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  1. Knights of Andreas FOUR YEARS LATER Chapter Eighty-Eight – The Coming Storm “Leadership is about leading by example. Leadership is about your teammates looking at you and saying, ‘That’s exactly how the game is supposed to be played.’” –Chet Ripka Schneider takes a deep breath and leans forward, fingers twitching, pressed against his mouth. “Ok,” he says. “Read it.” His assistant sits up and straightens the paper in front of her, reading it verbatim. “Upon the conclusion of Roger Goodell’s contract, current Los Angeles Knights owner Wayne Schneider will assume the role of commissioner of the National Football League. Ever since purchasing the then-Oakland Raiders in 2009, Mr. Schneider has distinguished himself as one of the most effective leaders in the NFL. His vision and leadership have brought football back to Los Angeles and led the Knights to three Super Bowl championships. We eagerly look forward to a new era for our league. The process for determining transition of ownership for the Knights will begin immediately.” She looks up. Schneider replays the words in his head. “Plus a few sentences about Goodell’s accomplishments, obviously.” “Of course, sir.” “And maybe just ‘Schneider’ instead of ‘Mr. Schneider.’ More personable.” The assistant scribbles on the paper with her pen. Schneider leans back, his office quiet around him. The entire MedComm Center is empty; he made sure of it. “We’ll make sure it’s perfect before I present it,” Schneider says, just as excited to read it to other owners as he is to see it hit the press wire. Nursing fresh wounds from the Vikings massacre, Knights fans pack Farmers Field for week 15 worried about the fading playoff picture. The Knights are still very much in the wild card race (and technically alive for the division), but the prospect of facing the AFC East leaders inspires little confidence. The Knights destroy the Bills, intercepting Josh Allen three times and meticulously picking apart their stout defense en route to a 27-7 victory. Though the Chiefs clinch the division minutes later, Knights fans head home in high spirits. The Knights advance to 9-5, tied with the Steelers for the sixth and final playoff spot, a tiebreaker they lose because of their week 2 loss in Pittsburgh. Seven days later, week 16’s Sunday Night Football game is marketed as a divisional battle with major playoff implications, but the game in San Diego is hardly a battle. Now committing to Justin Herbert at quarterback, the Chargers are grueling through the final weeks of a rebuilding season. The Knights defense makes easy work of the rookie signal caller, and the team coasts to a 30-13 win. Courtesy of a Steelers loss hours earlier, the 10-5 Knights assume the sixth seed in the AFC. Despite either the Colts or Texans primed for the fifth seed (both are 11-4 and one will win the South) and a wave of teams within reach of the sixth seed, the Knights enter week 17 with a simple mandate. Win, and they make the playoffs. Lose, and they need help. The first day of practice for the Broncos, players hit the field with energy, confidence, and—though no one will admit it—fear. With the possibility of missing the postseason lurking on the horizon, the Knights treat this Sunday’s contest like a playoff game. About an hour or so into practice, players notice a man most recognize as the assistant GM make his way onto the field toward Coach McKenzie. They talk for less than a minute. Neither looks particularly concerned, and when their talk ends, practice simply continues. Another hour later, the on-field session of practice concludes, and players hit the showers before breaking into positional groups for film review. McKenzie works his way through the locker room toward the offensive linemen. “Chase,” McKenzie says. “Yeah, coach?” “Chance needs to see you in his office after you’ve changed. Will only take a few minutes.” Still putting on his clothes, Grodd spends every second deciding what he’s about to experience. This is the contract situation. Has to be. And it can only end in two ways. There’s no other reason a player would visit the GM’s office unless he’s about to be released, and Grodd can’t see how that could be happening. After changing, Grodd jogs upstairs to Phillips’ office, a light layer of sweat clinging his shirt to his chest. He sees Phillips, standing over the phone, and the assistant GM sitting at a nearby table. “Chase, come in,” Phillips says, pointing to the phone. “I’ve got your agent on speakerphone.” “Good afternoon, Chase,” the agent says. Grodd finds no hint of good or bad news in either of their voices, simply waiting, studying the stoic look on Phillips’ face, which seems to hold for an eternity, until he finally breaks. “We’ve reached an agreement,” Phillips says, smiling. “Three years?” Grodd asks without thinking. “Four,” the agent says. “We’ve agreed to announce after the season is over,” Phillips says. “Technically, we can’t sign an extension before then anyway, but everything is locked in, and we’re very happy about it. Congratulations.” He extends his hand, which Grodd snatches out of midair and shakes vigorously. Phillips and Jensen leave the room to let Grodd talk specifics with his agent. Grodd hears the financial figures quicker than he can process them—$56 million total, $32 million guaranteed. When the call ends, Phillips and Jensen reenter. Grodd shakes both their hands. “And Chase,” Phillips says, “no word of this to your teammates until after the season, if you don’t mind.” “Sure, sure,” Grodd says. “Alright then. We’ll let you get to film review.” Grodd hurries out of the room. Phillips’ polite smile fades into a curious grin as he shifts his attention to Jensen. “That phone conversation last night,” Phillips says, “between you and Grodd’s agent. Just how long did that conversation last?” “Long enough,” Jensen says, unable to contain his smile. “Well done,” Phillips says, also smiling. Meanwhile, Grodd scurries down the stairs toward the first floor, realizing he needs to conceal his excitement. But his mind is already piecing together every element of what will be a festive, celebratory night at the Grodd residence, which is about to come off the market. Practice grinds on for the Knights defense, with Ripka especially focused on his defensive captain. He watches Randall gather the entire front seven after one particularly sloppy rep of an option blitz. Once they finish another set of reps and go for a water break, he makes his move. “Briggs. Talk for a second?” Randall grabs a cup of water, takes a swig, and steps away from the table full of water and Gatorade coolers, out of earshot of the rest of his teammates, and stands next to his defensive coordinator. They both look across the practice field at the offense going through rep after rep. “What’s up, coach?” Randall says. “Well, since you keep ducking me on the beer offer,” Ripka says, “I decided not to wait anymore.” “Hey, sorry, I just—” “Don’t bother.” Ripka looks around aimlessly while nothing happens. “I was kind of hoping you would make this easy on me, not dance around it.” “Dance around what?” “I’ve coached you for what, six years now? Played alongside you for two. You’re the best middle linebacker in the game because of your instinct. And some part of that instinct has been missing lately.” Randall says nothing, jarred by Ripka being this scathing. “No offense, coach, but if you think there’s a problem with my game, let’s hit the film room right now.” “It’s the concussions, isn’t it?” “What?” “A few games back, when Ta’Shawn came to the sideline after getting hit in the head. I saw the look in your eyes. You remember?” “I didn’t like seeing him shaken up.” “No one likes seeing teammates get their bell rung. But something else is bothering you, isn’t it?” “Coach, no offense, but you retired because you didn’t want any more hits to the head. What’s your strategy in this pep talk here?” “I don’t have one,” Ripka says, meeting Randall’s intense stare. “But I’d rather discuss it than let it hang in the air.” “That’s refreshing.” “I know the fear, Briggs. Playing and wondering on every snap if the next hit takes years off the end of your life.” Randall gives in, trying to relax his posture despite how tense his shoulders and neck feel. “Is it any easier, after you retire?” he asks. “What do you mean?” “When you’re not playing anymore. Is it easier, knowing you’re not taking any more hits?” “It’s worse.” Randall’s head snaps sideways to study his coach. “Just knowing that somewhere,” Ripka says, “there’s this storm coming for me. I won’t know when it’s coming. I might not even know when it happens. And I can’t stop it.” Neither man says anything for a minute. Randall swallows the last of the water. Some players walk back onto the field; practice will resume any second now. “I guess we should have just been reporters,” Randall says, “work some desk job for ESPN.” “We could have,” Ripka says. “Briggs, if that fear starts consuming your play, you need to walk away. If you can hold it off, then you can keep going.” “I can keep going.” “Good. Remind me after practice, I’ll give you the name and number of a doctor I see.” “Doctor?” “Head doctor. I see him regularly, keep tabs on any symptoms for CTE. Just looking out. Ok, we gotta get going.” Ripka walks off, ready to get players back in formation. “Coach,” Randall calls back. “Does it help?” Ripka thinks about it. “A little.” The press room hosts another round of conferences, starting with McKenzie and the coaches, ending with some of the players. Everyone is all business, focused on beating the Broncos and nothing else, and injury news is scarce, so the conference ends quickly. Once it does, Javad is one of the first on his feet, looking immediately down the row at Jessica, also headed for the exit. He joins the crowd of reporters out the door, more aware than ever of the sickening feeling in his stomach, and closes on her in the parking lot. “Jessica.” She slows her pace and stops, facing him. He finally sees how tired she looks. When he tries to speak, nothing comes out. His throat feels dry. “What?” she says flatly. “I was thinking, tonight…maybe I could call you. We could go somewhere. Or just talk…on the phone. Whatever you want. But…I wanted to call. I want to call.” “Fine,” Jessica says, showing no emotion Javad can detect. “Call me tonight.” She gets out her keys, starts up her car, and drives away. Javad stands alone in the parking lot, forgetting for a moment where he parked his car. McKenzie looks out over the table crammed into his office at his four veteran players, not quite processing Randall’s comments about some red zone formation in this week’s playbook. With no guarantee of a playoff berth, this is the final players council meeting of the year, and it is seconds from ending. “I’ll talk to Chet if you want,” McKenzie says, “but you can go ahead and do it first. Might be easier to keep things on that side of the ball.” “Good enough,” Randall says. “Ok, anything else?” Everyone exchanges flat looks at one another. “Alright then,” Maverick says, standing up. The other three players follow suit, eager to start their weekend. “Hang on,” McKenzie says. The players freeze and look back at their coach. “We’re not done yet.” “Why not?” Maverick says. “We got to clear the air. Sit down, all of you.” Everyone inches back to their seats. No one feels compelled to begin the imminent conversation. Once all four have settled back into the same chairs, McKenzie sits up and leans forward, abandoning the relaxed posture he typically assumes for these meetings. “We all know what this is about,” he says, “so let’s fuck off with the foreplay. I know I should have brought this up sooner. I’m sorry.” “You apologizing?” Randall says. “Is that what you’re doing?” McKenzie leers at Randall for a moment, then glances at everyone else; they seem defensive, but they stay silent. So McKenzie keeps talking. “I’ve been beating myself up over this for months, and I’m fucking sick of it. You all want to start beating me up for it, that’s fine. But when we all walk out that door, cards are on the table. No more bullshit. We find common ground.” “What sort of common ground?” Grodd says. “That depends.” McKenzie studies the room again. It seems like everyone has relaxed slightly—Maverick, in particular, looks subdued—except Randall. “Humor me,” McKenzie says, holding up his hands. “From Melinda’s perspective, is it so bad she found someone in her grief? Is it so fucking bad she doesn’t have to go to bed alone anymore?” No one answers, leaving McKenzie no choice but to press on. Months ago, maybe weeks ago, he could have handled this differently. But not now. “C’mon, assholes. You got a mind to speak, then speak it.” “I think you can understand why we would have a problem, coach,” Grodd says. “I do. Like I said, I had a problem with it myself. Still do, I guess. But it’s not hanging over this team anymore. That’s why we’re here.” “Never should have in the first place,” Grantzinger says. “How’s that, Zack?” “I don’t think we should be talking about it at all.” “Well, we are talking about it. Next time you speak in this room, add something of value to the conversation, will you?” Grantzinger looks ready to throw his chair across the room. Everyone else backs down, gathering their thoughts, until McKenzie speaks again. “You guys want to take some macho high ground in Merle’s name? Fine, let’s go there. Other than Mav, when’s the last time any of you went to see Melinda? Or Trish, for that matter?” “We already know that Mav knew about it,” Randall says. “So don’t bother trying to keep him out of it.” “Just because I knew, doesn’t mean I like it,” Maverick says. “Oh,” McKenzie says, casting Maverick a inquiring look, “we want to talk about this season, let’s talk about that, Mav.” “What do you mean?” “Whatever happened to our quarterback, Maverick, the fiery, heart-on-his-sleeve, take-no-prisoners gunslinger? Haven’t seen him in a while.” “My numbers haven’t gone down in—” “I’m not talking about your fucking stats, Jonathan. I’m talking about your teammates looking into your eyes and seeing that menacing fire that I’m seeing right now, about your teammates looking at you and knowing you’re gonna lead them to victory. No matter what.” “Players are supposed to look at their head coach that way, too,” Maverick says, “aren’t they?” “We’re getting a little off-topic, wouldn’t you say, coach?” Grodd says. “Fine then,” McKenzie says, bouncing his eyes between all four of them. Maverick looks ready to explode, but Grantzinger seems to have calmed down. “Be honest with yourselves. Is this about me? Or is this about Merle?” No one has a quick response. McKenzie leans back slightly, and everyone realizes he wants them to think deeply about the question. So they do, memories of their old coach rushing back. Memories of the funeral, of the months after, years after, of plans to visit Melinda and Trish, of this season. “He was my best friend,” McKenzie says softly. Everyone looks up and realizes tears are forming in his eyes. “I knew him longer than you all did. I miss him.” “Oh!” Randall says. “And you think we don’t? All due respect, coach, but we played for him four years before we knew you existed. And we got along just fine.” “That’s right,” Grantzinger says. “You want to throw yourself a pity party, that’s your business. You want to pretend you’re the only one in this building who wouldn’t give anything to see him walk through those doors again, you can fuck yourself sideways, because we got no time for you.” “Alright, here it is,” Maverick says calmly, leaning forward. “If Merle were still here, he would kick your ass, maybe even kill you, then go home and be with Melinda. And they’d be happy. But he’s not here. He’s not our coach anymore. You are.” “He never really cared about anything we did outside the football field,” Grodd says. “I guess I don’t see why anything should be different now.” McKenzie blinks rapidly, not wanting to brush the tears away with his hands. He opens his mouth, praying the words don’t fail him. “We are judged for what we do on the field, that’s right,” he says. “And somehow, already, we only got one game left on that field this year. Unless we do something about it.” He looks up, studying their faces again. Everyone seems calm—emotional, but calm. Now is the moment, he decides. “I don’t know how the season got away from us early on, but here we are, fifteen games in. If we want to play in January, we can’t take any bullshit on the field with us.” “Agreed,” Grantzinger says, glancing sideways at Randall, who nods passively, finally ready to let this go. “Merle loved you all,” McKenzie says. “And so do I. He was terrible at showing it, and I’m not much better. I thought I could just coach through everything, like he could, but I can’t. I need my leaders. I need you, men. I’m not making any sort of locker room speech because it won’t accomplish a goddamn thing. I’m counting on you all to have the smaller conversations, the real conversations, and make sure this locker room is ready for a playoff run.” “It will be,” Grantzinger says, this time prompting nods from all around the table. “These young guys are pumped for the playoffs, but they have no idea what it really is, what it takes. I need you all to communicate that to them. They need it.” “They’ll get it,” Maverick says. McKenzie surveys the table again, finally seeing what he wants to see. “So be it,” McKenzie says. “That’s my piece. Anyone want to say anything else?” The players look around at each other, relieved to see faces of acceptance. For the first time in months, they will leave this office and take nothing unsaid with them. “Anyone wants to talk more, I’ll be here for another few hours. Otherwise, you are dismissed, ladies.” The moment seems to last a whole minute as everyone leaves the room, giving their coach looks he interprets as positive, and the office is empty. McKenzie stares out over the table, in no particular hurry to watch more film. But he will, eventually. And then he’ll drive home, without any shame or regret, perhaps even looking forward to it. Knights fans swarm Farmers Field with the incumbent excitement and tension of week 17 in the air. They prepare to cheer on whatever kind of football game unfolds, and to monitor scoreboards and tiebreaking procedures to understand the Knights’ playoff chances in real time. Though fans brace for a rough start, the first possession after kickoff eases their nerves. The Knights march down the field easily, and Maverick finds Harper for a fifteen-yard touchdown. The offense waits patiently on the sideline, watching as the defense forces an incompletion on third down. Maverick gets up and puts on his helmet, noticing McKenzie walking toward him. “This drive,” McKenzie says. “Absolutely.” When the offense re-takes the field against a tired Broncos defense, Maverick operates the no-huddle. Though yards are tougher to find this drive, they grind out first down after first down, and Maverick enjoys cleaner pockets. With the first quarter nearly over, he drops back and fires a laser to Wilkes, who outjumps double coverage and comes down with it in the end zone. The Knights add another touchdown in the second quarter while suffering only a field goal and go into the locker room up 21-3. Things stall on offense. The defense allows consecutive field goals, and tension once again ripples through Farmers Field. Maverick resists the urge to go no-huddle, and McKenzie mixes in more running plays. Behind good blocking, Hart-Smith finds holes and hits them with speed, setting a stable run game. Maverick finds enough open receivers to keep the drive going, taking the game into the fourth quarter. On third and two just outside the red zone, Maverick launches a play-action pass to Harper, who snags it in the corner of the end zone for his third touchdown of the day, giving the home team a 28-9 lead. The Broncos go no-huddle in response, reaching midfield quickly. But any comeback fears dissolve when Osborne breaks through on a blitz, strips Drew Lock, and a black jersey emerges with the football. The final minutes of the regular season tick away without incident. The score doesn’t change, nor does its implication. Players on the home team’s sideline celebrate the work that awaits them the next morning. A few of them gather, looking up at the stadium’s video screens showing scores from around the league. “Who won the Houston/Indy game?” Maverick says to anyone who knows. The winner of that game takes the third seed in the conference and faces the Knights next week. “Indy,” Hart-Smith says. “You know what that means,” Grodd says. Maverick smiles, more excited about next week’s opposing quarterback than he has been all year. “Rivers.” As soon as the clock hits zero, the PA announcer informs the crowd that the Knights have officially qualified for the playoffs. After one last round of cheers and applause ends, a touch of sadness slows the walk of Knights fans leaving Farmers Field, a venue they will not see for eight months. As the sixth seed, the Knights are guaranteed only road games should they keep winning. The closest they could potentially get to Los Angeles is the new Rams stadium in Las Vegas, site of Super Bowl LV. Monday morning, football fans plan their next weekend around the Wild Card Round schedule and study the playoff bracket as a whole. The league deals the Knights a small blow, slotting them into Saturday afternoon for their matchup with the Colts. Sunday afternoon, the Texans will go to Buffalo to play the Bills, who also won their division the previous day. The 13-3 Chiefs and 12-4 Ravens will get the weekend off. In the NFC, Caden Daniel’s 12-4 Packers and Pete Carroll’s 11-5 Seahawks get to watch a logjam of 10-6 teams. A tiebreaker determined the NFC East winner, but the Eagles will travel to Dallas to settle the division Saturday night. Sunday, the 49ers will travel to Atlanta, the surprising beneficiary of a late-season Drew Brees injury. For the Knights, the sixth seed clears their playoff path: a win in Indianapolis guarantees them a trip to Kansas City against the conference’s top seed. Tuesday morning, while most of the league counts down to Wild Card Weekend, thirty-two owners meet in corporate meeting halls of a downtown Phoenix hotel with much more consequential matters to deliberate. Some stipulations in the CBA will be haggled over, yes, but for the moment, Wayne Schneider waits in an empty hallway just outside a meeting room, inside which a group of six owners are discussing Schneider himself. For Schneider, this is the last big hurdle before he can make his case to the full assembly of owners plus Goodell. He needs a group of owners (small, but not too small—six is perfect) to back him completely. In the room now, leading the discussion is his number one ally, Chargers owner/representative Dean Spanos. Ever