ATLANTA -- The Niners are back. Hard to believe it's been 18 years since Steve Young threw six touchdown passes to shred the Chargers, then mimed having a monkey on his back while begging Harris Barton to rip it off, only to throw up a Gatorade/cookie mix all over agent Leigh Steinberg's shoes in the postgame. Aaah, those were the days. But San Francisco's finally in the Big One again, to try to stretch its 5-0 record in Super Bowls.
The Ravens are back, 12 years after their last Super Bowl, the 34-7 rout of the Giants, the Ray Lewis MVP Super Bowl. We'll see if Lewis can do what Tony Gonzalez couldn't do this season, and what John Elway, Jerome Bettis and Michael Strahan did do in recent seasons: Go out a winner in his last football game.
And there's the little matter of the HarBowl, and of the motorcade of buses rolling down I-295 west of Providence just before midnight last night.
Joe Flacco in this postseason: eight touchdowns, no interceptions. Fifteen-point wins over Andrew Luck and Tom Brady; a three-point all-timer over Peyton Manning. Back at the stadium, Harbaugh had called Flacco, "Brady-like.'' This season, it's Flacco 2, Brady 0 -- one in the regular season, one in the conference title game ... Harbaugh: "When we scouted him, so many times you look at a player and you say, 'Is this going to be too big for him? Is the stage going to be too big?' Never. It never has been.''
The postgame conversation on the field with Bill Belichick ... Harbaugh: "I'll treasure that conversation forever. Before the game, we talked, and he said maybe we should just skip the postgame handshake because it's such a circus. I said I didn't know; I thought we should do it, it's just the right thing to do. And we did. He was so classy, so gracious. Complimentary about how we played, about our game plan, about how tough it is to play us. I told him how much we pattern our organization around theirs, how much we study them.''
The HarBowl ... Harbaugh: "I can't even get my arms around it. My dad said something to me -- my mom's and dad's parents are immigrants, salt-of-the-earth people. They treasure America; it's meant everything to them, being here. I hope people can see what an incredible moment this is for our country. This is America, how hard work can get you to a moment like this. This is the greatness of America."
We might be sick of John Harbaugh and his little brother Jim in two weeks -- heck, maybe in two hours -- but the story is too good. Sons of a coach. Jim was Baltimore's quarterback in 1998 (22nd-rated quarterback in the league: Jim Harbaugh, 72.9; 23rd: Peyton Manning, 71.2), the same year John was beating the bushes of college football as an assistant at Morehead State. Jim, always the starry Harbaugh. John, always in the shadow. John finally got his taste of the big leagues when the Ravens hired him to coach the team in 2008; if he wins the Super Bowl, he'll have exactly the same number of wins, a league-best 63, as the great Belichick over the past five seasons. Jim taking over a 49ers">49ers team with eight straight non-winning seasons and going 27-8-1 in his two seasons. And now, meeting in the biggest football game there is.
Feb. 3, in New Orleans: the AFC's fourth seed, Baltimore, 13-6, against the NFC's second seed, San Francisco, 13-4-1. We'll have time to dissect that. Let's see what's left in the wake of two compelling championship games.
A 20-0 lead last week against Seattle. A 17-0 lead Sunday against San Francisco. The Falcons salvaged a 30-28 win last week. They couldn't prevent a 28-24 loss Sunday, going scoreless in the second half after taking a 24-14 halftime lead. Roddy White slipped on the first possession of the second half, handing the Niners an interception. And Ryan muffed a shotgun snap in San Francisco territory on the next drive, with 16 minutes left.
Atlanta would have just two drives after that -- a three-and-out, and then a seven-minute drive at the end. Jim Trotter, sitting next to me in the press box, and I debated the merits of what Atlanta did, and it was certainly debatable. It was an all-in drive. Atlanta got the ball with 8:23 to play, down 28-24, at the 20, and it started to run the clock down. Clearly, what Mike Smith decided to do was try to score a touchdown here, and leave the Niners next to no time left for them to tie or win it.
I thought it was the right call, because the ball in the hands of Kaepernick by then was a dangerous weapon. It was dramatic, but Ryan, after being slammed to the turf by Ahmad Brooks and injuring his left shoulder late in the drive, didn't have it in him to finish it. The drive died at the San Francisco 10 with 69 seconds to go.
Moral of the story: You can slip on some incuts against some teams, and you can muff a perfectly good snap against some teams, and you can survive. But San Francisco is not just some team. What was so impressive about the Niners is how they won. It validated the risky decision, again, made by coach Jim Harbaugh two months ago to bench Alex Smith for Kaepernick. A week after Kaepernick rushed for an NFL single-game quarterback record 181 yards against the Packers, he had one designed run all game -- for minus-two yards -- as the Falcons played the San Francisco option very well. Atlanta, however, did not play meat-and-potatoes defense very well. Frank Gore gashed the Falcons, and no one covered Vernon Davis for much of the afternoon. Their 196 yards wore down the Falcons, and their three touchdowns won the game.
