When it was over, and when Kansas City backup quarterback Chad Henne floated back to the locker room after the biggest five-yard completion of his life—and quite likely the biggest five-yard completion in franchise history—Patrick Mahomes was waiting. Congrats all around after Kansas City survived over Cleveland 22-17 to advance to its third straight AFC Championship. Mahomes pulled out his phone so Henne could see the tweet Mahomes had sent post-game.
“He showed me the tweet, and Kevin Garnett, and I was trying to take it in,” Henne told me an hour after the game. Translating: In 2008, after Boston won the NBA Championship, key Celtic Kevin Garnett shouted at the sky, “ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!!!”
— Patrick Mahomes II (@PatrickMahomes) January 17, 2021
Henne took a hard look at the tweet Mahomes had sent to his 1.65-million followers, and at Mahomes smiling at him, and, well, it was a great moment for a 13-year veteran afterthought, with one start in the last six years.
“Pretty sweet,” Henne said softly over the phone from Kansas City. “Pretty cool.”
Everything about the end of this game was a novella, including Cleveland getting off the mat and nearly coming all the way back from a 19-3 deficit. But let’s not bury the lede: With 7:11 left in the third quarter and Mahomes fighting to convert on a third-and-one run, he was tackled—clean but hard—by Browns linebacker Mack Wilson. Immediately woozy, Mahomes struggled to get up and was helped to the sideline. He ran into the locker room a few minutes later but was ruled out for the game and put into the league’s concussion protocol. After the game, coach Andy Reid said Mahomes passed the neurologist-administered tests to discern the impact on his cognitive functions, and said Mahomes “is doing great right now.” Too early to tell his status for his third straight AFC Championship Game Sunday against Buffalo at Arrowhead Stadium, but there seemed to be some cautious optimism around Mahomes after the game.
Henne’s played in some big games, mostly in college at Michigan as a four-year starter. But not many lately. He hadn’t been an NFL starter since 2013, in Jacksonville, and at this stage, the 35-year-old Henne is an insurance policy, strictly. But he was needed when Mahomes went down with 22 minutes left and the team’s Super Bowl defense season beginning to teeter on the end of a Missouri cliff. After the Browns cut the lead to 22-17 with 11 minutes to go, Henne threw a misguided bomb to no one in the Cleveland zone—no one but Browns safety Karl Joseph. “Miscue on my part,” said Henne. “Should have checked it down.” Luckily the KC D held, and Henne got the ball back with four minutes to kill, and Cleveland with only one timeout left.
Bleed the clock, bleed the clock. But Henne unwisely took a sack as the clock wound down to the two-minute warning, and coming out of that timeout, KC had third-and-14 at its 35. Even with a run here, then a punt, Kansas City would be giving the Browns the ball 75 or 80 yards from the goal line with maybe 40 seconds left. But Henne sounded confident about coverting and never giving Cleveland the ball back. “Coming out of the two-minute warning, there were two plays we all liked,’’ Henne said. “The one we chose, I went back to throw, and they did a great job doubling Travis Kelce, and then I looked for Tyreek [Hill] and he was covered. I felt the pocket collapse and just took off.”
Henne said he saw the sticks and knew where he had to get to, and when he was close, he dove like he was a swimmer in the starting blocks for a 50-yard freestyle. “I was sure I made it,” Henne told me. “I felt like I was clearly over.”
But . . .
“When I came into the locker room later,” Henne said, “Patrick told me, no, my elbow was down. So I guess I was short.”
Fourth and a foot now, at the KC 48. Surely with 75 seconds left, Reid would call for a punt. A turnover on downs here would give the Browns maybe 65 seconds left and 48 yards to go for the winning touchdown. But Henne told me that in the Saturday night meeting to go over preferred plays for the game, part of the time was spent on fourth-and-one, fourth-and-five and fourth-and-10 or more plays they liked. Reid, Mahomes, Henne, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy all decided what they liked. In particular, there was one play all liked on fourth-and-short: Tyreek Hill lining up as the first of three receivers split right, closest to the right tackle, taking one jab step upfield, and then a cat-quick veer right. Hill’s one of the quickest players in football. “I just loved the play,” Henne said. “Very confident it’d work.”
Before the play was called, Reid asked Bieniemy, “You ready to roll?” What Reid meant: This is Henne, not Patrick. We sure we want to call a pass? If it’s incomplete, our season’s 48 yards from being over.
Bieniemy understood the ramifications.
“Absolutely,” he said.
Reid: “There was no flinch on the play. It was, ‘Here we go, Chad.’ “
I told Henne what great TV the play had made, with Tony Romo of CBS absolutely convinced that Henne, lined up with maybe 32 seconds left on the play clock, would not run a play. Listen to Romo’s words, as the play clock winds down and Henne and the offense are set, stock still:
:30 “Right here, really smart. Send everybody out here.”
:27 “You’re trying to draw ‘em offside. Take a timeout. Take it down. Try to draw ‘em offsides.”
:19 “Walk up, pretend like you’re gonna go up and quarterback-sneak it. Try to draw ‘em offsides …”
:15 “ … then take a timeout. Walk up there and say, ‘No play everybody. DON’T JUMP.”.
:09 “There’s no play. Just look at the body language.”
:06 In shotgun, Henne calls out: “Blue 80SET!”
:05 Shotgun snap to Henne.
“There is a play!” Jim Nantz said.
Hill, split narrowly on the line, right, one step forward, sprinted right. Henne faded right five steps, and threw to an open Hill right at the line-to-gain. Hill ran upfield five yards and sat down. Game over.
WHAT A CALL ON 4TH DOWN 🚨
Andy Reid put the game in Henne’s hands
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 17, 2021
Romo: “ONLY ANDY REID GETS IN SHOTGUN ON FOURTH AND AN INCH!!! AND THROWS THE BALL WITH THE BACKUP QUARTERBACK!!! THERE’S NO WAY!!! HE SHOCKED EVERYBODY!!! I MEAN, THAT IS IMPOSSIBLE!!! I’VE NEVER SEEN IT!!!
“We just thought it was the smart play, the best play,” Henne said.
Imagine the implications of Henne throwing a ground ball there, or air-mailing the ball over Hill. Would Cleveland have another miracle victory this morning? Nope. Reid trusted Henne to do what Mahomes would do right there, and he did. Now, if Henne has to play Sunday against Buffalo, that 13-yard scramble and the fourth-down conversion pass would be signs to Henne and his mates, Hey, we can win with this guy.
“When I saw Patrick,” Henne said, “he seemed fine. Great spirits. We’ll see tomorrow, I guess.”
In the meantime, Kansas City can breathe this morning—both about being in the final four and about the city’s favorite son.
Last spring, when Bruce Arians knew he had Tom Brady in the fold as the new quarterback of the Buccaneers, he was thrilled for the franchise (WE GOT TOM BRADY, BABY!), thrilled for himself (Man, I get to coach Brady!) and just as thrilled for the players on his team. One night in March, Arians told me: “We’re so young. We’re good. I think we’re really good. But we need Tom to teach these guys how to win, teach these guys how to be pros. I can’t wait to see the impact he has on our players.”
The impact showed up Sunday on the last game of a historic weekend of football. Historic because we almost certainly saw the last of the greatest athlete in the history of New Orleans team sports, we saw Tom Brady make his 14th (!!!) conference championship game, we saw the stage set for a Brady-Aaron Rodgers title game (at Lambeau, and maybe in the snow), we saw the Bills make the Final Four for the first time in 27 years, and we saw five new head coaches either get named to jobs or prep their finest suits for press-conference announcements.
Brady is 43. The play Arians said won the game was made by a couple of 22-year-old sudden franchise cornerstones on Tampa’s defense, Devin White and Antoine Winfield Jr. And it was all so perfect for the Bucs (there’s a phrase that hasn’t been written much in Tampa history), the calming influence of the veteran who’s been there so many times and acts like it, and the effervescent joy of players who were teenagers 20 minutes ago. They need each other to win two more games in this crazy season.
