GREEN BAY, Wisc. — That pass. That Aaron Rodgers pass. It’s still there. He’s still got it.
I came to Green Bay wondering about Rodgers. (Stupidly, as it turns out.) Though he’s 36—six years Tom Brady’s junior, and four years Drew Brees’—Rodgers had been a .500 quarterback in the late McCarthy era. He threw for 28 fewer yards per game this year than last, had the second-lowest accuracy rate of his career, and his QBR—that advanced-metric quarterback-skills rating invented by ESPN—was the lowest of his NFL life. But the Packers were back. They were NFC North champs. So the numbers, well, who cares about the number when you’re 13-3.
Green Bay hadn’t won a playoff game in three years as the wind chill hovered in the low teens Sunday night. Green Bay 28, Seattle 23, third-and-eight at the Packer 22-yard line, and 2:19 left, after the Seahawks cut the 18-point halftime lead to 5, and Seattle with two timeouts left, and the Marvelous Mister Wilson warming up for one more miracle. “He always knows he’s going to win,” Pete Carroll said later. “He can’t function any other way.”
“We really didn’t want to give the ball back to Russell,” Green Bay coach Matt LaFleur later told me in his office, just off the locker room.
Well, who would? You don’t single-cover LeBron with the game on the line, you don’t give Trout anything good to hit late in a 1-1 game, you don’t play six DBs against Derrick Henry on third-and-short. Common sense. So this was a third-and-eight Rodgers needed to convert if the Packers wanted to win their first playoff game in three years.
And of course Rodgers changed the play. Wideout Davante Adams was supposed to run an inside slant, LaFleur told me, but Rodgers changed the play to a double-move and what was a classic fade. At the snap, Adams stopped and started, and then bolted past safety Ugo Amadi, who’d been momentarily confused by the double-move. Rodgers threw such a soft and easy ball, 30 yards in the air, with Amadi a yard behind Adams. The ball was so perfectly placed that if Adams hadn’t been expecting it, it would have fallen over his right shoulder and hit him in the arms.
“Davante ran a great route,” Rodgers said, “and I had a lot of space, I felt like, to put it in.”
No. No, he didn’t. Amadi was a step, at most, behind Adams. When you throw a ball 30 yards in the air onto a postage stamp, that is special. When you make a throw like that, and you make one more third-down conversion throw that was a little less challenging, and you run out the clock and keep Russell Wilson gripping the football anxiously on the sideline, you’ve won. And the team has won.
“I can’t wait to go back and watch the tape of that play,” LaFleur told me, 50 minutes after the biggest win of his life, his first playoff win. “I wasn’t anticipating it. But you know Aaron. He’s been doing this a long time. He knows.”
This hit me about the playoff weekend: Playoff teams went back to the future. The NFL averaged 41 percent running plays in the regular season this year. On divisional weekend (what a dumb name, “divisional weekend,” for the greatest weekend of the pro football season), the four winners ran 57 percent. That’s not just Tennessee, either. The Niners had a 69-31 run-pass ratio Saturday in their rout of the Vikings. “Playoff football,” LaFleur said. “You’ve got to be able to run in January.”
So now, upstart Tennessee at Kansas City. Green Bay at San Francisco. Both championship games should be fun—though the Packers have work to do to turn a 29-point November loss to San Francisco into a competitive game. Titans-Chiefs is a matchup of the two most compelling offensive forces left in the playoffs: runner Derrick Henry versus passer Patrick Mahomes. More about those matchups in a few paragraphs, and about how the Giants and Panthers and a confusing train station and Mississippi State and Josh McDaniels and Mike Leach and Key West all intersected for 40 hours last week, and about how to fix the Rooney Rule.
Rodgers and his revival were vital this weekend. But he’s got a good partner too. LaFleur’s done a good job this year massaging some plays so they look new to a defense. And one of those plays helped the Packers win more than anyone in the second-biggest Lambeau crowd ever (78,998) would know. Go back to Green Bay’s first touchdown, the 20-yard Rodgers-to-Adams TD on the first drive of the game. It was a thing of beauty.
In the NFL today, every team has legal pick routes. They’re called “rub routes,” the kind of pass plays that feature two receivers running at good speed very close to each other so that, ideally, two defenders will run into each other or knock each other off the coverage trail. So four minutes into the game, Adams and Geronimo Allison lined up wide left, four yards apart. At the snap, they ran toward each other like it’d be a rub route. But as they converged maybe four yards down the field, each pivoted and ran up the field—they were faking a rub route, and Adams, on the left, ran diagonally to the left pylon, and Allison ran toward the post. The defensive backs, Tre Flowers and Amadi, were momentarily distracted, and by the time they got their footing, Adams had two steps on them.
Rodgers to Adams, touchdown. Easy as pie. Crazy thing was, if Rodgers waited a split-second, Allison would have been more open. The two Seahawk defenders both followed Adams. No one covered Allison. You can say Seattle screwed up the coverage. Okay, true. But LaFleur’s job is to come up with plays that confuse the D. And this one absolutely did. That’s the kind of play that Rodgers has to see and say, I’m dealing with a guy who’s got next-level knowledge of offense, just like I do. “That play,” said LaFleur, “is not one we’ve used. We just added it a week or so ago, to be truthful. It made sense. When you put so much of a similar play on tape for opponents to see, and you decide to change it a little bit, you hope you can catch the defense. That’s what you have to do in offensive football today.”