I was struck being in the 49ers locker room with what a moveable feast this team is. Davis hadn't caught more than two balls since Kaepernick took over as the starter in November; he caught five Sunday, for 106 yards. With Kaepernick's rise, Gore didn't have a 100-yard game in the last two months of the regular season. Players being players (humans being humans), stars aren't going to be thrilled if they're not fed the ball. But I think two things have happened here. One: The quarterbacks don't complain, at least not publicly, and Smith and Kaepernick have supported each other selflessly down the stretch of the season. "I believe the rest of the team basks in their unselfishness,'' said quarterback coach Geep Chryst. Two: Randy Moss, who is an effective player in the twilight, hasn't said one word about his role all season, though he'd surely like to be playing more than his 27-plays-a-game average. "Randy's been an incredible leader,'' said Davis. "He's a vital piece we might have missed last year."
Last year, the Niners collapsed under the weight of the Kyle Williams fumbles in the championship game loss to the Giants. This year, they survived the Michael Crabtree lost fumble at the Atlanta 1 early in the fourth quarter. Survived, and shrugged it off; five minutes later, they scored the winning touchdown.
San Francisco's a tough defense with vulnerable corners, with a chameleon offense that can beat you lots of ways. The Niners aren't invincible, but they certainly have championship qualities. Joe Flacco is going to have to use that downfield arm well for Baltimore to win in two weeks.
Last weekend, in Denver, I walked off the field with Joe Flacco after the 38-35 double-overtime win over the Broncos, and he stopped near the tunnel to sign a young Ravens fan's jersey. An adult next to the kid was thrilled.
"I guess you really shut up Skip Bayless today!'' the guy said to Flacco.
Flacco was concentrating on signing the kid's jersey. I looked at his face, and his expression didn't change, nor did he answer the guy about Bayless. Looking at Flacco's expression, I'm not sure he even knew who Skip Bayless was. Whatever, I'm convinced that blissful and perhaps willful ignorance is a big reason Flacco has been good in spots, like Sunday's win over the Patriots. I quote center Matt Birk in
I'm reminded of the scene in the Giants' locker room last year after the Super Bowl win over New England, when Eli Manning went walking past Justin Tuck, and Tuck said Manning would be the same after this game -- same expression, same goofy look, same attitude in the locker room -- whether they'd won or lost. He'd be disappointed, but he wouldn't throw his helmet. I asked Manning about it a few days later.
"I think it comes from the fact I can only do so much,'' Manning said. "And I want to give our team every chance to win, and I want to give myself every chance to compete and to win. I control half the game, and even then, I can't control one of our guys fumbling. So I have always had the attitude that if I do everything in my power to prepare, and then I have confidence that we've got a good plan and I know it's good enough to win, then I just go play and whatever happens happens. If we lose, will I be mad or upset? Yes. For a few days. But I think after some time, a few days, I'm not going to let it ruin my life for the next two months. I've got a wife and a daughter, and it's not fair to them to ruin the offseason because we lost a football game. I need to be there for them.''
That, to me, is Flacco. It's not the only way to win, but it's a way to win, and it's Flacco's way. The Ravens' offense is suited for him for a couple of reasons. Baltimore can live with the three-and-outs that Flacco's going to have because he's not the classic short-passing, chains-moving quarterback. As with the Niners, Flacco's not a stat guy. Never has been. He's not going to be a very highly rated quarterback because he'll throw downfield a lot, and downfield throwers don't have great completion percentages. But, obviously, it's good enough.
Flacco just turned 28 the other day. And he's already won more road playoff games, six, than any quarterback ever to play. Even if you limit that to the playoff-expansion era, it means he has more road playoff wins than Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, John Elway, Dan Marino and whoever else you want to throw in there.
The matchup against San Francisco is a good chess match because San Francisco is good at bringing pressure and Flacco is good at hanging in the pocket and taking hits and waiting for his receivers to run themselves open. (See: Flacco to Jacoby Jones, 70 yards, divisional playoff miracle).
That's going to be one of the great things about this Super Bowl. We'll be watching two quarterbacks who can throw beautiful deep balls. One can run as well as any quarterback ever has. Flacco wasn't good enough to start at Pitt (so they said), and thus transferred to Delaware. Kaepernick didn't have much college football interest (well, Dartmouth wanted him), but Nevada offered him a full ride after watching him play a basketball game. True story.
So it's Nevada versus Delaware, in Ray Lewis' last game, in a brother-versus-brother Super Bowl, with the 49ers back in the saddle baby. This is going to be a fun game.
One last thing: The two teams played HarBowl I on Thanksgiving night in 2011. Baltimore won 16-6, Flacco besting Alex Smith in a snoozer. That night, the teams amassed 22 points and 423 yards; there was one drive longer than 55 yards in the game.
I don't bet, but if I did, I'd put my money on more points this time. And a lot more yards.
Maybe they're just not good enough. Tom Brady was 27 years old when New England last won a Super Bowl. He'll be 36 when next season starts. Bill Belichick will be 61. Exactly how many more chances will these two men have to win a fourth Super Bowl before retiring? Belichick has shown no signs of wanting to quit. Brady continues to say he wants to play until he's 40 -- at least.
