Sean Payton, coronavirus patient, self-quarantined in his house in New Orleans on Sunday night, ordered a cheesesteak for delivery from a favorite eatery. “I am blessed for many reasons,” the Saints coach said over the phone just after the food arrived. He sounded chipper. “Unfortunately, this disease hasn’t cost me my appetite.”
The delivery people know to leave food at the doorstep. They know Payton is that guy you don’t want to come in contact with. He’s the guy a week into Covid-19. He knows he’s lucky, because he has no underlying illnesses, he’s 56, he’d been working out daily (until this), and he can afford, at this time of year, to nap and take care of himself and let the virus run its course. He’s been almost exclusively in the house for eight days—leaving only to be tested last Monday—and plans to sequester himself for at least another week.
He’s the only NFL coach, or top NFL official, to test positive for coronavirus. Yet. Ominously, he knows that might not last. “When all is said and done, a third of every group in the country might get it,” Payton said. “And we’ve got to be careful about spreading it, of course. [Saints offensive coordinator] Pete Carmichael has diabetes, so we’ve got to be careful about him, and everyone really.”
Payton has no idea how he contracted it. Three weeks ago, he’d just left the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, teeming with 2,500 NFL people and media in close contact. The next weekend, he went to New York to see a couple of Broadway plays. Crowded theaters. Then he golfed with friends in Naples, Fla. “Then, last Friday [10 days ago] I was talking with Bill Parcells. He had a horse, Three Technique, running in a race in Arkansas on Saturday. Bill wasn’t planning to go, but I like the races. I said I’ll go. So I went to the race. Back home, on Sunday, just a week ago today, I felt cruddy, a little feverish and just weak. Had the chills. Woke up Monday with the chills. Achy. I called our team doc, described the symptoms. It’s not flu season down here, so he thought there was an 85 percent chance I had [coronavirus]. I went over to a hospital, drove up the little ramp there, and they came out to test me. They had all their protective gear on. I rolled down my window. Just like you’ve seen—they did nostril one, then they did nostril two. That was it. On Thursday, he texted me. ‘Tested positive. Call me.’ I wasn’t nervous about it, because I was feeling good.”
Payton feels better, but still weak. Today, he’ll join his NFL Competition Committee peers on a teleconference to discuss potential rules changes. He finds himself empathizing with so many people now that he’s seen and felt what the virus can do.
“Look, I feel well. I’ll get better, and we’ll go on, and we’ll have the draft in some way, shape or form,” Payton said. “That’s not what’s important right now. What’s important is our health-care workers, our doctors and nurses, on the front lines of this thing. We’ve got to take care of them.
“For now, this is our life, and we’ve got to be prepared for it. Some basic stuff in all of our lives is going to be threatened. We’ve all got to exercise a little more social responsibility. We all felt invincible at some point in our lives, as young people do now. But think of the person you might be affecting.”
Payton, when he feels up to it, plans to figure which cause affected by the virus he can help through his Play It Forward Foundation. Consuming media these days, he’s found himself thinking, How can I help? It’s a good question for all of us these days.
Patrick Mahomes, quarterback, Kansas City. Dealing with a high ankle sprain and missing multiple receivers, Mahomes did what he’s done over and over again in his remarkable NFL career: He excelled, innovated and propelled Kansas City to the win. Mahomes went 29 for 43 for 326 yards and two touchdowns and showed poise and mobility despite the injury, as on his perfectly-placed 19-yard touchdown pass to Marquez Valdes-Scantling in the third and his end-of-game scramble for the first down that positioned the Chiefs for the winning field goal (with the help of some unnecessary roughness). In Mahomes’ career as the starter, Kansas City has never exited the playoffs before the Conference Championships, and now they’re headed to their third Super Bowl appearance in the last four seasons.
Defensive players of the week
Haason Reddick, linebacker, Philadelphia. In the first 11 minutes of the NFC game, Reddick wrecked it. Eight minutes in, Reddick steamed in on Brock Purdy and hit his arm just as he began the act of throwing; it was ruled an incomplete pass and changed to a sack, forced fumble and turnover upon review. That play knocked Purdy from the game with what appeared to be an elbow injury. On the second play of the next series, with backup Josh Johnson in the game, an unblocked Reddick smothered Johnson for a nine-yard loss, and the Niners had to punt two plays later. So, early on, Reddick, the Temple product playing on his home college field, spoiled the first two 49er drives and drove the starting quarterback from the game. That’s one heck of an impact game for the first-year Eagle.
