AROUND THE NFL
WILD CARD RECAPS
Road teams go 3-1 with the home winner needing overtime.
Low-scoring games as no one scores more than 20 points in regulation – and one of those teams, Tennessee, got there with a late pick-six. No team had more than two offensive touchdowns in regulation.
The NFC champ will either come from the NFC North or NFC West – the South and East have gone home. Two team in the AFC playoffs from the AFC South.
And this from ProFootballTalk.com:
Only one of last year’s final eight teams made it to the final eight this year: the Chiefs.
2019 (current year) San Francisco, Green Bay, Seattle, Minnesota
2018 LA Rams, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Dallas
2017 Philadelphia, Minnesota, New Orleans, Atlanta
So nine of the 16 NFC teams lay claim to the 12 spots.
In the AFC
2019 (current year) Baltimore, Kansas City, Houston, Tennessee
2018 Kansas City, New England, LA Chargers, Indianapolis
2017 New England, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, Tennessee
Again, no team in the divisionals for all three years. Nine of the 16 teams claim 12 teams.
So 18 of the 32 teams have claimed the 24 different spots in the Divisional Playoffs over the last three years.
The teams to do so twice are New Orleans, Philadelphia and Minnesota in the NFC – and Kansas City, New England and (surprise) Tennessee in the AFC.
This from ProFootballReference.com:
Tom Brady and Drew Brees were a combined 26-5 at home in the playoffs entering this weekend
Houston 22, Buffalo 19 (OT)
Before Saturday’s game, Watson gave every offensive player a pair of wireless earbuds with this message: “Let’s be great today.” He led the way. An 80-percent passer and hugely clutch player down the stretch—while being sacked seven times and pressured often—in a game that was very important for his franchise.
Tennessee 20, New England 13
In the 2004 season, Bellichick and Brady defended their second Super Bowl championship with a win over the Eagles. We have not had back-to-back SB champs since then, and we will not in the 2019 season.
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Was the last pass of TOM BRADY’s career as a Patriot a pick-six? If so it was the 16th combined of his career (14 regular season, 2 playoffs). His first (in 2002) and his last would both have been against the Titans.
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What’s the most trusted truism in football? My vote goes to: Bill Belichick can take away the best thing any team does. He did it with Marshall Faulk in the Super Bowl 18 years ago, did it a few times with Marvin (Invisible Against the Patriots) Harrison, and did it last year by holding Rams running backs to 57 yards in the Super Bowl. But he couldn’t do it Saturday night. Derrick Henry ate his lunch. The last two NFL generations had 235-pound Earl Campbell (1978-’85) and 253-pound Jerome Bettis (1993-2005) as the big backs who lasted and punished defense after defense. This generation has the 247-pound Henry.
(Quick story: I’m standing in the tunnel leading to the field Saturday night, maybe an hour before the game. Henry, with his short sleeves in the mist and fog, walks through the roped-off area. Pats fans on either side of the rope are watching, and a couple of fans turn in wide-eyed amazement after the 6-foot-3 Henry passes. One of the guys says: “HE’S YUGE!!!!!”)
I’ll tell you something: neither Bettis nor Campbell ever had a playoff game like Henry’s in New England. His 34-carry, 182-yard game smothered the Patriots, and I will bet no player has ever had a more dominant drive (and I include Peyton Manning in that group) than Henry had at the end of the first half, when he gained all 75 yards in the decisive 75-yard touchdown drive that gave the Titans a 14-13 halftime lead. They wouldn’t need another point.
Minnesota 26, New Orleans 20 (OT)
It is being pointed out that Sunday’s win for the Vikings was the first road playoff win for the franchise in 15 years. They won at Green Bay, 31-17, on January 5, 2005 when Randy Moss performed a lewd act with the goal post. But it’s not like there have been all that many home playoff wins for Minnesota, just two.
The Vikings are 7-17 in their last 24 postseason games wherever they are played dating back to the late 80s.
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This from Ed Werder:
Kirk Cousins was 0-and-12 in his career against teams that finished the season with at least a .700 win percentage.
The last three times the Saints and Vikings have met in the postseason, the game was decided after the clock ticked 0:00 in the fourth quarter (2 in overtime and 1 on a walkoff regulation TD).
Adam Schefter with more:
Saints are now the first team in NFL history to have six straight playoff eliminations by one score and the second team since the Packers from 2013-15 to be eliminated in three straight postseasons on the final play of the game.
