It’ll take days to digest what happened in New Orleans on Sunday in the game of the year. If it ended Saints 46, Niners 45, which was the score after 59 minutes and 20 seconds, we’d probably still call it the game of the year. But the fact that it didn’t, and the fact that something happened on fourth-and-2 that immediately takes its place in all-time 49ers lore, and vaulted San Francisco from fifth to first in the NFC playoff race with three games to go, well, that makes it all NFL Filmsy/tingly and massively important in the playoff race at the same time.
“The whole day,” George Kittle said an hour after it was over, “for me, was one of the best experiences of my life. The place was crazy, fans were nuts, you couldn’t hear. Such a fun environment.”
Even if you’ve seen the play 10 times by now, there are things you don’t know, things you’ll want to know.
The scene: 39 seconds left, fourth-and-2 for San Francisco at its 33-yard line. The 49ers needed at least 32 yards to get in range for a Robbie Gould field-goal try. Two-by-two formation, two receivers left and a tight end and wideout right, with Raheem Mostert a sidecar to Jimmy Garoppolo. The play clock wound down . . . :04, :03 . . . Garoppolo nervously clapping now, :02, not wanting a delay . . . :01, Shotgun snap precisely at :00 . . .
But wait. Timeout. Coach Kyle Shanahan called a timeout. “I’m just trying to call the right play,” Shanahan said later. He barely called time in time. But he thought of something better to get the two yards. Something better named George Kittle. Kittle was going to be the epicenter on this Choice route, and he and Garoppolo knew it.
Garoppolo never went to the sideline. Above the din in the huddle, he heard Shanahan call the play in his helmet very soon after the timeout. Right away, he looked at Kittle.
“Hey, you’re gonna get the ball on this,” Garoppolo, the cool jillionaire, told Kittle, the 146th pick in the 2017 draft. “You better win.”
The league’s top-heavy this year, and six teams have 10 or 11 wins heading into the last three weeks. Two of those teams, Seattle and San Francisco, are in the NFC West, and one could finish 13-3 and face nothing but road games to get to the Super Bowl. Entering Sunday, Seattle and San Francisco were 10-2, but Seattle had the tiebreaker edge, so the Niners were ensconced as a wild card as they took the Superdome field. “Kyle talked to us about that before the game,” Kittle told me. “Technically, we were the fifth seed. But we’ve got our destiny in our hands. We knew that.”
The game was insane. Each team scored four times in the first half, four times in the second. It was 28-27, Niners, at the half. After halftime, the teams ping-ponged points: Saints first, then Niners, Saints, Niners, Saints, Niners, and then, with 53 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Saints, on an 18-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to Tre’quan Smith to make it 46-45, New Orleans. No one open on the two-point conversion pass. So if San Francisco could kick a field goal, that’d end it.
Brees, by the way, was stupendous in a performance that left him two touchdown passes shy of breaking Peyton Manning’s all-time touchdown record of 539. Five touchdowns, no interceptions. How many more games like this he has left a month shy of turning 41 I do not know. But this one, with the stakes involved, was an all-timer for him. On that go-ahead TD, he saw a huge mismatch—Smith isolated on middle ‘backer Fred Warner—and zipped the ball onto Smith for an easy TD. Or at least Brees made it looks easy, as he so often does.
So many Saints have been in this spot before, playing in front of a howling crowd with games and divisions and playoff berths on the line. Brees and Cam Jordan and Thomas Morstead and Terron Armstead, and even some of the young guys like Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas. But most of the Niners were brand new to it. Garoppolo looked affected in the Monday night loss a month ago, misfiring in key spots and missing a few open receivers. Not Sunday. He and Brees each threw for 349 yards with a QB rating over 130. Jimmy G played on the Brees stage, in the Brees house, and acquitted himself quite well. And I’d have written that regardless of what happened in the last 39 seconds in New Orleans.
Thirty-nine seconds left. Aaah, this was different now: Shanahan bunched three receivers just outside the left tackle: Kendrick Bourne the tip of the spear, with Emmanuel Sanders to his left and a full step back, and Kittle slightly right and behind Bourne. You could see what Shanahan had in mind. Bourne and Sanders would clear out for Kittle, and unless Saints defensive coordinator decided to double Kittle, Garoppolo would make Kittle the first read. At the snap, Bourne ran hard up the left seam, and Sanders did a five-yard crossing route, left to right. And there was one man, rookie safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, guarding Kittle, with safety Marcus Williams about 10 yards upfield protecting over the top if Kittle beat the kid.
“On the Choice route,” Kittle said, “you just motion over [from right to left, into the formation], and if it’s man, I line up behind Emmanuel and KB and they clean it out for me. The guy covering me sat pretty far inside. ‘Choice’ means I can break in, or break out. With him sitting inside, [Gardner-Johnson] basically made the decision for me, so I broke out.”
Kittle, on third down, hadn’t gotten inside Gardner-Johnson, who broke up the short pass from Garoppolo to make it fourth-and-two. But on the fourth down call, Shanahan was right to call time and switch the play. The wideouts cleared out the space and forced the Saints into man coverage on Kittle. Garoppolo led him perfectly and hit Kittle precisely at the first-down mark, the 35-yard line. Gardner-Johnson dove at Kittle’s legs. He missed. Kittle turned upfield along the left sideline.
