FMIA Week 4: 2020 NFL Weirdness Continues With Postponed Games, Positive Tests And, Oh …

Updated, 9:12 a.m.

So this is what it’s come to in the NFL in 2020: As I pressed the button to finish writing this column at 3:32 a.m. Monday, with one of the intriguing games of the early season due to kick off early this evening in Kansas City, we wait for a couple of tentpole events this morning to see if the game’s going to be played.

As of 9:05 a.m. ET today, the news was good. One of two Patriots’ charters bound for Kansas City taxied down the runway at Boston’s Logan Airport, a clear sign the Patriots’ third day of rapid tests for COVID-19 came back negative…and a clear sign that the New England-KC game, set for 7:05 p.m. ET today, is on.

Around dawn in Foxborough, the approximately 130 in the New England travel party—60 or so players (including practice-squadders) and 70 members of the coaching staff and essential training, equipment, ownership and front-office staff—took point-of-care COVID-19 tests, the rapid tests, with results back within 15 to 30 minutes. The testing trends of the weekend—apparently all negative—continued in the right direction, and shortly before 8 a.m., the travel party proceeded into buses for trips to two airports, per ESPN. One travel party, the much larger one, was scheduled to take a Delta charter from Boston’s Logan Airport. The other travel party was scheduled to take a different Delta charter from T.F. Green Airport in Providence. Pro Football Talk reported Sunday that the second, smaller charter is comprised of those who were in close contact last week with Cam Newton, whose positive test for COVID-19 set the postponement of the game from Sunday to Monday into motion. They split up out of the proverbial abundance of caution.

I don’t know why the two planes would be departing from New England airports 60 miles apart. I just know they are. It’s just another piece of weirdness to throw onto the pile of 2020 empty-stadium/fake-noise/daily-testing/incubation-learning/mask-wearing/stay-at-home/new-rules weirdness. Kansas City players and staff, too, had to test this morning also, after a practice-squad quarterback tested positive for COVID last week. Barring unexpected last-minute flareups, it’ll be New England (2-1), with a glumly quarantined Newton watching from somewhere in Massachusetts, at Kansas City (3-0) tonight, 7:05 p.m. ET, on CBS, in the first game of a twinbill that was just invented Sunday morning. Game two: Falcons-Packers, 8:50 p.m., in Green Bay, which is suddenly, oddly, perhaps the hottest spot for COVID in America right now.

It was so perfect what one New England player said about this freaky situation over the weekend. So Belichickian.

“It is what it is,” the player said.

So many tentacles to this story, from the science of contagion to the effect on TV, to the second Presidential debate, to the effect on the schedule, to the strange story of the sudden New England quarterback, to the hastily called league meeting today, to how Tennessee’s going to handle its current nightmare. And to what must be some unease on the part of the players in this game tonight, no matter how reassuring the league’s been about the health and safety of playing through a pandemic.

The schedule. Why rush the Patriots-Chiefs game to tonight and have the league override its rule about not traveling on the day of a game? Three reasons. The league didn’t want to saddle Kansas City with a Tuesday-Sunday-Thursday (at Buffalo) stretch of three games in 10 days. (With the third game butting ratings heads with the second Trump-Biden debate, if it happens.) KC would have been open to move the game to Friday, but FOX doesn’t pay $60 million per game to play a sexy game (KC-Buffalo) on a bad night for prime time, Friday. And it fits New England better too. The Patriots wouldn’t have wanted to get home at 4 a.m. Wednesday to prepare for a Sunday game with Denver, when the Broncos would have had nine days to prep after a Thursday game the previous week.

Kansas City certainly would have been okay with moving the Thursday-nighter to the FOX Sunday doubleheader window in Week 6. Two problems: No team wants to add an extra short-week Thursday-night game, and every team has one already. And two, the FOX doubleheader game that week is Aaron Rodgers at Tom Brady. End of discussion.

I’ll tell you why the NFL hopes it doesn’t have to add a Week 18 and 19. If I had a dime for everyone who’s emailed or tweeted me with the why-not-just-push-postponed-games-to-January idea, well, I’d have about $3.10. The short answer is it might happen. The smart answer is this: There’s no good reason to decide that until you have to. And the NFL wants to avoid it if at all possible—and not just because it would push the Super Bowl back a week or two. (In February, Tampa, the Super site, is open. Wide open.)

Let’s say you have five or six games to make up at the end of the season. Say three teams have to make up two games each, and the NFL adds a Week 18 (Jan. 10) and Week 19 (Jan. 17), to ensure each team plays a 16-game regular season. That could mean the top seeds in each conference would play their final regular-season games on Jan. 3, and their divisional playoff game on Jan. 30 or 31. How fair would it be for the team that earned the bye to sit for a month before playing a playoff game? To me, it’s far better for two or three teams to play 14 or 15 games than to put your highest-achieving teams at the disadvantage of sitting for a month, then playing its most important game of the year.

But the overriding point is there might be three or four games with little meaning left to play at the end of the year. You just don’t know what you’ll face as this season runs on, so decide when you have to.

Titans
Titans coach Mike Vrabel. (Getty Images)

What to do about Tennessee? It’s no sure thing the Titans will be able to mobilize forces and open their practice facility and get in the requisite work to play their Week 5 home game against Buffalo on Sunday at noon CT. With fullback Khari Blasingame becoming the ninth Titans player to test positive over six days, the work by the NFL and NFLPA to investigate the Titans outbreak becomes increasingly important. How did things blow up there so badly, and how soon will COVID subside there? “It’s the Marlins all over,” said one informed league source Sunday night. League and union officials are investigating whether—as Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero of NFL Network reported Sunday—players or club employees violated rules on wearing tracking devices or reporting symptoms of COVID. No rules exist on what the discipline would be for violation leading to outbreaks. Could the Titans, if forced to miss one or two games, simply play a shorter season than other teams and have their playoff status determined by winning percentage versus full-season teams? Could they be made to forfeit a game or games if found to have been negligent? Unknown and undecided.

