It did not take Ohio State coach Ryan Day long to warm up to the topic of his draft-eligible quarterback, Justin Fields, and work ethic, and being the “last one in and first one out” in football prep last season. One question, to be exact.
“The whole idea that he doesn’t have a very good work ethic?” Day said over the phone Saturday afternoon. “I mean, to me, that’s crazy. He got done with the Clemson game [the loss in the college football playoffs in the 2019 season] and he came back and all he did was work to get back to that game. And when those other guys are opting out, what’s he do? He petitions to have a season. He put together this petition that the Big Ten athletes all signed saying that they want to play, but they want to play safely and that they don’t accept canceling the season. It was all led by Justin Fields. Where was everybody else? Where were the guys who were opting out then? You know, you don’t love the game if you’re doing something like that. This kid loves the game.
“I heard something about the last one to come in, first one to leave. First off, the scouts weren’t in our building all year. Last one in? Every morning, at least every morning we could be in the building, early, he’s in with [football sports performance czar] Mickey Marotti. The guys who were self-motivated and could do things on their own, those were the ones who made it. He was unbelievable. He changed his diet, he got stronger. He did better than most.”
Later, Day told me: “I think some people are being a little reckless with their comments.”
It’s the netherworld time of year, the time before the draft when nothing of great consequence—including overrated Pro Day workouts—takes place, and fact-finding is done by teams (often in Zoom interviews this year), and prospect reports are solidified. When there are 116 days between the last time most college teams played a football game and the draft, there’s an incredible amount of time to mine opinions in the NFL from coaches and scouts. And, in turn, to pass on those opinions on the multitudinous draft-loving TV shows in the weeks before the draft.
So ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky, a former quarterback and good young analyst, went on “The Pat McAfee Show” and threw out some red flags on Fields. Major ones. Because he’s a respected voice, Orlovsky’s words got huge. “I have heard that he is a last-guy-in, first-guy-out type of quarterback,” Orlovsky told McAfee. “Like, not the maniacal work ethic . . . Where is his desire to be a great quarterback?”
Orlovsky told me Saturday that people from a couple of teams did question Fields’ work ethic, but he regrets not having more “clarity and specificity” in his comments. In other words, he should have said something like, This is not what I know first-hand, but in talking to people I know in the league, two teams questioned Justin Fields’ work ethic, and that could be a concern. It’s important that Orlovsky be free to pass along information he finds credible, but it’s equally important to put that information in context.
Also: The problem with questioning Fields’ desire is everyone saw Fields take a kill-shot to his ribs in the second quarter of this season’s Clemson playoff game and he responded by having the game of his life. To me, Orlovsky—as a guy who played the position—needs to clap back when someone questions the desire of Fields after watching that Clemson game. Fields took an all-time shot from a Clemson linebacker midway through the second quarter, looked to be in agony, missed a play, returned to throw four TD passes in the next 22 minutes, and outplayed Trevor Lawrence. How do you do that if you’re low on desire? Give me 10 of those guys on my team.
Orlovsky has talked to both Fields and Day in the wake of his comments. “Justin didn’t have to take my phone call,” Orlovsky said. “He could have said, Screw that guy. I told him exactly what happened, said I wasn’t good enough in that moment, and that’s on me. He was like, I get it. It’s okay. I watch, and I know you’re someone who’s had my back. I appreciate you calling me. I felt like he was really mature, and I appreciated him hearing me out.”
What I know: In conversations with people from two teams that are studying the quarterbacks atop this draft, I didn’t hear any negatives on Fields’ work ethic or drive. One of these teams could well be in position to take one of the top quarterbacks, and this team has dug deep into the top passers. One of our problems in this business, particularly before the draft, is many of us don’t cover the college game. (And I will put myself at the head of the line, because I am not a big college football watcher during the fall.) Many years, my first contact with the draft prospects is at the combine—I’m never around them as college players. So it’s tricky for me to be authoritative on prospects. I ask those I’ve trusted in my years covering the NFL. In the case of Fields, those I trust say he’s got zero work ethic issues.
Fields is Black. What made the criticism more noticeable is the infamous narrative that Black quarterbacks are inferior to their white counterparts, or not as clever, or not as hard-working. With two recent Black-QB MVPs (Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson) and three others in the NFL’s top 10 (Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, Dak Prescott), we don’t often hear the tropes anymore. But Orlovsky’s comments opened some wounds there. I agree with what Dominique Foxworth—a former player and current ESPN analyst, who is Black—said here: “It does not mean it’s not a fair and true criticism of Justin Fields, but it’s important to be specific . . . I’m not saying that it’s not true, but it’s understandable that the racial biases that we have often leak into all parts of our lives, including football analysis.”
I would add this about prospects of any color: If some of the things an analyst hears from one or two coaches/scouts/GMs seem off-key based on what he’s seen (such as questioning Fields’ desire after his valorous performance against Clemson), then I’d say don’t use those criticisms until vetting it with two or three more people he knows well in the game.
Of course, Day is going to be pro-Fields and stick up for him. But Day made two other points I thought were interesting:
• On reads and game-plan prep. “He’s very, very intelligent. He reminds me a lot of [former Buckeye] Joe Burrow when it comes to that. Tell him something once, and he absorbs it,” Day said. Fields’ 56-yard TD pass to Chris Olave in the January playoff game came on his fourth read in the progression, and it was thrown 62 yards in the air, to Olave at the Clemson goal line. Over their time together, Day said Fields has become more comfortable telling him what he likes and doesn’t like in a game plan.
• On what he needs to improve: Day said there were a couple of times in 2020, most notably in a too-narrow win over Indiana, when Fields needed to show “better understanding when to create and then when to cut your losses.” Fields threw nine interceptions in his 22-game Ohio State career, and three came against the Hoosiers.
“In that Indiana game,” Day said, “I think he would tell you, he was trying to force it, and I think it’s . . . he never really said it to me but you know in a short season, he’s got pride too. We went up big in that game early and he wanted to go win the Heisman Trophy—that’d be my guess. It’s a lesson learned. It really bothered him for a while afterwards, but I told him that’s gonna happen as a quarterback. The question is, how do you respond? He responded well.”
