On many weekends late last spring and early summer, with his football future very much in doubt, Brigham Young quarterback Zach Wilson pulled his Mazda 6 onto an I-15 on-ramp in Provo, Utah. It would be a Friday, mid-afternoon, and Wilson would be road-tripping to see his quarterback tutor, John Beck, in southern California. On these trips, Wilson alternated between podcasts and an audiobook. (Steve Young’s lessons of the benefits of adversity in “QB: My Life Behind the Spiral” resonated strongly.) Wilson put his body on mind-clearing autopilot, driving through southwest Utah, skirting through 28 miles of northwest Arizona, then into the Pacific Time Zone, through the Vegas sprawl in southern Nevada, into the High Desert of southeastern California, into the SoCal ‘burbs and crashing at the home of BYU teammate Isaac Rex in San Clemente around midnight.
Drive time: 10 hours. Distance: 674 miles, stopping only for gas and food.
He’d actually spent a month-and-a-half in California working with Beck when BYU shut down workouts in March due to COVID protocols. As the season drew closer, the long weekend commutes and workouts were simply to leave no stone unturned. Before starting the off-season drills with Beck, Wilson knew the 2020 season would make or break him as a quarterback, coming off a so-so 2019 BYU season. “This is a really big year for me,” Wilson said to Beck. “The coaches told us it’s an open quarterback competition. I need to go out and earn it.” On these weekends, Wilson stayed for two workouts with Beck at Golden West College in Huntington Beach. On Sunday afternoon, he’d drive back to Utah; he needed to be back for BYU workouts Monday. When COVID eventually canceled the BYU workouts, Wilson stayed in California for five weeks or so for throwing and footwork and QB-conditioning drills with Beck.
Wilson worked DoorDash many Saturday nights in California (and sometimes back in Utah), for gas and expense money. On a busy night, he could make $200.
Now, just months later, Wilson is the 2021 version of Joe Burrow. Remember: Burrow was a likely day-three draft pick before his 2019 season at LSU, then blew up and went first overall in 2020. Wilson, entering last season, was not even a sure draftee this year. Of course, he won the starting job. And now, after his golden autumn (74 percent passing, 11.0 yards per attempt, 33-3 TD-to-pick ratio), Wilson might be the second pick in the draft.
“There’s days I’ll just sit back and be like, ‘Wow—where has this last year taken me?’ “ Wilson told me in a 50-minute conversation from California on Saturday. “It’s crazy how quickly my life has changed.”
Wilson’s story is complicated, and fairly inspirational.
This column, in late February or early March, is most often the NFL Scouting Combine column. It’s digging deep into JaMarcus Russell or Andrew Luck or Carson Wentz, or the story of the winter. Usually, at the combine in Indianapolis, I try to find the most fascinating player in the draft, or the top pick, and spend some time and illuminate the player who’s about to be a household sporting name. With no combine this year, and with the 330 players cast adrift in all corners of the country to impress NFL teams on Pro Days and Zoom meetings only, I’ll introduce you to one of the players far less famous than Trevor Lawrence, but who will be big news in the 60 days before we get to round one of the 2020 NFL Draft.
First, a quick veer to NFL news before we get to what makes Zach Wilson tick. It’s not the Deshaun Watson–Russell Wilson news, which will come later. It’s more about a strange new bit of scheduling that will impact virtually everything on the NFL calendar. In some order:
• The 17-game schedule is highly likely in 2021. No surprise there. TV partners and NFL schedulers are working under the assumption that the 17-game schedule (the way was paved for it last March when players approved a new CBA) will debut in 2021.
• The league calendar gets pushed back one week, with a likely Feb. 13 Super Bowl in Los Angeles. No extra bye—17 games in 18 weekends. Super Bowl LVI, originally scheduled for Feb. 6, 2022 and airing on NBC, has not been officially moved yet. The league hasn’t said a word about moving the game to officials in Los Angeles. But the NFL won’t start the season on the ratings-quashing Labor Day Weekend, and the league doesn’t want to add an extra regular-season bye week. So that adds up to Feb. 13, which would be the latest Super Bowl in history.
• The best game of 2021, Aaron Rodgers versus Patrick Mahomes, is on track. Really, only one game in 2021 would rival Green Bay-Kansas City. That’s Tampa Bay at New England, with Tom Brady’s return to Foxboro. Pittsburgh at Green Bay is interesting too, with the very likely last meeting of Ben Roethlisberger and Rodgers. Brady in Foxboro is great theater, of course. But Rodgers-Mahomes is a much better game, with two passers at the peak of their powers.
A note about how the league configured the extra game: When the NFL was choosing options, the formula that prevailed—follow me now—was AFC versus NFC, cross-conference matchup from two years ago, 2021 matchup based on 2020 standings. Now that you’re totally confused, here’s an example: The four AFC West teams played the four NFC North teams in 2019. In 2020, Kansas City finished in first place in the AFC West, Green Bay first in the NFC North. So in 2021, it’s AFC West against NFC North, and 1-versus-1 from ‘20 becomes Green Bay versus Kansas City. I will bet you a Kroll’s West cheeseburger with an ice-cold Spotted Cow that the networks will brawl over this ratings-gold game. This game alone is reason enough for the league to rush the 17th game onto the 2021 schedule.
• Best five games after that, assuming the 17-game slate:
- Pittsburgh v Seattle. Last two meetings have ended 39-30 and 28-26, Seattle. Ben (maybe) dueling Russ (maybe) for the last time (maybe) is sumptuous.
- Baltimore v L.A. Rams. In 2019, the high-flying Ravens put up 45 on the Rams. Matthew Stafford will have something to say about that now.
- Tampa Bay v Indianapolis. Tom Brady versus the team that chose Philip Rivers over him in 2020.
- Houston v Carolina. Imagine if Nick Caserio buckles and trades Deshaun Watson to the team that might covet him most, the Panthers.
- New England v Dallas. If it’s not a good game, at least it’ll get ratings out the wazoo.
