Peter King/The MMQB

Quickly

  • An early-morning ride to work with Philadelphia’s leader and the story of how Brett Favre’s trusted friend went from coaching high school to the game’s biggest stage
  • Other sections include: Getting to know Cards coach Steve Wilks; the amazing stat leading Howie Roseman’s résumé; unsolicited advice to the XFL; and much more
By Peter King
January 28, 2018

MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. — This was Friday, 5:14 a.m. It’d been only six-and-a-half hours since Eagles coach Doug Pederson left the office Thursday night, but you couldn’t tell, except for the 5 o’clock shadow (which might be perpetual with him) and the slightly droopy eyes. This was a happy man, driving to work while most of greater Philadelphia was sound asleep.

As Pederson steered his Range Rover onto I-295 for the 20-mile commute to his office in south Philly, he savored the pitch-blackness. “I love this time of day,” he said. “Quiet, peaceful, not a lot of traffic on 295. My time to process the moment, process the morning. Football-wise, it’s a short-yardage, goal-line, third-down day. The plays [offensive coordinator] Frank Reich and I went over and over last night, I’m cycling through those.”

But last night … wasn’t that you in the orange Flyers jersey, dropping the puck at center ice before the Lightning-Flyers game?

“Yep,” he said. “That was cool. They asked me to go up to the suite after that and meet a few people, but there was no way. Frank and I had three hours of work left on the game plan.”

To beat the great Belichick and the five-time Super Bowl champion Patriots, Pederson can’t spend enough time on the next game plan. Regarding the last one: Football people are still fairly wowed about the changeup game Pederson called in the 38-7 rout of the Vikings for the NFC championship last week. After being arch-conservative with quarterback Nick Foles in the 15-10 division playoff win over Atlanta, it’s like Pederson had his old buddy Brett Favre playing quarterback against the Vikings. This was bombs-away stuff, surprisingly, for three quarters. The Vikings didn’t know what hit them.

“Best game you’ve ever called?” I wondered.

Pause. “I think so,” Pederson said. “I believe that. But it takes players. I tell the players all the time: ‘There is no magic play.’ Players make the plays.”

You’ll probably need to do better in this game coming up,” I said.

“Amen to that,” he said. “That’s for sure.”


Today kicks off Super Bowl Week in Minneapolis: favored New England (15-3) versus Philadelphia (15-3). Bill Belichick and Tom Brady already hold the coach and quarterback records for Super Bowl victories (five); a win Sunday would be the Patriots’ sixth Super Bowl win and tie Pittsburgh for the most ever. On the other side, the Eagles have never won a Super Bowl, and last won an NFL title 57 years ago. So there’s more desperation in this football-mad place, where players and fans are ordering dog masks from China and, on Friday, the tabloid Philadelphia Daily News devoted the front page and the back page plus 6.5 more inside pages to coverage of a game that was nine days away.

• MIKE TROUT IS PULLING FOR THE EAGLES, ALL THE WAY: When it comes to football, the MLB star is Philly through and through

In the pregame mayhem this week, there is sure to be this story line: Belichick vs. Pederson: Mismatch of Super Bowl 52. Pederson gets it. He was a Louisiana high school coach 10 years ago when Belichick already had three Super Bowl rings. He respects Belichick tremendously, and Pederson acknowledges that everyone in the football business wants to get what the Patriots have—dynastic success in a sport that pushes every team toward mediocrity. But he won’t be kissing any rings this week, from the sound of our predawn conversation Friday.

“How many times have you mentioned the name ‘Belichick’ to your staff this week, in your hours of meetings with them?” I asked.

“Zero,” Pederson said. “I have not. I know the success Bill has had, the success the team has had, is gonna be mentioned by the media. I don’t feel like I have to go out of my way to continue to talk about it. Is the mystique, is everything about it real? I believe that. I do believe it’s real. I do believe that teams have to play for 60 minutes against this team, because they are so well-coached. They are so well-prepared.”

One of the Pederson’s pregame stratagems is what he calls the “faceless opponent.” No matter who the Eagles are playing, he doesn’t harp on the names of the coaches or the names of the players. It’s not respect or the lack thereof—it’s just keeping track of what’s important in preparing for the game.

“I just think you can’t get caught up with who’s on the other side,” he said, never taking his eyes off the traffic-free interstate. “Everybody in the NFL is good. Every team is good. I’ve always believed you just go about your business. You prepare. You get your team ready to go every week, and you treat it that way. It’s about doing your job. That’s a phrase Bill uses all the time: Do your job. That fits with the faceless opponent. That fits with, Don’t worry if they’ve got a star on their helmet, or a ‘G’ for Green Bay or a Patriot on the side of the helmet. Do what you’ve been coached to do this week for 60 minutes. Win your matchup, the one-on-ones, and let’s see what happens after 60 minutes. Nothing else matters, so why introduce anything else?”

