Storybook Start for Bradford
Sixteen days ago, Philadelphia quarterback Sam Bradford woke up at his home in Oklahoma City on what he thought was the second day of a Labor Day weekend off. He looked at his phone. There was a message from his coach, Doug Pederson: Call me. We need to talk. Probably making a roster move, Bradford thought. The Eagles were making a roster move—with him. Pederson told him he was being traded to Minnesota. Bradford got off the phone and went to talk to his wife, Emma.
“Hey, guess what?” he said.
“What?” she said.
“We’re going to Minnesota,” he said.
“You’re kidding!” she said.
That was pretty much the reaction of the world too. Starting quarterbacks don’t get traded eight days before the start of the season, but this one did.
But you know that part of the story. Could you have ever figured the next part? That Bradford would have his best game as a pro—his only game in his 64 NFL games completing at least 70 percent of his throws, for at least 250 yards, with a rating above 120, and winning—in his first start for his third team?
“You think I should write a book about all of this?” he said.
Maybe. Start with having to master your fourth offense in 20 months, and in your first game with that offense, having to play Aaron Rodgers and the archrival Packers while opening up your team’s new stadium. No pressure there.
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Eventful week around the NFL, with LeBron and most of Hollywood in the Coliseum to welcome the Rams back to Los Angeles, with Jimmy “Six Quarter” Garoppolo gone so fast, with Von Miller out-Lawrence Tayloring Lawrence Taylor, with the Bills in Panic City. We’ll start at the lovely and loud new stadium in Minneapolis on the footprint of the old Metrodome.
There’s a lot to take in. In no particular order:
• Bradford looked precisely like the quarterback the Rams drafted in 2010, the quarterback who was supposed to command the huddle, throw accurately downfield, not get overwhelmed by big moments, and lead a team to a win over a Super Bowl contender.
• This was supposed to finally be the team that had a running game to help Bradford. He hadn’t had a great one before. But Adrian Peterson was a non-factor from the start (12 carries, 19 yards), then hurt his right knee late in the third quarter and left the game, and left the stadium on crutches, bound for the MRI tube this morning. So Bradford had to play with no help from the ground game.
• Sunday was a rivalry game. The Vikings have stunk recently in the rivalry, winning two of the previous 13 meetings. And Rodgers had his weapons back.
• Pressure of replacing a quarterback who was becoming beloved, Teddy Bridgewater, whose knee three weeks ago forced the Vikings to look for a sub.
• Pressure to learn offensive coordinator’s Norv Turner’s downfield offense, diametrically opposed to the one Bradford ran in Philly last year under Chip Kelly, and different too from the Andy Reid/Doug Pederson controlled passing offense.
“I just had to forget everything,” Bradford said, “and control what I could control.”
Bradford made a few beautiful throws. Several of the nine completions to wideout Stefon Diggs were perfect, including the 25-yard touchdown pass that put the Vikings up 10 late in the third quarter. Diggs went up the right seam, and Bradford threw into traffic. It’s the kind of pass that looked like the old coaching bromide: When you throw the football, three things can happen, and two of them are bad. But Bradford got it high enough so that only the 6-foot Diggs could catch it, or so it seemed, and Diggs reached high and snagged the ball. Great throw and catch.
Turns out all the extra time quarterback coach Scott Turner (Norv’s son) spent with Bradford put him at ease Sunday. As did the game plan. He felt confident in it, and had practiced every play in it more than once.
“Did I expect it to go like this?” Bradford said over the phone from his new locker room an hour after the game. “Probably not. But I just approached it the way I’ve been approaching things since I got here—one day at a time. Show up every day trying to learn as much as I can.”
Actually, the mayhem in his world helped him Sunday night. Bradford has gone from being the savior in St. Louis to Chip Kelly’s anointed one in Philadelphia, to Howie Roseman’s abandoned one (with justification) in Philadelphia, to the short-term savior in Minnesota … all since the end of the 2014 season. “When I think about it,” Bradford said, “what I’ve gone through has given me perspective I never have had—perspective I didn’t have when I was younger. Four years ago I couldn’t have handled this and been ready for a night like this. Last year, going through all that stuff in Philadelphia, I’m not sure I would have handled this well. You might not understand it at the time, but there’s always a reason. I just think it’s all part of God’s plan. I don’t worry about it.”
“So,” I asked, “after all this, maybe not even halfway into your career yet, with an uncertain future, are you happy?”
“That’s a good question,” he said, with half a chuckle. “I really honestly haven’t had a chance to even think about that. The atmosphere tonight was unbelievable—I’ve played in Seattle a bunch, and this was LOUD like that. That was really great, the spirit here. I’m just going to continue to approach it the way I have.”
I can sit here and wonder, Man, you’re in an incredible situation—rejoice! But I haven’t been traded from one team that told me I was the man to another team to be the man, and then sign a deal with the second team to be the man, and then get traded to another team for what seems to be intended as a short-term stay. So I won’t impose my happy-o-meter on Bradford. For now, I’ll just enjoy watching one of the strangest careers in recent NFL history. This part of it is off to a great start.
A historic week, of sorts, in New England
Fifteen years ago this week, in the second game of the 2001 season, Jets linebacker Mo Lewis hit Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe, and a blood vessel in Bledsoe’s chest burst open. Bledsoe was out for three months. Into the lineup stepped Tom Brady, an unknown sixth-round pick from the year before. Brady kept the Patriots afloat, and his steady and mature-beyond-his-years play lifted the Patriots to a shocking Super Bowl win over the heavily favored Rams. And, of course, it began a dreamy decade and a half of NFL dominance for the Patriots.
