The Ravens and Packers came close last season, blowing late leads in their respective playoff losses. Here's why they'll finish the job and meet in Super Bowl 50. Plus more playoff predictions, a solution for the NFL's discipline woes and notes on the biggest news from cutdown weekend
Factoid I Learned this Summer That I Have Been Dying To Share With You:
This is the 10th season Mike McCarthy has coached the Packers, and the 10th season Aaron Rodgers has played for Mike McCarthy. In all that time, from January 2006 to this weekend, Rodgers has never been fined by the team. He has never been late to a meeting, a practice, a game, an off-season workout. He has never missed any of those scheduled events without permission. He has never violated curfew either in training camp or the night before any of the 197 preseason, regular-season or postseason games since McCarthy took over. He has never mouthed off to anyone, or violated any team rule to the extent that he had to be fined.
“That is true,” Rodgers told me. “Now, in my rookie year, 2005, I did get fined once. I was five minutes late to a meeting. I was speeding down [Wisconsin route] 41, a little late, and I said, ‘I can either get a ticket here and be late, or I can drive normal and be late.’ I decided to be six minutes late and take the fine.”
There’s no really good reason to write that this morning. I just like the story. It says something about the guy I think will lead his team to the 50th Super Bowl five months from today. And win it. But really, it’s just a cheap way to tell a good story about a great player about to have a great season.
I’m picking a Green Bay-Baltimore Super Bowl. Two teams that blew golden chances to meet in the Super Bowl last year, finally keeping the appointment a year later. (NFC title game last January, five minutes left: Green Bay 19, Seattle 7. AFC divisional game last January, 23 minutes left: Baltimore 28, New England 14.)
To make that pick, I have to get over a lot of things. For Green Bay, the Jordy Nelson injury is the biggest thing—the most dangerous weapon for Rodgers on the team that scored the most points (486) in football last year. Nelson’s a top-five-important player for the Packers, and he was lost for the year with a torn ACL in August. I worry a bit that the Packers won’t have the sure thing of Nelson to rely on. But I recall Davante Adams being in the right place at the right time for Green Bay to beat Miami last year. I think Randall Cobb will be the same co-number one he was last year. “We don’t have a go-to guy,” Rodgers said this summer. “We might have a go-to guy on plays, but it’s all about matchups and finding the high percentage pass on that play.” Rookie Ty Montgomery will help, and Sunday’s signing—desperate-seeming, but smart—of James Jones to return after spending last year in Oakland should be a shot in the arm. I’m confused why the Giants didn’t keep Jones after having him in camp this summer. Jones is 31, healthy, and should be a good role player. In his last three Packer years (2011-13), Jones averaged 82 targets, 54 catches and eight touchdowns a year.
I like the defense well enough too, despite the loss to free agency of solid corners Tramon Williams and Davon House. Maybe that’s me trying to talk my way into picking Green Bay, but I remember in the NFC title game last year what I saw in the first 55 minutes: 12 Seattle drives, seven points, 187 yards, four interceptions of Russell Wilson. Mike McCarthy got conservative late, and Rodgers was just okay, and the Packers couldn’t finish it off.
Baltimore? You’ll be surprised at the Ravens’ biggest challenge. Two, actually:
1. The Bengals. You’d think the Ravens are significantly better over the past few years, right? Well, in the post-season, yes. But Cincinnati and Baltimore have 40 regular-season wins apiece in the past four years. The Bengals beat the Ravens in the AFC North standings in 2013 and ’14. In their past five meetings, the Bengals are 4-1 against the Ravens and have allowed Baltimore just 18.8 points a game. What does this mean? That Baltimore hasn’t had the luxury of many home playoff games, the way New England has. And so …
2. Baltimore has to earn home-field in the playoffs. I know: Every team wants to be at home in the playoffs, but for the Ravens the home-field edge has been huge in the John Harbaugh era. Since Harbaugh took over in 2008, Baltimore is 45-11 at home and 27-29 on the road in the regular season. The Ravens have made the playoffs every year but one … and have never won home-field in the AFC since Harbaugh was hired.
Amazing, when you think about it. Baltimore is one of the most successful teams of the past decade. The Ravens have played 15 postseason games since 2008 … only two at home. Twelve on the road, and one (the Super Bowl, against San Francisco) at a neutral site.
But it’s worn on Baltimore. Like last year. Even with a World League secondary, the Ravens held two 14-point leads at New England in the divisional round and couldn’t hang on. Imagine if the game had been in Baltimore, where the Ravens have won a Patriot-like 81 percent of their home games since 2008. So the emphasis, quietly, in Baltimore is to play home playoff games. For that, the Ravens must win the AFC North—and get help from the depth of the other AFC divisions, which need to play the Patriots, Colts and Broncos tougher.
I see the Ravens winning the North—everything but their receiver group is playoff-formidable. They’re built for the bad weather of winter, with a top-three offensive line in the NFL, a good running game, and a tight end group (which could get Dennis Pitta back at midseason) with new juice in rookie receiving tight end Maxx Williams. If they win the North, that’s one home playoff game at least. If they win 12 games, that should be enough for two. What they really need, though, is for the rest of the conference to get as good as the North has been in recent years, so the road to Santa Clara won’t be all on the road.
