BALTIMORE — Five New York sportswriters waited here for the 8:34 p.m. Amtrak Acela to New York on Sunday inside the Java Moon Café at Penn Station. Two TVs and maybe 15 folks in the joint. The five had covered the Philip Rivers Feel Good Story down the street earlier, and now the last game of Wild-Card Weekend was unfolding on 36-inch TVs in the Java Moon, which had seen better days.
On the TV, Philly led Chicago 16-15. The Bears lined up for a 43-yard field goal, a dream-maker, on the day the Monsters of the Midway were going to be back for good, the day that Foles Magic would finally die. Ten seconds left. Chicago’s Cody Parkey lined up for the kick.
“I have a feeling he’s gonna miss,” said a true sharp sitting across from me, Mark Cannizzaro of the New York Post.
Kick is good. Right down the middle, though not thudded. Tough way to lose for the Eagles, but hey, they had their Super Bowl. It’s Bear Time.
Wait. NBC cameras showed Doug Pederson calling timeout less than a second before the snap. So we’ll do it again.
“Now he’s definitely gonna miss it,” said Cannizzaro the sharp. “That kick before, it didn’t look like a real committed kick. I don’t trust him.”
Here’s the kick, and … IT HIT THE LEFT UPRIGHT, DOINK, and then … IT HIT THE CROSSBAR, DOINK, and then … it fell harmlessly into the end zone!
The bar erupted, though it might have been the shrieks of five sportswriters from New York mostly. I couldn’t tell. I was shrieking like some fan from King of Prussia. Quite an ending.
Thought about it for a few minutes. Boarded the train. Thought a little more. Talked to Golden Tate about his (as it turned out) game-winning catch in the final minute, and this is what really stood out to me other than the absolutely cruel twist of fate that will brand Parkey a goat in Chicagoland—and in this column: The Eagles won the game on a perfect play-call by Doug Pederson with 56 seconds left. Just perfect.
“It is pretty incredible, what happened,” said the overjoyed hero, Tate, over the phone from Solider Field. “They put our future in my hands. There is no better feeling for me.”
Think back to the Super Bowl. Think back to last season and the Philly Special, when, with 38 seconds left before halftime and the ball on the New England 1-yard line, fourth-and-goal, Pederson put the ball in third-string tight end Trey Burton’s hand to throw the first pass of his NFL career. He threw a touchdown to Foles. This Tate play is nothing like that one in terms of drama, but Pederson had options on fourth-and-goal from the 2 with the Eagles down 15-10 and 61 seconds left in the game—and in the season if the Eagles didn’t score a touchdown right here. Foles could choose Zach Ertz, who’d caught the most passes by a tight end ever during the season, or the most reliable wideout in the huddle, Alshon Jeffery, or one of the best receivers out of the backfield ever, Darren Sproles.
But in the huddle, Foles called Tate’s number. “He was calm and cool, just like the Nick I’ve known ever since I got here this season,” Tate said. “He called the play, and it was gonna be me on 27 [Chicago cornerback Sherrick McManus], and that’s exactly what I wanted. I always want the ball with the game on the line.”
A midseason acquisition, Tate scored one touchdown in eight very pedestrian games since his trade from Detroit. Still, Pederson put Tate in the slot to the right, had him run a very normal sprint-right option (sprinting ahead to the goal line, and immediately breaking right) while Foles rolled right. Great call, better execution. Tate was the first option, and, as it turned out, the only option.
“When I broke off the line, I felt good about winning the matchup, and I got between him and Nick, ran the best possible route I knew how, and Nick just dropped a dime. He put in a spot where only I could catch it. That says a lot about the coach, the offensive coordinator, the quarterback, showing faith in me on what could have been our last play. For them to put our season on me is pretty great.”
And then … Eagles radio legend Merrill Reese with the call.
“The kick … and it is … NO GOOD, NO GOOD!!! IT IS NO GOOD AND THE EAGLES WIN!”
“I have to be a man,” Parkey said after the game. “It’s on me. I feel terrible. For whatever reason, it hit the crossbar … and the upright.”
You do not want to mess with Foles magic. Or the sharp known as Mark Cannizzaro.
Big weekend. Colossal weekend of matchups. Bullet points before we get to my Sunday in Baltimore:
• Nice D. This was supposed to be the start of offenses gone wild. In the NFL this year, teams scored an average of 23.34 points per game. In the playoffs, that number fell to 18.13 points per game for the eight teams playing over the weekend. When’s the last time no team scored 25 on an NFL weekend? Red Grange days?
• So long Ozzie (and Joe). The Ravens, 23 seasons old, look a little different today. The only man ever to run the team’s personnel department, GM Ozzie Newsome, is retiring, replaced by longtime aide Eric DeCosta. And Super Bowl-winning quarterback Joe Flacco will play elsewhere in 2019. The mantel’s been passed to Lamar Jackson, the lustily booed one, after he fell to earth Sunday against the Chargers.
• The Colts are dangerous. Indy, 10-1 since awakening from an October slumber, handled Houston 21-7, and the Colts’ reward is to go to Kansas City to face the top-seed Chiefs.
• You’ve got to see this video. On Friday, I went to Kansas City to interview likely 2018 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes for NBC’s pre-game show next Saturday prior to Colts-Chiefs. The NBC folks had a great idea: see if Mahomes would show us how to make that no-look throw that he made against Baltimore four weeks ago. He was cute about it. We set up a couple of garbage cans, trying to duplicate his no-look pass that day to Demarcus Robinson. “What do I get if I hit it?” A fine bottle of wine seemed fair. So Mahomes and I walked on the Chiefs’ practice field (the “walk-and-talk” in TV is a thing), and when he got to end of the field, we stopped and he explained to me exactly what went into his training to make no-look throws, and how the mechanics of this play against the Ravens actually happened. And then … well, you’ll see.
Now, onto the Chargers, and Rivers, and one of the most interesting defensive game plans in recent playoff history.
Philip Rivers, the only passer in the Class of 2004 left standing, jogged off the field in his grass-green Charger uniform late Sunday afternoon …
Whoa. Chargers wore white against Baltimore. “Grass-green?”
Grass-stained, from shoulder pads to nameplate to numbers, front and back. Equipment guys aren’t getting that baby pristine unless they wash it six times.
“YES! YES!” Rivers yelled, the fire still in his 37-year-old eyes, stopping to hug GM Tom Telesco and owner Dean Spanos outside the locker room after the 23-17 wild-card win over the Ravens.
Lots to unpack after this game. It starts with that defensive plan. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley threw the changeup of the NFL season at Baltimore, making a dominant run game feeble with a seven-defensive-back alignment from the first snap of the game to the last. When Bradley first discussed it with coach Anthony Lynn early in the week, Lynn said, “Are we insane, or what?” Nope. It worked. The Chargers (13-4) flummoxed Baltimore with 58 snaps (out of 59) of seven-DB defense.
The Chargers did this for health reasons—they’re beat-up at linebacker—but also for strategic ones. Instead of playing 240 pounds-250-251 across as their three ‘backers, Bradley wanted to go 195 (Jahleel Addae), 210 (Adrian Phillips), with rookie all-pro safety Derwin James (215) coming into the box at times—like the first defensive snap of the game. Lamar Jackson, the biggest running threat in the league at quarterback right now, broke for the right end on the first play from scrimmage in front of a jacked-up crowd.
