Knights of Andreas
FOUR YEARS LATER
Chapter Eighty-Two – Remember When
“We’re NFL players in our mid-twenties. How long is this gonna last?” –Sean Brock
After shining on the rest of the country, the sun climbs over the San Gabriel Mountains and illuminates the City of Angels, running from eastern Pasadena to Venice Beach and beyond, into the Pacific Ocean.
Somewhere in the middle of that stretch stands a two-story building, built in 2009 and sponsored by Medical Communications, Inc. since 2010.
Sunlight brings to life the empty lobby, highlighting a massive logo, purple and black and silver and white, surrounded by gray tiled floor. Residual light pours through the windows to perfectly illuminate an imposing trophy case, sporting trophies of various size recognizing conference championships, division championships, and individual awards like Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Most Valuable Player, Coach of the Year, and more. But these all stand peripheral to, squarely in the middle, a separate compartment of bulletproof glass shielding three Vince Lombardi Trophies.
The inside of the building is as quiet as the outside. Next to the empty players’ lot, a few cars occupy a smaller parking lot, from which a limousine emerges, leaves the complex, and heads for downtown.
Minutes later, the limousine veers off the highway into the sports complex. It stops short of the Staples Center, steering toward a private entrance to the taller stadium named Farmers Field. The driver stops close to the entrance, where two security guards stand.
A man emerges from the limo. He buttons his suit and walks confidently toward the entrance. One of the guards steps forward, and the man flashes his credentials, purely out of habit. Anywhere in southern California—anywhere in America, really—the face of Wayne Schneider is unmistakable.
“Good morning, Mr. Schneider,” the guard says. “Here for the final walkthrough?”
“You know I am.”
Schneider strolls through the bowels of the stadium and soon finds himself standing in the south end zone. Three days before kickoff, the grass is all green save for white yard markers. No logos, no paint in the end zones.
As he has for the last ten years, Schneider waits as a group slowly assembles around him. Per protocol, nine people must participate in this walkthrough, all with titles of varying importance. Those already present make smalltalk Schneider wants no part of, so he steps away from the crowd.
He gazes past the north end zone, above two levels of seats, where the third level gives way to a space once reserved for sponsors, now occupied by banners. Though the collection is impressive, Schneider dwells on the rightmost section.
Second from the right, a banner as large as any reads, “2017 SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONS.” Right of that, a smaller banner reads, “2018 AFC WEST CHAMPIONS.” Right of that, an empty space gazes right back at Schneider, wondering what 2019 should have been.
Besides two years without a Super Bowl appearance, Farmers Field itself dampens Schneider’s spirits. What was once the shining jewel of NFL stadiums has become an also-ran. Three new stadiums have opened since Farmers Field’s inception ten years ago, and a fourth opens in three days: the Rams’ new stadium in Las Vegas, a stadium he essentially built when he warded the Rams away from Los Angeles. It was the only way, he keeps telling himself.
The full assembly has gathered now, but none of them dare beckon Schneider to join them. Schneider doesn’t mind making everybody wait.
“Alright, gentlemen,” he says at last. “Let’s get on with it.”
The tour begins with a lap around the field, then heads up into the concourse. People occasionally ask questions Schneider’s annoyance. All nine participants cram into a private elevator toward the luxury suites and then press box. Each phase proves the tour to be a rudimentary exercise; apart from some minor hassles, Farmers Field is ready for football.
Per Schneider’s wishes, the walkthrough concludes above the north end zone, the one open section of the stadium with a massive screen standing where seats would be otherwise. Schneider’s focus, though, is on the concourse itself, now one year removed from renovations.
When the stadium was built, the concourse was a strip lined with vendor stands, not unique among stadiums in any way. Now, though, Schneider has left his mark on it. In the middle of the concrete floor there is a thin strip of shiny, black marble tiles, modeled after the iconic Hollywood Walk of Fame nine miles away. For now, the Knights’ version is nearly all marble. It will, over time, add brass stars to commemorate the very best to wear Knights colors.
Schneider stares inquisitively at the empty pavement for a moment, then stares straight down at the single star beneath him. The sun reflects back into his eyes off the glossy surface; he shifts to see the name in focus: MERLE HARDEN.