A bubble. It’s a good idea, of course, putting every team in a local hotel for the next three months for most or all of every week. A good idea, until you ask families about missing Thanksgiving and Christmas. It may come to this. If two or three more teams have Tennessee-like outbreaks, the league and union may push for it. Now? I think there’d be some but not overwhelming support. I also think some players—no idea how many—would opt out.

The science. One thing nags at me—and, I can tell you, at some of those involved in the game tonight: How can players be sure that the incubation period for the disease is over, especially after seeing players from the Titans test positive for COVID for six straight days? They can’t. After hearing that Newton tested positive on Friday, Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist, said Sunday that the average person exposed to Newton on Friday would test positive the following Tuesday or Wednesday.

“A test within one or two days of exposure is meaningless,” said Dr. Gounder, clinical assistant professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine and Bellevue Hospital.

NFL medical director Dr. Allen Sills told me if a player tests positive on a Friday, the exposure likely came days earlier. “When are you infectious to others is a question the medical community is wrestling with,” Sills said.

Let’s say Newton got exposed to COVID on Tuesday or Wednesday and didn’t test positive till Friday. Those around him—close contacts are defined by the NFL as being within six feet of Newton for at least 15 minutes in a day—may have been exposed for two or three days, not just Friday. In that case, testing done on the close contacts may have been in day four and five Sunday and today. The fact that no one out of all Patriots players and coaches tested positive in the rapid tests Saturday or Sunday sets the New England case apart from the 20 cases found, according to the Tennessean, in Nashville over the past six days.

Brian Hoyer. Hoyer, 35, has played six of his 12 NFL seasons with the Patriots in three separate stints, and recently decided to move his family lock, stock and barrel to New England. He loves it there, and he’ll make the family home in the area whenever he retires. He’s also played in Cleveland, Arizona, Chicago, Houston, Indianapolis and San Francisco. Oddity of the week: Hoyer has played more seasons and games (23) in New England than anywhere, but he’s never started a game for the Patriots . . . and he’s started at least one game in every one of his six other stops.

Brian Hoyer
Patriots quarterback Brian Hoyer. (Getty Images)

Imagine what Hoyer is thinking right now, cramming a starters’ game plan into his head after getting news, presumably, on Friday, that he’d be playing in this game—on the road, against the best team in football, against the defending Super Bowl champs, and against a 25-year-old phenom who’s already been the MVP and Super Bowl MVP. That’s some first starting assignment for the Patriots—oh, and with Bill Belichick examining your every throw—right there.


As for the game—what, there’s a football game tonight?—New England certainly has gone to school on KC’s narrow overtime win over the Chargers in Week 2. The Chargers limited Kansas City to nine possessions in four quarters, and won time-of-possession by 11 minutes. That’s the way you beat Mahomes—don’t give him many chances. To do that, you’ve got to run it well, and New England has, with 534 yards in three games, for a 5.1-yard average carry. Sony Michel is coming to life after a slow start, and Rex Burkhead has contributed 6.0 yards per touch. Hoyer’s smart. He’ll know to snap the ball late on the play clock, and he’ll know not to take contested chances downfield. But Kansas City embarrassed Baltimore on Monday night, and Andy Reid and Mahomes are such a perfect play-caller/play-executer duo, and the skill players are healthy. Not impossible, but this is a tough matchup for New England. For anyone right now, really.

Should we be getting sucked into the Cleveland Browns again? They’re 3-1 for the first time in 19 years (don’t you long for the days of Butch Davis and Tim Couch?), and it’s hard to know if they can keep up the competence, particularly after giving up 566 yards in Dallas on Sunday. But maybe we should just enjoy it for however long it lasts. Cleveland 49, Dallas 38 was like a playground game—and it took playground plays to win it.

There was one play in the 12 games Sunday that took your breath away. It was the eighth play of the game in Dallas.

“I’ve had the play on my call sheet all season,” coach Kevin Stefanski said from his office post-game. “When I was making up the script for this game, I said, ‘I can’t let this game go by without calling it.’ I’ll tell you what we call it—if we call it again I’d have to change the name anyway.

“ ‘Bananas.’ “

“So you just call ‘Bananas?’ And everyone knows?” I asked.

“One word,” he said. “They all know.”

No score. Cleveland ball at the Dallas 37. Baker Mayfield took the snap under center, pitched to Nick Chubb flowing right, and here came Jarvis Landry split wide right coming back against the flow, and Chubb pitched to Landry reversing field to the left, and around the 45, Landry slowed and . . .

SOUTHPAW!

Landry let loose and fired a perfect spiral, 45 yards in the air, to a waiting Odell Beckham Jr. Question: Why isn’t there a pass in the game plan every week for Landry? He hadn’t thrown a ball in a game since a 63-yard completion in December 2018.

“Amazing arm, and he’s a lefty, which of course is rare,” Stefanski said. “I’ll tell you the amazing thing: Odell can throw it great too. And Odell can throw a great spiral either righty or lefty.”

Learn something new every day. The second playground play happened with Cleveland’s huge lead had been narrowed to 41-38 with four minutes left. At midfield, on the first play of a decisive series, Stefanski decided to play with fire. Another reverse. This time a run. “From my angle on the sidelines, I’m staring right at Aldon Smith, and he’s got a perfect line on Odell on the reverse,” Stefanski said. From left to right, here came Beckham, and Smith came in unblocked, and it looked like Smith was going to nail Beckham for a 13-yard loss, but Beckham quick-stepped to the right just out of Smith’s reach, and then turned upfield. The 50-yard touchdown, I’m guessing, had Beckham run a good 95 yards. But that won the game.

