‘An Absolute Aorta-Smasher’
From Duluth west to Moorhead, from Warroad up near the Manitoba border south to Albert Lea, on the road to Iowa, the good people of Minnesota are in pain this morning. That is nothing compared to the pain of Blair Walsh. After the worst moment of Walsh’s professional life Sunday afternoon, he answered question after question about it, for 12 minutes or so in the Vikings’ locker room. Then Walsh sat at his locker. And he started to cry, and couldn’t stop even when teammates came over and tried to tell him it’d be okay.
I texted Paul Allen, the Vikings’ fine play-by-play man who loves the franchise like few announcers love their teams, an hour after Seattle 10, Minnesota 9, and asked him if he could call me. “I cried,” he texted back.
I wanted to hear Allen’s call of the fateful play. Here it is:
“Walsh, from 27 yards, left hash … snap good, ball down …”
Allen, so anticipatory. Breathless.
“WALSH’S KICK IS UP AND IT IS … NOGOODHEMISSEDIT!!!”
Allen in stunned disbelief.
“ARE YOU KIDDING ME! THE SEASON CAN’T END LIKE THAT!!! He missed it left!”
Allen trying to take it in, words coming out like lava.
And then, reality. Professionalism. Flatlined words. Just the facts.
“And the Seattle Seahawks are off to Charlotte. Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard field goal and the Minnesota Vikings are going to lose 10 to 9.”
Sunday night, on the phone, Allen said, “It’s an absolute aorta-smasher. Do you realize before that kick, NFL kickers had attempted 191 field goals of 27 yards or less this year—and made 189 of them? That kick was a 99 percent lock. This is the kicker who led the NFL in field goals made this year. He already made three in this game. I mean, people didn’t have high expectations coming into this game, but when you’re a 27-yard kick away from advancing to play Arizona …”
“What’s worse?” I wondered. “This game or the Favre championship game six years ago?”
“The ’09 game,” Allen said. “Brett Favre in purple and gold, two minutes away from taking the Vikings to the Super Bowl? Huge. But this is second. For sure.”
* * *
Strange wild-card weekend. Four playoff games, four road wins, for the first time ever. Two games we’ll talk about all offseason, for different reasons—Seattle-Minnesota for playing in Ice Station Zebra and the big miss, and Pittsburgh-Cincinnati for showing us the good and bad (mostly bad) of rivalry football. One game, Kansas City-Houston, that reinforced the utter futility of the AFC South. And in the last game, Green Bay finding a pulse at Washington.
And so much other stuff around the NFL:
• The key to the Adam Gase hire in Miami.
• Why it’s highly unlikely Marvin Lewis is going anywhere.
• The Browns coaches did not leave happy.
• Impatient owners today versus yesterday? A myth.
• Relocation fee for the L.A. team or teams: $550 million.
• Looking more and more like two teams for Los Angeles, but no guarantee it’ll get done by the end of this week’s meeting on relocation in Houston.
• Interesting who isn’t on the NFL’s primary recommended list for coaching candidates: Patriots.
Now back to Blair Walsh’s locker.
Watching the kick over and over, it’s clear that, as in golf, bad things happen when you try too hard, and bad things happen when you try to kill the ball.
Bad things, as in hurrying your stride and hooking the ball—both of which Walsh did. The snap was fine, the hold was fine (except for the part about the laces being in the wrong place at the time of Walsh’s kick), but the kick was way left, hitting the net to the outside of the left upright. Replays showed fans in despair. Walsh wanted to get it over with, so he began to address the media as soon as they were let into the Minnesota locker room.
“It was so quick I have no idea what happened,” he said. “You have to look back at the film, but I can tell you this: It is my fault. It didn’t feel good off my foot and I kind of knew right away.”
Speculation flew that because Walsh kicked the ball on the laces, it affected the trajectory of the ball and made it fly errantly. I called a veteran special teams coach, Mike Westhoff, now retired, and asked him about it. “You’re supposed to kick with the laces facing out,” Westhoff said. “That makes the ball go straight. But on a kick that short, it's not going to affect it much. I feel terrible for Blair. He messed it up. He was fast. He hooked it, just like a golfer pulling across the ball. He just mis-hit it. A shame.”
“It is shameful,” Walsh said. “I just didn’t put a swing on it that would be acceptable by anybody’s standards. I worked real hard to get myself to a place where I was very consistent for this team all year, and in that moment, the moment they needed me the most this year, I wasn’t, and that stings. I’ll be working hard to erase that from my career, but it will take a while.”
Not much anyone can say to Walsh. He knows what his miss cost a locker room and a city, and time’s all that can help now.
There is so much happening right now
There’s never a quiet January anyway, but add to the playoffs and coaching and front-office news the fact that one or two teams could move to Los Angeles this week and you’ve got, well, too much stuff happening to give it all the space it deserves.
So here I go, short-shrifting lots of interesting items in the news.
News item: If you’ve got a spare $550 million, the NFL will let you move your team. League owners met last week with the three teams interested in moving to Los Angeles—the Chargers, Raiders and Rams—and began to iron out the real-life details of moving … where they’d practice, outfitting the Coliseum for a couple of transient seasons, agreeing not to sue the league if your team was not allowed to move, etc. Teams were also informed of a projected franchise relocation fee. That projected fee: $550 million, which would be allowed to be repaid at a rate of $64.5 million for 10 straight years. (Which, of course, includes interest.) Put that in perspective thusly: Fourteen years ago Arthur Blank bought a team, the Falcons, for $545 million. This week, one or two owners would commit to move a team for $550 million. (I say “projected” because we’re living in changing times, and nothing’s final until it’s final. But that’s the anticipated fee teams are expecting to have to pay if they get approval to move.)
News item: The NFL seems likely to move ahead with a plan to put two teams in Los Angeles, with the Chargers heavy favorites to be one. So many complications. San Diego owner Dean Spanos wants badly to move to Carson, where the Chargers would either be a lone team or a partner with another one. The Chargers do not want to be Stan Kroenke’s tenant in Inglewood. There are a number of ways this could go when the full ownership meets in Houston beginning Tuesday. I still think the most likely scenario is the Chargers and Rams moving to Los Angeles, with one of the most golden of parachutes being set up for the Raiders to return to Oakland with the makings of a sweet stadium deal for them in the East Bay. “Whoever is not going to Los Angeles,” said one official familiar with the league’s thinking, “will be generously taken care of. The league will create a safety net for that team.”