Loss of one. James stoned him.
“The momentum of the defense rose from there,” James told me afterward. “When that play happened, we just got so jacked.”
Midway through the first quarter, an NFL GM acquaintance of mine texted me: “Chargers playing with 7 DBs. What’s this all about?” Speed. Quickness. Playing Lamar Jackson. That’s what it was about. “I wasn’t sure how this was gonna hold up,” Lynn said afterward. “They were running for 300 yards lots of games with Lamar playing. Gus felt like getting speed on the field could help contain Lamar. It could help in the passing game, dropping back and taking over routes that our linebackers usually cover. It worked. Our guys, they embraced it. It was risky, but it paid off. We’re talking about going up against a rushing attack that no one can stop right now. And we’re gonna do it with two 200-pound guys?
“What was cool,” said James, “is our DB room, we got seven or eight guys in there everyday. And today, every one of them started and played the whole way, basically.”
It’s infectious being around James, who will compete with Indianapolis linebacker and NFL tackles leader Darius Leonard for Defensive Rookie of the Year. You can tell he loves his space in life. He talked to every media member for as long as he could Sunday, punctuating it with talking on FaceTime to a slew of friends, at one point introducing one to Melvin Ingram. It’s cool to see someone who loves the game and wants to be great acting out his dreams.
“So you guys haven’t lost all year outside L.A.,” I told James. “Why are you so good away from home?”
“It’s fun being around guys who love being into football 24/7,” he said. “We love football. We love it, we love it, we love it. When we get on the road, we get to spend more time together talking football, being together.”
James, Desmond King, Ingram, Michael Davis … The Chargers have picked a bunch of players recently who love football the way Philip Rivers does. That showed up play after play Sunday. Did you notice Rivers acting out Sunday? He got whacked hard by Ravens linebacker Matthew Judon twice in the second half—and Rivers thought both hits came a little late, after he’d released the ball on a pass. So Rivers got fired up at Judon, and they jawed, and Judon at one point looked hurt and struggled to get up. “That’s what you get!” Rivers hollered at him.
And so on the Chargers’ last scoring drive of the game, early in the fourth quarter, Rivers, a plodder, escaped trouble and lumbered nine yards for a first down on third-and-eight. When he got up, Rivers looked like Steve Smith. He thrust his chest out for the 45 Ravens and 70,432 fans to see.
By his locker afterward, no longer grass-stained but still filthy (and deliriously happy), Rivers did his best to dissect how it happened. He did a terrific job of dumping off passes milliseconds before a cover-zero rush would get to him. “They brought cover-zero again on us some, and we took advantage when we got an opportunity for big plays. I told [friend and Baltimore safety Eric] Weddle and [defensive coordinator] Wink Martindale after the game they did a heckuva job. What did we have? A little over 200 yards of offense.”
Now the Rivers will head back to the East Coast late Friday after a full week of prep for the Patriots. And Rivers knows this could be his last shot at the elusive Super Bowl. One of the most annoying NFL storylines, to Rivers, is that his 2004 draft-mates Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning have a total of four Super Bowl wins. He has zero.
So, I asked him, will the trip to Foxboro be especially important, with the sands of time running out of the hourglass?
“I think … definitely, probably, maybe I’ll be even more excited. I think probably even a little bit more emotional. You know? So you’re going to Foxboro … That gets me a little bit. Last time we were there in the postseason was 2007, or January ’08, but 2007 season. That’s 11 years ago, you know. Now we’re going back in there … I went in there at 26 and go back in at 37. You know. With a totally different team.
“But because you’re going against a Bill Belichick defense, a Bill Belichick team, and Tom Brady-led team … you’re talking about arguably the greatest of all time. I’m not playing Tom. But it’s always special. Peyton Manning was always a favorite to play. It was special to look over and say, ‘Peyton Manning’s leading that team over there!’ That was special to me. Tom Brady’s gonna be the guy leading that team over there this week. That’s special. I’m not going against Tom, but it’s special.
“I think this team is just … I think we’re a little more weathered. You know? We just been through a lot. We’ve been all over the place. We’ve been to London. We’ve been everywhere on the road and won. We’ve won with defense. We’ve won with offense. We’ve won with kick returns. We’ve won with field goals. There’s no other way we can win. I don’t know that we can be put in a situation and go, ‘Oh gosh, how are our guys gonna respond?’ That doesn’t mean you always win. But I don’t know anything that can come our way that can make us go, ‘Help!’ “
Good vibe out of the Chargers’ cramped locker room Sunday. They’re one-third of the way down the Super Bowl road. That second trip, though. It’s a doozy.
I’ve always hated “the divisional round,” as a name for the second weekend of NFL playoffs. Doesn’t come much more boring than that. I christen this weekend the Conference Semis. The most compelling game, from my chair, looks like the first one.
Indianapolis (11-6, AFC 6th seed) at Kansas City (12-4, AFC 1st seed), Arrowhead Stadium, 4:35 p.m. ET, NBC.
I don’t recall the last time a respected football voice (Steve Young, in this case) said of a sixth seed: “Nobody wants to play the Colts right now.” But he did, and there’s evidence for that. Indy’s 10-1 since Week 7, and it’s not just The Andrew Luck Story. The Colts’ D suffocated Houston till garbage time, using more secondary blitzes than I’ve seen in a while. Unknown corner/slot corner Kenny Moore blitzed 11 times, per Pro Football Focus, and extra men were swarming around Deshaun Watson all night. The wild-card win is exhibit A of why defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus is on the radar of several teams looking for a head coach this month.
With the Chiefs likely to get speed receiver threat Sammy Watkins back from a nagging foot injury that never goes away, that means it’s going to be an interesting race: Can the Colts’ rush get to Patrick Mahomes before he can find an answer in his five-across receiver sets? I can’t wait to see how the Chiefs try to block this Indianapolis front, and whether Andy Reid will just keep his aggressive downfield spread ethos and trust Mahomes to get the ball out quick. This game would be great strategic fun on that alone. Now add in the Luck factor, and coach Frank Reich’s ability to free up a variety of receivers weekly, and the fact that someone named Marlon Mack rushed for 148 yards, most in Indy team history, and the Chiefs have allowed 164 rushing yards a game over the last five games.
This looks nothing like a 6 versus 1 playoff game. This looks like a pretty even ballgame with great storylines.
Dallas (11-6, NFC 4th seed) at Los Angeles Rams (13-3, NFC 2nd seed), L.A. Coliseum, 8:15 p.m. ET, FOX.
Let’s step back for a minute and think how interesting it is that two years ago, the two teams now in southern California, the Rams and Chargers, were a woebegone 9-23, and league owners were rolling their eyes at the possibility of the combo platter of two lousy teams owning this valuable piece of NFL property known as Los Angeles. Now they’re 26-7, and they’re legit members of the NFL’s elite eight. Nothing is forever in the NFL.
Other than Jerry Jones getting to take his entourage to Nobu in Malibu, the best thing for Dallas about this weekend is this matchup. In 2018, the Rams gave up 5.1 yards per rush, which is beyond an Achilles heel. It’s preposterous, and it’s the biggest reason why the Rams could be endangered species when Ezekiel Elliott rolls into the Coliseum on Saturday evening. Elsewhere in this column I write about how impressive a football player (not just a great back; I mean a complete player) Elliott is. And the more the Cowboys are able to ride Elliott, the less of a factor Aaron Donald will be in making Dak Prescott’s life miserable.