since financing the new Chargers’ stadium in San Diego and preventing the city from losing the team, Schneider and Spanos have become good friends. Today, Schneider cashes in on that friendship, and Spanos returns the favor for his new stadium. After today, the next full assembly where Schneider can present his case could occur as early as Thursday, or it could be pushed back to next week. In either case, Schneider will be ready. The meeting room door opens. Schneider’s eyes widen and fixate on the doorway as multiple owners rush out down the hall without giving him a look. Finally, Spanos emerges and approaches. Schneider rises to his feet and buttons his suit. Spanos has a tired look on his face. “It’s not gonna happen, Wayne,” Spanos says. Schneider’s mouth dries. The moment evades him. He can’t be sure he’s standing in a downtown Phoenix hotel or talking to Dean Spanos or talking to anyone at all. “They didn’t go for it,” Spanos says. “I don’t think it was personal, just principle, I don’t know. I’m sorry, Wayne.” Schneider considers his plans for the next few weeks, all of which are now apparently useless, the seeds of a year’s worth of planting, never to grow. “Hey, listen, I gotta run. We’ll talk tonight. Dinner at Dominick’s, yeah?” “Yeah,” Schneider manages to say. Spanos extends his arm for a tap on Schneider’s shoulder he doesn’t feel, and disappears. After a moment, or maybe several minutes, Schneider moves his legs toward the opposite end of the floor. Across from the elevators, he stares out the windows into and beyond downtown, where a picturesque blue sky meets a majestic chain of mountains, though neither brings him any solace. Minutes before kickoff, Lucas Oil Stadium rocks with the excitement of playoff football. On the visitors’ sideline, Knights players and coaches think nothing of their inexplicable losses this season, nothing of their goals to win the division. They allow the playoff atmosphere to consume them. The Colts get the ball first. Maverick watches Philip Rivers, his old rival, lead his offense down the field, one first down at a time, until he hits Jack Doyle in the end zone, and the domed stadium bursts with deafening screams. Maverick ignores the bickering among the defense and takes the field. He wants to get Wilkes involved early, but blue jerseys swarm him, so he dumps it off to Gillespie instead. A frustrating but effective short passing game moves the chains, and McKenzie times a draw perfectly. A crushing next-level block by Grodd springs Hart-Smith to the end zone. Rivers doesn’t have any difficulty moving the chains. Grantzinger is doubled and stuffed at the line, no one else generates any pressure, and Randall can only watch as the secondary behind him allows open receiver after open receiver. Though it seems quick to the Knights, the Colts’ drive consumes the rest of the first quarter. Barely into the second quarter, Rivers fakes a handoff on third and goal and rolls out, lofting the ball to a wide-open tight end. Ripka considers major adjustments; he knows he can’t win without some sort of pass rush. Should they start selling out with blitzes? He and Randall discuss it as Maverick gets back to work. Wilkes is still blanketed, but Maverick knows better than to fight it. With the combination of DeForest Buckner and ex-Knight Sam Luck, the Colts defensive line will crush Maverick if he stays in the pocket too long. They both line up on the right side, away from Grodd’s protection. With no one else open, Maverick throws a bomb to a covered Wilkes, figuring the pass will land out of bounds. It does, but a merciful defensive holding call gives the Knights new life. They take advantage, never facing a third down the rest of the drive, capped by a Gillespie touchdown. The battle of methodical offense continues. Rivers moves the chains and reaches the red zone again, where the Knights tighten up, forcing consecutive third downs, but the Colts convert each one. Marlon Mack takes a sweep, gets to the edge, and dives for the pylon. The Colts re-take the lead with six minutes to go in the half. Not wanting the ball in Rivers’ hands again before halftime, McKenzie and Maverick work the clock as they move the chains, allowing the play clock to run down before every snap. The Knights cross midfield with three minutes to go and enter the red zone with one. Maverick takes an end zone shot to Wilkes, absorbing a crushing hit from Luck in the process. The pass lands incomplete, and the ex-teammates exchange a brief greeting. The next play, Maverick escapes the pocket and sees a surprising amount of open turf, diving into the end zone. The Colts don’t have enough time for another drive, so the first half ends in a 21-21 tie. The stadium hums with anxiety as both teams head for the lockers. In their luxury suite, the trio of Schneider, Phillips, and Jensen fall silent, not exchanging a single word during halftime. Phillips’ mind, of course, is racing as fast as his heart is pumping, pondering the ramifications of Schneider’s failed plan (assuming his source is correct). His possible promotion, as well as his and Jensen’s standing in the organization as a whole, hangs in the balance like the game before them. Maverick and the offense retake the field with an opportunity to get their first lead of the day. After a few first downs, they face third and one. Hart-Smith takes it up the middle, where Buckner stuffs him, and the Knights are the first team to punt. Ripka watches helplessly as Rivers hits first down after first down. None of the Knights’ halftime adjustments appears the least bit effective. He calls plays while scanning the playbook, desperate for another change. Hayes, doubling T.Y. Hilton over the top, bites too hard on a double move, and an open Hilton catches the touchdown pass in stride. With the defense reeling, McKenzie calls plays aggressively. Maverick, disregarding all of Wilkes’ halftime bitching, keeps hitting Harper and Gillespie for quick strikes, waiting for a corner to bite on a pump fake. One eventually does, and Harper catches a forty-yard pass that sets up first and goal. Facing third and goal on the one-yard line, Hart-Smith runs right again, this time behind a counter pull by Grodd, who stuffs Buckner, creating a hole just big enough. Hart-Smith dives through it and ties the game. Ripka’s on-the-fly adjustments take effect. Grantzinger lines up in five-point stance but drops back in coverage every few plays. The secondary alternates between man and zone coverage nearly every play, and Randall switches pre-snap a few times. After a few first downs, Rivers faces third and eight. Sensing an opportunity, Ripka calls a blitz. Grantzinger and Randall line up at linebacker in a nickel formation, and both go for Rivers on the snap. Grantzinger breaks through. Rivers runs to escape, but he’s too late. Grantzinger wraps his arms around the quarterback’s waist and wrangles him down. The Colts punt for the first time. Maverick looks at the scoreboard: 6:44 to go in the third quarter. Again with an opportunity to seize the lead, he wants to go for it, but McKenzie’s calls are frustratingly patient. A balanced drive crosses midfield, and Maverick takes his shot. He drops back, stares down Wilkes, then fires deep for Harper, in single coverage. The receiver adjusts at the last second and the ball hits him in the chest as he falls, down on the four-yard line. Two plays later, Hart-Smith punches in another touchdown, and the Knights have their first lead of the day, 35-28, near the end of the third quarter. When the fourth quarter begins with the Colts mid-drive, fans around the stadium take a cleansing breath, gassed from the offensive firepower showcased so far and bracing for whatever is to come. Ripka calls plays carefully, desperate to make things difficult for Rivers, who hangs longer in the pocket, facing little pass rush, and finds receivers open. The Colts eventually face third and five from the thirty-yard-line. The Knights show blitz. Rivers drops back against a three-man rush. No blue jerseys break open. Solomon rushes on the edge and touches the football, nearly knocking it out of Rivers’ hand. The quarterback steps up and hurries a throw over the middle, which lands incomplete. Maverick puts his helmet on as the field goal team lines up, knowing a two-score lead is about to be possible. Then, the field goal sails wide right, and the Knights take over with a seven-point lead. Maverick approaches Wilkes. “Had enough suffering for one day?” he says. “Yes sir, I sure have!” Wilkes says. Maverick walks around until he finds McKenzie. Without a word, he scans the coach’s laminated sheet, finds the play he wants, and points to it. “A field goal puts us in great shape, Mav,” McKenzie says. “I don’t want a field goal,” Maverick says. “I want to end this right fucking now.” The Knights work the clock again, passing the ten-minute mark as they near midfield. Facing second and one, Maverick and McKenzie know it’s time. Hart-Smith runs right and Grodd swings around to block—Maverick pulls the ball back. Grodd stuffs Buckner in pass protection while Maverick rolls left, stumbling slightly, seeing Wilkes break on a deep post. His timing is off, he knows, so Maverick sets his feet and launches the ball with as much velocity as his 31-year-old arm can muster. The pass wobbles as it sails through the air. Wilkes tracks it, running full speed a step ahead of both defenders. Near the goal line, he leaps and spins, catching it above outstretched blue gloves, slamming his back onto the end zone turf, still holding the ball. Maverick sprints full speed down the field, screaming, barely finding Wilkes amidst the chaos. For the first time all day, Lucas Oil Stadium is eerily quiet. Ripka, finally comfortable, reverts to his first-half plays. The Knights’ bend-don’t-break defense finds purpose at last, with Rivers hitting receivers at the great expense of the clock, which ticks under four minutes by the time the Colts reach the red zone. Against fourth and six, Ripka again sends a three-man rush. Rivers drops back, looks, looks, looks, then hopelessly lofts one into the end zone. Hilton is open for a moment before Hayes swats the pass away for a turnover on downs. The visitors’ sideline erupts in celebration while fans begin marching up the steps. The Knights run down what clock they can, eventually turning it over on downs, but it’s beyond too late for the home team. A couple fruitless Hail Mary passes later, the clock hits zero, and the Knights win, 42-28. Maverick finds his nemesis near midfield as a swath of cameras circles them. “Good game, Mav,” Rivers says as the two shake hands and embrace respectfully. “You too, man. Let’s do it again next year.” “You bet.” The post-game celebration is as invigorating as it is relieving for the Knights. Whatever the regular season was is long over. When the weekend ends, only eight teams will still be playing, and the Knights will be one of them. The Knights have just announced to the league that they are not a franchise enduring a mild rebuild. They are not a seriously flawed football team. They are not a middling wild card participant. A year that was on a road toward a lost season has now turned onto another path: the road to the Super Bowl.
  2. SteVo

    2020 Democratic Primary Race

    Nah, there might be protests and some anger, but I don't think we're in for a full Civil War.
  3. SteVo

    2020 Democratic Primary Race

    I agree that this won't move the needle much, but I think it moves the needle enough. This, in conjunction with the dead soldier comments, should give Biden a slight bump in poll numbers that start to show up around Monday.
  4. Knights of Andreas FOUR YEARS LATER Chapter Eighty-Seven – The Noble Truth “I especially want to thank everyone who doubted me, everyone who told me I wasn’t good enough.” –Da’Jamiroquai Jefferspin-Wilkes By the time the clock hits zero, the loudest spot in MetLife Stadium is the visitors’ locker room, where the Knights celebrate a 34-10 thumping at the floundering Jets’ expense. Players try to savor the celebration while changing quickly, eager to board their six-hour flight home. Randall’s locker hosts many short debriefs with players and coaches alike. He does his best to seem uninterested but finds himself swimming in company regardless. “Good game, Briggs,” Ripka says at one point, shaking Randall’s hand. “Thanks, coach,” Randall says. “Didn’t really have to earn this one.” “Always better to win that way, isn’t it?” Randall grunts, a sound Ripka interprets as agreement. “You alright?” Ripka asks. “What?” Randall says, looking up. “Are you alright? You seem a little off.” “I’m fine.” Ripka studies his defensive captain carefully, looking for the slightest twitch of skin or hint of discomfort. He notices nothing. “Ok, I’ll see you on the flight,” Ripka says. Randall finishes changing. Just as the last of his pads fall into the locker, McKenzie approaches. “Great game, Briggs,” McKenzie says. “Really good job out there.” “Thanks,” Randall says flatly, shaking the head coach’s hand. McKenzie sports an awkward, sterile grin. Randall doesn’t show any sign of positive emotion, instead eyeing up his head coach curiously. McKenzie ponders what to say, eventually finishing the handshake and moving on to the next locker. Reporters filter out of the MedComm Center after Monday’s press conferences, two of them into the same car, bound for the same downtown restaurant. The establishment called Knight’s End looks exactly as it did in 2016: a massive, modern restaurant with a sprawling U-shaped bar at its center. Any wall space not mounting a television is littered with merchandise and memorabilia representing the Knights, Lakers, Clippers, Dodgers, and Kings. The menu has become modernized with trendy, overpriced dishes but still features enough classic staples to maintain its identity as a sports bar. Adam and Jessica take seats at a high top and order a round of drinks plus lunch. They each sip while scrolling through their phones. “Wow, look at this,” Adam says. “What?” Jessica says, eyes still fixed to her phone, scrolling frantically. “Where?” “It’s TMZ, but it’s pretty wild.” “TMZ? Wild? No kidding. Oh, there it is, I see it.” They both read the same relatively short piece, a rumor all too obviously trying to stretch into a full story. The headline reads, “EXCLUSIVE: NFL coach in relationship with dead boss’s wife.” “Well, this certainly takes the cake for story of the year,” Adam says. “I figured someone would run with it eventually. Not really a surprise TMZ went for it.” Jessica’s eyes flare up at her boyfriend. “You had this story?” Adam knows he’s made a mistake. He focused hard on acting composed, determined to end this conversation pleasantly. “Had? No. I just heard the rumor. You didn’t?” “No.” She puts her phone down and leans in. “Adam, why didn’t you say something? How long ago did you hear about it? I could have gotten in front of this.” “It’s just some bullshit rumor, Jess. You don’t want your name attached to this, trust me.” “It’s traction. It’s a story people will read. I really could have used this. When I asked you during the deadline if you had anything, you should have given me this!” Adam puts his phone down, no longer interested in the beer in front of him or the food on the way. “Here we are again. We keep coming back to the same—” “We wouldn’t have to if you had—” “Well excuse me for not wanting to turn our relationship into being used for whatever story—” “Used?” Adam hesitates. “Used?” Jessica says again. “I shouldn’t have said ‘used.’ That’s not what—” “Is that what you think this relationship is?” “What am I supposed to think? I’m just trying to do my job and be in this relationship at the same time, but the line I have to walk just gets thinner and thinner.” At the sight of the anger in her eyes, he adds, “And I heard the rumor from an unreliable source,” a desperate lie. Jessica throws her phone into her purse, gets up from her chair, and storms away. “Jess, wait. Wait! Wait! Jessica!” He suppresses his instinct to follow her for a fraction of a second, and she’s gone, leaving Adam alone at the table. Schneider settles in to his office after a long, successful weekend of travel. Only four weeks remain in the season, and the Knights are primed for a playoff run, but Schneider is much more concerned about the looming owners meetings scheduled after week 17. After a lifetime of dreaming, a decade of hope, and over a year of angling, everything is ready to come together. The CBA is nearly done; negotiations over finer details will carry into the spring, of course, but the major pillars have been agreed upon. All talk and fear of a lockout has subsided, which means the owners will be ready to move to the next prime topic: Commissioner Goodell. Schneider has been a leading voice in the CBA talks, but he will need to take a step back now. He can’t overplay his hand, he knows. A knock on the door diverts his attention as he reclines in his seat. “Good morning, Wayne,” Phillips says. “How was the flight?” “Never been on a red eye that was the best part of the trip,” Schneider says, rubbing his eyes. “How’s the CBA?” “Great. We’re in a good place, getting better every month.” Phillips steps into the office, positioning himself in the familiar spot across from Schneider. “How’s everything else?” Phillips asks, studying Schneider’s posture. “Fine,” Schneider says, giving nothing away. “Listen, I wanted to talk about this TMZ piece, about Ron and Merle’s wife.” “Oh, I’m sure it’s bullshit,” Phillips says, fully aware the story is, in fact, the opposite. “Our protocol remains the same as it always is for these situations. No acknowledgment. Don’t give it life. I want you to make sure everyone is clear on that.” “Understood.” “Anything else for me before this afternoon?” “Just some more updates with Grodd’s negotiation, but that can wait until…” Phillips lets his words trail off and adjusts his shoulders, firming his posture. “Well, I was just wondering, about the promotion.” “Yes?” Schneider looks up, again masking the entirety of his knowledge. “I just thought, four wins in a row, the division within reach again…now might be a good time to bring it up, that’s all.” “The winning streak and 8-4 record are obviously great. It gives me more relief than you know. But there’s nothing imminent, Chance. I know this is big for you and I promise I’ll give you more when I’m able.” Phillips waits for more details that don’t come, and finally says, “Good enough, then.” “That’s all for now.” Despite nearly two days to digest the news, players arrive in a locker room atmosphere even more awkward than they feared. What was a disturbing thought, hanging invisible in the air, now shines unmistakably on the page. What little conversations there are unfold briefly and inconsequentially, as always. But the prevailing mood before practice is silence, especially from Grantzinger, who has issued threats of various broken bones to anyone circulating rumors. Practice unfolds for the Vikings, and for the final quarter of the season. The 8-4 Knights are two games behind the Chiefs, who face a difficult December schedule; January football at Farmers Field has become possible again. Maverick leads the offense through practice as well as he can, paying attention to Coach McKenzie, who doesn’t seem any more or less vocal than usual. After practice, Randall finds solace at his locker with fewer teammates bothering him. Wilkes mentions something about a party, but Randall brushes him off. Then he feels a tap on his shoulder. “Oh, hey, coach,” Randall says. “Got a couple minutes to chat?” Ripka says. “Yeah, I was about to hit the film room.” “No, I was thinking more like a chat with a couple of beers, something like that.” “Oh. Um, maybe later this week? I’m sort of—” “Don’t sweat it. Whenever you can carve out some time, let me know. Lord knows we need to keep everything focused these days.” Randall notices something odd in Ripka’s voice. He decides to pounce immediately. “Oh, shit,” Randall says. His tone catches the attention of nearby players, who glance sideways toward the conversation. “What?” “It’s true, isn’t it?” Ripka’s smile fades. He looks around, now aware of all the listening ears. “I can’t say anything one way or another, Briggs, you know that.” He hurries away, leaving a handful of defensive players with more questions to ponder, still in silence. Phillips spots Jensen again in the doorway, this time checking the hallway cautiously. He hangs up the phone while Jensen shuts the door and takes his seat. “Well?” Phillips says. “Nothing,” Jensen says. “There’s no buzz, no smoke, nothing on the surface or beneath. Not one clue that this is in the works.” “That’s how Wayne does it.” “Any better on your end?” “No. Same thing, which is to say not a thing.” “What’s our next move? Do we have a next move?” “Not in this game. We just wait and see where the dominoes fall.” “There’s no chance of a shake-up, right?” Phillips leans forward. Realizing he has been speaking louder than he wants, he tries to lower his tone. “What do you mean?” “If there’s a new owner, they would just keep everything in place, right? I mean, what kind of organization rebuilds after a playoff season?” “I would think so,” Phillips says, uncomfortable with several aspects of Jensen’s thoughts. The Knights have not yet clinched a playoff berth. Even if they do, a new owner would probably prefer continuity, which would make Phillips’ place as general manager even firmer, thereby lessening the chances of his promotion to team president—and increasing the chances of Jensen becoming general manager with another organization. The week of practice comes to an end. Players depart the building for a weekend of rest at home—only one more road trip on the regular-season schedule—save for four, who march toward Coach McKenzie’s office for the weekly players council meeting. Randall, running late after talking playbook details with younger players, hurries down the hallway, expecting to find a room mid-conversation. Instead, he opens the door to silence; all four men stare at him. He takes his seat. Everyone looks around, waiting for someone, anyone, to speak. At last, McKenzie begins. “Ok guys, let’s do the usual bit. How are we feeling?” The players look at each other. Grantzinger leers at each person, ready to jump on whoever talks first should they say something stupid. Randall and Grodd aren’t sure what to say, nor are they sure what anyone else will say. Maverick barely has any interest in speaking whatsoever. “Sorry I was late,” Randall says, “was going over some things with—” “It’s fine,” McKenzie says to Randall. Trying to speak to the whole table, he says, “how about the playbook? The game plan? Confident?” “I think so,” Grodd says, grinding each word out one at a time. “We really have confidence going on offense, with the way we’ve been playing.” “Yeah,” Maverick