Posted On 20 Jan 2020
KANSAS CITY — You know you’ve got the right guy as your forever quarterback when he plays one of the games of his life to get a starved franchise to its first Super Bowl since man walked on the moon, and then he’s just as perfect after the game.
Patrick Mahomes is 24, and it’s very likely he could play till 44 and never have a run as scintillating and as meaningful as the one he made with 23 seconds left in the first half of the AFC Championship Game on Sunday. You saw the 27-yard tightrope-run along the left sideline that ended with a rumblin’-and-stumblin’ won’t-be-denied sprawl into the end zone that gave the Chiefs their first lead of the day in an eventual 35-24 victory. By now, you’ve seen the run five, 10 times. There’s something very second-level-intelligence about what Mahomes did on the play, which I’ll get to later. But I sidled up to Mahomes at his locker post-game as he was finishing getting dressed, said hello, and began, “That run . . .”
He interrupted me. “Never would have happened without my guys downfield being doubled,” Mahomes the selfless one said. “That’s why it was possible. Two guys are doubled, and that left space for me.”
“On the replay,” I said, “it looked like you missed stepping out by three inches.”
“That much?” he said and laughed. “I haven’t run that far since high school, I don’t think.”
In the next five minutes, kids who found their way into the locker room posed for photos with him—seven times. Each time, Mahomes made sure he was smiling with an arm around whoever. Then an older man stopped by his locker to shake his hand and tell him how much this win meant to Kansas City. Mahomes smiled broadly and engaged with the guy for a minute.
In his press conference, Mahomes said it was a thrill to bring home the trophy named after the founder of this franchise, Lamar Hunt, and said last season’s overtime loss in the title game was adversity the team used to build to this point, and said how lucky he was to be around this team at this time. None of it sounded fake. Picking Mahomes 10th in the 2017 draft was perfect in so many ways.
“You got a little dose today,” Andy Reid said in his Arrowhead office. “That’s him every day. As a player, he’s special, which everyone can see. As a person, he’s got everything too. He’s the whole package.”
The run will live forever in Kansas City lore. It propelled the Chiefs to a Super Bowl date with the 49ers on Feb. 2 in Miami. Maybe even better than that, the diehards who make Arrowhead Stadium sound like an indoor Metallica crowd know that with Mahomes leading the way, there’s no way this will be Kansas City’s last Super Bowl in the Mahomes Era.
While the Chiefs made mortal Derrick Henry, the 49ers beat up Aaron Rodgers as badly as they did in November. Niners 37, Packers 20, and it wasn’t that close. It makes for a fascinating Super Bowl: Kansas City’s franchise quarterback against the peculiar Jimmy Garoppolo; the Niners, with imaginative play-designer and play-caller Kyle Shanahan, have routed two playoff foes with a 75-25 run-pass ratio. The Niners’ strong defensive front (nine playoff sacks, 26 hits/hurries in two games) will be a nightmare for the Chiefs to navigate as they game-plan beginning this morning.
The opening line: Chiefs by 1. I have no idea what that means, or who should be favored. Just as I find it hard to think the Niners will struggle to run it and will certainly torment Mahomes, I think it’s just as hard to think that Mahomes will be shut down.
San Francisco last won the Super Bowl 25 years ago. Remember the gorilla getting ripped off Steve Young’s back?
Kansas City last won the Super Bowl 50 years ago. Remember Hank Stram yelling to matriculate the ball down the field?
You might be too young to remember either. Whatever, this should be a great football game between the 14-4 Chiefs and the 15-3 Niners, between the imaginative grandfatherly Reid, 61, and the imaginative wunderkind Kyle Shanahan, 40.
There’s a lonely little white pennant flying in the north end zone at Arrowhead Stadium, just below the American flag. The Chiefs take great pride in their lone Super Bowl championship, a 24-7 win over the Vikings on Jan. 11, 1970. But it’s been so long, and the drought so painful to the fans here, that the reminder is modest.
Looked like the dry spell, made so painful by last year’s 37-31 overtime loss to the Patriots, might stretch to 51 years when this game was midway through the second quarter. On the first three Tennessee series, the Titans generated three scoring drives and 180 yards. Tennessee 17, Kansas City 7. Derrick Henry was his usual pile-driving and crease-finding self, with 61 rushing yards. The man was on pace for a 183-yard rushing afternoon, keeping in his recent tradition.
Tennessee scored seven more points. Henry gained eight more rushing yards.
Mahomes just owned the day after that, with touchdown drives of 58, 86, 73 and 88 yards. The Titans couldn’t catch him, and they couldn’t manage to keep anything going offensively. You can say, They got away from Henry; big mistake. “We just didn’t have the opportunities,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. Tennessee ran just 14 offensive plays over the next four series, covering nearly two full quarters.
Mahomes lasered a 20-yard strike to Tyreek Hill to make it 17-14; Reid thought it was his best throw of the day. Logan Ryan, who has played great this postseason, was in close coverage down the seam with Hill. “Tyreek had a guy right on him,” Reid said, “but Patrick’s throw was just beautiful. He reared back and just said, ‘There’s no way this can be stopped.’ He threw it in a window about this big.” Reid held his hands in a small square.
The game turned for good at the end of the last KC series of the half. With 1:51 and two timeouts left before the half, Mahomes had plenty of time to drive. He didn’t waste much of it. He still had the two timeouts left when he took a shotgun snap with 23 seconds left from the Tennessee 27-yard line. As Mahomes described, Hill and Kelce each had two cover guys trailing them—Hill doing a skinny post from the left slot and Kelce running up the right seam. This left some space to his left. “I knew we had an all-go type of route,” Mahomes told me. “The offensive line shut everybody down, so I knew I could run to the sideline and get the first down.” As he turned the corner at the 32, linebacker Derick Roberson had a shot at him and missed; then Rashaan Evans did the same around the 29. Then Mahomes, getting tight to the sideline at the 25 (a tight shot of the slo-mo replay showed he was three inches from the white stripe right then), and getting pursued by hefty defensive lineman DaQuon Jones, would step out just after the first-down marker at the 17-yard line. Replays showed Reid glaring intently at the ground near the sideline to see if Mahomes stepped on any white.