Does he mean the second team, as well as the Packers in 2013-15? We think so. We don’t think there has been another team, unnamed, to befall such a cruel fate in between the Packers and the Saints.
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Afterward, in the Minnesota locker room, coach Mike Zimmer yelled to Cousins: “How’s it feel to win a playoff game?” and Cousins, team guy that he is, got an ovation and then said: “This is how we’ve won all year! TEAM!”
Then . . . and you sort of knew it was coming. . .
“I GOT THREE WORDS FOR YOU!!! YOU LIKE THAT!!!!!!”
Maybe it’s just one game, one miraculous game. And maybe it doesn’t carry over to Santa Clara on Saturday afternoon, or to next year when the games get big, as they always do for a good team like Minnesota. But who knows? Who knows if this is the start of Cousins taking his place in the modern pantheon with the really good quarterbacks? It’s always seemed like only the mental part of the game stands in his way, and beating Drew Brees in the Superdome is the kind of game that can catapult a quarterback to the next level.
“When you climb a mountain,” Cousins said post-game, “you sit there on the top and you look around, and you realize there are more mountains to climb.” Starting Saturday in California.
Seattle 17, Philadelphia 9
In NFL history, there have been 32 games that ended with a score of 17-9. Two of them were played by the Seahawks and Eagles this year, with Seattle winning both. In addition, the Eagles beat the Cowboys by that 17-9 score in Week 16 this year. And in the 17-9 game immediately prior to these three, it was the Seahawks losing to the Packers, 17-9, in the 2017 season opener.
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The Eagles think Seattle got away with dirty play to remove CARSON WENTZ from the game without penalty. Tim McManus of ESPN.com:
Teammates of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz took issue with the hit by Seattle Seahawks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney that knocked Wentz out of Sunday’s wild-card game in the first quarter.
Left tackle Jason Peters confronted Clowney on the field after seeing a replay of the hit in which Clowney made contact with Wentz’s helmet and upper back as they slammed into the turf. Wentz left with a head injury a short time later and did not return, playing only eight snaps in Philadelphia’s 17-9 playoff loss to Seattle.
“I checked Clowney about it,” Peters said. “He was mouthing, I was mouthing back at him. … I just told him, ‘Man, that’s a dirty play. And he’s like, ‘My bad,’ and we just kept playing.
“I just kept reminding him, ‘Man, stay off my quarterback.’
“I’m a left tackle. I’ve got his back. I’m the blindside. And I just take it personal when somebody is taking a late hit or trying to rough up the quarterback.”
Clowney said he was not attempting to injure Wentz.
“It was a bang-bang play. I don’t intend to hurt anybody in this league, let me just put that out there. I’ve been down the injury road; it’s not fun. My intention was not to hurt him. I was just playing fast.”
Clowney was not penalized for the hit. Referee Shawn Smith explained the decision after the game.
“[Wentz] was a runner, and he did not give himself up,” he said. “We saw incidental helmet contact, and in our judgment, we didn’t rule that to be a foul.”
That was not the view inside the Eagles’ locker room.
“I thought it was late,” said Eagles tight end Zach Ertz, who revealed after the game he played through two rib fractures, a rib cartilage fracture and an injured kidney. “I kinda knew something was wrong right away — just the way he got up. Devastated for my guy. Really tough.”
“I mean, it’s a quarterback hit to the head. But it is what it is. I’m sure there was somebody in the way or something. They’re doing everything they can to protect players, and I’m sure there’s a reason they didn’t call it.”
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The highest paid QB in the Super Bowl will come from the AFC:
Yearly contract value of final 8 QBs:
Ryan Tannehill ($7.0M)
Patrick Mahomes ($4.1M)
Deshaun Watson ($3.5M)
Lamar Jackson ($2.4M)
Russell Wilson ($35.0M)
Aaron Rodgers ($33.5M)
Kirk Cousins ($28.0M)
Jimmy Garoppolo ($27.5M)
Each NFC QB $$ > All 4 AFC QBs $$ combined
Actually, the average contract of the four NFC QBs ($31.25 mil) is nearly twice as much as all 4 AFC QBs combined ($17 mil).
Rodgers and Wilson have one Super Bowl win each in 18 prior combined seasons as starters.
It would be a first for any of the other six, who entered these playoffs with a total of one combined postseason win (Mahomes).
G KYLE LONG is going on sabbatical after seven years a pro. Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:
The Bears have gotten used to playing without Kyle Long for long stretches over the last four years, but that’s not going to be an issue for them in 2020.