News item: About that Adam Jones penalty in Cincinnati ... Steelers linebackers coach Joey Porter, who caused the crucial unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty on Jones to happen in the final seconds Saturday night, should not have been on the field at the time. The league allows medical personnel and the head coach to be on the field; the reason Porter wasn’t shooed away, I am told, is that there was real concern for Antonio Brown as he lay on the ground after the hit from Vontaze Burfict that generated the first 15-yard flag on the play. Without the flag on Jones, the Steelers would have been at the Cincinnati 32 with no timeouts and 18 seconds left. With the flag on Jones, they were in position to try a 35-yard field goal by Chris Boswell. It was good, and Pittsburgh won 18-16.
So, two issues here: Porter, from replays, was hanging around the Cincinnati defensive players at one point, which absolutely should have been policed by the officiating crew on hand. One former coach who faced Porter and the Steelers several times said Sunday he was one of the best players in the league at saying incendiary things to opponents and hoping they’d pop off and get a penalty. After the game, Jones told Mike Silver of NFL Network: “He ain't supposed to be on the [expletive] field! He was talking all kinds of [expletive], yelling at [Burfict], saying, ‘You a dirty son of a b---- ... Take your b---- a-- out of here ...’ ”
When Jones tried to get at Porter—stupidly, of course—Jones jostled field judge Buddy Horton, who threw the flag on him. If Porter was doing the trolling that Jones described on the field, he should have been flagged first, because he wasn’t supposed to be out there in the first place. But Jones, in that situation, had to be smart enough to walk away, and he wasn’t. The league has been telling officials to cut down on the offsetting penalties, to flag the instigator in cases where the two sides are both wrong. In this case, if Jones is correct in what he says about Porter, I believe Porter got away with instigating this.
News item: So many other things from the Cincinnati debacle. I don’t see Cincinnati owner Mike Brown firing Marvin Lewis. Brown is not a knee-jerk owner; he’s more likely to be content with making the playoffs for five straight years for the first time in franchise history than he is to be in a firing mood because his team imploded at the end of this game. Remember that Lewis is the kind of coach Brown wants. The Bengals take chances on incendiary devices like Burfict, and Lewis keeps the lid on them (mostly) and gets production out of them.
But the deal with the devil blew up in their faces in the final minute Saturday, with Burfict’s cheap-shot penalty inciting the mob scene … Burfict was already on notice from the league for a worse hit on Maxx Williams of the Ravens away from the ball in Week 17. I will be stunned if Burfict is not suspended for at least one game at the start of the 2016 season … No NFL team has such a drought in playoff wins as Cincinnati does. The Bengals last won a playoff game in 1990. Here’s how long ago that was: The playoff win was over the Houston Oilers. The next week, in Los Angeles, Bo Jackson suffered a hip injury that ended his football career and led to the end of his athletic career.
News item: The Browns are not one big happy family. In their closing meeting with team brass, the outgoing Cleveland staff was told the team would not foot the bill for them to network and try to get jobs at the Senior Bowl. And the coaches were told they would not be allowed to purchase their two Super Bowl tickets, a perk of being an NFL player or coach, which they were under the impression they’d be allowed to do. So when those two bits of information were dropped on the coaches, most of whom have one more year left on their contracts, they were not pleased.
The Browns have many issues as they look for a new coach and general manager while building an organizational structure different from that of any other team. I’ve talked to many people around the league in the last few days about Cleveland’s hiring of club attorney Sashi Brown as the executive vice president of football operations and Paul DePodesta as chief strategy officer of the team. The overriding thought, as expressed by one veteran personnel executive: “They better be absolutely sure they find a coach and GM who buy into the culture they’re building there, or this will be another Cleveland train wreck. Personally I think it’s innovative and pretty smart. But it only works if the coach you’re bringing in is open-minded.”
Update, Monday, 12:45 p.m.: Over the weekend, the Browns informed the coaches that they would indeed be allowed their normal allotment of two Super Bowl tickets. Nothing has changed regarding the Senior Bowl trip, but the coaches now have their Super Bowl tickets.
News item: Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia, New England’s coordinators, are not on the league committee’s primary list of head-coaching candidates. In an effort to provide owners and front offices seeking head coaches the kind of information headhunting firms might provide, the league in 2013 established an eight-member committee that annually puts out a list of coaching and GM candidates. The list is designed to bring new names to the table and also highlight coaches the committee feels strongly would be good candidates. This year eyebrows were raised when offensive coordinator McDaniels of the Patriots wasn’t on the list; nor was the defensive coordinator, Patricia, though he wasn’t thought to be as strong a candidate as McDaniels. For some owners—Miami’s Stephen Ross for one—the exclusion of McDaniels was noted (the Dolphins hired one of the coaches on the committee’s list, former Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase).
Some other teams aren’t concerned with the list. McDaniels was 11-17 in his one head-coaching trial in Denver, and has returned to New England to head up one of the best offenses in football. McDaniels did make a shorter “secondary” list. Those on the primary list: former head coaches Hue Jackson, Tom Cable and Doug Marrone; Gase; current assistants Mike Shula, Sean McDermott, Vic Fangio and Teryl Austin; and college coaches David Shaw, Kevin Sumlin and Kirk Ferentz. In the three years I’ve nosed around about this list, the McDaniels absence was the most talked-about exclusion. The committee, I’m told, thought McDaniels was already notable enough and didn’t need the boost of a league group to push his cause. But Gase had more previous interviews than McDaniels and was considered the “hot guy” entering this postseason. It’s more likely that the head-coaching track records of previous Bill Belichick aides (which isn’t great) affected the McDaniels and Patricia decisions.
