Best of Times, Worst of Times
The envelopes, please.
Performance of the Year by a running back: Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy, who ran through eight inches of snow in the greatest fourth-quarter performance ever by an Eagle back—11 carries, 148 yards, two touchdowns. How does he not slip when everyone else does?
Performance of the Year by a return man: Detroit’s Jeremy Ross, who returned a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns on that same snowy field. Running 98 yards in that stuff … can’t wait to see it set to some symphony by NFL Films.
Dreads of the Year: DeSean Jackson and the dreadlocked Louis Delmas went crashing into the deep end-zone snow in the fourth quarter in Philly—and Delmas’ black dreads came up snowy white.
Kick of the Year—and the Century: Denver’s Matt Prater, who told me he’d never tried a kick of 60 yards or longer in high school, college or the NFL, said he "tried to kill it" from 64 yards in the Denver-Tennessee game, on the last play of the first half in Denver. Right down the middle. Good. Four times in NFL history men had made 63-yarders, but never from farther. Via my Sports Illustrated friend Tim Layden, the man who set the record 43 years ago, Tom Dempsey, lives in a New Orleans retirement home now, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and was told about Prater’s record-breaking field goal late Sunday afternoon. "Must have been a great kick," Dempsey said.
Hour of the Year: From 3:45 to 4:45 Eastern. When all heck broke loose, everywhere.
Explosion of the Year: In 14 games, NFL teams scored 88 touchdowns, the most on any day in the 94-year history of the league.
Injury of the Year: New England all-world tight end Rob Gronkowski, lost with an ACL tear, crippling New England’s chances to win a fourth Super Bowl in the Belichick era.
Awkward Meeting of the Year: When Dan Snyder and Mike Shanahan pass each other in the hallway at work today. After a story appeared on ESPN Sunday morning claiming that Shanahan cleaned out his office at the end of the last season, expecting to leave his job in part because of the too-cozy relationship between Washington owner Snyder and quarterback Robert Griffin III, Shanahan’s team went out and laid a church-fart performance in the desolate pews at FedEx Field. Kansas City 45, Washington 10, and it wasn’t that close. I now do not wonder whether Shanahan will get a contract extension in Washington. I now wonder whether he’ll be working for Snyder at the end of Monday. There is no question Snyder will think the ESPN story was borne of the close relationship between Shanahan and Adam Schefter of ESPN, no matter what Shanahan tells him. Won’t be long before Snyder’s looking for the eighth coach of his stormy tenure.
125 Seconds of the Year: Here. Go to Baltimore. Look at them. Minnesota led 12-7 when it all began.
|4||2:05||Dennis Pitta, 1-yard catch||15-12, Ravens|
|4||1:27||Toby Gerhart, 41-yard run||19-15, Vikings|
|4||1:16||Jacoby Jones, 77-yard kickoff return||22-19, Ravens|
|4||0:45||Cordarrelle Patterson, 79-yard catch||26-22, Vikings|
|4||0:04||Marlon Brown, 9-yard catch||29-26, Ravens|
First 57 minutes: 19 points scored. Last three minutes: 36.
But you can’t write the story of an amazing Sunday without the four calls (and I’m probably missing one or two) that materially affected three games. As you may know, I’m not one to kill the umpire. Or the head linesman. Officials have a tough job, and if you read my three-part opus last week on A Week in the Life of An Officiating Crew, you saw that I have respect for the work they do and the difficulty of the job they have. The close calls, the bang-bang calls, the helmet-to-helmet stuff they’re trying to get out of the game ... I get it. All good. And it’s a tribute to the greatness of football Sunday that I’m not going to spend half of this column berating crews in Philadelphia, New England and Cincinnati for indefensible calls that swayed the outcome of all three of those games. I said "swayed," not "determined."
But I am going to spend a few words up here on these calls. Because they stunk. And 345 Park Avenue needs to be concerned with the hue and cry of the fan right now, because the fan, mostly, is right. The missed flag on Steelers coach Mike Tomlin in the game with the Ravens on Thanksgiving night, when he was on the field during a real live play and two officials were right there, is one play. Just one. The Jeff Triplette idiocy in the Sunday night game in Week 13, when referee Triplette refused to call time even though two officials had a different down than he did and the game descended into chaos, that’s one too. On Sunday I saw four in very big moments.
1. At Philadelphia, early fourth quarter, Lions up eight, Eagles ball, 2nd-and-10 at their 45. A millisecond after Nick Foles released an incomplete pass, Detroit’s Nick Fairley, not using his head and not hitting above the sternum, plowed into Foles. Ref Ed Hochuli flagged Fairley for roughing the passer, a blown call for which he certainly will be downgraded by the league office. So, instead of the Eagles having a 3rd-and-10 at their 45, they had 1st-and-10 at the Detroit 40 ... and LeSean McCoy promptly romped to a 40-yard touchdown. That made the score Detroit 14, Philadelphia 12.
2. On the very next snap in Philadelphia, Foles, attempting a two-point conversion pass, threw the ball out of bounds. No conversion. But hold on—Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh is flagged by umpire Richard Hall for holding Eagles center Jason Kelce. FOX ran it back three times. A hold never happened. A hold was not close. Hall blew it. The ball got moved a yard closer, and Bryce Brown ran in the two-pointer from the one-yard line. Tie game. A total, absolute gift of two points.
3. At Foxboro, Cleveland up 26-21, 40 seconds left, Patriots ball at the Browns’ 30-yard line. Tom Brady throws deep down the right sideline for Josh Boyce, into the end zone, with rookie cornerback Leon McFadden in coverage. There is light contact. Incidental contact. The ball falls incomplete. McFadden is flagged for defensive pass interference. The 29-yard penalty puts the ball at the Cleveland 1, and Brady throws the winning touchdown pass to Danny Amendola on the next play. That’s not interference in second-grade flag football, and here it could well have handed New England a win. Where did the flag come from? Why? How is that call made? TV color man Steve Tasker agreed. He called the call "horrible" twice and "terrible" once. Couldn't have said it better.
