KANSAS CITY — Royals outfielder Whit Merrifield, the reigning American League hits leader, is a buddy of Patrick Mahomes. When Mahomes bought a chunk of the baseball team that plays across the parking lot from Arrowhead Stadium, the new owner sent his All-Star employee a cute text. So it seemed logical to ask Merrifield (via Zoom, of course) what his friend Mahomes would be facing, along with his teammates, in the most unusual season they’d ever play.
“You miss that jolt from the fans, of course. You miss that roar when you hit a double in the eighth inning to help your team, and you’re standing on second . . . and that big roar’s not there,” Merrifield said from the Royals clubhouse the other day, before playing a doubleheader against the Reds. Lots of doubleheaders these days. This one was made necessary—as have so many in baseball—because of a positive test for COVID-19 by a member of the Reds.
I went to game one of that twinbill (more about that later) and saw the strangest baseball game I’ve ever seen. In the third inning, Alex Gordon of the Royals hit a fly ball to left-center, and Reds center fielder Shogo Akiyama waved off the left fielder. From about 320 feet away, in an open-air press box, in the hear-a-pin-drop-silence of the stadium, I heard Akiyama yell: “IGOTIT-IGOTIT-IGOTIT!” Weird. It’ll be slightly different for Mahomes’ team, with Kansas City announcing last week it would allow 22 percent of seats to be sold for the season opener Sept. 10 against Houston, with no determination made on attendance for future games. But KC is one of only four NFL teams as of this morning to commit to allowing some fans to attend games this year, so the sounds of silence (or silence with limited phony crowd noise, as baseball is doing) will be common in many NFL venues.
“I mean, it beats the alternative,” Merrifield told me, meaning fanless games are better than no games. “The game is the same, but . . . I’m a golf fan. You see Justin Thomas drain that 50-foot putt [in July at Muirfield]? You expect this big crowd reaction, but no one’s there. You try not to let it affect your performance. But it’s a mental challenge you’ve never faced before.”
I wondered if Merrifield, a month into the MLB experiment of powering through a somnambulant season, had any advice for his football friends.
“Well, it sucks, but the more you bitch about it, the worse it’ll be,” he said. “We’ve got a saying in our clubhouse:
“Embrace the suck.”
This column is not going to be much more about the influence of attendance, or lack thereof, on NFL games this fall. We’ll have time to consider that. I did think that because of the oddness of the sports games we’re seeing, and the guerilla attacks of COVID on the MLB season and the potential of that in football, Merrifield’s take about the effect of an empty park on players was compelling. So there it is. At some point or points this year, teams will have to manufacture the emotion that normally would come from a full house of crazies. “If a team’s out of it, and no one’s in the stands, and that team has to manufacture the emotion you need in a football game, who knows?” said Chiefs GM Brett Veach.
This is more about the defending Super Bowl champs, what I saw in two padded practices last week, what I heard from their key people and what I think of their chances to beat back the Ravens and Niners and Titans and whatever surprise teams there will be in a COVID-plagued season that I increasingly think will be played in full. In brief:
• I liked the spirit of the team and the needed depth at receiver. As we all saw last year, Mahomes’ weaponry is deep, and it needs to be.
• Football Mahomes spent time during a mostly homebound offseason in a new home he bought in Dallas. What’d he do to get better? He studied tape, “trying to diagnose defenses even quicker,” he said.
• Life Mahomes is quite mature for a 24-year-old man who already has won the trifecta of NFL stardom: the MVP, the Super Bowl MVP, the huge contract. I asked him about signing the biggest deal in NFL history, the $472-million pact putting him in the LeBron/Trout/Mookie stratosphere. “For me,” Mahomes said, “it was about building generational wealth, wealth for my kids and my kids’ kids.” Generational wealth. Who says that at 24? When Andy Reid says of Mahomes, “He just gets it,” that’s precisely what he’s talking about.
• Draft Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the first round of your fantasy draft. Believe me, you’ll thank me for that tip on the LSU rookie.
• With sun occasionally reflecting off his coronavirus-protective face shield like a popping flashbulb, Reid looked very into the work of repeating his first Super Bowl title, and sounded a little feisty. “He’s just as energetic as when I first met him [in 2004], working with the Eagles,” Veach said. “Maybe more.”
• The continuity thing is big here. All but two of 22 starters return (though cornerback Bashaud Breeland is here, he’s suspended for the first four games for an NFL rules violation), and 21 of 22 coaches are back. I saw QB coach Mike Kafka showing Mahomes some mechanical tweak about handoffs on the sidelines, Mahomes nodding and soaking it in. To me, those almost imperceptible things show the respect of players for coaches they’ve gone to battle with, and the importance of 96 percent of them returning. Remember Mahomes coming to the sideline in that desperate moment of the Super Bowl, down 10 with eight minutes left on third-and-15, asking Bieniemy: “Do we have time to run Wasp?” They did. The 44-yard heave to Tyreek Hill turned the game around, 2-3 Jet Wasp ended up on T-shirts throughout the Midwest, and the rest is history. Kafka, Bieniemy, Reid, architects of the offense that put up 51, 35 and 31 points in the postseason—all still here. “They think as one mind,” Mahomes told me.
• Concerning desire . . . I can’t see guys like Tyrann Mathieu, 2019’s instant defensive leader, getting fat and happy now that he’s got a ring. Scene from 1-on-1 WR-DB competition Thursday: Wideout Demarcus Robinson ran an eight-yard curl on Mathieu. As the pass got near Robinson, Mathieu powered through him and deflected the pass away. “Woooo!” Matthieu yelled, jumping up and making the “incomplete” motion with his hands.
“It’ll be a special team,” Mahomes said.
Two newsy things I saw at the two practices: a very heavy dose of Edwards-Helaire, who played with the sensational Joe Burrow at LSU last year and now fortunately upgrades to Mahomes. Edwards-Helaire will start and should be an impact player from day one. Also, the dangerous Tyreek Hill looked like he tweaked a groin muscle Thursday on a go route, sprinting for a deep pass. He went inside after that, and still wasn’t practicing Saturday. I hear he’ll be back this week and it’s not serious. But groin and hamstring tweaks are worries with a finely tuned athlete like Hill, so we’ll see how he responds. The Thursday night opener against Houston is 17 days away. This is why depth at receiver is so vital and why, honestly, the Chiefs were seriously considering drafting Alabama speedster Henry Ruggs in April if he plummeted in round one; instead, he went 12th overall to the Raiders. Gluttonous? Maybe. But for Reid and Veach, the idea that you can’t have enough speed is not a cliché.