(Later in the day, I asked tight end Zach Ertz about that. “Extremely smart,” Ertz said. “That’s been the motto the entire year. Typical Doug. Nobody plays well when they are stressed. We are best when we’re loose, focusing on the minute details … It’s like we’re told: The play doesn’t care who makes it. Just make it.”)


Al Bello/Getty Images

I want to focus on the game plan last week, which was a compelling part of a stunning 31-point victory. Against Atlanta, the Reich-designed game plan played it cautious and threw horizontally; the average Nick Foles pass traveled 5.1 yards past the line of scrimmage, and Foles did not throw a pass farther downfield than 11 yards in the second half. Against the Vikings, who had watched the tape and seen how post-Carson Wentz-injury game plans were designed to be arch-conservative with Foles, the average pass went 10.3 yards past the line, and Foles played mistake-free.

Look at the Eagles’ bold plan this way: The NFL’s highest yards-per-attempt average by a quarterback this season was Drew Brees, at 8.. Foles, in the title game, was 10.7. The upshot was that Minnesota studied the tape and saw a dink-and-dunker in Foles; Pederson threw a changeup that would have made Clayton Kershaw proud, and the Vikings secondary wasn’t ready for it.

Fun is part of it too. That showed on the third-quarter flea-flicker that broke up the championship. The flea-flicker was an homage to longtime Eagles administrative assistant Carol Wilson, who was Andy Reid’s aide when he was the Eagles’ head coach—and when Pederson became a quality-control coach there in 2009. In Pederson’s four years as an assistant (2009-12) and two years as head coach, the flea-flicker was never called. Until last week.

• IN NEW PHILADELPHIA, A SEARCH FOR NEW EAGLES FANS: Can a town’s name influence who you root for in Super Bowl 52?

“When I was here working with Andy, back then we would write the game plan quite literally up on the grease boards,” Pederson said. “And Carol was the one who would always type our game plan list into the computer. And so, every week I’d walk her through it, so she could understand the handwriting. She’d always look for one section of the game plan. ‘Is the flea flicker in?’ She just loved the flea-flicker. She loved the play, and I think she even loved the name. Flea-flicker. Every week, I’d say, ‘Oh, Carol. Sorry. It didn’t make the list this week. Maybe next week.’ Every week she’d ask, and I might say, ‘Yeah, it’s in this week, it’s gonna be great. We might call it this week!’ That went on for four years. Every week. Every week she’d ask. We never called it. Not one time.

“And so she congratulated me after the Atlanta game, about two weeks ago. She said how proud she was of me—she knows me pretty well. She was here when I was a player, and then obviously, working for Andy as a coach. And I said, ‘Thanks, Carol.’ Then she texted me and said, ‘Is the flea-flicker in this week? It’s my favorite play!’ And I remembered that it was her favorite. So last week, later in the week, I texted her and said, ‘Carol, the flea-flicker’s in this week. It’s in.’

“So the game comes, and I called it in the game at the right time, and I was thinking, ‘I hope Carol’s watching right now.’ There was Carol Wilson pressure! And we hit on it.

“Right after the game, I look at my phone. She sent congratulations. She was so happy we called the play. She gave me the thumbs-up emoji. That was cool. That was cool. I am so happy we got her favorite play in the game—and it worked.”

Here’s the other part of that crazy story: The receiver on the play, Torrey Smith, starting from wide left, was supposed to run a post route. “But I looked up and there was too much traffic there,” Smith said. “I just adjusted my route, and Nick saw it. It’s just playing football. That’s what we did there.”

“From a player’s standpoint,” said Ertz, “Doug is an unbelievable offensive play-caller. He has a unique ability to see the game. I don’t know if it stems from him being behind great quarterbacks in his career—Dan Marino, Donovan McNabb, Brett Favre. But he sees the game like he’s playing it. He calls the game like he’s still a quarterback, like he’s in the flow of the game with us.”

“Sounds familiar,” Brett Favre said over the weekend.


Morry Gash/AP

Favre was hunting in Alabama—surprise—when the text came about Pederson. Favre does not return phone calls when he’s hunting. But he makes an exception for Pederson.

“You called me today and asked me about Doug, and I’m going to tell you I’m not blowing smoke. If Doug was working at the cement plant in Monroe [La.] right now and not getting ready to coach his team in the Super Bowl, I’d tell you the exact same thing: He was incredibly valuable and important to my career,” Favre said. “Doug and I were together, whatever, 10 years?

Not long enough if you ask me. The only bad thing for me was we weren’t together 20 years. I always though Don Strock and Dan Marino were like a match made in heaven. That’s the way it was with me and Doug.

“When Doug was with me, I hate to say he was a lot like a coach, but he was. Very instinctive. He thought the way I thought. He knew me. He knew what I was thinking, and he was able to relay that to the coach, or the play-caller. Not a lot of the backup QBs have the headset on, but I wanted him talking to the coach. He’d tell the play-caller, Mike [Holmgren] or Sherm [Lewis, offensive coordinator] or Mike [Sherman, a Holmgren successor], ‘Think checkdown.’ Or, ‘Third-and-three, expect this.’ He was right so often. Some quarterbacks don’t want anything in their ear but the play. I did. I would say, ‘Make sure to give me reminders.’ So he’d say, ‘Hey, Merton Hanks likes to come from the weak side here,’ or ‘Brad Culpepper is tilted on the nose here—be careful for the weakside blitz.’ He just knew how I thought.

