PHILADELPHIA — Tom Brady, Nick Foles. Goliath, David. Just the way the Eagles like it.
The Philly locker room had no Jalen Ramseys on Sunday night, no mouths writing checks their play won’t be able to cash in Super Bowl 52. This was an admiring place, almost grooving on the fact that they were going to get a shot to knock off the dynasty that simply will not die, led by Bill Belichick and Brady.
“I was eating Tom’s meals all offseason,” said backup quarterback Nate Sudfeld, who must have gone heavy on the avocados.
“We’re playing the greatest quarterback of all time, and probably the greatest coach of all time,” owner Jeffrey Lurie said.
“People doubt Tom,” said defensive end Chris Long, “and he just goes out there and rips people’s hearts out. That’s what we’re up against.”
The Eagles will take their Kombucha-drinking backup quarterback, and their don’t-worry-be-happy head coach, and their dog masks (two players wore the badges of underdogness in the post-game locker room), and they’ll take their chances against the team playing in its eighth Super Bowl in 18 years in Super Bowl 52 in Minneapolis on Feb. 4. “I think we got the stones to hang in there,” said Long.
The Patriots have been at this thing for so long that, while New England was playing in the first three Brady/Belichick Super Bowls, Doug Pederson was Brett Favre’s backup quarterback in Green Bay. And no one was wiping the smile off Pederson’s face in the locker room Sunday night. There would be time for game-planning and logistics early this week.
Now, though, glee.
“We’re going to the Super Bowl,” Pederson said. “We’re going to the stinkin’ Super Bowl.”
One game was a 31-point snoozer that still drove the home crowd so crazy fans were doing back flips on the streets outside the ballpark—Philadelphia 38, Minnesota 7. The other game was filled with gasps and dramatic turns and huge plays down the stretch—New England 24, Jacksonville 20. You’d figure the five-time Super Bowl champs, with the presumptive MVP quarterback, would be on the right side of the snoozer. Not so. It was Foles who engineered the rout, with some Dan Fouts-like deep balls thrown perfectly on the mark. And it was Brady who had to fight for his life, bum hand and all.
How many times do you have to see the Patriots in one of those games you’re sure they’ll lose, and then you keep watching Brady make plays the other quarterback can’t, and you think, Is this game actually 70 minutes long? As Long said, “He just goes out and rips people’s hearts out.”
You’ll think of so many plays, some late in Brady’s two-touchdown-pass, 158-yard fourth quarter against the best rush he’s seen this year. I’ll think of this one: Jacksonville up 20-10, 10:49 left in the game, third-and-18 from the New England 25. If the Patriots have to punt here, it’s not impossible they’d get the ball back twice in the last, say, eight minutes. It’s quite possible. Just not certain. The Patriots, though, felt an urgency here for sure—and the play-call by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was perfect.
Jacksonville held back seven men in coverage and rushed four. Four had quite often been enough to pressure and hit Brady all day, and so the Pats kept tight end Dwayne Allen in to chip on the right side, with running back James White chipping on the left before leaking out into the flat. Three receivers—Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola on the left, Phillip Dorsett on the right. All three wideouts ran verticals past the first-down line. White got two Jags to chase him. Bad move by Jacksonville. Amendola ran a deep in-cut in front of free safety Tashaun Gipson, and no one doubled Amendola. Brady threw a laser, low, and Amendola snared it just above the carpet. Gain of 21.
That play doesn’t show up on the huge ones of the day. It should. Without it, New England punts, and Jacksonville gets the ball back with 10-and-a-half minutes left at its 30 or so, up 10. There’s a very good chance Jacksonville wins the game. The Patriots scored two minutes later to make it 20-17.
That's the greatness of the Patriots. In the clutch, Brady converts a third-and-18, then goes no-huddle on the next snap and gains 31 on a flea-flicker pass to Dorsett, and scores three plays later. Remember in the Super Bowl last year, when the Patriots calculated how many possessions they’d have in the last 22 or 23 minutes, and knew that down 25 they’d have the ball enough times to have a real chance? Same thing here. That’s why they needed the conversion so badly—if Jacksonville was efficient, there’s a chance New England could have but one possession the rest of the way.
