Had some shaky moments in his first two-plus seasons after being the first pick in the 2018 draft by the previously 0-16 Browns. But he finished a grand turnaround Sunday with a pesky/dangerous Cleveland team, going to the playoff for the first time in 18 years.
22. Tony Romo, CBS analyst. By wheedling a $17-million-a-year salary out of CBS, Romo raised the bar inordinately for high-profile TV talent in their next contracts.
23. Dan Snyder, Washington owner. Quite a year—at least in infamy. Changed the team name, got into a suing contest with his three minority owners desperate for him to sell, battled the rep that the team was a ‘60s-style frat house with #MeToo stories rampant.
24. Bill Belichick, Patriots coach. Every coach who wins six Super Bowls in 18 years is entitled to a mulligan or four. But Belichick chafed at a late-season Tom Curran question about bad recent drafting (“I’m not going to apologize for our record over the last 20 years”), as if to say, Don’t question the master. Football’s unforgiving, and Belichick’s personnel acumen needs a booster shot.
The lineup for the first six-game open to the playoffs in NFL history:
1:05 p.m.: Indianapolis (11-5, AFC 7 seed) at Buffalo (13-3, AFC 2 seed), Orchard Park, N.Y. TV: CBS. Line: Bills by 7.
Frank Reich returns to the scene of his prime trying for what would be a major upset. Twenty-eight years ago Sunday, Reich had one of the best days a sporting backup ever had, playing for the injured Jim Kelly. He brought the Bills back from a 35-3 third-quarter deficit with four second-half TD passes, and the Bills stunned the Oilers 41-38. Now, on a short week, Reich and defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus have to figure a way to stop one of the hottest teams in recent history. The Bills have averaged 47.3 points a game in their last three, and Josh Allen is the hottest quarterback in the AFC. “It’ll come down to us having great ball security—you can’t give them anything—and keeping those [offensive] guys off the field,” Colts back Jonathan Taylor told me Sunday night. Well, that’ll be up to you, Jonathan Taylor. Bills have allowed 4.6 yards per rush, so maybe there’s a little hole there.
4:40 p.m.: L.A. Rams (10-6, NFC 6 seed) at Seattle (12-4, NFC 3 seed), Seattle. TV: FOX. Line: Seahawks by 3.5.
Big prediction: It’ll be a tight game. Surprise! Fourteen of Seattle’s 16 games this year were decided by 10 points or less. Seattle lost to the Rams by seven in November and beat L.A. by 11 eight days ago. If I’m L.A. defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, I’m honing in on Tyler Lockett, who had a genius game Sunday (one diving end-zone catch of a Wilson laser; one toe-tap side-of-the-end-zone touch pass from Wilson) to beat the Niners. Metcalf is the deep threat, but Lockett has become Wilson’s physical security blanket with great hands, and just finished a 100-catch season. The Rams played it coy after John Wolford struggled throwing it to be Arizona on Sunday, with coach Sean McVay saying “I’m not sure” if Jared Goff’s surgically repaired throwing thumb will be healed enough to play on a short week. McVay would obviously rather have Goff play, but I’m not sure how much of an upgrade Goff is now anyway; Rams scored 24, 20 and 9 in his last three starts.
8:15 p.m. Tampa Bay (11-5, NFC 5 seed) at Washington (7-9, NFC 4 seed), Landover, Md. TV: NBC. Line: Bucs by 7.
Dark cloud over the Bucs’ win Sunday at home, with wideout Mike Evans going down with a non-contact knee injury and leaving the 44-27 win over Atlanta. “We don’t think there’s any serious damage,” coach Bruce Arians said. Tampa has so many weapons right now, and Tom Brady is so hot (last three games: 37 points per game, 12 TDs, one pick) that they might be able to survive without him. But Chase Young and Montez Sweat might have something to say about that. The Washington line could stuff Tampa’s middling run game and make this all about Brady getting rid of it quickly enough to avoid Young and Sweat. I think this will be a better game than people think.
1:05 p.m. Baltimore (11-5, AFC 5 seed) at Tennessee (11-5, AFC 4 seed), TV: ESPN/ABC. Line: Ravens by 4.
It’s time for Lamar Jackson to bury his playoff problems. Two years ago it was the loss to the Chargers at home; last year, a beating by the Titans. Jackson can say what he wants, but those losses have to bug him. The tough thing about playing the Titans now? Derrick Henry, of course, is red-hot, but Ryan Tannehill continues to be a major threat; he accounted for 40 touchdowns in 16 games (33 passing, seven rushing); add in the 2,027 rushing yards of Henry, and if anything, Tennessee is more of a pick-your-poison team than the one that won in Baltimore last year. For the Ravens, one of the most prolific rushing games in history (403 yards in Cincinnati) is a preview of how I think they’ll play this one. I’ll be surprised if Baltimore doesn’t try to play keep-away and run it 60 percent of the snaps.
4:40 p.m. Chicago (8-8, NFC 7 seed) at New Orleans (12-4, NFC 2 seed). TV: CBS, Nickelodeon, Amazon Prime. Line: Saints by 9.
So you’re probably thinking: The NFL put this game on Sunday because Alvin Kamara’s COVID isolation period will be over by then, and if he tests negative, he should be okay to play here. Of course they want Kamara in this game—particularly with the major TV audience and the aim to get kids watching more football at a younger age. Kamara’s the type of fun-loving charismatic figure who can help that. But this is more about the TV attraction of this game as a whole than being fair to the Saints. The last two games of the weekend had premiums paid for them by the networks, and the NFL is driven to get the best numbers here possible. They’ll need Mitchell Trubisky to be efficient for this to be a game into the fourth quarter, which is a big ask. Look for the Bears to feature David Montgomery (413 rush yards over his last four games) to take the heat off Trubisky.
