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Peter King: How the Browns survived a weird Wild-card week to shock the Steelers

Peter King: How the Browns survived a weird Wild-card week to shock the Steelers

Share this: On Heinz Field Sunday night, after Cleveland won its first playoff game in 26 years, wide receiver Jarvis Landry was being shepher

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On Heinz Field Sunday night, after Cleveland won its first playoff game in 26 years, wide receiver Jarvis Landry was being shepherded to a post-game radio interview by the Browns’ media man, Peter John-Baptiste. Landry stopped. “Wait!” he said.

Landry said, “I gotta talk to coach. Now. I need to see him.”

After one of the weirdest football games (and surrounding events) in the season of COVID, John-Baptiste dialed up the COVID-positive quarantined head coach of the Browns, Kevin Stefanski, alone in his basement in Cleveland. But not on the phone. Landry wanted to FaceTime with the absent coach. “It’s one of the things I visualized all day—us winning, me talking to Coach so he could share the win with us. I needed to see him,” Landry said later.

Now, on the same field that had been a House of Horrors for Cleveland—the Browns had lost 17 straight at Heinz Field before this redemptive 48-37 win against all odds Sunday night—a surprised Stefanski saw one of the heroes of the night. Once a coach, always a coach.

“Hey Jarvis,” Stefanski said, “put your mask on.”

Then it was Landry’s turn. “Hey! We coming back home with a dub! [W, or win.] Get your ass back in the building! Let’s do it again this week!”

Pleasantries, then Landry had to run. Before they parted, one last message from Stefanski.

“This is the last game I’ll ever watch from this basement,” Stefanski told him.

Wild Card Round - Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers
Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield. (Getty Images)

What a weekend. The Bills and the Browns, both in the Elite Eight. We got to know Taylor Heinicke, who, for a while, threatened to send Tom Brady packing. The Rams and Saints marched on with big, bad defense. The Ravens out-emotioned the Titans; man, was that one hot-tempered. But the story of the weekend was the virus-debilitated Browns, with a positive (but asymptomatic) head coach watching from 130 miles away in his basement, putting the Steelers to shame with a whip-cracking performance that seemed like more than a football game. It might have changed the balance of power in the AFC North and made Pittsburgh question the future of the aging Ben Roethlisberger (who threw four interceptions). And it did something else. It proved you can accomplish big things with COVID slapping your organization to the core.

The Lead: Browns Week

A week in the corona-wracked season of the Cleveland Browns begins, actually, on the Saturday before the week started. This was the day before the Cleveland-Pittsburgh regular-season finale, and GM Andrew Berry was worried. Cleveland’s two offensive line coaches, Bill Callahan and Scott Peters, tested positive for COVID-19, and the Browns couldn’t take the chance that the virus would bubble up Sunday and take a player or players off the offensive line.

Berry phoned Jets GM Joe Douglas, a friend, in New Jersey at 9:38 a.m. Berry didn’t want to blindside Douglas by pillaging one of his practice-squad players without telling him. So Berry explained about the line coaches, and his fear that there might be a spread, and he needed an insurance tackle, and he liked second-year practice-squadder Blake Hance of the Jets. The Jets were going to Foxboro that day, and Berry wanted to make sure he could sign Hance before the Jets left for Massachusetts. Douglas understood. In fact, he had Jets personnel coordinator Christina Wedding print Hance’s Jets termination letter and his agreement with Cleveland, so Hance could sign them and they could be filed with the league.

Now for the COVID issue. It’s good that Berry liked Hance—the Browns were going to try to sign him for 2021 camp anyway—because Cleveland needed a player who was within driving distance of Cleveland and had been in a regular team testing program. Huh? If a player flies to a new city, he must test negative for five days while quarantining because of the risk of COVID-contact in an airport or airplane. If Berry had been the Seattle GM, with the nearest NFL city 15 hours away by car (Niners), it would have been totally impractical to get a player on the same day it occurred to a GM to sign him. But there are 11 NFL teams within a seven-hour drive of Cleveland. Hance was on one of them, six-and-a-half hours and 443 miles away by car, and he had tested negative that morning in Florham Park, N.J., home of the Jets. He had a car. After signing the contracts, Hance packed his things, hopped on I-80, and was at the Browns’ Intercontinental Hotel by 7 p.m., ready for virtual meetings with his new team.

In an elevator at the hotel, masked, he saw someone he recognized. Hance was a training-camp cut of Washington in 2019, blocking in camp for quarterback Case Keenum. Now he saw Keenum, the backup to Baker Mayfield.

“I know you, right?” Keenum said, trying to place the face—hard to do, when the face is masked.

“Case, it’s Blake—Blake Hance,” he said.

Whoa. Keenum wondered what this masked man from his past was doing in the Browns hotel the night before the biggest game of the year.

“I’m on the team now,” Hance said.

Blake Hance is going to have a great story to tell his grandchildren one day. Said Berry, who started the wheels turning: “It’s very much a 2020 story.”

Cleveland did not take the field for its first playoff practice until Friday. (Photo courtesy of Cleveland Browns)

Tuesday

5:15 a.m. Phone rings in GM Berry’s home. He’s gotten used to the pre-dawn calls from club infection control officer Joe Sheehan from a busy two weeks of COVID, but now they’ve got to discuss a real gut punch: Sheehan says coach Kevin Stefanski has tested positive for COVID, as well as Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio. They’re out for the team’s first playoff game in 18 years. The head coach. Out.

11 a.m. Words spreads that Stefanski’s out for the game. On the Browns Teamworks app, a message is sent out informing them of the new positive tests, including Stefanski and the longest-tenured and most respected Brown, guard Joel Bitonio. Texts fly from friend to player, coach to player, player to player. “Really shocking,” one player says. “Kevin is so serious about wearing the mask that I have barely seen his face this year. The mask is always on. I think I’ve heard him yell four times all season—once at a ref and three times at players about wearing masks. For him to get it is unbelievable.”

3 p.m. Stefanski, in an all-team Zoom meeting, speaking to 105 players and staff, informs the team there’s been some additional positive tests. “One was me,” he says, as matter-of-factly as if he stepped outside into 70-degree weather and said, “Nice day.” The tone in his meeting surprises more than a few on the videoconference: No grief, not even a sign of disappointment. Stefanski has been a classic flat-liner all season. He’s not going to change now. He tells his players: “You’ve been ready for curveballs all season. This is just another one.”

Wednesday

10 a.m. There were so many tentacles to chase that the league’s contact-tracing team, led by Leah Triola, didn’t finish its work till this morning. No new positive tests overnight, but the facility is still closed.

1 p.m. With no practice, the coaches, including the feeling-fine Stefanski, put the players through a two-hour virtual walkthrough. It’s a crazy thing. After a morning Zoom meeting to install part of the game plan, the offensive players reconvene (as does the defense on a separate call) to go through the plays. Some players stand and simulate what they’ll do on the play. Some sit and go through it mentally. On the screen, the defense Cleveland projects Pittsburgh to be in for the play is drawn on the screen, and quarterback Baker Mayfield calls the play, along with which Steeler is the Mike (the middle linebacker). One by one, each of the 10 players goes through his assignment, verbally; the linemen, for instance, might say which gap they’re protecting and their footwork. “Doesn’t replace the physical work,” Stefanski says, “but it’s the next best thing.”

4 p.m. Some players have home gyms or significant home workout equipment—Myles Garrett and Jarvis Landry, for instance—and can work out in them. Most players have resistance bands and some weights at home; the strength staff has issued some of that in this season of occasional home-confinement. Case Keenum has his 14-month-old son, Kyler. In his house, Case Keenum does squats holding Kyler Keenum. Up and down, up and down. Kyler is very pleased when Dad does his workout at home.

Thursday

Facility still closed. Morning install meetings, afternoon virtual walkthrough. No on-field practice for the second straight day.

11:50 a.m. Big week for offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt. All of a sudden he’ll have the pressure of play-calling for his first time in Cleveland—no pressure, just the franchise’s first playoff game in 18 years, and against the mighty Steelers D. What’s more, he has to do the play-calling trying to think exactly as Stefanski would think. NFL rules forbid Stefanski from having any contact with the team once the game starts Sunday night. Van Pelt said he’ll channel his inner Stefanski working the play sheet, but he says to reporters: “Nobody calls it the same. My hope is, there’s not too many times he’s yelling at his TV, going, ‘What the heck are you doing?’ “

2:45 p.m. Seven players, six coaches on the COVID list, no practice. A sign that Stefanski’s message is getting through? Jarvis Landry, in a break from a workout in his home gym, says: “Coach Stefanski talks about it all the time. We gotta hit the curveball. We’ve been thrown another one. Been tough for us, but at the end of the day we gotta answer the call. It is what it is. It’s 2021, but it feels like 2020 still.”