All well and good. But in a flat-cap era, New England will have to figure out whether to pay Wes Welker $11.4 million this year as a franchise player, or some other number with a multi-year deal. They'll have to figure out if Rob Gronkowski is simply unlucky or injury-prone. And they'll have to figure out if Belichick can get off the cornerback-picking schneid. He's been terrible at it, as we saw when the only mainstay at cornerback, Aqib Talib, went down with an injury in the game against Baltimore. In this day and age, with Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Flacco, Cam Newton, Peyton Manning and Matt Ryan on the schedule next year, New England has to get better in the secondary, or risk Brady's career being played out without winning another title. Playoff record since the last Super Bowl: 8-7.
Looking back on that 2011 draft-day trade, when Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff moved up 21 spots with Cleveland to draft Jones, Dimitroff dealt first-round picks in 2011 and '12, a second-rounder in 2011 and fourth-rounders in '11 and '12. It turns out that Cleveland got defensive tackles Phil Taylor and Brandon Weeden with the ones, wideout Greg Little with the two, fullback Owen Marecic with one of the fours, and used the other four to trade up one spot for Trent Richardson this year. Advantage Atlanta so far. Weeden's going to have to be a player for this deal to look good for Cleveland.
Arians, after a lifetime of NFL assistant jobs, took the interim Colts job while Pagano battled leukemia, went 9-3 in the process, and got the final available coaching job Friday when the Cardinals named him to replace Ken Whisenhunt. I asked him one of the more uncomfortable questions I'd asked anyone in a while:
And Polian must have done a good job, because Te'o accepted Notre Dame's scholarship offer. But my point is, imagine being a kid in high school and knowing some poor guy weekly is schlepping thousands of miles to watch you play a football game, then turning right around and flying back -- and I'm sure Brian Polian wasn't the only coach from the mainland doing that. Imagine feeling so entitled and at age 16 and 17 knowing people would take care of any little problem you had to attend their school. He's certainly not the only one, but I've always thought so many of these privileged kids don't learn to think on their own, or make smart decisions on their own; the decisions are mostly made for them.
So when something like this phony girlfriend thing comes along, and you've got some idiot hoaxer filling your head with lies, how do you know they're lies? Again -- I don't know what happened and I'm not covering the story, other than how it affects his NFL stock. I think teams, by the way, will send private investigators to sniff around the story so they will have a better handle on it before the scouting combine in late February. We'll see what they find out.
One other way he'll fit in the Jacksonville front office -- owner Shad Khan and son Tony believe in taking advantage of analytics and the information overload flowing over the game today -- is that he won't fight analytics the way former GM Gene Smith did. "I'm always looking for ways to be innovative,'' Caldwell said. "We used analytics in Atlanta, and I think it's critical not just in football, but in life."
I spoke to one high-ranking team executive late Friday, after eight NFL coaching vacancies, five GM vacancies and one vice president of player personnel slot were filled -- all by white men. "Shocking,'' he said. "One by one they get filled, and you don't realize what happened until it's over, but that's not good for our league. Not good."
"I don't know what the answer is,'' a downcast Tony Dungy said Saturday night. "I just know the system is broken."
Look: It's not only minority candidates who should feel snubbed this morning. Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer got robbed too. Bruce Arians almost did -- he filled the last opening, Arizona, and was a bit incredulous that he was interviewed in only two of eight places after stepping into a very difficult situation in Indy this year and going 9-3 as an interim coach.
But the minority scoreboard is not good either. The fact that in 2013 only one minority coach came close to a head-coaching job (Ray Horton in Arizona) is a black eye. The fact that Lovie Smith (84 wins and a Super Bowl berth in Chicago, coming off a 10-win season) will sit out the year after being passed over this month is bad too.
According to research by my SI NFL writer friend Jim Trotter, 55 teams have won 10 games or more in the last five seasons, and Smith is the only one to have been fired the year he won double-digits. (Tony Dungy retired from the Colts after the 2008 season, but it was his choice.) Smith, after getting released by the Bears, had three interviews and no offers.
Worse, I think, is that candidates like Perry Fewell, Jim Caldwell and David Shaw don't get a sniff. Fewell is the Giants defensive coordinator who choreographed last year's Super Bowl-winning run over Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Alex Smith and Tom Brady and held those four foes to an average of 14 points a game. No interviews this year. Caldwell won 28 games in three Indy seasons and loosened the reins on Joe Flacco and the Baltimore offense since taking over as Ravens offensive coordinator six weeks ago. No interviews. Shaw has led Stanford to two top-10 finishes, a 23-4 record and two BCS bowl games in his two seasons as head coach, and he has a nine-year record as an NFL assistant. 'No interviews -- though in fairness, he said he wanted to stay at Stanford this year. Still, did any teams call?'
"I think everybody is a little disappointed,'' Hue Jackson said Sunday. He's African-American, and he coached the Raiders to an 8-8 record in his one year as a head coach, 2011. "All you want and all you ask for is hope. You believe there's going to be a chance. I think we [minorities] can accept if we're not chosen, but if you're not chosen, you want to believe it was a level playing field. And when Perry Fewell wins the Super Bowl last year and doesn't get an interview this year, and when Jim Caldwell, with his record, doesn't get an interview ... I just would like to be sure it's fair for everyone."