The tale of two backs in this game—which will be the ratings bonanza of the postseason—has one big mystery: How healthy is Todd Gurley, and how productive can he be? Gurley hasn’t been himself since he saved the Rams with a 155-yard performance (rushing and receiving) at Detroit, and regardless whether he practices this week or is listed on the injury report, I won’t trust him till I see if he can dominate a game the way he did in the first half of this season. This game’s going to be closer than it looks.
Los Angeles Chargers (13-4, AFC 5th seed) at New England (11-5, AFC 2nd seed), Gillette Stadium, 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS.
For the NFL-record 10th straight year, the Patriots open the AFC playoffs at home. New England’s edges entering this game: 13 days between games … Rob Gronkowski can always use the rest … Bill Belichick is pretty smart, and smarter when he’s got two weeks to prepare … The Chargers could be weary, with L.A.-to-Baltimore, Baltimore-to-L.A, and Baltimore-to-Providence flights, 17 hours in the air in all, in a nine-day span prior to the game.
Now to the football: The Chargers have multiple pass-rush threats that bedeviled a mobile quarterback, Lamar Jackson, in a seven-sack whipping of the Ravens. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are the major threats, but Justin Jones and Isaac Rochell are big and quick too, and they both got to Jackson in Baltimore. So it’s a big, athletic defense that will be the challenge for Tom Brady, with the Chargers’ weakness their injuries at linebacker. This is not a game the Chargers will want to play seven defensive backs. New England’s strength will be the ability to play an unpredictable offensive game, as coordinator Josh McDaniels has designed run-heavy, swing-pass-heavy, pass-heavy, and Gronk-light plans during the course of a malleable season—so the Chargers won’t have much of an idea what they’ll see until a little after 1 p.m. Sunday.
The Chargers won’t be cowed by much of anything. They’ve won in four times zones this year, including Greenwich Mean Time. That’s London. “We love the road,” Derwin James told me. “Maybe a lot of teams don’t, but we’re young, we’re all good with each other, and we love spending time together. The road’s good for that.” Well, whatever works. The Chargers are 8-0 outside of Los Angeles this year. Then again, New England is 8-0 at Gillette this year. Something’s got to give.
Philadelphia (10-7, NFC 6th seed) at New Orleans (13-3, NFC 1st seed), Superdome, 4:40 p.m. ET, FOX.
I was in New Orleans the weekend the Saints hosted the Eagles in November. “Hosted” is a collegial, misleading word. “Pillaged” would be better. Saints’ best six drives that afternoon in the Dome, against a team that looked dead for the year: 57, 86, 89, 89, 70, 87. Eagles’ best six drives: 75, 31, 19, 17, 16, 14. This was as brutal a mismatch as either team had all season … and now the Eagles travel to New Orleans again.
So why should it be different? Maybe it won’t be. Except for Miracle Nick Foles replacing Carson Wentz, there’s not much different about the Eagles eight weeks later. But the Saints are looking less invincible since then. After putting up 45, 51 and 48 in three straight November weeks, they’ve averaged a quite strange 21 points per game in the last six weeks (including a meaningless Week 17 game). The real Saints need to stand up here, if they’re going to win the second Super Bowl of the Payton/Brees Era. The offensive mortality has to give Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz hope.
On the other side, Foles is 4-0 in playoff games as an Eagle the past two seasons, and there’s something strange and almost eerie about the Eagles when Foles plays. They find a way to win. Fletcher Cox told me the Eagles players “just flushed” that November game—didn’t watch or study it; it got out of control against a secondary ravaged by injury, and Philly just moved on without allowing that game to defeat the players. We’ll see if that approach works.
The one thing you do notice about the Eagles on the defensive side now is they’re not held hostage by awful pass coverage. They’ve allowed 30 points just once since the Saints game. I think this game comes down to Drew Brees finding completions, short and intermediate, and not giving Foles more than eight or nine possession to make his magic.
Last Monday, when I sat down to finalize my all-pro team for the Associated Press (I am one of the 50 media voters for the annual team), I typed in DeAndre Hopkins and Antonio Brown as my two wide receivers, with Tyreek Hill as my “flex” player. (Because so many teams now play more than two receivers on the majority of plays, or maybe an all-purpose player like Tarik Cohen, the AP gives voters a chance to pick a third offensive skill player.) The receiver position was exceedingly hard, with Michael Thomas (league-high 125 catches), Julio Jones (league-high 1,677 yards), Adam Thielen (eight straight 100-yard receiving games), Davante Adams and several others in the running. There is no position on the field with such depth today. Ballots were due Wednesday at noon. I emailed mine Monday evening.
On Monday night, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story of Brown missing Sunday’s regular-season finale against Cincinnati NOT because of an injury was gaining steam. As the newspaper reported, it was apparent that Brown was not injured—at least not to the point where it would have kept him from playing. He went AWOL, apparently, because of a snit. He didn’t practice Wednesday (getting a so-called vets’ day off), didn’t practice Thursday or Friday, couldn’t be reached by coach Mike Tomlin (according to Tomlin), skipped Saturday’s walk-through and Saturday night meetings. Tomlin said Brown’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, called Sunday morning to say Brown would be there for the game and ready to play. Tomlin said he told Rosenhaus that Brown wouldn’t be playing. The agent called the coach. Not Brown.
The Steelers had to win and Baltimore had to lose Sunday to have a chance to make the playoffs. As it turned out, the Steelers barely had enough offense to win, 16-13. Baltimore won narrowly. Then Brown skipped end-of-season meetings Monday.
The more I thought about it, the more disgusted I got. There might be some slightly contrarian evidence, but there’s not much debate that Brown petulantly missed multiple practices prior to a game with major playoff implications, a game he could have and almost certainly would have influenced. I could not in good conscience vote for a person who went AWOL for a game of such magnitude. So I erased Brown, typed in Thomas of the Saints, and re-filed my ballot to the AP.
Some of you may think that it’s just one of 16 games, and he did enough in 15 games (a league-best 15 touchdowns, with just one drop in 164 targets) to be all-pro. That’s not how I see it. Brown’s actions sidelined him for 6.25 percent of the Steelers’ season. While guys like T.Y. Hilton and Tyreek Hill played through significant pain in games with major playoff implications down the stretch, Brown went AWOL. Someone else can vote for him. I’m not. I wouldn’t vote for him if the all-pro team were 20 receivers deep this year, though clearly he’s a top-five receiver. He disqualified himself for consideration for anything this year by his actions of Week 17.
Compare this to Kyrie Irving disappearing for five games without telling his team anything; that’s 6 percent of an NBA season. Or Sidney Crosby disappearing for five games of the NHL season. Or Mike Trout taking off, unannounced, for 10 games of the baseball season. Those are all 6 percent of their teams’ seasons. That would be unacceptable. At least it would be to me. I wouldn’t pick any of those players, under those circumstances, for all-league honors or for any honor, no matter how great they had been in the other 94 percent of their season, if they went AWOL the way Brown did.
