TAMPA, Fla. — “Hey dude,” Bruce Arians said to Tom Brady as confetti fell on their world champion heads Sunday night. “You remember our first conversation?”
“Vividly,” Brady said.
“Me too,” Arians said. “ ‘You come, and we’ll win the Super Bowl.’ “
He came, he saw, he conquered . . . even though so many were convinced Brady was kaput after the embarrassing wild-card loss that ended his New England career 13 months ago; even though the meticulously-organized Brady didn’t have his first competitive practice with his new team till Aug. 14; even though the three men who scored the four Tampa Bay touchdowns in Super Bowl LV weren’t on the team 10 months ago; even though the Bucs lost at home to the Saints, Rams and Chiefs by a total of 41 points in November; and even though the Bucs’ road to winning a Lombardi Trophy would necessitate victories over Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes in the span of 22 days.
But by the time Brady’s seventh Super Bowl title was captured Sunday night at Raymond James Stadium, it didn’t seem anything but logical.
That’s because Brady had so much help from his new pewter friends in routing the defending world champs 31-9. Gronkowski, coaxed out of retirement by Brady last April (“What else was I gonna do in a pandemic?” Gronk told me post-game) scored the first two touchdowns on throws from Brady. Antonio Brown, coaxed onto the team, in part, by Brady in October, ran a great route and caught a laser TD from Brady for the third score. And Leonard Fournette, mopey when Ronald Jones grabbed the running back job in midseason, scored a redemptive TD among his 135 scrimmage yards. “Rob and Antonio are never on this team without Tom,” agent Drew Rosenhaus said at halftime, and he would know: He reps Gronk and used to rep Brown.
The help came from a defense that smothered Patrick Mahomes, who has the best chance in this golden age of quarterbacks to be the heir to Brady. (Someday. Not now.) Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles came up with the game plan of his life. The line contained Mahomes so well Bowles called only four blitzes all night. And the kid secondary—all six who played the back end against Mahomes are 24 or younger—came up huge. One other thing: The Chiefs stunk. Hard to remember an Andy Reid team looking so shaky and poiseless in a big game.
Back to the field, post-game. Back to the strangest season we’ve ever seen.
“What else did you say to Brady?” I asked Arians, when he finally had a chance to take a deep breath in his office post-game.
“That [first] day we talked,” Arians said, “Tom said he knew we had the talent. I just told him, ‘You gotta get them to believe.’ He did. And it came to fruition.”
Arians would have loved to dissect the moment with Brady right there. But when ownership, Arians and Brady moved to the stage to accept the Lombardi, the coach stepped back.
“I wanted my wife to have some time with him,” Arians said. “She’d never met Tom.”
“Just that kind of year,” Arians said. “You know, the virus. It’s been tough to build a close team in times like this. They couldn’t eat together. Gronk still doesn’t know everybody’s name. So when we got on stage, I just let my wife have the moment with Tom. That was precious to me.”
Arians mused: “My wife not meeting Tom till we’re on stage after winning the Super Bowl. That speaks volumes of this whole year.”
There has never been a year like this one, and never a Super Bowl like this one, and not just because of one of the great quarterback pairings of the 55 Super Bowls ever played. Actually, everything surrounding the game was America in this crazy time—good and bad.
The NFL hosted 7,500 vaccinated U.S. health-care workers at the game, to say thanks for their tireless work during the 11 months of the pandemic. I guess it wasn’t too shocking that there was a protest outside a perimeter fence at Raymond James Stadium Sunday afternoon against, of all things, actually being vaccinated. “VACCINES CAUSE INJURY AND DEATH,” one protester’s sign read. Seriously. But the health-care workers seemed to have a glorious time, enjoying a Miley Cyrus pre-game concert and the game—which pleased the majority of the health-care workers, because the majority was from Florida, like the winners.
The football gods gave the NFL a few more gifts Sunday. The Brady-Mahomes matchup, of course. Brady tying the great Otto Graham for most football championships won by a quarterback (seven). The 269th game of the season, exactly on schedule while COVID-19 still ravages parts of the country. The NFL was smart to invite so many American heroes, for free, to a game most of them would never have the chance to see. And the pre-game “Chorus of the Captains” poem by 22-year-old Inauguration poet Amanda Gorman was a different, and nice, touch in hard times, honoring a teacher, a nurse and a veteran who have acted selflessly in the pandemic. Gorman’s words included these:
For while we honor them today,It is they who every day honor us.
Poetry at a football game. The teams stopped, the world stopped, to listen. “What a time to be alive,” young Amanda Gorman tweeted.
What a season to see, too. The Bucs, as it turned out, rode the wings of Brady to an unexpected world championship, running up an 8-0 record since Dec. 1. Those who’ve been around Brady wouldn’t be shocked. By the time the calendar turns to December, his voracious practice habits rub off on his mates, and things that were rough and ugly in Week 3 look pretty impressive by the playoffs. For example: touchdown passes in the final 10 seconds of the first half in both the NFC title game and the Super Bowl, with each being an unexpected dagger in the game.
Brady created a culture of selflessness on both sides of the ball. When star linebacker Devin White complained about not making the Pro Bowl in December, Brady pshawed. “D,” he said. “Come on. There’s a bigger bowl I‘m chasing.” Arians had it lucky. Most teams talk about stars lowering their egos for the common good, but listen to Arians: “Mike Evans is the most unselfish superstar I’ve ever met. He’s told us to use some of his money if we need to contracts to keep the team together! And Gronk—never once all season did he ever say a word about getting the ball more, even though he might get one pass, two passes in games. He just blocks his ass off, and when I’d say to him, ‘You okay?’ he’d say, ‘I’m good, coach. I’m good.’ “
— Sunday Night Football on NBC (@SNFonNBC) February 8, 2021
Gronkowski has been eclipsed by KC’s great tight end, Travis Kelce. But on this night, till the game was out of hand, the night belonged to Gronk (two TDs) over Kelce (a big drop, zero TDs). “Playing with Tom,” Gronkowski told me after the game, “you just learn if you want to win championships, you can’t care about your numbers. If you’re good, numbers will come. If you’ve got great players, maybe they’ll get the numbers. Who cares? I’ve had no problems all year how I’ve been used. I love blocking. Blocking’s just as important as catching the ball at my position.”
