Chandler Jones, from his home Sunday night, knew the end of the Raiders’ 30-24 win over the Patriots was stunning and strange, but he didn’t know it was historic.
So he asked me: “You’ve been covering the game for a long time—how do you see it?”
I’m not positive, I said. But I think it’s the most incredible end to a game I’ve seen since, well, maybe since the Immaculate Reception.
“Do you know about that?” I asked.
“Refresh me,” he said.
“Raiders-Steelers playoff game, 50 years ago this week,” I said. “Steelers down 7-6, fourth down, 22 seconds left, at their 40-yard line. Terry Bradshaw throws, it caroms either off a Steelers running back or Jack Tatum, the Raider safety, and Franco Harris either traps it or picks it off near the ground, and he runs for a touchdown. Steelers win.”
“Pretty amazing,” Jones said.
“Here’s what’s amazing,” I said. “You go to Pittsburgh for Raiders-Steelers this week on the 50th anniversary of the game.”
Jones soaked it in for a minute. The enormity of what just happened was hitting him now.
“It will be hard for me to fall asleep tonight,” Chandler Jones said.
Week 15 in the NFL. Call it Lunatic Fringe Weekend. Any one of 10 storylines might have made it hard for any of us to fall asleep over the weekend.
Colts blow 33-0 lead in 24 minutes. I’ve got news of the post-game text message from the fired Colts coach to the winning Vikings quarterback that you’ll want to know. And I have serious questions about a late Jeff Saturday play-call.
Florida men play gallantly, lose eight-point lead in snowstorm. Josh Allen, I do believe, had a cape on underneath his Bills’ 17 jersey Saturday night in the comeback win over Miami. (Moral Victory of the Week, BTW: Dolphins.)
Men of Reid win seventh straight AFC West crown. Almost lost to 1-12-1 Houston, but Patrick Mahomes, who had five incompletions in five quarters, wouldn’t let them. “How can he not be the MVP?” coach Andy Reid asked me. Good question, the same one head coaches in Philadelphia and Buffalo and Cincinnati could be asking.
MVP Watch. Seriously: Hurts, Mahomes, Allen, Burrow all have good cases. Very good. With three weeks left, the MVP is usually wrapped up with a tidy bow. Now? Not at all.
The 6-8 Bucs are in first place despite a performance so pathetic … that Bucs superfan Dick Vitale lit into them on Twitter. “Humiliated two weeks in a row!” Mr. Positive fumed.
The NFC South will be relegated to the Mid-American Conference, per sources. The 6-8 Bucs are one game up on the 5-9 Panthers, 5-9 Falcons and 5-9 Saints. I think back to the Seinfeld episode when the father of George’s fiancé Susan told his tipsy wife, “Wear some more lipstick.” Dick Vitale to the Bucs: “Turn it over some more.”
Jags streak, Titans meek. Jags are 4-2 since Halloween after the walk-off pick six of Dak Prescott by safety Rayshawn Jenkins Sunday. Jacksonville’s one game out of first place in the AFC South, with the tiebreaker edge over Tennessee. Twenty days till Tennessee-at-Jacksonville to end the regular season, and it could mean something.
Bay Stater Steve Kornacki said the 7-7 Pats’ crushing loss cratered their playoff chances from 64 percent to 42 percent. That high? Last three QBs they’ll see in the regular season: Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Josh Allen.
Who are you, really, Dallas? Last two weeks: Texans/Jags 63, Cowboys 61. With the 13-1 Eagles and desperate Titans on tap the next two weeks, Dallas risks being in a slump entering Wild Card weekend.
But here comes the real lunacy. Gut feeling this morning in the NFC: Giants the sixth seed, Lions seventh. The Lions have won six of seven, and their last three games are against Carolina, Chicago and Green Bay (13-28 combined). Which means 9-8 or 10-7 is a real possibility. As is this: Jared Goff and Daniel Jones on Wild Card Weekend, baby. Kneecap-biters at Niners, G-Men at Vikes.
So how does one of the most shocking plays in modern NFL history occur?
This is how the 48-yard Jones “fumble recovery” (seriously, that’s how it will go down in history) happened:
Pats 24, Raiders 24, three seconds left, New England ball at its 45-yard line, last play of the fourth quarter. Overtime beckoned. Pats decided not to throw a Hail Mary, because they didn’t have confidence Mac Jones could fling a high arcing ball 60 yards. So Jones handed it to Rhamondre Stevenson, who’d try to find his way 55 yards downfield, somehow.
Maybe we all were expecting the Patriots to play for overtime, which was the stratagem here. Bill Belichick certainly was. Most of the Raiders were. But Chandler Jones told me he expected the Patriots to take a shot to score right there.
“It was a desperado situation,” Jones said over the phone from Nevada, “and that was a team that would try to do anything to advance the ball for a touchdown. They’ll throw the ball, pitch it, lateral it. I knew that was a possibility to happen. I thought they would do a hook-and-lateral, or something like that. They had a random run.
“I actually missed a tackle on [Stevenson]. I went to go punch the ball out on that play and I missed. The guy kept running. By the time I stood up, I realized that the ball was being pitched around.”
On FOX, Kenny Albert and Jonathan Vilma thought the Patriots would try something, but nothing dangerous. The sound of their voices, at first, was pretty calm.
Albert: “Stevenson is inside the 30. Flips it back. Stanford band nowhere in sight.”
“They were playing hot potato now,” Jones told me. “Instead of pursuing the ball, I just started playing back into saying, alright who’s the next passer? Who could they possibly throw it to next that’s behind the line of scrimmage? Because they’re playing this whole hot potato game. Sure enough, I saw Jakobi Meyers kinda look back at Mac Jones, the quarterback. He was standing in the middle of the field. I literally just jumped up when I saw the ball coming, intended for Mac. Mac was kind of standing there, looking at me with big eyes.”
This seemed crazy, and it was: Meyers threw the ball 22.9 yards on the backward pass intended for Jones, per Next Gen Stats. That’s not just a little lateral. That’s the equivalent of a good downfield pass.
Albert: “IT’S PICKED OFF!”
Vilma: “Uh-oh! Oh no!”
“I literally just jumped up and intercepted it,” Jones said. “I just gave Mac a nice stiff arm with my right hand. The rest was history.”
Albert: “INCREDIBLE! Chandler Jones [crossing the goal line] takes it in! And wins the game! For the Raiders! Have you ever seen an ending like that!!!”
Vilma: “I have NEVER seen anything like that. I have no idea why he was doing that. Oh my goodness!”
“Crazy he threw it back,” said Derek Carr.
“I didn’t see the dude there,” Meyers said later. “I was trying to do too much. I shoulda just gone down with the ball.”
Meyers had no instructions to throw it—and certainly not to throw it 23 yards.
Albert: “An unbelievable ending here in Las Vegas.”
Vilma: “I thought I had seen it all, Kenny.”
