So late Sunday night, as the Steelers were winning the final game of the 2014 regular season, completing the last bit of the playoff puzzle, I had a well-placed 49ers operative on the phone from California, discussing the inevitable that had happened 90 minutes earlier: The 49ers and coach Jim Harbaugh, after four tumultuous but highly successful seasons, were divorcing. The press release sounded amicable enough (SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS AND JIM HARBAUGH MUTUALLY AGREE TO PART WAYS, was the headline), but don’t they always?
"This year was doomed from the start," said the 49er smart guy. “It’s the classic example of, ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ This organization was totally tight the first year or so Jim was here, but lately, especially this year, it was always, ‘Sources say this, sources say that.’ You cannot run a successful organization with one side of the building leaking stuff to hurt the other side of the building. And it never stopped."
Busy week 17. We’ll get to the following in a few paragraphs:
• Playoff preview. Some fun games this weekend, and none more than Ravens-Steelers. The John Harbaugh-Mike Tomlin teams have already met in an AFC Championship Game (2008) and AFC divisional game (2010). Now it’s the wild-card round’s turn, Saturday night at Heinz Field.
• Coaching carousel. (Always hated that phrase. A carousel is a place of fun. You think Mike Smith is having any fun today? Or his doomed staff in Atlanta?) What’s most interesting to me: where Rex Ryan lands, and who his new staff becomes. My money is on Atlanta or Oakland.
• I have made my choice (or choices) in the crowded MVP field. It’s a fun race in this I’m-right-and-so-you’re-an-idiot Twitter era, and I spent a few hours over the weekend divining my decision, and then it got messed up in the early Sunday window, and then messed up further in the late-afternoon window, but early this morning, the light bulb went off and … well, read on and you’ll see.
Is He Worth The Trouble?
There’s so much to like about Jameis Winston—his strength, playmaking and toughness—but his off-field behavior is so distressing. Greg A. Bedard discusses the scrutiny the FSU quarterback will face if he declares for the NFL draft.
• The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are on the clock.
For the first 58 minutes of the Saints-Bucs finale Sunday at the Pirate Ship, Tampa never trailed. A Tampa win would have pushed the Bucs out of the top slot in the April 30 draft and handed it to Tennessee. Marcus Mariota, the Oregon quarterback, enters the new year as the clear No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft. Lucky for Tampa’s future, New Orleans scored nine points in the last two minutes and won the game. In 132 days, the Bucs will be happy Lovie Smith rested some of his best players down the stretch, and happy that Drew Brees woke up to win an otherwise totally meaningless game.
• Memorializing 13 football men who made a difference. 2014 saw Steelers architects Bill Nunn and Chuck Noll die, in the 40th anniversary season of the birth of their dynasty. Nunn lives on to this day, and Noll, well, you’ve got to read the Frenchy Fuqua story about him.
• What makes Khalil Mack tick? I like this guy. And he could be the foundation that makes the Raiders mean something, soon.
• I binge-listened to the “Serial” podcast, all 512 minutes of it. Wait, you only want football headlines? Can’t we have a little bit of engrossing drama here?
But the story of the day—probably the football story of the year—is the 49ers pasturizing Harbaugh so he can seek his fortune elsewhere, like the University of Michigan, where he would become the highest-paid coach in college sports history. It’s been a long time coming. In retrospect, the Niners would have been smarter to cut the cord last winter if Harbaugh could have been convinced to take the Cleveland job; that way, San Francisco could have gotten compensation for him, and the rebuilding could have started earlier. Instead, this was a wasted year.
For eight straight years pre-Harbaugh, the Niners didn’t have a winning season. In his first three regular seasons, he restored the glory of the franchise. San Francisco went 37-10-1, a stunning turnaround, and reached the NFC title game three years in a row. Then this 8-8 disaster happened. For the sake of a proud franchise, I just hope CEO Jed York and GM Trent Baalke know what they’re doing, letting Harbaugh walk instead of doing major surgery on their relationship and somehow, some way finding a way to make it work.
In October, I ran into Ronnie Lott in Chicago. He was stunned the Niners seemed ready to divorce Harbaugh, and recalled how uncomfortable it often was playing for Bill Walsh. “Getting guys to play at their highest level is not always a comfortable thing to do, but that’s what Bill coached us to do," Lott said. “I wanted a coach who’d get the best out of me, out of us. I didn’t want a buddy."
After a 7-4 start this season, Harbaugh's Niners limped to a 1-4 finish down the stretch. (Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)
That led me to call Carmen Policy, team president/ombudsman during the Walsh era, who I recall was so often the referee between Walsh and many in the organization, occasionally owner Eddie DeBartolo. “There were times under Bill where it was a constant crisis-management situation," said Policy. “But you’re winning, and so I’d say, ‘If we can just keep it together for the next month, month and a half, we’ll be okay.’ Eddie had this insatiable desire to win, and Bill did too. Life at the 49ers wasn’t about being easy, or about everyone getting along. It was all about winning, every day. I don’t know that any players loved Bill, but they had respect for him, and they knew he could lead them to the promised land."
Walsh lasted 10 years. He won three Super Bowls. He averaged 10.2 wins a year, including the postseason.
Harbaugh lasted four years. He won no Super Bowls, losing the only one he coached in. He averaged 12.3 wins a year, including the postseason.
York said Sunday night that Baalke would be in charge of the coaching search. And boy, will there be pressure on the next head coach. I hear a few things: Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will be interviewed, and he has a chance to get the permanent job; Fangio is very well-respected within the building, and in particular on the staff. I hear Baalke may have interest in UCLA coach Jim Mora, who was San Francisco’s defensive coordinator for five years (1999-2003). And I hear the offensive staff, at least most of it, is likely to be purged—though Baalke and/or York could make a couple of aides (offensive line coach Mike Solari, running backs coach Tom Rathman) part of the deal for the new coach.
Whoever gets the job will have much to live up to, and many problems. Can Colin Kaepernick be saved as a player? He has regressed significantly this year, and the most important coach on the staff may not be the head coach but rather Kaepernick’s mentor. Who will that be? Is Vernon Davis any good anymore? Can the aging and rehabbing defense rebound?
Fans don’t care who’s at fault. They don’t care that Harbaugh was increasingly difficult to get along with. They know that he, probably more than any single person, was responsible for taking the Niners from irrelevant to the Super Bowl. And so they’ll be watching, warily, as York and Baalke make a crucial hire for the future of the franchise.
The Steelers and Ravens will do it one more time. (George Gojkovich/Getty Images)
The 2014 Postseason: Not a stunner in the group.
Think of it. Other than maybe the absence of the 49ers—which we’ve seen coming since midseason—and the presence of the Cowboys, is there anything that really shocks you about the playoffs this year? New England and Denver 1-2 in the AFC (You don’t say!), Seattle and Green Bay 1-2 in the NFC (Stunner!). You can read our Greg Bedard on the two most vulnerable teams entering the postseason, but for this morning, let’s take a look at the four matchups coming on the first weekend of the playoffs.
Why They Should Worry
Every postseason for the past decade, at least one team with a first-round bye has lost its first playoff game. This January, two teams who earned a week off are ripe for a one-and-done postseason.
NFC: Arizona (fifth seed, 11-5) at Carolina (fourth seed, 7-8-1), 4:35 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Cardinals need to repeat history here. In 2008, as the lower seed, they flew to Charlotte under very similar circumstances. They’d lost four of their last six in the regular season, just as they have this year. That season, Arizona was on the Super Bowl express, the classic example of a team with a big star getting hot (Larry Fitzgerald: 546 yards, seven touchdowns over four playoff games) at the right time. Big difference, of course, is that Kurt Warner was the quarterback then, and either Ryan Lindley or a gimpy Drew Stanton will be at the helm now. Carolina will try to run. It’s probably the Panthers’ only hope. Four Carolina backs, including quarterback Cam Newton, gained 40 yards or more rushing Sunday in Atlanta, and the once reliable Arizona run defense is getting gashed: 473 rushing yards allowed in the last two weeks.
