A Super Bowl Comeback
PHOENIX — We interrupt the Deflategate hysteria (I do believe that is not an overstatement) to bring you this incredible factoid about the state of the two Super Bowl teams approaching the 23rd game of their seasons: One player out of 106 active Seahawks and Patriots was not healthy enough to practice when the two teams worked out this weekend. That player, Seattle starting right guard J.R. Sweezy (ankle), still is listed as probable for Super Bowl 49, meaning it’s very likely he’ll play in the biggest game of his young life next Sunday. So, barring someone straining an oblique on the golf course on Tuesday afternoon, it is surprising to report in the fifth month of a brutal NFL season that the two teams left standing are ridiculously healthy as they begin final preparations for the game.
I hate to do this to you, because I know you have come here this morning to read more about a minor deflation of 11 footballs that the average person—never mind noted Foxboro Institute of Technology physics professor Bill Belichick—couldn’t tell the difference in, even if two 50-yard-line seats to this game depended on his answer.
I dare to defer one of the biggest pre-Super Bowl stories in the 48-year history of the game to page two of the column today. Page one belongs to Bill Vinovich, the Super Bowl referee.
Before you have me committed, give me a few paragraphs to explain the real comeback story of the NFL season.
* * *
Vinovich, a certified public accountant in his other life, was a week clear of tax season in late April 2007, and now it was time to focus on his real passion, being an NFL referee. He was about to enter his fourth season as a ref, after three as an NFL side judge and back judge. Vinovich went to work out one day near his southern California home, and when he came home, his back was killing him. “It actually felt like somebody stuck two knives in my back," Vinovich said from California the other day. At the hospital his blood pressure skyrocketed. The CAT scan stunned the doctors: He had suffered an “aortic dissection”—a dangerous tear in the interior wall of the descending aorta, the large artery that carries blood from the heart down through the chest. The tear causes blood to pool between the internal and external walls of the aorta.
"They said it was inoperable," Vinovich said. “I heard them say, ‘The next 48 hours will tell if he’s gonna make it or not.’ ”
They meant, The next 48 hours would determine whether Vinovich would live.
Later, Vinovich was told the survival rate for those who suffered a dissection as severe as his was about 2 percent.
But he made it. “A freak thing," Vinovich called his survival. To him, that’s hardly the headline of this story. After 11 days in intensive care and a few weeks of in-home rest, Vinovich felt good, and he sent all his medical records to the NFL so he could be cleared to officiate the season. League physician Dr. Jeffrey Borer, whose job it is to clear officials for duty, not only wouldn’t clear Vinovich for the season. “They said they weren’t going to allow me on the field anymore," Vinovich said. “Ever.”
Vinovich started to cry. “A surreal moment," he recalled. “You know, for me, that’s taking away a good portion of my being."
"How long did it take you to come to grips with that?” I asked.
"Never,’’ he said. “I never gave up.”
The NFL sent Vinovich a big severance check. That was his gold watch, basically. Thanks for the three great years; good luck, and maybe you can be a replay official, or a supervisor in the office, reviewing other officials’ work. He never cashed the check. He mailed it back. That would be giving in, he thought. Mike Pereira, the vice president of officiating at the time, told Vinovich he wanted him around the department for the next 15 years, and Vinovich chose to be a replay official on Ed Hochuli’s crew in 2007. As if that job has no stress. Vinovich says he actually felt doing replay work was more stressful, given the time crunch and the close calls, than being on the field.
In 2008, he became a regional supervisor, watching and grading officials. He applied for Pereira’s job when Pereira quit after the 2009 season, but Carl Johnson got it. If Vinovich had succeeded Pereira he probably never would have returned to the field. He decided to continue as a supervisor, but to go back to his other officiating love—college basketball. Vinovich felt great. He started visiting cardiologists and thoracic surgeons around the country, in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Boston, Houston. He was getting the itch to prove he could be a ref again.
Vinovich got four thoracic surgeons to write to the NFL in 2010, saying he was healthy enough to officiate a football game. He took the NFL physical. Borer still said no. Too risky. “It was like pounding your head against a wall," Vinovich said. “I’ve got all the information. I just couldn’t get through that wall."
In 2011, Vinovich persisted, asking Borer what more he could do to get back on the field. He was told if a trusted thoracic surgeon, Dr. John Elefteriades, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Yale, passed him, the NFL likely would let him back on the field. So Vinovich went to New Haven, Conn., and met with Elefteriades. The doctor told him his descending aorta wasn’t a concern, but the ascending aorta had an aneurysm, a ballooning of the artery. Before he’d pass Vinovich, surgery on the other end of the aorta would be necessary. Vinovich said, “He basically told me, ‘If everything goes well, I do not see a reason why you would not be able to go back on the field. But this is a major surgery—I don’t want you saying yes or no just so you can get back out on the field. Think about it. Call me back in a week.’ ”
Did you think Vinovich was going to tell him: I’ve decided not to do the surgery? Hardly. Doctors replaced his ascending aorta with a synthetic mesh that is quite literally bulletproof. Six months later he was back on the basketball court, reffing games on the West Coast. Early in 2012 he re-applied to the NFL, with Elefteriades’ blessing. In May 2012, he opened his email one day to find these words from the NFL: You’re approved for the 2012 season. “I obviously started crying," Vinovich said. “Very, very emotional."
