Smile broadly, Doug Pederson. Pump your fist and get gleeful, Jalen Hurts. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a gigantic win—Philly’s 24-21 stunner over New Orleans in Hurts’ starting debut—greeted with such . . . caution? It sure wasn’t joy.
I get that Pederson knows he may have to rebuild Wentz from the ground up next spring, and so he can’t exactly make Hurts his BFF. But Hurts is Philadelphia’s December quarterback, at least, and of course it’s a bummer that Wentz is going through a crisis of confidence right now. But that’s life in the big city. The Eagles had their biggest win of the year Sunday, and it’s okay to be joyous—for once this season, at least—even though Wentz is probably the one guy in the locker room not feeling any joy.
So it’s a complex time in Philadelphia. Nothing got proven with any finality Sunday. But five things seem obvious this morning about the Drama of Week 14 and the future of the Eagles at quarterback.
1. Hurts is the right man for this time in Philadelphia. He played confidently, with no fear. It was amazing to see Pederson go for it on fourth-and-two at the New Orleans’ 15-yard line early in the second quarter. Hurts threw a perfect back-shoulder pass to Alshon Jeffery (he’s still on the team?) at the left pylon. Touchdown. At the end of the first half, Hurts took the Eagles 75 yards in 55 seconds with one timeout, scrambling for 24 and then 16, weaving through a terrific defense like he was running ‘Bama again and the Saints for a moment were Vanderbilt. Hurts ran for 106, threw for 167, didn’t throw a pick, wasn’t sacked, and turned it over once on a strip-tackle. He was as in command as a first-time starter could be. At the very least, the Eagles learned the kid can take the heat and deliver under pressure.
2. Hurts has the perfect background for this gig. His coach at Oklahoma, Lincoln Riley, told me Sunday night: “I know he’s an NFL rookie . . . but I don’t know that he could’ve experienced a whole lot more to get him ready for this than what he did in college. I mean, he goes into Alabama, starts as a true freshman, part of championship teams, and all of a sudden, he’s not the starter. Comes back in in a championship game and leads them to victory. Transfers to [Oklahoma], where they just had two Heisman trophy winners in a row, knowing he’s only gonna have one year, comes in and has a great year, new system, new teammates. He’s always got supreme confidence in himself and he trusts his preparation. I think part of him is like, ‘Man, if I’ve made it through what I’ve made it through, I trust myself that even in a new situation that I can do it. So no, not surprising to me at all that he would go play the way he did today.”
3. Howie Roseman will figure out the Wentz contract if he needs. All we’ve heard about the Wentz deal is it will tie Wentz to the Eagles for the next two years, because moving him or cutting him is too cap-onerous. “No contract is untradeable,” former Eagle exec Joe Banner says. Jason Fitzgerald of Over The Cap has the best and most tolerable possibility for moving Wentz: If the Eagles trade him after June 1, 2021, he’d count $19.27 million on the cap for Philly in 2021, then $24.5 million in dead money in 2022, when the cap should finally be rising again. Especially with Hurts’ second-round rookie contract making the Wentz cap hits hurts less, it’s doable.
4. The Colts are the most logical suitor. Makes total sense. Wentz reunites with former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich, the ultimate patient and calm teacher, and the Wentz mental makeover happens in the decidedly low-pressure-cooker of central Indiana. There’s no WIP there. GM Chris Ballard never met a big deal he was afraid to make. But—and this is a very big but—the Eagles most assuredly have not decided to deal Wentz. As of this morning, I bet the majority of their top people think he’ll be back in 2021. But if Hurts has three more games like Sunday’s? We’ll see.
5. The NFL still likes Wentz, so his future, while cloudy in Philadelphia, is brighter than you think. One GM whose team will be in the market for a quarterback this offseason told me last week he will seriously study Wentz when the season ends. He said: “What’s happened with him concerns me. But I’ve seen him play well too many times to think there’s some fatal flaw there. I don’t think the Eagles will move him. I wouldn’t if I were them.” It’s tampering for a GM to say, “I’m interested.” But I can sense there will be some interest if the Eagles decide to trade him, questionable contract and all.
For now, Hurts will prepare to make his second start Sunday in Arizona. (For some reason Sunday night, Pederson wouldn’t name Hurts this week’s starter.) Funny game: the 2018 Oklahoma quarterback, Kyler Murray, versus the 2019 Oklahoma quarterback, Hurts. Incredibly for the 4-8-1 Eagles, visions of the NFC’s fourth seed can still dance in their heads. A win Sunday and a Washington loss to Seattle means the Eagles would be a half-game behind WFT. Washington at Philadelphia, in Week 17, would be perhaps a playoff-deciding matchup.
So I’ve got a cool look at how NFL contact tracing works (sounds boring, but I think you’ll like it) coming later in the column, but first I want to focus on the other very newsy Pennsylvania team. You know, the one with the wheels falling off. The Steelers.
In honor of my new NBC playoff-analytics buddy, Steve Kornacki (more with him later too), check out the Pro Football Focus playoff possibilities for Pittsburgh, one week apart:
• Sunday, Dec. 6, 11:30 a.m.: Steelers (11-0) had a 98 percent chance to win the AFC North, a 55.3 percent chance to win the AFC top seed.
• Sunday, Dec. 12, 11:30 p.m.: Steelers (11-2) have an 89 percent chance to win the AFC North, a 5 percent chance to win the AFC top seed.
Losing to Washington narrowly and Buffalo decisively have exposed some ugly truths about the Steelers. Nine days ago, the Terrible Towelers were planning socially distanced 16-0 parties. Now, if the Browns beat Baltimore tonight, Pittsburgh’s lead in the AFC North will be down to one game—with a Steelers-Browns season-ender in Cleveland on Jan. 3. Imagine losing the division, in Cleveland, on the last day of the season.
Nothing’s impossible now. The Monday night loss to Washington felt a little fluky, but Sunday night’s 26-15 defeat to Buffalo might as well have been 36-15; that’s how one-sided it felt. Ben Roethlisberger looked old and slow. The running game—54 yards per game, on average, over the past seven weeks—is feeble. The word you never, ever hear about Pittsburgh’s offense—“soft”—is now being whispered. The Steelers could never exert their will on the Bills, and the quotes coming out of their locker room, notably from Roethlisberger, sure sounded ominous.
“If I don’t play good enough football,” he said, “then I need to hang it up. But I still feel like I can do enough things to help this team win games.”
Maybe, but his backs aren’t helping and his butterfingered receivers lead the NFL in drops this year. “We need to do better at being a more balanced offense,” he said. “Defenses play pass if you can’t run the ball.” Of course. But this isn’t a couple weeks with problems running it. It’s two months. Can you give your offensive line strength pills? Tough pills?
The perfect illustration of the problem came in the third quarter, after Roethlisberger put the Steelers in a halftime hole with a pick-six late in the second quarter. First two drives of the second half for Pittsburgh: three plays, minus-9 yards, punt; three plays, six yards, punt. By this time, Buffalo had a 23-7 lead. The plodding Steeler offense had no chance.
On the other side of the field Sunday night, Josh Allen, big and mobile and 24, played the part of the rough-and-tumble, big-armed quarterback perfect for the northeast this time of year. It’s not too late for Roethlisberger, 38, to have one more postseason of hope. The Steelers Defense can rise to the occasion against Cincinnati next week, and maybe even Indy and Cleveland the two weeks after that. But can the offense run a little bit and score at least in the twenties? I have my doubts. Mike Tomlin has to figure it out, or this will be a bitter January at the confluence of the Three Rivers.
