I don’t root for outcomes. I root for stories. While watching the end of Pittsburgh-Baltimore, I thought: After the last seven days, with the gauzy Ben Roethlisberger Monday night goodbye, and Carson Wentz spitting the bit and the Colts losing a gimme to Jacksonville, and opening the playoff door for the Steelers, and the Steelers taking the second possession in overtime against the despised Ravens in Baltimore, and the season and Roethlisberger’s career coming down to a fourth-and-eight … Really, truly, how great would it be if the lumbering 39-year-old converted against the blitz and finished the job?
“I wonder,” I said to Roethlisberger after the team flight landed back in Pittsburgh around 8 Sunday night, “what athletes think when they’re in that exact moment. Fourth-and-eight on the road, arch-rivals, maybe the last play of your football life … Are you thinking about that? What’s going through your mind?”
“Yeah, all that,” Roethlisberger said. “You know the play before, Coach T [Mike Tomlin] was like, ‘Hey Ben, we need about five yards to get into [Chris Boswell’s] potential range.’ That’s why we called that play to Diontae. He probably would’ve been right around five, six, seven yards.”
Diontae Johnson dropped the ball near the Baltimore 36-yard-line, which would have been close to the first down, and close to Bosworth’s range. Now it was fourth-and-eight from the Baltimore 41, 2:28 left in overtime. Ravens 13, Steelers 13. Now they had to figure out who to target—tight end Pat Freiermuth, wideout Chase Claypool or wideouts Johnson or Ray-Ray McCloud, both of whom had big fourth-quarter drops.
“So now we took a timeout,” Roethlisberger said. “I went to the sideline. And we called a play. [Offensive coordinator Matt Canada] is in my ear, kinda talking to everybody, but he’s like, What do you think about this play? It would’ve had Pat breaking out. Well, Pat had caught an out-breaking route a few plays before that, a big play.
“Pat’s there. He said, ‘Ben, they’re playing me on the out. They on me on the out.’ I’m like, ‘OK. Listen. We’re gonna call the same play, but I want you to break in.’ We modified the play call. As I’m standing on the sideline telling like all the coaches, everyone’s hearing us. We’re all good with it.
“Then we get to the line of scrimmage. They’re showing this all-out blitz up the middle and I’m like, ‘Aw man. We need Pat to break out!’ The play that we have called is not gonna be ideal for Pat. We need what we should’ve called in the first place. But, you know, too late to change it. The ball’s snapped, and I was kinda watching Pat to see if he was gonna get open and because he was breaking in, instead of breaking out, and now here came Calais Campbell right up the middle.”
Calais Campbell, 6-foot-8½, tallest defensive lineman in the division, one of the best pass-blockers and kick-blockers in recent NFL history. And he put his arms up, both of them, and it’s like a human being was rushing Roethlisberger on maybe the last play of his life, holding a 10-foot picket fence in the air.
There was no time to think. Roethlisberger just had to react. Maybe it ends with a deflection and a thud. But Roethlisberger, a big man himself, just had to try to make a play.
“Sometimes you just feel things,” he said. “Sometimes you get a sense. This was it—the game.”
The Lead: What A Day
Press pause on Roethlisberger for a moment. The first 17-game season in the 102-year history of pro football is over, and we have our 14-team playoff bracket. And we have a few other items of note.
But I am still trying to process the end of game 272—Raiders 35, Chargers 32, in overtime, sending Vegas to the playoffs, sending befuddled L.A. home, and sending the rest of us to Harvard to study Tieology.
Truth in columnizing: I talked to Roethlisberger around 8 ET Sunday night, then finished the above chunk of the column about 10:20, then caught up with the SNF game while finishing the Awards section and a few other things. Around 11, the game sucked me in, and I was transfixed, and Justin Herbert gave the Chargers adrenalin, and then it was in overtime, and I started to get this feeling that all the Roethlisberger stuff above could be naught. This damn thing could end in a tie. A tie, incredibly, would leave the AFC with three 9-7-1 teams fighting for the last two AFC playoff spots, and the Steelers would be out by tiebreaker.
I imagined the Steelers sitting home watching this game, stomachs sinking. We were just celebrating making the playoffs! You can’t just take back Mike Tomlin dancing on Instagram! Sure enough, I looked at Twitter as the clock wound down below a minute. “Nonononono not like this,” tweeted Chase Claypool.
More truth in columnizing: I think it’s impossible to say anything with certainty about how this game should have been played at the end, and what split-second decisions should have been made. No NFL coach has ever had to consider the options that L.A.’s Brandon Staley and Vegas’ Rich Bisacchia had to consider. No coach ever got to the final seconds of the last game and thought about whether to play for the tie or the win, with playoff berths for both on the line, on the edge of a cliff.
One spot in the final minute is particularly vexing to figure. The Raiders had the ball, third-and-four at the Chargers’ 39, clock ticking below one minute to play. Both teams had both overtime timeouts left. Would both teams just let the clock run and not try to score, putting both in the playoffs? Would they play it safe and avoid risking a turnover or, in the Raiders’ case, a blocked field goal?
Or would the Raiders, at least, try to score? A win would send them to Cincinnati, a tie to Kansas City. I doubt Bisaccia would purposely do what he could to tie; surely he’d rather win, to avoid playing a team he lost to by 27 and 39 points this year.
As the clock wound down on the third-and-four play, Derek Carr prepped to take a snap in the shotgun. So he wasn’t planning to kneel. At the 38-second mark, Staley called a timeout. He posited that the Raiders were going to run, and he wanted time to put his best run-defenders in the game. He said later he wanted to put the Raiders back as far as possible in case they were going to try a field goal. The best run defense came in the game … and running back Josh Jacobs still ran for 10 yards. Now Bisaccia let the clock wind down to two seconds, and kicker Daniel Carlson came to try a 47-yard field goal. It was good, and the Raiders won by three.
It's not "Just Tie, Baby"#RaidersWin | #LACvsLV pic.twitter.com/nkCdEHnya0
— Las Vegas Raiders (@Raiders) January 10, 2022
A hundred questions, but if Staley hadn’t called time, I find it hard to believe the Raiders wouldn’t have tried to convert the third down against the personnel Staley had on the field. If they made the four yards, would they have use a timeout and tried one more run to get closer for a Carlson field goal? Would they have tried a longer Carlson field goal than the 47-yarder he made? We don’t know. It depended, I think, on how many yards Jacobs gained on third-and-four. The 10-yard gain made the field-goal choice pretty easy.
The Las Vegas win let the Steelers breathe. It set up Staley for an offseason of second-guessing. I don’t think that’s fair. We just don’t know what would have happened if the Raiders ran the third-and-four against a different defense. As it is, Roethlisberger and the Steelers, not the Raiders, take the trip to Kansas City. Vegas gets the Bengals.
The playoff timetable:
Las Vegas (10-7, AFC 5 seed) at Cincinnati (10-7, AFC 4 seed), 4:30 p.m. ET, NBC/Peacock. Derek Carr’s 128th NFL start will be his first in the playoffs. Joe Burrow will also make his first playoff start, and he’ll treat it like a trip to the grocery store. The man just doesn’t know what pressure is.
New England (10-7, AFC 6 seed) at Buffalo (11-6, AFC 3 seed), 8:15 p.m. ET, CBS. The league is euphoric with this golden matchup for primetime. Not sure the Bills—losers to New England in Orchard Park 35 days ago—are so thrilled. Long-range forecast for the gamesite Saturday night: 17 degrees, 50 percent chance of snow. Yippee!