Kittle was unchallenged till midfield. Williams reached and unintentionally grabbed Kittle’s facemask with his right hand, and Kittle became a bucking maniac. He reminded me of Mark Bavaro in that 1990 Giants-49ers game, carrying Ronnie Lott for 12 yards and needing three Niners to bring him down. Funny thing: Kittle wasn’t upset that Williams gabbed and tugged the mask. “I knew he’d get flagged for it, so I was actually happy—it just meant 15 more yards for us,’’ he said.
“So,” I said, “what’s going through your mind as this guys grabbing your facemask and not letting go, and two other guys join in to try to take you down? You remember?”
“Get as many yards as I can, and hold onto the damn football.”
From the contact/facemask-hold by Williams till three Saints hogtied him down: 20 yards.
The gain: 39 yards. Add the 14 yards (half the distance to the goal line) for the facemask call, and San Francisco had first-and-10 at the Saints’ 14.
The little fourth-and-two gambit—Shanahan’s last-millisecond timeout, the efficient and necessary Bourne and Sanders clearout, and the 37-yard Kittle run, looking like a bull rider in one of those Texas bars—netted 53 yards. Fifty-three yards! Not bad for a guy who’d caught only 48 balls in four years at Iowa before the Niners saw something athletic and tough in him in the scouting process.
“It was pretty fun,” Kittle said.
“Your biggest play ever?” I asked.
“With what was at stake, probably.”
The Niners’ bench went nuts on the play. “Most people would go down and complain to the refs about the facemask,” Richard Sherman said. “He was like, I’m going to bully you all the way to the end zone or until you stop me. We don’t win the game without that play.”
Shanahan was already thinking of what to call after the fourth-and-two conversion. “Kittle took care of that,” he said.
Robbie Gould’s 30-yard field goal at :00 won it.
“Football’s the best thing in the world,” Kittle said, practically gushing over the phone from Louisiana. (I was gushing too, after that ridiculous game.) “What this means to us, what it means to the Saints, what it means to the fans, who were incredible. The team aspect of the game, the way everyone here feels like a part of something special . . . that’s what it is—special. Now, we’ve got 24 hours to celebrate this bad boy. Then we’re onto next week. I can’t wait to play more football back in San Francisco.”
Interesting road now. With the Seattle loss at the Rams on Sunday night, San Francisco takes over first place and the top NFC seed at 11-2. The Falcons and Rams come to Santa Clara in the next two weeks, while 10-3 Seattle is at Carolina and home to Arizona in the next two weeks. There’s a real chance the San Francisco-at-Seattle game in Week 17 could be immense. The division title, a first-round bye and the dreaded five seed all could be at stake Dec. 29 at CenturyLink Field. That game might mean more than the one Sunday in New Orleans, but I have no idea how it could be any more fun and compelling.
The Ravens can win when Lamar Jackson is good and not superior. Jackson (145 yards passing, 40 yards rushing) faced a good defense in Buffalo on Sunday, on a cold day with 18-mph crosswinds. No way it was going to be a big-stat day, similar to last week in a Baltimore monsoon. But the Ravens in both the last two weeks and the last two months have proven they’re a team that can win when Jackson’s just a guy. On Sunday, in the 24-17 win over the Bills, the Ravens sacked Josh Allen six times and had 25 significant pressures. “Frigid, windy and loud,” rising star linebacker Matthew Judon said from Orchard Park after the game. “We relish these kinds of environments. We’re comfortable when it’s uncomfortable. We know we’re gonna have to go on the road and win games that matter, like today.”
Two months ago, the Ravens embarked on a hellscape of a schedule—at Seattle, New England, at Cincinnati (chortle), Houston, at the Rams, San Francisco, at Buffalo—that even the optimistic Baltimoreans would have been thrilled going 5-2. The Ravens went 7-0. They averaged 35.1 points per game and never gave up more than 20 in a game. They’ve developed a sneaky-good pass-rush, led by Judon and his 8.5 sacks, and they’re great closers, allowing just 7.8 points per second half all season. “We feel battle-tested,” Judon said. “We can win games—we can be the sparkplug when it’s needed. I think that started in Seattle, with a very tough road win and surviving a tough environment.” Conquering five (maybe six) playoff foes in two months has given Baltimore the confidence to know it can win lots of ways in January.
Did you see Drew Lock on Sunday? Lock did not have much fun for three months this season. It was almost like a redshirt year, starting it with a hand injury that forced him to IR till mid-November, and to a backup role till his first start eight days ago against the Chargers. “I’d say it was a mixture of torture, nice to have time to learn, sucks to be on the sidelines, everything ended up working out . . . if that sounds right,” Lock said Sunday after the 38-24 win over the Texans. “I did get to learn at my own pace and figure everything out.”
Managed well last week in beating Los Angeles, Lock was freer to take some shots Sunday in Houston, and the Broncos built a 38-3 lead midway through the third quarter against the team we all thought would win the AFC South. Lock had three touchdown passes before halftime. They weren’t bombs, but he did have accurate deeper throws for Tim Patrick and DaeSean Hamilton for 37 and 27 yards.
