Philly’s Perfect Pitcher
What a day. What a weekend. And it’s not over: Game of the Century(Link) tonight in Seattle: Saints (9-2) at Seahawks (10-1), and the only thing up for grabs is home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs when both of those teams view the road as kryptonite.
There will be time to get to that. Lots to cover before then, including:
1. If the season ended today, Houston would have the first pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Question is, who will be coaching Teddy Bridgewater?
2. An officiating snafu roiled the end of the Sunday night game. Just what the NFL wants: Robert Griffin III’s trying to redeem himself, and the Monday morning headlines are all about Jeff Triplette.
3. Nick Foles will never throw an interception the rest of his life.
4. Jacksonville’s 3-1 in the last month. The bronze statue of Gus Bradley outside EverBank Field will be unveiled this morning at 11.
5. Denver’s most recent four foes are a combined 32-16. Next four: 16-32. The Broncos have a one-game lead for AFC home-field over New England, and they don’t play a winning team the rest of the way.
6. So You’re Telling Me There’s A Chance Dept.: Tom Brady set the single-season touchdown record of 50 in 2007. After 12 games that year, he had 41. After 12 games this year, Peyton Manning has 41.
7. I’m not saying the Jets have a problem at quarterback or anything, but Geno Smith’s last touchdown pass was three days before the start of the World Series, and Rex Ryan wouldn’t commit to yanking him after the latest debacle Sunday.
8. The Mike Tomlin discipline for his bizarre or calculated (doesn’t matter which) pas de deux on the field in Baltimore Thursday will be discussed inside 345 Park Avenue today, with a decision likely by Wednesday. I expect a heavy fine, but no suspension or loss of draft picks. What has to happen is real enforcement in the six-foot white-striped "No Fly Zone," which coaches and players shouldn’t be in during game action. It’s a penalty. Call it.
9. The Colts essentially won the AFC South Sunday. Actually, their magic number now is one—one loss by Tennessee or win by Indy clinches the division. With the Titans at Denver Sunday, that shouldn’t take long.
10. Detroit’s reward for earning the third seed in the NFC playoffs—if that’s where the Lions end up, and it’s no lock—would be one of the most rugged roads to the Super Bowl ever. Consider this possible slate: a Wild Card home game against San Francisco, a divisional game at New Orleans, a championship game at Seattle. Who survives that?
Now, a little bit of a different lead to the column, featuring a trip into a subject I’ve never been able to cover.
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"We are a necessary part of the game. We’re not a necessary evil of the game. We have a role to play, and our role is truly to not be recognized."
—NFL referee Gene Steratore, on the place of officials in the league.
Give me a few paragraphs before we get to the current events of Week 13.
Among the educational experiences I’ve had in 30 seasons covering the NFL, what I did between Nov. 11 and 17 ranks with spending a week in the life of the Green Bay Packers in 1995, being embedded on a four-day Dallas Cowboys pre-draft scouting trip in 1991, and being inside the Denver Broncos' team meeting the night before the AFC title game eight years ago; it’s a bit ahead of draft-room experiences in many places, as recent as last April in St. Louis. Last month I trailed Gene Steratore’s officiating crew—one of 17 seven-man officiating teams in the NFL—for a week, for a three-part series that will begin Wednesday at The MMQB. I’d have to put this story right behind that Packers week. That week was a trip. Mike Holmgren had to spend 20 minutes one day chastising two rookies for keeping a lion in their apartment and telling them that if the lion wasn’t gone by the next Monday, they would be.
But this week with the officials ... this was unique. Throughout the week—Monday evening and Tuesday morning with Steratore, Tuesday night with field judge Bob Waggoner, Wednesday with back judge Dino Paganelli, Thursday with head linesman Wayne Mackie, Saturday at the officials’ pregame meeting at their hotel and Sunday at the Ravens-Bears game—I kept saying to myself, I didn’t know that. Well, no kidding. We typically know very little about the lives of officials or the inner workings of the jobs they do. The linguistic shorthand they use ("UNR" for "unnecessary roughness") and the way jobs change just before the snap of the ball (the head linesman has the slot receiver, but if the slot receiver goes in motion beyond the quarterback, the head linesman switches to the innermost receiver on his side) become dizzying to keep track of. Poor Steratore. In a week, he answered a hundred questions from me approximating, "Why did this happen?" Because so many elements of officiating are hidden under rocks. We’re not supposed to know how the sausage gets made. I hope in this series to shine a light on so many things about officials’ lives and jobs that you don’t know.
I’ll give you an example that just reared its head Thursday on the controversial Mike Tomlin play. Did you know that before every game, the head linesman asks the head coach: "Who is your get-back coach today?" That, of course, made me ask Mackie on the day I spent with him, "What in the world is a get-back coach?"
"Every team designates one man on the sidelines to keep the coaches and players back from the field," Mackie said. "Usually it’s an assistant coach, somebody like the strength and conditioning coach or the assistant strength and conditioning coach. And if I’m having an issue keeping people back, I tell him, and he has to handle it."