AFC: Baltimore (sixth seed, 10-6) at Pittsburgh (third seed, 11-5), 8:15 p.m. ET, NBC
This could be the last game of a great rivalry. The Ravens and Steelers will stay competitive, and they’ll continue to hate each other’s guts (“You cannot honestly expect me to ever actually like one of their players,” Terrell Suggs said after one Pittsburgh-Baltimore game a few years ago), but the times are changing. This could be the end for 37-year-old James Harrison, a mainstay in this game, as well as 33-year-old safety Troy Polamalu. On the other side, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are gone, and Suggs is 32. So enjoy this test of wills on a cold Saturday night at the confluence of the Three Rivers. It’s the game of the weekend. With Haloti Ngata back from his four-game suspension, the big question is the availability of Pittsburgh super-back Le’Veon Bell, who suffered a hyperextended knee when hit low but legally by Cincinnati safety Reggie Nelson—which caused Tomlin and Nelson to jaw at each other after the game. But it was clearly a legal play. If Bell is hampered, that would send Pittsburgh to the air; with the game’s most productive receiver, Antonio Brown (129 catches, 1,698 receiving yards, both league bests), that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
AFC: Cincinnati (fifth seed, 10-5-1) at Indianapolis (fourth seed, 11-5), 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS.
This looks like the most even matchup of the weekend. Big question: Can Andrew Luck beat the Bengals by himself? The Colts have held two of their last three foes to 10 points, but they were offensive weaklings Houston and Tennessee. The last three playoff teams Indy has played have scored 51, 42 and 42 points. Of course, Indianapolis had its finest hour this season in shutting out Cincinnati in mid-October. “We didn’t come to play,’’ Andy Dalton of that game said last night, after losing the AFC North title to Pittsburgh on the road. Same could be said for much of last night in Pittsburgh, and the loss really has to hurt Cincinnati, which led the division almost all year only to lose in game 256 of the NFL season.
NFC: Detroit (sixth seed, 11-5) at Dallas (third seed, 12-4), 4:40 p.m. ET, FOX.
First order of business: Will the league office see Ndamukong Suh’s stomp on Aaron Rodgers’ leg during the second half at Green Bay Sunday the same way as the Lions saw it—which is to say, inadvertent? That’s a pretty vital question for this game, considering that the Cowboys have been so good on the offensive line, both in protecting Tony Romo and clearing lanes for NFL rushing champ DeMarco Murray. The NFL will review the Suh incident today, and from the look of it, I’d be surprised if Suh got suspended for it. There’s a real gray area in this, as opposed to the no-doubt stomping done by center Dominic Raiola eight days ago that led to his one-game suspension for Sunday’s loss at Green Bay.
When the game starts, the key will be pressure on Romo, which is why Suh’s presence is important. In Dallas’ 4-0 run to the NFC East title in December, Romo was sacked only six times, and he hasn’t been hurt much at all recently by up-the-middle pressure. Suh could change that … assuming he plays Sunday.
On the division weekend that follows:
Saturday, Jan. 10: Lowest-seeded AFC team at one seed New England (4:35 p.m. ET, NBC) … Lowest-seeded NFC team at one seed Seattle (8:15 p.m. ET, FOX).
Sunday, Jan. 11: Remaining NFC team at two seed Green Bay (1:05 p.m. ET, FOX) … Remaining AFC team at two seed Denver (4:40 p.m. ET, CBS).
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The Bucs should just turn in the card for Mariota now, and other draft/coaching/GM notes.
Notable draft nuggets will begin with the top 20 of the April 30 draft, which is 132 days away this morning: 1. Tampa Bay, 2. Tennessee, 3. Jacksonville, 4. Oakland, 5. Washington, 6. Jets, 7. Chicago (the draft is in downtown Chicago), 8. Atlanta (jumping from the twenties to eight when the Falcons lost the division Sunday), 9. Giants, 10. St. Louis, 11. Minnesota, 12. Cleveland, 13. New Orleans, 14. Miami, 15. San Francisco, 16. Houston, 17. San Diego, 18. Kansas City, 19. Cleveland (from Buffalo in the Sammy Watkins trade), 20. Philadelphia.
2015 Draft Big Board
Marcus Mariota leads the way on Andy Staples' first draft board, featuring the 2015 draft's top 50 prospects.
• The Bucs will have a delegation, led by GM Jason Licht, at the Rose Bowl Thursday to see Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota duel Florida State’s Jameis Winston. I recently asked five GM/personnel types in the NFL about the two players, and it came out the way I thought: 5-0 in favor of Mariota, because of on-field and off-field things, including the fact that Winston, in the words of one team official who is in the market for a quarterback high in the draft, got careless on the field this year and played some undisciplined football. We won’t really know about how high Winston goes, though, until teams do their post-season homework on him.
• The Browns may now be in the market for a quarterback—because of Johnny Manziel’s knuckleheadedness. They pick 12, 19 and 45, and have an extra fourth-round selection from the Sammy Watkins trade. If there’s a non-Mariota quarterback they like, they have the ammo to move up to get him if that’s what’s needed.
• So much of the draft predictions are impossible now, because several of the teams picking high in the first round could have different people making the selections, depending on the outcome of GM and coaching searches in the next couple of weeks. If the Jets, for instance, can lure Baltimore assistant GM Eric DeCosta (doubtful) or Minnesota assistant GM George Paton with the promise of full football control and big money, who knows how either of them would view the quarterback situation there? If DeCosta takes a job with an uncertain quarterback depth chart, he could well sign a veteran like Brian Hoyer, then draft a young one to develop in 2015.
• I think the Titans will certainly consider a quarterback at No. 2. I don’t believe for a minute they’re all-in on Zack Mettenberger as their quarterback of the future. Not that this isn’t possible, but it cannot be a certainty.
• Rex Ryan will be either a head coach or TV guy this year. If he’s a head coach, he needs a smart and confident offensive mind to run his offense. If it were me, I’d pick Greg Roman (if he shakes free in San Francisco) over Marc Trestman or Dirk Koetter. Those are the three highest-profile offensive guys who could be available. I’d love to see Roman’s mind mesh with Matt Ryan’s in Atlanta, or with Derek Carr’s in Oakland.
• I wonder if Stephen Ross is having buyer’s remorse this morning, having announced he is keeping Joe Philbin and then seeing the bizarre display Sunday in Sun Life Stadium. Not only did Miami lose to the rival Jets, but the loss was ugly, with NFL Network reporting that Mike Wallace basically quit the game late in the first half when teammate Charles Clay caught a touchdown pass. Wallace is one strange dude. And to resign from a game when you’re making $11 million a year … well, if you’re making $11 a year, it’s still insubordinate to the max.
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Aaron Rodgers was carted to the locker room with a calf injury Sunday, but he returned to help lead the Packers to the NFC North title. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
MVP Watch, Final Edition
The anatomy of a Most Valuable Player decision:
Friday. Realized I’d better start coming close to a final decision, with the votes for the Associated Pressseason awards due in a few days, and with The MMQB’s first awards vote coming Monday. (We’ll have our results, different from the AP’s in many regards, up on Tuesday.) Last week I had Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo and J.J. Watt 1-2-3. When I sat down to make a few calls, and started looking at the cases for all the contenders, one of my beliefs started to bother me. Watt, theoretically, could be having the best season by a defensive player ever, yet because his team was going to finish out of the playoffs, it seemed foolish to give him my MVP vote. How much value can a defensive player have on a 9-7 team, particularly one that finishes in the bottom half of the defensive team stats?
