MMQB: How the NFL Pulled Off a Pandemic Super Bowl, and How the Buccaneers Dominated It

In one year, Tom Brady helped turn around an entire organization, and a large group behind the scenes made sure there'd be a Super Bowl for him to play in. We'll detail the efforts of both, plus the Hall of Fame, quarterback trades and more.
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TAMPA—Perhaps the signature moment of Super Bowl LV came as the clock wound into the game’s final five minutes, and Patrick Mahomes ran for his life for the billionth time. At the snap, Ndamukong Suh was lined up at left end over right tackle Andrew Wylie, with undrafted rookie Cam Gill to his left, then his right. Suh burst off the ball and past a helpless Wylie, while Gill looped clear across the front and wound up on Mahomes’s left.

The nanosecond Mahomes got the ball out of the shotgun, it was clear he knew he was in trouble. Again. He saw Suh coming. He drifted back a step, another, then another, then: Boom. Just as Suh caught up to him, Gill arrived at his hip. And the collective thud you heard marked the end, as the NFL’s unstoppable offensive machine ground to a final halt.

The play was a microcosm of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’s plan for the evening.

It was a symbol of head coach Bruce Arians’s attacking football ethos.

It was an example of GM Jason Licht’s team-building philosophy come to life.

But maybe most of all, it was a vivid illustration of Tom Brady’s plan for his twilight.

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* Get SI's Tampa Bay Super Bowl Champions Commemorative Issue here *

In the aftermath of last year’s unceremonious conclusion to two historic decades in New England—his last throw as a Patriot was a pick-six in the team’s earliest playoff exit in 10 years—Brady’s search for a new home was always going to point to a place like this. He wanted a team ready to compete for a title. And a team that wasn’t in that spot already probably wasn’t going to want anything to do with a 43-year-old quarterback anyway.

The roster in Tampa, to be sure, had pieces. But to Brady, that was just half the equation. The other half would be on him. He wanted the chance to show guys how to work, how to push themselves and how, ultimately, to become capable of playing the kind of football that wins on a stage like this.

And with that bone-crunching hit on Mahomes, all those ideas came alive. That loaded Bucs roster was also efficient and running on all cylinders when it mattered most. The defense was really good—the first to hold a Mahomes-led offense out of the end zone in any of the phenom’s 54 starts as a pro—and the run game (33 carries for 145 yards) was way more than a sidecar to Brady and his galaxy of pass-catching stars.

In that way, Brady got to a place where he could do a little less, in that the team didn’t need him to load it on his back the way he had to try to elevate an undermanned Patriots group at the very end in 2019. But in another way, his impact was as deep as it’s ever been, because the Bucs’ program really, over the last 10 months, became his program.

Inexplicably, that program just won a championship in Year 1. By 22 points. Over a Chiefs team that had won 25 of its last 26 meaningful games.

“You really don't know what to feel yet,” Brady’s body coach and business partner Alex Guerrero said, leaving Raymond James Stadium, with the sirens from a police escort blaring in the background. "It's been so hard since we got here. It's been such a grind. We just really don't know what to feel yet."

That’s understandable—in the moment, it’s hard to fully contextualize what Bucs 31, Chiefs 9 will mean in adding a new chapter to perhaps the great individual legacy in the history of North American team sports. What we can say for sure now, though, is what we just witnessed was damn impressive, and for more reasons than meet the eye.


We’ve reached the finish line, and we’ve got a lot to touch on in this week’s MMQB, beyond the story of Brady’s impact in Tampa. In the column, you’ll find …

• An in-depth look at just how the NFL made Super Bowl Sunday work in a pandemic.

• Some chatter from the Hall of Fame selection committee with a new class elected.

• The latest on the Eagles’ approach to shopping Carson Wentz.

• Where the Jets stand on Sam Darnold.

And a whole lot more. But we’re starting at Raymond James Stadium, with the NFL’s championship decided and Brady once again raising the Lombardi Trophy.


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There were points this year, for sure, when it was fair to question Brady’s fit in Tampa. Friends watched the fiasco in Chicago in Week 5, during which the Bucs committed a season-high 11 penalties and saw Brady forgetting how many downs there were at the end as personal frustration boiled over for a player seemingly going from the Marines to Margaritaville in job-hopping from Foxboro to Florida.

But, as Guerrero said, they kept grinding and progress kept coming.

As the Bucs worked their way out of a 1–3 slump in November, the quarterback started to reach a comfort level with his teammates, the scheme and the program, to the point where he could start taking ownership and tweaking things to implement some principles that were important to him. That led to stronger relationships, which prompted Brady to tell his parents six weeks ago, “We've got a whole bunch of guys where I'd love them to experience the joy of victory in the Super Bowl.”

Then, this week, things were at a level where Brady was texting his teammates late every night: “We will win.”

The team that couldn’t get out of its own way on that Thursday night against the Bears was long gone, as was the one that twice got beat down by Drew Brees and the Saints, and the one that sleepwalked through the first quarter against the Chiefs in Week 12. Brady had stayed on them, of course, but he’d done it in a way that showed an incredible amount of investment in each guy as an individual, beyond even what they could do as players.

“He has a very high E.Q.,” said Guerrero. “So when he takes his time and he'll talk to somebody one-on-one, he gets them to understand him and buy in. I think it just has to do with the emotional intelligence. … It's just the time that he spent with each person. He would get to know their wives, fiancés or girlfriends. Their kids. He really spent time getting to know them personally.

“And when you do that, I think that comes across in your leadership. He leads by example a lot. He'll get on guys when he needs to, but he leads by example. He's not asking them to do anything he's not doing.”

The return Brady would get from it? It was winning, yes, but just being able to help the other guys get more out of themselves was a reward, too.

“He's done it six times before this,” Brady’s father, Tom Sr., said in the wee hours on Monday morning. “Lo and behold, doing this a seventh time is really cool, because it's really cool to see other guys fly and flourish in the particular system they've developed."

The Bucs cut their penalties for the season down from 134 last year to 96 this year. Their turnovers dropped from 41 to 17. And the results showed that once the Bucs started rolling, right after that loss to the Chiefs in Week 12, the wins began piling up.


