Tom Brady can’t quite grasp it, and if he can’t, how can we? Ten Super Bowl appearances in 19 years as an NFL starting quarterback, dwarfing modern-era megastars. Michael Jordan made it to the NBA finals six times in 15 seasons. Wayne Gretzky, six times in the Stanley Cup finals in 20 seasons. Derek Jeter, seven World Series trips in 20 seasons.
As the buses of the conquering Bucs pulled out of the Lambeau Field parking lot headed for the airport Sunday night, Brady seemed almost overcome with gratitude, with a touch of disbelief thrown in, after he won his first NFC Championship, 31-26, over the fabled Packers.
“I’m still trying to process everything. It’s pretty surreal,” Brady told me, the bus surprisingly quiet for a fifth seed that has had an incredible playoff run: road wins over the fourth, second and first seeds in a span of 16 days. Maybe they’re not shocked because, as linebacker Devin White told me last week, “With Tom Brady, all things are possible.”
Yes. The Bucs on Feb. 7 will be the first NFL team in the 55-year history of the Super Bowl to play the big game on its home field. The quiet guy on the bus made it happen, just as he made so much magic happen in his first 18 starting seasons in New England.
“Ten Super Bowls,” I told him. “No other quarterback’s been to more than five.”
“I know. I know,” he said. “Man, there’s a part of me that just is . . .”
And then I thought we might have been cut off. Brady was silent for six seconds. I was about to say, “Tom?”
“It’s been an interesting life for me, you know?” he said. “I still get to do something I love to do and certainly don’t take anything for granted. Just grateful to everyone who supports me. And obviously my wife, my kids. Nobody can do anything in life without incredible support. Grateful to my parents, for being raised the right way. The commitment they showed. And my friends over the years. I think man, I’ve accomplished all of these things and I think for me the best part is sharing it with everybody else and just seeing videos of my kids jumping around and my friends jumping around. It makes it all so special for me and worth everything because I still get to live my dream. It’s an amazing feeling.”
There was a poignant moment after the game, before the NFC trophy was presented. Brady went to the railing behind the Tampa bench and asked a yellow-coated security guard, “Can I say hi to my son?” The COVID protocols limit where fans can be, so Brady’s 13-year-old son Jack, bundled up with a Bucs ski cap, had to be allowed past security. Father and son embraced. Jack’s mask could not contain his big grin.
After reaching the Super Bowl for the 10th time, @TomBrady went to the stands to greet and hug his son. ❤️
— Sunday Night Football on NBC (@SNFonNBC) January 24, 2021
“Doesn’t get any better for a dad than that,” Brady said. “He was gonna freeze his butt off here, and so I called him on Friday. I said, ‘Are you sure you wanna go?’ He’s like, ‘Dad, I wanna go.’ For him to be there and to see it just makes it so special for me. I hope it’s as special for him as it is for me.”
Super Bowl LV (Kansas City, 16-2, versus Tampa Bay, 14-5) is compelling for so many reasons. Let’s start with five tributaries from the two title games, including KC’s 38-24 win over Buffalo in the AFC title nightcap:
• Brady-Mahomes V. The Super Bowl duel between Brady, 43, and Mahomes, 25, will break a 2-2 tie between the greatest of all time and the greatest perhaps of future times. Brady won the first two meetings, both in 2018, and Mahomes beat Brady the Patriot last year and Brady the Buc in Week 12 this year. Just how close has it been in the four meetings? Mahomes 121, Brady 120. Bookies everywhere are virtually high-fiving.
• A Super Bowl home game. The Bucs could walk the half-mile from their practice facility to Raymond James Stadium; they see the stadium clearly from their practice field. In the ’84 season, the Niners got to play at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, about 25 miles from their old homefield, Candlestick Park. But this will be the first home game for a Super Bowl team. The Bucs are exulting over it, of course, but they’ve also won three straight playoff games on the road and coach Bruce Arians told me: “We’re playing so good on the road I almost wish the next one was on the road too.” Almost.
• A Reid-Peat? No team has won consecutive Super Bowls since New England in 2003 and 2004—Brady’s second and third of six New England titles. Kansas City will have that chance. In the ’04 repeat, the Patriots won 24-21 over Philadelphia . . . and head coach Andy Reid.
• If Mahomes is hurt, he’s disguising it well. A masterful performance by Mahomes in the shredding of Buffalo, shrugging off the effects of a turf toe and exiting the concussion protocol with one of the best playoff performances of his young career. The hype can’t be big enough for Mahomes-Brady in 13 days.
• The Green Bay hangover. Before Sunday, it’d have been hard to imagine, win or lose, the Packers going into the offseason with a cloud over the franchise. And as time passes, the Packers may realize that two straight trips to the conference championship game is not such a bad consolation prize—and twin 14-4 records in coach Matt LaFleur’s first two seasons is not bad either. But LaFleur made an eminently second-guessable decision to go for a field goal down eight with 2:05 left. And Aaron Rodgers, one of the best quarterbacks ever, is stuck on one championship after coming up empty again in his 13th starting season. As good as Rodgers is, it’s got to sting him that Brady walked into Lambeau with his Florida team on a frigid day and beat the Packers. Brady now has nine more trips to the Super Bowl than Rodgers.
Think of that. Isn’t Rodgers too good, and weren’t the 2020 Packers too formidable, to lose to any team in the NFC this year? Entering Sunday, Green Bay was 7-0 since Thanksgiving. But the Buc pass-rush sacked Rodgers five times and pressured him consistently, and the rush got to him. And in the big moments Sunday, Arians and Brady came up bigger than LaFleur and Rodgers. Big moments like the end of the first half and beginning of the second, when Green Bay had some stunning lapses.
There’s a time in every game, every close game, when a coach has to make a decision he knows could win him the game or make it hard for his team to win it. For Arians, that moment came with 13 seconds left in the first half.
Tampa Bay 14, Green Bay 10. Bucs ball at the Packer 45, fourth and four. Arians sent punter Bradley Pinion on the field to pooch one inside the 20, so very likely the Packers would kneel and go into halftime down four.
Brady came to the sideline. He put his Bucs thermal cape on, to stave off the 20-degree Wisconsin wind chill. Then Arians thought some more.
“Well, I thought we had . . . “ Arians said from his coaches locker room post-game, trying to explain it perfectly, “I thought about this scenario: I knew who we were playing. I knew we needed points. The decision had to come fast, but I was like, ‘No we gotta—we have to get points out of this drive.’ So I called to put the offense back out there. In that situation, I thought our defense would hold if we went for it and failed. But I did know if we fail, we leave them a play or two and a chance to kick a field goal. But I just thought to myself, ‘A field goal here’s not gonna cost us the game.’ I know I’d get super-criticized if we get stopped and they get a field goal, but that’s one of those decisions you’re paid to make. I liked our chances.“
The cameras were on Brady on the sideline. He looked like, Okay, we’ll go into halftime up four, and we’re fine. But almost as soon as the cape came on, he was shrugging it off and hustling back onto the field. Said Brady: “Huge decision [Arians] made. That’s how he is—he has so much confidence in his players, a great belief in what we can accomplish.” Brady hit Leonard Fournette on what appeared to be a choice route by the back, good for six yards to the Pack 39. Timeout, Bucs. Maybe a quick out route, leaving enough time for a long field-goal try.
Eight seconds left. Arians figured, They’ll never think we’re taking a shot here; if we throw deep and it’s incomplete, the clock could expire.
No risk it, no biscuit, as Bruce Arians says.
Arians’ reasoning on taking a shot: “I knew they’d play to stop us from getting the field goal. We maxed protection. As soon as we lined up and we saw the defense, I knew we had a touchdown. All we had to do was block them, and throw and catch. I loved the call.”
The reason: To Brady’s left was Scotty Miller, the little whippet from Bowling Green with 4.37-second speed, with a sloppy and undependable corner, Kevin King, in coverage. There was a center-fielding safety at the goal line, but Arians (and Brady) would take the gamble that Miller could get a step or two on King, and Brady would hit him near the left pylon. That safety, Brady thought, couldn’t get over in time to support King.
Brady threw it 48 yards in the air, and the ball floated to earth right as Miller, in a sort of fetal position, hung onto it for dear life a yard deep in the end zone. “I don’t even know if I could have dreamed of something like that as a kid,” said Miller. A touchdown bomb from Tom Brady? In the NFC Championship Game? At hallowed Lambeau Field? No. I doubt a 5-10 kid from Barrington, Ill., drafted in the sixth round out of the Mid-American Conference, could have dreamed of that.