That’s mindful of Josh Allen trying to do too much in his first two years in Buffalo, and settling in as a far less mistake-prone passer in 2020.
Orlovsky thinks Fields’ mechanics need to be streamlined so he can play a little faster in the NFL. After his impressive college run, Fields seems to be getting passed in the pre-draft run-up by Zach Wilson, Trey Lance and Mac Jones. In an ideal world, Fields goes to a team with no pressure to play right away and a good teacher of the position: Atlanta (head coach Arthur Smith) at four, New England (offensive coordinator John McDaniels) at 15 or with a trade-up, or New Orleans (Sean Payton, though the Saints pick 28th). Before the draft, players want to be taken as high as possible. Then they find out it’s more about where you go, not how high you go. The golden spot for a young quarterback is Atlanta. Smith’s a good teacher, and Matt Ryan’s a perfect tutor for a season or two. But it’s no sure thing the Falcons—who could take a franchise tackle or perhaps the best overall player in the draft in Florida tight end Kyle Pitts—will even take the heir to Ryan. So Fields will be a man of mystery in the next 24 days, till the first round is picked.
A postscript on Orlovsky, a Kornacki-type, full of information and dying to get it out: I know him as an earnest, hard-working analyst, still young in his chosen profession. He made a mistake—not in criticizing a first-round choice, but in how he did it, and then in not pushing back on what seems like a foolish narrative about desire. He’s good at what he does, and I’d bet he takes the L here and gets better from it.
Lots of fresh tributaries from the NFL meeting last week, including another NFL holiday, Dan Snyder’s not selling, how smart coaches should treat the 17th game, why Kansas City’s uniform-number proposal is likely to pass, the retirement of an anonymous man who should not be, and let’s not be disingenuous about the real meaning of the 17th game.
Plus: Devin McCourty urging people to “jump in fearless” and get the vaccine, ESPN’s week 18 bonanza, Jalen Suggs’ shot (and his tie to football) and Mark Few’s great non-call reminiscent of the Belichick non-timeout in the last minute of Super Bowl XLIX.
Stolen from the late Nick Cafardo’s “Updates on Nine” in his Boston Globe baseball notes column, here are 11 newsworthy people/things in football.
1. JULY 27? A HOLIDAY? Mark that date on your calendar, NFL fans. This is interesting: The NFL is thinking seriously of a “Midnight Madness” sort of opening to the training-camp season, with 28 teams opening on the same date and with some fanfare accompanying it. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement calls for teams to open camp 47 days before their first regular-season games, and so 28 of the 32 teams could (and I say could, because this is not final yet) open training camp on the same date—on or about Tuesday, July 27. (The two teams playing the Thursday night opener, plus the two teams playing the Hall of Fame game, would likely start a few days earlier.) The NFL has been good at inventing dates in dead spots of the calendar for the NFL to spring to front of mind. Late February: scouting combine. Mid-March: start of free agency. Late April: draft. So how about a special date in the dog days of summer? That’s what the league will try to do in the range of July 27 for 28 teams by celebrating the start of training camp.
2. PRESEASON WEIRDNESS. Not only will the league be getting used to three preseason games instead of four this year. But you can look for them on different days. In the past, coaches and GMs loved having games on Thursdays, because it allowed for a mini-bye for 30 of 32 teams entering the season. I am told there won’t be many summer Thursday exhibitions this year (if any) because there’s no need to play the last game early this year. The three preseason weekends are slated this year to be Friday-through-Sunday affairs: Aug. 13-15, Aug. 20-22 and Aug. 27-29. Why the change? The regular week-four games this year would have been played on a Thursday night, Sept. 2. Now Sept. 2-5 will be a bye weekend before the start of the regular season.
3. A VERY GOOD TRADE FOR ESPN. Looks like ESPN will lose the second game of the week-one Monday night doubleheader but gain a hugely valuable property this season: the week 18 Saturday doubleheader on Jan. 8, 2022. What a trade. In the last five years, the Monday night week one nightcap had a string of forgettable matchups: Tennessee-Denver, Denver-Oakland, Rams-Oakland, Chargers-Denver, Rams-San Francisco (pre-either team being good) with relatively poor ratings. Now, ESPN is likely to have one Monday night game in week one at the normal MNF gametime of 8:15 p.m. ET, with a doubleheader to kick off week 18.
In a normal last week of the regular season, the NFL has picked one game with (the league hoped) a win-and-in scenario for at least one of the teams playing. The other 15 games would be crammed into the early and late Sunday afternoon windows. Now, the league is planning a 2-13-1 setup of games in week 18: two on Saturday (late afternoon and Saturday night), 13 divided between the early and late Sunday afternoon windows, and the premier game of the weekend on Sunday night. Could the Saturday games be duds? Possibly. But last year, for instance, there were a few games with playoff significance, like Cowboys-Giants (with the winner copping the NFC East if Washington lost in Philadelphia Sunday night) that could be attractive standalone games rather than games competing against others for viewership on Sunday.
In any case, the new format is likely to start this fall—one Monday night game in week one, a Saturday doubleheader to kick off week 18. The “trade” is figurative, with the week 18 doubleheader added and the week one second Monday game subtracted … because ESPN will still have 17 Monday night games, as it has had, with the two week 18 games additional games awarded by the NFL.
4. THE 17TH GAME. Five thoughts on owners ratifying the playing of a 17th regular-season game.
• I doubt the stats will be revolutionized. The last time there was a change in the schedule, when the league went from 14 games in 1977 to 16 in 1978, the leading rusher actually had 402 yards less in 1978 (from Walter Payton’s 1,852 in ’77 to Earl Campbell’s 1,450 in ’78). Now, passing yards went up (nine QBs in 1978 exceeded Joe Ferguson’s 2,803 yards that led the league in 1977), but the game was getting more aerial entering the eighties. I believe teams won’t press pedal to the metal with their starters in all 17 games. Which leads to . . .
