ORCHARD PARK, N.Y.—You want the truth about the coin flip that set in motion the script so unlikely that Spielberg would have found it far-fetched? If the Bills had won the toss, Sean McDermott instructed his captains to defer.
The Bills would have kicked off.
“I’m glad they lost this one,” McDermott told me.
I should say so. Someday, and not too long from now, this generation’s “Brian’s Song” (look it up, kids), will be a movie based on the life and near-death of Damar Hamlin. There will be a centerpiece moment based in an old stadium in western New York. John David Washington will play Nyheim Hines, and Michael B. Jordan will be Damar Hamlin. Sean McDermott? Maybe Jude Law. There won’t be any problem finding extras in Cheektowaga, Tonawanda and Lackawanna for the crowd scenes.
Back to our regularly scheduled programming. The Patriots actually won the toss at Highmark Stadium Sunday afternoon, and as Bill Belichick loves deferring and taking the ball to start the second half, New England deferred.
When Nick Folk kicked the ball high into the air, headed for Nyheim Hines inside the five-yard line, Hines had a lot to think about. He thought about Hamlin, foremost. Nine weeks ago, Hines was the new guy, traded from the Colts to Buffalo to be a return specialist and backup back. Hamlin, a stranger to Hines, came up to him on his first day in the building and introduced himself. Every day that first week, Hamlin would stop and talk to Hines, the new kid in school, and he started telling Hines he’d break a long one soon. “You’re gonna take one,” Hamlin told him. “I can feel it.” Every day at practice, Hamlin would say something about a big return.
“He would say, ‘Hashtag free Hines!’” Hines said late Sunday afternoon. They’d say that silly little thing to each other almost every day, Hamlin reminding the new kid not only that he could take a kick to the house, but he would do it.
So the ball was coming from Folk, and Hines thought for a millisecond about Hamlin, watching in his Cincinnati hospital room 425 miles to the southwest, and he said to himself, “All right, Nyheim, let’s give ‘em something to cheer about.”
Said Hines: “Our team, we had Damar’s wings on our backs today.”
Hines certainly did. He ran untouched for 96 yards on the opening kickoff, fulfilling something Hamlin foresaw. Touchdown. Mayhem in the rebuilt place that 30 years ago this week housed another miracle: the Bills’ comeback from 32 points down to beat Houston in the Frank Reich Wild Card game. Hines’ touchdown came at 1:03 p.m.
From Hamlin’s Twitter feed, at 1:06 p.m: “OMFG!!!!!!!!!”
“Flabbergasted,” Hines said later.
“Trying to manage the game is my number one job,” McDermott said. “But this week, I thought to myself, ‘How special would it be if we took the opening kickoff back?’”
Then Hines did it again, returning one 101 yards for a score in the third quarter. Now the absurdity of the opening kickoff was doubled. The 70,753 in the place, and millions watching to see if the Bills could give Hamlin a consistent ear-to-ear grin in his University of Cincinnati Medical Center room, knew it was a game, and returner, they’d never forget. No one in the NFL had returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in a game since 2010.
“I’m the new guy here,” Hines said, “but hopefully I had a little impact on something that’s way bigger than myself.”
We’ll let Netflix be the judge of that.
Not the most dramatic of week eighteens, but before we get back to the Week of Damar, let’s focus on the notables from the final day of the final regular-season week:
Josh McCown, please pick up the white courtesy phone. Texans fired Lovie Smith Sunday night after returning home from the nightmare victory in Indianapolis, announcing the move at a deadline-inconvenient 11:27 p.m. ET. (Yes, I said nightmare victory, relinquishing the top overall pick. At least Lovie can always say, “I finished 2-1 in my last three!”) Now let’s see if Cal McNair’s still smitten with Josh McCown.
Wild Card Weekend is set in stone. There’s not a can’t-miss matchup, but here we go (all times Eastern):
Seattle (NFC 7 seed) at San Francisco (NFC 2 seed), 4:30 p.m. on FOX
L.A. Chargers (AFC 5 seed) at Jacksonville (AFC 4 seed), 8:15 p.m. on NBC
Miami (AFC 7 seed) at Buffalo (AFC 2 seed), 1 p.m. on CBS
N.Y. Giants (NFC 6 seed) at Minnesota (NFC 3 seed), 4:30 p.m. on FOX
Baltimore (AFC 6 seed) at Cincinnati (AFC 3 seed), 8:15 p.m. on NBC
Dallas (NFC 5 seed) at Tampa Bay (NFC 4 seed), 8:15 p.m. on ESPN
J.J. Watt leaving the field for the last time was a sight to see:
— Matty BWell (@MattyB4949) January 9, 2023
Get the gold jacket ready for a 2028 fitting.
If that’s it for Devin McCourty, he went out fittingly—with two takeaways for the outmanned Patriots in Buffalo.
And Tom Brady?
And you, Aaron Rodgers?
Good thing the Eagles get the bye. Of quarterback Jalen Hurts and his bum shoulder, coach Nick Sirianni said after a laconic win over the Giants, “I knew he was hurting, and hurting bad.” Now Hurts has till the weekend of Jan. 21 to prepare for the divisional round.
Texans picked a funny way to win the top draft choice. Lovie Smith’s team actually played to win the game.
The 12-win Cowboys have looked like the six-win Cowboys over the past five weeks. I bet the Bucs will be a dangerous game for Dallas.
Last time Miami was impressive? November. Without Tua, the Dolphins’ chances in Buffalo are something like the Pirates’ chances to win the National League flag in 2023.
Patriots, 8-9. Last time New England won a playoff game was 46 months ago. Or was it 46 years? Tom Brady beat Jared Goff, Pats over Rams, in the Super Bowl.
Lions, 9-8. Jared Goff, last nine games: 7-2, 15 touchdowns, zero interceptions. That’s an incredible job, Dan Campbell, going into Lambeau with nothing to play for but pride and beating Aaron Rodgers.
For the Packers, 8-9 is fitting. Only about a thousand questions for this grand franchise.
Brock Purdy has played 5.75 games. He is 6-0. Passer rating in his five starts: 134.0, 117.0, 114.6, 95.4, 141.2. But passer rating’s a dumb stat! Okay. Here’s another stat for you, one I just made up: Since Dec. 1, Brock Purdy’s a top-five NFL quarterback.
Speaking of 5.75 games, that’s how many Lamar Jackson has missed with a bum knee. I have a question about whether the Ravens have to re-think their long-term contract efforts with Jackson, but first, will he play Sunday night in Cincinnati?
It was a week that tried souls. It was a week that lifted souls, in the NFL and out.
Mark Ingram, running back, Saints. “I don’t know him, but I know him. We’re the NFL fraternity. We’re brothers. He was on my mind before I went to sleep Monday night, and I was devastated. Woke up Tuesday, checked my phone first for updates. I dropped tears for him driving into work. I just couldn’t get over it. I have a son who loves football. Do I want him playing a game that might have him clinging to life one day? We are mortal beings. To see someone’s life be in danger because of a routine play, that is not what we signed up for.”