Finally, Schneider walks away, ending the walkthrough without a word. He strolls back down through his stadium toward his limousine, eager to get back to MedComm to observe practice.
As soon as his eyes flicker open, he reactively rolls to his right and unlocks his fully charged phone: a wave of texts, a few emails, no missed calls—and no breaking news. Nothing he needs to handle immediately.
He looks back across the bed, occupied by the most gorgeous woman to ever grace his apartment, by far. Her face twists as she stretches.
“You up?” he asks.
“Getting there,” she says.
“I’ll make some coffee.”
Adam Javad gets to his feet and staggers to the kitchen, performing the ritual he has now perfected: making coffee with one hand, tapping his phone with the other. He has a busy day ahead, and he’s already behind schedule. He glances back toward the conflicting feelings he left in the bedroom.
He didn’t mean for her to spend the night. Not that he was against it in theory (not at all, in fact), just that the eve of the 2020 NFL season was probably not great timing. But they had a great dinner downtown, which turned into some after-dinner drinks at a bar, which turned into one more drink at the apartment, and that was that.
“Anything going on?” she asks, startling him. She stands in the doorway connecting the bedroom to the kitchen, wearing his shirt and her underwear. She’s also buried in her phone.
“Nope,” Adam says.
She taps away another moment, then looks around the living room.
“Didn’t really get a chance to check it out last night,” she says.
“It’s an apartment. You don’t have to be complimentary.”
“Oh, shut up.”
She circles the room, studying the pictures occupying wall space and end tables. She moves from picture to picture, only pausing for an imposing frame (Adam’s diploma from the University of Missouri) before she stops in front of another framed picture, this one a photograph.
She examines every detail: two men, seated across from each other in what looks like a living room. On one side, Adam studies a paper in front of him, undoubtedly lined with questions, with a large Doberman laying comfortably at his feet. On the other side, an older, weary-looking, nearly bald man shows an annoyed but acceptant look on his face. His arms are crossed over his purple polo, not quite covering the Knights logo on it.
She is right to study this more than anything in Adam’s apartment; she knows this is the interview that launched his career to the Times, while she’s still stuck at the Pasadena Gazette.
“What was he like?” she asks. “I mean, in person.”
“Hmm,” Javad says, happy to reminisce and relive the memory of that interview. In the months after he received the award, he grew tired of answering questions about it. But he hasn’t fielded such questions in a while. “Grumpy, cross, profane.”
“That’s how he was in press conferences.”
“In person, too.”
Her eyes finally find the bottom right of the picture, where someone’s hand has scribbled over the picture in black marker.
“Can’t believe you got him to sign it.”
“Me neither, to be honest,” Adam says, joining her in the living room with the coffee brewing.
She finally moves off the picture. “What’s your day like?”
“I’ll probably record my podcast first, then an interview with the Rich Eisen Show at eleven, then—”
“By phone or in studio?”
“Studio. He tapes not far from Farmers. After that, I’ll go to MedComm for quotes. Otherwise, it’s—I mean, we’re just three days out.”
“Yes, we are.”
Adam pauses, not sure if this part of the conversation is over. She stares back at him for a second, then looks away. He goes for it.
“So, listen, Jess,” he says. “On Sunday…”
“How many times are we going to have this conversation?” Jessica asks.
“I guess you’re right.”
He waits for the coffee to finish. After one cup with accompanying smalltalk, they decide they’re both too busy for a large breakfast, and she leaves—in her own clothes.
Adam brings his coffee mug into the office, where podcast equipment is ready for him. He organizes his notes on the desk and begins recording.
“Hello, Knights fans, and welcome to another edition of The Extra Point with Adam Javad. We’ve finally made it; the 2020 NFL season is upon us. And while we won’t have Knights football for a few days—I’m recording this on Thursday—it’ll be good to see football on our TV screens again. In the meantime, I’ve got an interview with defensive tackle Riley Osborne, the Knights’ first-round pick from April, with his thoughts on training camp, preseason, and adjusting to joining an esteemed franchise. And then we’ll do what has become a yearly tradition on this podcast, a position-by-position review of the Knights’ roster, which should prove interesting, given all the turnover this offseason.”