The divisional round: I see zero locks
We’ve just finished the first playoff weekend in NFL history in which all four road teams won. And though I can’t see it happening again this weekend—Arizona can’t lose to the resurgent Pack, right?—I think we could go four-for-four for competitive games. The matchups:
No. 5 Kansas City (12-5) at No. 2 New England (12-4), 4:35 p.m. ET (CBS)
Intriguing game. The Chiefs have won 11 straight, by an average of 16.4 points, while New England finished the season on a downer, losing four of six. It looked like New England was coasting to the finish line, though; the Patriots’ Week 17 game against Miami was one of the strangest attempts at barely trying in a regular season game in years. The offensive line needs to be better, and healthier, for the Patriots to make a seventh Super Bowl in the Belichick/Brady Era. But the K.C. Express might be flawed in Foxboro. Jeremy Maclin, who has 90 catches this year, suffered a high ankle sprain in the win over the Triple-A Texans, and it’s not known if he’ll play. Lucky for Alex Smith that young receivers Chris Conley and Albert Wilson are becoming impact players. Smith will need Conley and Wilson to make plays if Kansas City is to have a chance to make its first AFC title game in 22 years.
No. 5 Green Bay (11-6) at No. 2 Arizona (13-3), 8:15 p.m. ET (NBC)
New life for the Packers. Did you see how many times FOX caught Aaron Rodgers smiling Sunday evening at Washington? I mean, “one” would have been a massive increase over recent weeks. Sunday was the first time all season that Randall Cobb and Davante Adams scored touchdowns in the same game, and Green Bay had two rushing touchdowns too. Also notable was the amount of TV time the young defensive backs got against Kirk Cousins. Green Bay opened in nickel and played nine defensive backs in the game. Expect more of the same in Arizona on Saturday night. When the two teams met in Glendale two weeks ago, Arizona built a 31-0 lead after 26 minutes and generally had its way with the Packers. The Cardinals have so many weapons, and rested ones. But the trip to Landover breathed life into Rodgers, and I expect the game to be much more competitive than the last meeting.
No. 6 Seattle (11-6) at No. 1 Carolina (15-1), 1:05 p.m. ET (FOX)
Four regular-season meetings between the Pete Carroll Seahawks and the Ron Rivera Panthers. Seattle by 4 in 2012. Seattle by 5 in 2013. Seattle by 4 in 2014. Carolina by 4 this season. What’s always interesting in a divisional-round game is how the two teams enter in different states. Seattle comes off an emotional firestorm of a North Pole game in Minnesota, then travels for a second straight game at 10 a.m. PT. Carolina has been able to get extra rest for Ted Ginn Jr. (knee), who missed Week 17, and with two of the top four corners (Bene Benwikere and Charles Tillman) out for the year, Josh Norman and Cortland Finnegan will have to be every-down factors against Russell Wilson. Wilson versus Cam Newton should be appointment TV for the next decade in the NFL, and the best man will be the winner Sunday.
No. 6 Pittsburgh (11-6) at No. 1 Denver (12-4), 4:40 p.m. (CBS)
Speaking of beat-up teams, we give you the Pittsburgh Steelers, who enter the week with their three most important offensive players in uncertain physical condition. Ben Roethlisberger (shoulder) told offensive coordinator Todd Haley not to call any deep passes when he re-entered Saturday night’s prize fight with the Bengals, and though no one can imagine Roethlisberger sitting out the Denver game, he won’t be healthy for it. Antonio Brown is in the concussion protocol, though he told teammates he was fine in the locker room Saturday night. And DeAngelo Williams (right foot sprain) is iffy. Peyton Manning, on the other side, was extremely lucky to get the extra rehab time on a plantar-fascia-addled foot that still vexes him. Any game that might be Peyton Manning’s last is must-see TV—and I have no idea if he’ll play next year or not, but at 39 with the kind of physical problems Manning has had, you always have to think a January game could be his last. I think this game turns on Roethlisberger’s ability to cut it loose. The Broncos are a terrific run-defense team, so if the Steelers can’t use their deep threats, it’s hard to imagine them making enough plays to win.
* * *
Three questions with Adam Gase
The Dolphins started the coaching dominos falling Saturday, naming the former Denver and Chicago offensive coordinator their head coach. Gase’s experience coaching—in succession—Tim Tebow (as quarterbacks coach), Peyton Manning (as quarterbacks coach and coordinator) and Jay Cutler (as coordinator) was a big factor, with Ryan Tannehill there to be salvaged in Miami. “He demonstrated to us [during the coaching interview] what really is the essence of coaching,” said Dolphins executive vice president Mike Tannenbaum, who ran the coaching search. “His ability to have the emotional IQ to understand that players need to be coached differently, and his results doing that, was an important factor for us.”
We’ll start there with Gase, who spoke from South Florida late Saturday:
The MMQB: You’ve gotten a reputation of forming your offense around the players you have, not vice versa. Was that an important part in your getting this job?
Gase: “I believe it’s about the players, not the scheme. Doing what’s best for the players, developing the players, developing the team. For me, that goes back to being with [former Denver coach] Josh McDaniels, on that staff. Every week was a different week. The time I spent with Josh, that’s where it really hit me that it’s always about what’s best for this week, winning this game with this group of players—whatever you have to do. That is the fun part of coaching. You get to create, and I love the creativity part of the profession. You can create the foundation, but then I want to coach a team that’s fluid, to put guys in the best position possible to win every week. I’m pretty sure that’s a big reason why the guy who’s been on top of the division for so long [New England’s Bill Belichick] stays there.”
The MMQB: No one doubts your offensive acumen, but you’re a fairly mild-mannered guy, and I’ve heard that affected some teams’ opinions of you as you’ve interviewed. Can you command a room?
Gase: “That would be a good question for the people who interviewed me. Josh gave me an opportunity [in 2009] to present in front of our offense … I was the third-down guy. I did that more and more since then. In 2013 and 2014, as coordinator in Denver, I had a pretty high-profile group to be in charge of. Sometimes what you see publicly is different than what’s happening behind closed doors. I feel I bring a passion, an attitude you can’t fake. What goes on in most of what I do in this job, you haven’t had a chance to see.”
