AROUND THE NFL
Raise your hand if you had QB RYAN TANNEHILL as a 2019 Championship Game starting quarterback.
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The Chiefs win marked the first 51-31 game in NFL history per @NFLScorigami:
HOU 31 – 51 KC
That’s Scorigami!! It’s the 1054th unique final score in NFL history.
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The two teams that made the AFC Championship Game have one Super Bowl title and two Super Bowl losses between them.
Kansas City won Super Bowl 4 to cap the 1969 season, the last season before the AFL/NFC merger. They also lost Super Bowl 1 to Green Bay (which could be the Super Bowl 55 matchup). Thus, they have never represented the AFC in the Super Bowl.
The Titans lost Super Bowl 34 in the 1999 season to the St. Louis Rams by seven points (16-23) and one-yard (where Kevin Dyson was tackled as the game ended).
If the Packers make it, Green Bay will be going to a 6th Super Bowl. They have a 4-1 record.
San Francisco could have a 7th trip to the Super Bowl. The 49ers are 5-1.
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Did anyone else question Pete Carroll punting from his own 36 on 4th-and-11, at the time?
Even with all his timeouts, he never got the ball back. Even if he goes for it and doesn’t get it (admittedly about a 20% chance), a Green Bay FG would still have left it a one-score game with a TD needed. Take the ball from RUSSELL WILSON’s hands and give it to AARON RODGERS…
Michael Silver of NFL.com does his thing in the winning Packers locker room:
He stood on the sideline biting down amid the bitter winter cold, the outcome of his first playoff game as an NFL head coach hanging in the balance. At that tense moment, as 40-year-old Matt LaFleur waited for center Corey Linsley to flip a shotgun snap into the hands of his 36-year-old quarterback on a frigid Sunday night at Lambeau Field, the rookie coach of the Green Bay Packers was anything but chill.
The Pack had withstood a furious Seattle Seahawks second-half rally fueled by the improvisational majesty of quarterback Russell Wilson, and now, with Green Bay clinging to a five-point lead and facing a third-and-8 from its own 22-yard-line with 2:19 remaining, LaFleur had no intention of being passive; the thought of giving Wilson another shot at a game-winning drive was not appealing. He was going to put the Packers’ fate in this divisional-round playoff game in the sublime right hand of Aaron Rodgers, and that was that.
As LaFleur watched Rodgers receive the snap and look briefly to his left, the coach noticed something wholly unexpected on the other side of the play: Star receiver Davante Adams, who had already burned the Seahawks for a pair of touchdowns, broke off of a slant route from the slot toward the middle of the field and faded back to his right, drifting diagonally toward the Packers’ sideline.
Rodgers — gasp — had called an audible, and now, with four Seattle pass rushers collapsing the pocket and safety Ugo Amadi trailing Adams, it was going to take a pinpoint throw with a high degree of difficulty to keep the Pack from punting the ball back to the ‘Hawks.
As Rodgers would tell me as he stood at his locker following the Packers’ 28-23 victory, which propelled them into Sunday’s NFC championship game against the San Francisco 49ers in what figures to be a far more temperate Northern California setting, “I had a pretty good feeling about it before I let it go. It was my kind of night — cool and crisp — and the ball was coming off my hand pretty good.”
On this play, Rodgers summoned sheer perfection: Leaning slightly backward, he uncorked a glorious spiral, and 78,998 frozen fans skipped a heartbeat, and everything converged on LaFleur and crystallized in his field of vision: The ball; Adams; Amadi; safety Delano Hill, who was closing from the middle of the field; and the fate of a flawed but flourishing football team looking to obliterate a few unfriendly narratives and reach its first NFC championship game in three seasons.
“Yeah, it was actually an audible,” LaFleur told me an hour after the game as we sat in his private office across the hallway from the Packers’ locker room. “I didn’t know that, until I saw the ball in the air. I looked up and saw Davante running past his defender, and I thought, ‘Oh, he must have called the pump (fake).’
“That was a hell of a call by Aaron. I called a quick-game play, and he saw a man-coverage situation and called the double-move off of it. Matter of fact, it was the same play we scored on two weeks ago vs. Detroit. And that’s what’s so great about a guy like this, he sees so much — he’s seen so much throughout his career — and I totally trust that he’s gonna get us in the right spot.”
For a couple of seconds, LaFleur and I both started laughing, given how much the audible thing had triggered people back in June. Shortly after I’d arrived in Green Bay to work on a story about the rookie coach and the legendary quarterback to whom he was trying to teach a new offense, we’d sat in his Lambeau office and discussed an important element of the transition: “One thing we have to work through is the audible thing,” LaFleur told me, explaining that in his offense — a derivative of the one designed by Niners coach Kyle Shanahan, LaFleur’s close friend and coaching mentor — the quarterback traditionally hadn’t been given freedom to make wholesale play-changes at the line of scrimmage.
The following day Rodgers weighed in with his perspective, saying: “I don’t think you want to ask me to turn off 11 years (of recognizing defenses) … It’s just the other stuff that really not many people in this league can do. That’s not like a humblebrag or anything; that’s just a fact.”
After the story dropped, a significant portion of a football-starved populace spent several months handwringing and bracing for a season’s worth of conflict. Instead, the partnership stayed solid, and the Packers rolled to a 13-3 regular season that earned them an NFC North title and a first-round bye and ended a two-season playoff drought.
Yet even as the wins piled up, the quarterback’s typically lofty statistical standing suffered, and some cynics marginalized Green Bay as a team still seeking an offensive identity. In fairness, Rodgers fueled that storyline shortly after the end of the regular season by conceding to reporters, “I think the timing’s been off a lot of the year. I don’t know if that’s going to get fixed.”
On Sunday, against a fifth-seeded Seahawks team that had gone 11-2 in one-score games, including the previous Sunday’s first-round playoff triumph over the Philadelphia Eagles, Rodgers channeled Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder. “The Fixer” completed 16 of 27 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns without throwing an interception, and he was hot from the jump, guiding the Pack on an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on the game’s first possession and pushing the lead to 21-3 by halftime.
“Honestly,” said David Bakhtiari, the Packers’ All-Pro left tackle, “when I saw him make a couple of throws early on, I said, ‘Yeah, he’s on one tonight.”
Said LaFleur: “I thought he played outstanding. Those throws he made on third down were absolutely incredible. We probably should have given him more opportunities to stand back there and throw the football, because he was on fire. He just made so many big plays.”
After Wilson (21 for 31, 277 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions; seven carries for 64 yards) guided the Seahawks on a 10-play, 69-yard scoring drive to start the second half, with recently unretired running back Marshawn Lynch blasting in for the first of his two one-yard touchdowns to cut the lead to 21-10, Rodgers responded in a big way. Two plays after zipping a crisp, pinpoint pass to veteran tight end Jimmy Graham (three catches, 49 yards) for a 27-yard gain on third-and-6, Rodgers connected with Adams (eight catches, 160 yards) on a 40-yard scoring pass, freezing the Seahawks’ secondary with a cold play-fake.
Trailing 28-10, the Seahawks scored on their next two drives to pull within five points with 9:33 remaining. The Packers’ defense rallied and forced a punt with 2:41 to go, after outside linebacker Preston Smith’s third-down sack of Wilson, but the idea of having to stop Seattle a second time was not overly appealing.