says. “Good,” McKenzie says. “Same on defense?” “I think so,” Randall says. “Yep,” Grantzinger says. “Ok,” McKenzie says, trying to look relaxed while bracing himself. If there’s going to be an explosion, it’s about to happen. “How about the locker room?” Nobody speaks. It feels like an eternity, with each player desperately wanting someone to say something but unwilling to say anything themselves. “Chase,” McKenzie says, “you mentioned confidence. That’s gotta be a good thing, right?” “I would say so,” Grodd says. “You know, it’s like you always say, coach, winning is contagious.” The other players manage to murmur some form of agreement by grunting. “Alright then,” McKenzie says, “if there’s nothing else…” He looks around for anyone having a last word. Another round of silence confirms there will be no such word, and McKenzie dismisses them until Sunday. Knights fans pack Farmers Field feeling the momentum their team has given them. Since inexplicably falling to 2-3, the Knights have only lost once in seven games. If they can take care of the Vikings this afternoon, fans will watch tonight’s Chiefs/Ravens game with immense interest; a Ravens win drops the Chiefs to 10-3, only one game ahead of the would-be 9-4 Knights. The Vikings vaporize the home crowd’s energy with a 55-yard touchdown from Kirk Cousins to Adam Thielen. The Knights fail to respond, the Vikings add a field goal to their sudden lead. Nothing comes together. When Maverick unleashes a great throw, the receiver drops it. When Hart-Smith escapes the box for a big running play, a holding penalty calls it back. When receivers break open downfield, Maverick misses them. The defense prevents more big plays, but faced with a losing field position battle, they yield more field goals. Only when Grantzinger forces a Cousins fumble that the Knights recover does the home team put points on the board, a measly thirty-yard field goal. Down 16-3 to start the second half, the excited, rambunctious stadium from kickoff is long gone. Knights fans absorb embarrassment and frustration, clinging to quiet confidence, waiting patiently for the spark that ignites a furious comeback. But the moment never comes. The Knights take multiple drives into the red zone, but McKenzie rejects field goal attempts, and Maverick’s fourth-down throws fall incomplete. Fans in purple, black, and silver (except for the brighter shade of purple near the visitors’ sideline) trickle out of the stadium throughout the fourth quarter. The most dedicated endure the final, boring, futile drives of a 29-6 loss. For everyone, the bigger picture is unbearably clear: playoff hopes remain for the Knights, but the division is gone. The mood Monday morning is predictably somber, exacerbated by Kansas City’s thrilling 34-31 win last night. The Knights are now three games out with three weeks to go, relegated to a wild card battle full of hungry teams and complicated tiebreakers. An oddity among the players is Wilkes, who seems more invigorated than he would be after a win. Though he remains an enigma to most players, he has several private conversations with the veterans, revisiting an old talking point. To Maverick, Grodd, Grantzinger, and Randall he extends an invitation to dinner, Friday night, at his place. He promises a “life-changing experience,” an odd sell for the simple act of eating food together. Grodd and Grantzinger give hesitant commitments, while Maverick and Randall are firm maybes. By Wednesday, Wilkes has secured commitments from Grodd and Maverick, but Grantzinger drops himself into the maybe category, citing his father. Thursday, after practice, Wilkes is in full-force closer mode, pressing Grantzinger for a commitment. “C’mon, Zack,” Wilkes says, “Briggs already said he was in if you are! That would make everybody!” “Did he?” Zack says, looking at an incoming call on his phone and ignoring it. “It won’t be too long if you gotta look after your old man, I promise.” “Ok.” “And no shitty food either. I know you get upset about that.” Grantzinger throws his belt against the locker. “Fine! For fuck’s sake, D-Jam, just to get you to shut the fuck up, I’m in. Just text me the goddamn address.” “Yes! That’s my man.” Wilkes hops away while doing jumping jacks. Grantzinger’s phone lights up with yet another call from RESTRICTED. This must be the tenth call this week. He picks it up and listens, hearing only casual breathing. “Zack?” says a voice. “Who the fuck is this?” “Zack! It’s you, right?” Grantzinger recognizes the voice, he decides. It’s no one on the team, no one he’s spoken with recently. Actually, it sounds like… “Yeah, it’s me. Who is this?” “They’re lying to us, Zack. I’m counting on you to see things for what they really are.” “Damn it, Brock, is that you?” “Don’t you see? We need to wake up!” “Sean, where the fuck are you living?” “I can’t say. They’re tracing my calls.” The line goes dead. Grantzinger holds his phone out, examining it as if it’s a historic artifact. “Who was that?” Randall asks from a few lockers down. “Fuck if I know,” Grantzinger says. After navigating the steep, winding roads north of Hollywood, Zack and Chase get to D-Jam’s house first. Like most homes around it, the architecture is modern and rectangular. They wait outside for Mav and Briggs, who arrive within minutes, and the four go in together. The sprawling, multi-floor interior represents a picturesque, upper-class Los Angeles home, but that’s the last of expectations met. Warm, soft lighting fills every room. Wafts of incense hit their noses. Calm oriental music plays from somewhere (four Bluetooth speakers, in fact) and makes them feel like they’re in some kind of temple. Framed pictures hang on every wall, multicolored and entrancing, each with some depiction of the Buddha. “Welcome, my brothers,” D-Jam says. “The chef is doing dinner in the kitchen. Drinks?” Everyone finds a form of nonverbal affirmation, the best they can manage. D-Jam leads them to the kitchen, introduces them to the chef, and fills hands with bottles of beer, except for himself and Mav, who drink from the same bottle of red wine. “Let me show you the best part,” D-Jam says, recommencing the tour. Everyone is certain he’s about to lead them past the sliding glass doors to a view of the city, but he instead guides them to a room near the front of the house. The first striking feature is the walls, a combination of crimson and gold, illuminated only by candlelight. “Damn,” Chase says in a hushed tone the room seems to command, “that’s commitment.” D-Jam: “What do you mean?” Chase: “Well, when you said you were converting to Buddhism, I didn’t think you’d really go all the way.” D-Jam: “No other way to go. I should teach y’all how to meditate. Changes everything.” Zack: “I thought most Buddhists didn’t drink.” D-Jam: “All things in moderation.” Zack: “Buddhism too, apparently.” Briggs: “Hey, we all have our interpretations.” Zack: “Sure fucking do.” “D-Jam,” Maverick says, fixated on a framed picture that isn’t an illustration, rather blocks of words; it looks like a letter. “Is this the same picture that’s in another room?” “That picture is in every room of the house,” Wilkes says proudly. “‘The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism,’” Grodd reads aloud, shoulder to shoulder with Maverick. “Man, this language is complicated.” Zack: “Care to give us your interpretation, D-Jam?” Unfazed, Wilkes says proudly, “The first noble truth of Buddhism is that suffering is an innate part of life.” Everyone looks at their diva receiver, bewildered at his use of the word innate. Mav: “So, that’s it? Life is suffering?” Zack: “Sure fucking is.” D-Jam: “Think on it. We ever play a football game without it?” Chase: “Without what, suffering?” Mav: “Yeah, my first year, when I was on the bench.” D-Jam: “Oh hell no. Don’t tell me you weren’t suffering not getting a chance to play.” Mav looks around, bothered no one else is talking. “Hey, I don’t like this getting outsmarted by D-Jam shit.” Briggs: “What’s next?” D-Jam goes on, “The second noble—” A call from the chef interrupts, and D-Jam beckons everyone outside for appetizers. They navigate the house through the sliding glass doors, plates of sushi rolls awaiting them, but no one notices the sushi, distracted by the overwhelming, breathtaking view of Los Angeles. “Wow,” they all say in one form or another. “This is something straight out of a movie,” Mav says. “This was in a movie,” D-Jam says. “Can’t remember which one. The dude who owned this before me produced it, I think. Maybe directed it. Dude was a dick, man. Took me a year to get the price right for him.” All five men soak in the view, getting better as the sun sets to their left. They drink, snack on sushi rolls, and conversations typical of a gathering begin. D-Jam tells Chase more detail about the house with Mav listening; when he goes inside to talk to the chef, Chase and Mav talk about favorite movies. Zack tries to convince Briggs to upgrade from his downtown loft to a more spacious place. They take seats at a table outside as the sky overhead darkens. Dinner arrives in the form of stir-fry with chicken and shrimp. While only D-Jam eats it with chopsticks, everyone enjoys how delicious it is. “Alright,” Briggs says with his plate nearly emptied, “we’re all friends here. What about this shit with Coach?” “What about it?” Zack says. Briggs looks him off, waiting for a substantial comment. “I don’t know,” Chase says. “I mean, it’s a little fucked up, obviously. But Merle’s been gone, what, almost four years now?” Briggs: “What, is there a statute of limitations on this? Wrong is wrong.” D-Jam: “What’s wrong about finding cures for suffering?” Zack: “Here we go again.” D-Jam: “Don’t do me like that, Zack. Who are we to judge?” Chase: “Mav.” Mav: “Hmm?” Chase: “You’ve been kind of silent on this whole thing. What do you think?” Mav takes a long sip of wine, letting his eyes drift from the table to the city. Briggs: “Oh, man.” Heads turn to Briggs, eyeing up Mav. “Married to Trish, probably still see Melinda all the time…you knew, didn’t you?” Mav: “Of course I did.” Chase and D-Jam try to decide how to process that piece of information. Zack’s look of indifference doesn’t waver. Briggs: “And you didn’t tell us.” Mav: “Nope. Got a problem with that?” Briggs scans the table for support, but draws his glare toward an irritated looking Zack. Briggs: “You don’t have an issue with this?” Zack: “I have an issue with the whole fucking conversation. Since when do we get entangled with moral dilemmas? We’re football players.” That comment refocuses everyone to the last of their plates, which empty in a hurry. D-Jam happily gathers dishes and refills drinks. The chef reappears minutes later with dessert, a colorful dish with an oriental name nobody can pronounce. Praise for the chef is unanimous, and he hands out business cards before departing. Talk eventually starts up again in the form of separate conversations. In one, Mav and Chase discuss the team’s offensive line while D-Jam gets more drinks. When Briggs and Zack’s conversation stops, they listen in. Mav: “…come a long way since the beginning of the season. A lot of that’s on you, Chase, counseling and coaching ‘em up.” Chase: “I just hope I—sorry to bring it up, but—I hope I get to keep doing it, you know?” Everyone bows their heads, well aware of Chase’s expiring contract. They all realize how much they don’t want him to leave—and how little they’ve thought about it. D-Jam comes out, sensitive to the topic at hand, and refills his and Mav’s wine glass gently. Mav: “Don’t worry, Chase. They won’t let you go. We lost Brian, then Bruno…can’t lose another standout in the trenches.” Chase: “As long as they got those ice baths, you’ll be alright.” D-Jam: “So Mav, how about doin’ some counseling of your own? Rod’s been lookin’ good when he plays!” Mav: “No fucking way. I’m a quarterback, not a fucking professor. When we’re in the QB room and I talk, he listens. When we’re on the field and I’m playing, he watches. That’s enough; I won’t go beyond that. I already don’t spend enough time being a husband and a dad.” Everyone freezes. Zack spits up a gulp of beer. “A dad?” Mav’s eyes dart around the table, each teammate’s expression more excited than the next. “Ah, shit, I spilled the beans.” The table erupts into cheers of celebration. Everyone takes their turn getting up to shake Mav’s hand. D-Jam adds an uncomfortable hug for good measure. Once everyone is seated again, Chase speaks first. “Congrats, man. You’re gonna love it.” Mav: “Speaking of, how’s your little one at home?” Chase: “He’s great. Best feeling in the world. Like playing in the Super Bowl every day.” Mav: “And what about when they don’t stop crying and shit on your walls?” Chase: “Hey, I didn’t say you won the Super Bowl every day.” The whole table laughs again, drinking once they’ve stopped. Mav: “It’s actually, um…” He looks around the table, at the closest thing he has to friends, fearful of plunging the tone—but they deserve to know. “…it’s not the first time for us. Trish was pregnant before, and…” Nobody moves, fully fixated on their quarterback. Mav: “I know what you guys are thinking. It wasn’t an abortion.” Everyone wants to ask a million questions, equally curious and fearful of the truth. Chase: “How late was it?” Mav: “Pretty late.” Zack: “What was the deal, just a surprise medical thing?” Mav: “Not with the way she was drinking.” The table goes silent again. Nobody wants to know anything more. Mav: “We’re trying to keep a better handle on things this time around, so, uh, here’s hoping.” He raises his glass and gets up from the table, walking to the metal railing. He leans against it, taking in the night sky and illuminated city. One by one, the others do the same, and small conversations sprout up again, topics of varying range but lesser consequence. Someone makes a comment about the time, and everyone realizes the end of the night is near. “Hey D-Jam,” Chase says loud enough for everyone to hear, “what about the other three?” D-Jam: “Three what?” Chase: “The Noble Truths or whatever. Weren’t there four?” D-Jam: “Ah…” He launches into a sermon detailing all four Noble Truths (recapping the first one, of course), saying something about the source of suffering and the pathway to nirvana, along the way using some ancient Buddhist terms everyone is sure he mispronounces. Zack: “So what do you do with all that?” D-Jam: “Say what?” Zack: “No offense, but religion is good for big words and no meaning. What do those supposed truths mean to you?” D-Jam: “Shit, I’m glad you asked!” Everyone braces for another rant, not sure what to expect. “To me, it’s like this. We suffer in football because we want to win. Every loss gives us more suffering, and every win just makes us afraid of another loss.” Mav: “Once again, I gotta say, I am not loving this new enlightened D-Jam.” D-Jam: “Oh, am I makin’ too much fucking sense?” Briggs: “So, again, life is suffering. Football is suffering.” Chase: “But one of the truths was about eliminating suffering. How does that happen?” D-Jam: “Retirement.” Everyone goes quiet. As a rule, players never discuss the transaction side of the game, if they can help it. Free agency and trades are off the table. Retirement falls in this category too, but after a decade in the league, this is the first time one of them has brought it up. D-Jam: “When we retire, we give up the desire to win. We lose the suffering. When we lose the suffering, that’s nirvana.” Zack: “So if retirement is nirvana, and nirvana is the goal, why not retire now? Why not last summer? Why play at all?” D-Jam: “Because, like I say, the key to life is—” Briggs: “Embrace the suffering.” D-Jam: “Yes, sir! Only when you accept the struggle do you truly conquer it.” Everyone’s gaze slowly shifts from each other to the city, in agreement with Mav about how uncomfortably relevant D-Jam’s interpretation seems. As football players, their lives are defined by suffering. Zack: “Well, I don’t intend on getting to nirvana any time soon.” D-Jam: “Me neither, brother.” Mav: “Then I guess we all gotta suffer a little while longer.” Chase: “Cheers to that.” All five raise their glasses and drink, leaving some with no liquid left. The others savor their final sips. Conversation shifts to scheduling another get-together, probably in the offseason. They spend the final minutes of the night entranced by the city landscape, the cumulative effect of yellow lights glowing against the incessant darkness.
  5. Knights of Andreas FOUR YEARS LATER Chapter Eighty-Six – Rumors “You are exactly what the press thinks you are.” –Wayne Schneider The Monday news cycle recaps week 9, the season’s unofficial midway point with every team at least halfway through their schedule. After detailing the most exciting and consequential games from Sunday, many outlets get to the Knights, who have not played since Thursday but find themselves in a unique position. The Knights are 5-4, their worst record after nine games since 2015, the last time they missed the playoffs. They hold a playoff spot for the moment, clogged in a populous wild card race, their worst midseason outlook in recent memory. Rich Eisen, in the third hour of his radio show: “And here in Los Angeles, there is a bit of…grumbling, as it were. Even though the Knights did win last Thursday—feels like a while ago—they’re 5-4. Five wins, four losses. Not bad, not great. 5-4. In the playoffs, if they started now. Let’s check the standings here…if the playoffs started today, they would be playing…Baltimore. They’re the sixth seed. So your path to the Super Bowl would be: at Baltimore, at Kansas City, then at someone else in the AFC Championship. It’s been quite a few years since the Knights have faced a road like that.” Michael Wilbon, on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption: “You know, they’re just not that good, Tony. They’re good, but they ain’t great. And this is an organization that was, not that long ago, great. And you know, I think sometimes this comes down to overthinking. You know, there’s all these reports how they’re really heavy into analytics, they let a bunch of guys go this past offseason. You know what? You’re not the Patriots. I’m sorry, but stop trying to be the Patriots. You can’t just shuffle guys in and out and win the division every year. ‘Cause there’s a guy named Mahomes now, and you gotta beat him to stay on top.” Skip Bayless, on FS1’s Undisputed: “I have said it the last few years now. The Los Angeles Knights are an above average team. Period. I said their offseason was a complete disaster. It was arrogant. It was wrong. And now they are paying the price. And in fact, on this show, I have always considered them overrated.” Shannon Sharpe, interrupting: “Skip, Skip, Skip—” “Ov-er-ra-ted.” “Three Super Bowls, Skip! How is that overrated?” “Ok, three Super Bowls. Fine. They won’t win another one. The dynasty—their very brief dynasty—is over.” Phillips stands just inside Schneider’s office, their meeting about to conclude, checking his phone frequently as respectfully as he can. “Anyway,” Schneider says, gathering papers from his desk and shoving them into a large briefcase, “if you find common ground on the Grodd contract, don’t wait for my call. Hit it. Understood?” “Yes, sir.” “I’ll be away most of the week but I’ll try to meet you in Denver for the game.” “Progress on the CBA?” A thick packet of paper hovers in the air above the briefcase as Schneider considers his response. “Maybe. But, in all honestly, I learned the perils of optimism long ago.” Schneider snaps the briefcase shut and lifts it from his tidied desk. “Wayne, one more thing. And I know this probably isn’t the best time, but—” “The promotion?” “Yes.” Schneider looks away in thought for a moment, then brushes past Phillips toward the door as if he hasn’t heard anything. “In progress, Chance,” he says from the hallway. “The board is considering it. That’s all I can give you for now.” The echo of his footsteps in the hallway grows quieter as Phillips looks around the office. He feels his phone buzz and snatches it up—he’s here. Phillips slithers downstairs toward the usual meeting place in the back of the building, facing the empty practice field. Javad clears security and meets him there moments later. They shake hands. “Nice win last Thursday,” Javad says. “That’s polite of you. Big one next week, though.” “Didn’t you once say every divisional game is big?” “If I did, I still believe it. What have you got?” Javad extracts a notepad from his pocket, a cheap pen attached to it. He scans his notes unnecessarily and starts at the top. “Injuries,” Javad says. “Which?” “Benn’s ankle.” “Worse than we’re saying.” “Colson’s shoulder?” “Better than we’re saying.” “I can have both of those?” “One.” Javad scribbles something onto the paper. “Care to indulge me for a moment?” Phillips, not exactly sure what he means, shrugs as if to say, If you must. “The CBA. Anything there?” “Negotiations ongoing, but nothing will ramp up until the offseason. Don’t really have anything for you. Wayne’s playing it close to the vest.” “What about the stadium rights? Is Farmers Field about to become Verizon Field or something?” “The reports about the opt-out clause are true.” “I know they are.” “The reports that we’re seriously considering it aren’t. But still, anything could happen.” When he catches Javad gazing at him, waiting, he adds, “I can’t say any more.” “Ok. What about…” He flips his notepad shut and pockets it, ready to move to the one topic he didn’t write down. Phillips shifts his weight from one leg to the other. “McKenzie.” Phillips feels a lump in his throat; how could Javad possibly be on this already? He can’t. It must be something else. Javad goes on: “Apparently there’s a thing—he’s involved with—” “Nope,” Phillips says, relieved it wasn’t what he thought—not that this is any better. The firmness in Phillips’ voice tells Javad no further clarification will be given. “Ok then. That’s all I got. See you in the media room.” They shake hands again. Javad heads for the exit, politely thanking security guards as he passes them. Even after all these years with Phillips, he can’t tell if his response to the McKenzie rumor was repulsion at its existence or fear that it could get out. Either way, Javad doesn’t have enough to print it. Then again, someone eventually will, sufficient evidence or not, so he considers the one play he could make—giving it to Jessica. It would potentially be a huge scoop for her, get her a lot of attention; but if it turns out to be wrong, it would be a huge black eye, maybe even sink her. Giving it no more thought, he decides against the idea and drives away from the complex. The Knights’ mid-November trip to Mile High Stadium is their first cold blast of the year, the temperature barely reaching fifty on crisp, chilly day. For their part, the Knights don’t show a lack of comfort, storming out of the gates from the first snap. Maverick leads a quick-huddle, quick-strike offense designed to mitigate Von Miller’s presence; it works. McKenzie calls plays fearlessly, now approaching games as if he’s coaching his last season. In what feels like a minute, the Knights hit the red zone, where Maverick audibles from a screen to a draw, and Hart-Smith surges through a huge hole in the defense toward the end zone. Drew Lock, in the middle of a breakout season, looks pedestrian against the Knights defense. Between Grantzinger, Solomon, and some timely blitzes, the pass rush disrupts Lock more than it has disrupted any quarterback this year, and the Broncos offense is stymied. The first half continues much the same way, and the Knights take a comfortable 14-3 lead into the locker room against their divisional opponent. As the second half wears on, the Denver crowd grows increasingly restless. For the 6-3 Broncos, today’s game was a huge opportunity to solidify themselves as the second best team in the AFC West. Grodd shuts down every pass rusher he faces, but Miller occasionally breaks through when lining up on the right side, so the best the Knights can do in the third quarter is add two field goals. Lock, meanwhile, finally pierces the secondary thanks to heavy blocking packages and caps a long drive with a touchdown pass to Cortland Sutton. 