Football Morning In America, Super Bowl 56, Rams Beat Bengals

HAWTHORNE, Calif. — No, this is not the place where Super Bowl LVI was won by the Rams, 23-20, in another coin-flip of a football game, the only kind the NFL plays these days. That dateline would be INGLEWOOD, Calif. This is the place where, in a private airport hangar, the Rams celebrated the first football championship by a team in the City of Angels since 1984.

“Was it all worth it?” I asked owner Stan Kroenke just after midnight this morning in L.A., just after 3 on the East Coast.

I meant: Was the gigantic risk of jilting St. Louis and then being handed the second-biggest market in the United States by the NFL and being told, Don’t screw this up, and then spending the insane sum of $5 billion for a football stadium, and then knowing that none of it would work if the team was middle of the road, and then hiring a 30-year-old coach to lead the franchise out of the doldrums … I meant, was this evening worth all of the risk taken to make it happen?

“Wait,” said Rams VP Tony Pastoors, overhearing my question. “Before he answers that question, let me go get the Lombardi Trophy for him to hold. Then you can ask him if it was worth it.”

Kroenke, the owner hated in Missouri but now loved in L.A., smiled wryly. “The great thing,” he said, “is what this does for Los Angeles. It’s just great for this city.”

Football in L.A. is back, in a very big way. Prince Harry was in the Rams’ locker room post-game, and now, Cardi B and Snoop Dogg were on the way to the party. As for the mega-decisions that awaited the fathers of the franchise—for instance, will Aaron Donald retire?—those could wait. This night was for celebrating the improbable.


Oh, and Matthew Stafford won the Super Bowl in year 13, after never winning a playoff game in his first 12 NFL seasons. Von Miller re-discovered the fountain of youth with another two-sack playoff game. Aaron Donald and Cooper Kupp did what all-time players should do—play great when greatness is required.

Rams pass rusher Von Miller. (Getty Images)

This game was such a bizarre but perfect illustration of the 2021 season. Dominate? No. This was a 51-49 affair, maybe closer. Whoever had the ball last and could make one play would win. Donald’s defensive stonewalling of Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow with the game on the line in the final minute clinched it. If that series was his last, he ended in grand style.

A few observations before we get to the game-winner throw from Stafford, a play called 15 Wanda Now X Fade:

 What an egalitarian postseason. We will never see its like again. Impossible. In the divisional, conference championship and Super Bowl weekends, the margins in the last seven games of this NFL season were, in order: 3, 3, 3, 6, 3, 3 and 3 points. Who invented this football? Even Steven?

• I can’t get over the Bucs, the Niners and the Bengals (especially after the Odell Beckham Jr. ACL injury) knowing the Rams were laser-focused on getting the ball to Cooper Kupp in three excruciatingly tight games, and this is what this great receiver did over those three games: 28 catches, 417 yards, five TDs. Reminder: Cooper Kupp was drafted 60 picks after John Ross.

 No receiver ever had a season like Kupp. The numbers for his 21 games this year are fantasyish: 178 catches, 2,425 yards, 22 touchdowns. The leading receiver in football in 1980 and ’81, Kellen Winslow, had 177 total in those two years.

• Aaron Donald’s future. Rodney Harrison reported in the NBC pre-game show that there’s “a strong possibility” Donald would retire if the Rams won. Donald didn’t answer the question directly post-game, but what more does Donald have to prove now? He was already the equal of any defensive tackle of all time in honors (three Defensive Player of the Year awards, seven first-team all-pros), and now he has the distinction of being the huge factor in a Super Bowl victory. “Aaron’s the effing man!” Sean McVay said post-game. No one argued.

In the days before the game, this truth was evident to me: The two most controversial NFL decisions were the league handing the keys to the L.A. market to an unpopular Rams owner, Kroenke, and the hiring of a 30-year-old coach to revitalize football in Los Angeles.

They both looked like gem decisions Sunday night. Kroenke built the greatest stadium in the NFL and probably in all of North American sports. He empowered his lieutenants to make the kinds of decisions that no other team in the NFL makes—trading high draft choices to win today, while retaining the volume of draft picks a team would need to stay competitive. The Rams, since McVay took over as coach in 2017, have the second-most draft picks in the league. It’s just that none of them are in the first round.

The Rams don’t think of the downside of trading for Matthew Stafford or Von Miller. They think: We’ll take great veterans on the team, and we’ll figure out how to deal with the cap ramifications later. They deal with the cap ramifications, mostly, by being okay with playing mid- and low-round picks in great volume. To the victors go the spoils—and all the smarmy GMs who gave off-the-record what are they doing comments about the Rams when they continually gave up first-round picks for today … where are they this morning? The Rams are holding the Lombardi. The other franchises are acknowledging that maybe, just maybe, the Rams knew what they were doing in not treating first-round picks like Ming vases.

Think of it: The Rams got better this season at quarterback with Stafford, and got better in the pass-rush with Von Miller, and got better at wide receiver with Odell Beckham Jr., and in 2022 terms, it cost L.A. picks 32, 64 and 96 in the 2022 draft. “Right now no one in our organization is worried about not picking till 100-something in the draft in April,” Demoff said at the victory party.

The calm before the storm at the Rams’ private victory party at Hawthorne Airport. (NBC Sports)

That’s because Stafford threw for 283 yards and three touchdowns in exorcising his Detroit demons, and Miller had two sacks and three more quarterback pressures, all in the second half when Joe Burrow was under siege for two full quarters. And Beckham, who likely suffered a serious knee injury 25 plays into the game, was important long enough to do precisely what he’d hoped for when he picked the Rams for his free-agent destination three months ago—score a Super Bowl touchdown that was crucial to his team’s cause.

But it was two stalwarts of the Rams’ drafting decisions that finished off their first championship in Los Angeles. Kupp, the seventh receiver picked in the 2017 draft, put the winning points on the board after a dizzying period of penalties in the final two minutes. Ron Torbert’s crew had only called four penalties in the first 58 minutes of the game; they threw four in the last two minutes (two were offsetting), and a justified Eli Apple interference call against Kupp with 1:38 to play gave the Rams a first-and-goal on the 1-yard line. Stafford sneaked it for six inches.