“Looks like an ACL,” one top Eagles official told owner Jeffrey Lurie on a sunny Los Angeles afternoon six weeks ago. It wasn’t too sunny for Lurie that day, when he heard his franchise wunderkind, Carson Wentz, stunningly was lost for the season. The Eagles found a way to finish off a win over the Rams. But navigating the future? “I was heartbroken,” Lurie said on Sunday night. “The injuries we had—Darren Sproles, Jason Peters, Jordan Hicks, Chris Maragos, and then the pinnacle, Carson. It was so much to bear. But in this business, you’ve got to be resilient. And we had Nick.”
Nick Foles. He played fine against the Giants, awful against Oakland and Dallas, and then the Eagles’ game plan last week in the playoff win over Atlanta mostly hid Foles. So what would we see Sunday? Who knew? In Foles’s breakout 2013 season, he threw 27 touchdown passes and two picks; in parts of four seasons since, he’d thrown 28 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. He seemed to lose confidence. “When people doubt you, you can feel it. We’re all human and I’m keeping it real. When someone doubts you, you know,” Foles said.
On Sunday, Foles and Sudfeld, the backup, met at the Eagles facility across the street from the Linc around 1 p.m. “We did the hot and cold tubs, contrast,” said Sudfeld. “We just talked about life, just took some deep breaths before this game and talked. Then we got Kombuchas and drove over here. Nick was relaxed.”
He played that way. Beautiful downfield throws—a couple of them pushed, but two were perfect: the 53-yard TD strike to Alshon Jeffery to put the Eagles up 21-7, and the 41-yard fourth-quarter insurance bomb to Torrey Smith that made it 31-7. “He’s not a panic guy,” Long said. “For him now, the preseason’s over. Somebody sits for so long, and then he plays a couple games and it’s 4 degrees out there, it’s not an ideal way to come into the lineup.”
It sounds absurd to put Brady and Foles on the same level entering the Super Bowl. They’re not. But it’s quite likely that Philadelphia’s defense will terrorize Brady much more than the Patriots will hit Foles in Minneapolis. The Eagles converted 71 percent of their third downs on Sunday, against the team with the NFL’s best third-down conversion defense. The Vikings allowed but 25 percent of third downs to be converted. Foles led scoring drives of 75, 76, 60, 75 and 88 yards in the title game. It’s convenient to say he can’t do it twice in a row, or that the big Super Bowl stage will freak him out. Maybe. “I’m around him all the time,” Sudfeld said. “He’s an anchor who doesn’t get moved by all the waves around him.”
The Complete Team
New England 24, Jacksonville 20.
Jags ball. Fourth-and-15 at the New England 43, 1:53 left in the game.
If Brady can convert third-and-18 to save the Patriots, maybe Bortles figured it was his time to take that next step in his professional life: a dagger into the five-time Super Bowl champions. Needing a conversion, Bortles went for more. He stepped up in the pocket, saw rookie Dede Westbrook sprinting from the left slot straight for the right pylon, with New England cornerback Stephon Gilmore a half-step behind.
From Foxboro, Gilmore, the rich free-agent whose play hasn’t always reflected his salary in his first year in New England, picks up the story.
“I kind of anticipated the play,” Gilmore said. “We saw it, I think, twice earlier in the game, so it’s a play they like to run. I have [Westbrook]—that’s the guy the coaches wanted me on. The one thing they tell us a lot here—Coach Belichick, Matty P [defensive coordinator Matt Patricia] and [cornerbacks coach] Josh Boyer—is, ‘Don’t worry about the receiver. Worry about the ball. You be the receiver.’ I trust my technique and ball skills. So at the top of his route, I see the ball. I reach up [with his right hand], and I think I’ve got a good shot to get it and I just knock it down.”
The stunning nature of the pass-breakup was made more significant because it looked like Gilmore stretched his entire body, with his right hand reaching for the sky, to get a piece of the ball. It’s a beautiful defensive play, if there is such a thing, and it made the Foxboro crowd go bonkers.
“You think it would have been a touchdown if you don’t deflect it?” I asked.
“I wasn’t letting him catch it,” he said.
Early in the season, Gilmore, the Buffalo transplant, struggled with communication and his confidence in the Belichick defense. He’s come a long way, and his play, plus one more New England first down, ended the game.
“I’m going to the Super Bowl,” Gilmore said. “That’s the big reason why I came here. It’s pretty great.”
The Patriots get guys like Gilmore and James Harrison and Phillip Dorsett to make plays to win games like this one. New England has won them regularly for 17 years. One day the clock’s going to run out. Right? Right?
In 2001, 2003 and 2004, the Patriots began their run of greatness by winning Super Bowls. Could they cap the run identically? With Tom Brady quarterbacking, Bill Belichick coaching, and Super Bowl victories in the 2014, 2016 and 2017 seasons?