8:15 p.m. Cleveland (11-5, AFC 6 seed) at Pittsburgh (12-4, AFC 3 seed). TV: NBC, Telemundo, Peacock. Line: Steelers by 4.
This is the game of the weekend, and not because it’s on my network. The Browns drafted Baker Mayfield to win games like this. I don’t know if he will, but the way he’s trending—one pick since Halloween, only eight all season—he’s not going to hand the game away. Kevin Stefanski has been superb for Mayfield’s confidence and his efficiency. “He’s got such confidence right now, like on the run that clinched the game today,” Stefanski said. Mayfield’s three-yard scamper around right end allowed Cleveland to run out the clock, and an emotional Mayfield signaled the first down that northeast Ohio’s been waiting for. But this game will have Ben Roethlisberger under center, not watching from his couch at home as he was Sunday. The Steelers learned last week and on Sunday that it’s okay to turn it loose downfield. I’d recommend they remember that in this compelling rematch instead of being so conservative in the passing game.
Ron Rivera. For years, people will joke about how bad the NFC East was in 2020, with much justification. The once mighty East won just 23 games, and the Eagles crashed to earth at 4-11-1. Rivera found himself thinking as he watched the Cowboys-Giants game in his Philadelphia hotel Sunday “how bizarre the NFC East is. It’s a little tough to put into words. I know a lot of people felt that Philadelphia would be right in the middle of it again. And Dallas should be getting ready to step up. The Giants were rising. And it just got crazier and crazier as it went on. To be honest with you, that’s kind of what prompted the move that I made going into the fifth week of the season, changing quarterbacks.”
That was the first benching of Dwayne Haskins, in October for Kyle Allen. “Just saying, we might as well take our shot because nobody’s running away with it,” Rivera said. “The next six games on our schedule were all games I thought we could win. Unfortunately, we only won two of them. Then Alex got his chance to get back out there and he ran with it. The dude was phenomenal. Is phenomenal.”
How amazing it is that Rivera fired Haskins for his immaturity and poor play six days earlier and in some ways it felt like six weeks. When Smith made it through practice on Friday with his achy calf feeling decent, Rivera knew he’d at least start the game, if not finish it. Though Smith had some rough second-half moments, he had enough to make it through the game. His excellent five-yard touch pass to Terry McLaurin started the scoring, and he hit Logan Thomas for a second score just before halftime. Washington had 17 points by the half, and it was enough. “As far as comebacks go? No, I don’t know one that beats it,” Rivera said.
That’s because there isn’t one. Alex Smith, two years removed from 17 surgeries to save his right leg after an infected compound fracture threatened his life 25 months ago, is the great comeback story I’ve seen in almost four decades of covering the game. And now all he has to do is beat Tom Brady in a playoff game he surely never felt was coming.
But it’s not so improbable. Bruce Arians recognizes this moment, as does Rivera. The last time a team won a division title with a losing record was 2014, when Rivera’s Panthers won the NFC South at 7-8-1. Arians’ Cardinals came to Charlotte with an 11-5 record and got whipped 27-16. Now it’s déjà vu all over again. The 7-9 WFT hosts another 11-5 team coached by Arians—Tampa Bay, this time.
If you think Rivera’s going to talk to his team about it this week, you’re late. He already has.
“I told the team, ‘The biggest thing I learned from that season in Carolina is don’t apologize for getting into the playoffs.”
And don’t think a team with a defensive front like Washington’s can’t beat a team with an immobile quarterback either. “Who knows what’ll happen?” Rivera said. “Anything can. That’s what this year’s taught me.”
Kevin Stefanski. The Browns coach on:
• Feeling Cleveland’s excitement. “Pre-pandemic I felt it loud and clear as I went around the city when I moved here in January. I felt the love everywhere I went. Now that we’re all just kind of going from the house to work each day, you don’t get a sense of it as much. You can feel that 12,000 strong in the stands, but I wish so badly that that building was packed. That’s not what this year is calling for though.”
• Facing the season of the curveball. “I’m just being myself. I have a bunch of eyeballs staring back at me from our players, to my staff, to the organization. With all those curveballs we’ve faced, they wanna see how I respond to them. And I want them to know that we’re confidently gonna work to get this job done. This is the season of the curveball. You have to be able to hit it. I just credit our players. We’ve been thrown curveballs since April. We’ve changed the schedule, and we’ve been on Zoom. Then we’re in the building, then practice is cancelled. Then this guy’s out and this coach is out. Honestly, the guys haven’t blinked. That just speaks to the resilience of this football team. I think it speaks to the character of the guys we have.”
• What he told his players after clinching the playoff spot. “Told them I’m proud of them. They fight.”
• Why getting passed over for Freddie Kitchens last year doesn’t gnaw at him. “Because I went back to the Vikings working for Coach [Mike] Zimmer and had a great year. Worked with Gary Kubiak for a season and it made me a better coach. Whenever you’re up for something you don’t get of course there’s disappointment. But I think it all worked out.”
• Hoping to get ace offensive line coach Bill Callahan back for the Steelers games. “You know, he’s sick. So he’s not feeling great. Our wide receiver coach also had it. He went through a similar sickness, like two and a half, three days, where they were not feeling good at all. And then they kinda come out of it. If he can work from home, that’d be great. If he needs to just focus on rest and recovery, that’s the most important thing.”
