Last month, a football analytics article took the Boston Sports Media by storm… in July. I was personally caught off guard, as I was still focused on NBA and NHL free agency, and immersed in the heart of baseball season, but the NFL has a way of dominating the local and national sports culture at will.
The article, by Cian Fahey of presnapreads.com, was about the challenges aging quarterbacks face, highlighted by Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and Eli Manning, and provided detailed breakdowns of their performances in 2016.
The parts about Brady were the highlight of the discussion on Boston radio, of course. Over the course of a week, I heard at least three different pronunciations of Fahey’s first name as hosts and callers reacted to Fahey’s analysis. Brady has won five Super Bowls and played in seven, and just came off the best age 39 season by a quarterback in NFL history. The article was presented as a hot take, that Brady might already be in decline, and Patriots fans have heard people in the national media proclaiming Brady’s decline for nearly a decade now. It still has not happened.
Tom Brady turns 40 today (and I encourage everyone to read the stories Mike Reiss of ESPN compiled to celebrate the milestone), but, without sounding like too much of a homer, I need to see Brady decline before I believe he is actually declining at this point. I have counted him out personally too many times, and I have scoffed at too many pundits and analysts who counted him out even if deep down I had my doubts–with Super Bowl LI being the most obvious and recent example–to go down that road before Bill Belichick starts Jimmy Garoppolo over a healthy Brady in a meaningful game.
The point about arm strength is a fair concern, and missing the first four games of the season had to help him hold up, as outraged about the Deflategate nightmare as Patriots fans were. But arm strength is less of a concern for Brady than a lot of other quarterbacks because of the way he plays and the way Josh McDaniels orchestrates the New England offense to play to Brady’s strengths. He doesn’t rely on the deep ball. He’s not the Justin Verlander of QBs. That’s Aaron Rodgers. Brady is Dallas Keuchel. If arm strength were everything, Jay Cutler (who I guess would be Aroldis Chapman if we’re going to keep comparing quarterbacks to pitchers) would still be in the NFL and not in the Fox broadcast booth.
Even if his skills have declined, there are only a handful of teams that could take advantage of this 40 year old superstar. Houston’s defense gave the Patriots fits in the playoffs for sure, but their quarterback was Brock Osweiler. This year, Osweiler is out of the picture and the effectiveness of Tom Savage and rookie Deshaun Watson remains to be seen. Derek Carr and the Exiting Oakland Raiders could make a formidable foe, but their defense was nowhere near Houston’s last year and has a lot of room for improvement. The Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos have historically given Brady trouble, but Denver’s quarterback situation is unproven at best, and the injury to Joe Flacco could leave the Baltimore with more uncertainty than a team that has only made the playoffs once since winning the Super Bowl in 2013 would like.
The Falcons are clearly a team that can hang with the Patriots on both sides of the ball, but they are in the NFC, where the road to the Super Bowl is much tougher year in and year out. Also, given the way they imploded in a game they were so sure they had won that owner Arthur Blank was standing on the sideline preparing to celebrate as he instead watched his team lose, they might be damaged for 2017. The Pats had their share of struggles in the years that followed their 18-1 2008 campaign, and the decision to throw instead of hand off to Marshawn Lynch still haunts the Seattle Seahawks two and a half years later.
The best thing Brady has going for him late in his prime is a league that mostly does not have an answer for him, much like LeBron James in basketball. The only difference is there is no juggernaut on par with the Warriors that are definitively better than Brady’s team. Not only is Brady the greatest QB, but Bill Belichick is the greatest coach, and Rob Gronkowski is the greatest tight end. It’s like if LeBron was on the Warriors. Okay, maybe I am a homer.
My belief in Brady at 40 is as much about the results on the field as the stories Reiss highlighted about his insane level of competitiveness at every stage in his adult life. From pickup basketball games when he was at Michigan to chugging beer at a bar in Rochester to refusing to give an inch to any backup, even if he knew he wasn’t going to start the September games in 2016, Brady is as dialed in now as he was when he was taken 199th by a team that already had a franchise QB. If Jimmy Garoppolo’s entire career as an NFL starter is just those six magnificent quarters last fall, he will go down as one of the greatest draft picks in the Belichick Era because of the level his presence made Brady reach late in his career. Then again, that narrative might not be entirely fair to Brady.
Tom Brady’s career has been a joy to watch. It wasn’t all great, but the struggles in 2009 and 2010 only made what he accomplished these last few seasons even more impressive. At 40 one would think he is nearing the end, but Brady keeps moving the figurative goal posts for himself as efficiently as he moves the literal chains on the field. Take that for data!
One of my biggest regrets as a writer is the two years or so I took off from writing about sports on the Internet from the spring of 2011 to the spring of 2013. On the one hand, I absolutely needed to reset and refocus as a writer, and I had other things going on and some perspective would have done me a lot of good. If I continued writing the way I had been, in the style I had been, on the blog I had been, I would have burnt out sooner or later, and I would not be writing here for you today in 2017. On the other hand, there is no written evidence, no previous article I wrote that I can link to, that can prove how right I was about Kirk Cousins.
