After enduring a horrible loss last Monday in Las Vegas, and landing in Baltimore at 7 a.m. Tuesday, and adjusting to more devastating injuries, and having a short week of prep for the toughest team on the schedule, and taking a 36-35 lead late in the Sunday night game against mighty Kansas City, the Ravens began spitting out pieces of their broken luck with two minutes left in Baltimore. They could conquer a lot of things as one of football’s mentally toughest teams. Two things that’d be hard to conquer on this late evening:
1. The clock, with only one timeout left, and Kansas City with second-and-three at the Baltimore 32 with 92 seconds left. Plenty of time to get in golden position for the game-winning field goal and, with one more first down, to keep the Ravens from touching the ball again.
2. The inevitability of Patrick Mahomes. He’d beaten the Ravens in 2018, ’19 and ’20, and he was on the march to do it a fourth straight year.
In football, you almost always get what you deserve. But that doesn’t just mean in a game; it has to do with team construction too. Last spring, when Baltimore was scouting for the draft, GM Eric DeCosta liked a promising but unproductive player from Penn State, Jayson Oweh, more than many of his peers. No big plays, some scouts said. Zero sacks in his last year. He’s not a first-round pick. DeCosta thought he was; he liked how long (6-5 ½) and how limber the former basketball player was. DeCosta felt Oweh could be the next great player in the long line of great Ravens defensive players.
Oh, the irony of this draft. DeCosta picked receiver Rashod Bateman with the Ravens’ first-round pick. But when Baltimore traded tackle Orlando Brown to Kansas City, the package that came back included KC’s first-round pick, 31st overall. So DeCosta used that pick, Kansas City’s, to choose Oweh. On draft night, Oweh announced he would go by his given first name, Odafe (which means “Wealthy Man” in his native Nigeria) in the future.
With 1:32 left Sunday night, Odafe Oweh (pronounced “Uh-DAH-fay OH-way”) lined up the inside right of a five-man front for Baltimore, across from KC’s Pro Bowl guard, Joe Thuney. Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire got the handoff from Mahomes and headed behind right guard. Oweh’s job was to read Thuney and find a way to slither into the backfield to hit Edwards-Helaire. Oweh leaked into a crease to Thuney’s right, and as Thuney lunged to try to get Oweh off-track, Oweh reached his black-gloved right hand out and violently pawed at the ball in Edwards-Helaire’s grasp.
The ball came out.
“When I saw it on the ground,” Oweh told me as the clock neared midnight, “I wasn’t so much surprised as, I don’t know, I just knew I had to get it.” Oweh leaped on the ball, coralled it with his right hand and pulled it in, as Travis Kelce got on top of him and tried to wrangle it free.
Baltimore ball. Oweh got up, sprinted to the end zone, posed with his new family and felt incredible when one of his teammates yelled at him, “YOU SAVED THE GAME!”
“So exhilarating!” Oweh told me.
More drama followed—I’ll get to that later—but you know the good part. And there’s this, from a man who just started playing football five years ago but knew exactly what this moment meant, a man who came to Baltimore from a draft choice Kansas City owned a week before the draft.
Odafe Oweh said from the Ravens’ locker room: “This moment will be burned into my brain for the rest of my life.”
Crazy Sunday. (But what Sunday in the NFL isn’t?)
Ten notable items:
• The Bills continued to be the Globetrotters, the Dolphins continued to be their Washington Generals.
• Do you know Phil Snow? It’s time you do. He runs what might be a crazy-good Carolina defense.
• Game one of the weekend Thursday night: 30-29. Games 12 through 15 on Sunday: 20-17, 34-33, 33-30, 36-35.
• Split-screen madness: Dallas beat the Chargers on Greg Zuerlein’s 56-yard field goal. Forty-one seconds later, Minnesota lost to the Cardinals when Greg Joseph’s 37-yarder was 18 inches wide right. “I’ve been there, and I know what it’s like,” Zuerlein commiserated Sunday night. “Man, I feel for him.”
• The Niners, 2-0, love the Eastern Time Zone.
• The Jets, 0-2, have left Zach Wilson out to dry.
• The Raiders, 2-0, have a better quarterback than the geniuses on this side of the keyboard think.
• The Colts, 0-2, have a mountain of issues. Welcome, Hard Knocks!
• The Broncos, 2-0, have a coach who knows how to give a post-game locker-room address. “WAY TO F—ING GO!” Vic Fangio told the troops in Jacksonville.
Let’s get to a few people/stories/issues of the week.
They can win . . . now
When I saw GM Mike Mayock in training camp seven weeks ago, he told me: “We need to be a playoff team—and beyond. It’s time to win.” The last seven days tells me they can be. The easy way to look at the Raiders is to see Derek Carr throwing for 817 yards in his first two games, playing clutch down the stretch, and finally activating the Cliff Branch of modern Raiderdom. Al Davis would have loved seeing Carr throw a zeppelin-ball 57 yards in the air, to a spot where sprinter/wideout Henry Ruggs was zooming toward, and connecting with Ruggs on a 61-yard touchdown that clinched the 26-17 upset of the Steelers in Pittsburgh’s home opener. Oh, and Al would have loved that the pass came at the confluence of the Three Rivers, against the team he despised from the Immaculate Reception a half-century ago.
Let’s give Carr his due, and let’s give Jon Gruden his due too—for being in perfect sync with Carr now, for calling the kind of plays in the kind of order that’s becoming hard to stop. The offensive line is leaky, and the franchise back, Josh Jacobs, might not be a durable player; we’ll see. But this is a big-league quarterback, with a big-league receiving corps. Maybe Ruggs will never be an every-down receiver, but to ruin games he doesn’t have to be. Leave that to Darren Waller, Bryan Edwards and Hunter Renfrow.
The defense has been so much better than I thought. In the first two games, per Pro Football Focus, Vegas has brought significant pressure on 38 percent of the dropbacks of Lamar Jackson and Ben Roethlisberger. It’s not T.J. Watt-type pressure, but it’s enough to not leave the secondary out to dry as was so often the case last year. Also: Criticize Mayock for a slew of his high picks, which is fair. But give him credit for the one-year, $2.5-million contract he agreed to with cornerback Casey Hayward, who’s been very good in the first two weeks. The Ravens and Steelers are 0-for-5 targeting him, and he’s been in coverage against both physical and fleet receivers so far. And Solomon Thomas, cut loose by the 49ers last winter, gave the Raiders two sacks of Roethlisberger on Sunday.
The West is where the power is, in both conferences. Who’d have thought it’d be the Raiders and Broncos at 2-0, with KC and the Chargers 1-1. This could be a fascinating year out west.
The Answer is still The Question
Two of Miami’s last three games have been against Buffalo. Tagovailoa got yanked for ineffective play against the Bills in Week 17 last year. He had to leave because of injury after two series Sunday in south Florida. Combined score of the two games: Buffalo 91, Miami 26. Even in the great Jim Kelly/Thurman Thomas days, the Bills never laid it on the Dolphins like this in a two-game span; Kelly’s high score in back-to-back games was 79 points. The Dolphins are not in Buffalo’s league, no matter who is quarterbacking—and backup Jacoby Brissett was as ineffective as the man drafted to be the franchise quarterback 17 months ago.
