SANTA CLARA, Calif.—Midway through the second quarter, while one of the most intense games of his six-year reign as 49ers coach was playing out on the Levi’s Stadium turf in front of him, coach Kyle Shanahan felt someone at his side, wanting to talk. It was head athletic trainer Dustin Little, waiting for a break in the action to brief Shanahan about starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
Garoppolo has a break in his foot, Little said.
“How long’s he out for?” Shanahan said.
“It’s probably six months, at least,” Little told Shanahan. “It’ll be the whole season.”
Shanahan had a vital game to win, and a one-game lead in the NFC West to protect. He couldn’t tell the team, or his staff, that for the second time this year, their starting quarterback was now gone for the year. Particularly in this game, with the fastest and most explosive team in football on the other side of the field.
So he said nothing.
Afterward, he and three Niners players told me, basically, This is the life we’ve chosen. That’s one of the ways that, after Shanahan heard the news, his team was able to function like all was well. From the moment he heard the news, the Niners, and Brock Purdy, outscored Miami 23-7.
“Football is weird,” George Kittle told me afterward. “It’s a brutal, unforgiving sport. Saw Jimmy at halftime and he told me. That’s awful for your quarterback and your three-time captain. But you know, it’s kind of, ‘Well, that sucks, but we got a game to play.’ It’s like, We love you, and we’ll always love you, but we gotta go. See you after the game.”
“It’s kinda the beautifulness and craziness of the sport, what happened today.”
What happened: This was a tragi-fantastic football game. Doesn’t sound like that, with a final of San Francisco 33, Miami 17, and a season-ending foot injury to Garoppolo, the unluckiest man in football. But the Niners led by six for 12 tense minutes in the fourth quarter, and then the floodgates opened, and it was a strange end to what for 57 minutes was a heart-pounder. It started like it’d be a Miami rout, with a 75-yard Tua Tagovailoa TD pass on the first offensive play of the game. But Tua handed the Niners 13 points, and they won by 16.
This, actually, was the best game of the season that vast swaths of the country did not see. Because this was a CBS doubleheader week and the national TV audience got a terrific Kansas City-Cincinnati game in the late window, this Fox telecast—Miami with the most explosive offense in football at San Francisco with the best defense in football—missed most of the country. It wasn’t seen on the Eastern Seaboard (Boston/New York/Philadelphia/Washington) or in New England, Tampa/St.Pete, Orlando, Los Angeles, the Pacific Northwest and most of the Midwest and Southwest.
So you saw the score, and you heard Garoppolo is gone (on the September heels of Trey Lance being lost for the year), and you wondered two things: Who is Brock Purdy? And is San Francisco’s season over?
He’s a kid. And the season positively is not over. I’ll tell you one play that blew me away, and blew Shanahan away too, that explains exactly why the season’s not kaput for the Niners.
I met with Purdy for a few minutes after the game. Looks like he’s 17. He’s 22, 6-1 (generously), needs a haircut, and seems oblivious to what he’s headed into. He talks like, Bring all that skepticism on. “A lot of people have said a lot of things about me like, I’m not good enough, this or that,” he said in a room off the locker room at Levi’s Stadium. “I just trust in God, and I’ll continue to do what I do—put my head down and go to work.”
Work this week means prepping for his first NFL start next Sunday. Against Tom Brady.
“Pretty cool,” he told me. “The GOAT. He’s been playing football longer than I’ve been alive.”
Quite a day.
The Bengals are at the top of the newsy food chain, beating Kansas City for the third time in 11 months. Weirdity: Patrick Mahomes is 0-3 against the Bengals since New Year’s Day and 12-3 against everyone else.
Nightmare in Nashville Dept. I hate the “if the season ended today” crappola, because, well, the season has five weeks left. But interesting that per the Week 13 standings, Tennessee would host Cincinnati in a Wild Card game. “Déjà vu all over again,” Ryan Tannehill says.
Deshaun Watson’s return was ignominious—Browns won 27-14 at Houston, but Watson didn’t account for any of the three TDs. Watson did not look like he was throwing at players in Cleveland uniforms. He looked like he was throwing at worms in the ground three feet in front of Browns receivers.
The A.J. Brown revenge game went very well for Brown, but not so well for the object of his vengeance.
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) December 4, 2022
The MVP race is a Mahomes-Hurts tossup with five weeks to go.
Joe Burrow, slayer of great players and teams, is going to have something to say about the MVP.
Lamar Jackson has a bum knee from the scary-narrow 10-9 win over Denver, but he should return by season’s end. Problem is, two pesky road games, in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, are on the horizon.
Break out the champagne, Packers. For something, anyway. (Hint: Papa Bear is rolling over in his grave.)
Denver has scored 45 points since Halloween. Dallas scored 54 Sunday night.
Russell Wilson is in the middle of a nightmare that will not go away. Two years ago, after 13 Seattle games, he had nine wins and 36 TD passes. Now, after 13 weeks in Denver, he has three wins and eight TD passes. Every week is a new low.
Quite a non-flex, NFL: Dallas 54, Indianapolis 19.
The Giants tied a game for the first time in 25 years. A few New Yorkers actually stayed awake for it, reportedly.
Greg Knapp’s widow has one heck of a cause, and she’s not afraid to be very blunt.
The Bills, today, are to New England what the Pats were to Buffalo for two decades.
Brock Purdy, though, first. And the play that makes Shanahan sure all is not lost.
This is my 39th season covering the NFL, and one thing that I’ve never liked is making one play a metaphor for an entire game. One play rarely is. Games have 155 plays or so in them, and in this case, it was the San Francisco defense that stood out. But I’m picking a play by this neophyte quarterback to be a vital one. Maybe not the biggest of the day, but certainly the biggest for Purdy.
Let’s recap. Miami 10, San Francisco 10. Niners ball, third-and-10 at their 35-yard line, 79 seconds left in the half, the home team already knowing that they’ve lost their second starting quarterback of the year. Garoppolo got crushed by two Miami defenders four minutes into this game. For the last 56 minutes, Purdy had to earn an incredibly valuable save.
The key point was late in the first half, on that third-and-10. At the start of the play, eight Dolphins crowded the line, a clear sign that again they would pressure Purdy heavily at the snap. On the sidelines, Shanahan prayed that Purdy would recognize the blitz and call for an adjustment to tight end George Kittle’s route. He was the primary receiver on the play, but now the correct read was for an adjustment so that Kittle would cut off his post route a bit shorter. Enough to make the first down, but not enough for a huge gain. “We had to do something quicker because we knew we weren’t going to have the time,” Shanahan said.
It was about 80 minutes after the game now, and the locker room was empty. I talked to Shanahan as he sat at a locker and tried to explain why Purdy’s decision here was so significant.
“I thought this was Purdy’s play of the game,” I said.
“I did too,” Shanahan said. “Especially with what they were doing to us. They were coming after Brock and doing a good job of taking our quick throws away. This was a huge job of Brock signaling something to change the route [for Kittle].”