We sports writers, amateur and professional alike, we sports enthusiasts who call and email talk radio shows and fill Reddit threads with opinions and analysis, we love making predictions, and we love being able to go back and prove we were right when our opinion in the moment was not the consensus or the prevailing opinion. Now that Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins has been franchised for the second straight year, and now that he is set to be one of the most interesting and in-demand assets in the NFL, I wish I had been maintaining a blog in the spring of 2012, when the Redskins took two quarterbacks, so I could have written that Cousins was a real NFL QB, that having a guy like Cousins drafted alongside Robert Griffin III would not end well for Washington, and the overlooked Cousins would be itching to prove himself. Five years later, the Washington football team that had two rookie quarterbacks may very well lose them both, with nothing but a couple of one-and-done playoff appearances to show for it.
Last offseason, the Redskins placed the franchise tag on Kirk Cousins, rather than signing him to a contract extension, after a 2015 season in which he won the starting job away from Griffin for good and led Washington to an NFC East division title. The Skins cut RGIII (who signed with the Cleveland Browns and subsequently got injured in the first game of the regular season), but were not ready to commit to Cousins long-term. That line of thinking is entirely defensible on its own. Cousins had one good season as a starter under his belt, and it would be reasonable for a team to want to see more before committing top dollar and many years to a relatively unproven player, but then Cousins had another good season in 2016. Sure, the Redskins struggled down the stretch and missed the playoffs, but they had also not put in place a backup plan.
The only quarterback to play on the franchise tag twice was Drew Brees with the San Diego Chargers, who eventually walked in free agency and signed with the New Orleans Saints, where he has been such a great face of the franchise that I often forget he was in San Diego and get caught off guard when scrolling through Google Images for pictures for articles I am writing. The difference between what the Chargers were doing a decade ago with Brees and what the Redskins are doing now with Cousins is that San Diego drafted Philip Rivers during that time (well, actually they drafted Eli Manning, but traded him for Rivers when the Mannings made it clear Eli did not want to be in San Diego), and gave Rivers a couple years in the system to develop before Brees left to go get paid by the Saints. I thought back in 2012 that Cousins, like Brees, would leave Washington to go get paid by another franchise, and eventually be synonymous with that second franchise the way Brees is with New Orleans, but I thought that would be because of the flashes he showed backing up RGIII, not because he proved himself as the starter in Washington like he ended up doing.
Rather than sign him to an extension, the Redskins placed a second franchise tag on Cousins. If they do not sign him to an extension, Cousins will most certainly leave Washington. Why would he stay with an organization that has been so hesitant to believe in him? That has forced him to bet on himself season after season? Cousins has been well compensated by the Redskins, thanks to the franchise tag, yet they are still finding ways to alienate their franchise QB. Why would he stay in Washington when there are two NFL franchises now coached by former offensive coordinators of his (Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco, and Sean McVay in Los Angeles), who would take him over their current quarterback situations, even if it means waiting another year.
The Rams and 49ers should not be the only teams interested in Cousins’ services. He has a lot going for him, even compared to the other highly regarded NFL quarterbacks being talked about as trade chips right now. Cousins is eight years younger, and far less injury-prone, than Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, and has a far greater sample size for teams to look at than New England Patriots backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo (who started five quarters during Tom Brady’s suspension before getting hurt), but no matter what happens, I cannot shake the feeling that the Redskins will mess this up. That’s what they are known for in the Dan Snyder Era.
Since Snyder bought the team in 1999, the Redskins have had a high amount of turnover at the head coach and quarterback positions, not as high as the Cleveland Browns, but certainly not a model for consistency and continuity in professional sports, either. Head coach Jay Gruden is going into his fourth year of a five year contract the same year that Kirk Cousins is poised to play on a second straight franchise season. Why would Cousins want to sign an extension with a team that might be on the verge of turning over its coaching staff yet again? By Snyder’s own reputation, they are due.
When they quarterback draft class of 2012 was in college, Cousins was the one I saw the most on TV. I knew about Andrew Luck at Stanford and Robert Griffin III at Baylor, as they were the Heisman favorites all season, but for whatever reason, Cousins’ Michigan State team was on TV all the time in Massachusetts, it seemed, and I was in the habit of watching a lot more college football than I have in the years since (spoiler alert: I was in college, living in the dorms), so I was impressed with Cousins’ play at the time, and was particularly baffled when Washington decided to trade up in the draft to #2 overall to take Griffin, and then also take Cousins in the 4th round. How could that possibly end well?
While I prided myself on picking up on Cousins getting overlooked, and that driving him to improve the way he did, I was, of course, also guilty of overlooking Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson, who was taken by the Seattle Seahawks the round before Cousins, and who has played in two Super Bowls and has had the best career of the four quarterbacks to this point. As disappointed as I am in not having proof that I was bullish on Cousins in 2012, I am also thankful I don’t have written proof like that about how wrong I was about Russell Wilson. I guess it was all for the best I took those two years off and I am here now to write about it.
