SAN FRANCISCO — So I was out early one morning last week on the east side of New York to walk Lucy the dog (we are caring for my daughter’s 13-year-old Shepherd/Lab mix), and one of the sanitation guys on recycling duty saw me and struck up a conversation about the Super Bowl. “I want Peyton to win it,” he said. “I want to see him ride off into the sunset on top.”
“A lot of people want that,” I said.
“I don’t think he’ll do it,” the guy said. “But if he doesn’t, that’s okay. It’ll be like the passing of the torch to Cam.”
“You just wrote a story for me!” I told him.
Isn’t that the perfect way to sum up the biggest storyline of Super Bowl 50? A great endgame for 39-year-old Peyton Manning, the classic pocket quarterback, or a perfect way for Cam Newton, 26, the new all-around quarterback, to take the world stage. In the 50th Super Bowl, an additional historic element accompanies the narrative, in what is likely the last game of Manning’s life.
There’s a lot of other stuff at play here too: A second Super Bowl win would be needed legacy fodder for Manning; one world title in 17 years leaves him shy of the greats … Ron Rivera trying to join his mentor, Mike Ditka, as one of four men to play in a Super Bowl and coach the winning team in one … Newton trying to join Russell Wilson as the second athlete/quarterback to win the Super Bowl in the last three games—and also cementing his spot alongside Wilson atop the next generation of great quarterbacks … John Elway attempting to be the first Super Bowl MVP turned Super Bowl champion architect … And this one:
Three years ago, if these two quarterbacks met in this game, it might have been advertised as a young David (Newton) versus Goliath (Manning). Now it’s the other way around. Newton is Goliath. Manning is David, sort of. Newton is at the top of the NFL game, throwing and running, and Manning is trying to squeeze one more classic performance (and not turn it over) out of a body that’s been betraying him most of the season. Until September, in every NFL game he’d played, Manning had been The Man. Now he’s The Complementary Man. Life changes.
But I think I speak for members of both defenses—Carolina’s, which has forced nine turnovers in eight playoff quarters, and the Tom Brady-wrecking Denver D—when I say they believe they could well be the stars six nights from now. In fact, I’ll let Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr., do the talking.
“Hey,” Harris said, “we’re Goliaths on this defense.”
I’m sure Josh Norman, his Panther counterpart, would say the same thing.
Plenty of Super Bowl 50 fodder to come at The MMQB, today and all week. We’ve got great stuff planned, including from our road trip across America, weaving great Super Bowl tales from Maine to California, some of the best storytelling in the three-season history of our site. (Our crew is in Texas today.)
The Panthers and Broncos hunkered down an hour south of here after arriving Sunday—the Broncos are Santa Clara, 43 miles from San Francisco, and the Panthers are San Jose, 51 miles away. The teams will meet the masses tonight for the first Media Night in Super Bowl history, at 8 p.m. ET at the SAP Center, home of the San Jose Sharks, in downtown San Jose. A quick briefing on the logistics here.
• Denver. The Broncos, who landed in San Jose at 4:45 p.m. PT Sunday, are staying just down the street from Levi’s Stadium, and practicing 14 miles away at Stanford’s practice fields and Stanford Stadium, if desired. They will practice Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at Stanford, and have a walk-through practice on Saturday morning, 11 a.m., at Levi’s Stadium, as is their normal custom. They’ll meet the media at their hotel on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings, then be cloistered after that until Sunday.
• Carolina. The Panthers landed in San Jose shortly after the Broncos. They are bunking in downtown San Jose and practicing nearby, at the San Jose State University practice fields—the same site the Ravens used this year when they stayed in the Bay Area on the occasion of back-to-back western games. The team will use the Spartans’ facilities, including the weight room and trainers’ room, for about five hours each day. Same thing as Denver on the media plans, and the post-Thursday cloistering. The Panthers will hold their Saturday walk-through at Levi’s Stadium at 1 p.m.
• NFL crappola. The NFL and most of the press will be HQ’d in downtown San Francisco. NFL Honors, the annual league awards show, will originate from downtown on Saturday, as will the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame voting, also on Saturday.
Now on to the normal Monday business of MMQB, starting with one of Stanford’s famous alums, going home this week.
* * *
The story of John Elway, architect.
There haven’t been a lot of superstar players who built championship teams. Jerry West with the Lakers, Ozzie Newsome with the Ravens … who else? Larry Bird couldn’t do it. Michael Jordan couldn’t. Elway just might be able to. This is the second time in his five seasons running the franchise that Denver’s been in a Super Bowl. Since 2012, the Broncos have the best record in football, and 21 of the 22 starters have arrived under Elway’s watch, which began in 2011.
Amazing when you think about it. West and Newsome might be it. Elway’s trying to join the championship crowd. If he does, it just might then be only West and Elway who won at least one world title as players, made the Hall of Fame, and constructed world championship teams. We really might be seeing something special if Denver wins.
But what’s the thing you almost always hear from players of the past 20 or 30 years, in all sports, when the subject of coaching or scouting or managing or general-managing comes up. No way I’m putting in all that time. Fourteen-hour days? Not happening.
Then there’s Elway, son of a coach, for a while. Son of a scout, for a while. Son of a director of pro personnel, for a while. He saw the business, and, in a strange, ironic twist of fate, spent most of the last month of Jack Elway’s life with him learning that business. John Elway had no idea that would train him for the life he’s living right now.
“My first introduction to this life,” Elway said in Denver the other day, “came in 2001, when I sat in with my Dad, who was the Broncos’ pro personnel director, for a month of pre-draft meetings. Mike Shahanan let me sit in on the meetings. I had sold my car dealers to AutoNation, and I was looking to figure out what I might want to do. That month was a great bonding time for me and my dad, hours and hours of meetings, and a great learning experience for me. I remember this lesson from him: Teams are 80 percent players, and 20 percent coaches. He taught me how important athleticism was, and how important competitive drive was. In that draft, I’ll never forget—he loved Drew Brees. He had that competitive fire. And now look at him. That really was a great month for me.”
