NEW ORLEANS — Sometimes, in a slog of a game, when your season’s on the line and you’re down two touchdowns and absolutely nothing is coming easy, you’ve got to turn to a little hocus-pocus. You’ve got to call Doobie Pump.
And sometimes, when you’ve caught more passes than anyone in the league, and you’re near the end of a long season, and you are just dying to put your team on your back and prove to America and to your home crowd—which, by the way, lost its collective vocal chords in a high-decibel performance for the ages at the Superdome on Sunday—that there’s no better receiver in the NFL, you have to take one for the team. You have to be a decoy.
“At a crucial point of our season,” Drew Brees told me later, “Michael Thomas was a big piece of cheese.”
Thomas caught a Saints postseason-record 12 balls for 171 yards and a touchdown against the Eagles in the divisional playoffs, but it was a ball he didn’t catch that was his biggest contribution to the game … and a play that was his favorite play of his best postseason day.
Eagles 14, Saints 0, midway through the second quarter, fourth-and-goal at the Eagles’ 2-yard line. All eyes on Thomas, one of three Saints receivers to the left of the formation. The Saints, in a very Doug Pederson call, were going for it, and two Eagle defenders cheated toward Thomas as Brees called the cadence. Thomas came in motion from outside the numbers to the slot.
“Plays like this are the cool plays,” Thomas said in a quiet moment by his locker later, after the media herd thinned out. “It’s the kind of play the real coaches and the real players appreciate.”
Brees took the snap, stared at Thomas and pumped his arm forward. Everyone in the place, and Eagles defensive backs Cre’Von LeBlanc and Josh Hawkins, focused on Thomas.
Doobie Pump, remember. There was some drama on the play to come.
Then there were four. Both conference title games will be rematches of compelling midseason shootouts. You remember back to midseason, when defense was going the way of the Giant Panda, verging on endangered. One piece of evidence: Patriots 43, Chiefs 40, in Week 6. Another: Saints 45, Rams 35, in Week 9.
With the ratings on a major rebound—the Rams win over Dallas on Saturday night had a 23-percent ratings increase over the same playoff slot a year ago—Roger Goodell and his broadcast czar, Howard Katz, will bust out mimosas for everyone in the NFL offices this morning. Because the divisional ratings ought to be a precursor to a golden Sunday of championship games.
L.A. Rams at New Orleans for the NFC title, early. New England at Kansas City for the AFC title, late. The storylines are pretty good:
• Two all-time quarterbacks, Tom Brady and Drew Brees. The most exciting player in the game, Patrick Mahomes. The fourth QB, Jared Goff of the Rams, was a solid MVP candidate at midseason. Brady vs. Mahomes in the nightcap is the most compelling QB matchup since Brady at Peyton Manning in the 2015 AFC title game. I would say this one’s better, because it’s The Greatest at Next.
• Three coaches who’ve been in Super Bowls (Bill Belichick, Andy Reid, Sean Payton) and a fourth, Sean McVay, who just might go to four of them.
• The Patriots will play in the AFC Championship Game for the eighth straight year. Someday, we’ll look back at matter-of-fact statements like that and say, No. That never happened. There’s this, too: The Patriots will try to make their ninth Super Bowl in 18 years with the same owner-coach-quarterback combination. There’s a popular storyline out there that is a lie, by the way. The storyline is that the Patriots have been so far down the road in so many playoffs that they can’t be as hungry, they can’t be attacking the postseason with the same intensity as newbies like the Chiefs and the Rams, with so many players who’ve never been to the Super Bowl. I hear pretty reliably that the Patriots approached practice last week and the game on Sunday the same way they always have—like it’s the first time. Did you see the Tom Brady CBS interview post-game, the one where he said the world thinks the Patriots stink? Looked to me like classic Brady.
Before we move on, a note about the 2018 Eagles. That is one noble franchise. In two straight years, Philadelphia lost its franchise quarterback to injury in mid-December. Last year, the Eagles went 5-1 after the Wentz injury, they won the Super Bowl for the first time, and Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles became one of the biggest heroes in the history of Philly sports. This year, the Eagles went 4-1 after the Wentz injury, they rebounded from a 4-6 start and a 41-point loss at New Orleans to make the playoffs, and Foles solidified his folk-hero status.
It’s how they won, and how they lost, too. They did both with class. One of their best players in this mini-Super Bowl run, Alshon Jeffery, had a perfect Foles pass whip right through his hands with the game on the line and two minutes to play. Jeffery’s miss became a Saints pick, and the game was over. Jeffery lay on the ground, crestfallen, for a good 15 seconds. Doug Pederson hugged him and told him the sun will come up tomorrow and we love you, or something like that. Then it was Foles’ turn to comfort Jeffery, who looked like he was going to cry. That’s what good teams do. The Eagles dug a huge hole for themselves, but they did all the right things to try to get out of it.
Sometimes, as we saw Sunday, the other team is just better. The home field helps too.
So I don’t get out to as many games as I did in my old SI days, when I’d be at one or two games every week. I’d forgotten Dome-noise, particularly Playoff Dome-noise. Man, that was three-and-a-half-hours of a Metallica concert. In the end zone, the decibel meter was played on the scoreboard at times, and as it crept into the 120s (equivalent to what you’d hear standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier with a fighter jet taking off), players noticed. “I saw the meter get to 128, 130,” said Saints back Mark Ingram. “I have never seen it get that high.”
As I sit here in my New Orleans hotel shortly after midnight, my ears have this white noise coursing through them like I’ve just seen Springsteen, indoors, from the fourth row. I think what the Eagles did, scoring two touchdowns in the first 11 minutes with that noise trying to be the 12th, 13th and 14th men, was astonishing. What a feat. It was 14-0 with four minutes left in the first quarter, and the Saints looked like crap. They were blowing it.
Now for the rest of the story on Doobie Pump. After the game, Sean Payton stood in his office and drew it up on his whiteboard. Three receivers to the left, and the widest, Thomas, motions inside. “Looks like Mike’s gonna get it,” Payton said, stopping the blue marker behind the left guard, “but all of a sudden, it’s a pump. See, most times this season people would see that motion and we’d stick it in there to Mike, but in this case, Drew pumps. Everything about this play was Mike Thomas, till it wasn’t.”
“So,” Brees picks up the story, “I pump to Mike and they’re reacting to it, and that leaves [rookie receiver Keith] Kirkwood with a step on his guy over the top in the end zone, just the way we hoped, and just what happened in practice.”
The key was getting one of the corners, LeBlanc, who was on Kirkwood, to tend to Thomas in the same neighborhood. He did. And Kirkwood got a step on LeBlanc, and Brees’ throw was true. Easy touchdown to Kirkwood. One of the toughest TD drives of the year, from start to finish, for New Orleans, but also one of the most rewarding.