Rodney Thomas, safety, Indianapolis. (High school teammate and friend of Hamlin’s from Pittsburgh.) “I hate not knowing what’s going on, so when I woke up Tuesday morning, 5 a.m., I got in my car and drove to Cincinnati. Two hours. I got there and went to his room, saw his parents. It was tough seeing him. It’s always tough seeing people in hospitals in general, not doing good. But it was good for me to see him and see the machines working, see him breathing. I stayed till 8, 8:30 at night, and he made a bunch of progress just in that little bit of time I was there. In my mind, I just know who he is. There’s no quit inside him. It doesn’t matter what state he’s in. He’s the same way. He’s gonna fight. His body’s gonna fight. I got the idea that he was gonna be okay.”
In Buffalo, time seemed to stop. On the NBC affiliate, WGRZ-TV, 85 percent of the 6 p.m. newscast Tuesday was on Hamlin, with a minute of weather and a minute or so on the new death toll from the recent blizzard.
Patrick Hammer, WGRZ meteorologist. “We’ve had one tragic headline after another here. First, the Tops grocery store shooting that killed 10 people. Then the huge snowstorm in November. Then the blizzard [that killed 44]. It’s like the November storm was a nuisance compared to what was coming. Then, on New Year’s Eve, five children died in a house fire. And now the Damar story. Buffalo is used to being kicked in the pants. But there was just no escaping this grim reality. Our news for three days in a row was Damar, morning noon and night. I remember the morning after, everyone just wanted to know, how is Damar? My wife doesn’t care anything about football, and she called me at the office that day, anxious. ‘How is Damar?’
“The first words out of our anchor’s mouth that morning on the newscast were, ‘He is alive.’
“Tuesday was a dark day here. A pall was over the city. We felt like Rocky on the ropes versus Apollo Creed.
“Nobody here really knew him. He replaced a real hero, Micah Hyde, when [Hyde] got hurt early in the year. We sent a crew from the TV station to find out all about Damar, and these stories came back of this unassuming, humble guy who wanted to use his life as a football player to help lift people from his world into better lives. No blemishes. The Bills were always the distraction that keeps people going, and now they had a player we didn’t know but a player we learned was so good—and we really were invested in him. The whole area was hanging on Damar getting better.”
A drive to light up homes in the area with support messages for Damar Hamlin began. In suburban Lancaster, Canisius High School senior Brady Karas spent 10 hours Tuesday creating a template he could use to project, in Bills colors, a tribute to Hamlin. PRAY FOR DAMAR in gigantic type was the centerpiece. Brady, a pretty imaginative kid, captured Hamlin highlights from Pitt and the Bills from YouTube, and made a loop of the highlights, set to inspirational music.
Shauna Karas, kindergarten teacher, Lancaster, N.Y. “When the play happened, our entire family was in shock, waiting to hear anything. Brady just wanted to do something. When he was at school on Tuesday, he saw a jersey on Instagram with ‘Pray For Damar’ and he decided the middle of the house was the perfect place for it, and he just built around that. We read about Damar doing things for children, and I am a kindergarten teacher, and it really hit home for our family.
“Buffalo always rallies. We’re the city of good neighbors, and we’re called that for a lot of good reasons. We’re proud of Brady. For him to put so much thought and care and hope makes us proud as parents.”
Asked if she had a message for Hamlin, Karas said:
“Rest. Take your time. We can’t wait to hear more good news and have you back in our Buffalo community.”
Randy Bates, defensive coordinator, University of Pittsburgh. (Hamlin’s college coordinator had cancer surgery in 2019 and was weakened at times during the year from the treatment.) “Doctors found cancer in my throat and removed 50 lymph nodes. I went back to working two-a-days, and I went through the whole season getting chemo and radiation. The neat thing about Damar, who was one of our leaders, is he recognized early that I was hiding how I was really feeling. He’d come in every day to see me. He’d give me a hug, asked me how I was doing, tell me he loved me. I loved him to death for it. It was just between he and I.”
Bates’ voice cracked as he got emotional.
“Many times I’d call him and tell him what needed to be communicated, and he could communicate it in a way that worked so well. I also recall how we were having trouble getting turnovers on our defense. I went to him and I said, ‘We need something like that turnover chain Miami’s got, Ham. I need to find us a way to get motivated.’ So he thought of taking a basketball hoop, and when we got a turnover, the kids would dunk the ball into the hoop. I remember thinking, that’s silly. But he sold it to the leadership council. Now we’ve just finished our fourth year, and the kids love it. The tradition continues. Damar started it. We just did it four times in the Sun Bowl.”
Takeaways have grown in the football-dunked-in-the-basketball-hoop era—from 14 in 2019 to 20 the next year, to 23 the next year, and 22 in the season just completed.
“It’ll last as long as I’m here.
“I pray to God he plays again, because he’s good, he cares, and he’s a great team player. But his legacy won’t be chasing millions himself. It will be helping others, and he knows the Lord has put him in position to help those less fortunate.
“Sports get such a bad reputation sometimes, but there is still good in the United States. People are good. How great is it that Bengal fans, Bengals players, coaches, show up at the hospital to show Damar they care. This is so hard for him, but the world is a better place because of him.”
Pat Narduzzi, head coach, University of Pittsburgh. “Damar was a great high school safety. He was recruited by everybody. He was a top, top recruit for us. It came down to Ohio State, Notre Dame and Pitt. When we did our home visit, we took the Heisman Trophy with us to his house, which was on kind of a narrow street here. It was a great visit. We felt good about it. And when we were leaving the house that day, Urban Meyer and [his then-Ohio State assistant] Luke Fickell were coming up the street, coming in right after us. Our mantra is ‘we not me,’ and I think that appealed to him. He was a Pittsburgh kid, wanted to be close to home for his mom and dad and little brother.
“He was just so consistent every day. Always a we guy. I’ll never forget being down at the Senior Bowl a couple of years ago, and Damar was in the game. One day at practice, I’m in the stands and he comes over and says, ‘Coach, thank you. I’m so much more prepared than anyone in our DB room.’ Our players don’t just learn defense, they learn offense. That is our lifeline. He got to know the whole game playing for us, and he appreciated that.”
The good stories about Hamlin multiplied. AMERICA’S SON, blared the back page of the New York Post Wednesday. Hamlin’s holiday toy drive, with an original GoFundMe goal of $2,500 for the underprivileged in his native McKees Rocks, Pa., was getting overwhelmed. An eclectic mix—Wink Martindale, Josh McDaniels, the McCourty Twins, Ciara and Russell Wilson, Davante Adams, Michael Phelps, Mekhi Becton, Adam Schefter, LeSean McCoy, the Texans, the Colts, the Patriots, the Commanders, Ryan Leaf, Andy Dalton, Shannon Sharpe, Drake London, Matthew Stafford, the Ring of Fire Fantasy Football League—helped push the total over $8 million.
“Tom Brady donated $10,000,” I told his friend Rodney Thomas of the Colts.
“Wait till he finds out,” Thomas said.
Mark Ingram: “People don’t get their flowers enough while they’re alive. What I love is that people are seeing how Damar is more than number 3 on the Buffalo Bills.”