Recalled Shanahan: “Jack Elway was always excellent in those meetings. He really had a sense for players. And so for John, who was always around that life, and very close to his Dad, it was a perfect scenario if you want to grow up to be a GM.”
The meetings ended, and Jack Elway went home to Palm Springs, where he planned to retire after that 2001 draft. Then, on April 15, a week before the draft, Jack Elway died of a heart attack at his home. “I don’t know if it was meant to be,” John Elway said, “but I am so grateful I got to spend that time with my dad before he passed.”
Elway cut his teeth in Arena Football, running the Colorado Crush (with 25-man rosters) from 2003 to ’08. When Elway was asked by owner Pat Bowlen to run the football side of the Broncos in 2011, Elway accepted, and he remembered some of those lessons from his dad. Draft speed. Look for guys who love football. And, of course, get a quarterback. Would Manning have come to Denver had Elway not been running the show? I have my doubts, but we’ll never know. Elway’s first draft pick was Von Miller. In his first big free-agency season, 2013, Elway signed DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward, all impact players on the current strong defense. Some Elwayisms:
• “We don’t draft All-Pros. We develop All-Pros.”
• “Speed kills. But not 40 speed. Play speed. A guy’s 40 speed might be 4.8, but look at his instincts and how he reacts to plays—that might get his true speed down to 4.6.”
• “My priority is getting guys with desire and a real heart for football. Chris Harris Jr., came in here undrafted. [The college free-agent from Kansas was the final signee before training camp in 2011 for Elway, for a $2,000 bonus.] He comes in, and right away he’s first in line in every drill. His character, his football traits, turned out to be so strong.”
• “We cherish the bottom of the draft. We cannot afford to miss a draft, because we want to be good for a long time here, and teams that are good for a long time do not miss drafts.”
“They just told me to come in here and compete and I’d have a chance,” said Harris. “They were right. I was the 11th cornerback out of 11 on the depth chart. That’s one of the things I’ve liked about being here—it doesn’t matter who you are. They bring in a ton of undrafted guys, late-round guys. If you’re the best, he [Elway] will keep you.”
The Broncos, under Elway, have tried to not have hard-and-fast personnel rules. Denver went wild in free agency in 2013 but not in any other year. The Broncos like to bottom-feed for players, and if you’re on the camp roster, you’ve got a legit chance to make it. Linebacker Brandon Marshall was cut by Jacksonville three times, but he’s slid into an important starting role for Denver—and it was Marshall covering swift New England back James White on many of White’s 16 targets from Tom Brady (only five of them completed) in the AFC title game last week. Sixth-round linebacker Danny Trevathan has become a vital sideline-to-sideline player.
There’s one other thing Elway has learned. It’s something that was reinforced last summer, when he went to Peyton Manning and told him he was going to have to take a $4-million pay cut. Yes, the quarterback who was Denver’s lifeline back in 2012, who was the key to being in contention every year—a big paycut. That ended up allowing Denver to sign a starting guard before the season, Evan Mathis, and Manning has since made back $2 million of it, by winning the AFC title game. (The other $2 million will come back to Manning if Denver wins the Super Bowl.) But it was no easy thing. “I don’t get too close to the players,” Elway said. “Because I know I might have to make tough decisions, I know I can’t be their best friend. I’ve got to be the bad guy at times. If it’s best for the Denver Broncos, I don’t worry about personal feelings. I can’t.”
Shanahan wanted to illustrate Elway’s feelings about winning. So he said he was going to tell a story he has never told before. In 1993, after Shanahan’s first year on the San Francisco coaching staff, Bowlen offered him the Denver head-coaching job. But they were $150,000 per year in salary and a company car apart from Shanahan’s bottom line, and Shanahan was holding firm. Elway found out. Elway said he’d pay him the $150,000 a year, and he’d provide the car Shanahan wanted. “You’re coming,” Elway said. Shanahan felt he couldn’t do that. He couldn’t have the quarterback paying part of his compensation. So Shanahan stayed in San Francisco. Wade Phillips coached the team for two years, then Bowlen got Shanahan to come, finally, in 1995.
“John didn’t talk to me for a year,” Shanahan said.
I gave Elway a chance to puff his chest a little about having the best winning percentage in football over the past four years, and taking his team to the Super Bowl twice in that time. He said he was proud, yes, of competing for the title every year. But he built this team to win, and he made it clear the job’s not done. Of course, Elway was the quarterback on three Denver Super Bowl teams that lost in the Super Bowl, before he won his final two. Getting to the Big One is good. It’s just not good enough. It might be corny. But it’s certainly how Elway feels.
Said Shanahan, “John knows this more than anybody: Nobody cares who finishes second.”
* * *
Can unbridled joy be unsportsmanlike?
Three stories you’ll be sick of by game time Sunday:
• Win one for Peyton.
• Cam Newton revolutionizing the quarterback position.
• The Cam Newton Joy Referendum.
I’ll say what I’ve said several times this year: At a time in NFL history when there is so much to criticize, and when the concussion/head-trauma issue is such a lightning rod that tens of thousands of parents across the country are weighing whether to let their children play football, here comes a man who exudes joy on the field 10, 15, 20 times a game. He smiles, he gestures, he poses, he hands footballs to small children and makes their days. (Years, in many cases.) So I not only don’t have a problem with it. I like it. I know there is a divide on this. I get it. Some people feel it’s showing up the opposition. In a traditional way, maybe it is. When I coached girls softball, I would not have wanted my players to celebrate by stopping on the field after a great play and pretending to be Superman. If other teams did it to us, I’d have been ticked off. So I realize there’s a disconnect here. I just find it hard to think what Newton does is bush. It’s joyous.
