How a Rolex helped keep the Los Angeles Rams perfect

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LOS ANGELES — When you’re undefeated, you need some luck along the way. The Rams’ luck Sunday was Ty Montgomery, two yards deep in the end zone, choosing to run the ball out—instead of giving the ball to one of the best quarterbacks ever at his 25 with two minutes left, needing just a field goal to win. Montgomery fumbled. Rams recovered. Wisconsin threw a brick through its collective TV set. Game over.

But that’s too simple. This game was actually a vivid illustration why the Rams, at 8-0, sit atop the NFL mountain approaching the midpoint of the NFL’s 99th season. They will have contenders to the throne, contenders from New England and Kansas City and rising New Orleans (8-0 Rams at 6-1 Saints, next Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET), and maybe even from Minnesota, Carolina, Washington or down the street; the Chargers seem pesky. It’s a good illustration because of Todd Gurley, the friendly guy with the long dreads and skinny wire-framed glasses, who does everything right and fits in on a team with a smart young coach and unassuming young quarterback and a team that plays complementary football.

One tight game, two exemplary plays.

I always look for the plays that explain precisely why teams are what they are, and I found two in the Rams’ locker room after the 29-27 victory.

One: Todd Gurley’s 30-yard touchdown reception in the middle of the third quarter, which looked so ridiculously easy. How does the best back in football, the legit MVP candidate, go untouched out of the backfield, go untouched on a crossing route, and go untouched running all the way for a touchdown?

Two: The “Rolex Play,” Gurley’s 17-yard run with 65 seconds left, the one when he just stopped running and went down at the 4-yard line, much to the chagrin of Vegas and fantasy fiends alike. You’ve got to hear the Rolex story.

So … were you watching Sunday? What a tremendous game in a tremendous setting, the 95-year-old Coliseum with the classic peristyles, with a quarterback certain to go down in history waiting for one more shot to win that never came. And the atmosphere. When the Packers came out of the ancient tunnel where so many of the greats in football history have entered, it sounded like Lambeau West—truly, maybe louder than if this game had been at Lambeau Field. “I didn’t really expect that in L.A., but that crowd was fantastic,” Aaron Rodgers said. Sometimes, you’re witnessing an event that’s just different—and this was just different, and great. I’m sorry we didn’t get to see another classic Rodgers late drive, but that’s football. The dumb Montgomery play—it happens.

But that should not obscure what else we saw in the 29-27 L.A. victory. Namely this: The Rams are not going anywhere. They survived Sunday, but every great team has to survive on days when it’s not at its best, or when the foe is really good. Look back at every champion, and you’ll see a shaky win or two. There is no shame in edging Aaron Rodgers instead of dominating him.

On Sunday, two plays taught us so much about this team. A touchdown and an oddity. Understand those, and you go a long way toward understanding this team.

As the NFL reaches its midpoint, the 8-0 Rams and 7-1 Chiefs are the headliners. They meet three weeks from tonight, in Mexico City. We’ll have time to blow out that story.

First, two plays. I want you to understand the Los Angeles Rams.

The Gurley Touchdown

The Rams have a jillion weapons in the passing game. Gurley is third in targets. Often, he feels first. He’s so good out of the backfield that coach Sean McVay tries to get him the ball in space three or four times a game, and he uses the legal picks that so many teams use. When they work, they’re things of beauty. When they don’t, the ball might be incomplete, or the back might get waylaid coming out of the backfield.

“The key is Higbee,” Gurley told me at his locker after the game. That’s Tyler Higbee, the Rams’ Bavaro-like 255-pound tight end. “Higbee’s a beast.”

On this play, Gurley is split left in the slot, and he runs out just past the line, then does a crosser to the right. The Packers’ precocious inside linebacker, Blake Martinez, spies Gurley and makes a beeline for him. But here comes Higbee. All he wants to do is “accidentally” knock the Gurley cover guy off his course. Higbee puts an “accidental” shoulder into Martinez, and suddenly, Gurley is wide open. Martinez, who would have been hopelessly behind Gurley, now covers Higbee, hoping one of his mates sees the legal pick play.

Somebody get Gurley!

Nobody got Gurley.

McVay, afterward, didn’t want to give away the store, but he did tell me, “That was by design.” Of course it was. So many things the Rams do are by design, ghost-like maneuvers you don’t see clearly but when they’re over, you wonder, “How’d that happen?”

At his locker, Gurley was almost sheepish about it, like his coach. “Their guy [Martinez] was off me a little bit,” Gurley said. “My job is just be patient and then go across, come underneath him. It was wide open. We were practicing this play for probably a month.”

“A month?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “Never called it once. Not in a game. Just in practice. In practice, our guys haven’t been able to pick it up, not one time in practice. We’re like, ‘Yeah, this is gonna work.’ “

“You mean the pick part of it?” I said.

“Yup,” he said. “It’s a natural pick. Higbee’s the best. He’s one of the best shift blockers in the league. He does a lot of great stuff that gets unnoticed on this team. He’s our sixth offensive lineman and he’s always doing great job in play action passes, everything. His work does not go unnoticed by his teammates—tell you that.”

