In the locker room when one of the most dramatic games of this or any NFL season had ended, Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians told his players—all except the most famous former one, Antonio Brown—how proud he was of them.
“You’re either with us or against us,” Arians said after the Bucs outscored the Jets 18-0 in the last 17 minutes Sunday to beat New York 28-24. “And I want you to know I’ll take the guys in this locker room and go play anyone in the world.”
Arians took a big gamble with Brown last year, and he made a significant contribution to a Super Bowl win. Arians took a bigger gamble this year after Brown used a phony vaccination card, got suspended for three games by the league, and the Bucs allowed him to stay on the team post-ban. That was even after Arians said Brown would be gone if he made one mistake.
Now there’s no turning back for either man. It’d be stunning if Brown, barring a major turnaround in his life, got another chance in the league after blowing this golden one and his previous three with the Steelers, Raiders and Patriots. And Arians will be forever known as the man who drew his line in the sand, then changed his mind on Brown, and got burned by Sunday’s insubordination.
“It’s a shame,” said Arians. “I feel bad for him. He just can’t help himself.”
Brown may need professional help, but it’s impossible to project that from the outside. What he did Sunday was irrational and almost scary.
This is what happened on a strange afternoon in New Jersey:
With about 3:30 left in the third quarter, the Bucs driving and the Jets leading 24-10, Arians said he asked Brown to go back in the game. According to Arians, Brown said, “Nope. I’m not going in.” The Athletic reported Brown’s ankle was sore, and that’s the reason why he wouldn’t go in. Whatever the reason, Arians told me he was “very” angry with Brown, who went to the bench area and began taking off his jersey and pads. At first, vet receiver Mike Evans tried to stop Brown, but, according to Arians, “he had that look in his eye that I haven’t seen for a long time.” Evans couldn’t stop Brown, who took his jersey, pads and black T-shirt off, tossing the shirt into the stands. He left the field, giving the peace sign to fans as he went up the end zone tunnel.
Antonio Brown ran off the field shirtless after showing some frustration on the sidelines.@JenHale504 pic.twitter.com/Jet6ofnNm2
— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) January 2, 2022
Meanwhile, Brady marched the undermanned Bucs receivers downfield, and two minutes later finished a TD drive with a four-yard pass to Cam Brate. When I asked Arians what Brady thought of the scene, he said, “I don’t think Tom knew. I knew and Mike Evans knew, but if anyone else did, I don’t know that. We kept playing the game.”
Brady led a 93-yard drive in the closing minute and threw a perfect 33-yard scoring pass to the inexperienced Cyril Grayson, who will probably be taking some of Brown’s playing time now. That won the game with 15 seconds left. Fifteen seconds is how long Tampa led the spunky Jets on this strange day.
“It’s all a credit to Tom,” Arians said. “Give the Jets credit. They played their asses off, but Tom never blinked. He’s the MVP of this league.”
Arians said the team, post-game, was excited, and he loves the young receivers that remain. But prime wideout Chris Godwin, out for the year with a knee injury, and now Brown, are two of Brady’s favorites—and maybe THE favorites. Without them, look for Brady to work long hours with Grayson, Jaelon Darden and Tyler Johnson to be sure they’re ready when the postseason begins.
TOM. BRADY.@Buccaneers | #GoBucs
— Sunday Night Football on NBC (@SNFonNBC) January 2, 2022
For now, Brady sounded loyal to Brown, and urged those who might demonize him not to rush to judgment. “I think everyone should be very compassionate and empathetic toward some very difficult things that are happening,” Brady said, not being specific.
“I hope he can get fixed,” said Arians.
One week to go, and it won’t be one of the more dramatic final weekends we’ve seen in the NFL. News you can use this morning, plus what’s in this stacked column:
Seedy things I: Green Bay clinched the NFC 1 seed by routing the feeble Vikes. Tennessee passed Kansas City and will clinch the AFC 1 seed by winning at 4-12 Houston on Sunday.
Seedy things II: Only one of the 14 seeds is set in stone—Green Bay at the NFC 1. Eleven teams have clinched playoff spots. We just don’t know their order yet.
The Bengals don’t stink. Cincinnati clinched the AFC North for the first time since 2015, and Joe Burrow set the NFL record for most passing yards in two straight games. He’s thrown for 971 yards in the past two weeks in routing Baltimore and nipping Kansas City. What’s he playing? Madden?
Fly Eagles Fly. Philly limped into Denver on Nov. 14 with a 3-6 record. Iggles are 6-1 since and clinched a wild-card berth, 20-16 over WFT. The last four have come against teams with 4, 6, 4, and 6 wins, but still, nice resuscitation job by rookie coach Nick Sirianni.
There’s only one win-and-in game next week. Pretty easy for the NFL to make Chargers-Raiders game 272 (the regular season finale) next Sunday night. Barring the hapless Jags beating the Colts, the LA-LV winner is the AFC 7 seed and the loser goes home.
The Saturday ESPN doubleheader won’t be too dramatic. Before the season, the NFL opened two more Week 18 windows on Saturday for the Worldwide Leader, to be picked one week out. The NFL picked KC-Denver early and Dallas-Philadelphia late, theorizing Kansas City will play hard with a prayer for the AFC 1 seed, and theorizing Dallas will want to play hard for the NFC 2 seed. The 2 seeds are valuable because they ensure two home games if teams win the first. This is some wrinkle for ESPN: It’s the first time in history both division meetings between rivals appear on ESPN. (Eagles at Cowboys was the ESPN Week 3 Monday-nighter.)
As of this moment, my money would be on a New England-Buffalo show for the first-ever Monday night wild-card game. The AFC, in fact, is gold for first-round matchups, if form holds. Imagine Raiders or Chargers at Kansas City in the 7-2 game, Colts-Burrow in the 6-3 game (Burrow’s going to be must-see as long as the Bengals are in it), and Patriots-Bills in the other one. Imagine three Buffalo-New England games in a 43-day span, with the rubber match on a frigid Jan. 17 night in the northeast.
Madden, Madden, Madden. I pay homage below. He once got testy with me over a bottle of water. Read on.
Rambos. I went to Baltimore to see a strange but fascinating game to finish a four-games-in-21-days-in-three-time-zones stretch for Los Angeles. Von Miller and Odell Beckham were the Rams heroes, the first time that sentence has ever been used.
The MVP … One week to go, and I’d say it’s Aaron Rodgers with a dental-floss-thin lead over Cooper Kupp, Jonathan Taylor and Tom Brady. One man’s opinion.
The top pick in the draft. A loss to Indianapolis by 2-14 Jacksonville clinches the top pick in the draft for the second year in a row. I’ll tell you the most amazing streak of futility currently in the NFL: The Jaguars in 2022 will pick in the top 10 of the draft for the 14th time in the last 15 years. Where the Jags’ top pick has fallen, overall, in the last 14 years: 8, 8, 10, 10, 5, 2, 3, 3, 5, 4, 29, 7, 9, 1.
On with the show.
The Lead: Rams Revival
BALTIMORE — They are the 21 days that should have tried Rams’ souls. Instead, these last 21 days revived Rams’ souls.
Forty players, coaches and football staff—more than any team in the league—tested positive for Covid. Two vital players were sidelined hours before the start of this ramrod schedule: at Arizona, Seattle (delayed two days because of 22 positives that week), at desperate Minnesota, at desperate Baltimore. Because of the Covid spread and the heavy rains in southern California, the team has not had a full, normal practice since early December. With all that, the Rams had to go 4-0 in this stretch to have a realistic chance to pass 10-2 Arizona and be in position to win the division.
Facing the Ravens on Sunday at the big Crabcake, the Rams’ crazy 20-19 win—keyed by superstar acquisitions Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr.—finished the crazy schedule stretch. The Rams went 4-0. They’ll win the NFC West with either a home win over the Niners this weekend or an Arizona loss to Seattle.