Chris Mortensen said Friday the league will consider expanding the Rooney Rule -- mandating at least one minority candidate be interviewed for every opening -- to the coordinator level next year. That's smart. Jackson made another point: Earlier in his career, the league held a minority coaches' symposium for prospective minority coaches and coordinators, and sat an NFL owner at small tables with groups of minority candidates. "I sat with [Denver owner] Pat Bowlen that day, and I found it extremely valuable -- you felt you were sitting with a real decision-maker.'' The league could, and should, build on and expand both of those programs.
One other point: It's not just the coaching that needs attention here. Owners sign off on the coaching decisions. But more and more, it's general managers who have the primary role in winnowing the list of candidates down. The six major football jobs had two African-American finalists -- Ray Farmer in Cleveland, Jimmy Raye in San Diego -- but neither got the job despite impressive player-personnel resumes.
I'm reminded of one young African-American executive who got a chance as a young scout. Ozzie Newsome, the former star tight end learning the scouting and football business under owner Art Modell and coach Bill Belichick in Cleveland, was 39 when Modell of the new Baltimore Ravens tabbed him to be the relocated franchise's first GM in Maryland. That was early in 1996. The Ravens were choosing fourth and 26th in the first round. Modell had his eye on troubled Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips, thinking a home-run-hitting running back would be an exciting ticket-seller in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. Newsome and his scouts liked athletic and tall UCLA tackle Jonathan Ogden. Modell let it be known he still wanted Phillips, but wasn't going to stand in Newsome's way. You know how that goes. You had better be right, son. Newsome picked Ogden. Later in the same first round, Newsome tabbed University of Miami linebacker Ray Lewis.
Ozzie Newsome, in the first round of his first draft, had the kind of round very few GMs (maybe none) have ever had. I don't make book on such things, but it seems pretty likely Ogden and Lewis will both be enshrined in Canton one day.
Interesting what can happen when you give a man an opportunity.
For the last three seasons, Dungy has been a long-distance commuter from Tampa to Oregon, while son Eric played as a reserve wideout (after redshirting in 2010) for Chip Kelly's Oregon Ducks. Dungy has seen practice, and he's been to many games. I asked him what kind of NFL coach Kelly would be, a topic of some difference of opinion because Kelly has never coached in the NFL.
"He'll be good,'' Dungy said. "One of the things everybody's getting wrong is that he has to coach one way. Not true. He'll adjust. I think he'll be able to win in a lot of ways. I think the offense he'll run will be very similar to what Buffalo ran with Jim Kelly, the K-gun. High-pace, fast tempo. His thing is tempo, and making a defense respond to what he's doing. Say it's 3rd-and-5, and you have all these tendencies from watching his offense -- what they'll do on 3rd-and-5. But your pre-snap stuff is out the window because their tempo isn't going to give you time to substitute or to think that much. The thing with Chip is it's not just the scheme or the plays he's running. His detail work is strong. He outhustles, outpaces, out-thinks people. His practices are so fast. His team gets used to doing everything at a faster pace.''
I asked Dungy how that would work in the NFL, with speed-practices and constant no-huddling. Wouldn't veteran players chafe at run-run-running?
"Ask Jim Kelly and Bruce Smith,'' he said. "That became their identity, and they loved it. With players, if you can prove you're helping them win, they're all for it.''
Talk about Kelly reminds me of the talk when Jimmy Johnson -- who also never had coached in the NFL -- took the Dallas job in 1989. The league frowned upon his mode of defense, small players playing fast, and said big offenses would sledgehammer his Cowboys. Well, in Dallas' first six years after the Johnson hire, the Cowboys won three Super Bowls. Not saying Kelly will have anywhere near that success. But I like teams hiring wunderkinds. It's fun for the game. And I think Kelly's smart enough to figure out how to win with different styles of quarterbacks and players.
I can't let the Kelly hire pass without a word of reservation.
Let me say it is a slight reservation. Very slight. Had I been an owner or GM seeking a coach this offseason, Kelly would have been my No. 1 choice, by far. He's the most imaginative offensive coach out there right now, and you see the way the game has changed this season. Four teams -- Carolina, Washington, Seattle, San Francisco -- running the quarterback and moving the pocket consistently, with three of the four (excluding Cam Newton) making the playoffs. The read-option. So much spread stuff. No-huddling everywhere, including the Patriots and Ravens, who just played in the AFC Championship Game. So an imaginative offensive guy who's been a resource person for Belichick and won from the jump as a college head coach ... easy call.
But Kelly had the Tampa Bay job last year, and backed out as final terms of the contract were being worked out, ostensibly because he couldn't be assured that his hand-picked replacement would succeed him at Oregon. This year, when Kelly talked to Cleveland, Buffalo and Philadelphia, every team sensed some ambivalence; he loved the Oregon job and life so much he wasn't sure he wanted to leave. Which is totally understandable. Great campus, great place, great school, great team. The Eagles felt him waffle -- on Monday, he was in Los Angeles, recruiting an offensive tackle prospect for Oregon -- and were certain he'd be their coach only after he told his team Wednesday.