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Newton is a player who does everything right inside his team. He studies the game and has the kind of relationship with offensive coordinator Mike Shula that Shula freely, every week, adds and subtracts to the game plan based on what Newton tells him he likes and doesn’t like. The trust between them isn’t phony. He is so on top of his game that—and this is the first time I remember seeing this—he drew Washington defensive linemen offside on consecutive plays in November. How will a defense as aggressive and high-impact as Denver’s play it when, as he did also against Washington, Newton goes under center, takes the snap, fakes a quick sideline throw to Ted Ginn, holds the defense with a play-action fake to Jonathan Stewart, stares briefly at Greg Olsen on a short curl over the middle, then rips a throw to the right sideline to rookie Devin Funchess for a gain of 11? I only mention those examples to show you this isn’t a hey-look-at-me guy who doesn’t back up his bravado with homework and preparation and practiced skill.
As Shula told me a few weeks ago: “Sometimes I think we need to remind ourselves that football is fun, and when we have fun and we’re winning, we’re happy. I would never want to change his personality.”
Good for him.
THE MMQB PODCAST WITH ROBERT MAYS
* * *
Hall of Fame voting: Is this the year for Greene, Harrison?
The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 46 selectors will gather at 6:30 a.m. Pacific Time on Saturday to elect the 54th class to the Hall. There’s one lock among the 15 Modern Era finalists: Brett Favre. The other 14 will vie for four remaining slots (a maximum of five Modern Era figures can be elected annually). Each year there are battles to get through the tiny funnel into Canton. My gut feeling as a voter: After the certainty of Favre, this is the year for linebacker Kevin Greene, who was third on the all-time sack list with 160 when he retired after the 1999 season, and hasn’t been passed in the 16 years since. He made first-team All- Pro with three different teams, and was more impactful in his 30s than his 20s, twice leading the league in sacks—at age 32 and 34.
After that? Lots of mystery. It’s going to be very interesting to see how the voters look at the receiver position, where Terrell Owens is eligible for the first time, and Marvin Harrison returns for third try as a finalist. Comparing the average regular season of Harrison’s 13 years and Owens’ 15:
I see Harrison as one of the precise route-runners of his day, a man extremely hard for defenders to jam, as good a receiver in and out of cuts as there was, superb hands, an excellent partner for the precise Peyton Manning. One minus for him is his championship game and Super Bowl performances (three games: 12 catches, zero touchdowns), but the big pluses are his NFL-record 143-catch season in 2002 and his consistent productivity. Owens, obviously, was irrepressible as a player, a physical force at 225 pounds, with nine seasons of over 1,000 yards. He never led the league in receptions or receiving yards, but he retired second all-time in yards and third in touchdowns among receivers, and he’s not close to being passed in either category. He’s going to get into the Hall. The question is: Will it be this year, and will it be at Harrison’s expense?
Now, many of you will say, and have said to me, If both are so deserving, why don’t you put them both in? Well it’s possible that both will make it.
The way the system works is that after presentations of the candidates and the debating, voters cut the list by secret ballot from 15 to 10, and then when the list of 10 is disclosed inside the room, that list is cut by secret ballot again to five. After that, the five candidates, one by one, are voted on, yea or nay, by secret ballot again. There are other factors, of course, including Owens coming back from injury to play gallantly and productively in the Eagles’ Super Bowl loss to New England … and Owens’ penchant for drops. Harrison had sure hands and was better and quicker in and out of cuts; Owens was a tremendous physical receiver who could run all day.
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Harrison was the quietest guy in the locker room, Owens oft-times the loudest and most distracting. But unless either of those things plays a part in how a guy played on the field, or what part that contributed to winning or losing, it’s not supposed to be considered by the voters. That stuff plays no factor in my decision.
When it’s close at a position and two men are eligible, I often sense the room giving the most voting sentiment to the one who has waited the longest. That’s if it’s very, very close, and it may be in this case. We’ll see. If I had to guess, I’d say Harrison, at least, makes it. But Owens could make this a two-receiver class.
* * *
One theory about the increasing concussion numbers
The rise in diagnosed concussions from 206 last season (including training camp practices and preseason games, and regular-season practices and games) to 271 in 2015 is alarming, particularly in light of the massive attention, rightfully so, to head trauma and to the growing number of deceased players being found with chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Just last week former Giants safety Tyler Sash, who died at 27 in September, was found to have had CTE.
What does the increase mean? One of four things, and it will likely take a few more years of data study to understand which it might be:
1. The game is getting more violent, and as much effort as the NFL is devoting to trying to prevent head trauma, it is powerless to do much about it.
2. The 2014 numbers were minimized somehow, perhaps by not as much attentiveness as in 2015 by the independent spotter upstairs or the unaffiliated neurotrauma consultants on the sidelines. In other words, some concussions were either overlooked by team physicians or independent watchdogs or hidden by players.
3. The 2015 stats are, collectively, an outlier, a one-year blip on football’s radar screen. The numbers had declined from 261 diagnosed concussions in the preseason and regular season in 2012, to 229 in 2013, to 206 in 2014, before spiking this year.
4. The spike is understandable, given the NFL’s concussion-paranoia, which grew this year with the increased attention on the job of the unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant, particularly after a concussion of Rams quarterback Case Keenum that was missed by the consultant, the Rams’ team medics and the athletic trainer seated in the press box who is supposed to be spotting wobbly players.
Clearly, there’s no way to put these numbers in perspective—yet. And just as clearly, it is in the NFL’s best interests to minimize the impact of Friday’s announcement. If 12.1 percent of the NFL’s 1,696 players were concussed in 2014, and that percentage jumped to 16.0 percent in 2015, there is no way around the fact that the NFL’s antennae need to be up. Way up.
On Saturday, I asked one of the UNCs and co-chair of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee, Dr. Richard Ellenbogen (he works the visiting sidelines at Seahawks’ games) about the data. It is Ellenbogen’s job to collect data from the UNC physicians at 64 preseason games, 256 regular-season games and 11 postseason games. He gets two reports per game, one from each sideline.