Brady was obviously the conduit to Gronkowski. “Once Brady signed,” Rosenhaus said, “that was the impetus for everything to happen. I called coach [Bill] Belichick in New England and said it might make sense for Rob to reunite with Tom. They worked out a trade. Rob’s body felt good. Being in Florida was good. He’s the only quarterback Rob ever wanted to play with.”
You could see Sunday night that Gronkowski has the fresh legs he used to have in September in New England. He was quick sprinting across the formation on his first TD catch, and so fast when he caught the ball that no Chief touched him on his eight-yard run to the end zone. On the second, he broke free from coverage by precocious rookie L’Jarius Sneed and then jutted left quickly in the back of the end zone. Easy touchdown.
“People seem mind-blown about Tom at his age,” Gronkowski said. “I’m not. He has lost no zip on his passes from when I first came in the league. People think he eats crazy and they question his methods. Well, I’m doing some of his stuff and all I know is I feel great.”
Brady found Brown with a dart to make it 21-6 by halftime, and by the time Fournette ended it with a 27-yard TD run to the right pylon midway through the third quarter, the Brady indoctrination season was complete. Think of the timeline: When Brady agreed with the Bucs on March 18, he told GM Jason Licht (mind you, this was very early in the pandemic, so no one knew how restrictive life was going to be), We’ve only got so many hours before opening day, and every hour counts for us. Brady actually had figured out the number of hours—maybe 4,300, or close to that—which amazed Licht. But then he pushed to trade for Gronkowski (April 21), supported the signing of Fournette when the Jags cut him (Sept. 6) and was wholly behind the Antonio Brown reclamation project (signed Oct. 27).
Four touchdowns scored in Super Bowl LV: Gronk, Gronk, Brown, Fournette.
Wayward Souls of the NFL, Tampa Bay chapter.
Maybe Brady knew what he was doing in petitioning for his freedom from New England.
I feel bad, getting so far down in the story without paying tribute to, arguably, the man of the evening. But when a 43-year-old quarterback wins his seventh Super Bowl and his fifth Super Bowl MVP, well, Todd Bowles will just have to accept my apology.
Bowles’ defensive game plan was smart, surprising and magnificent. It was the game plan of Bowles’ life, in the last game of his eighth season as coordinator or head coach. After getting taken to the woodshed by the speed and tenacity and the KC offense in Week 12 and by the never-ending will and skill of Mahomes, Bowles adjusted in four ways:
• Went totally away from the blitz and blitz concepts, sending an extra rusher on only about five snaps. “If you blitz, he’ll find a receiver short or intermediate, and often times that guy can run past you,” Bowles said. He did create some looks on third downs, or long passing downs, that appeared to be Tampa bringing pressure, but when the ball was snapped, the Bucs dropped the pressure-lure guy back in coverage.
• Trusted the line, particularly with KC’s very shaky backup tackles, to hem in Mahomes. The Buc defensive front had three sacks and Shaq Barrett missed two more because an acrobatic Mahomes twice got rid of the ball two millimeters from hitting the earth in Barrett’s grasp.
• Didn’t care if Mahomes ran all day, knowing he probably didn’t want to. Though Mahomes made some plays on the run (33 yards), none of his scampers were damaging.
• Made sure his DBs continually changed up looks on Tyreek Hill. “He had designs on him everywhere he was,” Bowles said.
There’s a fifth thing.
“My guys were pissed off,” Bowles told me an hour after the game.
“The biggest thing they do is read and they got TV all the time. Nobody picked us and gave us a chance to win. They were really pissed off about that. Combine that with the things we missed the first game against them, they really wanted to prove something tonight on the biggest stage against the best team. They played Drew Brees with [Michael] Thomas and [Alvin] Kamara. They played Aaron Rodgers with [Aaron] Jones and [Davante] Adams. Now they faced Mahomes with Kelce and Tyreek. You know, we earned it. We beat three of the best, the top five in the league.”
Said linebacker Devin White: “It was crazy to us that we were still underdogs. We defeated Drew Brees, we defeated Aaron Rodgers and then, like, he was the MVP and we still was underdogs. We were just out there like finish them, finish them, finish them. We didn’t want them to score.”
A few interesting points on defense: Could this be the last game for Ndamukong Suh, 34? If so, he went out strong, with 1.5 sacks and controlling the middle of the offensive line like he’d done so often in his 11-year career . . . Will the young and soon-to-be-rich Shaq Barrett (the NFL sack champ last year and playoff pass-rush star this year) leave in free agency or be franchised or sign long-term with the Bucs? . . . The inside-linebacker duo of White and Lavonte David finished the season playing on the highest level they could play . . . It’s amazing that all six of their young DBs were drafted in the last three years. “[GM] Jason Licht deserves so much credit for this team, and he’d better get some,” Arians said. “What a team he’s built.” Licht has come a very long way from Roberto Aguayo, and the Bucs, by being patient with Licht, now have an excellent GM and staff in-house to build.