“We got a look that was favorable,” Brady said, “and Scotty ran right by the corner. Ended up being a huge momentum play for us.”
Could have been Bucs 14-13 at the half. But now it was Bucs 21-10. And when Green Bay back Aaron Jones got stripped on the third play of the second half and the Bucs recovered, now it was crazy. This crazy: Green Bay did not cover tight end Cameron Brate leaking off the line on first down into the end zone. The easiest of Brady’s 80 postseason touchdown passes—I’m taking a leap there—made it 28-10 just 66 seconds into the second half.
“It was just a very weird scoring game,” Brady told me. That it was. A game of spurts. Those 14 points came in 67 seconds. Even though Brady would throw three interceptions in a seven-pass span in the second half, presumptive MVP Rodgers could turn only one of the takeaways into points. Incredibly, go back to 28 minutes left to play and Rodgers playing on his home turf and the Bucs up 28-10. The Bucs had enough to win right there. Brady would finish 20-of-36 for 280 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions.
One more bit of drama, of course. With 2:15 left, Green Bay was down 31-23. Third-and-goal from the Bucs’ 8-yard line. Then this happened:
Rodgers blew it. This is a touchdown if he runs. pic.twitter.com/KPOlH1sXFz
— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) January 24, 2021
We’re not in the arena; Aaron Rodgers is. But I was poleaxed by Rodgers’ decision here. Look at his choices. He had a pasture of grass to his right and likely could have scored by running there. But he chose to throw a gopher ball into the middle of a scrum, incomplete to Davante Adams and two Bucs at the goal line. Just a strange decision—and it set the stage for another strange one. LaFleur chose on fourth down to kick the chippy field goal, narrowing the deficit to 31-26 with 2:05 left. And he gambled on his defense to stop the GOAT so Rodgers would have one last chance with, say, 90 seconds to go and needs a touchdown to win.
Green Bay never touched the ball again. The second-year coach seemed influenced by three straight Rodgers incompletions when he made his call. “Having three shots and coming away with no yards and knowing you not only need the touchdown but the two-point [conversion],” LaFleur said. “Anytime something doesn’t work out, do you regret it? Sure.”
I reminded Brady of the first day he practiced against the Tampa defense in August at training camp. I was there that day at Bucs camp, and the D was so fired up to finally get to play against Brady it felt more like a game. That day, one of the stars was a little wide receiver, Miller. Every snap seems like a playoff game to the kid. And after one go-route from Brady that Miller laid out for in the end zone on this broiling hot day, Miller jogged back to the line of scrimmage . . . and vomited all over the ground.
That day, Arians said Brady brought that kind of energy to everyone in practice. Even with the heat index in the nineties with humidity, the competition was fierce. As Brady recalled Sunday night: “This team that I’ve come to is so hungry. When we started our workouts in the spring, Scotty was the first one there. Him and [tight end] Cam Brate, and [wideout] Chris Godwin. Then slowly, Mike Evans came, Gronk [Rob Gronkowski] was there after he signed. Ronald Jones was coming. The quarterbacks, Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Griffin. There’s a tightness between all of us just from the work we put in, and then getting the opportunity in training camp to really see what we had.
“But, first game of the year, we’re at the Saints. Like, I didn’t even know where I was sitting on the bench. Here you are, playing against your division rivals. It’s a lot happening in a short period of time. At 7-5, at our bye week, our last loss was against the Chiefs. Then we found some things that we really liked. Guys really came through and it’s just been an incredible two months of football.”
Before we spoke, Brady got flooded with congratulatory texts and calls, including one from Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Which made this question seem natural: “Does this one feel different from the Super Bowls in New England?”
Brady won’t do it. No matter how refreshed he feels now, how new, he’ll never diss anything about his New England experience. And why should he? He won there, he’s winning here. Other quarterbacks age. Philip Rivers, who entered the league four years after Brady, walked away last week. Drew Brees will walk away sometime this winter. Eli Manning walked away last year. But for Brady, life is good. Still good, now in his second football home.
“It’s hard to compare—it’s not worth it comparing any of that to me,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter. It’s an incredible feeling and to win a conference championship is incredible. To win a Super Bowl championship is one of the great feelings in the world. But they don’t give these away. Obviously, everything’s different this year, with us being at home. I’m sure it’ll feel like just another game, although we all know it’s just not another game.”
Even the 10th time around, the Super Bowl’s never commonplace for Brady.
There’s something the Chiefs have that so many teams trying to be consistently great do not have. I’m not talking about Patrick Mahomes, the next all-time quarterback. We have seen his ascension for three years. We also know that the speed that GM Brett Veach has collected is going to make Tampa’s task a very difficult one in Super Bowl LV.
But there’s something else, something that was on display early in the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium. Eight minutes into the game, Mecole Hardman, one of Kansas City’s burners, muffed a punt deep in his territory, and Buffalo recovered at the 3-yard line. In a second it was 9-0, and Buffalo looked like a serious threat to dethrone the defending champs.
Lots of guys on the KC sideline went to pump up Hardman—coach Andy Reid, special teams coordinator Dave Toub, more than a few players. Don’t worry, you got the next one. That kind of stuff. On the next series, Mahomes walked the walk. On the second play of the series, Mahomes threw a first-down conversion pass to Hardman. On the last play of the series, Mahomes threw a three-yard touchdown pass to Hardman. Kansas City was back in the game. Importantly, Hardman was back in the game.
“That’s what great leaders do,” safety Tyrann Mathieu told me postgame, and he should know. He’s one too. “Patrick is a natural-born leader. He knows what guys need, and when they need it. Patrick has a good feel especially when the games get really big like this one. Mistakes get magnified in a conference championship game. But as long as Mecole’s in the game, Patrick’s gonna keep him in the game. Doesn’t surprise me at all what happened on the next series. Big ups for getting him right back in the game.”
In the 38-24 victory, Kansas City showed signs of gaining the dominance the team did not have in the last couple of months, winning seven straight games by six points or less. We know the quarterbacks in Super Bowl LV will be special. But with Tampa and Kansas City both showing offensive explosiveness and defensive pressure on mobile quarterbacks, there’s no doubt this could be a special Super Bowl.
It’s crazy to think of any team in today’s football being a dynasty. I hate how “dynasty” is used, because there have been so few in history. New England over 20 years was a dynasty in this century. Dallas over four years in the nineties—not a dynasty, not when the Cowboys went 44-52 over the next six. But you see the stability of Kansas City, with a great 25-year-old quarterback, with a sustaining personnel department, with an imaginative coaching staff that continually develops “next” in key coaching spots (Mike Kafka as a future offensive coordinator, for instance), and with a cap that looks like it can be managed—in part because coach Andy Reid knows when to cut bait on underproducing vets.
In the third straight AFC title game at Arrowhead Stadium (KC 2, Foes 1), the signs of a strong future were everywhere:
- Travis Kelce set the franchise record for catches in a playoff game (13) and had two touchdowns, playing physically and athletically. The matchup of Kelce against the quick Tampa linebackers and rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (if healthy) will be crucial.
- The speed guys (Tyreek Hill and Hardman) contributed 226 yards from scrimmage. Hill is the most dangerous weapon in the league when healthy, and he’ll give the Bucs fits.
- Average age of four impactful defensive players (L’Jarius Sneed, Mathieu, Tanoh Kpassagnon, Frank Clark) who played strong games Sunday: 26.5.
- The two lead scheme and play designers, Steve Spagnuolo and Andy Reid, have kept pace with the thirty-somethings who study Pro Football Focus endlessly for play clues. They’ve been down the block. You know Reid. But Spagnuolo will be a pretty good resource person. He designed the scheme that shut down the 18-0 Patriots in the Super Bowl 13 years ago with a variety of rushes that frustrated Tom Brady.
My point: The Chiefs will be very good in Super Bowl LV, and should be good for at least V years to come.
Crazy, beehive-activity time in the NFL. Expounding on three major events of the NFL week:
The mysterious career of Matthew Stafford in Detroit—zero playoff wins in 12 seasons—is likely over.
Arguments are about to ensue over the value of Stafford, who turns 33 on Super Sunday. Fact is, he’s been a highly productive quarterback who’s never won a damn thing. Whose fault is that? The Lions’ mostly. With a revolving door of coaches, GMs and cultures, Detroit has not surrounded a very good quarterback with equitable talent. But if you draft a quarterback first overall, and that quarterback plays for your team for 12 years and is mostly healthy and a good locker-room guy, and he has a good receiver group in most seasons, what would you think about paying him $219 million and he never won a game in the postseason?
