Peter King is on vacation until July 26, and he lined up some guest writers to fill his Monday spot on Football Morning in America. Today, it’s Michael Holley, a multimedia personality who has experience in daily newspapers, sports talk radio, books, and TV. Holley currently works as a cohost on Peacock’s “Brother From Another” and NBC Sports Boston’s “Felger and Holley.” Holley is the author of several books, including Patriot Reign, a New York Times bestseller.
By Michael Holley
Andrew Berry approaches his team’s final game of the season the same way, year after year.
He avoids rewatching it.
He was that way in high school. And in his entire college career at Harvard. He was like that after his Cleveland Browns lost a divisional playoff game in January to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Why spend three hours looking backwards? The Browns general manager remembers all the details of the game. The Chiefs had the ball, a 22-17 lead, and a fourth-down play to either ice the game or turn it over on downs. That’s when backup Chad Henne, in for an injured Patrick Mahomes, completed a short pass to effectively win it. Observant Ohio sports fans recognized the irony. Henne, a Michigan man who never got a win against Ohio State, did what he had to at the worst time.
The Lead: Browns
If this were an old Browns story, this would be the place to drop in anecdotes of heartbreak, historic droughts, and dysfunction. But in a sense, northeast Ohio has followed the lead of its 34-year-old general manager. For the first time since Berry was born—1987, the year of The Drive—Cleveland is looking forward, knowing that the region has a realistic shot of supporting its first Super Bowl participant.
Nothing I wrote is exaggerated. Head coach Kevin Stefanski’s 2020 offensive scheme was as sensible and dynamic as any the city has seen in decades, and it will be bolstered with the return of Odell Beckham Jr. Berry oversaw offseason upgrades on defense. The organization was lauded for its smart draft choices, especially with second-round pick Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
As someone who grew up in Ohio, I can tell you that watching the various adventures of the Browns is a head trip. Every franchise has its own quirky history, but it’s hard to imagine many other teams who can claim that it had one owner who fired both Paul Brown and Bill Belichick and moved the team—all in under 35 years.
Even with that history, Berry is the right man for the job. He says of the general manager’s role, “The part that doesn’t get enough attention is crisis-management/problem-solving that’s not necessarily related to the game. It’s a leadership and management role. You could say it’s crisis management with football in between.”
For the first time since the 1980s, there is no obvious crisis. Berry keeps a running list of team needs and concerns on a OneNote document; the document isn’t as alarming as it was just two years ago. The Browns are a playoff team loaded with talent. They’re good enough for Berry to one day watch a final game and, a few weeks later, actually want to watch it again.
The first time I heard Chris Simms share an anecdote about a film-study debate he’d had with his father, I was curious. When he referenced something similar a few weeks later, curiosity shifted to flat-out nosiness.
There are numerous examples of fathers and sons who have played professional sports. That wasn’t the angle that most intrigued me with Simms and his former NFL quarterback father, Phil. I wanted to know more about the evolution of a relationship that often has the two on the phone for hours, talking about things that are hard to pinpoint.
“My wife will say, ‘You guys were on the phone for a long time; what did you talk about?’ And I’ll say, ‘Not much beyond talking ball,’’’ Chris says. “Our football relationship was teacher-student until, I’d say, my second year in the league. I was playing for Jon Gruden and I think my dad thought, ‘All right, he’s down there playing for Gruden. He’s learned a lot of football now.’ Since then, it’s been teacher-teacher.”
The education started at the kitchen table in 1986 when Phil, then the New York Giants’ starting quarterback, would be quizzed by his 6-year-old son. Chris knew the name and number of every player in the NFL. He’d hang out with his dad at Saturday walkthroughs, wait for him in the locker room after Giants victories, and eventually work his way up to being a receiver at various quarterback challenges that included his father, Brett Favre, and Dan Marino.
“Imagine growing up and your dad is the quarterback of the New York Giants,” Chris says. “Nothing can beat the excitement of that. Watching him prepare for games on Sunday, knowing that he was all in and emotionally invested. I really feel that watching his process set me up for life. Those times are some of the best memories of my life.”
When Phil retired from the NFL after the 1993 season, Chris was close to beginning high school. He thought he’d one day make the pros and play as long as his father (15 seasons), but his pro career was done in 2009 after 16 starts over five seasons. He loved watching Phil’s work ethic, how he’d wait hours for a coach to return his call so he could ask two or three questions about something he’d seen on film. Chris thought of following his dad into the media, but he felt he should try coaching first.
Chris spent the 2012 season working for Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels (his coach the last year of his playing career), and the New England Patriots. At that time, Chris and his wife, Danielle, had a 7-year-old girl and 3-year-old boy. “And I had stomach pains because I swear I saw them four nights, total, the entire season,” Chris says. “I felt like I was missing something. I wanted to see my kids grow up.”
