Saturday will be the 50th start of Jimmy Garoppolo’s San Francisco career. He will be at Lambeau Field, trying to beat the once and probably future MVP in the second weekend of the NFL playoffs.
Whatever happens, it’ll be hard to beat this 49er’s 49th start for drama, for lows, for highs, for triumph, for agonizing first-down measurements, for 80 seconds that took 16 minutes to play, for a feeling unlike many he’s had in football when ref Alex Kemp got on his stadium mic with SF 23 DAL 17 on the scoreboard but chaos reigning on the field and saying, “That’s the end of the game.”
“Just really cool, the whole game,” Garoppolo said from the bowels of Jerryworld 50 minutes after the game. “That was one of the better atmospheres I’ve played in in my life, and it lasted the whole game. We had some cool moments in the huddle, moments with the kind of drama you live for. It’s why you play football.”
And boy, was it loud when Garoppolo made a throw that got Dallas back into it. You saw it if you watched the game of the weekend. Up 23-10 with 9:48 left, Garoppolo had a classic Bad Jimmy moment, overthrowing wideout Trent Sherfield to open the door for a quick Dallas score. Deafening, with eight minutes left.
“I didn’t grip it the right way,” said Garoppolo, playing with a torn tendon in his throwing thumb. “Not trying to make excuses, but things happen like that. Really not too much more to it than that.”
Eight minutes to euphoric survival and another underdog game in the Lambeau freezer, or to simple despair. Eight minutes that felt like eight hours.
Wild-Card Weekend, in one-sentence bullet points:
• The Bengals won their first playoff game since Mastodons roamed the Earth, and you simply do not want to mess with Joe Burrow.
• The Bills handed Bill Belichick a royal pantsing, routing the Patriots by 30 (could have been 50), and Josh Allen, by acclamation of every man, woman and child in western New York, has been declared mayor of Buffalo this morning.
• Bucs in a rout of Philadelphia, and not much to say there.
• Lots to say in Dallas’ loss to San Francisco, including wondering about the future of Mike McCarthy after a Joe Judge-like play call to end the season.
WHAT A FINISH.
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) January 17, 2022
• The end of the Big Ben Era in Pittsburgh, and it came with a thud. Kansas City will be a tough out in these playoffs.
• The first Monday night playoff game ever awaits, as America wonders: Will the game be better than the ManningCast?
Divisional weekend, in similar brevity:
Cincinnati at top-seeded Tennessee. Interesting to see if the rehabbed Derrick Henry will be able to play keepaway from Joe Burrow.
San Francisco at Green Bay. Best chance for the Niners will be to play Deebo Samuel at RB, WR, and CB, because is there anything this man cannot do?
Arizona/Rams winner at Tampa Bay. No Godwin, no Brown, no Fournette, no problem for Tom Brady.
Buffalo at Kansas City. This Week’s Sign That We Are Allowed To Have Nice Things: Sunday night at Arrowhead will be the fourth meeting in 15 months between Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes.
I went to Orchard Park for what I thought would be the game of the weekend, Pats-Bills. More shortly about that incredible exhibition of football from the Buffalo Bills, their best since the K-gun days. But it was not the best game of the five Saturday and Sunday. That happened in Texas, with a play call that will reverberate as far into the offseason as any in years, and that made Tony Romo darn near lose his mind on CBS.
Fourteen seconds to play. Niners 23, Cowboys 17, in the revival of the best playoff rivalry of the last 30 years. Dallas ball at the San Francisco 41-yard line, second down, no timeouts left. Remember: 14 seconds left. “Dak has to get this ball out of bounds, or take a shot at the end zone,” Romo said on CBS.
Dak did not hear this. In time lapse:
:14 Shotgun snap to Dak Prescott.
:13 Prescott, executing a quarterback draw out of the shotgun, starts running.
:11 Prescott passes the line. It’s clear now he’s going to run to the point where he feels he can slide down and still have enough time to spike it and get off one last pass play.
:09 Prescott begins slide at the Niners’ 25.
:07 Prescott begins to rise.
:05 Chaos. Prescott hands the ball to center Tyler Biadasz. But that’s a mistake. Prescott’s immediate reaction should have been to look for nearest official, because an official must touch the football before every snap.
:04 Umpire Ramon George, running in from behind the play to spot the ball, careens into the back of Prescott, trying to reach for the ball.
:03/:02 George finally gets his hands on the ball, moving it back from the Cowboys spot about a yard back to the San Francisco 24.
:01 The ball spotted, George moves away into the defense.
:00 Prescott has the ball in his hands, a millisecond before spiking it down.
No argument. It was close, but there was no replay that showed the ball out of Prescott’s hands with time left on the clock.
More chaos. No one can figure it out on the field.
“It’s gonna be over!” Romo yelled upstairs. “The ump has to touch the ball! … You can’t set your own ball! Dak Prescott should have looked and found the ref! You can’t give it to your center!”
“That’s the end of the game,” Kemp announced.
McCarthy said the Cowboys practiced this very play, down to the timing, in end-of-game or end-of-half practice situations. He blamed the collision of the ump and Prescott for the loss of enough time to prevent Dallas from having another play. Maybe, but you can’t leave the end of the game, and your season, down to one or two seconds.
Prescott said he should have gone down sooner. He’s absolutely right there.
McCarthy’s aim was to have a better shot than a Hail Mary on the last play of the game. Running five go routes from sideline to sideline would have given Dallas a better chance for Prescott to pick a receiver with some air around him near the goal line.
But with no timeouts left, a coach cannot count on the clock stopping with one second to go. There should be a clear line of communication with the quarterback when to get down. Prescott got a little greedy, and McCarthy and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore should have told him it was paramount to be down with 10 seconds left and then to hand the ball to an official, to be sure they’d have time for another play.
Or, failing that, Dallas had time for two throws deep downfield or into the end zone. No option was great here, but running so the quarterback is still getting off the ground with seven seconds left is not smart. Dallas fans were anguished, and owner Jerry Jones looked post-game like his dog just died.
For Garoppolo, it looked like the game was over with 40 seconds left when he executed his 26th straight successful sneak for a first down on fourth-and-one from the Dallas 38. But no—Garoppolo snapped it while tackle Trent Williams was getting set in his stance, and the Niners were called for a false start. “That’s on me,” said Garoppolo. “I was over-zealous there.”
The Niners are trying to ride Garoppolo to a strong finish, obviously, but it’s hard. First, they drafted his replacement, Trey Lance, last April, and Lance is waiting in the wings until—next spring, presumably—Garoppolo is traded to smooth the way for the kid. Second: Garoppolo has a torn ligament in his thumb, and he’s trying to play through it.
“It is what it is,” Garoppolo told me from Texas. “I mean, you can imagine. It hurts. It ain’t changing any time soon. But we’re all dealing with stuff now, so no different than anyone else.”
Well, there is a difference. When a quarterback’s grip is affected, the ball’s not going where he wants and the way he wants all the time. He said his mechanics and grip “are definitely different.”
I wondered if he knew about the social-media storm about him, about his future, about his ups and downs (especially the downs), and how he handled it. If what he said is totally on the level, it’s a smart way to handle it. Ignore it—but if you hear it, use it.