I can hear it now: Quarterback wins isn’t a stat. Here’s a few stats. It’s 2013. Thanksgiving Day. Lions maul the Packers 40-10, and after 12 games of the season, Detroit is 7-5 with a 1.5-game lead on the Packers entering December. In the final month of the season, Detroit goes 0-4, averages 17 points a game, and with a defensive wall of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, has one of its best teams of the Stafford era. The Lions finished third in the NFC North at 7-9.
That’s one snapshot. It should not damn Stafford to a legacy of losing. He’s been a shining light for a bad franchise and deserves to have a chance to win in the last few years of his career.
Stafford reportedly personally asked owner Sheila Ford Hamp for a trade after the season. If the Lions do trade him—per Tom Pelissero of NFL Network, they will try (and Pelissero is absolutely correct)—what sort of market will there be? Robust, I would think. But with not quite the pot of gold in return. The likely prospects, plus what would be my proposed starting offer for each franchise:
1. Colts. Easy pick. Frank Reich needs a quarterback and with the likelihood that Carson Wentz will stay in Philly, Stafford is the best option for a cap-rich team. Compensation: 21st overall pick in the 2021 draft.
2. Broncos. Doubt new GM George Paton, who has watched Stafford closely for 12 years while in Minnesota, would be sold on Drew Lock. Competition needed. Compensation: Two second-round picks (including 39th overall this year). Or Lock plus this year’s second-rounder.
3. Patriots. Bill Belichick, as he did when he first got to New England, got his cap in decent shape with one lousy year as payment. But would he be willing to pay the 15th overall pick for Stafford? He should be. Compensation: 15th overall pick.
4. Niners. Intriguing. San Francisco talks a big game about loving Jimmy Garoppolo, and maybe the franchise does. We’ll see. Compensation: Garoppolo and a 2022 second-round pick.
5. Washington. WFT has the defense to compete at a high level now. If I’m Ron Rivera, I try to convince Comeback Player of the Year Alex Smith to stay and back up a franchise passer like Stafford for the next couple of years. Compensation: 19th overall pick. (If I’m Detroit, signing free-agent-to-be Taylor Heinicke would be some interesting, and smart, insurance.)
6. Steelers. Not Pittsburgh’s style to nudge Ben Roethlisberger into retirement, but did you see the Statuesque One in the last month of the season? Compensation: 24th overall pick in the draft.
7. Saints. The cap is strangling New Orleans, but let GM Mickey Loomis figure that out. Sean Payton is gutsy and loves the splash and has the guts of a burglar. Compensation: 28th pick in the draft (and Detroit should backstop the future by signing Jameis Winston in free agency).
At 39, with more TD passes than Dan Marino, Philip Rivers retires
FMIA asked Frank Reich, the Colts coach who mentored Philip Rivers for four seasons in San Diego and Indianapolis, to reflect on Rivers’ retirement. Rivers immediately took a job coaching high school football—his second passion—in Fairhope, Ala.
By Frank Reich
“Competitor” is a word that gets thrown around in sports all the time. To succeed in sports, you’ve got to have that competitive gene. With the retirement of Philip Rivers, the game has lost one of the great competitors ever. I’ll count the ways.
In 2013, I got the quarterback coaching job in San Diego. I’d never worked with Philip before. To get to know each other better in the spring, we played golf at his home course. We were on the first tee. Par four. We quickly assessed that we were probably about the same handicap. He said, “Let’s hit two off the first tee.” So I got up there, hit my first tee shot, and it was 280 yards, maybe 290, and it rolled into the first cut of the rough. Good shot. He said, “You’re good right there.” So I didn’t hit my second ball. He got up, hit a bad tee shot, then hit a second ball great. Right down the middle. We went down to look for my ball—it should have been right in that first cut of rough—but we couldn’t find it.
Philip said, “Just drop one right here.” So I did, and I got it on the green. Two putts. Par. He was keeping score. I wanted to make sure he had the right score. That stinker put me down for a five. He gave me a bogey. When he had me drop the ball, he never told me he was taking a penalty stroke. I mean, on the first tee, he says we can hit two balls, and I hit one and he says fine, good shot, and I don’t hit the second. He hit two, and he gave me a penalty! I said whoa, whoa, whoa, we gotta talk. But the score stood. He ended up beating me by one hole, which made it worse.
In training camp, the coaches’ windows overlook the practice fields. One night very early in camp, like 11 o’clock, we’re still working, and we heard this commotion outside. It was Philip and the other quarterbacks in the dark, competing, throwing footballs into the trash cans. A big contest. Yukking it up. I’m thinking, Don’t you ever get enough? What I came to find out about him was, he never gets enough. He played with that drive for 17 years.
One more story from San Diego. One day—I don’t know how the subject came up—a bunch of us were talking free-throw shooting. Philip said, I’m over 90 percent. We’re all like, No way. So we made a wager: shoot 100 free throws, and he had to make at least 80. He went out there on the hoop we had at camp, and he made 97. We were blown away. But that wasn’t enough. He figured, I’ll show you. Those guys went out there 10 straight days to shoot free throws, 100 a day. And he made, like, 946 out of 1,000. He didn’t even have to do that—he already won the bet. But that’s Philip.
This season, year 17, he was the same guy. Same fire. Never waned. To coach him in his final season was a gift I’ll always be grateful for. That day in Buffalo, the wild-card loss this month, did I know Philip was going to retire? No. But he was definitely lingering in the locker room, savoring every last conversation, like he didn’t want it to end. We had to get to the buses, we had to go, but I stayed in there talking with him for three, four, five minutes.
It got emotional. We got emotional. Even after such a tough loss, if one word could describe his feelings right then, it would be “gratitude.” He was so grateful for the season. He took maybe 90 seconds and recapped the season, game after game, big plays, everything. We did this, we overcame that. And he said, “Heck of a year!”
Yes it was. Heck of a career too.
The frenzy of the coach-hiring season—which must change—was on full display with Brandon Staley
I’m on record decrying the way the NFL hires coaches. In the current system, coaches whose teams are out of the playoffs or early losers in the playoffs have major edges over teams playing deep into the postseason. Of the last 11 head-coach hires, zero were from teams playing on championship weekend—or in the NFL’s final four. (Houston, still vacant, could make that one for 12, but there’s no assurance the Texans have significant interest in coaches from any of the four teams that played this weekend.)
So what’s the toll on the coaches who do get hired in a race against the clock? Let’s look at rookie Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, and his 27-hour journey from the turf at Lambeau Field to being anointed as the Chargers’ new coach. (All times Pacific, to eliminate confusion.)
Saturday, Jan. 16
4:31 p.m. PT, Green Bay: As the clock winds down on the 32-18 Rams’ loss, Staley, from his mic into the helmet of defensive signal-caller John Johnson, thanks the third-year safety for his great season being the on-field brain of the league’s number one defense. “You’ve meant so much to me and this defense,” Staley says.
4:32 p.m.: Staley seeks out Aaron Rodgers to tell him how much he respects his game. Rodgers, per Staley, was highly complimentary in return. “He said, ‘We’re gonna be doing this against each other for a lot of years. I have so much respect for your work. You guys have a special group.’ Coming from a guy like that, it meant a lot to me.” Rodgers may have spoken too soon about playing a Staley defense very often.
7:24 p.m.. Rams team plane takes off from Austin Strobel Airport in Green Bay, bound for LAX. “For me, I’m exhausted,” Staley said. “Time for decompression.”
10:41 p.m.. Rams land at LAX. On the bus from LAX to the Rams facility 50 minutes north, Staley has a mental checklist about what lies ahead: Sunday morning Zoom interview with Houston. Sunday noon limo to Chargers HQ in Orange County. If no offers are forthcoming from either team, he’ll board a dawn flight Monday for Florida to interview with Eagles brass. He does not want to do that. He is exhausted.
Sunday, Jan. 17
1:45 a.m.: In his home north of L.A., Staley gets into bed knowing he did all he could to beat the Packers, and has set himself up for the prospects to come. “Whatever happens, I’m at ease with it,” he said, recounting his thoughts.
8:09 a.m.: He wakes up, takes a quick shower, gets some coffee.
8:30 a.m.: Zoom interview with Texans GM Nick Caserio.
Noon: Picked up for his 85-minute ride to the Chargers’ complex in Costa Mesa, Calif.