Chris Jones, defensive tackle, Kansas City. In his seven-season career, Chris Jones had never tallied a postseason sack entering Sunday night’s game. In the electric atmosphere at Arrowhead Stadium, he took down Burrow not once but twice, including a sack on third and eight in the final minute of the fourth quarter that ended the Bengals’ shot at a go-ahead scoring drive and got the Chiefs the ball back for the game-winning field goal. Jones was a powerhouse all night, a difference-maker in a close game. Not hard to argue that KC isn’t headed to the Super Bowl without him.
Special teams player of the week
Harrison Butker, kicker, Kansas City. His 45-yard field goal, fighting through the Arrowhead Stadium wind, made it by four or five yards and dropped on the ground with three seconds left, giving Kansas City a 23-20 win over the Bengals. Kick of his career.
Coach of the week
Nick Sirianni, head coach, Philadelphia. His decision to go for it twice on fourth down in the first half helped the Eagles score touchdowns on each. On fourth-and-three from the Niners’ 35-yard line, with the Eagles in long field-goal range, Sirianni called a pass play and Jalen Hurts hit DeVonta Smith for 29 yards (although a closer look might have found the pass incomplete); the Eagles scored their first TD two plays later. On fourth-and-one from the Philly 34 with the game tied at 7, Sirianni chose to go for it, and Hurts sneaked for two … and five minutes later, the Eagles scored to go up 14-0. A good day at the controls for the coach in his first conference title game.
Goats of the week
Joseph Ossai, defensive end, Cincinnati. His clear late hit on Patrick Mahomes out of bounds with eight seconds left in a 20-20 tie merited a 15-yard flag and advanced the ball from the Bengals’ 42-yard line to the 27-yard line … and turned a 60-yard field-goal try for Harrison Butker into a 45-yarder. Just a terrible mistake at the worst time for Cincinnati.
Replay assist, Replay official/New York officiating command center, NFC Championship Game. “Replay assist” is in its second season of use in the NFL. The replay official in the stadium—Jamie Nicholson in this case—or NFL senior VP of officiating Walt Anderson, working from New York, can see an error on the field and call down to the ear of ref John Hussey and tell him the call on the field is wrong. Twice in the first quarter, replay assist likely had enough evidence to fix plays without a coach throwing a challenge flag. The first one was huge—a fourth-and-three pass play from Jalen Hurts to DeVonta Smith for 29 yards that, on further review, appeared clearly to be a trapped or compromised catch by Smith. San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan didn’t challenge it; it very likely would have been overturned, and the NFL’s sophisticated Hawkeye replay system would have caught it quickly. Same with the second call, an Eagles-challenged incomplete pass by Brock Purdy that turned into a strip-sack instead. The system installed is only as good as the people using it, and it’s clear that at least the Smith play could have been seen and fixed in real time by the replay assist system.
Hidden person of the week
Isaac Seumalo, right guard, Philadelphia. On the Eagles’ first series of the NFC title game, Seumalo sealed off 319-pound San Francisco tackle Javon Kinlaw (with help from center Jason Kelce), opening a wide hole for Miles Sanders to sprint six yards in the space formerly occupied by Kinlaw. Just another example of why the Eagles’ offensive line is the NFL’s best: On the first drive of the biggest game of the year, the line helped pave the way for an 11-play, 66-yard TD drive, ending in a display of power that bruising games like this one require.
