Week 14 proved there’s no mega-team in the NFL this year. Actually, Weeks 13 and 14 have proven that, particularly with America’s Teams—Dallas (Foes 25, Dallas 24 in the past eight quarters) and Oakland—struggling. And New England might be great, but the last time they played a good team (Seattle a month ago), they got beat in Foxboro. Some dangerous teams, Pittsburgh and Green Bay and Baltimore, might not even make the postseason. I want to join the party in Detroit, but four things stand in my way: the dislocated middle finger on Matt Stafford’s throwing hand and three remaining games—at the Giants, at the Cowboys, and Green Bay in Week 17. Yikes.
This is all you need to know about this season: It’s Dec. 12, and Tampa Bay and Tennessee are tied for first place in their divisions with three weeks to go.
So it’s just the way the NFL wants it. Mystery. Half the league has somewhere between a prayer (Tennessee, Baltimore), a shot (Seattle, Atlanta, Tampa Bay) and real hope (Kansas City, Dallas) of playing deep into January. With three-plus weeks left, look at the slate each week, and you’ll find intrigue.
• Tonight: Baltimore at New England.
• Week 15: Detroit at the Giants … New England at Denver … Tampa Bay at Dallas.
• Week 16: Minnesota at Green Bay (Christmas Eve) … and the Christmas Day double-header, Baltimore at Pittsburgh and Denver at Kansas City.
• Week 17: Green Bay at Detroit … the Giants at Washington … New England at Miami … Oakland at Denver.
Sit back, relax, enjoy the fight.
* * *
The Cowboys got vulnerable in the past two weeks because they played two very good defenses that pressured Dak Prescott and took away his best receiving weapons. The Giants likely gave Jerry Jones a sleepless night on the way home from Newark early this morning. In two games against the Giants this year, the 11-2 Cowboys had these problems:
• Dallas averaged 13 points and 294 yards in going 0-2 versus New York.
• Dak Prescott recorded his two worst games of the season. Composite rating: 58.6.
• Prescott threw 14 passes to Dez Bryant in the two games. Bryant caught two.
• The Giants defense, particularly Sunday night in Jersey, was sound and physical and full of fury. “We played phenomenal,” said cornerback Janoris Jenkins. He’s absolutely right. The Giants never let Dak Prescott breathe Sunday night.
• The Cowboys got to Eli Manning, forcing four total turnovers. But the Cowboys turned those four interceptions into just one touchdown.
And there’s this weapon that Dallas just doesn’t have. Well no one does. Kansas City might—with Tyreek Hill—but it’s a little early to put him in Odell Beckham Jr.’s class. In three NFL seasons, Beckham has 34 touchdowns in 40 games. Make no mistake: On Sunday night, the Giants don’t sweep the Cowboys without this play by Beckham.
It’s a play he’s run 500 times. Sixteen minutes to play, Dallas up 7-3, Giants unable to sustain a drive, second-and-10, ball at the New York 39. Beckham split left, vet cornerback Brandon Carr ready to joust with him at the line, and Eli Manning calling for the snap.
Beckham dekes left-right-left and starts for the post, Carr a quarter-step behind. But this is the important thing: If Beckham gets inside Carr’s inside shoulder, his left shoulder, he knows he can win this—as long as middle ‘backer Sean Lee, so instinctive, doesn’t come over to deflect the pass away. The pass has to be fast, and on him, NOW. The pass arrives at the 45, a little high, but easy to catch, and it’s happened so fast that Carr is a full step behind now. Running at full throttle, Beckham splits linebacker Anthony Hitchens and rookie corner Anthony Brown.
On the phone from the Meadowlands, Beckham picks it up.
“I used to catch that ball,” he said, “and I’d be a little timid. I’d want to be sure I had the ball and secured it. But the game is so fast. You’ve just got to hit it. Hit it! I took it around midfield, and I hit it, and I knew I had to just open it up.”
He did, as usual. That speed is rare, and Carr flailed at him and dove around the 7-yard line, but Beckham was gone. Beckham is David Ortiz; the Red Sox have gone down feebly for eight innings and trail by a run in the ninth, but Ortiz bombs a two-run homer to win. Beckham is Steph Curry; down by five with 50 seconds left, Curry hits a pair of threes to save the Warriors. Beckham is an odd dude, but he’s as dangerous a weapon as exists in football today.
And the Giants have him, and the Giants are 9-4 and will be playing in January in large part because of him. And that defense.
I asked Beckham if he thought the Giants might be in the Cowboys’ heads now, with the rest of the league being 0-11 against Dallas and the Giants being 2-0. Maybe in a headier day Beckham would have taken the bait. But not now.
“I don’t know,” Beckham said. “We beat ‘em two times, and we’ve played pretty well, but our focus is on Detroit now. We’ve got work to do. We’ve got so much talent, and we know we can play better.”
The Giants joined the club Sunday night, the club of teams with a legitimate chance to play deep into January. The fortified defense will keep them in games like this one. The home-run hitter, Beckham, will win them.
* * *
Giants Sweep Cowboys is the headline of the week. But the story I like the most this week is the greatness of Le’Veon Bell, and his budding relationship with one of the future stars of the NFL.
First: There’s one back in football whose strange main characteristic is his calm. That’s right. A big part of Le’Veon Bell’s greatness is laying back and not attacking holes, but rather waiting…waiting…waiting till the right one opens.