Tua Tagovailoa. No idea what happened to the dynamic running/throwing threat picked fifth overall by Miami last April. Watched most of his last two games—at Vegas, at Buffalo—and until Miami was getting throttled in Buffalo at halftime, I kept asking two questions: Why is he throwing horizontally so much? And why is he so careful? Seeing the contrast between the three rookie quarterbacks has been eye-opening. Joe Burrow in Cincinnati and Justin Herbert in Los Angels look like four-year vets almost right away—sure of themselves, totally unafraid of choosing the deep options. Tagovailoa looks like he has training wheels on at times. The Dolphins drafted a mobile and instinctive quarterback; they should enter next season giving him more chances to take.
Justin Fields. The Ohio State quarterback threw six touchdown passes in the college football semifinal blowout of Clemson. Good sign, playing the best game of his career in the biggest game of his career. I know people will get excited, and rightfully so, about his accurate deep throws in the game. But for my money, the most impressive throw he made was the one he’ll have to make five times every game in the game in the NFL.
— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) January 2, 2021
After the season Drew Bledsoe threw 691 passes and totaled 4,555 yards—both league highs in 1994—he told me that he threw very few passes, maybe 15 or 30, more than 50 yards in the air that year. The vast majority of his passes were intermediate throws. His yards-per-attempt of 6.6 that season would be 28th in the NFL today. So for Fields, I point out that throw, a lasered, perfectly accurate 12-yard TD pass to Jeremy Ruckert, is such a perfect next-level throw. The other thing about that game is how great Fields played on such a big stage. It’s highly doubtful Trevor Lawrence won’t go first to Jacksonville in 16 weeks in the ’21 draft, but Fields made a great case to go number two with that show Friday night.
The Jets. Great weekend for the Jets, having nothing to do with the 28-14 loss to the hated Patriots to cap a lost season. The performance of Justin Fields gave a huge value boost to the second pick in the 2021 draft, which the Jets own. If the Jets decide they love Justin Fields, they should just sit at two and pick him. If they decide they like Sam Darnold a lot and want to give him one more chance to earn the long-term job in 2021, they could trade the second pick for first-round picks in 2021 and ’22. The Jets have Seattle’s next two firsts from the Jamal Adams deal, and this scenario has legs because at least seven teams picking in the top 15 of the first round have unsettled offseason quarterback questions. If Trevor Lawrence goes one to Jacksonville, would a team give their next two ones and some sweetener for the second pick? That would leave New York with five first-round picks in the next two drafts, and three in 2022, when they would either be able to wheel/deal for a very good passer or continue to build with five primo pieces around Darnold. Having Darnold, left tackle Mehki Becton and the best draft position in each of the next two first rounds could set them up for contention by ’23 or ’24. Of course, they’ve got to make good picks. That’s been an issue for the franchise.
Offensive Players of the Week
Derrick Henry, running back, Tennessee. The eighth player in history to rush for 2,000 yards in an NFL season, Henry did it by gashing Houston 34 times for 250 yards. He finished the season with 2,027 yards. Henry is writing an incredible story, a story destined to end one day in Canton unless he falls off a cliff. He turns 27 today, solidly in his prime, and is now tied for 100th on the all-time rushing list after 78 games with 5,860 yards. Most amazing thing to me is he’s got four 200-yard rushing games in his last 17 regular-season games; Jim Brown and Barry Sanders each had four in their transcendent careers. Appreciate his power and effortless steamrolling while you can.
Jonathan Taylor, running back, Indianapolis. Not bad for a rookie: a 253-yard rushing game to key his team’s playoff-clinching victory, 28-14 over Jacksonville. Taylor finished third in the league in rushing, with 1,169 yards in a season that started as a job share. Kudos to Taylor for emerging from a pack of Colt runners to be the key to their playoff hopes as a rookie.
Defensive Player of the Week
Leonard Williams, defensive lineman, New York Giants. Credit Williams for so much of the Giants’ 23-19 season-stretching win over Dallas. It was the best game of his Jet/Giant career: three sacks and two major pressures of Andy Dalton, and seven tackles. In the final two minutes, with Dallas at the New York 7-yard line and threatening to go ahead, Williams sacked Dalton for a 10-yard loss. Two plays later, on third and goal from the 17, Williams pressured Dalton into a game-ending end-zone interception. And credit GM Dave Gettleman for acquiring Williams for a third-round pick at the 2019 trading deadline. Williams didn’t produce much last year, but 11.5 sacks as the keystone to a surging defense is a different story. “I’ve definitely seen a lot of the criticism and the hate and stuff like that in the press and the media and by the fans,” he said afterward. “It feels good to prove them wrong, but also show why Dave Gettleman took a chance on me. It feels good to show him that it was the right choice.”
Special Teams Players of the Week
Corey Bojorquez, punter, Buffalo. Might have had the punt of the year late in the first quarter, and it came at the worst time possible for the Dolphins’ sputtering offense, and helped knock Miami out of the playoffs. Late in the first quarter, Miami up 3-0, Bojorquez booted from his own 45. The third-year punter from New Mexico angled to his right a high, deep punt, and it bounced and traveled out at the half-yard line. Miami, playing it ultra-safe with wobbly QB Tua Tagovailoa, went three-and-out and punted. Buffalo took over at midfield and drove for the go-ahead TD. Buffalo scored three more touchdowns before halftime and the rout was on—started by a simple, perfectly placed punt.
Isaiah McKenzie, wide receiver/punt-returner, Buffalo. The versatile fourth-year player, picked up off waivers from Denver in 2018, had the greatest day of his NFL life—and it only took one quarter. After catching seven and 14-yard TD passes from Josh Allen in the second quarter, McKenzie took a punt from Miami’s Matt Haack at his 16-yard line and sprinted through traffic to the left. Then his speed took over on his way to the 84-yard TD. Gorgeous return, set up by excellent blocking.