1:45 p.m.: After some hellos, Staley walks up the stairs into the Chargers’ facility. WELCOME TO THE FAMILY is the sign, with a lightning bolt, on the second floor of the building. Members of the Spanos family, the owners and lead interviewers on this afternoon, greet him. In-person interview starts. Big point that Staley, in his talks with the Chargers, impresses on the Spanoses and GM Tom Telesco, obviously curious how this defensive coach was going to handle the coaching and education and care of 22-year-old wunderkind QB Justin Herbert. Staley has an answer for that. He is a former college quarterback (University of Dayton), points out how defensive coaches Bill Parcells, Jimmy Johnson, Tony Dungy, Pete Carroll, Mike Tomlin and Bill Belichick all were able to coach/coexist/flourish with star quarterbacks. “I want to offer [Herbert] a dual education in all aspects of football,” Staley says.
4:15 p.m.: Chargers suggest a break, for bathroom reasons and otherwise. “Brandon was fried when he got to us,” someone in the meeting observed. Give the guy a break. Staley thinks he’s in the hunt. “I got the feeling I had some of the answers they were looking for,” he says later.
6:30 p.m.: Somewhere around this time, Staley accepts the job. GM Tom Telesco walks him down the hall and shows him his new office.
6:45 p.m.: Staley calls his wife, Amy. “We did it,” he says. A few days later, asked about those words, he says: “That’s all I need to say. It’s a dream for her too, because she’s been living it with me.” The new coach of the Los Angeles Chargers is happy he can go to sleep in his own bed Sunday night after 27 lunatic hours, and not try to jam in three hours of fitful sleep in first class on the dawn flight to Florida.
7:35 p.m.: Chargers social media team gets in the act. In the old days, the press release would go out first, then the proper statements from the owner and the coach, then the head shots to use in the morning paper. This is not 1993. Five minutes before the Chargers confirm their new coach is Brandon Staley, a video goes out on Twitter, 19 seconds in all, themed, GOT OUR GUY.
GOT OUR GUY pic.twitter.com/Nb9CgeZhlx
— Los Angeles Chargers (@Chargers) January 18, 2021
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 week:
1. THE COLTS. For a moment, think of the Indianapolis starting quarterbacks over the last 17 months: Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett, Philip Rivers. Now there will be a fourth, and all logic points to Matthew Stafford. Think of it. The Lions will need a trade partner with a need plus cap room to handle Stafford’s cap hits of $20 million and $23 million over the next two years. Indianapolis has more cap room ($64.9 million, per Over The Cap) than any team in football, and this is the kind of just-add-QB playoff-ready team that Stafford seeks. The Colts are not married to any single plan—draft, vet on the street, vet in trade—to stock the position in 2021. And there’s a top mentor in place in Frank Reich. A sensible trade would be Indy’s first-round pick, 21st overall, to Detroit for Stafford.
This is what I think: Reich and Ballard will investigate Stafford thoroughly but will not be held hostage for him. Ballard has a good track record in scouting college players and who knows—he might already love one of the four or five first-round prospects. In the last four seasons, Reich has coached Carson Wentz, Nick Foles, Luck, Brissett and Rivers—and been in three playoffs and one Super Bowl. Reich will trust Ballard. He won’t tell him, I have to have Stafford. Go get Stafford at all costs. If I’m Ballard, I’m comfortable trading the 21st pick in the draft for a quarterback likely to play four to six years at a productive level.
2. HANK AARON AND THE BROWNS. The man who broke Babe Ruth’s career home-run record, once thought unbreakable (more about him later in the column), died Friday in Atlanta. Aaron was a huge Cleveland Browns fan. So huge that he used to buy single tickets in the Dawg Pound (the end zone with the crazy fans), fly from his Atlanta home to Cleveland on three or four Sunday mornings every autumn, bundle up, sit anonymously and alone in the stands, and fly back to Atlanta Sunday evening. Who knew? Ernie Accorsi, the GM of the Browns in the eighties, did. One summer day in 1986, at Browns training camp in Kirtland, Ohio, Accorsi thought he spied Aaron behind the ropes, watching practice with fans. Accorsi, a huge baseball fan, sidled up near Aaron and introduced himself. “I know you!” Aaron said. “It’s an honor to meet you.” That started a relationship that Accorsi, of course, was thrilled to have. “He told me he sat in the Dawg Pound, alone, for games, and I told him, ‘Hank, we can get you better seats than that.’ He said, ‘I don’t want ‘em. I love sitting there.’ “
Accorsi said Aaron became a Browns fan early in life because they were the first team, under Paul Brown, to sign and feature black stars—Bill Willis, Marion Motley, Len Ford, all of whom earned busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Aaron subscribed to the Cleveland Plain Dealer by mail to follow the team during the season. And once every week or 10 days, Accorsi’s phone would ring, and Aaron would want some scoop on his team. “He’s everything everybody has said about him,” Accorsi said. “A gentleman. Completely humble. And he loved his Browns.”
3. Josh McCown. Seems crazy, the Texans considering appointing McCown head coach. He’s never coached at any level beyond high school. But I believe the Texans are intrigued by the possibility. I also believe it’s not certain, and it’s not even close. McCown, who turns 42 on July 4, has suited up for 10 teams, and is the equivalent of the backup catcher or utility infielder (Joe Girardi, Alex Cora) who could make a great manager. I know McCown. I have not spoken to him about this, but he is one of the smartest, most self-aware players I’ve covered in the NFL. I am 100-percent sure he is aware that it’s crazy for him to be named an NFL head coach; my bet is he probably realizes the Texans would be better off hiring from a healthy pool of minority coaches that so far has been mostly untapped (except for Robert Saleh with the Jets) this hiring season.
The last thing I’m sure of, knowing McCown: There’s no way he’d consider taking the Texans’ coaching job without Deshaun Watson—who he loves—as his quarterback. I’ve always thought McCown most wanted to be a proud dad either watching or helping coach his sons in high school. The two boys will be a senior and junior, respectively, next fall in Rusk, Texas, 170 miles north of Houston. Both play for Rusk High School. So if McCown takes a job in football, my bet is part of the deal would be his need to be home every autumn Friday night to see his boys play. Many interesting dynamics at play if the Texans get serious about this gambit.
4. TED THOMPSON. Thompson died of a nerve disorder last week at 68 in his beloved Texas. Always the quietest guy in the room and one of the shyest people I’ve ever met in football, Thompson amiably but firmly stood his ground as well as any GM I’ve covered in my career. The GM of the Packers for 13 glory seasons (2005-17) made the toughest call an NFL general manager had to make, telling Brett Favre he couldn’t come back to the Pack when Favre wanted to come out of retirement in July 2008. I had a front-row seat for it. I talked to Thompson in mid-July and become convinced that Thompson would not bend to Favre’s wishes after coach Mike McCarthy told Aaron Rodgers he would be the Packer starter. I went to interview Favre at his Mississippi home the weekend before Packers’ training camp began. Favre and his agent, Bus Cook, were convinced that if the Packers wouldn’t give Favre his job back, Thompson would release him so he could sign with the team of his choice—and Favre wanted to play for arch-rival Minnesota. I told Favre and Cook that Thompson wouldn’t budge; he’d have been run out of town if he handed Favre to the hated Vikings. In February 2011, on the eve of Green Bay winning the Super Bowl with Aaron Rodgers, I wrote this about Thompson:
How Thompson handled the Favre situation, in retrospect, should be the centerpiece in the textbook studied by all young personnel men in the GM 101 curriculum. It’s a huge reason the Packers stand on the precipice of their first world title in 14 years. Thompson was tired of being on the will-he-play-or-won’t-he seesaw with Favre every offseason. Thompson knew he had a first-round quarterback he trusted, Aaron Rodgers, who’d sat for three years and was bursting at the seams, ready to play. Thompson knew if Rodgers got held back one more year, he’d likely do everything in his power to get traded and not want to sign another contract again, ever, with Green Bay.
Thompson, personnel man at his core, team architect from the tree of the unemotional Ron Wolf, knew the tough decision was the right decision. He had to go with Rodgers.
Two weeks before the thing exploded, for the only time I recall in the entire Favre drama, Thompson spoke on the record about it. The Packers were getting bashed locally at the time, because Favre wanted to return, and the court of public opinion was loud in his favor. As we spoke, a crowd of about 100 fans were said to be half-demonstrating/half-barbecuing in the Lambeau Field parking lot, occasionally chanting, “Bring back Brett! Bring back Brett!”
“Well,” Thompson said that Sunday in July 2008, “we’re going to cross this river, and this is what we have to do right now. We’re in a unique situation, obviously. I don’t know who’s ever had to face a situation like this before. We don’t have the answers. I wish someone would call me with the right answer.”
In the locker room after the Super Bowl, when Green Bay beat Pittsburgh in Super Bowl 45 in Texas, Thompson was given every chance, by wave after wave of inquisitors, to gloat even a little bit about his call to stick with Rodgers over Favre. The quiet man didn’t. He didn’t have to.