Going 4-0 in that three-week stretch is one of the great accomplishments this season by any NFL team, particularly in the hazy time of the record number of Covid positives. But Christmas Day highlighted a particularly bizarre weekend.
Stalwart left tackle Andrew Whitworth went to bed on Friday night, Christmas Eve, feeling lousy. The team’s head athletic trainer, Reggie Scott, told Whitworth if he didn’t feel good Christmas morning, he should report for 5 a.m. Covid testing at the team facility. Whitworth didn’t sleep much that night, felt feverish, and he knew the team needed him for the Sunday game at Minnesota, and he thought of trying to gut it out. “But I knew the responsible thing with this outbreak running through our team was to test and try to slow it down,” he said.
Whitworth’s first three rapid-test swabs in the 5 a.m. test were positive. He was out for Sunday. His backup, Joe Noteboom, had been out with Covid, but the Rams felt he was trending in a healthy direction, and he reported for the early test. And just as the Rams buses were about to leave for the trip to Minnesota, Noteboom’s PCR test came back positive.
The third option at left tackle, David Edwards, started. But 18 plays into the game, center Brian Allen got hurt, and the Rams shuffled the line, and undrafted rookie Alaric Jackson moved to left tackle for the last 52 snaps against the Vikings.
Jackson, the Rams’ fourth left tackle, gave up zero sacks and one pressure of Matthew Stafford. Rams 30, Vikings 23.
“The blessing in disguise,” Whitworth said, “over the last three weeks is we’ve got guys playing that never played. We’re relying on guys that we’ve never had to rely on before. There’s almost this adversity, this belief system of anybody can get in there and we can be okay. Then you get your guys back and you start getting stronger and there’s just this bond that’s bigger than whether or not one guy can do it. It’s made us have this little resolve that maybe we didn’t have as early in the year. We were a good team, but maybe something was missing. We’re more complete.”
More than that, the Rams are thriving in this ridiculous time. And about 35 of their players, having tested positive in December, now do not have to test through the end of the season, because the NFL gives players who tested positive a 90-day holiday—with a CDC nod of approval—from the testing protocols. More than half of the roster is free of the testing burden, and the Covid burden. Think how handy that will be if the Rams advance in the playoffs. Half the roster can practice and play with an uncluttered mind.
“We are playing football, and playing winning football, through the biggest pandemic of our lifetime,” said Scott, the team’s Infection Control Officer. “Today, these four important players are available. Tomorrow, they’re not. Sometimes I just pinch myself. Really, it’s incredible.”
This really was a compelling game. The Ravens have been ravaged by injury and Covid unlike any team in the league. They’re paying 89 players (about 15 above the league average), with about $77 million in 2021 cap money on IR. You could argue the five most important positions on the run-heavy Ravens are QB, RB, LT, CB and CB. The starters at every one of those spots in August—Lamar Jackson, J.K. Dobbins, Ronnie Stanley, Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters—were hurt and not dressed Sunday.
These must-win games are stressful enough for the players. But when I asked Baltimore vet Calais Campbell what this year had been like for him, he said, “Stressful. So stressed. Not just the game itself, but doing everything to be available for the game,” he said. “I can’t afford to test positive. My team needs me. So I try to stay at home as much as possible. Even at home, I’ve been masking up, which is so weird. My son’s looking at me like, ‘Why do you have a mask on?’ But it’s crunch time. You just can’t risk it.”
The Rams took similar precautions on their trip east Saturday. The traveling party was cut down to 75 people on a 239-seat charter—the players, by seniority, get the 30 cushy first-class seats that can lay flat—and eight buses take the 75 people to and from the team hotel and stadium. Nine or 10 people per bus seems weird. “It’s tough to have camaraderie the same as always,” Whitworth said, “because everything is designed to separate us. It’s a little isolating.”
The Rams aren’t perfect. Matthew Stafford turned it over three times for the second straight game Sunday; the Rams won’t continue to survive three stunted drives per game in the playoffs. “I hate going over all of these—I’m tired of doing it,” Stafford said in a moment of introspection after the game. The two picks were surprisingly careless, particularly the pick-six by Chuck Clark to open the scoring. It conjures Detroit Lions thoughts, and those can’t continue as the Rams think about seriously contending for the Super Bowl.
But it seems the more the Rams play together, the more they go into a sort of happy survival mode. Vets like Miller and Beckham both seem so happy to be on a contender, and their play reflects it. The two biggest plays in the game were made by the mid-season imports.
Baltimore led 19-14 with 68 seconds left, with the game on the line. The Rams had fourth-and-five at the Ravens’ 12-yard line. For one of the few times all day, the Baltimore crowd sounded like it had so many times in the Ray Lewis days. As Stafford rolled left, his first option was tight end Tyler Higbee, with Cooper Kupp the second. Both covered. Though Beckham was covered tightly coming across the middle, Stafford thought he had a tight window, and with the rush coming, he was running out of time and options. “The ball needed to get there in a hurry,” Stafford said. “I ripped it pretty good. For him to reach out and snatch it and hold onto it, take a big hit in the back, that was huge.” Beckham stretched for the first down. I bet he made it by eight inches. On the next play, Stafford fit it in to Beckham next to the right pylon. For the first time all day, the Rams led.
The Ravens had one last chance, with a first down at the Baltimore 38-yard line and no timeouts left. Miller had been jonesing for a big play all day against Ravens tackle Patrick Mekari because he respects his game, and because he arrived from Denver in trade to make big plays. This time Miller sped by and enveloped quarterback Tyler Huntley for an eight-yard sack. That was the ballgame. “To have A.D. [Aaron Donald] jump on my back, and to have all the guys go crazy, that’s what you play the game for,” Miller said.
Von Miller locking it down 🔒@NFL | #RamsHouse pic.twitter.com/2kzlrlLLy0
— FanSided (@FanSided) January 2, 2022
You could hear through the door separating the Rams’ locker room and the press-conference room in Baltimore. That was one exultant team late Sunday afternoon. The Rams deserved to let loose. When they took the field in Glendale 21 days earlier, they were 8-4, two games and the tiebreaker behind 10-2 Arizona. And with a week to play, L.A. has a one-game lead, the division title in sight.
Beckham, in particularly, reveled in the Ram rally. “It’s tatted on me,” Beckham said. “ ‘The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands at moments of comfort and convenience, but times of challenge and controversy.’ “ The Rams are measuring up well.
Scouting Cooper Kupp10
As the Rams retained control of first place in the NFC West Sunday with the 20-19 win in Baltimore, the play of wideout Cooper Kupp—who leads all NFL pass-catchers in football in receptions (138), receiving yards (1,829) and touchdowns (15)—continues to be one of the stories of the year in the NFL. He’s trying to become the first receiver since Steve Smith in 2005 to lead the league in all three categories. On Sunday, Kupp became the fourth receiver in history (and in 16 games) to have a season of at least 100 catches, 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns.
So it’s curious to look back on the 2017 NFL Draft, and to see how Kupp lasted so long. The top receivers picked that year:
Pick 5 overall: Tennessee, Corey Davis, Western Michigan.
7: L.A. Chargers, Mike Williams, Clemson.
9: Cincinnati, John Ross, Washington.
37: Buffalo, Zay Jones, East Carolina.
40: Carolina, Curtis Samuel, Ohio State.
62: Pittsburgh, JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC
69: L.A. Rams, Cooper Kupp, Eastern Washington.
FYI: Chris Godwin went 84th to Tampa, Kenny Golladay 96th to Detroit. How crazy is the draft? With five seasons of evidence, the best wideouts to come out in 2017 were the sixth (Smith-Schuster), seventh (Kupp) and 11th (Godwin) receivers picked.
Two reasons Kupp lasted as long as he did: He ran a 4.62-second 40 time at his Eastern Washington Pro Day. And level of competition rendered his average season of 107 catches and 1,608 yards in four years at Eastern Washington suspect. As one evaluator told me in December: “We didn’t know if he was a MAC receiver, one of those guys who puts up incredible numbers because of level of play.”
