FOXBORO, Mass. — The interesting takeaway from spending 10 minutes with Tom Brady before he left Gillette Stadium near midnight Saturday? He didn’t seem at all surprised by the 20-13 wild-card loss to Tennessee. He was sad but not distraught, knowing how stupid it would be for him, after playing in nine Super Bowls in a magical 20-year run, to be somehow unfulfilled after the Patriots played pretty much the same desultory football against Tennessee that they’d played for the past two months. I kept thinking as he spoke: Tom Brady could see this coming.
What Brady can’t see with similar clarity? The future.
Brady, clear-eyed, looking more like 32 than 42, sat in an office near the Patriots’ locker room near midnight, less than an hour after the New England dynasty was shaken to the core, and maybe shuttered. He wore a navy button-down shirt, blue khakis, tan boots, a navy ski cap and the look of a man who absolutely does not know what 2020 and beyond holds for him as he faces true freedom for the first time in his career. Brady is scheduled to be a free agent without the franchise tag when the league year begins in March.
“I’m not crushingly disappointed,” Brady said, looking me straight in the eyes. “I think we fought hard. Our head is held high. We’re competitors. Every season doesn’t end in a Super Bowl win. It’s exciting when it does. You relish those when you have those opportunities and we’ve had them more than anyone else. I’m proud of the guys for fighting hard. But those other guys [the Titans] are competitive too, and they deserved to win tonight. We just didn’t make the plays the last half of the season that we needed to make. Didn’t make the plays tonight.”
“First time in 20 years you’re truly a free man,” I said. “How do you feel about that right now?”
“Yeah,” said Brady. “I think I’m just . . . I’ll explore those opportunities whenever they are. If it’s the Patriots, great. If that doesn’t work, I don’t know. I just don’t know. I love playing football. I still want to play football. I think I still can play at a championship level. I’ve just got to go do it. I’m motivated to get back to work and training.”
Somewhere. And when Brady considers his future, my gut feeling is this: He’s going to prioritize needing a better offense around him in 2020 than he had in 2019, when his body language and clipped post-game press conferences—even after a big but offensively frustrating win in Buffalo—told the story of a frustrating season.
When you read these stories about NFL ratings being up while so much other programming (network, cable, sports, everything) is down, you should think of this weekend. The four “least important” of 11 postseason games . . . and every one was pulsating. Every one, whether you had interest in the teams or not, was nutso. Think of what happened in 27 hours:
- For the third straight year, the Saints lost on a walkoff final play of a playoff game.
- For the second straight year, Saints fans were left holding their heads in anguish over an official’s non-call that determined their season.
- Drew Brees and Tom Brady, 1 and 2 all-time in touchdown passes, lost at home to 6 seeds.
- Deshaun Watson, clutch and athletic and physical and never-saying-die, piloted the greatest comeback in the 17-year history of the Texans.
- Kirk Cousins, the man with so much guaranteed potential, fulfilled it with some great throws in his first playoff win.
- Derrick Henry, conjuring memories of a more lithe Jerome Bettis, pounded the tar out of the Patriots.
- DK Metcalf, rookie, ninth wide receiver picked last April, won an NFL playoff game for Seattle, on the road, with a 160-yard game.
- Marshawn marshawned.
- Jadeveon Clowney did his best Willis Reed. (Read Wikipedia on Reed, youngsters.)
And please, please, please: Read the Sam Wyche section. It’ll be worth your time. We need to remember important figures in NFL history like Wyche.
I could have led the column with any of the four games this weekend and been justified. I choose the momentous Massachusetts event of Saturday night. I think history will say it’s the right call. DIENASTY, screamed the New York Post back page Sunday morning about the Patriots, and it may not have been a tabloid headline.
Jan. 5, 1920: New England reeled as the Red Sox announced the sale of Babe Ruth, the best player in baseball history, to the New York Yankees.
Jan. 5, 2020: New England reeled as the Patriots pondered the possibility that Tom Brady, perhaps the best player in football history, has played his last game with the franchise.
(Thanks to Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe for the great Babe Ruth comp.)
Before the game, the crowd at Gillette Stadium was nervous. You could feel it. The owner was nervous. You could feel that too.
In his office four hours before the game, owner Robert Kraft broke his silence on Brady’s future.
“Before the season started,” Kraft said, “it was very important to Tom that he be free to do whatever he wanted at the end of the year. You know what I said to myself? That any person who plays 20 years for this team and helps us get to nine Super Bowls, and been really selfless, has earned that right. I love the young man like he’s part of my family. Blood family. Anyone who’s done that has earned the right to control his future after 20 years. And you know, my hope and prayer is number one, he play for the Patriots. Or number two, he retires. He has the freedom to decide what he wants to do and what’s in his own best personal interest.”
Approving Brady’s wish was difficult, obviously, for Kraft. He’s a football fan. He’s been going to Patriots game for a half-century. He knows Joe Montana finished a Chief, Joe Namath a Ram and . . .
“See this picture here?” Kraft said, walking me over to a photo on his wall of Johnny Unitas, in a Patriots cap, posing with Kraft before one of Kraft’s first games as New England owner in the mid-1990s.
“I got Johnny Unitas wearing a Patriot hat,” Kraft mused.
At 40, in 1973, Unitas had a bad curtain-call to end his career with the San Diego Chargers. Five games, 45-percent passing, three touchdowns, seven interceptions, a 40.0 rating. Ouch.
“I’m thinking of all that, of all the quarterbacks who went elsewhere, and I just hope and believe that Tom . . . he is so special that he’s earned the right to do what’s best for him. . . . But I just hope and pray we fit into his plans. He is unique in the kind of leader he is, his work ethic, his selfless nature, everything. Think about it: He’s been with us 20 percent of the life of the NFL.”
I asked Kraft if this had been a melancholy week for him, knowing this could be Brady’s last game as a Patriot in Foxboro. He thought for four or five seconds. “I don’t know if I’d say melancholy,” Kraft said. “I think I just realize that I shouldn’t take for granted how lucky we have been. I saw a stat that the Buffalo Bills haven’t won a playoff game since ’95. Not one. And that brought it home. We’ve won over 30. So . . . how lucky we’ve been. But also we know you can’t rest on your laurels. Things change and you’ve got to have an edge and look to how you keep things going the best you can.”
On the field, an hour before the game, the air was thick with anticipation. In one corner of the stadium, where it’s been since the 2004 season, a sign screaming BRADY’S CORNER #12 was in its customary spot with the customary owner, Mike Burke of North Kingstown, R.I. “I don’t see him playing for another team,” Burke said. “But when I left home today, I told my wife, ‘This could be the very last game for Tom.’ ”
A couple of minutes later, as is his pre-game custom, Brady ran the length of the field to the south goal. Surely he saw the huge sign PLEASE STAY TOMMY right behind the goal post as he pumped his fist crazily and screamed, “LET’S GO! LET’S F—ING GO!” This is how different the night felt: When Brady turned to run back, he spotted three young Titans—wideout A.J. Brown, tight end Jonnu Smith and running back Khari Blasingame—clapping respectfully and pointing toward him. Brady pointed at them, nodding as if to say, That’s truly appreciated. And when he did, they, in turn, responded by pumping fists and jumping around. That’s a five-second moment I’ll always remember about this night.
“So cool,” Smith, smiling broadly, said later. “Just wanted to show our respect for one of the greatest ever. Much respect, much love to him. He’s one of the great men in our game, and when he looked over at us . . . It was great.”