“My belief,” Ellenbogen said on Saturday, “is that this is not necessarily an increase in concussions suffered during games. We’ll see in the coming years if that’s true. I think overall we have lowered the threshold for diagnosis. We are much more erring on the side of caution. I was waiting for the culture change to hit, and I sense it is hitting the game right now. … The medical timeout that has been instituted also is a factor, I think. Plus, this year I have sensed more teamwork between the team physician on the sideline and the UNC. Overall, I think this is all good.”
Ellenbogen thinks that as concussion awareness increases, so will self-reporting and the removal of players from games who might not have been removed four or five years ago. In the Pittsburgh-Seattle game this year, Ellenbogen was on the sideline as Ryan Shazier protested being removed after he was wobbly on the field. Ellenbogen and the Steelers physician examined Shazier in the locker room. Though he passed the verbal test, the Steelers doctor chose to hold him out of the remainder of the game, feeling he wasn’t quite right. Later in that game Ben Roethlisberger self-reported feeling woozy and was removed. So, a few years ago, would Shazier have been kept out—and would Roethlisberger have self-reported late in a close game?
My feeling is 16 percent of players in the league suffering a concussion in a season is probably going to be closer to the norm than 12 percent in the future. We’ll see, but with so many eyes on the issue, and the sideline medics focused on removing anyone close to concussed, the higher numbers may be the new normal.
* * *
An oral history of the greatest offensive quarter in Super Bowl history…
... By the man who engineered it in Super Bowl XXII, Washington quarterback Doug Williams. Seeing that we are on the verge of the 50th Super Bowl, I am giving the floor to Williams to recount what happened 28 years ago, because I believe Washington’s five-touchdown second quarter against the Broncos has been given far, far too little attention by history.
There’s not much to argue about here, when considering the greatest quarter in Super Bowl history by an offense. Washington had five drives in the second quarter of the 42-10 rout of Denver. The five drives lasted a total of 18 plays, and produced 357 yards and 35 points. Just think: It’s the Super Bowl, the game of your life, and you play the quarter of your life. Every time you touch the ball, 20 yards happens. At least, that was the average Washington gain in this quarter. I asked Williams to relive it, from the week before and the pressure of trying to be the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl, to how the quarter actually played out.
Williams, recalling the second quarter and the things around it, from the game on Jan. 31, 1988 in San Diego:
“Let me tell you this: In my whole life playing football, that was absolutely the best practice week I’ve had. Coaches had to call us off each other. We were so physical, and so ready. They didn’t want anyone to get hurt during the week. We knew we were ready.
“Late in the first quarter we were down 10-0, and I hyperextended my knee. They had just put new turf in at the stadium, and I guess there was a section that was damp, because the sun hadn’t really hit it, and my right foot slid out from under me. I was laying on the turf and the trainers came out. But I said, ‘Don't touch me. If I can walk, I am gonna finish the football game.’ I had to come out for a couple of plays, and Jay Schroeder went in for me. You know, the previous year we played the NFC Championship Game against the Giants in New York, and I was the backup. Jay got hit pretty good and he was laying there for a minute, like he was going to have to come out of the game. We didn't have the concussion protocol in those days, and when I got halfway on the field, he just started waving me off. I had to go back to the sideline. That was one of those most embarrassing moments of my life, getting waved off like that.
“So now, in the Super Bowl, I’m on the sideline, and Jay’s getting ready to go back in the game, and [coach] Joe Gibbs comes to me and says—he always called me ‘Douglas’—‘Douglas, you ready?’ I said, ‘Yeah coach,’ and I went into the game. So now the day came when the guy who waved me off wouldn't get a chance to play.
“I don’t consider there was any pressure on me that day. I always figured I wasn’t going to ever put pressure on myself to perform, so I certainly wasn’t going to get anyone else put pressure on me from the outside world. But I did understand what was at stake. I wasn't gonna play this game because I was a black quarterback. I was playing this game because I was the quarterback of the Washington Redskins who happened to have earned the job quarterbacking in the Super Bowl.
“I was very much aware of the atmosphere around the game. I grew up in Louisiana during segregation. The street where I grew up runs from Baton Rouge to Mississippi. There were two intersections, a crossroads. And every Friday night, there was a cross burning at that intersection. That’s just the way it was. The Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan lived a few miles from where I lived. Integration didn’t happen until my ninth grade year, and even when I got to high school, it was still mostly black because the white kids who should have gone to the school got pulled out and went to private school. I only played with two white guys in high school. But basically I never worried about it. Then when I went to Grambling, coach Rob [Eddie Robinson] never preached black and white. He was only about the American flag. I don’t know anyone, ever, who could out-American Eddie Robinson. Anyway, with coach Rob, it was all about performance.
“So we start the quarter at our 20. Their cornerback, Mark Haynes, walks up to press our receiver, Ricky Sanders. One-on-one press coverage. That’s a mistake against our receivers, who were so quick. Joe made us believe every time we would win that matchup. It was supposed to be a seven-yard stop route, but in our playbook that automatically converts to a fade downfield if the receiver’s jammed at the line. Ricky gets off the jam—Haynes missed him with his left hand—and the rest is history. They had no safety help. That was easy.”
Result: 80-yard touchdown pass, Williams to Sanders. Denver 10, Washington 7.
“We hold ’em and get the ball back, move it downfield. At their 27, Denver blitzes, and I’ve got Kelvin Bryant in the flat open. The linebacker’s bearing down on me. To this day, every time I see [offensive coordinator] Dan Henning, he always says, ‘Why didn’t you take the house read there?’ And I say, ‘I had Gary Clark one-on-one.’ I’ll take that every time.”
Result: 27-yard touchdown pass, Williams to Clark. Washington 14, Denver 10.
“Before the game, Joe had me go tell Timmy Smith he was going to start at running back. I told him, ‘Don’t f--- this up!’ What a game he had. The guys up front, the five linemen, they just dominated all day. On that run, the tight end trapped the nosetackle for Denver, and I handed the ball to Timmy, and when I turned around, there wasn’t a Bronco within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.”