You don’t want to make too much of this if you’re a Miami fan, but reality bites for your team at quarterback right now. You turn on the TV and watch Justin Herbert, drafted one spot after Tagovailoa in 2020, develop into a top-10 NFL quarterback. You might have hope for Tagovailoa, but truly you can’t know if your long-term quarterback is even on the roster right now. And now Tua’s got a rib injury that could keep him out for the short-term—with the Raiders, Colts and Bucs coming on the next three Sundays. There’s also the matter of an impatient owner, Stephen Ross, who desperately wants his Marino. Sunday’s developments make it seem like Miami’s quarterback answer is still very cloudy.
“Our defense the truth”
Thus tweeted Carolina wide receiver Robbie Anderson after the Panthers skunked the Saints 26-7 Sunday in Charlotte. It’s cool to credit the reborn Sam Darnold for the Panthers’ 2-0 start, or maybe Christian McCaffrey’s 324 scrimmage yards. Those are big things. (In fact, for Darnold to be throwing 18 times with a second-half lead tells me coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady trust him to be careful with the ball.) Darnold and McCaffrey are factors, but neither is the biggest one.
The unit led by Snow, the 65-year-old defensive coordinator, is the biggest reason Carolina shares the NFC South lead with Tampa Bay this morning. Carolina, in two games, has allowed 22 first downs and 21 points to the Jets and Saints. Composite first-half score: Panthers 33, Jets/Saints 0. The beatdown of New Orleans was notable because the Saints put a 38-3 beating on the Packers last week, and Jameis Winston played peerless football. On Sunday, Winston was harried consistently by a changed pass-rush, and Alvin Kamara managed five rushing yards on eight carries. What gives?
Snow, who came to Carolina from Baylor with Rhule 20 months ago, played a 4-3 “over” front last year, with the defensive front shading toward the tight end side and the edge players most often in a three-point stance. This year, wanting to get athletic edge players Haason Reddick and Brian Burns away from the line, Snow had them stand up and allowed free-agent defensive tackle DaQuan Jones and young Derrick Brown to occupy in-line blockers. Last year, the Panthers were 31st in the league in third-down defense. This year, foes have converted only 25 percent (six of 24) on third down. Snow adjusted, wisely, and his pass-rush (10 sacks in two weeks) and run defense (46.5 yards per game) says he’s made the right adjustments.
Now the Panthers have a short turnaround to a Thursday night game at Houston, with Snow’s men likely to face rookie Davis Mills in his first NFL start. No one could imagine a 3-0 start for Carolina, but it’s on the horizon.
This can’t be real
Let’s go back to the greatest full season of Brady’s career, 2007. That’s the year Brady and the great Randy Moss lifted New England to a 16-0 record in the regular season. In the first two games that year, Brady, 30, threw for 576 yards and six TDs. Fourteen years later, Brady, 44, has thrown for 655 yards and nine TDs in the first two games of this year.
“We were a little loose with the ball,” Brady self-diagnosed Sunday, after throwing five TDs with no picks in the 48-25 win over Atlanta. “I certainly wish I had made a few better throws.”
The man is 44, with a 113.3 passer rating. Since opening day 2020, in regular-season games, Brady’s got 49 touchdown passes, more than anyone in the sport. I certainly wish I had made a few better throws.
Tampa Bay, dating back to Dec. 1, 2020, has won 10 in a row including playoffs and scored 35.0 per game. What drama in the next two weeks awaits? Bucs-Rams at SoFi in Week 3, Bucs-Patriots in Foxboro in Week 4, in the biggest regular-season game in recent NFL history. Brady has looked so at ease, so unhurried, in his first two games as a 44-year-old man. The Rams and Patriots are capable of generating pressure with the front seven, and they’ll need to if they’re going to have a chance to beat this marvel.
East Coast Logic
Niners are smart
This is the third straight season of a schedule quirk that’s paid off for the Niners. San Francisco had four Eastern Time Zone games scheduled this year. But what if instead of taking four of the draining trips, the Niners took three—and were able to play two of them back-to-back, and then stay east to practice in the intervening week?
In 2019, San Francisco stayed in Youngstown in between winning in Week 1 at Tampa Bay (31-17) and Cincinnati (41-17). In 2020, the Niners stayed at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia in between beating the Jets in Week 2 (31-13) and Giants in Week 3 (36-9), despite a spate of injuries in those weeks that crippled their season. This year, it was the Greenbrier again, and it was two straight September wins again: 41-33 at Detroit, 17-11 at Philadelphia.
It’s smart to try to work the schedule that way—and then to be in a team environment that’s in some ways an extension of football-focused training camp. “It’s been good, honestly, to go on these trips,” defensive leader Fred Warner told me Sunday post-game. “When we’re out there, our entire focus is on football. There’s no distractions. You wake up, you go to meetings, you go to practice, you get extra work in. Honestly, I see it as an advantage to be able to stay out on the East Coast. We come out on the first game in those situations, we have huge wins, we get adjusted to the time change. Obviously, you see the results from it, with how we’ve performed.”
With the NFC West 7-1 (and only an overtime loss by Seattle standing in the way of a flawless start for division teams), the Niners have a nice edge after two weeks. They’ve got a division-high eight home games left, and only two Eastern Time games remaining. “So many great teams in our division,” Warner said. “You play the game to be able to have exciting matchups like we know are ahead.”
Game of the Week
Baltimore 36, Kansas City 35
“Are announcers allowed to clap?” Cris Collinsworth said on NBC when it was over. “I would like to clap for that one.” Let me count why this was so fun:
1. The joy. Did you see wide-mouthed Lamar Jackson and Sammy Watkins skipping out onto the field when Odafe Oweh forced the fumble that won the game for Baltimore? We don’t focus much on joy watching these games. It’s more on who blew this or that, or maybe the technical side of why something happened. Sometimes it’s okay to say Holy crap, that was a fun one.
2. The decision. I didn’t think Baltimore coach John Harbaugh really had one. On fourth-and-one from the Baltimore 43 with 1:05 left in the game and Baltimore up by a point, even if the Ravens punted to pin Kansas City at its 15-yard line with 56 seconds left and no timeouts, how good do you feel about stopping Patrick Mahomes from getting into field-goal range? I wouldn’t feel very good. But it was fun to lip-read Harbaugh yelling out to the field, “Lamar! LAMAR! You want go for this?” Non-footballers loved it. (Damian Lillard for one, on Twitter). Jackson, of course, wanted to go for it.
3. The formation. An eight-man front. Eight! From the left: tight end Eric Tomlinson, lineman Trystan Colon-Castillo, tackle Alejandro Villanueva, lineman Patrick Mekari, guard Ben Powers, center and snapper Bradley Bozeman . . . and then, to the right of the snapper, only guard Kevin Zeitler and tight end Mark Andrews. Fullback Patrick Ricard was a sidecar to the left of Jackson, in the shotgun. At the snap, Zeitler pulled left, to create more pathway havoc for Jackson, who broke for the area behind what would normally be the left tackle/guard gap. But there were seven big men trying to earth-move for Jackson, and it worked. He gained two yards, and that was the game.
4. The legacy. Jackson needed this game, particularly after putting the Ravens in an early hole with a Tyrann Mathieu pick-six. Jackson was 0-3 against Mahomes before this one, and he’s 1-3 as a playoff quarterback. He’s had some big wins against other teams, obviously, but he may need a few more nights like this one to convince Ravens brass beyond a doubt that he deserves to be among the top three or four highest-paid players in NFL history.
