The Eagles are the best team in football with a month left in the regular season. My top five, with four bye-less weeks and 64 regular-season games to play:
- Philadelphia, 12-1. First team to clinch a playoff berth with the 48-22 rout of the formerly impressive Giants in Jersey Sunday. Philly has a two-game lead for NFC home-field, with the tiebreaker edge over both 10-3 teams, Dallas and Minnesota.
- Kansas City, 10-3. Easier final four (Houston, Seattle, Denver, Vegas) than the Bills—at Cincinnati in Week 17—face. Very likely they’ll be a top-two seed for the fifth-straight season. In other words, every year Patrick Mahomes has started, they’ve been either the 1 or 2 seed.
- San Francisco, 9-4. The 49ers get hurt a lot. But for six straight weeks, that D has allowed 17 points or less, and it’s throttled Tua Tagovailoa and Tom Brady in consecutive weeks. Amazing to think this franchise could play for the NFC title two straight years with Jimmy Garoppolo and Brock Purdy the starting quarterbacks.
- Buffalo, 10-3. They got Von Miller to chase down Tua Tagovailoa and Joe Burrow down the stretch, then Patrick Mahomes in January. That dream is dead. Now, can an offense that has been good but not explosive make up for the ACL-related loss of Miller?
- Cincinnati, 9-4. In Burrow they trust, and rightfully so. Bengals have averaged 30 a game in their 5-0 streak, and their fate may come down to Weeks 17 and 18 on the banks of the Ohio River: Buffalo on Monday night in Week 17, Baltimore on Sunday in Week 18.
The Eagles aren’t two touchdowns better than everyone else. But they’re explosive in the run and pass games. They’ve got a quarterback playing with Mahomes-like confidence. They’ve got the best offensive line in the game (more about that later). On the other side, they’ve got the best pass defense in football, they’re second in yards allowed, and they’ve allowed less than 20 points in eight games.
I mean, what’s not to like? In the last two weeks, they’ve beaten seven-win teams by 25 and 26 points, and they’ve got one tough team to play down the stretch—Dallas, in Texas, on Christmas Eve. Think of what it will take for the Eagles to lose the top seed in the NFC. Dallas or Minnesota would have to go 4-0 and the Eagles, playing a soft slate, would have to go 1-3. So it’s over, pretty much.
On Sunday, running back Miles Sanders became the first Eagle to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season since 2014, and A.J. Brown the first Eagles receiver to exceed 1,000 yards, also since ’14. Hurts has the kind of options few quarterbacks have had this year, or in any year.
Miles Sanders SEE YA.
— NFL (@NFL) December 11, 2022
“I’ll just say it’s very fun to come to work every day, because it feels like we can do so much,” Sanders said from the locker room after the rout of the Giants. “It’s very fun to go to practice. It’s even more fun on game day. I ain’t gonna lie. The chemistry is great. Everybody’s breaking records, doing a lot of stuff. It’s a good vibe. Everybody roots for each other. We’re not done but it’s fun. It’s really, really fun right now.”
The fun’s not over. Five years ago, the Pederson/Wentz/Foles/Ertz Eagles got on a roll and had some Super Bowl fun. This year, the Sirianni/Hurts/Brown/Sanders Eagles (with assists from many more) have fewer questions. Five years ago this weekend, Carson Wentz was lost with his torn ACL, and the Eagles were 11-2, and Nick Foles made his magic. Now they’re 12-1 with a different cast that may be a better cast. The next two months will tell.
A bit of a somber week 14, at least for me:
The death of Grant Wahl, America’s best soccer writer and all-around good human, socked us all in the face Friday night. Some thoughts about his impact, and his goodness.
Remember when Aidan Hutchinson said he actually wanted to be picked by Detroit in the draft? I asked him Sunday: “What did you know that the rest of us didn’t?”
Baker Mayfield, everyman. Ever go online to buy a plane ticket and wonder if paying the $78 or whatever for flight insurance is worth it? Mayfield had that decision to make last Tuesday, and as you’ll learn here exclusively, he wasted his money. I dive deep into Mayfield’s insane first 48 hours as a Ram.
Craziest factoid of Week 14: If the Panthers win out, they win the NFC South and host a Wild Card game Jan. 15 or 16, likely as the number four seed. Panthers don’t play a winning team in the last four weeks, though the Lions are playing like the ’67 Packers right now. (I kid, I kid.)
This would be fun: Next week, if Cincinnati beats Tampa, Atlanta beats New Orleans and Carolina beats Pittsburgh, there will be a three-way tie atop the mighty South at 6-8.
Has the expiration date on Daniel Snyder finally been reached? Can the NFL please stop tiptoeing around this terrible owner and usher him out of football for good?
Remember the days when the Giants and Jets looked like playoff semi-locks? In their last four games, the Giants are 0-3-1, Jets 1-3. Uh-oh.
The ACL twins—Baltimore’s J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, who missed 2021 with knee reconstructions—beat the Steelers with 186 rushing yards between them Sunday. Needed, with someone named Anthony Brown needing to finish the game at quarterback for the battered Ravens.
WELCOME BACK @Jkdobbins22!!
TUNE IN ON CBS! pic.twitter.com/h1XvbxZcFm
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) December 11, 2022
Andrew Luck, explained. Thank you, Seth Wickersham.
Dallas, in the last month, lost to lousy Green Bay and almost lost to the worst team in football, Houston. How do they win at the Eagles or Niners playing like they did (27-23 over Houston) Sunday?
Eventful day for Denver. Depressing horizon for Denver after the 34-28 home loss to Kansas City. The reward for the offense not sleepwalking for the 13th straight week? The Broncos were eliminated from playoff contention. Denver has four totally meaningless games left. Denver has surrendered its first- and second-round picks next April and so won’t pick in the top 65. And Denver has a concussed quarterback, Russell Wilson, that the franchise still has massive questions about.
Brock Purdy outplayed Tom Brady in the former’s first start as an NFL quarterback, in the latter’s second game ever at the Niners. Every coach in the Big 12 can say to his players today: “See? If Brock Purdy can do it, you can do it.”
The MVP case for Tua Tagovailoa hit more than a bump in the road in Miami’s 0-2 road trip to California. It hit a San Andreas Fault. His reward for his 46-percent passing at the Niners and Chargers? Getting home at 7 or so this morning, and having a short week of prep for his biggest game of the year Saturday night at Buffalo.
Never thought I’d be featuring the Detroit Lions in a December column of mine, at least till I was 87. But here we are.
You may remember last spring, in the week before the draft, when Aidan Hutchinson, who was going to be a top-three pick, said openly he wanted to be picked by the Lions. The Michigan resident wanted it, his family wanted it. How cool would it be that a University of Michigan star would actually want to play for the woebegone Lions, and then it would actually work out?
And it did, of course. The Jaguars, picking first, passed on Hutchinson for Travon Walker, and the Lions took about eight seconds to pick Hutchinson. So what did he know, or why was he so intent on coming to a franchise that had been lost at sea for three generations?
“I got the chance to come somewhere and be part of coming alive and building a great team,” he said after the 11-point win over the previously 10-2 Vikings Sunday in Detroit. “I just wanted to come into the season and learn something every single game and make strides every game. I’m happy with my development so far.”
In the third quarter Sunday, with the Lions up 15, Hutchinson sacked Kirk Cousins for a seven-yard loss; the Vikings settled for a field goal on that drive. He had two hits of Cousins and three pressures, continuing a strong rookie year—seven sacks, 43 total pressures.
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) December 11, 2022
“The chemistry we’ve got right now, it’s kind of unmatched,” Hutchinson said. “We’re so complimentary right now offensively and defensively and we never flinch at the end. It’s no longer the same old Lions. We’ve overcome that. Now we’re on our way to becoming a really good football team.”
Detroit’s been able to score all season, but the turnaround coincided with a defensive improvement. The Lions have allowed 20.3 points a game in their 5-1 run. What’s interesting is that now GM Brad Holmes should be able to use his two first-round picks (Detroit’s, and the one from the Rams from the Matthew Stafford trade) on strengthening the roster rather than zeroing in on a quarterback after Jared Goff has had the kind of resurgent season he needed to have to seal his grip on the job. Maybe they find a sideline-to-sideline linebacker, or a bookend for Hutchinson, or a corner to team with Jeff Okudah. Whatever, with Goff looking better than a short-term fix, this is a team with a significantly brighter near future than we thought back on Labor Day.