There is something that Shanahan and Purdy did not know. The average NFL pass this season has been thrown 2.74 seconds after the quarterback gets the ball in his hands. Purdy threw this pass in 1.72 seconds. In the NFL this season, only five times in 13 weeks had a quarterback completed a pass of at least 10 yards in 1.72 seconds or less, per NFL Next Gen stats. This was the sixth. As Purdy prepared to get hit by Jaelan Phillips, he threw a dart to Kittle, who caught and ran for a 19-yard gain. This means something because it shows Purdy recognized the defense, changed the ball, was willing to take a big hit, and he was skilled enough to complete a downfield pass with everything going on.
“Just showing the guys I’m willing to take one on the chin, willing to do what it takes to win,” Purdy said.
Five plays later, at the Miami three-yard line, Purdy threw for Christian McCaffrey in the end zone. Not a perfect throw, but a catchable one. McCaffrey dropped it. Next play, Purdy tried McCaffrey again. Touchdown.
CMC gives the @49ers the lead before the half!
— NFL (@NFL) December 4, 2022
“After the touchdown,” Purdy said, “Christian came to me and said, ‘Thanks for believing in me and trusting me to make the play.’ That’s pretty wild. I mean, saying that to me. I grew up watching him. Now, I’m on his team, throwing him a touchdown pass. Wild.”
Niners 17, Dolphins 10. It was never closer than six the rest of the way. Purdy finished 25-for-37 with 210 yards, 2 touchdown passes and an interception.
Tua Tagovailoa will beat himself up for his consecutive interceptions and his in-and-out accuracy. Understandable. He missed four or five big throws to open receivers. But he did hit TD bombs to Trent Sherfield and Tyreek Hill. This team would be nowhere without him. So he gets a pass, and should, on a wobbly day against a great defense. Miami flew to Los Angeles after the game to practice for next Sunday night’s game at the Chargers—they’ll practice at UCLA—before the finale of a three-game road trip, a huge Week 15 game at Buffalo. Mid-December at Buffalo for the Dolphins. Fun!
As for the Niners, it’s Brockball now.
“I know the question is, can I step in and continue this ride of what our team has done?” he said after the game. “It’s not just a one-man show or anything like that. What Jimmy did for this team was amazing in terms of getting it rolling and getting us on a streak to win. The challenge for me is like, man, can I step up in that position and continue to feed those guys? Get them the ball. Make the right checks in the run game. Allow the defense to play great and play with them. That’s the challenge for me and that’s how I look at it and I’m excited for it.”
“What impressed me about Brock in camp,” Shanahan said, “is he was always willing to let it rip. He’s decisive. He started for years [at Iowa State] at a high level. You gotta have some balls to play quarterback in this league, and he does. We think we’ll have a chance with him.”
I think San Francisco’s Super Bowl chances got severely diminished Sunday. Hard to imagine Purdy walking into Lincoln Financial Field on Jan. 18 or 25 and winning a division or championship game against the steamrolling Eagles.
But Purdy won’t be afraid. And a guy who won’t give the ball away, playing with the defense, should make it interesting down the stretch. This season’s over for the cursed Garoppolo, but certainly not for the 49ers.
The third week of my MVP rankings are here. The 50 NFL awards voters will vote for a top five for the MVP instead of just one winner starting this year. Here are my top five in the NFL race after 13 weeks, along with five more contenders:
6. Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota.
7. Micah Parsons, edge, Dallas.
8. Nick Bosa, edge, San Francisco.
9. Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee.
10. Geno Smith, QB, Seattle.
Jalen Hurts is oh-so-close to number one. Joe Burrow invades the top five after torching rival Pittsburgh, then Tennessee, then Kansas City. Josh Allen and Tua Tagovailoa switch spots, with Allen moving up after leading three Bills wins in 12 days culminating with the domination of the Patriots. Off-day for Tagovailoa, but he’s allowed. Justin Jefferson goes to sixth to make room for Burrow. Debuting in the top 10: Nick Bosa, with his tour de force performance against Miami.
Agree, disagree or throw tomatoes at me at email@example.com.
I’m fascinated by the pennant race in the AFC North. Baltimore and Cincinnati are tied for the top spot at 8-4. The Ravens have the tiebreaker with a win over the Bengals in Week Five; they have a rematch at Cincinnati Week 18. Their comparative schedules give the Ravens a slight edge, mostly because Cincinnati has a dangerous Monday night game against Buffalo at home in Week 17.
Baltimore: at Pittsburgh, at Cleveland, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, at Cincinnati.
Cincinnati: Cleveland, at Tampa Bay, at New England, Buffalo, Baltimore.
But the quarterback gives the Bengals a big edge:
Baltimore: Lamar Jackson suffered a knee injury that will sideline him for an undetermined amount of time. Tyler Huntley, a nice backup, will hold the fort.
Cincinnati: Joe Burrow’s last seven weeks: 6-1, NFL-best 118.1 rating, 74.7 percent accuracy.
In the last two weeks, Burrow has beaten Tennessee and Kansas City in one-score games, playing his best when the best was required. The throw that blew me away watching the highlights of this game was a throw that was next-to-impossible to execute, at a time when the stakes of the game were high.
The situation: Cincinnati led 27-24 with 1:59 left in the game and had third-and-11 at the KC 28-. Kansas City had no timeouts left. If the Bengals converted here, they could run out the clock with two or three kneeldowns. If they were stopped here, Evan McPherson would be called on to try a field goal to stretch the lead to six points. So this third-down snap was everything.
Per NFL Next Gen Stats, here are the odds Burrow faced:
Next Gen had that Chris Jones, Mike Danna and Frank Clark all crossed the line of scrimmage faster than what’s considered the league’s above-average get-off time of .75 seconds. Danna, who came across in six-tenths of a second, was bearing down on Burrow as he readied to throw in a hurry.
The receiver, Tee Higgins, running a post route, never had more than two yards of separation from Kansas City cornerback Joshua Williams. Watching the replay, Williams looked like he was velcroed to Higgins.
Burrow threw the ball a split-second before getting hit by Danna. At the time of the throw, Williams was 18 inches from Higgins. In his shirt, in other words. When the ball gets to Higgins, he is contacted immediately (and maybe a tick before the ball gets there) by Williams. Burrow got hit. Higgins caught the ball. Gain of 14. Game over.
On 3rd & 11 with 1:59 left in regulation, Joe Burrow found Tee Higgins in a tight window for 14 yards and a first down, sealing a @Bengals win.
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 5, 2022
“You know the quarterback they have over there,” Burrow said. “We can’t settle for a field goal there or else [Patrick Mahomes] goes down the field and wins the game. We had to find a way to get that conversion, and Tee Higgins made a big play, just like he did in the AFC Championship.”
A few things come to mind about this Cincinnati team:
The offensive line is better. Shredded last year in the playoffs and early this year while the group was getting experience together, the five men up front are giving Burrow championship protection. In the last four games, Burrow has been sacked five times—including one each by Tennessee and KC in the last two games. Those two teams bedeviled Burrow in the playoffs last year. The leadership of free-agent center Ted Karras has been important.