Experience is the best teacher
Bill Walsh once told me there was no better feeling in football than swooping into a football-mad city, just 53 players and coaches and staff, and feeling like it’s 53 versus a city, a region, a state, and coming out with a win. It sounded corny, but I can tell Walsh felt it strongly.
And so the Rams flew to Indianapolis on Saturday and swooped into Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday, the first time the place had been full since pre-Covid. In a tight game early in the fourth quarter, Rams personal protector Nick Scott was mis-aligned on a punt, and the snap on the way back to punter Johnny Hekker hit Scott and the Colts recovered for a go-ahead touchdown.
There’s some adversity for the Rams. The crowd exploded. This felt very much like a game getting away from the Rams. I asked Cooper Kupp, who was the key to what happened next, to describe what that moment was like, in a deafening dome, knowing the Rams had gone from safe lead to chaotic deficit.
“Just like anything in football, there’s ebbs and flows,” Kupp said from the Rams locker room. “Ebbs and flows to a week of preparation. Ebbs and flows to a season. Something very unfortunate happened. Ebbs and flows. Everyone looks at each other and says we just go out there and execute our job. Nothing has to be said. Eye contact with the guys when you’re gonna head onto the field. Understand that as much as it feels like the momentum has swung, we’re in control of this thing.
“There’s something pretty cool about being able to go into a hostile environment, going to a place where the crowd’s rockin’, the opposing team feels like they got all the momentum going for them and able to from the sidelines to look at the guys next to you know it’s just you out there, just the guys stepping out to the field with and you get to trust the guys next to you to really go out there and execute and do their job. Us against everyone. Actually, we love that opportunity to hear the crowd go silent.”
On Sunday, those were just words. On the third play of the ensuing drive, Matthew Stafford hit Kupp (16 catches early in this season) for 44 yards, and then, on the next snap, Stafford hit Kupp for a 10-yard TD. The Rams hung on to win in a tough venue against a good team. Good lesson for a rising team.
I love NFL Films/HBO Sports making a deal with the Colts to do a minimum of nine Wednesday night shows (10 p.m. ET, starting Nov. 17) featuring the first regular-season “Hard Knocks” series in history.
I love it because I’ve always felt the more we can see of real NFL things—as I’ve done over the years with inside-the-draft-room experiences, a week embedded with Gene Steratore’s officiating crew in 2013, a week inside a quarterback’s prep with Carson Palmer in 2015—the more you can get to know what real football is like. And you can do it without giving away proprietary information. A team just has to be comfortable that the people it lets behind the curtain aren’t going to inhibit in any way the jobs football people need to do to win games.
The first thing to know is this isn’t going to be like a training-camp “Hard Knocks,” with NFL Films people swarming camp. NFL films will use 12 robotic cameras inside meeting rooms and inside the Colts facility. At the start of the process, only one camera inside the team will be used. There could be some other behind-the-scenes opportunities with individual players, but only those who are willing. For instance, if there’s a big individual matchup that week, NFL Films could spend extra time with that player at home or prepping at the facility. In Week 11, how great would it be to see linebacker Darius Leonard poring over extra tape of Buffalo QB Josh Allen at home, or taking over a defensive meeting with the urgency we all have heard that’s a part of his game? There will be extra cameras at games, as NFL Films does as a matter of routine.
Whereas in training-camp “Hard Knocks,” the show focuses on some long-shot stories and oddities of camp, these nine episodes “will focus more on the people who make the difference between wins and losses,” said Ross Ketover, the NFL Films senior executive in charge of making this happen.
“This is a true documentary,” Ketover told me Saturday. “The Colts will be doing their jobs, and we’ll be capturing it.”
One question for the Colts: Why? It could be compelling and dramatic TV if it’s all real. But what’s in it for the Colts, and why did coach Frank Reich and GM Chris Ballard—the ultimate decision-makers in the process—agree to do it?
“It’s an open world today,” GM Chris Ballard said Saturday. “The days of having shackles on our product are over. We don’t have jobs if not for our fans, and we think this is going to be fun for them. We’re going to take them along for the ride on our season, for the good and the bad. The biggest issue for us was would it be a distraction? We don’t think it will be.”
Ballard remembers how, in his youth, he got see the human side of the NFL through NFL Films, and he wants the Colts to be a vehicle to show this generation of young fans (and old) the same thing. “We want to humanize the work of our players and our team,” Ballard said. “We’re proud to be able to tell our story.”
Love the concept, love that a team is willing to open the curtain a bit on real football. But this isn’t without some danger. If the Colts—off to a bad start after two weeks—are in the toilet by early December, they aren’t going to be so magnanimous about holding up a mirror to their third straight season without a playoff win. “Chris Ballard’s an incredibly forward-thinking GM,” Ketover said. “He wants to show what his team is putting on the line every week. Our goal is to make great TV out of it.” Football fans should be happy about it.
In the first 20 NFL drafts of this century, Alabama had three quarterbacks drafted: Brodie Croyle (85th overall, 2006), Greg McElroy (208th, 2011) and A.J. McCarron (164th, 2014).
In the last two NFL drafts, Alabama had three quarterbacks drafted, if you count the three seasons Jalen Hurts spent in Tuscaloosa: Tua Tagovailoa (fifth, 2020), Hurts (53rd, 2020) and Mac Jones (15th, 2021). Say you credit Alabama for Hurts’ three seasons and Oklahoma—where he transferred for one season after losing the job in 2019 to Tagovailoa—for one. Then Alabama has 2.75 starting quarterbacks in the league right now.
Croyle, McElroy and McCarron were a combined 2-13 as NFL starters. None was ever handed the reins of a franchise. The NFL can be a transient place for quarterbacks, but Jones is clearly New England’s long-term choice. In Miami, Tagovailoa has the future of the franchise in his hands—if he’s good to very good this year, he’ll win the job into the future. In Philadelphia, Hurts isn’t as secure, but a very good year could win him that job as well. Could, I say.
It’s notable, given the Tide’s plodding place in offensive football history, that no NCAA institution has as many NFL starting quarterbacks in September 2021 as Alabama. In talking to NFL evaluators in the past few days, they credit Nick Saban for being more progressive on offense in recent years for the change. After Saban took over the Tide program in 2007, program-watchers thought the recruitment of Julio Jones would start a sea-change for the offense. Jones was great, but he didn’t change the program. That happened when Saban began to import progressive minds like Lane Kiffin (2014), Steve Sarkisian (2016), Brian Daboll (2017) and Jake Peetz (2018) with NFL pedigrees, to download their brains. (This year, ex-NFLer Bill O’Brien is the offensive coordinator.) And in 2018, with the run-pass option in vogue, Alabama installed it and used mobile quarterbacks like Hurts and Tagovailoa to open a progressive chapter in college offenses. Also, the more open nature of offense in Tuscaloosa allowed Alabama to spread the field and recruit great wide receivers like DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle.
As Saban told the New York Times recently, “This new age of offense, with the spread and the RPOs and lots of screens, throwing the ball behind the line of scrimmage, blocking downfield, taking advantage of the rules, made it much more difficult defensively . . . If you didn’t have an offensive system that was going to take advantage of the rules of college football, as well as the explosive, and have a chance to score points, you were probably going to struggle.”