Bowles is what keeps the D together. What a performance by his group (even with the KC line in tatters) in holding Reid/Mahomes without a touchdown. Who does that? Tampa’s fortunate that the stupid hiring practices of the NFL, with 20 consecutive head coaches having been hired without waiting for the outcome of the Super Bowl, mean Bowles’ superb job Sunday night will get him zero looks for a head-coaching gig for at least the next 11 months.
So the Bucs win the Super Bowl with the oldest quarterback ever to win one, and the oldest coach ever (68) to win one. “I ain’t that old, dude!” Arians said as we wound up our talk. “That pisses me off! I feel great. I sure as hell am back next year.”
As for Brady, well, he’s sure as hell back next year too. And who knows how many years after that? Did you notice Peyton Manning, five years after playing his last football game, was on the field in the first half Sunday night, being introduced in the Class of 2021 for the Pro Football Hall of Fame? Manning and Brady were once the two best passers the league had to offer, and the best rivals in the game. Forty-one seconds before Manning waved to the crowd, Brady threw a TD pass. Nine minutes after Manning waved to the crowd, Brady threw another one.
Risky business putting an expiration date on Tom Brady.
1. Bizzarro Super Bowl week. Weirdest Super Bowl week ever, obviously. One sign of it came Friday afternoon in the Tampa Convention Center downtown, at the Super Bowl Media Center. The big days there, traditionally, are Tuesday through Thursday, with Friday also very busy with press conferences, media events, former Super Bowl stars roaming Radio Row, etc. So this year, the Media Workroom, in a nod to a healthy respect for COVID, was separated into four adjoining ballrooms with 40 available workstations in each ballroom, more spread out than I’ve ever seen at a Super Bowl—for obvious reasons.
I took these pictures at 1:31 p.m. Friday. Two of the 40-seat workrooms were empty. One had three people working. The fourth had four people working. Midday Friday, Super Bowl week, with seven people producing content for the world in Super Bowl week. Obviously, most of the limited number of reporters on-site would have been working in their hotel rooms, doing whatever it took to avoid COVID risks, particularly in a city where it seems like about half the populace is masked.
2. Carson Wentz. The Eagles are on the verge of trading him, per Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen. After Wentz’s landing spot (Indianapolis and Chicago are the most likely trade partners), the biggest issue to me is compensation. I asked one smart football person in the league the other day what logical compensation would be. “I don’t know what ‘logical’ means anymore,” this person said. “What kind of logical was the Stafford-Goff trade?” Last week, of course, the Rams traded Jared Goff plus a 2021 third-round pick and first-round picks in 2022 and ’23 for Matthew Stafford, who turns 33 this offseason and has never won a division title nor a playoff game in 12 years with the Lions.
The problem with divining proper trade value, of course, is figuring out what Wentz is right now. He played poorly in 2020 in Philadelphia, did not respond well to coaching, had a mental divorce with coach Doug Pederson, and will need both his head and arm fixed with a new team. Let’s say Chicago and Indianapolis are the top candidates. We know the Colts are interested; former Wentz offensive coordinator Frank Reich is the head coach. The Bears have 2017 Wentz-golden-year QB coach John DeFilippo as their quarterback coach. Chicago has the 20th pick in the first round, Indianapolis the 21st. My guess, and that’s all it is, is that the Bears would be more interested in trading the 20th pick plus something for Wentz than the Colts would in trading the 21st pick plus something for him. Why? The Bears are the more desperate team in 2021; coach Matt Nagy and GM Ryan Pace know their jobs are on the line, while Reich and GM Chris Ballard are solid as rocks in Indianapolis. I think Chicago would pay more in present value than Indy.
Sidebar issue: Wentz would prefer to be reunited with Reich, I’m sure. Imagine if the Bears trade for him and don’t make the playoffs in 2021 and Chicago fires Nagy and Pace—and Wentz has to start over with a new coaching staff in Chicago in 2022? That’s got to be Wentz’s nightmare scenario. But, of course, his destination is not his choice.
3. The Eagles. A buyer-beware postscript to Wentz on the market: If the cap-strapped Eagles do trade Wentz, keep a few things in mind. According to Over The Cap, Philly is already $53.5 million over the projected 2021 salary cap. A trade of Wentz, Over The Cap founder Jason Fitzgerald says, means the Eagles would have a 2021 cap charge on Wentz of $33.82 million. If they keep Wentz, his cap number as an Eagle would be $34.67 million. Translation: The Eagles save $850,000 by abandoning Wentz, at 28. Further translation: The Eagles 20 months ago were so sold on Wentz as their QB of the future that they signed him to a four-year, $128-million contract. And now they’re throwing him overboard. Shouldn’t that scare the crap out of Chicago GM Ryan Pace and Indy GM Chris Ballard? It sure would scare me, that this centerpiece of the franchise fell off the cliff so precipitously that the team that knows him best thinks he’s very likely not salvageable.
4. Trevor Lawrence’s shoulder. ICYMI, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Trevor Lawrence will throw one time for scouts before the draft—this Friday—and then have surgery on the labrum in his left, non-throwing shoulder. Rehab is likely to be finished by the time training camp begins more than five months from now, so this won’t matter to the Jaguars. Eleven weeks after surgery, Jacksonville is very likely to make the Clemson quarterback the first pick in the NFL Draft.
5. Christian McCaffrey. Through Week 2 of the 2020 season, McCaffrey played all 51 Panthers games since he was drafted in 2017. In those 51 games, he averaged 20.8 often very physical touches per game. Then, beginning in Week 3, he was sidelined by ankle, shoulder and quad injuries, playing only once the rest of the year. Does he think the first spate of injuries in his NFL life was coincidence, or a product of his previous workload?
