Tuesday, October 17
MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to today’s conference call as we look ahead to the Falcons-Patriots Super Bowl rematch this weekend on Sunday Night Football.
Joining us today are our football analysts, Cris Collinsworth from Sunday Night Football and Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison from Football Night in America.
Cris will start us off…
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: Obviously an exciting game for us this weekend. We’re looking forward to the Super Bowl rematch.
I had the good fortune of sitting in the stands for that Super Bowl the last go-around, one of the most, if not the most remarkable game I’ve ever seen in my entire lifetime, watching the Falcons fans celebrating their Super Bowl championship in the middle of the third quarter and Rodney, I think was just down the aisle and had enough of that. I’ll let him tell his own story.
But a remarkable game. Obviously two different teams now than what they were then. But the emotions of that night were just so raw. It’s going to create for such an interesting game here and especially when you combine last year’s Most Valuable Player in Matt Ryan and this year’s guy who is playing as well as he always does in Tom Brady. You get it all.
And plus, you get a little bit of what happened to these two teams a week ago that just sort of reinforces the story line here that we saw the Patriots with a big comeback against the Jets down 14-0 and we saw the Falcons blow a 17-0 lead against the Dolphins.
So a lot of storylines going in. We’re really excited about it and can’t wait to get up to Boston.
TONY DUNGY: I, too, was at the game and one of the most exciting games I’ve ever witnessed. When we realized we had this rematch on the schedule, it was certainly one you were looking forward to. I don’t think anybody at the beginning of the season anticipated these teams coming in with two losses; the fact that they would be not playing for the title of who is the best team in football right now.
So that makes it a little intriguing, and seeing which one of these teams can get a win and maybe jump start a long streak here. So it’s going to be fun and I’m definitely looking forward to it.
RODNEY HARRISON: As Cris was talking, I left in the third quarter. I was getting harassed by Falcons fans. It got to a point where it was so bad, and I just left because I felt like we were going to lose and we were actually going to get blown out.
I ended up going back to the hotel and sitting in the bar watching it along with probably 300 other fans, who were all rooting against the Patriots, and the Patriots end up pulling it out. I felt terrible for leaving, but at the same point I was happy the Patriots won.
This should be a very interesting game. Being around (Bill) Belichick all these years, he’s always preaching about finishing. Ironically speaking, (Dan) Quinn and the Falcons, that’s something that they have not been able to do in the Super Bowl, whether it was the last couple of weeks and that’s something that he’ll probably end up preaching to his team this week.
Q. Rodney, speaking on the theme of finishing, watching a guy like Malcolm Butler play, he seems to have that kind of innate ability to play through the whistle and that was kind of a trademark of yours. I wonder if that’s a trait that players have won with, or if you can coach that play.
RODNEY HARRISON: You probably have to ask Coach Dungy if you can coach it. But for me and all the great players that I’ve been around, it’s something that’s just been instilled in them, something that they have. It’s that extra something that makes them really special.
I think when I look at Malcolm, at times, I see him struggling because I know he’s in a contract year and he wants to prove to everyone that he’s better than Stephon (Gilmore), or just as good or one of the better cornerbacks in this league; and financially he wants to be rewarded for everything that he’s done.
I think he’s been a little inconsistent. However, I think he’s a really good cornerback and just showed you what he’s made of on Sunday against the Jets. He had an outstanding game, pass breakups, and I just thought he was all over the field. But ultimately he’s going to have to play extremely well and he’s an integral part of this team if they want to make that next step.
Q. I was wondering if you’re surprised with Miami being 3-2 in light of their offensive problems, since they are one of only six teams in the AFC with a winning record, can they be looked at as a serious contender to make the playoffs?
TONY DUNGY: The way it’s going, I’m surprised that they are struggling offensively. But any time you change quarterbacks, you bring your quarterback in from the booth instead of the practice field, it makes it difficult. But they have got enough weaponry. I think you’re going to see their offense come on and I think they will be in the hunt at the end of the year.
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: They certainly have the weapons. There’s no question about that. You watch Jarvis Landry, who I think is one of the great, big-play receivers. Some of the plays he made in that game the other day, fourth down catch and some of those, he just doesn’t get enough credit for what he does.