With the Giants and Seattle fading, the 6-7 Lions might squeeze into the seventh playoff spot with a 3-1 finish. And 3-1 is possible against this slate: at Jets, at Panthers, Bears, at Packers.
One more thing about Hutchinson. Talk about a local boy. He has lived his football life in the state of Michigan. It’s pretty interesting just how close everything has been for Hutchinson.
Hutchinson went to high school at Divine Child High School in Dearborn. He went to college at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He practices in Allen Park, for Detroit in the NFL. He plays at Ford Field in downtown Detroit.
From Divine Child High to Michigan Stadium, as the crow flies: 27.0 miles to the west.
From Divine Child High to the Lions’ practice facility, as the crow flies: 4.7 miles to the southeast.
From Divine Child High to Ford Field, as the crow flies: 13.2 miles to the east.
“It is bizarre, to be honest with you,” Hutchinson said. “I’m taking the same freeway I took to Divine Child on my way to the Lions’ practice facility. I just get off [Interstate] 96 a little bit later. It’s so weird. I’m just so grateful to be in this position and to have the ability to be close to my family. I’m already a homebody. Being in this environment just allows me to thrive. I’m able to be myself.”
Week four of my MVP rankings find a new player atop the leaderboard. The 50 NFL awards voters will vote for a top five for the MVP instead of just one winner starting this year. Here are my top five in the NFL race after 14 weeks, along with five more contenders:
- Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Miami.
- Micah Parsons, edge, Dallas.
- Nick Bosa, edge, San Francisco.
- Jared Goff, QB, Detroit.
- Josh Jacobs, RB, Las Vegas.
Jalen Hurts overtakes Patrick Mahomes by a smidge. The Eagles are football’s best team. Hurts has turned it over five times in the 12-1 start, while accounting for 32 touchdowns—22 passing, 10 rushing. Eagles are scoring 41 a game since Thanksgiving, and Hurts is in the middle of all of it. Mahomes can still win it, for sure; he has a 475-yard lead and seven-TD-pass lead in the QB stats with four games to go, but his shaky day in Denver, despite winning, let Hurts get back in the game. Joe Burrow and Josh Allen are in the race, for sure. But they’ll need Hurts and Mahomes to come back to the back.
Justin Jefferson makes the top five this week because of his sustained excellence when every defensive coordinator he faces knows he’ll be targeted 12 to 18 times a game. And 1,500 yards receiving in 13 games? Pretty strong. As for the other contenders, I have doubts any can get involved.
The NFL is good at inventing incredible stories out of nothing.
Raiders, 5-7, at Rams, 3-9. Rams on a six-game tailspin. One of the worst Super Bowl hangovers in NFL history. Matthew Stafford hurt, out. Cooper Kupp hurt, out. Aaron Donald hurt, out. Raider fans take over SoFi so that it’s like a Vegas home game. Most Americans with any sense have turned off the game by 10:30 p.m. ET, with the Rams down 16-3 after three quarters, having just gone punt, punt, missed field goal in the third quarter. But then …
“Trouble falling asleep last night?” I asked Mayfield Friday afternoon.
“I did,” he said. “Adrenaline’s still rolling.”
Baker Mayfield, the third-string Carolina quarterback, asked for and was granted his release Monday. He was subject to waivers, and the claiming order, 1 through 4, was Houston, Chicago, Denver and the L.A. Rams. Mayfield’s agent went to work. Houston wouldn’t claim him (for some reason), and Chicago and Denver wouldn’t either. Good chance the Rams would, though. Teams had till 4 p.m. Tuesday to make a claim, after which the league would award Mayfield to the claiming team. If no one claimed him, he’d be a free agent.
Mayfield went online. There was an American flight, 1247, from Charlotte to Los Angeles at 4:48 p.m on Tuesday. “I got the ticket,” he told me, “and I got the insurance on the flight just in case.”
“You checked the box for the flight insurance, so you could get the refund if you don’t take the trip?” I said.
“I did,” he said. “I honestly was just waiting in the airport for a phone call, hoping and praying the call was from a Los Angeles number.”
At 4:10 p.m., Rams GM Les Snead called to tell Mayfield he was a Ram. Mayfield got on the plane. The Rams sent him a condensed gameplan by the time he was on the 5-hour, 31-minute flight, but he could not download it till he landed. “Plan wi-fi was not friendly on that one, so I was pretty stressed out,” Mayfield said. He got to the Rams facility an hour north of the airport around 9 p.m. PT and huddled with offensive coordinator Liam Coen and assistant QB coach/passing game coordinator Zac Robinson for 90 minutes. “Still on east coast time, so it was a little late for me,” Mayfield said. Bed by 11:15 p.m. PT in a nearby hotel.
Mayfield said he just had this feeling about Sean McVay claiming him. In February 2018, Mayfield was working out in preparation for the Combine in southern California and got on one of few nonstop flights from LAX to Indianapolis, on Southwest. Rams coaches were on the flight, and when Mayfield walked by McVay, the coach told him to hold on. McVay kicked his seat neighbor, a Rams assistant, out so he could have a 3.5-hour chat with Mayfield, a top-five prospect in the ’18 draft. The Rams had Jared Goff so would not be picking a passer, but McVay just wanted to talk football.
“We really started talking about Lincoln Riley and his scheme, what makes him such a good coach, how I saw the game. (Riley was Mayfield’s head coach at Oklahoma who now coaches at USC.) Then we talked about concepts. We started drawing some stuff up in my notepad. One hundred percent it did not feel like an interview. He was genuinely interested in some of the things that we did at Oklahoma to have that success. To me that was so eye-opening to see a guy at the NFL level, that had had so much success leading up to that point, still asking a college kid about a college scheme and what we were doing.”
Thursday games mean no real practices before the game. The Rams had a 9:45 a.m. walkthrough practice to go over the gameplan. Mayfield got in at 6 a.m. for more elementary work on the Rams’ terminology and system, and for a quick physical exam. This thought occurred to him: Since 2017, this was the sixth offense he was tasked to learn—Lincoln Riley’s at Oklahoma, Cleveland with Hue Jackson and then Freddie Kitchens and then Kevin Stefanski, Carolina with Ben McAdoo, and now the Rams with McVay.
“In the middle of it, I did not feel like switching offenses that many times was good, but now, for me, it really is a blessing,” he said. “I could think about learning most of the plays before, and knowing how they work against certain coverages I might see [against the Raiders]. I’ve gotten to be confident I can figure it out.” Example: When McVay was Washington offensive coordinator, Bill Callahan was his offensive line coach in 2015 and ’16, and McVay liked Callahan’s protection packages and brought some of the concepts to the Rams. In 2020, Callahan was Cleveland’s line coach, and worked with Mayfield weekly on protections. So Mayfield felt right at home with his blocking schemes on Thursday.
Presumptive starter John Wolford got most of the snaps in the walkthrough, and in Thursday’s two-minute walkthrough. But Mayfield got a few. I was curious: How many throws before the game did he have with the top receiver he’d never thrown to before, Van Jefferson?
“Ten to 15,” he said. “A few of them, you say, that felt good, that looked good. Let’s call that [in the game].”
Shaky game, obviously. Wolford QB’d a three-and-out to start, and the final 50 minutes were handed to Mayfield. In Mayfield’s first 40 minutes, he put up three measly points, and streaming devices across the country clicked away from Amazon Prime. But Mayfield drove the Rams to seven first downs and a Cam Akers TD run with 3:19 left, and the Rams forced a three-and-out by the Raiders, and Vegas punter A.J. Cole skittered a sideline-hugging 64-yard punt to the Ram two with 1:45 left. I mean, no way. Mayfield might drive the Rams eight yards, but 98? In 100 seconds? With no timeouts? No way.
First bit of good fortune: the erased interception. On third-and-two from the 10-, Mayfield threw for Jefferson up the left seam and Raider safety Duron Harmon picked it. “Van was my first read and I saw the DB [Harmon] grabbing him. So I triggered it.” Threw it right then, he meant. “Right. Sean and I talked about this [Thursday]—Van’s either gonna make a contested catch or get a defensive hold or DPI [defensive pass interference]. A feel like that comes with the fact that I’ve played a decent amount of ball.” DPI. First down, Rams’ 22-.