4. At Cincinnati, late in the first half, the Bengals were up 7-0 when BenJarvus Green-Ellis dove for the goal line and appeared to be stopped short. In the last two minutes of the half, replays are initiated by the replay assistant upstairs, and that’s what happened here. The ruling on the field was that Green-Ellis was down by contact, from Indy nose tackle Josh Chapman touching Green-Ellis’ leg and causing him to fall short of the goal line. Triplette went under the hood. At NBC we watched the replay three or four times. Nothing there. The play would stand. Check out the video above. Almost certainly Chapman flicked Green-Ellis’ leg, causing him to fall forward, and his knees and thighs were down before he reached the goal line. Triplette overturned the call. He ruled a touchdown, saying Green-Ellis clearly had not been touched and could then reach the ball across the plane because he had not been touched down. We gasped in the room at NBC. Incredible. Jeff Triplette, for the second week in a row, made the kind of decision that makes the American public distrust, if not altogether hate, the officials who work these games. Triplette made a mockery of the term "indisputable visual evidence." Later in this column I’ll explain why the league may go to centralized replay review. This call should be Exhibit A for it.
Now for a few other events of Week 14.
The Longest Yard.
From the Broncos’ locker room, the new king of the field goal was talking about Tom Dempsey, the man whose record he broke just before halftime on a frigid and breezy Sunday afternoon in Denver. Dempsey, he knew, was handicapped—he was born without toes on his right foot—and kicked straight-on, his right shoe cut in half into a boot. It’s with that foot that Dempsey kicked a 63-yard field goal outside at Tulane Stadium for the Saints in 1970.
"That is awesome," said Prater, a 29-year-old veteran from Central Florida. "What an achievement for him—and he did it straight on, with worse equipment than we have now, so long ago, when no one would think you kick a 63-yard field goal. That’s an incredible record to have for so long."
I told Prater—through my colleague Tim Layden, that Dempsey praised his kick from his retirement home in New Orleans. "Wow," said Prater. "That’s really awesome. That’s an honor for me."
Prater, in fact, was almost late for his record. He had to rush out to the field after Peyton Manning completed a seven-yard throw to Jacob Tamme to get Denver on the outer limits of field-goal range. But he’d never kicked a field goal of 60 or longer in his life. "I really didn’t try many long ones today before the game because it was so cold," Prater said. "Just figured we probably wouldn’t try any real long ones. I think I kicked one from about 60. That was it. But I hustled out there and we lined it up. When I saw it on the stripe, I knew what it was."
Meaning: He knew it was for the Holy Grail. Sixty-four yards. The record.
The snapper, a San Diego State kid, Aaron Brewer, is from Fullerton, Calif. The holder, punter Britton Colquitt, who went to Tennessee, is from Knoxville. And Prater is from Estero, Fla. Now, here they were, three warm-blooded guys, trying for history.
"Almost every time I kick, just before I kick, Britton looks back at me and says, ‘Follow through straight to the target.’ He said that to me, and I was ready. The balls were pretty good today. Kenny Chavez did a really good job with the balls today, getting the ‘K’ balls prepared in this weather. The snap was good, the hold was good. I know I had a chance. I just tried to kill it. It felt good coming off my foot."
No one’s ever proven the altitude helps the kicks in Denver, though Sebastian Janikowski, one of four men to hold the previous record, always says he feels he kicks the farthest in Denver. (Janikowski and Jason Elam both kicked their 63-yarders in Denver; the fourth, by David Akers, was in Green Bay.) Prater’s kick sailed through the pristine chill, hung in the air an extra millisecond or two, and fell a yard or two beyond the crossbar. Perfect.
"The whole team rushed around me, like we won, and it was pretty exciting," Prater said. "I went into the locker room and everyone was congratulating me, and I’m thinking, Seems like we just won the World Series—and we’re still losing the game." Indeed, the kick sent the Broncos to the locker room trailing Tennessee 21-20. Denver would blow the game open in the second half and win 51-28.
An hour after the game, Prater still was a little dazed by it all. "It hasn’t sunk in, really," he said. "I’ve always wanted to get a shot to break that record, but the time and conditions have to be right. I’ve been waiting for six years. It’s pretty amazing. Surreal. Everything went just perfect."
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Looks like it's Peyton’s MVP to lose now.
Manning has three games left (at home against San Diego on Thursday night, then at Houston and at Oakland) to break the two passing biggies. He has 45 touchdown passes and 4,522 yards. He needs six touchdown passes to break Tom Brady’s mark of 50 TD throws; he needs 319 passing yards per game to break Drew Brees’ yardage mark of 5,476. Seeing that the 11-2 Broncos are in a race with the 10-3 Pats for home-field edge through the playoffs and would lose a head-to-head tiebreaker, Manning may well have to keep playing in shootouts to keep Denver No. 1. The only way I see Manning missing a fifth MVP is if he struggles a bit down the stretch, loses a couple games and does not break one or both of the records. He’s just been too dominant for 13 games, despite his hiccups, to lose it otherwise.
The MVP is voted on by a panel of 50 media members (I'm one of them) under the auspices of the Associated Press. The winner is announced the night before the Super Bowl. The 50 voters simply vote for one player; it’s not a ballot of 10, for example, the way voters in baseball work the MVP. This process is something I’ve long railed against, because I think a ballot gives you a chance to reward the second-highest vote-getter, third- and so on, and because as it is now, very often in a close race the only way a voter can reflect that closeness is to split his or her vote.
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The NFL has discussed centralizing the replay system, likely in New York.
For uniformity of calls, mostly. And why not, after seeing the disastrous Jeff Triplette reversal of a likely correct call in Cincinnati? I’d prefer to have the same people looking at all replays. It lessens—though doesn’t eliminate—the chances of a mistake because the foremost authorities on the calls, led by VP of Officiating Dean Blandino, would be overseeing the process from the NFL command center. Mike Florio and I reported on this last night on NBC, and I can tell you it’s being seriously considered. Nothing is likely to change before 2015, however. I’d expect 2014 to be a study year for the project.
Sounds like the public wants to take replay—and probably a lot more—out of the hands of referees at game sites. Florio asked on Pro Football Talk: "Should the NFL move the instant-replay function out of the stadium?" By early this morning, 83.7 percent of those responding (5,591 of 6,681) said yes. I asked my Twitter followers last night: "Should the NFL centralize replay in one place?" It was 149-9, yes (94.3 percent).
