CHICAGO — We have great and controversial events to discuss, and we shall. But there are great and controversial events every week in pro football, and I’ll get to the rise of a battered Denver offensive line, to the 113-minute weather/tornado-threat delay, and to a foul that, in today’s football, simply must be called. But first …
Friday is the 50-year anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. It is also the five-year anniversary of the first of three strokes suffered by a great and irascible football writer, Paul Zimmerman, who was the king of the hill when I got to Sports Illustrated in 1989. A week never goes by that one of you, either on email, through Twitter or seeing me in an airport, doesn’t ask, How’s Dr. Z? Or, When will Paul start writing again? This week, you’ll find out. NFL Films dispatched ace Ken Rodgers to produce and actor Tom Wopat to narrate the current story of 81-year-old Paul Zimmerman, and it airs beginning Tuesday night at 10:30 Eastern on NFL Network, and a few hours later on ESPN2 (Tuesday, 1:30 a.m. Eastern).
I’ll never forget getting Paul on the phone the day after the first stroke, and all I heard was the syllable that has become his constant companion: “When when when when,’’ in rapid-fire and urgent tones. Not much has changed, as you’ll see in this touching and real story of Zim. “We all disappear into history,’’ Rodgers said the other day. “But Paul was really great, and people should know that. He doesn’t deserve to be covered in dust in the library of sports history yet.”
Wopat speaks as Zim might, and at the end of the piece, as Zimmerman’s motorized chair takes him down the stairs at his New Jersey home, Wopat/Zim says: “The film crew packs up, the voiceover guy goes back to the city, you change the channel, and I enter my sixth year of silence. But please: feel no pity, send no consoling letters … Time marches on. Don’t waste it.”
A lesson for us all.
* * *
Five guys rose to the occasion in Denver.
The final score Sunday night: Denver 27, Kansas City 17, Peyton Manning sacks 0, Peyton Manning knockdowns 0.
When you wear the kind of brace on your right ankle that Manning did against Kansas City, and when you’re facing the league-leader in sacks (36 in nine games coming in), and when your line is as leaky as Denver’s has been, you expect Manning to take some punishment. He took none.
I counted two significant pressures on Manning in 40 dropbacks. Two. Consider that his left guard, Zane Beadles, had allowed 30 pressures, sacks or significant hits by Pro Football Focus’ count entering the game. Defensive tackle Anthony Toribio beat center Manny Ramirez for one, on Manning’s only touchdown throw of the night, but Manning still got to make the throw exactly on time to Julius Thomas. Later, Justin Houston steamrolled right tackle Orlando Franklin back into the path of a Manning throw, and his ball fluttered. Derrick Johnson burst through a hole in the second half to sprint at Manning on another pass, but he was three steps from Manning by the time Manning got rid of it. No harm, no foul. In terms of significant disruption to Manning (and really, I’d hardly call those significant, seeing that they didn’t result in any damage), that was about it.
Mostly, Manning did what he did on a 33-yard wait-wait-wait-’til-the-receiver-clears throw to Eric Decker. He took the shotgun snap, and with his five-man line giving him a clean cone of protection, Manning bounced back to his left once, twice, three steps. He had plenty of time to find Decker, and Decker had enough space to create the biggest play on the Broncos’ last touchdown drive. That was late in the third quarter, and Kansas City wasn’t making up a 24-10 deficit after that.
Denver came in with a plan: Run the ball enough to take time off the clock and take pressure off Manning; throw the ball quickly, before the heat can hit home. Manning’s had many better days in the NFL, but an interception- and sack-free game? Against the ball-hawking Chiefs? He’ll take it. “The guys up front had a great challenge against an excellent defense and an excellent pass rush,” Manning said afterward—presumably without the Frankensteinian boot/contraption armoring his right ankle. “It was critical to the game.”
Said interim coach Jack Del Rio: “A big part of it was keeping him upright and not letting [Kansas City] be as disruptive as they’re capable of being. So you’ve got to tip your hat to the offensive line, the backs, the tight ends. Everybody is a part of it, even the wide receivers that are running the correct routes so the quarterback can deliver the ball on time.’’
Denver doesn’t get to be fat and happy for long. Two more emotional games await in short order: at New England Sunday night (Manning-Brady XIV happens in Foxboro), and a rematch with the Chiefs in Kansas City seven days later. The Chiefs have to be careful. They’ve got San Diego and Denver coming up, then finish with three of their final four on the road. They’ve gotten just one sack in the past three games. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has to figure a way for Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, particularly, to disrupt the quarterback more.
