This was going to be another one of those crappy flights home at the end of another December to forget. Kyle Williams has seen 11 of those. He flew home from final-month crushing losses at Baltimore, Philadelphia, the Jets, Atlanta, the Jets again, New England, Miami, New England again, Oakland, Washington and, last year, the Jets, often on the brink of contention as the season really mattered. Every year, for 17 years in a row and all 11 of Williams’ NFL seasons with Buffalo, the Bills would trudge into the off-season, also-rans.
Now, this time, to add to the torture, the knife would be twisted a different way.
Buffalo beat Miami 22-16 Sunday. The game ended at 7:40 p.m. ET. To make the playoffs, the Bills needed Cincinnati to beat Baltimore 1,070 miles away. Baltimore led 27-24, late, and Williams and his teammates crowded around a 36-inch TV at one end of their locker room in south Florida after an inspirational win, one of the best of their lives. Many of the players were still in uniform. It felt tense in there, Williams said later. The Bengals had a last gasp: fourth-and-12 at the Ravens’ 49, with 53 seconds to play.
“I mean, this was it,” Williams said from the locker room a few minutes later. “I see Andy Dalton get pressured, he steps up in the pocket away from the pressure, and we’re all just thinking, Make a play. But, you know, fourth-and-12. How many plays can you make there? Dalton makes a good throw …”
A superb throw, in stride, to second-year wideout Tyler Boyd. The room begins to erupt.
“The guy breaks a tackle,” Williams said …
There goes Boyd. You know what Chris Berman would say here, right? The Bills’ fan of all Bills’ fans …
He could … go … all … the … way
Boyd does. Touchdown.
“Pandemonium,” Williams said. “Guys hugging, guys crying. And all I can think of is, Baltimore’s got three timeouts left. They got Flacco. They got almost a minute. This isn’t over.”
That isn’t the ranting of a negative guy. It’s football realism, the kind you think about when you’ve been a Bill for 12 years like Williams has. But this time the football gods had Williams’ back. The Ravens had nothing left. And the Bills had their first playoff date in 18 years, breaking the longest postseason drought in American team sports. Seattle Mariners (16 years), you’re on the clock.
The NFL’s 98th season has had some weirdness—eight new playoff teams from 2016 for one thing. Another thing: The Jags and Rams being home playoff teams. Another thing: The Vikings being the Vegas favorites to win the NFC, and having a damn good shot to be the first team in 52 Super Bowls to play the big game on its home field. But the Bills making the postseason made grown men cry on Sunday night in Miami, and all over western New York.
I’ll get back to Williams in a moment, but what well-traveled guard Richie Incognito said to me from the bus on the way to the airport after the game just might make more Bills’ fans cry, again.
“This win is for the city of Buffalo,” Incognito said, straining to be heard over the happy racket on the bus. “This is for the people from all walks of life, the average Joes who show up at all our games, in rain, sun, wind, snow, sleet, everything. And all they do is root their asses off for us. The city’s the butt of jokes. Everybody makes fun of us. But these people, they just keep coming and supporting us, week after week. They’re amazing. The city’s amazing. I am just so excited for them, for everyone in the city. I’m telling you, this win’s for them.
“But I am so happy for Kyle. He is a Buffalo Bill … the Buffalo Bill. Just so consistent, such a great teammate. For him to get to the playoffs and to do what he did today, it’s just perfect.”
What Williams did was touch the ball on offense, and score, for the first time in his career. It seemed like a throw-in, a cool play but nothing that significant. After a Miami pass-interference call gave the Bills the ball at the Dolphins’ one-yard line, Williams entered the game as the upback on what looked sure to be a running play. Buffalo led 13-0. Miami was listless, playing a third-string quarterback. “We practiced the play during the week,” Williams said. “Ball at the one, I thought we might call it. So I go in. I’ve got a certain aiming point, and I’m focused on that. I can’t hear the snap count—there was too much noise. I have to go on movement of the ball. So I get the handoff and go from there.”
“What exactly are you thinking with the ball in your hand and the end zone in front of you?” I asked.
“I can tell you exactly: Don’t drop the ball. I played a little fullback in high school, and the one thing you learn to is hang onto it.”
No problem there. Williams barreled into the end zone without incident. Buffalo, 19-0. The Bills needed that touchdown, as it turned out. How about the Buffalo Bills going to the postseason for the first time since the 1999 season … and the winning touchdown was scored by 306-pound defensive tackle Kyle Williams?
Just too perfect, really. The whole day was perfect. “Where is today for me? In my poor career? Number one, obviously,” Williams said. “We accomplished stuff today that we set out to accomplish every year, and we did it. All the ups and down I’ve had, we’ve had, worth it. The surgeries, the losses, everything—worth it.”
This was an odd year for the Bills, in many ways. New coach (Sean McDermott), new GM (Brandon Beane), new ways of doing business. The Bills looked like they were playing for 2018 when they traded away big players like Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby in deals for future draft choices. “People looked at us and said, ‘They’re tanking,’” said Incognito. “And for some guys in the locker room, it was tough. We had talent going out the door. But [McDermott] basically said, Focus on us. Don’t worry about the noise outside the locker room.” I get that, but one of the tough things had to be that the coach and GM were new, and the locker room had no idea whether to trust everything they did.
Turns out, obviously, Beane knew what he was doing. The Bills are in the playoffs, and they’re one of the two big power-brokers (with Cleveland) in the April draft. But for now, draft, schmaft. For too long, the draft has been the high point of the first eight months of the NFL calendar year in Buffalo. Not this year.
“I never lost hope,” Incognito said. “Days like this are what gets you out of bed in the morning.”
Pause. “Can I tell you one story Kyle tells? I won’t be that good at it, but here’s the short version. Two brothers, out pounding a big rock with a big hammer, trying to break it up. One brother pounds it, pounds it, day after day after day. He gives up. Then one day his brother goes out. The first swing he hits the rock and it breaks. You just keep pounding. You never know when it’ll be the hit that breaks the rock.”