“Off the field, just as much. We RAN to the golf course. We RAN off to hunt. Not that anyone ever wants to hear the news their father died, but Doug, it was almost like the good Lord was looking out for me by who he placed with me at one of the worst times of my life.”

• KEEP AN EYE ON THE GRONK-O-METER: The story of Rob Gronkowski in high school—a dominant athlete with a breaking point

The afternoon before the Packers were to play at Oakland in 2003, on Dec. 21, Favre, Pederson, punter Josh Bidwell and kicker Ryan Longwell were playing nine holes of golf. “We played a few holes,” Pederson said, “and then my cell phone rings. It’s Deanna, Brett’s wife. You know, Brett didn’t carry his cell phone much. If he had it, it was never on. She asked me if I was with Brett. I said, ‘Yeah, we’re playing golf.’ There was just something different about her voice. Not the typical upbeat Deanna. She asked to speak to Brett. I was taken back a little bit. She never calls me.”

Irvin Favre, 58, had a stroke and heart attack while driving in Mississippi. By the time the foursome got back to the hotel, Pederson got to thinking he might have to play in this game with significant playoff implications. “I’m obviously feeling terrible for my friend. But I’m also thinking: ‘Is he gonna stay and play? Or is he gonna go home, and am I gonna have to play?’ I was trying to be there for Brett, and I’m trying to prepare myself for a possible start the next day. Then, in the team meeting Sunday night, Brett wanted to address the team, and nobody really knew what he was gonna say. Brett stood up in front of the team and he said, ‘My dad would want me to stay and play.’ It’s like he could hear Big Irv in his head: ‘You’re gonna stay, and play for your teammates, and you’re gonna play for your coaches, and you’re gonna play great.’

“That was it. It was one of the most profound things I’d ever heard under that kind of pressure—he was gonna stay and play for his teammates. He had our backs. What a leader he was. That’s a night I’ll never forget.”

But before the game, in the old Oakland Coliseum, Favre seemed morose.

“Doug stayed by my side,” Favre said. “Finally he says to me, ‘Let’s go out and throw, kid.’ So we went out on the field, me and him. I’m bouncing it, throwing it over his head. I could not throw a 10-yard pass. I’m getting ready to play on ‘Monday Night Football,’ I’m nervous, I’m just out of it. I am going to make a fool of myself in this game.

“We go back inside. I’m shaken up. Doug comes to my locker. He says, ‘It’s gonna be okay.’ He said a prayer, right there. He put his hands on my shoulder, said a prayer. Then he bumps his fists real lightly on my shoulder. He tells me, ‘You’re gonna be great tonight. You’re gonna play an awesome game.’”

When Favre was introduced before the game, the Black Hole crowd did something no one in Oakland had ever seen: Fans gave Favre a standing ovation. Crying openly before the game kicked off, Favre proceeded to have the best half, statistically, he ever played in his Hall of Fame career. He threw four touchdowns, including a heaved 43-yard rainbow that somehow found Javon Walker’s two hands in the end zone, surrounded by Raiders. The final: Green Bay 41, Oakland 7.

“How does he block out the pain and the heartache, and play an incredible football game?” Pederson said. “I don’t know. No one knows. But he did. No one will ever forget that night.”

“A few years ago,” Favre said, “I decided to be the offensive coordinator at Oak Grove High in Mississippi—it was our high school there. I called two people about it: Doug, and Ty Detmer [another Green Bay backup]. Both coached high school. We were joking about it the other day. You know what his advice was? ‘KISS.’ That’s it. Keep It Simple, Stupid. Make a play. Football’s not that hard. Teach ’em football, teach ’em how to make plays, put ’em in position to make plays. You can see it with his guys, and the way they execute his plays.”


The 14 years of pro football, in all kinds of systems, helped Pederson know everything about the offensive side of the game. But after his last season, 2004, he didn’t know if he wanted to coach. He thought he’d try it, to see if he liked it, and so and his family moved to Shreveport, La., to put down some roots. Pederson applied for the football coaching job at Calvary Baptist Academy, an 800-student K-through-12 school, where he took his sons to school every day.

“I was extremely happy,” he said. “Those were the best four years of my life. As a coach, as a mentor to young men, to high school boys. Thinking back on those four years, it taught me a bigger lesson. I wondered, Can I teach football? Can I coach football? Here I come from 14 years in the National Football League as a player, soaking everything in with some great coaches, some great players, some really great offensive minds. The advice that I was getting from some of my coaches and peers was, you need to go find out if you can teach and coach. Do you like the journey? Do you like the process? Even though it was a high school, do you like putting in the time? Do you like teaching? And I did. I loved coaching. I loved teaching those kids. And it let me know this is what I wanted to do. After that fourth year, I just started thinking, ‘There’s got to be something more than this.’ That’s when I reached out to Andy Reid.