Regarding the other contenders:
New England. No repeat champions in the past 10 Super Bowls; I’m not big at all on picking repeat champs. Then there’s the weak secondary (minus Darrelle Revis and Super Bowl unsung hero Brandon Browner), and the Ravens-like lack of depth at receiver. And I think this could be a 10- or 11-win division title for the Patriots, because the Dolphins should be markedly better, and the Bills better too. But make no mistake: Tom Brady will be supremely motivated to be his best, and a 14-2 season wouldn’t shock me.
Seattle. I checked in with a Seahawk source Sunday night, and there’s scant optimism that strong safety Kam Chancellor—vital on the field, of course, but in the locker room too—will be in St. Louis for the opener in six days. Plus, free safety Earl Thomas, rehabbing from a torn labrum in his left shoulder, is likely to play next week but not certain. So, Seattle could face a matchup nightmare in St. Louis (last three years: Rams two wins, Seattle one in St. Louis) without the leader of the defense, Chancellor, and with Thomas not having hit anyone since Super Sunday 32 weeks ago. Cary Williams, 30-year-old corner, replaces Byron Maxwell opposite Richard Sherman, and is on his third team in four years. Rookie Tye Smith, a fifth-round pick from Towson, is the likely nickel back. The Seahawks should score more, but the secondary has gone from the best in football to a total unknown.
Denver. With new/old defensive coordinator Wade Phillips able to turn Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware loose on the pass rush, and with Chris Harris and Aqib Talib keying a clinging corner group, the Broncos won’t have to score in the 30s to win all the time. But can they protect Peyton Manning with newbies at center and left tackle?
• BRONCOS SEASON PREVIEW: For the first time in Peyton Manning's career, the veteran QB can rely on his defense to carry more of the burden than the offense. The Broncos are ripe with playmakers on that side of the ball, making January football very likely
Indianapolis. When we last left the Colts, they were getting steamrolled on the ground for the third time in their past 20 games by the Patriots. Arthur Jones, key run-stopper up front, has been lost for the year, and they haven’t made any significant adds to the defensive front, save Kandall Langford, who’s no Haloti Ngata. If Andrew Luck can score 40 points a Sunday, I like the Colts to go far. If not, they’ll win the AFC South and be frustrated again in late January.
Philadelphia/Dallas. Flip a coin. I like the Eagles better, by a bit, mostly because the Cowboys lost their best defensive back (Orlando Scandrick) for the year this preseason, and because Philadelphia scored faster this preseason than the Kardashians printed money. But there’s no insurance for Sam Bradford staying upright for the season; if he does, the Eagles are as good as anyone in the NFC, and maybe better.
• DON'T CALL IT A COMEBACK: Sean Lee might be getting ready to play his first real game in nearly two years, but the linebacker never left the Cowboys. He’s been immersed in every aspect of the defense since going down with an ACL tear
My playoff jumpers? (The rising teams in each conference, I mean). Give me Minnesota (7-9 last year) and Miami (8-8 last year). The Vikings get a refreshed Adrian Peterson to buttress young Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback, and from talking to offensive coordinator Norv Turner in camp, there will be no conservation plan with Peterson. I think Peterson leads the NFL in rushes and rushing yards in his comeback year, and gives the Vikings the offensive identity they didn’t have a year ago. Last year, the Vikes ran on 42 percent of the snaps; this year, it’ll be closer to 52 percent.
Regarding Miami: I haven’t seen a team in recent years with the schedule advantage the Dolphins have in the first two months. Their opening seven weeks: at Kirk Cousins (Washington), at Blake Bortles (Jacksonville), versus Tyrod Taylor (Buffalo) at home, versus Ryan Fitzpatrick (Jets) in London, bye, at Marcus Mariota (Tennessee), versus Brian Hoyer (Houston) at home. Of course, they’ve got the Patriots twice, the Eagles, Cowboys and Chargers in the last 10 games, but the schedule is tailor-made for a team with a dominating defensive front—not many teams have three defensive weapons on the front seven of Ndamukong Suh and Earl Mitchell together at tackle, and Cameron Wake coming off the edge—to get off fast.
My picks, division by division:
AFC: New England, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Kansas City.
Wild Cards: Denver, Miami.
NFC: Philadelphia, Green Bay, Atlanta, Seattle.
Wild Cards: Arizona, Dallas.
AFC Championship: Baltimore 27, Denver 20.
NFC Championship: Green Bay 30, Philadelphia 26.
Super Bowl 50: Green Bay 31, Baltimore 27.
MVP: Adrian Peterson, Minnesota.
Offensive player: Peterson.
Defensive player: J.J. Watt, Houston.
Offensive rookie: Marcus Mariota, Tennessee.
Defensive rookie: Randy Gregory, Dallas.
Coach: Dan Quinn, Atlanta.
Executive: John Dorsey, Kansas City.
Comeback player: NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco.
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NFL, union need to negotiate about discipline
Lots of leftovers after the embarrassing but not shocking (except to the NFL) total defeat in U.S. District Court on Thursday:
• The league got what it deserved, and I sense even some hard-liners in the league now are not convinced Tom Brady cheated. I’ve had a couple of club people who for months believed Brady must be guilty of something significant and now are questioning whether he directed any Patriots employees to do anything illegal. Clearly, some around the league don’t think Ted Wells, Jeff Pash and Goodell have the goods on Brady. They are right: The league doesn’t have the goods. There’s no proof that Brady told anyone to take air out of the footballs.
