For two straight years, in the last game of the season, cameras caught Aaron Donald crying after a game and telecast the images to tens of millions. He’s not much of a crier, really. But for him, opposite ends of his football life almost required tears.
“Last year,” Donald told me, “the thing about the Green Bay game, what broke my heart the most, I felt like I wasn’t at my best.” Donald tore rib cartilage the previous week in a wild-card win over Seattle, and his stat line in the 32-18 NFC divisional loss in Green Bay was incredibly un-Donald-like: zero solo tackles, one assisted tackle, zero sacks. Zero everything. The game darn near broke the three-time Defensive Player of the Year.
“I’m a piece to the puzzle. I’m not everything. That day, I wasn’t able to be that piece for my team,” Donald recalled. “That hurt, man. It really did. I don’t think I ever cried that much, you know, after a game. I was in the shower. I was in the locker room. I just couldn’t stop crying.”
Now it was last Thursday, four days after Super Bowl LVI, and Donald was on a Zoom call, absolutely hoarse. Ecstatically hoarse. “Sorry,” he said. “I really haven’t slept.”
Forgiven. Now, about this year’s tears?
“Happy tears,” Donald said.
“This,” he said, “is truly football heaven. Von Miller was saying that the whole time leading up to the game. We’re living in it right now.”
Each season, a week after the Super Bowl, I try to deconstruct the biggest play or plays of the game, diving deep into them with the biggest people in the game. Twice with Tom Brady, and once each with Eli Manning (exactly 10 years ago, after Manning-to-Manningham); the Philly coaches who designed the game-winner against New England; MVP Julian Edelman; MVP Patrick Mahomes; and, until now, just one defensive player. That was Von Miller six years ago, after he wrecked Carolina in Super Bowl 50.
This year, I was stuck on Donald, indisputably the best defensive player in football. How often does a truly great player—and Donald goes down with Lawrence Taylor and Reggie White as the three best defensive players I’ve covered in my tenure (Deion Sanders four, Ray Lewis five)—make the biggest plays of his life at the biggest moment of his life, in perhaps the last two plays of his life? That’s exactly what Donald did, showing throughout the game one of the great, versatile big bodies and smart X-and-O brains in football—speed to get around blocks, power to blow up blocks, knowing how to attack weaknesses. He led with passion, particularly in the last two minutes. On the biggest series of plays since the NFL handed the keys to America’s second-largest market to the Rams six years ago, it was the gritty and powerful Donald who was the decisive player on the field.
Think of it: Rams 23, Bengals 20. Cincinnati ball at the Rams’ 49-yard line, 48 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Bengals need 49 yards to win, maybe 15 yards to be in position for an automatic kicker, Evan McPherson, to tie and send it to overtime. Really, if you’re a Rams fan right here, facing the steely Joe Burrow with the new Vinatieri warming on the sidelines, you’ve got to be thinking, Hope we can force OT.
Third-and-one: Burrow handed to Samaje Perine, who looked like he was in the clear to make the yard. But Donald used brute strength to pry the 240-pound Perine back from the line to gain. The replay looks like a cartoon. It appeared that Perine, a big man, hit a wall.
— Sᴘᴏʀᴛs 24/7 (@Sports_24x7_) February 14, 2022
Fourth-and-one: Burrow in the gun. Bengals set up to throw. Donald, lined up on left guard Quinton Spain, darted to the guard-tackle hole, sprinting around Spain. Center Trey Hopkins tried to get over to help but Donald was too fast, and there was nothing but air between Donald and Burrow. As Donald brought him to the ground, Burrow, in desperado fashion, threw it to someone, anyone, and it bounded incomplete. That should have been Donald’s third sack of the game, but as defensive coordinator Raheem Morris likes to say, quoting a thousand bygone NFL coaches in history, “Stats are for losers.”
— ESPN (@espn) February 14, 2022
What was great about those two plays? They followed the exact coaching points Morris drilled into his players in the two weeks prior to the game. The most important two things the defense had to do to win were to dominate run downs, and mentally and physically affect the quarterback. Donald dominated the most important run down of the game, and he mentally and physically affected Burrow on the most important pass play of the game.
“This game,” Morris told me Friday, “was not about me making some genius calls. This was about showing the players plays of themselves making the exact kind of plays we needed to win the game. It was just beautiful that the last two plays set up for Aaron.”
The night before I Zoomed with Donald, he sat courtside at the Lakers-Jazz game.
“My first Lakers game,” he said.
The Lakers, in a lost season, rallied from 12 points down in the fourth quarter to beat the far better Jazz. LeBron James scored 15 points in the fourth quarter, and he said afterward he was inspired by Donald’s performance Sunday, and by Donald sitting courtside. “I just tried to take the inspiration of what he was able to accomplish,” James said.
They embraced after the game, the first time they’d met. “He pretty much told me I’m the best defensive player he ever watched play,” Donald said, and it was clear he was blown away by it. The same way he’s been blown away by the impact of this game.
Two things struck me about my Zoom time with Donald. This was four days after the game, and I don’t recall anyone being as ebullient and overjoyed days after winning. Usually there’s fatigue and a bit of a businesslike nature to players and coaches days after it’s over. Watch Donald when my conversation with him drops on the NBC Sports’ YouTube channel, and on Tuesday when “The Peter King Podcast” drops. It’s 38 minutes of mostly joy, hoarse joy.
Second thing: For Donald, winning Defensive Player of the Year three times is an honor. Winning the Super Bowl is everything. This is not phony-baloney stuff from Donald. How many times during the year did he talk about the far less famous guys on the line helping make his job easier—nose men Greg Gaines and Sebastian Joseph-Day, end A’Shawn Robinson, and the rush capabilities of Leonard Floyd and Von Miller creating space for him to be his best self. Miller said it, Jalen Ramsey said it: This defense wanted to win the Super Bowl for Aaron Donald.
There is something so just when a great player wins his first Super Bowl. At 30, sand was running out of the hourglass for Donald. Lots of reasons why so many Rams were rooting for him, but the thought of seeing all-time greatness finish one shy of a Super Bowl ring for a second painful time was certainly part of it.