The others: Buffalo-Washington, Miami-Giants, Philadelphia-Jets, Cleveland-Arizona, Cincinnati-San Francisco, Tennessee-New Orleans, Jacksonville-Atlanta, Las Vegas-Chicago, L.A. Chargers-Minnesota, Denver-Detroit.
• A Monday night wild-card game? I think it’s somewhere between 50-50 and very likely. Last year, the NFL wouldn’t consider playing one of six wild-card games on Monday night because it would have conflicted with the Jan. 11 college football national title game. The NFL instead played three wild-card games on Saturday and three Sunday in the 2020 season. This season, college football will play the championship game in Indianapolis on Monday night, Jan. 10, 2022. That leaves Jan. 17 as the football-free Monday night of Wild Card Weekend. So the NFL could play two games on Saturday, three on Sunday, and one on Monday. Screaming, of course, will commence about the Monday night winner playing a short-week game the following Sunday. (And the NFL would ensure that the Monday night winner would not play until Sunday of divisional weekend.) Balderdash. With three wild-card games on Saturday, six teams are sure to play a short-week game. With two wild-card games on Saturday and one on Monday, five teams are assured of a short-week game—four on Saturday and Monday’s winner, which would play the following Sunday. If I’m a coach, I’m happy after playing 17 games in 18 weeks to have an extra day of rest before a playoff game. What’s the argument against it?
• Hearing it’s most likely to be AFC hosting all 16 newly invented games in 2021. Then NFC teams hosting in 2022. If that’s how it goes, it’s the fairest way. Competitive equity is the key. You don’t want three NFC East teams playing eight at home and the fourth playing nine at home.
• Christmas football. Dec. 25 falls on a Saturday, and the NFL is considering playing two games that day. The league was encouraged by the big rating for last season’s Saints-Vikings game (20.1 million viewers on FOX, the highest non-Sunday rating for the network in more than two years), so expanding to two games seems like a good business experiment.
Zach Wilson comes from a University of Utah family. His dad Mike played linebacker for the Utes, his mom has a long history there, and the family had season tickets on the 50-yard line across the aisle from Utah coach Kyle Whittingham’s family at Rice-Eccles Stadium. BYU was the enemy. In 2016, Zach, a junior in high school, was a middling three-star QB recruit who remembers being at Rice-Eccles in 2016 as Utah nipped BYU and its exciting quarterback, Taysom Hill, in a 20-19 thriller.
Two years later, Wilson was a freshman starting quarterback for BYU at Utah, his parents watching from their family seats. Weird. Turns out it took till after Wilson’s senior year in high school to get BYU interested, and the hard sell worked. Wilson, a developing 6-2 ½-inch, 210-pound hard thrower with good movement in the pocket, earned the starting job in October of his freshman year, 2018. But in 2019, dogged by labrum and hand injuries, Wilson struggled, and after the season, then-passing game coordinator/QB coach Aaron Roderick told him there’d be a competition for the starting job in 2020. Said Roderick, who was confident Wilson would win the job once fully healthy: “I told him, ‘This is gonna be good for you. One day you’ll be in the NFL, and you’ll be under fire, and you’ll have to deal with injury and disappointment.’ The thing about Zach is, he did know it’d be good for him. He never complained, never felt entitled.”
Wilson said he’d have worked with Beck in the spring and summer before the 2020 season anyway, but admitted, “That was a tough time for me. It was frustrating because [I] was the starter before. I had to block out what people were saying about me. That adversity was something preparing me for that next level because there’s gonna be ups and downs in the NFL, and now I think I’m better prepared for them.”
On one of those 10-hour drives, he played the “QB” audiobook by Young, written with Jeff Benedict in 2016. Young, of course, was a BYU legend, maybe the best quarterback ever at a renowned quarterback school, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, a Super Bowl MVP. “I’d thought everything was so smooth in his career,” Wilson said. “It wasn’t.” Young signed with the USFL out of BYU, and it was a football disaster (except financially). His second stop, in Tampa, was worse. “I’d come into the locker room at halftime,” Young told me last week, “and everybody’s smoking!” Even a trade to San Francisco in 1987 brought heartache because of annual head-to-head battles for playing time with the great Joe Montana. In his seventh pro season, 1989, Young was frantic. Wilson couldn’t believe what he was hearing on the audiobook. Such as this passage from “QB: My Life Behind the Spiral,” when Young described a friend, Jim Herrmann, riding in the car with him one day in the ’89 season and finding uncashed checks from the 49ers:
“Whoa! There is a quarter of a million dollars here,” he said.
I said nothing.
“Bro, don’t you think you should cash these?”
“I can’t cash those things.”
“What? Why not?”
“I don’t feel like I’m earning the money.”
That night, I moved the checks to a drawer in my nightstand, where I left them for the rest of the season.
“I thought that was a super-cool book,” Wilson said. “Like Steve not cashing his checks. It’s so cool his mentality of, ‘I haven’t earned it yet.’ He’s always hungry for more and some people just feel like they’ve arrived. He was just not like that at all. That was such a cool lesson for me to learn. Even if I am fortunate enough to go early in the draft and make it to a good team, I haven’t done anything yet. You have to keep working for it.
“I think that’s what’s interesting about my career as well. I wasn’t a big recruit. I didn’t have a lot of offers. I went to BYU as just a normal three-star recruit. Nothing special. Nobody expected me to play early. I ended up having a chance to play as a freshman, something that I had to work for—nine quarterbacks in the quarterback room at the time. And then I was nobody last year and I was fighting for my starting job back and having shoulder surgery. Things didn’t go as well as we wanted to and the coaches opened up a competition to try and win the starting spot back. I was so determined to try and win that job back and prove that it was mine.”
I told Young about what Wilson took from his story, and it made him happy. “Nobody knows how much grit you have till you have to have it,” Young said. “So you’ve got to fight for a job. Say you get benched. Look at you; don’t look at anyone else. Most often, victimization takes over, but it never does any good to play the victim. Work on yourself. Work on your game. You better have that level of grit to fight for a job and to fight to win a game, because in this game, you’re going to be tested over and over again.”
