November 29, 2021

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The Sports Fanatics

FMIA Week 5: Bills Thump Chiefs On The Night It All Changed In The AFC

There was a play Sunday night in the rain in Kansas City that encapsulated the 2021 version of Josh Allen perfectly. If you stayed up till midnight, you saw it. Bills up 31-20 at the Chiefs’ 24-yard line, driving for insurance, seven minutes left in the game. Allen took off running up the middle, his receivers covered on the outside. It looked like the 237-pound Allen could bull his way through the sparse coverage in the middle of the field and make it all the way for a touchdown. But he didn’t.

At the 12-yard line, pursuit really not close, Allen pulled up and slid on the wet turf. First down. The insurance score came two plays later.

Immediately I thought of Allen’s words to me in training camp when I asked why this year would be different, why there wouldn’t be reruns of the 14-point and 8-point losses to Kansas City last year.

Just try not to be a hero.

There’s your example from Buffalo’s conference-changing 38-20 win over Kansas City: Maybe Allen’s the bull in the china shop last year, and maybe he makes it into the end zone and spikes the ball hard and screams at the sky. Nothing wrong with that. But he didn’t need to do it, and he didn’t do it, and he still was the man of the match. And finally, inexorably, he outplayed the man who will be his rival for years in the AFC, Patrick Mahomes.

This felt bigger than one game. The Chiefs looked thin on offense and absolutely threadbare on defense. This looked like a changing of the guard in the AFC more than just a Week 5 game. It looked that way from the booth too. “When we get to the end of the season,” Cris Collinsworth said on NBC, “we’re gonna look back on this night and say, ‘This is the night a lot of things changed in the AFC.”

The AFC’s has two explosive front-runners this morning—the Bills and Chargers, both 4-1. The NFC isn’t as easy. On a given Sunday five teams can stake a logical claim to NFC superiority—the 5-0 Cardinals; then Dallas, Green Bay, Tampa Bay and the Rams, all 4-1.

On this given Sunday, it was a rollicking day for many of them. You’ll never see what you saw in Cincinnati again—five missed field goals in eight minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime. And in L.A., two missed extra points nearly cost the Chargers a 47-42 win over Cleveland. Has there been a Sunday with 12 missed PATs recently, by the way? The NFL has one unbeaten left, 5-0 Arizona. Safety Budda Baker thinks he knows why, and he’ll tell you. We’ll start in the drenched Midwest, with a changing of the guard.

The worst thing you can do after a game like Buffalo-Kansas City is think too much.

But I’m going to think a little bit about what we saw and where these two power teams stand.

KANSAS CITY

Now alone in last place in the strong AFC West—I would have said “powerhouse AFC West” except I saw Denver and Las Vegas play Sunday—and 2.5 games behind the Chargers, I see trouble. KC’s two games out, but I count the tiebreaker as a half-game, and the Chargers own the Week 3 head-to-head win at Arrowhead. Interesting to watch the frustration of the Andy Reid offense, with the Bills’ two-deep scheme taking Tyreek Hill out of the deep-passing game. When Hill catches seven for 63, with a long of 17, as he did Sunday night, it’s a win for the defense, particularly with no other deep threat to scare the D.

And that Kansas City defense. Frighteningly bad. I go back to draft day 2020 and think of the Clyde Edwards-Helaire pick. He’s been a B player. Imagine if that pick had been at a defensive need spot—at safety, maybe, where Antoine Winfield Jr., went 13 picks after Edwards-Helaire, or at corner, where Trevon Diggs went 19 picks after the runner. The Edwards-Helaire pick sounded great at the time, but needs were glaring elsewhere, and those needs really showed up all over the field Sunday night—and in the team’s 2-3 start.

Look at the standings this morning. Kansas City’s allowing 32.6 points per game, most in the league. Never thought I’d see this in the Mahomes Era, but the offense can’t outscore the defense (154 points for, 163 against) right now.

Reid was asked about this game, his team’s play, and the reaction of the locker room. “They’re embarrassed by it. We all are,” he said. Andy Reid has not had to say that many times in his coaching career.

BUFFALO

Entering the season, the Bills needed some answers on the defensive front. Over the first two rounds of the last two drafts, Buffalo GM Brandon Beane drafted three pass-rushers, including the largely unproven Gregory Rousseau, who had one impressive season as an edge rusher in his life. On Sunday night, Beane watched from the press box as Rousseau made the play that sealed the game. With 18 minutes left and Mahomes at the Buffalo 8-yard line, trying to carve into a 31-13 Bills lead, Mahomes threw for Mecole Hardman near the right sideline. Rousseau, rushing from the left side, stuck his hand in the air to block the pass. He tipped it to himself for the interception. Huge play, the kind of play the Bills’ defensive front hasn’t made enough of—especially when KC put up 64 on them in eight quarters last year.

The Bills also have discovered a tight end defenses have to worry about. Beane drafted Dawson Knox in the 2019 third round. Big and athletic, Knox already has five touchdowns this year, the latest a 53-yard TD from Allen, stretching the lead to 24-10 late in the first half.

This is an offense with more firepower than last year, and a defense growing stronger with players like Rousseau providing a needed pass rush. On this night, all of that helped Allen. One of the things he’s tried to do this year is to play more calmly. Playing crazy had its drawbacks for Allen in year one and two. “Back in the day,” he told me in camp, “I tried to play pissed off on the field and I found myself not playing very well, tensed up . . . Now, [I’ll do] small things like listening to calming music pregame, to not be so hyped and anxious for the game.”

On Allen’s pregame playlist, he told NBC, there was no Metallica, no metal. There was some Frank Sinatra (“Fly Me to the Moon”) and Paul Anka (“Put Your Head on my Shoulder”). Whatever works.

After the game, coach Sean McDermott told his team: “Don’t act surprised. We’re better than we even showed today.” If so, this could finally be the year western New York forgets all those nineties Super Bowl disappointments. Josh Allen will have a lot to do with that.

Tonight will be the 80th game of the 272-game regular-season schedule, and it seems like five games (for most teams) is a good time to take stock of where the league is after one month.

The year of egalitarianism

The season is one month old, and there’s one unbeaten team—the 5-0 Cardinals. Is it possible we’re overlooking them? Arizona hasn’t played a prime-time game in five weeks, and only one is on tap in the first 13 weeks of the season, Thursday night Oct. 28 against Green Bay. It’s a year when so many 4-1 teams—Buffalo, Tampa Bay, the Rams and Chargers, Dallas, Green Bay—are getting the love and Arizona isn’t.

“That’s okay,” safety Budda Baker told me Sunday night. “I wouldn’t know that, because I don’t pay much attention to the hype. I’m a Netflix, chill-at-home guy. I don’t watch any of the football shows where people are saying things about us. It’s better than way. Every week, I come in level-headed, excited to play the next game. We got a lot of guys like that.”

Baker said something interesting about the equality he feels on the team. “So, J.J. Watt,” he said, speaking of the new Cardinal. “We’ve got a good thing going here—all egos left at the door. When we talk to each other, we’re not arguing. We’re correcting. We believe in never making the same mistake twice. J.J., he wants to be held accountable. His leadership is amazing. The things he says, it makes you want to run through a brick wall sometimes. For example, last week, J.J. skipped a gap on one play. He was supposed to rush through the B gap and I had the A gap. But he swam to the A gap. He took my gap and the running back bounced outside.

“So I talked to him about it and he was like, ‘Hey, you can correct me. I want you to correct me. If I do something wrong, do it.’ ”

The ego-free Cards won a game differently Sunday, 17-10 over the Niners. In the first four games, they scored 38, 34, 31 and 37 points. That was good, because they’re going to need to be frustrated and respond. Kyler Murray, a superstar the first four weeks, was a complementary player Sunday, when the Cards had to win a field-position game. “Kyler’s vocal levels have been way higher this year,” Baker said. “He’s a perfectionist, and he’s always fixing the smallest things on routes with his receivers.”

Big game Sunday at the 3-2 Browns, who’ve had two narrow losses to Kansas City and the Chargers. As usual, it’s a no-respect week for Arizona. It’s a regional game. America won’t see them again. “Doesn’t matter,” Baker said. “We’re just into the 1-0 mentality. Win every week. Go 1-0. The other stuff, who cares?”


The most surprising teams, in a good way

1. Arizona (5-0). Nice to have a quarterback with historic wheels completing 75 percent of his throws. Just as nice to be able to hold good teams to 13 (Tennessee) and 10 (San Francisco) points.

2. Dallas (4-1). Giving up 23.4 points per game, down six points a game from last year. That, plus Dak Prescott’s return, has made all the difference.

3. L.A. Chargers (4-1). First 20 games for Justin Herbert: 50 TDs (44 passing, six rushing), 5,912 yards. “We’re in every game, all game, with him,” said Austin Ekeler.