In the post I wrote recapping the weekend’s NFL playoff games, I focused heavily on the New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers, incorporated their opponents, the Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys, and also felt the need to talk about the Pittsburgh Steelers, as they are the ones who will be coming into Foxboro to play against my Patriots next weekend. I mentioned the Atlanta Falcons, but did not even mention their quarterback, Matt Ryan, by name as I gushed over how good Tom Brady (who had an uncharacteristically bad game) and Aaron Rodgers (who has replaced Donald Trump, at least temporarily, as the protagonist of my nightmares). It was as I was writing that post that I realized how many thoughts I had about Matt Ryan, and how that deserved to be its own post, separate from the weekend that was for Brady and Rodgers.
There are four teams left in the NFL, and all four have quality quarterbacks, but Matt Ryan is not thought of the way the other three are. If Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisburger, and Aaron Rodgers never play in another football game, they are guaranteed to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio one day, and that is definitely not true of Matt Ryan. Ryan has the most to gain of the four by winning next Sunday.
In 2008, the same year that the Packers decided to make a backup QB named Aaron Rodgers their starter and trade away veteran superstar Brett Favre to the New York Jets, the Falcons drafted Matt Ryan out of Boston College with the third overall pick, and gave him an equally unenviable task of being the franchise QB for a team that had lost direction when Michael Vick went to prison, just as Vick was getting out of jail and getting his second chance in Philadelphia. For those who only remember the washed-up journeyman backup version of Vick we saw in recent years, pre-prison Michael Vick was must-watch television, even when the Falcons were bad, and a player so skilled that video game versions of him were borderline unfair to play against. Making Atlanta move on from Vick was no easy task, but Ryan came out of college with a decent amount of hype in his own right.
In his rookie year, Atlanta made the playoffs, but lost in the first round to the eventual NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals. In the years since, Ryan was one of a crop of QBs like Joe Flacco, Matthew Stafford, Andy Dalton, and Sam Bradford who were pretty good, but not great, and with the exception of Flacco winning the Super Bowl for the Baltimore Ravens in 2013, experienced minimal playoff success, if any.
Personally, I never really got the hype of Matt Ryan. He had a good career at Boston College, but I often find myself forgetting that he played college football in Boston, and I saw it. His final year at BC was my senior year of high school, the same year the Patriots went undefeated in the regular season. You would think BC would have a bigger fan base than it does, being one of only two big-time college football programs in Massachusetts, but Boston is a pro sports town, and there are so many other colleges in the area, nobody has a major incentive to root for BC unless they went there. Last year, BC played Notre Dame at Fenway Park, and Notre Dame was the home team. Boston College dominated the ACC for much of the 2007 season, but they were very much an afterthought with the Patriots reaching the Super Bowl, the Red Sox winning the World Series, and the Celtics winning their 17th NBA Title in the spring of 2008. The same thing happened a couple years later with current Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly. He was one of the most sought after draft prospects in the entire country, but his college career was largely ignored by the local football fans.
Ryan was nicknamed “Matty Ice” while he was at BC, and the nickname never quite fit his game. He never had a moment in his career where he marched the Falcons down the field for a tying or go-ahead score at the end of a playoff game, like Tom Brady did in two of his first three career playoff games, as if to suggest he had ice water rather than blood running through his veins. In his NFL career, he gets called Matty Ice ironically, but that can change if he out-duels Aaron Rodgers on Sunday. Rodgers also has a lot to gain by winning this weekend. He has only made one Super Bowl, and that was six years ago, despite being the most talented quarterback in the NFL during that stretch. But people also recognize what Rodgers has to work with, and how incredible he was the last six weeks of the regular season, not to mention through the first two rounds of the playoffs. If the Packers were to lose, the brilliance of Rodgers against the Giants and Cowboys will not be forgotten, and the loss would be chalked up to being on the road against another talented team with another QB having an MVP-type season.
On the other hand, Matt Ryan has a chance to finally show us that he belongs in the discussion with Brady, Rodgers, and Roethlisburger. Right now, it is not enough that he convincingly won a division that also contains Drew Brees, Cam Newton, and Jameis Winston. Matt Ryan has had good regular seasons before. As long as he has been in the NFL, I have been waiting for him to get it done in January in order to take him seriously. We are almost a decade removed from that (over)hyped Boston College season, and I still have not seen it, but if he proves me wrong, I will admit it. LeBron won me over last summer, and I admitted it. Show me what you got, Matty Ice.
The Denver Broncos are not going back to the playoffs this January after they kicked off 2016 by winning Super Bowl 50. Looking back on the Golden Anniversary Super Bowl not even a full year later, the Big Game of 2016, much like everything about that year, already feels really weird and out of character with the rest of reality. That Super Bowl was the Super Weird Bowl. The Carolina Panthers got there after going 15-1 in the regular season, and Cam Newton was the league’s MVP, and they lost. I would say Peyton Manning was a shell of his former self, but that would be unfair to other shells of former selves. In an era when offense reigns supreme and scoring records are broken they way every meaningful baseball was getting broken in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was a stifling defense that ruled the day, in spite of Manning’s poor play. Perhaps the weirdest about this Super Bowl is the fact that neither the Carolina Panthers nor the Denver Broncos made the playoffs the following year.