3 p.m. Strange sight in a backyard in Westlake, a Cleveland suburb. “I did something my 10-year-old self did all the time,” Keenum says. “I played football in the backyard. Now it’s my 32-year-old self going through all the plays in the game plan.” Keenum calls a play, visualizes it, calls the signals for it, and simulates it, play after play.

Friday

8 a.m. Could there finally be some good news? The Browns began testing every player and coach with both the more reliable PCR test (flown to a lab in New Jersey with the results coming back overnight) and the less-reliable rapid tests. Starting strong safety Ronnie Harrison tested negative on the PCR test Thursday, but positive on the rapid test, called the MESA test. So he’s out for Sunday . . . unless he tests negative on both tests for three straight days, which would make the league rule the Thursday positive rapid test a false positive. With their best corner (Denzel Ward) and part-time starting corner Kevin Johnson both out with the virus, Cleveland needs Harrison against the potent Steeler passing game. Will the Browns have him? The Saturday and Sunday tests will tell.

4 p.m. With the league ruling the danger of spread among active Browns players to be low enough, the Browns open their facility, sort of, for players and coaches to return in three shifts of 10 minutes each for practice. Players cannot go to the locker room. Rather, there are chairs set out, spread apart, on the team’s indoor field, with helmets and jerseys and shoes at each chair. Players will dress in the chilly fieldhouse, then practice for about 90 minutes, their first time together in five days.

5 p.m. On the field during practice, Keenum is not close to Mayfield. Maybe 15 feet away most often, or further. In fact, Mayfield’s not near anyone for any length of time. Wouldn’t the two quarterbacks want to share thoughts on this play or that, or tips on facing the dangerous T.J. Watt? “I need to stay as far away from Baker as I can,” says Keenum. “If there’s any two people who shouldn’t be close, it’s me and Baker.” Inference: One, at least, always needs to be COVID-free.

Saturday

Travel day. Perhaps the strangest travel day in the august history of the Cleveland Browns. The trip from the Browns facility to downtown Pittsburgh, in light traffic, is one hour, 55 minutes—about 128 miles. It’s always a bus trip. Not this year. “This year,” GM Berry says, “the idea is to create more space, with people not in enclosed spaces for long.” So on this day, two planes, a 161-seat Boeing 737 and a 280-seat Boeing 777, ferry about 60 players and staff per plane on the 26-minute flight to Greater Pittsburgh International Airport.

That’s not all, because those 120 passengers don’t comprise the whole team.

To be even safer, all 19 coaches who will be available for the game (five on the COVID list will miss the game) are picked up at their homes by drivers from a Cleveland car service, with a plexiglass divider between front and back seat, and driven to the team hotel in Pittsburgh. Everyone from acting head coach Mike Priefer to coaching assistant Ryan Cordell (pressed into service to coach the offensive line) are transported by car.

To be even safer, five players, including Ronnie Harrison (suspected false positive) and tackle Jack Conklin (non-COVID illness) were also picked up at their Cleveland homes in five private cars with plexiglass dividers and driven two hours to the Pittsburgh hotel.

Cost for the 24 limo rides: $445 per coach and player; $10,680 total. Plus tip.

“Anything,” Berry says, “to decrease the risk of transmission.”

7:35 p.m. One Browns employee told me the Stefanski-Berry combination has been good to handle this crisis. “Because nothing bothers either one of them. They’re the guys you want around you in a storm,” the employee said. Before settling in for an evening of work at his hotel, Berry, friends with Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti, was asked about the team’s approach to a week a reporter termed “a bad dream.” Berry said: “I don’t consider this a bad dream. We’re in the NFL playoffs. That’s a great opportunity. Sam Presti told me, ‘How you define a professional is his ability to perform at the highest level in the toughest circumstances. This week has made me think of that.”

9 p.m. Brief team meeting, as there is every Saturday night before a game. This might seem weird to the outside world, but it wasn’t weird to the Browns. The meeting is a videoconference, with every player and coach joining from his hotel room at the Westin Pittsburgh. Except this time, everyone was in the Westin but the head coach. Stefanski joined from the basement of his home in Cleveland. Stefanski’s not a fire-and-brimstone speech guy. On this night, he told his team that turnovers would be huge in this game. They had to win the turnover battle. Ben Roethlisberger has a lot of passes tipped at the line, and Stefanski said, in so many words, I see a tipped ball and an interception in this game for us.

Wild Card Round - Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers
The Browns Defense scored a touchdown off a turnover on the first play of the game. (Getty Images)

Sunday

8:16 p.m. Cleveland 7-0. Browns safety Karl Joseph falls on a Steelers fumble in the end zone 14 seconds into the first quarter.

8:27 p.m. Cleveland 14-0. Browns wideout Jarvis Landry catches a TD pass 5:14 into the first quarter. This is actually a significant play in the Mayfield development. Keenum, after the game, pointed out Pittsburgh played the same coverage when the two teams met earlier in the season in Pittsburgh, and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick read Mayfield and made a pick-six. This time, Mayfield threw it over the fluid Fitzpatrick, and Landry had a 40-yard catch-and-run TD. “That’s a big one for Baker,” Keenum say.

8:40 p.m. Cleveland 21-0. Browns back Kareem Hunt scores on a TD run 10 minutes into the first quarter. The key play was a stoning of Steeler back Derek Watt on third-and-one by Mr. False Positive, safety Ronnie Harrison. Just after noon, Harrison’s Sunday morning tests results came in negative. After quarantining most of the week, Harrison regained eligibility in time for the playoff game.

8:51 p.m. Cleveland 28-0. Hunt for another TD run 13 minutes into the first quarter. Al Michaels: “Twenty-eight is the most points ever scored in the first quarter in any postseason game in NFL history.”

9:19 p.m. So Stefanski foresaw a tipped pass-turned-interception. Did he mean one per quarter? Safety Sheldrick Redwine had one in the first quarter, and now, in the second quarter, defensive end Porter Gustin made a diving catch of a second one. For the game, Cleveland won the turnover battle, 5-0. Unheard of.

11:42 p.m. Craziest thing. With about 10 minutes to play, the backup playing for Joel Bitonio, Michael Dunn, left with an injury. And here came Berry’s New York Jets insurance policy, Blake Hance, who’d raced from New Jersey to Cleveland eight days earlier to fill a roster hole. And in this game, Blake Hance, who’d never played in an NFL game and just met most of his teammates on this weekend, lined up to block four-time Pro Bowl tackle Cam Heyward on the first snap of his NFL life. And he did so. He actually played 15 snaps. No sacks allowed. No hits on Mayfield allowed. Very clean uniform.

So in his post-game interview with Michele Tafoya, Mayfield said: “We had Michael Dunn step in at left guard for Joel Bitonio, and then Michael got hurt, and then a guy named Blake that I introduced myself to literally in the locker room before the game stepped up in the fourth quarter.” When the emergency guy who’d driven 443 miles to join the team rushes onto an NFL field for the first time and blocks Cam Heyward, you get this strong feeling: Things might be turning for the Cleveland Browns.

Monday

12:03 a.m.: Acting head coach Mike Priefer sits in a chair outside the Browns locker room to do a Zoom press conference with the Cleveland media. Born in Cleveland in 1966, he grew up worshiping the Sam Rutligliano Browns. One of the first things he does is thank the fans of Cleveland after the first Browns playoff win since 1994 “because I grew up one of them, so I know what this means.” Then he got choked up and couldn’t continue for several seconds. This morning, northeast Ohio knows exactly how he felt.

Meet Taylor Heinicke

10

On Sunday, I spoke with Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who gave Tompa Bay fits Saturday night. Tom Brady and the Bucs survived in Washington 31-23. This was, as I told Heinicke, a kind of classic Rocky Balboa-Apollo Creed athletic contest, the kind of game that makes us love sports. “Yeah,” said Heinicke, who was studying math remotely at Old Dominion in the fall with no football job—until Washington called with an offer to join the practice squad five weeks ago. The rest is living history.