Second bit of good fortune: Next play, Mayfield got sacked for a loss of nine. Getting up, Mayfield had the ball slapped out of his hand, stupidly, by Raiders defensive lineman Jerry Tillery. No flag, at first. “I looked at the ref and said, ‘That’s a penalty. That’s delay of game on the defense. You gotta throw that.’ He reached in his pocket and threw the flag. It’s ticky-tack, but it’s a penalty.” First down, Rams’ 28-.
First great throw: Next play, 80 seconds left, two Raiders covered seventh-round 2021 wideout Ben Skowronek, a tall drink of water Mayfield had just met one day earlier. “We needed a chunk,” Mayfield said. “I mean, he’s a big dude. [Skowronek’s 6-3.] He’s a contested-catch guy. I just threw it up there and gave him a chance.” What helped was the ball was a yard or two short, and Skowronek came back a step for it, and Raiders corner Nate Hobbs was a bit discombobulated, and Ram jumped over Raider for the catch, good for 32 yards. “Those are the moments in a two-minute drill, somebody’s gotta make a play. Catching it right on top of the DB’s head, with the safety bearing down on him? That’s a guy I’m gonna trust, a lot.”
— NFL (@NFL) December 9, 2022
Second great throw: Some inexplicable stuff. Second-and-10 from the Vegas 23-, with 15 seconds left. Rams in a 1-by-3 formation, Jefferson alone split left, and Tutu Atwell, Skowronek and tight end Tyler Higbee is a row to the right. Higbee and Skowronek float to the end zone, both single-covered. Atwell does a deep out, and two safeties and a corner float to his area. Three men on Atwell! Jefferson, alone, sprinting to the left pylon, covered by Sam Webb, an undrafted rookie from Missouri Western State. Rams’ best receiver in the game, covered alone, with no help over the top, by the Missouri Western guy. A year ago, he’s playing Emporia State and Fort Hays and the Central Missouri Mules. Now with an NFL game on the line, he’s trying to knock away a pass from the first pick in the entire draft in 2018 to a second-round pick in 2020.
“Obviously, I was shocked,” Mayfield told me. “Not only because they were in in press coverage, but because they didn’t have a two-shell-safety defense, so the safeties could react to the play in front of them. But good for us. I mean, I just put the ball up there for Van, just like with Ben, and they made plays. They made great plays.”
— NFL (@NFL) December 9, 2022
Final: Rams 17, Raiders 16.
Pause. “I mean, I didn’t even know if I’d play in the game. Nobody expected us to be able to win that game, let’s be honest.”
Forty-seven hours and 45 minutes after Baker Mayfield walked into the Rams’ practice facility for the first time Tuesday night, a stunned Sean McVay stepped to the podium for his post-game press conference. “I’m still like, what the hell’s going on right now?” he said.
The next day, I asked Mayfield: “Of all the things you’ve done in football—high school, college, pro—where does this rank?”
“Crazy as it seems,” he said, “this might be number one, to be honest with you. With 48 hours from getting here till gametime, this is number one for me. It’s not just the moment. It’s everything that led up to it. It’s just special. Unforgettable.”
NFL figures in the news this week:
Daniel Snyder. I’m ignoring the fighting between Democrats and Republicans over the issue of whether Snyder should be investigated by the federal government and/or kicked out of the league. I’ll focus on two issues prompted by the 79-page report of the House Oversight Committee:
- Snyder saying, per former team president Bruce Allen, that he was going to have commissioner Roger Goodell shadowed to try to find out something damaging to use against Goodell. Allen said Snyder told him: “I’m going to follow — I’m going to have him followed, follow the Commissioner. You know, I’m going to find something out about him.” This is the top executive of Snyder’s team, testifying before Congress that he was going to have Goodell tailed to see if he could learn something to hold over Goodell’s head. This is confirmation of what Don Van Natta, Tisha Thompson and Seth Wickersham reported this fall about NFL sources claiming Snyder was trying to dig up dirt on big people in the league. Could Allen be lying? If he is, he risks a perjury charge and prison time for lying to a House committee.
- The Oversight Committee reporting that, in his video testimony, Snyder said some version of “I don’t recall” more than 100 times. Included were such incredulous memory lapses as—though he did admit to using private investigators—he was “unaware” of who they approached or tailed and did not remember talking to his lawyers about who he wanted to have investigated or tailed. As former lawyer and Pro Football Talk Live host Mike Florio said on his TV show Friday: “‘I don’t recall’ is the ultimate perjury safe-harbor.” It is simply not believable to read Snyder being asked if private investigators were sent to the home of Allen and answering, “I’m not sure. I’m unaware.”
The league deserves its share of criticism, again, for not ordering the original report on the workplace environment of the Washington franchise to be written and released. After reports on the Miami bullying scandal, Ray Rice, and the Patriots’ Deflategate saga were written and made public, it’s a slap in the face of public trust to say an incredibly serious investigation into the seedy workplace culture of one of its 32 franchises is not worth a report—even if the names in the report all have to be redacted.
The larger point is this: How can the other 31 owners in the league witness this, and how can Goodell watch it, and think there is any way Daniel Snyder should continue to be an equal partner in the NFL? Snyder’s got to go, and he’s got to go yesterday.
Von Miller. “Very unfortunate situation for Von, and for our team,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. Very unfortunate. The Bills signed Miller for huge money ($20 million in cash this year) in the off-season for his play and his leadership, both of which had been excellent until Week 12 at Detroit, when he suffered a knee injury. Nine days later, in exploratory surgery, a torn ACL was discovered. So Miller, who will be 34 in March, will need to rehab darned fast to be an impact player for the Bills next season. The Bills got him to be great in the biggest games. As a Ram in the Super Bowl, in the last 18 minutes, Miller stopped two Cincinnati drives with sacks, and the Rams rebounded to win. Against Kansas City in October, with Patrick Mahomes driving, Miller sacked him for a nine-yard loss on a third down, forcing a punt—and Buffalo took the ball and scored the go-ahead TD. In the fourth quarter, his second sack of Mahomes led to another punt—and Buffalo followed with the winning TD drive.
What Buffalo will miss is a great player playing great at the biggest moments, and it could be a major factor in who gets out of the AFC this winter. Miller told Pat McAfee: “I won’t let myself go down that depressing road, get into a ball of self-pity.” Good for him. The Bills have to be sure they don’t go down that road without him.
Andrew Luck. Seth Wickersham’s opus on Luck—why he quit, what he’s doing now—answered a thousand questions we’ve all had on Luck. What we learned:
- He didn’t love football the way diehards like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning did. He chuckled when he told Wickersham about being a quarterback, “Well, shoot. I don’t think I had a choice.” His dad, Oliver, was a quarterback, and Andrew was a quarterback through his adolescence and into college, and he was a great one, so it was pre-ordained—Andrew Luck would be a quarterback. The story makes you think he liked being a quarterback but didn’t pine for it. “What I didn’t allow myself to explore enough was how much I loved football.” He called his post-college life “a story that felt written.”
- Luck got tired of feeling hurt all the time. Tom Brady has talked about being sore all the time when he was 25, but if that was the cost of having his dream job, so be it. That led him to the TB12 stuff. But Luck, as Wickersham makes clear, didn’t want that life of always being in in chronic pain. Perhaps as importantly, Luck didn’t like the person he was when he was in that kind of pain.
- He might be a football coach one day, but he likely won’t come back to play. Frank Reich, the former Colts coach, sent him a note earlier this year after hearing the song “Message In A Bottle” by the Police. Reich texted Luck, “Sending out an SOS.” Wickersham said Luck texted back a firm no. And Luck said: “There are things I miss. But there are things that, one, I’m not willing to give up about my life now, and two, that I don’t want to put myself through again.”
- As a grad student at Stanford now, with a family, Luck is leading the life he wants. The last scene of the story, Luck riding away from Wickersham on his bike on the Stanford campus, was so fitting. Luck sees himself as a grad-school student and husband and parent looking for the life he might have begun to live nine years ago had he never been a great quarterback. And he’s pretty okay with that.
What I was left with after reading and re-reading the story: Luck doesn’t have all the answers about why he quit, about why he left the Colts high and dry two weeks before the 2019 season, and about why his quarterback body continually betrayed him. He does know he’s doing what he wants to do now.