Now, over the phone, he was emotional again.
“Just a long fight back. It was just one of those… I can’t even explain it."
Vinovich was good enough that first year to to officiate the Baltimore-Denver double-overtime divisional game and serve as the Super Bowl alternate referee. But he was just getting his officiating legs back, and that continued last year. This season the game that may have made the difference in the Super Bowl assignment came in Week 9, at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, on a Sunday night. Ravens versus Steelers. A heated and physical rivalry game. In the middle of the third quarter, then-Steeler LaGarrette Blount was stood up at the line on a running play, and Terrell Suggs of the Ravens came in with a cheap shot at the end, diving at Blount’s knees. Suggs got 15 yards for unnecessary roughness, and the game got incredibly chippy. Scrums everywhere. Two plays later Baltimore’s Elvis Dumervil got 15 for roughness.
“Suggs goes in and hits that guy low, and now Pittsburgh is going after Suggs," Vinovich said. “We’re gonna end up with a fight. Then we just flagged [Dumervil]. So we had two or three 15-yard penalties in a row. I basically just said, I’ve had enough. I said, ‘My timeout.’ I just shut the thing down. I went over to [Baltimore coach John] Harbaugh and let him vent. Then I said, ‘I’ve heard enough. We’re gonna start throwing people out on the next 15-yard penalty. We aren’t gonna have a major brawl out here.’ I went over to [Pittsburgh coach Mike] Tomlin next, and he vented the same way. It was just like a baseball guy going to both dugouts saying, ‘Next pitch that’s high and tight, they’re gonna be gone.’ I told Suggs to get control of his guys. I told both huddles to knock this stuff off. I said we weren’t gonna have it. And it calmed down for the rest of the game."
Maybe the decision on which ref would get the Super Bowl had been made on the weekend of the divisional playoffs. Maybe not. But the system dictates that the Super Bowl ref comes out of that weekend. The four: Vinovich, Terry McAulay, Bill Leavy and Gene Steratore. Vinovich had Baltimore-New England. In the middle of the third quarter, the bizarre New England formation occurred: Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui lined up at left tackle, eligible. Running back Shane Vereen reported on the field and said clearly to Vinovich: “I’m reporting INeligible. INeligible.”
“It obviously caught me off guard," Vinovich said. “I’m not gonna say what the Ravens should or shouldn’t have done. I mean, the easiest thing [for them] to do would have been to call timeout and let them match up. Basically it was just a brilliant play on Bill Belichick’s part and it caught them off guard. That’s why you have to be able to think quickly. Not only did I say he’s not eligible, I said, ‘Do not cover 34 [Vereen].’ But the DBs were obviously confused. What’s going through my mind is, Can he do this legally? Was Vereen in the previous play? All these different things start going through my mind. Then I realize that going from eligible to ineligible, you don’t have to be out one play before. The other way, coming back ineligible to eligible, you have to be out of play. Now he can’t go back to eligible without going out for a play, which he did. Some of the stuff they throw at you, you just go, whoa. That’s the great part of officiating—it’s always changing. Someone’s gonna think of something different to do. But the play was legal, totally legal.”
Vinovich is aware that some critics—Harbaugh, for one, who thinks the Ravens weren't given sufficient time to match up; and also Tony Dungy, who felt the same way—didn’t like New England being able to use that play. But he also knows on those three plays, the Ravens had at least seven seconds per play to adjust. So he’s sure he made the right call. “I don’t know how else we could have handled that," he said. “You’re not going to put the umpire over the ball at that point. We told the Ravens the back was ineligible.”
Vinovich's boss liked the way the play was called. "I thought he handled it very well," NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said. "He was calm, he was smooth, he was in control. That's what you want an official to be in that circumstance."
A couple of weeks ago the phone rang in Vinovich’s home. It was Blandino.
"I’ve got a couple of games left," Blandino said, “and I want to know if you want to officiate the last one.”
Vinovich said, “I want the beach volleyball game. To hell with the Super Bowl.”
Then Vinovich said, “Are you kidding?”
"Yeah I’m serious," Blandino said. “You had a great season and you controlled all your games. We’re happy to have you do the game."
Vinovich just sat for a while, silent, reflecting on not just the past two years, but the five years off the field before that. “If I didn’t stick with it," he said, “I would not have been fulfilled. I was taken off the field before my time.’’
"Has it hit you that you’re doing the Super Bowl," I asked, “just three years after you didn’t know if you’d ever be allowed on the field again?”
"No," he said, “and I don’t think it will until I do the coin toss, honestly. I just want to get that over with, because then it’s just football."
Vinovich doesn’t have the field persona of Ed Hochuli or Gene Steratore. He’s economical with his words, and about as vanilla a guy doing a game as you’ll find. Maybe he’ll have some spicy words for a Terrell Suggs to get his attention. But they won’t be over an open mike.
"No one’s coming to see an official officiate," Vinovich said. “Trust me."
They might be in this Super Bowl, to see a pretty good comeback story. “It’s magnificent," said Pereira. “It’s an unbelievable story of perseverance. He’s an official. He’s an official’s official. The five years off was a rest stop. The significant odds he overcame—this is just one of the great Super Bowl stories.”
* * *
And so here we are at the Super Bowl of Ball Inflation.
