So here came the first big test in the grand Nathaniel Hackett experiment, with 12:48 to play in the fourth quarter Sunday night against San Francisco. The Niners led 10-5. Denver QB Russell Wilson, needing seven yards for a first down, scrambled for what appeared to be about six-and-a-half to about a foot shy of the first down at the Bronco 35-. But Wilson had reached his arm out, with the ball, very near the 35 as he went down.
Hackett has had three years of clock/judgment/timeout problems in his three weeks as an NFL head coach, which is why he made the unorthodox move last Tuesday of hiring a retired special-teams coach, Jerry Rosburg, as senior assistant/in-game decision-making. Now Rosburg had either one or two decisions to advise his boss on.
Decision one: Should Denver challenge the call on the field that Wilson was short of the first down?
“It’s a value challenge,” came Rosburg’s voice via headset to Hackett. So Denver challenged and failed; the Wilson reach for the first down would have mattered had he broke the plane of the goal line, but not in the field of play. Quirky rule, but in the field of play, the ball is spotted where it is when the knee hits the ground. Wilson was clearly short.
Decision two: Down five, playing poorly on offense, should Denver go for fourth-and-a-foot, or punt? “Punt,” Rosburg advised, and Hackett agreed. The Broncos defense was playing too well to risk failing at fourth-and-short and thus the team punted. When they got the ball back, Wilson drove Denver 80 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. All’s well that ends well, at least on this night.
Denver 11, San Francisco 10. Amazing that through the mayhem of the last 14 days – the ridiculous choice to try a 64-yard field goal in Seattle, the mismanagement of timeouts, the league-high four delay-of-game calls in two weeks, the win that felt like a loss in the post-Houston-game locker room last week – the Broncos are 2-1 and tied for first in the AFC West.
Such an odd debut to an NFL head-coaching career, realizing you don’t have people on your staff who can help you on things like time and game management – the Broncos have a very young staff – and think you’ve got to go outside the building for help. And doing it while in game-week preparation. I asked Hackett if it all felt embarrassing.
“No,” he said firmly over the phone from the stadium. “For me, I felt empowered that I was able to make a decision. Hey, let’s fix it. I’m the leader of the team. Let’s do it.
“This was the first time, the past two games, that I felt I was hurting my team. Did I have enough info? I don’t know. But I knew the setup wasn’t right. I needed help to make the tough decision.”
What a whirlwind. Hackett didn’t know Rosburg, who was living in Florida while retired. But after a flurry of phone calls and a Tuesday meeting in Denver, Hackett introduced him to the team in the squad meeting Wednesday. He told the players if he asked them to take a critical look at themselves if they erred, it’s right that he do the same as the head coach. He’d erred by not being ready to handle all the in-game decisions, and Rosburg was the fix-it agent.
There’s another little matter to tend to: the offense, and Wilson. The 12-play, 80-yard drive against the stout 49er D was the first time in three feeble games that the Broncos’ offense looked good. “Russell has come to a new state, a new organization, with 10 brand new guys in the huddle. It’s a completely new look, new team. He’s jumped in here and tried to make it as familiar as he could. On that winning drive, he said, I’m comfortable. I’m gonna use my legs here. I’ve got to make this happen. He did. Hopefully that’s the start of it for him.”
Sunday was a perfect day to illustrate the topic of this column: What have we learned about the NFL in September?
Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen played on Sunday. They quarterbacked their teams to 12, 14, 17 and 19 points, respectively. Now, this could be a coincidence, and of course it’s only three weeks of games (not including the last games of the month, Cowboys-Giants tonight and Dolphins-Bengals on Thursday). The season’s just 17-percent complete.
But the two big national games with offensive geniuses galore that closed out Sunday football ended with scores of 14-12 and 11-10. To see Rodgers and Brady struggle as they have, to see Russell Wilson throw two touchdown passes in three games with a starry receiving corps … something just might be up.
I do think part of what we’re seeing is a reflection of how defenses are playing, with the consistent two-deep-safety look that’s a part of the game’s current trendy D, the scheme that forces offenses to win underneath with long drives. Perfect example Sunday in Tampa: Midway through the third quarter, the Bucs had two safeties lined up 18 yards deep against Aaron Rodgers, showing nothing before the snap or very early in the snap. Tampa safety Logan Ryan waited, waited, waited and then, when Rodgers threw, Ryan jumped the route of the receiver and picked it off.
Did you see the snippiness between Patrick Mahomes and KC offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy Sunday, just before halftime in Indy? That was prompted by Mahomes misfiring on two downfield throws because, as he said later, “The Colts were in a deep coverage.” (Logical for end-of-half situations, of course.) But the Colts are like so many other defenses. They’d prefer you try to beat them with 13-play drives, not eight-. The logic: offenses have a better chance to turn it over, or to get to a fourth-and-long, in 13 plays than eight.
Now, two-deep snaps are being used about the same as through three weeks last year. But as one team analyst told me, there’s significantly more complexity to an offensive playbook than defensive. So it makes sense that early in the season, offenses wouldn’t be as in-sync as defenses would. Again—three weeks is not a time to make definitive judgments. It’s just time to raise an eyebrow.
As Mike Vrabel once said about defensive football, coverage is about figuring out the worst thing that can happen to you and doing whatever is necessary to prevent that thing from happening. Disguising deep safeties is certainly not the only reason why scoring is down 5.0 points per game through three weeks, but it’s something to watch.
Three other September stories that stick out:
Miami’s good, and Miami’s not afraid of the big bad Bills. As I watch football each Sunday, I try to focus on one game in each window and follow one of the Red Zone channels to keep up with the other games. In the first window, I settled on Buffalo-Miami and was rewarded with a dramatic, intense game with a January competitive feel. This truly had playoff energy, all the way down to Buffalo offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey going nuts in the coach’s box upstairs as the clock ran out on the Bills in a 21-19 Dolphins win. The NFL’s story of September is Miami being 3-0, answering a ton of questions on offense, winning with a quirky and intelligent coach, and playing fun and intense football on both sides of the line.
This game … it was electric and a great illustration of how nothing lasts forever in the NFL. It doesn’t even last a month. We’d all been thinking Buffalo was the premier team in the sport (I still think the Bills are) and would skate away with the AFC East title. But after three weeks, Buffalo’s a game behind Miami. Think of it: On a sunny south Florida day with a heat index in the nineties, Buffalo’s offense was on the field for 40 minutes and 40 seconds, and for 90 snaps, and outgained Miami in yards 497-212. And Miami won the IV Bowl.