We spoke while Heinicke lay on a trainers table at the Washington team facility in Ashburn, Va. His legs were encased in NormaTec pulsing compression pants. He’d taken some good shots in his first start for the injured Alex Smith, and damaged his shoulder diving for the pylon (and a touchdown) on his eight-yard third-quarter score. Still, he went 26-of-44 for 306 yards, with a TD and an interception against Tampa. You can hear our 23-minute conversation in a special The Peter King podcast here.

FMIA: Have you come down from this incredible experience?

Heinicke: “Actually, I haven’t been able to look back on it at all. I’m running on fumes right now. You know, the shoulder injury last night, didn’t get much sleep, looking forward to taking a nap after this. But when I wake up and maybe in a week or so look back at what transpired over the last month, it’s definitely something to be proud about. It’s definitely something my dad would be proud of me about. It’s one of the things, you just keep this ball rolling. I’ve been on the other side. I’ve been in the real world. I’ve been taking classes, you know. That’s great and all but it’s not as fun as playing ball.”

NFL: JAN 09 NFC Wild Card - Buccaneers at Washington Football Team
Washington Football Team quarterback Taylor Heinicke.(Getty Images)

FMIA: What would you have said if I told you two months ago you’d be dueling Tom Brady wire to wire?

Heinicke: “I’d say you’re out of your mind. You know, again, it’s been a crazy year, 2020 has. It just speaks volumes of what hard work, determination and you know all that stuff. Keep doing it. Stay on the grind. Keep your dreams alive. Great things can happen. I credit all the people that are close me, kept on pushing me, and believing in me.”

FMIA: Third quarter of the game. You’re down 18-10 and driving, at their 8-yard line.

Heinicke: “So we got a play called where our halfback just free-released and he was our first read. They covered him up pretty well. We had [another receiver] come in to replace him and he was covered. My last read on that was a little dig route behind all those things with Logan [Thomas] and they covered that well, too. So, I figured I needed to make a play. The defensive line was actually doing a great job containing the pocket and I just kinda wiggled around back there and found a hole. Once I kinda got through, I saw that pylon. I just made a beeline for it. And um, you know, I don’t know how I got that. I’ve seen a video of the dive. I didn’t know I dove from the 4-yard line. That was pretty cool. But again, that was one of those things I just wanted to go get. I knew our team needed it. I thought it was gonna be a huge spark for our team and again I’ll never forget that. Unfortunately, that’s when I hurt my shoulder. At least it came on a pretty cool play.”

FMIA: Tampa gets a field goal, and you come back from the locker room.

Heinicke: ”Well, I knew after that touchdown run, there was something wrong. I felt something click or pop. When I came to the sideline, I took my helmet off and just held it in my left hand. And that was pretty bad pain. I knew there was something wrong. I talked to the doctors. Then we went inside. They looked at it. Gave me a little ibuprofen and got back out there. Got back into it. Put a little padding and a little tape on there to stabilize it. Felt a lot better. And fortunately I got back out just in time when the offense got the ball.

FMIA: Third-and-10, five minutes to go. Describe the touchdown to Steven Sims that you threw so well.

Heinicke: “So we actually had a little double move with Logan Thomas. We wanted to take advantage of Logan on our linebackers. So we thought we kinda would just run up the linebacker and kinda give him a little shake and then try and get on top. Give him a high ball. When I was looking at it, the safety I see went to go double Logan so I knew I had a one on one out there with Steven. I love the way Steven runs his routes. He’s very violent at the top. He’s got some good speed on him. I knew if I could just lay it out in the back corner at the end zone, he could run out there and get it. We connected perfectly, which is really cool because again, very minimal reps with these guys. I thought we did a pretty damn good job last night.”

FMIA: On Twitter after that touchdown, Patrick Mahomes tweeted, with 162,488 likes: ‘Regardless of the outcome, what a great game by Heinecke.’ That’s cool.

Heinicke: “Yeah, that’s really cool. Again, it’s kinda weird saying that, because the guy’s younger than me but the dude is, you know, he’s the top 5 quarterback in the league if not the best quarterback in the league. Again for him to be watching and for him to say that, it means a lot to me. It’s pretty damn cool.”

FMIA: After the game, cameras showed you tapping Brady on the shoulder, then having a conversation with him. What’d he say?

Heinicke: “Yeah. It’s always really cool when you’re talking to a future Hall of Famer. Probably the best quarterback to ever play the game. It’s a neat experience. He just told me I played a hell of a game, showed a lot of grit out there. And just to keep working. Again, for that to come from him, it’s pretty neat. Not a lot of people get to experience that.”

The Elite Eight

Saturday

4:35 p.m. ET: L.A. Rams (11-6, NFC 6 seed) at Green Bay (13-3, NFC 1 seed), Lambeau Field. TV: FOX. Line: Packers by 6.5. The Rams’ hopes might lay in the middle of prospective Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald’s ribcage. He was limited to 30 snaps in Seattle because of the mid-game rib injury, and who knows how effective he’ll be Saturday in Wisconsin. “Never bet against A.D.,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. Donald had two sacks against the Packers in his most recent duel against Aaron Rodgers, in L.A. in 2018. It was 82 degrees that day. It’ll be 22 late Saturday afternoon at Lambeau.

8:15 p.m.: Baltimore (12-5, AFC 5 seed) at Buffalo (14-3, AFC 2 seed), Orchard Park, N.Y. TV: NBC. Line: Bills by 2.5. See below.

Sunday

3:05 p.m.: Cleveland (12-5, AFC 6 seed) at Kansas City (14-2, AFC 1 seed), Arrowhead Stadium. TV: CBS. Line: KC by 8. Cinderella time? Can the Browns keep the miracle alive? It’ll be tough to beat the rested Super Bowl champs, obviously. But I’m not a big fan of resting healthy players for three weeks before the playoffs, which is what Kansas City did with Patrick Mahomes. By game time, it will have been 20 days between games for Mahomes, and his last game was a 55-percent, 17-point shaky win over the 4-12 Falcons at home. Hard not to like the defending champs, but it’s also hard to love them unconditionally entering their Super Bowl playoff defense. Gambling Note of the Week: KC’s an eight-point favorite. The Chiefs have not won a game by eight points or more since Nov. 1.

6:40 p.m.: Tampa Bay (12-5, NFC 5 seed) at New Orleans (13-4, NFC 2 seed), Superdome. TV: FOX. Line: Saints by 4. All week, you’re sure to hear that the first two games this year—Saints, 34-23 and 38-3—don’t matter now. I don’t buy it for a second. The second game, when Brady threw three picks and looked very 43, is the worrisome one. It happened Nov. 8 in Tampa, and was the worst day by far this year for Brady, and gave people sincere doubts about Brady’s resurgence. He’s continued to show he can still play at a high level, but that Saints D was frightening Sunday in the beatdown of Chicago. Second plotline is the likely last meeting of the two most statistically prolific passers of all time, which Brees will be feeling this week. “The minute he signed with the Bucs and came to the division,” Brees said Sunday, “you felt like that was going to be a team to contend with, that was going to be a team that had playoff aspirations and beyond, just like us. So I guess this was inevitable.” Should be memorable, as the last game of the divisional weekend.


The game of next weekend? Baltimore at Buffalo. The revived Ravens have been playing playoff games since the weird Wednesday afternoon loss in Pittsburgh; they’ve won six straight. Buffalo’s won seven in a row. Both quarterbacks, hot. Both defenses, hot.

The one thing I noticed about the Ravens on Sunday: That’s as intense as I’ve seen them play. It wasn’t just the post-interception dancing on the Titans’ logo—payback for Tennessee doing it in Baltimore during the season. (Which Tennessee denies.) The intensity was all over the Ravens. I told defensive end Calais Campbell I’d never seen him be that intense during, and after, a game; he was almost shouting in his post-game chat with NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero. In fact, that was Campbell’s 247th college and pro football game, and I’ve never seen him as wound up on Sunday.

“You’re very right,” he said from Nashville. Baltimore beat Tennessee 20-13, holding 2,027-yard rusher Derrick Henry to a stunningly low 40 yards. “I don’t usually get that emotional. Part of it is I’m a lot closer to the end than the beginning. I don’t know if I’ll ever have an opportunity like this again. If this was gonna be my last game, how did I want to play it? Giving everything.