“I really wanted that play to work,” said Thomas. “It’s strange, but sometimes, when I’m getting all these targets from Drew—I caught the most passes in the league this year and didn’t drop many—people don’t really get to know exactly what kind of player I am. You know, I’m kind of selfish, but selfish in a way that I want to see the other guys I play with succeed too.”
Thomas said these “real plays” are the one receivers would talk about away from the field. “That’s the kind of play that the Larry Fitzgeralds and the Anquan Boldins, the great receivers, the guys who go to the Hall of Fame, they do. I’m happy to build my résumé by putting that one out there for people to see.”
That’s the fun thing about the Saints. They had so many issues Sunday, with dumb penalties—guard Andrus Peat was flagged four times, twice for holding—but they keep coming at you. Afterward, Brees reflected on his long tenure, and whether he could have envisioned another shot at a Super Bowl after three straight 7-9 seasons in 2014, ’15 and ’16.
“Well, ’14 and ’15 were tough, really tough,” Brees said. “We lost a ton of guys and it was a different locker room, a different vibe. But after the ’16 season, we made an effort to draft the right guys—guys of character, toughness and intelligence. We rebuilt the foundation and the culture of the team that we had for so long here but somehow we lost. We brought in the right guys, and look at the results.”
“What are you going to do Tuesday?” I asked.
“My birthday?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Your 40th.”
“I’m gonna be sitting there grinding on Rams film,” he said. “Like I always do. I’ve got the whole offseason to celebrate. My son [Baylen] turns 10 Tuesday. He was born on my 30th birthday. So it’ll be all about him. I might get a piece of his birthday cake.”
It’s not often a quarterback gets a second life with many of the same important characters, like Payton and GM Mickey Loomis. But as Brees reveled in it Sunday in his locker room, and as Payton and Loomis told stories postgame with visitor and Saints fan Isiah Thomas, this felt like the good old days, the nine-year-old Super Bowl days, in the Big Easy. That’s the last time I heard the crowd like this—in the NFC Championship Game overtime win against the Vikings. The franchise, and the city, will have a lot to live up to Sunday against the Rams.
Los Angeles Rams (14-3, 2nd seed) at New Orleans (14-3, 1st seed), Superdome, Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET, FOX. The first time these teams met, 10 weeks ago in New Orleans, the Saints started the game by taking the Rams to the woodshed. By late in the first half, it was 35-14 Saints. The Rams came back to tie it at 35, and Drew Brees capped it with a 72-yard TD to Michael Thomas. Wild game. For the encore, the Rams have two big changes. Cooper Kupp, who had 89 of Jared Goff’s 391 receiving yards in the first game, is gone for the year with a knee injury. And street free-agent pickup C.J. Anderson has become a force to be reckoned with behind a very good offensive line over the past month. It’s fair to wonder if Todd Gurley—at least for however long this season lasts—is in a real job-share with Anderson.
The Saints, meanwhile, are probably not the explosive offensive team the Rams saw in early November. A good part of that is an inconsistent offensive line. Left guard Andrus Peat was awful Sunday, and center Max Unger was shaky, and now, with shoo-in Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and fellow tackle Ndamukong Suh on tape to disrupt the defensive middle for the Rams, it could be a long day for Brees avoiding traffic. As usual, that means the impact of Alvin Kamara is paramount. As you’ve seen, Brees uses him as a physical receiver out of the backfield, and as a speed threat on short routes. Because Brees isn’t likely to have a lot of time to throw Sunday, the Kamara factor is vital.
But the Rams’ offense is a question mark too. After a high-impact first three months of the season, quarterback Jared Goff has struggled since Dec. 1. He played well and with fire Saturday night in beating Dallas, but he’s been a sub-60-percent passer in four of his last six starts. So Goff is a question, and the Saints offensive line is one too. They could cancel each other out.
I was really impressed with the Rams’ run defense against Dallas—but more impressed with the Saints overall. New Orleans held the Eagles scoreless in the last 49 minutes Sunday. Marshon Lattimore takes some chances he shouldn’t, but he usually is in the right place and plays with the kind of physicality that a game like this will require. Tough break for the Saints, who lost one of their top front-seven players, Sheldon Rankins, with a lower leg injury and is likely lost for the season. That hurts.
I think the winner of this game is the team that gets more production out of the quarterback. Normally, you’d say that would be Brees, and it well may be. But Goff played some great football in October and November, and if that guy shows up in New Orleans on Sunday afternoon, the Rams have a heck of a chance to make the Super Bowl.
New England (12-5, 2nd seed) at Kansas City (13-4, 1st seed), Arrowhead Stadium, Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET, CBS. This was part of my 2:35 a.m. meanderings on the Week 6 Sunday night the Patriots kicked a field goal at the end in Foxboro, and New England beat Kansas City 43-40:
“If we’re lucky, we’ll get a Chiefs-Patriots rematch … The AFC Championship is 13 weeks away. Here’s what I found interesting, standing in the bowels of Gillette Stadium a minute after this one ended. One by one, the Chiefs came off the field, heads mostly held up, no anger, no F-bombs. I almost couldn’t tell they lost. That’s because the young phenom, Patrick Mahomes, left 14 points on the field in the first half, overthrowing what would have been two touchdown passes as the Patriots jumped out to a 24-9 halftime lead. ‘The 40 we got could have been in the fifties if we executed better,’ tackle Mitchell Schwartz said. This is what the Chiefs must have been thinking: Our guy, maybe the MVP, was just okay in the first half, and we still scored 40, and it took a 65-yard drive by the GOAT for the Patriots to survive. We’ll be fine.They will be. The Patriots will be too.”
So what does that game mean Sunday in the heartland? Only that neither team will fear the other in any way, and that both teams are close to full strength. The good thing for us is that both teams are surprisingly healthy for the third Sunday in January, and that the week off did both a world of good. The rested Patriots manhandled the Chargers, with Tom Brady and Julian Edelman setting the clock back five years and New England’s defense frustrating the Chargers with—surprise—a heavy-rush look that Philip Rivers couldn’t have expected. The Chiefs have scored 42 and 40 points in New England in the last two seasons, and now they get the Patriots out in Decibel Land, with the most threatening and versatile quarterback to enter the league in a while. It should be a great game.