“Russell Wilson is very, very hard to catch,” Smith said afterward, as fellow edge rusher Za’Darius Smith (no relation) nodded his agreement. “It felt like we were chasing a chicken in the field with no fence.”
And so, confronted with the possibility of having to subdue Wilson one last time, LaFleur chose to be proactive on third-and-8.
“That’s what you want to see, especially a young guy like that — you want him to be aggressive,” veteran cornerback Tramon Williams said of LaFleur. “Coach has been doing that all year long. We’re in it to win it.”
Said LaFleur: “I thought our defense battled, and I thought they were tired there in the second half. I think when you chase Russell Wilson around for an entire game, that gets exhausting. You’ve gotta give him a ton of credit. His ability to get out of some of those sacks — there were a bunch of shoulda been, woulda been, coulda been sacks… but that’s why he’s so special. He’s got a way of dipping underneath tackles and extending plays.
“I didn’t want to give him an opportunity to finish with the ball in his hands, and thankfully our players went out there and made us right.”
After the Rodgers audible produced the clutch completion to Adams, the Packers still needed one more first down to seal the deal. Following the two-minute warning, Green Bay faced a third-and-9 from the Seahawks’ 45, and Seattle still had a timeout remaining.
This time, Rodgers took a shotgun snap and hung in against a blitz. With All-Pro middle linebacker Bobby Wagner bearing down as the pocket collapsed, Rodgers backed up, braced for contact and somehow got the ball to his tight end Jimmy Graham, who was running a shallow cross.
“I held it as long as I could,” Rodgers said. “I was waiting for (Graham) to turn so he could see me, and I finally had to throw it and just trust that he’d turn and that he’d be there. I threw it in the dirt, but he went down and made a great catch.”
Graham caught the ball at the Seattle 40 and lunged forward as Hill took him to the turf. The ball was spotted at the 36, just enough for a first down, and Graham stood up and made the peace sign — as in, “Peace out, Seahawks.”
After a long replay review to assess the spot, the first down stood, and the Packers could begin to celebrate as snow started to fall on the soon-to-be-frozen tundra.
Their short-term joy will surely be tempered by the stiff matchup awaiting them in the NFC title game: The Packers must now head back to Levi’s Stadium to face a top-seeded Niners team which, back in late November, swallowed them up in a 37-8 victory.
Waiting for LaFleur will be a daunting defense against which Rodgers and the Packers had little success two months ago. Oh, and the innovative offensive attack conceived by Shanahan and buoyed by LaFleur’s younger brother, Mike, who is San Francisco’s passing-game coordinator.
“Certainly it’s a big challenge,” LaFleur said, shortly before leaving the stadium. “They embarrassed us. We know they’re an elite football team. They’re one of the best, obviously, in the National Football League. In order for us to beat them, we are gonna have to play our best, and it’s gonna take everybody on every play playing to the best of their ability.”
Left unstated is that Rodgers, one of the best quarterbacks ever to play the game, will have to perform at an exceedingly high level if he hopes to have a shot at his second Lombardi Trophy, nine years after he won MVP honors in Super Bowl XLV.
Bakhtiari, for one, hopes some skeptics will continue to describe Rodgers as a quarterback past his prime.
“I mean, just please, keep it up,” Bakhtiari said. “I hope that people keep saying it. If you’ve got a great player, and especially if he feels like he’s got something to prove, that’s scary.”
Peter King on the throw to Adams:
“Davante ran a great route,” Rodgers said, “and I had a lot of space, I felt like, to put it in.”
No. No, he didn’t. Amadi was a step, at most, behind Adams. When you throw a ball 30 yards in the air onto a postage stamp, that is special. When you make a throw like that, and you make one more third-down conversion throw that was a little less challenging, and you run out the clock and keep Russell Wilson gripping the football anxiously on the sideline, you’ve won. And the team has won.
“I can’t wait to go back and watch the tape of that play,” LaFleur told me, 50 minutes after the biggest win of his life, his first playoff win. “I wasn’t anticipating it. But you know Aaron. He’s been doing this a long time. He knows.”
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I don’t know if the Packers have it in them to go to San Francisco and win Sunday, but I think they’ll be more competitive than they were in November’s 37-8 loss to the Niners. The blossoming LaFleur-Rodgers partnership should see to that . . . as long as the Packer offensive line can protect Rodgers a tick better than it did last time. It was interesting to see Rodgers linger a bit at his post-game press conference, talking Marshawn Lynch (who scored twice for Seattle in what could be his last NFL game) and the offense and his adjustments this year. And nostalgia. When you get to be 36, and you’re in the playoffs for the first time in three years, it’s pretty natural to wonder if this could be the last time. Rodgers stayed on the field for a couple of minutes after the game, waving to the fans and soaking it in. Cool moment.
“We have such a special relationship with our fans,” said Rodgers. “It’s a different connection. We don’t have an owner. We have thousands of people who have a piece of paper that’s a stock certificate. But people feel like they’re invested in what we’re doing. To be able to walk off that field again, victorious, there’s no feeling like it. I stopped myself in the second quarter and I was just looking around when there was a TV timeout and they were waving the towels, and in that moment I was just grateful for the opportunity, loving what I do.”
Rodgers the sentimentalist. That’s not the usual Rodgers.
I doubt he’s near the end. Not close, from the look of Sunday’s game. And from the sounds of it afterward.
NEW YORK GIANTS
The Giants are looking to pilfer Miami’s defensive coordinator. Paul Schwartz of the New York Post:
Joe Judge had no previous connection to the Giants before being named the 19th head coach in franchise history, but it looks as if he is not afraid to keep around coaches or bring in assistants who have or had ties to the team.
The Giants have requested permission to interview Dolphins defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, The Post confirmed. Graham was the defensive line coach for the Giants in 2016 and 2017. Judge has a working relationship with Graham, as the two served on Bill Belichick’s staff with the Patriots together for four years.
Another NFL assistant Judge will consider for defensive coordinator is Aaron Glenn, according to a source. Glenn, 47, is the Saints’ defensive backs coach. He played 15 years in the NFL and was the Jets’ first-round draft pick in 1994. Glenn was a Jets scout in 2012 and 2013.
Graham, 40, in 2019 completed his first season running the Dolphins’ defense for first-year head coach Brian Flores; Flores is another former Belichick assistant. The Dolphins are expected to grant permission for Graham to speak with the Giants.
The Dolphins struggled to stop anyone last season, although they did show improvement. They finished 30th in total defense and last in the league in scoring, allowing 30.9 points a game.
Judge was responsible for special teams and wide receivers this past season with the Patriots, making it significant he is retaining assistants off Pat Shurmur’s staff from those position groups.