Would Belichick walk away if so? Or would he want one more major challenge: winning big again without the two men who have coordinated the offense and defense—Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia are bound for NFL head-coaching jobs—for the past six seasons?
New England came back from 25 down to win the Super Bowl last year, seven down to beat Tennessee in this year’s divisional game, 10 down to beat Jacksonville. Can Philadelphia and a coach hired to coach modern athletes get a lead against the toughest and most talented star/coach duo in sports today, and maybe ever?
“We’re in it to win it,” Lurie told me on Sunday night. I don’t doubt that. In the long history of sports in Philadelphia, beating the big, bad, unbeatable Patriots would be the best sports win here. Ever.
New England (15-3, first seed, AFC) vs. Philadelphia (15-3, first seed, NFC), Sunday, Feb. 4, 5:30 p.m. CT, U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, NBC. The Eagles will feel right at home as six-point underdogs to New England. It’ll be the third straight playoff game (Falcons by 2.5, Vikings by three) in which Philly won’t be favored … The biggest injury question will be Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski’s concussion; he was in the league’s protocol after a hit in the first half on Sunday. Thirteen days off should help … You never know how teams will respond to Super Bowl pressure. But there shouldn’t be any on New England, not after having veterans who have played in multiple Super Bowls with a quarterback who has played so well in huge games. I’d say the Eagles would be vulnerable to the pressure, but they sure didn’t look uptight in the NFL title game … The Patriots will practice at the Vikings’ facility in Eden Prairie, south of the city. The Eagles will work out closer to downtown, at the University of Minnesota practice facility … Rookie pass-rusher Derek Barnett of the Eagles strip-sacked Vikings quarterback Case Keenum on Sunday, a huge play in the first half leading to a Philadelphia touchdown. Interesting twist to the story: The Eagles traded quarterback Sam Bradford to Minnesota on the weekend before the 2016 season began, and Philadelphia got a 2017 first-round pick in return. That pick, 14th overall, was the one used by Philly to take Barnett … The Patriots will have to do better than 19 rushing attempts for 46 yards (their total Sunday) to have a good chance to win the Super Bowl.
‘I Think He Might Be Bill Cowher’
That’s what one club official told me during the coaching searches of the past three weeks, referring to the latest hire on the NFL coaching scene: Mike Vrabel as head coach in Tennessee. Vrabel continues a trend of hires and moves and interviews with Bill Belichick’s fingerprints all over them. As a first-year defensive coordinator in Houston, Vrabel oversaw a defense that finished dead last in points allowed and was 20th in yards allowed; that’s a bit misleading because of the early-season losses of J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus. But the numbers are the numbers. It was his commanding presence, and his pedigree as a player, that helped him get hot this month. He played five years as a linebacker and special-teamer under Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh, then moved on to play linebacker and some offense for eight years with Belichick before finishing his career with two seasons in Kansas City.
It’s been an amazing January, actually, if you consider what a tribute it’s been to Belichick and the Patriots. Other than Jon Gruden to the Raiders, seven teams that have shuffled or are shuffling coaching staffs or front offices have Patriot tributaries.
• Arizona: Cards have interviewed Pats linebackers coach Brian Flores, a 10-year Patriots’ assistant under Belichick. Last job open.
• Detroit: GM Bob Quinn, who worked for seven years in personnel in New England under Belichick, is on the verge of hiring Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. Quinn also interviewed Vrabel, who impressed the Lions by quizzing Matthew Stafford the night before his interview.
• Chicago: Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, a Belichick aide for 14 years, interviewed for the Bears job that Matt Nagy won.
• Houston: Coach Bill O’Brien, five years an assistant with the Patriots under Belichick, took the power with the Texans as GM Rick Smith stepped away to deal with his wife’s illness. An O’Brien choice, Brian Gaine, will be the new GM, and now O’Brien will have significantly more say in personnel matters. Belichick, of course, owns personnel calls in New England.
• Indianapolis: The long-time Patriots rivals are close to naming McDaniels their new coach. He’s the longest-serving mentor to Tom Brady and likely the most trusted assistant to Belichick since he became Patriots coach in 2000.
• New York Giants: Interviewed both Patricia and McDaniels and liked Patricia quite a bit.