I thought the Bill Belichick press conference Saturday afternoon was extraordinary. Clearly, he realized his integrity, and that of his organization, was under fire. He wanted to tell the world there was, in his mind, a rational explanation for the decline in pressure in the footballs during the first half of the AFC Championship Game. He wanted to tell the world stridently that he thought his team and his staff did absolutely nothing wrong. He wanted to tell the world he was proud of his players for continually persevering and becoming the best team in the AFC this season, which the Patriots certainly are. It was passionate and moving and very human.
Now, it was great TV, and it showed a side of Belichick we rarely get to see—the loyal and earnest and fiery and educational Belichick, all at once. But I’m not sure it changed very much. We still don’t know why New England’s footballs were fine before the game, low at halftime (at least 11, according to Chris Mortensen), inflated to the proper level by the officiating crew, and then fine after the game. So that’s a problem that needs to be addressed. Mike Florio at Pro Football Talk reported Sunday, quoting a league source, that 10 of the New England footballs “may have been closer to one pound below the minimum limit for inflation," which leads to an important part of the investigation.
Many of you have asked a logical question that I agree needs to be answered by the league. The allowable range of air pressure in NFL balls is between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds per square inch. If the Indianapolis footballs were checked before the game and found to be at 13.5 psi, theoretically they could have lost a pound each and still have been good. So if New England’s footballs were at 12.5 when delivered to the officials before the game and passed muster on the electric gauge that tests them, it’s conceivable they could have lost one psi and tested faulty at halftime.
I don’t know that it’s likely. But it certainly is an issue that must be solved.
A little education this morning, on the parts of this story I think people are missing.
1. The big issue is a six-to-10-minute window of time between when the officials release the ball to the ball boys and the start of the game.
My feeling after talking to several people with knowledge of the officiating process—and after witnessing it last year when I followed the Gene Steratore crew in Chicago—is that there is some time period of less than 10 minutes between the handover of footballs to ball boys and the start of the game. A good estimate is six to 10 minutes. On the Steratore crew last year, he and his head linesman, Wayne Mackie, waited until two or three minutes before the national anthem was played, and that’s when they gave the balls to the ball boys. Then it’s usually two or three minutes post-anthem before teams line up for the opening kickoffs. A quick review of what happens to the balls: A dozen balls, minimum, are delivered by each team to the officials 2 hours and 15 minutes before the game. The balls are checked for air pressure. If they fall between 12.5 and 13.5 psi, the balls are put aside and marked for use by one of the officials. If they are either too high or too low, air is either added or taken out so the balls are within range.
If the Colts’ footballs were all delivered to the officials at 13.5 psi, the crew would have done nothing. If the Patriots’ football were all delivered at 12.5 psi, the crew would have done nothing. But I don’t know what specific level of pressure the footballs had when they were released to the control of the ball boys.
That six- or 10-minute window is key to this investigation. In fact, it’s the biggest key. Did anything untoward happen in that time?
2. How did the players and teams get such control over the footballs? Why doesn’t the league take control of the football-prep process?
Let’s go back to 2006, to something I wrote just before the start of that season. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, backed by 20 other starting quarterbacks, petitioned the league to allow each team—rather than just the home team—to condition the footballs it would use on offense each week in the way it saw fit. Brady had been bothered by the inconsistent feel of footballs from game to game. The pre-2006 rule called for 36 official balls, manufactured by Wilson, to be provided to the home team for each outdoor game and 24 for each indoor game, the balls to be available for testing with a pressure gauge by officials two hours before kickoff. The home team and the officials had the option to use league-approved products supplied by Wilson (a bristle brush, a tack cloth and a semihard spongy cube) to rub down the game balls and remove the waxy, slippery sheen that they have when they come out of the box. A few quarterbacks preferred the balls to feel nearly new. Most, like Brady and Manning, want that sheen rubbed off so they can get a better grip and give the ball a broken-in feel.
"Imagine," Brady told me at the time, “if Derek Jeter were handed a brand-new glove just before the start of every game. Baseball players break in their gloves until they feel perfect to them. It's ridiculous to [be forced to] play with new footballs. I can tell you there've been nights before road games when I have had trouble sleeping because I'm thinking about what kind of footballs I'll be throwing the next day."
So after the 2005 season, while having dinner together in Miami Beach, Brady and Manning decided to approach their fellow quarterbacks about petitioning the NFL competition committee to change the rule. Brady proposed that the visiting team have access to a certain number of the allotted game balls—the number turned out to be 12—so it could prepare them the way it wanted; those balls would be stamped with the visiting team's name and kept on the visitors' sideline for use when that team was on offense. The remainder of the balls would be prepared by the hosts to their liking, 12 kept on the sideline for use on their drives and the other dozen in reserve in case bad weather created the need for additional balls. The competition committee approved the plan the next month, and it’s been that way ever since.
3. And about Bill Belichick’s or Tom Brady’s legacy and Hall of Fame status …
Too early. Way too early. Brady might play five more years the way he’s going. Belichick might coach longer than that. Who knows? But with the five-year waiting period before either man is eligible for Hall election, that means it could be 2025 or 2027 before their cases are even heard for the first time.
There’s just too much that can happen before then, in all ways. Let’s see where this story ends up.
* * *
Requiem for a sportswriter.
