All Ball Sports
A famous football coach – OK, it was the Al Pacino character in Oliver Stone’s great football film Any Given Sunday – famously said that football is a game of inches.
That was never truer than in the Rams’ 32-18, second-round playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers Saturday afternoon.
It was a game the Rams never led. But still, if a couple of plays had gone a few inches the other way there could have been a very different outcome.
Consider: in the first quarter the Rams were trailing 3-0 but had a fourth down and 1 yard to go on the Packers’ 12-yard line. Coach Sean McVay, realizing that grabbing an early lead would be a huge psychological lift for his underdog team, decided to go for it.
But just before the ball was snapped, right guard Austin Corbett lurched a couple of inches offsides, the penalty flag was thrown and the Rams had to move back 5 yards. Now it was fourth and six from the 17-yard line. McVay made the wise but cautious move of sending in the field goal kicker Matt Gay to tie the game at 3-3. But a 7-3 lead could have and probably would have inspired the Rams so much more than a kiss-your-sister tie did at this important stage of the game. Especially since the Rams number one rated defense was trying to stop the Packers’ number one rated offense. Something had to give, and it turned out to be the Rams D.
The Packers took the kickoff and quarterback Aaron Rodgers marched them downfield all the way to the Rams 1-yard line. Packers Coach Matt LaFleur happens to be Rams Coach Sean McVay’s best friend. He worked with McVay in Washington and worked under McVay as his offensive coordinator for a year before being hired by the Packers. So he had a pretty good idea of what McVay would do in a goal-line defense. He figured that the Rams’ best defensive back, Jalen Ramsey, would be shadowing the Packers best receiver, Davante Adams.
LaFleur called a play with a last-minute shift by Adams from one side of the ball to the other, which required Ramsey to make the same shift. But in the momentary traffic tie-up behind the defensive line while crossing over from left to right, Ramsey lost a couple of inches in his pursuit of Adams and couldn’t recover before Rodgers hit him with a one-yard TD toss.
Now it was 10-3 Packers, a light-but-steady snow had started falling and all the home-field-advantage elements – including 9,000 socially distanced-but-still-delirious cheese heads — were in place for a classic Packers playoff win.
On their next series, Rams quarterback Jared Goff was sacked – one of his three sacks of the afternoon – and the Rams had to punt the ball back to the Pack.
Ominously for the Rams, their best player, future Hall of Fame defensive lineman Aaron Donald, was playing with a broken rib suffered during last week’s win over Seattle. He gave it a valiant try, but he simply wasn’t his usual dominating self and only played about half the game. Rodgers took full advantage, picking the Rams apart with a series of short and mid-range passes that pierced the soft coverage the Rams were playing to compensate for the absence of Donald’s usual ferocious pressure on the QB.
Soon the Packers were knocking on the endzone door again. The 37-year-old Rodgers, who rarely runs the ball anymore, took the snap and rolled right. Defensive end Leonard Floyd – the Rams third best defensive player behind Donald and Ramsey – was bearing down on him for a tackle behind the line of scrimmage.
Rodgers faked a pass, Floyd jumped in the air to bat it down, and Rodgers surprised Floyd – and everybody else — by pulling the ball down and continuing his run toward the right corner of the endzone. The inch or two that Rodgers gained by getting Floyd to bite on the pass fake gave him just enough room to scamper into the endzone for a rare running TD. The Packers missed the point after attempt, but now it was 16-3 and the Rams were in dire trouble.
Rookie running back Cam Akers — the Rams breakout star of the season — ripped off a couple of long runs to get the ball to the 5-yard line. From there, Goff found rookie wide receiver Van Jefferson and suddenly the Rams were back in the ball game, trailing only 16-10. In other words, a TD and a point after would give them a lead.
But without Donald in the game, Rodgers had all day to sit in the pocket, go through his progressions and pick out an open receiver for an easy connection. Again they marched into the red zone, within scoring distance. And again the Rams were burned by a couple of crucial inches.
On second down Rodgers rifled a pass into the endzone. Rams defensive back Troy Hill — who made several huge, game changing interceptions during the season — grabbed it right out of the air, but he couldn’t hold on and the ball squirted onto the ground. On third down Rodgers launched another bullet into the endzone. This time strong safety John Johnson appeared to intercept the pass, stumbled a couple of inches with the ball, and then dropped it. This one had pick-six potential written all over it, but instead it was just another woulda-coulda-shoulda moment for the frustrated – and frustrating — Rams defense. The Packers knew they were lucky to still have the ball and didn’t even think about going for it on fourth down. Instead they kicked the gimme field goal for a 19-10 lead going into halftime.