They’re superb when games are tight. I attribute much of this to Burrow, who has a cool gene, the way great ones in the clutch have had. Each of their three playoff wins last January was a one-score game; Cincinnati’s last three wins have come by 7, 4 and 3 over the Steelers, Titans and Chiefs. His throw to Higgins and his clinical explanation for it illustrate why he and Mahomes might be the two quarterbacks with the best clutch play late in games right now.
The defense is not just along for the ride. In the last four weeks, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s unit has allowed an average of 318 yards with opposing passers completing just 60.1 percent. Mahomes was good Sunday (223 yards, one TD) but not dominant. Anarumo’s going to be a popular head-coach interview come the post-season for teams trying to figure how to beat Kansas City; he’s 3-0 against KC since January.
Even if the Bengals have to play road games through the playoffs, I doubt it’d bother them after winning in Nashville and Kansas City last year. That Week 18 game against the Ravens could determine everything, which is why I think it has the best chance of being game 272—the Sunday night game of the last weekend. It could have the most at stake of any final game. My money’s on Burrow if that happens.
I mean, what did you expect? Playing quarterback is not like riding a bike; you don’t just climb back on and it’s like you never left. First, you don’t replicate the speed of the game in practice because in practice a quarterback never gets hit and players aren’t playing the game-speed. Second, to go two years without getting hit by a defensive player is a big part of it. Watson will need three or four weeks – at least – to hope to be the player he was in 2019 and 2020 for Houston.
Watson played his first football game in 700 days (100 weeks) Sunday in Houston, and it would be kind to say he was rusty. He was bad. He threw multiple balls into the ground in front of receivers. He threw an interception to Texans safety Jalen Pitre that looked like Pitre was the intended receiver. He was 12 of 22 for 131, with no TDs and one pick for a poor 53.4 rating. The Browns won 27-14, but none of the three TDs was an offensive score.
Watson continued Sunday to not talk about what led to his 11-game suspension—the two dozen women who accused him of sexual harassment and assault stemming from a series of encounters with massage therapists while he was a quarterback for the Texans. On Sunday, Jenny Vrentas of The New York Times reported a text message from one of the two women who still have a pending lawsuit against Watson. “Whatever nanoscopic punishment he may have fulfilled to the satisfaction of the NFL brings neither healing nor justice to us, not protection for future women in his presence,” Vrentas quoted Lauren Baxley as saying.
“Next week I have to get better and I will be better,” Watson said after Sunday’s game. He’ll need to be. Cleveland plays at red-hot Cincinnati, and a 53.4 rating won’t be good enough.
Another flex decision. The NFL took it to the wire last week, announcing at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday that Kansas City-at-Denver was out of Sunday Night Football next week and the Dolphins and Chargers were in. Lots of drama went into that. The NFL didn’t want to leave FOX naked in the early window by moving Philly and the Giants from 1 p.m. ET to Sunday night. CBS protected the Jets-Buffalo game at 1 p.m., while the NFL, mindful of the Niners playing the following Thursday night, didn’t want to move Bucs-49ers to Sunday night. So that left NBC with Dolphins-Chargers, preferable to KC-Denver but not quite the ratings draw that Eagles-Giants would have been. Still, Tua-Herbert’s pretty good.
This week, it’s hard to imagine (but not impossible) that the league would keep in its prime Sunday night window 6-6 New England, playing poorly, at 5-7 and improving Las Vegas. Choosing a game to replace Pats-Raiders is complicated by the fact that the league has an NFL Network tripleheader on Saturday, Dec. 17, and one of those games is the best game of the weekend: Miami at Buffalo. The NFL may do its in-house network a solid and allow Dolphins-Bills to highlight the day and get plugged into the 8:15 Saturday night slot. NFL Network is praying for that.
But the NFL is more concerned with putting the best game it can on Sunday night. CBS has likely protected Bengals-Bucs in the Sunday doubleheader window, leaving Miami-Buffalo clearly the only choice—if the NFL is willing to diminish its Saturday lineup for Sunday night. I hear the league may be. One other factor: The Dolphins would not want to play Saturday. They got moved from Sunday afternoon in L.A. to Sunday night, meaning they probably wouldn’t arrive back home to Fort Lauderdale until around 7:45 a.m. Monday. To turn around and play arguably their most important game of the year on Saturday night, on the road, would not be desirable.
I guessed right last week—that Dolphins-Chargers would be flexed to Sunday night in Week 14. This one’s tougher, but my guess is Dolphins-Bills will go to Sunday night in Week 15. Re: the Saturday games? I’ll throw these three darts (times Eastern), with the games I think deserve a Saturday airing: Baltimore at Cleveland, 1 p.m.; Indianapolis at Minnesota, 4:30 p.m.; Giants at Washington, 8:15 p.m.
EAST HANOVER, N.J.—The Justin Jefferson catch three weeks ago against Buffalo, the one we’ve all seen 27 times, the one that gets better with age, got an assist from his shoulder pads. They are light, they give, they allow players to reach high in the air without the pads riding up on their necks and chin the way traditional shoulder pads do. “It really helped me extend my arms a couple extra inches,” Jefferson said.
The pads are the work of XTECH Protective Equipment, designed and manufactured in a crowded 5,000-square-foot facility in an industrial park a few miles from where the Jets train. XTECH estimates that in its 10-year history, about 80 percent of NFL players have transitioned to wearing their pads. They weigh 3.75 to 4.5 pounds, versus the 5.5 to 7 pounds of other pads, and are built so that players can have a full range of motion without the pads restricting arm use. A former NFL equipment man, Ted Monica, designed the pads knowing players always want lighter protection and better freedom of movement.
Monica and co-founder Bob Broderick thought there was so much emphasis in recent years on the helmet (rightfully so), but there was room to fix other protective equipment. Monica fixated on the shoulder pad. This little 12-employee company sells custom pads to pro, college and high school players (including Arch Manning for his high school season in New Orleans) in the U.S., and to amateur players as far away as China.
“Teddy’s a mad scientist,” said Rams director of equipment Brendan Burger, who has 52 of his players in the XTECH pads. “With the bigger pads, there’s more area for offensive linemen to grab, so he cut that down. It’s tough to get ahold of the XTECH pad. The fixes Teddy made, he basically revolutionized the shoulder pad.”
Or, as Raiders running back Josh Jacobs said, “It almost doesn’t feel like I got pads on. They’re light and comfortable, but when I get hit, I don’t feel too much either.”
Earlier this fall, on a visit to the XTECH facility, I was interested in how hands-on Monica was. The co-founder of the company sat at a sewing machine doing minute construction of one player’s pads. They were Rams safety Taylor Rapp’s shoulder pads. Rapp is a hybrid safety, who covers and plays a lot of run-support. He wanted pads lighter and slightly smaller than a traditional strong safety might wear. On this day, Monica spent an hour cutting and sewing the custom straps and padding for the webbing underneath the shell of the pad. “No two players are alike,” Monica said. “They all want their pads to feel comfortable, and they want to feel safe. That’s what a lot of the custom-fitting is about.”