“Shocked?” Jones said. “No, I’m not shocked at all. I mean, I’m happy that I did something to help the team win. But not shocked at all. Honestly, I was trying to catch my breath, to be honest. It felt like a 100-yard run. I was kinda just getting slapped in the side of the face, in the head. Everyone’s congratulating me, ‘Thank you! Thank you!’ And all I could do was just hang onto the football. I remember vividly the football being in my right hand. [Tight end] Foster Moreau, he came up to me and he said, ‘Chandler, give me the ball. I’ll make sure you get it.’ I kinda just let it go. I just let the ball go and I was like man I just need air. And the game was over. It was such a crazy feeling. It was almost like a Hollywood script that’s unwritten because people won’t believe it. There’s no way, you know?”
— NFL (@NFL) December 19, 2022
It’s not shocking to do something like what Meyers did when a team is behind. But tied? Headed for overtime? The backward lateral’s just too dangerous. It can get fumbled or picked off, and it can be returned for a touchdown. That’s what happened.
What’s so uncharacteristic about the play is that Meyers is a very smart player, one of the players Belichick trusts the most. If he’s going to do something like this, what hope is there for this team when times are tight near the end of games?
“This might be one of the dumbest teams I’ve ever seen,” said perturbed colorman Scott Zolak on the Patriots Radio Network.
So now these teams go into the longshot pool for the playoffs. New England, 7-7, and Vegas, 6-8, will have to pull some upsets to be playing after Week 18. As NBC prognosticator Steve Kornacki said Sunday night, the Patriots’ odds to make the postseason dropped to four in 10, and that might be generous—New England closes with three foes who are likely playoff-bound.
“Anything in your football life compare to this?” I asked Jones.
“I won a Super Bowl, Super Bowl 49,” he said. “That was pretty legit. But making a play to win a game? No. Never. I’m 32 in year 11. Better plays are coming with age, I guess.”
When Kirk Cousins finished the greatest comeback in NFL history Saturday—the Vikings were down to the Colts 33-0 with 24 minutes to play, then won 39-36—he noticed a post-game text from Frank Reich. Interesting. Cousins and Reich are friendly, but not close, and Reich was the coach fired by the Colts mid-season. But Reich was also the backup quarterback who, 30 years ago, playing because Buffalo QB Jim Kelly was hurt, led the Bills back from a 35-3 deficit to win 41-38. And that’s what this text was about, sort of—Cousins bettering Reich by one point to set the league record.
“Frank texted me to say, ‘Kirk, for 30 years, that moment has given me an opportunity to share many things about football and life, tell people about my faith, and now the torch has been passed to you.’ So it was a powerful text. I already had a great deal of respect for Frank but after that text it went through the roof. I took what he said seriously.”
“True,” Reich said when we talked Sunday afternoon. “Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to encourage lots of people because of that game—some with football lessons, some with lessons of spirituality. Maybe Kirk will be like me—maybe he’ll have 30 years of being able to use this as inspiration the way I was able to.” Reich seemed especially pleased that the quarterback who now holds the record for biggest comeback is also a religious person.
Asked if it felt strange to be watching the team that fired him blow that huge lead, Reich said it was. At one point during the second half Saturday, his wife Linda asked him how he was feeling. “I don’t know,” Reich said. And he said he still roots for the players and coaches he worked with. “It’s just a weird dynamic,” he said. “And it was weird to see the record go away. It’s strange—I thought I was going to be clinging to the record, and it’s sort of an honor to have the record. But I am happy it’s Kirk.”
Three things that hit me over the weekend:
So much respect for Kansas City. No wonder Andy Reid doesn’t want to walk away. He’s sympatico with his GM, Brett Veach, who’s done a terrific job stocking the roster. He’s got the quarterback of his dreams. And the combination of those two won the game in Houston this weekend. Kansas City got 104 yards rushing and 158 yards receiving from players in their first year on the team. “Today was a great statement about our team,” Reid said from Houston post-game. “Brett Veach has done a great job year after year. I love seeing the young guys, the new guys, get so excited about winning.” I mentioned that his team has now won every division title, seven straight, since Peyton Manning retired in Denver; only one team, the Patriots, has won more division titles in a row. “It’s great, but the problem is, you don’t think about this enough when you’re coaching. You’re in the washing machine going round and round. You finish one game, you’re on to the next.”
Robert Saleh needs a timeout adviser. Crazy end-of-game strategy from the Jets’ coach. Down 20-17 with 1:49 left in the game, Saleh had three timeouts left. He didn’t use his first one till 19 seconds remained, he let 20 and 18 seconds tick off the clock after separate completions on the final drive, and he finished the game with one timeout left. The end result: The Jets had to try a 58-yard field goal, which went wide left, on the last play of the game. They could have had two or three plays to get closer, just by being smart with timeouts.
Jeff Saturday needed to show more faith in Chase McLaughlin Saturday. The situation: Colts up 36-28, Indy ball, fourth quarter, 2:31 left to play, fourth-and-one at the Vikings’ 36-. A quarter earlier, McLaughlin made a 52-yard field goal and the football hit the railing a few yards beyond the end line; that meant the kick would have been good from several yards further. At this point, for the year, McLaughlin was eight of 10 on field goals from 50 to 55 yards. Matt Ryan was three-for-three on QB sneaks. Saturday chose the sneak. It wasn’t a terrible call, but I’d definitely have chosen the field-goal try. McLaughlin was in a dome, and if he makes the kick, the Vikings would have needed a touchdown, two-point conversion and a field goal to tie the game in the last 2:25, with no timeouts. The kick ends it. Ryan’s sneak would not, though it would have started the countdown to victory, most likely.
Some awful calls over the weekend. Two come to mind.
One: The missed call on the blatant pass interference on the final Washington play of the game Sunday night, when Giants cornerback Darnay Holmes had his arms fully around Washington receiver Curtis Samuel and prevented him from reaching for the ball cleanly. Ref John Hussey had the gall to say to pool reporter Nicki Jhabvala: “To the officials it didn’t rise to what they felt was a restriction, thus they didn’t call it … They didn’t believe it was pass interference.” If that’s true, they shouldn’t be NFL officials.
Two: The Tra Blake crew in Colts-Vikings made several egregious calls, none worse than not allowing a Vikings touchdown on a return by defensive back Chandon Sullivan. The crew claimed the play was whistled dead and so Sullivan couldn’t return it. Watching the play in real time, that’s a laughable call. There was a call earlier negating another Sullivan fumble return for a touchdown, and another phantom facemask call against the Vikings. “This Tra Blake crew is as bad as I’ve seen in my 21 years,” said Paul Allen, the Vikings’ play-by-play man, on the Vikings radio network. Not sure about that, but it was a terribly officiated game.
Week five of my MVP rankings. The 50 NFL awards voters will vote for a top five for the MVP instead of just one winner starting this year. Here are my top five in the NFL race after 15 weeks, along with five more contenders:
This is by far the toughest week I’ve had in the divining of the MVP. The top three could be in any order, and number four could be number one by season’s end. My list:
- Jalen Hurts, QB, Philadelphia (13-1). Takes what the D gives him, and on Sunday in Chicago, the D gave him the run. Hurts ran for three scores, and the Eagles, two games clear of the NFL field this morning, won by five.
- Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City (11-3). Four more TD throws and 477 more passing yards than anyone in the game, and his 87.8-percent completion rate Sunday is the best in history for a passer with more than 40 attempts in a game. “If he’s not the MVP, I don’t know who is,” Andy Reid told me. “He took a whole new group of [receivers] and got them ready to win. Think about it. Who are we going to in the passing game? [Travis] Kelce. Now [Mecole] Hardman’s hurt. Then who? They’re all new. Patrick worked all off-season to get those guys ready and look at the results.”
- Josh Allen, QB, Buffalo (11-3). Played a masterful game Saturday night, coming back from eight points down in the fourth quarter as Buffalo basically ended the race in the AFC East by beating Miami. Allen has a great sense of when to hang in the pocket and when to scramble.
- Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati (10-4). Sunday wasn’t all Burrow—the Bucs handed a lot to the Bengals—but he still was in control in a four-TD second half. Cincinnati’s won six straight and we could be headed for a Burrow-Lamar Jackson showdown for the division in Week 18.
- Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota (11-3). His eighth 100-yard receiving game of the year Saturday pushed his per-game average to 115.9 yards.
- Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Miami.
- Micah Parsons, edge, Dallas.
- Nick Bosa, edge, San Francisco.
- Jared Goff, QB, Detroit.
- Trevor Lawrence, QB, Jacksonville.
Agree, disagree or throw tomatoes at me at email@example.com.
The advanced metrics of Next Gen Stats helped tell a couple of stories about Josh Allen’s terrific game Saturday night.
Did you see his throw on the last play before halftime, when Allen rolled right and waited, waited, waited until, just before being forced out of bounds at the Miami 13-yard line, he quick-flipped a line drive to running back James Cook in the end zone for a touchdown. How many quarterbacks could make that play, waiting 7.17 seconds (about three times as long as a quarterback usually takes to release a pass) till the last possible moment before throwing a pass right on target 20 yards away? Not many. Next Gen completion possibility at the time of the throw: 36.4 percent.
ARE YOU KIDDING?!
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) December 18, 2022
Allen was superb throwing on the run: six of eight for 74 yards and two touchdowns, per Next Gen. And throwing intermediate passes—areas 10 to 19 yards beyond the line of scrimmage—he was 10 of 13 for 173 yards and three touchdowns. He made 52 more yards than expected on seven carries.
In the 32-29 win over Miami, Allen showed all of his diverse skills. As long as he can stay upright in the face of so much physical punishment, his duels with the top passers in the AFC—Mahomes, Herbert, Jackson, Tagovailoa, Burrow, Watson, Lawrence—will be great for years.
On Dec. 23, 1972, 50 years ago this Friday, the Oakland Raiders held a 7-6 lead on the Steelers in the AFC divisional playoffs at Three Rivers Stadium. Pittsburgh ball. Fourth down and 10. Twenty-two seconds left in the game.
At this moment, there was no Steeler dynasty. The franchise hadn’t won anything yet. There was certainly not a statue in the Pittsburgh airport of Franco Harris making an unlikely catch—right next to a statue of George Washington, father of our country. Yet.
On The Peter King Podcast presented by Salesforce—up Tuesday morning this week—Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw, the triggerman of one of the greatest plays in NFL history, dissects the Immaculate Reception. So much about the play that Bradshaw clarified, such as:
The exact call.
“Full Right Split, 66 Circle Option. Flanker to the right, tight end to the right, fullback [Harris] to the right and the halfback to the left, split over the tackles. The key was to pick up the safety. If he came down and bit on Frenchy (John Fuqua, the running back) coming out, then I would go to the split end, who had the option of either going to the post, the corner, or taking off [on a go route]. What happened is, I never got to go through the read, because I was flushed out of the pocket. I moved to the right and pressure was coming. I avoided the sack. I swung my right arm up high to avoid being tackled and then—shoooo!—I saw a black jersey going over the middle of the field. I just gunned it and that person was Frenchy Fuqua. I got hit.”
He had no idea what happened after he threw it.
“I’m on the ground. I hear the roar of the crowd. I knew it was a touchdown. I created this thing in my head where I go, ‘Man, I really put it in there, didn’t I? I hit it dead in stride and whoever it was I threw to just swept it on down the sideline.’ Not having any idea who that was. It was too fast. On the ground, I heard the roar. And I got up. Touchdown. I’m looking around, people are swarming me.
“I’m like, ‘Tell me what happened!’
“People said, ‘Well, it went to Frenchy, the ball went flying in the air, Franco got the football and Franco ran for the touchdown.’ I’m like, ‘Really?’”
The line of scrimmage was the Pittsburgh 40-. Bradshaw’s pass caromed off either Fuqua or Raiders safety Jack Tatum, who, missile-like, arrived at Fuqua at nearly the same time as Bradshaw’s pass. The ball rocketed backward down the field and Harris either caught the ball inches from the artificial turf or trapped it. Harris sprinted down the left sideline for an apparent touchdown. The Raiders immediately claimed the ball ricocheted directly from Fuqua to Harris, which would have made it an illegal catch because, at the time, a pass could not be completed if it hit two offensive players without a defensive player making contact with it. Ref Fred Swearingen went to the baseball dugout to call NFL supervisor of officials Art McNally for counsel, but McNally told him he couldn’t help him; the officials on the field had to decide what to call. The officials huddled and ruled it a touchdown.
Bradshaw has changed his mind on one crucial aspect of the play.
“The second question was did Franco catch it? And for years, I didn’t think he caught it, until recently. I’ve seen the end-zone footage and he caught it actually about a foot off the ground. He made a great catch. I had the opportunity to speak with Franco about that play. He has such great memory of what happened. The call 66 tells the tight end to stay in to block, tells the fullback (Harris) to stay in and block. Franco doesn’t block anybody. He is standing there and he kind of eases over to the left. When I fired the football, Franco told me that his coach at Penn State, Joe Paterno, always told him when the quarterback throws the ball, run to the football. There’s a reason why he caught that pass, because he took off down the field when the ball was thrown. The ball came his way.
“A lot of people have a different opinion of that play, I guess. Simple fact is this: we’ll never know who touched it last [before Harris caught it]. We did not have hi-def television, we didn’t have, you know, 20 tape machines and 32 cameras like we have today.
“We’re striving so hard to not make a mistake now in our TV coverage that we’re missing out on really what made the NFL so great … People absolutely got in an uproar and therefore when those teams played again, TV ratings would go through the roof and the competition in those games was fierce. The Steeler-Raider rivalry started right there. They felt we robbed them of an opportunity to go to the Super Bowl and if I was on their side I’d have felt the same way. Every time we played, Oakland was just brutal. Those were the hardest games of my career, playing the Raiders after that playoff game in ’72.”
Bradshaw, as you’d expect, believes Tatum did touch the ball.
“If you look at the play, Jack Tatum is crashing down on Frenchy Fuqua, full speed ahead. There was the collision. I believe—I don’t have any question that Jack hit the ball and the simple reason is the ball came too far back. The other thing is the pass wasn’t gonna hit Frenchy in the chest because his arms are outreached to catch the football. You can’t have outreached arms, the ball hits your hands, outreached, and go back 25 feet. I believe the impetus was given by Jack Tatum when he collided in there. It had to hit him.”
If you’re not up on football history, here’s Curt Gowdy on the mic for NBC for the last play of Raiders-Steelers a half-century ago.