Peter King has the Starkville side of the Mississippi State-Giants tug of war for Joe Judge:
At a hotel adjacent to T.F. Green Airport in Providence, Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen arrives to meet with 38-year-old Patriots defensive coordinator Joe Judge, who in an instant had become a hot name on the coaching market. Before they talked, Cohen spoke to Bill Belichick on the phone. Belichick was high on Judge. The Cohen-Judge interview went exceedingly well; both are Mississippi State alums. But Judge told Cohen that, before he moved ahead with MSU, there was the matter of Judge’s Monday interview with the Giants in New Jersey. “I’m not sure there ever has been a situation like this in college football—Starkville and the SEC versus a historic franchise in the biggest city in the country,” Cohen said. “But after about two-and-a-half hours talking with Joe, I knew he would be the coach of the New York Giants. That’s how impressive he was.” Neither Cohen nor Judge would acknowledge that an offer was made, but I believe it’s probable.
And this on what he didn’t know about the New York area:
At 9:43 a.m., Judge disembarked at New York’s Penn Station. (Crazy thing about East Coast train stations. The city train stations in New York, Newark and Baltimore are all called “Penn Station.” Judge just heard “Penn Station” and got off the train. The Giants were sending a car for him, and Judge went to what he thought was the appointed spot. No car. Judge called his pick-up man. “Where are you?” The guy said, “I’m here. Where are you?” Judge looked around and told him 34th Street, and the Giants rep said, “You got off at the wrong Penn Station!” Judge pulled out his phone and got an Uber for East Rutherford. He was at Giants HQ by 10:45. All good. “I didn’t know there were two Penn Stations,” Judge said. There are not two. There are three. “No problem,” he said. “I got there just in time.”
Peter King on the big money deal landed by Matt Rhule:
Lots of 31-other-owners-will-be-pissed-at-Tepper comments swirling around the league in the last few days, after Carolina owner David Tepper gave Matt Rhule a seven-year contract with an estimated total value of $62 million. (Tepper reportedly also paid off the Baylor buyout of $6 million to hire Rhule.)
I don’t think that anger is well-placed.
Of course a seven-year contract for a first-time NFL coach, at first blush, is outlandish—as is the money. But the Panthers weren’t hiring an NFL coordinator working on a two-year, $4-million contract. They were competing against the Monopoly money of college football, and they were hiring someone to become the front-facing CEO of the football operation, not just the titular head of the team.
Rhule’s contract at Baylor had eight years remaining, and he earned a reported $7.5 million in salary and associated perks on the deal in 2019. So let’s assume—I do not know if there are automatic escalators in the contract—that $7.5-million annual figure for the last eight years of the deal. That would mean Rhule had eight years and $60 million left on his deal. So seven years and $62 million is in that ballpark. The NFL contract is not exactly a parallel financial commitment, but it’s close. So now you know why the Panthers blew up the coaching salary structure for rookie NFL coaches.
He really didn’t make that much, if any, extra cash.
Peter King is impressed with how San Francisco kept acquiring pass rushers:
What the Niners have done with the line shows how every team can turn around the franchise, assuming it drafts consistently well. That’s part of the difficulty here. Trent Baalke drafted Armstead and Buckner; John Lynch continued the strong run by plucking Thomas and Bosa, and acquiring Ford. Some teams say they’re going to rebuild the pass-rush. For five years, the Niners have proven it, every spring. And now look at them: the top seed in the NFC, hosting the conference title game for the first time in eight years.
Until we read this first paragraph, we forgot that RB MARSHAWN LYNCH played with QB AARON RODGERS in college 15 years ago. Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com asks Lynch about his future plans and gets some words of wisdom:
Marshawn Lynch and Aaron Rodgers might never play on the same football field again, and if Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff game at Lambeau Field was the last time the former college teammates share a field, they’ll each have a memento.
Lynch, the Seattle Seahawks running back who came out of retirement to rejoin his old team last month, walked into the Green Bay Packers locker room after the game with his No. 24 game jersey. He signed it and gave it to Rodgers.
The Packers quarterback returned the favor.
The two former University of California stars then moved to a side room, where they spoke for several minutes after Green Bay’s 28-23 victory that sent the Packers to the NFC Championship Game and might have sent Lynch back into retirement.
Lynch and Rodgers were college teammates in 2004 and almost were reunited in the NFL during the 2010 season, when the Packers were in trade talks with Lynch’s then-team, the Buffalo Bills.
“He is one of my all-time favorite teammates, and I only had to play one year with him,” Rodgers said. “But he has just an incredible personality and charisma, and he’s just so fun to be around. There was, obviously, conversation years ago about picking him up in a trade that fell through that would’ve been a lot of fun to play some more years together.
“But I just have a ton of respect for him in his career. He’s one of those transcendent players that is so likable and so respected by so many people, and I’m just fortunate to have gotten to play with him for a year. And so we were just catching up, talking about some silly stuff that happened back in the day and seeing where he’s at. He’s a lot of fun to be around, and it’s fun to see him.”
Lynch rushed 12 times for just 26 yards but scored two touchdowns, giving him four in his three-game return to Seattle.
“Pretty solid,” Lynch said of his touchdown production.
When asked whether he had plans to return for another season, Lynch gave a long answer without answering the question.
“It’s a vulnerable time for a lot of these young dudes, you feel me?” Lynch said. “They don’t be taking care of their chicken right, you feel me? If they was me or I had the opportunity, the opportunity to let them know something, I say, ‘Take care of y’all money because that s— don’t last forever.’ Now I’ve been on the other side of retirement, and it’s good when [you] get over there and you can do what the f— you want to, so I tell y’all right now while y’all in it: Take care of y’all bread so when you’re all done, you go ahead and take care of yourself. So while y’all at it right now, take care of y’all bodies. Don’t take care of y’all chicken, don’t take care of y’all mentals, ’cause we ain’t lasting that long.
“I had a couple players that I played with that they no longer here no more, they no longer — so you feel me? Start taking care of y’all mental, y’all bodies and y’all chicken for when you’re all ready to walk away, you walk away and be able to do what you want to do, but I appreciate it. Thank you all and have a good day.”
We assume that “chicken” is money.
More from Michael Silver:
As Rodgers dressed at his locker following Sunday’s game, he already had Northern California on his mind.
“Is ‘Money,’ gonna keep playing?” Rodgers asked me, in reference to Lynch, his former Cal teammate.
A few seconds later, Lynch, still wearing his Seahawks uniform, appeared near the entrance to the Packers’ locker room.
“Gimme your f—- jersey!” Lynch yelled, laughing.
“Hey,” Rodgers said, “gimme your f—– jersey!”
As they prepared for the swap, I asked Lynch, 33, what he thought of his own performance in his third game since coming out of retirement.
“Man, I look old,” he said. Then, turning to Rodgers, Lynch exclaimed, “Dude, how you still do this? How you still? You’ve been cheating, man.”
With his 2 TDs, Lynch moves to 12 career postseason rushing TDs and tied for 4th on the all-time list with Terrell Davis and John Riggins. Emmitt Smith has the record at 19, followed by Franco Harris and Thurman Thomas, each with 16.