The Broncos have been searching for the heir to Peyton Manning for four years, obviously, and Lock’s the closest thing they’ve found. In the last three weeks, starting in Lock’s hometown of Kansas City this weekend (a good test with the revived KC defense), he’ll need to show he’s comfortable with taking more downfield risks, and succeeding at them. Through two games, he’s a 72.7 percent passer with a 111.4 rating—though young quarterbacks often debut strong on rating because they’re being protected by their play-callers. Lock hopes he can play well enough to ensure the Broncos don’t focus on a quarterback in the 2020 draft. A month ago, they might have. If Lock continues at this pace, I doubt John Elway will use a high pick on a passer. “It wouldn’t matter what the level of football was,” Lock said. “Youth league, high school, college, NFL. I never want to give my job up. I certainly don’t want to give it up now.”
Not sure there’s a quarterback having any more fun than Lock either. He leads the league in emotive smiles after just two weeks of playing. “I’ll put it like this,” he said. “You work your whole life, practice all the time, private quarterback workouts, get pummeled, and your whole goal is to get to the NFL. Now that I’m here, I can tell you: It’s a frickin’ blast.”
It’s hard for two teams to be closer than the Chiefs and Patriots right now. In the last 14 months they’ve played three one-score games.
• New England has won two, KC one.
• Composite score: New England 96, KC 94.
• The Patriots won the first meeting in October 2018 on a field goal on the last play of the game.
• The Patriots won the second meeting in January 2019 on a Rex Burkhead touchdown run on the last play of the game.
• The Chiefs won by seven Sunday in Foxboro when a fourth-down pass to Julian Edelman in the end zone was tipped away on the last Patriot play of the game.
But Sunday was a tale of the Chiefs learning their lesson from 2018, I believe. When I saw Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City in August, he told me he absolutely would not fall into the same trap against New England in 2019 that he did in 2018. Last year, Mahomes’ sluggish play and the Patriots quick-strike ability had the Chiefs down by 15 in the first half in the regular-season meeting, and by 14 in the first half in the AFC title game at Arrowhead Stadium. You could tell that, months later, Mahomes was still ticked off about both games.
“You can’t make mistakes against Tom Brady and Coach [Bill] Belichick and the Patriots the way we did in both games, early in the game,” Mahomes told me. “We obviously made things happen in the second half of both those games and gave ourselves chances to win. But if we just go in with the mindset of making adjustments even quicker, making sure that you go out there with a game plan and execute at a high level just from the beginning. They’re gonna keep executing, so you better too.”
The Chiefs’ first seven drives Sunday evening in Foxboro: interception, field goal, TD, TD, punt, field goal, field goal. Seven minutes into the third quarter, Kansas City had a commanding 23-7 lead. Mahomes exited with a significant right hand bruise, so we’ll see if that affects him as the Chiefs try to pass New England for the second playoff seed in the last three weeks. But otherwise, there wasn’t much to regret for the Chiefs as they walked out of Gillette Stadium on Sunday night. Different matter for the Patriots. Only two of 12 drives were for more than 45 yards. Tom Brady was sacked three times, hit three more and pressured an ungodly 16 times, per PFF, in 39 pass drops.
The biggest difference between this year and last year is simple. Both defenses look like like they can win multiple playoff games. While you trust Kansas City’s offense to be at least good enough against a strong defense, that trust in the New England offense (210 yards through 55 minutes Sunday) is gone. They relied on gadgetry because the weapons not named Edelman around Brady are highly questionable. Since Halloween, New England’s 2-3, and averaging 18.6 points per game. There’s no indication that’s changing soon. Thought the Patriots can rightfully throw tomatoes at the officials for two horrible late calls Sunday (more in Goats of the Week, below), think about where they are on offense: In the last five games, they exceeded 20 points once—in lost-cause garbage time last week against Houston. Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels have the coaching job of this era on their hands if they want the Patriots to be factors in January. The best idea? More gadgetry. A Mohamed Sanu pass or three, or another from college-QB Edelman, or some punt-team sleight of hand. Unless Antonio Brown flies in to save the season (doubtful), gadget plays are needed, and soon.
Anthony Myers, a junior at Berks Catholic High School in Reading, Pa., died last Wednesday of a malignant brain tumor. He was 17.
A year ago, I wrote a bit about Myers in this column. A Christian McCaffrey-all-purpose-back type for the Berks Catholic Saints, he was diagnosed with the stage 3 cancer on Oct. 22, and surgery was set in New York for Nov. 26. Football, certainly, should have been out of the question. But as Berks Catholic steamed into the state playoffs, and the gravity of his situation hit Myers, he still felt pretty good. And he asked his doctor: We’ve got a big playoff game this weekend, and I really want to play in it. Can I? No idea what the doctor thought, but good on him. He said yes. One game.
In the first quarter against Milton Hershey High School, Myers took a jet sweep pitch from the quarterback and scored from a yard out. Later, lined up at his 20 to receive a punt, Myers took the low boot, broke right, sprinted down the right sideline, cut back and scored on an 80-yard return to give the Saints a commanding lead. The crowd went crazy, knowing what is on the line for the young Myers. Berks Catholic won the game. Myers was carried off the field after the game on the shoulders of teammates.
“You never know when the last snap is going to be,’’ Myers told sportswriter Bruce Badgley after the game. “I was just playing my heart out every single snap.”
Anthony Myers knew. Those were his last snaps. The family tried everything, but there would be no miracle recovery.
His strength and conditioning trainer, Dane Miller, penned a lovely tribute to Myers. I spoke to Miller for 30 minutes Saturday, and seven times he had to stop because he was crying.