• Tennessee: GM Jon Robinson talks openly about the debt he owes to Belichick and ex-Patriots personnel czar Scott Pioli for enabling him to run an NFL team, and Robinson brought in an eight-year Patriot as his first major hire as GM. Vrabel has always extolled the physical style of play that Robinson likes. He’ll also bring with him the Belichick freshness in game-planning and personnel. But Vrabel didn’t get the universal seal of approval. Seth Payne, the 10-year NFL vet who now does Houston drive-time radio, said on Twitter after the hire: “Vrabel is a very good linebackers coach. Beyond that, I don’t have a clue … It’s hard to find anyone who is upset that he’s leaving.”
The Arizona job is still a mystery, and I don’t know if Flores has a real chance there. But if he gets it, that will be four former Belichick assistants or players getting open coaching jobs.
Text of the Week
“Congrats buddy. One we’ll remember in our nursing home.”
—A text message last Monday morning from losing New Orleans coach Sean Payton to 2003 Dallas Cowboys coaching staff-mate Mike Zimmer, the winning Vikings coach in the NFC semifinal game.
Quotes of the Week
“We're not talking about open-heart surgery here.”
—Bill Belichick, on the lacerated right thumb that resulted in 12 stitches suffered by Tom Brady Wednesday at practice.
“Outside of, God forbid, someone passing away that you feel close to, this is probably as close of pain that you'll have. This is the pain you deal with when you lose football games. We have to deal with it, and it hurts.”
—Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone.
“I beg you as parents—don’t let your child play football before high school. I beg you.”
—Pro Football Hall of Famer Nick Buoniconti, who suffers from dementia at age 77, with an impassioned plea at a New York news conference Thursday urging youth football players to play flag football only until at least the age of 14.
Interesting event. The Concussion Legacy Foundation, started in Boston 11 years ago, is imploring parents—through strident pleas like Buoniconti’s—to prevent children from playing tackle football until their brains are more fully developed. “We cannot overstate the absurdity of allowing 7-year-olds to receive 500 head impacts a season just because they happen to be getting exercise at the time,” said Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and current head of the Concussion Legacy Foundation.
Buoniconti estimates he took 520,000 hits to his head in his youth, college and pro career. He told me he played youth football in Springfield, Mass., with “whatever equipment I could find … I love football. I love it. But I made a mistake by starting my career at 9 years of age.”
The CLF put together a presentation showing how some of the best players ever—Jim Brown, Lawrence Taylor, Anthony Munoz, Jerry Rice—didn’t play tackle football until high school. Drew Brees didn’t either—and he’s insisting his sons stay away from tackle until at least high school. It’s an idea whose time has come.
“He’s a good player. Is he special? I don’t see special.”
—Former Washington GM Scot McCloughan, on the man who quarterbacked the team when he was there, Kirk Cousins, to The Fan 104.3, as replayed by the Washington Post and Pro Football Talk.
The Award Section
OFFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Tom Brady, quarterback, New England. The numbers: 26 of 38, 290 yards, two touchdowns. Twelve stitches, too. Add it all up and it resulted in the 54th comeback win of his career, the 40-year-old's 8th AFC crown. But as usual with Brady, the numbers don’t matter as much as the on-field results. Playing without tight end Rob Gronkowski for the second half, Brady and the Patriots offense still found a way to overcome a two-score deficit to beat a more-than-game Jacksonville team. Now, Brady chases another number: Super Bowl win No. 6.
Nick Foles, quarterback, Philadelphia. Since Carson Wentz went down, the focus on Philadelphia has been on Nick Foles and whether the team could continue to win games almost in spite of the backup quarterback. On Sunday they won because of him. Foles was brilliant in completing 26 of 33 passes for 352 yards and three touchdowns. Now, the underdog Eagles, led by Foles, will again try to stun the world against a team making its eighth Super Bowl appearance under the same coach and quarterback.
DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Patrick Robinson, cornerback, Philadelphia. His pick of a Case Keenum interception at midfield wasn’t the big play. His return was. The 50-yard runback midway through the first quarter negated the Vikings’ early 7-0 lead, and the return was one of the best plays of the day, in either of the championship games. Robinson could have taken the ball and pushed forward at the far left side of the field, where he picked it, but instead, he gamboled across the field, pointed to the one guy—Minnesota running back Jerick McKinnon—who could have roadblocked him around the 15-yard line, waiting momentarily while cornerback Ronald Darby blocked McKinnon. (That’s polite—McKinnon wrecked Darby, but the temporary speedbump that Darby created was crucial.) And Robinson sneaked in next to the right pylon for the touchdown … the first of 38 straight points by the rampaging Eagles.
