With the flightiness of NFL greatness (outside of New England), one of the sport’s oxymoronish phrases is “enduring rivalries.” There is only one that truly endures at the highest level of the game, year after year. Ray Lewis comes, Hines Ward goes. Billick/Cowher out, Harbaugh/Tomlin in. It never changes. The games I’ve covered in this rivalry in Pittsburgh—five of them in this century—have the kind of intensity that other great NFL games, even some of the Pats-Colts encounters, don’t seem to have. Former Ravens guard John Urschel put it this way: “When we went to Pittsburgh, you could feel the entire stadium hate you.”
Shoot. You watch the games. You know. You hear it. There’s a fury other games just don’t have. The cities are 250 miles, and worlds, apart.
So here we were Sunday, in the 43rd regular-season meeting of the Ravens and Steelers this century. Of course the series this century was tied 21-21, and of course it came down to the last 12 seconds. The situation: Ravens score a TD to narrow the lead to 20-19, and because his team was injury-ravaged in the secondary, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh chose to try to walk it off right there. Two-point conversion, with the league’s most dangerous two-point-conversion guy, Lamar Jackson, behind the center.
The moment, the sound, the drama. It’s why we watch.
Twenty-four minutes after the game ended, Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt got on the phone to describe what happened next.
“Sorry for my hoarse voice,” he said, “but I’ve been yelling and screaming. I’m all sorts of out of breath here too, still.”
Watt: “We see they’re going for two, and it’s not really anything that our guys were shocked by. They’re a team that likes to take chances and go for it on fourth down. I fully respect their decision, especially with Lamar. But the two-point play is something we take pride in stopping. Every week in the practice—and all the time in training camp—we work on it. We call it ‘Seven shots.’ Seven shots the offense gets to score from the 2. So it’s something we definitely are prepared for. This week, our offense used multiple guys [to simulate Jackson] on the scout team. Ray-Ray McCloud, one of our quick receivers, went and did some reps. We were prepared.
“The fans were going absolutely crazy. Terrible Towels waving like crazy. Just a special atmosphere. But once the play’s called, and you know your assignment, you just lock in, and it’s football.”
I told Watt it looked like his assignment, at left end, was to not let Jackson get outside, and to pressure him without him juking and getting getting free.
“That’s exactly it,” he said, “but you know. It’s no easy task.”
Watt went upfield at the snap to close off Jackson’s outside rush lane, as Baltimore tight end Mark Andrews sprinted to the right behind the line across the formation. Watt then lunged toward Jackson, who knew he was going to have to throw it just a tick sooner than he wanted because of Watt in his face. “The play I replayed in my head all week was Lamar pump-faking me last year in Baltimore and beating me for a 14-, 15-yard scramble. So in this scenario, I just want stay on my feet and get my outside arm up to try to influence him, change his angle.”
Watt did that. Jackson dropped down and made a sidearm-flick, evading Watt’s hot breath, and the ball floated toward an open Andrews.
“It all happened so fast,” Watt said. “I know I’m not getting to him, so I want to affect the play as much as I can. Did I affect his throw? I don’t know.”
“GREAT PLAY CALL!” Tony Romo yelled, meanwhile, on CBS.
Andrews got his big right hand on the ball at the 2. A catch, and Andrew walks in for the winning points, and the Ravens own the division. An incompletion, and every team in the division has six, seven or eight wins, and a sprint to the finish.
The ball was inches too far. Incomplete. As Romo said, “One inch from Baltimore going to 9-3. Instead, the Steelers are alive.”
— NFL (@NFL) December 6, 2021
Pittsburgh, 6-5-1, is alive, but in for a funky week. The Steelers fly to Minnesota on Wednesday for their Thursday night requirement (every teams plays at least one) game against the Vikings. Tough to go on the road in a very short week after the bi-annual slugfest with the Ravens. Nothing’s easy for the Steelers this year, and the road to the playoffs won’t be either.
Game of the week tonight, Pats at Bills, on a cold and windy night in western New York. Until then, some things for you to consider.
Why The Lions Really Want Dan Campbell To Work
There won’t be much hand-wringing about the mistakes, at least this morning. Detroit won a football game 29-27 over the Vikings on the last play of the game, an 11-yard touchdown pass from jittery Jared Goff to rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown with zeroes on the clock. It was the first win of Campbell’s coaching career. “It only took 12 weeks, huh? No, 13!” he said from his coach’s office at Ford Field post-game.
But a few things happened on the way to 1-10-1 that showed the team is still playing for him and wants him to succeed. The Lions posted a video on the post-game celebration in the locker room. Last year, it was clear the players did not like Matt Patricia. This year, on this day, it seems clear they do like Campbell, with the whooping and hollering and drenching when the players gave him the game ball.
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) December 6, 2021
I thought it was telling that, when Goff was looking for someone to hug after throwing the winning TD pass, he found Campbell, who has been tough on him—and rightfully so. Goff has been very shaky since coming over to be the heir to Matthew Stafford. But Campbell hugged Goff hard. It was a cool moment.
“What’d you say to Goff right then?” I said.
“I said, ‘That’s the way to throw it when we needed it, m—–f—–!’ ” Campbell said.
I laughed and Campbell said: “That is exactly what I said.”
“He had a couple of rough throws,” Campbell said. “For him to come back on that last drive and march us down the field and do what he did, it says a lot. He needed it. We needed it, more importantly.”
Goff will need a lot more drives like the 14-play, 75-yard TD drive with no timeouts there to ensure his future in Detroit. It’s no sure thing he will. But Sunday was a good day for the win, and for the community the Lions represent. Forty-five minutes north of the stadium is Oxford, Mich., where four Oxford High students were murdered and seven others wounded in a school shooting the Lions remembered Sunday. Campbell gave the school a game ball from the win and paid tribute to the dead and wounded at his post-game press conference. And safety Jalen Elliott, who wears the same number—42—that the murdered Oxford football star Tate Myre wore, paid respect to Myre himself. He wore his own Lions jersey pregame with “MYRE” replacing ‘ELLIOTT” on his back nameplate.
