Some statement Week 15 wins, but playoff chase still a tangled mess
In my job, athletes are not very good interviews after 34-0 losses. They don't want to talk after 34-0 losses. They will find every excuse not to pick up the phone after 34-0 losses. But Sunday was different. Victor Cruz is different. This weekend was different, around the country and certainly within a short drive from Newtown, Conn., where 20 elementary school children and six women charged with teaching and protecting them were murdered.
"When I heard about the shootings,'' Cruz said from Atlanta, "I was just fighting back tears. I couldn't stop, all [Friday] night. I took my [11-month-old] daughter, grabbed her, and held her, and she slept with me Friday night. I didn't want to let her go. I don't know ... You drop your child off at school. A routine dropoff, parents do it every day. And this happens, and what can you do.''
The Giants and their ace wide receiver, Cruz, went to Atlanta to play a football game. In the hotel Saturday night, Cruz kept noticing messages on his Twitter feed. All were about someone named Jack Pinto. "Fifty, 100 tweets, right in a row, people wanting me to get in touch with the Pinto family,'' Cruz said. He found out young Jack Pinto, 6, was one of those murdered in Newtown, and Jack was a huge Victor Cruz fan, and so he asked his girlfriend and publicist, Elaina Watley, to try to find the Pintos' phone number in Newtown, and she did. At 10 p.m. Saturday, here he was, on the phone with the father, Dean Pinto, and then Jack's brother Benjamin, and then Dean again.
The conversations weren't long, because no one could talk very well.
"The father was taken aback that the message got to me,'' Cruz said. "I told him I was going to do whatever I could to honor Jack. And Jack's brother, he was very emotional, fighting back tears. He barely got any words out.''
On Sunday morning, Cruz wrote on Twitter: "Today's game is for you Jack.''
On one shoe, Cruz wrote in black Sharpie: "Jack Pinto My Hero." On the other, "RIP Jack Pinto."
Falcons 34, Giants 0. Cruz wishes he, and the team, could have played better. But when the family says a murdered boy may be buried in his jersey, and all Cruz wants to do is anything to make them feel better, the game is a game. Now Cruz will do something, privately, he hopes, this week for the family.
"I just want to go down there and help any way I can, if I can,'' Cruz said quietly. "It's hard to know what to do. You just have to put your faith in God and pray."
There is no way to segue to football without seeming totally crass, so forgive me. Before I do, praise to the Giants, in Atlanta, and the Jets tonight, in Nashville, for remembering Sandy Hook Elementary School on their helmets. And to the Patriots, New England's team, for the Newtown helmet decals (right), and for sending up 26 flares honoring the school victims during a prolonged moment of silence before their game with the 49ers">49ers.
It's hard to know what to do.
You may have been asleep for the end of the game of the season; it ended after midnight on the East Coast, a good half hour after most Sunday-nighters are put to bed. In a game with eight fumbles, three interceptions, 51 first downs, 75 points and a blown 28-point lead, the 49ers and Colin Kaepernick beat New England 41-34. It's the first Patriots' home loss in December in 10 years, and that is not a misprint.
"You just beat Tom Brady!'' a smiling, wide-eyed Jim Harbaugh told Kaepernick when he found him on the field after the game.
"It feels amazing,'' Kaepernick said from Foxboro, an hour after the game. "Watching Tom, when I grew up, play the position so well, he was someone I always really admired.''
I could pick out lots to write about in this game. The Patriots scored four touchdowns in 14 and a half minutes against the best defense in football; there's one thing. I mean, the 49ers allowed 317 yards and 28 points to the Patriots, in freezing rain, in 19 minutes ... and won. "Tom Brady-ish,'' Harbaugh said afterward, describing the offensive display that nearly cost San Francisco the game.
But a 62-yard kickoff return by LaMichael James -- apparently the only Niner who doesn't promote agita in the return game -- and Kaepernick's biggest throw of the night saved the day for San Francisco midway through the fourth quarter. The Patriots had just tied it at 31, and in the huddle, before first down at the Patriots 38, Kaepernick said: "We have to score. We gotta put up seven right here.''