Bell had the best game of his professional life Sunday in the Steelers’ 27-20 win over Buffalo. He’d never touched the ball more than 36 times in a game in his four-year career. On Sunday, he had the most productive day by a back against the Bills in their 57-season history, touching it 42 times for 298 yards; 236 yards came on the ground, on 38 carries.
His distinctive style—wait, wait and then hit the hole with speed and, if necessary, power—has earned Bell a fan in California. Last week, doing my podcast with Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, who has declared for the 2017 NFL Draft, the two-time national leader in all-purpose yards told me Bell is the pro back he watches the most. In fact, it’s more than watching. Though they haven’t met yet, McCaffrey and Bell have become video buddies. McCaffrey has sent Bell some of his tape, Bell has critiqued it, and McCaffrey has put it into play at Stanford.
“I love watching Le’Veon Bell,” McCaffrey said on campus last week. “I think he has a great mix of doing everything as a running back, he is a very good complete back. His patience, setting up his blocks so well, hitting the hole fast, breaking tackles, making people miss … That’s the kind of stuff, when I look at his game and look at my game, what I really try to emulate in his game is the aspect of patience, and not just running full speed downhill. Let your blocks develop before you hit that hole, try to get in the best position of getting one on one with the safety in the open field, make him miss, and then turn on the jets from there.”
Bell got excited Sunday when I mentioned McCaffrey was a fan.
“That’s my guy!” Bell said. “That means everything in the world to me. He’s a really special runner. I try to break some things down with him. He sent me a lot of his clips, see what he could have done, what maybe I would have done on the same play—you know, to critique him a little bit. I think in this off-season I’ll meet up with him and work with him.
“He is a special player. You don’t see too many players who play the running back position who not only can run the ball and pass-protect but who can catch the ball and who can run routes like a receiver. He’s very lean, very quick, great hands, can run any route … That caught me off guard when I first started watching him at the end of his sophomore year. He ran every route in the route tree.”
Back to the pennant race. Bell said the snow game didn’t bother him, nor did the workload, “because I grew up in that weather [in central Ohio]. Maybe you can’t cut as good as you normally would, but I embrace it. And coming to the Steelers was the perfect situation for me. I love the physical play.”
The patience, he says, is a byproduct of having an offensive line he trusts, knowing when it’s smart to burst through a hole and when to make the most of what he has in traffic. “He’ll sit back there in the backfield with the ball in his hands for four, five seconds before everybody makes their blocks,” said McCaffrey, exaggerating a bit. But you get his point. “As soon as he sees the hole, he hits it. That’s the kind of stuff I love to emulate.”
Now, Bell said, the Steelers have become one of those teams the league will fear in the playoffs. “I don’t think any team in the NFL wants to play us right now. Since week eight or nine, I’ve been saying this. Next week, we’ll play even better.” Scary thought for the rest of the AFC.
* * *
Nothing will come of it except one thing: It will feed into the feeling in New England that the Patriots, and Tom Brady, were unfairly singled out and punished for the deflated-footballs story that was never proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Jay Glazer of FOX reported Sunday that the Giants measured two of the Steelers’ offensive footballs acquired via turnover in the third quarter of last Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh, and both were below the 12.5 minimum PSI the league requires. The Giants alerted the league, but did not submit the footballs in question to the league office after the game, and did not make a formal complaint, as Glazer reported. I’m told the Giants basically said to the league office: We’re not charging anyone with anything. We just want you to know your procedures to get balls ready for play should be re-checked. Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk reported Sunday night that the balls were gauged by the Giants at 11.4 and 11.8 PSI.
Let’s go through how the league prepares balls for games, procedures that were changed after Deflategate. Each team submits 24 footballs to the officials in the officials’ locker room two hours and 15 minutes before the game. All balls not within the league’s allowable range of 12.5 to 13.5 psi will be made to be at 13.0 psi with the officials’ gauge. Twelve footballs for each team are the primary balls, and used as that team’s offensive footballs.
So in this case, for a 4:25 game in Pittsburgh, the balls had to be in the officials’ room for measurement at 2:10 p.m. After being measured, they stayed inside till about 10 minutes before the game. Then 12 balls were taken out for each offense to use. Those balls were outside and theoretically all in use for the first half, then brought back inside with the officials for about eight to 10 minutes at half, then brought back outside for the second half. The two balls the Giants collected on turnovers in the last eight minutes of the third quarter likely happened around 6:30 p.m. The temperature at kickoff was 43 degrees, with a wind chill of 28. What we learned about the ideal gas law in the last two years tells us that air pressure is lost in footballs in the weather Pittsburgh had that day, the same way pressure would have been lost in Foxboro 23 months ago during the AFC title game.
Even the league’s own report on Patriots’ footballs tells us that. It was 51 degrees with 71% humidity, with precipitation coming, at the start of the Pats-Colts game that January day. On page 113 of the Wells report, Wells says that the Patriots footballs would have been justified to have measured between 11.32 psi and 11.52 psi at halftime, when 11 of them were re-measured.
So let’s extrapolate. If the ideal gas law had relatively the same effect on footballs in Pittsburgh last week that it had on the Foxboro footballs in January 2015, it wouldn’t be surprising if the psi levels dropped. If the Steeler footballs were at 12.5 psi at 2:10 p.m., they could have been justified to measure at 11.40 and 11.85 at 6:30 p.m., with the temperature around freezing.
(There’s one X factor. At selected games, the 12 footballs in use are measured at halftime and removed from play, and the backup 12 balls are used in the second half. The league had no comment Sunday as to whether the Giants-Steelers game was one of those selected games—or how many selected games there are.)