When the NFL named its NFL 100 All-Time Team two years ago, there were seven defensive tackles on the roster. Donald was not one of them; as the deliberations were done in his fifth year in the league, it is probably not an injustice. But Donald has now won three Defensive Players of the Year awards. The seven defensive tackles on the all-time team, combined, won three DPOYs. Donald has been named first-team all-pro in seven seasons. None of the seven DTs on the team made it more than seven times.
Mean Joe Greene: first-team all-pro four times in 13 professional seasons. Aaron Donald: first-team all-pro seven times in eight seasons.
That’s the last time I’ll mention the individual stuff. It’s not why Donald plays. He plays for the thing he thought was a million miles away his first three years in the NFL.
The Rams were 17-31 in Donald’s first three years—two in St. Louis, one in L.A. They weren’t particularly strong on D, finishing 16th, 13th and 23rd in scoring defense. “Horrible,” said Donald of his early years. “I tell people all the time it was the worst feeling in the world. It’s kinda like, you keep studying for the test but you keep failing. In St. Louis or that first year in California—that was one of the years I got my most fines just for doing silly things.”
Donald was fined more than $81,000 and was ejected twice in 2016. He slammed his helmet to the turf in San Francisco in Week 1. In the midst of a season-ending seven-game losing streak, in a 21-point loss at Seattle, he threw a penalty flag back at the official.
“Losing, man,” he said. “It just brings the worst out in people.”
The Rams fired Jeff Fisher after that first season back in L.A. A few days after the season, Rams executives asked Donald to meet them at the Ritz Carlton in Marina del Rey. They were interviewing a new coach, Sean McVay. They wanted Donald to meet him and give some input.
“I remember walking into the room and they said, ‘We’re gonna hire this guy. We want you to talk to him. Let us know what you think,’ “ Donald said. “I’m looking around, I see this young coach just sitting there. I’m like, I know that’s not the head coach they’re about to get, is it?
“It ended up being an amazing hire. It’s been a blessing to have him as my head coach and build the bond with him.”
Division title in year one, Super Bowl loss in year three, second Super Bowl shot in year five.
One minute into the second half—after the 75-yard TD pass from Burrow to Tee Higgins and a Bengals’ interception on the first two plays of the third quarter—the momentum was shifting. Radically. Bengals 17, Rams 13. Cincinnati ball at the Rams’ 31. On second and 10, Burrow sprinted left out of the pocket. Donald chased him and gave him a shove out of bounds near the boundary. Clean play.
“Actually, Burrow was the one, he looked at me, like, ‘Hey Aaron, that was a clean play.’ The quarterback told me that! I feel everybody start pushing me, hitting me. I almost lost it. The refs were like, Aaron, get out of here. They [the Bengals] already got me mad. Now they want to push on me, say all these words to me.
“You just woke me up. You just woke me up!”
Same series, a few snaps later, the Bengals had third-and-three from the Rams’ 11-yard line. An 11-point lead was one clean pocket away for Burrow. Donald lined up across from right guard Hakeem Adeniji, Cincinnati’s number 77. “That number 77,” Donald said, “he did a little talking, so I wanted to show him how strong I was.”
Donald lined up in a three-point stance a yard across from Adeniji and proceeded to make one of the biggest man-among-boys plays of this, or any, NFL season. He rushed straight at Adeniji, no pretense of juking or stunting. Straight bull-rush. Contacting Adeniji’s chest at the 13-yard line, Donald plowed the 330-pound starting NFL guard seven yards back and directly into the lap of Burrow. The nine-yard sack kept it a one-score game; the Bengals settled for a field goal.
Two sacks in three minutes for @AaronDonald97! 😳
— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) February 14, 2022
“Pretty much bowled him back into the quarterback,” Donald said proudly. “You wanna start pushing and saying all these words to me? I like a little competition. We can play mean. Let’s play mean. I had to show them. They got three points out of it, but off a short-field turnover, we fought.”
Now to the end, bitter or triumphant. It was all on Donald’s shoulders.
And in Donald’s lungs.
“When Cooper Kupp scored the go-ahead touchdown inside of two minutes to go,” Raheem Morris said, “Aaron got up off the bench and had such a leadership moment. He went up and down the sideline, to every defensive player, and he kept saying, ‘This is our moment! Let’s go!’ “
Ours? More like his.
“That’s one of those moments as a coach,” Morris said, “when you think, They don’t need me. Just stay out of the way.”
Third-and-one, Rams up 23-20, 48 seconds left, Bengals at the Rams’ 49.
“I kinda knew they were gonna run it,” Donald said. But at Donald? And not with Joe Mixon, but with the journeyman Perine?
Here came Perine over the right guard, between nose tackle Gaines and Donald. “Greg Gaines did a good job collapsing the A gap,” Donald said, “making it small to the point where it was hard for [Perine] to squeeze through.” Donald reached through the traffic and grabbed Perine, then used brute strength to drag him back a yard.
“I actually thought he got the first down,” Donald said.
“Unbelievable strength,” Morris said. “Kept ‘em from getting that last inch. Crucial.”
Next play: Donald was surprised when he saw Burrow in the shotgun. As was the Ram sideline. McVay, as captured by NFL Films, called Donald’s shot. “Aaron’s gonna close the game out right here!” McVay said.
Spain, the left guard, flashed to his left when Donald sprinted there at the snap. Too late. Hopkins, the center, scurried to his left to help. Too late also.
“The center peeled back late,” Donald said. “He didn’t slide hard enough. He got a little lazy with the slide.”
Donald could see Burrow in his sights, nothing between them except four yards of artificial turf.
“In my head, I promise you I’m like, I’m about to make this play. We’re about to win a Super Bowl. And when I grabbed him, I was like, We just won a Super Bowl!” Burrow’s desperate pass fluttered to the ground.
“You couldn’t write it any better. It felt good. It felt really good.”
If this is it—Donald would only say he’s living in the moment and wants to enjoy today; plenty of time to think about playing more football—then no NFL player has ever ended a career more dramatically: game-turning sack to stunt a huge momentum swing in the third quarter, then a run stuff and a QB-stopper on the two clinching plays of a Super Bowl.
Talking to some people close to Donald and the team, it sounds 50-50 on retirement. There will be time for that. Good for Donald taking his time to revel in the greatest game of his life. The man has been playing football for 25 years. Give him 25 days, 50, 75, to enjoy this.