“My favorite kid I ever trained,” Miller said, his voice cracking. “The energy, the enthusiasm, the love of life. Sometimes I’d say to him, ‘Anthony, I need you to bring up the energy today. The guys are kinda doggin’ it. And he’d lift up the whole place—not in a rah-rah way, but just with positive energy. Infectious. Every opportunity he had to get better, he took it—and with his positivity, he took 20 guys with him. Just loved football. That last game? He knew his future. I know what he was thinking that day. ‘F— it! I am going to go off.’
“In October, he found out he had five or six weeks to live. Sitting in the gym, he told me, ‘We’re not doing any more treatments.’ We all knew where it was going. He knew. You know what his first thing to me was after that? ‘Can I come train tomorrow?’
Fifteen, 20 seconds. Sobbing.
“He trained three more times,” Miller said. “I held his weak side, and he lifted. We came up with some really cool situations. I think that made him happy.”
It’s hard for Miller to talk about the last conversation he had with Myers, a few days before he died. He asked the boy, “Are you comfortable with what’s about to happen?”
“Anthony said, ‘I lived my life the way I wanted to. Doing what I love, trying to be positive.’ ”
“I don’t know if he understood the magnitude of his life,” Miller said. “He was naïve. He didn’t know other people weren’t wired like him. I mean, seriously, I’m going to change the way I live my life because of him, and he was only 17 years old. Be a better person. Take every opportunity to get better. People here are genuinely upset by this, and I just hope they take Anthony’s lessons and apply them to their lives, and not go back to being goldfish. Instagram and TicTok are not really what matters. Being the best you can be, that’s what matters. Anthony Myers was the best version of Anthony Myers every day, even as his life was ending. If you were around him every day, it soaked into your soul.”
A year ago, another Saint, Sean Payton, heard about Myers. He recorded a keep-fighting video and sent it to him. “We’re pulling for you in your battle ahead,” Payton said. Drew Brees sent him a signed football. The Eagles had him to a game, and Alshon Jeffrey befriended him. On Friday, I told Payton that Anthony Myers died. He responded with sadness, and with this note: Every Saturday at the Saints’ walkthrough practice, the team brings in a local Make A Wish child and family, and they break down the team after practice, and get photos and autographs. “Our team is always better for it,” Payton said. “These are priceless requests for us to fulfill, and we humbly say yes to them.”
Services are today at 9:30 a.m. at Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church in Reading, Pa. So many will be there in person. I hope more are there in spirit, and I hope thousands carry Anthony Myers’ life lesson with them every day.
Offensive Player of the Week
Drew Lock, quarterback, Denver. In his second NFL start (both wins), Lock had three touchdown passes and 235 yards by halftime, as Denver stormed to a 31-3 lead over the presumably playoff-bound Texans. The final: 38-24. Playing with confidence an an edge, Lock, the second-round rookie from Missouri, finished 22 of 27 for 306 yards and a 136.0 rating.
Jimmy Garoppolo, quarterback, San Francisco. Eastern Illinois University has to be pretty proud today. Saints coach Sean Payton, a former quarterback from EIU, orchestrated an offense that put up 46 points on the best defense in football. Garoppolo, another former quarterback from EIU, threw for four touchdowns and 349 yards in the cacophonous Superdome, playing the best game of his short career to beat the Saints and re-take the lead in the skin-tight NFC West. This is the kind of game the 49ers are paying Garoppolo the very big money to win, and putting up 48 points in a huge spot like this was justifies all the hype the Niners bought with Garoppolo.
Austin Ekeler, running back, L.A. Chargers. Players in meaningless games can win these honors too. And there’s not a game much more meaningless than the disappointing 5-9 Chargers playing out the string at the absolutely bumbling 4-9 Jaguars, football’s most disappointing team over the last two seasons. Ekeler had an astounding game. He touched the ball only 13 times rushing and receiving, but he had 101 rushing yards (eight carries) and 112 receiving yards (five catches). Incredible: Ekeler had a catch-and-run of 84 yards, and rushes of 35, 27 and 23 yards in L.A.’s 45-10 win in Florida.
Defensive Player of the Week
Danielle Hunter, defensive end, Minnesota. At 25 years and one month old, Hunter became the youngest player since the sack became a stat in 1982 to accumulate 50 career sacks. His three sacks against the slumbering Lions (all in the first half) gave Hunter 12.5 for the year and 52.5 for his career. The third-round pick from LSU in 2015 has been one of the great bargains in recent Vikings history.
Jeremiah Attaochu, linebacker, Denver. Signed off the street by needy Denver in October, Attaochu made his presence felt early and often in the Broncos’ upset in Houston. The 2014 second-rounder, on his fourth team, picked up a fumble late in the first quarter and handed off to Kareem Jackson, who ran 70 yards for a touchdown. On the ensuing Houston series, Attaochu ruined it with a crushing nine-yard sack of Deshaun Watson. By the time Houston got the ball again, the Broncos had a 21-0 lead and were on the way to a win. For the day, Attaochu had two sacks and the crucial fumble recovery.
Special Teams Players of the Week
Diontae Johnson, wide receiver/punt-returner, Pittsburgh. Arizona’s stadium was Heinz Field West for the Steelers on Sunday. And the place went bonkers when Johnson—the player drafted with the pick Pittsburgh obtained from Oakland in the Antonio Brown trade—took a Cardinal punt at his own 15-yard line, on the left side of the field. Johnson weaved through traffic, took a hard right turn around the 30, and he was off on an 85-yard touchdown return. Not bad for a guy whose previous long punt return was 14 yards.