Then the game. And the air pfffffted out of the balloon. The zits of the 2019 Patriots surfaced pretty consistently for 2 hours and 57 minutes. The Patriots whiffed on top free-agent wideout target Adam Humphries last March, losing him to Tennessee, and over-picked receiver N’Keal Harry late in the first round (over A.J. Brown, Deebo Samuel, Mecole Hardman, D.K. Metcalf and Terry McLaurin). No New England wideout but Julian Edelman caught more than 30 balls in 2019. That lack of production showed up Saturday. The New England receivers got wafer-thin separation all night, and Brady completed a shockingly low seven of 21 passes to wideouts. Tight end was a problem spot all year after—on the same day in March—Rob Gronkowski retired and top free-agent target Jared Cook agreed to terms with New Orleans. Then in April the Patriots dealt tight end Jacob Hollister to Seattle for a seventh-round pick; Hollister, late this season, has become invaluable for Russell Wilson. What might he have been for Brady? Tight ends gained 2,026 yards for New England in 2017 and 2018 but managed only 419 this year.
Add this: New England is an ancient team. The Patriots started 11 of 22 players Saturday night who are 29 or older; seven others in that age bracket played 20 snaps or more. Average age of the Patriots’ five core special-teamers (Matthew Slater, Justin Bethel, Brandon Bolden, Rex Burkhead, Nate Ebner): an unsustainable 30 years, 5 months. Their 13 points came from 33-year-old Edelman (five-yard end-around TD), 35-year-old kicker Nick Folk (two field goals; the incumbent injured kicker, Stephen Gostkowski, is 35 too), with 42-year-old Brady at the trigger for each of the three scoring drives. Even on their only touchdown of the night, there looked to be some on-field disconnect. Brady told me, “We were just screwed up in our alignment.”
Even with all that, the Patriots had a golden chance to take a 17-7 lead late in the first half, with first-and-goal from the Tennessee 1-yard line. They played a six-man line with a seventh blocker, 235-pound pseudo fullback Elandon Roberts. Three times they ran to the left. Three times they got stoned: minus-1, 1, minus-2. The resulting Folk field goal felt like a Tennessee gut punch.
Still, it was 14-13 Tennessee when the Patriots had a decent last chance to pull out a game they didn’t deserve to win. From his 11, Brady hit James White for 20 and Phillip Dorsett for six. On second-and-four from the New England 37, Brady threw to Edelman in the left flat. Easy first-down conversion pass, as easy a catch as Edelman had had all season. He dropped it. Brady sagged. He low-balled an incompletion to Dorsett on third down. And this was perfect: On fourth-and-four, from the Patriots 37, with 3: 17 and three timeouts left, with a sledgehammer running back, Derrick Henry, already with 160 pounding yards and capable of closing this game like a Mariano Rivera, Bill Belichick chose to punt.
That’s how much he didn’t trust his offense, led by a six-time Super Bowl champion with the pop-gun weaponry Belichick had assembled. Henry had steamrolled the defense at more than six yards a carry, and Belichick thought somehow the last three minutes would be different than the first 57. They weren’t. The Patriots got the ball back with 15 seconds left. At their 1-yard line. Brady threw a tipped pick-six to Logan Ryan to end the game. Ryan: “That ball’s going on my mantle.”
The ugly end. Brady wasn’t particularly mournful about that either—the fact that his last throw at a Patriot could have been a pick-six.
“Just a desperation play,” he said. “At the one. What’d we have? Twenty seconds left?”
“Fifteen,” I said.
That almost made him laugh. “And no timeouts. We would have needed a Miami Miracle-type play. We tried a hook-and-lateral and they actually guarded that and got their hand on the curl so . . .”
“Yeah. You know, just wasn’t our day. Or my day.”
New England was 4-6 in its last 10 games. Not including the 34-13 win over the worst team in the league, Cincinnati, the Patriots scored 16.6 points a game after Halloween. That’s one of the reasons why Belichick might think: With all the holes we need to fill on an old roster, now’s not the time to be emotional. Now’s not the time to try to wring one or two more years at huge money out of a quarterback who turns 43 in August. A fresh start for Brady won’t be the best thing for Kraft. But it might be the best thing for the man who controls the roster, William Stephen Belichick.
And it might be best for Brady too, to see what life is like outside the Foxboro bubble. Maybe he’d like to finish his career with a more player-friendly coach (Anthony Lynn with the Chargers?) or a quarterback-friendly head coach (Frank Reich in Indianapolis?), in one of two places with far better offensive weapons than New England. The Chargers might view Brady as the billboard to sell PSLs in new SoFi Stadium, opening next season. The Colts, assuming Andrew Luck stays retired, might view Brady as the on-field mentor for Jacoby Brissett for a year or two. Where else? John Elway seems to have his passer of the future in Drew Lock, so Denver’s doubtful, but Elway’s a home-run swinger. Tennessee is doubtful too, after the emergence of Ryan Tannehill, but with Patriot-bred Jon Robinson as GM and Belichick protégé Mike Vrabel as coach, never say never. Chicago should be interested, but two years of Brady would be the end of Mitchell Trubisky, which the brass there seems loathe to do. Carolina’s in flux.
My personal darkhorse, by the way: the Las Vegas (nee Oakland) Raiders. Jon Gruden’s favorite quarterback is always the one he doesn’t have. No clue if he’s remotely interested, but my antennae would be up for the Raiders and Brady.
You could say any of those is silly on Jan. 6. But who will be running these teams in two months? What pressures will they face? Will someone get seduced by the on and off-field charisma of Brady, and think he’s got enough left to contend for a couple of years at an unprecedented age? And will the lure of one more shot, with some golden 2020 team, attract Brady?
I can tell you he doesn’t know. He can’t know right now. That didn’t seem to bug him much on the night the Patriots dynasty might have died.
“The sun’s coming up tomorrow,” Brady said. “Especially as I’ve gotten older, you realize that life goes on. I’ve been so fortunate to play for such a great owner and for such a great coach. Nobody could have had it better than me. I absolutely still do love this game. . . . I think a lot of other people who are great at what they do—great artists or great actors or great businessmen—they don’t have to stop what they love as they get older. I know there’s football still in here.”
Houston 22, Buffalo 19: Deshaun Watson’s comeback for the ages
Before Saturday’s game, Watson gave every offensive player a pair of wireless earbuds with this message: “Let’s be great today.” He led the way. An 80-percent passer and hugely clutch player down the stretch—while being sacked seven times and pressured often—in a game that was very important for his franchise. “You’ve got to have the will and the guts to go out and do what you’ve got to do to win,” Watson said, and that’s exactly how he played Saturday. Harassed for most of the game’s 72 minutes, Watson showed why he’s a legitimate franchise quarterback at the most crucial point of Houston’s up-and-down season. Houston trailed 16-0 with 20 minutes left in regulation when Watson began the best comeback of his three-year NFL life—and he credited former Clemson coach Dabo Swinney for some of it. “Dabo always used to tell us, ‘Don’t never look at the scoreboard. At the end of the day, you’re going to look up at the scoreboard, and you’ll be where you want to be.’ “
Watson started the comeback by muscling in a 20-yard run late in the third quarter and sprinting around right end for the two-point conversion. A field goal, a touchdown pass with another two-point conversion, and then overtime, with the signature play of Watson’s career keying the winning drive. In a 19-19 game with five minutes left in the first overtime, on second-and-six from the Buffalo 44-yard line, Watson was about to get sandwich-sacked by linebacker Matt Milano and defensive back Siran Neal; somehow, Watson escaped, and facing pressure from Bills defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, slipped to his right and sidearmed a short pass to running back Taiwan Jones. And the former Raider slinked and sped to the Buffalo 10, setting up Ka’imi Fairbairn’s winning field goal.
“Somehow,” said Houston safety Justin Reid, “Houdini again.”
“Deshaun’s been winning his whole life,” coach Bill O’Brien said, “and he knows how to win.”
