At halftime in Wisconsin on Sunday night, after an entire state finished hyperventilating and began to come to grips with the notion that, My God, Aaron Rodgers might be gone again, Randall Cobb walked into the Packers’ locker room at Lambeau Field. The veteran receiver was looking for Rodgers. He wanted to tell him to hang in there. He wanted to tell him he loved him.

But no Rodgers.

“Where is he?” Cobb asked.

“Working out, testing the knee,” one of the trainers told him.

Early this morning, in his car on the way home from the game, Cobb told me: “I was confused. He was what?”

Rodgers, in the second quarter of the first game of the Packers’ 100th season, collapsed in a pile of players and immediately grabbed his left knee. He tried to get up but couldn’t walk, and fell back to the field. A few minutes later, a cart came to take him off the field and you just felt with that cart there was something more than Rodgers riding away. It was the Packers’ season. Right? MCL, ACL, whatever. Not good. Could this be the second straight season that ended way prematurely, with The Franchise out for some or more of the season, and the Packers’ hopes down the tubes again? Sure looked like it.

So Cobb said a couple of positive things to the shaky backup, DeShone Kizer, before the Packers went back on the field to try somehow to get back into it. Chicago led 17-0, and new Bear Khalil Mack was absolutely wrecking the game.

“We went out for the second half,” Cobb said, “and Aaron’s walking out too. He’s in uniform. Looks ready to go. I asked him if he was okay. He said, ‘Yeah, I’m good.’ So he got to the sidelines and starting talking ball, like normal. And I’m like, Well, I guess he’s playing.”

At one point early in the half, Rodgers said in the huddle: “Do your jobs, and I’ll handle the rest.”

Wishful thinking. When it was over, someone asked Rodgers what he was thinking when he looked up and saw the score in the third quarter: 20-0.

“Seven times three,” Rodgers said.

Maybe he’d get the ball four more times on one leg, and he knew he needed three touchdowns at least, and maybe one more score. These are the things great players think, even when they’re not sure how they’re going to make it through the next 23 minutes of gametime because they really can’t protect themselves.

The Lead: Bears-Pack


I wonder sometimes, after covering sports for almost 40 years, what happens when a player who shouldn’t be on the field or the court or the ice begins to play. Do his teammates really elevate their games? Or at least try their damndest to do so because they know they have to or The Franchise could really be lost for the year.

That’s how it looked Sunday night. The line that allowed Rodgers to be hit consistently in the first half got better. Even with Rodgers basically stapled to the pocket because his usually fluidity was gone, he seemed to have a second more per dropback. And he knew he couldn’t afford to waste a series. It felt like a waste when he settled for a field goal with just over 18 minutes left in the game. Chicago 20, Green Bay 3 meant he still needed three scores.

“The protection was really good, and obviously, being more of a statue back there, I had to deal the ball on time and make sure we had guys getting open,” Rodgers said later.

They had maybe three series left. On the first came a throw that will have to go on the Hall of Fame reel. A minute into the fourth quarter, unable to plant with his right leg and fire forward with his left leg (the damaged one), Rodgers somehow wrist-flicked an arcing ball 52 yards in the air, to the right side of the end zone, to a covered Geronimo Allison. Allison made the contested catch and tumbled out of bounds. Chicago 20, Green Bay 10.

Three-and-out for the Trubiskies. Rodgers, again with good time, took three minutes to go 75 yards, Davante Adams finishing it with an effort TD at the left pylon. Chicago 20, Green Bay 17.

Great clock management by the Bears then. They held the ball for almost seven minutes, Trubisky consistently snapping the ball with less than five seconds on the play clock. With 2:39 left, a Cody Parkey field goal made it Chicago 23, Green Bay 17.

Now Rodgers had enough time. He didn’t have to hurry. Maybe it was the Lambeau Karma God interceding, but Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller—the cornerback Green Bay almost stole in free agency last March—dropped the easiest interception of his life on the first snap. Life, precious life.

Third-and-10. Green Bay 25.

The protection was really good, Rodgers had said. And now, on the next play, the line, so leaky early, had its best play of the night. Rodgers took the snap, and I timed how much time he had before the ball left his hand. 4.35 seconds. Luxurious for your average passer. For Rodgers, an eternity.