Jason Sanders, kicker, Miami. On a cold day in New Jersey, Sanders had the game of his life. In the 22-21 loss to the Jets at MetLife Stadium, Sanders kicked field goals of 22, 25, 28, 31, 53, 47 and 37 yards, missing only from 34 in the middle of the third quarter. Could a replay be forthcoming? Dolphins at Giants, MetLife Stadium, next Sunday at 1.
Coach of the Week
Matt Nagy, head coach, Chicago. With everyone in Chicagoland howling for the head of Mitchell Trubisky, and everyone in medialand (including me) calling for Trubisky to be benched, Nagy stood behind Trubisky continually. Maybe Nagy felt he had to. Maybe he did it because the Bears were 3-5 and he viewed Chase Daniel as an emergency guy, not a quarterback to lead a team to the playoffs. But Trubisky started a turnaround in part of the Bears’ Week-12 win over the Giants, and then, in the last two games (at Detroit, Dallas at home), he’s been a 116.9-rating passer, completing 75.4 percent of his throws. Against Dallas, he led scoring drives of 46, 46, 69, 79 and 50 yards, and he ran confidently, with a season-high 10 carries for a season-best 63 yards. Coaches have to swim against the tide at times, and sometimes it kills the team and sometimes it gives the team life. Now, it looks like Nagy’s endless votes of confidence in his battered quarterback were smart and important.
Steve Spagnuolo, defensive coordinator, Kansas City. All season, the Chiefs have been waiting for the defense to at least semi-catch up to the offense, and inside the team, the feeling was by the end of the year, the players would grasp first-year man Spagnulo’s defensive scheme and play it better than they did early. Now is that time. In a crucial test Sunday in Foxboro, Spagnuolo’s crew allowed New England 210 grudgingly earned yards in the first 55 minutes, and hung on to make a final stop in the final minutes (Kudos, Bashaud Breeland, for the pass break-up of the day on Julian Edelman to win.) In the Chiefs’ three-game win streak, they’ve allowed 17, 9 and 16 points—and proven that they can pressure the quarterback and make big stops when needed. As Tony Romo said on the telecast: “Kansas City’s for real. They’re playing better defense than they have all year.”
Goat of the Week
Patrick Holt (down judge) and Jonah Monroe (side judge), officials, Kansas City-New England game. Bad second half for Jerome Boger’s crew in Foxboro, blowing dead a clear Travis Kelce fumble that the Patriots would have returned for a touchdown late in the third quarter. Then, on the ensuing New England drive, the officials said New England wide receiver N’Keal Harry stepped out of bounds at the Chiefs’ 3-yard line when he clearly had not, again negating a New England touchdown. The Patriots, after losing two shots at touchdowns, settled for a field goal.
Regarding Holt and Monroe: The side judge, Monroe, asked Holt, the down judge, for help on the play after Harry dove for the pylon and appeared to have scored. The down judge is responsible for whether the runner steps out of bounds. After the game, a pool report from referee Jerome Boger said that the “covering official on the wing” (Holt) was blocked from seeing the play by defensive players on Kansas City. “The downfield official [Monroe] who was on the goal line and looking back toward the field of play had that [Harry] stepped out at the 3-yard line.” Monroe, then, ruled something that he did not see, because multiple replays showed green turf between Harry’s left shoe and the white sideline. The Patriots got the ball at the 3 instead of scoring, and ended up with three points instead of six, seven or eight with the touchdown. Costly error with 13:22 to go. Officials should only rule on things they definitely see, not on things they think they see. And either Holt, who is a rookie NFL official, or Monroe thought he saw the foot out of bounds. It clearly wasn’t, and it cost New England dearly.
“The hard thing for us … What I appreciate about this team is we don’t look at our record and say, ‘This is what we are.’ I think we look at our record and say, ‘That’s not what we are.’ “
—Detroit coach Matt Patricia, per Chris Burke of The Athletic.
I think that is a pile of crap. You are what your record says you are. The Lions are 3-9-1. They’ve won one of the last 10 games. Including the last 10 games of last season, Detroit has won six of its last 23 games. If you’re a good team masking a few deficiencies, you don’t win once a month. And Matthew Stafford has played 18 of those 23 games. Teams win without their starting quarterback. Drew Lock, two wins in a row in Denver. Devlin Hodges, 4-0.
I don’t know. That quote, to me, was weak.
“The West Is Not Enough.”
—T-shirts worn by Kansas City players after clinching the AFC West in Foxboro on Sunday evening.
“Come get me.”
—Cleveland wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., to several opposing players and coaches this year, per Jay Glazer on FOX NFL Sunday.
I know he’s a very good player, and when healthy is a major threat, but this kind of stuff is exactly why Beckham is so difficult to like. The Browns would have a devil of a time getting near what they’d consider market value for him. I agree with Glazer, who said Sunday: “I don’t see that relationship ending well for them after this year.”
“I’m not going to talk about any offseason stuff that’s going on.”
—Beckham, after the Browns beat Cincinnati on Sunday.
Would have been easy to quash if untrue. So . . .
“We got 47 points on the board with six minutes left in the first half!”
—An incredulous Scott Hanson of DirecTV’s Red Zone Channel, with defensively stout New Orleans up on defensively stout San Francisco 27-20 midway through the second quarter.