Tennessee 20, New England 13: Derrick Henry steamrolls the Pats
What’s the most trusted truism in football? My vote goes to: Bill Belichick can take away the best thing any team does. He did it with Marshall Faulk in the Super Bowl 18 years ago, did it a few times with Marvin (Invisible Against the Patriots) Harrison, and did it last year by holding Rams running backs to 57 yards in the Super Bowl. But he couldn’t do it Saturday night. Derrick Henry ate his lunch. The last two NFL generations had 235-pound Earl Campbell (1978-’85) and 253-pound Jerome Bettis (1993-2005) as the big backs who lasted and punished defense after defense. This generation has the 247-pound Henry.
(Quick story: I’m standing in the tunnel leading to the field Saturday night, maybe an hour before the game. Henry, with his short sleeves in the mist and fog, walks through the roped-off area. Pats fans on either side of the rope are watching, and a couple of fans turn in wide-eyed amazement after the 6-foot-3 Henry passes. One of the guys says: “HE’S YUGE!!!!!”)
I’ll tell you something: neither Bettis nor Campbell ever had a playoff game like Henry’s in New England. His 34-carry, 182-yard game smothered the Patriots, and I will bet no player has ever had a more dominant drive (and I include Peyton Manning in that group) than Henry had at the end of the first half, when he gained all 75 yards in the decisive 75-yard touchdown drive that gave the Titans a 14-13 halftime lead. They wouldn’t need another point.
Bettis’ best playoff game: 105 yards against Denver in 1998.
Campbell’s best playoff game: 118 yards at New England (with Robert Kraft in the stands, by the way) in 1978.
Henry loved the elements Saturday night, and he loved the gang-tackling. “We don’t want anything easy,” he said. “We want it gritty, and we want it dirty.” A great accomplishment for a rising-star running back—who’s only 26.
Minnesota 26, New Orleans 20: The redemption of Kirk Cousins
Cousins had been maligned since his Washington days for never winning The Big One. With justification. He lost to the Giants on the last day of the 2016, preventing Washington from making the playoffs. He was 6-30 against winning teams entering Sunday’s game in New Orleans, and he had an 0-9 record in Monday night games. But he threw one of the prettiest passes of his life, a perfect 43-yard rainbow to Adam Thielen, to set up the winning touchdown in overtime. And then he hit Kyle Rudolph in the left corner of the end zone to win it. It looks like offensive interference to me, but the old saying goes that history is written by the winners. No flag, and the Vikings won the game. Easily the biggest win of Cousins’ eight-year pro career.
Afterward, in the Minnesota locker room, coach Mike Zimmer yelled to Cousins: “How’s it feel to win a playoff game?” and Cousins, team guy that he is, got an ovation and then said: “This is how we’ve won all year! TEAM!”
Then . . . and you sort of knew it was coming. . .
“I GOT THREE WORDS FOR YOU!!! YOU LIKE THAT!!!!!!”
Maybe it’s just one game, one miraculous game. And maybe it doesn’t carry over to Santa Clara on Saturday afternoon, or to next year when the games get big, as they always do for a good team like Minnesota. But who knows? Who knows if this is the start of Cousins taking his place in the modern pantheon with the really good quarterbacks? It’s always seemed like only the mental part of the game stands in his way, and beating Drew Brees in the Superdome is the kind of game that can catapult a quarterback to the next level.
“When you climb a mountain,” Cousins said post-game, “you sit there on the top and you look around, and you realize there are more mountains to climb.” Starting Saturday in California.
Seattle 17, Philadelphia 9: The coming-out party of DK Metcalf
Someone asked noted keynote speaker Marshawn Lynch, big-ass dude who can move, about Seattle wide receiver DK Metcalf (seven catches, 160 yards, one touchdown) after the Seattle victory.
“He’s a big-ass dude who can move like that,” Lynch said.
Takes one to know one. Metcalf, 6-4 and 232, was brilliant Sunday in the Seattle win, needing his length, and his season numbers reflect his rise in importance in the Seahawk scheme: 17 games, 1,060 yards, 16.3-yards-per-catch, eight touchdowns. You know what motivated him Sunday in the biggest game of his pro life? His awkward miss of a Russell Wilson deep ball that made the Seattle win at Philly in the regular season closer than it should have been. “I had to make up for my performance last time I was here,” he said from the locker room post-game. Nursing a 10-6 lead midway through the third quarter, Russell Wilson gambled on a deep post route to Metcalf. “It was really just me one-on-one with the corner and Russ laid it out,” Metcalf said. “I had the opportunity to get it and I just laid out for it.” This time he held on, and flopped down, untouched, around the Eagles’ 5-yard line. “Nobody touched me, so I got back up and scored.”
I thought another play was at least as significant. With 1: 47 to play and Seattle up by eight, the Seahawks had a vexing problem. It was third down. They were at their 11-yard line. If they ran it to force Philadelphia to use its last timeout, the Eagles would get the ball back around their 40-yard line with about 1: 33 left. Seattle would be gambling: The Eagles, at most, would be able to tie the game and force overtime. But if Wilson could complete a pass for 11 yards, they could run out the clock.
Metcalf ran a smart route. “A fake screen,” he called it. Coming off the line, Metcalf slow-played his route, lulling safety Marcus Epps to be lax in coverage. “The defender bit on the fake,” Metcalf said. Then Metcalf sprinted up the right seam and Wilson threw what I can best describe as a high pop fungo. “Perfect throw, and I had the advantage to go get it,” said Metcalf. Ballgame.
“Ever play in a place as cold as Green Bay?” I asked the 22-year-old Metcalf.
“No sir,” he said. “First time in cold like that. Looking forward to it. Another opportunity to play the game I love.”
Two 6-at-1 matchup of seeds Saturday—and neither is a gimme by any stretch. Then two quarterback classics Sunday: Watson at Mahomes and Wilson at Rodgers. You’re coming off a breathless wild-card weekend, and the divisional round should be pretty good too.
Minnesota (11-6, 6th seed, NFC) at San Francisco (13-3, 1st seed, NFC)
4: 35 p.m. ET, Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif., TV: NBC
San Francisco favored by 6.5
This is where winning a bye is so advantageous. Minnesota, in a Sunday road game, wins an emotional game against a prohibitive favorite in extra time. Short week of practice. Flies two time zones west, 1,600 miles, to play a Saturday roadie against the top seed in the conference. Said top seed will have 13 days between games, which seems like enough to get healthy but not too many to get stale.
Here’s what the Vikings gained other a win in Minnesota: On offense, they probably can trust Kirk Cousins in a big spot more, and they certainly know that putting the ball in the hands of Dalvin Cook (94 rushing yards, two touchdowns) is a win for them. On defense, if they penetrate as well as they did in the ‘Dome, Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter, who made Drew Brees’ life uncharacteristically miserable Sunday, could do some mental damage to Jimmy Garoppolo in his first playoff game. I expect the San Francisco pass-rush to be more dangerous than Minnesota’s, though, and that athleticism should make a big difference in quickening Cousins’ pace. Oh, and there’s this: Sunday’s win for the Vikings was the first road playoff win for the franchise in 15 years.
Tennessee (10-7, 6th seed, AFC) at Baltimore (13-3, 1st seed, AFC)
8: 15 p.m. ET, M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore, TV: CBS
Baltimore favored by 10
I bet if you gave Baltimore coach John Harbaugh truth serum, he’d say he’d have rather faced the Patriots in the divisional round. To me, there are three borderline unstoppable forces in the eight-team field:
• Patrick Mahomes, the defending MVP, totally healthy and rested after a midseason kneecap injury;
• Lamar Jackson, the most versatile quarterback in the game;
• Derrick Henry, the Tennessee running back who wrecked the Patriots on Saturday night.
The thing about Henry is everyone knows he’s coming, and no one can stop him behind that beefy and productive offensive line in Tennessee. In his last seven games, Henry is on the kind of run that some of the greatest backs ever have not experienced: 1,078 yards, 6.23 yards per rush, and did I happen to mention that everyone knows he’s getting the ball, over and over? Look at these seven games: 188 yards, 159, 149, 103, 86, 211 and 182. Baltimore was average against the run this year—4.4 yards per rush allowed. The Ravens’ three-man front averages 328 pounds, which is good, because they’ll need that beef.