Long announced on Twitter on Sunday that he’s not going to be playing at all.
Long wrote that he’s “stepping away and getting my body right” after multiple injuries. A hip injury limited him to four games this season, he missed half of the 2018 season with a foot injury and missed 26 games over the last four years.
Long was a first-round pick in 2013 and made the Pro Bowl after each of his first three seasons. The injuries brought that run to an end and now Long will be off to do other things rather than risk further aches and pains.
Why did the Packers have a better record this year? Better health is a big reason according to Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com:
Matt LaFleur knew he had a problem on his hands when he took the Green Bay Packers’ head-coaching job last January — an injury problem.
The Packers, according the injury-tracking website Man-Games Lost, were one of the most banged-up NFL teams of the past decade. From 2009 through 2018, only six teams were considered more injured than the Packers.
The issue did not catch LaFleur by surprise.
“I was well aware of that coming in here,” LaFleur said recently.
LaFleur had decisions to make.
Clean house in the training room?
Hire new team doctors?
Come up with a new nutrition plan?
Fire the strength and conditioning staff?
No, no, no and no.
The only thing the rookie head coach did in terms of a restructure was to flip-flop the strength and conditioning coordinator with the strength and conditioning assistant. According to LaFleur, the idea came from Mark Lovat, who had served as the head of that department from 2010-2018 but offered to take on an assistant’s role and let his former top adviser, Chris Gizzi, take control.
When LaFleur blew out his Achilles playing basketball in May, the jokes came in quickly on social media.
“Nice start to the season, even our coach gets the injury bug, knew this guy was the perfect fit,” said one commenter on Twitter.
Said another: “Good strategy. Keep all the injuries on the coaching staff this year. Not even [Bill] Belichick is that creative.”
Davante Adams’ turf toe was the most significant injury of the regular season for the Packers, keeping him out four weeks. Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY Sports
It turned out, that was about the worst of it.
Receiver Davante Adams’ four-game absence from Weeks 5-8 because of turf toe was the most significant injury of the regular season, and the Packers won all four of those games. Adams still almost reached 1,000 yards for the season; he posted 997 for the second time in four years.
Of the 22 Week 1 starters on offense and defense, only two finished the regular season on injured reserve and one of them — safety/inside linebacker Raven Greene — was designated to return off IR this week and could play in the first playoff game Sunday. The other, left guard Lane Taylor, might have lost his job anyway even without his season-ending biceps injury after two games because the Packers had already begun to platoon him with rookie Elgton Jenkins.
No one around the Packers can pinpoint exactly the reason for the change. They’d rather knock on wood and keep going.
One thing was evident early: practices were shorter. The Packers’ average training camp practice this past summer lasted one hour and 55 minutes — or 17 minutes shorter than the previous summer.
“It’s just a little bit more volume,” Adams said. “I think it’s a little bit more college-y, with the volume.”
After taking heat for not having an announcement about Jason Garrett, the Cowboys take heat when word gets out about his departure during the Eagles game. Charean Williams of ProFootballTalk.com is kinder than most:
The Cowboys made it official Sunday night, announcing shortly after word leaked, that Jason Garrett will not return as their head coach.
Garrett’s contract expires Jan. 14.
“We are extremely grateful to Jason Garrett for his more than 20 years of service to the Dallas Cowboys as a player, assistant coach and head coach,” Cowboys owner and General Manager Jerry Jones said in a statement. “His level of commitment, character and dedication to this organization has been outstanding at every stage of his career. In his nine full years as a head coach, he guided our team to three division championships while also having them in position to play for the NFC East title in the last game of the year in four other seasons. His tenure of leadership will be characterized by his ability to produce teams that always played with great effort, emotion and passion, and he represented our organization with great pride, loyalty and respect.
“Jason Garrett’s legacy with the Dallas Cowboys will always be that of someone who strived for greatness every day that he walked through the door, and as someone who instilled the virtues of enthusiasm, hard work and appreciation for the profession in all of the men who played with him and for him.
“He is, and always will remain, a cherished member of the Dallas Cowboys family, and his contributions to the organization are greatly appreciated.”
In the meantime, they’ve interviewed two former NFL head coaches. ESPN.com:
The Dallas Cowboys plan to meet with former Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy on Saturday, a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
The team also met Saturday with Marvin Lewis after already spending some time Friday with the former Cincinnati Bengals coach, a source told ESPN’s Todd Archer.
A source told ESPN’s Ed Werder on Thursday that the Cowboys plan to move on from current head coach Jason Garrett, though no decision has been announced by the team.