As for the future, the Steelers have time to let the situation cool off. The start of the 2019 league year is nine weeks away (March 13). I’d let this thing simmer down. In mid-February, Mike Tomlin could quietly meet Brown in some private place in Florida and they could have the face-to-face they’re going to need to have if this relationship can be salvaged. It’s worth salvaging; Brown, 30, is a dominant and affordable player, at $38.9 million over the next three years. But if he won’t agree to Tomlin’s way, all the way, Brown should be traded.
Who would trade for him? I’ll give you possibilities: Oakland (with four first-round picks in the next two drafts and a coach who won’t fear the distraction), Carolina (though the Panthers have spent profusely on Cam Newton weapons, here’s one that could make the Panthers two or three wins better); San Francisco (all-world young tight end, but just an okay receiving corps); and the Jets. An idea? Jets trade Robbie Anderson and a second-round pick to the Steelers for Brown. Jets sign Le’Veon Bell. And the (Steelers East) Jets finally have the weapons to be a potent NFL offense for the next two or three years.
But there’s no hurry. This should simmer for six weeks. Heads should cool. If Brown can be salvaged, and he can be a team guy in 2019, that gives next year’s Steelers the best chance to play deep into the postseason. If not, he’s got to go.
Finally, after I made my views public Friday, some conflated my view on Brown with my view from four years ago of the right of Darren Sharper, a member of the 2000s NFL all-decade team now imprisoned for multiple sexual assaults, to be considered for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I never voted for Sharper to be enshrined. (I have said this 67 times over the past four years, but it continues to have life from people who either can’t read or who have some other motive for purposely misstating what I’ve said on Sharper.) My view on this remains that every player has the right to be considered for the Hall, because the criteria for enshrinement mandate that voters consider only a player’s career on the field, and what impacts that career on the field.
I told the Brown/AP story to Mike Florio on his “PFT Live” show on NBC Sports Network on Friday morning—not to puff my chest out and say, “See what I did to Antonio Brown?” I’ve been transparent on things like all-pro voting and the Pro Football Hall of Fame voting, and this was such a unique story that I felt I should tell it.
As always, your opinions are welcome.
Offensive Players of the Week
Anthony Castonzo, left tackle; Quenton Nelson, left guard; Ryan Kelly, center; Mark Glowinski, right guard; Braden Smith, right tackle, Indianapolis. The Colts line, beleaguered for years, played its best game of the year on the biggest stage Saturday, the 21-7 wild-card win at Houston. Andrew Luck passed 32 times and ran eight, and he was not sacked, and he was pressured significantly four times. Marlon Mack ran for 148 yards, and the Colts as a team ran for 200 … against a Houston defense that hadn’t allowed any team to rush for 125 yards all season. All achieved with two rookies (Nelson, Smith) and a Seattle castoff (Glowinski) claimed on waivers. A tremendous effort by—suddenly—one of the best offensive lines in football.
Ezekiel Elliott, running back, Dallas. After watching his 169-total-yard night in the 24-22 win over Seattle, I thought, This guy could have played in Jim Brown’s era and been really good. He’s the kind of smart, physical back Vince Lombardi and Paul Brown would have loved. My favorite play from Elliott: Dallas, up 17-14 with 3:41 left, was trying to run down the clock in Seattle territory. Elliott ran around right end, stiff-armed Shaquill Griffin at the Seahawk 32, sprinted up the sideline, looked like he’d get pushed out around the 15, but ducked physically back into the field and dove down at the 13. Gain of 17. But here’s the big part of it: He took the snap with 3:41 left, and the next play was snapped at 2:51. The whole thing there is to bleed the clock AND get yards, both of which are vital. Elliott did both. He has a sense of where he is. “He just kept coming and kept coming,” coach Jason Garrett said. “Physical toughness, mental toughness—he embodies that. He wants it at the critical moments. Boy, he was something else tonight.” Rushing: 26 carries, 137 yards, one TD. Receiving: four catches, 32 yards. A good night’s work.
Defensive Players of the Week
Kenny Moore, cornerback, Indianapolis. What a game for Moore. He helped stop three of Houston’s nine drives on a frustrating offensive day for the Texans. The second-year undrafted corner from Valdosta (Ga.) State picked off Deshaun Watson—Watson’s first pick since Nov. 18—late in the first quarter with the Texans down 14-0 and trying to get something going. Moore sacked Watson on a corner blitz in the third quarter on third-and-15, forcing a Houston punt. And, on Houston’s last gasp, down 14 with 4:13 left in the game with a fourth-and-10, Moore blitzed again, shoved Lamar Miller into Watson just as he was throwing, and the ball sailed way off target. Never heard of Moore before Saturday? You’re not alone. You need to go to school on him and this Indy D now.
Melvin Ingram, defensive end, Los Angeles Chargers. The pressure was on the Chargers’ defensive front to not only rush the passer, but to keep the big Baltimore line away from the second level of the Charger D. That’s because the second level of the LA defense was the secondary. Los Angeles played seven defensive backs on the first snap of the game, and for all but one Raven snap after that, and it worked—in large part because Ingram and his mates up front harassed the Baltimore quarterback and runners all day. Ingram was impactful all game, with two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Special Teams Players of the Week
Desmond King, cornerback/returner, L.A. Chargers. In the game of the weekend that valued yards like gold bullion, King flipped the field on the Chargers’ second scoring drive of the day, returning a poor Sam Koch punt 33 yards to give L.A. a first down at the Baltimore 42-yard line. After the Chargers did nothing with their possession, Michael Badgley bailed them out with a 53-yard field goal. All possible because of King. To start the second half, King’s 72-yard return put the Chargers at the Ravens’ 26, in perfect position to extend the lead. But a Badgley field-goal was blocked. One more thing: King sacked Lamar Jackson in the fourth quarter. Not a bad day for the rising second-year star from Iowa.
Michael Badgley, kicker, L.A. Chargers. First-half field goals of 21, 53, 40 and 34 yards in a 12-0 ballgame at the half, in breezy Baltimore. He added a 47-yard field goal in garbage time. Not bad for the 11th game of his professional career, a 23-17 Charger win.
Neiko Thorpe, cornerback/gunner, Seattle. Every punt team plays “gunners,” the single chasers lined up wide of the punter on either side, sprinting downfield at the snap in hopes of making a play when the punt falls to earth. So with Dallas down 10-6 midway through the third quarter, Seattle’s Michael Dickson punted inside the 5, and here came Thorpe from his spot at right gunner, diving as the ball bounded into the end zone, and Thorpe batted it with his body parallel to the ground, the ball being downed at the two-yard line. Huge play. Seattle’s D held, Dallas punted, Seattle got a short field, Seattle scored and got a two-point conversion. That Thorpe play led to eight Seattle points.
Coaches of the Week
Gus Bradley, defensive coordinator, L.A. Chargers. Some telling numbers:
• 16 days ago in California, when Baltimore beat the Chargers 22-10:
Ravens rushing yards, 159. Passing yards, 202.
• Sunday in Baltimore, through 50 minutes of a 23-17 Chargers’ win:
Ravens rushing yards, 76. Passing yards, 44.