They had another 47 to go.
Hayden Hurst • Baltimore tight end • Photographed in Owings Mills, Md.
Hurst, a Pirates draft choice in 2012, lost the ability to throw strikes and flamed out of baseball by 2015. Then he played three seasons at tight end for South Carolina and was Baltimore’s first first-round pick in 2018, seven slots ahead of Lamar Jackson. Hurst’s 61-yard catch-and-run touchdown pass from Jackson in Buffalo turned out to be the game-winner Sunday for the 11-2 Ravens.
“The mental side of these games is absolutely everything. Whether it’s baseball, hockey, basketball, football, there’s a mental aspect to these games that we play that’s much more important than people think. I would say it’s more important in baseball. It’s a slower game. The pitcher controls the whole game. You’re on an island out there. Football is a little more barbaric. You can kinda go out there and just cut it loose and be an athlete. I think that’s why it suits me a little bit better. Baseball is a little more of a thinking man’s game. When I was struggling, it lead to so much anxiety—it was so hard to just go out and play. A year or so ago, an interviewer asked me if I’d throw a baseball. Me and my dad picked it up in the backyard and I threw. I did pretty well. I honestly think it’s because I don’t care anymore. It’s not my sport. I’m a little bit more free. But when I was in it, it was hard.
“I believe in myself a lot more now. The mental side doesn’t affect me as much because I feel prepared. You go through training camp, through practices, and that repetition makes the anxiety go away.
“This offseason, I kind of sat down with my parents and I was like, Do you realize how many people have done what I’ve done? Not many. Sometimes I’ve got to pinch myself. If you’d told me when I was in high school, ‘You’ll be a first-round pick in the NFL,’ I would have laughed at you. It’s just crazy. I’m just blessed to be where I am after my experience in baseball.”
Watch Hurst in the NBC Sports series “HEADSTRONG: Mental Health and Sports” to learn how he uses his struggles with mental health to help kids in his hometown of Jacksonville.
Big-Ticket Free-Agency Follies, 2019 Edition:
The biggest free-agent contracts for players who changed teams in 2019, with the eight free-agent signees who got at least $25-million guaranteed with their new teams:
- Zero of eight have been big stars fully justifying their pay.
- Three of eight have been moderate to good contributors: Thomas, Flowers and Collins.
- Four of eight will miss half the season or more with injuries: Mosley, Alexander, James and Foles.
- One of eight has been a significant disappointment: Bell.
Foles is in almost a separate category, both injured and underperforming.
The injured, or the bad:
• Foles, who missed half the season with a broken clavicle, was benched for poor play in his third start back. He likely is done for 2019.
• Mosley has missed all but 114 snaps with the Jets with a groin injury. He’s on season-ending IR.
• Bell, averaging 3.2 yards per rush (1.1 yards less than his career average), has been wholly unimpactful for the Jets.
• James has been sidelined all but 32 snaps with a knee injury this year. He’ll make $17 million, total, in 2019.
Alexander, PFF’s 43rd-rated linebacker, was lost with a torn pectoral in game eight. It’s the second straight year he’s played half a season or less.
The healthy, and the pretty good:
• Flowers has played but 63 percent of the snaps—way down from his last two Patriot years. He has seven sacks and 29 QB hurries.
• Collins has played all 910 Washington defensive snaps and been a good run defender and middling pass defender.
• Thomas hasn’t made the splash plays other Raven defenders have, but he came in with injury question marks and has been a relative ironman, playing 95 percent of the snaps and providing good leadership.
Moral of the story: It was a bad year for spending big in free agency.
(Note: Green Bay pass-rushers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith have been a boon to the Packers in remaking their pass-rush, but neither got a deal with $25-million fully guaranteed. Maybe that’s a moral to the story—that it’s smart to pay big and guarantee only a moderate sum, which could be effective in luring players like Smith and Smith. They were rising stars but not worthy to most teams of huge guarantees.)
In 2008, his last year at Georgia, Matthew Stafford never completed 70 percent of his passes in any of his 13 games.
In 2019, his last year at LSU, Joe Burrow has never completed less than 70 percent of his passes in any of his 13 games.
I’ve watched Burrow three or four times this year, including every snap of the Alabama game, so I can’t sit here and go all scouty on you over Burrow. But 10 years ago, Stafford was the no-doubt number one pick in the draft. He played in the SEC (at a different time, admittedly), and completed 61 percent of his passes in his last college season, for a 9.0 yards-per-attempt average.
Burrow, throwing downfield more and far more effectively (10.9 yards per attempt), is 17 percent more accurate, at 78 percent.
Unless this guy Burrow robs banks in his spare time, how possibly is he not the first pick in the draft if a QB-needy team (Cincinnati, Miami) has the choice?
Week 4, 1976. Intersectional college football action: Minnesota at Washington, with two of the top quarterbacks in the country.
Huskies 38, Golden Gophers 7.
Warren Moon over Tony Dungy.
Chris Berman’s nickname for the Minnesota wide receiver: Adam Oh What a Thielen Dancin’ On the Ceilin’.
Gay is a (humorous) sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal.
Walder is a sports analytics writer for ESPN.
Watson is a tight end for the Patriots and one of the leading NFL players working on social-justice causes.
Man, is Joe Burrow good.