The advantage the Ravens have, of course, is that no defense has been able to slow the Jackson-led offense. The biggest X-factor, other than handling Henry, might be how Baltimore responds after several key guys have had 19 days between games. And I should mention the obvious: Baltimore is a great running team. It’s not just the quarterback. Baltimore rushed for a league-best (and amazing) 3,296 yards. So Tennessee’s going to have at least as tough a time stopping Baltimore’s run as the other way around.
Houston (11-6, 4th seed, AFC) at Kansas City (12-4, 2nd seed, AFC)
3: 05 p.m. ET, Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, TV: CBS
Kansas City favored by 8.5
I’ve got a hankering to call this The Runner-up Bowl. You know, as in the QBs who went 2-3 in the 2017 draft, when Mitchell Trubisky was the first quarterback off the board. We’ve already seen one of them, and it was a gem: Chiefs led 24-23 on Oct 13 at Arrowhead, and held that lead for a full quarter. Midway through the fourth, Deshaun Watson capped a 93-yard, 8: 32 drive with a one-yard TD run. Kansas City (zero sacks, generous against the run) hadn’t found its defensive legs under Steve Spagnuolo yet, so this game should be different. If the Texans get a slow start on offense as they did Saturday against Buffalo, they’ll be too far out of it too early to make it a game.
As for Mahomes, he seems determined after the failure against New England in the 2019 AFC title game to play 60-minute playoff games and not waste some of the drives he did against the Patriots last year. Look for Mahomes to use Travis Kelce a lot in this game, because adding a J.J. Watt jolt to the Houston defense means Mahomes will have less time to survey the field.
As for Watson, he was so good and so unstoppable in the second half that Kansas City’s game plan should be to pen him in so he can’t make plays on the edges the way he did against the Bills. Easy to say, harder to do.
Seattle (12-5, 5th seed, NFC) at Green Bay (13-3, 2nd seed, NFC)
6: 40 p.m. ET, Lambeau Field, Green Bay, TV: FOX
Green Bay favored by 4
In his third season in the NFL, Russell Wilson played what’s likely his most memorable of 142 professional games: the 2014 NFC Championship. (My opinion; I’ve never asked him.) Playing in Seattle, Wilson threw three interceptions in the first half and Seattle trailed 16-0 at halftime. Not smart when you’re dueling Aaron Rodgers. It was still 19-7 with four minutes left in the fourth quarter, but Seattle rallied for two touchdowns to tie it and send the game to overtime. Wilson threw a 35-yard touchdown dart to Jermaine Kearse to win it. That game showed much about Wilson. A pick or two or three (or four, in this game) doesn’t ruin him.
What a wonderful rematch, on an evening that’s forecast to be in the high twenties with no snow—but you never know this time of year. It’s been an odd year for Rodgers. The Packers have been marvelous, thanks in part to a big boost from the rush provided by free-agents Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith; their job this week will be to form a shield to keep Wilson in the pocket. The Green Bay offense, 15th in the NFL in scoring, will probably have to be better than 23 points a game to make it to the Super Bowl in Miami.
For many reasons, I am the luckiest football writer I know. Just consider the first year I covered pro football, 1984. I got the Bengals beat job as a 26-year-old kid at the Cincinnati Enquirer. A few highlights of the year with the rookie coach, Sam Wyche, who passed away Thursday from complications of melanoma at age 74.
April 1984. I walked into Wyche’s office at Riverfront Stadium to do a draft preview story for the Enquirer. The Bengals had three first-round picks and another early in the second, so it was a big year. No internet then. No networking of draftniks. No round-the-clock coverage of the draft for weeks. It just happened. “You’re not going to share your information with anyone, are you?” Wyche asked me. No, I’m not. Wyche then laid out the Bengals’ plans: Arizona linebacker Ricky Hunley, Maryland defensive end Pete Koch (“Wait till you see this guy—he’ll be on the all-lobby team!”) and Maryland quarterback Boomer Esiason in the first round, and then tidbits for the rest of the rest of draft. Furman running back Stanford Jennings in the third or fourth round, Arizona State tight end Don Kern down the line, and, late, Syracuse running back Brent Ziegler. “Lips are sealed till you write, right?” he said. Yes, of course. On the day of the draft, Cincinnati went Hunley-Koch-guard Brian Blados in round one (Blados was a draft-day surprise because the Bengals got convinced Esiason would last till their slot in the second round), Esiason in round two, Jennings in round three. I was woozy. Four for five. Then Kern in the sixth and Ziegler in the 10th. Insane. My sports editor, Greg Noble, looked at me like I was a seer. Had a good source, I told Noble.
July. Training camp, Wilmington College, Wilmington, Ohio. The two Cincinnati papers had rooms on the ground floor of the team dorm. I was caddy-corner from assistant GM Mike Brown, down the hall from owner Paul Brown, and further down the hall from Wyche. Camp was long—maybe five weeks, mostly two practices a day. Two phones in the entire dorm. I kept my dorm door open at night, and players would stream by, wanting the phone installed by the paper in my room. Esiason and lanky wide receiver Cris Collinsworth borrowed it a few times. I’d take a walk. “Anytime you have any questions, after 9: 45 at night, just come by and knock on the door,” Wyche told me at the start of camp. Three or four nights, I was the student, he the prof. Football lessons, team lessons, etc.
August. A few days before the start of the season, I ducked my head into Wyche’s in-season office at the dump of a practice facility, Spinney Field, under a viaduct on the west side of town. Mind you, he’d never coached a game in the NFL yet, and there were some Bengals fans quite dubious of the guy Paul Brown hired after a single 3-8 college season at Indiana. Wyche was an amateur magician, complete with tux and top hat. (True story.) I said to him, We do a special section at the Enquirer every year before the season, with a big photo. I’m writing about you. Wondering if you might consider (I’m thinking I’m crazy to be asking an NFL coach this the week before his first game) dressing in your tux and, if I got a rabbit, posing for our photographer while pulling a rabbit out of your hat. He looked at me for a second, then smiled. “Of course,” Wyche said. “I’ll do it.” Next day, late afternoon, I went to a pet store nearby, explained my story, and asked if I could borrow a rabbit for two hours. Said we’d give the store a credit in the paper for the rabbit loan. I got the snow-white rabbit, brought it to Spinney Field at the appointed time, and Wyche was dressed, all ready. Took five minutes. I returned the rabbit and drove home and thought about the craziest day of my very young career. I thought, I just got an NFL coach to put on a tux and pull a rabbit out of a hat the week before coaching against John Elway in his first game!
October. One morning, on the way to cover practice, I stopped for a coffee near the facility. The clerk told me Wyche had been in, around 5: 30 a.m., buying coffee and sandwiches for a few of the homeless who hung around the store. The clerk said Wyche did this regularly.
November. The team was 4-7 but not out of the playoff race; favorable schedule down the stretch. The Bengals had to beat Seattle in Cincinnati on Nov. 18, and the day before the game—unlike today, you could talk to players the day before the game if pre-arranged—and I was at the Bengals facility with a Seattle writer there to interview a player post-practice. Wyche sent a player in, near the end of practice, to get me. I walked out, and there was a line of Bengals hooting at me, and Wyche was screaming, “You’re a traitor! Brought a Seattle guy to spy on us! I’ll have your job! You’ll never cover us again! GET OUT!” What are you talking about! I yelled back. I left, figuring nothing good would come of this. Within an hour, he’d called my editor demanding I be taken off the beat. I wasn’t. I covered the game the next day, wanted to talk about the situation, he refused. It blew over. I think I was a pawn in his motivational game, which didn’t work. Seattle 26, Cincinnati 6.