“I think a big part of it is just knowing who you are—as a player and a person, really,” Garoppolo said. “That will take you a long way. It’s kind of a big part of just my mental game. I know what type of quarterback I am. I know what type of player I am in this league and where I stand. All the noise out there and everything, keep it coming. It fuels me and it keeps me going. It’s a good thing when people are talking about you.”
What a road for the Niners. In the span of 14 days, this will be the path: Win-and-in comeback from 17-0 deficit at the Rams to win on Jan 9 … Survive the weirdness at the Cowboys to win on Jan. 16 … Travel to the tundra on Jan. 22 to face the rested reigning MVP and his mates in Green Bay.
“Going from the Rams game to the Dallas game, now to Lambeau, this is the reason you play football,” Garoppolo said. “I can’t wait for it.”
Bills 47, Patriots 17
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Not long before one of the great playoff games an NFL quarterback has ever played, a text message pinged into Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen’s phone.
So proud to know that you’ve risen to the level of being a Pro Bowl alternate!
The sarcastic barb came from Allen’s trusted offseason workout coach, Jordan Palmer. Allen, of course, was somewhat famously omitted from the AFC Pro Bowl roster this year when Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert and Lamar Jackson were chosen ahead of him.
Maybe Allen used a few drops of motivational fuel from the Palmer text. Maybe he just chuckled at it. My bet is the former. Whatever, this was the quarterback who had drilled into him by Palmer all offseason, “Finish, finish,” to the point of not taking gimmes on the short putts on the golf course. This was the quarterback who wanted to be sure in August that his days of playing “Heroball,” as Allen called it, trying to win games by himself, were over. This was the quarterback so comfortable with the schemes and play-calls and progression reads from offensive coordinator Brian Daboll that he calmly took 9.18 seconds from snap to throw, meandering and thinking and looking, before throwing his first touchdown in a 47-17 rout of the rival Patriots on Wild-Card Weekend.
The two big things Allen concentrated on in the preseason look positively fixed now. Too often in his first three years, Allen told me in camp, “I tried to play pissed off on the field and I found myself not playing very well.” And, he said, he was “trying not to be a hero.”
On Saturday, the Pro Bowl alternate played with the zen of Rodgers, with the precision of Brady, with the open-field moves of Jackson. Allen played seven series in his 52 minutes of play. He was peerless. His team was peerless. This was the best game of Allen’s four NFL seasons, and nothing comes close for second place. For the first time in NFL history, a team never had a fourth down, never punted, never kicked a field goal, was perfect on third downs. Allen drove for a touchdown in every possession using perfect touch when he had to, lasered throws when he had to, throwing to spot, deking back-seven defenders, and once running out of (what should have been) a tackle-for-loss in the grasp of 310-pound tackle Christian Barmore. Allen did all of this against the NFL’s second-ranked defense in the 2021 season.
This was a crazy night in Buffalo—the biggest, locals said, this century. “We knew the history,” said safety Micah Hyde, also a hero in 47-17, a score that will be on Bills Mafia shirts soon, I’m sure. “We know what it’s been like the last 20 years.”
Non-competitive. That’s what it’s been like since Bill Belichick took over as Patriots coach in 2000. In games in Buffalo between New Year’s Day 2000 and ’22, New England had 19 wins, Buffalo three. Three wins in 22 years! In Buffalo!
Non-competitive. That’s what it was like Saturday night, in minus-five wind chill. This time, it was the Patriots who couldn’t compete. “Embarrassing,” was the last word New England team leader Devin McCourty said to the press this season before walking off the podium for the last time, in the worst Belichick playoff loss ever.
I have never seen a Belichick team so outclassed. Allen was the reason. This game completed his progression as a big-time NFL quarterback. No jittery movements, no rushing anything. Craziest play: On his first touchdown, the 9.18-second rollout right, I swore he was throwing the ball out of the end zone to avoid taking the sack. That’s exactly what happened. “I thought I threw the ball away,” Allen said later. “I got hit and was going back to the huddle for what I think was third down, and everybody was celebrating. I had no idea what was going on.”
Simple: Tight end Dawson Knox leaped at the end line, stayed inbounds, and somehow caught the high ball from Allen. Watching on the scoreboard for the replay, seeing the eight-yard TD, Allen said he thought: “Holy crap. I did not mean for that to happen.”
Josh Allen IS NOT messing around! #BillsMafia
— Super Bowl LVI on NBC (@SNFonNBC) January 16, 2022
Then there were the jock-dropping two runs (Allen ran for 66 yards), leaving a Pats linebacker and safety grasping at air. And there was the gorgeous last TD throw, when Allen threw it low and outside to wideout Gabriel Davis because there was a Patriot beginning to dive in front of him; Allen saw the danger and threw where only Davis could catch it. Allen did it all on the coldest night he ever played the sport—looking like it was a wind-less 76-degree day in mid-September.
Watching from across the country in California, tutor Palmer saw a student who’s come a long way since completing 53 percent of his throws in a jittery rookie season, just three years ago.
“I saw control,” Palmer said. “I saw him play free and easy, in total control. You can see this moment is not too big for him. It’s like he feels, I better be able to handle this if I’m gonna beat Aaron Rodgers.
That’d be in the Super Bowl, of course. After the first weekend of the AFC playoffs, the Bills look like they have the best chance of anyone in the AFC to get there.
Cincinnati 26, Las Vegas 19
Young quarterbacks are maturing much faster than they did in the Elway days. Imagine any quarterback lifting a bad team the way Joe Burrow has in his first full season as an NFL starter. Dating back to Week 13 against San Francisco, Burrow’s last four games of the regular season were all played with the AFC North title on the line. He lost in overtime to the Niners after bringing Cincinnati back from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to force OT. Then the Burrow-led Bengals beat Denver, Baltimore and Kansas City to win the division for the first time in six years. And Saturday, in his first NFL playoff game, Burrow out-ratinged vet Derek Carr 110-69 and the Bengals won.
Burrow’s line in those five games is astounding for a player of his experience:
74.9% completion rate
342 yards per game
That’s Montana at his best right there.
The touchdown against Vegas that was the crazy-best was one that shouldn’t have counted. That doesn’t make it any less impressive. Late in the first half, at the Vegas 10-yard line, Burrow faded right, rolled right and was a millisecond from his right foot stepping on the white boundary when he lasered a throw about 20 yards in the air to Tyler Boyd deep in the end zone. A whistle blew when the ball was in mid-flight, meaning the ball should have been ruled dead and the play repeated, but the officials didn’t call it. So it counts.
— Super Bowl LVI on NBC (@SNFonNBC) January 15, 2022
“Plays like that, you can’t explain,” said coach Zac Taylor. “It’s making a play when there’s no play to be made.” Burrow’s good at those. Now, top-seeded Tennessee awaits.
