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  1. | | | | Knights of Andreas Part V Based on Characters Created by: badgers Bangy Barracuda Bay BigBen07 BradyFan81 BwareDware94 CampinWithGoatSampson Chernobyl426 CrimsonRaider DonovanMcnabb for H.O.F eightnine FartWaffles Favre4Ever GA_Eagle JetsFan4Life Maverick RazorStar Sarge seanbrock SteVo Thanatos Turry theMileHighGuy Vin Zack_of_Steel Chapter Sixty-Five – Treatment Phillips feels nervous but confident as he paces up the MedComm Center stairs. After a series of text messages with Schneider during his morning drive, he has his plan ready. He drops off a few papers at his desk and enters Schneider’s office, closing the door behind him. “Good morning, Wayne,” Phillips says, a likely futile attempt at levity. Schneider slaps two pieces of paper onto the desk. Javad’s article, Phillips assumes. “The article itself isn’t very blistering,” Schneider says. Futile indeed. “The alleged sources don’t provide rationale from either team, and the NFC team isn’t even identified.” “So has it gotten any traction in the mainstream?” “Not yet. None of the main outlets are on it, though I’m sure people are asking around.” “We have to play this one safe, I think.” “Before I go any further, Chance…” Phillips readies himself; here it comes. “…Is it true?” “Are you really asking?” “Yes. And I’m not just asking if what the article claims is true. I’m asking if you snuck around this building, over a period of weeks or months, kept behind my back, and facilitated a secret trade that would have altered the foundation of this franchise. In fact, let’s put cards on the table, Chance. You accused me of going behind your back when I fired Daniel. I’m asking if you were about to do the same to me.” “Not exactly. I couldn’t have orchestrated a trade myself, you know that. I would have run it past you before going through with it.” “Then it is true.” “Yes. It is.” Schneider’s eyes widen. He either didn’t believe it or hoped it wasn’t true. “I have no intention of denying it. I came in this morning knowing I would tell you. I worked the deal behind the scenes because I knew if word got out, we’d be in trouble. Imagine Maverick hearing about this while extension talks were ongoing. I kept it secret because if I decided not to pull the trigger, no one would ever hear about it. Unfortunately—” “That’s no longer an option. What was your logic?” “It doesn’t matter now. I’m not getting into it.” Schneider looks skeptical, as Phillips knew he would. “Take it or leave it, Wayne. We won’t make any progress by diving into this.” “Did you tell Javad while the trade was brewing?” “No. I would have given him the scoop had it gone down, but I didn’t feed him anything in the meantime. He found this on his own.” “Then, please, how do you suggest we reach ‘progress’?” “As I said, we play it safe. We’ve been denying Javad enough this year. How many times can we call him a liar?” “Agreed. Plus, we can’t deny it outright and have someone like Schefter or Rapoport piggyback it.” “I know how we can spin it. Not even much of a spin, really.” “One thing, Chance. Tell me who the NFC team was.” This confuses Phillips. What does Schneider gain by knowing who it was? How would Schneider figure out Phillips is lying, if he is? If he tells the truth, is there a way Schneider can make this situation worse? “Philadelphia. It was Maverick for four picks over two years. Two firsts, a second, and a fourth.” Schneider nods. For a moment, Phillip sees the slightest hint of understanding, as if Schneider might have accepted that draft haul in exchange for what would have been an unprecedented trade. “Javad said he had sources from both organizations,” Schneider says. “I can’t speak for Philadelphia, obviously. I wasn’t his source here, so, unless he’s lying…” “We have a leak.” “Indeed. But we can’t fire someone now. It’ll be an admission of guilt.” “Fine, we wait, but we still have a leak.” “Yes, we do. And I know who it is.” Meetings between coaches and executives proceed throughout Monday as planned. Everyone hears about the Maverick story, but no one brings it up. Phillips and Schneider don’t mention it, and nobody asks them. The Knights have bigger concerns. Los Angeles, at 8-5-1, is on the outside looking in with two weeks to go. The Jets and Steelers, both 9-5, hold both wild card spots, and the Chargers lurk at 8-6. A half-game out with two games to play is manageable, but the Knights’ opponent this week is Denver, currently second in the AFC at 11-3. A loss, coupled with a Jets and Steelers win, and the Knights are out of the playoffs entirely before week 17. It has been an undoubtedly trying