Still, considering how badly they had played, the Rams had to feel they still had a chance as the second half resumed. But on the very first play from scrimmage, Packers running back Aaron Jones hit the jets for a 60-yard run that was the longest play of the day for either team.
A minute later Jones finished it off with a short run for a TD, and now it was 25-10 after the Packers failed on a 2-point try.
The Rams pulled to within 25-18 with plenty of time left, and that set the stage for one final if-only-for-a-couple-of-inches play that sealed the loss. Packers running back A.J. Dillon took a handoff from Rodgers, started into the line and dropped the ball on the ground. As Rams fans screamed at their TV for the Rams to pick up the fumble and run, it bounced six inches backward right into Rodgers’ arms. Their last chance for a game-changing play had bounced a couple of inches the wrong way.
In the coming weeks, the Rams will have to confront a painful reality: they have a Super Bowl worthy defense, the best in the league. They have a Super Bowl worthy running back in Akers, and Super Bowl worthy receivers in Cooper Kupp (who missed this game with an injury,) Robert Woods, Tyler Higbee and Josh Reynolds. They even have a Super Bowl worthy punter in Johnny Hekker and a Super Bowl worthy place kicker in Matt Gay.
And they have the most creative, innovative head coach in the league, an offensive genius who
hires just the right people for his staff. He will turn 35 next week, and already he has a so-called
“coaching tree” that is starting to dominate the league. The Packers’ Lafleur has been wildly
successful, and on Monday his defensive coordinator Brandon Staley was hired by the
Chargers as their new head coach.
What they do not have is a Super Bowl worthy QB. Goff is exactly what his quarterback rating says he is: a middle of the pack player, good enough to manage a game when the defense shuts the other team down, but not good enough to win games without a lot of help.
His four-year, $134 million ($110 million guaranteed) extension kicks in next season, so he is untradeable. After the game McVay was asked if Goff is still the team’s quarterback.
“Yeah, he’s the quarterback,” McVay said. “Right now.”
Translation: there’s six long months between this bitter loss and the start of training camp next summer. Anything can – and probably will – happen as the Rams continue their endless quest for that rarest of commodities: a franchise quarterback.
Sporting world takes a knee to trump
In December 1929, a frustrated New York Yankees slugger Babe Ruth let it be known he was unsuccessfully seeking a salary of $80,000, the same as he had earned the previous two years. When pushy reporters pointed out that most people were hurting financially because the stock market had just crashed, and that not even President Herbert Hoover made that much money, Ruth replied: “Yeah, but I had a better year than he did.”
Ruth was right. Hoover went on to preside over the Great Depression that lingered for more than 10 years before the manufacturing ramp-up for World War 2 re-ignited the American economy.
That was the first recorded instance of public insults – mild as they seem nowadays — flying between sports stars and presidents.
Since then, hearing trash talk between athletes and politicians has been rarer than unicorns. Much more common have been the ritualistic pictures of presidents greeting championship teams at the White House. With very few exceptions, politics was kept out of the equation no matter how particular athletes felt about the president of the moment. Everybody smiled for the camera and got along for the sake of preserving the Kodak moment.
Until Donald Trump came along. That all changed drastically.
Ever since he incited the deadly January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, President Trump has been dissed by so many corporations, abandoned by so many former fans, thrown under the gold-plated limo by so many formerly friendly media from Fox News’ Brit Hume to the Wall Street Journal editorial board, that he quickly morphed from a president into a pariah. So it was easy to overlook two of the most significant events of the last two weeks.
It started when news broke that New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, a long-time Trump pal along with Patriots owner Robert Kraft and former Pats quarterback Tom Brady, let it be known that he had changed his mind and would not travel to DC to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Trump. The Belichick ceremony was scheduled to be the highlight of Trump’s last-minute pardons-praise-and-rage program that featured suck-up clowns like Congressmen Devin Nunez and Jim Jordan receiving the same medal Belichick was nominated for. Belichick was supposed to bring some class and actual accomplishments to a president and a White House woefully short of both.
In fact, Trump valued Belichick’s support so much that four years ago when Trump was campaigning against Crooked Hillary, he interrupted one of his rambling self-praising monologues to read a fawning letter from Belichick.
And a few weeks ago Trump tried to reciprocate by announcing he would award Belichick the highly prestigious medal.
Belichick’s unprecedented refusal of such an honor was a huge psychological blow to Trump.