Jon Robinson. For owner Amy Adams Strunk to fire her general manager, a man who built the team on its way to a third straight division title, with five weeks left in the regular season is certainly her right. But what purpose does it serve, other than to embarrass him? Obviously, Robinson has had some bad personnel calls recently (the disastrous 2020 first-round pick of tackle Isaiah Wilson, the trade for a broken-down Julio Jones and free-agent signing of a disinterested Vic Beasley in 2021, the trade of A.J. Brown last draft weekend), so dissatisfaction with him was probably to be expected. I’ll never understand why Robinson couldn’t figure out a way to keep one of the league’s top receivers, Brown, last April. But the timing of this firing came totally out of left field, even, apparently, to the head coach Robinson hired. “I was informed of the decision. This wasn’t a decision that included me,” Mike Vrabel said. So why is a GM who built the AFC top seed last year gone? Good question.
After three days of saying nothing other than a perfunctory statement, Strunk spoke to AP writer Teresa M. Walker. Although Walker said in the story that Strunk told her she couldn’t ignore the holes on the roster, the owner wasn’t more specific than that. “I want to be one of those elite teams that people are always scared of,” Strunk told Walker. “And eventually it’s up to me to make those kinds of decisions that get us there.” Say this for Strunk: She’s got a short memory. In a four-week span in midseason last year, the team Robinson constructed beat Buffalo, Kansas City and the Rams, soon-to-be Super Bowl champions, by a combined 39 points.
Turf the dog. After two cancer surgeries, the second of which forced the removal of Seattle wildlife manager Turf’s left foreleg, the lovable chocolate lab, a fixture at every Seahawk practice since 2013, died last week at 9-and-a-half. “It’s a shame Turf had to leave us, but like so many people in the organization said, what a great 10 years he had,” said Turf fan and Seahawks wide receiver Tyler Lockett. Even after being reduced to three legs, Turf flew across the practice fields to keep them clear of the birds that would come in off Lake Washington. “Don’t be sad that he’s gone,” Turf’s Twitter account posted. “Be happy that he lived the ultimate and fullest life.”
2013-2022 💙 pic.twitter.com/v0JDztQGep
— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) December 9, 2022
Grant Wahl liked soccer. He wanted you to like soccer. He wanted everyone to like soccer.
When he was a student at Princeton, Wahl went to Argentina, and he wrote his senior thesis on Argentinian fan culture. When he and his wife got dogs, they named one Zizou, the nickname of a great French player Grant admired, Zinedine Zidane. When I covered the 2010 World Cup in South Africa alongside Grant, he was so excited. Sports Illustrated is sending a football writer to cover futbol!
Grant helped me endlessly. He got me into the U.S. team hotel, the lone SI writer to get a room in the Johannesburg hotel where the team was staying. He told me, “Get to know Tim Howard. Great guy. He’ll help you.” So I met and interviewed Howard, the goalie, and Grant was right. Great guy. “Get to know Bob Bradley. Jersey guy. Loves Parcells.” The coach did like Bill Parcells, so I was able to tell him some stories about Parcells and Bradley helped me do my job.
Grant knew everybody, and he knew what would fit for my audience, and he was a born helper. The biggest point was, he wanted to help me because he was a kind colleague and because he knew if he did, I might get some non-soccer people interested in soccer. I don’t know if he felt this was a calling, but Grant Wahl loved the game so much and saw how beautiful it was in Argentina and Brazil and Germany and England, and he thought, We can have that in America. We will have that in America in my lifetime.
And he loved new media: the Substack, the SI.com experience, the podcasts … He knew young people would get soccer news in different places than folks of a certain age. Grant was an early adopter of the digital experience, bringing his writing nearly daily to SI.com before it was fashionable. His mid-2000s mailbags were appointment reading and helped him grow his audience beyond SI’s rapidly dwindling subscriber base. That dedication paid off when Grant went full-time on soccer and launched Planet Futbol, SI’s soccer vertical. That eventually led to his leaving SI to start his own Substack, which he grew until his final days in Qatar.
I love people who are passionate—about anything good. If everyone was passionate about something and lived life pursuing that passion, and lived life selflessly helping others, the world would work better. Which is why we’re going to miss Grant so. He died Friday night in Qatar covering the World Cup at 49. Witnesses say he was in the press area late in the Argentina-Netherlands game when he collapsed. Medical personnel attempted to revive him. It’s unknown if he died before he got to, or at, the local hospital in Qatar.
He had been ill – he wrote that the medical staff at the media center said it was probably bronchitis – in the days before he died. His output might tell you the reason why. His daily writing on his Substack (“Futbol with Grant Wahl”) was voluminous. “Fatigue really hit me today,” he texted me six days before he died, and he wrote about going to a medical center and being given antibiotics for his illness. On his podcast last week, he complained of “tightness in my chest.” But he was excited about hosting a 49th birthday get-together at his place in Qatar that Wednesday night. Hard to keep an effervescent man down.
Grant and I talked just before the start of this Cup for a section previewing the U.S.’s chances in my column on Nov. 21. Grant told me, “I look at my life in four-year increments around the World Cup.”
This was his eighth men’s World Cup. He hoped he’d cover 18, or 20. The place, the circumstances, and the suddenness have led to understandable speculation around Grant’s death, and the unknowns are part of what’s made the news so difficult to process. I present the following information about his final World Cup only in the interest of full disclosure, not to add to that speculation.
This World Cup troubled him, held in a country with a repressive regime like Qatar’s. As much as he loved the beautiful game, he told me he was “very conflicted” as a journalist by Qatar’s long record of human rights violations, its poor record regarding worker safety as it built eight stadiums in record time, and the suppression of gay rights. He reported on the issue of poor treatment of migrants building this tournament site before the tournament. He wrote on his Substack that he was told by a security official to delete a photo on his phone that Wahl took in the media center; Wahl wouldn’t do it, and the guy walked away.
Just before the tournament started, this happened:
“I was in my house here doing a live video event with Front Office Sports,” Wahl wrote on his Substack, “and a random person walked straight in through the door. He looked at me. I looked at him. [Remember, it’s a live video event.] It took him some time, but he turned around and left. The most likely scenario was that he was a neighbor who had just walked into the wrong house, since all of our townhouses here look the same. But there was just enough doubt planted in my head by my own incident, the Qatari record and what we have been seeing this week that I asked myself if this guy was the police coming through my door.”
On the second day of the tournament, Wahl was detained by World Cup security for nearly half an hour after showing up to the USA-Wales fixture wearing a T-shirt with a soccer ball and a rainbow on it, in support of the LGBTQ community. Wahl said guards took his phone away and demanded he take the shirt off, and he refused. He was eventually allowed into the stadium.
Just now: Security guard refusing to let me into the stadium for USA-Wales. “You have to change your shirt. It’s not allowed.” pic.twitter.com/TvSGThMYq8
— Subscribe to GrantWahl.com (@GrantWahl) November 21, 2022
Wahl wrote about Qatar quite a bit before and during the Cup. Read the headlines and subheads on Grant’s Substack:
- An unexpected detention by World Cup security
- The whistleblower who alleged firsthand knowledge of Qatari bribes in the country’s World Cup bid—and the fear she has lived in ever since
- They just don’t care. Qatari World cup organizers don’t even hide their apathy over migrant worker deaths
Grant’s bravery as a reporter and as a human, always willing to stand up for his beliefs and for others, makes this loss all the more tragic.
Those he touched in the soccer world—Wayne Rooney, Abby Wambach, current U.S. captain Tyler Adams, FIFA president Gianni Infantino, MLS commissioner Don Garber, player-turned-commentator Alexi Lalas—paid tribute. Rooney said his contribution to soccer in the U.S. “has been absolutely immense.” Wambach said: “The soccer story here in the U.S. has Grant’s name all over it.”
Those he touched outside of soccer – LeBron James and tennis legend Billie Jean King among them – offered words of tribute as well. King said Wahl “used his platform to elevate those whose stories needed telling.”
So many stories about Grant Wahl’s generosity and love of the game. I recalled mine when, before the tournament, Grant texted me: “I remember sitting next to you at USA-England back in 2010, and I’ll think of you at USA-England this year.”
In 2010, the U.S. tied England 1-1. The England goalie mishandled an easy shot, which became a cheap goal for the United States. The English team was favored, and this was clearly a tie-that-should-have-been-a-win game. In the World Cup, locker rooms are not open, and players walk through a “mixed zone” where they can be approached by international press members. I told Grant I was going to interview Wayne Rooney, the star of the English team, to take his temperature on this bad result.