Now it was first and about two feet for the Rams, for the Super Bowl.

“15 Wanda Now X Fade,” McVay called into Stafford’s helmet.

Upstairs, in the owner’s box, Demoff said to Kroenke: “This is Matthew’s legacy, right here.”

On this route—McVay called it “Game winner” when describing it an hour later—Beckham would normally be split wide, at the X position, furthest from the center. Kupp has made his greatness mostly in the slot. But on this play, with Beckham watching from the sideline with his knee wrapped, Kupp went wide. The Rams coaches trust Kupp, who studies the game like a quarterback, to play every position in the receiver route tree.

Stafford threw a sidearm quickie to the right side of the end zone, and Kupp leveraged Eli Apple to be able to come back to the ball easily. It was a perfect throw and pretty easy catch for Kupp—who’d done most of his work before the catch arrived in making Apple think he was headed to the corner. “I just tried to weave to his leverage, make him move in a little bit, and give Matthew some room to the put the ball where he wanted to,” Kupp said. “He made a great back-shoulder throw.”

Touchdown. Rams, 23-20. Fitting with the rhythm of this season, another game decided in the final two minutes. Are there any other kinds in the NFL this winter?

I was an MVP voter Sunday night. The NFL gets nervous late in Super Bowls when the vote is close later. But I voted for Kupp after his game-winning TD. In the last five minutes of this game, the Rams Kupp either ran it or was the target of a pass from Stafford eight times. Eight, in five minutes. He touched the ball 12 times in the game. So when the game mattered most, it was Kupp with the ball in his hands. He deserved it … and that’s with all the greatness Donald displayed on the last Cincinnati series of the night.

Rams coach Sean McVay scribbled a drawing of the play for Football Morning In America. (NBC Sports)

It was left to Donald to hold off the Bengals. Cincinnati drove to the Rams’ 49 and had a third-and-one; Donald and Greg Gaines stopped Samaje Perine for no gain. On fourth down, it almost snuck up on the stadium that, Hey, this is the game. With Super Bowl LVI on the line, 43 seconds left, Donald knew he had to collapse the pocket and make something happen.

“Fourth-and-one,” he said. “You’re thinking they were gonna run it. Then you start seeing certain stares and certain calls, they’re calling out to the point where you think, they’re gonna drop back and pass. When [Joe Burrow] threw it up, my heart kinda jumped because I saw the little running back right there. Would he catch it?”

Not close. Burrow was desperately dumping it, and it fell incomplete.

“It was a big play,” Donald said.

A Super Bowl-deciding play, really. If this was the capper to Donald’s career, he had a classic ending.

“I felt like I always set myself with high goals and standards but I surpassed anything I ever thought I wanted to do,” Donald said later, sounding like he indeed was thinking of retiring, his goals met. “I thought coming in, I wanted to be All-Pro and a Pro Bowler but to sit here and say that I had a lot of individual success man, I would’ve never thought in a million years that I’ll be sitting here right now with the success I had in the short amount of time in this league, and to be a world champion in my eighth year.”

Whatever the future holds, the Rams weren’t much focused on it Sunday night. In the din of the Rams’ party, McVay spied me and gave me a bearhug.

“You picked us! Last summer, you picked us! You knew!” he said.

Well, I did pick a Rams-Bills Super Bowl, and I was bullish on the Rams. But in this ridiculously even season, the agony of defeat was tripled, as was the joy of winning.

I think it’s important to discuss McVay here. It isn’t just the two Super Bowl appearances in five years that make McVay a vital figure in the Rams’ rebuild. It’s the boldness of the organization in choosing him. It’s a franchise that said, The usual has not worked for us. Rich Brooks, Jeff Fisher … We’ve got to do something different. What the team faced entering the 2017 coach-hiring season was the thought of breaking the status quo. “We thoroughly examined everything,” Demoff said last week. “Two things were important to us–we were last in the NFL in offense, and we didn’t have the kind of energy, enthusiasm we thought we needed.”

The Rams interviewed 10 coaches in January 2017. They kept coming back to the 30-year-old Washington offensive coordinator, Sean McVay. Demoff, Pastoors and GM Les Snead all loved McVay, but they were worried that Kroenke, desperate for a long-term fix in Los Angeles, would be more inclined to want a veteran coach. “I wasn’t that hesitant,” Kroenke said Sunday night. The alternative was a trade for Saint coach Sean Payton, who the Rams had heard might be available for significant draft-choice compensation. Kroenke trusted his staff. Go with the kid, he told them.

“The NFL entrusted Stan with L.A., and entrusted our franchise with the best chance in L.A. in years,” Demoff said. “We just didn’t want to let them down. So Stan rolled the dice on a 30-year-old kid coach. We all realized if we were wrong about Sean, it could cost us our careers. But it was a chance we were willing to take.”

The McVay hire was greeted, well, like a fart in church. Mike Lombardi, writing in The Ringer, had this take of the Rams’ hire: “They’re oblivious to their losing culture, therefore they never view their problems in a global sense, instead thinking linearly. They reduce this incredible amount of losing to a simple solution — just get a good quarterback coach, and we’ll be fine.”

That’s the thing about tough decisions. For 10 straight years the Rams had been under .500, first in St. Louis and then in Los Angeles. What’s the point of continuing what hasn’t worked? So the Rams picked McVay, the energetic one, and he hasn’t disappointed. Three NFC West titles, two NFC championship crowns, one Super Bowl ring. It’s been a good five years for the Rams.

Re the Bengals: I have tremendous empathy for them. The Bengals are so much better that they’ve been in most of our lifetimes (6-0 versus Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Kansas City this season). And Joe Burrow is going to be good for a very long time—if they can just protect him better than they did this year.

The fact is they’ve been living on the edge of a sword through this post-season. They’ve got a clutch quarterback and an all-time young kicker, Evan McPherson, who summed up what this last month has felt like: a seven-point Wild Card win over Vegas, three-point wins over Tennessee and Kansas City, and a three-point loss to the Rams. “Now we know how it feels,” he said glumly Sunday night.

“This tears you up,” said Bengals defensive end Trey Hendrickson. “But that’s football.”