So you want to know Brady’s influence on this team that’s one win away from being the first team in 55 Super Bowls to play on its home field? I asked Devin White, still all hopped up 45 minutes after the game. Over the phone from Louisiana, White sounded like he was still playing this 30-20 Tampa victory over New Orleans.
“Thing I love about Tom is he’s always teaching,” White said. “Teaching me how to be a great leader. Every single day, every single practice, he puts the team before himself. First few days he’s in the locker room, we’re all like, We’re in the locker room with the greatest quarterback of all time! Like, I wanna talk to him, I wanna get a picture with him. But then, he’s your teammate. You’re here for a reason.
“Few weeks ago, I was kinda upset I didn’t make the Pro Bowl. He’s like, ‘D, there’s a bigger bowl I’m chasing. We’re all chasing it. C’mon.’ I just thought, man, it’s a blessing to hear that. I need to hear that. This thing’s about us. He’s still chasing those bowls in his forties. I am just so grateful to be able to spend this time with him.”
“Consummate leader,” Arians said. “Has been all year. Got the air of confidence that permeates through our team every day. I allow him to be himself. Like, New England didn’t allow him to coach. I allow him to coach. I just sit back sometimes and watch.”
The stakes Sunday were obviously, particularly in the wake of the news Sunday from FOX’s Jay Glazer, confirming what most thought was a looming reality: Drew Brees would retire after this season. And whatever happened Sunday, it was going to be Brees’ last game in New Orleans. For 15 years, while he climbed over every great quarterback in history and become the all-time leader in passing yards, Brees became an active citizen, maybe the single most important ambassador to making New Orleans whole after Katrina. No one doesn’t love Brees, including his coach, Sean Payton.
Brees turned 42 Friday, and Payton forgot to mention it to him or the team. So after practice Friday, Payton called Brees in his car.
“I forgot one thing in red zone today,” Payton said.
“What?” said Brees.
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” Payton said.
Everyone wanted to win it for Brees. It’s tough, though, when you lose the turnover battle 4-0, which the Saints did. Arians said the biggest was the White/Winfield combo platter with 20 minutes left and the Saints driving to lengthen a 20-13 lead. Brees threw to vet tight end Jared Cook to the Tampa 47, and Winfield stripped the ball, White recovered, and White returned it to the Bucs’ 40. Five plays later, Brady’s second of two TD passes tied the game. “Changed the whole game,” Arians said. “Could have gone to a two-score game right then. To me, that was the play of the game.”
With the Bucs up 23-20 and the Saints about to go on offense with 10 minutes left, White prowled the sideline. He told one of the Tampa assistant coaches: “Coach, I’m trying to put the dagger in it now!” He told his mates, “Whoever makes the big play on this series, that’s a stack!” Stack. A thousand bucks. Of course White did it. He cut under Alvin Kamara on the fifth play of the series, picking it off near midfield and returning it to the Saints’ 20. Four plays later, Brady sneaked it in from the 1. Ballgame.
Arians loved how this game was played. It could be the kind of game Tampa will need to play to beat Green Bay in the title game. Passes: 33. Runs: 35. Though the Bucs rushed for just 3.6 yards per carry, it was more about the mentality and the approach to Arians. They’d lost to the Saints twice this year by a total of 46 points. They’d been pushed around. Not this day.
“First thing I said to the team this week was, ‘You gotta be a man in this game.’ They tried to be bullies. I couldn’t ask for a better ending, running it down their throat at the end of the game to kill the clock. We set a tempo, and nobody’s bullying us. You know, I always hear this ‘they only want to throw-deep’ s—. But we always start with punching teams in the mouth.”
Feisty Arians. The good Arians. He’ll need that trait on Rodgers’ turf Sunday.
“We were only 6,700,” said Bills fan Rick Peterson, a 20-year season-ticket-holder (section 126, row 12), “but I know we sounded like 67,000.” Sure sounded loud to me, and to NBC’s Cris Collinsworth, who couldn’t believe the racket the crowd made when Baltimore’s Justin Tucker missed two first-half field goals. “Absolutely we made an impact,” Peterson said, back in his car 10 minutes after the game, waiting for the crowd to thin before leaving the parking lot after his beloved Bills beat Baltimore 17-3. The win sent the locals to their first AFC title game in 27 years.
“We want Cleveland!” Peterson said. “We want another game here!” Then he thought a second and said, “We don’t care! We’ll play anyone, anywhere!”
The day, in total, cost Peterson $207. He and season-ticket partner Derrick Norman had to go to the stadium on Wednesday and take a COVID-19 test (for $63). When they passed, an email with a green check mark was sent to their phones. Their tickets were on their phones too—along with specific time they could enter the stadium Saturday night. “Our assigned time was 6:55,” Peterson said, “so we got to the parking lot around 6. No tailgating. We sat in the car, had a couple beers and a couple shots.” Now that’s a Buffalo fan! Making do without tailgating, doing shots in the parked car!
At the gate at 6:55, they showed their green check marks and then the ticket, via phone scan, and entered the stadium. Peterson and Norman (“Chef Norm” to his friends) said they thought it was loudest on the two missed field goals by Tucker. “But that interception [the 101-yard pick-six by Taron Johnson] was wild too. He was running right toward us, so we ran down to the railing and just went crazy. We waited for this night for so long, and we couldn’t go all season, so I think that’s one reason why everyone there tonight was so fired up. I mean, it’s indescribable.”
One last thing: Peterson and Chef Norm already have their plane tickets to Tampa, site of Super Bowl LV. “That’s what this means to us,” he said. “We couldn’t wait.” Sounded like it Saturday night.
This game turned with 16 minutes left, Buffalo up 10-3 and Baltimore having a big third-and-goal from the 9-yard line. Would Lamar Jackson find a sliver of daylight to run through, or a way to wedge a throw into a tight space against Buffalo’s defense, which all night had played like it had 14 men on the field, not 11? This area of the field, cornerback Taron Johnson knew, was designed for Jackson targeting physical and sure-handed tight end Mark Andrews. So Johnson lurked to Jackson’s left near the goal line and saw Jackson’s eyes (“They always tell us to look at the vision of the quarterback,” he said) and waited for the throw to leave Jackson’s hands. It was a poor decision, in heavy traffic, one yard deep in the end zone. It was an easy interception, but the not-simple part for Johnson was running 101 yards for the touchdown. Johnson flew out of Andrews’ grasp at the Buffalo 1, and about 50 yards later, he waited for Tre’Davious White to make a block on the chasing Jackson. Speed took over from there, and it was a touchdown, a 17-3 lead, and delirium.
TARON JOHNSON PICK SIX‼️
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) January 17, 2021
“Taron Johnson will be remembered for a long time here in Buffalo,” quarterback Josh Allen said later. “It’s one of those potentially franchise-altering plays.”
Buffalo’s haul from the first two drafts of the new regime won this game. Coach Sean McDermott got here four years ago this month, when only one of Saturday night’s 53 active players (defensive end Jerry Hughes) was an active player. GM Brandon Beane arrived in May, after the 2017 draft. In ’17, cornerstone players White, left tackle Dion Dawkins and linebacker Matt Milano arrived in rounds one, two and five. In 2018, the big haul happened: Offensive leader Josh Allen and defensive leader Tremaine Edmunds, both in round one; and then a little-known cornerback from Weber State on day three of the draft. Taron Johnson came with the 121st overall pick, in the fourth round.
So give McDermott and Beane a major assist on this victory, and on all 15 this year. Allen has quarterbacked the Bills to their first AFC title game in 27 years, Edmunds is the centerpiece of a warming defense, and Johnson will never have to buy a chicken wing in western New York ever again.
All summer, Aaron Rodgers was cool. Happy and cool. Wouldn’t you have expected him to show some signs of anger after the franchise didn’t take a receiver from a plush crop in the 2020 draft—but did take his potential heir in the first round? Nope. Nary an eye-roll from the great Rodgers, or from his receiver.
“I didn’t even watch the draft,” wideout Allen Lazard told me Saturday night. “The draft did not affect me.”