The MMQB: Your next project will be Ryan Tannehill. Can you help him become consistently good?
Gase: “I keep an eye on quarterbacks around the league, and one thing I remember thinking going into this season is that every year I saw him get progressively better. We saw the numbers getting better each year. This season it didn’t work out that way. We’ll go back and evaluate this as an offensive staff and personnel department. What can we do to help him maximize his strengths? That will be our process the entire spring.”
Very interesting point regarding Tannehill from Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald on Sunday: Salguero reported former Dolphins coach Joe Philbin had soured so much on Tannehill before the 2014 season that he favored taking Derek Carr high in the draft. I get the sense that Philbin wasn’t alone in the organization.
* * *
‘I did not know that!’ (Johnny Carson voice)
We take for granted that owners have a much itchier trigger finger with head coaches today than they did yesterday. The Browns are in the midst of hiring what will be their sixth head coach since 2008. The Bucs change coaches every 10 minutes or so, and it’s not a normal post-season if the Raiders aren’t searching for a coach; they’ve had nine since the turn of the century.
So I wanted to see just how knee-jerk owners have become; it’s fashionable to say coaches today have only two years to win before they’ll be judged and perhaps fired, while maybe 30 years ago owners had real patience.
It’s just not so.
I measured two 16-season eras—1976-1991 and 2000-2015—to see how roughly a generation in the life of the NFL teams compared in coaching patience. I did not count interim coaches, and I did not include the teams that have hired/will hire a coach in 2016. This is what I found:
*The Texans did not commence play until 2003, so they were excluded from this exercise. Houston has had four coaches in its 13-year existence.
That’s an increase, surely, going from an average of 3.93 coaches per team in a 16-year period starting 40 years ago to 4.23 coaches per team between 2000 and 2015. But it’s hardly an overwhelming surge in hiring-and-firing. In fact, the increase of 7.6 percent in the number of coaches per franchise from yesterday’s era to today’s is notable, but not what any of us would have thought. I’d have guessed around 25-30 percent.
But it goes to show you, I think, that owners of prior generations were almost as impatient as owners today. For instance, San Francisco, in five straight seasons beginning in 1975, had five different coaches on opening day: Dick Nolan (1975), Monte Clark (1976), Ken Meyer (1977), Pete McCulley (1978), Bill Walsh (1979). (Now there’s a good sports trivia question for you: Everyone knows Bill Walsh was the Niners’ coach to open the 1979 season; who was the coach to open 1978?)
But the trend here is that there really isn’t much of a trend. Buffalo: six coaches from 1976 to 91, and seven so far this century. The Jets, Cardinals and Falcons: five and five. The Chargers and Rams: four and four. Some teams have been schizophrenic, though. Cleveland had five coaches in the first era, and this month will hire its eighth. Oakland: four and nine.
And we’ve seen the iconic ones in both eras. Miami: one (Don Shula) from 1976 to ’91, five this century. New England: six from 1976 to ’91; one (Bill Belichick) this century.
Just some food for thought, that things aren’t always what they seem.
* * *
My All-Pro ballot
Below is the ballot I filed to the Associated Press as one of the voters for the annual All-Pro team. (Note: I vote for one left tackle and one right tackle, instead of the best two tackles regardless of position; same thing at guard. Also, the AP asks for two running backs and a fullback, but I vote for one running back only, because teams don’t play two running backs at once with much regularity.)
WR: Julio Jones, Atlanta; Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh.
TE: Rob Gronkowski, New England.
T: Joe Thomas, Cleveland; Zach Strief, New Orleans.
G: Richie Incognito, Buffalo; Marshal Yanda, Baltimore.
C: Ryan Kalil, Carolina.
QB: Carson Palmer, Arizona.
RB: Adrian Peterson, Minnesota.
FB: Mike Tolbert, Carolina.
K: Stephen Gostkowski, New England.
P: Johnny Hekker, St. Louis.
KR: Tyler Lockett, Seattle
DE: J.J. Watt, Houston; Michael Bennett, Seattle.
DT: Aaron Donald, St. Louis; Kawann Short, Carolina.
OLB: Khalil Mack, Oakland; Jamie Collins, New England.
ILB: Luke Kuechly, Carolina; Deone Bucannon, Arizona.
CB: Josh Norman, Carolina; Richard Sherman, Seattle.
S: Reggie Nelson, Cincinnati; Harrison Smith, Minnesota.
Most Valuable Player: Cam Newton, Carolina.
Offensive Player: Cam Newton, QB, Carolina
Defensive Player: J.J. Watt, DL, Houston.
Coach of the Year: Ron Rivera, Carolina.
Assistant Coach of the Year: Josh McDaniels, New England.
Comeback Player: Eric Berry, safety, Kansas City.
Offensive Rookie: Tyler Lockett, WR, Seattle.
Defensive Rookie: Marcus Peters, CB, Kansas City.
* * *
Quotes of the Week
“If Marvin Lewis can’t control his players, then maybe Marvin Lewis shouldn’t be on the sidelines coaching that dreck.”
—CBS’ Boomer Esiason, on the network postgame show Saturday night.
“Bengals beat Bengals.”
—Cincinnati defensive end Carlos Dunlap, after Cincinnati beat Cincinnati Saturday night, to Kim Jones of NFL Network.
“It was dire. We kind of looked at each other and said, ‘It’s now or never.’”
—Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, on Ben Roethlisberger re-entering the game after missing three series in the fourth quarter with an injured shoulder. After the Steelers called one downfield pass on the winning series for the Steelers, Roethlisberger relayed this message to the sideline: “Coach, you can’t do that anymore. I can’t throw it that far.”
“Marshawn Lynch, are you on board? Raise your hand if you are.”
—Flight attendant on a Saturday Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle to Minneapolis, according to Danny O’Neil of 710-ESPN Seattle.
No hand got raised.
“Cut the cord.”
—Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian on what he’d do if he had to make a decision whether to keep troubled quarterback Johnny Manziel, on SiriusXM NFL Radio.