Incognito said he hope the fans were at the Buffalo airport when the plane got back. But you never know; on New Year’s Eve, with a temperature of 2 degrees, after midnight … wouldn’t there be better, and warmer places to be?
But there they were, about 300 fans, at 12:45 this morning, singing and whooping and screaming when the Bills came off the plane onto the snowy tarmac. A fence separated them, but players went to the fence, took selfies and danced in glee. At his car, Williams took pictures and hugged a score of fans. An APreporter found Williams, who said, “These are the toughest damn people in the world, and I’m so thankful to represent them.”
They take after their team.
A Quick Look at Wild-Card Weekend
4:35 p.m. ET: Tennessee (AFC 5th seed, 9-7) at Kansas City (AFC 4th seed, 10-6), ESPN. The tale of three seasons for Kansas City is trending in the right direction, which is bad for the offensively shaky Titans. Chiefs’ first season: 5-0. Chiefs’ second season: 1-6. Chiefs’ third season: 4-0 (by an average of 11.8 points per game). Kansas City had an odd JV type game on Sunday at Denver to cap the season, and now only the Titans stand between them and a rematch, in Foxboro, with the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots. For Tennessee to have a good chance in this game, the strange third season of Marcus Mariota is going to have to improve overnight; he finished the year with 13 touchdown passes and 15 picks, and with the best stiff-arm of his season. On the way to beating the division champ Jags, Mariota converted a key late third down by straight-arming Jag safety Barry Church to the ground. More of that, please—more running, more physicality. Mariota as a weapon is Tennessee’s best chance at Arrowhead.
8:15 p.m. ET: Atlanta (NFC 6th seed, 10-6) at L.A. Rams (NFC 3rd seed, 11-5), NBC. On the right day, any team in the NFC playoffs can beat any other team, particularly with the potholes in top-seed Philly’s game right now. Here, the key will be keeping an oppressive Rams front from wrecking an efficient Atlanta run game and Matt Ryan’s passing game. This has been an odd year for Ryan. His accuracy has plummeted five percent, and his plus-31 touchdown-to-interception differential last year sunk to plus-8 in 2017. He’s had his share of dropped balls. But to beat the Rams, with a red-hot running game and a pass game with multiple little-known weapons, Ryan’s going to have to play mistake-free, the way he did in 2016, and his receivers have to cut down on the drops. The one interesting X factor here? How a team of playoff newbies in Los Angeles will approach the first home playoff game in L.A. since 1985.
1:05 p.m. ET: Buffalo (AFC 6th seed, 9-7) at Jacksonville (AFC 3rd seed, 10-6), CBS. The Doug Marrone Revenge Bowl, or something like that. Marrone, you recall, left the Bills in 2014 for what he thought would be greener pastures when he opted out of his contract—and then a head-coaching gig didn’t come for two seasons. The Jags had a great thing going until eight days ago, when the defense got abused by the Niners’ new Montana for 44 points, and then on Sunday, when Blake Bortles played a convincing 2016 version of himself in the 15-10 loss at Tennessee. This is a strange match, because we don’t know what to expect of the up-and-down Jags, and we don’t know if LeSean McCoy (ankle) will be well enough to play. The Bills will have to fight the just-happy-to-be-there emotion, because their fans are waking up this morning (or this afternoon) thinking they made the Super Bowl. I bet Sean McDermott never thought part of his first-year head-coaching role would be to tamp down happiness in a franchise that hasn’t had any for 17 years.
4:40 p.m. ET: Carolina (NFC 5th seed, 11-5) at New Orleans (NFC 4th seed, 11-5), FOX. This game does not set up well for Cam Newton and the Panthers. First: Newton’s on an inopportune cold streak, completing only 50 percent of his throws (he’s been wild high) over the last two weeks, and the Panthers have been held under 260 yards of offense in those two games. The Saints, meanwhile, had an odd loss in Tampa Bay on Sunday, but still are as multiple as they’ve been on offense in years. Alvin Kamara is a revelation, both from scrimmage and in the return game. Who’d have thought he’d have been a more explosive rookie year than Christian McCaffrey? The New Orleans versatility has confounded the Panthers in 34-13 and 31-21 victories this year. You’d figure that Drew Brees would have some good moments against Carolina, knowing the division rival so well, but it’s the run game that has catapulted the Saints to dominance in the two meetings, with 149 and 148 rushing yards in the two regular-season games against the Panthers. Whatever Carolina coordinator Mike Shula has in reserve for this offense, he’d better bring it out now, or it’ll be a short playoff season for the Panthers.
What I know about the coaching situations
This coaching season might be relatively boring. A few things I’ve gathered entering Black Monday around the NFL, starting with a few points about the weirdness surrounding the Raiders:
• I have never seen a head coach, minutes after his season ends, announce his own firing. That’s what happened after the last game of the season for Oakland in Los Angeles on Sunday. What an odd situation to have owner Mark Davis and GM Reggie McKenzie nowhere in sight, and Jack Del Rio emotionally announce that the owner had just whacked him. Del Rio, one of the toughest coaches in the league, and a local guy who wanted to coach the Raiders ’til the day he died, was visibly emotional when he said: “Mark felt the need to change. I told him how much I appreciated the opportunity he gave me. I mean that. Very grateful. My childhood team.” Man, you watch that scene and you really felt for Del Rio.
• Great scoop by Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen on the fact that the Raiders were pursuing former Oakland coach Jon Gruden (40-28 as the Raiders boss from 1998 to 2001) for a second act. Is Gruden worth, potentially, a share of ownership? Consider that Oakland fans love reunions, and there’s at least one more season to be played in the Black Hole; those fans will eat it up. Consider, too, that there’s an expensive product to be sold in Las Vegas, and a 6-10 Raider team with a stunningly horse-crap offense (how can a Derek Carr-led unit average 19 points a game for a season?) isn’t going to excite many high-rollers. The money they pay Gruden, and the share of ownership (gulp), might be a necessary cost of doing business.
