There are three teams, at least, in the NFL as of this morning that are in the upper 90s in percent of players vaccinated, with zero unvaccinated coaches and key team staff members. In this day and age, that seems incredible, to have maybe one to four holdouts on a 90-man roster, given where we are with vaccines in this country. But the reason is not hard to figure out.
As an executive with one of the mostly vaxxed teams told me: “The league has made it clear that the unvaccinated are second-class citizens.”
It’s worse for coaches, which is why if the Vikings terminate unvaccinated (as of Friday) line coach and run-game coordinator Rick Dennison, it’s not draconian—it’s necessary. An unvaccinated coach this year can’t travel with the team, can’t conduct in-person meetings of any kind, and can coach only outdoors. An unvaccinated assistant coach would have to run position meetings virtually while his players would sit together in a meeting room. One other problem: Say a team with an unvaccinated coach played a Sunday night road game. That coach would have to charter a plane home, or have one chartered for him, to be available for Monday morning meetings and possible light Monday practice. It’s all just too hard.
Last year, the NFL and the players union empathized with the hardships and never mentioned the F word. Forfeit. This year, the gloves are off. There’s a vaccine, and if you’re not going to take it, your football life will either be much harder than the 80-plus percent of vaxxed players, or it will be extinct. And the teams with COVID-positive players that cause potential forfeits would be docked millions, per the NFL’s fairly stark Thursday memo to teams. Imagine taking a forfeited loss . . . and paying the team with the walkover win as much as $5 million for not playing. In 2021, that’s reality.
As we approach pro football’s 102nd season—and I approach my 38th covering this game—I’m going to do my best to cover everything about it. This morning, that means we’ll have a heavy dose of COVID-related stuff, but since you want to read about football and I want to write about it, and since I’ve been gone for six weeks, we’ve got a lot to do. Including:
• I do not remember a time when Lake Erie football was this anticipated, coming off the combined Buffalo-Cleveland record of 27-10 last year, coming off playoff victories for both. Did you know the last time the Bills and Browns entered training camp coming off playoff seasons was in 1990? Did you know the last time the Bills and Browns won a playoff game in the same season was in 1964?
• I don’t know what will happen with Aaron Rodgers, but I do have a few scenarios.
• I don’t know what will happen with Deshaun Watson, but I am from the Schefter school on this: The Eagles are likely to be in play when Houston trades him, assuming Houston does sometime before draft day 2022.
• One star shocks his family by getting vaxxed. Another star tells me why he’s shocked that teammates (but only a few) are not getting the shot.
• Tom Brady turns 44 in eight days. What do you give the man who has everything? An eighth Super Bowl ring.
• RIP, Greg Knapp. Man, Zach Wilson will really miss him.
• The worst teams in the last four years have something in common: a stadium.
• Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow enter camp full-go after big surgeries, which is just another reason this could be the golden season for quarterbacks. In 2005, there were two 4,000-yard passing seasons. In 2020, there were 12. My over-under this year: 15.
• Heard of “Back Together Saturday?” You will this week.
• My training camp trip starts Wednesday in Nevada. (I’ve never written that sentence before.)
• Dr. Allen Sills thinks the vaccine rollout is comparable to man landing on the moon.
• Rich Eisen was all set for a week in Italy with his wife. The Delta variant had other ideas, and Eisen has a pretty important moral to the story.
The Cowboys and Steelers reported to camp last week (they play the first preseason game a week before the other 30 teams), and everyone else will be in camp by midweek. It’s been 24 weeks since the last NFL game, and with the Rodgers-, Watson- and COVID-related events of the offseason, it seems like 24 years.
I start with Cleveland/Buffalo. It occurred to me this spring that never in my life covering football had the Bills and Browns been really good at the same time. So I looked it up. Before January, when the Bills beat the Colts and Ravens and the Browns beat the Steelers, the last time they won playoff games in the same season happened a day apart, 57 years ago:
Saturday, Dec. 26, 1964, AFL Championship Game, at Buffalo: Bills 20, Chargers 7.
Sunday, Dec. 27, 1964, NFL Championship Game, at Cleveland: Browns 27, Colts 0.
When I ranked teams 1 to 32 after all the spring movement, I had the Bills three and Browns four. Crazy to think a 10-win season with an early playoff out would be disappointing, but that’s where these teams are. They’re not better than the best team in the AFC, Kansas City, but they’re close.
“Fairly incredible,” veteran Browns guard Joel Bitonio told me. “It wasn’t that long ago that I went three years without winning a football game.”
Let’s see. With Bitonio starting at guard on Oct. 11, 2015, Cleveland beat Baltimore. In the next 26 games he played over 2015, 2016 and 2017, he never played in a winning game. Zero and 26. In his last 26 games, Bitonio is 15-11. “Football should be fun,” Bitonio said, “and even though it’s your job and you’re making good money, losing every week isn’t what sports should be like. The NFL is built for parity, and now it feels like we’ve got the coaches and front office who have a plan behind every move they make.”
Like this one: Last year, Browns GM Andrew Berry had a need for offensive line depth and plucked neophyte Blake Hance off the Jets’ practice squad. Pressed into action in both Browns’ playoff games, Hance, who’d never played in an NFL game, gave Cleveland 47 snaps without allowing a sack or significant pressure. “Imagine playing against [Steeler] Cam Heyward and the edge guys on the AFC champs in Kansas City in two of the biggest games for the Browns in years,” Bitonio said. “That tends to give players trust in the front office.”
“It’s always cool when you have rabid fans and franchises with rich traditions turning it around,” Berry said. “It’s good for the league.”
One player, safety Jordan Poyer, has been a part of both. A Brown from 2013 to 2016, he signed with Buffalo in free agency in 2017—and has missed one game since. “Both places live and breathe football,” Poyer told me. “Buffalo’s a little crazier. I mean, you got people tailgating all weekend, jumping on tables on Saturday with the game 24 hours away. You really don’t understand till you get here. These people are NUTS.”
In the spring, Bills coach Sean McDermott had Poyer talk to the Buffalo rookies. He said he told them: “You guys don’t realize how blessed you are to be here right now. This league’s got so many guys with egos, selfish guys. Not here. Guys fit in or they’re not here.”
Big keys for each team: Can the Bills’ good chemistry survive the adamantly anti-vax stance of a couple of players, including the outspoken Cole Beasley? And will the constant probing, inside and outside the team, poke holes into the Bills’ solidarity? In Cleveland, can Baker Mayfield take the next step and improve his 62.8-percent accuracy—the way Josh Allen became a more accurate passer to key the Bills Offense last year?
Of course, as Berry said, “The reality of it is we’re both still chasing Kansas City.” Buffalo will play Kansas City for the third time in 51 weeks on Oct. 10—and the Bills lost both meetings last year, by nine and 14 points. Cleveland played Kansas City tough in the divisional round, losing 22-17, but part of that was Patrick Mahomes getting kayoed for the fourth quarter of a tight game.
We’ll know the AFC power structure before the first pitch of the World Series—at least involving KC, Cleveland and Buffalo. Cleveland is at Kansas City in Week 1, Buffalo at KC in Week 5 . . . presumably battling a healthy Mahomes, who has been in three straight AFC title games.