The league would consider this not only because a uniformity of eyes looking at the calls could lead to more consistency, but also because it would likely shorten games. The time of games (3 hours, 11 minutes, 20 seconds, on average, this weekend) has slowly crept up in the last few years, and the league wants to bring it back down. The time it takes for replay is getting onerous. We measured the fateful Triplette reversal Sunday, from the time he announced that the Cincinnati rushing play near the goal line was being reviewed to the time he announced the reversal: four minutes, 10 seconds ... even though the time a ref can spend under the hood is only one minute. There is no question that process can be streamlined by getting rid of the mechanical procedures at the game site that accompany the replay process.
For the record, times of games in the last six seasons, including this one through Sunday night’s Saints-Panthers game:
Stay tuned for offseason debate on this topic.
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Meet Julian Edelman.
Look there, on the list of leading NFL receivers, and you’ll see an odd name between No. 4 (A.J. Green and Brandon Marshall, tied with 78 receptions) and No. 7 (Calvin Johnson, 75).
Julian Edelman: 76.
The former Kent State quarterback. The seventh-round Patriot who would have signed with Green Bay as an undrafted free agent if New England hadn’t snared him with the 232nd pick in 2009.
I had Edelman on my podcast the other day and discovered why he’s been such a good match with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady:
"The more you can do, the more valuable you make yourself to a team. Sometimes, lying and saying you’ve done it when you really haven’t done it. Put my head down, worked my tail off, watched a lot of great guys ahead of me over the years ... You watch Tom Brady and learn how to be a professional. You’re around that, and it becomes your life ... Punt-returning, kick-returning, playing defense, whatever the coaches ask you to do. Blocking a kick. When you’re younger and you’re a seventh-round draft pick, a rookie, you basically do everything you can. You could be a camp body ... Everyone’s fighting for a job. Any time a coach needed a guy up, you had to go sprint up there and try to deal with it ... You saw a lot of guys, Wes Welker in the huddle, Joey Galloway, Randy Moss, even though they’re different body types, they’re such smart receivers. You could always take something away from everyone. When you’re green, you grow; when you’re ripe, you rot. You gotta constantly learn. My father tells me that all the time. We’d be practicing out in the backyard, and if I had a bad attitude or I was talking back or something, he’d go, You think you have all the answers. When you’re green you grow, when you think you’re ripe you’re gonna rot."
Troy Brown, Wes Welker, Danny Woodhead, Julian Edelman. Not all the same guy. But productive, smaller guys who’ve made a good living playing a long time. Edelman’s a free agent after the season. The Chargers struck gold with Woodhead, signing him from New England this year. Read the previous paragraph, and look at his production, and see how Edelman has become a Tom Brady go-to guy. This is a guy you want on your team, a winning player.
Questions about Game 150: A Week in the Life of An Officiating Crew.
So, for those who passed my 14,800-word endurance test/three-part series about the real lives of officials, congratulations. And thanks for reading one of my favorite assignments in 30 years covering the NFL. If you haven’t, the links to the stories about ref Gene Steratore, his crew, and the weekend of a football game are to the right
I’m going to answer several questions you sent from Twitter and via email, but first, I wanted to address one that many of you have asked—how did this story come about?
Last winter I decided to stay at SI and start The MMQB. I wanted it to be the kind of website devoted to helping you learn more about the game you love. I wanted to take you places you’ve never been, and experience parts of the game you’ve never seen. The Jason Garrett training camp speech to his team, for instance, or "What It’s Like to Get Whacked," a first-person account of a veteran player, Austen Lane, stunned by getting cut. But what I wanted to do most was go behind the NFL’s iron curtain of officiating and spend a week with a crew—seeing the seven officials do their real-life jobs, noting how much homework they actually did, embedding with them as they went through their pre-game meeting and dinner Saturday, and their pre- and post-game routines Sunday. I approached the league last spring and presented my case (including selling them on the idea I would be putting it on a website that, at that time, did not exist). I met with new NFL VP of Officiating Dean Blandino twice, and in September he agreed to let me inside.
Why Steratore? Only because I knew he seemed like the kind of open guy to talk about the reality of the job. If the league hadn’t wanted to allow Steratore, that would have been fine with me; any one of the 17 referees would do. But Steratore was good with it, as was Blandino. And luckily, Steratore had similarly open guys on his crew, with the kind of interesting jobs that made telling the story more than just the officiating side. So there you have it.
Now for your queries:
From @barryshiller: "Are reg-season assignments ‘random?’ Steratore crew got multiple Peyton/Brady games; why give shaky crew ?"
The league doesn’t acknowledge giving what it considers better crews bigger games, but the proof is in the assigning. I don’t believe the games are assigned randomly. In fact, former officiating czar Mike Pereira was clear with me that when he assigned games, he often looked for the crews he considered better ones to do the bigger games.
From @jimmurphy24: "What kind of consequences are there for refs who blow calls and games? Other than playoff appearances?"
As Blandino told me in Part 1, the better officials get playoff assignments, and theoretically (though this is a very gray area) the best officials get the Super Bowl. He said some officials who are consistently downgraded during the season are eligible to be replaced at the end of the year.
From @SCLANY: "What did you learn that was most surprising?"
Probably the obsession about positioning and maddening, ticky-tack detail. I detailed the inside-football day-before-the-game ritual of going over plays the Ravens and Bears were likely to run, and how it would affect which players certain officials would have on the play. In this case, I isolated on a stretch run play the Ravens ran, and how umpire Bill Schuster’s and referee Steratore’s jobs would change depending on whether it was a run or a play-action pass. In the blink of an eye, Steratore would change from watching the quarterback and two tackles to the right guard and right tackle. On the eighth play of the game the next day, the Ravens ran that exact play, and Steratore in the blink or an eye had to determine whether Baltimore guard Marshal Yanda committed a foul on Chicago defensive tackle Landon Cohen. Also, the details about preparing the footballs—those were fascinating to me.
From MTN335 (Nathan Murphy): "Did you get a comment (or at least a sense) about the near-constant accusations of cheating/favoritism by NFL Officials?"