Faced with a thin linebacking corps and a surplus of fast defensive backs, Bradley came up with an idea that was crucial to the Chargers shutting down Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. The Chargers would go small, playing seven defensive backs on 58 of Baltimore’s 59 offensive plays, per NFL Next Gen Stats. And though the Ravens had a prayer late after rallying for two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, it was the suffocating Charger defense through 50 minutes that helped Los Angeles to a commanding 23-3 lead in the fourth quarter that the Ravens couldn’t overcome. “No one has played that team the way our defense did today,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “Hats off to Gus Bradley and his staff.”
Matt Eberflus, defensive coordinator, Indianapolis. I asked Colts safety Kenny Moore why he blitzed so much. Moore is 5-9 and 190 pounds after a huge meal; he’s not exactly the typical hammer back there. “I don’t know,” Moore said. “Coach Eberflus has a way of putting us all in places where he thinks we can make plays. He’s good at it.” Eberflus used his chess pieces, on the road, to hold the Texans to 168 yards in the first 43 minutes of the game; the Texans got some yards, and seven points, late, but you never felt this was in doubt. Eberflus doesn’t have the stars of a Houston or Baltimore, but he’s done a great job of using his imagination and throwing some weirdly effective things (like blitzing the diminutive Moore 11 times in a playoff games) at good offenses, frustrating them.
Goat of the Week
Cody Parkey, kicker, Chicago. He picked a brutal time for his 11th miss of the season—and quite possibly his last kick ever as a Bear. What incredible drama, missing the game-winning kick from 43 yards with 10 seconds left in a magical season for the rebuilt Monsters of the Midway. Two things made it hurt more: one, he hit his first attempt, but Eagles coach Doug Pederson called a last-millisecond timeout to ice him; and then of course, the double-doink. Just heartbreaking, but goat-worthy nonetheless.
Officials of the Week
Terry Brown, field judge, and Gary Arthur, line judge, Dallas-Seattle game. Five minutes left, third quarter, Dallas up 10-6, fourth-and-five for Seattle at the Dallas 39. Seahawks going for it. Russell Wilson high-arcs one to the left sideline and Doug Baldwin, oh-so-close to the sideline, simultaneously catches the ball and tries to get both feet down and it all happens in real time, at high speed. Brown’s on the sideline about 12 yards up field, and Arthur is about 10 yards behind the play, also on the sideline. Brown comes down right away signaling the catch is good. He and Arthur meet at the spot of the catch, talked, nodded and confirmed the catch. In a sport with so many mistakes on bang-bang plays, Brown got it right, Arthur confirmed it, there was no need for a crew conference, and the game went on quickly. Excellent work.
“Right from the beginning, we’ve said all year, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter, we were writing our own story. It’s an autobiography. No one’s got the pen in their hands. We got the pen in our hands! We’re not done yet. We ensured ourselves at least one more chapter.”
—Colts coach Frank Reich, captured by ESPN, in his post-victory locker-room speech to his team.
“It’s not really up to me. We’ll see what happens. I love the people of Baltimore, man. It’s been 11 years … I can’t imagine a better 11 years, this place becoming my home and my children’s home, just how many different life changes I went through, and how much we won here. Definitely a group of fans and a community that I loved to be around for 11 years.”
—Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, after what was possibly his last game as a Raven. As he did for the second half of the season, he sat on the bench and watched Lamar Jackson lead the team in a 23-17 loss.
“Lamar is our quarterback going forward. No question about that.”
—Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, post-game.
“They have such a hard job to do. I know we look at the replays and analyze them millisecond by millisecond and everybody has all of the answers on what it should be and what it shouldn’t be. These guys are out there trying to do it live and at full speed. They make so many amazingly good calls and some of the plays are just so close that it’s less than an inch or less than—not even a split-second. Just again, just a millisecond of whether it goes one way or another way. They just get so many of them right.”
—New England coach Bill Belichick, on the officials.
“This is about the fabric of the team. This is about the guy that goes on Facebook Live as your coach is talking and leaks information out of the locker room that never should be there. This is about the guy that publicly talks about not getting the ball or issues with the offensive coordinator, knocks over garbage cans or knocks over Gatorade bottles and cans because he doesn’t get the rock. At some point, when you’re an organization that’s built on team, an organization that’s built on integrity, you have to show the rest of the locker room … It’s time to go.”
—ESPN’s Ryan Clark, the former Steelers safety, on Antonio Brown, telling saying he thinks the Steelers should part ways with Antonio Brown.
“He’s a mensch. Someday, I hope to be a mensch.”
—Giants GM Dave Gettleman, on quarterback Eli Manning.
Wow. Three uses of the word “mensch” in this column in the last three weeks.
“Simple. He’s a grown-ass man.”
—Ezekiel Elliott, asked by Erin Andrews of FOX his thought about Dak Prescott running for 16 yards on third-and-14 to clinch the playoff win over Seattle in the final minutes.
Undersized Indianapolis cornerback Kenny Moore, one of the stars of the Colts’ 21-7 win over Houston, didn’t try out for his high school team in Valdosta, Ga., till his senior year. He was not drafted out of Division II Valdosta State. He is 5-9, 190, and runs a relatively pedestrian 4.45-second 40-yard dash. But after a 2017 training camp in New England, a 2017 special-teams season in Indianapolis, and earning a starting job this year, Moore has become a vital part of a no-name Indy defense, intercepting and sacking Deshaun Watson on Saturday.
Moore, on what he’s learned about football, and succeeding in it:
“I played as a child—pee wee, middle school. But then I stopped. I didn’t think I was big enough. I didn’t think I was fit. I went back my senior year and tried out as a receiver—I didn’t think I could hit. I‘m from a pretty big football area. But they put me at corner, and I was lucky. They played me all season.
“So … what I’ve learned. I learned a lot in New England last year before I was cut. Be humble. Grind. Don’t be selfish. Do your job. It’s not over till it’s over. Don’t think about your spot, and your chances. Just work every day. Get better every day.
“Early on [in an NFL camp] I found I didn’t really have the football knowledge of a lot of the guys I met. So I got a lot of knowledge last year. First there was the role of playing special teams, but then I had to learn every position, and how to be a good teammate. That helped me a lot. Then this year, with the new [Colts coaching] staff, we all had a clean slate. Nobody knew me. I learned, ‘Assert yourself to these coaches. Show them who you are.’ This staff is about getting better every day. That’s what they say all the time. So, do not look forward. Live in the moment. Prove yourself every day. And it’s worked out so far.”
I asked: “You intercepted Deshaun Watson in this game, and it looked like you baited him and made him think you wouldn’t cut in front of the receiver to get the ball. True? How’d it happen?”
“We have something in our defense. We give a certain look and then we play a different play. I think I sort of gave that illusion to Watson, being aggressive, put my hands on the tight end, but then I really had a passive mindset. I let him go, then just waited. I saw what he was going to do, and just broke on the ball and got it.
“I can’t even describe the feeling of what’s going on in my life, looking back a few years when I didn’t think I was big enough. The biggest lesson I’ve learned, really, is pretty easy. Work. Just work. It’s not over till it’s over. You can have the worst childhood, and you can have other disadvantages in your life, and you just work. At the end, that overcomes so much. Can’t stress that enough. That’s done it for me.”
Remember midway through last season, when Cleveland left tackle Joe Thomas suffered a torn triceps, which, as it turned out, ended his career? Thomas played 10,363 consecutive snaps as an NFL player, over 11 seasons. He played every snap of his professional life. The record seemed rock solid. Who would ever play every play for 10-plus seasons, or however long it took to play 10,363 straight snaps?