Under the California sun, the Los Angeles Knights walk, jog, and run around the field adjacent to the MedComm Center for the penultimate practice of the offseason.
On one side of the field, the starting offense runs plays against reserve defensive players. Leading them, dressed in the same long-sleeve-shirt-and-shorts combination as the rest of the coaches, Ron McKenzie makes frequent use of his whistle.
McKenzie can feel it. With game one so close, he is anxious to be done with the offseason and start the real football. Unfortunately, his players feel the same way. If they give in to that feeling, they will conclude the week with sloppy practices, go into Sunday unprepared, and get their asses kicked in front of their own fans.
McKenzie blows his whistle after the most recent play ends successfully. “Run it again, ladies! Run it again! Three in a row, that’s our goal.”
Today the Knights will finish practicing the between-the-20’s section of Sunday’s playbook. Tomorrow, they focus on red zone and third down.
McKenzie blows his whistle. “C’mon, 77, you gotta sell it better before you get out into the flat.”
Whistle. “Atta boy, 81, nice block in space. Do that on Sunday, so we can get it on film.”
Whistle. “Nice job, 70, nice job. Again!”
On the other side of the field, the starting defense goes through the same process. Leading them is Chet Ripka, a man whose memories of wearing the same pads and cleats as his players fade more with each passing year.
“Good call, 57, good call.”
“Nice rush, 52. Really nice.”
“Need more hustle, 96, need more hustle. Half a second late on that split and Tyrod is running right past you.”
“C’mon, coach,” number 96 fires back between breaths. “We don’t even know if Tyrod’s starting.”
“No way the rookie gets the start over him,” Ripka says. “Until I see Tyrod on the bench, I don’t want any more excuses. Back in formation.”
From the comfort of air conditioning and the shielding of wall-to-wall glass windows, two men watch practice from the second floor of the MedComm Center. One is Schneider, whose mind bounces all around his office, from players on the field, to TV coverage previewing tonight’s Chiefs/Texans game, to everything in between.
“I suppose I’m frustrated, is all I’m saying,” Schneider says, looking back to the TV.
The other man keeps his gaze on the field and brushes his hair, sprinkles of grey now covering his entire head.
“I understand,” Chance Phillips says.
“Back-to-back Super Bowls, and we were the talk of the city. You go downtown on a Tuesday in July and you saw someone wearing a Knights jersey. Not like New York, where they’re on four different teams at once. Los Angeles was a Knights city. Now, two years without a Super Bowl, and what does L.A. talk about?” Schneider unleashes a harsh sigh and falls into his chair. “The fucking Lakers.”
“The fans are fired up for this season. You know they are.”
“With high expectations comes high risk.”
“You’re not confident in what we did this offseason?”
Schneider pauses. Phillips finally diverts his attention from the field to Schneider, and they lock eyes.
“I told you all offseason you had my support,” Schneider says. “But I’m sure you’d agree that the moves we made were more for long-term success than short-term.”
“And if that results in bad short-term returns?”
Schneider stares menacingly at his general manager, not wanting to answer that question. A knock on his open door saves him from doing so, and the third-ranking man on this floor confidently strolls into the office.
“Injury report from practice,” he says, handing a piece of paper to Phillips.
“Any changes?” Phillips asks.
“No, not from yesterday.”
“Ok, good. Thanks, Rick.”
“And, Chance, that salary cap analysis you wanted to do?”
“My office. Five minutes.”
Assistant general manager Rick Jensen nods and departs. Phillips studies the paper in his hands and looks back to Schneider.
“Anything more for me?”
“Not at the moment,” Schneider says.
Phillips nods, happy to table things for now. He, of course, has long since gotten used to prodding like this from his owner. In fact, he shares Schneider’s frustration regarding the Knights’ place in the AFC, and thereby the league as a whole, a stark reminder of how quickly things change in the NFL.
Just a few years ago, with Tom Brady fading into the horizon and Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement, the stars had aligned for Jonathan Maverick and the Knights to dominate the AFC for the next decade.
Then came Patrick Mahomes.
Then came Lamar Jackson.