Calais Campbell, defensive lineman, Baltimore. “Damar made a tackle. I’ve made tackles like that plenty of times. First I thought it was maybe just you know, he’s concussed and I missed him wobbling. When I saw the way he fell on the replay, I was like, that’s different. Then when they cut to commercial and they cut back, said they were doing CPR for nine minutes, even more scary. Because I mean, CPR means your heart stops, which means you’re technically dead. Which is mind blowing to me. A football player thinks about CTE, not about death.
“I’m glad that there is a plan in place at the stadiums to cover that. That plan saved this kid’s life, which is incredible that we were prepared for it. I was praying for him nonstop. But it’s scary.
“I don’t think I’m gonna be changing the way I play. I will try to make sure that I don’t take any collisions to my chest. Talking to the guys in the locker room, I think that I didn’t really see a lot of guys flinch too much. I think a lot of it was in that moment… they talk about how they felt in that moment. But as each day passes and as we get more and more good news, I think a lot of guys are feeling pretty good about it. It’s a beautiful game. I still love the game. Maybe it’s because of the brotherhood that we have. I feel that’s on full display. I don’t think the brotherhood’s ever been stronger or more on display than it was this week.
“In the moment though, in the last couple days, I’ve definitely had to think about how much I love this game. My wife pretty much said she doesn’t know if she wants to let my son play. I’ve always told her that if he wants to play, I think we should let him. Just find a good coach who’s gonna teach him how to do it right. If I gotta coach him myself, I will.”
Rodney Thomas: “Nothing, nothing, nothing’s changed my mind about playing football. We all knew this is a freak accident, freak play. These things don’t happen all the time. In life and in football, you can’t go about your life always thinking about the worst situation possible.”
Cam Jordan, defensive end, New Orleans. “We were out to a team dinner for the defense Monday night and we had the game on TV. We saw him make a routine tackle, and then we saw all the frantic activity. We’ve all seen guys get hurt on the field. We saw Ryan Shazier [suffer a spinal injury]. We’ve seen concussions. But this one, we were all like, ‘What the heck just happened?’ This was not one of those plays where you say Wooooooooo. It was so normal.
“I got home that night and my wife was concerned. She said, ‘How many more years you wanna play?’ and I’m not retiring as long as I feel good, and I feel good. I do it because I love it. It’s not the money, it’s the love.
“I’ve told a few guys on the team they shouldn’t be afraid to go see a therapist. Our team’s done a great job of making them available. Talk to a therapist. It’s another set of eyes on your life. Why not? I basically tell the guys, ‘In the immortal words of that famous Cal Bear [Marshawn Lynch], ‘Take care of your chickens. Take care of your mental.”
Your money and your brain.
Byron Brown, mayor, Buffalo. “2022 was a tough year. We had a racially motivated mass shooting, two historic storms, one a blizzard, five children died in a horrible fire, and then to see a member of our beloved Bills go down with an injury that could have taken his life …
“The outpouring of support for Damar in Buffalo and Cincinnati, and across the nation, and internationally, has been absolutely amazing. His resurrection story has captured the attention of the world, and it really shows the power of prayer in my mind. What I’ve seen in the community reinforces what I already knew: We are strong, resilient, loving, we band together, we lift each other up, we try to make a difference in lives of other people.”
Thom Mayer, medical director, NFL Players Association. (Mayer spent time in Hamlin’s Cincinnati hospital room during the week.) “Damar had exactly the wrong thing happen to him at exactly the right place. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are two cities that are superb in resuscitation science. The care he received on the field and in the ambulance was extraordinary. It was a beautiful ballet of how all the medical pieces fit together. I am so proud of the Emergency Action Plan, which teams have to drill twice a year.”
One example of the plan that worked flawlessly, Mayer said, was the presence of Woods Curry of the University of Cincinnati, the on-site Airway Management Physician—basically the emergency intubation specialist—which the league and union mandate to be at every game. Mayer said Curry placed the breathing tube down Hamlin’s throat using something called a glidescope. The tube stayed down Hamlin’s throat, providing oxygen for three days. That procedure was done in the ambulance, before it left the stadium for the two-mile trip to the hospital.
“To be able to squeeze Damar’s hand and have him undergo such excellent medical treatment was an honor to be able to see. This could have gone south in many ways, at many times. But the outcome is positive. And neurologically, Damar is clear as a bell.”
Ryan Magnuson, owner, Mag’s Custom Design sign shop, Lakewood, N.Y. (Magnuson brought a 10-foot sign with a large blank space for thick markers to write on to his tailgate Sunday for the Pats-Bills game. He posted it so passersby could see it, and urged fans to sign the “card” for Hamlin. Within an hour Sunday, the space was probably 75 percent covered.) “I knew that I wanted to do something for Damar. I’ve got a sign shop. Usually when something tragic happens we get people cards. Well, we got so many fans. How do I get all their signatures on one card? As you can see, I don’t have enough markers, and it’s not even 10 o’clock yet and the signing space is almost full.”
A guy in a Tom Brady Patriots jersey was signing just then.
“It’s bigger than one team, bigger than how we feel about the Patriots. It’s a humanity thing.”
Sometimes in sports events, reason flies out the window. There was no reason that, with the stadium full of 3’s—Hamlin’s number was everywhere, in paper 3’s, huge plastic 3’s, even a helium-filled 3 with three accompanying balloons that floated east over the stadium at the opening kick.
I’ve just told you about the mega-news in Buffalo in the last eight months. But there’s also the tragic August death of Luke Knox, tight end Dawson Knox‘s brother; the undisclosed illness of Bills co-owner Kim Pegula that has kept her away from many team activities; and, just a week ago, the stroke suffered by the radio play-by-play institution, John Murphy, that kept him out of the booth Sunday. This area needed an infusion of good karma, and the loving-up of Hamlin was a dap to the Bills as well, for what they’ve gone through this year.
That 3 balloon arrangement was just wafting away when the ball fell into Hines’ hands. Three years and three months (of course) after the last Bills’ TD on a kickoff return, Hines went untouched for a 96-yard TD.
Remember when Jim Valvano danced around his N.C. State sideline, looking for someone to hug when his Wolfpack won the national basketball championship? That what about 30 Bills looks like. Josh Allen raised his hands to his face is disbelief. Man, this team needed that.
“If you want the truth, it was spiritual,” he said later. “Bone-chilling.”
After the game—the Bills clinched the second seed in the AFC playoffs with a 35-23 win—some of the raw emotion from players seeing a mate nearly die on the field bubbled up. “This week has been, excuse my language, it’s been a sh– show,” cornerback Tre’Davious White said. “For me to see everything transpire — from the hit, to him getting up, to him falling, it’s just something that I can’t unsee. Every time I close my eyes, it replays.”
Which the coach, Sean McDermott, felt all week. Seventy-five minutes after the game, he seemed totally spent, wrung out. He’d had to balance the well-being of his players with the AFC pennant race, and he said he learned a very valuable lesson since Monday night, when he told Bengals coach Zac Taylor he didn’t think they should continue the game because he felt his place was with his stricken player.