Two big factors in it, at first glance:
• The Patriots have one unalterable problem against the Chiefs: Tyreek Hill. In the 2017 meeting, Hill had seven catches for 133 yards and a TD; this year, seven for 142 and three TDs. His 4.35-second-in-the-40 speed is a factor every week, but it has been especially crippling to the Patriots. Bill Belichick doesn’t lose sleep over football events, from all indications, but I’ve got to believe he’ll have a couple of long evenings this week figuring how to utilize his secondary, which doesn’t have the speed to match Hill. Could they try to be more physical with Hill behind the line and in the five-yard bump zone? Might be their best option. Sounds easier than it is. Hill’s so quick. The Chiefs have too many other threats for Belichick to treat Hill the way he treated Marshall Faulk in the Super Bowl 17 years ago. Faulk did have 130 scrimmage yards in that Super Bowl, but the Patriots manhandled him the entire game and he never broke a big play. The plan for Hill could determine the winner.
• Who should be the focus for the revived Chiefs D? In the first meeting this year, the Patriots rolled up 500 yards on the Chiefs; on Sunday against the Chargers, the Patriots had 498. Rob Gronkowski continued his 2019 invisibility Sunday (one catch, 25 yards), but after that, with these Josh McDaniels game plans taking on such a different look week after week, it’s going to be hard for Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton to focus on Julian Edelman or James White or Sony Michel or Chris Hogan. None is unstoppable. All can be the star on a given Sunday, with Tom Brady distributing. The last time they played, Sutton played some strange coverages, including one when he dropped eight in coverage, doubled three Patriots, and left so much space in the middle of the field that Brady scrambled for the touchdown. The biggest edge KC will have this week compared to Week 6? The presence of vet outside linebacker Justin Houston, who was a monster in the win over Indy on Saturday and looks fully healed after a midseason hamstring injury. He’ll be a major factor buzzing around Brady.
Observations, stories, and some inside stuff on the eight coaching openings that now look filled, with six announced and two more (Brian Flores in Miami, Zac Taylor in Cincinnati) that appear to be done:
Kingsbury’s not apologizing for his past. New Arizona coach Kliff Kingsbury, who had a losing record in six seasons at Texas Tech, said “there’s no question defense is an area I have to focus on” after his teams were consistent bottom-feeders in the NCAA on defense. But in hiring former Broncos coach Vance Joseph as his defensive coordinator, Kingsbury will likely have a job situation like Sean McVay with the Rams; McVay allows Wade Phillips to be the de facto head coach of the defense. “The mentorship of Josh Rosen will be extremely important,” Kingsbury said. On his jilting of USC after one month: “That is where I wanted to be. But when this opportunity arose, I took it.” I asked Kingsbury if there’s anything he thinks people should know about him after this stretch of a hire by the Cards. “No, I think I’m good,’’ he said. I get the sense Kingsbury understands why there is widespread skepticism about the hiring of a coach whose teams played exciting football but didn’t win enough, and there’s nothing he can say now to erase that. He’s got to coach Rosen and the offense well, and he’s got to win.
In Tampa, Arians knows the job is to get Jameis Winston to play well. “If Jameis is somewhere between 15 and 20 right now [in performance] among NFL quarterbacks,” GM Jason Licht told me, “is it really absurd to pick up his fifth-year option [at $20.9 million], considering what other quarterbacks make? No.” After being yo-yoed with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Winston will get the same coaching treatment Arians has given Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer in recent years. He’ll be coached hard. Dirk Koetter tried a version of that. Now Arians gets his turn. “I think we can eliminate some of his mistakes and make him play better,” Arians said. “There’s two things with a quarterback. There has to be trust between the coach and the quarterback. You have to be closer to your quarterback than you are to any of your players, because they mean so much to your team. Two, you’ve got to work with them on fundamentals daily. I call it going to the driving range for 25 to 30 minutes every day. That’s how we’ll work with Jameis.” Arians, by the way, said he didn’t expect to return to coaching; he thought he was finished after last year in Arizona. How many times have you heard a coach who walked away say a year later: “I realized how much I missed it?” Ditto Arians.
Elway wanted a traditional coach, and he got it. Not long after arriving at the Broncos practice facility for the first time last Wednesday, late in the day, and before even getting a tour of the place, Vic Fangio went up to his new office, put on Bronco sweats, and started watching tape of his team. That’s who—and what—the Broncos hired. He didn’t politic for the job (“I didn’t ask one person to reach out to John Elway for me,” he said), or for any job over the years; he first was interviewed for a head-coaching job by GM Bobby Beathard in San Diego … in 1997. It’s also amazing to think that Fangio first was a defensive coordinator with the expansion Carolina Panthers in 1995. He reminds me of Arians getting the Cardinals job six years ago—Arians just assumed at his advanced age, he’s never get a shot, and he was bummed by it, but he could live with it. With Elway, Fangio found a guy who was buying what the coach was selling: discipline, unwavering rules for all, and an emphasis on making even the best players better. Fifteen minutes into their interview, Elway said, Fangio’s “death by inches” ethos swayed him. Fangio explained to the Denver media, and then to me. “Death by inches,” he said. “A player is off in the right technique just a little, and you let it go because he’s playing okay. A player’s late for a meeting by 30 seconds. One act. Meaningless. But if you don’t correct it, then two players walk in a minute late the next day. All these things build on each other. It’s death by inches—or, in our business, it’s losses.”
The Packers hope they got a good coach, and a good Aaron Rodgers partner. New coach Matt LaFleur, who has nine years of experience on the staff of Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay, spoke to Rodgers as part of his process. “You could hear the passion in his voice,” LaFleur said. “I believe him when he says he wants to be coached, and coached hard.” The year he considers the most significant in his development for this job was 2012 in Washington, when he saw head coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan build an offense around the non-traditional skills of Robert Griffin III, and the team went to the playoffs. “That year taught me more about coaching than any other,” he said. “You find out what your players do well, and then you adapt your system to them.” That’s going to be vital in Green Bay, where Mike McCarthy’s system stalled while new offensive coaches around the league became mad scheming scientists. LaFleur is going to have to challenge Rodgers with new play designs, and he’s going to have to do it not only to keep a great quarterback interested. It’s why he was hired, regardless of the quarterback’s resume.
More next week on the other new hires.
Here’s the ballot I filed with the Associated Press for my 2018 all-pro team, with a few comments thrown in:
Wide receiver: DeAndre Hopkins, Houston; Michael Thomas, New Orleans.
Flex: Tyreek Hill, KC
Tight end: George Kittle, San Francisco.
Tackle: David Bakhtiari, Green Bay (left); Ryan Ramczyk, New Orleans (right).
Guard: Quenton Nelson, Indianapolis (left); Zack Martin, Dallas (right).
Center: Jason Kelce, Philadelphia.
Quarterback: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City.
Running back: Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas
Edge: Jadeveon Clowney, Houston; Khalil Mack, Chicago. The AP asked that J.J. Watt be considered an edge defender, and though clearly he played mostly outside, I rationalized my choices by saying that Watt played inside 27.5 percent of the snaps, per Pro Football Focus.