December. That wasn’t our only joust of the season, but as the year wound down, peace prevailed, mostly. The team finished 8-8. One day in the final week of the season, we were back on decent terms, and I told Wyche I was arranging a Christmas party at a group home for about 200 foster children, boys, in my neighborhood on the east side of town. I’d gotten Collinsworth and backup QB Turk Schonert and some Ben-Gals (the cheerleaders) to come to celebrate with the kids and to give them gifts. I stressed to Wyche to please say no if he couldn’t or was too busy . . . but would he consider doing 20 minutes of magic at the group home that night? Of course, he said. He put on his tux that night and made various things disappear and reappear, and the boys were entranced.
Heck of a season to start my football life. Watched scores of football practice with Paul Brown, one of the greatest coaches of all time. Got in on the ground floor of an imaginative team, with coaches (Wyche, Dick LeBeau, Jim McNally, Jim Anderson) willing to explain why things happened the way they did. They lost the first five, won the last four. A roller coaster of education, in so many ways. I can’t imagine having a better first season covering the sport, and so much of that was due to Wyche.
That was a personal story, sort of the-way-it-used-to-be-in-a-time-long-long-ago. Wyche instituted the no-huddle offense in Cincinnati figuring he could keep base defenses on the field, and tire out defenders so they’d be on their heels. When Wyche’s no-huddle was at its most disruptive and impactful in 1988, the Seattle Seahawks faked injuries to continually stop the clock so the Bengals couldn’t run the fast-paced scheme. He told me years later that commissioner Pete Rozelle threatened to make the no-huddle illegal in the playoffs, but Wyche wouldn’t stop it and the league stood down. So the coaching establishment and many in the league office did not like Wyche. “Harry High School,” is the nickname Chuck Noll gave him, according to author Michael MacCambridge, who wrote that Noll found the no-huddle offense “a borderline dishonest way to run a football team.”
Man, how backward that makes a historically great coach sound.
Wyche once told me, “Football should be fun, shouldn’t it? We used to do some of the crazy things we did because the coaches loved it and the players loved it—and when players love something, they’re going to want it to work. Plus, if we’re doing something all the teams aren’t, the element of surprise is going to help us win.” The Bengals played Dallas in 1985, the Cowboys’ last division-title season under Tom Landry. The Cowboys had one defensive ace-in-the-hole. “The double-A-gap blitz,” Collinsworth said. “They were absolutely killing teams with it.” A safety, Bill Bates, and an inside linebacker would flood the gaps between center and guard, rush six or seven, and overwhelm offensive protections with still-effective Too Tall Jones and Jim Jeffcoat coming on the outside.
Wyche had a plan.
“The beauty of that play was calling it at the line of scrimmage and making it sound like a pass,” Esiason related. “High numbers usually meant passes, for us and every team. So I go to the line and yell out: ‘93 FLY! 93 FLY!’ Sounds like a pass, right? So Bates is in the gap to the left and the linebacker’s in the other gap, ready to come. [Running back] James Brooks steps up and points to Bates and yells: ‘I got him! I got him!’ But when the ball’s snapped, the center slides over and blocks Bates. Right away, it’s like I’m doing play-action—but I really hand it to James. The linebacker comes through the right ‘A’ gap and creams me. The Cowboys are all acting like they killed this play. They’re excited. But there’s James running down the field and they’re all looking for the ball.” Big gain. The Bengals won, 50-24.
Then there was Wyche, the burr in the saddle.
“Sam was the ultimate agitator when it came to opposing coaches, players and the league office,” Esiason said.
When the Bengals became a national team in 1989, after taking Walsh and Montana to the final seconds in Super Bowl XXIII, the agitation peaked. The league was enforcing a noise ordinance that season—which, looking back, seems so preposterous. Wyche thought so too. Excessive crowd noise would be penalized if officials deemed the offense couldn’t hear the signals. “We had a Monday night game at New Orleans that preseason, and Sam told me as soon as we got on the goal line, I had to act like I couldn’t hear anything. Never mind that there’s probably only 30,000 people in the stadium and I can hear just fine. I think the ref was Jerry Seeman. I step back and act like I can’t hear anything. Jerry, in his normal voice, says, ‘You can hear me right now and I can hear you.’ Sam asked me to do this so on national TV, the Monday night crew [Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf] will raise this as an issue and the entire league would start talking about whether this rule made any sense. That’s what happened.”
Imagine this two-game stretch in 1989: On Dec. 10, enraged that Riverfront Stadium fans were pelting the field with snowballs, Wyche grabbed an on-field microphone and told the crowd to knock it off. “You don’t live in Cleveland! You live in Cincinnati!” The next week, Houston came to Cincinnati. Wyche hated Houston coach Jerry Glanville with a passion. Glanville was headed to the playoffs and Cincinnati was not when they met in Cincinnati in December. The Bengals were routing the Oilers midway through the fourth quarter, up 45-0 . . . when they executed a successful onside kick. Wyche went for it on a fourth down on the next series and the Bengals scored again. With 21 seconds left and the ball deep in Houston territory and Cincinnati up 58-7, Wyche called a timeout—so Cincinnati could kick a field goal. “I wish today was a five-quarter game,” Wyche said afterward.
A week later, Glanville, playoff-bound, FedExed Wyche two tickets to the Houston playoff game.
In 1990, Wyche was nearly suspended by commissioner Paul Tagliabue for banning a female USA Today reporter from Cincinnati’s post-game locker room after a game in Seattle. He was insistent that women had no place in a locker room where naked men were. He got fined $17,000 but was not suspended by Tagliabue for being on the very wrong side of history. The following week, Wyche thumbed his nose at the league by wearing nothing but a towel wrapped around his waist to his post-game press conference—with a fig leaf drawn on the towel over his loins.
“I don’t know who was having more fun in those days—Sam or Boomer,” Joe Montana told me last week.
“It was a blast,” Esiason said. “No quarterback had more fun than I did.”
No coach either.
A postscript: As for Wyche’s connection to today’s football, think back to the Steelers of the eighties. The offensive coordinator late in the Chuck Noll Era, from 1983-89, was Tom Moore. And Moore, a decade later, was Peyton Manning’s first offensive coordinator in Indianapolis—for the first 11 years of Manning’s career. On Sunday, Manning said the no-huddle became one of the most important staples of everything he did. “We simply played better when we went no huddle,” he said. “ ‘Lightning,’ as we called it. We used to huddle, and we’d be down 14-0. Then we would go ‘Lightning’ and start scoring and take the lead. So we finally said let’s just start the game in ‘Lightning’ and go. I guarantee you Tom Moore was influenced in some ways by Sam Wyche.”
Offensive Players of the Week
Deshaun Watson, quarterback, Houston. He willed the Texans to victory. That’s not cliché, no exaggeration. For the game, Watson was 20 of 25 for 247 with a touchdown and no picks, and he ran 14 times (often with several chasers) for 55 yards. That tells about one-tenth of the story. Watson (see above) was magnificent in propelling Houston the final eight Sunday in Kansas City.
Derrick Henry, running back, Tennessee. Tennessee won the game on the last drive of the first half. Henry’s drive. In order: run for 29, run for 11, run for 9, run for 3, reception for 22, touchdown run for 1. Seven plays (including one incompletion), 75 Henry yards, in 1: 41. That made it 14-13, and from there it felt like all the Titans had to do was play keepaway by running Henry at a feeble New England defense to win. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game, never mind a playoff game, that had one non-quarterback gain 75 percent of the yardage. But Henry (204 total yards of Tennessee’s 272 total yards) did just that. He’ll be a problem for Baltimore.
Kirk Cousins, quarterback, Minnesota. Before Sunday at the Superdome, he’d never won a playoff game (0-1) and wilted in so many big spots. Not Sunday. The numbers were stupendous (19 of 31, 242 yards, one TD, no picks, 96.4 rating) but this is about game management and three beautiful throws at big moments, most notably the 43-yard strike to Adam Thielen that set up the touchdown in overtime—and the biggest win of Cousins’ lucrative but just okay career. Happy for him. He’s one of the best people in the game.