Carolina’s struggles can be explained a little more easily. The defense took some steps backward with Jared Allen retiring, Josh Norman signing with Washington, and Luke Kuechly missing time due to injury. Also, Cam Newton gets hit like no other quarterback does. People seem to think that since he is so big and so strong that he can get wrecked like QBs did before the NFL cared about player safety. Repeating the kind of results the Panthers got in 2015 was never going to be easy, but I am not ready to write them off for the rest of the decade.
The Broncos’ struggles in 2016 can also be easily identified, but are harder to justify when you realize that they could have been avoided. Denver was lucky to get as far as they did–not just lucky to win the Super Bowl, but lucky to beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, and lucky to beat the Steelers in the Divisional Round–with a so-far-past-his-prime-he-should-have-changed-his-name-to-not-confuse-people-Peyton Manning under center and shouting “Omaha,” but incapable of throwing the ball downfield at all. Attempting to do the same thing a second straight year, not measurably upgrading a quarterback position that could not get much worse, and expecting to get the same kind of game in and game out dominating defensive performance in an offense-driven modern NFL is playing with some serious fire. But that’s exactly what the Broncos did.
Broncos president John Elway has earned a significant amount of trust with Broncos fans, having led the team to seven Super Bowls (five as a quarterback, two as an executive), and winning a championship can buy you goodwill for at least a year or two, no matter how badly the year that follow go (the only time I know of when a fan base turned on a team’s management less than a year after winning a title was the Red Sox in 2014, and some of my posts on this blog are reflective of that), but he is pushing it with the way the Broncos went into the 2016 season. By replacing the retired Manning not with Brock Osweiler (who signed a free agent contract with the Houston Texans), but with Trevor Siemian, a 2015 7th round draft pick out of Northwestern, Elway placed lofty expectations on a Denver defense. The 2016 NFL Draft produced multiple quarterbacks that won games as rookies despite being picked outside the top two. I cannot help but wonder what Denver’s record would have been had Elway taken a chance on Dak Prescott or Jacoby Brissett, who appear poised to be the replacements to Tony Romo in Dallas and Tom Brady in New England, respectively.
While able to throw out incredible talent in pass rushers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, as well as with Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib in the defensive backfield, that defense deserves a better offense. The Broncos have been irresponsible in the way they built their offense, particularly the quarterback position, the same way the New Orleans Saints have squandered Drew Brees’ offensive brilliance for most of his prime by not building a good defense for him. That said, if for some stupid reason, the NFL decided to cut down to 31 franchises and merge two existing teams for the 2017 season, if the Saints’ offense merged with the Broncos’ defense, they would be the prohibitive favorites to win Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis.
The Broncos need to do something about the QB position, but right now, that is not even their most pressing matter. This week, head coach Gary Kubiak resigned due to health concerns after just two years on the job. Kubiak played his entire NFL career for the Broncos, as Elway’s backup, and served as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator for Denver when they won those two Super Bowls in the late 1990s. In his first year back in Denver, he led the Broncos to their third Super Bowl victory, and less than a year later he is retiring. Denver should, in theory, have no trouble finding a replacement, given how good their defense is and the fact that there should be more NFL quarterbacks available this offseason than most years, from Romo to Jimmy Garoppolo to Tyrod Taylor to Sam Bradford to Kirk Cousins.
The issue with Denver as a coaching spot may very well be John Elway’s ego. He is a top five or top ten quarterback in the Super Bowl Era and has enjoyed a good deal of success as an executive, but he is also the guy who ran Tim Tebow out of Denver when after getting the Broncos to the playoffs, and clashed with John Fox, who like Kubiak, left the Broncos a year after getting them to the Super Bowl, but not for health reasons. Sure, he brought in Peyton Manning, one of the handful of quarterbacks higher up than him on the all time list, but when Manning was at a point of desperation in his career, coming off a potentially career ending neck injury, and the coach he brought in to replace Fox was literally his former backup. I would not be surprised if Elway went with either defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who was previously Denver’s head coach in 1993 and 1994, or one of the Shanahans, whom Elway has a working relationship with from his playing days, but I do not know how many coaching prospects from outside Elway’s past work history would want to take this job. One person who will not be considered is New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, this year’s most sought after offensive-minded coach, whose only head coaching job was in Denver, and who was run out of town in his second season.
Regardless of what happens with the coaching vacancy, the Broncos need a quarterback, and if they do not get one, John Elway could be torn down as a fool just as quickly as he was built up as a genius.
In a year when sports fans said goodbye to Peyton Manning and Kobe Bryant, and much more quietly to Tim Duncan, in a year when we get to sit back and appreciate the late-career renaissances of David Ortiz, Ichiro Suzuki, Dirk Nowitzki, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Joe Thornton, and Jaromir Jagr, and in a week we learned for sure that this the end for Mark Texeira (retiring at the end of the season), Prince Fielder (retiring effective immediately due to neck problems), and likely also Tim Lincecum (designated for assignment by the Angels after posting an earned run average over nine), the weirdest departure is that of New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez… because of course it is. He wouldn’t go down any other way.