“And even though I’ve only been on this team a year, I know we’re special. Emotions flare on this team, and they flared today. This rivalry is quite special too. To be honest, we took it some kind of way when they stepped on our logo in Baltimore. This game’s about playing to win, but you want people to respect you.”

This game will be remembered as the victory that got Lamar Jackson off the playoff schneid. But that was only a matter of time. Jackson’s 24. Peyton Manning was 27 when he won his first playoff game and he turned out okay. I think it’s more significant that the Ravens have found a formula, which is:

1. Let Lamar cook. If he wants to take off running, don’t train him out of that. Being a thrower and running, in whatever order it happens each week, is fine with him. He doesn’t have to look like every other quarterback to be great, and he will play different than most. Fine.

2. The Ravens need that edge, that feistiness, to be really good and to win. It’s almost good for them to have an adversary. The Steelers often bring the best out in them. Now it’s Tennessee. Marcus Peters was so riled up post-game, he had to be semi-escorted from the field so he wouldn’t go back to jaw (or worse) with a Titan or two. Being 6-5 gave them that edge. They knew they had to win every week to keep playing.

3. I think the 19-14 loss at Pittsburgh in the makeup game was a turning point. Everything was against them at that point. But Jackson came back from COVID, took a week or so to get physically right again, and he’s mostly been a force since.

“We have the formula it takes to win,” Campbell said. “Formidable defense, great offense and run game, great kicking game. But no matter who we play, there are juggernauts out there.”

The Ravens might be going to one of them Saturday night.

Notes Of The Week

20

Newsy people and newsy things from Wild-Card Weekend:

1. Jared Goff. Lots of startling events of the weekend, none more than Heinicke-mania. But this was number two: sudden backup Rams QB Jared Goff, with 1:24 left, taking the last two snaps of a surprising road win over the NFC West champ Seahawks in victory formation. Goff coming off the bench to play 12 days removed from surgery to repair a broken throwing thumb, Goff winning by 10, Russell Wilson totally overwhelmed, the Seahawks losing at home in the playoff for the first time since 2004. Odd all around.

Asked after a tumultuous week what he’d have thought if I told him Friday he’d be ending the game under center in victory formation, Goff was lightning quick on the response. “I would have believed you,” he said from the Rams’ plane at SeaTac Saturday night. “Totally. I have to. I have to prepare that way and I have to prepare accordingly. It was obviously a tough week as a competitor. I get there was some limitations with my thumb. Like, they didn’t know where my thumb would be at. They didn’t know what capability I’d be able to have. There’s no way to truly know until I go out there.” It wasn’t pretty, but when Goff lofted a 15-yard touch pass to Robert Woods for the insurance touchdown with five minutes left, it seemed pretty clear Goff was the right man for the time. “It’s a little surprising, but there was really no pain today,” he said. “Plus, I don’t want any crutch or excuse for how I play because of the thumb. It’s really very much good enough to be able to play.”

The Rams were fortunate to get 131 yards from Cam Akers, and for a pass-rush that tormented Wilson (just 11 of 27). Now it’ll be interesting to see, with a trip to Green Bay looming, if they can play the same style: opportunistic on defense against Aaron Rodgers, and balanced on offense with Goff well enough to play.

2. Deshaun Watson. There are 9,000 things out there about the fate of Watson (apparently somewhere between angry and totally volcanic about the Texans hierarchy), include the tantalizing maybe-more-than-just-throwing-this-out-there startler from Chris Mortensen on Sunday: Watson just might be angry enough to force a trade. And wouldn’t it be interesting if that trade was Watson to Miami for Tua Tagovailoa and a passel of Dolphins picks? But before we go too far, I want to quote that famous American philosopher Aaron Rodgers: “R-E-L-A-X.”

At times like this, the best thing for a team and its new GM is not to jump to conclusions about anything. Nick Caserio inherited this mess, and, seeing that he’s been on the job for a grand total of four days, I’d like to give him two months—till the start of the 2021 league year—to fix it. As in Philadelphia with Carson Wentz, time to let things simmer down. And when no one’s looking and Caserio can confidently meet Watson in absolutely privacy with his new coach, then try to surgically repair the relationship. Till then, no sense for the Texans to try to pick at this fresh wound.

3. SIX PLAYOFF GAMES ON ONE WEEKEND. It’s not a record. More playoff games on a Saturday/Sunday? Happened only once, on this weekend 38 years ago. In 1982, there was a 57-day players strike, and the league changed the postseason rules: With only nine regular-season games per team, 16 teams would make the playoffs. That meant Wild-Card Weekend was an eight-game weekend. Here’s how the first round of the 1982 playoffs looked:

SATURDAY, JAN. 8, 1983
Green Bay 41, St. Louis 16. Bart Starr coached the Pack. First playoff game at Lambeau since the Ice Bowl.
Washington 31, Detroit 7. NFL MVP Mark Moseley booted a 26-yard field goal. (Yes, a kicker as MVP.)
Miami 28, New England 13. Bobs out the wazoo in the NBC booth at the Orange Bowl: Bob Costas, Bob Trumpy, Bob Griese.
L.A. Raiders 27, Cleveland 10. Bahr battle at kicker in the L.A. Coliseum: Raider Chris Bahr outboots Brownie Matt Bahr.

SUNDAY, JAN. 9, 1983
N.Y. Jets 44, Cincinnati 17. Big day in stripes for Cris Collinsworth: seven catches, 120 yards—with a 69-yard TD called back.
San Diego 31, Pittsburgh 28. Last playoff game, and last game in Pittsburgh, for 34-year-old Terry Bradshaw.
Dallas 30, Tampa Bay 17. Danny White outduels Doug Williams in the DW QB battle.
Minnesota 30, Atlanta 24. Last playoff win of Hall of Fame coach Bud Grant’s career.

You can always find some fun history in the NFL.

4. DAVE CAMPO. Dave Campo? Cowboys’ head coach at the turn of the century? That’s right. Campo is 73. Mostly retired now, Campo and wife Kay live in Ponte Vedra, Fla., near Jacksonville. Florida ruled that all residents 65 or older are eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and are leaving the distribution rules up to each county. In St. Johns County, where the Campos lived, officials made the vaccine first-come, first-serve. The lines of cars outside the vaccination center in St. Augustine, Fla., were long, and the supply limited, so eight days ago, on Jan. 3, Campo decided he would try to get one of the vaccines. (His wife was not as enthusiastic about it.) Campo was going to sleep some on Saturday night and get in line early Sunday morning, but he couldn’t sleep, so he drove to join the line of about 100 cars at about 9 p.m.

Kay Campo said: “You’re crazy.” Campo got in the line, he said, because “I listen to science. I figure there’s no way they’re going to throw out a vaccine if there’s not some legitimate proof it helps. If I don’t take it, I got no protection. Plus, I’ve had a good life, and I’d like to give something back. I feel if the majority of us get the vaccine, they say we can have herd immunity, so I would like to play my part.”

Campo sat in line for 12 hours. Napped for four hours, made a couple of calls to friends, listened to some music. Finally, at 9 a.m., he started moving, and got the first dose of the Moderna vaccine at 10:15 a.m. No side effects. “When I got home,” Campo said, “my wife still thought I was nuts. I said, ‘That 12 hours in line for the vaccine is a lot better than 12 hours in the ICU with COVID.’ “

5. ERIC BIENIEMY. We’re still a good week or two away from the musical chairs stopping in the coach-hiring process in in 2021. I hear more buzz around other candidates than I do about Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, thought to be a leading Black candidate for the past two or three years. That could certainly be flukish. But with the climate in this country and this league right now, and with Bieniemy having been passed over recently, I think if the 51-year-old right-hand man to Andy Reid doesn’t get a job in this cycle with six openings, the league will face heavy pressure internally and externally. The league has already put measures in place to increase the number of Black head coaches from two (two!) of the 26 men who currently hold the jobs. But if Bieniemy is passed over again, I think players will be very vocal about it.