“It was, if I’m being honest with you man, it was a battlefield out there, honestly,” said one of the heroes of the day for Miami, second-year safety Jevon Holland. “People were going down. You had people coming in who didn’t really play much. It was chaotic. Fans were loud. People cramping. Drives … going 10 plays, 14 plays, 20 plays. The game was a beast. Just a beast.
“It’s difficult because the Bills offense is so electric and they can score at any point. And so, you have to be constantly, constantly on. That is draining, to constantly be operating at a very high level. But that’s what it takes to beat a team like that. You have to be perfect and that’s the standard you have to rise to.”
Holland started early, blitzing midway through the first quarter, strip-sacking Allen and setting up Miami’s first TD. Holland’s lithe but hits like Polamalu, and his sideline-to-sideline ability is striking. Ten tackles, two passes defensed, 1.5 sacks. The man was everywhere.
“What hurts right now?” I asked.
“Everything,” Holland said. “Everywhere.”
(And this team, somehow, has to get on a plane and play Thursday night in Cincinnati, after playing 90 snaps against the best offense in football in 90-something heat and humidity. Brutal.)
“Keeping Josh Allen from scrambling was important,” Holland said. “When he scrambles to his right, he is a very efficient, like, best-in-the-league top quarterback. That was what we tried to do, constant pressure from his right side, to get him going to his left. Trying to keep the pressure in his face, mix up the alignments in the front. Just keep him guessing on what defense we’re in, what coverage we’re in. And at the base of all of that movement and all of that smoke and mirrors was to play hard-nose football, stop the run, make him be one-dimensional. You measure your love for your teammates by your proximity to the ball at the end of each play. I think as a defense, we sell out trying to get to the ball because we love each other so much and we wanna play as hard as anybody else on the field for each other.”
Last week, it was Tua Tagovailoa throwing to Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle in a win for the ages, 42-38 in Baltimore. This week it was the defense bending and bending and bending but rarely breaking. Holding Buffalo to 19 points is a major accomplishment. There could be a race in the AFC East after all.
One other note, regarding Tagovailoa. When he exited the game, wobbly, midway through the second quarter after hitting his head on the turf, it was assumed he had a head injury and would probably not return. But he returned and played the second half. He said after the game he actually hurt his back, not his head. The NFL Players Association said it would investigate the injury to see if concussion protocol was followed. At each NFL game is an Unaffiliated Neurotrauma Consultant, a doctor who is on scene to monitor any head injury and can also give tests to determine if a player is okay to return to the game. The NFL said all protocols were followed. The wobbling is the troubling part, of course.
Nothing fluky about the Eagles. Maybe the Eagles learned something from the post-Super Bowl Eagles. The 2018 and ’19 Eagles had a combined 19-16 record and made the playoffs each year, but weren’t formidable, and collapsed to 4-11-1 in 2020. That’s when they cleaned house and shipped out the quarterback and coach. They had another playoff year last year, a marginal one, but GM Howie Roseman didn’t use the off-season to tinker. He made big moves, and good ones, like acquiring wideout A.J. Brown in a trade, signing free agents Haason Reddick, James Bradberry and Kyzir White, and drafting Jordan Davis. Defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon has six new toys for his defensive rotation. In the 24-8 rout of Washington Sunday, the Eagles D had nine sacks of old friend Carson Wentz.
But the Eagles have come out of the gate fast mostly because of the maturity and growth of quarterback Jalen Hurts. He’s more accurate (61.3 percent last year, 67.4 so far this year), and his 9.4 yards-per-attempt leads all NFL passers. Jalen Hurts, mind you. In a league full of great young arms (and old ones), no one’s moving the ball downfield as well as Hurts is. At 24, it’s very likely Hurts is the Eagles’ quarterback of the future; he’d have to regress strikingly this year to lose the chance. That’s great for the Eagles too, because they’ve got two first-round picks next year, and Roseman can either fill other holes in 2023 or dangle one or both picks to a team needing a quarterback. It’s a good position to be in, and the Eagles deserve it.
The Bengals get a lifeline. Cincinnati found itself in must-win territory in the Meadowlands Sunday, odd for the defending AFC champion in September. But the chance of making the playoffs after an 0-3 start are slim, so the 27-12 win over the Jets was welcome relief. Maybe more important than the score was Bengals’ sack total allowed: two.
In our partnership with Next Gen Stats, I looked into the punishment QB Joe Burrow has been taking. Even after the respite of sacks taken Sunday, it’s still not good. Per Next Gen, Burrow was pressured 15 times Sunday against the Jets. For the three-game season, he’s been pressured on 32.9 percent of his pass attempts. That’s very likely unsustainable. Remember after the narrow loss to the Rams in the Super Bowl, when the Bengals absolutely, positively said they would take better care of Burrow? In 2021, he was pressured on 28.5 percent of his pass drops, so the fixes haven’t worked.
Now, two sacks is good. Fifteen pressures on 38 pass drops, not so good. Protection for Burrow, who the Bengals hope is their franchise quarterback for the next 15 years, is most definitely still a work in progress.
The waters around Brett Favre got choppier Saturday with ESPN and Mississippi Today reports claiming Favre – even after Mississippi officials allegedly allocated $4 million in state welfare funds for a volleyball arena at his alma mater Southern Miss – pressed the then-governor for up to $2 million more in 2019. ESPN’s Anthony Olivieri, citing text messages from a court filing in the burgeoning scandal, said former Gov. Phil Bryant texted Favre that improper use of welfare funds “could result in a violation of Federal Law.”
In early 2020, after Bryant had left office, ESPN reported he had a text exchange with Southern Miss president Rodney Bennett that suggests Favre – who earned $141 million in salary in his NFL career – had personally guaranteed the completion of the volleyball complex. Favre’s interest in volleyball stemmed from his daughter, Breleigh, being on the university’s team. “The bottom line,” Bennett texted the ex-governor, per ESPN and Mississippi Today, “is [Favre] personally guaranteed the project, and on his word and handshake we proceeded. It’s time for him to pay up – it really is just that simple.”