The most surprising teams, in a bad way

1. Kansas City (2-3). Image of the first month, caught by NBC Sunday Night Football cameras: Safety Daniel Sorenson getting beat on the long touchdown, and fellow safety Tyrann Mathieu holding his hands to either side of his helmet in utter disgust.

2. New England (2-3). Pats have their quarterback in Mac Jones, but they had to pull out all the stops to beat Houston. Something’s missing here. Since Tom Brady left, they’re 9-12.

3. Indianapolis (1-3). Could have put Washington here. Too early to give up on the Colts, especially after seeing them handle Miami last week. But for them to rebound, Carson Wentz has to be his 2017 version.


The kick of the year

Camera on Mason Crosby after he pulls a 36-yard field goal wide left, 2:12 left in the fourth quarter. No emotion from Crosby.

Camera on Mason Crosby after he pulls a 51-yard game-winner left on the last play of the fourth quarter. No emotion.

Camera on Mason Crosby, two minutes into overtime, after he yanks a 40-yarder two feet left. He looks chagrined, but no real emotion.

Camera not on Mason Crosby, fourth-and-inches for Green Bay in field-goal range, late in overtime in a 22-22 game. Coach Matt LaFleur approaches him on the sidelines, and you know what LaFleur is thinking. If he sees uncertainty in Crosby, if he sees the averted eyes, he’s not going for the field goal again. He’ll put it in the hands of one of the great quarterbacks of all time, Aaron Rodgers, and take his chances.

“What do you think?” LaFleur said.

“I got this,” Crosby said.

Straight down the middle from 49 yards away. Green Bay 25, Cincinnati 22.

Packers wideout Randall Cobb and kicker Mason Crosby. (Getty Images)

It’s been a weird year for kickers. They missed 12 PATs Sunday, one by Crosby. So Crosby missed four kicks in Cincinnati, and still got a chance to kick the winner again.

It always interests me, the mindset and approach of field-goal kickers. There was a gusting wind on a warm afternoon in Cincinnati, the wind blowing in different directions up to 20 mph. The 51-yard miss got caught in a hard right to left wind, he thought. Crosby’s not sure, but he thinks one or more of the kicks may not have had the laces facing straight ahead; when they’re to either side, the ball can be a knuckleball. He’ll see the tape today and figure if the snap-hold part of the equation needs adjusting. But the approach . . .

“Sounds boring,” he said from Cincinnati post-game, “but I’ve been in it for a long time, and make or miss, you move to the next one. You kinda go through the process for a play or two and then you have to reload. When Matt came right down to me he just said, What are you thinking? And of course I wanted to kick it.

“It’s my job. I just keep resetting. I haven’t missed many kicks the last few years. Unfortunately it came in a little bit of a cluster here but I know my ability and when everything is smooth and good, we go out there and execute. It was another opportunity. Just couldn’t believe with how crazy this game was that we had another chance. But when there’s chaos, when the challenge gets even higher and the pressure gets greater, you have to find that calm. I’m able to do that. I want to be out there. If you get too high, you won’t find that calm.”

I talked to Crosby for 13 minutes. When I hung up, I thought: If we’d had a 65-yarder to try after he’d missed three, I’d have sent him out there too. I certainly know why LaFleur did.


Injuries rule the sport, and owners want 18 games?

I can’t figure out what is more debilitating:

• Tennessee with 17 players on IR on Oct. 11 and with stars Julio Jones and Bud Dupree out of Sunday’s game but not hurt enough to go on IR;

• The Patriots playing without four-fifths of their starting offensive line due to various maladies, endangering rookie quarterback Mac Jones;

• The Bucs trying to win without three injured starters in the secondary, a fourth (cornerback Jamel Dean) not 100 percent with a knee problem, and playing a game Sunday with Richard Sherman and Pierre Desir the starting corners. Sherman, 33, had been on the street till 12 days ago, and Desir’s been cut by three teams in the past 11 months.

• The Giants playing a crucial division game at Dallas, as things developed, without their starting left tackle, quarterback, running back and top three receivers.

Detroit Lions v Chicago Bears
Bears running back David Montgomery suffered a knee injury against the Lions in Week 4. (Getty Images)

Nobody’s crying for anyone in the NFL, there’s an epidemic of injuries every year. But it’s just another reminder of how brutal and injurious this game is, and how bad an idea it was for the owners to push the players into a 17-game schedule just so their product would be worth a few bucks more. It’s only Week 5; the regular season has three months to go. Below, I list a team of players who are currently out, either on injured-reserve or out this week or who got hurt this weekend and will miss time. Look at the team. It’s a Pro Bowl team. I went 42 deep. I could have gone 53 deep in above-average players missing in action, easily.

The owners in the last round of negotiations initially pushed for an 18-game regular-season schedule and settled for 17. You can be sure 18 isn’t dead in their minds. If the players don’t want 18 to happen, they may have to strike to fend it off nine years from now. It is altogether laughable to hear owners talk about their immense regard for player safety and well-being while putting a system in place than has starters playing 6 percent more snaps this year than last. I hope someone shows owners this team.

The Week 5 All-Injured Team

OFFENSE
QB:
Russell Wilson (finger surgery), Seattle.
RB: Christian McCaffrey (hamstring), Carolina; David Montgomery (knee), Chicago; J.K. Dobbins (knee), Baltimore.
TE: Rob Gronkowski (ribs) Tampa Bay; George Kittle (calf), San Francisco.
WR: Michael Thomas (ankle), New Orleans; Julio Jones (hamstring), Tennessee; Jarvis Landry (knee), Cleveland; D.J. Chark (ankle), Jacksonville
T: David Bakhtiari (ACL), Green Bay; Terron Armstead (elbow), New Orleans; Trent Brown (calf), New England.
G: Quenton Nelson (ankle), Indianapolis; Brandon Scherff (knee), WFT; Shaq Mason (abdomen), New England.
C: Frank Ragnow (toe), Detroit.

DEFENSE
DL:
DeMarcus Lawrence (foot), Dallas; Brandon Graham (knee), Philadelphia; Carl Lawson (Achilles), Jets; Stephon Tuitt (knee), Pittsburgh; Marcus Davenport (pectoral), New Orleans; Akiem Hicks (groin), Chicago.
LB: Shaq Thompson (neck), Carolina; Za’Darius Smith (back), Green Bay; Kenneth Murray (ankle), Chargers; Blake Martinez (knee), Giants; Bud Dupree (knee), Tennessee.
S: Marcus Maye (ankle), Jets; Antoine Winfield Jr. (concussion), Tampa Bay; Lamarcus Joyner (triceps), Jets.
CB: Jaire Alexander (shoulder), Green Bay; Marcus Peters (knee), Baltimore; Jason Verrett (knee), San Francisco; Jeff Okudah (Achilles), Detroit.

SPECIAL TEAMS
P:
Brett Kern (groin), Tennessee.
K: Wil Lutz (core muscle), New Orleans.
KR: Jalen Richard (foot), Las Vegas.
ST: L.J. Fort (knee), Baltimore.
LS: Zach Triner (finger), Tampa Bay.


Shad Khan must be having second thoughts about handing Jags to Urban Meyer

Taking stock of the first 10 months of the Urban Meyer tenure in Jacksonville: Hired Chris Doyle as director of sports performance, despite Doyle’s record of racist and demeaning comments to players at Iowa . . . Accepted Doyle’s “resignation” a day later . . . Drafted Trevor Lawrence with the first pick of the draft . . . Lost his opening NFL game to expansion-level Houston by 16 points . . . Traded the ninth pick in last year’s draft, cornerback C.J. Henderson, to Carolina . . . Watched as his team blew a 14-point second-half lead in Cincinnati to fall to 0-4 . . . Team traveled back to Jacksonville after the loss to Cincinnati without Meyer, who went to Columbus for the weekend instead. Meyer was spotted and videotaped in a Columbus bar the next night, appearing to allow a woman to dance sexually against him . . . Jags fell to 0-5 Sunday with a loss to Tennessee. Meyer lost five games once in a 17-year college coaching career.

Well, look on the bright side. Meyer did draft Trevor Lawrence. (It was one of the easiest draft choices in recent history.)

Simply put, the hiring of Meyer is on the way to being a colossal mistake. He can change the current narrative by winning, and by being an adult. As for Meyer’s actions 10 nights ago: He’s in a bar in Columbus, where he’s still revered by many after winning the 2014 national championship at Ohio State. He’s having his picture taken by some fans. For anyone in the public sphere to think it’s okay, whether there’s a camera in plain sight or not, to have a woman grinding on him is incredibly poor judgment. It might make his wife want to divorce him, but it is not fireable. It is crass and tone-deaf and idiotic, however.