Philadelphia (9-8, NFC 7 seed) at Tampa Bay (13-4, NFC 2 seed), 1:05 p.m. ET, FOX. Eagles beat one team with a winning record this year (9-8 New Orleans), which seems like an issue. Bucs had to go on the road for all three NFC playoff games last year. This year, they could be home for two.
San Francisco (10-7, NFC 6 seed) at Dallas (12-5, NFC 3 seed), 4:30 p.m. ET, CBS. Niners are 7-2 in the last two months, but their high-water mark for points in that run is 31. They may have to exceed that to have a shot at beating the Cowboys.
Pittsburgh (9-7-1, AFC 7 seed) at Kansas City (12-5, AFC 2 seed) 8:15 p.m. ET, NBC. Fifteen days ago, one of the most embarrassing losses of the Tomlin Era—KC 36, Pittsburgh 10—happened. Not exactly sure, after all the Roethlisberger emotion, how the Steelers will be able to clean that up.
Arizona (11-6, NFC 5 seed) at L.A. Rams (12-5, NFC 4 seed), 8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN. The NFL chose this game for the first Monday night playoff game ever, and I suppose it could be sexier/more competitive than Pats-Bills or Steelers-KC. Cards enter the playoffs in a bad (1-4) stretch, so we’ll see if they can recover against a team they beat by 17 at SoFi three months ago.
And for the rest of the NFL story this morning:
Bad news, Hub Arkush. My poll of 36 smart ex-players and smart media folk show Aaron Rodgers winning his fourth MVP in a landslide.
Worse news, Brandon Staley. Going for it on fourth-and-1 at your own 18 in a tight game … not good. And the timeout with 38 seconds left will be questioned for a long time. But Staley proved in this, his rookie season, that he’s willing to take the storms that come with going against the strategic grain. The Chargers were five of six on fourth downs Sunday night, but the one they missed really hurt.
So long, Vic Fangio. Not your fault. At all.
Tom Brady might need to learn German. No guarantee, but I can see the Bucs being the hosts for the first real NFL game on German soil this fall.
WTF, WFT? The ignored team in Washington has miles to go to catch the Jaguars in fans.
Best games of 2022. Seriously, I could pick every game on the Tampa home slate. It’s an all-timer, an embarrassment of riches … assuming Brady returns for a 93rd season.
Fly Eagles Fly. How the mini-bye after Week 6 changed the course of the Philadelphia season and taught Nick Sirianni a valuable lesson.
Weird. Eagles in the playoffs, Carson Wentz not. Man, the last four quarters of Wentz’s season will reverberate for weeks. Months.
I spill lots of words on Antonio Brown. The vast majority are not favorable.
I tell you things about the international games that are on tap. Did you know that the mayor of Denver and governor of Colorado partnered with the Broncos (who blew away the NFL with a 50-page PowerPoint) to be sure the team got a piece of the Mexico business. And the Broncos did.
Steelers + Big Ben10
Turns out I wasn’t the only one thinking fourth-and-eight in Baltimore, in overtime, could be the last play of Roethlisberger’s football life.
On NFL RedZone, host Scott Hanson said: “Fourth down, and what could be Ben Roethlisberger’s last pass of his Hall of Fame career …”
That was the throw to Ian Eagle on CBS. “What could be the final chapter for Ben Roethlisberger … “
“So Ray-Ray was coming to the middle of the field [on an incut from the left slot], and I saw him and sort of changed my mind about where to go,” Roethlisberger said. “I had Calais there, and it wasn’t the best of throws.”
Actually, it looked like Roethlisberger threw it high and a bit awkwardly, not wanting to get it batted by Campbell.
Eagle: “CATCH!! First down! Ray-Ray McCloud! Benjamin Todd Roethlisberger Senior gets the first down for Pittsburgh!”
After the game, I told Roethlisberger about Eagle using his full name. “Very cool,” he said. Turns out last year Eagle did it during a Pittsburgh game, knowing Ben’s son Ben Jr., was watching. And Roethlisberger told him in their next pre-game TV production meeting, “That was the coolest thing ever! My son can’t stop talking about it!”
“I was thinking about his son,” Eagle said Sunday night. “I was thinking it would be cool if he heard that, watching the game.”
Back to the game.
“The funny part is,” Roethlisberger said, “after that play, there was a timeout. I was just standing there on the field. And Calais was like, ‘I had that! I should’ve batted it down!’ And I joked with him. I said, ‘Yeah, but Calais, I know you and your reputation is field-goal blocks and batted passes. So I threw it around you.’ Just teasing with him. I can’t take credit and say that I knew he was jumping and I threw it around him. I do believe that as a quarterback sometimes you kinda feel things, like I said. That’s one of those times.”
A Najee Harris 15-yard run got the Steelers close, and Boswell’s 36-yard field goal won it.
With the Chargers-Raiders tie averted, the Steelers win a trip to Kansas City Sunday. Early line: KC by 14. Yikes.
Give Roethlisberger a night, though, to revel in the last seven days.
“Monday night, that was … of course, you couldn’t write a better script,” he said. “To have my family there, so many friends and family, have my kids on the field with me walking through the tunnel with them, that meant the world to me. I feel so blessed. I felt so loved from the city. We felt going into this week that we had to take care of our business, but shoot, there’s no way that Jacksonville’s gonna beat Indy and give us a real chance to get into the playoffs. The emotion was, ‘All right, let’s go out on top and get a win in Baltimore. That would mean a lot. Been a heck of a career and a heck of a finish to the season.’
“We get another week and that’s special because none of us are promised tomorrow and this game has blessed me in so many ways. Anybody that’s played it should say that they’re blessed from this game. If you get a chance to play one more week of football, who wouldn’t be so happy with it?”
I asked him if he’d had a moment with Mike Tomlin, his forever coach, after the game.
“Not a long one,” he said. “But he did see me and say, ‘You’re not done yet, big boy.’ “
The Philly Surprise
Biggest surprise entrant in the 14-team playoff field: Philadelphia. Through the Eagles are 0-7 against teams with winning records, they were 6-2 in their last eight games. More significantly, they remade themselves in midseason, when it looked like they were headed to a battle for last in the NFC East with the Giants.
“But we changed course a little bit,” rookie coach Nick Sirianni told me early Sunday morning, driving home after the Cowboys clobbered his scrubs 51-26 in the regular-season finale at the Linc on Saturday night. “The mindset I was preaching to the team was, ‘Get a little better each day.’ If we’re asking the players to do that, as coaches, shouldn’t we be doing the same thing? And I think we as coaches opened our eyes and got a little better too.”
Here’s what happened: When the Eagles lost on a Thursday night in Week 6 to Tampa and fell to 2-4, the coaches used that sort of weekend mini-bye to examine what they were doing on offense, and how they could be more efficient. They decided to run more two- and three-tight-end packages, to both protect quarterback Jalen Hurts better and to boost a run game Sirianni hadn’t used to its max. “We thought it’d allow Jalen to see the field better too, to have a little more time,” Sirianni said.
The Eagles fell to 2-5 the following week at Las Vegas, beginning to use the new offense. Then Sirianni put the new offense into high gear. In the first seven games, Philly went 2-5 and averaged 23 rushes per game. In the next four, the Eagles were 3-1, ran it 44 times a game, and Hurts turned it over once while rushing for 65 yards a game.