Garrett’s contract expires on Jan. 14 and his status with the team has been uncertain since last February, when the Cowboys opted not to offer him an extension.
A source told ESPN’s Chris Mortensen that the team does not believe it has to clarify Garrett’s job status because his contract is set to expire.
The Cowboys missed the playoffs in 2019 and finished 8-8 for the fourth time in Garrett’s nine seasons as coach. He will finish as the second-longest-tenured and second-winningest coach in team history to Tom Landry with a record of 85-67, but he won just two playoff games and was unable to get past the divisional round.
NFL Network earlier reported the Cowboys’ intentions to meet with McCarthy.
McCarthy, 56, was head coach of the Packers from 2006 to 2018. He compiled a 125-77-2 record over 13 seasons and won Super Bowl XLV.
He has also interviewed with the Carolina Panthers, Cleveland Browns and New York Giants for their head-coaching positions this offseason.
Lewis, 61, served as the Bengals’ head coach from 2003 to 2018, going 131-122-3. His 0-7 postseason mark marred a tenure in which Lewis became one of just three coaches to post a winning record with the Bengals.
Charles Robinson of YahooSports, well-connected enough to know something, thinks the Cowboys should make a call to the Saints:
In the world of NFL coaching searches, the Dallas Cowboys started in the shallow end of the pool — choosing safety over splash.
This is what Mike McCarthy and Marvin Lewis represent. Known commodities with long track records. Available and pliable when it comes to their coaching staffs. Both winners of Super Bowls, McCarthy as a head coach with the Green Bay Packers and Lewis as a defensive coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens. Both about as knowledgable as you can get on the NFL level, with decades of experience leading rooms, calling plays and juggling expectations from both team owners and fans. They’re ready, willing and eager, each needing the Cowboys more than the franchise needs them.
But neither is Sean Payton. And if Payton is a coach Jerry Jones covets, he should pick up the phone. Because you don’t compromise this decision.
That’s where I’d start the Payton conversation if I’m Jones — with a little bit of realistic self-reflection. Surely, the Hall of Famer knows the ledger well. In a litany of ways, Jones has arguably done more to advance the league to juggernaut status than any owner alive today.
Which, at the age of 77, is why he has to selfishly make this head coaching decision solely for himself. He has the wealth. He has the fame and influence. He has the super yacht, mansions and private jet. What he doesn’t have is the last sip of the ultimate football success that he desires. Nor does he have the coach he has long-coveted as the guy who might provide it before his reign ends.
Payton is that guy. And Jerry owes it to himself to make the push for him. Even if it means paying a hefty price.
That’s what a decade of Garrett should have bought, along with the $1.3 billion in player salaries that Jones paid in that span. It should have purchased the knowledge that you don’t settle at a time like this. You make the call. You listen to the price. And you consider — like you always said you would — exactly what you’d be willing to give up for one last Super Bowl win.
I’m not precisely sure what that price is for Jerry Jones, but it has to be a hell of a lot more than what it takes to reel in Mike McCarthy or Marvin Lewis.
How much more? That’s hard to say. But Jones will never find out without making the call. And as fate would have it, this could be as good a time as ever — with the New Orleans Saints dropping a tough loss in the first round of the playoffs and looking like they’re closer than ever to a crossroads with quarterback Drew Brees. That such a moment would coincide at a time when Dallas is conducting its first wide open head coaching search since January of 2007 is nothing less than serendipitous.
If Jones doesn’t make that call today, he may never have the opportunity again. And if he does, there’s no telling what his Cowboys will look like or whether Payton will still have the coaching fire that he does right now. The laws of attraction in the NFL change on an annual basis — destroying the natural fit of coaches and owners with little rhyme or reason.
Is the situation perfect? Of course not. Payton is under a recently extended contract with a team that still has a litany of talent to work with in the coming years — with or without Brees. He’s also deeply rooted in the city of New Orleans, which adds a complex emotional component that seems to grow with every passing year. Conversely, Dallas is headed to a series of franchise-altering financial decisions, with the contracts of quarterback Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper appearing to lock up a solid percentage of the salary cap for years to come. All of which makes surrendering cheap and valuable draft assets to acquire a head coach almost indefensible.
But there is some bottom line math here that puts some things into perspective. Most especially if Jones believes Payton is still the bright and aggressive offensive mind that he has always seemed to be. And that math goes something like this: How much would Sean Payton cost at this stage of his career, being nine seasons removed from his Super Bowl win in the 2009 season? And is it worth more to hire a coach like McCarthy or Lewis and retain draft picks than have Payton in hand.