What a long, strange trip it’s been. Thursday night, the 2-0 Patriots will host 2-0 Houston, and a kid who was in second grade in Florida when Bledsoe got knocked into next week, Jacoby Brissett, will play quarterback for New England. Not Bledsoe, who’s making wine in Washington these days. Not Brady, serving the third of a four-game Deflategate suspension. And not Jimmy Garoppolo, the Brady sub who had his throwing shoulder ground into the turf on Sunday in New England’s win over Miami. The resulting AC joint sprain could mean Garoppolo has played his last snap of 2016, and maybe ever, in New England. Or he could be back to face Buffalo in 13 days. Too early to tell.
These five things we do know, starting with two on the kid from Eastern Illinois with the bright but uncertain future:
1. Garoppolo has proven he deserves a shot to be an NFL starter. Six quarters do not make a career, but Garoppolo has played two good defenses (Arizona, Miami) and completed 70 percent of his throws, for four touchdowns and no picks, and a 117.2 rating. Whether he’s healthy enough to play Week 4 or not, the Patriots will have a luxurious decision to make in the spring of 2017: trade Garoppolo for a first-round pick as he enters the last year of his contract, keep him as Brady insurance for 2017 (and perhaps beyond) or keep him as the heir to Brady.
2. The Patriots called the game against Miami the way they’d call a game for Brady, from what I saw. Garoppolo got knocked out after 25 minutes, with a 21-0 lead. This was not a safe game plan. Midway through the first quarter, with the ball at the Miami 20, Garoppolo had two receivers left and two right, and he took the snap and glanced left, moving the Miami safety over a few strides. Quickly, he looked back to his right and saw James White and Martellus Bennett with edges on their cover guys. Garoppolo picked Bennett, running up the right seam. His pass, 26 yards in the air, hit Bennett in perfect stride for a touchdown. Not only did Garoppolo make the perfect throw, but from the TV replays he appeared to manipulate the defense like a 10-year vet.
3. The injury to Garoppolo doesn’t look to be a long-term thing. Whether that means 10 days or a month no one knows. But no bones are broken. So the Patriots appear to have dodged a bullet.
4. If you need a quarterback perhaps for just one week, and you don’t need him to play, what do you do? I don’t know. But when you know that, at most, you’ll probably need a backup for two weeks, you approach the mending of the depth chart differently. Two weeks from this morning, Brady walks back through the door and takes his job back in Week 5. So I expect New England will sign someone it’s familiar with—maybe Matt Flynn or Ryan Lindley, or a player they’ve had in for a workout in 2016—and play Brissett on Thursday and either Brissett or Garoppolo in Week 4. That’s my guess.
5. The Patriots are playing with house money. Let’s face it. With the rest of this division 1-5, collectively, after two weeks, who thinks the Patriots wouldn’t be overwhelming favorites to win the AFC East if Brady takes over a 2-2 team in two weeks? If they win even one of the next two, they’ve not just survived without Brady; they’ve thrived. So I don’t see Belichick panicking, and certainly don’t see New England making a trade for any significant quarterback between now and Thursday.
Rams have mystical power over superior team
The first NFL game in Los Angeles in 21 years was a pretty big deal—enough to get the Red Hot Chili Peppers to play a concert on the field before the game and introduce the starting defense to 91,000 people inside the L.A. Coliseum, and enough for the glitterati to show up en masse. But the cool part of this was that the famous and not-so-famous sat together on the old wooden bleachers, because of the very limited seating in places that would qualify as luxury accommodations. Magic Johnson, for instance, sat on the end of one row, with his long legs stuck out in the aisle for relief.
Then, of course, there was the matter of actually playing football against a better team. But Seattle hasn’t been able to show that. The Rams’ 9-3 win over the Seahawks continued a trend you never would have figured on after Los Angeles was skunked 28-0 by San Francisco last Monday night. The Rams have won four of the past five meetings over Seattle, playing the same sort of formidable defense the Seahawks have trouble handling. Seattle just doesn’t block the Rams well, whether they’re based in St. Louis or Los Angeles. “We know these guys so well, and we match up against them well,” coach Jeff Fisher said Sunday night from his office.
It would be nice if we had some dramatic story here, but Aaron Donald and William Hayes have simply been too much for the Seahawks’ undermanned offensive line to block the past couple of years—and again Sunday. Add Russell Wilson’s high ankle sprain, limiting his mobility, and it was a bad time for Seattle to play the Rams. Just like almost every recent meeting.
Still, Los Angeles looked so lousy in the Monday night opener, and played without poise. Can a loud crowd really do that much for a team?
Fisher said: “I just told the team after that game in San Francisco, ‘Fifteen other teams lost this weekend. Good teams lose, and I think we’re a good team. This loss will not define us.’” There are struggles ahead. The Rams are 1-1 but haven’t scored a touchdown yet, and the number one overall pick, Jared Goff, isn’t ready to play, and now they go on the road to Tampa Bay and Arizona, with only one game in the Coliseum between now and Halloween. But give the Rams the 24-hour rule. Let them have this glorious moment.
‘I am an insurance policy’
What running backs do this anymore? What running back carries eight times in the first quarter, seven times in the second quarter, eight times in the third quarter, and, with the rain pouring down, nine times to kill the clock in the fourth quarter? What running back carries 32 times, in this day of consistent 40-pass games by quarterbacks? Emmitt Smith used to do it. I’d have thought in his record-breaking career he’d have done it 25 or 30 times But in fact he only did it nine times, five in 1991, when Jimmy Johnson was riding him until he broke.
“I loved it!!!” DeAngelo Williams said from Pittsburgh after the Steelers continued their dominance over the Bengals, 24-16. Williams ran for 94 yards on his 32 carries and, wide open at the side of the end zone, caught a touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to help the Steelers win their sixth of seven against the Dalton gang. “It was awesome,” Williams said. “You dream about days like this as a kid—playing in weather, playing in the rain. Last year it was the same when we went to Cleveland and it snowed. I was so juiced. Juiced today too. Brings me back to when I played just for the love the of game.”