Bucs teammates Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul celebrate a sack during Super Bowl LV

None of this is to say this was all about Brady—because it wasn’t. In fact, you could easily argue that, really, the MVP award for Super Bowl LV could’ve gone to someone else.

Leonard Fournette was one candidate, even if he had only 89 yards. His 16 carries set a physical tone for the Buccaneers’ offense. In fact, Tampa finally got on track in the first quarter on a drive that started with the former Jaguar getting the ball three straight times, which opened things up in the passing game on a possession that ended with the Bucs’ first touchdown.

Defensive end Shaq Barrett and linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David were three other possible MVPs. Barrett was a general menace, registering a sack, four quarterback hits and a lot of time spent in Mahomes’s face. White was a sideline-to-sideline issue for the Chiefs, piling up 12 tackles. And David played a major role in covering Travis Kelce, who finished with 10 catches for 133 yards, but whose impact plays were kept in relative check.

And then there were the aforementioned coaches and administrators.

The creativity of Bruce Arians and OC Byron Leftwich shined all night. The Bucs’ first touchdown was a great example of it. All that running from Fournette set up play-action, so when Brady carried out a fake out of the shotgun that had Fournette and the rest of the offense going to his right, Rob Gronkowski, who motioned back to the left, ended up all by himself in the flat. He caught everyone flat-footed and scored.

Arians’s attacking nature, of course, was on display on both sides of the ball, and even with an ill-fated run play on fourth-and-goal from the one in the second quarter.

And on defense, Todd Bowles’s plan was brilliant. The Bucs’ DC played his defensive backs deeper, and more often dropped multiple safeties to take away shot plays. Remarkably, the Chiefs only had three pass plays of more than 20 yards, and two of them were short throws to Tyreek Hill that Hill turned upfield. Bowles also worked to take Mahomes past his first read, which he figured would influence him to hold the ball and drift, and mixed coverages on third down to throw the defense off (after playing primarily zone on early downs).

The result was a Mahomes who hesitated for just long enough for the Bucs to exploit what they felt would be a pretty big edge, due to the absence of tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, which is where Licht’s team-building comes in.

One thing Licht got from years working under Andy Reid (which we went into detail on in last week’s GamePlan) was emphasizing the lines of scrimmage above almost anything else. Which, interestingly enough, is where Licht’s team wound up beating Reid’s—Barrett, Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul and the Bucs’ defensive line completely obliterated the Chiefs’ wounded offensive front, and the Tampa offensive line paved the way for Fournette to keep the game at a very manageable pace throughout.

Many of these pieces had been in place well before Brady wound up on the doorstep of Arians and Licht a year ago. But this was still a franchise that hadn’t been to playoffs in 13 years, or the Super Bowl in 20. Fact was, they needed to figure out how to win.


For the first time over this 21-year magic carpet ride, Brady’s parents, Tom and Galynn, got to enjoy the fourth quarter of a Super Bowl without much tension—the Bucs entered the final frame up 31–9 and that, indeed, wound up being the final score. And with it being the most recent one, naturally, Tom Sr. called it the most satisfying of the seven.

But it’s not because it shows who was more responsible for the last 20 years between Brady and Bill Belichick. More so, it’s that, for the first time in a while, Tom Jr. started ripping off wins and it was not expected.

“This is just Tommy going down here and displaying all of his talent and his ability and his leadership to be able to allow the team to come together as it has,” Brady Sr. said. “Offensively, defensively, special teams. And they accomplished this. They came out 17, 18, 19, 20 weeks ago, and they were just trying to figure each other’s names out, much less think about a Super Bowl. And lo and behold, 20 weeks later, they win the darn Super Bowl and they win it going away.

“That's a big kudos to the coaching staff and to the players to be able to adapt as they have."

And adapt they did, to the stages they reached, whether it was big turnovers down the stretch in New Orleans or big stops against the league MVP in Green Bay.

On this Sunday, it was about keeping their heads when the game got wonky in the second quarter, and in position to take advantage. The Chiefs’ defensive stand on that fourth-and-goal with 10:55 left in the first half stood as a potential momentum changer. But the Bucs got a stop and the Chiefs proceeded to puke on their shoes:

• A holding call on a punt gave the Bucs 32 free yards—a shanked punt by Thomas Townsend following that hold put Tampa at the K.C. 38, rather than at its own 30, where the first punt had the Bucs.

• A defensive holding call negated a Tyrann Mathieu interception.

• A neutral-zone infraction converted a fourth-and-five, on which the Bucs were kicking a field goal.

On the next snap after the field goal try, Brady hit Gronkowski for a 17-yard touchdown, his second of the night, to make it 14–3. The Chiefs countered with a field goal, but then committed two pass interference penalties on the following possession that set up Brady’s one-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown.

It was 21–6 at the break. It would never get closer with that, not with the way the Bucs were playing.


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With the confetti falling, Brady simply said to Guerrero, Can you believe we did it?

In a way, neither of them could. There was a plan, and they believed in the plan. But for it to work this fast was simply unbelievable.

“They are bought in,” Guerrero said. “It’s really exciting.”

So starts the path to No. 8.

Arians said he’ll be back. His staff will be largely intact. There are some tough calls coming down the pike, to be sure—both Barrett and Chris Godwin are free agents, and the team can only protect one with the franchise tag.

But Brady will be back for another run, so whatever the Bucs lose, they should be able to replace with more guys hungry to go ring-chasing with No. 12. At least on the surface, the foundation is now in place, too, which means it’d probably be a little easier to build back from a Super Bowl win than it was from 7–9 and a 13-year playoff drought.

And Brady will be back, mostly because he’s never been seeking any sort of walk off into the sunset. He just wants to play, and clearly he still can.

“A lot of people would drop the mic after the fourth or fifth or sixth Super Bowl,” said Brady Sr. “It's not about dropping the mic and getting a Super Bowl; it's about the process that you continue. You don't stop. If you're a great songwriter and you've got six hits, just because you've got six No. 1s, you don't stop writing because you've got that. If you have a joy of writing songs, then you'll just keep doing it. And he's got a joy of playing football.

“Lot of people are waiting to get to 37 or 38, whatever it might be. Age is not an issue with him. It's a process of working with guys, mentoring guys, and getting all of the other necessary ingredients to have a team thrive."