As in, right now. This play.
"I expected Cover Zero,'' Kaepernick told me. "And it's what we got.''
In Cover Zero, safety help vanishes, and defensive backs are in man coverage. They're the last line of defense. And or the quarterback, he just has to find a receiver fast, and make a decision fast.
New England clogged the line with six rushers: Rob Ninkovich, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Deaderick, Dont'a Hightower and Justin Francis. Before the snap, all quick-twitched like they were coming, and behind Deaderick lurked Brandon Spikes. Kaepernick was in his preferred Pistol distance from center, about 4.5 yards, and at the snap, all seven rushed. To Kaepernick's left was physical wideout Michael Crabtree, with cornerback Kyle Arrington poised to cover him. With the ball in his hands, Kaepernick had just one thought: "Find a quick answer and get it out of my hands.'' He whipped it to Crabtree five or six yards downfield, and Crabtree broke free from Arrington's grasp. And that was it. No safety between Arrington and the goal line. Devin McCourty sprinted from midfield to help, but he was too late. Touchdown.
"The biggest thing we learned today is it's never over 'til it's over,'' Kaepernick said. "They're down 28, and in a flash, they score 28. We've just got to put the pedal to the metal for 60 minutes every game.''
Kaepernick is growing into the job well. He's 4-1 as a starter now, and anyone (me included) who thought it was a mistake to bench Alex Smith has to look at Kaepernick's fastball and his 202 rushing yards in five starts and his surprising early accuracy (65.6 percent) and know Harbaugh knew what he was doing. Harbaugh had to figure: We're a very good team, maybe even a Super Bowl team, with Smith; but we could be a great team with Kaepernick. Making the move when he made it gave Harbaugh time to grow with Kaepernick, gave him the security to know if the kid couldn't handle it he could go back to Smith, and also gave Kaepernick the chance to be able to handle the kind of pressure he's going to have to endure and thrive in during the playoffs.
You don't get full explanations from Harbaugh about much. You get clues. And this, from his postgame presser early this morning, is about as far as he'll go to explain why Sunday's game was important for his team -- and Kaepernick. "I used to live next to a train station in Chicago,'' said the former Bears first-round pick. "It's like, the more you hear the train, the less you hear it. I feel that way with our team in terms of pressure in big games. The more you hear it, the less you hear. The more you feel it, the less you feel it. So, I feel good about that. I feel good about our team in those big game situations.''
He shouldn't feel good after winning in Foxboro. He should feel great.
The takeaways from Tagliabue's 22-page ruling in the Saints bounty case:
? I never knew Gregg Williams offered $5,000 to knock Brett Favre out of the NFC title game. But Tagliabue's brief says he did.
? The former commissioner's strategy was clear: Get this thing over with so the league can get on with the overwhelming issue of player health and safety. Tagliabue threw roundhouses at the Saints ("This sad chapter in the otherwise praiseworthy history of the New Orleans Saints casts no executive, coach or player in a favorable light") but seemed to olive-branch the players while comparing their intractable togetherness in backing their peers to a police-department blue wall of silence. (Wish I'd thought of that.)
? Yes, the evidence on Jonathan Vilma offering $10,000 to knock Brett Favre out of the NFC Championship Game three years ago had some holes shot in it in the testimony before Tagliabue ... even though Tagliabue writes, "There is more than enough evidence to support Commissioner Goodell's findings that Mr. Vilma offered such a bounty." And union boss De Smith is clear: He thinks it never happened -- though Tagliabue says it's "unequivocal'' that two former coaches testified that Vilma offered the bounty. But I can't help but think that Favre's forgiving boys-will-be-boys reaction to the entire story -- after getting battered so much in the NFC Championship that three Saints were fined for vicious hits on him -- and his desire that the story simply go away helped the union say it never happened.