Defensive Player of the Week
Jadeveon Clowney, defensive end, Seattle. A couple of points to make before getting into Clowney. First: GM John Schneider deserves executive of the year, which he’s somehow never won. Think of his “off”-season: drafted DK Metcalf 64th overall. Re-signed Russell Wilson for the long-term under a pressured deadline. Traded a third-round round pick and two lesser players for Clowney, and got Houston to pay a major portion of his compensation. During the season, semi-solved a crisis at running back by signing Marshawn Lynch, who left the franchise under a cloud and was a divisive guy on the way out. Now, Clowney’s been the best defensive player on the field in the Seahawks’ two biggest wins of the year—at San Francisco in Week 10, and on Sunday at Philly. Playing with a painful core injury that will require surgery when the season ends, Clowney had five tackles, a sack of Josh McCown and four significant pressures.
Fletcher Cox, defensive tackle, Philadelphia. The most dominant defensive player of the playoff weekend, wrecking the interior of the Seattle line and almost reversing a loss that Philly had little business winning. He led an Eagle defense that held Seattle running backs to 19 yards rushing, and he earned the highest PFF grade of the weekend, 9.0, for living in the Seattle backfield. If Russell Wilson wasn’t so slithery, Cox might have had a winning impact on this game.
Danielle Hunter, defensive end, Minnesota. At 26, he’s become one of the most feared rushers in football, and he swarmed around Drew Brees all day Sunday in the Superdome. He combined with his career bookend, Everson Griffen, to split three sacks, and Hunter added four pressures, a forced fumble and a batted Brees pass. He’ll be invaluable Saturday in the Vikings’ attempt to slow the nascent San Francisco passing game.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Vinny Curry, defensive end, Philadelphia. When veterans played hard on special teams, you know the kind of character that shows. The 29-year-old Curry sliced through the middle of the line on a Seattle field-goal five minutes into the game, and he swatted away the Jason Myers chip-shot field goal. He saved the Eagles three points in a game you figure that three points would be vital.
Brett Kern, punter, Tennessee. Kern has had better raw numbers than six punts for a 45.8 average, but the effect of his punts in New England was huge. New England started drives at its 24-yard line, Tennessee 47, its 13, 7, 11 and 1-yard line. That’s a wow performance, and the last one led to the desperation Brady pick-six on what could have been the last pass of his New England career.
Coach of the Week
Mike Vrabel, head coach, Tennessee. Came into the lair of his mentor and quite possibly ended the Tom Brady Era by forcing the crummiest offensive performance of this great Patriots run. When I saw him after the game, he said, “We gotta get ready for Lamar.” Meaning, Lamar Jackson, who creates so many problems as the Ravens’ triggerman in their multiple offense. But first, an appreciation for Vrabel’s coaching in Foxboro. His Titans have now held New England to 10 and 13 points in victories in 2018 and 2019. And he even took a page from Belichick’s clock-management book Saturday. Just wanting to bleed the clock with 6: 33 left on fourth-and-five from the New England 36-yard line, Vrabel sent his punt team out. He authorized taking one delay of game, then one false start, then got helped with an offside by the Patriots, and it turned out the Patriots didn’t get the ball back till 4: 44 remained in the game. Not a game-winning deal, but whittling 1: 49 of precious fourth-quarter time off the clock when the Patriots were desperate for either one or two drives down the stretch was a great show of gamesmanship against the master, Belichick.
“He is, and always will remain, a cherished member of the Dallas Cowboys family, and his contributions to the organization are greatly appreciated.”
—Dallas owner Jerry Jones, ending the longest goodbye in coach-firing history late Sunday afternoon, announcing a parting of the ways with head coach Jason Garrett.
“None of that contact rises to the level of a foul.”
—NFL senior VP of officiating Al Riveron, on the last play of Saints-Vikings, when there was contact in a crucial New Orleans game—sound familiar?—this time by Minnesota tight end Kyle Rudolph on the winning touchdown pass that the officials did not call and New York did not overturn.
I would disagree.
“I wouldn’t say it’s been all that thin around here.”
—New England coach Bill Belichick after the loss Saturday, asked for a message for Patriots fans who, the questioner said, had stuck with the team through thick and thin.
“Oh no . . . no … Man, that is awful. So, so sad. It’s so sad when bad things happen to good people. When I was drafted, Sam was exactly what I needed in a quarterback coach.”
—Joe Montana, informed of the death of Sam Wyche on Thursday. Montana played under San Francisco QB coach Wyche in his first three years as a 49er.
“I would not take another snap if I was Tua. I would advise his family that. I’ve talked to Nick Saban about that. Nick is not pushing him. It just comes down what he thinks medically, what his doctors are telling him, and none us know what that is right now. Nobody knows except his inner circle.”
—Todd McShay of ESPN, to Rich Eisen, on Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who is scheduled to announce his decision about whether he’ll enter the 2020 NFL draft today.
“I could continue to play, but that deters from me being with my kids. I really want to be able to be an active dad. I’m happy about walking away, because I’m choosing my kids, my family, my wife, over football.”
—Buffalo linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, 36, announcing his retirement after the Bills’ painful 22-19 overtime loss at Houston.
Alexander played 13 seasons with Washington, Arizona, Oakland and Buffalo. He had his best year in his first of four Bills season, 2016, with 12.5 sacks, earning second-team all-pro honors.
“You know what that was? A Harry carry.”
—Jenny Vrentas of Sports Illustrated, after N’Keal Harry’s seven-yard run in the third quarter for the Pats on Saturday night.
In the span of seven weeks in Philadelphia, Seattle beat the Eagles twice: 17-9 on Nov. 24, and 17-9 on Jan. 5.
Re teams doing due diligence on Matt Rhule and Urban Meyer to be NFL head coaches …
In the last 20 years, nine coaches have graduated from college football to the NFL, after not having been NFL coordinators or head coaches ever. (In other words, this list of nine does not include experienced NFL hands like Pete Carroll or Bill O’Brien.) And:
• Two of the nine (Chip Kelly, Jim Harbaugh) had winning records with their first NFL teams.
• One of nine (Harbaugh) won at least one playoff game. Harbaugh won five with the Niners.
• Syracuse’s Doug Marrone (15-17 in two seasons at Buffalo, 2013-’14) and LSU’s Nick Saban (15-17 in two seasons at Miami, 2005-’06) were close to having winning records, but it’s a sign of how far from winning big each thought they were. Both elected to walk away from pro jobs after two shaky seasons.
• Four of the college coaches—Bobby Petrino (3-10), Lane Kiffin (5-15), Dennis Erickson (9-23), Greg Schiano (11-22) either quit with teams in disarray or were fired after poor tenures.
• Butch Davis (U of Miami to Cleveland, 2001) is the only full-time Browns coach since their rebirth in 1999 to win 40 percent of his games. He was 24-36 in four seasons.
• Kelly was fired by the Eagles late in 2015 and went on to have a desultory 2-14 season in San Francisco in his only other NFL coaching year. So his four-year NFL record is just 28-40. The only successful coach of the nine in the NFL has been Harbaugh. At 49-22-1, he is the only one of the nine to have a career record of .500 or better in the NFL.
I happen to think Rhule is an excellent candidate—a builder, hungry (particularly for the Giants job, I’ve heard), very smart—but I just want to make the point that most college coaches entering the NFL exit with something less than a halo over their heads.
Amtrak regional train, Sunday morning, departing Providence at 7: 15. Quiet car.
Fifty-ish man, sateen Batman jacket with all the Batman logos. Batman cap with the pointy ears. iPad, watching what appeared to a futuristic sci-fi show, or maybe a Batman movie; I just got a quick glimpse.