Stephon Gilmore, cornerback, New England. The single most athletic play of the day saved the Patriots, as you no doubt have seen 10 or 30 times since Sunday at dusk. On fourth-and-15 from the Patriots’ 43-yards line, Blake Bortles sent a beautiful arcing pass toward the hands of wideout Dede Westbrook. Gilmore leaped and raised one hand high enough to bat the ball away. “No need to try for the interception on fourth down,” he told me. “You just bat it away and Tommy gets it back.” Exactly. Gilmore had five tackles and one other pass defensed, but it’s the one he knocked away from Westbrook that will live in Patriots’ lore forever.
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Danny Amendola, punt-returner/wide receiver, New England. On a day (and night) of middling special-teams play, Amendola made two plays in the last five minutes that sealed the game. At the five-minute mark, he took a Brad Nortman punt at midfield and sprinted 20 yards up the left side, giving Tom Brady—as if he needed it—ridiculous field position, at the Jags’ 30-yard line. Five plays later, Amendola, trolling the back of the end zone, caught a Brady highball a foot inside the end line for the winning touchdown. No Edelman. No Gronkowski, for 70 percent of the game. No problem. Teammate Dion Lewis summed it up thusly: “Amendola is a f---ing animal. I'm cursing, I don't care. He's a beast, man.”
COACH OF THE WEEK
Bill Belichick, head coach, New England. Eighteen seasons in New England. Eight Super Bowls. That is all.
Stats of the Week
In 180 minutes of playoff football this month, the Jaguars trailed for 14 minutes, 41 seconds.
The youth of the Rams’ offensive attack is downright incredible. Consider:
• The coach and offensive brainiac of the Rams, Sean McVay turns 32 on Thursday. The offensive coordinator, Matt LaFleur, is 38.
• Average age of McVay/LaFleur: 35 years, 1 month. Age of Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth: 36 years, 1 month.
• The nine Rams offensive players who touched the ball in their playoff loss to Atlanta are all 25 or younger.
That last one blows me away. But let’s look. The quarterback who handled the ball on every offensive snap, Jared Goff, is 23. The other eight men with their hands on the ball either in the running, receiving or return game:
RB Todd Gurley
KR/PR Pharoh Cooper
WR Robert Woods
WR Cooper Kupp
RB Malcolm Brown
WR Sammy Watkins
TE Gerald Everett
TE Tyler Higbee
Average age of the nine players who touched the ball for the Rams in the wild-card game: 24 years, 4 months.
Factoids That May Interest Only Me
The Arizona Cardinals do not have a head coach or quarterback under contract for the 2018 season.
The Paganelli Officiating Dynasty continues. All three sons of western Michigan officiating legend Carl Paganelli have worked Super Bowls, and back judge Perry Paganelli will make it seven total Super Bowls 13 days from now. The Paganelli Super Bowl tree:
Super Bowls Worked
Carl Paganelli (son)
Super Bowls 39, 41, 46, 48
Super Bowls 41, 52
Super Bowl 47
Carl and Perry officiated Super Bowl 41 together—the 29-17 Colts’ win over Chicago.
New Titans coach Mike Vrabel caught 12 passes for 17 yards in his 14-year NFL career.
All 12 receptions went for touchdowns.
Three things from the best story I’ve ever read on the relationship between Bill Belichick and Nick Saban, the two power football coaches in this country, last week from Jenny Vrentas of The MMQB:
1. Belichick and Saban, according to Vrentas, met stealthily at a West Point, N.Y., hotel one year in the ’80s when Belichick was the Giants’ defensive coordinator and Saban the Houston Oilers’ defensive backfield coach. Belichick brought film and a projector, and they geeked out watching film and learning from each other.
2. When Belichick was head coach of the Browns in 1994, and Saban his defensive coordinator, the last game they won together was over the Bill Parcells-coached Patriots in the wild-card round that year.
3. The last time the Belichick/Brady duo was shut out came in game 13 of 2006, a 21-0 loss to Miami. That, Vrentas notes, was the last NFL victory by Saban. And Vrentas writes: “It’s a mark of Saban’s impact on those Dolphins that, in the 19 regular-season games after that whitewash of New England, the Patriots went 19-0 . . . and the Dolphins went 1-18.”
The story is just so rich, and so full of great information. I highly recommend it. And if you can’t read it …
From “The MMQB Podcast With Peter King,” available where you download podcasts.