Chris thanked Belichick for the opportunity, but told him that he couldn’t continue on the coaching path. Soon, like his father, his job became talking about all the things he saw on film. Like Phil, Chris enjoys letting his film study determine narratives as opposed to going into his study with a preconceived thought.
“It’s the aspect of the business that I love the most,” Chris says.
That’s football study, for business. There’s also football study for connection with Phil. Sometimes they’ll simply share what they’ve seen. At times, there are challenges. When Chris initially rated Jordan Love higher than Tua Tagovailoa in the 2020 draft, Phil told him to look again. (Although they both had Justin Herbert ranked higher than Tagovailoa.) Sometimes the son will point out something that the father hasn’t seen.
Most of the time, though, they’re in that space that Danielle hasn’t gotten used to after nearly 17 years of marriage. Chris says, “She’ll tease me and say, ‘Did he ask about me? Did he ask about the kids? Nevermind.’”
Draft Hits, Misses
Since Chris Simms is always in draft mode, I knew he wouldn’t hesitate with three simple questions I had for him:
- Who are five players from the 2021 draft who will pleasantly surprise people?
- Who are five who could surprisingly disappoint?
- What’s a trend in the league that we’ll be talking about for the next couple of years?
The 5 Likely Hits
Kadarius Toney, WR, Rd 1, Pick 20, Giants. “He’s the underrated skill guy of the entire draft. He’s a weapon. I know some people are concerned about his size (6 feet, 193 pounds), but I’m not. You can’t just put him in a wide receiver mold. He’s more than that; just call him a weapon. I think the Giants made a great pick here.”
Tyson Campbell, CB, Rd 2, Pick 1, Jaguars. “This is one of my favorites. He and Caleb Farley were the best pure cornerbacks in the draft.”
Levi Onwuzurike, DL, Rd 2, Pick 8, Lions. “He’s the best interior lineman in the draft. I like Christian Barmore a lot, but Levi is a better overall lineman and more of a disrupter.”
Walker Little, OL, Rd 2, Pick 13, Jaguars. “You shouldn’t look at him as a second-round pick. If this were a normal year [Little opted out of Stanford’s 2020 season], he would have been drafted in the top 20. He’s going to have a real effect on Jacksonville’s line.”
Dyami Brown, WR, Rd 3, Pick 18, Washington Football Team. “I don’t get it. I really don’t. Every time I watch him on film, he’s running by a corner or safety. I’ll say it: I’ll be absolutely shocked if he’s not a big-time player.”
The 5 Potential Misses
Jaycee Horn, CB, Rd 1, Pick 8, Panthers. “He’s got all the strength, size, measurables that you want. But he held a lot in college. I question his ability to stay with faster wide receivers. I worry about his top-end speed. I never saw an ability to hit a sixth gear. The question is, can he cover a 4.3 wide receiver without holding?”
Jamin Davis, LB, Rd 1, Pick 19, Washington Football Team. “I love the athlete. Man, he can fly. He can run with tight ends all day. But I wonder about the physicality. At middle linebacker, there needs to be a reckless nature about you—a little bit of, ‘I don’t give a f—.’ I’ll be watching to see if that part of his game is there.”
Gregory Rousseau, DE, Rd 1, Pick 30, Bills. “To me, he’s totally a measurables guy. I don’t know how you can look at the film and see a top-30 pick. You’d see times where he’d wind up with a sack because someone ran right into him. There wasn’t a sense that his opponents were worried about him.”
Asante Samuel Jr., CB, Rd 2, Pick 15, Chargers. “I’m big on cornerbacks who can play man to man. He’s a total zone corner. He clearly knows how to play the game. He’s got good ball skills. But in that division, going against players like Tyreek Hill? It’s going to be a real challenge for him.”
Carlos Basham, DL, Rd 2, Pick 29, Bills. “I’m going to have some people mad at me, huh? I’m not picking on Buffalo. Actually, I’m not picking on anyone; I want them all to be successful. But I have to say that Basham might be the ultimate boom or bust project in the whole draft. He’s strong. He’s quick. Then you turn on the film and say, ‘What’s going on? You’re too big and strong to be blocked by some of the guys who are blocking you.’ The film doesn’t say that he’s a great player. But Buffalo has good coaches. Maybe they’ll figure out a way to use him that I can’t see.”