So if an MVP can only be from a playoff team, that eliminates 63 percent of the players in the league already. And really, let’s look at history. The past 29 MVPs have been quarterbacks or running backs (21 QBs, eight runners). So let’s say, in reality, that the pool of MVP candidates can be 24 players deep each season: a quarterback and running back from each playoff team. Which means that, with 1,696 active players in the league each week, 1.4 percent of the players who suit up every week have a chance to win the MVP. And I got to thinking how unfair that was. But I understand that this isn’t a “Defensive Player of the Year” vote. It’s about value. And without question the quarterback is the most valuable player on most, if not all teams, for better or worse. So I left it there, and thought I’d give it more time while writing Saturday night.
Can the MVP play for a team sitting at home in January? J.J. Watt has made a compelling case. (Patric Schneider/Getty Images)
Saturday night. I was on the fence about Rodgers and Romo, both having terrific seasons for top playoff teams. Romo was having a rip-roaring December, 3-0 with great numbers, and Rodgers was coming down to earth a bit, but I felt Rodgers was way ahead after 12 games, and it was his race to lose. A counterculture thought crossed my mind. With so many great quarterback seasons happening—16 quarterbacks were on the way to a 90-plus passer rating, 10 would throw for more than 4,000 yards, and nine would throw at least 30 touchdown passes—why not make this statement: Too many great quarterbacks are having great seasons that while not indistinguishable are close in merit, and it’s impossible to pick one; so in this one season, I should pick the best player in football instead. That’s what I was thinking as the day dawned for Week 17.
Sunday afternoon. NBC viewing room, as the early games begin. If Watt overtakes Justin Houston for the sack title (entering the day, it’s Houston 18, Watt 17.5), and Romo and Rodgers are so-so, I’m thinking Watt’s the guy. In the first 11 snaps against the Jaguars, Watt beats the second pick in the ’13 draft, Luke Joeckel, for two sacks, one of them forcing a fumble. In the second quarter, Justin Houston gets two sacks against San Diego. Watt is playing an absurd game. Late, he sacks Blake Bortles in the end zone for a safety. Justin Houston is playing great too, finishing with four sacks and the NFL title, with 22, one short of breaking Michael Strahan’s record. Watt distinguishes himself too: With 20.5 sacks, he becomes the first player ever to have two 20-sack seasons.
I covered Lawrence Taylor in 1986, the last time a defensive player won the MVP, and I believe this Watt season is better and more explosive than Taylor’s tremendous year 28 seasons ago. Shouldn’t that count for something? Romo plays very well in Washington, finishing his 4-0 December, his best ever, by booking his 10th game of the season with a passer rating of 100 or higher and finishing with a passer rating of 113.2, which would end up a point higher than Aaron Rodgers. Then Rodgers injects heroism or some such trait into the derby in Green Bay late in the afternoon. With the NFC North title on the line, he goes down in agony with a strained calf while throwing a first-half touchdown pass. He has to come out of the game, then returns to a thunderous ovation and chants of “MVP! MVP!” early in the second half to lead Green Bay to a 30-20 victory. “Impossible choice," I say to no one. “Just impossible."
Monday morning. One other thing about Watt: the points. How many 3-4 defensive ends score points? Maybe you record a safety during the season. Or recover a fumble in the end zone. Watt has five touchdowns and a safety. He’s scored on three TD catches as an extra tight end, an 80-yard interception return, and a fumble return. He’s scored on a safety. He’s blocked a field goal attempt; that doesn’t score points, but it does remove three from the opponent. Anyway, look at the final 2014 scoring list of some fairly prominent offensive players compared to Watt:
A couple of time over the years with the AP, I have split my vote for some of the awards—if I thought the vote was exceedingly close. The more I thought about the 2014 MVP, the more it seemed the best way this year. Quarterbacks inherently have more value than any position on the field, Rodgers clearly lifted Green Bay all season and particularly through some agony Sunday to win the division and clinch a playoff bye; this season rivals his previous MVP year in 2011 (14-1, 45 touchdowns, six interceptions). He didn’t throw an interception at home all season.
Watt, in the face of so many rules changes favoring the offense, overcame everything. Entering Sunday, he had 110 quarterback-disruption plays (sacks/pressures/hits), 30 more than the next most-disruptive player in the game this year, Justin Houston. Those 20.5 sacks come through more traffic than his pass-rushing peers, because 3-4 ends don’t have the same pass-rushing freedom that 3-4 outside ’backers do. I am bastardizing the word “value," I understand. But I simply have to recognize one of the great and most unique years an NFL player has ever had, the way it should be.
The winner: a tie. I will split my vote between Aaron Rodgers and J.J. Watt.
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No. 5 overall pick Khalil Mack started every game for the Raiders as a rookie this season. (Gregory Bull/AP)
Notes from a Rookie Season
I have been impressed with how Oakland first-round pick Khalil Mack has carried himself this year. He gets it. He gets the football part, and he gets the off-the-field part, and he gets that he hasn’t accomplished anything yet because his team is at the bottom of the AFC West. I asked Mack for five observations on his impressive rookie year with the Raiders.
"On draft day, I saw the lifestyle I was stepping into, and it was totally different from anything I had experienced. That part is very different. But football is football. I can honestly say it hasn’t changed from college. In the building, in the meeting rooms, on the practice field, in the stadiums, the game’s the same. Other than being on the field with legends—Charles Woodson, Justin Tuck, Antonio Smith—nothing’s changed.
"Playing the run is about one thing: Who wants it more? Are you willing to get off the block and do enough of the dirty work to make the play? It’s all about, if they run to my side, I want to make them pay.
"I can study the game a lot better here than I could in college [at Buffalo]. I didn’t have an iPad at Buffalo. I have one here. I look at live games on tape, I can look at all sorts of formations and what teams do out of them. Every week, I learn something that helps me in a game. Last week, first play against Buffalo, the Bills were running an inside zone run [by Fred Jackson], and I knew I was going to take the outside guy in the bunch of their blockers—the ‘U’ tight end, [Scott Chandler]—and I was able to make the tackle in the backfield. It’s about knowing the little things, and those come from what I was able to see during the week on tape.
"I can sum up what I’ve learned with the veterans like this: Watching Woodson. I just watch how he works, how he carries himself. That influences me more than anything he could ever say. Overall, he just goes out and plays ball. He says to me, ‘The game don’t change.’ It’s a mindset you have to have when you come to the NFL. Why think about this big adjustment? Why not just go play the game you love. Football is football. Tuck said to me early on: ‘Just do what you do. Whatever you use, whatever move you’ve got, they can’t beat us. Be confident.’
"I try not to think about all the losing [in Oakland]. I play. Tough times call for tough people. I am one of those tough people. I don’t talk a lot. I have tried not to speak out, to say anything to the fans. I want to show them. I want to let my play do the talking. I want us to be able to play well enough to win. Then maybe I can talk."
Mack, Pro Football Focus’s top-rated 4-3 outside linebacker, will be in a tight race with C.J. Mosley of Baltimore, Aaron Donald of the Rams and Anthony Barr of the Vikings for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The Lions honored late owner William Clay Ford by wearing a 'WCF' patch on their jerseys all season. (Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Who They Were. What They Meant
Notable pro football deaths, of men who left their marks, in 2014:
Harry Gamble, Eagles GM and chief operating officer, 83 (Jan. 28)
"One of the damndest things I’ve ever seen in this business," Cowboys boss Tex Schramm told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1989 about Gamble’s ascension from nowhere to running a playoff franchise in exactly six years. In 1980, Gamble quit as Penn’s head football coach. In 1981, he took an unpaid assistant’s job on Dick Vermeil’s Eagles staff. In 1984, Gamble was named director of football operations. In 1985, he was named the team’s GM. In 1986, he was elevated to GM/COO. Huh? Well, owner Norman Braman needed a diplomatic buffer between him and the head coach who despised him, Buddy Ryan, because the Eagles always tried to hold the line on salaries with a talented team of defensive stars. Gamble was that buffer. His lasting legacy, though, may be teaching football to Russian teens. He went to Russia for seven years after his Eagles tenure to teach the game to a country that didn’t know it.