* * *
The NFL needs more games like this one.
Thing I thought I’d never see on an NFL game summary, which I saw for the Ravens-Bears game in Chicago Sunday:
My first thought, for much of the first four-and-a-half hours of the game, which had a 113-minute delay in the middle of first quarter because of severe weather (an estimated 70 tornadoes touched down in the Midwest Sunday), was that this was Exhibit A for postponing a game for a day. Check out the first photo I tweeted out from the press box Sunday, the early-afternoon one that made the day seem like night. The rain sheeted across the region, and the sky was black. After a short rain respite, another big storm, also with lightning, came through. The delay got so long they stopped selling beer in the stadium, the concourses jammed with fans taking cover. I thought: Send these poor people home. This is no day for football, with tornadoes leveling neighborhoods in central Illinois and players and officials waiting around for two hours. At one point in the third quarter, I looked down at the pea soup of a field and saw ref Gene Steratore fold a briefcase-sized piece of turf back into place. And at one point, umpire Bill Schuster had to leave the field to get his leg taped after slipping on a divot breaking up a scrum; he’d strained a hamstring.
But with about nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, I went down to the field to watch the rest of the game from a tunnel. The wind was howling, with gusts up to 40 miles an hour. Players ran carefully, so as not to slip and fall. The field was a cow pasture, and players, officials and (during TV timeouts) the grounds crew tried to tamp down the turf after the torrential rain ruined it. And I thought: How great it is to see a game in the elements like this. You hate to make the fans wait out a two-hour delay, but would it have been more inconvenient, say, to reschedule the game for Monday at noon? Of all the games I’ve covered, only a Giants preseason game at foggy, rainy Cleveland in the ’80s, at the old Cleveland Stadium, was like this one. I was looking for the ghost of Jim Brown that day; and Sunday, I wondered how many of these games Luckman, Sayers and Butkus played in.
The Bears won in overtime, and Josh McCown made a big throw down the stretch to make it happen. He realized the significance of a game like this one—he knew that none of the players on the field Sunday, players in a buttoned-up, well-coiffed-turf NFL, would likely ever play in a strange game like this one again. Someday they’ll be retired and flipping the channels, and NFL Films will have clips from the 2013 Bears Mud Bowl. “You have opportunities in life, rare opportunities to do some special things,” McCown said. “We had that today.”
Our Robert Klemko wandered into the Bears’ locker room and found another oddity: Some players slept during the break. I asked him for the scene in there, and this is what he wrote: When lightning struck and winds in excess of 40 mph whipped through Soldier Field, players were relegated to their locker rooms, tasked with staying loose and focused for an undetermined amount of time. The Ravens lunched. The Bears passed around granola and Gatorade. They plugged in headphones or called their wives or told jokes to liven the mood. Bears veterans like Brandon Marshall and Roberto Garza worked the room, keeping everyone awake and focused with encouragement and hype. “I couldn’t sleep,” said tackle Jermon Bushrod. “I wanted to. I was yawning. But we were just passing time because we didn’t know how long we were gonna be in here.” At least two Bears gave in to the urge, and what they did next kept Chicago in the NFC North hunt. Backup quarterback Josh McCown, starting in place of the injured Jay Cutler, laid down and began visualizing plays, and before he knew it he was asleep. “I closed my eyes and just tried to think about the game,” McCown said, “and I think I dozed off.” Reserve defensive end David Bass did the same: “I napped for 15 to 20 minutes. It was refreshing.” Bass came out after the interrupted first quarter and picked off a Joe Flacco throw before it passed the line of scrimmage, returning it for a 24-yard touchdown in the second quarter. And McCown woke up to lead the Bears on a game-winning overtime scoring drive to improve to 6-4. Gentlemen, sleep psychologists everywhere salute you.
The more the NFL can hark back to a simpler day, a muddier day, the better.
And now, the rest of the story.