• A smart head coach would find 65 snaps during the year to rest virtually every starter on his team. Up or down by 20 or more in the last 10 minutes? Start pulling guys. When the starting quarterback is out, pull the left tackle and at least one other starter on the line. The human body might be able to play 65 more snaps in a regular season, but why risk key starters in garbage time any more than you have to?
• Green Bay at Kansas City, the best game 17 by far, vaults to the head of the TV schedule. Every network will want that one, and will fight for it.
• Early byes will be loathed more than ever. The first byes in 2018 and 2019 were in week four, and it switched to week five in 2020. Say byes begin in week five this year. That means at least two teams would finish the season playing 13 consecutive weeks. Imagine if one of those teams got one of the Saturday Wild Card slots and had to play a short-week game in its 14th straight week playing? I will be very surprised if the league re-institutes byes in week four—it’s much more likely byes will start in week five.
• A very personal note. I hate the 17th game. It’s not in the best interests of player—in the financial interests, of course, but not the health interests. The NFL could play 20 games, 22, 24. Fans would love it. You’re asking too much of the human body, I believe. My bet is that players, 20 years from now, will say (the majority, anyway), “I’d give back X percent of my dough for a shorter schedule.”
5. DANIEL SNYDER. Snyder borrowed heavily to buy out his three partners—at a reported $950 million—and now owns the team outright. That’s not great news for fans of the Washington Football Team. In the 22 seasons since Snyder bought the team, Washington has won four NFC East titles, is 2-6 in playoff games (winning two wild-card games and nothing beyond that), with zero playoff wins in the last 15 seasons. The good news is that Snyder consolidating ownership makes it easier for him to sell the team. The bad news is he has no intention of doing so.
I am told Snyder may take on partners in the future, to assuage the massive cash he’s had to raise to buy out his partners. But I am also told the team is intended to be passed down to the next generation of Snyders. One complicating factor (but probably not hugely complicating) is that Snyder could face significant league sanctions after the release of the report digging into the scandals related to Snyder’s and the team’s relationship and use of cheerleaders and female employees and media covering the team. I don’t believe he would be forced to sell the team, but we’ll see how serious the findings are.
6. WHAT IS, MY DREAM JOB? Aaron Rodgers embarks on a two-week run as a sub for his late hero, Alex Trebek, tonight on “Jeopardy!” Suffice to say he’s been cramming. Rodgers told ESPN he watched old episodes for tips on how to do everything Trebek did. “I wrote down all the different ways he would take it to break. I wrote down the stuff that he said coming out of break. Literally, I studied for this like no other. I wanted to absolutely just crush it,” Rodgers said.
Knowing what a Jeopardy! nerd Rodgers is, and knowing how much pride he takes in doing other things well, I’ll be surprised if he’s not very good, and very droll, at this. Like Trebek was.
7. PETER RUOCCO. Chances are you don’t know Ruocco, the 64-year-old NFL Senior VP of Labor Relations, who retired on Wednesday. I wouldn’t be writing about a retiring unknown if he/she hadn’t had a major impact on football. Ruocco has. For three decades, he was the league’s behind-the-scenes point man as the league transitioned into, then polished, free agency with a hard salary cap. At the end of the league’s virtual annual meeting last week, legal counsel Jeff Pash took the floor and told the owners about Ruocco’s importance in the player-movement era. “Many elements of that system—the cap, the franchise tag, the rookie pool, compensatory draft picks, performance-based pay, and many others—reflect Peter’s creativity,” Pash said. Then Giants President and CEO John Mara took the virtual floor and said, “Our time together included many long hours, days, and nights and trips all over the country and I can’t begin to overstate how important Peter was to the CBA negotiations and to all of our dealings with the players union.”
Turning to Ruocco, Mara said: “I think I speak for all the clubs and all the owners when I say to you that you have left an indelible mark on the NFL.”
So what exactly did Ruocco do? In the late eighties, when free agency was inevitable, Ruocco worked toward a system where, as he said last week, “A team should never have Joe Montana and Steve Young on the same team. A team should never lose John Elway. And when you lose good players, you should have a vehicle to replace them.” So was born free agency with a franchise tag, with the Compensatory Pick system that came later. Ruocco also helped birth the performance-based pay system, designed to funnel low-salaried young players the kind of money they deserved by virtue of their play on the field but didn’t get because they were either low-round picks or young free agents. For instance, Kansas City cornerback Charvarius Ward earned a salary of $570,000 in 2019—when he started 16 games and played 1,048 plays—and earned an extra $654,750 in the league’s performance-based pay system.
Recently, I think one of the smartest things in collective bargaining has been the practice-squad elevation rule in the 2020 collective bargaining agreement. Ruocco was in the middle of that. Last season, the NFL and the union agreed to a system allowing up to two practice-squad players per week to be elevated to the active roster. “The beauty of this rule,” Ruocco told me Friday, “was you don’t have to put a guy on IR, you can elevate a guy you’ve been developing, the player makes more money, the team can evaluate the player, and you can get the value of him playing a game. That rule, I believe, will prove to be very fruitful for the league.” It’ll live through this CBA, till Ruocco is 74—and hopefully longer.
8. DESHAUN WATSON. I may be in the minority, but I actually think Watson attorney Rusty Hardin finding 18 women who swear the under-fire QB was perfectly well-behaved in their massage sessions might be detrimental to his case. What person uses 40 masseuses in four years? Plus, it’s hard to forget the stories from the civil cases filed by masseuses against Watson, and another from Jenny Vrentas of Sports Illustrated; she found a massage therapist who has not joined the cadre of women suing Watson for sexual harassment or assault but who tells her own harrowing tale of working with him. It just makes the hole deeper for Watson.
With one criminal case now being filed—meaning it will be investigated by local police—authorities will now judge whether there’s enough evidence to charge Watson with a crime. If that happens, it could be a game-changer with NFL discipline; the league would intercede with discipline in a criminal case, but not usually in a civil case or cases.