Pardon? Drafting a receiver in the first couple of rounds wouldn’t have affected you? “I knew that regardless whether they took someone or not, they’re gonna bring other people in to compete for a job. And it doesn’t really matter who they bring in, whether it’s a high draft pick or not. I need to go out there and prove myself regardless. Once I saw we didn’t pick anyone, I think [GM Brian Gutekunst] and those guys upstairs realized that there’s not really anyone else that can do the things that I do and what I bring to this offense. Having their respect and having their trust and their belief obviously instilled a lot of confidence in me.”
The NFC divisional game against the Rams was another chance for the undrafted Lazard (from Iowa State in 2018) to prove himself. After a potential TD from Rodgers slipped through his white gloves midway through the third quarter—the catch would have given the Pack an insurmountable 32-10 lead—you wondered about the faith Rodgers says he always has in Lazard. Would that drop cause Rodgers to look at his other guys and away from Lazard, at least for the evening?
That’s not how Rodgers rolls. Doubtless he knew Lazard’s unflagging confidence in himself would make that drop fly out of his head by the time he got back to the huddle. So after the Rams got to within 25-18 on their next series, Lazard didn’t expect the play-calling to be any different—and it wasn’t. Midway through the fourth quarter, Green Bay clinging to that seven-point lead, the Packers had a second-and-six at their 42-yard line. They showed a heavy run look, with tight ends Marcedes Lewis and Robert Tonyan tight to the formation next to the left tackle, and Aaron Jones deep in a classic I-back look. Only Lazard (wide left) and Davante Adams (right) weren’t in the nexus of the scrum. So if a defense sees a seven-man front, and as the ball is snapped Jones runs forward to take the handoff, and the two tight ends do not release, what’s a defense supposed to think?
You’ve got to watch the replay closely to see why this play was the perfect call. As Rodgers looked to bury the handoff into Jones’ gut, the corner playing off Lazard, Troy Hill, takes a nearly imperceptible half-step toward the line. Blink, and you’ll miss it. Even with safety Jordan Fuller shading to help Hill, Fuller had to respect what looked like a run call, in formation and in execution. Until . . .
RODGERS DEEP SHOT TO LAZARD FOR THE TD 🚀
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 17, 2021
“Hats off to Coach LaFleur for that play-call,” Lazard said. “All I need them to do is just to hesitate for one second with my speed, my size and my ability. And I got them to do that. I was able to slip right past the safety and I got right through them. Great play call for that time of game, with how we’d run the ball all night.”
Lazard split Hill and Fuller, and got two steps on Hill and one on Fuller, and Rodgers threw it maybe eight inches too far—but no way was Lazard going to miss this one. He stretched those same white gloves as far as his 6-5 frame would allow, pulled in the ball, and scored the clinching touchdown. The final: Green Bay 32, L.A. 18.
There’s a big reason why a team that was 15-19-1 and floundering in the last 35 games pre-LaFleur is 28-7 in in the second-year coach’s first 35. LaFleur and Rodgers zig when they’re supposed to zag. Present a rock-solid run wall with only two receivers, both doubled, and throw anyway. At this precise point of the game, 7:01 on the clock and the Packers wanting to chew the clock and Green Bay with 176 yards rushing in the first 53 minutes . . . I mean, what’s a defense supposed to think? Like putting Adams into jet-motion at the Rams’ 1-yard line in the first half, and Rodgers insta-throwing to him as soon as Adams was clear of the formation. Easy touchdown. This is one reason why the Packers will be so tough to beat as the NFL enters its Final Four: Great quarterback, totally unpredictable offense.
In the end zone, as the Packers celebrated the 58-yard yard score, Rodgers, with a huge grin, came up behind Lazard and mimed putting a crown on his head. “I’ve been ‘crowning’ Davante [Adams] after he scored a touchdown this year because he’s the best in the game at wide receiver,” Lazard said. “And obviously Aaron is the best quarterback in the league right now. So I’ve been crowning both of those guys this year and I think Aaron was just reciprocating that back to me, especially with the dropped pass beforehand, in that crucial moment.”
Continuing the homage to the late Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe, from the “Updates on 9” piece of his baseball column each week, with news on 11 important people and things from the pro football weekend:
1. BRANDON STALEY. Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley got to bed in California on Sunday around 1:45 a.m. PT. By 8:30 a.m. PT, he was up doing a Zoom coaching interview with Houston GM Nick Caserio. By 1:30, he was on his way to the Chargers’ offices in Orange County for a formal interview. By 7:45 p.m. PT, he was being announced as the new coach of the Chargers. That is one heck of a day, and today would have been a continuation of that. He was scheduled to fly to West Palm Beach at the crack of dawn for his interview today with the Eagles. (They’ve been doing the interviews in Florida.)
I don’t think the Chargers rushed to hire Staley because they feared the Eagles might; I bet it was a factor, but a small one. More of a factor was this: They were convinced no matter how long the process went on that Staley would be their guy. I had Staley on my podcast last week, and you could see why he’d be sought after. He finds ways—with Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, say, with the Rams—to get them to buy into what the defense is doing.
On my pod, he told this story: “Back in the springtime, I made like a 90-play cut-up of Jalen from Florida State, Jacksonville, to last year in LA. Lot of good, some not so good, and then, ‘Hey, here’s our vision for you.’ We talked through a lot of things philosophically about how he plays technique and how we want to play and just learning about what he’s comfortable with and what he’s not comfortable with, and then where we think we can go. We were talking about him playing inside at what we call the star, you know, in the slot. He goes, ‘Well coach, I’ve been dying to play that my whole career. I’ve been dying to play in there.” Like, ‘I don’t see myself as a corner. I see myself as a football player.’ When he said that, it’s like, I didn’t know how this was gonna go! I was hopeful. But you don’t know how anyone’s gonna receive it.”
Should be interesting to see his approach to Justin Herbert as well as the D. Staley was a three-year college quarterback at the University of Dayton.
2. KIDS GAME, MORE THAN EVER. Now the four coaches in L.A. and New York are in the fold. In Los Angeles, Sean McVay is 34, Staley 34. In New York, Joe Judge of the Giants is 39, Robert Saleh of the Jets the old man at 41. Coaches used to be older, lots older. Interesting trend in the places with the biggest population. Maybe meaningless, but interesting.
3. URBAN MEYER. The Jaguars on Friday named the 56-year-old Meyer head coach and beacon of a franchise that desperately needs a leader. In 17 years as a major-college coach, Meyer lost 32 games. In the last three years, Jacksonville lost 36. So there’s a lot for him to get used to, and a lot of work for him to do to get to know a league he never spent one day employed in before Friday. In his opening press conference, Meyer lavished praise on Hall of Fame coach Jimmy Johnson for being his sounding board in recent weeks as he strongly considered getting back into coaching. Johnson told me that Meyer texted this to him Friday morning: “Gonna take one last swing.”
As Johnson said from his Florida home: “Losing’s gonna be difficult for Urban. He knows that. But he’s got a better team with more draft picks than I had when I got to Dallas. He’s not gonna have to go through 1-15. Through the draft, and through free agency, and with the cap money they have, I think he can turn it around fast. But he goes into it with his eyes open. He knows it’s different than college. But I think it’s a great hire for Jacksonville, and a great move for Urban. The opportunity is there, and just like anybody who has had the success in college that he’s had, it’s always in the back of your mind, ‘Can I meet that challenge in the NFL?’ That’s what’s driving him now. For a competitor like him, with the resources Jacksonville has, it’s a fantastic opportunity.”
Johnson got to know Meyer in 2015, when Meyer visited the Keys with his son Nate, and Johnson took them out fishing off the coast of Islamorada on his boat, “Three Rings.” (Two from Super Bowls coaching Dallas, one from a college title at Miami.) “We caught a big dolphin, about 40 pounds, and I worked with Nate reeling in the fish. Urban videotaped it. He was so excited: ‘Man, Jimmy Johnson showing my son how to catch a big dolphin!’ ”
And Meyer said Friday he’d continue to lean on Johnson for NFL advice as he gets to know the ropes in Jacksonville. As of Friday, Meyer had already been briefed by the Jags’ capologist. There’s a lot of good about this: a league-high $74-million in cap space (per Over The Cap), four picks in the top 45 of the April draft (1, 25, 33, 45), knowing that Trevor Lawrence is his if he wants him, a promising young running back in James Robinson, and a defensive leader in linebacker Myles Jack. But there’s a major talent gap at most positions, and he’s playing in a division with two playoff teams that went 11-5 this year.