“His conduct last weekend was inexcusable,” was owner Shad Khan’s zinger of a line last week. “He must regain our trust and respect.”

Jacksonville Jaguars v Cincinnati Bengals
Jaguars coach Urban Meyer. (Getty Images)

Imagine putting out a statement like that—“He must regain our trust and judgment”—10 months into the first year of what an owner thinks will be a 10-year, franchise-changing partnership. Meyer, I’m told, was utterly humiliated. Jacksonville’s got the Seahawks, Bills, Niners, Rams and Patriots left to play. Best case scenario for the ’21 Jags: 3-14, Lawrence improves gradually, and no more dumb Meyer headlines.

When Meyer was considering taking the Jacksonville job, his biggest confidant was Jimmy Johnson, the former Cowboys and Dolphins coach, who also went from college super-coach to NFL coach. Here is the good news for Meyer: Thirty-two years ago today, Johnson was 0-5 in his rookie season, just like Meyer is now. The bad news for Meyer: Thirty-two years ago tomorrow, Johnson traded Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings for what turned out to be three first-round picks and three second-round picks, the deal that set up the Cowboys personnel-wise for their run of dominance. Meyer does not have a Herschel Walker to trade, and he would not find a 2021 pigeon like then-GM Mike Lynn of the Vikings to make such a mega-trade. No, the Jags are in for a long-haul fix. They probably have their franchise quarterback. Much less certain is whether they have their franchise coach.


The NFL’s fun team

Isn’t it fun to watch the Los Angeles Chargers? The confluence of imaginative coach (Brandon Staley) and phenom quarterback (Justin Herbert) and offensive weaponry galore and defensive playmakers (Derwin James, especially, playing everywhere) getting off the canvas time and again. It’s just fun to watch. The 2021 Chargers are what the 2019 Chiefs were.

On Sunday, the Chargers beat Cleveland 47-42 in a wild and wooly slugfest, Creed versus Balboa. Forty-one points in the fourth quarter. Six touchdowns in the last 12 minutes. When I spoke with one of the heroes of the day, Austin Ekeler, 20 minutes after the game, he clearly hadn’t come down yet. He said “Wow” five times. He scored three touchdowns in the last eight minutes, two on runs and one on a screen pass. On Ekeler’s final touchdown, four Cleveland Browns dragged him into the end zone to max out how much time they’d have to come back and win. The defense dragged the offensive player into the end zone! Against his will!

Ekeler, unplugged, on the wildest game of the first month of the NFL season:

“Oh my goodness. Oh man, I’m still taking in that win and what just happened. It was incredible. Wow. On the touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, it was a screen, a play I fumbled on earlier in the game. That made me sick to my stomach. I’m still sick about it. But that’s the great thing about football—you can make up for plays like that.

“Man, it feels like, when we get on the field, we’re gonna go score. If we have to, guess what? We’re going for it on fourth down. That’s just the way we roll right now. J-Herb’s been smart with the ball. Finding us, and we’ve been getting open and giving him an option to throw to. It’s that feeling like we’re in a zone. We’re scoring every time we get the ball.

LA Chargers defeat the Cleveland Browns 47-42
The Browns defense drags Chargers running back Austin Ekeler into the end zone for a touchdown. (Getty Images)

“Crazy play at the end. I’m not trying to score. Right? I’m trying to waste time. Which, I mean, if I was smarter in that situation I would’ve just immediately gone down. I was like, Oh let me try to waste more time. And I tried to get cute, kill some time, got greedy, and they came and grabbed me, picked me up, took me in the end zone. Weirdest play ever. Has anybody ever been sad to score a touchdown? There’s not many situations where you’re sad that you scored a touchdown, but that one was like, man, wow, I dropped the ball in that situation by not just going down.

“So now, big win. But we can’t caught up in hype. One of my old running back coaches used to tell me, ‘You can smell the cologne but don’t taste it. Don’t taste it.’ What does that mean? There’s gonna be a lot of people talking about you. You can say thank you, but make sure you know every single week you gotta show up to work. This is the NFL.

“Wow. Today was incredible. I got a feeling you’re gonna see this all year.”


The iron QB takes a seat and Seattle’s probably toast

Later in the column, you’ll see some eye-popping numbers about Russell Wilson starting all 165 games of his NFL life since being drafted in 2012. What’s so ironic is the play that ended his streak was an absolute fluke play in the third quarter Thursday night. On a follow-through of a pass, his right arm came down hard on defensive tackle Aaron Donald’s arm, and the awkward contact resulted in a surprisingly serious injury to the top of the middle finger on his passing hand. He suffered a ruptured tendon and a dislocation and had to be replaced by Geno Smith. Seattle lost.

One source said Wilson spent “about two minutes” ticked off that he’d be out for a while, then started asking Seahawk medics and good friend Drew Brees for advice on how to proceed. By the time he’d left the locker room Thursday night, he’d already spoken to the Los Angeles-based orthopedic surgeon specializing in hand procedures, Dr. Steven Shin, and figured he’d have the operation on Friday. Bascially, he sprinted to get the surgery done. By 6:30 Friday morning he was getting an MRI done. The results were shipped to Shin and two other specialists to be sure all agreed on the surgical path. Wilson boarded a morning plane for Los Angeles, was in pre-op shortly after 11 a.m., and was finished with the hour-plus procedure by 1 p.m. Imagine: Seventeen hours between suffering the injury and having it repaired 1,100 miles away. One of the pieces of advice he heard: The sooner you get the surgery, the sooner you’re back playing. Shin said the surgery went well and Wilson will be back sometime this season.

“I’ll be great,” he said Saturday night in a lightning-quick phone chat. “I’ll be better than ever.”

He’s projected to be out four to eight weeks, which should just about cook the Seahawks’ flagging season. Seattle’s in massive trouble on defense—the Legion of Boom is a distant memory; Bobby Wagner probably wonders sometimes, Who are these guys I’m playing with?—and the 450.8 average yards per game allowed is on pace to be an NFL record of defensive futility. The Seahawks are 2-3, in a very tough division, and even if Wilson is back by Week 10, Seattle would have Green Bay, Arizona, the Rams and Arizona left on the schedule. Wilson has missed the playoffs only once in nine seasons, but the road to the postseason this year looks highly unlikely.


A little bit on labor

DeMaurice Smith won a reprieve Friday, a new term as executive director of the NFLPA approved by the board of 32 player reps 22-8 with two abstentions. During the 90-minute call with the reps, he told them if he didn’t get at least two-thirds of the vote Friday, he wasn’t going to run—because it would be clear the player leadership didn’t have enough faith in him to lead the union. Now that he got the vote, he said this will be his last term, with the length TBD. It might make sense for a two-year period to find a new executive director; that’s how long it took the NBA players union to ID and hire its last executive director, Michele Roberts, and the two unions have similarities in the complexities of the job.

As for Smith, his struggle with many player leaders is based in the union’s acceptance of the 17-game season, which is detested by many players (with good reason). I’ve always believed Smith’s hands have been half-tied when it comes to major issues like the 17-game season—and could come in the next labor deal if/when the owners ask for 18 games. Football players don’t have the stomach for a work stoppage. They just don’t. They might say they do, but in order to hang in, players with finite lifespans in the game (many of them with lower career spans than their baseball or basketball peers) have to be willing to sacrifice a year of employment to get what they want. And in the case of the last vote, you saw the vast majority of the rank-and-file push a labor deal with the 17-game season over the finish line. Why? Because the majority of players who might play for two, three or four years don’t want to go on strike. They want the best deal they can get without striking.

Smith gets whacked for pushing the 17th game, understandably. The ancillary parts of the deal—a slightly higher percentage of the gross NFL revenue, 11,000 retired players getting a pension bump averaging 53 percent a year, minimum salaries for young players going up from $510,000 in 2020 to $1.065 million in the last year of the new deal, expanded practice squads, less off-season work, no more suspensions for positive marijuana tests—didn’t get covered much. He never would have gotten the buy-in if he said to players, We’ll fight the 17th game, but you may have to strike for it.

No idea who the favorite to replace Smith will be. Whoever it is better buy not just a few Armani suits, but a suit of armor to take the arrows this job requires.

I’ve covered the NFL since 1984. I’ve never seen a punt—nor a special-teams play—as incredible as the Michael Dickson double-punt in the Rams-Seahawks game Thursday night.

Four things made it that way:

• Dickson, the Australia native, got the punt blocked late in the third quarter, picked it up, and punted it again, hurriedly, in an oblong grip. It went for 69 yards.

• It was the way Dickson picked up the spinning blocked punt. He picked it up one-handed, in full trot, to avoid getting buried. “My Aussie background kicked in,” Dickson told me Saturday. “We pick up the ball sometimes on the run [in Australian rules football].”