“When I was on IR my last year in Green Bay, we played the Eagles here in Philadelphia. We were standing out on the field pregame, and he asked me if I wanted to get into coaching. I said, ‘Yeah, I’d like to get into coaching one day. But I don’t want to ever draw pictures. I don’t want to put notebooks together. I want to coach.’ Four years later I reached out to him. He had this quality-control position on offense. I took it. Sure enough, the first couple years, I’m drawing the pictures. I’m putting the notebooks together. I’m doing all the grunt work I said I wouldn’t do. But you have to enjoy the journey. I did. I thought at the beginning it would be great to be a position coach. What I aspired to do once I started coaching again was be an offensive coordinator.”

• HOW JON BON JOVI, A JERSEY GUY, WOUND UP A PATRIOTS FAN: Greg Bishop on the Belichick-Kraft-Bon Jovi connection

And here he is, an NFL head coach in his second season. In the Super Bowl.

Now Pederson’s turned onto Broad Street. He talks about instructing his team to eliminate the clutter this week—forget everything else; you may never have this chance again. He pulls into his parking lot, and backs the Range Rover into his spot, and puts the car into park.

“In order to be the champion,” Pederson said, “you’ve got to play the best, you’ve got to beat the best. So this is great. A great opportunity for us, for this team, for this organization, for myself—as a coach, number one, to see if everything I’ve been talking about for two years … to see if the guys truly believe it and if they can execute it at the highest level. That’s the real fun about the chess match of games like this and opponents like this.”

At 5:55 a.m., Pederson climbed the stairs to his second-floor office. Time to work. He knew the Faceless Opponent was doing the exact same thing.


Steve Wilks Has Wisdom to Share

Last week the Cardinals named Carolina defensive coordinator Steve Wilks their head coach, succeeding Bruce Arians. I do not know Wilks well, but his players say he’s bright and caring and innovative. We spoke, and I found some life wisdom right away. “One thing I’ve learned,” said Wilks, 48, “is don’t always be looking for the next job. I tell the coaches, ‘Take care of what you do. How you play is your résumé. How you coach is your résumé.’ If you take that approach, you’ll have the chance to move up.” Great advice, in all walks of life. Do the job you’ve been hired to do. Fishing for the next one all the time is a turnoff.

I’m always curious about the influencers of people who’ve climbed the ladder to big gigs. So I asked Wilks about the most influential coaches in his 23-year journey to the top job in Arizona. His five key mentors, and what he took from all:

• Ruffin McNeil, college coach, Appalachian State, 1987-91. “He mentored me as a player and a coach. He taught me a huge truth about coaching: ‘They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Understand: Players are not all gonna be like you. You have to be a teacher, and you have to care.’”

• Tyrone Willingham, coach, Notre Dame, 2004. “I learned the complete makeup of what a coach should possess. It’s not just the X’s and O’s. It’s the character, the influence you have on the young men you coach.”

• Lovie Smith, coach, Chicago, 2006-08. “Not only did he give me the opportunity that 31 other teams did not, he taught me the importance of technique. This is a copycat league, and you have to correct the smallest things you see.”

• Norv Turner, coach, San Diego, 2009-11. “Huge lesson here: This is a matchup league. You find and exploit matchups every week. It’s not just about the scheme. You have to find matchups you can win every week.”

• Ron Rivera, coach, Carolina, 2012-17. “Understanding players. Understanding each player. Get out of the office. Get down with the players. Know them. Lead the team.”

I love the fact that one of the five is a college coach Wilks had three decades ago.

• FIVE STEP SURVIVAL GUIDE FOR NEW COACHES: Conor Orr on how Steve Wilks, Mike Vrabel and the others can be successful 


Don’t laugh at Daryl Morey

Morey, the highly respected Houston Rockets GM, sent out this anti-football Tweet the other day:

The first reaction is to chuckle at this, seeing that 167,428 students played high school football in 2016 in Morey’s state alone, according to Texas Monthly. And that all 21 regular-season games played in London over the past decade have had paid attendance of more than 70,000 (20 have been sellouts). And the NFL could be the first American sports league to have a franchise in Europe, sometime in the next five years or so.

Upon further review, Morey might be a few years early, but he’s right in pointing out causes for concern by the football-as-religion people. Texas Monthly had a good examination on the decline of participation, from 14.5 percent of high school students in Texas in 2000 to less than 11 percent in 2016.

Football’s not falling off a cliff, and I think in my lifetime football will remain king. But the lords of the game on all levels should not get too comfortable. The safety issue is going to continue to cause more and more parents to send their kids to play other sports. Roger Goodell’s biggest job, actually, is not to get the next CBA done without missing games in 2021. It’s to stop the erosion of football as a youth sport—and my feeling on this is a simple one: The NFL has to get behind the concept that youth football should not be tackle football. As the Chris Nowinski/Concussion Legacy Foundation group proposed last week, kids shouldn’t be tackling until at least age 14, and flag football should be the national alternative to youth tackle football.