The three bye teams that won all played hard in Week 17. The one that lost? Not so much. Peter King:
Regarding the Ravens, who played stale and unsteady in a surprisingly poor performance, there are questions about John Harbaugh resting seven veterans for the meaningless Week 17 games, meaning that Lamar Jackson and others had 19 days off between games. It’s happened in the past with mixed results; the Colts used to do it and had a couple of dispiriting home loss after long breaks; the Packers lost to the Giants in a 2011 divisional game after dominating the NFL during the regular season. “It’s unanswerable,” Harbaugh said post-game. I’m not so sure. Baltimore’s one of the most welcoming franchises in sports (not just football) in analytics. If I were GM Eric DeCosta and Harbaugh, I’d assign one of the young mathematical logicians to study whether it is indeed unanswerable, or is there some knowledge to be gained by studying teams that rested guys and those that played Week 17 as normal.
The coaching carousel stopped on Sunday (for now) with the hiring of Vikings OC Kevin Stefanski despite an abominable offensive showing by Minnesota in Santa Clara. Grant Gordon of NFL.com:
The Cleveland Browns are hiring Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski as their new head coach, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Sunday morning.
A day after the Vikings season ended, their offensive coordinator is getting a new beginning as the Browns’ 18th full-time coach in franchise chronicle.
Last season, Stefanski was seen as the runner-up to the job bestowed upon Freddie Kitchens. Kitchens was fired after just one season and Stefanski is now taking his spot.
Following Kitchens’ firing, the Browns and general manager John Dorsey parted ways, so upon Stefanski’s hiring, finding the next GM is paramount in Cleveland. Cleveland has already requested interviews with Colts assistant general manager and Eagles vice president of football operations Andrew Berry, while Rapoport added the Browns might look at Vikings assistant GM George Paton.
Though the Browns fired Kitchens on the last Sunday of the season, they were the last team to fill their coaching vacancy after a lengthy search that encompassed nearly two weeks and eight interviews.
In the cold aftermath of a 6-10 showing of a 2019 season, Kitchens was dismissed. As it was Kitchens’ first job as a head coach, the belief among many was the Browns’ next leader along the sidelines would be one with head-coaching experience.
The 37-year-old Stefanski does not offer that, though, as he’ll venture out of the Skol confines for the first time in his NFL tenure, having began as an assistant to the head coach in Minnesota in 2006. Since then he’s been a tight ends, running backs and quarterbacks coach before taking over as offensive coordinator in 2018.
Though he lost out to Kitchens a season ago in the Browns’ search, he left a lasting impression with Paul DePodesta. DePodesta, the Browns chief strategy officer who was heading the coaching search, had an edge going in to this year’s search, NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported, and got the job.
Forty-Niners defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was seen as another top contender for the job and had a strong interview, Pelissero reported, but lost out. It was the opposite of Saturday’s fate on the field as Stefanski’s Vikings offense was corralled by Saleh’s 49ers defense.
Other fallout, as Rapoport added, from Stefanski’s hiring will be that Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels (another presumed top pick for the Browns’ job) will remain in New England under Bill Belichick. Minnesota will also need a new offensive coordinator, but Gary Kubiak is there as assistant head coach and offensive advisor.
Word is that McDaniels talked himself out of the running by refusing to knuckle under to DePodesta’s “analytics” department. Steve Doerschuk of the Canton Repository:
The interviewing came down the home stretch. Chatter as to Stefanski’s experience, almost as limited as Kitchens’, grew louder. McDaniels, who had been in confetti showers in February of 2017 and February of 2019, became something of a people’s choice.
What follows is our belief about the elements of Stefanski’s interview Thursday and McDaniels’ interview Friday that left Stefanski as Haslam’s seventh head coach since he bought the team in 2012.
Stefanski was familiar with the room, especially Jimmy Haslam and strategist Paul DePodesta. All got along well when Stefanski interviewed for the job last January.
The Vikings’ offensive coordinator arrived at Thursday’s interview tall and fit and steeped in the sense of urgency attending to being needed two days later at a playoff game in California.
At age 37, with a nice resume for his age but just one full season as a coordinator, Stefanski had to coach himself to come off as sufficiently authoritative. He has a fairly strong natural delivery but it is not commanding. In recent times, starting in 2013, he has been an assistant quarterbacks coach, a tight ends coach and a running backs coach.
By 2013, McDaniels, now 43, was four years removed from being hired as Denver’s head coach.
Stefanski presented a detailed vision of how he will approach the head coaching job. He made it clear he was willing to yield to certain DePodesta standards, such as an analytics person with a head set and access to the coaching staff on game days, in addition to certain Haslam likes, such as hours-long, Monday-after, owner-coach meetings.
Stefanski returned to the Vikings (they lost 27-10 to the 49ers on Saturday) having improved on the impression he left last year. His willingness to work with coaching, analytics and ownership types in ways agreeable to DePodesta and Haslam were big selling points.
McDaniels arrived Friday, smartly dressed, Fitbit trim and in a better mindset than ever to address a crowd of important strangers with respect but conviction.
He appreciated all the amenities of an interview (the Browns are regarded as gracious hosts) but focused on a few cold, hard questions.
Would they take to him as a person and as a leader? There had been a sense he and DePodesta would get to know each other quickly and be kindred spirits. This is thought to have become the case.
Would the Browns show a willingness to applaud his detailed presentation on the sweeping makeover that would be needed for him to want the job? This is where the trouble with his candidacy came to a head.
The Browns were as detailed with him as to the parts of their system they want to keep, or expand, as he was with them as to necessary changes.
In the end, both came to a similar conclusion: It wasn’t a great fit.
The Browns want to hang on to some of the ideas they still think can work. McDaniels had quite different ideas.
As Haslam launched into the search, he said, “We are looking for a strong leader. One, someone who is smart; two, has really good football acumen; three; will work within the organization … it is not ‘my way or the highway.’”
McDaniels understood the risk of offending in his specific plans to change systems, in some cases dramatically. He took care to present his requirements as “the right way” as opposed to “my way.”
As for “highway,” the Haslam regime has played out like the title of an AC/DC song you might have heard.
By now, everyone has heard. Stefanski is the man. The guess is that most of Browns Nation, whatever its predisposition, hopes he finds the road out of this mess.
This might have rubbed McDaniels the wrong way:
Was also told candidates also had to agree to turn in game plans to the owner and analytics department by Friday, and to attend an end-of-week analytics meeting to discuss their plan.
Charles Robinson of YahooSports.com with a twitter thread.
A thread on the #Browns hire of Kevin Stefanski…
1. As I said on Dec. 31, I’d say #Eagles’ Andrew Berry is at the front of the GM candidates. Jimmy Haslam once told a prominent member of the coaching staff 2 years ago that he considered Berry a bright future GM and Berry has a relationship with chief strategist Paul DePodesta.
2. With Berry, I’d expect him to go through a process of whether he wants to return to the #Browns. He’s 32, in a good situation in Philly and will have other calls if he waits. It’s similar to when Joe Douglas paused to consider the #Jets GM job. There’s sure to be deliberation.
3. On #Patriots’ McDaniels – as I said before – he wanted a specific structure with the #Browns and it wasn’t going to be the right fit. I will repeat what I said before: Josh wasn’t going to an org where DePodesta or anyone else was a “side jury” reporting to Haslam on his job.
4. The #Browns process identified several good fits. The #49ers’ Robert Saleh & #Bills’ Daboll both had very good interviews and I think they were finalists with Stefanski. But I believe Stefanski had a clear leg up after being the No. 1 choice of DePodesta/Berry last year.