Regarding Edwards-Helaire, check out the first four plays of 11-on-11 practice Wednesday:
• Mahomes handed to Edwards-Helaire, through the right guard-tackle hole.
• Mahomes handed to Edwards-Helaire, around left end.
• Mahomes handed to Edwards-Helaire, over right guard.
• Mahomes handed to Edwards-Helaire, over right tackle.
On Thursday, Edwards-Helaire was back in the same spotlight. First three snaps of an 11-on-11 period, all handoffs to him. He ran a wheel route out of the backfield, Mahomes threw it slightly behind him, and the kid caught it in stride, one-handed, and headed upfield like he’d done this a thousand times before. Built low to the ground, with powerful-looking legs, sort of like Hunt, Edwards-Helaire could not have been much more impressive in the two practices I saw.
Now, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that Reid’s going to use Edwards-Helaire as a rookie the same way Reid used Hunt as a rookie in 2017. Hunt touched it 325 times (remember his 246-yards-from-scrimmage demolition of the Patriots on opening night in Foxboro?) in that rookie season, winning the rushing title and becoming an instant threat in the passing game too. But this is practice, scripted from start to finish; maybe this is two days of getting timing down with Edwards-Helaire. But I doubt it’s just that. I say he’ll be a stud, a prime candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year. He appears a confident and sure runner who can make people miss, a better runner between the tackles than a 5-8, 209-pound guy should be, and a smooth and assured receiver. Veach told me: “He’s on pace to have a big year, to be our primary ballcarrier.”
Watching practice reinforced what I thought of Reid’s playbook with all these toys. One play can have so many tributaries, as I saw on two straight snaps Wednesday. First: Tight end Jason Kelce tight to the formation right, with Mecole Hardman, Hill and Demarcus Robinson all spread right, and Edwards-Helaire in motion almost to the right sideline . . . five receivers to Mahomes’ right. Mahomes overthrew a deep ball. Second: Hardman-Hill-Robinson in a tight bunch to the right, Hill at the tip of the triangle; Hardman and Robinson shimmied at the line, there was some defensive confusion, and Hill blew past Breeland. This time, Mahomes’ deep ball was perfect. Touchdown.
Mindful of so much from the playoffs last winter. On KC’s final 26 non-kneeldown possessions of the 2019 postseason, Mahomes drove to score 16 touchdowns and two field goals . . . 117 points in 11 quarters.
That’s a lot. That’s 39.0 points per game.
So much of that comes from matchup problems created by blinding speed and a great tight end, and running backs with multiplicity. Aaron Rodgers has to watch this team and dream. Or mourn.
Reviewing the Mahomes offseason, and previewing the future, has to start with 2-3 Jet Chip Wasp. I said to Mahomes via videoconference the 44-yard throw to Hill reminded me a little of the 38-yard Eli Manning drop into the bucket to Mario Manningham down the left sideline in the second Super Bowl win over the Patriots, down by three and backed up with four minutes to play.
“Mine wasn’t as good as Eli’s throw,” Mahomes said. “Eli’s throw was money, right on the sideline. On ours, Tyreek ran a heck of a route where he was able to run across the safety’s face and then back towards the pylon. I was just able to put it out there far enough. We were able to change the momentum of the game and then find a way to get a touchdown.”
There’s a good chance Mahomes, who threw two ugly interceptions and had nothing going for 50 minutes in this game, would have been the goat if the Niners hung on to win 20-10. But great players, truly great players, forget crushing moments and make magical ones. “The biggest thing is I’ll be able to have that memory forever with my brothers, with the guys I went through the adversity of finding a way to win together,” he said. “It’s a big moment that will live on in Chiefs Kingdom forever.”
“How often in the offseason did someone mention 2-3 Jet Chip Wasp?” I asked.
“Dude, it was a ton of people!” he said. “They were making T-shirts! Hats, merchandise, memorabilia!”
[Andy Reid interlude: Maybe 80 minutes after the Super Bowl ended, I was in Andy Reid’s coach’s office in Miami. I asked him to tell me the name of the play and to draw it for me. He was reticent. I said NFL Films or someone will get you to do it, and it’s going to be in Canton one day. Why not let me show the play, and name it, in Football Morning in America in a few hours? All right, he said. “2-3 Jet Chip Wasp,” he called it, and drew a receiver (Hill), in his KC red marker, sprinting at the Niners’ safety and cutting to the left pylon. (Read the full article here.)
“Heck of a play,” he said last week. “Now everybody knows it, because you put it out there. But that’s okay. I did get a free shirt for it.”]
Mahomes got to golf at Pebble Beach in California and Bandon Dunes in Oregon before life shut down in March. “The only big thing that I couldn’t do was work out at the gym that I work out at all the time,” he said. “I had to find ways to work out at home. At first, I was in an Airbnb, so we were ordering the resistance bands, and doing pushups and pullups on whatever you can find. It was just the old-school workout: running around the neighborhood with a mask on and doing everything like that. Then I was able to buy a house in Dallas. When I bought a house in Dallas it had a weight room and we had the full set-up.”
Mahomes got politically active too, outraged by the George Floyd murder, playing a starring role in the Michael Thomas Goodell-call-to-action video that woke up the league, partnering with LeBron James and other luminaries in an effort to fight voter suppression, and almost accidentally becoming the team’s NFLPA union rep.
His goal, Mahomes said, in becoming more socially active than most superstar quarterbacks was “don’t let this moment be forgotten, what happened throughout this offseason. Football’s obviously super-important but helping out the world is more important and we’re gonna try and do that every single day. I think the biggest thing for me to be a part of that video was that obviously I love football but I love trying to make the world a better place even more. I think growing up how I’ve grown up, and having a black dad and a white mom, I never was treated any differently. I feel like no one should be treated any differently, no matter where they come from. I know that with my platform that I have the ability to speak out and people will listen. People will at least listen to what I’m saying. They might not agree with everything that I’m saying but they’re gonna listen. I think having that platform . . . it’s my job and my duty to speak up.”