• The Raiders have had nine coaches since Gruden coached them.
• Gruden has been gauging the interest of unemployed coaches, and other men he’d like to work with, about joining a potential coaching staff.
• Gruden, obviously, is a hero in Tampa Bay for delivering a Super Bowl win. But since then, in his last six coaching seasons, Gruden didn’t deliver. In those six seasons as a head coach, his Bucs went 45-53, including 0-2 in the playoffs. There’s that issue. And this: If Gruden takes the Raiders job, it will have been nine years and eight months between games coached when he steps on the sideline next September. I agree that Gruden’s a good head-coaching candidate. But he’s hardly a lock to bring the Raiders deep into January.
• It will be cruel irony if the Raiders, a team that was pioneering in many ways under Al Davis, doesn’t honor the spirit and the letter of the Rooney Rule. The organization needs to be accountable to an honorable coach-hire process, and not just shove Gruden into office.
In a down year for coaching candidates, Gruden looks like a headliner for Mark Davis. But I would caution against expecting nirvana. Now for other coaching info...
• In Denver, GM John Elway is on the fence about head coach Vance Joseph, who will have to at least make major changes to the offensive staff. I’ve heard Elway is waffling about what he wants to do with Joseph, but late Sunday night appeared to be closer to keeping him than jettisoning him. Lots of rumors out there about who Elway likes, but one guy I’m hearing he won’t go after if he seeks a new coach is Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh—not that Harbaugh would leave Ann Arbor.
• Mike Mularkey likely saved his job in Tennessee with the win over Jacksonville and resulting wild-card slot.
• In Cleveland, owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam have steadfastly stood behind 1-31 Hue Jackson, and over the weekend I heard they were still steadfast.
• Cincinnati: total conundrum. I doubt Marvin Lewis would have major demand for his services if he becomes a coaching free-agent, and I doubt owner Mike Brown will be able to get either of two familiar head-coaching faces to return to Cincinnati: Jackson or Jay Gruden. But I do not know what Brown will do today when he and Lewis meet.
• Indianapolis, ideally, wants a long-term partner for Andrew Luck with a presence to coach the entire team, not half of it. The rumor that will never go away is that owner Jim Irsay longs to hire old Colts QB Jim Harbaugh. But the domineering Harbaugh, I believe, would be an ill fit with Luck and GM Chris Ballard.
• With the terrible news that Texans GM Rick Smith is taking a leave of absence to help care for his seriously ill wife, Houston owner Bob McNair and coach Bill O’Brien will meet today to discuss O’Brien’s future and his request/demand for a change in the football structure of the team. I hear McNair is going to agree with at least some of O’Brien’s requests, and it’s likely now that O’Brien will stay, particularly with Smith’s future understandably cloudy. McNair doesn’t want to lose both men in the same year.
• I thought Bill O’Brien would be a perfect partner for the New York Giants—demanding, commanding, good in quarterback development. But if he stays in Houston, the slate is clear and GM Dave Gettleman (see below) could go in a lot of different directions.
• Detroit just might end up battling the Giants for Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, assuming the Lions fire Jim Caldwell today, which is likely. The Lions are 25-24 in Caldwell’s last three years, with a top-six or -eight quarterback in Matthew Stafford, and spit the bit last week in a pre-playoff game at Cincinnati, being penalized six times in the fourth quarter and giving up sacks on their last two offensive snaps. Patricia, organized and no-nonsense, seems smart here.
• Chicago seems a good fit for offensive coordinators Pat Shurmur or Josh McDaniels, with Mitch Trubisky needing a hands-on mentor.
• Bruce Arians was a godsend for Arizona, and made the Cards relevant again. But he looked wrung out and too emotional to hide much Sunday after yet another win in Seattle (the Cards are 4-1 under Arians at the toughest place to play in the NFL). With Carson Palmer likely to retire, the Cards need a quarterback of the present and future, and a mentor to handle said quarterback.
In all, seven changes will either happen or seem likely: Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Oakland, Detroit, Chicago, Arizona and the Giants. It’s not the landslide some predicted. But you watch. Some team we least expect will have a time-stopper to announce big changes this week.
Uh, I am about to get Cleveland up in arms …
So in my rounds on the phone over the weekend, I heard this from a veteran college scout, a man who was one of the first to trumpet Carson Wentz as a high first-rounder during his final season at North Dakota State, on the fate of the first pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, and on what Cleveland GM John Dorsey might do: “I believe there is no way Cleveland, at number one, will pass on [Wyoming quarterback] Josh Allen. This is Wentz reincarnated. Allen’s a perfect Dorsey quarterback. Just watch.”
Josh Allen, he of the very shaky junior season at Wyoming, the first overall pick four months from now. Hey, I’m just the messenger.
The MVP race is going to be close
It will be, at least, if my poll of 28 football people—nine active players, three retired players, a retired coach, two former front-office officials, and 13 other members of the media—mirrors what happens when the 50 voters for the official MVP award turn their ballots into the Associated Pressby Tuesday’s deadline.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady edged Rams running back Todd Gurley in The MMQBpoll for the 2017 MVP. I asked voters to pick five candidates, in order, and I used a 5-4-3-2-1 point scale to tabulate the votes. (The APasks its voters to vote for one, a winner-take-all system. I vote in that poll, but I like a system with more representation.)