And the champion Rams won a transformative game. This was quite an evening in Los Angeles. It was a night pro football  mattered again.

Rust, and football news, never sleeps. On my radar during Super Bowl week:

Carson Wentz. My first reaction when I heard Chris Mortensen’s report that the Colts would try to trade Wentz in the next month: There’s something bubbling beneath the surface here. Wentz failed down the stretch for Indianapolis, but the play itself (middling .624 accuracy rate, 27 TDs, seven picks, 94.7 rating) wasn’t bad enough for the Colts and coach/mentor Frank Reich to give up on a player they spent first- and third-round picks to acquire.

A couple of things to consider here. Late in his Eagles’ tenure, Wentz did some immature things—got ticked off about the team drafting Jalen Hurts in the second round in 2020, reportedly stopped talking to coach Doug Pederson for a period. He got benched for poor play down the stretch of the season, leading to his trade to Indy. Reich loved him in Philadelphia. My guess is something happened here, something other than a 9-8 record, that led to this moment. Attitude, an incident, work ethic, loss of trust. Something. I don’t know what.

Kyler Murray. Big day for Mort. He also reported that the Cardinals’ relationship with Kyler Murray has soured. “Murray is described as self-centered, immature and finger pointer, per sources,” Mortensen reported. He also thinks Murray believes he’s being scapegoated as the reason for the Cardinals’ late-season collapse. What’s especially interesting is the dynamic of this offseason. Murray at midseason was a legit MVP candidate, and it was virtually certain that the franchise would try to sign him to a lucrative second contract when he became eligible for it this offseason. Now, if the Cards don’t engage in discussion, that could ruffle Murray’s ego. But why would the team want to sign him to a $40-million-a-year contract (or some such deal) when they surely have some doubts about his ability to lead the team to the promised land? This one bears watching too.

Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray. (Getty Images)

The minority-coach conundrum. Lots of talk about it here, and Roger Goodell keeps saying the same thing over and over again—some version of We’ve got to do better—but I can tell you that patience is wearing thin about owners’ relative inactivity on the coaching front. One top club executive said he would support what several of his peers and some in the league office favor: a high draft choice awarded to a team that hires a minority coach. By “high,” I think there will be discussion whether a first-round pick should be the reward. In the past, Black coaches have hated this idea, because it means you’ve got to virtually bribe a team to hire a minority. Would the building look at a minority with the feeling that the draft pick was a factor in him being hired, instead of the hire being strictly done on merit? At some point, I believe there’s going to be a decision made that radically spurs a change, and some might be angry. Tony Dungy had a good idea on the NBC pre-game show Sunday, and you can read about it in 10 Things I Think I Think, below.

The Flores lawsuit. Focus from the people I talked to here was mostly on the charge by former Dolphins coach Brian Flores that owner Stephen Ross offered him $100,000 per game in 2019 to lose, so as to earn a better draft position to take the best quarterback they could. Ross vehemently denied the charge. We’ll see where it goes. One club president told me, “The league will not be wishy-washy on this. I haven’t talked to anyone who isn’t extremely upset over this, even though we don’t know if it’s true or false. I feel sure it’s going to be investigated independently and thoroughly.” That’s a certainty. The Flores suit could delay the investigation, seeing as though the accusation is a material part of his case.

Guinnesses with Tony Boselli. Shared some Friday afternoon at an Irish pub downtown, as he basked in making the Hall of Fame. So whenever this happens, of course, it’s emotional for the enshrinees, and Boselli was positively euphoric a day after it all became official. Not so a year ago. Last year, when then-Hall president David Baker called Boselli to tell him he hadn’t made it, Boselli was more than a little disappointed. Boselli knew last year was probably the last time he’d be able to share such great news with his dad, Tony Boselli Sr., who was seriously ill with melanoma that had spread to his liver, lungs and brain. Boselli Sr. died on May 31. So Boselli got the good news when his idol, fellow ex-USC left tackle Anthony Munoz knocked on the door in late January with an NFL crew behind him. It shocked Boselli. What a moment. Euphoria. The one missing element was that Boselli’s biggest supporter and role model, his dad, wasn’t there to see it.

Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinee Tony Boselli. (NBC Sports)

Fast-forward to the reception the Jags had for him at USC’s Heritage Hall an hour after the world found out at NFL Honors last Thursday. Scores of former teammates and friends and families packed into the place, and a video from those close to him played for 24 minutes. The last person in the video shocked the room.

Tony Boselli Sr.

“I would like to share with him how proud I am of what he’s accomplished throughout his years in football, throughout his years of being a man,” the gaunt Boselli Sr. said in part, in a wing chair, looking into a camera. “He is truly a great man.”

Son saw only a few seconds of father.

“I had my head buried in my hands,” he said.

Backstory: Boselli’s wife Angie had the idea that if her husband ever made the Hall, she wanted his dad to congratulate him on the honor. This year, some year. So she worked with the Jaguars as Boselli Sr., got sicker. And 12 days before he died, a film crew shot Boselli Sr. in his home. Son never knew. Thus the Thursday night tears.

Now at the Irish pub, Boselli was emotional thinking about it. “My God,” he said. “To hear my father’s voice again … to hear my father … to hear my father say he’s proud of me … Just … Just cool. An honor.”

This was my 30th year voting for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and I liked the class, overall. The biggest difference this year, I thought, was the 49-person selection committee didn’t have a single slam dunk on the ballot. In the last seven years there was either one or two of those each year among the 15 annual modern-era candidates: Peyton Manning/Charles Woodson (’21), Troy Polamalu (’20), Tony Gonzalez/Ed Reed (’19), Ray Lewis/Randy Moss (’18), LaDainian Tomlinson (’17), Brett Favre (’16), Junior Seau (’15). So that opened up the class. Instead of going into the vote knowing that—as in last year—there were 13 candidates for three modern-era slots—there were 15 candidates for five this year. Big difference.

The process ended with Thursday night’s announcement of the eight-member class: Dick Vermeil (coach), Cliff Branch (senior), Art McNally (contributor) and the five modern-era enshrinees—Tony Boselli, LeRoy Butler, Sam Mills, Richard Seymour, Bryant Young.