I don’t know if the Packers have it in them to go to San Francisco and win Sunday, but I think they’ll be more competitive than they were in November’s 37-8 loss to the Niners. The blossoming LaFleur-Rodgers partnership should see to that . . . as long as the Packer offensive line can protect Rodgers a tick better than it did last time. It was interesting to see Rodgers linger a bit at his post-game press conference, talking Marshawn Lynch (who scored twice for Seattle in what could be his last NFL game) and the offense and his adjustments this year. And nostalgia. When you get to be 36, and you’re in the playoffs for the first time in three years, it’s pretty natural to wonder if this could be the last time. Rodgers stayed on the field for a couple of minutes after the game, waving to the fans and soaking it in. Cool moment.
“We have such a special relationship with our fans,” said Rodgers. “It’s a different connection. We don’t have an owner. We have thousands of people who have a piece of paper that’s a stock certificate. But people feel like they’re invested in what we’re doing. To be able to walk off that field again, victorious, there’s no feeling like it. I stopped myself in the second quarter and I was just looking around when there was a TV timeout and they were waving the towels, and in that moment I was just grateful for the opportunity, loving what I do.”
Rodgers the sentimentalist. That’s not the usual Rodgers.
I doubt he’s near the end. Not close, from the look of Sunday’s game. And from the sounds of it afterward.
Tennessee 28, Baltimore 12: Who’ll stop Henry?
The top five rushers of all time—Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Frank Gore, Barry Sanders, Adrian Peterson—have played a combined 46 NFL playoff games, with only two games of 140 rushing yards or more. Derrick Henry, who just turned 26, has played four NFL postseason games . . . and has averaged 140.3 rushing yards per game. You know what I find most interesting? Henry is almost disdainful of his accomplishments. Every time he’s asked about these unprecedented achievements, he’ll stage a diversion. I got to him 75 minutes after Saturday night’s game, and his response was almost diffident.
“Man,” he said, “I don’t care. Stats . . . We won. We won. We advanced. That’s what I care about.”
The coolest thing in the win at Baltimore: Henry channeling his inner Tebow with a classic Florida Gator jump-pass for a touchdown midway through the third quarter. The play was amazing: a 6-4, 248-pound steamroller taking a direct snap at the Baltimore 9-yard line, approaching the line like he was going to power through it, stopping suddenly at the 7, and jumping to throw to Corey Davis eight yards deep in the end zone. Henry, by the way, can always say he beat (possible future Hall of Famer) Earl Thomas for a touchdown pass . . . as if he didn’t already have enough to brag about from such a strong performance against the best team in the AFC. “Definitely similar to what [Tebow] did in college,” Henry said. “I failed throwing that a few times [in practice], so I practiced it.” Think of it: That’s not an easy pass for someone who’s never been a quarterback—and Henry was asked to throw a jump pass 17 yards in the air over a Pro Bowl safety.
Henry is now the most compelling single figure in the final four of the 2019 season. Weren’t we entering an era of interchangeable running backs, backs that couldn’t and shouldn’t dominate games? Nobody told Henry. In Week 17, needing a win to be the AFC’s sixth seed, Tennessee got a 211-yard rushing game from Henry to win at Houston. Then the 182 and 195-yard games to beat New England and Baltimore, and Henry is verging on legend status now. And not just in Nashville. “For the good of the team, I’m happy,” he told me. “Individual goals are a little selfish to me. My goal is to win for this team. We’re advancing. That’s what matters to me.”
Regarding the Ravens, who played stale and unsteady in a surprisingly poor performance, there are questions about John Harbaugh resting seven veterans for the meaningless Week 17 games, meaning that Lamar Jackson and others had 19 days off between games. It’s happened in the past with mixed results; the Colts used to do it and had a couple of dispiriting home loss after long breaks; the Packers lost to the Giants in a 2011 divisional game after dominating the NFL during the regular season. “It’s unanswerable,” Harbaugh said post-game. I’m not so sure. Baltimore’s one of the most welcoming franchises in sports (not just football) in analytics. If I were GM Eric DeCosta and Harbaugh, I’d assign one of the young mathematical logicians to study whether it is indeed unanswerable, or is there some knowledge to be gained by studying teams that rested guys and those that played Week 17 as normal.
Kansas City 51, Houston 31: What a weird game
“Really weird,” Chiefs defensive back Tyrann Mathieu told me from Missouri after Houston scored the first 24 and Kansas City the next 41 in what ultimately was a shameful display by the Texans all around. A playoff team allowed touchdowns on seven straight Chiefs drives. In a divisional playoff game. The Bengals would have played KC tougher Sunday. “I’ve been on teams that you get down two scores and people are on the sidelines, nitpicking each other and getting angry. Our coordinator, coach [Steve] Spagnuolo, told us something when it looked bad that was really helpful: ‘Don’t dwell on bad plays. Don’t dwell on good plays. Dwell on the next play.’ Plus, we got Patrick.” Mahomes, he meant. Which is a pretty secure feeling.
That helps . . . a lot. In 20 minutes sandwiching halftime, Mahomes had the ball six times, and the series went: TD pass, TD pass, TD pass, TD pass (three straight to Travis Kelce) and TD run, TD run, both by Damien Williams. To say Houston’s D was a sieve would be almost a compliment. Meanwhile, Houston, which built a sort of fluky 24-0 lead, managed just six of 20 third and fourth-down conversions. Kansas City’s defense held the fort while Mahomes Mahomesed.
