NASHVILLE — The Ryan Tannehill story has not gotten enough run. Everything about it is amazing.
The Arthur Smith story has not gotten enough run. Everything about it is amazing.
To acquire Tannehill 17 months ago cost Tennessee 1 percent of its 2019 salary cap and the 135th pick in the 2020 draft. He ended up leading the NFL in passer rating, helping the Titans shock the world in the AFC playoffs and supplanting Marcus Mariota as the Titans’ quarterback of the future.
Smith, Titans offensive coordinator and son of FedEx founder Fred Smith, could have excelled in the family business. But taking a quality-control job on Joe Gibbs’ last Washington staff in 2007 led him to be one of football’s most imaginative play-callers instead of a shipping magnate. “He zigs when the defense is zagging,” GM Jon Robinson said. That’s the general idea.
What do they do for an encore after the Titans, a middle-of-the-pack 4-5 team at midseason, snuck into the playoffs and dominated New England in Tom Brady’s last Patriot game, embarrassed top-seeded Baltimore by 16 points, and put a scare into Kansas City in the AFC title game?
But the vibe I got at Titans camp is this: Shut up about what we did in January. Please. Did you see how we barely made it into the playoffs as the sixth seed? Mindful of Bill Parcells’ adage of, “You never pick up one year where you left off the previous year. Never.”
“He’s right,” Smith said. “Just because we got to the AFC Championship Game, it means absolutely nothing when we kick off [in Week 1] against Denver. That to me is why it’s the greatest game in professional sports. It’s the biggest challenge.”
This year, especially. There’s the COVID-19 impact, the rigid testing and personal freedoms going out the window, the lack of any offseason program, Zoom-learning the playbook, and the impact of the George Floyd murder and other shootings of Black people that have made activists of everyman football players. Like Ryan Tannehill. Two weeks ago, he missed one practice because of being in the COVID-19 protocol (suspected to have had close contact with a COVID-positive person but not having a confirmed positive test himself). Last Thursday, he and his teammates missed a practice along with eight other teams to discuss the Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha, Wis., and plot how to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with it. Kevin Byard, Black safety, and Tannehill, white quarterback, were the team spokesmen for the cause.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to be in locker rooms pretty much my whole life,” Tannehill told me Friday. “There’s something special about being on a team—you realize that you’re a lot more alike than you are different. When you’re able to fight for something together, it really bonds you and brings a closeness that is tough to simulate in the outside world. If I was living in my hometown back in Texas, and never really left, I probably wouldn’t have my eyes open to the same way that I am now.”
I asked Tannehill about one of the social-justice causes the NFL is behind this season. A player, if he chooses, can have the name of a Black person wronged in a confrontation with police emblazoned on the back of his helmet. Would he do that this year?
“I picked Freddie Gray,” Tannehill said. In 2015, Baltimore police arrested Gray and charged him with possession of a knife. Gray was placed in a van, but not secured, and in the subsequent drive, Gray suffered spinal injuries and three fractured vertebrae. He died seven days later without regaining consciousness, and the city paid the Gray family $6.4 million to settle the case out of court.
“I wanted to go with someone who wasn’t as visible,” Tannehill said. “It’s really unclear what happened to him, but I wanted to try to bring a little attention to his life.”
Welcome to a very different NFL season.
The opener’s 10 days away. It was a newsy week. For those who want this column to be only about football, it’s going to be a long year. I’ll do that when the people in football start talking only about football and not acting on social and COVID-19 issues. So the events of the week with football tentacles:
Lurie on the attack. Listening to Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie on Sunday—he did a Zoom call with the media for the first time—you could hear how how hard it was for him to hide his frustration with the political powers that be. Though he never mentioned President Trump, you be the judge who he was talking about late Sunday afternoon when he said: “We have almost 200,000 deaths in the United States. This is from COVID-19 alone. Thirty thousand in the month of August. Over 1,000 in the United States every single day. So if I told you that yesterday, five Boeing 737s crashed in the United States, everybody died, well, that’s every single day right now, every single day. It’s been like that for many weeks. We are 4 percent of the world’s population [and have] 21 percent of the fatalities. . . . We’re the wealthiest country in the world, and 21 percent of the deaths? We have to own this. We have to own the questions of leadership. We have to own the questions of policy, and there’s a lot to be discussed here on that in the future. It’s heartbreaking. These are needless deaths. Needless. We are an embarrassment and a tragic embarrassment.”
The 2020 TV experience. On TV, fanless games will sound just like you’re watching games with a packed house. How? Through using four years of audio curated by NFL Films from every venue in the league. “Texans-Colts, CBS, Lucas Oil Stadium—we’ll have authentic audio from Lucas Oil from the last four seasons to plug in,” said NFL director of broadcasting Onnie Bose. Inside the venue? Still a work in progress.
Here’s what the 2020 helmets will look like.
About an in-season work stoppage. . . Still too early to tell if the NFL players will follow the NBA or MLB and cause some games to be postponed, though Detroit safety Duron Harmon tells me: “Nothing is off the table.” Imagine the impact on the season of players saying one week, for instance, that they’re not playing because of police tactics with Black people.