“We’re not hitting the panic button,” Roethlisberger said. “We understand what time of year it is.” There’s no shame in losing to Buffalo, but the symptoms that keep showing up in the narrow wins and Sunday’s decisive loss don’t seem to be going away.
One prediction I feel very good about making: Without a significant and advanced system of contact tracing this fall, the NFL would have had to postpone or cancel games by now. Yet here the league is, 14 weeks in, and zero games to make up. “The contact-tracing element is absolutely foundational for us,” the NFL’s medical director, Dr. Allen Sills, told me Friday. “It’s the element that almost nobody is talking about.”
Contact tracing has become increasingly important as the season progresses and COVID-19 increases around the country and in the player population. In September and October, 47 NFL players tested positive for COVID. That number shot up recently. From Nov. 1 to Dec. 5, 111 players were positive. More cases, more chances of spread. And more reason to emphasize the identification and isolation of COVID-positive people. The NFL, as of Friday, had discovered 24 new cases of the coronavirus through tracing of high-risk close-contacts with those NFL employees previously testing positive. That is according to Dr. Christina Mack, an epidemiologist for IQVIA, a long-time NFL partner in health research and technology, and now in contact tracing. She has worked closely with the NFL this season.
Dr. Mack gave an illustration of how the contact-tracing program works. There are a few provisos: Privacy laws prevent the NFL from using an example with names and teams, so for the sake of the exercise, I will use The Team, and Player A and Player B. She would not provide exact dates of the illustration, so I will use Day 1, Day 2, etc. She would only say that this scenario occurred within the last month, as cases around the league have spiked.
Day 1, evening
Player A, driving, carpools home with a teammate from a full day at practice with The Team, having a conversation of about 12 minutes with the teammate when he drops him off. Player A arrives home around 6:30 p.m.
Day 2, morning
At 7:30 a.m., Player A arrives at The Team facility and his nose is swabbed for the daily COVID-19 PCR test. A normal practice day ensues.
At 6:30 a.m., when Dr. Mack wakes up, her phone already has text alerts of any positive tests among the players or team employees (coaches, training and equipment staff) with daily player contact. These tests of about 70 players per team (plus coaches and team officials) were swabbed the previous morning. She sees Player A of The Team has tested positive from his test on Day 2. The rest of the NFL’s COVID team, led by Dr. Sills, plus officials of The Team, also get this data. An official of The Team contacts the player and tells him to isolate and not report to the club facility—and to expect to be debriefed by a league contact tracer about all his contacts in the previous three days. “The team will ask, ‘Are you okay? Are you isolated? If you’re at home, make sure you’re isolated from your family,’ “ Dr. Mack said. “And they isolate everyone who is about to get contact traced.”
At 7 a.m., Dr. Mack and a team of four to six tracers meet by conference call to discuss that day’s positives. Dr. Mack and the tracers have to look at results from the player’s tracking device on Day 2, when he was contagious and spent the day at the facility, plus two days prior. They do this because even though the player didn’t test positive on the previous two days, he may have had the ability to spread the virus on those days. Each player while at the team facility wears a Kinexon tracking device from the time he walks in till the time he leaves for the day, and it shows who the player has been closer than six feet to during the time he is at the facility or at practice. In examining the player’s device over the previous three days, Kinexon shows the player had eight contacts on the day he tested positive, seven contacts on the previous day, and two contacts on the previous day to that. Some of those people—depending on the time and area of contact—will be contacted by the tracers. While this is happening, The Team decides to close its facility and work remotely till the tracing has occurred.
At 8:30 a.m., what Dr. Sills calls “the SWAT team,” a group of about 12 doctors, epidemiologists, infectious-disease experts, league officials and tracers, meet by conference call. (This meeting happens seven days a week, an hour earlier on Sundays.) “We go through each case that day, and put together a pod team for that case,” Dr. Mack said. For the pod investigating Player A, there will be an IQVIA tracer, an NFL-employed tracer, and a physician who is an infectious-disease expert.
A big part of the process is interviewing The Team’s Infection Control Officer (each team appointed one to start the 2020 season) to get an overview of Day 2, to see where more questions and interviews might be needed.
“The individual came in at 7:30 a.m.,” Dr. Mack said, referring to the day of the positive test. “There was a team meeting but it was in the bubble, which is a well-ventilated area. They had a lift session so we walked through the map of that lift session. Everyone was spread out. They were more than six feet apart, heavily ventilated room. Everyone had been wearing masks per protocols. The team had a walkthrough [a light practice]. They had lunch. The lunch tables are one chair per 10 feet apart. We went through the walkthrough again. The practice goes from 2:15 to 4:10. Everyone was spaced out and masked during that time. And then they actually had a night meeting which was 45 minutes and the [infected player] was there until 6:15 p.m. We walked through that entire day and asked about contacts at each point, masking at each point. Did you drink coffee or have a snack or eat food at any point? Which suggests the mask would be off.”
At the beginning of the season, the NFL defined “close contacts” as being within six feet for at least 15 minutes. Not anymore—because the CDC has deemed that too many factors can impact the strict definition of close contact. Tracers now would be concerned with a 5-minute, unmasked and indoor conversation. According to Dr. Mack, “The real art with the contacts is the interview. It has to be thoughtful and thorough.” It can last from 20 to 50 minutes, or longer, with questions like: Was your contact with the infected player inside? Outside? Were you masked? Were you eating? Drinking? Was the mask off for part of your contact?
It turns out, after the interviews conducted by the two tracers doing the investigation into Player A’s contacts, one was deemed a “high-risk close-contact.” That player, Player B, by league rule will have to stay away from The Team facility for 5 days.
When the tracers interviewed Player A, he mentioned a contact with a teammate on the evening of Day 1, driving home. In an interview with one of the contact tracers, Player B’s story matched the details of Player A about the carpool drive.
“It was an estimated 5-minute drive,” Dr. Mack said.
Two problems, per Dr. Mack:
“They had the windows up, and they were unmasked.”
Said Dr. Mack: “When they got home, they went outside and they talked for 12 minutes approximately, and then parted ways. That was the contact on that day that was noted as a high-risk close contact. In this example, at the facility, all of the protocols had been followed, distancing was done, masks were worn. The facility was set up in ways that tables were far apart, chairs were far apart, meeting rooms were well-spaced, they were in well-ventilated areas. We did not have any high-risk close contacts from the day in the facility despite interactions with the team all day. None of those individuals turned positive. But we did detect that high-risk close contact from the shared car ride home.”
Player B does not test positive.
Player B tests positive, four mornings after the maskless, closed-windows car-ride with Player A.
“This has been an evolution, an ongoing learning process,” Dr. Mack said. “So with this team [the prior week], we had gone through the data and we said, ‘You have a really high number of close contacts at 3 o’clock on a Wednesday. What is the team doing at 3 o’clock on a Wednesday?’ And they said, they’re in the locker room. They’re coming in and out of practice at that time and they’re in the locker room. We said okay, let’s go through and look at the schedule. Who’s in the locker room? And as we went through that exercise the week prior, we learned that the position groups had lockers close to each other and talked through with the team that if they changed the placement of the lockers to make it so the position group lockers were very much spaced apart, they aren’t going to be near each other and they’ll reduce their number of close contacts. After that meeting, this team changed the placement of the lockers. It was really well-timed because when this case came up, they had just moved all of the lockers and so they did not have contact in the locker room at that time between these people. It felt like a bullet dodged.”
I wondered if, in this case, limiting the spread to one player through contact tracing was a Eureka! moment for Mack and her three-person pod of tracers.