In his off-season work with Beck, Wilson finally felt healthy after January 2019 labrum surgery and hand surgery in the fall. His hip rotation and velocity got better in the work with Beck last year, the velocity particularly. “My arm got stronger, and I could work on making all the throws again,” Wilson said. By the time Wilson left in July for BYU’s summer practice, Beck thought the number of throws Wilson could make down the field with accuracy had shot way up.
In the video from three games I watched, there was one throw that I thought was the kind of NFL throw scouts and pro coaches would love. It happened in the Cougars’ only loss of the year, that crazy Saturday night game at Coastal Carolina that got invented three days before the game, with BYU flying to South Carolina for the game 40 hours after finding out they were playing in it.
BYU trailed 22-17 with 35 seconds left. Second-and-19 at the Cougar 9-yard line. No timeouts left. Desperation time. What Wilson said about this play when I asked him sounded like Tiger Woods remembering in vivid detail his second shot on 14 in the third round of the ’19 Masters, or Peyton Manning recalling a 15-year-old play like it happened five minutes ago. And this, I can assure you, will be music to the ears of teams wondering, “What kind of student of the game is Wilson?” Because he’ll need to be a good one in the NFL.
“I had plenty of time to prepare for the game,” he said.
Oh really? Two days?
Wilson: “I had a couple of tells in that game. Coastal Carolina subbed in number four (linebacker Kendricks Gladney Jr.)—he was lined up over the center and I knew that when he did that and they were in their two-minute situation, they were gonna play a ‘two-invert,’ where the safeties would play the seams. The safeties would sink and the corners would actually roll and go and hug the high post and then the backers would sprint underneath to the flats. I knew exactly what coverage was coming based on where [Gladney] was lined up. We had called a ‘four verts’ package there [four receivers running go routes or forms of them] and I knew based on timing and everything that I wasn’t gonna be able to hold the ball or throw the ball on time. I knew that I was gonna have to hold it and move around a little bit and try to find something. I remember just knowing in that coverage, when the corner to the field had the vertical seam by the slot, that he’s gonna roll over and try to take it away. and someone else is gonna run underneath [our] outside guy and play in the flat. I knew there was a shot where if I could put that ball right over the guy in the flat, and on the back shoulder to where that corner is playing the seam, there was a little window right there almost like a hole shot at [BYU receiver Gunner Romney]. I just remember, if I keep my eyes down the field, I’ll hold him and I’ll just keep that corner looking then I can fire that shot in there and that’d be a big gain.”
On the play, as best you can, watch Wilson’s eyes, or his head. Looks left, looks left, quick glance to the middle, then a millisecond look to the right and the hardest throw he could make. “I was holding the middle of the field,” Wilson said. “I was really trying to get those corners to think I was throwing down the middle of the field.”
Beck was watching from home in California. “That ball has to be driven,” Beck said. “We have a saying—you can’t just throw it, sometimes you have to drive it through the receiver. That play was a perfect example.”
Wilson howitzered the ball 41 yards in the air, to a point about two feet over Romney’s head. Romney leaped and came down with it. In 35 seconds, with no timeouts, Wilson took BYU 90 yards. He needed 91. The game ended with a completed catch a yard short of the end zone. It was BYU’s only loss of the year. “After the game,” BYU offensive coordinator Roderick said, “Zach went around to every guy in that locker room and said, “I gotta play better.’ “
I asked Roderick about Wilson’s recall, and his head for the position. “We can talk after a 12-play drive,” Roderick said, “and he’ll just take me through it—every play, in order, everything he saw, why he made every decision, what he was trying to do to the defense. His recall—I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“I don’t know,” Wilson said when I asked him about it. His words sounded like a virtual shrug. “I try to understand every little detail. I don’t know where it comes from. I guess it’s the passion I have for the game.”
Recently, Jaguars offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer called Beck to discuss Wilson. (Jacksonville is widely expected to take Trevor Lawrence with the first overall pick in April, but Schottenheimer was doing his homework here.) “We talked about that Coastal Carolina drive,” Beck said. “He loved it. He said there were so many throws on that drive he loved—including that throw when he was backed up.”
Three other things:
• Wilson said he studied every one of Joe Burrow’s games from his 2019 LSU season “three or four times.” Wilson has the same kind of pocket-movement ability as Burrow, staying cool while figuring the best location from which to throw the most accurate ball. “There were so many things he did that I tried to apply to my games,” Wilson said.
• Spatial awareness is huge for an NFL quarterback because of the mayhem around him so often. Beck thinks several years of playing basketball as a kid all over the country—Wilson wanted to earn a basketball scholarship, not football, till his sophomore football season in high school—gave him “almost an innate sixth sense of feeling everything around him, like he’s around the rim on a basketball court.” When he moves in the pocket, it’s not frenetic, but more calculating.
• DoorDash. Crazy. Last year he was in California with Beck on Mother’s Day, and wanted to get his mom a large bouquet of flowers. So he worked a few extra hours that weekend to make the money. And back in Provo, if you saw a fit auburn-haired kid on a moped with some food bags in the last couple of summers, that was Wilson too. Roderick said there was a social-media post last year that said, “I’m pretty sure Zach Wilson just delivered my DoorDash. Is that possible?”
Yes. Yes it was. But his DoorDash days will be over this spring. BYU’s Pro Day is March 26, and he’ll be Zooming with teams in the weeks before the draft. He said he’s done “three or four” already. (Each team can do a maximum of five Zoom meetings with each prospective draftee.) Wilson’s skill-set is ideal for the quick-thinking and quick-throwing West Coast scheme, making the Jets (and new coordinator Mike LaFleur) at number two an intriguing option. Carolina, at eight with offensive coordinator Joe Brady, could be a strong candidate too; the Panthers may upgrade from Teddy Bridgewater, and Brady likes a coach-on-the-field type who can make throws to all parts of the field.
Entering the draft after his true-junior season and only one season (against mediocre competition) of high production is a definite risk. “It was nowhere in my intentions before the season,” he said. “But I always told myself if I had a chance to go in the first round, that’d be an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
Now the question is: Which team at the top of the draft won’t be able to pass up Wilson?