On Saturday, I spoke to one football person who has known Bieniemy for more than 20 years, and has been in locker rooms and on sidelines with him. He said of Bieniemy: “Eric has a fire in his belly unlike anyone I have seen in football. Natural leader of men, going way back. When he gets on a player, and he does it a lot, the player knows he cares about him. The first time he walks into a room as head coach, Black guys will love him, white guys will love him, and he’ll get their attention. It’s a cliché, I know, but they’ll run through a wall for him. As a player at Colorado, there’s a famous story about him. In their national championship season [1990], they’re 1-1-1 and losing after three quarters, and Texas is running all over them. At the end of the third quarter, with the teams switching ends, Eric brings the whole offense onto the field to confront the defense. Jumps in their grill for being soft. They rallied to win the game. I’ve never seen a player lead like that in my life.”

6. JOHN ELWAY. He’s had enough. The president of football operations and GM of the Broncos wanted out of the day-to-day gig of rebuilding the franchise to the Super Bowl status it held five years ago, and so he told club CEO Joe Ellis last month this would be his last season running the Denver show. Probably just as well. Elway, 60, has failed to build a contender in the five seasons since Peyton Manning retired. That Super Bowl title in 2015 meant the world to Elway the architect, but the Broncos are just 32-48 since. The team went into full GM-interview mode over the weekend, with five interviews Saturday and Sunday. When the process started, most people in the league thought the Denver GM job would be in-name-only, with the long shadow of Elway influencing every major personnel decision. Not so, I’m told. Elway will fulfill the last year of his contract in some football capacity—if I were the new GM, I’d tell Elway to stay home, bury himself in tape of the top college quarterbacks and available vet QBs, and come back with strong opinions about a 2021 challenger for Drew Lock—but has no desires to be the guy who signs off on the decisions anymore. No, this is a real GM job, with real authority.

The Award Section

Offensive Players of the Week

Taylor Heinicke, quarterback, Washington. Three hours into a career that was invisible till Saturday night, the football world took notice. On the Tampa sideline, after Heinicke’s picture-perfect TD pass to Steven Sims with five minutes left to give Washington life, Tom Brady was seen mouthing the word “UNBELIEVABLE!” Just then, Patrick Mahomes tweeted from in front of a TV somewhere, “Regardless of the outcome, what a great game by Heinicke!” Amen. Dueling with Brady, and playing with a bum shoulder, Heinicke was 26 of 44 for 306 yards with a TD and a pick. (Usually QB ratings seems inflated, but Heinicke’s 78.4 was nonsensically low for a guy who played that well, particularly absolutely coming out of nowhere.) “That dude plays with no fear,” Washington receiver Terry McLaurin said. “He does everything you could ask of a quarterback in this league.” This game should buy him an NFL future.

Lamar Jackson, quarterback, Baltimore. Evidently he can win the big one. That’s what the highly emotional game in Nashville proved Sunday afternoon. Jackson should play more often exactly the way he played Sunday, taking off when the opportunity presents itself. In the first playoff victory of his 24-year-old life, Jackson ran it 16 times (for 136 yards) and completed 17 throws (179 yards). And who could be critical of that combination? It’s the way Jackson achieves optimal performance. He’s such a speedy, effective, instinctive runner. He absolutely should have 12 to 16 running plays per game, designed or busted. And good for him, breaking a very short playoff schneid of two years. He’s a fun player, beloved in his locker room.

Defensive Players of the Week

Karl Joseph, safety, Cleveland. Recovered a bad Maurkice Pouncey snap in the end zone on the first play of the game to give Cleveland a 7-0 lead, and pressured Ben Roethlisberger into an ugly interception on the ninth play game, setting up a 14-0 Cleveland lead. Player of the Week? I could have split it among 45 Browns.

Aaron Donald, defensive tackle, L.A. Rams. He played 10 fewer snaps (30) than he’d played in any game this year, but when in, he led the tormenting behavior against Russell Wilson. In 15 pass-rush snaps, he had two sacks (one nearly for a safety), three hits and one hurry. The six pressures led the Rams. And—surprise!—in a few weeks, Donald may win his third Defensive Player of the Year award.

Coach of the Week

Brandon Staley, defensive coordinator, L.A. Rams. I’ve never seen Russell Wilson more uncomfortable than he has been against the Rams this season, in Staley’s first year as L.A.’s defensive boss. No wonder the Jets and Chargers want to talk to him about a head-coaching job. The Rams have held the magical Wilson and Seattle’s offense to 16, 20 and 20 points this year. In the two wins, the Rams had 27 pressures in Wilson 51 pass-drops (Week 10) and 18 pressures in 27 pass-drops (wild-card game), per PFF. In Staley’s scheme, it’s not all Aaron Donald either. Donald’s the best front-seven force by far, but he’s got a well-positioned army with him.

Goats of the Week

Maurkice Pouncey, center, Pittsburgh. You saw it. Not much to say. First snap of the game, and Pouncey rainbowed it over the head of the quarterback in shotgun, and it meandered into the end zone, and the Browns recovered. Touchdown, 14 seconds into a playoff game. It gave life to the underdog Browns.

Javon Wims, wide receiver, Chicago. A breath-taking play, the kind that could haunt a player for a long time. Every touchdown was vital to the Bears on Sunday; they knew they had to score in the high twenties, minimum, to win in New Orleans. So with 3:34 left in the first quarter at the Superdome, coach Matt Nagy called a reverse pass, with Mitchell Trubisky razzle-dazzling from right end back around to quarterback and taking a pitch. At the Saints’ 49, he let fly a beautiful throw for the end zone. Wims, the former seventh-round from Georgia, had a step on DB Marcus Williams, and Trubisky has never made a prettier pass. The ball rainbowed 55 yards and came down from the sky, right into and then through Wims’ arms. Amazed on CBS, Jim Nantz said, “It wasn’t a drop. It was a whiff.” A catch would have tied the game. Alas.

Al Riveron, replay review, NFL. Bills up 27-24, 50 seconds left, Colts driving, Philip Rivers throws to Zack Pascal for 17 yards; Pascal goes to the ground apparently untouched, rises and tries to advance, and Buffalo linebacker Matt Milano rips the ball out. Fumble. Bills recover. It was a fourth-and-10 conversion, but on second effort, Pascal fumbled and lost it. But wait. After an interminable review, the catch was upheld. Rivers had four more plays to get into field-goal position but couldn’t, and the Bills survived. That doesn’t make the upheld play any less noticeable. The league tweeted: “In #INDvsBUF, the ruling on the field is that the runner was down by contact. There was no clear and obvious visual evidence to overturn the ruling, so it stands.” Man, I went back and watched, and I just didn’t see it that way.

Quotes of the Week

30

I

“We were a group that died on the vine.”

—Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin after the 48-37 loss to Cleveland. The Steelers started 11-0, then lost five of their last six games.

II

“I played against Reggie White. I played against Lawrence Taylor. I gotta tell you: This guy is the best defensive player I’ve ever seen.”

—Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman on Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, on the FOX telecast of Rams-Seahawks.

III

“I told these guys I have no place in my brain for this outcome. The suddenness of this is, there’s nothing like it. You just have to deal with it.”

—Seattle coach Pete Carroll, after the Seahawks nearly got Russell Wilson decapitated and lost to the Rams 30-20.

IV

“Deshaun is our quarterback. I think it’s important for all of us to take some time … When the time comes, we’ll sit and spend some time with Deshaun.”

—New Houston GM Nick Caserio, on quarterback Deshaun Watson, reportedly unhappy that he was cut out of the decisions to hire a new GM and coach in Houston.

V

“You very seldom hear Tommy talk about anything but baseball and something to eat.”

—Roger Craig, the former Dodger pitcher in the fifties and friend of Tommy Lasorda, who liked Italian food and talking baseball (colorfully) and who died on Friday, via the New York Times obituary on Lasorda.

Numbers Game

The nightmare (as it turned out) season of the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers:

Factoidness

40

I

The fifth round of the 2020 NFL Draft was very kind to the Baltimore Ravens and GM Eric DeCosta.

The Ravens traded one fifth-round pick, 157th overall, to Jacksonville for defensive end Calais Campbell, who has become a solid starter and instant team leader.

The Ravens traded another fifth-round pick, 173rd overall, plus backup linebacker Kenny Young, to the Rams for cornerback Marcus Peters, who has become part of an excellent corner duo with Marlon Humphrey and is signed through the 2020 season for a reasonable average of $14 million annually.

Two important defensive stalwarts on a team in the NFL’s Elite Eight, for picks deep into day three of the draft. There’s more.