That six-foot-wide white stripe on the sidelines, called the "No Fly Zone" by some crews, is supposed to be free of everyone during the game. But as you saw Thursday night, the enforcement of that is too lax. There were several breakdowns when Tomlin strayed too far on the stripe and actually had his right foot on the field, forcing Baltimore kick-returner Jacoby Jones to slightly alter his path. Pittsburgh’s designated get-back coach didn’t do his job. The two officials on Clete Blakeman’s crew running the sidelines following Jones, line judge Ron Marinucci and field judge David Maslow, should have flagged Tomlin for unsportsmanlike conduct (amazing they didn’t see it, or chose not to flag it) and didn’t do their jobs. Tomlin, of course, erred by being so far out. Those kinds of mistakes cannot happen in games, and if they do, cannot go unchecked. I anticipate both of those officials will be downgraded for missing the call, and Tomlin, of course, will be disciplined.
Now you know what the "get-back coach" is. I hope I can educate you about a few other officiating things this week. Check out The MMQB Wednesday through Friday for my series, and for our videographer John DePetro’s inside look at the lives and jobs of these officials.
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Nick Foles is one of the stories of the year in the NFL.
Passer rating through 13 weeks: Nick Foles 125.2, Peyton Manning 115.3.
Touchdown-to-interception differential: Nick Foles plus-19, Tom Brady plus-11.
Interceptions thrown: Nick Foles 0, Matthew Stafford 14.
Yards per attempt: Nick Foles 9.14, Tony Romo 7.14.
Perhaps most significantly, the Eagles are 5-0 in Foles' complete games.
So the Eagles are tied for the lead in the NFC East with Dallas this morning at 7-5—though Dallas holds the tiebreaker—and Philadelphia can thank Foles for that. Since he wrested the job from an injured Mike Vick a month ago, the Eagles are 4-0 and Foles has been close to perfect. For the season he’s a 63 percent passer, with 19 touchdowns and no interceptions. It’s December, and that’s right: no interceptions.
Well, no interceptions that have stuck, anyway.
On Sunday, trying to get some insurance for a 24-21 lead with four minutes left, Foles had a 2nd-and-7 at his 34-yard line, and he faced a heavy rush. Instead of throwing it away, Foles floated one down the middle of the field into coverage. Cornerback Patrick Peterson picked it off—and there went the Foles streak. But a late flag came flying, and Tyrann Mathieu was called for holding wideout Jason Avant.
"Man, horrible throw, horrible decision," Foles said from Philadelphia an hour after the game. "When I saw the flag and heard the call, I said, 'Thank you God.' I learned my lesson there. But that’s what I try to do: I build a database with decisions like that, and I learn from them. If I get that same look the next time, I’ll make a different throw, or I’ll throw it away. The good thing about it is, Coach has confidence in my decision-making."
I wondered if Foles looks at his gaudy stat line, ever, and whether he ever thinks, I can’t throw an interception. Wouldn’t that thought naturally occur to you? It would to me. Maybe that’s why I’m not an NFL quarterback. Well, that, and a few other physical reasons.
"No, I don’t think about it," he said. “You can’t. You throw the ball into some tight spaces, and if you’re going to say, 'Don’t throw an interception,' there are throws you wouldn’t try to make. In the NFL you have to try them. I’m not afraid to make a mistake. As a quarterback, you can’t be. One of the things that’s helped me in this position is my parents taught me attention to detail. And if you’ve done all the work and play one snap at a time and do the best you can on every snap, you’re going to be confident enough to make those throws."
Foles is not an athletic quarterback, which everyone can see. But this game showed he has the kind of functional athleticism that works even against an aggressive and quick rush such as Arizona’s. On the first Philadelphia touchdown of the day, Foles used the Cards’ aggressiveness against them. He fake-pitched left to LeSean McCoy, who entered the game as the league’s leading rusher. When McCoy runs left, Foles moves to pitch left and most of the line runs left, what’s the defense going to do? Follow McCoy. But Foles held the ball, scrambled right, and found rookie tight end Zach Ertz (well-covered, to Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ credit) for a six-yard touchdown strike. "I knew they’d flow to what we were doing with that fake pitch," said Foles, "and Zach was right where he should be."
Foles said he appreciates how magnanimous Vick has been, both in the quarterback room and publicly; Vick has said Foles should keep the job because he’s playing so well. "One of the most dynamic quarterbacks in NFL history is also an incredible teammate," Foles said. "He helps me every day." He thinks he’s proven you don’t have to be a Vick to succeed in the Chip Kelly offense, and who can argue with him?
I don’t know if the Eagles, who will have to beat Dallas in Week 17 and probably need other help before then, can win the division. I do know Foles has given Kelly and GM Howie Roseman a lot to think about after the season in draft prep. Maybe Philly ignores the strong crop of quarterbacks in the 2014 draft, re-signs Vick at a reasonable, incentive-based wage, and goes with the same three passers next year: Foles, Vick, Matt Barkley. The physical toll of the position has shown this year, with Vick and Foles being out for periods after big hits. Kelly might figure he needs three he trusts to make it through a 16-game season.
"I feel I’ve played well, but not as well as I can," Foles said. "I’m 24. There’s still a lot of growth in my game. I need to improve a lot of things, especially my game management. But I think everyone tries to overanalyze the kind of quarterback that’s best for this offense."