84 yards to the house!
Isaiah McKenzie’s 3rd touchdown of the day is a beauty. #BillsMafia
— NFL (@NFL) January 3, 2021
Coach of the Week
Matt LaFleur, coach, Green Bay. Since taking over the Green Bay head-coaching job two years ago, LaFleur is 26-6 in the regular season, and he’s won the division by margins of three and five games. Check out the composite standing in the NFC North over the LaFleur era: Packers 26-6, Vikes 17-15, Bears 16-16, Lions 8-23-1. LaFleur’s 11-1 in the division. He and Aaron Rodgers have had a brilliant partnership, he hasn’t sweated the little things, and he’s made sure to coach the whole team and not just the offense. Hats off to LaFleur for stepping into a declining team with a great quarterback and solidifying everything about it in two seasons.
Goats of the Week
Anthony Weaver, defensive coordinator, Houston. I don’t know whose fault it was that on the biggest play of the Tennessee-Houston game, there was no deep safety in the game for Houston. But that buck has to stop with the defensive boss, Weaver. With 18 seconds to go in a 38-38 game, wideout A.J. Brown split the coverage on a deep post and there was no one to provide insurance. Of course Tennessee, needing 45 yards to get in field-goal position and having two plays to get there, is likely to try for a deep strike. But Ryan Tannehill lofted the ball deep, perfectly, and Brown came down with a gain of 52. The winning field goal came six seconds later, a shtoink job by nervy frosh Sam Sloman, and Tennessee had two important things: the AFC South crown, and the avoidance of a wild-card trip to Buffalo, the hottest team in football. Awful defense by Houston. No wonder they’ve wasted Deshaun Watson’s age-25 season.
Adrian Hill, referee, Detroit-Minnesota. I know the game meant nothing. But if you’re playing the game, and it counts, it means something. With 11:11 to go in the fourth quarter and Minnesota clinging to a 31-29 lead, the Vikings had fourth-and-goal from the Detroit 1. Kirk Cousins drifted back to pass, and DB Tracy Walker burst through the line on a blitz. He went straight at Cousins and sacked him for a loss of 14. Detroit ball, with a chance to take the lead. But wait. Flag. Hill called roughing the passer, a ridiculous call on a simple tackle with Walker snowing under Cousins. His body did go over Cousins’ head, and Cousins’ head went into the turf. But I defy anyone to watch that and see roughing. With the ball at the half-yard line and a fresh set of downs, of course the Vikings scored a touchdown and hung on for a 37-35 win.
This was flagged for roughing the passer. Horrendous. pic.twitter.com/c1tA7j89Ao
— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) January 3, 2021
“I thought Sam Sloman was a scout at first when I saw him this week. I didn’t know who he was.”
—Tennessee safety Kevin Byard, after Sloman’s richocheted field goal, in his first game with the team, beat Houston and gave Tennessee the AFC South title.
“It’s a moment I’ll definitely never forget. Walking off the field, the energy in the stadium, they’re playing ‘Cleveland Rocks.’ For it to be that loud with a limited amount of fans, it was a special moment for us.”
—Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield, after his Browns beat Pittsburgh 24-22 to qualify for the AFC playoffs for the first time since 2002—when Mayfield was 7.
“People doubted us throughout the season because we weren’t having the season we had last year. We fought through that, and now we showed the world that we’re here to play.”
—Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson, who fought uphill with his team to win the last four games of the season to capture the AFC’s fifth seed with an 11-5 record. Baltimore 38, Cincinnati 3 on Sunday.
“There’s no real foundation in view. Everyone see it.”
—Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson, on the Texans’ front-office and ownership structure.
“I love you God! Thank you!”
—Antonio Brown, captured by FOX on-field audio after catching a second-quarter touchdown pass from Tom Brady in the Bucs’ rout of Atlanta.
“T.J. is visiting from another planet.”
—Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, on T.J. Watt, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
“It’s never been about money for me. I was kind of drafted high, made a lot of money already in my career. I feel like I was smart enough and I could retire now and still have enough money for the rest of my life, but … I just more wanted the respect and to show guys the reason why I’m in this league. Like I said, it’s just more about the respect to me than the contract.”
—Giants defensive lineman Leonard Williams, capping his first double-digit-sack season with a three-sack day against Dallas in a 23-19 win in New Jersey.
Comparing the three best seasons in succession of Derrick Henry and Emmitt Smith, the all-time rushing king:
You may already know that, for the first time in pro football’s 101 seasons, 2020 was the first year that featured games played on every day of the week.
The factoid is actually a lot better when you consider this: Games in December alone were played on all seven days of the week.
The breakdown of the 64 December games, by day:
Tuesday: 1 (Baltimore 34, Dallas 17 on Dec. 8)
Wednesday: 1 (Pittsburgh 19, Baltimore 14 on Dec. 2)
Friday: 1 (New Orleans 52, Minnesota 33 on Dec. 25)
Trevor Lawrence started 36 games in his college career at Clemson.
Games started in the state of Louisiana: 0-2.
Games started in the other 49 states of this country: 34-0.
What this means, of course, is that the Saints should not draft Trevor Lawrence.
(H/T Cards SVP Mark Dalton for that last line.)
Eagles QB Carson Wentz, benched in favor of Jalen Hurts last month, still plans to ask for a trade in the off-season because his relationship with HC Doug Pederson is fractured beyond repair, per ESPN’s @mortreport.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 3, 2021
Schefter, referring to partner Chris Mortensen’s Sunday report, works for ESPN.
Barring some damning details against the Eagles, this is a very bad look for Wentz.