It’s going to be weird for the officials too. They’re doing homework in case COVID-19 kayoes an official or two and they have to go with five or six-person crews.
There’s a new Patriots book out this week, and it’s tremendous. Jeff Benedict wrote about the Patriots’ 20-year run of greatness, “The Dynasty.” Not quite sure how you get the definitive 26-year Kraft Era wrapped up in 578 pages just 23 weeks after Tom Brady walked out the door—literally—of Robert Kraft’s house and into a new world. Benedict’s quite good. He got Kraft’s exit text to Brady, which included: “Your parents should be so proud. I love them for creating you.”
RIP, Chadwick Boseman. Wise beyond his 43 years, and so good at his job. Life advice from Boseman: “If you are willing to take the harder way, the more complicated one, the one with more failures at first than successes, the one that has ultimately proven to have more meaning, more victory, more glory, then you will not regret it.”
Yannick Ngakoue to the Vikings. For about 60 cents on the dollar, in compensation. Jags have four picks in the top two rounds next year. Wonder who the picker will be.
No preseason games, but teams don’t get away unscathed. A possible torn meniscus likely will keep all-pro safety Derwin James out several weeks of the regular season. James suffered the injury during Sunday’s practice in Los Angeles. The third-year Charger also missed 11 games in 2019 with a stress fracture in his foot.
Russell Wilson wants to play football till Pete Carroll is 83. That’s what he tells Conor Orr of Sports Illustrated. Presumably, Carroll will be retired when he’s 83, in 2034, but you never know.
The secret weapon of the Steeler dynasty is on the doorstep of Canton. Steelers superscout Bill Nunn, nominated last week as the 2021 Contributors candidate to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, deserves his bronze bust. Here’s hoping he gets it next February.
The Titans are one of the most interesting teams in football, even adding no one of major note in the offseason. That includes Tennessee’s pass-rush fix, free-agent Vic Beasley, who is the biggest ghost in the NFL right now. After five years in Atlanta, the Falcons let him go in free agency, and he signed a lowball one-year, $9.5-million deal in Tennessee—amid rumors in Atlanta that Beasley had fallen out of love with football. He was 10 days late reporting to the Titans for camp, costing him a non-forgiveable (by CBA rules) $500,000 in fines. He failed his physical three weeks ago, was put on the non-football injury list, and has yet to practice. After signing more than five months ago, he has yet to talk to the Nashville press, and reporters have seen him around the facility only two or three times. Titans coach Mike Vrabel has given few clues about whatever injury he might have or when he might actually, you know, play football.
The most interesting addition might actually be third-round offensive weapon Darrynton Evans of Appalachian State. He hasn’t practiced in a week because of an unspecified injury, but if he gets right, and if put in the hands and offensive brain of Arthur Smith, Evans, the 93rd pick in the draft last April, could be one of the most interesting rookies in the NFL this year. As someone close to the Titans told me the other day: “Not ‘could be.’ It’s ‘will be.’ Darrynton Evans has a chance to be a poor man’s Alvin Kamara.” After the failed Dion Lewis experiment as an all-purpose back, the Titans hope that Evans is the changeup back not to take touches away from Derrick Henry (20.1 touches per game in the regular season) but to be used all over the formation. Like Kamara. In a Smith game plan, Evans could be dangerous.
Think about Gibbs as a coach and offensive designer. Think about winning games with lesser quarterbacks, a rock ‘em running back (as famous as John Riggins, as infamous as Timmy Smith), a stout line, some deep weapons, and imagination. Every game plan a snowflake for Gibbs. “I look back on my season with him,” said Smith, “and I realize how good he was handling the team, how he thought about the game. Thinking about John Riggins late in the year, in the playoffs, I kind of thought about that with Derrick [Henry] in the playoffs last year, and the similarities of how he thought about playoff football. That certainly had an effect on me.” In other words, ride the hot hand. Timmy Smith, a totally nondescript back (22 career regular-season games, 27 rushing yards per game), rushed for 204 yards in Super Bowl XXII.
After watching the Titans last year, I’m convinced Smith’s one of the five best play designers and playcallers in football. In the divisional game against Baltimore, Smith sent wide receiver Kalif Raymond—5-8, from Holy Cross, waived five times—on a deep seam route, and Raymond put a move on a top-10 NFL corner, Marlon Humphrey. The touchdown rainbow from Tannehill broke open that game. Weeks earlier, in a huge division game against Houston, Smith put tight end Jonnu Smith in the backfield and had Tannehill pitch it to him. Gain of 57.
Smith’s favorite weirdo play? It came on the 72nd offensive playcall of his NFL career. Week 2, 2019, home against Indy, ball at the Colts’ 1-yard line. Jumbo package: Linebacker Daren Bates in front of Henry in the backfield; 477 pounds of force to somehow get one yard. Offensive lineman David Quessenberry tight end-eligible outside the right tackle. At the snap, Marcus Mariota looks for Bates, of all people, flaring left. . .
“The first read of the play,” Smith said, “was Daren Bates, our linebacker subbing in at fullback. They just happened to cover Bates and Quiz came wide open. It was incredible and it worked out probably the way it should’ve and Marcus ended up finding Quiz coming in the back of the end zone. He was just a back side read. It wasn’t like he was the primary. But that’s the underrated thing—we were actually trying to get the ball to the linebacker who was helping out at fullback.” Huge play, in the sixth quarter of Smith’s play-calling life, and he calls for a linebacker to be the first option and the 310-pound offensive lineman the second. Touchdown.
