Getty

How a pump fake helped Saints beat Eagles

Leave a comment

NEW ORLEANS — Sometimes, in a slog of a game, when your season’s on the line and you’re down two touchdowns and absolutely nothing is coming easy, you’ve got to turn to a little hocus-pocus. You’ve got to call Doobie Pump.

And sometimes, when you’ve caught more passes than anyone in the league, and you’re near the end of a long season, and you are just dying to put your team on your back and prove to America and to your home crowd—which, by the way, lost its collective vocal chords in a high-decibel performance for the ages at the Superdome on Sunday—that there’s no better receiver in the NFL, you have to take one for the team. You have to be a decoy.

“At a crucial point of our season,” Drew Brees told me later, “Michael Thomas was a big piece of cheese.”

Thomas caught a Saints postseason-record 12 balls for 171 yards and a touchdown against the Eagles in the divisional playoffs, but it was a ball he didn’t catch that was his biggest contribution to the game … and a play that was his favorite play of his best postseason day.

Eagles 14, Saints 0, midway through the second quarter, fourth-and-goal at the Eagles’ 2-yard line. All eyes on Thomas, one of three Saints receivers to the left of the formation. The Saints, in a very Doug Pederson call, were going for it, and two Eagle defenders cheated toward Thomas as Brees called the cadence. Thomas came in motion from outside the numbers to the slot.

“Plays like this are the cool plays,” Thomas said in a quiet moment by his locker later, after the media herd thinned out. “It’s the kind of play the real coaches and the real players appreciate.”

Brees took the snap, stared at Thomas and pumped his arm forward. Everyone in the place, and Eagles defensive backs Cre’Von LeBlanc and Josh Hawkins, focused on Thomas.

After the game, Sean Payton stood in his office and drew it up on his whiteboard. Three receivers to the left, and the widest, Thomas, motions inside. “Looks like Mike’s gonna get it,” Payton said, stopping the blue marker behind the left guard, “but all of a sudden, it’s a pump. See, most times this season people would see that motion and we’d stick it in there to Mike, but in this case, Drew pumps. Everything about this play was Mike Thomas, till it wasn’t.”

“So,” Brees picks up the story, “I pump to Mike and they’re reacting to it, and that leaves [rookie receiver Keith] Kirkwood with a step on his guy over the top in the end zone, just the way we hoped, and just what happened in practice.”

The key was getting one of the corners, LeBlanc, who was on Kirkwood, to tend to Thomas in the same neighborhood. He did. And Kirkwood got a step on LeBlanc, and Brees’ throw was true. Easy touchdown to Kirkwood. One of the toughest TD drives of the year, from start to finish, for New Orleans, but also one of the most rewarding.

“I really wanted that play to work,” said Thomas. “It’s strange, but sometimes, when I’m getting all these targets from Drew—I caught the most passes in the league this year and didn’t drop many—people don’t really get to know exactly what kind of player I am. You know, I’m kind of selfish, but selfish in a way that I want to see the other guys I play with succeed too.”

Thomas said these “real plays” are the one receivers would talk about away from the field. “That’s the kind of play that the Larry Fitzgeralds and the Anquan Boldins, the great receivers, the guys who go to the Hall of Fame, they do. I’m happy to build my résumé by putting that one out there for people to see.”

That’s the fun thing about the Saints. They had so many issues  Sunday, with dumb penalties—guard Andrus Peat was flagged four times, twice for holding—but they keep coming at you. Afterward, Brees reflected on his long tenure, and whether he could have envisioned another shot at a Super Bowl after three straight 7-9 seasons in 2014, ’15 and ’16.

“Well, ’14 and ’15 were tough, really tough,” Brees said. “We lost a ton of guys and it was a different locker room, a different vibe. But after the ’16 season, we made an effort to draft the right guys—guys of character, toughness and intelligence. We rebuilt the foundation and the culture of the team that we had for so long here but somehow we lost. We brought in the right guys, and look at the results.”

“What are you going to do Tuesday?” I asked.

“My birthday?” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Your 40th.”

“I’m gonna be sitting there grinding on Rams film,” he said. “Like I always do. I’ve got the whole offseason to celebrate. My son [Baylen] turns 10 Tuesday. He was born on my 30th birthday. So it’ll be all about him. I might get a piece of his birthday cake.”

It’s not often a quarterback gets a second life with many of the same important characters, like Payton and GM Mickey Loomis. But as Brees reveled in it Sunday in his locker room, and as Payton and Loomis told stories postgame with visitor and Saints fan Isiah Thomas, this felt like the good old days, the nine-year-old Super Bowl days, in the Big Easy. That’s the last time I heard the crowd like this—in the NFC Championship Game overtime win against the Vikings. The franchise, and the city, will have a lot to live up to Sunday against the Rams.

Read more from Football Morning in America here

NFL fans apparently don’t want an 18-game regular season

Getty Images
Leave a comment

In the news this week, as the league gets back to business for the 100th season of American professional football:

• The owners and players meet Wednesday in another formal bargaining session for a new CBA. A three-day meeting is scheduled between the NFL’s Management Council and the NFLPA’s Executive Committee (a 10-player unit including president Eric Winston and VPs Richard ShermanBenjamin Watsonand Adam Vinatieri). This will be the fourth bargaining session between owners and players this spring/summer, with the hope being the two sides can reach an agreement on a new bargaining agreement in 2019. (The CBA has two more seasons to run, and expires in the spring of 2021.)