Meyer quit three college jobs by age 55, and he’ll have to learn to take many deep breaths on the road to winning in Jacksonville. Nick Saban couldn’t do it, walking away from Miami after going 15-17 in two years. So many of the other star college coaches couldn’t make it long-term in the NFL—Steve Spurrier, Chip Kelly, Saban—and Meyer’s about to learn that Akron’s not on the Jags’ 2021 schedule but Seattle and Buffalo are. “The biggest challenge,” Meyer said, “is looking across the field and saying they’ve got what you’ve got—or sometimes they’ve got more than you’ve got.”
4. DAN CAMPBELL? So we heard a lot about Iowa State coach Matt Campbell possibly making the jump from college to the NFL after turning around a downtrodden program. In the coaching underground, Dan Campbell, the former interim coach for Miami (5-7 in 2015), has been a highly regarded commanding presence—but it’s tough to get noticed on the offensive coaching staff of the Sean Payton-led Saints. But he reportedly wowed the Lions in a Zoom interview, and with a kindred spirit, Chris Spielman, playing a key role in the Lions’ hiring process now, it figures that Detroit would zoom in on Campbell. He’s a leader-of-men type who played for Bill Parcells and reminds some peers of him. Jay Glazer reported what many have whispered in the past few days: The Lions will hire Campbell at the conclusion of the Saints season.
5. DIVERSITY IN THE GM RANKS. At the start of the hiring cycle this month, two of 32 NFL teams employed Black general managers—Chris Grier in Miami, Andrew Berry in Cleveland. We could be on the verge of doubling that in a month. Detroit hired Rams director of college scouting Brad Holmes, who is Black, on Thursday. And the likely winner of the Falcons’ GM derby is New Orleans director of pro scouting Terry Fontenot, who is Black. Holmes probably earned this job with the Rams’ drafting beyond the prime picks. In the last four years, because of aggressive trading, their first picks, per year, were 44, 89, 61 and 52. But in those four drafts, the Rams brought in useable pieces consistently in rounds three and later: Cooper Kupp, John Johnson, Josh Reynolds, Samson Ebukam and Joseph Noteboom. In 2020, the second round yielded instant contributors Cam Akers and Van Jefferson. The Lions have relied too heavily on uninvested vet free-agents for too long. Now Holmes and (likely) Dan Campbell will craft a culture and build from within.
Regarding Fontenot, it’s notable (and laudable) that the Falcons did not let the fact that hiring Fontenot would result in Atlanta handing extra third-round picks to their arch-rivals in the next two drafts. (A 2020 NFL rule, in an effort to stimulate minority hiring, rewards teams with two late third-round picks for developing minority coaches and GMs.) Two reasons: Fontenot was a candidate for several jobs, and he could easily have been hired elsewhere, meaning the Saints would have gotten the picks anyway. And if you don’t hire a GM you love because you don’t want to give a rival the 100th picks (estimated) in the next two drafts, how much did you really love him? A great GM should be worth more than two mid-round picks.
6. ARTHUR SMITH. Atlanta had one advantage in the GM and coach search: time. When the Falcons fired coach Dan Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff in October, it gave them 73 days before the end of the season to fact-find on coaches and GMs. The end was a bit hairy; Atlanta thought Smith, the imaginative Tennessee offensive coordinator, was the man the Falcons wanted to hire, but then he left town after a long in-person interview Wednesday to meet with the Jets, and then he flew to Florida to meet with the Eagles’ contingent led by owner Jeff Lurie and GM Howie Roseman—for six hours. After being led by a defensive head coach (Mike Smith, Quinn) for the last 13 seasons, the progressive offense of Smith, in addition to his global view of the job, was inviting for Atlanta. My bet is that Smith would be in favor of keeping Matt Ryan and trying to build around a good skill group to topple the Saints and Bucs in the NFC South.
7. ANTHONY GONZALEZ. Crazy story. Gonzalez, the first-round pick of the Colts in 2007 as a receiver out of Ohio State, had a short football career, and then got an MBA at Stanford. He decided to try his hand at politics. As a first-time Republican candidate for Congress in a district in deep-red northeast Ohio, he won a Congressional seat in 2018. So last week, the 36-year-old Ohioan found himself in a momentous spot, the vote in Congress to impeach President Trump. Gonzalez was one of 10 Republicans to vote to impeach, and he told a local radio station the day after the vote that “me and my colleagues are under attack.” Gonzalez had to know this could be a ticket to losing his re-election in 2022.
Last week, after the vote, Gonzalez’s Colts coach, Tony Dungy, told me he and Gonzalez had a couple of conversations last summer. The tone of those talks makes it sound like Gonzalez felt like a storm might be coming. Dungy said Gonzalez asked him his advice on making tough decisions. “I told him to get as much information as he could and to follow his gut,” Dungy said. “I likened it to football. When you have a commitment to your team, winning becomes the focus, not getting the most catches. Sometimes, I had to make decisions that were not easy for me personally, but I knew they were best for the team. Decisions aren’t always easy. They’re not always 90-10. Sometimes they’re 55-45.” I asked Dungy how he thought Gonzalez would deal with the inevitable backlash from his constituents in the next election. “Knowing Anthony,” Dungy said, “that would not be his number one concern. He’ll do the right thing, and the ramifications will take care of themselves.”
8. THE FUTURE WILL BE TELEVISED, SOMEWHERE. As the NFL digested encouraging Wild-Card Weekend ratings, they realized they might be onto something. Nickelodeon got 2 million people to watch the Bears-Saints game in the Sunday late-afternoon window; ESPN, with its college-football-like megacast, got a higher rating than anticipated, 24.8 million people, for Ravens-Titans at 1 p.m. ET Sunday. Sean Payton got green-slimed after the New Orleans win. (“Why not—it’s fun!” he said.) Telemundo did a Sunday night game for the first time.
On the ESPN2 film room splintercast with Tedy Bruschi, Rex Ryan, Keyshawn Johnson and Matt Hasselbeck, they screamed at the TV when the Titans allowed Lamar Jackson to run for a 48-yard TD, angry at the bad tackling.
“People lose discipline!” Ryan yelled. For an afternoon, he was a knowledgeable guy next to you at the bar. “People are like, I’m gonna get my sack. No you’re not! This is Lamar Jackson! You couldn’t rush the passer all year! If you feel like Deacon Jones, you ain’t! You gotta stop the dang quarterback from running!”
Said Johnson: “Hey Tedy. Look at [Tennessee safety] Byard right here! [Missing the tackle feebly on Jackson.] He didn’t want no parts of that! Rex, you coach defense. You woulda cut Byard for that.”
What football nerd wouldn’t want that as an option? I’m not too into DJ Khaled and Fat Joe rapping on another ESPN feed at halftime, but I’m sure some people are. Nor do I care about betting expert Joe Fortenbaugh, at halftime, saying, “Maybe it’s time to think about the over.” To each sports nut and non-nut his/her own.
“It’s really a continuation of what’s been a focus for us the last decade: How do we expand availability of our games? How do we put it in front of more fans?” said NFL Media EVP and chief operating officer Hans Schroeder. “The more we innovate, the more we learn.”