Now, the anticipation of trying to stop the hottest running back in recent NFL times, Tennessee’s Derrick Henry. Not many players in football, at any position, can be unstoppable when you know exactly what’s coming. But in the last three weeks, Houston, New England and Baltimore, all playing at home, have been powerless to stop Henry. And the Chiefs had a porous run defense this year, allowing 4.9 yards per rush. “I’ll be in my guys’ ears all week—I can guarantee you,” Mathieu told me. He’s as good a defensive leader, even in his first season as a Chief, as Kansas City has. “It’s smashmouth, old-time, classic football. We gotta tackle Derrick Henry. That’s it. You get a chance, you gotta tackle him. I watch the Patriots game last week and the Ravens game this weekend, and you can just tell they truly believe they can run it against anyone. My mindset is, and all my guys will know it, there’s no next week. We gotta tackle Derrick Henry.”
Sounds so easy. Then the game starts.
San Francisco 27, Minnesota 10: That’s some D
Six sacks by San Francisco defensive linemen Saturday, in a game that felt like the Vikings were never in. Let’s examine the sackers. First-round pick Arik Armstead (2015) with one, first-round pick DeForest Buckner (2016) with one, first-round pick Solomon Thomas (2017) with one, first-round pick Nick Bosa (2019) with two, and 2019 acquisition (for a second-round pick) Dee Ford with one. Along with acquiring invaluable vet Richard Sherman—at 31, fully recovered from Achilles surgery, he is having one of his two or three best seasons—the 49ers have built the best defensive front in football. The important fountain-of-youth season from Sherman means a third of the field most games is closed for offensive business. What the Niners have done with the line shows how every team can turn around the franchise, assuming it drafts consistently well. That’s part of the difficulty here. Trent Baalke drafted Armstead and Buckner; John Lynch continued the strong run by plucking Thomas and Bosa, and acquiring Ford. Some teams say they’re going to rebuild the pass-rush. For five years, the Niners have proven it, every spring. And now look at them: the top seed in the NFC, hosting the conference title game for the first time in eight years.
Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins spent his fair share of time flailing around and got nothing going for four quarters. The defensive front was the reason. Minnesota, with a top-five running back in Dalvin Cook, had zero first downs rushing. The defensive line had a disruptive 23 sacks, pressures or hits of Cousins. Frankly, it’s hard to envision the Niners having much of a dropoff this week against the Packers. In Week 12 at Santa Clara, Aaron Rodgers had a poor 104-yard passing day in a 37-8 Niners rout of the Packers. If anything the 49ers are healthier now, with Dee Ford back from seven weeks of inactivity with a quad injury. Just what the Packers need: reinforcements for a front that gave them fits in November.
Three games left in a 267-game NFL season. How games 265 and 266 line up:
Tennessee (12-6, 6th seed) at Kansas City (13-4, 2nd seed)Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET, Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, TV: CBS
The first game, Nov. 10 in Nashville, was supposed to be the coming-out party for the rehabbed and ready Patrick Mahomes after two weeks off because of a dislocated kneecap. But the Titans, sparked by a 68-yard TD run by Derrick Henry (there’s that man again) in the third quarter and a one-yard TD run in the fourth, beat the Chiefs late, 35-32. This was when Kansas City had a terrible defense and it appeared Mahomes needed to be Dan Fouts to make it deep into the playoffs. Since then, the Chiefs have improved on D . . . but Henry is at his career peak as well.
The Titans have progressed from a slobberknocker novelty act to a very dangerous contender for the Super Bowl after their convincing wins at the three-seed Patriots and the one-seed Ravens. You can devote a spy or a heavy front or whatever you want, but truly impressive defenses in Foxboro and Baltimore have been chewed up and spit out by this humble redwood of a back. They know he’s coming, but he still churns out 5.9 yards per rush (on 64 carries in two playoff games). It’s amazing that, here we are, forecasting the conference title games, and the biggest issue revolves around a whether anyone in football can stop the running back on the team that entered the postseason thought to be 12th out of 12 playoff teams.
Though Henry’s a huge angle to this game, Tennessee will have to find a way to frustrate Patrick Mahomes. It’s interesting to see how Tennessee reacts against multi-dimensional passer. The secondary, with whip-smart Logan Ryan and Kevin Byard, feeds on being put in passing situations and has made huge plays against stud quarterbacks in two straight playoff games. I think for the Titans to stay in this game, they’ll need to have a couple of long drives early, keep Mahomes off the field, and turn him over a couple of times. I absolutely think the Titans have a chance, but all they have to do is watch tape of Kansas City falling behind by 24 against Houston to see how fast the Chiefs changed the game. Tennessee can’t afford many mistakes Sunday at Arrowhead.