“Just imagine being a kid—I’ve been playing football since I was 5 or 6 years old,” Donald said. “I always talked about, I wanna make it to the NFL. I always set high goals but I surpassed anything that I ever thought was possible. I remember being a kid watching the Super Bowl, cheering for the Steelers. I got to play in my second Super Bowl and win one.
“Like, that’s the type of experience that … You can’t dream bigger than that, man. If you ain’t playing for this, if you ain’t playing to be a world champion, then you’re in the wrong business.
“When you visualize this game, when you think about being in big moments and big games, wanting to close out a game like that and make the big play, that’s why you do the extra rep in a weight room. That’s why you do the extra sprint during the offseason. That’s why you exhaust your body. That’s why you study so much film. You’re groomed for that moment.
“When you’re just chasing a goal like this, you really working for that and you’re really putting the time in when nobody’s watching … That’s the best [advice] I can give to people or young guys. Just work. Don’t worry about money, don’t play for stats, don’t play for individual awards. Play to be a world champion and really work at that. Grind at that. And I promise you, you’re gonna accomplish more than you ever thought you’d accomplish.”
News, notes and other updates on 11 people around the NFL this week.
1. Sean McVay
“He is NOT retiring!!” Sean McVay’s fiancée, Veronika Khomyn, said Wednesday on Instagram. It appears McVay will return to coach the Rams for a sixth season in 2022. And maybe that’s the end of the story. It probably is.
But it would be understandable if he strongly considered a TV job. First, if he leaves for TV, he’s not retiring. Not many people retire at 36; Vince Lombardi won his first game as a head coach at 46. For insight on why McVay would even consider this, I give you this name: Tony Romo. CBS pays Romo $17.5 million a year to work about 20 games a year on TV. McVay makes about half that to coach the Rams, and though he’s surely in line for a bigger payday after making two Super Bowls and winning one in five years, it’s pretty logical for McVay to think seriously about being a TV analyst. Why wouldn’t he consider ESPN on Monday night or Amazon on Thursday night, if they’re willing to pay more than $15 million a year? (I thought it was around $15 million; one source told me “more.”)
Two trains of thought here, and I understand both.
• Stay With Rams. McVay got a contract extension in 2019, and told the Rams he wanted quarterback Jared Goff to get one too; they’d be joined at the hip for the future. But after two more years with Goff, McVay was unhappy and pushed for trading Goff, two first-round picks and a third-rounder to Detroit for Matthew Stafford. That two-year marriage to Goff, and the trade, cost the Rams three prime picks and $85 million, and owner Stan Kroenke okayed both that massive contract and the trade. Surely McVay owes the team more than one season after the commitment the team made for him at quarterback.
• Leave The Rams. McVay delivered two Super Bowl seasons in five years. He made the Rams legitimate when they desperately needed to be in their new city with the $5-billion stadium; they won 31 games in the five seasons pre-McVay, and they’ve won 62 in his five years. He delivered a world championship. So he should be allowed to do what he wants.
I see both sides. And isn’t it interesting that football enriches the TV networks, and the networks use that largesse to try and steal from the NFL? Dean Blandino got plucked from the NFL to be an officiating analyst for FOX; that defection wounded the league. If McVay leaves, it would wound the Rams. A generation ago, the NFL didn’t have to worry about its major players leaving prematurely for TV. Now it’s a part of the landscape.
2. Brian Flores
Surprise of the week: On Saturday, the Steelers hired the coach suing the NFL over claims of racism and attempted owner-bribery. Flores will be senior defensive assistant/linebackers coach with Pittsburgh under Mike Tomlin. This shouldn’t be a huge surprise, that a strong and iconoclastic organization such as the Steelers would make the best decision for the team, regardless of the fact that Flores clearly ruffled feathers in several establishment organizations with his lawsuit.
“Brian’s résumé speaks for itself,” Tomlin said, and it does. The NFL is better when Flores is coaching in it.
3. Mike McDaniel
The story of the new Dolphins coach is actually a story about Deebo Samuel. How McDaniel, the 5-9, 165-pound former Yale wide receiver, climbed the ladder from unpaid coaching staff intern/gopher in Denver in 2005 to the exclusive 32-coach fraternity is instructive. In fact, it says everything about McDaniel, who looks far more like a Geico account executive than one of 32 NFL leaders of men.
“So,” McDaniel began, “Deebo. We [the 49ers coaching staff] had him on our team at the Senior Bowl the January before we got to the Super Bowl. We had a saying: From Mobile to Miami, because the Super Bowl was in Miami that year, with our players. And we actually did it. He started calling me his favorite coach then. I don’t really know why. We were always close and whatever.
“This past season, I had a talk with him in the offseason. I was meeting with Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo at 6 a.m. every day during training camp because we needed them to step up. I asked Deebo, ‘Are you the best player on the offense?’ He was like, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘The time is now. Do you really wanna be great? Greatness is hard. That’s why it’s great. It’s not easy. It’s a burden, really.’ “
McDaniel told Samuel, as the best player on the offense, he needed to be more of a leader. Immediately he saw Samuel shift uncomfortably, like, That’s not me. Don’t ask me to be that.
No, McDaniel said. Being leader isn’t what you say. It’s what you do. Be the best student in the classroom. Work the hardest in practice. Give more effort at everything. You know those days you feel like crap? McDaniel said. Everybody else does too. Those are the days you’ve got to ask more of yourself, show more of yourself.
“Then I gave him a quote that he still says to me today. I said, ‘If you do that every day and stay healthy and take care of your body and all that extra leg work that the true great ones do, at the end of the season, you’ll be first team all-pro and you’ll make me a head coach.”
2021 all-pro receivers: Davante Adams, Cooper Kupp, Deebo Samuel.
2022 head coach, Miami: Mike McDaniel.
There was another part of the Deebo maturation/development: “No player in my career has ever bothered me on a Tuesday,” McDaniel said. But last season, every Tuesday around noon, Samuel would come into McDaniel’s office, sit on his couch, and, in the midst of game-planning crunch time, Samuel would wait for McDaniel to have a break in between tape or conversations with other coaches on staff. McDaniel would stop what he was doing for maybe a half hour, 45 minutes, and turn to Samuel to talk about that week’s plan, and what role he’d play.