“I never thought I’d be engaged to somebody who threw balls for a living. But he’s really just so good at it.”
—Actress Shailene Woodley, confirming her engagement to quarterback and guest Jeopardy! host Aaron Rodgers while on NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
“Bieniemy is a real head-scratcher for me. Every offensive coordinator Andy Reid has had in the last 20 years got a head job. Now, Andy has the best offense he’s ever had and [Bieniemy] can’t get a job?”
—Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, to Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, on Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy not getting a head-coaching job in the last three offseasons.
Most interesting thing here: Tomlin has largely stayed on the sidelines of the minority-coaching debate in recent years. Last week, he made similar points with HBO “Real Sports” and with Cook, the respected columnist in Pittsburgh. So I’d guess Tomlin is beginning to boil over at what he perceives to be injustices toward Black coaching candidates.
“They said I’m only worth a 2nd rounder”
“That last game is just hard to swallow, and I think in part Ben wants to come back and leave on a high note. We’re still confident he has the ability to do that. His arm, I would say, is as strong or almost as strong as ever, so I think he’s certainly capable of getting the job done. Part of the concern is putting a [competitive] team around him.”
—Steelers owner Art Rooney II, confirming that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, coming off one of his worst games ever in a playoff loss to Cleveland, will return to the team in 2021. The team and QB have to work out a reduced cap number with the Steelers about $20 million over the projected salary cap.
“What I would say that I’ve learned over the last handful of years is things change by the day. And you probably want to be careful making blanket statements when you can’t predict the future.”
—Rams coach Sean McVay, reminded last week how smitten with Jared Goff he was less than two years ago, when he pushed for the Rams to sign him to a huge contract extension. Goff, of course, was traded to the Lions with three draft picks in January, a trade that won’t take effect till the start of the league year in two weeks.
“I feel like something was taken a little bit away from me. I still have some football left in me. I can be a doctor for the next 40 years. I still have the passion, and that’s why I’m working out on my patio at minus-15 degrees [Celsius].”
—Kansas City guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, a medical-school grad who spent the last year working at a long-term care facility near Montreal, to Sean Gregory of Time magazine, making it pretty clear he intends to play for the team in 2021.
Minus-15 Celsius is 5 degrees Fahrenheit.
Want the good news or the bad news on NFL hiring trends for minorities? Let’s start with the bad. You probably already knew this, but it’s taking a lot longer for minority coaches to get hired than their white counterparts. Of the head coaches hired between 2015 and 2020, here are the coaches who had the least number of head-coaching interviews, with minorities compared to whites, per data obtained from the NFL on Friday:
Fewest interviews until first head-coaching job
1 — Doug Pederson (white)
1 — Kliff Kingsbury (white)
1 — Joe Judge (white)
2 — Ben McAdoo (white)
2 — Matt LaFleur (white)
5 — Anthony Lynn (minority)
5 — Brian Flores (minority)
6 — Steve Wilkes (minority)
7 — Vance Joseph (minority)
12 — Todd Bowles (minority)
Now for the (mostly) good.
The main pipeline to head-coaching jobs in recent years has come from the offensive side of the ball—particularly offensive coordinator. In 2020, teams named 11 new offensive coordinators in the NFL; zero were minorities. In 2021, 14 teams named new offensive coordinators, and three were minority coaches. Now look at the interview processes in each year:
Total interviews for offensive coordinator jobs in 2020: 27 — Only one was a minority coach.
Total interviews for offensive coordinator jobs in 2021: 56 — And 19 were minority coaches.
Similarly, minority interviews for head-coaching jobs rose from eight in 2020 to 28 in 2021.
Those are good things, of course, and signs of progress. However—and this is a very big “however” for the NFL—there are the same number of Black head coaches in the NFL is 2021 (three) as there were the season after the Rooney Rule was implemented, 2003. So the league has miles to go before it sleeps.
Part of the difficulty in analyzing North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance:
• He has played one football games in the last 414 days.
• That game, maybe the worst of his college career, was a 39-28 home victory over Central Arkansas last Oct. 2. Lance and the Bison trailed in the fourth quarter, and he completed just 15 of 30 passes, with the first interception of his college career, and a lost fumble. (Central Arkansas went on to lose to Eastern Kentucky last season.)
I mention this because one NFL coach whose team is in the market for a quarterback this offseason told me the other day Lance scares him. “He’s a guy we all needed to see more of, for a lot of reasons,” this coach said. I won’t be surprised if Lance is passed by Mac Jones in the first round come April.
— John McClain (@McClain_on_NFL) February 27, 2021
John McClain, who has covered football in Houston since the Iron Age, with an influential column on the Watson situation. And so the momentum builds.
Had another awesome moment today. My brother in law Loren took me to see Marianne Noll. I hadn’t seen her in quite a while but we got to reminisce about her husband Chuck. It was so great to be able to tell her how much he meant to me—and so many of my teammates! pic.twitter.com/9kNHyJLClH
— Tony Dungy (@TonyDungy) February 27, 2021
Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy broke into the NFL as a defensive back/quarterback on the great Steeler teams.
He is so handsome! https://t.co/eJ8xYY5HYK
— Rob Gronkowski (@RobGronkowski) February 26, 2021
Gronk is a tight end for the Bucs and a rhino at ZooTampa.
People: All you media people do is chase clicks … you suck
Media: You could always pay us directly for the content we create, thus removing the incentive to chase clicks.
People: Screw you
— Peter Bukowski (@Peter_Bukowski) February 26, 2021
Bukowski is a wise man for SB Nation.
Doesn’t get much better than this: @Ravens coach John Harbaugh was out to dinner @JimmysSeafood tonight & after taking pictures with each person who asked, he quietly picked up everyone’s tab in the room & left #Ravens @wjz
— Rick Ritter (@RickRitterWJZ) February 24, 2021
Ritter is the sports anchor at WJZ TV in Baltimore.