She paused, and answered it this way: “If there’s a positive case, keep one case to one case.”
Haason Reddick. Arizona’s fourth-year pass-rusher, who grew up in New Jersey and went to school at Temple, came back to the Garden State and had a career-high five sacks in the 26-7 victory over the Giants. Huge, considering that in his previous 60 games as a pro, Reddick had only 12.5 sacks. His production was so spotty the Cards didn’t exercise his fifth-year option before the season, meaning he’ll be a free agent. Good thing, then, that he has 10 sacks in 13 games, by far the best of his pro life.
I told Reddick on Sunday: Lawrence Taylor, maybe the best pass-rusher of all time, played his entire career for the Giants in the Meadowlands, and he never had five sacks in a game. “I’m definitely blown away,” Reddick said. “Just lets me know the talent is there and I can do this. I can play at this level and pass-rush at this level.”
Dave Pasch. A strange 2020 got stranger Sunday for the Arizona Cardinals’ play-by-play voice. Starting from the beginning: Pasch was one of ESPN’s NBA broadcaster in the Orlando bubble; he did eight games in August and September. He’s also a college football play-by-play guy for ESPN, doing most of the games from his home in Chandler, Ariz. (with partner Mike Golic Sr. in Bristol at ESPN); how strange, to do Michigan-Penn State to a national ESPN from your house. “At least I don’t have to wait in line for the bathroom at halftime,” Pasch said Sunday.
In a quirk of the schedule, Pasch did the USC-UCLA game Saturday night at the Rose Bowl—and then, because he couldn’t be sure an early flight would get him back in time for the Sunday morning (Arizona time) Cardinals game, he drove home, 5.5 hours, after the USC win in Pasadena. The weirdness continued Sunday, when the vagabond Niners hosted Washington at the Cardinals’ home stadium in suburban Phoenix. At 11 a.m. local time, Pasch went on the air from his regular radio booth at State Farm Stadium to do the Cardinals’ game from New Jersey. (Many radio teams don’t travel this year because of the pandemic, doing all games from the home stadium. The road games are done using the TV feed.) So Pasch and partner Ron Wolfley did Giants-Cards with the window in the booth closed so the music and noise from pre-game warmups wouldn’t filter into the Cards radio broadcast.
This is a professional first. Calling one game off of a monitor while another game-which we won’t be calling-is going on outside our window! pic.twitter.com/RzxcLgKOAH
— Dave Pasch (@DavePasch) December 13, 2020
What’s it like? “I know it’s a cliché,” Pasch said, “but it’s so 2020.”
Steve Kornacki. Kornacki was back for more Sunday night in the NBC studio, on his second Sunday making sense of the NFL playoff picture the way he made sense of the presidential election so pristinely. Using PFF forecasting numbers, Kornacki went to the football big board in the NBC studio and tried to point out the best-guess playoff picture with three weeks to go. Three bits that might surprise:
• The WFT jump. A week ago, before upsetting Pittsburgh on Monday, Washington had a 23.5 percent shot to win the NFC East. Now, after beating Pittsburgh and San Francisco, and after the Giants loss to Arizona, Washington has a 71 percent chance to win the East.
• The Baltimore weirdness. “This is my favorite one,” Kornacki said. Baltimore plays at Cleveland tonight. If the Ravens win, Baltimore and Miami would be tied at 8-5, but Miami would win the playoff tiebreaker and be in line for the seventh seed. But Baltimore would be heavily favored, at more than 70 percent, for the playoff spot, because Miami’s schedule (Patriots, at Raiders, at Bills) is tougher than Baltimore’s (Jaguars, Giants, at Bengals).
• The fallers. The Giants went from a 48 percent playoff shot before the day to only 17 percent after losing to Arizona, Las Vegas from 45 percent to 26 percent, and Miami from 49 percent to 39 percent.
And yes, Kornacki’s a playoff fixture on NBC through the rest of the regular season.
1. There’s enough wrong with the Steelers this morning, but those drops? Just insane. Diontae Johnson is the league leader (by far) with 12, and think of this craziness: In the last three years, Kyle Rudolph, in 45 games, has one drop in 167 targets. In the last three games, Johnson has seven drops in 32 targets. I’m amazed Ben Roethlisberger went to Johnson four more times after his second drop Sunday night.
2. The Bills are real, and they’re spectacular. So sad the great fans of western New York couldn’t be there Sunday night on what would have been a moment of such great triumph for them.
3. Josh Allen has a good chance to be Jim Kelly the quarterback and Jim Kelly the local icon.
4. AFC playoff match I’d love to see on wild-card weekend: Miami at Pittsburgh (currently 7 versus 2 in the AFC rubric). Revenge of Minkah, Flores-Tomlin, Tua versus that great D.
5. NFC playoff match I’d love to see on wild-card weekend: Arizona at New Orleans (also a 7-2 matchup as of this morning).
6. The best looming match, though, is in the NFC divisional round: Tom Brady at Aaron Rodgers, Lambeau, I’m betting prime time, in what could be the last Brady-Rodgers game ever; they’re not scheduled to play next year unless the Bucs somehow win the NFC South this year.
7. Such great defensive back play on Sunday. Three one-handed interceptions, including the best pick of star cornerback Xavien Howard’s life, catching a Patrick Mahomes toss like Spiderman. Just amazing. Howard and Jalen Ramsey look like good candidates for first-team all-pro this year—Howard has picks in five straight games.
Xavien Howard’s absurd one-handed INT on Mahomes 😳
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 13, 2020
8. So my hat is off to Matt LaFleur. Never thought the Packers would have another season like LaFleur’s 13-3 rookie year, and here it is. It’s got to be a total treat to call plays for Aaron Rodgers, because everything looks so smooth, but no matter how good Rodgers is, there’s an organization and a game plan to be concerned about. Winningest coaches over the last two seasons, including playoffs:
Andy Reid, 27-5.
Matt LaFleur, 24-7.
Sean Payton, 23-7.
(Bill Belichick is 18-12.)
9. I do not know what’s going to happen in the playoffs, and the 8-5 Dolphins are not locks to get there, particularly with a Patriots/Raiders/Bills (in Buffalo) finish to the season for Miami. This Dolphins Defense isn’t perfect, but it’s feisty. Any D that forces four turnovers and four punts against the Chiefs is one hell of a defense. That Vegas-Miami game in Week 16 is close to a play-in game for January.
10. Is it just me, or is Cam Akers the closest in running style to Le’Veon Bell since classic Bell with the Steelers? Akers (last two weeks: 50 carries, 243 yards, 4.86 yards per rush) pummeled the Patriots on Thursday night with a Belichick-shredding 171 yards in the 24-3 win, and left no doubt he deserves to be the Rams’ mail-carrier the rest of the way.
11. Back to Normal New York Football Note of the Week, from Sunday: Foes on Two Coasts 66, Jets/Giants 10.
12. So get this about Atlanta wide receiver Russell Gage. He played 21 games in college at LSU. Entering Sunday’s Falcons game at the Chargers, he’d played 43 games in the NFL. That’s 64 games played in college and pro football. He never completed a pass in those 64 games. At Los Angeles on Sunday, Gage took a direct snap, moved confidently in the pocket, launched a low-arcing spiral 46 yards in the air, and connected in perfect strike with Calvin Ridley for a touchdowns. The color guy on FOX, Brock Huard, was effervescent. “Watch this seed!” he yelled as the replay began. “You can’t throw it better!” Lots of great plays in the 14 games Sunday. I don’t think there was a better one than the perfect strike traveling half the length of the field by the neophyte Gage.