Three quick takes from the day:
1. Tony Corrente got the call right in New Orleans. With 3:18 left and San Francisco up by three in a crucial game between the Niners and Saints, linebacker Ahmad Brooks sacked Drew Brees and forced a fumble, which the Niners recovered. The problem was the sack, and the mechanics of it. Brooks clotheslined Brees on a hit that started above the sternum and finished with him forcibly sending Brees to the ground by contacting the neck with his forearm. Corrente called a personal foul on Brooks, gave the ball back to New Orleans, and the Saints went on to win with two Garrett Hartley field goals in the final three minutes. Emotional call, obviously, one that hurt the Niners grievously. But if you’ve seen nothing else in this league over the past three years, you’ve seen that officials are charged with protecting the quarterback above all others. And Corrente was protecting the quarterback. He did it wisely. Brees was tossed to the ground because of a forearm that finished on his neck. I thought the call was obvious.
2. Ozzie Newsome rested in Chicago overnight after falling ill at the Ravens-Bears game. Late in the Ravens’ loss at Chicago, Newsome, sitting in the second row of the press box at Soldier Field, felt ill and was transported to a hospital. “Ozzie Newsome did not feel well after today’s game, and a team doctor recommended that Ozzie not fly tonight,” a team statement said. It’s not thought to be a serious situation. I saw him before the game, and we spoke, and he seemed perfectly fine.
3. Washington tackle Trent Williams made a serious accusation against game umpire Roy Ellison. During the Philly-Washington game, Williams said Ellison called him a “garbage a–, disrespectful motherf–ker.” The league said it would investigate. That’s a stunning charge, and reporters in the Washington locker room afterward say other players backed up Williams’ account. There is some unpleasant byplay between players and officials during every game, but to say that what Williams is alleging has no place in the game would be an understatement.
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The most important game in the NFC this year.
That would be 14 nights from now: Seattle—coming off its bye, plus an extra day off after its bye—playing host to New Orleans, which also will have some extra time off. The Saints play Thursday this week, then have the mini-bye before this game.
It’s certainly possible that Carolina could go 3-0 against the Patriots and Saints in the next six weeks. If the Panthers do, they’ll be in the chase for home-field. But for now, let’s assume Seattle and New Orleans are the top two prospects, particularly after losses by Detroit and San Francisco (to the Saints) Sunday. How important is home-field advantage in the NFC? Let’s examine the two prime contenders for the No. 1 seed—Seattle (10-1) and New Orleans (8-2)—over recent games. (I’m going to use New Orleans’ stats for this year only, because the absence of Sean Payton and the bounty scandal skews the 2012 numbers. But I’ll use 2012 and 2013 for Seattle, because the team has been basically the same for two seasons, without any football tornadoes ravaging the win-loss record.)
|Team||Venue||Record||Average Margin of Victory|
One other point to make here. It’s about the quarterbacks—Drew Brees of the Saints in 2013, Russell Wilson of the Seahawks in the last two years. The dichotomy between home and road is marked. Wilson’s home/road rating: 117.0/92.4. Brees’ home-road rating this year: 121.2/84.6.
Seattle could win at New Orleans. New Orleans could win at Seattle. But the edge for the home teams in their noisy venues is so big that it will be a major factor in January.
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Beneath the surface in the Sam Hurd case.
I highly recommend the superbly reported Michael McKnight story on our site detailing the long, winding and drug-addled road that led Sam Hurd to a 15-year prison sentence last week. But McKnight, who worked on this story for 22 months, raised another point that’s more significant to today’s NFL, and that’s the recreational use of marijuana.
First, the rules: By NFL bylaws, all players are tested for recreational drugs once a year, sometime in a 16-week period between April 20 and Aug. 9. If a player tests positive in that solitary test, he is eligible to be tested at random after that. If he is clean, he can do recreational drugs, such as marijuana, without fear of the league as long as he doesn’t exhibit any aberrant behavior or get caught publicly (as with Dwayne Bowe last week). So the vast majority of NFL players are able, as long as they behave, to smoke marijuana at will after the spring/summer test. And reading the McKnight story, the overwhelming impression was Hurd was a mass user of pot—and he had friends in the league whom he supplied.
Three questions with McKnight about his story, and his impression of the pot culture in the league:
Me: Are there more Sam Hurds in the NFL, and if so how many?
McKnight: I think there are more Sam Hurds in the NFL. I don’t think there are more athletes who are dipping their toes in the world of cocaine trafficking, but in terms of guys who somehow procure large amounts of weed and give it to teammates … I would estimate there are between five and 10 other players like that. Meaning five to 10 other NFL locker rooms have a guy in the room who … if marijuana is your deal, you find out within the first month or so that That guy in that locker over there, that’s the guy you want to go to.