“Like all of us,” Bryant texted Bennett, per ESPN, “I like Brett. He is a legend but he has to understand what a pledge means.”
The tangled web gets worse for Favre with each news story – there were also extensive reports by Front Office Sports (claiming that Favre pushed to use welfare funds for an indoor football facility at Southern Miss) and Mississippi Today (with private communications between the governor and several others, including Favre) Saturday night. The FBI is currently investigating the misuse of millions in state welfare funds after multiple people involved have already pleaded guilty to counts of malfeasance; two of them are connected to Favre, and both, theoretically, could sing for lighter sentences. However, since the people in power have all changed since this story surfaced—with a new governor, new head of the state welfare agency, and a new nominee for U.S. attorney for the southern district of Mississippi – it’s impossible to know whether Favre will be charged in the case.
But the more evidence we learn, the more possible it is that Favre could be in hot water. Favre’s attorney has said that the former quarterback did not know that the funds used for the volleyball complex were state welfare funds. The FBI investigation should suss that out.
It’s interesting that the U.S. attorney nominee, Todd Gee, is the deputy chief of the Public Integrity Section at the U.S. Justice Department. This case, with so much evidence that the country’s most poverty-stricken state diverted funds to friends and cronies of the powerful, proves that integrity has been in short supply in Mississippi.
Anna Wolfe, a reporter for online newspaper Mississippi Today, has been at the forefront of a vast amount of reporting on the Mississippi welfare scandal, including Favre’s alleged involvement in the volleyball arena. (Favre has denied knowing where the funds came from.) The case took another turn Thursday, when John Davis, the former head of the state’s welfare agency, the Department of Human Services, pleaded guilty to multiple counts of misusing millions in welfare dollars. Davis and nonprofit founder Nancy New, who already pled guilty to multiple charges connected to the scandal, were integral, per Mississippi Today, in funneling $4 million to Favre’s project.
Wolfe will be my guest this week on The Peter King Podcast, which will go live Tuesday. What struck me during our weekend conversation:
State leaders in Mississippi, including the governor, seem very much like Favre fanboys. “I think that’s exactly on the nose,” Wolfe said. “[State officials] were more than willing to help as a way to get close to him. There were messages at one point where while they were trying to find a way to get more money from the welfare department to the volleyball facility in about 2019. [Favre] was texting with John Davis and Nancy New and he sent a text to Nancy that said, ‘I love John so much and you.’ And you think about what kind of feelings that generated in those people who held the purse strings, you know, for the state. The fact that Brett Favre was telling them that he loved them, right? There were text messages at one point that talked about Brett Favre talking with another business associate about buying John a really nice truck, or buying vehicles or giving gifts to these people in exchange for their help … It’s kind of a good ol’ boys system on full display.”
If it seems crazy that state welfare funds could be used for a volleyball arena, that’s because it is crazy. Wolfe said these state officials knew that they could target a state fund called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families for this kind of project “because the federal regulations around the fund are so lax. States essentially get this money from the federal government every year and they don’t have to give it out to people through direct cash assistance … They were denying, prior to this, up to 99 percent of people who were applying for this program. That created a scenario where they were still getting all this money and basically had it to spend. They weren’t giving it out to needy families. The federal government wasn’t paying attention … The [state] officials know that they can manipulate this fund in order to appease [Favre].”
This is not a victimless crime. Wolfe found victims. One in five Mississippians lives in poverty. Wolfe went to a poor neighborhood near the Southern Miss campus. “These people are not going over to the campus at USM to this state-of-the-art volleyball facility to get services, right? We talked to a lot of people who had tried to go to the local community action agency – these are federally funded agencies that provide rental assistance, or energy assistance to get your light bill paid … We talked to another guy who had his child taken away five years prior to this and he was homeless at the time … He was trying to get rental assistance so that he could get his child back from CPS. They told him they didn’t have any programs for him or any money available for him.”
Wolfe got emotional just talking about some of 99 percent of people who were denied assistance, so close to a volleyball arena the state spent millions in welfare funds to build. Wouldn’t anyone?
I texted Favre over the weekend to see if he’d discuss any of the charges or the story as a whole. He declined. Knowing him, I feel sure he’d love to talk to defend himself – not only because he’s a talkative guy but because it’s likely he has some points to use in his defense. But that’s not for now.
I bet the public knocks are killing him. Favre’s reputation among his NFL peers has taken a major hit. Sage Rosenfels, the former quarterback, backed up Favre in Minnesota in 2009. They were close enough that, on the sidelines in the 2009 NFC title game, after Favre threw the incredible across-his-body interception that led to the winning New Orleans field goal, Rosenfels says Favre told him, “I choked.” Last Thursday, Rosenfels Tweeted: “Since retirement, I have been lucky to avoid stealing millions of dollars from the poorest people in my state.”
Ouch. Imagine a teammate who got along famously with a big star (and vice versa), sharing a quarterback room and a season, sending a dagger of a tweet like that. It shows the outrage of so many at Favre.
Pending the adjudication of this case, that probably won’t be the worst shot at Favre.
FOX NFL analyst Sean Payton, in his (we assume) gap year from coaching, on what he misses about coaching, on how he was able to move on from his year suspension over the Saints’ bounty scandal, and on what his time away has helped him discover about himself:
“If I was a dog, I would be a retriever. I don’t do well hanging out by myself. You with me? I need company.
“When you go online and you’re gonna buy a dog and if you’re single, living in an apartment, they’ll give you four or five breeds that are very comfortable if they don’t ever see a human being. Alright? Then if you’re in a family of five and you’re gonna buy a dog—I would definitely be someone that wants to be around and interact with people. The camaraderie of the staff and the locker room with the Saints, I miss. I’m starting to get some of that with TV in the studio.
“The other day when that [Saints-Bucs] game was being played was one of the first times that I’ve missed it. I missed being a part of the draft. I always enjoyed that process. But the other afternoon watching and just seeing the type of game that was unfolding, that’s one of those moments. There’s nothing better than being a part of the success with your players and fellow coaches. It’s hard to replace that. People try all sorts of ways to do it.
“Do I think I’ll coach again this upcoming season? Or a better way maybe would be, do I think I coach again? I do think at some point I’ll coach again. That being said, as you chase perfection in this other career, it’s one of those things where if you feel like you continue to get better and those people that are experts at it, if others feel like, hey, he can be really, really good, that’s the type thing that pulls at you. Now, if they’re like, don’t quit your day job, then it’s an easy decision.”