“I wanted to pay tribute to the family and pay homage to the community, with the family watching, hopefully,” said Elliott, who is from Richmond, Va., and went to Notre Dame. “I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. This was not only for Oxford, not only for Michigan, but for families across the country. I have three siblings. One is 16 and in high school now. My parents are both in education, in school systems. I want to support schools. Hopefully we can come together and take a step in the right direction.”
What Bruce Arians told me when the Bucs signed the troubled Brown 13-plus months ago has been on my mind the past few days. “If he screws up one time, he’s gone,” Arians told me in November 2020. Let’s see. By my count, Brown has screwed up three times since those words were spoken.
1. Brown used a fake vaccine card to confirm that he’d been vaccinated. That’s a federal offense.
2. Brown spent multiple weeks—as much as four months—around his team pretending to be vaccinated. Among those he would be near almost every day are the 69-year-old Arians, who had prostate cancer in 2007 and has had skin cancer; and offensive assistant Tom Moore, who is 83. Greg Auman of The Athletic read Arians’ post-Super Bowl book “A Season in the Sun,” and found a passage that quoted Arians telling his players: “If any of you make me or Tom Moore sick, I have a gun and I will shoot you in the kneecaps.” Arians and Moore can’t be happy that Brown passed himself off as vaxxed—and imagine the fury of their families.
3. Brown’s scheme to use the fake card began “unraveling,” according to a story in the Wall Street Journal posted Sunday by Louise Radnofsky and Andrew Beaton, when the league discovered the card purported to show a vaccine issued 90 minutes away from Tampa. The paper said Brown told investigators he went to a far-away vax center because he didn’t want to be recognized, and because he didn’t want to be around teammates. Then the investigators discovered two other teammates had cards with the same vax data from the same vax site on the same day. With so much at stake—his employment with the Super Bowl champions and his friend Tom Brady—Brown thought he could get away with this. And maybe he will.
The Bucs say they’ll have nothing to say till Brown’s suspension is up and he is eligible to return Dec. 26 against Carolina. What must be going through the minds of Arians and GM Jason Licht? At times, Brown has seemed Brady’s favorite receiver, and the Bucs, 9-3 with five games to go, have a legitimate chance to repeat as champs. Might they wait till Brown is eligible and see where their receiver group is then—see if they really need Brown? Might they think the media clamor will die down over the next two weeks, and they’ll be able to fold Brown back into the team with an I-am-truly-sorry press conference by Brown when he’s eligible to play? We’ll learn a lot about the Bucs, and their ethos, in the next couple of weeks.
The Giants. Sigh
I get that Joe Judge likely survives the Giants’ post-season housecleaning that starts with GM Dave Gettleman. I can’t really argue with that. But I found myself watching parts of Judge’s 28th game, by which time there should be some familiarity with the system, even among the backups, and wondering why lots of that is lacking. Late in the third quarter at Miami on Sunday, the Giants had the ball and this happened:
- QB Mike Glennon took a 13-yard sack.
- Giants took a timeout to avoid a delay-of-game penalty.
- Glennon took a seven-yard sack.
- Giants took a delay-of-game penalty.
- Now it was third-and-33. The Giants called a run. Gain of 13.
That cannot happen in an NFL game. And it happened in Judge’s 28th. It’s stunning that it would happen under a no-nonsense fundamentals-preacher like Judge.
Eagles First-Round Pick Trio
Per Tankathon early this morning, Philadelphia’s going to have a lot of early draft capital to spend next April. The Eagles are projected to pick 12th, 13th and 17th next April in the first round, though clearly that will change significantly by regular season’s end Jan. 9. The Eagles have Miami’s one and their own one, and have all but clinched having Indy’s one. Carson Wentz, traded to the Colts last offseason, had to play 75 percent of the Colts snaps this year, or 70 percent if the Colts make the playoffs, to turn a 2022 second-round pick from Indy to a first-rounder. On Sunday, Wentz played 62 snaps against Houston, and with four games left, he might have already qualified for the 75 percent. Per Jimmy Kempski’s fun Wentz snap count tracker in Philly Voice, Wentz, based on the Colts’ average snaps per game on offense, needs to play about 854 snaps this year to get to 75 percent. Wentz, after Sunday, has played 854.
Barring something really weird, the Eagles now will have their own first-round pick, and those from the Dolphins and Colts, and all could be in the top 20 of the round. In all, the Eagles will have nine picks in the first five rounds: three in the first, single picks in the second, third and fourth rounds, and three in the fifth. With quarterbacks not projected to be super-high in round one, the Eagles would likely be able to sit or maneuver slightly to draft one … or package three attractive picks to get a Deshaun Watson or to chase a Russell Wilson.
Three Teams. Small Chunks
Dolphins. Miami’s suddenly interesting. Following seven losses with five wins … surrendering 11 points a game in the five wins … Tua Tagovailoa getting more comfortable and productive by the week, completing 78 percent in the five-game streak. Anything flip the switch at 1-7? That’s what I asked tight end Mike Gesicki after the 20-9 win over the Giants. “Wish I could give you some secret story, but we just stayed with the process,” he said. “If you could sit in our team meeting tomorrow morning, you’d see coach [Brian] Flores would be the exact same as he was the day after we lost our seventh in a row. He doesn’t bash people, call you out. He’s consistent. Another thing that hasn’t changed is Tua. He’s been the same through it all.” When we finished talking, Gesicki apologized for not saying much of anything. But I knew what he was saying was what was happening inside the team. It’s a Flores production, and the coach learned in New England that highs and lows don’t win. Consistency does.
Vikings. At 30-29-1 since 2018, Minnesota is having another disappointing season. I wonder when the Wilfs will start to get impatient with Mike Zimmer, in year eight now. This year, the Vikings followed the peak of beating Green Bay with losses at San Francisco and Detroit. I’ve got to think Minnesota needs to sweep Chicago over the next month for the staff to feel good about its future.
Ravens. Baltimore’s 3-3 since late October and feeling the effects of so many huge injuries. Now another is looming, with star cornerback Marlon Humphrey expected to be lost for significant time with a shoulder or chest injury; he’ll be MRI’d today. It’s easy to blame Lamar Jackson (seven TDs, eight picks in the 3-3 Ravens run), but his protection was bad Sunday and as usual this year, Jackson himself was most of the run game. The result: Jackson took a career-high seven sacks. Baltimore at Cleveland next Sunday is a very big game for both teams.