The other day, driving home from practice in California, Kupp had this to say about his 40 time:
“The last time I put my hand in the ground and ran a straight-line 40 yards is at the Scouting Combine. It’s just not really conducive to understanding what a receiver has to do, and what’s important to playing the position. That’s the last time I did it, and I don’t plan to do it again, ever.”
But that 40 time, luckily for him, helped him get to the Rams, a team that uses his skills perfectly.
Kupp’s NFL story begins in the summer of 2015 at the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux, La., of all places. His grandfather, former NFL guard Jake Kupp, blocked for academy founder Archie Manning during his Saints career, and so Cooper Kupp had an in with the family. Cooper Kupp got to polish his game with some top NFL and college quarterbacks—including Peyton Manning, who, at the time, was preparing for his last NFL season. Rams GM Les Snead, who was a fan of the passing camp, found himself in a staff meeting there one night.
Snead tells the rest of the story: “Peyton’s running this meeting and he’s going over the throws they’re gonna make the next day and which receivers are going to be with which passers. He looked at his brother Eli and he said, ‘Hey Eli, Cooper Kupp’s with me. You figure out who’s with you.’ “
Reminded of the story last week, Kupp said: “At the time, I didn’t know that. Peyton Manning wanting to throw to me? Wow. An honor, of course. It was great to work with him. So detailed and precise.”
Snead, at the time, didn’t know who Kupp was. “I type ‘Cooper Kupp’ into my notes,” Snead said. “Who the heck is Cooper Kupp? Is this guy some high school kid that’s really good? Long story short, Peyton throws to Cooper that night. He was really good. Good route-runner. I find out he’s from Eastern Washington. Just finished his sophomore year.
“So we monitored him. He played against some NFL corners in college and produced. [Kupp did play against Marcus Peters at Washington in 2014, catching eight balls for 145 yards and three touchdowns.] We have a saying around here. If you can get open consistently and catch the ball consistently, don’t over-analyze it. Just respect it and try to add that player to your team.”
When he ran the 4.62 time before the ’17 draft, coach Sean McVay exulted in a call with Snead. “Now we might be able to get him in the third!” McVay told Snead.
Snead: “We strategically were jacked. An FCS kid running in the 4.6s is probably gonna fall in the draft. But he did what a receiver needs to do at this level—accelerate, decelerate, get in and out of breaks in a very efficient and quick manner and separate from a good corner. There was something else. He played receiver with a Peyton Manning-esque, quarterback brain.
“For us, now, I think you got an old-school quarterback brain in Cooper Kupp, and a traditional pocket passer in Matthew Stafford with a lot of experience. And Peyton Manning picking him to run routes for him on that field down in Louisiana is where it all began for us.”
I asked Kupp last week if there was one catch, of the 132 in his first 15 games, that best illustrated him as a receiver—a player who uses leverage against DBs and his quickness in short-areas. “I don’t want to give away too many secrets,” he said. “But there were a couple of routes in our game against the Giants I liked. In fact, the same route basically that I ran twice.”
A check of the film shows Kupp’s 38th and 40th receptions of the year were mirror images of each other: Kupp lined up in the right slot, opposite Giants DB Jabrill Peppers, leveraged him to the inside both times, then veered to an out-route toward the right sideline at about 18 yards. On the first one, Kupp was alone with Peppers, beat him on the out-cut, and caught a perfect throw from Stafford and turned upfield; gain of 30. On the second one, using the same body-lean on Peppers, the Giants gave some help, with two other DBs bracketing the play above and below Kupp’s catch-point near the sideline. But Stafford’s throw landed perfectly in the middle of the three Giants, and Kupp corralled it around his shins; gain of 28.
Peppers is a good player. Kupp’s strengths, though, won these routes—leverage, quickness, finding the hole in coverage, good hands, and basically a sense of exactly when to deke, leaving the defender unsure whether he’s cutting in or out or curling or running to the post. That’s the advantage a smart receiver has, and that’s why Kupp is able, week in and week out, to overcome the focus of almost every defense. After 16 games, he’s had 15 with at least 90 receiving yards. The next-highest in the NFL: seven games.
“It’s more challenging as the season goes on,” Kupp said. “Defenses go to school on us. Every week, I self-scout myself to be sure I’m not giving anything away.”
In a sluggish day for the offense Sunday, Kupp’s 18-yard TD catch on an incut, freezing linebacker Patrick Queen, gave the Rams life and cut into a 10-0 Ravens lead just before halftime. But it was his advice to coach Sean McVay, bringing out his Peyton Manning side, that made McVay so happy after the game. “He recognized that they were playing a certain coverage, and he put that thought in my head,” McVay said. “So, in essence it was his play call. He saw some of the voids and the vacancies in the coverage.”
A minute into the second half, McVay showed how much he trusts Kupp. He called the play, and Stafford hit Jefferson deep down the middle for a 35-yard gain. Four plays later Stafford ruined the drive by losing a fumble, but his point was made: Kupp is the NFL’s best receiver in 2021, and he’s also just what they thought they drafted in 2017—a receiver with a quarterback’s ability to see the field in an egalitarian way.
I got a lucky break early in my sophomore year at Sports Illustrated, 1990. John Madden agreed to let me ride with him on his bus, his Hyatt suite on wheels, from his home in the East Bay near Oakland to his apartment at the Dakota in New York City. Three thousand miles. He had already won five sports Emmys as the best color analyst in sports, already was the game’s biggest commercial pitchman, already had hosted Saturday Night Live, and he was in his 10th season alongside Pat Summerall as the top CBS NFL team.
This is the story I wrote for SI. I did have quite a few conversations (and one more bus trip with him) with him as his fame got mega, but this was the best time I spent with him. When you’re together for 55 hours, captive in a comfy silver tube, it tends to promote interesting conversation. With Madden’s death the other day, I’ve been thinking a lot about those three days on the bus—and, of course, all the things we didn’t talk about.
We set out from his home around noon on a fall Tuesday and I was told the ground rules: Don’t whine about the temperature; Madden liked it cold, around 60, and if you couldn’t hack it, put a coat on. There were 50-ounce bottles of spring water on the bus; if you opened one, you had to finish it—no putting it down to clutter tables or the floor. And don’t ever keep the drivers and Madden waiting after a road stop.
I violated the water bottle rule before we were out of California. I put one, capped and half-drunk, on a table while using the restroom in mid-bus. Madden was not pleased. “Don’t you listen?” he said. Lesson learned.
In retrospect, 31 years later, it’s easy to see why he was great at three things in life: football coaching (a Hall of Famer after only 10 seasons, retiring at 42), broadcasting (acknowledged as likely the best color analyst in American sports history), and video-game innovation with the Madden game, which has grossed more than $7 billion. Who’s great at three things? I mean, not just good, but truly difference-making? How many people die and it’s no exaggeration to say they were among the best to ever do it at three things? That’s the greatness of the big man.
When the trip ended, one of my friends at the magazine asked me what Madden was like.
“He’s curious,” I said.
In the middle of Nebraska one brilliant afternoon on I-80, Madden said to driver Willie Yarbrough: “Hey Willie. Pull over.” Madden noticed a field of bright red/purple wildflowers. He grabbed “Wildflowers Across America” from a drawer, got out, and walked toward the flowers, leafing through the softcover book. His aha moment came after eight or 10 minutes. Spotted Knapweed! “I’m gonna tell millions of readers in Sports Illustrated that you love wildflowers, and your reputation will be ruined!” I said to him. He loved it. But that was him.
He loved football and could see on tape the microscopic coaching points that he’d use on TV; I was up with him till 1:30 in Wyoming (first) and western Iowa (second) prepping for Cowboys-Giants that Sunday at the Meadowlands. Those nights, and the long stretch through Pennsylvania near the end, were the times we’d talk.