Here’s where the next-level smarts came in. Mahomes told me he knew he had two timeouts left, and with the clock running down to halftime, he knew it didn’t matter if he stayed in or went out of bounds as the clock wound down. :16, :15, :14 . . .
“So I tried to cut it back, and I did, a little,” he said. “And luckily I hung onto the ball.” Cornerback Tremaine Brock tried to rip it from his grasp at the 5, and Mahomes hung on. Then, he said, “I was going for it.”
When he fell a yard past the goal line, this stadium erupted. I hadn’t heard a sound like that all season, in any stadium.
In the end zone, Mahomes was surrounded by amazed mates. Wide receiver Demarcus Robinson bowed to him with both arms going north to south in an exaggerated “we are not worthy” motion. “I was like, throw your hands up for this guy!” Robinson said. “He already showed you he’s got an MVP arm. Now he shows you he’s got MVP legs.”
He might have shown the same thing a year ago today. The Patriots and Chiefs went to overtime tied at 31, and Mahomes and Tom Brady were trading big plays and shredding defenses. New England’s Matthew Slater won the overtime toss, and Kansas City never touched the ball in overtime. Pats, 37-31. After the game, Brady sought out Mahomes. They sat alone for five minutes, in a room in the bowels of Arrowhead Stadium. Brady played consoler-in-chief. Mahomes said: “The biggest thing he said was, ‘Stay with the process and be who you are.’ He didn’t want me to change at all. He wanted me to go out there and take advantage of every single day. When you hear it from a guy like that, who’s had the success at the level that he’s had for his entire career, you know you’ve got to take advantage of every single day if you want to be great.”
Mahomes almost didn’t watch the Super Bowl, but he did turn it on at his home in Kansas City. “I used that,” he told me, “to just make sure that I did everything to prepare to be in this moment now—and not be sitting at home.”
His first real bit of leadership came after 2017 rushing champ Kareem Hunt was fired during the 2018 season for lying to the team about domestic assault. This happened two days before the Chiefs were to play at Oakland in November, and before the team left on a Saturday morning, Mahomes—the fifth-youngest player on the team—asked to speak to the team, with no coaches in the room. Reid let him. Mahomes, who’d seen player leadership when he was a kid running around in baseball clubhouses with his ballplaying dad, Pat Mahomes, told the team it was okay to still love Hunt, but they’d come too far to let something, anything, derail the season. “You can’t fake that stuff,” he said. “It has to be genuine.”
“That,” Reid told me recently, “is why we’re in good shape with this kid.”
But this season is not just the Mahomes Revival Show. Reid needs some redemption. Sunday’s win was his 221st career victory (including playoffs). That’s sixth all-time. The five above him—Shula, Halas, Belichick, Landry, Lambeau—have won NFL championships, and Belichick, a good friend, has won six. Reid hasn’t won one. His lone trip to the Super Bowl, 15 years ago, came with the Eagles, who lost to New England 24-21. Maybe deep down it eats at Reid. How could it not?
But Saturday night, Reid was sharing a table and a bite at the team’s post-meeting snack with the team’s VP of sports medicine and performance, Rick Burkholder, who came from Philly to Kansas City with Reid in 2013. Burkholder said he was nervous, and Reid asked why.
“Because I want so bad for us to win it for you,” Burkholder said.
“No,” Reid said. “We need to win this for the guys, for the team. It can’t be about one guy. It’s got to be for everybody.”
Reid was the last Chief left now. There was an industrial-strength vacuum cleaning the locker room of all the random confetti from the celebration out on the field. I asked Reid what he’d do to celebrate this second Super Bowl trip, and first for the Chiefs since the Nixon administration.
“Go get a cheeseburger,” he said.
The guy fits pretty well in Kansas City. As does his quarterback.
You may have heard the name Michael MacCambridge. He’s an author, an excellent writer. He lived most of his young life in Kansas City and grew to love the Chiefs. He went to the game Sunday and texted me this after midnight: “As we were leaving the stadium, numb and jubilant, you could see people with a look of relief in their eyes that they were leaving Arrowhead for the final time in a season elated rather than crushed. It was so delightful that some people seemed almost baffled. My friend Greg Emas, who I attended the game with, said, ‘We really don’t know how to do this. We don’t have any practice at it.’ “
Then MacCambridge wrote: “Lots of ghosts exorcised. And that starts with 15. He’s not haunted. And that’s why the Chiefs are going to the Super Bowl.”
Question to 13-year veteran tackle Joe Staley after the Niners advanced to the Super Bowl: Be honest now. Did you ever think you’d get back to the Super Bowl?
Staley: “No. Well, once [coach] Kyle [Shanahan] got here, I did. From day one, I believed. I believed when we started, whatever, 0-9 that first year, and when we were 4-12 last year. He wins, he’s super-creative, and you don’t have to be the most talented player to be able to play for Kyle and this coaching staff. Raheem Mostert is the perfect example of that.”
America will get to know Mostert well in the 13 days leading up to the Super Bowl. On Sunday, Mostert’s 220-yard rushing game, with four touchdowns, led the 49ers to an easy win over Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game. In camp, Jerick McKinnon, Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida had an edge on Mostert for playing time. But injuries, and the coaching staff’s ability to judge players without regard to draft or contract status, helped Mostert . . . as did his rushing style. It’s interesting that the Kyle Shanahan 49ers, with running backs coach Bobby Turner, judge backs much the same way Mike Shanahan’s Broncos, with running backs coach coach Bobby Turner, did. Turner is a classic one-cut teacher of backs. Don’t wait, wait, wait to pick your hole; rather, at the first sign of a crease, hit it, and get as much as you can.
Mostert was let go by six teams since 2015: Philadelphia, Miami, Baltimore, Cleveland, the New York Jets and Chicago. His career stats for those six teams: zero rushes, zero yards. The Niners claimed him and activated him late in 2017, and then he was hurt much of 2017 and 2018. Under Shanahan, meritocracy wins. And healthy this year, Mostert continued to prove he should get carries. His 220-yard day gave him 1,050 yards for the season. He’s a darter at 5-10 and 197 pounds (he looks bigger), and on his 36-yard TD against Green Bay, he burst past three Packers almost before they knew he was gone.