20-10, Knights. After trading punts, the Knights find momentum again, pulling a win within reach. From midfield, Maverick drops back against a blitz and rolls right, evading orange jerseys. He reaches a full sprint and hurls the ball sixty yards for the end zone, where Wilkes leaps into the air for a spectacular catch, coming down with two feet in the corner of the end zone. 27-10, Knights. The mood on the visitors’ sideline lightens. Victory in hand, the adrenaline fades, and they suddenly remember how cold they are. Players bundle in heavy jackets and crowd precious seats on the bench near heaters. The Broncos mount another futile drive, ending when a deep shot on third and long misses Jerry Jeudy, who bangs helmets with Hayes in the process. Randall is already back on the sideline when he sees Hayes staggering awkwardly toward the bench. He and another teammate grab him before he falls and carry him onto the bench. Before the neurologist arrives, Ripka leans in and inspects the safety, staring into his eyes. The neurologist takes over. Ripka looks toward Randall, who looks back, catching something in his eyes. Fear? Confusion? In a blink, Randall is dissecting the previous drive with other linebackers, and Ripka is doing the same with his positional coaches. Zack finally pulls into his driveway, weary from a long flight and drive, hurrying to the door as fast as he can. Every one of his teammates is surely prolonging every moment of their bye week; he just wants to fast-forward to week 12. Before he slides the key into the lock, the door opens. “Saw your lights,” she says. “He was sleeping but he just woke up.” “And?” Zack says. “Good day? Bad day?” “Bad, for the most part, but nothing serious.” Zack purses his lips, wondering what he can say. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” she says, and brushes against his chest as she walks away. Zack hears something hit the floor in another room and heads inside, locking the door behind him. “I’m home, dad,” he calls out. “The dickheads doing the highlights are a fucking joke!” With a sigh, Zack eases into the living room, picking up the fallen remote and taking a seat next to his father, fixated on NFL Network showing highlights from today’s games, currently on Broncos/Knights. “We won,” Zack says. “I know, goddamn it.” “Thirsty?” “Got my iced tea right here,” he says, holding up a dry glass of ice. Zack leans back, staring at the TV absentmindedly. His thoughts spiral around is head, football somewhere among them. “I figured Ripka would go into nickel at halftime,” the father says. “I said he should have done it at the beginning of the game, stupid ass.” Zack leans in, studying his father curiously. It’s far from an innovating concept, but the Knights did indeed lean on nickel packages later in today’s game. “You shouldn’t have even been lining up at end. Don’t know why it took him three quarters to figure it out.” “You’re talking about today’s game?” “Of course I am. What else would I be talking about, the goddamn Immaculate Reception?” Zack stares wide-eyed at his father, wired in on the TV screen. He eventually grabs his glass without asking and heads for the kitchen to fill it. Phillips sits in his office, door open, a quiet floor around him, pouring through cap figures he studied an hour ago. He debates another call to Grodd’s agent (the second mental debate in the last hour) and decides against it, finally giving in to what’s bothering him. He makes a note to discuss it with Jensen later. “Chance, is Wayne here?” He looks up; it’s McKenzie, finished with his coaches meetings for the day. The players may have the week off, but the coaches don’t. “Nope. Need me to give him a message?” “No, just wanted to check in before I left. Well, see ya.” Phillips looks up into the empty doorway and, feeding off the frustration from lack of progress on Grodd’s contract, from Schneider’s lack of communication, from a meandering season when he least needs it, he decides to let loose now. He springs up from his chair and into the hallway. “Ron!” The coach halts and takes a few cautious steps back as Phillips paces toward him. Aware of his tone, Phillips tries to ease his posture. “Have you thought at all about last Monday? About what Wayne and I said?” “I have, Chance, but I’m in the same position right now.” “Just don’t commit to anything. That’s all I’m asking. I mean, 6-4, in the playoffs…what kind of coach resigns after a playoff season?” McKenzie, not sure if Phillips was trying to wound him with that statement, decides to let it go. “If I change my mind, I’ll let you know. Just don’t complain that I blindsided you, because I didn’t.” “I need you, Ron,” Phillips says, the pitch in his voice sharpening. “This team needs you, whether you know it or not. But we need the tenacious, fearless Ron McKenzie who was Merle Harden’s go-to guy, not this scared, withered version of him.” “What did you call me?” McKenzie says, squinting his eyes at the man he is now sure is trying to wound him. Phillips doesn’t back down, taking the smallest of steps toward the head coach. “Listen to me. If I think this football team is being led by a coach who’s a shell of his former self, then I’ll fire you. You won’t get to resign and walk away peacefully; you’ll leave here with your tail behind your legs. You want another job in this league? You’ll have to settle for offensive coordinator of an unstable, rebuilding franchise. Or you’ll have to go back to college.” Visibly shaken, McKenzie takes a few breaths, then finds a smile, genuinely impressed. “What?” Phillips says. “Merle warned me you were fierce when you rolled your sleeves all the way up. Never saw it until now.” A few seconds of silence pass between them, and McKenzie resumes his walk toward the stairs. “Merle wouldn’t walk away,” Phillips says. “You know he wouldn’t.” “Yep, he wouldn’t,” McKenzie says just before descending the stairway. “But that’s the thing, Chance. I’m not him.” McKenzie disappears, leaving Phillips alone in the quiet hallway, barely concentrating on his rapid heartbeat. Wilkes reaches out to as many teammates as possible, trying to schedule a bye week get-together at his place. The veterans rebuff him, apparently too busy. Only a few rookies make lukewarm commitments, and by Wednesday, Wilkes decides to postpone the gathering, not wanting his de facto housewarming party to devolve into him babysitting a bunch of kids. Grodd takes his family to Minnesota, eager to get away from the sign hanging in his front yard, making a pit stop at the Penner residence. He begins the week with hope that the bye week will finally spur action, one way or the other, but each day passes without word, and he tries to unwind as best he can while away from Los Angeles. Grantzinger endures a week with his father, glad to give the caretaker a week off she has most certainly earned. The predictably tumultuous week hits a high point when they bond over lucid memories of Grantzinger’s college playing days and a low point when Grantzinger wakes up in the middle of the night to find his father frantically searching for his long-dead wife. Maverick and Trisha forsake bye week tradition (a road trip to wine country) and spend a mostly dull but quiet week at Melinda’s house, relaxing with family and talking about baby prep again. Randall stays inside as much as possible, soaking up film on the Knights’ remaining opponents. Physical symptoms from his concussion have long since subsided, but the mental ones haven’t. Back in the offseason, when he heard about the retirement of Luke Kuechly (the only player in football who could rival Randall for best inside linebacker), he celebrated, thrilled to be alone at the top. But now, he wonders if Kuechly was on to something, if the end of Randall’s career should be much sooner than he thought. “Here’s what I keep thinking,” Phillips says to Jensen in his office, knowing this meeting is the last thing standing between the two of them and a rare weekend off. “There’s a wave of early retirements out there. And it’s league-wide, at multiple positions. I’m not about to give a 30-year-old offensive lineman a four-year deal only to fall victim to that.” “Is there a way to ensure that, though?” Jensen says. “Delicately?” “Probably not.” “I guess you just need the language in the contract to be tight, regarding retirement. But that’s not something you spring at the last second.” “Definitely not.” “What about Schneider?” Phillips raises his eyebrows. “What about him?” “I don’t know, I just feel like maybe he could see something we’re missing.” “Even if he could, he won’t be back in the building for a while.” “Where is he, anyway?” “With other owners, I think. CBA negotiations. Like I told you, it was a big stain on Goodell’s resume when that fell apart last spring. Schneider was stunned. He’s never quite said this, but I think it could be the end for Goodell. After the new CBA, of course. Get a new deal in place and let him go peacefully. Anyway, Schneider decided he’d play a key role in the new round of talks, and, you know Wayne, once he latches on to something…” Phillips stops himself at the sight of Jensen’s face, deep in thought in an uncomfortably serious way. “Rick?” Jensen doesn’t move. Phillips gives him a few seconds before pressing again. “Rick. What’s the matter?” Jensen suddenly breaks from his concentration and bolts for the door like he’s about to leave. Instead, he scans the hallway, shuts the door, and retakes his seat, leaning much closer to Phillips this time. “Ok,” Jensen says at last, “maybe I’m reaching here, but Chance, listen to what you just said. Hear your words and put the pieces together.” Phillips waits, intrigued but unsure of Jensen’s intentions. “Schneider’s been spending a lot of time with other owners, heavily involved in the CBA…and Goodell could be on the way out…” Phillips strains to see the full picture, equally curious what Jensen means and why he’s so serious about it. Then, it clicks. Schneider. CBA. Goodell. Schneider. Goodell. Commissioner. “Oh, shit,” Phillips says, shock running through his body and sticking it to his chair. Apparently satisfied, Jensen remains silent, hands covering his mouth. Phillips now takes a turn in deep thought. A decade in this building has given him multiple opportunities to ponder life without the Knights. Now, for the first time, he ponders the Knights without Schneider. “Ok,” Phillips finally says. “We need to figure out if this is real, before we get carried away. We have the contacts to do it.” Jensen scoots his chair even closer, hanging on every word. His knees brush against Phillips’ desk. “Work your sources however you can, I’ll do the same. Covertly. Ask without asking. Understand?” “Yes.” “And don’t force it. This doesn’t have to be done now, but it does have to be done right. One person gets curious and…” “And what?” “I’m not sure,” Phillips says honestly. Players return from the bye week convincing themselves they’re “rested and refreshed,” ready for the stretch run. Their 6-4 record keeps division title hopes alive, but those hopes are about to be either enflamed or extinguished this Sunday, with the 9-1 Chiefs coming to town. Monday’s meetings are brief; coaches want players spending most of their time with weights and trainers, getting an accurate picture of the roster’s health. Wednesday’s practice proceeds without incident and a little uniqueness; the Chiefs are the first divisional opponent the Knights are playing the second time. Memories of their week 8 drubbing remain fresh in everyone’s minds. And then, on Thursday, a piece of news begins to permeate the locker room. It comes from no official story, no breaking news, not even a reporter’s comment. It seems to materialize out of thin air. “Yo, you heard about this shit?” “Y’all believe it or not?” “Did you hear about Coach?” “No way it’s true, right?” Eventually, by the end of practice, a similar conversation takes place, this one between Grantzinger, Randall, and some defensive players. “Do you guys believe it?” Osborne asks anyone who wants to answer. “Shut it,” Grantzinger says. “Listen,” Randall says to everyone, “we hear bullshit rumors every year. Every week, even. I don’t see any reason why this should be different.” “Yeah, but,” Solomon says, “what if it’s true? I mean—” “Enough,” Grantzinger says, commanding firm looks from everyone. “I don’t care how anybody feels about this. I really don’t. Anyone who leaks this or spreads it further gets a broken nose. Got it?” The message apparently received, players go back to their lockers and change for the day. Friday’s practice proceeds with rising confidence regarding the playbook, with players and coaches alike cautiously optimistic about a season-defining win this Sunday. And still, the story, which hardly anyone believes or wants to believe, lingers. From a luxury suite high above Farmers Field, Phillips stares at the field, Schneider and Jensen on either side of him, in a state of shock. He glances at his notes, wondering if he should continue writing them. Chiefs 27, Knights 7, 3:30 to go in the third quarter. Players and coaches stand around the Knights sideline, dragging through the procedures of a football game, their urgency gone. As the offense waits to get the ball back, Maverick wades through a crowd toward the head coach. “We’re not going down like this,” he says. “I don’t care if we stop running the ball. I can find guys against this secondary. It’s all-out war from here until the final whistle.” “After you, Mav,” McKenzie says. A moment later, Maverick leads the offense onto the field. “Let’s execute, ladies!” McKenzie yells. In the huddle, Maverick warns his receivers that all drops from this point forward are punishable by various offenses. Wilkes snickers, Maverick calls the play, and everyone lines up. Maverick calls for the ball before the Chiefs are ready. He fires for Harper down the seam, open, and Harper accelerates to midfield before being dragged down. The crowd applauds politely. Maverick hurries everyone to the line, shouts the play, and rushes the snap. This time it’s Wilkes open, and Maverick doesn’t miss. Wilkes tiptoes along the sideline, putting the ball at the twenty-three-yard-line. No receivers roam open in the end zone, but Maverick stays patient and surgical. Five-yard slant, six-yard curl, four-yard out. The game clock nears zero for the quarter, and Maverick hurries another snap. He drops back, scanning an end zone full of white jerseys, and sees the offensive line part in front of him. He commits, tucking the ball and running as fast as he can. Two defenders close in. A goal line collision is imminent. Maverick lowers his shoulders, then, at the last second, eases up and spins to the right. He feels someone brush off his pads and he dives forward, landing in the painted grass of the end zone. New life breaths into the stadium at last, and the fourth quarter begins with a 27-14 score. The Knights defense, which has been eviscerated today, takes the field. Mercifully, the Chiefs run twice into a wall of black jerseys, and when Mahomes drops back on third and nine, the blitz forces a deep heave just high enough to land incomplete. Maverick lines up, eager to keep attacking. After a few short passes, it becomes clear the Chiefs defense is gassed. Maverick calls for a no-huddle, and McKenzie doesn’t object. Now calling every play, Maverick leads his offense as if the Super Bowl hangs in the balance. He has Wilkes or Harper deep nearly every play, stretching the defense but gassing his receivers in the process. After crossing midfield, Maverick deploys one of his favorites in the playbook. An exhausted Wilkes and Harper run like they’re going deep, then cut across the field. Maverick pumps, both safeties bite, and Hart-Smith, running a sideline wheel route, is open by five yards. Maverick lofts a deep pass that Hart-Smith catches as he crosses the goal line, and Farmers Field screams, alive again. Chiefs 27, Knights 21, 12:32 to go. Knights defenders try to narrow their focus; the Chiefs won’t be in clock-milking mode anymore. Mahomes is about to be unleashed, and they have to find a way to stop him. The Chiefs do indeed unleash the passing game, with Mahomes finding receivers open. Randall desperately searches for a pre-snap call, trying to send an unblocked defender Mahomes’ way, desperate for just one turnover. The Chiefs approach midfield and face third and five. Mahomes screams audibles against the rising crowd noise. Randall calls one with Grantzinger next to him: dual linebacker blitz. Mahomes takes the snap. Randall and Grantzinger surge ahead. Randall collides with a linemen while Grantzinger runs free. Mahomes lofts the ball over him just as he gets crunched. The pass hits a wide open Travis Kelce over the middle, then bobbles and falls to the ground. Defenders return to the sideline more relieved than excited, and the Knights get the ball with 9:59 on the clock. Maverick is eager to resume the no-huddle, but the Chiefs defense has benefitted from some rest. He abandons it after a few incompletions but keeps the chains moving. In the trenches, Grodd tries to stay focused on his assignment, but he can’t help noticing that the line around him hasn’t missed a blocking assignment since halftime. Passing windows tighten. Maverick squeezes throws in, narrowly missing interceptions. Begrudgingly, he mixes in some running plays, and the Knights find themselves in the red zone with less than six minutes to play. Maverick drops back, and the field opens in front of him. He lowers his shoulders to run with defenders closing, then looks up. At the last second—behind the line of scrimmage, he thinks—he jumps in the air and lofts the ball to the corner of the end zone. Wilkes and a white jersey are there for it. Each jumps in the air, but Wilkes jumps higher, cradling the wobbly pass in his hands. The nearest official raises his arms, and Farmers Field roars. Knights 28, Chiefs 27, 5:26 to play. McKenzie studies the scoreboard and game clock, running multiple scenarios through his head. “Get ready,” Ripka says to his defense, patrolling the sideline. “Get ready. They’re gonna throw it all at us now.” Maverick watches the kickoff teams line up, unable to sit. Mahomes will almost certainly strike back here; the big question is how much time he will have left for the winning drive. The Knights’ kicker raises his arm, runs up to the ball, and shanks it right. The ball bounces toward the sideline past a white jersey before landing securely on a Knight’s chest. The stadium erupts, its foundation shaking. From their luxury suite, the three men in suits leap to their feet in utter shock. “Oh!” Schneider screams. “Ron!” “Incredible!” Phillips says. “He’s got K.C. on the ropes and he’s going for the throat!” The Knights offense runs onto the field, drawing energy from the electric stadium and the audacity of the onside kick. They run plays with a meager one-point lead, but with their momentum, they might as well be leading by twenty-one. Maverick moves the chains effortlessly, still calling the plays. He remembers to mix in some runs, and Hart-Smith gains yards when his linemen create holes. All the while, the clock ticks. Before anyone can process it, the two-minute warning hits with the Knights in field goal range. Maverick calls a run play, lines up, and audibles to a screen. He takes the snap and rolls right as if on a quick passing play, then throws back left. Hart-Smith catches it with a wall of blockers in front of him and takes off. Crowd noise crescendos as Hart-Smith runs through open grass and jukes a defender into the end zone. Knights 35, Chiefs 27, 1:52 to play. The Knights line up on defense, no illusions about what is coming. Mahomes leads his own no-huddle offense now, though his audible screams are swallowed midair by the screams of seventy thousand fans. The Chiefs move the chains slowly, ticking off much of the clock. They reach midfield with 0:52 to go and just one timeout. A few quick passes later, it’s fourth and two with 0:39 to go. Randall studies Mahomes, under center, ready for any play here. He wants to back off into coverage but decides against it. Mahomes takes the snap, fakes a handoff, and drops back. Randall backpedals in coverage. Grantzinger runs wide of the tackle, then spins, beating him. Mahomes winds up for a deep throw as Grantzinger’s hand finds the football. They both clutch at it, neither evading the other’s grasp, and fall to the ground. The Knights celebrate the turnover on downs, a meaningless 32 seconds left to tick. One kneel-down ends the game, and McKenzie walks to midfield, shaking Andy Reid’s hand before heading to the tunnel. He contemplates the wave of emotions crashing around him, deciding that chief among them is relief. Relief for a win that could have been a loss. Relief for a season that could have been lost, and still might be. He walks, head down, to the tunnel. Players run and jog past him, some slapping his shoulder or delivering various doses of verbal encouragement. The fans above deliver plenty of celebratory and encouraging words. All the while, McKenzie keeps walking, forcing a grin onto his face for appearance. But he feels none of the celebration around him, none of the excitement. The moment brings him no joy.
  6. SteVo

    2020 Democratic Primary Race

    https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2020/president/ny/new_york_trump_vs_biden-7040.html "only up 5% in the state" Unless they mean comparing numbers to Clinton's in 2016, or a recent increase from the convention, that gets slapped with the FAKE NEWS label.