Would be stunned if the Dolphins go into the 2021 season with Tua Tagovailoa and a journeyman backup. I don't know what they'll do. But he won't be gifted the job.
— Adam Beasley (@AdamHBeasley) January 3, 2021
Beasley covers the Dolphin for the Miami Herald.
Respect from the rook pic.twitter.com/5Xtmt2tCTO
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) January 3, 2021
The Vikings, commenting on the shoes worn by ace rookie Justin Jefferson.
….and they're off! 🤣👍 pic.twitter.com/Xhy4iaNG1A
— The Feel Good Page ❤️ (@akkitwts) January 2, 2021
“The Feel Good Page” has found a good one.
Nothing worse than going to the dump, knowing you made it, and then finding out they closed 5 minutes early, refuse to open the gate and are leaving you with a car full of trash.
— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) December 31, 2020
Breer, with a perfect 2020 Tweet on New Year’s Eve, covers the NFL for Sports Illustrated.
You can email me at email@example.com, or find me on Twitter @peter_king
Adam thinks I’m obtuse. From Adam Alberti-Powell: “Gotta call BS on your answer to the question about Mahomes. [A reader asked me if the NFL would play the Super Bowl with Kansas City in it if Mahomes was out after a positive test for COVID-19, and I said I thought the league would play the game without him under that scenario.] Never in a million years would the NFL play the Super Bowl as scheduled and force KC to bench Mahomes. I don’t believe that for even one millisecond, and if you think about it for even a minute you won’t, either. Come on, man. The Ravens playing a regular season game of any sort without their QB is one thing. Making America watch the Super Bowl wherein the team of the best player in the world makes it but the best player in the world can’t play? You’re just being obtuse if you think that’s even a remote possibility.”
Hope we’ll never have to find out how obtuse I am, Adam. But I think that’s what would happen. Consider the season, and the alternatives.
Due to COVID: The NFL made a team play without any of its three quarterbacks this year; made a team play without its head coach and much of its defensive coaching staff; and made a team play a game of playoff significance on national TV without the reigning MVP quarterback. Debate whether it’s right or wrong to do that, but the precedent has been set. What do you think the NFL would do if Mahomes tested positive on Saturday before the Super Bowl? The rules say a player testing positive must sit out 10 days. So, if you’re correct, and if the league would not play the Super Bowl without Mahomes in it, one of three things would have to happen:
• The league would postpone the game a day before it was scheduled to be played, and tell CBS, the network televising the game, Sorry. We can’t play this game till at least Tuesday, Feb. 16. We can play it then, or put it off till Sunday, Feb. 21, and keep both teams in Tampa, in bubbles at their hotels, until Patrick Mahomes is ready to play.
• The league would hide the results and whisper to Mahomes that he could play on the regularly scheduled day, Feb. 7.
• The league would fudge the rules it’s used all season, and whenever Mahomes first tested negative, play the Super Bowl on a day soon after that.
Add to the conundrum the fact that Roger Goodell would have to tell the 31 other owners, 31 other teams, and 1,637 other players in the NFL: “I had one set of rules for the regular season and for the playoffs and for every player . . . until now. But let’s be real: We can’t play the Super Bowl with Kansas City in it without Patrick Mahomes. So we’ll wait till he’s ready.”
I don’t think that would happen, Adam.
Interesting question from Australia. From Nick Thomson, of Sydney, Australia: “What are the chances Andrew Luck comes out of retirement to play for the Patriots?”
Hi Nick. I know nothing about it and have heard no rumors about Luck trying to come back to play football at all. Always struck me as such a smart person who’d find a hundred different things to do in life outside of football, but I have heard nothing about him at all.
Kamara got robbed by Payton. From Martin Sedlazek: “Alvin Kamara should have the sole record for rushing touchdowns, seven, in a game. He, not Taysom Hill, should have scored the touchdown just before the two-minute warning of the fourth quarter. In reading various accounts of the game, I haven’t seen any of the sportswriters comment on this, including you. I’m interested to read if any of the sports writers will ask Sean Payton why he didn’t let Kamara score instead of Hill so he could tie the record.”
I did ask Payton. To refresh: Saints had the ball, third-and-goal from the Minnesota 1-yard line, with 4:03 left in the fourth quarter, leading 38-27. I asked Payton whether he gave serious thought to letting Kamara, then with five rushing touchdowns, try for a sixth right there. He said: “I knew what the six TDs meant. Of course I’d have liked to see him get the record there. But I felt right there we were at a critical point of the game. If we score a touchdown there, we’ve got a three-score lead, and that makes it really hard to come back on us with four minutes left. I wanted to run our best play to get a yard at the goal line. And the play I called, we felt, was our best play.” The play that was called— the 221-pound Taysom Hill trying to bang it in behind the right tackle with an extra blocker on that side—worked and the Saints had a 45-27 lead with four minutes left. Payton couldn’t have known that he’d have had a chance for another touchdown without running up the score two minutes later, but that’s what happened, and that’s how Kamara got his sixth TD of the day. Hope that helps.
Pete Carroll for coach of the year. From Ryan Knee, of Monroe, Wash.: “I am always wondering how and why Pete Carroll is never considered for coach of the year. In his reign in Seattle he has coached the winningest franchise outside of Foxboro, has rebuilt while never dropping out of contention, has dealt with strong and talented personalities, is the oldest coach in the league with no signs of slowing down, took a defense on a historically terrible pace this year and turned it into the top scoring defense in the league, and has the only team to not have a COVID case (knock on wood). How he continues to get overlooked baffles me.”