“He’s fast, hits the hole quick, he’s fearless, and he’s got great acceleration,” Staley said. “Those qualities are perfect for our running game.”
In 2017, I sat in on the first draft of GM John Lynch and Shanahan. Before the draft, Lynch showed the draft room his San Francisco 49ers Vision Statement: “Our nucleus of dedicated players will re-establish The 49er Way and lead our organization back to the top of the NFL. These players will represent our core values and beliefs in both their talent and their spirit.”
The talent traits included speed and physicality; nothing surprising there. When Lynch defined “spirit,” it included football IQ, mental toughness, football passion (defined by Lynch as, “Do they love it?”), and “contagious competitiveness.”
The statement concluded: “We firmly believe that players who embody these core values will change the culture and re-establish The 49er Way—a brotherhood that will lead us back to competing for championships year after year.”
Raheem Mostert, let go by six teams in two years. He wouldn’t quit. Quite a poster child for everything the Lynch/Shanahan 49ers hold dear.
WASHINGTON—A unique timeline from Wednesday inside the U.S. Capitol Building:
3 p.m.: Ceremony to honor Steve Gleason as 164th recipient of the Congressional gold medal begins in Statuary Hall.
4:02 p.m: End of ceremony. Workers quickly clear all chairs from Statuary Hall.
5:55 p.m.: Democratic House leadership walks Articles of Impeachment through Statuary Hall to the Senate.
Interesting times in this country. The last event before the impeachment honored a special-teams player from the New Orleans Saints, the first of the approximately 27,000 pro football players in history to receive the highest civilian honor Congress can bestow. But this special-teams player raised in Spokane to be a hero in New Orleans, Gleason, was here because of the tangible difference he’s made in the lives of people with ALS. Gleason has pushed for federal funds for synthetic speech software; worked with Microsoft on software to help make the lives of the stricken more livable (particularly through technology that allows people to drive power-wheelchairs with their eyes); made a documentary that showed the personal agony and real-life marital and family challenge of living with ALS; and, in general, is in the nonstop business of doing so much for so many people who, like him, can neither move nor speak.
In the front row, with four chairs, the most powerful people in Congress, and the most at-odds, left to right: Democrat Chuck Schumer, Republican Kevin McCarthy, Republican Mitch McConnell and Democrat Nancy Pelosi. Over the hour-long ceremony, they were collegial, clapping and occasionally chatting. Amazing at this time in American history to see these intense rivals share an hour of humanity. Who, really, could make civility like this happen?
Later, I ran my observation past Cubs GM Theo Epstein, friends with Gleason because Gleason, a former college baseball player, loves the Cubs. Epstein was on hand because he wouldn’t have missed this for the world. I said, Who could make cats and dogs live in harmony? Epstein smiled.
“Only Steve Gleason,” he said.
Even though it didn’t last long, I thought how valuable this moment was for these people, and for our country. We can come together for good. We don’t do it often. But in this room, a warm feeling wafted through, because there was an important American who couldn’t be an athlete anymore but he could do so much good that the country needs, and he could do it with an utter selflessness that is so rare in the world. On this day, with the last two commissioners of the NFL on hand, with the most powerful people in government watching, Washington paused for one hour to honor a man wearing Uggs, a faux tuxedo T-shirt (Gleason never takes himself too seriously), a buzz cut, and red, white and blue painted fingernails. And a smile, listening to the words of the powerful about the meaning of his life.
“You,” said Republican Congressman Steve Scalise of Louisiana, “are the personification of your motto, no white flags.”
“Only 163 have ever received the Congressional gold medal,” Schumer the Democrat said. “George Washington. Nelson Mandela. Mother Theresa. And now, Steve Gleason.”
“The definition of a hero is one who takes an unfortunate situation and makes it better for everyone,” said Republican senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana. “As Steve has weakened, he has made a more powerful contribution to society.”
“As a result of Steve’s and Team Gleason’s dedication,” said Democratic senator Patty Murray of Washington, “today, people with ALS are more independent than ever, thanks to cutting-edge speech and movement technology that Steve pushed for and helped to innovate.”
“I’m not from Louisiana,” said McCarthy the Republican. “I’m not from Washington. I’m just an admirer.”
“As you have said,” Democratic House speaker Pelosi said, looking at Gleason, “from adversity, heroes are born. You are truly one of them. Your refusal to surrender the fight has helped thousands win theirs. In a disease that robs so many of their speech, Steve has helped give so many back their voices. Thank you, Steve, for providing cutting-edge equipment to tens of thousands with neuro-muscular diseases or injuries. Thank you for ensuring passage of key laws that provide access to speech-generating devices for those living with ALS. Thank you for developing eye-tracking technology for those who are paralyzed. And thank you for mobilizing the largest ALS research project.”
“So, Steve,” Republican senate leader McConnell said, “your Congress thanks you. Your country thanks you. It’s an honor to present you this medal, and to place you in this historic company—where you belong.”
To write his speech, Gleason used his eyes to focus on letter after letter on the laptop screen in front of his face. That’s how he “types” what he says. (He has not been able to speak normally since 2014.) His words sound like him, because before his vocal chords died, he recorded words and sounds so that, for the rest of his life, when he would type out what he wanted to say, his synthetic voice would sound very much like the Steve Gleason of 2011, when he was diagnosed.
His voice, audible well into the press balcony of this august hall, right next to the Capitol Rotunda, was a great example of the work Gleason did to preserve his voice. The words reverberating off these 170-year-old walls sounded just like Steve Gleason.
“I suppose I don’t see my story as a football story or an ALS story,” he said to the audience, “but rather as a human story. The truth is, we all experience pain in our lives. But I believe that the problems we face are opportunities and define our human purpose.”