Epic WR Pass to Calvin Ridley 🚨
Russell Gage throws a LASER
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 13, 2020
13. Interesting that positive COVID tests among NFL players did not decline for seven straight weeks . . . until last week. Players testing positive for the coronavirus went down from 33 players for the week ending Nov. 28 to 18 for the week ending Dec. 5. Could be the act of the league closing all facilities every Monday and Tuesday now—and, in the week ending Dec. 5, that would comprise facilities being closed for the Monday and Tuesday after Thanksgiving. If the number of positives pops back up this week, then we can deduce the reduction last week could be a fluke. We’ll see.
14. The Rams are going to be a tough out in January.
15. Totally on board with the Saints not playing Drew Brees till he’s absolutely ready to be Drew Brees again. Always thought cracking 11 ribs, sitting three weeks and then playing again just didn’t sound right. Or healthy.
16. There can be nothing more Jets-y about the 2020 season than the trifecta last week of the bad Gregg Williams call, the sacking of Gregg Williams, then naming as its Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee a player who was cut 22 days earlier. Pierre Desir, let go Nov. 17 for poor performance, is a tremendously enlightened and generous person and got the nomination when the NFL announced the 32 team candidates last week. He also plays for the Baltimore Ravens. There wasn’t someone in the Jets organization who said, “Hey, we should nominate the second-best guy for this award, someone who actually plays for us?”
17. Nice year, Jimmy Haslam. The Haslams own the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer and the Cleveland Browns. The Crew won the MLS Cup Saturday night, beating Seattle 3-0. The Browns are the best they’ve been since being reincarnated 21 years ago. Combined 2020 record of the Haslam teams: 24 wins, 9 losses, 5 ties.
18. Glad the league switched the Sunday-nighter next week from Niners-Cowboys to Browns-Giants, though the ratings might crater a bit. I won’t be surprised if Jerry Jones is glad too. As much as Jones revels in All Things Cowboys, he’s not reveling in this. He’s embarrassed. Why would he want to share continuing evidence of his bad team with a national TV audience?
19. I supposed Aaron Donald could get overtaken (T.J. Watt?) in the last three weeks of the season, but he seems a heavy favorite for his third Defensive Player of the Year award by the age of 29. This is the 50th year the DPOY has been awarded. Lawrence Taylor won it three times. J.J. Watt won it three times. Donald would join the group with a win this season. No one’s won it a fourth time. Anyone betting against Donald, a seventh-year pro with much of his prime remaining, a defensive tackle with 45.5 sacks in his last 45 games? I’m certainly not.
20. Updating: The NFL regular season is 81-percent complete: 207 games played, 49 remaining (48 if tonight’s Baltimore-Cleveland game happens on schedule), zero games left to be rescheduled. Nobody get too comfy, but the odds are in the NFL’s favor to play 17 regular-season weeks as scheduled.
In the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, U.S. sprinter Tommie Smith won the gold medal in the 200-meter sprint, with training partner John Carlos winning silver. On the medal stand, Smith and Carlos each raised a black-gloved fist during the playing of the national anthem to protest injustice against Black people in America. The move prompted death threats against Smith and Carlos. Bounce, an entertainment network, debuted a documentary, “With Drawn Arms,” on the Tommie Smith story.
I spoke to Smith about current NFL activism and something I never knew: his short-lived career in the NFL as a Cincinnati Bengal a year after he and Carlos shocked the world at the Olympics. Smith was a ninth-round pick of the Rams as a running back from San Jose State in 1967 but never played in a game for the Rams. He played briefly in the NFL in a 1969 cameo for the Bengals, with coach Paul Brown and offensive coordinator Bill Walsh crafting a role for him.
“Nobody’s ever asked me that story,” Smith told me from his home in Stone Mountain, Ga. Here it is:
“I went to one of the Rams camps early on. I thought I had it made. I thought I was gonna be a Ram when I got [back from] Mexico City. But after the Olympic Games, well, no way, because of what happened on the victory stand. I was dropped by everybody, including the loss of the job I was doing. I ended up washing cars.
“Bill Walsh contacted me when I was in San Jose [in early 1969] with no job. I couldn’t find a job. The phone rang. Bill Walsh said Paul Brown wanted to see if I wanted to play football. I said, ‘Yes I do.’ When I got to Cincinnati, first thing they did is introduced me to Paul Brown and they took me to the field for a long pass, a streak, they called it then. I outran the ball. I didn’t know a lot about football. But I knew the names because Bill Walsh was a part of San Jose, a part of the area. Paul Brown, he was Mr. Everything. He started the Cleveland Browns. It was exciting going there. I was very afraid to go there, but that choice was such a great choice that I could not deny it. It was a job. I made $300 a week.”
Smith played in two games that year—the last season of the American Football League—including one at Oakland 51 years ago this week. The Bengals stunk. The Raiders had the best record in the league. Greg Cook, the strong-armed rookie, was his quarterback, and the John Madden-coached Raiders were a physical bunch.
“All my parents were there, my girlfriend was there, everybody I knew was there, and I got slaughtered on that pass play. My first official pass, against the Oakland Raiders, a long post pattern. But I caught the pass! I caught the pass! Forty-one yards, I think—one of the longest averages per catch in history—because there was only one pass I caught!
“They dislocated my shoulder on that one. But I survived it, and two weeks later, I had to drive home from Cincinnati to San Jose. I drove a four-speed car . . . with a broken shoulder. The next year, I went to camp, and I played the whole preseason. The first day back in Cincinnati, when all the players were moving into apartments, I received a call the morning, as soon as my furniture came up. It was Bill Walsh telling me that Paul Brown had let me go. I was there in a rented apartment with no money, with a car on empty in the gas tank.”
Three more questions for Smith:
FMIA: Did you ever once have a regret about raising your fist because it kept you from other opportunities?
Smith: “No. Never did. That’s unequivocal: no.”
FMIA: What will people learn from the documentary?
Smith: “Standing on the victory stand with arm in the air, head bowed, people viewed that as a militant move, something that shouldn’t have happened because you aren’t supposed to dishonor the flag. But it wasn’t about the flag. It was about the system. This was done by young athletes who saw a need to use their greatness for a better cause in our society. People viewed it as, ‘Oh, he is a militant. He should not represent this country. Let’s do to him what he’s doing to the flag.’ But they picked the wrong person, because it wasn’t about the flag. It was about how we were used in a country that flew a flag. I was ROTC. I was military.”
FMIA: How do you look at the players in sports now, from Colin Kaepernick to some of the socially active players still playing, sticking their necks out for social causes?
Smith: “It’s a shining star of more than one athlete who felt the need to tear the duct tape off their lips and sacrifice by saying ‘I am somebody.’ . . . I take my hat off and applaud these young guys who are making sacrifices.”
Well, John Knapp from North Carolina called me out here. And for a week or two, at least, I’m going to abide (mostly) by his wishes. Knapp writes:
“Look forward to your column every week. With that said, I have found myself skipping the Awards section every week. I do think it’s because you inevitably put three or four winners in each category. Are you doing this because so many people complain that you didn’t choose X player/coach over Y player/coach? I really feel it waters down the meaning of the section and for me has now made it unreadable.”
You know, John, a buddy of mine who was so great at covering the NFL for years, Len Pasquarelli, said the exact same thing to me. He thought I was watering down the meaning of the awards by including so many. So this is my commitment for the rest of the regular season: No more than two awards in any category. Thanks John.