Bill Keenist, a classmate of mine in the late seventies at Ohio University, got a job as a PR assistant with the Lions in 1985. In 1987, he went looking for a place to buy a home. Driving through the quaint Americana small town of Oxford, Mich. (pop.: 3,346), just north of the team’s Silverdome offices, he was won over by a middle-aged man wearing an Oxford High School football jacket walking through town. My kind of town, Keenist thought. That’s where he and his wife raised their three children—including son Billy, the quarterback of the high school team in 2004-05, playing for the man who wore that jacket walking through town, coach Bud Rowley. That’s where Keenist, the former communications VP with the Lions, lives today, 34 years after making Oxford the family home.
“I was on the Oxford school board for seven years,” Keenist, 63, said from Oxford on Saturday night. “I can’t imagine the kids’ school years being any better anywhere else in the country. The teachers, the coaches, the administrators, the parents—everybody cares for the kids in that school system.”
Keenist remembered when Oxford’s football team beat the defending state champs on the opening Friday night in 2011, and after the game, most of the 11,000 fans in the stands went down on the field to hug the players, hug themselves, hug the moment. One of the Keenist boys was the assistant coach of the varsity, and other was the JV coach, and Keenist that day looked around to take a mental picture he’ll never forget—grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, townies, brothers and sisters of players, toddlers. The whole town was there. And no one would leave.
“I hadn’t seen anything like that here until last night,” Keenist said, trying not to cry. “The vigil. The entire main street of town, packed. Reminded me of that night in 2011, in a sad, tragic way.”
On Tuesday, police said an Oxford sophomore, Ethan Crumbley, shot and killed four students in an Oxford High hallway and wounded seven others before being arrested. Keenist is friends with the teacher who was shot—he helped sell her daughter on Ohio University. Another teacher who was once a Lions PR intern was in a classroom just feet from the shooter.
Keenist was on the Oxford School Board from 2007 to 2014, and he said all schools in the district had upgrades in security systems and entrance security, and added liaison officers in every school. Just like so many other school systems in the country, now this Norman Rockwell High School wonders if it will have to install metal detectors. Lord. What a country. A 15-year-old boy gets a semi-automatic pistol for Christmas. What could go wrong?
This community will not lay down. The other day, as organs were being harvested from one of the victims, Jason Shilling, for transplantation in needy sick people, hundreds of townspeople gathered in silence to pay their respects outside the hospital, to show the Shilling family they care. The family waved from an enclosed footbridge; outside, townspeople wept. A local pizzeria, Sick Pizza, made free pizza for anyone who would donate money to the families of the dead; as of Saturday, they’d raised $11,000. Oxford Bank set up a memorial fund for the victims. Several GoFundMe accounts totaled more than $400,000 as of Saturday. The University of Michigan commissioned a patch honoring the four victims and placed it on its uniforms for the Big Ten championship game Saturday night.
The football coach at Oxford is local hero Zach Line, who starred at the school and went on to play roles for the Vikings and Saints for seven seasons. (He caught three of Drew Brees’ 571 touchdowns.) Line declined comment over the weekend. He was going through a painful time—one of the victims was the star of his team, all-district running back/linebacker Tate Myre (pronounced “mirror”). Myre was likely at least a Mid-American Conference-caliber player. He proudly posted a picture of himself on social media from one of his recruiting trips to the University of Toledo in November.
Jalen Elliott & Kirk Cousins honored the victims of the Oxford High School shooting, including fallen hero Tate Myre who wore number 42. 🙏 pic.twitter.com/nYE8AQt8Mg
— NFL (@NFL) December 5, 2021
The weekend internet was full of rudimentary video of Tate, wearing number 42, making plays all over the field for Oxford. America was reminded of Myre on Saturday night, with the bold “42” on the Michigan uniform patches in the Big Ten championship game. “Tate personified the best of high school football and the game of football,” Keenist said. “The selflessness, the teamwork, the leadership.”
Just before midnight Saturday, Keenist got a text from his son Chris, after the resounding Michigan victory over Iowa.
“Dad,” Chris Keenist wrote. “Michigan scored 42 points! 42!!!”
Offensive Players of the Week
Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback, Pittsburgh. Sort of a frustrating game for Roethlisberger for three quarters, especially when Diontae Johnson, who hasn’t had the dropsies this year, let a TD waft through his hands just before halftime. But trailing 10-3 entering the fourth, Roethlisberger did what storied quarterbacks do: He went TD-field goal-TD on three straight drives, with two touchdowns to Johnson, to lead the Steelers to a 20-19 season-resuscitating win at Heinz Field. If that was Big Ben’s final Ravens game at home, he went out in style, completing 21 of 31 for 236 yards and the two clutch scores.
Gardner Minshew, quarterback, Philadelphia. Minshew’s one incredible story. Hasn’t played the whole year, and he was forced into action at the Jets on Sunday because of an ankle injury to Jalen Hurts. He strafed the Jets early, completing 11 of 11 with two TD passes to Dallas Goedert. For the day, he completed 80 percent of his throws, and, amazingly, ended each of his first eight drives with either touchdowns or field goals. “There’s nothing like this feeling,” Minshew said.
Defensive Players of the Week
T.J. Watt, edge rusher, Pittsburgh. Stated his case rather eloquently for Defensive Player of the Year with 3.5 sacks, three QB pressures and one forced fumble in the 20-19 win over arch-rival Baltimore. His biggest play, as I wrote above, was rushing Lamar Jackson on the game-deciding two-point conversion try by the Ravens in the final seconds. Now that was a classic rivalry win, and Watt, coming off his Covid-19 case, played one of the best games of his career.