Some players have a history with XTECH. Josh Allen wore the pads at Wyoming, and when he got to the NFL, he asked for a few fixes. One was a tight cushion, instead of the regular rubber strip, around the area of the pad that touched his neck. Another was shaving away some of the pad around his throwing shoulder so he’d have more freedom of movement when he passed. He also has a custom rib/lower sternum pad for extra protection.
Sometimes, emergencies happen. When Justin Herbert suffered fractured rib cartilage in week two against Kansas City, the Chargers called XTECH to try to craft protection so he could keep playing. After a series of FaceTimes, texts and phone calls between a team and a company 3,000 miles apart, XTECH created a pad that protected the exact area where Herbert felt the most pain. He’s been able to play for two months—and through 19 sacks—without missing time.
Football players are on a constant quest for lighter and sleeker equipment that still protects sufficiently. XTECH saw a need and filled it.
This month in the NFL features the “My Cause, My Cleats” program, with players and coaches wearing shoes with specialty designs to draw attention to causes that hold importance to them. On July 17, 2021, Jets passing game specialist Greg Knapp was on a bike ride near his home in Danville, Calif., when he was struck and killed by a distracted driver looking at his phone. Knapp’s widow, Charlotte, and his agent, Jeff Sperbeck, started a foundation to raise money to bring attention to the cause—3,142 Americans were killed by distracted driving in 2020—and six teams will have coaches or players wearing cleats this month drawing attention to distracted driving, and to publicize a national “stair climb.” Knapp ran stadium stairs before every game.
Charlotte Knapp on her cause to fight distracted driving:
“After Greg died, I would lay in bed thinking, ‘How can I honor Greg? How can I raise awareness for this cause?’ So we came up with the idea to do something he loved to do every Sunday before games. The Atlanta Falcons all climbed stadium steps, and other teams will now too. We hope we can raise enough money to produce PSAs that some of Greg’s quarterbacks from over the years will appear in, then air them around the country.
“I was invited to speak at a program for high schools here in California, ‘Every 15 Minutes,’ which emphasizes the importance of education on drunk driving. They’ve adopted distracted driving to their program. My daughter Camille, who is 18, came, and she said to the students: ‘Your cell phone should never be more important than your regard for others. Distracted driving sends exactly that message.’
“I stressed to the kids about the devastation that can happen in two seconds—the time it takes to just look down at a text. The devastation that took Greg’s life took two seconds. The driver looked down at the directions on the phone. When he looked up, Greg was on the hood of his car. It’s a tough conversation to have, but I wanted the students to know how broken Greg’s body was. He had a broken left tibia, a punctured lung, a broken sternum, 12 broken ribs. His biceps, deltoids and triceps were torn from the bone. Both shoulders were separated. There was brain damage, and damage to his brain stem. He went to the hospital, but he never woke up.
“That damage all happened in two seconds.
“Greg loved his job so much. He dreamed in X’s and O’s. But for him, it was all about the relationships. He made his quarterbacks talk about their families every week. He talked about his family. Losing him still feels awful. But there are little things that happen that give me hope. One parent came up to me recently—her son had been in the ‘Every 15 Minutes’ program. Her son now is the one in the family who says in the car, ‘Put your phones away.’ That feels like a little progress.”
More information on The Coach Knapp Memorial Fund here.
Offensive Players of the Week
Joe Burrow, quarterback, Cincinnati. What a show of cool-under-pressure excellence by Burrow. He was unshakeable, hitting 25 of 31 for 286 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. His most impressive moment came with less than two minutes left, as the Bengals had third-and-11 at the Kansas City 28 with a three-point lead, hoping to hang onto the ball and run out the clock rather than kick a field goal and give Mahomes an entire minute to drive for six points. Burrow was in the pocket for about two seconds when Chiefs DE Mike Danna broke through the line on the strong side. When Danna hesitated for a half-second (appearing to make sure Burrow still had the ball), Burrow took advantage to thread a perfect ball to a closely-covered Tee Higgins, hitting him in stride for a first down to ice the game. Burrow moves to 3-0 against Mahomes – all in this calendar year. Honorable mentions to Jonah Williams, Cordell Volson, Ted Karras, Alex Cappa, and La’el Collins on the offensive line who, less than a year after Burrow endured 20 sacks in the postseason, have held two of his tormenters (Tennessee and Kansas City) to one sack each in consecutive weeks.
— NFL (@NFL) December 5, 2022
A.J. Brown, wide receiver, Philadelphia. This was the game Brown had circled on his mental calendar—the Titans coming to Philadelphia seven months after the Titans traded Brown to Philadelphia—and the drama did not disappoint. Brown’s 40-yard TD pass from good friend Jalen Hurts in the second quarter put the Eagles ahead for good, 14-7, and Brown’s well-covered 29-yard TD catch in third quarter gave the Eagles all the insurance they’d need. For the game, Brown caught eight balls for 119 yards and those two scores as the Eagles routed the AFC South leaders.
Defensive Players of the Week
Bobby Wagner, linebacker, L.A. Rams. Ahead of this game Wagner, who spent the first 10 seasons of his career with Seattle, downplayed the significance of facing his former team for the first time, calling it “just another game,” in classic unruffled veteran speak. But Wagner’s performance Sunday was fit for a revenge game, including two sacks, two QB hits, three tackles for loss and a gritty, momentum-shifting interception in the third quarter when he muscled the ball out of the grip of Seattle’s Tony Jones. The Seahawks came away with the win, but Wagner was everywhere Sunday, reminding his former team of the impact player he can be.
THIS IS A BOBBY WAGNER FAN ACCOUNT.
— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) December 4, 2022
Nick Bosa, edge, San Francisco. The definition of a valuable player is one who’s at his best when moments are the biggest. Bosa sacked Tua Tagovailoa twice when the game was in the balance, and when times were desperate at the two-minute warning of the fourth quarter, Bosa strip-sacked Tagovailoa, and the fumble was returned for a rub-it-in late TD. When Bosa is in form, the Niners can win games with their D. They did Sunday.
Chandler Jones, defensive end, Las Vegas. It was a breakout night for Jones, one that will go at least part of the way to quieting critics of the mismatch between his $51 million contract signed this offseason and his impact on the field so far in 2022. Jones entered the day with just a half-sack on the season but brought down Justin Herbert three times, part of relentless pressure that also yielded him five QB hits and a pass defended in the Raiders’ 27-20 win over the Chargers.
Jalen Pitre, strong safety, Houston. The second-round rookie from Baylor, who has been a bright spot in a terrible season for the Texans, saved his best for the Deshaun Watson return to Houston Sunday. Pitre had an NFL-best 16 tackles in Week 13, and he added an interception that, at the time, was crucial—he picked off Watson three yards deep in the end zone on a bad decision by the quarterback. The Texans have a lot of holes to fill for 2023, but strong safety isn’t one of them.