It’s a moot point now. Foles, a clear No. 2 on Labor Day, is one of the most important players in the league as the NFL heads into the final quarter of the season.
Just before the clock struck 12 …
What? Another officiating debacle? Washington did quite enough to lose to the Giants 24-17 at FedEx Field, and probably would have lost without striped impediments; their receiving corps ought to be nicknamed The Bad Hands People. But referee Jeff Triplette’s crew had far too big a role in the final Washington drive of the game, and far too big an influence on the outcome. In brief, here’s what happened last night in the final two minutes:
In the first play after the two-minute warning of the fourth quarter, on 2nd-and-5 from his own 41, Robert Griffin III hit Pierre Garçon for a gain close to the first down. The head linesman, Phil McKinnely, motioned for the chains to be moved forward for a first down, and the chain gang rushed up and changed the down marker from "2" to "1." First down. Except Washington was in the hurry-up offense, and the ref, Triplette, standing behind the offense, held up three fingers. Third down.
On the sideline, coach Mike Shanahan said he asked an official for a measurement, and the official responded, "You don’t have to. It’s a first down." And so the playcall went in for a 1st-and-10 play, a deep ball down the seam for tight end Fred Davis. The ball should have been caught by Davis, but it was jarred loose by Giants safety Antrel Rolle.
Fourth down, signaled Triplette. Shanahan seemed apoplectic on the sidelines. The side judge was telling him first down on the previous play; the head linesman had already signaled first down and moved the chains up ... and now Triplette was insisting it was fourth down. Washington had no timeouts left. Griffin, now on fourth down, threw to Garçon for six yards and a first down—and safety Will Hill stripped Garçon of the ball. Giants ball. Game over. Had Garçon not coughed it up, Washington would have had a first down at the Giants’ 49 with the clock running and about 1:19 to play. So this didn’t cost Washington the game, per se. But it was a massive failure of the crew.
After the game, in a pool report with a local writer, Triplette said he felt it would have been "an unfair advantage" to Washington to stop the clock and get the down situation straight with his crew and the chain gang.
My biggest question: In the final two minutes of either half, instant replay can buzz down to correct or adjudicate a spotting of the ball. Why not do so in these types of cases, especially when there’s obvious chaos on the field? As for Triplette's saying stopping the clock would have created an unfair advantage for Washington: Does that mean an officiating crew never can call for a measurement when the offensive team is out of timeouts? It’s a spurious contention by Triplette; yes, it would have advantaged Washington to stop the clock. But two officials on the crew think it’s a first down, and one has motioned the chain crew up the field. Getting order restored and giving clarity to chaos is far more important than the 40 or so seconds the game would been paused to get the situation right. By the crew's failure to clarify what was going on, Washington’s play-calling was bastardized by the obvious impression that it was a different down than what it was.
As former NFL official Jim Daopoulos told me this morning: "It’s a reviewable play, and at the very least it should have been reviewed. But Jeff has the power to stop the clock there. What problem would it have been to stop the clock? What was going on on the field was an error that had to be corrected. I don’t understand it."
That makes a nation of us.
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Another effort at diversity.
The NFL was chagrined last January when 14 consecutive coach and general manager vacancies were filled by white men. So this fall a committee of eight former coaches and GMs was formed by the league to address the issue with league executives Robert Gulliver and Troy Vincent. As I reported on NBC last night, the committee finalized its plan to address minority hiring last week by compiling a double-digit list of candidates for head coaches and general managers, going beyond the usual suspects. In essence, the league will provide the kind of service teams have been buying through headhunting firms: If an owner calls wanting to know whom the top offensive prospects are, the league will have a list of prospects to discuss with them, and will make available the men they’d want to discuss the openings with anyway—such as former coach Tony Dungy or former GM Bill Polian, two of the eight committee members, or any of those who have been in the hiring chair before on the committee.
"The focus is not just the hot name," said Robert Gulliver, the NFL’s executive vice president for human resources. "It’s identifying the new talent too. New names will emerge."
The coaching list, for instance, will contain the top names—Stanford coach David Shaw, former Bears coach Lovie Smith [both African-American] and former Bucs and Raiders coach Jon Gruden, who is white. But Jon’s not the only Gruden on the list. Brother Jay is on it; he’s the Cincinnati offensive coordinator who has shepherded Andy Dalton through two straight playoff seasons and is on the way to a third. And minority coaches Mel Tucker (Chicago defensive coordinator] and Eric Studesville (Denver running backs coach), both of whom have been interim head coaches, got high marks from the committee too.
Of course, owners don’t have to use the committee’s recommendation. Who knows if any will? Owners will do what owners want to do. The system works when owners and hirers go into the process with a truly open mind. In 2007, Pittsburgh’s Dan Rooney had a blank slate entering the process, and he ended up hiring a coach he’d never met before, Mike Tomlin. In Chicago last winter, GM Phil Emery went into his search wide open, interviewed 13 candidates and hired Marc Trestman from the CFL—a man on no one’s radar entering the process. That’s the key: not determining in October or November that there’s one man you have to have and focusing all your energy on him.
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The ($2-Million) Invisible Man
Here’s what Josh Freeman has done in his eight games as a Viking:
Week 6 Carolina, inactive
Week 7 at Giants, 20 of 53, no TDs, one interception in loss to previously 0-6 Giants
Week 8 Green Bay, inactive
Week 9 at Dallas, inactive
Week 10 Washington, active. Did not play.