That was the start of something big. Between Weeks 8 and 16, the Eagles ran for 194.3 yards per game, first in the NFL in that period. Jordan Howard, Boston Scott and Miles Sanders took turns gashing foes. After a real clunker loss to the Giants in Week 12, the Eagles reeled off four straight wins to clinch a playoff spot. They’ll be a sneaky tough foe on Wild Card Weekend for Tampa Bay. Philadelphia plays at the No. 2 seed Bucs on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.
Using 12 and 13 personnel groupings (two- and three-tight-end formations), it turns out, has saved Sirianni’s rookie year. And it all came from the brainstorming in the mini-bye after the Thursday night loss in October.
“For as tough as it is to get ready to play on Thursday night,” Sirianni said, “you get some benefits from it. The players can rest, and we can work on some self-scouting that we might not have time to do during a regular week. Sometimes, as a staff, you’ve got to swallow your pride and change course. And since midseason, we’ve been one of the higher 12- and 13-personnel teams in the league. I can tell you, that really helped us. One way it helped was we didn’t have to put as much on Jalen with the running game performing so well.”
First seven games: 19.8 percent multiple-tight-end formations. Next nine games: 33.5 percent.
In the meantime, Hurts has done his best to convince Eagles GM Howie Roseman to use the team’s three first-round picks next year on non-quarterbacks. “One of his best qualities is he’s totally unfazed by things,” Sirianni said. “He plays a bad game against the Giants, Gardner Minshew comes and plays great to beat the Jets, this city’s got a big quarterback controversy, and Jalen just comes back and has his best three-game stretch. It doesn’t bother him. Great example: Did you see when the stands collapsed at Washington after the game and fans spill out onto the field? Did you see Jalen? Never flinched. He’s there, just helping people.”
Last point with Sirianni. He’d been an anonymous coach through his one-year coaching life before now, cloaked by Frank Reich in his NFL years, never having to be The Man or be much of a front-facing guy with the press. He told me he was shocked when the Eagles played the Patriots in the preseason, got creamed, and got booed. He was driving home with his wife after the game and bitched about it being preseason and getting booed.
“Well,” she said, “what’d you give them to cheer about?”
Sirianni said, an hour past midnight Saturday, driving home: “Sometimes it takes the ones who love you to give you the truth.”
Rodgers In MVP Rout20
After the comments of Chicago-based NFL MVP voter Hub Arkush critical of Aaron Rodgers last week, I was motivated to take the temperature of former players I respect, and members of the media I respect to see what a varied panel of football people thought of the tight race this year for the award.
Arkush created a firestorm last week when he said of Rodgers: “I just think that the way he’s carried himself is inappropriate. I think he’s a bad guy, and I don’t think a bad guy can be the most valuable guy at the same time.”
That seems so outlandish to me, a throwback to the days when the media was known for taking personal grudges into the coverage of players. I think back to the really old days, back in the forties and fifties, when Ted Williams famously had spats with writers. Amazingly, he never won the MVP in either year that he won the Triple Crown, and lost out also in 1941, when he was the last player to hit over .400 for a season. Arkush’s words harm us all. If one of the 50 voters for the NFL awards, Arkush, feels Rodgers is a “bad guy” and won’t vote for him for MVP, why wouldn’t a sports fan or a reader of mine think I’m the same way and wouldn’t vote for people I think are jerks? Or think any of the other voters are the same way?
So late in the week, I assembled 36 voters. Ten are former players, now in the media or in private life, and the others mostly are media members. (They are listed below.) None vote for the AP awards, which are the awards given out by the NFL each year. I vote for the AP awards, and so I did not vote in these.
In next week’s column, I plan to share a more thorough list of all the categories—Coach, Rookies, Offensive and Defensive Players, Assistant Coach and GM. But this week, it’s all about the Most Valuable Player. The vote:
1. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay, 32 votes
T-2. Tom Brady, QB, Tampa Bay, 2 votes
T-2. Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati, 2 votes
Brady had one of the best years of his career at 44, leading the NFL with 5,316 passing yards and 43 touchdowns. His Bucs’ 13-4 record was identical to Green Bay’s. Burrow came back from a major knee injury last November to drive woebegone Cincinnati to a division title and a 4-0 sweep of AFC North powers Baltimore and Pittsburgh. In his last two games, wins over Baltimore and Kansas City, he threw for an astounding 971 yards.
It’s amazing, to me, that Rodgers got 32 of 36 votes. Carl Banks, the former linebacker and current Giants’ radio analyst, and PFF’s Steve Palazzolo chose Brady, while Defector’s Kalyn Kahler and Kim Jones of NFL Network picked Burrow. Everyone else picked Rodgers. After a lousy season-opener against the Saints, Rodgers threw 37 touchdowns and two interceptions. He had one of the most remarkable seasons a quarterback ever had, and voter after voter saw it.
“He’s the best player on the field every time he steps on the grass,” former quarterback Carson Palmer said.
“His accuracy is a work of art,” said ESPN’s Dianna Russini. “His receivers never break stride, and typically they don’t even have to extend for the ball because it’s exactly where it needs to be. Sugar Ray Robinson once said, ‘If you want to be the champ, you have to beat the champ.’ There is no player better than Rodgers.”
Said NBC’s Simms, a former NFL passer: “Green Bay has a good offense with good talent. But nothing is great other than Aaron and Davante Adams. They are as QB-dependent as any team in the NFL. And he is doing it as efficiently as we have ever seen anyone do it. His ability to be a gunslinger while also taking care of the ball better than anyone in history is astounding.”
My panel: Carl Banks, retired LB/Giants radio analyst; Bill Barnwell, ESPN; Judy Battista, NFL.com; Paul Burmeister, NBC; Joe Buck, FOX Sports; Darius Butler, former CB/podcaster; Kevin Clark, The Ringer; Cris Collinsworth, retired WR/NBC Sports; Greg Cosell, NFL Films; Ian Eagle, CBS Sports; Rich Eisen, NFL Network; Jori Epstein, USA Today; Mike Florio, Pro Football Talk; Frank Frigo, EdjSports/Champion Gaming; Scott Hanson, NFL RedZone channel; Stephen Holder, The Athletic.
Also: Kim Jones, NFL Network; Kalyn Kahler, Defector; Aditi Kinkhabwala, NFL Network; Andrea Kremer, Amazon; Chris Long, retired DL/podcaster; Curt Menefee, FOX Sports; Josh McCown, retired QB; Greg Olsen, retired TE/FOX Sports; Dan Orlovsky, retired QB/ESPN; Steve Palazzolo, PFF; Carson Palmer, retired QB; Tom Pelissero, NFL Network; Tashan Reed, The Athletic; Louis Riddick, retired DB/ESPN “Monday Night Football;” Dianna Russini, ESPN; Peter Schrager, Good Morning Football; Chris Simms, retired QB/NBC Sports; Mike Tannenbaum, former GM/ESPN/33rd Team; Colleen Wolfe, NFL Network; Steve Wyche, NFL Network.
The All '22
Looking ahead to the 2022 offseason, draft, regular season and more….
Sprechen Sie Brady?
When the NFL announced in December that teams could apply for marketing rights in foreign countries, 18 teams were awarded the rights to market their brands in eight countries, beginning Jan. 1, 2022. I am hearing the NFL may schedule some games with those teams in their new marketing countries soon, as early as next season. One possibility on the table: Tampa Bay could play one of its nine home games this fall in Germany. “Could” is not probably, but the logic is there.
The Bucs, Carolina, Kansas City and New England all were awarded rights in Germany, a huge and relatively untapped market for individual teams. I’m hearing each team could play a home game in Germany, one per year, in 2022-25. That’s not set in stone. But Tampa has the sexiest home schedule in football in 2022, with the Bucs hosting the Rams, Seattle, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Green Bay and Kansas City, and assuming Brady returns for a 23rd season at age 45, the attraction of the Bucs versus any of those six or even a division foe would be tremendous for the first NFL regular-season game ever on German soil.
