“Do you believe,” I asked Roger Goodell on the eve of the most unpredictable NFL season of our time, “that you may have to play a season where every team does not play a full 16-game schedule?”
“I don’t know,” Goodell said Friday afternoon. “We’re prepared if we have to do that. We’ve obviously gone through work on that basis with teams. There will be potential competitive inequities that will be required this season because of the virus and because of the circumstances that we wouldn’t do in other years. That’s going to be a reality of 2020. If we feel like we have an outbreak, that’s going to be driven by medical decisions—not competitive decisions.”
Labor Day. It’s beginning to feel like an NFL season. Final cuts made, fantasy drafts held, Jadeveon Clowney signed, Houston-Kansas City four nights away. The specter of COVID-19 hangs over the season, with daily virus tests for players, coaches and team employees continuing into the future; most stadiums prepared to ban fans at the start of the season; weird standards of 75-decibels max for in-stadium noise levels; and restrictive travel rules for road teams.
It’s all unsettling. But it’s real. It’s here. If this is what it takes to see Mahomes magic, and Tom Brady as a Buc, and Cam Newton huddling with Bill Belichick on the sideline, and the sick new stadia in L.A. and Vegas, and for America to be able to forget its pandemic and unemployment and debt and virtual-school nightmares for a few hours every Sunday, Monday and Thursday, then the NFL’s going to be hardline about the rules. Good.
If you love football and want to see the season happen, don’t cry about the little things. This year will be full of them—like the Eagles using one of their 16 practice-squad spots on a player who will be on the team virtually. From 1,436 miles away, in east Texas. Josh McCown, the 41-year-old quarterback, will be an insurance policy joining quarterback and team meetings on Zoom. “If there’s an outbreak on the Eagles, Josh will be away from the team and ready,” agent Mike McCartney said Sunday.
Goodell, when we spoke, sounded temporarily confident. He sounded like a man who’s doing as much as he can do to ensure the season, somehow, gets played in full—even though he knows postponing or canceling during the season might be a reality, particularly if a second wave of the virus hits.
When I asked if he’s confident the season gets played to its completion, he said: “I am. But I will tell you this: We’re never going to get comfortable. If confident means we’re comfortable, then that’s not where we are . . . We all have to do our part here to be successful in completing our season. I think we have a plan that will get us there.”
The only way to handle a pandemic in a shifting landscape, Goodell thinks, “is just trying not to predict what the circumstances are going to be two weeks in advance, or even a week in advance. As an example, the draft. People said, Well, it may not be the right environment to do the draft. I said it might not be, and I’m going to be prepared to make that judgment and make that decision. But if we’re not prepared to go, then I’ve taken that option out of my control, right? Football people were bonkers—people I love and respect and admire. ‘We can’t do this.” . . . As it turned out, we were just on the other side of the peak. It was really an important time for the country. We needed something to grasp onto.”
Despite lingering controversies—the scandal surrounding Washington and staining the franchise, the unemployment of Colin Kaepernick—this has been the best calendar year of Goodell’s 14-year tenure. A decade-long labor agreement got negotiated on the eve of the pandemic, meaning the NFL will have had 43 years of labor peace in a contentious time by the end of this CBA. Free agency at the start of the pandemic was a bumpy ride, but it got done. GMs cursed the league for insisting the draft be held on time, but it was an everyman event that showed the league wouldn’t dissolve if GMs had to draft from their rec rooms at home. While social upheaval wracked the country, Goodell, from his basement, looked into a camera and said, “Black lives matter.” A daily testing program, costing the NFL untold millions, and pristine team facilities showed that football, at least in August, could be practiced safely; as camps broke, only four of 2,700 players were on the COVID-19 reserve list.
The season may have fits and starts, but who would have thought the preseason would have brought basically zero significant problems due to a pandemic brushfiring across the United States? You might hate Goodell—he still will be booed vociferously in public this year, if there are public appearances of any kind—but there’s no denying he and his league deserve a high grade for handling a total unknown with aplomb.
Three other points from my conversation with Goodell:
• On Kaepernick. I asked him if he was “dispirited” that Kaepernick, three years after his social protests ignited calls for racial justice in all sports, is still not on an NFL roster. Goodell didn’t answer directly. “Those are club decisions,” he said. “I’ve encouraged teams to evaluate that and sign him if they feel that’s the case. I’m happy if Kaep gets an opportunity but that’s, you know . . . Teams don’t usually ask me for advice on football hires.” Then I asked if Kaepernick not being on a team mars the social work the NFL has been doing. “No,” he said. “How could it, when our players are out and for the last several years, players and teams are making important changes in their community with important programs?”
• On the reaction of President Trump when players start kneeling, or demonstrating, when the season begins. “You know the president is going to hit you with a two-by-four,” I said. Goodell wouldn’t bite. “With all due respect, I don’t know those things,” he said, then launched into a list of things the players have done in the community. Maybe everyone’s sick of the back-and-forth. But it’s going to happen. “I guess you know these things,” Goodell said. “You’re going into hypotheticals, you know, maybe it will, maybe it won’t. I think we said we’re going to support our players. This is a peaceful protest and we’re going to support them if they choose to do that.”