And moreover, people in that circle don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. The feeling is that a great number of those teammates need it. Whatever players need to get themselves right for Sunday, you do it. Whether it’s prescription drugs or whether it’s a sex addiction or whether it’s five hours of massage therapy on Friday … whatever it is to get yourself ready for kickoff Sunday, you do it. And there’s not many questions asked on what that is. You just do it. So that’s how these guys look at marijuana. It’s a support system for the life of an NFL player, or at least a handful of NFL players, who manage pain, relieve stress and kind of get high and smoke with their friends at one of their buddies’ places after practice just to kind of wind down. It’s a stressful world they live in. That doesn’t necessarily condone that behavior, but it does help us understand it a little better.
Me: So you believe marijuana basically is a pain-killer for players?
McKnight: A lot of players suggest that marijuana is one way to heal their bodies and help them become more like the people we’re surrounded by in public life every day. It’s just a starkly different world than you and I live in.
Me: Why did Sam Hurd do it?
McKnight: There’s the $64,000 question. I would hope the story lays that out a little bit better than I can explain it to you. But it was a swirl of agendas and misinformation, misunderstanding. It was a guy who frankly allowed his head to get screwed on wrong. He allowed his addiction—what I think was more of a psychological addiction to marijuana than a physical addiction—to just cloud everything. Pardon the pun. But he had a need for large quantity of marijuana. It fueled his every day. His craving for marijuana overrode many systems in his psyche telling him Hold on, don’t do this. The evidence suggests that. The 19 hours I spent interviewing Sam Hurd in a federal detention center suggests that.
1. Denver (9-1). Well, I guess Peyton’s guys can block.
2. Seattle (10-1). Percy Harvin must love his new gig. Got his feet wet Sunday (one target, one catch, 17 yards) and now the Seahawks have a week off with the bye. What a country!
3. Kansas City (9-1). To those who would have the Chiefs plummet because of the loss last night, I ask you this: KC was a decided underdog, playing at Denver. If you rated the Chiefs low before the game, fine. If you rated them high and would drop them a few spots this morning, I am confused.
4. New England (7-2). Tough game to call tonight, but for the first time since Week 1 the Pats should have their IR/designee-to-return running back Shane Vereen. He was so vital to this offensive attack, and now, for the first time, he’s likely to play a game with Rob Gronkowski. Tom Brady will have close to a full weaponry, post-Hernandez and -Welker.
5. New Orleans (8-2). Drew Brees harped on turnovers, and not committing them. The Saints committed three—and still beat the Niners.
6. Carolina (6-3). Folks in the Carolinas are making a very big deal of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick coming to town, seeing as it hasn’t happened since 2005. Rightfully so. These two teams are playing like peers as the season heads for the home stretch.
7. Indianapolis (7-3). I am reminded of Dean Wormer in Animal House, dressing down Faber College student Kent Dorfman for getting a 0.2 on his grade report: “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, Mr. Dorfman.” How does this apply to the 2013 Colts? “Trailing by 21-3, 38-0 and 14-0 is no way to go far in the playoffs, Colts.” (That’s how much they’ve been behind in the last three games; Andrew Luck has bailed them out in two of them.)
8. San Francisco (6-4). Let’s see how they react to playing for the fifth seed. Hard to imagine they can finish any higher now.
9. Detroit (6-4). What I feared about the Lions secondary showed up Sunday in Pittsburgh.
10. Philadelphia (6-5). First time over .500 since opening night, and the arrow is trending upward.
11. Chicago (6-4). The more I see Josh McCown, the more I hear of Josh McCown, the more I like him. Chicago’s very fortunate to have the man playing as one of the best backup quarterbacks in the NFL west of Philadelphia on the roster.
12. Cincinnati (7-4). You put up 41 on Cleveland, regardless how the 41 comes, and you’re doing well. Andy Dalton has some worrisome stretches, to put it mildly, but the Bengals have a commanding 2.5-game lead in the AFC North with six weeks to play.
13. Arizona (6-4). Won three in a row. Carson Palmer with 660 passing yards in his last two (over 400 Sunday at Jacksonville). Not a coincidence.
14. New York Giants (4-6). NFL Result Weirdness Dept.: Four weeks ago this morning, the Giants were 0-6 and Dallas was 4-3. Next Sunday, Dallas and the Giants meet in New Jersey. If the Giants win, they’ll both be 5-6.