I don't know if it's true he'd only have coached in Eugene or Philadelphia. Maybe he was turned off by Cleveland. But when the Browns felt him waffle, president Joe Banner told me, "We removed ourselves from the process. We really liked Chip. He's intriguing, a very different thinker, and very smart. But you could see he was uncertain what he wanted to do. He may be in Philadelphia 10 years or longer and have a terrific career. But the fact he committed to Tampa Bay last year, backed out, then seemed all year to be leaning toward going to the NFL, then being so uncertain with us, we just felt it was too big a gamble. If there was no ambivalence, we may have offered him the job.''
I'm not saying Kelly will be Bobby Petrino or Nick Saban. But I am saying no one knows how a man who has been with dominant teams in Oregon is going to a team that needs to be fixed in one of the toughest towns in the United States. I'm just saying it's going to be a challenge Chip Kelly's never faced. Not even close.
In the past 13 months, we've seen two front office hiring seasons in which Jacksonville, Arizona, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Oakland, San Diego, Denver, Chicago, Carolina and St. Louis have hired road scouts as either general managers or player-personnel czars. Indy GM Ryan Grigson was just voted executive of the year by the Pro Football Writers of America; Grigson and Seattle GM John Schneider were likely the leading vote-getters in any GM-of-the-year derby this season. Both longtime road scouts who still travel to scout college players extensively with their big titles.
The fact is, with rookies playing bigger roles than ever, teams can turn quickly. In each direction. All you have to do is look at the rookie classes of two teams in 2012 to see that. The Seahawks improved by four wins this year. The Steelers regressed by four wins this year. The 2012 draft, for both teams, was a big reason.
The Steelers got two bad injuries in training camp, to first- and third-round picks David DeCastro, a guard, and linebacker Sean Spence. DeCastro returned for the last three games, had a disastrous outing against the Bengals' Geno Atkins, and basically had a washout of a season. Spence suffered a bad knee injury in the preseason and missed the season. Second-round pick Mike Adams, a tackle, had a poor preseason but played better as the season progressed.
Here's where the draft got dicey for Pittsburgh. Fourth-round running back Chris Rainey played sparingly, then was cut this month after an altercation with a woman. Fifth-round pick Alameda Ta'amu was waived after a DUI in midseason, then re-signed late in the season. Pittsburgh's four seventh-round picks were non-factors. In 2013 and beyond, DeCastro and maybe Adams could be reliable players. But Pittsburgh drafted nine players last April, and through some fault of their own and through injuries, the Steelers got very low impact from the draft, particularly where it was needed most -- on the offensive line.
Now for Seattle. Seattle got an eight-sack pass-rusher, Bruce Irvin, in the first round; a potential Defensive Rookie of the Year, linebacker Bobby Wagner, to buttress a weak 'backer corps in the second round, and a potential franchise quarterback (though it's still early to pass final judgment), Russell Wilson, in the third round. The Seahawks also selected a solid backup to Marshawn Lynch in the fourth round, Robert Turbin, a part-time starter at guard in the seventh round, J.R. Sweezy, and nickel backs and special teamers Winston Guy and Jeremy Lane in the sixth. Imagine drafting strong candidates for the offensive and defensive rookie awards -- and getting them with the 47th and 75th overall picks.
The Steelers' GM, Kevin Colbert, has long been one of the best personnel men in the league, and as you can see, what happened this year in some ways was up to the injury gods. But Schneider had as good a year as a draftsman can have in 2012, and it's a big reason the Seahawks advanced to the NFL's final eight -- and came within a 48-yard Matt Bryant field goal of the final four.
On Thursday, Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff walked into the club's weight room, and there was Gonzalez, dripping with sweat, working with his 2012 discovery, the kettlebell. That's the Russian weight-training instrument, a round ball of cast iron with a handle on it, that trainers have been using as a newfangled flexibility and strength tool in America over the past few years -- -- and something Gonzalez began using last year to increase forearm strength. His theory: Stronger forearms would make it harder for safeties and linebacker to chop receptions out of his hands over the middle.
"Working 'til the end,'' Dimitroff said to Gonzalez.
What would he expect? When Dimitroff traded a second-round pick to Kansas City for Gonzalez in 2009 (it became cornerback/returner Javier Arenas from the 2010 draft), he thought he'd be getting his money's worth if Gonzalez played two years. He played four -- and has stuck to his feeling that this is probably the end of his career. He's still healthy enough to play one, two or three more years -- average receptions per year in Kansas City: 76.3; average receptions per year in Atlanta: 81.2 -- but I can tell you after a long midseason conversation with Gonzalez, he's in a been-there, done-that, is-that-all-there-is phase of his life. He could keep playing, but at what physical, personal and family cost, and he also knows he can do TV and probably do it well with his Hollywood looks and strong football opinions. So I expect Sunday was his last football game.
"It's been a great ride,'' Gonzalez said when it was over Sunday, not definitively saying he'd played his last game. But those around the team think he has. "I have no regrets."
If this is it, Gonzalez retires as the second-leading receiver of all time: 307 catches behind Jerry Rice (first), 140 catches ahead of Marvin Harrison (third). But most notable is how he has distanced himself from the other tight ends in history. Gonzalez has 427 more catches than any other tight end ever. Where he ranks versus other tight ends in the all-time top 100 pass catchers ever:
It's a sign of the passing times that Witten might challenge him -- but he'll need five healthy seasons to do so.