• For now—and I repeat, for now—I don’t think Roger Goodell’s job is in jeopardy. There are between two and four owners, a very small cabal, down on Goodell right now to the point that they would consider joining a movement to replace him. That’s not many, especially when you consider that Goodell is on the losing streak of all commissioner losing streaks, and when you consider that 24 votes would be required to replace Goodell. Understand that many of the leading owners in the league consider that Goodell is doing their bidding, fighting for what he believes is the right thing, and also that he’s taking hits for them on fronts like domestic violence.
• It makes sense for Goodell to fork over appeal authority in some commissioner-discipline cases, and I think he will—eventually. Goodell has said for years that nothing is set in stone, that the league has to be open to new ideas. The traveling draft, the re-do of the PAT, expansion of Thursday night football, expansion of flex scheduling, refs consulting with the New York officiating center during replay reviews, the 9:30 a.m. Eastern Time window on London games … It’s clear Goodell is not averse to change. And as Mark Maske reported in the Washington Post, the owners will discuss changing the commissioner’s authority in the discipline process. For clarity’s sake: Goodell has the right, as we saw in the Brady case, to act as the hearing officer and the appeal officer in cases of Personal Conduct Policy violations and, most important, conduct detrimental to the game. (Most other discipline cases, such as on-field fines, substance abuse and PED cases, and CBA violation cases, have third-party or jointly appointed arbitrators.) I tried to talk to several owners in the wake of the Brady victory Thursday, and all but one wouldn’t speak, on or off the record. Too sensitive, most said. But my reading of the situation from two people who have spoken to multiple owners or top club executives is that it’s a matter of time before the league begins discussions with union officials to try to find a solution to this mess. The feeling is a change will happen, but a change that happens in collective bargaining with the NFL Players Association.
• A MASSIVE SMACKDOWN OF GOODELL: Judge Richard Berman’s reversal of the Tom Brady suspension is nothing less than a scathing rebuke of Roger Goodell and the NFL. So what does it mean for this commissioner’s power and the fundamental relationship between the league and its players?
• My suggestion for a solution. It could be that the union, smelling blood in the water, will stand firm and not give up anything in bargaining with the NFL, because the players know how weakened the NFL is right now. I doubt that will be enough for the league to just say, We’ll hand you neutral arbitration. But both sides know Goodell needs to fork over the appeal process for Brady-type cases. This solution seems logical: The league and players agree to a panel of three arbitrators; the arbitrators would be mutually agreed upon by the league and the union. Each time there’s an appeal of a commissioner discipline case, one of the three arbitrators would be picked randomly to hear the appeal. In exchange, the CBA, set to expire following the 2020 season, will be extended one season, and would expire after the 2021 season. Now, the league will howl at this, saying that’s not enough of a trade with the players to give up such a valuable chip. But I would maintain this: The chip has become a poisonous one. The chip is not nearly as valuable as it once was. It’s now worth 20 cents on the dollar. Goodell has to make a save-face deal with the players, or risk the waterfall of negative press and public opinion washing over him and the league.
• Tod Leiweke should be on your radar these days. You may have read the other day that a key Goodell adviser, Paul Hicks, was resigning as the league’s executive vice president of communications and public affairs to take a job with a Washington consulting firm. True. But the timing of his departure was odd—at the height of the biggest headache of Goodell’s tenure—at the same time the league's new chief operating officer, Leiweke, was conducting a thorough review of who should stay in the league office and who should go. As one top team executive said last week, “We need to find out if we have the right people giving us our legal advice.” Well, of course. When you’ve had setbacks in your last five major discipline cases, you’d be foolish not to question why.
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‘Do Your Job’ is a really good show
I’ve screened NFL Network’s “Do Your Job: Bill Belichick and the 2014 New England Patriots,” an hour-long documentary that airs Wednesday on NFL Network at 8 p.m. ET. It might be the best example I’ve ever watched of how Belichick works—how he prepares players, how he prepares coaches, how he gets coaches ready to impart what players need to know to win, how he motivates players (thought there’s not a lot of that here), how he uses mysterious director of football research Ernie Adams (who is interviewed for the documentary), and how he uses so much minutiae of football knowledge to prepare for games. This is not just for Patriots fans. It’s also an educational football primer for head coaches and assistant coaches who want to be head coaches.
It’ll be easy for non-Patriot fans to sneer at it and say, Enough of the bleepin’ Patriots overload! But this is such a good show about football, and about the inner game of football, that if you’re a football fan you’ll be doing yourself a disservice by not at least setting the DVR to record this show. Belichick is so incredibly unrevealing in virtually every public setting, it’s eye-opening when he sits with a trusted NFL Films crew and tells the inner workings of why he does exactly what he does.
The show follows the Patriots coaches and front office through the season, but especially around the disastrous early-season loss at Kansas City, the playoff win over Baltimore, the Deflategate story as it affected preparation for the Super Bowl, and, obviously, the Super Bowl win over Seattle. The “Do your job” thing has become gospel around New England, a Belichickism for “Do your job and don’t worry about the guy next to you, because if he doesn’t do his, I’ll find someone who will.”
“Maybe the one word that isn’t in that sentence,” said Belichick in the doc, “that’s implied but not stated, is ‘Do your job well.’ Take care of the one or two three things that we’ve emphasized all week, and we’ll be okay.”