Back judge Dino Paganelli grew up in Lions country, teaches school to Lions fans outside Grand Rapids, and is Michigan through and through. He cost the Lions the opening game of the 2010 season by ruling Calvin Johnson didn’t complete the act of a catch, though all of America was screaming that Johnson did. As head linesman and New Yorker Wayne Mackie said, it’s laughable to think he’d endanger his job to help his Jets or Giants win; he’d last 10 minutes in the job if that happened, because his supervisors at the league office would drum him out of the game. I can’t say that stuff has never happened. But all of the officials think it’s absurd.
From Tim, of Ponce, Puerto Rico: "Do refs get a downgrade on a call that ends up being reversed on a challenge? I mean are they penalized for making a coach waste a challenge or do they get a pass for getting the call right at the end?"
I asked Blandino for you, Tim. His response was no, officials usually are not downgraded, because replayable plays are most often bang-bang plays that are very close. "If we eventually get the call on the field right then we do not downgrade, unless it is so blatantly obvious that the call on the field was incorrect," said Blandino.
From Matthew: "If, as you say, chemistry is such an important thing for the crews, why does the NFL break them up for the playoffs? Why not take the best overall crews, rather than picking and choosing certain officials who haven't worked together all season, but now have to, with the extra pressure of the playoffs?"
Great question; many people asked this. Think of the composition of the crews this way. There are 17 officials at each position. Some are great, some are good, and some are passable. When the league puts the crews together, it’s not with the intention of taking a top person at every spot and putting them on one or two or three crews; all quality of officials are used on all crews. (I’m not good enough to figure out which are great and which struggle in my limited exposure to them. But make no mistake. Some struggle, and each year there are several who don’t get brought back and are replaced.) So let’s say Ed Hochuli’s crew has a very good ref, three good to very good guys and three who are marginal. If Hochuli is the highest-graded guy, should his men ride his coattails? Or if his crew is overall the best one, but has two officials in the bottom four or five at their position, why not take the best two guys and make the crew the best it can be? I understand the cry for crew quality, but I believe if you asked the ref who works the Super Bowl, he’d give up the chemistry his team has developed for the year in exchange for a great back judge he has confidence will make the tough, Calvin Johnson-type calls when the game is the biggest.
From Dhanesh K. Gupta, M.D.: "With the amount of time and effort that is required to maintain a high quality crew, I am confused by why they are not full time employees of the NFL, and what are the impediments to making this happen? You would think that these crews could easily be involved in teaching referees at others levels of the game during the offseason to make this a viable option. Keep up the amazing work with your group on The MMQB."
Thanks, Dhanesh. Quite a few of these guys have fairly lucrative real jobs. Maybe in the long run it would help the quality to have these guys work their NFL jobs full-time (I am dubious), but in the short run a guy like Steratore—who has a very successful family janitorial-supply business and who does very well reffing NCAA Division I basketball—might get run off if you told him to stop reffing basketball and leave the family business. He’d have a tough choice to make, and I’m not sure he’d pick the NFL. My question, I guess, is what would these guys do to be better during the week and through the offseason? The majority of plays that are missed are the bang-bang plays like pass interference and helmet-to-helmet hits with guys flying at each other at full speed. How do you simulate that? Maybe the closest would be to do college games as well. But would the officials risk the confusion of the two rulebooks then? Maybe; I don’t know. I just don’t know many ways, other than big college games, to simulate what you’d want the officials to work on—and what the chance is that they would be better because of it.
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It’s going to be a fun week at The MMQB.
On the heels of the ref series, we’ve got another fun week for you. Some of the stories we have this week:
COACH FAVRE. Jenny Vrentas reports from Jackson, Miss., and the Mississippi 6A high school football championship game, where Oak Grove High, with offensive coordinator Brett Favre calling the plays, won the title 14-7 on a frigid night in the state capital. Vrentas caught up with Favre and asked what he’s learned from the gig this year. "I realize how much of a pain I was , thinking I knew it all," Favre said. "Of course, I still think I knew it all. But all the things the coaches said to me, I’ve said the same thing ... Don’t force it into coverage, or take what they give you, or keep it simple. All those things have been said to me time and time again, and I say the same things, because they’re true."
THE JADAVEON CLOWNEY DILEMMA. Greg Bedard reports from Columbia, S.C. Clowney, the South Carolina pass rusher, has been on everyone’s radar all season as the prospective top pick of the 2014 draft. And physically, Clowney has all the skills to be the NFL’s next great edge rusher. But an underwhelming final season, including the top-10 showdown against Clemson, will have NFL personnel departments combing his background from now until the draft in May. The key question: How much does he love playing football?
PLAYING IN INTENSE PAIN: WHY DO SOME PLAYERS DO IT? Robert Klemko reports from Houston, where running back Ben Tate seems to feel he has no choice but to play with four cracked ribs; he’s going into his free-agent offseason, and he knows he needs to show teams what a special player he is. Sometimes that means playing hurt. What drives these people? Money? Pride? Both? After Houston’s loss to Jacksonville two weeks ago, Ben's father called his son to tell him, if you’re hurt, you need to sit down. "I said, ‘Son, it doesn’t look good at all,’ ” Tate Sr. said. "I broke three ribs one time, and every time you take a deep breath it hurts. If you can’t play the right way you don’t even need to be on the field. Who plays with broken ribs anyway?" Tate’s response: "Dad, I’m tougher than you."
Looking forward to all three. Check back all week for these and other stories.
1. Seattle (11-2). A Twitter follower asked me the other day if I liked my preseason Super Bowl champion pick (Patriots over Seahawks). Yes. Why, yes I do still like the Seahawks part of that equation. I'm not much bothered by a cliff-hanging loss to San Francisco in which the Seahawks held their archrivals to 19 points and 318 yards, on the road on a short week when the Niners had vastly more for which to play.
2. Denver (11-2). At some point the secondary’s going to be a true Achilles heel for this team. But celebrate the quality of this receiving corps. Wes Welker, Julius Thomas, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker all had a touchdown catch, giving them 10, 11, 11 and 8, respectively, for the year.
3. New Orleans (10-3). So what did we learn Sunday night, other than Marques Colston’s one of the great players of this era who we never talk about? Just this: No one’s winning a playoff game in New Orleans. Just not happening.