Postscript: The Packers had four players chosen for the 2020 AP All-Pro Team: Rodgers (25th pick, 2005), tackle David Bakhtiari (109th pick, 2013), wide receiver Davante Adams (53rd pick, 2014), center Corey Linsley (161st pick, 2014). All were picked by Ted Thompson.
5. THE SUPER 7,500. Great idea by the NFL, awarding free Super Bowl tickets to 7,500 vaccinated health-care workers for this year’s game. Most winners will come from Florida, but each franchise in the league will invite four health professionals who have been fully vaccinated to the game as well. Commissioner Roger Goodell made his first award on Thursday to the COVID-19 patient-care team in one unit at Sarasota Memorial Health Care System on Florida’s hard-hit west coast, a unit that had heard about the potential for health-care workers to be Super Bowl guests and sent a touching video to the league hoping to be picked. Via a surprise Zoom call, Goodell told the 24 nurses and staff: “Throughout the last year, you’ve been America’s real MVPs—most valuable people. The reason I wanted to get on this call for a minute is to tell you that we want your team to be there. I wanted to personally invite each member of your team, the 5 Waldemere unit, to be our guests at the Super Bowl. You’ll be among thousands of vaccinated health-care workers who will be receiving tickets in the next couple of weeks.”
The unit’s nurse case manager, Rebecca Izquierdo, a mother of five, has had both doses of the vaccine, as have her 23 peers. She said the call from Goodell was “the thrill of a lifetime. We will share the day, and we will celebrate the hope that this vaccine has brought us. We have not been able to be together outside of work, yet we’ve grown so close through an incredible ordeal. So it’s such a wonderful reward—and it’s even better to know that we’ll be with other health-care workers who know exactly what we’ve been going through.”
6. WOMEN IN FOOTBALL. The NFL named the officiating crew for Super Bowl LV, and Sarah Thomas, the sixth-year down judge from Mobile, Ala., made the crew, becoming the first woman ever named to officiate a Super Bowl. The thing I’ve noticed about Thomas, 47, in the last couple of years when I see her doing a game is that I don’t notice her—which is the best trait for an official to have. Do the job, do it well, tamp down the tempers on the field and sidelines, and get ready for the next play. Ben Austro, editor-in-chief of officiating site Football Zebras, likes the appointment. “She has worked under an intense spotlight, and she has not withered from the pressure,” Austro said of Thomas. “She has the ability to match the level of the game.”
Good for Thomas. Also: Jennifer King, an intern last year helping coach running backs in Washington, will be announced this week as a full-time assistant coach on Ron Rivera’s staff.
7. ROBERT SALEH. The best story this week that got waaaaay too little play was the naming of Saleh as coach of the New York Jets. Not just because he’s a respected defensive coordinator and helped the Niners to a Super Bowl berth last year, or because of the San Francisco performance this year. The Niners defense was crushed by injury, and Saleh still piloted them to fifth in NFL total defense, and still led them to shut down the Cardinals in game 15 when the game meant everything to Arizona and nothing to the 49ers. No, there’s another reason.
In 2001, after finishing his education and football career (tight end) at Northern Michigan, Saleh settled into his job as a young credit analyst for Comerica Bank in downtown Detroit. “First time I’d been away from football since I was a waterboy for my brother’s team, the Dearborn (Mich.) Mustangs,” Saleh told me. “But now I’m in a cubicle.” Where he was supposed to be, starting real life. Then, in September 2001, his brother David went to New York City to train for a job at global financial firm Morgan Stanley . . . in the second World Trade Tower. David was on the 64th floor on 9/11. News came of the attack that felled both towers. No call from his brother saying he got out. Robert went home. Still no call, no news about his brother. “The look on my Mom’s face . . . it was the look of a mom who’d just lost her son,” said Saleh, starting to get emotional. Five-second pause. “I struggle to tell this story, every time. You almost got me there.”
Late in the day, David finally found a working phone and called home, saying he was fine. He’d scrambled down 64 flights of stairs before the building collapsed. But Robert, just 22, got a revelation out of it. “Through his tragedy, through that tragedy, and through his experience, I was able to self-reflect on whether or not I was actually doing what I wanted to do. It was a slow buildup all the way until after the Super Bowl that year. If I remember right, it was the Rams and Patriots. I woke up the next morning, I went to the office. I’m sitting in my cubicle and it just—I became overwhelmed with emotion. I had to pursue my passion.” That started him on the intern/”coaching assistant” road, and he climbed the ladder for 19 years. Until one of the teams in the city that cruelly spawned his dreams tapped him on the shoulder and said, You’re the man to take us out of this football abyss.
“Such a blessing,” said Saleh. “The unfortunate events of 9/11 triggered everything. To be the head coach of the Jets—New York, of all teams. We’ll play our first game one day after the 20th anniversary of 9/11. I’m the 20th head coach of the New York Jets. I’m supposed to be here. There’s a reason for this. We’re going to get this right. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
8. DAN CAMPBELL. So much of the first few days of Dan Campbell in Detroit reminds me of Bill Parcells. Follow me:
• Campbell played tight end for Parcells for three seasons (2003-05) in Dallas and became one of the “Parcells guys,” a player who took some coaching and leadership lessons into his coaching career.
• The two Lions’ coordinators have Parcells ties. Defensive boss Aaron Glenn played for him with the Jets and Cowboys for five years; offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn coached for Parcells for two years in Dallas.
• It’s not that Parcells has regrets about his Hall of Fame coaching career, but the one place he always said he wished he’d had a chance to coach is Detroit. Following his football career at Wichita as a linebacker, Parcells was a seventh-round pick of the Lions. He just always thought Detroit—and Rust Belt cities Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Buffalo and Green Bay—were the places football should be great, where football was the backbone of life for so long.
• I doubt Parcells ever would have said the exact jarring words that Campbell did, but it’s clear that Campbell, and the man who advocated for his hiring with the Lions, special assistant Chris Spielman, have the same ethos as Parcells. You’ve read them by now. Campbell’s intro press conference, in part: “We’re going to kick you in the teeth. When you punch us back, we’re going to smile at you. When you knock us down, we’re going to get up, and on the way up we are going to bite a kneecap off.”
“What I said was for our fans, and for the players in our locker room,” Campbell said a day later. “It’s was not about biting kneecaps and injuring people. But it was about hope. It was for Motown. The fans are sick of it—not winning, no championships. We’ve got to change that, starting today. There needs to be an awakening here.”
With the news that Matthew Stafford will likely be traded, the idea that the Lions would give Campbell a surprisingly long six-year contract makes more sense. He’s in for a rebuild. Don’t be surprised to see the Lions tear this team down to the studs. At the end of our 20-minute conversation Friday night, Campbell said, “I gotta stop talking and get to work.” There’s a lot of that ahead in Detroit.
9. HALL OF FAME-NERDNESS. Voting for the Class of 2021 happened last Tuesday instead of the day before the Super Bowl. Don’t ask me when we’ll find out who gets in, because we don’t know. Peyton Manning will get in, of course, and after that, my guess is Charles Woodson and Calvin Johnson have the best shot. Five modern-era candidates, max, can be elected in a year, so beyond that, your guess is probably as qualified as mine.
I’ll be interested to see the fate of safety John Lynch this year. Just thought of this late in the process, and I find it interesting in the Pro Football Focus era of player evaluation: Lynch was around for one full season of PFF’s analysis of every player on ever play, 2006. He played that season at age 35. When comparing Lynch’s age-35 grade to the top four vote-getters at safety this year in the All-Pro voting, here’s what I found: Minkah Fitzpatrick 79.5, Budda Baker 75.3, Lynch (2006) 73.4, Jamal Adams 64.2, Tyrann Mathieu 64.1. I think Lynch has been close, so we’ll see if the tight race after Manning benefits or hurts him this year. I like his case.
10. Eric Fisher. The most significant injury of championship Sunday was the suspected Achilles tear to Fisher, who’s been a rock at left tackle for Kansas. With Fisher likely missing from the left side and right tackle Michell Schwartz (back) out also, what was once a major strength could be a big weakness against the renewed Buc rush. Outside rushers Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul were all over Aaron Rodgers on Sunday, and KC will have to game-plan significantly to be sure they won’t do the same in the Super Bowl.