“I don’t like to think that any past years are the reason for anything,” he told me the other day. “I think when you look around different players in the league who have experienced injury, some of them will have season-ending injuries in the first game and play 15 more years. So, some of that noise, ‘Well it’s because they’re giving him too many carries.’ — I look at a guy like Emmett Smith, who played double-digit years and in his 10th year and all that, he was an animal. He had a lot of carries and he experienced injuries. Adrian Peterson tore his knee all the way and then he was the MVP of the league the next year. For me, I say part of it was bad luck. Injuries happen in football. Looking at this offseason, I think I have an amazing plan.
“It’s the correct fuel, the correct nutrition, the correct sleep, the correct hydration. There’s no distractions. There’s no vacations. You kinda get that [vacation] out of the way and then you lock in. I’ll go four weeks on, one week off, four weeks on, one week off. That’ll get me to OTAs, which is April 19. Hopefully we have it in person this year. After that, I’ll have another three-and-a-half, four weeks of a ‘training camp’ so to say, before camp.”
Whoever his quarterback is this year in Carolina, McCaffrey’s versatility is the vital aspect of the Carolina offense, the part coordinator Joe Brady can’t do without.
6. J.J. Watt. I am just trying to read some tea leaves here. Watt is 32, tortured by losing, has to feel like he’s on the NFL’s sinking ship, sees quarterback Dehaun Watson desperate to get on one of the lifeboats from the sinking ship, knows if Watson goes he’s on the last-place team in the division in one of the last years of his career . . . I mean, add it up. Why would Watt want to stay? As I say, all I’m doing is reading tea leaves. But it won’t surprise me to see Watt try to go elsewhere this offseason.
7. Rick Gosselin. The 70-year-old football writer/historian/Hall of Fame voter from Dallas, laid up with COVID-19 and its after-effects, missed his first Super Bowl since 1983 Sunday. In January, he missed his first Hall of Fame meeting—over Zoom instead of in-person—in 25 years because he simply cannot talk for more than a couple of words without lapsing into a bad cough. His wife Ellen tested positive Jan. 4, and he followed with a positive test Jan. 14. “I still have a COVID fog—light-headed every morning that eases as the day goes on,” he told me via text the other day. “Shortness of breath and nagging cough remain. Also, zero energy level. If I walk around the block with the dog I get gassed and spend the next several hours in a recliner. I’ve been on a portable breathing machine that pumps medication into my lungs—two times a day, 16 minutes a session. And our energy levels remain near zero.” Gosselin’s the conscience of the 48-member Hall selection committee. We missed him very much this year. Get well soon, Goose.
8. The Tampa economy. I spent Friday morning with a local entrepreneur, Roberto Torres, the owner of Blind Tiger Coffee, a string of nine lovely shops in the Tampa area. We sat outside at his SoHo shop, drinking coffee and discussing the meaning of this game to the area. Pre-COVID, Tampa thought the business impact on the community would be about $350 million; now it might be 20 percent of that. When I arrived Thursday, it was like a normal COVID day in Tampa—not busy, no traffic, not a soul in the driveway when I checked into my hotel. Not quite a ghost town, but close. It filled up some Friday and Saturday. But as Torres said, the local business community wasn’t crying about it. “We reflect on the disappointment for a minute,” he said. “Whoever attends, they’re going to find an upbeat community thrilled to have the game here.” At one point, a local pizza-shop owner, Dan Bavaro, came by and chatted with Torres. He said to me: “We can’t use COVID as an excuse this week. We’ve got to let the world see Tampa shine.”
There’s much hope here that the NFL won’t let 12 years lapse between games again; the last time the Super Bowl was here was Feb. 1, 2009. As Torres said: “We’re hopeful the NFL sees everything we’ve done, and how hard we worked to make this week great, and understands the [COVID] impact here, and gives us another game this decade.” The next three games are in Los Angeles, Arizona and New Orleans, which leaves the 2025 game as the next in line. With Los Angeles in the future rotation, Las Vegas hoping to be, and so many other cities lusting for the games, it’s going to be tough for Tampa to jump the line when the next four or five games are awarded, but the locals will push hard for it.
9. Marty Schottenheimer. The eighth-winningest coach in NFL history, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 2014, entered hospice care in North Carolina nine days ago. At 77, Schottenheimer will spend his days with family at a facility near his home in Charlotte. Such a disciplined man, such a good coach, such a tireless and principled person. He won 14, 13, 13, 12, and 12 games among his 21 head-coaching seasons. There can’t have been many coaches, if any, to be double-digit games over .500 for three different teams—Cleveland (17), Kansas City (43) and San Diego (14). Talk about tireless — ask his assistants about the work they put in under Schottenheimer. What I found particularly admirable about him was his fairness and his honor. I hope the coming days are peaceful for him and his family.
10. Sean McVay. Below, in Numbers Game, you’ll see how much the Rams have paid for two starting quarterbacks, Jared Goff and now Matthew Stafford, between the 2016 and 2023 draft. The combined cost—four first-round picks, two second-round picks, two third-round picks, and $22.2 million in dead money on Goff’s contract this year—is enormous. So enormous that you could argue adroitly that no head coach in the NFL enters the 2021 season with more pressure on him than McVay. Now, McVay was not the coach when Goff was drafted, but the McVay/Goff team led the Rams to the Super Bowl in the 2018 season, and McVay was in favor of the rich contract Goff got days before the 2019 season. That contract ended up biting the Rams, and McVay, as the coach lost faith in the QB this season, leading to the deal for Stafford. McVay is thrilled with the outcome and thinks Stafford has the deep arm he covets to give the Rams a complete offense. We’ll see. But the bar will be high for Stafford and for McVay. The franchise made a Super Bowl with Goff. With a better defense than in 2018, the franchise needs to win a Super Bowl to justify the Stafford deal.