One other factor of interest: Bucs co-chair Joel Glazer is the chair of the NFL’s International Committee. It’s an interesting story to watch. I would also watch Dallas and Pittsburgh as possible participants in games in Mexico in the next year or two. Also, I’d expect the NFL would try to schedule most games overseas using a home game from a team with nine home games in that year, leaving the overseas teams with eight each year. With the 17-game schedule, NFC teams will have nine home games in even-numbered years going forward, AFC with nine in the odd years.
Finally, look for three games in London next year, one in Germany (either Munich, Frankfurt or Dusseldorf) and one in Mexico, assuming the Covid scourge has calmed by then in all places. The league ideally would like no fewer than five of the 272 regular-season games played outside the U.S. in 2022.
The Continuing WFT Debacle
I sincerely hope Daniel Snyder comes to his senses in 2022 and sells the franchise. It’s over, Dan. Or, rather, Mister Snyder. Beyond the over-protectionism of the NFL in the past year (the morally bankrupt over-protectionism, I might add), there is the simple fact that fans have long since surrendered their loyalty to the team, and won’t be back as long as Snyder is the owner.
Some grist for that mill: WFT won the NFC East last year (albeit with a 7-9 record), made the playoffs and played respectfully in an exciting wild-card home loss to eventual Super Bowl champ Tampa Bay last year, and entered this year picked by some to contend for the division title again. The Jacksonville Jaguars, on the other hand, have lost 75 percent of their games over the past decade, went 1-15 last year, hired a new coach and quarterback last offseason, and watched the promise of yet another expensive rebuild go down the toilet with the unceremonious firing of savior coach Urban Meyer. Entering Week 18, savior QB Trevor Lawrence was the lowest-rated passer, among qualifiers, in the league. The Jags are 4-29 in the last two years, 9 wins fewer than WFT. And yet:
Jacksonville drew 7,217 more fans to home games this season than Washington did.
Only one team in the NFL played to less than 75 percent capacity this year, Washington, which sold 64.3 percent of its seats for eight home games. Those at the last two games, versus Dallas and Philadelphia, are certain more than half the crowd at each game rooted for the visitors.
This is the team, and the ownership, that the league office has spent so much time defending in the wake of the sex-harassment scandal that shook the franchise in 2021.
The Top Tilts of ‘22
Best non-division games, nine months out, of the 2022 regular season, now that the 2021 regular-season standings are final:
Kansas City at Tampa Bay. Pretty cool the way the schedule has worked out. This will be sixth meeting between Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes (assuming Brady returns for his age-45 season).
Buffalo at Cincinnati. Joe Burrow’s first meeting with Josh Allen. Great.
Cincinnati at New England. Joe Burrow at Bill Belichick. Greater.
Cincinnati at Tampa Bay. Joe Burrow at Tom Brady. Greatest.
Dallas at Tennessee. Physical football at its finest. Hope Henry, Elliott and Pollard are all healthy.
New England at Green Bay. Bill Belichick’s coached only two games at Lambeau (win in 2006, loss in 2014, never coached at GB as a Brown). This could be the last time there, at least on the sidelines, for the coach who turns 70 in April.
L.A. Rams at L.A. Chargers. The other venue-sharers in town, the Lakers and Clippers, have a bit of a rivalry. This is the first SoFi encounter between the two home teams, so it’s a chance to start a figurative neighborhood brawl.
Green Bay at Tampa Bay. If Aaron Rodgers returns to the Pack, this could be the game the networks fight for the most in the spring. Brady’s 3-1 head-to-head, and, of course, they could meet this month in the playoffs.
Houston at Miami. Hey, you never know.
Buffalo at Kansas City. So many great rivalry games on the horizon in 2022, such as Allen-Mahomes IV. (And the ’22 regular-season match could be Allen-Mahomes V, of course, if they meet this month.)
Notes on the 2022 Draft
Kings of the Draft. Five teams have five picks in the first three rounds: Philadelphia, the Jets, the Giants, Detroit and Denver. The richest, with three first-rounders, is Philadelphia, which owns the Miami and Indy first-rounders as well as its own. So the Eagles have the 15th and 16th picks from the Dolphins and Colts, and their own, somewhere in the twenties, which will be finalized when the Eagles finish in the playoffs. The Jets (fourth and 10th overall) and Giants (fifth and seventh overall) benefited from bad 2021 seasons by trade partners Seattle and Chicago, respectively.
Un-Kings of the Draft. As of this morning, the Rams have zero picks in the top 100. Their first slated pick is a late-third-round compensatory pick, approximately 102nd overall, for the loss of Brad Holmes as GM to Detroit, as part of the NFL’s plan to incentivize teams to develop Black candidates as coaches and general managers. The first-round pick went to Detroit in the Jared Goff deal, and the second- and third-rounders generously went to Denver in the October trade for Von Miller.
Team in the best position. With the forecast of a poor top of the draft and wealthy middle, the Ravens might be in the best position of any team. (What else is new, right?) They’re slated to have seven picks between 78 and 140 overall, and this historically has been a genius team in the middle of the draft. Tentatively, the Baltimore picks will fall around 78, 100, 108, 122, 130, 138 and 140, with the chance that the 138th (a compensatory pick for New England signing Matthew Judon) could become a late-third-rounder, per Over The Cap. Because of the vague mysteries of the compensatory-pick system, the pick could become a third if Judon makes first-team all-pro. So I say the Ravens are scheduled to have seven picks in that 62-pick span. But the history of GM Eric DeCosta suggests more movement before draft weekend. In each of the last four drafts, the Ravens, in rounds three through five, have had six picks.
The Award Section30
Offensive Players of the Week
Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback, Pittsburgh. He’s played 100 better games in his life, maybe more, but what he accomplished on a freezing and rainy Sunday at arch-rival Baltimore has to go in his career time capsule. In overtime, after a Baltimore punt, Roethlisberger needed to get the Steelers into field-goal position for the reliable Chris Boswell. He also had to burn clock so if Pittsburgh didn’t score, Baltimore couldn’t have time to get into field-goal position for the most reliable long kicker ever, Justin Tucker. After Diontae Johnson’s huge drop set up a fourth-and-eight, Roethlisberger had one of the biggest completions of his life, for 10 yards to convert and allow Boswell to get into primo position. Steelers win, 16-13. Big Ben will have one more shot at the playoffs, and it has to feel so sweet.
Rashad Penny, running back, Seattle. Once consigned to the first-round-bust bin, Penny has re-made his career late in this Seahawk season. That continued in Arizona on Sunday, as the Seahawks played spoilers in the NFC West. Penny’s 62-yard TD run, the longest of his career, added to the best rushing day in the NFL in Week 18—21 carries, 173 yards, one TD—as Seattle brawled to a 7-10 finish in the toughest division, top to bottom, in football.
Trevor Lawrence, quarterback, Jacksonville. Biggest win of his young career, knocking the Colts out of the playoffs Sunday, and also the biggest throw of his young career to clinch it. With a 16-3 lead late in the third quarter, center Tyler Shatley snapped the ball over Lawrence’s head. Lawrence leapt to corral it and immediately was under pressure by two Colts rushers. He sprinted right and threw to the back of the end zone. Marvin Jones Jr., skying for the ball like Dwight Clark once did, grabbed it and toe-tapped for the clinching touchdown. Beautiful recovery, great throw.