• The punt blocker, rookie special-teams demon Jamir Jones, was playing his first game for the Rams after 30 teams passed him on waivers from Pittsburgh a week earlier. The Rams, number 31 in waiver priority, got Jones. The drama never would have happened without that waiver claim, and without Jones’ play.

• The play drew a flag from line judge Mark Steinkerchner, who ruled Dickson punted from beyond the line of scrimmage. The replay official upstairs and the New York officiating command center both reviewed the play and the decision was made by the Ronald Torbert crew to pick up the flag because it did not appear to them that Dickson was clearly over the line.

The play was so nuts that one of the foremost experts in officiating, ever, ex-NFL VP of Officiating and current FOX analyst Mike Pereira, got the rules interpretation wrong in real time. “You can advance [a blocked punt],” Pereira said Thursday night on national TV, “but no, you can’t kick it again.”

I’ve been asking Pereira about rules for 23 years, since he began honchoing NFL officiating. He’s great. He’s the Oracle. Which is why, on Saturday, he was still crushed by his error.

“It torments me,” Pereira said. “It kills me. And now I’ll never see that play again.”

I doubt any of us will.

Whew. Where to start? How about at the 3:00 mark of the third quarter, Rams up 16-7, Seahawks with fourth-and-14 at exactly the Seattle 21-yard line. Dickson trotted out to punt and stationed himself at the Seattle 7-yard line.

3:00. Long-snapper Tyler Ott shot a perfect snap back to Dickson.

2:59. Punt-rusher Jones burst though the guard-center gap of the Seattle line. There’s a reason Seattle was surprised to see Jones in this position, and it’s because this was his first game as a Ram. The undrafted free-agent rookie for Pittsburgh got cut in late September. Rams scout Brian Xanders loved him in preseason tape, so director of pro personnel John McKay (son of Falcons president Rich) recommended they claim Jones. The NFL’s waiver priority system—based on the current year’s standings—went into effect after Week 3. The Rams were one of five 3-0 teams after three weeks, putting them at the bottom of the waiver priority system. The Rams were actually 31st that week in waiver priority, based on strength of schedule, meaning that 30 teams passed on Jones. Now he was sprinting unblocked toward Dickson. “I felt him,” Dickson said. “I knew he was gonna block it as soon as I started swinging my leg.”

2:58. THUMP-THUMP! The punt and the block happened in a millisecond. Jones smothered it at the Seattle 11-yard line. Dickson: “I knew I had to try to find the ball.”

2:56. Dickson ran to his left, toward the spinning punt. “I felt the guy who blocked it a few steps behind me,” Dickson said. Amazing: It was blocked at the 11, skittered sideways, and Dickson sprinted and leaned down as he got close. The ball was exactly at the 11. Would Dickson try to bat it 10 yards to the boundary, out of bounds, to avoid getting bashed? Would he try to pick it up with Jones steaming from the rear?

2:55. The ball was spinning like a top. Dickson’s right hand scooped it. He grew up in Sydney playing Australian rules football, with 18 players a side, and six points awarded for every side-swiped kick through goal posts. Dickson got used to competition chasing free balls. “I knew I had to take a risk on the pickup,” Dickson said. “I didn’t have time. In the Australian game, the ball doesn’t spin that way. It’s generally just on the ground, so scooping it is not a real problem. In the off-season when I practice, I play around with a football like an Aussie rules ball. They’re not exactly the same, but similar. And so I have been scooping balls off the ground—just not when they’re spinning like that. But like I said, I didn’t have the time, so I had to take a risk.”

2:53. Dickson wanted to run for the first down, but there was no way he could have run to the first-down marker at the 35-yard line. Four Rams were in a line at around the 23, waiting to bury him. So at about the 17, he prepared to kick it, Aussie style, sideway. “I didn’t know the rule exactly,” he said Saturday. “I’ve asked [special-teams coaches] before, and I’ve never gotten a [definitive] answer, but I figure even it gets penalized, we’ll get to punt it again, even though it’ll be from worse field position. That’s better than giving it to the Rams deep in our territory.”

2:52. Rather than punt the normal way, straight on, Dickson, straddling the 21-yard line, held the football oblong in his hands and took a sideways swipe at it with his right leg. Watch it a few times. The ease of the leg swing was striking, sort of like how Ernie Els used to swing so calmly and hit the golf ball a mile. Dickson: “In the offseason, I kick footballs a lot more like Australian-style, warming up, just having fun.” As Dickson took this easy swing and punted it oddly, Steinkerchner, right on the 21, threw his yellow flag. Clearly, the line judge thought Dickson was over the line. Meanwhile, the science of kicking a low line drive that way means if it hits the ground and isn’t caught or touched down, it could roll for a while.

2:48. The line drive hit at the Rams’ 30 and bounced. “That’s coming back,” said Troy Aikman on FOX.

2:47. Another bounce. “That’s coming back,” said Joe Buck.

2:45. Bounced again, and safety Ugo Amadi surrounded the ball.

2:42. Roll, roll. Amadi downed it at the 11-yard line. Blocked at the Seattle 11, recovered at the Rams’ 11. That’s a change of 78 yards of field position. Just a stunning turn of events.

“That’s one of the great kicking plays in the history of the league,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll, who should know, said later. He’s 70, and a football maven.

Eighteen seconds of a thrill ride, and it wasn’t over. Now the officials would rule.

A league source told me that both of the key administrative people involved in the adjudication of the play—NFL senior VP Walt Anderson, in the New York command center, and replay official Saleem Choudhry—thought Dickson’s back heel was very close to or on the line of scrimmage. Just like with a quarterback, the entire body and the football must be beyond the line for an official to flag the person with the ball for being over the line. This season, the league has added administrative duties and freedom to communicate with the referee between plays to the job of replay official. So Choudhry and Anderson could both speak to ref Ronald Torbert. And one or both apparently told Torbert the right call here would be to pick up the flag. NBC officiating consultant Terry McAulay, the former NFL referee, told me: “There was not a single angle that showed definitively that the entire body is over the line.” I watched it 10 times and it appeared he was over the line, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Too close.

Rams coach Sean McVay, during the delay for the officials to discuss the call, had the play explained to him by the officials. “They reviewed it in New York,” McVay said after the game. “They said his foot was on the line, he wasn’t totally over the line of scrimmage, so they said he could [punt the ball legally]. I said [to the officials], ‘You can kick the ball twice, huh?’ I guess you learn something every night.”

The confusion for Pereira came in the wording of the play, which says in the rule book that if a ball is punted once, crosses the line of scrimmage and crosses back behind the line, it cannot be punted again. But it is legal to punt it twice as long as the ball does not cross the line of scrimmage after the first punt. “It ranks as the weirdest play I’ve ever seen, because I’ve been consumed by it since it happened,” Pereira said. “I’ve never seen a play and a rule and a situation like that one.”

The amazing thing, to me, is that Dickson just handled this bizarre play with such cool. “Crazy,” he said. “But really, it was just like a normal Aussie rules play, something I’ve done since I was 9. What’s important at a time like that is to rely on your instincts. Don’t overthink. Just play like you always have. Stay calm. Do whatever you’ve always done to be successful.”

Good advice for life, and for executing a play the NFL has never seen in 102 years.

Offensive Players of the Week

Justin Herbert, quarterback, L.A. Chargers. Herbert is making all things possible for the Chargers right now. Forget the numbers (398 passing yards, four TD passes, no picks; 29 rushing yards and one rush TD) and just watch his commanding presence. In the last 12 minutes of a challenging game against a team that almost certainly will make the playoffs, Herbert led four touchdown drives—of 61, 75, 75 and 48 yards. The man is 23 years old, and no team in five weeks has thrown anything at him that he can’t handle. What a game he had, and what a player he is.

Davante Adams, wide receiver, Green Bay. The amazing play in another dominant game came a minute into the fourth quarter, when Adams beat three Bengals on a deep post route, and Aaron Rodgers put a perfect 59-yard rainbow in his arms. For the game, Adams caught 11 for 206 yards and a TD. Getting way ahead of myself here, but if Rodgers is a Packer in 2022, somehow Green Bay’s got to figure a way to keep Adams. “There’s a reason he’s got that 99 rating in Madden,” coach Matt Lafleur said.

Tom Brady, quarterback, Tampa Bay. In the 351st game of his career, Brady did something he’d never done before: throw for 400 yards and five touchdowns in the same game. His touchdown passes were from 10, 62, 4, 34 and 22 yards. Brady’s passer rating, 144.4, was only his third rating over 140 since turning 40. He’s had only 15 games with ratings better than 144.4.