Result: 58-yard touchdown run by Smith. Washington 21, Denver 10.
“So then we tried play-action. The play was ‘Play pass counter 60.’ So what do you think their safety, [Tony] Lilly, did on that one? He bit. You watch that highlight, with the guards pulling, and it looks just like a run. When he realizes what the play is, Lilly is like, ‘Damn! I gotta get back.’ Too late.”
Result: 50-yard touchdown pass, Williams to Sanders. Washington 28, Denver 10.
“Late in the quarter, we got one more chance, down at the [Denver] eight-yard line. All game, Clint [Didier, the tight end] had been quiet. We sent Ricky Sanders in motion, ran a fake zoom to the other side, and there was Clint, wide open on a corner route. No safety in sight.
Result: 8-yard touchdown pass, Williams to Didier. Washington 35, Denver 10.
“That was amazing. Just amazing. Thinking back on it … It’s not just five touchdowns in one quarter. We scored 35 points in 18 plays. Think about Peyton Manning drives. What are they—12, 13 plays? That's what you want, the clock-killing drive. To score 35 points in 18 plays, you're scoring a touchdown every three minutes. Less than that. In the Super Bowl! You ain’t doing that in no bowl! You ain’t doing that in Powder Puff!
“At halftime, we’re up 35-10, and Buges [offensive line coach Joe Bugel] comes to me and says, ‘Hey, Stud’—that’s what he always called me—‘Hey Stud, I think we got this. You don’t need to come back with that knee.’ I told him, ‘I started this game, and I’m gonna finish it.’ My knee had really stiffened up. But the doctors got out their needle, and we did what we had to do, and we got the job done.
“We traveled the road less traveled and won the Super Bowl. After the game there was nothing to say. The game itself was the best statement.”
Now I had two questions for Williams.
Does this quarter get enough attention as the best quarter in Super Bowl history?
“No, but there’s not anything I can do about that. It’s not my job to blow my own horn. You control what you can control.”
Have you ever wondered whether it would be more celebrated if John Elway scored 35 points in one quarter?
Williams chuckled. He paused. Long pause.
“That’s the only answer you’ll get from me on that.”
* * *
Now, back in the real world …
Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel has his first day of school today.
He’ll walk onto the campus of MIT, in Cambridge, Mass., into the first day of the Applied Mathematics Ph.D program at the most august math and technology university in the United States.
Some off-season gig, starting your Ph.D work at MIT.
But think of what Urschel must feel like this morning, as the football world starts to rev up for the Super Bowl, and 106 football players begin the biggest week of most of their professional lives—Super Bowl week. Urschel is starting his alternative Super Bowl. It’s the dawn of the semester for Ph.D students at MIT, and Urschel is fully intent on becoming as good a mathematician as he is a football player, or better. I asked him Sunday what he was feeling like on the eve of joining a pretty exclusive club of geniuses at MIT.
“I feel a lot like I feel before a game,” he said. “Nerves are naturally high, feeding off of uncertainty. But overall, I feel commensurate.”
I feel commensurate. Equivalent, basically. Two months ago, John Urschel, starting one of his seven games this season at center for Baltimore, had to block Ndamukong Suh for much of the game. He had to be commensurate with Suh, or his quarterback was going down. He said the duel with Suh, in which he did not allow Suh to sack the quarterback that day, was a thrill for him—the kind of thrill he gets when nearing the end-point of solving a great math problem. Which is why he’s in Cambridge today, at MIT.
“I can't wait to get started,” Urschel said. “Naturally, this is a dream come true. I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing than playing in the NFL and getting my Ph.D in math from MIT. I've always aspired to do both, but I never imagined I'd be doing both at the same time.”
Did you know Urschel has a theorem named after him? Well, co-named. It’s called the Urschel-Zikatanov Theorem—Urschel went to Penn State, and Ludmil Zikatanov was one of his professors and his mathematics mentor—and it proves, according to the explanation that is far, far, far over the head of an Ohio University journalism grad, that for any connected graph there exists an eigenfunction corresponding to the minimal non-trivial eigenvalue such that the subgraphs induced by the negative and non-negative vertices, respectively, are both connected.
I could tell you what eigenfunction is, but if I did, of course, I’d have to kill you.
The point is, Urschel is very serious about both of his professions. He will spend time several days a week in a gym in Cambridge this semester, doing the lifts and the cardio and drills he’d be doing for four hours, several days a week. He’s intent on continuing both careers. He makes it very clear, though, that football is his meal ticket, and nothing will take away from his preparation, mental and physical, to start on the Baltimore offensive line this year, and for years to come.
The question that seems most elephant-in-the-room about Urschel is the one about his future in football, and his long-term future in math. With the news about concussions and head trauma (Urschel has suffered one concussion in the NFL—last August in training camp), and the fear of repetitive blows to the head rendering the brain weaker to do the kinds of things mathematicians would obviously have to be clear-headed enough to do, doesn’t playing football take on an added layer of, well, terror?
And Urschel said something about the prime age of great talents in both fields that really surprised me.
“It's something I have thought about, and of course it's a concern,” he said, about blows to the head, and what they could mean to his mathematics future.
“Both math and football are young persons’ games. Very few guys are still playing at 40. The major prize in math is the Fields Medal, which is given to a mathematician 40 or younger. That's our Nobel Prize. I try to do what I enjoy, and I really enjoy playing football and doing mathematics. I recovered from the concussion I had, and I didn't seem to have any after-effects.
“Time is constantly running out on you. I don’t know when I’ll die. I don’t know when I’ll be fired by the Ravens. I don’t know when I won’t be sharp enough to produce elegant and meaningful mathematical results. But my plan is to work as hard as I can on both things and try to be as accomplished as I can in both things. They both bring me great fulfillment.”
One more thing about Urschel that I found interesting. (Actually, there are 48 more things, but this was the most compelling to me.) He is determined to not be, as he says, “that football player who does math.” He wants to be the best in his business. Both businesses. He has a ways to go to be a Marshal Yanda in football; Pro Football Focus had Urschel rated the 28th of 40 centers in the league in 2015. But clearly he’s known for being a football player, and he doesn’t want that to be his claim to fame in the math world.