“How’d you overcome the bitterness at being suspended for a year?”
“I would consider myself a glass-half-full person. Early, for the first two or three months, it was that. Then it’s like, well this is ridiculous because now they’re gonna win twice. So I really remember diving into CrossFit and fitness and working out, training. And then in the longer term, I just choose to be happy and choose to be positive. [Bitterness] was creating a side of me that certainly wasn’t gonna contribute to anything positive going forward. So, time and a little bit of wisdom, too.”
Offensive players of the week
DeVonta Smith, wide receiver, Philadelphia. Smith is such a multi-dimensional receiver, and it was all on display late in the first half of an eight-catch, 169-yard game at Washington Sunday. He sprinted deep downfield and floated above two Washington defensive backs to nab a 45-yard strike from Jalen Hurts, coming down at the two-yard line. On fourth-and-goal from the two-, with one second left in the half, Hurts threw to the left corner to Smith and he made a contested catch to put this one out of reach at the half, 24-0. Both catches were really hard. Smith’s become one of the best receivers in the NFL, and he’s only 20 games into his pro career.
Lamar Jackson, quarterback, Baltimore. Jackson is playing at such a consistently high level in this vital personal season (the contract, you know) that it’s tempting to look for other guys to highlight because he does such outstanding things so consistently. Four touchdown passes, one TD run in the midst of another 100-yard rushing day, putting up 37 points at Belichickland. Through three weeks, the Ravens are averaging 33 points a game and four Jackson touchdowns a game (passing or rushing).
Trevor Lawrence, quarterback, Jacksonville. Could it really be as easy as a simple head-coaching change? Is that what’s made Lawrence so good so fast in his second NFL season? He told me last week that Doug Pederson’s got the kind of personality a young teams loves—as a teacher and as a patient program-organizer. Whatever it is, Sunday’s 38-10 rout of the Chargers on the road was his most impressive NFL game yet. Lawrence threw for 262 yards, with three touchdowns and no turnovers. Suddenly, the Jaguars are 2-1, and a very interesting team, and the Jacksonville-at-Philadelphia game Sunday is more interesting than just a Pederson return to the Linc.
Defensive players of the week
Jevon Holland, safety, Miami. One of the Dolphins’ picks in the bountiful four-picks-in-the-top-50 in 2021, Holland continued to put his physical stamp on the Miami defense in the 21-19 upset of the Bills in the Hard Rock Stadium broiler. With 1.5 sacks and 10 tackles in the biggest game of his young pro life, Holland proved to the Bills and to the rest of the league the Miami defense can play.
Roquan Smith, linebacker, Chicago. The Chicago Bears enter October with a winning record, and for those who’ve watched 12 quarters of September Bear football, it’s not because of the offense. Smith had 16 tackles and a crucial interception with 65 seconds left in a 20-20 game, returning it to the Houston 12. A Cairo Santos field goal won it for the 2-1 Bears.
Nick Bolton, linebacker, Kansas City. Rare to honor a player when his team loses, but Bolton was fantastic Sunday in the 20-17 loss at Indy. Nine tackles and two sacks of Matt Ryan. His best play wasn’t a sack, but rather a stoning of the NFL rushing champion. Eleven minutes left, KC up 17-13 at the winless Colts, fourth-and-one Indy at the Kansas City 32-. What play do the Colts call? Of course: give it to Jonathan Taylor, who tried to leap over the defensive front for the first down. Here came Bolton, who grabbed Taylor with both hands, lifted him up and stopped him a foot short of the line to gain. Five minutes after his stoning of Taylor, Bolton sacked Ryan for a loss of eight.
Special teams players of the week
Corliss Waitman, punter, Denver. What a performance by the first-year Bronco on Sunday night over the Niners: 10 punts, six inside the 20-, one downed at the half-yard line, in a game Denver won by one point.
Henry Anderson, defensive lineman, Carolina. With Carolina trouncing the Saints 13-0 in the final minute of the first half, New Orleans needed something, anything, to get back in the game. That something would be a 30-yard chip shot by sure-footed kicker Wil Lutz. But Anderson fought through the middle of the Saints’ protection, put one arm as high as it could go, and that arm blocked the kick. Great individual play at a huge time for Carolina, and the Panthers held New Orleans scoreless for the 47 minutes of the game.
Matt Haack, punter, Indianapolis. Huge factor in the Colts’ upset of KC early. In the first eight minutes of the 21-17 win, Haack dropped a punt at the KC eight-yard line that was muffed and turned over by Skyy Moore, leading to a Colt TD. His next punt backed up Kansas City to its one-yard line. The Colts’ special teams had been a negative through the first two weeks, but not in this victory.
Coach of the week
Joe Barry, defensive coordinator, Green Bay. The Bucs were beat up and without Tom Brady’s security blankets at receivers, to be sure. But this was a top defensive plan and effort against a great quarterback playing at home, and Green Bay held Brady and the Bucs to 12 points, 285 yards of offense, and two of 11 on third down. That had to be one sweet three-hour plane ride home to Wisconsin for Barry and his staff Sunday night.
Goats of the week
The Washington Commanders. Just when you think it can’t get worse, the 13th top executive in the last year-and-a-half, COO Greg Resh, resigned last week after 13 months running the team’s business side, per The Washington Post. The Commanders followed that by playing like all 53 of them wanted to follow Resh out the door. They allowed six sacks … in the first half. The result of Washington’s possessions: punt, punt, punt, fumble, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, stopped on fourth down, stopped on fourth down, touchdown (with less than two minutes left). Philly 24, Washington 8, and it wasn’t that close.
Hidden person of the week
Anthony Walker Jr., linebacker, Cleveland. The next-man-up ethos rules the day in the NFL, especially with the injury epidemic alive and well in the league. The loss of Walker, the Browns’ leading tackler since opening day 2021, for the season to a torn quad (just imagining that makes me wince) Thursday night, is a major blow to a team that’s going to rely on defense to try to stay in the pennant race till Deshaun Watson starts playing in December. “He’s a huge, huge, huge part of our football team—what he brings to us on the field and off the field,” coach Kevin Stefanski said. This is why: In a scoreless game in the first quarter, Pittsburgh was driving for the first points at the Cleveland 34-yard line. On successive plays, Walker stopped Steelers receiver George Pickens for a loss of two on a catch in the right flat, then stoned running back Najee Harris after a gain of four on the next pass play. Two plays, gain of two. The Steelers missed a 49-yard field goal, and Cleveland took the ball and drove for the opening TD. The Browns will miss Walker.
