Wristband 145: Behind The Play That Confused The Patriots and Gave The Eagles The Super Bowl LII Win
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
—American historian Will Durant, interpreting Aristotle
The quote is on the grease board above the pristine desk of Eagles coach Doug Pederson.
PHILADELPHIA — Saturday morning. Silence, for the first time all week, in the Nova Care Complex offices of the Super Bowl Bowl champion Eagles in this hungover city. Two days ago, the parade happened. “The noise,” offensive coordinator Frank Reich said, smiling at the memory. “From the start of the parade, way down here, to the steps of the art museum, more than two hours, it sounded like a big play just happened in our stadium. The decibel level was that high; it hurt your ears. So we can use a quiet day.”
Three men here were thankful for the serenity—coach Doug Pederson, Reich and wide receivers coach Mike Groh. Pederson particularly, sucking Halls cherry cough drops, looked like he couldn’t wait to disappear. (The Eagles are off this week.) On this morning, the three men gathered to surgically take apart one play, the play that six days earlier finished off the Patriots and gave the Eagles their first Super Bowl title in history.
There is so much about this play—the play that Philadelphians will see on replay and remember precisely where they were watching it, and with whom, forever—that also says so much about modern football:
• The research, involving Bruce Arians, Larry Fitzgerald, Mike Shula, Dan Quinn and, surprisingly, the stunning reach of the Pro Football Focus database;
• The spy vs. spy element of the mysterious Patriot undercover scout Ernie Adams versus a crew of little-known coaches, such as the Eagles’ receivers coach, Groh, the son of Al Groh, who succeeded Bill Belichick when he resigned as HC of the NYJ in 2000;
• The strategic mystery of the bunch/stack formations, with the legal pick plays that have become a quiet and defense-disrupting story in the NFL, and used by so many good offensive minds;
• And finally, the understanding that there is no limit to good football ideas. The Eagles used a strange motion on this play call Star motion, a Jet Sweep sort of motion behind the quarterback that they used only 12 previous times in 1,217 plays this season prior to the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl. The Patriots did not handle Star motion well, leaving the middle of the field wide open (big mistake I) and causing two crucial Patriots to bump into each other like a couple of Keystone Kops (big mistake II).
The winning play highlighted so much of what made the Eagles hard to stop in 2017. Fourth quarter, 2:25 left, Philadelphia trailed 33-32. Eagles ball, third-and-seven at the New England 11.
“Nick!” Pederson said into quarterback Nick Foles’ helmet. “Wristband 145. Wristband 145!”
Foles wears a wristband with the Eagles’ play sheet for the day on it. In the Super Bowl, the wristband had 194 plays in tiny agate type. Pederson scanned all his possible third-down calls and found one he’d liked for weeks … number 145, a triple-bunch formation clustered to the right, a speedy back in Star motion, and tight end Zach Ertz alone at the left of the formation.
Foles looked at the wristband and found play 145. With the play clock running, Foles said to his huddle: “Gun trey left, open buster star motion … 383 X follow Y slant.”
The strangest thing here is that the Patriots—the peerless Patriots, with the greatest coach of our day, and the research power of 10 teams combined in the beautiful mind of Adams—erred significantly on it. What did I learn from studying the winning Super Bowl play? It’s fine to put Bill Belichick on the Mount Rushmore of coaches in the 98-season history of the NFL, because he truly deserves it. But it does not mean that the great and powerful Oz doesn’t make mistakes. And Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia made a mistake here. You can hear it on NFL Films, from the wiring of the game: “Third-down here. We’re gonna have to double 86.”
Though the play started with a possible double-coverage plan for 86, who is tight end Zach Ertz, that was eliminated when the deep safety followed the Eagle back in motion. (Seen here.) So the Patriots did not double 86. How does Patricia’s communication not get to the field on the biggest play of the season—or how do the Patriots not account for the real possibility of the safety vacating his space to follow a motion man? That’s something the Patriots could be haunted by, the way they’ve haunted so many teams since the turn of the century.
One more plot-thickening thing about Play 145. When the Eagles got on the plane for Minneapolis seven days before Super Bowl, Pederson had his working play sheet that had been established for the week of practice back in Philadelphia. It was the most important sheet he’d use in his life, the sheet he’d mine to try to beat the great Belichick in Super Bowl 52.
But 383 X follow Y slant was nowhere to be seen. It was not in the game plan.
All season, every week, every offensive coach on the Eagles had an assignment: find a play or plays better than those on Pederson’s play sheet. So Groh, along with all the coaches, went to work. In a lonely room at the Radisson Blu Hotel at the Mall of America halfway across the country, Groh dove in one more time, on stacks-and-bunches plays and all others he thought might be valuable, to see if he could find one great third-down call that beat any of the third-down calls on Pederson’s play sheet.
For the 22nd straight Monday of the 2017 NFL season, Groh looked for a better way, a better play.
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
This week-after-the-Super Bowl column is always one of my favorite MMQBs of the season. Going back to Eli Manning dissecting the impossibly beautiful throw to Mario Manningham to help beat the Patriots six years ago, to Tom Brady’s play-by-play of the Super Bowl comeback last year, it’s the column of the season that usually allows me to dive deepest into the whys of what we’ve seen in the biggest game of the year.