William Clay Ford, Lions owner, 88 (March 9)
Henry Ford’s last surviving grandchild was 88 years old when he died of pneumonia at his home in Grosse Pointe, Mich. Ironically, fellow owner and good friend Ralph Wilson would die in the same town 16 days later. William Clay Ford bought the Lions in 1964 for $6 million, and 50 years later, the franchise is worth $1 billion more. He was always one of the league’s most private owners, and he rarely made headlines. He did in 1975, when he decided to move the team from Tiger Stadium downtown—at a time when downtown Detroit was struggling mightily—to suburban Pontiac. But he was the kind of sportsman owner whom players appreciated and front-office men loved. “He was a fantastic person to work for," said former GM Matt Millen … and that was after Ford axed Millen.
Owner Ralph Wilson was beloved by the fans in Buffalo. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Ralph Wilson, Bills owner, 95 (March 25)
Buffalo never had a major-league team until Wilson paid $25,000 in 1959 to found the Buffalo Bills of the AFL. He would have loved to own the NFL team in Detroit, but the Ford family had that market, and so Wilson, who loved football, settled for the AFL. He was one of eight members of AFL ownership, a group that became known as the “Foolish Club” … because pro football wasn’t the best business in those days, and few thought there was an appetite for two football leagues. A foolish investment, many thought, particularly when Wilson had to subsidize one of the teams in the league with a $400,000 loan in 1962. That team was Oakland. Imagine the Oakland Raiders folding. Imagine the Raiders not getting resuscitated. That’d be like telling the history of rock music without the Rolling Stones. Without Wilson’s intervention, the Raiders might have been a Polaroid memory, a modern-day Providence Steam Roller. In 1996, angry that Art Modell was abandoning Cleveland, Wilson was one of two owners to vote against the move of the Browns to Baltimore. He never voted in favor of a franchise relocation. He said owning a sports team isn’t like owning a car dealership. If the car dealership flounders, it can be closed and consumers will find another place to purchase cars. But an NFL team—that’s a public trust. He bled with the fans over the past 15 years, since the end of the Bills’ greatness, and though they were frustrated he couldn’t produce another winner, the fans loved him for not moving. When I talked to Bills fans at a preseason tailgate in 2012, one of them had a T-shirt that said, “In Ralph We Trust."
Earl Morrall, Colts/Dolphins quarterback, 79 (April 25)
The crew-cutted Morrall died of Parkinson’s Disease in Fort Lauderdale, and left a legacy of star-off-the-bench rarely seen in NFL history. John Unitas hurt his elbow in the final preseason game in 1968, and Morrall, 34, led the Colts to a 13-1 record and Super Bowl III … where he threw three first-half interceptions and the Jets shocked the world by beating the Colts 16-7. Two years later, Morrall replaced an injured Unitas in the Super Bowl against Dallas and led the Colts to a 16-13 win. The next season, the 37-year-old Morrall was cut and landed in Miami, where he replaced an injured Bob Griese and won 10 straight starts in the Dolphins’ perfect 17-0 season. “He was," Shula said after that season, “the perfect backup for the perfect team."
Bill Nunn, Steelers scout, 89 (May 6)
“I am so pleased you brought up Bill Nunn," said Buffalo GM Doug Whaley, a couple of hours after he pulled off a controversial trade in the first round of the draft. “I want to talk about how much Bill Nunn meant to my career, and my life.” Nunn, who scouted for the Steelers for 46 years and was huge in the franchise's mining of talent (L.C. Greenwood, Donnie Shell, Mel Blount, John Stallworth) from small historically black colleges, had his moment in the sun on draft weekend. One of his protégés, Whaley, used advice from Nunn—“Do not ever be afraid to make a big move if you believe in it strongly”—as one of the spurs to deal his 2015 first- and fourth-round picks to simply move up five spots to take the No. 1 player on the Bills’ draft board, wideout Sammy Watkins of Clemson. Think of the significance. The biggest trade of the 2014 draft happened 48 hours after Nunn died—and it was pulled off by two African-American general managers: Ray Farmer of the Cleveland Browns and Whaley. Importantly, Nunn mentored Whaley from the time he was a 23-year-old intern in the scouting department of the Steelers in the mid-’90s. Whaley knows he has taken a colossal gamble by dealing so much to simply move up five spots. But he’s okay with it, largely because Nunn taught him to make a trade he believed in, and never look back.
Malcolm Glazer, Bucs owner, 85 (May 28)
Tampa Bay won one Super Bowl under Glazer’s ownership, the Jon Gruden-led title 12 years ago, after Glazer made the difficult decision to fire Tony Dungy and go with new blood. But it’s Dungy who is part of Glazer’s real legacy, both to the Bucs and to the game. The Glazers, in their two decades as owners, have hired three African-American coaches—Dungy, Raheem Morris and Lovie Smith. No owner in NFL history has hired as many African-American coaches. That should be the significance of Glazer’s run in NFL history—he was colorblind at a time when many teams, and owners, in the league were not. “Yes, it is notable," Dungy said. “He hired me when there was still trepidation by some people. And he may not have made the final decision on Lovie but he set the tone in the organization and he put the mindset in his sons to look at people impartially. He and I had many conversations about relationships and how you treat others. That was very important to him." He had been in poor health since suffering two strokes in 2006.
Chuck Noll, Steelers coach, 82 (June 13)
Chuck Noll coached four Super Bowl winners and was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1993. (Ron Vesely/Getty Images)
One of the great and understated figures in NFL history. Coach, oenophile, privacy-seeker. In Don Banks’ terrific memoir on the 40-year anniversary of the birth of the Steeler dynasty, there was this nugget from former Steelers running back Frenchy Fuqua:
“In 1970, it’s the opening of Three Rivers Stadium. It’s the last exhibition game of the preseason and it’s Friday night, bed-check, 11 o’clock. I’ve got my eventual wife-to-be in the room with me and [a bottle of] Jack Daniels. Usually the assistant coaches did bed check. Not this night. Knock-knock. ‘Who is it?’ ‘It’s Coach, John. Just want to check on you.’ So I grab her and put her in the bathroom, then I go open the door and run back in the bed because I’ve got nothing but my briefs on. Coach comes in and he’s got a damn album and headphones with him. He knows the stereo equipment I used to have and he comes in and says, ‘You mind if I listen to this song while I’m here?’ And I’m saying, ‘Oh, s---.’ He puts it on and puts the headphones on and I swear it was the longest four-and-a-half, five minutes of my life. He’s standing there and he’s listening to it, taking his time. We had an exhibition game against the New York Giants the next day … He’s walking to the door, and man, I’m sweating because the bathroom’s right next to the door. He passes by the bathroom door and he just stops, and I said, ‘Oh, s---.’ He gets in the bathroom and I hear him pulling the curtain open and all he says is, ‘Young lady, you have to leave. The man has a ballgame.’ ”
Goose Gonsoulin, Broncos defensive back, 76 (Sept. 8)
How’s this for a rookie year: Gonsoulin was drafted by the Dallas Texans in the first American Football League draft, in 1960, and traded to Denver in the Texans’ first-ever trade. Gonsoulin had the first interception in AFL history, on the night of Sept. 9, 1960, in a 13-10 win over the Patriots in Boston. Later that month, against Buffalo, he had four interceptions in a game—and finished the year with 11, a team record that stands 54 years later. He died of prostate cancer in Beaumont, Texas.