Draw it up, Arthur Smith!
— Tennessee Titans (@Titans) September 15, 2019
“I love the strategy part of it, testing the limits to see what we can do,” Smith said. “I love working for Mike Vrabel. He allows you to push the limits. On the Jonnu play, we put it in in practice, and we ran it—Jonnu thought I was kidding. Mike saw it, he thought about it, and he said, ‘That’s not half-bad.’ “
Smith’s ethos comes in part from being so open-minded. Is it really sensible to have Derrick Henry on the field, needing one yard, and calling a play to throw to a linebacker or offensive linemen? Well, yes. Yes it is. Like his dad, Arthur Smith—one of 10 children—loves learning. “I was pushed by my dad to find my passion and go for it. He’s like, whatever you do, you’re gonna go full steam ahead at it and chase it. He goes to work every day and he’s a very active learner. Always challenges me to keep reading.”
The match with Tannehill was great for Smith, because the sudden backup quarterback—thrust into the lineup for a slumping Mariota in October—was dutiful as a backup, but never believed he was one. And Smith never babied Tannehill. “From the minute I took over he believed in me and just wanted me to go play, wanted me to go cut it loose, not overthink things,” Tannehill said. “That was a lot of fun for me to just go out and play, throw confidently, throw to guys who I believed in to go get the football and make plays. Really at the end of the day, that’s what it was. Arthur does a great job of pushing the envelope of keeping defenses on their toes.”
It helps to have two of the best offensive players in football—Henry and shooting-star wideout A.J. Brown—to build a game plan around. But this team’s fun, and will continue to be, because the offensive coordinator is not afraid of calling anything, and his head coach backs him, and he knows, like his mentor Gibbs, that offensive versatility is offensive strength. Tennessee’s not going to be a one-year wonder.
This is my 25th column since the pandemic took over our world—followed by the social volcano after the murder of George Floyd, followed by the testing and tracing of COVID-19, followed by more unrest due to the events in Kenosha, Wis.—and every week I think, We’re going to get to more football this week. Then the Lions walk out of practice and all heck breaks loose. My column’s basically written by late afternoon Sunday, and then Jeffrey Lurie laces into the shame of COVID-19 in America, and here we are.
Now the season’s 10 days away, and I’ve come to the conclusion that this is just the way it’s going to be this season. Looking at a few of the things you probably don’t know headed into the season:
Watching on TV. The game will look different:
• Nike has made a T-shirt that players can wear in pre-game warmups. It’s optional. It’s the brainchild of Saints wideout Michael Thomas. Front: “Injustice against one of us is injustice against all of us.” Back: “End racism.”
• End zones will have “It Takes All Of Us” on one end line, “End Racism” on the other
• Coaches and game officials will be able to wear patches on their cap with the name of a Black victim, or with one of four messages: “It takes all of us,” “Black lives matter,” “End racism,” “Stop hate.”
• Each week the NFL will select one victim’s name and tell the story of that person in and around the games
• As for the helmets, players can choose either a Black name or one of the four preferred phrases offered: “Stop hate,” “It takes all of us,” “End racism,” “Black lives matter.”
• Far and away, expect to see “BREONNA TAYLOR” as the most common victim’s name on the back of helmets.
“So we were at home during the pandemic,” explained NFL senior VP of corporate communications Traci Otey Blunt, “and we saw 8 minutes and 46 seconds of George Floyd dying on TV. We saw Ahmaud Arbery killed on TV. So many of the other Black deaths involving police—Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Walter Scott—we saw but we think, Oh that’s terrible, but now we’ve got another meeting and then we went on to live our busy lives. This year, we haven’t had that option. The pandemic stopped us and made everyone focus on what’s going on in our country.
“The NFL is America’s most-watched sport. We’ve got 77 percent of our players who are African-American. We provide an opportunity for people to get away, but at the same time, this is a human issue. And we think it’s very hard to not support what we’re doing.”
How the game will sound. Teams doing scrimmages this weekend—the Rams, Eagles, others—experimented with different volumes in-stadium. The Competition Committee will have to determine the decibel levels that can be used while games are being played, but rest assured that there will be some sort of low hum consistently inside the venues. The league doesn’t want to make it easy for teams to find patterns’ in opponents verbal signals and cadences. “There’s got to be an audible hum of some sort,” one GM told me. “There can’t be silence. There’s too much teams can learn from each other if there’s no noise and you hear everything they’re saying.”
On TV, as Onnie Bose told about the NFL Films curated sound, the goal is to make Lions-Packers at Lambeau Field in 2020 in Week 2 sound similar to Lions-Packers at Lambeau in Week 6 last year. “We’ve hired an audio engineer in every market,” Bose said. “Of course, it’s one of those things you never expect to have to do, but the pandemic has forced us to innovate. And NFL Films is not only great at the pictures—they’re great at collecting authentic audio.” In each venue, the audio engineers will make the sound available to TV crews. A first down by the home team may generate a modest cheer, a takeaway a bigger cheer, and a touchdown a bigger one than either—and a turnover a groan, or whatever a groan sounds like. The audio will be taken from actual plays in that stadium from the last four seasons.