5. As Stefanski builds a staff, two guys to keep an eye on are the Kubiaks – Gary, the former #NFL HC who is an offensive advisor and asst HC in Minny, and Klint, who is the #Vikings’ QBs coach. I’d expect Minnesota to try to keep both, with Stefanski trying to take one or both.
6. Key point in the Stefanski hire that can’t be underscored enough: This is the opportunity for the #Browns to eliminate islands that have existed in the past. If Berry comes in, Stefanski, DePodesta & Berry would be working in harmony in a way that hasn’t existed under Haslam.
7. Two questions that will be sorted out by #Browns after a GM hire: Does asst GM Eliot Wolf stay, and what happens with VP of Player Personnel Alonzo Highsmith? It’s my understanding ownership is open to both staying, if they are happy with whatever roles develop moving forward.
8. More on #Browns’ Wolf and Highsmith: I believe there will be a dialogue with Wolf and next GM about whether he wants to remain. As for Highsmith, he has 2 years left on his deal and I believe ownership would like to retain him as (at least) an outside-the-building evaluator.
9. It would be overstating it to say the #Browns will be open for business in terms of trades this offseason. However, I’d say Dorsey took some character risks w/ players that may not dovetail with those who will be in power moving forward. I’d expect character to be a big deal.
Bill O’Brien is taking heat for a failed fake punt with a 17-point lead. Aaron Reiss of The Athletic:
The Texans were heavy underdogs in this game, but given the way it unfolded, this one might be more a damning playoff defeat than 30-0 Chiefs in 2016 or 21-7 Colts a season ago, even though both of those games were at home. Because had the Texans pulled this off, they would’ve validated the moves the organization made during an all-in season.
Beyond left tackle Laremy Tunsil, the lesser-known players the Texans had traded for made seemingly game-changing plays. Wide receiver Kenny Stills, who came with Tunsil from Miami, capitalized off busted coverage for a 54-yard touchdown, the game’s opening score. Linebacker Barkevious Mingo, acquired in the Jadeveon Clowney trade, blocked a punt, which led to Houston’s second touchdown. And cornerback Keion Crossen — a primarily special teams player for whom Houston sent a fifth-round pick to New England — recovered a muffed punt to set up the Texans’ third scoring drive. Once the Texans possessed this big lead against a Kansas City team that ranked 29th in run defense efficiency during the regular season, Houston appeared ready to lean on Duke Johnson and Carlos Hyde, two running backs acquired in preseason trades.
At least that’s how things seemed they were going, until O’Brien handed the Chiefs their first victory of the day early in the second quarter, with his team at the Kansas City 13-yard line. The coach said he believed his team had earned a first down the play before but didn’t have enough evidence to challenge it, so instead it was fourth-and-1. And without that new set of downs, he said they “didn’t have a great play there for the fourth down,” so he settled for a field goal.
Even if Houston had moved the chains, though, shouldn’t O’Brien have felt confident that any play call could get a yard? His offense averaged 6.6 net yards per play in the first quarter.
The conservative approach becomes more mystifying when considered against his explanation for a key decision he made on the Texans’ next possession: Facing fourth-and-4 from his own 31-yard line, O’Brien called for a fake punt that the Chiefs sniffed out, giving Kansas City a short field that set up the second of seven straight touchdown drives.
“We felt like we had to manufacture some points, manufacture some yards, and it just didn’t work out,” O’Brien said of the fake punt call, later adding that the Texans “felt like we needed 50 points” to win.
Yet, in need of so many points, he settled for a field goal on fourth-and-1, up by three touchdowns early in the second quarter, because he didn’t have a play he was confident in? Even after burning a timeout?
“They had a couple of short fields, and with a team like that, you can’t do that,” said cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, whom the Texans signed in November. “You can’t give them a short field. That’s basically all it comes down to. We gotta be tougher on defense, but we could’ve helped ourselves out more.”
Instead, DeAndre Carter fumbled on a kick return, giving the Chiefs the ball 6 yards outside the Houston end zone, setting up Kansas City’s third score.
But even when the Chiefs had to begin drives on their own side of the field, it didn’t matter. Houston had benefited from numerous drops by Kansas City receivers early in the game, but once they fixed those issues, the Texans had no solution. They knew they couldn’t play zone against Mahomes, who has carved up zones all season, so they played almost exclusively man defense. The Chiefs repeatedly picked on rookie cornerback Lonnie Johnson, who hadn’t played defensive snaps since Week 13 but received the task of stopping All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce because the Texans were without two of their top three safeties in Jahleel Addae and Tashuan Gipson.
“They do a good job (scheming up their offense), created a lot of good plays for him this time, creating pick routes to get him open,” Johnson said of Kelce, who finished with game-highs of 10 catches for 134 yards and three touchdowns, including the go-ahead one — which somehow occurred in the first half.
No team in NFL history had previously taken a lead into halftime after trailing by 24 points. And never before had a team trailed in a postseason game by 20 points and won by 20 or more.
Late in the fourth quarter, the video board at Arrowhead Stadium noted that the venue had run out of fireworks to shoot off after Chiefs touchdowns.
– – –
What follows could make the Texans’ path back to this round of the playoffs and beyond even more difficult. Watson and Tunsil are likely to receive contract extensions this offseason, and if O’Brien couldn’t take this team past the divisional round now, how will he do it with a more expensive roster and no 2020 or 2021 first-round picks that could provide his team with impactful, affordable players?
Watson, who completed 31 of 52 passes for 388 yards and two touchdowns, defended his head coach and play-caller after the game.
“You might have doubt, but I don’t,” he said. “I love that man, and I’ll always play hard for that man. You all can say what you want to say in the media, but as long as I’m at quarterback, he’s cool with me. He’s got my heart, and he’s going to get my 110 percent every time I step on that field. You all can say whatever, but I’m going to always root for that man and play hard for him.”
O’Brien has three years remaining on his contract, and the McNair family empowered him to mortgage the team’s future with his all-in moves while operating as Houston’s de facto general manager, so the Texans firing him now seems unlikely. But in the NFL, changes often come after losses of this magnitude. O’Brien said he plans on 72-year-old defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel returning but will meet with all of his assistants individually as he shifts his focus to the offseason.
The complicated future is a lot to process, and on Sunday night, the Texans players hadn’t really begun to think about it. They were still figuring out how a 24-point lead turned into a 20-point loss.
“Honestly,” Hyde said, “I don’t really know what happened.”
Nick Shook of NFL.com:
For a quarter, it looked as if this would be the weekend of stunning playoff upsets.
Two fateful decisions made by Texans coach Bill O’Brien during his team’s 51-31 loss to the Chiefs, however, ensured that would not be the case.
The Texans held a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter and faced a fourth-and-1 from the Chiefs’ 21. A first down and a touchdown could be a massive blow in a flurry of early haymakers landed by the Texans.
Houston intended to go for it, at least at first, keeping the offense on the field before mass confusion forced O’Brien to call a timeout. The extra time afforded O’Brien a moment to reconsider, which resulted in him settling for a Ka’imi Fairbairn field goal to go ahead 24-0.