11. Allen Sills. I interviewed the NFL’s chief medical officer over the weekend in Tampa (outside, masked) on what he’s learned about playing a full 269-game season, on time, in a pandemic. Three themes:
• Constant discipline, and masks, and few indoor meetings, are vital.
“I think the most important thing I’ve learned is that we can keep ourselves safe and still carry on some semblance of our normal lives. Many times, we hear about what I call the two extremes. We hear people who say, ‘There’s no way we can do anything. We need to sort of hunker down until this is over.’ And another group of people who say, ‘This is a hoax and there’s nothing to it.’ There is a middle ground. I think that’s what we’ve tried to find. How can we do some of the things we enjoy, but do them in a safe manner? That to me has been one of the important lessons and one of the important confirmations for us.
“The other thing that I think we learned is, it wasn’t all the daily testing. It wasn’t the proximity tracking devices. Those things are great tools and they helped us be more precise. But what prevented transmission within the team was consistent mask-wearing, avoiding in-person meetings, being outside as much as possible, prompt reporting of symptoms, isolating anyone who’s been exposed. Those are the keys to avoiding spread within a team environment. The exciting thing is, those are not resource-intensive things. Those are things that a school, or a youth sports team, or a business, or a place of worship, or a place of entertainment, can enact. But you have to have buy-in from everybody. We had buy-in from everyone: players, coaches, staff.”
• Football doesn’t spread the virus.
The Titans played at Minnesota in Week 3 and immediately thereafter had 24 players and staff test positive. No Vikings players or staff in the wake of the game tested positive.
“We did learn through that experience and others through the season that spreading the virus on the field was an incredibly unlikely event. Thankfully for us, we did not see transmission anywhere during the season between teams. As we like to say, the virus did not cross this line of scrimmage. A couple of theories there. I think the outdoor or the big open-air environments are huge. There’s quick dispersal of droplets. Those spaces are all really well-ventilated, again whether you’re talking about an open-air stadium or a giant indoor stadium. Great ventilation in there. Also, the interactions between players, even though they’re tackling each other, blocking each other, when you sum all that up it’s still a really short period of time.
“The second thing I’d say we learned out of the Tennessee-Minnesota situation is prior to that, everyone focused on close contacts being within six feet or less for 15 minutes or more. Clearly, in that scenario, we figured out that those were not the limits of transmission. Transmission could occur in less than 15 minutes and in more than six feet of space.”
• It’s not over.
“I think we’ll continue to learn lessons from other sports, just like they’ve learned from us. We’ll continue to evolve and get better. But I am confident we will take those lessons forward. Whatever the state of the pandemic in 2021, we’ll have the same approach and the same goals. As we often say, ‘For health and safety, there is no finish line. There’s no final gun.’ The Super Bowl is a milestone, but we recognize we’re not finished with this virus.”
Many of you know I have followed the Red Sox for much of my life. Of all the Sox of my adulthood, Dustin Pedroia’s the one I’ve admired the most. Pedroia was Frank Gore-scrappy. He had one of the most violent swings ever, dove after every ball in the same zip code, and, at 5-7 (maybe) and 170 pounds (maybe), had to be one of this era’s most undersized overachievers. Rookie of the year in 2007, American League MVP and Gold Glove second baseman the next year (with the most runs, hits and doubles in the league). Also: so cocky, so hateable.
Pedroia retired last week. One tribute stood out. It was from a utility infielder, Garin Cecchini, who had cups of coffee with the Red Sox in 2014 and 2015. Cecchini publicly thanked Pedroia, telling a story about seeing Pedroia in the lobby of the team hotel on the rookie’s first road trip with the team at 9 a.m., commandeering him and taking him to the ballpark for a game that was 10 hours away.
So I found Cecchini, out of baseball, married and living in Lake Charles, La.. I asked him to tell me the story of that day. First, I told him it must be pretty cool to be able to look back and see that in his major-league debut, June 1, 2014, the box score shows him nestled between Pedroia 2B and Ortiz DH.
“That’s actually part of the story,” Cecchini said. “I got called up by the Red Sox. They needed a backup infielder for a day or two, and I knew I was going to get sent down right away. But it was so cool to be in Boston, suiting up. The game was at Fenway, against Tampa. My mom and dad came to the game from Louisiana. Before the game, my dad actually said to me, ‘Garin, I tell you, you’re gonna hit a ball off the Monster tonight.’ I told him, ‘Dad, I’m not playing. No chance.’
“So Pedey gets thrown out of the game, and I go in. We got no one off the bench but me in the infield, so I’m in. My first at-bat, I get called out on strikes—a pitch about 10 inches outside. Okay, that’s how you deal with the rookie—I get it. Second time up, you know Fenway, short left-field wall. The night before, in [minor-league] Pawtucket, a fly ball to left’s a routine fly ball. But this one is halfway up the wall. Double. I knock in a run.
“There’s a family room right outside the locker room. After the game, my mom and dad are in there, and my dad’s excited about my first big-league hit, obviously. Pedroia’s there with his kids. He sees me and comes over. Says to my dad, ‘Are you Cheech’s dad? Just want you to know I got thrown out on purpose! I wanted Cheech to play because I knew he was gonna get sent down!’ I mean, not true of course, but my dad still tells that story today.
“I get called back up a couple weeks later, and we got a day game and then we’re flying to the West Coast to start a series in Oakland. Our flight was delayed, and we don’t get in till after midnight. We’re in the Westin or the W, I forget which, in downtown San Francisco. The next morning I get up and eat breakfast downstairs, and I’m going up to my room, and I hear from across the lobby, ‘CHEECH! CHEECH! LET’S GO!’ It’s Pedey. Wants me to go somewhere with him. Sometimes you hear stories of the vets taking rookies out to buy them a suit. Was that what this was? I didn’t know. So I go out there in and get in a cab with him, and Pedey says to the driver, ‘Oakland Coliseum.’