Good nuggets from the show:
• Belichick after the 41-14 Monday night loss at Kansas City that left the Patriots 2-2 and left many wondering if this was end of the franchise’s great run: “When I walked off the field that night, I really felt good about the team even thought we’d gotten smashed. I felt something about the team that night in the second half that I thought we really could build on. Anyone who wanted to cash it in could have cashed it in. We’re on the road, their crowd is in a frenzy, the Chiefs are playing very well, but I could see the fight. I felt good about their toughness, their competitiveness, that they cared … If we have this, in the end, we’re going to have a chance.”
• Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels confirmed the coaches showed the offense a clip of Alabama throwing the unbalanced offensive-line formation against LSU before the divisional game against Baltimore, and then explained why the play was used when it was—in the third quarter, down 14, with the season on the line. New England ran it twice and Tom Brady completed both passes on a scoring drive. ”We waited 'til the second half, purposefully so they didn’t have an opportunity at halftime to talk about it,” said McDaniels. Said Belichick: “Instinctively, you see [split-to-the-right running back Shane] Vereen out there and you don’t think, ‘Well, forget about him.’”
• THE SUPER BOWL, ACCORDING TO TOM BRADY: Seattle’s infamous interception overshadowed a career-defining game by the Patriots quarterback, who explains from his perspective what went down in the final quarter
• Receivers coach Chad O’Shea revealed the backstory to the backward pass to Julian Edelman, who in turn threw a touchdown pass to Danny Amendola in that game. O’Shea said in the Kansas City game early in the season, Amendola, at the line of scrimmage, waved off the play with Edelman in motion, thus saving the play so Baltimore would never have seen it on tape and thus perhaps have known it was coming later in the season. “In hindsight, obviously, that was going to be critical to our season,” said O’Shea. “Because if we don’t have the players execute the part of not giving away the double pass, then we don’t have this play available to us in the biggest play of the year when we need it, versus Baltimore.”
• NFL Films captures the winning touchdown pass in the Super Bowl—Brady’s throw to Edelman, which he caught after Brady overthrew it on the previous series—being installed the night before the game. In the Patriots’ ballroom walkthrough.
• Belichick explains why he didn’t call a timeout on the Seahawks’ fateful last drive, which would have opened him to ridicule had Seattle scored and left New England to go the length of the field in 17 or 20 seconds to have a chance had Seattle scored on the play. Basically, it’s like what we all thought: Belichick saw confusion and players hurrying around on the Seattle sideline, so he wanted to take advantage of the confusion (or so it seemed) and make them snap without being fully prepared for the play.
• NFL Films also caught Brandon Browner instructing a breathless Malcolm Butler—who’d just run on the field in the Super Bowl at the last moment—that Ricardo Lockette was his man on the last play, and, as I and others have written, illuminated how the play was run at practice the previous Thursday … and Butler failed to stop a touchdown pass. Belichick: “The coaching point was, if they’re close enough together, you’ve got to be ready to get over the top [fight through the pick if necessary] and the defender [Browner] on the inside guy has to jam him so he can’t pick the corner going over the top.”
• Belichick praised Adams, the man of intrigue, for figuring out Seattle might run that exact play in the game. “You are going to win or lose games at practice,” Adams said on the doc. “I mean, there is no such thing as being a game-day player. You see situations come up on the practice field, you’ve worked on it, you know what it takes. When it comes up in the game, you’re trained, you’re seasoned, and you react to make the play.”
Really good show.
* * *
Reminder: The preseason must be shortened
A partial list of the DNPs (Did Not Participate) in the final week of the exhibition season:
Carson Palmer, Philip Rivers, Colin Kaepernick, Andy Dalton, Jameis Winston, Ryan Tannehill, Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton, Blake Bortles, Alex Smith, Jay Cutler, Teddy Bridgewater,
Terrell Suggs, Marshal Yanda, Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, A.J. Green, T.Y. Hilton, Cam Wake, Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans, Darrelle Revis, Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson, Sammy Watkins, Mario Williams, Marcel Dareus, Calvin Johnson, Charles Woodson, Odell Beckham Jr., LeVeon Bell, Pierre Garcon, Jeremy Maclin, Jamaal Charles, Tamba Hali, Sean Lee, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Joe Haden, Joe Thomas, Alshon Jeffery, Brian Orakpo, Jurrell Casey, Larry Fitzgerald, Patrick Peterson, Aqib Talib, Von Miller, Demarcus Ware, Carlos Hyde, Eric Weddle, Anquan Boldin.
• Question or comment? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Quotes of the Week
“I wasn’t surprised at all … I just felt like the league had done something without really—you know, and I wasn’t big in looking at all the details. Maybe just more of a feeling … and knowing that the commissioner jumped to a pretty harsh judgment.”
—Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, to reporters Sunday, on the Tom Brady decision.
—A passenger in the back of a Boston-to-Denver Southwest Airline flight on Thursday, shortly after the plane landed late in the morning and when passengers switched on the phones, got wifi, and learned the news of Judge Richard Berman vacating the suspension of Tom Brady, according to passenger Abby Chin of Comcast Sports Net-New England
“Now we don’t have to play what’s-his-name.”
—A kid on the Boston-to-Denver flight, once he learned Brady, and not Jimmy Garappolo, would be playing quarterback for the Patriots early in the season.
“It's not healthy for the NFL to be in the kind of litigious position that it's been for the last several years. I think the commissioner is working hard to hold up the respect and integrity of the game, the competitive balance of the game, and the shield. Having said that, I think we have to find ways to get to a better place sooner with the NFLPA than the process we've gone through.”