15. Green Bay (5-5). You tell me how long Aaron Rodgers will be out, and I’ll tell you when I’ll re-insert the Pack among the relevant teams.
The Award Section
Offensive Players of the Week
Chris Clark, Zane Beadles, Manny Ramirez, Louis Vasquez, Orlando Franklin, the starting offensive line, Denver. The prime focus of the Kansas City-Denver showdown was how beat-up Peyton Manning would be when it was over. And these five men (plus Knowshon Moreno, who stuck his nose in there when called upon) allowed no sacks, no pressures, and had just two harmless second-half penalties. Only once all night—Justin Houston walking Franklin back into Manning—did I see any of these five men get handled by the Chiefs. A superb job for a unit that came through at the biggest moment of the year. So far.
Matt McGloin, quarterback, Oakland. How insane is football? McGloin was camp fodder, the fourth passer in camp for the Raiders, after not being drafted last April. On Sunday, he started an NFL game for Oakland, completed 18 of 32 passes for 197 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions, as Oakland stunned Houston 28-23. Just watch him, and you see why he might have a chance to stick in the league. He’s confident, throws a good ball and looks like he has a chance to be accurate downfield.
Defensive Players of the Week
Jason Pierre-Paul, defensive end, New York Giants. Playing with a shoulder injury that required him to wear a harness restricting his movement, Pierre-Paul first predicted the play and then made it. He picked off Green Bay quarterback Scott Tolzien with two hands and ran 24 yards for the touchdown that clinched the Giants’ 27-13 win over the Packers. “All I said was, ‘I’m going to pick this off and run it to the house,” he said. Call him Soothsayer of the Week too.
Special Teams Players of the Week
Adam Vinatieri, kicker, Indianapolis. A month shy of his 41st birthday, Vinatieri was a difference-maker Thursday night in the 30-27 win at Nashville. He kicked field goals of 48, 30 and 50 yards, and he’s now an 87-percent kicker for the year. A couple of things you don’t realize about the veteran South Dakotan: He’s now close to having a split career between New England and Indy, incredibly; he kicked 10 years as a Patriot, and this is his eighth year (already) for Indianapolis. And he’s three field goals out of seventh place all-time; Jason Elam has 436, Vinatieri 433.
Donnie Jones, punter, Philadelphia. Four of his six punts in a 24-16 win pinned Washington inside its 20-yard-line (at the 2, 17, 15 and 4), but it was that last one that was one of the plays of the day. Having lost all offensive momentum, midway through the fourth quarter and clinging to that 24-16 lead, the Eagles had to punt from their 26, and Jones nailed a 70-yarder down to the Washington 4-yard-line. Robert Griffin III didn’t have a 96-yard drive in him, and the Eagles hung on.
Coach of the Week
Greg Schiano, head coach, Tampa Bay. Three weeks ago, fans left Raymond James Stadium with bags over their heads after a dispiriting 31-13 loss to Carolina. Since then, with every fan leaving this season, and this head coach, for dead, the Bucs flew to Seattle and bolted to a 21-0 lead over the two-TD-favorite Seahawks before losing in overtime; beat Miami on a Thursday night; then, on Sunday, routed the woebegone Falcons 41-28. The Bucs are still paying for the sins of starting 0-8, for sure. But 2-8, and playing hard, feels hugely different than 0-8.
Goat of the Week
Antonio Cromartie, cornerback, New York Jets. With the Jets creeping back into a disaster of a game at Buffalo, Cromartie let wideout Marquise Goodwin behind him for an easy touchdown pass from E.J. Manuel. Not why they’re paying you the big bucks, Antonio.
Geno Smith, quarterback, New York Jets. In the four minutes after the Cromartie brainlock, Smith threw interceptions to two Bills, Jairus Byrd and Da’Norris Searcy (who returned it for a pick-6). By the end of the third quarter at Orchard Park, E.J. Manuel had the edge in passer rating, 123.0-10.1. For the day, Smith was 8 of 23 with no touchdowns and three picks, and Rex Ryan had to leave the stadium scratching his head. Or worse.
The Falcons. You have to ask why?
Quotes of the Week
“It’s terrible. It’s not fun. As great as it is to win, it’s lousy when you lose any game. Sunday Night Football is a big game and a big environment. To come here and come up short hurts and stings. But how many teams have ever gone undefeated given the history of football?’’
—Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith, after his team suffered its first loss of the season at Denver Sunday night. The loss meant there are no undefeateds left in football this year.