That’s a fun team to watch.

But Stefanski’s not going nuts yet. Three teams in the AFC North with three wins after four weeks, I reminded him. “And you’re one.”

“Honestly, I don’t ride the wave,” he said. “I stay pretty week to week. This was a good team win. We’re 3-1. But no one just wants to play one good quarter. Long way to go.”

Right attitude.

The NFC Least. The Eagles got their first win on Oct. 4, and they exit NFL Week 4 in sole possession of first place in the NFC East. Philly is 1-2-1 after the 25-20 upset in San Francisco, with Washington and Dallas 1-3 and the Giants 0-4. The once-mighty East is a combined 3-12-1 after a quarter of the season. The Eagles might be the favorite in the division. Dallas had the fluky win over Atlanta and is allowing 36.5 points a game. If Carson Wentz’s first step on the road to competence Sunday night is a sign of things to come, the Eagles could have a quarterback who’s good enough and a defense that can win against most offensive fronts. Imagine going 8-7-1, or maybe 7-8-1, winning the division, and playing a home wild-card game as the NFC’s four seed. Biggest problem there? The Eagles might have to host Tom Brady, Drew Brees or the fighting Garoppolos in the first playoff game.

Bill O’Brien’s In Trouble. Pretty early to play what-if, but what if the 0-4 Texans (with Green Bay, New England, Indy twice and Tennessee twice still to play) can’t recover, and finish 5-11? That would place Houston somewhere near sixth in the 2021 draft, with maybe the sixth and 38th overall picks in the first two rounds. Problem: They traded both first- and second-round picks in 2021 in the Laremy Tunsil deal 13 months ago. Uh-oh. Not good for O’Brien the GM.

Now, give O’Brien credit. In four of his six seasons as head coach, the Texans have won the AFC South. Those who want to minimize winning four division titles since 2014 should realize the Eagles have won four since 2007, and the storied New York Giants have won four division titles in this century. But the Texans haven’t won more than a wild-card game in January, and O’Brien’s trade of DeAndre Hopkins will reverberate, particularly with Hopkins starring so far for Arizona.

Owner Cal McNair’s been more hands-off than his father, franchise founder Bob, but Cal McNair could have a decision to make after the season. Two, actually. O’Brien brought in smart and authoritative Jack Easterby to run the front office in April 2019. If O’Brien goes, could Easterby, his hand-picked front-office chief, stay in a revamped organization? I wouldn’t bet against it.

What About Tua? On a day when Justin Herbert, sixth pick in the 2020 draft, went throw-for-throw with Tom Brady and lost 38-31, and on a day when Joe Burrow, first pick in the 2020 draft, got his first win with a 300-yard veteran-type game in beating Jacksonville, whither the man in the middle of that sandwich? Tua Tagovailoa watched as Ryan Fitzpatrick lost his third of four games to start the season in Miami. You wonder how long it’ll be before Tagovailoa, seemingly recovered from his hip injury, gets his shot.

I asked Fitzpatrick about Tua on my podcast the other day. “He’s a very interesting guy.” Fitzpatrick said. “He asks a lot of good questions, good football questions when we’re in the meeting room or even on the sideline during a game. You can tell that he’s very smart in that regard. Football-smart. I think he’s probably a little bit of an older soul, just in terms in some of the stuff that he’s into and some of the discussions we can have. It’s been a lot of fun getting to know him. He’s got a lively personality that makes everybody smile around the building.

“I know my job security really for me is a week-to-week proposition and I’ve got to go out there and prove it every single week. With Tua, just being able to slow down sometimes, to be able to take the extra minute to explain something—my thought process or to sit on the bench during a game and instruct and talk and answer questions—that stuff is maybe a little bit different than how it would go normally. But I know what my role is. I know that I’m keeping the seat warm for him. I know the talent that he has and I’m excited whenever he gets his opportunity. I feel like I’m going to play a big part in that.”

Offensive Players of the Week

Carson Wentz, quarterback, Philadelphia. After a winless start through three games that had some calling for him to be benched, Wentz came through Sunday night in a comeback win over San Francisco. The numbers weren’t eye-popping, but Wentz found the end zone with his legs in the first quarter and with his arm in the fourth. That last touchdown, dropped into a bucket to unknown receiver Travis Fulgham, gave the Eagles the lead and will go a long way in helping Wentz quiet the boo birds in Philly. At least for one week.

Odell Beckham Jr., wide receiver, Cleveland. “Tell you why Odell always wants the ball,” coach Kevin Stefanski told me post-game. “He wants it because he knows he can make things happens when the ball is in his hands. And we want to get him the ball.” Sunday in Dallas, in a 49-point explosion, the Browns got Beckham the ball, early and late. He caught a 37-yard reverse pass from good buddy Jarvis Landry to open the scoring (man, what a great throw that was), and Beckham clinched the 49-38 win with a 50-yard reverse for a touchdown. Seven touches, 154 yards, three touchdowns—on a day the Browns stamped themselves as serious playoff contenders.

Joe Burrow, quarterback, Cincinnati. Apologies to Joe Mixon, who was terrific too (181 total yards, three touchdowns), but Burrow deserves it after his first NFL victory, and his 25-of-36, 300-yard day, with one TD and one pick. Burrow, cool and kept surprisingly clean by the Bengals’ line (one sack), led consecutive second-half scoring drives of 75, 56, 37, 57 and 66 yards to put the game out of reach for the Men of Minshew.

Tom Brady, quarterback, Tampa Bay. Things weren’t looking great early, when Brady threw a 78-yard pick-six to Chargers cornerback Mike Davis late in the first quarter. And with receivers and tight ends going down throughout the game, Brady needed to hit some targets he hasn’t spent a lot of time with—like rookie third-round back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who caught Brady’s fifth touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter. Brady had thrown five TDs only once in his previous five seasons, but this looked like no trouble. He was 30 of 46 for 369 yards, with the five scores and one pick. For the year, he’s a 65-percent thrower, with 11 TDs, four picks and a 99.5 rating. The Bucs, 3-1, can live with that. And win with that.