Not so fast for that unbreakable record.
“I still talk with Joe,” said Kansas City right tackle Mitchell Schwartz the other day. “I joke that I want to break it just to invalidate all the signatures he’s been signing with the 10,363 on it.”
Schwartz played the first four seasons of his career in Cleveland, on the same line with Thomas. He learned well the blue-collar ethos. Entering next week’s playoff game with Indianapolis, Schwartz has played every snap of his seven-year career: 7,397 offensive plays in 114 games. That leaves him 2,967 plays from breaking the Thomas record. That means Schwartz needs to stay pristinely healthy (and he has not had even a minor injury that’s been close to making him miss any time in seven years) for the next two-and-three-quarters years, or thereabouts, to break the record.
So can Schwartz stay upright for the next 46 games, approximately? If so, around Thanksgiving 2021, Thomas is going to have some company in ironman land.
How good was Aaron Donald this year? By one measure, the Rams defensive tackle—and certain Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight year—had the best season a player at any position has had since 2006, when Pro Football Focus began measuring every player’s performance in every game.
Donald’s season grade of 123.9 is the highest PFF has given in its 13 years of ranking players. This season, it is 55.7 points ahead of second-place Fletcher Cox of the Eagles, a dominant player in his own right. The most impressive thing about Donald’s season, to me, is that, usually playing from the defensive interior, he had 106 quarterback disruptions (sacks, hits, hurries). So imagine this: On about one of every five snaps Donald played when the opposition was going to pass, he sacked/hit/pressured the quarterback. Amazing for an interior player.
J.J. Watt is the only dominant comparable, in my opinion, in the PFF era to Donald. Watt won the Defensive Player of the Year award three times in four seasons between 2012 and 2015. Watt’s PFF grades in those years: 89.0, 94.1, 93.6, 93.9.
Donald’s greatness is beyond dispute. He’s 27. He’s healthy, with no history of significant injury. He’s five years into what should be a historic career.
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Let it be known that you can get on the subway on the Upper West Side of New York, travel to Penn Station to catch an Amtrak Acela train to Baltimore, cover an NFL playoff game, work the locker room, write for an hour, go to the Baltimore train station, have a cold beer, take the train back to New York, interview Golden Tate, do a good chunk of writing, take the subway home … in 14.7 hours.
In games played after mid-December in the last two seasons, Nick Foles is 9-1, winning by an average of 10.2 points per game.
Goats are a part of sports, and have been forever. You root for your team, and you’ll be furious when they miss a huge kick. Clearly, the miss is on Parkey. He knows it; we all know it. Here’s the problem with releasing vitriol like this:
Should any of the vitriol go to GM and coach for hanging onto one of the least-accurate kickers in football when so many games come down to a late-game kick? This was Parkey’s 11th missed kick of the season. That’s way too many.
Should any of the vitriol go to the line that allowed the kick to be slightly deflected by Treyvon Hester of the Eagles?
Should any of the vitriol go to sports? By that I mean nothing in sports is a lock. I saw maybe the best kicker ever, Justin Tucker, miss a straightway 50-yarder that historically he makes eight of 10 times.
It’s sports, people. Failures, successes, losses, wins. It’s why you watch, why you love, why you will be back next week.
On Nick Foles after another win. From Corey G.: “If you’re Eagles GM Howie Roseman, what needs to happen for you to keep Nick Foles?”
Great question. I had an interesting conversation with someone very close to the Eagles situation last week. He said if he were in authority with the Eagles, he’d go to Foles and say, “You’re a different kind of guy. You almost quit football a couple of years ago because it wasn’t fun. Your family means everything. You’re so human. Maybe you should think about being a relief pitcher or part-time starter.” In other words, maybe Howie Roseman and Doug Pederson could convince Foles to be an Eagle for the next two or three years at maybe $15 million per, and let the chips fall where they may with Carson Wentz and his health and the starting job. I thought that was smart. Of all the wannabe starting QBs I’ve met over the years, I think Foles might rather be 1a or 1b in Philadelphia versus the starter on a team he really doesn’t trust to win big.
Take your blame, Bear defense. From Jake, of Chicago: “I tuned into a sports channel after the Bears and Eagles game. So much time was spent talking about the last field goal but what about the top-ranked Bears defense at the goal line near the end of the game. Several Bears defensive players could have made a play but didn’t. The kicker seems like an easy out to lay the blame. Why are they not talking about the defense that could not step up when it counted?”
Thanks Jake. One sack. Not nearly enough pressure on Nick Foles. You make a very good point.
Interesting concept, but problematic. From Brian S.: “Why doesn’t the NFL force a moratorium on hiring coaches from the end of the regular season until the Super Bowl is over? Before you say that it is a disadvantage to the teams making the change, consider that it could be a stabilizing move that would make teams think twice about changing their coach. As you have correctly pointed out, the Steelers have been successful for a long time with only three head coaches since 1969.”
Brian, I am also bothered by coaches on playoff teams squeezing in interviews when, you could argue, their sole focus should be on their games. I can tell you the biggest reason why most NFL teams would not be in favor of this, or at least would have a major problem with it. Say you’re Denver GM John Elway this year. You’ve decided you’re going to move on from Vance Joseph. Instead of cutting the cord on Dec. 31 and letting Joseph get on with his life while you get on with yours, you have to wait five weeks—till the day after the Super Bowl—to even start the process. Then it’s likely to take a week to get the coach candidates interviewed. Let say you hire your coach on Feb. 11, and you get the full staff hired by the 15th. Essentially, that’s six weeks you could have been meeting with new staff, getting your pre-combine house in order, and organizing your team for the new season. If every team changing coaches has to do that, it’s not a huge disadvantage, but I would have to be convinced of some good reason for Vance Joseph to sit around knowing he’s getting fired, and be unable to do anything to move on with his life till mid-February.
1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of Wild-Card Weekend:
a. Feel for you, Allen Hurns. Not much else to say after one of the most graphic injuries any of us have ever seen.
b. Imagine you’re playing football at 7:45 p.m. in Texas, make a big catch, get tackled, your leg snaps, and you’re in crucial surgery to fix the leg by 9:45 p.m., your career in question. How very tough.
c. The fourth-down 22-yard sideline catch by Doug Baldwin, Seattle down four midway through the third quarter, was the play of the weekend. A phenomenal clutch catch on the left sideline, knowing exactly where he was and what he had to do.
d. The only receiver better than Baldwin on the sideline catches, needing to get the second foot down on the one blade of grass before the white sideline stripe, is DeAndre Hopkins. It takes timing, hands, pressing feet to the ground uncomfortably … and when it works, as it did with Baldwin, it’s a thing of beauty.
e. Jerry says Dak needs to run more. Dak runs. Dak’s instinctive. Dak has 29 huge rushing yards in a playoff game, including a conversion on third-and-14. Jerry feels good.
f. I thought the NFL wasn’t playing defense anymore. (You mean I’m one of the idiots who advanced that storyline?) Pretty good defensive weekend, overall.