Last season—especially the playoffs—made it clear that the Chiefs and Ravens were on a level by themselves in their conference, and the Knights were a step below them. One offseason of transactions later, whether the Knights have joined that group appears to be the defining question of the 2020 season.
At best, the Knights are part of a triumvirate atop the AFC. At worst, they’re not even an elite team.
The city of angels wakes up earlier and quicker than it has in nine months. With most national pre-game shows starting at 9am local time, mimosas and red beers are flowing at sports bars and restaurants all over Los Angeles.
Farmers Field parking lots open at 10am, and countless cars pile into spot after spot. Within minutes, Knights fans in black and white jerseys surround the stadium and revive tailgate rituals. Scattered pockets of blue and yellow litter the scene, as the visiting fans from San Diego always do. When the stadium opens an hour later, fans trickle in faster than normal; nobody wants to miss kickoff for week one. Knights fans fill Farmers Field with the buzz and optimism of a new season.
As fans settle into their seats and count down to kickoff, they tap away on their phones, following all the results from the early window. Eight games are going down to the wire, with Knights/Chargers and three other late-window games to follow.
At long last, the final moments of the offseason wither away. A pump-up montage plays on the stadium’s large video screen, dramatic rock music blares through the speakers, and a wave of players in black jerseys rushes out of the southwest tunnel. Fans roar for their team—most of them, anyway, and keep their eyes on the tunnel.
Under cover and out of sight from most fans, stadium personnel hold back the five players still left, to be introduced one by one. Per Wayne Schneider’s instruction, they must be introduced in ascending order of jersey sales—most popular player goes last.
The stadium PA announcer’s voice booms over the stadium, just loud enough to be audible over the still-rocking music.
“Starting at left guard for the Knights, number seventy, Chase…Grodd!”
Grodd runs out of the tunnel and holds one finger in the air, getting as loud of an ovation as an offensive linemen can.
“Starting at middle linebacker, number fifty-seven…Briggs…Randall!”
Randall sprints out of the tunnel, not making any gesture at all, to a slightly louder ovation.
“Starting at wide receiver, number eighty-one…Da’Jamiroquai…Jefferspin…Wilkes!”
The crowd’s roar crescendos before Wilkes appears, leisurely walking out of the tunnel as if he doesn’t hear anything. He bends down lethargically, then leaps backward into the air, brilliantly executing a full backflip, sticks the landing, and accelerates toward the rest of the team. The crowd roars again.
“Starting at defensive end…” The crowd drowns out the PA announcer as well as they can. “…number fifty-two…Zack…Grantzinger!”
Grantzinger repeats Randall’s no-gesture attitude, albeit with a jog instead of a sprint, and gets to the sideline.
The stadium’s music seems to fade. Noise level lowers. The final moment has come, and the PA announcer milks it for everything he can.
“Starting at quarterback…”
Everybody in the stadium wearing black and purple either points their phone at the tunnel or claps their hands together as hard as they can.
The final player in the tunnel feels a tap on his shoulder, and off he goes.
Farmers Field erupts for their franchise quarterback, who blows kisses to his fans as he jumps and screams himself, eventually finding his way to the sideline.
Pre-game ceremonies conclude. Both teams line up for kickoff. From his luxury suite, Schneider scans the stadium. The past few years, with the Rams sharing this stadium, have seen plenty of blue and yellow in the stands, a terrible eyesore for Schneider he hopes to see gone this season. Unfortunately, the Chargers’ similar color scheme makes it impossible to know today.
San Diego gets the ball first. As Ripka predicted, Tyrod Taylor takes the first snap of the season. One stuffed bubble screen and two incompletions later, the Chargers punt.
The Knights offense takes the field to elevated applause. An incompletion and short run later, it’s third and seven. The excitement of a new season is giving way to the tedium of the game, then Maverick ropes one over the middle for a thirty-yard gain, and fans get to scream again.
The offense moves the ball efficiently, quickly entering the red zone on second and two. Maverick lines up under center, sees confusion in the secondary, and spots Wilkes in single coverage. No one can stop what happens next. Maverick drops back three steps and lofts the ball toward the end zone, hitting Wilkes’ hands in stride.
Maverick jogs back to the sideline with the crowd noise barely subsided. “We’re back, motherfuckers!” he shouts to whoever listens.