It’s still being determined what, if any, added sound will be used on TV or in-stadium for venues that are allowing fans.
The protests. As Tannehill told me, it’s too early to know exactly what form in-season protests will take—whether they would push to miss a week of games, for instance. Falcons owner Arthur Blank said of missing games, “Do I think that’s the best way to demonstrate? Probably not. . . . I think my emphasis would be, I would encourage our players to think more about community than chaos.” Stay tuned on this. No one knows the direction of demonstrations starting Sept. 10.
This is certainly not a contest, but I found it interesting that the Milwaukee Bucks got the credit for starting the work slowdown (or whatever you’d call not playing or practicing when playing or practice was on the schedule) by refusing to play a playoff game Wednesday, to draw attention to the plight of Black Americans after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. By my clock, the job actions began 25 hours earlier. That’s when the Detroit Lions refused to practice. They assembled as one in front of their team facility in Allen Park, Mich., and, led by safety Duron Harmon, explained why the 80 players and 23 coaches would not hold a practice. “We looked each other in the eye,” Harmon said Tuesday afternoon, standing in front of the group of 103, addressing reporters, “and we realized football is not important today.”
On Saturday, I talked with Harmon, an eighth-year safety from Rutgers via Magnolia, Del. This is his first year with the Lions, but he has slid into a leadership role already after his Super Bowl run in New England. He explained why it was important to do, why this team didn’t care if it was the trend-setter in the sports-wide walkouts, and whether this could continue once the real games start.
FMIA: How did this start?
Harmon: “I came in Tuesday, and you could feel the sadness on the team. Disappointment, fear, anger. I was getting some treatment, and [strength and conditioning coach] Josh Schuler said, ‘How you doing?’ I said, ‘Not good. I’m not gonna lie to you. It keeps happening. George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, now Jacob Blake.’ Then Matty P [coach Matt Patricia] pulled me to the side and said, ‘You okay?’ I told him too. He said he wanted to give the team a chance to have an open dialogue, and wherever it goes, it goes. We spent about two hours—it didn’t feel like two hours—and white, Black, everyone talked it out. Great conversation. Then we went to the locker room, and we weren’t done. We kept talking, and [linebacker] Jaylin Reeves-Maybin said, ‘If we go out there and say how much this matters, then we go out and practice, what meaning would it all have?’ Matty P basically said, whatever you guys feel, I’m on board. We’re a team. He wanted to make sure our voices were heard. It couldn’t have been a better moment.”
FMIA: How are you and your team doing?
Harmon: “We’re not okay. We’re gonna fight against it. Everyone thinks we should just play, but at end of the day we’re role models, and I feel strong we have to act that way. When something is wrong, why wouldn’t we do something to create change? If I am not speaking out and acting when unarmed* black men are being killed, then I am no role model. We didn’t do this for people to say: Look at the Detroit Lions! We have a platform, we have the resources. It’s time to use them.”
*Editor’s note: According to the Wisconsin attorney general, a knife was recovered from Blake’s vehicle.
FMIA: You, personally, are very passionate about this. What’s behind that?
Harmon: “Football has given me privileges that normal Black men don’t have. So many feel hopeless. I’m privileged, as I said. And I think part of my job in life is to give hope to so many. I really feel God put me here to be a vessel for the hopeless.”
FMIA: Did you see [White House senior adviser] Jared Kushner took a shot at NBA players after they didn’t play the other day? [Kushner said, “NBA players are very fortunate that they have the financial position where they’re able to take a night off from work without having to have the consequences to themselves financially.”]
Harmon: “No. But that’s someone who doesn’t WANT to understand the issue. We are going to keep fighting.”
FMIA: What do you think the chances are of regular-season games being missed for the players to make a point here?
Harmon: “Nothing is ever too much when you’re fighting for basic equality, basic human rights. Nothing is off the table. Can I sit here and say we’ll boycott games? I can’t say that. We’ll get to a decision like that when we get there. It’s a fluid situation. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know if there’s going to be another unarmed black man murdered by police. Resisting arrest does not deserve the death penalty. Resisting arrest should not get you seven bullets in the back. I can tell you this: We’re not going to stop. We’re not going away.”
It was a matter of time before the definitive story of the New England dynasty got told. This is it, quicker than I thought, just in time for football season, just in time for Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick to try to build another one post-Brady. Jeff Benedict, an outsider, has written a tremendous 578-page dissection of the prequel (including the incredible flirtation with moving to Hartford, and boy was it close), birth, adolescence, adult life and death of the 20-season run of the best sports team of this century. I don’t care if you love the Patriots, hate them, have no feeling about them or couldn’t care less about football but like to see how greatness is built and tended, to make it last when all forces work against that. This is so well done from start (the inside look at the Mo Lewis hit on Drew Bledsoe that could have killed Bledsoe) to finish (Tom Brady and Kraft, in mid-pandemic, saying goodbye). It’s almost invasively personal. Like this retelling of the last moments of Brady’s life as a Patriot, March 17, 2020, when Brady, two hours after his contract with the Patriots lapsed and he was free, texted Kraft to see if he could come to his home to discuss something. “I’m corona-free,” Brady texted, per Benedict.