Kansas City’s a pretty conservative place. I can’t imagine all the people who love this team will love its quarterback saying “Black Lives Matter,” and working so hard for associated causes.
“I mean there’s gonna be people either way,” Mahomes told me. “I’ve noticed that throughout my whole life and I’ve had a great perspective throughout my whole life of seeing my dad play in New York on the Mets. They’re writing bad things about him or people are booing him, and then knowing how to have thick skin and not listening to that, really just understanding what type of person and player that I am, knowing where my values are and how much I care about people more than I care about playing on Sundays. I’m going to go out there and be the best person that I am every single day. Hopefully I have the support of all the fans that have been with me since the beginning. If I don’t, then those fans weren’t true fans of Patrick Mahomes—they were just fans of what I did on the football field. I really respect the people that whether they have the same beliefs with me or not, they’re gonna support me for the person that I am every single day.”
The contract was an ongoing process, negotiated for 18 months before the July 6 announcement. True: Mahomes almost certainly could have made more money (sick as it sounds) than $477 million over 12 years if he signed a shorter deal now and hit the jackpot twice more between now and 2031. Instead, he made two team-friendly decisions that were mindful of the money Tom Brady bypassed over the years in New England so the Patriots could keep more of their own free-agents and shop for others. He chose to help the Chiefs through tight cap times in the next two years, taking up $30.1 million total over those two years when the team needed to sign vets like Chris Jones. And he chose a deal that averages $32.6 million in the first seven years with a 2026 cap number of $41.95 million—likely to be nowhere near the top of the QB class six years from now.
“Every last dime was not that important to Patrick,” Veach said, “but having a chance to win every year was. He was committed to getting this done, committed to Kansas City. He’s so mature—he gets the big picture. He knows, also, that his ability to make money off the field in the next few years is endless.”
Mahomes wants to invest in other ventures—maybe an NBA team—and is determined to be a champion of local causes in Kansas City too.
One more thing about Mahomes that is Brady-reminiscent: Players want to play on his team. In 2007, Randy Moss told the Patriots in effect: I don’t care what you pay me. Just get me to New England. The Patriots traded a fourth-round pick to pry him from the Raiders, and Moss responded with a league-record 23-receiving-touchdown season, and the Patriots went 16-0. The addition of Kelechi Osemele is not in the same league, but Chiefs needed a guard after Laurent Duvernay-Tardif opted out because of the virus. Osemele, a 2016 all-pro guard with career earnings of $50.9 million, signed for a pittance: one year, $1.19 million. “No way he does that unless he’s playing with a quarterback like Patrick,” said one Chiefs source.
Then came the piece of ownership in the Royals—less than 5 percent, I hear. Mahomes wants to invest in other ventures (maybe an NBA team) and is determined to be a champion of local causes in Kansas City too. He wants to be a different kind of athlete, with investments all over the civic and sporting map. But the Royals investment was borne out of love too. His dad Pat Mahomes was a 12-year MLB veteran, and young Patrick grew up in major-league clubhouses. Alex Rodriguez gave him batting lessons in Texas in 2001, when Patrick was 5 going on 6.
Today, Patrick Mahomes misses baseball. He doesn’t long for it and think, Maybe one day. But he does love the game. “I wanted to do something to be a part of baseball,” he said. “I thought the best way to do that without making everyone in the Chiefs organization mad was to be on the ownership side of it.” That led to more advice from the best player on the Royals.
“Failure is so much a part of baseball,” Mahomes’ buddy Merrifield told me. “He’s pretty good at football. It’s great that he loves it—great for our team and for our city to have him be part of the ownership. But I would strongly encourage him to keep his day job.”
Back to the practice field. Reid, with the combo eyeglasses/plastic shield covering his lower forehead to below his chin, walks over toward the weight room on the far side of the practice complex. He sees a laggard.
“HEY!” he yelled. “We working over there or we talking?! Everyone over here’s working. Over there, you’re talking. LET’S GO!!!”
Back to work for Reid, in his 22nd head-coaching season. The Super Bowl ring was the donut hole in Andy Reid’s coaching résumé. Early in his 21st head-coaching season, he passed the great Chuck Noll to move into sixth place on the all-time coaching list. There was still a “Yeah but” to Reid’s coaching life. I’ve known him since 1995, and I’ve never heard him talk about or feel like not winning the big one tormented him. But as a coaching lifer, how could it not? Now I asked him, “Has your life changed even a little bit by winning one?”
“Well not much,” he said. “Not much. Not much. I still love cheeseburgers.”
The cheeseburger thing is Reid’s go-to chuckle line. If he ate as many as he talked about, his cholesterol would be 9,000. But it gets a laugh, and he sure does seem like a cheeseburger guy. There were those who thought Reid, win or lose in Super Bowl 54, was on the 16th green of his career. Two or three years more, probably. Four max. He’s 62. But he doesn’t sound like he’s in the twilight now. “I’m fired up every day I have a chance to do this,” he said. “I love doing what I’m doing. I get to work for the Hunt family, and I’m around great people. I’m gonna keep doing it till I don’t love it, I guess. Or till they kick me out of the building.”
His personnel trustee, Veach, knows why Reid’s not close to the end. “With Patrick,” Veach said, “Coach knows his mind can be creative with no limitations. He’s got a blank canvas and he can draw anything up because his quarterback can execute anything.”
As one person close to Reid illustrated, say he draws up a 2 by 2 alignment, with Hill and Watkins on the right side of the formation, and lesser lights Robinson and Hardman split left. Reid figures the safety will shade to the Hill/Watkins side, and if he rolls Mahomes right, there’s a good chance either Hardman or Robinson (or both) will have daylight far to Mahomes’ left. So with Hill and Watkins covered, what to do? Reid trusts Mahomes’ arm and judgment so much that he’s not afraid for him to throw back across the formation to one of his receivers on the left side, even though the book says don’t throw back across the formation.