Your trade column really stunk. From T. Walsh: “You need to get off the ‘wacky weed’ with your six-for-one and seven-for-one trades. Review some football history and recall the Rams GM Pete Rozelle-driven trade between the Rams and the then-Chicago Cardinals (nine-for-one with Ollie Matson coming to the Rams), and that did not work out for either team. Go back to the days of the disastrous trade by the Packers when they traded for John Hadl, with Dan Devine giving up five draft picks over two years for a 34-year-old QB, and it took the Packers almost two decades to recover. The Pack gave up a one, two and a three in 1975 and their one and two in 1976.”
I looked back at both of those trades you discussed. Regarding Matson: Neither team won it, but neither team lost either. Matson had one good year for the Rams after the trade, 1959, and the two best players in the deal for the Cards, tackle Ken Panfil and defensive tackle Frank Fuller, each played only one year for the Cardinals. But Matson was a 29-year-old running back at the time of the trade, so no matter what, he didn’t have much prime left. On the Hadl trade from the Rams to the Packers in 1974: The key there is “34-year-old QB.” That was a dumb trade by Green Bay by any measure after Hadl had been benched in Los Angeles. No one would defend that deal for Green Bay, even at the time. The difference, of course, is Watson is 25, he’s a top quarterback in the golden age of them, and someone’s going to pay a fortune for him (and rightfully so) if Houston decides to deal him.
It’s beneath me to invent trades. From Gregg Dieguez, of Montara, Calif.: “It’s standard junk journalism these days: make up draft forecasts and make up trades, as opposed to doing the hard leg-work of finding out what teams are REALLY thinking and doing. And now you’re doing it. Yes, I do think you’re bad at forecasting trade values, but that’s not my main point. My main point is that you’re abdicating your primary skill of finding out what’s going on, and analyzing that. A side topic would be the cap implications if X happens. I’m still surprised Carson Wentz got moved because Philly should have about $34 million in dead money. There’s a story that doesn’t require you to make up trades.”
I get it, Gregg. And you’re right: Inventing trades is a talk-show practice and not my forte—nor should it be. Two responses. One: Club officials are not going to say, “Yes, we’re interested in Watson and here’s what we’d offer,” particularly when/if they have a solid incumbent. Do you think Carolina or Miami or San Francisco officials would say to me, Put us on that list. That’s when you have to feel around with contacts around the league and see which teams are logical to dive in and which would not be.
Two: Junk journalism? What about the points about Houston not even considering offers right now? Or the Colts knowing Andrew Luck isn’t coming back and so then knew it was smart to be aggressive trying to trade for a long-term heir? Or the Colts having spent $100-million on quarterbacks in the last 2.5 years? Or the 10 main characters in the Eagles’ winning play in the Super Bowl three years ago being either gone or on their way out? Or Carson Wentz having played nine plays in the six Eagles playoff games since he was drafted? Or the Dodgers promoting Jackie Robinson to the big leagues in 1947 might having been influenced by two Black players on the Browns in 1946? All that was junk journalism?
I took a cheap shot at Drew Brees. From Jason Strobel, of Mentor, Ohio: “Was it really necessary to take a cheap shot at Drew Brees for taking more than 36 days to announce whether or not he’s going to retire? Clearly, it’s not convenient for someone looking for news to report, but don’t you think, given his relationship with Sean Payton, Mickey Loomis, and the Benson family after his many years in New Orleans, that they’re likely more than comfortable with his media-inconvenient timeline? Isn’t it just as likely that he’s been in contact with some or all of them during the past few weeks? Please continue to keep up the rest of your great work but consider laying off the good guys.”
I didn’t consider it a cheap shot to say let’s just make the call and get it over with. If it came across that way, my bad.
1. I think it was excellent information—via Dan Graziano of ESPN—that not only has Deshaun Watson met with Texans coach David Culley, but also that Watson will not consider playing for the Texans again. So now the staring contest is on. I reported last week that Texans GM Nick Caserio is not even responding to teams that have expressed interest in Watson. Because off-season programs are very likely off because of the pandemic again this year, it’s not essential that Watson gets moved soon; the first real milepost would be April 29, the first day of the 2021 NFL Draft. That is eight weeks away. I wouldn’t expect much action in the next month. I’d expect Caserio to stand firm for the next few weeks.
2. I think the Russell Wilson possible trade destinations mentioned to Adam Schefter by agent Mark Rodgers are . . . interesting, let’s say.
• New Orleans makes a lot of sense; Sean Payton is a coach any quarterback would want to play for, and Payton and Wilson hit it off when Payton coached Wilson in the Pro Bowl three years ago.
• Dallas has offensive weaponry and still has the makings of a solid offensive line.
• Las Vegas has Jon Gruden, who always loves quarterbacks he doesn’t have, and spoken very highly of Wilson when he did “Monday Night Football” games with the ‘Hawks.
• As for the Bears, I think there are three things at play: Chicago tight end Jimmy Graham is a good friend of Wilson’s, and he’s told him good things about the team and the city. Wilson loves the sporting zeal of the city, the love for the Cubs, the love for the Bears, and might look at it like, Chicago hasn’t had a lot of great quarterbacks, and I could be one. Maybe I could be the missing piece, and how crazy would Chicago go if the Bears ever got great again? And I think he loves the city.
3. I think there’s a very good chance Wilson would balk at going to any of the other 28 teams if the Seahawks try to trade him there. Time will tell if “balk” means “I’m not going,” or “You’re going to have to do a heck of a sales job on me to get me to go to Place X.” For now, I hear Wilson is dug in on the places he’d accept a deal, if it comes to that.
4. I think the best piece of information about Wilson came in The Athletic’s story (by Michael-Shawn Dugar, Mike Sando and Jayson Jenks) on the Wilson crisis. Before the team’s Thursday night game against Arizona last fall, Wilson, who has pined for influence in the team’s offense and felt shut out by coaches, tried again to sway the coaches with “ideas for how to fix the offense,” per the writers. Feeling his ideas were being rebuffed, they reported, “He stormed out of the room.” Great nugget. I think that rancor led to much of what we’ve heard from Wilson and his agent this offseason.