• On the long-term lessons from the pandemic. Said Goodell: “I’m convinced—this has been another one of my mantras—it forces you to innovate and it will change things we do long-term. There’s no question to me, teams are going to change the ways they do interviews, the way they travel and scout, and the way we’re going to do the draft in the future … Virtual meetings are going to be here to stay. We’re going to do that with league meetings. I’m not saying we won’t have any in-person league meetings, but we’ll have a lot more [virtual meetings]. We’re all going to travel less, right? We’re all going to do things differently than we did them before. Not because of COVID, but just because we’ve learned to operate differently. I think that’s true with football.”
Happy Labor Day. Stay tuned in a busy column for:
• A zany Super Bowl pick. A predictable MVP.
• My two rookies of the year were not drafted in the top 30.
• You know what the last 15 Super Bowl champs have in common? They did not win the Super Bowl the next year.
• The new way NFL officials will work this year, and the new men directing the zebras.
• Clowney settled for less in guaranteed one-year money than the $15 million he wanted. Another prove-it year for him, this time in Tennessee.
• Elway vs. Strawberry?
• What John Thompson meant to NFL coaches.
• Lombardi still matters, 50 years after his death.
• I know no one likes Josh Rosen, but I’d sure as heck pick him up if I was lukewarm on my backup.
• Why Belichick really gushed over Cam. (My theory, anyway.)
• “Call me anytime you need me.”
Now we come to the masochistic point of the program. Time to make the picks.
We’ll start in the AFC. I’ll put the best teams in three tiers. One: Kansas City, Baltimore. Two: Tennessee. Three (not in order): Buffalo, Miami, New England, Indianapolis, Houston, Pittsburgh, Las Vegas, Denver. In other words, the fight for the last four playoff spots will be fierce.
I thought one of the most interesting things about this unusual preseason was inside the Super Bowl ring awarded to every Kansas City champion player and coach last week. The score of all three playoff victories was carved there, along with the deficits in each game: 24 to Houston, 10 to Tennessee, 10 (with eight minutes left in the game) to San Francisco. It was a gallant postseason by an excellent team, a team that returns 20 of 22 starters and 20 of 21 coaches.
I don’t have a logical reason to tell you that Kansas City won’t win again. I just have history. It’s happened twice in 25 years. Even the teams that looked peerless—the 2010 champion Packers went 15-1 the next year and got creamed by the Giants in the divisional game—turned out to be flawed. So we’ll see. We also don’t know how COVID-19 will factor into the season, if at all, or whether quieter stadia will matter. And KC’s road schedule (Baltimore; Buffalo on a short-week Thursday; Tampa Bay; New Orleans) is one of the toughest in the league. But I know: It’s foolish to bet against Mahomes and the deepest trove of weapons in the AFC. I just think it’ll be harder this year.
Niblets on the contenders:
• Baltimore. I’m nettled a bit by Lamar Jackson’s two straight playoff clunkers (51-percent passing, 68.3 rating) but think two games do not a reputation make. The Ravens have the most advantageous schedule and road schedule in football. Their 2020 foes had the worst combined record in football last year. And after playing at Houston in Week 2, Baltimore’s longest road trip is a 70-minute flight (Indy). The Mark Ingram–J.K. Dobbins one-two punch should be the best in the AFC.
• As for Tennessee, if you read my column last week, you know Tennessee has something special with offensive coordinator Arthur Smith calling the shots—with lots of changeup pitches—in a versatile offense. Did you know Ryan Tannehill last year had the best passer rating from a clean pocket, and the best rating in the game since 2013? Third-round pick Darrynton Evans, if healthy, should be the changeup to Derrick Henry that Smith has wanted. The defense is a concern. But no contender needed the impact of a Jadeveon Clowney more than Tennessee’s defensive front, and so the Titans bought him Saturday night. They’ll need him to chase Drew Lock in Denver in a dangerous game next Monday night.
• Buffalo will be good enough on defense, but Josh Allen worries me. The Bills were held under 20 points in their last five games of 2019. Is the addition of Stefon Diggs enough to get them off the offensive schneid?
• The Tua Tagovailoa watch is on in Miami. But if the Dolphins win 10 games as I think they can, the more important additions will come on defense, in corner Byron Jones and versatile linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
• New England is the mystery team of the NFL, and I’m sure Bill Belichick likes it that way. While the world will rightfully focus on the acclimation of Cam Newton to Belichickland, watch and see how the Patriots adjust to the loss of four starting-caliber linebackers.
• In Indianapolis, I could see Marlon Mack and Jonathan Taylor being 1,000-yard rushing twins. Frank Reich would sleep better if he didn’t have to rely on Philip Rivers to throw for 340 every week to have a chance to win.
• Why are these numbers significant for Houston: 41, 38, 35, 51? Point totals for foes in four of the Texans’ last nine games, and I don’t see how their defense is much better.
• Since turning 33 in 2015, Ben Roethlisberger has missed 22 starts due to injury for Pittsburgh, 14 of them last year. If he plays 16 games at 38, the Steelers could upset Baltimore and win the division. “Could,” not necessarily “will.” But coming off major elbow surgery, that’s a gamble.