“Please move away from the windows and the front row of the press box. Severe weather is approaching.”
—A warning in the press box at Soldier Field Sunday, as a series of black clouds approached the stadium.
In other words, Those windows in front of you might get blown out. We’d like to keep you scribes around for the second half.
—Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano, asked Friday if the club had buyer’s remorse over trading its top draft choice in 2014 for Trent Richardson in September.
The trade was two months ago today. While I am not ready to say it’s a debacle of a deal, Richardson has not done well in either making people miss or powering out of the grasp of tacklers at the line of scrimmage. Richardson has played eight games for the Colts now (96 carries, 272 yards, 2.8 yards per rush), and on Thursday in Nashville the Colts seemed to be transitioning to the hotter hand, incumbent back Donald Brown.
Here’s what would be alarming to me if I were Pagano: Richardson has gone four straight games averaging fewer than three yards per carry (2.6, 2.5, 0.4, 2.8). He has not had a 20-yard run as a Colt. His longest run in the last month is eight yards.
“We’re going to stay patient,’’ said Pagano. “His numbers will come. His yards will come … We miss a block here or there and a guy is sitting there free in the hole. I don’t know if he’s snake bit, I don’t know what the heck is going on. We’ll get it fixed. We’ll get the holes there. He’s making the right reads, he’s doing all the right things, he knows what to do. He played great without the ball, protection-wise.”
Eight games is too early to call the Richardson trade a terrible one. But it’s not too early to start thinking it.
“I don’t think it will ever go away. Just that little chip. It’s not anger or resentment or anything like that. But it’s a little chip.”
—Saints quarterback Drew Brees, to me, on how he’ll always carry the feeling of the 2012 league sanctions over the Saints’ bounty scandal with him.
Listen to my podcast with Brees:
“Everywhere we went for the next couple of years, people booed us when we ran out on the field.”
—Former Cowboys defensive tackle Bob Lilly, on fans around the NFL booing Dallas players in the years following the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
Lilly’s quote is from a one-hour Bob Costas special Wednesday at 11 p.m., on the NBC Sports Network. No Day For Games: The Cowboys and JFK.
I haven’t seen the show, but I’ve heard very good things about it. I recall last year Gil Brandt, who was the Cowboys’ chief scout in ’63, talking about what it was like for a Dallas team to fly to Cleveland the day after the assassination. The Cowboys were to play the Browns that Sunday. “The bellmen wouldn’t take our bags,’’ said Brandt. “I never have seen that. But we were from Dallas, the city that killed the president.”
The killing of the president is one of my first vivid memories. For those too young to remember it (meaning most of you), I’d recommend getting educated about it this week. It was quite an extraordinary time in the country, an extraordinarily sad time.
Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
Number of Green Bay starting quarterbacks over last three games: 3 (Aaron Rodgers, Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien).
Number of Green Bay starting quarterbacks over previous 371 games: 3 (Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Flynn).
Stat of the Week
Peyton Manning is an equal-opportunity passer. Look at his four main targets through 10 games. He’s thrown to the four between 62 and 92 times, and completed between 45 and 61 balls to each. The details:
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
I have five:
1. Sat next to noted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on a plane from Grand Rapids to LaGuardia Thursday morning. (Yes, you can actually fly Grand Rapids to New York nonstop.) I thought, “What can I say to one of the smartest men in America?’’ We were on our way to some small talk—he commented on the unkempt state of my backpack—when, about five minutes after takeoff, he fell asleep and was out for the entire flight. Doubtless had we spoken he’d have left me with one of his gems, like: “I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday, and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.” (Follow him on Twitter: @neiltyson.)
2. Thought I’d have a chance to try one of the autumnal Michigan brews during a meal stop at Ruby Tuesday’s in Grand Rapids. Bell’s Brewery, maybe, from nearby Kalamazoo; the Winter White or the Octoberfest, maybe. Nope. Largely chain beer, except for one Brooklyn selection. There’s a thriving Michigan beer culture, and none of it here. Why, Ruby Tuesday’s? Why?
3. Killed two flies in my room and relocated a ladybug from the room desk in the Chicago O’Hare Marriott over the weekend. What’s that all about?
4. Wasting too much plastic with all those tiny water bottles, Delta.
5. Passed a nut shop in the O’Hare terminal Saturday advertising toffee-covered nuts, calling them “luxurious.” Synonyms for “luxurious’’ in my online dictionary: opulent, extravagant, palatial. Never really thought of a toffee-covered nut as opulent or palatial, but maybe that’s just me.