Williams, 33, is the oldest running back in football. He’s been a godsend to the Steelers, first because of the injury to Le’Veon Bell last year, and now because of the three-game suspension to Bell this year. When I mentioned to him that maybe he’s proven he’s more than just an insurance policy for Bell, he quickly said: “No! I am an insurance policy. I’m driving the car till L-Bell gets back. I’m trying to keep us in good position till he gets back. That’s good with me. When I came here, I came here to win a Super Bowl. That’s the only thing I care about.”
This wasn’t as chippy a game as I thought it would be. Maybe that’s because the chippiest of them all, Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict, was suspended for this one. He’ll be back for the return date, Dec. 18 in Cincinnati. After the game, Adam Jones of the Bengals—presumably through gritted teeth—said he couldn’t wait for the [expletive deleted] rematch. Williams laughed when he heard.
“Tell him to pump his brakes a little bit,” Williams said. “We’ll see him again too. When we play again, they’ll have Burfict back, and we’ll have L-Bell. But today—today was beautiful, man. Great day to play football, great day to play the Cincinnati Bengals, great day to beat the Cincinnati Bengals.”
What a great signing Williams was by GM Kevin Colbert before the 2015 season. Perfect guy at the right time, with a perfect attitude.
10 People, 10 Thoughts
• Jerry Reese, the Giants GM, gambled his future on a $204 million offseason spending spree in free agency to fix the worst-rated defense in the NFL last season. Through two games, it’s working. New York has held Dallas and New Orleans, collectively, to 32 points. And Drew Brees, who torched the Giants for seven touchdown passes and 52 points last year, was held to one TD and 13 points Sunday. So the early reviews are very good, and the Giants are 2-0, and the NFC East absolutely is there for the taking.
• Adam Vinatieri turns 44 in December. It is hard to overrate what a great player he has been, and what a very good player he continues to be. In Week 1 he hit field goals from 50 and 40 yards. On Sunday in Denver he drilled perfect kicks from 48 and 52. If I’m still a Hall of Fame voter five years after he retires, I can’t imagine any scenario in which I wouldn’t vote for him in his first year eligible. Vinatieri debuted, by the way, nine weeks before Bill Clinton beat Bob Dole in the 1996 presidential election.
• Nice numbers and impact for Ezekiel Elliott (21 carries, 83 yards, one touchdown), but it’s not going to last if he fumbles the way he did Sunday at Washington. He fumbled twice, losing one, and neither looked particularly violent. Dallas has too good an insurance policy (Alfred Morris) to stick with Elliott very long if he fumbles.
• I thought it was a cheap taunting call on Cleveland wideout Terrelle Pryor. Officials need to understand taunting. It’s a guy getting in another guy’s face or throwing the ball at him—not simply tossing the ball in the air and it landing on a defender. It’s an emotional game. Let players be at least mildly emotional.
• Regarding Blake Bortles: We gave him too much credit for arriving after his 35-touchdown season. We should have realized lots of those numbers were built up in games when the defense allowed 30 or more points last year. Like, eight of them. He’s too mistake-prone.
• Matt Ryan really needed those three scoring drives in the last 20 minutes in Oakland, and he really needed the three red zone touchdowns after starting the season with one touchdown in his first seven trips inside the opposing 20-yard line … And Atlanta really needed that 35-28 win over the Raiders, or else the owner was going to start to get very nervous.
• Heard an awful lot—some of it grounded in fact—about Denver being sorely tempted to deal Aqib Talib after the veteran corner suffered the mysterious gunshot wound in the off-season. Good thing they didn’t. Sometimes really good players are pains off the field to the point that you feel you’re better off without them. Talib might give John Elway headaches in the off-season, but there are moments like Sunday, with Talib’s clean interception of Andrew Luck and ensuing 46-yard touchdown return for the decisive points of the win over Indy. Talib’s one of the best and most competitive corners in football. He’s worth the pain.
• Kelvin Benjamin tilts the field for Carolina. That’s the best way to put it. He’s athletic and monstrous, and he’s gone six for 91 and seven for 108 in the first two games, with three touchdowns, and there is no logical way to cover him with the other threats the highest-scoring team in football in 2015 already has. Devin Funchess is a good player and huge target, and Ted Ginn Jr. is a playmaker, and, together, they’ve had six receptions in two games. Even if a team decides to take away Benjamin, Cam Newton still has Greg Olsen and Funchess and Ginn who, logically, most often would be singled. “He makes my job so easy,” Newton said Sunday about Benjamin. Looks like it.
• It took 82 games for J.J. Watt to reach 75 career sacks. (He has 76 after 1.5 against the Chiefs.) It took 85 games for all-time sack leader Bruce Smith to get 75. Just your daily reminder that you’re watching one of the greats, in his prime.
• What I really liked about Marcus Mariota leading the Titans from behind in Detroit is his poise, and his needle-threader of a winning touchdown pass to the traveler of the AFC South, Andre Johnson, in a game I thought Tennessee didn't have much business winning. If that offensive line can keep Mariota whole—I have some doubts—Tennessee is going to win more games than we thought this year.
The Rex Way
Thursday night was a historic game in the coaching career of Rex Ryan.
It was his 120th game, playoffs included, as a head coach, and the worst defensive game a Ryan team has played. It was the first time his defense allowed more than 35 points, more than 450 yards, more than 350 passing yards and a 100-yard rusher.
The Jets scored 37 against the Bills, with 493 total yards, 374 passing yards and 100 rushing yards by Matt Forte.
Twelve hours after the worst defensive game of his career, Ryan responded by firing his offensive coordinator.
Louisiana Band Update: $76,659+
This just in: You’re nice people. After one week of fundraising for the 248-member flood-ravaged St. Amant (La.) High School marching band, with a goal of $75,000 by Sept. 23, we hit it. As of Sunday morning, 942 of you have contributed a total of $75,316. Very well done. Thank you a hundred times.