McDaniel’s imagination, and Samuel’s study/practice habits and athleticism, combined to make Samuel the most dangerous weapon in the league. Prior to Week 10 against the Rams, when McDaniel started feeling good about Samuel’s knowledge of the run game, McDaniel started building regular run snaps in the game plan for Samuel. In Samuel’s next five games, he ran it 5, 8, 6, 8, and 6 times, with three rushes over 25 yards and six rushing touchdowns. Samuel had become a dual-threat player at the highest level. “Each week, I’d add like one new type of run so he wouldn’t have to learn too much, but the defense hadn’t seen it,” McDaniel said. “By the end of the season, he could do almost every type of run that running backs could do.”
That’s how McDaniel plans to coach the Dolphins.
“You set the vision for somebody, and you go and make it happen,” he said.
That’s why the 2022 Dolphins should be fascinating to watch.
4. Covid Combine
Tom Pelissero of NFL Network reports players at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis will be kept on a tight leash and “restricted to secure combine venues during their entire time in Indianapolis.” The league said players will be on-site for a shorter time, and it’s thought the physical and medical testing will be done in tighter windows now while also allowing for the 15-minute meetings teams have with selected players. That’s a big part of the combine learning experience for teams. What will fall by the wayside, much to the chagrin of agents: The big agencies rent out suites and big rooms for their players to relax and make business acquaintances at the combine—and that’s out. We’ll see how it affects the media interactions at the combine, which help the public get to know the 330-plus prospects.
5. Super Bowl officiating
The miss on the 75-yard Tee Higgins TD catch—he grabbed Jalen Ramsey’s facemask on a play at least two officials should have seen—was somewhat understandable; it happened so fast with the ball arriving just as Higgins yanked the mask. Still, a big miss.
But the biggest miss came with 1:44 left in the game and Cincinnati leading 20-16. On third-and-goal from the Rams’ 8-yard line, Cincinnati linebacker Logan Wilson covered Cooper Kupp off the line, and Kupp did an in-cut to his right, closely covered by Wilson. The pass to Kupp was incomplete, and a flag came out. After keeping flags in pockets for the first 58 minutes—four accepted penalties were called in that time—the defensive holding on Wilson was stunning. There was no hold. It was not disputable. As former NFL senior VP of officiating Dean Blandino said on a Zoom call with the NFL think-tank 33rd Team, “It’s not a foul. There’s really nothing to see. That’s just a good defensive play.”
The upshot: The half-the-distance hold gave the Rams a first-and-goal from the 4-yard line. Flagless, the Rams would have had season on the line, fourth-and-goal from the 8. Big call.
That’s the kind of call a Sky Judge upstairs could have corrected. Or more communication from the Walt Anderson-led officiating command center could have. This isn’t a four-alarm-fire kind of error, but it’s significant, and should be discussed by the Competition Committee beginning at the combine next week.
6. Lovie Smith
It’s been a long time since any NFL franchise used Cincinnati as a beacon, but the new Houston coach plans to when he talks to his full squad. “We won four games this year. The Bengals won four the year before, and this was a big year for them,” Smith told me last week. “We don’t have to wonder—we just saw a team do it. Someone’s going to make that jump. Someone always does. Why not us?”
Well, there’s the quarterback position, for one thing. Joe Burrow versus Davis Mills. There’s a sobering comparison. Sounds like the position’s open. Smith on Mills, and the future: “What gives me optimism is … I got a chance to see Davis Mills. How many special quarterbacks are there out there? There’s a few. But there’s a lot of good quarterbacks. I think we will have a good quarterback for the Houston Texans. We have the third pick in the draft right now. There’s a possibility of us getting a great quarterback added to our team, or a lot of draft picks to get in more players. Something positive’s going to come out of that.”
I asked Smith about the elephant in the coaching room—that he wasn’t interviewed till after the Brian Flores lawsuit. The inference, of course, is that the Texans couldn’t hire their supposed coach of choice, Josh McCown, who never coached on the college or pro level, and that the Texans didn’t want to hire Flores. And thus Houston turned to an experienced coach on its staff, defensive coordinator Smith. McCown is white, Flores and Smith Black.
“I tell most coaches in general: Every time you coach, you’re kind of interviewing for a job,” Smith said. “When you say that I wasn’t [a candidate for the job], I think ownership, everyone, players, they all got a chance to see I came in with the background. I’ve been a head football coach. They got a chance to get to know me and see me in a leadership role. Once this job became open, you start looking at everyone. I know there are some public guys, but the organization has been asking my opinion on quite a few things and just what we needed to do going forward. You never know what’s really going on behind the scenes. But to say that I just got popped up at the end, I don’t think that was truly the case.”
The Kansas City quarterback should be getting kudos for making time to attend and contribute to the inaugural HBCU Legacy Bowl in New Orleans, where he was honorary captain and did the coin toss. It was great of Mahomes to take time to spotlight the best players at historically Black colleges and universities as they attempt to further their football careers.
Instead, the bigger Mahomes story of the week was how he was caught up in a crazy catfishing story that intended to tarnish him, his fiancé and his brother. Sam McDowell of the Kansas City Star summed up this blight on us as people better than I could. I know Mahomes; I am not tight with him. But my experiences with him, and every scintilla of evidence I have from those close to him, is that he’s a good person with a good heart. Such a shame in our society that we invent worse-than-Johnny-Knoxville-gotcha crap like this. It’s more than a shame. It’s a disgrace.
8. Micah Banks
The son of the late Sports Illustrated writer Don Banks is a world champion. Micah, a product of the journalism and mass communications program at George Washington, served as an intern in the Rams’ media-relations department under Artis Twyman this year, one of the feel-good stories (at least for those of us close to Don Banks) of this football season.
“Dad really drove me to journalism,” Micah, 23, said Friday. “I think he’d be really proud of me. I mean, first season in sports, home Super Bowl, make Super Bowl, win Super Bowl.”