Coming Wednesday: I’ll have a special championship week podcast, with thoughts on each of the games and one conversation—with coach Doug Pederson of the NFC-winning Eagles. The cool thing to expect this week is Jenny Vrentas reading her Belichick/Saban story on the podcast. She does a mean Saban voice.
Tweets of the Week
Each week in the season I’ll ask a football figure about the possession he values most.
Kyle Rudolph, tight end, Minnesota. “I would probably have to say a gift from my wife—the first 3D ultrasound of our twin daughters. So it’s like a picture of one of ’em, and it’s with a poem about fatherhood. That sits on my nightstand next to my bed, and I see it first thing when I wake up every morning, and every day when I go to bed. She gave me that on my first Fathers Day, when she was pregnant with them. To this point in my life, that’s been the most life-changing thing that I’ve gone through—becoming a father. The kids are Anderson and Finley. They’re 15 months old. That ultrasound is something I’ll cherish.”
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think these are my quick thoughts on Championship Sunday:
a. No wonder Tom Brady doesn’t want to retire.
b. What was the sure thing out of the NFC game? You turn it over, you lose. Eagles got 14 points off a Case Keenum pick and a Case Keenum fumble off a strip-sack, and it was 24-7 at the half. Ballgame.
c. Keenum picked a bad time to have the world fall on his head.
d. Amazing to me that Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz didn’t get more of a run in the post-season coaching search.
• FOLES DOES HIS BEST WENTZ IMPRESSION: Plus, how Tom Brady did it again, Bortles’ future in Jacksonville, the Vikings’ QB decision and an early look at the Super Bowl LII matchup on the 10 Things Podcast.
e. Arizona GM Steve Keim: You’ve got the field. You can wait. Remember the last time you had a coach to pick? When you got “stuck” with Bruce Arians after he won coach of the year as an interim? That worked out pretty well. I’d have a second chat with Schwartz.
f. Josh Lambo, acing a 54-yard field goal like it’s a driving-range 3-wood on a lazy summer afternoon.
g. Re the fourth-quarter confirmation of the fumble call on the field by Dion Lewis of the Patriots: I don’t like a ruling of a fumble when the player never loses the ball, his knee hits the ground, and he still hasn’t lost control. He doesn’t have a vice-grip on the ball, but he is controlling the ball enough so that it’s not on the turf.
h. Great inside blitz by Myles Jack to stun Brady and force him to throw it away with six minutes left in the game. The great thing is, Jack didn’t give it away; Brady didn’t know it was coming until too late.
i. Sixty-year-old James Harrison, just when the Patriots needed him, at the two-minute warning of the fourth quarter, with the Jags driving for the winning touchdown, with the strip-sack of Blake Bortles, making it third-and-19. Too big a hill to climb for the Jags.
j. Blake Bortles: I’ve got a lot of respect for you. It’s taken me, and America, a long time to say that, but good for you, playing at this level, nose-to-nose with the great Brady.
k. “WHO IS THIS GUY!” Tony Romo yelled late in the first half, as Bortles was motoring the Jaguars down the field for the third time of the half. Good question. Apparently, this guy was playing the game of his life. At the half, Bortles was 13 of 15 for 155 yards, and excellent on third down.
l. If Stephon Gilmore doesn’t make the play of his life, who knows? Maybe Bortles gets Jacksonville in the end zone.
m. Important, smart read from Rick Gosselin, longtime Pro Football Hall of Fame voter, on how so many cases of so many deserving players don’t get heard (or heard enough) by the 48-person Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee.
n. Gosselin is one of the most conscientious and faithful people I’ve met in any line of work. His points should be heard from one end of the NFL to the other.
2. I think anyone’s first reaction would be to fire Jets wide receiver Robby Anderson, after he was arrested for driving 105 in a 45-mph zone in Florida and reportedly saying he would sexually assault the officer’s wife. The Jets usually give good players a lot of leeway, though, and I’d expect they’ll do the same with Anderson after his semi-breakout season in 2017. But Anderson is already facing one resisting-arrest charge after an incident last March, so he’s almost certain to be in last-chance territory if the Jets decide to keep him.