The Jason Jenkins Award
Joe Savage, founder/director, Roads of Hope. Savage, the brother of longtime NFL scout (and former Browns GM) Phil Savage, runs Roads of Hope, an independent agency that since 2015 has been rescuing orphans and young people who would be trafficked in Ukraine and Moldova. He and his other Roads of Hope counselors taught American football to a group of kids the group was helping and split them into two teams—the Jets and Bengals. They played a football game in the small country of Moldova. “They’d never seen football in their lives,” said Monty Lobb, a Roads of Hope board member. Watch some of the highlights here.
Phil Savage is now a senior football adviser with the Jets. His brother’s doing some meaningful work where it’s desperately needed, and it looks like Joe Savage is having some fun doing it.
Success is not final. Failure’s not fatal.
–Colts quarterback Matt Ryan, breaking down the team huddle in the locker room after the upset win over Kansas City.
Indy’s 1-1-1, which is neither final nor fatal, I guess.
He plays his way. He’s determined to play his way. But his way is fundamentally sound football. His way is winning football. He’s running the show out there. All the things you’d say an operator or manager does, he’s doing all of those things his way.
–Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, on Lamar Jackson, after the 37-26 win over New England.
I look like I had a bad day on the Stock Exchange.
–FOX analyst Greg Olsen, tie undone, shirt moist, in the Raymond James Stadium broadcast booth/sauna during Bucs-Packers.
Wouldn’t it be something if you had a dilemma as to which way to go?
–Dallas owner Jerry Jones, looking into his crystal ball and wondering aloud what happens if Cooper Rush plays great and the Cowboys sweep their Rush-started games before Dak Prescott is fully healed from his broken thumb.
No Jerry. Just don’t.
There is no quarterback controversy. Dak is our quarterback.
–Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy, a day after Jones said what he said.
We’ve exhausted ourselves with programs, initiatives, making sure [owners] are aware of who’s out there. But we don’t make the hire … We’re still dealing with America’s original sin, slavery, and the misconception of who Black men are.
–NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, who is at the fore of the league’s effort to hire more minority coaches, to The Washington Post in remarks for the paper’s deep dive into the poor record of minority hires.
In the spring of 2021, with the Giants desperate for deep-threat receivers to spice up the worst wideout group in the NFL, New York’s then-GM Dave Gettleman and then-coach Joe Judge stocked the roster with a pricy free-agent receiver, Kenny Golladay, and a first-round receiver, Kadarius Toney.
Last week against Carolina, Golladay played two snaps. Toney caught two passes for zero yards.
Cash earned by Golladay and Toney through the 2022 season: $45,281,438.
Touchdowns scored by Golladay and Toney through 19 Giants games: zero.
It would be pretty interesting if Aaron Judge does not hit another home run till Saturday, at home against the Orioles. If his next homer comes Saturday:
Judge’s 61st home run, matching Roger Maris’ American League season record of 61 home runs, would come 61 years to the day after Maris hit his 61st … in ‘61.
Before Miami’s 21-19 upset of the Bills Sunday, Tua Tagovailoa had started three games against Buffalo and lost by 30, 35 and 15 points.
The Miami Hurricanes lost by 14 on Saturday to Middle Tennessee, which lost early in the month by 37 to James Madison. Which obviously means if James Madison played Miami, JMU would win by 51.
But my favorite college factoid comes from the defensive tussle at my alma mater in Athens, Ohio. Ohio 59, Fordham 52, with 85 passes thrown, 1,040 passing yards gained. Zero interceptions.
— Mark Sanchez (@Mark_Sanchez) September 25, 2022
Sanchez knows a little bit about butts being too involved in big NFL plays, as we saw with Miami punter Thomas Morstead Sunday.
— Razzball (@Razzball) September 25, 2022
Translation: Miami punter Thomas Morstead was forced to punt on a short field because the Dolphins were backed up to their goal line, and he punted directly into the buttocks of his personal protector Trent Sherfield, a wide receiver. Hilarity resulted on the internet.
At this point it feels weird to see NFL people actually studying on the tablets and not using them strictly for destruction
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) September 25, 2022
Barnwell writes about the NFL for ESPN.
The Chargers medical team have “encouraged” Herbert to take the “long view” in weighing his decision.
The cartilage injury can last several weeks or several months. Rib protector can’t help with rotation when Herbert twists and throws.
And he plays football.
— Chris Mortensen (@mortreport) September 25, 2022
ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, with important news Sunday morning
Proud to donate $1 million to a great cause tonight. Thanks to John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson and so many others for what they do in helping American farmers. #FarmAid 👍
— Jim Irsay (@JimIrsay) September 25, 2022
The owner of the Colts, giving as he often does.
Last week, I asked fans and patrons of the Chicago Bears—who have announced their intention to build a domed stadium in suburban Arlington Heights—this question: Would you prefer to see the team play in a domed stadium, a stadium with a retractable roof (which the team has said is cost-prohibitive), or an open-air stadium? I’ll tell you the results from people who wrote to me by noon ET Saturday, and I’ll give you a sample of their feelings.
I got 103 votes. The results:
Stadium with retractable roof: 45
Open-air stadium: 44
Domed stadium: 14
What you said:
Nick Skweres, Chicago: ”While I appreciate and love the history of Bear weather and all the classic games it has contributed to, a stadium with a dome is what the Bears need most right now. For the franchise to be more successful, the Bears need to own their stadium and be able to bring in more revenue through concerts, potentially hosting a Super Bowl, or the Final Four and other major sporting events. The Bears need a dome—not for the comfort of the fans, but for the greater good of the franchise. That’s why I’ll cast my vote for a retractable roof.
Ed Dillon: “Weather games are fun to watch on TV. They are not so comfortable in person. My father was at Wrigley Field for Gale Sayers’ six TD game and I was at the 1988 playoff game vs Washington (minus-4 temp/minus-12 windchill). I unequivocally vote for 1, stadium with retractable roof; 2, stadium with dome. Give me climate control in all seasons.”