Saban’s first seven teams, pre-Kiffin/Sarkisian/Peetz, were 79-15. His next seven teams, pre-2021: 91-8. The new offense, and the offensive talent wanting to play in this system, has helped a great team be greater. The NFL is the beneficiary, because these young quarterbacks are in a pre-NFL training ground that better prepares them for the Sunday game. Now, for the first time since the drafts of 1965 (Joe Namath, 12th overall pick) and 1968 (Ken Stabler, 52nd overall), NFL evaluators are looking to Alabama for quarterback talent. Saban’s open mind is a big factor.
Offensive Players of the Week
Derek Carr, quarterback, Las Vegas. In the span of seven days, Monday to Sunday, Carr has driven the Raiders to victories over traditional powers Baltimore and Pittsburgh, putting up 59 points and 817 passing yards—and the second one came on a short-week Eastern Time game, the kind of game that has in the past given the Raiders fits. Carr clinched the 26-17 win at Heinz Field with a 61-yard strike to Henry Ruggs, the target the Raiders have been waiting to make a play like this. Carr has been superb.
Derrick Henry, running back, Tennessee. After a snoozer of an opener against Arizona and a 35-yard first half at Seattle on Sunday, one had to wonder if the loss of offensive coordinator Arthur Smith to the Atlanta head-coaching job might be having an effect on Henry’s game. Wonder no more. His 35-carry, 182-yard, three-TD performance catapulted the Titans from a 15-point halftime deficit to a scintillating 33-30 OT win.
Cooper Kupp, wide receiver, Los Angeles Rams. It wasn’t just the immense production in the win at Indianapolis—nine catches for 163 yards and two touchdowns—but when the biggest plays came. Kupp started the scoring with a 16-yard TD catch from Matthew Stafford five minutes into the game. When the Rams fell behind on a bizarre/idiotic special-teams blunder early in the fourth quarter, Kupp immediately responded with 44-yard and 10-yard receptions, the second of which gave the Rams a 24-21 lead on the way to a 27-24 win. Kupp has become the go-to guy for Stafford in L.A.’s 2-0 start.
Cooper Kupp is COOKING ♨️
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) September 19, 2021
Wyatt Teller, guard, Cleveland. With the explosiveness missing from the Browns offense (no Odell Beckham Jr., and Jarvis Landry leaving with an injury early), Cleveland’s vaunted run game needed to be great Sunday. Protecting a 24-21 lead midway through the fourth quarter, the Browns leaned on Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt and the offensive line. Cleveland got to midfield, and it was Hunt for six, Chubb for 14, Baker Mayfield for one. And on second-and-nine from the Houston 26-yard line, Chubb took the handoff from Mayfield and headed to the right, behind Teller, the right guard. Now, at the point of contact at the line, Teller, the fourth-year man from Virginia Tech, steamed into Texans defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson and pushed him downfield. Five yards downfield. The immense hole gave Chubb the room to power for the 26-yard TD with 5:40 left to play. That was the final: 31-21, Browns.
Defensive Players of the Week
Mike Edwards, safety, Tampa Bay. Mike Edwards could play this game till 100 and never have a four-minute portion of any game like the one he had Sunday against the Falcons in Tampa. With Atlanta trying desperately to come back from a 35-25 deficit with eight minutes to play, Edwards plucked a Matt Ryan pass out of the air and ran it back 31 yards for a touchdown. Bucs, 41-25. Six Atlanta snaps later, Edwards picked off Ryan again and returned it 15 yards for another score. Bucs, 48-25.
Roquan Smith, linebacker, Chicago. With 11 minutes left in the home opener at Soldier Field, and Chicago up 10-3, and the Bears getting zero done offensively all day, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow lofted one downfield—intended for Tyler Boyd—and Smith picked it and rambled 53 yards for the touchdown and a 17-3 lead. Burrow got feisty and brought the Bengals back, but Smith’s play was the big one. For the game, he had eight tackles, one for loss, and a sack of Burrow.
ROQUAN SMITH PICK SIX‼️
Joe Burrow tried to tackle him on the goal line.
— ESPN (@espn) September 19, 2021
Special Teams Players of the Week
Jamal Agnew, kick-returner, Jacksonville. Not that it mattered much in a 23-13 Jags loss, but Agnew’s 102-yard weaving, bobbing, sprinting 102-yard kick return for a touchdown with five minutes left was a thing of beauty. Looked like he should have been down a couple of times, but Agnew never gave up. Heck of a return.
Javon Kinlaw, defensive tackle, San Francisco. The 49ers were stumbling around 16 minutes into a listless game at Philadelphia, and the Eagles lined up to kick a 47-yard field goal to go up 6-0. Kinlaw, last year’s first-round pick from South Carolina drafted after the Niners dealt DT DeForest Buckner to Indianapolis, burst through the Philly protection, leaped and swatted back the Jake Elliott kick. Perfect rush, excellent timing on the block.
Graham Gano, kicker, New York Giants. Move over, Justin Tucker. Soon, there may be competition for the best current kicker in the game. Gano hit five of five field goals Thursday night at Washington, giving him 35 straight makes—10 shy of breaking Adam Vinatieri’s record of 44 straight field goals converted in 2015 and ’16. Gano made a 23-yarder in the first half. In the last 25 minutes of the game, Gano was gigantic. He hit from 47, 52, 55 and 35 yards. The last one should have been the game-winner—it gave the Giants a 29-27 lead at the two-minute warning of the fourth quarter . . . until a certain Goat of the Week got involved in the outcome. By the way, today is the one-year anniversary of Gano’s last miss, his only one of 2020. He was wide left on a 57-yard prayer just before halftime in Week 2 against Chicago in the Windy (12-mph from the southeast) City.
Coach of the Week
Leslie Frazier, defensive coordinator, Buffalo. Credit Frazier and his D for Miami’s miserable day on offense. Zero points, 216 yards, Miami quarterbacks sacked six times. The Bills might really have the pass-rush GM Brandon Beane has been angling for now: Miami quarterbacks were pressured on 33 of 57 pass drops, and Frazier now has the ability to shuttle his young rushers in and out to keep them fresh. Especially effective Sunday in the Miami heat: A.J. Epenesa, with nine pressures, and this year’s first-rounder, Gregory Rousseau, with two sacks.
Goats of the Week
Zach Wilson, quarterback, New York Jets. With Joe Namath in the house for Wilson’s first home game ever as the next hopeful heir to him, the kid from Utah threw four picks in the first 35 minutes against the great and powerful Belichick. The hauntingly bad debut led to New England’s 25-6 victory, and the continuation of the most lopsided series. In the last 10 calendar years, the Patriots are 19-2 against the Jets, and the two losses came in overtime games.
Nick Scott, safety, Los Angeles Rams. I’ve covered football for 38 seasons, and I don’t recall the kind of boneheaded play Scott made that cost the Rams the cheapest touchdown of the weekend—and cost the Rams the lead in Indianapolis. Scott was the personal protector on a Rams’ punt, backed up, a minute into the fourth quarter. But Scott didn’t get wide enough outside the center’s path to the punter, and so the snap doinked off Scott’s hip and careened diagonally into the end zone, where the Colts recovered for an easy touchdown. Lucky for Scott, the Rams rallied to win.