? I understand the former commissioner doesn't want to release the transcripts of his appeals hearings, because of unnecessary collateral damage on other issues not relevant to the case. I hear him, but I think the public good would be better served by a full airing of the testimony so we can decide for ourselves if former Saints coaches Gregg Williams and Mike Cerullo are to be believed.
? As Chris Mortensen reported Sunday, Vilma's defamation case against Roger Goodell will include evidence that Cerullo is having his legal fees paid by the NFL. That, Vilma's attorneys will argue, puts his pro-NFL testimony in doubt. But the question will be: Was Cerullo having his legal fees paid by the NFL at the time he first blew the whistle on the Vilma bounty charge? If so, it's a roundhouse to the NFL's case. If not, it's dicey, but I don't see how it affects what he originally told the league.
? Amazing the different directions the two men implicated most by Tagliabue for the Saints' program, directly and indirectly, are headed. Someone, probably the Saints, is going to pay Sean Payton $8 million a year, or some such number, to coach. Williams will be hard-pressed to find a job in the NFL, or anywhere, for years.
That's the upshot of momentum-less franchise movement talks among the shaky teams -- the Raiders and Chargers, most notably -- as the new year approaches. In June, commissioner Roger Goodell laid out a scenario whereby a team would be allowed to move to Los Angeles, and a source at the league meetings in Dallas last week told me none of the tenuous teams are close to meeting the requisites. A team wanting to move would have to demonstrate these three conditions:
1. A team has to establish market failure where it now plays.
2. A new stadium deal would have to be in place in Los Angeles with the moving franchise. Four sites -- downtown, Chavez Ravine, Carson or City of Industry -- are possible landing spots for a relocated franchise.
3. An interim stadium deal -- at the Rose Bowl or Coliseum -- would have to be in place for the 2013 season and beyond.
As of Thursday, I'm told no team had satisfied any of the three conditions, and none is in serious discussions for a temporary place to play while a new stadium is built. Though the window for satisfying all three conditions is open until Feb. 15, progress has been nil, and it's now impossible that a team could get all three things done in the next eight weeks. That means we won't see a resolution on a new team for Los Angeles until early 2014, at the earliest.
The Deep End
"If the offensive output by Ravens was a referendum on the validity of the move from Cameron to Caldwell, it would qualify as an unmitigated failure. Flacco's box score figures themselves don't look too bad (20 of 40 for 254 yards with two touchdowns and an interception) but when you consider most of the "good" stuff came in garbage time and most of the bad getting them to garbage time, the true picture emerges.
"There was no blindingly obvious change in play-calling philosophy from Cameron to Caldwell, but when you go three-and-out on your first five possessions (netting only 25 yards in the process) it's difficult to spot trends anyway. Before having to go exclusively 11 personnel (three wide receivers) from the two-minute mark of the first half on, the Ravens used their base package -- two wides, two backs --more than normal (48 percent as opposed to Cameron's average of 36 percent). If there were any difference, Baltimore ran more frequently, but the sample size was small because of the way the game played out.
"When the Ravens eventually did manage to move the ball late in the half, Flacco served up a terrible interception on a two-yard out, and it was returned by Chris Harris 98 yards for a pick-6. Flacco eyeballed Anquan Boldin from snap to throw and it was probably one of the easiest plays Harris has had to make all year.
"The truth is that Flacco is inaccurate and inconsistent. In ProFootballFocus.com's adjusted accuracy ratings (which counts drops as completions and discounts throw-aways, batted passes, spikes and when the QB was hit as he threw) he ranks 32nd of 37 qualifying players with a 68.1 completion percentage; by way of comparison Peyton Manning is fifth with 78.7 percent. Flacco has not played well now since the 55-20 demolition of Oakland five weeks ago. As an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year, he's not giving the Ravens the easy decision they hoped he might. And for one week, the change to Caldwell did not bear fruit."