I didn’t do a lot of interviewing on the trip. There was a lot more conversing. He was well-read. I took two or three pages of notes early on about his love of John Steinbeck, particularly his book “Travels with Charley.” Steinbeck wrote about a 1960 road trip around America with his standard poodle Charley, and once Madden read that, well, he just had to do it at some point in his life. People sometime talk about claustrophobia as something crippling and horrible, and for Madden the football coach, it was. But as he said before we stopped for dinner in Elko, Nev., on the first night: “If the claustrophobia thing didn’t happen, I wouldn’t know what this country is, or what these people are like. I would have been like everybody else: run, run, run. Airport, airport, airport. Hotel, hotel, hotel. City, city, city. I wouldn’t have found time to see things like I see them now.”
And he was so grateful for that. On our second day, which wound on I-80 through Utah and Wyoming (mostly at night), just above Colorado, then all 455 miles from western Nebraska to the Iowa border, we were watching Giants-Dolphins gametape from the previous Sunday. Out of the blue, with untied sneakers propped up on the edge of a table he said: “We really saw a lot of stuff today, didn’t we? Think of all the things we saw that we wouldn’t see on a plane.”
Deer, antelope, rabbits, Wildflowers Across America, spotted knapweed, a weird llama that looked like it was on steroids, a fun steakhouse in Kearney, Neb., called Grandpa’s, and a nice family he met in Kearney, the Kerry Kimple clan, who told Madden what Nebraska life was like. Four or five times on the trip, Madden marveled at how the people in Kearney loved living there, and the people in cities loved living there. “It makes you feel better about America,” he said. “The thing works.”
He thought all people who wanted to work in public life should see the country like this. He was maniacal about it. After taking the trip, I agreed wholeheartedly. Today in particular. That was Madden. He wasn’t a political person. But he opened his eyes. He was an observer of the human condition, and he liked what he saw.
I did too, and I’m grateful he took me along for the ride.
The Madden Impact
Four people whose lives were changed in different ways by Madden:
Helping make football a world sport
Arlo White, Premier League play-by-play voice, NBC Sports
“There was an NFL explosion in England in the early eighties, and I was a 10-year-old broadcasting nerd growing up in Leicester. At first, a one-hour show weekly is all we had, and John Madden was the voice of the game of the week. When you heard his voice, you knew that game was big. I devoured it, everything he was saying. He changed the direction of people’s sporting lives over here. And I am in the job I am doing now largely because of the influence he had on me at a young age.
“It’s interesting—now we’ve got that same kind of evangelical role with soccer in the U.S. that John had with football in England. I was about to do a Man City game a couple of years ago and I put out on Twitter, Where are you watching the game? I got back: on a tractor in Montana … watching the sun rise in Honolulu … just in from a night out in New York City. It dawned on me what sort of responsibility we have when I hear that, and when I hear people say, ‘You have been the soundtrack of my youth.’ Or I might get a note from a parent saying it’s how they bond with their kids now. So much of that is what John did with us in England years ago.”
Getting more women interested in football
Colleen Wolfe, NFL Network host
“I just remember John Madden being such a part of our Sundays growing up in Horsham, Pa. We would turn on the TV and he would be on it and I would listen. I am a little difficult to nail down in terms of attention. He always got my attention. He was this super-fun character, almost like a SNL Matt Foley guy talking about football. But he could’ve been talking about anything—the weather, local news—and I would’ve found it interesting and smart.
Even just sitting in the Madden Cruiser made me giddy. (He didn’t let me drive.) Rest In Peace to the legend John Madden pic.twitter.com/kct0fKDw9H
— Colleen Wolfe (@ColleenWolfe) December 29, 2021
“I think it’s completely fair to say he got so many women into football. That’s how it all started for me. My dad was working, and it was more my mom and I sitting around watching the games. John Madden was a big part of those moments with my mom and me.
“My journey, where I ended up, I think, makes it really interesting. The fact that he played such a big role in it, I just owe him so much. I never even truly got to know him or anything. But I feel like I did know him. That was the magic of John Madden for so many people, and I know for so many women like me.”
Influence from childhood to adulthood
Erik Burkhardt, NFL player agent
“I seriously don’t believe I would be an NFL agent without John Madden’s impact. I was going through a very tough time as a kid in San Antonio in 1993 and ‘94. My parents had gone through an ugly divorce, my dad was raising us, and my two brothers and I were completely lost. Then, ‘from Santa,’ which my dad later told us was through the church, we got a Sega Genesis for Christmas. The only problem was it came with only one video game, which none of us were into. So I took the public bus to a Walmart where I literally shoplifted the new Madden 93 or 94 video game. My older brother is the most straight-laced human on the planet so when he found out I stole the game we went back and he paid for it with his lawn-mowing money.
“The Madden game was a total game-changer. It was all things to us: baby-sitter, competition-driver, and counselor in that when we played it all of our daily difficulties went away. We drew tournament brackets, kept scores of games and stats. For me, it was the beginning of my fascination with rosters, NFL personnel, understanding schemes and play-calling.
“I was certified as an NFL agent in 2005 but after a couple of years I was dead broke with $150,000 in student loans eating away at me. It’s brutally competitive to be an agent. So I was driving by the team hotel in Dallas a day or two before a Cowboys game and I saw Madden’s bus outside. I simply wanted to meet him. I waited in the lobby. And waited. Finally he walked through and I shook his hand and told him how the game changed my childhood. I told him I was an NFL agent and he gave me the cliche line about ‘doing what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.’ I got chills the other night when he said the exact same line in his documentary.
“This sounds cheesy, but I promise you that interaction kept me going in the business. Hearing that from a true legend like him when everybody else in my life was trying to talk me into going ‘into something profitable’ like practicing law full time was huge for me.”
Burkhardt, 41, represents Kyler Murray, Kliff Kingsbury and Bradley Chubb among others.
Teaching the game to young players through the “Madden” game
Micah Parsons, linebacker/defensive end, Dallas
“I grew up playing his video game in Pennsylvania. It just meant a lot to me. It allowed me to have a real understanding of the game—how different formations worked, how route concepts worked, knowing where every player should be, how to beat zone coverage, where the weaknesses were in certain coverages. I was able to really understand football from playing Madden. As I progressed in football, so much of it for me was instinct, but I learned so much about the techniques and the schemes from the game. It’s helped me all through football.
“I’m mourning the loss of John. I’m a football player, but lots of people should mourn him. Everybody can learn something from Madden—YouTubers, musicians, people in different businesses.
“I never met him, but if I had, I probably would have asked him if I could be on the cover one day. And I would ask him, ‘Why’d you love the game so much? What else did you love?’ Everyone has a why. He seemed like such an interesting person.”
As if 2021 wasn’t a heavy-enough year for NFL deaths (see 10t of 10 Things I Think for the too-lengthy list), it took only 80 minutes for 2022 to gut-punch us again: Dan Reeves, the excellent Dallas Cowboys role player of the sixties and the ninth-winningest coach in NFL history, died at his Georgia home at 1:20 a.m. on New Year’s morning.
Reeves appeared in nine Super Bowls—third most of any person in history—as a player, assistant coach or head coach. As a running back, he went undrafted but made the Cowboys in training camp in 1965. In 1966, he helped start the Cowboys’ run of greatness—Reeves had a team-best 1,314 rushing-receiving yards and the Cowboys won the NFL’s Eastern Conference for the first time. The greatest play of his NFL life, easily, was the 50-yard touchdown pass he threw in the fourth quarter to put Dallas ahead 17-14 in the Ice Bowl, the 1967 NFL Championship Game played in minus-23 wind-chill at Green Bay. What a hero Reeves would have been if Bart Starr hadn’t snuck in for the winning score at the end of the fourth quarter.
