Football Morning in America reader Hugh Royal shares NFL culture in small-town America

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Peter King is on vacation until July 15, and he lined up some guest writers to fill his Monday spot on Football Morning in America. Today, it’s Hugh Royal of Richfield, Idaho, who was selected out of a few hundred readers who submitted essays on why they wanted to be an FMIA guest columnist.

RICHFIELD, Idaho — I learned early in my work career about NFL fan extremism. As a production manager at the Avonmore Whey Plant in Idaho, I traveled for the job and once visited Wisconsin. The first night, I stayed at a local hotel with a lounge. I stopped for a beer before dinner. The Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings were playing on TV, and the Pack was losing, and I made what was probably a disparaging comment about Green Bay. Every head turned toward me and gave me a look like, “Who the hell are you and do you want to live?” When I got back from dinner that night, the desk clerk stopped me. He was pointed. He suggested for my own good that tomorrow I move to another hotel. I couldn’t believe he was serious, but I did move the next day. And was VERY careful about what I said after that.

It’s not like that where I live. I live in Richfield, Idaho. Richfield is a town of about 400 in south-central Idaho. We have blue sky and can see all the stars at night. We can see nearby snow-capped mountains. We’re 50 miles northeast of Twin Falls, and about a two-hour drive southwest of Boise. Richfield was established as a railroad town in the late 1800s. The total population of Idaho is still under two million.

We like keeping Idaho a secret. I am sure I will get some mail calling me bad names for letting the world know what a gem Idaho is. We are much more than just potatoes. But we’re small, and we make no apologies for it. The Richfield High School Senior class numbered 11 students this year. Nine graduated. Out of the nine, eight are going to college. Once you leave the township, your nearest neighbor is usually a mile or more away. It is quiet. Real quiet.

We don’t really have an NFL home team in Richfield. It’s difficult to call a team a “home” team and take it to heart when the closest league market is nine-and-a-half hours away by car. Think of our geography: We’re 630 miles southeast of Seattle, 700 miles from both Denver and Oakland, 840 miles from Phoenix, and don’t even think about making a car trip to see the Vikings in Minneapolis. They’re 1,300 miles east of us, and Montana’s pretty wide.

So in Richfield, there are fans who pledge allegiance to Seattle, Pittsburgh, Oakland, Arizona, San Francisco, Denver, Green Bay, Dallas, and the L.A. Rams—a veritable potpourri of NFL fandom.

Much of NFL life in Richfield happens around the bar named the Little Wood Saloon. The official bar motto is: Where the beer is cold and the BS is free. The saloon was originally a hardware store built in the early 1900’s. The original ceiling, hardwood floor and some doors are still in place. There are pictures on the wall of cowboys and their activities. There is a chandelier from a Nevada whorehouse on the ceiling. There are no NFL team pennants on the wall, no autographed football pictures or helmets. Quite a few people in the bar, and those “interviewed” for this column, are related either by blood or by marriage. That’s just the way it is in a small town.

During the NFL season, after a Sunday or Monday night game, or after the Super Bowl, the economy does not improve or get worse. No one calls in sick, no fights occur, and a baby boom does not happen nine months later. The season schedule is on the wall and people use it to see when their team is playing. We don’t know what a Cover 2 is. We can probably tell the difference between a 4-3 and a 3-4 defense by watching the game, but we don’t try and identify it as such.

We don’t watch the draft. We do track trades. Some play fantasy football. I don’t think any of us have actually watched an NFL game on our phones.

We know when someone throws for 400 yards or runs for 200 yards. We know when upsets occur, especially if New England gets beat. But the NFL isn’t exactly an obsession in Richfield.

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Super Bowl LVII storylines: Defending Mahomes, Hurts

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The three things you need to know about Super Bowl LVII, per Next Gen Stats, that I think could play big parts in who wins:

The Eagles do not need to blitz to affect Patrick Mahomes. This is the craziest thing about a formidable Philadelphia front: Of their league-best 77 sacks in 19 games, including playoffs, 57 came when the Eagles rushed four players. That means 74 percent of their sacks have come on non-blitzes. Which, of course, means that Mahomes will likely most often be trying to complete his passes with a battered receiving corps against seven men in coverage. Tough duty for even a great one like Mahomes. No team in the seven-year history of Next Gen Stats has had such success rushing the quarterback without blitzing as the ‘22 Eagles.