That’s what the words of the Congressional gold medalist were like for the next four minutes: hopeful, optimistic, futuristic and smart. Gleason’s motto may be No white flags, but his mantra should be this: We can do anything—anything—if we work our asses off. Healthy or diseased, we’re smart enough to do anything. We just have to want to do it. In the audience, the retired reigning NFL Man of the Year, Chris Long, watched in admiration. “Not only is he the bravest person I know, but he is brilliant,” Long said. “It’s the power of his mind. People that brilliant don’t often use it for good.”
Afterward, Gleason received guests in the House speaker’s Ceremonial Room, near Statuary Hall. Scalise, a huge Saints fan, hung out for a bit. Drew Brees, who spoke at the event, and Chris Long had a few moments with Gleason. “He stands for hope, and he stands for infinite possibilities,” Brees said. Brees’ 10-year-old son Baylen and Rivers, Gleason’s boy, 8, ran around the place. Gleason looked tired. Tired and placid. I put my hand on his and greeted him. His eyes worked the screen.
“My man,” his eyes typed and his synthetic voice said.
“You’re on a list of some of the greatest Americans who ever lived,” I said. “George Washington, Charles Lindbergh, Robert Frost, Martin Luther King Jr. How does that feel?”
I knew the answer would not, could not, come then. The room was too nutty. And it would take him a good four or five minutes to eye-type, then say, what he wanted to say. The answer came the next day, written in a text and emailed in a WAV file, capturing his voice. Communication is different, but communication is essential for Gleason. You’ve just got to be patient.
“It was truly surreal,” his computer voice said. “I still don’t feel I deserve to be in a group that includes some of my heroes, and some of the most inspiring people in human history. Beyond that, though, the emotion and power and love that I felt, and I think a lot of other people felt, was something more than physical. I’m not sure nouns and adjectives can do it justice. I’ll sound crazy, but it was spiritual . . .
“More than this honor, as sublime as it is, my validation comes from knowing people we can help remain purposeful and tell their families, ‘I love you.’ “
Offensive Player of the Week
Raheem Mostert, running back, San Francisco. No player in one of the game’s great days of the year, Championship Sunday, had a more joyous day than Mostert. Finally getting a chance to play semi-regularly in San Francisco, Mostert had one of the great NFL playoff games ever by a running back: 29 carries, 220 yards, and four touchdowns (160 yards and three scores in the first half) to wipe out Green Bay.
Patrick Mahomes, quarterback, Kansas City. After the AFC title victory, Andy Reid found Mahomes and said, “You were phenomenal.” He needed to be. Tennessee, as people had seen in the first two playoff rounds, was a legitimate threat on both sides of the ball. Derrick Henry was on an all-time playoff hot streak, the Titans could rush the passer, and the secondary was feisty and clingy. It took a special quarterback to dissect the Titans and to keep the ball away from the Tennessee offense, which Kansas City did for much of the last 38 minutes of the game. On a frigid day at Arrowhead, Mahomes threw for 294 yards and three touchdowns, and scored on an all-time highlight 27-yard touchdown run. In his very young career, Mahomes has played four playoff games and has 11 TDs, zero interceptions.
Defensive Player of the Week
Tyrann Mathieu, safety, Kansas City. They’ll be showing his leveling of Tennessee wide receiver Corey Davis for a two-yard loss on the all-time Mathieu highlight tape; it was clean and intimidating and brutal. He’s got incredible instincts—he had a game-high nine tackle and one pass batted down—and I was surprised to hear Andy Reid praise him in such a vaunted way after the game: “Patrick was great today, no question. We’re lucky we have a couple of guys who play and lead so well. Honey Badger’s another one. Very similar, those two.” Mathieu is said Honey Badger.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Mitch Wishnowsky, punter/kickoff specialist, San Francisco. Didn’t notice him much Sunday? You should have. He had eight kickoffs and two punts, and the Packers never started any of those 10 drives outside their own 25-yard line. Two drives started at the Packer 8. A great, and unnoticed, game by Wishnowsky.
Coach of the Week
Steve Spagnuolo, defensive coordinator, Kansas City. In designing a plan to stop Derrick Henry, the Chiefs emphasized tackling the 248-pound Redwood low and also being physical with receivers to get them to either drop contested balls or to make them remember a big hit after catching them. Tennessee’s last six drives averaged 4.5 plays per drive, exactly the opposite of how Tennessee had been bludgeoning teams with long drive after long drive.
Goat of the Week
Darrelle Revis, unemployed. Revis picked one of Richard Sherman’s great moments—making the Super Bowl two years after tearing his Achilles—to attack him on social media for not playing more man-to-man coverage. It’s one of the saddest, most look-at-me social things I’ve seen since, well, since Antonio Brown’s last stupid thing in the social sphere.
“I got immune to being cut. Not everybody can deal with that type of stress and pain and agony that I went through.”
—San Francisco running back Raheem Mostert, who was fourth on the San Francisco depth chart at running back to start training camp but was the most impactful 49er in the NFC Championship Game win over Green Bay. He was cut six times by NFL teams before finding a home with the Niners.
“I would go in on this but I have a Super Bowl to prepare for. Enjoy the view from the couch.”
—San Francisco cornerback Richard Sherman, brushing off a slight from Darrelle Revis on Twitter, who said Sherman has a “fear of getting beat in man to man coverage.”
“WHAT A RUN! OUT OF THIS WORLD!”
—CBS’ Jim Nantz, on the Patrick Mahomes tight-roping of the sideline for a 27-yard touchdown run in the AFC title game.
“He was coming off a situation in Pittsburgh where he wants to prove everyone wrong and he wants to ride into the Hall of Fame. I really thought we were going to get the best out of Antonio Brown and we didn’t. So at the end of the day, in hindsight, we lost a third-round pick and a fifth-round pick, and I can’t tell you how much pain that causes me.”
—Oakland GM Mike Mayock, to Vic Tafur of The Athletic, looking back on the Antonio Brown experience.
“Any Who Dats here from New Orleans?”
—U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in a preamble to her speech at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday celebrating the awarding of the Congressional gold medal to former Saints special-teamer Steve Gleason.
There were lots of Who Dats, as it turned out.
Luke Kuechly • Retired Carolina linebacker • Photographed in Spartanburg, S.C.