“I was running my route,” Cobb told me, “and I didn’t get the ball in rhythm and timing like I usually do. So in that case, we go to scramble mode. You look for an opening. So I looked for one, then looked back to Aaron and the ball was already in the air. I’m like, SHOOT! Ball’s coming! Here it comes.”

Safety Eddie Jackson, playing Cobb, dove for the ball, trying to flick it away. He couldn’t get to it. Cobb grabbed it and turned to run upfield.

“Nothing but green grass,” Cobb said. “Just run. I felt like I was back in my track days.”

“When you watch the replay, you’ll be amazed,” I said. “Khalil Mack ran practically the length of the field. He almost caught you at the 1-yard line.”

“Well, I was weaving,” Cobb said, and laughed.

Green Bay 24, Chicago 23.

“I had a little moment with Aaron,” said Cobb. “Told him I love him. He’s such a warrior. It was amazing having him out there, after we thought he was done. He figured exactly how to play too: short, quick throws, rhythm and timing. That just reinforced what I already knew about him. I’ve seen it for years. But this was special.”

“Where does this game rank for you in your career?” I asked.

“I would say it’s probably the greatest,” said Cobb, in his eighth year with the Packers. “My wife and I just had a son. This is the Packers’ 100th season. It’s the Bears. This was a big night.”

Brett Favre had his moment in Oakland, the night after his dad died, when he played an impossible game with some great throws. This is Rodgers’ 14th season, and this might be his moment, the moment we’ll all remember when he’s on stage in Canton one day and the question is asked: What was Aaron Rodgers’ best game?

He’ll have gaudier games, and he’ll have a Super Bowl MVP game (at least one). But will he have a game when he had to play mostly on one leg and come back from a 20-point deficit? Will he, while hobbled, do something no Packers quarterback in 111 tries had ever done—win a game when trailing by at least 17 points starting the fourth quarter? Will it be against the team he loves to beat the most, the rival Bears, on a similarly historic night at Lambeau Field?

No. Aaron Rodgers is 34. He’s one of the best quarterbacks ever to play. And we just saw the best game of his professional life.

The Best of Week 1


10

It’s Overreaction Monday, the same as it is after the first Sunday of every NFL season. It’s the time when we can confidently say—this year—that Matt Ryan’s done, the Ravens are winning the Super Bowl, the Bills are going 0-16, the Browns will win nine, Watson and Garoppolo are frauds, Tyreek Hill is some combination of Barry Sanders and Bob Hayes, and somehow, some way we all fell for the Chargers again and the Chargers can only break our hearts; it’s an NFL rule.

Aside from the Rodgers fairy tale, my three stories of the day:

Fitzmagic

Ryan Fitzpatrick face-timed with his family after the craziest game of the weekend, the 88-pointer (Bucs 48, Saints 40) in New Orleans. His wife got the six kids around the phone, and there was yelling and happiness and a family moment Fitzpatrick will remember for a long time. “We really didn’t have to say much, and I couldn’t say much,” he said. “I was overcome with emotion.”

There was also a fantasy football lesson.

“So my 9-year-old son, Tate, convinced my 11-year-old son, Brady, to put me on his fantasy team today,” Fitzpatrick told me from New Orleans. “I didn’t even know Brady played fantasy football. I guess it was a good decision.”


Ryan Fitzpatrick accounted for five touchdowns (four passing, one rushing) in Tampa’s Week 1 win. (Getty Images)

You tend to win in fantasy football when your quarterback gives you 417 yards and four touchdowns and no picks and a rating of 156.2. Here’s what was so cool about Fitzpatrick after this game: He was totally, absolutely not surprised. He had no interest in going down the can-you-keep-Jameis-on-the-bench-when-he-returns path, because he knows the Bucs play Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in the next two weeks, and it’s fruitless to speculate about starting jobs that are three weeks away. His fatalism, his realism … those impressed me.

Watch Fitzpatrick’s deep throws on the highlights today if you can—things of beauty. His bomb to Mike Evans for a touchdown couldn’t have been thrown better by Marino or Elway. “I have so much confidence in my ability that a day like today is not a surprise to me—at all,” he said. “I go out there when I start, and I think I’m gonna have this game every week, especially with this team. All offseason, I’ve seen how deep our skill-position group is. We’ve got five or six guys who, if they’re in one-on-one matchups, you know you can win with any of them. As a quarterback, it’s a dream to be in the huddle with these guys.”