Kyle Pitts, tight end, Atlanta. Strange days in Atlanta. No Julio Jones of course. And this weekend, neither of the starting receivers, Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage, made the trip to London to face the Jets. That left Pitts as the Falcons’ focal point in the passing game, and he came through big: nine catches, 119 yards, one touchdown. And he did it when he knew he would be the focal point of the defensive game plan, which he was.

Defensive Players of the Week

Khalil Mack, edge rusher, Chicago. His sack of former teammate Derek Carr on a two-point conversion kept the Bears’ second-half lead at 14-9, and that sack doesn’t even count in the stats. But in the Bears’ upset of Vegas, he had another sack, a tackle for loss, eight tackles and generally reminded everyone on the Raider sideline what they lost when they traded him to the Bears in 2018.

Trevon Diggs, cornerback, Dallas. What Diggs is doing just isn’t done in the modern game: six picks in the first five games of the season, including at least one in every game this year. He picked Mike Glennon, the Giants’ backup in for the concussed Daniel Jones, as the Giants tried to come back from an 11-point deficit in the third quarter. Not to jinx Diggs, the second-year corner from Alabama, but it’s been 40 years since any defensive player has had more than 10 interceptions in a season. Everson Walls of the Cowboys had 11 in 1981, and no one’s had that many since. Can Diggs get five in the last 12 games of the season? We’ll be watching. (The NFL record for a season is 14, by Night Train Lane in 1952.)

Derwin James, safety, L.A. Chargers. When coach Brandon Staley took the job last winter and started watching tape, he saw how great James was in his rookie season of 2018. He set out to move James around like a queen on the chessboard—in other words, moving everywhere. That was the recipe Sunday against the Browns at SoFi Stadium. James had 14 tackles by halftime, and he finished with 17 tackles, a forced fumble and a sack in one of his best games as a pro. There will be more of those.

Darius Slay, cornerback, Philadelphia. In a bruising defensive game in Charlotte, Slay had two interceptions. His first, in the first quarter, gave the Eagles great field position at the Carolina 10, setting up a field goal. His second, covering D.J. Moore, set up the Eagles near midfield in the third quarter, but they couldn’t convert it to points. Slay added three tackles, one for a loss.

Special Teams Players of the Week

Greg Joseph, kicker, Minnesota. After his shanked 37-yard field-goal try in Week 2 resulted in a 34-33 loss at Arizona, Joseph kept his job, got a vote of confidence from coach Mike Zimmer, and responded with a game-winning 54-yard strike to beat the Lions 19-17. Good day overall for Joseph, who also had field goals from 38, 38 and 55 yards.

Blake Gillikin, punter, New Orleans. The second-year man from Penn State could play in the NFL for 15 years and not have a better day than he had in the 33-22 win at Washington. He dropped punts at the WFT 1, 2 and 3-yard lines in an incredible performance. For the day: five punts, 53.6-yard average (51.3-yard net). “Their punter punted the s— out of the ball,” Washington QB Taylor Heinicke said, and no one could have said it better.

Michael Dickson, punter, Seattle. Dickson is absurdly good at his job—we knew that already. But the NFL state-of-the-art punter had the best game of his career Thursday night, and made one of the great punts in NFL history. There’s another reason. Dickson’s four punts Thursday night landed at the Rams’ 12, 4, 7 and 11-yard lines. The second one bounced at the 3, and instead of bounding into the end zone, it bounced back a yard and was downed. What a major weapon Dickson is.

Coach of the Week

Matt LaFleur, coach, Green Bay. Paul Brown’s first 37 regular-season games as an NFL coach: 30-7. LaFleur’s first 37 games as an NFL coach: 30-7. Love what he did in overtime at Cincinnati. Lots of coaches, after watching his field-goal kicker (trusted vet though Mason Crosby may be) miss three field goals in five minutes on the game clock—which seems impossible, but it really happened—would say, No more Crosby today. This game’s too important. LaFleur went to Crosby, talked to him, looked him in the eye, thought he was fine, and let him try a 49-yard field goal at the two-minute warning of overtime. Of course Crosby made this one, and the Packers escaped with a win. LaFleur’s the kind of even-handed guy who’s a very good modern football coach. He lets his players play, puts the offense in terrific position to succeed, and doesn’t go batcrap when bad things happen.

Goat of the Week

Xavien Howard, cornerback, Miami. Much is expected of $15-million-a-year cornerbacks, as Howard is. He did not deliver Sunday, in coverage against Antonio Brown in Tampa. The Dolphins and Bucs were tied at 10 early in the second quarter when Brown beat Howard on a well-timed crossing route from Tom Brady that turned into a 62-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown; 17-10, Tampa. Late in the half, Brown, sprinting for the post in the end zone, left Howard in the dust on a four-yard TD from Brady. The Bucs led 24-10 at the half and never lost the lead en route to an impressive 4-1 start.

I

“The clock is ticking. We are watching to see what the National Football League is going to do.”

—Former NFL receiver Randy Moss, on ESPN on Sunday. He was critical of Gruden and said he was hurt by Gruden’s leaked email saying NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith “has lips the size of michellin [sic] tires.”

II

“AND THE LIONS HAVE THEIR HEARTS BROKEN AGAIN!”

—NFL RedZone host Scott Hanson, watching the Lions lose on the last play of the game in Minnesota on a 54-yard Greg Joseph field goal.

III

“When you see your players give all they have, and you lose that way, it’s tough. You don’t want that for them. But we’ll be better for it. Ultimately, we didn’t do enough to win. But I love the grit.”

—Detroit coach Dan Campbell, through tears, describing another heart-wrenching loss, the 19-17 last-second job in Minnesota.

IV

“Russell’s one of the great healers of all time.”

—Seattle coach Pete Carroll, on Russell Wilson.

V

“It’s good to see humans.”

—San Francisco Giants pitcher Tyler Rodgers, per Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times, on Saturday, leaving an interview room with baseball media prior to game two of the Dodgers-Giants National League playoff series. For two seasons, until these playoffs, Rogers had dealt with the press only virtually, on Zoom calls.

VI

“The ball had different plans.”

—Cincinnati kicker Evan McPherson, on the 49-yard field-goal try in overtime that hit the flag atop the left upright as the flag fluttered slightly left. McPherson was sure he’d made the kick, but it was maybe five inches to the left of the upright. Maybe.

After undergoing hand surgery Friday expected to keep him out at least a month, Russell Wilson will miss his first start as a professional football player Sunday in Pittsburgh. Since Wilson was the 75th pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, the Seahawks haven’t had a starting quarterback other than him.

Wilson’ durability, by the numbers, including his 16 playoff games:

Seasons: 10.
Games: 165.
Starts: 165.
Record: 109-55-1.
Seattle offensive snaps in his career: 10,772.
Snaps played by Wilson: 10,589 (98.3 percent).
Snaps missed per season, on average: 18.3.
Playoff snaps missed: 3.

In the next three weeks, with Geno Smith slated to start against the Steelers, Saints and Jags, Wilson is likely to miss more snaps than the 183 he’s missed in his 165-game NFL life. 

I

In the span of 29 days, Trevor Lawrence has lost more games than he did in his combined high school and college career.

Lawrence in seven years at Cartersville (Ga.) High School and Clemson University: 86-4.

Lawrence in one month as a Jacksonville Jaguar: 0-5.

II

Marvin Harrison was 33 years and 87 days old when he caught his 900th ball in the NFL in 2005. Until Sunday, Harrison held the record for fastest to get to 900 NFL receptions, doing it in 149 games.

Antonio Brown was 33 years and 92 days old Sunday when he caught his 900th ball in the NFL. He did it in his 144th NFL game, smashing Harrison’s record.

It’s so interesting to note a couple of things: Harrison finished his career with 1,102 catches, so he wasn’t finished at 33; Brown seems not to be either. Brown, by his own petulance and sordid behavior, squandered a year-and-a-half of his age 31 and 32 seasons, and now seems to be on a productive path at 33. In the Week 4 mega-game at New England, Tom Brady targeted Mike Evans 12 times, Brown 11 times and Chris Godwin five. Brady trusts Brown. If Brown stays on that path, even if that path  veers from Brady in the next year or two, he should pass 1,000 receptions, and have a good chance at a gold jacket one day.

Much of last week was a blur: Tuesday-morning-to-Thursday-night trip West (JFK to San Francisco to Seattle to JFK in 62 hours) for our granddaughter Hazel’s third birthday in Berkeley and time with both daughters’ families in the Bay Area and Seattle. I was able to put on the headphones and watch Rams 26, Seahawks 17 on the Delta seatback TV, on the afternoon nonstop from SeaTac to JFK.