Yeah, I hear you, Ryan. It does seem unjust that in 11 years in Seattle, Carroll has 131 wins (11.9 wins per year), including playoffs, and has had nine winning seasons in a row and has never won the award, and almost certainly won’t win it this year. But the history of the award, which has been given out since 1957, shows the voters most often pick a coach of a team that’s risen from ashes. Vince Lombardi built one of the great teams of all time and won five championships in a decade in Green Bay; he won it once, while Allie Sherman of the Giants won it twice in that decade. Chuck Noll constructed the Steelers into one of the great teams of all time, and won four Super Bowls—and never won coach of the year. Wish I could give you some justice here and solid reasoning for why Carroll hasn’t won it, but once the Seahawks started winning—and his worst season has been 7-9, so he never was able to rise from rock-bottom with the franchise—choosing Carroll would never have been expected based on the history of the award.
1. I think I have now seen it all, now that I’ve seen the leading wide receiver in the NFL, Stefon Diggs (127 catches, 1,535 yards, both NFL bests) flossing on the sidelines. Flossing, with dental floss, on camera. Imagine the COVID-related warning letter he’ll get from the NFL about that this week. Scott Hanson spoke for us on NFL Red Zone when, watching the replay, he said: “The man with some of the best dental hygiene in the NFL . . . What is that? What is that! Stefon Diggs, flossing, on the sidelines! Actually using dental floss!”
— Alex Brasky (@AlexBraskyBDN) January 3, 2021
2. I think I’d think about taking a first-round quarterback if I were Matt Rhule and the Carolina Panthers. Teddy Bridgewater’s been pedestrian this year, and he had every chance to grab the job for the foreseeable future. He never did it.
3. I think of all the 2020 things on the final Sunday of the regular season, this was the 2020est: I looked up in the first quarter of Rams-Cards, a game with huge playoff implications (Rams win and they’re in; Cards win and they’re in), and the two quarterbacks are John Wolford of L.A. and Chris Streveler of Arizona. I had not heard of Wolford till last Sunday. I had not heard of Streveler till Saturday night.
4. I think when I think of Urban Meyer, whose career record in college was 187-32 and whose worst record in 17 years of college coaching was 8-5 and who lost nine games in his last seven coaching seasons, I think of Nick Saban. That’s not a bad thing, right? Except when Saban was handed control of the Dolphins in 2005, he was the king of college coaching, and he was looking for the perfect NFL spot, and he got a five-year contract with a great owner, Wayne Huizenga. And at the end of his second year, Saban was 15-17, and he sat down with Huizenga and said he wanted out, to go back to college football. Huizenga let him.
If Meyer gets the Jags’ job, he’ll obviously have the great fortune of being able to draft a very bright prospect QB, Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields, and be in position to build a good offense over time. But he’d be inheriting a team that’s gone 12-36 over the last three years. Taking this job is like taking the Rutgers job in the Big Ten. Will Meyer have the patience for a major build if he gets this gig? Last week, I told you he quit jobs at age 45, 46 and 54 for health reasons. I’m not saying I wouldn’t hire Meyer. I am saying it’s a risky hire. They guy’s never failed, and he’s never taken over a team as horrible as Jacksonville.
5. I think for those who say the current prospective head-coaching crop is weak, I’d remind them of three names: Chuck Noll (1969, Pittsburgh), Bill Belichick (2000, New England), Frank Reich (2018, Indianapolis—and I am not comparing what he’s done as a head coach to the others, to be clear). Sometimes, when you either don’t get your first choice or everyone’s telling you, Don’t hire that guy, you make a great hire. Be open-minded.
6. I think this is the strangest football quote of a strange football season. It came from Bill Belichick, about his starting quarterback, Cam Newton. It came last Monday night, after the Patriots got bushwacked by the Buffalo Bills. Newton in the game completed five of 10 passes for 34 yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions. With the Patriots trailing Buffalo 31-9 in the middle of the third quarter, Newton was replaced by Jarrett Stidham after leading three straight drives ending in a punt. The game was the ninth time in 14 starts this year that Newton did not throw a touchdown pass. Belichick said after this game: “Cam did a good job for us. That wasn’t the problem.”
When I refer to how strange it was, I’m talking about two things, really. One: Belichick has continually praised Newton’s performance and what an asset to the team he has been. Two: Newton’s numbers wouldn’t suggest anything about positive performance. In his MVP season five years ago in Carolina, Newton threw 35 touchdown passes in 16 starts; this year, it’s five in 15 starts. Cam did a good job for us. Had us down only 22 at home in the third quarter against a division rival we’ve long owned. Only Belichick knows why he does the things he does and says the things he says. After six championship seasons, he can pump the tires of anyone on the team. The problem here is, people watch the games. Newton has been a worker bee and fine teammate since joining the Patriots last summer, but on the field he’s been a shell of MVP Cam.
7. I think there’s much to remember fondly about the career of Hall of Fame Broncos back Floyd Little, who died Friday of cancer, at 78. Two things stick out: In 1963, he went to Syracuse out of high school in Connecticut in large part because of a plea from All-American running back Ernie Davis, who urged him to follow in the tradition of great Syracuse backs like Jim Brown, who, at the time, was dominating the NFL. Not long after that plea, Davis died of leukemia, a death that stunned the sports world and gave Little a new focus. Dom Amore in the Hartford Courant wrote that Davis had a connection to Davis that never ended. “My life has been tied to Ernie’s life,” Little said in 2011, per Amore, “because I wanted to be the Ernie Davis that he couldn’t be. That’s how I lived my life, because of Ernie Davis not having a chance to live his.”