Bottom line: The league’s not going to do anything about the Steelers, obviously, with no physical evidence and only the Giants’ word about two footballs. But the Patriots will feel justified to say, after their 11 footballs averaged 11.30 psi at halftime of the title game that changed the career of Tom Brady, that the line is too fine for the Patriots to have been slapped so hard.
* * *
It seems comical that Johnny Manziel was picked 14 slots ahead of Derek Carr in the 2014 NFL Draft. Last week, though, when I met with Carr for an NBC “Football Night” feature, he wasn’t gloating. He was sad for Manziel. Carr wants to help Manziel.
“What’s crazy,” Carr said as we drove in the pre-dawn toward Oakland, “is, you know, I spent a lot of time around him. He’s such a good dude. I obviously wish him the best, you know I hope that … hopefully one day he’ll reach out, [I’d] be able to talk to him and be a friend to him.”
“You’d love the chance to help him?” I said.
“Absolutely, man,” Carr said. “Because he’s so talented, so I understand why he was drafted where he was. He could throw, could run, a dynamic athlete, dynamic player. Obviously he just had a little trouble. He’s still young though, so hopefully he’ll get another chance someday and he’ll be alright.”
Manziel flamed out with the Browns, in part because of addiction issues. Most recently he has been in Texas and Florida, and his family’s worried about him surviving without structure and sobriety. But if he reaches out, Carr would lend a hand.
* * *
Showtime has a 90-minute documentary debuting Friday night (9 p.m. ET) on the troubled and violent life of former Nebraska/NFL/CFL/NFL Europe running back Lawrence Phillips, who died at 40 last January in a California prison. One of the most gifted running backs to enter the NFL, Phillips was a classic case of self-ruin, through a horrendous history of domestic violence, abetted by alcoholism.
The documentary, written ably by Armen Keteyian, Lars Anderson and Al Briganti, is as harrowing a piece of journalism as I’ve seen on a disturbed athlete wreaking havoc on the people around him. It is superb. Phillips, starting at Nebraska and ending after his far-too-short football career, had a pattern of violence with women. The story is told so vividly—by the women he abused, by a prosecutor who worked to put him behind bars, and by the coaches who got stung by him—that it makes you wonder how this troubled human being kept getting chance after chance after chance in football.
“A wasted, gifted human being,” Dick Vermeil, his coach in St. Louis, says, his voice shaking. “It haunts me.”
Phillips’ last victim—that we know of—was a San Diego exotic dancer, Amaliya Weisler, who describes a torturous beating and strangulation in her apartment, and how she hid in a closet when Phillips returned. The documentary is so thorough and well told that the next face you see in the piece is the San Diego County prosecutor, Nicole Rooney, describing the post-assault examination of Weisler. Rooney said she had “the worst strangulation marks that I ever saw where a victim lived.”
But it’s not just a thorough piece of reporting on the awful things that Phillips did. It’s an explanation about why he did them. The story begins at two Los Angeles-area youth homes after Phillips had been taken out of a love-less home. There’s no justification for doing for Phillips did, of course. But you get some idea why after the backstory told so well by Keteyian et al.
It’s a crowded landscape in the NFL media world. But I cannot recommend this 90-minute doc more highly. Subscribe to Showtime here.
* * *
“Nice to have a home game, huh?” Bill Belichick said to a native son Saturday.
Very nice. It’s been almost 14 years since the death of legendary NFL insider and Boston Globe columnist Will McDonough, and tonight, one of his kids realizes a lifelong dream: ESPN “Monday Night Football” broadcaster and Massachusetts native Sean McDonough will do his first play-by-play of a Patriots game when he voices Baltimore-New England in Foxboro.
The McDonough family has a long history with the Patriots. Will covered the earliest days of the team. He introduced Robert Kraft to commissioner Paul Tagliabue and got the ball rolling on Kraft’s purchase of the team. Sean McDonough used to drive to Patriots’ games in Foxboro with his dad, then wait for Will to be finished with his interviews after the game. Some of Sean’s great memories are the times he spent talking Patriots on the way home from those home games. When Sean saw Kraft in Foxboro on Saturday, the Patriots’ owner told him, “I remember you playing Scrabble at my house years ago.”
Sean McDonough on Saturday night:
“When [ESPN producer] Jay Rothman told me I was the choice to do the Monday night games, I got choked up, and one of the first things I thought about was my dad. Then I checked the schedule to see if there was a Patriots game on there, and there was, and so obviously this game has been important to me for quite a while. Monday night at kickoff will be a good test of my composure.”
It’s hard to overstate the importance of Will McDonough in our business. He was the influencer’s influencer, the man who paved the way—as I’ve said many times—for ugly guys covering football to be on TV. (While I’m a Double-A ballplayer and Will was Mike Trout, he’s the one I always strived to be like. He was versatile, fair, and incredibly plugged in.) It’s hard to remember a time I was with Will McDonough that he didn’t impart some kind of advice, like: Kid, don’t trust so-and-so. (He was very big on calling those in the business “kid.”) “I still hear his voice in my head,” Sean said.
Which leads to this question: How hard will it be to be neutral tonight? “It won’t be,” Sean said. “I have to say this quietly around here, but [Baltimore coach] John Harbaugh [a hated Patriot foe] is a good friend of mine. I always try hard to be neutral. You’ve got to call it the way you see it.” So far he has, and I expect the same tonight. His dad wouldn’t have it any other way.