Great way to pass the time. The NFL plus a little geography:

Montana/North Dakota border: Opening kickoff.
Fargo, N.D.: Quandre Diggs picks off old friend Matthew Stafford.
St. Cloud, Minn.: Russell Wilson to D.K. Metcalf for the only TD of the half.
Rhinelander, Wis.: Halftime.
Over Lake Michigan between Wisconsin and Michigan: Second half kickoff.
Alpena, Mich.: Darrell Henderson runs for LA’s first TD of the night.
Over Lake Huron between Michigan and Canada: TD, Stafford to Tyler Higbee. Rams, 16-7.
Over Lake Ontario into the U.S., west of Rochester: Geno Smith’s 98-yard drive keeps Seattle in it.
Circling Manhattan in final descent: Smith is intercepted. Rams run out the clock.
Tarmac, JFK: Erin Andrews chats up Stafford postgame on FOX/NFLNet.

Oh, and Freddy King—heavy into crafting these days, three months shy of 5—made me a ring with my initials.

 

I

Rich Ohrnberger, a former NFL offensive lineman, is a FOX Sports and San Diego radio host.

II

The former Cowboys receiver, on Trevon Diggs, the current Cowboys star cornerback.

III

Retired NFL scout Greg Gabriel, who served for nine years as director of scouting for the Bears.

IV

The Seattle quarterback, after undergoing surgery on his right middle finger, which will cause him to miss his first games in a decade as an NFL player.

V

Brian Costello covers the Jets for the New York Post.

VI

Kuty, after Boston’s 6-2 Wild Card win keyed by two former Yankees. He covers the Yankees for NJ.com.

Reach me at [email protected], or on Twitter @peter_king

The Meyer mess. From Pat O’Malley: “The whole Urban Meyer matter is not a morality play but an example of a person out of his depth. As a head coach, you can’t stay behind while the team flies home so you can visit friends and family. Meyer’s current and former employment contracts should give him the financial wherewithal to make personal travel arrangements. Meyer’s post-game comments about a ‘heartbreaking loss’ seem disingenuous when viewed in this context. In your opinion can Meyer recover?”

I think he can, but this already was going to be a long-haul task, with Meyer likely having to overcome 3-14 and 5-12 seasons, or something like that. To be able to overcome that and show your players the team’s headed in the right direction, the coach has to be singularly focused on turning the team around. To earn and keep the players’ respect, he can’t be messing around in a bar with women half his age, and younger. It’s not just unseemly, it’s frighteningly dim-witted and tone-deaf. Any more side distractions and I doubt Shad Khan will be forgiving.

On Sam Darnold. From Alan Stover of North Carolina: “I have a question regarding your thought that, ‘Sam Darnold is better than I thought he’d be in Carolina. He could make the decision of owner David Tepper and coach Matt Rhule on the 2022 quarterback a difficult one.’ Can you expand on why you feel the 2022 quarterback situation is still unresolved in Carolina? I think the quarterback decision for 2022 is settled.”

It isn’t settled yet, Alan. Playing five games at above-average level, I’m sure, has not made Tepper believe Darnold is his long-term quarterback. The owner has made it clear—mostly internally—that he wants a franchise quarterback at all costs. It could be that Darnold is that franchise guy. But if Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson are available in February (and if Watson’s legal case has clarity by then) I would expect Carolina to be interested . . . unless Darnold plays consistently well for the next three months. Then they’ll have a decision to make.

Fixes, or just questionable missed calls? From John Paisan, of Dallas: Given the blatant non-calls of offensive pass interference to let a Tom Brady team beat the Cowboys in game 1, and defensive pass interference on the last play to secure a Browns win over the star-less Vikings this past week, when do fans start to believe that fixes are not part of the NFL now given how the NFL is increasingly influenced by the gambling corporateers now funneling money into the league?”

I have covered the NFL since 1984. Every year, and I mean every single year, I hear from fans and read in the media that the officiating is awful, worst it’s ever been, etc. The fact is, there are bad calls and missed calls every week. It’s up to a society increasingly prone to believe in conspiracy theories and to believe in the worst in all of us whether we’ll get to the point that we think games are fixed. It’s going to take a little more than the back judge missing a pass-interference call in a Week 4 game in Minneapolis for me to believe games are fixed. A lot more.

Beware the influence of gambling. From Bruce Lang, of Chico, Calif.: “If the NFL thinks (as you write) that any improvement in officials’ calls “would address only a few plays a year,’ I have news for them: THERE ARE BAD CALLS EVERY WEEK—and pretty soon people will think games were fixed for gamblers by officials’ calls. And then the NFL will have a HUGE problem on its hands.”

Perhaps. Bruce, I have heard this from many corners—that the NFL needs to pay extra attention to officiating with this new wave of legalized sports gambling. I get the sentiment. But I ask you: Do you think that officiating can be appreciably improved? I mean, significantly improved—to the point that it cuts down virtually every bad call that we see in the wake of games every weekend? I don’t think so. It’s a human game. Running backs fumble. Refs screw up calls. Coaches mess up clock management. It’s life in the NFL. Not to say the league shouldn’t fix the fixable things in officiating, but there will always be errors.

Mike makes a valid point, one I should think about. From Mike Spry: “You asked, Why does the NFL keep giving Josh Gordon chances? Gordon has a disease, and that’s science, not subjective rhetoric. If he kept coming back from torn ACLs would you ask that question? From cancer? Addiction is not a moral failing—especially in the context of a league that is filled with moral failings, too many to list here. When you suggest that it is, you disrespect the over 20 million Americans and millions more worldwide who suffer from this terrible, chronic disease and do a disservice to the ongoing battle to destigmatize addiction. If you’re going to take a moral stance against players, perhaps advocating for an end to chances for the Tyreek Hills, Josh Browns, Greg Hardys, and Kareem Hunts of the league.”

Interesting, Mike. Thanks. This is a complicated topic. I guess I would ask you this: If you had a business, and you had an employee who in the span of eight years violated company policy on using drugs six times, and twice informed you he was taking time off to go into rehab, and once got a DUI, and in the span of this eight-year period, missed half his time at work because of his personal demons, would you continue to employ him? Maybe you would. But I don’t know how you run a business not knowing what day it will be that Employee X doesn’t show up for work because he’s fallen off the wagon again—but figuring there’s a very good chance it’s going to happen.

I am empathetic to those who fight addiction. I certainly feel for them. But Kansas City is not doing this for a marginal player. Kansas City is doing this because, when on the straight and narrow, Josh Gordon can be a very good player. As for the others you mentioned, they deserve suspensions and in some cases banishment. But for those who are guilty of one incident of abuse, would you say they should be banned from the game forever? I would not. Having said all that, it’s a difficult issue, and one I that doesn’t have a simple solution. Thanks for challenging me on it.

Now this was a bad look. From Kevin Staub, of Newtown, Pa.: “I agree with your point about Mike McCarthy’s rainbow sprinkles sweatshirt. It is one of the ugliest garments an NFL coach has worn on the sideline. But it’s not THE worst. I remind you of former Giants coach Ray Handley, Monday Night Football, circa 1991.”

Point taken, Kevin. You win.

1. I think the Jon Gruden story is odd and disturbing and open-ended, all at the same time. When Andrew Beaton of the Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Gruden, in an email 10 years ago, said NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith “has lips the size of Michellin [sic] tires,” the first reaction of many around the league was disgust at Gruden using this racist trope. A few thoughts:

• Gruden has said to many over the weekend that he’s not racist, that he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body, and, after the Raiders game Sunday, doubled down: “I had no racial intentions with those remarks at all.” That’s hard to swallow. Who says something offensive about the size of a man’s lips? It’s a classic racial stereotype. Gruden keeps saying it. I keep being skeptical about it.

• The fact that there are more Gruden emails the league has in its possession (as was reported by Beaton on Friday) is notable; ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported Sunday that one of them has Gruden cursing out commissioner Roger Goodell. The Smith comments are much more serious.

• Over the weekend, I asked a few people what would be a sensible sanction, if any is forthcoming, from the league. After a discussion about it for a few minutes, one executive I respect told me: “I honestly have no idea. This is so out of bounds.”

Gruden, of course, wasn’t employed by the league in 2011, so you could question whether any discipline at all should be forthcoming for a man who was an NFL analyst for ESPN and did not return to the NFL as a coach till 2018. Mike Florio reported Sunday that some influential league office people think he will not be suspended. Goodell has lots of latitude to sanction league employees, however, and unlike players who have a union with some teeth, coaches don’t have a union and have to either accept the commissioner’s decision or appeal it—to the league office.

My thought is Gruden has to do something to show legitimate repentance—something like endowing a scholarship for Black students with part of his reported $100-million contract with the Raiders. An apology is not enough, regardless of how well-meaning it may be.