A quick primer on the process for the vote, held by Zoom on Jan. 18 with the 49 voters in the virtual house: The coach/senior/contributor candidates have their cases heard, and there is a secret vote for each. Each must get 80 percent of the votes, minimum, to make it. Then the 15 modern-era guys are discussed, with a secret vote paring it to 10. Another secret vote pares the 10 to the top five vote-getters. Then we vote yes or no on the final five. The voters knew everything except the final votes on the eight people who ended up making it. I found out the results Thursday night, just like the rest of you.

The 7-hour, 26-minute meeting (shorter than most, for no reason I can guess) didn’t have any marathon discussions. The length for each modern-era candidate, from longest to shortest:

Boselli 25:29, Young 23:54, Reggie Wayne 22:18, Jared Allen 20:44,
Devin Hester 18:12, Torry Holt 17:47, Butler 17:07, Zach Thomas 15:20,
Mills 15:02, Demarcus Ware 12:29, Andre Johnson 11:34,
Ronde Barber 10:31, Willie Anderson 10:11, Seymour 7:09, Patrick Willis 6:01.

I never think there should be enormous meaning ascribed to length of discussion, but in this case, I find the Boselli and Young times interesting because—and we are not allowed to publicly discuss specifics from the discussions—it was clear that these were two difficult, involved discussions. Boselli, the Jacksonville tackle, played only 97 games in his career, albeit at a very high level. Young, the silent Niner, only once an all-pro at defensive tackle in 14 years.

Left to right: Former Jacksonville Jaguar Tony Boselli, former Green Bay Packer LeRoy Butler, former New England Patriot Richard Seymour, former NFL coach Dick Vermeil and former San Francisco 49er Bryant Young. (Getty Images)

Lots of criticism over the process this year. (Like most years.) The beefs: It’s become the Hall of Very Good. How do you leave Ware and Hester out? Holy crap: Sam Mills over Zach Thomas?

Let’s talk about Mills. To me, he is a player the Hall of Fame should celebrate 365 days a year. He was a 5-9 linebacker no college was interested in out of high school in New Jersey. He had to walk on to a Division III school, Montclair (N.J.) State College, and became the three-time conference defensive player of the year. He got cut twice the year after he left college, by the NFL’s Browns and the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts. No matter how well he played, the 5-9 stigma stuck to him. He was adrift, until a new football league formed. Given a chance by the startup USFL’s Philadelphia Stars and coach Jim Mora in 1983, he was a USFL all-pro for all three years of the league. He followed Mora to New Orleans, led the team in tackles in seven of his nine seasons. “He’s the best player I ever coached,” Mora said. Onto expansion Carolina. At 36, he led the Panthers in tackles, interceptions, forced fumbles and was third in Defensive Player of the Year voting. At 37, he led the Panthers to the NFC Championship Game in their second year—and had 47 more tackles than anyone on the team.

In 15 pro seasons, he led his team in tackles 12 times, and was a defensive captain for three franchises that made the playoffs.

He played three years for the Panthers and was so beloved that they put a statue of him outside the stadium.

“When you’re my size, you have to prove yourself every play, every day,” he once said.

That is a Hall of Fame football player. And that’s why when people say it’s become the Hall of Very Good, I point to Sam Mills and say, “He wasn’t a very good player. He was a great one.”

Other tidbits from the results:

• On the cutdown from 10 to five, I voted for Boselli, Young, Hester, Butler and Mills.

• On the final vote, voted yes on all five, plus yes on Branch, Vermeil and McNally.

• Great stat from voter Clark Judge on McNally: There are 10 umps in the baseball Hall, and 16 game officials in each of the hockey and basketball Halls. McNally was the first game official elected to the football Hall in the 59-year history of the institution.

• Mills, I believe, garnered some support because this was his last year as a modern-era candidate; after 20 years of eligibility, the name goes into the Seniors pool, which is like quicksand; there are 58 all-decade players not in the Hall.

• I believe that Demarcus Ware is a Hall of Famer, for sure. But I believe a lot of guys on this list belong. Great point by veteran voter Rick Gosselin: Jack Youngblood and Kevin Greene both out-sacked Ware in their careers, and both waited till their 12th year of eligibility for the bronze bust. Good story by Gosselin.

• Regarding Devin Hester: He’s the best return man of my 38 years covering the game. I was bullish on him. Before the voting, I had him as my second-strongest candidate in the field. (Top eight: Butler, Hester, Young, Boselli, Johnson, Mills, Ware, Thomas.) I do think the fact that he was not an impact wide receiver probably hurt his case, but my feeling is he should make it on return presence alone.

Offensive Player of the Week

Cooper Kupp, wide receiver, Rams. A few seconds after it looked like he might have gotten kayoed on a brutal hit in the corner of the end zone, Kupp caught his eighth pass of the night, a one-yard TD from Matthew Stafford, to win the first Super Bowl for these Rams. Kupp is the catalyst of this offense, and has been all season.

Defensive Player of the Week

Aaron Donald, defensive tackle, Rams. Don’t look at the stats: four tackles, two sacks, two tackles for loss. Look at the end of the game. Aaron’s gonna make a play, was Sean McVay’s mantra on the sidelines. He made two. Third and one, last drive for Cincinnati: He stopped Samaje Perine for no gain with an assist from tackle Greg Gaines. Fourth and one: Donald burst through the weak Bengals line and pirouetted Joe Burrow into what appeared to be his third sack of the game. Burrow threw it away at the last millisecond, but it was Donald who made the play. Whether or not Donald plays football anymore, he will walk into Canton easily, fortified by playing huge in the biggest game of his life. 

Special Teams Player of the Week

Evan McPherson, kicker, Bengals. This wasn’t a great game for the kicking game—no big shining plays. Consider this a lifetime achievement award sort of thing. McPherson capped a perfect postseason, 14 for 14 in field goals, with 29- and 38-yard field goals against the Rams.

Coaches of the Week

Raheem Morris, defensive coordinator, Rams. He got to show every owner who wasn’t interested in him as a prospective second-time head coach this hiring cycle that he deserves a very long look. Morris, the former Bucs’ head coach, choreographed a defense that held the productive Bengals to 4-of-18 on third and fourth downs and 305 total yards. Morris was a great hire for the Rams, who are fortunate they’ve got him for at least one more year.