* * *
We at The MMQB owe thanks to the fine people of Green Bay—and to the Packers organization—for accommodating us during Green Bay Week, an experimental bit of journalism and story-telling and people-watching and tailgate-experiencing, the brainchild of editor Mark Mravic. He, along with staffers Robert Klemko, Emily Kaplan and Kalyn Kahler, and videographer John DePetro, produced some unique content. You can read everything here.
Thanks, too, to president Mark Murphy of the Packers for cooperating with this lone zany idea I had for the week. Kahler found a house in the shadow of Lambeau Field to rent (fittingly, on Shadow Lane), and I thought it would be a cool idea to have a potluck supper one night. We invited Murphy to come over after work Wednesday to just chat with fans. He agreed. He was early, even. He and I sat in two chairs in the basement of the Packers-themed place, did a Q&A for 20 minutes, and then he answered 20 minutes of questions from the couple dozen folks on hand who’d brought brats and chicken sausages and Hmong egg rolls, and after 45 minutes or so I said maybe we’d better let Mark get home, and he said, “Wait a minute! Can’t I eat?” Crowd loved that. He stayed another 45 minutes. Now that was a good night.
My conversation with Murphy, on Facebook Live page:
Murphy actually made an interesting—and I believe newsworthy—point when asked about the future of the NFL schedule. Interesting, too, because he was a member of the NFL’s negotiating team with players during the 2011 CBA talks. Could there be a time, he was asked, when the league will get serious about increasing the regular season from 16 to 18 games?
“On the 18-game season,” Murphy said, “with the concerns about health and safety, we can’t justify increasing the season.”
That’s the right answer. Though there’s been a drumbeat for more games, it’s just not a smart idea, and not an idea the players would entertain. The slate of 16 games is already far too injurious for the players. I can’t see it happening, and I was glad to see Murphy can’t either.
* * *
Quotes of the Week
“The main focus of Will Smith’s family is to see Mr. Hayes justly sentenced for the murder he so callously committed. Will’s dedication to his family, his love for his community and his desire to live life to the fullest will continue to inspire Racquel, Will Jr., Lisa, Wynter and everyone else who loved him.”
—Statement from the Smith family early this morning, after the man who shot and killed the former Saints defensive end, Cardell Hayes, was found guilty of manslaughter by jury Sunday night in New Orleans.
“My heart breaks.”
—Miami quarterback Matt Moore, reacting to the probably torn ACL suffered by quarterback Ryan Tannehill on Sunday against Arizona.
“I knew we needed a touchdown. And I had made up my mind, once I started running, I wasn’t going to be denied.”
—Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford, on his bull-in-a-china-shop run through the Chicago defense from seven yards out with 3:17 to play, giving the Lions a 20-17 victory.
“Vince Lombardi was my altar boy.”
—Catholic priest Roland DePeaux, now 90 years old, to Kalyn Kahler of The MMQB, in our “Humans of Green Bay” series of miniature profiles of rank-and-file residents of this historic NFL city.
“Humans of Green Bay” was the brainchild of staff editor Matt Gagne, and in our Green Bay Week series: Gagne’s idea was to model it after the “Humans of New York” idea of photographer Brandon Stanton, who shoots pictures of average New Yorkers and tells their stories in short form. In Green Bay this week, Kahler, Emily Kaplan and Robert Klemko executed the concept, and we met a slew Green Bay folks, from a priest to a tattoo artist to a musician to a pot seller. I loved it.
Imagine living long enough to remember one of the greatest coaches of all time humbling himself to serve as an altar boy in your church during the Packer glory days. That was a half-century ago.
“I believe Aaron Rodgers is the greatest thrower of the football in the history of the league.”
—Phil Simms, on “Inside the NFL.”
“Sometimes he brings ideas to the table, maybe a play or concept I haven’t been around, and we work it a couple of times and I start liking it. We’ve had a touchdown or two on his ideas that showed up three or four days before the game. So we’re working together on this thing … It’s really important the players are not out here doing exactly what say, and being robots.”
—Detroit offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, to Albert Breer of The MMQB, on the contributions quarterback Matthew Stafford has made to the Detroit offense this year.
* * *
The Award Section
OFFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Le’Veon Bell, running back, Pittsburgh. Playing in snow squalls in Buffalo (Bell’s going to want this video for his career time capsule), he rushed a career-high 38 times for a career-high 236 yards, added 62 receiving yards for a career-high 298 yards from scrimmage, in the 27-20 win. He had three touchdown runs, of three and five and seven yards, all in the first 40 minutes of the game. How about this for surprising? Bell told me afterward, “I’m not sore.” I’d like to ask him again this morning.
Mitchell Schwartz, tackle, Kansas City. Two games against the Raiders this year. Two times against that oppressive pass-rush. A total of zero sacks allowed, zero quarterback hits allowed, one quarterback pressure allowed, according to Pro Football Focus. Schwartz has been one of the best free-agent signings of 2016, another example of one that shouldn’t gotten away from the line-needy Cleveland Browns.
DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
LeShaun Sims, cornerback, Tennessee. Pretty good year for mid- to late-round picks in the NFL. Malcolm Mitchell, No. 112; Blake Martinez, 131; Dak Prescott, 135; Tyreek Hill, 165. Sims, No. 157 out of Southern Utah, is trying to make a name for himself in Dick LeBeau’s secondary, and he was a strong part of the Titans’ 13-10 upset of the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos in Nashville on Sunday. He had five tackles, one for loss, played a feisty corner for four quarters, and stripped Demaryius Thomas of the tying touchdown reception in the end zone with seven minutes left. Denver settled for a field goal, and those were the last points of the game. Kid’s a good player.