Ed Schell: “Retractable roof. ‘Bear weather’ is a myth.”
Douglas Yeo, Chicago: “Long-time Bears season-ticket holder, section 309. Open-air stadium, hands down. Our family loves football ‘in the elements.’ It’s part of the game. It adds excitement and unpredictability. It creates priceless memories.”
Steven Ratti, Fargo, N.D.: “Open-air [football] is football! That IS Chicago! If they get a dome, Walter Payton will be looking down, shaking his head.”
Edmund Burke, Chicago: “The Bears are supposed to be Grabowskis, not Smiths. I’d rather forego getting a Super Bowl in Chicago than play in a corporate-named, generic dome. Open-air, baby. This isn’t Indianapolis.”
Ryan Tom, Indianapolis: “We go up once a year and buy tickets for a December to sit out in the elements. If they build a dome, our trips are done.”
Erik Leach, La Grange Park, Ill.: “Getting to and from Soldier Field and watching primarily a garbage team in garbage weather is not appealing to me. I don’t need to read one more story on turf management and crappy field conditions or watch a game with players slipping all over the place while fans are freezing or being soaked or both in some of the worst seats in football.”
Scott Freeman: ”Only people who don’t sit outside in Chicago think it should be a dome. My dad was a season-ticket holder for over 20 years. I was at the Fog Bowl. It’s tolerable when the Bears are good. When they aren’t it’s miserable. It’s not fun to watch your team lose and be uncomfortable. Build a dome!”
Lots of mail concerning the top of the column last week, when I wrote about a key play in the Miami victory over Baltimore that Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel called the “F it” play:
Thanks for censoring the “F it” play. From Josh Hook, of Detroit: “I really appreciate you censoring the Dolphins play. This isn’t because, my 45-year-old ears can’t handle it. I think about the young kids relying on your coverage. Parents are trying to make sure their kids aren’t growing up too fast.”
Once the coach of the team that had a huge win, with the tide turning arguably on a play with an explicit name, told me about it, there was no way I wasn’t going to use it. I had to figure out the best way to get the point across while not slapping people in the face with it. Thanks for the note.
You shouldn’t have used “F it” in the column. From Paul Casey: “It seems ironic to me that exactly one week after rightly castigating the ‘F-you’ guy at the Yankees game, you use the same word in the title of your column. If such language is unacceptable at any sporting event in America, why do we glamorize its use by a coach?”
Paul, I absolutely see your point—and many others made the same one to me in the last few days. But there’s a difference here. In one case, a fan screamed an epithet at an opposing player, and said it at such a volume that hundreds if not thousands—including the two children sitting with him—heard it. In the other case, an NFL coach used a salty phrase to name a play, and that play became a turning point in the big game of the week. It’s not the job of the writer to glamorize the use of a name of a play. It’s our job to report on it once we uncover it. Thanks for the note.
1. I think you’ve got to pull Justin Herbert, Brandon Staley, when you’re down 28 in the fourth quarter and your franchise quarterback is playing with a serious rib injury. It’s not even a question. I don’t care what Herbert wants. Sometimes the coach needs to be the adult in the room, and this was one of those times.
2. I think one of the things we won’t pay nearly enough attention to – but should in the wake of Sunday’s games – is Aaron Donald’s 100th career regular-season sack in Arizona in his ninth season. And how he got it. He chased down Kyler Murray from behind. That man is one of the biggest jewels in recent football history.
3. I think, in the wake of Adam Schefter reporting Mac Jones suffered a high ankle sprain on the last play of the loss to Baltimore Sunday, I wonder how CBS (and Patriot Nation) feels about Brian Hoyer or Bailey Zappe versus Aaron Rodgers in the late doubleheader window next Sunday.
4. I think it’s pretty weird to have three unbeaten teams left on Sept. 26 (Miami and Philly, 3-0, and the 2-0 Giants), and weirder still that there could be two on Sept. 27 in the fairly logical event that Dallas beats the Giants tonight in New Jersey.
5. I think that was a thoughtful piece The Washington Post did on why Black coaches have struggled to get the same opportunities as other coaches. Read for yourself. It’s educational. Two points that stood out to me:
a. There are bright and shiny metrics that say the opportunity is not the same. “Since 1990,” the paper reported, “a Black head coach who wins at least nine games and a White coach who wins at least six have roughly the same chance of being fired.”
b. Offensive “minds” given a chance to be head coaches are overwhelmingly White. This passage is stark, and startling: “Of the six minority head coaches in the NFL this season, five — [Todd] Bowles, [Ron] Rivera, [Robert] Saleh, [Lovie] Smith and [Mike] Tomlin — come from defensive backgrounds. Only [Mike] McDaniel comes from the offensive side. In essence, the NFL has decided it’s okay for Black men to be quarterbacks — just not to coach them. And in the process, coaches said, the league has failed to learn from the lessons of the White QB era. ‘A lot of the Black quarterbacks [of earlier eras], their skill set was outside the box of what the NFL did,’ [Tony] Dungy said. ‘They just needed people to think a little bit differently. And that’s what it took for the quarterbacks. Now all of a sudden … we’ve got this young group of quarterbacks that is [setting] the league on fire. And I think the same thing is true with coaching. We’ve got some coaches who have that same brilliance [but aren’t] getting an opportunity. We think we’re hiring the best. We think that we aren’t missing anything, but we are.’”
6. I think the story is good and smart because it takes away the passion and strong opinions on this issue and boils it down to hard facts. I believe it will be a good contribution to the coaching carousel this winter. I’m not saying it’s wrong for owners to continually look for “the next Sean McVay,” because McVay has spawned success in other coaches like Matt LaFleur and Zac Taylor and perhaps Kevin O’Connell. But owners can’t think just because a guy rubbed shoulders with a boy wonder like McVay that he’s going to be a great NFL coach. The shame of the hiring process, or at least part of the shame is that if, say, Houston offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton builds a top-15 offense piloted by the 67th pick in the 2021 draft, Davis Mills, that should probably count as an outstanding coaching job, and should catapult him into the running for head-coaching jobs. Why? Because Hamilton took over the 30th-ranked team in scoring, post-Deshaun Watson, coming off an 8-25 stretch over the past two years. He’s coming from further back in the back than wherever the latest McVay-touched assistants would be coming from.