Defensive Players of the Week

Bradley Chubb, pass rusher, Denver. With Von Miller gone for most or all of the season, Chubb is the only Denver front-seven player who strikes fear into offensive coordinators. After watching him against the woebegone Jets in crunch time, the fear is justified. Chubb, dating back to 2018, had recorded one sack in his previous 10 games. On Thursday night in New Jersey, he had 2.5, including the game-clincher with 2:05 left in the game. With Denver up 30-28 and the Jets with a fourth-and-three at midfield, Chubb blew past left tackle Conor McDermott and one-hand-sacked Sam Darnold. A year after ACL surgery, Chubb is starting to look like the player the Broncos drafted fifth overall in 2018.

NFL Week 4: Myles Garrett
Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott and Browns defensive end Myles Garrett. (USA TODAY Sports)

Myles Garrett, defensive end, Cleveland. King of the strip-sack. Sunday was his third straight game with one, this time on Dak Prescott, and it led to the third Cleveland touchdown of the first half. Blazing around his left end spot, Garrett hit Prescott before the QB ever saw him. The ball skittered free, Olivier Vernon recovered for Cleveland at the Dallas 34-yard line, and the Browns scored four plays later. For the game, Garrett had two sacks, three tackles and two more significant QB pressures. The man’s a force.

Special Teams Players of the Week

Michael Boone, running back, Minnesota. The Vikes’ special-teams ace blew through the Houston punt protection around returner DeAndre Carter late in the first quarter, jarring the ball loose. The Vikings recovered at the Houston 35, drove to a field goal and a 10-0 lead and never trailed in their first win of the season, 31-23, over the Texans.

Taiwan Jones, running back, Buffalo. The Bills did a smart thing after taking a 7-0 first-quarter lead: They pooched the kickoff in the dead Allegiant Stadium air to the Vegas 4-yard line, where Jalen Richard took the popup and began running up the middle. Also running up the middle, from the other end of the field, was Jones, leading the Bills’ kickoff-team pursuit. He blew by fullback Alec Ingold, then got through an arm-bar by cornerback Keisean Nixon and nailed Richard at the Raider 16. Perfect pursuit and tackle by the veteran Jones.

Coach of the Week

Matt Rhule, head coach, Carolina. When Christian McCaffrey went down in game two, lost for a month or so, the 0-2 Panthers looked doomed. But Rhule is pretty good with reclamation projects, having saved Temple and Baylor in two past coaching lives. The Panthers went to Los Angeles and beat the Chargers last week, then, at home Sunday in Charlotte, beat a rising Arizona team 31-21. The defense is still leaky, but Carolina’s finding a way with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater playing efficiently and the run game able to eat some clock.

Goat of the Week

Nick Mullens, quarterback, San Francisco. It’s an unenviable spot, being a backup quarterback leading a banged-up team on prime-time television. For the majority of the game, Mullens was more than adequate in an offense that was heavily reliant on short passes and the running game. But his two fourth-quarter mistakes were glaring. First was a fumble that led to the Eagles’ go-ahead score. And Mullens followed up that mistake with the game-ender, an inexplicable throw straight into the arms of linebacker Alex Singleton, who took the easiest interception of his life right into the end zone. Mullens was yanked on the next drive in favor of C.J. Beathard.

I

“This is terrible. It’s brutal. It’s depressing. This sucks. I don’t know any other way to put it.”

—Houston defensive lineman J.J. Watt, after the Texans fell to 0-4 with a 31-23 home loss to Minnesota.

II

“I can honestly say had this been last year, we would have gotten our ass beat by 20.”

—Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians, praising Tom Brady for the Bucs erasing a 24-7 deficit Sunday to beat the Chargers.

III

“It’s a struggle. It’s a battle. And I just don’t represent me. I represent all those folks that are afflicted [with cancer], all those people that fight, all those people that have fought.”

—Washington coach Ron Rivera, who appeared to struggle while leaving the field at halftime of the 31-17 home loss to Baltimore. He had to lean on a team staff member, and take two bags of IV fluids before the game. Rivera is undergoing treatment for squamous-cell cancer.

IV

“Nobody’s to blame. We’re in a pandemic.”

—Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel, on the 20 members of the Tennessee organization who tested positive for COVID-19 last week.

V

“You have these days you remember in your lifetime. You remember where you were when Elvis Presley passed or JFK got shot. I remember the day Trey Lance told me he was going to be a Bison.”

—North Dakota State quarterbacks coach Randy Hedberg to Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports, about Lance, the quarterback expected to declare for the 2021 draft and be a top 10 NFL pick.

Thamel wrote a great story on Lance, who had a middling 15-of-30 performance in his only 2020 game Saturday against Central Arkansas.

VI

“Brady is still having a ball playing football—just in a different state.”

—Ian Eagle of CBS Sports, as Tom Brady ran out the clock in third win with the Bucs, 38-31 over the Chargers.

Age of Tom Brady in his eighth career five-TD-pass game, on Sunday: 43 years, 2 months.

Age of Peyton Manning in his last career five-TD-pass game, in 2014: 38 years, 7 months.

I

Since June 1, the Philadelphia Eagles have had:

• Three starting left tackles: Andre Dillard, Jason Peters and Jordan Mailata, who started his first NFL game Sunday night;

• Three left guards: Isaac Seumalo, Matt Pryor and Nate Herbig, who started his first NFL game at left guard Sunday night;

• One center: Jason Kelce, who has been in Philadelphia almost as long as the Liberty Bell;

• Four right guards: Brandon Brooks, Jason Peters, Nate Herbig and Matt Pryor, who started his first NFL game at right guard Sunday night;

• And two right tackles: Lane Johnson and Jack Driscoll, who started his first NFL game in Week 1 when Johnson was nicked.