“Eli, it’s not you. It’s not you. It’s us. We win, we lose together. When we lose, I lose. When we win, you guys win. That’s the way it is. That’s the game. I know what it is. I got the game. I got it.”
—Tom Coughlin, who resigned as Giants coach last week, in his press conference announcing his departure, to Eli Manning in the audience, trying to absolve him of the blame for the Giants going 6-10 in back-to-back seasons and getting the coach fired.
“Any NFL Club that signs on to this proposal in St. Louis will be well on the road to financial ruin.”
—The St. Louis Rams’ proposal, submitted to the league, explaining why, in part, the franchise should be allowed to move to Los Angeles and not accept a new stadium deal in St. Louis.
“Financial ruin and the NFL don't seem relevant in the same sentence. Especially when more than $400 million is being offered in public support and the eighth best stadium naming rights deal was secured for you. It was actually an astonishing statement to read.”
—Dave Peacock, chairman of the task force trying to build a new stadium for an NFL team in St. Louis, on Sunday.
“Turn and face the strange
“Oh look out now you rock and rollers
“Pretty soon now you’re gonna get older.”
—David Bowie, from his song “Changes.”
Bowie, 69, died on Sunday after an 18-month battle with cancer. His publicist announced the death early this morning.
If you’re out long enough at a bar with a jukebox with music from my era on it, a Bowie song will come on. And you’ll enjoy it.
* * *
The Award Section
OFFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Aaron Rodgers, quarterback, Green Bay. He’s had better statistical days than 21 of 36 for 210 yards and two touchdowns with no picks. But the Packers went punt-safety-punt-punt on their first four possessions at Washington and trailed 11-0 in the second quarter. This season was going down the drain, and fast. Over the next 30 minutes of game time, Rodgers led 80-, 60-, 80- and 76-yard touchdown drives, and the Packers not only survived a game they were on the way to losing but also dominated it—and Rodgers had his game back.
DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Ryan Shazier, linebacker, Pittsburgh. This game reminded every fan of Shazier entering the 2014 draft—and there were many in draft rooms around the league—why they loved him. He had 13 tackles and was important in holding the Bengals without a point for the first three quarters. He had two forced fumbles that the Steelers recovered, including the season-saver, stripping Jeremy Hill in the final two minutes, starting the Steelers on the game-winning field-goal drive. His sideline-to-sideline play-making in this game was as good as in any in his two-year career.
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Steve Hauschka, kicker, Seattle. One of the game’s best playoff kickers, Hauschka hit his 14th field goal in 14 career playoff attempts … and this one had very big meaning. With the temperature three-below zero and the winds blowing across the field, Hauschka booted the go-ahead field goal in the Seahawks’ 10-9 win over Minnesota.
Knile Davis, running back/kick returner, Kansas City. He certainly started the playoffs with a bang. On the first play of Saturday’s wild-card game at Houston, Davis silenced the crowd by slicing through the Texans’ special teams for a 106-yard kick return for touchdown—the first Kansas City special-teams touchdown of the year and the longest non-Super Bowl touchdown in NFL playoff history. A rewarding moment for Davis, and one of the best special-teams coaches in recent history, Dave Toub of the Chiefs. But poor coverage by the Texans contributed for sure. Davis was gone by the time he got to the Kansas City 25.
COACH OF THE WEEK
Bob Sutton, defensive coordinator, Kansas City. He wasn’t the most popular choice when Andy Reid named the 62-year-old Sutton his defensive boss in 2013. But Sutton, the former head coach at Army, pitched a shutout at Houston on Saturday, and his unit took the ball away five times in 12 possessions. It’s a credit to him that his unit has been so stout during the Chiefs’ 11-game winning streak, allowing just 11.6 points per game.
GOATS OF THE WEEK
Blair Walsh, kicker, Minnesota. I feel pretty lousy kicking the man when he’s down. Especially after Walsh was perfect on 22-, 43- and 47-yard field goals on a day with a wind chill well below zero. Born in Boca Raton and schooled in Fort Lauderdale and Athens, Ga., Walsh did great Sunday … until the 60th minute of the game, when he yanked a 27-yard attempt that would have won the game and sent the Vikings to the divisional round. “I cried,” said Vikings play-by-play man Paul Allen. I get the feeling he wasn’t alone in Minneapolis-St. Paul on Sunday afternoon.
Vontaze Burfict, linebacker, Cincinnati. He went from hero to goat with one ridiculously flagrant hit to the helmet of defenseless Antonio Brown on the decisive drive of the wild-card game Saturday night. Burfict’s unnecessary-roughness penalty with 18 seconds left put the Steelers in range for the winning field goal, and Adam Jones’ additional personal foul in the ensuing melee made Chris Boswell’s winning kick the equivalent, basically, of an extra point. Burfict had been having one of the best games of his life, with a crucial sack of Ben Roethlisberger, a pick of replacement Landry Jones and a forced fumble. But the hit on Brown ruined it.
Jeremy Hill, running back, Cincinnati. All Hill has to do in the final 100 seconds, with a 16-15 lead at the Steelers 26, is hold onto the ball with both hands and try to get a few yards to kill the clock and force Pittsburgh to use all its timeouts. Hill failed. He was stripped by Ryan Shazier. “Inexcusable,” said Hill. “I thought I had it tucked pretty tight.” The rest is tortured Bengals history.
Brian Hoyer, quarterback, Houston. In a game that was winnable for Houston, Hoyer handed it to the Chiefs. He turned it over four times in the first half—three interceptions (two horrendous ones, as though the Chief defender was the intended receiver) and one strip/fumble in the pocket—leading to the 13-0 halftime lead for Kansas City. It almost got worse on the first series of the third quarter, when Hoyer threw a catchable interception that Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith dropped. Hoyer had five turnovers for the game, adding a fourth pick in the second half. As much as it will pain Texans coach Bill O’Brien to do, this game will drive Houston into full quarterback-search mode in free agency and the draft.