But he wouldn’t say this was the best game he’d played in the NFL on his long and winding road through St. Louis, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Tennessee, Houston, the Jets and Tampa. “When I was with the Jets, we beat New England [in 2017]; in Buffalo, we beat New England [in 2011]. Those rank right up there. I remember I got benched for Ryan Mallett [in 2014], and when I got back in the lineup, I threw six touchdown passes to beat Tennessee. That was the most satisfying game of my life.

“I’m realistic about how hard this game is. I’ve thrown six touchdowns in a game. I’ve thrown six interceptions in a game. How do you come back from those? This game is a week-to-week proposition, and you better understand that. I’ll go home tonight and we’ll feel good about this one because it’s a big accomplishment beating the Saints here. But then I’ll get ready for the next one—the next one will be all that matters.”

The weird upshot of this game is the Saints might not be what we thought they were, particularly on defense. This is going to be a tense week around the Saints, and I wouldn’t be thrilled to be the Browns this week. They’re the next team up in New Orleans next Sunday.

The Marathon

Tennessee Titans at Miami Dolphins
National Football League Game Summary
Paid attendance: 65,184
Time: 7:08

Now that’s weird. Delays of 1 hour, 57 minutes (after a lightning strike at the stadium, with 1:52 left in the first half) and 2 hours, 2 minutes (after another lightning strike midway through the third quarter). Thirteen points scored in the first three quarters, 34 in the fourth. Dolphins 27, Titans 20.


Sunday was Ryan Tannehill‘s first regular-season action since December 2016. (Getty Images)

“I’ve never been in a rain delay in a game in my life, and today we had two, and they were both long,” Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill said from Florida when it was long past dark. “The first one, we came in and they said it’d be like 30 minutes, so we all jut stayed loose and stayed ready. Turns out it was two hours. The second one was supposed to be a long one. They said we wouldn’t come back out till 7:30, so we came in, took our cleats off and lots of guys took their uniforms off. We watched football. The Red Zone. I had a little chicken. I took a nap—I think about 15 minutes. Then all of a sudden someone comes in and says, ‘You’re back on the field in 10 minutes—we’re playing. That was around 6:30. So we all had to hustle to get ready.”

It was a big day for Tannehill, who missed 19 straight games with two injuries. Credit coach Adam Gase and the Dolphins for not panicking and drafting the next supposed heir to Marino, and for giving Tannehill one more chance in 2018 to show he can be an above-average NFL starter, a player who can win in Miami. He was accurate Sunday against a 2017 playoff team, completing 20 of 28, but he also threw two picks and said later: “It was up and down. A few throws I’d really like to have back.”

In that spirit, I liked what Tannehill told me about Miami’s day off. Coaches often give players “victory Monday,” an extra day off in additional to Tuesday, when the team either is tired or had a big win. Gase gave the team Monday off. But Tannehill went to his offensive mates and said he thought they should come in to dissect the tape today, then leave for a day-and-a-half of rest. “I went around and told everyone we’ve got to get better, and we should take time in our [position] groups to watch this game,” Tannehill said. “I was glad to see everyone wanted to do it.” Especially after a seven-hour game.

Browns Gonna Brown

No, they’re not, actually. Half the Twittersphere chortled uproariously when, with 13 seconds left in overtime, kicker Zane Gonzalez had a 43-yard field-goal try blocked by T.J. Watt of the Steelers. That’s so Browns. But the players didn’t chortle. The played were ticked off. Wideout Jarvis Landry, the unofficial we’re-not-gonna-take-it-anymore, hold-your-feet-to-the-fire guy in this locker room, left the field cursing, angry and said he refused to get used to this. And they didn’t lose!

Here’s why I think there’s more Landrys in the room than there used to be: The Browns rallied late, for once. With eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh had the ball and led 21-7. Cleveland forced a turnover and got a quick score, and Cleveland recovered a James Conner fumble to set up Josh Gordon’s first touchdown since the Nixon Administration, and it was tied. The Browns, historically, haven’t been fourth-quarter fighters. Now, with Landry and Tyrod Taylor and collegiate winners like Ohio State’s former star cornerback, Denzel Ward, the Browns are building a culture that doesn’t accept Brown-ness.