Not entirely true, though, that we’re at $76,659. I’d call it $78,659. Let me explain. Craig Millet, the band director, told me that after the story got publicized, he got a check for $2,000 from the rock band 3 Doors Down. “Amazing,” Millet said. “They just reached out.”
Kudos, 3 Doors Down. In honor of your generosity, let’s fire up your hit “Kryptonite.”
So I reached out to 3 Doors Down. They’re touring now, and from the tour bus on the way from Boston to Albany the other day, guitarist and original band member Chris Henderson told me: “There a few different reasons we did this. We’re from the south. I’m a big LSU fan. I love Louisiana. When that flood happened I knew so many people impacted by it that it was like it was happening to me. So many of my friends were on their roofs waiting to be rescued or about to go to their roofs. I went through Katrina and my home flooded, and I can tell you: It is months of hell. So we really wanted to do something. So often it’s the bands, the cheerleaders, the flag corps that don’t get the assistance, and we thought this was the right cause.”
I’m keeping the St. Amant drive open this week until Friday, as I said I would. So if you have friends who you think might want to help a band with a big need (we’re actually a little over 25 percent toward what they need, $285,000, to get the band all the way back to normal) after their band room was flooded and so many instruments ruined, please click on this link and give. (And for another fun way to contribute, head down to No. 10-A. of 10 Things I Think I Think.)
Thanks again. And thanks to the United Way for its $25,000 donation that got this jumpstarted, and to Stephen Pate and the Saints, a man and an organization caring endlessly about their state.
“My advice to anyone thinking about this,” said Henderson, “is give it more than a fleeting thought. Understand that some of these kids have lost everything. They need you.”
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Quotes of the Week
“That’s why the ruling on the field stood.”
—NFL senior vice president of officiating Dean Blandino in this explanatory video, posted to his Twitter account, regarding the Tyler Boyd lost fumble in the Bengals-Steelers game.
I like the transparency here and the frame-by-frame breakdown, from multiple angles.
“KO-Be! KO-Be! KO-Be!”
—L.A. Coliseum crowd to LeBron James, as he came out of the tunnel in pregame warmups to watch the Rams and Seahawks, as relayed by Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times.
“We were playing Indianapolis last year on a Monday night. It was a close game. Andrew Luck… scrambled one time and I was chasing him down trying to hit him. So he slid. Luck looked up at me and said, ‘Hey Luke, you want to help me up please? Little help please?’ I’m like, ‘Man why are you doing that?’ I was like, ‘I can’t not help him up.’”
—Luke Kuechly of the Panthers, on “The MMQB Podcast with Peter King” this week.
“I feel I’m the same age as him. It’s crazy.”
—Donald Trump, 70, on his friend Tom Brady, 39, on the “Dr. Oz” show.
The Award Section
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Sam Bradford, quarterback, Minnesota. Fifteen days after ownership’s private jet whisked him into the Twin Cities, Bradford put a stake through the heart of the Vikings’ biggest rival with a terrific first start for Minnesota. Bradford completed 22 of 31 passes (two of them throwaways) for 286 yards with two touchdowns and no picks, for a rating of 121.2. Most impressive was a 25-yard TD pass dropped in perfectly to emerging star Stefon Diggs in the end zone with 17 minutes left that gave Minnesota a 10-point lead it wouldn’t give away. A great debut.
DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Von Miller, linebacker, Denver. No one will question that he and J.J. Watt are 1 and 1-A in some order atop all defensive players in football. But who impacts the game more on either side of the ball than Miller? His three sacks of Andrew Luck—two in the final two minutes of the game—put the exclamation point on a 34-20 win for the Broncos. “He’s the most unblockable dude in the game,” said running back C.J. Anderson.
Marcus Peters, cornerback, Kansas City. Not crazy about the taunting penalty (Andy Reid won’t be either), but Peters was everywhere for the Chiefs, picking off Brock Osweiler twice, defending four Osweiler passes and making seven tackles. Excellent day’s work.
Devin Taylor, defensive end, Detroit. On consecutive plays in the first quarter against Tennessee, Taylor, who’s played in the shadow of Ziggy Ansah since both were drafted by Detroit in 2013, changed the game. Taylor spun past rookie right tackle Jack Conklin for a two-yard sack as Tennessee drove in a scoreless first quarter; the Titans followed with a missed 51-yard field goal. After a Detroit punt buried the Titans at their 5-yard line, Taylor beat Conklin to the outside and smothered DeMarco Murray a yard deep in the end zone for a safety. Missed field goal. Safety. Five-point turn in two plays.
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Johnny Hekker, punter, Los Angeles. He’ll get no headlines for his effort in the 9-3 win over the Seahawks, but Hekker played close to a perfect game. Six punts, six inside the 20-yard-line, every one fair-caught. After Hekker’s punts, Russell Wilson had a long field every time, starting from the 19, 19, 12, 10, nine and 12. A brilliant performance in a game that defined field-position football.
Johnathan Hankins, defensive tackle, and Janoris Jenkins, cornerback, New York Giants. The Saints-Giants game was uncharacteristically scoreless late in the first half when Saints kicker Wil Lutz lined up to make it 3-0. But Hankins blocked it, Jenkins picked it off the carpet and sprinted for a touchdown.
Tavon Young, cornerback, and Lawrence Guy, defensive lineman, Baltimore. This duo combined on the first two-point return of a failed conversion since the NFL re-did the PAT rule in 2015. Guy blocked the Patrick Murray PAT try, and fourth-round Baltimore rookie Young (from Oxon Hill, Md.) picked it up and sprinted 64 yards. Instead of Cleveland being up 21-0, the Browns settled for a 20-2 lead—and that came in very handy when Baltimore rallied to win.