A 24-0 lead is a healthy advantage on the road in the postseason — if your defense can make it stand. Houston’s defense did the opposite, allowing the Chiefs to score four straight touchdowns in the second quarter and ultimately outscore the Texans 51-7 in the rest of the game, wiping out Houston’s lead before halftime and knocking the Texans down so forcefully, they failed to recover.
“I felt like I had a first down there and when I didn’t, I just felt like we didn’t have a great play there for the fourth down at that point and time,” O’Brien explained afterward, also adding he’d considered challenging the spot of the ball. “So, I felt like it was better to kick the three but that’s a very fair question. I felt like it was just better to kick the field goal there.”
The second-quarter field goal was immediately condemned as playing it too safe, but an aggressive call also hurt O’Brien’s squad. After settling for the field goal on the previous possession, O’Brien tried to catch Kansas City off guard on fourth-and-4 from Houston’s own 31 by running a fake punt. The direct snap to Justin Reid resulted in a 2-yard pickup, two yards short of the line to gain thanks to an excellent tackle made by Daniel Sorensen.
O’Brien explained afterward he was simply trying to “manufacture some points” against a team known for producing plenty of them.
“I definitely thought that we were gonna have to score more than 24,” the coach said. “Yeah. I did. I think that they’re, obviously, a very explosive team. And it just didn’t work out.”
Instead of wresting control of the game back from the Chiefs, O’Brien looked foolish and only further emboldened Kansas City in its comeback efforts. The Chiefs were again in the end zone four plays later.
“Yeah, I think these games, games are momentum, momentum swings,” O’Brien said. “We had momentum at that point, just felt like we were gonna try to make a play there and it just didn’t work.”
While the Texans scored the first few wins within the Divisional Round contest, they came out of it as losers by a substantial margin. They’ll have an entire offseason to review whether they should’ve done something differently on those two key downs.
Teams have been taking pile-on short FGs since forever, so we would are surprised (but not surprised) at how much criticism the unloved O’Brien is taking for that inconsequential early play.
The failed fake punt, a big risk for little actual gain if it had succeeded, seems more worthy of critique.
O’Brien has not lost the trust of QB DESHAUN WATSON. Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:
That outcome may have some thinking that someone else should be coaching the Texans, but quarterback Deshaun Watson was adamant in his belief that O’Brien is the right man for the job.
“There’s no doubt,” Watson said, via ESPN.com. “I mean, you might have doubt, but there’s no doubt. I mean, I love that man. I’m going to play hard for that man. Y’all can say whatever you want to say through all the media and all the writing, but as long as I’m at quarterback, he’s cool with me. He’s got my heart. He’s going to get all of my 110% every time I step on that field. So y’all can say whatever, but [I’ll] always be rooting for that man and going to play hard for him.”
Watson said the “future is bright” for the Texans despite how things ended on Sunday, although it might take some more time for others to shake off the clouds that descended on the team after the first quarter.
Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com with a look at the historical impact of the Titans victory:
The combination of the Titans being such big underdogs, and winning so easily, made Saturday night’s victory in Baltimore a rare achievement in NFL history.
The Titans were 10-point underdogs and won 28-12. To win by 16 as a 10-point underdog is so rare that it was only the third time an underdog that big has won by that much in NFL postseason history.
The two previous instances when an underdog that big won by that much in the postseason were Super Bowl IV, when the 12-point underdog Chiefs beat the Vikings by 16, and the 2008 NFC divisional round, when the 10-point underdog Cardinals beat the Panthers by 20.
Hardly anyone saw the Titans’ victory coming, and basically no one could have foreseen that the Titans would win in such convincing fashion. This was one of the most surprising results in NFL playoff history.
Peter King with thoughts on RB DEREK HENRY:
The top five rushers of all time—Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Frank Gore, Barry Sanders, Adrian Peterson—have played a combined 46 NFL playoff games, with only two games of 140 rushing yards or more. Derrick Henry, who just turned 26, has played four NFL postseason games . . . and has averaged 140.3 rushing yards per game. You know what I find most interesting? Henry is almost disdainful of his accomplishments. Every time he’s asked about these unprecedented achievements, he’ll stage a diversion. I got to him 75 minutes after Saturday night’s game, and his response was almost diffident.
“Man,” he said, “I don’t care. Stats . . . We won. We won. We advanced. That’s what I care about.”
The coolest thing in the win at Baltimore: Henry channeling his inner Tebow with a classic Florida Gator jump-pass for a touchdown midway through the third quarter. The play was amazing: a 6-4, 248-pound steamroller taking a direct snap at the Baltimore 9-yard line, approaching the line like he was going to power through it, stopping suddenly at the 7, and jumping to throw to Corey Davis eight yards deep in the end zone. Henry, by the way, can always say he beat (possible future Hall of Famer) Earl Thomas for a touchdown pass . . . as if he didn’t already have enough to brag about from such a strong performance against the best team in the AFC. “Definitely similar to what [Tebow] did in college,” Henry said. “I failed throwing that a few times [in practice], so I practiced it.” Think of it: That’s not an easy pass for someone who’s never been a quarterback—and Henry was asked to throw a jump pass 17 yards in the air over a Pro Bowl safety.
Henry is now the most compelling single figure in the final four of the 2019 season. Weren’t we entering an era of interchangeable running backs, backs that couldn’t and shouldn’t dominate games? Nobody told Henry. In Week 17, needing a win to be the AFC’s sixth seed, Tennessee got a 211-yard rushing game from Henry to win at Houston. Then the 182 and 195-yard games to beat New England and Baltimore, and Henry is verging on legend status now. And not just in Nashville. “For the good of the team, I’m happy,” he told me. “Individual goals are a little selfish to me. My goal is to win for this team. We’re advancing. That’s what matters to me.”
Thoughts from Peter King on Josh McDaniels:
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels got a double slap-in-the-face. Due to leave Massachusetts for a Tuesday interview with the Panthers—and thought to be Carolina’s fallback option if the Panthers didn’t get Rhule—McDaniels saw his Tuesday and Wednesday interviews go down the drain. With the unknown Judge landing the head coaching job with a flagship franchise, and with the knowledge that his boss had recommended Judge highly to Mara, McDaniels has to wonder about his place in the Patriot hierarchy—and maybe even about his future with the Patriots.
– – –
WR JULIAN EDELMAN is arrested in California (where it is hard to get arrested). Matt Voutour of MassLive.com:
With the Patriots no longer playing football this season, the additional free time led to trouble for Julian Edelman. Edelman was arrested Saturday night in Beverly Hills for jumping on the hood of a Mercedes causing damage.
Beverly Hills police confirmed the arrest – first reported by TMZ – and provided a statement Sunday afternoon:
“On Saturday, January 11, 2020, at approximately 9:00 p.m., Beverly Hills Police arrested Julian Edelman for vandalism after he jumped onto a driver’s vehicle causing damage. The vandalism occurred in the 200-block of N Beverly Dr. Edelman was released on a citation and scheduled to appear at the Airport Courthouse on April 13, 2020.”
The Los Angeles County attorney will determine whether to pursue further charges.
So actually, he was issued a citation and based on what the DB is hearing, there is unlikely to be any substantial prosecution.