Carlos Dunlap, edge rusher, Seattle. Dunlap has been embattled all season, on and off the bench for lack of production after Seattle brought him back, thinking he could be a key sack guy. Early in the third quarter of a game Seattle had to have (it might be too late for the Seahawks, but who knows in this weird season), San Francisco led 23-21. With Jimmy Garoppolo set up to throw around his own goal line, Dunlap burst through the line and cornered Jimmy G for a safety. Now 23-all. Then, on fourth-and-goal from the Seattle 3-yard line with 22 seconds left and the ‘Hawks protecting (feebly) a 30-23 lead, Dunlap rushed from Garoppolo’s right and got an arm up to block the potential game-tying pass. Crucial day for what had been a declining player so far this year.
Special Teams Players of the Week
Travis Homer, punt-team upback, Seattle. It was one of the most stunning touchdowns of the season. After a frustrating game-opening possession, Seattle lined up to punt from its own 27-yard line. Homer took a short snap from long-snapper Tyler Ott and ran around left end past a lot of stunned 49ers. The 73-yard touchdown was precisely what the moribund Seahawks needed.
FAKE PUNT ➡️ FRONT FLIP
TRAVIS HOMER TO THE 🏠pic.twitter.com/X6ijwAcsUL
— PFF (@PFF) December 5, 2021
Jake Elliott, kicker, Philadelphia. Scored the last 13 points of a 33-18 win the Eagles desperately needed at the Meadowlands after last week’s debacle against the Giants. In fact, Elliott scored the only points of the game in the last 31 minutes, connecting on field goals of 31, 32, 43 and 46 points on an odd day in New Jersey.
Coach of the Week
Dave Logan, Broncos radio voice/Denver Cherry Creek High School head coach. Logan won his 10th Colorado state high school football championship Saturday at Empower Field, with Cherry Creek shutting out top-seed Valor Christian 21-0. Logan has won those 10 titles at four different schools, and it’s believed that no high school football coach has ever won state titles with four different schools. The win Saturay was the 303rd of his coaching life. Logan flew to Kansas City to do the Broncos’ Sunday night game there.
Goats of the Week
A Cincinnati-roots edition of Goats of the Week
Andy Dalton, quarterback, Chicago. The fifth four-interception game in his 150-game career was the ugliest, because those four turnovers led to 24 of the Cardinals’ 33 points. Dalton’s interceptions allowed Arizona to start drives at the Chicago 28, 15, 28 and 12-yard lines.
Joe Mixon, running back, Cincinnati. The Bengals had fought back to 24-22 against the Chargers by early in the fourth quarter, and they were driving, at the Chargers’ 34-yard line. Mixon took it from Joe Burrow and appeared to have trouble getting a good grip. He fumbled, and cornerback Tevaughn Campbell of the Chargers picked up this bizarre gift from heaven and ran 61 yards for the game-changing touchdown.
“God works in mysterious ways.”
—Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson on Saturday night after the team’s 42-3 win over Iowa in the Big Ten title game … 42 being the number of the Tate Myre, the Oxford (Mich.) High School student and football player who was murdered at the high school Tuesday. The Wolverines wore uniform patches honoring the four Oxford victims Saturday night.
“THEY’VE DONE IT! THREE ZEROES ON THE CLOCK! THIS GAME IS OVER! IT’S OVER! THREE ZEROES ON THE CLOCK! JARED GOFF TO AMON-RA ST. BROWN! HIS FIRST CAREER TOUCHDOWN, AND HOW BIG IS THAT! MY GOODNESS!!! HAVE A DAY BOYS, HAVE A DAY!”
—Lions play-by-play voice Dan Brown, calling the end of Detroit’s walk-off win over Minnesota, assuring the Leos wouldn’t finish the 2021 season winless.
“Kittle wishes he was Gronkowski.”
—Sign at the stadium in Seattle—a sign George Kittle actually autographed before the game.
“As I told Coach, ‘Whoever took you out, Jon, that was a paid assassin.’ That was one of the best hit jobs I’ve ever been around.”
—Las Vegas Raiders radio voice Brent Musburger, on the “JT the Brick Show,” with his opinion about the emails that surfaced that forced Jon Gruden to resign as coach earlier this season.
“Aidan Hutchinson! He’ll roll up on ya, folks, and let ya smell his cologne!”
—FOX’s Gus Johnson, on the Iowa-Michigan game Saturday night.
I don’t know what this means, but it’s Johnson-esque.
“The greatest of life’s blessings cannot be counted in electoral votes.”
—Veteran, war hero and longtime politician Bob Dole, who died Sunday at 98, in a 2012 op-ed in the Washington Post.
Dole would have known.
You don’t even have to watch the games closely this year to notice that coaches are shedding the arch-conservative ethos on fourth downs to go for it more, and to go for it in their own territory much more than the past. One of the leaders is rookie Chargers coach Brandon Staley, 39, who’s been an unconventional play-caller and strategist since taking over in L.A. Through 12 weeks of the season, one of the leaders in the space, EdjSports (a subsidiary of Champion Gaming), had Staley in first place in its Offensive Play-Calling Metric, also called the Critical Call Index, which analyzes coaching decisions on fourth downs.
Through 12 weeks, the Chargers were 12 of 20 on fourth-down conversions, a win rate of 60 percent.
I thought the best way to show how the game is changing would be to take one of the Chargers’ fourth-down calls that traditionally would have been an automatic punt, and show why Staley made the decision he did, and how EdjSports co-founder and chief innovation officer Frank Frigo analyzed all of Staley’s options on the play, by feeding the parameters into a program and running it thousands of times.
The Chargers played Cleveland in Week 5. With 10:34 left in the third quarter, Cleveland led 27-13, and L.A. had a fourth-and-two at its own 24-yard line.
Staley: “We went into the season with aggressive modeling, and our modeling for this situation was ‘go’ all the way.” He said the Chargers’ analytics team of Aditya Krishnan and Alex Stearns and offensive assistant/game management Dan Shamash helped create the aggressive strategic stance. Also: The Browns had just driven 75 yards in five plays to score and take a 14-point lead, and Staley wanted defenders to get a breather and gather their thoughts on how to stop the Browns.
Frigo: “Because the Chargers already had a low probability of winning there, they’re probably gaining much more on the success of going for it and making it than they would be losing by going for it and failing. Plus, on an open-field fourth-and-two, the chances are better than they’d be on the goal line.”
Frigo laid out these contingencies on the play for me Saturday:
- If the Chargers chose to punt, they’d have a 10.1 percent chance of winning the game.