Kansas City must be considering offensive alternatives with its beat-up receiver corps. Much has been said about the lack of Tyreek Hill in this offense, and it’s remarkable that the team has been so explosive—and Mahomes so productive—with all the new receivers in his arsenal. New, and not as fast. In 2018 through ’21, with Hill onboard, Mahomes threw 47 “deep TD passes,” defined as passes that traveled at least 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. In 2022, minus Hill, Mahomes threw one. We’ve seen all year that Mahomes is far more of an intermediate thrower this year, and he’s been great at it. One more NGS nugget that could come into play: Kansas City has scored 35 touchdowns this year—most in the NFL—with two tight ends on the field. If Travis Kelce isn’t a 100-yard factor in this game, I’ll be surprised.

Steve Spagnuolo beat the 18-0 Patriots with an unpredictable pass-rush in the 2007 season. Will he blitz Jalen Hurts in the same way in Super Bowl LVII? Hurts, per Next Gen, had the sixth-worst success rate against the blitz this season. His success rate is 47.7 percent against non-blitzes. One thing Hurts has going for him is the best offensive line in football, a line well-suited to defend against great rushers. He’ll need it against Chris Jones and Frank Clark.

Lots of great angles in this tight, competitive matchup. Those are just three.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column

Concrete takeaways from Broncos’ deal with Sean Payton

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The late Giants’ GM, George Young, once had a great truism about coaching searches: “They’re never done till they’re done.” Reporters in this time of intense media would be wise to keep that in mind.

Reading about the Denver job in the two weeks before the hire of Sean Payton last week left these impressions: He wouldn’t want the job because of a conflict with an owner. Or he had a bad interview, didn’t have a second interview as others did, and was out of the running. Or Broncos owners never wanted Payton as their coach. Or the Broncos wanted DeMeco Ryans and got jilted, and so went to Payton as a fallback.

For someone so unwanted as Payton, it seems funny Denver traded first- and second-round draft choices (getting a third- in return) to New Orleans for Payton, then made him one of the highest-paid coaches in NFL history, with a five-year deal worth at least $18 million a year. The Broncos once were interested in Jim Harbaugh and then Ryans—neither of whom would require draft-choice compensation, and neither of whom would cost upwards of $18 millon a year. But things change during the process of looking for a coach, so it’s wise to not speak in absolutes till it’s over.

A few things we do know about the Payton deal with Denver:

  • Denver talked with Saints GM Mickey Loomis about two deals for Payton, who required compensation because he was still under contract to New Orleans: a first-round pick and a third-round pick, or a first-rounder and second-rounder, with the Broncos getting a third-rounder in return. Denver wanted the second option, because it would leave them with an equal number of day-two picks instead of being down one. Officially, Denver trades the 30th pick this year and a second-round pick in 2024 and gets a third-round pick in 2024 in return.
  • Payton had the best chance of turning Russell Wilson around. The first time I ever met Wilson, at Seahawks training camp, he said to me: “Who’s taller—me or Drew [Brees]?” I think he was genuinely curious about it. (I’d guess Wilson, by a fraction.) But Wilson and Brees have gotten to be friends, and Wilson has great admiration for him. So, Wilson’s at a low point after his disastrous first year in Denver. He wanted Payton to get the job, and he’s willing to be coached hard by him. Wilson has been reaching out to Brees to get a preview of coming attractions. History lesson: Brees was a free agent coming off shoulder surgery in 2006, and Miami was iffy on signing him because of his shoulder, and the Saints went after him hard. Brees came under Payton’s wing with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. Sound familiar?
  • The presence in the interview process of minority Broncos owner Condoleezza Rice, the former U.S. Secretary of State, was a plus. Payton was impressed by her, and one of the majority owners, Greg Penner. He thinks he’ll be able to form the kind of close relationship with GM George Paton that he had with Loomis, who remains one of his best friends, in New Orleans.
  • Payton is wide open about his defensive staff, and won’t be in a hurry to fill it out. He’ll take his time to find a coordinator he thinks he’ll mesh with. He won’t be afraid to pick a strong-minded tough guy like Brian Flores, who he’s scheduled to interview. The defensive coordinator of the Broncos, as Dennis Allen was under Payton in New Orleans, is going to be the head coach of the defense.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column