9. ROBERT SALEH. By the end of the Adam Gase era, the Jets were longing for a uniter, a respected leader players and coaches and a disgusted fan base would rally around. Who better than a guy whose brother was almost killed on 9/11 in one of the World Trade Towers, a guy who devoted his life to football on that day because he was determined after 9/11 to chase what he loved and not what paid well, a guy who wants the tough job and not the easy one—who seemed to want with all the baggage the Jets carry to coach the franchise out of their 2-14 hopeless hole. Just as the Jersey-neighbor Giants have a program-builder and an I-dare-you-to-knock-this-chip-off-my-shoulder franchise leader in Joe Judge, this is what the Jets think they have in Saleh, who is demanding and likeable and morphs his defense to fit the players he has. Good defensive mind too. The Niners were second in team defense in their Super Bowl season and, despite the losses of DeForest Buckner, Nick Bosa, Richard Sherman (for 60 percent of the season) and Dee Ford to injury last year, they were fifth in defense in 2020. I remember Fred Warner, the star middle ‘backer, telling me last year why he liked playing for Saleh so much. “By the time the game comes around, you’re really not thinking as much as just playing. That allows you to play fast, instinctively.”
10. JOSH MCDANIELS. When I heard the New England offensive coordinator would be interviewing with Eagles brass on Sunday, I loved it for three reasons. One: The Eagles’ interviews are notoriously all-day suckers; I hear Robert Saleh and Joe Brady each spent more than seven hours in the interview chair. So Philly’s interviewing people the franchise is interested in—and not in a check-the-box kind of way. Two: I like organizations that don’t look at what everybody else is doing. Clearly there’s residue from McDaniels backing out of the Indy job two years ago, and it’s understandable. But two years ago, the Colts might have been the best job out there, and Andrew Luck hadn’t walked away yet, and they had a smart and progressive GM in Chris Ballard, and the Colts picked McDaniels over Mike Vrabel. McDaniels didn’t take dumb pills since then. Good for Jeff Lurie and Howie Roseman judging the 44-year-old McDaniels’ body of work instead of passing judgment on a bad 2020 alone. In 12 of his 13 seasons as New England offensive coordinator, the Patriots have had a top-10 scoring team.
And three: The Eagles clearly want to save Carson Wentz. McDaniels knows how to coach quarterbacks and coach them hard. We’ll see what happens. Who knows who the Eagles will hire, with Staley now off the market. But credit to the Eagles for cross-examining McDaniels.
11. GEORGE PATON. By one count, Paton had been courted or interviewed for 12 GM positions before taking the Denver job last week. “This job,” the long-time key Vikings personnel man said Saturday afternoon, “was right place, right time. When John Elway offers you the reins of the Denver Broncos, and you’re from southern California, you say yes.”
Elway and Paton went to high school in southern California, had dads who were coaches, and went to PAC-10 schools. When they met over dinner at Elway’s Steakhouse in Denver, Paton grilled Elway over the recruitment of Peyton Manning in 2012. That was the last glory era of Denver football. Since the team won the Super Bowl in the 2015 season and Manning retired soon after, the teams hasn’t sniffed the playoffs. Elway hadn’t succeeded in replacing Manning, and with Drew Lock at quarterback now, Paton—who has full control over personnel with Elway stepping aside—will take some time to analyze Lock and the QB market before knowing how they’ll handle the position. “Drew’s talented, and I think he can develop,” Paton said. “Obviously, you want to bring in competition to every position.”
Paton’s obviously feeling his way—Saturday was his first day on the job—and it’s fair to give him a couple of months before choosing a quarterback path. It’s most likely someone will have to beat out Lock in camp or during the season.
Offensive Players of the Week
Chad Henne, quarterback, Kansas City. Not about stats, of course; he did play only 22 minutes. But Henne, who’d started just one NFL game since 2014, made just one dumb play—an end-zone interception as he protected a 19-10 lead when Patrick Mahomes left with a suspected concussion. Henne got the save in a much more difficult than anticipated 22-17 AFC divisional playoff win over the Browns. Henne’s two biggest plays, with the game on the line after the two-minute warning, were a 13-and-a-half-yard scramble on third-and-14 and the Chiefs’ 35, and then the five-yard pass from shotgun on fourth-and-a-foot to clinch the game. That’s the biggest completion of his 13-year NFL career.
Billy Turner, Elgton Jenkins, Corey Linsley, Lucas Patrick, Ricky Wagner, offensive line, Green Bay. “They were the stars of the game,” Aaron Rodgers said. Granted, Aaron Donald wasn’t anywhere near himself in the 14-point Packer victory, and that was a big factor in the game. But this was a masterful performance by a line that lost its best player, David Bakhtiari, on New Year’s Eve with a torn ACL. Imagine with Turner and no Bakhtiari at left tackle allowing zero sacks to the number one defense in football, and imagine gaining 484 yards (the most by the Rams all season), and imagine keeping Rodgers so clean. Jenkins, in particular, was impressive early, neutralizing Donald and frustrating him to the point that Donald was flagged 15 yards for unnecessary roughness for an altercation with Jenkins in the second quarter.
Tom Brady, quarterback, Tampa Bay. Brady led the Bucs to the NFC Championship Game at Green Bay next week by playing much more of a game manager role than bombs-away role. Who cares? Knowing Brady, he’ll think the 18-of-33, 199-yard game, with two TD passes and one sneak, and no turnovers, is beautiful—because the Bucs won, and because he’s going to the 14th conference championship game of his 21-year NFL career. No one’s ever going to do that again, going to the Final Four 14 times in a career. No one.
Defensive Players of the Week
Devin White, linebacker, Tampa Bay. Two vital takeaways by White in the last 20 minutes turned the game around. With 4:30 left in the third quarter, he picked up a fumble forced by safety Antoine Winfield and returned it to the Saints’ 40-yard line; a Tom Brady TD strike tied the game at 20 minutes later. Midway through the fourth quarter, White jumped in front of a Drew Brees pass intended for Alvin Kamara, picked it off and returned it to the Saints’ 20. Another Bucs’ TD made it 30-20. Huge day for the Bucs’ first pick in the 2019 draft, still just 22 years old.
— NFL (@NFL) January 18, 2021
L’Jarius Sneed, cornerback, Kansas City. The fourth-round rookie from Louisiana Tech (how does a 6-1 corner who runs a 4.37-second 40 last till the fourth round, by the way?) is so instinctive and physical, and it showed for four quarters against the Browns. Six tackles, one sack of Baker Mayfield, one physical tackle-for-loss of Jarvis Landry. For his first playoff game, Sneed looked as much the veteran as Tyrann Mathieu.
Taron Johnson, cornerback, Buffalo. His 101-yard pick-six off Lamar Jackson, with the Ravens going in to tie in the last minute of the third quarter, changed the course of the game and sent Buffalo to its first AFC title game in 27 years. Biggest play of a three-year career for the former Weber State corner.
Special Teams Players of the Week
Deonte Harris, punt-returner, New Orleans. Man, is this kid from the football factory of Assumption (Mass.) College an electric player. In the first six minutes of Bucs-Saints, Harris returned punts for 54 yards to set up a field goal and 67 yards for a touchdown. The 54-yarder stood, the 67-yarder was nullified by an illegal block in the back. On a weekend of overall lousy kicking, Harris was the best special-teamer in the four games.
Coach of the Week
Leslie Frazier, defensive coordinator, Buffalo. Holding the Ravens—holding any team—to three points in a divisional playoff game was a terrific accomplishment for the NFL lifer, and could propel Frazier into the head-coach conversation in Houston or Philadelphia. It was a smart game plan, designed to not let Lamar Jackson breathe, in or out of the pocket. Jackson managed only 34 rushing yards in nine sprints from a crowded pocket.
Goats of the Week
Lamar Jackson, quarterback, Baltimore. Game on the edge of a cliff, last minute of the third quarter, third-and-goal from the Bills’ 9-yard-line, Buffalo up 10-3 . . . and Jackson threw the ball off the flight path of tight end Mark Andrews—but not errantly for Taron Johnson, who caught it a yard deep in the end zone. One hundred-and-one yards later, Johnson landed in the opposite end zone with the game-turning play.