After the Super Bowl, I kept thinking, even with the surprising Malcolm Butler benching, how amazing it was that this previously unheralded coaching staff, with the previously unheralded quarterback, sliced and diced a defense orchestrated by Belichick and Patricia that was on the stingiest run in football entering the championship game. Since its shaky 2-2 start, New England tightened up on defense, allowing a league-low 14.4 points per game (including playoffs) since Week 5, and going 13-1 since. This should have been Foles’ waterloo. Instead, the 41-33 shredding of the defending champion Patriots confirmed the coaching and play-calling chops of Pederson, the game-planning chops of Reich, and the ascension of Foles into the pantheon of Super Bowl heroes dating back to Max McGee.
My question, then: How’d this happen? Speaking to Pederson before the game and Reich after the game, I knew the lengths to which the Eagles had gone in this game plan, in no small part because of their immense respect for Belichick and the Patriots. Every one of those of 194 plays on the Foles wristband had to had been vetted once, twice, three times, and again, to be sure of its chance to succeed against the defensive mastermind of this generation. And not just with Pederson, but with Foles. Pederson always asks his quarterback the day before the game if there are plays in the game plan he doesn’t feel comfortable with, or would like not called in the game. Pederson was an NFL quarterback; he knows what it’s like to go to the line to execute a play you don’t believe. To Pederson’s delight, Foles is free with his vetoes.
“How many plays did Nick veto in the Super Bowl game plan?” I asked Pederson on Saturday.
“Zero,” Pederson said.
Pederson, Reich and Groh agreed to meet me in Pederson’s office Saturday morning to unravel the mystery of “Wristband 145.” With the Olympics muted on the TV next to Pederson’s desk (men’s snowboarding on NBC Sports Network), Reich took over.
“Why don't we run through this tape,” Reich said, taking the coach’s clicker in his hand and pointing to the big screen across from Pederson’s desk, “and Coach and Mike and anybody interject anytime they want. We just put together a tape of how this play happened. It’ll give you an idea of the process we use, and how the staff gets involved.”
A play from Week 2 came up. Eagles at Chiefs. Darren Sproles motioned from deep behind the left guard to his right, behind Carson Wentz. “So this is a unique motion in our offense that we don't use a ton. [Running backs coach] Duce Staley is the one who every week is on Coach and I, saying, 'We've got to get that motion in.’ Because it's a tough motion for defenses to handle,” Reich said.
“This is a motion you don’t see other teams do,” Pederson said. “That motion is a great way to get tells. The Patriots do it too, with different motions. Tom Brady wants to see [whether it’s] man or zone.”
The strength of setting the back in motion like this, the Eagles found out, was the quick tell to confirm whether the defense is playing man or zone. If a defender zeroed in on the back and sprinted toward him, the Eagles discovered this season the defense would always be man. If not, zone. On this play, Wentz saw Kansas City linebacker Ramik Wilson run at Sproles and knew it would be man coverage; at the shotgun snap, Wentz loved the matchup of Sproles on Wilson and quickly zinged a horizontal throw to Sproles, who beat Wilson up the sideline. Gain of 16.
“You know how when you set multiple alarms on your phone to wake up?” Reich said. “We'll set multiple alarms for the quarterback and give him multiple indicators just to be sure. Maybe he’ll see it’s man because it's corners-over coverage, but then, like Coach said, if we use this and the linebacker responds like that, it’s, ‘Oh now I'm 100 percent sure it’s man.’”
Another play versus the Chargers. Zone coverage. Bunch formation to the right. Wentz ignored the back and found Torrey Smith out of the bunch up the right seam; Smith dropped what would have been a significant gainer.
Another play versus the Chiefs. The back, Wendell Smallwood, motioned behind Wentz to the left. But no bunch. Ertz used a legal pick from Brent Celek to blur coverage and get free on a cross route. Easy pass for Wentz. Gain of 11.
Reich paused the Ertz completion. “So now we showed you this motion three different times,” Reich said. “One time it went to Sproles. One time it went to Torrey Smith up the seam versus zone, now it’s to Ertz on a crossing route. We hit three different areas of the field with the same motion. So every time we are using the motion for a different reason. And there’s a different pass concept with it every time.”
“The Patriots break down this motion and don’t see you do the same thing,” I said.
“Exactly,” Reich said. “The sample size is too small to figure out what the next move is.”
“The other thing,” Pederson said, “and this is sort of a philosophy that I've brought here a little bit. I like to create plays or unique formations and motions like this in multiples of three. You have a drop back pass, you might have a screen, you might have a run, off of the same shift in motion.”
“He's always preaching that,” Reich said.
Pederson: “Because those are unique things. Teams are too smart on defense. Coordinators are too smart on defense. So they always see that same formation, same motion, and they can scheme it up. Well, what we've been able to do, sort of collaboratively here, is to take those same unique formations, shifts and motions and try to do it in multiples of three. This is the off-balance thing we try to create.”
The interesting thing to note here: Coaches can be smart and draw up bright plays. But if they don’t have a Wentz or Foles to pick the right option and deliver the ball accurately, and if they don’t have the speed back to win against linebackers and safeties, and if they don’t have the skilled receivers and tight ends to (sometimes) post up corners and safeties, none of this works. The Eagles have the coaching originality, and the players to execute these chess moves.
Research helps. Bruce Arians is a bunch devotee, with his deep receiving group. When preparing to face the Rams in December, Groh and Reich saw a bunch-right formation with Larry Fitzgerald benefiting from a legal pick out of the bunch on Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson. Fitzgerald was wide open on a post route. Carson Palmer hit him for a gain of 17. Maybe, the Eagles thought, this could be an Alshon Jeffery option out of the bunch. Groh picked it out because the formation fit the Eagles to a T.