Defensive Line: Aaron Donald, L.A. Rams; J.J. Watt, Houston.
Linebacker: Bobby Wagner, Seattle; Luke Kuechly, Carolina; Darius Leonard, Indianapolis. Apologies to the Dallas duo here.
Cornerback: Stephon Gilmore, New England; Byron Jones, Dallas.
Slot corner: Desmond King, L.A. Chargers
Safety: Jamal Adams, N.Y. Jets; Derwin James, Chargers
MVP: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City.
Coach: Matt Nagy, Chicago.
Assistant coach: Matt Eberflus, Indianapolis. A hundred good choices, but he inherited the league’s 30th-ranked defense and built a competent unit where there was none.
Offensive player: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City.
Defensive player: Aaron Donald, L.A. Rams.
Offensive rookie: Baker Mayfield, Cleveland
Defensive rookie: Derwin James, Chargers. So close between he and Darius Leonard, the NFL tackles leader. Easily could have picked Leonard. Just thought James was so instinctive and so versatile, a sort of new-wave Polamalu. I didn’t want to let stats totally decide this.
Comeback player: J.J. Watt, Houston. No argument with Andrew Luck, at all. Just thought Watt went through a little more to get back to playing great football, after being hit with two different career-threatening injuries the last two years, and fighting injuries throughout 2015 to just survive that season. This was a great comeback year for Watt.
Executive: Chris Ballard, Indianapolis
Comments? Angry retorts? Send me a note.
Time flies. Denver GM John Elway, who last week completed his eighth year as Denver GM and president of football operations by hiring his fourth coach (John Fox, Gary Kubiak, Vance Joseph and now Vic Fangio), on his lessons learned in coach-hiring and team-building, in his post-Hall of Fame-quarterback life:
“The key thing I learned in the coach-selection process: Cover your bases thoroughly and get the best candidates that you can and don’t make your mind up going in. Don’t draw any conclusions before you go into the coaching interviews. Take each interview in the moment and do not pre-draw it. Don’t combine it with the other ones and don’t make your mind up when you walk out. Be as thorough as you can and try to find the right guy that fits your job at that point in time. So that’s what I learned. I’ve probably pre-drawn my thought process going in before. I talked to [Vance Joseph] before the process a couple of years ago, and knew him, and going in, I had an idea that he was kind of our guy. I admit it. I was wrong on that one. I don’t like to say it out loud because I don’t want to offend VJ, who is a good football coach. But things didn’t work out.
“The other thing that I’ve learned is that the bottom line in this league, it’s about winning. Forget about anything else. You want to do things the right way and we work on everything else. It’s very difficult to do it year in and year out unless you find a franchise quarterback. And, you know, we drafted Paxton Lynch in the first round [in 2016] and [head coach] Gary [Kubiak] was on board with Paxton and I thought he was a good fit with what Gary did. And then Gary gets sick and can’t do it anymore. Now all of a sudden we change a whole system that we had drafted a quarterback for. And once that [public] tidal wave started against him, he is getting bashed, and it’s hard for a 23, 24-year-old kid to beat that.
“Obviously, we’ve got to—Case [Keenum] is probably a short-term fix—find the long-term guy for us. When we do find that guy, we’ve got to have the continuity on the offensive side to where we can train him and develop him and get him there. This is our fourth offense in probably three or four years. Quarterbacks need to be developed. You don’t find one ready-made. We got to have a solid system in place for when we do go after whatever guy it may be, a young guy or a trade or whatnot.
“Here’s the big difference I’ve learned between being the quarterback and being the GM. The number one thing that goes untold about a quarterback, if you’ve got the right one, is that everyone believes that he will always give you a chance to win. The quarterback’s a leader. Guys look up to him. But the quarterback isn’t in charge of his teammates’ livelihood. Right? I wasn’t in charge of whether they’re on our team or not. As a GM, it’s a lonely spot. You have to make those tough decisions that aren’t necessarily gonna be liked at the time but might be the best thing for two years down the road. But when it works out two years down the road, people are not coming back and going, That was a helluva decision by Elway back there two years ago! As a GM, the upside comes from you doing the best you can and feeling like you’ve done the right thing. It comes from within.
“But there’s no question that my experience as a quarterback helps me deal with the ups and downs. Having been in the heat as a quarterback for all those years and now being in this position, I get it. You’re still human and you don’t like it, but you know how to get along and not let what’s being said on the outside affect you.”
Tom Brady, quarterback, New England. With half the sporting world watching to see the last gasp of a remarkable career, Brady turned back the clock. His performance (34 of 44, 343 yards, one TD, no picks, 106.5 rating) was almost too easy. In three frigid hours in Foxboro, Brady dominated the Chargers to the point where, afterward, I found myself thinking: Was he even challenged? The performance, coupled with Brady putting up 43 on the Chiefs when they met in Week 6, now makes the AFC championship a potential game for the ages—Brady playing well, Patrick Mahomes playing magically.
Michael Thomas, wide receiver, New Orleans. A 12-catch, 171-yard performance when his team need it most was a huge part of propelling the Saints to the NFC Championship Game. Thomas is so lithe and so physical at the same time, with vice-grips for hands and the desire to compete that shows up every route. There are reasons he led the NFL in receptions (125) this year, and the fact he plays with Drew Brees is a big one. But plays like his third-and-16 conversion on the Saints’ go-ahead TD drive in third quarter, winning the ball at about 12 yards and fighting for the last six, are big in his profile too. And he’s just 25.
C.J. Anderson, running back, Los Angeles Rams. “Your dreams don’t die till you give up on them,” Anderson said after his third eye-opening performance (out of three games) as a Ram. Cut by the Broncos in April, cut by the Panthers in November, cut by the Raiders in December, Anderson has the last laugh: He’ll be playing in the NFC Championship Game. Fairly amazing. In nine months, three teams that went 6-10, 7-9 and 4-12, respectively, fired Anderson, and he was on the street till the Rams signed him as Todd Gurley insurance 27 days ago. Now Anderson is one of the redemptive stories of the NFL. Subbing for an injured Todd Gurley in the last two games of the season, Anderson had 167 and 132 yards, and then, in his first playoff game with his new team, rushed 23 times for 123 yards. Three games, three 120-yard-plus performances, 422 rushing yards in all, 6.4 yards per carry. “I guess it was a good thing I got hurt,” Gurley said.
Marshon Lattimore, cornerback, New Orleans. Two huge interceptions—including the game-sealing one—for one of the game’s best young cornerbacks. With the Saints clinging to a 6-point lead late in the fourth quarter and desperately needing to stop the Foles snowball from rolling over them, the 22-year-old Lattimore caught a ball that went straight through Alshon Jeffrey’s finger tips.