“I’m wondering what’s going on. It’s like, 9 in the morning. Game’s at 7. He says, ‘Cheech, this is the big leagues. We’re going there to get ready to win.’ He starts talking about Oakland’s pitcher that night, Scott Kazmir. ‘Facin’ Kazmir today. I’ve already taken him deep, and I’m taking him deep tonight.’ We get to the ballpark, probably around 10. Clubhouse guy sees Pedey and says, ‘Of course it’s you.’ We played casino, hit in the cage, walked around the field for a while. By noon, he’s in full uni, pine tar on his right hip, ready to go, seven hours before the game. He orders Chipotle for everyone. I learned a lot from that day. I just figured, This is how it’s gonna be. I started following his lead.”
(P.S. Top of the sixth: Pedroia laces a Kazmir changeup to left. Home run.)
Cecchini: “In late September, I had a check-swing against some left-hander. I get back to the bench, and he’s all over me. ‘What the hell was that!’ I told him what I was thinking op there, and he said, ‘You think too much! There’s no check-swinging in the big leagues, Cheech!
“The Red Sox are gonna miss him. Baseball’s gonna miss him.”
Offensive Players of the Week
Rob Gronkowski, tight end, Tampa Bay. “It’s not the receiving,” Bruce Arians told me late last night. “It’s the blocking. It’s the unselfishness. He’s just an amazing person and amazing player.” Gronk, named one of the top 100 football players of all time a year ago, walked out of retirement in April and had an underwhelming offensive season . . . till Sunday night. Gronkowski caught the first two TD passes of the game: an eight-yard swing pass in the left flat to give Tampa a 7-3 lead, then a changeup route trolling the back of the end zone, catching a 17-yard TD from Brady to give the Bucs a 14-3 lead midway through the second quarter. Numbers, to Gronkowski, are fairly meaningless at this stage of his life. “It’s championships,” he told me. “Those are the meaningful things to me now.”
Tom Brady, quarterback, Tampa Bay. He came, he saw, he conquered. With three touchdown passes (to his pals Gronk and Antonio Brown), a 125.8 rating, no turnovers and total command of the Super Bowl champ Chiefs, just six months after he practiced with his new team for the first time, Brady put the final jewel on his personal crown Sunday night. The Super Bowl MVP, at age 43. It’s hard to believe what we just witnessed, and what we could well witness again next year.
Defensive Players of the Week
Shaq Barrett, outside linebacker, Tampa Bay. We all knew the danger of a neophyte tackle (a career guard, actually) moving to right tackle for the game—Andrew Wylie had played 183 snaps in his three-year NFL career before Sunday night—and the move was one of those that doomed Kansas City in the game. Barrett, who had three sacks of Aaron Rodgers in the NFC Championship Game 15 days ago, had a sack of Patrick Mahomes and six quarterback hits—two of which could easily have been sacks. Barrett led a marauding Tampa Bay defense in making Mahomes’ life miserable in the same place he riddled the Bucs for 461 passing yards just 10 weeks earlier.
— NFL (@NFL) February 8, 2021
Devin White. Repeat after me: Devin White is only 22, he’s only 22. From the first defensive snap of the game, White was dominant sideline to sideline. The game ended, perfectly, with 93 seconds to go, when White intercepted Patrick Mahomes at the goal line to cap the 31-9 erasure of the favored Chiefs. For the game, White had 12 tackles, his pick, a pass batted away and the kind of presence the interior of any defense would kill for.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Harrison Butker, kicker, Kansas City. You know it’s going to be a crummy day for the KC offense when the kicker’s better than Patrick Mahomes. And Butker was. His 49-yard field goal in the first quarterback gave Kansas City its only lead of the game (3-0), his second-quarter 34-yarder kept KC in the game at 14-6, and his 52-yarder in the third quarter would have been good from 60. All in all, the best day by a Kansas Citian was by the fourth-year kicker from Georgia Tech.
Coach of the Week
Todd Bowles, defensive coordinator, Tampa Bay. “Todd had a good plan,” said Andy Reid after the 31-9 wipeout. “He got us.” To say the least. I looked up with four minutes to go in the game and saw the two men who destroyed the Bucs in Week 12, Tyreek Hill and Patrick Mahomes, got destroyed by Bowles’ defense this time. Hill had 133 receiving yards in the first eight minutes of the first TB-KC meeting this year; he had 61 in the first 56 minutes of the Super Bowl. Mahomes threw for 461 and three touchdowns in that first game; he had a 55.4 rating and zero touchdowns before real garbage time started in the Super Bowl.
Last week in this space, Bowles the flatliner didn’t seem too concerned about a repeat performance of Nov. 29 in Super Bowl LV: “The good thing is, we’ve seen them before. Bad thing is, they killed us. I just told ‘em, ‘There’s 16 of these games, and we’re on to the next one.’ No sense in beating them into the ground.” Bowles rarely called for a blitz (didn’t need to); I bet the Bucs sent extra rushers on five or six snaps only. And that approach showed in the best big-game performance of Bowles’ coaching career.
Goat of the Week
Poise, Kansas City. I can’t give it to one player. Many are contenders. Punter Tommy Townsend choked in the first half with high-schoolish 29- and 27-yard shank jobs. Tyrann Mathieu totally lost his cool after a ticky-tack pass-interference call and an unsportsmanlike-conduct, in the span of seven killer first-half seconds. Patrick Mahomes was running for his life most of the time, but he didn’t make many winning plays either. Eleven penalties for 120 yards. Three-of-13 on third downs. This was a defending Super Bowl champion, 16-2 on the season headed into the Super Bowl? Sure didn’t look like it.