Offensive Player of the Week
Jalen Hurts, quarterback, Philadelphia. A few candidates here, with Derrick Henry rushing for 215 yards (this is getting absurd), and Mitchell Trubisky (I suppose) exorcising some sort of Deshaun Watson ghost with a strong game in beating Houston. But no person in the NFL had a bigger day, on offense, defense or special teams than the 53rd pick in the draft last April. Hurts was confident, decisive and productive in the season-saving win over New Orleans—and he won his first NFL start against the number one defense in the league. It is positively amazing the lift he gave this downtrodden team. The Eagles tried a thousand different ways after the game to say it was a team win and Hurts said every right thing. But let’s face it: Hurts gives the Eagles a better chance to win football games right now than the addled Carson Wentz.
Defensive Player of the Week
Haason Reddick’s case is overwhelming, and discussed above. But this rookie’s game was just as impactful.
Chase Young, pass-rusher, Washington. With the NFC East lead on the line late Sunday afternoon in Arizona at the (temporarily homestanding) Niners, this is what Young did in the first half in leading WFT to a 13-7 lead:
- Scooped up a fumble and scored on a 47-yard sprint to the end zone.
- Dropped in coverage for a millisecond, then charged the backfield and sacked Nick Mullens for minus-8.
- Forced a fumble with a jarring hit on running back Jeff Wilson Jr. The fumble was recoved by WFT and resulted in a field goal.
In addition, for the game, the second pick in the 2020 draft had six tackles, two more quarterback pressures and two passes defensed in Washington’s 23-15 victory, a win that gave the team the lead in the NFC East with three games to go.
— NFL (@NFL) December 13, 2020
Coach of the Week
Brandon Staley, defensive coordinator, L.A. Rams. You want to know how good a job the Rams Defense is doing? The median passer rating in football entering Sunday was 94.4. In the Rams’ recent 5-2 run, here are the passer ratings by their foes in each of the seven games: 66.8, 80.3, 57.0 (Russell Wilson), 62.5 (Tom Brady), 77.3, 80.4, 53.9. Startling. For a fan of the game like the 38-year-old Staley, imagine the thrill of designing plans to beat Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in the span of 18 days. What impresses me the most is getting buy-in from great players like Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey to adjust their games to more malleable roles like players must take on in the Vic Fangio scheme. Ramsey has played multiple spots, and played them extremely well, rather than simply concentrating on shutting down one receiver each week.
Goat of the Week
Dan Bailey, kicker, Minnesota. What kicker in recent history has missed seven kicks (PATs/field goals) in a two-game span? Last week, in the OT win over Jacksonville (that did not have to go to OT), Bailey missed two extra points and yanked a 51-yard field goal wide left. On Sunday in Tampa Bay, he probably guaranteed his ticket out of the Twin Cities by missing a PAT after the Vikings’ first drive, pushing 36 and 54-yard field-goal tries wide right on the next two drives, and then a 46-yarder pushed right in the second half. Bailey, when he’s right, is one of the best kickers in the game. He is decidedly not right, and costing the Vikings in a big way.
“He played awesome today. The tape shows for itself. He’s so confident and he’s a natural leader. We just needed that and he gave us that spark … Y’all seen it all. I think we looked like a complete team.”
—Eagles running back Miles Sanders, on the influence of rookie starter Jalen Hurts helping Philadelphia win its first game in six weeks.
“It seems like every time we leave this stadium, we have a hat of some type.”
—Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes, after the team clinched the AFC West title with a 33-27 win at Miami.
That’s a division title cap.
Last time Mahomes was in Hard Rock Stadium, he led KC to a Super Bowl win. You get a hat for that too. Also a ring.
“It’s important, for sure, to get that extra week of rest. The big thing, though, we played, I believe in four NFC Championship Games, all four on the road. Being able to have the whole thing come through Green Bay is something that we’ve talked about for a long time that we’ve never had. It’s definitely in play now.”
—Aaron Rodgers, after the Packers won in Detroit and took over the top seed in the NFC, with three weeks to play.
“It rips your heart out to lose a game like that. But you can’t get it back. We have a game Thursday.”
—Raiders quarterback Derek Carr after Vegas got waxed at home by the Colts.
In the last four games, the Raiders have lost valiantly to KC, got embarrassed by 36 at the Falcons, needed a miracle to beat the (currently 0-13) Jets, and lost by 17 to Indianapolis. This is a playoff contender?
Chargers (4-9) at Raiders (7-6) Thursday. Suddenly not so exciting.
“I have no interest in coaching.”
—CBS analyst Bill Cowher, to Rich Cimini of ESPN, dispelling rumors he would want to coach again in 2021 after 15 years out of the business.
Making my annual plea for teams to stop taking running backs in the first round.
• Five have been taken in the first round in the last three drafts. Saquon Barkley (second overall, 2018) has been a good pro, is out with a torn ACL, and it still seems like a major reach to pick him second in a draft. Rashad Penny (27th, 2018) has been consistently hurt and ineffective. Sony Michel (31st, 2018) has been overtaken by a third-round pick, Damien Harris, in an offense starved for playmakers in New England. Josh Jacobs (24th, 2019) is a very good back. Clyde Edwards-Helaire (32, 2020) has exceeded 70 yards rushing in two games this year; too early to judge.
• Second or third-round picks over the past four drafts who have taken over and become stalwart backs for their teams in 2020 (12): Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Alvin Kamara, James Conner, Nick Chubb, Ronald Jones, Miles Sanders, David Montgomery, Damien Harris, D’Andre Swift, Cam Akers, Antonio Gibson. (Not counting Kareem Hunt, who won the 2017 rushing title as a third-round rookie, or J.K. Dobbins of the Ravens or Indy’s Jonathan Taylor; the latter two, on a given Sunday, are the most important backs on playoff contenders.)
• First-round picks over the past four drafts who have become stalwart backs: Christian McCaffrey (injured), Saquon Barkley (injured), Josh Jacobs, Clyde Edwards-Helaire—though the latter is a bit of a stretch.
• Two backs have gone in the top 10 over the last four drafts, both taken by GM Dave Gettleman: McCaffrey in Carolina, Barkley in New York.
• It’s prejudicial in some ways to indict an entire position group because the first round has been mediocre over the last four seasons, overall, for backs. But the evidence is stark: 15 backs in rounds two and three over the past four years are vital players for their teams this morning. Of the seven first-rounders in the last four first rounds, at least three haven’t panned out—Leonard Fournette, Penny and Michel. McCaffrey and Barkley are hurt but with bright futures. Jacobs has been what the Raiders through he’d be. Edwards-Helaire, give him time.
In the first 14 weeks of the NFL season, playing 12 games, New England quarterback Cam Newton has thrown five touchdown passes.
In Newton’s MVP season, 2015, playing for Carolina:
• On Nov. 22, Newton threw five touchdown passes in the span of 27 minutes against Washington.
• On Dec. 6, Newton threw five touchdown passes in the span of 45 minutes against New Orleans.
• On Dec. 20, Newton threw five touchdown passes in the span of 30 minutes against the Giants.
The #Bills look so nice in their Christmas morning onesies.
— Mary Kay Cabot (@MaryKayCabot) December 14, 2020
Cabot is a long-time beat writer covering the Browns, and witty on the side.
For the record, I called for the Eagles to go to Hurts back in October.
I dont always get it right, but when I do… I tweet about it without posting evidence.
— Hawk (@Hawk) December 13, 2020
Former NFL receiver and current podcast star Andrew Hawkins.
Aaron Donald is the best Football player I’ve ever watched play the game. 🤷🏿♂️
— Darius Butler (@DariusJButler) September 23, 2019
Darius Butler, New England’s second-round pick in 2009, is a former NFL corner for the Pats, Panthers and Colts. This was tweeted in 2019 and made the rounds again this week.
