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How the Rams overcame a week of ‘horrors’

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When the door to the Rams’ locker room slammed shut late Sunday afternoon, there were three people not accustomed to being there among the players, coaches and football staffers. In the middle, as usual, was coach Sean McVay. On this day, he talked emotionally about the 36-31 win over Seattle. But he saved his most genuine, heartfelt words for people who are foreign to headlines.

McVay said he was giving out four game balls.

“Sophie Luoto and Kristen Lee!” McVay tossed each a ball.

“Bruce Warwick and Kate Kost!” McVay tossed Warwick a ball. (Kost, in Colorado preparing the Rams’ trip to practice there this week, in advance of their game in Mexico City next week, will get hers this week.)

All four work in football administration and operations for the Rams. When approximately 90 Rams players and staffers were evacuated from their California homes because of the wildfires that came within three miles of their workplace in Thousand Oaks (northwest of Los Angeles), Luoto and the crew found lodging for them (sometimes two or three lodgings, because hotel after hotel in the area got evacuated too), reunited families, found a Saturday practice facility, and kept the train moving. In the end, no one cares about your problems in the NFL. The ref was going to flip the coin at 1:20 Sunday afternoon, and the Seahawks were going to be ready, and you’d better be too.

“Somehow, we got ready,” Rams tackle and leader Andrew Whitworth said Sunday evening. “Pretty amazing, to be able to win a football game in circumstances like this.”

Circumstances like this.

Thursday morning, about 4:10. The cellphone on Whitworth’s night table kept vibrating. He picked it up to text from two former Bengals teammates, including NFL Players Association president Eric Winston. Like: Are you okay? Can’t believe what happened? Whitworth had no clue what happened, but he checked online and found there’d been a shooting at a Thousand Oaks nightclub. The place was four miles from the Rams’ training facility. There were deaths and injuries, perhaps many of each. Whitworth and his wife stayed up, trying to figure out what it all meant, particularly for their four children and school. And for what they could do to help whatever this latest mass shooting left in its wake.

Thursday, 10:35 a.m. McVay and Whitworth spoke to the team about being good community members in a time of crisis. Whitworth was at LSU when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and said to his teammates, “Do something.You’ll never regret trying to help in a tragedy.”

Thursday, about 1 p.m. Before going out to practice, Whitworth decided to put his money where his emotion was. He called his wife, Melissa, and said he wanted to donate his gamecheck, about $60,000 after taxes, to a fund established to help the victims of the shootings, and their families. “I’m in,” Melissa Whitworth said. “One hundred percent.”

Thursday, about 3 p.m. At practice, two separate mega-fires popped up, visible for the players and coaches to see. “Those are pretty close,” Whitworth said. They were about three miles away from the practice facility, as it turned out. In a few hours, firefighters would dig a trench across the street from the Rams’ facility, the kind of trench that gets dug when firefighters are trying to stop a wildfire from advancing. Before Whitworth left for the day, he learned the 101 freeway, which he uses to get to and from his home in nearby Sherwood, was partially shut down. But he got home, as did most of his teammates.

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

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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.

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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.

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