"In the future,'' Gonzalez told me in October, "maybe I'll have a moment of clarity and think about how amazing this all is. I never imagined doing this. I never imagined being great."
The Deep End
"How quickly things change in the NFL. Slightly over a year ago the Pittsburgh Steelers were replacing Bruce Arians as their offensive coordinator with Todd Haley and now, on the back of a remarkable season with Indianapolis, he is Arizona's new coach.
"Without Arians as his mentor, this was probably Ben Roethlisberger's best year; at PFF we gave him his highest grade by some margin, seeing his percentage of poor throws drop from 16.4 percent in 2011 to 10.5 this year. The truth is the offense wasn't at the heart of the Steelers' problems this year, but the defense, while still good, slipped from its suffocating best and allowed 5.4 points more per game.
"There was only one significant difference between the Arians- and Haley-coached Steelers offense: Pittsburgh didn't throw deep nearly as much this year. In 2011 Roethlisberger threw deep (over 20 yards) on 13.6 percent of his drop-backs (good for ninth among ranked quarterbacks) while in 2012 that number dropped to 10.5 percent (26th). He threw far fewer posts and corners and compensated with more hitches to his wideouts and passes to the backs.
"In Indianapolis, Arians brought the deep ball with him. He had Andrew Luck air it out (going over 20 yards) on 15.9 percent of his throws. And while the rookie may have been inconsistent, he was also remarkably resilient. He was knocked to the ground 148 times during the season, an unbelievable 32 percent more than any other player, and never missed a snap. In fact, it could have been considerably worse but for Luck proving to be a skilled scrambler as well, actually rushing for more yards than Cam Newton when forced out of the pocket.
"What does it mean for Arizona quarterbacks, whoever they may be in 2013? Based on the evidence from Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, implementing a long-ball passing game requires a number of things. First, an accurate quarterback. Roethlisberger in 2011 wasn't great, with a 34 percent completion rate over 20 yards, while Luck was very good in 2012 at 43 percent. Second, without a great offensive line, you need to accept your QB will be hit regularly and needs to be able to take his knocks. Even the incredibly tough Roethlisberger suffered in this regard.
"As a group, the Cardinals' current passer threw deep on only 8.6 percent of 2012 dropbacks and had a 22 percent accuracy rate when doing so. The offensive line, while improving, is still poor and the fragility of the guys behind them is well known. Kevin Kolb made strides this year and it would be wrong to write him off as an option, but it seems unlikely he'll fit the bill as another Andrew Luck. So who else could fit the bill? In 2011 Matt Moore threw deep on 17 percent of throws, with an accuracy rate of 48 percent in the Dolphins late-season resurgence. Matt Flynn has a much sturdier frame, although his body of work is limited before you even consider trade value ... and who knows if Seattle would trade him within the division?
"Arians faced the same difficult task turning around the Indianapolis offense in 2012 as he will with the Cardinals in 2013. One slight difference in the two places: He won't have Luck to work with in Arizona."
The Award Section
Quote of the Week I
"We've come full circle, and the dynasty will prevail."
Quote of the Week II
"Tell the Patriots to have fun at the Pro Bowl! Arrogant f------."
Quote of the Week III
"I love Andy Reid, but I think near the end it was a little bit depressing. I think there was a little bit of a loss of focus from Andy Reid.''
Stat of the Week
If Ray Lewis -- who wore an Art Modell T-shirt under his jersey Sunday -- has much left in the tank, well, he's a pretty good physical specimen. Lewis turns 38 in May, and the Super Bowl will be his last football game.
The Ravens have played 87, 87 and 83 defensive snaps in their three playoff games, in Baltimore, Denver and Foxboro, in the span of 15 days ... when they averaged playing 68 defensive snaps per game in the regular season. Lewis has played all 257 defensive snaps. And though Lewis hasn't been his 27-year-old sideline-to-sideline dominating self, he has been consistently around the ball to the tune of:
Stan Musial Stat of the Week
(Well, of course, other than the fact that Stan and Lillian Musial were married for 71 years.)
Musial's career hit total: 3,630.
Musial hits at home: 1,815.
Musial hits on the road: 1,815.
Stan Musial Factoid of the Week
As pointed out by reader Adam Mirchin: Stan Musial and Ken Griffey Jr. were both born on Nov. 21 in Donora, Penn.
Musial, 1920; Griffey, 1969.
Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
According to the Associated Press, the bachelor home Chip Kelly leaves behind in Eugene contains 5.5 bathrooms, an indoor basketball court and an indoor pool.
Obituary of the Week
Margalit Fox's obit of Dear Abby (Pauline Phillips' pen name) -- who gave advice in newspapers across the country to my parents' generation and to mine -- was a keeper.
Abby was a woman-empowerer and common-sense-maker. I remember one of her responses, when a woman bemoaned how old she would be if she went back to school in her late '30s to get a college degree, and Abby wrote: "Well, how old will you be in five years if you
Haven't read her in 25 years, I bet. She had Alzheimer's later in life and her daughter took over the syndicated column. But that was a never-miss column in the King household, for everyone.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
I got into a taxi on the east side of Manhattan Thursday about 4:45 p.m. and said to the driver: "LaGuardia Airport. Delta Airlines."