That’s all well and good, of course, but it’s going to come down to Taylor needing to be better than he was Sunday (15 of 40 passing), or letting Baker Mayfield play earlier than coach Hue Jackson wants. I like what I saw Sunday afternoon. Myles Garrett is the genuine item. Taylor might be better suited to back up Mayfield, but we’ll see about that. And a tie pissed them off. That’s a start.

Rodgers-Starr Story


I could write 10,000 words on what made my three-minute TV story happen on NBC’s “Football Night in America” Sunday. Instead, I’ll go with the background on how it all happened, along with a couple videos that help tell the story of Aaron Rodgers’ appreciation of Packer history, and his deep affection for Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr.

NBC wanted me to get Rodgers for a TV story for the first Sunday night game of the year. In early August, in camp, I went to Rodgers with three ideas. Oh-for-three. He didn’t like them. “Go back to the drawing board,” he said with a smile. He wasn’t being a jerk; he just had no interest in the normal. So I went to work with the story-idea people at NBC and thought of two more, with some tentacles to the first game of the Packers’ 100th season. One of the ideas Rodgers liked: a story about his relationship with Starr, a man 50 years his senior. The Starr family had some interest too—with an asterisk; he’s been ill, and they had no idea if he could be involved in the story. But Rodgers, 34, deeply admires Starr, 84, and the feeling was mutual. No commitment yet, but interest from Rodgers moved us along.

We needed to convince Starr and his family and his family’s rep, Lee Ann Nelson. Starr had a stroke in 2014, and he suffers from aphasia, which happens sometimes to people who suffer strokes. It results in difficulty to comprehend words, and to speak cogent sentences, and to focus enough to do both. Nelson spoke to the family—Bart, wife Cherry (they’ve been married 64 years) and son Bart Starr Jr., who often speaks for the family. They wanted to do it, and perhaps it would be done with Bart Jr., speaking for his dad. I agreed to go to Birmingham, their home, to interview at least Bart Jr. Depending how Starr Sr., felt that day, perhaps we could get Bart to read a note of admiration to Rodgers.

I showed up to Starr’s plain office adjacent to some woods on the south side of Birmingham with producer Kristen Gerringer and our Alabama-based crew. Here came Bart Starr, in sweatpants, a dark Packers polo and sneakers, with Lee Ann firmly but gently holding both hands as he walked very slowly into the office. Bart was smiling, and he wanted to meet everyone in the crew and welcome them. Lee Ann was his guiding light. Starr barely spoke, and when he did, it was almost in a whisper. When I met him, I looked into his eyes and said what a pleasure this was, and he whispered, “Glad … for Aaron.”

He sat on a couch, and Bart Jr., came in and sat next to him, and I spoke to them—the son, mostly—on camera for about eight or 10 minutes, learning why the two quarterbacks a half-century apart in age are close. Soon after being drafted by Green Bay, Rodgers played in a charity golf tournament in Wisconsin run by Bart Sr., who appreciated Rodgers making the effort. In 2008, with the mayhem surrounding Brett Favre leaving/returning and Rodgers getting his shot at the job, Starr wrote a couple of letters of encouragement to Rodgers.

“What do you think of Aaron Rodgers?” I asked Starr the elder.

“Tremendous,” he said, in a whisper.

“Tremendous?” I said.

Softer now. “Tremendous. Yeah.”

Now Lee Ann and Bart Sr., were going to practice his message of admiration for Rodgers, the one he wanted to deliver on the eve of this historic season. For 15, 20 minutes they went over the lines on the couch, and then I helped move him to his desk, taking his right arm while Lee Ann took his left. Arduous. Sometimes he responded. Sometimes he read the note, and sometimes he just sat, staring, resting. When he did say a sentence, it was faint, less than a whisper.

This was painful to see.

After a few more minutes, Lee Ann said we should all just take a timeout and let Starr rest. So we did.

More frustration with the whispered message. Then Lee Ann suggested we take a walk with Starr around the office. I took his right arm again, she his left, and we walked the short lap around his office—maybe 40 feet in all. I thought about making small talk. “Bart, you know what I’ve always admired about you?” I said. “Your autograph.” He stopped. He looked up at me. I said: “Your autograph is perfect. Perfect penmanship. Today, you can’t read anyone’s autograph. They’re a mess. So let me ask you: Why’d you do your autograph so perfect?”