During pro football’s 100th season, I’ll re-visit important games, plays, players and events from NFL history.
1971: Six perfect blocks lead Dick Anderson on a magic-carpet 62-yard interception return in the AFC Championship Game
Leave it to Chris Berman to memorialize this play. I’d forgotten about it, and it exists today, 48 years later, only in a grainy YouTube video from what I could find:
Berman is listing his 50 favorite NFL plays of all time on ESPN (“Boomer’s Vault: Top 50 Plays in NFL History,” airing Dec. 24 at 5 p.m.), going from 50 to 1. “You can come up with 30 of 50 in a fairly short time,” Berman said. “The ranking is not the most important thing. It is an inexact science. A play is in the running if you said ‘Wow!’ when you watched it. Some are obvious—the James Harrison 100-yard interception return in the Super Bowl, the [Adam] Vinatieri playoff field goal in the snow, the [David] Tyree helmet catch—but then I tried to do some that were unusual. Kind of late, found a few you might forget. Remember the Jerome Simpson front-flip TD for the Bengals in 2011, when he stopped at the goal line and did a front-flip into the end zone. That’s in there. It’s number 40. But there are some you might have forgotten from past years that have stuck with me over time, like the Dick Anderson interception.”
In 1971, Miami and Baltimore met for the AFC title in the Orange Bowl. Bob Griese versus Johnny Unitas, in the last-gasp try by Unitas for a third NFL title, at age 38. (This would be his last playoff game, and it did not end well.) Anderson, a wily safety, picked off Unitas three times in the game, including once in the third quarter, with Miami leading 7-0. From his own 16-yard line on third-and-seven, trailing 7-0, Unitas threw deep, and Anderson intercepted a tipped ball on the slick Orange Bowl turf. Watch the video. You can’t see the blocks perfectly, but you can see six Dolphins—Jake Scott and Bob Mathison are two defenders I could ID—knock down Colts like bowling pins as the play progresses and Anderson goes all the way with it. One oddity: Scott’s number 13, back in the day when players weren’t restricted by position to certain numbers. A second oddity: The goal post is on the goal line—that would not move to the back of the end zone till the 1974 season.)
“It was a big game in NFL history, the unknown Dolphins against the mighty Colts and the great Unitas,” Berman said. “I’m a kid watching at home in the northeast with my dad on TV, and it’s a play that had so many incredible blocks I never forgot it. I doubt there’s a play in the history of football that was blocked so well. It wasn’t just Anderson who deserved credit for a great play—it was six of his teammates for clearing the way.”
Miami 21, Baltimore 0. The Colts lost the Super Bowl, but they didn’t lose after that for a long, long time. The 1972 Miami Dolphins were perfect, 14 wins in the regular season and three more in the playoffs, and no team has gone through a season unbeaten in the 47 years since.
The esteemed Howard Balzer checks in. From Howard Balzer, of St. Louis: “Keep banging the drum about the issue of division winners guaranteed a home game in the playoffs. I’ve been tracking it since 2002 when the league went to the current setup and predicted then it would be an issue because there are only six division games per team and that so much is determined by the divisions teams play. You mentioned what could happen this year with the NFC East. In 2010, Seattle won the NFC West with a 7-9 record and hosted 11-5 New Orleans. The Seahawks won. There have been four other examples where the win difference was four games. Overall, there are at least one and sometimes two games each year where a wild card with a better record has to go on the road against a division winner. It’s happened 23 times.”
Thanks for the solid and provable point, Howard. I always ask this question: Is it possible, just possible, that the best two teams in football one year could be in the same division? Yes. Of course it is. So wouldn’t you want to ensure against one of them, the second-best of 32 NFL teams, having to play three road games to even qualify for the Super Bowl? Your point is unexpected, that 23 times in 16 years a wild-card team with a better record has to be the roadie in the first round. Unexpected and stark. The argument for a guaranteed home game is so specious. I hope this year the NFC East is won by a 7-9 team, and a 13-3 five seed has to travel to that team in the wild-card game. Maybe the absurdity of penalizing a great wild-card team will hit home then.
Put Jimmy Johnson in the Hall of Fame. From Jonathan Vender: “I’m lifelong Cowboys fan and it has bothered me for a long time that Jimmy Johnson is not in Canton. He is one of if not the only true college coach who was successful in the NFL, was a tremendous football coach, incredible drafter and evaluator, and has won two Super Bowls. I think Jerry Jones belongs in the Hall of Fame but putting him in before Jimmy is like putting in Eddie DeBartolo before Bill Walsh.”
There is no more uniquely strong coaching career than Johnson’s among those I’ve considered for Canton in my 28 years as a voter. In short: Was the driving force behind the renaissance of the Dallas Cowboys . . . Excellent in personnel. Truly excellent . . . Tough and ornery when he had to be, and could have won one of two more titles with that team had he stayed beyond five seasons . . . Didn’t maximize the twilight of Dan Marino’s career in Miami . . . Won 89 games in nine NFL seasons. So, what does it all mean? I think with the Terrell Davis election, Johnson’s case should be strongly reconsidered. We, as a selection committee of 48 members, have put the Canton stamp on Davis for three terrific rushing seasons, one Super Bowl MVP and three first-team all-pro seasons. For Johnson to have been the engine behind the three-Super Bowl run of the nineties Cowboys is clearly as big an accomplishment as, or bigger than, what Davis did.