Brady got 14.5 first-place votes, and Gurley 9.5—Baltimore safety Eric Weddle split his first-place vote between Brady and Gurley. The difference of the five first-place votes contributed to the difference in our poll. The results:
Player, Pos., Team
1. Tom Brady, QB, New England
2. Todd Gurley, RB, L.A. Rams
3. Carson Wentz, QB, Philadelphia
4. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle
5. Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh
6. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans
7. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh
T-8. Le’Veon Bell, QB, Pittsburgh
T-8. Aaron Donald, DT, L.A. Rams
10. Case Keenum, QB, Minnesota
Current Players: Terrell Suggs, Jason McCourty, Kyle Juszczyk, Ndamukong Suh, Joe Thomas, Richie Incognito, Russell Okung, Eric Weddle, Josh McCown
Ex-Players: Andrew Hawkins, Geoff Schwartz, Chris Simms
Former Executives/Coaches: Jimmy Johnson, Bill Polian, Amy Trask
Media: Rich Eisen, Steve Wyche, Jenny Vrentas, Jourdan Rodrigue, Bob Papa, Alex Stern, Albert Breer, Sam Farmer, Jarrett Bell, Andrea Kremer, Andy Benoit, Judy Battista, Peter King
There were several interesting votes from my panel:
• Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh had Jacksonville’s Calais Campbell first on his list, mindful of the difference the first-year Jag made to his team’s starry defense.
• Okung had two Rams, Gurley and Aaron Donald, 1-2.
• Trask had Gurley’s teammate, left tackle Andrew Whitworth, fourth on her list and did not list Gurley; Trask, imaginatively, believes coach Sean McVay is essentially the Rams’ most valuable player, and it’s hard to argue with the results McVay helped the team create.
Of course, when the APvoters vote, they won’t have five choices. They’ll have one.
Brady won the MVP in 2007 and 2010. If he wins this year, he’d be the oldest MVP in league history, at 40. Brady could have been a slam dunk if he’d had a killer December, but he slipped to a rating of 81.4 over the last four games. Will that matter to the voters? Brady’s being mortal will probably make it a race. Still, he led the NFL in passing yards (4,577), 10 seasons after the last time he led the NFL in that category. We’ll see with the APvoters if Gurley’s late rush (though he did not play Sunday in the Rams’ finale because his team had its division clinched) makes a difference.
New Sheriff in Town
On Giants general manager Dave Gettleman’s first full day on job Saturday, he fired the team’s college scouting boss, Marc Ross, who had been with the team for 11 years. Gettleman cut malcontent right tackle Bobby Hart, who was also a bad player. Gettleman signed off on the benching of 2015 first-round left tackle Ereck Flowers for the final game of the season. Hart and Flowers had injuries, but the Giants believed the injuries weren’t bad enough to prevent them from playing. As longtime Giants beat man Ralph Vacchiano pointed out on Saturday, it was clear whom ex-Giants guard Geoff Schwartz was referring to—Hart and Flowers—when he tweeted: “Gettleman isn’t playing. Cleaning out locker room cancers.”
It’s stunning how far the Giants have fallen, in both talent and character. Shameful, really. That’s why Gettleman, who’s not afraid to play the disciplinarian, was an easy choice for club owners John Mara and Steve Tisch. Gettleman has to come in and clean up a mess that fired GM Jerry Reese made and fired coach Ben McAdoo couldn’t fix. Three defensive backs on the team were suspended during the season. Two of the past three first-round picks have been disciplined now—cornerback Eli Apple for a season of immaturity and unprofessionalism, and Flowers for a poor attitude and oft-indifferent play. Flowers and Apple were the ninth and 10th overall picks, respectively, in the 2015 and 2016 drafts (the Giants bypassing Todd Gurley in ’15 and Taylor Decker in ’16 at big need positions), and now Gettleman is going to have to decide if these poor draft choices have any future in blue.
The Giants just finished one of the worst seasons (3-13) in their 93-year history. They’ve become a team of mercenaries, with very little Giants’ tradition or veteran pride. It used to mean something to be a Giant. But with the exception of Eli Manning and maybe Jason Pierre-Paul, there are no career Giants leaders to indoctrinate the new players. Of the 45 players drafted by the Giants from 2008 to 2013—players who would be the veteran core of the team today—only two are left: Pierre-Paul and guard Justin Pugh, and Pugh could leave in free agency after the season.
Oh. And Gettleman has to decide on the future of Eli Manning, who turns 37 Wednesday and has not played well, collectively, since the Giants won their last Super Bowl six years ago. (Among the 17 quarterbacks with at least 70 starts in the past six years, Manning has thrown the most interceptions, 98, and is second-worst in passer rating, 85.3, and yards-per-pass-attempt, 6.95.) “I’m going to watch every game this year in chronological order,” Gettleman said on Saturday afternoon. “I’ve got to lean on the evaluation from the tape.” Some inferred from his pro-Eli opening press conference that Manning will continue to be the Giants’ starter in 2018. That’s not necessarily so.
Gettleman has to decide whether to break the bank for another star, Odell Beckham Jr., whose maturity has been an issue. Beckham needs to be salvaged; he’s too good to trade for 70 cents on the dollar. And Gettleman has to figure out what to do with the second overall pick in the 2018 draft.
The Giants have not entered an offseason with more issues, in my opinion, since George Young took the GM job in 1979 with the franchise coming off a losing generation and fans burning tickets in the parking lots. Now, 39 years later, Gettleman, who served a four-year apprenticeship as GM of the Panthers, will have to go to some lengths to beat Young’s debut. Two of Young’s first three top draft choices: Phil Simms, Lawrence Taylor.
The heaviness of the job, for a guy who grew up a huge Giants fan in Massachusetts in the ’50s and ’60s, is felt by Gettleman.
“That point is not lost on me,” Gettleman told me at the end of his day Saturday. “I understand the enormity of the job, the gravity of the situation we’re in right now, the tough decisions that need to be made. I don’t mind making the tough decisions. I never have. If you’re in this job, that’s part of it. It’s a big-boy league, and I’ve got to put the big-boy pants on. I’m not afraid.
“I got absolutely crucified for signing Michael Oher in Carolina, but I can tell you we wouldn’t have made the Super Bowl that year without him. I got killed for two months when I cut Steve Smith. But I’m okay with that. It’s the job.”