COACH OF THE WEEK
Clarence Brooks, defensive line coach, Baltimore. Brooks gets this award in memoriam. He died Saturday morning at 65 after battling esophageal cancer. His death must not go unnoticed, and not just because he was a damned good coach for 41 years of his life, starting at alma mater UMass in 1976. So many people around the Ravens are convinced he’s one of the best position coaches (defensive line) in recent NFL history. In the midst of the dumpster fire that was Baltimore’s 5-11 season last year, it was Brooks’ inspirational teaching while undergoing 33 radiation and chemotherapy treatments that was vital in the two unlikely victories over hated rival Pittsburgh, when the Ravens held the explosive Steelers to 18.5 points and 285 offensive yards per game. The Ravens tried to get Terrell Suggs to speak to me about Brooks on Saturday, but Suggs, along with so many of their defensive veterans, was too broken up to talk. A retired Raven, Rob Burnett, who was coached by Brooks in college (Syracuse) and in the NFL (Miami), told me this, when I asked what made Brooks different and special: “There’s one word I can use—and this is very hard because you know how volatile coaches can be—and it’s ‘consistency.’ Sometimes you lose a game, and the next day in the hall everyone’s walking with their heads down. Not Clarence. Every day he was the same. Fair, honest, so honest, treat you like a grown man. It’s a tough, tough business, when all the players make so much more money than the position coaches. But he was a consistent force in a constant-flux business. Everyone he touched got better as a player and a person. I’m not going to mention names, but I can tell you he helped a few guys with their problems off the field. I mean, really helped. And he wanted nothing in return.” Brooks will be sorely missed.
GOAT OF THE WEEK
Kirk Cousins, quarterback, Washington. Up 23-20 with 10:43 to play at FedEx Field, Cousins has the ball at the Dallas six. He rolls left, throws into the end zone for Pierre Garçon … in the middle of three Cowboy defenders. Easy pick for safety Barry Church. Instead of making a great throw and putting Washington ahead by 10 or throwing the ball away and settling for a field goal, Cousins’ carelessness (his second red-zone pick in two games this year) hands the ball to Dallas, and the Cowboys respond with an 80-yard drive for what proves to be the game-winning touchdown.
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Right Combination of the Week
Sam Bradford, quarterback, and Stefon Diggs, wide receiver, Minnesota. This defines “right combination:” Bradford, who has been a Viking for two weeks, just got to know Diggs, a second-year player from Klemko U. (i.e. Maryland), and on Sunday night, Bradford threw nine passes to Diggs. All nine connected, for 182 yards, one touchdown and a dominant performance. Cris Collinsworth said it best at the end of the Sunday night game—what Bradford did was one of the most impressive things he’s seen on a football field, seeming so confident and relaxed with a totally new system and new mates. Give Diggs credit too. This great combination couldn’t have happened without his athleticism and sure-handed ability.
Dr. Z Unsung Guys of the Week
CB James Bradberry, Carolina. One of the two rookie starting cornerbacks for the Panthers’ defense in 2016, Bradberry was much improved in Week 2. He was targeted seven times against the 49ers, allowing one catch for six yards. He intercepted Blaine Gabbert and had one pass defensed, finishing with a 93.1 coverage grade. That was the best Week 2 grade for a corner.
T Ricky Wagner, Baltimore. Wagner didn’t allow a pressure of Joe Flacco on 48 pass-blocking snaps. Wagner’s 88.1 pass-blocking grade vs. the Browns was the highest of any offensive linemen Sunday.
G Quinton Spain, Tennessee. PFF graded Spain with a 86.5 run-blocking grade, tops among all guards on Sunday. Spain’s key run blocks helped pave the way for DeMarco Murray (7.4 yards per carry) and Derrick Henry (5.2 yards per carry) to have healthy averages against the Lions. Spain allowed one hurry of Marcus Mariota on 42 pass-blocking snaps.
Go here to access PFF's grades on every NFL player.
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Writer’s Note: A new section in MMQB, where I’ll share a picture or image with a good story behind it.
This is a newsstand at Penn Station in New York. I had to catch a train Friday morning, and I saw this issue of Sports Illustrated next to one of the tabloidy things about some celebrity divorce, and I got excited.
That’s OUR issue!
The MMQB takeover of SI was made possible by Chris Stone and put together by Gary Gramling, Mark Mravic, Matt Gagne, Dom Bonvissuto, John DePetro, Jenny Vrentas, Robert Klemko, Andy Benoit, Emily Kaplan, Albert Breer, Tim Rohan, Andrew Brandt, Kalyn Kahler and a slew of SI writers and SI editors and SI photo editors and SI photographers … I hope you pick it up to see exactly what our style of covering football is. We stink unless we’re taking you many places you cannot go. We have a lot of really good things in the issue—from what a team meeting (Houston’s) is really like on a Saturday night, to Emily Kaplan capturing the officials meeting with coaches Sunday morning, to Jacob Feldman driving into work for the first game of the season with a linebacker (Connor Barwin), to Robert Klemko figuring what makes Khalil Mack tick, to watching some final pregame tape Sunday (Alex Prewitt) with Josh Norman, to Benoit discovering that Rob Gronkowski is really a student of the game, to being a fly on the wall with tense owner Jerry Jones in his owners box (Tim Rohan), to what hurts from head to toe with a veteran (Doug Baldwin) by Greg Bishop, to this story on the studies of a running back and his coach (LeSean McCoy and Anthony Lynn) by Jenny Vrentas that is the essence of what we do at The MMQB. And more. Much more.
This week, this category of the column is a commercial for the Sept. 19 issue of Sports Illustrated, managed and bossed so capably by Gary Gramling. I’m proud of the job Gary and the staff did, and I hope you take time to read it.