Green Bay (14-3, 2nd seed) at San Francisco (14-3, 1st seed)Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET, Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif., TV: FOXFavorite: 49ers by 7
Fifty days ago, the 8-2 Packers went west to play 9-1 San Francisco. Both teams were showing signs of falling to earth a bit. But on this evening, the Niners handed Green Bay its worst loss of the season, 37-8, a game so bad and so hopeless that the Eastern Kentucky Colonel, Tim Boyle, mopped up for Aaron Rodgers. That’s what happens when the franchise quarterback is getting so battered and looks so overmatched; the coach just wants to get him out of there. In that game, San Francisco showed the kind of relentless pass-rush the rested Niners showed Saturday against Minnesota. So expect coach Matt LaFleur to mix up his protections against his old friend Kyle Shanahan so he’s able to give Rodgers a fighting chance. The way I saw the San Francisco front Saturday, Green Bay will have to use an extra blocker often, make sure Rodgers gets rid of it quickly, and play its best game of the year, by far, to score enough to win. On the other side, I’m curious to see if the Packers can get more pressure on Jimmy Garoppolo than they got in the first meeting. They had four sacks, but only four hurries, per PFF. They’ll have to swarm Garoppolo more to affect his game.
The fairy-tale/nightmare timeline (depending on the winner and loser) of the 40 hours that indelibly affected two franchises, two major football universities, a spurned Super Bowl offensive coordinator and the major-college football coach who leads the nation in swag:
Sunday, Jan. 5
Providence, R.I.: At a hotel adjacent to T.F. Green Airport, Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen arrives to meet with 38-year-old Patriots defensive coordinator Joe Judge, who in an instant had become a hot name on the coaching market. Before they talked, Cohen spoke to Bill Belichick on the phone. Belichick was high on Judge. The Cohen-Judge interview went exceedingly well; both are Mississippi State alums. But Judge told Cohen that, before he moved ahead with MSU, there was the matter of Judge’s Monday interview with the Giants in New Jersey. “I’m not sure there ever has been a situation like this in college football—Starkville and the SEC versus a historic franchise in the biggest city in the country,” Cohen said. “But after about two-and-a-half hours talking with Joe, I knew he would be the coach of the New York Giants. That’s how impressive he was.” Neither Cohen nor Judge would acknowledge that an offer was made, but I believe it’s probable.
Monday, Jan. 6
Providence: After a short night’s sleep, Judge boarded a 6:43 a.m. Amtrak Acela train for New Jersey, bound for his 11 a.m. interview with the Giants, a 20-minute ride from Newark’s Penn Station.
Manhattan: At 9:43 a.m., Judge disembarked at New York’s Penn Station. (Crazy thing about East Coast train stations. The city train stations in New York, Newark and Baltimore are all called “Penn Station.” Judge just heard “Penn Station” and got off the train. The Giants were sending a car for him, and Judge went to what he thought was the appointed spot. No car. Judge called his pick-up man. “Where are you?” The guy said, “I’m here. Where are you?” Judge looked around and told him 34th Street, and the Giants rep said, “You got off at the wrong Penn Station!” Judge pulled out his phone and got an Uber for East Rutherford. He was at Giants HQ by 10:45. All good. “I didn’t know there were two Penn Stations,” Judge said. There are not two. There are three. “No problem,” he said. “I got there just in time.”
East Rutherford, N.J.: Never heard of this before: Judge never looked at a note during a three-hour meeting with president/CEO John Mara, GM Dave Gettleman and assistant GM Kevin Abrams. “That’s accurate,” Judge said. “I went into the interview with the approach that everything I was going to say was coming from the heart. I wasn’t trying to sell them anything. If they don’t like me on the interview, then it’s better to find that out right away.” Judge was straight, looked the three guys in the eye, talked about the bedrock principle of discipline, said he’d practice full-pad tackling liberally, and detailed how he’d building a staff and organization camaraderie. By the time he left around 2 to get some lunch with a Giant staffer, the three Giants officials were hooked. Mara spoke up. “Wow,” he said. “This has to be our guy.”
Waco, Texas. At 3 p.m., a strong candidate for the Giants job, Baylor coach Matt Rhule, began his interview with a Carolina delegation led by aggressive billionaire owner David Tepper. Rhule was excited about the prospect of interviewing with the Giants on Tuesday; a city kid, he used to take the subway to Madison Square Garden to live and die with the Knicks. Fate, and unprecedented money, were about to intervene. “The more I listened to Mr. Tepper, the more I realized we believe in the same things when it comes to team-building,” Rhule said. “I got excited. We see things the same way.”
East Rutherford, N.J.: Judge felt good about his chances with the Giants. Mara did too. He wasn’t offering the job yet, but around 4 p.m., before Judge left for the correct Penn Station this time, Mara pulled Judge into his office and closed the door. “I told Joe how personal this was for me,” Mara told me. “I told him, ‘This has been our family business since 1925. We HAVE to get this turned around. We CAN’T be wrong on this hire.” Mara said Judge stridently assured him that, if chosen, he could do the job. As Mara said, “Joe’s very sure of himself, but not in an arrogant way. So we liked him a lot. And quite honestly, we had a bit of a deadline. Joe loves Mississippi State, and they were putting pressure on him to let them know.” As Judge boarded his train in Newark to go home, he knew the clock was ticking on his future. In the span of 24 hours, he’d gone from never interviewing for a head-coaching job in his life to being on the precipice of having his choice of offers in the SEC and NFL. Judge, in private, might have had a HOLY CRAP! moment that evening on the trip home. But he told me, “I don’t look at the process as anything extraordinary.” Well, the rest of the football world did. Before Judge was done with the Giants, he had one more early-morning assignment on Tuesday: meet with co-owner Steve Tisch, flying into Providence to do his due diligence with Judge. He’d have to sign off on the deal.
Tuesday, Jan. 7
Providence: Tisch met Judge at a Providence hotel, liked what he saw and heard, and called Mara. “Wow,” Tisch told Mara. “I was really impressed. Let’s get this done.”