Postscript I: Eight days later, at Three Rivers, the Steelers lost to Miami in the AFC Championship Game, in the midst of the Dolphins’ perfect season. Bradshaw said the win over Oakland “was the beginning of a young football team developing into a championship team and what people called later a dynasty.” The Steelers’ Super Bowl run, four titles in six years, actually didn’t begin till two years after the Immaculate Reception.
The Raiders and Steelers will meet Saturday night, Christmas Eve, in Pittsburgh. With both teams under .500 this year, it won’t have the feel of the old-time rivalry. But the anniversary will be celebrated by the Steelers, who will retire Franco Harris’ number 32.
In the spring, schedule czar Howard Katz told me this was the first tentpole game the NFL planted in the 2022 schedule. Katz lieutenant Mike North called Katz at the end of the last game of last season, Raiders over the Chargers, to remind him of the significance of the Las Vegas victory: It meant the Raiders would play at the Steelers, enabling the league to put the game exactly 50 years and one day after the Immaculate Reception.
Postscript II: It’s odd that the Steelers have retired only three numbers now: 75 (Joe Greene), 70 (Ernie Stautner) and 32 (Harris). Though they haven’t retired Bradshaw’s 12, they also have not issued it since his retirement 40 years ago. And what of 58, Jack Lambert, and 52, Mike Webster? Stautner’s 70 over 12, 52 and 58 is hardly an outrage, but it is curious.
Sounds like Bradshaw’s not losing sleep over it, or much of anything football-related. “I can put four rings on the table and not say a word,” he said. “Say what you want to. There they are. There’s four rings.”
Postscript III: Bradshaw and Harris are in the NFT business. On Tuesday, it’ll be possible to own a piece of the Immaculate Reception, per NFL All Day. I’m not too up on this business, so if you’re interested, here’s the information.
In 2011, I assembled a think tank of smart coaches and players to talk about the explosion of the passing game in pro football for Sports Illustrated. I invited Mike Leach, the former Texas Tech head coach, because he was cutting-edge and well-respected in NFL circles. He was the liveliest person in the group, quizzing then-Bengals QB Andy Dalton about some of the offensive innovations at TCU, being all gee-whiz over analytics trendsetter Brian Burke, and getting into a back-and-forth with Sean Payton about split-second route adjustments.
What I remember about that conference call: Leach talked several times about his core belief in the passing game—attacking space. Giving quarterbacks and receivers the freedom to change routes on the spot, based on holes in coverage. It was so enlightening, and something you can see in the NFL today. Look at Miami’s offense attacking space, giving Tua Tagovailoa the freedom to find speed receivers in spots he might not have seen at the start of the play.
Leach died of heart disease last week. He left a brainy offensive legacy in his wake. I remembered that think tank session. Part of Leach and Payton that evening:
PAYTON (to LEACH): “Mike, here’s one for you. I’ve seen a ton of your tape at Tech. We’d agree that there’s different ways to call the same play, but what does vary is route adjustment within a certain pattern. In the run-and-shoot there were a lot of variables depending on what a receiver did to the coverage. How much of that existed with your system?”
LEACH: “People can term themselves to death—all the terms that quarterbacks have to keep track of that I don’t know the definition of. The one thing that’s never changed in football in my opinion is leveraging numbers in space. If they overload players, you’re at a disadvantage. If you can find or create space, attack it. We gave our guys a lot of latitude, say, on crossing routes. If our receiver was going across the middle and had space, he had the freedom to settle, because we didn’t feel that affected the integrity of the route or the rest of the play. We constantly talk about attacking space.”
I asked Payton about Leach the other day. He told me about their first meeting, at the Scouting Combine the year after the Saints won the Super Bowl.
“We spent eight hours together that night,” Payton recalled. “Started at St. Elmo’s, then went to one place, then another. We talked football, but honestly, it was hard sometimes to keep Mike on-topic. Mike was the type of guy who, if he met an insurance salesman from Wichita, he’d get into a long discussion about what it was like to sell insurance in Wichita. How’d it work? What was the business like? His mind raced.
“But I had so much respect for his offensive mind, for his imagination. That night, I was the one who just won a Super Bowl, but I found myself more in the audience than on the stage. Mike was on stage.”
Bruce Feldman at The Athletic wrote a cool book on Leach 11 years ago, and he used a quote from Leach that I loved in his remembrance of Leach the other day. Keep in mind that Leach went to Brigham Young University, which is not necessarily the place you’d envision football’s most independent and new-wave thinker to have four formative years. Leach, to Feldman:
“I have always encouraged my kids to go away for college because I valued my own experiences away from my home turf. It allowed me to carve out my own deal, to reinvent, or more specifically, to develop myself.
“If you go away for a fresh start, people have no expectations- they don’t know you, so you’re not bound by your past. You can build on your best qualities without being pigeonholed by the expectations of people who may have known you your whole life. Even though I went to one of the more conservative schools in the country, because I struck out on my own, I found college to be amazingly liberating.”
When I think of teams Leach would love today, I start with Miami. Think of how many times you’ve seen Tyreek Hill or Jaylen Waddle, even Trent Sherfield, running free and giving Tua Tagovailoa a great, open target. Mike McDaniel and Leach would have been fast friends.
Offensive players of the week
Josh Allen, quarterback, Buffalo. I laugh when I hear people say the Bills are a better dome team than iceberg team. Last two games in Ice Station Zebra weather: Bills 44, Patriots 7 last January, and 32-29 over the Dolphins Saturday night. Uh, 76 points in eight quarters of awful cold weather? Kill the “better in a dome” narrative. Allen was brilliant Saturday night (see my NFL Next Gen Stats section, above): 10 rushes for a team-high 77 yards, 25 of 40 for 304 yards, four TDs and no picks for a 119.2 rating … with brilliant drives of 75 and 86 yards to overcome an eight-point fourth-quarter deficit.
Trevor Lawrence, quarterback, Jacksonville. Another great afternoon for the upstart Jags, another great afternoon for the rising star Jag quarterback. Going against the NFL’s number five defense, Lawrence went up and down the field on the Cowboys all day with four TDs, three of them in a nine-minute span in the second half. Every week, there’s another good defense to test himself against—Baltimore, Tennessee, Dallas in the past month—and Lawrence keeps passing the tests.
Patrick Mahomes, quarterback, Kansas City. We have to stop taking Mahomes for granted. I mean, 36 of 41—you don’t have an 88-percent passing day very often in life. And though it took Mahomes till overtime to overcome the pesky Texans, the fact is Mahomes did everything in his power, throwing to almost all first-year Kansas Citians, to hang on for a 30-24 overtime win.
Kirk Cousins, quarterback, Minnesota. Think of how unlikely it is for a quarterback to lead five touchdown drives, down 33 points, in the second half. Then think of how much more difficult it is when all five touchdowns come in the last 24 minutes. Cousins had the best game of his NFL life Saturday in the 39-36 win over the Colts (34-54, 460 yards, four TDs, two picks), but think of this: He threw for 417 yards after halftime.