The NFL actually should follow the example being set in football-mad Georgia right now. Last summer, the Atlanta Falcons provided seed money to establish flag football leagues in all 159 counties in the state. The Falcons brought representatives of every league—gym teachers, recreation directors, enthused parents—to Atlanta to give them the base of flag-football knowledge to establish the leagues, which were funded by the Falcons. That’s a progressive way to convince parents to let their young children play football.

• BELICHICK AND SABAN: Jenny Vrentas on football’s most powerful friendship


Quotes of the Week

I

“You know, Tom Sr. was going to be a priest, until my sister got him out of the habit.”

—Gary Johnson, Tom Brady’s uncle and the brother of Tom’s mom, Galynn Brady, to Patrick Reusse of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The Johnsons live in Browerville, Minn., 140 miles from the Twin Cities.

II

“You should have never lost that one game. Tyree.”

—Bill Parcells, to Bill Belichick, in the ESPN 30-For-30 show “The Two Bills,” which will air Thursday night at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN. Parcells referred to the February 2008 Super Bowl, with the David Tyree helmet catch that helped the Giants stun the previously unbeaten Patriots.

III

“Here’s my job: to accept responsibility, to give credit, and to be decisive.”

—New Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel.

IV

“One thing we are not is a development league for the NFL.”

—Vince McMahon, announcing that the XFL—alive for one season in 2001—would return in 2020.

If the XFL wants to be the highest-quality league it can be, why would a player with dreams of playing in the NFL (wouldn’t every professional football player want to play in the NFL?) limit himself to a league that plays 10 games a year, against competition with lesser talent than the NFL?


Stat of the Week

The Eagles scored 15 points to beat Atlanta in the divisional playoff games, then 38 points to rout Minnesota in the NFC title game.

All 53 points by the Eagles were scored or produced through the air by a player GM Howie Roseman added to the roster in 2017.

That is one phenomenal measure of an effective off-season by a GM and his scouting staff. Let us count the ways:

Player Points Produced Acquisition Details
K Jake Elliott 17 Signed as a free agent on Sept. 12
WR Alshon Jeffery 12 Signed as a free agent on March 9
RB LeGarrette Blount 12 Signed as a free agent on May 17
WR Torrey Smith 6 Signed as a free agent on March 10
CB Patrick Robinson 6 Signed as a free agent on March 28
QB Nick Foles Threw 3 TDs Signed as a free agent on March 13
 

Also added in 2017:

• Running back Jay Ajayi (team-high 197 playoff yards from scrimmage): acquired in trade from Miami on Oct. 31.
• Defensive end Chris Long (two quarterback hits, two passes defensed, one fumble recovered in the championship game): signed as a free agent on March 28.
• Defensive back Corey Graham (one interception): signed as a free agent on Aug. 3.
• Defensive end Derek Barnett (the Eagles’ only sack against Minnesota): first-round draft pick on April 27.
• Cornerback Ronald Darby (team-high four playoff passes defensed): acquired in trade from Buffalo on Aug. 11.

Is it possible to have a better player-acquisition year than Roseman did in 2017? I don’t see how.

• IN PRAISE OF THE EAGLES BRAIN TRUST: Andrew Brandt on Howie Roseman and Doug Pederson


Factoids That May Interest Only Me

I

Ten years ago this morning, on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2008:

• Bill Belichick was in his Super Bowl hotel in suburban Phoenix, preparing for the thing he loves so much about Super Bowl weeks: media day. It was his fourth such Super Bowl media day.

• Doug Pederson was driving his sons to school in Shreveport, La., at Calvary Baptist Academy. He was beginning preparations for his fourth season as football coach at the school, in the northwestern corner of Louisiana.

II

Tom Brady’s mother, Galynn, grew up in Minnesota and was the homecoming queen at Browerville High in 1961, per Patrick Reusse of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Browerville is a two-hour drive from the Twin Cities.

III

Margins of victory in the Patriots Brady/Belichick Super Bowls: 3, 3, 3, 3, 4, 4, 6.

Betting line on the game as of Sunday: Patriots by 5.

I mean, I’m just saying.

IV

In his first seven NFL seasons, Chris Long’s Rams teams won 32 games.

In his past two NFL seasons, Chris Long’s teams—the Patriots and Eagles—have won 32 games.


Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note

I live in Manhattan, I love the train, and I often extol the benefits of East Coast life. Proximity is good. Four hours in my life last Friday:

4:15 a.m.: Alarm (“Sympathy for the Devil”) goes off, SpringHill Suites, Mount Laurel, N.J.
4:46 a.m.: Walk to Wawa, Mount Laurel, for Doug Pederson rendezvous.
5:07 a.m.: Finish draining 20-ounce coffee.
5:12 a.m.: Pederson pulls in. Drive 20 miles to Eagles’ complex in South Philadelphia.
5:56 a.m.: Pederson interview complete in Eagles parking lot. Summon Uber.
6:07 a.m.: Uber arrives for 12-minute drive to 30th Street train station.
6:32 a.m.: Board Amtrak Acela in Philadelphia for trip to Manhattan.
7:41 a.m.: Arrive Manhattan Penn Station.
7:51 a.m.: Walk to subway. Board express 2 train uptown to Upper West Side.
8:04 a.m.: Arrive at Manhattan apartment. Chuck the dog jumps on me.


Tweets of the Week

I

II

III

IV

College athletics, man.


Zach Ertz, tight end, Philadelphia. “This might not be exactly a possession, but it’s the first thing I thought of when you asked me. Last spring, I got this 1-inch-by-1-inch cross tattooed on the inside of my right ring finger. Every day when I wake up, I see it. It’s what I am living for, what I am playing for, what my priority is. Last spring I dedicated my life to Christ. I got baptized, and I got this tattoo. I noticed early in my career, I would get really high after a good game or when something good happened, and really low when things weren’t going well. I didn’t like that. Now I never get too high, never too low. I owe a lot to some of my teammates—Carson [Wentz], Jordan Hicks, Jordan Matthews [now with Buffalo]. They have had a profound influence on my life. What I like about this little cross is that it continually pops up in my day as a reminder of my priorities in life. I see it at breakfast, I see it on the field, I see it at meetings. So it’s been good for me.”

• 24 HOURS WITH ZACH AND JULIE ERTZ: Follow America’s most accomplished athletic couple on an NFL game day

Courtesy of Zach Ertz

Pod People

From “The MMQB Podcast With Peter King,” available where you download podcasts.

This week’s conversations: Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson, Cleveland tackle Joe Thomas, and a special story-read by The MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas, on the 35-year relationship between Nick Saban and Bill Belichick. The last item is worth the price of admission, and even more, considering that the price is free.

Before I get to my one snippet from the podcast, a little history: On Dec. 8, 2013, Cleveland led New England 26-14 in Foxboro at the two-minute warning of the fourth quarter.

• Joe Thomas on Tom Brady’s ability to come back late in games: “Nobody is more practiced, more experienced in the two-minute offense. Nobody does a better job of getting what they need when the game is on the line. I remember a game in 2012 or 2013 when the Browns played the Patriots and we had the lead, we were up by two scores with, I want to say, under two minutes and the Patriots go right down the field and score a touchdown … Then they kick an onside kick, and the chances of that are pretty slim and they get the onside kick and they go down and score another touchdown and they win the game. Almost the most improbable factor. For me, that was a moment like, I don't know how we possibly could have lost that game, but we did. The only thing I can say is Tom knows what he needs to do in those situations and that whole offense is so well-versed and experienced and confident in that situation. I almost think they are better playing from a deficit when the game is on the line, rather than having to try to protect a lead.” 


Ten Things I Think I Think

1. I think these are my three unsolicited pieces of advice for Vince McMahon as he restarts the XFL in 2020, after a 19-year hiatus (I guess you’d call it a hiatus; I thought it was dead forever):

• Figure out how much money it’s going to cost, worst-case scenario, to play three seasons, minimum. Whatever that figure is, and say it’s $500 million, find rich people willing to commit that money and that investment of time, or don’t start it at all. My memory of the first XFL experience was it lasted about 20 minutes. McMahon and network partner NBC had all these great ideas for football done a new way, and the first two or three weeks were very cool. (I was at the league opener in Vegas, and it was quite a scene.) But when the ratings plummeted, the league died after just a few months. Why should people invest in your league if they have no idea if you’ll hang in when the ratings drop?

• Play two-hour games. Play four 12-minute quarters. Don't stop the clock on incomplete passes. Play fast. Have fun. Interview players on the field. Mic them up. Be the cool, distinct experience you promised you’d be in 2001.

• Don’t try to conquer the NFL. Not happening. You don’t have Bill Gates money. Be your own fun, different, interesting league, perhaps wooing players to leave college after one year so you get good players for a couple of years before they eventually run to the NFL.

• THE XFL IS BACK: What is Vince McMahon really saying with the rules of his rebooted football league?

2. I think it was good to hear Carson Wentz on Friday talk confidently about being ready for opening day after his major knee surgery in December, but the Eagles have to be realistic about it too. Wentz, on Dec. 10 in Los Angeles, tore his ACL and LCL, and the projected recovery time for an injury of that sort is nine to 12 months. He had the surgery on Dec. 13. So, obviously, nine months would make it Sept. 13 … or one week after the Eagles’ Thursday night opener if they win the Super Bowl, and four days later if they do not win the Super Bowl. And that’s the minimum. Because the Eagles will not risk anything with the 25-year-old player they believe will be their quarterback for the next decade or more, it’s likely they’ll be conservative with his return, and thus it’s realistic to think Wentz will miss some time at the start of the 2018 season. Having said all that, every knee injury is different, and time will tell on his recovery.