Rashard Higgins, wide receiver, Cleveland. Cleveland won the turnover battle 5-0 last week in Pittsburgh, a major part of their stunning upset of the Steelers. Cleveland did not win the turnover battle this week. The biggie: With the Browns down 16-3 late in the second quarter, Higgins steamed toward the right pylon. Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen, coming in like a missile (and the officials missed a helmet-to-helmet blow here), dislodged the ball and it bounded through the end zone. The hated Rich Eisen Rule. Touchback. Watched the replay seven or eight times, and it looked like Higgins came about five inches shy of piercing the plane of the goal line with the ball. “Our rule there is not to reach the ball out there when it’s first and goal,” said coach Kevin Stefanski afterward. Cleveland went into halftime down 19-3 and could not recover.
Patrick Mekari, center, Baltimore. I’m sure it was windy and crappy snapping weather in Buffalo on Saturday night, but come on. You had one job. Slight exaggeration, but when a center cannot snap the ball to the quarterback efficiently in the biggest game of the year, the team needs to investigate center options. Makari twice snapped it over Lamar Jackson’s head—the second leading to a wild chase for the ball, an intentional grounding infraction on Jackson at the Baltimore 2, and a mugging of Jackson that knocked him out of the game and into the concussion protocol. Two other errant snaps were saved by Jackson.
“This is one of the greatest honors of my life, to lead this team.”
—A reflective Aaron Rodgers, after leading Green Bay to a 32-18 win over the Rams, in his Zoom press conference. On Sunday, the 37-year-old Rodgers will quarterback the Packers in the first NFC Championship Game of his career to be played at Lambeau Field.
“I’ve studied the NFL game now for really years, but really studied it for the first time in my life the last six months. You’re in a league that is designed to be .500. You’re talking about coach [Bill] Belichick, one of my great friends, a person I’ve always admired. He’s the best of all time and you’re talking about a .686 winning percentage.”
—New Jacksonville coach Urban Meyer, who won 85 percent of his game in four college jobs over 17 years. That includes a .902 winning percentage at Ohio State.
Nitpick of the Week: Belichick’s career record, including playoffs, is 311-148, a .678 winning percentage.
“Tom Brady and Drew Brees have thrown for 100 miles.”
—ESPN’s Chris Berman.
Let’s check. Brees and Brady, 1-2 on the all-time regular-season yardage list, have combined to thrown for 176,896 yards, including playoff games, before Sunday night. That is 530,688 feet. That is 100.51 miles. That is also some great math by Chris Berman.
“Have we gotten the quarterback situation completely right? No. Have we won enough games? No. But everything else is there.”
—Chicago president Ted Phillips as the Bears announced GM Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy would return for a fourth season together in 2021. The Bears were 12-4 in the first year Nagy and Pace worked together, 2018, but are 16-16 (and 0-1 in the playoffs) since.
Winning games. Having a long-term quarterback. If you’re shy on those two elements, what else, exactly, matters in the NFL in 2021?
“Metamucil. A heated blanket.”
—New Orleans defensive end Cam Jordan, asked last week what he was planning to get Drew Brees for his 42nd birthday on Friday.
News item: Steelers don’t renew the contract of offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and promote QB coach Matt Canada to the position.
Reaction: Expected, I suppose, but this is one of the truly weird things about the 2020 Steelers. When December dawned, the Steelers were 10-0, averaging 29.8 points per game with one of the worst running games in the NFL. And six weeks later the offensive coordinator gets whacked? Crazy. In a way it reminds of nine years ago, when the Steelers finished 12-4 in the regular season, got Tebowed in the wild-card game (Tim Tebow won it in OT with an 80-yard pass-and-run to DeMaryius Thomas), and announced a few days day later that offensive coordinator Bruce Arians had “retired.” The “retired” Arians (he has later said he most certainly had not retired, but was pushed out) has been NFL Coach of the Year twice since, and was coaching Tampa Bay in the playoffs this weekend while the Steelers watched on TV. Arians was too close to Ben Roethlisberger, the theory around Pittsburgh went in early 2012. Fichtner was too close to Roethlisberger nine years later, the theory around Pittsburgh was last week. But that’s not why the Steelers should have gotten rid of Fichtner. I believe it comes down to two things in addition to the obvious factor of the putrid, very non-Steelers lack of a run game. One: Roethlisberger becoming a dink-and-dunk horizontal thrower of the football instead of the modern-day Dan Fouts. Two: the unhealthy obsession with forcing the ball to an inefficient, mistake-prone receiver, Diontae Johnson.
Roethlisberger first. He has played 16 full seasons (12 games played or more) as Steelers quarterback—2004 through 2018, and then 2020. Entering 2020, his career yards-per-attempt was 7.82, in the top 10 in NFL history. Never in his first 14 full seasons had his yards-per-attempt been below 7.0 yards. In 2020, Roethlisberger’s YPA plummeted to 6.25—29th in the league, and more than a yard less than Nick Mullens.
To understand exactly what this means, look at the first series of the Steelers’ only win in their final six games, including playoffs. Against Indianapolis (the Steelers rallied from 14 down to win), this was Pittsburgh’s first series:
First down: Diontae Johnson, split wide right, isolated, runs a seven-yard incut to the left. He drops a pass from Roethlisberger.
Second down: JuJu Smith-Schuster, split wide right, isolated, runs an eight-yard incut to the left. He can’t catch a ball thrown into the ground from Roethlisberger.
Third down: Johnson, split wide right, isolated, runs a two-yard incut to the left. He short-arms the pass from Roethlisberger. Incomplete.
That was an absolutely nonsensical series called by Fichtner and executed very poorly by a quarterback and two receivers. Why oh why would you throw a two-yard cross to the receiver with the worst hands in the league on third-and-10?
Now for Johnson’s role in this. The second-year receiver from Toledo has shown flashes of being the deep threat the Steelers need. But Johnson led the NFL with 14 dropped passes this season, per Pro Football Focus. To put that into perspective, the three players who caught the most passes in the NFL this season—Stefon Diggs, Davante Adams and DeAndre Hopkins—were targeted 462 times in the regular-season and dropped nine balls. Johnson was targeted 139 times and dropped 14. One drop every 10 times he was thrown the ball. That very nearly should disqualify Johnson from a prime spot on any team, never mind as a playoff team’s major deep threat.
The Steelers developed an obsession with getting the ball to Johnson, despite the drops, late in the season. The last seven games quarterbacked by Roethlisberger this season, including the playoff loss to Cleveland:
One last number-nerdy thing: You see those 10 drops by Johnson in the last seven games? No other receiver in the NFL had more than seven drops this season.
Rude Awakening Factoid of the Week:
Urban Meyer had one three-game losing streak in a 17-year college coaching career.
As Tom Brady and Drew Brees hug and say goodbye after a long talk on the field, Brady throws a touchdown pass to Brees’ son. One walks off to play in the NFC championship, the other stays to play with his kids. pic.twitter.com/wdWDro9YD4
— James Palmer (@JamesPalmerTV) January 18, 2021
Palmer covers the league for NFL Network.
Bears are gonna sign Chad Henne to a four year $60 mil deal
— Kalyn Kahler (@kalynkahler) January 17, 2021
Kahler covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.
Bills fans Zubaz their dog. pic.twitter.com/NMiOgwCQUO
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) January 17, 2021
Rovell works for Action Network HQ.
— Rick Ritter (@RickRitterWJZ) January 17, 2021
Ritter is a TV anchor at WJZ in Baltimore.
This route by Travis Kelce, against an outstanding CB in Denzel Ward, is absolutely sick. pic.twitter.com/bBV0llAVn7
— Terez A. Paylor (@TerezPaylor) January 17, 2021
Paylor is a reporter for Yahoo.
Please stop writing about COVID. From Bryan Henry: “You chose to beat readers over the head yet again [in the Jan. 11 FMIA, leading with the Browns] with repeated mentions of COVID-19, dedicating an entire section to what happened to the Browns almost test by test. The Blake Hance and the Browns winning story should have felt good. The way you told it, it really didn’t. ‘Season of COVID,’ ‘corona-wracked season,’ the Dave Campo note, Bizarre/Sad Story of the Week . . . We get it already! COVID is here. It’s bad. No need to keep telling us it’s here and it’s bad. The NFL just had a fairly uninterrupted season and successful first week of playoffs! Let’s have some fun watching the rest of it!”