The driver began fooling with a GPS on the front dash, typing in "L-A-G-W-A-R'' -- and I say, "Can I help you?''
"Sorry, sir,'' the slightly accented Indian fellow said. "First day on the job. Putting it in GPS.''
"Well, all you have to do is go down this street 'til you see signs for the Midtown Tunnel,'' I said, And he typed in "M-I-D-T-O-W-N T-U-N-N-E-L.'' And we were off. He was a timid driver, I could tell, driving slowly and getting honked at, and then driving slower. We got through the tunnel and I said, "You'll see a sign up here for LaGuardia.'' So he headed for the exit and got on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway ... and then, inexplicably, he got off at the first exit. Not the exit for LaGuardia. "Sorry,'' he said. "I thought this was the way."
We wound through the streets of Queens and I decided to get out my phone and help the guy. So we wound our way back toward the airport, the long and slow way, and finally he had the airport in his sights.
"Terminal D,'' I said. "'D' as in dog. For Delta."
LaGuardia is a bizarre airport in the first place. You can go to Terminal A for the Delta Shuttle, and the other Delta flights are out of Terminals C and D. So this guy saw "Delta Shuttle'' and took the road for Terminal A.
I was by now on the phone with an NFL general manager, talking about the news of the day, and I asked him to hold on a second.
"No!'' I said. "Not Terminal A. Terminal D. 'D' like dog.''
"This is Delta,'' he said.
"You'll have to turn around and go to Terminal D,'' I said.
So he went around the front of Terminal A, turned around, and went back toward the main road leading past the airport, Grand Central Parkway, and I told him to take a left so we could get back closer to the other terminals. Instead, he did a U-turn. And went back to Terminal A.
Had to hang up.
"Sir,'' I said ...
"So sorry! So sorry ...''
"Sir, forget your GPS now.'' I directed him back out to the road where he could get to Terminal D. By now, he was totally confused and nervous, driving in the right lane, slowly. We came to a fork in the access road to the terminals. To the left was Terminal B, C or D. To the right was Grand Central Parkway West. I said nothing. Do you actually have to say something there?
The driver hesitated. He jigged left, then pulled the wheel right -- onto the ramp for the Grand Central Parkway back into Manhattan.
"Jesus,'' I said. "You're going to have to pull over now.''
He pulled over to the curb, not quite onto the highway yet, and I paid him and got out. "Sir,'' I said, "you're going to have to learn how to do this job before you pick anyone else up."
"I am so sorry sir! So sorry! So sorry! My first day!''
I took my rolling suitcase out of the backseat, put my backpack on, and walked 10 or 12 minutes through the parking lots into Terminal D. Look on the bright side, I told myself -- at least the travel note of the week is already mined.
Tweet of the Week I
"Hi, is this Jack Harbaugh? Yes, this is the media. All 10,000 of us. Can we come over and see your family photo albums?"
Tweet of the Week II
"Sorry I missed Mike Nolan after the game. He congratulated a lot of our guys along with his wife. #ClassAct He set the foundation''
Tweet of the Week III
"I think SF's defense is stunned. I know I am!''
Tweet of the Week IV
"Twitter thuggin': because real life is too dangerous."
Tweet of the Week V
"God would not test you if you weren't ready.''
Tweet of the Week VI
"Andy Reid wins 4 games and everybody wants him Lovie smith wins 10 games and can't get a job.
By the way, @chrisrock on the other event of the week: "Leave Manti alone."
Tweet of the Week VII
"Farewell, London, you exquisite, exotic, lovely dame. On to Newark, you smiling, welcoming girl next door."
Ten Things I Think I Think
b. The Atlanta crowd. Nutty, loud. I don't often say this about Atlanta fandom. But that crowd helped the Falcons a lot early.
c. Julio Jones, making GM Thomas Dimitroff's 2011 mega-trade look pretty good.
d. Randy Moss, role player. Love it.
e. Eddie DeBartolo, teary postgame.
f. The 49ers, getting back on top the right way -- through player development and smart risk-taking.
g. Thomas DeCoud. Gaining a lot of respect for him as a player.
h. The brains of Tony Gonzalez. See that touchdown catch late in the first half? Gonzalez baited Patrick Willis in the middle of the field, making him think the ball wasn't coming his way, then he bolted two steps in front of Willis and Matt Ryan found him with a laser. Veteran move.
j. Corner, safety, inside linebacker ... Gonzalez didn't care who covered him Sunday. He caught balls on all of them.
k. Ray Rice's ability to break tackles inside, run laterally, and run strong.
n. Alfonzo Dennard, the seventh-round cornerback from Nebraska, playing physically and with confidence after Aqib Talib went out injured. Big character question coming out last April, but certainly looks like he was worth the risk.
p. What a catch by Pitta for a touchdown on the next snap.
q. This column from Gail Collins of the
r. Adam Schefter's interview with an emotional Lee Evans -- he of the chopped-out pass that would have won the AFC title game for Baltimore last year -- in the ESPN pregame show. Liked how he admitted his low came when he walked into a silent Ravens locker room after the loss, thinking he'd lost it for all those teammates.
s. Finally, this tweet from @ConnorBarwin98 of the Houston Texans: "Ray Lewis is going to make tebow look like an atheist the next two weeks." Not bad, Mr. Barwin.
a. Atlanta's defensive plan on Vernon Davis. On two of his catches on the drive that made it 17-14 Atlanta, Davis was uncovered.
b. The communication in the Niners secondary, early.
c. Cover somebody, Stephen Nicholas.
d. We all said David Akers would wound the Niners at some point, and he did. Doink.
e. Don't taunt the kicker, Falcons. Bush.
f. Keep your eye on the ball, Matt Ryan.
g. Wes Welker's key drop.