Of course, the answer lies in the price. But you can’t know the price unless you pick up the phone and ask, which Jones absolutely has to do, unless Payton no longer fits his ideal candidate.
Adam Schefter of ESPN.com has this:
Before they hired Ron Rivera as their new head coach this past week, the Washington Redskins came close to hiring former Houston Texans general manager Rick Smith as their president to run the team, league sources told ESPN.
Smith and Redskins owner Daniel Snyder had multiple meetings in the Bahamas, formulating a vision for the struggling franchise, according to sources.
Sources familiar with the situation expected a deal to get done and Smith to be in charge of the Redskins.
But Snyder ultimately opted to run his franchise through his head coach instead of a president, bestowing the power to Rivera, who was officially hired Wednesday.
The meetings in the Bahamas also proved that Smith is ready to return to the NFL at a time when some wondered when or whether he would, with good reason. Smith has spent the past year out of football, tending to his three children after his wife, Tiffany, died of cancer Jan. 31.
In his postgame press session, QB TOM BRADY said it was “unlikely” that he was retiring – which leaves re-signing or going somewhere else in 2020. Mike Florio was listening closely as Tony Romo spoke in the final minutes of Saturday night’s game:
When it comes to Tom Brady‘s instantly murky football future, everyone will have a guess. Some guesses will be more reliable than others.
Tony Romo of CBS, who worked multiple games involving the Patriots this season and who met with Brady in the days preceding the season-ending loss to Tennessee has a guess that should not be ignored.
“I’m gonna tell everyone right now that I believe Tom Brady is coming back to play,” Romo said near the end of last night’s game. “This is a guess. I think he’s coming back to play. . . . What I saw out of him, not only today but when I watched him this year, he is not done. He needs help around him. Now where he’s gonna play? Is it here is it — that’s, whatever, I think he’s coming back. And I think he’s going to be very motivated to possibly show people that at that next stage, he’s not done.”
Later, Jim Nantz of CBS pointed out that Brady may indeed stay with the Patriots.
“He said, ‘Who knows? Maybe a sign a five-year extension?’” Nantz explained.
“He’s coming back,” Romo said again, more forcefully and without calling it a guess.
Again, whether he’s coming back to New England or going somewhere else remains to be seen. Any team that needs a quarterback should want him. Even if there are signs of slippage (his numbers this year and specifically last night were far from his usual standard), Brady’s presence in the locker room and his ability to sell tickets and move merchandise make him worthy of a blank check.
The real question is whether he’s looking to make money or to win another championship or two. Plenty of teams that need quarterbacks have a long way to go to get to the top of the mountain. Only a small handful of teams have the other pieces to contend at a high level — and most of them have quarterbacks.
As the DB listened to Romo, he thought he heard a linkage with Josh McDaniels. The DB’s impression that Brady would be more likely to follow McDaniels to his new job, than take flight to a team with a coaching staff with which he was not familiar.
The DB would think that the best match in that case might be with big money David Tepper and the Carolina Panthers who basically have a quarterback vacancy, some otherwise decent talent and a weapon in CHRISTIAN McCAFFREY who would seem well-suited for a McDaniels/Brady offense.
As they went off the air, Cris Collinsworth told Al Michaels that he thought Brady would be going to the Chargers as there are teams that “need to sell tickets.” At this moment, Anthony Lynn remains the head coach of the Chargers with Shane Steichen the offensive coordinator.
Peter King runs through his candidates:
New England was 4-6 in its last 10 games. Not including the 34-13 win over the worst team in the league, Cincinnati, the Patriots scored 16.6 points a game after Halloween. That’s one of the reasons why Belichick might think: With all the holes we need to fill on an old roster, now’s not the time to be emotional. Now’s not the time to try to wring one or two more years at huge money out of a quarterback who turns 43 in August. A fresh start for Brady won’t be the best thing for Kraft. But it might be the best thing for the man who controls the roster, William Stephen Belichick.