Chiefs 42, Steelers 21
What’s interesting to me about Andy Reid’s team of 2021, as opposed to the previous three editions, is that this year he really needs his depth. In the past, depth has sometimes been a luxury item in his toolbox. It’s easy to give chances to lesser players when you’ve got such a John Stockton-type of assist man as Patrick Mahomes. With defections and injuries, Reid has expanded roles for roster marginalia, and that was on display Sunday night in the three-TD rout of the Steelers:
• Jerick McKinnon, at running back, continued to show what the Niners saw when making him a big free-agent signing in 2018. Injuries kept him from being a Kyle Shanahan mainstay, but now we see. Sunday night, he had 18 touches, 142 yards and a touchdown catch. It’s amazing that McKinnon opened the playoffs as KC’s most valuable back.
• Byron Pringle, at wideout. Undrafted from nearby Kansas State in 2019, Pringle’s a classic next-man-up story for Reid. His 12-yard TD from Mahomes in the second quarter gave KC the lead for good Sunday night, and he had a bonus one in the fourth quarter. Interesting that Pringle and McKinnon had more scrimmage yards, TDs and touches than Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill on Sunday night.
And, of course, there were the typical weird TDs for Kansas City—the first TD pass ever for Kelce, and the big-man TD by offensive lineman Nick Allegretti. That was interesting for two reasons: Allegretti tossed T.J. Watt aside, then turned to get free at the goal line, in catching his one-yard TD. Not a lot of receivers discard the (presumed] Defensive Player of the Year to the side like a bag of three-day-old doughnuts.
Nick Allegretti BIG MAN TOUCHDOWN. #ChiefsKingdom
— NFL (@NFL) January 17, 2022
Sunday night showed KC’s a threat to play into February every year, as long as they have Reid calling the plays and Mahomes executing them.
Bucs 31, Eagles 15
I wonder if sometimes you’re Shaq Barrett or Lavonte David and you think, Uh, other guys are on this team other than Brady. I mean, all indications are there’s zero Brady-envy in the Tampa Bay locker room. But when that D comes to play, the Bucs could win with the ghosts of Bucs quarterback past.
Through 44 minutes Sunday in Tampa, the Bucs had a 31-0 lead and the Eagles had just 172 yards. Philadelphia changed its offensive style to a run-based attack in midseason, and the Bucs snuffed that out on the first two series. They stopped Jalen Hurts for a five-yard loss on the first series of the game, and stopped Miles Sanders for another five-yard loss on the second series. The Bucs are getting healthier on defense at the right time, welcoming back Barrett and David on Sunday. Now if they can only accelerate that bad hamstring of mainstay running back Leonard Fournette. He was held out Sunday. The sooner he plays, the less pressure there will be on Brady.
Each year, I publish my vote for NFL awards, the ballot I send to the Associated Press. The notable vote each year, usually, is for MVP, and it is this year too. I’ll start with why I chose Aaron Rodgers over Tom Brady, Joe Burrow and Cooper Kupp. That ended up being my 1-2-3-4.
Comparing Rodgers and Brady, this year, is a little like comparing apples and pomegranates. Brady did throw for 1,201 more yards than Rodgers, yes. Brady also threw 11 more passes per game. Brady played 1.5 more games than Rodgers; that includes the Covid game Rodgers didn’t play Nov. 7 at Kansas City, plus Rodgers sitting the second half in Week 18 at Detroit.
Green Bay was 13-3 in games Rodgers started, with one clunker—an opening day debacle at New Orleans. Tampa Bay was 13-4 with Brady starting, with two clunkers—a 9-0 loss to the Saints and a 29-19 loss at Washington. Games of 100-plus passer rating: Rodgers 11 of 16, Brady 10 of 17.
The factors that weighed on my decision:
• Watching the games. The late Paul Zimmerman used to say in Hall of Fame meetings when stat after stat about a candidate was being quoted by voters, “You watched him play. Was he dominant? Was he a Hall of Famer?” (With a few other words of color mixed in.) This season, when I watched Rodgers, I thought he was an absolute virtuoso. The position couldn’t be played better. Brady was tremendous too. And Brady’s comeback at the Meadowlands to beat the Jets in the midst of the Antonio Brown melodrama was an all-time rally by the all-time greatest. I just thought Rodgers played the position at the highest level I’ve seen. Dropping the 25-yard dime to Davante Adams between four Niners in Week 3, on the way to a winning last-second field goal . . . The 59-yard bomb he dropped out of the sky perfectly to Adams at Cincinnati in that OT win . . . Play-action darts, off-schedule throws, back-foot strikes, owning Chicago, completing 75 percent with a 14-0 TD-pick ratio after Dec. 1, with one dome game and temperature/wind speeds of 37/10, 43/12, 35/10 and 11/8 in those four non-dome games, all played with a broken toe. Sublime.
• Efficiency. Rodgers in 16 games: four interceptions, zero lost fumbles. Brady in 17 games: 12 interceptions, three lost fumbles. Brady was highly efficient with the offense relying on him so heavily. Rodgers—37 touchdowns, two turnovers in his last 15 games—was historically efficient.
• The Covid lie. This bothered me a lot. Aaron Rodgers chose not to get vaccinated and ended up missing an important game when he tested positive. Moreso, he misled the public by implying he was vaxxed. A quarterback and team leader should be there every week he’s not hurt badly. Brady was there for 17 full games, and Rodgers missed one—that’s on him.
• The case for Brady. It’s a strong one. Pro Football Focus analyst Steve Palazzolo made it eloquently. When Brady made the perfect throw to Cyril Grayson to beat the Jets in the final seconds, capping a 93-yard drive with no timeouts, it was a wow moment. As Palazzolo writes, four of the Brady picks this year were either drops by his receivers or a Hail Mary, all fluky. Palazzolo makes great points.
When you cast an MVP vote, the first reaction is: What’d you have against Brady? The answer: Nothing. Sometimes the body of work just makes one guy a hair better. And that’s why I picked Rodgers in almost a photo finish over Brady.
The rest of my 2021 all-pro team and awards:
WR: Cooper Kupp, Rams; Davante Adams, Packers; Deebo Samuel, 49ers
TE: Mark Andrews, Ravens
LT: Trent Williams, 49ers
LG: Joel Bitonio, Browns
C: Creed Humphrey, Chiefs
RG: Zack Martin, Cowboys
RT: Tristan Wirfs, Bucs
QB: Aaron Rodgers, Packers
RB: Jonathan Taylor, Colts
Edge: TJ Watt, Steelers; Maxx Crosby, Raiders
Interior: Aaron Donald, Rams; Jonathan Allen, WFT
LB: Micah Parsons, Cowboys; De’Vondre Campbell, Packers; Darius Leonard, Colts
CB: A.J. Terrell, Falcons; Jalen Ramsey, Rams
S: Kevin Byard, Titans; Adrian Phillips, Patriots
Kicker: Nick Folk, Patriots
Punter: Michael Dickson, Seahawks
Kick Returner: Braxton Berrios, Jets
Punt Returner: Devin Duvernay, Ravens
Special Teamer: Ashton Dulin, Colts
Long Snapper: Morgan Cox, Titans
Most Valuable Player: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
Coach: Mike Vrabel, Titans
Assistant Coach: Jeff Stoutland, OL, Eagles
Comeback Player: Joe Burrow, QB, Bengals
Defensive Player: T.J. Watt, Steelers
Offensive Player: Cooper Kupp, Rams
Defensive Rookie: Micah Parsons, Cowboys
Offensive Rookie: Creed Humphrey, Chiefs
• Very tough to leave Justin Jefferson off the team, but I just had to have Deebo Samuel (6.2 yards per rush, 18.2 yards per catch, 14 touchdowns, vital for a needy playoff offense) on the club.