Give two assists for Micah’s role with the Rams to a good friend of Don’s, Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times, and to Rams COO Kevin Demoff, who was close to Don. After Don Banks, 57, died of a heart issue in a hotel in Canton in August 2019 while covering the Hall of Fame ceremonies, Micah saw Farmer at his father’s Memorial service. Farmer suggested calling Demoff for assistance, and perhaps for professional guidance. When he did, Demoff arranged a summer 2020 internship in the PR department. That had to be virtual, so the experience working from his Virginia home wasn’t as valuable as it could have been in person. But when the Rams had a PR-intern opening before the start of the 2021 season, Twyman offered it to Micah. L.A., here he came.
“He stepped right in and was up to speed in no time,” Twyman said. “He was a delight to work with and really has a future in this business.”
Micah, who hopes to be an NFL GM one day, said his father used to kid him all the time about how lucky he was; things always seemed to work out well for young Micah. “Today,” he said, “I think my Dad would probably say something like, ‘Well, the hot streak continues.’ “
Funny. I can hear Don Banks say that. He said it to me a hundred times, or “World’s luckiest man continues on hot streak.” Don was always right.
9. The Super Bowl MVP
Mike Florio wrote this week—and he is right—that the MVP vote should not be taken till the end of the game. As it is now, the NFL asks 16 voters it chooses (and I have been one several times, and was one this year) for their votes late in the fourth quarter. His argument is that the game is 60 minutes long, and how can you know what’s going to happen in the final moments if you vote before the final moments are played. This year was a perfect example.
Cooper Kupp caught the winning touchdown pass, his second of the game, with 85 seconds left. Aaron Donald made the game-clinching defensive plays with 43 and 39 seconds left. Both were great in the game. Both were deserving.
I voted for Kupp, and am happy with it. Kupp and Odell Beckham were 1 and 1a in the Rams’ game plan, and that ended midway through the second quarter when Beckham went down with a torn ACL. Already playing without starting tight end Tyler Higbee, number two tight end Kendall Blanton also went out with a shoulder injury in mid-game. Already down Robert Woods with an early-season injury, that left Stafford with Kupp and Van Jefferson as familiar targets. On fourth-and-one, game on the line, with five minutes left, McVay called a Jet Motion end around for Kupp; gain of seven. In the last 1:50 of the game, Stafford threw four passes. All were to Kupp. The first three targets ended in a defensive hold, offsetting penalties (Kupp was knocked into next week by Bengals safety Vonn Bell) and pass interference. The fourth resulted in the winning touchdown. In every crucial point of the game for the Rams on offense, they turned to Kupp.
A vote for Donald would have been justice too—he was hugely valuable with the season on the line. Either way, the NFL has to change its MVP voting, as Florio wrote, so that the vote is taken as the clock hits :00. It’s simple to tally 16 votes (or more, if the NFL chooses to expand); it can be done in two minutes after the game, plenty of time for the winner to learn his fate on the field while the confetti is flying.
10. Zac Taylor
I don’t know if Taylor is going to turn out to be a great coach. He’ll have a chance, with a good young roster and potentially great quarterback. Now he’ll have every chance to keep the Bengals a contender—the franchise signed him to a four-year contract extension through the 2026 season.
Of course, owner Mike Brown is one of the few executives in football who doesn’t care what the outside world thinks about his decision-making. They all say they don’t care, but their actions show otherwise. Brown laughs at that stuff. (Literally.) He never seriously considered firing Taylor when he was 6-25-1 in his first two years. “I always felt like I was going to get another opportunity,” Taylor told me before the Super Bowl.
“I think we all understood that we needed to start winning a lot more games than we were. But the beauty of working for Mike and the family here is you meet almost on a daily basis. There is no earth-shattering conversation that needs to be had after a season because you have that conversation every day in the offseason, training camp, during the season. We’re always on the same page to where there’s not these big State of the Union meetings that need to happen where there’s been no communication for weeks or months. I wouldn’t want to have it any other way. Makes sure we’re always on the same page.”
11. John Madden
The NFL said its final goodbye to the late coach/broadcast/video-game entrepreneur last week, and I thought this story from Washington coach Ron Rivera would be a fitting way to acknowledge this seminal figure in NFL history.
In his first two years as head coach in Carolina, Rivera’s teams were 2-12 in games decided by seven points or less. Then-Carolina owner Jerry Richardson asked Rivera to meet with a friend, Madden, to discuss what Rivera might do differently in close games. A meeting was set. Madden told Rivera before he came to California to see him, go back and look at the close games to see what he might have done differently.
“Just as we’re about to start,” Rivera said, “I said I got that homework assignment you gave me. I pull it out, it’s about 15, 20 pages. I go to hand it to him, and he goes, That’s not for me. That’s for you. What did you learn? Well, I said, as I started to flip through, I said, ‘You know this instance, I went by the book. I did it the way you’re supposed to.’ He goes, ‘What do you mean, by the book? There is no book, Ron, you know that. You’ve played enough football, you know enough football, you’ve coached enough football, to go by your gut instinct, by what you feel.’
“From that point on, it made sense. It hit me that you know, what I was doing was safe. It was the least critical thing, criticize-able thing to do, if that’s a word. From that point, now I would get into game situations and I would think them through. Those things, he really helped me to understand and that really changed my thought process going forward. It really did. It really helped me. I really do believe that that was kinda the evolution I needed to become the coach I am today.”
The Panthers were 9-4-1 in the next two seasons in those close games, and Riverboat Ron was born, and now you know the rest of the story.
“We built a super team. We can bring back the super team. Why not run it back?”
—Aaron Donald, at the Rams’ victory parade.
“Wentz is as good as gone … If you’re in a bad marriage, you don’t stay in it just because you’re not sure there’s a Miss or Mr. Right waiting outside the door.”
—Bob Kravitz of The Athletic on the future of Carson Wentz in Indianapolis.
“We have to find a way to reflect back and appreciate all the great things that we did this season.”
—Bengals coach Zac Taylor, to Geoff Hobson of the Bengals website.
“Rodgers … for years has played a careful, calculating game understanding that number of interceptions plays a disproportionate, nonsensical role in the passer-rating formula. Bad interceptions are, well, bad. Then there are interceptions that are the cost of doing business for unselfish, competitive, stats-immune quarterbacks battling to make plays and lead comebacks until the bitter end. When a quarterback, especially one with a powerful, usually accurate arm like Rodgers, deliberately minimizes chances to deliver a big play for fear of an interception … that’s just hurting his team. In the playoff game, a modest talent like Jimmy Garoppolo was under every bit as much pass-rush pressure as Rodgers but drilled more tight-window completions down the field largely because he wasn’t afraid of a pick and the moment.”