Paul Needell died after a long battle with multiple sclerosis Saturday. He was 57. You might have heard of him if you read a lot about pro football; you certainly heard of him, and read him, if you lived in New York during his years covering the Jets and later the NFL with the New York Daily News and the Newark Star-Ledger. An old friend of mine from Montclair, N.J., Dave Kaplan, was one of Paul’s editors when Needell was in his prime years on the beat in the ’90s. Kaplan asked him to write about the entertaining stories he’d seen on the Jets beat that maybe hadn’t seen the light of day. The piece was rollicking fun—and a great example of the kind of writer Needell was. He’d take you into the middle of stories with such color.
Part of that 1995 piece:
“So many stories, so little time. How about Christmas Day 1986? The Jets were reeling from the five-game losing streak, but they made the playoffs as a wild-card team. So coach Joe Walton had them practice early on the holiday, three days before they would beat the Chiefs, 35-15, in their only playoff victory of my tenure. Anyway, Walton was so pleased with the way the practice went he called the players around him and said, ‘You're my guys again. Great job.’ A team meeting was scheduled 30 minutes later, but Walton kept the club waiting for an hour. Finally, he came into the room and lit into the players like he never had before. The incredible about-face was apparently ignited by a phone conversation Walton had just finished with his mentor, George Allen, who told him the players had choked down the stretch and that their tombstones should read accordingly. Walton dismissed the team with disgust and stormed out. As the players looked at each other in amazement, quarterback Pat Ryan drawled, ‘Well, Merry f----- Christmas to you, too.’
“Walton never knew what to make of Mark Gastineau. He knew the other players disdained the sack dancer, but could not ignore the pass-rushing force. When [glamour wife Brigitte] Nielsen's limousine drove onto the field at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., as the Jets scrimmaged the Redskins in 1988, Walton patted his chest and muttered, ‘Oh, my nerves.’
“Gastineau was always a headline waiting to happen, the closest the Jets have come to filling the Joe Namath void. The last time I spoke to him was in the spring of 1989, after he and Nielsen had broken up. Although he was out of football, Gastineau was upset by a published report which claimed he had lost a huge amount of weight and hinted at previous steroid use. So Gastineau had his agent telephone me on a Sunday morning. He wanted to refute the allegations, and was willing to meet me at a Queens diner for his first interview since he had bolted the club months earlier. When I arrived at the diner, Gastineau led me into the parking lot and unlocked the trunk of a friend's car. He pulled out a scale, plopped it on the ground and jumped on. ‘Two-sixty-five,’ he said proudly. Vintage Gastineau."
How great is that?
I asked a few of his contemporaries for their favorite stories on Paul.
Gary Myers, columnist, New York Daily News. The paper’s sports editor at the time, Vic Ziegel, wanted to entice Myers to come to the paper from his job covering the Cowboys in Dallas, and planned to offer him the job as NFL columnist. But Needell’s health had just started its long decline then, and Ziegel had an idea. He’d make Needell the NFL columnist so he wouldn’t have to travel as much, and he could mostly work from home. Ziegel would offer Myers, who wanted to work for the Daily News, the Jets beat job. No, Needell told him, don’t do that, because Myers wouldn’t come for that job, and the paper would be a lot better off with Myers on the NFL. Says Myers: “Paul said, ‘Offer Gary the column, and I’ll stay on the Jets.’ He desperately wanted to be a columnist. Vic was trying to make Paul’s life easier, and it would have been so much better for Paul. But he wanted us to work together, and he did what was best for the paper." Myers got choked up just thinking about it Sunday. “It was the ultimate selfless act," he said. “It’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me in my life."
Rich Cimini, longtime Jets beat man for Newsday, now with ESPN New York. “Paul was the Curtis Martin of beat writers, bringing it day after day, week after week," Cimini wrote Sunday. “He had that edgy, tabloid mentality, a must in the New York market, but he also had the ability to humanize the men behind the face masks. His stories made you laugh, made you cry, made you think. He covered everyone from Mark Gastineau to Wayne Chrebet, taking you inside the locker room and the coaches offices every morning as you rode the train to work or ate your breakfast. The players loved Paul because he knew how to handle difficult stories and ask tough questions. He didn't hammer them or try to embarrass them in front of a group, yet he had a way of getting them to open up."
Jenny Vrentas, The MMQB, formerly at the Newark Star-Ledger with Needell: “There are so many in the business who knew Needell far better than I, but that he extended such kindness and encouragement to the latest crop of young writers coming in the door says so much about who he was. Here’s one story I haven’t shared with many people. My first season covering the Jets was 2010, and it got off to a bit of a rocky start. Without rehashing all of the details, right before the season opener that year, a visit from a TV Azteca reporter, Ines Sainz, sparked a chain of events that led to the Jets funding a leaguewide anti-sexual harassment program. I happened to be the only other woman in the locker room that Saturday, and I was soon navigating what was uncharted territory for me. A week later, after the Jets had finished a Friday practice, I got an unexpected phone call from an unknown number. “Hi, Jenny," the voice on the phone said. “This is Roger Goodell." Paul Needell asked him to call. Paul told the commissioner of the NFL that he needed to hear from me, and that I should hear from the commissioner of the NFL. So, the commissioner of the NFL called. That’s how much respect Paul commanded."