The rest of the first half appears to confirm the Knights are indeed back. Ripka’s defense sticks to its game plan, allowing Taylor a few successful scrambles but suffocating the pass offense. The Chargers only manage a field goal, while the Knights add another touchdown, and the home team leads at halftime, 14-3.
On the opening drive of the second half, the Knights tack on a field goal of their own. The ensuing drive halts when a Charger is ruled out of bounds on a sideline catch that Anthony Lynn challenges. The long review puts the stadium in a lull. From the sideline, Maverick looks around at the crowd.
“When we first came here, I remember the fans,” he says. Grodd and Wilkes, who have been with him from the beginning, listen. “You know, the ones who were with us at the beginning. How many you think are still here?”
“What?” Grodd says.
“Nothing. Never mind.”
The ruling stands, says the referee. Second and ten.
Maverick stands up and studies the white jerseys in the huddle. He focuses on #5, an unfamiliar number playing quarterback for the Chargers. He looks to the bench, searching for #10.
“The hell are you staring at?” Grodd says.
“Hopefully Herbert develops into something,” Maverick says. “Not much of a rivalry without Rivers, is it?”
“Aw, how cute,” Wilkes says. “Batman misses the Joker.”
“Joker misses Harley Quinn is more like it,” Grodd says.
“Fuck you both,” Maverick says. “You miss a single block or drop a single pass on the next drive, I’ll—”
The stadium booms in surprise, drawing the trio’s gaze to the giant screen. They see a defender in a black jersey running with the ball, zigzagging through white jerseys before tripping close to the line of scrimmage. Maverick grabs his helmet.
“Let’s get to work,” he says.
“Two last year!” Wilkes says. “Two dropped passes. And Chase only missed three blocks in pass protection!”
Maverick tries to ignore him. “Always with the goddamn fucking analytics, D-Jam!”
With the momentum and field position, the Knights manage a field goal, making it a three-score game. On the Chargers’ next drive, their offense finds rhythm, with Taylor finally connecting on a few downfield throws. Now into the fourth quarter, the Chargers reach the end zone. 20-10, Knights.
Both offenses trade three-and-outs. With McKenzie trying to run the clock out with a middling run game, the Knights punt after one first down. The Chargers appear ready to do the same, when Taylor bombs one deep for Keenan Allen, somehow wide-open and streaking into the end zone. 20-17, Knights.
Tension fills Farmers Field. Every exciting hour of anticipation and celebration is about to descend into a very bad Sunday. While Ripka scrambles with his coaches to figure out what went wrong, McKenzie abandons the run game and lets Maverick take control. Working the field on short and intermediate gains, the Knights move the chains. With each first down and tick of the clock, Knights fans breathe easier.
The two-minute warning hits with the Knights on the edge of the red zone. A few more short passes later, they face first and goal with 1:02 on the clock. The Chargers burn their timeouts, hoping to get the ball back down six points.
Third and goal from the five, 0:40 to go. McKenzie dials up a fade to Wilkes. Maverick takes the snap, looks. It’s not there. He scans the field—nothing. He’s ready to scramble, wanting to keep the clock running. He tucks the ball, then sees an open black jersey with defenders closing. He fires a bullet for his tight end that hits him between the numbers, and Farmers Field roars.
The Chargers get the ball in an impossible situation, gain some garbage-time yards against prevent defense before time expires, and, in the end, Knights fans get to celebrate exactly what they wanted: a win that gives them faith their football team can return to glory this year.
A jovial locker room buzzes with energy. Players know by now not to expect any sort of speech from Coach McKenzie, so they just circulate from locker to locker, soaking in the celebration—and the relief.
Maverick, no interest in celebrating anything just yet, removes all his pads and undresses down to his shorts, wincing as he relives each hit he took. He lumbers around the corner toward the ice baths, finding one of them available. Not long ago he wouldn’t need this after the first game, but need it he does. He lifts his body over the tub and counts. One, two, three.
He lets go and falls into the water. It pierces every inch of his skin, tightens his entire body. Then, it fades. He feels his muscles relaxing. He leans back, closes his eyes, and lets out a deep, soothing breath.