Sean McDermott, coach, Buffalo. ”I think I knew this before but it was reaffirmed this week: You care for the person first, and the player second. The value of people is amazing. [Monday night,] I felt at the end of the day, and this may not come out right, I’m responsible for the health and well-being of these players and staff. I wish to this day that I could’ve protected Damar from that situation. I don’t take that lightly whatsoever. If I was Damar’s mom and dad, I would want that coach to be with my son. Especially if they couldn’t be there.
“I’ll get home tonight, and hopefully I’ll have a chance—I know we’re playing the Dolphins this week—but have a chance just to take a deep breath a little bit. Probably trying to balance Damar’s situation and getting this team ready to go. And then my own self third. Hopefully take some time for myself tonight. It was challenging to have enough of me, I felt like, to go around. But that’s where we have such a strong team around me that this didn’t happen just because I did this or I did that. This is a culmination of a great team working together.”
“We’re in a divided country,” I said to him. “These are divided times. What has this week done for the United States, do you think?”
“I think it’s a great example for everyone to see,” he said. “It’s the power of the gap being closed by love. When people can put their agendas aside for the greater and common good, how good we can be when we do that. I hope that continues. I hope this is a great example and reminder to people of the power of prayer and the power of love.”
I reserve the right to change my mind, but as of this morning, I have Patrick Mahomes at the top of my MVP ballot.
Three reasons why:
1. He piloted his team to the league’s best record (tied with Philly), 14-3, without Tyreek Hill. The five new wideouts he and the KC coaches had to train from scratch this year caught 171 balls for 2,356 yards—which is 45 percent of his league-leading yardage total. The wideouts he lost this year, including Hill, totaled 2,071 yards last year. (And when I say train from scratch, I mean Mahomes took a lot of that on his own shoulders, working with them individually and collectively through the off-season and for longer hours than normal in training camp.)
2. He led the league in passing yards (5,250) and TDs (41), and he led both categories comfortably.
3. There’s not a quarterback as gifted athletically and intelligently as Mahomes, and not a quarterback able to pilot Kansas City’s imaginative and innovative and ever-changing offense as well as Mahomes. His ingenuity meshes so well with his coaches’.
The next three in line, I believe, can be in any order. I’ll choose this order: Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, Jalen Hurts. Burrow ended a tough year on an eight-game win streak that included wins over Mahomes and Tom Brady. The Bills have been through hell this year and came out 13-3. Hurts, leader extraordinaire, accounted for 35 touchdowns while turning it over just seven times.
Six through 10:
- Justin Jefferson, wide receiver, Minnesota.
- Justin Herbert, quarterback, L.A. Chargers.
- Micah Parsons, edge, Dallas.
- Trevor Lawrence, quarterback, Jacksonville.
- Tom Brady, quarterback, Tampa Bay.
In September, I promised to follow up on my predictions for the season by doing a scoreboard of my preseason predictions. I predicted in two places: I ranked the teams 1 to 32 on May 23, then made playoffs and awards picks on Labor Day, Sept. 5.
I’ll rank the 10 best things I said, and 10 dumbest things I said.
First, here’s how I ranked the top 10 teams in May, in order: Buffalo, L.A. Chargers, Kansas City, L.A. Rams, Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Philadelphia, San Francisco. Other notables: Dallas 15, Detroit 20, Indianapolis 21, Giants 24, Jacksonville 29.
1. The Saints will win NFC home-field. Hard to do that when you finish 8-9.
2. The presence of a Rich Bisaccia as special-teams coordinator will be a bigger positive factor for Green Bay than the negative of losing Davante Adams. That’s a swing-and-miss for all time. Now—I will always believe (because it’s true) that once the Packers and Adams hit a wall in negotiations in 2021, coupled with the fact that he very much wanted to play out west, he wasn’t going to agree to any Green Bay deal. I thought Bisaccia would make the Green Bay kicking game a top-three unit in football, and he hasn’t, but even then, the loss of Adams was crippling in Green Bay’s 3-6 start.
3. I ranked the Packers fifth when I ranked teams 1 to 32, and picked them to go to the Super Bowl. I’m really on a roll. Again, here’s how I ranked the top 10 teams in May, in order: Buffalo, L.A. Chargers, Kansas City, L.A. Rams, Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Philadelphia, San Francisco. Other notables: Dallas 15, Detroit 20, Indianapolis 21, Giants 24, Jacksonville 29. Some I like. Some I say, “Yikes.”
4. The two-through-four seeds in the AFC: Baltimore, the Chargers, Tennessee. Injuries helped my failure here, but still.
5. Niners over Cowboys for the NFC’s seventh seed. They entered Week 18 with a chance to be 1-2.
6. Super Bowl: Buffalo over Green Bay. I’d like to sell that pick this morning.
7. I didn’t have Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow or Jalen Hurts on my top-three MVP list. Josh Allen-Justin Herbert-Lamar Jackson isn’t an embarrassing top three, but remind me never to NOT pick Mahomes as a top contender again.
8. I had Odafe Oweh of the Ravens number two for Defensive Player of the Year. Well, let’s not be hasty here. Oweh did have 3 sacks in 17 games.
9. Jonathan Taylor, offensive player of the year. Well, health counts.
10. “Carson Wentz survives some struggles to play a full year in Washington.” I was off just a tad there.
The good, or least decent:
1. I got 10 of 14 playoff teams correct. Wrong on the Saints, Rams, Titans, Packers. Missed on including the Cowboys, Giants, Seahawks, and Jaguars.
3. Defensive rookies of the year: Sauce Gardner 1, Aidan Hutchinson 2. Not the toughest pick, to be sure, but it looks like this is exactly how they’ll finish, unless Seattle cornerback Tariq Woolen is one or two.
4. I said New England, Detroit and Jacksonville would be 7-10. My firstname.lastname@example.org box overfloweth with condemnation, particularly on my belief the Lions would be middle-of-the-pack. I feel pretty good the Pats, Lions and Jags finished 8-9, 9-8 and 9-8.
5. “The Fangio defense is on the rise.” I wrote about defenses league-wide taking some core principles from the Fangio D—even though Vic Fangio got canned by the Broncos last year. I said, “It’s hard for offenses to get a pre-snap read from the defense because almost all of the 11 on defense don’t move much, if at all, before the snap; those blurry non-looks make offenses guess who’s covering who on the play. The defense employs two deep safeties instead of the one deep safety with two corners patrolling either side, and the key to it is that each safety takes one deep half of the field, theoretically forcing teams to throw into short and intermediate areas and make yards after the catch, not in the air.” Miami’s offense was the exception to the rule of throwing short and intermediate, at least in the first 10 to 12 games. But this was a trend we saw all year – teams taking away longer throws with two deep safeties.
6. “Jalen Hurts is solid as a rock in Philadelphia.”
7. Kenny Pickett will replace Mitchell Trubisky in mid-October. Pickett took the job for good on Oct. 9.
9. I actually rated the Lions too low at 20, and the Colts too high at 21. Favorite email of the season, from Chad of Orlando, after my power rankings came out in May: “Colts at 21? With eight Pro Bowlers and all those new acquisitions on D? And Matt Ryan? I gotta go lay down. DO BETTER OLD MAN.” … I picked the Lions to finish 7-10, and got pilloried for even that.