4. New England (10-3). Gronk gone. But you know what I’d be worried about? The defense—the one that allowed 494 yards to the Cleveland Browns at home, that surrendered a 391-yard passing day to Jason Campbell. Yup, that’s what would worry me.
5. Carolina (9-4). It makes no sense to settle for field goals in the Superdome. That’s the lesson offensive coordinator Mike Shula should take out of this game for 2014 and beyond (and perhaps for a January game).
6. San Francisco (9-4). So you say you want to see more offensive production out of Colin Kaepernick and friends? So would offensive coordinator Greg Roman. But when the D’s allowing 13.5 points a game over the last six, it’s a lot easier to get by without the fireworks.
7. Cincinnati (9-4). Tough call, where to put the Bengals right now. This is probably the best Cincinnati team since the Boomer Esiason days. Andy Dalton, with three games to go, is 25-16 in touchdown-to-interception differential; last year he was 27-16 for the season. The difference? He should throw for 4,000 yards this year for the first time, thanks to Marvin Jones giving him a legitimate second option at receiver.
8. Philadelphia (8-5). Antarctica’s Team.
9. Kansas City (10-3). I do not want to demean the victory in Washington in the least, but the Chiefs were playing Team Chaos Sunday. Jamaal Charles and Dexter McCluster, combined, would have been a gigantic load for any foe, though.
10. Indianapolis (8-5). Well, at least the Kenyan rugby player, Daniel Adongo, played.
11. Arizona (8-5). On Friday, after a week of little practice for Carson Palmer because of a bum elbow, coach Bruce Arians pshawed about any chance he’d miss the game against the Rams Sunday. "He’ll play," Arians said. The Cardinals got the sore-winged Palmer’s best game of the year, 27 of 32 in a 30-10 win over St. Louis.
12. Baltimore (7-6). Maybe I overrate the return of Dennis Pitta to give Joe Flacco his security blanket back. But I don’t think so. Baltimore has three losable games left (at Detroit, New England, at Cincinnati), and Flacco needs all the receiving he can get with the running game still not out of the woods.
13. Detroit (7-6). Things are starting to trend downward after a 6-3 start; Detroit’s gone 1-3 in its last four, with seven Matthew Stafford turnovers in that time (two fumbles lost, five interceptions). The Bears can match the Lions' record atop the NFC North with a win tonight. Of more concern to Lions fans is that Green Bay is still within striking distance.
14. Dallas (7-5). I probably have too much of a gulf between Dallas and Philly here. I just like the way the Eagles are peaking, and the Cowboys, on the road against a desperate team tonight, scare me.
15. Miami (7-6). Charles Clay is making me forget about Dustin Keller. That’s a versatile, promising tight end who has a great feel for the game.
The Awards Section
Offensive Players of the Week
Drew Brees, quarterback, New Orleans. Peyton Manning needed 191 games to get to 50,000 career passing yards, the fastest to get to 50K before Sunday night. In Brees’ 183rd game, he got there, with a 30-of-42 night and 313 yards in the 31-13 rout of Carolina. Brees is fortunate, obviously, to have great receivers like Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham, but Sean Payton has the perfect low-ego trigger-man for an offense that’s next-to-impossible to stop in the climate-controlled ’dome.
LeSean McCoy, running back, Philadelphia. The best rushing day by an Eagle ever—29 carries, 217 yards, two touchdowns—was the vital piece of the puzzle in a loony win over Detroit in eight inches of snow at Lincoln Financial Field. And in so doing, the invaluable McCoy moved closer to the rushing title. He has 1,305 yards, and an 84-yard lead over Adrian Peterson—who limped off Sunday in Baltimore with a mid-foot sprain—with three games to play.
Frank Gore, running back, San Francisco. His 17-carry, 110-yard rushing day, against a defense that looked impenetrable Monday night against New Orleans, was the vital piece for the Niners in the narrow win over Seattle. The Niners played keepaway on a six-minute drive that resulted in a winning 22-yard field goal, and the big play on the drive was a 51-yard gallop by Gore, finishing intelligently by diving on the ground just shy of the boundary so he wouldn’t stop the clock. Smart, very valuable player for the Niners’ offense.
Defensive Players of the Week
John Abraham, outside linebacker, Arizona. Moved past Lawrence Taylor into ninth place on the all-time sack list with a three-sack, one-safety day in the Cards’ rout of the Rams. Abraham looks like he could easily give the Cards another productive season as a second rush alternative to Calais Campbell in 2014, and I hear he wants to play another one.
Junior Gallette, outside linebacker, and Cameron Jordan, defensive end, New Orleans. Saints score twice in a hurry in the first half to take a 14-6 lead. Panthers’ ball, and they've got to do something with it. Third-and-8. Loud. Big play for Cam Newton. So here comes Jordan, speeding around the right tackle and running right into Newton for a crushing 10-yard sack. A few Drew Brees snaps later, the Saints are up 21-6, it’s halftime, and this one’s over. Jordan had nine sacks in his first two seasons as a pro. He’s got 11.5 now, with three important games left ... As for Gallette, he added three sacks against a line that had previously allowed just 2.6 sacks a game. Sunday night, the Saints got Newton five times, all of them by the pass rush crew that gives defensive coordinator Rob Ryan freedom to rush from lots of different lanes.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Matt Prater, kicker, Denver. It’s stunning, honestly, that the record for the longest field goal in history has stood for 43 years (Tom Dempsey, New Orleans, Nov. 8, 1970), and been tied three times but never bested. Prater finally got his shot, his first time ever trying a 64-yarder at any level of football, and drilled it at the end of the first half in what turned out to be a Denver rout Sunday.
Jeremy Ross, kick-returner, Detroit. An amazing day in the snow at Lincoln Financial Field. Ross returned a punt for a 58-yard touchdown and a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown, looking like he was the only man who didn’t think the field was slippery. He’s the first Lion to return a kick and punt for touchdowns in the same game since Eddie Payton (brother of Walter) did it in 1977.
Coach of the Week
Dave Taub, special teams coach, Kansas City. A special teams coach couldn’t have a better day. Dexter McCluster returned seven punts for 177 yards—including a 74-yard touchdown—and Quinton Demps returned two kicks for 123 yards, including a 95-yard touchdown. Taub was a great kicking-game coach in Chicago, and he’s turning out to be one of Andy Reid’s best hires in Kansas City.