- If they chose to go for it, they’d have a 12.7 percent chance of winning the game.
- If they went for it and got stopped, they’d have a 6.5 percent chance of winning.
Staley: “We liked our plan for that exact situation. They were in a dime defense. We had a run-pass option called because we felt we could take advantage of their run structure and still have the pass element if they pressured or presented a tough run look.”
Justin Herbert took the snap and moved left, with the ball in Austin Ekeler’s gut. Herbert never pulled the ball out. Ekeler ran for nine yards. First down. By gaining nine yards there and continuing the drive, the Chargers at that moment increased their win chances to 15.7 percent.
Frigo: “So the Chargers, by choosing to go for it and gaining nine, raised their win probability by 5.6 percent, from 10.1 percent to 15.7 percent. If they’d punted, they’d have lowered their win probability by 3.6 percent, to 6.5 percent.”
Think of it this way: That Chargers drive was their sixth of the game. They might have five the rest of the game. In order to have a chance to win, they’d have to score two more touchdowns than the Browns would the rest of the game—odds that didn’t look great. Smarter to take a risk than to give the ball back to a team currently shredding your D.
Frigo: “The phrase I use is ‘postponement of regret.’ A coach who punts there might feel better for a few minutes, but he won’t feel better about it at the end of the game.”
The Chargers went on to score on that drive, and this was the crazy final: Chargers 47, Browns 42. That was the game with the 26-point L.A. fourth quarter. Seems strange to say a fourth-down call in the third quarter might have turned the tide, but it certainly was a big call in a big comeback win. It was a call the EdjSports analytics supported making every time.
Staley: “What I’ve learned and come to accept and embrace is, I don’t care how we lose, or the optics of it. Being ‘conservative’ just preserves stats and lets you feel that you’re closer than you really are. My mindset is to do everything we can to win the game on our terms, not someone else’s. And if it doesn’t happen, I’m good with that.”
Postscript: The top and bottom-rated coaches in the league through 12 weeks in the EdjSports Head Coach Rankings say something about the meaning of coaches in the game. The rankings measure every coaching decision through a series of metrics including fourth-down calls and play-calling choices (judged pre-snap, not after the result). Here are the rankings and explanation of the parameters.
2. Matt LaFleur
3. Kliff Kingsbury
4. Sean McDermott
5. Frank Reich
28. Pete Carroll
29. Dan Campbell
30. Joe Judge
31. Robert Saleh
32. Mike Tomlin
Team records through 12 weeks of the top five coaches: 37-20. Bottom five: 15-38-2.
The line of demarcation, I think, with coaches, began seriously in 2017, when Doug Pederson started going gutsy. His risk-accepting ethos resulted in going 17-for-26 on fourth downs, and having two specialists in analytics in his ear, occasionally, during games. Not coincidentally, Frigo and his EdjSports team were providing statistical analysis to the Eagles in 2017. The Eagles’ owner, Jeffrey Lurie, pushed the acceptance of advanced data. “What we found is there’s been so many decisions over time that are too conservative for the odds of maximizing your chance to win,” Lurie said in 2017. “We’ve lived with television commentators and reporters and whatever for 20, 30, 40 years, who always kind of adopted what I would call a very conservative approach to those decisions.”
“On fourth downs now,” Frigo said, “the analytics revolution is the difference. Everyone had been anchored by conventional wisdom, like, ‘In your territory, never go for it on fourth down.’ Now they know many of those calls are mathematically defendable decisions.”
Tide Receiver U.
Number of wide receivers picked in the top 15 of the drafts between 2011 and 2021:
From Alabama: 6.
From Ohio State, Michigan, Florida, Florida State, Oregon, Oklahoma, Miami, Texas, Texas Tech and Penn State combined: 0.
Might be seven come April 2022, with the rising fortunes of Alabama junior receiver Jameson Williams.
Adrian Peterson scored his 126th NFL touchdown Sunday. Jim Brown, the greatest running back of all time, also scored 126 NFL touchdowns. They are tied for 10th on the all-time list.
Adrian Peterson’s age when he scored his 126th TD: 36 years, 259 days old.
Jim Brown’s age when he scored his 126th TD: 29 years, 305 days old.
Before Sunday, the last time Jared Goff won a football game for a coach not named Sean McVay was six years ago: Dec. 29, 2015, in the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas, on a Tuesday afternoon. The Sonny Dykes-coached Cal Bears beat Air Force.
In the 72 months since then, Goff’s teams are 1-17-1 in non-McVay games (coached by Jeff Fisher, Dan Campbell).
Love that defense from the Vikings. Keep everything in front of you in the endzone, even if you give up a game-losing touchdown. Don’t get beat deep.
— Kevin Clark (@bykevinclark) December 5, 2021
Kevin Clark covers the NFL for The Ringer, and said right there what any people who know anything about football were saying watching the soft D on the last snap of the Lions’ win over Minnesota.
Mosley said opponents do not respect the #Jets, which he says is “well deserved.” He said Fletcher Cox was laughing at Saleh during the game and the Eagles showed no respect by not shaking hands at the coin toss. #Jets pic.twitter.com/CqonWzqk9V
— Rich Cimini (@RichCimini) December 5, 2021
Cimini covers the Jets for ESPN.com.
Joey Bosa was cleared of a concussion, but Brandon Staley said he decided to keep Bosa out of the game because of his concussion history. “As long as I’m the head coach here,” Staley said, “I’m going to be making decisions like that in the best interest of our players.”
— Daniel Popper (@danielrpopper) December 5, 2021
Popper covers the Chargers for The Athletic.
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) December 3, 2021
The tweet shows how the Notre Dame players found out about the new coach: Marcus Freeman.
The most compelling piece of video from Jake Dickert’s press conference had nothing to do with the presser.
His daughter Rylee is 10 years old, and I believe Pullman is the 7th place she’s lived.
You can tell how much this moment means to her. Teared up watching this. pic.twitter.com/Wkh2cOPXNF
— Brenna Greene (@BrennaGreene_) December 3, 2021
Greene, sports director at KREM-TV in Spokane, Wash., with a scene after the press conference introducing the new coach of Washington State, Jake Dickert. Rylee Dickert stole the show.