More details from TMZ.com, including his celebrity pals who were with him:
Law enforcement sources tell us it went down this way … Julian was in Bev Hills walking around at about 9 PM when for some unknown reason he hopped up on the car, causing damage.
Impressive, considering the 33-year-old reportedly needs surgery on his left knee during the offseason.
The bad news for Julian … cops were in the area working a robbery case when someone flagged them down and gave them the lowdown.
Edelman was arrested, cited for misdemeanor vandalism and released. He left with his friends.
Our law enforcement sources say it was apparent to them Julian had been drinking … which might explain a lot about the incident. He was at dinner earlier in the evening in Bev Hills Cantina FRIDA, along with Paul Pierce and Danny Amendola.
The L.A. County D.A. will decide whether to file charges … it’s possible — very possible — this case goes nowhere if he squares up with the car owner, but we’ll see.
THIS AND THAT
ROONEY RULE REVISIONS REQUIRED
As you might imagine, Peter King is concerned with the state of minority coaching hires:
Having known Dan Rooney well before he died in 2017, I can say without hesitation that he would be ashamed of what’s happened to the well-intentioned 17-year-old Rooney Rule. The rule mandated that every NFL team with a head-coach opening must interview at least one minority candidate. But the rule is a mockery of a sham. This graphic is all you need to know, dating back to the first year of the Rooney Rule’s implementation, now that all hires for the 2020 season have been made with the Browns agreeing with Kevin Stefanski on Sunday.
African-Americans in NFL hierarchy
2003: 3 head coaches, 1 GM, 0 majority owners
2020: 3 head coaches, 1 GM, 0 majority owners
Fact: 9.4 percent of the 1,600 players in the NFL, which is about 70 percent African-American, will be led in 2020 by a black man . . . the same as it was 17 years ago with adoption of this supposed landmark new league bylaw.
Let’s talk about hiring practices, 2020. There have been five head-coaching changes and several other coordinator changes since the end of the regular season. Ron Rivera, who is Hispanic, was fired by Carolina and hired by Washington. Four other head-coach hires so far. All white. Twelve coordinator hires in the league since season’s end, 11 white.
The system is broken, obviously. Influential owner John Mara of the Giants told me Friday: “We’re obviously using the Rooney Rule for the head coaching candidates, but I think we may have to use the rule for the feeder positions, especially on the offensive side of the ball because that’s where so many of the head coaches come from. We talked in December on the Workplace Diversity Committee about feeding the pipeline further. I can tell you: This is a real concern of the commissioner and the league.”
I don’t doubt Mara believes something needs to be done. I do doubt that the 32 white owners will do the major surgery that is necessary on the rule. My recommendations:
Increase the mandated minority-candidate interviews from one to two, and make owners meet each minority candidate. Find a way to increase the pool of interviewees. Why do most of the interviews have to come from Eric Bieniemy and Jim Caldwell and the usual names? No one saw Joe Judge coming. A week ago, 90 percent of moderately serious football fans had never heard of Joe Judge—I’d never met him or spoken to him. So on the African-American side, who are those rising-star candidates? Let’s hear from Rams cornerbacks coach Aubrey Pleasant, Tampa offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, Niners inside linebackers coach DeMeco Ryans, Ravens tight ends coach Bobby Engram (look at the production of his guys this year), Rams safeties coach Ejiro Evero. Find a way to mandate a way that at least one of the minority interviews be of a position coach instead of coordinator, or from a pool of coaches who’ve had, say, one head-coaching interview or less in their time in the league. Why have owners in the room? Because owners eventually are the ones who have to be the change.
Mandate that one of the three pipeline positions on every new coaching staff be a minority. Washington got ramped up early, hiring Ron Rivera as head coach two days after the regular season. He hired Scott Turner, Jack Del Rio and Nate Kaczor as his offensive, defensive and special-teams coordinators, then Ken Zampese as quarterbacks coach and Luke Del Rio as offensive quality control coach. Five white men. But in particular, the three offensive jobs are big pipeline positions—coordinator, QB coach and offensive quality control. My rule: Mandate that one of those three on every new staff be a minority hire. If you want to get serious about increasing opportunity, draw up rules. “Super provocative,” one prominent agent called this idea. Desperate times require such things.
Expand the Rooney Rule to coordinator positions. Often, coordinators are long-planned quick-hit hires by new coaches. So, interrupt the oft slam-dunk process. Expose a minority candidate to the interview process. “So much of this is about introducing young coaches a head coach or owner wouldn’t know to a new group of influencers,” one club president told me last week. Might not lead to many jobs, but it would lead to decision-makers meeting coaches they don’t know.
Make January a dark period for coaching interviews and hires. New rule: No coaching interviews till 9 a.m. on the Monday after the Super Bowl; violators face a loss of a draft choice. The insanity of allowing assistants to interview during the playoffs came into focus Thursday. In a short week for preparation—for a road playoff game 1,900 miles away against a team with a voracious pass-rush—Minnesota offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski spent time Thursday interviewing for the Browns head-coaching job. (Imagine how head coach Mike Zimmer felt about that.) Teams in the playoffs hate the coach-interview rules; at the peak time of importance for a coaching staff, to have a key member of the coaching staff distracted by preparing for a head-coaching interview or reaching out to peers to gauge interest for positions on a potential coaching staff . . . it’s crazy. So you say it’s unfair to losing teams with coaching openings to waste a month? Well, it’s not optimal, but how much did it hurt the Colts in 2018, hiring Frank Reich on Feb. 11? Not much. Colts won 10 regular-season games and then won a playoff game. It would give minority coaches a chance to polish their presentations in advance of the interview period post-Super Bowl—and also give teams more of a chance to unearth little-known coaches of all colors.
Ramp up (with NFL funding) program for developing minority coaches. Imagine every coaching staff in the NFL having a one-year “developmental coach”—either from college football, or a prospect interested in entering coaching—on staff for a full off-season and season. Expose young coaches to the overhaul of a playbook, how the teaching period works, the grind of training camp, and the weekly work in the regular season. Maybe some coaches catch the bug.
This is not time for more words bemoaning the sad state of NFL minority hiring. This is time for action—starting with something concrete at the NFL owners meetings in Florida in March.
Wow. That’s a lot of rules.
King has a supporter in ESPN’s Adam Schefter:
“The NFL has done a horrendous job [in hiring black head coaches]. Essentially, we’re going to be left I believe with three African-American head coaches. Three. That’s just embarrassing. You just see the faces of the guys pop up over and over of the hires and it’s like another white guy, another white guy, another white guy. It’s always a white guy. It just is. It’s just unbelievable.”
—Adam Schefter, on the NFL being stuck in the equal-opportunity stone
THE LIVE HALL OF FAME REVEALS
The Hall of Fame did a pair of live reveals – and most find the looming appearance of David Baker for Bill Cowher of CBS and Jimmy Johnson of FOX touching. This is Rodger Sherman of The Ringer who is all in, despite a required dosage of sportswriter snark:
The first two weekends of the playoffs might be the only time all season long that I watch NFL pregame shows. On a typical NFL Sunday, I’m trying to tune in exactly when the games start before watching 11 hours of football. But on the wild-card and divisional weekends, there are four games—two on Saturday and two on Sunday—with a significant gap in between the early games and the late ones. What am I supposed to do in that gap? Go outside? My couch seat could get cold!