Kuechly, 28, surprised the Panthers by retiring Wednesday. He was vague in his retirement announcement, but speculation is that the retirement stems from two significant concussions he suffered, and over concerns for his long-term health. If so, he’s following in the footsteps of Andrew Luck and Chris Borland, who retired in their twenties with health on their minds, and with plenty of good football left. What made Kuechly a great player was his anticipation and instincts. Sometimes I’d watch Kuechly in a game and he’d burst toward where he thought the play was headed a split-second before everyone else. That, of course, is what makes a playmaker.
Three years ago, I went to Charlotte to record a podcast conversation with Kuechly. My favorite part of the pod was when I asked: What advice would you have for young linebackers who want to play like Luke Kuechly?
“I think the biggest thing is being able to get off blocks and shed. That’s engaging and disengaging, so use of hands and understanding where to strike offensive lineman. You get ‘em in the chest and you get their hands off you. Because if you’re blocked, you can’t make plays. So that’s the biggest thing. You gotta just separate for just a second. You don’t have to throw him, you just gotta get off him. Use of hands is the biggest thing.
“The second thing is effort. Just play hard. As a linebacker, if you’re running, if you’re playing hard, you’re gonna be in the right spot more times than not. You’re gonna make a lot of plays. That’s one of the biggest things that I’ve learned: Playing hard and effort beats everything else.
“I enjoy watching tape and film. I can gather a lot from that just because the more you see stuff, the quicker you can understand what they’re trying to do to you. Certain teams have tendencies. And if you can find a few tendencies and make a play, make maybe one or two plays based off what you’ve seen during the week on film, those two plays can be big-time plays. My thing is I always want to prepare so when the game rolls around, there’s not a whole lot I haven’t seen before and I know how to react to most situations. When I study, I like to write stuff down. I don’t know why. I think maybe I can categorize it better. I write formations and runs, maybe how guys run routes or stem stuff. Just small things. I always try to have a section on everything so if I get nervous on Saturday night, all I gotta do is go look over my notes and I’m like, all right, I think I’m all right.”
Instincts, feel . . . Where does that come from?
“The more you can be around the game, the more that feel comes to you, the more instincts, feel, anticipation comes to you. As a linebacker, the job is to react and anticipate. If you can watch stuff on tape during the week, listen to maybe what the coaches are putting together in their game plan, and you see a look in a game and you’ve seen that look on film or you’ve seen it the previous years, you’ve seen it in your scouting report, maybe you’ve seen it earlier in the game. That look, that formation, that down and distance, that personnel grouping. If you can see that, and understand, it allows you to anticipate faster. Maybe the team lines up in 21 personnel [two receivers, two backs, one tight end] and once you see the first step by the running back or the lineman, maybe out of that basket of run plays, if they move in a certain way, there’s only one run out of that. So you just know. Once you get that first cue, you’re gone. That’s kinda how I try to play the game. The game starts moving and you’re seeing formations pre-snap, you just need a little bit of information post-snap and you’re good to go.
“One play, we call ‘Hawk.’ It’s where an offset tight end or fullback is off the line of scrimmage in a tight end position. His job is to come back and kick out the back-side defensive end. That happens, and you know exactly where the ball is going, and you know exactly who’s trying to block you. So my gap is here, this is the guy that’s trying to block me, and if I beat him to my spot then I win. It’s just small stuff like that, small stuff that adds up.”
Encapsulating everything that is wrong with the Cleveland Browns:
Baker Mayfield has been the franchise quarterback for the Browns for the last 21 months. Including those who will be hired this week, he has now had:
• Four head coaches. (Hue Jackson, Gregg Williams, Freddie Kitchens, Kevin Stefanski.)
• Four offensive coordinators or passing-game coordinators. (Todd Haley, Freddie Kitchens, Todd Monken and one yet to be chosen.)
• Three quarterback coaches. (Ken Zampese, Ryan Lindley, and one yet to be chosen.)
That’s 11 coaches of influence, teaching three completely different offenses, in less than two years.
Patrick Mahomes, one year apart:
Green Bay is almost too nice. I’m not sure we deserve Green Bay.
Leaving the city of 100,000 last Monday, flying Delta out of Austin Strobel Airport, the gate attendant said, “Welcome to gate B-1. While we wait for our plane, you’re welcome to play Cornhole here [there was a cornhole “field” set up] and you’re welcome to help yourself to our cheese curds and sausage snacks over there.”
There was a table set up with free drinks, and the curds, and the sausage, with toothpicks in them. She forgot to mention the green Packer beads, similar to the Mardi Gras beads everyone wears in New Orleans. And the takeaway brown bags of snacks, just in case you get a little pecking on the flight.
“Now,” the gate attendant announced, “we’re going to do a Packer Quiz!”
Mild interest among the passengers. “Okay, the winner gets a Packer prize. Raise your hand if you know the answer. What college did Packer legend Don Hutson attend?” Three hands shot up, and the attendant picked one. “Alabama,” a guy said, and he got to go pick out a prize from a box.
“Okay, for our Seattle visitors! What year was Seattle awarded the Seahawks franchise?”
One hand. “1976?” Yes. Pick a prize.
Green Bay: an island of civility (and games) in a sea of incivility.
Brooks is an analyst for NFL Media.
Zachary lives in Muskegon, Mich.
Rovell covers sports business for Action Network.
Good question about Kuechly. From John Nguyen: “As a Hall of Fame voter, do you think this more prevalent trend of players retiring earlier than normal, even in their prime ages, will begin to change the threshold for candidates to be considered for the Hall? Terrell Davis played for seven seasons and it took him 11 years to get in. I’m not saying Kuechly should be inducted, but if the average length of an elite player’s career gets shorter, do you think this impacts the argument?”
Let’s compare Luke Kuechly to Dick Butkus, one of the best linebackers, by any measure, in NFL history:
• Butkus: 119 games played, five years first-team all-pro, eight Pro Bowls, one Defensive Player of the Year award.
• Kuechly: 125 games played, five years first-team all-pro, seven Pro Bowls, one Defensive Player of the Year award, one Defensive Rookie of the Year award (which didn’t exist in Butkus’ rookie year).