Good question. From Sheldon Ort, of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario: “I’m curious about your take on the three players suspended for submitting a fake vaccination certificate. By accepting the three-game suspension it appears the players are admitting guilt to a federal crime. If yes then why has the NFL not penalized them more severely?”
Thanks, Sheldon. A lot of people wonder the same thing. I think the big point to realize here is the suspension was levied with joint agreement by the NFL and the players union. Usually the players fight everything NFL tries to do when disciplining players. My educated guess is that when the union and the league agreed to the three-game bans, there was an understanding the players would not appeal, and an understanding that the NFL would not further attempts to support federal charges against the players. Now, if the feds want to press charges against the players, that’s the government’s decision.
He wants to know how I do my job. From Jeff Alves, of Florida: “I’m wondering how you go about catching the action on game day. With several games happening at the same time on a typical Sunday, how do you watch them all and, more importantly, analyze what you are seeing? In real time? I’m envisioning a wall of screens in your viewing room each tuned into a different game. Perhaps too grandiose? When you do watch a game, do you do it with the sound on?”
Thanks for writing, Jeff. By about 10 a.m. ET Sunday, I file about 50 percent of the column to my editor, Dom Bonvissuto, much of it written on Saturday—the mail, 5 or 6 of the Things I Think, best games of next week, maybe an item independent of the Sunday games, like the Oxford section this week. Then, the last 5,000 words or so of the column will be based on Sunday’s games. I work in my Brooklyn apartment, in a spare room I’ve turned into an office, with a 24-inch LG TV on the desk, a second screen I plug into my laptop, then Sunday Ticket on DirecTV on my laptop. Using last week as an example:
• 1 p.m. ET window: The TV has Scott Hanson’s Red Zone channel (I watch Andrew Siciliano when there’s a command performance game I want to put on TV), with the sound on, to monitor all seven early games. On my extra screen is Tampa-Indy. On my laptop, I either start writing some stuff (maybe a player of the week) or alternate pulling up a game that gets hot. Mac Jones against the Titans, for instance, is one I had on for maybe half the game. Entering the day, I was thinking of doing a ranking of the best teams entering December. As the games got late, I knew New England and Tampa Bay would be in my top teams, so I arranged to speak to stars of the day (Leonard Fournette, Matthew Judon) about their days and their teams. I rarely watch a game so closely that I’m noting the play-by-play; just not practical when trying to see all the games.
• 4 p.m. window: In between speaking to Fournette and then Judon, I put Rams-Packers on the TV and Siciliano’s Red Zone on the second screen, and I start sketching out part of the column. At halftime I do a quick hit with Sky Sports in London via VideoMix on my laptop. I eat dinner (pizza last week) while watching second halves of late games on Red Zone.
I decided if I could get Matt LaFleur after the Packers’ victory I would lead the column with my top 10 teams entering December, and use LaFleur (Packers, 1), Judon (Patriots, 3) and Fournette (Bucs, 6) to personalize the top 10. I start writing and mostly ignore the Sunday night game. If I have to pay attention to it, Dom, my editor, will alert me in the second half; otherwise, it’s white noise in my writing background. Many of you write to me on Mondays, angry that I’ve not paid attention to your team. It’s just impossible to try to write 5,000 cogent words in about six or seven hours when trying to pay attention to 12 or 13 football games. So there you go, Jeff.
FMIA, Campus Edition? From Lee Wright, of Saginaw, Mich.: “Since your FMIA column is such a must-read after each weekend by me and so many others, do you think a college version would work as well and be so well received by the college football loving population? Seems the time is right for a college version of FMIA.”
Pete Thamel does a good job with sort of overnight college-football analysis at Yahoo Sports. Here’s a sample. That wide-ranging column was posted at 2:30 a.m. Sunday, even earlier by an hour or two from the time most of my Monday columns are posted. So I’d say there is one. I love columns like Thamel’s.
Noise, noise, noise. From Darryl Gonzalez, of Orchard Park, N.Y.: “Please keep writing about how NFL games, during non-playing time, have either music, announcements or sound effects going incessantly. Sometimes even after a play starts (although for just a second or two). It is enough to drive one batty. Please, just a few seconds of silence! (Yes, I know this makes me sound like a crotchety old man.)”
I am one too. Just know the NBA is worse. Tried to listen to the end of a Nets game on the radio the other day here in New York, and turned it off. Could barely hear the broadcasters over the constant piped-in noise during play.
1. I think the biggest lesson from the Sunday night game—other than perhaps that the Kansas City defense has now come full circle and will be a force to be reckoned with—is that we’ve reached that time in the six-year post-Peyton Manning Era in Denver that cries out/demands for yet another major investment in a quarterback. Denver is non-competitive with the premier team in the division. The 22-9 loss to KC at Arrowhead on Sunday night means the Broncos, post-Manning, are 0-11 against Kansas City by an average losing margin of nearly two touchdowns per game. The options facing Denver GM George Paton come March:
• Trade for Aaron Rodgers (his choice whether he wants to be dealt, and no sign if he does) or Deshaun Watson (risky and costly) or Russell Wilson (no sign Seattle will trade him) … or do something unexpected. If Miami deals for Watson, Tua Tagovailoa might be out there—though he’s playing more and more like an answer in Miami. Jimmy Garoppolo might be out there, but he’s tarnished his rep to the point where I doubt anyone looks at him as a no-doubt answer for the next five years. The best option, I think, is Rodgers, but it’s still so cloudy that he’ll even be available. Even if he can be had, he’s 38, and Denver would almost have to backstop Rodgers with a long-term guy in the ’23 or ’24 draft.
• Draft one. Looks like an iffy market this year, but Paton may fall in love with a project mid-round guy like Malik Willis or Kenny Pickett in the winter.
• Do something outside the box. Blow away a team not looking to trade its starter—Matt Ryan or Derek Carr, for example—or trade less for a Jalen Hurts if Philadelphia decides to draft the next big thing, then mold your offense around the arm and legs of Hurts.
It’s easy to say about any of those things, Not gonna happen. Fine. But the alternative is the status quo, and that looks disastrous.