So I was absentmindedly watching the CBS pregame show on Saturday when Bill Cowher was standing up talking about Lamar Jackson. He was suddenly joined by a large man in a suit louder than a howler monkey. At first, I wasn’t quite sure why this large man was there—he spent about 30 seconds using his rare appearance on national television to work some Catskills lounge-quality schtick—but soon it became clear. This man was Pro Football Hall of Fame president David Baker, and he was letting Cowher know that he had been selected for this summer’s class.
Cowher was caught completely off guard, and he was soon holding back tears. I had no idea who Baker was and have no particular affinity for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but I was also soon holding back tears. (Also thrilled about this: The Hall of Fame bust creator. That chin is gonna be fun to sculpt!)
Before Saturday, I had never heard of Baker. But when a mountain walks onto your TV wearing a full stage curtain from a Broadway theater and does a brief standup comedy bit before reducing a no-nonsense Football Guy to tears, you Google him. Search “Hall of Fame Guy”—it works—and you will find out about his incredible life story. This man is 6-foot-9, 400 pounds, played professional basketball in Switzerland, was convicted of forgery for trying to finance an unsuccessful congressional campaign with a $48,000 check he wrote to himself, became commissioner of the Arena Football League right before it went bankrupt, and is now going around America surprising football legends with the greatest news of their lives while wearing suits designed to fit Shrek, But a Pimp. I want him on my television all the time.
I got my wish. Sunday, Baker showed up on Fox’s set to do the same thing for Jimmy Johnson. He was wearing an equally loud but different color suit. You’d think a surprise wouldn’t work the second time, but guess what. It was just as good.
Johnson truly couldn’t contain his emotions—and his former quarterback, Troy Aikman, also let some tears slip while watching the surprise ceremony from the broadcast booth in Green Bay.
The reason this surprise worked so well is that the process by which Hall of Famers find out they’ve been selected is generally highly formalized. The week of the Super Bowl, HOF finalists stay in a hotel at the site of the game. Baker comes around, knocks on the doors of the people who are selected, and welcomes them “to Canton, Ohio.” Honestly, that system sucks. Why do all the unselected guys have to stay in a hotel room waiting for a call that doesn’t come?! Why are we treating great-but-not-legendary players like they’re women with brown hair on The Bachelor? There is a better way: having Baker show up and stun football legends with the greatest news they’ve ever heard.
It seems like this won’t be a regular occurrence—the Hall of Fame decided to do early reveals this year as part of the celebrations surrounding the NFL’s 100th season. (The rest of the class will be revealed Wednesday.) But the Hall of Fame should reconsider. The element of surprise is what made these moments so wonderful—you could see the moment when Cowher and Johnson went from performing a mundane task to realizing their entire lifetime of work had been validated. These were two of the best television moments of the football season, and it’s only a little bit because of my newfound obsession with Real Life Bill Brasky.
Some interesting thoughts on Johnson from Troy Aikman:
My relationship w/ Jimmy Johnson spans over 35 years. He was the first to recruit me out of Henryetta High School when I was 17 while he was the head coach at Oklahoma State. Two years later when I was transferring from Oklahoma, he recruited me to the University of Miami. I chose UCLA. After turning him down twice, the Dallas Cowboys chose me as the #1 overall draft pick in 1989. We had a rough start, went through some difficult times, had stretches when we didn’t speak. What I’ve learned though in life is we remember those who make us better. Jimmy made me better, but more importantly, he made the Dallas Cowboys better. He was the architect of our 1990’s dynasty and while as our leader and coach, he should have been the first to be enshrined, I am so grateful he will have his rightful place in the @profootballhof – congratulations Coach! You’re gonna look good in gold! #howboutthemcowboys
A quick reminder of what the Hall of Fame has done this year for its so-called “Centennial Class:”
• A different mode of selection: The Hall’s board of directors voted to elect a special class of 15 in the Centennial Class: 10 senior candidates, two coaches and three contributors, in an effort to clear some of the backlog of qualified candidates and—I thought—to address all those from the first 30 to 40 years of football who time forgot.
• A separate voting panel: The Hall empowered a special voting bloc of 25, including some regular Hall of Fame voters and some smart legends of the game, including Bill Belichick, Ron Wolf, Ozzie Newsome and longtime NFL personnel maven Joel Bussert. Those 25 gathered in Canton last week for a day-long meeting, and each voted for their top two coach, top three contributors and top 10 seniors (long-retired players). Cowher was joined on Sunday night by former Cowboys and Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson. The remaining 13 Centennial Class members will be announced Wednesday on NFL Network. (I am on the regular Hall of Fame selection committee, but was not on the special panel to elect the Centennial Class.)
• The regular Hall class of 2020: There will also be the customary group of 15 modern-era finalists, and those will be debated with as many as five being selected for the Class of 2020 when the regular voting panel of 48 meets on Feb. 1 in Miami.
• My hopes: That the committee of 25 would be attentive to the first 40 years of the NFL. The Cowher pick might be a sign that the committee wasn’t as keen on the early history of the game as the original intent of the committee was supposed to be—or at least what I thought the intent was.
• My fear: The key to this Centennial Class should be the old timers. We stress out about the people in our lifetime who we think have been bypassed in the process. The selection of two modern coaches closes out any chance for strong candidates like Buddy Parker, a running back for Detroit who won one championship as a player in the thirties and two more as Lions coach in the fifties—beating Paul Brown in both in the process. As I wrote when this process was announced, this should not be the cleanup class for hotly debated candidates of the last 30 years.
But that’s just my opinion. If others feel differently, so be it. One other note on the coaches: Though I wasn’t in the room and don’t know the substance of the discussion, Johnson is a unique person in recent NFL history. He coached only nine years in Dallas and Miami, winning 89 games—including two Super Bowls. But the Johnson résumé has to include his team-building skills. The Cowboys that he took over were a moribund group; Tom Landry stayed too long, and the three-decade administration left a bare cupboard for Johnson. He was the major architect for a three-time Super Bowl winner, plus he built a different kind of team, bringing speed on all three levels of the defense. After he retired, a stream of coaches, club officials and even owners made pilgrimages (still do) to the Florida Keys to pick Johnson’s brain. It’s an annual event for Bill Belichick, who doesn’t have a lot of people he can use as mentors. Johnson’s one.
There might be one other unintended consequence of the coaching picks. Including playoffs, for instance, Cowher won 161 games, with one Super Bowl title and two conference titles. Including playoffs, the Steeler coach won 161 games, with one Super Bowl title and two conference titles. I would expect the momentum now to build for Mike Shanahan (178 wins, two Super Bowls, two conference titles), Tom Coughlin (182 wins, two Super Bowls, both over Bill Belichick, two conference titles) and Mike Holmgren (174 wins, one Super Bowl, three conference titles). The irony of the Centennial Class is that it could end up creating more of a logjam than it fixes.
You cannot tell the DB that Cowher and Johnson (and Tony Dungy before them) did not help their candidacy by their TV work. Not that they are undeserving. Just that they are out front while Shanahan and Holmgren, to name two, are out of sight.