Benedict’s reporting has it all down—Brady arriving, Brady telling Kraft he was gone, Brady telling Jonathan Kraft (in Aspen) by phone, then Brady telling Belichick by phone, and how all four, Brady and Robert Kraft in tears, handled it so well. When you read the book, you’ll see how emotional it was—so emotional, Benedict told me, that even he was crying as he wrote this. Actually, he said, crying while listening to Abbey Road by the Beatles to get him in the mood for the greatest team in football breaking up. The Beatles, after all, broke up soon after Abbey Road was released in 1969. And like the dissolution of the Beatles, it just seemed so logical for this to end, and for the Patriots to start over and for Brady, like John Lennon, to take one more shot elsewhere.
Robert Kraft and Brady, parting, said they loved each other, and Brady got in his car and drove away. Wrote Benedict:
Alone in the doorway, Kraft waved as Brady’s taillights disappeared in the darkness. Thirty minutes later, sitting alone in his house, Kraft texted Brady: “Love you more than you know for being so classy in everything you do. Your parents should be so proud. I love them for creating you. You are truly one of a kind.”
I know Benedict, but not well. I have great admiration for his reporting and writing. This would give you some idea why. I asked him Saturday about his first meeting with Brady, his first interview with him. Benedict said the meeting was set for the suite in Gillette Stadium where Brady’s family sat for games. He asked the Patriots if he could get in there early, just to think and polish his questions. For three hours, he sat alone, refining and re-thinking about what he’d ask Brady and how he’d ask. When Brady appeared, Benedict was ready—and the quality of his reporting and Brady’s contributions to this book show how exacting Benedict was. The book will be well worth your time.
The other day, talking to Blank, the former co-founder of Home Depot and current Falcons owner, I mentioned how I liked his approach to his team in the aftermath of blowing the 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl and losing to New England. He passed on punching the wall, choosing to back-pat his crushed coaches and players, and he explains why in this book. As he told me: “Either you can curse the darkness or light a candle. I choose to light a candle.”
Blank can be a tough, demanding, bottom-line boss. But over time, I think he’s gotten less reactionary and more understanding of the ebb and flow of the football business. Witness his decision to not fire coach Dan Quinn and/or GM Thomas Dimitroff after a second straight 7-9 season last year. That left the Falcons 25-25 since the crushing Super Bowl loss. A lot of that understanding comes through in this book, which is essentially the values-based philosophy Blank tries to use in his businesses and his sports teams. (He also owns Atlanta United, the MLS team.) An interesting chapter is “Going the extra two inches,” in which he explains why he chose seats for his new downtown stadium for the Falcons and Atlanta United that were 21 inches wide when he could have chosen 19. Interesting stuff there about treating the customers right, whether at Home Depot or with a sports team.
Blank writes of young business school students he has spoken to and advised, and about how frustrated they are. “If there’s one question I hear above all others from the business school students I meet,” he writes, “it’s this: Does my choice to pursue a career in business conflict with my need for meaning and purpose and my desire to make a positive difference in the world?” He wrote the book, he said, with the hope that young people merge good values with their desire for work success. It’s a good lesson.
Each spring, I excerpt some particularly inspiring graduation speeches. I missed a gem in 2018: Chadwick Boseman at his alma mater, Howard University. Who could know—except for Boseman—how ill he was at the time? He kept his colon cancer disease and treatment a secret to all in the outside world, and so it was a shock when, late Friday night in Los Angeles, word surfaced of the death of Boseman at 43, far too soon. (More thoughts in Ten Things, below.) In May 2018, Boseman journeyed back to Washington to give the commencement address at Howard.
In part, Boseman’s message to the Howard Class of 2018:
“At this moment, most of you need some realizations because right now you have some big decisions to make. Right now, I urge you in your breath, in your eyes, in your consciousness, invest in the importance of this moment and cherish it. I know some of you might’ve partied last night. You should, you should celebrate, but this moment is also a part of that celebration. So, savor the taste of your triumphs today. Don’t just swallow the moment whole without digesting what has actually happened here. Look down over what you conquered and appreciate what God has brought you through. Some of you here struggled against the university itself. This year, students protested and took over the A building, formulated a list of demands and negotiated with our president and administration to determine the direction of our institution. It’s impressive.
“I was on a roll when I entered the system of entertainment, theater, television and film. In my first New York audition for a professional play I landed the lead role. From that play, I got my first agent. From that agent, I got an on-screen audition. It was a soap opera. It wasn’t Third Watch. It was a soap opera on a major network. I scored that role, too. I felt like Mike Tyson when he first came on the scene knocking out opponents in the first round. With this soap opera gig, I was already promised to make six figures, more money than I had ever seen. I was feeling myself. But once I got the first script—with soap operas you very often get the script the night before and then you shoot the whole episode in one day with little to no time to prepare—once I saw the role I was playing, I found myself conflicted.