Lions offensive lineman Matt Nelson grew up collecting cards of Adrian Peterson and Matthew Stafford. Now he blocks for them.
“If I had five dollars in my pocket, it was burning a hole and I had to go to the card shop,” the Iowa product told me. pic.twitter.com/r4yL03Mzva
— Brad Galli (@BradGalli) December 13, 2020
Galli is sports director at WXYZ TV in Detroit.
An all-time favorite photo by Neil Leifer – Jan 15, 1967 coin toss at Super Bowl I.
It may be foreshadowing SB LV which could be eerily similar amidst the pandemic. Don’t be surprised if we’re viewing @Chiefs & @packers
My hunch is that it won’t be a crowd of people like SB LIV pic.twitter.com/gt3fbbh28r
— Scott Pioli (@scottpioli51) December 6, 2020
Pioli, former GM of the Chiefs, is a big fan of football history . . . and almost certainly correct on this story.
Flying during #COVID19, Delta flight attendant just announced they’re having to suspend cabin service because some passengers are not complying with the mask policy. People are still not wearing masks and being jerks about it to flight crews
— Kyung Lah (@KyungLahCNN) December 11, 2020
Kyung Lah is a CNN correspondent.
Good question about overtime. From Steve Austin, of Pullman, Wash.: “Why doesn’t the NFL just let overtimes go a full 10 minutes and then whoever is ahead at the end wins (or just tie like now)? What would it hurt to allow that?”
When the NFL cut the overtime period from 15 to 10 minutes in 2017, it was done not necessarily because it would make the game better, but rather because it would decrease the number of snaps. Because of the injury factor, and the chance that injuries are more likely to happen the more snaps a player plays, I don’t see any rule being passed in the near or long-term future that would cause players to play more.
Got a hundred (or so it seemed) loving emails about Steve Kornacki—and they all sounded something like this. From Bob Beauleau, of Waukesha, Wis.: “I live in one of the most politically fascinating places in America, Waukesha, Wis. If Mr. Kornacki is ever interested in driving through Wisconsin and having a nice conversation over lunch—about politics, football, beer, cheese or whatever—I’m buying and would love to donate $1,000 to his favorite charity for the privilege. He basically kept me emotionally alive for about three days in November, and I will be forever grateful. What a cool dude.”
Will pass along your gratitude, Bob. And he is a cool dude. We’re lucky in the sports world to have him on loan for a month or so.
Any email from Medicine Hat will make this column. From Bruce Penton, of Medicine Hat, Alberta: “Word absurdity: Have the Eagles trade Carson Wentz to Green Bay in a straight QB swap for Jordan Love. That gives the Eagles a QB combo of Love-Hurts. Then move the Philly team 75 miles north to Nazareth, Pa., so instead of an NFL franchise, you have a 1970s rock song. I’ll let myself out.”
Man, you must really have missed he CFL this year! You’ve spent your season thinking of wowzer puns, Bruce!
I bet I know who Chuck roots for. From Chuck Carlise: “Your retrospective on LeGarrette Blount seemed way off the mark. Just focusing on your BRIEF mention of his time on the Steelers, Blount was not cut because of a preseason pot bust. He was cut after he walked out on the team in the middle of a game because he was upset about his carries. Blount’s attitude had gotten intolerable and the team begged Mike Tomlin to cut him. The fact that he got rewarded for all that with a Super Bowl ring that year is a travesty that ought to disgust selfless good guys like Frank Gore, Curtis Martin or Barry Sanders. Blount was a jerk in college and a jerk in the pros; a bad teammate and (by most accounts) a bad guy. The fact that he scored touchdowns in a Patriots uniform doesn’t erase any of that. (It might even make it worse.)”
A new fan for Michael Bidwill. From Aanchal V. Sanghvi: “Your piece about the Cardinals hosting the 49ers for home games was awesome. In particular, the quote where [groundskeeper] Andy Levy said, ‘Mr. Bidwill said treat you guys like you’re our team’ stood out to me. In this current time, most of what the fans and general public, myself included, hear about NFL owners is very negative. It’s all seemingly about TV deals, collective bargaining, adding games to the schedule, and, in essence, doing whatever they can to make money while also allegedly screwing over players despite their protests. This gesture really struck a chord with me. I’ve been reading your columns since I was in high school about 13 years ago, and I can’t tell you how many times a single sentence or paragraph of your column has drastically changed my opinion about a person for the better, whether I had a poor opinion or just a neutral or uninformed opinion. Your writing on the Cardinals helping the 49ers just did the same for me about Michael Bidwill.”
Thanks very much for the kind words, Aanchal. What the Cardinals have done for the 49ers is one of the nice stories of the year.
1. I think the MVP is pretty close to a Mahomes-Rodgers tossup entering the last three weeks. The Saints could have something do with it. The single toughest game remaining for the two quarterbacks is Kansas City at New Orleans on Sunday in the late-afternoon window. The Saints will be scratching and clawing to stay in the NFC top-seed picture; meanwhile, on Saturday, Green Bay will host the floundering Panthers (1-7 in the last two months), who have zero to play for.
2. I think this Sunday evening headline on Pro Football Talk made me chuckle: “Doug Marrone not ready to say who starts at QB in Week 15.” Ummm . . . Minshew, Glennon, Luton. I can’t imagine that even Duuuuuval cares.
3. I think Paul Guenther getting fired as the Raiders’ defensive coordinator is not remotely surprising. They’ve allowed 150 points in the last four games (three losses), the Jets gashed them for 206 rushing yards, and they look positively lifeless on D. Short-week Thursday game hosting the Chargers coming, and Rod Marinelli won’t be any normal interim coordinator. He’ll treat this like a huge game. That’s what he does.
4. I think there’s a reason why Kyle Shanahan has succeeded in his four years as coach—and do not go just by his record, 28-33, which has been impacted in a major way by injuries. He doesn’t sweat the stuff he can’t change. Now, he’s not the only one who can say that, but listen to Shanahan on coaching and teaching by Zoom, a device he’d never heard of a year ago:
“When we first started Zooms and when everyone was in quarantine in the offseason, I was surprised by how normal it felt. I thought you can connect well with people through Zooms and stuff, and just our players. Everyone was in quarantine and we had some of our most fun meetings, because you’re only allowed a certain amount of time and you get done with the football stuff, but no one had anywhere to go. So, we all just sit there and hang out with each other, just talking on Zoom and really just making fun of each other and making each other laugh. In the long haul, you miss a lot. You miss the interaction and being around groups of people and the teaching aspect of it. You can learn on Zoom and it’s good, but it’s not as good. It’s like going home. My kids were all right watching Zoom for a week or so, but now they’ve have been doing Zoom meetings in school for like six months, it feels like, and when I was home for our bye week and getting to see it, I can just tell my son can’t pay attention on Zoom anymore . . . So it feels good on Zoom, but you are missing a little bit and you might think you’re paying attention, but you’re not as locked in, you’re not present as much. So, at the end of the week, you’ve got to do a little bit extra.”
Interesting aside from Shanahan on being banned from the office on Mondays and Tuesdays, the normal game-plan days when coaches flit in and out of each other’s office talking about what to dial up for the next game. The NFL recently said NFL facilities will be closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, as an insurance policy against COVID spread.
“It’s my first time in my life not being in an office on a Monday after a game,” Shanahan said. “It was kind of nice just sitting in there where I could Zoom and get all my stuff done, but then still be at home and lock in to all game planning and everything where no one can come in and interrupt you, except for my kids, but they got the message after a little bit. So, you can concentrate more and it’s just convenient that, hey, I didn’t have to go all the way to the office to have that one meeting I do on a Monday. I could sit here and really get ahead and lock in and use my time a little better.”