3. I think that’s one more reason why the Eagles are thrilled they signed Nick Foles to a two-year contract in March.

4. I think this is going to be a really good game, a close game. And I don’t have a feel yet which team wins. Thinking the Patriots, but give me a couple days to let that marinate.

5. I think Josh McDaniels coaching Andrew Luck is going to be so much fun to see.

• AN UNLIKELY PATRIOTS PIPELINE: Little John Carroll U. is the alma mater of Josh McDaniels, Nick Caserio and five other Pats staffers

6. I think that was one impressive press-conference performance put on by Pat Shurmur, the new coach of the Giants, on Friday. These snippets show the way you handle an opening press conference to a disaffected fan base and a competitive media:

“You have hired a career coach. You've hired a guy that doesn’t know what he would do if he wasn’t doing this. You’ve hired a guy that wants every day to interact with the staff, the coaches, the players, and I really do feel like my role is to make everybody as good as they can be. And I think if we do that on a day-to-day basis, we’ll get to where we want to be, and that’s re-establish the winning tradition and put ourselves in a position to win championships. And I understand that’s a journey.

“You’re going to try to all figure out who I am. Some would say I’m a little serious. I get that. But I do think this is a serious business. It’s played and coached by adults. We just happen to do it with a young person’s enthusiasm, and I think that’s important … Most people will tell you that I’m competitive and gritty, and that’s the overachiever’s mindset in me. I feel like we don’t know it all, and I look forward to learning something new every day. Those of you that do know me, though, I have zero tolerance for people that don’t compete. I have zero tolerance for people that don’t give effort, and I have zero tolerance for people that show a lack of respect. And I think that's something that you’ll know about me as we get to know each other better.

“But the people and the players that know me know that I’m willing to give them a hug at the end of a hard day. As we put the staff together, we’ll try to get you that information in a timely way. And I learned in my last shot at being a head coach, information travels off your thumbs very quickly … In the old [coaching] handbook it was, ‘Say nothing and be very guarded.’ I don’t feel like that’s necessary anymore. So I’ll try to answer your questions. Unfortunately, the answer to a question might be, ‘It’s between me and the player.’ But I’ll try to be open. We’ll try to answer your questions in really any situation, except for those things that involve Giants’ business that make no sense to be public.”

7. I think the team and the GM and now the coach have said all the right things about backing Eli Manning and that he’s the quarterback. Understandable, truly. But Shurmur has to be free to manage this quarterback the way he sees fit. He’s a smart quarterback man—ask the Vikings, who swear by him—and he can’t be hamstrung about Manning the way Ben McAdoo was. If the Giants draft a quarterback in the first round, there has to be a realization that the 37-year-old Manning’s time is coming to an end, and if Shurmur decides to play either the new guy or 2017 third-rounder Davis Webb, the locals can’t freak out the way they did when McAdoo, coaching a 2-9 team, attempted to look out for the future of the franchise and was told to go sit in the corner and then fired.

I’m no president of the Ben McAdoo Fan Club, but McAdoo was the only adult in the organization when this thing was going down in the fall. Sentiment never won a football game. Shurmur needs to handle the quarterback situation in the best interests of the franchise winning in 2018, 2019 and beyond. Anything that gets in the way of that must be fought, and fought hard. One of the reasons I like the Shurmur hire for this team right now is he’s not going to be intimidated if he knows the best thing for the team is to play one of the kids instead of Manning. I don’t mean to harp on the Manning story as much as I have recently. He’s truly a good man and has been nothing but wonderful for the Giants organization, and he’s produced in the clutch to win two Super Bowls—something no other quarterback for either New York franchise has ever done. But he has not played well, overall, since winning the second Super Bowl six years ago. It’s a production business, and Shurmur needs to play the quarterback who produces.

8. I think I’m beyond impressed with the job Gotham Chopra did on the six-part “Tom vs. Time” documentary series for Facebook Watch; the first two episodes are on Facebook Watch now, with three more episodes due Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday of this week, and the sixth TBA. They are about 15 minutes long each, and, importantly, show how athletes in the future may get to control their message to the public. Brady didn’t control this, but it’s clear that it’s a gauzy portrait of Brady being Brady. What I’ve seen looks real. We don’t know about the real life of Tom Brady; I’ve gotten very small glimpses but could never say I know how Brady lives his life. Chopra is the only one—with camera—who has ever been close to being inside, and he looked to be pretty damned inside to me. 

Chopra told me the idea was to show Brady, who turned 40 last August, “training in a way that people could see him preparing to play at the highest level at 40. And it turned into so much more.” Chopra, the son of esteemed author Deepak Chopra, sold it to Brady that he’d be able to have this mirror into his 40-year-old self for the rest of his life—Chopra is friends with Brady and will turn over much of the footage to him—and how great would it be to look back at that one day? He follows Brady with a camera through the offseason and somewhat during the season. There’s a lot of the Brady workout/eating/pliability/body-care ethos. But some of the best stuff, by far, is looking at his life.