Charlotte: Things were happening fast overnight. Rhule’s agent, Trace Armstrong, was nearing a deal on a seven-year contract worth an estimated $62 million with the Panthers. Before it was official, he called Mara around 9:10 a.m. “Trace made it pretty clear we’d have to match or do better,” said Mara. He said he’d call Armstrong back. Mara asked the rest of the Giants braintrust, and they were in agreement that seven years was a bridge too far. Plus, they were either going to hire Judge or let him walk to Mississippi State; realistically, they probably couldn’t have waited to talk to Rhule that day.
East Rutherford, N.J.: By 9:50 a.m., when Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports broke the news on Rhule to the Panthers, the contract for Judge was coming together quickly, negotiated by agent Jimmy Sexton and Mara himself. Word leaked around 11:13 a.m. of the Judge deal with the Giants, via Adam Schefter.
Key West, Fla.: Figuring he needed to be ready to proceed on his job search, Cohen left Starkville on a private plane around dawn for Key West with a three-person MSU delegation. The target: Washington State coach Mike Leach, decompressing after his football season in Pullman. The swashbuckling Leach, experienced and bold and offensively exciting, was a great and irreverent option for a school having to compete with the giants of the SEC. Soon after touching down, Cohen’s phone buzzed. It was Judge, telling him he’d gotten the Giants job. Cohen was thrilled for him, and thrilled for MSU, to have the coach of the New York Giants possess deep Bulldog roots. “In the end,” Cohen said, “I felt we both were where we needed to be.”
Foxboro, Mass. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels got a double slap-in-the-face. Due to leave Massachusetts for a Tuesday interview with the Panthers—and thought to be Carolina’s fallback option if the Panthers didn’t get Rhule—McDaniels saw his Tuesday and Wednesday interviews go down the drain. With the unknown Judge landing the head coaching job with a flagship franchise, and with the knowledge that his boss had recommended Judge highly to Mara, McDaniels has to wonder about his place in the Patriot hierarchy—and maybe even about his future with the Patriots.
East Rutherford, N.J. A day-and-a-half after he was an unknown special-teams coach under Bill Belichick’s thumb, Joe Judge answered a phone call from John Mara. It was the co-owner, offering him the job to revive the New York Giants. Per Mara, this was Judge’s response: “I’m honored, Mr. Mara. I appreciated the history and the tradition of the franchise. There’s a lot of franchises in the NFL, but there’s only one New York Giants.”
Postscript, Friday, Jan. 10
East Rutherford, N.J. “That was the right answer,” Mara said.
Having known Dan Rooney well before he died in 2017, I can say without hesitation that he would be ashamed of what’s happened to the well-intentioned 17-year-old Rooney Rule. The rule mandated that every NFL team with a head-coach opening must interview at least one minority candidate. But the rule is a mockery of a sham. This graphic is all you need to know, dating back to the first year of the Rooney Rule’s implementation, now that all hires for the 2020 season have been made with the Browns agreeing with Kevin Stefanski on Sunday.
African-Americans in NFL hierarchy3 head coaches, 1 GM, 0 majority owners2020: 3 head coaches, 1 GM, 0 majority owners
Fact: 9.4 percent of the 1,600 players in the NFL, which is about 70 percent African-American, will be led in 2020 by a black man . . . the same as it was 17 years ago with adoption of this supposed landmark new league bylaw.
Let’s talk about hiring practices, 2020. There have been five head-coaching changes and several other coordinator changes since the end of the regular season. Ron Rivera, who is Hispanic, was fired by Carolina and hired by Washington. Four other head-coach hires so far. All white. Twelve coordinator hires in the league since season’s end, 11 white.
The system is broken, obviously. Influential owner John Mara of the Giants told me Friday: “We’re obviously using the Rooney Rule for the head coaching candidates, but I think we may have to use the rule for the feeder positions, especially on the offensive side of the ball because that’s where so many of the head coaches come from. We talked in December on the Workplace Diversity Committee about feeding the pipeline further. I can tell you: This is a real concern of the commissioner and the league.”
I don’t doubt Mara believes something needs to be done. I do doubt that the 32 white owners will do the major surgery that is necessary on the rule. My recommendations:
Increase the mandated minority-candidate interviews from one to two, and make owners meet each minority candidate. Find a way to increase the pool of interviewees. Why do most of the interviews have to come from Eric Bieniemy and Jim Caldwell and the usual names? No one saw Joe Judge coming. A week ago, 90 percent of moderately serious football fans had never heard of Joe Judge—I’d never met him or spoken to him. So on the African-American side, who are those rising-star candidates? Let’s hear from Rams cornerbacks coach Aubrey Pleasant, Tampa offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, Niners inside linebackers coach DeMeco Ryans, Ravens tight ends coach Bobby Engram (look at the production of his guys this year), Rams safeties coach Ejiro Evero. Find a way to mandate a way that at least one of the minority interviews be of a position coach instead of coordinator, or from a pool of coaches who’ve had, say, one head-coaching interview or less in their time in the league. Why have owners in the room? Because owners eventually are the ones who have to be the change.