Stats of the Week
The last three games of Darrelle Revis (Week 17 at Buffalo last year, Week 1 this year versus Cincinnati, Week 2 at Buffalo), courtesy of Pro Football Focus:
I’m not in the Revis is finished camp because at 31 he’ll figure out what he can do (and it’s not playing passive on Marquise Goodwin coming off the line) and still be an above-average to very good corner. He’s too smart, and Todd Bowles is too smart a defensive tactician, to let this fester. The Jets will give Revis a little more safety help than he’s had, and his warts won’t show up as glaringly as they have.
Last point: The Jets overpaid Revis (five years, $70 million at age 30) last year, and he’ll never be able to live up to his 24-year-old self. In 2009, the legend was born when quarterbacks had a 29.1 rating against him. So it’ll always be ugly when you compare today’s Revis to yesterday’s version.
Offensive TDs scored, first 46 minutes, Saints-Giants last season (Week 8): 10.
Offensive TDs scored, first 46 minutes, Saints-Giants this season (Sunday): 0.
When Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski made the 18th field goal of 50-plus yards in Week 1, I noted with interest that he’s missed only five field goals of 50 yards or longer in his career. Seems extraordinary to me, particularly for a kicker in the unpredictable weather of New England. Check out something that helps show how much the kicking game has evolved, keeping in mind that the only pure kicker in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is Jan Stenerud:
|Gostkowski, from 50-plus yards||18||23||.783|
|Jan Stenerud, 1967-85, all kicks||373||558||.668|
So Gostkowski is 11.5 percentage points better at kicking field goals of 50 or longer than Stenerud was at kicking all field goals.
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Factoids That May Interest Only Me
The Bills are scheduled to pay Greg Roman $3 million in the next 16 months to not coach football.
Cat Stevens (also known as Yusuf Islam), a British folk singer and cult star—with hits “Moonshadow,” “Oh Very Young,” “The First Cut is the Deepest,” “Peace Train,” and “Wild World”—went to the first baseball game of his life at age 68 over the weekend, according to longtime baseball scribe Gordon Edes.
Now that morning has broken, I can tell you the game and the result:
Friday night. Fenway Park. Red Sox 7, Yankees 4.
On Your Night Table
Writer’s Note: I like to read. This is the section—formerly Book of the Week—in which I ask a football person for a book recommendation.
God Never Blinks: 50 Lessons for Life’s Little Detours (Regina Brett).
Recommended by Ravens WR Steve Smith Sr.
Smith read the book last fall while bed-bound and recovering from surgery for an Achilles tear. On the occasion of her 50th birthday, Brett, a newspaper columnist, wrote about the 50 lessons she’d learned in life, and a member of his foundation figured he’d need to read something inspirational during his downtime.
Brett’s lesson, Smith said, was this: “You can dwell on things, or you can embrace them and actually do something to clean them up and really change your perspective. Since I knew I had two-and-a-half months of not being mobile because of the Achilles, I thought it was a great opportunity for me to sit, read and go through the grieving process of the injury. It could be better, but it could also be worse. So, what are you going to do about it? It was an outstanding book.
“She had some great points in there. She was actually an alcoholic and had a very toxic relationship with her husband. She used alcohol to mask troubles throughout the marriage. Then she ended up getting cancer, and she had to overcome that. When you read this book, you catch yourself like, ‘I hope nobody saw I had a bad day.’ And after reading it, I was like, ‘This day is great!’”
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note
Tuesday, LaGuardia Airport, New York City, 7:12 a.m., security line at Terminal D:
At TSA Precheck, I count, and I am 39th in line. I look at the regular line, and 13 people are in line. That’s probably fluky, but more and more I’ve found that very often there’s no advantage to be in TSA Precheck. Thoughts? Send me your experiences. I’d love to read them.
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Tweets of the Week
Modern Family's Ty Burrell (Phil Dunphy), huge Rams fan, has left game and changing into a tux in the car for Emmys. https://t.co/fSImtVuk1J— Sam Farmer (@LATimesfarmer) September 18, 2016
Sam Bradford making $11 million this year from Eagles, $7 million from Vikings. Continues to be a winner in the business of football.— Andrew Brandt (@AndrewBrandt) September 19, 2016
The elevator operator at Ford Field: "Take the stairs. It'll help your healing."— Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) September 18, 2016
The Bills are one of the most mismanaged, poorly coached teams in the NFL. I feel bad for the Pegula's— Greg Gabriel (@greggabe) September 16, 2016
My dad was born in Poland. Do you know how many people ever asked me whether or not I was born in America? Nobody ever asked me that.— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) September 16, 2016
From The MMQB Podcast With Peter King, available wherever you download podcasts.
Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly, my guest this week, was terrific on the study he puts into the game. If you’re a coach of youth football—or youth sports, really, because the lessons from Kuechly about how to become great are really good for athletes in all sports—you need to hear this podcast.
As Kuechly tells me: “If you’re a linebacker, your job is to react and anticipate. If you can watch stuff on tape during the week, if you can listen maybe to what the coaches are putting in their game plan, and you see a look in a game, and you’ve seen that look on film and you’ve seen it the previous years, and it’s your scouting report, maybe you’ve seen it earlier in the game, that look, that formation, that down and distance, that personnel grouping … If you can put that formation in a box, it allows you to anticipate faster. Maybe the team lines up in 21 personnel [two backs, one tight end, two wide receivers] and they have a few runs and few passes off it. Once you see the first step of a running back or a lineman, maybe out of that basket of run plays, if they move this way, the only run is this. Little things you can look for. Once you get that first cue, you’re gone. And that’s kind of how I try to play the game.”
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think if you question Rick Spielman’s trade for Sam Bradford this morning, you’re not very smart. And not because Sam Bradford played well Sunday night … but because having a quarterback who can make big throws, as Bradford obviously can do, to go along with a defense that can wreck the best quarterbacks in football means you can win in January. I am surprised to say this, but the Vikings will be able to win in January even without Adrian Peterson if that defense continues to play the way it did against the Packers.
2. I think the most stunning stat of the first two weeks is this: Seattle has had 22 drives in the first two games—and scored one touchdown.