Goats of the Week
Dominic Raiola, center, and Matthew Stafford, quarterback, Detroit. Imagine being a Detroit fan, and seeing the Lions’ carelessness with the football ruin this team week after week. Okay, blame the weather for many of the seven fumbles by the Lions (five credited to Stafford), but down eight and trying to mount a drive to tie midway through the fourth quarter, there’s absolutely no reason for the center and quarterback to mess up a shotgun snap and blow the last chance at an important win. Stafford wasn’t looking, Raiola snapped it back, it bounced around, and the Eagles recovered and got an insurance touchdown. Ridiculous.
Rob Chudzinski, head coach, Cleveland. This is for leaving his team with no timeouts remaining in a very winnable game at Foxboro. The Browns stupidly burned two timeouts in the third quarter, then called the last one with 35 seconds left and the clock stopped after pass interference put the ball at the Cleveland 1 for New England. So when Cleveland, down 27-26 with a 2nd-and-10 at its 47 and 14 seconds left, completed a pass to Jordan Cameron for 13 yards, Jason Campbell could have used that timeout with eight or nine seconds left. Since he didn’t have one left, he was forced to spike the ball with two seconds left to stop the clock. Billy Cundiff’s 58-yard attempt was just short. Had Campbell been able to complete one more boundary pass, the field goal could have come from a manageable 48 or 50 yards. You just don’t burn timeouts like that.
Quotes of the Week
"It’s not the right time or place to talk about my relationship with Dan Snyder. Or it’s not the right time or place to talk about something that happened a year ago."
—Washington coach Mike Shanahan, declining after an embarrassing loss to Kansas City to talk about an explosive story from ESPN Sunday morning that claimed he almost quit at the end of the last season, in part because of the ultra-close relationship between Snyder and quarterback Robert Griffin III.
"Oh yeah. There is no doubt in my mind."
—Denver coach John Fox, asked by NFL Network’s Michelle Beisner Sunday if he felt he was close to death when he was stricken with a heart ailment on a Charlotte golf course Nov. 2.
"The last straw was losing … We’ve got a lot better talent than Jacksonville, and to have them beat us twice, that’s not acceptable to us. If they’re better than we are, fine. But we didn’t play smart."
—Houston owner Bob McNair, in announcing the firing of Gary Kubiak on Friday after almost eight seasons as Texans coach.
"I’m gonna be honest with you: You look like a succulent baby lamb."
—Will Ferrell, playing Ron Burgundy, interviewing the real Peyton Manning via satellite on ESPN.
Peyton Manning has been interviewed by a lot of people in his 16-season NFL career, and a lot of observations have flowed back and forth in those interviews. But I feel quite sure no one has ever told him he looked like an edible infant sheep.
"I want my son to know his story.”
—Saints center Brian de la Puente, on naming his recently born son Makenzie "Rivers" de la Puente in tribute to former Saint Steve Gleason, now battling ALS, in comments to Katherine Terrell of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Gleason and wife, Michel, decided to have a child after he was diagnosed with the fatal disease, and their son is named Rivers. Steve Gleason has been very public in fighting ALS, and NFL Films recently documented his rugged journey to Machu Picchu in Peru.
Stat of the Week
For the strangest coaching career in the last 30 years, I nominate Wade Phillips.
Notable notes on his résumé:
• He has been the head coach of six franchises in 28 years.
• He holds the NFL record (unofficial) by being the interim coach of three teams, including the interim coach of the Texans after being the short-term replacement for Gary Kubiak for three games while Kubiak recovered from a mini-stroke. That almost should count twice.
• He was the losing coach in the Music City Miracle game.
• He was the losing coach in the last NFL playoff game in Los Angeles, in 1993 (Raiders 42, Broncos 24).
• He replaced Dan Reeves twice—in Denver in 1993, in Atlanta in 2003.
• He was replaced by a Mora twice—Jim Mora (the dad) in New Orleans and Jim Mora (the son) in Atlanta.
• In his first game as a head coach, interim with the Saints in 1985, he beat Dieter Brock, Jeff Kemp, Eric Dickerson and the Los Angeles Rams, 29-3. That was the year the Rams made it to the NFC title game and lost to the Fridge, the Punky QB and the Super Bowl Shufflin’ Bears.
• He's been the defensive coordinator on seven teams: New Orleans, Philadelphia, Denver, Buffalo, Atlanta, San Diego and Houston. He also coached Houston’s defensive line. The Oilers, that is.
• I once saw him at a U2 concert.
His career coaching record, via Pro-football-reference.com:
|2013||66||Houston||Interim||2 (so far)||0-2|
Factoid of the Week That May Only Interest Me
Five of them, all involving the school with the most surprising sports result of the weekend, Coastal Carolina:
1. Coastal Carolina, competing in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, played its first football game outside the Eastern Time Zone Saturday—and this one was really outside the Eastern Time Zone. In Missoula, Mont., 2,489 miles from the school’s campus. In the Mountain Time Zone. Against favored Montana (if for no other reason than the Grizzlies are used to frigidity and the Chanticleers had never felt anything like this). It was minus-5 at kickoff, with a 20-below-zero windchill (75 degrees colder than the kickoff windchill temperature for Coastal’s game at home last weekend).
2. Coastal Carolina, whose campus is located nine miles from Myrtle Beach, won one of the coldest games in college football history, 42-35, over the Grizzlies.
3. The reward for Coastal Carolina in the next round of the playoffs is its first game ever in the Central Time Zone. The Chanticleers travel 1,592 miles to Fargo, N.D. (where the low Saturday was minus-18) next weekend to play the 12-0 North Dakota State Bison, who are looking to win the national FCS title for the third straight year. The Bison actually roam in a climate-controlled pen, playing home games in a dome.
4. The football coach at Coastal Carolina, Joe Moglia, was the CEO of TD Ameritrade six years ago. He left Wall Street to chase his dream of being a college football coach.