Said Reich: “One of the things we asked Mike at the beginning of the year was always look at stacks and bunches. We always feel like stacks and bunches is important to understand how things play out. He is our stacks and bunches guru. We use PFF [Pro Football Focus] to give us a folder of stacks and bunches every week.”
“How many per week?” I asked Groh.
“It varies,” Groh said. “Because sometimes PFF has plays in there that aren't what we’d call true stacks or bunches, so I fly by those. But it can be 250 plays. I'll go through that and I cut it up, and I go, ‘Hey, Frank, here’s some things that are interesting.’ Sometimes it's 10 a week, sometimes it's 50. Frank filters that out and goes to Coach and gives him a couple, and they kind of move up the flagpole [as possible game plan additions].”
On every one of the plays Reich shows, traffic happens. Legal picks happen. Receivers can block defenders, or legally pick them, within a yard of the line, but any other contact beyond that has to be deemed incidental or the receiver can be flagged.
“We’re trying to create legal traffic,” said Reich.
“It's the hardest play to defend and officiate,” said Pederson.
“So,” Reich said, “we use this formation a fair amount, so it makes sense to us, it fits our personnel, because now we put Ertz on the backside and we can free-release him. If they put a whole bunch of guys over here where the cluster is, we got Ertz one-on-one on the backside. Doug likes it, and so now we basically put this play in that week. We get to the Rams game and do you remember what happened in the Rams game? We went up and down the field and we scored a lot of points. We didn't run this play. We didn’t need it. So this one goes in the inventory. Doug and I will sometimes sit in here and bring up that cumulative list on his thing and it's on an excel spreadsheet so you can sort it by everything that has been called. It's just called the cumulative list. It's by section. Every section that Doug has on his call sheet, there is a cumulative list for that section. So, we can bring up that section and say, what haven't we run?”
Said Groh: “No idea gets left behind.”
“No good idea gets left behind,” said Reich.
Now on the screen: the divisional playoff game versus Atlanta. Big moment in the game. Eagles ball, third-and-seven, Atlanta 45, fourth quarter, Eagles up 12-10.
Here is the Super Bowl play, with one important difference: no motion.
Ertz wide left, singled by Falcons nickel back Brian Poole … a triangle-bunch to the right, close to the formation … a first-down conversion vital because the Eagles want at least a field goal to make the Falcons have to score a touchdown to win … and Pederson calls the play, for the first time this season—except without motion.
The Falcons dedicated four defenders to the bunch. Poole was alone on Ertz. Safety Ricardo Allen was the center-fielder, which is lucky: As Ertz cut and ran a quick inside slant, Poole slipped, and Ertz was wide open for an 11-yard gain. Allen saved a touchdown. The Eagles get their insurance field goal and won, 15-10.
“Isn't it interesting that on this play the corner slipped, the same way Devin McCourty slipped in the Super Bowl?” I asked Pederson.
“Certain things you remember,” Pederson said. “Eerily familiar. Is that the word—eerily?”
That’s the one, in retrospect.
Early in the season, Groh picked one bunch formation from a Panthers-Patriots game. On a third-and-nine play from the Carolina 43, the Panthers bunched three receivers to the left, and motioned Christian McCaffrey into the bunch—a smart personnel grouping by Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula. At the snap, Pats cornerback Stephon Gilmore, apparently confused, doubles a receiver doing a shallow cross, and leaves Kelvin Benjamin alone up the left seam. Cam Newton hit Benjamin. Gain of 43.
This institutional memory in Super Bowl week hit both Groh and Reich. “We're like, yeah, they could be having a problem here,” Reich said. “They could have a problem with a four-by-one cluster deal, so now, here's where all the elements come together for the game-winning play.”
Groh and Reich agreed that a bunch play would definitely be a smart inclusion—and all three men thought splitting out Ertz, as he had against Atlanta, would be smart, as well as the unique motion to the bunch side by the back. This would be a variation of the bunch they’d never run … and, of course, a variation the Patriots hadn’t seen. Groh mined the cluster-route concept, Reich added the running-back motion, Reich and Groh liked splitting out Ertz, Groh brought it to Pederson, and Pederson liked it all.
On Tuesday night, inside the Radisson Blu, the play was added to the game plan, and would be number 145 on Pederson’s Sunday play sheet and Foles’ wristband, the formation first, and the play second:
Gun trey left, open buster star motion … 383 X follow Y slant.
“This is exactly why we keep a databank of plays,” Pederson said. “We took the Kansas City motion with Sproles, we took the Arizona bunch play against the Rams, and then we came back against the Falcons and moved Ertz out and left the back in the backfield, and then we get to this game, we added the motion, and we just put it all together for this specific defense. This play is a result of what we did all season, and what the coaches researched, taking different things from different plays.”
One more pre-game point: “We're sitting here talking about this during the week,” said Reich, “and we say, if we shift [Corey Clement] out, and if they cover him in man coverage, and if we get Alshon [Jeffery], and Alshon comes out of the bunch like he’s supposed to, the guy who is covering that motion back might actually run into Alshon's man.”
A few years ago, doing a Bill Belichick profile for Sports Illustrated, I saw Belichick’s football library. At the time, the library was in Belichick’s Massachusetts home; now it’s housed in the library at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, where Belichick grew up. One of the books, Sun Tsu’s “The Art of War,” seemed a curious inclusion. But Belichick was big on military metaphors. In this book, Sun Tsu wrote, “Every battle is won or lost before it’s ever fought.”