The Award Section
Wilson's been such a revelation that, week by week, it's hard to fathom how good he's become versus the image of what 90 percent of the NFL coaching and scouting community had of him before the draft.
No criticism of Bedard here; he's just quoting someone he relies on as a source. But this expert has an interesting view. It's like a rock promoter saying Springsteen's 20 times better than Bono. Watt destroyed the Colts Sunday. Ten tackles. Three sacks. Three tackles of running backs behind the line. A forced fumble. In 14 games, this 3-4 defensive end has the impossible statistical resume of 19.5 sacks and 16 passes deflected.
Justin Smith is one of the best defensive players in recent history, but J.J. Watt is having one of the best seasons by a defensive lineman in years. It helped that the Colts' offensive line has been hit by injuries and backups were playing center and a guard spot, but Watt ruined everything in his path Sunday.
Dixon crashed into rusher Brandon Bolden of the Patriots, and Grant caved in Patriots linebacker Mike Rivera. Once Goldson was around the end, he made a couple of moves and was in the clear. Dixon's a former sixth-round pick, and Grant came in as a veteran free agent, and all too often, it's those kinds of players who become huge factors down the stretch of the season.
Said interim coach Joe Vitt: "It's certainly a tribute to Steve Spagnuolo and his staff and players, the way they've stuck together. That's staying the course with the right players and the right coaches and the right attitude and the right teaching and the proper accountability.''
Quote of the Week I
"Ed's charging $1,000 an hour at his law firm."
Quote of the Week II
"That's tough for me to answer right now. The second half we didn't do much of it, and that's disappointing.''
Quote of the Week III
"That's about as bad as I can play.''
Quote of the Week IV
"We've heard a couple of times now of a black guy kind of distancing himself away from black people ... I've talked to some people down in Washington D.C., friends of mine, who are around and at some of the press conferences, people I've known for a long time. But my question, which is just a straight honest question: 'Is he a brother, or is he a cornball brother?' ... He's black, he kind of does his thing, but he's not really down with the cause, he's not one of us. He's kind of black, but he's not really the guy you'd really want to hang out with ... I keep hearing these things. We all know he has a white fiancée. There was all this talk about he's a Republican, which, there's no information [about that] at all.''
Separation of the races. That's what we need in America!
Parker was suspended by ESPN for his words.
Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
President Obama wants to play basketball with Robert Griffin III this offseason, and that will almost certainly happen. Griffin has another idea, different from the kind of 5-on-5 that the president likes to play. Griffin wants to get his friend, Baylor women's star Brittany Greiner, and play a 2-on-2 match: Griffin and President Obama vs. Greiner and First Lady Michelle Obama.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
So I'm walking into work Sunday at the NBC Studios in Rockefeller Center, and I come upon a tour group with a pleasant middle-aged man showing a group of tourists around the historic building. "I was giving a tour earlier this fall,'' he said, "when I saw Dan Patrick walk into the building!"
Just then, maybe 15 seconds behind me, Dan Patrick walked into the building, right by the tour group, having no idea what the man had said 15 seconds earlier. The tour guide said nothing. Apparently he didn't see Patrick.
Dawn Hochsprung Tweets of the Year
Hochsprung, 47, was the principal at Sandy Hook Elementary, holding a staff meeting Friday morning when a man armed with three guns broke into the school and came looking for victims to kill. One of the first, if not the first, was Hochsprung, who tore out of the meeting when she heard the first shots from his semi-automatic machine gun inside the school.
Hochsprung used Twitter quite a bit, and you can see from her account how inspirational and how enthusiastic she was at her job. Who wouldn't want to work for Hochsprung? Who wouldn't want their children in a school run by Hochsprung?
How heartbroken must every parent of a child in that school be to know Hochsprung was assassinated and won't be there for their kids for one more day, one more hour?
Getting to know Hochsprung through her tweets since the school year began:
Forty-three hours after that last tweet, Dawn Hochsprung ran at a crazed 20-year-old Newtown resident aiming a semi-automatic rifle, and the man, Adam Lanza, shot her dead.