What just happened?! #ForTheShoe
— NFL (@NFL) September 19, 2021
Joe Burrow, quarterback, Cincinnati. Burrow had gone 198 straight passes without throwing an interception as he took a snap with 11 minutes left at Chicago, trailing 10-3. In the next four minutes of plays, Burrow threw three passes. Every one was intercepted. When the dust settled, Chicago had a 17-point lead, and the good Cincinnati feeling from the Week 1 upset of Minnesota . . . Poof! Bears 20, Bengals 17.
Dexter Lawrence, DT, New York Giants. Understandable if you put on asterisk on this. It’s possible that officials blew the call that made Lawrence the goat. But the call was the call, and it stands, from WFT-NYG on Thursday night at FedEx Field. Giants 29, Washington 27, five seconds left, WFT ball at Giants’ 30. Dustin Hopkins boots a 48-yard field goal. No good. Two feet wide right. Clock at :00. Flag on the field. Offside, Giants. Lawrence jumped offside at the snap—that was the ruling on the field, although Lawrence might have jumped precisely at the start of the snap. It was very close on replay. On an untimed down, another field goal attempt by Hopkins, this time from 43 yards. Good. WFT wins, 30-29. Lawrence gained zero benefit from his offside lunge. The Giants gained another devastating loss.
“It felt in a lot of ways like a home game. The fans were phenomenal.”
—Dallas coach Mike McCarthy, on the Cowboy-centric atmosphere at SoFi Stadium in the first home game with fans at SoFi in Los Angeles Chargers history.
That’s going to be an issue for the Chargers, with Cleveland, New England, Pittsburgh, Denver and Kansas City likely to travel its fans quite well to Los Angeles.
“I think Jon is not the third man in the broadcast booth, but it’s as if he is.”
—CBS’ Ian Eagle, doing play-by-play of Las Vegas-Pittsburgh, as field mics picked up four distinct F-bombs from angry Raiders coach Jon Gruden late in the second quarter Sunday.
“Somebody out there check on my mother. She’s probably had a heart attack.”
—Washington kicker Dustin Hopkins, whose game-winning 48-yard field-goal try at the end of the Thursday night game was wide, only to be negated by a Giants offside penalty. His second try, from 43 yards, was true, and WFT beat New York.
“While my desire to build a fuller family life is at the heart of my decision, it is also true that the current state of our politics, especially many of the toxic dynamics inside our own party, is a significant factor in my decision.”
—U.S. Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio), the first-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts in 2007, announcing he will not seek re-election for a third term in Congress. Gonzalez was one of 10 Republicans who voted for the impeachment of former President Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, and he stood little chance in his bright-red district of keeping his seat in November.
“This thing drives me crazy. We go into overtime and play the 10 minutes, and if no one scores, we all end in a tie and everyone goes home? How terrible is that?”
—Seattle QB Russell Wilson, on the ESPN megacast with Peyton and Eli Manning in Week 1.
Odell Beckham Jr. was traded to the Cleveland Browns before the 2019 season. The Browns have played 36 games, including two in the playoffs, with Beckham in their employ. He is currently close to returning from November 2020 surgery for a torn ACL and missed his second game of the season Sunday.
The Browns, since opening day 2019, with and without Beckham active:
With Beckham playing: Cleveland is 11-12 and averages 21.65 points per game.
Without Beckham playing: Cleveland is 8-5 and averages 25.62 points per game.
Next Sunday will be the 49ers’ home opener. San Francisco plays host to the Packers at Levi’s Stadium. That will be the 14th home game, including playoffs, for the Niners since Nov. 20, 2019.
Of those 14 home games in the last 22 months, Green Bay has been the opponent twice in ’19, once in ’20 and once this year. Which means:
• In the last 22 months, NFC West foes Seattle, Arizona and the Rams, combined, have played four games at the Niners.
• In the last 22 months, NFC North foe Green Bay will have played four games at the Niners.
Thursday is the 20-year anniversary of Tom Brady replacing the injured Drew Bledsoe against the New York Jets in Foxboro.
Give that game an Emmy
— Colleen Wolfe (@ColleenWolfe) September 20, 2021
On the night of the Emmys, the NFL Network host with a great observation about the 36-35 Baltimore win over Kansas City.
— Barry Switzer (@Barry_Switzer) September 16, 2021
The former Oklahoma and Dallas coach, with a tweet that seems so Switzerian, so odd.
Broncos building a winning, fun and passionate locker room right before our eyes. https://t.co/dYaVfFWoe7
— Zac Stevens (@ZacStevensDNVR) September 19, 2021
Stevens covers the Broncos for DNVR Sports.
Najee Harris just stole Johnathan Abram's soul pic.twitter.com/vYckjbpVou
— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) September 19, 2021
Monson of PFF with the truth on the straight-arm of the early season.
— Mike Puma (@NYPost_Mets) September 17, 2021
Mike Puma, reflecting on the Washington-New York Thursday night result, is a sportswriter for the New York Post.
The Norm Macdonald "moth Joke," one of the greatest jokes every told on television. pic.twitter.com/daC9oPVPsU
— Lights, Camera, Pod (@LightsCameraPod) September 14, 2021
Lights Camera Pod is Barstool’s movie brand.
RIP, Norm McDonald, one of the funniest men, in a droll way, of my lifetime.
I’ve been wondering the same thing. From John Paisan, of Irving, Texas: “On the new ‘glorification’ of gambling in the NFL, I always thought the pro leagues shied away from the gambling side because of the illegality and the corruption possibility of influencing the games. Now that the illegality seems to be dissipating, I am concerned about the possible corruption. I wonder if/when gambling will be influencing front office decisions like who’s the coach, or whether a certain player at a position is worthwhile. So, with all the new talk about favorites (not just for the win but against the spread) ratcheting up, how will owners who seem to have a business interest in the gambling operations think about whether it’s better to just win or win by 77 points a game?”
Too early to tell (we’re two weeks into the full-on gamification of the NFL), but those are valid concerns. I don’t want to seem like I’m 64 years old or anything, but a couple of other things are worrisome. One of the reasons gambling is attractive to the NFL is because—like fantasy football—it gets people who might not care about the Houston-Cincinnati game to care because they might have some action on the game. Action on the game might lead to better ratings for meaningless games, etc. But at what cost? The addictive aspects of sports gambling come into play too. We act like this brave new world of NFL games being so available to bet on is a wonderful thing. Maybe it is. But maybe (probably) it’s going to bankrupt some families and lead to the ruination of some families as well. We’d all be naïve to think the upside of legal sports betting by a burgeoning portion of fans is not going to have some social consequences.
He thinks I ignore the flyover states. From Christo Whelan: “I always looked forward to your column, but recently I’ve become more convinced you have a myopic vision when it comes to teams in the flyover states. You mentioned the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes in passing in this week’s column, but you either completely ignored the fact that on Sunday he passed two Hall of Famers’ records for passing yards and touchdowns in their first 50 games of their career, doing it in 47 games, or you weren’t paying attention. Sounds like a kind of significant achievement to me and at least deserved a highlighted mention. If it had been Tom Brady, don’t you think you probably would have led your column with the information on the achievement?”