Thanks for writing, Bryan. I can tell you spent a lot of time reading the column, and so your words resonate with me. I hear you. What I would say is this: I try to hold a mirror up to what’s happening in the NFL in my column every week. Last week:
• A team made the playoffs for the first time in 18 years, and the head coach and four other coaches and the Pro Bowl left guard and three other players were quarantined at home during the game because of COVID-19. Never in the 101-year history of pro football has something like this happened, and certainly not with one of the league’s most followed franchises. With this unprecedented story, I tried to find an interesting angle, which included the head coach directing the team from his basement; one player using his baby as a weight while doing squats in his house because he couldn’t use the team weight room; the irregular way the team got to the game with 24 coaches and players being taken there in individual black cars; and the bizarre signing of Blake Hance.
• The Browns won the game. If they hadn’t, that part of the column would have been 800 words, not 3,000. Part of the celebration was FaceTiming with the COVID-positive coach.
• A former Dallas Cowboys head coach slept in his car in Florida and waiting in line for 12 hours to get the virus vaccine.
• I also wrote, as your referenced, in my notes about the real world, a story about a famous former pitcher whose doctor son is a COVID denier.
Words having nothing to do with COVID in my column last week: 8,850. As I say, I’m trying to report on the real world of the NFL in the 2020 season. I don’t control what that world is, but I try to bring you inside of it the same way I do in stories that are all football. I know this is not what you want to hear, but I wouldn’t change a word.
I was dumb to bash Kyrie Irving. From Larry: “Yes, Kyrie Irving is a prima donna, and you are right, who would not want to play with LeBron? But my goodness, you saw what happened [with the Washington protest]. Why minimize what KI felt was important by calling it a ‘personal matter,’ the quotation marks a suggestion that it was nonsense. So he missed 2 games. BFD! There are lots of reasons to criticize athletes. This was not one of them.”
I said, “I wonder how the Nets feel now about casting their lot with Kyrie Irving . . . Great player, hurt a lot, divisive, hard to count on.” Now he’s missed seven this year (six with his personal matter), which brings the Kyrie Irving gameboard to this: Nets games since signing Irving to a $134-million contract: 90. Nets games played by Irving: 27. As I said last week, I realize injury played a huge role in the games missed last year. But if I sign a guy for $34 million a year to do anything, I would like to see him suit up more than 30 percent of the time, and that’s what the Nets have gotten so far.
Good health to you, Brian. From Brian Harrington: “I really enjoy your Monday articles and admire your skill at making a mundane NFL-related story interesting. I am currently undergoing chemo at NY Presbyterian (this is my sixth Monday here) and my routine after the IV is hooked up is to pull up a blanket and pillow and read FMIA. I just want you to know that it makes the four-hour session go by faster and I truly appreciate that.”
Nicest compliment I’ve had in a long time, Brian. Hope your life is taking a turn for the better. Wishing you good health in the new year.
1. I think there’s one way to get the Texans out of this Deshaun Watson mess: hire Eric Bieniemy. If the Texans don’t make peace with Watson, they deserve to have a crowd of 0 at the home opener next year.
2. I think, and I cannot say this emphatically enough: If the Texans trade a 25-year-old franchise quarterback/model leader/citizen, for virtually any price, it will haunt them for years.
3. I think I cannot get over the margin of victory in Kansas City’s last eight victories: 2, 4, 3, 6, 6, 3, 3, 5. The football gods were not always this kind to Andrew Walter Reid, but they sure are now.
4. I think I’m hearing Jerod Mayo is a serious candidate in Philadelphia. Interesting, after only two years as a New England assistant. The Belichick imprimatur lives.
5. I think the Camera Shot of the Weekend was FOX capturing Aaron Donald crying on the sidelines as the clock wound down on the Packers’ 32-18 victory over the Rams. Donald simply wasn’t himself, trying to play with torn rib cartilage but just not ever seeming comfortable; the best defensive player in football was limited to 40 snaps and had zero impact on the biggest game of the year. Thus the tears. Great line from Michael Strahan on the postgame show: “They say there’s no crying in baseball. Well, that’s someone who really never played the game.”
6. I think no NFL story was erased quite so thoroughly between April and January as the story of Jordan Love beginning to eclipse Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. Rodgers was already a top-10 QB of all time entering this year, and at 37, he’s been more accurate and more explosive than ever.
7. I think the more I see Rodgers this year, the more I think it’s quite possible that Jordan Love becomes Green Bay’s Garoppolo—a guy who never gets the chance to be the starter for the team that drafted him to be one. When I raised the possibility to GM Brian Gutekunst on draft weekend that it was possible Rodgers would play so well he’d keep Love on the bench, Gutekunst said: “That’d be great for us . . . I know a lot of people are saying this puts a clock on Aaron, but I don’t see that at all.” Three more Rodgers years even close to the 2020 level of play, and Love will be some other team’s future QB, not Green Bay’s.
8. I think, speaking of future QBs, how about Sean McVay’s answer when he got asked after the loss to Green Bay if Jared Goff was his quarterback? “He’s the quarterback right now.” If you read between McVay’s words in the second half of the season, you can sense a simmering dissatisfaction with Goff. Would McVay seriously think of giving John Wolford a shot to prove himself this offseason? Or maybe draft a competitor for the job? Stay tuned to this one.
9. I think, if you care, here’s my 2020 Associated Press all-pro ballot:
WR: Stefon Diggs, Buffalo; Davante Adams, Green Bay; Cole Beasley (slot), Buffalo
TE: Travis Kelce, Kansas City.
LT: Garett Bolles, Denver. RT: Tristan Wirfs, Tampa Bay.
LG: Joel Bitonio, Cleveland. RG: Chris Lindstrom, Atlanta.
C: J.C. Tretter, Cleveland.
QB: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay.
RB: Derrick Henry, Tennessee.
Edge rushers: T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh; Myles Garrett, Cleveland.
Interior: Aaron Donald, LA Rams; DeForest Buckner, Indianapolis.
LB: Bobby Wagner, Seattle; Fred Warner, San Francisco; Deion Jones, Atlanta
CB: Xavien Howard, Miami; Jalen Ramsey, LA Rams
S: Adrian Amos, Green Bay; Marcus Maye, NY Jets
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Story of the Week: A brilliantly written tale by Mike Wilson of the New York Times, about the simple act of a man named Frank Miller playing catch at age 74. “He just wanted to play catch. They got relief from troubled times.”
b. The story of a wife posting a note on a neighborhood app seeking a partner for her husband to play catch was so well executed by Wilson. The writing was so good. I wish I could write this well. Check out three passages:
In a world with its cover torn off, the idea of a man in his eighth decade yearning for a baseball buddy seemed to spark something in people.
“My son is interested,” a woman quickly replied.
The game got a hold of Frank Miller in the early 1960s, when he pitched for his high school team in Greenville, N.Y., and then for Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. He can describe with cinematic clarity the grand slam he hit in May of his freshman year — and show you the ball, which he keeps in a box marked “memorabilia.”
He has visited his enthusiasm upon Alice, his third wife, who knew nothing about baseball when they met 10 years ago. “Frank introduced me to the complexities of the game,” she said, managing not to sound like a hostage.
At 74, Frank short-armed his throws a bit, yet managed to deliver the ball with impressive zip. One of his tosses skipped off the glove of an older man, who then hobbled after the ball, threw it back to Frank on a couple of bounces, and shrugged.
This was Rich Mazzarella, 73, who grew up in Astoria, Queens, worshiping the Yankees and playing in a Scrabble board of youth sports leagues: CYO, PAL, YMCA. He hadn’t thrown in 35 years and — this is unfortunate, but facts are facts — had long since given his baseball gloves to his grandchildren. He had to borrow Miller’s catcher’s mitt to play.
Mazzarella was asked why he came.
“Fountain of Youth,” he said. “The opportunity to do something that I never expected to do again in my life.”