Justin Houston, linebacker, Kansas City. A week shy of his 30th birthday, Houston was part of a defense that showed it won’t be a pushover this postseason. His second sack in the 31-13 beatdown of the hottest team in football (Indianapolis) was a 12-yard job of Andrew Luck late in the third quarter, ending a drive the Colts desperately needed to produce points. A minute later, Andrew Luck coughed it up on a Dee Ford sack, and Houston recovered. Terrific game by the 2011 third-round pick from Georgia who’s been a Chiefs fixture going back to the Scott Pioli days.
Taysom Hill, personal protector, New Orleans. “Personal protector” or “upback” is the player between the snapper and the punter who, most often, blocks the traffic so the punt does not get blocked. Except the Saints have made a cottage industry of Hill being an offensive weapon on the punt team. This time, with New Orleans trailing 14-0 with 11:51 left in the second quarter and with a fourth-and-one at its 30-yard line, the fake was called, and Hill took the direct snap and bulled forward, in the middle of the heavy Eagles front, for four yards and a first down. That continued a 79-yard touchdown drive, and began a streak of four scoring drives in the Saints’ next five possessions. Hill’s fourth-and-one conversion was a huge factor in the New Orleans victory.
Najee Goode, linebacker, Indianapolis. Not often that you have a 29-year-old linebacker make your special-teams play of the year; usually punt-rushers are the young guys, the low-round picks or undrafted guys trying to make their marks in the NFL. But at a time of desperate need—the Colts down 17-0 with six minutes left in the first half—Goode blocked a Britton Colquitt punt inside the Chiefs’ 10, and wideout Zach Pascal deftly recovered it in the end zone. Replays showed it was a rare assignment error by the usually redoubtable special teams of Chiefs assistant Dave Toub, with both interior blockers shifting right and allowing middle rusher Goode to smother the Colquitt punt. Biggest play of Goode’s seven-year career.
Josh McDaniels, offensive coordinator, New England. After getting bypassed for the Packers head-coaching job that went to Tennessee offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, McDaniels did the only thing he could: put together a killer game plan in yet another playoff victory that blew the Chargers out of the water in the first 40 minutes in Foxboro. Mixing an efficient Tom Brady with a lethal ground game led by Sony Michel, McDaniels engineered six scoring drives (TD, TD, TD, TD, punt, TD, end of half, field goal) in eight possessions in the first 40 minutes, building a 38-7 lead. McDaniels has learned excellent game-planning lessons from Bill Belichick: Each one should be a snowflake, distinctive and imaginative. Sunday’s was one of his best.
Aaron Kromer, run game coordinator, Los Angeles Rams. After the Cowboys stuffed Seattle’s league-best rushing offense (24 rushes, 73 yards) in the wild-card win last week, it was logical to expect the Rams to struggle running the ball. And with the occasional struggles of Jared Goff over the last month or so, L.A. would need to run to win. Kromer trusted his veteran line, knowing that he could call power runs over the left side of the line with vets Andrew Whitworth and Rodger Saffold. You could see how much coach Sean McVay trusted the game-planning of Kromer, because he kept going to the well with both Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson, often to the left side. McVay trusted the line on the biggest call of the night, fourth-and-goal midway through the fourth quarter, when he eschewed a field goal that would have put the Rams up two scores in favor of a try for the end zone. Excellent plan by Kromer, excellent execution by the line.
Adam Vinatieri, kicker, Indianapolis. A stunning performance for perhaps the greatest kicker of all time, raising a question about whether the Colts will bring him back for a 24th NFL season in 2019. Vinatieri doinked a 23-yard field-goal try off the left upright on the last play of the first half (the shortest missed field goal of his illustrious career), then pushed a PAT wide right in the fourth quarter. You look at the final score, 31-13, and wonder how the kicker for the losing team can be the goat. When he missed the PAT, that was the fourth point of the game that Vinatieri surrendered. At the time, if both kicks had been made, it would have been a one-score game, 24-17, with the Colts still in it. But at 24-13, a miracle was needed, one that didn’t come.
“I know everyone thinks we suck.”
—Tom Brady, to Tracy Wolfson of CBS, after New England’s 41-28 divisional win over the Chargers.
“Well, you’ll have to bleep that one.”
—Rams quarterback Jared Goff, to Chris Myers of FOX on the field after the Rams beat the Cowboys, when Goff’s teammate Aqib Talib interrupted the interview and shouted an F-bomb on national TV. Goff and Myers were equally nonplussed.
“Knowing A.B., and being my brother man, he’s 100 percent wrong … In turning my back on my brothers, I couldn’t even come to that game … Knowing that playoff contention is still on the line, I just couldn’t do that. I couldn’t do that. I care too much about my teammates. I care too much about my coaches as well. You can’t do that.”
—Former Steelers wideout Emmanuel Sanders, now a Bronco, on NFL Network on Saturday.
“As we sit here today, it’s hard to envision [Antonio Brown being a Steeler in July]. But there’s no sense on closing the door on anything today. There’s snow on the ground. We don’t have to make those decisions right now.”
—Steelers president Art Rooney II, to Gerry Dulac, of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Excellent reasoning. What’s the rush? League year doesn’t start for eight weeks. Time’s on the Steelers’ side.
“Kyler is a freak. I would take him with the first pick in the draft if I could.”
—New Arizona coach Kliff Kingsbury, in October, to Sports Illustrated TV.
Now about Josh Rosen …
“I’ll give Rozelle credit. He said: ‘Hey, this is the best thing that could happen to us. Because it shows that it’s not the superior league versus the inferior league. We’ve got to sell this darn thing in less than a year to the public and to the networks and now we have real competition.’“
—Longtime NFL PR czar Joe Browne, on the reaction of commissioner Pete Rozelle to the heavy-underdog Jets’ Super Bowl III upset over the Colts, as told to Don Banks of Fansided.
That’s a great example of the forward-thinking Rozelle, who knew the merged AFL and NFL would only be really strong if the new teams from the younger league were strong.
Super Bowl III, the AFL Jets’ 16-7 victory over the NFL Colts, happened 50 years and two days ago.
“Actually, McVay’s barista at Starbucks has had three head-coaching interviews.”
—Joe Buck, on FOX’s Rams-Cowboys game Saturday night, on how those with connections to Rams coach Sean McVay are such attractive head-coaching prospects.
Kliff Kinsgbury coached Texas Tech for six seasons, until getting fired late this year. Points allowed by Texas Tech in the six seasons that Kingsbury was head coach: 30.5, 41.3, 43.6, 43.5, 32.3, 31.1. The Texas Tech defensive ranking in Kingsbury’s six years:
2013: 88th (out of 125 teams).
2014: 126th (out of 128 teams).
2015: 125th (out of 128 teams).