As a head coach, he won 201 games, 11 in the playoffs. He led Denver to three Super Bowls and Atlanta to one, but never won one. He also won coach of the year in each of his stops—twice in Denver, once each with the Giants and Falcons. It’s fair to say a major reason Denver became a flagship franchise in the NFL was Reeves’ stern leadership. He won 117 games in 12 Denver head-coaching seasons.
Sounds like a Hall of Fame résumé. But Reeves has always fallen short of election. Lots of reasons for that, but two big winners who didn’t win Super Bowls—Reeves and Marty Schottenheimer—both are on the outside of Canton looking in. Coaches have traditionally been judged on rings won, not regular-season wins … fair or unfair.
I think there’s another, more significant, reason. The Hall asks voters to vote for coaches as coaches, and players as players. The twain does not converge. So when John Madden was elected to the Hall in 2006, it was based on his 10-year coaching career, not on his contributions as perhaps the greatest NFL analyst of all time and his connection to the most popular NFL video game ever. When Dick LeBeau was elected in 2010, it was for his 62 career interceptions in 14 years as a Detroit Lion, not as one of the best defensive coordinators in history.
It seems silly to separate a person’s accomplishments. I’m not sure—as one of the Hall voters—that the selectors did not consider all accomplishments when considering their two cases. I can tell you for me, it was difficult not to consider everything, though I did consider Madden a Hall of Fame coach and LeBeau a Hall of Fame player.
Reeves deserves a bust in Canton. He should be enshrined for Contributions to Pro Football. A man who was the biggest offensive weapon on the first great Dallas team, who threw a touchdown pass in the Ice Bowl, who was a gritty piece of the Cowboys at the birth of America’s team, who was a key offensive assistant on seven Dallas teams in the seventies, who coached the Broncos to three AFC titles in four seasons, who won Coach of the Year with three different franchises, who won more games than all but eight coaches in NFL history.
That’s a Hall of Fame résumé.
The Award Section
Offensive Players of the Week
Ja’Marr Chase, wide receiver, Cincinnati. His 11-catch, 266-yard (a single-game club record for yards by a receiver), three-TD game was huge in the Bengals’ biggest statement win in years, 34-31 over the formerly top-seed Kansas Citians. He now leads the NFL with an 18.1-yard average catch, and he’s second with 13 touchdowns. He sounded overwhelmed by it post-game. “Everything about it is overwhelming right now,” he said. Get used to it. The Bengals sure look like they’re here to stay.
Tom Brady, quarterback, Tampa Bay. He went 34 of 50 for 410 yards, with three TDs and one pick with the Antonio Brown firestorm going on while he was driving for a touchdown. Notable, really, that he and the Bucs went on an 18-0 run to win the game after Brown pulled his reindeer games in the third quarter. Not sure if you knew, but Brady is 44 years old. He leads the NFL with 4,990 passing yards and 40 touchdown throws.
Trey Lance, quarterback, San Francisco. In winning his first NFL game, 23-7 over Houston, Lance was shaky early but led the Niners to scoring the last 23 points of the game in the final 31 minutes. “I think he got better throughout the game,” tight end George Kittle said of the third pick in the draft. The Niners may need him next week at the Rams. A win next weekend or a Saints loss means the Niners would make the playoffs. There’s so much riding on Lance’s play as the sun sets on this season, and San Francisco would like to have a good feeling entering Lance’s sophomore year.
Defensive Players of the Week
Robert Quinn, edge rusher, Chicago. When he sacked Giants QB Mike Glennon—I mean, that’s hardly a fair fight—at Soldier Field on Sunday, the 31-year-old defensive force set the team record for sacks in a season with 18. He broke Richard Dent’s mark in his 16th game, which was sweet because so many people will question a record broken in a team’s 17th game. The Bears’ leader and team conscience proved he still had a great season in him after getting just two sacks in his first Bear season in 2020.
Chandler Jones, edge rusher, Arizona. Though Dak Prescott made his share of plays in Arizona’s 25-22 win, Jones swarmed the pocket all game. Four pressures, two tackles for loss, one forced fumble and a major presence in a game the Cardinals had to have after losing three straight.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Andre Roberts, kick returner, L.A. Chargers. Larry Fitzgerald’s golfing partner continued to be an impact player in the return game. With the Chargers holding a 20-6 lead early in the fourth quarter, Roberts ended any hope Denver had of coming back (it was slim) by breaking a 101-yard return for a touchdown. He also had a 47-yard return for the Chargers.
Andre Roberts goes ALL THE WAY
101 yard house call 📞
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 2, 2022
Coach of the Week
Shane Bowen, defensive coordinator Tennessee. What a rude awakening for the Dolphins, who came into Nashville with playoff hopes alive thanks to a seven-game win streak. Bowen designed a plan that held Miami to 256 yards, sacked Tua Tagovailoa four times and pressured him 11 more.
Quotes of the Week30
All Madden, as the quotes should be this week.
“The road to Easy Street goes through the sewer.”
—John Madden, often.
“Johnson’s trying to run a post pattern, and the pigeons get in the way! You know the old thing: Run down to the pigeon and turn left!”
—Madden, during a Giants-Washington game at old RFK Stadium, when Giants wideout Bobby Johnson nearly trampled a wayward pigeon on the pitch.
“He’ll block a defensive end. He’ll block a linebacker. If there’s a fight to be fought, he wants to be a part of it. If we were choosing up to do something, I would choose Hines Ward first.”
—Madden, on Hines Ward, in the Steelers-Cardinals Super Bowl telecast, the last game he worked as a broadcaster.
“What a man. What a career.”
—Bill Belichick, on Madden.
“Just called to congratulate you and your team for a great effort last night. Not good, but great. I think it is one of the best things to happen to the NFL in the last 10 years. They [league office officials] should be very grateful to you and your team for what you did. I believe so firmly in this: that there is only one way to play the game, and it is a regular-season game and you go out to win the darn game … We’ve gotten too much of, ‘Well, they’re going to rest their players and don’t need to win, therefore they won’t win.’ Well, that’s not sports and that’s not competition. I’m a little emotional about it.”
—Madden, to Giants coach Tom Coughlin, in a voicemail left the morning after the Giants lost to the Patriots in the final game of the 2007 regular season, as told by Coughlin in an essay in the New York Times on Saturday.
You may remember the circumstances. The Patriots were 15-0 and playing for an undefeated season. The Giants had qualified as a wild-card team and winning or losing this game wouldn’t affect their standing entering the playoffs. Coughlin played it like a regular game and lost a nationally televised thriller, 38-35.
“I’m retiring from football coaching,” John Madden said early in 1980, “and I’m never going to coach again.” Wrap your brains around this: John Madden coached till age 42, kept his word and never coached again, and made the Pro Football Hall of Fame on that coaching résumé. Of all NFL coaches who won at least 100 games, no one had a better winning percentage than Madden’s .759. Amazing. He won 76 percent of his games, walked away, and never came back.
Now consider the winningest coaches of all time. Most were just getting started around the age of 42.
Of the top five coaches on the all-time wins list, the head-coaching seasons beyond 42 stand out.
1. Don Shula coached 23 years after age 42
2. George Halas coached 25 years after age 42
3. Bill Belichick has coached (as a head coach) 23 years after age 42
4. Tom Landry coached 22 years after age 42
5. Andy Reid has coached 21 years after age 42
Most passing yards, back-to-back games, for two prolific ones:
Dan Marino: 874.
Joe Burrow: 971.
John Madden did one game in his life as a radio analyst. It was on an August Saturday night in 2001, when Brad Sham needed a fill-in for analyst on the Dallas Cowboys Radio Network for a game at the Oakland Coliseum against the Raiders. This was the first game the Cowboys played after the retirement of Troy Aikman. Madden agreed to do it.
“He came into the booth that night,” Sham recalls, “with a backward cap, overalls and velcroed shoes that were un-velcroed.”
Two memorable things that night.
“John said, ‘They’re moving left to right on your radio dial. I always wanted to say that!’ “ Sham said. No need to say that on TV, of course.