And it might be best for Brady too, to see what life is like outside the Foxboro bubble. Maybe he’d like to finish his career with a more player-friendly coach (Anthony Lynn with the Chargers?) or a quarterback-friendly head coach (Frank Reich in Indianapolis?), in one of two places with far better offensive weapons than New England. The Chargers might view Brady as the billboard to sell PSLs in new SoFi Stadium, opening next season. The Colts, assuming Andrew Luck stays retired, might view Brady as the on-field mentor for Jacoby Brissett for a year or two. Where else? John Elway seems to have his passer of the future in Drew Lock, so Denver’s doubtful, but Elway’s a home-run swinger. Tennessee is doubtful too, after the emergence of Ryan Tannehill, but with Patriot-bred Jon Robinson as GM and Belichick protégé Mike Vrabel as coach, never say never. Chicago should be interested, but two years of Brady would be the end of Mitchell Trubisky, which the brass there seems loathe to do. Carolina’s in flux.
My personal darkhorse, by the way: the Las Vegas (nee Oakland) Raiders. Jon Gruden’s favorite quarterback is always the one he doesn’t have. No clue if he’s remotely interested, but my antennae would be up for the Raiders and Brady.
In the season-ending press conference, Bill Belichick was non-commital. Mike Reiss of ESPN.com:
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick acknowledged Sunday morning that Tom Brady is “an iconic figure in this organization,” but said now isn’t the time to address Brady’s future with the franchise.
In a season-ending news conference about 12 hours after the Patriots were eliminated from the playoffs in a 20-13 loss to the Tennessee Titans, Belichick added that “nobody respects Tom more than I do,” but mostly deflected questions on the topic.
“I’m sure there are a lot of questions about the future. Nobody has thought about the future,” he said.
Brady, who is scheduled to become a free agent on March 18, said late Sunday night that retirement was “pretty unlikely” and “hopefully unlikely.”
Belichick was peppered with questions Sunday morning in an exchange with one reporter that edged toward getting testy.
Saying he didn’t have a timeline on when he’d begin discussions about Brady’s future, Belichick said, “Honestly, look, I know it’s out there just like there are a lot of other things out there. We could bring up 50 questions just like that one. I told you what my state is on that. So you can ask all 50 of them and it’s going to be the same answer 50 times. We’ve been working on Tennessee, it’s 12 hours after the game, I’m not going to talk a lot of things about the future because I’m not prepared to talk about it.”
But later, Belichick came close to acknowledging Brady’s situation was different based on his iconic stature in the organization.
With all decisions, Belichick said he needs time and noted they are collaborative.
“I want to give the proper attention and communication and detail and thought into my input into those decisions,” he said. “But any decision made is not an individual decision. There are other people involved. There has be some type of communication, understanding, agreement, whatever you want to call it. That’s not a one-way street. I hope you can understand that. One person can’t just decide what everybody else is going to do. …
“There’s a lot of time, thought and effort and communication that goes into that. Now is not the time.”
Here is what Peter King had to say:
The interesting takeaway from spending 10 minutes with Tom Brady before he left Gillette Stadium near midnight Saturday? He didn’t seem at all surprised by the 20-13 wild-card loss to Tennessee. He was sad but not distraught, knowing how stupid it would be for him, after playing in nine Super Bowls in a magical 20-year run, to be somehow unfulfilled after the Patriots played pretty much the same desultory football against Tennessee that they’d played for the past two months. I kept thinking as he spoke: Tom Brady could see this coming.
What Brady can’t see with similar clarity? The future.
Brady, clear-eyed, looking more like 32 than 42, sat in an office near the Patriots’ locker room near midnight, less than an hour after the New England dynasty was shaken to the core, and maybe shuttered. He wore a navy button-down shirt, blue khakis, tan boots, a navy ski cap and the look of a man who absolutely does not know what 2020 and beyond holds for him as he faces true freedom for the first time in his career. Brady is scheduled to be a free agent without the franchise tag when the league year begins in March.
“I’m not crushingly disappointed,” Brady said, looking me straight in the eyes. “I think we fought hard. Our head is held high. We’re competitors. Every season doesn’t end in a Super Bowl win. It’s exciting when it does. You relish those when you have those opportunities and we’ve had them more than anyone else. I’m proud of the guys for fighting hard. But those other guys [the Titans] are competitive too, and they deserved to win tonight. We just didn’t make the plays the last half of the season that we needed to make. Didn’t make the plays tonight.”
“First time in 20 years you’re truly a free man,” I said. “How do you feel about that right now?”
“Yeah,” said Brady. “I think I’m just . . . I’ll explore those opportunities whenever they are. If it’s the Patriots, great. If that doesn’t work, I don’t know. I just don’t know. I love playing football. I still want to play football. I think I still can play at a championship level. I’ve just got to go do it. I’m motivated to get back to work and training.”