Rob Bironas, Titans kicker, 36 (Sept. 20)
Just three months after marrying Rachel Bradshaw (daughter of Terry), Bironas died in a terrible car wreck in Nashville—and he was found to have more than twice the legal limit of alcohol in his system at the time of the crash. You can’t separate that from Bironas the kicker. He was, however, a better football player than he was given credit. He holds the NFL record for field goals in a game (eight, in eight attempts, versus Houston, 2007), and he had one great stretch in 2006. With the Titans struggling at 3-7, Bironas hit a 49-yard field goal with seconds left to beat Eli Manning and the Giants 24-21. The next week, on a muddy field in Nashville, Jeff Fisher gave him the chance to try a 60-yard field goal against Peyton Manning and the Colts to win the game with seven seconds left. Bironas hit it, and the Titans won 20-17. In his final seven seasons, he made 21 of 27 field goals (77.8 percent) from 50 yards and out.
John “Bull” Bramlett, linebacker, 73 (Oct. 23)
A Memphian, Bramlett grew up playing touch football with Elvis Presley. “He called me ‘Little Bramlett,'" Bull said late in life. Quite a life. He played minor-league baseball in the Cardinals organization. He was runner-up for AFL Rookie of the Year as a Denver linebacker in 1965—to Joe Namath. He was christened the “Meanest Man in Football" as a Dolphin, and became fast friends with Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick. He was traded to the Patriots for Nick Buoniconti. Interesting résumé.
Orlando Thomas, Vikings safety, 42 (Nov. 9)
Thomas died of ALS in Crowley, La., 10 years after being diagnosed. He played 98 games with the Vikings as a hard-hitting and instinctive safety after being the 42nd overall pick in the 1995 draft. When he died, he reportedly weighed 70 pounds, down 155 pounds from his playing weight. Tweeted fellow ALS patient Steve Gleason when Thomas died:
Pete Rodriguez, special teams coach, 75 (Nov. 30)
One of the first Hispanic coaches in pro football mentored special teams for the Raiders, Cardinals, Washington, Seahawks and Jaguars—and teams in the Canadian Football League, the United States Football League and the United Football League. Rick Gosselin, the longtime special-teams savant for the Dallas Morning News, named him the best special-teams coach in the NFL in the 1990s. He and Tom Flores were two of the first beacons for Hispanic coaches in pro football.
Fuzzy Thurston, Packers guard, 80 (Dec. 14)
The perfect Packer died from cancer and Alzheimer’s disease in Green Bay. Perfect for a few reasons: He was born in Wisconsin, lived most of his life in Wisconsin, and died there. He played nine seasons for Vince Lombardi. He played on all five Packer championship teams of the ’60s, earning first-team All-Pro honors on the first one. And in retirement he owned a bar in the area, Fuzzy’s #63 Bar & Grill, and mingled with the fans. He was one of them. And the 6-1, 245-pound barrel-chested pulling guard was a good football player too, pulling on the famed Green Bay sweeps that made Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor such great running backs during the Packers' dynasty years. “He gave me some life lessons," former Packers fullback William Henderson told the Green Bay Press Gazette after Thurston’s death. “Avoid the distractions. Enjoy the game. Respect the team.”
For the second straight season, Russell Wilson and the Seahawks enter the postseason as the NFC's No. 1 seed. (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
The Fine Fifteen
1. Seattle (12-4). There are many reasons the Seahawks will enter the postseason as the most dangerous team, but this is the big one: During Seattle’s six-game winning streak, foes have scored three touchdowns. That's one every eight quarters.
2. New England (12-4).I don’t have a lot of confidence in either fifth seed Cincinnati (Oct 5 in Foxboro: Pats 43, Bengals 17) or fourth seed Indianapolis (Nov. 16 in Indianapolis: Pats 42, Colts 20) journeying to Foxboro in 12 days and beating the rested Patriots.
3. Green Bay (12-4).Team most needing a bye: Packers, with Aaron Rodgers and his balky strained left calf. Green Bay will have 13 days between the re-straining of the calf and the divisional game at home a week from Sunday.
4. Dallas (12-4).Stat du jourfrom ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss: Dallas finished an 8-0 road season Sunday with the win at Washington. Seven NFL teams since the 1970 merger between the AFL and NFL have had perfect regular-season road records. Six of them advanced to the Super Bowl.
5. Denver (12-4).The Broncos needed this kind of day: eight scoring drives out of 12 possessions, 451 yards, Peyton Manning being able to be relieved, holding a foe under 200 yards (199). And the bye. For a team with aging stars (Manning, DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, Wes Welker), rest is key.
6. Pittsburgh (11-5).Yep, Steelers have come a long way from the team that, in a two-month span this season, lost at home to the Bucs and Saints, and lost on the road to the Jets and Browns.
Due to Sunday's loss at Green Bay, Matthew Stafford and the Lions must travel to Dallas on wild-card weekend. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
7. Detroit (11-5).The 24th straight loss to the Packers in Wisconsin means the sixth seed in the NFC, and this daunting road to the Super Bowl, if favorites hold the day: at Dallas, at Green Bay, at Seattle. Not sure there’s been a tougher road recently.
8. Cincinnati (10-5-1).Ten weeks ago, Indianapolis hosted the Bengals and wiped them off the field, 27-0. Rematch Sunday. And let’s just say I don’t believe the Colts will pitch a shutout this time.
9. Baltimore (10-6).Haloti Ngata returns for what would be a tough playoff road if form holds: at Pittsburgh, at New England, at Denver. The Ravens, of course, have battle-tested veterans who can rise to playoff occasions, but they’ve scored 53 points against three pretty average defenses when the season’s been on the line the past three weeks.
10. Indianapolis (11-5).Defense and the run game are both problems entering the playoffs. That's too much pressure on Andrew Luck. Trent Richardson’s best rushing game in the past eight weeks: 42 yards. His 3.3-per-carry average won’t help win January games.
11. Arizona (11-5).Last six games: 2-4. Last six games: 12.2 points per game. They played very competitively against a beat-down 49ers team Sunday, but it’s hard winning playoff games when you can’t score past the teens. Will Drew Stanton play this weekend in Carolina? Will Drew Stanton matter this weekend in Carolina?
12. Carolina (7-8-1).On a neutral field, I’d like Arizona, narrowly. At Charlotte, I like Carolina. One big reason is the 105 rushing yards the Panthers had in the first quarter Sunday. Arizona had better bring its big-boy pads to Charlotte this weekend.
13. Houston (9-7).Case Keenum climbed out of a tree stand and went 2-0 in the past two weeks. What a country! Hey, Bill O’Brien, whatever you’re doing—keep it up, and do more of it.
14. Kansas City (9-7).Some interesting symmetry in this Chiefs season … First downs: Chiefs 309, Foes 310. Time of possession: Chiefs 30:00, Foes 30:00. Net yards passing per game: Chiefs 199, Foes 203. Still can’t believe you can play a full season in today’s NFL and throw no touchdown passes to wide receivers.
15. Buffalo (9-7).I do believe a Polian family member is a serious candidate to run the Bills’ personnel staff. Or two Polians.
The Award Section
Offensive Player of the Week
Aaron Rodgers, quarterback Green Bay. John Wayne-like. The numbers in the 30-20 NFC North title game over Detroit were so very Rodgers (17 of 22, 226 yards, two touchdowns, no picks), but it was how he did it too. Rodgers aggravated his left calf strain in the second quarter while throwing his first touchdown pass of the afternoon at Lambeau Field, then returned in the second half to get the save against the Lions. Quite a performance. Was it an MVP-ensuring performance?