Every week, records get broken. I could have a Mahomes-greatness stat in the column every week, but what benefit is it really? Let’s say that was my stat of the week last week, instead of a stat with some meaning: that young quarterbacks are playing earlier in their career than in past generations. Eleven quarterbacks 25 or younger started opening day, versus three a generation ago in 1996.
I have written eight columns since returning from vacation. What led the eight columns: Optimism in Buffalo and Cleveland . . . Matthew Stafford brings hope to the Rams . . . Patrick Mahomes and his new offensive line in Kansas City . . . Aaron Rodgers goes all-in on 2021 and won’t focus beyond that . . . The state of Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay attempt to repeat . . . The metronomic Ravens . . . Picking a Rams-Bills Super Bowl . . . Jameis Winston’s strong start for New Orleans. I appreciate your feedback, Christo, but I don’t agree with it.
As for Brady coverage, yes, I do cover Brady a lot. He is the most remarkable athlete in the years I’ve covered the NFL, and may go down as the most compelling player in NFL history. I make no apologies for it, even though whenever I write about Brady, I get scads of email telling me I’m in bed with Brady, stop hitting us over the head with Brady, etc. That’s life.
I lost a reader. From John Hearn: “I used to love reading Stephen King. Read every book. Then he went political. I stopped reading his work and am sad for it. I stopped reading your column several years ago for the same reason. You have a tremendous gift and your column is very entertaining. But your progressive rhetoric is off-putting. Why ruin a good football column with op-ed? Been three years since I read your work. So, I thought I’d check in and see how you’re doing. And I stopped reading halfway down the page. Quoting Jemele Hill is a mistake. She is a troubled woke person with an agenda and limited vision. And you lose moderates like me when you selfishly add your personal political views to an otherwise fascinating take on all things NFL. I respect/envy your talent, but I won’t be back.”
I quoted Jemele Hill’s opinion that quarterbacks who don’t get vaccinated are wrong. And that’s so objectionable? John, thanks for reading over the years. I always tell people who don’t like me injecting personal opinions in my column—that is, in part, opinion-based—that I write about 10,000 words every week on average about pro football and maybe 1,500 on everything else in the world.
The media is out of touch with common folk. From Bruce Lang, of Chico, Calif.: “I think you guys need a reality check. NFL players make a lot of money, yet you say ‘only’ a lot about their salaries. I realize it’s relative—but do you cheer on CEOs who run a company into the ground and make millions?”
That’s a good point. I’ll think of it the next time I’m writing about players and money, Bruce.
Why, thank you. From Chris Neck, of Tempe, Ariz.: “I wanted to let you know how much I appreciate your column each Monday. Your writing is a sports-related gift each week. It is a great escape from the pressures of the day. Your words make me laugh or cry, make me think, and always leaves me with a positive feeling. Your column each week truly affects my Monday in a very positive way.”
That is so nice of you to say, Chris—all of it. I’m so appreciative of your support. Makes me think all these short-sleep Sunday nights are worth it.
1. I think the player who showed me the most Sunday, other than Derek Carr, was Kyler Murray. The way he hung in against the Minnesota rush, especially on that fourth-and-five nearly blind bomb on a post route to Christian Kirk midway through the fourth quarter, was masterful. Murray, leaning back, threw a fly ball deep downfield that Kirk caught for 35 yards, leading to the winning field goal. Murray showed presence, maturity and guts throughout. The Cards will be a tough out for anyone this year.
2. I think Jets GM Joe Douglas let down Jets franchise quarterback Zach Wilson on Sunday. I’ve harped on this through the offseason, the need in New York for a veteran backup to be a guide for Wilson. And Sunday, the need showed up. 26-year-old backup Mike White the only man in reserve. Four minutes into the second half of a loss to New England, Wilson dropped back and let a bomb fly deep down the middle of the field. No Jet was close when the ball fell to earth. But a Patriot was close—safety Devin McCourty, who intercepted it. Four interceptions in 35 minutes for the green Wilson. After the pick by McCourty, Wilson should have been yanked, given the rest of the day off while a hold-the-fort vet finished. There is no hold-the-fort vet, so Wilson stayed in and took his lumps. It’s just not sensible to treat the long-term answer at quarterback like this.
3. I think there is no logical reason to choose to punt instead of accepting a penalty. That surfaced in Houston-Cleveland. The situation: Houston ball at its 38, third-and-15. Tyrod Taylor passes to Brandin Cooks for 13 years, leaving fourth-and-two. But there’s a flag for offside. Houston can accept it and advance to the 43, leading to third-and-10. Coach David Culley declined the penalty and chose to punt, saying later it was because he wanted to try to pin the Browns deep in their own territory. That is just not plausible. On third-and-10, Houston could have run a play and possibly earned a first down. Even if the Texans came up short, the punt would be from near midfield. Anyway, it’s just the wrong logic by Culley.
4. I think my two-week MVP ballot would be: 1 Derek Carr, 2 Kyler Murray, 3 Tom Brady.
5. I think Andrea Kremer’s piece on Raiders owner Mark Davis, airing Tuesday night at 10 p.m. ET on “HBO Real Sports,” produced by Maggie Burbank, fills in quite a few gaps on the quixotic Davis. (Plus, I never knew Davis was exiled from the family for a year for his close relationship with Cliff Branch, which didn’t sit well with his dad, Al Davis. And I never knew they shared two pet pigs.) Three good nuggets from Kremer’s story:
• “People ask where I grew up,” Davis tells Kremer. “I haven’t. Never wanted to . . . I was retired the first 50 years of my life. Now I have a job.”
• Davis is approachable and pleasant, at least in my interactions with him. His dad, who died in 2011, often had a force field around him, and alienated three commissioners and scores of owners. Says Mark Davis: “I felt maybe it’s a little easier to get things done with sugar rather than salt. I wanted to start on a clean slate with the National Football League, with the other owners.”
• Kremer did a good job with some pointed questions, including how the Mark Davis Raiders differ from his dad’s Raiders. “They won,” Mark Davis says. “We haven’t yet. That’s where I have to get it right.”
I’ll do the math. Al Davis, as majority owner from 1972 till his death in 2011, had a 327-279 regular-season record, with three Super Bowl titles. The record since his death: 64-95, obviously with no titles, and no playoff wins. Mark Davis understands. The franchise is on an 18-year streak of zero playoff wins.
6. I think this is This Week’s Sign that the Bizzaroworld is Upon Us: Headline from the Kansas City Star on Saturday: “Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce lends his voice to a washing machine that speaks.” I have no further comment.
7. I think, if you want to read a rewarding story about a former NFL player returning to his needy high school to build a program, check out this one by Will Harrigan for NJ Advance Media. Remember Ray Lucas? Had a fun 6-3 run with the Jets as a gritty Parcells-guy quarterback in 1999. Lucas is from hardscrabble Harrison, N.J., and in late August, per Harrigan, Harrison High didn’t have a football coach and was in danger of not fielding a football team for the first time in a century. Lucas, Harrison Class of ’92, took the gig, and in the opener Friday night Harrison beat Emerson Boro 19-6. Harrigan quoted Lucas post-game this way: “I honestly feel like I want to go home and cry for a little bit right now. This is home and this is my family. Many were in the stands tonight. And I’ve said this before but every one of those players, I really see them as my sons in my eyes.” Such a cool story. Good for Lucas.