• So much of the Las Vegas allure is their strong base of young talent. Will Derek Carr be good enough and consistent enough to lift Henry Ruggs to greatness and the other offensive weapons to 10 wins? It’s on Carr.
• Denver has changed its offensive identity like no other team in football over the last 18 months. If Drew Lock is even a “B” quarterback, Denver has a chance to make a huge jump from a team that’s won 5, 6 and 7 games the last three years.
AFC Playoff Seeds
- Kansas City
- Las Vegas
AFC Championship Game
Jan. 24, 2021, at Baltimore: Baltimore 27, Tennessee 22.
Three tiers for the NFC. One: New Orleans, San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas, Tampa Bay. Two: Minnesota, Philadelphia. Three: Detroit, Green Bay, Arizona, L.A. Rams.
This conference is a nightmare to predict. I woke up early the other day, sat down, scrawled out NFC playoff seedings, and then Sunday put them in an altogether different order. I’ve gone through a period where I thought I’d have Seattle leapfrog everyone into the top seed, but then I figured being in the toughest division in football could give them three division losses. Dallas is the top seed not because I think the Cowboys are the runaway best team but because they’re good, because their front seven should be a monster and their offensive attack very hard to stop, and because they’ve got six games against Cincinnati, Cleveland, the Giants and Washington. New Orleans is a logical top seed, and this is their last best chance in a jumbled conference to give the Saints chance for a second Super Bowl in the Drew Brees era, in probably his last football game. San Francisco, up by two scores with eight minutes left in the Super Bowl and with so many key guys returning, is a logical pick, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Niners went 12-4 and steamed to the top seed. I’m picking Seattle to edge the Niners in the division. It’s overly simplistic to say it’s a referendum on the quarterbacks, but that has much to do with it. I trust Russell Wilson over Jimmy Garoppolo.
I have waffled between the Saints, Seahawks, Niners and Bucs. Now I’m landing on the Bucs to survive the gauntlet of the NFC, and to be the first team ever to play the Super Bowl on their home field.
It’s crazy, picking a 43-year-old quarterback in his first year out of the New England cocoon to make the Super Bowl. It would be Tom Brady’s 10th Super Bowl, by the way, a totally insane achievement that I doubt sincerely will ever be repeated in any of our lifetimes. Three reasons for picking the Bucs:
1. Brady. Jameis Winston threw 30 interceptions in 16 games last year. Brady has thrown 30 interceptions in his last 64 games. You can be pretty sure the Bucs’ turnover numbers—an astounding 41 giveaways—will be cut in half, or close to that, this year. A telling note about the 41 giveaways: The last team to have that many in a season was Cleveland, in 2017. The Browns went 0-16 that year. The Bucs won seven games while turning it over 2.6 times a game. So to put the ball in the hands of a caretaker who still is playing well should pay dividends. (Pro Football Focus metrics counter the common wisdom that Brady had a poor year in 2019, and point out his Patriot receiver group collectively had the worst season of any receiver in the 14 years PFF has been grading every snap of NFL games). His third tight end in Tampa, Cameron Brate, would have been a top-end starter in New England last year. Other than Julian Edelman, the Bucs have five weapons this year (Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and someone you will hear more about this year, smurfy and speedy Scotty Miller) better than any the Pats had in the passing game. The run game, with Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette, will be at least as good as the one New England had last year. Plus, Brady has heard and filed away everything in the public view about him. Too old, washed up, can’t win without Belichick. “Everybody’s got an opinion about a lot of different things,” Brady told me in camp, and you could tell what he thinks about those opinions. “My opinion is the only one that matters to me. In the end, you can prove them wrong or prove them right.”
2. It’s honestly not that big a leap from 7-9 to the conference title. Remember late last season? The Bucs had won four in a row, holding four foes to 21 points a game, entering the last two games against Houston and Atlanta. Winston’s six picks in those two games led to two one-possession losses. Tampa would have won 10 games with an efficient offense last year. Winning 10 or 11 this year is certainly not hard to envision.
3. Winning in January on the road. Brady’s done it in Pittsburgh twice. He did it two years ago, at 41, in Kansas City, outdueling Patrick Mahomes. With the formidable Saints favored (logically) to win the South, it’s possible Brady would need three January road wins to make the Super Bowl. Tough duty. The Super Bowl has been won by a team with a first-round playoff bye for seven straight years. But particularly in a year when home-field advantage might be diminished because of COVID (“might”), it’s not such a leap to think there could be a Giants of ’07 or Packers of ’10, a low seed that runs the table on the road to win the Super Bowl. Think of the road Tampa might have to travel to win the conference as a low seed: winning at Seattle, Dallas and New Orleans, let’s say, in a 15-day span. Ten years ago, Green Bay had to win at Philly, Atlanta and Chicago—the top three seeds—in 15 days. The difference here, of course, is that Brady’s used to big games in January and no one else on the Bucs is; they haven’t been to the playoffs in 13 years. So Brady will have a lot to shoulder if this happens.