So I doubt we’ll hear much issue with length of career on Kuechly. If Terrell Davis can make the Hall playing 86 games, and Tony Boselli can be a Hall finalist playing 97, Kuechly should be a fine candidate playing 125.
Not a Centennial Hall class fan. From Gareth Hunt, of Sheffield, England: “I have serious issues with the way the Centennial Hall of Fame class has been used. Take Bill Cowher. A good coach, a very modern-era candidate, who won one Super Bowl. Is this really the kind of person that the Centennial panel should be putting in the Hall? The Hall of Fame is for the best of the best, the greatest to ever coach, the innovators who changed the game forever. Cowher’s record and legacy are no better than those of Mike Holmgren, Pete Carroll, Mike Tomlin, Mike McCarthy, John Harbaugh and many other one-time Super Bowl winners. Should they all now expect to be in the Hall too?”
As I wrote, Gareth, particularly with coaches, the Centennial Class will only make the logjam grow, and in a big way.
Interesting Rooney Rule idea. From Davey D., of Denver: “We hear a lot about the candidates, but not as much about the makeup of the selection panels. I wonder how many people of color are involved in selecting a head coach, particularly knowing owners and executives are overwhelmingly white. My idea would be for each team to create a Minority Advisory Council with respected community members—leaders from business, academia, and service organizations, former players who stayed in the area, etc. This council could advise team leadership on a host of issues (it would have been helpful during the national anthem issue, for example), and perhaps one or two members could be advisers during the coaching selection process. When a group of white men continues to disproportionately hire white men, maybe it’s time to get some new voices in the room.”
On the surface, I like that, Davey. The problem will come in allowing people who are not involved in the football team to have voices in who gets picked as the head coach. To think that veteran football people like Seattle GM John Schneider or Dallas owner Jerry Jones or New Orleans GM Mickey Loomis who look at a community committee as anything other than a box to check off is unrealistic. But your heart is certainly in the right place. All ideas to improve this process are welcome.
I need to better-respect the term “minorities.” From Mandar Khadilkar: “Every year, we see that teams make mockery of the Rooney Rule by interviewing candidates just to satisfy the rule. But then, do we really need it in this day and age? Haven’t we had an African-American president for eight years? Secondly, does minority only mean African-Americans? Are others like Asians and Hispanics too minor to be considered? Then why mention specifically ‘African-Americans in NFL hierarchy?’ Do you not see people around you that are neither white nor black? . . . [You wrote:] ‘Mandate that one of the three pipeline positions on every new coaching staff be a minority.’ I hope you are okay with a rule that mandates that two players out of 53 on every active roster must be Asians. Making such ridiculous rules will not help. It will create more divide and resentment.”
In the NFL, there are about 2,300 players, including injured and practice-squad players, on the 32 teams. African-Americans, roughly, make up at least 1,500 of the total. Asian-Americans, I am guessing, make up no more than 10. If there were scores, or hundreds, of Asian-Americans on rosters, or in the Division I prospect pipeline, we could have a discussion about that. But there are not. The fact is, having 70 percent of the players be African-American, with 9 percent of head coaches being black—the same percent as when the rule was invested 17 years ago—is an issue that doesn’t sit well with anyone in the league.
My baseball and McCarthy takes bother Sean. From Sean E. Carroll: “I admire your column and all the hard work you put into it. But I have to say when you wrote about the Astros cheating scandal and tried to justify it with rationale around how you coached your daughter’s softball team to get around sign stealing, I thought you were out of touch. I get your point, but the difference is that what the Astros were doing went way beyond just trying to steal signs. That was a bad take on your part and you now look foolish and almost a little out of touch. In addition, I hope that coach [Mike] McCarthy and his agent give you a percentage of his earnings as the new coach of the Cowboys. I work in PR and I couldn’t have pitched a better story to help a client win a new job. All of my colleagues at work all had a great laugh at you next to the water cooler and coffee about how ‘homer’ that story was, how odd it was for a writer to wax poetic about a coaching candidate, and we all wondered what blackmail he had on you to write such a biased fluff piece.”
Sean, I answered the McCarthy criticism from another reader recently. In short, I documented how a tarnished Super Bowl coach was trying to rehab his image. I have no regrets. The Astros deserve the heaviest sanctions MLB can dish out. But I just believe that if baseball teams think there’s a good chance foes are cheating, there are ways to change signs regularly—even during games, inning by inning if necessary—to make it nearly impossible for opponents to steal signs.
1. I think sometimes I feel like a voice in the wilderness about the idea of a 17-game schedule. But with the retirement of Luke Kuechly at 28, coming on the heels of the retirement of Andrew Luck at 29, I ask this: Who thinks it’s a good idea for the short and long-term health of players to add 6 percent more football to a season? In effect, the average NFL team ran 1,002 offensive plays last year, an average of 62.7 per game. So if you add another 63 plays to a team’s season on either side of the ball, that’s adding 6.3 percent more plays—or 6.3 percent more chance to get hurt for a starting player. And for what? For more TV product, more money, more money and more money. How much money is enough? And if the NFLPA agrees to 17 games without restriction on the number of snaps or games a player can play, what’s to stop the league from pushing for 18 games in the next CBA? Or 20? I just don’t get this, and I never will.
2. I think I’m heading into dinosaur times, at 62. So let’s hear what you think. Send me your opinion of the 17-game regular-season schedule at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll run the best emails next week. Let me hear from you, please.
3. I think I wish the Pro Football Hall of Fame would have had more of a founders-of-the-game edge to the 15-man Centennial Class. There were six men among the 38 finalists from the first 25 seasons of pro football, 1920 to 1944. One, Duke Slater, got elected. Everyone will nitpick the choices, but I won’t do that; I wasn’t on the committee and so I don’t know anything about the vote or the pros and cons of the candidates. As I said last week, the impression going into the process was that pioneers from earliest years of pro football would get in. But it wasn’t to be. And a coach I fervently believe should be in the Hall lost out as well: Buddy Parker, who played running back on a Detroit championship team in 1935, and coached the Lions to consecutive titles in 1952 and 1953—both times over the legendary Paul Brown and the just-as-legendary Cleveland Browns. I have great respect for the Hall, and for the people who served on the committee that selected the Centennial Class. I often say when I vote I’m one of 48 Hall selectors, and though I may disagree, big deal—the will of the voters has to rule. Same here. I may have wanted some different results, but for this one, I’m sitting in the bleachers, watching. Congrats to those who got in.