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Tweets of the Week
—@NatePlay60, after Washington, and its celebrated quarterback, fell to 3-7.
“Marcus Mariota in 2013: 25TD, 0 INT.
“Nick Foles in 2013: 16TD, 0 INT.
“Think Chip Kelly’s offense works?’’
—@nfldraftscout, Matt Miller, NFL writer for Bleacher Report, on Saturday night.
“Badgers with 323 rushing yards in one half? Must have a good fullback … #IMightBeSlightlyBiased’’
—@JJWatt, the Houston defensive end, on Saturday. Derek Watt, his brother, is the 6-2, 227-pound starting fullback for Wisconsin, which had a productive day on the ground (finishing with 554 rushing yards) in a 51-3 rout of Indiana Saturday.
“President Kennedy 50 years ago today was at home in Palm Beach-attended church, watched @ChicagoBears v @packers, screened film ‘Tom Jones.’ ”
—@BeschlossDC, presidential historian Michael Beschloss, on Sunday, documenting how John F. Kennedy spent the last Sunday of his life 50 years ago.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 11:
a. Great point by Raiders beat man Steve Corkran: “Matt McGloin went from camp arm in late April to Raiders starting QB on Sunday. No way anyone saw that happening.”
b. Great quote from Manish Mehta in the New York Daily News, from Jets defensive rookie stalwart Sheldon Richardson, asked about teammate Muhammad Wilkerson: “I don’t feel like Mo’s the best defensive player in the league—I am. I’m dead-ass serious.” I thought vets kept rookies in their place?
c. Joique Bell: Heck of a backup back.
d. Calvin Johnson can make every catch, he can toe-tap, and he can lay out. But you knew all that. Andre Johnson’s close. Brandon Marshall’s a physical force like they are. A.J. Green, who drops too many, is excellent too. But Calvin Johnson’s the gold standard of NFL receivers.
e. Matt McGloin to Rod Streater. Beautiful throw.
f. McGloin to sixth-round rookie tight end Mychal Rivera for a picture-perfect in-stride touchdown. Even better.
g. Great goal-line stop by Buffalo strong safety Aaron Williams to stop a Jets rushing TD when Jets-Bills was still a game.
h. So Nick Foles wasn’t a big star Sunday. He also didn’t make a big mistake.
i. The quiet and terminally underrated Marques Colston, setting the Saints’ record for receiving yards. He has 7,923 now.
j. Nate Garner and Sam Brenner. Meet your new Miami center and left guard, at least for the time being. They were good enough to help the Dolphins beat San Diego.
k. Congrats to the extra guys for a huge play at Cincinnati. Undrafted linebacker Jayson DiManche blocked a Cleveland punt, and rookie Tony Dye, just promoted from the practice squad Saturday, ran it in for a touchdown. Cool stuff.
l. A 31-point quarter against Cleveland. Now that’s something I didn’t think would happen to these Browns. Defensive and special-teams touchdowns helped.
2. I think this is what I didn’t like about Week 11:
a. The Steelers’ throwup uniforms. I mean, their throwback uniforms.
b. If Dan and Art Rooney look at those prison uniforms and do anything but wretch, I’d be stunned.
c. Please don’t humor the Steelers by giving your Steeler fan friend one of those things for the holidays.
d. The Washington secondary.
e. The Washington passing game: 26 yards in the first 35 minutes.
f. What in the name of quarterback competence is Robert Griffin III doing throwing that wasted Hail Mary with the game on the line on a third down late in the fourth quarter? Just not a smart play. Not smart at all.
g. I bet NFL Network’s excited about the Falcons hosting the Thursday nighter this week.
h. The First Half Geno Smith.
i. The Second Half Geno Smith.
j. Live by the Stafford, die by the Stafford.
k. The 49ers complaining about the Tony Corrente call. Watch it again. It’s a call that has to be made in today’s game.
l. Dumb play by Corey Liuget, the San Diego defensive tackle, whose clear roughing-the-passer penalty against Ryan Tannehill was a sign he has to get his aggression under control. Very, very good young player. But you can’t go hurting your team like that.