Roger Goodell, former Jets PR intern, current NFL commissioner. “Frankly, it is difficult to speak about it now. I met Paul in 1983 when I was an intern and he was a beat writer for the Jets at the Daily News. I was a wide-eyed intern, and he taught me a great deal about the media business—a world to which I was admittedly unaccustomed. Most of all, he taught me about respect. He treated me the same as an intern as he did a commissioner. In fact, probably better. In the past few years, as his disease progressed, our friendship grew stronger. He was genuine, courageous, and fiercely loyal to his family and friends. The love of his family over the past few years is the greatest testament to Paul Needell. What a special guy. He will be missed."
* * *
Everything you wanted to know about Pro Football Focus …
I wanted to bring this story to your attention, by Jenny Vrentas of our staff, on the burgeoning pro football analysis website Pro Football Focus. The site, which employs 80 tape-watching football nerds in different parts of the world (and I say that with respect), has become a powerful entity; 13 of 32 NFL teams, including seven playoff teams this season, are clients of Pro Football Focus and get proprietary information from their analysts. I’ve known the founder, Neil Hornsby, since the early days of the site. My late brother Ken, who lived in England, worked with Neil’s wife, Clare, and Ken got to know Neil quite well. They would go to cricket matches together. Ken would occasionally tell me, “There’s this friend of mine who thinks he knows quite a bit about football," and he put us in touch. We talked, and one time Neil called me to scream about my choice of Jeremy Trueblood as one of my All-Pro offensive tackles a few years back. “He’s bloody AWFUL!” Neil said. Well, alrighty then. Anyway, as he grew the business, I invited Neil on one of my training-camp trips a few years ago, and he had a great time putting faces to sometimes-blurry numbers he’d followed for years on video or live TV. And he continued to grow the business, and I thought a good story would be: Just how does Pro Football Focus do the job of analyzing every player on every play in every NFL game? Jenny Vrentas finds out.
* * *
And the last word, sort of, from Don Shula.
This comes from Jim Steeg, who for years ran the Super Bowl and big NFL events:
"Back in the seventies, the Dolphins were going to play the Raiders in Oakland. They practiced at the Oakland Coliseum on Saturday, and in the locker room Larry Csonka found laying there the Raiders' game plan for the next day’s game. He gave it to [Dolphins offensive line coach] Monte Clark to give to Don Shula, which Monte did.
"The next day the Dolphins got beat by the Raiders. Csonka went to Monte and asked, ‘How did we lose? We had their game plan.’
“Monte’s response: ‘I gave it to Don and he threw it in the trash. He said, ‘We do not cheat!’ ”
* * *
The Fine Fifteen (Or Two)
A quick list, seeing that only two teams are still alive and very little has changed in the rankings since last Monday.
T-1. Seattle (14-4). Did you see the highway overpasses on I-405 between the Seahawks’ complex in Renton and the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, with the fans and the banners so the team could feel the love as it bused to the airport Sunday for the flight to Phoenix? Those fans are insatiable.
T-1. New England (14-4). If New England wins the Super Bowl, I’m sure cornerback Brandon Browner will be a significant reason—and that’s going to be one of the best stories this week. While the world obsesses on the NFL football investigation, Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell is going to have to figure a way to move the ball through the air so as not to put all the offensive pressure on Marshawn Lynch. That means studying how to overcome the physicality of Brandon Browner at one corner and the clinging coverage of Darrelle Revis on the other corner. Browner, you’ll recall, was on a league suspension last season when his Seahawks crushed Denver in the Super Bowl, and then signed with New England in the off-season as an unrestricted free agent. A year ago, Wilson might have had a field day against this secondary. This year? I doubt it.
Quotes of the Week
"It's too much about the balls. Hopefully everybody starts to talk about the game."
—Seattle defensive end Michael Bennett, upon arrival in Phoenix on Sunday.
"I would not say I’m the Mona Lisa Vito of the football world, as she was in the car-expertise area.’’
—New England coach Bill Belichick, channeling a memory of “My Cousin Vinny’’ during his rather amazing news conference Saturday, during which he said he wasn’t a great expert on the science of pressure in footballs (the way Marisa Tomei, playing the Ms. Vito character, was in identifying the characteristics of different brands of tires in an Alabama courtroom).
Well, we never thought you were, Bill. But that is one of the great Belichick references of all time, and one of the great press conference quotes I’ve ever heard.
"This is the end of this subject for me, for a long time.”
—Belichick, near the end of his press conference Saturday.
I doubt that.
"The energy is sort of sucked out of you. You do feel deflated … Awwww, shoot. Oh well.”
—Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, describing in a bit of a double-entendre his feelings about the sudden end of the Indianapolis season while being interviewed at the Pro Bowl.
"Everybody’s talking about Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. When is Robert Kraft going to come up and explain why, if they are found guilty of this, why do these things keep happening in this organization?’’
—Former Carolina GM Marty Hurney, now a talk show host in Charlotte, to Brian Lewis of the New York Post.
"It was the loss that will never go away.”
—Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, on Green Bay losing a 12-point lead with four minutes to play and dropping the NFC Championship Game to Seattle eight days ago.
"Will they be punished? Probably not. Not as long as Robert Kraft and Goodell are still taking pictures [together] at their respective homes. I think [Goodell] was just at Kraft’s house last week for the AFC championship. Talk about a conflict of interest.”