Week 11 at Seattle, inactive
Week 12 at Green Bay, inactive
Week 13 Chicago, inactive
Just wondering what happens when owner Zygi Wilf and GM Rick Spielman, who went out on a limb to spend $2 million to bring Freeman in, have an encounter. Does Wilf say, "Why exactly am I paying $2 million to someone who’s a healthy scratch every week?"
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I love this from Chip Kelly.
This has nothing to do with his game Sunday, but I read it from Kelly’s Thanksgiving Day meeting with reporters in Philadelphia and wanted to pass it along. The vast majority of quotes distributed by teams are space-fillers, but on Thursday, Kelly was asked about hiring Bill Davis as defensive coordinator despite a stint as coordinator in Arizona where "his numbers weren’t great."
Said Kelly: "I think people get so caught up in statistics that sometimes it's baffling to me. You may look at a guy and say, 'Well, they were in the bottom of the league defensively.' Well, they had 13 starters out. They should be at the bottom of the league defensively. Is that Billy's fault? I don't know what it was, but I don't look at it that way. I hired [former Oregon offensive coordinator and current Oregon head coach] Mark Helfrich as our offensive coordinator when I was at the University of Oregon. Their numbers were not great at Colorado. But you sit down and talk football with Helf for about 10 minutes. He's a pretty sharp guy and really brought a lot to the table, and he's done an outstanding job. He's now the head coach at Oregon. Whoever coached Adrian Peterson, is that the best running back coach in the country? I don't know. I've got to meet him. He could actually be. But let's find out what he teaches. Some of it, you're teaching to what you have available to you and sometimes that's something that I consider. So I don't look at the statistics part of it and say, 'Hey, we need to get that coach.' Sometimes, honestly, if you look at statistics, you need to get that player.”
1. Seattle (10-1). The Seahawks, who haven’t played in about three years, were supposed to be all healthy and happy entering December. Now Percy Harvin’s likely out tonight. His ailing hip is acting up. As every hour passes before this game for likely NFC home-field advantage against the Saints tonight, the worry beads get rubbed a little harder in the Pacific Northwest.
2. New England (9-3). Bill Belichick set the record for "Most Times Over-Praising a Team On a Nine-Game Losing Streak, 21st Century Category" last week in advance of the Patriots' game against the Texans. Whatever works. Turns out he was halfway right, as the 34-31 survival show illustrated.
3. Denver (10-2). After playing three Sunday night games out of five, the Broncos saw daylight Sunday afternoon in Kansas City. They liked it. With a sweep over the Chiefs, the Broncos would have to collapse in the last four games to blow a first-round playoff bye now.
4. New Orleans (9-2). The Saints haven’t won outdoors in seven weeks. They’re playing outdoors tonight, in Seattle. Earplugs optional.
5. Carolina (9-3). After Week 5, the Saints had five wins and Carolina one. This morning, the Saints have nine wins and Carolina has nine. It’d be one thing if the Saints had been stinking up the joint, but they haven’t been. Carolina’s on fire. As big as this game is tonight for the Saints, imagine winning the game, getting on the plane tonight, taking a deep breath and congratulating everyone for such a great win, and thinking, "Our reward is getting home at 5 a.m. Tuesday ... and having the Panthers, the hottest team in football, coming to town Sunday."
6. San Francisco (8-4). Niners versus Rams, 2012: St. Louis wins the series, 1-0-1, by a composite score of 40-37. Niners versus Rams 2013: San Francisco wins the series 2-0, by a composite 58-24.
7. Cincinnati (8-4). In a field-position game, it’s always good to have a great punting day. Kevin Huber, who entered with a bad ankle, punted four times for a 55.5-yard average—and zero yards returned. That means, of course, he had a 55.5-yard net. Which is quite fantastic. Included a 75-yard punt.
8. Detroit (7-5). Based on the 40-10 win over Green Bay, the Lions should be higher. Based on the previous two weeks—losses to Tampa and Pittsburgh—the Lions should be lower. I guess we ought to wait to pass judgment on the Lions until we see whether they can wipe the butter off their fingers.
9. Philadelphia (7-5). Week 17, Eagles at Cowboys. Flex, anyone?
10. Indianapolis (8-4). Well, the last month of games in the AFC South now has no meaning, with the Colts building a four-game lead over Tennessee with four to play. (Four, because the Colts swept the Titans this season, making a three-game lead in the standings beefier thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker.)
11. Kansas City (9-3). Reeling. A trip to Washington Sunday should help.
12. Dallas (7-5). For years, some in the league have grumbled that the Cowboys have an unfair advantage by playing on Thanksgiving at home every year. That’s true; playing at home in an exceedingly short week when the other team always travels is a big edge, as is what Dallas has now: the ability to give its players four full days off, plus an extra day before playing a Monday-nighter next week at Chicago.
13. Baltimore (6-6). Current sixth seed in the AFC. My only question about the Ravens this morning: In the last two games, Torrey Smith has eight catches for 20.9 yards per catch, and Jacoby Jones eight catches for 19.5 yards per catch. Can you explain to me why Baltimore has run 124 plays in the last two games and attempted only 27 throws to these two deep threats?