Zac Taylor, coach, Cincinnati. In this coin-flip of a postseason, so many games came down to one play at the end. This was one of them. But I can’t help thinking about how far the Bengals have come and the job Taylor has done with a team that was 6-25-1 in his first two years. “He is one hell of a coach and he did one hell of a job to get this team to this point,” his friend and rival Sean McVay said Sunday night. I agree. Taylor was crestfallen, obviously, a half hour after this game, but the hurt will wear off and eventually he will realize, as will his franchise, that these absolutely are not the same old Bengals.

Factor of the Week

The injury to Odell Beckham Jr. Beckham, a revelation for the Rams offense in recent weeks, and the recipient of the first TD pass of this game, suffered a knee injury with four minutes left in the first half and the Rams up 13-10. He played 25 snaps. Once out, the Rams had to go with a patchwork receiving corps. Beckham’s replacement, Ben Skowroneck, bobbled a catch that led to a crushing early third-quarter interception. It took an all-time performance from Kupp for the Rams to survive losing Beckham.

Commercial of the Week

Larry David, Crypto Platform FTX. Fantastic. Here’s the long version posted after the shorter ad for FTX ran on the Super Bowl telecast. The ad showed David at different times in history talking, in period, about some of the greatest inventions ever being so stupid. David talking about why the toilet was a dumb idea because human beings were meant to relieve themselves outside and of course never inside. Priceless.

I

“I promise you guys. When it was fourth down and you could see they got into the shotgun and they were probably not going to run the football, I said, ‘Aaron’s going to close the game out right here.’ ”

—Rams coach Sean McVay on the final offensive play of Cincinnati’s season.

II

“Aaron is the effing man.”

—McVay, on the best player in the game Sunday night.

III

“I’m committed to this team and coaching.”

—McVay in a Saturday text message to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, attempting to disabuse the growing rumor that he might leave coaching to take a TV job this offseason.

IV

“Sean will now return to his true passion—finding a way to take Mike McCarthy’s job.”

—Keegan-Michael Key, the host of NFL Honors Thursday night, during the show on the future of Sean Payton.

V

“I’ve been to the Kentucky Derby a lot. So I look at those horses and they have the blinders on and you literally are just running full speed as fast as you can for basically the entire season and there’s no time to look right or left. And there’s a lot of things that are happening in your life that, because you don’t look right or left, you’re still looking straight ahead, that you miss … It’s just pretty simple—I need to make time for other things in my life.”

Tom Brady, in his Sirius XM “Let’s Go” podcast with Larry Fitzgerald and Jim Gray, asked by Gray about his decision to retire.

Lots of attention paid to Brady’s “never say never” comment when asked if he would consider coming out of retirement, and it could turn out to be justified ballyhoo. His friend Rob Gronkowski fueled that feeling when he said he expects Brady to play again. We’ll see. As for now, I don’t think Brady retired with the idea of I’ll come back when someone needs a QB this fall, or next year. I think he retired with the intent of retiring. Just as he once said he wanted to play till he’s 45 and changed his mind, he could change his mind on staying retired too. We’ll see.

VI

“He hugged me and kissed me.”

—Donald Trump, claiming that Bill Belichick greeted him in that way on a golf course after Belichick turned down Trump’s offer of a Presidential Medal of Freedom during Trump’s presidency.

Yahoo’s Charles Robinson reported this Sunday, pointing to an upcoming book on the end of the Trump presidency by New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns. They reported this happened in March 2021 during a round of golf at the Trump International course in Florida.

Belichick kissing Donald Trump. I’m going to need further proof of that.

Frank Reich has coached the Colts for four seasons and 68 games, including three in the playoffs. If the relationship between Carson Wentz and Reich cannot be mended and Wentz is not a Colt this season, it means this: For the fifth consecutive season on Labor Day, Reich will enter a new season with a new starting quarterback. Documenting the madness:

2018: Andrew Luck, 18 starts.
2019: Jacoby Brissett, 15 starts; Brian Hoyer 1.
2020: Philip Rivers, 17 starts.
2021: Carson Wentz, 17 starts.

Fairly amazing that Reich is 38-30 with that quarterback-go-round.

I

So you wonder how Mike Tirico got from the Olympics in Beijing to the Super Bowl in L.A., with an intermediate stop in Stamford, Conn. Wonder no more:

For the sake of consistency, I will use all times Eastern here:

• Tirico got off the air in the NBC Olympics studio in Beijing at 1:15 a.m. Tuesday
• Hustled to an empty Beijing airport and left Beijing at 4 a.m. Tuesday
• Stopped in Tokyo at 6:56 a.m. for a crew change and refueling
• Flew 12 hours to White Plains, N.Y., landing at 7:58 p.m. Tuesday
• Was on the air hosting the Games on Wednesday and Thursday night from NBC Sports HQ in Stamford, in the converted Football Night in America studios
• At midnight Thursday, flew to Los Angeles International Airport

Now for Pacific Time:

• Landed at LAX at 2:30 a.m.
• Began Super Bowl prep at 9:30 a.m. Friday
• After Super Bowl postgame ended Sunday night, began hosting the Olympics evening show on NBC. Post-show, hustled to LAX for redeye flight to White Plains and, approximately, an 8:30 a.m. ET arrival this morning.

He’ll host the rest of the Olympics, starting tonight, from Stamford.

II

On Sunday morning, here were my NBC Super Bowl pregame show duties in L.A. All times Pacific:

6:45 a.m.: Boarded van at Marina del Rey hotel with Mike Tirico, Drew Brees (riding shotgun), Tony Dungy, Steve Kornacki, Mike Florio, NBC VP/Editorial Ron Vaccaro. Banter ensued. Tirico and Vaccaro, just in from Beijing, gave me the medal odds on the Olympian I wrote about last week, women’s bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor. (Good.)

6:50 a.m.: Offered a Randy’s glazed donut in the van. Accepted. Demolished it. Highly recommended.

7:20 a.m.: Arrived at SoFi on an absolutely gorgeous 69-degree morning, sun glistening off the lake in front of the stadium. Not a cloud in sight.