—Richard Sherman of the Seahawks, on the relationship of Patriots owner Robert Kraft and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell getting in the way of real discipline in the Patriots’ deflated-footballs case.
You mean like in 2007, when Goodell stripped the Pats of a first-round pick and fined the team and Belichick $750,000 for the Spygate scandal?
Mr. Cub Stat of the Week
Ernie Banks, one of the best baseball players of all time, and a man who never had a bad day, died at age 83 Friday night. He was to Chicago what, a generation later, Ripken was to Baltimore and Jeter was to New York, and I want to take a moment to appreciate what a great player he was.
Between 1955 and 1960, my rudimentary knowledge of baseball history would suggest that the four best baseball players were Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Ernie Banks. (Stan Musial would have belonged on the list in 1955, but not by ’59, when he was 38 years old.) Here's how the power numbers matched up in those six seasons, which were 154-game seasons:
|Player, Pos.||Games||HR||RBI||MVPs||Gold Gloves|
|Ernie Banks, SS||152.3||41.3||115.5||2||1|
|Mickey Mantle, OF||148.3||39.3||98.2||2||0|
|Willie Mays, OF||152.0||35.7||101.8||0||4|
|Hank Aaron, OF||152.6||34.3||112.3||1||3|
Isn’t that a surprise? Prime years for all four players, and Banks with more homers and RBIs than the other three. There’s the Wrigley Field factor, to be sure, but interesting numbers nonetheless.
• Banks hit seven homers off Sandy Koufax, seven off Don Drysdale, six off Warren Spahn.
• Banks was good late too: At age 39, his 505th career homer came off Tom Seaver, and his 506th and 507th came off Steve Carlton.
• He played all 2,528 games of his career for the Cubs.
• Famous for saying “Let’s play two," in the clubhouse on a hot and humid summer day when his teammates were dragging, Banks homered in both ends of a doubleheader twice.
I love the idea that’s gaining steam in Chicago: The Cubs, as a rightful tribute to Banks, should schedule a single-admission doubleheader once every year. Call it “Let’s Play Two Day.” What do you say, Theo Epstein?
Stat of the Week
In Russell Wilson’s three seasons as starting quarterback for Seattle—he has started all 55 regular-season and post-season games since being picked in the third round by the Seahawks in 2012—he and his teammates have played 10 games against quarterbacks who have won at least one Super Bowl. The Seahawks are 10-0 in those games. Of course, since the first one was the wacky 14-12 victory attributed to the awful touchdown ruling in the end zone by the replacement-ref crew in Week 3 in 2012, most people would look at that 10-0 record against Super Bowl quarterbacks as being asterisked.
But even if it were 9-1, that would still be a heck of a way to start one’s career.
Head to head, Wilson is 3-0 against Aaron Rodgers, 2-0 against Peyton Manning, Eli Manning and Drew Brees, and 1-0 against Tom Brady.
Average scores in those 10 games: Seattle 29, Foes 15.
Wilson’s touchdown-to-interception differential in those 10 games: 16-8. (It was 15-4 before this year’s NFC Championship Game.)
I know, I know—give credit to the defense for being so dominant and for holding Peyton Manning to 14 points per game and Brees 11 and Rodgers 17. The Seahawks defense has been terrific in the past three years, leading the league in scoring defense in all three seasons. But Wilson has not been just an innocent bystander here.
One more Wilson morsel that will drive the quarterback-wins-is-a-meaningless-stat crowd to drink: Wilson’s 42 victories in his first three NFL seasons, in regular- and postseason games, is six more than any other quarterback in NFL history.
Factoids of the Week That May Interest Only Me
The combined career playoff record of Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning is 17-18.
New England’s five Super Bowls in the Belichick-Brady Era have been decided by 3, 3, 3, 3, and 4 points.
The Patriots have made 229 roster moves, draft choices and signings since Jan. 1, 2014.
Seems like a lot.
Number one out of 229: signing running back Jonas Gray to a futures contract on Jan. 8, 2014. Gray won a game for New England, rushing for 201 yards in the Nov. 16 rout of the Colts in Indianapolis.
Signing Gray to a “futures contract” is the equivalent of signing a guy to the practice squad. One of the reasons both teams are in this game is that their personnel staffs do a great job of identifying players who can help them at positions of need. Or, in this case, at running back, a position Bill Belichick has filled with spare parts since taking the New England coaching job in 2000. He’s right: Backs are interchangeable parts. The Patriots prove it every year.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Sunday that Cleveland wideout Josh Gordon will be suspended for a year for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, reportedly for testing positive for alcohol. This very likely means the end of his career in Cleveland, which was in doubt anyway after his poor 2014 season.
The top two wideouts of all time, in receptions, are Jerry Rice and Marvin Harrison.
Rice’s best season for average receiving yards in a game was 115.5, in 1995. Harrison’s best: 107.6, in 2002.
In 2013, Gordon eclipsed both of those seasons—with the lowly Cleveland Browns. He averaged 117.6 receiving yards per game. This is the kind of crippling loss that continues to plague a franchise that simply cannot catch a break.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
Four hours and 56 minutes. That’s how long the flight was from New York to Phoenix on Sunday morning. That is also how long I had to smell the over-ripe woman in the seat behind me. I have read about people who have the problem of very strong body odor that is not controllable no matter how often they wash. I have no idea if this was one of those cases. Whatever this was, it was five hours of my life I will not remember fondly. Well, I guess I should look on the bright side. It’s an easy, though odoriferous, travel note of the week.