—Atlanta owner and chairman Arthur Blank, after the Tom Brady ruling Thursday, to D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
—NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith, asked by CSN Mid-Atlantic about players’ trust in the league.
“I’m not right wing. I’m not left wing. I hate both parties. But I like Jon Stewart. I think he’s funny. I love humor and politics.”
—Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, to me this summer.
“With absolutely no evidence of any actions of wrongdoing by Tom in the Wells report, the lawyers at the league still insisted on imposing and defending unwarranted and unprecedented discipline.”
—New England owner Robert Kraft, in a statement after the Brady verdict was announced by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Berman.
Stat of the Week
Next Sunday, the Packers and Bears will play in Soldier Field. It will be the 189th meeting in the rivalry that began in 1921. No two pro football teams have played each other more.
The average score in the 188 meetings: Chicago 17.06, Green Bay 17.02.
The composite score in those 188 games: Chicago 3,207, Green Bay 3,200.
Factoids of the Week That May Interest Only Me
Snaps played in 13 combined preseason games by three 2015 Most Valuable Player candidates:
Adrian Peterson (five games): 0.
J.J. Watt (four games): 0.
Rob Gronkowski (four games): 0.
Can we at some point, please, have a discussion about cutting the preseason from four to two games?
The final weekend of the regular season includes New England playing at Miami on Jan. 3, 2016, at 1 p.m. In the last two New England games at Miami, it has been 84 degrees at kickoff (in December 2013) and 89 degrees at kickoff (in September 2014). The Patriots have lost both games—24-20 two years ago, 33-20 last year.
Might be a good idea for the Patriots to pray for a New Year’s cold snap in south Florida, or to think about practicing in steamy conditions, somewhere, before the game this year. In the second half of the last two losses at Miami, New England has been outscored 40-10.
Kevin Clark of the Wall Street Journal first wrote about the 49ers catering to the shorter attention spans of their players in June, and I thought the story was so smart about the minds of young people today that I wanted to ask 49ers coach Jim Tomsula about it when I got to training camp recently.
Indeed, Tomsula has instituted a series of breaks between team meetings now. For the Niners, it’s 30 minutes in a meeting, 10 minutes free to do whatever.
“I went to a meeting this off-season and found out that my players—and really, all young people—basically have an attention span of about 28 minutes max,” Tomsula said. “At first, I’m thinking, Come on. But you hear really smart people talking about how to keep young people attentive and productive, and so I brought it back here. Now we talk in terms of 30-minute ‘blocks.’ Like, ‘How many blocks do you need for this install, coach?’
“I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it at first, but actually, it’s led to us having a much more energetic day. Guys meet for 30 minutes, go to the bathroom, check their phone, get a coffee, send a couple of texts, whatever. Then they’re back, and they’re not distracted, and they stay fresh. That’s how it seems to us, anyway.”
No phones in the meeting rooms, of course. And no, “Coach, I’ve got to use the bathroom” 12 minutes into one of those blocks; if that’s the case, you should have gone 12 minutes ago.
What’s surprising, of course, is Tomsula is about as old-school as they come. Last year, when his daughter sent him a text with the letters “LOL,” he thought it meant “Lots of Love.” And he’s not on social media.
“Listen,” he said, pointing to the telephone on his office desk at Niners headquarters, “if you want to get a hold of me, call me on the telephone.”
• DON'T BLUDGEON THE MAN: Jim Tomsula hardly made a good first impression as the 49ers head coach. But it’d be a mistake to write-off someone who once lived in his car (with a dog, cat and litter box) just so he could be a volunteer college coach
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
Another reason Amtrak should be the mode of transportation for more people: timeliness.
I boarded Amtrak 2158, an Acela train from New York to Boston, at about 11:55 a.m. Wednesday. Train slated to depart at 12:03 p.m. I had my laptop open, with the digital clock up. At 12:03:10, the doors to the train closed. At 12:03:33, the train started moving. We were due at Boston’s Back Bay station at 3:36 p.m. Arrival time: 3:29. My experience is that’s pretty common on the Acela (not so much on the regional trains).
I went to Boston to do a fund-raiser at Harpoon Brewery for the Kenary Brain Tumor Research Fund at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. The brewery was nice enough to brew a beer for our site—The MMQB Saison—and we had about 275 people come in to taste the beer and listen to some media people—me, Greg Bedard of Sports Illustrated (formerly of The MMQB, of course), Ben Volin of the Boston Globe, Ron Borges of the Boston Herald, Albert Breer of NFL Network—and former Patriots tackle Matt Light preview the season and the Saison. (The beer is available only on tap at the Harpoon brew pub.) A great time was had by all. Thanks to those five men for giving so generously of their time. Thanks to Harpoon for making it all happen. And thanks to the fine folks at Bose, who donated a cool sound system for us to raffle at the event. Very generous of Bose, and of all who participated.
Tweets of the Week
Very disturbing. Officials allow kids to play games they love, and help keep them safe. No one deserves this. https://t.co/Pi6N3GF0Zc— Dean Blandino (@DeanBlandino) September 6, 2015
The NFL vice president of officiating weighing in on the clip of two high school players in Texas targeting and flattening an official, apparently because they disagreed with a call in a game.