And late in the broadcast, Madden said: “Troy Aikman.”
That’s it. Sham said, “Huh?” And Madden said: “I didn’t think the night should end without someone mentioning Troy Aikman.”
Tweets Of The Week
AB i’m lost for words lol
— Chris Harris (@ChrisHarrisJr) January 3, 2022
Harris is a veteran cornerback with the Chargers.
Your 2021 New York Football Giants ladies and gentlemen. pic.twitter.com/GNQWClJoMF
— 𝗟𝗮𝘄𝗿𝗲𝗻𝗰𝗲 𝗧𝘆𝗻𝗲𝘀 (@lt4kicks) January 2, 2022
Lawrence Tynes is a former kicker for the Giants.
This play is disgraceful. Two Giants returners, including Pharoh Cooper, watched a Bears kickoff land at the 3-yard line and Cooper waved off all Giants, thinking surely that the ball would bounce into the end zone. It didn’t. It bounced parallel to the goal line and Cooper had to race after it to avoid the Bears recovering it.
Joe Judge is a former special-teams coach. Great training his return man has received.
Oh. That play led to a safety 12 seconds later.
see, this is why making fake front pages then putting stickers on them is a bad idea pic.twitter.com/XQ7wVO3kr7
— Sean Gentille (@seangentille) January 2, 2022
Gentille is a hockey writer at The Athletic.
Tell me again why the football players can’t squirt the water from the bottle into their own mouths?
— Maggie Gray (@MaggieGray) December 31, 2021
Gray is a sports-talk host for CBS Radio.
LeBron James turns 37 today.
He has been an NBA player for 50.03% of his life.
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) December 30, 2021
Rovell is a sports business reporter for Action Network.
This excuse NEVER works.https://t.co/1JhHvbgTa0
— Bud Geracie (@WakeOfWeek) December 27, 2021
Bud Geracie is sports editor of the Bay Area News Group.
Well, Happy New Year! It’s a big Madden week in the mailbag. I asked for what John Madden meant to you, and you responded. Find me at email@example.com, or on Twitter @peter_king.
Larry Arseniadis, Champions Gate, Fla.: “I am a retired Fortune 500 executive and John Madden affected my approach to dealing with my business ‘teams.’ After reading his first book, I implemented two concepts that he identified in his approach to his football team. First, he spent time articulating to his team the detailed schedule so they knew what to expect and to try to eliminate any uncertainty. Second, he made it a point to talk to every team member each day. He never wanted to develop a pattern of only talking to a player when he performed poorly or when he played well. This approach allowed him to have a free dialogue at any time with every team member.”
Chris Glenn, Williamsville, N.Y.: I’m a high school football coach. I just finished my 20th season. My entire childhood was John Madden. When I learned of his passing the other night, I pulled up old highlights of games he called and watched for hours. I cried. My 3-year-old daughter asked why I was sad. I told her that the one person that connected my life to my passion had passed away and that I was going to miss him. The biggest thing I learned from him was that the players were the most important. They are why we coach. It doesn’t matter the level. He loved his players. I love my players.”
Brett Clendaniel, Millville, N.J.: “For 30 years, his game has taken me away from the real world and served as a way for me to reduce anxiety and stress. I have made countless friends all over the world as a result of doing online franchise drafts and head-to-head matches of Madden. I have two best friends who enjoy the “Maddenoliday” and take off work every year on release day so that we can game. His voice and in-game tips taught me the game of football better than any broadcast or peewee coach ever has. I learned X’s and O’s because of Madden football. I learned that vertical routes with three receivers stacked on one side is how you beat Cover 3.”
Mitch Goldich, Boston: “Plenty of people have stories like mine about learning to love football by playing Madden ‘93 on Sega Genesis all week and then watching him and Pat Summerall on Sunday. My favorite story about Madden’s influence is that one year when I was growing up, my family ordered a kosher turducken for our Passover Seder. What’s amazing is not just that we would think to get one, but that a place would think to offer it.”
Andy Saylor, Paxtang, Pa.: ”I think it was his fear of flying and the use of the bus that helped him be just one of us. That limitation gave him a vulnerability and relatability that made him truly one of us. It reminds me of the lyric from Joan Osborne’s song.
What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Tryin’ to make his way home?
“He was a guy on the bus just like one of us.”
Todd Hunt, Alpharetta, Ga.: “Ten-plus years ago I was in the backyard playing football with my son who was around 6. He was dressed up in his full Patriots uniform complete with plastic helmet and mini shoulder pads. He kicked off to me from the other side of the yard. He kicked the ball hard and low, bouncing it off the ground. After he “tackled” me, I said ‘Brendan, what the heck kind of kickoff was that?’ He responded, ‘Dad, that’s my squib kick. I learned it playing Madden this morning.’ “
Todd Smyth, Bloomfield, N.J.: “At Bloomfield High School, ‘Madden’ became an adjective in our everyday conversations. If you ate a giant sandwich that was a madden. If you wore the same stained shirt for three days straight that was a madden. If you burped loudly that was a madden. If it was top-your-own-potato day at school and you put every topping on, that was a madden. Everyone tried to do ‘madden’ things.”
10 Things I Think I Think
1. I think my heart goes out to the Dickerson family. Two years after Caitlyn Dickerson, wife of ESPN Bears reporter Jeff Dickerson, died of cancer, Jeff succumbed to colon cancer in the same Chicago-area hospice facility where his wife died. He was 43. He leaves an 11-year-old son, Parker, who now will grow up without his mother and father. A GoFundMe was set up for Parker’s future, with a goal of $100,000. By Sunday afternoon, the fund was almost 11 times that, at $1,070,670.
Caitlyn Dickerson was sick for seven years, and Jeff managed his job, his son and his wife’s care. “Anytime you think you hit a rough spot, or something is not going right in your life, think of the Dickersons,” good friend Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com said. “His last 10 years is the most unbelievable stretch of fortitude you have ever seen. For seven years, his wife was on the brink, multiple times. Jeff’s thinking how he is going to parent his son to adulthood. Then, suddenly, he is in that battle too.”
Eleven months ago, Jeff started his own battle against colon cancer. “Failure is not an option,” he texted one friend. Parker is an athlete, and Jeff went to at least one of his baseball games last spring with a loose jacket covering a chemo pump giving him a treatment while the game was on. “Never once complained, never once asked why,” said another good friend and radio partner, former NFL receiver Tom Waddle. “I called him two weeks ago. I knew things weren’t going well. And almost right away, as I’m holding back tears, he says, ‘Enough about me, how are your daughters?’ “
Waddle and three ESPN colleagues visited Jeff days before he died. Jeff asked the four men: “You guys know Parker’s such an energetic kid. I need you guys to help look after him. Can you do it?”
Waddle had to pause for a moment, re-telling the story.
“So now,” Waddle said slowly, “Parker has 10 or 12 uncles.”
Said Waddle: “It’s cruel. It will anger you. It will bring you to tears. But Jeff was so courageous. I’m 10 years older than him, but I consider him a role model for my life.”
Strangers have donated to the Parker cause. Twelve NFL teams or owners; Theo Epstein and Anthony Rizzo and Jed Hoyer from baseball; former Bears coaches Lovie Smith and Marc Trestman and John Fox; Andy Dalton and Greg Olsen and the McCowns; the Cubs and the Blackhawks; Mike Tirico and Jay Mariotti and Boomer Esiason and Jack Easterby and Brian Daboll and Nick Caserio and Louis Riddick and Steve Levy and Adam Schefter … and, pardon me, I’m forgetting hundreds. Thousands.
“Jeff would be so proud of the response,” said the coach of the Bears, Matt Nagy, who bonded with Jeff over the athletic exploits of their sons, and who talked of him emotionally on Saturday afternoon.
But $1 million for a boy, in five days … Amazing.