“Okay,” Grant said, with a bemused look on his face that said, Good luck with that.
I went down to the mixed zone and waited, and staked out a spot where I’d have a clear shot at the English players leaving the stadium to go their buses. They began walking through the serpentine mixed zone, and here came Rooney, carrying a bag over his shoulder. I was a few steps from him. “Wayne, Wayne! Peter King from Sports Illustrated in the U.S. Wayne!” And he just kept walking. Totally uninterested. Never looked at me. Others tried. No one got him to alter his straight-ahead glare.
So I failed. I saw Grant later. I told him this was some idiotic system, where the big star didn’t have to say something, anything, after a huge game. Grant smiled. He knew. He explained the world soccer scene and how players rarely talked anyway, and he said a few other things, only one of which I remember, about the media rules in the World Cup not being anything like the media rules in our country. “This isn’t the NFL,” Grant said, smiling. “It’s soccer.”
As many media peers and lovers of the beautiful game will tell you, it’s crushing we won’t have Grant Wahl around to educate us about it anymore.
I wanted to find one stat that verified what my eyes had told me all season, and what the analysts at PFF had seen through analyzing every player on every play. How could I put into numbers the overriding thought I had that the Philadelphia offensive line—left to right, Jordan Mailata, Landon Dickerson, Jason Kelce, Isaac Seumalo, Lane Johnson—comprised the best offensive line in football?
I found two, from NFL’s Next Gen Stats. The first is a jaw drop, at least to me.
In run-blocking, per Next Gen, the Eagles gained 156 rushing yards before contact against the Giants on Sunday in Philadelphia’s 48-22 win. That’s the most of any team this season. Second-most? The Eagles, two weeks ago, in the Sunday-nighter against Green Bay. They had 155 yards before contact that night.
That sounds preposterous. Led by Miles Sanders’ and Jalen Hurts’ combined 221 yards on the ground, Philly rushed for 253 yards Sunday … and 155 of those yards were gained before any Eagle runner was touched by a defender. What a tribute to the pile-drivers on the line—and how they are able to get to the next level efficiently as well. A tribute, too, to the coaching and scheming of highly respected line coach and run game coordinator Jeff Stoutland.
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) December 11, 2022
In pass-blocking, the Eagles’ line is not quite as peerless, but it’s damn good too. Next Gen Stats has the Eagles’ line as the fourth-most efficient in pass-drops of three seconds or less by Jalen Hurts. Only 9 percent of pass-drops in three seconds or less has resulted in a pressure through 13 games.
So the line is keeping Jalen Hurts clean enough for him to perform at an MVP level, and it’s allowed Miles Sanders and the rest of the backs to be able to get a head of steam and positive yards before hitting a defensive wall.
It’s going to be hard to beat this team in January, in large part because of the Kelce-led line making the offense run so smoothly.
Offensive Players of the Week
Great day for the QBs, with or without great numbers.
Justin Herbert, quarterback, L.A. Chargers. “This is one of the great performances we’ve seen this year,” Cris Collinsworth said late in Chargers 23, Dolphins 17. He said it about Herbert, who had his three-year-career high of 39 completions in 51 attempts, for 367 yards with a TD and no picks. He was brilliant, particularly on many late third downs—on the insurance field-goal drive, he threw for two needle-threading third-down conversions and ran for another. At 7-6, the Chargers don’t have much margin for error in the playoff race. But Herbert’s play, along with inspired play from a beleaguered defense, installed the Chargers as the seventh seed, temporarily, in the AFC playoff chase.
The Herbert and Mike Williams playmaking duo has been on point all game 🔥 #BoltUp
— NFL (@NFL) December 12, 2022
Brock Purdy, quarterback, San Francisco. By late in the second quarter, Purdy had quarterbacked the Niners to a 28-0 lead, had thrown for two touchdowns and run for one, and had the crowd chanting his name. “He looks like Joe Namath today,” FOX play-by-player Kevin Burkhardt said at the half. Add to the festivities the fact it was only Tom Brady on the other side of the field. Amazing that the last player picked in the NFL draft has now played one full game and 56 minutes of another, has beaten Tua Tagovailoa and Tom Brady, and absolutely, totally looks like he belongs in big December games with playoff implications.
Trevor Lawrence, quarterback, Jacksonville. Against the stout Tennessee defense on the road, Lawrence continued the best stretch of his young NFL career. In the decisive 36-22 win, Lawrence completed 30 of 42 throws for 368 yards, with three TDs and no picks. Two notable points: Lawrence was not sacked by a pressure-producing Tennessee front, and he continues to make plays with Evan Engram, the tight end who did nothing but disappoint with the Giants. Engram: 15 targets, 11 catches, 162 yards, two TDs.
Jared Goff, quarterback, Detroit. Goff continued to do it all Sunday in Detroit’s 34-23 win over the Vikes at Ford Field. He’s very nearly ended any thought that the Lions will have to use draft capital on a quarterback next April; the Lions will have the Rams’ pick (likely in the top 10) and of course their own. Now Detroit GM Brad Holmes will be able to use his picks to build a better roster. Goff (27 of 39, 330 yards, three TDs, no picks) was in control throughout—and he even was able to find first-round wideout Jameson Williams for his first NFL catch, a 41-yard TD.
Defensive Players of the Week
Willie Gay, linebacker, Kansas City. There won’t be many better defensive plays in the NFL this year than the one Gay made to embarrass Russell Wilson and the Denver Broncos Sunday. Trying to get some life late in the first half, Denver went for it on fourth-and-two—Russell Wilson tried to pop a pass over the arms of Gay, and Gay tipped it in the air, reeled in a tough catch for the pick, then immediately had to stiff-arm Wilson from making the tackle. He ran it 47 yards for a touchdown to make it 27-0. Denver made it a bit of a game before the half, but the Gay pick-and-score was huge in this game.
Brandon Graham, defensive end, Philadelphia. Graham’s 34. He’s lasted 13 years with the Eagles, and in the sometimes-revolving-door of the Reid/Kelly/Pederson/Sirianni regimes, it’s surprising to see anyone last that long with one franchise. But he’s still contributing in a big way. He sacked Daniel Jones three times in the Eagles’ 48-22 rout of the Giants in New Jersey Sunday, only the second time in his career he’s had three sacks in a game.
Special Teams Players of the Week
C.J. Moore, safety, Detroit. What a gutsy call by the Lions. Up 14-7 four minutes into the second half, on fourth-and-eight from the Detroit 26-yard line, Moore, the upback/personal-protector in punt formation, took a direct snap and ran 42 yards for the first down. Such a great run, in fact, that Moore in one rushing attempt Sunday was the leading rusher in this game—for either side. Detroit, eight plays later, scored a TD to go up 21-7. This might have been the biggest single play of Detroit’s win.
A @Lions fake punt turns into a 42-yard gain!
— NFL (@NFL) December 11, 2022
Calais Campbell, defensive lineman, Baltimore. Picked a great time for the ninth blocked field goal of his storied 15-year career. With 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Campbell stretched his 6-8 frame and batted away a 40-yard try by Pittsburgh’s Chris Boswell. How big was the erasure of three Steelers points? The final: Ravens 16, Steelers 14.
Jermaine Johnson II, defensive lineman, New York Jets. The third first-round pick for the Jets this year made one of his biggest plays as a pro in Orchard Park Sunday. With the Jets down 20-7 midway through the fourth quarter, Johnson smothered a Sam Martin punt in the end zone, resulting in a safety. That made it 20-9, and the Jets had chances to win from there but fell 20-12.
Coaches of the Week
Steve Wilks, interim head coach, Carolina. When owner David Tepper fired Matt Rhule with the Panthers 1-4, he installed Wilks, a defensive specialist, and said it was possible he could win the full-time job. Since then, Wilks has gone 4-4, the Panthers are running the ball as well as any team in football after trading Christian McCaffrey, and went into Seattle Sunday and ground down the physically imposing Seahawks. Carolina’s one game out of the lead in an awful NFC South with four games to play, and the players’ desire to win for Wilks is a big reason.