  7. Knights of Andreas FOUR YEARS LATER Chapter Eighty-Five – The Deadline “No such thing as a quiet week around here.” –Ron McKenzie Sunday November 1, 6:22pm Central Standard Time, 45 hours until the trade deadline From a suite atop Arrowhead Stadium, Phillips and Jensen endure the final minutes of a blowout loss. The final seconds tick away, fans in red jovially jog toward the exits, and Phillips looks at the scoreboard one last time: Chiefs 35, Knights 13. Phillips looks down at his notes, though he doesn’t need reminding of what he witnessed. The defense that had looked elite was abused by an elite quarterback. The offense that seemed to be finding itself was derailed by a combination of good defense and mental errors. The result is not just a win for one team and a loss for the other; it is a story of two teams on two very different roads. The Chiefs now advance to 7-1, unquestionably the league’s best team, and the Knights fall to 4-4. The AFC wild card race is a jumbled mess, as it often is after eight weeks, but even if the Knights ultimately earn one of those two spots, winning three road games is far from an ideal path to the Super Bowl. And facing a three-game deficit with eight games to go, a division win may now be impossible. Monday November 2, 9:20am Pacific Standard Time, 28 hours until the trade deadline The second floor of the MedComm Center engages in an annual spectacle, abandoning the typical weekly procedures in favor of all-out commitment to the deadline. Phillips and Jensen split duties for phone calls, agreeing to reconvene at 9:30. Schneider tells Phillips by phone he’ll attend if he can make it in time, but to start without him if necessary. Jensen knocks on Phillips’ open door ten minutes early. “Finished a little early,” Jensen says. “How about you?” “Same. Come in. Take a seat.” Jensen does so as Phillips surveys the scant notes in front of him. “Not much out there,” Phillips says. “Only names I got good buzz on were Wilkes and Randall, and neither for a price I’d consider. Not yet, anyway. And it’s not like we’re willing to move either of them.” “What about Grodd?” “I didn’t put his name out there. Did you?” “Not deliberately. But he came up.” “And?” “Nothing we’d be interested in. Aren’t we close to an extension anyway?” Phillips sighs. “No such thing as close. You either have a contract, or you don’t, and right now, Grodd doesn’t have a contract after this season.” “Ok. Well, any targets on your end?” “A few.” Phillips looks at the names circled on his paper, none of them impressive to him. “Actually, not really. We’ll monitor what happens today, but—what about you?” “Uh…yeah.” Jensen shifts uncomfortably in his seat. Phillips feels concern rippling through his body. He’s never seen his assistant GM this nervous. “Rick. What’s up? Talk to me.” “I was talking to Les Snead, in Vegas, and I got a pretty big bite.” “Who?” Phillips runs through the Rams’ roster in his head. “Kupp? Whitworth might be a good rental if he’s for sale.” Jensen shakes his head, his face bursting with restrained enthusiasm. “Ok, Rick, spill it.” “Aaron Donald.” A wave of shock and excitement permeates Phillips’ entire body. “What?” “Makes sense from their side. They’re 3-5, last in the division, Goff is regressing. Might need a quick re-tool.” Jensen pauses; Phillips says nothing. “It would cost a lot, obviously, but…” Phillips doesn’t need Jensen or anyone to finish that sentence. Adding Donald to the Knights’ roster would—Phillips shakes it off. He can’t get deep into it just yet. “Ok,” Phillips says. “What’s the compensation? What did Les say, exactly?” 10:06am, 27 hours until the trade deadline Heads of every personnel department assemble in Schneider’s office for an impromptu 10am meeting. Schneider hurries through the doorway six minutes late, nobody acknowledges it, and everything begins. Phillips briefs everyone on the broad strokes: the Knights have a legitimate chance to trade for Aaron Donald. The whole table launches into tangents about Donald in a black jersey, as Phillips knew it would. “Gentlemen, stay with me,” he says. “Before we get too deep into specifics, we have to ask ourselves a philosophical question here.” The table goes quiet. “We’re 4-4. A strong finish to the year, realistically, puts us at 10-6. Barring something like a Mahomes injury, that’s a wild card. On the other side, things break the wrong way for us and we’re 8-8. Outside looking in.” He pauses to let that last line sink in, locking eyes with Schneider, who looks amused. “So, here’s my question. Are we buyers or sellers?” The table responds with silence initially, then some murmuring. No one volunteers a straightforward answer until Jensen raises his hand. “To be fair, Chance, don’t we need to analyze potential trade packages for Donald before making that decision? I mean, if compensation is too rich, then of course we’re out and maybe selling. But if it’s within reach—” Other voices around the table pipe up now. “Why are we selling? We’re in the playoffs if they started today!” “Which players could we sell?” “What’s the draft compensation for Donald?” Decorum predictably melts into chaos. Phillips calmly stands up and summons a large mobile white board from the corner of the office. He erases some old notes and positions the board so everyone can see. By now, everyone has gone quiet. “Despite the looming deadline,” Phillips says, “there’s no need for excessive urgency, gentlemen. Let’s work this through, every detail of it. Rick, walk us through potential trade packages.” So begins a laborious but intriguing process. They discuss every angle and debate every question. How much is too much to trade for Donald? How far are they willing to compromise their limit? How stressed would Donald make the salary cap? If they make the deal, how do they shed salary elsewhere? Of course, these procedural questions take a backseat to the hypothetical football playing in everyone’s mind. Aaron Donald and Zack Grantzinger on the same front would be the most fearsome defensive line in the league. Briggs Randall calling plays behind them makes it one of the best front sevens in football history. It wouldn’t just be a spark to ignite a playoff run; it would launch the Knights into the league’s elite tier, 4-4 record be damned. 11:37am, 25 hours until the trade deadline The suit jackets everyone was wearing at the inception of this meeting now hang on chairs while everyone moves around the office loosening ties and rolling up sleeves. The white board is now full of dollar figures and trade packages. Schneider’s cell phone buzzes, catching his attention. “Heads up, everyone,” he says, silencing the room. “Doug Marrone fired. Jacksonville will announce it within the hour.” “Their bye is this week,” Jensen says. “Figured it was coming.” Phillips tries to find room for this subtopic in his brain. The Jaguars are 1-7 and about to change regimes. Are they players for the deadline now? He remembers Jensen inquiring about Logan Bishop weeks ago; maybe their price will drop. He walks around the table toward Jensen, reminding him to check up later, when he gets a breath. 3:22pm, 22 hours until the trade deadline Javad taps away at his phone, stealing an occasional glance at ESPN on the nearby television. Jessica does the same from the living room, though they barely acknowledge each other, both deep into their work. The voice of Adam Schefter fills Javad’s office. “Another team to keep an eye on is the Los Angeles Knights…” Javad’s head snaps toward the screen. “…according to many sources around the league, the Knights are being very aggressive in calling around, asking about players. No word on whether they’re looking to buy or sell, but you gotta figure, facing a 4-4 record, a disappointing season so far, general manager Chance Phillips is looking to make a big splash.” Javad drowns out the rest of the words and texts every source he has. So far, he has no evidence the Knights are considering a move of any kind ahead of the deadline. Now that Schefter has proclaimed otherwise, he has to get an article published within the hour and he needs to send out a Tweet in the next ten minutes, preferably five. “Rapaport said the same thing,” Jessica says, starling Javad with her presence. “Looks like they’re gonna be active. Have you heard anything?” “No,” Javad says honestly. “But…” He hesitates. The usual issue has come into the relationship yet again. “But what? Tell me.” “I don’t want this to sound like I’m giving you advice, but—” “Adam, just tell me.” “Reach out to your sources often, as regular as you can keep it. Get a read on how quickly they get back to you.” “Ok. Because…?” “Because my source with the Knights never goes this long without at least responding to me. That tells me something’s up.” “That’s nothing we can print.” “I know. But it helps to be on alert.” “I think we were already on alert.” Jessica sighs and goes back to the living room. Javad doesn’t have time to give this anymore personal thought, waiting eagerly for Phillips’ response. 4:58pm, 20 hours until the trade deadline McKenzie staggers up the stairs to the second floor and heads for the end of a long hallway. Sounds of hurried conversations grow louder as he approaches. He peeks his head in and grabs Phillips’ attention. “What’s up, Ron?” Phillips says, meeting the head coach at the doorway. “How was practice?” “Fine,” McKenzie says, glancing over Phillips’ shoulder to the large white board littered with curious names and numbers. “Always tough planning for these Thursday games, but we’ll be ready. What’s going—” “Listen, you should know. We might be making a move before tomorrow’s deadline.” “Arrivals or departures?” “Could be a little of both.” “I see.” McKenzie’s head falls, unsure how to process the ramifications of the Knights trading away someone at the trade deadline. From Super Bowl contenders to deadline sellers in eight weeks… “Chance!” Jensen says, phone clinging to his ear. “I got something!” Phillips holds one finger in the air to Jensen then shoots McKenzie a concerned look. “Sorry, Ron, but I can’t give any details until we get a little closer. We’ll talk tonight once the water’s a little clearer. If you’re not still here, I’ll call you.” “Yeah, ok. Um, thanks, Chance.” Still not making eye contact, McKenzie drifts back down the hallway and the stairs toward his office, where he needs to grind out around four hours of film review before starting prep for tomorrow’s practice. Back in Schneider’s office, Phillips studies Jensen’s notes from the previous phone call. “Wayne,” Phillips says, “you should hear this.” “Something new on Donald?” Schneider asks, rising from his desk. Phillips: “Nope, a different front. One of ours.” Schneider: “Who?” Jensen: “Wilkes. Philly is willing to trade a third for him.” Schneider: “What’s their angle?” Jensen: “Their rookie receivers aren’t progressing quickly. In a tight race with Dallas, team good enough to win the NFC. An elite receiving threat puts them over the top.” Phillips: “A third-round pick would help offset the draft capital loss from the Donald trade.” Jensen: “Would offset the cap crunch, too.” Phillips: “Run the numbers. See what happens.” Jensen nods and rises, ready to set up on the other side of the table, close to the board, and do the math. Then he says, “One more thing. Roseman said the Eagles are shopping around for other receivers. I got the impression he was honest.” Phillips ponders this wrinkle as Jensen walks off. “What does that mean for us?” Schneider says. “It means they could make a move for someone else and pull this deal off the table. So if we’re serious—” “We may have to pull the trigger before the Donald deal is finalized.” “Right.” Schneider presses his fingers against his face contemplatively. “I don’t like that.” “Me neither,” Phillips says, glancing at the white board yet again. 7:09pm, 18 hours until the trade deadline The hustle of the day has finally faded. Only three men now sit in Schneider’s office, each in a seat at the long table, eyes fixated on the phone in front of Phillips’ seat. Hours of discussion, debate, more discussion, and more debate have ended. The Knights have considered every angle, both football and financial, for the 2020 season and beyond. Schneider has weighed everything and given his verdict: if it is agreed to be in the Knights’ best interest, do it. Green light. The broad strokes of the deal, though flexible, are in place. The Knights will essentially trade two first-round picks: their 2021 pick and Riley Osborne, this year’s first-round pick. They will also give up a mid-round pick of some kind, which will ostensibly be recouped by a Wilkes trade. Then, there will be either a 2022 pick added or some exchange of picks in 2021 or 2022. Finally, there may be some conditional language which would complicate things, but the Knights are ready for it. Phillips dials the digits carefully, looking around the table one last time, stealing a final glance at his assistant. This would typically be a conversation only Schneider, if anyone, overheard, but Jensen may very well be in the general manager seat by season’s end. The call connects, and a voice Phillips recognizes says, “Chance, it’s Les. How are you?” “Very good, Les, very good. You’re on speaker with Mr. Schneider and my assistant GM, Rick Jensen. You have my assurances that no one is leaking any of this to the press, and I’m sure it’s the same on your end. We’re not necessarily trying to strike a deal right now—I’d like to sleep on it first—but I felt it important for us to hammer down some details. So, let’s talk.” 8:58pm, 16 hours until the trade deadline Grodd emerges from the bedroom and inches the door shut, trying not to wake the baby. He does so and walks to the living room to close the blinds for the night. In the process, he gazes to the front yard at the FOR SALE sign planted there. He has talked to his agent twice today, and twice been told there’s no trade interest. By now, of course, he knows better than to trust that. A contract-year player on a team with a 4-4 record, Grodd is a very typical trade candidate and he knows it. Yet, this is a wrinkle he had not prepared for with free agency looming. He and his wife have discussed it and are ready to move to whatever city signs him. What they have not discussed is the possibility of a trade, of Grodd living the next few months in a different city before signing somewhere else in March. He would probably just keep her and the baby here and live in the new city temporarily until free agency. His phone buzzes. He snatches it as soon as possible, ready for life-changing news, but his nerves calm when he sees Wilkes’ name on the screen. This is either the third or fourth time he’s called, so Grodd decides to finally answer. 9:05pm, 16 hours until the trade deadline “Don’t do me like that!” Wilkes says into the phone. “My agent says there’s somethin’ going on!” “There’s something going on every year,” Grodd says on the other side of the line. “It’s just the deadline, D-Jam. Chill out and just see what happens.” “Chill out?! Easy for you to say!” Wilkes hangs up and taps his finger frantically, wondering whom he should call next. His agent, ever since giving him a heads-up about a possible trade, has been unhelpful. Even after he heard his own name on TV as a trade candidate, he got no new information about landing spots. Maverick didn’t even answer. Now Grodd is more of the same. His thoughts race around in his mind, sometimes escaping and flying around the house, then returning to him even faster. Wilkes tries to breathe. He knows what he has to do. One final scan of his contacts, and he decides talking to someone won’t guide him, so he gives it up. He walks into his favorite room in the house, a bedroom that evolved into something much greater two years ago when he made this monumental lifestyle change. Wilkes strolls through a house of sterile, grey-colored walls into a vibrant room of red and yellow. He flicks the switch, gently illuminating the space with dim, golden light. A stereo fires up, and soft music fills the room. He lowers himself onto the thick cushion in the center of the room and settles his posture, palms pressed against his thighs, back straight. He closes his eyes and focuses on breathing. Inhale, exhale. His chest pumps hurriedly. He slows it. Inhale…exhale. The enchanting harmony of singing monks fills his ears as he feels his breath slowing. The thoughts still race around in his mind, but quieter now. He thinks only of his breath, letting the surrounding ambience sooth him, calm him. Inhale…exhale… Tuesday November 3, 7:52am, 5 hours until the trade deadline Players enter the locker room, changing for day two of practice under a cloud of silence. Thursday games are always an awful grind; prepping for one during deadline week makes it even worse. In just two days, the Knights will play their ninth game of the year, a very significant one against the Titans, also in the thick of the wild card race, which will put them at either 5-4 or 4-5, a huge swing for the rest of the season. In the meantime, any player, at any moment, could be pulled off the practice field with fateful news awaiting them. And still, practice must go on. The usual chatter and buzz is nonexistent this morning, replaced with tense, uncomfortable looks. Grodd tries to seem stoic but can’t hide his concern. Rookies and young players seem most nervous of all, feeding off the anxiety around them. Wilkes, for his part, looks remarkably relaxed, energetically changing and charging out of the building onto the practice field. When McKenzie appears a few minutes before eight to get everyone on the field in time, he delivers a meek, “Let’s go, guys, few minutes to eight,” rather than the usual “Get a move on, ladies.” The few players still changing don’t think much of it, preoccupied with reaching the practice field on time. 11:03am, 2 hours until the trade deadline Javad stares intensely at his laptop screen, clicking between multiple tabs and windows. His trade deadline summary, obviously incomplete for the moment, is ready for editing with every move over the next two hours. If the deadline passes without a major splash for the Knights, he will have that sent to his editor by 1:30. If a deal is struck, he can write an article on it quickly, perhaps having it ready by 2, depending on the deal. He hears a jingle of keys just outside the apartment, startling him momentarily before he ignores it. “Got your fortress all set up, I see,” she says seconds after closing the door behind her. “Gets more fun every year,” Javad says. “Usually there ends up being less news than buzz.” “You think?” He doesn’t look at her. He knows where this is going and wants her to get it there, however she wants. “Look,” she finally says, “I know it’s a little weird, but…” Javad rotates his chair, facing her. “…if you have something, something you can give me…” “I don’t have anything. There haven’t been any trades yet, you know that.” “You know what I mean, Adam.” He looks back to his computer, then his phone. All he has are nuggets, and a lot of them. Most of them will wither out into nothing by 1pm, but some may not. And while Phillips hasn’t been his usual self with leads (something Javad finds suspicious), he promised a heads-up on any deals coming. Javad considers everything at his disposal and, eventually, gives in to a decision he made hours ago. “Wilkes,” Javad says, now wondering about throwing her a bone, though not one of his biggest. “Knights have gotten a market for him and are willing to sell if the price is right.” “Thanks,” she says. “If anything else pops up, and you think you have time, you know…” “Right. I’ll try. Listen, let’s do dinner tonight? Or maybe lunch, if there’s a presser at MedComm.” “That sounds good. So I’ll see you either way.” 12:09pm, 51 minutes until the trade deadline Schneider’s office again hosts a hectic congregation of suits, in even more of a frenzy. Phillips is constantly on the phone, checking in with Vegas and Philadelphia as often as possible. He wants to make both the Daniel and Wilkes trades official now, before anything changes, but the Rams are worryingly hesitant, and the Eagles are still shopping for other receivers. Meanwhile, Jensen oversees the tentative paperwork for both deals and stays in contact with the league office. The Knights can take this right down to the wire and still get both trades through. “Anything from Philly?” Schneider asks. “The same,” Phillips says. “A lot of receivers on the market. They’re doing due diligence.” “What about Vegas?” Jensen asks. “I’m guessing they want us to sweeten the deal, thinking we’ll be swept up by the possibility of getting Donald and do whatever we can to make it happen.” Minutes pass. Tension persists. Phillips and Schneider lead the room with their composure, masking rising heart rates beneath their suits, only looking nervous when they check their watches. 12:52pm, 8 minutes until the trade deadline “Damn it, Chance, I told you to get it done,” Schneider says. “I can’t get a hold of Philly,” Phillips says, phone clinging to his ear. “Been trying for ten minutes now.” “I know why!” Jensen says, holding his phone in the air. “They made a trade.” “For who?” someone asks. “Fourth-round pick for—” “It doesn’t matter,” Phillips says, looking at the clock. “Official with the league office, Rick?” “Yes, it’s going through now.” Phillips whirls around to see the white board. Hanging on to Wilkes is fine, but losing the third-round pick changes the calculus on the Donald trade. “I’m calling Les,” Phillips says, “dropping our offer down, as we discussed.” He gazes across the table to Schneider, pressing his clasped hands against his mouth, nodding slowly. “Won’t he figure out that this is in response to Philly’s move?” Jensen says. “It doesn’t matter; we’re out of time. Les! Chance Phillips. Listen, I’ll be brief since we’re up against it here; we gotta slide down the mid-round from third to fifth. I’m sorry to do this to you, but…Ok…Ok…Ok, two minutes.” He hangs up, suddenly noticing the office has gone silent. People fidget in place, twirling pens or markers, finding something to do with their fingers while a blockbuster trade hangs in the air. Phillips’ phone vibrates on the table. Everyone standing lurches closer to the general manager. “Hi, Les…I get it. I understand…No, I won’t hang up. Let me mute you. Thirty seconds.” He presses the phone and looks around the room. “They’re not budging. The third stays a third, the deal stays the deal, take it or leave it.” Phillips reads the faces bearing down on him, knowing exactly what they’re thinking. It’s the difference between a third- and fifth-round pick. That’s nothing. We can get Aaron Donald! He knows most other GMs, maybe all of them, would have made the deal already. His gaze finds Schneider again. It’s not just the exchange of picks; losing the Wilkes trade means the Knights would have to endure a very tight salary cap for at least three seasons, tighter than Phillips has ever overseen. And yet, he could get Donald and Grantzinger on the same defensive line, right now… “Your call, Chance,” Schneider says. “We mentioned this possibility yesterday. And we agreed.” He lifts his phone up and presses the button. “Les?…We’re out…Alright, I’ll call you later. For now, obviously it benefits us both to keep this trade in-house…Ok, bye.” Phillips hangs up and sighs, breathing some air back into the room. He looks at his watch—12:56. No one leaves the office as the final minutes tick down silently. The clock hits 1pm, Jensen and a few others work league sources to see if any other trades went down, and Phillips stands up and meets the large white board. He grabs the eraser and waves it back and forth, clearing every number. “Thank you all for your diligence,” Schneider says, rising from his chair and commanding the room while Phillips keeps erasing. “This was probably the most tense deadline under my tenure, but I felt much better knowing I had the best team supporting me. Now, we go back to normal. But before we do, let me make something very plain.” Phillips stops erasing and turns around. “No one in this room is to leak one word of anything we explored to anybody. Period. If this gets out in any way, this group will convene again, and I assure you the tenor of that conversation will be much more severe than what this room has seen the last twenty-four hours. Is that explicitly clear?” “Yes, sir,” everyone murmurs back. “Good. Chance, find time to call Les back and make sure things are tight on his side as well. Rick, gather all paperwork on the trades and take them down the hall to the shredder. Get someone to help, if necessary.” Phillips finishes wiping the final cash figures from Knights history, studies the now empty board, and turns back to the head of the able, where Schneider has sat back down. He studies Schneider’s face, seeing, he thinks, a hint of disappointment. From their Farmers Field luxury suite, Phillips and Jensen watch Thursday night’s Knights/Titans contest. The stadium is about two-thirds full at kickoff, and the game matches the subdued atmosphere with a first half devoid of big plays and turnovers. The Titans predictably try to establish a ground game with Derrick Henry, but the Knights’ stout run defense stands tall. Ryan Tannehill faces multiple third-and-longs, converting few. The Knights offense fares better, especially in the pass game, where Maverick distributes the ball between multiple receivers. Phillips feels strange when he watches Maverick cap a long drive with a successful jump ball to Wilkes in the back of the end zone. The Knights take a 13-3 lead into the second half, and the grind continues. The Titans add another field goal, but the Knights respond with Maverick finding Hart-Smith uncovered on a wheel route. The running back sprints for a sixty-yard touchdown, by far the most exciting play of the game. Down 20-6 in the fourth quarter, the Titans turn to a pass-first offense led by Tannehill, but the Knights lock things down with tight coverage and consistent blitzing. The minutes pass, and it becomes clear the Knights are on their way to a win and a 5-4 record. Still, Phillips watches his team closely, unable to wonder what the defense would look like with Aaron Donald in the middle, or what the passing game would look like without Wilkes. The next morning at the MedComm Center is refreshingly relaxed. The players have been given the rest of the weekend off, a reward for last night’s win and much-needed rest for a pivotal divisional trip to Denver in nine days. Phillips drops by Schneider’s office, surprised to see him there, to deliver some paperwork. As he leaves, Schneider’s voice calls him back. “McKenzie is coming up,” Schneider says. “Wants to speak with us.” “Interesting.” Phillips waits awkwardly. Moments later, McKenzie staggers down the hallway and into the office, looking tired and worn. He shuts the office door, and Phillips nervously takes a seat near Schneider’s desk. “Good morning, Ron,” Schneider says. “Good morning.” “I had intended on postponing our debrief to next Monday, in the spirit of getting back on our normal schedule, but if you’d rather get it over—” “No, no, it’s not that.” “Very well. What’s on your mind?” McKenzie shifts his weight from foot to foot, trying to lengthen his back to stand taller. “I want to get this straight with you two now and for the next few months, don’t want any press leaks. Plus, it’s fair to give you guys time to prepare.” Phillips and Schneider share an uncomfortable glance, hanging on the head coach’s next words. “At the end of the season, I’m stepping down as head coach.”