7:40 a.m.: Short This is why you lift all them weights address from producer Tommy Roy to full squad.

8:05 a.m.: Changed into dark blue suit, bantered with Brees about his Pro Bowl flag-football idea while he was being made up. “Have an alumni game, or put some alumni in the game,” he said. “Can you imagine how excited Justin Jefferson would be to get in the huddle with Jerry Rice?” I bought it. Loved it.

8:10 a.m.: Got made up. Or, as I like to say, put a necessary prosthetic face on me.

8:25 a.m.: Wrote a bunch of early stuff for this column on a folding table and folding chair at the NBC Compound in the bowels of SoFi.

9:50 a.m.: Golf cart from bowels to one of the 6,400 NBC sets in and around Los Angeles for the game—the set overlooking the manmade lake in front of SoFi. The beauty shot.

10:26 a.m.: With Mike Tirico on set. Introduced one of the four vignettes about surprise Super Bowl history, this one about Bill Parcells’ motivational ploy before Super Bowl XXV. Parcells’ goal: to stick a cattle prod into Jumbo Elliott on the eve of facing the great Bruce Smith. Nice work if you can get it—2.5 minutes of TV time, start to finish. And my job’s done here.

(NBC Sports)

10:36 a.m.: Back at wardrobe. Changed into normal clothes to cover the game.

I

Joe Burrow quarterbacked the Bengals this year, as you may have heard.

II

Andrews, who hosts NBA Today on ESPN, after the Celtics beat the Hawks before the Super Bowl.

III

In a reply tweet, Chess.com said Burrow’s record was 5W-1D-4L.

IV

Volin, who covers the NFL for the Boston Globe, on Zac Taylor’s call of a halfback pass for a touchdown by Joe Mixon.

V

Rovell is a sports business reporter for ActionNetworkHQ.

VI

The site covering all things officiating run by Ben Austro.

I didn’t know that. Nice nugget, Ben.

Reach me at [email protected], or on Twitter @peter_king.

Lions fan happy for Stafford. From Bill Havi: “As a Detroit fan, I’ve seen a lot of amazing athletes have their greatness ignored because of where they played. Like Steve Yzerman in 1997, it’s an incredible feeling to see someone so deserving as Matthew Stafford finally get to be a champion.”

I too am happy for Stafford, who played for 12 years in Detroit and never whined about his fate playing for a consistent loser. Of course, some of that was his fault. But obviously, he did deserve better. I remember visiting with Stafford in training camp last summer and you could just tell what an incredibly happy person he was. That happiness translated into a championship last night.

Less whistles, more enjoyment. From Bozidar Dangubic, Croatia: “It is impossible not to notice that in the Super Bowl, referees are keeping whistles in their pockets. It is also impossible not to notice just HOW MUCH the game/product is better. The flow of the game was amazing. Why doesn’t NFL ‘do this’ year-round?”

Well, the flow was fantastic until the last two minutes of the game, obviously. But I agree with you. I would much rather see some ticky-tack fouls go uncalled than have 20 or 25 penalties in a game. It makes a football game an endurance test when that happens.

Refs vs. replays. James Mathews: “Will the NFL ever go to a VAR-style replay that can call an obvious foul like the offensive face mask that changes the game?”

That’s a very good question. As of the most recent round of discussions about replay’s role in the NFL, I haven’t heard anyone talk about the VAR-style. The closest to that is probably Bill Belichick and several others (including me) who would like to see every play eligible for replay. That wouldn’t mean more chances to replay, but rather the ability if you think something egregious has been called or not called, that you could institute a challenge on that play. I don’t know if Sean McVay would have thrown his challenge flag on the Jalen Ramsey face mask, but he might have. I think the game would be better if plays like that could be challenged.

On the pipeline. From Chris Strock, of Richmond, Va.: “I like your new idea about getting more minorities, to include Black coaches, into the pipeline via exposure as position coaches. I want to believe that there isn’t systemic racism in the league contributing to the lack of minority coaches, something we could debate forever. For argument’s sake, let’s assume everyone is hiring the most qualified coaches. Certainly, increasing the pipeline is vital to increase the number of minority leaders and high level coaches in sports. What else is preventing more minorities in the pipeline? What if we, as a society, tell young white kids that they can do whatever they want and sports will help them get there? And we tell young black kids that they can play whatever sport they want and sports is the way “out” or “up”? In other words, do we value minorities more for their bodies over their minds?”

What an interesting point, Chris. Thanks. I do think in those messages there is an inherent piece of content that says the Black athlete should use sports as a way out, while many young white athletes are told the sports can be a vehicle for them to become anything they want to be. We’ll be better as a society when there is no such line.

Who should get the jobs. From Paul Champagne: “You are no longer a sports writer. You are a political left-leaning hack. I believe the best person should always be given the job and creating inclusive programs, although well-intentioned, is admitting that the process is rigged. It should not matter if every NFL coach is white, or if every NFL coach is a minority.”

Just trying to listen to the discussion and engage in it, Paul. There’s a segment of coaches in the NFL who feel strongly that they’re being treated unfairly, and I won’t close my ears to them.

Not optimistic on the hiring front. From Chip Moore: “I appreciate the fact that you have offered a potential solution. Unfortunately it’s unlikely to make any difference. As an African-American male, I have worked in corporate America for over 30 years. I don’t believe that corporations or NFL owners are racist. Both entities simply have a set of beliefs of what a leader looks and sounds like. Until there are Black owners or perhaps repercussions to the teams (Brian Flores lawsuit), I would expect nothing to change.”

I respect your view, Chip. It’s also incredibly sad to hear your story. I hope as each generation goes by, we can move away from the hopelessness that many Black people feel about their roles and upward advancement in society.

1. I think this was the outstanding performance throughout the postseason: Bengals kicker Evan McPherson, in four playoff games, attempted 20 kicks. He made 20 kicks. Is there some award for Most Valuable Postseason Player? The Bengals played four one-score games in the postseason (margins: 7, 3, 3, 3) and McPherson scored 52 percent of their points, 48 of 92.