Notes on the rest of the contenders:
• A three-way battle in the NFC North, I think, falls Minnesota, Detroit and Green Bay, in that order. The Vikes’ running game is strong, and the trade of Stefon Diggs for Justin Jefferson, in time, will be a win for Minnesota. Detroit was averaging 391 yards per game on offense at midseason, top five in the league, when Matthew Stafford was lost for the year. Not sure of the ratio in the backfield now that Adrian Peterson is a Lion, but the run game will be good enough. The defense will have four ex-Pats starting, but the most important addition will be cornerback Jeff Okudah, who needs to be a day-one stopper with Aaron Rodgers, Kyler Murray and Drew Brees on the schedule in the first month. As for the Packers, they did nothing to help a needy receiver corps, and they return the same core on D (minus linebacker Blake Martinez) that allowed 37 points to the Niners twice in the last eight games
• Philadelphia has an unsettled offensive line and questions at receiver; I’m dying to see how Jalen Hurts, the second-round Swiss-Army-Knife rookie, fits in.
• Arizona fascinates me. The Cards are one of those teams, suddenly explosive with DeAndre Hopkins and the underrated Kenyan Drake in the backfield who will explode on any given Sunday and embarrass some good teams.
• The Rams went from the Super Bowl to a shaky 9-7 team, out of the playoffs, three times allowing 44 points or more. They need Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey to play like the best in the league at their positions, and they need Jared Goff to play like a $33-million-a-year quarterback, not like a guy they exited the season with major questions about.
NFC Playoff Seeds
- New Orleans
- San Francisco
- Tampa Bay
NFC Championship Game
Jan. 24, 2021, at New Orleans: Tampa Bay 23, New Orleans 17.
Super Bowl LV
Feb. 7 (or thereabouts), 2021, at Tampa: Tampa Bay 30, Baltimore 26.
What a story that would be.
The winners, and runners up, of the top NFL awards in 2020:
MVP: Patrick Mahomes, quarterback, Kansas City (2. Dak Prescott, 3. Tom Brady, 4. Lamar Jackson). MVPs go to big winners or guys with stats far better than others. Mahomes could do both. You see Brady on the list, and for him to have a chance, I’d guess the Bucs would need to win around 11 games, and Brady would need to be a top-three quarterback. Could be a fascinating race. Darkhorse: Matthew Stafford.
Coach: Mike McCarthy, Dallas (2. Brian Flores, 3. John Harbaugh, 4. Kliff Kingsbury). Jerry Jones hired McCarthy for his contending pedigree, and if Dallas wins the NFC’s top seed, McCarthy proved Jones right. I also think McCarthy’s quarterback-nerdiness will be a great add for Dak Prescott, who will have his best NFL season.
Offensive player: DeAndre Hopkins, wide receiver, Arizona (2. Patrick Mahomes, 3. Dak Prescott, 4. Clyde Edwards-Helaire). Edges Michael Thomas in receptions and yards, and becomes the heir to Larry Fitzgerald as the big weapon for Kyler Murray over the next five years. Voters often like to give the offensive player to a different guy than the MVP (Todd Gurley in 2017, Michael Thomas in 2019), and this continues the recent trend.
Defensive player: Aaron Donald, defensive tackle, Rams (2. T.J. Watt, 3. Khalil Mack, 4. Aldon Smith). J.J. Watt won three DPOYs by the time he was 26. If Donald wins, he’d have three by age 29. He’s been so dominant, obviously, and I see nothing standing in the way of him doing just what Watt did: win three DPOYs in a span of four seasons.
Offensive rookie: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, running back, Kansas City (2. Henry Ruggs, 3. CeeDee Lamb, 4. Michael Pittman). The 32nd pick in April will have every chance to fill the role Kareem Hunt did as a rookie: 325 rushes/receptions, 1,782 yards, 11 touchdowns, an NFL rushing title. With 20 chances per game (my projection, not necessarily Andy Reid’s) in Kansas City’s spread scheme, it’s a gold mine of production waiting to happen.
Defensive rookie: Josh Uche, linebacker, New England (2. Chase Young, 3. Jeff Okudah, 4. Willie Gay). The 60th pick in the draft is intriguing because he’s a little undersized (6-3, 230) and he played only 53 percent of the defensive snaps at Michigan last year. He may not play more than that in Foxboro, but his production around the edge could mimic Kyle Van Noy’s last year in the best season of Van Noy’s life. The Michigan tape of Uche (pronounced “OO-chay”) suggests the versatility and production Bill Belichick demands from his linebackers.
Comeback player: Aldon Smith, pass-rusher, Dallas (2. Alex Smith, 3. Ben Roethlisberger, 4. A.J. Green). If Alex Smith plays one snap this year, I might change my mind. His comeback is one for the ages. Aldon Smith hasn’t played in the NFL since November 2015. He abused himself out of football, and he’s going to have a chance to be the disruptive pass-rusher he once was this fall on a good team. Reports out of Cowboys camp are raves.
Executive: Jason Licht, GM, Tampa Bay (2. Eric DeCosta, 3. Chris Grier, 4. Mike Mayock). Signed Tom Brady. Traded for Ron Gronkowski. Pilfered Leonard Fournette. Good enough for me. There’s this added COVID note: Licht survived a Zoom draft night when, in the middle of trade talks with the Raiders, he paused while one of his children shrieked from outside his faux draft room, “MOMMY!!!!”