—Bob McGinn, the longtime Packers beat man and expert, writing at Tyler Dunne’s “Go Long.”
“Dickie V has been instructed not to speak, which is like telling Joey Chestnut not to eat.”
—Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated on Vitale, who has undergone surgery affecting his voice.
I kept trying to think of a way to quantify how cliff-hanging the 2021 NFL playoffs were, and I came up with: This was the 52nd season since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, and in each season the league has played at least seven playoff games. I measured the competitiveness in one-score games in the final seven playoff games of each of those years—the two divisional games per conference, the two conference championship games, and the Super Bowl. And my gut feeling panned out.
Apples to apples, this was the most competitive playoff season in modern NFL history.
I measured it in two ways: one-score games (games decided by eight points or fewer) in the final seven playoff games per season, and average margin of victory in the last seven playoff games per season. And the 2021 playoffs—with margins of 3, 3, 3 and 6 points in the division round, 3 and 3 points in championship games, and 3 points in the Super Bowl—were clearly the closest of any postseason in history.
Most one-score playoff games
Divisional, Championship and Super Bowl rounds
7 of 7 games: 2021
6 of 7 games: None
5 of 7 games: 1970, 1972, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2017
Closest margin of victory, combined
Divisional, Championship and Super Bowl rounds
2021: 3.43 points
Those four seasons, out of 52, are the only years when the average margin in the last seven games was one score or less.
This was a fun project to research, as a writer of a certain age. I’d forgotten what a defensive game football was at the time of the merger. There were 27 points scored in the average playoff game in 1970, capped by the 16-13 Baltimore win over Dallas in Super Bowl V. That game featured the most amazing stat by a Super Bowl winner, I believe, in NFL history: The Colts turned it over seven times and won.
Coolest game of the 1970 postseason happened in the NFC divisional round: Dallas 5, Detroit 0. (Starter at right corner for Detroit: Dick LeBeau.) Some interesting quarterbacking by Craig Morton, Greg Landy and Bill Munson in the game, played in the Cotton Bowl—11 of 38 for 120 yards, combined, on a windy, chilly day.
Ben Fischer and John Ourand of Sports Business Journal reported Friday that NFL owners were interested in re-upping commissioner Roger Goodell—who turned 63 on Saturday—beyond his current term that ends in 2024. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy denied this. But I believe whatever the state of negotiations are regarding a new deal, owners want to see Goodell continue his tenure into the future.
The NFL has a history rivalling Steelers coaches with its recent commissioner. The NFL has three commissioners in the past 62 years. The Steelers have had three head coaches in the last 52 years.
The terms of the last three NFL commissioners:
Pete Rozelle: 29 years, 9 months (1960-89)
Paul Tagliabue: 16 years, 10 months (1989-2006)
Roger Goodell: 15 years, 6 months (2006-22)
If Goodell serves till at least training camp 2023, he will pass Tagliabue in length of tenure. He’d have to serve till 2036 to pass Rozelle.
While spending some grandchildren time on the West Coast last week, we visited the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle with grandson Peter. (He slept, mostly. We meandered.) What a treasure. I’ve never seen a zoo that fits into a city as seamlessly as this one.
On a gray day, the coolest thing was watching the mountain goats on a craggy rock formation. One goat kicked a smaller goat off one of the rocks as if to say, I’m the boss here. Go find another rock. That was a nice start to the offseason.
Dean Blandino: Super Bowl LVI Officiating Review
— The 33rd Team (@The33rdTeamFB) February 18, 2022
Mike Tannenbaum’s inside-football site, with a smart breakdown by Dean Blandino of the two biggest calls of the Super Bowl.
Mix in a water Matt…trust me https://t.co/WEVupw2Yzl
— Tom Brady (@TomBrady) February 16, 2022
Advice from the Super Bowl LV-winning QB to the LVI-winning QB.
You wouldn’t think Tom Clements is coming out of retirement to coach Jordan Love.
The Packers have a verbal agreement to bring him back as QB coach. It gives Rodgers one more reason to return.
Story here: https://t.co/3ADmWXwRaN
— Rob Demovsky (@RobDemovsky) February 17, 2022
Demovsky, who covers the Packers for ESPN, with a smart observation about the Aaron Rodgers situation.
The strangest part of getting ready to leave China: It’s like we were never even really in China. On an Olympics with no sense of … anything: https://t.co/Kvt5Eq9qfL
— Michael Rosenberg (@Rosenberg_Mike) February 19, 2022
Michael Rosenberg covered the Olympics in Beijing for Sports Illustrated.
Reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @peter_king
The question is actually two questions. From Max Scarrow: “Is Matthew Stafford a Hall of Famer?”
Max, that’s the post-Super Bowl question on a lot of minds. As I say, there should be two questions here:
• Is Stafford a Hall of Famer if he never pays another snap and Super Bowl LVI is his last game?
• Will Stafford be a Hall of Famer if he plays another five or six years of quality football, with some more playoff triumphs and top seasons in a league packed with great quarterbacks?
The answer to question 1: No. A player at the most important position in the game can’t expect to be a Hall of Famer if, in 13 seasons, he played the first 12 and never won a division title or playoff game and in year 13 played very well and quarterbacked his team to the Super Bowl title. And 2: Possibly, but there are a lot of quarterbacks he’ll be competing. It’s impossible to answer now.
We are in a golden age of quarterbacks. Maybe even a platinum age. Think of the quarterbacks who will have the majority of their prime in the quarter-century from 2005 to 2030: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning (close, but nine of his 16 seasons come in ’05 or after), Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Stafford, Matt Ryan, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Dak Prescott, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert. Obviously, one or more of these will fall by the wayside—I can’t predict Prescott, Burrow, Jackson, and Herbert, and the future of Watson is very much up in the air, and Mahomes and Allen seem to be ascending to long-term greatness but they’ve got to do it for years, of course. And one or more (Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr) could rise into this class. We won’t know the results till 2040 or so, but would Hall voters carpetbomb future Hall classes with, say, 14 quarterbacks from this era? It’s not unprecedented; 15 running backs whose prime happened between 1955 and 1980 made the Hall. Eleven quarterbacks in the era from 1975 to 2000 made it. So who knows? Quarterbacks could dominate future classes. But Stafford has more winning to do, and more great seasons to put on the board, in order to ensure a gold jacket, I believe.