Special teams players of the week
Donovan Peoples-Jones, receiver/returner, Cleveland. While Deshaun Watson struggled mightily in his first game back, Peoples-Jones saved the Browns from eternal first-half damnation. Down 5-0 with four minutes left in the second quarter, Peoples-Jones took a punt at the Cleveland 24-yard line, got hit by three Texans, weaved to the right sideline and won a footrace for a 76-yard TD. Boy, did the Browns need that.
DPJ 76-yard punt return TD! @dpeoplesjones
— NFL (@NFL) December 4, 2022
Greg Zuerlein, kicker, N.Y. Jets. Scored 12 straight points between late in the second quarter and midway through the fourth, almost enough to lift the Jets to an upset of the Vikings in Minnesota. His five field goals—from 48, 60, 36, 30 and 26 yards—in five tries made this day reminiscent of some of the biggest Greg the Leg games.
Coach of the Week
Lou Anarumo, defensive coordinator, Cincinnati. This was a huge win for the Bengals, their fourth straight, against a powerhouse Chiefs squad. Today, the “Big Play Bengals” moniker was a perfect fit for Anarumo’s defense, including two key plays in the final quarter. It’s rare we see Travis Kelce lose the ball – in fact, Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt was responsible for Kelce’s first lost fumble of the season, halting the Chiefs’ first drive of the quarter and keeping the game within reach. Then, with Cincy up 27-24 in the final five minutes, Joseph Ossai sacked Patrick Mahomes on third and three to force a 55-yard Harrison Butker field goal attempt that sailed wide right, and just like that, the Bengals are 8-4. Anarumo interviewed for the Giants vacancy last season, and he’s rumored to be a head-coach candidate again this year. Neutralizing Kelce and helping the Bengals keep pace with the Ravens in the North can’t hurt his chances for a big job.
Goat of the week
Matt Patricia, assistant coach, Patriots. Not because Mac Jones yelled either at him or out of frustration Thursday night in the 24-10 loss to the Bills, or because offensive players subtly questioned Patricia’s play-calling after the game. But because the Patriots have developed zero downfield passing game, with nobody remotely threatening the secondary. Against the Bills, just seven of Mac Jones’ 36 passes went 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage or farther. You could argue that Jones—who completed just one of those seven throws—didn’t play well enough to deserve the trust of Patricia to throw to intermediate and deep areas. What I would say is Jones, the previous week against Minnesota, had completions of 26, 34, 16, 14, 37 and 40 yards on throws 10 yards or more past the line of scrimmage. The Buffalo game was a regression of major proportions. Patricia needed to build on the Minnesota game and did not.
It truly has been a second home to me.
–Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, on Soldier Field, after the Packers beat Chicago 28-19
I would rather be 1-9-1 than have Deshaun Watson as my quarterback.
–Sign at NRG Stadium in Watson’s first game back in the NFL after his 11-game suspension.
It’s a little weird. Like, after the game you don’t really know what to do next. Even the fans are still standing in the stands like, ‘We go to PKs, or what do we do?’
–Washington wide receiver Terry McLaurin, reacting to the 20-20 tie with the Giants.
I don’t think an NFL game should be able to end in a tie.
–Washington defensive tackle Jonathan Allen.
My challenge is still to provoke change, no matter where I am. I’m 55 and don’t plan on changing anytime soon. God made me like this, and I think God is pleased with what he created.
–New University of Colorado coach Deion Sanders.
It’s embarrassing, what we put out there in such a big game for us. That’s the word to describe it—embarrassing.
–Jacksonville QB Trevor Lawrence after the 26-point loss in Detroit.
In the last 13 months:
- Cincinnati is 0-3 against Cleveland (by 25, 5 and 19 points).
- Cincinnati is 5-0 against the team that was the top seed in the 2021 AFC playoffs, Tennessee, and the team that entered this weekend as the top seed in the ’22 AFC playoffs, Kansas City. Margins in those five games: 3, 3, 3, 4 and 3 points.
From late 1921 to Sunday afternoon, the Chicago Bears (nee Decatur Staleys) were the winningest franchise in NFL history. No more, at least for one week. The Packers beat Chicago Sunday at Soldier Field, so now the winningest teams in NFL history are Green Bay with 787 wins, Chicago with 786.
The Bills and Patriots have played four times in the last 52 weeks. Bridging those four games, from the 12-minute mark in the fourth quarter of the Dec. 6, 2021 regular-season meeting to the four-minute mark of the second quarter last Thursday night, Buffalo had 24 offensive possessions. The Bills, in those 24 drives over four games, had 13 touchdowns and zero punts.
Slow down Gene Steratore’s voice by 20% and you have Joe Namath. #WesternPA
— Sam Farmer (@LATimesfarmer) December 4, 2022
Sam Farmer of the LA Times covers the NFL.
Tua has not played a Defense like this all season! If you wondered whether the @49ers Defense was for real well…. You tell me
— Richard Sherman (@RSherman_25) December 4, 2022
The former Seattle and San Francisco corner with some truth-speaking.
Thank you, Steelers Nation. You never disappoint. pic.twitter.com/sASUcSbbRR
— Mike Tomlin (@CoachTomlin) December 4, 2022
Mike Tomlin, thanking the omnipresent Steeler fans in Atlanta after the Pittsburgh win.
I hate this. Maybe I’m just old. But you’ve got a platform and this is what you want to do with it?? https://t.co/kl2a5AQFLe
— Danny Kanell (@dannykanell) December 3, 2022
Danny Kanell, former college and NFL QB, with a smart lesson for a rising-star player.
Lmfao Caitlin Clark’s range has no limit. What in the world. pic.twitter.com/O7LyRnjONp
— Green Light with Chris Long (@greenlight) December 2, 2022
Chris Long’s podcast with one of the cool clips of the week, starring the sharpshooting Iowa Hawkeye.
FULLEST SEND pic.twitter.com/cGZha6BNi3
— Mike Golic Jr (@mikegolicjr) December 3, 2022
Golic with a replay of one of the great plays, this by the University of Houston women’s volleyball team, that you’ll ever see in any sport.
Worried about sports gambling. From Jim Sweeney, of Wilmington, Ohio: “The gambling industry has never ever regulated itself well. I grew up in grocery retail and there was always two people in every store I worked in making book for … and that meant there was usually three, four, six, 10 employees or customers who were in way over their head financially and they did not have the option to declare bankruptcy. I absolutely hate seeing stuff thrown at my 14-year-old son—are you gambling yet, why aren’t you gambling, you can gamble with your parent’s credit card. We all also know gamblers without having a clue to their addiction and that allows them to steal from their parents, their friends, and their children.”
Excellent points, Jim. I fear that we’re going to see a lost segment of this generation with ruined lives because of the ease and the pervasiveness of sports gambling.
Hates pushing the pile. From Zachary Edwards: “The NFL needs to do something about pushing the pile. I saw two games this Thanksgiving week that included designed QB sneaks where players were motioned into the backfield to deliberately push the quarterback forward. That’s ridiculous.”