10. I said the Browns would go 3-3 in Deshaun Watson’s six-game season. They did.
A career day by an outstanding player, Kansas City defensive tackle Chris Jones, should not be eclipsed by the other 15 games that came after Kansas City-Las Vegas this weekend.
Through the lens of Next Gen Stats, I’ll show you how Jones had an Aaron Donald-type game in the midst of an Aaron Donald season.
- QUARTERBACK PRESSURE. It was the best game of Jones’ career. He had 10 pressures, most in his career, and 2.5 sacks of Jarrett Stidham. It seemed no matter how the Raiders tried to neutralize Jones, he slithered through or overpowered every blocking combination or single-block.
- Next Gen Stats times pass-rushers from the time the ball is snapped to the time they cross the line of scrimmage, and Jones has been in the top five among defensive tackles for five straight seasons. On Saturday, his pass-rush get-off time, per Next Gen, was 0.70 seconds, his best in the last five seasons.
- Jones set his career mark for pressures, eight, just two weeks ago before breaking it Saturday. In 2022, he led all defensive tackles in pressures with 55.
- TEAM SUCCESS. KC increased its sack total from 31 last year to 55 this year, and Jones’ 15.5 sacks tied his previous career best in 2018.
There’s a good reason Kansas City surrendered just 19.7 points a game in the last 10 games. The pressure Jones and the defense provided meant Patrick Mahomes didn’t have to be a sorcerer every game to outscore the opposition. He’s going to be a handful, particularly coming off a bye week, for any offensive coordinator to prepare for.
These nuggets pique my interest about the 2023 schedule. All foes made final with the results of Sunday’s games. Nine home games for AFC teams, nine road games for NFC teams.
- Tough road slate for the Bills. Look at the quarterbacks the Bills have to play on the road next fall: Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow, Jalen Hurts. Their teams aren’t bad either.
- The NFL will have good choices if it plays two games in Germany next year. It’s likely there will be two AFC teams hosting games in Germany next year, and likely that those two teams are Kansas City and New England. KC’s home schedule includes Buffalo, Miami, Cincinnati, Dallas, Philadelphia and of course their three AFC West foes. New England has home games, among others, against KC, the Chargers, Philadelphia and Washington. I doubt KC-Buffalo, KC-New England or KC-Cincinnati gets exported.
- At first glance, Dallas has a favorable sked. Non-division games include Pats, Seahawks, Rams, Jets, Cards and Panthers. Now, Niners, Bills and Chargers won’t be easy, but Dallas should have some advantages.
- Patrick Mahomes will have great QB showdowns. Kansas City will face these passers: Josh Allen, Justin Fields, Joe Burrow, Jalen Hurts, Justin Herbert, Herbert again, Aaron Rodgers assuming he plays), Kirk Cousins, Trevor Lawrence. Imagine if Russell Wilson rebounds, and if the Raiders come up with a gem at QB. (Imagine adding Tom Brady, twice, to that list.) That’s, potentially, 13 marquee games, and I didn’t even include Tua Tagovailoa there because of the uncertainty about his future.
- Belichick at Josh McDaniels for the second year in a row. Aaron Rodgers plays the Strip next year too, assuming he’s back in Green Bay.
- Deshaun Watson at the Texans, again. The scheduling formula either has a sense of humor or is a masochist.
McNally ushered instant replay as an officiating tool into the NFL. He was the first (and only) on-field official enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In his 23 years as NFL supervisor of officials, he made officiating a profession, developing training films, off-season officiating clinics and a step-by-step evaluation process that graded officials on their performance on every snap—similar to what Pro Football Focus has established in grading 22 players on every play. Unemotional, fact-based and decisive, he’s the most important officiating influence in the 103-year history of the league. The big room in the NFL office in Manhattan, where every officiating call is overseen in real time, filled with monitors and technology, is called Art McNally GameDay Central.
“I couldn’t always be right,” McNally once said, “but I always tried to be honest.”
McNally died last week at 97, and it’s amazing how long he was a major factor in the NFL. That lasted into his eighties. At 78, still active in evaluating officials, he oversaw the Tampa Bay-Philadelphia Monday night opener in 2003 when a 40-year rookie field judge was making his first NFL appearance.
“That was a tough game for me,” Gene Steratore, the rookie field judge, recalled Saturday. “On the first play of my career, I missed the Eagles doing a low block on [Bucs linebacker] Derrick Brooks, and one of the guys on the crew, Tom Barnes, said to me, ‘Hey rookie. That’s a foul in the NFL.’
“That was the day I had the toughest call I ever had to make in an NFL game. In the second half, [Tampa’s] Joe Jurevicius caught a tipped pass in the end zone. Incredible play. He tipped the ball up into the air right near the pylon, stepped out of bounds, re-established himself in the end zone and caught it. I had no idea what to call. I threw my hands up. Touchdown. I wasn’t sure it was right. When a player goes out of bounds, he has to re-establish himself in the field of play before he can touch the ball again. And I just didn’t know—I made the call I thought was right.
“After the game, Art’s down in the locker room, as I learned he is after every game he’d attend. He walks me into the back of the officials’ locker room, puts his arm around me and says to me, ‘I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve never seen that before.’ Well, I cannot tell you what that meant to me. That was the most comforting thing I ever heard. That was Art. At heart, he was an official, always an official.
“When Art would be at your game, he’d always say afterward, ‘On the surface, things looked really good today.’ He knew there were 30 cameras at every game and who knows what those cameras would show when the league looked at each play like they were examining the Zapruder film. But he just wanted to support the guys on the field. And that became my mantra when I became a referee and had my crew.”
His first year as a referee and crew chief was in 1960. If you were on his crew, you got used to gathering in the road hotel the night before the game, crowding into McNally’s room. He’d spread a bedsheet on the wall and put up the 16-mm film of the previous week’s game, so he and the crew could discuss their errors and officiating points. That continues today, with elaborate digital video aiding the officials when they gather on the road on Saturday afternoons.
McNally officiated basketball, baseball and football in his early years. He officiated NBA games for a time. So he and Steratore—a major college basketball official who worked some of the biggest college games between NFL assignments—bonded over that. It wasn’t the most popular thing in the league office that Steratore was moonlighting doing college basketball, often the night after doing a nationally televised NFL game.
“Art realized the value of officiating other games,” Steratore said. “He told me once, ‘In basketball, maybe you blow the whistle 20 times for a decision you made, but there are 100 other times you don’t blow the whistle but you still had to make a call.’ He realized the mental challenge, the quick decision-making, was the same, and making those quick decisions toughened you up.”
Steratore, 59 and retired from the field now, was wistful Saturday, talking about McNally’s influence.
“I just wish,” he said, “I wrote down everything he told me.”
Offensive players of the week
Jalen Hurts, quarterback, Philadelphia. It wasn’t the most dynamic performance of Hurts’ career (20 of 35 for 229 yards and a pick) but it was an extremely important one. Back in the lineup after missing the past two games (both Eagles losses) with a shoulder sprain, Hurts led his team to a win over the Giants, earning the first-round bye. “For him to play through what he fought through to get back … There was no more risk, but he was hurting,” Nick Sirianni said postgame.