Trevor Lawrence to Marvin Jones!!!!
The Jacksonville @Jaguars lead 23-3!
📺: #INDvsJAX on CBS
📱: NFL app pic.twitter.com/KupABFhnfM
— NFL (@NFL) January 9, 2022
That made it 23-3 with 18 minutes left, and the game was out of reach. Going 23 of 32 for 223 yards with two touchdowns and no picks is an excellent way to enter the offseason for a player who struggled a lot as a rookie. “We finished the way we wanted to finish, and you can’t ever go back, and that’s something I’ve learned, is that you’ve got to do everything you can in the moment because you can’t change it once it’s done,” Lawrence said. “You have that feeling of, ‘Man, I wish we could have done this all year long.’ “
Jerick McKinnon, running back, Kansas City. McKinnon’s NFL life has been injury-marred since he left Minnesota after the 2017 season. The Niners thought he’d be the dangerous every-down back he’d shown signs of as a Viking, but he couldn’t stay on the field. On Saturday in Denver, he produced only 50 rushing-receiving yards, but they came at vital times for a KC team running out of weaponry at Denver. His 14-yard TD on a catch-and-run swing pass from Patrick Mahomes gave the visitors a 17-14 lead, and two great dekes and a leveling of corner Bryce Callahan on the way showed McKinnon’s versatility—and good health. With a four-point lead and desperate to bleed the clock inside of five minutes left, Mahomes went to McKinnon four straight times, causing Denver to burn its last two timeouts and contributing to Mahomes kneeling for the last three snaps of the game. McKinnon could be a valuable piece in the playoffs for a beat-up skill group in Kansas City.
Defensive Players of the Week
Maxx Crosby, edge rusher, Las Vegas. It’s fitting that he capped his breakout season with the kind of impact game that helped the Raiders win a playoff berth Sunday night. He had two sacks of Justin Herbert, six pressure or QB hits, six tackles and three passes defensed. Crosby is such an integral part of the Vegas front that I can’t imagine how defensive coordinator Gus Bradley would replace his pressure and his motor.
Arik Armstead, defensive lineman, San Francisco. After securing 1.5 sacks in a frenetic, crucial game at SoFi Stadium against the rival Rams, Armstead saved his most important for the Rams’ final drive of regulation. His sack of Matthew Stafford with 21 seconds left in the fourth quarter stopped the Rams’ last-gasp drive and forced overtime. And in that overtime, the Niners went on a 7:15 drive to start it, kicking a field goal to win this vital game, 27-24. Armstead added seven tackles, two behind the line.
T.J. Watt, pass rusher, Pittsburgh. The all-time sack record now has Watt’s name on it too. The Steelers outside linebacker tied Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record on Sunday with a second-quarter sack of Baltimore quarterback Tyler Huntley. It gave Watt 22.5 for the season, a feat that took him only 15 games; he missed two games and part of a third due to injury. (Strahan played all 16 games in the season he set the mark.) And Watt’s impact on Pittsburgh’s win was evident: he forced a fumble, batted a pass and recorded three quarterback hits.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Cam Lewis, cornerback, Buffalo. How sweet must it have been for Lewis, who played college ball a few miles away for the Buffalo Bulls, to smother a punt in the AFC East-clinching game for the Buffalo Bills? Lewis broke through the line to smother a Jets punt in the first quarter, and it was recovered by his teammate Jaquan Johnson at the New York 35. It was the first blocked punt by a Bill since Jerry Hughes did it against Seattle on Nov. 7, 2016.
🚨BLOCKED PUNT ALERT🚨
📺: @NFLonCBS pic.twitter.com/EPys0MTlSj
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) January 9, 2022
Coach of the Week
Kyle Shanahan, head coach, San Francisco. Juggling quarterbacks for nine months. Knowing the risk of trading three prime picks for a green North Dakota State quarterback would all fall on his shoulders if Trey Lance failed. Starting 3-5, knowing his job was shaky if he finished out of the playoffs for a fourth year out of five running the Niners. Having must wins in Week 10 and Week 18 against the division champ Rams and winning both. Gutting out a crazy win at Cincinnati against the suddenly great Joe Burrow. Finish 10-7 in the toughest division in football, living to fight another day in the NFC playoffs. He’s not coach of the year, but damn, he’s coach of the something.
Goat of the Week
Carson Wentz, quarterback, Indianapolis. The Colts traded the farm and made a big-money investment in Wentz in the offseason to capture win-and-in games against bad teams like Jacksonville. Now, after a horrendous and embarrassing performance against the Jags, Wentz will be questioned for the next eight months. Is he good enough to lead a team deep into the playoffs? He sure didn’t look like it this season. The worst for him came in the third quarter in Jacksonville. Down 13-3 with 12:40 to go, Wentz was strip-sacked, leading to a Jags field goal; Jacksonville, 16-3. Wentz was 0-for-3 on the next series, and on the next one, his first pass was underthrown and picked by linebacker Damien Wilson. Soon it was 23-3 Jags, and this one was out of reach.
In his biggest game as a Colt, Wentz came up so small. And needing one win in the last two weeks to get the Colts to the playoffs, he lost to the Raiders at home and the Jags on the road. No wonder the Colts were so crestfallen after this game. “Wentz was an albatross around the neck of the offense in three of the final four weeks,” wrote Bob Kravitz in The Athletic on Sunday night. And that’s not going away. Wentz came to Indianapolis to solve the quarterback problem. All he’s done is exacerbate it.
Quotes Of The Week
“It’s a bad feeling. A bad, bad feeling.”
—Colts QB Carson Wentz, after a lousy performance in a win-and-in game at woeful Jacksonville. Jags won, 26-11, knocking Wentz and Indy out of the playoffs.
“Everyone wants to blame the coaching. We’ve had five head coaches in nine years, so something’s not working.”
—Denver GM George Paton on Sunday, after firing head coach Vic Fangio, who was 19-30 in his three seasons as Broncos head coach.
Give you a one-word clue why Denver’s had five straight losing seasons: It’s 11 letters long, starts with Q, and the Broncos have had a million of ‘em since Peyton Manning walked off campus.
“Well, the pain is over, Bobby. The rebuild begins.”
—Giants radio analyst Carl Banks to play-by-player Bob Papa, after the Giants’ ignominious end to another season, dropping their sixth in a row to finish 4-13.
“The fans in New York are fed up. It’s time for the Giants to reach outside of the norm and stop being as conservative as they’ve been in the past. The NFL is changing. They’ve got to change with it.”
—FOX’s Michael Strahan
“Brady can’t do s— by himself. But you guys are going to make it seem like he’s just this heroic guy. We’re all humans, bro.”
—Antonio Brown, who twice was offered a bed in Tom Brady’s homes (once in Massachusetts and once in Florida), and whose Super Bowl ring in 2020 was largely a result of Brady pushing hard for the Bucs to sign him, and who was strongly backed by Brady after he angrily stripped off his jersey and pads on the sidelines in mid-game last week and ran off the field, to the hosts of the Full Send Podcast on Tom Brady.
There are many ways to show how the sport of football has been revolutionized in the last half-century, but perhaps none more than this comparison of regular-season TD and interception numbers of three great quarterbacks.
Kansas City won its 13th straight road game in the AFC West on Saturday, which, despite the overall weakness of the division until this year, is a pretty amazing feat. The last time KC lost in the division, Oct. 19, 2017:
• Kansas City lost on a Thursday night, 31-30, at the Oakland Coliseum.