Commissioner Roger Goodell recently told CNBC that it is “certainly our intent” to try to get a new CBA before the start of the season. In a round of calls Saturday, I got some optimism from a team source who felt the chance of making a deal on a new CBA was 50-50 this year if the union would stick with the current economic formula of the game; currently players get about 47 percent of the game’s gross revenue.

But I talked to a source on the player side who wasn’t nearly as hopeful, in part because he felt the players need a bigger cut of the pie to agree to a new deal two seasons out from the end of the current CBA. This person called the first three meetings positive, but baby steps toward a deal. I do know that there have not been any significant discussions on a change in the revenue split yet. Those talks will have to progress for anything to get done.

• The 18-game schedule is nowhere near a reality. I heard that one or two teams are interested in what the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday the NFL has proposed discussing with the players as part of the CBA talks: an 18-game regular-season schedule, with each player eligible to play a maximum of 16 games. This is not a new idea—it’s been thrown around at league meetings as one idea to expand the inventory and enrich the league’s TV deals for years.

“I can’t see it,” one plugged-in club official told me. “Imagine you pay to see Tom Brady and the Patriots, and the Patriots announce that week it’s one of the two games he’ll sitting out this year. Now you’re seeing Brian Hoyer throw to some practice-squad guy. I don’t see any way we could ever do that.”

I’ve always thought in an era when the reduction of head trauma is job one in everything the league does, the only way the NFL could even consider 18 games is with teams playing players a maximum of 16 weeks. But the details make it too hard. How would a team divvy up the starts, say, for the starting offensive line? Would they figure the starting tackles should play every week with the starting quarterback, and thus doom the backup in his two games to a run-for-your-life offensive scheme?

The continued pursuit—or the continuing broaching—of an 18-game schedule is such a short-sighted and greedy thing. The NFL paid each team $275 million out of the league share of total revenue in 2018, and teams paid about $215 million annually in player costs (cap plus benefits). After that, teams can reap major raw profits over what they did in local team revenue.

Someone in the NFL seems determined to kill the most golden of geese by pursuing, even in a passing way, this stupid idea. Greed, in this case, is not good.

• Fans don’t want 18 games either. I put out a Twitter poll Saturday and Sunday, asking if readers preferred a 16 or 18-game schedule. Of 13,533 voters, 79 percent said 16. Great comment from a Vikings fan, Jason Altland: “If I pay out the nose for decent tickets in Baltimore or New York to see my Vikings, I want to see all the healthy stars play. I don’t want to pay and end up with a [Stefon] Diggs or {Adam] Thielen bye game.”

Pro Football Talk also polled its readers over the weekend about the 16/18-game idea, with more options than I offered … and 62 percent said they favored 16 games—with 8 percent saying they favored 18 with a maximum of 16 games per player per season.

Read more from Football Morning in America here

Why Melvin Gordon’s holdout with the Chargers could get ugly

Getty Images
Leave a comment

I think this Melvin Gordon-Chargers impasse could get ugly. The Chargers running back, entering his fifth season, could hold out from training camp into the season if he doesn’t get either a new contract or a significant raise from his $5.6-million salary in 2019. There’s a few reasons the holdout could last a while, starting with the fact that Chargers GM Tom Telesco, who grew up in the Bill Polian front office of the Colts, is not afraid to take a hard line. But mostly, it’s about what happens in recent years when teams have either paid runners or drawn a hard line with them. Examples:

• Le’Veon Bell balked at the Steelers’ offer of $14.5 million on the franchise tag last year. James Conner wasn’t quite as productive as vintage Bell—270 touches, 1,470 yards, 13 touchdowns—but he was close. And Conner, who made $754,572 last year, cost 1/19th of what Bell would have commended. No one in Pittsburgh is bemoaning the loss of Bell, though he’s a great player.

• Todd Gurley is a great back too, and the Rams paid a guaranteed $45 million last year. They’ll say they aren’t regretting what they paid Gurley, but an odd and persistent knee problem last year limited him to 88 carries in the Rams’ last nine games—including a 35-yard rushing performance in the Super Bowl. The Rams picked up C.J. Anderson off the street in December, and in five games, he rushed for 488 yards.

• David Johnson of the Cardinals responded to his new $13-million-a-year deal on the eve of the 2018 season by rushing for 940 yards (3.6 yards per carry).

• Devonta Freeman signed with Atlanta for $22 million guaranteed in 2017. He’s missed 16 of the Falcons’ last 32 regular-season games and averaged 58 yards per game in the 16 he’s played.

In 30 games over his two NFL seasons, Charger understudy Austin Ekeler has proven elusive and reliable, averaging 5.3 yards per rush and 10.3 yards per catch, with just two lost fumbles. I don’t think Telesco will be afraid to take the slings and arrows of a holdout. So if you’re drafting your fantasy team very early, I’d give a long look at Ekeler.

Read more from Football Morning in America here