Somewhere. And when Brady considers his future, my gut feeling is this: He’s going to prioritize needing a better offense around him in 2020 than he had in 2019, when his body language and clipped post-game press conferences—even after a big but offensively frustrating win in Buffalo—told the story of a frustrating season.
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Jan. 5, 1920: New England reeled as the Red Sox announced the sale of Babe Ruth, the best player in baseball history, to the New York Yankees.
Jan. 5, 2020: New England reeled as the Patriots pondered the possibility that Tom Brady, perhaps the best player in football history, has played his last game with the franchise.
(Thanks to Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe for the great Babe Ruth comp.)
Before the game, the crowd at Gillette Stadium was nervous. You could feel it. The owner was nervous. You could feel that too.
In his office four hours before the game, owner Robert Kraft broke his silence on Brady’s future.
“Before the season started,” Kraft said, “it was very important to Tom that he be free to do whatever he wanted at the end of the year. You know what I said to myself? That any person who plays 20 years for this team and helps us get to six Super Bowls, and been really selfless, has earned that right. I love the young man like he’s part of my family. Blood family. Anyone who’s done that has earned the right to control his future after 20 years. And you know, my hope and prayer is number one, he play for the Patriots. Or number two, he retires. He has the freedom to decide what he wants to do and what’s in his own best personal interest.”
Approving Brady’s wish was difficult, obviously, for Kraft. He’s a football fan. He’s been going to Patriots game for a half-century. He knows Joe Montana finished a Chief, Joe Namath a Ram and . . .
“See this picture here?” Kraft said, walking me over to a photo on his wall of Johnny Unitas, in a Patriots cap, posing with Kraft before one of Kraft’s first games as New England owner in the mid-1990s.
“I got Johnny Unitas wearing a Patriot hat,” Kraft mused.
At 40, in 1973, Unitas had a bad curtain-call to end his career with the San Diego Chargers. Five games, 45-percent passing, three touchdowns, seven interceptions, a 40.0 rating. Ouch.
“I’m thinking of all that, of all the quarterbacks who went elsewhere, and I just hope and believe that Tom . . . he is so special that he’s earned the right to do what’s best for him. . . . But I just hope and pray we fit into his plans. He is unique in the kind of leader he is, his work ethic, his selfless nature, everything. Think about it: He’s been with us 20 percent of the life of the NFL.”
I asked Kraft if this had been a melancholy week for him, knowing this could be Brady’s last game as a Patriot in Foxboro. He thought for four or five seconds. “I don’t know if I’d say melancholy,” Kraft said. “I think I just realize that I shouldn’t take for granted how lucky we have been. I saw a stat that the Buffalo Bills haven’t won a playoff game since ’95. Not one. And that brought it home. We’ve won over 30. So . . . how lucky we’ve been. But also we know you can’t rest on your laurels. Things change and you’ve got to have an edge and look to how you keep things going the best you can.”
On the field, an hour before the game, the air was thick with anticipation. In one corner of the stadium, where it’s been since the 2004 season, a sign screaming BRADY’S CORNER #12 was in its customary spot with the customary owner, Mike Burke of North Kingstown, R.I. “I don’t see him playing for another team,” Burke said. “But when I left home today, I told my wife, ‘This could be the very last game for Tom.’ ”
A couple of minutes later, as is his pre-game custom, Brady ran the length of the field to the south goal. Surely he saw the huge sign PLEASE STAY TOMMY right behind the goal post as he pumped his fist crazily and screamed, “LET’S GO! LET’S F—ING GO!” This is how different the night felt: When Brady turned to run back, he spotted three young Titans—wideout A.J. Brown, tight end Jonnu Smith and running back Khari Blasingame—clapping respectfully and pointing toward him. Brady pointed at them, nodding as if to say, That’s truly appreciated. And when he did, they, in turn, responded by pumping fists and jumping around. That’s a five-second moment I’ll always remember about this night.
“So cool,” Smith, smiling broadly, said later. “Just wanted to show our respect for one of the greatest ever. Much respect, much love to him. He’s one of the great men in our game, and when he looked over at us . . . It was great.”