From your keyboard to the Competition Committee’s ears. I firmly believe the NFL needs to outlaw pushing the pile, both for competitive and safety reasons.
Thinks I am trying to sell my MVP vote. From Richard Worley: “I think your ‘apparently trying to sell your opinion as a voter for MVP’ is ethically questionable and eliminating one person because he is on the team of one of your other choices seems pretty arbitrary. It has not been unusual to have a second contender for the MVP award on the team of the winner.”
Sell my opinion? I’ve got 50 opinions in this column every week—why pick out this one? I don’t get that. As far as not supporting a second MVP candidate from a team, that’s my feeling. If I view a player to be the second-most valuable player on his team, I don’t see how he can be a legit candidate for the league MVP. I’ll use Tyreek Hill as an example. I have Tua Tagovailoa number five on my MVP list. Let’s say I thought Hill has worthy of being 6 on the list. That’d mean I would view, on my list, Mahomes-Hurts-Burrow-Allen-Tagovailoa 1 through 5, and Hill 6. So the second-most valuable player on a three-loss team would be more valuable than Justin Jefferson, Micah Parsons or Derrick Henry, all of whom are keys to strong playoff contenders. I don’t see it. Here’s the point, Richard: My opinion is my opinion. I’m one of 50 voters. If others feel differently, that’s okay. Everyone’s entitled to his/her view.
Thinks I hate the Bengals. From Bill Schneider: “I have enjoyed your insight covering the NFL over the years, with the exception of one thing. That being your obvious hate for the Bengals. After they beat the mighty Titans for the 2nd straight time, on the Titans home field, you give the Bengals no love. I am old enough to remember your days at the Cincinnati Enquirer. Not sure if you left on bad terms, if you were too big to be in small-market Cincinnati, or your hate for the Brown family still lingers from your days here.”
Every week I have to make choices, Bill. You’re right about the Bengals having a huge win last week in Tennessee, and I easily could have chosen to write about them. There’s nothing I can write to change your opinion, I’m sure. But I don’t hate the Bengals. I don’t hate any team.
He likes the other stuff in FMIA. From Greg Mitch, of Ocean Pines, Md.: I love your football knowledge and writing, and it’s the first column I read on Monday mornings. I especially enjoy the non-football content, and the links you share about the various NPR-type stories that intrigue you, are also enlightening to me, and I’m happy to learn more about our world, like yourself. The lithium article/podcast is particularly relevant as we move toward electric vehicles, and this article helped me learn about what we’re facing.”
Thanks Greg. I hope the extra stuff in the column both entertains and educates the way it does for me.
1. I think the Titans might just be in a slump, but man, averaging 18 points isn’t going to get much done in the post-season. I keep thinking of Mike Vrabel appearing (and that’s all it was—appearing) to be miffed in the Tennessee draft room after the trade of A.J. Brown to Philadelphia on draft weekend. Whatever his feeling was, and is, the Tennessee offense looked bad again at Philly Sunday. How’s this for salt in the offensive wound: The Titans have a worse point differential (minus-21) than Jacksonville (minus-14).
2. I think one thing I never thought would happen this year is going to happen: Detroit’s first-round pick from the Rams will be higher than its own pick. Right now the pick from the Rams is four and the Detroit pick is 15. That second pick could creep lower, too. Detroit’s 4-1 in its last five and obliterated the Jags Sunday.
3. I think there were a few designs that stood out to me from this week’s “My Cause My Cleats.” (Note: I did not see all of them.)
— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) December 4, 2022
b. Eleven Houston players’ “Metchie Strong” design, in support of their teammate John Metchie III, who is sitting out this season as he battles leukemia.
— Houston Texans (@HoustonTexans) November 29, 2022
c. Bucs co-owner Darcie Glazer Kassewitz’s unique spin on “cleats,” benefitting the Women’s Sports Foundation.
4. I think I learned so much I didn’t know about tight ends, and about football, from Tyler Dunne’s book “The Blood and Guts: How Tight Ends Save Football.” Best sentence in the book: “The tight end is the sport itself distilled to one position.” When you do a book, you start with a premise—that one right there—and you build your story around it. I like how Dunne did it. He went through eras of modern football using the great tight ends to tell their own stories and the stories of how the game has changed. The anecdotes are priceless: Wait till you read the one about the day George Kittle was born, and how football practically seeped into his mother’s womb. Anyway, here’s a gem from the Mike Ditka section, which emphasized Ditka’s love of hitting and the rare softness of his hands—perfect traits for a tight end if only someone would recognize it:
It’s no coincidence that over the course of his career, 1961 to 1972, the number of Americans who cited pro football as their favorite sport increased by 15 percent while baseball slid from 34 to 21 percent. The sport’s inherent violence was intoxicating—ruthless yet aesthetically beautiful.
He cannot fathom how his two hands would go on to catch 427 passes in professional football.
“Luke Johnsos. Without him, I wouldn’t be talking to you today.”
Johnsos played for the Bears from 1929 to 1936 before then coaching under founder/owner/head coach George Halas for the next 33 seasons. As the team’s offensive coordinator in 1961, Johnsos recognized that Ditka owned a set of soft hands for his size and knew it would be difficult for defensive backs to tackle him in open space. The birth of the tight end was rooted in simple strategy. Detached from the trenches, a large human could do serious damage against much smaller humans.
5. I think Dunne’s book is a jarring reminder of what good coaches do. I mean, good Those coaches find players on their roster who are matchup problems for the opposition. Ditka wasn’t a matchup problem. He was a matchup nightmare. Luke Johnsos, rest his soul, figured out how a man the size of a tackle with the hands of Don Hutson could murdelize a defense. In his first season, 1961, Ditka caught 56 passes for 1,076 yards, a ridiculous 19.2-yard average, with 12 touchdowns. And a great career was born. Look at the tight ends since then who have dominated, all the way up to Travis Kelce and George Kittle and Mark Andrews today. They can catch, and they can block, and they’re happy to do both. Nice job by Dunne reminding us all what football really is. It’s a game of very physical matchups, mostly.
6. I think I’ve started to wonder—and I emphasize started—whether Bill Belichick, who needs 21 wins to break Don Shula’s all-time record for coaching victories, will get them in New England. Series of “I thinks” will explain why.
7. I think I got a great text Thursday night, in the midst of the Buffalo-New England game, from a smart, veteran NFL scout. The text: “Watching Mac Jones and Josh Allen throw in the same game isn’t good for Mac Jones.” I swear, 30 seconds later, Allen, running to his right, threw a perfect strike 58 yards in the air into the end zone for what momentarily was a touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs. (It got called back.) But the collective difference between the passers in the four meetings between Allen and Jones is stark.