Stats of the Week
We cannot, or should not anyway, leave the 2015 season without noting the incredible play of New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees for such an extended period of years. Three statistical points to be made, and it’s a good time to make them, because Brees’ future is slightly uncertain; with a $30 million cap number for 2016 (19 percent of the projected salary cap), and with a huge amount of work needed on the defense to make New Orleans playoff-caliber again, it’s no sure thing Brees will be a Saint in 2016. And it’s a good time to put Brees’ run in perspective, because he just finished his 10th year with the Saints. He arrived in New Orleans in free agency from San Diego in 2006 with a wounded right shoulder, having just had reconstructive shoulder surgery after the 2005 season. That makes what was to come all the more amazing. Five points that illustrate to some degree that the game is changing:
• When Brees arrived in New Orleans in 2006, there’d been one 5,000-yard passing season in the first 86 seasons of NFL history (Dan Marino, 1984). Brees surpassed 5,000 four times in his first eight years with the Saints.
• Before 2006, the NFL had seen 26 quarterbacks throw for 4,300 yards passing in a season. Brees exceeded 4,300 in all 10 Saints’ seasons.
• Fran Tarkenton retired in 1978 after playing 18 seasons, and when he did he held the record for career NFL passing yards, with 47,003. That record stood for 17 years. Brees, in 10 seasons in New Orleans, threw for 48,555 yards.
• Tarkenton, 18 years: 342 touchdown passes. Brees, 10 years in New Orleans: 348.
• Dan Marino’s best 10-year run of touchdown passes (1983-92): 290. Brees, 2006-15: 348.
It is noteworthy that in his 10 seasons in New Orleans, Brees has averaged 39.7 passes per game. Marino averaged 34.5 per game for his career, and Tarkenton 26.3. So that certainly plays a major role in the big Brees numbers. But I still find them remarkable, for any era. Whatever the future holds, Brees—for what he did on the field and off, for being such a crusader for post-Katrina New Orleans—deserves a permanent place in the hearts of the sports fans of New Orleans, and for the people there (I’m guessing seven or eight) who don’t live and die with the Saints.
This note was prompted by something Mike Florio said on the NBC pregame show Sunday, and I’ll flesh it out a little further: It’s very likely we’re seeing the end of the Marshawn Lynch Era in Seattle, and the nascent years of Thomas Rawls. Here’s a very good reason why—other than the fact that Lynch and Seahawk brass have a poor relationship—we’ll likely see Lynch elsewhere in 2016, if he continues to play:
|Running Back||Age in ’16||’16 Cap Number||Games Played|
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Factoids of the Week That May Interest Only Me
I don’t want to rain on anyone’s playoff fun this morning, but I’ve always found the system of NFL playoff shares to be ridiculous.
This is an extreme example, but a real one: For playing in a wild-card playoff game Saturday night, all-world wide receiver A.J. Green of the Bengals made 3.6 percent of what he made for a regular-season game in 2015.
You can look it up. Green’s 2015 base salary was $11.75 million. He gets 17 weekly paychecks, so per week, he’s making $691,176.
For players on a division winning team (as Cincinnati was), the wild-card week payment is $25,000.
Hmmm: $691,176 per game in the regular year; $25,000 for what is Cincy’s biggest game of the year at the time.
Now that’s fair.
Of all the ways the owners in the NFL have a huge advantage over the players, playoff compensation is far and away one of the most egregious.
The Wall Street Journal reports that there have been 20 newborn babies given the name “Saban” in Alabama since 2007.
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Tweets of the Week
The Vikings are handing out window scrapers in the press box. So, yeah, cold.— Greg Bishop (@GregBishopSI) January 10, 2016
Texans are like puppies. So excited to be here and can't help but pee all over the carpet.— John McClain (@McClain_on_NFL) January 9, 2016
KARMA is a ?????— Donald Penn (@DPENN70) January 7, 2016
The former Tampa Bay tackle was let go by the Bucs in 2014, when Lovie Smith took over as coach.
@SI_PeterKing with the 2nd pick in the 2016 NFL Draft the Cleveland Browns select Kevin Youkilis the "Greek god of Walks— The Dande-Lion (@kevinkujo2) January 6, 2016
A fan, riffing on the Browns’ selection of longtime baseball analytics guru Paul DePodesta to be the team’s chief strategy officer. DePodesta used to work for the Oakland A’s and GM Billy Beane, who once dubbed minor-league infielder Kevin Youkilis “the Greek God of walks,” with walks and on-base percentage being a very desirable trait in the A’s system at the time.
I still don't get why some fans crave Peyton Manning being guilty of HGH use so much. It's like it consumes them. I don't understand it.— Frank Schwab (@YahooSchwab) January 8, 2016
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Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think this is what I liked about the wild-card round:
a. Bud Grant, going out for the coin flip before Seahawks-Vikes in a short-sleeve polo shirt … on a day with minus-6 temperatures.
b. Michele Tafoya’s outdoor wardrobe in Minnesota, which included a back-warmer and thermal ear protectors. I didn’t know either of those were actually manufactured.
c. Richard Sherman’s underrated physicality.
d. Great tackle by Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes on Christine Michael in the open field … roadblocking what could have been a 20-yard run.
e. Seattle safety Earl Thomas making a great play to disrupt what would have been a long gain by Jerick McKinnon.
f. The broken play-turned-34-yard gain for Seattle in the fourth quarter. Just an amazing recovery and play by Russell Wilson.
g. Bruce Irvin and Jeremy Lane, with huge plays on the Vikings’ second-to-last drive of the fourth quarter, forcing Minnesota to punt.
h. The 48-yard net punt by Minnesota punter Jeff Locke with 2:13 left in the game, in the Minnesota freezer.
i. The ridiculous one-handed twisting catch by Doug Baldwin.
j. Jordan Reed’s one-handed catch, not as spectacular, but still really good … soon to be followed by the perfect post pattern he ran for a touchdown.
k. Preston Smith. He is the NFL’s most underrated rookie defender.
l. Green Bay’s goal-line stand in the first quarter, keeping close what seemed like was about to become a lost cause.
m. The Steelers’ ability to play away from Heinz Field when it counts. Over the past 28 days, Pittsburgh went 3-1 in division games on the road—Dec. 13: Steelers 23, Bengals 20; Dec. 27: Ravens 20, Steelers 17; Jan. 3: Steelers 28, Browns 12; Jan. 9: Steelers 18, Bengals 16.