You should look on the bright side too: Now you have a fun word to share with friends, who will be so impressed if you use “odoriferous" instead of simply “stinks."
Tweets of the Week
Bill Nye just debunked Belichick…a sentence I'd thought I'd never write.
— mike freeman (@mikefreemanNFL) January 25, 2015
The longtime NFL beat man, after Bill Nye the Science Guy went on “Good Morning America” to say the pressure loss in footballs that Belichick described in his Saturday press conference could not have happened the way the coach said it did. Save us from a week of this, Super Bowl. Please.
Do you think Belichick cuts off the sleeves of his lab coat?
— Brian Costello (@BrianCoz) January 24, 2015
Did a card show w Ernie Banks. He drove the promoter crazy! Spent time/talked with every person. After an hour had signed maybe 15. #MrCub
— Dale Murphy (@DaleMurphy3) January 24, 2015
.@wilfork75 saves a woman's life involved in accident, gets 5 min of pub. A football light by 1 psi gets a week of pub. #smh #goodjobmedia
— Steve Hutchinson (@poisonpill76) January 23, 2015
That's former all-pro guard Steve Hutchinson, chastising us for ignoring Wilfork finding a woman in a tipped-over vehicle on the side of a Massachusetts road Sunday night and pulling her to safety.
We deserved that, Steve.
* * *
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think if you want some very sad but Grishamesque reading, take time to read the lawsuit brought by the daughter (Renee) and grandchildren (Rita and Ryan) of Saints owner Tom Benson, who recently began proceedings to cut them out of the succession plan for ownership of the Saints and NBA Pelicans. Now the three spurned relations have sued Benson to reclaim their place in the family empire. The suit is 27 pages of allegations of the ugliest kind of family business. Such as: “Upon information and belief, when Tom Benson was recently asked who the current president of the United States was, he replied that Ronald Reagan was the president. After being told that Reagan was not the current president, Tom Benson’s second guess was Harry Truman. This is especially concerning given that Tom Benson has donated to, met, and socialized with, presidents subsequent to Ronald Reagan, something he would not forget but for a decline in his memory." The daughter and two grandchildren described Benson’s third and current wife, Gayle, as the worst kind of gold digger. What a depressing read that lawsuit is.
2. I think this is just what the Rams, Cardinals and 49ers were hoping to hear out of Seattle: More decibels! The Seattle Times reported CenturyLink Field is adding 1,000 seats in the south end zone—on the far side of the field from downtown, near where the 12th Man flag is raised before each game. A louder stadium in Seattle … Where, Colin Kaepernick asks, can I get thicker earplugs?
3. I think the most stunning bit of news in Rick Gosselin’s always-superb ranking of the 32 NFL special-teams units in the Dallas Morning News was this: Green Bay finished 32nd, and had one of the worst seasons by a kicking unit in some time. In the NFL this season, 61 kicks or punts were blocked—and seven of them happened to the Packers.
4. I think we’re going to need a bit more of an explanation, Colts, on the Trent Richardson story. Either he was tending to some family emergency, as he reportedly said was the reason he missed a walk-through before the AFC title game, or he did something so bad as to be suspended for two games. Which is it?
5. I think I’m pretty sure you all will join me in wishing peace for the family of Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy, whose younger brother Joe McCarthy III died in a Pittsburgh-area gym Wednesday. Joe McCarthy’s funeral is today. The one thing about Mike McCarthy I’ve always appreciated is his love of and appreciation for his Pittsburgh roots. He worked as a toll-collector on the Pennsylvania Turnpike while cutting his teeth as a college assistant, and he loves the area. Our best to McCarthy, and to his family.
6. I think by the NFL putting all three London games next season (Weeks 4, 7 and 8) at 9:30 a.m. Eastern Time, we see the league’s reasoning—and for East Coast fans, I do not mind it at all: There is a real chance to create a fourth Sunday window for a game for FOX (once) and CBS (twice). The good thing for the networks will be an extra early window for a national game, and for the NFL, the idea will be to see if the market will bear a profitable fourth window for more than just three weeks. If the ratings are good, the league could justify playing more than three games in sold-out Wembley Stadium beginning in 2016. And you know what the teams like about it? All six teams—the Dolphins, Jets, Jaguars, Bills, Chiefs and Lions—will be able to return home no later than 4 a.m. local time on Monday, if they so choose. The following week will be a bye week, but the players will be able to be off that week at home if the teams wish, and the coaches will be able to treat the post-London week as if it were a borderline normal post-late-Sunday week entering the bye.
7. I think you can file this under “Things General Managers Have To Say To Not Upset The Superstar Entering Super Bowl Week.” Seattle GM John Schneider said of Marshawn Lynch’s penchant for having stupid press conferences (answering questions with the same answer, question after question) and twice this year grabbing his crotch after making big plays: “I kind of love his act.” Folks, there isn't a general manager on the planet who kind of loves that act.
8. I think it’s just a matter of time before a youth football player crossing the goal line, or a youth basketball player hitting a big shot, or another young athlete doing something great, follows that act with a crotch-grab. Well, they’ll say, I saw my favorite player, Marshawn Lynch do it; I’m following him. Lynch would be so proud, I’m sure.