Vic Beasley, linebacker, Atlanta. Good players take advantage of bad foes. And the Los Angeles Rams have one awful offensive line. Beasley collected all three sacks of Jared Goff produced by the Falcons in the 42-14 rout of L.A., for a loss of 27 yards—and Beasley added a forced fumble and recovery. That gives him 10.5 sacks for the year, and the realization that he can be the kind of pass-rush force he was drafted to be in the 2015 first round.
Romeo Okwara, defensive end, New York Giants. Playing in place of the injured do-everything defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, Okwara, an undrafted free agent from Notre Dame, was terrific as JPP Jr. He led the Giants with eight tackles in the 10-7 win over the Cowboys on Sunday night, and he added his first career NFL sack and two more quarterback hits, plus a batted pass. The storyline before this game was Pierre-Paul missing would be a huge advantage for the Cowboys. It wasn’t much of a factor at all, because of Okwara. Afterward, Okwara was asked what advice Pierre-Paul had for him before the game. “He said to go out there and ball,’” Okwara said. The new kid’s good at following instructions.
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Trey Burton, emergency long-snapper, Philadelphia. Being asked to make your first long-snap in the NFL is one thing, probably a scary thing. Being asked to make it with a division game on the line in the fourth quarter, on a field-goal attempt with your team down two points … that is one challenging play. Burton, subbing for the injured Brent Celek, snapped from the Washington 24-yard line with five minutes left in the game. Burton fired a spiral back slightly high that was corralled and put down for Caleb Sturgis to boot a 41-yard go-ahead field goal. The Eagles ended up losing, but Burton—who also caught an uncharacteristically high seven balls from Carson Wentz—had a day to remember. By the way, his last long snap in a game? In Pop Warner football, in Venice, Fla.
Tyreek Hill, wide receiver/returner, Kansas City. I have a feeling the 165th pick in the 2016 NFL draft will be in this award space for years to come. He just has a different gear. In the open field, if Hill gets going, his dekes and fakes are just too much for defenders—by the time they adjust, Hill’s 10 yards past them. On Thursday night, Hill got one of those head starts in space and ran a punt back 78 yards, virtually uncontested, for a touchdown—on his way to 100 punt-return yards. He also had a 36-yard touchdown catch from Alex Smith. He’s just a very dangerous man right now. He’s also the first NFL player in a half-century (since Chicago’s Gale Sayers did it) to have touchdowns in these four ways: via punt return, kick return, receiving and rushing.
COACH OF THE WEEK
Dick LeBeau, defensive coordinator, Tennessee. One point before I begin: DICK LEBEAU IS GOING TO BE 80 NEXT SEPTEMBER. Okay, let’s move on. It’s amazing to see the Titans over .500 on Dec. 12 … and just as amazing to see the LeBeau-coached D pitching a shutout over the defending Super Bowl champions through 47 minutes in Nashville on Sunday. With 13 minutes left in the game, Tennessee led 13-0, and the heroes on defense for Tennessee were many. The Titans are morphing into a respectable defense, with a big assist from the Hall of Famer.
GOATS OF THE WEEK
Mike Thomas, wide receiver/kick-returner, Los Angeles. Four yards deep in the end zone on the opening kickoff against Atlanta, Thomas bobbled the ball and it took a forward hop that Atlanta linebacker Paul Worrilow recovered, leading to a three-yard Matt Ryan touchdown pass on the first scrimmage snap of the game. The Rams are putrid offensively, and every little mistake hurts them. Thomas handed the Falcons seven points seven seconds into the game.
Chandler Catanzaro, kicker, Arizona. I don’t know how many times I can excoriate the Cardinal specialists this year, but this unit is having one of the worst years of any special teams group in recent NFL history. Catanzaro doinked a 41-yard field goal off the upright in the second quarter and then, midway through the fourth quarter, he had a PAT blocked—and the Dolphins ran it back for a two-point defensive conversion. So the four points Catanzaro didn’t score, and the two points the Dolphins did score because of his miss, were gigantic in a 26-23 loss that was decided on a Miami field goal as time expired.
* * *
Right Combination of the Week
Alex Smith, quarterback, and Tyreek Hill, wide receiver, Kansas City. When the Chiefs brought Jeremy Maclin to Kansas City in free agency in 2015, they thought they had their deep threat and consistently open receiver that Andy Reid had known in Philadelphia. Nope. That guy didn’t come till the fifth round in 2016, when Kansas City GM John Dorsey got a great prospect at a bargain price. (Hill had been accused of assault while a student at Oklahoma State, for an act of domestic violence against a fellow student. He later transferred to West Alabama, the place that developed New England cornerback and Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler.) After some time getting used to the pro game, the diminutive Hill has become one of the biggest weapons in football. His stunningly easy 78-yard punt return for a touchdown against Oakland was a vital play in the Chiefs’ Thursday victory over Oakland—and here’s where the Smith-to-Hill combination comes in. Smith hit Hill with a perfectly placed 36-yard touchdown strike, the sixth touchdown connection between the two this year. Smith has been in the league since 2005, when he was the first overall pick in the draft. But it’s safe to say he’s never had a speed/quickness player the likes of Hill. This could turn out to be not the Right Combination of the Week, but the Right Combination of the Year. For a long time, no one has trusted Smith’s ability to take the top off a defense. Funny how that changes when you add a player with the physical gifts of Hill.
* * *
Stat of the Week
This season, 37 passers in the NFL have thrown at least 75 passes.