It would have been good for the Giants if they’d have tested the GM waters with precocious prospects like Eliot Wolf of Green Bay and New England’s Nick Caserio. But with the Giants wanting to get a fast start on head-coaching interviews (those can begin with assistant coaches on all non-playoff teams immediately, and with assistants on the final four teams this week as well), and with the Giants being unwilling to rip apart their front-office structure, getting Gettleman now makes that process smoother. He can put his lines in the water starting today, requesting permission for interviews and talking to prospective head coaches immediately.
The next coach, Gettleman said, will have to be smart and be able to see the entire program, will have to be able to command a room, will have to be a good communicator, and will have to be tough. I don’t think there’s a leader in the clubhouse, but defensive coordinators Jim Schwartz of Philadelphia and Steve Wilks of Carolina could be in play, as could tough Houston head coach Bill O’Brien in the event he shakes free this week.
There’s one other issue with Gettleman: his age. He is the Giants’ fourth GM since 1979. The previous three were 49 (George Young), 56 (Ernie Accorsi) and 43 (Jerry Reese) when they took the job. Gettleman turns 67 on Feb. 21.
“You make it sound like I’m 85,” said Gettleman. “Let me tell you something. I had a complete physical in June. When it was over, the doctor told me, ‘I’ve got some bad news for [Gettleman’s wife] Joanne: You’re going to live to be 120.’ You never know what life has in store for you, but I plan to be doing this for a long time.”
Gettleman knows long-term security comes with finding the right coach. And the right long-term quarterback.
One final note: Gettleman’s a Boston guy. He grew up in the time when the Giants dominated New England; he was 9 when the Patriots were born. So the Giants were his team. Listening to him speak for 35 minutes on Saturday, late in the day in his new office at the Giants facility in New Jersey, it was cool to hear the reverence he obviously feels about the franchise, and about the job.
“Life is crazy,” Gettleman said. “I’m sitting in my house [in Charlotte] Wednesday, and the phone rings. I see the number. It’s the New York Giants’ number. It’s John Mara. He says, ‘Dave, we’re going to make a move here at general manager. Do you want the job?’ I said, ‘Hell yeah!’ Thursday at noon, I’m in the car, driving here. And here we are now. Amazing. Just amazing. To be named the general manager of the New York Football Giants, it’s not a moment you ever forgot. It’s not a moment you ever forget.”
Quotes of the Week
“It’s tough. Am I concerned? I’m not concerned. I still got a lot of confidence in our offense. Again, it’s not one person.”
—Eagles coach Doug Pederson, after watching his offense look inept for the second straight week, and after watching Nick Foles look terrible for the second straight week, in the Cowboys’ 6-0 victory over the Eagles.
“C’mon, man. I’m out with my wife. This is crazy … I’ve got nothing to report.”
—Jon Gruden, on the ESPN report that he could return to Oakland as coach with a stake in ownership, Saturday night, to Jerry McDonald of the Oakland Tribune.
All he had to do was deny it vehemently. He didn’t even deny it mildly.
“Let me give you a third-down stat: Last week and this week combined, on third down, the Philadelphia Eagles are three of 25.”
—Scott Hanson, on NFL RedZone, with five minutes left in the Eagles’ second straight offensive debacle, the 6-0 loss to Dallas in the regular-season finale. Hanson and his staff are so good. What a perfect stat to sum up the Eagles’ problems going into the playoffs.
“How many languages did your Mom speak? Seven? I can’t even speak one.”
—Rick Forzano, the 89-year-old former coach of the Detroit Lions who gave Bill Belichick his first position-coaching job in the NFL (in 1976), to Belichick, in a beautiful “NFL Films Presents” story about their relationship.
It’s true, by the way: Belichick grew up in a home with a mom, Jeannette Belichick, who could speak seven languages. As a boy in Annapolis, Belichick was privileged to get be around his father, Navy assistant coach and scout Steve Belichick, and fellow Navy assistant Forzano. Belichick and Forzano got together in August when the Patriots were in Detroit for a preseason game. Belichick’s reverence for Forzano was clear, and touching: “Coach, thank you for all you did for me … my life in pro football.”
“I do feel that the position was not valued to where it should have been. And, look, you always like to feel that you provided value, and I would never want someone to fail to make myself look better, but I do believe that they never valued that position where it should have been, and maybe it’s a wake-up call for some people around the league.”
—FOX NFL officiating analyst Dean Blandino, to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, providing some clarity on why he walked away from the NFL vice president of officiating job last year.
Blandino’s successor, Al Riveron, has taken heat for the micro-managing he’s done on instant replay reviews this year, the first season the league has had centralized replay.
The Award Section
CLASSY PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Duke Johnson Jr., running back, Cleveland.At Pittsburgh, with Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier watching from a private suite while still recovering from his spinal-cord injury, Johnson scored on a two-yard run early in the second quarter. He kneeled as through praying for Shazier, rose from the ground, gestured at the box where Shazier watched, and held up five fingers on his right hand and a fist on the left—the number “50,” Shazier’s number—and displayed it for Shazier to see. A touching, meaningful, excellent tribute by a visiting player to a fallen rival.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Frank Gore, running back, Indianapolis. In the 196th (and possibly last) game of his illustrious career, Gore rushed 24 times for 100 yards, making him the fifth player in NFL history to eclipse 14,000 rushing yards. If it’s over for him, Gore, 34, would finish with 14,026 rushing yards, fifth on the all-time list, and the respect of those he played with and against.