9. THE VACCINE. As I reported three weeks ago, it’s unlikely the league will force players to get vaccinated in order to play in 2021. “Unlikely” has turned into “virtually impossible,” seeing that some people in America (including football players and perhaps coaches) have intractable opposition toward vaccinations. The last thing the NFL wants to do is make it a hard-and-fast rule that players must be vaccinated in order to play. Imagine fighting a franchise quarterback who refuses to get the vaccine.
Now, the NFL has been focusing more on education, with separate Zoom calls with head coaches, some players, and the owners, explaining why they should get the vaccine. The Patriots will release a PSA today (you can see it here) with team leaders Matthew Slater and Devin McCourty, who are Black, appealing to fans and the Black community to consider vaccinations for COVID-19. On the PSA, McCourty says: “When the vaccine was first spoken about, I said, ‘No way. No shot I’m getting the vaccine.’ But I’ve been very fortunate to sit on three or four Zoom calls with three or four different doctors, and one of the biggest impacts for me was, I got to see a doctor who looked like me . . . He understood the mistrust in the communities because he grew up with that same mistrust.”
McCourty said getting the vaccine is a personal decision. “I was able to think about that personal decision because I was equipped with all the information,” he said. “I was educated. So I am urging everyone, please, educate yourselves. Find out if this vaccine is for you. If it is, jump in. Jump in fearless. Go and do this.”
10. PRESSLEY HARVIN III. He’s a punter from Georgia Tech, the highest-rated punter in this draft. ESPN’s Matt Miller projects him to go around round five, pretty good seeing that only 17 punters have been drafted in the last 10 years. A few things make Harvin compelling. One: He led the nation with a rather astounding 44.8-yard net punting average in 2020, and he punted 44 games over four years at Tech. He’s from a tiny town in South Carolina, Alcolu (population 430). And he’s Black. There haven’t been a lot of Black punters in recent NFL annals (Greg Coleman, Reggie Roby, Marquette King are three that come to mind), and Harvin would like to do something about that.
First: Both of Harvin’s parents were driven to help him with his passion, which became punting. They didn’t have much money, and the local church, Mount Nebo Missionary Baptist Church, did fundraisers to help the family find opportunities for him. Enough money was raised to fund a trip to a national punting camp in Wisconsin after his freshman year in high school—and Harvin was the best high school punter there. He understands that it’s always taken a village to get him where he is. “My parents, my community, my church have given me more than I could ever ask for,” Harvin said. He needed the help. This wasn’t the case of a deep-pocketed family being able to fly their son all over the country for camps and specialized lessons.
Now he wants to make sure he gives back, the way help was given to him. “I am striving to be the best punter I can be,” said Harvin. “But when I’m on an NFL team, hopefully, I want to give back to other African-American specialists who might not otherwise have the opportunity, maybe with scholarship to get to camps. One day, maybe one of them will take my job, which would be great. My success will only be as big as the people who come behind me.” It’ll be hard to not root for Pressley Harvin III, wherever he lands on draft weekend.
11. JIMMY GAROPPOLO. The 49ers maintain privately they’ll keep Garoppolo, and for 2021, I believe them. This trade for the third pick in the draft is meant to enrich the quarterback position more than it is to dump Garoppolo. In fact, I’ll be very surprised if they move the oft-injured incumbent, because how can you count on a rookie to play at a high level five months after the draft? You can’t.
The Niners know they struck gold in 2019 in getting to the Super Bowl, and the pieces are in place for another run—if they stay healthy—in 2021. But in the three non-super Bowl seasons since the Lynch/Shanahan tenure began, the team is 6-10, 4-12 and 6-10. Not good enough. And a trade of Garoppolo would leave them too thin, again, at quarterback.
One more thing: I’m not very bullish on the Patriots making a move for Garoppolo this year. At all. When Bill Belichick worked under Bill Parcells with the Giants, I know he had to hear Parcells harp on availability being more important than ability, and I just can’t see Belichick making a big investment (in a pick and in a contract) in a guy who’s missed 23 games in the last three years due to injury. Plus, if New England gets a quarterback, somehow, high in this draft, they’d have salary-manageability and a young prospect, and the yearning for Garoppolo goes away. If the Patriots don’t get a quarterback this year, I could see them pursue Garoppolo on the cheap in 2022. We’ll see.
The NFL was bound and determined to increase the number of regular-season games to 17 in the new CBA, and it became official by virtual owner vote last week. We all know this is about creating a bigger pie (and the minimum salary will double over the life of the deal, from $510,000 in 2020 to $1.065 million in 2030, for example) and not about player health and safety. There is no way that the league should sell that the game will be safer in a 17-game season, or as safe. How could it be, when the league will ask starting players to line up for 6 percent more plays in a regular season—which is about what the average game of 65 additional plays equates.
But in announcing the decrease of the preseason from four to three games and the increase of the regular season from 16 to 17 games, commissioner Roger Goodell said, “We’re still within the 20-game format. That was something that was important to the NFLPA. The highest rate of injuries is actually in a preseason game. We’re actually following the data.”
There may be fewer injuries, but to whom? The average NFL starter hasn’t been breaking a sweat in preseason games for years. Equating a preseason and regular-season game is a ridiculous comparison for Goodell to make.
In 2019, the most recent year exhibition games were played, 85 regular-season week-one starters did not play a snap in the preseason, including starting quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz and Philip Rivers. Those 85 starters are the equivalent of four teams resting every starter throughout the summer. Drilling down, the average starting NFL player in 2019 played about one half of one exhibition game, per NFL data. To be precise, starting players played, on average:
- 9 percent of the snaps in the week-one preseason game.
- 18 percent of week-two preseason snaps.
- 6 percent of week-three preseason snaps.
- 7 percent of week-four preseason snaps.
The average starting player plays between 80 and 85 percent of his team’s snaps in a regular-season game. And that average starter played 13.8 percent of the preseason snaps in 2019 . . . basically, about two quarters.