14. Arizona (7-5). Gotta be better than that, Carson Palmer. Much better.
15. Miami (6-6). Hesitant to give the Dolphins that much due ... yet. But the defense was very good, albeit against the Jets, on the road in a smothering at the Meadowlands.
The Award Section
Offensive Players of the Week
Eric Decker, wide receiver, Denver. Wonderful receiving symmetry on the Broncos’ receiving corps, after Decker’s eight-catch, 174-yard, four-touchdown job in Kansas City. Now the TD scoreboard in Denver is Demaryius and Julius Thomas 10 apiece, Wes Welker 9, Decker 7. Decker’s last three came in a bunch. Denver trailed 21-14 early in the third quarter, and over a 13-minute span he caught 37-, 15- and 1-yard touchdown strikes from Manning to give Denver a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
Alshon Jeffery, wide receiver, Chicago. The Bears have been alive for 94 seasons, and never has a Chicago receiver had a day like Jeffery did in a loss at Minnesota Sunday: 12 catches, 249 yards, two touchdowns. He’s becoming a terrific physical complement to Brandon Marshall. With those two, plus Jay Cutler likely back a week from tonight against Dallas, it’s unlikely but not out of the question the Bears can run the table and get back in the pennant race.
Defensive Players of the Week
Justin Tuck, defensive end, New York Giants. Entering play Sunday night with 2.5 sacks, he trapped Robert Griffin III four times and had five tackles. The impressive part of his sacks: Two came from interior rushes, where he beat/overpowered guards, and two came from the edge. On one of them, Tuck sprinted and caught Griffin from behind. On nights like this Tuck still looks like one of the best defensive linemen in football.
Jurrell Casey, defensive tackle, Tennessee. As dominant as Ndamukong Suh was on Thanksgiving (see the next paragraph), Casey was that good in Indianapolis in the 22-14 loss to the Colts. Continuing a season-long trend of dominance, Casey had a stunting 10-yard sack of Andrew Luck, and on the Colts' very next offensive play, busted through the line to tackle Darrius Heyward-Bey on a reverse for an 11-yard loss. He also knocked Luck down an additional three times. If you didn’t know Casey better, you might confuse him with …
Ndamukong Suh, defensive tackle, Detroit. Amazing looking at his stats for the game: four tackles, a sack, one additional quarterback hit, one pass deflected. After watching the Lions’ 40-10 trouncing of Green Bay, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d have told me his numbers were triple that. The sack of Matt Flynn was for a safety, and he had at least five pressures/hits that I saw. His brute strength inside destroyed the integrity of the Green Bay line.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Stephen Gostkowski, kicker, New England. You want your kicker to be good from the outer limits, and you want your kicker to be good from the outer limits in clutch situations. With the Patriots trailing Sunday at Houston, 31-28, midway through the fourth quarter, Gostkowski drilled a 53-yard field goal to tie. Then, with 3:15 left, Gostkowski drilled a 53-yard field goal for the winning points. When New England chose not to pay Adam Vinatieri, it hoped to replace him long-term with a kicker just as good when it matters. That’s what Gostkowski is.
Coach of the Week
Bill Musgrave, offensive coordinator, Minnesota, and Jedd Fisch, offensive coordinator, Jacksonville. This is not about winning. This is about being creative when your offense is struggling -- which both of these offenses are. Musgrave and Fisch created touchdowns out of whole cloth on Sunday. Fisch called an end sweep-turned-halfback-pass for a touchdown, an eight-yard strike from Maurice Jones-Drew to Marcedes Lewis to tie the Browns at 14 in the second quarter at Cleveland. In Minneapolis, Musgrave lined up wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson as the I-back in a two-back formation, a fullback in front of him, and had Christian Ponder hand the ball to him as if he were Adrian Peterson. Patterson zoomed through the hole and scored on a 31-yard gallop. Smart coaches improvise when their players are stuck in neutral. That’s what Musgrave and Fisch did Sunday—and it helped their teams win.
The Jags play:
Goats of the Week
Stevie Johnson, wide receiver, and Scott Chandler, tight end, Buffalo. Madness in Toronto. In a 31-31 game with 20 seconds left, Johnson fumbled at the Atlanta 30, foiling what would have been a 47-yard field-goal try for the win. On the second play of overtime, Chandler caught a pass from E.J. Manuel and coughed it up, with Atlanta recovering at its 40. The second fumble led to a 36-yard field goal by Matt Bryant for the 34-31 Falcons win.
Rhett Ellison, running back, Minnesota. The Vikings won, but that doesn’t take away two brainlock plays from Ellison. With 4:40 left in the fourth quarter and the Bears up 20-17, Matt Cassel put a perfect throw on Ellison at the goal line, and the ball bounced off Ellison into the hands of Bears linebacker Khaseem Greene. Interception. Seven minutes into overtime, Blair Walsh kicked a 39-yard field goal to win it ... But wait. Ellison grabbed a facemask on the field-goal try, pushing the Vikings back 15 yards. Since it was still third down, Minnesota ran a play to try to regain some of those yards but instead lost another three. On fourth down Walsh missed the 57-yarder. He eventually kicked the winner later in overtime, but no thanks to Ellison.