He looked hard into my eyes.

“Why … would you want to do it … any other way?” he said.

Clearest, loudest words he’d spoken all day.

“That’s … the only way I know,” he said.

Lee Ann beamed. “Did you know that his autograph took between 33 and 44 seconds to do—every one? He just wanted to get it right, every time.”

We walked around the office the same way, each of us with a Starr arm. Slowly. Importantly. He sat back down, and worked a little more on the 23 words he wanted to say.

Twenty-three words. An hour, and now more, to get it right. Aphasia was his enemy, his reality. He wouldn’t give in.

“You are a strong leader,” Starr said into the camera, his eyes boring into the note he was reading.

Practice. More practice. Five minutes more.

“Cherry and I are admiring you …”

Practice. More practice.

The clock ticked away. No one was in any hurry. We all just felt for this man, trying to do something kind for a friend. What was he thinking? I have no idea. Maybe this was something I imagined; it probably was. But I saw a competitor here. This wasn’t the Dallas defense in the Ice Bowl he had to beat now. He had to beat a sentence. And man, was it hard. Damn hard. Maybe he wouldn’t have felt a thing if we just packed up the cameras and thanked him and walked away. I don’t know. I thought he wanted to win this sentence. But we felt awful about it. The silent crew and the silent reporter (me), thought the same thing: We are abusing this giant of a man. Please, please, let it end. We can just walk away now and tell our bosses back at NBC, “We tried. We tried for over an hour. Bart was gallant, but it just wasn’t the right day.”

“One more line, Bart,” Lee Ann Nelson said. “You can do this. I know you can do this.”

Pause. Smile from Starr. He stared at the note.

“Because you are one of the finest men we have ever … MET.”

Smile.

That was a moment I’ll never forget. I hope my gasp was not audible.

Starr rested now, and I went to him and thanked him. “Good,” he whispered with a huge smile, “… for Aaron. Good for Aaron.”

Five days later. Labor Day afternoon. Green Bay. The Packers’ tunnel onto Lambeau. I explained the hour-plus deal in Starr’s office, and Starr’s determination to get the damn thing done. I showed the video of those 14 seconds to Rodgers.

Rodgers smiled widely. He nodded. No words. He didn’t have any right then. I didn’t either.

On Kaepernick and Nike


20

When Nike announced that Colin Kaepernick would be a chief spokesman for the shoe/apparel giant last week, it took the NFL by surprise … to put it mildly. Nike will pay the NFL hundreds of millions through 2028 to be the official uniform and apparel supplier of the NFL for at least the next 11 seasons. When this deal went down last spring, the NFL’s EVP of media, Brian Rolapp, called Nike a “long-time and trusted partner” of the league.

Kaepernick is the biggest burr in the NFL’s saddle. He sued the league for collusion, claiming he’s been kept out of football since the beginning of 2017 after he spent 2016 kneeling for the national anthem as a 49ers quarterback, in protest of the treatment of African-Americans in society.

I met a University of North Carolina history professor who studies the intersection of sport and politics, Matt Andrews, in 2016. One of his classes, Sport and Civil Rights, made me think he’d be a great resource person here. He answered questions for me over the weekend about Kaepernick, the Nike deal, and the NFL.

Me: Kaepernick is starting to remind me a little of Muhammad Ali—hated in his time but appreciated as an icon later in life. Any similarities to you?

Andrews: Absolutely. Ali was the catalyst for the revolt of the black athlete in the 1960s. He paved the way. When Tommie Smith and John Carlos used the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics as a platform to express their frustration with the slow pace of racial change in the United States—an act that I see as precisely the same as Kaepernick taking a knee—they were following the path paved by Ali. Kaepernick has been walking that same path. Ali was the first to say that as a high-profile black athlete, he had an obligation to use his fame to bring attention to issues like racial injustice and the war in Vietnam. He put his name, his legacy, and his future earnings all on the line, just like Kaepernick did.

Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything. #JustDoIt

A post shared by colin kaepernick (@kaepernick7) on Sep 3, 2018 at 12:20pm PDT

Me: Is there a historical precedent for the Kaepernick/Nike deal?

Andrews: Yes and no. On the one hand, Kaepernick’s Nike contract isn’t just unprecedented—it’s overturning previous precedent. Previous athletes who made dramatic gestures of protest were shunned, losing endorsements and athletic opportunities, be it Tommie Smith in 1968, Craig Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in the 1990s, or others. As heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali stood at the absolute pinnacle of the American sports pyramid, and what did he get to endorse? Roach killer. So Kaepernick getting a Nike contract because of his activism flips the script. On the other hand, this is not entirely unprecedented. Being a fierce critic of racism did not preclude Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from getting a lucrative shoe deal with Adidas. Nike clearly believes that linking themselves with Kaepernick will pay off in the long run. They have certainly noticed that LeBron James’s outspokenness and direct criticism of the President has not hurt his popularity one bit. And Kaepenick’s rebelliousness fits the maverick image that Nike has worked hard to craft.

Me: What’s the end game for Kaepernick, and do you think he plays football again?

Andrews: I’m tempted to trot out the Yogi Berra line here—“I don’t make predictions, especially about the future.” I’ve been wrong about Kaepernick before. I was certain that some NFL team would give him a shot last year. I mistakenly believed that NFL owners wanted one thing above all else—wins. We now know that’s not true. They either fear losing community support if they sign Kaepernick or they are so outraged by his actions that they want to make him pay. It’s probably a combination of both. I would not bet on Kaepernick winning his collusion case. It’s difficult to find the “smoking gun” that proves collusion. Will Kaepernick ever play in the NFL again? Probably not. But at this point, why would he want to? He has his health, he has his dignity, and now he has his Nike contract and, thus, a future platform.

Quotes of the Week


I    

“Oh, I’m playing next week.”

—Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, to NBC’s Michele Tafoya, on the field, after leading the greatest comeback in the Bears-Packers rivalry. Green Bay rebounded from a 20-0 deficit to win 24-23 … with Rodgers playing wounded after hurting his left knee in the first half.

II

“Overall, I thought we could have been better at a number of positions.”

—Bills coach Sean McDermott, after Buffalo fell behind 40-0 early in the third quarter on the way to one of the most embarrassing losses in team history, 47-3 at Baltimore on Sunday.

McDermott would be very good working in public relations for the Titanic.

III

Philip Rivers is going to sue his receivers for lack of support.”

—CBS analyst Dan Fouts, after Chargers wideout Travis Benjamin dropped a second-quarter bomb from Rivers, the fourth drop of the first half, in Sunday’s home loss to the Chiefs.

IV

“YOU PLAY … TO WIN … THE GAME!”

—Arizona State offensive lineman Jarrett Bell, channeling his inner Herm Edwards, after the Sun Devils and their new coach upset nationally ranked Michigan State 16-13 in Tempe on Saturday night.

V

“I would love to play at 41, 42, 43, 44, 45. It’ll be a challenge for me. It’s f—ing going to be hard to do. I think it’s going to be very hard to do. But I think I can do it.”

—Tom Brady, in the epilog of the Gotham Chopra series “Tom vs. Time” about Brady for Facebook.

The Award Section


30

Offensive Players of the Week

Ryan Fitzpatrick, quarterback, Tampa Bay. The man who defines “journeyman” in the NFL—seven teams, 15 years, 120 starts, 105 games on the bench—had the game of his life Sunday in New Orleans. He had a career high in passing yards (417) and rating (156.2, the second-highest in the 43-year history of the Bucs) in a totally bizarre 48-40 upset of the Saints.


Joe Flacco quieted his critics by leading the Ravens to a dominant win over the Bills on Sunday. (Getty Images)

Joe Flacco, quarterback, Baltimore. Have you heard? The Ravens drafted a quarterback in the first round this year. Lamar Jackson. And Flacco, barring a major turnaround from his recent mediocrity, would be playing for his job in 2018. He got off to a job-preserving start Sunday in a 47-3 win over the University of Buffalo. I mean, the Bills. Flacco’s performance (25 of 34, 236 yards, three touchdowns, no picks, 121.7 rating) marked the first time in four years he had a day with a rating over 120 and a TD-to-pick ratio of at least plus-3.