11. THE LATE DEFENSIVE PASS INTERFERENCE IN GREEN BAY. Not crazy about the Clete Blakeman crew going 37 minutes without throwing a flag in the NFC title game. I do not recall ever another game (though there must have been a few) with no penalties in the first half. But don’t tell me Green Bay corner Kevin King’s grab of Tampa wideout Tyler Johnson’s shirt was not pass-interference. Watch the shirt get totally stretched out from the end-zone view. King restricted Johnson. No question. Johnson may have flopped, but that doesn’t take away the clear interference—regardless how the game was called before then.
Offensive Players of the Week
Patrick Mahomes, quarterback, Kansas City. Did not seem the least bit foggy after getting knocked woozy last week against the Browns. Nor did he seem gimpy, with the turf toe suffered last week too. This was vintage Mahomes: 29 of 38 for 325 yards, three TD passes and no picks in the 38-24 AFC title rout of the Bills. What I particularly liked was, after Mecole Hardman’s muffed punt in the first quarter handed the Bills a TD and a 9-0 early lead, Mahomes came right back to him with a three-yard touchdown toss to open the Kansas City scoring. That’s what a leader does.
Tyreek Hill, wide receiver, Kansas City. He just tilts the field. Nine catches, a franchise-record 172 receiving yards, with a long gallop of 71 yards on one reception. When Hill is healthy, he’s the toughest receiver in the game to neutralize. Hill accounted for 39 percent of the winners’ total yards Sunday. His third straight playoff game exceeding 100 yards receiving set another record.
Defensive Players of the Week
Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul, outside linebackers, Tampa Bay. Aaron Rogers was sacked 20 times in his first 17 games this season—just 1.2 sacks per game. In the first two series of the NFC Championship Game at Lambeau Field, Barrett and Pierre-Paul, the Bucs’ two veteran rush men, got one apiece on each Green Bay tackle. That started a day of pressure for Barrett, 28, and Pierre-Paul, 32, who combined for five sacks on Rodgers (three by free-agent-to-be Barrett) and six combined pressures. Seemed like more. Interesting that Barrett and Pierre-Paul were the only two Tampa Bay defenders with Super Bowl championship rings—JPP with the Giants nine years ago, Barrett with the Broncos five years ago. Now in the biggest game for each since those Super Bowls, they played humongous roles in getting the Bucs to the Super Bowl.
Special Teams Players of the Week
Bradley Pinion, punter, Tampa Bay. Didn’t have many chances. Two, to be exact. And didn’t knock the stuffing out of the ball either, with a 40-yard average. But the Bucs’ punting unit made the Packers work for their points in the NFC title game. Pinion’s first punt, late in the first quarter, went for 46 yards and pinned Green Bay at its 10. His second was fair-caught at the Green Bay 13. In a game like this one, Pinion’s field position was a great aide to the Bucs.
Tyler Bass, kicker, Buffalo. Capped a strong rookie year with a strong title game. He opened the scoring at Kansas City with a 51-yard field goal. He closed the scoring with a 51-yard field goal. And he executed a successful onside kick late in the game, the first in an NFL playoff game since 2014.
Coach of the Week
Bruce Arians, head coach, Tampa Bay. Took a risk before halftime and it led to a 14-0 Bucs avalanche of points in less than two minutes pre- and post-half. That’s Arians’ ethos—taking chances. It’s one of the reasons the Bucs are playing in Super Bowl LV.
Goats of the Week
Kevin King, cornerback, Green Bay. The jersey grab to lose the game (actually, the grab of Bucs wideout Tyler Johnson’s jersey on a third-and-four incompletion in the final two minutes helped Tampa to run the clock out) capped a horrible day for the Packers corner. King was clearly the weak link in the secondary the Bucs aimed. To close the first half, King had zero situational awareness with eight seconds left, allowing the speedy Scotty Miller to get behind him in single coverage down the left side; Tom Brady hit Miller for a touchdown. King’s going to have to live with that mis-play for a long time. It led to . . .
Aaron Jones, running back, Green Bay. Three scrimmage plays after the King debacle, on the first series of the second half, Jones took a short pass on a crossing route from Rodgers, got popped by safety Jordan Whitehead of the Bucs, lost a fumble, and handed Tom Brady a short field. One play later, it was 28-10, Bucs.
Matt LaFleur, coach, Green Bay. He’ll second-guess himself for a while for kicking a field goal down eight with 2:09 to play—and if he doesn’t, the state of Wisconsin will remind him of it. The Packers never touched the ball again. Would Green Bay have scored a touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the Buc 8-yard line, and then made a two-point conversion to tie the game with 2:00 to play? We’ll never know. And certainly it’s no lock the Pack could have kept Tampa out of field-goal range with Brady at quarterback. But it didn’t seem like a smart decision by LaFleur against Tom Brady.
“There’s a lot of unknowns going into this offseason. I’m gonna have to take some time away, for sure, and clear my head, and see what’s going on with everything. It’s pretty tough right now.”
—Aaron Rodgers, addressing his future after Green Bay’s loss to Tampa Bay.
“I couldn’t believe it. I know if they could take that back, they probably wouldn’t do that next time.”
—Tampa Bay pass-rusher Shaq Barrett, on the Packers kicking a field goal instead of trying for the tying touchdown-and-conversion on fourth-and-goal late in the NFC title game loss to Tampa.
“What a marvelous moment for baseball, what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia, what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South, for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. It is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron.”
—Vin Scully, from the Dodgers’ broadcast booth in Atlanta on April 8, 1974, after Hank Aaron’s 715th career home run, which broke the longstanding career home run record of Babe Ruth.
Vin Scully: perfect, even off the top of his head.
“The time has come, dadgummit.”
—Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union Tribune, with the first sentence of his retirement story about Philip Michael Rivers.
“Peyton Manning … Now just pretend I’m dropping the mic.”
—Mike Chappell, longtime Colts beat guy in Indianapolis, giving the presentation for Peyton Manning during the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2021’s selection meeting last Tuesday.
“I’m done. I’ve got it all out of my system.”
—Tight end Greg Olsen, on FOX’s pregame show. Olsen retired Sunday after a 14-year NFL career with Chicago, Carolina and Seattle and will move into an analyst role with FOX.
Length of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection meeting—on Zoom this year, last Tuesday—for the 48 selectors picking the class of 2021:
8 hours, 43 minutes
Length of discussion for the 18 candidates for selection:
^Calvin Johnson: 39 minutes, 28 seconds
John Lynch: 36:55
Tony Boselli: 31:50
=Bill Nunn: 31:29
#Drew Pearson: 28:28
+Tom Flores: 27:45
Reggie Wayne: 25:13
Sam Mills: 20:57
Clay Matthews Jr.: 20:11
LeRoy Butler: 17:44
Charles Woodson: 16:37
Zach Thomas: 15:52
Alan Faneca: 13:08
Richard Seymour: 12:29
Torry Holt: 11:10
Ronde Barber: 8:08
Jared Allen: 7:44
Peyton Manning: 0:13
^ Johnson’s discussion included about 14 minutes of a couple of tangential topics. It is more accurate to say his discussion lasted about 25 minutes.
= Contributors Committee nominee
# Seniors Committee nominee
+ Coaches committee nominee
First game of the 2021 season, virus permitting: Thursday, Aug. 8, Hall of Fame Game, Pittsburgh versus Dallas, 8 p.m., Canton, Ohio.
III: Philip Rivers Factoid of the Week
Rivers and wife Tiffany have nine children: seven girls, two boys.
Rivers’ mom grew up as one of nine children: seven girls, two boys.
Rivers’ grandfather grew up as one of nine children: seven girls, two boys.
Two years ago, when Tiffany was pregnant with the ninth child, Philip called his grandfather, then 91, to tell him the news—that he and Tiffany would have a ninth child, just like granddad’s family. At the time, the Rivers family had six girls and two boys. “Well,” grandfather told grandson, “you don’t need to find out what [the sex] is. It’s gonna be a girl. I guarantee it.”
Anna Rivers was born in March 2019.
You are a hater if you can’t respect Brady’s gangsta.
— Michael Thomas (@Cantguardmike) January 24, 2021
Michael Thomas is a Saints wide receiver.
Can't stop thinking of Arians philosophy of "no risk it, no biscuit" and comparing it to the Packers kicking that FG.
— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) January 24, 2021
Daniel Jeremiah is an NFL analyst for NFL Network.
Scotty Miller is a 4.3 lightening bolt. Gotta read the scouting report
— Jac Collinsworth (@JacCollinsworth) January 24, 2021
Collinsworth, tweeting after Packers cornerback Kevin King let Miller get behind him and score just before halftime, is an NBC Sports NFL analyst.