8. I think you can be sure that every person in Roger Goodell’s universe, and the commissioner himself, read this scathing column about the Raider fan experience at the first game in Vegas by Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times. The notable excerpts from Hernandez, who walked into the stadium with the fans and who apparently walked the Allegiant Stadium concourses also:
“This isn’t a place for children . . . The handful of them who were here looked as out of place as those 7- or 8-year-olds dragged by their parents to a supermarket or convenience store at midnight.”
“The halftime show was headlined by Ice Cube, who performed a song in which the chorus included the line, ‘I can do it, put your ass into it.’ “
“Too Short rapped his trademark single, ‘Blow The Whistle,’ which has lyrics that can’t be printed.”
I guess this is the atmosphere the NFL—with the money-first, money-second and money-third approach the league exhibits these days—is willing to accept for a lucrative new market.
9. I think of all the things I missed from Week 1 (and I miss a plethora of comment-able things every weeks, as you all know), this stood out: After the Titans lost in an ugly way to Arizona, coach Mike Vrabel the next day called out superstar Julio Jones for an unnecessary roughness penalty that killed a first-quarter drive for the Titans. “That’s absolutely nothing we coach or teach. So that would fall under the category of doing dumb s–t that hurts the team. Right there in bold letters.” That’s a wow. In a good way.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Something really ticks me off. Supremely. I watch our Olympic gymnasts, including Aly Raisman, testify before Congress about their abuse claims at the hands of former Olympic doctor Larry Nassar being ignored by the USOC and then downplayed by the FBI. I see two FBI agents get off scot-free after botching the investigation into Nassar—it surely seems purposeful—and I see years later the abuse still wreaking havoc on them with no consequences for those who allowed the abuse to happen and to continue. From Reuters:
Once the FBI finally did contact them, they said the agents tried to downplay the severity of the abuse.
“I remember sitting with the FBI agent and him trying to convince me that it wasn’t that bad,” Raisman said. “It’s taken me years of therapy to realize that my abuse was bad, that it does matter.”
b. Then I read Diana Moskovitz in Defector, writing this powerful piece on how multiple systems of checks and balances—in law enforcement, in the courts, and mostly at Ohio State—absolutely failed the wife of an abusive Ohio State football coach Zach Smith, the grandson of former Buckeye coach Earle Bruce. Over and over and over the systems failed Courtney Smith, and to make matters worse, she was mentally abused by legions of fans on social media who took the side of her abuser. Reports Moskovitz:
In March of 2015, after a fight while on vacation in the Dominican Republic, Zach choked Courtney, grabbing her, lifting her off the ground, and pinning her to a wall, she told police. Then he let her go and left the hotel room for the night. Courtney was left gasping for air. He would later apologize in a text message, saying, “I’m so so sorry!!!!” after Courtney brought up what happened. Courtney would later tell police that Zach threatened to kill her “all the time” and there was so much violence “she could not even keep track of them all,” according to their report.
. . . By 2015 and early 2016, according to Ohio State, Zach Smith was regularly late to practice and workouts, missing scheduled recruiting visits but saying he had made them, having a sexual relationship with a football staff secretary who did not report to him, having sex toys delivered to Ohio State’s athletic facilities, and taking sexually explicit photos of himself at various Ohio State facilities.
In June 2016, with the help of Meyer, Zach went to a drug treatment facility. An anonymous email, which was included with the Ohio State report, told investigators that Zach did not take it seriously and left early.
None of this was reported in Zach’s personnel file. His 2015 file is all about getting better at recruiting.
c. Ohio State kept this coach on staff for three more years after 2015!
d. What’s the common denominator in these stories? Men. Men in charge. Men screwing up justice, and men ignoring the pain of women. These stories, collectively, should be a clarion call for our sporting society. Listen to the abused, the mistreated, the dominated. Act promptly for justice. And you defenders of Zach Smith: I hope you can sleep at night. I don’t see how that’s possible.
e. TV Story of the Week: Reporter Monica Villamizar and videographer Zach Fannin, for PBS, with a revealing story about where fentanyl comes from, how it’s made, and how incredibly dangerous it is.
f. Villamizar reports from the barren, arid Mexican state of Sinaloa, showing how the deadly stuff is produced. She says: “We’ve been given rare access to one of the Sinaloa cartel’s fentanyl labs. It’s quite ingenious, because they’ve set it up in the middle of those cows. The cows provide a perfect cover.” As in: The cops wouldn’t think the fentanyl was being cooked in the middle of a herd of cows.
g. The caution being taken by the cooks, to not inhale the deadly narcotic, is notable, just as is the fact that the reporter and videographer have been warned to wear gas masks around the fentanyl. Villamizar reports: “Many of these cooks have died, just by inhaling it.”
h. How in the world did they get in there? Amazing reporting. Kudos, Manica Villamizar and Zach Fannin.
i. Football Story of the Week: Kalyn Kahler of Defector on how fake vaccine cards are a problem for the NFL. Writes Kahler:
Fake CDC cards, often ordered online, are big business and growing, and two NFL agents who work for different agencies told Defector that players they represent asked them for help getting a fake vaccine card. (Both agents declined to do so.) One of those agents said that his client asked him about getting a fake card because a teammate of his had used one. “He was like, ‘Oh well my teammate’s got this fake card. Should I just do that?’” the agent said. “I’m like no! Just get vaccinated!”
This player was interested in getting a fake because he had just been placed on the COVID-19 reserve list for being a close contact. Two days after the conversation with his agent, the player got COVID himself.
Based on what that agent learned from his conversation with this player and others similarly shut down as close contacts in 2021, he estimates that 10–15 percent of players have a fake vaccine card. “I think it is a lot more common than people realize,” he said. “Look, you’re talking about the NFL. These guys do anything they can to fudge a weed test or a PED test.”
j. Think about it: If you can get a fake card, and you can show the team the fake card, and you don’t have to get vaxxed (which so many many players don’t want to do), cheating the system is perfect.
k. An agent asked me Friday about this story and asked what I thought the NFL’s reaction to it would be. I’m sure they’re not surprised was my first answer. The second: As long as they can say 93 percent of the players are vaxxed and there are no big outbreaks, I’m not sure they’re going to freak out about it.
l. Remembrance of the Week: Why Michael K. Williams, the late star of The Wire, mattered, by Matt Zoller Seitz of the New Yorker. Wrote Seitz:
Michael K. Williams made you believe in Omar Little, a legendary Baltimore stickup man so fearsome that when he strolled to the bodega in a silk robe to buy Honey Nut Cheerios for his boyfriend, kids shouted “Omar comin’!,” their elders scattered like pigeons, and drug dealers tossed stashes from windows to save him the bother of taking them. Michael K. Williams made you believe in Leonard Pine, a Black gay conservative Vietnam veteran in a cowboy hat whose lethal temper is leavened by a laid-back Steve McQueen cool in Hap and Leonard, and that he would be friends with a white liberal ex-hippie in the American South. Michael K. Williams made you believe that Boardwalk Empire’s Chalky White, a ruthless and worldly gangster and a leader in Atlantic City’s Black community, could fall instantly in love with a young nightclub singer and become so intoxicated by her talent and beauty that he’d jeopardize the power he had amassed and the bourgeois homelife he had built . . .