• I don’t recall the last time I felt this good about a pair of tackles—Trent Williams and Tristan Wirfs—as I did this year.
• Never thought I’d leave off Trevon Diggs at corner, but the combination of the excellent year by A.J. Terrell for Atlanta and Diggs giving up an NFL-high 1,016 yards in coverage (Terrell allowed 200 yards) clinched it for me.
• Justin Tucker and Daniel Carlson are both deserving at kicker, to be sure. But Folk was 29 of 29 on kicks inside 50 yards—Tucker was 29 of 31, Carlson 34 of 36 on such kicks—and I can’t forget the 34- and 41-yarders he made with the wind gusting up to 40 mph in Buffalo last month.
• Mike Vrabel over Matt LaFleur was not an easy call, but Vrabel survived with an NFL-high 91 players in uniform, and Derrick Henry missing nine games, and earned home-field in the AFC. That’s quite an accomplishment.
• Jeff Stoutland, the Eagles offensive line coach, helped the Philly offense take a hard pivot to a run-dominant game plan when the Eagles were struggling in midseason; the Eagles led the league in rushing over the last 10 weeks. It took Stoutland’s great performance to surpass the terrific job Dan Quinn did as the Dallas defensive coordinator.
• T.J. Watt (21.5 sacks in 15 games) and Maxx Crosby (NFL-best 101 pressures, per PFF) edged Myles Garrett, but I don’t feel good about leaving off Garrett and his 78 pressures.
• I realize a center for offensive rookie feels odd, especially after Ja’Marr Chase was second in football with an 18.0 yards-per-catch average. But I thought Chiefs center Creed Humphrey—the highest-rated center in football overall, and best run-blocker, per PFF—deserved it.
Last week, I told you the panel of 36 voters (all media and former players, listed below) that I polled for NFL awards gave the MVP to Aaron Rodgers in a rout. Now here’s how the rest of my 36-voter ballot turned out:
Coach of the Year: Mike Vrabel 22, Matt LaFleur 7, Nick Sirianni 2, Brandon Staley 2, Zac Taylor 1, Brian Flores 1.
Offensive player: Cooper Kupp 20, Jonathan Taylor 14, Aaron Rodgers 1, Trent Williams 1.
Defensive player: T.J. Watt 23, Aaron Donald 5, Micah Parsons 5, Myles Garrett 3.
Offensive Rookie: Ja’Marr Chase 31, Mac Jones 4, Creed Humphrey 1.
Defensive Rookie: Micah Parsons 36.
GM/Executive: Bill Belichick 10, Brian Gutekunst 8, Duke Tobin 6, Jon Robinson 3, Howie Roseman 2, Les Snead 2, Steve Keim 2, Brett Veach 1, Will McClay 1, Jerry/Stephen Jones 1.
Assistant coach: Dan Quinn 21, Rich Bisaccia 4, Jeff Stoutland 2, Leslie Frazier 2, Josh McDaniels 2, Todd Downing 1, DeMeco Ryans 1, Dennis Allen 1, Kellen Moore 1, Steve Spagnuolo 1.
A few notes:
• I bet if the voting included Wild-Card Weekend, Bills OC Brian Daboll would have gotten a few votes as assistant coach.
• Kudos to FOX’s Curt Menefee for the lone vote for Kansas City center Creed Humphrey as offensive rookie of the year, and kudos to PFF’s Steve Palazzolo for making Niners left tackle Trent Williams his offensive player.
• There’s always a big disparity about assistant coach of the year, and it’s notable that Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn won handily, 41-4 over Raiders interim coach Rich Bisaccia.
• The tight race for GM/Executive recognized Bill Belichick for orchestrating the Mac Jones first-round pick and for rebuilding some needy spots (edge rusher, tight end) in free agency.
• T.J. Watt over Aaron Donald 23-5 surprised me for the margin, not the winner.
• Obviously the late greatness of Ja’Marr Chase in the regular season led to the rout of Patriots QB Jones.
• Glad to see versatile Dallas front-seven force Micah Parsons sweep the defensive rookie vote. Can’t imagine there was a serious competitor there.
Thanks to my panel: Carl Banks, Bill Barnwell, Judy Battista, Paul Burmeister, Joe Buck, Darius Butler, Kevin Clark, Cris Collinsworth, Greg Cosell, Ian Eagle, Rich Eisen, Jori Epstein, Mike Florio, Frank Frigo, Scott Hanson, Stephen Holder, Kim Jones, Kalyn Kahler, Aditi Kinkhabwala, Andrea Kremer, Chris Long, Curt Menefee, Josh McCown, Greg Olsen, Dan Orlovsky, Steve Palazzolo, Carson Palmer, Tom Pelissero, Tashan Reed, Louis Riddick, Dianna Russini, Peter Schrager, Chris Simms, Mike Tannenbaum, Colleen Wolfe, Steve Wyche.
Three questions with … Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who was able to sit back and savor the AFC’s top seed on Wild-Card Weekend:
FMIA: So many good teams in the AFC this year. What’s the emotion sitting there with the 1 seed?
Tannehill: I’m not surprised, really, because of the quality of our guys and how no matter what’s happened to us this year with injuries and Covid and some lulls in our play, we just keep coming back. This team is group of fighters.
FMIA: Can’t be bad to have some extra time to get Derrick Henry healthy. How have you survived missing him for half the season, using a couple of backs (D’Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard) no one knows?
Tannehill: Derrick’s amazing—he really is. He’s the all-encompassing back we’ve leaned on so often to dominate the run game. But Dontrell and D’Onta have been a great 1-2 punch. Look at their numbers (189 carries, 916 yards, 4.85 yards per rush). They give us the elusiveness and power that sort of characterizes how our running game has succeeded.
FMIA: Seems like Mike Vrabel’s done a great job managing all these different lineups, with the most players  used by any team this year. How has he managed it so well?
Tannehill: Mike’s got a great feel for our team—the way he coaches, the way he relates to the players. He mentioned to us we punched our tickets to the Elite Eight by getting the top seed. That’s great, but it’s nothing more than that. The good thing for us is, we get to play at home. But Mike’s built up so much belief within this team. We’re a confident group right now.
Offensive Players of the Week
Josh Allen, quarterback, Buffalo. Seven possessions against the number two defense in football. Seven touchdown drives, including five touchdown passes. Humbling the great Belichick 47-17, and it felt like it could have been 77-17.
Joe Burrow, quarterback, Cincinnati. It’s one thing to win a franchise’s first playoff game in 31 years, as Burrow did Saturday before delirious Queen Citians. It’s another thing to be in Joe Montana’s league, as I detail above.
Patrick Mahomes, quarterback, Kansas City. I do believe this is the 496th time Mahomes has earned this august honor in FMIA, which is pretty amazing considering he’s played 74 NFL games. In the span of 11 minutes Sunday night, he threw five touchdown passes to five different receivers. That’s 173 touchdown passes in four years and one game.