“It's important to me that my work as a mathematician stands on its own footing,” Urschel said. “I don't want to be viewed as some sideshow. I want it to be known that I do good mathematical research, and that this is independent of what I do on Sundays. I want to be remembered as a good mathematician. Really, I want to be elite. MIT is the first step.”
It is very, very hard not to root for Urschel. In both worlds.
* * *
C.J. Anderson does a classy thing
When the Denver running back was 10 and growing up east of San Francisco, Anderson watched on TV as Tom Brady won his first Super Bowl with the Patriots to cap the 2001 season. “Mom,” he said to his mother that day, “Tom Brady’s from the Bay Area, just like me.” That’s the day, Anderson said, when his NFL dream was born.
And so Anderson sought out Brady after the AFC title game eight days ago. He was stunned that Brady was so praiseworthy of Anderson first. Brady told Anderson he loved the way he plays, he knew Anderson came up from being an undrafted free agent, and, as Anderson recalled Brady saying, “Keep proving people wrong.”
Anderson posted a photo of their meeting on Instagram last Monday, and thanked Brady profusely for his words (“They will stick … I have MAD RESPECT” wrote Anderson). He’s particularly drawn to Brady, he said, because Brady was a sixth-round pick in 2000 and faced heavy odds to becoming a starting quarterback, never mind one of the great quarterbacks of all time. Anderson was still blown away days later when he thought of Brady’s kindness in the moments after such a tough loss.
“I know a lot of people hate Tom,” Anderson said on Friday, “but I will never forget those words he spoke to me. He just came toward me and yelled, ‘C.J!’ and said what he said. That was a beautiful moment. Heartwarming. Those words were just as special as when I got to the Broncos and Peyton Manning walked up to me and said, ‘C.J., welcome. Glad you’re here.’ I remember when I was 11 or 12 years old thinking, If I could have the chance to play with two quarterbacks in my life, it’d be Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. And now we’re going to the Super Bowl for the second time in three years.”
Said Anderson: “Man, I am living the dream.”
* * *
The MMQB’s Road to Super Bowl 50
If you’ve visited our site in the past week, you’ve surely noticed The MMQB’s Road to Super Bowl 50 is in full swing. We’re crossing the country, telling stories of Super Bowls past and present, capturing a feel for the meaning of the game from coast to coast, and dodging the occasional state trooper. Here’s where we’ve gone so far…
KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — A visit with a fan who’s about to attend his 50th Super Bowl.
MIDDLETOWN, N.J. — Vince Lombardi’s understated gravesite has become a shrine to football fans across the nation.
PONTIAC, Mich. — The birth of the 49ers dynasty and the death of a dome.
PITTSBURGH — Franco Harris, the Steelers’ first Super Bowl MVP, is now in the donut business.
AURORA, Colo. — How Timmy Smith, the only man to rush for 200 yards in a Super Bowl, found himself on the wrong side of the law.
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Long-time Ohio State coach Jim Tressel talks about his five former players who will take the field in Super Bowl 50.
CINCINNATI — Ickey Woods gives a dance tutorial and in a wide-ranging Q&A shares his thoughts on the negativity surrounding Cam Newton’s celebrations and his charity work after the tragic loss of his son.
CINCINNATI — Four years at St. Xavier helped make Luke Kuechly a ‘nice boy’ off the field, and a ferocious competitor on it. We visited the Catholic prep shool.
INDIANAPOLIS — Fan network writer Angie Six on why Colts fans are rooting for Peyton to go out on top.
CHICAGO — Three decades after the Bears brought home Chicago’s only Lombardi Trophy, the city remains obsessed with the team and its characters.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Football lifer and legendary Vikings coach Bud Grant—he of the short sleeves in sub-zero temps—talks about winning, losing and why he never liked Vince Lombardi.
CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — At the Hy-Vee grocery store where Kurt Warner kept his NFL dream alive, the Super Bowl story remains strong.
We’ll have more stories and video from the road on Leg 2 of the trip, through Texas and the mountain states and on to San Francisco. Check back regularly, and follow the journey on Twitter and Instagram. #SB50RoadTrip.
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Quotes of the Week
“I hope you write a book and tell us all the truth.”
—Carolina coach Ron Rivera, on what he once said to Denver quarterback Peyton Manning, wondering how much of what Manning barks at the line of scrimmage is real and meaningful, and how much of it is fluff to confuse the defense.
“They asked me if I had seen a quarterback like [Panthers QB] Cam Newton. There isn’t one like him. I haven’t seen one like him. None of us have.”
—Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, on his Super Bowl foe.
“I like Cam Newton. If he played defense, he probably would’ve gotten $220 million because he can probably rush the passer and drop back and play safety.”
—Denver pass-rusher Von Miller, who knows a good defensive prospect when he sees it.
“Today I decided our team will stay in San Diego for the 2016 season and I hope for the long term in a new stadium … We have an option and an agreement with the Los Angeles Rams to go to Inglewood in the next year, but my focus is on San Diego. This has been our home for 55 years, and I want to keep the team here and provide the world-class stadium experience you deserve … I am committed to looking at this with a fresh perspective and a new sense of possibility.”
—San Diego Chargers chairman Dean Spanos, in a statement Friday. The team now has the best of both (temporary) worlds: It can play in San Diego while negotiating with the city for a permanent stadium, and if things don’t work, the Chargers have until mid-January 2017 to opt into the Rams’ stadium in Los Angeles as the second team there.
“Fortunately for us all, you decided the alternative was not acceptable. We would have despised you … Hell hath no fury like fans scorned.”
—Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune, on what the locals would have thought of Spanos had he taken the Los Angeles deal with the Rams’ Stan Kroenke.
“I do welcome it. It’s been garbage from the first day it came out. It’s still garbage today.”