Cam Newton, the 2015 MVP, is 37th of 37 in completion percentage: 53.5 percent.
That’s 4 percentage points lower than the worst season of his career.
So the Saints are playing out the string in their third consecutive non-playoff season (barring a miracle). But on Sunday in Tampa Bay, Drew Brees continued his amazing 11-season run. He’s thrown for more than 4,000 yards in every one of his 11 seasons as a Saint. This is what actually might be more amazing: Peyton Manning, of course, is the all-time record-holder with 71,940 passing yards. But in his 11 consecutive most productive yardage seasons, Manning wasn’t as explosive as Brees has been in his 11 Saint seasons.
Comparing Brees’ 11 seasons—with three games left—with Manning’s best 11 in a row:
*—Three games remaining in Brees’ 2016 season; ^—Manning missed the 2011 season after undergoing neck surgery.
Average per season in 11-year span:
Percy Harvin’s eighth NFL season ended predictably, based on recent history. One of the most dangerous players in the NFL when he played for Minnesota in the first half of 2012 continued his maddening downward slide because he cannot stay healthy, and because of migraines. It’s a shame, really, to see a talent this great—Tyreek Hill before there was a Tyreek Hill—in the span of 14 months go on IR and retire and come out of retirement and play two games before being kayoed for another season for health reasons last week in Buffalo. He amassed all of six yards in his microscopic 2016 season:
* * *
Factoid That May Interest Only Me
There is a skateboard rack for players at the front of the Stanford football locker room. Look.
* * *
Dr. Z Unsung Guys of the Week
1. Center Wesley Johnson, New York Jets. In an ugly win over the 49ers, Johnson didn’t allow a sack, hit or hurry on Bryce Petty on 47 pass blocking snaps. Johnson was also PFF’s top-rated run-blocker in Week 14, earning him the highest rating of any offensive lineman of the week.
2. Defensive end Mike Daniels, Green Bay. Daniels had a dominant performance up front against the Seahawks. As a pass-rusher Daniels generated one QB hit and four hurries in 37 pass-rushing snaps, and he also made three big run stops.
3. Tackle Ja’Wuan James, Miami. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill left the game with a knee injury but James didn’t allow a sack, hit or hurry of Tannehill or replacement Matt Moore. He was PFF’s third-rated pass-blocker and sixth-rated run-blocker in Week 14.
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Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Notes
An old-fashioned Peter King week, a week from the old days, combining NBC and The MMQB duties: From New York to San Francisco on Monday, in Oakland and the East Bay and Palo Alto on Tuesday, in Green Bay on Wednesday, in New York on Thursday, in Charlotte and Greenville, S.C., on Friday, in Pickens, S.C., on Saturday, and back to New York on Saturday night for the Week 14 Sunday marathon. Good times. A few observations:
• In the Delta wing of Terminal 1 at San Francisco International Airport, the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf shop has been closed. In its place, and currently under construction, is a pet relief area for dogs. Moral of the story: Down with vanilla lattes … Up with indoor dog urine!
• When the light turns green in Manhattan and the car at the front of the line doesn’t immediately floor it through the intersection, every driver behind him blares his horn; when that happened in Pickens on Saturday afternoon, with the lead driver not moving for five or six seconds after the light turned green, none of three drivers behind him did a thing. I like the second way of driving life a little better.
• Greenville, S.C., is one of the hidden gems of America. I stayed downtown at the Westin Poinsett on Friday night, and when I walked out to go to dinner, I heard the heavenly tones of Christmas carols from the Bob Jones University choir on the main street of town. Great walking city, with restaurants and bars bustling with holiday revelers.
• TSA employees working security lanes Saturday night at Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport: nine. Travelers to be processed: two. Me and NBC producer David Picker. No one in front of us. No one behind us. That has never happened to me before.
I was on the Stanford campus last Tuesday to record podcast conversations with all-purpose back Christian McCaffrey (for the current pod) and coach David Shaw (for one later this month). Walking on campus with Alan George, Stanford’s director of athletic communications, we passed a couple of large outdoor pools, right next to the football practice fields. The men’s and women’s swim teams were doing laps, and the water polo team was practicing in an adjacent one.
(Swimming outside in December. What a country.)
George pointed down to the women practicing. “There’s Simone Manuel,” he said. And he pointed down to lane 3 or 4. “Katie Ledecky,” George said.
Just six Olympic gold medals in the pool, doing laps outside on a Tuesday afternoon in December, with a little chill in the air. They are not the only ones. Also practicing this afternoon: Brickelle Bro, the woman’s Paralympian swimmer, and Lia Neal, the two-time Olympian freestyle swimmer.
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On Their Night Table
How to Solve It, by George Pólya Recommended by Ravens guard John Urschel
“I know it sounds like a math book,” said Urschel, a math major at Penn State and now a graduate PhD candidate in mathematics at MIT. “But it’s less about solving a math problem and more about thinking through and solving problems of any kind. It said so much to me about the ability to think about problems of any kind.”
“Give me an example,” I said.
“So, one of the big points is, if you’re dealing with a very complex problem, break it down. Reduce the problem. Instead of banging your head against the wall, solve a little bit of it at a time. When you look at it not like one gigantic problem, you’ve got a better chance to solve it.”
Urschel said this is a book he advises students in high school and college to read, because so many of their school problems can be complex.
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Tweets of the Week
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From “The MMQB Podcast With Peter King,” available where you download podcasts.