My favorite part of the first two shows was Brady, sullen, driving home from the first game of the ’17 season, the Thursday night loss to Kansas City. The Patriots got steamrolled. His wife, Gisele Bundchen, is in the from passenger seat, and, in the darkness, she plays the partner who knows things will get better. “You’re not … we’re not … in sync yet,” she says to him. “It’s like building a relationship. The first time you meet somebody you’re not going to be their best friend. You know? It takes time to get to know people. They’re going to get to know you, and your looks, and the way you play and the way you do things. You know? And you’re going to get to know them.” You hear Brady gun the engine on the highway. Frustrated engine-gunning. “It’s going to be awesome,” Bundchen says. “I know it. Okay?” She reaches over and rubs his shoulder. End of show. That was great.

9. I think I’m looking forward to the 30-for-30 “The Two Bills,” quite a bit. I lived a lot of it, having covered the Giants from 1985 to ’88 for Newsday and having connections for many other seasons to both Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. Something Brady said in his doc resonated as coming from Belichick, via Parcells—because Parcells always said it. Brady: “Did you win, or did you lose? End of story.” That one airs Thursday night at 9 ET.

10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:

a. Attention all Minnesota people, or those who like football and will be in the Super Bowl area Thursday: I will be having a Tweetup, a chance to interact with me and some MMQB and Sports Illustrated pals at a local brewery late in the day Thursday. More details to come, but stay tuned to my Twitter feed for details. Hope to see you and have a beer with you on Thursday evening.

b. Journalism of the Week: This is long overdue, but kudos to Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia and Tim Evans of the Indianapolis Star for their groundbreaking work in shining a light on the sex abuse in women’s (and children’s) gymnastics.

c. Congrats to Eren Orbey of The New Yorker, on a cogent piece of how Aly Raisman played a key role in the downfall of Larry Nassar.

d. Kudos, also, to Outside the Lines reporters Paula Lavigne and Nicole Noren for their work on the Michigan State angle of the case.

e. Football Story of the Week: “The State of Bud,” the story of 90-year-old former Lakers player/Vikings coach/avid outdoorsman Bud Grant, by Dennis Anderson of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. 

f. “I’ve never met a more interesting person,” said Fran Tarkenton, Grant’s ex-quarterback who’s had a pretty interesting life of his own.

g. Bud Grant: CFL Hall of Famer, Pro Football Hall of Famer, member of the 1950 NBA champion Lakers.

h. Youngsters: Ever wonder why a team in Los Angeles is caller the “Lakers?” Because they were founded in Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes. That’s where Bud Grant played for them.

i. Looks like four deserving baseball Hall of Famers got in last week. There’s one candidate I think is tremendously deserving who didn’t get in, and he got just 37 percent of the vote, and I suppose it’s in part because this was his first year of eligibility. But Omar Vizquel is a Hall of Fame baseball player. Only 42 players in the history of baseball have had more hits than Vizquel’s 2,877 (he had four more hits than Babe Ruth) … and no one would think Vizquel should go in because of his bat. He’s the best-fielding shortstop I’ve ever seen. Ozzie Smith won one more Gold Glove, 12 to 11, and I’d never denigrate Smith, because one of the best-fielding shortstops in history deserves to be in the Hall, for sure. Vizquel, to me, was a tick better in the field. He won a Gold Glove at 39. Had a career batting average 10 points higher than Smith—though their on-base percentages were almost the same. Hope Vizquel makes it.

j. Coffeenerdness: Love the fact that your coffee is fresh at 4:45 a.m., Wawa. But one favor to ask: Could you please make the Dark Roast, like, darker?

k. Beernerdness: Looking forward to Minnesota beer experiences over the next week. Here’s a New York one I liked on Saturday night: Gun Hill Gold blonde ale (Gun Hill Brewing, Bronx, N.Y.). Smooth and light, but with a tasty, hoppy sweetness. So many breweries, so little time.

l. The Marlins should charge Triple-A prices next year.

m. The Brewers will be fun to watch. I love Lorenzo Cain in center for them. Christian Yelich is a future star, if not already one. Thursday was a great day for them.

n. Luke Falk of Washington State: What a teammate and friend you must have been to Tyler Hilinski. You’re a good man.

o. Chris Wesseling of NFL.com: Congrats on being free of cancer. Really happy for you.

p. Jemele Hill: Good luck at The Undefeated, and good for you, doing what you want and love.

q. If you get a chance, either on Broadway or in one of the traveling versions, please see “Come From Away,” the play about how wonderful the people of Gander, Newfoundland, were after the 9/11 attacks, when scores of planes had to land there because they could not enter U.S. airspace. Saw it last week. I love life anyway, but I left the theater loving life a lot more. What a terrific play.


The Adieu Haiku

Minneapolis.
Hooray! Going ice fishing!
(Not kidding, either.)

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