“There’s more to come.”
—Tom Brady, during the postgame trophy presentation. To the surprise of no one, Brady—who turns 44 in August—will be back for his 22nd NFL season.
“From a human standpoint, man, my heart bleeds for the family.”
—Kansas City coach Andy Reid, on the 5-year-old girl fighting for her life after being in a Thursday night car wreck reportedly involving Reid’s son Britt Reid, an outside linebackers coach for the Chiefs.
Reid was buttoned up after the game, for legal reasons, but acknowledged it. This story promises to be huge in the post-Super Bowl landscape and rightfully so.
“He’s more retired now than he was a year-and-a-half ago. I mean, he is retired … there really is no wiggle room, or rumor, or anything, as much as people would like to hear that. Believe me, I wish that was true, and I was hiding some announcement that we could release two days from now, but that’s not the case.”
—Colts owner Jim Irsay, on Andrew Luck.
“I kid around with ‘em and tell ‘em grass grows by inches and is killed by feet.”
—George Toma, known as the Sod God for his work on the turf of all 55 Super Bowl fields, on CBS This Morning, on what he tells those who need access to his Super Bowl fields on the days leading up to the game.
“You gotta tell Jed [York] and Kyle [Shanahan], just bring me back. I’d come back fast, man. Man, I would love to wear that number 21 jersey one more time.”
—Frank Gore, who turns 38 in May, to Bay Area sports station 95.7 The Game, urging the 49er brain trust to bring him back for a 17th and final NFL season.
Of the many amazing things about Gore’s career, I find this one particularly eye-popping: In his last 10 seasons, since his age-28 season in 2011, he has missed three of 169 games due to injury.
“The Patriots system is at the house eating nachos right now! Tom Brady’s ass in the Super Bowl!”
—Steve Harvey, casting a vote for Brady in the circular and unending Belichick-Brady debate at NFL Honors on Saturday night.
Memo to Sean McVay: You’d better like Matthew Stafford. Like, really like him.
The cost of a number one quarterback to the Los Angeles Rams, in total, since 2016 is quite stunning. Adding up the price tags to trade up to draft Jared Goff in 2016 and then to trade for Stafford in 2021 reveals this combined cost, spread over eight years, to the Rams: four first-round picks, two second-round picks, three third-round picks, and $80.7 million (the total earned by Goff in his five Ram seasons, per Over The Cap). Tracking the Rams’ search for a franchise QB:
• 2016: Rams trade six picks (which became seven) to the Titans to move up to pick Goff first overall in 2016, also getting two low Tennessee picks in return.
• 2017: Titans use final two picks (including the fifth pick in the first round) from the Goff trade.
• 2019: Rams sign Goff to a four-year, $134-million contract.
• 2021: Rams trade Goff plus three picks to Detroit for Stafford, eat $22.2 million in dead money for Goff on 2021 salary cap.
The pick-by-pick haul for Goff, and for Stafford:
Isn’t it amazing that, tucked in the middle of the first year of this story, two slots after a defensive tackle no one knows, is the first back-to-back rushing champ in 13 years, Derrick Henry, coming off the eighth 2,000-yard rushing season in the 101-year history of pro football?
You might have heard this was Tom Brady’s 10th Super Bowl.
Margins in the first eight: 3, 3, 3, 4, 6 (OT), 3, 4, 8.
“Groundhog Day” was aired six times in succession on AMC last Tuesday.
Sitting in the Sparkman Wharf entertainment complex near downtown Tampa on Saturday at 3 p.m., crowds walking through, counting the masked versus unmasked over a ridiculously unscientific 10-minute period:
Last person I counted: Unmasked. Thirtyish man walking a dog. The fellow was wearing a T-shirt with this on the front: SOCIALism DISTANCING.
Man. What has happened to us?
Congratulations to the greatest of all time.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) February 8, 2021
Guess that brings halftime to an nd
— Dan Rubenstein (@DanRubenstein) February 8, 2021
Rubenstein co-hosts the popular college football podcast, Solid Verbal.
There are two types of people in this world: Those that admire and appreciate the career of Tom Brady, and those that are idiots.
— Andy Garms (@atgarms) February 8, 2021
Andy Garms lives in Santa Monica, Calif.
— TJ Watt (@_TJWatt) February 7, 2021
Watt, the NFL sack leader in 2020, posted this when Aaron Donald was named Defensive Player of the Year. I just can’t guess what he might have been referring.
Another Pedroia memory: he had a fat stack of 100s in the clubhouse one day. I was staring at the most cash I had ever seen. He said, “It’s tip money, bro. You gotta take care of the people who take care of you. This is the big leagues, bro.”
— The Camera Guys (@NBCSCameraGuys) February 1, 2021
Camera crew from NBC Sports Boston, after the retirement of Dustin Pedroia last week.
Tony Boselli deserves to be in the Hall. From David Saks: “The failure by the Hall of Fame selection committee to elect Tony Boselli to the Hall of Fame for the umpteenth time is embarrassing. No one can deny his talent and that he was one of the best tackles ever. He was the perfect blend of length, size, athleticism and nasty disposition. He dominated his era and was selected to the all-decade team of the nineties. Hall of Fame defensive linemen such as Bruce Smith and Jason Taylor have publicly acknowledged that he was the best. The only knock on him is the length of his career. That appears to be disingenuous in light of that glass ceiling being shattered by the recent selections, including Terrell Davis. The concern amongst Jaguars fans is that the selection process has become a bit of an old boys’ club and the centennial class seemed to confirm that with media darlings such as Bill Cowher being selected over genuine senior candidates such as Drew Pearson (thank goodness that has now been rectified). Do the right thing Peter and plead his case!”