The five Eagle starters Sunday night at the 49ers arrived in Philadelphia, from left to right, as the 233rd pick in the 2018 draft (Mailata), undrafted (Herbig), 191st pick in 2011 (Kelce), 206th pick in 2018 (Pryor), and fourth in 2013 (Johnson).

Dillard (biceps), Brooks (Achilles), Peters (toe) and Seumalo (knee) are on injured-reserve.

It’s NFL Week 4.

II

Seven MLB Central Division teams made the 16-team playoff bracket: Milwaukee, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland and Minnesota.

All seven lost their opening series.

Won-lost record of the seven Central teams: 2-14.

The nine East teams and West teams, combined, went 16-4.

Then there’s my Geographical Factoid of the MLB Playoffs: The Yankees and Rays will play an American League Division Series beginning tonight at Petco Park in San Diego, which is 2,789 miles from the Yanks’ home field and 2,470 miles from where the Rays play.

I

Porter is a photojournalist for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

II

Rosenfels, former NFL quarterback, writes for The Athletic.

III

Bruschi, ESPN analyst, is a former Patriots linebacker.

IV

Duerson, unlucky fantasy player, is executive editor of Sports Illustrated.

V

I’ll tell you what it is: It’s a stadium full of people in Athens, Ga., who shouldn’t be allowed into any more stadiums this year without face coverings—and maybe not at all because who could trust them to actually wear the face coverings?

You can reach me at [email protected], or on Twitter.

He wanted Pats-KC to play Sunday. From Sean Carroll: “I am about to say something a little controversial. Is anyone else annoyed that they are postponing the Pats-Chiefs game because of these positive tests? To me, I think it would make the season more interesting if they had to play and coach with whomever is able to play, even if the head coach is quarantined along with the QB and starting offensive line. I played high school football (terribly!) but we always touted ‘Next man up.’ So why not here?”

Basically because we’re not talking about a few guys out with a pulled hamstring or ACL tear. They’re out with a communicable disease that has killed 208,000 Americans over the past seven months. The Titans’ outbreak began Tuesday with the discovery of eight positive tests, and the problem is because the incubation period for the virus varies, Tennessee had another player on Saturday with a test that came back positive. If Tennessee had one positive test and then a couple of days with no more positives, the Titans-Steelers would have been played this week. But here we are with eight players having tested positive in a week. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but the NFL has to follow up with teams that have one player test positive with a couple of days of negative tests before allowing that team to play in the next game.

I agree. From Michael Holliday, of Melbourne Beach, Fla.: “When John Harbaugh got into the face of the side judge Monday night, with his mask down and doing his best Leo Durocher impression, I was certain the league would nail him. For a coach to spew his droplets right into the face of the ref was disgusting. Where was the NFL on this or did I miss it?”

You didn’t miss it. The NFL, as I understand it, will consider disciplining Ravens coach John Harbaugh for masklessly reaming out line judge Mark Steinkerchner at close range last Monday. Harbaugh has to be smarter than that, and the officials union has every right to insist on some action for it.

The league should test seven days a week. From Peter Maloney: “I’m surprised the sports media isn’t beating up the NFL for not doing the [rapid] testing for all teams before all games. The risk of false positives is low and it’s REALLY low considering that with the rapid results you can just perform the test again. In my opinion, they’ve decided that on game day they’d rather not know and, despite risking an outbreak and putting players and their family’s lives at risk, avoid canceling the game.”

I agree with this too. I’d like to see players get day-of-game testing too.

Well, I would be going to the home games in my $2-billion stadium, but that’s just me. From Matt Weaver, of Carlsbad, Calif. “Come on man. Mark Davis won’t go to the new stadium unless fans can. He aligns himself with fans and doesn’t want them to think he is above them. He says, ‘If our fans can’t watch in person at our stadium, then I won’t either.’ THAT is an honorable man.”

Certainly his choice, and I get aligning yourself with the fans (although some of the fans in Oakland might take issue with you on that). Just seems odd to me that the owner of a franchise wouldn’t be going to the games at such a historic time for his franchise, communing with his players and coaches and GM, maybe sitting with the GM in the event important issues have to be discussed.

Inside baseball. From Marshall Auerback: “I’m curious to know what kind of travel restrictions you are operating under this year and whether that makes it easier or more difficult for you to get your lede. I ask because in the past, you often would make a decision in advance as to which game to cover more extensively and would accordingly travel to that city for the game coverage. What do you do on game-day today? Are you in an NBC studio monitoring a series of games and, if so, does that make it easier for you to shape your column (given that you are watching a number of games simultaneously, rather than having pre-committed to one game by traveling to a specific venue)?”

Thanks for the note, Marshall. I watch the games from my apartment in Brooklyn. I have three screens. For the early games, I have Red Zone on one screen; the game of my choice on another screen; my laptop open to write column notes as the afternoon goes on; the standings and schedule in a grid taped to my desk; and a notebook to my left (I write left-handed) to jot down things I know I must get to before end of day. And if there’s a crucial sequence in a game, I will switch the game I’m watching to that one.

For instance, last week, the Rams and Bills got really fun, and Josh Allen got really hot, and around 3 ET, I started to think I might lead my column with him. Turns out he was one of the big stories of the day, and I reached out to the Bills’ PR staff to see if I could get five minutes with him over the phone post-game. Turns out Mike Florio wanted time with him too, and the Bills proposed us both being on the line to talk to him. That was okay—he used mostly what he asked in 11 minutes with Allen, I used mostly what I asked. Florio raised the specter of Tony Romo helping him in the offseason, so I texted Romo to see if he’d elaborate. When Romo landed back in Dallas from his game in New England, he called and added texture to the story. So there was the top to the column. Also got on the phone with Kyle Shanahan and Stephen Gostkowski, both Sunday newsmakers, and filled out the column with them.