Led by Geno Smith, the Jets played their best game of the season in beating the Dolphins 37-24 in Week 17. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Geno Smith, quarterback, New York Jets. “Geno Smith with a 158.3 rating!" Rex Ryan said in the Jets’ locker room after the last game of his New York coach career Sunday. “That’s a perfect quarterback rating!" Indeed it was: 20 of 25, 358 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions … an amazing story, considering the trials Smith has been through this awful season.
Defensive Player of the Week
Justin Houston, outside linebacker, Kansas City. His four-sack day in the Chiefs’ 19-7 victory against San Diego—in a game the Chargers had to have to make the playoffs—gave Houston the hard-earned win in the 2014 NFL sack championship. Houston 22, J.J. Watt 20.5.
J.J. Watt, defensive end, Houston. With his umpteenth signature game of the season—three sacks, a safety, a forced fumble, six tackles—Watt kept the Texans’ playoff hopes alive until the Ravens rallied to beat Cleveland. The Texans finished 9-7 and out of the money, but now we’ll see if one of the best defensive seasons will be good enough to earn Watt the MVP award.
J.J. Watt's final game of a remarkable season included a safety. (Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images)
Special Teams Players of the Week
Micah Hyde, safety/punt returner, Green Bay. You know points will be at a premium when Green Bay and Detroit meet. (First game this year: Detroit, 19-7.) In the first 27 minutes of the rematch, the NFC North championship game at Lambeau Field, Hyde accounted for the only points—on a twisting 55-yard punt return. He is becoming a clutch performer for Green Bay.
James Casey, tight end, Philadelphia. Three minutes into the second half of a one-point game, Casey burst through the Giants’ line of punt-protection, swan-dived at punter Steve Weatherford (who had 672 straight unblocked punts) and smothered the kick. Eagles rookie tight end Trey Burton recovered and stumbled in for a touchdown. A supreme effort from Casey led to a vital touchdown in a rivalry game. Great play.
Coach of the Week
Rex Ryan, head coach, New York Jets. In the last game of a memorable six-year Jets run, Ryan went for the gusto—the way he’s done his entire tenure. With four minutes left and the Jets nursing a 27-24 lead, and New York about to punt back to Miami on a fourth-and-12, Ryan decided to go for it … on a fake, punter Ryan Quigley threw a perfect spiral to tight end Zach Sudfeld, good for 38 yards. That led to the clinching touchdown, and a perfectly apt finale to his 50th NFL victory.
Goats of the Week
Justin Gilbert, Josh Gordon, Johnny Manziel, Cleveland Browns. Three words: Grow up, gentlemen.
Quotes of the Week
"If he doesn’t win the MVP, the NFL is out of their mind.’’
—Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson, on teammate J.J. Watt and his chances for the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award.
"Is the NFL going somewhere?"
—Jim Harbaugh, after his final game as the 49ers coach, asked if he would miss the NFL.
"A player who can't show up for meetings, can't make practice, can't make weightlifting, disrespects himself. But I think more importantly, and I think this is what these young guys miss—they disrespect the team, the coaches, the staff, the fans. There's a lot of people in our organization whose livelihood depends on how well we do, and we're not going to tolerate people who are irresponsible no matter what round they're drafted in. So these young guys, we're going to give them a chance. They're young kids. We're going to work with them. Hopefully they'll grow up, but if they can't grow up and they can't be responsible to their teammates and the coaches and our great fans, then they won't be with the Cleveland Browns."
—Cleveland owner Jimmy Haslam, on miscreant top players Johnny Manziel, Josh Gordon and Justin Gilbert, after Sunday’s season-ending loss in Baltimore.
“It’s hard to talk years when you live day to day. That’s the thing football has taught me more than anything. Anybody who’s ever tried to make plans with me understands that. If you want to meet me in two weeks for lunch, I’m not making those plans. I live day to day. I’m not going to plan for our playoff game [next weekend] because I don’t know what’s going to happen to me this week. I respect time. I respect life enough not to make those plans … There definitely are aspects of my game that I can’t rely on anymore. I’m not as perky or as bouncy as I was in my early years. [But] the reality of getting old in this game is beautiful to me. The evolution of it. The spiritual struggle behind it. All of that is wonderful and beautiful."
—Troy Polamalu, who played the final game of his 12th NFL regular season with the Steelers last night, to Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. At 33, Polamalu has missed 13 games due to injury in the last three years, and this could be his last NFL season.
"We’re going home after this week. Maybe we tried to trick ’em this year.”
—San Francisco right tackle Anthony Davis, who was critical of offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
"There will be no official head coach for the rest of the season.”
—The Associated Press dispatch Saturday announcing that the New Jersey Devils, who fired coach Peter DeBoer on Friday, would replace DeBoer with three coaches—Adam Oates, Scott Stevens and Lou Lamoriello—and probably at some point Lamoriello, the team’s GM, will step away and it will be a two-man staff (Oates and Stevens).
If that’s not the strangest mode of team management I’ve ever heard of, it’s very close.
Stat of the Week
If anything displays the dominance of the New England Patriots in the AFC East in the past 12 years, I’d nominate these composite regular season standings from 2003-2014:
Div. Titles Won
In the past five seasons, the Patriots have won the division by 3, 5, 5, 4 and 4 games.
Factoids of the Week That May Interest Only Me
Terrific note courtesy of fellow Hall of Fame voter Howard Balzer:
- The Browns were 6-4, averaging 356.1 yards per game, before wide receiver Josh Gordon was reinstated.
- The Browns were 1-4, averaging 274.6 yards per game, with Gordon on the field.
Gordon was suspended for the last game of the season for missing practice. I’m not sure if that was a bad thing for the Browns.
Division champion factoids:
- The NFC East has been won by a different team in each of the past four years.
- The NFC North, AFC East and AFC West have been won by the same team (Green Bay, New England, Denver) in each of the past four years.
- The NFC South has its first repeat champion in its 13 years of existence.
After Rex Ryan said at the 2011 combine, “I guarantee we’ll win it [the Super Bowl] this year," he coached the Jets four more seasons. They never made the playoffs, and they never finished above .500 in any of the four seasons. New York’s record in Ryan’s final four years: 26-38.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
So the Christmas break allowed the King family to gather in northern Connecticut on a stormy Christmas Eve for a family dinner. Very good times, the first time we’ve been together since the loss of my brother last spring. The storm made for much traffic, and I have to say it wasn’t so bad. We got to binge-listen to eight episodes of “Serial,” back and forth to dinner. This is the 12-episode podcast describing in great detail the 15-year-old murder of a Baltimore high school student, Hae Min Lee, that resulted in her former boyfriend, Adnan Syed, being handed a life sentence for her death—a killing he said he didn’t commit. Syed participates by phone from his prison in Cumberland, Md., and host Sarah Koenig and her intrepid staffers find the rest of the key characters in the stale murder case they bring to life. I finished the last episodes over the long weekend.
Before you read the rest of this short section, two points. I am going to be giving my opinion on the outcome of the case, and the podcast, in a paragraph or two, so consider this a spoiler alert. Now here's a little music to get you in the mood. I got hooked on the theme song to “Serial,’’ and the music by Nick Thorburn really adds to the experience.