2016: 128th (out of 128 teams).
2017: 98th (out of 130 teams).
2018: 86th (out of 130 teams).
The connection between the Bucs and Falcons grows stronger, and stranger, every year. Such as:
• Rich McKay, Bucs GM till 2003, is the Falcons president and CEO.
• Raheem Morris, Bucs’ head coach from 2009-11, is the Falcons assistant head coach.
• Dirk Koetter, Bucs head coach from 2016-18, is the Falcons offensive coordinator.
• Keith Armstrong, longtime Falcons special teams coach, is the Bucs special teams coordinator.
• Mike Mularkey, Bucs tight ends coach a lifetime ago, is the Falcons tight ends coach.
• Mike Smith, Falcons head coach from 2008-14, was the Bucs defensive coordinator until being fired in October.
This is amazing: Three of the last five coaches fired by the Bucs and Falcons combined have gone on to work for the Bucs or Falcons.
Sports Quiz: Kliff Kinsgbury played in one game in his NFL career.
Actually, he played for 16 seconds in a 2005 game in Denver. He played two snaps.
Kinsgbury threw an incompletion, then completed one pass on the last play of his NFL career: a 17-yard throw to Dante Ridgeway—who, as fate would have it, was making the last catch of a similarly abbreviated NFL career that day in Colorado.
Tell me Kingbury’s coach that season, and why Kingsbury and his NFL coach that day in Denver share an interesting bond in 2019 … with a hat-tip to Greg Moore of the Arizona Republic.
Want a clue? “Tempe.”
(Answer in 10p. of Ten Things I Think I Think.)
One of my more ambitious red-eyes of all-time. After spending 50 hours in San Francisco for the second birthday celebration of grandson Freddy King, I took this road beginning Saturday evening:
7:45 p.m. PT: Uber from daughter Laura’s home in San Francisco to San Francisco airport. Watched end of Cowboys-Rams at SFO, at Delta Club in Terminal 1. Talked to Rams linebacker Cory Littleton from the bar there.
10:20 p.m. PT: Delta flight, 2,478 miles, from San Francisco to JFK. Fell asleep, I think, somewhere over Nevada. Got three hours, I believe.
6:37 a.m. ET: Land at JFK in swirling snow.
8:05 a.m. ET: Delta flight from JFK to New Orleans scheduled to depart. They must never get any snow around JFK. Took 75 minutes in the de-icing line. Departed at 9:22.
11:22 a.m. CT: Land in New Orleans. Cab to hotel eight blocks from Superdome.
11:59 a.m. CT: Check into hotel. Shower, eat a burger, watch a little of Pats’ takedown of Chargers, walk to ‘Dome.
1:40 p.m. CT: Walk into Superdome press box. On the TV, it’s Pats 38, Chargers 7. I may be bushed, but at least I might have chosen the game with some drama.
Call it The Doug Pederson Effect. Pro Football Focus runs a program that applies a mathematical formula to coaches’ decision-making on fourth down. In other words, do they have a better than 50-50 chance of success if they go for it on fourth down and short yardage (excluding obvious situations of desperation late in games)? Last year, when Pederson began going for it on fourth-and-one-or-two quite often when his team was near midfield, the tide seemed to turn around the league. Several coaches, including Anthony Lynn of the Chargers, went to school on the strategy and began doing it more in 2018. The numbers:
2016: Teams went for it on fourth-and-short 23 percent of the time.
2017: Teams went for it 24 percent of the time.
2018: Teams went for it 31 percent of the time.
On drives when a team went for it on fourth-and-short this season, they scored 153 touchdowns—up from 110 touchdowns last year. Philadelphia, as you might figure, leads the NFL on fourth-down daring in the last two years, scoring 20 touchdowns after going for it on fourth-and-short.
A PFF Elite subscription gives you access to performance metrics the pros use.
Press box shaking here at the Superdome.
— Kevin Seifert (@SeifertESPN) January 13, 2019
I was there too, and can confirm the ESPN reporter’s observation.
If the NFL really cared about player safety and lives after football they would give players who are vested in this game healthcare for the rest of their lives for the trauma and injuries sustained playing this game. But that’s not what it’s about 🤷🏾♂️
— Richard Sherman (@RSherman_25) January 13, 2019
Rest > rust
— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) January 13, 2019
The former Raider was on the field when Adam Vinatieri made two long field goals in a snowstorm for the Patriots in a 2001 playoff win over Oakland.
Thank you for representing the city the way you did bro! Nothing but respect for you and your family! Know you have a lot left in the tank so don’t stop. #KEEPPOUNDING
— Stephen Curry (@StephenCurry30) January 10, 2019
On Philip Rivers and the Hall. From Jeremy A.: “Does Philip Rivers’ 0-8 record against Tom Brady influence your Hall of Fame vote at this point? If so, is that the only thing his résumé still needs?”
Well, there is the matter of a Super Bowl. Rivers has never gotten to one, never mind won one. But I’m not one of those voters who thinks a career is wholly defined by how many championships a player has won. I doubt I will still be a voter in eight or nine or however many more years it will be before Rivers is considered, but I would take many things into account and certainly not just the head-to-head record against Tom Brady. Stats like that can be overwhelming and numbing.
Here’s what I see: Rivers was drafted four years after Dan Marino retired, so their careers are in proximity but obviously not simultaneous. If Rivers plays two more seasons, he’s likely to have more passing yards and more touchdowns passes than Marino, and he could have the same number of Super Bowl wins. Now, stats should absolutely not be everything, but Rivers is a consistently high performer at the most important position in the game. That matters a lot to me.
This is why I like asking for email every week. From Stephan G. of Plano, Texas: “Is Taysom Hill what Tim Tebow could have been if he hadn’t insisted on being a quarterback only?”
Stephan, excellent question—although I must correct you and say Tebow wanted to be a quarterback primarily and would have (and did) play other positions. Both are physical and versatile guys. Sean Payton thinks Hill’s mobile side will help him play quarterback in the NFL, and I believe he’s going to get a real chance to succeed Drew Brees. Interesting, thought—that chance probably would never have come if Hill didn’t take the last year-plus and prove himself as a swiss-army-knife kind of player. If Tebow had done the same, and if one of his teams (the Jets, most likely, because Rex Ryan was a risk-taker) had played him more often the way the Saints play Hill, Tebow might have had more of a chance.
Payton should be giving coaches around the league an idea here. Imagine if you could actually use your backup quarterback on game day rather than just as an adviser to the starter.
Had enough of Antonio Brown. From Cindy M. of Nashville: “You could not give me Brown as a player again for anything. The Pittsburgh Steelers need a leader like the Chief (founder Art Rooney), Chuck Noll or Dan Rooney. They would not put up with this crap. Mike Tomlin needs to grow a set and move on. The Pittsburgh Steelers are better than this crap. Thanks for letting me vent.”