year for a team that won the Super Bowl ten months ago. But despite their struggles, only recently has the reality of failure become visible. Everyone in the building must now grapple with the realization that the Knights may not repeat as Super Bowl champions. The team simply may not be good enough. Of course, all this appears lost on Coach Harden. He seems to focus all his energy on the Broncos, saying the team needs a win because of the embarrassing 35-6 loss back in week 5, not because of any playoff concerns. As the day goes on, Javad’s story still fails to grab headlines across the league. Most consider it speculation, and some even criticize Javad for fabricating the story. Many don’t care, labeling the story as insignificant, regardless of its veracity, because of Maverick’s long-term extension. Numerous reporters reach out to Phillips for comment, but he redirects them to tomorrow, when the team will have a casual media session in the locker room after practice. Shortly before Phillips leaves for the day, Stein stops by his office, shutting the door behind him. “What’s up, Allan?” Phillips asks. Stein steps close to Phillips’ desk, an odd look on his face. “Listen, I know it’s true.” “What’s true?” “The Maverick story.” “How the hell do you know?” “I got it from Keegan. Figured if you involved anyone in your thought process at the time, it’d be him.” So that’s what this is about. Stein sees Keegan as a threat and he wants to cozy up to Phillips. Actually, he may be bluffing about getting the scoop from Keegan, which would be more impressive. “What’s your point, Allan?” Phillips asks. “I’m here so we can build trust.” “Trust?” “That’s right. You can count on me not to tell Wayne.” “I already told him.” Stein looks devastated. Is that genuine surprise, or he is upset he no longer has any leverage? Phillips can’t tell. “That was a mistake,” Stein says. Phillips grabs his coat and heads for the door. “No, it wasn’t,” he says. “And if you really believe it was, you’ve got more to learn than I thought.” He strolls out the door, leaving it open, and checks in with Schneider one last time. “Anything new?” Phillips asks. “Nope, still the same,” Schneider says. “Nothing on major networks, though I’m sure they’ll report our comments tomorrow. With any luck, that’ll be the end of it.” Maybe Phillips is wrong. Maybe Javad didn’t get a source from Los Angeles. He’d love to reach out and determine that himself, but the odds of that are slim after last week. Phillips and Javad may never have a stable working relationship again. “Alright then,” Phillips says. “See you tomorrow.” “One more thing,” Schneider says, forcing Phillips to step back in the doorway. “Understand this, Chance. You don’t have fallout from fans. You have fallout from me. And we all have fallout from the locker room if we can’t convince them this is bullshit.” Players return to the MedComm Center for practice, and an attitude similar to yesterday’s populates the building and practice field. The Javad report isn’t a major concern for them, and the Denver game is a much bigger priority. Still, questions linger. After practice, some players stick around for an optional media session. Many are curious to see if Javad will show; he doesn’t. Phillips, however, makes his way downstairs. Appearing as relaxed as possible, he attracts a crowd who all inquire about the Javad story. “Listen,” Phillips says, “I don’t know who is sourcing that report, but I think this is a case of semantics. Trade offers fly across the league all the time. Teams are always calling other teams, wondering what the price of a guy is. Now, let me be clear about this. After we applied the franchise tag to Maverick, did a bunch of teams call us, interested in a quarterback? Yes, of course. Why wouldn’t they? But, did we have a solid offer on the table that suddenly got pulled back because of what happened with Malik Rose? Absolutely not. Our plan was always to re-sign Maverick long term, and we did.” That seems to satisfy the reporters. One of them asks who the NFC team is cited in the report, to which Phillips says, “I have no idea. As I said, there was no single offer that stood out from the rest.” After all the reporters have left, Phillips is ready to head back upstairs when Maverick cuts him off. He figured this might happen. “Is it true?” Maverick asks. “What?” “The report. The story. Is it true?” Phillips shifts his posture, debating the best way to respond. “If you believe in me, if you trust me, then you can be honest. I’m under contract either way.” “You’re right, I can trust you,” Phillips says. “Which is why I’m going to tell you something I think