• Amari Cooper caught two TD passes for the Raiders, and Michael Crabtree caught the tying TD as time expired.
• Milan-born Giorgio Tavecchio kicked the winning PAT with no time left on the clock. (He hasn’t kicked in the NFL for the last 38 months.)
• Leading tackler in the game: NaVorro Bowman of the Raiders, with 11.
• It was the seventh game in an NFL uniform for Patrick Mahomes, and the seventh time he didn’t get off the bench.
• Jon Gruden, ESPN Monday night analyst, watched the game on TV.
• The Kansas City coordinators that night: Matt Nagy, Bob Sutton.
• Vet backs C.J. Spiller (KC) and Marshawn Lynch (Oakland) combined for nine rushing yards in the game.
• Half a country away, star linebacker Nick Bolton of Frisco Lone Star (Texas) High School was prepping for a Friday night tilt against Frisco Wakeland High in the midst of a 130-tackle senior season. Bolton accepted a scholarship to play college ball at Missouri. On Saturday night, Bolton, a Kansas City second-round rookie, scooped and scored the winning touchdown in the 13th straight road win with an 86-yard fumble return.
Been a while since Kansas City lost a road division game—1,543 days, to be exact.
Covid positives among NFL players on the last six Mondays, per Howard Balzer of All Cardinals, pre-Omicron through the teeth of Omicron and now, just maybe, starting to get to the other side of Omicron:
Nov. 29: 10 positive Covid tests
Dec. 6: 10
Dec. 13: 34
Dec. 20: 47
Dec. 27: 96
Jan. 3: 36
Part of the big drop last week is that so many players have tested positive in the past month, and once a player tests positive, he now enters a 90-day period that he’s not tested.
Joe Judge: 1-7 in the first eight games of his Giants’ tenure.
Joe Judge: 1-7 in the most recent eight games of his Giants’ tenure.
The Jets at least have some hope, with some uplifting football down the stretch. However …
Since New Year’s Day 2020, the Jets are 0-12 in AFC East games.
Tweets of the Week50
In the span of two weeks, the Colts went from the team nobody wanted to see in the playoffs to a team nobody is seeing in the playoffs.
— Rich Eisen (@richeisen) January 9, 2022
Eisen, with a dash of humor, hosts The Rich Eisen Show and NFL GameDay studio shows.
Someone tell Justin Herbert it’s fourth and long on every play
— James Holzhauer (@James_Holzhauer) January 10, 2022
The Jeopardy! maestro loves the NFL.
In all seriousness, I have never seen Frank Reich more devastated than during our talk with him just now. This is a new low, and he knows it.
— Stephen Holder (@HolderStephen) January 9, 2022
Stephen Holder covers the Colts for The Athletic.
Former Giants are calling Joe Judge to tell him how much they wish they could be running a QB sneak on third-and-9pic.twitter.com/TqsrhwroYO
— The Big Lead (@TheBigLead) January 9, 2022
Just the right amount of snark from the sports site, after the Giants coach called a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-nine Sunday.
Got the All-Time NFL Sack Record on one play, got kneed in the nuts on the next play.
Life comes at ya fast @_TJWatt
— JJ Watt (@JJWatt) January 9, 2022
The Watt brothers are defensive players of note.
Just went through airport security and, as I walked through the scanner, the TSA agent kept looking at me oddly and asking what was in my pocket. I turned them inside out. Nothing. He pointed at my sport coat. “Right there! What’s that?” He had never seen a pocket square.
— Ed Werder (@WerderEdESPN) January 8, 2022
Ed Werder is an ESPN reporter who often tells stories of his travels.
our conversation with @Olin_Kreutz on Chicago's Sportscaster and Her Son Podcast last month Kreutz shared the story of #ChicagoBears offering him to join the O-line coaching staff for $15 an hour … the entire conversation available on @YouTube #NFL https://t.co/4JMWTwjUfp
— Peggy Kusinski (@peggykusinski) January 8, 2022
The veteran Chicago sportscaster with a telling story about the Bears and one of the best centers in franchise history.
You can reach me at email@example.com, or on Twitter @peter_king.
Good perspective. From Peter Varnum: “I want to highlight something as a mental health advocate, with regard to Antonio Brown. Your headline referred to “the unfortunate irrationality of AB.” You wrote, ‘Brown may need professional help, but it’s impossible to project that from the outside. What he did Sunday was irrational and almost scary.’ There is a much better way to nuance this event, and Brown’s career/life. The question becomes, what helps? A punitive approach, in his case, will not. And a public shaming by journalists fuels the fire and contributes to a gross misunderstanding of mental health, perpetuating stigma that needs to be eliminated. If you, as a journalist, can write that his behavior is irrational and almost scary—both claims that are subjective—then you can absolutely write that he is in need of support, instead. It is clear that he does not respond to threats or a lack of a support system. I would argue that this is the case for all of us. Or, as Brown himself said once in response to a question about whether he needed mental health help, “We all need mental help.” So instead of saying you can’t project that he needs help, maybe you could actually say it is abundantly clear that he needs help. I suppose all of this is just to say, it would be great if you used the subtle nuances that make your writing so enjoyable to cause people to think about this situation with more compassion, not more judgment.”
Excellent email, Peter. Thanks a lot. I think what happens in a case like this—and we saw after his end in Pittsburgh, and then after his end in Oakland, and again now—is we see Brown acting out and clobbering those who have legitimately tried to help him become a productive member of a team. That’s why it’s hard to have a lot of empathy for Brown sometimes. I do believe he does not need football right now. He needs help. I think you share my hope he gets what he needs.
Probably not. From Corey Livermore, of Henderson, Nev.: “MMQB question: I wonder if you’ll be as harsh on Justin Fields for not being available for the Bears this Sunday due to COVID as you were on both Aaron Rodgers and Kirk Cousins. Or does availability only count when you say it does?”
I haven’t been at The MMQB for three years and seven months, Corey. It’s NBC, and Football Morning in America, now. A few differences between Fields and Rodgers/Cousins. One: Rodgers and Cousins were not vaccinated when they tested positive; Fields was. Two: The Packers and Vikings were alive in the playoff race when their two unvaccinated QBs tested positive; the Bears were long since out of it when their vaxxed QB tested positive. Three: Rodgers and Cousins are the no-doubt number one quarterbacks for their team. While Fields is the quarterback of the future, he hasn’t outperformed Andy Dalton or (in his limited time) Nick Foles. So Fields is not really comparable to the others.
Didn’t like my criticism of Kirk Cousins for not being vaxxed. From Brin Rogala: “Let me get this straight. When entire vaccinated position groups test positive for COVID, it’s just something that happened; but when an unvaccinated guy like Rodgers or Cousins tests positive, they’re the worst teammates in the world. Make sure you use your MVP vote on Dr. Fauci, you boot-licking hypocrite.”
My, that was harsh. I got about 25 similar emails, with many writing they applaud Cousins for exercising his right to stay unvaccinated. And of course, that is his right. My point, particularly as it pertains to the most important position in the game, is that the quarterback has an outsized importance on the outcome of games versus other players on the field. So he has an outsized meaning to his team, his franchise and his fan base. Until very recently, when the NFL followed the CDC and reduced the time an unvaccinated quarterback must sit when he tests positive from 10 days to five, an unvaxxed quarterback was guaranteed to miss at least one game when testing positive. If he tested positive on Friday or Saturday, he’d miss the next two games. That is a big imposition on his team. Really big. Much bigger than even a Pro Bowl player at another position. So I believe it’s irresponsible for someone with the responsibility of an NFL quarterback to not be vaccinated. I’m sure a third of the country disagrees with me. And just as I’m not going to change your mind, it’s pretty unlikely you’ll change mine. And life goes on.