So if the preseason yields more injuries, it’s rarely the stars getting hurt. It’s the guys battling to make rosters and playing the vast majority of the snaps in August.
Goodell could have, and should have, simply said the league continues to be focused on every way to make the game safer. And the league is trying to make it less of a car-crash game, with position-specific helmets on the horizon and more stringent attention on helmet-to-helmet hits and prohibiting lowering the helmet to make contact. But for Goodell to say the reduction of a preseason game in favor of a 17th real game is following the science on health and safety is an insult to any educated follower of the game.
“I just can’t believe that happened.”
—Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs, after his 40-footer at the buzzer in the Final Four semi beat UCLA 93-90 Saturday night.
“One of the great games in Final Four history!”
—Jim Nantz, CBS, after one of the great games in Final Four history.
“But I’m a statue.”
—Alabama Mac Jones, picked up by NFL Network mics muttering to himself sarcastically after rolling left and throwing a nice pass during the Alabama Pro Day. Jones, of course, has been dinged for his relative lack of athleticism in the pre-draft process.
“I’m sure Jimmy was a little pissed off from it, just like I would be. Knowing Jimmy, the more mad he gets, the better he gets. So if Jimmy gets madder and stays healthy, this is going to be a good thing for Jimmy, which could be a good problem for the 49ers.”
—San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan, on the reaction of starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to the looming first-round selection of a quarterback by the Niners.
Headline of the Week
—The front sports page of Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, after Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs banked in a 40-footer at the buzzer to beat UCLA in overtime.
A curious rules proposal by Kansas City—one I hear is likely to pass later this month when owners vote on 2021 rules changes—is actually a necessary one. You may have heard the NFL will consider a major change to the numbers players may wear. The Kansas City proposal would make these new number-ranges legal:
QB, punter, kicker: 1-19.
RB, TE, WR: 1-49, 80-89.
LB: 1-59, 90-99.
DL: 50-79, 90-99.
So, you ask: Why? Let me give you an example. Last year, when the practice squads expanded to 16 players per team, it put a crush on numbers, particularly for teams that have some retired numbers. Take Kansas City. The current numbering system allows for running backs and defensive backs to wear numbers 20 through 49. Tight ends and linebackers can use 40-49 as well as other numbers. So when defensive backs, running backs, tight ends and linebackers all can claim those 30 numbers, and team had (not including players on IR) 69 active and practice-squad players, there can be a run on 20 through 49.
Kansas City has three numbers (28, 33, 36) retired in that range, plus a fourth, Joe Delaney’s 37, that is not issued. (Delaney, a KC running back, drowned in 1983 trying to save three children in a Louisiana pond.) That leaves 26 numbers that can be issued between 20 and 49. A look at the Kansas City roster on Jan. 1, 2021 shows three players issued number 30 last season:
• Defensive back Alex Brown, who wore the number in camp before tearing his ACL and being sidelined for the year.
• Defensive back Deandre Baker, issued number 30 when he was signed to the practice squad Nov. 19. He played two late-season games.
• Running back Elijah McGuire, issued number 30 when he was signed to the practice squad Dec. 22. He was never activated.
The number changes could be maddening, but with the likelihood that the practice squad will be either 14 or 16 players in 2021, and with the retired numbers helping clogging up rosters league-wide (Chicago has 14, San Francisco 12, the Giants 11, Kansas City 10, Philly nine, the Rams and Colts eight), it’s a necessary adjustment.
Pretty great that the shot heard ‘round the world Saturday night happened on 4-3-21.
Jalen Suggs, who hit the miracle shot for Gonzaga on Saturday night, is the only Minnesotan to win high school player of the year in football (and a dual-threat QB) and basketball in the same season, per Gil Brandt.
Suggs is also a second cousin of former Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs.
— LeBron James (@KingJames) April 4, 2021
LeBron James, after the 40-footer at the buzzer to lift Gonzaga over UCLA.
Does the Jets’ ticket department know something others don’t? pic.twitter.com/137suSpKl5
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) April 1, 2021
Schefter, the ESPN NFL info guru, unearthed this season-ticket brochure, featuring Sam Darnold, who may not be on this team a month from now. Or maybe he will be.
Ummm, not to be a contrarian or anything, but why not put Robert Saleh on the 2021 season-ticket brochure? If Darnold is on the team after the draft, then, we’re all lummoxes.
Salute to UNC Head Coach Roy Williams on a legendary 48-year career. All respect. Thank you for all you have done for the game, our league and the greatest rivalry in sports. 🤝
— Duke Men’s Basketball (@DukeMBB) April 1, 2021
Classy move by the Duke basketball program on the retirement of Roy Williams.
Kyle Pitts' PFF grade when lined up as a WR and covered by CBs: 92.8
He's a potentially unstoppable pass catcher at any receiving position.
— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) March 31, 2021
Sam Monson breaks down tape for Pro Football Focus.
— Michael Strahan (@michaelstrahan) March 30, 2021
One comment about Strahan, with the most famous gap-toothed grin in NFL history: I will forever miss the gap of my former Montclair, N.J., neighbor.
April Fool! Strahan’s leg-pulled one over on many of us. The Gap lives.
Re Deshaun Watson. From Mike Hull: “Thank you for urging everyone to avoid making judgments and to allow evidence to come forward on the Watson accusations. I’ve never had a massage, but I would imagine that if I did, I would find one person whose services I like and stick with that person. Watson’s pattern of bouncing to different massage therapists within one city strikes me as extremely odd. Is this typical for athletes? For anyone? If not, it seems that this should be a factor in determining the validity of these numerous claims.”
I have never heard of anything like this. Including the people proffered by Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, there are now approximately 40 women who are either confirmed to have massaged Watson or who claim they did, over a period of approximately four years. I cannot believe any athlete would hopscotch through 40 people in any profession in four years. That certainly doesn’t prove guilt. It is, at the very least, weird. As NFL team physician Dr. David Chao, now a media injury analyst, wrote the other day, an athlete cycling through that many masseuses in four years is “very strange.”