Prediction: WAS cuts RGIII. NE signs RGIII. NE trades RGIII to WAS for a 1st round draft pick... #NFL— Eric Stangel (@EricStangel) August 31, 2015
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think if there’s one thing Roger Goodell needs right now, it’s someone to tell him things he doesn’t want to hear. Early this year, when we at The MMQB compiled a list of the 100 most influential people on the 2015 NFL season, I wanted to include a Goodell Whisperer—someone in or out of the NFL office he calls or counts on for advice, someone who can tell him he’s wrong when he clearly is. I couldn’t find one. The more I asked around, the more I heard Goodell is his own closest adviser. If new NFL COO Tod Leiweke can serve one important purpose, it would be giving Goodell tough love when he needs it—and not being concerned about the pushback.
2. I think these were the stories of cutdown weekend in the NFL:
a. Tim Tebow is not one of 1,696 active players in the National Football League. The four NFL people to get rid of Tebow—John Elway, Rex Ryan (and, in part, Mike Tannenbaum), Bill Belichick, Chip Kelly—should give you an idea of the odds he faces in returning to the NFL. He’s just not an accurate-enough thrower right now, but as Kelly told him, he needs to play the position in games, and the only place for him to do that now is in the Canadian Football League. If Tebow is serious about continuing his career in the NFL, he should be all about seeking a job in the CFL. That would take about 10 minutes to make happen.
b. Robert Griffin III is the third quarterback in Washington—for now. I really don’t understand. If Griffin gets hurt on the practice field or the game field at any point this year and the injury is a significant one that stretches into 2016, the franchise is liable for a guaranteed $16.2 million base salary in the last year of Griffin’s contract. With Kirk Cousins the starter and Colt McCoy the likely number two, why would Washington risk investing 10.6 percent of its 2016 salary cap on a player hardly anyone in the organization believes in?
c. Tyrod Taylor is the quarterback of the Bills, and Matt Cassel is on the street. When the offseason began, Vegas odds (just kidding) had Cassel winning the starting job, E.J. Manuel the likely number two, and Tyrod Taylor fighting to fend off the rest of all available quarterbacks for number three. Taylor’s versatility and pleasantly surprising arm strength in camp won him the job. Now Cassel is hoping for a backup job somewhere else, and Houston (as Mike Florio reported Saturday) is a logical landing spot.
d. The trade for Kelcie McCray shows how serious the Kam Chancellor/AWOL situation is in Seattle. Clearly, the Seahawks are planning to play without Chancellor. That’s a serious situation. Read Greg Bishop’s enlightening story in this week’s Sports Illustrated to see for yourself how much of a leader and locker-room and on-field factor Chancellor is. But he wants to re-do his contract with three years left, and GM John Schneider isn’t willing to budge, for now, on at least making Chancellor’s contract increasingly guaranteed. Seattle dealt a fifth-round pick to Kansas City, as Adam Schefter reported, for McCray, a hard-hitting but superfluous player for Andy Reid’s Chiefs. Now, you deal seventh-rounders for players you’re somewhat interested in around cutdown time. You deal fifth-rounders for players near cutdown time when there’s a fire drill. That's how I'd describe what is happening in Seattle with Chancellor right now.
e. There’s a stranger in paradise in Santa Clara. Aussie Rugby League footballer Jarryd Hayne—scouted by Niners GM Trent Baalke on YouTube, indoctrinated by fellow players in how to wear American football equipment in April, practiced football for the first time in the spring—made the Niners as a running back and returner, and likely as a kicking-game wedge-buster. “I am over the moon,” Hayne said. “I didn’t just wake up and want to be an NFL player one day. I wanted to take a risk, and I wanted to put myself out there. Faith without action is dead.”
f. Matt Barkley couldn’t be the three in Philly, but he can in Arizona. Barkley fetched the Eagles a conditional seventh-round pick from Arizona (he has to be on the Cards’ 53-man roster for at least six games in 2015), and he’ll have a better chance to play in Arizona, particularly because Carson Palmer’s 35 and has been hurt in recent years, and because the leash will be short on backup Drew Stanton, and because Bruce Arians likes Barkley more than Chip Kelly does. The Eagles’ third quarterback will be Stephen Morris, the former Miami (Fla.) passer cut by Jacksonville.
g. Andy Levitre, two years after being the highest-paid guard ever by Tennessee, got flipped to Atlanta for a sixth-round pick next year, plus a little more. Levitre should start for the Falcons, after costing Tennessee $1,015,625 per start in the past two years. (Do the division: $32.5 million, 32 starts.) With the cost of living so reasonable in central Tennessee, Levitre should be set up quite nicely for life. Now, about the Falcons, Levitre should beat out either Mike Person or Chris Chester as a starting guard in a questionable position group. Levitre also could bring a future conditional pick.
h. The Saints had a curious cutdown day, which included waiving a grievous error last year. In 2014, the Saints made 6-2 cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste their second-round pick, the 58th overall pick in the draft. They picked Jean-Baptiste ahead of pass-rusher Kony Ealy, wideouts Jarvis Landry, Martavis Bryant, Donte Moncrief and John Brown, and offensive linemen Bryan Stork and Russell Bodine. Interesting fact pointed out by former scout Greg Gabriel: Jean-Baptiste ran a 4.61 40-yard dash at the combine, so he was clearly a guy drafted mostly for his size in a division with huge wideouts. He just couldn’t cover. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team keep four undrafted free-agent rookies at one position group. It says the Saints are not afraid of cutting their losses and/or keeping the best players even at a position group that has enough NFL-caliber players. (It also says he wasn’t very good. Jean-Baptiste went unclaimed by 31 other teams after being cut.) Undrafted freebie rookies kept: Tavaris Barnes (Clemson), Kaleb Eulis (Mississippi State), Ashaad Mabry (Texas-San Antonio) and Bobby Richardson (Indiana). So while GM Mickey Loomis can get criticized for the Jean-Baptiste risk, he should be praised for keeping the best guy in camp. That’s how you build the best roster for the long term.