Brady, as it turns out, sure did bring a lot of those south with him.


ANDY REID ADDRESSES HIS SON'S ACCIDENT

The Britt Reid story is a very serious one and, really, the focus here should be on the five-year-old girl, Ariel, who’s fighting for her life in Kansas City. Her aunt, Tiffany Verhulst, started a GoFundMe page that has already raised more than $290,000 in donations to support Ariel and her family. The details are horrible, and obviously Andy Reid’s son (and Chiefs linebackers coach), who conceded to officers he’d had “two or three drinks” and taken Adderall, could be in very big trouble.

Andy Reid addressed the situation right off the bat during his postgame availability, since news of the accident didn’t come to light until after Super Bowl media access had wrapped for the week.

“I know I haven’t had a chance to address you since the accident happened that my son was involved in,” Reid said after the Chiefs’ loss. “My heart goes out to all those that were involved in the accident, in particular the family with the little girl who’s fighting for her life. It’s a tough situation. I can’t comment on it any more than what I am here, so the questions that you have, I’m going to have to turn those down at the time.

“But just from a human standpoint, my heart bleeds for everybody involved in that.”

Reid was asked later in his press conference if the incident had any impact on his preparation as the Super Bowl grew closer.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you my heart bleeds for the people involved in it,” Reid said. “I mentioned that. But again, we had put the game plan in the week before, so the distraction wasn’t a distraction as far as the game plan goes. That was already in, and kind of how we were going to work with it and go forward. So, I would tell you it’s a loaded question. From a human standpoint, yeah, it’s a tough one. From a football standpoint, two separate things.

“From a football standpoint, I don’t think that was the problem.”

Britt Reid reportedly remained in the hospital after the accident, as well.

Beyond that, I don’t have a ton to add. An investigation is ongoing. And obviously everyone is hoping, first and foremost, that the little girl pulls through. All the best, and our prayers, to her family.


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HOW TAMPA AND THE NFL PULLED OFF THE SUPER BOWL

Yes, this Super Bowl was about the Chiefs and Bucs, Mahomes and Brady, Reid and Arians.

But what you saw Sunday night on CBS, really, is what it’ll be remembered for. A game on a scale matched in few places worldwide, played amid a pandemic, with the idea that it could give people a cultural reference point, the same way Whitney Houston’s singing of the national anthem during the Gulf War at Super XXV or U2’s halftime show with the names of the 9/11 victims rolling behind the band at Super Bowl XXXVI did.

History will tell us whether the NFL got there with this one or not. But the effort that went into making the game happen was undeniably immense. How big? We’ll let some of the people who had their feet on their ground tell you.


Cathy Lanier, the NFL’s head of security, already had accepted that her best-laid plans for Super Bowl LV would be in a constant state of flux, given all that had happened as spring gave way to summer, then fall and winter. But little could ready anyone, even a former chief of police from Washington, D.C., for what we all witnessed on Jan. 6. And as she prepared for Super Bowl Sunday, a month later, it remained foremost in her mind.

An insurrection at the U.S. Capitol will do that for someone charged with helping to run a safe Super Bowl.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that,” Lanier said the day before the game. “Watching what happened January 6 … getting intelligence was really critical for us following that incident, in terms of who are the people, what are their associations, what are those associations that tie to our areas.

“We did an extensive amount of homework on that, and we feel really good about it now. And then social media and dark web—this is the devil’s playground, so to speak, when it comes to security threats. It’s making sure my cyber team and my intel team are doing a real deep dive on anything potentially bubbling up. That’s every year, but this year felt a little more tense.”

Lanier’s team routinely starts prep for a Super Bowl 18 months in advance, so they were already eight months into readying Tampa to host the game when the pandemic struck. The adjustments were immediate—a couple of the team’s quarterly site visits, generally done with a 100-person traveling party, were largely handled over Zoom, and the focus of the league’s security efforts shifted.

When Lanier arrived at the stadium Sunday in the 7 a.m. hour, overseeing some 70 agencies working the game, much of the work had been done already. And in some ways, all of it left Lanier & Co. thinking like the rest of us: hoping the next time we do something it’ll be more normal than it was during the COVID-19 pandemic. But in certain areas, NFL security found a better way, and probably isn’t going back.

The most significant change was in how security checks were run on game day. Lanier likens security to a “contact sport,” which led to big challenges for the league in what has needed to be a contactless world amid the pandemic

“It was expanding the use of technology to help security, with the goal to be as contactless, touchless and digital as possible,” Lanier said. “We’ve been able to master the technology and actually enhance our security. To some extent, it’s greater security than ever before, but definitely more efficient, and it’s allowed us to meet the COVID protocols and not have a ‘hands on’ security experience.”

On Sunday, that meant using more X-ray machines to scan bags (including everything from what the teams brought to what fans sitting in the upper deck had with them), and employing cameras with A.I. technology to monitor the perimeter of the stadium.

“A lot of the technologies have been ready for prime time for a long time,” Lanier said. “For example, having screening on your iris or screening on your fingerprint, people were hesitant before to go to these things. But in the environment we’re in, these were a requirement for people to get around. And they’re very accurate. They’ve helped. All of these were technologies ready for prime time, just sitting and waiting.”

Of course, they come with complications, too. All this, Lanier continued, increases the NFL’s cyber footprint, which opens up more vulnerabilities, and that meant more work for everyone on the back end. But it was worth it, since it simply accelerated progress that was coming anyway—it’s basically the same as people ordering groceries online now as a result of the pandemic, instead of starting in two or three years.

One benefit was felt Sunday. On a day that Lanier says always winds up being a “20,000-step day” on the Fitbit, anything to increase efficiency is a good thing. And being forced to deal with a Super Bowl during a pandemic will do just that for the NFL’s security chief and her crew.


I tried to get Rob Higgins—executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission—to explain how tough this circumstance is for him and his group, and how much it sucks that they’ll be losing out on so much of the benefit, financial and otherwise, of hosting a Super Bowl.

No dice.

“My glass is not half-empty,” he said. “It’s more than three-quarters full.”