3. I think this is the moral of the story in the Ed Reed-being-cut-by-Houston-after-making-$5.4-million-for-275-mostly-invisible-snaps debacle: It’s okay to pay for a name and leadership in a veteran player who is far over the hill … but base the pay on performance. For Reed, the Texans were a gold watch before retirement. But instead of Swiss Army, he was a Rolex, and after his recent dip in performance with the Ravens, Houston just paid him too much. In a tight-cap era, with too many stars on defense to pay already, Reed, at his age, was too luxurious.
4. I think the American sports media fired Greg Schiano too early.
5. I think running back Bobby Rainey deserves a load of credit for sticking with it and taking advantage of his opportunity in Tampa Bay, after the Bucs’ myriad running back injuries. That was a Greg Schiano grind-it-out running performance by Rainey, 163 yards on 30 carries, with two touchdowns. Schiano loves to grind teams down with his backs. But this performance, to me, also says a lot about the Falcons. Rainey is not fast. He’s not a Bettis-type tackle-breaker. The Atlanta defense has much to answer for this morning.
6. I think you may never hear it from Ben Tate, because he’s not the kind to talk about his pain. But the man has four cracked ribs, and he got crunched solidly by the Raiders three or four times Sunday, including one accordion tackle that made me cringe. Nineteen carries for 88 yards, in this dirge of a Houston season … pretty impressive.
7. I think just when you think you can get Drew Stanton warming up in the bullpen, Carson Palmer responds with impressive football. I’m told he’s now feeling comfortable with Bruce Arians’ deep-strike offense, and 30 completions and 419 yards looked pretty comfortable Sunday at Jacksonville. Good to see Michael Floyd becoming a strong alternative to Larry Fitzgerald, finally.
8. I think the defection of the Braves to an Atlanta suburb 12 miles north of town said the Falcons made the first deal downtown, and the city wasn’t going to make two of them. I was in the first event ever at Turner Field (not called that on the night of the Opening Ceremonies of the ’96 Olympics), and it’s amazing to me that it’s already aged out.
9. I think to clear up some of the confusion—and there has been much of it—over who has the authority to increase the regular-season schedule from 16 to 18 games, the league must get approval from the players to do so. Article 31 of the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement states it clearly: “The League and/or Clubs may increase the number of regular season games per team above the standard of sixteen (16) only with NFLPA approval, which may be withheld at the NFLPA’s sole discretion.” That comes up occasionally, and you should have that in your informational hip pocket.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. What a great thing Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean did Friday night in Bloomington. Late in a game against Samford, during a timeout on the floor, Crean grabbed the arena microphone and praised retiring referee Ed Hightower (36 years as a Division I ref, with 10 Final Fours) thusly: “He has not only been one of the best officials, but one of the classiest officials.” Goosebumps on that one. Hightower shook hands with each coach and the game went on.
b. Also on that three-man Hightower crew, as a warmup to his ref stint Sunday at Soldier Field: Gene Steratore.
c. Duke is 8-2. The football team.
d. Please don’t wear those uniforms again, Northwestern. They hurt the eyes.
e. I’ll ask you nicely, college football: Stop with the timeout after first downs. Some of these games … interminable.
f. Headline someone at CNN would like to have back after the state of Illinois was ravaged by more than 50 twisters: “Tornadoes touch down in Illinois; Bears game interrupted.”
g. Coffeenerdness: Bring the maple oat nut scone back, Starbucks. Don’t make me beg.
h. Beernerdness: I had no new ones this week. I simply must try harder.
i. One postscript to all of your email, texts, tweets, actual mail and phone calls following the death of our Golden Retriever, Bailey: What touched me the most, and in one case brought me to tears, were the four of you who said you were either going to get a dog at your local shelter or seriously considering rescuing a dog as a tribute to Bailey. Wow. Happy dog ownership. There is nothing like it. Thank you.
Who I Like Tonight
Patriots 20, Panthers 16. There’s a lot to like about the Panthers’ defense, which is allowing a league-low 12.8 points a game and is coming off a stifling of the 49ers. But that San Francisco contest was the first “welcome to relevancy” game the Panthers have played in a while, with a nation’s eyes on them, and now they have to do it again against a team and quarterback that are experts at these high-profile affairs. With Shane Vereen’s return adding to the weaponry, I like Tom Brady to outplay Cam Newton, who has posted a couple stinkers in a row (56.5 completion percentage, one touchdown, three interceptions).
The Adieu Haiku
And then there were none.
Buoniconti pops champagne.
Perfection is safe.