2. I think the Van Jefferson story is an all-timer. The Rams wide receiver won the Super Bowl, then headed straight to the hospital where his wife Samaria was delivering their second child. Samaria attended the game, but went into labor and left midgame on a stretcher. After the game, an Instagram post showed Jefferson with his newborn son.

3. I think I loved doing four pre-game show vignettes highlighting some cool Super Bowl stories for NBC. (See them all right here.) Steve Young’s queasy post-Super Bowl XXIX celebration; Bill Parcells’ motivational ploy involving Lawrence Taylor and Jumbo Elliott before Super Bowl XXV; the pugnacious Joe Gibbs on almost getting into a fight at halftime of Super Bowl XXII; and Terry Bradshaw’s go-round over spelling with Hollywood Henderson at Super Bowl XIII. Cool execution of a smart plan, and I’m indebted to Autumn Morowitz and Annie Koeblitz, the invaluable producers of the stories. Morowitz grasped the concept and was great in seeing it through to the end.

4. I think there’s a lot in TV Land happening behind the curtain right now. We don’t know exactly how the Thursday night Amazon booth will look (Al Michaels plus who?), we don’t know how the Amazon pregame show will look, and there are a lot of questions around what exactly Troy Aikman will be doing. One of the interesting wild cards is Sean Payton. He entered the derby, after quitting the Saints, with networks thinking that he will be a one-year scotch-tape job before he returned to coaching. But I’ve heard that may not be the case. I could see Payton, 58, being out for a long time, or forever. I could also see him coaching again, fairly soon. But I do think that he is open to where the TV/coaching road takes him. If he gets on a TV team that is great and has a future, I won’t be shocked if he takes the TV thing and makes a Jimmy Johnson career out of it.

5. I think Payton reminds me a little of Tom Brady in this regard. Brady changed from a football-is-god ethos to football having a crucial but not irreplaceable place in his life. Payton is one of those guys who, as a coach, thought about football probably 80 percent of his waking hours. Remember the fascinating formation that I wrote about in 2018, when Payton invented a play from something he saw on tape late on a Thursday night, with no quarterback behind center, but Drew Brees and Taysom Hill split wide, with one of them at the last minute moving in to take the snap? You’ve got to be possessed to think like that. But the downside is it leaves you drinking Mountain Dews to stay awake all the time instead of getting normal sleep, and then your health eventually suffers. I don’t know what’s happening with Payton, but I don’t think it’s smart to assume he’ll be coaching in 2023.

6. I think Tony Dungy’s idea for improving the minority-coach-hiring prospects is worth your consideration. I have been a fan of this for a long time. The idea: prohibit any head coaching interviews till after the Super Bowl, and prohibit any head-coach hires till 10 days after the Super Bowl. It’s sort of an enforced slow-roll of the process. He explained it to me Saturday at Super Bowl TV rehearsals:

“The NFL Draft used to be in February, right after the season. I think everybody in the league got together, decided, you know we’re making too many mistakes. This is too important. We should take our time. We should do a little more research. The league started doing workouts, scouting combines, much more draft preparation.

“If you look at it as a ‘I’m investing in a 10-year career for a guy,’ two months to get the right guy seems logical. Now, we’re trying to rush because we gotta get this coach in place. He’s gotta get going. He’s gotta get ready for the draft. He’s gotta get ready for the season. All that’s true, but going back to the original basis of Dan Rooney’s whole proposal for the Rooney Rule was you take your time, and you make a 15-year decision. If you’re looking at it as a 15-year decision, four weeks or five weeks of extra time and research makes a lot of sense.

“We can slow it down and not have people feel, ‘I’ve gotta compete to get this guy first.’ I think it would lead to better decisions.”

7. I think this example from Dungy perfectly illustrates the problem: The Bills played at Kansas City in the divisional round of the playoffs on Sunday, Jan. 23. The Bears and Giants wanted to interview defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier of the Bills. Frazier’s unit was the NFL’s best defense in 2021, by a lot. Buffalo allowed 272 yards per game, 30 yards fewer than any other team in the league. Frazier really wanted the Bears’ job; he played on Chicago’s Super Bowl XX championship team. So after finishing his prep plans for the playoff game Friday, Frazier did a Zoom interview with the Bears. Such interviews usually entail deep questions about plans for a staff, philosophy, and a coach basically selling himself through a detailed plan. The average one of these interviews takes three hours or so. Before the Bills’ plane left for Kansas City at midday Saturday, Frazier squeezed in his interview with the Giants. He didn’t want to, but NFL rules mandated that if he was going to fit into the Giants’ interview schedule before they made a decision on their head coach, Frazier’s slot would have to be before the playoff game in Kansas City.

8. I think this makes zero sense. Less than zero. It has always been absurd. The process is unfair to the Bills; before their biggest game of the year, the defensive coordinator is distracted by perhaps six hours of job interviews, and even if he physically has the time, he’s going to enter this huge game not nearly as fresh as he’d want to be. The process is unfair to Frazier, who finds his attention divided before a huge game. The process is unfair to the teams doing the pursuing; they’re not getting the best version of Leslie Frazier in making major decisions for their futures.

9. I think, still, the NFL needs to better populate the pipeline for minority coaches. Last week, in response to the recent lag in hiring of minority coaches in the NFL, I suggested Goodell mandate that each team that currently does not have an offensive coach that touches the quarterback and passing game be made to hire such an assistant by the start of this season. Over and over, we hear that there are not enough Black and minority coaches in the pipeline to be NFL head coaches. This would be a way to accelerate that process, and a way for teams to confront the lack of diversity on the offensive side of the ball in the NFL coaching ranks. It’s clear that owners and club executives are leaning to offense when they choose coaches in the current era of football. The four coaches in the conference title games this year—Andy Reid, Kyle Shanahan, Zac Taylor and Sean McVay—all are steeped in offense. In the last three seasons, 10 of the 12 coaches in the conference title games have offensive backgrounds. (Mike Vrabel and Sean McDermott, in the 2019 and ’20 seasons, respectively, are the exceptions.) In the last seven hiring cycles, since 2016, NFL teams have hired 48 head coaches. The breakdown (assuming Kevin O’Connell officially becomes Minnesota’s head coach this week) goes like this:

Coaches with offensive backgrounds hired: 33 (68.8 percent)
Coaches with defensive backgrounds hired: 14 (29.2 percent)
Coach with special-teams background hired: 1 (2.1 percent — Joe Judge, Giants, 2020)

Thus the suggestion to beef up diversity of coaches in the quarterback room. It all starts there.