A-Rod’s career is coming to an abrupt end this week, after playing the series this week at Fenway Park against the Red Sox, Rodriguez will play one more home game in front of the New York crowd, and then will begin a new career as a special adviser to the Yankees’ organization for the duration of his playing contract. No chase for 700 or 714 or 755 or 763 home runs. No farewell tour. Just one last chance to be heckled by the Boston fans who have been heckling him since 2004, and one last chance to be cheered by the New York fans who I imagine could not have felt good about this guy being one of the faces of their storied franchise for over a decade. It’s just weird. Nothing ever totally added up with this guy.
I’ve been aware of Alex Rodriguez for as long as I’ve been following baseball full time (my earliest recollection of watching the games and knowing what was going on was the 1996 World Series between the Yankees and Atlanta Braves, when I was six, but I did not start following baseball day to day until the 1998 season, when I was eight), and I always knew he was a supremely talented player from his early days with the Seattle Mariners and his big free agent payday with the Texas Rangers, when his ten year $252 million contract shattered the record for player contracts in North American professional sports set by Kevin Garnett, but I did not hate him until 2004. The deal that the Red Sox tried to make to acquire A-Rod, would have changed the landscape of Major League Baseball, with the Sox having A-Rod at shortstop in 2004, and without Nomar Garciaparra available to be the trade chip to fill out the roster with role players, without Manny to be behind Ortiz in the lineup right when David Ortiz was becoming David Ortiz, and without Jon Lester, their lefty ace of the future. A-Rod would have come into Boston with enormously high expectations, would have had to replace Nomar and Manny, and would have had to deal with 86 and counting years of emotional baggage. In hindsight, it’s hard to imagine the Red Sox winning the World Series in 2004 and 2007 without Manny, and hard to see the Red Sox winning the World Series in 2007 and 2013 without Lester. How would the ALCS comeback have even started? Do they even have Dave Roberts on the roster to steal second base if Nomar had already been dealt the winter before? Things turned out alright for the Red Sox without A-Rod, and I cannot see the A-Rod Era in Boston going any better than the last 12 years when A-Rod was in pinstripes went, but in the moment it was a slight that he ended up in New York that every Boston fan took personally on some level.
A-Rod was easy to root against because he was so insanely talented, yet so often disappeared from big moments. Michael Baumann of The Ringer wrote this week among other things about the bad week for star players who came to prominence in the late-2000s with unconventional bodies, with the end coming for the comically oversized Prince Fielder and the comically undersized Tim Lincecum, but A-Rod had it all from a physical standpoint. He was one of the seven most purely talented position players Major League Baseball has seen in the last 20 years, along with Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, Roberto Alomar, Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, and Mike Trout. While ballplayers like the inaptly named Fielder (Prince Fielder was so fat, he made Mo Vaughn look like Jacoby Ellsbury.) and Lincecum (Tim Lincecum was so small he made Pedro Martinez look like Roger Clemens. I think I’m done fat-shaming and skinny-shaming for this column. Moving on.) were praised for getting the most they could out of their unconventional baseball bodies, those seven guys had (and still have in the cases of Miggy and Trout) astronomically high expectations for their careers because they had it all. Griffey and Alomar are in Cooperstown already, Bonds should be, Pujols has cemented his status as a no-brainer Hall of Famer despite being on the decline, and Cabrera and Trout are well on their way. A-Rod has the numbers for the Hall of Fame, but it certainly feels like he never quite reached his full potential. There’s also the steroids thing, and being suspended for the entire 2014 season for PEDs. I’m on record as being pro-steroids to a degree. I’m a Barry Bonds apologist and a Manny Ramirez apologist, but the combination of A-Rod’s steroid use and his constant trying to shape his own image to be something he’s not (His tendency to try too hard to act human has given him comparisons to both Tom Cruise and Ted Cruz.) is what bothers me about him. He’s always acting because he wants people to like him. That’s something I can relate to, but on that level it’s annoying. Be yourself, man. Stop doing this weird Derek Jeter/Cal Ripken impression so people will like you more.
The quintessential moments of A-Rod’s career came in the 2004 season, and they are not clutch, game-winning hits to bring the Yankees to glory or anything like that. First, there was the fight with Jason Varitek after getting hit by a Bronson Arroyo pitch in a midsummer game against the Red Sox, and then of course, there was The Slap. In a play also involving Bronson Arroyo, A-Rod became A-Fraud in the eyes of Red Sox fans (I was proud of myself for coming up with that nickname in 2004 when I was a high school freshman, only to go on sports message boards years later and realize everyone else on the Internet was thinking it, too.). He swats the ball out Arroyo’s glove, Jeter goes around to score, the Yankees win again. That’s what was going to happen. 86 years without a World Series title, and this guy who was supposed to be our shortstop in 2004 swats it away from us in the cheapest way possible. Fortunately Tito came out of the dugout and argued, and fortunately another umpire had a better angle and overturned the play. The look on A-Rod’s face, caught red-handed in a lie, but still defiant enough to act like he was the one being persecuted, was Alex Rodriguez in a nutshell. He could have led the Yankees to five World Series titles, he could have hit 800 home runs, he could have never taken a performance enhancing drug in his life, and that defiance in the face of false persecution act on second base at Fenway Park on that October night would still be my lasting impression of him.