  8. Knights of Andreas FOUR YEARS LATER Chapter Eighty-Four – In Time, Out of Control “I have respect for a man who has respect for his profession.” –Chance Phillips The morning after the Knights’ descent to a losing record, three men enter the largest office in the MedComm Center, less than ten hours of sleep between them. Schneider, Phillips, and McKenzie take their positions for one of many weekly routines: the Monday morning debrief. These are short, concise, (mostly) casual, and just the three of them, as Schneider has always insisted. Conversation drudges along as it typically does following a loss, slightly more somber but covering the same talking points: key reasons why the Knights lost, key areas of improvement for next week and beyond. “So,” McKenzie says in response to one particular inquiry, “I gotta do a better job in handling the game plan. I think we held onto it too long, and it cost us.” Schneider nods politely and looks at McKenzie as if he’s waiting for more words. “So, Ron,” Schneider says, “we’ve been doing these meetings with you four years now. The last two or so, we have discussed multiple topics that have ended with you saying you have to do a better job. With all due respect, when are we going to see that?” McKenzie freezes, stunned by the sudden attack. He looks to Phillips for a lifeline but finds none; Phillips is neither surprised nor willing to help at the moment. “Well,” McKenzie finally says, “Mr. Schneider, I apologize if…if it seems like my responses here are disappointing.” “It is our record that is disappointing, Ron.” “All I can say is every coach and every player will be fully focused on getting us straightened out this week and getting a win on Sunday.” “Ok,” Schneider says, his face emotionless. “Good enough.” McKenzie takes this as a welcome sign that the meeting is over and walks out of the office. Phillips does so a moment later, reaching the doorway when McKenzie is long gone. “Chance,” Schneider says from his chair. “Same question.” Phillips feels shocked, but he’s not unprepared. Schneider hasn’t been on the warpath like this in a while, but he knows how to defend himself. He walks back to the conference table and stands behind his chair, looming over the team owner. “Is there something I’ve done that you think is a problem?” Phillips asks. “I’m just trying to get your read on the shining state of our franchise at the moment.” “I know 2-3 is bad—” “It’s worse than bad.” “—and yes, part of that is because of the offseason. But we have a good young core of players. You’ve been in the analytics meetings with me. They will blossom.” “Will they?” “Our last two losses were by seven combined points. The difference between 2-3 and 4-1 is a fine line. That’s football, and you know it.” “That may be, but the bottom line is the bottom line.” “Indeed it is.” Neither man speaks. A phone rings somewhere else on the floor. “Week after next,” Schneider says, “we’ll have a meeting with the firm we discussed. On Friday, while Ron isn’t here, obviously. That’s all, Chance. Thank you.” “I told you I thought that was unnecessary.” “Mr. Schneider,” calls his assistant from the hallway, “I have Dean Spanos on the line for you.” Schneider holds up his arms. “Going to be a busy morning. That’s all, Chance.” Phillips nods firmly and exits the office. Schneider watches him leave and gets up, strutting back to his desk, where Spanos’ call—plus a mountain of others—awaits him today. He hopes to have done some good with his GM and head coach; he has much more important things to be worrying about this week. The Knights endure their post-loss meetings, as a team then as positional groups, and Week 6 begins. Beyond the usual frustrations of a loss, no one says or does anything to indicate the team’s poor standing. Fortunately, the Knights get a home game this Sunday against the 2-3 Bears. After an off day, players hit the practice field eager to prove themselves. The game plan for Chicago takes shape over the course of several practices and meetings. On the surface, everything looks and feels very normal. Altogether, under Coach McKenzie, the practice week after a loss resembles the practice week after a win much more than one would think—as it was under Coach Harden. After Friday’s practice, all but four players head home. The remaining four—Maverick, Grodd, Grantzinger, Randall—join Coach McKenzie in his office for the weekly players council meeting, a relatively new addition McKenzie brought from his college days. Coaching a roster with more youth and inexperience than he has ever had, McKenzie knows communication with his veterans is more crucial than ever. “Ok guys,” McKenzie says once the four veterans have taken their seats, “how are we feeling?” As usual, Randall speaks first. “Everything’s good on D. The guys are feeling confident we can beat Foles up pretty good. And even if we can’t, they don’t have anybody else who scares us.” “Good,” McKenzie says. “Zack, you on board with that?” “Absolutely.” “Ok. Mav? Chase? How about offense?” Maverick wants to talk first but defers to his offensive linemen, who will occasionally be responsible for containing Chicago’s biggest threat. “Obviously, blocking Mack is no joke,” Grodd says. “Protection is gonna have to be spot on or we’re in trouble. All the draws we installed this week should help a lot.” “Rollouts too,” Maverick says. “They’ll work no matter what, but if we can call them at the right time, they won’t stop us.” “Don’t forget,” Grodd says, “we’ve faced Von Miller twice a year since I got here and handled him well, for the most part. We can handle Khalil Mack.” “Ok, good,” McKenzie says. “As always, communicate. If you see something on the field where you think a certain call is a good idea, let me know.” “Only if you promise to actually call it,” Maverick says. McKenzie contorts his mouth into a grin. “No promises, Mav, you know that.” Maverick sighs, part frustration, part acceptance. McKenzie changes the subject, and the rest of the meeting proceeds without anything consequential. Farmers Field is loud to start the game, anxious to restrict the Bears offense, which has been meandering at best through five games and on the road to a quarterback controversy. Knights defenders line up unafraid of Nick Foles. The only threat to the secondary is Allen Robinson, and defenders shade toward him. The stadium cheers louder with each down, culminating in a three and out. When the defense retakes the field, they already have a 3-0 lead. But Foles finds some open receivers, and the Bears find momentum. They reach the red zone, crowd noise increasing, and try to establish the run game. This is promptly stuffed, and they kick a field goal to tie the game. The Knights defense maintains its performance throughout the rest of the half, restricting big plays and allowing yards but no touchdowns. By halftime, the Bears offense has mustered three field goal attempts, two of which are good, and the Knights lead, 10-6. After Knights score a touchdown on the second half’s first drive, defenders take the field eagerly with an eleven-point lead. Lining up at left defensive end, Grantzinger readies to go all-out assault on Foles, who he has only hit once today. But the Bears keep committing extra linemen, running backs, and receivers to either chip him off the line or double him altogether. This is fine for Grantzinger, but the rest of the defensive line needs to step up. At the opposite defensive end position is Jaden Solomon, a first-round pick who hasn’t quite taken the second-year leap the Knights had hoped. He flashes moments of greatness, but he doesn’t reap the benefits of Grantzinger’s double teams like he should. In the middle, the Knights employ a three-man rotation for the two defensive tackle spots. The one with the most potential is Riley Osborne, this year’s first-round pick. He is already a monster in the run game, but his pass rush has been nonexistent. Overall, Grantzinger endures a frustrating lack of sacks. The closest the Knights get, ironically, is when Ripka has Grantzinger drop back in coverage; despite an eternity in the pocket against a three-man rush, Foles finds no open passing lanes. Later in the third quarter, the Knights defend a 24-9 lead. With the Bears almost certain to abandon the run game, Randall calls audibles in favor of pass rush and extra blitzes. Anchoring the team’s 4-3 defense, Randall’s worries lie behind him with the team’s secondary, easily their biggest defensive weakness. Their starting corners benefit from strategic calls from Ripka, though his zone coverages surely make Merle Harden roll in his grave. Giving everyone hope on defense is the emergence of Ta’Shawn Hayes, a ball hawking safety with serious playmaking ability. The fourth-year pro has come into his own with his combination of athleticism and instincts; he’s not quite Flash at free safety, but he provides comfort in a secondary full of unease. By the fourth quarter, Randall relaxes on the audibles with the game very much in hand. The Knights lead, 31-12, and Foles desperately tries to gather momentum. If this game were at Soldier Field, fans would almost certainly (begrudgingly) be calling for backup Mitchell Trubisky. Grantzinger lines up on a standard play until he hears Randall audible for a linebacker blitz. Finally, he might break free with six men on the rush. He times his jump perfectly, jukes the right tackle, and sees Foles wind up. He leaps for the quick pass. As the ball flings past his hand, he spins and watches Robinson catch it over the middle and collide with Randall. The two fall to the ground for a meager five-yard gain, four yards short of a first down. The Bears punt. Defenders rest on the bench as the game’s final minutes tick away. Grantzinger squirts Gatorade in his mouth and catches a glimpse down the bench—Randall winces uncomfortably as he looks at pictures from the previous drive. Something seems off. But the next moment, Randall is talking to coaches normally. The next and final drive, Randall seems fine, and Grantzinger gives it no more thought as the Knights coast to victory. Players settle into the auditorium for Monday morning’s debrief. Grantzinger takes his usual spot near the middle and waits for Randall to show up (he didn’t see his car in the parking lot). Minutes pass, the auditorium fills, and McKenzie starts the presentation. Grantzinger swivels his head around—no sign of Randall. He leans toward a rookie two seats down. “Has anybody seen Briggs?” “Beats me, I just got here.” “Useless,” Grantzinger mutters under his breath. McKenzie congratulates the team hastily and moves on to weaknesses. He chastises the offense for not scoring enough points, qualifying it with a promise to call more deep shots. (A scoff escapes Wilkes’ mouth in the back row.) He transitions from complimenting the red zone defense to bemoaning the lack of turnovers created. Grantzinger is too distracted to care. The meeting breaks, and Grantzinger tries to find Ripka through the crowd; Ripka finds him first. “Zack,” Ripka says, “Briggs called in sick, so you fill in as captain in meetings today.” “No problem,” Grantzinger says flatly. He hears another knock on the door—how many have there been?—and hurries toward it. “Who is it?” “Zack. Open up, asshole.” Briggs unlocks the door, which opens before he can turn the knob. Zack inspects him curiously, launching an intense glare toward his face, then strolls into the loft. “What’s up?” Briggs says helplessly, closing the door. “You don’t seem sick,” Zack says, standing in the middle of the living room, arms crossed. Briggs walks past him and retakes his spot on the couch. “Just didn’t feel right this morning. I’ll take today and tomorrow, and I’ll be good to go Wednesday.” “What do you mean ‘just didn’t feel right?’” “You want to take my temperature?” Zack hesitates. Briggs does seem normal, and he’s not sure if that makes his hypothesis more or less likely to be correct. He decides to the cut the bullshit and get straight to it. “You got a concussion, didn’t you?” Briggs looks away, then back to Zack, then purses his eyebrows. “What?” “That hit over the middle. When Robinson caught that slant, you were right there. He banged your helmet pretty good.” “It was a quick play and an awkward tackle to make. I bet it looked funny.” “Not as funny as you looked on the bench afterward.” Briggs bows his head, feeling another wave hitting him. Almost instinctively, he presses his fingers against his nose and closes his eyes. Finally, he says, “It’s not a bad one. I’m just a little foggy.” Zack drops his arms, trying to decide whether he wants to kick Briggs in the teeth, storm out of the loft, or do nothing. He considers all three options strongly. “Call me tomorrow,” Zack says. “If you fucking remember, anyway. If not, I’ll call you.” Zack breaks for the door. “You’re not gonna say anything, I hope. Right?” Briggs watches Zack reach the door. “Right? Zack!” Zack opens the door and turns around in the doorway, facing Briggs. “I’m not gonna watch you get dementia because you take a big hit with a busted brain.” “You’re my best friend on this team. If I don’t have your trust, what’s left?” Zack squeezes the doorknob in his grip. “At least you have enough sense to remember that.” The door slams shut with a loud thud that causes Briggs to close his eyes again. An odd feeling hangs over Wednesday’s practice as the Knights set their game plan for the Patriots. They have fared well against the Patriots over the last decade, particularly at Gillette Stadium, so confidence would not be misplaced. But this week, players and coaches feel more relaxed than they ever have facing New England, preparing for the first time against a quarterback not named Brady. This year’s Patriots have, like the Knights, started the season erratically, staggering to a 3-3 record. From film study, Maverick knows the strength of the Patriots’ defense is their secondary, so he fears a stupid, run-first game plan. He’s relieved to see a playbook with plenty of passes, and although many are screens and short throws, it’s still better than handing the ball off. The defense practices a game plan much like the previous week’s for Cam Newton, who has been a mixed bag as a Patriot. Ripka declares the game a great opportunity to fix their mistakes from the Bears game: fewer points allowed, more turnovers generated. When Randall enters the facility, he stays frosty, keen to catch any sideways looks from the coaching staff. His first encounter with Ripka comes in the locker room in the form of a casual “good morning,” and nothing seems amiss. Grantzinger keeps his eyes on Randall while everyone pads up for practice. He seems fine, never looking in Grantzinger’s direction but never revealing any symptoms either. Practice begins, and Grantzinger glances to the defensive captain whenever he can. It’s a light practice, so nobody is the giver or receiver of hard hits. By day’s end, most players feel confident in the game plan and their opportunity to reclaim a winning record. Randall and Grantzinger strike up conversations with teammates occasionally—Randall coaches up the younger players on nuances of certain plays, and Grantzinger happily delivers criticism to linemen with improper technique. After practice, both dress in the locker room and leave without a word to each other. As coaches and players spend their final hours in the MedComm Center Friday afternoon, Phillips spends hours in his office, back and forth between detailed salary cap breakdowns with Jensen and negotiations with Chase Grodd’s agent over the phone. Over the summer, Phillips had insisted on a three-year deal with most money guaranteed; Grodd’s agent had insisted on a five-year deal with as much overall money as possible. Neither side budged from their position, talks broke down, and Grodd announced a holdout. Now, each side has compromised toward a four-year deal. Phillips feels an agreement is within reach, but Grodd’s agent’s demands for guaranteed money are much higher than he likes, so talks stall again. At one point, Phillips fears the agent will drop the hammer (no more negotiations until free agency), but both sides ultimately agree to table talks until next week. Phillips sends Jensen home and keeps working into the night, after all players and coaches have long gone. At exactly eight, he enters Schneider’s office, and the two of them take a rare closed-door meeting with a man not affiliated with the Knights, nor with the National Football League at all. The man matching their tight-fitting suit attire represents one of many executive search firms that specialize in executive hires for various corporations. Their contribution to the sports world is that of executive and coaching hires. As several teams do when transitioning between leadership, the Knights, on Schneider’s orders, have reached out to identify possible head-coaching candidates for 2021. Schneider and Phillips know they are capable of fielding their own search, but another voice is never unwanted. The executive begins by rambling off his firm’s accomplishments. Phillips and Schneider seem neither interested nor impressed. Schneider interjects only to question the confidentiality agreement, which the executive insists is rock solid. Word of this to the public would be incredibly disruptive to the Knights, a team with an ostensibly stable coaching staff. He finally gets to the results of the fourteen-day study, distributing professionally printed packets. The conclusion includes names familiar to Phillips and casual fans alike: Dave Toub, Robert Saleh, Eric Bieniemy. Another name, Lincoln Riley, transitions into a half-debate-half-discussion of the merits of hiring college coaches. “Our firm thought very highly of Matt Rhule,” the executive says. “We think he will be very successful in Carolina.” Phillips soon gives in to his temptation of hypotheticals. He has a lot of respect for Chet Ripka, but he would be highly intrigued to see what someone like Saleh could do with the Knights defense. Then again, someone like Toub, a special teams coordinator, could take over while keeping both coordinators in place. Would Toub be open to that? Would he want to bring in his own guys? Would Saleh? Phillips doesn’t like it, but it’s diligent. It’s the extra-mile level of detail and preparation that separates great organizations from good ones. And it’s the kind of the diligence that has given this franchise three Super Bowls. The executive concludes his presentation, and Phillips is surprised to realize it has taken almost an hour. Schneider flips back and forth through the packet, scanning each page carefully. “So,” Schneider says, not looking up, “your top candidate would be…?” “Again, that’s not for us to determine,” the executive says. “Our aim is not to identify the so-called ‘top guy.’ Our aim is simply to present you with all the information possible, and all the viable candidates. Your interview process should then make the top choice apparent.” “In the event that we conduct an interview process,” Phillips says. “Of course. There are other factors that our firm simply cannot adequately judge, such as which coaches best match your personnel. Confident though we are in our work, that level of football analysis is just outside our wheelhouse, I’m afraid.” “Indeed it is,” Phillips says. “Very well then,” Schneider says, rising from his chair. He thanks the man and his firm for their work and politely escorts him out of the building. When he gets back to his office, Phillips is still there, waiting for him. “I know you don’t approve,” Schneider says, strolling toward the wall-to-wall windows and gazing at the illuminated skyline of downtown Los Angeles. “I just think it’s way too premature to starting preparing for the apocalypse,” Phillips says, standing in place. “You ever play chess, Chance?” “No, not really. I mean, a little when I was a kid, sure.” “I played in high school. Captain of the school’s team, in fact.” Schneider turns from the window and looks at Phillips. “At the end of most chess matches, you reach the endgame. Most pieces are off the board, probably just a few pawns and minor pieces left. From there, it’s a grind. It may take forty moves to reach the endgame, but it takes another sixty to end it. It’s a tedious, grueling aspect of the game most players never perfect, but it was always my favorite. Care to know why?” Phillips shrugs. “Enlighten me.” “Because you realize the endgame isn’t the endgame at all—it’s the culmination of every previous move, every strategy, every exchange. You might advance a pawn on, say, move ten, and never move it again for forty moves. But then, on move fifty, firmly into the endgame, the position of that pawn is crucial to your winning chances. So, when you move that pawn on move ten, still in the opening phase of the game, you’re also moving it for the endgame. Every move you make sets up your endgame position, for better or for worse.” “I appreciate the depth of the game. But, again, I don’t think our team’s performance warrants using the term ‘endgame’ so frequently.” Schneider smiles and loosens his posture a bit. “Preparation, Chance. Nothing more. We’re not looking to make changes here, we’re just positioning ourselves for the very small possibility that they’re necessary. I agree, we’re fine—though 4-3 after this week would certainly feel much better than 3-4—but we’re fine.” Phillips takes this as his cue to leave and heads for the door, hopeful that traffic will be somewhat tolerable. “That being said,” Schneider says, freezing Phillips in the doorway, “I will not be patient for the sake of patience. I will not watch the Super Bowl caliber core of players you built wither away under the leadership of an underachieving head coach. If change needs to be made, change will come.” Phillips bottles his conflicting feelings with a stern look and simply says, “I understand.” Fans fill in Gillette Stadium with a decided lack of energy in the air. What was once a scintillating matchup of AFC powerhouses is now a battle between teams with a combined record of 6-6, probably not what CBS executives who pegged this as the 4pm national game for week 7 were expecting. Then again, in past years, this game would have been a near-lock for primetime. Maverick leads his offense on a field where he has notched some classic victories, not sure if those memories help or hurt him. The first plays of the game, he follows the playbook to a tee, not improvising. McKenzie’s calls are patient but surgical, and the Knights score first with a forty-yard field goal. After the next drive ends in a punt, Maverick finds his rhythm. Though he hates this dip-and-dunk strategy, it certainly works. He’s not sure, but he suspects McKenzie is now learning how to optimize this receiving corps. Though Maverick’s weapons aren’t what they used to be, they are still good enough to operate a pass-first offense. Everyone knows Wilkes’ elite ability, and Joaquin Harper is a fine number-two. Giving Maverick more hope is Connor Gillespie, emerging as a viable third option at receiver. He tore his ACL senior year in college and fell to the sixth round of the draft, where the Knights scooped him up to play exclusively in the slot. Maverick distributes the ball amongst his receivers effortlessly. He craves a deep shot, but Wilkes commands enough attention to keep things open for short gains. The Knights reach the red zone, where Maverick’s precision is finally needed. He drops back, stares down Wilkes, then fires to the opposite corner of the end zone, hitting Harper perfectly on a corner route for the touchdown. The Knights add another field goal before halftime, taking a 13-0 lead to the locker room. McKenzie keeps his foot on the gas in the second half, and Maverick gratefully keeps slinging the ball, finally hitting Wilkes on some deep shots. With the offensive line giving him a clean pocket, Maverick dominates the game, hardly