News travels fast this time of year, and more came down Sunday when ESPN reported Arizona pass-rusher Chandler Jones (last four years: 50 sacks in 69 games) wants to be traded. Buffalo has a crying need for a pass-rusher, which is why the Bills reached for the green Gregory Rousseau from Miami in the first round last April. Let me stick my nose in Buffalo GM’s Brandon Beane’s business: If I were Beane, and if Jones is healthy after missing the last three months last year with a torn biceps, I’d offer Arizona GM Steve Keim my 2022 first-round pick (likely to be between 27 and 32) to get one of the game’s most disruptive players, at 31. Keim won’t be motivated to trade him and would need a big offer to do it. He wants J.J. Watt and Jones to be a disruptive duo for the next two seasons in a pass-happy division, so it’d take something good to get Jones—if Keim would even consider it.
Whatever happens, Cleveland (if Mayfield is as consistent as he was the last half of 2020) and Buffalo look built to last, with explosive offenses and solid defenses. “Players want to play for winners,” said Buffalo’s Beane. “And we’ve both got a chance to keep that going.”
On Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers and his agent, David Dunn, have been good at shutting up, as (recently) have been the Packers. One friend of Rodgers told me over the weekend he didn’t know what the calculating QB will do, but that money won’t be the key to the deal. “He knows he’ll make up whatever he loses this year on the back end, in future years,” the friend said. Regarding the retirement rumors that started out of Vegas last week when the books took Green Bay’s over/under win total off the board, I called Brent Musburger, the sportscasting legend and Las Vegas-based managing editor of Vegas Stats and Information Network. “The bookmakers felt there was credibility to the report, and so they took the Packers number down, and the odds on Green Bay winning the division. When you see the books do that, they’re just protecting themselves.”
“You buy any of it?” I said.
“I think there’s a shred of truth, because there was no denial. He definitely, definitely is trying to blow his way out of Green Bay,” Musburger said.
We know that. I haven’t changed my stance in two ways. One: The smartest thing here would be a compromise—Green Bay getting one more year out of Rodgers then guaranteeing him a trade next March, Rodgers buying his freedom by working in Green Bay for six more months. Rodgers doesn’t want to do that, but if the alternative is the Pack freezing him out of football in 2021, maybe he considers it. Two: The only way I see Green Bay trading him is by getting significant 2021 value. Otherwise, why wouldn’t GM Brian Gutekunst sit on Rodgers and say he’ll play only for Green Bay this year? When I say “significant 2021 value,” I mean for example a deal like this with Denver:
Denver gets Rodgers.
Green Bay gets:
• First-round picks in 2022 and 2023.
• Quarterback Drew Lock (two years and a potential option year left on his rookie deal).
• Wide receiver Jerry Jeudy (three years and a potential option year left on his rookie deal).
In essence, Green Bay would get the value of three first-round picks and a second-rounder (Lock) for—gut feeling here—about four years of a 38-year-old (in December) reigning MVP. Denver still gets the better of the deal because Rodgers puts the Broncos in the Super Bowl conversation immediately—and Denver could sign free-agent Kenny Stills, 29, if it wanted a veteran receiver to replace Jeudy and team with Courtland Sutton and K.J. Hamler. If the Packers are convinced the divorce must happen (and I don’t think the Pack is, yet), Jeudy is insurance for the likely departure of Rodgers BFF Davante Adams.
Food for thought. Now we wait to see if Rodgers reports with the Packer veterans Tuesday. That’s when mandatory fines of $50,000 per day would start for players under control who don’t report to camp.
On Deshaun Watson. Multiple reports Sunday said Watson will report to Texans camp, evading the $50,000-a-day fine. The Texans would have the distraction-avoiding option of not having Watson on the practice field or in the public view. Welcome to head-coaching, David Culley. For the legal cases involving 22 accusations of sexual impropriety to not be adjudicated or settled by now, it figures that Watson and the accusers must both think they’ve got good cases.
Gut feeling here: It makes no sense for GM Nick Caserio to trade Watson when his value is diminished today; he needs to wait till whatever happens legally with Watson, and when the likely NFL sanction of Watson is meted out. When Watson’s fate is known, that’s when a team should trade for him. Which is why I’d guess (and that’s all it is) that Watson gets moved early in 2022, when presumably his legal issues are finished, and league discipline will be done too.
I’m sure Watson doesn’t see it this way, but this year is looking more and more like a washout for him. If it is, what would a team be trading for next winter? A quarterback who will turn 27 at the start of the ’22 season, chastened and tarnished, but coming off a 70-percent season in 2020 with a league-leading 4,823 passing yards.
Philadelphia’s the most logical target—and I’d argue that acquiring their next quarterback would be smarter next March than it is now. Maybe Jalen Hurts has a stunningly great year and the Eagles think they’ve got their quarterback of the future. Maybe the Eagles will be in position with three first-round picks to sit and take their next quarterback in the draft or trade up for him. Or maybe they’re in the best position of any team in the league to deal for Watson. So the best thing for Philadelphia here is to play the long game—and hope that Carson Wentz plays three-quarters of the snaps in Indianapolis this year, ensuring that third first-round pick 2022.
On Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow. Twin pleasant injury reports to start training camp: Mahomes, coming off significant foot surgery in February, and Burrow, coming off major knee surgery last fall, both are active for camp. The AFC is deeper in young quarterbacks than it’s ever been—and that included the Marino-Elway era in the mid-nineties. Think of it: Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Watson (an AFC-er for now), Burrow and Justin Herbert are 25 or younger. Amazing. Carson Wentz (28) and Derek Carr (30) round out the AFC’s lineup of young passers. I’ve never seen anything like that young QB depth chart in a conference.
On Tom Brady: And now your Brady Moment of Zen (apologies to The Daily Show) entering his 22nd NFL camp, and second in Tampa Bay:
Training camp starts this week. I’m looking forward to having some actual receivers again… pic.twitter.com/PDl1puHr46
— Tom Brady (@TomBrady) July 25, 2021
Variations of this have been widely noted, but if Brady averages 300 passing yards a game in his first three games, he’ll need 255 in game four—at New England, and what do you know about that—to break the NFL’s all-time passing-yardage record held by Drew Brees. Not saying it’s unbreakable, because it isn’t. But I am saying that Aaron Rodgers, for instance, enters the season 27,960 yards behind Brady. So if the record’s going to be broken, I’m guessing it’ll be by one of the very young turks in a very good offense with very good genes that allow him to play into his forties.
On “Back Together Saturday.” The NFL can’t own every day of the calendar, but it can try. The latest effort: “Back Together Saturday,” a 13-hour effort on July 31, with all 32 teams going through drills and lights workouts, and 40 or more NFL Network and NFL.com reporters bringing live look-ins at 32 training camps around the league. ESPN and ABC will also have coverage during the day, just not wall-to-wall coverage.
The day will start in Tampa and Detroit at 9 a.m. and stretch to the Vikings walking off the camp field for an evening practice in Eagan, Minn., just after 9:30 p.m. ET. In between, a crowd of 37,000 will give a real-life feel at Ravens’ camp in downtown Baltimore; the Panthers will work out in front of 15,000 in Spartanburg, S.C.; the Texans will work out with teams of local youth footballers on the sidelines; and New England, New Orleans and Indianapolis will have free COVID vaccination stations on-site during their practices.
“We’ve wanted to do this for a while,” said NFL director of special events Peter O’Reilly. “It’s a festival of football, and we think it will get all our fans back into football. The teams have really embraced it.”
It won’t look much like football, because the first few practices for teams will be light workouts due to the agreement with the Players Association to have players phase into more physical work in the summer. But it’s a 13-hour promotional vehicle for the NFL. Will it draw viewers? Who knows. Pete Rozelle once scoffed at ESPN for wanting to televise the draft, and people laughed at the early mega-coverage of the NFL Scouting Combine. Look at those events now.