“All right, here’s the issue with defenses in the league: Between quarterback runs and play-action passes, they’re getting shredded. You’ve even had teams that can’t run the ball have a lot of success with play-action passes. To combat it, some defenses have brought an extra guy in the box and gone with smaller linebackers who can run. But I think it’s going to go the other way now. You’re going to see more big people up front—300-plus pounders—to stop the run. It will be as if teams will say, ‘Prove to us that you can run against our front four before we bring down an extra guy.’ Tampa did it last year. Look at what the Chiefs are doing now. They got Jaran Reed this offseason and they’re going to play him and [Derrick] Nnadi at defensive tackle. Both of them are 325, 330ish. And Chris Jones at 315 is going to play defensive end. This is why Baltimore and Pittsburgh are always good. Same approach. And those bigs up front will allow flexibility in the back seven to stop whatever it is the defense has to stop. Quarterback runs. Speed sweeps. Play-action passes. It’s going to allow more versatility in defensive game plans. Big teams will have more versatility and the small, fast defenses won’t have the same luxury.
“The game is about being game-plan specific now. The days of saying, ‘We do what we do’ are over. Unless you have that once-every-few-years defense that is stacked.”
10 Things I Think I Think20
1. I think the NFL whiffed on every aspect of its Washington Football Team announcement last week. Its punishment, transparency, statement quoting Daniel Snyder, and explanation/rationalization during a conference call were all misguided, if not all wrong. While the $10 million fine is the largest given in league history, it rings like pennies in a pail for a billionaire like Snyder. Maybe other owners can appreciate the symbolism of the fine, but the currency of most fans is twofold: draft picks and tangible changes. It’s stunning that WFT lost no draft picks. And as Sally Jenkins observed in her Washington Post column, the NFL’s statement didn’t confront any specific allegation against Snyder himself. “It was the building that did it,’’ Jenkins wrote. “The walls. It was the staircase that peered up the dresses of young female employees.”
• Clearly, the Post’s reporting on the organization has been devastatingly accurate. It has exposed the worst known office culture in the NFL, if not all of North American sports. The Post’s reporting last year led to a series of moves from Snyder, including the hiring of the NFL’s first Black team president (Jason Wright) and, at the time, the highest-ranking woman in the organization (Julie Donaldson). Now the franchise is led by Snyder’s wife, Tanya, recently named co-CEO. Still, how is there no suspension for Snyder? Part of his punishment is working on a new stadium and “other matters.” What does that mean?
• To recap, every aspect of WFT’s work culture was found to either lean toward hostility, invasiveness, sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, or all of the above. The franchise has been sued by some former employees; it has reached a $1.6 million settlement with another. Yet, the leader of the franchise is held accountable by a fine, ceding day to day control of the team to his wife, and focusing on other matters.
• It’s impossible for the league to credibly stand on the claim that owners are held to a higher standard than players. Snyder’s organization has been outrageous for years. His hiring of Wright and Donaldson doesn’t override history. The penalty should have reflected that.
• For those who are wondering, Roger Goodell does have the power to initiate taking the team away from Snyder. But it would require overwhelming support from fellow owners, and most of them are against that route. The light penalty is likely a result of Snyder agreeing to do everything the league has wanted in the last year: give up the nickname (albeit grudgingly); accept a record fine; institute every recommended policy; grin and bear it.
2. I think the San Francisco 49ers are perfectly aligned on their view of the organization. I’m not talking about being right; I’m talking about a unified vision of how to build a team, from the top of football operations to the least experienced scout.
Niners general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan moved toward a bold, on-field shift in the spring by trading up for quarterback Trey Lance. They shifted in the front office, too, and now have at least two employees on track to be general managers. One of them is Adam Peters, promoted to assistant general manager. The other is Ran Carthon, who replaces Peters as director of player personnel. Carthon says he began dreaming about running an NFL team as early as seventh grade.
“I used to buy Athlon Magazine, tape every NFL draft, and make my own draft choices for every team,” he says. “Honestly, this is what my dad [Maurice Carthon] always wanted to do. He thought of working in personnel, but Bill Parcells asked him to coach [with the Patriots] and it started from there. He put personnel in my head early, and it stuck.”
Now that Carthon and others have been with Lynch and Shanahan for five years, he says franchise communication has never been clearer. “We all speak the same language,” Carthon says. “John and Kyle are unbelievable in how they see the same things conceptually. And in scouting, we know exactly what they’re looking for.”
3. I think Thomas Dimitroff is on to something big. The former Falcons general manager has now interviewed 15 GMs for an unfiltered TV show that he’s producing. The idea is to show aspects of the job—and the personalities behind it—that often go unseen/unexplained. Among the 15: Howie Roseman, Jason Licht, Mickey Loomis, and Brett Veach.
4. I think sugar on grits is a nonstarter. Why do I say that? I mean, besides it being true? One of my favorite preachers, Rev. Howard-John Wesley of Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, hilariously brought it up at the beginning of a sermon. I haven’t been able to shake the thought since. Why would anyone do that? Salt, pepper, and butter. You don’t need anything else.