The Jason Jenkins Award
Jeff Kamis, former director of media relations, Tampa Bay. Kamis was one of my favorite PR people in the time I’ve covered the NFL. Thorough, professional, and helpful, he was the PR chief when the Gruden Bucs won their first Super Bowl. But now, tragedy has entered his life. Kamis’ 16-year-old son Jacob, a star student and aspiring pilot, took his own life seven months ago. He suffered from severe depression. In the midst of their grief, Jeff Kamis and Jacob’s mother Katherine turned their attention to helping other young people suffering from the debilitating disease, as described in this piece done by the Tampa ABC affiliate:
Jeff helped organize a three-day event in Tampa last week called “Lifting the Cloud: A focus on teen mental health.” And in the TV story, he talked about his son nobly: “He didn’t let the illness define who he was as a person. He fought it. He did everything he could to do everything he could to find out why it was happening and to figure out how to get better. I mean, he was sick. I’ll always be so proud of him for being a fighter.”
I spoke to Jeff Kamis Sunday morning, sending along my sympathy for this impossible situation. He said, “Every morning when I wake up, I think, ‘What would Jacob tell me to do?’“
What a lead balloon of a football game. The most important player in it, Brock Purdy, got hurt in the first quarter, and it was only a matter of a time before the better team began the rout. (Not saying Purdy is better than Jalen Hurts. He isn’t. But the drop-off from Purdy to backup Josh Johnson is like an Acapulco cliff-dive. The drop-off from Hurts to Gardner Minshew is not nearly as steep—Minshew can play.)
So the Eagles go into the Super Bowl on one of the best runs in recent history: 16-3 overall, with two of the losses coming in games Hurts didn’t start because of a bum shoulder. The Eagles are 16-1 with Hurts playing—including 38-7 and 31-7 playoff steamrolling’s of the Giants and 49ers at Lincoln Financial Field in the last two weekends. Make no mistake: These Eagles are deep and dangerous, and it will take the best game of their season by the Kansas City Chiefs to beat them in Super Bowl LVII in 13 days.
What was most interesting Sunday—echoing the rout of the Giants—was the dominance of Philadelphia on both sides of the ball. Remember last week, after the win over the Giants, when I witnessed this in the post-game scrum inside the Eagles’ inner sanctum:
“My dad’s here tonight,” Sirianni said after the game, nodding in the direction of his father, “and the first thing he told me when I got into coaching was, ‘It’s always about the O-line and the D-line.’”
Just then, the architect of the two lines and the rest of the roster, GM Howie Roseman, walked by to congratulate Sirianni.
“Howie!” Sirianni yelled. “All about the O-line, D-line, baby!”
“All about the O-line, D-line!” Roseman said.
Think of all the big plays in this game, and the big players, for the newly crowned NFC champions. The GM, Roseman, is linked to most of them. Namely:
1. Jalen Hurts. The quarterback who was widely derided when selected 53rd overall in the 2020 NFL Draft proved what a smart pick it was by leading the Eagles’ drive to their second Super Bowl in five years. Hurts didn’t turn it over, bulled for an insurance TD, and extended a first-quarter drive with a deep throw to DeVonta Smith. Seems so long ago that picking Hurts immediately wounded the psyche of shaky incumbent Carson Wentz. But remember the truth. Roseman didn’t pick Hurts to replace Wentz; he picked him because Wentz was hurt a lot and the Eagles didn’t want to pay the backup QB $7 million, and because Hurts was a fascinating prospect. One more point: Roseman did due diligence on Deshaun Watson when he was a free agent a year ago, but wisely, for many reasons, chose to stick with Hurts.
2. Haason Reddick. Great value signing in free agency for the former Cards and Panthers linebacker (three years, $45 million, cap numbers of $3.9 million and 7.0 million in the first two years), with production far beyond his contract. After finishing second in the NFL with 16 sacks in the regular season and first with five forced fumbles, he was the most important defensive player on the field Sunday. He strip-sacked Purdy and forced him from the game, then sacked Johnson on a drive-crippling play, and then recovered a Johnson fumble late in the half, prompting a late first-half TD. Huge producer when it’s counted for Philadelphia.
3. The corners. Roseman traded third- and fifth-round picks in 2020 to Detroit for Darius Slay, and signed James Bradberry as a salary-cap casualty from the Giants last offseason. Slay and Bradberry have keyed a secondary that—understanding the quality of the passing games the Eagles have faced in the playoffs has been weak—gave up 192 net yards passing and zero TD passes in eight quarters. Slay and Bradberry erased the opposition.