“Kindness, positivity,” said Nagy, who got closer to Jeff Dickerson than most coaches and reporters get. “The world is full of such negativity right now. But Jeff was full of such positivity. We saw it every day. It’s rare to find that, and it was authentic and it’s real, and when you find that, you raise a million dollars as fast as they did. Just goes to show you the power of being positive. My heart hurts for Parker. But his mom and dad have been such wonderful, positive people, and now he is going to be surrounded and insulated by a lot of love.”
2. I think it is so fitting that the Vikings season went up in flames Sunday thanks to a good man getting very bad advice about vaccines. (I don’t absolve Kirk Cousins of blame here, not at all, because he’s an educated person. But it’s still so hard to believe that an educated person with the fate of an NFL franchise on his shoulders would not do everything he could to not test positive and to stay available for his team.) Minnesota was walking on the edge of a cliff all season with Cousins’ willful decision to stay unvaccinated, and it’s sadly ironic that a positive Covid test finally prevented Cousins from playing a survival game against his arch-rivals in the penultimate game of the season.
3. I think I’m re-thinking my categorical statement that Joe Judge should be back coaching the Giants next year. Just thinking … The Giants lost a serviceable quarterback, Daniel Jones, to a neck injury, and the loss of a serviceable quarterback should not turn your team to dung. Yet the Giants have lost five straight and looked horrible doing it. I felt the Giants simply had to stop turning over the coach or GM or both every other year. But I saw something Sunday that really bothered me: the screwed-up kickoff return in Chicago. Giants returner Pharoh Cooper waved everyone away near his goal line, let the kickoff bounce, and it didn’t bounce into the end zone—it bounced sideways. Panic ensued and the Giants had to hustle to recover it. The play is made worse by the fact that Judge is a veteran special-teams coach. John Mara has to give serious consideration to blowing it all up again. I’m not saying he absolutely should. I’m saying I now think everything is on the table about the Giants future.
4. I think this is either a coincidence, or scary, or both if you’re a Giants fan: Remember in 1978, when public pressure helped cause the Giants to import an independent, tough and thorough GM in George Young? In the four season prior to hiring Young, the Giants won 19 games. In the last four seasons, the Giants have won 19 games. I mean, I’m just saying.
5. I think the debacle that was last Monday night’s Dolphins-Saints game should not be forgotten. (I write once a week, so this is my first chance to address it.) The Saints got jobbed. When three teams with Sunday games and 20 or more players test positive for Covid, each got its game postponed one or two days. Not New Orleans, which had 22 players test positive in the days before the game. Why? Figure it out. Moving three Sunday games can be done; the networks have the game inventory to cover the holes. Moving a Monday game would mean no “Monday Night Football.” So the Saints had to make do. The Saints were picking guys off the street as late as Sunday to have enough players to play. Four hours before the game, Sean Payton saw two people he didn’t recognize in the equipment room. They were getting fitted for equipment—shoes, shoulder pads, jerseys. Payton met Ethan Westbrooks and Justin March, linebackers. They’d gotten into town late Sunday. They were suiting up Monday. Westbrooks, cut by the Raiders in mid-August, hadn’t played in a regular-season game since 2018. He played 15 plays in the 20-3 loss to Miami. March played 12.
6. I think if there’s a stronger word than debacle—travesty, maybe—use it for Miami 20, New Orleans 3. Someone there told me there was an eerie scene at the Superdome. “Fans didn’t care,” this person said. “They said, ‘We’re not watching a real football game.’ So they started leaving at halftime, and early in the third quarter.” This is what the NFL wants? This is one of 272 regular-season events the NFL wants to hold up as representative of a great, competitive game?
7. I think if you missed The Simpsons last night, you’ve got to find it. I am not a Simpsons regular, and so I can’t compare it to many. But everything about it is absolutely perfect when it comes to NFL 2021. A little tease. Where do you get Adam Schefter, a mockery of the ESPYs, a mockery of the Draft, booing of Roger Goodell, and a very loose portrayal of Baker Mayfield, all in a half-hour? If you missed, you can stream on Hulu starting today.
8. I think I heard that bizarre rant by Bart Scott on ESPN the other day, laying into the Bengals and coach Zac Taylor for continuing to throw while way up late on the Ravens in the 525-yard Joe Burrow game eight days ago. “He [Burrow] is gonna regret he ever did that,” Scott said. “And Zac Taylor, we gonna get his ass fired in four years.” A few points:
• “We?” Bart Scott last played for the Ravens 13 years ago. “We?” Is he employed by the Ravens? “We?” How does ESPN feel about one of its employees saying a team he worked for 13 years ago is working to get a coach in the division fired?
• Regarding Taylor: There are few teams more patient with young head coaches than Cincinnati. David Shula was 18-46 after four seasons in Cincinnati and Mike Brown gave him a fifth year. Most of it, anyway. He was fired in the middle of year five. Taylor could be on his way to a playoff season this year. Scott actually thinks he could go 0-17 next year, which is about what it would take, along with a player mutiny, for Taylor to get fired after four years now.
• I actually think Scott is good on TV because he’s not afraid. Some advice for him from someone who never played beyond sixth grade, which is to say, this is advice he’s not going to take: You think it was bush league for Cincinnati to be throwing deep up 20 with two minutes to go against a defense of scrubs for Baltimore? I would probably agree. But this isn’t the Bounty Football League anymore. Nor should it be. And the Ravens, for you, should be one of 32. Not “we.”
9. I think I wonder, as Ben Roethlisberger preps to ride off into the sunset, how the Browns (Kellen Winslow II) and Lions (Roy Williams) feel about passing on Roethlisberger to instead go with Jeff Garcia and Joey Harrington? I realize it’s unfair regarding Harrington, who was only in his third season, but there were many signs (inaccuracy, 29-to-38 TD-to-pick ratio) that he’d soon be gone. How history could have changed if Big Ben had gone to a different franchise in the Rust Belt.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Big fan of Tim Graham and Dan Pompei, both of The Athletic. Both wrote really cool stories in the last few days.
b. Graham’s story, on sudden Bills star Isaiah McKenzie being hungry on Christmas Eve in Buffalo, finding his favorite restaurant closed, and, well, Buffalo being Buffalo, Isaiah McKenzie issued a public plea for someone who might have some food in the house to feed him and lo and behind he ends up at a Polish Christmas feast! Wrote Graham:
Bummed to discover the restaurant was closed, he posted an Instagram plea at 8:43 p.m.
“Anybody got food at they house? Cause I’m hungry!”
… Chris Uba, invited McKenzie to join their family gathering in the Park Meadow neighborhood in North Buffalo.
“I responded to it almost as a joke, with my uncle’s address,” Uba said. “I DM Josh Allen once a week and get no answer, so I thought there was no way he would see it.”
McKenzie replied, “Say no more.”
In less than 15 minutes, McKenzie pulled up in his Mercedes SUV.
“What a surreal thing,” said Uba.
McKenzie walked into a traditional Polish holiday party. The family of 16 already had eaten, but plenty of pierogi, tenderloin and a certain other family dish remained. They seated McKenzie at the head of the table and brought him plates.
“It was like I was a family member, an uncle or something,” McKenzie said.
c. That, folks, is Buffalo, N.Y., an NFL place like no other.
d. Now to Pompei’s story about the unicorn of the NFL, Atlanta’s Cordarrelle Patterson. Wrote Pompei of Patterson, on his fifth NFL team:
[Atlanta coaches] were the first to see Patterson as more than an offensive condiment. By making him a mainstay of their offense, they forced defenses to identify him as a running back or receiver and then make adjustments based on motions and shifts. And to deal with a wild card, defenses had to have special schemes that weren’t a part of their standard packages.
According to Pro Football Focus, Patterson has played 249 snaps as a halfback, 91 as an outside receiver, 47 as a slot receiver, five as a tight end and three as a fullback. He also has taken one snap as a quarterback — he threw an incompletion — and two snaps at free safety.
He is every position; he is no position.