Patrick Mahomes, quarterback, Kansas City. The Chiefs are atop the AFC West for the seventh straight season, including all five of the Mahomes era, and have the top seed for the second time in the last three seasons. Their perennial success and the frequency of plays tagged as “Mahomes Magic” could have a numbing effect, but it’s important to take stock of just how special the Chiefs offense has been with Mahomes at the helm. This week, that magic came in the form of the instantly viral “Snow Globe” play against the Raiders that showed how creative (and dangerous) Kansas City is.
Penei Sewell, offensive tackle, Detroit. Sewell was a massive difference-maker in Detroit’s win over Green Bay, showing his speed and athleticism on multiple plays, including this one: After a holding call on James Mitchell, the Lions faced second-and-17 at the Packers’ 31- with just over two minutes to go, up by four and looking for a first down to put things away. On a gutsy hook-and-ladder play call, Jared Goff found Amon-Ra St. Brown, who pitched it back to D'Andre Swift. An incredible block from Sewell got Swift 22 yards on the run for a net gain of 14 on the play, and the Lions were able to convert for the game-sealing first down two plays later.
Defensive players of the week
Rodney Thomas, safety, Indianapolis. Thomas, one of Damar Hamlin’s best friends dating back to their days as classmates at Pittsburgh’s Central Catholic High School, intercepted Houston QB Davis Mills on the last play of the third quarter Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts, after trailing by 10 at the half, converted the Thomas pick into a go-ahead touchdown. Too bad Indy couldn’t hang on, but Thomas gave the home crowd something to remember.
J.J. Watt, defensive end, Arizona. In the final game of his final NFL season, Watt tallied two sacks, bringing his total to 114.5 across a 12-year career with the Texans and Cardinals (and another six in the postseason). It was a special moment for the five-time All-Pro and three-time Defensive Player of the Year as the crowd at Levi’s Stadium gave him a standing ovation. Also special: Younger brothers T.J. and Derek paid homage to their older sibling Sunday, wearing his signature No. 99 pre-game. One of the NFL’s all-time great defensive players, Watt’s likely to be in the Hall of Fame class in 2028.
Special teams players of the week
Nyheim Hines, kick returner, Buffalo. From a storybook start to a spot in the history books, what a game for Hines, a midseason arrival to Buffalo at the trade deadline. He tallied two kickoff return touchdowns against New England, becoming the first Bills player in history with two such scores in the same game. The first, for 96 yards on the game’s opening kickoff, was a surreal infusion of joy for the Bills players returning to the field for the first time since Monday night. The second, for 101 yards in the third quarter, came right after the Patriots had taken their first lead of the game, and put the Bills back on top, 21-17. Buffalo never trailed again in a 35-23 win.
The @BuffaloBills return the opening kick. You couldn't write this script.
— NFL (@NFL) January 8, 2023
Ryan Stonehouse, punter, Tennessee. It may not provide much solace to Titans fans who saw the team miss the postseason with a Week 18 loss to the Jaguars, the team’s seventh straight loss after starting the season 7-3. But rookie punter Stonehouse has officially completed a historic year, breaking the NFL single-season record for gross yards per punt with a mark of 53.1. It’s a significant improvement (1.7 yards) over Hall of Famer Sammy Baugh’s former record of 51.4, which had stood since 1940, a remarkable 82+ years.
Coach of the Week
Sean McDermott, head coach, Buffalo. A difficult and delicate week for the man leading the Bills players and staff towards the postseason while processing continued updates from Hamlin’s medical team in Cincinnati. So much credit is due to McDermott for his focus on his players, both Hamlin and the rest of the team, on Monday night, and for his composure throughout the week leading up to Buffalo’s win over New England, which clinched them the No.2 seed. “He was the perfect man in that situation to handle that,” Josh Allen said of McDermott.
The Jason Jenkins Award
Gayle Benson, owner, New Orleans. As the NFL community mobilized around Damar Hamlin this week, Benson used the incident as a springboard for local action, organizing a donation of CPR machines called AEDs from the Saints and Pelicans to recreational facilities in the New Orleans area. “NFL games have the most advanced medical staff and equipment on hand and we believe this needs to be replicated as best as possible on the youth sports level,” Benson said in a release. The AEDS are going to parks, baseball fields and football facilities, and will be accompanied by training sessions for staff members. An essential resource for New Orleans, and a fitting tribute to Hamlin.
When you put real love out into the world it comes back to you 3x’s as much. We brung the world back together behind this. On a long road keep praying for me.
–Part of a Damar Hamlin post on Instagram Saturday.
Resolved, that for the 2022 season only, the AFC Championship Game will be played at a neutral site, to be determined by the commissioner if (A) the participating teams played a different number of regular-season games; and (B) the lower seeded team in the championship game could have been the number one seed in the AFC if a full 17-game regular season had been played by all AFC clubs.
–NFL 2023 Resolution G-1, passed on Friday by the owners, amending the rules for the playoffs of the 2022 season.
Now he’s going to be handing out cars.
–Buffalo GM Brandon Beane, on the incredible generosity shown to Damar Hamlin’s toy drive on GoFundMe, which surpassed $8 million on Saturday. The original goal of the toy drive, pre-incident, was $2,500.
I think working on the helmets, the concussion protocols, that makes a lot of sense. But you know, it’s dangerous.
–President Biden, on football.
So, on the topic of postseason home-field advantage … it’s not what it used to be in the NFL. In the last four postseasons, home teams are 5-5, 6-4, 6-6 and 7-5 in the playoffs. Total: Home teams 24 wins, road teams 20.
In conference championship games since the 2018 season:
Home teams 4 wins.
Road teams 4 wins.
The road wins: Rams at New Orleans 2018, Pats at Kansas City 2018, Bucs at Green Bay 2020, Bengals at Kansas City 2021.
In the last two postseasons, look at the path of these two Super Bowl teams:
2021: Cincinnati—home win, road win, road win, neutral-site Super Bowl loss.
2020: Tampa Bay—road win, road win, road win, neutral-site (though played in Tampa) Super Bowl win.
Factoids from the one-hour virtual NFL meeting Friday, during which a one-year change to the playoffs was approved because the league did not want to make up the cancelled Buffalo-Cincinnati game last week:
- If the Cincinnati-Buffalo cancellation happened, say, in week five versus week 17, I think it’s likely the league could have found the time and place to make the game up and would have done so.
- There was a motion to split the proposal—vote on the possible AFC neutral site for the title game, and vote for the Cincinnati-Baltimore coin-flip possibility separately—but it failed.
- No one argued against the neutral-site idea for the title game, if it is necessary.
- The vote to approve the proposal was 25 in favor (24 were needed for a three-quarters approval), four abstentions, three no votes. Kansas City, Buffalo, Las Vegas and the Chargers abstained. Cincinnati, Miami and Chicago voted no—all, presumably, on the basis of being against changing a rule eight days before the playoffs begin.
Five tight ends were named to the NFL’s all-time team in the league’s 100th season—Mike Ditka, Tony Gonzalez, Rob Gronkowski, John Mackey, Kellen Winslow.
Among those five tight ends, the most receptions in back-to-back seasons was Gonzalez in 2007-’08, with 195.