3. I think this question must be asked: Can Seattle salvage any offensive production? That’s a little dramatic, but we’re one-eighth of the way through the season, and there is nothing this supposedly power team can do with any consistency on offense. Seattle’s scored an average of 12.3 points in its past four games, Russell Wilson is playing with a high ankle sprain, the offensive line is a sieve, and the running game can’t get out of its way. Other than that, Pete Carroll, how’s your September going? Watching the Seahawks on Sunday, this is what struck me: They’ve got nothing to rely on with that offense. Nothing. With San Francisco at home, then the Jets in New Jersey and a bye, this team has to get top line prospect Germain Ifedi back healthy and playing, and has to get Wilson more mobile if that’s possible.
4. I think that watching the meat wagons cart off player after player Sunday is an exclamation point—or should be—about the lunacy of anyone who’d seriously consider an 18-game regular season. Any commissioner or owner with visions of much bigger TV money, or certainly any player with designs on a 2/18ths-bigger paycheck (and I don’t believe there are many) should realize that some things are just stupid. And expanding the regular season by two games would be a classic case of greed making a dumb decision.
5. I think, however, if owners would propose all non-kickers/punters playing a maximum of 16 games in an 18-game season, now that’s something I’d consider.
6. I think this is a pretty good example of the offensive versatility of the Patriots: They’ve started six combinations on the offensive line in the past seven games. You can look it up. Three left tackles, three left guards, two centers, three right guards, one right tackle (Marcus Cannon). Whoever shows up will need to be pretty good against the destructive front of the Texans on Thursday night.
7. I think this was a smart story by Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times, about how GM Jason Licht saw a little of Bruce Arians in Dirk Koetter when interviewing Koetter for the vacant Bucs’ job last January. The Bucs didn’t beat Arians on Sunday, but it’s clear that Tampa Bay is going in the right direction.
8. I think one of the cruelest things about playing the Thursday night game in Week 2, and you’re the Bills, and you’re in the same division with New England, and you fall to 0-2, you now face this reality: The season’s five days old, and we’ve probably got to go 12-2 the rest of the way to win our division, and we’ve still got New England, Seattle and Cincinnati on the road to play. Yikes. Still, the Bills have the feel of Dead Team Walking to me. When a team fires its offensive coordinator after five days of the season, it says to me that the firing should have happened in the off-season, because the team didn’t trust what he was doing last season, and the team doen’t trust what he’s doing now. Regarding Rex Ryan, this from a trusted front-office executive for one NFL team: “Rex will have a long and successful career in the media.” That’s not meant as a slam. It’s true. He’s going to be very good next year on FOX.
9. I think the biggest takeaway after two weeks of watching the new kickoff rule is this: Why are so many returners receiving the ball three to five yards deep and then returning the ball? It’s crazy, when the Competition Committee has handed teams a five-yard bonus this season on touchbacks. Take the ball at the 25! If you get the ball five yards deep, you have the return it 31 yards to do better than what the new rules hand you. Do you realize that no man have ever averaged 31 yards per kick return in NFL history? Gale Sayers holds the career record with a 30.6-yard career average. To prove my point, here are a few of the bad decisions in the first two weeks, and what happened with them:
• Buffalo’s Brandon Tate caught a kick four yards deep in the end zone and returned it to the 18 on Thursday night against the Jets.
• Atlanta’s Eric Weems, seven yards deep, returned to the 19 in Week 1. Later, four yards deep, he returned it to the 21. Later, he did get one five yards deep and returned it to the 29.
• Chicago’s Deonte Thompson, six yards deep in Week 1, returned it to the 20.
10. I think these are my non-NFL thoughts of the week:
a. Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d type: My face is on a T-shirt. Huge thanks to our friends at Homage, the old-school apparel company in Columbus, Ohio, for putting out this shirt to commemorate 20 years of Monday Morning Quarterback. I love all the subtle nods to long-time staples of the column—the coffee cup, the “10 things” on the typewriter, the baseball and of course the dog. The best part? All proceeds go to help the Louisiana band. For more about how this shirt came to be, and another MMQB shirt produced by Homage, head over to Dominic Bonvissuto’s Football Lifestyle column.
b. Eric Kolenich of the Richmond Times-Dispatch has the story of the week, a shocking, numbing tale of a high school soccer player in Virginia battling drug addiction. So well reported, so well written. (Thanks to Richard Deitsch for pointing it out.) We really have to do something about opioid addiction in this country.
c. Column of the Week: Juliet Macur of the New York Times, on Penn State celebrating Joe Paterno at a football game—and on a college journalist, Lauren Davis, attacked for writing a pointed editorial for The Daily Collegian on Paterno. You are to be praised, Ms. Davis.
d. Rich Eisen did a tremendous interview with Vin Scully, the 67-year baseball play-by-play vet, on “The Rich Eisen Show.” It was interesting to listen to Scully talk about football. (He used to do NFL games on CBS.) His preparedness for “The Catch” game, Dallas-San Francisco, the NFC title game with the Dwight Clark end-zone grab, was terrific. That is the thing I took from this interview, how much he prepared for any game, no matter what the magnitude, no matter what the audience. And when Eisen asked him what game he wished he’d gotten a chance to call: “I don’t feel like I missed anything. I don’t wish I did anything more. I have been truly blessed, and I say that with all sincerity.” Eisen asked Scully if he’d reconsider his decision not to do any playoff games this year. Scully said he felt like he was being told: “That’s enough Vin. Put it to bed. And that’s what I’m going to do.” Also, Scully to Eisen on the scores of tributes for him this year: “It’s been a great tribute, but it’s also been embarrassing.”