—Peyton Manning, asked about the NFL’s investigation into the Al Jazeera claims that HGH was shipped to his wife, Ashley, and the inference that it was intended for him, not her.
* * *
Stats of the Week
I have a theory about Peyton Manning. It’s that in the 48 days he sat out with a bad foot and other maladies, he looked around at his team and thought: I need to be complementary player, not the leader of the band. If I don’t turn it over, we’ve got a pretty good chance to win. Maybe that happened subconsciously, maybe not. The point is, Manning has come back with the attitude of a player focused on taking care of the ball.
Regular-season Peyton Manning versus post-season Manning:
We have considered all season that the Carolina receivers, as a whole, are a pretty meh group. But can anyone say they’ve dragged the team down in any way? Nope. Comparing Cam Newton’s top four targets (Ted Ginn, Jerricho Cotchery, Corey Brown, Greg Olsen) to the more vaunted Denver group (Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Jordan Norwood, Owen Daniels) entering the Super Bowl, including regular-season and playoff games:
What’s most interesting, I think, looking at the comparative numbers, is the yards per catch on each side. Cam Newton, obviously, is more dangerous downfield than Peyton Manning … even at tight end. Greg Olsen’s yards-per-catch in 18 games: 14.5 yards. The combined yards-per-catch of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders: 13.4.
A Sort of Homecoming Dept.: How weird will it be for Vernon Davis to return to his home field Sunday? The man has become a non-factor, mostly, since being traded from San Francisco to Denver on Nov. 2 … and it’s clear that Niners GM Trent Baalke won this trade over John Elway. Baalke got sixth-round picks in 2016 and 2017 from Denver for Davis and a single seventh-round pick.
In the last four games—against Cincinnati, San Diego, Pittsburgh and New England—here is the disappearing Davis’s numbers as Denver’s distant third tight end: 22 plays, 1 target, 0 receptions.
In 28 drives this postseason against two quarterbacks with a total of six Super Bowl titles between them—Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady—the Denver defense has allowed one touchdown pass.
* * *
Factoids of the Week That May Interest Only Me
Ten years ago this week—on Feb. 4, 2006—Warren Moon was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
That is the last time a quarterback was elected to the Hall.
Sixty men have been enshrined in the nine years since then.
On Saturday, 10 years and two days after Moon got the call, Brett Favre will get a similar one.
Mike Leach retired the other day. It probably didn’t register much on your radar. Leach began his football life as a wide receiver at Boston University, was moved to tight end, then had to transfer to William & Mary when BU dropped football after the 1997 season. He played tight end and punter for two years at William & Mary, then got signed as training-camp fodder as a tight end for Tennessee in 2000 and only became a long-snapper when special teams coach Alan Lowry saw him doing it for fun one day. That led to him snapping for the Titans, and later for Denver and Arizona. He retired at 39.
Leach’s career is notable—to me at least—because he finished his career with 1,518 consecutive snaps without error.
That’s 840 punts snaps, 376 field-goal snaps and 302 PAT snaps without bouncing one, or snapping it over the head of the holder.
His last error: Christmas Eve 2005 against the Raiders, in a 22-3 win, when he snapped the ball to holder Jake Plummer on a PAT try before Plummer was ready, and the ball spiraled back and nailed Plummer right in the throat.
Since that moment, Leach did his job well for 168-and-a-half games.
I’m rather impressed with that.
I asked Leach other day what he was most proud of in his career. “Surviving as long as I did,” he said. “And I’m proud to say I never cost my team a game. I never had what you’d call a catastrophic snap. When I broke in with Tennessee in 2000, I don’t remember which coach it was, but one of them said to me, ‘They just brought you in here for three weeks to beat you up and send you home.’ And I lasted 16 years.”
About the streak of 1,518 straight snaps without error, Leach credited his mindset, and consistency. “You can never let the moment get big,” he said. “Let your muscle memory take over. Make every snap in practice, a game, the off-season or during the season, exactly the same.”
* * *
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
Leaving Amarena, a swell Italian restaurant in San Francisco Sunday night, the man/the myth/the legend, Gil Brandt, got into the car picking him up and cheerily said, “Hello, Mr. Uber!”
The subject turned to Kezar Stadium, the windy San Francisco ballpark where the 49ers played through the 1970 season. The seagull-filled place that John Brodie called home may have been better known as the stadium site for Dirty Harry filming in 1971, just months after the Niners moved down the road to Candlestick Park.
“The locker room,” said Brandt, “was about as big as this car.”
The other dinner guest, longtime NFL fixture Mike Ornstein, asked Brandt, “Hey Gil: Even done a book?”
“I don’t have a bulletproof vest,” Brandt said.
* * *
Tweets of the Week
* * *
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think, as I wrote two weeks ago, Calvin Johnson is going to retire. And Adam Schefter’s report, that the 31-year-old receiver told the Lions that he has played his last game, solidifies that belief.
• BIRTH OF A DYNASTY, DEATH OF A DOME: Thirty-four years ago, the Silverdome hosted Super Bowl XVI and the 49ers began their decade of dominance. With the Detroit stadium now in ruins, let’s look back at how San Francisco began its run.
2. I think this is now the Cleveland Browns football decision-making tree. See if you can spot a trend:
• Hue Jackson, head coach, 50 years old. Degree in physical education, University of the Pacific. Quarterback, Pacific.
• Sashi Brown, Executive VP of football operations, 39. Degree in communications, Hampton University. Law degree, Harvard.
• Andrew Berry, VP of player personnel, 28. Degree in economics, Harvard. Cornerback, Harvard. Masters in computer science, Harvard.
• Paul DePodesta, chief strategy officer, 43. Degree in economics, Harvard. Wide receiver, Harvard.
• Alec Scheiner, president, 45. Degrees in economics and Latin American studies, Georgetown. Law degree, Georgetown.