“He sees the game through the eyes of a true football player, not just paint by numbers of what the playbook says,” [offensive coordinator Dave] Ragone said. “He’s got a feel. And to me, he’s best when he can see the full picture, everybody’s responsibility and how he fits in. That’s what makes him such a great kick returner. He sees the pieces unfold in front of him and he hits it. It’s the same way he looks at offense.”
… Not being like any other player is what held Patterson back. Until it set him free.
e. What smart, fun stories by Graham and Pompei.
f. Radio Story of the Week: Frank Morris of National Public Radio, on lessons learned 10 years after from the Joplin tornado.
g. So valuable, as Morris points out, for those in Kentucky and Illinois who have had lives turned upside down because of recent violent weather.
h. Morris reported the Joplin school superintendent became a local hero when he said schools would re-open in three months.
MORRIS: The superintendent was C.J. Huff, and the goal he set was a tough one. Half the schools were severely damaged, and many of the teachers and students were homeless. Huff’s timeline gave him less than three months to get the district back on its feet. C.J. Huff got schools started on time by building classrooms in abandoned big-box stores. He was a local hero, all over national news. But he says that a few months later, exhausted, distraught citizens began fighting him at every turn.
HUFF: One of the things I learned is that when emotion and logic collide, emotion wins every time. It didn’t matter what we brought, whether it was data or subject matter experts. It didn’t matter.
MORRIS: Huff was demonized by some residents … Now Huff is a disaster consultant, and he says that every single one of his colleagues are former public officials ousted after a disaster.
HUFF: We call it the exclusive club that nobody wants to belong to.
MORRIS: Huff says disillusionment follows every disaster as recovery timetables push back. Ashley Micklethwaite, who was Joplin School Board president when the tornado hit, sees it as a cautionary tale.
ASHLEY MICKLETHWAITE: So Kentucky, listen up. Don’t do that. Just know that your leaders today are making the very best decisions that they can.
i. Interesting. Four minutes very well spent.
j. Personal Column of the Week: Brittny Mejia of the Los Angeles Times with a heartfelt piece about the impact of Covid on her extended family: “Covid stole the heart of my family. It also divided it.”
k. The importance of Mejia’s grandmother, her abuela, shines through in the story, and it’s not just the importance of Maria Diaz to the writer of the column. It’s her importance to scores of close family members who are emotionally torn by her death to Covid. Writes Mejia:
For many, COVID-19 is what forced them to stay home and wear a mask to keep others safe — the virus existing largely in the abstract. For me, it’s what came to define these last two years, personally and professionally. It’s what tore through my family, infecting nearly 30 relatives here and in Mexico, just on my mom’s side. It’s what led me to drive my cousins to say goodbye to their father, who was on a ventilator. It’s what was now stealing the heart of our family.
It’s also what divided my family.
This year, I thought hope had come in the form of the vaccine. But I had family members who didn’t trust it, others with excuses for why they didn’t need it.
Meanwhile, they kept working essential jobs. Like many whose extended families fell to the virus, their work could not be done from the safety of their homes. So the risk never faded.
My grandma was not vaccinated — not of her own will — and I fear it is a decision that will haunt my family and evoke anger for years.
l. The whole thing is just so tragic. So needlessly tragic.
m. Headline of the Week: The New York Post, on the delay of the Westminster Dog Show:
n. An important story I missed at the time, but I wanted to point out now: Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe on the late NHL player Jimmy Hayes, and the circumstances of his untimely death.
o. Hayes’ family told Shaughnessy about the opioid addiction that killed Hayes at 31. It’s a haunting tale of an athlete dealing with pain who could not wean himself off the pain-killers. Wrote Shaughnessy:
Jimmy’s dad hopes that something good can come out of the unspeakable loss.
“I don’t want him to be stigmatized like as a [expletive] junkie,’’ said Kevin Hayes. “You know what I mean? Because he wasn’t. Jimmy helped everyone. Some of the stories I’ve been hearing. He never said no. [Former Bruin] Torey Krug told me they used to go to Children’s Hospital. Jimmy’d fall in love with a kid, then go back a week later. And a week later. He was just a wonderful kid, but this addiction is just so powerful.
“I hope getting Jimmy’s story out there can save someone’s life. If this can save someone from the pain, great. It’s just so sad. I pride myself on being pretty mentally strong. I’m a street guy. But there’s just no formula for this.
“You have a beautiful, All-American boy who made a terrible mistake and it cost him his life.”
p. Programming Note of the Week: Beginning today, Mike Florio’s Pro Football Talk show will stream live exclusively from 7-9 a.m. ET weekdays on Peacock, which will also host the program on-demand. Pro Football Talk features NBC Sports’ Florio with Mike Golic on Mondays, with Chris Simms Tuesday through Thursday, and me and other guest hosts on Friday. In addition to the PFT show, Peacock offers daily NFL programming on the NBC Sports channel for free, including The Dan Patrick Show, The Rich Eisen Show, Brother from Another, Safety Blitz hosted by Rodney Harrison and Jac Collinsworth, Chris Simms Unbuttoned, and The Peter King Podcast. You can sign up for Peacock here.
q. That’s one heck of a PSA right there!
r. Good luck to Razia Iqbal, the thoughtful, hard-questioning BBC World Service Newshour host. (She hosted the BBC news hour from 9-10 a.m. weekdays on public radio in New York and other markets across the U.S.). She announced Friday she’s taking a leave from her London-based show to be a visiting professor at Princeton in the coming year. She’s a great listen, and her journalism students at Princeton will learn a lot from her about how to ask questions and how to dig for the truth.
s. Congratulations to Jenny Vrentas, late of Sports Illustrated and The MMQB, for her new opportunity with the New York Times covering sports, particularly enterprise and investigative stories. I launched SI‘s NFL microsite, The MMQB in 2013. I’d gotten to read a lot of Jenny’s work at the Star Ledger in New Jersey, and I was impressed, and she took the leap with us, and I’m overjoyed she did. She’s a great example of taking an opportunity and working diligently and with pride at every last assignment she got. She consistently turned in thoughtful and well-researched pieces, time after time. That’s one of the reasons I am so happy for her success.
t. Finally, acknowledging some of the football people who died in 2021 one last time: Terez Paylor, Ted Thompson, Marty Schottenheimer, Chris Wesseling, Vincent Jackson, Irv Cross, Howard Schnellenberger, Steve Smith (Raiders), Sam Huff, Tom Matte, Ben Dreith, Colt Brennan, Jim Fassel, Terry Donahue, Alex Gibbs, Greg Knapp, Joe Walton, Floyd Reese, Tunch Ilkin, Keith McCants, Mick Tingelhoff, David Patten, Parys Haralson, Sam Cunningham, Carl Madsen, Claude Humphrey, Mark Pike, DeMaryius Thomas, Jeff Dickerson and John Madden.
u. That is one hell of a list. Rest in peace, all.
Cleveland 27, Pittsburgh 23. The headline here is that it looks like this will be Ben Roethlisberger’s last home game of his storied career. “All signs are pointing to this could be it,” Roethlisberger, 39, said Thursday. “Regular season, that is … If it is indeed my last regular-season game here, it’s going to be one of the most important games of my career.”
Roethlisberger, of course, is the last remaining triplet QB from the 2004 draft: Eli Manning 1, Philip Rivers 4, Roethlisberger 11. He’ll finish his career fifth in passing yards all-time (he’s at 63,721 now), and between sixth and eighth in TD passes. Right now, it’s Rivers with 421 at six, Dan Marino with 420 at seven, and Roethlisberger with 416 at eight. He’ll also be able to take pride in having made one of the great throws in Super Bowl history, the lofted, perfectly placed six-yard spiral to Santonio Holmes—with three Cards in coverage—to win Super Bowl 43. Tonight should be emotional for him, and for the Pittsburgh crowd.
The Adieu Haiku
I want a Bills-Pats
rematch on Wild Card Weekend.
Got a spare table?