throwing any incompletions. With crisp pass blocking and keen vision for adjustments, Grodd anchors the offensive line. The 30-year-old left guard is the oldest player of the starting five by far; second closest is the 24-year-old right tackle. And while the youth around him is enjoying a good game in a young career full of good and bad, Grodd is nearly perfect. He stymies every pass rusher who tries to beat him and barrels through navy jerseys in the run game. Two dominant touchdown drives later, the Knights enjoy a 27-3 lead with one quarter to go. The next drive, McKenzie calls more run plays, putting the game in the hands of Kenyon Hart-Smith. The second-year running back has been a huge disappointment so far. He didn’t get much playing time last year, sitting behind Marcus Jameson, but his time as a starter this year has been consistent: great speed and agility, awful vision finding running lanes. Today is more of the same. Despite great blocking, Hart-Smith finds little room between the tackles. When McKenzie gets him in space on a sweep, he evades tacklers and accelerates for first downs. After a punt, the offense catches their breath on the sideline. Grodd gratefully breathes in oxygen, riding the adrenaline of his best game of the season, in the face of his distractions, no less. But he shakes them off, determined not to let it bother him during a game. It can wait, he tells himself. It can wait. It will wait. With seven minutes to go, McKenzie gives the order: bench Maverick and a few other starters, call off the dogs, run the clock out. Maverick stands curiously on the sideline and watches his backup guide the offense. Rodney Stillman is in the third year of a career that has never threatened Maverick, but his performance in training camp this summer was undoubtedly impressive. Though the Knights operate a run-first offense, Stillman faces multiple third and longs and converts each one, hitting receivers with pinpoint accuracy (and a much weaker arm than Maverick). “Uh oh!” Wilkes screams after one particular first down. “Better watch out, Mav. Rod is slingin’ it!” Though he would ignore him anyway, Maverick’s thoughts dwell on things much more important than football—he’s pretty sure, anyway. Mav eases his car around the long, circular driveway, opens the oversized front door, and enters the mansion. The only sound he hears is the near-silent hum of the air conditioning. Instinctively, he walks through the middle of the home and into the fenced back yard. As expected, he spots Trisha lounging in the hot tub. She reclines with her head back, eyes closed, arms outstretched, one of them holding a glass of red wine. “Hey, babe,” Mav says. “Hey.” “What’s the word?” Trisha bobs her head in the direction of a nearby table. Mav sees the tiny, white piece of plastic, now a familiar sight to him. Against the purple-orange sky, he can’t see into the fateful oval-shaped window. He steps closer and lifts the object up in his hand, and the two vertical lines are now unmistakable. Mav feels a surge of emotions all at once: a rush of joy and a wave of hopeful images of his future, then apprehension as the gravity of the situation sinks in, then grave fear. This last emotion lingers the longest as he puts the test down, removes his shirt, and slides into the hot tub, not caring that he’s still wearing his jeans. “So, what do you think?” Mav asks, a little uncomfortable at the lack of energy between them. The first occasion had been decidedly more festive. “I don’t know, what am I supposed to think? Happy, I guess. I mean, this is what we wanted, right?” “Yes. It’s exactly what we wanted. What we want. Did you tell anyone yet?” “Mom, obviously. Other than that, I don’t see the point in spreading the word.” Mav feels an urge to slide around the edge of the hot tub against her, but suppresses it as she takes another sip of wine. “Shouldn’t you…I mean, if…don’t you think…” Trisha looks as if she knows exactly where her husband’s disjointed thoughts are supposed to go. “I know,” she says, looking between the nearly empty glass and the opened bottle. “I guess I figured this would be the last one, you know?” “Right. I mean, sure,” Mav says, leaning his head back. “How much are you gonna be around?” Mav snaps his head forward. Trisha keeps her gaze on her wine glass, red liquid swirling around it. “During the season?” “You know what I’m asking.” “And you know I’m tired of being compared to your father.” “You know what I mean.” Mav releases his stare, understanding he won’t be able to steer the conversation where he wants. He tries to focus on the hot tub, on the jets pulsing warm water onto the exterior of his sore muscles. “I’ve told you before,” he says, “that for a long time, I never thought I had anything other than football. I always figured, once I retired, that would be it. I would find some way to capitalize on my name, land stupid gigs for money, but my life would be over. Now I know different.” “But you’re not about to retire.” “You don’t want me to. And we both know I have more than a few years left.” “Everybody thinks they have more years left than they do. In everything, Jon, not just football. My dad understood that.” “I know he did. I wish he were still around. Even if it were just five minutes, to talk to him one more time.” “Not as much as me.” Mav wants to challenge her on that point, to tell her she’s wrong. But he says nothing, grunting instead, not sure if he’s trying to communicate agreement, objection, or both. He leans back, embracing the warmth of the water on his bruised body, and stares at the darkening sky. The Knights’ 4-3 record seems to lift all pressure from the MedComm Center the next week. Meetings and practices start on time with no worry in the air, even though the Knights are staring down a trip to Arrowhead Stadium to face the defending Super Bowl champions. Players, for their part, seem eager for a shot at the champs, to prove to themselves and everyone that the Knights belong in the same conversation. Coaches match their confidence with an aggressive game plan centering on the aim that the Knights will not stop the Mahomes-led Chiefs—they will outscore them. Wednesday’s practice comes and goes. Then Thursday, then Friday, and all Knights are heading out for their last night in town save for four, who report to Coach McKenzie’s office for the players council meeting. Maverick checks his phone almost frantically, waiting (hoping) for word from Trisha. But none comes. He wonders when he should tell the team, if at all. Things won’t get serious until after the season, if they make it that far this time. Grodd is also constantly glancing at his phone, wanting some more info from his agent. Based on their conversation last weekend, he thought a deal might be done by now. He’s not against the idea of hitting free agency; he used to be, but now, he just wants to know, either way. He wouldn’t even mind something new from the realtor at this point. He has grown tired of having things drag out during the season. He may have just played his best game of the year with everything looming over his head, but he’s not confident that can last. Grantzinger tries to wade off the cobwebs in his eyes. He needs to suppress a yawn every minute, it seems. After a long, bad night with his father, he managed to grind out practice without problems, but it’s catching up with him. He can’t get through this meeting soon enough to get some sleep. Randall still looks suspiciously at coaches—and at Grantzinger—and finds nothing noteworthy. He wonders when he should reach out to Grantzinger again. After all, he doesn’t know just how deep Randall’s thoughts are. Maybe he himself doesn’t know. He just needs some time to think about things; this crisis would have been much better served occurring in the middle of summer, not with a big game looming. The four players take their usual seats, and McKenzie looks out at them. They don’t know, he tells himself. He would pick up on something immediately if they did, if they even suspected. He tries to brush it off and stay on task as he kicks things off. The meeting begins and ends without anything consequential.
  9. SteVo

    2020 Democratic Primary Race

    Picking Harris doesn't appease the far-left. The Bernie bros (who, for the record, are the biggest batch of entitled, Millennial, insufferable cunts imaginable) hate Harris. Actually, they hate everybody besides Bernie and AOC, I'm pretty sure. You're a Republican? Not liberal! BOOOO! You're a Democrat? Not liberal enough! BOOOO!
  10. SteVo

    2020 Democratic Primary Race

    In theory, I agree, but Biden definitely isn't the ideal candidate to galvanize liberal voters. A lot of the Bernie bros will seriously consider staying home again (as they did in 2016). However, I think the smart thing for Biden is to ignore them. Target the older, middle-class, rural Democrats in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Minnesota who were disillusioned in 2016 (rightfully so; Obama did nothing for them) and either voted for Trump or stayed home. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, since Biden was Obama's VP, but 1) I still think he can gain enough ground in those states to win them back and win the election, and 2) voters now realize what an abject disaster Trump is and will be more likely to swing the other way.
  11. SteVo

    2020 Democratic Primary Race

    Plenty of chances the GOP doesn't get curb-stomped. Three months is a long time, and 538's election model (which debuted today) gives Biden a 72% chance to win--the same odds it gave Clinton the day before the '16 election.
  12. Knights of Andreas FOUR YEARS LATER Chapter Eighty-Three – Ghosts of Seasons Past “Don’t ever play this game scared.” –Merle Harden The two men sit in stools at the middle of the bar, no one near them. Others talk in hushed tones under dim lighting and a soothing atmosphere. Some fill the air with cigarette smoke. The two at the bar each nurse glasses of whiskey, one neat and one with a giant ball of ice. “So it’s finally happening, huh?” “Yep.” “Where?” “Carolina.” “And you’re calling the plays.” “Yep.” “Shit. Well, then, cheers to you, Merle.” Mac raises his glass. Merle does the same. They both drink. Mac’s ice jingles in the glass as he puts it down, getting a glimpse at the clock. It’s a little past ten. “So you’re the guy now,” Merle says. “Can’t imagine the boosters have a problem with it, but if they do, I’ll straighten ‘em out. So cheers to you, Mac. You’re a college head coach.” They raise their glasses again and drink. “What did it for you?” Mac asks. “What?” “You’ve had offers the last couple years. Why now?” “Hell if I know. Just felt like time, I guess.” “Yeah.” Mac takes a drink and looks up at the clock. It’s quarter to twelve. “We’re gonna have a good team this year, Merle. You could be walking out on a championship.” “I’m not an idiot, Mac.” “Sure hope you’re not picking now to give me an easy start, prevent me from going on the hot seat too fast.” “You think I’m fucking soft? The hell is it with you tonight?” “Oh, I don’t know.” Merle drinks. Mac drinks, looks at the clock. It’s a little past nine. Mac stares at his glass as a thought grips him. He looks around, at the place, at the bar, at the clock. He looks again at his drink and at his friend. “How are the guys?” Merle asks somberly. “As good as they can be, after a 1-1 start. Don’t know what happened last week.” “I’m sure Chet’s too soft with his play calling. I told him not to be.” “No, you told him to run his defense how he wants to run it.” “That’s right.” “The guys are good, it’s just…” Mac searches for the right words as Merle looks curiously at him. “It’s tough,” Mac says. “I know, I know.” “I miss you, Merle.” “Oh, fuck off.” Merle looks back to his glass and downs it. Mac takes a sip. “What’s it like, being gone?” Mac asks. “Not so bad.” “You’re just saying that.” They both drink. The music slows. “Do me a favor,” Merle says. “What’s that?” “The big seat is tough. I know it is. But don’t stand there and tell me all your troubles are just football.” Mac blinks a few times, suddenly trying to find his balance. “What are you talking about?” Merle stares at him, inching forward on his stool. Mac feels scared. He wants to leave. “Merle, what do you mean?” Merle rises from his stool and steps closer, leaning in, inches from Mac’s face… “You think I don’t know?” Everything goes black. Merle’s words echo into the new world, coming into focus. McKenzie lifts his head and blinks, sees his arms, a desk, and the rest of his office appears. McKenzie sits up as his office around him comes into focus. He checks the time—2:32. He must have fallen asleep watching film. At this point, he may as well try for some more sleep here. He staggers from his office toward the sleeping quarters down the hallway. The 35-13 drubbing in Pittsburgh resonates on both floors of the MedComm Center, but the Knights lift the fog with a solid 31-13 win against the Dolphins. They head into week 4 with a 2-1 record, facing back-to-back road games in Green Bay and Detroit. Wednesday’s practice concludes, players head to the weight room or clinic, and both coordinators head to the press room for their weekly conferences. The offensive coordinator speaks for what feels like two minutes, then Ripka takes the podium. He fields a much more pleasant round of questions than last week, plus the usual batch of injury and game plan inquiries: preparing for Aaron Rodgers, game planning against Caden Daniel (who he played under for three seasons), etc. Reporters occasionally get into the X’s and O’s of plays from the previous game, where Ripka is happy to go into detail. “Coach,” one reporter eventually asks, “at the end of the half, when Miami was driving—it was still a close game at that point, only 14-10—you guys ran an interesting play where it looked like the two safeties were cheating up, almost showing blitz and then ended up switching sides of the field.” “Yep,” Ripka says. They ran that play design two times in the Dolphins game: just before halftime on third and six, and the middle of the third quarter on second and twelve, both from the nickel. “Some people on Twitter caught this one,” the reporter continues. “That design actually looks like the same play the Bears ran in the playoffs back in ’03, against Philly, that play where you intercepted the pass in the end zone.” Ripka looks away from the small crowd, tracing his memory. “Which game?” “Divisional Round, 2003. You lined up on the left side of the field, came into the box pre-snap, then floated to the right side, ended up intercepting the pass in the corner of the end zone.” Ripka’s eyes wander. He had the privilege of playing in several playoff games in his career, so he searches for that particular game. He remembers flying to Philadelphia, remembers Urlacher’s big pre-game speech, remembers a somber flight home after they blew the lead in the fourth quarter… “Coach?” Ripka blinks his focus back to the reporter. “Sorry. Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to say it’s the same exact play, but of course, you draw influence from old plays wherever you can. You’re not always reinventing the wheel from scratch. So, that’s part of the process, yes. I’ll say that much.” Another few generic questions later, the conference concludes. Javad types his final note into his phone, then glances across the room to Jessica, planning to ask at lunch if she has the same question he does. Knights 20, Packers 10, 8:45 to go. The sky is now nearly invisible against fully lit Lambeau Field. A buzz of nervous energy fills the stadium as Aaron Rodgers leads the Packers into the red zone. Randall watches Rodgers calling audibles, adding a few of his own. Grantzinger hears one and shifts off the line of scrimmage. Rodgers takes the snap. Randall and Grantzinger float over the middle of the field, keeping all green jerseys close. They watch as Rodgers launches a back-shoulder fade for Davante Adams, who spins and catches it for a touchdown. Randall and Grantzinger look at each other nervously. The Knights take over and McKenzie sticks to a pass/run balance. Maverick finds enough receivers to move the chains and work the clock. They cross midfield as the clock hits 6:00 and McKenzie calls a deep shot. Maverick drops back, feels pressure, steps up, and readies a heave to the end zone. He gets hit from behind, falls forward into a crowd of linemen, and turns around looking for the ball. Grodd finds himself on the bottom of the pile and spots the ball. He reaches for it, ignoring the clawing of his arms, but can’t grab it. Officials soon clear the pile and declare Packers ball. Lambeau Field screams louder than it has all day. From his assigned suite, Phillips feels precisely what his players and fans feel: the sudden gut punch of momentum swinging the other way, a 3-1 record falling to 2-2. He watches helplessly as Rodgers takes over and picks apart the Knights secondary, ultimately handing off to Aaron Jones on a draw that Jones takes into the end zone. Packers 24, Knights 20, 2:58 to go. Phillips, wanting to be on the field for the end of the game, gets up from his seat and begins the long journey down. He walks nearly the length of the field toward the private elevator, joins a security escort through the bowels of the stadium—hearing a concerning amount of cheers from the home fans—and emerges from a tunnel with celebration around him. He views the scoreboard: still 24-20, 0:53 to go, but the Packers have possession. Whatever comeback the Knights mounted has already failed. A few kneeldowns end the game, and Phillips rushes the field with everyone else. He conservatively hovers near the Packers’ tunnel, eventually spotting their head coach and extending his hand. “Nice win, coach,” Phillips says, “congratulations.” “Hey, Chance,” Caden Daniel says, not breaking stride. “Thank you.” “Tried to find you before the game. I know you’ve got to get back.” “How is everything? Family good?” “Yeah, everything’s great.” Phillips looks up; they are just steps from a tunnel he will not be allowed to enter. “Hey, what do you say we do a rematch in February?” Daniel says. “I’ll see you in Tampa,” Phillips says, extending his arm again. They shake hands, Daniel departs, and Phillips looks back around the most mythical stadium in the league. In the shadow of legendary names—Starr, Favre, Lombardi—he expects a heavy wave of nostalgia and admiration to wash over him. It doesn’t. All he can feel is the pressure of being general manager of a struggling team with a 2-2 record. Monday morning, Knights arrive at the MedComm Center all too aware of the landscape: the Knights are square with the Chargers in the AFC West, looking up at the 3-1 Broncos, and miles behind the 4-0 Chiefs. Early season variance aside, no one wants to be tied for third place after the first quarter of the season. McKenzie tries to find a happy medium in his address to the players. Yes, the season has grown urgent uncomfortably soon, but this week they get the 1-3 Lions. As long as they develop a solid game plan and execute, they win, go to 3-2, and all is well. Coaches are engrossed in film for hours while players complete their brief Monday routines. A little after noon, most of the coaches hit the weight room themselves for a workout/discussion. They all work out for varying lengths of time, but after an hour, McKenzie is the only one still going, running furiously on a treadmill, surrounded by his offensive staff, still putting together their game plan. “Wilkes can beat Rose in coverage. He’s done so plenty of times.” “I’m sure he can, but we shouldn’t rely on six catches from him.” “I agree. Have Wilkes draw Rose and let us take our chances with Flash.” McKenzie keeps running. He feels his heart thumping against his chest. His breaths become wheezing gasps. “If Wilkes can’t draw Flash, it’ll be tough to find open guys.” “Like I said, the run game will be huge for us this week.” “Hey, Mac, you alright? You’ve been on there forever.” “Yeah, want a breather?” He turns up the speed on the treadmill. His run becomes a hurried sprint. His feet pound the moving ground. “Whoa, Mac…” “Hey, take it easy, it’s ok…” He ignores them as he coughs. His hands clutch the rails of the treadmill, propelling his run… “Hey! Coach!” “Shut it down! Shut it down!” The whole weight room crowds around the treadmill. McKenzie keeps going. From the crowd, Ripka struts toward the front of the machine and slams his fingers on it. The treadmill’s hum fades, as does McKenzie’s pace. When everything stops, McKenzie is clutched over, desperately drawing as much air as he can. He looks up and locks eyes with Ripka, who stares him down. Ripka shoots him a stern look, thinking, Yeah, I know. McKenzie finally breaks eye contact, and Ripka leaves the room. The rest of the coaches wonder what just happened, ultimately deeming continued formulation of the game plan the best idea. By Friday, the game plan has been set, practiced, refined, practiced, and printed. Coaches enjoy their shortest day of the week, leaving MedComm before most of Los Angeles leaves work. Ripka, however, suffers through an hour of traffic before arriving at his monthly appointment. The medical office is small, with few patients still there this late in the day. Better still, none of the doctors are affiliated with the Knights, just the way he wants it. Ripka only waits ten minutes before being called in. His neurologist takes him through the usual motions, checking his vision and conducting some memory recall tests. Then, he asks the question. “Any symptoms at work the past month?” “Yes, actually,” Ripka says. The doctor pauses, obviously not used to this particular answer. Ripka sighs and goes on. “I was doing a press conference last week.” “When?” “Wednesday. One of the reporters asked me about a game I played about seventeen years ago. I didn’t remember it.” The doctor looks at him pensively. “I looked it up later. He was right about the game. I remember practicing for it, I remember flying there, I remember flying home. But I didn’t remember the game. I don’t remember the game.” The doctor’s eyes bob around as he thinks, then land on his patient. “Any other symptoms in the last month? Or the last year, that you haven’t told me? Headaches? Mood swings? Dizziness?” “No.” “Then I’m not that concerned.” “Not that concerned I can’t remember a football game I played in?” “You most likely suffered a concussion during the game, which is affecting the memory from it. That is not uncommon among anyone who suffers a concussion, football players or otherwise.” Ripka nods politely, looks down, suddenly trying to run through every game of his whole career. How many others can’t he remember? “Chet,” the doctor says. He looks up. “It doesn’t mean you have CTE.” “It doesn’t mean I don’t.” “You have been seeing me for almost a year now, and over that time, including what you have told me today, my conclusion remains the same: your symptoms are consistent with a former football player who sustained multiple concussions over the course of his career, not necessarily a former football player suffering from CTE.” Ripka nods again, feeling slightly better this time. “I want you to keep the same routine,” the doctor continues. “Document anything unusual. And make sure your wife and co-workers are aware and do the same.” “You got it, doc,” Ripka says, knowing his wife will happily report any symptoms she notices. His fellow Knights, however, have no idea about this. Players and coaches spill out from their cars at the MedComm parking lot. Some venture inside to collect a few things; others are ready to go. The buses have already pulled up and everyone knows their assignment. By noon, the coaches have double-checked attendance—all players and staff accounted for. The buses will have them at LAX in twenty minutes. Forty-five minutes after that, their private flight lifts off. Four