CEO of the Week
Laura Sen, chief executive officer, BJ’s Wholesale Club Inc. Bucking the trend of monster stores opening on Thanksgiving, Sen was one of a few executives who chose to shutter her 201 stores in 15 states until Friday at 7 a.m. "Call me old-fashioned," Sen told The Boston Globe. "But I think Thanksgiving is a lovely holiday and not the time to be shopping." You are old-fashioned, Ms. Sen, and kudos to you for it. Family time on Thanksgiving. What a concept. Is that new?
Quotes of the Week
"I’m sounding a bit like a broken record, but sometimes you gotta gut out a win, however ugly it is."
—Andrew Luck, Indianapolis quarterback, after winning ugly over the Titans 22-14.
"How much sleep you think Nick Saban got last night?"
—Dan Dierdorf of CBS, on the Patriots-Texans telecast, a day after Auburn stunned Alabama by returning a last-second missed field goal 109 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
"There will be an RG4."
—Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III, assuring reporters about his reproductive organs two days after he was kicked hard in the testicles, accidentally, by San Francisco pass rusher Aldon Smith.
Stat of the Week
I admit I’m being hasty here. But just look at the numbers before you tell me I’m nuts to suggest Calvin Johnson, 990 catches from passing Jerry Rice, might one day challenge Rice for all-time greatness.
I don’t believe he will, because he’s already missing a lot of practice time (and one game this year) to injury; he has a knee condition that troubles him regularly and, at 238 pounds he’s just a larger man than Rice was. More can go wrong with a bigger receiver than with one of Rice's build, someone more lithe and 35 pounds lighter than Johnson.
But humor me here. Johnson just played his 103rd NFL game, and he compares quite favorably at that point—in all categories but touchdowns—with Rice. The comparison of both receivers through 103 games:
|Age||Receptions||Yards||Yards Per Catch||Touchdowns||Yards Per Game|
|Jerry Rice||29 years, 1 month||505||8,586||17.0||87||83.4|
|Calvin Johnson||28 years, 2 months||560||9,135||16.3||66||88.7|
The amazing part of this, really, is that Jerry Rice caught more than 950 passes after his 30th birthday. So if Johnson—or anyone—is going to have a chance to challenge Rice’s record of 1,549 career catches, he’d better plan to have a very long life in football.
Factoids of the Week That May Interest Only Me
The Denver Post has hired a Marijuana Editor.
Ricardo Baca, a blunt-speaking man, will be in charge of covering the rollout of the new recreational marijuana law in Colorado on Jan. 1. In an only-in-America Q&A last week, Baca was asked by the Post, which sounds like a hip joint, if he plans to have a pot critic covering the local reefer scene.
His answer: "We are absolutely hiring a freelance pot critic. And a freelance pot advice columnist. And a freelance video game writer."
What a country.
Missouri won the Southeastern Conference East title this season. Auburn won the SEC West.
Auburn, Ala., home of Auburn, is southeast of Columbia, Mo., home of Missouri.
Say you drew a straight line north from Auburn, then a straight line west, to get to Columbia. The East champion would reside 445 miles west of the West champion.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
Didn’t travel for Thanksgiving. Had the quietest Thanksgiving in some time, writing half the day and eating/footballing the rest. I did duck out just before 7 a.m. to buy a couple of newspapers in Manhattan, and I saw something I’d never seen before in my two years living on the East Side: A light changed to green on Second Avenue, and by the time it was red again (maybe 35 seconds), no cars had passed. That’s when you know it’s a holiday in the city.
Tweets of the Week
"It's either a late arriving Redskins crowd or a non-arriving one."
—@ByJimCorbett of USA Today, from the press box at FedEx Field minutes before Washington and New York kicked off.
"'I'll be back and ready to go Sunday' Aaron Rodgers told me while watching #Clippers #Pacers #NFL #Packers fans rejoice! Says he feels good"
—@the_realkylem, FOX Sports reporter Kyle Montgomery tweeting Sunday from Los Angeles, apparently after running into the collarbone-addled Packers quarterback on his mini-bye weekend.
"What’s left of what used to be the NFL sucks."
—@DennisDMX, former Monday Night Football announcer Dennis Miller, late in the early games Sunday.
"If Manny Ramirez is called for unnecessary roughness after the play, is that just Manny being Manny? #FOAud"
—@FO_ASchatz, Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders, after the Denver center (not the former home-run-hitting outfielder) was called for a personal foul against Kansas City in the closing stages of their game Sunday.
"Al Woodall now warming up for the #Jets."
—@jimbradysp, Digital First Media editor Jim Brady, whose Twitter profile lists him as a "psycho Jets fan."
Woodall would fit in well in East Rutherford now. He was 5-14 in 19 Jets starts in the Namath Era, with a 48.9 completion percentage and passer rating of 60.3.
"The problem with quotes on the internet is that you never know if they're true. -Abraham Lincoln"
—@Lecrae, the hip-hop artist and record producer.
I am not sure exactly why, but I find this tweet perfect.