Defensive Players of the Week
Micah Hyde, safety, Buffalo. He made one of the most athletic and graceful interceptions a safety can make, and it changed the course of the Bills’ wild-card rout over the Patriots. The Bills led 7-0 midway through the first quarter, and New England was driving, with a first down at the Buffalo 34-yard line. Nelson Agholor went deep up the left side, and Mac Jones threw what appeared to be a beautiful ball, leading Agholor perfectly. Hyde flew in from the right, two yards deep in the end zone, and with Agholor expecting to catch the ball for a touchdown, Hyde plucked it from about two feet above the Patriot’s grasp. Instead of the Patriots tying the game at 7, the Bills took advantage of the turnover and went 80 yards for the second TD of the game, and it was 14-0 minutes later. In the fourth quarter, Hyde added a 52-yard punt return that was nearly a touchdown. He tripped over his own guy.
Stop everything and watch this interception by Micah Hyde.
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) January 16, 2022
Special Teams Players of the Week
Robbie Gould, kicker, San Francisco. His 53-, 40- and 52-yard field goals came in the last 20 minutes of the first half and sent the Niners into halftime with a 16-7 lead. Good thing he made all three, or the Cowboys could have been angling for a field goal to force overtime instead of having to push for a touchdown in the final seconds of the loss to the Niners.
Scotty Miller, gunner, Tampa Bay. The final nail in the coffin of the Eagles came when Miller sped down the field and drilled Philly return man Jalen Reagor on a third-quarter punt. Miller’s presence in the immediate vicinity caused the bad decision by Reagor and the loose ball was recovered by Tampa’s Ross Cockrell. Five plays later, Brady hit Gronk for an insurmountable 24-0 lead.
Coaches of the Week
Leslie Frazier, defensive coordinator, Buffalo; Todd Bowles, defensive coordinator, Tampa Bay. On the weekend when the NFL was down to exactly one employed Black head coach (Mike Tomlin), two Black coordinators had noteworthy performances in the wild-card round. Frazier’s Bills embarrassed the Patriots offense, while Bowles’ unit in Tampa Bay kept the Eagles flustered all day. Will Frazier or Bowles get a chance in the current hiring cycle? That’s to be determined. But the NFL badly needs to figure this out.
Goats of the Week
Jerome Boger officiating crew and NFL VP of officiating Walt Anderson. The Zapruder film of the 2021 season caught NFL officiating, at all levels, in a huge gaffe in the Raiders-Bengals game. With two minutes left in the second quarter and Cincinnati with a third down at the Vegas 10-yard line, Joe Burrow rolled right—so far right that he nearly was out of bounds before he zipped a throw to Tyler Boyd in the end zone. Touchdown. But wait. There was a loud whistle that was captured by NBC audio as the play was in progress—just as Burrow’s pass was crossing the goal line, from the replays. When the ball was caught, it appeared that Raiders corner Casey Hayward, near Boyd, put his fingers to his mouth and then pointed in the direction where the whistle was heard, as if to say, Play’s dead. Ref blew the whistle. But Boger consulted with line judge Mark Steinkerchner—was it his whistle that was blown?—and then Boger signaled his call: touchdown.
Later, Anderson told a pool reporter that the officials in the game “did not feel the whistle was blown before the receiver caught the ball.”
Awful. Blatantly false. The erroneous whistle was bad, the coverup worse.
As Ben Austro of Football Zebras pointed out, the correct call would have been to nullify the play, put the ball back at the 10- with 2:00 left on the clock, and simply replay the down. It would have been embarrassing, of course, but it would have been correct. What happened instead was a black eye for officiating, and then a coverup of a huge mistake. The league should do the honorable thing and admit the error. (ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Boger’s crew likely won’t work again in the playoffs.)
“I hope I’m able to pass the legacy of what it means to be a Steeler from Dan Rooney and pass it along to some of the guys to continue the tradition. I gave Cam Heyward a hug and told him it’s on him now, to keep teaching, and holding guys to Pittsburgh standards.”
—Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, after playing his 272nd and final game as a Steeler on Sunday night, the playoff loss in Kansas City. He’s almost certain to retire after 18 seasons in Pittsburgh.
“I don’t have any concerns.”
—Dallas coach Mike McCarthy, asked about his coaching future after the home wild-card loss to San Francisco.
McCarthy is 18-16 as Cowboys coach.
“There’s a lot of people who would like to be calling that game.”
—FOX broadcaster Troy Aikman, talking on air about the 49ers-Cowboys wild-card game, which was broadcast by CBS. Aikman’s assignment, instead, was the Bucs’ non-competitive win over the Eagles.
“At the time of the decision to make a move on Carson, we felt good about it … I won’t make a comment on who is going to be here next year and who’s not going to be here.”
—Colts GM Chris Ballard, on the off-season acquisition of quarterback Carson Wentz, and now the Indianapolis future of Wentz.
The more I think about that quote, the more franchise-shaking it is.
And there’s more from Ballard: “I’d like to quit Band-aiding it. I’d like for Carson to be the long-term answer, or find someone who’s going to be here for the next 10 to 12 years. Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way, man. I mean, I can dream about it, wish about it, do everything I can to figure out the solution, but you do the best you can at the time.”
“I’d say that would be accurate.”
—Patriots coach Bill Belichick, asked Sunday if he would return to coach the team in 2022, at age 70.
“I kept thinking we had hit rock bottom and then each week we got a little worse.”
—Giants co-owner John Mara, a day after firing head coach Joe Judge, the third coach in a row who was hired and lasted two years or less.
The Belichick Tree has yielded nine NFL head coaches, all of whom got jobs running teams since 2000. With the firing of Brian Flores and Joe Judge last week, there are zero left coaching NFL teams, and only two (Al Groh, Jets; Bill O’Brien, Houston) with a winning record. You probably will not find too many Jets and Texans players or fans who will look back at those reigns fondly.
From Nick Saban leaving Wayne Huizenga at the altar in 2006 to Joe Judge’s bizarre final days in New Jersey, the Belichick Tree history would leave me wondering about hiring anyone in his current orbit. Now, I realize Josh McDaniels is a far better coach than he was 12 years ago in Denver; if I had a kid quarterback, there’s no one on this market I’d be more comfortable entrusting him to than McDaniels. Plus, I realize Jerod Mayo had a chance to be a good coach. I’m just saying you cannot ignore this history. And particularly after the embarrassing wild-card loss at Buffalo, it may not be a problem current Belichick branches will have to worry about.
In 30 seasons, the branches on Belichick’s coaching tree have won 41 percent of their games (199-276-1). Eight of the nine did not win a playoff game as head coaches. To me, that’s the more interesting part of Belichick vs. Students—the postseason. Comparing Belichick (granted, all but two games are with Tom Brady on his side) to his former assistant coaches in the postseason:
(The nine coaches: Al Groh, Nick Saban, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels, Bill O’Brien, Matt Patricia, Brian Flores, Joe Judge.)
The six players picked before Buffalo chose Josh Allen seventh overall in 2018:
Let’s eliminate Indy picking Nelson, because the Colts’ quarterback on draft day 2018 was Andrew Luck, and there was no sign he would walk away from the game months later.