This has been a pretty wild ride for Higgins’s group. Super Bowl LV was actually initially awarded to Los Angeles in May 2016—the NFL assigned Super Bowls LIII and LIV to Atlanta and Miami at the same meeting. But rains in Southern California led to construction delays on SoFi Stadium, pushing its opening from 2019 to 2020 and necessitating moving Super Bowl LV. (NFL bylaws state that a new stadium can’t host a Super Bowl until its second year, so any potential issues with the venue have time to be worked out.)

So Tampa, as the top runner-up in that cluster of three Super Bowls, was awarded the game in 2017. Then COVID-19 hit, the Bucs played their way into the game, and, rather than seeing the unprecedented hurdles as problems, Higgins saw them as opportunities to do a lot of good in his community and beyond.

“Everything happens for a reason. It’s been surreal the way that it’s played out,” Higgins said, noting the events of the past four years. “Couple that with the Bucs making history and being part of it as well, the moons have really aligned for us.”

Now, it may sound weird that Higgins feels good about all this. But faced with how much revenue could have been lost, he and his group can take comfort in how they shifted their focus to make positive impacts in the area. “From a marketing and visibility standpoint, we wanted that to be top-of-mind with the world watching. We knew the eyes of the world would be upon us.”

First and foremost, Higgins is proud of his group’s role in working with the NFL on the initiative to honor vaccinated healthcare workers and welcome them to the game (“The most special thing any of us had a chance to work on,” he said) and the work they did in identifying Suzie Dorner, the COVID-19 ICU nurse manager at Tampa General Hospital, as one of three honorary captains. (The other two were Marine veteran James Martin and educator Trimaine Davis.)

Second, it was meaningful to Higgins to be able to help local commerce, even if the impact wasn’t what you’d plan for during a Super Bowl week. Hotel visitor room nights were at the highest level this weekend they’ve been at in a year, and airline passenger traffic doubled the previous high during the pandemic, and that was before flights from Kansas City were added (the first time flights to Tampa have been added through that time).

Third, the commission didn’t lose a single fundraising partner due to the pandemic, which is pretty remarkable.

The reward for all of it came Sunday night, of course, which for longtime residents of the area stirred memories of a similar time a generation ago.

“It’s an event we’ll never forget,” said Higgins. “I remember 30 years ago, watching Super Bowl XXV with my family, watching Whitney Houston’s anthem [also in Tampa], and how special that was. And to get through the pandemic, and get here, this is a really special moment for our country. And to have it in our stadium, in our hometown, is really special.”

Now, a lot of people have assumed that Tampa will get a Super Bowl in the not-too-distant future as a sort of payback from the NFL for what was lost in hosting this one. But Higgins wouldn’t go there with me, saying all the energy the commission had was spent on making this one work before adding that the “future will take care of itself.”

And as he sees it, Tampa has received plenty of benefits that you can’t put a price on.


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Matt Shapiro was more prepared for Sunday, and the run-up to it, than most. The NFL’s VP of events strategy and integration had already gone through a similar endeavor, to a degree, back in the spring—having to flip the draft on its head in pretty dramatic fashion

“We moved quickly into this-is-not-normal mode,” Shapiro said. “For weeks, we were pivoting from what to do in Vegas, to scaling back in Vegas and trying to be as safe as we possibly could be, then ending up in the commissioner’s basement and people’s living rooms. So right off the bat, when this thing started, we knew things would be different.”

They most certainly have been. Shapiro and his boss, Peter O’Reilly, captained the effort to make the Super Bowl as appealing a product as possible, working with the league’s health and safety and football operations people to get that done. The thought process started once the season did, and Shapiro and O’Reilly got a good picture of what the NFL looked like in mostly, if not completely, empty stadiums.

“We were starting to think about how we could make sure the Super Bowl would be a fitting culmination to the year,” said Shapiro. “We wanted to do something special and rise to the moment.”

It started with learning what they could from the games that were being played at the time.

And quickly, the idea became to enhance just about every piece of the game presentation that they possibly could. Among those things …

• They liked the fan cutouts some teams put in the end zone stands of their stadiums, which is where the decision came to fill Raymond James Stadium with them, rather than just have them in spots.

• They thought the seat covers over the lowest rows of stadiums had worked fine, though there was some early concern about them. Then, the thought became that the real estate involved could actually add something, which is where the LED boards came into play.

• The crowd noise in stadiums where bigger crowds were allowed (such as Dallas, which welcomed 30,000 fans at the end of the season) showed a crowd of 25,000 in Tampa would be able to create enough energy that piped-in noise wouldn’t be needed.

As those elements were being mapped out, Shapiro and O’Reilly simultaneously dove into other unique aspects of playing the game in February 2021.

First, obviously, was figuring out how to make a mark in history, the same way the game in Tampa in 1991 did with Houston’s anthem. Their decision, based on the pandemic-specific restrictions, was to try to elevate the coin toss, with the honorary captains and the work of Amanda Gorman (a star of President Biden’s inauguration) playing a prominent role in acknowledging what our country has been through over the last year.

The second piece was harder to plan for—and that was the Bucs' qualifying for the game and becoming the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium. Normally, the league does what it can to bring each team’s in-stadium rituals (entrances, touchdown music, etc.) to the league’s championship game. In this case, it was actually about finding the right way to mute them enough, without totally killing them, to create a neutral-site feel.

And that meant negotiating with both teams and making the decision to pipe in cannon fire for Bucs’ scores, rather than having the actual cannons firing. But the pirate ship was always going to be sitting there, and the decision to allow for the cannons to fire if the Bucs won the game was agreed upon by the teams (which shows the level of detail that went into the planning).

Shapiro arrived at Raymond James Stadium shortly after 7 a.m. on Sunday. A long day was ahead. But after all it took to get there, he was pretty sure it’d be a rewarding one too.

“I’m excited for what I’m hopeful is a really powerful blend of innovation, fun football game presentation, and our ability to create a unifying moment for the people watching,” Shapiro said before kickoff. “And this is a really fun football game. We’ve got an incredible matchup with the two quarterbacks in it. We just want to present that in a really cool way.”

And it’s pretty wild to consider how the idea that it was possible all started in that Westchester County basement leading up to the draft.


Emily Myers is the NFL’s manager of player health and safety, and Jacob Frank is the league’s manager of collectively bargained programs. In practice, though, this year their duties went well beyond those descriptions.