The team, the team, the team.

The Rolex Play

So we shouldn’t go crazy in praising a player for getting down in-bounds and giving up a touchdown for the good of the team, when the clock can be run out. We won’t. But it’s worth pointing out because it illustrates a lot about how symphonic this team is, and how the players and coaches listen and learn.

In training camp, McVay works on special plays. Odd plays, plays that might come up once a year or maybe once in 10 years. Or never. In camp, McVay and the staff worked on the play they christened the “Rolex Play.” Meaning this, as McVay told me: “Time is more important than the points. Time means everything there.”

It’s part of the McVay program. Each week, the special teams coach, John Fassel (the ultra-slim man’s nickname is “Bones”), gathers plays from around the league—either good ideas on weird plays, or plays teams messed up by simply not using common sense. “Bones has a meeting every week where we compile situations, try to educate ourselves as coaches and our players on, If this happens, how do we handle it? Rolex was one of those. In Rolex, if we got a first down there, that was one of those get-down-in-bounds situations. As long as we hang onto the ball, they can’t score. But we score, then they get the ball back.”

In the huddle, on third-and-10 with 65 seconds to play, multiple guys said one of three things: “Rolex,” “Get down,” and “Don’t score.” That, as guard Rodger Saffold told me, is a group of players who understand what’s required there, all thinking in unison. Again: It’s not stunningly smart. It’s just sensible, and shows the how unified and well-drilled the team is.

So McVay called the power sweep, pitched to Gurley. Classic power football. And it worked. From the 21, Gurley broke through the line and sprinted toward the goal line. “I could have walked into the end zone,” Gurley said. “But we talked in the huddle about being situationally aware and just getting down and winning the game.”

It almost looked like the Green Bay defensive back, vet Tramon Williams, tried to lift up Gurley and keep him going. Strange, unless you understand the story.

“They want the ball in 12’s hands, of course,” Gurley said. Aaron Rodgers, he means.

A Jared Goff kneeldown, and game over.

I said to Gurley: “You realize every fantasy player who has you on their team is screaming, “Score! Score!”

Players, many of them, hate the fantasy football pollution on the game. Gurley gave me a little bit of a snide look. He said: “They should be happy about all the performances I gave them in the weeks before. They need to be humbled as well.”

So there.

“Lots to like about today,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “Honestly, this game showed a lot about how we’re about team and family before it’s about anything. The most special things the Rams have going on offensively is that some of their best players are really some of the most special people. Jared and Todd. Really, two special human beings as far as their humbleness, their attitudes, really just the way they come in every single day to work as hard as anybody else if not harder. We’re in good hands with those guys.”

They’re in good hands, period. “Teams are testing us now, trying to figure out what to do to beat us, and they’ve got a lot of film to do that,” Whitworth said. “It’s a test for us, but …”

He trailed off. I can complete the sentence.

But they’re passing the test.

Read the rest of Peter King’s Football Morning in America here

Joe Flacco was as good as Joe Montana (for one postseason)

Joe Flacco
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Whatever you end up thinking about Joe Flacco’s tenure in Baltimore, I would urge you to remember what he did six years ago, in the postseason of his fifth NFL year.

He beat Andrew Luck by 15 in a wild-card game. He made the throw of his life to help beat Peyton Manning, in 2-degree wind chill in Denver, by three in a divisional game. He beat Tom Brady by 15 in the AFC Championship Game in Foxboro. He beat the broiling-hot Colin Kaepernick by three in the Super Bowl.

Flacco, easily, had one of the best postseasons by a quarterback in history. Who beats two of the top five quarterbacks ever, in the span of eight days, both in hostile road environments?

I covered that divisional game in Denver on a Saturday afternoon that became Saturday night, a 4-hour, 11-minute slugfest. The game was tied at 7, at 14, at 21, at 28, and … well, I’ll tell you how it got tied at 35 in case you don’t recall.

With 40 seconds left in the fourth quarter and Denver up 35-28, Baltimore offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell called into Flacco’s helmet in the deafening roar of a crowd anticipating a trip to the AFC title game: “Scat right 99 … “ with some other signaling words behind it. Flacco loved it. Four receivers, two left and two right, all running go routes.

As I stood in the end zone (in Denver, in the last couple of minutes, media can stand on the field, out of the way, to see the end of the game), I saw Denver pass-rushers Elvis Dumervil and Robert Ayers both pressure Flacco, who stepped up and flung it high and far into the Denver night. Man, it was a high ball. And when it came down, it nestled into the arms of Jacoby Jones for a 70-yard touchdown.

The stadium got church-sermon quiet in the matter of about three seconds. Seventy yards away from the Baltimore sideline, I could hear the shrieks of the Ravens players. Jones found Flacco and screamed: “SMOKIN’ JOE!”

In the sixth quarter—or second overtime—Justin Tucker, with the wind chill dipping below zero, drilled a 47-yard field goal to win it 38-35.

I will always remember Flacco after that game. Smiling, fairly happy, but with him, you could never tell just how happy. His backup, Tyrod Taylor, seemed more thrilled, honestly.