Those are the words I thought of watching Reich run the decisive play back and forth Saturday morning.
Said Groh: “Just like in basketball, right? When you isolate and put everybody on one side of the court and you send Kobe over to go do what he does. Same principle. We knew that they were going to overplay the bunch.”
Pederson, on why he picked this play: “I thought right away, down and distance, situation in the game, boom, that's the one. I know Ertz is matched up one on one, I know we got that motion. Reppin' it, and reppin’ it and reppin’ it, and knowing where it was at. And then you just pull the trigger in that situation and let our guys go execute.”
Groh to Reich. Reich and Pederson massaging the play. Play to the play sheet. Pederson to Foles. Foles to Ertz. How it played out:
New England 33, Philadelphia 32, 2:25 left, fourth quarter. Third-and-seven, Eagles’ 12. Foles in shotgun. Ertz up top, alone, on Devin McCourty, playing three yards off. Clement behind Foles, just to his left. Nelson Agholor at the top of a bunch to the right, tight end Trey Burton (Reich: “one of our best guys to create legal traffic”) just behind Agholor to the left, and Jeffery just behind Agholor to the right. Pre-snap, Clement sprinted behind Foles, and the lone center-fielding safety for New England, Duron Harmon, followed. At the snap, four Patriots rushed, and linebacker Kyle Van Noy stayed in sort of no man’s land at the 12, apparently to spy Foles. Five Patriots minded the four Philly receivers—including an open Clement—to the right.
Just as Ertz made his incut in front of McCourty, Harmon and Gilmore smashed into each other at the four-yard line.
Foles stared at Ertz from the start. He got single coverage.
McCourty slipped. Ertz had a clear half-step on him, running right across the formation.
Foles cocked to throw and, in what no one noticed, came down to about three-quarters delivery, seemingly in mid-motion, to evade the raised arms of Van Noy. “Look at this,” Reich said, running the tape back and forth, seeing Van Noy’s arms go up for the block. “Nick didn't make that decision when he was about to throw, he's making that as his arm is right here [with the ball nearly out of his hand], adjusting it at the last split second, to win the Super Bowl.”
The ball hit Ertz in stride. Ertz took one step, two, and got hit in the legs by McCourty and dove for the end zone. Touchdown. The play survived a replay review focusing on the Ertz bobble; he was a runner, ref Gene Steratore ruled, and thus only had to break the plane of the goal line with possession for the play to be a touchdown.
“Cover zero,” Reich said, watching it a few more times. “No one to save the day.”
“How many times have you practiced this play, this way?” I wondered.
“Twice,” Reich said.
As for the Patriots’ part in this: Hard to blame McCourty, slip or not. He had to be sure he didn’t overplay the slant, because if McCourty overplayed the slant or incut, Ertz could have run a fade or corner and would have been open, with no help. During the game, as our Andy Benoit discovered after tape study, Patriots front-seven players had dropped into man coverage 10 times; clearly this play should have been the 11th. Rarely on plays like this do the Patriots leave a single defender without help. And with Patricia’s fateful words—“We’re gonna have to double 86 here”—someone blew the coverage or blew communication before the play.
Give credit to the Eagles, though. Even if the Patriots had dropped an extra front-seven player into coverage, Pederson thought it likely that Foles would have chosen Clement, with the Gilmore-Harmon collision, and very likely Clement would have made the seven yards if not the touchdown.
The three men rose, heading for their week off. (Until Reich took the Colts’ head-coaching job Sunday.) Before they parted, Pederson and Reich, without guile, spoke about something every coach on every level of every sport should hear.
“For me,” Pederson said, “this story is simple. I hired these coaches for a reason. I hired Frank as my OC for a reason. This is a collaborative effort. It has never been about one guy, one coach, one player. This is a daunting task for one guy. It's way too much. I trust these guys to study the tape like they do, and Frank gives out the assignments during the week. Guys know their lanes, they stay in their lanes. If a play fits our personality, offensively, we will try to get it in the game plan somewhere. It’s a credit to our coaches, all of them, that they found the little gems all season.”
“When someone trusts you, that's the greatest motivator there is,” said Reich. “When you have a head coach who really makes it collaborative, then it motivates guys to work harder, to look longer and look at every third down that the Patriots ran this year. If it is just coach and I doing that whole thing, maybe that play makes it in, maybe it doesn't. I don't know. Maybe we would have saw it, maybe we wouldn't have. We'll never know. One of the MO’s of our team the whole year was being unselfish. This was us. I firmly believe that's why we won the Super Bowl, because it was about us as a team. That starts from the top.”
Well, I guess it was a good week to write about Frank Reich
Sunday, Feb. 4, 3 p.m.: Frank Reich in the locker room in Minneapolis, preparing for his offensive-coordinator duties with the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl 52.
Sunday, Feb. 11, 3 p.m.: Frank Reich in a descending airplane, preparing to land in Indianapolis and sign his five-year contract as the next coach of the Colts.
When Reich was preparing for a third season as the Eagles’ offensive coordinator, the right-hand man and trusted adviser to Doug Pederson, he figured he’d been bypassed, again, for a chance at his post-quarterbacking life goal: becoming an NFL head coach. But then the Josh McDaniels jilting story happened, and the Colts had to star their coach search again. Four days into it, on Sunday, GM Chris Ballard settled on Reich. I’m told owner Jim Irsay happily approved. Reich, to be sure, won’t bring any drama with him.