“The role wasn’t necessarily stereotypical. A young man in his formative years with a violent streak pulled into the allure of gang involvement. That’s somebody’s real story. Never judge the characters you play. That’s what we were always taught. That’s the first rule of acting. Any role played honestly can be empowering, but I was conflicted because this role seemed to be wrapped up in assumptions about us as Black folk. The writing failed to search for specificity. Plus, there was barely a glimpse of positivity or talent in the character, barely a glimpse of hope. I would have to make something out of nothing. I was conflicted. Howard had instilled in me a certain amount of pride and for my taste this role didn’t live up to those standards.
“It was just my luck that after filming the first two episodes, execs of the show called me into their offices and told me how happy they were with my performance. They wanted me to be around for a long time. They said if there was anything that I needed, just let them know. That was my opening. I decided to ask them some simple questions about the background of my character, questions that I felt were pertinent to the plot. Question number one: Where is my father? The exec answered, “Well, he left when you were younger.” Of course. Okay. Okay. Question number two: In this script, it alluded to my mother not being equipped to operate as a good parent, so why exactly did my little brother and I have to go into foster care? Matter-of-factly, he said, ‘Well, of course she is on heroin.’ That could be real, I guess, but I didn’t want to assume that’s what it was. If we are around here assuming that the Black characters in the show are criminals, on drugs and deadbeat parents, then that would probably be stereotypical, wouldn’t it? That word stereotypical lingered.”
The execs said they could connect Boseman with the writers of the show. They looked at his resume. “So, you went to Howard University, huh?” one exec said. “Yes,” Boseman said, and the exec said, “Thank you for your concerns. We will be watching you.”
“I left the office. I shot the episode I had come in to shoot on that day. Probably the best one I did out of the three because I got what was bothering me off my chest. I was let go from that job on the next day. I got a phone call from my agent. They decided to go another way. The questions that I asked set the producers on guard and perhaps paved the way for less stereotypical portrayal for the Black actor that stepped into the role after me.
“Then, before you know it, you are broke. You find yourself scraping together change just so you can ride the subway, so that you could get the next job. Maybe if you could book something else that would eclipse the feeling of doubt that’s building, but it seems like you can’t pay them to hire you now. My agents at the time told me it might be a while before I got a job acting on screen again . . . ‘We are hesitant about sending you out to some people right now because there is a stigma that you are difficult.’ As conflicted as I was before I lost the job, as adamant as I was about the need to speak truth to power, I found myself even more conflicted afterwards. I stand here today knowing that my Howard University education prepared me to play Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall and T’Challa.
“Sometimes you need to feel the pain and sting of defeat to activate the real passion and purpose that God predestined inside of you. God says in Jeremiah, ‘I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ Graduating class, hear me well on this day. This day, when you have reached the hilltop and you are deciding on next jobs, next steps, careers, further education, you would rather find purpose than a job or career. Purpose crosses disciplines. Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill. Whatever you choose for a career path, remember, the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose. When I dared to challenge the system that would relegate us to victims and stereotypes with no clear historical backgrounds, no hopes or talents, when I questioned that method of portrayal, a different path opened up for me, the path to my destiny.
“I don’t know what your future is, but if you are willing to take the harder way, the more complicated one, the one with more failures at first than successes, the one that has ultimately proven to have more meaning, more victory, more glory, then you will not regret it.”
“I just turned 31. I’m right at the beginning of my prime. My goal is to play another 15 years.”
—Russell Wilson, to Conor Orr of Sports Illustrated. (More on Wilson/Orr in Ten Things, below.)
“I often hear from fans that we should just stick to sports. I have to respectfully disagree. Sports has a long history of speaking out for positive change. Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, and right here in Green Bay, no better example than Vince Lombardi. He was ahead of his time, signing and supporting Black players when few in the league did. We wouldn’t have our 13 World Championships if it wasn’t for Vince Lombardi. He also went to local businesses and said, ‘If your business discriminates against our Black players, your business is off-limits to our entire team.’ How can we celebrate the achievements of our black players, past and present, without acknowledging and supporting and advocating for their basic rights as American citizens?”
—Green Bay Packers president and CEO Mark Murphy.
“There will be knuckleheads who don’t comply with the rules.”
—Baltimore president Dick Cass, on the fans he expects to attend Ravens games in 2020. Fans will be required to wear masks and to keep socially distant from non-family members.
“Right now, we’re just lost, man. I have no idea why we went out there and practiced today. I feel like we all just go through the motions. We’ve all kind of become so numb to this because it’s happened so many times and in so many different places that we’re all just confused. There’s a sense of hopelessness of just not knowing or understanding how to fix a problem. When we cancel practice and we sit down and we meet and we talk, does it change anything? When we stay inside for the national anthem and then we go out there and we play in the game for four quarters and we entertain everybody, does it change anything?”
—New England cornerback Jason McCourty, sounding hopeless, on the Patriots’ decision whether to practice or whether not to in the wake of civil unrest over the Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha, Wis.
“They never are served up like a softball. They always come in awkward. They always come in with a little hair on ‘em.”
—Dallas owner Jerry Jones, on the prospect of looking into and acquiring veteran players with problem résumés, like safety Earl Thomas.
“Sack … sack … That’s a sack right there … Sack.”