Andy Dalton, quarterback, Cincinnati. Dalton had a forgettable 2017 but finished with perhaps his best game of the year in helping the Bengals spoil the season of the rival Ravens. Dalton threw for 222 yards and three touchdowns, most notably the final 49-yard strike on 4th-and-12 to Tyler Boyd with 53 seconds left, to give Cincy the lead and eventually the win. Buffalo, don't let Dalton buy wings or a Genny Cream there anytime soon.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Jaylen Smith, linebacker, Dallas.Lots of head-shaking and hand-wringing when the Cowboys took Smith 34th overall in the 2016 draft—despite Smith’s ruined knee from the Fiesta Bowl as a Notre Damer, which threatened whether he’d ever play football at a high level again. Smith showed in the 6-0 shutout of the awfully shaky Eagles that he’s going to be a contributing player on a good defense going forward. On a third-quarter series at frigid Lincoln Financial Field, Smith stuffed Brent Celek after a five-yard catch, then, six plays later, Smith burst through the right side of the Eagles line and enveloped Wendell Smallwood for a five-yard loss. That forced an eventual Eagles punt. Smith just looks like a good player after struggling to be competitive for much of two seasons.
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE WEEK
JuJu Smith-Schuster, wide receiver/returner, Pittsburgh. The Steeler stars got the day off on Sunday, with a first-round bye clinched. All except one. In a tight 21-21 game between the Browns and the Steelers JV team in the third quarter, Smith-Schuster took a kickoff at the Pittsburgh four-yard line, burst up the right seam, bounced out of two tackle tries near midfield, and ran for a 96-yard touchdown. For the day, Smith-Schuster was the most productive player in football: eight catches, 143 yards, one touchdown receiving; two kick returns, 122 yards, one touchdown returning … 265 all-purpose yards, two touchdowns.
Tyler Lockett, wide receiver/returner, Seattle. His 99-yard kickoff return, coming on the heels of a first-possession touchdown by the underdog Cardinals, tied a crucial game for the Seahawks early. And then …
Alvin Kamara, running back/returner, New Orleans.… Two minutes later, on the other side of the country …Kamara’s 106-yard kickoff return, coming on the heels of a first-possession touchdown by the underdog Bucs, tied a crucial game for the Saints early.
COACH OF THE WEEK
Jeff Rodgers, special teams coordinator, Chicago. Very cool play set up by Rodgers, a St. Paul native coaching in his home area at the Vikings. He had ace punt-return threat Tarik Cohen back to return, and lined up defensive back Bryce Callahan as a sidecar on the other side of the field. When the punt was coming down—closer to Callahan than Cohen—Callahan ran to grab it while Cohen played like the ball was coming straight down to him. The Vikings ran toward Cohen. Meanwhile, Callahan nabbed the punt at the Bears 41 and sprinted down the left side of the field. It’s hard to call a 59-yard punt return for touchdown an easy score, but that’s what it was … because of the play designed by Rodgers.
GOAT OF THE WEEK
Corey Coleman, wide receiver, Cleveland. A perfectly illustrative example of the madness of the past two Browns seasons. The scene: Steelers 28, Browns 24, 1:52 left, fourth quarter, fourth-and-two, Cleveland ball at Pittsburgh 27. DeShone Kizer gets the snap, gets out of trouble in the backfield, veers left a couple of steps, sees Coleman—the 15th overall pick in the 2016 draft—all alone at the Steelers 11. All alone. Kizer floats a perfect pass to Coleman. The ball is coming right at Coleman’s face, and he sticks up both hands to catch a simple throw. The football goes straight through the hands. Incomplete. It would have been first-and-10 just beyond the 10-yard line. Instead, the Browns lose 28-24. Rather than (perhaps) pulling off a nice comeback to get their first win of the season, the Browns become the second NFL team ever to go 0-16. You absolutely cannot write a story that better explains how the Browns have failed as miserably as they have this year than with the great receiving hope of the future, playing against a crew of many backups, with the game on the line, and muffing the simplest reception he’ll ever have as a professional player.
Stat of the Week
You probably figured this, but the Cleveland Browns had the worst two-year stretch in the 98-season history of the NFL. The terrible three:
3. St. Louis
The worst winning percentages over a two-year period in NFL history:
1. Dayton Triangles
Factoids That May Interest Only Me
On Oct. 18, 2015, five days after Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders sparred in the first debate for the Democratic presidential nomination, Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos edged the Browns in Cleveland, 27-20. That same weekend, Chip Kelly’s Eagles and Tom Coughlin’s Giants met on Monday night.
Since that weekend, the Browns are 2-41.
From my story at The MMQB about Colts running back Frank Gore, who would like to play a 14th season in 2018 but who might have played his last NFL game Sunday, at 34, against Houston:
Gore played the past 12 years with two reconstructed knees and two reconstructed shoulders. A cursory check of NFL history does not find a single player who has had major surgery on both knees and both shoulders and played one football game. Since the last of the four surgeries, Gore has played 182.
Per National Public Radio, Vanna White has done approximately 6,500 “Wheel of Fortune” episodes and worn a different gown on every show.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note
You should fly Delta if for no other reason than, occasionally, you might get the best bowl of soup you’ve ever had by slipping up into First Class via frequent flying. Happened to me last week. The fennel and carrot bisque was about as good a bowl of soup as there’s ever been.
Tweets of the Week
On the quality of Week 17 tilts...
New section of the column, as part of The MMQB’s partnership with State Farm. Each week, I’ll ask an NFL person about his most valuable possession.
Josh McCown, quarterback, New York Jets. In 2013, McCown was backing up Jay Cutler in Chicago when Cutler got hurt and McCown had to play for five starts. The first: at Green Bay on a Monday night. Said McCown: “Before that game in Green Bay, my dad gave me a stone. Growing up in a religious family, we knew the story of David and Goliath. My dad gave me that stone to show me all things are possible if you believe. David had a stone, he had his faith, he had his courage. My dad basically told me, ‘Go be fearless. People follow courage.’ What’s amazing is that my coach, Marc Trestman, also had that same ‘be fearless’ feeling before the game, and I told him, ‘Call this game like you’d call it for Jay.’ He did. We won, 27-21. That was an incredible moment, winning in Lambeau.