n. The Martavis Bryant touchdown catch. My lord … how’d he do that? How’d he catch the ball from behind and hang onto it while doing a flip?
o. Ryan Shazier with the great strip in the final minutes to give life to the Steelers.
p. Adam Jones, always a dangerous punt returner, with his 24-yard return with 3:24 left.
q. Former NFL scout Dan Hatman on the life of the NFL GM in 2016, and the candidates you should know.
r. Way to upend Travis Kelce on a perfect legs-over-head tackle, Johnathan Joseph.
s. Speaking of Kelce, the Chiefs’ tight end, what a weapon he is. He was Gronk-like Saturday, with a game-high eight catches for a game-high 128 receiving yards.
t. Houston’s Whitney Mercilus, with three sacks of Alex Smith, giving him 6.5 sacks in the past two games … one of Houston’s very few bright spots.
u. Heck of a throw and catch by Alex Smith and rookie Chris Conley, the nine-yard third-quarter touchdown laser that iced the game for the Chiefs. Hard to believe Conley was able to hold on to that dart.
v. The 13-tackle, one-pick game for Houston linebacker Brian Cushing, who’s been waiting to have a playoff game like that.
w. Allen Bailey, the forgotten Chief, with two sacks of Brian Hoyer. Every playoff team needs good players like Bailey to supplement the very good ones.
2. I think this is what I didn’t like about the wild-card round:
a. The crushing disappointment for Minnesotans. I just can’t imagine what it must be like to be a Vikings fan this morning.
b. DeSean Jackson not getting in for the touchdown in the first quarter against Green Bay. A receiver has to know the rules, and know he needs to either have the ball break the plane of the goal line or get a foot in the end zone. Jackson did neither, and that, plus a bad goal-line offensive series, cost Washington four very big points.
c. Washington’s coverage on the Aaron Rodgers-to-Davante Adams touchdown pass late in the first quarter. Nonexistent.
d. Seattle long-snapper Clint Gresham cost the Seahawks three points with a low punt snap in the first quarter. It turned into a Blair Walsh field goal.
e. Seattle’s handling of the play clock throughout the first half.
f. Adrian Peterson’s eighth fumble of the season (and 41st of his career), in the fourth quarter, with the Vikings trying to hold on to a 9-7 lead. Inexcusable.
g. Holding onto the ball is such an Achilles heel for Peterson. It’s such a major pockmark on an otherwise great career.
h. The pass-interference call on Kam Chancellor in the final minute. Just didn’t see it.
i. AJ McCarron for three quarters.
j. The Bengals crowd, for throwing items at Ben Rosethlisberger when he was injured and being carted from the field with his shoulder injury in the second half. Disgraceful.
k. The penalty on Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak on the sideline. It wasn’t a penalty.
l. A.J. Green not being on the field for the Bengals’ vital two-point conversion try with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter.
m. I don’t want to jump on Jadeveon Clowney when he’s down, but you know that line about how 80 percent of life is showing up? The Texans have played 33 games since drafting Clowney first overall in 2014, and Clowney has suited up for 17 of the 33. I guess Clowney figured he was healthy enough to play Saturday and left the stadium in a huff when he found out he was inactive. Okay, let’s give him that one. If he’d dressed, it’d have been 18 of 33. He’s got to figure out a way to stay on the field, obviously. With 4.5 sacks in his first two seasons, all the geniuses out there are readying the “B” word for Clowney. Readying, I said, because it’s way too early to call him a bust.
n. Oooof on that eight-inches-too-far overthrow by Alex Smith that would have made K.C.-Houston 14-0 after seven minutes.
o. Lord, who was Brian Hoyer throwing to on that first-quarter pick? What an awful throw.
p. Texans: five quarterback turnovers, five punts.
q. Deion Sanders. Come on, Deion. Of the Vontaze Burfict hit that concussed Antonio Brown, Sanders said on NFL Network: “He tried not to give him a head shot.”
r. Burfict gets no benefit of the doubt from me, particularly after seeing that video of his bush-league hit on Maxx Williams of the Ravens in Week 17.
3. I think now we’ll get to see how much Houston coach Bill O’Brien really likes Christian Hackenberg, the quarterback he recruited to Penn State and coached in Nittany Valley before taking the Texans job. Houston picks 21st in the 2016 NFL draft. Hackenberg, who had a very mixed two seasons after O’Brien left Penn State, could well be available when the Texans select
4. I think the word on the coaching circuit is that Jon Gruden would have listened, very earnestly, if the Indianapolis job came open.
5. I think the one vivid image I have from the last week in football is this: walking through the Pro Football Hall of Fame last Wednesday before the announcement of the 15 modern-era finalists for the Class of 2016 with Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith, and seeing him look around at the busts and some of the exhibits. He stopped in front of a Jim Brown display to stare, almost dreamily. I asked: “How does it feel to you now, walking through here, knowing you’re on the same team with a guy like Jim Brown?” Smith just shook his head. “Unbelievable,” he said. “I still can’t believe I’m in here. It’s surreal. It’s just …” and that was it.
Don’t get Smith wrong: the all-time leader in sacks knows he deserves to be one of the 295 men with busts in Canton; it’s just that when he’s in the building, it’s still awe-inspring to him. One other point I found interesting, talking to him: Smith spent two full days in Utah at the studio of the man who created his bronze bust for the Hall. That’s how important it was to him—he wanted the bust to be exactly him.
6. I think it could be an offensive year for the Hall of Fame: Ten offensive players, three defensive players and two coaches are on the list of 15 finalists. The most glaring omission, I thought, was left tackle Tony Boselli of Jacksonville, whose career was cut short by shoulder injuries. I’m not positive Boselli should be enshrined, but I certainly believe his case should be heard. For five years in the late ’90s, I thought he was the best left tackle in football—better, for a short period anyway, than Jonathan Ogden and Orlando Pace. What hurts him, obviously, is having played 91 games. But his 90 starts are three more than center Dwight Stephenson had for Miami; Stephenson made it as the best center for a four- or five-year period. His career was also cut short by injury.