I like sports. This guy likes Batman. Reminds me of what John Madden once said when I took a bus trip cross-country with him in his heyday. It went something like: You know, it’s amazing how it all works in the country. It just works. You might not want to live in Kearney, Neb., and I might not want to live in a small town. But lots of people do, and that’s how this whole thing works.
Jason Garrett “was not invited back” to boarding school basically.
— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) January 5, 2020
Brinson, of CBS Sports, with the Tweet of the Season after Jason Garrett was sort of dismissed in Dallas.
Layden, who writes for NBC Sports, after the Patriots’ 20-13 loss Saturday.
Antonio Brown, the former Patriot, and apparently embittered about it, minutes after New England lost. Antonio Brown really knows how to make friends.
Another gem from the invaluable site, Pro Football Reference.
How many of the year’s 100 most-watched shows were sports?
2019 – 93
2009 – 44
1999 – 21
— Michael Mulvihill (@mulvihill79) January 3, 2020
Michael Mulvihill is a FOX Sports executive vice president
On Josh McDaniels. From Richard Worley. “The CBS commentators who noted several assistants beat Bill Belichick failed to note that Josh McDaniels did so as well in his short and disastrous reign in Denver. McDaniels’ genius seemed less than impressive Saturday night. They failed several times to get short yardage/score when needed. Is there any reason to think he has learned from his Denver experience?”
Richard, I think he has. The Patriots offense wasn’t good Saturday night, obviously, and McDaniels bears a good bit of the blame for running three straight times on the goal line over the left tackle/end. But as I wrote above, the seeds for the offensive frustration Saturday night were sown in the offseason when the Patriots didn’t make good moves to fortify their offensive skill players. Still, would it surprise you to know they were seventh in the league in scoring this year? And they scored more points than the Rams and the Packers? A lot of that is due to McDaniels’ trickery and imagination.
Re learning from the past, if McDaniels hadn’t, I doubt the Colts would have offered him their job two years ago, and I doubt the Patriots would have paid him a lot of money to not go to Indianapolis two years ago, and I doubt Belichick would have ID’d him as his heir. McDaniels doesn’t have much of a say in offensive free agency, and I don’t know his level of involvement in the draft, but I doubt he’d ever override a call by Belichick or personnel czar Nick Caserio. So I don’t think he’s to blame for the roster of players New England fielded on offense this year.
On minority coaches. From Gerry Smith: “The NFL mentoring system is flawed with no black coaching candidates being mentioned as possible hires. Why are reporters and the media ignoring this story? The NFL should have at a minimum 25 to 40 percent black head coaches. Anything less is a failure in the system. The legacy hiring of coaches excludes blacks from having an opportunity to develop and learn. Why is Wade Phillips coaching at 72 and preventing others from learning?”
Well, you can’t mandate who can coach and who can’t because of age. But overall I agree with you that the NFL needs to work harder at diversity in coaching staffs. On my midweek podcast, I interviewed Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy (who is black) and bemoaned how he’s not getting the buzz of some other candidates. I also pointed out the absurdity of no team interviewing one of the best coaches in all of football, Stanford’s David Shaw (who is black), I suppose because Stanford has lost a few more games in the last couple of years. Those are things that need to be fixed.
I excessively puffed up Mike McCarthy. From Musa Alshuqairi: “Don’t you think that your extended McCarthy [interview] had a slight tone of ‘doing a guy a favor by putting his name out there’ to it? Doing a good man and a good friend a favor? . . . It is working. Three interviews for a man who was off the grid. As the undisputed number one NFL reporter, there is no doubt that you . . . do such a favor in hope to get it back in the form of access/scoop.”
That’s not the way I see it. And Musa, you were not the only one who thought I was doing a big favor for Mike McCarthy by bringing his name up again in my mid-December column. (Tom Pelissero of NFL Network beat me to the story by a week, though he did it a bit differently on TV.) A guy who won a Super Bowl, whose career winning percentage is better than Tom Landry’s and 0.004 beneath Bill Walsh, is working to rehab his image and modernize his techniques after a lousy end in Green Bay, and working aggressively to get back in the league after being fired 12 months earlier. In my business, that’s news. I had been pursuing the chance to talk with McCarthy since he was fired, and finally, after discussing some dates with his agent, we agreed on a mid-December meeting in Green Bay.
And, Musa, if I was seeking scoops through access and favorable coverage, wouldn’t I have broken the news that McCarthy had interviewed with Carolina, or was going to interview with Cleveland or the Giants or Dallas? I reported none of those.
One last point: Is it not interesting to you, or glass-ceiling-breaking, that McCarthy, in his next organization (if there is one) wants to create a 14-person Football Technology Department, has found new plays to add to his playbook by watching every snap of 2019 football, or wants to hire two coaches who would exclusively study trends and propose ideas during the season that position coaches and McCarthy do not have time to look for? You have every right to see this work the way you want to see it. But this is the way I’ve been doing this job, or tried to do it, since 1984, and I don’t plan to change.
Helmet woes. From Matthew Webber. “An additional aspect of the Riddell helmet story [groundbreaking helmet company VICIS is in receivership now and alleges that Riddell’s monopoly of some aspects of the helmet market made it impossible to compete] that you wouldn’t necessarily think of initially: helmet reconditioning. As a middle school athletic director, this is the ugly side of Riddell that I’ve gotten to experience. Every high school football helmet in America has to be reconditioned and certified safe every two years. At least in my area of the country (I can’t speak for others), Riddell has used its influence as a large distributor to also corner the market on reconditioning, to the tune of almost $60 per helmet! Yes, a helmet that cost $110 new will get a $60 recon every other year. In my district, I believe I’m the only middle school (out of almost 40) who uses a provider other than Riddell, and that was only because I searched far and wide for another option that keeps the cost under $40. I’m sure Riddell would say that it’s just aggressively pursuing a business strategy that works, but when my budget for the entire athletic department is under $7,000 per year, its business successes have an oversized impact on the finances of 13 other teams.”
Duly noted, Matthew. And thank you.
1. I think the toughest thing for me this year, picking the 2019 all-pro team for the Associated Press, was edge rusher. We had to pick two, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but wow. Bypassing the wholly deserving and major difference-making Za’Darius Smith and the all-around star Cameron Jordan, and so many others like the ascending sack champ Shaq Barrett . . . well, that was a bummer. But here’s my all-pro team. Have at me at [email protected]:
WR: Michael Thomas, N.O.; Chris Godwin, TB
Flex: Austin Ekeler, Chargers
TE: George Kittle, S.F.
LT: Ronnie Stanley, Balt.
LG: Quenton Nelson, Ind.
C: Rodney Hudson, Oak.
RG: Marshal Yanda, Balt.
RT: Ryan Ramczyk, N.O.
QB: Lamar Jackson, Balt.
RB: Christian McCaffrey, Car.
Edge-rusher: Chandler Jones, Ariz.; T.J. Watt, Pitt.
DT: Aaron Donald, Rams; Chris Jones, K.C.
LB: Demario Davis, N.O.; Luke Kuechly, Car.; Kyle Van Noy, N.E.
CB: Stephon Gilmore, N.E.; Richard Sherman, S.F.
S: Jamal Adams, NYJ; Justin Simmons, Denver
DB/Nickel: Tyrann Mathieu, K.C.
(Awards coming in a future column.)
2. I think that was offensive pass interference on Kyle Rudolph on the winning play in New Orleans. The interpretation of the rule is simple: If either the receiver or the defender gains an advantage by pushing off the other player, a flag should be thrown. And there’s little doubt Rudolph gained an advantage by pushing off on Saints defender P.J. Williams. Was it heinous/egregious? Perhaps not. Was it an advantage gained on Williams? Absolutely.
3. I think that hit on Carson Wentz didn’t look like a cheap shot to me. As a runner who didn’t give himself up, Wentz was eligible to be hit hard on a tackle. Jadeveon Clowney said it was a bang-bang play, and that’s how it looked to me—with incidental helmet contact. Bad for Wentz, of course, to have thrown only four passes in his first playoff game before being lost to the hit. But I didn’t see a cheap intent.