1. The career of Josh McCown simply will not end. Per Adam Schefter, the Eagles are investing $12,000 a week on 41-year-old Josh McCown to be a practice-squad player. QB insurance for Carson Wentz. McCown will live with his family in Texas (he has two boys playing high school football in east Texas) and be available if Wentz or backups Nate Sudfeld or Jalen Hurts aren’t available, for injury or COVID reasons. Here’s how it happened: The agent for McCown, Mike McCartney, thought of the idea—a quarterback in a pandemic being offsite and safe, and if there’s an outbreak, he’d be in position to help. He called McCown, who was interested. He called Eagles GM Howie Roseman. “Howie said, ‘What can I do to get Josh?’ “ McCartney said Sunday afternoon. With the relaxed practice squad rules (there can be six vets on the inactive unit) and the expansion of the practice squad to 16 players, making McCown an insurance policy will cost the Eagles $204,000 for the regular season. “The Eagles love Josh, and he loves them,” McCartney said. McCown will participate in quarterback meetings, by videoconference, from his home in Texas. And if he’s needed, he’d have to be signed to the active roster and pass at least two COVID tests before he could practice with the team and be on-site.
2. Jadeveon Clowney to the Titans. Makes sense for Tennessee, which now has scotch-taped a pass-rush together with two guys on one-year deals (Vice Beasley, Clowney) with lots to prove. I trust Clowney more than Beasley, through Clowney has played only one full season out of six in the league and has never had a double-digit sack year. He’s a dangerous player when healthy, and he solidifies the Titans’ chances to win their first AFC South title since 2008. Clowney lives in Houston, and that’s where he hosted Saints coach Sean Payton Friday night for dinner, with Payton hoping to recruit Clowney as a final defensive puzzle piece to an already good unit. But the Titans bid a little more (a reported $12 million to the Saints’ $10 million), and Clowney will have a shot now to put together a complete season and try to strike it rich on the market for the third straight year in 2021.
3. Which led to this doozy of a story Sunday from Tom Pelissero and Ian Rapoport of NFL Network. The Saints were trying to pull a sign-and-trade deal with an undisclosed team. If it worked, per Pelissero and Rapoport, the Saints would have dealt a draft pick to a team, that team would have signed Clowney for a $10-million base salary and $5-million bonus, the team would have paid the bonus and traded Clowney to New Orleans for an undisclosed player. Pelissero and Rapoport reported the NFL wouldn’t allow it. What I heard Sunday night is the Saints were prompted to try this when they heard another team was efforting the same sort of sign-and-trade deal.
4. A Hard Knocks angle. Usually when “Hard Knocks” shows a guy behind the scenes, it’s a guy the team has plans for—either on the roster or the practice squad. One of the lesser-light stars of the series this year is a seventh-round Rams pick, a linebacker from Baylor named Clay Johnston. His dad, former Packers strength coach Kent Johnston, was the best man at Brett Favre’s wedding. So it was a cool moment in the show when Favre FaceTimed Clay Johnston at training camp. “Papa Favre!” said the surprised kid. Well, Clay Johnston was cut over the weekend, and the Rams wanted to re-sign him to the practice squad, but his former Baylor coach, Matt Rhule, pilfered Johnston for his own practice squad in Carolina. Kind of a cool story.
5. The Cowboys really blew it with Dak Prescott. The upshot of the four-year, $156-million extension signed by Deshaun Watson in Houston on Saturday: Good for the Texans, having their franchise quarterback locked in through 2025; bad for the Dallas Cowboys. QB contracts are always monopoly money deals. If you think about how stupid they sound (My gosh: Goff’s making $33.5 million a year!), you’ll get paralyzed into doing nothing, or hung up on how long a deal you should do.
On April 1, 2019, when the Cowboys and Dak Prescott should have been on the verge of getting a deal done, this was the toteboard of leading average salaries for quarterbacks: Aaron Rodgers $33.5 million, Matt Ryan $30 million, Kirk Cousins $28 million, Jimmy Garoppolo $27.5 million. Maybe Prescott could have slotted in for four or five years at $34-to-$37-million per. In the 17 months since, seven quarterbacks have signed deals for $32 million a year or more, on average. And Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson killed the market, at $45 million and $39 million, respectively. So now, how will Dallas get Prescott to do a deal long-term? How will the Cowboys get him to take a hometown discount (fat chance) to stay at the helm of America’s Team?
I agree that Prescott is not Mahomes. And if I had to choose between Watson and Prescott, give me Watson. But side by side, the Prescott-Watson comparison is pretty close: Watson 4 rating points better, 1 completion-percentage point better, but Prescott (in 26 more games) better in TD-to-pick ratio, plus-61 to plus-42. In short, they’re comparable. Final point: Not doing a deal in 2019 hurts Dallas even more when you consider the cap could plummet to $175 million for 2021 and perhaps longer. The moral of the story is you never win when you wait to pay a quarterback. Never.
6. The most interesting quarterback depth chart in recent history. After cutting Mike Glennon and Josh Dobbs, the Jags (who might not be done roster-shuffling) go with this order behind center: 1. Gardner Minshew, 2. Jake Luton. Neat notes: Minshew, the 2019 sixth-round pick from the Pac-12 (Washington State), opened last year as the backup Jags’ QB; Luton, the 2020 sixth-round pick from the Pac-12 (Oregon State), opens this year, at least for now, as the backup Jags’ QB.