"Can't blame you, Hoke! Wish more coaches had a set like you. #OSUvsMICH"
—@poinsonpill76, Michigan grad and former All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson, after Michigan coach Brady Hoke went for two after the Wolverines scored a touchdown in the final minute against Ohio State. The attempt failed. Michigan lost 42-41.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 13:
a. Justin Tucker, in 32 career games including playoffs, has made 93 percent of his field goals (63 of 68). That says two things: Tucker should be DNA tested for the clutch gene. And the NFL needs to do something to make field goals harder.
b. I believe I’ve made that point before.
c. Is there a better 1-2 running back punch in football today than Reggie Bush and Joique Bell? Absolutely unequivocally not.
d. Bush: 182 total yards against Green Bay. Bell: 128. That’s 310 yards from people not named Calvin Johnson for Detroit in one game.
e. Bill Belichick Is Not Playing Dept.: Stevan Ridley (2012 rushing yards: 1,263), fumbler, was a healthy scratch for New England at Houston.
f. Julius Peppers is a hard day’s work for any offensive lineman, and Sunday in Minnesota was no different.
g. Three sacks on the Vikings' first three possessions for the Bears, who will not exit contention quietly.
h. Alshon Jeffery’s hands.
i. Rob Gronkowski’s too. Watch the replay of him picking the touchdown pass from Tom Brady up six inches from the tip of the grass.
j. Tim Ryan’s excellent analysis on FOX about Cam Newton being late with a first-quarter throw that turned into an interception.
k. Trent Cole. Stunning that his first-quarter strip-sack of Carson Palmer was only his fourth sack of the year (he added another one later in the game). He’s too good for that.
l. Joe Haden’s fourth pick in the last four games.
m. Larry Fitzgerald, who is so much more of a physical receiver than he looks. Check out the stereo hit he took against the Eagles, followed by him running the last 26 yards without breaking stride.
n. Best decision Chip Kelly’s made this year: Giving Riley Cooper another chance.
o. Cam Newton definitely crossed the plane of the goal line before fumbling in the second quarter against Tampa. Definitely a TD, and good use of replay.
p. Ben Tate’s 20-yard touchdown run against the Patriots. Devin McCourty’s jock is still on the turf at Reliant Stadium.
q. Ernie Accorsi with a nice seat in Charlotte Sunday—right next to owner Jerry Richardson. Accorsi’s a mentor to Panthers GM Dave Gettleman.
r. Whoa, Jon Beason. What a hit on Robert Griffin III in the first Washington series Sunday night.
2. I think this is what I didn’t like about Week 13:
a. Green Bay’s offensive line. Don’t tell me what a bad game Matt Flynn had in Detroit. He did. But he never had a chance.
b. Arizona left tackle Bradley Sowell. He was a vacation for the Eagles' Trent Cole and Brandon Graham.
c. Take the three points, Joe Philbin!
d. I mean, you’re playing a team, the Jets, that is the worst offensive team in football. Bar none. It’s 0-0 with two minutes left in the first half. Fourth-and-goal from the New York 2. You can take a 3-0 lead and instead choose to put it in the hands of a quarterback whose strength, to put it mildly, is not the touch fade pass. I’m only mildly affected by the fact that you did rebound to kick two field goals because of the incredibly inept Jets before halftime.
e. Arizona CB Jerraud Powers, you cannot interfere in the end zone. But you know that. If you’re going to tamper, at least try to disguise it.
f. The first half of Tennessee-Indianapolis, which I think is still going on.
g. It took one hour and 38 minutes.
h. Catch the ball, Heyward-Bey.
i. How bad was Sunday for the Jets? Not just another dispiriting loss, but this: The first-round pick, cornerback Dee Milliner, was benched. The second-round pick, quarterback Geno Smith, was benched.
j. Terrible call on Bears tackle Jermon Bushrod by the officiating crew at Minnesota, the five-yard delay of game for throwing the ball downfield. Bushrod barely dropped the ball behind his back. Silly, over-officious call.
k. Giants. Sieve. Early.
l. Mike Shanahan has many bigger things to worry about, but if I were him, I’d ask the coach who told him to review the fourth-quarter Brandon Myers catch-and-stretch for a first down, "What possibly were you thinking, and why do you think we should have wasted a crucial timeout to review that?"
3. I think the more I see London Fletcher, even now at 38, the more I think he’s the kind of player who will deserve honest consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I mean, how long has he been the defensive centerpiece for teams? Since the turn of the century. He’s never missed a game in 16 years. Did you see Sunday night how he made a stop with a couple of minutes to go and forced the Giants to punt—and Washington had a chance to win at the end instead of the Giants running out the clock. That’s typical of Fletcher. A perfect glue guy for the Rams, Bills and now Washington for the past seven years.
4. I think if you want to measure the value of a good coach, look at what Gus Bradley is doing in Jacksonville. In the last month the formerly winless Jaguars are 3-1. They’re feisty on defense, imaginative on offense and the thing you notice is even though they have nothing to play for, they play as though a playoff spot is on the line. Owner Shad Khan has to be thrilled with the hire.
5. I think we all thought Darrelle Revis had enough time to rehab and play well this season. We all were wrong. He’s trying to gut it out, but to see Ted Ginn school him for a touchdown Sunday … not the Revis we’ve known.