2. I think this is the oddest thing about the first month: Chicago’s over .500 (3-2), and judging by fan reaction, you’d think the Bears were 1-4. Revel in the wins Chicagoland. Don’t always look on the dark side.

3. I think no team in the NFL looks as hapless offensively as the 1-4 Jets. Five statistical notes, after New York’s loss in London:

a. They’ve played five games. In those five games, they’ve had 27 first-half possessions. They’ve punted 16 times and scored one touchdown.

b. Zach Wilson threw for 59 yards in the first 50 minutes of the loss in London. That’s almost a 1956 number.

c. Wilson is apace to throw 30 interceptions. The rookie record for picks in a season: Peyton Manning, 1998, 28.

d. In the last 25 games, the Jets have not scored 30 points in a game once. In its last 25 games, Green Bay has scored 30 points or more 14 times.

e. Sunday was the Jets’ 50th loss since opening day 2017. No team has lost more games since then, though the Giants have also lost 50 since then. It’s a wonderful time to be the back-page editor of the New York Post or New York Daily News.

4. I think the NFL’s foray into Europe on Sunday for the first time in two years was notable, in part, for all the thinking about where the game wasn’t played. While the Jets and Falcons were in London, lots of focus was on Germany. The NFL wants to put a game there in 2022, but may have to push that back to 2023 because of a crowded international soccer schedule prompted by the odd logistics of the World Cup in 2022. Normally, the World Cup is played in the summer. But because of the summer heat in Qatar, the World Cup will be played from Nov. 21 to Dec. 18, 2022, which will compress the scheduling of major soccer tournaments and league matches all over the world in the late summer and early fall months. The NFL will announce the three finalist cities for the first-ever German game on Tuesday—but when that city will actually host the game depends on stadium availability and whether the proper fanfare for such an event can happen in 2022.

One other note, per an NFL source: There are multiple NFL teams that badly want to play in that first German game and want to take advantage of the hunger of German fans. It’s the fastest-growing international market. The country had a Super Bowl audience of three million, according to NFL rating figures. Interesting: There’s a German iteration of NFL RedZone, with 200,000 German subscribers. There’s money to be made in Germany, and the NFL will work to mine it.

5. I think this occurred to me Thursday night, watching the great interception by Seattle safety Quandre Diggs of Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, who was trying to throw the ball away in the end zone when Diggs appeared out of nowhere to steal it. Stafford and Diggs are tight from their days in Detroit. Now they’ll play each twice a year as denizens of the NFC West. Remember my note back in camp? The day that the Stafford trade to the Rams was announced, Diggs’ phone buzzed. FaceTime request from Stafford. Diggs answered it. He looked at his screen. It was Stafford and Rams coach Sean McVay, together in Mexico, calling him. Stafford said to Diggs: “Man, better back up! We’re throwing deep!” That pick had to feel pretty great for Diggs.

6. I think this about Julio Jones, who was out again with a bum hamstring Sunday:

• He’s missed nine of his teams’ last 21 games—seven in Atlanta last year, two in Tennessee this year—with injuries.

• In the 12 games he’s played, he’s had 63 receptions and three touchdowns.

• Earnings in 2020 and 2021: $37.5 million. (Tennessee owes him $11.5 million in each of the next two seasons if it keeps him.)

• The Titans owe Atlanta a second-round pick in 2022 and a four in ’23 (Atlanta will send back a 2023 sixth-rounder), so the cost for Jones is not only the money.

• Jones will be 33 in four months.

• Teams that were interested in Jones before he was dealt to the Titans—Baltimore, Vegas, New England—are undoubtedly happy they didn’t pay the freight for Jones.

The Jones story is not over. He has plenty of time to make an impact on a team that probably is still the AFC South favorite. But once 32-year-old receivers who’ve played 138 physical NFL games start breaking down, they don’t usually become ironmen.

7. I think the most interesting non-quarterback in football right now (well, excluding Michael Dickson) is Atlanta receiver/returner/rusher Cordarrelle Patterson. I remember getting a rundown from Arthur Smith, the rookie Atlanta coach, in the offseason about his offense, and he said near the end, “Don’t forget Cordarrelle Patterson. We’ve got plans for him.” Lots of other teams have had plans for him too. But Smith is making them work and using Patterson to be a true multi-purpose weapon. He even threw an option pass Sunday in London agains the Jets. So far: 66 touches, 468 rushing/receiving yards, and five touchdowns in the first five weeks.

8. I think I nominate for Contract of the Year this one by new Falcons GM Terry Fontenot: Cordarrelle Patterson, one year, $3 million.

9. I think I want to feel some outrage for those angry that Stephon Gilmore, the Defensive Player of the Year just two years ago, was jettisoned by the Patriots for just a sixth-round pick in 2023. But I can’t. He’s 31, coming off quad surgery, plays a position that mandates quickness and speed and will want a big contract after this year. The cap is very much in flux, trending downward. Carolina was $19 million under the cap now, the Patriots were snug up against it. If Gilmore wasn’t going to take a team-friendly deal, it made no sense for New England to re-do a bunch of contracts to make Gilmore fit. As for the sixth-round pick, the compensation stunk because only five teams have significant cap space this year ($12 million or more) and who wants to hand a corner who will be 32 in 2022 a new contract, which Gilmore clearly will want?

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

a. This must be impossible: Steve Young, 60 today?

b. It can’t be just me who thinks that is stunning. The man looks 35.

c. Many memories of Young the player and person, all of them very good. The best memory, though, is of a vomitous night in Miami. After the greatest game of his life—the six-TD-pass Super Bowl rout of the Chargers in the Super Bowl in January 1995, I got in the back of a black car with Young and agent Leigh Steinberg for the ride back to the hotel. (I was reporting for Sports Illustrated.) What a night—finally proving he could win the biggest game, and maybe, finally, at last, he was a suitable heir to the legendary Joe Montana. Young had done an hour of interviews and chugged red Gatorade because he was feeling so dehydrated. Soon after the car left the parking lot for the ride to the Miami Airport Marriott, Young vomited red Gatorade on agent Leigh Steinberg’s shoes (just a speck splashed on mine) in the back of the black car. Yikes. Steinberg made a joke about how he’d never wash those shoes again. Young didn’t look so good. By the time he got to his room back at the hotel—it was a suite packed full of family and friends—he was full-on dehydrated, and the Miami-Dade Rescue EMTs showed up and gave him IV fluids in both arms. He lay on his bed on this momentous night, woozy, his eyes slits.

d. From the back of the crowded suite, an uncle or family friend on this boisterous and victorious evening yelled out, “Joe Who?”

e. Young heard and used what strength he had at this moment to yell out, “No! Don’t do that!” For all of their competitive moments, Young trying to wrest the job from Montana, Montana trying to keep it, Young never hated Montana. He understood exactly how Montana felt when Bill Walsh traded for this kid to compete with him, and the last thing Young was thinking on this night was anything vengeful about Joe Montana. I thought it said so much about Young the person: Even in this private, celebratory moment, he didn’t want anyone to think that part of his joy was anti-Montana joy. It wasn’t.

f. Feature Story of the Week: Camonghne Felix for The Cut on Simone Biles. What a great quote from Biles to Felix: “I should have quit way before Tokyo.”

g. This story is fantastic. So insightful. Felix gets past the surfacy Biles and cut to the real one. What I really liked is about how Felix got Biles to explain how her crisis in Tokyo was not like a batter in a slump or a basketball player in the midst of a two-week shooting skid. Batters or basketball players are not in mid-air, and when their day is bad, they don’t wonder if they’re going to land hard on their feet or on the back of their necks. Biles dropping out in Tokyo was about mental health and physical safety. Both. Important to realize that. Writes Felix:

Biles is naturally inclined toward humility — she likes people to know she is a glass-half-full kind of girl — but when she talks about the narratives that critics spread during Tokyo, her indignation builds. She recounts the absurdity of some of the assumptions the public made about her performance, Twitter threads accusing her of giving up because she just didn’t feel like competing. “If I still had my air awareness, and I just was having a bad day, I would have continued,” Biles says. “But it was more than that.”

After training for most of her life for these Olympic Games, after a grueling season, after years of discussing her abuser publicly — how could anyone think the Games went the way they did because she just didn’t feel like showing up? How could they think that after all this time, all this effort, she would travel all the way to Tokyo to just quit?

“Say up until you’re 30 years old, you have your complete eyesight,” Biles says. “One morning, you wake up, you can’t see shit, but people tell you to go on and do your daily job as if you still have your eyesight. You’d be lost, wouldn’t you? That’s the only thing I can relate it to. I have been doing gymnastics for 18 years. I woke up — lost it. How am I supposed to go on with my day?”

h. Story of the Week: Zhaoyin Feng of BBC News on the flood that drowned American dreams.

i.  Feng wrote about three people in one family, including 82-year-old patriarch Leng Hongsheng, who perished in a basement apartment in Queens during Hurricane Ida. The sadness of this poverty a few miles from New York City affluence is striking. Wrote Feng:

Though his life in the city was not easy, Mr Leng embraced New York. “He loved the artistic and political freedom here,” his former immigration lawyer Norman Wong told the BBC.