Ken Dorsey, offensive coordinator, Buffalo. Had a brilliant design of a play at a crucial time of the Bills’ 20-12 win over the Jets in the Orchard Park wintry mix Sunday. With 1:17 left in a scoreless first half, Buffalo had fourth-and-one at its 39-yard line. Bills decided to go for it—apparently. Tight end Dawson Knox went into motion right to left, and surprisingly stopped under center with Josh Allen in the shotgun. Before the ball could be snapped, Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley leaped over the line and crashed into Knox, who was euphoric about it. The offside call gave Buffalo a first down, and that drive-extender led to an Allen-to-Knox TD pass for the first score of the game. The Bills had to struggle for everything against an excellent defense, but it’s the kind of day when coaching can make a big difference. And Dorsey made a difference Sunday.
Dan Campbell, head coach, Detroit. Lions are 6-7. Lions are 5-1 since Halloween. Questions?
Goat of the week
Derek Carr, quarterback, Las Vegas. For his mind-boggling, horrible throw at the end of the first half of the Raiders’ 17-16 loss to the Rams Thursday night. With 56 seconds left in the second quarter and the Raiders up 13-3, Vegas had third-and-five at the Rams’ 10-yard line. An incompletion here, and the Raiders go into halftime up 16-3. A completion and a TD in the final minute, and the Raiders go into halftime up 20-3. Instead, Carr threw an incomprehensible pop fly with four Rams and one Raider anywhere near the ball. It is one of the worst throws I’ve ever seen in a situation like that. Say the Raiders get a field goal there. Then, with five minutes left in the game, it’s 19-3 Raiders and the Rams need two touchdowns and two two-point conversions to tie the game and send it to overtime. As it was, the Rams scored two TDs and two PATs and escaped with a win. Carr’s mistake didn’t happen in the final couple of minutes, but it didn’t have to—the terrible pick reverberated till the end of the game.
.@ernestjones53 with the pick in the endzone ‼️
— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) December 9, 2022
Hidden person of the week
Azeez Al-Shaair, linebacker, San Francisco. The thing I like about the San Francisco defense is the quality depth across the board. At linebacker, most of the attention goes to Fred Warner in the middle and Dre Greenlaw on the outside. But another playmaker on the second level is outside ‘backer Azeez Al-Shaair. Since making the Niners as an undrafted free agent in 2019, he’s been a solid and relentless player whose effort always shines through. Top units need the kind of quality depth players like Al-Shaair provide. His attitude is precisely what coaches want in their players:
“I think a lot of teams play like there’s another week. I think for us, what you see on tape is we play like it’s the playoffs in September. We’re scrappy. Offense, defense, special teams, we’re gonna go till we got nothing left. You see that every game. I feel like throughout the league it’s different. Some teams play like, ‘Ah well it’s OK, we got another week. We’ll figure it out.’ We don’t play like that.”
The Jason Jenkins Award
Christian Kirksey, linebacker, Houston. The Texans’ nominee for the league’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award was surprised the other day by the head coach at Uvalde High School, Wade Miller, handing him a WPMOY jersey. Uvalde, of course, is the Texas town where Robb Elementary School students and teachers were murdered in a mass shooting last spring. The Texans’ head athletic trainer, Roland Ramirez, is from Uvalde, and Kirksey was part of a team delegation that traveled there earlier this year to support the town and to visit with the high school football team. The Texans arranged for new uniforms and equipment for the football team just before the start of their season. Asked what his message was when he spoke to the team, Kirksey said: “My message was, You are the heroes. Football is big in this town, and people are looking for something that could bring people together. Let football be your sanctuary. There can be joy that comes out of playing football. Take a break from reality and chase what you want to be.” The Texans gave Miller and team captain Justyn Rendon each two tickets to the Super Bowl last week too. “The experience with the people in Uvalde will last me a lifetime,” Kirksey said.
PUR-dy! PUR-dy! PUR-dy!
–The crowd at Levi’s Stadium in the second quarter Sunday, as the seventh-round quarterback, Brock Purdy, built a 21-0 lead over Tom Brady and the absolutely stunned Bucs.
Our guys, they know they belong. They know when they play how we’ve played the last six weeks that we can play with anyone.
–Coach Dan Campbell of the 6-7 Lions, after their 34-23 win over the previously 10-2 Vikings.
I regret the timing of when I retired.
—Andrew Luck, to Seth Wickersham, opening up for the first time after three years of retirement, here referring to leaving the Colts two weeks before the season in 2019.
It’s a tragic loss. May he rest in paradise.
—LeBron James, on the death of sportswriter Grant Wahl. Wahl wrote the first Sports Illustrated cover story on James when the basketball prodigy was in high school in Akron, Ohio.
There is a new leading man in Hollywood.
–Al Michaels on Amazon, after Baker Mayfield led two TD drives in the closing minutes to lift the Rams to a stunning 17-16 win over the Raiders Thursday night.
Our family friend had passed away and so we’re in the receiving line to view the body, and a guy turns to me and says, ‘So you really like Jalen Hurts this year?’
–NBC fantasy-football guru Matthew Berry, on the Dan LeBatard Show, asked about awkward places he’s gotten hit up for fantasy advice.
He was 49 years old. He was just getting started.
–Former Sports Illustrated managing editor Chris Stone, now the Los Angeles Times’ deputy managing editor, in a lovely tribute to one of his former colleagues, Grant Wahl.
In the wake of the 34-28 Kansas City win over Denver Sunday, since November 2015:
- Kansas City is 14-0 against Denver, by an average margin of 11.9 points per game.
- Patrick Mahomes is 10-0 against Denver.
- The Broncos are 0-8 at home against KC.
- Andy Reid is 14-0 against Denver. Gary Kubiak is 0-3, Vance Joseph 0-4, Vic Fangio 0-6 and Nathaniel Hackett 0-1 against Kansas City.
Since being drafted in 2017, Patrick Mahomes is 15-0 in road games in the AFC West.
Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Randy Moss’ best year as a Viking came in 2003, when he caught 111 passes for 1,632 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Justin Jefferson’s 13th game of the season was Sunday in Detroit. Comparing the first 13 games of Moss’ great 2003 season with Jefferson’s first 13 games this year:
Moss, 2003: 90 catches, 1,372 yards, 15.24 yards per catch, 105.5 yards per game.
Jefferson, 2022: 99 catches, 1,500 yards, 15.15 yards per catch, 115.4 yards per game.
How the first 10 drives of Sunday’s Jets-Bills games ended:
Punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt.
How the first 20 drives of Deshaun Watson’s return to football ended, over the first seven quarters of his first two games back:
Punt, lost fumble, interception, safety, punt, punt, end of half, punt, punt, field goal, punt, field goal, end of game … downs, punt, punt, field goal, end of half, punt, punt.
Twenty drives, 97 minutes, zero touchdowns, nine points.
When I asked Grant Wahl for his World Cup favorites 22 days ago, before the tournament, he said France, Brazil and Argentina. France and Argentina are in the semis this week, Brazil is out. Two out of three ain’t bad.
Travel is weird.
Two trips I took last week explain that.
JFK Airport in New York to Salt Lake City: 1,973 miles. Flight took 5 hours, 19 minutes.
Los Angeles International Airport to JFK: 2,475 miles. Flight took 4 hours, 11 minutes.
It’s sort of crazy, a 500-mile-shorter flight taking an hour longer. But it’s the jet streams, the high-altitude winds that flow from west to east.
Usually when you fly to the west, you have headwinds that make the flight longer. I didn’t notice the headwinds on the flight to Salt Lake, but I did look for wind speed on the LAX-JFK flight. We had 107-mph tailwinds.
I didn’t know till reading about it, but the wind is far more of a factor than the earth’s rotation, apparently.
— Bridget Condon (@BridgetCondon_) December 12, 2022
Condon is a reporter for NFL Network.
Mood in KC pic.twitter.com/Q9tTcff6kW
— PFF (@PFF) December 11, 2022
Pro Football Focus feting Travis Kelce in the first half of KC’s rout of the Broncos, not long after Kelce became the fifth tight end to reach 10,000 career receiving yards.
This is where #GrantWahl was supposed to be. Doing what he loved the most. My heart goes to his family, friends & soccer lovers around the world.
These past hours haven’t been easy. I shared the same area with Grant & wish that what I witnessed yesterday was just a nightmare. pic.twitter.com/2ZOIhFEYVS
— Jad El Reda (جادالله الرضا) (@jadelreda) December 10, 2022
Jad El Reda, covering the World Cup for the Los Angeles Times in Qatar, before a World Cup semifinal match Saturday.