You can access the podcast, by NPR’s “This American Life" staff and hosted by Koenig, here. It’s free on all platforms. It takes a while to plow through—512 minutes, to be exact, or eight and a half hours—and when you hear that, you think, “Oh, I don’t have the time to invest in that.” You say that at first, and then you listen to episode one, “The Alibi,” and think, “Pretty engrossing. I’ll try one more." And then you can’t stop. At the gym, or in the car, or walking somewhere … you’ll find the time. And what I found so interesting about it, over and above the story itself, which is captivating, is thinking about how interesting just sitting and listening to something can be. I imagined my parents listening to radio dramas when they were young, in the pre-TV days, and thinking how it really can be excellent entertainment. That’s what this was. You listen, episode by episode, hour by hour, and you process the murder case in your head, and you develop theories along with Koenig, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, who is an excellent storyteller and plot-weaver.
I found that, in the car with the family, we’d have to pause occasionally to have intense discussions over this plot twist or that. So it can be an interactive experience as well.
Again, a few thoughts, but they’re total spoilers, so if you plan to listen, stop here.
* * * SPOILER ALERT * * *
One: Assuming this is a fairly typical murder case that goes to trial (and a Washington detective hired by “This American Life’’ to consult on the law-enforcement points confirms it is), it’s interesting and a bit disturbing to see how the prosecution works. Once it forms the plotline it intends to use—a key witness fingers Syed with damning and seemingly convincing evidence—the prosecution and police ignore some evidence that argues against the witness’ story. Some of that evidence is quite important. Two: Koenig absolutely nails it when she says in the final minutes of the pod that the weight of the evidence points to Syed as the killer. But there is reasonable doubt, and more than reasonable doubt. She says she couldn’t have convicted him knowing the facts she knows now. I agree. Three: Defense attorneys might be smart, but they’re not infallible. Syed’s attorney was annoying to the point of distraction; I couldn’t have been in the same courtroom with her for long, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the jurors in the case simply got distracted by her meandering, sing-songy, ploddingly annoying ways. There’s no way she defended Syed as well as a good defense attorney should have.
Anyway, a fun way to pass some time … and a good lesson to all writers and reporters: A great story doesn’t need pictures or video or wonderful graphics. It needs to be a great story.
Tweets of the Week
The World Series MVP directed this to the Cleveland quarterback, after the rookie said this season taught him he’d have to work harder in the future to be a great player.
This is the third year in a row, and fourth in five seasons, that the Rams have had this “Groundhog Day” feel, finishing a season in the Pacific Northwest. The Rams’ last five Seattle experiences haven’t been quite as nice as, say, visits to Pike Place Market:
Rams W-L Pregame
Seattle 20, St. Louis 6
Seattle 27, St. Louis 9
Seattle 20, St. Louis 13
Seattle 30, St. Louis 13
Seattle 16, St. Louis 6
Sunday marked the 10th straight loss for the Rams in Seattle. Three times in this current December streak of games, the loss foiled the Rams’ effort to finish .500 or above.
The immediate contributions of rookie receiver Jordan Matthews were a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing, inconsistent season for the Eagles. (Bill Kostroun/AP)
The end of an era in television.
This was supposed to be the last weekend of Bob Stenner’s glorious 55-year TV-producing career. The man who worked eight Super Bowls (he’s the one who produced the ballet-like images of Lynn Swann’s graceful catch in Super Bowl X) and worked as the producer for John Madden and Pat Summerall for 21 years, and who did so many other sports—auto racing, horse racing, pro basketball, boxing, winning 11 Emmys along the way—got waylaid, though. He spent much of last week in a hospital in southern California treating ulcerative colitis, which has dogged him for parts of the past year. So he’ll go into semi-retirement now (FOX will use him as a consultant) and try to teach the younger people in the TV game the keys to a good sports event.
“Let the game come to you,” Stenner said over the weekend from California, describing his philosophy. “Use the new tools to help show the game, but don’t let them dominate the game. People are watching for the game.” And: Don’t get so in love with a storyline on Wednesday that you insert it too much on Sunday. Tell stories.
“The Swann catch,” he said. “I can still see it. I see it right now. People want to remember those moments.”
Bill Parcells echoed that when asked about Stenner. As the coach of the Giants, he sat for interviews with the Stenner-Sandy Grossman-Summerall-Madden crew five or six times a year. Those were big games, and the crew was part of it. “When I think about what I loved about pro football,” Parcells said, “I think about a cold, gray November day at the Meadowlands, the wind whipping the flags, the flags crackling … you live for those days. And Bob Stenner and John Madden and that crew, they were so much a part of it. They were so much a part of making the game so important.”
“As you know,” Madden said, “I could be a pain. When I got into TV, a lot of the preparation was maybe getting in on Saturday, sitting with the PR for one team for a half hour, sitting with the PR for the other team for a half hour, and maybe one of them taking you out for drinks or dinner. But I wanted to talk to the coaches. I wanted to watch film. Bob embraced that. He loved that. He loved finding out everything so he could tell the stories through his pictures. He had all the ingredients to be the best at that job. He was a football guy, a TV guy, a curious and inquisitive guy who loved good stories. There are people who are just football people. There are people who are just TV people. There are people who just like good stories. He was all three. That’s why he was so good for so long.
“And the other thing he did—a lot of producers, you know, they have their format on Monday, and they plan the thing the whole week, and when the game comes, what does the format say? Follow the format. But Bob, whatever happened, he followed it. He adjusted to it. He let the live event play, whatever it was.”
Whatever it was … football or anything else. Stenner produced all three legs of horse racing’s Triple Crown in 1973. That was Secretariat’s year.
“A machine,” Stenner said of Secretariat, one of the most famous horses of all time. “An absolute machine. That horse knew when a TV camera was around. Its ears pricked up.”
The great TV people create those vivid memories. It’s possible Stenner, in football and so many other games, created the images so many of a certain age conjure up when thinking of great sports events. That’s a great legacy to leave in this sports-mad country.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 17:
a. The Packers’ hurry-up offensive package in the second quarter, frustrating Detroit after a plodding first quarter.
b. Quick slants to Jordy Nelson. Deadly.
c. Great strip and forced fumble by James Ihedigbo, who has been a godsend free-agent for the Lions in the secondary.
d. Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ plan to swarm Marshawn Lynch. In the first half against Seattle, St. Louis was all over Lynch, slowing the Seahawks.
e. Jim Caldwell’s conservative use of Reggie Bush—and his ample rest for Bush through the year—paid dividends Sunday. Bush looked fresh and fast at Green Bay.
f. Justin Tuck, looking spry on an early sack of Peyton Manning.
g. Jordan Matthews, a good draft choice by the Eagles, with a rookie season that in most years would be a superior one—67 catches, 872 yards, eight touchdowns.
h. Excellent reversal in the Washington-Dallas game, giving Dez Bryant a touchdown just inside the side end-zone stripe late in the first quarter.
i. The lunging interception of Drew Brees by Tampa Bay safety Brad McDougald.
j. Nice wideout option pass by Jacksonville’s Cecil Shorts III, executed perfectly for a touchdown to Jordan Todman.
k. Nice 13-of-17 first half from Chase Daniel in Kansas City.
l. This observation from Mike Tanier, while watching Giants-Eagles.
m. Darlene Love singing the national anthem at the Giants’ finale, and the Giants’ tribute to the fallen police officers before the game.
n. Connor Shaw, 22nd Browns starting quarterback in their 16 re-born seasons.
o. CBS crew (Steve Tasker/Steve Beuerlein/Andrew Catalon) reporting Rex Ryan won’t take a defensive coordinator job.
p. Good Florio stat Sunday: If Florida State beats Oregon on Thursday, Jameis Winston will be 28-0 as a collegiate starter.
q. Nice camera work by CBS on a bloody Cam Newton.
r. The diving interception by San Francisco linebacker Michael Wilhoite, on a throw that could have helped set up a tying Cardinals field goal.
s. Greg the Leg, good from 52, and it would have been good from 62, at Seattle.