6. I think I don’t see how Peyton Manning’s not the MVP as we speak. But it’s not over. Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Calvin Johnson and Tom Brady can still contend. And perhaps Tony Romo and Nick Foles, but they’d have to have a blistering December.
7. I think, somehow, I don’t get the same excited feeling I had about the Dr. Z NFL Films piece two weeks again and the Steve Gleason: A Football Life last week when I hear this week’s NFL Network special is about the wacky ’90s Dallas offensive line.
8. I think this is all you need to know about the New York Jets’ quarterback situation: Geno Smith’s last touchdown pass was three days before the first pitch of the World Series. That’s 43 days ago. He was not replaced as the starting quarterback at any point during those 43 days. And as of this morning, he is still the starting quarterback of the Jets.
9. I think if you’re wondering what Brett Favre will be doing Friday night, the offensive coordinator of the Oak Grove (Miss.) High football team will be accompanying his ballclub north to Jackson for the 6A Mississippi High School Football Championship Game against Tupelo High. On the road to the title game, Oak Grove has scored 38, 38 and 45 points in the playoffs. Mike Holmgren, and Irvin Favre, would be proud.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. I have tried to think since the end of the Alabama-Auburn game whether I’ve ever seen a more significant, thrilling and shocking end to a sports event. There must be, right? I just can't for the life of me think of it. Think of the potential national champion in a sport—a team that has won two straight national titles—losing out on a third because a return man ran a missed field-goal attempt back the length of the field for a touchdown. It's unheard of. And in a bitter rivalry game, no less. Just an amazing, amazing finish.
b. Happy wedding, Drew Rosenhaus. Is it possible you are seeing there is more to life than football? Good luck.
c. I guess this means you’re a restricted free agent now.
d. Watched Oregon-Oregon State Friday for a bit. Thought I was watching a game played by Crayola Crayons. The big box, with all the burnt oranges and colors so bright you’ve got to wear shades.
e. Duke is in the ACC Championship Game, with 10 wins. Yeah, I called that. Sure I did.
f. If you’re a high school quarterback, or a skill player on offense, and you’ve seen TV specials and stories out the wazoo on Peyton Manning praising Duke coach David Cutcliffe and using Duke facilities for his rehab, and then going back there again this year with brother Eli, Wes Welker and Victor Cruz ... all of a sudden, you have to think, "Maybe I should consider Duke."
g. I can see Carlos Hyde being a Trent Baalke draft choice. Perfect physical Niners back.
h. Glad to see the officials throwing out three guys for fighting in Ohio State-Michigan. Should have been more.
i. Only 113,511 at the Big House. Thinking that should on my bucket list. Covered a game there; never sat in the stands.
j. John Tortorella did not have a nice afternoon at Madison Square Garden Saturday.
k. Starting to like you a lot, Cory Schneider.
l. Coffeenerdness: In the midst of a jillion Manhattan Starbucks shops, here comes Ground Central, on East 52nd. Very good espresso. Hope it can survive.
m. Beernerdness: Beer of choice on Thanksgiving: Brewmaster Jack’s James Happy Blonde Ale, with a chunk of the malt grown in Hadley, Mass. I had three bottles and gave away two, which put me in misery when the second pint was finished. Absolutely delicious. Bold and smooth, a perfect taste. I love that Brewmaster Jack beer. Tiny little brewer in Northhampton, Mass.
n. Pope Francis Quote of the Week: "How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?"
o. I think the new Pope is trying to get me back in the pew every Sunday.
p. Headlines you see only in New York, this one from Wednesday’s Daily News about a reputed gangster acquitted of ordering a hit on a police officer: "Mob goon beats rap in cop slay."
Who I Like Tonight
Seattle 30, New Orleans 27. For this to happen, I have to have some belief in the Seattle bench at cornerback—particularly in 2011 sixth-round pick Byron Maxwell, making his first career start, and the marginal Jeremy Lane, now in the nickel role. How’d you like to be Maxwell? Eyes of the nation on this game, national TV, first start, knowing as the corner opposite star Richard Sherman that Drew Brees has a bulls-eye on your chest for four quarters? "All our corners will be confident in this game," safety Earl Thomas told me the other day. "The way our attitude is, just because you’re not starting doesn’t mean you’re not a starting-caliber player. Our backups are just as good as our starters—that’s our feeling. How do you think Richard Sherman got his start? You’ll be surprised. They’re all going to play well." Without starter Brandon Browner (hurt, and facing a possible suspension) and nickel back Walter Thurmond (four-game suspension), Brees will complete his share. Watch, particularly, for the breakout fifth-round pick, receiver Kenny Stills, to be a big threat in the game.
Why do I like Seattle? Russell Wilson—playing his idol, Brees, for the first time—is 13-0 at home in his two years as starter. But I think the biggest weapon Seattle has tonight is Marshawn Lynch. A rested Marshawn Lynch, mind you. Seattle’s been idle for 15 days, and Lynch will be ready for the stretch drive beginning tonight. I think Seattle has to play clock ball in this game. Long drives, limiting Brees’ possessions, will be Seattle’s best friend. I can see Seattle running it 40 times.
The Adieu Haiku
Chaos at FedEx.
A ref’s job: control the game.