g. Don’t think Brian Schottenheimer was irresponsible in forcing the run and then forcing the run some more. But Seattle’s last nine runs in the third quarter went for minus-7, 3, 0, 2, 3, 2, 7, 1 and 4 yards. Too much banging heads against the wall. Would have rather seen Russell Wilson throw it more than 27 times in 52 offensive snaps for Seattle.
h. Big plays early from Margus Hunt, the Colts’ 6-8 defensive tackle from Estonia, stuffing Lamar Miller to force second-and-long for the Texans, and then sprinting to catch a scrambling Deshaun Watson to force a punt two plays later.
i. Just west of Russia, north of Latvia, south of Finland. You know Estonia.
j. Great stat from NFL Network: Luck is 13-1 against top-five scoring defenses in his career.
k. “Andrew Luck is back,” Steve Young said on ESPN at halftime of the Colts’ domination of Houston. “He is healthy. He looks like an all-pro, Hall of Fame kind of player.”
l. I won’t join the Deshaun Watson-bashing club this morning. He didn’t play well. He was too inaccurate, and got goaded into a first-half pick by a disguised coverage he should have recognized. But he also has not been able to get into a groove all season because the pressure he faces has never let up—13 more QB disruptions Saturday.
n. Man, that Michael Dickson onside dropkick was ugly. And fruitless. Couldn’t even a wounded Sebastian Janikowski onside-kick a ball better just standing there and kicking with his good leg?
o. Those two (legitimate) pass-interference calls on Seattle as Dallas bled the clock late—killers.
p. Hated the first-quarter third-down play call by the Chargers at the Baltimore four-foot line, throwing 200-pound Austin Ekeler into the middle of about 800 pounds of Raven linemen. Like throwing hamburger at a panther. Predictably: loss of two.
r. Great hustle play up the gut on a partial punt block by Javorius Allen of the Ravens, when Baltimore was in last-gasp mode midway through the third quarter.
s. Great year, of course, for Khalil Mack in Chicago. But he needed to be better Sunday. Great players find a way in big games to be big factors. Mack was far too quiet versus Philadelphia.
t. I want Doug Pederson to teach a class called Not Panicking Under Pressure 101. He is exceedingly good at understanding why the sky really isn’t falling.
u. Don’t look at that replay of Matt Nagy staring daggers through you, Cody Parkey. It’ll hurt too much.
2. I think you’ll be missed, Ozzie Newsome. After 23 years of making every personnel call for the Ravens in their history, you deserve a break. Find 100 golf courses in your beloved Alabama. Play them all in the next 100 days, weather permitting.
3. I think there were three interesting points about the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s cut from 25 to a modern-era finalist list of 15 for the Class of 2019 (a maximum of five of those 15 can be elected when voting is held Feb. 2 in Atlanta):
• Tony Gonzalez and Ed Reed look like heavy favorites. Champ Bailey, another first-year-eligible player, has a good shot too. After that, it’s too close to call. Soon, it seems to me, there has to be a winnowing of the offensive-line logjam, with Tony Boselli, Alan Faneca and Kevin Mawae the three in the final 15. I thought Boselli got close last year.
• Of the 10 men eliminated in the cut from 25 to 15 (Ronde Barber, Leroy Butler, Torry Holt, Jimmy Johnson, Clay Matthews, Karl Mecklenburg, Sam Mills, Zach Thomas, Hines Ward, Darren Woodson), several are excellent candidates and should be discussed in the voting room in the next few years. Clay Matthews Sr. has a compelling case because of his long-term excellence (he had a nine-sack season in Cleveland at age 36 in 1992), and for playing 289 games with a very physical style of play.
• Raider fans and many in the media have clamored for Tom Flores, who had a unique career. He’s one of only 20 players to play all 10 AFL seasons. He earned a Super Bowl ring as a backup quarterback in Kansas City, another as an assistant coach with Oakland, and two more as a Raider head coach. His second act as coach—in Seattle—resulted in three last-place finishes and a 14-34 record, and he won 97 regular-season games in 12 coaching seasons, which is 44thall-time—but one win more than Vince Lombardi and five more than Bill Walsh. The discussion on him should be interesting.
4. I think DeAndre Hopkins donating his game check to the family of Jazmine Barnes, the 7-year-old girl who was murdered last week in a drive-by shooting, is one of the most thoughtful, beautiful acts by any player this year. It’s the thought more than the money—Hopkins said Jazmine reminded him of his daughter—and it’s the feeling of I-stand-with-you community that really hit me about this. Good for Hopkins, and I just hope the family can find some peace and justice in this most nightmarish of situations.
5. I think one of the most interesting stories of the year is the development of Taysom Hill by the Saints. The former Brigham Young quarterback, a waiver pickup by the Saints last season, has become such a weapon that Sean Payton has used him at quarterback, running back, receiver, and on seven of the eight Saints’ kicking teams. (All except the field-goal team.) There is no Swiss Army Knife like Hill in football. He ran it 37 times this year, threw it seven times, caught it three times, returned 13 kicks, returned one punt, made six tackles … and blocked a punt in Tampa in the third quarter Dec. 9 that sparked a 25-0 game-ending run that helped beat the Bucs. Three questions with him:
FMIA: Are you at all surprised at the role you’ve carved out here?
Hill: “Ever since I played this game, my mindset has been to compete. I love playing football. In the end, all I’ve ever wanted to do is play football, and when I didn’t have that chance at quarterback full-time, well, I wanted to just make a team. I am grateful [coach Sean Payton] claimed me and gave me this chance. We are able to create opportunities on special teams and other plays. I love being on the field, doing anything.”
FMIA: You’re 6-2, 220 and you run in the low 4.4’s. That’s a good combination for a versatile guy.
Hill: ”Look, I am not a 4.25 guy for sure. I think I am bigger that most guys who run the ball. I’m one of the bigger guys returning kicks. That’s been unique. But I just try to come in every day and do anything I can to get on the field and help us win. I know that sounds simple, but that’s exactly the way I look at the job.”
FMIA: You were in camp with Green Bay, and now you’re here. You’ve still got a future at quarterback, and you’ve been able to learn from two great ones in Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. What have you learned from them?
Hill: “Learning from those guys … It’s been as good as it gets, as good as it gets. It’s a tough question to answer in a concise way. Aaron was so confident, and so smart. With Drew, he’s very routine-oriented, and he has adopted me, been a mentor to me. We come in early, we stay late. That’s is not part of the job. That is the job. We work through the gameplan every week to the point where I’m going to have a great idea for the rest of my career how to work and learn and prepare. One of my favorite things about him, and I tell this to young QBs: ‘Look at Drew any point of the game. You will never know we’re up by 40 or down.’ Just keep playing.”