7. The Adrian Peterson cutting in Washington is not surprising. Peterson is 35. Heirs Antonio Gibson (22) and Bryce Love (23), both favorites of Ron Rivera, will combine to count $1.7-million on the cap in 2020, less than 1 percent of Washington’s salary cap. Not too hard to figure this one out.
8. The saga of Josh Rosen. Follow the NFL career of Josh Rosen:
• April 26, 2018: Arizona traded first, third and fifth-round pick to the Raiders to move from 15 to 10 in the first round and draft the UCLA quarterback. “There were nine mistakes made ahead of me, and I’ll make sure over the next decade or so they’ll know they made those mistakes,” Rosen said, in one of the all-time draft-night quotes that will haunt the man who said it. The Raiders used the picks on their current starting and backup left tackle (Kolton Miller, Brandon Parker) and traded one of them for Pittsburgh wideout Martavis Bryant.
• April 26, 2019: Arizona traded Rosen to Miami for a second-round pick in 2019 and fifth in 2020. The Cards spent the second on wideout Andy Isabella, currently a backup, and traded the fifth back to Miami for running back Kenyan Drake, who earned the 2020 starting job by finishing the year with 363 rushing yards and seven TDs in his last three games for Arizona in 2019.
• Sept. 4, 2020: Miami cut Rosen, who made $13,578,066 for going 3-13 in his two NFL stops.
• Sept. 6, 2020: Josh Ballinger Lippincott Rosen, less than 17 months after being the 10th pick in the draft, passed through waivers unclaimed.
The quietest event of the NFL offseason was the upheaval in the officiating department. Instead of having senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron—who had a very uneven year as the replay czar in 2019—return to run every aspect of officiating, the NFL gave Riveron replay review duties only, and without the pass-interference review process. (The league in the spring voted down coaches’ ability to challenge interference calls and non-calls.) Taking over Riveron’s other duties: 21-year NFL coach Perry Fewell, who will oversee day-to-day officiating operations and be in charge of taking the (mostly) angry calls from coaches and GMs after games; and 24-year NFL official Walt Anderson, who takes charge of training and development of game officials.
It’s expected Riveron will be still be the public face of explaining replay-review calls during and after games. To joust with coaches and GMs, Fewell will have a quick transition, with no preseason games, after finishing last season as Carolina’s interim coach. “It’s like a new birth,” Fewell told me Friday. “I’ve never been an official. I watched video totally different as a coach than I do now in officiating. I know there will be firestorms, but there were firestorms for me for 21 years as an NFL coach.”
Anderson’s role is the most intriguing. He’s bringing a more scientific approach to the job. “When I was hired,” said Anderson, a retired dentist, “we knew we had to take a fresh look at officiating the game in terms of mechanics.” That approach would include something that seems counter-intuitive to those watching the game, because it could have on-field officials being further away from plays when they have to make precise calls.
As Anderson explained to me, the new method he has brought to NFL officiating involves something called the vestibulo-ocular reflex, which is the human reflex that aims to stabilize one’s ability to focus when the head is moving. Imagine you’re running, your head bobbing, and you’re trying to focus on a nearby action. The more your head is moving and bobbing, the harder it is to see something with precision. “When you start moving and your eyes are bouncing around and you’re trying to see something very specific,” Anderson said, “you’re exceeding the threshold of being able to see things clearly.”
So Anderson engaged some experts in the fields of vision and mental processing. They recommended that officials should slow down and/or stop as a play they need to officiate reaches its climax. This, the experts said, will allow the officials to see a play more clearly, even if they’re a few yards further away. Anderson called this climax “the mesh point,” and said when an official sees the mesh point about to be reached, he should slow down and give his eyes the chance to focus on that point. “If your eyes are bouncing around and you’re trying to see something very specific, you’re exceeding the threshold of being able to see things clearly,” Anderson said. “The biggest change is we will be on the move less when critical moments of a play happen. By moving less, it should increase the ability to see a play more clearly.”
I could imagine officials, listening to Anderson and these experts on a Zoom videoconference, thinking this might be junk science. “The reaction was mixed,” Anderson admitted. “but this is science, not hocus-pocus. The military uses this. Law-enforcement has used this.” Better to be stable and 12 yards from a play that sprinting toward it and seeing the mesh point from five yards away—at least that’s Anderson’s view. As the Big 12 officiating coordinator, Anderson introduced the same concept to the college officials, and he said it was effective.
“I’m very confident it will pay dividends for us,” Anderson said.
It’ll be interesting to see how—with 11 new officials of the 117 on staff, and with no preseason—how officials react to this new technique the new boss wants them to use. It’s sensible, just different. Just one more new wrinkle in a strange season.
John Thompson, who became the first African-American coach to win an NCAA Division I basketball title in 1984, died last week at 78. In coaching a mostly white institution, Georgetown, with a mostly Black team, he proved that good basketball players could be good students at a top university too. He left one of the great legacies in coaching history, and many coaches who followed viewed Thompson as the ultimate role model. I asked Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy to write about Thompson’s legacy.