From roadside assistance to roadkill, there was plenty on the plates of these two that went well past what they signed up for. The league didn’t have a team in place to run a pandemic testing program, so it fell to Myers and Frank. And as they looked back on a season that included that undertaking, their feelings at the finish line were, well, understandable.

“I think my body will utterly just shut down on me,” Frank said, with a laugh. “It’s been wild this season. There have been times where Em and I were on the phone at 3 a.m., tracking a courier driving samples, whether it’s from Pittsburgh to the laboratory, or game day samples from Chicago and we’re encountering weather or there’s wildlife on the road delaying the driver.

“Daily meetings, 8:30 a.m., since probably August; calls from all 32 teams, all times of the day; 4 a.m. for the East Coast teams and the West Coast teams are calling until midnight. So I think when all is said and done, we’ll say, Wow, what an amazing accomplishment. I won’t be afraid to close my eyes for about a week.”

“It’s a very strange, abrupt ending,” Myers added. “I don’t necessarily see testing going away. Teams will continue to test, but certainly not at the volume or the way we’ve been doing it the last however many months. Definitely going to be strange to actually get a full night’s sleep and not worry about results from the prior day or whether samples are actually resulted out or got to the lab on time. It’ll definitely be a strange feeling.”

And to ensure a Super Bowl with the best results possible, the work of Frank and Myers intensified over the last few weeks. Ahead of the conference championship games, the NFL mandated that co-habitants of players and coaches enter a testing protocol. (Many teams, the Bucs and Chiefs included, were already doing some version of that.)

Then, there was the decision (the right one, in my opinion) to allow players and coaches from the winning team to designate two people each to join them on the field after the Super Bowl (with a max of 200 guests). Likewise, those folks were required, over the last two weeks, to enter into every-other-day testing to be cleared.

A little over a month ago the decision was made to have teams stay in their home facility in the days leading up to the game. “It made a lot of sense,” Myers said. “They’re in a groove where they are with the testing, at their home facility. And to take potential risks putting them in a new city was something we wanted to avoid.”

The Bucs, of course, got to be in familiar surroundings all week. But the Chiefs happened to be staying in the same hotel they did before beating the Bucs in Week 12, making the setup fairly straightforward for everyone involved. The difference, really, was going to be in the volume of people screened, which Frank and Myers had been preparing for.

“When we began planning for how we were gonna test thousands of people in November, when we were starting to have those discussions, you knew, This is gonna be a very, very different Super Bowl,” Frank said. “We have a very high-performing, robust on-site testing operation, but it was still a lot with all the friends and family, vendors, game day workers.”

The day started for both at 9 a.m.—Frank at the Bucs’ hotel and Myers at the Chiefs’ hotel, with both overseeing testing and wristband distribution in the hotel foyers. Meanwhile, around that time, Frank and Myers were getting results back for the ownership families, the Glazers and Hunts.

At the stadium, Myers and Frank helped manage the on-site testing trailer, where anyone who might come up with symptoms could get a rapid test. And in the fourth quarter, Myers and Frank went down to the Chiefs’ and Bucs’ friends and family areas to take on concierge duties for the postgame events.

And after that? After that, at long last, they could forget about what a deer on the interstate might mean for their night’s sleep.

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Finally, like Lanier, Stephanie Durante, the NFL’s VP of game operations, starts her work on Super Bowls way in advance. Her department generally gives itself about two years of lead time, so they were more than halfway done prepping Tampa for the event when COVID-19 changed everything. As part of that work, equality, in her words, is “top of mind” when it came to practice conditions, facilities, hotel accommodations and even driving distance during the week.

So much of that wound up being eliminated after the league decided that teams wouldn’t come into Tampa for the whole week. The league didn’t have to order water and Gatorade for practices, rent scissor lifts for film crews or ask for teams’ plans for a full week during the conference title game week. At the same time, new, different work was added.

And a curveball came with the prospect that the Bucs could be in the game. The eight teams left in the playoffs on Jan. 11 were required to inform the league of whether they planned to arrive on Friday or Saturday ahead of the Feb. 7 game. Tampa, in Durante’s words, told the NFL it would “quote-unquote arrive on Saturday.”

Typically, the NFL walks game-advance crews from the Super Bowl teams through the stadium to show them the setup. The Chiefs sent one person to do that with Durante’s group on Friday and, believe it or not, the Bucs had to reacclimate themselves as well, so they had some people drive over to get a look. Tampa’s coaches’ booths were moved, where the owners parked would be different, and the west side of the stadium was restricted.

“Really, on Saturday, they became a participating team and were no longer in their home market, for our purposes,” Durante said. “That’s when the NFL took over as their host, and the hotel and everything else became part of the NFL operation.”

On game day, Durante’s crew of 20 arrived before noon for meetings, then began work with the teams’ equipment people around 12:30 p.m. with another sanitation process underway. From there, the game ops people made sure both teams arrived on time and coordinated the owners’ families’ movement to their boxes.

Most of that stuff is normal. What was heightened was the importance of securing certain areas to people who were in the testing protocol. That meant the corridors connecting the locker rooms to the field, and the field itself, had to be very tightly wound, the sideline area had to remain clean and the bench areas protected during halftime. And it also meant “protecting the integrity,” in Durante’s words, of the backstage pens that would hold those with wristbands to get on the field postgame.

The results were interesting, too—a less cluttered field that, Durante thinks, could be considered for permanent implementation in post-COVID-19 times.

“There’ll definitely be some changes,” said Durante. “The restrictions on numbers of people on the sideline is something I’d expect we’ll look at this offseason, in trying to find the right approach moving forward. … I think maybe it’s just more accountability on who’s on the sideline, because we’ve seen the positives of a cleaner sideline. There are less people when a player goes out of bounds, and it gave the broadcasting network and [NFL] Films, with their priority shooting lanes, from the 20-yard line in, fewer people to navigate.”

There’ll be time soon to discuss all of that, with the Super Bowl now in books. First, Durante and her team plan to reflect on all that transpired the last 10 months, and the lessons they can take going forward.