Allen. Diggs. Touchdown. 🚨
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) December 2, 2022
8. I think that game Thursday night said this to me: The Bills have become to New England what the Patriots were to Buffalo for two decades. Not to put Josh Allen on a Tom Brady trajectory, but just in terms of football, the gap between Allen and Jones is worrisome for New England, and the talent gap between the depth of the Brandon Beane Bills and the Bill Belichick Patriots is big. That gap has led to the Bills winning the last three games in the series by an average of 19 points. Amazing to consider that the Patriots really aren’t close to Buffalo now. To triple-down on the differences between the two teams, consider how non-competitive that game felt. Buffalo was playing without two of its five most important defensive players, Von Miller and Micah Hyde, and still controlled the ball for 38 minutes. Midway through the fourth quarter, with the Bills up 24-7, New England, needing three scores, had the most painful, clunky drive imaginable—17 plays, taking almost six minutes, and getting just a field goal out of it. Six incompletions on the drive. When it was over, and Buffalo got the ensuing onside kick, Belichick didn’t even bother to use his three timeouts to try to get the ball back. He white-flagged the last two minutes. That’s how hopeless this felt.
9. I think Robert Kraft, who is 81 and will enter his 30th year of Patriots ownership in 2023, is not in this to rebuild deliberately. He has to be looking at the dung-show on the Patriots’ offensive staff and wondering why Belichick left the offense so wanting this year. Anyway, I can’t see anything weird happening this year. But I have my antennae up about the Patriots for 2023.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. So close, you Ohio Bobcats. Mid-American Conference Championship Game Saturday at Ford Field: Toledo 17, Ohio 7. So my alma mater still hasn’t won a MAC football title since 1968. Bummer. But heck of a season for the Bobcats, particularly after losing the best quarterback in the conference, Kurtis Rourke, to a knee injury last month.
b. Colorado coach Deion Sanders. It’s got a nice ring to it. I love the story, and I’ll love it if Sanders can get the Buffaloes back to glory days. Who’s going to out-recruit Deion?
c. Texas pitcher Jacob deGrom. I understand taking five years and $185 million, particularly when no one else is offering that much. But I will harp on this: deGrom has missed 65 percent of the last three years with injuries. He’ll be 35 in midseason 2023. He’s pitched 224.1 innings in the last three years; N.L. Cy Young winner Sandy Alcántara pitched 228.2 innings in 2022 alone. Giving deGrom five guaranteed years reminds me of the contract Cleveland gave to Deshaun Watson. The only way the Browns could have gotten Watson to come to Cleveland was to offer him a five-year fully guaranteed deal for sick money. The only way the Rangers could have gotten deGrom to come to Texas was to offer him a five-year fully guaranteed deal for sick money.
d. The Howard Stern interview with Bruce Springsteen, all 136 minutes of it, was a great and prying and emotional and insightful look into the life and times of Springsteen, and a little bit into Howard as well. If you have HBO, you can watch it here. If not, you can see some clips on SiriusXM, where it aired five weeks ago.
e. It took me four good dog-walks to get through it all. And SiriusXM: now I’ve got a subscription and the app on my phone, so you’ve hooked me, for now.
f. So many enlightening things, but what struck me was how appreciative Springsteen sounded for this gigantically famous and wealthy life. It all happened because, as he explains, his Catholic ethos and drive could not be extinguished when he was a teen in Jersey determined to be great at the guitar:
“I was obsessed with it. It was everything. It was an enormous part of my day growing up, every day. What are the odds of being successful? Very, very slim. I stood on the stage of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame one night, and I had Mick Jagger to my right and George Harrison on my left.
“I go, ‘Okay. Millions of kids in 1964 picked up a guitar. Millions. A few of them learned to play a little bit. A few of those got in a little local band. A few of those might have gotten into a recording studio and made a demo and maybe they even had one record released. A few of those, maybe, made an album. A few of those had an album that was successful. A few of those had a career that lasted more than four or five years.
“You start whittling it down, and you realize, well, for better or for worse, I was the one that ended up on the stage that night. It’s as shocking to me as it is to anybody else. I put all the time and work in, but there’s still a lot of natural ability and luck that goes into it. And I never take it for granted.”
g. Over the years, I’ve realized how weary the non-Bruce segment of the populace is of the Springsteenaholics. All good. But if you’re a fan, this is the best interview of the guy I’ve ever heard.
i. I like the way Murdock writes it, because Peters talks to him like they’ve known each other for a long time, which they have. And Murdock doesn’t sanitize the language. The most interesting thing, I thought, was the stuff about his leadership role on the Baltimore D:
Along the way, he became the team’s elder statesman. When young defensive backs need reassurance, he’s there to provide a lesson. “He’s the guy in the DB room and even in the defensive room when things start going awry, he gets everybody back on the same page,” rookie safety Kyle Hamilton tells me. “When we’re maybe a little unfocused, he focuses back up and he’s a great vet in that way and gets everybody on the same page.”
And in a locker room with many players who were in grade school when Peters was drafted, he’s become a respected voice on the team.
“He a real individual, you know he gon’ keep it real,” Jackson tells me. “That’s what you want. I consider him an OG because he’s been in the league and he’s smart as f—, he knows what he’s doing when he’s out there on that field. He’s one in a million at that cornerback position. A lot of respect from me, fasho.”
j. “Fasho.” Had to think about that for a few seconds. “For sure.” Very nice job by Murdock. I learned a lot about Marcus Peters.
k. Dennis Byrd Remembrance of the Week: Thirty years ago this week, the former New York Jets defensive end was paralyzed in a game against Kansas City. I wrote about a player I’d never met for Sports Illustrated that week.
l. Byrd died in 2016. So many things I’ll never forget about this story. I tear up right now thinking about it. I read this story now and again to remind myself of the goodness that is in so many people who we never know. Byrd, a White man from Mustang, Okla., and roommate Marvin Washington, Black and from Dallas, got to be great friends, and Washington was a great resource for this story.
m. I speculated why Byrd, in the days after the on-field collision in New Jersey, became such a notable person when no one knew who he was before it happened. I wrote:
Maybe it was something Byrd said when he was praying with some friends in his hospital room the night before he underwent a seven-hour operation to clear debris from his injured spinal column and stabilize his spine. “God, I know you did this for a reason,” Byrd said. “I’m your messenger.”
Or maybe it was the message that Byrd’s wife, Angela, sent by way of Jet kicker and family friend Cary Blanchard to the huge press contingent waiting for word, any word, on Dennis’s condition. “Tell them Dennis says he’s glad God chose him for this, because he has the strength to handle it,” she said. “And tell them I’m glad God chose me as Dennis’s partner.”
His vision blurred by tears, Blanchard delivered the message.
On the Saturday night before the fateful game against the Chiefs, Byrd and Washington, roommates on the road and whenever the Jets stay in a local hotel the night before a home game, prayed together in their room at the Marriott Glenpointe, in Teaneck, N.J. Then they watched “A League of Their Own” on pay TV, and after that they talked for an hour before turning out the lights to go to sleep.
“I love you, Marvin,” Byrd said.
“I love you, Dennis,” Washington said.
“Every week we say that to each other before we go to sleep,” Washington says.