5. I think the football world owes a debt to Irv Cross, who died Sunday at 81. After playing corner in the league for nine years, he coached for one, then became a trailblazing CBS NFL analyst. In 1975, he was part of the four-person NFL Today pregame team, the first Black broadcaster to co-host a football studio show. Every Sunday afternoon for 15 years, Cross was the calming analyst on the best studio show in sports. He influenced scores of future broadcasters.
RIP to a legend. As a kid, I watched the NFL Today every Sunday harboring football dreams. Little did I know, the Black announcer was a former Pro Bowler blazing a path that I and many other players would follow to the TV booth. pic.twitter.com/AKkCVvEX6r
— Bucky Brooks (@BuckyBrooks) March 1, 2021
6. I think for those of you wondering how Tiger Woods’ car-crash injuries compare to the devastating injury suffered by Alex Smith (count me in that group) and wondering about the chances of Woods paying golf again, I’ve got some answers. Spoke with NBC’s sports medicine analyst, Mike Ryan, a former NFL head athletic trainer, about Woods on Friday.
FMIA: How does Woods’ injury compare to the one suffered by Smith in 2018?
Ryan: This is in my opinion worse than Alex Smith’s. Tiger suffered a ‘crush’ injury, not the kind of twisting injury with force Smith suffered. Smith had a compound fracturef his lower tibia and fibula, just above the ankle. Woods has compound multiple open fractures of both the upper shin and the lower shin, with the skin broken, plus foot and ankle fractures as well. From an orthopedic review, Tiger’s is a far more complicated scenario.
FMIA: What are the other complicating factors?
Ryan: One of the complicating factors is the time Tiger was in the car before being removed. I remember watching the Dak Prescott injury last year, and within a minute of him going down, [Dallas head athletic trainer] Jim Maurer was on the field, putting sterile gauze over the bone open wound where Dak’s bone had protruded through the skin. We don’t know how long Tiger was in the car before being removed, and what if anything might have come into contact with his multiple open wounds. Infection is such a major factor in cases like this. Also, the cases of Alex Smith and Dak Prescott, you’re dealing with team orthopedic surgeons who are among the best in the world at what they do. In this case, Tiger’s taken to a trauma center with no control over who is taking care of him. It’s an emergency. ‘We got ortho trauma in OR 3!’ I’m sure the orthopedic surgeon is an excellent one—it’s just different when it’s an orchestrated situation with head athletic trainers, team doctors and agents hand-selecting an elite sports physician.
FMIA: You seem more concerned with the ankle and foot than the shin. Why is that?
Ryan: The shin doesn’t scare me, even with multiple fractures. Put a rod in there and it’ll heal. The foot, for me, for someone who is really athletic, is concerning. And the foot, the arch is one of the more mechanically complex structures in the human body. They build span bridges based on the construction of the human arch. The arch and its relationship to the ankle is very important to an athlete. Tiger’s agent reported screws and pins where needed to stabilize his foot and ankle. For me, what will dictate how he moves, how he runs, has more to do with the foot and ankle healing correctly than the shin fractures.
FMIA: What kind of patient do you have to be to have the best chance of healing from this, to return to a normal life?
Ryan: You have to be a patient patient. You have to be diligent, and stay on top of everything. You have to do the little things. Tiger is smart—he knows you have to ‘small-chunk’ this, be patient, build the foundation first, and he knows this because he’s been through so many rehabs with his back and left knee. Tiger’s recovery will be a process. Build the foundation first. But make no mistake: This will be a long and painful rehab. This is a challenge of a magnitude Tiger has never had to face.
FMIA: Gut feeling: Will Tiger, who is 45, ever be back to playing tour golf?
Ryan: Pro golf, in a competitive manner? I’d say no. Will he get back and play golf again? Yes, if he wants to. He will give himself his best chance to play. The question will be, at what level will he be able to play? Down the road, the optimistic athletic trainer and physical therapy side of me says we’ll see an epic Tiger return to the golf course. The realistic side of me? I just don’t know.
7. I think this was the Football Story of the Week: ESPN’s Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta, with a study of De Smith’s leadership of the NFL Players Association.
a. Such deep reporting, with great stuff about the play-by-play in a decade-old negotiation between owners and players, with a f-bombing faceoff over expanding the schedule from 16 to 18 games. And about how the league got the 17th game from the union. Wrote Wickersham and Van Natta:
The cornerstone of a league proposal in June 2019 had been to expand the regular season for the first time since 1978, from 16 to either 17 or 18 games. For years, management had floated a longer regular season, but the notion was always roundly dismissed by players — and Smith — as a cynical money grab that not incidentally would pose a greater risk to their health and safety. This time, the owners were serious.
And players stood in near-uniform opposition. They wanted higher salaries and better benefits for their current workload, providing labor for America’s most popular sport. Standing in front of the players, left hand in his pocket, right hand in motion, Smith captivated the audience the way he once did as a young litigator inside a courtroom. “My legal advice to you guys on that — I don’t vote — would be to say, h-to-the-hell f— no about 18 games,” Smith told players. “If we give them the right to dictate our work, nothing good is coming out of it.”
But 17 games? That, it turns out, was different.
b. Governing NFL players (and negotiating for them), I’ve always thought, is so difficult because of two things. One: Rank-and-file players’ careers are so short that the idea of going on strike is a non-starter. I watched in 1987, my fourth year covering the league, as the NFL players went on strike after two weeks and the league immediately hired “replacement players,” and after one week off, began playing games with charlatans in Giants and 49ers and Bills uniforms. Two weeks into that, famous players like Lawrence Taylor began crossing the line and the strike collapsed. No strike since. De Smith knows players will not stomach a strike. The rich ones will, but the rich ones are not the majority of players in the NFL. Two: Players have such a gigantic chasm of interests. Last year in the NFL, there were about 1,000 players—including practice-squad players—making the NFL minimum or less, in the case of 512 practice-squad players in 2020. Those players are going to care if the minimum salary goes up, say, 20 percent, because they know their careers are likely going to be short and they want to make as much as they can as fast as they can. It’s hard if not impossible to get the 52nd player on the roster to care about the same things as Aaron Rodgers. If the union negotiates for a 17th game, most of the bottom-of-the-roster players are happy, because it’s an extra paycheck in the season for them.