The Ravens, seeing a desperate team in 2019 training camp, traded kicker Kaare Vedvik to Minnesota for a fifth-round pick in 2020, the 170th overall. Vedvik immediately dovetailed and was cut by Minnesota 20 days later. Bouncing around the past 16 months, Vedvik has been the property of five teams and played in one NFL game.

II

You know that funny Heisman commercial with Kyler Murray and Tim Tebow in the front seats of a car, driving along? Murray and Tebow were not in the same car when the commercial was taped, for COVID-related reasons. The plan was to shoot them together, but when the pandemic hit, they were shot separately, with dialog as though they were talking to each other, Tebow driving and Murray in the passenger seat. The wonders of imaginative camerawork and digitalization.

King of the Road

Tommy Lasorda, the Hall of Fame Dodgers manager, died Friday in California at 93. I spent 30 minutes of my life with him. Aug. 20, 2015. Cowboys training camp, Residence Inn, Oxnard, Calif. I walk into PR man Rich Dalrymple’s office, and there sits Tommy Lasorda, the Hall of Fame Dodger manager. Conversation ensues. Turns out Lasorda loves Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and his Cowboys, and the feeling is mutual, and Garrett soon walks in and sits.

“I got to meet this guy right here [Garrett] and then my heart went out to him,” Lasorda said. “I just happened to take a liking to him, I liked the way he talked. And I wanted to try to do something for him. So I said, ‘Let me talk to that f—ing team.’ ”

King: “What’d you tell them?” [Lasorda spoke to the Dallas players before the ’14 season.]

Lasorda: “I said, ‘Do you want to win? I’ll tell you how to win. Every one of you guys get on one end of the f—ing rope and pull together. You play for the name on the front of your shirt, not for the name on the back. You’re one team!!’ And I said to ’em: ‘From this day until next year this same day, I will probably speak to a million people. And lemme tell you something: If you don’t get to the Super Bowl I will tell a million people how f—ing horse—- you are!’ ”

NFL: JAN 04 NFC Wild-Card - Lions at Cowboys
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. (Getty Images)

Garrett: “You gotta tell these guys the Sandy Koufax story.”

Lasorda: “Okay anyway, Koufax. [In 1954 when I was a pitcher] I have a god—- good spring training with the Dodgers, trying to make the ball club. We go into Brooklyn to open the season, and I get a call from Buzzie Bavasi, the general manager, to come to his office. I walk in and he said, ‘Tommy, I’ve got a problem.’ I said, ‘What’s the matter Buzzie? One of your relatives sick?’ He said, ‘No, I have to send somebody out. I have to cut one guy out of this ball club, Tommy.’ I said, ‘You didn’t bring me in here to tell me that! No! I won 17 games in f—ing Triple-A last year! What do I have to do to show you I can pitch here? You’re going to keep Koufax over me? No!! He’s a f—ing guy who can’t throw a ball and hit a f—ing barn door! And you’re going to keep him over me?!’ He said, ‘Look Tommy, you’ve gotta go.’ So, I went. So like I say, it took the greatest left-handed pitcher in baseball to knock me off of that Brooklyn team. That was my claim to fame.”

King: “Seems like the rivalry is missing from baseball now. Football too. Guys are pretty friendly.”

Lasorda: “If I saw my players ever talking to the other players, I would chew their ass out. Get the f— off the field! Don’t talk to them SOBs! You might have to go break up a double play and knock him off a base, and you’re talking to him? They hug each other and everything now. I would never shake hands with the f—ing other team when they beat us. Why shake hands? We are trying to beat their ass, we ain’t shaking hands with the enemy!”

Rest in peace, Tommy Lasorda.

On Friday, Garrett couldn’t say enough good things about Lasorda. “Always so damn inspirational,” Garrett said. “Always so enthusiastic. He followed our team, loved our team, and helped me a lot. He’d tell me, ‘You get after their ass!’ One of the rare, rare, rare guys in sports. I loved him.”

Tweets of the Week

50

I

Pick Six is a CBS football podcast, and Sunday it commented on the one of the graphics from the Nickelodeon telecast.

II

Robert Griffin III, Lamar Jackson’s backup and friend, was speaking to an audience of one when he tweeted that.

III

Pro Football Talk managing editor Michael David Smith, at halftime of Tampa Bay’s Wild Card win over Buffalo.

IV

Kevin Seifert of ESPN, writing about the dreadful non-reversal in the final minute of the Bills-Colts game.

V

Joel Corry, former sports agent now with CBS Sports, after reports surfaced that Watson may seek a trade from the Texans.

VI

Hanson hosts the NFL RedZone channel, just not in the postseason.

Newman!

You can reach me at [email protected], or on Twitter.

On the all-pro team. From Michael White: “I notice that the first- and second-team all-pro lists feature only one running back each. Is this new? Where’s the second rusher? I know the NFL has become more of a passing-focused league, but is this the new normal: honoring only one rusher?”

The people who run the voting from the Associated Press have asked for a lot of input in recent years about the team. For instance, last year, Christian McCaffrey got the most votes at two offensive positions, running back and flex (any back or wide receiver), and so was named the winner at both positions. Obviously that’s dumb, so this year was a push to make the team more realistic—to me, that means playing one running back. I thought we should name three receivers to the team, and we should make the third receiver a slot receiver. The AP chose this year to make it three wide receivers, seeing that 73.5 percent of plays in NFL games this season (per Pro Football Focus) were snapped with at least three receivers on the field. I believe most voters chose the best three wide receivers, which is fine. I preferred to try to be as realistic as I could be, choosing Stefon Diggs and Davante Adams, with Buffalo’s Cole Beasley, who I chose as the best slot receiver in the league in 2020.

No. From Garth Cooper, of Allendale, Mich.: “Would a trade of Matthew Stafford and a second-round pick for Deshaun Watson make sense for both teams? Houston gets a QB who could lead its team for the next four to five years, along with an early pick which Houston lacks. Detroit would get a young franchise QB for the new coach and GM to build around. I know that just trading for Watson would take many draft picks but maybe having an established QB like Stafford in the deal mitigates the need for more draft capital.”

Garth, I don’t see Watson being traded, period, and it would take more than Matthew Stafford and the 39th pick in the coming draft to get it done. Watson’s a 25-year-old top-five quarterback in the NFL coming off his best year, leading the league in passing yards and yards-per-attempt; Stafford turns 33 next month and just finished his 12th straight year without a playoff victory. (He’s been a victim of bad surroundings in Detroit, but still.) I believe the Texans will try to let this tempest of an angry quarterback pass, then re-build a bridge and try to move on.

A Parisian hates franchise free agency. From Francesco Segoni, of Paris, France: “NFL teams sometimes relocate from one city to another, as owners treat them like any other piece of personal property. I’m from Europe and the idea of a soccer team moving, say, from Liverpool to Birmingham, or from Milan to Venice, would be quite inconceivable. How can an NFL-franchise-owning billionaire not understand that and put yet another billion dollars ahead of history, legacy and the hundreds of thousands of people who support the team and made it what it is? Why couldn’t the Davis families understand it and sell the Raiders instead of depriving a whole city of its franchise? Ditto for the Spanos and the rest of course. Thanks for your weekly column, which I hope to read for the next 30 years.”

Thanks for the kind words, Francesco. I feel a lot like you do; I think Oakland without the Raiders is just wrong. I probably always will. No community loved its football team more than Oakland and the East Bay loved the Raiders, and it’s unfortunate that the area couldn’t give the Raiders the kind of sweetheart deal owner Mark Davis wanted. (Ditto San Diego with the Spanos family.) That doesn’t make me right. It just makes me feel sad that the communities that birthed and developed the love of local treasures got them taken away. And I do wish the attitude of owners in the NFL was more like sports teams in other parts of the world, so sacred to their communities that moving is out of the question. It isn’t. That’s life.

A lucky husband of a devoted nurse checks in. From Brett, of Rochester, N.Y. “I found myself extremely thankful for what you wrote in your most recent article, ‘Nurses are heroes.’ It really struck me. My wife, Lynda, is a nurse and thankfully received her first vaccination shot this past week. She’s 17 weeks pregnant and even without definitive data (for pregnant women) decided to get the vaccine because she felt it was the right thing to do. Quietly she went to her hospital administrators and asked if it would be helpful for the hospital to track the results of her pregnancy, now that she has the shot, in order to help future pregnant women. She does all this quietly and without looking for accolades. In fact I’m sure if she knew I was writing this now she would be embarrassed and would ask me not to send it. It just goes to show that nurses are just selfless, and built differently.”