“I think there’s definitely a sense of relief, but also accomplishment,” she said. “This year’s been challenging for many people, and there’s a lot of things to learn. I learned a lot, and developed a lot professionally, and maybe most so in developing stronger relationships on the club side with all the continued communication. But yeah, definitely, you’re breathing a sigh of relief.”


And so now it’s all over. And I know that was a lot to digest, but I hope that gives everyone a nice window into how much went into pulling off a unique Super Bowl experience.


Peyton Manning is among the group of semifinalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 2021.

WELCOME TO THE HALL

This Was A Different Year, Volume 59,594: The Pro Football Hall of Fame had a little bit of a wonky process in selecting its Class of 2021. The selection committee had its discussion virtually a few weeks ago and voted thereafter. The seven living members found out well before Super Bowl Saturday and were sworn to secrecy. And it’s a significant class in a number ways, given the guys in its ranks. They are …

• Steelers/Jets G Alan Faneca
• Raiders/Seahawks coach Tom Flores
• Lions WR Calvin Johnson
• Bucs/Broncos S John Lynch
• Colts/Broncos QB Peyton Manning
• Steelers exec Bill Nunn (elected posthumously)
• Cowboys WR Drew Pearson
• Raiders/Packers DB Charles Woodson.

And since I’m not in the room for the discussion, just like last year I gathered a few guys to chime in on the process, and what stood out about it this year.

Jim Trotter, NFL Network

I will always remember the Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 2021 for the uniqueness of the selection process and the historic diversity of the class.

The way the selection process typically works is that voters meet the day before the Super Bowl in a large ballroom in the host city, where they choose the class for that year. But COVID-19 concerns forced the meeting to take place virtually in mid-January. Things were smoother and more efficient than anticipated. Maybe it was because there was not as much repetition among the 48 voters as they made cases for and against candidates. But another factor was that players like quarterback Peyton Manning and defensive back Charles Woodson did not require much discussion, if any. The two were among three first-year eligible selectees, Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson being the other. Guard Alan Faneca and safety John Lynch rounded out the modern-era selections.

The diversity of the class was highlighted by Tom Flores, who led the Raiders to two Super Bowl victories and has the second-highest postseason winning percentage among coaches with at least 10 games, broke through to become the first Hispanic coach in the Hall’s history. Longtime Steelers scout and personnel executive Bill Nunn Jr., who was instrumental in bringing in talent from historically black colleges and universities that contributed to the franchise’s three Super Bowl wins in four years in the 1970s, became the first Black man to earn a spot in Canton as a contributor. Cowboys wideout Drew Pearson was selected in the seniors category.

A final thought: This was the first year the Hall included a retired coach and general manager as voters, i.e., Tony Dungy and Bill Polian, respectively. Both are men of character and integrity, as well as Hall of Famers themselves, but I could not help but wonder whether it is advantageous to a candidate if his coach or GM is in the room to argue his case and, possibly, even vote for him.

Vic Carucci, Buffalo News

I'd be lying if I said I didn't have reservations about how the whole virtual vote thing, and doing it weeks in advance of the Super Bowl, would work. However, once we got rolling, it felt reasonably close to any of the previous votes in which I participated with all of us gathered in a large room the morning before the big game.

The level of engagement was as high as ever, with spirited discussion throughout. I applaud the Hall for setting up the technology in such a way that, to the best of my understanding, came off without any glitches. At some point, while listening to all of the presentations, points and counterparts, I actually forgot how we were going about the process and simply focused on the process. I feel good about the selections we made because they resulted from nearly nine hours of thoughtful interaction.

As always, I feel for the finalists who were not chosen. All were worthy candidates.


carson-wentz-eagles

TEN TAKEAWAYS

The Eagles have shown their cards in at least one way. The effort to move Carson Wentz really ramped up after the Lions traded Matthew Stafford to the Rams. GM Howie Roseman’s asking price at that point was, at least to some, a little jaw-dropping—Roseman asked for the return that Detroit got for Stafford. The problem there is that the true value of that return is a moving target. Do you view Jared Goff’s inclusion as a sweetener? Or as a salary dump? That’s in the eye of the beholder. But what was clear to teams that called was that Roseman thought he could get a first-round pick plus something else for Wentz. I don’t know whether that’ll happen or not. 

Chicago, which is in a tight spot at quarterback, is interested. Indy is too, but whether it’s to the degree the Bears are is an open question. Both teams have connections to Wentz, with his offensive coordinator from 2016 and ’17 (Frank Reich) in Indy and his quarterbacks coach from that time (John DeFilippo) in Chicago. And then there’s the question about what level of control Wentz has over the process. Say he tells the Bears he doesn’t want to go there, in an effort to steer things to the Colts, but Chicago is offering the Eagles more than Indy? Bottom line, the situation is complicated, and that’s before you even get to a contract that’s going to lock a team trading for him in for two years. Wentz’s $10 million roster bonus due in March is fully guaranteed, as is his $15.4 million base salary, and $15 million of his $22 million for 2022 becomes fully guaranteed in March. Maybe Roseman will offer to pay the roster bonus to get the return he wants. Maybe he’ll take on a contract (Nick Foles?) like the Lions did. There’s just a lot to wade through here. Which brings us back to the original point—that this is negotiable shows the Eagles aren’t just dipping their toe in the water on dealing their disgruntled quarterback.

The Nathan Peterman signing didn’t make waves, but don’t ignore it. The Raiders gave the 26-year-old a one-year deal that could approach $3 million to stay in Vegas. That was after inking journeyman Kyle Sloter to a futures deal. And on the face of it, these moves don’t mean much. But they’re exactly the sorts of things you’d do if you were looking at the idea of moving one of the higher-priced players at the position you have off your roster. Starter Derek Carr has no guarantees left on his deal, no prorated bonus money that would hit the cap if he’s moved and is on the books for $19.625 million this year and $19.878 million next year, which are affordable numbers if you’re another team looking for an experienced starter who can give you middle-of-the-league quarterback play. Backup Marcus Mariota, likewise, carries no dead money, and he’s under contract for a nonguaranteed $10.1 million for 2021, in case someone is looking for a Ryan Tannehill–style reclamation project in the one-time starter who was unseated by Tannehill himself. Right there, you have a couple players who might bring back value in a trade, without the Raiders having to worry about any sort of cap implications. So where are the Raiders right now? While there were rumors floating around that the asking price for Carr was two first-round picks last week, I was told pretty emphatically that Carr isn’t available. But the Raiders will listen on Mariota and he could be the sort project that could intrigue a team looking for a quarterbacking bargain (the Patriots?).