c. I do understand, and appreciate, smart lawyers like Cyrus Mehri saying there are other ways to attack a negotiation with owners, and other legal means to get what the players want. But with the likelihood that Smith will retain his power in the union well into the future, there’s little chance of a significant change in negotiating strategy with owners till the end of this decade-long agreement.
d. So while I empathize with those angry with Smith over the issues raised in the Wickersham/Van Natta story—and the apparent power-grab to stay in office would certainly make me angry if I were a rank-and-file player—Smith also has the kind of job that always has an invisible but permanent barrier in front of him: the fact that he knows his players won’t strike (at least for an extended period) to force a revolution in the way players are treated.
e. People can quibble with some points in this story, or things that are emphasized versus not, but this is the kind of reporting that’s endangered in the country today, with 18,000 local newspapers having disappeared in the last 20 years. I’m glad Wickersham and Van Natta devoted the energy to it.
8. I think I fully understand the many Niners fans who thought my suggestion of Kirk Cousins for Jimmy Garoppolo and a first-round pick was a crazy overpayment to Minnesota. When they’re both on the field, there’s not that big a difference. I’d rather have Cousins, but it’s a close call. But there’s the “when they’re both on the field” part. Cousins has missed one of his last 96 games due to injury. Garoppolo has missed 23 of his last 48 games due to injury. The question is: Is it worth a first-round pick to have the insurance of having a B quarterback on the field every week—or would you rather take the risk that Garoppolo, a B quarterback at best if his history is the judge, plays for 16 games? And if not, that you have a decent chance of winning with a Mullens or a Beathard or some other veteran backup? I’m not saying Cousins is the missing piece on a Super Bowl champ. I am saying, I might rather have the insurance of the 13th-best quarterback (or whatever you’d rate Cousins), knowing he’s likely to be on the field every week.
9. I think the report from John Ourand of Sports Business Journal that “Inside the NFL” will move to Paramount+ really hit me between the eyes. I worked on “Inside the NFL” for a few years beginning in 2002 when it was on HBO. We won Outstanding Studio Show in the Sports Emmys in 2002, 2004 and 2005, and did some great TV, I thought. (Well, of course I would.) I remember lots of stories, maybe the most poignant walking 21 miles in a day across central Tennessee with former Giants defensive end George Martin in 2007, accompanying him through the sticks (and through an Amish village with horse-drawn carriages passing him) in the midst of his walk from the George Washington Bridge to the Golden Gate Bridge to raise money for sick 9/11 victims. Anyway, HBO had “Inside the NFL” for 31 years, then Showtime had it for 13 years, and now it’s going to be taken off cable TV, and it’ll be streamed starting next year. I guess that’s just the new world of media rights today, a sign of the rapidly changing times.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. The late Terez Paylor was eulogized in his native Detroit on Wednesday, as family and friends came together to say goodbye to the ace NFL reporter/columnist/podcaster, who died in Kansas City Feb. 9 at age 37. Yahoo! Sports, the Wall Street Journal (where his fiancée works) and the Kansas City Star (where Terez wrote before going to Yahoo!) teamed up for a scholarship fund at his alma mater, Howard University. The information can be found here.
b. Terez’s all-too-short life should be a beacon for journalists for years, and this scholarship, properly funded, will make sure his career will live on in future Howard-educated journalists. Please consider giving if you can. Thank you.
c. Pete Thamel! Congrats to you and Kate on your Saturday wedding. (P.S. Does Kate know you like to work?) Couldn’t be happier for a friend in the business than I am for Pete, one of the great writers I have the privilege of knowing.
d. I praised “The Queen’s Gambit” in this space last week. Then I watched the last of the seven-episode series a few days ago, and I’m going to say even nicer things. The drama, the tying-together of so many different plot lines, the ending — all superb. [SPOILER ALERT] Stop reading this note if you’re in the middle of watching the show. I will continue my thoughts on the final show in 10v.
e. Podcast of the Week: “Odessa,” a four-part pod about a school system in West Texas in trouble in the pandemic, from The Daily at the New York Times. This first episode introduces you to the characters in one American city trying to make education work in the midst of a severe economic crisis (the oil bust in Texas), with a superintendent, a very caring teacher balancing in-person and remote learning (hint: it’s impossible), a marching band determined to make it through the hard times, and a student working at a fast-food restaurant with an earphone in—to try to follow her classroom via remote learning.
f. I once had a journalism professor at Ohio University, Roger Bennett, who told me, “Your job is to take people where they cannot go, to teach them things they do not know.” The team that did this pod—including Annie Brown, Sindhu Gnanasambandan and Soraya Shockley—show us such an important picture of what blended learning is like, and what heroes teachers are, and how hard the past year has been for students. It’s terrific.
g. The Odessa senior in the pod, Joanna Lopez, is the student balancing a job (while listening to school lessons), the band, and trying to graduate so she can go to college. “The problem with working your first job during class time is that it’s hard to listen to your econ class while trying to remember how to make a Mango Magic.” Joanna is trying to finish her final year of high school from home — and while working at her part-time job. But she still has one physical connection to school: the marching band. “Band was the first place I felt welcomed,” she said. “I actually had friends in band. My first boyfriend was in band. My first heartbreak was in band. So it taught me a lot, not just about music, just about life.”
h. Football Feature of the Week: Jarrett Bell of USA Today on Bill Nunn, the Steelers’ super scout and miner of HBCU talent and key to the Pittsburgh dynasty. So many of you wondered when Nunn was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame recently, “Who is Bill Nunn? Why Nunn for the Hall?” Bell answers those questions exquisitely. “You learned from him every day, up to the last day with us,” GM Kevin Colbert told Bell.
i. Obit of the Week I: Katherine Q. Seelye of the New York Times on the death of Kathleen Ham.
j. This is a remarkable story. That’s all I can say. In 1974, Kathleen Ham was 26, dreaming of a big life in the publishing industry in New York, and she was raped. But the rapist was not convicted, and he went on to rape at least 20 more women before finally being caught and retried.