5. (I am now about to write the strangest short paragraph in the history of Monday Morning Quarterback.) Coastal Carolina University has salt-water angling and Quidditch as club sports. Quidditch is a game adapted from the Harry Potter book series, played by two teams of seven players, who ride flying broomsticks and shoot at six different goals using balls called the Quaffle, the Golden Snitch and the Bludger. They do use broomsticks, but my understanding is, players run on the ground and do not actually fly.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
Went to Louisville the other day to speak to the good people of the RV industry. Back at the Louisville airport waiting to fly home, I sat in the terminal restaurant with SI publisher Frank Wall and Chicago-based ad exec Tom Buerger. "There’s Chris Matthews," Wall said, nodding at a table a few yards away. "Wonder what he’s doing here?"
"Bet he was here for a speech," I said. "Google ‘Chris Matthews, University of Louisville, speech.’ ”
Wall went to work. "Yup," he said. "Spoke at the University of Louisville Author’s Forum."
Even I sometimes surprise myself with my consistent strokes of genius!
Tweets of the Week
"Thank you Mike Tomlin for being in Pittsburgh #MPtakeover #purplesnowday"
—@ravens, which was used by Baltimore native and Ravens fan Michael Phelps Sunday, after Jacoby Jones walked a tightrope down the sideline to score a crucial late-fourth-quarter touchdown to help the Ravens stun Minnesota.
"Indoors in the dome.. outdoors in the snow..the Lions are a turnover waiting to happen."
—@wingoz, ESPN’s Trey Wingo, after Detroit’s sixth fumble of the day at Philadelphia. In the first half.
"@bryan_croley: @TonyDungy ‘Are you officially retired for good? If not, would you take a job coaching a college team?’ Retired for good."
—@TonyDungy, answering a Twitter follower's question Sunday morning.
I guess that settles that.
"Re Mariners/Cano/Jay Z, deals that close usually don't go away. After testosterone lowers a bit, sense they'll find common ground."
—@adbrandt, The MMQB Business of Football columnist Andrew Brandt, tweeting at 8:44 a.m. Thursday, not long after it was reported talks between Robinson Cano and the Mariners had broken off and he wouldn’t be signing there.
Within three hours, Cano and the Mariners had a deal, pending a physical.
Seems like Mr. Brandt has been through these things before.
"Asked 15 Pens last year if fighting should be banned from hockey. Only one said yes: Brooks Orpik. Doesn't want to be a vegetable someday."
—@JoshYohe_Trib, Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, after Orpik, himself a noted agitator, was pummeled in the head twice while on the ice by Bruin Shawn Thornton and taken on a stretcher to a Boston hospital.
The violence in hockey is out of control. It has to be fixed.
"From a press release announcing a policy luncheon in Hartford with Sen. Chris Murphy: ‘During the luncheon Senator Murphy will discuss: XYZ’ ”
—@capitolwatch, Connecticut political reporter Daniela Altimari.
From the files of Press Releases Sent Before Being Proofed Dept.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 14:
a. Mike Tomlin coming relatively clean.
b. LeSean McCoy. What a talent. Electric in the open field even with eight inches of snow on the ground.
c. Another 397 yards and four touchdowns for Peyton at home on Sunday. Temperature at kickoff: 14°
d. Vintage Troy Polamalu with the over-the top pick-6.
e. Exciting day in the third part of football: special teams. Multiple kick returns for touchdowns. Patriots recover an onside kick to pull off the comeback. Blocked punt spurs the Jets. Prater breaks the FG record.
f. Josh Gordon’s catch-and-run TD. Turning into an absolute star right before our eyes.
g. Frank Gore’s 51-yard run to set up the Niners’ winning field goal. Big-time play in a big-time football game.
h. Great to see Dennis Pitta back in action for the Ravens. Joe Flacco celebrated by throwing him a fourth-quarter TD.
i. Big day for the Bengals’ offense. Three TDs for Andy Dalton. Good sign for the playoffs.
j. Keenan Allen’s full extension, diving touchdown. Heck of a rookie year thus far.
2. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 14:
a. Come on, Washington special teams. Look at the extra point after the late-second-quarter Kansas City touchdown. Three Washington players, as Ryan Succop kicked, stood and made no attempt to rush the kick, or do anything. Nice effort.
b. The Cincy defenders’ tackling attempts on LaVon Brazill’s 19-yard touchdown. Just ugly.
c. The knee injuries. Rob Gronkowski and Tyrann Mathieu both went down with apparent ACL tears. Hate to see that happen to anyone, let alone two of the league’s brightest young stars.
d. Vikings’ pass defense at the end of their wild game in Baltimore. There were 45 seconds left, and they let Flacco march the Ravens right down the field for a touchdown.
e. Chris Johnson’s fourth-quarter fumble in Denver. Just a bad, bad football play.
f. What a mess in Washington. Just an embarrassing loss to the Chiefs at home.
g. RGIII’s interception to Derrick Johnson. Telegraphed all the way.
h. Blair Walsh has to at least get Jacoby Jones out of bounds on his kickoff return TD. Pitiful effort.
i. E.J. Manuel tossing four interceptions in the Bills’ loss at Tampa Bay.
3. I think of all the media-relations professionals I’ve worked with in 30 seasons covering the NFL, none has been more professional than Jim Saccamano, who had the press box in the Denver stadium named after him Sunday. Saccamano is retiring at the end of the year after 36 seasons working for the team. You always knew who Saccamano worked for, but the mark of a good PR guy—I’ve always thought—is he understands those sent to cover the games have pressures on them, too, to come back with unique takes and insight, and he was always prepared to go as close to the line as he could without going over it to help us do our jobs. I’m grateful for the help he’s been to me, and SI, over the years.
4. I think when I heard the Chicago Bears were retiring Mike Ditka’s jersey tonight, I thought, "You mean it wasn't retired already?" So glad the Bears are honoring an icon when he can still appreciate it and feel the adoration from a city he’s so much like.
5. I think I can’t add much to the incredible tributes we’ve seen around the world for Nelson Mandela after his death Thursday at 95. I hope his powers of forgiveness, tolerance and peaceful activism live on. You can tell the impact Mandela had on people around the world by the candlelight vigils by schoolchildren in Indonesia, by the immediate changing of school names in his honor, and in my little world, by the scores of NFL players who chimed in emotionally on the meaning of his life. I’ll never forget covering the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 and meeting his grandson, Mandla Mandela, who was trying to raise money to build a new school in the tribal area where Nelson Mandela was born. (Mandla Mandela has since been enmeshed in several controversies, and been accused of pulling a gun on another man, and so images may well be deceiving. But on the day I met him, he had his grandfather’s earnest calm.)