On the 17th game. From Gareth Irwin, of Hayling Island, England: “I have been reading your columns for 20 years. Love the fact you also include non-NFL stuff, as you say if people don’t like it they can skip a section. Just wanted to know on the 17th game: Was there any discussion about teams always playing a local rival from the other conference? For example, Cowboys-Texans, Eagles-Steelers, Rams-Chargers? I know not every team has a natural local rival but most do, and it would be great way to get some new rivalries for teams that don’t currently have one?”
I love that suggestion, Gareth, and it’s one that I made recently, with the idea of making that extra game a fun one with local ties. One league exec told me there were two big problems: One team might get stuck with playing a very good team traditionally, while another might get the benefit of playing a traditionally weak one.
Suppose that 24 teams can find a relatively decent “regional” rival. Such as: Jets-Giants, Philadelphia-Pittsburgh, Baltimore-Washington, Atlanta-Jacksonville, Miami-Tampa Bay, Dallas-Houston, Rams-Chargers, Arizona-Denver, San Francisco-Las Vegas, Tennessee-Carolina, Cleveland-Detroit, Indy-Chicago. That leaves four NFC teams (Seattle, Green Bay, New Orleans, Minnesota) and four AFC teams (Cincinnati, Buffalo, New England, Kansas City) with no logical rivalry, though I guess KC-Minnesota could be stretched to be one.
And remember: 24 owners have to vote to approve such a system, and I don’t see that happening. I always thought it would be fun if, annually, the league gave Howard Katz’s scheduling team the right to make boffo-ratings matchups. Anyway, it’s an interesting topic to discuss.
Thinks I am demeaning Antonio Brown. From Richard Worley: “Your statement about Tampa Bay’s player retention would have sounded more like reporting and less like publicity, if you had written: ‘Without Antonio Brown—so far—Tampa Bay retains 35 of 36 of its top players.’ Leaving out Brown seems petty—if we did not know you better. Give Brown his due.”
Petty? How so? I wrote that Tampa Bay had retained its 35 most significant people for the 2021 season. Read what I wrote correctly. The 35 people includes 30 players and five others (four coaches and the GM). I explained why Brown was not included as one of the 30 most significant players. He played 30 percent of the snaps during the 2020 regular season, and 29 snaps in the playoff win at New Orleans, zero snaps in the championship game at Green Bay (he was inactive), and 23 snaps in the Super Bowl. That’s 53 snaps in the three biggest games of the year, with six catches for 32 yards in those three games. I don’t consider Brown more important to the Bucs’ lineup than Cameron Brate or Scotty Miller, and, seeing as I counted O.J. Howard as one of the most important 30 players in 2021, I don’t consider Brown more important than Howard. If you do, it’s certainly your right.
This actually makes some gun sense. From John Barry, of Douglaston, N.Y.: “The Constitution was not intended to be a suicide pact. People absolutely have the right to bear arms. People also have the right to live, and to not be murdered by unstable lunatics. Ask yourself: ‘Am I more likely to be saved or murdered by one of my fellow citizens with an automatic weapon?’ There is no legitimate reason why automatic weapons should be permitted. Far too many tragedies, far too many lives destroyed. If we can’t outlaw the guns themselves, tax the ammunition at $100 per round.”
That’s an interesting idea, John. We need more ideas like that, rather than the blanket “there’s nothing we can do because there are so many guns” refrain we hear over and over. We’re the United States. We can think of solutions. We should not succumb to the idea that X number of murderous rampages every year are just part of the American landscape that we just get used to. Unfortunately, too many in power in our country value guns over lives.
He makes a good point. From Michael Babcock, of Oakland: “A couple of weeks back you talked about the fit between the NFL and Amazon. Here’s another fit: money is more important than employee health and well-being. The NFL adds a 17th game; this on top of their Thursday night games which don’t give players enough time to recover. This week Amazon’s been in the news for a couple things: Number one is knowing that their Prime drivers have to pee in a bottle because the expectations of work load doesn’t leave them time to take a bathroom break. Number two is their attempt at union-busting in Alabama – today’s story was about all the “fake” Twitter users defending Amazon. NFL and Amazon: truly a marriage made in heaven.”
As I’ve said, there is no organization in this country better at finding billions in perilous times than the NFL.
1. I think the NFL is targeting two dates a week apart to discuss the rules changes for 2020: (tentatively) April 14 and 21. As I’ve reported, expect the big order of business to be the owners approving an expansion of duties for the Replay Official upstairs. I also think, as I indicated above in Numbers Game, the Kansas City jersey-number expansion is likely.
2. I think, regarding the uniform numbers changes the NFL is considering, I would look for one big star to change his immediately. I hear Jalen Ramsey wants to return to a single number (he wore “8” for most of his Florida State career), and he won’t be the only one. I look for a spate of players to go into the single digits—just for fun.
3. I think I empathize with Kyle Shanahan on his angst regarding Jimmy Garoppolo. Listen to Shanahan’s explanation of said angst, and how he and John Lynch got to the point of deciding to deal up for the third pick in the draft:
“You’ve got a guy [Garoppolo] who’s really only played one year and in one year of football, when you look at the numbers he had, how efficient he was and how close we got to winning the Super Bowl, he’s got a lot of untapped potential also. So that’s a hard thing for us, too. It’s not like, we’re not giving up on Jimmy because he can’t play or anything. Jimmy can play. He’s only gotten to do it one year. We also like the person, too. We also know we can’t go through a year of what’s happened two out of the last three years. So, that’s something we had to protect the organization with, and there’s lots of ways to go into that, but it wasn’t just a slam-dunk decision on this guy can play, this guy can’t play. You’ve got a lot of options and you’re in a lot of different spots to acquire those and how does it all balance out? Trust me, I mean, my wife, when she listens to my phone calls with John when we’re trying to be on vacation, she thinks we’re having the same conversation eight times a day and we kind of are because we’re just circling through all this stuff. The first time I woke up with a little bit more clarity is when we made this trade, because it’s still not done like exactly where we’re going and stuff, but it was like, ‘All right, now it’s much more clear.’ There’s not as many dots to connect.”