Defensive players of the week
Chandler Jones, edge, Las Vegas. On the official NFL play-by-play sheet, the play is listed as: C. Jones 48-yd. fumble return. Fumble return? Jones caught a wild lateral from Jakobi Meyers, a 23-yard backward pass from Meyers intended for Mac Jones back in the New England backfield, and Jones stiff-armed Jones to the ground, and returned it 48 yards for the winning touchdown. If there’s been a crazier ending to a pro football game in five, 10, 15 years, I haven’t seen it. Jones made the play that just might be the crucial play that douses his former team’s playoff embers.
Rayshawn Jenkins, safety, Jacksonville. Had the game of his professional life in Jacksonville Sunday, picking off Dak Prescott twice, returning the second in overtime for a 52-yard touchdown to beat Dallas. His 18 tackles marked a career high (12 was his previous best), and Jenkins knew exactly what to do when the ball ricocheted near him. “No way I was going to be stopped,” he told me. “Huge game for the team. Huge game for the city.” Jags 40, Dallas 34, OT.
Kayvon Thibodeaux, edge, N.Y. Giants. I so appreciate Thibodeaux making the biggest defensive play in a game the Giants needed to take a big step toward the playoffs—because of how he became a Giant. On the Saturday before the draft last April, Giants GM Joe Schoen had a long heart-to-heart with Thibodeaux to find out what was true and what was false about the effort questions that filled the scouting space pre-draft about Thibodeaux, the Oregon pass-rusher. Schoen took a leap of faith and put his rep on the line for this talented player. And so Sunday night in Washington, with the Commanders backed up inside their five-yard line, Thibodeaux bull-rushed over left tackle Charles Leno, barged toward quarterback Taylor Heinicke, strip-sacked the quarterback, recovered at the one- and scored the go-ahead points in the second quarter. The Giants never trailed after that. Huge game for Thibodeaux: 12 tackles, three tackles for loss, and the TD that keyed the victory. Assist to Schoen.
Special teams player of the week
Kalif Raymond, receiver/returner, Detroit. Against the Jets defense—arguably the toughest in the AFC today—you’re probably going to have to steal some points somewhere. Off a turnover, off a long DPI for your offense, something. And on Sunday in the Meadowlands, that break came in the form of a 47-yard punt return for TD—I don’t think Raymond was touched—nine minutes into the game. That was Detroit’s only TD till the final two minutes, and the Lions squeezed out a 20-17 win over New York. (Bet you can’t guess, and no cheating, where Kalif Raymond went to college. Answer in 10d of 10 Things I Think I Think.)
Coach of the week
Brandon Staley, head coach, L.A. Chargers. The second-year Chargers coach has gotten enough guff for clock management and fourth-down management in his short time running the Chargers. So let’s give him some back-pats for excellent end-of-game management in the Chargers’ 17-14 win over the Titans. With 1:07 left, and the Chargers up 14-7, Tennessee had the ball at the L.A. 21-yard line. Tennessee had no timeouts left. The Chargers had three. Staley had two choices: hope that Tennessee wouldn’t score and the clock would bleed out, or use timeouts in order to give his team a real chance to get in field-goal range in case Tennessee scored a TD to tie it. “I wanted to give my quarterback [a chance] in case the Titans scored there,” Staley told me afterward. But there was something else. Mike Vrabel, the Titans’ coach, might choose to go for two to try to win the game. So Staley knew he had to try to preserve some clock in case Tennessee was up one, or the game was tied. With the ball staying in bounds and Tennessee advancing, Staley used a timeout at :59, at :54 and at :51. After the third timeout, Tennessee scored on a quarterback plunge. Vrabel went for the PAT. The Chargers took over at their 23-yard line with 44 seconds left, enough time for Justin Herbert to move the offense 52 yards in six plays to put Cameron Dicker in place for the winning field goal. “The situation wasn’t ideal,” said Staley, “but you’ve always got to find a way to put your team in the best position.” That’s what Staley did Sunday.
Goat of the week
Jakobi Meyers, wide receiver, New England. Do you have to even ask?
Hidden person of the week
Ezra Cleveland, guard, Minnesota. The Vikings left guard made the kind of effort play every coach should show his team on tape, and it was not the most noticeable play, certainly, of the Vikings’ stunning win. With the Colts up 36-28 late in the fourth quarter, and the Vikes at their 36-yard line, Kirk Cousins threw a screen to Dalvin Cook, and Cook was off to the races. As was Cleveland. Sprinting like an Olympian, he deflected Colts LB Zaire Franklin out of pursuit midway through the run, then ran with Cook all the way down to the end zone. What hustle. Cleveland didn’t make a vital block, but he showed the conscience that great football players show.
I gotta tackle him. It’s on me. It’s my fault.
–New England quarterback Mac Jones, falling on the sword after Chandler Jones stiff-armed him on the way to the winning touchdown in the Raiders’ 30-24 win.
I did not know that at all, and that doesn’t sound like me.
—Patrick Mahomes, informed he completed 20 straight passes in the overtime win over Houston on Sunday.
Patrick Peterson said all we need is five touchdowns. I thought he was being sarcastic.
–Minnesota QB Kirk Cousins, to Tom Pelissero of NFL Network after the Vikings scored five touchdowns in the second half and beat the Colts in overtime 39-36, on cornerback Peterson’s halftime message in the locker room.
It doesn’t look like we’re a team right now that can beat anybody.
–Tennessee safety Kevin Byard, after the Titans lost their fourth straight game to fall to 7-7.
Mary Jo has not been given a timeline. I’m not going to press her to do that. When she’s done she’ll let us know.
–NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on the investigation by Mary Jo White into irregularities within the Washington franchise.
I don’t smoke. But I need a cigarette.
–FOX analyst Landon Donovan, before penalty kicks in Argentina’s scintillating World Cup victory over France.
–Miami coach Mike McDaniel, to NFL Net sideline reporter Peter Schrager to end a post-halftime sideline interview, on TV.
Did he really say that? Yes he did.
I texted Schrager, who was shocked. He texted back a photo of his jacket, which is an Eddie Bauer winter jacket with a faux fur hood. Guessing 300 people in Highmark Stadium were wearing that coat Saturday night. It’s about as normal a winter jacket as you’d see. And down eight, in the biggest game of the year, McDaniel noticed Peter Schrager’s jacket. That was one odd moment.
Matt Ryan has now been the losing quarterback in the biggest comeback in NFL regular-season history (Saturday, as a Colt: Vikings 39, Colts 36) and Super Bowl history (SB LI, as a Falcon: Patriots 34, Falcons 28).
That is one heck of a negative to have on a career resume.
The symmetry in the two games, for Ryan, is brutal.
Combined score after the 8:30 mark of the third quarter in the two games: Foes 70, Ryan’s Team 3.
Eleven drives in crunch time by Ryan’s Falcons and Colts. One field goal.
Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts lives in the idyllic Oregon hamlet of Sisters, just outside of Bend. I visited him there on Friday, reporting on a Christmas night story for NBC’s Football Night in America studio show.
The Fouts family, including Golden Retriever Murph, was due to go out on Saturday to get the family Christmas tree in the Deschutes National Forest.
The Fouts Christmas tree custom: buy a $5 license to harvest a tree in the national forest, and go chop or chain-saw it down.