i. One of the game’s best guards, Kyle Long, moves outside to tackle. That’s according to NFL beat man Matt Miller of Bleacher Report. If Long does go to right tackle, it’s to give Jay Cutler more peace of mind from left-defensive-side pass-rushers, of course. Long’s quick for his size, and a mauler. A month ago, though, in Bears’ camp, Long told me he didn’t want to move, saying:“They’ll have to get a tractor to move me outside to tackle. I’d rather get in a fist fight in a phone booth [at guard] any day. Those guys outside, there’s too much space. Too scary out there.” Well now.
3. I think, regarding the movie “Concussion,” written and directed by Peter Landesman for Sony, I was surprised when I read Ken Belson’s piece in the New York Times, quoting emails obtained in the Sony hacking scandal that some “unflattering moments for the NFL were deleted or changed” in the movie. It was surprising to me, because I have seen the movie, and it mostly savages the NFL and the league’s slow-footed reaction to the concussion crisis, and to protagonist Dr. Bennet Omalu’s discovery of the brain-altering protein CTE in deceased formed players. Landesman told me in our interview this summer that he cancelled a meeting with NFL executive Paul Hicks in 2014 to discuss the movie, and he was insistent with me that he pulled no punches. “We just followed the story,” he told me. “We changed nothing to appease the NFL.” And he told Deadline this week: “I did nothing at the behest of the NFL, for the NFL, against the NFL.” I have no reason not to believe Landesman, but those emails are damaging.
4. I think, also, regarding Landesman’s claim in Deadline that, “It does seem to me like the New York Times is working for the NFL,” well, I do not know any media outlet, anywhere, that is tougher (while being fair) on the NFL. Ken Belson, in particular, is at the top of people who cover the league in terms of integrity and calling the story the way he sees it, the way the facts fall.
5. I think this was the headline of the week in the NFL, from the New York Post, on Sunday, after the Eagles cut Tim Tebow: “GOD MAN OUT.”
6. I think Chip Kelly cutting Tebow proves what he has said all along: The best 53 guys will make his roster. It was neither a waste of time to bring in Tebow, nor was it a publicity stunt (as if Kelly wants publicity), nor was it something to buttress his image as some football genius. “There was no master plan,” Kelly said Saturday. “It was just that everybody comes in here and competes when you get here in April and we will let it play out the way it plays out.” And it did, and Tebow didn’t make it. End of story.
7. I think if there’s ever been a week we all needed to take a deep breath and say, “It’s just football, people,” it’s the one just finished. The wife of Washington GM Scot McCloughan accused a rising-star reporter at ESPN, Diana Russini, of having oral sex with McCloughan to get a story; Jessica McCloughan apologized for one of the worst Tweets (and that's saying something) in Twitter sports history. As our Emily Kaplan wrote at The MMQB, Adam Schefter had a co-byline on the story in question, and it’s funny how you never hear of men sleeping around to get stories. Then there’s the “Hire someone to murder” Roger Goodell comment from Boston TV personality Kirk Minihane last week. Joking, not joking, being outrageous ..,. whatever that was, in an incendiary climate like the one in New England, that kind of comment in any context is beyond reprehensible.
8. I think Carson Palmer has some interesting comments about football preparation.
On preparing the balls each week: “I’m meticulous with it. Our guy is awesome, [assistant equipment manager Jeff] Schwimmer. I start checking them on Tuesday and I check them every day and on Friday or Saturday, we go through every ball and check every ball. I don’t wear a glove so it really matters to me. I’m an ass about it because I like them perfect.”
On the air pressure he prefers in footballs: “The air is … we never mess with the air. Whatever is legal, he’s by the book. I never notice [if it’s 12.5 or 13.5 psi], I don’t know the difference but if it was low it would be great, obviously. The softer the ball, the easier it is to grip and throw a tighter spiral, especially if it’s wet, especially if it’s windy. If it's windy that throws a whole new angle at it. I’ll play in snow and rain but when it gets to 40- and 50-mph winds, if you can grab the ball a little bit better, it cuts the air better. If it’s rainy you can grip it a little better but between 12.5 and 13.5, I wouldn’t know.”
On Brady: “It’s been so media-overload, when stuff like that starts happening, I just can’t even turn on ESPN. Rules are the rules. If the balls were below, the balls were below. There’s a reason. If we can go out there and play with flat footballs then the game would be a little different in different weather. I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to it.”