After Lanza killed Hochsprung, he went down a hall in the school and banged on a door, demanding to be let in. The music teacher, Maryrose Kristopik, who her principal had been so proud of a day and a half earlier, locked one door, barricaded another with musical instruments, and locked her fourth-grade students in a closet in case Lanza was able to break in. In the closet, Kristopik told the fourth-graders she loved them. She told them they would be with their parents soon. She told them to be quiet. She told them to hug each other. Lanza moved on. And they survived.
Tweet of the Week I
"Nothing like Rex's night before the game speeches to get your mind right. I'm jacked out of my mind. Btw congrats to the Seahawks. 50 again?''
Tweet of the Week II
"Kaepernick 6, Nerves 0."
Tweet of the Week III
"My favorite part of the fine email from the NFL -- they end it with 'sincerely.' It's the little touches that let you know they care."
Tweet of the Week IV
"Felix Hernandez has just asked if he can play for the Seahawks. #RunSupport"
Ten Things I Think I Think
a. The amazing first-quarter pass rush by Houston's J.J. Watt, who swatted away the Colts' right guard, stormed past a whiffing running back trying to protect Andrew Luck, then slammed Luck down for a drive-killing sack.
c. Ponder, somehow, evading about five Rams and lunging in for a touchdown on said 4th-and-1 call.
d. Trent Richardson running like the season's on the line.
e. Kirk Cousins, with a beautiful throw to Leonard Hankerson over the Cleveland coverage, on the run, evading traffic. Athletic play, strong-armed play ... and illustrative of why Mike Shanahan double-dipped with the rookie quarterbacks this year.
i. Number 37 for Charles Tillman -- the 37th forced fumble of his career, against Green Bay. Hard to imagine any future defender forcing more.
k. At least Joe Flacco can talk better than he plays -- for now: "It feels like we're 0-14."
l. Andre Johnson, 11 for 151. Old man river.
n. The Panthers, for showing up.
a. The Chargers, for not.
b. Sometimes coaches have to do tough things. John Harbaugh did it last week, firing Cam Cameron with three weeks left in a playoff season. Might be time for Mike McCarthy to do the same with his slumping kicker, Mason Crosby. In a scoreless game likely for the division title, Crosby missed as far wide right on a 42-yarder as you can miss. Later he missed a 43-yarder. Can't wait any longer.
c. Crosby's 17 of 29. That's 59 percent. In the NFL, that's a prehistoric field goal rate.
d. Some would look at the Texans' first drive against Indianapolis and say, "Good job. Getting three on the first drive and taking an early lead." I'd say: A bad Matt Schaub throw to Andre Johnson cost the Texans four points on the play. Schaub threw far too short for Johnson, who had to wait for the ball and got caught by Vontae Davis. What should have been a 7-0 lead morphed into 3-0 when Houston couldn't finish the drive.
f. Kirk Cousins' 0-for-3 passing start, and his early interception, into traffic. Cannot take those chances.
h. David Akers, who is giving the Niners plenty of reason to bring in kickers for tryouts this week.
i. Antonio Brown's judgment.
k. Kaepernick's dumb interception in the third quarter, into double coverage when he tried to force a throw into Randy Moss. Not a whole lot else dumb done by the young quarterback.
Wrote McGinn: "Barring a shocking turn of events in the next month or so, tight end Jermichael Finley is playing his fifth and final season for the team. Sources familiar with the Packers' thinking say the club not only wants to get rid of Finley but has decided to do exactly that in the offseason. It means that if the Packers cannot find a trade partner, they are prepared to release Finley because of financial, competitive and behavioral reasons.''