Then the game. And the air pfffffted out of the balloon. The zits of the 2019 Patriots surfaced pretty consistently for 2 hours and 57 minutes. The Patriots whiffed on top free-agent wideout target Adam Humphries last March, losing him to Tennessee, and over-picked receiver N’Keal Harry late in the first round (over A.J. Brown, Deebo Samuel, Mecole Hardman and Terry McLaurin). No New England wideout but Julian Edelman caught more than 30 balls in 2019. That lack of production showed up Saturday. The New England receivers got wafer-thin separation all night, and Brady completed a shockingly low seven of 21 passes to wideouts. Tight end was a problem spot all year after—on the same day in March—Rob Gronkowski retired and top free-agent target Jared Cook agreed to terms with New Orleans. Then in April the Patriots dealt tight end Jacob Hollister to Seattle for a seventh-round pick; Hollister, late this season, has become invaluable for Russell Wilson. What might he have been for Brady? Tight ends gained 2,026 yards for New England in 2017 and 2018 but managed only 419 this year.
Add this: New England is an ancient team. The Patriots started 11 of 22 players Saturday night who are 29 or older; seven others in that age bracket played 20 snaps or more. Average age of the Patriots’ five core special-teamers (Matthew Slater, Justin Bethel, Brandon Bolden, Rex Burkhead, Nate Ebner): an unsustainable 30 years, 5 months. Their 13 points came from 33-year-old Edelman (five-yard end-around TD), 35-year-old kicker Nick Folk (two field goals; the incumbent injured kicker, Stephen Gostkowski, is 35 too), with 42-year-old Brady at the trigger for each of the three scoring drives. Even on their only touchdown of the night, there looked to be some on-field disconnect. Brady told me, “We were just screwed up in our alignment.”
THIS AND THAT
With the name Matt Rhule in the air (and maybe Lincoln Riley), Peter King with some research:
In the last 20 years, nine coaches have graduated from college football to NFL head-coaching positions. And:
• Two of the nine (Chip Kelly, Jim Harbaugh) had winning records with their first NFL teams.
• One of nine (Harbaugh) won at least one playoff game. Harbaugh won five with the Niners.
• Syracuse’s Doug Marrone (15-17 in two seasons at Buffalo, 2013-’14) and LSU’s Nick Saban (15-17 in two seasons at Miami, 2005-’06) were close to having winning records, but it’s a sign of how far from winning big each thought they were. Both elected to walk away from pro jobs after two shaky seasons.
• Four of the college coaches—Bobby Petrino (3-10), Lane Kiffin (5-15), Dennis Erickson (9-23), Greg Schiano (11-22) either quit with teams in disarray or were fired after poor tenures.
• Butch Davis (U of Miami to Cleveland, 2001) is the only full-time Browns coach since their rebirth in 1999 to win 40 percent of his games. He was 24-36 in four seasons.
• Kelly was fired by the Eagles late in 2015 and went on to have a desultory 2-14 season in San Francisco in his only other NFL coaching year. So his four-year NFL record is just 28-40. The only successful coach of the nine in the NFL has been Harbaugh. At 49-22-1, he is the only one of the nine to have a career record of .500 or better in the NFL.
I happen to think Rhule is an excellent candidate—a builder, hungry (particularly for the Giants job, I’ve heard), very smart—but I just want to make the point that most college coaches entering the NFL exit with something less than a halo over their heads.
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Listening to Nantz and Romo immediately after 4 hours of Tessitore and Booger is a bit like getting Omaha Steaks right after you powered through a leftover microwaved combo meal from Burger King
Nantz and Romo, immediately after Tessitore and Booger, is like a nice, cool breeze after an uncomfortable, sweaty afternoon. It’s like someone has STOPPED kicking the back of your chair. It’s a warm pair of socks from the dryer after spending a couple hours with wet feet.
We should add that we thought ESPN’s production was clunky and disjointed, so the announcers were not very well supported.
The low point to the DB was JOSH ALLEN’s third down catastrophe on Buffalo’s first attempt to get the tying field goal. Granted, with two penalties to sort out, it was a complicated situation. But, from the broadcast we’re still wondering what happened, we’re still left to ourselves to figure out what to do on 4th-and-23 at the 42-yard line (we think going for it would have been the last choice after 60-yard FG try or punt).
What you may not know, is that intentional grounding is a spot foul, so it was 14 yards in this instance. The potential tying FG went from 46 to 60 yards. If it had just been five yards for the illegal touching by the offensive lineman, surely Sean McDermott have gone for a 51-yard FG. If it was just a 10-yard penalty (if Allen had not continued to retreat for example), for a 56-yard FG, we would think a FG would have been in order.
Then, we think we would have gone for it, as Bill O’Brien did, on a 4th-and-1 from the Bills 30 (but not with a bunched QB sneak). But he was passing up a 48-yard FG try (what, a 60% shot?) to go up 6. No mention on ESPN of the ramifications of the decision.