The difference between Alex Rodriguez and other sports villains is that nobody wants to defend him. San Francisco fans still love Barry Bonds. Lakers fans will always love Kobe. Patriots fans will die on a metaphorical hill for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Yankees fans don’t like A-Rod either. Brian Cashman couldn’t stand him. Joe Girardi couldn’t stand him. They couldn’t even wait to for the season to end to push him out. A-Rod hasn’t said he’s retiring, just that his time with the Yankees ends this week. Might he try a comeback with a team like the Miami Marlins? He’s beyond washed up, but he’s close to 700 home runs. Leave it to A-Rod to write a weird ending for himself.
In 2013, it looked like the Philadelphia Eagles had their next long tenured coach, ushering in a new run of contention after Andy Reid’s pretty good fourteen year run had come to an end. In 2013, it also looked like the San Francisco 49ers had their franchise quarterback, and franchise head coach, and would be Super Bowl contenders for a long time. Chip Kelly was going to change professional football the way he revolutionized the college game from the Oregon sideline, and Colin Kaepernick might just be the best of the crop of young mobile QBs. It’s amazing how much can change in three years.
Earlier this month, following a disappointing season in which the Eagles overhauled their roster but could not gain any ground in a putrid NFC East Division, Philadelphia fired Chip Kelly. After the season ended, the 49ers followed suit, firing first year head coach Jim Tomsula who led the San Francisco to a 5-11 season in a year when he had the unenviable task of replacing Jim Harbaugh. Colin Kaepernick had been benched in favor of Blaine Gabbert. Maybe things were never as good as they appeared three years ago, but I never thought it would get this bad.
This week Will Leitch wrote a column ranking the careers of every quarterback who ever started a Super Bowl, 57 in total through 49 games (spoiler alert: Leitch ranked Joe Montana #1 with the caveat that a couple of weeks from now, someone else might take that spot from him), and Kaepernick was ranked #53. Leitch gave the following explanation:
When they watch highlights of this game in 50 years, they’ll have no idea how he didn’t become an all-timer. I’m not sure what happened myself. Choose your next step carefully, Colin: It may be everything.
It’s a good point. Kaepernick was awesome in that game, and he was so close to knocking off a Baltimore Ravens team that didn’t even make the playoffs the following year. At the time, the narrative during the season was one that drew parallels to the way the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVI: the veteran former #1 overall pick gets hurt, the second year head coach gives the starting job to the second year quarterback, and lets him keep it, and they ride the momentum all the way to the big game, which is being played in New Orleans. As uncanny as all of that was, that is where the comparisons between the 2001 Patriots and 2012 49ers stopped, with all due respect to that Niners team. Alex Smith is a lesser quarterback than Drew Bledsoe, Jim Harbaugh is a lesser coach than Bill Belichick, Colin Kaepernick is a lesser quarterback than Tom Brady (but how many coaches and quarterbacks are greater than Belichick and Brady, in fairness?), and most of all THEY DIDN’T WIN THE SUPERBOWL!!!
Kaepernick falling off the map this past season is not the only reason that game feels like it was ten years ago while Super Bowl XLVII feels like it was yesterday (and still hurts just as much as a Pats fan). Jim Harbaugh was coaching the Niners against his brother John, who was coaching the Ravens, and Jim wore out his welcome in San Francisco and is now coaching at the University of Michigan. Important players from the Niners/Ravens Super Bowl include Randy Moss, Patrick Willis, Ray Lewis, Ray Rice, and Ed Reed, all of whom are now out of professional football for one reason or another. In that matchup, it felt at the time like the Ravens were the team that needed it more, since they had more players near the end, while the 49ers seemed like the team just hitting their stride. Kaepernick gave San Francisco’s offense the spark it had lacked with Smith under center. Their defense was loaded, but they had a worthy divisional adversary in the Seattle Seahawks.
A year after breaking through and reaching the Super Bowl, the 49ers were back in the NFC Championship Game, but this time Seattle made the stop they needed to make at the end of the game, leading to one of the great remixes in the history of Youtube, and propelling them into their decisive rout of the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. That was the last we heard from San Francisco as a contender. I thought a few years ago they would have a chance to be the first true home team for a Super Bowl with Super Bowl 50 being played in Santa Clara, but they declined quicker than anyone could have imagined. 2014 ended up being Harbaugh’s last year in San Francisco, and the 49ers had no real plan to replace him. 2015 was a lost season for a franchise that was once the gold standard for the NFL.