Reid’s got a quarterback who can make the unlikely happen. Why leave?
The coach, though, is realistic about the prospects to repeat, even with every key player and coach back to try. “We were behind in the playoffs every game last season,” he said. True: Kansas City trailed Houston by 24, Tennessee by seven, San Francisco by 10. But with a great quarterback, you’re never out of it. The Chiefs will be strong contenders to win the Super Bowl this year, and likely for years to come.
But this year, whoever wins the Super Bowl will have to traverse a weird path. Coaches have no idea of the obstacles now, because the virus very likely will dictate them.
At the start of training camp, before the players arrived, Reid gathered his coaches for a preseason meeting. He looked out at the 20 men, all masked, in the room, and suddenly thought of something. “Oh my gosh,” he thought to himself. “Everybody here has a mask on. This is, like, incredible.” Reid forbids phones in all meetings, but he asked if anyone in the room had a phone. The man who needed it, director of team operations Mitch Reynolds, was the only one to raise his hand. Reid told Reynolds to come up to the front of the room, and to take a group photo of the coaches.
“No one else will have it but you guys,” Reid told the coaches. “Save it. Save it for your grandkids. Show them this photo—show them what we went through. This is a very unique time.”
NASHVILLE — While in Tennessee, I interviewed the NFL’s chief medical officer, Allen Sills (he lives there) at his home. While we were getting ready, we discussed how important it is that the NFL gets this right and plays this season. We certainly could go on as a society without football this fall, though it’s my feeling it would be a blow to so many for whom pro football is a central focus in life from the second weekend of September to the first weekend of February. And it’s a little self-important for NFL people to think the country’s going to fall apart if the games aren’t played this season, or if it’s seasonus interruptus.
But that’s not really the point, or at least what the point should be. The point, I believe, is we all want to get back to some semblance of normal as a country, even as the death toll for the virus passed an unthinkable 175,000 over the weekend. The NFL has an estimated $9 billion in revenue (mostly from TV contracts) on the line to play an uninterrupted, complete season, and so obviously league executives are doing everything reasonably possible to make playing happen. How discouraging it would be, and what a terrible omen it would be, for the opening of schools and businesses and theaters and universities if such a rich organization as the NFL couldn’t make it.
Sills is a safe and clinical interview. He won’t make predictions; he knows with this disease changing courses so often, it’s silly to make absolute statements about it. When we first sat down, and before we started our taped interview, Sills was impassioned about the importance of getting this right—for the country.
“For me,” a masked Sills said, “this is about much more than football. This virus isn’t going away in the next few weeks or months. Even with the vaccines and therapeutics, it’s going to get better, but we’re still going to need to learn to co-exist. The question is, the challenge is, how can we reinvent and reimagine the things we enjoy doing and do them in a way that’s safer and/or compatible with mitigating risk? To me, that’s not just an NFL question. It a question for schools, and for entertainment, for the country.
“In my heart of hearts, that’s why I think what we’re doing is important. Medically it’s important to say—not to say it isn’t a big deal, of course. In our country, it’s always been about solving problems. How can we meet this challenge and move forward with our lives? Let’s marshal our resources, let’s marshal our creative resources. The NFL’s a little bit at the tip of that spear. I don’t mean to say we’re the most important. You know what I mean?
“I hope people are pulling for us to succeed, because if we can’t, who can? If we can’t do it, I mean, then that’s a really . . .”
“That’s a bad sign.”
NFL testing for COVID-19 is far from perfect, and that was illustrated Sunday with the report that a sharp increase in positive tests all emanated from one laboratory in New Jersey. The NFL put out a statement Sunday that the league was investigating the results with its testing partner, BioReference. Several teams delayed or cancelled practices while the league looked into the matter. For most of a month, the NFL quietly preened as its testing numbers got better and better—until this one testing lab turned up 77 positive tests on 11 teams, creating the mayhem that dominated Sunday’s news. Just proves one point: In the age of COVID, you can never get too comfortable with positive results—there’s a nightmare just around the corner.
“It’s taken twists and turns we haven’t foreseen,” Sills said. “We’ll have to continue to be flexible and adaptable. That’s the two words everyone hears me say all the time. Things will change. The protocols we have today will not be the same protocols in a month or two months. We’ve already amended them somewhat. That will happen throughout the course of our season. This will be an NFL season that is not like any other NFL season.”
Sills disagreed with me, mildly, when I told him I heard that Roger Goodell will (practically) stop at nothing to get this season played. “I believe the commissioner is determined to try to do this in the safest possible way. . . . He does believe it’s important, showing we can live with this virus. But I also know that he’s absolutely driven by the medical facts. I don’t think there’s this idea that we’re just going to play football. . . . He constantly challenges all of us: Are there creative ways that we can move forward and be safe? The draft was a great example of that. Plenty of people said, Cancel the draft, or Never have the draft. A whole lot of other people said, A virtual draft will never work. You can’t have people at their houses doing this Zoom draft. And he really stayed the course, said let’s make this work if we can. What was driving that was, he came to me and said, ‘What do the public health authorities say that we should do?’ He’s incredibly driven to move forward, but only in doing so with what makes sense medically.”
The news release was stark and unmistakable. It hit Twitter at 12:26 p.m. Sunday:
We have terminated S Earl Thomas’ contract for personal conduct that has adversely affected the Baltimore Ravens.
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) August 23, 2020
The facts: On Friday at Ravens practice, starting strong safety Chuck Clark and free safety Earl Thomas had to be separated by teammates and coaches, per Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com. It lasted a while, and they kept trying to get at each other, and a helmet was thrown, and Clark was kicked out of practice with 10 minutes left. Now, training-camp fights are not that strange; they happen every week. I’ve seen a lot of them over the years. Can’t say I’ve seen many fights between two players from the same position group, never mind two starters at the interchangeable safety positions. In fact, I do not recall seeing two players from the same position get into it in camp. It’s potentially cancerous for two guys who have to sit in the same meetings every day. The Ravens, after considering it for the next 36 hours (and after consulting with the team’s veteran players council), fired Thomas on Sunday morning.