Hank Aaron was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1982, named on 406 of 415 ballots. Nine writers did not vote for a player who had more home runs and RBI than anyone in the history of MLB, a player who finished with 3,771 hits, three Gold Gloves, 25 All-Star appearances.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) January 22, 2021
Buster Olney covers baseball for ESPN.
That is somewhere between malpractice and sickening.
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) January 21, 2021
Hire. Eric. Bienemy
— John Legend (@johnlegend) January 25, 2021
The great American singer/songwriter, watching the AFC title game Sunday night, is a huge NFL fan—and a fan of the KC offensive coordinator, apparently.
Brees v. Brady. From G.P.: “I love Drew Brees. However, I can’t help wondering if Tom Brady would be the Saints QB had Drew retired last January. As much as I love Drew I can’t help but wonder if his decision to return may have ultimately cost us this season.”
It’s hard to know for sure, but I would not have been surprised if Brees retired that Sean Payton went very hard after Brady. New Orleans would have been the kind of team— and Payton the kind of coach—that Brady would have loved, with the weaponry and offensive line he could have won big. I can’t tell you for sure it would have happened because no one knows. But knowing Payton, he’d have loved to have Brady to coach for a year or two before Brady retired.
I was too hard on Lamar Jackson. From Matt Gill: “I really take exception to you putting Lamar Jackson as your goat of the week. I don’t know how you do that when the kid played his heart out (as always) in tough conditions with the ball being snapped lord knows where. Really mean-spirited if you ask me.”
If a player plays very hard and fails and makes a significant error, should he be held accountable? Or because he played hard in difficult conditions, should we only consider him for positive awards and not negative ones? I really like Lamar Jackson. Truly do. He is a gentleman, a true leader in his locker room, and considerate and kind to those he encounters, from what I’ve seen and heard. But this is about performance at the highest level of the sport. Baltimore trailed 10-3 with 16 minutes left at Buffalo, and Jackson, from the Bills’ 9-yard line, made a major mistake by trying to force a pass into a covered receiver (four Bills surrounded Mark Andrews) in the end zone, and the passed was picked and returned for a touchdown. No more points scored in the game. I also named his center a goat. To you, it’s mean. To me, it’s reality.
Goat II. From Jim Dunn, of Jericho, Vermont: “How can a player who fumbles as a direct result of an illegal spear in the side of his helmet be a ‘Goat of the Week?’ The official who missed the call? He should be a ‘goat,’ but not the victim of first an illegal hit, followed by a blown call. Please consider a retraction.”
Jim, thanks for the note. I got more than 20 such responses, and my answer remains the same. Quote from Browns coach Kevin Stefanski: “Our rule there is not reach the ball out there when it’s first and goal.” To me, whether the ball got knocked out due to an illegal hit in the helmet is immaterial. Rashard Higgins violated a team rule, and if Daniel Sorensen had contacted him in the torso or arm or shoulder, there’s just as good a chance for the ball to have come loose. It is a rule in the first place because of the risk of fumble there. And that fumble was a huge factor in the loss.
In appreciation of writers. From Kara Rodriguez, of Berryville, Va.: “One of my favorite parts of your column every week is the space where you give light to our shared love: writing. I find myself throughout the week scrolling back through your column to find all the stories from around the world you share. While their subject matters differ widely, what they all have in common is really tremendous writing. It’s a lost art, unfortunately, as I know all too well. I have been a newspaper reporter now for almost 14 years. Those of us who still have this burning passion to share factual, thorough, articulate writing are still around, with varying degrees of employment. Thank you for bringing attention to the great writers and narratives of the world. It’s nice to know we are still appreciated.”
Thanks, Kara. And thank you for staying dedicated to the craft.
1. I think the Packers should end this stupid speculation about the 2021 whereabouts of the 2020 Most Valuable Player and state this week: “Aaron Rodgers is a superior player, and he will be our quarterback well into the future. We will entertain no trade discussions for him.”
2. I think that was an interesting news drop in the third quarter of the first game Sunday: Veteran Steelers beat man Gerry Dulac reported veteran center and team leader Maurkice Pouncey has told teammates he is likely retiring after 11 seasons in the center of the Pittsburgh offensive line. Feels more and more like it’s time for a retooling in Pittsburgh, with this question lingering: Whither Ben Roethlisberger?
3. I think I hope the Miami Dolphins can figure out an absolutely strange coaching situation on the offensive side of the ball. Offensive coordinators in the first two seasons of the Brian Flores Era: two, with the position empty now after the resignation of Chan Gailey. Quarterback coaches in the first two Flores seasons: two, plus assistant Jerry Schuplinski in 2019; the Dolphins hired Charlie Frye for the 2021 job last week. Offensive-line coaches in the first two Flores seasons: three, with last year’s assistant OL coach Lemuel Jeanpierre making four. Flores named Jeanpierre the full-time line coach last week. Man, that’s weird. And not good for offensive continuity, obviously.
4. I think Greg Olsen should be good on TV. He’s earnest, quick and easy to listen. He retired Sunday and should slide pretty effortlessly into the FOX booth. Interesting to see how accomplished a player he was:
• Only four tight ends (Gonzalez, Witten, Gates, Sharpe) caught more passes than Olsen’s 742.
• He’s 45th on the all-time receptions list.
• Kyle Rudolph and Travis Kelce each are 12 touchdowns behind Olsen’s 60 career TDs.
5. I think it’s been interesting to hear the TV rumors about Philip Rivers in the wake of his Wednesday retirement. Not saying he won’t go to an NFL booth, and I think he’d be informative and infectious. But have you ever heard Rivers say one thing about doing games on TV when he retires? Only thing I’ve heard is how much he wants to coach high school football. And he already has that gig, having been appointed varsity coach at St. Michael Catholic High School in Fairhope, Ala. I asked Frank Reich about the TV thing Saturday. “Philip talked a lot in our conversations about being a high school football coach,” Reich said. “A lot. He’s going to be great at it—coaching those kids in football but also in life. He will coach the whole person. He will change lives. He was made for it. But I never have had one conversation with him about TV.” It’s hard to envision Rivers doing the job the way it needs to be done—being gone 2.5 days a week every week during football season, and still coaching a high school team and being there for his nine kids. Just a thought.
6. I think Gil Brandt is the only guy I know who can break a femur, be in a rehab hospital for more than three weeks and write a story so chock-full of information about Aaron Rodgers, the 2005 draft in which Rodgers plummeted to the 25th pick, and about so many side details that fascinated me. Pretty good, doing a piece like that from the hospital, at age 87. Brandt’s a treasure. The biggest realization, at least for me, after reading that story: Nick Saban, the rookie head coach of the Dolphins that year, loved Alex Smith and just liked Aaron Rodgers. Picking second, Saban chose running back Ronnie Brown. The next year, Saban liked Drew Brees a lot, but his doctors wouldn’t pass Brees—coming off shoulder surgery—on the Miami physical, so the Dolphins passed and Brees, of course, went to the Saints. Saban quit Miami after two seasons, with a 15-17 record. Imagine in year one, needing a quarterback and passing on Aaron Rodgers, and in year two, needing a quarterback and passing on Drew Brees because of his shoulder. How the course of history would have/could have been changed if Saban made just one different decision there.
7. I think patience would have been required with Rodgers, who benefited from sitting behind Brett Favre for three years, and maybe Saban would have been too impatient to wait for Rodgers to blossom. Still, at that point the Dolphins were in years five and six in seeking the next Marino with Saban as coach. Now they’re in year 20, with some doubts starting to creep in (way too early, in my mind) on Tua Tagovailoa.
8. I think I wonder why George Seifert (124-67 including playoffs, two Super Bowl wins, 11.3 average wins per season) is on the outside looking in at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, while Tom Flores (105-90 including playoffs, two Super Bowl wins, 8.8 average wins per year) has a good shot this year as the Coach nominee. I’m not even a Seifert advocate; I just don’t know why no one talks about Seifert and Coors makes a commercial campaigning for Flores.