But every one of the other teams involved was looking for a QB of the future on draft weekend 2018 and still is.
Cleveland (Mayfield, Ward) will likely give Mayfield one more chance in 2022 to earn the quarterback job for the future, and who knows which way that will go.
The Giants (Barkley) had a 37-year-old passer near the end in 2018, and now has a major question mark in Daniel Jones, both in health and performance.
The Jets (Darnold) moved on from Darnold already to Zach Wilson. And who knows there.
Denver (Chubb) must not have taken the 1-hour 50-minute drive north to the Wyoming campus to see Allen in college much, because John Elway himself missed on the next iteration of John Elway.
Scouting is one crazy business.
Three notes from 20 hours in Buffalo:
• My writing companion in the wee hours of Sunday morning in the Aloft Hotel might have picked the wrong team to partner with.
• Dinosaur Barbecue, downtown Buffalo. A gem, just like the other outlets in New York state. Strong rec: Get the plate of pulled pork, and ask for it a little crispy, and get the cole slaw. That was one heck of a pregame meal.
• Bad news: Buffalo-to-LaGuardia flight cancelled Sunday morning. Good news: Conor Orr, my old buddy at The MMQB, covered the game, and he drove over from his north Jersey home, and he welcomed me for the trip back. He is one pleasant and talented dude.
The NFC East is really covering itself in glory today.
— Judy Battista (@judybattista) January 16, 2022
Battista, of NFL.com, speaking the truth after the Eagle loss and with Dallas down by 13 in the fourth quarter to the Niners.
This is @Raiders interim coach Rich Bisaccia in his Cincy hotel personally hand-writing letters to his players thanking them for their hard work. Incredible.
— Vince Ferrara (@VinceSports) January 15, 2022
Vince Ferrara is a sports-talk show host.
Shouldn’t have spiked that 1st down with :30 on clock
— Dan Orlovsky (@danorlovsky7) January 16, 2022
ESPNer Orlovsky, referring to 30 seconds left in the Cincinnati-Vegas game, was absolutely right. With no timeouts left, Derek Carr hurried to the line and spiked the ball. Carr then threw complete on second and third downs, and was intercepted on fourth down. The Bengals took over with 12 seconds left. Meaning the Raiders could have snapped at :30 or a few second later and still had enough time, barring an inbounds tackle, for four plays.
The @nfl needs to completely overhaul their system for new coaching & front office hirings. It is completely ridiculous & unfair to ask these people that are in the playoffs trying to win a Super Bowl to divert their attention for another job of a lifetime. They have commitments
— Blake Baratz (@blakebaratz) January 13, 2022
Baratz is a player agent and truth-teller.
Top Comment 😂 pic.twitter.com/8eUFVIVmK7
— Tate Frazier (@tatefrazier) January 17, 2022
A boo for the all-star crews. From Jeff Duffy, of Huron, S.D.: “I question the logic of all star officiating crews for the playoffs. Shouldn’t crews by graded as a team? They have been together the past four months and should be judged as a whole, how they work together and manage a game. Officiating crews should qualify together, just as teams do.”
You’ve got a lot of company, Jeff. The officiating gaffe in the Cincinnati-Vegas game, with the quick whistle from one of the members of the mixed crew, made me wonder about the all-star crews. The idea is arguably fine—the top-rated officials get to work together as a reward for being rated higher than their peers. But in this case, I wonder if Jerome Boger really feels comfortable going to the official who made the errant noise and saying, “Sounds like you blew your whistle in the middle of the play. That’s how it sounded to me. Let’s negate the play and have a do-over.” As awkward as that seems, I bet Boger is more comfortable saying that to an official he’s been with through the offseason and 18 weeks of the regular season.
Intangibles count. From Tom Swift, of Minneapolis: “I couldn’t believe what I heard you say on this week’s podcast. First, you said it was ‘disgusting’ that a voter would not vote for Aaron Rodgers because of intangibles. Then — without a hint of irony — you pivoted to highlight the play of Joe Burrow this season because of intangibles. How can it be that intangibles can work in a player’s favor but not against? The Ted Williams comparison was apt in a way you are missing. To the extent a human being in 2022 can be, I am a huge Ted Williams fan. What you didn’t acknowledge, however, is that if Ted Williams were living and breathing and hitting (or quarterbacking) today none of your sportswriting brethren would vote for him, either. None! Ted Williams’s team didn’t win in those historic seasons you mentioned — not close. Ergo, he wouldn’t be considered for the MVP. Of course, intangibles matter. How a superstar player conducts himself — the environment he plays in and the atmosphere he creates — has an effect on his team, it alters his sport, and it rightly affects how we regard his performance.”
Good points, Tom. Thanks. I’ll take them one at a time.
• On the difference between the NFL and baseball MVPs: In football, it’s winner-take-all. In baseball, voters vote 1 through 10. You can certainly vote for a player from a pennant-winning team number one if you choose. In 1947, Ted Williams of the third-place Red Sox lost to Joe DiMaggio of the first-place Yankees despite beating DiMaggio (handily, in each category) in batting average, slugging percentage, runs, home runs, RBI. And one voter of the 24 who voted did not have Williams on his list of the top 10 most valuable players in the league. Williams lost that race 202 points to 201. Fifty people vote for the NFL MVP. You really think Williams would have gotten zero first-place votes out of 50 voters, either then or now? Interesting opinion.
• What is “disgusting” is not voting for Aaron Rodgers this year because a voter thinks he’s a “bad guy.” That’s what Chicago-based voter Hub Arkush said. That is much different than “intangibles.” I say in the podcast the fact that Rodgers misled people and missed a game because of not being vaccinated “should count” in deliberations about the MVP—as well as thinking it should count that Burrow lifted the woebegone Bengals, who hadn’t won a playoff game in three decades, to an unexpected division title. There’s a difference between personal opinion of a player—which has nothing to do with his value to an athletic team—and the things that contribute to a team winning and losing.
• Your final point is correct, mostly (I think): How a superstar player conducts himself matters. The Rodgers vax debacle, as I write above in the column, was a consideration in my vote. But it’s also possible that a player can overcome a negative or several negatives, to win a prestigious award.
A trade proposal. From Jon Schetky: “I thoroughly enjoyed the in-season episodes of Hard Knocks with the Colts. As a 49ers fan, I couldn’t help but wondering after the final episode: Would it be a reasonable win-win on both sides for the 49ers to send Jimmy G to the Colts for Wentz and a second- or third-round pick? The 49ers get a stable backup with Wentz while they roll out Lance, and the Colts get an upgrade at QB to complement the amazing Jonathan Taylor.”
It’s interesting, Jon. I’m not sure the Colts would think they’d be solving their QB probably long-term by trading for Jimmy Garoppolo. I also think they would view it as a straight-up swap. After a few weeks of deep breathing, I think the Colts will come to the conclusion that their best option to find a quarterback is to give the one they have one more year to prove he’s the long-term guy.