By Tony Dungy
When I started my coaching career in 1981 with the Steelers, there were no other Black coaches on the staff, and only 13 or 14 in the entire league. That was eight years before the Raiders made Art Shell the first African-American head coach in modern NFL history. So the presence of John Thompson, succeeding at the highest level of college basketball, was special.
What Coach Thompson’s success said to young Black coaches like me was important, but I believe what it said to America was even more important.
Here was Coach Thompson, at this predominantly white and strong academic university, winning with African-American players, unapologetically winning his way, and graduating kids who some schools thought were academic risks. That’s the great part of his legacy—his belief in his players as people. Of the 77 Georgetown players who stayed there for four seasons under John, 75 graduated. When he walked off the court to protest NCAA Proposition 42 (which mandated that a recruit had to have a 2.0 GPA and a minimum SAT score of 700 to get a scholarship), he was standing up for a whole class of players and people. He knew Black players could come to Georgetown, excel academically and graduate. He not only knew it was possible, he made sure it happened. He was the Black father figure who said, “You will not live in my house and just be an athlete. I’ll have no patience for anyone who doesn’t do the work academically.”
I remember the night Georgetown won the NCAA Championship in 1984. For me personally, it was huge. Here was a guy competing with the giants of his sport—Dean Smith, Bobby Knight—doing it his way, and winning. People complained his freshman were shielded from the media and weren’t allowed to be interviewed. He didn’t care how anyone else was doing things or what other people thought. He had his reasons and wouldn’t give in to pressure from the outside. It showed me you can win and do things your way. You could actually coach players as you would your sons.
It also showed me there was hope for us—the young African-American football coaches in America at the time. We had no head coaches in pro football to look to as role models. Coach Thompson was that for us. I saw him and believed I would be able to rise high in my business, the NFL. John Thompson climbed the ladder as a coach, not because he was a great former player, but because he was a great coach. Some guys got coaching or managing jobs because they were Hall of Fame players. He wasn’t and I wasn’t. I couldn’t be Frank Robinson or Bill Russell. I didn’t have that entrée. I’d have to make it solely on my coaching ability. When John won, he made it clear to an entire generation of young Black coaches in the eighties and nineties in all sports that we could do it too.
John Thompson inspired me. He showed me that being an NFL head coach was not just a dream, it was an attainable dream. More than that, he showed me when I did get there, I needed to do more than just coach my players to victories. I needed to be like John Thompson and coach them in life too.
“Elway: A Relentless Life,” the exhaustive and excellent tome by Jason Cole about the life and times of 60-year-old John Elway, is out this month, and I recommend it highly—but for some non-football things too. The part I liked best? It’s something I never knew before Cole sent me the galleys to read last spring for a cover blurb. As I flipped through, the last event of Elway’s pre-Stanford life grabbed me.
It’s about the 1979 Los Angeles high school baseball championship game, at Dodger Stadium. With the game on the line, this was the pitching matchup: John Elway of suburban Granada Hills High School versus Darryl Strawberry of inner-city Crenshaw High.
You mean they haven’t made a movie out of this yet? An excerpt:
COLE: “In June 1979, as Elway was getting ready to graduate from high school and head to college, Strawberry was a junior at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles. Strawberry was a year away from becoming the number one overall pick in the 1980 Major League Baseball draft. There were scouts who said he was the best prospect to come along in 30 years. Two future number one picks were about to face off for the L.A. City high school baseball championship.
“Grenada Hills High was only 28 miles from Crenshaw by freeway, but it might as well have been a million miles in terms of reality. Kids at Grenada Hills dealt with buzz cuts. At Crenshaw, they dealt with bullets.”
Elway hadn’t pitched for several weeks; he was just too wild. But in the city title game, with Grenada Hills down down 3-2 in the third inning and his starter struggling, Grenada Hills coach Darryl Stroh walked to the mound to pull his pitcher. Stroh pointed at his third baseman, Elway, to relieve.
COLE: “Elway thought Stroh was nuts, but he loved it . . . In Elway’s world, pressure was to be embraced, not shunned . . . On the mound, Elway somehow felt in control. He was in Dodger Stadium with 20,000 people watching and the city title on the line. Yes, Crenshaw had all these great hitters, starting with Strawberry. Elway hadn’t pitched in two months, had been told he’d never pitch again, and suddenly, on a coach’s whim, was hurling fastballs. And there was no place he’d rather be.
“Elway struck out the first batter he faced, Carl Jones, for the final out of the third inning. He got through the fourth before things got dicey in the fifth. With Crenshaw still leading 3-2, the Cougars got a hit and a walk to put two on with nobody out against Elway. That’s when Strawberry came to the plate . . . In Strawberry’s previous at-bat, he hit a long fly ball to left field that died at the warning track. Other Crenshaw hitters had come up short, and [Crenshaw coach Brooks] Hurst was growing impatient. Hurst signaled to Strawberry to do the last thing anyone could have expected . . . Hurst was calling for Strawberry to bunt.”
Strawberry told Cole he thought the sign was wrong, so he stepped out of the box to get the sign again. Strawberry emphasized to Cole how much he respected Hurst, but he said: “I was pretty furious at the time. I had never bunted to move the runners over, ever.”