Smart people in all walks of life take lemons and make lemonade.
5. I think I’m dubious at all the buzz that Bill Cowher might be interested in coming off the CBS set and out of retirement to coach the Jets. (ESPN’s Rich Cimini told us Sunday that Cowher denied his interest.) I talked to Cowher for an hour in October—mostly about the Browns-Steelers rivalry but some about life—and got the strong impression that he was not going to coach again. He doesn’t want to abandon the New York life he’s settled into, happily.
6. I think my major focus at this point, if I’m Jets GM Joe Douglas coming off 0-16 (if it happens) with the first pick in the draft, and I’m interviewing coaches, is about the quarterback. Is there an argument to be made to keep Sam Darnold and trade the top pick for three or four high picks? Or does the new man favor dealing Darnold (maybe for a low first or two twos) and cast his lot with Trevor Lawrence? Regardless, I’d need a significant plan from the new coach about coaching/teaching the quarterback, and also I’d need some very strong argument for not drafting Lawrence.
7. I think these are things you should know about the life of Ray Perkins, who will be buried in his beloved Tuscaloosa today after dying last week at 79:
• If you love the New York Giants, thank George Young for the revival in 1979. Young hired Perkins to be the head coach, and Perkins, as tough as an Amarillo saddle, made it very uncomfortable to lose in the swamps of Jersey. Two years after he arrived, in 1981, the Giants eked out a wild-card spot at 9-7, went to Philadelphia and stunned the favored Eagles with Scott Brunner playing quarterback. It was their first playoff win in a quarter-century.
• What an eye for coaching talent Perkins had. On that 1979 coaching staff: linebackers coach Bill Parcells and special-teams coach Bill Belichick. By 1983, Parcells was the head coach and Belichick his defensive coordinator, and the rest is football history.
• Belichick: “Ray had a lot to do with setting the tone in the first four years of that development, from ’79 to ’82, when that team and that franchise obviously were at the very bottom of the league.”
• First pro head coach for Lawrence Taylor and Phil Simms. Head-coached three teams for four seasons each: Giants, Alabama (succeeding Bear Bryant), and the Bucs, and then Arkansas State and Jones County (Ala.) Junior College.
• He caught six touchdown passes from Johnny Unitas in his moderately successful five-year NFL playing career, perhaps the most important one in the 1970 AFC Championship Game. That was the season the leagues merged. The Colts hosted Oakland for the AFC title, and the Raiders crept to within 20-17 midway through the fourth quarter and had the momentum. But Perkins caught a 68-yard TD strike from Unitas to clinch the game, and a trip to Super Bowl V, where the Colts beat Dallas 16-13.
8. I think this was an important story about the state of the Houston Texans, from Jenny Vrentas, Greg Bishop and Gary Gramling of Sports Illustrated. You may have read it already. It’s about Jack Easterby, who has ascended to a position of authority in the organization after former GM Brian Gaine and coach Bill O’Brien both got fired. What stood out for me in the reporting is the enmity so many in the organization and the league evidently have for Easterby.
I know Easterby some, and two things stuck with me after reading the story: He has good antennae for the feelings of people around him, and it stuns me he never tried to do anything about those in the building he had to know were anti-him. And this point made by the SI team about Easterby: “He has not conducted any on-the-record interviews since September, leaving others to make sense of perhaps the NFL’s most polarizing executive. In response to interview requests for Easterby and team owner Cal McNair, as well a list of 83 questions regarding the details of this story, a Texans spokesperson provided broad statements on behalf of McNair and Easterby.”
Really? I figure it was probably the Texans lawyers who didn’t want Easterby to talk, but whoever it was, why oh why oh why when a highly respected national publication is working on a story that will be damaging—and clearly has some points in it that Easterby would be able to at least rebut—do the aggrieved parties clam up?
9. I think in September the odds would have been 1,000 to 1 that Browns-Giants would have been flexed into the Week 15 Sunday night game over San Francisco-Dallas, and the Cowboys game would have flipped to 1 p.m. ET. Think how crazy it is that, in the last month of the season, the NFL would be happy to have two Browns games in prime time. In so many ways, what a strange season.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. TV Story of the Week: Morgan Chesky of NBC, for the “Today” show, on the Texas School for the Deaf winning the state six-man high school football championship. From the story:
“There are other schools out there with deaf kids, and they can do it too.”
b. So inspirational. Please spend two-and-a-half minutes with these tremendous kids and their coach. Thanks, Morgan Chesky.
c. In late November, on Twitter, Graham Muncie of Edinburgh, Scotland, asked me for a holiday book list. I do apologize for being tardy, but I am assured that if you order by tomorrow, Dec. 15, from Bookshop.org, you should be able to gift these books in time for holiday gift-giving. (And if they’re a day or two late, I guarantee forgiveness.) So here is a list of books I know well, either from reading myself, or because the most trustworthy person in my life, my lovely bride, has read them. And just so you know, some of these are greatest hits from past book recommendations. I do not have time to give you many fresh ones—because I have not read even three books in full since summer.
• “Broken,” by Don Winslow. Six short stories, The Last Ride being the best, about the real world of the Texas-Mexico border. You will read one story a night, and when the six are done, you will long for a seventh.
• “Know My Name,” by Chanel Miller. Wrote on June 8 about this harrowing and torturous but vitally important trip through the criminal justice system after a sexual assault on the Stanford campus. Chanel Miller is a hero for writing it. I cannot emphasize how much I learned from this book, and what a page-turner it was. I talked to Miller for the column back in June.
“Why is it important to you that men read this book?” I said.
“Men listen to men,” she said. “A case like mine, it’s easy for a guy to say, ‘I would never do that. I’m a good person.’ Okay. But I would challenge men that there are so many smaller instances in daily life that impact our lives. If you hear a woman-hating joke, are you going to call it out? Confront that person? Why not? If you are silent on the little things, we pay for that. Victims pay for that. If you don’t confront it, you are signaling that this is okay. That is the danger. Step into the moments of discomfort. That is all that I ask. Victims are out there being torn apart in courtrooms. If you see something that feels off, please recognize it. It’s wrong.”
• “Elway,” by Jason Cole. Clue: It’s a bio about John Elway. There’s so much great football stuff in here, but what I will always recall from this tome is one of the best sports events none of us saw: Elway versus Strawberry for the L.A. High School Baseball championship in 1979. Memorable.
• “The Dynasty,” by Jeff Benedict. Wrote about it last August, in this way: “A tremendous 578-page dissection of the prequel (including the flirtation with moving to Hartford, and boy was it close), birth, adolescence, adult life and death of the 20-season run of the best sports team of this century. I don’t care if you love the Patriots, hate them, have no feeling about them or couldn’t care less about football but like to see how greatness is built and tended, to make it last when all forces work against that. This is so well done from start (the inside look at the Mo Lewis hit on Drew Bledsoe that could have killed Bledsoe) to finish (Tom Brady and Kraft, in mid-pandemic, saying goodbye).” A really good read.
• “The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini,” by Joe Posnanski. Anything Joe writes is gold. (Gold, Jerry. It’s gold!) But there’s something about the impact that this liar and brilliant oddball that will keep you turning the pages. Posnanski’s tale-telling is wonderful enough.
• “A Gentleman in Moscow,” by Amor Towles. Such a wide-ranging and unlikely tale of a rich Russian sentenced to house arrest in a luxe Moscow hotel, oddly.