Challenging a Florio tweet. From Erik Sandelin, of Brunswick, Maine: “I do want to point out that I do love your work. FMIA / MMQB has been required reading of mine for well over a decade now. That said, this little prognostication of Mike Florio’s that you seconded really didn’t pan out for the two of you, did it? He tweeted: “Plenty of the people who are complaining about the reporting and discussion on unvaccinated players will be singing a very different tune when they lose a bet or a fantasy game because an unvaccinated player tested positive the morning of a game and couldn’t play.’ “
You’re right, Erik, with an asterisk. Jalen Ramsey tested positive the morning of a crucial game at Arizona in Week 14 and couldn’t play—but the Rams won the game. Aaron Rodgers and Kirk Cousins tested positive the week of important games and couldn’t play, though neither happened on the day of. The Ravens lost their final six, and Covid played a decent role in a couple. But I do think your point is correct—in the 272 regular-season games, no team lost a game because of a player lost on the day of a game.
Bad column last Monday. From Terry Thomas, of Illinois: “Not your best column. The Sunday night game was the game of the year, with all the strategy about whether to tie or not, and you barely mentioned it. Then you write about the wonderful Ben Roethlisberger. Why is it, I wonder, that you dump all over Antonio Brown but ignore Roethlisberger’s past issues with women?”
A lot of you thought I dropped the ball last Monday by not making the Chargers-Raiders the top of the column. I thought a lot about it. Had I been able to get the man of the evening—Chargers coach Brandon Staley—on the phone to discuss the decisions that riveted football, I may have led with it. As it was, I tried, and he passed. Losing coaches and players rarely do more post-game than they have to. And maybe I should have given more than the 700 words I wrote of my opinion on what happened.
Regarding Roethlisberger: He was accused of two sexual assaults, one in 2008 (later settled out of court) and one in 2010 (dropped when prosecutors didn’t press charges). I don’t see the relevance of including that in a story about a scintillating game more than a decade later. As for the Antonio Brown words in the column, it’s an ongoing story from the previous eight days. It’s relevant.
1. I think this is my quick look at Cincinnati vs. Tennessee. What can the Titans get out of Derrick Henry, and is it a disaster if he isn’t back near full strength? Henry’s been out for 10 weeks now after surgery to repair a foot fracture, and the Titans seem optimistic he can play in this game. But if he’s not a workhorse, and I wouldn’t expect him to be, that could really impact the fourth quarter of a close game against an explosive team.
2. I think this is my quick look at San Francisco vs. Green Bay. Defensive health will be big. Za’Darius Smith, Jaire Alexander and Whitney Mercilus—all out the majority of the season—practiced last week and there’s hope they can fortify a Packer defense that played better than expected this year. The Niners flew back West on Sunday evening not knowing the seriousness of the ankle injury suffered by defensive keystone Fred Warner, or the seriousness of the concussion suffered by their best pass-rusher, Nick Bosa. Big issues for both teams.
3. I think this is my quick look at Cards/Rams winner vs. Tampa Bay. Two quarterbacks try to win their first postseason games tonight at SoFi, and I wonder if either can challenge the great and powerful Brady on home soil. Brady will be making his 47th playoff start. Think of that. That’s three full seasons! Brady’s 44, but maybe three years of playoff games should mean more logically that he’s 47 in quarterback years.
4. I think this is my quick look at Buffalo vs. Kansas City. Both quarterbacks are on fire, so which defense can disrupt the timing of the other? Buffalo doesn’t have the speed and quickness of some fronts to get at Patrick Mahomes, but they didn’t let Mac Jones get any consistency the other night. I think Buffalo can win more, but there’s also the matter of penning in Mahomes. Tough to forecast.
5. I think some thoughts on a few of the coach/GM situations are in order:
• NEW YORK GIANTS. They started at Ground Zero late in the week after Dave Gettleman quit as GM and Joe Judge got fired as head coach. “I don’t want to rush into anything,” president and co-owner John Mara said. “We made that mistake in the past.” The last three hires—Ben McAdoo, Pat Shurmur, Judge—show that Mara needs to step aside and let a new voice, a new GM, do this one, because the Giants are in the gutter after seasons of 13, 11, 12, 10 and 13 losses, and now being stuck in salary-cap hell with a bad roster. Gettleman actually did more harm to the franchise than Judge. He left them as one of five teams in negative cap shape for the 2022 season. Seven players—none of whom is a quarterback—are scheduled to account for 59.8 percent of the team’s cap in 2022, a total of $124.6 million. James Bradberry and Adoree' Jackson are good corners—they’d better be really good for a combined $37.4 million next year. Is Leonard Williams worth 13.1 percent of the cap, at $27.3 million? Is Kenny Golladay (zero TDs this year) worth 10.2 percent of the cap, at $21.2 million? If I’m a GM candidate, I’m telling Mara: Let’s use 2022 as a fix-it year instead of scotch-taping the cap so the pain continues into 2023.
• CHICAGO BEARS. Could they fall in love with Brian Flores? Someone likely will. I still like the logic of handing the coaching gig to Jim Caldwell, seeing that the chief adviser to the search is Hall of Fame GM Bill Polian, who has always thought Caldwell didn’t get enough time (three seasons) in his first go-round as head coach in Indianapolis. Caldwell is the steady hand that Tony Dungy is beyond convinced is going to give a young team, and a young quarterback, a great chance. Tough to doubt that. Caldwell was six games over .500 as a head man in Detroit.
• LAS VEGAS RAIDERS. Smart money says Mark Davis, unless he can get a mega-billboard for the Vegas strip like Jim Harbaugh, is likely to take the interim tag off Rich Bisaccia and give him the full-time gig. Davis probably should. Last week, video surfaced that showed wideout Zay Jones, during the Week 18 OT win over the Chargers, telling Bisaccia, “You’re doing a great job.” And after the wild-card loss in Cincinnati—which wasn’t very clean for the Raiders—Bisaccia got a vote of support from Derek Carr, speaking for the locker room. “We all think he’s the right guy. I have never seen a coach with the ear to the locker room like he has.”
6. I think it was an emotional NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent who came to the phone Sunday to discuss the NFL’s major problem with hiring minority coaches. With 24 coaches in place and eight teams with either vacancies or with uncertain interim coaches, it leaves only one Black coach running a team now—Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin. “The other day was a gut punch,” said Vincent, who is Black, referring to the firings of two Black coaches, Brian Flores in Miami and David Culley in Houston. “But now, I look at it like we’re down two scores at the end of the first quarter, and all our stars are still in the game. We’ve got time.”
Vincent said there are currently 37 key openings—at head coach, general manager and coordinator—around the league, which is what he means about it being in the first quarter. He made one other interesting point: The league has a database of candidates for front-office and coaching jobs. Two years ago, 2,146 people registered as minorities had resumes and profiles on the server. This year, the number of minorities in the pipeline is 3,798. Of course, a lot of good that does when there aren’t enough high-profile positions being filled by minorities. “This is a critical year,” Vincent said. “We’re at a volatile moment in our country, and we’ve got to show progress. There’s no social justice without racial justice.”
Teams are being more deliberate in their processes this year, which is due in part to the regular season lasting one week longer, but also due to teams—seemingly—taking their time and increasing the number of candidates interviewed.