As the new Indy coordinator said Saturday: "It'll be a variation of the West Coast -- the West Coast principles, the short, efficient passing game, a high completion rate, but I enjoy watching our guys come off the ball, the guys up front and try to knock the opponent back. I'm a big believer in the power running game, running gap schemes and I think ultimately that opens up your passing game, play-action passes ... and get free access outside on the perimeter and find ways to get Reggie Wayne the ball. I want to be flexible schematically and make sure that we find ways to get the ball into our dynamic playmakers' hands."
Luck was a 71 percent passer at Stanford in 2011, 54.1 percent at the Colts last year. Under Hamilton, it'll be surprising if isn't in the mid- to high-60s next season.
Said Carlesimo: "Vince was a close friend of the family. My father and Vince went to school [Fordham] together. When Vince retired, his big, huge retirement dinner in Green Bay, my father spoke at the dinner. He always wanted to bring Vince back to coach football at Fordham. And they had conversations about it. I can't remember whether it was between Green Bay and Washington or what. But he really believed that Vince might do that, and that would be the thing that enabled Fordham to get back to major-college football."
Let's see. Lombardi was the right guard on Fordham's Seven Blocks of Granite offensive line in 1936. He was an assistant coach at Fordham in 1946 and '47. He quit coaching the Packers after the 1967 championship season and became the Green Bay GM in 1968. Then he coached Washington in 1969 before dying of colon cancer in September 1970. Just thinking how cool it would have been had a healthy Lombardi coached Washington a couple more season, then took over Fordham in, say, 1973 at age 60. Alabama ... Penn State ... Notre Dame ... Texas ... Oklahoma ... Fordham? How about 65,000 in Yankee Stadium in the late '70s to see Bear Bryant and Vince Lombardi duel?
a. Happy Inauguration Day, America.
b. RIP, Earl Weaver. What a memorable character and a great baseball man.
c. Newspaper story of the week, for my money, from Tom Rock of
e. Al Pacino. Joe Paterno. What is wrong with this picture?
f. Scent of a coach. Hoo-hah!
g. Joe Posnanski has to be honored that Michael Corleone's going to play a role he wrote, though. Come on, Joe. Admit it.
h. Coffeenerdness: So I spent part of Friday and Saturday mornings (longer Saturday) writing in a very user-friendly Starbucks in the coolio Buckhead neighborhood north of Atlanta. And at a table in the corner on Saturday was a regular, an older man reading the paper a little after 7. He was joined by a pal around 8:30. Then, around 9, an apparent stranger to both, a woman, happened by and they began talking. They stayed until 10:30. I thought how great that was that three people could converse for that long and solve the problems of the world. I also thought: I don't think I've ever ambled into a bar or coffee place thinking I was staying five minutes and staying an hour and a half or so after some happenstance meeting with strangers. Imagine having the time to be able to do that. It's foreign to me. I'm missing something, aren't I?
i. Beernerdness: Had the pleasure of stopping by the Sweetwater Brewery in Atlanta Friday evening. Cool venue. Had fun sampling the wares, and found the 420 Extra Pale Ale the best. Overly hoppy, in a good way. Good beer, good people there.
k. Only in New York, Cindy Adams, only in New York!
l. For the record, I stand firmly behind my note last week that the Jets were preparing in their contract offer to David Caldwell a $1 million housing allowance, despite reports to the contrary in New York.
m. Ashley Fox, ESPN pal, had her yellow lab, Kenyon Martin, die last year, and the family was in mourning. But a new dog, a black lab pup, is coming in February, and the basketball naming continues. The Fox family is naming the pup "Siva.'' After Louisville point guard Peyton Siva. The Foxes like basketball. Louisville basketball in particular.
n. Does that mean the Kings can name the next dog "Hanrahan?"
o. Never Forget Newtown Dept.: Last week, civic leaders at a town council meeting in Stratford, Conn., voted unanimously to name a new K-through-2 school in town after local resident Victoria Soto, killed while shielding her first-grade students in the Newtown school massacre last month. All present at the meeting stood and cheered when the vote to name the new school "Victoria Soto School" was passed. "I feel honored that my sister's name will stay alive and she will never be forgotten,'' said Jillian Soto.
p. I hope Dawn Hochsprung School is next, somewhere; she was the principal who was murdered when she charged killer Adam Lanza moments after he broke into the school. And I hope Anne Marie Murphy School comes soon too. Her body was found shielding young children from the killer they couldn't escape. And school psychologist Mary Scherlach too. And the others ... honor them all. Never forget.
The Adieu Haiku
August office pools: Who had Flacco, Kaep this far? Relax. No one did.