My heart is so full and I’m lost for words 🧡💙 This nomination represents all the work and people that have been impacted in Colorado, Kansas, and beyond. Jesus gave me this platform to create and do good for this world.
— Dalton Risner (@Dalton_Risner66) December 6, 2022
The Denver guard with the story of the Broncos’ nomination of him for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award.
Reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @peter_king.
RIP Grant Wahl. From Tom Kahl, of Portland, Ore.: “Like clockwork, I came to expect you to check in with Grant Wahl to size up the World Cup. Gone far too soon. What will be a celebration here in the USA in 2026 with the World Cup will now be a bit subdued knowing that GW is not there to turn to offer insight and teach us soccer novices about the beautiful game.”
No one revered the game more than Grant. Of the people in the sportswriting business, his love of his game was like Paul Zimmerman for football, Bob Ryan for basketball, Peter Gammons for baseball. That’s one of the myriad reasons Grant will be missed for a long, long time.
Haiku of the Week. From Stephen O’Toole of Philadelphia:
Eleven and one.
Who can stop this Eagles team?
All they do is win.
Touche, Stephen. Twelve now.
Interesting point about Watson’s layoff. From Jeff Marcil: “Why is it everyone talks about how hard it is, and that it’s not surprising, that Watson would struggle after not playing in a game for two years, but we regularly expect backup quarterbacks, who may have not played in an even longer amount of time, to be able to come off the bench at a moment’s notice, with NO first team preparation and be ready to go?”
Good question, Jeff. I don’t think the expectations are as high for backup quarterbacks as you perhaps do. Did anyone think Brock Purdy, for instance, would be able to step in an make enough plays for the Niners to beat Miami last week? I doubt 10 percent of even ardent Niners fans thought he would play well. No one expected much of the Rams’ backups when Matthew Stafford went down. My opinion about Watson’s readiness, or lack thereof, is that if you go two years (100 weeks, actually) without playing in a game or ever being hit while dropping back to pass, it’s going to be very hard to be what he was at his peak.
Good points, both. From Corey Livermore, of Henderson, Nev.: “Christian Watson catches his seventh TD, and gets his eighth overall, in the last four weeks and you write nothing about it. Malik Hooker has two defensive TDs against the team that drafted him in prime time, and you write nothing about it. I get that you are trying to churn out 10,000ish words a week, and you have stated repeatedly that you simply don’t have time to watch/cover/write about every game that happens. But these two instances really should have gotten some attention.”
I blew it on both. Particularly Hooker, for that game against his former team. It bothers me that I missed those. It’s the price I pay when I go to a game and devote eight mostly undivided hours to one game and miss so much of 12 others. It’s something I try to balance. I hope in this case the microscope on Brock Purdy’s save was worth it, but many people would say absolutely it was not.
Why the Niners? From Dmitry Galandi, of Cincinnati: “Were you at the 49ers game because it wasn’t the national game? Just curious. You love Joe Burrow and Patrick Mahomes and figured you’d love to watch them in person as many times as you can.”
I woke up last Monday morning and gave a first thought to what I might do this week. The schedule was awesome. I’d only been to three games all season, so I was itching a bit to go to another one. Cincinnati-KC was tempting. But I hadn’t written about the Dolphins much this year, and they’re a fascinating team, and I thought: Tua versus the best defense in football—how will he do? So I decided to go that one, and did some reporting on Tagovailoa during the week. Then the Brock Purdy Show happened, and the Niners played such great D, mostly. So the Miami stuff stayed in the notebook for a later time. I’m glad I went, but the Bengals’ win would have been terrific too.
1. I think I don’t want to get too overboard about San Francisco QB Brock Purdy after one NFL start. But these are the facts about young Mr. Purdy:
a. He played 55 minutes last week against Miami in relief of Jimmy Garoppolo and the entire game this week against Tampa Bay. When Purdy was in the game, the Niners outscored foes 58-17.
b. He’s completed 71 percent of his throws with one turnover in those two games.
c. He took one killer hit in each game and popped right up each time.
d. He’s had zero issues getting the plays in and communicating them and running the offense. In his 130 offensive snaps, San Francisco has not been called for one delay-of-game penalty.
Have a day, Brock Purdy‼️ pic.twitter.com/im5s3w5chm
— 49ers on NBCS (@NBCS49ers) December 11, 2022
2. I think the Bills will need Greg Rousseau to be the star Von Miller’s been mentoring down the stretch in the absence of Miller. Rousseau had two sacks and a forced fumble in the 20-12 win over the Jets. The long and aggressive duel between Rousseau and Miami’s Jaelan Phillips, who was huge at the Chargers Sunday night, will be something to watch Saturday night.
3. I think, in terms of entertainment, if you’d have asked me to scan the schedule for Week 15 back in the summer, I’d have rated Lions-at-Jets Sunday the 16th-best game on the schedule. Now what’s better? Miami at Buffalo, San Francisco at Seattle. Not much else. Amazing progress by both franchises.
4. I think this is the first time I’ve started to think about the end of the road for Tom Brady in Tampa Bay. Mike Silver openly wonders about it in the San Francisco Chronicle Will he play in 2023? (No clues being dropped.) Would he play in San Francisco if asked? He is, after all, scheduled to be free in March, at 45-and-a-half. “I don’t go there,” Brady told Silver. “I’m just trying to get this right, and see what we can accomplish.” Brady playing again in 2023 seems absurd on one hand and totally logical on the other. I doubt we’ll know much before February.
5. I think if Isaiah McKenzie doesn’t improve his hands, and pronto, the Bills will be in the market for a new slot receiver—and maybe before the end of the season. I know I’d be thinking about an upgrade if I were Brandon Beane.
6. I think the weirdest football-related statement of the week had to be Robert Griffin III, on the AP Pro Football Podcast with Rob Maaddi, saying Philadelphia center Jason Kelce deserves MVP consideration. Kelce, who turned 35 last month, has been fantastic. He’s having one of his best years, and he’s a key to why Jalen Hurts is having one of the best seasons any quarterback is having this year. But for a center to be in the MVP discussion—I mean, Shaquille O’Neal, I get it. A football center, well, RG3 might want a re-do on that one.
7. I think if the NFL finds enough proof that players are faking injuries, which may be the case with the Saints, then fine away.
8. I think, however, for the NFL to fine Cowboys players a total of $53,616 for jumping in and around the Salvation Army red kettles last week is simply preposterous. Players joyfully playing in the big red kettles and getting on TV doing so, with the big Salvation Army logos, can only encourage people to give generously to the Salvation Army! And isn’t that the point of having the big Salvation Army kettles on the field in the first place—to encourage viewers to give to such a worthy cause?
9. I think someone inside the NFL has to pass along this message to the Finers In Chief: Psssst! Stop being such stiff dillweeds. NFL fines are insanely excessive enough. To fine players 54k for celebrating in a way that can only help a vital charity is bizarre, bordering on cruel.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. This CBS Sports video feature on families of players on the Army and Navy football teams is superb.
The Army-Navy Game is a celebration of family and dedication.
This month, we brought eight families to New York City with one thing in common: they all have sons who play college football for the U.S Military Academy or the U.S. Naval Academy.
This is their story. pic.twitter.com/cOkCDxwUPD
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 10, 2022
b. “It’s the only game where everyone playing is willing to die for everyone watching.”
c. The 10-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting is Wednesday. It’s still immensely sad for so many reasons. To think those kids would be in high school today. To think the lives of those educators were ended, preventing them from influencing so many young lives and from living their own lives. To think we’ve done next to nothing about the scourge of gun violence despite the efforts of so many, including the parents of many of the Sandy Hook children.
d. NPR and Storycorps, the story-telling service that archives interviews with people all over the country, did one with Sandy Hook parents Jeremy Richman and Jennifer Hensel, dad and mom of Avielle Richman, in 2017. “It was hard for months, and it’s turned into years,” Hensel said.
e. The last line of the haunting NPR story: “Just over a year after this conversation was recorded, Jeremy Richman died by suicide. He was 49.”
f. He died in March 2019. “He succumbed to the grief that he could not escape,” his wife said. They had two children after Avielle’s death, and she is raising them alone. I find it still more haunting that, per her testimony in the Alex Jones trial, there were strangers claiming the deaths of her daughter and husband were faked.
g. There is no segue. Sigh.
h. High School Story of the Week: Chip Scoggins of the Minneapolis Star Tribune on a northern Minnesota coach, a family, and a football team deserving of a standing ovation.
i. Chip Scoggins, 0-9 never felt so heroic. Great job by you, writing about a team that hasn’t won a game in years. And Aaron Lavinsky, the story wouldn’t have been nearly as great without your photos.
j. Scoggins, after the final game of the 0-9 season, on quarterback Josh Stillday being comforted by coach Nolan Desjarlait:
Stillday, the senior who took over at quarterback in a pinch, lingers on the field as the other players rush off into the cool, damp night. A layer of fog settles over the lights. Fans have gone home but he isn’t ready to move on yet. He sits in the end zone, tears streaming down his cheeks.