We talked about how important it was to his grandfather that the World Cup was in South Africa—and make no mistake, it never would have been awarded to South Africa without the icon’s influence. I asked him if his grandfather was watching the games, and pageantry, on TV. "Oh, yes," Mandla Mandela said. "But he is old now, and he needs his rest. He might watch the first few minutes of a game, and he gets a little bit excited, then he goes for a rest, and later, he will say to us, 'Who won the game? What happened?' He can't afford to get too excited these days, but he loves this World Cup. It was his dream for South Africa, and for Africa. It has been on my grandfather's agenda to use sport for nation-building, and I think he feels strongly that this is happening here right now.' "
6. I think, whatever you think of the job Gary Kubiak did, you cannot deny his class.
7. I think there’s more to come on the Mike Tomlin sanction, which means I erred when I reported Friday on NBC Sports Network’s Pro Football Talk that the penalty for the Steelers will likely end with the $100,000 fine from the league. It won’t, and I apologize for the mistake. The league will either take a late-round pick from the Steelers (which, if the team gets a sixth- or seventh-round compensatory pick, would mean in essence that the team won’t get compensated for losing a mid-range free agent next spring) or diminish the value of a pick or picks by lowering one or more of them.
8. I think the story of the weekend belongs to Dan Graziano of ESPN.com. He alleges Mike Shanahan almost left Washington at the end of last season because he didn’t like the favoritism owner Dan Snyder was showing Robert Griffin III. Graziano’s good at his job, and it bears watching very closely whether Shanahan would even entertain a contract extension, or whether Snyder would even entertain offering him one at the end of the season.
9. I think my favorite stat to steal from Sunday comes from Mark Kiszla of the Denver Post: In John Elway's 233 regular-season games as a Bronco, he never put up 50 points in a game. In 13 games this year, including on an 18-degree afternoon in Denver Sunday, Peyton Manning has done it three times.
10. I think these are my non-NFL thoughts of the week:
a. I’m a hockey fan, but I don’t know the game that well. I do know that, watching highlights of the first period of Pittsburgh-Boston Saturday night, I was sickened by the grotesque violence. A purposeful knee in the head—or, at least what sure looked to be a knee in the head on purpose. Then, as mentioned above, Boston’s Thornton chasing down Pittsburgh’s Orpik, a noted instigator who wouldn’t fight this time, and after Orpik had fallen to the ice, pummeling him with two solid punches. Just revolting. Orpik was immobilized and taken off the ice on a stretcher.
b. No idea why fighting is legal in hockey. It’s so ’80s.
c. Get ’em, Brendan Shanahan. Dish out some discipline that matters. Five games, 10 games … pshaw. Make it hurt.
d. Re Jacoby Ellsbury signing with the Yankees and Jarrod Saltalamacchia signing with the Marlins: Two hard-working, tremendous guys to root for over the years, professional to the core. They’ll be missed, at least by me.
e. Now, if you ask me about the Yankees paying $21.9 million a year for Ellsbury, who missed 41 percent of Boston’s games over the last four seasons, it sure seems dumb. Maybe he’ll suddenly turn durable, but to pay him that money you trust him to be in the lineup every day. I don’t see how you can. He's played nearly every day in just one year of the last four.
f. Robinson Cano’s going to regret that deal. He’s just not a face-of-the-franchise type, and now the Mariners are going to demand it.
h. Took a few minutes to be a real person over the weekend and saw Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest movie by the Coen brothers. All I can say is I would pay Ethan and Joel Coen to make movies 24/7, because every time I walk out of the theater after seeing one, I cannot wait for the next one. This is a story of a week in the life of a pretty good folk singer in 1961, trying to make it in New York (with a detour to Chicago). Llewyn Davis, actually actor Oscar Isaac, sings beautifully, I think, so beautifully that I’ll be buying the soundtrack. But he’s sort of a wayward bum, irresponsible to put it nicely, and the Coen brothers chart his vagabond existence the way they did car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) in Fargo or Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) hiding the big money in No Country for Old Men. The end is so ... cool. Listen to the voice at the end. Remember it’s 1961. I loved this movie.
i. Coffeenerdness: It really shouldn’t happen, Starbucks, that I have to nerdily tell a new barista that the shots in a macchiato get put in at the end of the drink, on top of the foam. But that happened this week, at a midtown shop. The barista looked at me and said, "Really?"
j. Beernerdness: Well, that was a mistake. Maybe because I’m not a big bourbon guy. But when the server at the Brown Hotel bar in Louisville asked what I wanted the other night, and I asked what the local beers were, one she named was Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale. "It’s actually stored in bourbon barrels," she said. I had to try that. Yikes! Tasted like a shot of carbonated bourbon. I’m sure for you mint julep aficionados, that would be a nice beer. But I had to switch over to the regular Kentucky Ale. Not bad. Kind of a dark pale ale.
k. How old did it make me feel when I saw my old hometown newspaper, the Montclair Times, in its "Ten Years Ago This Week" section, report that Mary Beth King was named first-team all-conference in field hockey this week in 2003 after the MHS team swept through the league at 15-0? Pretty darn old.
l. The more I look at Pope Francis, the more he looks like Chance the gardener.
m. I’m a few days late on that drones-delivering-packages story, which truly is amazing. Except if some skeet shooters are out for a tidy package of Clark’s loafers that go flying by.
Who I Like Tonight
Dallas 30, Chicago 27. Each team could tie its division's leader with a win (the Cowboys are a half-game back of the Eagles, the Bears a half-game behind the Lions), but they're headed in different directions, with Dallas winning two in a row and the Bears losing consecutive games to the bottom-feeding Rams and Vikings. Even on the frigid Soldier Field grass (it'll be in the teens but dry at kickoff), the combination of the league's 29th (Chicago) and 32nd (Dallas) defenses should mean plenty of points, and I like Tony Romo more than I like Josh McCown.
The Adieu Haiku
Frank Gore. What a back.
Appreciate him now, please.Soon, he’ll have to go.