Someone's going to get a very good tight end, if Finley can learn to be quieter and more team-centric. But in a flat-cap era, I doubt he'll make $7 million a year, which was his average under his current deal.
a. Three straight Sundays with moments of silence, homage to tragedies in Kansas City, Dallas and Newtown. Please don't let us get used to that, ever.
b. I don't have an intelligent solution to the gun violence in this country, the violence that can allow an unstable man to murder 20 children with between three and 11 shots apiece from a semi-automatic weapon firing terroristic hollow-point bullets designed to inflict the most damage possible. But smarter people than I must have ideas what to do, while protecting the right of law-abiding Americans to bear arms.
We have to stop cowering to those opposed to meaningful gun reform, to those who blindly and obediently say, "Gun don't kill; people kill." That's a nice slogan. It's also ridiculously and cruelly blind to the events of recent months in America, where a movie theater, shopping mall and idyllic New England elementary school have been shot up by sick people -- and, in the case of the Newton shootings, a sick person with access to the kinds of guns used in war zones.
c. Having said that, it's obvious too that we have to address the mental health aspect of this, and to care better for those on society's fringes. When our politicians are cutting budgets, as they certainly are on the eve of the fiscal cliff talks, they'd better be careful about slashing public funding for mental health in this country.
d. Your moves, President Obama, and leaders of the House and Senate, on both sides of the aisle. Be leaders. Do the right thing. Do something.
e. And for those who say to me, "Stick to sports,'' you've got the wrong guy. I won't be offended if you never click on this column again, or if you stop listening to me on radio or TV, or stop following me on Twitter. It's a free country, and we're not going to agree on everything. The media world has changed -- maybe for the better, maybe not. But it's different than the world was in 1989, when I was hired by
A generation or two ago, a sportswriter covering the NFL might never have been asked for his opinion on anything -- he might have reported on the NFL and not been opinionated about it, but rather have been right down the middle on everything. I was hired by the magazine strictly to be a reporter and writer 23 years ago; that started to change with the advent of the internet a few years later.
Now, my job in this multi-media world is to report on events in a straightforward way in stories for
f. I bet a lot of parents, sitting around the dinner table Friday night, said to one another: "We've got to home-school our kids."
I also tried to think of what Roger Goodell thought when he left the movie -- assuming he's seen it. If he thinks he's doing the right thing on something (such as the Saints bounty sanctions), his backbone is such, with the family history of his father being a strong-willed New York politician, that he won't back down either.
h. The Angels are going to lose a lot of 14-9 games next year.
i. Josh Hamilton with a five-year contract worth $25 million a year, with no language protecting the team in the event of a relapse by Hamilton, who freely admits he has sometimes struggled with his sobriety. Was Thursday "Free Reefer Day" in the Angels front office?
j. Rick Reilly, you hit a grand slam the other day with your ESPN feature on J.J. Watt being a big brother to the orphaned handicapped kids in Houston. Wow. What a story.
k. Coffeenerdness: I see you, Dunkin Donuts, infringing on Starbucks turf in Manhattan. You're everywhere! Coffee wars!
l. Beernerdness: Congrats to my old Jersey hangout, the Cloverleaf Tavern, for importing Allagash White and seasonal brew Allagash Black. Why'd I move again?
m. I am dizzy from following the Big East defections. Marietta College get invited in yet? And this Catholic basketball version of the conference ... What's that going to be called? I'd suggest The Vatican League.
Who I Like Tonight, and I Mean Aditi Kinkhabwala
You can change coaches all you want, but the issue for Jake Locker has been, and may always be, his accuracy. In his four seasons at Washington, Locker completed 47, 54, 58 and 55 percent of his throws, yet the Titans chose him eighth overall in 2011. Near the end of his second season in the NFL, Locker's accuracy rate is 56.2 percent.
Great guy, eager learner, very competitive ... Locker has all the things you want in a quarterback, except the most important one -- the ability to move the chains with accurate throws. At least so far that's the case. In the last three weeks, starting against a resurgent Jets defense tonight, he has to be better to help this coaching staff not get blown out at the end of the season.
The Adieu Haku
Why I'm not a coach: Kaepernick over Alex. Harbaugh knows his craft.