7. I think there were so many good football stories this week that I’ve got to create space for you to read them all:
a. This, from The MMQB’s Robert Mays, tells you how the passing game is changing before your eyes, with seven of the top eight teams in yards per pass play reaching the postseason—and chucking it deeper than teams have in years. Bruce Arians on Carson Palmer: “There are times when it’s like third-and-three, and we’ll have a choice route [a shorter route] wide open, and he’s taking a shot down the field. It’s usually right on the money and we’re completing it, so I can only bitch for a second.”
b. This, from The MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas, is a reasoned, emotion-free look at why Alex Smith is actually good, whether you think so or not.
c. Tom Brady’s agent, Don Yee, wrote a smart column for the Washington Post that will make you think about why the athletes in tonight’s NCAA college football championship game are getting ripped off. Yee writes that the “enormous flow of cash is carefully kept away from football and basketball players, but coaches, administrators and other staff members get to bathe in it.” Good line. Seems like a matter of time before Alabama and Clemson players, and others, get paid.
d. This well-written gem from Masslive.com’s Kevin Duffy, about former Hoffman Air & Filtration engineer Matt Patricia, who sold multistage centrifugal blowers to wastewater treatment plants. Oh, and then he became a candidate to be an NFL head coach. It’s a great story about New England’s fairly educated defensive coordinator.
e. SI’s baseball writer extraordinaire Tom Verducci weighing in on someone he knows well, Paul DePodesta, the longtime baseball analytics guy hired by the Browns to try to turn around a woebegone franchise. DePodesta is endlessly curious, always looking for a better way. Heaven knows if it’ll work in football, but Verducci paints a compelling picture.
8. I think though I’ve see precious little college football this season, and though I like how much fun Dabo Swinney is bringing to the table at Clemson, I’ll take the Sabans tonight, for defensive reasons. Alabama 24, Clemson 20.
9. I think I strongly recommend the re-airing of Super Bowl I (“Super Bowl I: The Lost Game”), part of which I got to see the other day. The three-hour show will air Friday on NFL Network at 8 p.m. ET. NFL Films unearthed the only known broadcast version of the game, which aired on both CBS and NBC with different announcing crews; in those days, CBS was the NFL’s network, and NBC was the TV partner of the American Football League, which was soon to merge with the NFL.
This footage had the NBC guys in the booth and showed the old-fashioned way of introducing the teams. Very cool. So the Chiefs were introduced, and they ran from behind the goalpost out maybe 30 yards, then peeled off to their bench, pausing for a second so the camera could focus on their faces. Kansas City quarterback Len Dawson looked so young.
NFL Films didn’t just show the game, which would have been fun enough. Vince Lombardi was miked for the game, and you can hear his pregame speech to his team: “Thousands of people in the stands. Millions of people on TV. And everyone looking, and all the speculation to see what kind of game the Green Bay Packers are gonna play today. Right?” The players barked: “RIGHT!” Lombardi went on: “I want you to be proud of your profession. It’s a great profession. You be proud of this game. You can do a great deal for football today, a great deal for all the players in this league and everyone else. So go out and play this ballgame the way I know you can play!”
The game was broadcast without graphics and clutter. Replays happened at regular speed. And the announcers called the game “the Super Bowl” on a couple of occasions, which Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt started using informally about six months before the game … and which became the official name with Super Bowl III. After the game, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle was interviewed by a rakish Pat Summerall, and Rozelle revealed that the following summer every team in each league would play at least one preseason game against a team from the rival league. A really interesting show. Worth your time.
10. I think these are my non-NFL thoughts of the week:
a. Great story by Bill Barnwell on what it takes to lose 125 pounds. Really terrific effort by him.
b. Donald Trump on football, from the campaign trail: “It’s a Sunday. Who wants to watch these crummy games? … The whole game is screwed up. You say, ‘Wow, what a tackle.’ Bing. Flag. Football has become soft. Now I’ll be criticized for that. They’ll say, ‘Oh, isn’t that terrible. But football has become soft like our country has become soft.”
c. Go see Concussion, Mr. Trump. See what the helmet-to-helmet hits, repeated ones, do to people. It’s getting harder and harder to think the big hits don’t contribute to head trauma issues later in life.
d. We could debate the good and bad of football all day. But to say the lords of football shouldn’t be trying to get the helmet-to-helmet hits out of the game is dangerous and wrong.
e. I’m really starting to like spin classes. I even don’t mind the loud music, and the near-darkness. But for anyone who gets on a bike for 45 minutes in one of these sessions, a question: Does the shouting by the instructor get a little annoying? And can you understand even a third of what he/she is saying?
f. Coffeenerdness: Thank you, Hydro Flask. Four hours of hot Italian Roast this morning. These vessels that keep hot things hot used to turn hot things into lukewarm things. Now the temperature never goes down. What a country!
g. Beernerdness: Tried the Two Roads Brewing No Limit Hefeweizen (Stratford, Conn.) and liked it quite a bit. Maybe more than a hint of banana/pineapple, but pleasant to drink.
h. I overnighted in Cleveland after doing a Hall of Fame TV show the other night on NFL Network and a bad thing happened. I turned the TV on when I got back to the room near midnight and began flipping the channels and there it was—the theme song to Perry Mason, the courtroom drama from a half-century ago that’s one of my favorite series ever. What timing. Have you heard the theme song? So of course I had to watch it, and it robbed me of an hour of sleep. I loved it that night; not so much at 6:30 in the morning.
i. We saw The Big Short. Liked it a lot. Was amazed by Steve Carell’s range of acting talent. So many people as funny as Carell get lost trying to do something else, to spread their wings. Not Carell. Michael Scott was a character for Carell, not a career. Congrats to him for being so good, and for being so versatile.
j. Hey Volkswagen: I’m a 2014 Clean Diesel owner waiting for the recall, and dragging your feet is really ticking me off.
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The Adieu Haiku
Drowning sorrows in Grain Belt.
Twins might not be bad.
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