Then It got worse – much worse – when the Professional Golfers Association announced that it would not hold its 2022 PGA Championship – one of the big four golf events – at Trump’s Golf Club in New Jersey. Given Trump’s well-documented love of golf – and the estimated $120 million the PGA event generates for the local economy – this was an even bigger blow, both financially and psychologically.
LeBron James publicly called Trump “a bum” several years ago. Now the rest of the sports world has clearly had enough of Trump. The only remaining question is why it took a deadly insurrection that left five dead.
After Trump swaggered into office while losing the popular vote by 3 million in 2016,
he soon set out to confuse and enrage his “base” by claiming that 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other mostly black athletes were “bums” who were deliberately dis-respecting the American flag by kneeling – the so-called “taking a knee” — during the national anthem.
No matter how many times Kaepernick and others tried to clarify that it had nothing to do with the flag and was only intended to draw attention to police misconduct and abuse of minorities, Trump ignored their explanations, kept yakking about the flag and actually called them “SOB’s.”
Since then, Trump has injected himself – usually via Twitter — into the sporting world in an unprecedented way.
He claimed the only black NASCAR driver, Bubba Wallace, hung a noose in his own garage so he could call himself a victim of racism. Even though investigation by the FBI proved that the so-called noose was actually placed there nine months before Wallace took over the garage, Trump never apologized or clarified the record.
Then he blasted the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Redskins for saying they would change their racially insensitive names.
He also uninvited the Golden State Warriors to the White House to celebrate their 2017 NBA title after Stephen Curry had already said he wasn’t coming. Which probably meant none of the other Warriors were coming either. “Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team,” Trump tweeted. “Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn.”
Yeah, and my mommy said you can’t have any of my ice-cream cake, either.
Chargers finally do something smart
The Chargers hired Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley as their new head coach Monday. It was an unexpected, but brilliant move.
The last smart thing the Chargers did was nearly a year ago when they drafted Justin Herbert 6th overall. But that was a no-brainer. The Chargers needed a new quarterback after their long-time starter Philip Rivers departed for Indianapolis.
Herbert fell into their lap after the Miami Dolphins screwed the pooch by selecting Tua Tagovailoa with the previous pick. The lefty gunslinger from Alabama had an up-and-down-season with the Dolphins – mostly down – while Herbert went on to have the best season of any rookie QB since the NFL started keeping records in 1950.
One reason among many, many reasons that former Head Coach Anthony Lynn was fired a day after the Chargers’ last game was that he had failed to recognize the elite talent he had on his hands in Herbert.
Even after seeing him perform all during training camp, Lynn announced a plan to sit Herbert on the bench for the entire season and allow him to watch before putting him in for anything more than garbage time at the tail end of games. Tyrod Taylor, a career back-up, was designated as the starter.
The incredible part about that bone-headed decision was that Herbert’s elite talent is so visible to the naked eye. He was a four-year starter at Oregon, an All-American who is such a high-character guy that he could have left after his junior year and been a high draft pick but stayed in college because he is from Oregon and didn’t want to disappoint his family and friends.
Beyond that, he is a 6-foot-6, 240-pound stud with quick feet and an even quicker release on his passes. And he’s a cerebral guy who studies film and the playbook with equal passion.
In other words, he has superstar potential with no obvious weaknesses to hold him back.
And yet the Chargers and their fans would never have witnessed Herbert’s blossoming greatness were it not for a bungling medical tech who has not been named to this day.
The anonymous accidental hero was administering a pain killer shot to Taylor’s ribs before the second game when he missed the mark and instead injected the needle near Taylor’s heart.
Taylor was rushed to the hospital, Herbert was given 10 seconds notice that he would be the starter, and four months later he is a lock to be named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year after re-writing the rookie record book.
Staley’s hiring was a shock because all the smart guys who make a living bloviating about football on TV and radio insisted that the Chargers would hire an offensive guy like the Rams head coach, Sean McVay, to “develop Herbert.”
What they overlooked was that Herbert is already developed, a fully formed elite QB ready to take his place alongside Patrick Mahomes and DeShaun Watson as the young guns who will take over the league as old bulls Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers leave the game in the next couple of years.
Staley will be a great head coach because he will focus on developing the Chargers defense to the point it will soon be as good as the Rams D, which was the best in the league this year.
He’s got some great building blocks in defensive ends Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram and defensive back Derwin James.
As the Chargers learned during their two-week search for a new coach, sometimes the man you need is the boy next door.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow: @paulteetor. ER