What a great comparison. From Mark Tufano, of Staten Island, N.Y.: “I enjoyed your piece on John Madden. Anything I could say about Madden would be an understatement. But it made me think of another person who was, at one time, widely regarded as the greatest at three things. Ted Williams: hitter, fighter pilot, fly fisherman.”
Mic drop. Great job, Mark.
10 Things I Think I Think40
1. I think it is interesting to note that Cooper Kupp said the other day it “wouldn’t seem right” to have 2021 records achieved in 17 games compared equally to the 16-game seasons before that. In an ideal world, he’s right. But the NFL won’t asterisk records in a 17-game season, and the league shouldn’t. In a 12-game season in 1952, Detroit cornerback Night Train Lane had 14 interceptions, a record that has never been topped. In a 12-game season in 1960, Green Bay’s Paul Hornung, set the single-season scoring record with 176 points, a record that stood for 46 years. Packer Travis Williams had four kick returns for TDs in 1967, in a 14-game season; that single-season record still stands. I don’t support the 17-game season and never will—it stands in direct opposition to the health-and-safety measures the league claims to embrace—but after 43 years of 16-game regular seasons, people are just going to have to deal with the statistical impact of the extra game.
2. I think the NFL suffered a big loss last week, with the news that chief strategy and growth officer Chris Halpin, 45, was leaving the league to take a big job with media holding company Interactive Corp. Halpin would have been one of the strong candidates to replace commissioner Roger Goodell whenever Goodell steps down. Halpin had imagination, and he knew how to get things done.
Case in point: Last year, he pushed hard for franchises to be able to do individual team marketing deals outside the United States. Usually, such marketing deals are split into 32 equal pieces and shared by every team in the league. Halpin thought: That wouldn’t motivate any team to work hard in a foreign country. Let’s incentivize teams to want to work overseas to build their brands. So he proposed a system whereby teams would apply to the league to work in one or more countries. In years one and two, the teams would keep 100 percent of all revenue generated through marketing and sponsorship deals; after that, teams would keep 80 percent of the revenue and share 20 percent with the other 31 teams. The measure passed 31-1, owners energized by the thought that they could make incremental money in football-hungry lands like Mexico, the UK, Germany and Brazil. Eighteen teams were awarded rights in eight countries in round one of the application process. The 49ers, one of nine teams to get rights in Mexico, already has inked deals with United Airlines and Levi’s in Mexico.
It would have been wise for the league to find a way to keep Halpin, who loves football. Without him, the NFL needs to find someone with the imagination and business sense who can keep pushing the ball forward on the international and strategy front.
3. I think this is a piece you should read, by Dr. Chris Nowinski of the Concussion Legacy Foundation: “On the question of Antonio Brown and CTE.” Nowinski writes no one knows if Brown’s irrational acts are a result of having the brain disease CTE:
We need to invest more in preventing and treating CTE.
Football is less obviously dangerous than it was in years past, but that doesn’t mean we’ll see a reduction in future cases of CTE. All the reforms made may be completely offset by the fact that football players at every level are bigger, stronger, faster, and therefore creating higher magnitude impacts.
We don’t invest nearly enough in learning how to meaningfully treat CTE, which not only impacts athletes but also military Veterans and victims of abuse.
In 2015, the NFL pulled $14 million from research designed to learn how to diagnose CTE. To wipe that headline off the front page, the NFL quickly announced a $100 million donation to brain research, but only put a few million of that towards CTE research, instead putting $60 million toward safer helmets, which isn’t going to make much of a difference in CTE but creates hope and headlines. (Did you hear about new position-specific helmets?) When you think about helmets and CTE, think about trying to prevent automobile deaths by only investing in better bumpers. It’s such a small piece of the puzzle.
… I think Tom Brady had it right when he said, “I think everyone should be very compassionate and empathetic towards some very difficult things that are happening.” Antonio Brown’s mental health has been unraveling on a public stage for many years. CTE could be the cause of everything. Or it could not.
But that doesn’t change the fact that a staggering number of former football players, contact sport athletes, military Veterans, and others are suffering from CTE, and we don’t have answers.
4. I think I’ve got five other football comments on Brown:
a. Josina Anderson reported after he was fired by the Bucs that Brown had suitors, still in the NFL. She tweeted, “If Antonio Brown wants a job on another team, he can have one.” That certainly could be true. But how utterly pathetic is that? How many times does a player have to thoroughly disrupt a team (happened in Pittsburgh, happened in Oakland, happened in Tampa) and then release privileged communications—on every team!—before the other 29 teams in the league say, “I wouldn’t touch this player if he played for free.” Brown broadcast a Mike Tomlin locker room speech! He released a private phone call with Jon Gruden! He released private text messages with his coach and a personal trainer in Tampa!
b. It’s always someone else’s fault.
c. Imagine you’re Tom Brady, and you’ve gone to bat for Brown to get him on this team, and to get him on a team to win the first Super Bowl ring of his life, and then you hear what Brown said on the FullSend Podcast last Friday. The Bucs were snug up against the cap this year, and already had three receivers making big money (Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, Rob Gronkowski), and wedged the 33-year-old Brown’s incentive-laden one-year, $6.25-million deal into the team’s salary structure. “Why’s AB on a prove-it deal?” Brown said on this podcast. “Who’s better than me over there? Let’s be real! … Who’s the best guy … in football, receiver-wise?” Well, let’s see. Brown played 18 games, including playoffs, for the Bucs. He caught 95 balls for 1,109 yards, an 11.7-yard average. Let’s see how many receivers in football this year were better. In average yards per catch, 54 receivers were better. In passes caught, 11 players were better. In receiving yards, 13 were better. And I’m giving Brown a bonus game here—18 games—when the NFL was 17 games this year.
d. Brown was a member of the Bucs for 29 games. He was hurt or sat for 11 of them. He’s 33. That is a guy worth a big deal?
e. Moral of the story: Let Brown fix his life. I mean, really fix it. Address his issues. Then, if he’s of sound mind and he wants to play and you’ve got iron-clad contractual assurances that it’s one strike and he’s out, then give him a chance. If he doesn’t do all that, run as far away from him as you can.
5. I think we are entering what the late Giants’ GM, George Young, used to call, “silly season.” It’s the time of year for coaching and GM rumors, and for a story that got some legs Friday that, if the Packers got to Super Bowl LVI, Aaron Rodgers might boycott the game as a protest over the league’s Covid testing regimen. The reaction was swift. Rodgers retweeted the story with a hashtag of “dumbestf——storyever.”
6. I think the point is this: If a story seems absurd, it’s probably a good idea to check it two or three times before giving it air. And it seems like this was a prank anyway. Strange times we’re living in, with the 24/7 news cycle … and not just 24/7, but however many seconds there are in 24 hours, because there are things to check and debunk quite often during the day.
7. I think one of the silliest things I saw Saturday night after the Broncos loss was a headline or two about Denver coach Vic Fangio “ripping” quarterbacks Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater. At his post-game press conference, Fangio was asked what was separating the Broncos from the three other teams in the division. He said, “Those three other teams have top-shelf quarterbacks, which is obvious to everyone. We just need to get a little better.” He didn’t say Lock stinks. He didn’t say Bridgewater stinks. He just implied Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert and Derek Carr are better. Stop the presses!!!