This week’s conversations are with Giants wide receiver and amateur fashionista Victor Cruz, and Stanford super-back Christian McCaffrey, who announced last week that he’ll enter the 2017 NFL Draft:
• McCaffrey on the prospect of any NFL coach allowing him to use his entire portfolio—rushing, receiving, punt-returning, kick-returning—in the pros: “My versatility has been my strong suit. I see how Stanford has used me and that’s how I would love to be used in the NFL too. I can do everything. I can run the ball between the tackles, I can pass-protect, I can go out in the slot and go outside and run routes against corners. I can do special teams, kick return, punt return. That is what I pride myself on, doing as many things as possible and doing them at a high level.”
• Cruz on what appeals to him about the fashion world: “My dad was always a very fashionable guy. He understood how to wear clothing and how to put it together, so I always looked at him and wanted to be like that. Once I had the opportunity to be here on this grand scale, I just always cared about the way I looked and I started using my resources to make it a thing, make it something that stands out. I have always had a passion for it. You see someone, and the first thing you see is how they look. They haven’t spoken yet. You immediately look at what they look like and you form an opinion. I always want people to see me and the first thing they see is, Oh he looks good, he looks put together. … Traveling to Paris and Milan, being a part of the fashion world and fashion scene, has been insane.”
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ALAMEDA, Calif. — This is something that I have never seen in any football team’s parking lot.
It is fitting it happens in Raiderland, where history is revered.
The parking space for Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown, who formerly played and coached for Oakland and who now is director of staff development, is the closest parking space to the Raiders office and practice building here.
The other day, the starting quarterback of the Raiders, Derek Carr, parked nine spaces further from the building than Willie Brown’s space.
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Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think these are my quick notes of analysis from Week 14:
a. Can Jared Goff throw a spiral—I mean consistently?
b. If Kansas City makes it that far, and the field on whatever January day they play isn’t slippery and treacherous, Tyreek Hill could very much tilt the field in a Chiefs-Patriots AFC playoff game.
c. Good news and bad news for Luke Kuechly, one of the best defensive players in the land. Good: The concussion protocol continued to work as it should Sunday, keeping him out of his third straight Panthers game since suffering a scary concussion against New Orleans. Bad—he missed his third straight game Sunday.
d. The indiscriminate and grotesque left leg/hip injury suffered by San Diego running back Melvin Gordon at Carolina is just one more illustration that the biggest item on the union’s negotiating list for 2020 should be fully guaranteed contracts.
e. The more I see of Shane Ray, the more I like what I see of the second-year Denver defensive end—the athleticism and physicality and instincts.
f. Diving at knees in the open field might be legal, Harry Douglas, but it’s still bush league.
g. Oakland quarterback Derek Carr picked the wrong night to have his worst game of the season.
h. Teams on the playoff bubble no one will want to play in January: Pittsburgh and Green Bay … coincidentally, my preseason Super Bowl picks.
i. Great illustration Sunday night by Cris Collinsworth—who sees things so many analysts do not—of the nightmare fundamentals by left tackle Ereck Flowers on his matador act against Dallas defensive end Benson Mayowa, allowing Eli Manning to get strip-sacked for his second turnover of the game.
j. You’re not making a good case to be in the Opening Day 2017 quarterback derby in Cleveland, Robert Griffin III.
2. I think it’s always dangerous to pick on a quarterback after four NFL starts, but you can’t tell me the Rams didn’t drive home from the Coliseum last night, after Jared Goff’s nightmarish game against the Falcons, wondering if Goff was really everything they thought he’d be when they picked him number one last April. Goff looks tentative, with a highly questionable arm, and his decision-making was terrible against Atlanta.
3. I think though the Rams have him signed to a guaranteed deal through the end of the 2018 season, Jeff Fisher is going to have do something significant in the last three weeks of the season to prove he deserves to return. There’s the Albert Breer report of the differences between Fisher and the Rams’ player personnel side, which one team insider told Breer made the internal workings of the team feel like “Rams Junior High.” Then there’s the fact that Sunday’s embarrassing 28-point home loss to the Falcons ensured the Rams’ fifth straight losing season under Fisher. Fisher’s records in his five years: 7-8-1, 7-9, 6-10, 7-9, 4-9. It was logical that the Rams’ emphasis this season be on the transfer of the franchise from St. Louis to L.A., and progress would be judged by a different standard than playoffs-or-bust. But no one inside the Rams expected the worst of Fisher’s five seasons, and that’s exactly what this is becoming. So what does Fisher need to do? No one knows, but a 1-2 finish, say, with another bad loss Thursday at Seattle is not what would show owner Stan Kroenke that Fisher’s got a hold of his floundering team. The Rams’ effort didn’t exactly get a ringing endorsement from Todd Gurley post-game Sunday. “Just going through the motions,” Gurley told the Los Angeles Times. “I feel like everyone is just playing to get through.” Not a good sign. Barring a significant-unseen improvement by New Year’s Day, it just doesn’t make any sense to alienate a fan base you’re trying to get to fall in love with you by bringing Fisher back.
4. I think the penalty on Washington safety Deshazor Everett for interfering with Philadelphia punt returner Darren Sproles was the kind of foul that might merit a special category in the rules. Situation: Punt coming down to Sproles, Everett sprinting toward Sproles and trying to time his hit just as the ball reaches Sproles … and BOOM—before the ball arrives, Everett destroys Sproles. It’s as vicious a hit as you’ll see on an exposed punt returner. I don’t know if Sproles was concussed on the play—he wasn’t available after the game—but that’s the kind of hit that simply doesn’t belong in football. Rather than a fine, I think that hit ought to be strongly considered for a one-game suspension for Everett.