you already know. This is a business. When a team calls interested in a player, you don’t tell them no. You listen to their offer, then you tell them no. We got plenty of offers for you, Mav. Does that really surprise you?” “So is what the report says true? Were you ready to trade me before the Rose shit went down?” “No,” Phillips says as firmly as he can. “Okay then.” Maverick walks away, satisfied, and Phillips goes back to work on offseason preparations. The rest of the week, the Javad story gathers no buzz in Los Angeles. The Knights have what Harden believes to be a solid practice week, interrupted by Christmas on Friday, before their flight to Denver on Saturday. By kickoff, the early slate of week 16 games has gone final, two of which bring good fortune to the Knights. The Chargers loss eliminates them from the playoffs, and the Steelers loss means the Knights can reclaim the #6 seed with a win today. Both teams take the field in freezing weather, the temperature topping out at 21 degrees Fahrenheit. Knights players on the sideline wear thick coats and sit near the heaters. The Broncos get the ball first, and Peyton Manning, as he has for six weeks, stays on the bench in favor of Brock Osweiler. Harden is actually more afraid of Osweiler than an old, banged up Manning, which is why he’s taking no chances today. The Knights put their hybrid on full display, the front seven switching formations almost every play. This keeps the Broncos offensive line in flux and prevents Osweiler from reaching Demaryius Thomas, whom Flash is doubling on every play. This strategy works beautifully, shutting the Broncos down and taking the crowd out of the game while the Knights put points on the board. Denver’s defense, interestingly, hones in on Jameson, stacking the box. McKenzie realizes they’re confident in their corners to shut down the Knights receivers. It takes a few drives, but Wilkes gets going on short routes, happy to get any receptions at all after last week’s debacle. He leads the offense on a drive ending in a field goal for the game’s first points. The next drive, Watson racks up a few catches, and with their top two receivers going, the Knights soon reach the end zone. Maverick, thrilled to be taking snaps from Penner again, keeps everyone fired up on the sideline between possessions—as much as possible, anyway, in this weather. Riding the confidence of a 10-0 lead, the Knights defense continues its dominance into the second quarter. Denver doesn’t know how to solve the hybrid, and Osweiler looks shaky. Towards the end of the quarter, Luck swats a pass at the line of scrimmage, and Randall catches it for the interception, setting the Knights up on the Broncos’ thirty-yard line. Four plays later, Wilkes catches a beautiful back-shoulder fade in the end zone, and the Knights take a 17-0 lead into halftime. Denver fans, to their credit, are pumped up to start the third quarter, but hope of a comeback soon fades. Osweiler falls victim to multiple sacks, and the Knights look like last year’s defense again. On offense, McKenzie goes into closer mode, leaning on Jameson and Banks, balancing the offense and ticking the game clock down. By the start of the fourth quarter, the score is 27-3, Knights, and everyone in the stadium shifts their attention to week 17. For Broncos fans, this is far from despair. They have already clinched the AFC West and are still in position for a first-round bye. For the Knights, hope is restored after a disappointing last two weeks. They’re now back in the playoffs. One more win in Kansas City next week and they can punch their ticket. And if they play like they did today, they’re capable of beating anybody. Despite high spirits on the Knights sideline, Harden remains solemn. He’s glad to have such a solid victory, of course, but his mind is elsewhere. At least tomorrow he’ll know. He doesn’t even chew anyone out after his defense yields a garbage time touchdown. Phillips is in Schneider’s office when Keegan arrives with his finished report. Schneider has been distracted all day, hardly offering any insight during offseason meetings. Phillips hopes this will provide him some relief. “Thank you, Michal,” Schneider says, skimming the pages. “Bullet points?” “There are several ways to structure an argument,” Keegan says, “but the most persuasive is the overall instability of our franchise currently. Not inundated with season ticket requests, poor merchandise sales from local vendors, etc. I included plenty of simulations with a second team in Los Angeles, using various geographic locations, and none of them are good.” “Excellent. Thank you very much for all this. That