e. Good analysis by Michael Kay and David Cone on Friday night on YES, with the Red Sox clinging to a 3-2 lead after five innings. Yankees starter Luis Cessa had retired five in a row and calmed down the rampaging Sox, but Joe Girardi chose to start playing matchup versus the Red Sox with the deep bullpen in the sixth inning. Kay wondered why Girardi would start playing matchup when Cessa had been pitching so effectively, and the bullpen had a bunch of minor-leaguers up for the Sept. 1 callups. In the middle of James Pazos, Jonathan Holder, Chasen Shreve and Kirby Yates pitching in relief for the Yankees (all of whom had spent time in minor league baseball this year, but not all of whom were September callups) in the middle of a desperate playoff race, the Yankees gave up four runs in the next two innings and lost to the Red Sox 7-4. Cone talked about how disruptive it was for catchers to come to the mound often and talk to pitchers, and it seemed like the Yankees had a ton of those conferences in these two innings. Smart analysis.
f. Good luck, Gary Myers, with the release of “Brady vs. Manning” in paperback. Looks like you added some good stuff in this edition.
g. Thank you for your service, William Bratton.
h. There was a sheep loose in south Jersey the other day, near the Borough of Haddonfield. “Please do not attempt to catch the sheep,” the Borough of Haddonfield stated in a news release. “It may take it baaadly.”
i. The sheep was caught Friday, with the aid of a mild tranquilizer dart. The sheep was returned to its owner, and a Facebook post from the Haddonfield Police Department bade farewell to the sheep thusly: “It was nice to see ewe.” I am now a fan of the Borough of Haddonfield.
j. Hey, Mark Lazarus at NBC: Happy for your promotion. You treat people the right way.
k. If it’s possible to be behind a person more than 100 percent, then I’m 105 percent behind Megan Rapinoe.
l. Why on earth would the Brewers consider trading Ryan Braun for Yasiel Puig, as the main characters in some package deal?
m. I mean, unless Aaron Rodgers had just been hired as Milwaukee’s assistant to the traveling secretary or something. Hey! Let’s deal a .310 hitter with 30 homers and a little speed and a fixture in the middle of the lineup for the next five years for someone who might be unstable!
n. Coffeenerdness: Visited La Colombe, a coffee shop in downtown Manhattan, the other day because I’d heard good things about it. Wanted to try something new. There on the menu was a Pure Black and Tan. Whatever could that be. “We’ve got a draft latte,” said a barista. “Comes out of the tap like an iced latte. We pour that on top of dark iced coffee.” Well, serve that thing up! Just like a beer black-and-tan, this one meshes the latte and the coffee soon enough, and it’s perfect. Not sweet (no sugar added), but the milk gives it a different touch. Loved it. I’ll be back.
o. Beernerdness: Had a Foothills Torch Pilsner (Foothills Brewing, Winston-Salem, N.C.) waiting for a plane in the Charlotte Airport the other day. Typical European pilsner, I thought, with a little bit more of a Pilsner Urquell kind of finish. A pleasant way to pass 25 minutes.
p. Come on: 41 jacks for Brian Dozier! Amazing.
q. Rick Porcello (20) and J.A. Happ (19) 1-2 in the majors in wins with two weeks to play. Just like we all figured it.
r. And Dallas Kuechel (9), Chris Archer (8), Jacob deGrom (7), Clay Buchholz (6), James Shields (5), so logical on the wins spectrum.
s. Mookie Rocks Dept.: Mookie Betts versus Mike Trout, through 92 percent of the 2016 baseball season:
t. Still, David Ortiz has a pretty good case for the MVP, and not just for sentimental reasons. So many big hits. So many doubles (MLB-high 47, tied with Daniel Murphy). Leads the majors in slugging and OPS at 40. Only guy in baseball with an OPS over 1.000. Then again, you take emotion out and add in defense, and Mookie’s the better pick. That’ll be an interesting call, and the last two weeks will be big.
u. Home runs, career: Ortiz 537, Mantle 536, Williams 521 … Pujols 590. Seriously wondering if Pujols, 36, can catch the Babe—and Aaron.
v. There’s drone racing on TV? Stop the world. I want to get off.
w. Happy 70th birthday (Saturday), Ray Didinger.
x. Hey Charlie Dayton: Great to see the Panthers have honored you with the Charlie Dayton Press Box. So well deserved. Men who are among the best PR guys in NFL history should get honors like that. Jerry Richardson’s a class guy. That’s a nice thing to do.
y. Quick Charlie Dayton story: I was with the Panthers in their inaugural year, 1995, to cover the draft for Sports Illustrated, and I was with Charlie, the team’s director of communications, while I waited to speak with someone at the Panthers. I got a call from Kerry Collins’ agent and began talking to him, and Charlie knew this was the agent of a player Carolina might draft on the phone. “I’ll let you take your call,” he said, leaving the room. I told Charlie not to worry, it was no big deal. And he said: “No, I want you to have your privacy.” That’s what a professional does. It was great to work with Charlie Dayton, going back to his days with Jack Kent Cooke and Joe Gibbs in Washington.
Who I Like Tonight
Philadelphia 24, Chicago 20. Factor 1: Eagles are a .613 road team this century (which I wouldn’t have expected), second only to New England in road winning since 2000. Not a huge deal, but interesting. The following is a bigger deal … Factor 2: I believe Carson Wentz can go on the road and get a win against a team that was on equal footing with Houston for 45 minutes last week because Philly can protect him, and Chicago can’t protect Jay Cutler. According to Pro Football Focus, the Bears had the worst day in football protecting the passer last week, giving up 17 pressures (three sacks, four hits, 10 hurries), while the Eagles kept Wentz clean (one sack, one hit). Part of that, of course, was the competition. The Texans bring more pressure than Cleveland, to be sure. Though the interior of the Chicago offensive line is solid, the exterior is not, particularly tackle Bobby Massie. Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry and of course Fletcher Cox are going to hit Cutler, and hit him often.
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The Adieu Haiku
I love selflessness.
DeAngelo Williams: My
Team Guy of the Week.
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