He settled into his best catcher’s stance (a little high in the haunches) and caught a few more pitches from Frank, their combined ages about as old as the game itself.
c. Mike Wilson: What a writer you are. Congratulations on a story well told.
d. Congrats, too, to Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic, the first woman in the 61-year history of the award to be named National Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. A great honor, and well-deserved, for Auerbach.
e. Podcast of the Week: “Gayle Sierens, the first woman to call an NFL game,” an NBC “Sports Uncovered” podcast hosted by Michele Tafoya and produced and written by Alexa Maremaa.
f. Amazing that it’s been 33 years since Sierens did that first one—Seattle at Kansas City on NBC—and that it was the only game she ever did, despite having a good afternoon in the booth. Beth Mowins, who did a Monday Night Football game for ESPN in 2017, spoke to the seeming cap on female play-by-play voices: “It still can be frustrating, because I think there is a sense often with male bosses that if we have one, we’ve checked the box.”
g. Football Story of the Week: Tyler Dunne of Go Long With Tyler Dunne, with the most definitive piece I’ve read on why Stefon Diggs was such a great addition for the Bills. Dunne on Diggs’ determination, post-trade to Buffalo last spring, to be great and to show he was under-utilized in Minnesota:
“Little did teams know that this exact offseason Diggs was busting his ass like never before with trainer Pete Bommarito in Miami, Fla. Diggs embraced this high-octane program that occupies 10 to 12 hours of your time every day. He bought into Bommarito’s emphasis on “joint alignment” to maximize power and regeneration and deceleration and nutrition and neuromuscular therapy and other terms that’d make your brain freeze. Diggs loved the science of it all. And Bommarito insists he didn’t see one inkling of what those scouts are talking about.
Down in Florida, Diggs morphed himself into the perfect modern-day wide receiver.
“Everything that he does is about mental focus,” Bommarito says. “If you have a drill in front of you, everybody can execute with intensity but he’s just got a focus like everything he is doing is the last play of the Super Bowl. Whether it’s a warm-up drill, a speed drill, a weight room workout, running routes, everything. You’ll see some players who just go all in when they’re doing routes. They don’t have the same focus and intensity when it comes to the other stuff. … He’s got the mentality where he can legitimately focus on every conceivable aspect of what we’re doing. That’s how he trains.”
h. Go Long With Tyler Dunne is one of a burgeoning number of pay sites in our business. As a charter subscriber, I find it valuable. This story’s an excellent example.
i. Headline of the Week: “James Harden to Nets in 63-team deal involving 28 years of draft picks.” From Deadspin.
j. I know basketball as much as I know ping pong. But I think the Nets made an awful trade for James Harden. To trade the third and fourth-most-important players on playoff team (Caris LaVert and Jarrett Allen), another useable player in Taurean Prince, three future first-round picks and four first-round swaps (Houston’s right to swap picks with the Nets if the Nets have a better pick in round 1 in ’21, ’23, ’25 and ’27) for Harden, who shot his way out of Houston by acting like a jerk. And Harden is guaranteed to be a Net only for the rest of this year and next; his contract has a player option for its last season, 2022-’23.
k. There is this vibe that when you have a chance to get a superstar you have to do everything you can to get him. Not in this case. Not when you already have two scoring machines in Durant and Irving. You need complementary players. I think this trade might look cool for a while (Harden debuted with a triple-double Saturday night), when the Nets are steamrolling the Hornets and Bulls and Knicks. But for the long haul, I’m dubious. Then again, no one knows what the basketball future is for Kyrie Irving.
l. If the Nets ride this star power to a couple of NBA titles, I’ll admit what a basketball idiot I am.
m. Perspective of the Week: From Robert Klemko, my former peer at The MMQB (he now covers criminal justice for the Washington Post), on the death of his father, and on his American family.
n. Robert’s such an interesting person, in part because of his background. White dad, Black mom, intolerant racist grandmother on his dad’s side who made family life miserable. He writes:
On Thursday, my dad was cremated; his ashes will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery, on the former grounds of Robert E. Lee’s plantation. He’ll rest alongside thousands of men who, like him, had ideas about what this country ought to stand for and were willing to die for that vision, however flawed.
I don’t have to wonder what my dad would’ve said about the men who brought the Confederate flag into the Capitol, and violence with it, in a failed effort to overturn the results of a democratic election. He would want them and those who inspired and organized the riot to be held responsible, just as my grandmother lost precious years with her grandchildren. He would want them prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. And ultimately, he would want these men and women in the grips of a dark tide — his siblings in this American experiment — to be forgiven.
o. So a few people asked me this via email this week: Why no words on the upheaval in Washington?
p. I did think a lot about the invasion of the Capitol and what I should say about it in the column five days later. I was sick of having my stomach turned by recounting the events. I imagined the vast majority of my readers might feel the same way. I decided to pass, for one week.
q. A few months ago, on Twitter, I called Donald Trump the most dangerous man of my lifetime. I was widely reviled for both posting that and for the opinion. I’m surer of it than ever, after the events of Jan. 6, and then after Trump taking zero responsibility for gaslighting the worst attack on our nation’s capital in generations, after continuing to deny the results of a free and fair election. Two stories caught my attention.
r. Police Story of the Week: Man, the stories from these D.C. police officers, as told by Peter Herman of the Washington Post, are amazing. “Like a medieval battle scene,” one D.C. officer, Michael Fanone, said. He was beaten by the mob, had a mild heart attack, and in the midst of being overrun by a number of rioters, heard them say: “Kill him with his own gun!”
s. Beating up cops, threatening their lives, desecrating the U.S. Capitol. This is what this revolution entails? From Herman’s story, this about D.C. police officer Daniel Hodges:
A rioter grabbed his gas mask from the bottom and shoved upward, tearing it off his helmet. Another took his baton “and started beating me in the head with it.” He took face-fulls of bear spray with no way to shield himself, and a video captured his agonizing groans and twisted face as the assault continued before he was finally freed and pulled back.
“The zealotry of these people is absolutely unreal,” said Hodges, who suffered from a severe headache but otherwise emerged unhurt. “There were points where I thought it was possible I could either die or become seriously disfigured.”
Still, Hodges said, he did not want to turn to his gun. “I didn’t want to be the guy who starts shooting, because I knew they had guns — we had been seizing guns all day,” he said. “And the only reason I could think of that they weren’t shooting us was they were waiting for us to shoot first. And if it became a firefight between a couple hundred officers and a couple thousand demonstrators, we would have lost.”
t. Insurrection Story of the Week: Christopher Spata of the Tampa Bay Times on a woman with a lovely voice. Writes Spata:
Audrey Ann Southard spent years helping kids find their creative voices and strengthening her own.
The Spring Hill vocal coach and piano teacher sang like an angel when she posted videos of herself crooning Norah Jones’ Don’t Know Why or belting out Memory from Cats, and when she went to Sicily in 2012 for an international music competition, she won. That led to a showcase on a stage inside New York’s Carnegie Hall.
More recently, Southard used her powerful soprano to scream at police officers that they should “tell f—-ng Pelosi we’re coming for her! F—-ng traitorous c—s, we’re coming! We’re coming for all of you!” She was part of the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
u. What a stain on this country.
v. There is a price for the president of the United States lying from start of term to end. And for treacherous inaction. While the Capitol was under attack, he did nothing to quell the disturbance for more than two hours. He choked. While the U.S. Capitol was invaded by insurrectionists, Donald Trump choked. He loves the people in the arena—Tiger Woods, Bill Belichick, Tom Brady—but his reaction while the rebel forces attacked the home of our government was like Tiger nine-putting on 18 at Augusta. For too long we let the Liar-in-Chief lie and lie and we said, He’ll be gone soon, then we’ll get back to normal. Big mistake. Trump will be out of office Wednesday, but his selfish anti-Americanism will plague us for weeks, months and maybe years.
w. Good luck to President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris as they take the White House at a crucial time in our history.
Bummer end for Brees.
Heroes cannot write endings.
Cruel game sometimes.