I’ve always really liked (Jay) Ajayi. I don’t know that he catches the ball as well as he could sometimes. But you get the feeling with (Kenny) Stills and (Julius) Thomas, you think this offensive line is going to continue to improve because defensively, they can play. They can make plays on that side of the ball.
So yeah, there’s no reason other than, you know, they are always in tough with the Patriots. That’s been the reason that they have been struggling to get into the playoffs, when you can’t get past that team.
I tell you, this Jets team, they had New England. They would drop an interception; they throw an interception to (Malcolm) Butler before the half. So it’s not impossible to beat the Patriots right now, at least from what we have seen so far.
Am I going to pick against New England at this point in the season? I don’t think so. I’ve seen this movie too many times before.
Q. One of the things I hear from both sides is how hard it is to repeat as a Super Bowl champions and how hard it is sometimes to bounce back from a Super Bowl loss. I think all three of you have different perspectives. Cris, maybe going back, that was ’82, a different type year, but I’d be curious to hear from all three of you just on your experiences in each of those scenarios.
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: Well, I’ll let the guys who won the games go first.
RODNEY HARRISON: As far as repeating, obviously it’s hard. I think the thing that really helped us out was Coach Belichick did a great job of making us forget about the previous year.
When we went into the season, it was just a completely new season. We never talked about the Super Bowl. He never really mentioned it. He’s all challenged us, always would put on film, things that we needed to improve on.
So we never got to a point where we even thought about repeating. It was just one game at a time. As much as that’s a cliché, it was very true and resonated throughout our locker room. Plus, we had a lot of mature, veteran players who understood how important one game at a time was, and we echoed that throughout the locker room.
Coach Dungy and I, we always talk, it’s tough to repeat because of injuries. A lot of times, even with the Falcons or the Patriots, you get a lot of breaks during the season. When you have a successful season like that, you get a lot of breaks. Obviously you try to stay healthy as much as possible, but it’s very, very difficult.
And plus, a level of complacency kicks in, and that’s something that when you look at the Falcons on tape, and I’ve said this for the last month, they don’t bring that same emotional side every week that they play. They will bring it against Green Bay, maybe the Patriots, but sometimes these young players think that they can show up and things happen. I think that’s a big part of the struggles that they are having because they are not playing with that same emotion each and every week.
TONY DUNGY: I would just say that No. 1, it’s difficult to get to a Super Bowl. Forget about what happened last year; just getting there is a struggle, and every year you’re going to have challenges.
So whether you won it last year or not, it’s difficult. Now you throw in the fact that you did win it last year, or you got there, you’re going to have players who now get more money from other teams. So you’re going to lose guys who were part of your team last year and you’ve got to rebuild.
Sometimes you’ll lose good players and you’re picking 28th in the draft, so you can’t always reload as well as possible. You’re going to play a tough schedule now. You’re going to play the Atlanta Falcons now. You’re going to play at New England on Sunday night. You’re going to play some Monday night games, road games in primetime. So that schedule doesn’t do you any favors.
So it makes it difficult, but I think as Rodney said, the key is, we didn’t repeat. I played on a Steelers team that went back-to-back twice, and the thing those guys did, every year was new. They set new goals and they wanted to establish themselves brand new from the beginning. Coach (Chuck) Noll did a great job of that. I think good coaches did that but it’s still difficult to repeat.
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: Just to bring it back to this week’s game, because I don’t want to talk about my two Super Bowl losses. I think it’s the right thing, and everybody says the same thing; and the Falcons are going to tell us the exact same thing this week, that, hey, we put it behind us and we’re focused on this week and this year and all that.
But when you’re playing a team that you had a 28-3 lead against, there’s no way that during the course of the week that you’re going to be able to completely put that out of your mind. And I can tell you, that it will never go out of their minds. I’m 58 years old, and I don’t think a day has gone by yet that I haven’t thought about losing one of those two Super Bowls, if not both of them.
I think if you’re innately a competitive person, it will always grind away at you, and now you get a chance to go lineup against this team again. Does it do anything to change the Super Bowl? No, it doesn’t. But I think it has to bring out some emotion in you. It’s not just another game. There’s just no way possible it could be.
Q. What you just spoke about of losing guys, one of the guys they lost was Kyle Shanahan. How do you think he’s doing as coach, leading up to the quarterback change, they stayed in the games pretty closely. And on a more personal level, I want you to go back to that 1979 season with the 49ers, that’s the last time they started 0-6, and they also had a first-year coach, a guy name Bill Walsh?