A round of phone calls to agents and two players yielded these notes:
1. Agent Drew Rosenhaus: “I had a client who knew there was interest out there but didn’t want to be vaccinated. He was dead-set against it. But teams ask about free-agents’ vaccination status. You know they want these guys to be vaccinated. So my guy went out and got vaccinated, and he got signed. But I have players adamant they won’t get the vaccine. They just don’t want to be told what to do. I think there will be players who decide they don’t want to play because of this issue.”
2. Agent David Canter: “If you’re on the street, and unless you were really good last year but got injured, you will not get signed by an NFL team. GMs are already losing their minds over the vaccine, and they’re not going to take [marginal] players who won’t get the shot.”
3. One veteran offensive player, who is vaccinated: “What I don’t understand with the players who aren’t vaccinated—a couple of things. I have a family and an extended family. I don’t want them to get sick, and I don’t want them to get me sick, or me to get them sick. All these guys who won’t get it, don’t they worry about their families, especially with this [variant]? And I also feel that if you play a team sport, you’re responsible to the guys in the locker room, not just your family. All of that makes it hard to fathom why players won’t get it.”
4. One veteran defensive player was adamant that he wouldn’t get the vaccine. He told his agent last spring it was a non-starter. Then he told the agent two weeks ago he’d been vaccinated, in part to keep his young child and wife safe. This leads to . . .
5. Several people in the league think the key is to be patient. “Our trainer explained what life was going to be like if you didn’t get vaccinated. He was very calm about it. But when players heard they wouldn’t be able to get away during the bye week, and they would have to hang around when our coaches give them the long Labor Day weekend off [unvaxxed players have to be tested every day in their home market], that changed a few minds right there.” The worst thing to do to convince strong-willed players to get vaccinated is to browbeat or threaten them. So the NFL is still determined to play the long game, as the CDC seems to be.
On Friday, the NFL’s medical director, Dr. Allen Sills, said 80 percent of all players were either fully vaccinated or were one shot in, nine teams had at least 90 percent of the players vaccinated, and only five teams were at less than 70 percent. The NFL, one official told me, is hopeful that with all teams reporting no later than Tuesday, the reality will set in and the unvaccinated will realize they’ll be second-class citizens. As angry as some players will be about it, the league hopes the disadvantages of being unvaxxed will sway enough players so that most or all teams will have herd immunity.
Of course, a Cole Beasley, who has been a major face of the anti-vaxxers in the league, could decide to not play. It’s amazing for us to think that one of football’s best slot receivers could leave $11.9 million in cash on the table over the next two years by retiring out of principle. But I won’t be surprised to see a significant player walk away. The conspiracy theory about vaccines being bad is real in pockets of society. Why wouldn’t it be real in the NFL?
It’s a bad idea to try to browbeat players into getting the shot. But the league can’t just say, Okay, you’re not getting vaccinated. Life’s fine. If a player who wants to remain unvaccinated, he’ll have to pay the consequences if he’s connected to an outbreak on his team. And those consequences, although highly unlikely, could lead to a forfeit if an outbreak prevents a game from being played.
“I think one of the things that people are concerned about is, well, did these get developed too rapidly?” Sills said. “Or maybe there were steps that were skipped? I can assure people that’s not the case. I know personally some of the people who were involved in the review process of these vaccines when they came up for approval. I know people who sat in the room and looked at the data and looked at all of the evidence. I trust those people and I know that they’re professionals. When they tell me that they have zero concerns about safety of these vaccines, that’s very powerful to me.
“I think that this is truly one of the most remarkable scientific achievements of our lifetime. I mean, I’m old enough to remember us landing a man on the moon and that was an incredible culmination of so much work and effort on so many people. To me, this is equally impressive in an altogether different way because you had so many people around the world who worked on the development of these vaccines.”
One final point. NFL Network’s Rich Eisen got COVID earlier this month despite being fully vaccinated with the double Pfizer shot early this year. He and his wife were in Boston on July 12, about to leave for a week’s vacation in Italy, when he felt a tickle in the back of his throat. Nothing serious. But he had to be tested to travel to Italy, and the test came back positive. A second test came back positive. Eisen had to quarantine in a Boston hotel room for 10 days. His wife, who tested negative, flew back to California—where their 7-year-old daughter was newly positive for COVID. Within a couple of days, Eisen told me, “The symptoms presented like a freight train—night sweats, chills, loss of appetite,” he said. “It hit me pretty hard for three or four days.”
— Rich Eisen (@richeisen) July 15, 2021
Many would look at Eisen and say, What good is the vaccine if you get the disease after being vaccinated? Eisen looks at it this way:
“The vaccine is not 100 percent effective in preventing COVID,” he told me Saturday. “But it is very effective in keeping you out of the hospital—or worse. I believe getting the vaccine kept me off a ventilator. And getting the vaccine will not only improve your chances of not being infected, but if you’re infected, decrease your chance of dying.
“All I’ve heard from the unvaccinated is it’s time to just live with it and get back to normal. Well, I tried that, and I ended up in quarantine with COVID, and most likely I passed it to my 7-year-old daughter. So you not getting the vaccine makes COVID more prevalent in society, and could cause the next variant to be worse, and to pierce my immunity.”
Eisen’s voice was rising. “My wife and I, as parents, are supposed to protect our children. My 7-year-old gets it, probably from me, after I was vaccinated,” he said. “So now . . . it’s personal for me.”
Greg Knapp, 1963-2021
Jets passing-game specialist Greg Knapp, who coached Michael Vick, Peyton Manning and Matt Ryan and was about to tutor young Zach Wilson as the Jets’ pass-game specialist in 2021, was seriously injured when struck by a car riding a bike in California July nine days ago. Knapp died last Thursday in California.
Though he was an offensive coordinator for 10 years (in San Francisco, Oakland, Atlanta and Seattle), Knapp was a mostly anonymous coach to the public. His passion: coaching quarterbacks. I’m writing about him today because—in the same way the death of Dallas strength coach Markus Paul hit the NFL last November—those who were coached by him and coached with him have been crushed by Knapp’s death. “He coached humans to be great quarterbacks and good humans—and both things were really important to him, not just the football,” Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young said Saturday.
Snippets from Knapp’s quarter-century as an NFL coach:
Peyton Manning (Knapp was QB coach in Denver for Manning’s last three NFL seasons): “On the bench, just a couple minutes before Super Bowl 50, I will never forget his words of advice. So calm. So dead-on. We’re about to play Carolina. Two great defenses about to fight it out. He says to me, ‘Peyton, this’ll be an old-school physical battle. Just do your part. Just do enough. Somehow, just get us the lead, even it’s just 3-0.’ So we get a field goal on our first drive. Two series later, Von Miller strip-sacks Cam Newton for a touchdown, and it’s 10-0, and we had ‘em. He knew. Never a more positive guy during a game. I wish every quarterback could have a coach like him once in their lives—calm, upbeat, always with a solution.”
Brock Osweiler (Knapp was his QB coach in Denver from 2013-15): “He got there in my second year in Denver. I was behind Peyton at the time. Right away he said, ‘Brock, I want to take you to dinner. And I want your girlfriend to be there. I want to know everything about you.’ He did—and he continually showed me how much he cared about me as a person. He was so good at balancing coaching Peyton and trying to get me ready. He took me from being a good college quarterback to being a professional. I will never forget after my first year in Houston, our GM, Rick Smith, said to me, ‘This season’s in the rear-view mirror. I want to know what you think it’ll take to get back to playing the way you did the year before you got here.’ I said, ‘Honestly? Hire Greg Knapp. Give him whatever it takes to be our quarterback coach.”