Washington once noticed that when they prayed in their room the night before a game, Byrd would roll something around in his hands, as someone might finger a rosary. It was a tiny leather sack. Dennis told him it contained locks of hair and personal trinkets from Angela and [daughter] Ashtin and jewelry that had belonged to his mother. “He does it so he can feel close to his family,” Washington says.
n. How much did Dennis Byrd resonate with America? About a week after that story ran in the magazine, I got a letter from a pastor who told me he’d read my story to his parish for his Sunday sermon. Not for part of the sermon. That was the sermon. I don’t credit me. I credit Byrd the person.
o. Can’t get too upset by the U.S. losing to the Netherlands in the World Cup. The Dutch are better. They finish so well, which we do not. And two of our three best players in the tournament (IMO), Sergiño Dest and Tyler Adams, will regret not keeping up on two goals on crosses in the box. Soccer’s a cruel game sometimes. It punishes you for lapses like the defensive ones Dest and Adams had.
p. Jewel of a goal against Iran, Christian Pulisic. How wonderfully fitting it was that the man who had been the great hope for the U.S. soccer movement for years, and who has shouldered that pressure with class since being a kid in Harrisburg, went to Qatar knowing if the U.S. didn’t survive the group phase and get to the knockout round, he would get the majority of the blame for not lifting his team. He not only scored the goal to get the U.S. to the round of 16, but he did it while endangering himself at full speed.
Christian Pulisic lays his body on the line to deliver the United States the lead!!!!
— Premier League USA (@PLinUSA) November 29, 2022
q. Andrew Beaton, the Wall Street Journal writer who mostly covers the NFL but also dabbles in other sports, is so good at finding the stories the rest of us wish we’d written. In Qatar, Beaton wrote this gem on U.S. goaltender Matt Turner, who shut out England and Iran in the group phase and allowed only a penalty-shot goal against Wales—zero non-penalty goals in three World Cup games (before allowing three, not much his fault, against Holland).
r. At Fairfield (Conn.) University, Turner’s claim to fame was a blooper of a goal he let in against Iona in 2013 that ESPN played about a thousand times. But his is the story of a player who wouldn’t let his worst moment define him—and was willing to do anything, like playing for a low-level pro team in Richmond for two years, to earn his chance to tend goal at the highest level of the sport. Wrote Beaton:
Before Turner became a goalkeeper for Arsenal and the U.S., he needed a bit of happenstance just to get a job with a lower league team like the Richmond Kickers. Scouts for Champions League clubs don’t exactly make a habit of combing through Fairfield University.
But on the advice of a friend who happened to attend Fairfield, Remi Roy, then the goalkeeping coach of the MLS’s New England Revolution, checked out Turner on tape. “It was a little bit of luck that my buddy called me and sent it to me,” Roy says.
Roy was impressed, but the team never had any intent on drafting Turner. That would’ve been wasting a draft pick when the Revolution could just sign him as an undrafted free agent. After that, the club needed somewhere to stash him.
Turner was nowhere near ready to play in MLS yet, so the Revolution worked out a deal with a lower-tier team: Turner would train all week in New England, and then after practices on Friday he would fly to play with the Richmond Kickers to get game action.
s. That’s the guy who shut out mighty England. There’s a lesson in that for all of us: Sometimes life does throw you too many obstacles to succeed, surely. But as much as you can, control your own life story.
t. Podcast of the Week: “Abbott Elementary” creator Quinta Brunson, interviewed by Doreen St. Felix on The New Yorker Radio Hour.
u. “Abbott Elementary” is wonderful—the only non-sports primetime TV show I watch regularly. Brunson reads her place and time so perfectly. This is an educational listen on Brunson, her thought process, and TV today.
v. Said Brunson:
“Abbott is really great because the stories of this school are unique to those walls. It doesn’t concern itself with world events. That was another cheat code of Abbott is I don’t have to bring in world events to the show. When we go into the Abbott writer’s room, the news doesn’t even matter, we are talking about what is going on with these people in this school.
“Abbott is so much inspired by everyday people. I find people who just wake up in the morning and go to their job—I find that to be the most triumphant. I watched my mom go to work every day. She never complained, which was so fascinating to me. My mother’s a teacher. She retired but her job is hard. I’m sure people in this room have hard jobs, way harder than mine. You get up and you put your clothes on and you get out of bed and you go to f—ing work and people probably aren’t that nice to you. You’re not getting paid as much as you should. I don’t care what you do, you’re not getting paid as much as you should be paid and that is the most triumphant act. There is nothing that I could do or the president could do or anyone can do that is more triumphant than someone going to their sh—y job.”
w. So cool.
x. Georgia-Ohio State, Michigan-TCU. I mean, you’ll have to tell me because it’s not my specialty. But that’s a pretty lukewarm twinbill for the football semis, isn’t it?
y. RIP, Christine McVie. One of my favorite voices in modern music.
z. My sympathy to the family of Kevin Monaghan and wife Hilary Walsh on the loss of their daughter Molly. When I got to NBC full-time in 2018, Kevin was my godfather and problem-solver, and he was invaluable to me. He still is. Now retired, Kevin and the family will deal with the death of Molly employing the same love and warmth they shower on everything in their lives. There was a memorial for Molly Monaghan Friday in the town where Kevin and Hilary raised the family, Montclair, N.J. There were so many people, maybe 500, who jammed a local pub, Egan and Sons, that it spilled over into the back courtyard. The love in that Irish bar was palpable. So many of Molly’s friends from high school, and so many business and personal friends there for Kevin and Hilary. The sadness in the place was heavy, the love for the family immeasurable.
Tampa Bay 24, New Orleans 20. I tried to talk myself into picking my preseason faves, but the Saints scored 12.5 points a game in November, and it’s hard to trust an offense in which the top two backs, Kamara and Ingram, might not combine for 1,000 yards.
N.Y. Jets at Buffalo, Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS. I wouldn’t be so sure this game will be a breather for the Bills. Entering Sunday, the Jets were fourth in yardage allowed and fifth in points allowed. When the Jets shocked the Bills in the Meadowlands a month ago, they held Buffalo to a season low in yards (317) and sacked Josh Allen a season-high five times. Tape don’t lie. If the Jets don’t turn it over, this will be a game.
Philadelphia at N.Y. Giants, 1 p.m. ET, FOX. Giants staved off the Big Fade with their first tie in 25 years Sunday, but the Giants’ offense sputtered again. Now there are games against 11-1 Philly, 7-5-1 Washington and 10-2 Minnesota on the horizon. Yikes.
Miami at L.A. Chargers, 8:20 p.m. ET, NBC. Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert, the fifth and sixth picks in the 2020 draft, have faced each other once—25 months ago in Miami, in a clash between Brian Flores’ Dolphins and Anthony Lynn’s Chargers. Salvon Ahmed and Kalen Ballage—admit it, you’ve heard of neither—were the leading rushers in that game. Neither quarterback threw for 190 that day. Miami won. Not a game to put in anyone’s time capsule.
So you’re telling me
Almost two years between games