9. I think I’d like to say get well soon, Rick Gosselin, the best Hall of Fame voter I’ve had the privilege of sharing the room. Gosselin had to miss the voting this year (it happened Tuesday) because he and his wife are battling COVID. So many of our peers, Rick, are pulling for you. All our best to you and your wife.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. RIP, Henry Aaron.
b. What a man. Aaron was to baseball what Martin Luther King was to society, dignified and nonviolent and only interested in good and so accomplished in the face of so much racial animus as a great athlete in the Deep South. He broke the all-time home run record 47 years ago, passing Babe Ruth with his 715th career home run. That hatred became something he couldn’t erase, as he told William Rhoden of the New York Times as the 20th anniversary of the home run came up in 1994: “It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about. My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats, and I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp. I was getting threatening letters every day. All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won’t go away.”
c. I can’t imagine what it must have been like, chasing the record while getting the hate mail because he was chasing the record of a white hero. Imagine achieving at the highest level when you don’t know if some nut had brought a gun to the ballpark that night, decades before America would even consider metal detectors at any sports event.
d. Hank Aaron Remembrance of the Week: Bill Dwyre, writing in the Los Angeles Times, on so many things Aaron. Including the gem that the sports editor of the Atlanta Journal had one staffer prepare Aaron’s obituary as part of the coverage on the day Aaron hit the famous home run. “Just in case,” Dwyre wrote.
e. Dwyre grew up a baseball fan in Sheboygan, Wis., and encountered a fan from his town, Bryan Walthers, who wrote Aaron a letter encouraging him to not allow the racists and naysayers to deter him. Dwyre reported Aaron wrote the fan this letter response:
Dear Mr. Walthers,
I want you to know how very much I appreciate the concern and best wishes of people like yourself. If you will excuse my sentimentality, your letter of support and encouragement meant much more to me than I can adequately express in words. It is very heartwarming to know that you are in my corner. I will always be grateful for the interest you have shown in me. As the so-called “countdown” begins, please be assured I will live up to the expectations of my friends.
Wishing you only the best, I am, most sincerely,
Hank Aaron (signed)
f. That’s a hero right there.
g. Last Aaron point: The 715th home run ball was caught in the Braves’ bullpen that night by a Braves’ relief pitcher, Tom House. It’s the same Tom House who became the throwing guru for Tom Brady and Drew Brees and many other quarterbacks. A few years ago, House told USA Today that before the 1974 baseball game, famous entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. was in the Braves clubhouse offering the bullpen pitchers $25,000 if they caught the ball and gave it to him—he wanted to use it in his Vegas show, and he promised to give the ball to Aaron once he used it. For a guy making $11,500 (House’s salary), that had to be tempting. But he didn’t do it. In Aaron’s second at-bat that night, he hit a long fly to left-center field, and House knew it was coming right at him. “If I would have stood still, the ball would have hit me in the forehead.” House caught it and sprinted in to give the ball to Aaron, who was being hugged at home plate by his mom at the moment. He’s not sure Aaron knew his name, but Aaron said, “Thanks kid.”
h. That was a touching, energizing, life-affirming inauguration—Joe Biden’s speech, Kamala Harris’ oath, Garth Brooks’ communal Amazing Grace, Lady Gaga’s Anthem, and Amanda Gorman’s powerful verses of poetry.
i. “Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?”
j. Amanda Gorman Story of the Week: Julia Barajas of the Los Angeles Times, on the stunning 22-year-old Black woman who read her powerful poetry at the inauguration.
k. Man, that was an incredible few moments by Gorman. Imagine being that poised, that charismatic, that full of confident presence, at age 22. Writes Barajas:
Like her predecessor Angelou and the president-elect, she grapples with a speech impediment.
All writers, she said, experience anxiety about the quality of their work. “But for me, there was this other echelon of pressure, which is: Can I say that which needs to be said?” Gorman has labored to perfect sounds most people take for granted. The R has been a particular challenge. The girl who would grow up to perform in front of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Al Gore, Hillary Clinton and Malala Yousafzai struggled for years not to say “poetwy.”
“But I don’t look at my disability as a weakness,” said Gorman. “It’s made me the performer that I am and the storyteller that I strive to be. When you have to teach yourself how to say sounds, when you have to be highly concerned about pronunciation, it gives you a certain awareness of sonics, of the auditory experience.”
l. And Ms. Gorman likes The Great British Baking Show! What taste she has!
m. Steve Politi of NJ.com tweeted what most of us watching the inauguration were thinking: “This is a monumental moment in American history, a peaceful transfer of power that repre — wait, is that A-Rod?” Yes. Alex Rodriguez was there, in the foreground of the Barack Obama shot before the swearing-in.
n. Radio Story of the Week: Noel King of National Public Radio, discussing the current pandemic crush on funeral homes with Todd Beckley, a Los Angeles funeral director. Sad and impactful.
o. Sorry. Your loved one’s body has to stay in a refrigerated truck, zipped up in a bag, for the next five weeks. I mean, that’s the effect of this crush of bodies.
p. Journalism Story of the Week: Opening a vein about what some women go through on major beats covering teams, Britt Ghiroli of The Athletic with a grand slam.
q. Ghiroli writes about her experience covering the Orioles, and it’s not a lot different than the Jared Porter story of the female reporter he harassed. She was entrapped by a player in a Texas hotel. It was a brave recounting of a painful tale. Ghiroli wrote:
Being a reporter is all about cultivating relationships and protecting sources. It is ultra-competitive and the power structure is simple: No one with information is required to help you. Ruin a source relationship and you only hurt yourself as they move on to someone else. As a reporter, you learn to accept slights, be personable and engage everyone. In 2021, that’s mostly texting. And when it crosses the line it’s easy to feel like there’s only one option: ignoring it.
I didn’t tell anyone but my best friend about that night in Texas. Instead, I showed up to work the next day, plastered a smile on my face and prayed the player didn’t hate me because I needed him, and the rest of his teammates, not to. How messed up is that? Welcome to being a female reporter. If you’re too nice, you are asking for trouble. If you aren’t nice enough, you’re a bitch. The line is invisible and exhausting and I keep thinking about what one front office member told me my first year. “You want to be hot enough so guys want to talk to you, but not so hot that people think you are f—ing them.”
So what do you do? The same thing that reporter did with Porter in 2016. You ignore them, politely. You decline, politely. You try to maintain a shred of a professional relationship to keep your career. You tell no one because of how it will make you look, not them. When you get caught in an elevator with a coach in San Francisco and he asks for your room number, you laugh it off. When a reporter accuses you, in front of other reporters, of flirting with a player you spent four years building as a source, you let it go.
r. In the sports world, we need to be better than this. Good for Ghiroli to shine a light on this treatment.
s. Football Story of the Week: Kent Babb of the Washington Post on a rebel (a heroic one, to me) in the ranks of the coaching at Middle Tennessee State in 2020, 63-year-old Tony Franklin.
t. Tremendous reporting about Franklin, a whistleblower and Jared Goff’s former college position coach at Cal, who rebelled against alleged lax following of protocols at MTSU, led by head coach Rick Stockstill. It got so bad that Franklin, who very much needed the $350,000-a-year job, quit with two years left on his contract. Reported Babb:
One player tested positive for the coronavirus in June, the month the team returned to campus. The next month, 18 did . . . In August, Conference USA announced that football players would be tested three times per week. One Middle Tennessee player says he was tested only twice some weeks. As the Blue Raiders’ Sept. 5 opener approached, with federal privacy laws preventing coaches from identifying players who tested positive, players got used to their teammates just disappearing without explanation.
“We’re thinking: ‘I literally was just next to him in the weight room the day before,’ ” a Blue Raiders player says. “People would just drop like a fly, and we wouldn’t hear much about it.”
One day in July, Franklin confronted Stockstill for again not wearing a mask. The conversation became heated, Franklin says, and Stockstill threatened to fire his offensive coordinator. “One of those things, unfortunate things, that happened,” Stockstill says. “But it was not because I wasn’t wearing a mask.”
After that, Franklin says, Stockstill wore an N95 mask during meetings — on top of his head or dangling from an ear. Franklin interpreted this as his boss taunting him. And one morning, Franklin says, two younger staffers took desks right next to the one Franklin usually used to socially distance. Neither was wearing a mask, Franklin says, adding that one repeatedly made fun of Franklin for being an alarmist and a tattletale. “SOME DON’T BELIEVE IN SCIENCE,” Franklin wrote in his notes. “SOME DON’T CARE.”
u. Two sides to every story, of course. But after reading that piece, how can Middle Tennessee’s football program recruit a single player? The mockery and the stupidity in that story at a supposed institution of higher learning boggles the mind.
v. RIP, Larry King, one of the greatest interviewers ever. Maybe it’s just me, but sure seems like we’re in the midst of an absolute onslaught of deaths of famous people.
w. My Larry King story: A few years ago, I saw him at his breakfast place in Los Angeles. He’d had me on his show after some big NFL story, and now it was Larry King the football fan, grilling me for 20 minutes about all things, all teams, all players NFL. He wore me out! That day, he said what I always thought about him: “I’m just curious.”
x. “Amarillo Texas, HELLO!”
Such a great, great ballplayer.
And a better man.