Criticizing my Aubrey Huff criticism. From Nick Mullen, of Bloomington, Ill. “Full disclosure: This is my ‘goodbye’ e-mail to you. I know you probably see these all the time and that someone is always complaining, but I do hope that you’ll take the time to read it . . . I wish you would do a little more to look beyond the obvious when calling people like Audrey Huff a ‘dillweed.’ [You wrote:] ‘If Huff’s candidate wins, it’s the will of the people. If the wrong candidate wins, it’s war!’ Huff’s tweet said nothing about Democrats, but rather one specific candidate and his desire to train his family in the event that a socialist candidate wins the election. ‘Knowing how to effectively use a gun under socialism will be a must,’ Huff says, which is much different than saying ‘If a Democrat wins, it’s war!’ which is what it feels like you are implying . . . I think you’re mischaracterizing what Huff said, and making responsible decisions seems radical just because of your personal distaste for guns.”
Thanks for writing and being forthcoming, and for reading over the years, Nick. (And I abridged your email, trying to keep your main points intact.) You’re the one doing the implying here. All I said regarding Huff’s tweet is, “If the wrong candidate wins, it’s war!” I didn’t say Democrat, Socialist, anything. You did. Overall, it’s insane to me for people to think it’s normal that if the person you hate is elected, it’s smart to train your kids in marksmanship—just in case the new president does something you really object to. That is not the United States.
1. I think, this morning, Mike Tomlin’s the coach of the year. That can change in three weeks, sure. But the Steelers started 1-4 and now have gone 7-1 since, all while enduring the biggest personnel changeover since Tomlin’s taken the job and a major spate of injuries on the offensive side of the ball. This season is a tribute to Tomlin’s leadership and his ability to take disparate pieces and make them fit into a hole. Devlin Hodges being the NFL surprise of the year doesn’t hurt either. How interesting would it be for the Steelers, in January, to drop into Foxboro for a 6-versus-3 playoff matchup and have the struggling Patriots offense try to figure out how to score 20 against that growing defense?
2. I think I’ve always liked the humanity or Ron Rivera, back to the time the night before a Bears-Packers game in Wisconsin, Rivera and two Bear defensive mates agreed to have dinner with me to talk about their team and the game. Dinner, on the night before the game in Appleton, Wisc., lasted two hours. A few highlights from my conversation this week with the fired Carolina coach:
• Speaking of the human side, he started by telling me his Golden Retriever demolished the stuffed Panthers mascot, Sir Purr, the day he got fired by owner David Tepper. “For whatever reason, we have a Sir Purr stuffed animal that Tahoe tore up,” Rivera said, laughing. “I kid you not. I walked outside, there’s all the stuffing. I saw the head of Sir Purr on one side, the body on the other and I said, ‘What the heck?’ Tahoe would not have been imitating his master, because Rivera is not bitter at the team or Tepper.
• “I’m doing good,” he said. “I give Mr. Tepper credit for explaining why he did it and why he was doing it now—wanting to get started on the process and knowing he was going to make a change. He was very forthright. If owners explained it to coaches that way, I think people can go away with their head up. That’s how I felt. At the same time, he didn’t want me dangling in the wind, with it being reported every week that ‘He’s on the hot seat.’ … When you’re in this league long enough and you see things, I’d much rather go out with my head up and my dignity intact. The ego in me says give me that one more season. I got one more year left on my contract. Give me that year. And then there’s a certain point where you say, you know what? Let’s move on.”
• Regarding Cam Newton, I wondered if it would be hard for either the Panthers to commit $21 million to him next year, not knowing exactly where he’d be physically, or whether Rivera would want to take Newton with him if he got another NFL job. I said I didn’t know how to resolve the Newton issue because I didn’t know what kind of player Newton would be in 2020, and how healthy he’d be. “Nobody does,” Rivera said. “When you look at our team analytically, when Cam was Cam, for seven years, we were the number one goal line offense. We were the number one fourth-and-one team. Because we had this guy who had this specific skill set. I just believe that if he gets healthy with some of the things that he’s done, he can be pretty impactful. But as you said, he’s property of the Panthers and he’s got a big number.”
• I asked him the lessons he’d learned in nine seasons as a head coach. “The first thing is understanding what it takes to get the team on the rise. Then I think I understand a little bit better just how important it is to make sure the picks that you have, the core players you have, that you are able to get those guys taken care of, keeping those guys. At the same time, knowing—I’ve tried to pay attention to what Bill Belichick has done, and how to slowly transition guys out and transition guys into being the new core guys. That’s what he’s done tremendously well. Something else I just got from watching him. I don’t know if a lot of people are talking about this, but the style of defensive player you need today, in my opinion, has changed. I got that based on what I saw him do last year in the playoffs. He put guys on the field that could chase Patrick Mahomes, then to stop the Rams from running. So looking for these big bulky defensive end-type players is no longer relevant. What you’re looking for is you’re looking for the Brian Burnses of the world. I just thought he did some really amazing things. You have to find the sideline-to-sideline guys who can play every down.”
“Will you be choosy in your next job?” I asked.
“If I take this job, it’s because I believe I can win. I do. We gotta wait and see what’s available and who’s out there and if anybody’s interested, but to me, if you take a job and you’re not convinced you can win, what are you taking the job for? So for me, I’m gonna look at obviously the ownership, the front office, the management, the support. And then of
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