So in the span of 23 months, one of the best safeties of his era, a man who will one day get serious consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, has been involved in three untoward incidents. After breaking his leg as a Seattle safety in 2018 in Dallas, he gave Seahawks coach Pete Carroll the finger as he left the field, apparently upset that the team wouldn’t give him a new contract. Last April, his wife was arrested for assault in Texas; TMZ reported she found Earl and his brother in bed with another woman and threatened to shoot Earl in the head. And now the altercation on the Ravens’ practice field with a fellow leader in the secondary.
A few things to know about the Thomas release:
• He was not well-liked by his teammates. He had a pattern of being late, and in a recent practice, he made multiple assignment errors, causing defensive teammates to confront him about his preparedness. He missed at least one walk-through with no valid excuse. When the incident at Friday’s practice happened, very few if any teammates came to his defense. Teammates backed Clark, the significantly lesser name.
• The money will hurt Baltimore—a $15-million cap charge this year and $10 million next year for Thomas to not play for them, unless they win a grievance to get some of the money back.
• The grievance process will be fascinating. The union represents Thomas, but also Chuck Clark—and also the rest of the Ravens who are not on Thomas’ side. What if more comes out about this dispute that shows Clark to clearly be the aggrieved victim, for instance? Can the NFLPA stand up for both Thomas and his apparent sworn enemy? This will be a fascinating case to follow.
For the Seahawks and Ravens to both cut ties with Thomas is notable in the first place. Seattle in noteworthy for looking the other way on problem players. Baltimore less so—but it’s notable that these two teams have been sniffing around problematic free-agent receiver Antonio Brown. In both places, if you can play, you can survive the messes you make. Without question, if this was a one-time event in Baltimore, it’s likely Ravens coach John Harbaugh and GM Eric DeCosta could have dismissed this as a heat-of-battle thing, moved on and made peace. The fact that Thomas got fired Sunday, when he’s still playing top-level safety and the Ravens are serious Super Bowl contenders, says everything you need to know: Thomas was a problem and the Ravens just got tired of it.
Finally, what do these four men have in common: Harbaugh, DeCosta, Carroll and Seattle GM John Schneider? They’re four people at the top of their professions. Schneider and DeCosta are top 10 NFL GMs, Harbaugh and Carroll top 10 NFL coaches. Answer: All four were part of decisions that ridded teams of Earl Thomas.
Could all four be wrong? Doubt it sincerely. Thomas is a great player, and he’ll likely get another chance, soon. (Dallas is interested, per Adam Schefter.) But Baltimore wanted Thomas gone so much that the Ravens were willing to take a disastrous $15-million cap hit by doing it now. Buyer beware with Thomas.
“First-time head coaches, this is more difficult than it’s ever been before … We had 24 practices before our first preseason game, and 50 before our first regular-season game. And these guys are gonna have 14 padded practices before your first regular-season game. I used to have that in 10 days.”
—Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells to Steve Serby of the New York Post, on the difficulties facing rookie Giants head coach Joe Judge and the other first-time head men.
“One of the doctors said it very eloquently: ‘At some point, Coach, you’re going to have to be selfish. Take care of you.’ ”
—Washington coach Ron Rivera, who revealed last week that he is being treated for squamous cell carcinoma, a treatable cancer.
“It’s time to stop labeling. If these guys can play the position, let them play. The only thing you want is to give people an opportunity to be at their best. Russell Wilson—where he came from, being in the league as long as he has, fighting all those stigmas against his height. Watching Lamar Jackson come on, a guy who was a dynamic college football player, and watching him win the Heisman and he’s still doing the same thing at this particular level. Watching [Deshaun] Watson down in Houston. Then, with us having Pat, this has been fun to watch. But all of these guys just want to be labeled as football players.”
—Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, on the great crop of young Black quarterbacks in football.
“Wash your hands. Wear a mask.”
—The famous Sister Jean, of Loyola (Ill) University, made famous by the success of the school’s basketball team in March Madness a couple of years ago, on the occasion of her 101st birthday last week. She was asked what she wanted for her birthday, and she responded with those words for the university community.
“It’s unacceptable the way that I played, and I take full responsibility for it.”
—Denver left tackle Garett Bolles, who has been flagged for holding 32 times in his three NFL seasons and whose future is on the line this year with the Broncos.
Good for Bolles, owning up to lousy play.
With his eighth coaching victory this year (or next, for that matter), Mike Tomlin will pass mentor Tony Dungy as the winningest African-American coach in NFL history.
Current tally (playoff games included):
Dungy: 148 wins in 13 seasons
Tomlin: 141 wins in 13 seasons
Notes from eight days on the road in America, Tampa to Atlanta to Nashville to Kansas City, 916 miles in three chunks of driving a Dodge minivan (not many large vehicle choices at the Tampa airport):
1. Better mask discipline that I’d expected in public spaces in Tampa, but not so much on the road to Atlanta. Two clerks wore them in the gas station on I-75 in Georgia, but no one else in the mini-mart did.
2. Hotel mask discipline: good. Epicurean in Tampa, JW Marriott in Nashville, Fontaine in Kansas City—masks mandatory in the lobby and halls of each. Masks mandatory in the city of Nashville, period. Attaway, Nashville.
3. I love Nashville. Period. Downtown felt comatose on a long walk Monday morning when there should have been some office activity. Seemed like a holiday. Nobody on the streets.
4. Got cash at a Georgia cash machine Saturday because I had none. Spent $55 in next five days—all on tips. The JW Marriott in Nashville was cashless; I had to get change for a $20 at the valet stand there. Seems pretty . . . sudden.
5. Best restaurant name: A Fine Swine, barbeque place in New Baden, Ill. In mourning that A Fine Swine was not open when we passed through. Whoever thought of the A Fine Swine name, you’re hired.
6. Best real restaurant: From my hotel window in Nashville, seven cranes were visible—that city is exploding. But some of the best places are in the neighborhoods. (Reminds me of Seattle in that regard.) In East Nashville, a couple of blocks from where the spring tornado roared through, the Lockeland Table has great pizza and a cool menu, and I didn’t even mind the fly that found my glass of red wine.