3. I think I always consider the Senior Bowl the start of draft season, and the first practice for the North and South teams is Tuesday in Mobile, Ala., with likely every head coach and GM in attendance (save the Super Bowl teams). I find it odd that the North team has the three best quarterbacks in the game—Josh Allen (Wyoming), Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma) and Luke Falk (Washington State), along with a fourth passer who could be a mid-round pick, Tanner Lee of Nebraska. (The South QBs: Kurt Benkert of Virginia, Mike White of Western Kentucky, Brandon Silvers of Troy and Kyle Lauletta of Richmond.) I’ve long respected the opinion of 30-year NFL scout Greg Gabriel, now an NFL analyst for Pro Football Weekly. Despite the media love of this quarterback class (including Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen), Gabriel is skeptical. “Last year people said the quarterback class sucked,” Gabriel said. “I said, no, it’s pretty good. Three are going in the top 10. I wrote that in the 2016 season.” Mitchell Trubisky (three), Pat Mahomes (10) and Deshaun Watson (12) came close.
• Gabriel, on the meaning of the Senior Bowl:“It’s changed. Four quarterbacks on each team—how many reps can each one of them get? You hear guys are going to separate themselves in practice. That’s hogwash. Three or four years ago that might have been so. But they’ve cut out the Monday practice; now they practice full on Tuesday and Wednesday and then a lighter practice Thursday and a walk-through Friday.”
• On the QB class of 2018: “It’s an average class, based on their production. You look at a lot of things when you’re evaluating quarterbacks, not only looking at the production, but the offense he’s in, and what he’s been asked to do. Does he have a half-field read, or is it an RPO [run-pass option offense]. Sam Darnold [of USC] … You expected Darnold to have a really good year after his 2016 season. He’s got the weirdest throwing motion, a semi-sidearm, in between over the top and in between. Can the coaches fix that? Or do you just leave him alone? I think he’s the most talented guy, based on level of comp, leadership, his flashes. I’m not a Josh Rosen [of UCLA] guy. His mechanics are so good, but I’m not convinced about his arm strength. [Wyoming’s] Josh Allen: I can’t buy into him. When he goes up in competition, his numbers fall off. Look at his Iowa game this year, his Nebraska game, his big games. [Against his three biggest foes—Nebraska, Oregon, Iowa—Allen had an NFL passer rating of 31.0, with one TD and eight interceptions.] He doesn’t feel the rush well. He’s a retreater. Great arm, great size, great athlete. Nobody with as low a completion percentage as him in college [56.2 percent] has had great success in the NFL. He should be seven, eight, 10 percent higher.
• On his advice for GMs who need quarterbacks:“I say it’s average, but at the same time history says you overdraft these guys. Four teams in the top seven—the Browns [picking one and four], Giants [four], Broncos [five] and Jets [six] have a pretty big need. Buffalo’s picking 21 and 22; they’re gonna take one. But the veteran quarterbacks will have a huge impact. Kirk Cousins, Alex Smith, Case Keenum—what happens to them? How do they impact the rookies? I think Cousins gets a lot of money. Smith will too.”
Last point on that: Smith has a $14.5 million salary in 2018, his walk year, with a $2 million roster bonus due in training camp. So the Chiefs have a little time to figure out what to do with him. It’s likely if he’s dealt (Cleveland? Arizona? The Jets? Denver?), it would be before the draft.
4. I think the Raiders can certainly say they complied with the Rooney Rule in interviewing tight ends coach Bobby Johnson and USC assistant Tee Martin. But come on. That’s tokenism at its finest. Here’s what the Raiders should have done. They should have told the league they’ve been trying to hire Jon Gruden for years (true) and instead of doing a couple of sham interviews after knowing Gruden was their guy, they should have said this: In the spirit of Al Davis, the biggest champion of minority coaches in NFL history, we’ll donate $500,000 to fund 10 coaching fellowships so that good minority coaching prospects can have a full season to develop at college or pro programs. And good for the Fritz Pollard Alliance for calling out the Raiders for this sham job.
5. I think this is the way a smart beat writer does his job. Take a bow, Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In summing up the woes of a talented but troubled team, Bouchette writes about one of their biggest stars, free-agent running back Le’Veon Bell:
“Bell performed as well as expected in 2017 and made All-Pro again. But he also threatened to sit out the year if they put the franchise tag on him for the second time. That tag will be 20 percent higher than last year’s $12.12 million, so make it $14.57. It’s probably an idle threat, but the Steelers have to be reaching a point where they ask, is he worth it? He turned down their offer last year of a contract that would have paid him more than $12 million on average per year and more than $30 million in the first two. The next highest-paid backs earn $8.5 million per year. His agent wanted to take it, Bell did not.