Could I go to a game? Yes. Will I go at some point this year? Probably, but not certainly. The problem is that in all venues, player interviews are done only on videoconference; coach interviews are mostly the same too. I could get color by going to the game site, certainly, but it’s probably smarter for me to sit here in command central and monitor every game. Clearly, this isn’t as good and informative and colorful as me sitting alone with Andy Reid for 12 minutes after the Super Bowl and having him draw and explain 2-3 Jet Chip Wasp, and then me be able to show that to America five hours later, but this year, I’ve just got to be more flexible and imaginative.

1. I think I empathized with the jillions of you who play fantasy football over the weekend. For NFL Week 4: Derrick Henry, out. JuJu Smith-Schuster, out. Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill and Clyde Edwards-Helaire, maybe out. “Confusion and panic were the dominant emotion in fake football this weekend,” ESPN fantasy guy Matthew Berry told me Sunday night. “It’s a pretty huge story in our world. So many people in fantasy football had a crucial week, because maybe they drafted Saquon Brakley or Christian McCaffrey or Michael Thomas very high and maybe they were 0-3 or 1-2 headed into the weekend and they needed a win.”

I appreciate Berry’s perspective, though. “I think I speak for every fantasy manager or commissioner—we see what’s going on in the country, and we’re thrilled that we have football this fall.” I liked his compromise in the league/leagues he runs. Berry told each team owner to designate a player by 1 p.m. ET Sunday who would replace a New England or Kansas City player in the event that game did not get played. For instance, if you had Edwards-Helaire in your lineup, designate a lesser back—say, Jeff Wilson Jr., of the Niners—to sub for him only if Kansas City’s game wasn’t played. Seems fair. Then Wilson’s numbers would retroactively get plugged in once it was determined Kansas City’s game was off.

2. I think there’s a legit chance Carolina could be 4-2 in two weeks, with a games at Atlanta and home with Chicago coming up. I mean, with no Kuechly, no McCaffrey, no Cam, no Olsen—this Matt Rhule can coach.

NFL Week 4: George Kittle
49ers tight end George Kittle. (Getty Images)

3. I think it’s damn good to have George Kittle back healthy. How about 15 catches for 183 Sunday night in his return from a sprained knee. He nearly willed an undermanned team with a quarterback who looked like he had the yips to a win against Philadelphia.

4. I think Golden Tate and Jalen Ramsey both deserve significant fines for bringing their family business onto the football field Sunday in Los Angeles. It’s a sordid story, Ramsey leaving Tate’s pregnant sister for another woman—allegedly—and both seemed to want revenge over it during and after the game. Ramsey feeling anger toward Tate, defending the honor of his family, seems misplaced, but who knows. All I know is brawling on the field during a pandemic, and involving scores of teammates, is beyond foolish, and both men should pay for it.

5. I think the winner of the Best Player I Never Knew Before Sunday Award is D’Ernest Johnson, running back, Cleveland. He’s from the football factory of Immokalee, Fla. (hello, Edgerrin James) and went to South Florida, and made the Browns as an undrafted free agent in 2019. On Sunday, in Dallas, the Browns needed Johnson because Nick Chubb got hurt and Kareem Hunt was used sparingly because of a groin injury. Johnson ripped off 28 yards on his first carry and finished with a game-high 95 yards, 7.3 per touch. The running back depth in Cleveland helped the Browns win a game no one thought they’d win.

6. I think the Ravens won’t get travel fatigue anytime soon. In the 47 days between Sept. 21 and Nov. 6, Baltimore’s schedule includes two trips: the 43-mile bus ride south to FedEx field in the Washington burbs, and the 104-mile bus ride north to south Philadelphia.

7. I think I’ll be interested to hear this multi-episode podcast project, from iHeart Radio and Diversion Podcasts, on the life and times of Tom Brady by Gary Myers. Original interviews with all the parties involved, including this telling line from Robert Kraft, when Myers asked about the perception that Bill Belichick didn’t want to keep Brady after 20 years: “I think it probably goes two ways.” Meaning, Brady had to want to stay too, and he didn’t. Kraft also said: “I facilitated him being a free agent and he could either stay with us or choose not to. And he chose not to.” Myers got to some of the lesser-interviewed people in Brady’s life over the past three decades, including Lloyd Carr, the coach at Michigan who made Brady fight so hard for playing time and a starting job. With Brady, the key is to get the people in the orbit around his life, not necessarily the major characters, because they’ve been heard from so much. From the list of interviews here, you’ll learn new things about Brady.

8. I think this one slipped through the crack in the last few days. As tipped by Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle and amplified by Bill O’Brien, here’s what happened on a crazy weekend in Pittsburgh for the Texans, including sifting through contact-tracing data for two people in the organization whose Saturday tests came back positive.

“We were in Pittsburgh,” O’Brien said. “We were notified around midnight in Pittsburgh that we had two members of our organization that were positive. We then had to go to the Kinexon contact tracing to find out how many people they had been around. We had to wake up several players at 5 a.m. to get tested, point-of-care testing, and found out that those two tests were false positives. So, I think this is a situation that’s unprecedented.”

I hear it was more than several—more like 15 or more had to get woken up at 5 a.m. and take rapid COVID tests. “There’s no excuse,” O’Brien said. “I don’t think it’s a major, major story, but these are the facts.” What a year.