TONY DUNGY: I think Kyle is doing pretty well. I stayed pretty close to it because of John Lynch being there and I’m so close to John.
It reminds me very much of my first year with the Buccaneers. These losses are closer and they are more competitive. They realize they are hanging in there and it’s about to turn.
So I think the biggest thing in what Coach Walsh did so well, as I remember, 1979, was getting us as players to continue to buy into his beliefs and his philosophy. He didn’t change. This is what we’re going to do; it’s going to work. And even though we were a 2-4 team, I think everybody there had faith in the system. And that’s what these young coaches, whether you’re winning or losing, that’s what you’ve got to show your team. You’re changing the culture and you’ve got to have them believe in what you’re doing, and I think I see the 49ers with what they do, and I think the future is very bright for them.
Q. Cris, this is mostly for you. This week this is the 30th anniversary of the last big replacement player game. I’m sure you’re familiar with that. What are your recollections — first, can you believe it’s 30 years, and what are your thoughts about what has happened, where we have come since and could it happen again?
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: Yeah, it was an incredibly humbling experience to be perfectly honest with you; that they could take the NFL players off the field and put anybody in, Bengals and Browns and Cowboys and Redskins uniforms and have people show up to watch them play.
It’s like, we’re out on the picket line — I remember the most bizarre thing in the world, standing in front of the stadium with tickets and the fans going past. I remember this one guy that came up to me and he said, “Cris,” he goes, “Believe me, I would rather be watching you guys play, but my son is six years old and we have tickets to the game and he won’t know the difference and I want to go.”
And then I had a couple other people saying, “Well, you know, if you’re three weeks now, Vegas is starting to develop a line and people are starting to bet on the games again.”
I think if we had to do it all over again — obviously thought about it for a long time over the years. I think we probably should have let about eight teams go back en masse and play the replacement teams so that somebody could have understood the difference in what they were watching versus what they were watching before that.
But the owners had a great strategy. It absolutely worked. It ended up breaking that strike. It was a strange time, though. It was really very strange.
Q. Do you see a strike or a lockout looming?
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: I don’t. There’s just — you would just have to be ridiculous to leave the amount of money on the table from both sides that they are going to have to play with.
Obviously egos come into play and people understand that but no matter what they say — you know, it used to be, they would say, guys, save your money for — it could be happening two years from now.
But these guys are 22, 23 years old, and the whole league — look at some of the rosters four years ago for your favorite team. Completely different than what they are now. So this league turns over so fast and there are so many young players in there that just want nothing to do with holding out, locking out. I just don’t see it happening.
Q. I guess the same question that I asked Rodney Harrison about playing through the whistle. We’ve seen examples of Bulter knocking balls out in the last second, against (Austin Seferian) Jenkins just last week. What techniques do you coach defensive backs to have that?
TONY DUNGY: Oh, you do. No question, you coach that playing to the whistle and some teams do it better than others. Some players just have that ability. Everybody is going to play hard. You can demand that as a coach, but having that ability to actually finish a play and make it game-changing like that, I think that is special.
I think some players are born with it but you do a lot of drill work as far as a coach, teaching your players to play to the whistle, to never give up, to hustle to the ball, to run, all of those things and it pays off.
And you see the Patriots, they do it as well as anyone. I can think back to the Baltimore playoff game. It looked like a touchdown pass, and that ball gets punched out, and then Baltimore’s kicker misses. It’s not an accident.
I saw that firsthand. I was a rookie with the Steelers and shortly — I watched it on TV and thought it was a lucky player. I watched Franco Harris in practice, and every play in practice, if he had the ball, he ran all the way to the end zone; and if he doesn’t have the ball, he sprinted to where the ball was, and I learned very early on that big plays like that, people call them lucky; they are not. They are a product of players who work hard.
Q. The Texans have given you your only Sunday night game with a single-digit margin in the game against Kansas City. Any thoughts on what you saw from (Deshaun) Watson that night and what you’ve seen subsequently? And also, the NFL and NFLPA issued a joint statement saying that they are going to work together on some things involving social issues related to the protests earlier in the year. What are your thoughts on the fact that the two sides have had some conversation in that regard?