4. I think this is my favorite analysis of Tua Tagovailoa, from one of my favorite analysts, Dan Orlovsky: “It’s going to take a courageous general manager to draft him, and it’s going to take a courageous general manager to pass on him.” When Orlovsky told me that, I immediately thought of two teams: Detroit, picking third, and Miami, picking fifth. How can Tagovailoa get past Miami—that’s my first thought.
But think if you’re Detroit. Matthew Stafford’s been the quarterback there 11 seasons. He’s never won a playoff game, and the Lions are 13 under .500 in games he starts, and he’s entering his age-32 season. Sometimes, even when something’s not your fault, it might be time to wipe the slate clean. If the Lions draft Tua and keep Stafford this year, then cut Stafford in 2021, it’s a $19-million cap hit (when the cap will likely be well over $200 million the first year of the new CBA, assuming no work stoppage), per Over The Cap. The Lions, at minimum, should do very serious homework on the Alabama QB coming back from his hip injury. I’d be concerned with two high ankle sprains and the hip surgery in the span of 13 months. That’s something you’d better be sure of if you pick him. But if you get past that, how do you pass on him, even with a decent QB situation on your team?
5. I think one more tidbit on the first pick of the 2020 draft is in order. Orlovsky on Joe Burrow: “I would take Joe [over Tagovailoa]. No injuries, very high performance this year. People will hold the talent around him against him, maybe, and they’ll say he only did it one year. But I’ll say look at his physical talent. Look what he did operating a pro system with Joe Brady [his passing-game coach]. He can think. He can throw guys open. He can complete passes in tight windows. His movement and accuracy remind me of Steve Young.”
6. I think the Chiefs have a nice assembly line of offensive minds, and when Andy Reid loses one, he moves the next guy up the line. He lost offensive coordinator Doug Pederson to the Eagles as head coach in 2016, and Matt Nagy took his place. Reid lost Nagy as Bears head coach in 2018, and Eric Bieniemy moved up. If Bieniemy had gotten a head-coaching job this winter, quarterbacks coach Mike Kafka likely would have ascended to the coordinator job. But as Ian Rapoport reported Sunday, the Eagles could be interested in Kafka as offensive coordinator, and if they request an interview, the Chiefs don’t have to allow it. So that’ll be interesting to watch.
7. I think the decision of super-agent Drew Rosenhaus to step away from repping Antonio Brown till Brown gets professional help for his disturbing recent behavior points to a concerning slide in the star receiver’s life. Think of where Brown was 13 months ago this week: He played for the Steelers at New Orleans and had one of his greatest games as a Steeler: 14 catches, 185 yards, two touchdowns. In order since, Brown:
• Went AWOL from the team the following week and was inactive for a playoff-implication Week 17 game
• Criticized the team openly and often in the succeeding weeks on social media
• Got traded for third- and fifth-round picks to Oakland
• Never practiced fully with the Raiders for any period of time, threatening to retire because the NFL wouldn’t allow him to wear a helmet with yesteryear technology
• Had to be separated from GM Mike Mayock at practice after Mayock fined him
• Got cut by Oakland
• Got signed by the Patriots and lasted one game
• Accused of sexual assault by a former friend and trainer, and a Sports Illustrated story accused him of being a serial welsher and another woman accused him of inappropriate behavior
• Got cut by the Patriots
• Sniped at the league, the Patriots, the Raiders while unemployed
• Tried out for the Saints, then sniped at them after the workout
• Yelled at the Hollywood (Fla.) police repeatedly and profanely when they responded to a disturbance at his home.
I’ve left out quite a bit, I’m sure. When Rosenhaus, who has been incredibly loyal to Brown in the face of his behavior, says he’s through with him, that should be the clarion call Brown needs. I hope it is.
8. I think we’re getting to that time of year—Pulling Out of Pro Bowl Season. I must say I’ve never heard a reason to not play in the Pro Bowl as interesting as Christian McCaffrey’s. This from the Associated Press the other day:
“McCaffrey isn’t injured. Rather, he decided not to play in the Pro Bowl because Carolina’s spring workouts have been moved up two weeks after the team hired a new head coach in Matt Rhule. The team can open camp as early as April 6. The third-year running back wanted enough time to allow his body to recover and be ready for the workouts.”
The Pro Bowl, which is powder puff football, is 28 days after McCaffrey’s last game of the season. The Pro Bowl is 71 days before the Panthers’ offseason workouts begin. For a player as incredibly well-conditioned as McCaffrey, to think it would endanger his well-being to play in a glorified three-quarters-speed scrimmage stretched credulity.
However—and this is a very big however—I don’t blame McCaffrey one bit. What interest is there in watching players not try particularly hard? The Pro Bowl exists mostly because it gets a moderately good TV rating; the 5.1 rating last year is not close to a good NFL game, but it is significantly higher than, say, a Major League Baseball postseason game. Game 4 of an attractive ALCS last year, Astros-Yankees, got a 3.5 rating. But for sporting purposes, the Pro Bowl is a blight on NFL legitimacy. Again: I fully support McCaffery having 99 days to rest/rehab/work out/have a life before 2020 prep begins.
9. I think as attractive as Derrick Henry will be on the 2020 free-agency market, tackle Jack Conklin will probably be chased by more teams and make more money. How many versatile 25-year-old franchise tackles hit the market?
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. I will be surprised if there are not more teams involved in sign-stealing in baseball. Question is: Can baseball prove any other teams are doing it?