4. I think I just can’t picture what the Carolina Panthers are going to do at quarterback. (Well, that changed quickly, with the Sam Darnold trade. More about that in next week’s column.)
5. I think Seattle should be congratulated, in a time of a tight salary cap for almost every team, for rewarding a worthy player, wideout Tyler Lockett, with a four-year, $69.2-million contract, per Adam Schefter. You want to instill in your players that they’ll be paid at least near market value if they produce, and Lockett has been a fearless producer, well worth the trust of this new deal.
6. I think Lockett has been one of the league’s underappreciated players. Proof? Check his last three years against two receivers most would consider brighter lights:
Amari Cooper: 47 games, 246 catches, 3,308 yards, 13.4 per catch, 20 TDs.
Tyler Lockett: 48 games, 239 catches, 3,076 yards, 12.9 per catch, 28 TDs.
Jarvis Landry: 47 games, 236 catches, 2,990 yards, 12.7 per catch, 13 TDs.
7. I think when the Tom Brady rookie card goes for $2.25-million, as it was auctioned for over the weekend, it’s definitely time to get back into card-collecting—and to curse my unlucky stars that somewhere between our family move from Montclair, N.J. to Boston in 2009 and the move back to New York in 2011, 37 years of mint or near-mint Topps sets (and some Donruss) disappeared. That was the end of cards for me.
8. I think I’d like to send along kudos to Alistair Kirkwood, who retired as managing director of NFL UK last week after 20 years promoting the game in the United Kingdom. Think of how the game has grown there, with 28 games in London in his tenure, most often with crowds over 70,000, with influential NFL TV shows on both BBC and Sky Sports, with highly rated games in the regular season and playoffs. Kirkwood’s work helped make so many in the UK big NFL fans. When I visited the country to write about the game there in 2017 and took a tour with some NFL players, I was shocked at the level of knowledge. I’d stay after events to talk to people. I remember one guy in a Ravens jersey and a thick British accent asking me in Liverpool, “You think Derek Barnett will be there for us in the first round?” Another guy said, “You think T.J. Watt’s a first-rounder?” Kirkwood’s not alone, of course, is bringing the game across the Atlantic, but he played a huge role. Congrats to him.
9. I think it’s all well and good to play Fantasy Owner Football and think Jeff Bezos would be a great add for the Chargers or the Broncos or whoever at some point in the future. But has Jeff Bezos ever expressed one scintilla of interest in owning an NFL team? Not that I’ve heard.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. I was writing this column Saturday night and paying little attention to the basketball when I saw on Twitter it was tight in the last two minutes of regulation. I turned it on. So glad I did. I know nothing about these teams or the players, but a great sports event is a great sports event. I’m just sorry someone had to lose. Heads high, UCLA. And wow, Gonzaga.
b. Quick thought about the strategy: I loved when UCLA scored to tie the game at 90 with 3.3 seconds left, and Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who had a timeout left, didn’t use it. Reminded me of Bill Belichick watching the seconds tick off the clock in the New England-Seattle Super Bowl, refusing to call time and instead putting the pressure on Seattle to figure out what it wanted to do with the next offensive snap. Of course, the Malcolm Butler interception for the ages decided the game, and Belichick looked smart for putting the pressure on Seattle. Same here—I thought Few understood that UCLA, scrambling back after tying the score, wouldn’t be able to set up any kind of organized defense for the last shot. And even though it was helter-skelter and a prayer for Gonzaga too, it was much better than allowing UCLA to take a breath and make a plan for an organized defensive play. Kudos to Few there. And Suggs, wow. No wonder so many football AND basketball coaches were recruiting him out of high school in Minnesota.
c. Apropos of nothing, I do not know why the mascot for a school with a color as its nickname is a tree. But hooray for Stanford winning the women’s title after taking such a hard road there. And good for Arizona, chopping down a very good UConn team to make it to the championship game.
d. Had the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine the other day. Life is good.
e. Cool Heist Story of the Week: Marc Wortman of Vanity Fair on one of the strangest and most captivating tales of thievery I’ve read in a long time. Wrote Wortman:
“Impossible,” said David Ward. The London Metropolitan Police constable looked up. Some 50 feet above him, he saw that someone had carved a gaping hole through a skylight. Standing in the Frontier Forwarding warehouse in Feltham, West London, he could hear the howl of jets from neighboring Heathrow Airport as they roared overhead.
At Ward’s feet lay three open trunks, heavy-duty steel cases. They were empty. A few books lay strewn about. Those trunks had previously been full of books. Not just any books. The missing ones, 240 in all, included early versions of some of the most significant printed works of European history.
Gone was Albert Einstein’s own 1621 copy of astronomer Johannes Kepler’s The Cosmic Mystery, in which he lays out his theory of planetary motion. Also missing was an important 1777 edition of Isaac Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, his book describing gravity and the laws of physics. Among other rarities stolen: a 1497 update of the first book written about women, Concerning Famous Women; a 1569 version of Dante’s Divine Comedy; and a sheath with 80 celebrated prints by Goya. The most valuable book in the haul was a 1566 Latin edition of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, by Copernicus, in which he posits his world-changing theory that Earth and the other planets revolve around the sun. That copy alone had a price tag of $293,000. All together, the missing books—stolen on the night of January 29, 2017, into early the next day—were valued at more than $3.4 million. Given their unique historical significance and the fact that many contained handwritten notes by past owners, most were irreplaceable.