Wow. When I walked our dog Chuck in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, on Wednesday, I passed a Christmas tree market on the sidewalk of a busy street. Price for a six-foot tree: $161.
Sept. 25, Miami Gardens, Fla., 1 p.m. ET, Buffalo-at-Miami game, on-field temperature in the sun: 107 degrees.
Dec. 17, Orchard Park, N.Y., 8:15 p.m. ET, Miami-at-Buffalo game, on-field temperature in the dark: 22 degrees.
On the 107-degree day: Miami 21, Buffalo 19.
On the 22-degree night: Buffalo 32, Miami 29.
Frank Gore’s son Frank Gore Jr., a running back for Southern Miss, ran for 329 yards on 21 carries, a 15.7-yards-per-rush average, Saturday night in the LendingTree Bowl in Mobile, Alabama.
Half of 329 is 164.5 yards.
Frank Gore, the dad, played 250 games (regular- and post-season) in the NFL. Twice in those 250 games he ran for more than 164 yards in a game. Which means that twice in 250 professional games, the elder Gore ran for half or more of the yards his son ran for Saturday night in the LendingTree Bowl.
YoungBoy's Make No Sense is blaring in the #Raiders locker room. Fitting.
— Tashan Reed (@tashanreed) December 19, 2022
Reed, tweeting from the locker room after the incredible end to the Raiders’ win, covers the Raiders for The Athletic.
An embarrassing display of @NFL football in the 2nd half by the @Buccaneers 4 turnovers in the 3rd period is pathetic. Down 34-17 after leading 17-3 at half . Bengals roll 31-0 after halftime . Humiliated 2 weeks in a row !
— Dick Vitale (@DickieV) December 19, 2022
Huge Bucs fan Dick Vitale on the ridiculous third quarter by the Bucs in the loss to Cincinnati.
These in-game NFL coach interviews generate next-to-nothing. By comparison, Gregg Popovich rambles.
— Sam Farmer (@LATimesfarmer) December 18, 2022
Sam Farmer of the LA Times, after watching Buffalo coach Sean McDermott, who looked like he was having a root canal with no Novocain in his post-halftime sideline interview at Dolphins-Bills.
If Ryan Poles is any good as a GM (seems it) the Bears can be SB Contenders by 2024 with Fields
— Dan Orlovsky (@danorlovsky7) December 18, 2022
Orlovsky is an ESPN NFL analyst, and he’s correct.
Absolute debacle by Jets. Clock management cost them at least two plays.
— Chris Fallica (@chrisfallica) December 18, 2022
Fallica of ESPN College GameDay, with the right take on the Jets’ final drive.
— Jenna Cottrell (@JennaCottrell) December 17, 2022
Cottrell is sports anchor for WHAM TV in Rochester, N.Y.
Perhaps. From Jim McWilliams: “Kiss Matt Ryan’s HOF chances goodbye.”
I actually thought about that on Saturday, watching his last seven drives result in three points at Minnesota. As you can see in my Numbers Game note, Ryan now has been the losing quarterback in the biggest regular-season and Super Bowl comebacks in NFL history, and you can bet that will stick to him when the subject of Canton comes up.
He thinks Jason Kelce belongs in the MVP discussion. From Jerry Kern: “You wrote about how key the Kelce-led Philly line play is in keeping Jalen Hurts clean enough to play like an MVP. Then later in your column, you dismantle RGIII’s idea of including Kelce in the MVP discussion. The more I think about it, the more I side with Mr. Griffin. That’s a ton of VALUE Kelce is supplying, without which Hurts’ performance doesn’t quite end up the same. It’s at least worthy of discussion in lieu of completely being knocked down.”
It’s hard for me to envision giving Nick Sirianni a choice of playing the rest of his season without Hurts or without Kelce, and thinking the coach would choose the center over the quarterback. The MVP is not about who is the best player at his job in the NFL. The MVP is about which player has the most value. And though Kelce has tremendous value, it’s a little hard to believe playing with Kelce and Gardner Minshew, nothing against Minshew, is what any Eagles fan, or Sirianni, would choose as the best alternative there. You might also think that two players on the same team can be candidates for the MVP. Lots of people think that. I don’t. I don’t think the second-most valuable player on, say, the Eagles, is more valuable than the most valuable player on other top teams.
Thank you. From Bill Benson: “I’m not a big soccer fan, but you outdid yourself with the interview with the widow of Grant Wahl. You asked the right questions in a manner that was kind to Dr. Celine Gounder, yet informative and had to be asked. I can’t imagine how tough it was for you, but no one could have done it better.”
Nice of you to say, Bill. Thanks. That was tough. Before I sat down to record the podcast with Dr. Gounder, I felt more nervous than I’d been before any interview I’ve done. I mean, ever. I knew Grant well—his wife less well, but still we know each other. And in a conversation like that, you want to be able to find out the information you need while being as empathetic as possible. I hope I did that.
On Quinta Brunson. From Conrad Buerk, of Rutland, Vermont: “Though I have never seen Abbott Elementary, I took offense to Brunson’s quote about the triumph of someone, in her case teachers, going to their sh—y jobs. As a veteran high school English teacher, I have experienced the loss of dignity and lack of respect our profession has suffered over the years. Brunson’s quote seems to glorify, or at least romanticize, our poor working conditions. Why should teachers be forced to endure a lousy situation? This should not be celebrated as a triumph.”
Thanks for writing, Conrad, and truly, thanks for your years of educating the next generations. I think Brunson’s point was to glorify teachers and those who go to inglorious jobs every day, when they do so with dignity and a prideful work ethic. Maybe I read it wrong. I think what she was saying was congrats to teachers for enduring and overcoming so much in school districts like the inner-city one in Abbott Elementary.
1. I think I’m up in the air on my coach of the year pick, and one should be open-minded with three of 17 games remaining. But I can tell you Brian Daboll being 8-5-1 with the Giants solidly in the playoff hunt entering Week 16 gives Daboll a strong case.
2. I think one of the reasons I never pay a lot of attention to forecasts of when players will be ready to return from knee injuries is that no two knee surgeries are the same. Case in point: Washington edge-rusher Chase Young. He played 24 games with the team and has missed the last 22 with ACL surgery. Nothing’s guaranteed with ACLs.
3. I think even the secondary and tertiary uniforms of the Chargers are the best in football. Look at these sweet ones from Sunday against Tennessee at SoFi:
4. I think my favorite factoid from a sideline reporter this weekend came from Laura Okmin at the NFL Network game in Buffalo. The weather was brutal and windy and snowy before the game, then the game started in decent windless weather, with snow and swirling winds forecast to be on the way. Okmin late in the first quarter, when it was fairly nice still: “Talked to Ken Dorsey, Bills offensive coordinator, before the game. Said he’s got two play sheets for this game: One for this weather; it’s nice and crisp and cool, no wind. But also has one for weather that may be coming shortly.” Cool and important. It added to the reality of the story Saturday night in Orchard Park.
5. I think the Ravens have to find a way to sign Roquan Smith. The former Bears linebacker, acquired before the trade deadline this year, has been invaluable. He’s the perfect sideline-to-sideline playmaker the Ravens have yearned for.