Jim Mora (They coached together for 12 seasons): “We drove to work together every day for years. Right after 9/11, with the Niners, he was offensive coordinator and I was defensive coordinator, and we went to New York to play a Monday night game [against the Jets]. We won 19-17, something like that, and after the game someone took a picture of us that’s on my phone right now. He was infectious. He was loud. He was goofy. He’d play Barry Manilow in his office and if anyone complained, he’d turn it up and then you’d hear I WRITE THE SONG THAT MAKES THE WHOLE WORLD SING! Before every game we were together, we’d be down on the field, running four laps of the field, then 16 110s and then the stadium steps—every stadium in the country. Then we’d go high in the stadium, sit there and just talk—about life, about family, maybe about football. He just reached out and grabbed you. What a great life he lived.”
Matt Ryan (Knapp was his QB coach from 2018-20): “The day I passed Joe Montana [on the all-time list for touchdown passes, in 2018], I didn’t know it. But that night, I went out to dinner and happened to be in the same restaurant as Greg. Bones, in Atlanta. He sent me over a napkin with some really nice words. Like, ‘Congrats on passing one of the all-time greats. You are in that company.’ You are in that company. Joe Montana. Wow. Two other things I remember. He made our lives a part of the job. One day, he says at the start of our meeting, ‘Guys, you gotta see this.’ His daughter, Jordan, was an actress, and he showed us a commercial she was in. He was so proud. And he loved to ride his bike. Every Friday afternoon, his bike was left outside the meeting room, with his helmet on it, ready to go. Some people do meditation. Greg rode his bike.”
Eric Studesville (They coached together in Denver from 2013-16): “There was never a time I left a conversation with him frustrated, mad, upset. When I left him, I was always better off, more positive. We had a mutual interest in cycling, and Colorado was the perfect place for that. We’d go out at lunch lots of times, 18.1 miles in an hour, about an hour, mostly on these beautiful bike trails. I had one daughter, he had three, and so many times on those rides he’d be prepping me for what raising a daughter was going to be like. So many life lessons.”
Zander Ellis (A ballboy at Broncos camp in high school, Ellis got tutored by Knapp before quarterbacking his Kent Denver High School team to a 12-1 record in 2014): “He knew I played quarterback, and so he offered his help. During the day, like 15-hour days or longer, he’s coaching the greatest of all time [Manning] and then, after walk-through in the evening, he’d work with me. Maybe 30, 45 minutes, then he’d go back in and watch tape. I remember the first time we did it. I was so nervous that my first throw was straight into the dirt. It was a slant route. He looked and me and was like, ‘A little nervous?’ I got over that quickly. We were in the moment. He was just so responsive and so helpful when he was talking with me. Most of it was my drop-backs and my feet. I was either too wide and I couldn’t get my hips through the ball, or sometimes I was kind of up on my tiptoes. He gave me a couple drills, just really simple stuff that helped me out actually tremendously that I kept doing throughout my season. He really wanted my core to drive the ball. The whole time, he was excited about it. He was encouraging when I’d throw a terrible pass. He’d say, ‘That’s okay, we’ll do it again.’ Repetition. Overall, it was just so generous of him. Another huge thing he did for me was change my grip. I used to hold the ball with a death grip. That’s what he called it – I’d squeeze the hell out of it. He said, ‘You need to loosen up. That’ll loosen up your entire upper body.’
“Then the next training camp—I wasn’t a ballboy, that was going into my freshman year of college—he sent me a text. I actually looked last night. And it was dated the first day of training camp, before the Super Bowl 50 season, 2015. It said, ‘QBs were asking for you today. We missed you. Hope all is well. Coach Knapp.’ “
Steve Young (Knapp’s first QB coaching job, in 1998, was in San Francisco): “He played at Sac State [Sacramento State] and his dream job was to coach for the Niners. He heard Bill Walsh speak, and Bill said, ‘You don’t have to coach with a big stick.’ That’s Knapper. He wanted to coach with tools, not weapons. When he got to the Niners, he told us it was a dream come true for him. I told him, ‘I hope we don’t disappoint you.’ He was a coach, but he was a student too. He was there to learn. One day he said to me, ‘I love this job. This job is amazing!’ “
When the sorrow over Knapp’s death fades, there will be a football season to play. Osweiler said, “I really feel for the kid in New York, not being able to get coached by Greg.” The kid: Zach Wilson. There was some video on social media from Jets’ spring drills, with Knapp rushing against his new student on a hot Jersey practice field. No pressure on Wilson. Fans in the biggest NFL market just want him to be the greatest Jet quarterback since Namath.
Young, a former BYU quarterback like Wilson, has been an adviser to the QB and his family. Knapp and Young talked to Wilson a lot. “He told me before the draft Zach was the number one quarterback in the draft in his book. After working with him for a while, Knapper loved Zach. He was a grinder. He wanted all the information. I can tell you Knapper was so excited—he was going to take a young kid and give him every chance to be a great player. As a coach, that was his dream. That was his calling.”
Wilson and Knapp talked not long before the accident, when Wilson was planning to meet Jets receivers in Florida for some summer throwing practices. Knapp gave Wilson some drills to use for the sessions.
“Run it yourself,” Knapp told Wilson.
Coaching till the end.
Chronological news events of my vaca:
June 7: Jim Fassel, who coached the Giants to a 41-0 rout of Minnesota in the 2000 NFC Championship Game, died at 71 in Las Vegas. He won 60 games in seven seasons coaching New York, and always thought he deserved another head-coaching chance after the Giants.
12: Houston, the worst team in football, canceled its mandatory full-squad mini-camp. First reaction: Huh? Second reaction: Why?
28: John Facenda, the Voice of God, was awarded posthumously the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 2021 Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award, commemorating longtime contributions in TV and radio to pro football. The Philadelphia newscaster began voicing NFL Films stories in 1966, and he soon became the voice of the league. Such as this:
July 2: The Washington Football Team was fined $10 million but there is no suspension of owner Daniel Snyder or further discipline for the rampant sexual harassment in the organization for years. Per Forbes’ recent NFL team valuations, the sanction is one-third-of-one-percent of the franchise worth ($3.5 billion), and less than 3 percent of WFT’s projected 2021 revenues. Roger Goodell called the work environment “for many years” in Washington “highly unprofessional.” He found evidence of bullying, intimidation and repeated sexual harassment, and said Snyder and his management team “paid little or no attention” to the behavior. Goodell has made some curious decisions in his 15-year tenure, but allowing Snyder to skate without anything but monetary sanction, to simply “step back” from owner duties for an undetermined period, is absurd.
9: Pass-rusher Frank Clark, an important element in the Kansas City defensive front, is charged with felony gun possession after cops in L.A. found an uzi in his car during a traffic stop. So many bad things about this, but the worst for KC is that if Clark is placed on the commissioner’s exempt list while the case plays out (which is possible), the franchise would have to pay him $18.5 million to not play this year.
12: One of the great offensive line coaches ever, Alex Gibbs, dies at 80. Gibbs, the king of zone-blocking, built those great run games in Denver.
15: Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported that Tom Brady played last season with a fully torn MCL before having it repaired post-Super Bowl. I want to read that winning-the-Super Bowl-with-a-bum-knee-at-43 chapter in the real Brady book one day.
21: Niners sign Fred Warner to the biggest pure-linebacker contract ($19-million per) in NFL history. (No counting rush players who might be listed as linebackers but are edge players.)