5. I think I hope Victor Cruz is not the only NFL player to come out strong against New York fullback Nikita Whitlock having his home broken into and defaced with a swastika and KKK sign. That’s got to be decried, from every corner of this game. To me, too few players and NFL people have spoken out about this.
6. I think, for all those interested in divining the thoughts of the future of Tom Brady, there is this from Sean McDonough: The ESPN play-by-play man for the Monday night package asked Brady about his future Saturday during the TV production meeting, and wondered if Brady might play till he’s 45. “That sounds like a good age,” Brady said. Brady is nothing if not cryptic, but it doesn’t surprise me a bit that he might—might—be thinking about playing at least six more years.
7. I think there’s nothing more stunning than the fact that the Lions—who have trailed in the fourth quarter in 12 of their 13 games—are the second seed in the NFC as of this morning, a half-game ahead of Seattle. Detroit is 9-4, Seattle 8-4-1. As our Andy Benoit writes today, Matthew Stafford might be in the driver’s seat for his first NFL MVP.
8. I think this is not foremost on everyone’s mind, even Giants fans, but I found myself thinking after their second win over the 11-2 Cowboys this year, GM Jerry Reese is safe. Reese went on that jillion-dollar defensive spending spree, and it looks like it’s worked out. It has elevated the Giants into contention to be a significant factor in January.
9. I think the most underrated skill player of his day moved into 10th place on the all-time receptions list Sunday in Detroit. Lions wideout Anquan Boldin is 36 going on 28, and he’s not thinking of stopping now, at 1,064 catches.
10. I think these are my non-NFL thoughts of the week:
a. We can’t root in this business, really. But I don’t know how someone cannot be thrilled for Army’s football team this morning. What a win, after losing to Navy for so long. Congrats to everyone in the game, particularly those past and present in the Army program who’ve been so close to so many wins.
b. On Dave Dombrowski: So who wouldn’t want Chris Sale? (Other than throwback jersey manufacturers.) My only problem with the denuding of the best farm system in baseball—and Dombrowski has done that—is that the Red Sox just traded players who, at their peaks, could be Hanley Ramirez in his prime (Yoan Moncada) and Noah Syndergaard (Michael Kopech) for a really good pitcher with some age on him, with a motion and build that look troubling. Sale has thrown like a whipsaw for his career and been fine, so maybe he lasts another five years as one of the game’s best. But the system that produced Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Dustin Pedroia in recent years now has to restock. Of course it can. But Dombrowski’s track record is building for today, today, today. That’s what this trade is. Today looks great, but it only will be great if the Red Sox win one World Series.
c. By the way, the owners, John Henry and Tom Werner don’t object to this. At all. They’re win-today guys.
d. Way to go, Seattle Sounders.
e. True story: There’s a Tim Tebow baseball card coming out this week. The uber-longshot Mets’ minor-leaguer will be featured in Panini America’s baseball card set.
f. Tebow. Merchandising. Who would’ve thought?
g. Coffeenerdness: illy coffee, on United flights. I’m a fan.
h. Beernerdness: I’m not a big Stout guy, or a Porter guy. But at Hinterland Brewery on Wednesday night in Green Bay—there for a Tweetup with The MMQB’s Green Bay fans—I met Bill Tressler, who owns Hinterland, and he told me a story of a trip he made through Ireland a few years ago. He’s a lover of Guinness (who isn’t?), and went to Ireland in part to try all the other Stouts there. And he came back experimenting a bit, and he came up with Luna Coffee Stout, with a hint of espresso. Sounded fairly tempting. So I had to try it. Tressler had it poured into a small glass with the same size and texture of the Guinness-type foam on top. And the beer—phenomenal. A different taste, obviously, from Guinness, with the coffee tinge to it, but when I say tinge, I mean that. The coffee doesn’t overpower the texture or flavor of the Stout. And I’m no Stout authority, by any means.
i. Thanks to the fine people at Hinterland for hosting us Wednesday night. The beer and the pizza and the stories and the fun … a perfect evening.
j. Good luck to a good friend on a good read, out in paperback in time for the holidays: “Brady vs Manning: The Untold Story of the Rivalry That Transformed the NFL,” by Gary Myers. Some really good stories in there that don’t get old.
k. Read our stuff from Green Bay. It’s great.
l. Song of the Week: “Crazy Youngsters,” by Ester Dean. The song got in my head during the MLB playoffs—baseball used it to promote kids playing baseball and softball—and it pops in from time to time, and unlike some of the songs that pop in and don’t leave, I don’t mind this one being in there.
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Who I Like Tonight
New England 27, Baltimore 22. So, tonight’s going to tell us whether last week’s performance by Joe Flacco (36 of 47, four touchdowns, one pick) in the rout of Miami, the best game by Flacco in two seasons, was an outlier or the new truth. By the score I’ve picked, you can guess what I think: I need to see another superior game or two from Flacco before I think he’s back to mad-bomber status. He surely has a chance tonight, because New England’s pass rush has been inconsistent, and because the blooming of Breshad Perriman—last year’s first-round pick—had made the Ravens’ deep-passing game (right up Flacco’s alley) legitimately dangerous. On the New England side, the availability and health (if available) of tight end Martellus Bennett is huge. My stat of last week was about the Patriots winning 69.6 percent of their games without Rob Gronkowski; that number will tick up to close to 71 percent with a win tonight. But no Gronk and no Bennett would make that awfully hard.
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The Adieu Haiku
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