10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:

a. My two favorite places I encountered during the week in L.A.: The Museum of Tolerance and the Unicorn Museum.

b. What says Los Angeles more than this sign:

c. Sports Story of the Week: Ramona Shelburne and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN on the tense negotiations that led to the Nets-Sixers Harden-for-Simmons trade at the NBA trading deadline.

d. You’ll need ESPN+ to read it all, but the open of the story is terrific. I still don’t quite understand the Nets giving up on the big three after they played a grand total of 16 games together, but maybe it was a stupid idea in the first place. How can three megastars with significant ego and one with such a vax-aversion that it could ruin the Nets’ current season coexist? Wrote Shelburne and Woj:

In the final minutes of negotiations, Daryl Morey was shouting to Sean Marks: “Stay on the f—ing phone!” Here it was, 1:15 p.m. ET on Thursday, and the Philadelphia 76ers’ president of basketball operations had come too far to let this deal die. He implored Marks to stay on the line until they had an agreement on the biggest trade of the year.

“We’re going to finish this!” Morey said. He was on the cusp of getting disgruntled star Ben Simmons out of his life and James Harden back into it, the protections on these draft picks were within reach, and Morey wanted it over. For months, everyone had told Morey to settle, cave to the marketplace’s mediocre offers and unburden the Sixers of the Simmons saga. To hell with that. Morey wanted Harden, and now it was here.

“We’re dropping F-bombs now, Daryl?” Marks said, joking.

e. Does anyone care about the NBA regular season, by the way?

f. Olympics Story of the Week: My friend Tim Layden of NBC Sports on deadline, after the second disastrous ski race by Mikaela Shiffrin in Beijing.

g. Layden’s good at everything. I really like how he brings the history of a person or an event into a story so seamlessly, fitting into the flow of the narrative so effortlessly, with a deep lesson in the words. Wrote Layden about Shiffrin:

[Shiffrin said], “It feels like a really big letdown. I tried to think about what I’ve been doing with my skiing. There was nothing that would suggest that I wouldn’t finish a single run. My skiing has been really solid. My entire career has been about trusting my skiing. If it’s good skiing, that’s what I have to rely on, on these race days.”

Here it becomes even deeper and more personal. Mikaela and her older brother, Taylor, where raised by parents who had met as weekend skiers. Jeff, an anesthesiologist; and Eileen, a nurse. New Englanders who reveled in making turns on New England ice and Colorado powder. They raised their kids to ski joyfully, to – sorry – trust the process (long before it was a thing) of skiing beautifully and perfectly and correctly and letting success follow. Never letting the tail wag the dog.

When Mikaela was five years old, she joined an after-school ski program for little kids in Vail, Colorado. The kids were told to ski down a little bunny hill while a teacher observed and placed them into groups based on their form. One after another, kids pizza-wedged down, until finally Mikaela arced a series of lovely parallel turns. The man at the bottom said, “Well, I don’t have a group for you.” Jeff was the Zen Master of the Shiffrin process, a loving dad who just wanted clear turns and let the rest flow.

… She trusted her skiing, and her skiing failed her. Or she failed her skiing.

h. Loved this NFL Network tribute to new Hall of Famer Sam Mills from one of the players and people he influenced, Steve Smith.

i. Inside Football Story of the Week: Andrew Beaton and Joshua Robinson of the Wall Street Journal on the mostly unknown owner of the Rams, Stan Kroenke, and his hot-and-cold relationship with the other NFL owners … and with big-time soccer owners.

j. Sometimes stories might not have bombshell headlines or major news in them, but are important because we need to know why—in this case—Kroenke and the 31 other owners have gone to war over the lawsuit filed by the city of St. Louis and the resulting $790 million NFL settlement with the jilted city. The other owners think Kroenke should be responsible for the entire bill; it was his decision to leave St. Louis, it went awkwardly, and they had nothing to do with it. Kroenke thinks in part because he built the beautiful new football palace SoFi Stadium that benefits every team in the league that the other owners should share the payment to St. Louis. Wrote Beaton and Robinson:

In November, Kroenke’s representatives sent a letter to the other owners and league officials claiming he could settle his part of the litigation individually for between $500 million and $750 million, while the league and the 31 other teams would still be on the hook.

Owners were outraged because it would leave them still fighting over a matter they believed was Kroenke’s responsibility. They also believed it was a strategic error that cost them hundreds of millions, people familiar with the matter said, because when the content of the letter became public, they thought it raised the cost of a future settlement for all of them.

Sure enough, the next week, all of the parties agreed to settle the case with the St. Louis authorities. The price tag: $790 million, or just above the number floated in the letter.

k. Songs of the week: I don’t turn the TV on when I’m on the road anymore. (One exception on this trip: I did watch some Olympics. I’m a bit of a Winter Olympics nerd, as I’ve admitted.) But I do listen to some music that is normally foreign to me. I have become sick of the oldies-everywhere ethos in restaurants/airports/etc.

l. Tate McRae, an 18-year-old Canadian with one of the most distinctive voices I’ve heard in a while, with “she’s all I wanna be.” Fantastic.

m. Taylor Swift, “All Too Well.” Every song I hear of hers is in my head for a while after three or four plays. She’s great. The lyrics in this one are terrific.

n. Sometimes I think, My generation had The Beatles. Kids today have Taylor Swift. Sounds crazy, and I’m sure it probably is, but that’s how great she is.

o. There is always a new great thing. Taylor Swift, Burrow, whoever. Life goes on, as it should.

p. And I never thought I’d be writing to a Justin Bieber song, but “Ghost” caught me Saturday night in my hotel room penning this column. Then I saw Diane Keaton starred in the video for this song. Really cool.

Yo. Aaron Donald.

If this is it, want to say

you were really good.

FMIA Super Bowl 56: Airport After-Parties And The Play That Won The Championship For The Rams In L.A.

Christin Hakim

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