22: After negotiations with the players union over 2021 COVID-related work rules, Goodell issues a more onerous set of coronavirus standards than the league used in 2020, introducing the possibility of forfeits and forfeiting teams paying all the bills for that week’s foes.
23: Ted Ginn Jr., better for longer than most people would remember, retired at 36. Drafted ninth overall in 2007 by Miami—three slots before Marshawn Lynch, five before Darrelle Revis—Ginn led the Super Bowl Panthers with 10 touchdown passes from Cam Newton in 2015.
24: Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams troll the Packers simultaneously by posting the same photo—Michael Jordan fist-bumping Scottie Pippen—in a “Last Dance” reminder. Is it possible for Rodgers to be more passive-aggressive toward the team he hates?
June 8, Ashburn, Va.
“I haven’t caught COVID yet. I don’t see me treating COVID until I actually get COVID.”
—WFT edge rusher Montez Sweat, saying he hadn’t been vaccinated and had no plans to get vaccinated.
Which led to this rejoinder from one Twitter follower: “I haven’t caught polio yet. So I don’t see me treating polio until I actually get polio.”
June 8, Charlotte
“At some point that building will fall down.”
—Carolina owner David Tepper on Bank of America Stadium in downtown Charlotte, pressuring locals to help him build a new stadium.
Bank of America Stadium is 26 years old. I guess they don’t make stadia like they used to.
June 15, Pittsburgh
“We’re going to do what Ben wants to do and how Ben wants to do it. Matchups are how you win football games. It starts with the quarterback. What does he do well? What does he like? What does he see? What is good to his eye in the passing game? And then we build off of that. That’s what we’re going to do. His voice, his vision, what he sees is what we’re going to do.”
—New Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada, sounding very much like Ben Roethlisberger will be co-coordinator.
June 24, Pittsburgh
“The owners are billionaires for a reason.”
—Six-time Pro Bowl guard Dave DeCastro, surprisingly released by the Steelers, asked by 93.7 The Fan reporter Jim Colony about being let go with a “non-football injury” designation.
DeCastro’s point is an excellent one: He didn’t get hurt playing Scrabble.
July 2, Washington
“Somehow the NFL thinks it can make it all right by handing Tanya Snyder the mop and broom. Great. That’s the perfect NFL solution, isn’t it? Just to turn to the wife and say: ‘Here. You clean it up.’ “
—Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins shredding the NFL’s $10-million fine of the Washington Football Team (with no other sanction) for its toxic workplace culture. Owner Dan Snyder was not suspended. His wife, Tanya, named co-CEO of the franchise days earlier, will run the team while Dan Snyder will be away from team administration for an undetermined amount of time.
July 20, Washington
“Not a lot of people think we could have won. In fact, I think about 40 percent of the people still think we won. You understand that, Mr. President?”
—Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady, at the White House ceremony honoring the Super Bowl champion Bucs, addressing President Biden. “I understand that,” the president said.
July 21, Oxnard, Calif.
“I about wrecked my truck when Jerry called me.”
—Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy, at the opening of Dallas training camp, asked his reaction when owner Jerry Jones told me the team would be on “Hard Knocks” this summer.
Losingest teams in recent football history?
New York, New York.
Since 2017, these teams have the worst regular-season records in the NFL:
If you wonder why Giants co-owner John Mara looks so chagrined in nearly every picture you see of him recently, consider that just maybe he’s thinking, “The Jaguars are four wins better, and the Browns six wins better, than we are over the past four years.”
Jon Gruden and Mike Vrabel were introduced as AFC coaches 11 days apart in January 2018.
Gruden’s contract with the Raiders: an estimated $10-million per year. Vrabel’s contract in Tennessee: an estimated $3.2 million per.
Regular-season records since then: Gruden 19-29, Vrabel 29-19.
Saddest coincidence of the summer:
As the family and former 49ers teammates of the late tight end Greg Clark were communing outside his funeral service on July 17 in Oakland, around 2:43 p.m., a former Niners coach on the staff when Clark played there, Greg Knapp, was struck by a car riding his bike nine miles away. Knocked unconscious, Knapp never regained consciousness. He died five days later.
Last week, San Francisco middle linebacker Fred Warner was rewarded for his great 2020 season by signing the richest linebacker contract ever, at $19 million per year. Warner leads those players at the linebacker position—not including the pass-rushers who might be listed on depth charts as outside linebackers—that have something in common: None entered the league with any big-time pedigree. The eight top-rated linebackers last year who played at least 750 snaps were, in order, Warner, Bobby Wagner, Eric Kendricks, Lavonte David, Demario Davis, Blake Martinez, K.J. Wright and Darius Leonard.
Draft slots for those eight players: 70, 46, 45, 58, 77, 131, 99, 36.
Three highlights of a mostly local vaca:
June 11, Chicago. On a lovely day at old Wrigley—84 degrees, a couple of wispy cirrus clouds dotting an otherwise Cub-blue sky—my wife Ann and I sat upstairs in the shade on the first day the Cubs opened up for full capacity. Bill Murray sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Justin Fields got a huge hand when shown on the video board with the Bears draft picks. I saw one of the great at-bats I’ve ever seen. Cards 5, Cubs 4, bottom six, St. Louis reliever Daniel Ponce de Leon versus Anthony Rizzo. Strike looking, foul ball, ball. So it’s 1 and 2. Next 10 pitches from Ponce de Leon: foul, foul, foul, foul, foul, foul . . . ball 2 . . . foul, foul, foul. By this time, the crowd is in a lather, Rizzo spoiling nine strikes. Another fast ball, and bang! Line-drive homer to right. Place went nuts. That was fun.
June 13, Philadelphia. Our night with the Beautiful People: We got invites to the premier of “Summer of Soul,” the documentary about the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969. (The executive producer of the doc is Jeffrey Lurie, the Eagles owner, through his Play/Action Pictures. Fitting name.) Before getting the invitation, I’d never heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969. Questlove, who made this film, admitted he hadn’t either in a Time magazine interview. “Black erasure is a real thing . . . Via the Harlem Cultural Festival, which even a music snob like me didn’t know about . . . This film was my chance to correct history.” The unearthing of film from a 52-year-old festival is the surprise of the film year. My favorite live songs: “Everyday People” by Sly and the Family Stone, and the gospel song “Oh Happy Day” from Edwin Hawkins Singers that I hadn’t heard in decades. Very glad for the invitation. Fortuitous seating too: I hadn’t met new Eagles coach Nick Sirianni till he and his wife sat down in front of us.
July 22, Berkeley, Calif. Times Have Changed Dept.: We spent the last few days watching the grandkids, Freddy (4.5) and Hazel (2.75), while parents Laura and Kim went to a wedding. Freddy is a big nibbler. At one point, he went to the food cabinet in the kitchen, looked at me and said, “I want a snack.” He looked up and down the shelves, considered his options, then said, “I’ll take the seaweed.” I got the packet of the dried green stuff and he scarfed it down like I’d scarf a Kit Kat.
accountability … availability
— DIGGS (@stefondiggs) July 22, 2021
The Bills’ wide receiver was apparently referring to the players who won’t get the COVID-19 vaccine.
CeeDee Lamb doing CeeDee Lamb things with Cowboys CB Trevon Diggs in man press. pic.twitter.com/aOhkuOAwJA
— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) July 24, 2021
Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News does such a good job covering the Cowboys, and this tweeted highlight from Saturday’s camp practice in Oxnard, Calif., is a good example of how to use social media to show a cool play in practice.
If you aren’t vaccinated, you can’t expect to have the same privileges as people who have been vaccinated. Live with your “personal choice” and the consequences that come with it.