7. I think the underplayed story of the past week is that the Ravens got two third-round picks for one of the most meaningless seasons in recent NFL annals. What I mean is, Houston hired Baltimore assistant coach David Culley, who is Black, last January. By NFL rules, when a team loses a minority assistant to a head-coaching job elsewhere, that team is awarded two third-round compensatory picks. Last year, the Ravens turned the first of two third-rounders into cornerback Brendan Stephens with the 103rd overall pick. This year’s draft brings the second pick for Culley. Regarding “meaningless:” This was always going to be an adjustment season for Houston, once they accepted that Deshaun Watson wasn’t playing for the team. Now there might be another similar season, albeit with the prospect of the long-team replacement for Watson (Davis Mills and/or a high draftee) on hand.
8. I think the Seahawks bear watching. I don’t know if anything changes there but my antennae are up.
9. I think the Pro Football Hall of Fame vote is Tuesday, virtually. It used to be on the Saturday before the Super Bowl, but Covid and sparse media attendance at the Super Bowl caused it to be changed the last couple of years. So you don’t have much time to harangue/lobby the voters. So hurry.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. In honor of the late, great Ronnie Spector, here she is live, with the Ronettes and “Be My Baby.”
b. And how great is this: the Ronettes at their 2007 Rock N Roll Hall of Fame induction, with 64-year-old Ronnie Spector sounding divine, and Paul Schaffer on the piano.
c. Flashback to the days when the King kids would get in the car and drive from our northern Connecticut home (when we’d save our allowance) so we could buy the latest single we loved at the record store in Springfield, Mass. I was about 7 when the Ronettes, the Beatles, the Dave Clark Five were big, and I’d buy a 45, and I’d play it so often I’d wear out the needle on the record player at home. Thus the fond memories of Ronnie Spector when I see that she has passed on.
d. You want a baseball quiz? A baseball quiz in a football column? You do? Okay.
e. Which of these five players had the most career hits: Tony Oliva, Fred Lynn, Melky Cabrera, Rob Ventura, Tino Martinez? Answer in 10o, below.
f. Football Foodie Story of the Week: Cathy Free of the Washington Post on the former NFL lineman who earned $40 million in his pro career and who is now making and serving healthy food at a little Catholic school in western Michigan.
g. “I wasn’t looking to be the school lunch lady,” Jared Veldheer told Free. Quote of the Year! Wrote Free:
The Catholic school needed someone to oversee cooking and serving lunch for about 260 students from preschool to eighth grade. The previous manager had quit, and the school wanted to line up somebody quickly because classes were to start in two weeks.
Veldheer, who played for several teams, including the Green Bay Packers, Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders, said he was intrigued by the job in part because he loves cooking, and as a professional athlete, he spent a lot of time focused on nutrition.
“I’d eaten meticulously for more than a decade and I thought, ‘There is value in being able to cook and provide kids with a good, nutritious lunch,’” said Veldheer, whose two children, Eva, 6, and Edwin, 4, attend Saint Paul the Apostle Catholic School.
As soon as the cafeteria was renamed the SPA 68 Cafe after his NFL uniform number, students and parents said they right away saw a difference in the $3.50 lunch menu. Slices of pizza with salty tomato sauce and greasy cheese were history, as were chicken nuggets, french fries and sugary desserts. They had been replaced by smoked carnitas, mashed cauliflower, a salad bar and Korean beef bulgogi — a dish most of the kids had never tasted.
“It took a while to capture some trust from the kids,” he said. “Kindergartners are my toughest critics.”
h. What a story. How great is Jared Veldheer?
i. Journalism Story of the Week: The plight of the Capital Gazette in the wake of five journalists there getting murdered in 2018, by Emily Davies and Elahe Izadi of the Washington Post. Wrote Davies and Izadi:
“If you care about journalism and truth and freedom of the press anywhere, subscribe to your local news organization,” said Rick Hutzell, the former editor of the Capital Gazette, on the third anniversary of its attack. “Because that’s the only way they will survive.”
Watching Hutzell — the editor who shepherded the Capital Gazette through its darkest moments — were his former reporters. Of the six employees who had survived the shooting, few were still with the newspaper. Almost every other journalist and editor employed by the publication in 2018 had left, including Hutzell.
Their departures, in a way, mirror what is taking place elsewhere. The local newspaper industry has suffered tremendously from declining ad revenue and, in just the past few years, thousands of journalism jobs and hundreds of newspapers have vanished.
Just before the pandemic, hedge fund Alden Global Capital — already one of the largest newspaper owners in the country and described as a “vulture” by its journalist critics — set its sights on the Capital Gazette’s parent company, Tribune, by becoming a major investor.
j. There are many things, dire things, to care about in this world today. Almost too many to count, frankly. But the more papers with consciences like the Capital Gazette that get denuded, the less chance politicians and companies will get held to account when they’re not acting in the public interest. It’s undeniable. In the end, that’s going to hurt us. Time will prove it.
k. The NBA schedule is interesting. I understand this slate includes a makeup game in Portland, but I could argue that simply being drained here led to losses against two teams not in the Nets’ class—the Lillard-less Blazers, and the floundering Thunder.
Sunday: Spurs at Nets, Brooklyn. Fly 2,545 miles to Oregon.
Monday: Nets at Blazers, Portland. Fly 1,739 miles to Chicago.
Wednesday: Nets at Bulls, Chicago. Fly 740 miles to New York.
Thursday: Thunder at Nets, Brooklyn. Fourth game in five days in three time zones.
l. Great remembrance of a life well lived:
We could all learn a lot from #17
— NFL Films (@NFLFilms) January 14, 2022
m. You may remember when I wrote about a Pennsylvania high school football player battling brain cancer three years ago. The story of Anthony Myers is worth reliving. From the video: “He was just a nice human being. I think that’s how he’d want to be remembered.”
n. RIP, Joe B. Hall, the former Kentucky basketball coach. Covered him quite a bit in the Sam Bowie-Dicky Beal-Melvin “Dinner Bell Mel” Turpin days at Rupp Arena while working in Cincinnati, and got to know him not at all. Best memory of those SEC hoops days in the early eighties: seeing Charles Barkley on the Auburn bench one night eating a Goo Goo Cluster candy bar.
o. The answer to my baseball quiz is Melky Cabrera. Isn’t that wild? The Melkman retired Friday. He had 1,962 hits in the big leagues, two more than the 1975 American League MVP. Lynn 1,960, Tino 1,925, Oliva 1,917, Ventura 1,885.
p. Honestly, I would have picked Cabrera for fifth on that all-time hit list, not first.
q. Not a lot of people can say they homered off this distinguished group of hurlers: Verlander, Kershaw, Schilling, King Felix, Lester, Hamels, Smoltz, Halladay, Sale, Sabathia, Bauer. The Melkman did. Homering off Kershaw and Schilling and Sale, and more hits than Fred Lynn. Wow. That is one heck of a life in baseball, even though we didn’t know it.
r. Did I say RIP Ronnie Spector? What a voice.
L.A. Rams 30, Arizona 26. Tonight, playing at home, I think Matthew Stafford does what the Rams brought him to L.A. to do. He’ll play well, take care of the ball, and usher L.A. into the divisional round next weekend.
No crying, Cowboys.
Too risky to bleed the clock
with no timeouts left.