Desir’s story deserves a movie. His family arrived in St. Louis with help from missionaries. His mother, Marie, and father, Wilfrid, worked multiple jobs while learning English. The couple built a life for what grew into a family of five. All of the Desir children have graduated or are on track to. Desir is a father of three who now proudly pulls out his cell phone to show photos of his kids, but he was just 16 years old when his oldest, daughter Keeli, was born. Her arrival could have sidelined both school and football. Then two colleges. Four NFL teams, before signing a three-year, $22.5-million contract with the Colts. And then giving back. As he told Frederickson: “I wanted to show St. Louis that I am in your corner.”
c. Now that’s a future NFL Man of the Year, I hope.
d. Column of the Week: Tara Sullivan of the Boston Globe on the random and so senseless death of Holy Cross rower Grace Rett. Sullivan:
She practiced pre-dawn on frigid waters. She chose a sport whose motto can be boiled down to five words: “I can’t. I have crew.“
e. Really good piece about dedicated athletes in minor sports, toiling in total anonymity.
f. Bad Look From an Analyst of the Week: Jessica Mendoza of ESPN, appearing on ESPN’s “Golic and Wingo” radio show, criticized Mike Fiers for spilling the beans on the Astros cheating to steal signs. Mendoza said:
“[Fiers telling The Athletic of the illegal sign-stealing] didn’t sit well with me. It made me sad for the sport that that’s how this all got found out. This wasn’t something MLB investigated, or even other teams complained about. But it came from within. It was a player that was a part of it, that benefited from it. It’s something you don’t do.”
g. My gosh. Where does one start with that? Mendoza, or one of her bosses with ESPN or the Mets (still not sure how you make that daily double work), issued a do-over later the same day. Her statement:
“I feel strongly that the game of baseball will benefit greatly because that sign stealing matter was uncovered. Cheating the game is something that needs to be addressed and I’m happy to see the league is taking appropriate action. The point I should have been much more clear on was this: I believe it’s very critical that this news was made public; I simply disagree with the manner in which that was done.”
h. The problem is, I saw the video from the “Golic and Wingo” show. Watch it for yourself.
i. Does it look like Mendoza is “happy to see the league is taking appropriate action?” Does it look like she thinks it’s “very critical” that the story was made public, in whatever fashion it was made public? Doesn’t look that way to me. The video from Mendoza left me thinking, clearly, that she believes it would have been better for Fiers to keep quiet and allow the status quo to continue. Best to just shut up and let an unfair playing field to continue to be unfair, just because telling the truth about cheating goes against the code of the locker room. Omerta—that’s the baseball code. This is one of the things wrong with our country right now. It’s better to keep the code of silence, even if that code is protecting lawbreakers or rule-breakers, than it is to tell the truth.
j. It’s fine to suggest the story would have been vetted well and thoroughly without the Fiers cattle-prod in The Athletic. But as Jeff Passan of ESPN reports, and many players fervently believe, MLB did look into stories about the Astros cheating, and nothing came of them. If Fiers went to MLB and told his story, would it have gotten the airing it did by him publicizing it? We’ll never know, I guess, but we do know what happened when it exploded in the press.
k. Baseball Story of the Week: Passan on the crazy Thursday aftermath in the baseball story.
l. Sounds like the Red Sox are going to get hit hard too. And if they were cheating like the Astros, good. They should get whacked.
m. Collateral Damage Factoid of the Week, from Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe:
“Ever heard of Mike Bolsinger? He was a journeyman reliever trying to stick with the Blue Jays in 2017 when he faced the Astros in Houston Aug. 4. He allowed four runs on four hits and three walks and got only one out. Toronto designated him for assignment the next day and he has not pitched in the majors since, deciding to go to Japan to play. Carlos Beltran doubled off him in that inning.”
n. Beernerdness: Maine is such a beer haven. Had a fine one the other night: Farmhouse Pale Ale (Oxbow Brewing, Newcastle, Maine), a hazy Saison with a great aroma of grains and barley. Very earthy. Recommended.
o. Coffeenerdness: The smoked butterscotch latte at Starbucks would be good if I could taste the smoked butterscotch. It’s too vague a taste for me.
p. Car insurance companies clearly have run out of every insurance-ad idea in history. Because their commercials are so dumb and inane and without any redeeming value.
q. Congrats to Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated and Dan Patrick of “The Dan Patrick Show” and Mike Wilbon of ESPN for being voted into the National Sports Media Hall of Fame in Winston-Salem, N.C. Great achievement by three men who tower over our business. So well-deserved.
r. So it’s been a tradition for me to host some sort of meet-and-greet during Super Bowl week. This year, I was invited to participate in a cool event at a local Miami brewery next Thursday, Jan. 30, from 5-7 p.m. I’ll be conducting a live Q&A with Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew during the casual, happy-hour event at Concrete Beach Brewery in Miami’s Wynwood arts district. The event is sponsored by BreakingT, a sports apparel company, and attendees will receive three beverage vouchers, an exclusive T-shirt and a promotional item. Tickets cost $50 and can be purchased here. The event is limited to 75 people, so don’t wait. Questions? Ask my buddy and editor of this column, Dom Bonvissuto, at email@example.com. Looking forward to seeing everyone in Miami.
Tuesday: Mobile, Ala. Senior Bowl practices begin, and interest is intense. “Best wide receiver class in my 22 years of scouting,” Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy told me Sunday . . . Best player in town this week could be defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw of South Carolina, a likely top-15 pick . . . Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert gets a big advantage in the Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday practice sessions, playing for the South team (with offensive-minded Bengals coach Zac Taylor) while top prospects Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa sit out for rest and health reasons . . . Most compelling prospect this week could be Utah State quarterback Jordan Love, who begins a bit of a redemption tour this week
All week: Berea, Ohio. I said last Monday I’d have more thoughts in this column about the Browns’ hire of Kevin Stefanski, but I’m going to wait till Cleveland’s GM search is over. George Paton and Andrew Berry seem to be the leaders in the clubhouse. Big question in Cleveland is how much of a role analytics will play in the football side, particularly in game-planning and player procurement. When that hire is done, I’ll dive into it.
Saturday: Mobile, Ala. Could be the first Senior Bowl sellout since 2012, with Jalen Hurts the big reason why. The former Alabama quarterback will be reunited with some former Crimson Tide teammates playing for the South team, and ticket sales have been brisk since it was announced he was playing.
One question today:
How did six NFL teams
dump Raheem Mostert?