I believe Sam Darnold is in play. First, what I know: Four teams have called the Jets to inquire about Darnold’s availability. Each was met with an interesting response, told that the team, with its new coaching staff getting its footing, is still evaluating the quarterback position. That, of course, is not a “no.” And it is true that new offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur and his lieutenants have been taking Jets GM Joe Douglas and his scouts through all the ins and outs of what they want schematically, and what they look for in players individually. Now, for what I think: Douglas, and his scouting brain trust of Rex Hogan, Phil Savage and Chad Alexander have had time to get a really good look at BYU’s Zach Wilson, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, and even if they don’t know them yet as well as they’ll need to in April, the fact that dealing Darnold is a consideration tells you that they’re at least intrigued by something there. The interesting thing is the 23-year-old Darnold is only two years older than Fields and Wilson, and three years older than Lance. And it’d be very easy for another to look at Darnold, and the situation he was in, and deduce that the still-raw talent he’s got can very much be harvested. Which, then, could lead to Douglas having the ability to get even more draft capital to work with to surround a quarterback taken with the second pick. That is, of course, assuming that Deshaun Watson isn’t in play in a few weeks. Either way, the Jets are in a decent spot here, regardless of where they decide to go. And right now? Right now, if I’m a team that prefers Darnold to, say, Mariota or Wentz, I’m probably holding tight on making a big quarterback move.

Houston’s still got a problem. Where are we? Just where we told you we were last week. Deshaun Watson’s not returning calls from new GM Nick Caserio or new coach David Culley. The Texans are giving other teams that call them a hard no. And round and round we go. Caserio in particular is really between a rock and a hard place on this one. Neither outcome is particularly great. Either …

1) He trades Watson, establishes that a superstar can shoot his way out of town right off the bat and makes Houston the NFL’s version of Elba even more so than it is now. Yes, he could get a nice return. Yes, maybe that’s the second or third pick and his QB of the future. But acquiescing in a situation like this is a tough Ground Zero for any new brass to start on.

2) He hangs onto Watson, and Watson holds firm—which creates an incredibly difficult environment for Culley to try and establish his program under. Maybe Watson winds up reporting in the summer. Maybe not. But there are six months between now and then to navigate for a coaching staff trying to get to know the roster and get that roster to buy into what they’re doing.

Of course, the best-case scenario for Caserio and Culley is that Watson eventually agrees to meet with them, separate from owner Cal McNair and EVP Jack Easterby, and those guys can establish relationships with their quarterback. The problem with that? I don’t know that even that sort of meeting would solve much, since Watson’s issue is with McNair and Easterby. Which means that might have to be fixed first. And I don’t know that it can be fixed.

Houston’s situation is why Jacksonville shouldn’t even pick up the phone when calls on Watson come in. The Texans have inexplicably screwed up a most valuable commodity—a quarterback capable of being among the five best in the world at his position. Lots of quarterbacks are discussed in these sorts of conversation. Few are actually capable of getting to that level. Watson’s there. And all the quarterback scrambling happening now is indicative of how having one is increasingly important. What the Rams told you last week was they felt like, in a Patrick Mahomes world, just being good at quarterback probably won’t be good enough for the foreseeable future. Winning with a Joe Flacco or a Brad Johnson probably isn’t happening again any time soon. So if you have one? Hold onto him tightly. The Texans are trying to now, much as Watson might not want to be there. The Bills and Chargers have guys physically capable of getting there. And the Jaguars are on the doorstep of getting one with the ability not just to get to that level, but maybe someday even rival Mahomes. So, again, Urban Meyer, if someone calls, we’ve got one simple word of advice for you on what to do: Click.

Ditto for Dallas and Dak Prescott. I don’t know that Dak is in the top five now. But if he isn’t, he’s flashed that he can get there. And you don’t walk away from that. The Cowboys plan to franchise Prescott a month from now, a decision that should be academic—the price tag of $37.7 million would put him third among quarterbacks, by average per year (behind only Mahomes and Watson). What’ll be tougher is doing a long-term deal. That a third franchise tag in 2022 would come at a price of $54.3 million seriously complicates things, because it means Prescott, by standing still, would be guaranteed either that windfall next year or unrestricted free agency at the age of 28. So yes, he has leverage. Yes, it’ll be tough to do a deal. But this is the position the Cowboys put themselves in. And it’d behoove them to find a way to lock Prescott up now, and keep this from becoming more of a problem than it already is for the team,

Of the teams coming out of the Stafford derby without the prize, Carolina and Washington really do stand out. Those teams were the two that were willing to go past just a single first-round pick to get him—Washington offered a one and a three, the Panthers a one and a five—so if you’re looking at who might make a move up the draft board for a quarterback, I’d start with those two. And I’d throw Indy into that mix, too, if the Colts don’t come away with Wentz. It should be a fun run-up to the draft, with three quarterbacks past Trevor Lawrence (in Wilson, Fields and Lance) who carry very true star potential. Those three, of course, have varying distances to go to get there. But the tools are in place.

The Packers’ defensive coordinator search brought some new names into the fray, and that’s a good thing. I’m higher than most on the selection of Joe Barry—I think Matt LaFleur’s new DC has benefitted big-time from working for Sean McVay, Wade Phillips and Brandon Staley the last four years, and will be better for the experience (and failures) he had in both Washington and Detroit. But that he wasn’t a simple pick for LaFleur, despite LaFleur’s background with him (they worked together in L.A.), says plenty for the guys who were in the running. That starts with Washington secondary coach Chris Harris, the former Bears and Panthers safety whose rise in the coaching ranks seems to be right on the verge of accelerating. I’m told Harris was a very strong runner-up for the job, and I think the Packers people who met with him will give him a glowing reference if they’re asked. And beyond Harris, there were three others to watch: Rams safeties coach Ejiro Evero, Wisconsin Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard and Saints assistant head coach/DL coach Ryan Nielsen. Leonhard was runner-up to Staley for the Rams’ DC job last year, and is pretty well-regarded from his playing days as a Jet and Raven. LSU pursued Nielsen hard to be the Tigers’ DC, and the Saints made him assistant head coach to keep him. And Evero is widely regarded in the Rams’ organization as a rising star. Right there, I believe, you have a number of guys who could well have futures as NFL head coaches. It speaks well of the Packers that they wound up with the group they did.