Secondly: I’ve never heard a better Hall of Fame presentation for a candidate than the one Denver journalist Jeff Legwold made for Little—whose Hall case was suspect (6,323 rushing yards, 43 rushing TDs, 3.9 yards per carry, one rushing title, 54.0 rushing yards per game). It was smart and put the career in such great perspective. Legwold watched almost every one of Little’s 1,641 carries as a pro and found he’d been hit behind the line of scrimmage on 30 percent of them. Bad offensive lines, his message went, should not keep a great back out of the Hall of Fame. And Little made it. RIP to a man who made those around him better.
8. I think this story on Eric Bieniemy the head-coaching candidate, by Jarrett Bell of USA Today, has it all. It’s worth your time. I never knew Bieniemy’s oldest son, 25, has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair. Good profile by Bell.
9. I think the smartest thing I heard this weekend, from Ian Rapoport’s report on NFL Network, was a Detroit plan to pursue John Schneider and give him all personnel power in a rebuilt organization. If that happens—and I believe Schneider is happy in Seattle—it’s a game-changer for Detroit. A total game-changer. No one hits 1.000 in the football personnel business, but Schneider comes closest. Great scouts, and he is one, don’t care about the heat or the criticism. They have opinions and state them, and don’t shy from them.
Example: During the season when DK Metcalf was on fire, I looked into the five trades during the 2019 drafted that resulted in Seattle stealing Metcalf with the 64th pick. Seattle started the draft with the 21st overall pick, and Schneider kept trading. Now, Schneider loved Metcalf and couldn’t believe he kept tumbling down the board on draft weekend. I asked him if he’d kept the 21st pick, would he have taken Metcalf at 21? He said no. He said because of Seattle’s need at safety, he’d likely have taken safety Darnell Savage of Maryland—the pick Green Bay actually made after trading with Seattle for the 21st pick. Sometimes, he said, you look at your position groups and they influence who you take, and when you take them. With safety such a big need, Savage would have been an excellent fit.
What this says about Schneider: He could have lied and said of course we’d have taken Metcalf there—he’d have been a steal at 21 too. But he said he’d have taken a guy who’s not had the same kind of major impact on the NFL as Metcalf has.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. TV Story of the Week: Hunter Hoagland of KARK-TV in Little Rock, Ark., with piece to lift you out of Crapsville. Hoagland tells the story of an oncologist in Pine Bluff, Ark., Omar Atiq, who forgave all the patients in his business who owed him money, totalling about $650,000. It was Christmas, after all, in the middle of a pandemic.
b. “I’m just a regular physician, a regular person in the neighborhood.”
c. Attaway, Dr. Atig. Thanks for the story, Hunter Hoagland.
d. Football Story of the Week: Dan Pompei of The Athletic on the grueling season of cancer victim and WFT coach Ron Rivera. Writes Pompei about the period when it was really hard for Rivera and wife Stephanie this season:
On Oct. 6, after Rivera’s second treatment, his white blood count was low. It was an off day for players, but [linebacker Thomas] Davis was there for treatment and he saw Rivera entering the back door to the training room, “literally being brought in on his wife’s shoulder and [head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion’s] shoulder.” Rivera was there to receive hydration intravenously, but he wouldn’t stay. Stephanie and Vermillion helped him to his car, and Stephanie drove him home.
All Rivera wanted to do was sleep. His throat was raw, so swallowing was painful, and food didn’t taste right. Eating had no appeal. But he had already lost about 25 pounds and was on his way to losing another 11. He had been told he needed to consume more than usual because the therapy was revving his metabolism, and his body was burning more calories than usual.
Stephanie made chicken noodle soup and pleaded with him. No, he wasn’t interested.
e. Dan Pompei had a fabulous 2020. I don’t know what he can do for an encore in 2021, but I’ll be reading to find out.
f. Story of the Week: Hailey Branson-Potts of the Los Angeles Times, on the loss of an inspirational caregiver.
g. Lisa Agredano cared for Branson-Potts’ infant son, who is now 2. The writer cannot bear that she is gone, one of the 325,000 or so Americans who have died of COVID since March, and cannot bear that her son will never remember her. She writes:
I met her two years ago at the South Bay day-care where she worked in the infant room. I was a new mother bringing in my 6-month-old Charlie, who was going to be cared for by someone outside our family for the very first time. I agonized over leaving my son. But with a shy smile, Lisa — who called me not by my first name, but by “Mom” even long after we became friends — assured me all would be OK.
Every day, Lisa would grab my blue-eyed boy from me as soon as I walked in, wrapping him in a hug. “Therrrre’s my Charlie Charlie!” she’d exclaim as he reached for her. Lisa called all of the infants in that room “my babies.” She sang “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” off-key but enthusiastically, and she taught them sign language: Please. More. All done. Leche.
It was almost as if growing up and leaving the infant room was the ultimate offense. When my son started walking, she tried to hide it from other teachers so he could stay with her just a little longer. The day he moved to the toddler room, she cried.
I can’t count how many times since Lisa’s death that I’ve started crying at the thought of her not being there to watch my Charlie grow. He’s 2 now. He won’t remember this friend who loved him so dearly.
h. “My mom died last night.” Chills.
i. Man, that poor left tackle for Cincinnati in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl. Lorenz Metz in the last 12 minutes of the game got called for two false starts (one on a crucial third-and-two that turned into an unconverted third-and-seven) and gave up two sacks, the second resulting in a safety on the last play of the game. Georgia 24, UC 21.
j. Watching Trevor Lawrence get pummeled and having to try to make plays on the run against Ohio State reminded me what he’ll face in the NFL, presumably with the Jags.
k. Every coach is entitled to his opinion, but in a year when everything is topsy-turvy because of the virus, for Dabo Swinney to vote Ohio State number 11 in the coaches poll because they played only six games before the tournament is downright absurd. He shouldn’t have a vote.
l. Where Are They Now Story of the Week: Kalyn Kahler, writing in the New York Times on Randall Cunningham, the former NFL MVP and current Las Vegas Raiders team chaplain.
m. Two things: Cunningham had a rep in his playing days of being a me-guy, but he’s surely a they-guy now. And as Kahler found out, making him the chaplain was actually Jon Gruden’s idea; Gruden once coached Cunningham in Philadelphia.
n. Kahler writes that it’s tough for a chaplain to minister to his flock virtually, but that’s what Cunningham, a rookie with the Raiders, has had to do.