Mandate that one of the three pipeline positions on every new coaching staff be a minority. Washington got ramped up early, hiring Ron Rivera as head coach two days after the regular season. He hired Scott Turner, Jack Del Rio and Nate Kaczor as his offensive, defensive and special-teams coordinators, then Ken Zampese as quarterbacks coach and Luke Del Rio as offensive quality control coach. Five white men. But in particular, the three offensive jobs are big pipeline positions—coordinator, QB coach and offensive quality control. My rule: Mandate that one of those three on every new staff be a minority hire. If you want to get serious about increasing opportunity, draw up rules. “Super provocative,” one prominent agent called this idea. Desperate times require such things.
Expand the Rooney Rule to coordinator positions. Often, coordinators are long-planned quick-hit hires by new coaches. So, interrupt the oft slam-dunk process. Expose a minority candidate to the interview process. “So much of this is about introducing young coaches a head coach or owner wouldn’t know to a new group of influencers,” one club president told me last week. Might not lead to many jobs, but it would lead to decision-makers meeting coaches they don’t know.
Make January a dark period for coaching interviews and hires. New rule: No coaching interviews till 9 a.m. on the Monday after the Super Bowl; violators face a loss of a draft choice. The insanity of allowing assistants to interview during the playoffs came into focus Thursday. In a short week for preparation—for a road playoff game 1,900 miles away against a team with a voracious pass-rush—Minnesota offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski spent time Thursday interviewing for the Browns head-coaching job. (Imagine how head coach Mike Zimmer felt about that.) Teams in the playoffs hate the coach-interview rules; at the peak time of importance for a coaching staff, to have a key member of the coaching staff distracted by preparing for a head-coaching interview or reaching out to peers to gauge interest for positions on a potential coaching staff . . . it’s crazy. So you say it’s unfair to losing teams with coaching openings to waste a month? Well, it’s not optimal, but how much did it hurt the Colts in 2018, hiring Frank Reich on Feb. 11? Not much. Colts won 10 regular-season games and then won a playoff game. It would give minority coaches a chance to polish their presentations in advance of the interview period post-Super Bowl—and also give teams more of a chance to unearth little-known coaches of all colors.
Ramp up (with NFL funding) program for developing minority coaches. Imagine every coaching staff in the NFL having a one-year “developmental coach”—either from college football, or a prospect interested in entering coaching—on staff for a full off-season and season. Expose young coaches to the overhaul of a playbook, how the teaching period works, the grind of training camp, and the weekly work in the regular season. Maybe some coaches catch the bug.
This is not time for more words bemoaning the sad state of NFL minority hiring. This is time for action—starting with something concrete at the NFL owners meetings in Florida in March.
Offensive Players of the Week
Aaron Rodgers, quarterback, Green Bay. Seattle had snuck to within 28-23 with 10 minutes left in the game, and then Rodgers, needing to bleed the clock dry, converted third-and-10, third-and-eight, and third-and-nine situations into first downs in two late series. Knowing that at 36 he doesn’t know how many January chances he’ll get, Rodgers won his first playoff game in three years with the kind of deft touch passes that will land him Canton on a first ballot one day. His numbers were pedestrian (for Rodgers): 16 of 27, 243 yards, two TDs, no picks—but this was not a numbers-nerd kind of game. Rodgers made great throws when he needed, like the 32-yard conversion to Davante Adams that’s one of the prettiest throws, a dime, you’ll ever see. Rodgers sure looked like a young 36 on Sunday.
Travis Kelce, tight end, Kansas City. Entering Sunday’s against Houston, we had no idea which Kelce we’d see—the athletic and powerful touchdown machine, or 70 percent of Kelce, with a reported knee issue. He added a hamstring strain during the game. But Kelce was his dominant self when he played, with five, six and five-yard touchdown receptions from Patrick Mahomes in the last 10 minutes of the second quarter. Three touchdowns in eight minutes. Nice day.
Derrick Henry, running back, Tennessee. In the span of four third-quarter plays for the sixth-seeded Texans against the top-seeded Ravens, Henry had a 66-yard run and a three-yard touchdown pass. And for the third straight game—the win-and-in Week-17 test at Houston, then New England and Baltimore in the playoffs—Henry exceeded 200 yards from the scrimmage. He had 30 carries for 195 rush yards, echoing his last two games on the ground (34 for 182, and 32 for 211). WHO DOES THAT? No one. That’s the first time in NFL history a running back has had three straight rushing games exceeding 180 yards. The best thing about it? Henry doesn’t seem to care if he rushes for 10 yards or 210.
Defensive Players of the Week
Richard Sherman, cornerback, San Francisco. Big players make big plays in big games. (Can’t believe I blurted a cliché, but it’s so apropos.) With the Niners up 17-10 early in the third quarter, Kirk Cousins and Adam Thielen had a miscommunication, or maybe Thielen got a little lax on his incut, but whatever, Sherman stepped into the breach and picked off the ball. It was the single biggest Niners defensive play of a crushing beatdown of Minnesota. “Kirk threw a very catchable ball. I appreciate it,” Sherman said, with only a slight dagger in his voice. For the game, Cousins targeted Sherman just three times, with one completion (for nine yards) and the one pick. That’s what I call a shut-down corner.
Jurrell Casey, defensive tackle, Tennessee. Want to see a great defender against the run and pass at defensive tackle? Watch Casey. He was huge in the win over Baltimore. He was in the middle of stopping two fourth-and-ones at vital times, and his two sacks crippled the Ravens. The first, late in the first half, set Baltimore back eight yards and contributed to a taking three points instead of the seven the Ravens needed. In the third quarter, with the Ravens down 21-6, Casey strip-sacked Lamar Jackson, leading to the Titans’ fourth TD of the night. The clincher. Casey’s such a good player, and he was as important as any Titan but Henry in the stunning upset.
Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, outside linebackers, Green Bay. Combined for four of Green Bay’s five sacks of Russell Wilson, and they even finished each other’s sentences. The two free-agent pass-rushers, the gems of GM Brian Gutekunst’s 2019 class, have this shtick of holding press conferences together. So they stepped to the microphones after this game in the Green Bay locker room and had a nice act going.
Preston: “Got our cardio in today, running after Russell.”
Za’Darius: “What’s that thing you said about chasin’ him?”
Preston: “Oh yeah . . . Like chasin’ a chicken in a field with no fence.”
Special Teams Player of the Week
Daniel Sorensen, safety, Kansas City. Made two plays in the span of a second-quarter minute that prevented a 24-7 Houston lead from getting out of hand. With the Texans in punt formation at their 31-yard line on fourth down and no one but Sorensen apparently expecting a fake, the Texans did indeed try to run for the four yards—and Sorensen nimbly stopped the up-back, safety Justin Reid, two yards short of the first down. The Chiefs followed with a quick TD, and on the ensuing kickoff, Sorensen forced a fumble that turned into another quick Patrick Mahomes TD. Sorensen didn’t score the touchdowns, but he was the biggest factor in turning a 24-7 games into 24-21 in the span of eight plays.
Coaches of the Week
Dean Pees, defensive coordinator, Tennessee. In two straight weeks, the forgotten Tennessee defensive boss has shut down two former employees. Against the third-seeded Pats last week, the Pees D held New England to 13 points, had a memorable goal-line stand, and consistently thwarted the Brady passing game. Against the top-seeded Ravens on Saturday night, Tennessee held the most explosive offense in football to 12 points and stymied Lamar Jackson on all four fourth-down attempts. For the first time in forever, Lamar Jackson was totally frustrated. Said future coach Logan Ryan: “We wanted to give him loaded boxes all night to get him out of the run game. . . . Once we had the lead, they had to go to the pass game, and that’s our strength.” Smart plan.
Arthur Smith, offensive coordinator, Tennessee. Anyone who play-designs a Derrick Henry touchdown pass from the 3-yard line will win this august award. And again next week, if Smith calls something so outrageously imaginative in the AFC Championship Game.
Goat of the Week
Bill O’Brien, coach, Houston. I actually didn’t mind kicking the field goal on fourth-and-one from the KC 13 to go up 24-0 in the second quarter. But from playing it safe to playing it crazy is not the way to win a playoff game. I’m sure there’s some reason why the Texans tried a fake punt from their 31-yard line with a 24-7 lead on fourth-and-four, but I can’t for the life of me figure it out. Of course the Texans failed to gain four yards, and of course the Texans allowed a quick Kansas City touchdown to get the Chiefs back in the game. Not a good day for O’Brien.
“This team’s identity right now is to get to the playoffs and choke. It is what it is. That’s the hard truth.”
—Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey, after Baltimore lost for the second straight year at home to open the playoffs.
“I LIKE THAT!”
—San Francisco cornerback Richard Sherman, coming off the field Saturday after his third-quarter interception of Kirk Cousins. The pick led to a 49ers touchdown and a 14-point—and insurmountable—Niners lead. If you don’t get “You like that,” it’s a pretty big trademark-ish statement of Cousins, dating back to his Washington days.
Sherman’s had some great quotes in his career. This one’s top three.
“I think it’s ridiculous! He wrecked games!”
—Former longtime NFL special-teams coach Mike Westhoff, on Steve Tasker of the Bills not being in the Hall of Fame, to Zach Gelb of CBS Sports Radio.
“Bill Polian wanted to make Lamar Jackson a wide receiver. What does anybody know? They don’t know anything.”
—Avid NFL (and Jets) fan Larry David, of all people, on The Michael Kay Show on ESPN Radio in New York.
His point was a good one: Scouting quarterbacks might be the most inexact practice in the NFL yesterday and today, with no sign that it’s getting much better for tomorrow.
“The NFL has done a horrendous job [in hiring black head coaches]. Essentially, we’re going to be left I believe with three African-American head coaches. Three. That’s just embarrassing. You just see the faces of the guys pop up over and over of the hires and it’s like another white guy, another white guy, another white guy. It’s always a white guy. It just is. It’s just unbelievable.”
—Adam Schefter, on the NFL being stuck in the equal-opportunity stone age on hiring black coaches, to Denver radio station 104.3 The Fan.
“They need to be taking care of their chicken right, you feel me? . . . Take care of y’all body, take care of y’all chicken, take care of y’all mentals. Because we ain’t lastin’ that long.”
Matt Rhule • Carolina head coach • Photographed in Charlotte, N.C.
What led you to this moment, being handed the reins of an NFL team by David Tepper?