It’s the Hall of Good, he says. From Brian Antkowiak: “The recent election of Tony Boselli to the Hall of Fame, combined with the inevitable election of Eli Manning, has me discouraged that the Hall of Fame has become a Hall of Good. Many older nominees may get elected because voters like them as people and feel bad for their long-denied desire for entry, or because ‘the history of the game can’t be told without them.’ “
You have a lot of company, Brian. I think this comes down to the question of how restrictive do you want to make the Hall. Is it right to put, let’s say, two players per year into the Pro Football Hall of Fame? (I’m guessing baseball averages something like two players a year.) Or five, which is what the modern-era limit is now? That’s two or five out of about 1,700 players per year. There are a lot of people who feel less is more, and I can appreciate that. Some days, I’m right along with you.
But where I come down on this is that I think great players come in lots of shapes, sizes, longevity, positions. I really appreciate the dogged greatness of Sam Mills, who led his professional team in tackles 12 of 15 seasons, who was a defensive captain on three teams (all playoff teams), who led the Panthers in tackles (by 43!) at age 38, when Carolina made the NFC title games in its second season of existence. That’s a Hall of Fame career, I believe. I don’t vote for former players because I like them or because the history of the game can’t be told without them. I voted for Boselli because he was a meteoric talent at a vital position, played more games than recent enshrinees Terrell Davis and Ken Easley, and because he played some of his best games against all-time players like Bruce Smith and Derrick Thomas.
Eli Manning will have his day, and there are good arguments on both sides of his case. But I’m good with putting one of the best left tackles of the last half-century in the Hall, despite the fact Boselli played only 97 games and was kayoed from football by an injury. Gale Sayers played 68, also quitting prematurely because of injury.
He thinks I am a coward. From Jeff Breitenfield, of Madison, Wis.: “You are SUCH a hypocrite and a coward. All season long you have been writing, ad nauseam, about people getting their vaccine shots and wearing masks out in public, and yet, not one word about all the ‘beautiful people’ of LA and beyond at the Super Bowl, and not one of them wearing a mask. NOT. ONE. In fact, in the multiple crowd shots I saw, I didn’t see any there either. Where was your outrage? Oh that’s right, those were all liberals, so … nothing to see here.”
You know, I knew there was an angle I missed in my Super Bowl column, an angle I neglected that was a huge factor in Super Bowl week and Super Bowl LVI—people in Los Angeles not wearing masks!
1. I think the NFL Scouting Combine begins in eight days. What on God’s green earth happened to the break after the Super Bowl? Well, there’s this: Super Bowl 37 was played on Jan. 26, 2003, Super Bowl 56 on Feb. 13, 2022.
2. I think if you’re an NFL fan and live in Germany, you’re likely to see Patrick Mahomes play in your country in either 2023 or 2025. Roger Goodell announced that four games will be played in Germany in the next four seasons, two in Munich and two in Frankfurt. In December, four teams were awarded marketing rights to the German market by the NFL: Kansas City, New England, Carolina and Tampa Bay. Two AFC, two NFC. It’s logical to think that the NFL will give each of those teams one game in Germany over the first four years of the marketing-rights deal. Because NFC teams have nine home games in 2022 and ’24, look for Tampa Bay and Carolina to play the “home” games in those years, while Kansas City and New England, with nine home games in 2023 and 2025, could play a game in Germany in those years. The ’22 game was set up perfectly, with Tom Brady slated to lead the Bucs into Germany. But his retirement means the NFL will likely have to find the best “host” of two teams with questionable QB situations, Bucs and Panthers, to kick off the Germany experiment this fall.
3. I think my guess would be the Bucs in Munich this fall, even without Brady. Tampa’s a bigger sell for the NFL than the Panthers are right now: The Super Bowl LV champs, trying to get back to the big game with a new quarterback.
4. I think the road slate the Bills will have in 2022 is made for TV. They’re at both Super Bowl teams. They’re at traditional AFC powers New England, Kansas City and Baltimore. They’re at the Jets and Dolphins, of course, and at the Bears and Lions. Home games include Packers, Patriots, Titans, Steelers and Browns. Imagine the QB matchups: Allen-Burrow, Allen-Stafford, Allen-Mahomes, Allen-Lamar Jackson, and, if Aaron Rodgers stays in Green Bay, Rodgers-Allen.
5. I think here’s a brief lookahead at the offseason and dawn of the NFL’s 103rd season:
March 1-7: Scouting Combine.
March 16: League year begins. Trading begins. Teams must be under the $208 million cap by 4 p.m. for the top 51 players on the roster.
March 27-30: League meetings (in person for first time since 2019), Palm Beach, Fla.
April 4: Offseason programs begin for teams with new coaches.
April 18: Offseason programs begin for teams with returning coaches.
April 28-30: NFL Draft, Las Vegas.
Aug. 4: First preseason game—Hall of Fame Game, Canton, Ohio.
Sept. 8: First-regular season game, TBD at Rams, SoFi Stadium, Los Angeles.
6. I think several of you have written, and rightfully so, questioning my praise of Dallas media VP Rich Dalrymple upon his early February retirement. A stunning investigative report by Don Van Natta of ESPN detailed two lurid charges against Dalrymple last week. The Cowboys made a $2.4-million settlement with four cheerleaders in the wake of an investigation into alleged voyeurism by Dalrymple in their locker room, Van Natta reported. Van Natta also detailed a charge that Dalrymple took upskirt photos of Dallas exec Charlotte Anderson. (Dalrymple has denied both accusations.) To say I was stunned by the story doesn’t do my reaction justice. Never in 32 years of knowing Dalrymple and dealing with him did I see a single sign of behavior like this. The whole thing is unsettling.
7. I think you may recall a couple of weeks ago when I wrote about new Denver coach Nathaniel Hackett hiring a coach for the coaches, a teacher for the teachers. Check out “Transactions” from last Tuesday, when the Broncos snuck in their new “instructional designer” in introducing the coaching staff: John Vieira (spelled correctly here), a classmate of Hackett’s at UC-Davis. Vieira, Hackett told me, “can open up a new world of technology and teaching for our players.” Yes, Vieira is going to merit watching this offseason, as he dives deep with coaches to improve how well they can teach and reach players.