9. I think I’ll say one thing to you, Seattle fans, pre-emptively: Don’t tell me I’m a Marshawn Lynch hater. I understand rooting for the big star of your team, and Lynch is a great player and a really good team guy. But do not try to defend a man who has something going on in his head that tells him to grab his crotch on national TV after he scores a touchdown. It is demeaning, and you are demeaning yourselves as one of the best groups of fans I’ve encountered in 31 years covering the NFL by defending the indefensible.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. I bow this morning to the six full-time SI photographers laid off the other day, all of whom I’ve worked with, all of whom take such great pride in their work—Al Tielemans, Bill Frakes, John McDonough, Simon Bruty, David E. Klutho and Robert Beck. A sad day for us.
b. One thousand wins for Mike Krzyzewski. That has to be one of the great feats in sports today—to last that long, and to be that good for that long. Hearty congratulations to Krzyzewski.
c. Ichiro a Marlin. Now that’ll take some getting used to.
d. You’re going to have do some research on this, because I don’t want to link to it. But the back page of Friday’s New York Daily News made me laugh like I was 13 years old, on the bus to JFK Junior High in Enfield, Conn.
e. Then, when I read Jason Gay in the Wall Street Journal that morning, I knew he got the same feeling I did watching the Tom Brady news conference, with this lead to his column: “I am just going to assume here that you are a more sophisticated and civilized person than I am, that you are a Journal reader of decorum and manners, and you do not spend your day giggling into your coffee over juvenile humor, but I’m sorry, about five minutes into that news conference Thursday featuring Tom Brady, I was howling on the floor like I was 11 years old and back on the playground in my corduroys. Brady, of course, was being asked about footballs—specifically, whether or not he had any role in deflating the footballs used by the New England Patriots during the AFC Championship Game—and the abbreviated term for footballs is, well, balls, and so Brady was being repeatedly asked about how he preferred to handle … you see what I mean. Brady was talking about feeling and squeezing and the whole thing began to resemble an SNL skit, or perhaps Monty Python, but then it leapt the rail into something even more surreal and absurd, because it was blanketed in that overwrought seriousness that is so customary to life in the NFL, in which everyone must talk about a game involving large men in small pants like it’s a United Nations General Assembly."
f. Jason Gay is really good.
g. Just catching up on the last episodes of “The Newsroom” this season, and it’s the best this show has ever been. By far. Olivia Munn hit a few home runs down the stretch, Emily Mortimer was consistently good, and B.J. Novak as a smart-aleck new-media jillionaire was terrific. And Jane Fonda can still nail a scene. Dialogue got more realistic at the end of the season, and much less frenetic.
h. Can’t “The Newsroom” come back? Why is it ending?
i. Ernie Banks's death reminded me of George Costanza in “The Opposite,” when his life goes up and Elaine’s down. George enters the restaurant, sees his pals and in a cocky voice, sing-songs: “Greetings and salutations. It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame! Let’s play two!”
j. Klay Thompson scored 37 points in a quarter the other night. That’s got to be one of the great sports feats of recent times. Looks like such a happy guy. Good to see different teams winning in the NBA.
k. Thursday: Celtics win by one, 90-89, at Portland. Friday: Celtics win by one, 100-99, at Denver. I know nothing about the NBA, but with all the draft picks they have in the next couple of years, maybe the Danny Ainge/Brad Stevens Celtics are on the right road.
l. Good Newsweek story on why we’re not getting enough sleep, and how all the screens we’re addicted to are a very big factor.
m. Canadiens-Bruins at Gillette Stadium in the 2016 Winter Classic. Now that’s going to be fun, a rivalry game and two great sweaters out on Route 1 in the middle of New England. Pond hockey!
n. Coffeenerdness: I love that Flat White, Starbucks. Thanks for stealing it from the Aussies.
o. Beernerdness: Before I left Seattle late last Monday, I took young Klemko to the place of his dreams: Georgetown Brewing Company, for some late-afternoon sampling of the beers of one of the best small, local breweries in the country. I’ve always loved Manny’s Pale Ale, but this time I got to try and appreciate Eddie India Pale Lager (named after Eddie Vedder), which will be my Seattle fave if and when I find it on my next trip to the region. Come to the East Coast, please. That is some tremendous beer.
p. My first run of any length in some time on Saturday: five miles in 44 minutes, 32 seconds. The best thing about the Super Bowl being over in a week is I’ll be able to stop making excuses about not being able to work out, and hopefully be free of this long-lasting sinus/bronchitis thing that dogged me around the holidays and in early January, and get back to business of being a lean, mean, fighting machine. (Well, a runner of eight-and-a-half-minute miles in succession would suffice at this point, to be honest.)
q. I am addicted to the FitBit. A day without 10,000 steps is a bad day.
r. Love Phoenix in the winter. I just wish they wouldn’t have sent the Coyotes away this week. Would have loved to have stolen a night with the pucks with Rick Gosselin.
s. We should all be so lucky in life to have at least one friend as good as the friend Rich Cimini of ESPN.com was to Paul Needell. What a good man you are, Rich.
The Adieu Haiku
Welcome to Phoenix!
And a week of Deflategate.
Really hate that name.
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