2. I think Ben Roethlisberger is right, it’s time to walk away. Adam Schefter reported Saturday that Roethlisberger is telling friends he’s likely to retire after the season. I loved his fight and his comeback Sunday against Baltimore. But some guys are 44 going on 34 (Tom Brady), and some are 38 going on 33 (Rodgers). Roethlisberger is 39 and looks every bit of it. Since Dec. 1, 2020, no quarterback in the league has more turnover-worthy plays (interception, dropped interception or fumble in the pocket) than Roethlisberger’s 30, per PFF, and I probably didn’t have to tell you that; you can see it. The Steelers—now, there’s a team that should move heaven and earth to try to deal for Rodgers and convince him the Steelers give him the best chance to win in his golden NFL seasons.
3. I think the best performance on a losing team Sunday was David Montgomery’s, in Chicago’s loss to Arizona. He is such an impressive runner inside and outside, and so much of his talent is buried with the moribund Bears attack.
5. I think that may be partially because Elliott’s banged up. But Pollard’s just more dangerous, has been so for some times, and Elliott (zero 70-yard rushing games in the last seven games) has stopped being the unstoppable horse the Cowboys grew to rely on three and four years ago. Since opening day 2020: Elliott, 4.18 yards per rush; Pollard, 4.99. After Pollard’s 58-yard TD sprint in New Orleans late in the third quarter gave Dallas a 20-10 lead, the Cowboys needed to be about whittling down the clock, but the next four drives totalled 6 minutes, 29 seconds, and Elliott totalled five carries for 21 yards. Just not good enough.
6. I think lots of things bother me about Brian Kelly’s move from Notre Dame to LSU, but most of my disdain boils down to honor. What college coach bolts from a job:
• While being under contract for between $2.7 million and $4 million a year.
• While his team is in contention to play for the national championship.
• After building a family environment with his players, emphasizing he’ll be there for them and they need to rely on each other to get to the ultimate goal of a championship.
• While his staff is out recruiting, having no idea Kelly is negotiating with LSU and signing with LSU.
A responsible adult doesn’t do this. A responsible adult says to LSU, “Hope you can wait till after my season, and then I’d like to take the job. But not till then.” How can any LSU recruit, or any LSU recruit’s parents, trust a word Brian Kelly says? He’s not alone in being in it for himself in the coaching business. But Kelly walking away with Notre Dame still on the cusp of playing for everything it worked for … It’s just wrong, and no one can convince me he’s justified.
7. I think this is what happens on losing teams: The Jets have changed kickers seven times in the last 23 games, due to a lingering groin injury, performance, performance and more performance, since mid-October 2020. From Sam Ficken (2020 game 6) to CFL import Diego Castillo (games 7-9) to Ficken (game 10) to Castillo (games 11-13) to Ficken (games 14-15) to Chase McLoughlin (game 16) to Matt Ammendola (2021 games 1-11) to Alex Kessman (game 12). Kessman made his NFL debut Sunday against the Eagles. He was wide left after the Jets’ first touchdown. He was wide left after the Jets’ second touchdown. After the third touchdown, coach Robert Saleh called for the Jets to go for two. They failed. The Jets trailed at halftime 24-18. Of course, it should have been 24-21. The Jets had a kicker once. For seven years until being allowed to walk in early 2017, Nick Folk was an efficient, low-maintenance kicker. Over the last seasons—of course, for the arch-rival Patriots—Folk has made 92 percent of his field goals while the Jets continue to agonize over the position four years later.
8. I think no matter what the number, I’d take the over on number of times Kyler Murray has turned play-action into a sprint-out to the right this year. And every time—I’m telling you, ever darned time—the defense falls for it and Murray has daylight on the right side. Crazy. Why do D-coordinators have such a hard time forcing their left-side defenders to stay home for the dangerous Murray?
9. I think there is no MVP with five weeks to play. There’s just a large field.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. TV Story That We Need This Week: The great storyteller Steve Hartman of CBS News on good things happening at a general story in Vermont.
b. Hartman’s so great. At a time when stories showing us at our best are overrun by those showing us at our worst, he comes up with inspirational stories like this.
c. These townies in Windsor, Vt., not only saved the store—they donate the money they were due in salary to the owner’s favorite charities!
d. Interesting Climate Story of the Week: Cara Buckley of the New York Times, with photos by Karsten Moran, with a fascinating story about one couple in leafy Long Island, lands of lush lawns, with an environmentally friendly property. It’s cool how lawn-lovers and this couple coexist.
e. So much about how vital plants and growths and trees and flowers are to wildlife and birds and insects. Good to think about. Writes Buckley:
WADING RIVER, N.Y. — If Bill Jacobs were a petty man, or a less religious one, he might look through the thicket of flowers, bushes and brambles that encircle his home and see enemies all around. For to the North, and to the South, and to the West and East and all points in between, stretch acres and acres of lawns. Lawns that are mowed and edges trimmed with military precision. Lawns where leaves are banished with roaring machines and that are oftentimes doused with pesticides. Lawns that are fastidiously manicured by landscapers like Justin Camp, Mr. Jacobs’s neighbor next door, who maintains his own pristine blanket of green.
“It takes a special kind of person to do something like that,” Mr. Camp said, nodding to wooded wilds of his neighbor’s yard. “I mow lawns for a living, so it’s not my thing.”
Mr. Jacobs and his wife, Lynn Jacobs, don’t have a lawn to speak of, not counting the patch of grass out back over which Mr. Jacobs runs his old manual mower every now and then. Their house is barely visible, obscured by a riot of flora that burst with colors — periwinkles, buttery yellows, whites, deep oranges, scarlets — from early spring through late fall. They grow assorted milkweeds, asters, elderberry, mountain mint, joe-pye weed, goldenrods, white snakeroot and ironweed. Most are native to the region, and virtually all serve the higher purpose of providing habitats and food to migrating birds and butterflies, moths, beetles, flies and bees.
f. To each his own. Bill and Lynn Jacobs are doing something really important.
g. Education Story of the Week: Janet Shamlian of CBS News on how schools around the country are coping with staff shortages.
h. “Staff shortages” is putting it mildly. Some 30,000 public school teachers in September alone quit their jobs.
i. Listen to Gel Ortiz, at Barnum Elementary School in Denver, “I am principal, assistant principal, teacher, para-professional. I cover classes, lunch/recess duty. I do everything that needs to be done.”
j. Shamlian found a school principal who does the vacuuming at a school in Las Vegas.
k. What a breakdown in probably the most important thing we can do for our kids—educate them.
l. Radio Story of the Week: Quil Lawrence of National Public Radio on the heroic and ultimately tortured life of a Green Beret who died too young. Reported Lawrence:
Retired Special Forces Maj. Ian Fishback graduated near the top of his West Point class, deployed four times to Iraq and Afghanistan, earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Michigan and was named one of Time magazine’s most influential people in 2005 for blowing the whistle on torture by the U.S. military.