In fact, Reich’s career in many ways rivals the only Indianapolis Hall of Fame coach, Tony Dungy. Non-famous as players—Dungy for the Steelers, mostly; Reich for the Bills, mostly—each is quiet, religious, an expert at his side of the ball. Dungy and the Tampa-2 defense propelled the Bucs to respectability and helped the Colts win a Super Bowl. Reich played in the Buffalo K-gun offense and has been an advocate of aggressively pushing the ball down the field. Finally, this year under Doug Pederson, the Colts noticed.
The Colts, post-McDaniels, needed a stable partner for Andrew Luck who would make him better. They needed an ego-less partner for Ballard, and they needed a leader for a team that’s going to change a lot over the next two or three years. There could be lean times. Reich is an eternal optimist, a small offensive planner, and a steady guy who’s not going to spooked by a four-game losing streak. Which, Ballard knows, there could be in the next couple of years in a rising AFC South. This is a good choice.
Journalism of the Week
The Super Bowl 52 story in this week’s Sports Illustrated is just divine. Written by Greg Bishop and Ben Baskin, the deep dive into Nick Foles and the Eagles’ victory is a great example of how you can write something in this instant-gratification society that is still worth reading three days after the game, when SI arrives in your mailbox.
I don’t think Bishop and Baskin would mind if I borrowed their first four paragraphs to sell their story to you. It’s so good:
Nick Foles stood in thigh-deep water in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, surrounded by pine trees, holding a fly-fishing rod in his right hand. Rainbow trout flittered to the water’s surface, nipping at the dry flies he was floating. This was late July 2016. Foles was 27 and alone, at the bottom of a canyon, on a trailhead named Forks of the Kern, and he was facing the most significant fork of his life: He’d just decided to retire from pro football after four seasons, in Philadelphia and St. Louis.
Foles lost cell service when he went into those mountains, but first he’d sent a handful of texts to family, friends and his agent confirming his decision. He planned to spend a few days alone with his thoughts, sleeping in a tent on the side of the river with the water rushing by, eating fish and steak and drinking cocktails with friends, then floating down the Upper Kern without any destination in mind, NFL or otherwise.
On the five-hour drive in, he’d run through all of his reasons for retiring, explaining to his brother-in-law, Ryan Moore, that he’d lost his passion for football in his last season, with the Rams, who’d benched him and then cut him over the phone. He felt disillusioned. He planned to become a high school pastor and join his father, Larry, as a full-time restaurateur. “I couldn’t find a fault in his reasoning,” says Moore.
After three days, Foles left that idyllic setting at peace with his decision. But as he drove back toward civilization his phone regained service, and among the barrage of texts he’d missed was a note from Andy Reid, who’d coached Foles for one year with the Eagles before moving on to lead the Chiefs. Reid complimented Foles’s abilities and referenced his own experience: being pushed out of Philly, the transition, the unknown. “You have a lot of great football left in you,” he wrote.
When Foles called his father at midnight, Larry wondered whether his son was O.K. “Dad, I’m going to Kansas City,” Nick said. “I’m going to play for Andy.”
I Thought This Was The Offseason?
Monday: Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia named head coach of the Lions.
Tuesday: The Colts announced a press conference to name Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels the head coach. Eight hours later, McDaniels reneged on his verbal agreement to coach the Colts, re-opening the Indianapolis coaching search … Carolina placed interim GM Marty Hurney on paid leave during the interview process for a permanent GM after it was revealed there is an NFL investigation ongoing into charges of harassment by Hurney’s ex-wife.
Wednesday: The Texas Rangers traded Russell Wilson to the New York Yankees for future considerations, but Wilson says he’s not about to try two sports at once—the former Rockies’ minor-league infielder will spend a few days in Yankee camp to fulfill a lifelong dream of wearing the pinstripes.
Thursday: Niners made Jimmy Garoppolo, who has started seven NFL games, the highest-paid player in NFL history at $27.5 million per year … The Eagles lost ace quarterback coach John DeFilippo to Minnesota, where he will be offensive coordinator.
Friday: Colts GM Chris Ballard interviewed Doug Pederson’s right-hand man, Philadelphia offensive coordinator Frank Reich, for the head-coaching job in Indianapolis … The Lions gave GM Bob Quinn a five-year contract extension … The Boston Herald reports that Tom Brady will skip OTAs unless he gets a monstrous raise from his $14-million scheduled salary in 2018. The paper soon realized the writer of the story, Ron Borges, had been duped by a texter claiming to be Brady’s agent, Don Yee. The paper apologized for the story and suspended “Borges’ column,” whatever that means.
Sunday: On pins/needles, waiting for Colts coaching decision to come down. By early afternoon, Reich has the job. ... Later in the day, news breaks about 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster being arrested on suspicion of domestic violence. (More on this in 10 Things.)
Interesting week. Make it stop.
Quotes of the Week
“THIS OFFSEASON, SOME CLOWN NAMED MIKE LOMBARDI TOLD HIM HE WAS THE LEAST QUALIFIED COACH IN THE NFL!!!!!!!!!”
—Eagles center Jason Kelce, stealing the show at the Eagles’ victory parade, defending head coach Doug Pederson by shouting at the top of his lungs at the critics who belittled the Eagles throughout the 2017 season.
Lombardi, a long-time NFL scout who now works for The Ringer, actually said this on Sept. 3: “Everybody knows Pederson isn’t a head coach. He might be less-qualified to coach a team than anyone I’ve seen in my 30-plus years in the NFL.”
A post-tirade Lombardi tweet:
Good for him.
“Sleep has been very, very few.”