8. I think no later than one year from today, Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris will be a head coach in the NFL. In fact, I’d give it quite favorable odds.
9. I think sometimes when you look at NFL history, things just jump off the page at you. Apropos of absolutely nothing, I find it amazing that two of the top 50 players of all time (maybe of the top 25 players), Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers, never played in a playoff game.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
b. Such a tangled web, this Kamila Valieva story. No winners here, as Tirico said so well:
“The adults in the room left her alone. Portrayed by some this week as the villain and others as the victim, she is in fact the victim of the villains. The coaches and national Olympic committee surrounding Kamila Valieva, whether they orchestrated, prescribed or enabled, all of this is unclear. But what is certain: They failed to protect her. Guilt by association is often unfair, but it’s called for here.”
c. Column of the Week: Jerry Brewer of the Washington Post on how the Valieva affair tarnished the entire winter games.
d. “It was chilling to see this,” said IOC president Thomas Bach of the Russian reaction to the broken Valieva after she flunked out of the women’s long program, was a shell of herself and finished fourth.
e. Brewer’s column, datelined Beijing, described it so well.
The result broke the child. After a disastrous free skate, Valieva tumbled from first to fourth place in the women’s competition, a supposed sure thing left to watch gold, silver and bronze evade her. There was no need for asterisks, provisional medals or any other winging-it gestures from the International Olympic Committee to manage a cumbersome situation. The girl lost. She wasn’t crowned, pending the outcome of her peculiar and unsettled case. In the end, she wasn’t recognized at all.
Valieva wasn’t recognizable, either. She fell to the ice twice. She stumbled again and again, resembling a woozy boxer. Almost nothing in her repertoire worked for her: the quadruple jumps, the triples, simple gliding. The more she fought, the worse she looked. Her fundamentals collapsed. Her body stopped working with her, knees not bending, shoulders not straightening.
As she came off the ice, the television cameras caught her perplexed coach, Eteri Tutberidze, saying in Russian, “Explain it to me.”
Failure and misery are more prevalent in sports than we care to acknowledge, but this was another level. This was torture on ice. Consider it happened to a teenager — one experiencing vilification for a possible doping plot that she couldn’t have devised on her own — and her agonizing four-minute free skate stands as perhaps the most abusive moment in sports history.
“You let it go completely,” Tutberidze said. “I don’t get it. Everything was fine.”
f. That column will hold up so well over time.
g. I am only a once-every-four-year skating fan, but man, that Valieva long program was hard to watch. Torture for that girl. “Girl” is right. She’s 15.
h. Imagine this debut for a college athlete. The first 15 college at-bats for University of Washington freshman catcher Olivia Johnson, of Pearland, Texas:
Home run, home run, triple, single, walk, single, intentional walk, walk, home run, intentional walk, intentional walk, intentional walk, intentional walk, single, hit-by-pitch.
i. That triple? The third hit? It would have been a home run had not the Lamar University reached over the fence and knocked the ball back into play.
j. FIVE INTENTIONAL WALKS IN HER FIRST 15 COLLEGE AT-BATS. Who is this? The Babe?
k. This week’s sign that we’re all getting very old: Molly Ringwald turned 54 over the weekend.
l. Basketball Story of the Week: Saki Knafo of the New York Times on the legend of Connie Hawkins.
m. Good headline: “He changed the game ‘but nobody knows who he is.’ “ Hawkins was the king of the New York City playgrounds 60 years ago, and he never had the professional career he should have because of a sketchy charge, never proven, of association with gamblers. He didn’t play in the NBA till age 27, and a knee injury a year later curtailed his impact in the pro game. Wrote Knafo:
The N.B.A. refused to let any of its teams draft him, so he pursued less prestigious opportunities. In the eight years after he left college, he played for the Pittsburgh Rens of the short-lived American Basketball League, crisscrossed the country in cramped buses for the Harlem Globetrotters and eventually won a championship for the perpetually broke Pittsburgh Pipers of the American Basketball Association.
Despite his outcast status, he made a strong impression on those who watched him play — especially at summer tournaments in city parks, where he could be seen throwing down dunks over his N.B.A. counterparts. More than almost any of his contemporaries, he was responsible for pioneering the fluid, aerial style that would come to define the modern game. “Everyone plays like him,” the Hall of Fame forward Spencer Haywood said. “And nobody knows who he is.”
… His grandson, Shawn Hawkins, who grew up in a tough housing project in Pittsburgh, said Connie Hawkins left relatives no inheritance. “He should have been able to advance the whole family,” he said. “He should have been able to take a lot of people with him, but he was shortchanged himself.”
n. Smart Radio Story of the Week: Why Norway dominates the Winter Olympics, by Brian Mann of NPR. How does a country the size of Minnesota—with a population of 5.4 million, which is fewer than Minnesota’s—come to the winter Olympics every year and dominate? Reports Mann:
There are some practical things, beyond a love of winter and snow, that raise Norway’s Olympics game. Many of these sports disciplines are pretty marginal in the U.S. in terms of audience appeal.
But in Nordic countries, cross country skiing and biathlon are mainstays on television. With that popularity comes fame for Norwegian athletes, along with more sponsorships, more money.
Norway also funds its Olympic athlete development programs with a national lottery.
o. Final medal tally in Beijing: Norway 37, Germany 27.
p. Current Events Story of the Week: Leila Fadel of NPR on the $73-million settlement with the Sandy Hook parents and a gunmaker, Remington, nine years after the tragedy at the Connecticut school.
q. A snippet of dialog from the piece between Fadel and one of the still-grieving parents, David Wheeler, father of slain Benjamin Wheeler, who would be 15 today, is just so sad:
WHEELER: “People can nitpick and argue about technical specifications about these products that make them different from what’s on the battlefield. But when all is said and done, those kinds of discrepancies really are immaterial.”
FADEL: “This lawsuit is effectively over now. What’s next for you and your family?”
WHEELER: “Well, we just go on, you know, one foot in front of the other.”
Aaron Donald is
this century’s best player
on defense. Hard fact.