6. I think anyone who is really paying attention has to have some uncertainty about whether Sean McVay returns to coach the Rams in 2023.
7. I think one of the issues—and this is just me making an educated guess—is whether there’s a network out there that would come at McVay with the fervor that TV came after him 10 months ago. I thought McVay was taking a TV job after the Super Bowl, and maybe without the “run it back” emotion of the time he would have done that. Who knows? But since he chose to stay in coaching, FOX (Tom Brady), NBC (Cris Collinsworth), ESPN (Troy Aikman) and Amazon Prime Video (Kirk Herbstreit) all agreed to deals with analysts for huge money, and Tony Romo’s CBS contract reportedly keeps him employed there through 2030. It’s tempting to wonder, “What about a three-man booth at Amazon? Al Michaels and McVay are fairly close.” But I can’t see that working. Then you wonder about a studio show. I’m sure every show would love to put McVay in the middle of the pre- and post-game lineup, but two issues there. Most of these shows are East Coast-centered, and McVay and his bride live in L.A.—so if they stayed, that’s a weekly 2.5-to-three-day commitment at ESPN, CBS or NBC. And the money in the studio is maybe a quarter or a third of the number-one analyst role. I’d put my money on McVay being back to coach the Rams out of the mire, but we’ll see.
8. I think, and not to be insensitive here, the Cardinals are probably smartest right now—even if they keep Steve Keim in some position in the front office—to pick a new general manager. Keim took a health-related leave of absence last week, and owner Michael Bidwill is going to have to make a call on the direction of his franchise after the season, just months removed from giving Keim and coach Kliff Kingsbury contract extensions. After being the NFC’s top seed at 10-2 just 54 weeks ago, Arizona is 5-15 since, and the franchise is in chaos. Feels very much like a time to start over.
9. I think it was good to read this week, from Sean Hammond of Shaw Media in Chicago, that longtime Pro Football Weekly publisher and editor Hub Arkush is on the mend after suffering a serious heart attack Aug. 15. Hammond details how Arkush doesn’t remember the first two months post-heart attack, which happened after a day of Bears’ summer practice. Arkush spent those months at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, had seven hours of open-heart surgery and now, at 69, feels blessed to have a second chance at life. Arkush told Hammond he plans to continue writing and covering the NFL: “The thing I’m worst at is doing nothing.” Good luck to Arkush as his recovery continues.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Video Moral of the Week: Walking, by NBC’s Doc Emrick:
b. I am like Doc, recently having become a long-walk devotee, and I loved how he distilled the significance of it into two-and-a-half minutes. For Emrick, now 76, he walks with his little poodle Poppy in his Michigan neighborhood on the St. Clair River, which separates Michigan from Canada, stopping as often as Poppy wants to. “I walk to take care of myself,” Emrick says in the video, “and even on those days when I take that first step thinking I can do little, I come back convinced I can do something.”
c. I called Doc Saturday to tell him I thought the video was great, and sent a great message, and he was happy. “I started jogging when I was about 20,” he said, “and 40, 45 years later, my knees were shot, and I began walking. You really do get time to think. Sometimes, not often, I might listen to a Tigers game with Ernie Harwell or Dan Dickerson, but mostly I walk in the quiet. There’s so much electronic noise today that I find it good to just get out there and think. It’s not too noisy. Maybe I’ll see a freighter on the St. Clair River, but mostly it’s just squirrels and the creatures, and the trees.” Thinking is good. Silence and nature are good.
d. Kalif Raymond went to Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and was a receiver/returner, at 5-8 and 170, for the Crusaders.
e. Good Person of the Week: Rachael Ray will not abandon Ukraine—ever, from Michael Starr in the New York Post.
f. Ray has been to Ukraine, and she will continue to go. Ray to Starr:
“I am a person of service and have been that way since I was 12,” she said. “This is who I am and who I will be until I’m gone. It’s the reason I was born. I’m a citizen of the world and that’s all I want to be; everything else is gravy. I love making TV shows but the thing I love most about our show is when we show people how many good works are being done by their neighbors and in their communities.
“I will not abandon these people,” she said. “I will keep going there until I’m dead or the game is over.”
g. Beernerdness: Fuzztail Hefeweizen (Sunriver Brewing Co., Sunriver, Ore.) is served on tap at the Redmond (Ore.) Airport, which is in the heart of Oregon beer country. I wasn’t able to take a proper look at the beers in south-central Oregon around Bend, but it’ll be on my list. Soon. Let me tell you, it’s worth going to that airport just to have the Fuzztail. That is one fine wheat beer. Get it with a lemon.
h. Football Remembrance of the Week: Jeff McLane of The Philadelphia Inquirer, with a story on the emotional Gardner Minshew reacting to the death of Mike Leach, his coach in 2018 at Washington State.
i. You heard these stories about Leach all last week, in the wake of the sudden death of the longtime innovative college football coach. McLane brings us into the Eagles locker room to feel real emotion about a death hundreds of miles away.
j. This is the kind of story a good beat writer feels and McLane wrote it well. Sometimes you write best when letting your subjects emote. Like this from McLane on Minshew, whose college career was basically kaput when Leach took him on as his QB at Washington State in his final year of eligibility, 2018—and Minshew ended up leading the nation in passing:
Gardner Minshew cried as he spoke about Mike Leach.
“He was the first person I’ve ever been around who, just by the way he lived and how authentic he was, brings that out in the people around him,” Minshew said on Wednesday, his voice often cracking. “I never found myself more comfortable with myself than when I was with Coach Leach.
“The way he believed in me — that belief, that’s something that really resonates, and that’s something I tell any parent, coach, teacher. The best thing you can do for a kid is believe in him. And he did that for me, and it changed my life.”
k. Football Story of the Week: Ken Belson of The New York Times on Colts owner Jim Irsay—quirky with many interests outside of football, including collecting very famous things.
l. I’ve written about Irsay and his collectibles before, but not with this depth or intelligence. I was drawn to one line by Irsay to Belson, on why he’s so into rock ’n’ roll—performing and being around the greats—and collecting:
m. “I’d rather be doing this than floating around on a $200-million yacht. If I float on that, I’m going to say, ‘I’m bored. Why am I here?’”
n. Belson wrote of a free show in Chicago, where Irsay displayed his wide-ranging museum-like collection—a lottery ticket from 1765 signed by John Hancock, an original Ringo Starr drum set from when he was a Beatle—and went onstage to actually sing … and then ruminated about his own battle with addiction:
Irsay returned to sing the last three songs — “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails, “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” by Neil Young and “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones — before the lights popped on. Several Colts cheerleaders in white outfits and blue pompoms ushered the crowd out. For another night, Irsay had turned the threads of his life into a shared spectacle, one that helps him keep the demons at bay.