—Eagles running back Jay Ajayi, on ESPN “NFL Live” Friday. Ajayi appeared to be in a joyous daze, saying he’d had about four hours of sleep since the Super Bowl. Four hours in four nights? If so, no wonder he forgot a couple of words in there.
“We are done yet. We have more to prove. This is our new norm. This is our new norm, to be playing football in February.”
—Eagles coach Doug Pederson, at the team’s Super Bowl parade.
“Trying to find a game where you’re behind. I couldn’t find one.”
—Bill Belichick, on the field before the Super Bowl, to Doug Pederson, as captured by NFL Films.
“If he’s not the [heir], then that would have been the dumbest move in the history of sports.”
—Former Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, on Sirius XM NFL Radio, on the current coordinator, Josh McDaniels.
“Have the day of your life, all right?”
—Super Bowl ref Gene Steratore to Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles, before the Super Bowl, on an NFL Films wiring. Prescient, Gene.
Said the same kind of thing to Tom Brady, too. And both went out and did it.
“I’ve got bad news for you.”
—Josh McDaniels to Colts GM Chris Ballard on Tuesday night, prefacing a conversation in which McDaniels would pull out of the Indianapolis coaching job, reneging on a verbal agreement to coach the team.
During my two trips to Minnesota this winter (Saints-Vikes playoff game and Super Bowl 52), I ran across this old flyer in Vike PR man Tom West’s office. Five interesting points about this special event in Minneapolis on Sept. 27, 1960, a year before the NFL team in Minneapolis took the field for its first season:
• Admission was $2.50.
• “Vikings” was chosen that day as the nickname of the team. It beat out Chippewas, Miners and Voyageurs.
• Rozelle was 34 years old at the time of this event. Imagine being 34 years old, and being commissioner of the NFL. Roger Goodell seemed young when he got the job in 2006 … and he was 46 when he took office. This was Rozelle’s rookie season. He ended up serving as commissioner 29 years.
• John F. Kennedy was six weeks from being elected president when the event took place.
• In the audience that day: Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman. Still writing and opining 57-and-a-half years later: Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman.
Stat of the Week
The extra-point efficiency in the Super Bowl versus the extra-point efficiency of Baltimore’s Justin Tucker in his six-year NFL career:
Kicker Made Att. Pct. Jake Elliott/Stephen Gostkowski, SB 52 4 6 .667 Justin Tucker, 6 years (including playoffs) 228 228 1.000
Factoids That May Interest Only Me
North Korean athletes in the Winter Olympics: 22.
North Korean cheerleaders in the Winter Olympics: 230.
I don’t know what that means. It’s just weird.
This is the task new Lions coach Matt Patricia faces in making the Lions a January threat, like the team he’s just left in New England:
• Detroit has played two home playoff games in the past 60 seasons.
• I was six months old when the Lions won their last NFL title, in 1957. Since then, they’ve won one playoff game.
• The Lions are on a nine-game playoff losing streak. Average loss: 16.9 points.
• Playoff wins since Jan. 10, 1992: New England 30, Detroit 0.
Remember that Kyrie Irving-Isaiah Thomas trade last summer? The big trade between Boston and Cleveland? Thomas ended up playing 15 games as a Cavalier. Cavs’ record with Thomas on the floor: 7-8.
Tweets of the Week
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think I’ve got five thoughts about the Niners making Jimmy Garoppolo the highest-paid player in NFL history:
a. It’s not insane. All of you who kill Washington for passing on the chance to get Kirk Cousins signed after his first year of good play, remember this: If you want to sign a quarterback long-term, a quarterback who has shown some flashes of greatness but not a lot, you’re going to have to overpay to get a long deal done. Why would Garoppolo sign for somewhere in the $22-million or so range when he could just play for the franchise tag now and, with a great 2018, make the Niners pay $33 million next year?
b. He’s worth it. He’ll prove it. Every time he’s taken the field, in all seven starts, Garoppolo has shown over and over again that he has the stuff to be a premier player. Eight or 10 series is one thing. Ninety series, or however many he’s played, is a pretty good indicator of future success.
c. Smart move by agent Don Yee getting this done. The reason Yee does well for his clients and doesn’t care what the outside world says can be illustrated with the contract of Tom Brady and Garoppolo. Brady, relatively speaking, is grossly underpaid at what he’s due to make for the next two years—$15 million per. But Brady doesn’t care. He specifically has not wanted to take the last dollar, preferring the Patriots spend the money elsewhere on other players. Yee has done what his client wanted, and I’m sure it’s at the cost of losing some prospective clients who think Yee doesn’t maximize value for Brady. In the Jimmy G case, Yee got an inexperienced quarterback the biggest contract in the 98-year history of the NFL. Now, that will be eclipsed 10 or 15 minutes from now, but still, Yee played this one right too—the same way he has played Brady right over the years.
d. Finally, smart move by the Niners. They had to know they’d be bashed by some for paying so much to a guy with seven starts. But how smart does San Francisco EVP of football operations/cap guy Paraag Marathe look in making this contract a front-loaded deal in the year the club has $100 million in cap room? Making the first year of the deal $37 million in cap costs (per Schefter) means that over the next four years, the average cap hit for the Niners will be $22.6 million. And barring a crumbling of the cap number in future years, that means the Niners after this season (when they can most afford it) will never devote more than 12 percent of their salary cap to the starting quarterback between 2019 and 2022. Considering that the typical franchise quarterback eats up closer to 15 percent of the cap, it’s a forward-looking move by Marathe.
e. You don’t always have to have a winner and a loser in contracts. But I think both sides won big … Garoppolo because he’s getting paid like a great player when he hasn’t proven sustained greatness yet, and the team because the contract won’t cripple it, no matter how well Garoppolo plays. The only way the Niners lose is if Garoppolo stinks or is somewhere in the 20 to 25 range among starting quarterbacks. Not likely.