k. Kathy Ham’s life was ruined, but before she died, she was part of the second prosecution that, sort of, revived her faith in humanity. Great line from Seelye’s story, incorporating a quote from the story: “He’s been out there for 32 years,” [Ham] said in a voice turned gravelly by years of chain-smoking. “And I’ve been in my own private jail.”
l. Obit of the Week II: Corey Kilgallon of the New York Times on the death at 93 of Reggie Jones, who was a lifeguard on Long Island’s Jones Beach.
m. For 64 years.
n. Reggie Jones, man. What a guy. What a life! Sixty-four years a lifeguard! Rescuing more than 1,000 people! As Kilgallon wrote:
Mr. Jones, a World War II Navy veteran, began his lifeguard career at Jones Beach as a teenager in 1944 and worked every summer — including several years at other state beaches on Long Island — until 2009, making more than 1,000 ocean rescues. Even well into his 70s, Mr. Jones continued to astound his fellow lifeguards by passing the beach’s notoriously demanding recertification test each spring.
A funny, flamboyant figure, he would show up in his old woolen one-piece tank-top lifeguard suit and pass the strenuous pool sprint. He last passed the test in 2008, when he was 80.
Mr. Jones’s son said that he requested he be cremated and his ashes scattered in the ocean off Jones Beach from a rescue dory.
“He never had a formal swimming lesson, but he was so strong he could have passed any test,” the younger Mr. Jones said. “Once he got the job, he said, ‘Valhalla, I have arrived.’ ”
o. Feature Story of the Week: Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area, on the memorable life and impact of the NFL’s first Black game official, Burl Toler. Men like Toler should never be forgotten, and it’s great that Maiocco wrote this. From the story:
Burl Toler became the first Black NFL official in 1965. He spent 25 seasons as a field judge and head linesman. Nobody but Toler really knew what he dealt with during a quarter-century of work in NFL stadiums across every section of America. And his children can only imagine because Toler never spoke a word of the inescapable racism he faced along the way.
But when [son] Martel saw a plastic shell that fit inside his father’s officiating hat, he asked for an explanation. “He said there’d been times when people had thrown stuff at him,” Martel remembered. “It looked like a normal hat when he had it on, but I guess it was a little protective shield that he had.”
p. TV Story of the Week: Amna Nawaz of PBS NewsHour on why so many health-care workers are turning down the vaccine for COVID-19—and how some are being convinced to take it.
q. I understand the vaccine skeptics. This is a deep look into why some who were skeptical have come around. It’s quite thoughtful.
r. Sad Restaurant Story of the Week: Eastern Standard, one of the best restaurants in Boston (and, quite frankly, anywhere) has closed, per Kara Baskin of the Boston Globe.
s. Eastern Standard was big and loud and lovely, bursting at the seams before and after Red Sox games, just down the block from Fenway Park. And what a beer menu. Just incredible, from all points of six states of New England and beyond. The guy who ran Eastern Standard, Garrett Harker, once saw me, said hello, knew I liked beer and said I had to try this IPA from Vermont. Heady Topper, it was called. Exquisite. Big can, and you didn’t dare put it in a glass. Must be consumed from the silver can—which was fine. Then he told me the tale of Heady Topper. He had a worker who’d drive up to Vermont to the brewery or to local beer stores every couple of weeks and buy this rare IPA jewel, maybe four cases of it, and ferry it back to Boston, maybe three hours in a car. He wouldn’t put Heady Topper on the menu, but the wiseguys knew to ask for it. A privilege, to have been awarded one. Anyway, the pandemic got it, just as it’s gotten so many wonderful places. From Baskin’s story:
In a 2015 appreciation of Eastern Standard, which that year marked its 10-year anniversary, Globe food critic Devra First wrote, “This is the place you come before and after the game, to celebrate a birthday, late at night, in the middle of the day, for a casual dinner, for a nice dinner, for brunch, when you’ve got kids with you, when you’ve got vegetarians with you, when someone in your party has a food allergy, when someone in your party is picky, when your nonagenarian nana and punk-rock niece are going to be celebrating at the same table, when you are by yourself and don’t want to deal with anyone at all except a bartender who will hand you a well-made cocktail and know enough to leave you alone.”
t. That is a huge loss for Boston. Not quite on the level of Mookie Betts, but a big downer nonetheless.
u. Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in an NBA game 59 years ago tomorrow in Hershey, Pa. Still seems incredible to me.
v. Episode Seven of “The Queen’s Gambit:” The most perfect thing about the seven shows, to me, was not Beth Harmon stunning the chess world by her triumph in Moscow. It was what she did in the final minutes—getting out of the limo on the way to the airport, going to the Moscow park with the old men playing chess, accepting their friendly adulation even though she just whipped their countryman, and sitting down at one of the tables, and saying to the man across from her, “Sygrayem.” (Russian for “Let’s play.”) Fade to black. Perfect.
w. Well, Andrew Cuomo. Ten months ago, you basked in the glow of your handling of the pandemic. Now with the nursing home deaths, bullying accusations from all corners and charges of harassment from two former aides, I wonder: Who exactly are you? Leaders of people in any era, and particularly in one when so many lives and jobs hang in the balance, must exhibit earnestness, selflessness and transparency. I don’t see those traits in Cuomo anymore. I see devious traits, at least in the charges he faces, and traits totally unbecoming of a governor.
x. Congrats on your retirement, Marty Baron. Baron’s leadership not only as executive editor of the Washington Post but as leader in all of journalism will be sorely missed. Baron to Judy Woodruff on the PBS NewsHour: “So many people now are going to sources of information, or so-called information, that affirms their pre-existing point of view. They are looking to be affirmed, not necessarily to be informed. Being informed means that you learn things you didn’t know otherwise, or things that may contradict your pre-existing expectations or perceptions, and that’s a challenge for us.” Us, meaning in the news business. That’s a big part of the challenge for reporters in the years ahead.
Always thought Russell
Wilson would retire a ‘Hawk.
Having second thoughts.