Thank God for Lynda, and thanks for pointing her out, Brett.

10 Things I Think I Think

40

1. I think I wanted to explain my rationale on the major awards for the 2020 NFL regular season, the complete list of which (all-pro plus awards) I filed to the Associated Press on Tuesday. We’ll start with MVP. I chose Aaron Rodgers. Let’s count down:

• Derrick Henry, 4th. With 2,027 yards, Henry was a wire-to-wire horse. I’m amazed how easy running the ball for big chunks looks for Henry. But in trying to be the best and the most valuable among 1,696 football players, it’s very tough to beat the quarterbacks. Henry didn’t shine in the Titans’ five losses (good but not great at 89.6 yards per game), and he had a quarterback nearly as valuable to team success, Ryan Tannehill, who accounted for the same number of passing/rushing touchdowns as Mahomes—40. When your quarterback accounts for 2.5 touchdowns per games, it’s hard to make the case that even a great back deserves the MVP.

• Patrick Mahomes, 3rd. Quite a year for head-to-head wins against the greats; he quarterbacked KC wins over Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan. But he tailed off in his four December games, with four narrow wins (two over five-win Denver and four-win Atlanta), four games under 100 passer rating. I realize it sounds like I’m using a higher standard to judge Mahomes, but in the quarterback business, there are very high standards for the very best.

• Josh Allen, 2nd. Speaking of four tough games, Allen had them in October—four TDs, four interceptions, bad losses to Tennessee and Kansas City. I realize Allen had a spell of shoulder issues in October and wasn’t 100 percent, but he was out there and he played; it’s tough to start factoring in how hurt a player was compared to the injuries of others. If Rodgers hadn’t been so great, Allen and Mahomes both would have warrented the award. But it’s a credit to Allen, and to his dogged efforts in a pandemic offseason to get significantly better, that he is in this contest. Forty-five TDs accounted for is just amazing. And though Allen’s Bills lost to Tennessee by 26 and Rodgers’ Packers beat the Titans by 26, that was an interesting sidelight but not much more to me.

• Aaron Rodgers, 1st. One lousy game out of 16 (Bucs 38, Pack 10 in Week 5), and he needed to win all the way till the end for Green Bay to get NFL home-field and the lone bye. I think it’s remarkable that in a season when the Packers drafted his heir in April, drafted or signed zero help for him at needy WR/TE positions, didn’t have an offseason program to get better in-tune with important weapons like Robert Tonyan, and when Rodgers had as much pressure on him individually as in any of his 13 starting seasons, that he played so fluidly, so flawlessly. I’ve never seen a quarterback who makes the game look as easy as Rodgers. This is the best overall crops of quarterbacks starting now that I’ve seen in 37 seasons covering the NFL, and sometimes I think we play down Rodgers’ greatness because of how good all the new kids are, particularly Mahomes. But Rodgers is an all-timer by any measure, and this season was an absolute masterpiece.

Rodgers had 14 games of 105-passer-rating or higher (Allen 8, Mahomes 8). Rodgers was 8.7 percent more accurate in 2020 than 2019 (a career-best 70.7 to 62.0 last year), showing the completion of his partnership with Matt LaFleur in the Green Bay offense, which is an amazing uptick for a veteran player the year he turned 37. His 121.5 passer rating is second-best all-time to himself (122.5 in 2011). His plus-43 TD-to-interception margin is his best ever. In the end, I thought this decision was pretty clear-cut.

2. I think “most valuable” is a very tough thing to quantify. You almost have to ask yourself this question: How many fewer wins would their teams have without them? And that’s so hard to do. Green Bay and Buffalo won 13 games each, and Kansas City won 14. It’s probably fair to say that, with Jordan Love and Matt Barkley and Chad Henne, respectively, playing for those three teams, they’d have been fortunate to win nine games. (Without Henry, Tennessee maybe is three wins worse.) But who really knows about any of that? In the end, I think an MVP vote has to be about contribution to team success and individual greatness.

3. I think the other three major awards, in shorter form, are as follows:

• Offensive Player: Derrick Henry. I look at numbers like 2,000 rushing yards (exceeded only eight times in 101 season of pro football) as being seminal achievements, worthy of great acclaim. It’s tough, picking MVP and Offensive Player sometimes, because should Aaron Rodgers’ great individual season be good enough for Offensive Player of the Year? I’m not arguing with you if you say so. But Henry’s greatness in recent times must be recognized. As I wrote last week, Jim Brown and Barry Sanders had four 200-yard rushing games in the careers; Henry has had four in his last 17 games. Until the AP sets parameters for differentiating between MVP and Offensive Players, the 50 voters will have to do so themselves. This year, Henry’s meteoric play gets my vote here.

• Defensive Player: Aaron Donald. Tough call, with Pittsburgh pass-rusher T.J. Watt (NFL-best 15 sacks) and Miami cornerback Xavien Howard (10 interceptions, most in the league since 2007) very close. Donald and Watt are so disruptive. I am impressed with Watt every time I see him play. But I also note that the Steelers have lots of help for Watt on the front seven compared to Donald. Per PFF, Watt had 73 total pressures (sacks, hits, hurries), Stephon Tuitt 71, Cam Heyward 62 and Bud Dupree 43 in 11 games. Donald, rushing mostly from the interior, had 13.5 sacks and 98 pressures; only Leonard Floyd (45) was an appreciable aide there. Donald, to me, continues to be the most dangerous defensive player in football. As for Howard, Stephon Gilmore won this award last year with just six picks—so why not Howard with the most in 13 years? I’m not sure we should be awarding DPOYs on interceptions, which are nebulous and often misleading stats. I do think Howard was excellent this year. But let’s look at a couple of PFF numbers.

Howard: 10 interceptions, eight penalties, 10 passes broken up, 695 receiving yards allowed on 90 targets.
Green Bay’s Jaire Alexander: one interceptions, one penalty, 13 passes broken up, 337 receiving yards allowed on 69 targets.

The argument could be that quarterbacks respected Alexander more and so picked on him less than Howard. Whether that’s true or not, the comparative numbers Alexander’s season pretty competitive with Howard’s. Jalen Ramsey also deserves note here; he’d have been my fourth on the list.

• Coach: Kevin Stefanski. Every year, this is the kind of award that, fairly, could have six or eight winners. And this year, I could have put Brian Flores, Matt LaFleur, Ron Rivera, Sean Payton or Mike Tomlin (my leader five weeks ago) in here. But Stefanski, the rookie head coach, wasn’t just along for the ride in Cleveland’s first playoff season since 2002. He’s smart. He realized early on that team history is nice but cannot be allowed to be an anchor, and he preached the old “Let’s go 1-0 every week—don’t look ahead, don’t look back.” That, plus bringing the best out of Baker Mayfield (21 picks last year, eight this year) in a crucial third season—just before the franchise has to decide whether to exercise his fifth-year option—just adds to the value of a coach who had an 11-5 season, the first time the Browns have won 11 or more in 26 years.

4. I think football isn’t fair sometimes, but it’s a total bottom-line business. Mike Nolan is a fine man and coach, but his defense turned out to be too complex this year and the Dallas defense played it poorly, and how can anyone argue that the Cowboys, after the worst defensive season in team history, shouldn’t make a change? Hard to be too chagrined about the firing of Nolan.

5. I think—and you may remember me writing about this in the past—that the off-field rule in football that must change is the windows for interviewing coaches. Teams with coaching vacancies should not be allowed to interview coaches, period, till the week after the Super Bowl. That would put every coaching candidate, in the playoffs and out, on equal footing entering the hiring season. Let’s say a team enters the offseason thinking two of its top candidates are 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy. Let’s say that team can interview Saleh (whose team did not make the playoffs) as many times as it wants, and let’s say the team can have only one talk with Bieniemy, via Zoom, till after his season is over. And let’s say Saleh has his coaching staff in place, with the majority of coaches available to be hired right away because their teams are not in the playoffs, and they have permission if under contract to go with Saleh. So Saleh, who very much deserves the chance, gets to take a job with a skeleton staff and Team X on Jan. 9. Bieniemy, if KC makes the Super Bowl, cannot take any job with a coach-seeking team till at least Feb. 9. How is that fair? It’s not fair to Bieniemy, and it’s not fair to teams who remain in the playoffs that their coaches have their attention divided between prepping for coach interviews and prepping for their team’s biggest game of the season.