—Rams coach Sean McVay, on “Hard Knocks,” repeating five times what defensive tackle Aaron Donald did at the team’s SoFi Stadium scrimmage last week. Because defenders can’t tackle the quarterback, McVay judged when Donald would have had a sack, and whistled the play dead.
“Man, does Aaron get home fast. That was like my first real game reps against Aaron, today, really. He gets home fast.”
—Quarterback Jared Goff of the Rams, on Donald.
In all, there will be 11 first-year officials—six who were named full-time officials in the spring, and the five appointed this month to replace those who opted out.
Just thinking: The NFL has 17 officiating crews. When the 11 first-year officials step on the field for the first time, they’ll be officiating NFL games without the benefit of 2020 preseason games, and without the benefit of the in-person off-season training program, which is usually held in Dallas each summer. This year, the program was done virtually. As members of the NFL’s officiating training program, most of the 11 have done preseason games in prior years, but it’s got to be a pretty intimidating step. Imagine being a first-year NFL official and walking onto the field for the first time in the big league and the game is real.
Speaking of refs, here are some factoids about officiating the games in the 2020 pandemic:
Testing: Officials will be tested twice during the season: one regular test likely on Wednesday (taking up to 24 hours to return), and one point-of-care, or instant, test when they arrive at their hotel the day before the game.
Day-before-game protocols: Usually, officials fly from all around the country and arrive at the hotel the day before the game by mid-afternoon. They’ll have a meeting in a conference room at the hotel and go over their tape from the previous week’s game, plus the training tape the league’s officiating department has made for each crew that week. Then, most often, the crew will gather for a team dinner that evening in or near the hotel. This year, officials will be largely regionally assigned, and the league wants as many as possible to drive to their assignments to avoid airports. Once at the hotel, officials will take a COVID-19 test, then go to their rooms. Though officials will be in the same hotel, they will watch the customary officiating tapes by videoconference from their rooms. There will be no group dinner, only room service, or grab-and-go takeout. It will be a solitary experience, mostly.
Gameday: Officials will first see each other on the bus taking them to the game site. Usually, officials crowd into a shuttle van for the ride to the stadium; this year, the vehicles will be larger, with each official socially distant from other crew members. As for contingencies, crews have been training in case one or two of the officials on the crew test positive on Saturday and replacements cannot get to the game site on time. So there will be a game even if only five officials of the seven-person crews can officiate.
One last point: The NFL moves back into the referee “going under the hood” and eschewing the 2019 method of reviewing a challenge—the ref using a tablet on the field. Why? Fewer touchpoints with the removal of tablet usage and going under the hood, where replay can be run from the New York officiating center.
The Giants, for some periods of practice, put tennis balls in their defensive backs’ hands and wrap them with athletic tape. It’s an effort to stop DBs from being grabby, an effort to cut down on flags for defensive holding.
Very weird, but I think I like it.
You will certainly be aware if a coach throws a challenge flag at SoFi. pic.twitter.com/DzyAqhJWal
— Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) August 29, 2020
Andrew Siciliano, the NFL Network host, at the new Los Angeles stadium for a scrimmage.
🎶One of these things is not like the otherspic.twitter.com/f62wsC9R5g
— Fᴏᴏᴛʙᴀʟʟ Zᴇʙʀᴀs ✊🏾⚖️ (@footballzebras) August 25, 2020
Ben Austro, who runs the officiating site Football Zebras, has long pointed out the unfairness of no on-field official being in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and did so again this year after Art McNally failed to be named a Hall of Fame finalist.
It’s official: Both children’s schools are doing virtual learning this fall, so they’ll be home, while both parents’ schools are having us teach in person, so the adults will be gone. Essentially, party at my house!
— Jane McManus (@janesports) August 25, 2020
Jane McManus is a columnist for the New York Daily News, and the director of the Marist Center for Sports Communication
Today’s practice was originally scheduled to go two hours. Near the end, Joe Judge gathered the team and ripped into them with an expletive-filled speech. Then he kept them on the field another half hour.
— Ralph Vacchiano (@RVacchianoSNY) August 24, 2020
Ralph Vacchiano covers the Giants beat for cable channel SNY.
Mamba mentality 8/24
— GrantDelpit (@realgrantdelpit) August 25, 2020
Rookie Cleveland safety Grant Delpit, lost for the year with a torn Achilles on Aug. 24. Kobe Bryant, Mamba, who also suffered a torn Achilles in his career, was born on Aug. 23.
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) August 29, 2020
The Bengals, as a team, walked to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center on Saturday.
On whether to use “Chiefs.” From Clint Jenkin: “I appreciate your thoughtfulness on the Native American nicknames, but before you decide to stop using ‘Chiefs,’ please hear me out. I am a registered member of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians and I am sad to think about a world where one by one, all Native American-themed teams change their nicknames until eventually none are left. These clubs and schools—without exception—chose these nicknames because there was something about native ethos, character, or traditions that they wanted to emulate. We are proud of our history, and as long as it is done from a respectful standpoint, these nicknames are an honor to our native heritage. If writers and pundits become shamed into boycotting these nicknames the eventual result will be the opposite of what I think you want: Native American ideals and history will be even further removed from mainstream society. Let the Chiefs, Seminoles, and Braves have their nicknames. And let’s celebrate the amazing peoples who made those names worth having.”