Among those five tight ends, the most yards in back-to-back seasons was Winslow in 1980-’81, with 2,365.
Over the last two seasons, Kansas City’s Travis Kelce has 202 receptions for 2,463 yards—and both numbers eclipse what the best tight ends ever have compiled in back-to-back years.
Lest you think Kelce has a huge edge because of the NFL going to the 17-game schedule in 2021, there’s this factoid about the time it took each player to accomplish the superlative in back-to-back years: Kelce played 33 games, Winslow 32, Gonzalez 32. Had Kelce missed Saturday’s season finale and played 32 games over the two seasons, he’d still have exceeded the numbers compiled by Gonzalez and Winslow.
— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) January 9, 2023
The Seahawks expressing support for the Lions Sunday night.
— 𝐃𝐚𝐦𝐚𝐫 𝐇𝐚𝐦𝐥𝐢𝐧 (@HamlinIsland) January 8, 2023
Damar Hamlin on the first 14 seconds of Pats-Bills.
Storybook barely begins to sum this one up. https://t.co/R7RhKYXRlD
— Howie Rose (@HowieRose) January 8, 2023
The Mets’ play-by-play voice on the first 14 seconds of Pats-Bills.
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) January 7, 2023
Patrick Mahomes, pre-game, Saturday in Las Vegas.
George Kittle hugs his grandma before the game. She turned 100 years old on Jan. 6 ❤️ pic.twitter.com/R2g8zn8uJj
— 49ers on NBCS (@NBCS49ers) January 8, 2023
NBC Sports Bay Area’s 49ers feed.
If we not going y’all not going either IDC
— Kerby B. Joseph (@JKERB25) January 9, 2023
Kerby Joseph after the Lions’ win over the Packers Sunday night, when Joseph got his third interception of Aaron Rodgers this season.
On the mental health of players. From Greg Wallace of Johnson City, Tenn. “I read an article today about the incredible medical support each NFL team has available to them at each game. My thoughts center around the mental health issues of the players. as a supervisor of mental health and safety of a school district of more than 8,500 students, I have some measure of expertise. We need to place the same level of importance on mental health issues as we do physical issues. This goes beyond the typical statements of ‘mental health resources are available.’ Qualified people need to check on and provide resources for these players … In any traumatic situations it would be ideal to have experts to advise the immediate course of actions and what is needed/required going forward. I watched as coach [Sean] McDermott and coach [Zac] Taylor tried to figure it out on the spot and I thought they did an amazing job. But imagine if they would have had immediate resources available.”
Good points, Greg. Very good. I know every team had experts available starting the next day. My question: Would the teams have wanted to avail themselves of those resources in the minutes after Hamlin collapsed? And that’s something I just don’t know. I tend to think they’d want to be pretty insular at the moment, but you could be right.
He’s absolutely right. From Greg Stamper, of Beavercreek, Ohio: “You often receive opinions regarding MVPs. To me, in the wake of the Hamlin incident, the true MVPs of the NFL this year are the medical professionals on both sides of the field who saved Hamlin’s life. Nobody else really comes close to a performance on the field that mattered more.”
I feel sure those who helped save Damar Hamlin will be honored often, and appropriately, between now and Super Bowl Sunday. As it should be.
Consider it recommended. From Raymond Chandler, via Twitter: “You should suggest to the NFL commissioner that the league put all the heroes who saved Hamlin in the middle of the field at the Super Bowl and name them to recognize them.”
That, Raymond, is the idea of the week. Thanks for sharing it, and I believe there are a couple of people in the league office who peruse this column. From your keyboard to their ears.
1. I think at some point the Ravens have to consider this when pondering what to offer Lamar Jackson: He has missed five games due to injury in 2021, and five more in 2022—and in each season he missed most of a sixth. Those games were missed down the stretch of each year. Analyzing what happened minus Jackson:
2021: The Ravens started 8-3, but crashed and missed the playoffs by going 0-5 down the stretch. In the six games Jackson missed all or part of, Baltimore was 1-5.
2022: Jackson was lost in the first quarter of the Dec. 4 game against Denver. Including that game, Baltimore was awful without him offensively. In the six games Jackson missed all or most of, Baltimore scored 75 points. You won’t win many games in the NFL with such a putrid offense, and the Ravens were fortunate to eke out three wins down the stretch and qualify for the playoffs.
You don’t blame Jackson for getting hurt. It’s simply an unfortunate thing that must be factored into what the team does with him going forward. If I were the Ravens, I’d probably franchise him for 2023 and let the chips fall where they may. It’s hard to pay a player who makes much of his business with his legs a bountiful long-term contract when he’s missed the time Jackson has.
2. I think I don’t blame the Bengals for being ticked off at how the new rules came about for the playoffs this postseason. There’s an element of making-it-up-as-the-league-goes-along in the NFL’s decision-making process, including inventing part of a new playoff system eight days before the playoffs begin. I empathize with the Bengals, but I also think these were extraordinary circumstances, and a rejiggering of the rules should be within the commissioner’s purview.
3. I think these seven people, collectively, are my biggest argument against the 17-game season: Nathan Peterman (relieved by the equally famous Tim Boyle), Joe Flacco, Skylar Thompson, Sam Ehlinger, David Blough, Sam Howell, Joshua Dobbs. Nothing against any of those quarterbacks, but six number three quarterbacks and one fourth-stringer (Blough) played games on the last weekend of the season. One, Dobbs, quarterbacked a win-and-in-or-lose-and-out playoff game 17 days after signing with the Titans. Five played games with some sort of playoff implications, including Blough, the fourth quarterback to start a game this year for Arizona, at San Francisco.
4. I think, by the way, I could write about this sport for the next hundred years and I will always rail against the prospect of adding an 18th game, the same way I railed against the money-grubbing, safety-disregarding addition of a 17th game. The players should tell the NFL at the beginning of the next round of negotiations, say, in about 2028: “The 18th game is non-negotiable. If you choose to insist on it, understand it will be a strike-able point for us.” And Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Justin Fields and whoever the other megastar quarterbacks are will have to stand in front and echo that loudly.
5. I think, piggybacking on the Adam Schefter report that Sean Payton will interview with the Broncos, the thought that Payton would take that job is problematic in a couple of ways: It would cost the Broncos at least their lone pick in the top two rounds of the draft (the San Francisco first-rounder, via Miami, low in round one), and perhaps more than that. Plus Payton would have to buy into fixing Russell Wilson. I’m dubious he’d want to do that. But we’ll see. When an ownership group offers a person $20 million a year (I’m assuming that’s where this negotiation would have to start), that person will certainly listen.
6. I think we should let the record show that Giants wideout Kenny Golladay, who signed for $18 million per year before the 2021 season, finally got his first touchdown as a Giant in the 59th minute of the Giants’ 34th game since acquiring him.
7. I think I’d put the odds for the 2023 class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame something like this. Keep in mind I’m on the committee, I’m traditionally awful at predicting this stuff, and it’s just my best guess.
70-30: LB Chuck Howley, DT Joe Klecko, S Ken Riley (Seniors candidates), Don Coryell (Contributor candidate). Seniors and contributors aren’t competing against anyone; if any get 80 percent of the vote, they’re in. Which means they’d need 10 no votes out of the voting group of 49. Not impossible, but unlikely, that nine or more voters will ding any of those three candidates.