“Many a man has tried to manage the opiates, you know, for millenniums, whether it’s Jerry Garcia or Tom Petty or Prince or Elvis,” Irsay said. “The pursuit can get really bungled and mismanaged. So, it’s really a thrill in life as we get older to try to have more experience and know what’s always the light and not the dark, because sometimes the shadows can fool you.”
o. I have a hard time envisioning Jerry Jones or John Mara singing “Gimme Shelter.” I also have a hard time envisioning Irsay being very cheery about his collection in the wake of the game in Minneapolis.
p. Can I tell you what a mensch Ian Eagle is?
q. I auctioned off three lunches with me for the youth literacy project I work with, Write on Sports. One of the lunches got a great bid because Ian Eagle said he’d join me. A Phoenix reader and Ian Eagle fan joined us with a friend in Manhattan on Wednesday for a fun two hours. Ian has one of the busiest schedules in our business at this time of year—CBS NFL games every Sunday, multiple Nets games on YES, Westwood One NFL radio—and when I called him to ask if he’d join me, knowing his name would ratchet up the bidding, he said sure. You should have seen him at the lunch. Great stories about Tom Brady, Kyrie Irving on a train … too many to count. Thanks to Ian for helping a cause for middle-school and high-school kids who need the writing and reading help so much.
r. This is what makes a good reporter: the power of observation. Alex Speier of the Boston Globe was at the Red Sox’ introduction of new outfielder Masataka Yoshida when he saw his agent, Scott Boras, working on another deal for another client. Wrote Speier: “Moments after the media availability to introduce Yoshida, Boras concluded a deal with the Sox’ rivals, negotiating a six-year, $162-million deal with the New York Yankees for lefthander Carlos Rodón. The late-stage negotiations took place as Boras snacked on food from a buffet provided by the Red Sox.”
s. The only thing I wish I’d learned is whether it was crudité, chips and salsa, or the Legal Seafoods chowder.
t. Pod Chunk of the Week: Jim Gray asked Tom Brady about Dre Greenlaw intercepting him last week in the Niners’ rout of the Bucs, and Brady seemed pretty darned honest about it: “It was s— for me, to be honest. It was complete s—. But I try to be a gentleman. It was a great play by him. I’m happy he got the ball. I wish I didn’t throw it. I’m trying to be a good sport about it. A lot of times I’m not a good sport. I can be a pretty bad sport in the moment. When they get me in the right frame of mind, I’m actually a good sport.”
u. Two points about Grant Wahl, from my podcast conversation with his widow, Dr. Celine Gounder, about spouses who support each other, and about his ethos.
v. One: Before the games began in Qatar, I asked him whether Celine was worried about him being there, because of his outspoken criticism of the regime there. He said no. He said she’d been in places dicier than Qatar. When I spoke with Dr. Gounder—an infectious-disease doctor who has traveled the world on global-health issues—I asked about Grant in Qatar. She said, “I had some worries, actually more so with his prior trip to Qatar where he was doing reporting on migrant workers. That did have me a little worried. Some of my friends have been thrown into prison while working overseas for the most benign of things, like taking photos while on a jog of just the wrong thing. But you know, Grant and I both did a lot of work overseas in many different places that others might not be comfortable going to. I worked in Soweto in South Africa, which is this township near Johannesburg, for a long time. I’d be driving in and out of there all the time on my own and this is a place where there are a lot of carjackings. It had the highest rate of rapes in the world. The woman who photographed Grant for his jacket book cover for ‘The Beckham Experiment’ was a South African woman. It was taken when we were there. And she was carjacked and murdered soon after taking that photo. Later on, I was in West Africa in Guinea during Ebola as an Ebola aid worker. Grant was always really supportive of me taking those risks and doing the work I did. I was not going to stand in the way ever of him doing what he was passionate about. I think it was really important to both of us to do that kind of work.”
w. Two: Re: Grant the person, she said, “Grant was the kind of guy who knew when a friend was in crisis, or a family member was in crisis and when he needed to drop everything to be there for them. It was very important to him to mentor the next generation, to support women and people of color and LGBTQ folks who were journalists, who were others in his sphere. I think he took a lot from his mom and another early mentor, [former New York Times correspondent] Gloria Emerson, who were really important influences on him. Helen, his mom, was a feminist. And I think Grant really lived up to that, not just in terms of feminism about being equality for women, but really a broader sense of just equality for all.”
x. Very good ways to remember a very good man. Here is another one. Grant Wahl Remembrance of the Week: The great Louisa Thomas on the late Wahl, in The New Yorker.
y. Great part of the Thomas piece is how she recounts when Wahl really fell in love with soccer—on two college trips to one of the world hotbeds of it, Argentina.
z. I am sure Grant Wahl would have held his emotions in check at the end of Argentina winning one of the great World Cup finals in history, on penalties, after regulation and extra time ended in a 3-3 tie with ridiculous drama throughout. But deep down Grant would have been exulting. I was rooting hard for Argentina, in Grant’s absence. That’s the first thing I thought of at the end of this one, not what justice it was for the great Lionel Messi, or how thrilling it was for the weeping Argentina native Andres Cantor on Telemundo. Listen:
Andres Cantor was born and raised in Argentina.
— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) December 18, 2022
Green Bay 26, L.A. Rams 20. You thinking what I’m thinking? If Baker Mayfield can’t find a semi-forever home in the off-season, and if Sean McVay returns to coach the Rams in 2023, well, why wouldn’t L.A. GM Les Snead figure out an imaginative way to keep Mayfield on the Rams on a one-year deal? If you read my chunk on Mayfield’s first game with the Rams last Monday, you know there’s a man-crush going both ways between McVay and Mayfield. Just a thought as Matthew Stafford gets up there in years and shows signs of the physical toll the position has taken on him.
The holiday presents an odd week: one Thursday game, 11 Saturday games (Christmas Eve), three Sunday games on Christmas Day all nationally televised in early-afternoon, late-afternoon and night windows, plus a Monday night game.
Seattle at Kansas City, Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, FOX. If Geno Smith has one more bit of magic left in his Christmas stocking, now’s the time to take it out. Seattle wouldn’t be out of the playoff chase by falling to 7-8, but they’d have to sweep the final two games (Jets, Rams, both at home) to have a prayer, and they’ll have to do it without ace wideout Tyler Lockett, out with a broken hand bone.
Cincinnati at New England, Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS. Bill Parcells always used to say the reason teams in the NFC East did well in the playoffs in the eighties was that they were so battle-tested from playing each other and the Bears and Niners and Rams. This year’s NFL version of battle-tested is Cincinnati. Last seven games: at Tennessee, Kansas City, Cleveland (with Deshaun Watson), at Tampa Bay, at New England, Buffalo, Baltimore. Yikes. What possibly will the Bengals fear in in the post-season after that gauntlet of games?
Philadelphia at Dallas, Saturday, 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX. In Christian households around the country, I can hear the non-football fans now. “HEY! Christmas Eve dinner! Come and get it! For one day, forget football!” Uh, nope. In Philadelphia, dinner will commence at 7:45. Dallas-Fort Worth, 6:45. This is the Cowboys’ last gasp. After the loss to Jacksonville Sunday, to win the division, the Cowboys must go 3-0 down the stretch and Philadelphia 0-3. Not too likely.
Feel for Rich Eisen.
What a Saturday of ball.
Rich had Browns-Balt. Zzzzzzz.
(When I told Eisen I was using a sympathetic Haiku about him, he texted: “Don’t feel for me. I got to call an NFL game for a network I helped birth.” Good ‘tude.)