Then the win in Foxboro. Coach John Harbaugh afterward called him “Brady-like … When we scouted him, so many times you look at a player and you say, ‘Is this going to be too big for him? Is the stage going to be too big?’ Never. It never has been.’’

Then the win in the Super Bowl, in New Orleans. Flacco told me after that game, at a family party in Huck Finn’s restaurant in the French Quarter, that his idol growing up was Joe Montana. (How many kid quarterbacks have said that? Only all of them.) That caused me to go back to my hotel room in the wee hours of Monday morning to see how Flacco’s postseason compared to Montana’s finest one.

Not far off, as it turned out.

So … I get that Flacco has been a mediocre quarterback since then, in part due to injury. He’s 43-42, with one playoff win (albeit in Pittsburgh) since that night in Huck Finn’s. But I guess I’m a glass-half-full guy. Elite or not, Flacco deserves to be remembered as the man who delivered a Super Bowl title to Baltimore. And when the Ravens picked him 18th out of Delaware in 2008, I guarantee if you’d told owner Steve Bisciotti he’d win one Super Bowl with Flacco in 11 seasons, he’d have signed for it right then.

Read more Football Morning in America here

3 reasons why Colin Kaepernick case was settled

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There is far more we don’t know about the Colin Kaepernick/NFL/collusion settlement than we know, because the terms of the deal announced Friday are confidential and have not leaked. So it’s wrong to knock Kaepernick for caving, because we don’t know what his options were; if he and his counsel felt they faced a certain loss in the case to be heard by arbitrator Stephen Burbank, why just take the loss without dinging the NFL? It’s wrong to assume the NFL felt it was going to lose the case and thus settled; if that were the case, why would Kaepernick have taken a deal?

I know three things that influence my opinion of the case:

• One: When the depositions given by NFL people in the case were complete, those inside the league felt confident that nothing was said by a league executive or employee that could be deemed damaging enough to prove the case that two or more teams colluded to limit Kaepernick’s NFL employment. Very confident. Maybe that’s right; maybe it isn’t. Now, in the time between the end of the depositions and now, could some attorney have told Roger Goodell or his top legal lieutenant, Jeff Pash, that they might have liability with something in one or more of the depositions? I don’t know that. But the big reason why so many who covered this story were surprised was because they didn’t see it coming—that’s how confident the NFL was in its case.

• Two: The NFL is coming off a strong season, with no mega-controversies (till the woefully handled missed pass-interference call in the NFC title game, with the league office’s clumsy attempt to bury it by ignoring it for 10 days) and an uptick in TV ratings and an influx of new stars like surprising young MVP Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield and Saquon Barkley. The Bears and Rams and Chargers lifted dormant or down markets. Concussions were down a significant 23 percent year over year, giving hope that the game can be made safer. Roger Goodell mostly stayed out of sight during 2018, which turned out to be a pretty good strategy—fans didn’t have the commissioner on whom to focus their anger. With all that giving the NFL momentum this offseason, it’s probably a smart investment for the league to make the Kaepernick problem go away.

• Three: This comes from an excellent summation of the legality of the settlement from the University of New Hampshire’s associate dean of the School of Law, Michael McCann, writing for Sports Illustrated: “The loser of Burbank’s award could have challenged it in federal court, thereby creating public records with detailed information about the grievance. The NFL has long tried to avoid the discovery process and disclosure of any discovery.” Smart. So even if the NFL were to win the arbitration, Kaepernick could have appealed, and attorney Michael Geragos could have filed to force an appeals court to open up the NFL’s depositions.

In the end, if you’re talking a just way for this to end and you believe (as I do) that Kaepernick is likely to never play in the NFL again, he deserves a multi-million-dollar settlement, if that’s what he got. He did exacerbate what was a dicey situation already with his own actions, once wearing socks with pigs dressed as police officers. There were times when critics saw him as more interested in being a victim than a football player. Regardless, he didn’t deserve to be shunned by 32 teams.

I’ll always think Kaepernick hasn’t found NFL employment in 25 months because of business reasons, not football ones. I believe some teams have had interest in signing Kaepernick as a backup quarterback who may have been able to work his way into the starting job—on some teams—when the noise died down. But interested coaches and GMs with some franchises would have had to battle the business side of the organization and possibly the owner to get the deal done. That wouldn’t have to happen in a place like New England. If Bill Belichick wanted Kaepernick, I’ve got to think owner Robert Kraft would agree to let him make that move. (Maybe that’s why that rumor got some legs over the weekend, though I couldn’t find any confirmation of any interest by New England in Kaepernick.)

In the end, this became about more than whether Kaepernick’s free-wheeling style of play would fit a particular offense. It became about business, and whether Kaepernick would have indelibly affected the bottom line over the football product.

In my opinion, those issues are more specious than real, but I’m not the one running a team. It’s an unfulfilling end to the Kaepernick/NFL saga, if this is it. But we don’t get to choose the end that seems most satisfying or fair.

Read more from Football Morning in America here