Defensive Players of the Week

Denzel Ward, cornerback, Cleveland. Near the end of the first quarter and near the end of the second quarter, Ward, in his first NFL game, intercepted Ben Roethlisberger with the Steelers already in field-goal range. Once at the Browns’ 10, and then at the Browns’ 29, Ward prevented the Steelers from scoring what could have been fairly crucial points in a 21-21 tie. I watched a chunk of this game, and Ward played fearlessly in coverage against Antonio Brown. He added six tackles.

Harrison Smith, safety, Minnesota. Smith led the Vikings with eight tackles in the 24-16 win over San Francisco, but that’s not why he’s winning this. He wrecked the Niners’ last two drives in a one-score game when Jimmy Garoppolo had given the Niners life. On third-and-five at midfield with 6:32 left, Smith came on a well-disguised safety blitz and nailed Garoppolo for a 10-yard sack. Punt. On second-and-10 with 1:45 left, Garoppolo threw deep downfield, over the middle, and Smith picked it off, ending the game. Just two more reasons why Smith is the best all-around safety in football.

We interrupt these defensive awards for a quick word about Khalil Mack from SVP:

T.J. Watt, outside linebacker, Pittsburgh. Sacking Tyrod Taylor four times and producing 11 tackles wasn’t quite enough for the rusher with the great bloodlines. So Watt, with the ultimate embarrassment—Cleveland, on the Steelers’ watch, winning a football game for the first time since Christmas Eve 2016—staring the Steelers in the face, plowed through a crease in the Browns’ front on the potential winning field-goal try in overtime, blocking it. Surely the Steelers boarded their buses for the two-hour ride home after the game angry that they turned it over so much and couldn’t beat the Browns, but imagine how they’d have felt without the play of Watt.

Special Teams Player of the Week

Tyreek Hill, wide receiver/punt returner, Kansas City. It took all of 1:57 for Tyreek Hill—who wreaked havoc on the Patriots in Week 1 last year—to do the same to the Chargers in California on Sunday. He took a punt—the first Chiefs’ touch of the 2018 season—at his own 9, and ran left, and kept running, and he left every Charger in his wake. The 91-yard punt return was the 12th touchdown of 50 yards or longer in his young career. He’s 24 years old.

Oh. And he made it 13 of those long TDs just seven minutes later. He caught the first touchdown of Pat Mahomes’ career, a 58-yarder, midway through the first quarter.

Ryan Allen, punter, New England. Fifty-one seconds left. Patriots nursing a seven-point lead. They’ve got to punt from near midfield, and the Texans will have one more chance. Allen boots it … high ball. Long. Will it get to the end zone? No … Defensive back Jonathan Jones downs it at the 1. A 54-yard punt, downed at the 1, and Deshaun Watson would have 43 seconds, on the road, to go 99 yards for the tie. Not happening. What a clutch kick by Allen, who had six punts for a 46.8-yard average in the Pats’ 27-20 win.

Coach of the Week

Dirk Koetter, coach, Tampa Bay. The Bucs, with a backup quarterback and still wondering whatever will happen to their suspended starter, walked into New Orleans and put up 48 on the Saints. Koetter was in job jeopardy after the Bucs’ 5-11 season last year. He’s significantly more secure this morning.

Goats of the Week

Nathan Peterman, quarterback, Buffalo. Enough. Forty-to-nothing is not all his fault. But 40-0 in 35 minutes? That’s two incredibly unprofessional appearances in two starts for Peterman. We’ve seen enough of Peterman, Sean McDermott.

Mike Gillislee, running back, New Orleans. The former Bill and Patriot was a pickup of necessity by the Saints with the four-game suspension to Mark Ingram to start the season. Gillislee may not be in Louisiana long. With the Saints driving to cut into a stunning Bucs lead late in the first half at the Superdome, Gillislee took a handoff from Drew Brees, and on a routine run around left end, he got hit by cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and the ball spun out of his grasp. Tampa Bay recovered, and safety Justin Evans returned it 34 yards for a touchdown. Amazingly, the Bucs led 31-17.