Jay Cutler's season finale included no touchdowns, an average of 4.8 yards per completed pass and two sacks. (Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)
2. I think this is what I didn’t like about Week 17:
a. Seven straight incompletions by Matthew Stafford, in a game the Lions needed their franchise quarterback to be far more efficient.
b. Kelvin Benjamin had a good rookie year, but two drops in the NFC South title game? Not good.
c. Terrible dropped pass—costing Atlanta four important points—by fullback Patrick DiMarco in the first half against Carolina.
d. Jay Cutler’s look, wrapped up on the freezing bench in Minnesota, pregame: Get me outta here!
e. Eagles defensive backs. Even when bracketing Reuben Randle, in perfect position on a 43-yard seam route on the first series of the game, they couldn't stop Eli Manning from threading the needle and getting the pass in there. Giants score two plays later.
f. Washington linebacker Keenan Robinson’s drop of a potential Tony Romo pick, right in his hands.
g. Washington’s past six seasons border on Raider-like: 4-12, 3-13, 10-6, 5-11, 6-10, 4-12.
i. Thought bubble above Chip Kelly’s head as Mark Sanchez threw that second-quarter pick: Can I trade our whole draft for Mariota?
j. The Saints, in a snapshot of their typically awful 2014 performance, being outgained in the first half at Tampa, 248-118. At Tampa.
k. Philip Rivers, with too many overthrows in big situations at Kansas City.
l. Josh Gordon. Great talent. Wasting it.
m. Starts missed, per season, in San Diego running back Ryan Mathews’ five-year career: seven, two, seven, two, 10. That’s almost two full seasons of missed starts out of five years. The Chargers had better pick a running back of the future in the draft next spring.
3. I think DeMarco Murray deserves every bit of credit he can get for winning the rushing title, breaking the great Emmitt Smith’s Dallas single-season rushing record, and finishing with 1,845 yards on a heretofore unfathomable (for Murray) 392 carries. Kudos to him, and to the Cowboys’ terrific offensive line.
4. I think NFL teams, including the Jets, are going to have consider this when figuring whether to lay out significant cash for Percy Harvin in 2015 and beyond: Since his spring 2013 trade from Minnesota to Seattle, he has played in 12 of 32 regular-season games, missing because of hip, rib and ankle injuries. In those 12 games, he has 52 catches for 500 yards and one touchdown, and 33 rushes for 202 yards and one touchdown. That’s 59 yards per game in total offense, with one touchdown per six games. Harvin is due $41.5 million on the last four years of his existing contract, including $10.5 million next year. He isn’t inclined to take a dime less next year. If I’m the Jets’ new GM, I don’t keep Harvin without a re-done contract. I just have no idea what kind of production to expect, particularly in a rebuilding situation with another new quarterback in 2015.
5. I think if I’m John Schneider, who is not a what-could-have-been guy, I have to ask myself at least occasionally: Why didn’t I take Golden Tate for half the money and zero compensation over Harvin? (I know they happened 10 months apart, but if Seattle passed on Harvin, they’d have saved about $5 million in cap money annually, plus first-, third- and seventh-round picks.)
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will meet again in 2015 since their teams each won their divisions this season. (Jim Davis/Getty Images)
6. I think these are my schedule highlights for 2015, with the final 2014 standings dictating some of the interesting matchups next year:
a. Peyton Manning vs. Andrew Luck for the third straight year.
b. Tom Brady vs. Andrew Luck for the fourth straight year (once was a playoff game), and if history is a guide, bet the over. New England’s averaged 48.0 points per game in the three previous meetings with Indy.
c. Tom Brady at Peyton Manning. It’ll be their 17th meeting, assuming both return in 2015.
d. In fact, the non-divisional Brady schedule shows a cornucopia of intriguing quarterback matchups on the road (Luck, Manning, Tony Romo, Eli Manning) and some feeble ones at home (Blake Bortles and whoever starts for Tennessee, Philadelphia and Washington).
e. Jets-Giants for the first time since 2011. Jets haven’t won in the series since 1993.
f. Seattle at Green Bay. In NFL season four, it’s Russell’s Wilson first game back in Wisconsin.
g. Steelers at Seattle for the first time since 2003.
h. Bruce Arians at the Steelers. Nice little reunion there, sort of.
i. Some of the best matchups, of course, won’t be known until we see where (if anyplace) Rex Ryan lands, what happens in Chicago, and where the surprise change is made. There’s always one. Or three.
7. I think the most startling critique of a player this season came from Cleveland defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, on the eighth pick in the 2014 draft, cornerback Justin Gilbert: “It’s up to Justin if he wants to be a 10- to 15-year guy or a two- to three-year guy.” For a coordinator to say that—and for defensive leaders Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner to chime in with pretty good rips in the past week of Gilbert’s unimpressive rookie season—tells me that Gilbert irked everyone on the team with his approach to the game and his work ethic. Dansby said Gilbert and the more famous Johnny Manziel had, in his words, “wasted years.” We’d heard about Manziel’s oft-times lax preparation. Gilbert joins that crew now. GM Ray Farmer can’t feel good about both of his first two first-round picks as a general manager. The work ethic of first-round picks should never be questioned. Not good for Gilbert and Manziel.
8. I think owner Jimmy Haslam must be wondering about the Browns’ pre-draft investigating, both before and after he bought the team. Three of the 10 most significant players for the franchise—wideout Josh Gordon (suspended for missing practice Saturday), Gilbert and Manziel—all ended a hopeful season for the team having their work ethic and character questioned. Now it’s a legitimate question: Will the Browns cut ties with Gordon?
9. I think Rams owner Stan Kroenke must be thinking (though how would we know what he thinks—the man never speaks) this after the team’s 11th straight non-winning season: I empathize with Jeff Fisher never having a good quarterback situation to deal with. But for all the resources and draft picks the team has had, 20 wins over three years just isn’t enough, which makes 2015 a vitally important year for Fisher’s future coaching the Rams.
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10. I think these are my non-NFL thoughts of the week:
a. Happy 30th birthday, Pete Frates, and congrats on everything you’ve done to raise awareness for ALS. Nice job by the Patriots, feting Frates Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
b. Stupid me. I didn’t get to any movies in the last week. Unbroken and Selma are first in the queue.
c. Always good to wade into The Lives They Lived, the magazine the New York Times publishes on the last Sunday of the year, looking back at those who died in the past year. That effort motivated mine this year, the 13 short segments on football people who died in 2014 earlier in this column.
d. I got a FitBit for Christmas, and I’ve learned I need to walk more. That’s a good thing.
e. Central Park on Christmas: Like the highways around Los Angeles at 4:30 in the afternoon. That was amazing, to see hundreds in line to go ice-skating and hundreds more just hanging around in the park in the middle of Christmas afternoon. I don’t know what I expected, but I thought Christmas was more of a homebound holiday.
f. Looking forward to reading the new Richard Ford book, and Without You, There Is No Us, Suki Kim’s memoir of teaching English to children of the elite in North Korea.
g. Beernerdness: Brewmaster Jack (Holyoke, Mass.) Hoppiness is a Warm Pun, a Double IPA from the brewer I’ve written about before. I was told this one would satisfy my love of hops, and that was correct. A terrific, citrus-fruity beer with slightly less carbonation than most brews (which is a good thing). It’s an 8.2 percent alcohol beer, so it’s best to share, and drink slowly. That’s hard to do—I mean both sharing it and drinking it slowly. One of the best beers I’ve had all year. Brewmaster Jack does one heck of a job.
The Adieu Haiku
So long Jim Harbaugh.
They say you were a big pain.
Hmmmm. Bill Walsh was too.
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