• “Resilient By Nature,” by Reggie Williams, with Jarrett Bell. I covered a season of the former Bengals linebacker’s pro career and scratched the surface of Williams’ depth; he was a Cincinnati City Council member as an active player. But leave it to Bell to go through layers and layers of it, including Williams’ struggle to save his right leg from amputation. “I was always waiting for the happy ending,” Williams told Bell. “Then just as I thought I was on the verge of one, that’s when another calamity struck.”
• “The Cactus League,” by Emily Nemens. Funny thing about this book—I didn’t love it when I was I was in the middle of it, because it’s an uncomfortable read. But it got better the more I thought of it. It’s about natives and dreamers struggling in America, and baseball, and how all of it crosses paths in some unpredictable ways. Nemens is really bright and tells a heck of a tale.
• “Camino Winds,” by John Grisham. I believe I’ve read nearly all the Grishams, and I can’t say this is the best or in the top five, but I can say it’s a damn interesting book about a murder during a hurricane, and I started it one day about 2 in the afternoon and it was finished by 1 in the morning a day and a half later. As with every one of his books, I just plow through ‘em. Great.
d. As always, please buy from your local bookstore, or from Bookshop, because we need to savor and save local booksellers. (And by the way, if you’re in New England and want to take a lovely day trip, go to Westerly, R.I., not far from the Taylor Swift manse, and bundle up, and spend an hour walking the ocean, then two hours in the Savoy Bookshop & Café. Have a tea, warm up, and browse for a book you didn’t know you wanted but get excited about while browsing.
e. Podcast of the Week: An old one I just discovered over the weekend, but it’s magnetizing. “What If There Was No Destiny?” by Radiolab.
f. Found myself thinking for an hour after this pod ended: What is the right thing to do? Which, of course, is a great thing about podcasts and stories. They should make you think.
g. Story of the Week: John Branch of the New York Times, with others at the paper, in a scintillating multi-media look at what fires and climate change are doing to California’s historic trees.
h. Branch, trees. Yes, I get it. Some of you may know John Branch for his excellent sports stories over the years. He is fantastic. I certainly do not know his entire portfolio of work, but this has to rank with the most important things he’s done in his journalism life. Read a short bit about his recent travels through the state, and what fires and climate change are doing to some of the most majestic trees in the world:
In vastly different parts of the state, in unrelated ecosystems separated by hundreds of miles, scientists are drawing the same conclusion: If the past few years of wildfires were a statement about climate change, 2020 was the exclamation point. This past summer in the Sierra Nevada, a fire ecologist named Kristen Shive camped in one of the few remaining ancient groves of giant sequoias, among trees as old as the Bible. This fall she revisited the grove, and stood somberly among the dead.
“They’ve lived through literally hundreds of fires in their lifetimes,” Dr. Shive said. “Now we’re seeing them killed in one fell swoop.”
To the south, Drew Kaiser, a botanist, hiked through what had been one of the largest remaining stands of the Joshua tree, the otherworldly yucca, in the Mojave National Preserve. Historically, the desert is not a place prone to rampaging wildfire. But Mr. Kaiser beheld a colorless moonscape dotted with the skeletal remains of collapsing Joshua trees. He estimated that 1.3 million had been destroyed in a single blaze in August.
“I love Joshua trees,” Mr. Kaiser said. “I can’t stand to see them go.”
Far to the north, near the Pacific Ocean, an environmental scientist named Joanne Kerbavaz inspected old-growth redwoods, the tallest trees on earth. She has been coming to Big Basin Redwoods State Park to roam the forests since she was a little girl. “The smell of redwood in the summertime was the aroma of my youth,” she said. In August, fire swept through 97 percent of the park, home of 4,400 acres of old-growth redwood trees. When Ms. Kerbavaz returned in November to clamber through the destruction, all sense of timelessness and continuity had been rearranged.
“The forest I saw as a kid will not be back for some time,” she said.
i. Baseball Column of the Week: Why Curt Schilling won’t get Hall of Fame voter Joe Posnanski’s vote, from The Athletic. Wrote Posnanski of Schilling:
I have written repeatedly that he was one of the greatest pitchers of his time and that his career is way above the Hall of Fame line. I wrote that even after he was suspended for tweeting out a meme that seemed to draw comparisons between Muslims and Nazis. I wrote that even after he was fired from ESPN for promoting a transphobic meme. I wrote that even after he retweeted a “joke” about how awesome it would be to lynch journalists. I wrote that after he baselessly attacked Black NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace. After he challenged the legitimacy of a high school student who had endured a mass shooting. After he continues to spread bile and misinformation and division.
I don’t feel like writing it anymore.
Yes, I do believe Schilling was a great player. But I’m done. This year, for the first time, I will not vote for him.
The difference between the baseball and football Halls is that in baseball, voters can consider citizenship-esque factors; in football, we’re not allowed. (Or at least not supposed to.)
j. What am I missing about James McCann, savior?
k. Hockey Story of the Week (and not just because it involves the best bar name in America): Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times, on how the hockey locals are keeping The Angry Beaver afloat.
l. Let’s go Kraken!
m. Kyrie Irving is an idiot.
n. In the same week the oft-injured Brooklyn Net refused to comply with a contractual obligation—he makes $33 million to play basketball this season—to speak with the press, the man who won an NBA title in Cleveland with LeBron James said Kevin Durant is the first player he’s played with who he trusts to take a big shot at the end of a game. Irving was hard to deal with in Cleveland, a total prima donna in Boston, and we’ll see what legacy he leaves in Brooklyn. But I am not optimistic.
o. And he’s missed 89 games due to injury in the last three seasons.
p. An 81-year-old Kansan died, and his son wrote an obit for the funeral home handling the arrangements, and it is my Obit of the Week. It reads, in part:
Obituary of Marvin J. Farr
Dr. Marvin James Farr, 81, of Scott City, Kan., passed away Dec. 1, 2020, in isolation at Park Lane Nursing Home. He was preceded in death by more than 260,000 Americans infected with covid-19. He died in a room not his own, being cared for by people dressed in confusing and frightening ways. He died with covid-19, and his final days were harder, scarier and lonelier than necessary. He was not surrounded by friends and family.
Marvin was born May 23, 1939 to Jim and Dorothy Farr of Modoc, Kan. He was born into an America recovering from the Great Depression and about to face World War 2, times of loss and sacrifice difficult for most of us to imagine. Americans would be asked to ration essential supplies and send their children around the world to fight and die in wars of unfathomable destruction. He died in a world where many of his fellow Americans refuse to wear a piece of cloth on their face to protect one another.
Marvin was a farmer and a veterinarian. He graduated from Kansas State University in 1968. His careers filled his life with an understanding of the science of life: how to nurture it, how to sustain it, and the myriad ways that life can go wrong. As a young man he debated between studying mortuary or veterinary science. He chose life over death.
q. Rest in peace, Marvin.
r. Three Big Ten wins for Rutgers and re-coach Greg Schiano. Cool accomplishment for a team used to losing 65-3 every week.
s. Beernerdness: You’re going to have to find this one: Coded Tiles Pale Ale (LIC Beer Project, Queens, N.Y.), which my old partner at The MMQB, Mark Mravic, and I had the other day at Bier Wax in Brooklyn. It was terrific, quite hoppy and more citrusy than your normal pale ale, and so easy to drink. Absolutely delicious. I think I have found my holiday beer.
t. Didn’t see the change of the Cleveland Indians name coming right now, but I’m glad it is.
In just seven days,
the Steelers have turned mortal.
Yikes! Now, the Browns lurk.