“Now I keep the stone in my backpack. When I grab for my keys, or I am getting something out of my backpack, lots of times I feel the stone and rub the stone. It still has a lot of meaning to me.”
I walk Chuck, the dog, around 7 most mornings when I’m in New York City. Chuck does what dogs do in Riverside Park on the Upper West Side, and then we walk three blocks up from the park to a newsstand and pick up the New York Daily News and New York Post. (We get the Timesdelivered.) So the other day the Giants had a bit of a problem. Eli Apple, the 2016 first-round cornerback who has some maturity issues, was labeled a cancer by Giants safety Landon Collins last week, and when the reporters went to ask Apple about that the next day, he said, “I gotta take a s---,” and walked away.
Even Chuck got a kick out of the back page of the next day’s Post when we picked it up at the newsstand:
From “The MMQB Podcast With Peter King,” available where you download podcasts.
This week’s conversation is one of my favorites. It’s with Ryan Leaf, who 20 years ago was on top of the world, battling with Peyton Manning to see who would be the first overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft. (ESPN The Magazine actually said Leaf would have the better career and end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Oooops.) But Leaf has taken a winding and pothole-filled road in the last 20 years, and he’s honest in dissecting it all for me.
• Leaf on one of the moments that led to his personal downfall: “Three months after I retired, I was in Vegas for a fight and they were announcing the celebrities in the audience. Charles Barkley, Tiger Woods, Dr. Dre, and the audience was just cheering loudly and they announce my name as a celebrity, and the whole MGM Grand just booed and hissed, and that of course had happened to me before, playing football. That's how it is. But I always had this armor on, and for whatever reason that night I was filleted and displayed to everybody. This wasn't like, Oh, we don't like him as a football player because he played for the team we didn't like, but this was actually about like, we don't like him as a human being. And sure enough, that night an acquaintance of mine offered me some Vicodin, and I was going to be walking in and out of rooms that night where there were Hall of Famers and Super Bowl champions and I just always felt less than and judged in front of those men. And he gave me those pills and I walked in and out of those parties the rest of the night and I didn't feel any of that. It killed that pain, and it would become a crutch of mine. That simultaneously was killing me as well as giving me this relief for the next eight years.
“I was resigned to the fact that this was life. I didn't want to feel the feelings that I was feeling when I wasn't on this medication, and it just became life. I was a shut-in, in my multimillion-dollar house in San Diego with the blinds closed, just taking pills and watching reruns of sitcoms and ‘The West Wing.’ That was my life, and I was resigned to the fact that this was okay, this was how it is. And then periodic and sporadic trips in the public realm to make people think everything was okay. I would suspect that if social media would have existed back then it would have looked very similar to what the last couple years of Johnny Manziel's life has looked like. It just was wanting to present like everything was okay, saying that I still had all these things, that I still had all this money, which made me powerful and I had the prestige of being a former NFL player and that was good enough.”
Leaf opened a vein and bled. You’ll get a lot out of this one.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think these are my quick thoughts on Week 17:
a. Camera work of the day: CBS, after Buffalo tight end Nick O’Leary opened the game at Miami with a touchdown reception, panned to the crowd to show an elderly man in a Bills hat … Jack Nicklaus. That is O’Leary’s grandfather.
b. Awful hit by safety Blake Countess of the Rams on Marquise Goodwin of the Niners. Just awful.
c. Great mental play by Carolina wideout Brenton Bersin, jogging unnoticed off the line on the Panthers’ first TD drive, and getting open for a 27-yard strike from Cam Newton. Bersin is a smart player who can play every spot on the Panthers’ receiver depth chart.
d. Applause to Jameis Winston for hanging in and making some big throws to help carry the Bucs past New Orleans. That gives hope that Winston can rebound from making the same bad decisions he has made for three seasons in Tampa Bay. Not saying he can’t change, but when then-offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter first met with Winston pre-draft in 2015, he talked to him about learning to be more careful with the football. He’s talked to Winston about 19 times since, about the same stuff, and there it was again, a pick into traffic in the first quarter against the Saints. Winston, though, rebounded from his nightmare ending last week and shaky sections of this game to have enough to win late.
e. Never saw a player block a field goal with his face until Raiders-Chargers on Sunday. Chargers kicker Nick Rose, trying a 50-yarder, kicked it way low, and it smashed into Raider defensive tackle Justin Ellis’ facemask. Ellis never did a thing.
f. Where has that 87-yard perfect rainbow from Derek Carr to Amari Cooper been all season, Raiders?
g. Cam Wake, with a 10-sack season at age 35. That’s a wow.
h. How about this: Wake, since turning 32, has 40 sacks in four seasons.
i. Justin Tucker’s an amazing kicker: 73 of 77 over the past two years, and perfect on those pesky PATs: 65 of 65.
j. Excellent performance by Matthew Stafford (140.4 rating) against the depleted Packers. There just haven’t been enough of those to save his coach’s job.
k. I almost feel sorry for Christian Hackenberg. The 51st pick in the draft in 2016 … two straight playing-out-the-string seasons … and the Jets don’t put him in even one of 32 games. Not one. A terrible pick by the Jets, and obviously now this is in the kid’s head. There’s no way it can’t be. He has to think his bosses think he’s a failure.
l. Orleans Darkwa: If you were trying to make a push for a 2018 roster spot in front of the new GM, you’re off to a good start. The 154-yard performance against Washington, sparked by the 75-yard touchdown gallop early, was vital in the Giants’ third win.
m. Ezekiel Elliott’s 10-game season: 983 yards.
n. Elliott’s 25-game career: 2,614 yards (104.5 yards per game). That’s about what the Cowboys expected when they picked him fourth overall in 2016.
o. Alvin Kamara is an amazing football player.
p. Offensive rookie of the year … I was thinking Ryan Ramczyk, but then Kamara had another game for the record books (even in a loss), and then Kareem Hunt won the rushing title. Tough call this year.
q. The dignity and class of Chuck Pagano …
r. Keenan Allen is going to be good, very good, for a long time.
s. Did you see Doug Baldwin catch that ball a quarter-inch off the rug in Seattle? That’s a great football play.