5. I think I’ve watched more TV in the past year than the past five combined. Sure, I pushed the scale toward a career high (I’ve been jogging it down lately), but it was worth it. I know I’m late to the binge, but I’ve officially got a crush on the brilliant Margaret Atwood for Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Terrific writing and A-plus acting for every season and episode. The star power of the cast, from Elisabeth Moss to Ann Dowd to O.T. Fagbenle, is unlike anything I’ve seen in one series. Seriously. How are all of these stars part of the same show? And what’s the salary cap? My wife and I also consumed Netflix’s “Shtisel” faster than we wanted. We got so into the show that our kids would hear us in conversation—away from the TV—and ask who we were discussing so passionately. “Ah, it’s just something Shulem said to Akiva…” In public, debating TV characters as if they were members of our family? So who am I to lecture our 10-year-old about being too obsessed with Minecraft?
6. I think Wesley Morris is doing the best writing in American newspapers today. Morris, of the New York Times, recently won his second Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He’s a rare gem who can write about anything. When he wrote this Aretha Franklin appreciation, I felt like I could hear her singing. (And then I was inspired to listen to her “Amazing Grace” album for a month.) He took a simple concept—growing a pandemic moustache—and turned it into this masterpiece of an essay.
7. I think Bill Cowher is going to surprise you with his Hall of Fame induction speech next month. I had the opportunity to co-author a book, Heart And Steel, with Cowher. I knew I’d learn a ton of football from him, which I did. What I didn’t anticipate was the libraries— football and music—that he has in his head. And on his shelves. First, the football: Cowher started writing in a five-subject notebook when he became head coach of the Steelers in January 1992. He still has that first one, and 14 others, for each season he coached the team. They’re meticulously organized, with notes on everything from plays, players, free agency, speeches, coaches’ salaries, meetings with the front office and ownership. Everything. The man didn’t need a co-author for the book; he could have written it by himself. Then there’s the music. We’d get lost in rabbit holes, talking about everything from 1970s rock, to disco, to our mutual adoration of Earth, Wind & Fire. Along the way, he did what a lot of people say they want to do with a book but few pull off: He allowed himself to be vulnerable and refused to make himself the hero of his story.
8. I think it’s amazing that we’re still learning things about 43-year-old Tom Brady. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that we knew he had football opinions much stronger than the ones he routinely shared with the public. His profane candor on LeBron James’s “The Shop” on HBO speaks to a number of things: People really are liable to say anything in a barber shop; even though Tampa was obviously a great fit, there was a team Brady wanted more—Niners?—and remains stung that the team didn’t agree with him; that Patriots fortress that suppresses personalities is real. Where was all this when Brady was in his twenties and thirties?
9. I think a friend of mine, who lives in Boston but is from Eswatini, got my attention last week. I knew something was wrong when he called twice in the same day. I didn’t get the call the first time and assumed it was a misdial; I’m so used to texting that I look at actual phone calls as abnormal. The second time he called I picked up. That’s when he explained the state-sponsored brutality happening in Eswatini—a small southern African country formerly known as Swaziland—over a push for democracy. The country is Africa’s last monarchy. He spoke with family members there who heard cries and gunshots, nonstop, from 8 p.m. until the early morning hours. He said he would send me pictures of what was happening there, and the images were so alarming that he cried before he sent them. With the Olympics happening this month, here’s hoping the world illuminates human rights violations in Eswatini.
10. I think this is a good time for us to reflect on what it means to be Americans. As a nation, we’ve always had a range of perspectives on the Fourth of July. Whether it was famous Fourth speeches by Frederick Douglass in 1852 (“What To The Slave Is The Fourth of July?”), Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965 (“The American Dream”), Ronald Reagan in 1986 (“Statue Of Liberty Speech”), or any one of us today. Can I share a confession? I’ve never pushed myself to write my own American essay. I’ve read and heard speeches and perspectives from the right and left. I’ve heard arguments on what patriotism truly is, and what this holiday represents. But I’ve never been intentional in defining it for myself. It reminds me of one of my favorite passages of Scripture, where Jesus asks Peter what the crowd is saying about him. Peter gives his answer. Then the next question: “But who do you say that I am?” What’s my point? It’s understandably tempting to allow someone else to frame the discussions and tension points about anything. Then, all the rest of us have to do is file in and pick sides. I don’t claim to have perfect or even fully formed answers yet. But I’m giving myself a written assignment of self-investigation. What does the Fourth of July mean to me now? How’s it different from five or 10 years ago? I’ll search for strengths and holes in my argument. And if I’m invited back next year, I’ll let you know what I find. Happy Fourth.
The Adieu Haiku
What’s on your mind when
You’re pinch-hitting for a King?
Just win the haiku.