Back in the heart of the locker room, a group congregates around Randall’s locker, as it usually does, a sort of defensive debrief. These tend to last much longer after a win. The players replay highlights and dissect plays as Coach Ripka appears.
“Great game, everyone,” Ripka says.
“Thanks, coach,” Randall says. “And you too. You called a good one today. That corner blitz was a great call.”
“Hell yeah,” the rookie corner who notched a sack on the game’s final play says. “Good one, coach.”
“Thanks, guys,” Ripka says. “You all played a hell of a game. We play like that on D, we can beat anybody. All the young guys did a really good job too.”
Everyone murmurs in agreement before realizing Grantzinger is both suspiciously quiet and changing into street clothes rather quickly.
“You good, Zack?” Randall says.
“Got some place to be?” Ripka says.
“Gotta check in on my old man.”
Ripka puts his head down and walks away. The rookie, apparently out of the loop, looks suspicious.
“What’s up with your pops, Zack?”
“He’s got Alzheimer’s,” Randall says.
“Yeah shit,” Grantzinger says.
“How’s he doing?” Randall says.
“Worse. I’ve never seen him like this. We’ve had our father-son bullshit in the past, and it’s been rough, but nothing like this.”
“I had an uncle who had it,” the rookie says.
“Honestly, I was just a kid. Didn’t really understand it at the time, thankfully.”
“Hey,” Randall says, “check in later?”
“Yeah, I’ll call you.”
“Aye!” sings another voice. “Yo! Yo! Yo! Yo! Yooooo!”
Randall sighs as the team’s certified diva wide receiver does jumping jacks behind him.
“Guess who leads the league in touchdown catches?”
“Hopkins, probably,” Grantzinger says, packing up his belongings.
“Man, he ain’t gonna do shit with that four-foot QB throwin’ to him. Speaking of, y’all seen Mav?”
“Not since the field, no,” Randall says.
Wilkes spins his head around and goes on the hunt, circling the locker room twice before spotting a patch of hair sticking out of one of the tubs he correctly identifies. He waltzes over but refrains from doing jumping jacks.
“Ah, there’s the princess,” Wilkes says.
“What’s the matter, brother?”
“Two sacks and five hits hurts a little more than it did a few years ago,” Maverick says.
“Pain is temporary, man. This is what I’ve been tryin’ to tell you.”
“Don’t get started. Please.”
“D-Jam,” Grodd calls from farther away, “spare us your preaching, please.”
“Man, it ain’t no preachin’! You fools need some spiritual education.”
“What I need,” Maverick says, “is some fucking quiet.”
Wilkes relents. He shrugs and walks off in search of a new audience.
After a frustrating grind through L.A. traffic, Zack pulls up to his house, spotting the familiar car in the driveway. He paces to the front door and opens it.
“Hey,” the woman in the doorway says, “how was the game?”
“You didn’t watch?” Zack says.
“We turned it on for a little bit. I thought it would help him. But he started to get angry, so we—”
“It’s ok. It’s fine. How is he otherwise?”
“Ups and downs. Got him to spend some time on a puzzle. Those have been good lately. So, overall, a normal day.”
“I bet he’ll be glad to hear.”
They both linger for a moment, and Zack steps into his home. The woman who has served as caretaker of his father departs. Zack considers another word before hearing a boisterous voice from the den.
“I can’t deal with these fucking commercials!”
Zack hurriedly finds his father, laying on his recliner, focused on the television. It is indeed on commercial, and Zack spots from the ticker he’s watching ESPN. A full glass of iced tea condensates on the end table next to him.
“Listen, I ask you for a couple things, and you just walk away. I need you to stay close.”
“Sorry, dad,” Zack says in an emotionless tone. He takes a seat on the couch nearest the recliner. “We won today.”
“Of course you did. You think I am, deranged?”
Zack’s spirits lift. A lucid discussion on today’s game would be just what he needs, and certainly what his father needs.
“So,” Zack says, “what did you think?”
“Ripka called a terrible game.”
“What do you mean? We held the offense in check most of the way. Made the plays when we needed to.”
“He should have stayed in cover-3. Lousy fucking coordinator.”