As quickly as things fell apart for the Niners, it happened even faster for Chip Kelly in Philly. In his first two seasons, the Eagles won ten games each year, making the playoffs in 2013, but missing them by a game in 2014. After 2014, Kelly gained more power within the organization, and now had control over personnel decisions. With his new found power, Chip Kelly the GM put Chip Kelly the coach in some tough situations. He traded star running back LeSean McCoy to the Buffalo Bills, which was a bit of a surprise, but defensible because in return, the Eagles got Kiko Alonso, an athletic linebacker who is two years younger than McCoy, and who played for Kelly at Oregon. Running backs have the shortest careers of any skill position in football, so anytime you can trade a running back for a linebacker the same age or younger, you do it. The more baffling move was to replace McCoy by overpaying for former Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray. Murray is the same age as McCoy, and rushed for 1845 yards behind a really good offensive line in 2014 for Dallas. In Kelly’s offense in Philadelphia, Murray only had 702 yards rushing in 2015, by comparison. I’m admittedly not as close a follower of the NFL as I was a few years ago, and I do not have nearly the amount of football knowledge as someone like Chip Kelly, but this was one thing that didn’t smell right to me from the beginning. I’ve been Pro-Chip since he was at Oregon, and as someone who spent seven summers on camp staff in New Hampshire, I really wanted to see this Dover, NH native (fun fact: between Chip and Giants GM and Concord native Brian Sabean, both Bay Area teams with “San Francisco” in their names now have key decision makers who hail from The Granite State) succeed at football’s highest level, and his handling of the Eagles’ roster had me almost as worried last summer as Tom Brady’s predicament with the league.
Kelly lost his job with the Eagles more for the roster moves he made than the coaching decisions, but as long as he had been in the NFL, critics had been skeptical of his fast paced system, that it weakens your own defense if the offense keeps going three and out. Kelly’s system dominated in the college regular season, but struggled in bowl games in every year except his last at Oregon, when he was the sexy, outside the box head coaching candidate for a lot of NFL teams. The only playoff game he coached for Philadelphia, which I recapped on this blog the night it happened, was oddly reminiscent of the BCS National Championship Game he coached for Oregon in 2011. Both games ended with Kelly’s team losing at the mercy of a game winning field goal as time expired, because Drew Brees’ New Orleans Saints were able to slow their possessions down the way Cam Newton’s Auburn offense did.
One important thing to realize about football, and about all sports, is that no one system is going to work all the time. If that were the case, there would be no point in playing the game. Just declare Chip Kelly the genius who solved football and go home! What makes Bill Belichick so successful as a head coach is that he is not married to any one style of play, and has been able to constantly adapt and evolve his game plans with changing times and changing opponents. Another thing to realize about Belichick is that he was not great right away, and he is perhaps the best reason to be hopeful about Kelly’s future in the NFL.
Belichick has been working in football operations for NFL teams in various capacities every year since 1975. He never took a year off and never went into the college game. Even Lorne Michaels took five years off from Saturday Night Live in the early 80s. He was first hired as a “special assistant” by the Baltimore Colts, and did not get a head coaching gig until 1991, though he was run out of town along with the rest of the Cleveland Browns in 1995. It took another five years working under his mentor Bill Parcells with the Patriots and New York Jets before he took another crack at being a head coach again. By comparison, Kelly’s rise to the head coaching ranks of the NFL has been meteoric. He was a longtime assistant at the collegiate level, at Columbia, Oregon, Johns Hopkins, and his alma mater New Hampshire, eventually rising to offensive coordinator at UNH from 1999 to 2006. In 2007, he was hired as the offensive coordinator at Oregon, and was promoted to head coach two years later. He was only the head coach at Oregon for four years before the NFL came calling. His rise from offensive coordinator at a college campus in Durham, NH to head coach of one of the 32 NFL teams happened in the years between the Patriots’ last two Super Bowl victories. Most people to not rise that quickly in life, and it is remarkable what Chip was able to accomplish given how easy it would have been to be a complete failure.