9. I think, Jets fans, just imagine next year with Andy Reid disciple Eric Bieniemy coaching the arm and brain of Trevor Lawrence:

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. Clause of the year: Whoever it was—writer, editor or PR person—who first used “out of an abundance of caution”: did you know it’d turn out to be the most apt yet overused phrase of the year?

b. RIP Bob Gibson. There are so many amazing things about this great man and great pitcher that deserve mention. I will give you four:

• It was after Gibson’s historic season of 1968 (22-9, 1.12 ERA, 28 complete games, 13 complete-game shutouts) that major-league baseball lowered mounds from a height of 15 inches to 10, to try to dim the influence of Gibson and Marichal and Drysdale and others.

• Gibson averaged 15 complete games a year. The MLB league-leader in 2019 had three.

• He pitched nine World Series games. Eight complete games. Seven wins—two over 31-game-winner Denny McLain in 1968, three over the Impossible Dream Red Sox in 1967, and Game 7 complete-game wins over the mighty Yankees in 1964 and the Red Sox in 1967. Ninety-two strikeouts in 81 innings.

• Phil Linz, the regular Yankee shortstop (for this one season, 1964, only) homered 11 times in a 519-game, seven-season career. He homered twice in this series … once off Barney Schultz in relief of Gibson in game two, and one off the great Gibson himself. (Thanks, Tim Layden, for finding the flaw in my original note and getting me to fix.)

c. But there is one more thing about Gibson. He is one of the toughest, fiercest athletes to play pro sports. On July 15, 1967, against the Pirates, Roberto Clemente hit a line drive back to the box that nailed Gibson in the shin. The line drive broke Gibson’s leg. He stayed in the game, walking two and getting Bill Mazeroski to fly to center. Then he came out. He was out for nine weeks, then came back in September, built up his arm strength up, and went 3-0 in the World Series to beat the Red Sox.

d. My one Gibson experience: Maybe 15 years ago, at the Yogi Berra charity golf tournament in New Jersey, Gibson was out on the putting green, alone. My buddy Jack Bowers and I went out (Jack’s a Cardinal buff) and waited for him to finish, and Jack asked him a couple of things. Very pleasant. I asked him something to effect of, How did you know when it was time for a purpose pitch? Just an unspoken thing that all players knew? The pleasant look vanished. He said something about being able to send a message anytime he wanted. Wish I remembered his exact words.

e. RIP Helen Reddy. She was woman. Hear her roar.

f. Baseball playoff tidbits: Not much drama in those eight playoff series, really. Six 2-0 sweeps . . . What a moment for Trevor Rosenthal, former Cards closer, to pitch in each of the three wild-card games for San Diego against St. Louis, and to close out the decisive game with a strikeout looking, strikeout looking and strikeout looking . . . Cubs: 0-2 versus Miami, one run, nine hits, 18 innings . . . Marlins, against the Yankees and Cubs, have allowed one earned run in their last 28 innings pitched, all on the road. NLDS is no gimme for Atlanta . . . Rays: 8-2 this year against the Yankees.

g. TV Story of the Week: William Rhoden of ESPN’s The Undefeated, on the death of Iowa State football player Jack Trice 97 years ago, and on the meaning of his life to so many.

h. Trice, who died after playing the first and only game of his college football career at Minnesota in 1923, is the only Black man whose name graces a college football stadium. Jack Trice Stadium was the name put on the arena by a student body that wouldn’t drop it as an issue in 1997. As Rhoden reported, Trice was either purposely trampled in the game, or just got internal bleeding after a particularly rough play. Rhoden also reported that Trice wrote a letter the night before the game that was later discovered. In part, it read, “To whom it may concern: My thoughts just before the first real college game of my life. The honor of my race, family and self are at stake. Everyone is expecting me to do big things. I will! My whole body and soul are to be thrown recklessly about on the field tomorrow.” Great piece, and a timely one, by Rhoden and ESPN.

i. Story of the Week: It’s Fat Bear Week at Katmai National Park, by Morgan Krakow of the Anchorage Daily News.

j. Happy days are here again! Fat bears! And a Fat Bear Bracket! Voting is open through Tuesday.

k. Because of a small COVID outbreak, there were far fewer visitors to the bear habitat in Alaska over the summer, and the bears seemed to revel in their relative privacy. Writes Krakow:

“Katmai media ranger Naomi Boak said that a Fat Bear Week in the midst of a global pandemic gives people a chance ‘to get transported to this faraway place and watch and celebrate these wonderful bears.’ Though it’s not clear whether a smaller number of bear-viewing visitors was the primary reason the bears acted differently this summer, Brooklyn White, media ranger at Katmai, said the bears had more freedom and access to the river over the summer. Additionally, the season’s salmon run broke records, White said, while the Brooks River saw roughly 800,000 salmon come through. Access to food for the bears was easy. That means the bears really bulked up this year. Bears can gain over two pounds of fat each day in the summer and fall. ‘This is probably the fattest Fat Bear Week ever.’ Boak said. ‘I mean, it’s extraordinary. I did not see a malnourished bear out there. They’re just fatter than ever.’ “

l. Did you know there is a Brown Bear Cam? And you can watch highlights of the brown bears eating freshly caught salmon?

m. Baseball Podcast of the Week: “The Edge,” by Ben Reiter, for Cadence 13 and Prologue Projects, a six-episode investigative look at the Astros cheating scandal. The first two episodes drop Wednesday. Hit that link if you’d like to subscribe.

n. I listened to episode one over the weekend. Reiter, as you probably know, is the Sports Illustrated writer who famously predicted (with an SI cover) in 2014 that the Astros would win the World Series in 2017. And it happened. He became the media expert on all things Astros—except the sign-stealing scandal that engulfed the team last year and badly tarnished the title, and wrote a sporting best-seller called “Astroball.” This podcast is something of a quest by a reporter who wonders what he might have missed in his reporting and his time around the team. As he says in episode one:

“I had made myself publicly and inextricably linked to the Astros. I had written a whole book about them, and missed something really big . . . After the scandal broke, I spent a lot of time agonizing over my reporting, searching my reporting and my notes for any thread I might have been able to pull to be able to unravel the whole thing. I couldn’t find one. The specifics of the sign-stealing scheme had been hidden even, as it turned out, from many members of the organization.”

o. The two things that really popped in episode one: the first chunks of an extended interview with the disgraced former Houston GM Jeff Luhnow (an exclusive; Luhnow has been mostly in hiding this year, and Reiter said this is his first interview), and telling the story of Mike Bolsinger. Remember Bolsinger? He’s the end-of-the-roster Toronto pitcher who got his lunch handed to him during a peak cheating period for the ’17 Astros. And that turned out to be the last appearance of Bolsinger in a major-league game. Bolsinger’s story puts a human face on this scandal, and Bolsinger comes across as eminently empathetic.

p. Three topics with Reiter:

FMIA: Was this a little bit of you trying to clear your conscience after all you’d written about the team?

Reiter: “I certainly felt a deep sense of responsibility—as a journalist and a person—to get the story right. Part of the process was going back and saying, ‘How did I miss this?’ The majority of stuff I reported was prior to 2017, before anyone looked at a trash can and got a bad idea. Even after the cheating scheme started, I don’t think I, or any other reporter, would have been in a position to discover it while it was happening. It was kept secret from so many people within the organization as well, including the owner. But I did re-examine what I’d learned about the organization’s culture—the rules-testing, edge-seeking, some would say win-at-all-costs culture—and dug into it more with a lot of new reporting.”

FMIA: I really like the Bolsinger part. He comes across as a guy who really got screwed here.

Reiter: “Yeah. That part of it is the story of an absolute machine coming alone and crushing a guy who was hanging on by his fingernails. When I thought about doing this story as a podcast, Bolsinger was one of the two or three less obvious people I really wanted to talk to. The Astros hit him so hard that day in Houston, beat him so badly, that he never pitched in the big league again. He might be the single biggest victim of this. And the really tragic part is that the Astros didn’t even need to cheat against him. They were already winning the game big. They might have knocked him around anyway. But they decided to destroy him.”

FMIA: What’s the moral of the story?

Reiter: “There are a lot of morals to it, and many will be revealed as the series progresses. A big one is about the consequences, intended and unintended, that modern technology and tactics can have as far as allowing people to go way further past the line than maybe they had fully understood. I don’t say that to absolve anyone of personal responsibility for anything they did. But it’s a problem we’re seeing all over the place these days, not just in baseball.”

q. Paragraph I never thought I’d read in the New York Times: From the obituary of Joe Laurinaitis, a professional wrestler who died last week: “When you heard that drum beat,” Mr. Laurinaitis told the podcast Chair Shots to the Cranium in 2018, “and you heard that guitar riff, you’d know that someone was going to get their head kicked in.”

r. Okay then. Whoever named “Chairshots to the Cranium” is the winner of Podcast Name of the Millenium.

s. Story of the Week that Should Have Gotten More Attention: LeBron James’ More Than A Vote organization (Patrick Mahomes is in it too) announced the recruitment of 10,000 poll workers for the November election. It’s not stopping. They’re still recruiting in needy southern cities, such as Houston, because of events like this one.

t. Shameful Story of the Week: The governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, limiting Texas counties to one mail-in collection site (one of America’s largest counties, in population and geography, Harris County was planning to have 11 such sites). Assuming this edict withstands court challenges before election day. Assuming the one dropoff location would be in downtown Houston—and I do not know where it would be, but that seems a good guess. That would mean a person who lives in Tomball, Texas, in the northwest edge of the county, would have a 43-minute drive in normal traffic to drop off his or her vote. Another option, of course, is to vote in person on election day. But why have dropoff voting in a state the size of Texas, with counties the size of Harris (which is larger by area than the state of Rhode Island) if a month before the election you shut off 10 of 11 dropoff sites?

u. Explain how that is not voter suppression.

v. Coffeenerdness: Question from reader Peter Vermaat: “Thanks for revealing the name of your new coffee maker. But a coffee maker is only as good as the coffee you are putting in it. Care to let us in on that little secret?” Sure thing. I’m a daily drinker of Starbucks Italian Roast, and grind the beans very fine, almost Espresso-grade. I have one large thermal cup, about 14 ounces, of coffee with a little half-and-half. Most days these days, that’s it for me and coffee. But it’s fantastic. Black gold.

w. Beernerdness: Sober October, baby. For the next four weeks, I’ll be on the alcoholic sidelines, and I’ll let you contribute to the column with your Beernerdness entries. Love a beer? Send me 75 words, max, with your name, hometown, the beer of your dreams, and a description, to [email protected] Use this format: Beer (brewery name), style (IPA, witbier, etc.), where you drank it, and comments.

x. There will be time to disagree on many things, and time to butt heads on issues, and time to ask—please—for the truth. Now, regardless of where we stand politically in this country, it’s incumbent on us to lower the volume on all this hate. Let it start here. Get well soon, Mr. President.

Green Bay 41, Atlanta 27. There are things I will never understand about gambling. The first and seventh-highest-scoring teams per game (Green Bay and Atlanta, respectively) are playing tonight, with the first and 12th-worst scoring defenses (Atlanta and Green Bay, respectively) across the field. Average points in a Packers’ game this year: 69. Average points in a Falcons’ game this year: 66. The over/under on this game is 56.5 points. Is there anyone who thinks the score in this game will be less, say, than 33-24? One of the six games played by either team this year ended with less than 63 points scored (Bears 30, Falcons 26 last week). I don’t get it, which is good. If I did, I’d probably gamble.

Just one question now:
Who can defend not wearing
a mask? Who? Who? WHO!

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