7. I think those who think the story of Robert Sarver now agreeing to sell the Suns and Mercury in Phoenix after his lewd and racist statements came to light will prompt Daniel Snyder to sell the Washington Commanders are being a bit presumptuous. First, we don’t know what the current league investigation into Snyder will yield. It could be ugly, but it could be just unseemly. In the NBA, you have the union and superstars like LeBron James saying Sarver should be stripped of the team. Who, exactly, is crying out for a similar action in the NFL? Tom Brady? The players union? Players on his own team? There have been scattered sell-the-team cries in the media and the public, but until there’s more damaging revelations against Snyder, I only see him selling if he wants to sell. That’s truly unfortunate for Washington fans, because Daniel Snyder is an anchor on the future of the franchise.
8. I think you won’t see players walking out on a team, or getting very vocal against the owner, over sexual harassment and workplace issues. Racial issues, yes. But that doesn’t seem to be part of the issue in Washington.
9. I think if Snyder really loved the team, he would sell. By not selling, Snyder is showing he loves owning the team more than he loves the team.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Football Story of the Week: Andrew Beaton of The Wall Street Journal on how a noted hedge-fund manager, Paul Tudor Jones, is using analytics and algorithms to build a roster-crafting tool to get an edge in building the perfect football roster.
b. As Jones told Beaton: “So many of the same principles that have been so successful in financial trading, it was really evident to me that they would be perfectly applicable in player selection for an NFL team.”
c. Very interesting: Jones and his son Jack, who founded the business, have hired ex-Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff as CEO. Dimitroff talked in the story about how the Falcons used to hash over scenarios pre-draft and pre-free agency, but now this company called SumerSports can churn out and grade thousands – even millions, according to Dimitroff – of potential rosters, with strengths and weaknesses for all.
d. Ime Udoka. What a story. Really sad in a sports sense because of how a young star coach preaching strong defense helped transform the Celtics, and got the team within two games of a very unlikely NBA title. But it’s worse for the people involved in the story, whatever the story really is and how deep the story goes. I found myself thinking there’s about 65 percent of it that we don’t know. “Feels like nothing has gone right for this team since Bill Russell died on the last day of July,” Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy wrote.
e. Is a year suspension correct? Impossible to know without knowing all the facts. Impossible to know, too, whether he’ll ever coach the team again.
f. Story of the Week: Peter Sagal for The Atlantic, personalizing one of the senseless gun deaths in America that we’ve, unfortunately, become numb to: “Killed for Walking a Dog: The mundanity and insanity of gun death in America.”
g. You may have heard of Peter Sagal. He’s the host of NPR’s news quiz show, “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” This shows the reportorial side of Sagal, and we should be so grateful he flexed his journalistic muscles here.
h. Wrote Sagal:
There is no particular reason people should care about the shooting of Isabella Thallas, which is why, as far as I can tell, not many people did. She was the only casualty, and there was no mystery as to who shot her, and in a country in which guns kill more than 40,000 people every year—well, who has the time to stop and mourn for just one of them?
But there was something about this killing, on the side of a Denver street on a sunny June morning in 2020, that captured my attention. I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened to Bella Thallas. Maybe it was her age—about that of my own daughters—or maybe it was the specific circumstances of her murder, which were both mundane and completely insane.
For two years I tracked down what news I could find in the Denver press and looked in vain for the national coverage that I assumed would follow but never did. Eventually, I wrote to Bella’s family—her mother, father, sister, boyfriend—and talked to them about who Bella was and what happened on the day she died. There isn’t and never will be any satisfactory explanation for what happened to her, but I came as close as I could to understanding what was lost when it did.
i. Just as that lede sets up a tough, tough story to read, Sagal also presents the money lesson of this senseless killing with a deranged person using an AK-47 with an illegal large-capacity magazine: “Whenever we go outside, to work or school, to walk our dogs, to attend our parades, we know without saying and accept without protest that gunshots might ring out and take our lives or the lives of those we love. But we don’t think about it – we don’t scan the rooftops, because there’s no point. The gun could come from anywhere at any time, and so we do what humans do: We pretend that nothing is wrong and go about our day.”
j. It’s so, so wrong, and so, so true.
k. The incredible cheating scandal that we don’t know enough about: Bill Chappell of National Public Radio on longtime world chess champion Magnus Carlsen first losing to 19-year-old challenger Hans Niemann, then, two weeks later, quitting in a match against Niemann amid a multitude of cheating allegations.
l. Chappell reports that the loss to Niemann two weeks before the latest dropout made the rematch even more dramatic:
The drama [after the first match] threw chess into a tizzy, and fueled anticipation for Monday’s match between Carlsen and Niemann in the online tournament. But after Niemann made his first move as white, Carlsen responded with a single move as black and then quit.
“What?!” numerous commentators said in unison on video streams, as they struggled to grasp what had just happened. Carlsen offered no explanation, as he promptly turned off his video camera. But his resignation was quickly seen as a protest and a refusal to play Niemann, of the U.S.
Many involved in chess are now calling for Carlsen, the Norwegian who has ruled global chess for the past decade, to give a full account of his actions. Some also say the International Chess Federation should review the case, both to uncover any cheating and to address the damage done when one of the greatest players of all time refuses to play in a tournament he has entered.
“The implications of this are horrifying,” grandmaster Maurice Ashley told NPR. “It’s terrible.”
Ashley watched Monday’s match as a fan. To put the experience in perspective for fans of other sports, he suggests thinking of LeBron James and the L.A. Lakers trotting out to half-court for the opening tipoff of a big game — only to let the ball roll out of bounds and then exit the arena.