(This does not apply to people who have medical reasons for being unvaccinated)
— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) July 22, 2021
Hill writes for The Atlantic and has a podcast, “Jemele Hill is Unbothered.”
Moving and lovely: On Sep. 10 at 6 pm, the cast of the Broadway hit "Come From Away" will perform the show in its entirety and free of charge on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In memory of 9/11, open to all. Courtesy of Ford's Theatre. https://t.co/t1gz9YTQtT
— Peter Marks (@petermarksdrama) July 21, 2021
Marks is a theater critic for the Washington Post.
As an NFL player you have access to some of the top doctors in the country, but here you are getting your medical advice from Facebook and Reddit SMDH https://t.co/RWGTRuAdCP
— Stephen White (@sgw94) July 22, 2021
Former NFL defensive lineman Stephen White.
1. I think the Michael Thomas ankle surgery timeline would make me furious if I were coach Sean Payton or GM Mickey Loomis. Thomas injured the ankle in the 2020 season-opener, causing him to miss nine games last year and to struggle when he did play. The ankle wasn’t right after the season, and per Nick Underhill of the website New Orleans Football, Thomas saw a specialist after the season who told him to rehab for a while and come back for another exam in the spring. Thomas, Underhill said, didn’t go back till after minicamp in June, at which point he was told to get surgery that would put him out, likely, till October. So this cornerstone player to the post-Brees now will have a truncated season that likely could have been avoided with earlier surgery. For a player who averages $19.25 million a year on one of the richest receiver contracts in history, having two straight incomplete seasons is a huge blow to a team with enough question marks already.
2. I think this falls into the category of “you never know.” But the Richard Sherman story blew me away. Eight years ago, I flew to Seattle to ask him if he’d be interested in writing a regular column for my new website at Sports Illustrated, The MMQB. At the time, Richard Sherman was not a bold-face name in the NFL. He was a third-year corner who was fearless, whip-smart, outspoken and the leader of a rising defense on the way to being the league’s best. Every time I talked to him I was impressed. I told him we couldn’t pay him much money, but writing a column would give him a chance to show his range and get people to know him and . . . “I’ll do it,” he said. He was great at it, including laying down his thoughts the night of the infamous Erin Andrews interview in a column we titled, “To Those Who Would Call Me a Thug or Worse . . .” Anyway, the Sherman I know is a good man and player, and whether the alcohol-fueled rage he showed to his in-laws on July 13 (and the resulting four misdemeanors he was charged with) resulted from mental/emotional issues or something else, his approach after the ugly incident was the correct one. “I am deeply remorseful for my actions,” he said in a statement, and added the “importance of mental and emotional health is extremely real.” I’ve heard he’s serious about his remorse and addressing what issues he has, and I’m hoping he’s successful at it.
3. I think I always enjoy the job Aaron Schatz and his staff do on the Football Outside Almanac, and this year’s edition had a few things that caught my eye. Some really interesting bits from the ’21 tome:
• The Saints and penalties. This will get the conspiracy theorists going, and maybe it should. Last year, the Saints were first in penalty yards (1,005), while their foes had the fewest penalty yards in the league (517). In 2019, the Saints were seventh in penalty yards (1,023), while foes had the fewest again (713). It wasn’t as stark in the previous three seasons, but in each one, foes had fewer penalty yards. Opponents were 24th, 26th and 26th from 2016 to 2018. That’s something that will drive a coach nuts. Is everyone we play so pristine?
• Tom Brady and the DPI. Brady drew the most defensive pass-interference calls (23) than any quarterback has drawn in the last 37 years. More grist for the officiating conspiracy theorists who think Brady gets Jordan-like treatment from the officials.
• Lamar loves the short shotgun. In the Pistol formation, a quarterback takes the snap four to five yards behind the line, with a back directly behind him; he works about seven yards behind the line in the regular shotgun. The Ravens used the Pistol on 44 percent of offensive snaps last year, and no other team used it more than 13 percent. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman believes the shorter distance, and the frequency of use, allows the Ravens to be proficient at running their entire offense with a cat-quick quarterback, Lamar Jackson.
4. I think there’s still some meat left on the bone regarding Nick Saban’s decision to leave the Miami Dolphins after just two coaching seasons in 2006. Per Sam Khan Jr. of The Athletic, Saban explained why he did (including some stuff I’d never heard) to the high school coaches in San Antonio:
“Drew Brees was coming to Miami when I was the coach there. He was going to be the quarterback, and that’s all we needed. We had built the team up, we went from 4-12 the year before I got there to 9-7, and all we needed was a quarterback and we’d be a playoff team. And we were going to sign Drew Brees as a free agent.
“Dr. (James) Andrews operated on him. I went to Birmingham to see Dr. Andrews. He said, ‘It’ll be fine.’ Our doctors [in Miami] failed him on a physical when he was there to sign with us. I actually made a deal with his agent we wouldn’t tell anybody for 72 hours that he failed a physical, until New Orleans signed him. That’s how he ended up in New Orleans.
“So I decided right then, when that happened, we don’t have a quarterback, we’re not going to win, I’m getting out of here. I’m not staying here. I’m not going to be responsible for this. The doctor obviously didn’t know his ass from a handful of sand.
“Drew Brees plays 15 more years, wins the Super Bowl, goes to nine Pro Bowls. And we didn’t take him in Miami, where he wanted to go. So, some things you can’t control. When we left there, I never threw the doctors under the bus. Nobody understood why, but that was why.”
No one questions Saban’s greatness as a football coach. But I’m not so sure about his word. I have vivid memories late in the 2006 season of Saban telling me he was staying in Miami. So either he wasn’t telling the truth then, or he isn’t telling the truth now.
5. I think I owe thanks to those who wrote guest columns for me—getting no pay—over the past six Mondays. Things they wrote that stuck out to me:
We got to the postseason, and that first game, in Washington, I dropped four passes. What I’ve really grown to appreciate about sports, and being on this team, is that if you work hard and you’re trusted, you’re going to get more chances. We went to Green Bay for the championship game, and Tom [Brady] kept coming to me. I caught five passes for 110 yards. But the play I’ll never forget was actually a running play.
This was our 19th game of the season. I had not run the ball once. Now, we were trying to run out the clock to get to the Super Bowl with a 31-26 lead at the Green Bay 43-yard line. Third-and-five. We had a five-wide personnel grouping on the field. I said to Mike Evans: “Mike, what are we doing? We got no running back on the field!” The play-call came in, and it was a play we hadn’t run in a game, a two-point conversion play—a running play.
The call was a toss-pitch to me. I went in motion. Everything felt normal. But when Tom tossed me the ball, everything was in slow motion. Once I caught it, I looked and … you know how the first-down marker’s a yellow line on TV? I was seeing the yellow line on the field of where I needed to get to. It was like this weird phenomenon of being in slow motion, seeing the yellow line, and then moving in slow motion. Then I took a couple steps and I finally reached the first down. We needed five yards. I got six.
I had this rush of emotion like, Oh my God, we’re going to the Super Bowl.
I find myself both more obsessed with the sports themselves but less interested by the external junk that surrounds them and can sometimes overtake them. I know the biggest story in the NFL this offseason is Aaron Rodgers and his dissatisfaction with the Green Bay Packers. I understand that the story has enough going on to provide headline-friendly incremental updates that will last throughout the rest of the summer. Rodgers isn’t at minicamp. The Packers hope to have him back. Rodgers says the relationship is broken. The Packers hope for a truce. The chasm is unbridgeable. The Packers must keep him. Rodgers is standing up for himself; Rodgers is ruining his legacy. Here are Five Teams Who Should Trade For Aaron Rodgers. I understand that this keeps sites like this one in business, and keeps Adam Schefter genetically fused to his phone. I even get why it’s important: Rodgers is the defending MVP, after all.