“So what’s to make anyone think they can come to terms on a multiple-year deal this time? If they can’t, using that franchise tag would stress their salary cap because it all would count against it in 2018. Over The Cap pegs their cap room at $2.7 million, pending a rise in the cap, for their top 51 contracts (the only ones who count in the offseason). That does not include Bell. If they do reach the breaking point, they could use that $14.57 million elsewhere—or not make moves to find the room—and draft another halfback in the first or second round. If Bell leaves as a free agent, the Steelers would receive a compensatory draft pick in 2019, perhaps in the third round.
“It’s possible Le’Veon Bell will not play for the Steelers in 2018.”
6. I think, as I wrote the other day, the Steelers will not be firing Mike Tomlin. Can’t emphasize this number enough … The Steelers have had three coaches over the past 49 football seasons. The seasons and winning percentages of all three:
Mike Tomlin (11 years), .649
Bill Cowher (15 years), .619
Chuck Noll (23 years), .572
7. I think it’s possible that I have heard more calls from Steeler fans to fire Mike Tomlin (26-10 in the last two years) than I have heard from Browns fans to fire Hue Jackson (1-31 in the last two years). People, please get a hold of your collective self.
8. I think I am just sick about the suicide of Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski. I didn’t know him, and I know nothing about the circumstances of his death, but I just keep thinking of the intense emotions you feel about a lot of things at age 21, and all I can do is wish someone was with him when his life got so dark. I remember being on a treadmill back in September watching the ESPN highlights one morning, and I’ve always been taken with Mike Leach’s offense, and I have a vague recollection of one of those crazy comebacks by a western team long after I was asleep—and now I come to find out it was backup quarterback Hilinski who engineered it, bringing Washington State back from a 31-10 deficit against Boise State with eight minutes to go, tying the game late and winning it in the third overtime with a Hilinski touchdown pass. Then this week happened. And then I saw the photo of him carried off the field in jubilation by the home crowd after that comeback against Boise State. Excellent job on the grief in Pullman in this Facebook post by Eric Johnson of KOMO TV.
9. I think, truly, that Bruce Arians would be terrific on “Monday Night Football,” if anyone at ESPN is listening. He’s through coaching. He’s irascible. He’s highly opinionated.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Story of the Week: by Paul Duggan of the Washington Post, on the most heartbreaking cold case you’ll read, a 34-year-old kidnapping that hurts to this day.
b. Compelling Football Story of the Week, by Conor Orr of The MMQB, on scouting a Patriots game just the way Bill Belichick’s father would have. Why does that matter? Because Steve Belichick quite literally wrote the book on scouting—the first book published on the deep scouting processes that generations of scouts would use, and use to this day. Our man Orr dissected the Patriots’ win over Tennessee nine days ago as though he were Steve Belichick, and the result is one of the best and most intricate football stories you’ll read this year.
c. Obituary of the Week: by former SIscribe Michael Farber, on the death of 91-year-old Red Fisher, the most noted and quoted hockey writer of all time.
d. I loved this from near the top: “Fisher started on the Canadiens beat in 1955 in the era of train travel and finished it in 2012 when reporters tweeted the lines at morning skates.”
e. I loved this, too, from near the end: “Tillie, Fisher’s wife of 69 years, died on Jan. 9, 2018, at age 90.”
f. After 69 years of marriage, the wife died on Jan. 9, and the husband 10 days later.
g. Beernerdness: I’m a little late, because this is a holiday beer, but I tried the Mad Elf American Strong Ale by the Troegs Brewing Co. (Hershey, Pa.). It’s a unique taste, and not my normal type. Rich, very strong, and you need about 10 sips before you figure out all the tastes in it. But there’s a strong cherry tint, and close to a dark chocolate flavor deep inside this dark-cherry-red beer. It’s a beer to drink slowly, to try to figure out everything in there. Cool beer.
h. In other news, my friend Yael Averbuch has been traded.
i. Yael and Mary Beth King began their soccer careers on the Montclair (N.J.) Kangaroos, the youth travel team in our town, at around 8 or 9. Yael was a determined little mite, and one of the nicest, most polite kids I have ever been around. She went on to play four years at North Carolina, and at several levels of our national team, and now in the women’s pro league. Good luck with the Reign, Yael.
j. “Dark Shadows,” one of the campiest, most fun TV series of all time, has just been made available to stream by Amazon.
k. I might actually learn how to do this “streaming” thing.
l. Did the Pirates really trade Andrew McCutchen for a bag of baseballs?
The Adieu Haiku
Some great moves, Chris Long.
Rams life: Zero playoff games.
And now? Two straight Supes.
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