It would be wonderful if coaches could simply say what they think consistently, rather than telling the very mild truth and getting raked over the coals for it. You don’t win in the NFL without quality quarterback play. Ask Matt Rhule and Robert Saleh and Matt Nagy and Dan Campbell and Joe Judge. Would you rather Fangio have said, when asked what was separating Denver from the rest of the division, something like: “I don’t know—I’ll have to watch the film?” It’s just nonsense.
8. I think the 2018, ’19 and ’20 iterations of Andy Reid’s Kansas City team scared foes a lot more than this year’s team. This KC team looked flat in Denver on Saturday. L’Jarius Sneed pulling up instead of trying to tackle Drew Lock on his second TD run? Weak. Reid had better hope this effort was meh because the players felt they had little to play for in game 17.
9. I think I loved the research and information in Kalyn Kahler’s Defector story about nepotism on coaching staffs in the NFL. As Kahler reported, 111 NFL coaches are related biologically or through marriage to current or former NFL coaches, out of 792 coaches employed by NFL teams. Which means 14 percent of all coaches in the NFL have an intimate connection to the team that hired them. “Las Vegas also leads the league with nine coaches related to a current or former coach on staff, followed by Denver and New England with eight,” she reported. The league has tried to encourage the hiring of more minority coaches through the expansion of the Rooney Rule. But the league needs a nepotism policy too. What are the chances that in an open hiring process, the Raiders would have hired nine coaches related to a current or former coach there? Zero, of course.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Story of the Week: Kent Babb of the Washington Post on how one man, Brian Kelly, got incredibly rich at LSU while scores of others at the school in recent months either got laid off or subsisted on terrible wages.
b. What a terrific story about the incredible wage gap in sports today. Writes Baab:
BATON ROUGE — Sitting alone in the dimly lit kitchen, Chris Toombs cradles his bedraggled iPhone, searching for holiday gifts for his three children. Books, electronics, clothes.
He clicks on a blue quarter-zip for his younger son. Then he flicks the cracked screen upward, sees the price, $27, and clicks his teeth. Too much for his paycheck from Louisiana State University.
“If this ain’t poverty …” he says to himself.
… [Toombs] now works in the school’s office of diversity. It’s an important responsibility as LSU distances itself from a troubling history, provides outreach to a city marked with reminders of division and Jim Crow, attempts to diversify a student body that’s two-thirds White.
For this, he makes $12,000 per year and has his graduate school tuition waived, enough to make him feel both accomplished and destitute. He graduated high school early, has a bachelor’s degree, even once ran for political office. Yet sitting here two weeks before Christmas, on the verge of asking his mother to buy Christmas gifts for his kids, Chris exists on one side of a vast wealth gap that divides his employer, his city, his country.
“The most degrading, hardest, frustrating part of my life,” he says.
c. Sometimes reporters hold a mirror up to the society in which we live, and it is a very ugly sight, but necessary. Good job by Babb doing it here.
d. Travel Story of the Week: How to take a road trip with your dog, by Jessica Martinez of the Los Angeles Times.
e. Yo Jessica: I want to meet Millie. Good dog.
f. I love stories like this, that tell you step by step what you need to do to have a pleasant experience in a situation that has the potential to not be very pleasant. Advised Martinez:
Have realistic expectations. This could be in terms of your vehicle, your plans, your traveling partner or your pet. Millie has never walked more than two miles at a time, so we knew tough hikes wouldn’t be an option. Because we had an ambitious itinerary, we also knew we never had too long in any one place. Still, we carved out time for local coffee in Torrey, dinner from a food truck under string lights in Moab, stopping to marvel at yellow trees in Telluride and playing in the snow at the Grand Canyon.
So, will we travel with Millie again? Two days into this trip, we already started planning the next one.
g. Column of the Week: Steve Politi of NJ.com found a Jersey grandmother with some pointed words, and a message about boycotting the team, for Giants owner John Mara. And who can blame her, the way this team is playing.
h. You do NOT want to tick off the Nutley grandmothers, as Politi writes:
If the Giants have lost Maryann Villa, then they have lost their fanbase. If this 85-year-old grandma, a season ticket holder for more than a half-century and a loyal fan for longer than that, has thrown up her hands and walked away — wake up, John Mara, because your team is in big, big trouble.
“I can’t stand the torture any more!” Villa said over the phone this week.
i. But Maryann! The culture! They’re building some great culture!
j. The I Couldn’t Have Written It Better Myself (in 100 Years) Story of the Week, by Barry Svlurga of the Washington Post: The WFT is in all-time disrepair, and Daniel Snyder has his fingerprints all over it.
k. Line of the Week, after the stands at Snyder’s FedEx field collapsed at the end of the last home game: “That his stadium is crumbling is both factual and symbolic.” Wrote Svlurga:
Fewer people showed up to watch Washington games at FedEx than ever before … The final two home games were marked first by the hated Dallas Cowboys standing on the visiting sideline, imploring their legions of followers to stand up and cheer, and then the celebration of ravenous Eagles fans that led to the collapse of the railing.
… It matters that the team announced it would honor the late safety Sean Taylor by retiring his jersey number all of three days before the ceremony, a clumsiness for which team president Jason Wright apologized. It matters that the announcement of the ceremony came just days after damning and offensive emails from Jon Gruden to former Washington team president Bruce Allen were leaked, so the Taylor ceremony felt like an orchestrated distraction. It matters that when the actual ceremony happened, there were no speeches from team officials or former teammates, and the entire affair felt cheap and hollow.
And it matters, by contrast, that when it came to announcing the date in which the team’s new nickname and logo would be revealed, it gave nearly a month of run-up — a Jan. 4 announcement that Feb. 2 would be the unveiling — evidence that the franchise can plan for the events about which it truly cares.
… There’s just never a bottom here.
l. Kudos to Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero for the story on the expectation that Steelers GM Kevin Colbert will step down after the 2022 draft.
m. I have always thought of Colbert as the perfect Steelers GM. Egoless, totally a background guy, cared only about doing the right thing and picking the right players. Fiercely loyal to the Steelers, and quietly strong-willed about the old-fashioned way the franchise functions to this day. The ultimate Steeler. If this is it for him, I tip my hat.
n. The season just ended was the best “Great British Baking Show” season ever. Each of the bakers was eminently likeable. Giuseppe, the Italian, was an absolute wizard, Jurgen a terrific baker with a charming Eeyore personality, and two neophytes—Crystelle and Chigs—so wonderful because their success genuinely amazed them. I love that show. It’s the best escapist TV on TV today.
o. Still can’t believe Crystelle screwed up the focaccia the way she did in the finals. But I love the fact that it didn’t destroy her, and she was happy for the others. That’s a big reason why the show is so good. The bakers are competitors, but once the results come down, there are no turds in the room. Everyone’s a good sport about it.
p. In other news, I bring you … cinnamon rolls!
q. I mean, you look at these and want to eat the MacBook Pro screen:
r. Saw “Belfast.” I liked it—but definitely make sure to put the subtitles on the screen. Those characters were soooooo Irish. But I loved the classic Irish mom basically telling the husband and wife, You’ve got to get out of here. A really interesting slice of life about a period in history we don’t know enough about.
s. RIP Sidney Poitier, a great man at a time America needed him so. And a wonderful actor. I didn’t see “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” till years after it came out, but what a powerful movie, and so important in the sixties.
t. And RIP Bob Saget. What a huge part of a beloved sitcom TV for my two girls. Loved that guy.
The Adieu Haiku
Big Ben. One last chance
for a playoff dream come true.
One prob: Pat Mahomes.