7. Titans GM Jon Robinson saw me and Tennessee PR maestro Robbie Bohren chatting at practice. “Hey, six feet!” Robinson said. We’d been maybe three feet apart, and moved, quickly.
8. Had a plank contest in the gym of that JW in Nashville with my producer/videographer on the trip, Annie Koeblitz. Know what a plank is? Get on the ground, lean your full bodyweight on your elbows/forearms and toes; it’s almost a pushup position—except you’re holding it for he longest time that you can. Koeblitz, 29, was a college lacrosse player at Rollins and has run marathons; she’s quite fit. I’m not too fit. But I do work out. I know how insanely competitive Koeblitz is, and so I doubted I’d win it, because we both plank. My career-best: 3 minutes flat. So we started, using my phone as the timer. Got to two minutes. I did everything to not show I was struggling a bit. At about 2:15, she said, her voice wavering a bit, “Hey Peter, how’s it going over there?” I said, “Only got a couple seconds left.” On and on we went. My white plank lie didn’t work. She kept going. About 2:50, I heard sounds of muffled hard breathing from Koeblitz. I was trying to be silent. Could she be weakening? At 3:00, I thought, “She will die before losing to a 63-year-old man.” I went down at 3:05. She followed at 3:07. She seemed quietly triumphant. I was, well, the loser.
9. Coverage in COVID days is interesting. I had one choice for Andy Reid/Patrick Mahomes interviews: Tuesday around 10:30 to 11:30 via videoconference. I was in Nashville. So I connected from room 2310 of the JW, 556 miles away, did the interviews, got in the van, and drove/rode for 8 hours, 47 minutes to get to Kansas City to see Wednesday and Thursday morning practices.
10. Loved the sound guy/DJ manning the music station at Titans practice. He spent much of the practiced staring out at coach Mike Vrabel, who’d make the turn-down-the-volume or turn-it-up motion with his right hand. Some way to make a living, being the sound guy.
11. I could drive everywhere. I love traveling the country in a vehicle. There’s something so cool about crossing the Tennessee, Mississippi and Missouri rivers and passing the Gateway Arch in the span of four hours and just thinking how lovely the country is, and what majestic things these grand rivers are.
12. I got cheeseburger advice from Andy Reid. I did what I was told, and it was good. When in Kansas City, Town-Topic (why the hyphen, I do not know) rocks. Here’s the video:
13. Hotels don’t have pads of paper anymore. I miss that. I guess it’s about doing everything to stop the virus, but to not have paper in the room to write notes, or to leave a note for the housekeeper (how square am I?) just seems really strange.
14. Very impressed with the three hotels on this trip—the COVID preparedness (big jug of Germ-X hand sanitizer by the door of the Fontaine Hotel in KC, to be used going out and coming in), the mask enforcement and the fact that no one but me entered my room in eight nights on the road. Of course you like a housekeeper to make the bed and change the towels, but hotels figure (correctly, in my opinion) that it’s safer for only one person—the occupant—to be in the room during the entirety of the trip. Overall, from this trip, I would wholeheartedly recommend travel if need be. I never felt squeamish about the virus or being too close with people. It’s amazing how much safer you feel when you get used to wearing a mask. It becomes part of getting dressed, basically.
15. Finally, this from the barista at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf in Terminal A of the Atlanta airport Friday morning on my last leg home. I asked how business was. “I am worried,” she said. “It was getting busy for a while, and we were starting to do okay. Families, vacations, I guess. Lots of families were coming through. But now that school is starting up again, like this week, we have really slowed down. This is how we feed our families, and . . .“ Say no more. Tip your service people a little more when/if you can.
1. I think the Hall of Fame election next February could be feisty. The discussions for senior candidate Drew Pearson and coaching candidate Tom Flores, after both were bypassed for candidates like Harold Carmichael and Bill Cowher in the special Centennial Class election, could be intense. I continue to be disappointed by the exclusion of Buddy Parker from the Hall, and from serious discussion on him inside the room on voting day in February. Parker’s the kind of candidate who I felt should have gotten his due from the Centennial voting committee—which was not the same as the 48-person voting committee that regularly selects votes for the Hall. The key points for Parker:
• He won two titles as coach of the Lions in the fifties, then left to coach the Steelers. The first year Parker was away from Detroit, the Lions won a third title in the decade, obviously with his fingerprints all over the team.
• The Steelers stunk before he got there and stunk when he left, so the fact his record as coach of the Steelers (51-47-6) was mediocre should be considered an accomplishment and not a scar on his record. Same thing with Detroit—which was 15-43 in the five years prior to Parker arriving and making them a league power.
• The best coach of the game’s first 50 years, in my opinion, was the innovative Paul Brown, whose Browns teams won seven league championships in his first 10 years as a pro head coach. From 1950 to 1956, the Browns and Lions dominated the game, and in head-to-head matchups, Parker was 4-1 against Browns—including 2-1 in NFL title games.
2. I think my biggest problem with no Buddy Parker in the Hall is this: Buddy Parker doesn’t have a cadre of people in the media and fan clubs of Lions backers screaming he belongs, the way, quite frankly, Tom Flores does. I don’t like the partisanship in Hall voting. I haven’t supported every candidate I’ve covered, or from my market; I was not an active supporter, for instance, of George Young, the Giants’ GM who I covered for four years in the eighties, even though I considered him very good at his job. I try to look at every candidate as an individual entity. Whether I covered him or not shouldn’t matter in my vote. But too often I believe it does. I’m not saying it’s just gotten that way—at all. I know that’s existed for as long as the Hall’s been in business. I just don’t like that aspect of the voting.
3. I think I appreciate Kansas City owner Clark Hunt and president Mark Donovan doing a deep dive into all aspects of their team name. No more headdresses at home games, no more face paint with native themes, and a review of the “Tomahawk Chop” or “Arrowhead Chop” and the accompanying sing-songy whoa-whoa-whoa from the fans. This nickname is tricky to me. “Chiefs” is more honorific than Washington’s banned name, but it’s still a nickname and a mascot, which so many Native Americans oppose. I’m considering not using the KC nickname in my writing either. Thinking about it.