Kyle Fuller, cornerback, Chicago. As the Packers stared down a 23-17 deficit with 2:39 left Sunday night, Aaron Rodgers had first-and-10 from his 25. He had Davante Adams on a short incut, but Adams stumbled … and the pass went right into the chest of Fuller. This was not a particularly difficult ball to catch—not a bullet, but a touch pass. And Fuller, who dropped six picks last season (per Cris Collinsworth), dropped this one. Fuller will never have an easier pick in his life. Had he caught it, the Bears could have—minimum—tried a game-clinching field goal somewhere near the two-minute warning. What a drop.

What I Learned


Rams coach Sean McVay, who begins his second season tonight at Oakland, on what he learned in his rookie year, as the youngest coach in modern NFL history:

“I would say the most important thing I learned is this: It’s okay to think you don’t have the answer to everything. There’s actually strength in being able to say, ‘I don’t know, but let’s figure it out together.’ Or, ‘Let’s lean on the people who have a lot more experience than I do,’ to be able to learn from them. What you also learn is that this is an extremely humbling game. You know when I learned that? When I got hired to be a head coach, and I got a chance to hire some of these guys to come on to our staff—guys who I am thinking to myself, ‘I get to coach with this guy?’ Wade Phillips on defense, Joe Barry as an assistant head coach. John Fassel on special teams—I know nothing about special teams, and here’s this guy who’s as good as anyone in the league, on our team. All our coaches, working together. If you get a staff like we had, we all make each other better.

“I learned this from Mike Tomlin—who’s been a big help to me: Everybody’s got all the answers and no accountability. I was that guy. Before I called plays or even got into this role, you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I’d do it this way.’ Well it’s a little bit different when you actually have to do it.

“I learned how important it is to bring in the right people to influence your team. Andrew Whitworth, Robert Woods. Smart guys, team guys who can help influence and affect the locker room in the right way. There’s real power in that.

“Something really important I learned: If I was trying to be involved in every facet of the job, I think I would’ve been really overwhelmed—and I would have done the team a disservice. Defense and special teams … I knew enough so that I could at least communicate to our players. But to try and stick my nose in and be involved in those areas when I had smarter people to do it, that would not have been smart. If there’s a major decision to make, or a [replay] challenge on a defensive play or special-teams play, we’ll talk about it. Mostly, though, I’m not gonna override Wade Phillips’ call. Why would I?

“And it’s okay to devote myself to the offense especially when you’ve got a young quarterback who needs me like Jared [Goff]. People might say, ‘Well, why aren’t you standing on the sidelines to watch the defense?’ I think people have the misinterpretation that I don’t care about the defense. Of course I care about defense and special teams. But I just think it’s too hard to call plays in this league and think that I’m not gonna look at what just happened in the previous series when the offense comes off the field. It’s okay to do what’s best for the team that way, even if it doesn’t look like what a head coach should do.”

Numbers Game


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Watching the Falcons stumble offensively throughout the loss to Philadelphia, I thought,This has to be the highest-paid collection of offensive talent in football. How do they look so feeble here? Credit to the Eagles, of course, for swarming around Matt Ryan all game. But let’s see how the Falcons’ big-money guys on offense compare to the other big offenses in football. I used Over The Cap, and added the cap numbers of the seven highest-paid offensive players on some of the best offensive teams in football.

• Atlanta’s top seven adds up to $67.61 million … and that’s with a reasonable $17.7M this year for Ryan. His cap hit in two years will be $31.8 million.

• The Saints, fourth in the NFL in points scored last year, and with Drew Brees counting for $24 million this year: $65.46 million for the top seven.

• The Eagles, third in the NFL in points scored last year: $53.44 million for the top seven.

• The Patriots, second in the league in scoring last year: $53.38 million for the top seven.

• The Rams, first in scoring last year: $50.95 million for the top seven.

One game is not a fair way to judge an offense. At all. But the Falcons’ last two games have been in Philadelphia. They’ve scored 22 points in eight quarters. It’s not good enough, and the Falcons haven’t looked like a good NFL offense in either game. They’ve got to be better to be playing football in February. 

Factoidness


We won’t award style points here, but it is worth noting that in his last four games—against 11-6 Atlanta, 14-3 Minnesota, 15-3 New England and 0-0 Atlanta—Nick Foles is 4-0, with a 68.6 completion percentage and a 99.9 rating.

King of the Road


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What would you say if I told you t