2. I think Larry Fitzgerald, publicly on the fence about returning for a 15th season in 2018, is most likely to play, even if with a new head coach he may not know. I think it’s now about leaving footprints in the historical sand for Fitzgerald.
3. I think I simply can’t believe the Colts would hire Seattle assistant head coach/offensive line coach Tom Cable as head coach, as Mike Silver of NFL.com suggests is possible. It would be impossible to win that press conference after the performance of the Seattle offensive line in recent seasons, and with the current #MeToo climate in this country. ESPN reported in 2009 that Cable was accused of abuse by three women.
4. I think it’s a great idea by Michael Gehlken of the Las Vegas Review Journal, getting fantasy football players to give back to the causes of the players who helped them win their fantasy leagues. And people are doing it; more than $10,000 has been donated to the Shriners Hospital for Children on behalf of Rams running back Todd Gurley. Gehlken is a fantasy player himself—he covers the Raiders as a beat—and last year thought of a way for NFLers to feel something less than disdain for all the fans who view them as fantasy football commodities only. “I appreciate that these players are not mere commodities,” said Gehlken from California on Saturday night. “There has always been this frayed relationship between the players and those who play fantasy. People on Twitter will complain about a guy’s performance, or his injury. And so I thought last year, with Week 16 overlapping with Christmas Eve, why not see if I could get fantasy players to donate part of their league winnings to the charities supported by the guys who helped them win that money? If you’re in Vegas, and you leave a blackjack table with some money, you give your dealer a chip, right? Here’s a way to think of a player in kind. The players don’t need the money. But their causes need the money.” This year fantasy guru Matthew Berry wrote about the cause, and it caught on. Several charities have benefited. If it sounds like something you’d support, here’s Gehlken’s Tweet about it:
5. I think, ladies and gentlemen of Browns and Giants and Jets nations, you’re going to have a very tough call to make. Do you fall in love with Sam Darnold or not? It’s not certain the USC quarterback will enter the 2018 draft after his second, and less impressive, college season—he turned the ball over 22 times in 14 games; his .631 completion percentage was down 4.1 points from 2016. But it’s likely he comes out. He looks very much like he needs a third college season. This was part of Bill Plaschke’s excellent post-Cotton Bowl column, after Darnold’s awful performance in a 24-7 loss to Ohio State: “Darnold seemed stunned, walking into the interview room in full uniform and pads. He stared into space. He spoke with a glare. When asked about his future, which won’t need to be decided until the Jan. 15 declaration date, he didn’t seem ready to talk about it. ‘Right now I think I’m really just focused on hanging out with my teammates for the next couple of days, really just saying bye to the seniors because they put together such a great season,’ he said. ‘It’s tough. I’ll look at everything and make my decision after that.’ It was a scene seeped in sadness …”
6. I think I do not envy John Dorsey and Dave Gettleman, both in the market for franchise passers, picking 1-2 with this crop.
7. I think, based on the little knowledge I have of this crop, I might be tempted to trade down (but not too far) and take Baker Mayfield. Or, if I’m Dorsey, use the fourth overall pick (acquired from Houston last spring) and snag Mayfield there. For those of you who say, THAT’S WAY TOO HIGH, I would say this: If you believe in a quarterback and think he’s going to be your long-term guy, it’s never too high. By the way, I have no idea if Dorsey is a Mayfield guy over the others. But I will be very surprised if Mayfield is not picked in the top 10 come April 27.
8. I think the NFL doesn’t appreciate league leaders enough. Let’s take a moment to do that.
• Rushing champion: Kansas City rookie Kareem Hunt (1,327 yards), 22 yards more than Todd Gurley, who sat the last game because the Rams had the NFC West sewed up. Not bad for the Toledo Rocket, the sixth running back picked and 86th overall choice in last April’s draft.
• Passer rating: Alex Smith, also of the Chiefs, at 104.7.
• Passing yards: 40-year-old Tom Brady, with 4,577, 62 yards better than the re-tooled Philip Rivers.
• Receiving yards: Antonio Brown (1,533), despite missing the last two games with a calf injury.
• Receptions: Miami’s Jarvis Landry continued a brilliant early career, edging Larry Fitzgerald, 112 catches to 109.
• Sacks: Arizona’s Chandler Jones, with two on the final day, finished with a league-high 17. He has 28 in 32 career games with the Cards.
9. I think if that’s it for Eli Manning in New York after 216 games, he went out with a good last game (Giants 18, Washington 10), with the crowd getting to adore him one last time at home, and with the class and dignity that have marked his career. He’s deserving of all the praise he gets, as one of the great Giants of the modern era.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Derrick Thomas would have been 50 today. What a player.
b. Doak Walker would have been 90 today. Never saw him play, but he was a great one too.
c. Story of the Week: Dave Barry’s year in review will magnetize your eyes to the screen for 17 minutes. Take the time.
d. Not that you asked, but I’ll take Clemson and Georgia tonight.
e. I wonder if Baker Mayfield knows how important this game, and maybe the next one, is to his future.
f. “The Post” is in my very near future. Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, a journalism movie … can I see it six times?
g. Beernerdness: When I’m in a mood for a lighter beer, my go-to is Peroni. But on my Christmas trip west, I fell for Trumer Pils (Trumer Brewery, Berkeley, Calif.). It’s a clean and dry beer with a perfect finish. Glad to have found an everyday beer for my trips to San Francisco.
h. The happiest of New Years to you all. Sorry to cut this section short, but at some point, a man’s got to sleep. Have a great year, and thanks for being my support system, and the support system of The MMQB.
The Adieu Haiku
I promise Chris Berman is
circling the wagons.
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