He was a man of prodigious gifts. He had the ability to take a seeming throwaway moment and make it revelatory. Consider the scene in Boardwalk Empire’s fourth season in which Chalky, who has been put in charge of a Cotton Club–type segregated nightspot, playfully spars with a high-rolling white regular. The moment expresses the lie of American equality as pantomimed by these two men, who seem to be on equal footing until the white man asks if he can rub Chalky’s forehead “for luck,” and Chalky says yes because he has no other choice. The demeaning gesture neutralizes the warmth that had been expressed moments earlier. As the camera lingers on Chalky’s face as he turns and walks away, his aw-shucks grin melts and is replaced with fury.
Williams plays the scene not just as a moment of humiliation for Chalky but as a commentary on the era and on how things haven’t changed as much as they should have.
m. Two lessons from the life of Michael K. Williams: Those of us only fleetingly familiar with his talent need to stream his work, and efforts to fight long-term drug addiction must be ongoing and aggressive. We’re losing too many people with great talent like this man.
n. Baseball Story of the Week: Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, on the unique greatness of the Rays. Writes Topkin of the best team in the American League:
Brandon Lowe leads the Rays with 33 home runs and ranks among the top 10 in the majors. He is among the most productive hitters against right-handed pitchers in the American League. And since the All-Star break he has made marked improvements in his performance against lefties.
But three times in the first eight games of September he was not in the starting lineup.
o. Analytics rules. The Rays have had 138 lineups in the first 141 games. Manuel Margot has hit in every spot in the order, one through nine. I don’t know if it’s genius, but the Rays’ way wins.
p. Yanking Blake Snell in the middle of his 2020 World Series Game 6 masterpiece, however, is one Kevin Cash decision that is haunting. And should be.
q. Hard to not be a Cedric Mullins fan. Baltimore leadoff hitter. Heard of him? You should. Two weeks left in the season, 35 doubles, 29 homers, 30 steals, on-base in the .370 range, .900 OPS (Rafael Devers .879, Pete Alonso .850). Special player, but you wouldn’t know it on a team that’ll lose 108 games or whatever this year. The Orioles have never had a 30-30 player, by the way.
r. I am not a follower of international politics, or at least I’m not knowledgeable on that front. But why would the Biden Administration treat the French, excellent and loyal allies, the way it did in aligning with England and Australia in forming an alliance to, hopefully, keep China in check? Why in the world wouldn’t we call the French president and say, We’re partnering with the Aussies with these advanced submarines, and we know it’s bad for you in a business sense, but it’s something that’s best for the region. Come on. Don’t leave loyal friends out to dry. I don’t blame the French for being furious with us. Man, as much experience as Joe Biden had in government service over the decades, he makes some knee-jerk and poorly considered decisions.
s. College name of the week: Auburn safety Smoke Monday.
t. He doubles as an actor in Westerns.
u. You know, I thought of this watching Auburn-Penn State: There is nothing in the NFL like those whiteout games at Penn State. Nothing even close.
v. Long-Awaited Film/Streaming Venture of the Season: “The Many Saints of Newark,” the prequel of “The Sopranos.” This is going to be fun. The way “The Sopranos” ended 14 years ago, and the gulf between the end of the show and the start of something legitimate as its successor, has been too long. From Calum Marsh of the Times:
“The Many Saints of Newark” is a prequel, set roughly 30 years before the start of the show, beginning in the late 1960s and spanning half a decade. Billed as a Tony Soprano origin story, it instead focuses largely on Dickie Moltisanti, a close friend and associate of the family who, seeing great potential in Tony, takes the young Soprano boy under his wing.
“Many Saints” is a treat for “Sopranos” fans, full of subtle references to series lore and answers to longstanding questions, and it’s a delight to see younger versions of familiar faces. But the movie doesn’t make much of an effort to explain characters or their relationships to the uninitiated, and if it’s been a while since your last “Sopranos” binge, you may find it difficult to place each and every member of the family.
w. Finally: My thanks to longtime Jaguars PR maven Dan Edwards, who will retire at the end of this year after a 38-year NFL career as an NFL executive and PR person, for his terrific service and fair-minded approach to the profession of servicing the media. I got to know Dan when he was the Steelers media-relations man, and then much better when he was in on the ground floor of the expansion Jags. You may not know this, but being the front man for Tom Coughlin is not always easy business. Dan Edwards was loyal to Coughlin and fair to the media (at least that was my experience) every time I covered his teams. My thanks, Dan, for being a pro over the years.
Green Bay 36, Detroit 16. Just what the Packers need—a visit from their good friends the Lions. Since 1994, Green Bay is 24-3 against Detroit at Lambeau Field. I bet Dan Campbell has used that this week to give his team some juice. After Aaron Rodgers’ worst loss in the pros, a 35-point beatdown by the Saints, I’m not worried in the least about the Green Bay passing game. The run game needs a very good night, particularly with two stout defenses (Niners, Steelers) coming next. Last week the Packers didn’t try to run much (15 times, 43 yards) while getting routed. But they didn’t pay Aaron Jones big money in the offseason to touch it nine times and produce 22 yards. So my eyes will be on the Green Bay backfield tonight—and not just on number 12.
My ears will be on Peyton and Eli Manning on the alternate ESPN2 feed. Knowing how smart and opinionated both are about quarterback play, their thoughts on Rodgers will be compelling.
Another thing: How crazy is the ESPN promotion of Peyton/Eli on ESPN2, while nearly ignoring the number one ESPN crew of Steve Levy, Louis Riddick and Brian Griese? On the crawl of Auburn-Penn State Saturday night was this: “Monday Night Football with Peyton & Eli, 8 p.m. ET ESPN2.” I get it. Peyton and Eli are the new hot prospects, and their Week 1 debut last week was really interesting during Ravens-Raiders. But that can’t feel good for the main crew.
Something new: Each week, I’ll pick the best five games of the following week. I found myself thinking that many of you read the column later on Monday or on Tuesday, and you’re probably thinking, “Any good games next week?” So here goes with that:
Tampa Bay at L.A. Rams, Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX. Three of the Bucs’ first four games are big marquee jobs (Dallas and New England too), and I’ve got to think it’s a pretty big one for Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey as individuals. Each has faced Tom Brady three times. In those games, Donald has zero sacks, Ramsey zero picks.
L.A. Chargers at Kansas City, Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS. I’m Just Saying Dept.: Justin Herbert versus KC last year (and I know the second game was a giveaway for the Men of Reid): 68.8 completion percentage, 113.6 rating, 58 points scored, 9.58 yards per attempt. This year could be the toughest road to the AFC West title in the Mahomes Era so far.
Green Bay at San Francisco, Sunday, 8:20 p.m., NBC. This is one of these games Aaron Rodgers has to find a way to win if the Packers are going to be serious about dethroning Tampa or beating whoever they’ll match up with in January.
Philadelphia at Dallas, Monday, 8:15 p.m., ESPN. Eagles’ only division game till after Thanksgiving (true fact—they finish Giants, Jets, bye, WFT, Giants, WFT, Dallas), with the 53rd pick of the 2020 draft, Jalen Hurts, dueling the 135th pick of the 2016 draft, Dak Prescott.
Cincinnati at Pittsburgh, Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS. One of these Sundays, Joe Burrow’s going to walk onto the field of a better team, throw for 364 yards and four TDs, and the Bengals will waltz out with a win. I just don’t know which Sunday. Might be this one.
Hello, Derek Carr.
I make this vow: I will stop