Zack feels his mood sink into the floor. The Knights ran, to his memory, no more than four cover-3 plays today. It wasn’t a staple of the game plan, and there was definitely no point when they pivoted from cover-3 to something else.
All Zack manages to say is, “Hell of a safety in his prime, dad. Borderline Hall of Famer.”
“He’s not in the Hall yet, is he?”
“Then he’s not ‘borderline.’ You’re either a Hall of Famer or you’re not.”
Zack looks away, eyes pinned to the TV screen but not processing any of it.
“How about getting me that goddamn iced tea I asked for?”
“It’s right here, dad.”
“About fucking time.”
Zack hones in on the TV, watching scores flash at the bottom of the screen, wondering whether he’ll change the channel to watch the second half of the Sunday Night Football game.
The long offseason makes football feel more meandering than organized, more free flowing than rigid. But now, with week one in the books, Knights players and coaches fall into the week-to-week routine of a football season.
Monday, players fill the auditorium for a formal debrief. McKenzie has more good than bad to say and keeps it concise, allowing players to spend time with their positional coaches for more detail. Players then hit the weight room, get a good workout in, head to the cafeteria for lunch, and leave for the day. Coaches stay, watching film on the Steelers.
Tuesday, players stay home. The coaching staff starts at 6am and doesn’t leave until a little after 11pm, when the first iteration of Sunday’s playbook is finished.
Usually, the luster of a new season takes weeks to fade. This season, the Knights’ core find themselves fading into the fast-paced grind much faster than usual. Wednesday’s practice fades into Thursday’s practice, which fades into Friday’s red zone/third down focus, which fades into Saturday’s walkthrough, and before long, they’re on a plane to Pittsburgh.
Just four years ago, Heinz Field hosted one of the most famous regular-season games in NFL history, a week 15 contest between two undefeated teams decided in the final seconds. The franchises have faced off a few times in the years since, but never living up to the resulting hype. Of course, four years is a long time in the NFL.
But while fans may dwell on nostalgia, players know better. The only thing they chase today is a 2-0 record. Before long, however, the Knights are chasing points.
Players are sloppy on both sides of the ball: drops, poor tackling form, missed assignments, late play calls. This is the type of execution tolerated by some in week one, not now. The Knights are playing a better team than last week, but neither McKenzie nor Ripka wants to hear that.
The offense gets the ball five times in the first half. These culminate in two field goals, two punts, and a fumble. The Steelers, meanwhile, operate a fine-tuned offense. Ben Roethlisberger looks sharp as ever, facing little pass rush and finding open receivers. He leads three drives into the red zone, converting touchdowns on all three.
The Knights go into the locker room down 21-6 but come out with an aggressive game plan. Their first drive indeed finds rhythm. Linemen finally nail their assignments. Maverick has time to throw and doesn’t miss open receivers. McKenzie times a screen pass perfectly, and the Knights are in the red zone.
Two plays later, Maverick drops back, waiting for Wilkes to break on an end-zone post—a Steeler defender crunches him into the grass. He looks around for the football, shocked to see it’s still in his grasp.
Maverick is ready to tear into the offense on the sideline when the crowd returns his attention to the field—the ensuing field goal attempt has sailed wide right. Maverick says nothing.
The Steelers pick up where they left off, gaining first downs with ease. The Knights’ pass rush reaches Roethlisberger, but only after he has delivered a pass. The home team brings the crowd to its feet with a ten-play, seventy-nine-yard touchdown drive, taking a 28-6 lead.
Resignation sets in on the Knights sideline, strangely unfamiliar to a few white jerseys. Every football player knows all too well the feeling of a lost game—even worse, knowing there’s more football to play with the game already decided. But this was a foreign feeling to the Knights not long ago.
There was a time when, no matter how deep the deficit, no matter how poor their play, the Knights were always in contention. Even if it were mathematically impossible, the players knew they would win. On the next drive, Maverick would hit a deep pass to get things going. Randall or Grantzinger would come through with a big sack. They would make the plays they needed. They knew it.
Now, something feels different.
Players sit on the sideline going through the motions, listening to their coaches and analyzing pictures, nothing left to do but grind out the final twenty-two minutes of a loss.