I thought I would be getting a lot more you’re-an-idiot emails in the past week after my stance on Brown. I’d say a good 80 percent of your emails regarding Brown expressed feelings similar to Cindy’s.
1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of the playoff weekend:
a. RIP, Bob Kuechenberg, the Miami guard Paul Zimmerman used to fight like hell to try to get in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Once played a Super Bowl (well) against Minnesota with a broken arm.
b. Sony Michel gives the Patriots the best back on the field Sunday in Kansas City, and that might matter.
c. The crowd at the Superdome was no joke Sunday.
d. As the NFL nears the end of its 99th season, consider if you can that only Jerry Rice has more postseason receptions in history than the 232nd pick in the 2009 draft, an option quarterback from Kent State.
e. Julian Edelman: 16 playoff games, 98 catches, and a long way from the backfield of the Golden Flashes 10 years ago.
f. Philip Rivers threw 35 second-half passes Sunday in Foxboro, and not a single one felt meaningful.
g. Sad. Rivers turned 37 a month ago, and every time he loses a playoff game, you think there’s a good chance he’ll never win a Super Bowl. Sure looks that way after Sunday. The Chargers were no-shows. How many more legit chances will Rivers have? One?
h. Adrian Clayborn was New England’s most effective pass-rusher … after being a healthy scratch two games in a row.
i. I don’t know what the Eagles will do about their quarterback situation this offseason, but I do know if I were Doug Pederson I’d want Nick Foles on my team if there’s a chance he’d accept a deal to be the backup if that’s how the quarterback competition falls … and could make $18 million (neighborhood) a year.
j. Does any back in football play bumper cars every Sunday more than Alvin Kamara? Man, the guy hits people like a fullback.
k. How amazing is this: The Ram running back job might be turning into a job share, just 27 days after C.J. Anderson was signed as injury insurance for Todd Gurley. Gurley played 45 snaps Saturday night, Anderson 34. Gurley: 18 touches. Anderson: 23.
m. Might have been a better catch by Gallup.
n. Might have been a better stop by seven Rams on Ezekiel Elliott, fourth-and-one, Rams’ 35-yard-line, Rams holding on to a 23-15 lead. Elliott got swarmed. Play of the day for the L.A. defense.
o. Pay Dak Prescott, Jerry.
p. Pay Jaylon Smith too. The best Dallas Cowboy surprise this year? Smith. On a disappointing night, he led both teams in a playoff game with nine tackles, completing a comeback season the franchise knew was possible when it risked a high second-round pick on him in 2016.
q. What was that, Denico Autry? The Colts DE makes a big stop in the third quarter, his team down 24-7, celebrates by going over to ref John Hussey and gyrating his hips suggestively for some ridiculous and bizarre reason. And he gets 15 yards for the stupid act.
r. Will anyone remember Autry’s sack of Patrick Mahomes? I doubt that. But people will remember one of the dumbest things seen on a football field in 2018. And he did it in front of the sheriff of this football game.
s. I like Kansas City running back Damien Williams, who has done a good job in replacing the departed Kareem Hunt, and did an excellent job controlling the game against the Colts. He’ll be better if he runs sideways or backward less.
u. Man, Dontrelle Inman was such a good find for Indianapolis.
v. Yes, Tyreek Hill ran about 65 yards to gain four on a fourth-quarter punt return.
w. Indianapolis waiver-wire pickup Kenny Moore’s two-game playoff totals for the Colts: 18 tackles, three sacks, one interception, three passes defensed, four quarterback pressures/hits. This is a very good football player we need to get used to seeing have a big impact on games.
2. I think if I’m the Oakland A’s, I’m saying to Kyler Murray: We could find a way to funnel you some more money, and if that’s what it takes to keep you from football, we’re probably going to have to consider it. But this has to be about what you want to do more than it’s about money. To me, A’s GM Billy Beane has to look Murray in the eye and find out what he wants. If it’s football, and Oakland pressures him to play baseball, it’s going to turn out crappy for them. Beane seems too smart for that.
3. I think I didn’t like the bold call by Sean McVay, even though it ultimately worked. The situation: Rams up 23-15, fourth-and-goal at the Dallas 1-yard line, 7:20 left in the game. No matter what the Rams do here, odds were better than 50-50 that the Cowboys would have one possession the rest of the game. I say that because of the very small chance of recovering an onside kick. If Dallas got the ball after this possession and scored, the Cowboys would either kick it deep, giving the potent Rams the ball in the final couple of minutes, or try an onside kick. My point: If McVay kicks the field goal to go up 11, Dallas has to score a touchdown and one more score to have a chance to win. If the Rams go for it (previous three Ram runs: 0, 5, 0 yards) and get stopped, the Cowboys are 99 yards away from tying the game or going ahead, and with all three timeouts left. McVay said afterward, “We wanted to come out and play fearless tonight.” Then why not go for it on every fourth down? I get the mentality part of it. But the Rams would have had, I’d wager, a 98-percent chance to win the game if they went up 11 with 7:15 left. Struggling to understand why the run was right call there, though it worked.
CJ Anderson was on the Panthers when the Cowboys opened their season in Carolina.
Somewhat poetic that he just put what appears to be the dagger in their season. pic.twitter.com/gVxxZozqvq
— RJ Ochoa (@rjochoa) January 13, 2019
4. I think T.Y. Hilton is the most underappreciated receiver in football. He’s averaged an 1,156-yard season in seven years as a Colt, often with shaky quarterback situations, or shaky QB health. A terrific talent with guts and guile.
5. I think this was a thought-provoking message, conveyed to me over the weekend by a current NFL coach after it looked like all eight coaching vacancies had been filled—while only one GM in the league got fired. (Oakland’s Reggie McKenzie was replaced by Mike Mayock. I don’t count Baltimore, because Ozzie Newsome’s departure was a clear retirement.) “Eight coaches fired, and the same GMs who failed—I think in all eight jobs—hired the new coaches. Where is the accountability for the GMs? Do they save their jobs because they’re close with the owner and the owner is siding with the GM instead of the coach? It seems ridiculous to me that in eight jobs, all the fault goes to the coaches and none to the GMs. Explain that.” I can’t.
6. I think there is no question about the most surprising story of the two-week coach-hiring period we’ve just seen: the tepid level of interest in Mike McCarthy. Only one of eight teams, the Jets, showed serious interest—and then chose Adam Gase over him. I wonder what the level of interest will be next year. One thing McCarthy will have to do is convince GMs and owners that he can run an innovative offense. It’s widely believed that his offense got stale, which contributed to the 25-25-1 record since opening day 2016 (and with Aaron Rodgers being the quarterback in 45 of those 51 games).