Desjarlait kneels and pulls him close. The coach is misty-eyed as he thanks Stillday for being a leader and congratulates him on making straight A’s and for not missing a single football practice.
“I love being on this field,” Stillday says. “I wouldn’t trade anything for this.”
The record book will note for eternity that the Red Lake Warriors did not win this season. Their hearts tell them something different.
k. Kim Jones! Covering the Giants for Newsday! Good luck to you. You’ll be fantastic.
l. Good luck fighting for fair pay, New York Times Proud of you for your work, Jenny Vrentas.
m. Cautionary Tale of the Week: Michael M. Phillips of The Wall Street Journal, with a frightening, terrible and redeeming story, all in one, of “A Military Wife’s Descent Into Meth Addiction—And Her Agonizing Journey Back.”
n. I used the option to listen to this story of Lauren St. Pierre, and for the last 10 minutes, I stopped what I was doing and just sat there, transfixed.
o. Wrote Phillips:
In 2010, the year Lauren first tried methamphetamine, at the time manufactured largely in makeshift labs, the drug killed 1,388 people in the U.S., either used alone or in conjunction with other drugs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its toll has grown 20-fold in the years since, driven by Mexican cartels producing meth on an industrial scale.
Last year, about 33,000 Americans died from overdoses of meth or other psychostimulants, alone or with other drugs, the CDC reported. Only opioids, largely fentanyl, killed more people, a record 71,000 last year. In 2020, 2.5 million Americans ages 12 and older reported using meth in the previous year, according to the CDC.
What set Lauren apart was the swiftness of her descent from a middle-class life into a sordid underworld of crime, poverty, degradation and abuse—and her long, painful and improbable path to redemption.
p. Great to see Brittney Griner get out of the Russian penal colony. A few days before the prisoner swap, David Wharton of the Los Angeles Times wrote about what the incarceration was probably like:
The inmates at IK-2 penal colony rise at 6 a.m. each day for a breakfast of milk porridge, bread and tea. Soon they leave their barracks at this aging facility about 300 miles southeast of Moscow, in the isolated republic of Mordovia.
Long days are spent in forced labor, working at sewing machines, with only a short break for lunch. By nightfall, prisoners are fed dinner and allowed an hour or less of free time before going to sleep in dormitories crowded with scores of bunk beds. The routine reportedly can stretch for weeks on end with no days off.
q. I realize the other Americans in detention need to be free too. Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times wrote well about it:
…Why was Brittney Griner bargained into freedom while another high-profile hostage, former Marine Paul Whelan, continues to be wrongfully detained for nearly four years on what are considered bogus charges of spying?
In other words, why did America pick a basketball star over a veteran?
The answer: According to government officials, they didn’t have a choice. It wasn’t Griner or Whelan. It was Griner or nobody.
“This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” said President Biden in a national address, later adding, “Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s, and while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up, we will never give up.”
r. Seems misplaced to be mad about Griner’s release because others are still detained, particularly when those who would be mad weren’t part of the negotiations and don’t know what was and wasn’t possible.
s. Fun moment in the World Cup. Ian Darke, who I think is fantastic, was on the call in the middle of penalties at the end of Morocco-Spain in the Round of 16. Morocco needed one more, in round four, to win. Up to the line stepped Achraf Hakimi.
t. Born in Spain. Played at Real Madrid’s youth academy. Played for two youth teams in Madrid. Played on Real Madrid’s team in the UEFA Champions League title team in 2017-18.
u. Ian Darke, as Achraf Hakimi of Morocco was seconds away from the shot that would change lives:
“Hakimi can win it for Morocco if he puts this in.
[deafening crowd sound]
“This is a man born in Madrid. Achraf Hakimi, whose mother was a cleaner in Madrid, whose father was a street vendor in Madrid. Who Spain wanted to play for them. What a moment here.”
[deafeaning crowd sound]
“He can send Morocco through—”
[ref blows whistle]
“—by putting this away.”
[sound of boot on ball]
“AND HE DOES!!!”
“MOROCCO MAGIC! MOROCCO MAKE HISTORY! AND SPAIN, OUT OF THE WORLD CUP!”
v. Ian Darke: Good at his job.
w. I clipped the audio from my TV and texted it to Grant Wahl on Wednesday, asking him to listen to the call. Knew he’d love it. “That’s a great call from Ian,” Grant texted back. Last text from him in my phone. Last contact from him.
x. By the way, the Morocco Cinderella story continued in the quarterfinals as the team knocked off Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal to become the first African team ever to reach a World Cup semifinal. Achraf Hakimi will lead his team against his longtime friend and PSG teammate – French superstar Kylian Mbappé – on Wednesday.
Peacock, Telemundo, and Universo are carrying all World Cup matches live in Spanish. Peacock is the only direct-to-consumer streaming service in the U.S. offering live coverage of every match. You can go to Peacock’s World Cup home page for more information or to sign up. In addition to the matches themselves, on Peacock you’ll find a 24/7 dedicated World Cup channel featuring pregame and postgame coverage, extended highlights, player interviews, and more. NBC Sports also has plenty of English-language coverage at nbcsports.com/soccer.
4 more teams have departed from the #FIFAWorldCup and 4 remain.
Who will be the last one standing? 🤔 pic.twitter.com/OKZ6Fg5adk
— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) December 10, 2022
y. Well-reported Column of the Week: Gregg Doyel of The Indianapolis Star on former basketball star, college basketball coach and local talk-show giant Dan Dakich ruining his career. Heck of a column and indictment by Doyel. As he writes:
Dakich remains one of our most prominent sports figures. He keeps failing, plumbing new depths, preaching to a shrinking choir and hearing their hosannahs and confusing himself with a maverick or a man of courage.
This is not a brave man, but a small one getting smaller. And as Dan Dakich chips away at himself, he chips away at the number of people who will miss him when he’s gone.
z. Sort of bored by the fifth season of the “The Crown.” What made the first few seasons great are the history lessons we learned about England and the power there. But now we’re watching stuff we’re not sure is 10 percent or 78 percent true. It’s just not as interesting. And it seems really slanted to make Charles look good. Which seems preposterous. This “Diana” is not good either. Just seems like a sour person. Maybe that’s what Diana became late in life, but this version is a real Debbie Downer.
New England 23, Arizona 16. Big game for the Patriots, for Mac Jones, for Matt Patricia, and for Bill Belichick, who put this current iteration of the team together. The Patriots are 23-23 since Tom Brady walked off campus forever, and owner Robert Kraft doesn’t strike me as the kind of owner who will sit back with patience if the .500ness continues.
San Francisco at Seattle, Thursday, 8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video. Who’d have thought that Geno Smith and Brock Purdy would be battling it out at Lumen Field for NFC West supremacy down the stretch of the 2022 season?
Miami at Buffalo, Saturday, 8:15 p.m., NFL Network. I don’t love the Dolphins getting back to Fort Lauderdale at 7:30 a.m. today, having a short week of prep for their biggest game of the season, and flying to Buffalo Friday to play Saturday night, when the NFL could have played this game Sunday night and put Giants-Commanders in the Saturday night slot. After the league moved Dolphins-Chargers to Sunday night for this past weekend, the competitively fair thing to do would have been to put Miami’s following game on Sunday instead of Saturday. But no. Makes no sense to me when it was so easy to do.
Cincinnati at Tampa Bay, Sunday, 4:25 p.m., CBS. Joe Burrow’s 44th NFL start (including playoffs) and first against Tom Brady. Who knows? Could be his last. I love the fact that there’s so much at stake, with both quarterbacks fighting for division titles.
Grant Wahl lived his life
as we all should live, daily.