As a Patriots fan, I am glad Bill got his growing pains out of the way in Cleveland, and I got to be witness to maybe the most dominant fifteen year run in football history. It would be in their best interest for the 49ers to be patient with both Kelly and Kaepernick, because the line between success and failure in the NFL is a lot closer than people realize. Imagine, for instance, if the Tuck Rule play had been assessed differently after review in the Snow Bowl between the Patriots and Oakland Raiders in 2002. The Pats were able to capitalize on a gift of a non-turnover, and force overtime, and win it in overtime, but it was kind of a weird rule that is no longer on the books. Belichick made a gamble that season by sticking with Brady when Bledsoe was healthy enough to play again, and we remember that as the right decision because they won the Super Bowl. What if that play goes differently, and the Raiders advance instead of the Patriots? Belichick obviously liked what he saw in Brady, and still may have traded Bledsoe to Buffalo that offseason, much the way the 49ers traded Alex Smith to Kansas City after Kaepernick took them to the Super Bowl eleven years later. For the 49ers, the second guess of Kaepernick over Smith was something that still got talked about in the years that followed, and was cited as one of the ways Harbaugh lost the trust of his players. Two years after Super Bowl XLVII, Harbaugh is out in San Francisco and Kaepernick’s confidence is shot now that the coach who lobbied for him is no longer there. The Patriots went 9-7 in the 2002 season, and let three time All Pro Safety Lawyer Milloy go in training camp in 2003. In the first game of the 2003 season, the Pats were trounced by (you guessed it) the Buffalo Bills, led by Bledsoe and Milloy, by a score of 31-0. In the moment, things looked bleak for the Patriots early on in 2003. Imagine how bad it would have been if they hadn’t beaten the Raiders, let alone the Steelers and Rams, in the 2002 playoffs. Belichick would have been gone in New England before he had a chance to go 14-2 in 2003 and eventually beat the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Chip Kelly and Colin Kaepernick are each other’s second lease on an NFL career. They need each other right now, and I think it has a chance to work. I want it to work, even. The biggest reasons for hope in this situation, is that Kaepernick responsive when he had a good offensive minded coach in Harbaugh, and that Kelly was able to leave Philly with a career winning record despite never having a quarterback anywhere near as good as Kaepernick. Kelly had a 27-21 record with the Eagles when his quarterback options were Old Michael Vick, Nick Foles, Mark Sanchez, Sam Bradford, Matt Barkley, and Tim Tebow (it’s worth noting that in 2008, Bradford beat Tebow for the Heisman Trophy, and in 2009 Barkley was Sanchez’ successor at USC when Sanchez was drafted by the Jets, but none of them have made it as quarterbacks in the NFL). It’s a quarterback league, but quarterbacks need coached. The other teams that hired new coaches did not do too much to rock the boat. The New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers replaced Tom Coughlin and Lovie Smith with their offensive coordinators, the Eagles reverted back to what worked for them before Chip Kelly by hiring longtime Andy Reid assistant Doug Pederson, the Cleveland Browns hired Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, but until they prove me wrong I’m just going to assume it’s the wrong move considering Cleveland’s steadily revolving door of quarterbacks, coaches, and GMs for over a decade, and the Tennessee Titans simply took the “interim” label off Mike Mularkey’s interim head coach title, but San Francisco needed an innovative hire after hiring the defensive minded Tomsula from within their own coaching ranks was a failed experiment.
This is a good situation to get a second chance, but if it does not work, both Chip Kelly and Colin Kaepernick will be remembered as cautionary tales instead of what they should have become.
There is a great scene in the first season of The Wire where D’Angelo Barksdale explains the game of chess in terms anyone who has grown up in the drug game would understand. The pawns come and go, but the king gets to stay the king. Since 2001, Tom Brady has been the king of the New England Patriots. Brady is the only player remaining from the Patriots teams that won Super Bowl XXXVI and XXXVIII, and Vince Wilfork is the only other guy left from Super Bowl XXXIX. Plenty of pawns have moved on from the Patriots, and my have gone into coaching and broadcasting, but Brady (along with Bill Belichick) remains the constant. It’s been a great run, but how much longer can Tom Brady stay at the top?
Last month, the Pats used a 2nd round draft pick to select a talented young quarterback named Jimmy Garoppolo from Eastern Illinois University. While Brady remains one of the elite QBs in the NFL, right up there with Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers, he’s getting up there in age. Brady, who will turn 37 in August, still plays at a very high level, but it is safe to say he has more years behind him than ahead of him. While I believe Brady is definitely the Pats’ starting QB for this season as long as he’s healthy, Garoppolo is the greatest challenger for the starting job since Drew Bledsoe filled in for the injured Brady in the AFC Championship Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2002. How long Brady can keep doing what he’s doing where he’s doing it will be interesting to see in the next few years.
Brady knows better than anyone how hard it is to become a starting quarterback in the NFL, and how hard it is to stay there. He was, after all, the second year QB out of the University of Michigan who filled in for an injured franchise QB and former #1 overall pick in Drew Bledsoe, and never gave the starting job back. Brady saw his childhood hero, Joe Montana, get replaced by talented backup and future Hall of Famer Steve Young when Montana still had something left in the tank, and get traded from the San Francisco 49ers to the Kansas City Chiefs as a result. During Brady’s own playing career, a similar situation unfolded with the Green Bay Packers, who traded longtime star quarterback Brett Favre to the New York Jets to clear the way for current franchise superstar Aaron Rodgers. Tom Brady is a hard worker, but he will have to work harder than he ever has if he wants to be the Patriots’ starter when he’s 40.
I trust Bill Belichick to make the right football decision when the time comes to make it. Belichick drafted both quarterbacks, so his ego won’t get in the way of that one. If Garoppolo ever gets the start over Brady, it will be because Garopollo is the better quarterback. As much as I would love to see Brady be a Patriot for life, it’s time to acknowledge that a competitor and lover of the game life Brady might want to play until he is 45, and the Patriots will not keep him around just because of the Super Bowls he won before he turned 30. It’s been a great run, and I hope it continues, but nobody stays the king forever. Not in football.