David, I empathize with you. If you’ve read my column, you know that I think Boselli deserves to be in the Hall. I write more about Boselli below.
This is a good idea. From Daniel R. Wise: “Regarding the supposed disadvantage some assistant coaches face whose teams advance in the playoffs: One possible suggestion I thought of would be to give teams that wait to hire coaches a compensatory draft pick, similar to the minority hiring. Although this time it would be the hiring team getting the pick. For example, had the Texans waited to hire someone from Tampa Bay or Kansas City until after the Super Bowl they would get an extra third-round pick.”
I like the concept of this, Daniel. Thanks for the idea. Anything to slow down the process is progress.
Upset about me lionizing 2-3 Jet Chip Wasp. From John Maxwell, of San Francisco: “How can you continually talk about the ‘magic’ of that play without at least pointing out the egregious choke-hold of a hold [by Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher] on Nick Bosa? . . . Without the holding, Bosa is clear and running full steam at Mahomes and there would not have been enough time for the play to succeed. If it is called, it’s third and a mile and the Chiefs likely run it or call a screen. It pains me to no end that Jet Chip Wasp is being treated by people—yourself very much included—as some iconic magical play that is on par with The Catch or something similar. When I watch it, all I see is a very blatant hold that the [umpire] has a clear view of, but decides to do nothing about. Yes, I’m a 49er fan but how is there not more controversy surrounding that play?”
I went back and watched the play, from a few different angles. I remember Niner fans raising a stink about that play after the game. If it’s a hold by Fisher, it’s a close call. I see Bosa try to get around Fisher to Fisher’s right, and when they’re engaged nearly behind center and Mahomes prepares to launch the ball, I see Fisher’s right arm spread across Bosa’s sternum. That’s where the hold might have been called, but it didn’t look egregious to me. I never saw Bosa “clear” and having any sort of chance at “running full steam” at Mahomes.
The last point I’d make is this, John: KC trailed by 10 with minutes to go, and this play was the key to the game. It was not nullified by penalty. It happened. It’s real. To act like the play shouldn’t count, or it is somehow so tarnished that we should either ignore it when discussing the game or pretend some other play was the game-turner or affix every mention of the Chiefs win with an asterisk about a holding call that might have been made midway through the fourth quarter . . . well, it’s just not sensible.
1. I think I owe it to you to be up-front about my Pro Football Hall of Fame ballot, and so here it is, now that we have seen the results of the Jan. 19 voting. The 48-member panel has to vote yes or no on the three nominees from the Seniors committee, the Contributors committee and the Coaches committee. Then, we heard the cases for the 15 modern-era finalists. We had to vote for our top 10 by secret ballot. When that was tabulated, we had to vote by secret ballot for our top five. Here’s my balloting:
• Seniors nominee: Dallas WR Drew Pearson. Voted yes. All-decade player of the seventies, gave birth to the Hail Mary, vital to the great early Dallas teams.
• Contributors nominee: Pittsburgh scout Bill Nunn. Voted yes. Easiest vote other than Peyton Manning. Brought so many greats from HBCUs to the Steeler dynasty.
• Coaches nominee: Tom Flores. Voted no. Appreciate and acknowledge the two Super Bowl wins, particularly without a franchise QB and in a turbulent time for the franchise. Appreciate the significance of his life and career on Hispanic players and coaches. But I thought his case was shy because of being over .500 in six of 12 coaching years, averaging 8.8 wins a year (including playoffs) as a head coach, and being 14-34 in his only job away from the Raiders, in Seattle. I’ve heard for years that Seattle doesn’t matter because of bad ownership and a bad team. Everything matters. It’s a quarter of his head-coaching career.
• Modern-era candidates: On the vote to cut the finalists from 15 to 10, I voted for Peyton Manning, John Lynch, Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson, Tony Boselli, Zach Thomas, Alan Faneca, Richard Seymour, Calvin Johnson and Sam Mills. (I voted to eliminate Leroy Butler, Torry Holt, Reggie Wayne, Ronde Barber, Jared Allen.) On the cut from 10 to five, I voted for Manning, Woodson, Johnson, Lynch and Matthews.
Father and son. Hall of Fame here we come pic.twitter.com/Hma8s8DSqE
— Brandon Stokley (@bstokley14) February 7, 2021
• Manning was easy, Woodson slightly less so, Johnson a very strong candidate—easily the best of the three receivers in the finalist class. After that, for me, it was Lynch, Boselli and Matthews, in some order. As for Alan Faneca, he absolutely deserves induction, and I’m glad he got in. But for my 4-5-6: Lynch for me was four. He was the boss of the back end for one of the great defenses of our time—Warren Sapp in front, Derrick Brooks in the middle, Lynch in back. I believe he belongs, and the final piece of evidence came when I researched Lynch’s late-career prowess. As 35, in Denver, as a I wrote recently, Lynch was exiting the game as the analytics era began. Lynch’ last full-time starting season came in 2006, the first season that Pro Football Focus graded every player at every position for every play. When comparing Lynch’s grade in 2006 to the top four vote-getters at safety this year in the All-Pro voting, here’s how they stacked up: Minkah Fitzpatrick 79.5, Budda Baker 75.3, 2006 Lynch 73.4, Jamal Adams 64.2, Tyrann Mathieu 64.1. Lynch could be a Lott-type intimidator, a defensive quarterback, and a physical cover guy. He could play down in the box.
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