hours and fifteen minutes after that, they touch down in Detroit. People begin filtering onto the buses when some raised voices far away get their attention. Something seems to be happening at the security gate leading into the lot. No one gives it much thought until a lone car speeds into the lot. Suddenly, everyone is on guard as the car heads straight for them, stopping just short of the last bus. Players scatter and look frantically at each other. The car door opens, and an older man, looking just as frantic, emerges. “Oh no,” Grantzinger says. Randall, nearby, understands what’s going on. “ZACK!” the old man screams. “WHERE’S ZACK! WHERE’S MY BOY?” Grantzinger emerges from the crowd. “Dad! Dad! It’s me. For fuck’s sake.” Everyone stands in awe and confusion. Those on a bus press their face against the nearest window to see. Some run off the bus for a better view. Phillips, not on his bus yet, jogs to the front of the crowd. “I got your call! Your message!” “Keep your voice down…” “Said you were out driving drunk somewhere—” “Dad, I’m right here, in front of you—” “I came to pick you up.” “Ok, ok, it’s ok. Fucking hell, dad.” “Oh, I’m goddamn sorry for helping my son after he’s fucked up.” “What’s going on?” Phillips asks, appearing. “Get in the car,” Grantzinger says. “I’m ok, dad. I’ll just be a minute.” He ultimately does so, leaving the door open. Grantzinger turns to his general manager. “This is my old man. He, uh, has Alzheimer’s. Today is another episode, apparently.” “What was he talking about, you driving drunk?” Grantzinger hangs his head, and Phillips understands. “Give me one second,” Phillips says, extracting his phone from his jacket as he walks off. Grantzinger stands alone, unable to look at the mass of teammates behind him. Mercifully, one of them approaches him first. “Now I see what you mean,” Randall says. “What happened to that person you had taking care of him?” “Good question,” Grantzinger says. “I guess I won’t ask about what he said.” “Good.” “Half the guys probably think it was a hallucination or something.” Grantzinger closes his eyes, preferring not to dwell on the psychological workings of Alzheimer’s disease at the moment. He is spared by Phillips, who reappears, phone in hand. “Ok,” Phillips says, “we can have one of our drivers take him home, but I’m sure you’d be more comfortable doing it yourself.” “I would, but what about the flight?” Phillips lifts up his phone. “I was talking to Wayne. Once your dad’s home and calmed down, give him a call. His private jet is at LAX. You can take it to Detroit and meet us at the hotel.” “Oh, ok.” “No rush, Zack. Just take care of your dad. Everybody will understand.” Phillips backs off towards his bus, trying to look composed. Grantzinger stays where he is and turns to Randall. “Square it with the guys.” “Oh, don’t worry,” Randall says. “Anyone who starts shit gets left at the airport.” “Just square it. No questions. Anyone waiting for an explanation from me might as well keep waiting for Jesus.” A few hours later, the Knights disperse amongst their assigned rooms in a Detroit hotel. Curfew is set, and players make dinner plans. For his part, Phillips has no plans in mind until Jensen knocks on his door. “Hungry?” Jensen asks. “I was going to order room service. Why?” “I used to be a scout here, made my share of connections. I can get us some privacy at a good seafood place.” And so, forty minutes later, the Los Angeles Knights’ top two front-office decision makers find themselves at a secluded table of a downtown restaurant, each working on a cocktail with appetizers on the way. “I’m surprised Schneider didn’t make the trip,” Jensen says, balancing a dirty martini in his hand. “Hasn’t been traveling with the team this year,” Phillips says, sipping a rum and coke. “Hasn’t been at MedComm as much either.” “So I noticed. It really started after that CBA vote, didn’t it?” “Yeah. Apparently he’s one of the key owners trying to negotiate a deal. The vote was a bad look for the league, so Goodell wants to announce a deal before season’s end, doesn’t want any more offseason drama.” Phillips takes another sip, catches Jensen’s eye, and adds, “But that’s confidential.” Jensen nods in understanding. The waitress arrives with two orders of shrimp cocktail, and they dig in, neither speaking for a moment. “I saw you on the field with Caden Daniel last week,” Jensen eventually says. “That’s right. Wanted to say hi. Didn’t get a chance before the game.” “You still have a relationship with him?” “I don’t know if I’d say that.” Jensen takes another bite of shrimp, studying Phillips carefully. Phillips drains the rest of his drink and looks for the waitress. “Daniel was my guy,” Phillips says at last. “He was my twin. Rational, methodical, patient, precise.” “Yet you fired him.” “I can’t go into detail on that. But you’ve been in the league long enough to know by now.” “Know what?” “Sometimes there comes a point where someone has to pay. Fair or not, right or not, someone has to pay. In ’12, it was Daniel. One of these years, it’ll probably be me. It’ll be you, too, if you have your own team one day.” “One day soon?” Jensen asks, and Phillips looks at him firmly, understanding exactly what he’s asking. Rick Jensen will almost certainly be a general manager in the NFL, and soon. Typically, it would be impossible to prevent his ascension to GM of another team. So Phillips thought, anyway, until this offseason, when Schneider floated an idea: installing Jensen as GM of the Knights and promoting Phillips to Team President. “Nothing lately from Wayne,” Phillips says. “I wish I could tell you more.” “You’re still hoping for it, right? We’re still on the same page?” “My thoughts haven’t changed. If you want to be a GM in charge of absolutely everything, running a team the way you want, you have to leave the Knights. If you’re ok with all your decisions going through me, then stick it out here.” “But you wouldn’t be micromanaging me. You wouldn’t be in the building as much.” “Correct.” “Is that what it’s about for you? More family time?” Phillips chews the last of his shrimp slowly, pondering that question honestly. “In some ways it is; in other ways, it’s too late,” he says, drifting off in thought before realizing he wants to bring the conversation back to football. “Anyway, the important part is that all the parts of the organization are in sync. That’s what I was talking about regarding Daniel. “But you got along with Harden pretty good, though, right?” Phillips suppresses a chuckle when he sees the waitress approach. He gracefully switches his empty glass for a new one and takes a sip. “You know, that’s the funny part. In many ways, Harden and I were the worst possible match between head coach and GM.” “How so?” “I’ll put it this way. We’d scout the hell out of some cornerback, run through medicals and background. Everything. Work the process, and work it right. Scouts come back with a firm third-round grade. But he says the kid’s a first-round pick. So I pick him in the first. It went against every damn principle I believe in as a GM, and I did it because Merle Harden told me to.” Phillips drifts off again, this time in no hurry to come back. Another round of silence passes between the two as they study the menu and order entrees plus a bottle of Riesling. The wine arrives and they each sip from full glasses. “Ok,” Jensen says out of nowhere. “Let’s talk trade deadline.” “Rick, isn’t it a little early to—” “Chance, we’re off the clock. It’s an unofficial discussion.” Phillips raises his glass. “That it is.” “We’re 2-2. After tomorrow, we’ll be 3-2 which puts us in play for the deadline. Due diligence can wait; just humor me. I’d like to throw out some sentimental names.” “Alright then, as long as we’re reminiscing here. Fire away.” “Jerome Jaxson.” “Doubt very much Brady would appreciate them trading one of his weapons, even if he’s not starting.” “Logan Bishop.” “He’d give jersey sales a temporary boost and help the locker room, but does he move the needle?” “I don’t know, Chance, as a second tight end I think he’d be open on a lot of checkdowns. Maverick wouldn’t mind.” “Since when has Maverick liked checkdowns?” “He hates checkdowns, but he hates losing more.” “I bet Jacksonville’s price is too high.” “You sure?” “Alright, hell with it, check in anyway.” Jensen rounds off more names, Phillips deflects as politely as possible, and the two enjoy the rest of their wine and food as the final hours of night slip away. Lions fans pack Ford Field with as much pre-game enthusiasm as they can for a 1-3 team with a head coach on the hot seat, but the opening frame gives them—or anyone—little reason to cheer. Both defenses shut down the opposing offense, barely allowing first downs, and the first quarter ends in a scoreless tie. On the visitors’ sideline, the Knights remain calm, focused, and worry-free. The defense will continue to lock things down, and the offense will get it in gear eventually. They appear poised to do just that, just shy of midfield on second and two. Then a shotgun snap flies over Maverick’s head, a third-down screen gets stuffed, special teams suffers a long punt return, and the Lions are across midfield. Four plays later, Matthew Stafford finds Kenny Golladay in the end zone, and Ford Field celebrates the first score of the day. McKenzie tries to drown out the crowd noise, louder than usual in a dome, and finds his quarterback before the next drive. “Leaning on you now,” McKenzie says. “No sweat, just execute.” “No problem, coach,” Maverick says, always happy to unleash his side of the playbook. The Knights take over, and Maverick surveys the secondary from shotgun, focusing almost exclusively on two familiar faces. His primary read on most plays, Wilkes can barely find clean grass against Malik Rose, so Maverick stops looking. Elsewhere, it seems every time a white jersey is about to get open, Griswold “Flash” Johnson appears to fill the gap. Maverick can’t find anyone open beyond five yards, and the Knights punt after a six-play, fifteen-yard drive. Maverick falls onto the bench, resisting the impulse to throw his helmet and start screaming. “Might as well just run the fucking ball every play,” he says. “We’ll get the same amount of yards.” “I’m on board with that,” Grodd says. “Can’t handle Flash and Rose in the same secondary?” “Between the two of them, there’s nowhere to go except these pussy ass checkdowns.” “Makes you appreciate when we had ‘em both, huh?” “I don’t know how we ever lost.” “I can beat him,” Wilkes says. “I’ve done it before.” “Yeah?” Maverick says skeptically. “C’mon, Mav, I know how to get in his head. Let me break him.” “Go ahead. Just do us all a favor and spare us the fourth quarter dramatics. Let’s just get out of here with a win.” On their next drive, Maverick gets a first down, and McKenzie decides to use the trick play he was saving for the second half. Maverick takes a snap and fires sideways to Wilkes. White jerseys move toward him for a bubble screen—Wilkes lobs it back to Maverick, who spots a receiver downfield. Finally. His sixty-yard throw doesn’t miss, and the equalizing touchdown silences the crowd. The offenses trade failed two-minute drills, the rest of the half proceeds without excitement, and it’s a 7-7 tie at halftime. The Lions take the first possession of the half and start marching. Ripka scrambles to find the right play call with Detroit suddenly in rhythm. He calls a cover zero blitz on third and seven from midfield. Grantzinger surges around the edge and hits Stafford as Randall leaps from a carnage of linemen to tip the pass, but both miss their target by a fraction of a second. The lob pass finds an open Danny Amendola for a thirty-yard gain. A few plays later, on second and goal, Stafford sneaks it in for a touchdown. Thanks to successful locker room lobbying, Wilkes takes the field as the primary target on offense. He has beaten Rose in coverage five times today, and Maverick only threw to him once. Now he runs deeper routes, going for the kill and talking trash after every play. He runs his first two routes aggressively, shoving off a little on the break to get separation, but the ball doesn’t come his way. “What’s the matter, Malik?” Wilkes says after a play. “The wrong side of thirty slowin’ you down?” “I only need to go half-throttle to keep up with your ass,” Rose says. Wilkes spends the third quarter focused on Rose, frustrated with his lack of targets (and the quality of Rose’s trash talk). A long Detroit drive leaves him too much time on the bench but ends abruptly when Randall takes an interception to the house to tie the game. Celebration around him, Wilkes feels disappointed he has to wait longer to get back on the field. The Lions re-take the field against a tired defense and, as the game crosses into the fourth quarter, put together another long drive that ends in a fifty-yard field goal. 17-14, Lions, 12:33 to go. The ensuing possessions showcase not an exciting offensive back-and-forth of skill, but a grinding field position struggle. Meanwhile, the clock ticks. At last, Ripka calls a cover zero blitz at the perfect time, resulting in a sack, and the Knights get the ball back with 2:12 on the clock. “Enough bullshit, ladies,” McKenzie says to whichever offensive players are listening. “Game’s in front of us right here. Let’s get six and go the fuck home.” Maverick commands the huddle with intensity and reminds everyone of the protocols: get out of bounds when you can, listen for audibles. From the shotgun, he fires on quick passes, trying only to move the chains, doubtful he can find anyone open for the deep shot he desperately wants. The front office has surrounded him with fast receivers, but he misses guys like Joseph Watson, whose game-breaking speed was unmatched. After a nine-yard pass to Wilkes (officials separate Wilkes and Rose without throwing a flag), it’s third and one. McKenzie calls a simple run up the middle. Grodd, relieved for a run, digs his feet in and surges forward. He sees bodies piling up to his right and he knows what has happened: run stuffed, fourth and one. In a quick huddle with the clock ticking, Maverick calls the play, another run, and says, “Stick your guys. Stick ‘em in the fucking mouth. One yard on the ground and I’ll take it from here. Let’s go.” Grodd lines up, listening for the cadence with the stadium in an uproar. He times his release perfectly, pushing his man ahead a few yards. The crowd cheers. Grodd turns around, seeing the officials spot the ball far enough for a first down, he thinks. The clock stops. Players stand around apprehensively as the chains come out to measure the ball—inches short. Turnover on downs. Lions ball. Ford Field rumbles as the Knights offense sulks back to their sideline. Grodd suppresses his rage at back-to-back runs stuffed for no gain. He remembers a time when the Knights, with he and Brian Penner, would dominate the inside run game. Given back-to-back plays like that, at least five yards were guaranteed. Having burned all but one of his timeouts, McKenzie can only stand and watch as the Lions run out the rest of the clock, and the game ends. Maverick begrudgingly trots around the field, shaking hands, looking for old teammates. He finds Rose, and the two share the briefest of smiles. “Good job being a pain in my ass,” Maverick says. “You know I respect you,” Rose says, “but I love beating you.” “I got you. Give my best to Eva and the girls.” Post-game ceremonies continue and, despite the frustrations and tribulations since the Super Bowl in January 2018, Knights fans must confront something the previous two seasons never wrought: a losing record. McKenzie gives his players the silent treatment and sticks to it, per the Merle Harden philosophy: if you’re not sure what to say to your team, say nothing. It’s well past nightfall when players and coaches disperse from the MedComm Center toward their homes. McKenzie drives through the southern California night, barely breaking the speed limit. He navigates the highways, then the smaller roads, finally pulling into the gravel driveway. A million thoughts race through his mind, each moving too quickly to hold down. He needs a good night’s sleep, though he knows he won’t get it. He approaches the front door, and the dog is there to greet him, but McKenzie barely pets him, instead locking up the quiet house, getting a glass of water from the kitchen, and heading upstairs. He opens the bedroom door, takes off his shoes, and tiptoes toward his side of the bed. He eases the glass onto his end table and lightly falls into the bed. The frame creaks as his lays back onto the pillow. The woman next to him rolls over, leaning against his shoulder. “Rough game,” she says. “You watched?” “A little.” McKenzie says nothing. “You’ll get through it, Ron. Just try to get some sleep.” She grabs his hand tenderly, sliding her fingers over his wrinkled knuckles “Thanks, Mel,” he says. Hurried legs trot into the bedroom, and McKenzie feels the foot of the bed sink as the Doberman pinscher leaps onto it, inching his way up and laying down with his head pressed against McKenzie’s other hand. “Hey, Bowser,” McKenzie says, petting him. “Good boy.” Melinda rolls back over, and McKenzie’s hand pets Bowser subconsciously, his eyes fixed open staring at the ceiling.
  13. 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. “…number twelve…” The final player in the tunnel feels a tap on his shoulder, and off he goes. “…Jon-a-than…Maverick!” 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. “Yeah.” “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. “No shit?” “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. “Yeah? And?” “Honestly, I was just a kid. Didn’t really understand it at the time, thankfully.” “Helpful.” “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. “Fuck. Off.” “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.” “We won.” “I bet he’ll be glad to hear.” “We’ll see.” 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. “Hey, dad.” “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?” “No.” “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.
  14. Approximate word count for all 8 chapters (subject to change for the latter ones, but the first half is pretty much done): 5,800 5,600 5,300 4,800 4,800 4,500 5,300 5,200
  15. One week from now, you will all have new KoA to read. Happy times! Once again, it'll be a quick stretch: eight chapters. No teasers. However, since it's been so long, I put together a character guide/recap to familiarize everyone before "Four Years Later" begins. Johnathan Maverick remains an elite quarterback, which keeps the Knights an elite team, despite various issues at other positions. In 2019, he marries Trisha Harden. In 2020, he signs an extension that makes him the highest paid player in football at the time. Marcus Jameson remains an offensive cornerstone for the Knights through 2019. In 2020, he is surprisingly released and signed by the Steelers. Jerome Jaxson bounces around the league—first as a running back, then as a kick returner. In 2020, he signs a one-year deal with the Buccaneers. Da’Jamiroquai “D-Jam” Jefferspin-Wilkes remains one of football’s best receivers—and one of its most prolific trash-talkers. In 2018, he converts to Buddhism in an effort to preserve his body and lengthen his career. As of 2020, his yards and receptions have decreased while touchdowns have remained consistent. Joseph Watson enjoys inconsistent success as the Knights slot receiver. In 2020, he is released and signed by the Panthers. Alex Johnson plays a few years for the Packers before being released amid injury (and age) concerns. When training camp opens in 2020, he is still unsigned. Logan Bishop signs with the Jaguars. As of 2020, he is one of the more reliable players on Jacksonville’s roster, an elite run-blocker and a threat after the catch. Chase Grodd becomes the only elite offensive linemen on the Knights roster and establishes himself as one of the best guards in football. In 2020, facing a contract year, he endures an offseason ripe with trade rumors but remains a Knight. Without a new contract, he holds out from OTAs, training camp, and the preseason. Brian Penner resists coaching overtures—as well as his own itch to play again—and enjoys retirement. As of 2020, he is living in Minnesota with his family. Sam Luck enjoys a productive contract year with the Knights in 2017, then signs a lucrative free-agent deal with the Colts. As of 2020, he is a productive edge rusher in their defense and a borderline Pro Bowler. Zack Grantzinger signs a mega-extension in 2017. He wins Defensive Player of the Year in 2018. In the Knights’ new 4-3 defense, he alternates snaps between defensive end and strong-side linebacker. As of 2020, he is still a top 10 non-quarterback in the league and showing no signs of aging. Briggs Randall remains one of the league’s best middle linebackers and smartest defensive players. He is a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year in 2017 and 2019. He receives a contract extension ahead of the 2020 season. Marlon Martin signs with the Broncos in 2017, plays one season, then retires. He resists multiple offers to play as a special teams captain and remains retired through the 2020 season. Sean Brock plays for the Bengals for two seasons, then the Eagles for one, before leaving football for political reasons. Current whereabouts unknown. Malik Rose continues playing for the Chargers, enjoying bi-annual battles with D-Jam against the Knights. In 2020, his contract expires, and he signs a one-year deal with the Lions. Griswold “Flash” Johnson signs a large contract with the Lions. As of 2020, he is no longer an elite athlete but still one of the league’s best safeties. Robert Schwinn signs with the Texans and becomes an underrated part of a strong defense. As of 2020, he is entering a contract year. Merle Harden dies a legend, known as one of the best and most unique defensive minds in the game and one of the most fiercest leaders. He is survived by wife Melinda, daughter Trisha, and pet dog Bowser. Ron McKenzie assumes the head coach position after Merle Harden’s death. A winning culture already established, he settles into the role naturally, though he struggles to connect with his players the way Harden did. He is considered by fans a good-not-great coach reaping the benefits of a top-5 organization. Chet Ripka silences critics by proving a capable defensive coordinator. His greatest strength is his ability not to over-coach, and to let the Knights’ defensive talent run itself. During the 2020 offseason, he is rumored as a possible future head coach, though he receives no interview offers. As of 2020, he has been Hall of Fame eligible (as a player) for three years and has not gotten in. Chance Phillips remains an elite general manager. Though fans sometimes criticize him for not making splashy moves, he maintains a competitive roster without salary cap complications. Wayne Schneider succeeds in keeping a second team from Los Angeles, helping move the Rams to Las Vegas and keep the Chargers in San Diego. As of 2020, he is one of the league’s most respected owners. Adam Javad is hired at the Los Angeles Times and gains the respect of his colleagues and the teams he covers, though his football coverage truly carries his career. Caden Daniel becomes the Packers’ offensive coordinator. His presence creates both resurgence and conflict in Green Bay, clashing with head coach Mike McCarthy. In 2019, McCarthy is fired and Daniel becomes the Packers’ head coach. He leads the Packers to an NFC Championship appearance in his first season. @Sarge @DalaiLama4Ever @GA_Eagle @JetsFan4Life @BwareDWare94 @Maverick @BigBen07 @Bangy @theMileHighGuy @Vin @BradyFan81 @Turry @Zack_of_Steel @seanbrock @Cherry @RazorStar @ATL_Predator @DonovanMcnabb for H.O.F @FartWaffles
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