COLE: “Strawberry bunted too hard and right back to Elway, who threw to third to force the lead runner. After a runner was caught trying to steal third, [future big-leaguer Chris] Brown struck out. Suddenly, the momentum of the game shifted. In the bottom of the fifth inning, Crenshaw unraveled. Strawberry started walking people and Granada Hills started bunting, running and slapping the ball around. The Highlanders scored six runs on only three hits. They eventually built a 10-4 lead. From there, Elway was able to pound the strike zone with pitch after pitch. By the time Elway got to face Brown for the final out of the game, he struck him out again.
“In the aftermath, Strawberry ran out to center field, disconsolate and in tears. ‘It was like a knife got stuck in my gut, I cried so hard. I respect John Elway. He shut us down, so he had to be something special. I’ve seen him a few times over the years and he’s always a gentleman about it. He shakes my hand. I always like to say, Man, you broke my heart in high school. But after seeing what he did to so many teams in the NFL over his career, I don’t take it personally. That’s what John did his whole career,’ Strawberry says.”
Winning pitcher: Elway. Losing pitcher: Strawberry.
“In the end, Mitch won the job. And I think that’s very important for him, for us, for everybody to understand that he worked really hard to get to this point. We know that we all, in a lot of different areas, struggled in 2019. And so what I think was most impressive … was to be able to see some of the growth in practice and off the field that Mitch had.”
—Bears coach Matt Nagy, telling the press on Sunday that Mithcell Trubisky beat out Nick Foles for the starting quarterback job.
“The more we work on ourselves and learn to love ourselves, the more we can love others. When you’re feeling good about yourself and confident and loving others, it’s naturally going to put you in a better mood. I think my quality of life has been pretty high based on decisions I’ve made in my own life.”
—Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, feeling zen last week.
“I’m at a loss for words. I’ve been crying a little bit.”
—Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson, after signing a $156-million contract extension Saturday.
“The greatest thing anyone can ever call you is a hero.”
—Tom Seaver, who died Wednesday, to Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post, in 2009.
He would have known.
Average wins per season, including playoffs, over the past 10 seasons:
- New England: 14.1 wins (10 division titles)
- Green Bay: 11.2 (6)
- Seattle: 11.0 (4)
- Pittsburgh: 10.7 (4)
- Baltimore: 10.5 (4)
It’s a new post-Brady world in New England, but the postscript is still pretty amazing: The Patriots won 29 games more than any team in football over the past decade.
Speaking of extended greatness, let’s take a moment to appreciate Aaron Donald. After six seasons, he’s on his way to one of the great careers by an interior defensive lineman in NFL history. How do I know that? Well, I watch football. But there’s this little item. Von Miller is on the right track to football immortality too, so I thought: Let’s compare two premier backfield disruptor in the six years they have both been in the league.
• In 94 NFL games since 2014, Donald has 72 sacks, 15 forced fumbles and 117 tackles for loss.
• In 95 NFL games since 2014, Miller has 71 sacks, 14 forced fumbles and 79 tackles for loss.
• Impact plays (those three categories) in the last six years: Donald 204, Miller 164.
Vince Lombardi died 50 years ago last Thursday. Reader Kevin Digan of New Milford, N.J. wrote to suggest: “Perhaps in the category that you call ‘Factoidness,’ you can use a few words in your column to acknowledge his anniversary and his contributions to football, the NFL and America.” A fine idea, Kevin. Some Lombardi factoids:
• Win frequency. No coach in NFL history with at least 100 wins has a winning percentage higher than Lombardi’s .750, including playoffs. In fact, only one other coach (John Madden) with more than 100 victories won at least 70 percent of his games. Compare that to the three winningest coaches of all time: Don Shula .667, George Halas .682, Bill Belichick .686.
• Think of where he started. The Packers were a league-worst 1-10-1 in 1958, and it wasn’t just a one-year slump. Green Bay won a league-low 34 games in the 10 seasons prior to the arrival of Lombardi in February 1959.
• No, think of where he really started. Lombardi’s first head-coaching job was at St. Cecilia in Englewood, N.J., in 1943. That year, St. Cecilia won the fictional national championship, going 12-0 and beating one of the best teams in the country, Brooklyn Prep—quarterbacked by a feisty city kid, Joe Paterno.
• He was a notable college player. Lombardi was a 5-8, 188-pound starting right guard at Fordham, one the school’s famed “Seven Blocks of Granite.”
• Equality for all. The Packers had one black player on the team when Lombardi took over in 1959; they had 13 in his last season, 1967. Lombardi also had an edict that if any of his coaches knew a player on the team was gay, the coach would be fired if found to have discriminated against the player. In his final year coaching, 1969, in Washington, tight end Jerry Smith was a closeted gay man. Lombardi knew. He called Smith into his office one day and said being gay would have no bearing on his status on the team, and if anyone on the team gave Smith problems, he wanted to know. That season, Smith had the only first-team All-Pro season of his career. Imagine a head coach that enlightened about gay people 51 years ago.
• His father was tough on him. When Lombardi stepped down as Packer coach after the 1967 season, his father told him he was making the biggest mistake of his life.
• He lives on. The Lombardi name
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