4. I think if this is it for Josh McCown and if he finally retires for good at 40, I’m glad he got to play a playoff game for the first time in his long and winding career. McCown is a special person—and I don’t just say that because he’s a good and cooperative talker. I say it because he’s got a conscience and thinks of others before himself. Take this story, from 2014, told to me by his agent, Mike McCartney:
“In 2014, Josh had a thumb injury and was supposed to miss two games. Mike Kafka moved up to the 53-man roster and needed three games to get his third pension-credit season. Three years gets you into the NFL pension forever. After two games, I called Josh and asked him if he was good. He hesitated and then admitted he was healthy but was going to sit out the game so Kafka could stay on the 53 one more week to get his pension credit. The next week Kafka was back on the practice squad and never dressed for a game after that.”
I mean, that sort of says it all.
5. I think that was a bizarre pas du tout in how the Cowboys shed Jason Garrett on Sunday. I understand being humane, but it seemed even worse interviewing guys for the job before Garrett was officially out.
6. I think I will be shocked, really shocked, if Drew Brees retires. The way he talked to me in camp, he wanted to play multiple more seasons, and look at the year he had, except for the thumb injury. He had a December to remember and then was under siege Sunday and knocked around. But he loves doing this, and I can’t see him giving it up.
7. I think Josh Allen, yes, did melt down some in the second half at Houston. But he’s a kid. He made some great plays in the first half. He’s not the most accurate passer, but I think if I was a Bills’ fan I’d be really happy he’s my long-term quarterback. Not Mahomes happy, but happy.
8. I think the team that is going to be the most interesting to watch this offseason is the Chargers. I don’t know if Philip Rivers returns, I don’t know if they have real money issues (but suspect they do), and I don’t know if they feel deep down that maybe Tom Brady could help them with those issues. They could look significantly different in June than in January.
9. I think Urban Meyer, as of today, is not in significant consideration for the Browns coaching job.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Saw two great movies last week. I do not use that term lightly, but loved “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” on CNN, and saw “The Two Popes” on Netflix.
b. Ronstadt, now declining with Parkinson’s, is exactly what a great artist should be: a boundary-pusher always looking for new modes and avenues of expression. Her voice in her prime: melodious, perfect, an absolute gift from the heavens. You’ll really like her in this show, and you’ll appreciate how CNN tells the story.
c. In “The Two Popes,” Anthony Hopkins is absolutely wonderful as one Pope, Pope Benedict XVI, the incumbent. Mysterious, human, a touch of negativity and treachery. Such a perfect role for him. Jonathan Pryce, as the Argentine Cardinal who became Pope Francis, does a terrific job telling the agonizing story of working in a borderline totalitarian Argentina and being an outcast in his own church for 10 years. This is one of those complex films you might need to see two or three times to digest it all. Fine with me. I’d see it again, today.
d. New Year’s Post of the Week: Damn, I’m so proud of Austin Murphy. He never let the down of this business wound him so his life sucked. He worked with what he had, and he’s back in the business of making us love his prose again.
e. Murphy, you may recall, went from being laid off at Sports Illustrated to driving a delivery truck for Amazon, and is now back in “a smaller room,” as he says, writing for the Santa Rosa (Calif.) Press Democrat. Writing on New Year’s, he sounded happy as a clam about the whole experience:
“My time away from the writing game left me with a keener appreciation for it. I don’t much care that I’m playing smaller rooms. I’m deeply grateful to be doing the work (I think) I was put on the planet to do: telling stories. I can’t remember being quite this happy. Delivering led to my deliverance. Even if I sometimes hate the news, as a colleague of mine put it during the recent Kincade fire, I love the news business. I am defibrillated, reanimated. I am reinvented.”
f. So admire that guy.
g. Football Story of the Week: Rich Cimini of ESPN.com on the 20-year anniversary of Bill Belichick resigning as the HC of the NYJ. I love tick-tocks of memorable events, and Cimini really captures this weird saga very well.
h. RIP, David Stern. If he’s not the best commissioner in any sport ever, he‘s in the top two with Pete Rozelle.
i. David Stern Remembrance of the Week: From Mike Wise of WUSA-TV (Washington), a longtime NBA scribe, on Facebook.
j. Wise, about two decades ago, wrote about the few bad guys tarnishing all the good guys in the NBA. Stern didn’t react well to the story, and Wise called him to discuss. A few days ago, in this post, Wise wrote:
“I guess I must have written something that pissed you off again,” I started with.
David, voice rising: “Hey Mike: F— YOU!!!” And the line goes dead.
k. There’s the real world right there.
l. Hall of Fame Column of the Week: Peter Gammons of The Athletic on Curt Schilling’s candidacy for Cooperstown.
m. Gammons on Schilling:
“He’s not in the Hall of Fame, and not because of his pitching career. Some people feel his stances — from transgender rights to Donald Trump’s wall to a Breitbart podcast with white supremacist Paul Nehlen, later deleted — disqualify him, and his views cause some voters to leave him off the ballot. Dan Shaughnessy is a Hall of Fame journalist and has written that when Schilling approvingly posted a photo of a t-shirt that said ‘Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required,’ that crossed the line . . . Schilling says he wishes he’d never done so, admitting, ‘it was in poor taste.’ “
n. It’s a thorough piece about a player who’s got a very good case for the Hall. Not a slam dunk, but because of his post-season dominance, Schilling very likely belongs in the Hall. Then the human factor enters. The Pro Football Hall of Fame mandates that candidates be judged solely on what they did as players or coaches or contributors to football. The Baseball Hall has a morality clause, which refers to players being judged on “the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” So that presents an opening for baseball voters to use some of Schilling’s personal and far-right-wing opinions to be used in deliberations.
o. I have never been a baseball voter. I am a football voter. And though I don’t know for sure how I’d feel if I was a baseball voter and always had to vote with the morality clause in mind, I believe I like the football way better. I don’t want to be a morality cop. Some of what Schilling believes gives me the creeps, but I think it’s an incredibly slippery slope when we start judging people on what they’ve done off the field, or opinions they have about the world. I’d vote for Schilling. I’d vote based solely on what a player did on the field. I’m glad O.J. Simpson is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and I’d fight any effort to have his bust removed.
p. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Write me this week at [email protected].
q. Beernerdness: Colorado is one heck of a beer state. You knew that, surely, if you like beer. But in the state last week for Robert Klemko’s nuptials, that was driven home by yet another gem: Easy Street Wheat American Pale Ale (Odell Brewing, Fort Collins, Colo.). I had it on tap at the Hilton Inverness south of Denver; it was the lead beer on the draft menu. A gem. Barely discernible citrus tinge, but good malty flavor. I’m not a big after-dinner beer drinker, but this one was so smooth and light, with a genuinely likeable taste, that 20 ounces went down like six. I’ll be back for more of that, Odell.
r. Coffeenerdness: Stayed in Boulder, Colo., for a couple of days pre-Klemko wedding and was pleasantly surprised by the coffee scene. Spent two mornings in Ozo Coffee Company on Pearl Street in the heart of fun Boulder. A couple of notes about Ozo: They like the Beatles. And they have a great and fun menu. The latte with an extra shot was satisfying, served in a 16-ounce glass with cardboard sleeve. To go, I picked up the Barry White, just for fun. A little sweet for me, but interesting: a white chocolate mocha with blackberry and a hint of maple. I mean, on a 25-degree crisp winter morning, isn’t that the kind of fun drink you should try?
s. A bunch of you laughed last week when I said it’s going to be weird writing “2020” on my checks going forward. And it was weird on my first couple, but not quite as odd as the annual changing of the needle on my phonograph.
Don Henley once sang
“The End of the Innocence.”