6. I think the more I see the Bucs play, the more I see what a big signing Antonio Brown was. He’s still a major difference-maker.

7. I think on a very quiet talk-show day in, say, June, if I wanted to raise a topic in a dead football time, I’d introduce this to the listeners: “You’re building a team for the next four years, and you can have one Ohio State running back. You taking Ezekiel Elliott or J.K. Dobbins?”

8. I think, as it turns out, the Bears were the worst team in the playoffs, and it wasn’t particularly close. Washington, with an offense run by Taylor Heinicke (an unemployed math student at Old Dominion till he was signed off the street 33 days ago), had a much better attack than Chicago’s in the wild-card round. The Bears went 3-8 in their last 11 games, and now they’ve been over .500 once in the last eight years. I feel winds of change coming; I just don’t know what they are.

9. I think this is my thoughtful football idea of the week. It comes from longtime football writer Howard Balzer:

The 8-8 Chicago Bears qualified for the playoffs instead of the 8-8 Arizona Cardinals, and odds are very few people know how the Bears won the tiebreaker for the final NFC wild-card spot. It was because of Chicago’s better record against common opponents: 3-2 to Arizona’s 1-4. The Bears defeated Carolina and the N.Y. Giants, lost to the Rams and split with the Detroit Lions, while the Cardinals beat the Giants, and lost to the Panthers, Lions and Rams (twice). The unfairness of breaking that tie among wild-card teams from different divisions is that the minimum number of games is four, a small sample size. The next tiebreaker, strength of victory, would have more games as a test. Combined record of the teams Arizona beat: 56-71-1, a .441 percentage. For Chicago: 43-85, a percentage of .336. It seems clear this should be reconsidered by the NFL.

What also should be changed is the league’s insistence that a division winner have a home game in the first round of the playoffs. The Competition Committee has suggested it be altered on numerous occasions, but the owners have refused. The Washington-Tampa Bay game marked the 25th time since divisional realignment in 2002 that a wild-card team had to travel to play a division winner with a worse record. In only three seasons has there not been one of those matchups. After the Buccaneers won Saturday night, it gave the visitors a 13-12 record. It makes sense for the opening round to be seeded by record. That would have resulted in first-round matchups of Washington at New Orleans, Chicago at Seattle and the L.A. Rams at Tampa Bay. In both cases, it’s time for the NFL to do the right thing.

10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:

a. “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for spending the time with us. We’ll see you again next week.”

b. Those were the last words of Alex Trebek, on his final “Jeopardy” show ever, after 37 years of them. Trebek died of pancreatic cancer in November, 10 days after taping this last episode that aired on Friday.

c. This, I imagine, is how much of America felt watching that last episode:

d. Three observations about the last show (we watched three in the final week): Amazing that Trebek looked and sounded so good—I mean, no different whatsoever—10 days before cancer took him . . . I love the fact that either he didn’t know that was his last episode, or he simply wanted the last show to be totally, absolutely run-of-the-mill rather than drawing attention to himself . . . Want to know the last clue of his “Jeopardy” life? Here it is: “Dr. Margaret Todd gave science this word for different forms of one basic substance; it’s from the Greek for “equal” & “place.” (Answer down in 10n.)

e. Happy 60th birthday, Ali Haji-Sheikh.

f. Happy 60th birthday (Tuesday), Herb Welch. The Giants DB will always have that pick of Joe Montana in the 49-3 mauling of the Niners in the ’86 playoffs.

g. Story of the Week: Dan Hunsinger Benbow of the Indianapolis Star on the forgotten life, and death, of former American Basketball Association star George Carter, and a group called Dropping Dimes that did something about it. Hunsinger Benbow wrote about an impassioned letter that Dropping Dimes co-founder Scott Tarter wrote seeking help for Carter, who died penniless:

Tarter wrote an emotional memoriam to Carter and posted it online.

“He mattered. His life mattered,” Tarter said. “And here he is. Nobody claiming him, nobody caring about him.”

Soon after that missive, St. Bonaventure called Dropping Dimes. Jim Baron, a former hall of fame coach and player at the university, had learned of Carter’s death. There is a beautiful cemetery just across the street from campus. With Dropping Dimes’ help and funds raised by the college’s alumni association, Carter will be buried there by the school where he still today is one of the best players to ever take the court.

h. “He mattered. His life mattered.” Beautiful.

i. I wonder how the Nets feel now about casting their lot with Kyrie Irving (four years, fully guaranteed $136 million), who left the team for two games for “personal reasons” last week—he was upset over events in Washington.

j. Great player, hurt a lot, divisive, hard to count on. I guess I keep coming back to this with Irving: who chooses to not play with LeBron?

k. Bizarre/Sad Story of the Week: Emily Shugarman of the Daily Beast on Tommy John contracting COVID-19, and his son, a doctor, saying COVID-19 does not exist. What a country. Shugarman writes that John has downplayed the effects of the virus on him, though he has been hospitalized for it:

John’s blasé stance toward the virus is perhaps unsurprising given the sentiment of his eldest son, Tommy John III, a chiropractor in San Diego with a prolific Facebook presence. On his two Facebook pages, one of which refers to him as “Dr. Tommy John,” the 43-year-old spews conspiracy theories claiming the virus does not exist and that the entire pandemic was orchestrated by an anonymous “they.”

John III recently posted a video of himself writing a prescription to “the global population” to “stop masking your kids!” (Chiropractors cannot legally prescribe medication in the U.S.) And don’t even get him started on vaccines.

“Germs don’t cause disease. Vaccines don’t eradicate anything but healthy children,” the younger John wrote, falsely, on Jan. 3, in between “spinal hygiene” videos and recipes for bacon fat-roasted vegetables.

l. Information of the Week (in a story): What the San Francisco Bay Area can teach us about fighting a pandemic, by Jay Caspian Kang of the New Yorker. It’s complicated, and it’s not clearly certain why, but some of the theories are interesting. Writes King:

We now know that some of the earliest coronavirus infections in the United States happened in Santa Clara County, home to Stanford University: the virus killed at least two county residents in February, well before the first official American death was recorded. And yet the bomb didn’t detonate. By January 1st, San Francisco, a city of almost a million people, had seen just a hundred and eighty-nine deaths. In Berkeley, only twelve residents had died. Although the region as a whole has struggled with the virus—during the current winter surge, many of its hospitals have come close to, or reached, their regular I.C.U. capacity—it has still done better than many parts of California, and better than much of the nation. Some eight million people live in the Bay Area; just more than twenty-six hundred have died of covid-19. Roughly the same number of people live in New York City, where, by the end of the year, there were more than twenty-five thousand deaths. In Los Angeles County, which is home to ten million people, four times as many have died as in the Bay Area. Even now, when the virus is less controlled and is spreading throughout urban, exurban, and rural communities, the number of cases in the densest Bay Area cities remains relatively low.

Credit for this outcome has tended to go to three groups of people: local officials, who acted with admirable synchrony and speed in issuing shelter-in-place orders; tech C.E.O.s, who were quick to move their businesses to all-remote operation; and the region’s citizens, who have, by and large, been willing and able to go along with restrictions. And yet their actions in themselves can’t wholly account for the relative success of the Bay Area’s response. “The narrative we like is that the citizens were all wonderful and informed and our leaders were all wonderful,” Bob Wachter, the chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told me. “That might make us feel good, and part of that is absolutely true. But then you look anywhere else on the map, and you see places where they did something completely different and had a similar outcome—or you look somewhere that did pretty well and got overrun.” Boston, another college town with a highly educated population, shut down at roughly the same time as San Francisco. It also has a world-class health system, a smaller population, and less international traffic from Asia and Europe. Even so, it has experienced seven times as many deaths.

m. Fascinating, and the kind of story that’s worth your time, if only to see what smart people are thinking about the best ways to avoid outbreaks.

n. What is isotope?

o. RIP, Officer Brian Sicknick.

The Adieu Haiku

Such great football tales.
I’m taken with the future
of M. Trubisky.

Source: | This article originally belongs to Nbcnews.com

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