As I wrote last week, I believe there’s a difference between the Washington team name and Kansas City’s. Washington’s is not hard to view as racist; KC’s is more of an honorific. But—and your email is valuable in my thought process, Clint—I have to consider whether the strong and brave connotation of the name “Chiefs” overrides the feelings of those who adamantly say any Native American nickname is offensive. I do appreciate your feelings. They’re valid and will give me things to think about.
He has a problem with Roger Goodell being praised for being woke on Colin Kaepernick. From Brad Sher, of Omaha: “My problem is Goodell feels better and gets kudos. Everyone else feels better that there is acknowledgement by the NFL on being a problem. The NFL throws money at things for the players and claims how newly enlightened they are. But Kaep is still unemployed, still ostracized by every team and the NFL as a whole. Talk is cheap. Where is the real action to make it right?”
Question of the year.
Buddy Parker? Meh. From John Newman, of Riverview, Fla.: “I get your comments about Buddy Parker for the Hall of Fame, but at some we have to recognize that it is the Hall of FAME, not the Hall of the Very Good. Yeah Parker had some good years with the Lions, but none with the Steelers. Yeah he won a couple of NFL championships, but just winning a championship shouldn’t count more towards getting into the Hall of Fame than other achievements. To me, the Hall of Fame should be reserved for people that through their play, coaching or other accomplishments fundamentally changed the game and made it what it is today. Paul Brown changed the game, Tom Landry changed the game, Bill Parcells changed the game, Bud Grant changed the game. Bill Walsh, Don Coryell, Tony Dungy (Tampa-2) all changed the game. Buddy Parker?”
Hello Newman . . . So that is a very fair point to make. Not sure all those coaches “changed the game,” or that by “changing the game” you should be locked in for the Hall of Fame. Should Buddy Ryan, inventor of the 46 defense, be in the Hall of Fame? I don’t think so. Or Michael Vick who, it can be argued, was the first of the dangerous runners/throwers making quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson not so unusual anymore? I don’t think so. What major ways did Don Shula “change the game” while winning more games than any coach ever? Deion Sanders thinks the hall has become too easy to get into, and by the looks of the Centennial Class last year, I’d say I agree with him. But I also think you should be judged by the era you played or coached. In a 15-year period of coaching, Parker won two titles and set up the Lions to win one the year he left, had more success against the great Paul Brown than any coach of the era, had an an over-.500 run with a perennially bad franchise. I’d argue that’s a Hall of Fame coach.
1. I think, from both perspectives, this is how I see Sunday’s trade between Minnesota and Jacksonville. The Vikings sent a second-round pick in 2021 and a 2022 fifth-rounder that could rise to a fourth or third (per Adam Schefter) to obtain 25-year-old defensive end Yannick Ngakoue.
• Minnesota. The Vikings, with the departure of Everson Griffen, needed a bookend for Danielle Hunter in the pass-rush, and Ngakoue fits the need well; he’s a solid run player, and a very good pass-rusher and turnover-causer, with 37.5 sacks and 14 forced fumbles in his four Jag seasons. Minnesota has only $12.5-million of cap space to fit Ngakoue, who wanted a big contract in Jacksonville, and with the cap declining next year because of COVID-prompted economics, it won’t be easy to give him the contract he wants. But in a football sense, the Vikings just got better, and maybe a lot better, and paid 60 cents on the dollar (in draft capital) for a good young player at a position of great value in Mike Zimmer’s defense.
• Jacksonville. The good news: Jacksonville has seven picks in the first four rounds of the 2021 draft, with extras in the first, second and fourth rounds. The Jags’ own first-round pick, in a draft with three quarterbacks in the projected top 10, will likely be very high. The bad news: The Jags got lousy compensation for a 25-year-old top-tier front-four disruptor. They were hell-bent on getting better compensation for Ngakoue, and if the Vikings are a playoff team, Jacksonville’s haul will likely be a pick in the fifties next April and likely at best a fourth in 2022, maybe around 130 overall. That shows two things: The market was not robust for Ngakoue, and Jacksonville waited too long to maximize the return.
The denuding of the Jags continues to be startling. On opening day two years ago, the Jags were coming off the best defensive season in the AFC—allowing a conference-low 268 points—and a narrow loss in the AFC title game at New England. Since then, they’ve lost top defensive ends Ngakoue and Calais Campbell, tackle Malik Jackson, linebacker Telvin Smith, and perhaps the best young corner tandem in football, Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. Last year the Jags were 13th in the AFC, allowing 397 points, and are hoping four first-round defensive picks since 2018 (Josh Allen, Taven Bryan, C.J. Henderson and K’Lavon Chaisson) form the nucleus of a playoff defense. GM David Caldwell better be right.
2. I think I find it amazing, and very much a sign of the times in professional sports, that Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, two weeks before the first game of the season and on a day he cancelled practice so his players could vent and rant and discuss important social issues, would say these words in a passionate 14-minute statement:
“Black people can’t scream anymore, they can’t march anymore, they can’t bare their souls anymore to what they’ve lived with for hundreds of years because white guys came over from Europe and started a new country with a great idea and great ideals . . . We
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