4. I think Emmanuel Acho got the quote of the year from Roger Goodell. In Acho’s video series “Uncomfortable Conversations With A Black Man,” the NFL commissioner was asked what he would say now to Kaepernick. “I wish we had listened earlier, Kaep, to what you were kneeling about,” Goodell said. Wow.
5. I think many teams use Tuesdays as their off days. This year, I think Tuesday, Nov. 3, should be a mandatory off day for all players. That’s election day. If the NFL is serious about supporting players’ social and political initiatives, make Nov. 3 a free day for every player. And there will be no excuses to not vote, even if some players will vote absentee earlier than Nov. 3.
6. I think I have never heard so many players in every camp talk about voting and being politically active. I didn’t write this when I did my piece on the Houston Texans training camp two weeks ago, but in the night team meeting that I wrote about, when a “Rock The Vote” rep taught the players about the importance of voting, this rep did a very smart thing—emphasizing that so many of the down-ballot races were more important in their every-day lives than the presidential and congressional votes. District attorney, local city councils, etc. The rep also gave explicit instruction on how to vote absentee for those who remain registered in their hometowns or college towns. Good lessons.
7. I think I got interested in former Bucs/Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer’s new life as Lipscomb (Tenn.) Academy football coach, and, passing through Nashville, tried to connect with him, but it just didn’t work out. Dilfer is building a big-time team in suburban Nashville, and Lipscomb opened its season Friday night in a thunderstorm against Tennessee power Brentwood Academy. Final score: BA 29, Lipscomb 19. Two thunderstorm delays. Sign of the 2020 times: The Brentwood Academy coach, Cody White, was quarantining at home because of COVID exposure, watched the game on FaceTime, and called the plays into the sidelines by phone. “Technology, ain’t that something?” acting Brentwood Academy coach David Norris told local journalist Corey Woodroof.
8. I think this is a good example of the new normal when it comes to covering football in 2020. When you watch practice as a media member in Kansas City, you stand in a white-chalked square behind one of the end zones—six feet apart from any other media member—and cannot lean on the fence. I don’t know why you can’t lean on the fence, but I was told no leaning on the fence, so I did as I was told and I did not lean on the fence.
9. I think I don’t love Larry Fitzgerald’s chances of catching Jerry Rice for the most receptions in NFL history. Fitzgerald has said the record is Rice’s, and he’s not chasing it. He enters this year 172 catches from breaking Rice’s career mark of 1,549 receptions. That’s 86 catches a year. Fitzgerald turns 37 next Monday. At 35, he caught 69 balls in Arizona. At 36, he caught 75 balls. DeAndre Hopkins joins the Cardinal receiver group this year. Do we really think in the next two years, Fitzgerald’s 17th and 18th seasons, he’s going to outshine Hopkins, or be his equal?
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Brayden Harrington has been widely praised for his speech during the Democratic National Convention. “I’m a regular kid,” Harrington said, and he is. Regular kids stutter. What an act of courage for a 13-year-old. That’s something I could never, ever, ever have done, even though I stuttered throughout elementary and junior high school in Connecticut. I remember thinking in class, particularly in fifth and sixth grades, Please don’t call on me. I beg you, DO NOT CALL ON ME. One teacher, in fifth grade, boomed at me, “Spit it out, Mr. King!!!” Which did not help. Good for Brayden. As you’ve heard a thousand times this week, it gets better. It gets much, much better.
b. The dean of basketball writers, Bob Ryan, says of Luka Doncic: “I’ve seen every great player of the last 60 years. Luka Doncic takes my breath away.” That, folks, is as high as praise can get for a young basketball player.
c. I love reading Scott Price. I was sad to see his announcement Friday that he’s leaving Sports Illustrated after a quarter-century of brilliance. He’s had one of the best sportswriting careers of this era, or any era. I’ll miss opening the mag, and the website, to read him.
d. Scott Price Story of the Week: There are so many, but give me the Jon Gruden-returns-to-Oakland opus from 2018. I remember it for the Gruden line about the Raiders moving to Vegas, and what it’d mean for Oakland, his kind of place. “It’s kind of sad, man. What will they have when we go?” If you like football, you read this story and wish you could write like Scott Price.
e. Price just picked up the phone and called Gruden, who said “Hel-lo,” and that is exactly how Gruden says ‘hello.’ So much good info in the piece, like this:
“A lot of coaches are miserable,” Gruden says. “These guys have been fired, hired, fired again; they’ve got houses here, got to move over there. They’re distraught. I grew up [associating] every team with a coach. Pittsburgh Steelers, I’d think Chuck Noll. Seahawks, Chuck Knox. Now? Who’s coaching up in Jacksonville? In Miami? I don’t know how many coaches they’ve had in Tampa since they fired me! I don’t like it.
“So, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to come back and put it all on me. Everybody’s going to want to kick my ass, step on me. They can’t wait to talk about what a dumbass I am, and how s—– I was to start with. How ‘overrated’ I am. I hear it all. I know it’s going to happen. And I’m like: Come on! Just like Al Davis. When I was here, he said, ‘The great thing you’ve got going, Jon, is they’re never going to rip you. They’re going to rip me.’ ”
Gruden’s mouth tightens into a slash, one eye popping wider than the other, and there it is for the first time today: full-on Chucky, to finish the thought. “And Al goes, ‘I love it, personally.’ ”
He settles back into his office chair, his face reverting to the one his mother loves. The volume drops. “I’ve kind of taken to that, man.”
f. Happy trails, Scott.
g. Radio Story of the Week: A fantastic piece by NPR’s David Greene, on the road in New Mexico, about a family teetering on the brink.
h. This is Greene’s open, and then a passage, with some of the emotion you hear in the story from the parents of two children:
GREENE: “Politics is personal. Elections are about people – their lives, their fears, their decisions. So as the parties hold these virtual conventions, we want to hear from voters. We met five families recently, driving through New Mexico and Arizona. Some support Joe Biden, some support President Trump, but all share something in common: stress. Whether it’s the pandemic, racism, divisive politics, people are feeling the weight of all of it. Today, I want to tell you about Matt and Susan Simonds.”