60-40: T Joe Thomas, CB Darrelle Revis. First time in the room for these recently retired guys, and there’s not a lot to tarnish their cases.
55-45: LB Zach Thomas, Ret/WR Devin Hester, DE Demarcus Ware. Seem to be the candidates with the most momentum of the group.
Flip a coin. DE Jared Allen, T Willie Anderson, WR Torry Holt, WR Andre Johnson, WR Reggie Wayne. I have no clue how the receivers go. I sense strong support for each from different blocs. Anderson’s very popular in a niche; is it enough? Allen, with eight double-digit sack years, has solid support.
Don’t get a feel. CB Ronde Barber, DE Dwight Freeney, CB Albert Lewis, LB Patrick Willis, S Darren Woodson. (Although Lewis is an intriguing candidate because of his cover ability and kick-blocking skills.) I don’t talk to many people on the committee before the vote, later this month, virtually, so the five in this area aren’t here because I don’t think they’re worthy. I just don’t have a sense of their chances.
Keep this in mind: Every year, there’s a surprise in the voting. Maybe two. So don’t take this best-guess as gospel.
8. I think I don’t understand how you get better firing the coach every year. Talking to you, Cal McNair.
9. I think Robert Saleh should be congratulated for his approach to Zach Wilson. The other day, he said Wilson, who has been a disaster in his limited play over his first two seasons, would be supported by the organization and given every chance to win the job next year. He said he thought Wilson needs to get away, far away, from football for a while. “Go read a book, go do something, get away from this game, just reset,” Saleh said. “I think the greatest gift you can give yourself as a human is to figure out what’s important to you. What do you value and how can you stick to those values day in and day out?” The easiest thing to do now is to abandon Wilson. But is that really wise, abandoning the second pick in the ’21 draft after 22 games? What would it say about the Jets as an organization, throwing Wilson out with the trash after 20 months? Only bad things. Wilson deserves two months away from the maelstrom of New York and then a legit chance to compete for the job with whoever starting in April or May. And good for Saleh, sticking up so stridently for a kid who needs it.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Story We Need This Week: Steve Hartman of CBS News with a gem on an autistic boy who gets the gift of a lifetime.
b. Jude Kofie, 11, and Bill Magnusson, adult, now bound together forever after Magnusson’s incredible act of kindness.
c. Reports Hartman:
Magnusson is a piano tuner. He saw a local news story about Jude and heard him play. He learned Jude’s parents immigrated from Ghana and were raising four children, as well as sending money back home to their family in Ghana.
“What resources are left over to help this special little soul?” Magnusson said.
Using his father’s inheritance, Magnusson bought a $15,000 piano — estimated to be worth $45,000 — and promised to tune it once a month for the rest of his life. He’s also paying for Jude to get professional lessons.
d. Lord, this was a week of people being kind to each other, of people crying over a football player they never met, of a piano tuner in Aurora, Colo., using his inheritance money to gift a piano to a child he had zero connection to.
e. Except, maybe, a spiritual one.
f. I thought this column from longtime Tennessee scribe Paul Kuharsky was on point:
h. Kuharsky wrote this the day after the Hamlin incident:
I looked to Twitter to see if Bengals or Bills reporters had any news and was shocked by how cluttered my timeline was at a time it should have been relatively empty, left for people who had actual news, pictures, color or insight from the scene. Or maybe a distraction, I don’t know.
What I don’t understand is why so many felt compelled to inject themselves into it even in some small way, with a tweet telling everyone — jumping up and down and waving their arms: I saw it too, I’m upset too, I’m praying too, I think it was horrific too.
The social media reaction is what passes for community in a lot of ways now: Repeat and echo and unify on some basic human feelings no one could possibly disagree with at the moment.
There is no right way to deal with it, I suppose. But being quiet and contemplative doesn’t seem like the wrong way.
i. To each his/her own. Sometimes, silence is golden.
j. I’ve got a rhyme for you about the game tonight: Georgia versus TCU, Peter King has zero clue.
k. So, I asked ESPN’s Pete Thamel, my longtime buddy, to tell me one crucial factor in the college football national title game. The Thamel wisdom:
“If I had to distill it to one fact, it would be TCU’s ability to hit some chunk plays early especially to Quentin Johnston, who will be the first receiver picked in the NFL draft. He’s a Sammy Watkins body type, rangy, big fella. Georgia’s weakness is coverage in their secondary. If TCU can get some chunk plays early and control the pace of the game, they’ll be in it. TCU’s been behind, and I don’t know the numbers, but they’ve pretty much come back every game this year. They’re not gonna flinch. As long as they can get the tempo going early, they basically have to hit Quentin Johnston early to get some big plays because they’re not gonna move the chains. They’re not built to go that way against Georgia. If they can control tempo and make it a game in the second half, they can win. There’s a path for them to win. I don’t think they’re gonna win. But they need Johnston to win against Georgia’s pedestrian secondary and have himself a night.”
l. Lede of the Week: Dan Zak and Ben Terris of The Washington Post, on George Santos’ first day of his new job, as a tarnished member of the United States House of Representatives:
On Tuesday, looking very much like a freshman at a prep school in hell, congressman-elect George Santos wore a black backpack, a periwinkle sweater underneath his navy jacket, and a sullen face with darting, evasive eyes, as if looking to see if anyone on Capitol Hill was going to accuse him of yet another lie about the basic facts of his existence.
A posse of journalists assembled before 9 a.m. Tuesday to stake out Santos’s new office on the first floor of the Longworth House Office Building. The accused serial fabulist is now being investigated by the attorney general of New York, the district attorneys of Nassau County and Queens, and the government of Brazil.
m. Can’t write an ugly story more beautifully than that.
n. Column of the Week: Celine Gounder, widow of Grant Wahl, cracking back at those who would blame other factors for the loss of people who died of natural causes:
p. Wrote Gounder:
I knew that disinformation purveyors would blame Grant’s death on Covid vaccines, and I knew what tactics they would use to do so. I also knew that debunking what these people believe head-on in public risks giving them the attention they crave and invites further trolling. But this situation was different from the many others I’d dealt with as an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist or while serving on the Biden-Harris transition Covid Advisory Board. This was my Grant, and I needed to know what had happened to him. And I knew I had to share that information publicly: Pairing facts with empathy is the best way to disempower trolls.
I didn’t respond to disinformation or harassment on Substack or on social media. I didn’t reply to the email that read: “Now you understand that you killed your poor husband. Karma is a bitch.” I’ve received these kinds of messages before, including rape and death threats, over the course of the pandemic, but receiving them about Grant was vile, especially as waves of anguish threatened to consume me.
q. Celine Gounder: hero, for many reasons.
r. I can’t help but think that one day, Prince Harry will think, “Why did I say everything that truly ticked me off?” The motivation to spill all that he spilled in his book, to cut every cord, is baffling to me.
s. RIP Bernard Kalb, the long-time network TV foreign correspondent who died Sunday at 100. Wow. One hundred.
I owe Trent Baalke
an apology or ten.
Built a fine roster.