Sheila Ford Hamp is showing strong promise as the Lions’ new controlling owner. Some of that was evident during the coaching search, in which she challenged president Rod Wood and VP Mike Disner to think outside the box in reimagining the football operation, and brought in Chris Spielman to set the right tone and help unify the business and football side. And just as meaningful, I believe, was how she handled the Stafford trade from a player relations standpoint. She made it clear that she wanted the divorce from the team’s quarterback of a dozen seasons to be a clean one, and to make sure that years from now he’d want to be back around the organization. And that she’s done more work like that behind the scenes became obvious with what Calvin Johnson said upon his election to the Hall of Fame on Saturday night. Asked if the relationship between he and the team was being fixed, Johnson said, “I really do hope it does [get fixed]. I know that myself and Sheila Hamp, we've had some great conversations recently, and it's been good to get to know her and just really have those face-to-face conversations. So I think that we're moving in the right direction.” As I see it, at the highest level of the organization, these are good steps for a team trying to shed some of its past.

I hope Drew Brees gets a good send-off, first and foremost. He’s meant a ton to New Orleans and the Saints organization. And it sucks that it’s not happening under more normal circumstances, where the Saints could put a nice event together for him. But I’m sure they’ll figure something out. More difficult will be where the team goes from here, with the Saints way over a salary cap that’s expected to land between $175 million and $195 million. Among the issues there …

• Their top 10 cap figures for 2021, and this excludes dead money from Brees that they’ll spread out over two years, add up to $159.2 million.

• Two budding stars from the bonkers 2017 draft class—safety Marcus Williams and defensive end Trey Hendrickson—are free agents. And that year’s first-rounders, corner Marshon Lattimore and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk are going into their option years.

• Jameis Winston is unsigned for 2021.

Now, the Saints are typically really good at finding a way out of these sorts of situations. But this will be a challenge. And it at least has other teams wondering if a star player or two, like receiver Michael Thomas, might wind up on the trade block. Stay tuned on that.


SIX FROM THE SIDELINE

1) Here are the top five recruiting classes in college football for 2021, in order, with National Signing Day behind us: Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia, LSU, Clemson. That’s a pretty good indicator that the teams on the top level of the sport are probably going to stay there.

2) Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, who’s elicited NFL interest, just got a raise to $2 million per year as part of an extension. That shows how Dabo Swinney feels about him, and also that the Tigers expect interest to keep coming, which is why you’d do what you can to entice him to stay.

3) Steve Sarkisian landing the Texas job just five years after the fiasco at USC is pretty amazing. Good for him for overcoming his demons and proving to be the offensive innovator that so many projected him to be over the years.

4) Maybe it’s me, but it seems like a really silly idea for the NBA to run the risk of holding an All-Star Game. I was just at the Senior Bowl and, really, the big reason they went through with that one, amid the pandemic, was because of its very functional value—for players trying to show what they’ve got ahead of the draft (in a year when chances to do that will be limited), and for teams trying to get face time with those players (ditto). That made it worth managing the gamble of flying people in from every corner of the country to make the game happen. Does the NBA have anything close to that sort of reason for playing theirs? (I know. Money, probably.)

5) EA Sports bringing NCAA Football back was the best thing to happen this week. No close second.

6) I’m sending my best to former Dallas Morning News writer (and current writer for SI/The Maven’s Talk of Fame network) Rick Gosselin here. Goose went through a lot this year, and I couldn’t be happier for him that he’s doing better now. When I’m around younger reporters, I always try to remember how good people like Goose were to me when I was younger, and be as helpful to them.


BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

Not gonna lie: The Bucs’ GM has gotten pretty good at Twitter.

Bananas stat.

I believe this was the one off Byron Pringle’s hands at the third/fourth quarter turn, which wound up being K.C.’s last gasp. Even in defeat, Mahomes does some obscene things.

Here’s what Licht told me about Arians, during the podcast I did with him and Chiefs GM Brett Veach: “The importance of that relationship and seeing eye-to-eye, and being able to have a lot of conversations and being able to argue and not get feelings hurt and come out of the room with a decision, is so important. I'm lucky I have that here with Bruce. I mean, I'm very, very close with him and I've mentioned that I don't think it's ever gonna be replicated. It's just such a unique relationship. There'll be other good relationships in the future, but this particular one is just so special.”

While we’re here, I’m gonna reserve judgment on The Weeknd because I watched halftime through a pane of glass.

Again, I’ll get back to you on the halftime show. But clearly, it brought it on the content front.

Apparently, getting cut really got Playoff Lenny going.

Remember, Hill had more than 200 yards against Bowles’s defense in the first quarter in Week 2. Really good coaches adjust. Bowles adjusted.

So it looks here like Mathieu raises three fingers, then four—which I’d guess would be saying you’ve got three Super Bowl losses and you’re about to have four. (Brady wasn’t about to have four.)

I was in college for the one on the left, I believe. Looks like NCAA 2000 to me.

This guy …

Just an incredible shirt from Bucs center Ryan Jensen.

Good on the Cardinals, and all of the NFL, for stepping up and providing their stadiums as venues for mass vaccinations.

And somehow I missed this one, but that’s a heck of an accomplishment by Seattle.


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

As a 2020 sendoff, I figured I’d give you some Tom Brady facts to close out Super Bowl LV.

• Brady has more Super Bowl MVPs (five) than any other QB has Super Bowl wins.

• Brady has won as many Super Bowls (four) since turning 37 as any other QB has won total.

• Brady is the first quarterback ever to win the Super Bowl representing both conferences.

• Brady is the first-, second-, third-, fifth- and seventh-oldest QB to ever start a Super Bowl.

• Brady now has 34 career playoff wins, more than double second-place Joe Montana (16).

And I’m sure we could come up with plenty more here with just a little more time. But that’ll be it, for now.

Happy offseason, everyone!