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: I’ll go first. First of all, Deshaun Watson was the first quarterback on my board. I did a mock draft and I actually had him going to Jacksonville as the third or fourth pick there, so I loved him. When you meet him, you love him even more.
He’s exactly the kind of person you want as the face of the National Football League going forward. Of course, as some of these quarterbacks get older, you need those star players to step up and make plays. Not only does he represent greatness on the field; he represents greatness off of it. The giving of his first game check to the three cafeteria workers that lost their homes in the hurricane, or what exactly the story is, something along those lines.
Truly a remarkable young man. Every time I meet him, I like him a little bit more and every time I watch him play, I’m a little bigger fan of his and the way he plays. Now, it’s not going to be smooth sailing. We all know that. A rookie quarterback, he’s going to have some dips in the road here but I don’t think there’s any question, everybody in Houston now feels like they are — they have got their guy. Now let’s go do the rest of it here.
And what was the second — maybe you want Tony or somebody to answer that one.
Q. The player relations.
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: You know, I’m on the road with these players every single week and I interview them. I feel their passion about their communities. I feel their pain when the political conversation goes the wrong way. And I was very anxious for the owners to not give this lip service; to actually have those players in with them and have that conversation, because they are smart and they have good ideas.
They have seen parts of the world that I have never seen. They have stories sometimes that take my breath away. How they grew up and what they had to overcome. I think that if the entire ownership group got a chance to hear some of the stories that I’ve heard over the years, not only would they want to help them; they would enthusiastically embrace a lot of what they have got going on in their respected communities. And I’ve got to tell you, I have great confidence this is going to happen.
I think the Commissioner is committed to it. I think the players are committed too. And I hope the owners are committed to doing some together and really forming a partnership that maybe has not existed in the NFL in the past and make some real positive change.
TONY DUNGY: I will echo Cris’ thoughts on Watson. I saw him play in the National Championship Game in Tampa and he was spectacular. I got a chance to spend about 15 minutes with him at the Clemson Chapel service before the game and he had everything you’re looking for in a leader. It was not a surprise to me that he is doing well.
I’m hopeful on this other front that we do get some productive things coming out of this. We’ve certainly seen a lot of negatives and hopefully the positives we can get from owners and players working together and trying to solve the problems and overcoming some of the negatives that we’ve seen.
Q. What has surprised you the most from what you’ve seen from the Patriots this season? They are 4-2 in a similar place atop the division. Curious what you have seen and what has stood out to you the most?
RODNEY HARRISON: I would say just looking at and just being in that locker room for so long and around and understanding how important attention to detail is. The fact that they look so unorganized out there, and the miscommunications and I’ve said this before, if I’m a coach, if the players can’t — if they can’t pick up the system, then you have to simplify, especially if it’s one of your key guys.
Stephon Gilmore, obviously he looks confused out there, and I challenge these safeties. Communication is the most important thing and that’s something that they haven’t been doing and it seems like I was a little surprised that Matt Patricia was as patient as he was with all the — and even on Sunday, you think they got it all figured out? No, guys are still running free in the secondary. So that was something that really surprised me about them; that they are so tolerant with that.
TONY DUNGY: I would have to agree with Rodney. I’ve coached against a lot of Bill Belichick defenses and I’ve never seen one give up this many big plays. That’s something they just don’t do historically.
So to see week-after-week, the long plays, and I know they will get that straightened out but that has surprised me that we are still seeing a ton of big plays.
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: Yeah, really, on both sides of the ball. This offense is evolving a little bit. Brandin Cooks has changed a bit of their approach. They have the ability now to put somebody opposite (Rob) Gronkowski, and if Gronkowski draws that double coverage that he does so often, (Chris) Hogan and Cooks have created big-play opportunities.
You know, they really have, and Phillip Dorsett adds a bit of that, as well. While they still have a little bit of the younger stuff, this is a team that — I’m not ready to say they are going to go back to 2007 when they had the 50 touchdowns and all of that. But the thing that always impresses me the most about the Patriots is how many different ways they can beat you. They can get in the spread formation.
And in the game the other day against the Jets, they are down 14-0 and I thought what really turned the game around was they went back into 21 personnel and fullback in the game and played power football and sort of overwhelmed the Jets and set up some play-action pass. I think that’s the reason they have been great. If something is not working, they have Plan B, C and D, many times and have a way of coming out of what looks like is going to be a bad game.