6. I think we’re all still in the business of trying to figure out the problems between Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers, and why the Green Bay offense looked so crummy this year. I asked former NFL quarterback and current Bleacher Report and NBC NFL analyst Chris Simms about it on my podcast this week. His take: The Green Bay offense is just too vanilla. Said Simms:
“I think he [McCarthy] is too regular. It’s just basic West Coast offense. I can promise you guys like Bill Belichick, Mike Zimmer, those guys? They’ve been around it for so long and they had to face Bill Walsh. They know that offense just as good as Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers. They know the rules. Other west coast guys who’ve been successful, let’s say Sean Payton or Kyle Shanahan or Sean McVay, it’s West Coast-based, but they’ve added their own footprint to it to go, ‘I do this along with it, to make it not the West Coast. But I have my own wrinkles.’ And Green Bay is as basic as it gets. It is what we could call in the NFL Day 1, Day 2 installation, your basic plays you put in the first day the rookies are in. Aaron Rodgers, who, you know, I think is the greatest quarterback of all time … We see him dance around and sit there in the pocket … He’s not doing that because he wants to look cool. He’s doing that because nobody’s open a lot of the time. I also think that he’s been scarred by people not being open so much of the time. Troy Aikman, early in the year, made comments … ‘There’s nobody open.’ I remember my dad [former CBS game analyst Phil Simms] doing it two years ago: ‘There’s no separation.’ “
7. I think that’s an interesting reason—if true—why evidence is now coming out that Rodgers audibled so much, and why he appeared either laconic or disinterested at times. I’ve wondered whether he looked around the league and saw all this imagination—including, this year, in Chicago with rookie coach Matt Nagy—and then looked at his own team and saw the same old thing.
8. I think if the Bucs are serious about keeping Jameis Winston for more than just 2019, Bruce Arians—interviewed by the team Saturday—is not a bad pick as head coach. In fact, he might be the best choice. A few thoughts:
• Arians is not taking crap from anyone. He’d yank Winston in a second, and he’d coach him hard. I am sure Dirk Koetter did that too, but sometimes, a new and authoritative voice helps.
• Winston has been maddening because he has not learned to cut down his mistakes. That’s what let to him yo-yoing in and out of the lineup this year. In his first four seasons, Winston has thrown 58 interceptions in 54 starts. That average of 1.07 per game is significantly worse than any quarterback in his division, per game, over the past four years—Cam Newton (0.88), Drew Brees (0.63), Matt Ryan (0.66). Arians would love working with Winston (maybe he could import Byron Leftwich as offensive coordinator, with Leftwich’s institutional knowledge about playing the position), trying to refine his mistake-prone ways.
• I would be worried about Winston if I were the Bucs. He regressed considerably under Dirk Koetter, and his 3.7 percent interception rate this year (3.7 picks per 100 attempts) was his worst in four Tampa seasons. Carson Palmer, under Arians, threw the ball consistently deep downfield, and had had only a 2.6 percent interception rate as a Cardinal. Palmer told me once that one of the important things he learned as a Cardinal was when to take the big risk—most often, the risky throws would at least allow his own receiver to prevent the ball from being picked.
• Arians is 66, and he’s no fitness freak, no marathon runner. He’d have to convince GM Jason Licht that he’s been recharged in his year off the sidelines. But, overall, this would be an intriguing match. The Bucs desperately need Winston to be a good player for their future, and Arians’ gruff and demanding ways might be the perfect thing for him.
9. I think the whole Kliff Kingsbury thing (fired at Texas Tech after going 35-40, never been on an NFL coaching staff, jumped to USC as offensive coordinator before waiting to hear if any NFL team would be interesting in interviewing him) is wholly odd. Exactly one month after Kingbury’s got hired to be USC’s offensive coordinator for 2019, USC denied him permission to interview with the Cards and Jets for their head-coaching jobs, which is totally fair. If Kingsbury wanted to work in the NFL, he shouldn’t have taken a college job.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Story of the Week: by Austin Murphy (former Sports Illustrated senior writer, buddy of mine, and truly good man), writing for The Atlantic, on moving on with life when you’ve really got to work: “I Used to Write for Sports Illustrated. Now I Deliver Packages for Amazon.”
b. Austin’s one of my favorite co-workers ever, a don’t-worry-be-happy guy and a great writer and totally unselfish among his peers. Now the business has squeezed him, which is sad to see.
c. Great passage in this story: “Let’s face it, when you’re a college-educated 57-year-old slinging parcels for a living, something in your life has not gone according to plan. That said, my moments of chagrin are far outnumbered by the upsides of the job, which include windfall connections with grateful strangers. There’s a certain novelty, after decades at a legacy media company—Time Inc.—in playing for the team that’s winning big, that’s not considered a dinosaur, even if that team is paying me $17 an hour (plus OT!). It’s been healthy for me, a fair-haired Anglo-Saxon with a Roman numeral in my name (John Austin Murphy III), to be a minority in my workplace.”
d. RIP, Bob Einstein. Or, as most of you know him, Marty Funkhouser from “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
e. Plenty more where that came from. Funkhouser’s one of the best characters I’ve ever seen on TV.
f. Football Story of the Week: from Ben Shpigel, on the marvelous talent that is Tarik Cohen of the Bears.
g. Great stories in there about how the Bears, during the scouting process, came to believe in the second coming of Darren Sproles.
h. Saw “Vice.” Really good—particularly the Dick Cheney character played by Christian Bale. I cannot believe how closely Bale resembled the former vice president.
i. Also recommend “Love, Gilda,” about late comedian Gilda Radnor, who was an absolute phenom in the early SNL days. It’s a 98-minute doc that could have been 68 minutes … but it’s still really interesting about the pressures a talented woman faced in the seventies and eighties in a male-dominated field.
j. Coffeenerdness: I have been in a hotel and two press boxes recently with Coffee Mate nondairy creamer. Show you care, people. Use half-and-half. Do you want me to beg?
k. Beernerdness: One note about the Java Moon Café, referenced above, inside Baltimore’s Penn Station train depot: The place had 31 different beers either on tap or in cans or bottles, from my count Sunday night. A train station bar with 31 beer choices, so many of them local. Now that is fantastic. My pick: Annabel Lee White (B.W. Beer Works, Baltimore), a good, light Belgian Witbier best served very cold. Very happy with the pick.
l. RIP, the Captain, Daryl Dragon from Captain and Tennille. They had a run as a good pop group in the seventies. They did a cover for a song called “Muskrat Love,” that quite possibly is the weirdest song in music history. It is about two muskrats, in love. It got as high as number four on the Billboard Top 100. If you’re not a person of a certain age, let me give you a sample of the lyrics:
Muskrat, Muskrat, candle light
Doing the town and doing it right in the evening
It’s pretty pleasing
Muskrat Suzie, Muskrat Sam
Do the jitterbug out in Muskrat Land
And they shimmy… Sam is so skinny
m. At a White House state dinner in July 1976, President Gerald Ford hosted Queen Elizabeth of England. Captain and Tennille sang one song, and it was a song they could choose. And of course they chose Muskrat Love. At a state dinner at the White House 42 years ago, Queen Elizabeth was serenaded with a love song about two rodents.
n. See what you missed by being born in the eighties and nineties?
o. Give me Alabama tonight. Tide 30, Clemson 26.
Monday … Santa Clara, Calif. Scouting the national championship game, NFL people will target three potential top 10 picks: Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams (if he opts for the draft), who could be the first overall pick; Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams, a starter for three seasons; and Clemson rusher Clelin Ferrell.
Wednesday … Birmingham, Ala. A very happy 85th birthday, Bart Starr.
Saturday … Kansas City. Man to watch: Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy. An impressive offensive game for Kansas City in the playoff match with Indianapolis could have more teams than the currently interested Jets, Bucs, Dolphins and Bengals fact-finding on the latest KC coaching prospect.
One hope for Mayock
in Oakland. Just one. I hope
Jon Gruden listens.