Born in Northeast China in 1939, he had a poetic name: Hongsheng, which means an ascending wild goose.

He immigrated when he was in his 50s to pursue a life as a New Yorker, painting Chinese landscapes and once submitting a design for the World Trade Center memorial competition. He also became politically active in America, penning newspaper commentary critical of the Chinese Communist Party and joining the “China Democratic Party”. Citing fear of persecution in China, Mr Leng applied for political asylum in the U.S. in the 2000s, and his case is still cited by local immigration lawyers.

The Lengs’ deaths have been widely remarked upon in China, with many wondering on social media why the patriarch chose such a seemingly impoverished life for his family.

Asked one user: “He loved America, but did America love him back?”

In the starkest way, the country failed him – but perhaps in another way, he was loved. In the month after their deaths, the Chinese-American community pooled the money to cover their funeral costs and to send their ashes back to their homeland – an act, as a Chinese proverb goes, of returning fallen leaves to their roots.

j. Football Story of the Week: Matthew Futterman, in the New York Times, on former Atlanta Falcon and current lawyer and author Tim Green, living with ALS, and living with immense dignity. Green was the 17th pick in the 1986 draft, by Atlanta. He was a good player in his eight NFL seasons, amassing 24 sacks—the last two came against Brett Favre and Dan Marino in consecutive 1992 games—but he always was interested in the law and in writing. Green’s most recent book, “Final Season,” could be his most powerful. As Futterman writes, he and wife Ilyssa and their family had to decide if son Ty would continue playing football. Per Futterman:

His latest, “Final Season,” about a family grappling with whether a child should keep playing football after his father, who is also his coach, is diagnosed with A.L.S. — yes, it is based on true events — debuted recently at No. 1 on The New York Times’s best-seller list for children’s middle grade hardcover.

. . . As his A.L.S. worsened dramatically three years ago, the family argued over whether Ty should continue to play football on his local youth team. Tim and some of his sons felt that because practice routines and tackling techniques have changed during the past 20 years, Ty, who was then 12, could continue to play safely. Ilyssa wanted football out of Ty’s life. He now focuses most of his athletic energy on lacrosse.

Tim Green said he does not regret his own football career. He remains a fervent fan who watches games all season, especially the Falcons, missing nearly everything about his playing days.

“The TV cameras, the uniforms, the colors, the pageantry, the smell of fresh air spoiled by sizzling dogs, spilled beer, fresh tape, and cut grass, the crowds, their cheers and their boos,” he said, ticking off details of a life still fresh in his mind. “The paychecks, fast cars, the bursting joy on the face of a kid, and all you did was scribble your name on his cap. The joys are endless.”

k. So, too, are the consequences. All of it makes for a good story.

l. Radio Story of the Week: by Juana Summers of NPR’s “Morning Edition.” What a cool story. Snapchat connects people and quasi-encourages people to run for public office. Don’t sit back and complain about your life and what’s going on in your town. Fix it.

m. Baseball playoffs are fun. The FOX studio show is fun. David Ortiz is fun.

n. Most meaningless cliché in all of baseball announcing: “He hit that one right on the screws.”

o. No one knows what that means. I looked it up. It dates back 120 years, to when some golf clubs were made of persimmon woods, and these woods were held together by small screws, and when you hit a golf ball square in the heart of the persimmon wood, you were “hitting it on the screws.”

p. One problem in baseball: Baseballs do not have screws, and baseball bats do not have screws. So no baseball player ever hits a ball “on the screws.”

q. So could we stop with that nonsensical expression?

r. Ron Darling with the Baseball Factoid of the Weekend, during game two of Dodgers-Giants: “The Dodgers have 609 saves on their roster.”

s. If you ever feel a little down, this might help.

t. There are great clips of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and then there is “Don’t bother Larry.”

u. Kyrie Irving is an interesting case. If he continues his stance against the Covid vaccine, it will cost him at least $18,735,522—which is the pro-rated portion of his 2021-22 compensation he’d forego because of municipalities that do not allow unvaccinated players to compete in indoor sports (New York City, San Francisco). Imagine being so opposed to something good for you that you’d give up $18 million. Imagine putting your team in a huge hole by not being available for 44 of 82 games (41 homes games, two more at the Knicks and one at Golden State). The people who run the Nets must think (but can’t say aloud), “The worst thing we ever did in our lives, and it’s not close, is to get into business with Kyrie Irving.”

v. Proud of you, Emily Kaplan. Go shine on ESPN’s hockey coverage. I know you will. 

Baltimore 26, Indianapolis 20. Seems odd, at least to this scribe of a certain age, that it’s been 37 years since the death by moving van of the Baltimore Colts. But it’s true. Though the rivalry hasn’t retained the sort of we-hate-Indy level that I thought it would when owner Bob Irsay moved the team in Mayflower vans in a snowstorm after the ’83 season, I always wonder what the football diehards who were alive then feel about seeing the horseshoe and blue-and-white uniforms in downtown Baltimore—on a foreign team.

Tonight is an important game for both teams. The Colts fall to 1-4 with a loss. The Ravens have both L.A. teams, Green Bay and four games against the Bengals and Browns on the remaining schedule. This game also marks an anniversary of sorts: Forty years ago this fall, Baltimorean Barry Levinson was directing a film he’d written called “Diner” in the city.

The Baltimore Colts, of course, were the subject of one of the coolest sports moments in any movie, ever. In “Diner,” a group of Baltimore bros reunite to celebrate the wedding of one of them. Eddie, as all the guys are, is a big fan of the Baltimore Colts, and he’s about to get married, but before he will marry Elyse, she must pass a 160-question Baltimore Colts quiz. He reasons that if they’re going to be together forever, she needs to share his passion for the Colts. (She studies and studies and studies, fails by two questions, but Eddie, impressed with how hard she tried, marries her anyway.)

The movie-makers phoned then-Colts assistant GM and longtime club employee Ernie Accorsi, explained the concept of the movie, and asked him to look over the quiz they planned to use in the movie. Too easy, Accorsi told them; real Colts fans would scoff at such a quiz. So he helped make it a bit tougher. “I was more of an editor,” Accorsi said.

“Diner” Quiz: The Colts had a team, lost the franchise, then got one from Dallas. What were the colors of the original Colts team? (Answer below, at the bottom of Week 6 section.)

“When I went to watch the movie, of course I liked it,” said Accorsi, who has a very soft spot for Baltimore from his years there. “But I stayed to the end to see the credits—and I didn’t get one!”

Week 6, already? We were just having Labor Day cookouts 20 minutes ago!

Arizona at Cleveland, Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET, FOX. Amazing, isn’t it? The game of the week (at least in my book) is a regional-only game in the late-TV window, with no way to switch it because FOX has the biggest ratings draw of the weekend at 4:25.

L.A. Chargers at Baltimore, 1 p.m. ET, CBS. I hope this is the first of 65 head-to-head games between Justin Herbert and Lamar Jackson.

Kansas City at Washington, 1 p.m. ET, CBS. You know why I included this game? I may be the only weirdo in the United States of America to look at the Week 6 schedule and notice this: The NFL has two AFC West playoff contenders playing on the road, at the same time, in the state of Maryland, 34 miles apart. I don’t know if that makes me sick, or keenly observant, or both.

Dallas at New England, Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS. Fortunate cross-flex ratings bonanza for CBS. PointsBet should have action on this question: Which owner will be shown on TV more in this game—Jerry Jones or Robert Kraft? I’d make Kraft the slight fave—He’s in CBS’ AFC, after all.

L.A. Rams at N.Y. Giants, Sunday, 1 p.m., FOX. Two questions: Can Daniel Jones make this a game against the rested Rams, coming off their long-weekend mini-bye? And can the Giants survive the Dallas-Rams-Carolina-Kansas City-Las Vegas-Tampa Bay pre-Thanksgiving gauntlet?

***

“Diner” quiz answer: The Colts’ uniforms in the 1950 NFL seasons were green and gray. The Colts went 1-11 and the franchise was dissolved by the NFL in January 1951. The Colts transitioned to blue and white in 1953. Those were the Dallas’ franchise’s colors, and the re-established Colts did not change them. The Baltimore Colts, green and gray. Who knew? You did, if you saw “Diner” 39 years ago.

I do not recall,
ever, labeling a punt
the play of the week.

FMIA Week 5: Bills Thump Chiefs On The Night It All Changed In The AFC