“I think probably all of the different experiences that I’ve had. Having a chance to be a defensive line coach, an assistant offensive line coach, a special teams coach, an offensive coordinator. I’m a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. I took whatever job I could get, scratched and clawed, and worked my way up the ladder . . . getting into places and taking whatever promotion they would give me to try to have different experiences. I think that’s allowed me to be successful as a head coach. Plus, I think being in a place like Temple—when you’re at Temple, you can’t sit there and spend any time worrying about the things you don’t have. You better find the things you have and be really proud of them. I’ll never forget [like Rhule, a former Temple coach] Bruce Arians told me one time: ‘Just remember this. The best thing, the best asset you have at Temple is the people. And that’s all you need.’ He was right. It wasn’t your facilities. I met some of the best people I knew at Temple, and I learned that facilities don’t win; people and players and coaches win. So then I went to Baylor. And Baylor had great facilities and all those things and we had to rebuild it. I think I just said to myself, Hey, remember what you learned at Temple and try to build it with relationships and people.”
Another learning experience, presumably, was being an undersized walk-on linebacker at Penn State in the nineties.
“The biggest thing I learned from Joe Paterno, and it was such an important thing, was that he held his best players the most accountable. And not everyone does that. I was a lowly walk-on at the time. Found a way to play some. But Ki-Jana Carter, Kerry Collins, those guys got held to the highest, highest level of accountability. Which in turn reminded me, well, I better do that as well. That was Joe’s gift—his best players were the hardest-working. The rest of us fell in line. Since I got into coaching, I’ve tried to always hold my best players to the highest standard
“During my interview, I asked Mr. Tepper about the things that made him successful in business. He used the word ‘process,’ which is all I ever talk about. I think I said at one point to him, I think I said, ‘If we’re a 7-9 football team, then when you watch us play that last game, we should be playing to be the best 7-9 football team in the history of football. We will have a mentality of trying to be the very best at everything regardless of the circumstances. The process will be the same. He said, ‘That’s exactly right.’ I think we see things the same way. And so I think his commitment to process in his business life, his commitment to process here as he builds this, and then him recognizing that that’s what I believe and I think that was the synergy that made me realize that hey, we see things the same way.”
Anything heartbreaking to you about not being hired for your dream job, a New York City boy coaching the New York Giants?
“No. I’m so excited about this. I coached at Western Carolina. My son was born here in North Carolina. I had a chance to recruit Charlotte for four years. I knew from my meeting with the Panthers—my wife felt it too—this was the right place for us.”
Lots of 31-other-owners-will-be-pissed-at-Tepper comments swirling around the league in the last few days, after Carolina owner David Tepper gave Matt Rhule a seven-year contract with an estimated total value of $62 million. (Tepper reportedly also paid off the Baylor buyout of $6 million to hire Rhule.)
I don’t think that anger is well-placed.
Of course a seven-year contract for a first-time NFL coach, at first blush, is outlandish—as is the money. But the Panthers weren’t hiring an NFL coordinator working on a two-year, $4-million contract. They were competing against the Monopoly money of college football, and they were hiring someone to become the front-facing CEO of the football operation, not just the titular head of the team.
Rhule’s contract at Baylor had eight years remaining, and he earned a reported $7.5 million in salary and associated perks on the deal in 2019. So let’s assume—I do not know if there are automatic escalators in the contract—that $7.5-million annual figure for the last eight years of the deal. That would mean Rhule had eight years and $60 million left on his deal. So seven years and $62 million is in that ballpark. The NFL contract is not exactly a parallel financial commitment, but it’s close. So now you know why the Panthers blew up the coaching salary structure for rookie NFL coaches.
Desperation of the Giants Dept.
Worst records in the NFL over the past three seasons:
Sandwiching halftime, Baltimore ran 14 plays to end the first half, 13 to start the second half. The futility of those 27 plays, and of the evening for Baltimore:
One measly field goal for the Ravens in 27 plays.
On the 27th, Lamar Jackson was stopped on fourth-and-one. Three minutes later, the Titans finished a snappy 81-yard drive with the Derrick Henry jump-pass TD.
Overall, Tennessee scored 28 points on 53 plays. Baltimore scored 12 on 92.
The 2020 cap number of Carolina center Matt Paradis, PFF’s 36th-rated NFL center in 2019: $8.80 million.
The average annual salary of new Carolina coach Matt Rhule: $8.86 million.
Records after Halloween this season: Miami 5-4, New England 4-5.
Three notes from a trip to the Tundra:
• Stayed in the relatively new Intercontinental Hotel inside the Minneapolis airport on Saturday night, where I decamped for a good night’s sleep prior to flying to Green Bay on Sunday morning. The one thing I want out of a good airport hotel? Quiet. Don’t want to hear takeoffs and landings. Just want peace. Kudos to the designers of this place, inside one of the busiest airports in the country. I felt like I was in the Montana countryside, and this may have been quieter. Never heard a thing from 10:20 p.m. to 7:15 a.m. I realize air traffic is light at the time, but still. Silencio.
• Delta flight, Minneapolis to Green Bay, Sunday morning, 12 degrees in Minneapolis-St. Paul. “Beverage, sir?” flight attendant said. I asked for water. She handed me an eight-ounce bottle of Dasani water. Frozen solid.
• Seahawks fan on the connecting flight wore a cheese-grater hat. Seriously.
Dustin Fox, tweeting after the Browns’ hire of Kevin Stefanski as head coach, is a radio host in Cleveland and ESPN college football analyst.
Steven Jackson is a former Pro Bowl running back, and tweeted with the Titans up on Baltimore 14-3 in the second quarter.
Smith, speaking of 49ers offensive assistant Katie Sowers and NFL official Sarah Thomas, covers the NFL for Pro Football Talk.
The team website of the Carolina Panthers, documenting the first day of Matt Rhule as coach . . . in six minutes.