He died broke, virtually homeless and medicated with heavy antipsychotic drugs in an adult foster care center near Kalamazoo, Mich., on Nov. 19 at age 42, as his friends and family scrambled to find him mental health care.
“He was Captain America,” says Marc Garlasco, a former Defense Department official who was at Human Rights Watch when Fishback reached out in 2005. “It’s just hard for me to comprehend that this is how the life of Captain America would end, in mental anguish while being forcibly medicated in some facility. It’s a real damning, damning statement on 20 years of war and how we treat the veterans of this country.”
m. We’ve got to do better for the people who risk their lives for us. We just have to.
n. Amazon Fallout of the Week: Alexa Juliana Ard of the Washington Post on a whole lot of Alexas who are changing their names because Alexa the voice assistant is making it a little creepy for real Alexas to feel good about their name.
o. This is why I love newspapers, especially those that work to unearth interesting stories like his one.
p. “Someone decided it was funny at work to just call me Siri,” said Alexa Smith, director of major gifts for the NAACP legal defense fund. Wrote Alexa Juliana Ard:
Nearly 130,000 people in the United States have the name Alexa. It gained popularity after singer Billy Joel and model Christie Brinkley named their daughter Alexa in 1985. In 2015, more than 6,000 baby girls in the United States were named Alexa, according to a Washington Post analysis of Social Security Administration data. After Amazon chose Alexa as the wake word of its voice service, the name’s popularity plummeted. In 2020, only about 1,300 babies were given the name.
In virtual classes, business meetings and at auditions, Alexas said they have been instructed to avoid saying their name or arbitrarily assigned new names. One Alexa said the teasing and jokes escalated to sexual harassment.
For me, this was highly personal. My mother named me Alexa after falling in love with the name long before I was born in 1994. I’ve also experienced uncomfortable encounters after Amazon made the name a wake word, including being given commands as if I were the bot. Almost two years ago, I started introducing myself outside of work and family by my middle name, Juliana, because it connects me to the Mexican American side of my family. My grandfather died in 2018. His sister’s name was Julia, so in some ways it feels like a piece of him.
… I interviewed three sets of parents of Alexas who legally changed their daughters’ names. At least 10 other Alexas, children and adults, started going by nicknames or their middle names.
q. All of you who wrote to tell me Tillamook is not on the outskirts of Portland but rather 71 miles away, thanks. And sorry. It’s fixed in the column from last week.
r. The last four episodes of “On the Media” on NPR: What pigeons can tell us about the Omicron variant; a different Hanukkah story; how cassette tapes changed the world; a look back at the animated film “The Incredibles.” At a time when there are media stories in huge numbers all over the news scene, I wonder if the bosses at NPR ever ask “On the Media” people: Think one of these weeks you might do a story on the media?
s. I don’t mean to be snarky. But I listen to public radio a lot, and it’s great, and that bothers me.
t. Good for the Bearcats. Congrats, Kevin Youkilis.
u. Michigan over Georgia, Alabama over Cincinnati. It’d be nice to see an intersectional national championship game.
v. RIP, Bob Dole, a great American. Here’s how great: In 1942, Dole registered to join the Army. He was sent to the European front as a second lieutenant, and in 1945, while trying to rescue an Army radio man, Dole was hit by multiple rounds from a German attack. He lost a kidney, suffered neck and spine damage, broke his right shoulder and was temporarily paralyzed, yet returned to America and had a storied career in politics. Not a bad résumé: two Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars, one Congressional Medal of Honor. He packed a lot of importance into 98 years.
Buffalo 19, New England 15. Let’s turn to the weather. Game-time temperature in Orchard Park should be around 26, with 20 mph winds and a 30 percent chance of something falling from the sky. The Bills know the Patriots better than anyone but Brian Flores and the Dolphins, and they’ll have to find a way to keep the varied weapons of the Patriots D from tormenting Josh Allen. I don’t have a great feel for this game. On balance, I give New England a whisker of an edge because of the defense and the efficiency of Mac Jones. I just think in emotional games like this, home means something.
San Francisco at Cincinnati, Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS. There are other games this week with more marquee names, and more marquee teams. But this game—assuming Deebo Samuel plays, which is not a lock as I write this—is the most compelling to me. Two rising teams with a bunch of new stars (Deebo, Elijah Mitchell versus Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase).
Buffalo at Tampa Bay, Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET CBS. Weird TV slate here, putting the best two games of the weekend head-to-head in the late-afternoon window. I expect significantly better quarterbacking than the last meeting between these teams at the pirate ship. In 2013, E.J. Manuel and Mike Glennon completed a combined 47 percent of their throws in a 27-6 Bucs win.
L.A. Rams at Arizona, Monday, 8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN. These are the games you were imported to win, Matthew Stafford.
Las Vegas at Kansas City, Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS. Not a single gimme on the Raiders slate in the final five weeks—at KC, at Cleveland, Denver, at Indy, Chargers. Every foe with at least six wins.
Daniel Jones (neck) and Mike Glennon (concussion) highly questionable for the game, it could be Fromm’s first start in the NFL. It would come against the mildly talented Justin Herbert and the Chargers.
Byes this week: Indianapolis, Miami, New England, Philadelphia. No more byes going forward. The last four regular-season weeks will have 16 games apiece.
Washington. Six seed.
Denver, meanwhile, a 12 seed.
Both teams 6 and 6.