4. DeVonta Smith. Picked 10th overall by Roseman in the ’21 draft, Smith has been the deep threat the Eagles hoped for. He was credited with the most important offensive play for the Eagles Sunday, the 29-yard completion on fourth-and-three that led to the opening Philly touchdown.
5. Nick Sirianni. An offensive coach in Frank Reich’s shadow, and a coach who wasn’t going to call offensive plays because he wanted to be the coach of the whole team still got the nod over the more experienced Josh McDaniels. Remember Sirianni’s disastrous opening press conference? Yikes. But the Eagles do marathon interviews with their coaching candidates, and Roseman and owner Jeffrey Lurie were convinced they saw an underrated leader who wouldn’t be cowed by the local fans or press in tough times, and who would build an excellent offense and coach a complete team. It’s all come true.
“We’re only as good as the staff we have,” Lurie said after the game. “In a way, that’s the secret sauce—the culture and the staff.”
And the personnel staff, led by Roseman. After the last Super Bowl team dissolved into mayhem in less than three years, the fans wanted Roseman out too. But Lurie knew he had a strong GM who deserved a chance to rebuild a team in the dumps. He did—and that’s one of the things that led Roseman to Reddick.
The legacy of Andy Reid in Philadelphia, in part, is what Sirianni and Roseman exulted about last week. Always concentrate on the lines. Philadelphia rotates eight defensive linemen; each plays a dozen snaps or more per game. Keeping them fresh has allowed Reddick the freedom to be a pass-rush marauder, moving inside and outside at will with the offensive line so concerned with the defensive front.
Against the Niners, he was matched against tight end Tyler Kroft on the first series of the game. Later, Reddick was asked what he was thinking when he saw only Kroft between him and Brock Purdy. “Oh man,” Reddick said. “Really bad things.” Reddick beat Kroft easily and steamed toward Purdy, ripping into his right arm—and the ball—just as Purdy tried to throw.
This was the turning point of the game. “I was yelling to coach Nick, ‘Throw the flag!’” Reddick said. The challenge flag, he meant. “I knew that was a sack fumble, cuz I got my hand on the ball.”
Sirianni threw the flag. Meanwhile, Purdy felt a bad sensation. “Shocks all over, from my elbow down to my wrist,” Purdy said. Whatever the replay decided, Purdy was done, at least for a while. And the replay confirmed Reddick’s gut feeling: the fumble, Purdy’s first in the last nine games, gave the Eagles the ball at their own 44. They couldn’t do anything with it, but then Reddick ruined the next drive by sacking Josh Johnson for a loss of 10 on the second play.
As crazy as it sounds, just watching the game, it seemed impossible that the 49ers would be able to stay with Philadelphia. Even though the Niners tied it at 7 on a ridiculously wonderful 23-yard TD run by Christian McCaffreymidway through the second quarter, keeping up with the Eagles would be out of the question with Johnson playing. And it got worse when he had to leave with concussion symptoms early in the third quarter. Purdy re-entered a 21-7 game, but with an apparent elbow injury preventing him from being able to throw, this game became an exercise in just-get-it-over-with, not a true contest of the two best teams in the NFC. “I couldn’t throw more than five, 10 yards,” Purdy said.
As tight end George Kittle said with stark realism after the game: “You’re down to two quarterbacks and neither one of them can throw and neither one of them is really available. It kind of limits what you can do as an offense, kind of limits our playbook to, like, 15 plays.”
So now the Eagles move on. They have many strengths, as winning 16 of 17 with the starting quarterback in the lineup would illustrate. But now, fortunately for them, the Eagles will face one of the game’s best passers—maybe THE best in Arizona with a scary pass-rush. Philadelphia had but 29 sacks last year, and Reddick’s addition blasted that up to 69 this year. Reddick, with 19.5 sacks in 19 games, can win with speed on the outside, and he has enough strength in inside rushes to power through inside gaps.
Amazing to think this, after the Eagles won their first Super Bowl five years ago with an explosive performance against the best team of the era, New England. But this Philadelphia team has fewer weaknesses than the one that beat Brady and Belichick. Thanks to Roseman filling so many holes with high-quality players—and one smart coach—the Eagles won’t be satisfied with anything short of a second Lombardi.