7. I think McCarthy will not turn into a Brian Billick—who wanted to coach after winning a Super Bowl (2000) and getting whacked by the Ravens (2007) but never got a shot. But the relative disinterest must have surprised McCarthy.
8. I think it was interesting too to see Green Bay pick Matt LaFleur over Josh McDaniels. Apparently, McDaniels was not close to getting the job when the Packers got to the end of the process last Monday. I doubt all of this is the dramatic withdrawal from the Indy job 11 months ago. My bet is Green Bay probably also factored in McDaniels’ desultory end-game in Denver seven years ago, which, although understandable to a degree, undercuts the work he’s done with the Patriots. And for the “anyone can coach Tom Brady” crowd, I’d just make this point: The Patriots were fourth in the NFL scoring this year with a beat-up number one back in Sony Michel, with Rob Gronkowski a relative shell of himself, with zero consistent deep threat after letting Brandin Cooks go in trade, and with Tom Brady not nearly as good as he was last year for whatever reason.
9. I think it’s noteworthy that one failed college coach took a head-coaching job in the NFL this cycle, and all the good college coaches—Dabo Swinney, Nick Saban, David Shaw, Lincoln Riley—either had zero interest or chose to stay in college. That says to me if you’re going to hire a college coach, he better be sure he’s going to have more than two years (or one, in some misbegotten cases) to put a winning team on the field. Otherwise, why leave a lucrative college job at which you win nine games just by showing up? One other thing that Bucs GM Jason Licht shared: “College coaches are making a lot more money than they used to—maybe $4 million, $4.5 million to the good ones and it goes up from there to whatever Nick Saban is making. In the NFL, you might get a couple of years of that money, but then if you don’t win, it’s over.”
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Disturbing Story of the Week: There truly is something seriously wrong with people who would do this.
b. “Joshua trees were actually cut down in order to make new roads.”
c. And graffiti. In a national park.
d. Is it possible to find the people who did this, and put them in solitary for about 63 years?
e. Football Story of the Week: Sports Illustrated’s Conor Orr on Sean Payton’s gap year—the year he was suspended from the NFL, 2012—and how indebted a high school team in Texas is to him for what he did six years ago.
f. In 2012, coaching son Connor’s youth team in Texas, Payton moved an offensive lineman, Andre Washington, to running back. That paid off this fall for Washington, at Liberty Christian High in Denton, Texas. Writes Orr:
“Late in that 2012 season at Liberty Christian, Payton gave Washington his first real indication that the boy could have a future in football, telling his new back, ‘You know who you remind me of? Mark Ingram. If you stay in the weight room, you’re going to be something special.’ Six years later Washington racked up 32 TDs and almost 3,000 all-purpose yards this season, earning first-team all‑state honors in Texas and scholarship offers from the likes of Missouri State. ‘When I hear someone that’s coaching in the pros say that I play like one of them, it means a great deal to me,’ says Washington. ‘It meant so much that I really just held on to it.’ “
g. Pretty cool story by Orr. Though Payton would not talk to Orr for the story, the Saints’ coach did tell the Denton (Texas) Record-Chronicle this fall: “I needed them more than they needed me.”
h. Column of the Week: So this is how the Kliff Kingsbury departure from USC (after four weeks) is playing in Los Angeles, by Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times. Not pretty.
i. Beat Writer Story of the Week: Really appreciate the institutional knowledge and work put in by Joseph Person of The Athletic. The only way you can have a good sense of what the Panthers should have done with Thomas Davis (the veteran linebacker will not be brought back by the Panthers in 2019), and what Davis may do now, is to have covered the team for a while. Smart writing.
j. Imaginative Story of the Week: Emily Kaplan of ESPN (yes, an alumnus of The MMQB) on how hard it is for max-derriere hockey players to find jeans.
k. Now there’s a different story.
l. Congrats to Tim Tebow on getting engaged. I know people rag on Tebow, but he’s genuinely a good person. Glad to see good things happen to a good man.
m. The “college football transfer portal” is the best new phrase of 2019.
n. Hey, Mets: Excellent signing in Jed Lowrie. Averaged .805 OPS and 84 RBI in the last two years. Good team guy. Missed 14 of 325 games over the last two seasons. Can play second, short and third. Made nine errors the last two years combined. At $10 million a year, he’ll be such a better signing than Manny Machado. I don’t mean that he’ll be better, of course; I mean he’ll be a third of the cost of Machado, and he’ll bring none of the drama.
o. Beernerdness: You’ll hate me for this, but I had my choice of all sorts of great Bay Area beers Saturday evening before red-eying to New York and then to New Orleans … and I chose Einstok Icelandic White Ale (Einstok Brewery, Iceland), and I was not disappointed. Light and fresh and slightly citrusy. That is a really good beer.
p. I asked in my Factoidness quiz up high: Who was Kliff Kingsbury’s head coach the only day he played in an NFL game, back in 2005? I gave a clue: “Tempe.” The answer: Herman Edwards. How interesting. Kingsbury’s Arizona Cardinals are headquartered in Tempe. Edwards’ Arizona State Sun Devils are headquartered in Tempe.
q. Feature Story of the Week: Charlotte Wilder of Sports Illustrated with a terrific where-are-they-now piece on Jeff Fisher.
r. Fisher to Wilder: “No one wants to hear my stories anymore. There’s a book in here somewhere, maybe. I wanted to wait until I was finished. Maybe I am finished.” Now there’s a money quote right there.
s. Obit of the Week: by the Associated Press, on the death of a very quiet hero, a Quaker attorney named Samuel Snipes in a time 62 years ago when America was roiling.
t. You can be a hero without getting your name in the headlines.
u. Finally, this government shutdown, foolish and unnecessary, is one of the most depressing in a long line of depressing things in our country in the last two years. Read this, from the New York Times, about the impact on some of the most important government workers that we’re treating like the dirt on the bottom of our shoes:
“Near Raleigh-Durham International Airport in North Carolina, a church-sponsored food pantry has been delivering food to T.S.A. workers, said Jessica Whichard, a spokeswoman for the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina. Ms. Whichard said the White Oak Foundation had requested more food than usual from the food bank so that it could distribute some of it to the airport workers. The workers, many of them still in their T.S.A. uniforms after finishing their shifts, showed up to collect food at a makeshift pantry the foundation set up in a parking lot near the airport, said Kathleen Lee, director of services for the foundation. She said the foundation would continue offering food to federal employees twice a week at the White Oak Missionary Baptist Church in Cary, N.C., for ‘as long as necessary.’ “
Sad about the Colts. Means Capt. Andrew Luck won’t Tweet
for months. A bummer.