MATT SIMONDS: “A small business is a person, and it’s a person with a family. And I’ve, you know, spent endless nights doing construction and distilling and planning – probably spent more time at the distillery than I have with my wife over the last six years. And a part of you is, like, that’s taken a part of you away.”
GREENE: “How long do you think you can go if this keeps going?”
MATT SIMONDS: “I’d be lucky if we have another month, you know? That’s just how fast we’re burning through cash.”
GREENE: “That question really got to you, I think, Susan. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…
SUSAN SIMONDS: (Emotional) “It did. It is tough to watch Matt go through this because it is a dream, and I’m watching it slowly shatter. And it’s not him doing something wrong. He didn’t extort money. He didn’t fake the books. He didn’t drink all of his profits. He didn’t do anything wrong. It’s … nature is getting the worst of all of us. But you’re seeing how that falls apart right here, and it is heartbreaking to watch.”
Just then, a thunder clap sounded. They had to move under cover to finish the interview. It was heavy, and it was real. Great job by Greene and NPR.
i. Editorial of the Week: From the editors at Notre Dame’s student paper, The Observer, after more than 300 Notre Dame students tested positive for COVID-19: “Don’t Make Us Write Obituaries.” (Notre Dame is part of a three-school region in South Bend.) From the editorial:
“If we’ve learned anything in the past months, it’s to take nothing for granted. The expectation that everyday life will continue as it always has can no longer exist. As redundant as it sounds, the next two weeks will shape the trajectory for the rest of the semester and perhaps the ones to follow. The blame for this does not lie with just one party. We — as students, faculty, staff and administrators — need to share responsibility for the outbreak on our hands. We longed to return to South Bend while in quarantine last semester. Now, we are at risk of hurting the community we’ve come to know and love. We implore members of the tri-campus community to do everything within their power to approach this virus in an appropriate and serious manner. Otherwise, we fear the worst is yet to come.
“Don’t make us write a tri-campus employee’s obituary.
“Don’t make us write an administrator’s obituary.
“Don’t make us write a custodian’s obituary.
“Don’t make us write a dining hall worker’s obituary.
“Don’t make us write a professor’s obituary.
“Don’t make us write a classmate’s obituary.
“Don’t make us write a friend’s obituary.
“Don’t make us write a roommate’s obituary.
“Don’t make us write yours.”
Rivers immediately darted toward Pittman, seemingly explaining his mistake. At other times, the critiques flow the other way. In the aforementioned team video, there is a missed connection with a receiver and before the play even ends, Rivers is beseeching his target to adjust his route.
“Flatten it!” Rivers yells. “Dadgummit, flatten it!”
k. Football Story of the Week II: Jori Epstein of USA Today, on the man writing chapter one of the comeback story of the decade, Aldon Smith, with the Dallas Cowboys. Good beat people watch practice and watch the key stories of their teams. Good job by Epstein studying Smith in Dallas.
l. Life Story of the Week: Why Being Kind Helps You, by Elizabeth Bernstein of the Wall Street Journal. I love stories about how the simple act of selflessness, true selflessness, can make bad days good. It’s a story about recently widowed Rachel Glyn struggling with the sadness of her husband’s death. Writes Bernstein:
“Some days, she says, she wished she would die. ‘I’ll never have another day that doesn’t stink,’ “ she told herself. Then one morning Ms. Glyn, who is 66, heard about a local blood drive and thought, ‘My life isn’t a pathetic mess after all. I have the ability to give.’ She walked to a nearby hospital and donated, and afterward, she felt ‘exhilarated,’ she says. ‘It felt wonderful to do something useful for someone,’ Ms. Glyn says.”
m. It felt wonderful to do something for someone.
n. Essay of the Week: Love this Dan Barry essay, set to photos in a neat production, about life returning to New York City, in the New York Times. Barry:
“As we and our city slowly reacquaint, let us hope that we have learned from these months of having words filtered through the gauze of masks. Now, perhaps, we will listen more closely. Work harder to understand one another. Revel in the bouncing-basketball beat of the city’s heart.”
o. And this, so true:
“We find ourselves missing what we once loathed. Those car-horn bleats of annoyance. The corner clusters of impatience, waiting for a green light. Those barks of ‘Excuse me!’ that sound like the opposite of an apology . . . “We even miss, dare we say, the subway.”
p. USPS update: I wrote a couple of weeks ago how much I love the post office—but that the post office, especially lately, has not been perfect. Latest example: I live 5.2 miles from the NFL office. Early this month, either Aug. 1 or 2, I asked the league’s manager of communications, Zak Gilbert, if he could drop the NFL’s Record and Fact Book (basically the league’s annual media guide) in the mail for me. It showed up at my apartment in Brooklyn last Wednesday. I looked at the postmark and label. Sent first class, for $8.70, on Aug. 3, from midtown Manhattan, where the NFL office is location. Arrived Aug. 19. Per Google Maps, you could walk from the NFL office to my house in 2 hours, 28 minutes. It took 16 days. Anecdotal, of course. But if you watch the news, you’re starting to think that 16 days for a first-class package to go 5.2 miles might not be rare in the coming weeks.
r. So my advice is, if you’re voting by mail for the Nov. 3 election, get your ballot now, and mail it by Oct. 1.
s. Coffeenerdness: First, Hi Hat (State Line Road, Westwood Hills, Kans.) is the cutest damn coffee shop in the United States. Look at this photo—amazing. And on a summer morning when it’s not 86 at 7:30, it’s absolutely delightful to order a large latte with an extra shot (I know, boring) and languish under the shade trees or do what I did: straddle the line on State Line Road between Kansas and Missouri, just a mile from Kansas City’s lovely Country Club Plaza. The espresso is very good too. Quite a place.
u. Poor Annie Koeblitz. I latch onto a song I haven’t heart in a while, or a group I love but haven’t listened to in a while, and I proceed to overplay it. My brother Ken introduced me to Steely Dan in high school around 1974, and I brought “Can’t Buy a Thrill” to Ohio University, and that was it. Loved Steely Dan, and still do. “Change of the Guard” is my favorite Dan song.
It’s hard, very hard,
to be around young Mahomes
and not be impressed.