9. I think if you have a spare $18.88, a good investment that might yield a pretty great weekend is available at Weekend With The 88s. Carolina tight end Greg Olsen wears 88, and NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. drives the number 88 car and is based in nearby Concord, N.C. If you win, you get a tour of Earnhardt’s garage and Bank of America Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 31; a helicopter ride to Earnhardt’s race on Sunday, and sideline passes and game tickets to the Panthers-Colts game in Charlotte on Monday night, Nov. 2. The fund-raiser benefits Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte, with is near to Olsen’s heart. In 2012, Olsen’s son T.J. was born with a non-functioning left side of his heart, which required surgery, and he spent 40 days getting treatment there. The hospital has been Olsen’s cause since. “Our platform is to do everything possible to help this hospital, and to help kids who have the kind of serious heart problems T.J. has,” said Olsen. “We’re fortunate that Dale cares about this cause too. It’s really an unbelievable weekend. There are so many people who like NASCAR and football—we think it’s the ultimate great sports weekend for any fan.” The raffle is open until mid-October.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Superb capper to Kent Babb’s story in the Washington Post last week about Roger Goodell, with a story about the framed “Congressional Record” from 1969 hanging on the commissioner’s office wall in New York, with a quote from his father, former Sen. Charles Goodell, against the Vietnam War: “Mr. President, the war drags on. It seems to know no end.” Sounds like a certain current scandal. Good job by Babb.
b. Took in the U.S. Open on Saturday afternoon in Queens, and for those who have never attended, I strongly recommend it be on your bucket list. Very soon. The highlights:
One: Sitting in the fourth row on one of the side courts to see the first few games of Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza, the top women’s doubles seed, coasting over some overmatched foes. Hingis still plays great.
Two: Sitting in the rafters at Arthur Ashe Stadium (the main stadium) to see Roger Federer’s mastery in a straight-sets, fairly non-competitive win.
Three: Seeing, from a distance, Novak Djokovic practicing on one of the practice courts, as a worshipful throng watched.
Four: And the best 80 minutes, by far, was watching the final two sets of a scintillating match between two players I had never heard of. Sports is about intense competition, at any level, and the match between two unseeded women, Varvara Lepchenko of the United States and Mona Barthel of Germany, was riveting. Lepchenko, a lefty, always seemed to be fighting from behind after losing the first set 6-1. She won the next two 6-3 and 6-4, but if you watched, you’d have sworn the cool Barthel was dominating and the edgy Lepchenko was going down in flames. Lepchenko screamed in frustration as one shot went long, whacked the net in frustration after another off-target shot, talked to herself intensely for some motivation, and generally wanted the win so, so bad. “I just fought and fought and fought and fought,” she told the on-court interviewer with great emotion after the match. Cool for her: This is the first time she’s ever reached the round of 16 at the Open.
Five: The scene is so fun. Food is not so good, but walking from court to court, particularly during week one, and seeing some of the lesser names battle in the biggest match some have ever played, and watching others just practice, is a great look into tennis. I don’t follow the sport much, but being immersed in it for an afternoon showed me why so many people are so into it.
Six: When a linesman in the Lepchenko match missed a clear “out” call, I said, “Man, open your eyes!” Not that loud, but audible enough that it prompted my daughter Laura, on hand for her U.S. Open debut, to say, “Daaaad!” Not much booing in tennis.
c. Jayson Stark with the MLB Factoid of the Year: Bryce Harper scored four runs Thursday for the Nationals without swinging at a pitch.
d. You can look it up. Four at-bats against Atlanta. Sixteen balls, four called strikes, four walks. Four runs and one RBI, and he never swung in 20 pitches.
e. Great read by ESPN.com’s Israel Gutierrez on a current event in his life.
f. Two Ohio University Bobcat notes, about the great school also known as Harvard on the Hocking (River) … One: OU opened the football season by trouncing the Idaho Vandals out in Moscow, 45-28. Two: Larry Neumeister, my former writing colleague at The Post, the independent Ohio student newspaper, broke the story of Richard Berman vacating the Tom Brady suspension at 10:11 a.m. ET Thursday. Those things count in the news business. Congrats to Larry, who covers courts in New York for the AP.
g. Congrats to Temple on breaking a 39-game streak of frustration against Penn State.
h. A bad day, by the way, for the Christian Hackenberg-as-top-overall-2016-pick crowd.
i. Regarding Matt Harvey and the Mets and James Andrews and the innings limit they’re fussing about: Why doesn’t Harvey have an MRI done right now, to see if his Tommy John-repaired elbow is in perfect condition? If it isn’t, then the innings limit seems wise. If the elbow looks fine, why not have a reasonable discussion about whether he should pitch as he’s normally pitching now?
j. I’m interested in hearing from an orthopedist, particularly one who has worked on pitching elbows, to see if that idea is reasonable, or malarkey.
k. Coffeenerdness: I have an important question for Tony Romo—Would a crownie go better with a latte or a macchiato?
l. Beernerdness: So how was the MMQB Saison? Really, really good. Harpoon brewer Steve Theoharides took great care to brew a classic Saison—yellow, cloudy, flavorful, with a hint of banana and clove (don’t laugh; those are great hints of tastes in a beer). I was amazed how good The MMQB Saison was, but I probably shouldn’t be. Shameless plug for Harpoon: It’s a great brewery with some great beers, and with conscientious brewers. I remember being with Theoharides when he began brewing the beers early this summer, and he had a timer with him so he knew precisely when to put in some malt. Serious business. Anyway, thanks to Theoharides and everyone at Harpoon for The MMQB Saison—and for the two Growlers of it that remain in my refrigerator this morning.
m. All those who thought Jake Arrieta would be MLB’s winningest pitcher on Labor Day, raise your hands.
o. “I’m calling it a crownie.” Tony Romo, you win. Best ad line of the year.
The Adieu Haiku
My picks stink. So don’t
get ticked if it’s Bills-Niners.
Berman Super Bowl.
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