But I can’t help but feel, at the end of the day: Eh, I’ll just watch Rodgers wherever he ends up. Tell me when he gets there.
I think Josh Allen … is the most physically gifted quarterback in the NFL. That is not a bold, controversial take. It is just a statement of fact. Whether he develops into the best quarterback in the NFL is a different question, one that remains to be answered. Remember, Allen is 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds. Think about that for a moment. I have stood right next to him, and he is a big man. I stood a few feet away watching him throw, and I have never seen a ball come out of the hand of a passer like it does with Allen. It was otherworldly. The name that often comes up, and rightly so, when the talk is of the most physically talented quarterbacks of all time is John Elway. Allen is a much bigger man than Elway. Allen is the most intriguing quarterback I have watched and evaluated in all my years at NFL Films.
I think the NFL whiffed on every aspect of the Washington Football Team announcement. Its punishment, transparency, statement quoting owner 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 … How is there no suspension for Snyder? Part of his punishment is working on a new stadium and “other matters.” What does that mean?
For the next column, five people who knew football writer Terez Paylor wrote about him. Paylor died unexpected two days after the Super Bowl, and I thought the death of this impactful young sportswriter got lost in the post-Super Bowl avalanche of news. My thanks to Steve Wyche, Charles Robinson, Cameron Wolfe and Josh Tolentino, and to Patrick Mahomes, for their words.
One of the reasons I’m writing this today is that I feel we can’t let his legacy go dim. He deserves to be remembered, and to impact future journalists, for years to come. Terez was just 37 years old. He had decades left to be a beacon for so many young journalists—particularly minority journalists. Terez didn’t get to be a national writer and forget where he came from. He knew as he rose in the business that he was a role model for minority journalists. He definitely knew who he was talking to, who he was writing for. It was for the football audience, yes … but it was also for a generation of journalists he was influencing and hoped would follow his path.
He knew he didn’t see many people from his race, people who looked like him, climbing the ladder in sports journalism. He wanted that to change. I respected the heck out of him for that.
When you sit and watch them over the 17-night run of the games, appreciate their sacrifice instead of searching for the item that might divide. Be thankful they have given of themselves to play for a team that helps unite. If there is a divide and separation at the core our country, let’s enjoy one of the few things that unite us.
6. I think I’ve got one word for Tirico’s Olympics thought: amen.
7. I think when I think back on the last six weeks, I’m grateful to NBC (Sam Flood, Ron Vaccaro, Tess Quinlan and Matt Casey in particular) for enabling me to take legitimate, battery-recharging time off. People asked me, “What are you doing for vacation?” And I’d say my wife and I were taking a couple of short trips, then going to the West Coast to be with our daughters and their families, but we didn’t have any grandiose plans. I love doing nothing. We did a lot of that. I’m a nerd with the breakfast and dinner dishes, the recycling, some sports on TV, and keeping up with some series we like on TV. (Most notably “Call the Midwife,” on Netflix.)
8. I think the one time I did a triple-take on my vaca was when I read in the Wall Street Journal that Clay Matthews, the free-agent former Packer and Ram, has his California house on the market for $29,995,000. Clay Matthews owns a $30-million house. That’s a bit of a wow to me. It’s a 14,000-square-foot French Provincial home with a walnut-paneled library that houses his 800-gallon salt-water aquarium. With triggerfish, per the WSJ. Never heard of the triggerfish, but it’s quite an interesting fish.
9. I think, thanks to the fact that the Packers are a publicly owned company and disclose their financial statement every year, we can make this educated guess: NFL teams lost an estimated $3.1 billion last year. The Packers’ loss—with no fans at any of their eight regular-season and two post-season home games—was $97.1 million, year over year, 2020 compared to 2019. Interesting to know that the estimates of the NFL’s losses were fairly close. Last year, those estimates pegged the NFL’s losses at between $3 billion and $4 billion. Now we can figure that’s pretty close to reality.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Apropos of nothing, the sports stars who exploded during my time off:
• Shohei Ohtani. On his way to a 40-homer, 100-RBI year, and he’s a top-five American League starting pitcher. Don’t scoff at the Babe Ruth comps.
• Giannis Antetokounmpo. Not only did the man-of-the-people Finals MVP score 50 in the biggest game of his life, and not only did he conquer the bad free-throw thing by making 17 of 19 in game six, but he went on Instagram the next morning from a fast-food drive-thru. Cool guy.
• Trae Young. The floaters in the lane, the fearless threes from 32 feet. I looked up at one point in the Milwaukee series and he was averaging 29.9 points and 9.6 assists and three made 3-pointers a game. At 180 pounds, and maybe 6-feet. “He’s basketball’s Patrick Mahomes,” Boomer Esiason said. What a fun future Young has.
• Zaila Avant-garde. The first Black youth to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee—and one of the coolest names of recent times—is a rising star in the spelling (and basketball) business. To win the Bee on July 8, the 14-year-old Avant-garde spelled a word 99.8 percent of us have never heard of, “murraya.” Then we found all those basketball and juggling videos.
• Fernando Tatis Jr. Love watching him hit. Loved hearing him mic’d-up in the All-Star Game.
• Brayden Point. Who has goals in nine straight Stanley Cup playoff games, particularly when the whole world knows it has to stop you to beat Tampa Bay?
b. Story of the Summer: Franz Lidz, writing in the New York Times, on the lone survivor of a 50-year-old plane crash in a Peru rainforest, on fledgling biologist Juliane Diller surviving a two-mile fall to earth and doing something great with a second chance at life. Franz, the former SI writer, tells a dramatic story so well. Writes Lidz:
From a window seat in a back row, the teenager watched a bolt of lightning strike the plane’s right wing. She remembers the aircraft nose-diving and her mother saying, evenly, “Now it’s all over.” She remembers people weeping and screaming. And she remembers the thundering silence that followed. The aircraft had broken apart, separating her from everyone else onboard. “The next thing I knew, I was no longer inside the cabin,” Dr. Diller said. “I was outside, in the open air. I hadn’t left the plane; the plane had left me.”
As she plunged, the three-seat bench into which she was belted spun like the winged seed of a maple tree toward the jungle canopy. “From above, the treetops resembled heads of broccoli,” Dr. Diller recalled. She then blacked out, only to regain consciousness — alone, under the bench, in a torn minidress — on Christmas morning. She had fallen some 10,000 feet, nearly two miles. Her row of seats is thought to have landed in dense foliage, cushioning the impact.
. . . “What I experienced was not fear but a boundless feeling of abandonment.” River water provided what little nourishment Juliane received. For 11 days, despite the staggering humidity and blast-furnace heat, she walked and waded and swam.
c. Story of the Summer II: Kim Severson of the New York Times, “Her Family Owned Slaves. How Can She Make Amends?” A great and affecting story about Stacie Marshall, 41, of Dirt Town Valley, Ga., who cannot go on with the thought that she she will be inheriting 300 acres of prime northwest Georgia farmland—and there’s a history of seven slaves once working the land.
d. Basically: Stacie Marshall is trying to figure out what sort of reparations are fair—and what is right for her to do. Wrote Severson:
She expects that people will turn on her for telling the community’s story through the lens of slavery. You can’t really hide from your neighbors here, which is the best and the worst thing about tight communities … Ms. Marshall hasn’t told most of her extended family what she is doing. “I will get some hell,” she said. “There are people in this community that are totally going to turn when I start telling these things.”