Cunningham stays in touch through phone calls and texts. He hosts a 7 p.m. Bible study on a video call the night before games where, sometimes, football seeps into the message. The night before the second game of the season, when the New Orleans Saints visited, Cunningham focused on the original underdog story — David’s battle with Goliath. “I said, ‘Man, here comes Goliath, the great champion from Gath, all the accolades and all the victories,’” Cunningham recalled. “Drew Brees is the man, so is the coach, but you have to take Goliath down.”
As he spoke to the Raiders players on the video call that night, Cunningham was so focused on the story of young David knocking out the giant with a slingshot, that he kept accidentally calling Derek Carr, the team’s starting quarterback, David (the name of his older brother, who is a retired N.F.L. quarterback).
The next day, Derek Carr played like the biblical David, throwing three touchdown passes and leading the Raiders to a 34-24 victory in their first game at home in Las Vegas. “It felt like I had affected them in a way that gave them a little confidence,” Cunningham said. “Not false confidence, but to give them true confidence to go out and be who they are.”
o. Love the headline too: “Ex-quarterback returns, with heaven now the end zone.”
p. The Mississippi State coach, Mike Leach, and Tulsa coach Philip Montgomery, as chief supervisors of their teams in a bowl game, failed in such spectacular ways that it’s hard to know where to start on each man. There was a post-game brawl—no one’s quite sure why—and video footage showed players punching, kicking and stomping other players. One player was kicked repeatedly in the stomach by a foe. It’s as grotesque a thing as I’ve seen at a football game in years.
q. Leach told ESPN after the game: “This is a football game so we’re not gonna be tearing cloth over this deal. Somebody went to a football game and somebody got hit. There’s a point to where I’m not gonna lose my mind over this.” Montgomery said after the game: “We’re a team that is going to stand up for each other and we’re going to battle. We talked about faith, family, football, and family is going to take care of family.” Curious: Where was the quote from one of these leaders of young men that said: “I am sorry that my players were involved in kicking and punching other players at the end of a game, regardless of fault. I will make sure this never happens again, and we will accept whatever punishment is handed out.”
r. I do not have sons, but if I did, and they were high school seniors seeking to play football in college, I’d tell them, “Forget playing for those guys.”
s. RIP Dawn Wells, one of the stars of a favorite show as a kid, “Gilligan’s Island.” Girl-next-doorish Mary Ann. Died with COVID at 82.
t. When I was 7 or 8, that was the show that led into bedtime: Saturday night, 8:30, CBS. In my house and so many others, this theme song was a staple for the three seasons the show aired (1964-67), though it actually changed to include the Professor and Mary Ann at some point.
u. Do you say congrats to someone for getting the COVID vaccine? Either way, congrats to Emily Breer, wife of my friend and The MMQB columnist Albert Breer, and a nurse at Boston Children’s Hospital in the Cardiac ICU. She was vaccinated last week. So glad that Emily and so many doctors and nurses and front-line workers are getting the shots. It needs to happen faster.
v. I will not be the first to say it and I hope 3 million people say it after me: Nurses are heroes.
w. I saw a headline Sunday that 11 GOP senators plan to challenge the victory of president-elect Joe Biden over Donald Trump, despite every court in the land, including the Supreme Court with three Trump appointees, finding no reason to do so. The headline got one word wrong. It should have said 11 GOP traitors.
x. Finally, David Gutman of the Seattle Times, with a gem we should all read about how flowers bloomed in the dreadful earth of 2020. Gutman wrote words to treasure:
Back in the spring, when quarantines and staying home were new, Theresa Gutierrez Jacobs and her husband had to figure out something to do with their son Evan. They were both working from home. His day care was canceled. He was practically bouncing off the walls of their small West Seattle apartment.
They turned to a couple of items in a closet that seemed premature: A little green and black bike (no training wheels) and a set of learn-to-read books. Evan was only 4, still a year or two away from when kids typically learn to read and to ride a bike. But, well, desperate times . . . They put Evan on the bike, in the alley behind their apartment. But in the back of her mind, Gutierrez Jacobs was thinking about how she didn’t learn to ride a bike until she was 7. As a mother with a 4-year-old, it was mainly a way to get outside. “We thought we’d have to catch him the entire time, but he just went full force,” she said. “We didn’t expect he’d be able to do it but he just took off.”
Back in the apartment, they took out a set of Bob Books — reading tutorials for young kids — a hand-me-down present from her sister that she didn’t think Evan was quite ready for yet. “I was cleaning out the closet and we thought we might as well try it,” Gutierrez Jacobs said. They sat down with the books, and soon enough, Evan was sounding out sentences: “Matt sat on cat.”
“He’s not proficient at it but he has been able and willing to keep plowing through the set,” Gutierrez Jacobs said. “If we didn’t have all this time at home to spend with him we probably wouldn’t have tried any of this. Our son absolutely blew our minds.”
Do not say this name
in New York or north Jersey.
Ever: Nate Sudfeld.