So … with the exception of the head coach (and I can tell you, Jackson has been well trained in the school of hard knocks), the Browns will be run by brainiacs between 28 and 43, three with advanced degrees from Harvard or Georgetown. The fourth, DePodesta, was one of the brains behind Moneyball. This is going to be a very, very interesting year in Cleveland.
3. I think Wade Phillips spoke on Friday on what every coach on every level of sports should hear. All sports, not just football. Phillips thinks coaches should tailor what they do to the talent they have, not the other way around. “I don’t understand the people that say, ‘Hey, this is our scheme and that guy can’t play in it,’” Phillips said Friday. “Well, to me, there’s something wrong with your scheme. You adapt the scheme to what the players can do, not what you can think of. We’ve always done it that way. We started with [Hall of Fame defensive end] Elvin Bethea. We played a lot of the same things that we play now, but he was so quick and so fast that we stunted him all the time. He was our second-leading tackler on the team as a defensive end. He was a great player, but we didn’t let him sit there all the time playing our technique that you have to play, two-gap or whatever. The nose guards that I’ve had—I’ve had four or five of them make the Pro Bowl. All of them are different. Ted Washington was huge. We played more in the middle with him, but he controlled the gap. Jamal Williams, he was a powerful guy, so we offset him on the nose and played the same gap, but he hard-charged. We had Greg Kragen here. He was an undersized nose guard and we stunted him to that same gap. It’s the same defense, but it’s different players. That’s what you have to do. We played Quentin Jammer at corner. His name was perfect because he wasn’t great playing off, but he was great at jamming a guy on the line of scrimmage. In zone, man and everything that we did, he jammed the guy on line of scrimmage and played well. That’s what you do. That’s a simple way of telling you how you play with players you have and fit your scheme to what they can do.”
4. I think this is what you need to know about the state of the Pro Bowl today: One of the six quarterbacks named to the Pro Bowl in December played in the game (Russell Wilson). Cam Newton couldn’t. Of the other four, one (Aaron Rodgers, minor knee surgery) had an injury excuse. The other three—Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer—could have played but chose not to. Drew Brees and Philip Rivers chose not to play. One of the league’s top 10 quarterbacks in passing yards, one (Eli Manning, sixth) suited up Sunday. Where the other five quarterbacks ranked on the yardage list in 2015: Jameis Winston 11, Russell Wilson 12, Derek Carr 13, Teddy Bridgewater 22, Tyrod Taylor 23.
5. I think I’m through railing against the Pro Bowl. If people want to watch the “game,” who am I to stop them? Players like it (the ones who go, at least); it’s a free trip to Hawaii, with prize money whether they “win” or “lose.” But I have zero interest in it. It’s a bunch of guys—rightfully—trying not to get hurt in a contest that isn’t really a contest.
6. I think the problem with turning the Pro Bowl into some sort of skills competition, as some have suggested, is this: If you ran the New York Giants, and you knew Odell Beckham Jr. hadn’t been working out regularly in the four weeks since the end of the season, and Beckham had a history of hamstring injuries (he has had hamstring issues in 2014 and ’15), and Beckham was on tap to run a 40-yard dash against four other speedy guys, and then was going to enter the long-jump against four or five guys … I mean, how would a team and the player feel about this? I’ll tell you what will kill the Pro Bowl or some athletic contest taking the place of the Pro Bowl: the first star who blows out a knee in some silly athletic contest because people won’t let the Pro Bowl die a sensible death.
7. I think one of the silliest things I see in the media is the attempt to draw conclusions about how many penalties a crew will call in a playoff game based on who the referee is. Bizarre. Crews are not the same in the playoffs. The stats of what a ref’s crew might call in a playoff game is totally irrelevant to how many calls were attributed to that ref’s crew during the regular season. Further, to ascribe any meaning to the numbers of pass-interference or illegal-contact calls as a trend for a referee during the playoffs is particularly absurd. Referees are watching the quarterback and the play around the pocket once the ball is snapped; their job is never watching hand-fighting among corners and receivers.
8. I think this was the Pro Football Talk story in the last week that surprised me the least: “Police deal with another incident between Manziel, girlfriend.”
9. I think if I were the Cowboys, and I had my choice between Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel, I’d pick Griffin. Fifty times out of 50.
10. I think these are my non-Super Bowl thoughts of the week:
a. Best thing I heard or read in the past week: The BBC story about the explosion of the Challenger, killing all seven aboard—from the perspective of Barbara Morgan, the backup to the teacher aboard the shuttle who died, Christa McAuliffe. Morgan was so taken with the experience, so smitten with space flight, that she quit her job as a teacher and became an astronaut. Morgan actually took flight 21 years after the Challenger exploded. What a story.
b. I’m not particularly fond of ornithology, but wow, is this a cool map and story in the New York Times about bird life patterns.
c. I do believe that is my first reference to birds in 19 seasons writing this column. Other than Ravens and Eagles and Seahawks.
d. John Scott, you’re an all-star in my book. I didn’t even watch the game, and now I wish I had.
e. Coffeenerdness: Don Banks bought me coffee Sunday afternoon in San Francisco. A tall latte macchiato, one of the new drinks at Starbucks, to be exact. Quite pleased with it. Intense.
f. Beernerdness: Happiness in San Francisco, out to dinner on the first night here, is finding Pliny The Elder on tap. Smell that beer. Smells like a pinecone! Tastes superb.
g. And so for the many of you who have asked, this is what I know about GLEASON, the documentary sold to Amazon and Open Road Films for in the neighborhood of $2.5 million last week: The film will be shown in theaters in North America in mid- to late-summer this year, to get a good distribution and also to make it eligible for the awards season in the documentary category. Then Amazon will distribute the film widely. So for those who want to see it, and who missed it at the Sundance Film Festival, you’ll be able to catch it in July or August on the big screen, and later on the small screen.
h. I found myself watching a lot of Iowa and New Hampshire politics in the last week and thinking, Wouldn’t it be fun to cover a presidential campaign?
* * *
The Adieu Haiku
I simply can’t take
all the talk of Newton’s joy
as bad for football.
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