2. I think there was a reason so many teams thought Reuben Foster was fool’s good in the 2017 draft—and why the Niners, who loved the Alabama linebacker so much they’d have taken him third overall if all their other plans failed, are lucky they also were able to land Solomon Thomas at the top of the draft. As it was, they took Foster number 31, and celebrated to have gotten him there. Foster reportedly was arrested in a domestic violence case Sunday in California. That follows his diluted sample for marijuana at the combine last year, a pair of concerning shoulder injuries—one before the draft, and one after—and now, in addition to the domestic violence case, he reportedly was charged with possession of an assault rifle. If these charges prove true, Foster will be in danger of 49ers discipline as well as the NFL’s. The Niners have drawn a hard line on domestic violence since the Ray McDonald issues three years ago. Foster’s a great player, but it might be somewhere else now if he’s run afoul of the law in California.
3. I think the football world lost a great man Friday with the death of former college coach and Dallas Cowboys scout Jim Garrett, the father of Jason Garrett. What an intelligent man. Everything about him involved education. He preached it, on all subjects, not just football. An invaluable resource to me and so many others over the last couple of decades, Garrett had Jerry Jones’ ear as one of his most trusted advisers. I’ll never forgot covering the Cowboys’ 2002 draft, when Jones allowed me to sit in on draft meetings as the Cowboys finalized their draft board. I was in the room for two days, sitting next to Garrett. Every player who came up, Garrett knew so many things from memory. Quentin Jammer (a Dallas favorite)—I swear Garrett knew his middle-school tackle stats. It was uncanny. Jones loved picking his brain. The other thing about Garrett: He never wasted anyone’s time. When it was his time to give an opinion, it was almost like he was a network color analyst. Brevity was crucial. But information was king, and the room fell silent when he spoke. I could even overlook how devoted he was to the Yankees. Quite literally, unless he was on the road scouting, he did not miss an inning of a Yankee telecast. What a loss for football. Scores of people, inside and outside the Cowboys and his family, will miss him dearly.
4. I think it would be smart to change the rules about coach-hiring with men still in the playoffs. But here’s my issue: In the McDaniels case, don’t you think he would be having the same second thoughts after the Super Bowl had he been signed by the Colts or not? If he’s not all in, and it’s clear he wasn’t, it’s a ripped BandAid now but it’s better to have a guy who truly wants to be there. This is in no way to clear McDaniels, who deserves major scorn for pulling out of a verbal deal. It’s simply to say allowing coaches to sign while their team is still playing would not have stopped McDaniels from second-guessing his decision.
5. I think, for those who asked, I forget to include my ballot last week in this column from the Pro Football Hall of Fame voting. Our ballots are not made public, but we can do with them what we wish after the meeting. The way the voting works: There are 15 modern-era finalists and a combination of three finalists in the Contributor and Senior categories. We discuss the Contributor (Bobby Beathard) and Senior (Robert Brazile, Jerry Kramer) candidates first, then vote yes or no on them. Each must get 80 percent yes votes to make it. Then, we discuss the 15 modern-era finalists. We vote for our top 10, and then the top 10 vote-getters are told to us, and then we vote for our top five among the final 10. Once the five leading vote-getters determined, the selection committee (47 voters were at the Feb. 3 meeting in Bloomington, Minn.), votes yes or no on those five finalists. A rundown of how I voted:
• Contributor: Yes on Beathard.
• Senior: Yes on Brazile, yes on Kramer.
• Modern-Era: Cut to 10: Yes on Boselli, Dawkins, Law, Lynch, Lewis, Mawae, Moss, Owens, Urlacher, Walls. Eliminated Bruce, Faneca, Hutchinson, Jacoby, James.
• Cut to five: Yes on Boselli, Dawkins, Lewis, Moss, Owens. Thought long and hard about eliminating Urlacher there, and it came down to my enthusiasm for Boselli’s case.
• Modern-era final votes: Yes on Dawkins, Lewis, Moss, Owens, Urlacher.
6. I think I’ve got to hand it to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk. He kept saying in the 48 hours before Josh McDaniels dropped out of the Indy job that there were rumblings McDaniels wouldn’t take the job. Nine days before the Super Bowl, Albert Breer called me and said he heard rumblings that McDaniels was waffling on taking the job. I checked it out. I thought it was wrong. I thought about writing something on the order of There are stories out there that McDaniels might jilt the Colts, but in the end I decided not to, because then I’m giving what might be spurious rumors legs. During Super Bowl week, I kept my ears open, and kept hearing McDaniels was solid in Indianapolis. The Patriots thought he was gone. They still thought he was gone walking out of the stadium after the Super Bowl loss to the Eagles. And, as I wrote on Tuesday night, McDaniels drove to Gillette Stadium that morning to clean out his office and prepare for his next life in central Indiana. If Kraft and Belichick didn’t recruit him hard on Tuesday, there’s a very good chance he’d be Colts coach Josh McDaniels today. But he’s not. To the victor goes the spoils, and Florio was the media victor in this story.
7. I think, in the end, this was about McDaniels feeling high regard and respect from Belichick and Robert Kraft for the first time, and about feeling he’d rather cast his lot with Robert Kraft over Jim Irsay, and about being just a bit unsure about the long-term health of Andrew Luck.