Scotland Yard’s Ward was stunned. He couldn’t recall a burglary like this anywhere. The thieves, as if undertaking a special-ops raid, had climbed up the sheer face of the building. From there, they scaled its pitched metal roof on a cold, wet night, cut open a fiberglass skylight, and descended inside—without tripping alarms or getting picked up by cameras.
f. I didn’t steer you wrong on this one. It’s a gem.
g. Good to have baseball back. Interesting to be watching the Red Sox, who seem to be made over in the Rays way with GM Chaim Bloom. Marwin Gonzalez and Kiké Hernandez could play anywhere any game. It’s not going to be a great year for the Sox, but I’ll be interested to see if guys like Alex Verdugo and Bobby Dalbec can be long-term solutions.
h. Good interview with Xander Bogaerts by Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe. It’s got to be worrying for Rob Manfred to read one of the stalwarts of the game and the leader of a flagship franchise, Bogaerts, say this:
“I think about how you used to see hit-and-runs and bunts and stolen bases and now everybody is trying to hit a home run and if they don’t, they strike out. It has changed.
“I like baseball and I’ll watch games when they’re on. I think I watched most of the playoff games. But sometimes you do think to yourself that it’s kind of boring. I like stolen bases and I like seeing good defensive plays. I don’t know if you can change it back because everybody wants to hit home runs.”
i. In the first hour of the Red Sox opener Friday, Dennis Eckersley referred to fastballs as “cheese,” “hair,” and “gas,” and said a fastball that caught an Oriole looking was a pitch that “rocked his world,” and called the junk he used to get hitters out late in his career, “my 43-year-old salad.” Eckersley is priceless.
j. Football Video of the Week: “NFL 360: Changing Stripes—Sarah Thomas,” a piece about the Thomas’ journey from a girl who loved sports to the Super Bowl, produced ably by India Wright.
k. It’s a terrific eight minutes, particularly the stuff about her Mississippi hometown denying her the ability to play in a rec basketball league, and the emotion she shows, knowing her impact on women trying to break so many glass ceilings in sports.
l. And her daughter, Bailey Thomas, bursting with pride at her mom being on the field officiating the Super Bowl, is touching. Said Bailey: “My mom whistled, and I was like, ‘That just can’t be my mom.’ All of her kids were seeing her, and I thought, ‘Wow, Mom.’ “
m. Podcast of the Week: This American Life with an educational episode on the changing face of a college education. Host Ira Glass and reporter Paul Tough with a revealing look at how COVID has changed so much about the admissions process, and with an examination of the schools that are going SAT and ACT-free.
n. Best part of the pod: the enlightened practice at the University of Texas to admit any in-state high-school senior who ranks in the top 6 percent of his/her graduating class, regardless of standardized test score. The reason is because Texas wants to be inclusive to the best state students, including those from low-achieving districts, or those who don’t do well on standardized tests. There’s a heartwarming story of one University of Texas student, Ivonne, who got one non-A in her high school career, wanted a career in math, but found herself drowning in Calculus in her first semester at UT. But there are so many factors in why a student either succeeds or fails. Teachers determined to help struggling students is one—and Ivonne had two great ones in Calculus. Raw determination is another. Ivonne simply would not fail.
o. This American Life, the LeBron of podcasts in my opinion, followed Ivonne after her pothole-filled ride through this class . . . and you’ll learn what happened to her in her Texas career. She’s an inspiring person, and her story is such an important one in education.
p. Pandemic Effect Story of the Week: What happens when you leave home after a year of virtual learning and virtual work and virtual everything, and go back to the office or the classroom or workplace? Well, what happens to the daily nap you’ve gotten so used to? Ray A. Smith of the Wall Street Journal with a cool story—and it’s important to me, because I have become a 20-minute daily napper. Writes Smith:
When high-school teacher Ryan Tibbens learned he would be resuming in-person school in March, he embarked on a mission. He wanted to continue the naps he’d been taking while working from home over the past year.
“I didn’t want to pull the classic ‘Seinfeld’ episode where George Costanza sleeps under his desk,” said Mr. Tibbens, who is 37 and lives in Berryville, Va. So he bought a cot online and installed it in a backroom at school. He naps there for about 12 minutes during his 30-minute lunch break at least three days a week.
Although he says he got permission from school administrators, he said, “I’m still a little paranoid that somebody’s going to walk in and not know what’s going on, and be like, ‘Who’s this hobo in the back?’ ”
Mr. Tibbens is one of the lucky ones. Many people returning to offices in the coming months face an end to one of the secret perks of working from home: the daily nap.
q. Someone at the Wall Street Journal deserves massive kudos for finding a screen-shot of George Costanza actually sleeping under his Yankee Stadium desk.
r. Beernerdness: Whalers Rise American Pale Ale (Whalers Brewing Company, Wakefield, R.I.) was my beer of choice watching some baseball over the weekend. One of the best cans in American beer right now, as you can see, with a sharp, distinctive taste, full of hops.
s. Coffeenerdness: Had an excellent French-press brew over the weekend from Dave’s Coffee of Rhode Island. Just what you want out of a French press—rich and strong. (By the way, it’s a Rhode Island Drink Monday.)
t. Excellent job, Sen. Bernie Sanders, with this Tweet about mega-corporations not paying their fair share of taxes: “If you paid $120 for a pair of Nike Air Force 1 shoes, you paid more to Nike than it paid in federal income taxes over the past 3 years, while it made $4.1 billion in profits and Nike’s founder, Phil Knight, became over $23 billion richer.”
u. And excellent job, MLB, moving the baseball All-Star Game out of Atlanta this summer. As Arizona found out when its voters would not make Martin Luther King Day an official holiday and lost the Super Bowl because of it, Georgia now loses the All-Star Game because the state legislature passed a law that is likely to disenfranchise minority voters . . . after a presidential election when nothing amiss was found to suggest fraudulent voting.
v. For those who would say, “Keep politics out of baseball,” what do you suppose would have happened if the game was kept in Georgia, and Mookie Betts and Tim Anderson and empathetic players who are not Black said, “I’m not playing in the game?” And then any players who did choose to go and play could be judged harshly and angrily by some peers. And add this: What if Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said he wasn’t managing in the game? Moving it now means a spring and early summer and All-Star controversy disappears, with a statement made.
April. Rumor time.
Mystified re Atlanta
at 4. Guessing Lance.