“This is literally the best player in the world playing in a tournament and simply quitting” without explanation, Ashley said.
m. Why does everyone think it’s insane to give a historic baseball to a man who has broken a hallowed record, eschewing a financial windfall in favor of maybe getting a meet-and-greet and some autographed stuff out of it? A person should do what he or she wants with such a baseball, or with any item from a sports event. I don’t understand why people would be critical of a person who chooses to give a valuable baseball to Aaron Judge—assuming, at some point, that Judge will tie and then break the American League record for home runs in the coming days. If you love the Yankees, it sounds pretty reasonable to do Aaron Judge a solid and just give him the ball.
n. Very cool move by Michael Kay, the TV voice of the Yankees. Kay said he turned down the chance to call a possible history-making game on Apple+ Friday night out of respect to play-by-play announcer Stephen Nelson.
o. The point, of course, is that Kay knew the game could have been the one Aaron Judge tied the American League single-season home run record of 61, or the game he broke the record. But Kay told Front Office Sports, “I wouldn’t feel right doing it.” A very mensch thing for Kay to do.
p. Fifty years ago this Friday, Roberto Clemente laced his 3,000th, and final, regular-season hit. My wife, a 14-year-old Clemente fan growing up in Pittsburgh, took the streetcar to the game with two school friends and was one of 13,177 (that’s all?) in Three Rivers Stadium that Saturday afternoon. She cut newspapers into confetti to take to the game and launched said confetti when Clemente ran out to play right field the next inning. The double off Jon Matlack was also Clemente’s last hit ever in Pittsburgh. He went 0-for-7 in the NLCS at home against Cincinnati in a series the Pirates lost. Three months later, Clemente, 38, died on a mission of mercy, flying supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
q. Kudos, Albert Pujols, on home runs 699 and 700 Friday night in consecutive at-bats against the best team in baseball, the Dodgers. Re: Pujols as he heads into the last 10 days of his regular-season baseball life:
The Babe: Pujols, with 2,208 RBI, needs seven to pass Babe Ruth for second place on the all-time RBI list.
Strikeouts: Giancarlo Stanton has struck out 95 times or more 11 times in 13 big-league seasons. Pujols has never struck out 95 times in any of his 22 seasons.
Steals: Seen as a lumbering hits machine at the dawn of his career, Pujols worked at his stolen-base game. In the six seasons from his age-25 to -30 seasons, he averaged over 10 steals a year.
Fear factor. Pujols was walked intentionally 116 times in his three best seasons in succession (2008-’10).
Home runs. Since Aug. 14, Aaron Judge has 14 home runs, Pujols 13.
r. Happy trails, Zdeno Chara. One of the most distinctive athletes in all of sports retired the other day and he deserves every plaudit. A 6-foot-9 defenseman. Six-nine! Played 1,680 games! Lasted till age 45! All of it—pretty amazing.
s. What a cool thing, too, the Federer-Nadal final doubles match was. Great way (except for the loss) for Roger Federer to go out. Tennis really did that right.
t. You may have missed Chuck the dog making his live-and-in-person national TV debut the other day. So I bring you this Tweet:
— Jeremy Barbuto (@JeremyBarbuto) September 22, 2022
u. That’s me (foreground), and my 7-year-old dog Chuck (behind my left shoulder), from The Colin Cowherd Show on Thursday. Chuck’s a curious lad. He seems shy from that grainy head you see, but I can tell you he is not in real life.
v. I have a personal appeal to make this morning.
w. I’m on the Board of a New Jersey nonprofit, Write on Sports, which I’ve written about from time to time. Write on Sports has programs designed to boost the writing and reading skills of adolescent students, many in underserved communities, by writing and reading about sports. We have our 17th-annual gala Wednesday in Weehawken, N.J., and I have a few quick announcements to make.
x. I have a link to the auction that goes with the event, and it includes some things you might like to bid on, including a lunch for four guests with me and CBS/YES broadcaster Ian Eagle, who is a friend of Write on Sports. Lots of cool stuff we’ve got up for bids that you can see here.
y. The event kicks off at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the EnVue Hotel, 550 Avenue at Port Imperial, Weehawken.
z. Thanks for whatever support you can give the event and our cause. It’s so rewarding to see young people improve (and some jump up full grade levels) their writing ability when they write about things they love.
Dallas 19, N.Y. Giants 16. Yes, I’m picking Cooper Rush, undrafted in 2017, to beat Daniel Jones, drafted sixth overall in 2019, at the home of Daniel Jones. But as you can tell by the final score, I’m not feeling so convinced about the former Giants’ practice-squadder. I’m gambling the Cowboys’ patchwork line can keep a resurgent Giants’ D from wrecking the unbeaten (2-0) Rush’s night. By the way, Mike McCarthy: Give the ball to Tony Pollard.
Miami at Cincinnati, Thursday, 8:15 p.m., Amazon Prime Video. Last time Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa met: Nov. 9, 2019, in Tuscaloosa, when the Joe Burrow Experience was on display in a very, very big way for the Tigers of LSU. LSU 46, Alabama 41. I don’t think you knew that when you watched an absolutely classic college football game (so classic that even I watched every snap), that you were watching eight skill players who’d be drafted in the top 22 of the next two drafts. Let’s count ‘em. From the ’20 draft: Burrow (first pick), Tagovailoa (sixth pick), Henry Ruggs (12th pick), Jerry Jeudy (15th pick), Justin Jefferson (22nd pick). From ’21: Ja’Marr Chase (fifth pick), Jaylen Waddle (sixth pick), DeVonta Smith (10th pick). No wonder 87 points were scored that day in Bryant-Denny Stadium.
New Orleans vs. Minnesota, Sunday, 9:30 a.m. ET (Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, London), NFL Network. First of five international games in eight weeks (London, London, London, Munich, Mexico City). Gotta love that sweet 9:30 a.m. ET start time. Get ready for some French Quarter football on the TVs in all the bars at 8:30 a.m.
Jacksonville at Philadelphia, Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS. A week after the Carson Wentz Bowl, it’s the Doug Pederson Bowl. The Eagles 2022 season is the precise reason why we should call it the National Transient League. Eagles versus Franchise QB of the Future, Wentz, in September and November. Eagles versus only coach in history to lead them to a Super Bowl crown in October. Eagles versus QB who has a statue outside the Linc, who passed them to that Super Bowl title, Nick Foles, in November. All of those in an eight-week span.
Kansas City at Tampa Bay, Sunday, 8:20 p.m., NBC. Patrick Mahomes just turned 27, has never been in the same division as Tom Brady, and this is already the fifth head-to-head he’s played against Brady. I bet Mahomes remembers the 37-31 AFC Championship Game heartbreak and the 31-9 Super Bowl heartbreak a lot more than the 2019 regular-season win in Foxboro.
Much crazy so far.
Giants could be 3-0