8. I think, by the way, I heard something very interesting about Luck on Wednesday: McDaniels walking away from the Colts has given Luck a shot of motivational adrenaline that he didn’t have before Tuesday. Not that it’s going to make him work extra hard in rehab from his shoulder injury. But that every time the Colts play the Patriots (starting in 2018, assuming Luck is healthy enough to play), it’s going to be a mega-game for Luck. This basically is along the lines of, So you decided we weren’t good enough for you? Okay. We’ll see what happens when we meet again.
9. I think I didn’t spend much time in the wake of the Super Bowl thinking about the officiating, with everything else that happened. So I asked a guy I respect a lot, Ben Austro, editor-in-chief of the officiating site Football Zebras, to review the game within a game by Gene Steratore and his crew. His analysis:
“I thought Gene Steratore worked a fantastic game, and his crew of Super Bowl veterans showed exactly why they were selected. It wasn't a perfect outing—such a game, it can be argued, may never occur—but the officials allowed the players to play through and dictate the game. With the season replete with officiating and replay controversies, this game for the third team was a good note to end on. There was really more drama than there should have been with the replay reviews on two touchdowns by the Eagles. The go-ahead touchdown by Zach Ertz is the textbook example of how a receiver transitions to a runner to finish the catch process, and is consistent with the legacy language of the rules to ‘perform an act common to the game.’
“I understand the need to have a stop-down review for a Super Bowl touchdown, but there seemed to be much more deliberation between Steratore and Al Riveron, who was in the replay decision seat. There was a little more equivocation on the touchdown catch by Corey Clement earlier in the third quarter, and I think if we set aside the replay decisions of the 2017 regular season, this call undeniably stands. The ball movement in Clement's hands is certainly cause for a closer look, but there is nothing that shows a conclusive loss of control. Is this catch reversed in the regular season? There are certainly several examples of similar calls where ball control was ruled from the regular season — many fans will point to those that coincidentally benefited the Patriots. I have a sense that Riveron and his replay deputy Russell Yurk recalibrated the evidence standards at the start of the playoffs. They could not do that in the middle of the regular season, but there was an opportunity to do so when everybody was reset to a 0-0 record.
“The other point of controversy was the formation on the ‘Philly Special,’ the touchdown pass to quarterback Nick Foles. Foles shifted from a shotgun formation to a pseudo-H-back position and sets for a full second. Whenever the offense presents a shift, the formation must be legal before and after the shift. The point of contention was whether wideout Alshon Jeffery was too far off the line, as the offense must have a minimum of seven players on the line … In this case, Jeffrey apparently got the thumbs up from veteran line judge Byron Boston, the margin of noncompliance was less than a yard, the reference point (the snapper's belt) is about 20 yards away from Jeffrey, and he was matched up by a Patriots defender. This all adds up that there was no deceptive practice and no advantage leveraged by the offense, therefore the best call is to hold the flag.”
10. I think these are my thoughts of the week:
a. Profile of the Week: I missed this on my column last week, but it’s utterly terrific. From Steve Marsh of MplsStPaul magazine, a great story on 97-year-old Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman. Did you know Hartman was the GM and architect of the Minneapolis Lakers, who won NBA titles in the fifties before moving the Los Angeles? There’s more in here. It’s a good read.
b. The 2018 Gerber baby has Down’s Syndrome. That is a great job by Gerber.
c. Sports story of the Week: by Bob Klapisch, a journalistic free agent writing for the New York Post, on former Mets player and manager Bud Harrelson, who has Alzheimer’s Disease.
d. TV Reporting of the Week: by David Begnaud of CBS News, showing how a terrible decision by FEMA to award a meal-delivery contract to a tiny company in Atlanta led to only 50,000 of an expected 30 million meals being delivered to Puerto Rico after last fall’s hurricane. Excellent reporting by Begnaud, leading to this question: How stupid was FEMA to give such a humongous contract to such a tiny company?
e. You look small in griping about the flag-carrying-selection process, Shani Davis.
f. Keep talking, Aly Raisman.
g. Miss you, Bob Costas …
h. … But you are doing great at the Costas traffic-cop/tour-guide/info role, Mike Tirico.
i. Show more curling, NBC.
j. Happy 84th birthday, Bill Russell.
k. Coffeenerdness: Teanerdness this week, trying to recover from some sort of head cold, a gift from being stupidly rundown at the Super Bowl. I bought some Mint Majesty loose tea at Teavana, along with an infuser, and have been brewing my tail off for six days. Add a teaspoon of honey, the hard stuff that melts into the boiling tea, and it’s been refreshing to drink three or four times a day to add to my hydration, drink something warm, and hopefully ward off anything worse.
l. Congratulations to Larry Fitzgerald for winning the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am over the weekend, the first professional athlete since Dan Marino in 1988 to win the event.
m. I actually liked Colleen Wolfe doing that Cardi B song on NFL Network during the Eagles parade. It was during a commercial break, but those rascals in the control room played it back when they returned to air.
n. Reminds me of the time, on the ancient CNN NFL Preview show 20 years ago, when I was on the field in Buffalo before a game, sang along with the guy practicing the Canadian National Anthem that late morning while we were in a break and when we came back, my very good friends at CNN replayed me singing the anthem and standing on guard for thee. Wish I still had that.
o. Man, I want so much not to be sick.
The Adieu Haiku
The Pats singled Ertz.
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