At the same time, she is protective of her corner of the South.
“I don’t want my family to be painted out as a bunch of white, racist rednecks,” she said. “God, I am proud of every square inch of this place — except for this.”
e. Podcast of the Summer: “The Improvement Association,” from the producers of “Serial,” about election fraud in a rural county in North Carolina. The dogged reporter, Zoe Chace (of “This American Life”), goes to Bladen County, N.C., to search for said fraud, which those of all political persuasions in the county are convinced exists. Chace chases down the wildest of rumors through old-fashioned gumshoe reporting, and after she finishes with every last rabbit hole, she finds little to suggest that there has actually been any widespread ballot fraud. But the effects of the years and years of charges and counter-charges leave the locals convinced without evidence that fraud is rife there. Sound familiar? It’s The Big Lie on a hyper-local level. It’s five episodes, four hours total, and I was engaged throughout.
f. Story of the Summer on a Topic I Knew Nothing About: Urban climbing. Dave Philipps of the New York Times chronicles Isaac Wright, a former Army Special Forces paratrooper with PTSD. Wright says climbing city buildings and American bridges, and taking breathtaking photographs, has saved his life.
g. Regardless what you think of the trespassing and police resources used to stop Wright, the benefits of the daring exploits seem to help him cope with life when nothing else did. It’s an odd and compelling story, and Philipps tells it well:
Urban explorers who are caught trespassing are typically charged with misdemeanors, if at all. Mr. Wright, however, was charged with burglary—for entering a building illegally to take photographs—and several other felonies that could put him in prison for more than 25 years. After the arrest, he was held without bond in 23-hour lockdown for more than two months. Prosecutors argued that Mr. Wright’s time in the Army made him too dangerous to release.
“The state has not known what his motivations are, what his experience is,” the Hamilton County prosecutor handling the case told a judge this spring. “But we do know what his training is, and his training makes him at least potentially very dangerous for our community.”
The judge set bail at $400,000, far more than Mr. Wright could afford. Prosecutors have since told Mr. Wright, charged with illegally climbing three structures in Cincinnati, that he can avoid prison time by pleading guilty to a felony and agreeing to therapy, probation and no more climbing. But Mr. Wright seemed dejected at the thought. “You could put me through years of therapy, give me all the meds in the world, and it would not help me the way that my art helps me,” he said.
h. My wife and I do lots of crossword puzzles together. Sometimes it takes us days—stopping and starting, starting and stopping—to do the Sunday New York Times puzzle. I’d say half the time we get it, and half the time we cheat a little bit, looking up an answer or three. How about these two clues in the July 11 puzzle:
36 Down (11 letters): Rock star who wrote the poetry collection “The American Night.”
40 Down (11 letters): 36 Down’s anagrammatic nickname.
i. Gotta be pretty smart to construct crosswords anyway, but this one took a while to figure out. After a few of the 11 letters showed up in 36 down, I got that one: J I M M O R R I S O N. But I didn’t know the Doors’ frontman’s nickname. Ann did.
M R M O J O R I S I N.
j. Beernerdness: Tin Dog House Saison (Tin Dog Brewing, Seattle) is one of the best Saisons I’ve had. Found it at the Ballard Farmers Market in Seattle . . . a tasty, very smooth Saison, brewed with blackberry honey, of all things. The four cans didn’t last long.
k. The MMQB Alum Story of the Summer: Robert Klemko of the Washington Post on how three lives got changed, perhaps forever, by one incident in a Washington, D.C., protest.
l. What makes this story sing is that Klemko got all three main characters—the protester, his wife, and the object of the protester’s anger who was videotaping the protest—to explain how the incident affected them. Wrote Klemko:
In a flash, Laura Jedeed was surrounded by screaming men. The freelance journalist was filming a group of Trump supporters walking the streets of the District after the “Million MAGA March” on Nov. 14 when a man wearing an American flag gaiter mask approached her, stepped on her toes and began yelling.
“What’s up, you stupid b—-?” the man shouted, his mask slipping down his face.
Jedeed yelled at the man to stop touching her. A crowd formed around her and another journalist, with unmasked men screaming at them from all directions. Jedeed kept her camera rolling, and when she got away from the crowd, she uploaded video of the incident to YouTube and Twitter, and it went viral. The video was amplified by Christian Exoo, a prominent anti-fascist activist who tweeted it out to his 50,000-plus followers. Exoo also included contact information for Dawson’s employer.
Two days later, Dawson lost his job as an ironworker, his employer citing his actions in D.C.
m. Advice Column of the Week: Slate’s “Dear Prudence,” by Jenee Desmond-Harris, which addresses some, shall I say, interesting stories/questions/issues, such as this one: “Help! My in-laws have disgusting habits at the dinner table.”
n. “Fed up in Philadelphia” wrote about her particular problem to Prudence:
I love my in-laws very much, but they have hygiene habits that nauseate me. They put their hands in their mouths and pick food from their teeth, look at the remains and then swallow the food back up again. They lick each finger and then touch all of the surfaces in my home, grab communal food with their infected hands, and often “wash” their hands without soap. When my nephew had cake all over him, my father-in-law said, “Clean up! Lick your fingers.” I almost threw up as the kid snorted food off his hands. My father-in-law picks his nose with regularity and my mother in-law blows her nose and places her wet tissue on my dining room table.
o. “Fed up” obviously wanted some advice on how to deal. Prudence obliged.
p. Apt Nostalgic Sentence of the Summer: Howie Kussoy of the New York Post, in a tribute to Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, after the last event in its history, the Islanders’ 1-0 Stanley Cup Eastern Conference finals loss to Tampa Bay, was played: “They paved a parking lot and put up paradise.”
q. Get it?
r. Obituary of the Summer: Emily Langer of the Washington Post on journalist/editor/”People” magazine founder Richard Stolley. Not many people in any business can have the half-century that Stolley had, from procuring the film of President Kennedy’s assassination to being the leader in celebrity coverage in this country.
s. Langer’s end to the obit, from the fateful trip to Dallas by Stolley, one of a horde of journalists and assorted hucksters trying to procure the film of Kennedy being shot from a private citizen in Dallas, Abraham Zapruder, shows why Zapruder chose him to release the footage in Life magazine:
Mr. Stolley gained a bit of insight into why Zapruder had given the film to him, and not to one of the many other reporters who were clamoring for it and would have paid as much or more. In a 2013 interview with Bob Schieffer of the CBS program “Face the Nation,” Mr. Stolley recalled a conversation with Zapruder’s assistant.
“Do you know why you got it and not those other people out in the hall?” he asked.
“I have no idea,” Mr. Stolley replied.
The man responded, “Because you were a gentleman.”
t. Loved this radio story from NPR’s “Morning Edition,” by WBUR’s Andrea Shea, introducing us to the people who ring the oldest church bells in the United States, at Boston’s Old North Church. The bells are 276 years old.
u. Happy 82nd birthday, Bob Lilly.
v. And I would be remiss if I did not wish Bjorn Nittmo a happy 55th.
w. Good to be back. No: Great to be back.
x. So this is the week my annual training camp trip starts. It’s a short week to start:
Wednesday: Raiders, Henderson, Nev.
Thursday: 49ers, Santa Clara, Calif.
Friday: Cowboys, Oxnard, Calif.
Saturday: Rams, Irvine, Calif.
Sunday: Writing day.
Let me know what you’re interested in learning at any of those places. Send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org
It is shaping up
as another COVID year.
Instant replay? Ugh.