will be all.” Keegan nods, and Phillips watches him leave. “Think this will work?” he asks Schneider. “I don’t know,” Schneider says grimly, leaning back in his chair, showing a rare moment of vulnerability. “There’s a lot of support for the Chargers to come here. The Spanos’ are well liked, and everyone wants to help them out. But keeping them in San Diego is still on the table. If they can get a good stadium deal in place, everyone will go for it. Kroenke, on the other hand, wants the hell out of St. Louis. It’s him I’m concerned about.” “But both owners have proposed a move. How do you know Kroenke is more serious about it?” “NFL owners are rich, powerful men, but they’re not poker players. If you speak English, you can figure out what they want.” “Listen, Wayne, I know this situation is out of my element, but if there’s a second team in L.A., that affects me. It affects all of us.” “Of course it does. What are you asking?” “I just want to know what the odds are.” Schneider looks out the windows towards downtown, deep in thought. “I don’t know,” he says. “I really don’t. Formal proposals are due in a week, and then it comes down to the owners meetings.” Phillips doesn’t want Schneider to tell him what could go down at those meetings. Phillips has always avoided the business side of football as best he could, though this is a circumstance where it affects the football side whether he likes it or not. Powerless, all he can do is trust Schneider’s judgment and wait for the outcome. On the tenth floor of Good Samaritan Hospital, a group of doctors and patients walk the hallway, nobody in any hurry. One man in particular walks among the crowd, wearing a hat and sunglasses. He looks suspicious enough to draw glances from security guards as he approaches the receptionist at a department in the middle of the hallway. “Hi,” the man says, “I have a follow-up with Dr. Kern.” “Your name, sir?” “Merle Harden.” “Okay, Mr. Harden, please have a seat over there.” He does so, keeping his head down, praying nobody recognizes him. Mercifully, no one does, and he only waits about ten minutes before being summoned to the doctor’s office. Kern gives Harden a warm handshake. Harden isn’t sure the friendliness is promising or ominous. They sit on opposite sides of the doctor’s desk, a large folder sitting on top of it. “So,” Kern says, “how are you feeling, coach?” “I’m not your coach. Call me Merle.” “But you call me ‘doc.’” “Because I’m your patient. You’re not one of my players.” He sighs anxiously. “Let’s get on with it.” “Yes, well, I have your biopsy results here.” Kern extracts paper from the folder. “Get to it, doc. Is it…?” “I’m afraid so, yes.” Harden sighs. He expected this. Somehow, he knew. He presses his hand against his eyebrows and slides it down his face toward the recently discovered lumps on his throat. “How bad?” Harden asks. “We didn’t catch it as early as I’d like. We need to start treatment right away.” “What kind?” “Unfortunately, surgery is not an option. That means we should start chemotherapy as soon as possible.” “No. No chemo until the season’s over.” “And how long will that be?” “A month, if I can help it.” “I have to say, Merle, it would be best if—” “Move on, doc. No chemo until the end of the season. What else?” “That just leaves radiation therapy, which, you should know, isn’t nearly as effective as—” “Fine. Radiation it is.” Kern appears uninterested in protesting further, which relaxes Harden a little. “In the meantime,” Kern says, “you need to take it easy on your voice. Try to speak as little as possible, and refrain from yelling or raising your voice at all.” “Impossible to do in my position, doc.” “You need to try.” Kern goes on about things Harden should be doing, things he should be avoiding, the radiation schedule, and more. Harden’s focus, however, is at home, where he has to decide how best to break the news. Merle pulls into the driveway, slamming his brakes at the sight of an extra car. He pulls forward, and his headlights illuminate an Audi. It looks familiar, like one of the cars he sees every day in the players’ lot at MedComm. “Don’t fucking tell me…” Merle staggers to the front door, ignores frantic licks from Bowser, and stands in the foyer, gazing toward the kitchen, where Melinda, Trisha, and Jonathan fucking Maverick stand around. The quarterback stays in the kitchen as Melinda and Trisha walk up to Merle one at a time. “Don’t make a scene,” Melinda says. “He’s nicer and more respectful than a lot of Trisha’s past boyfriends.” “We should talk later, dad,” Trisha says. “In the meantime, try not to kill him.” Only after Trisha walks away does Merle realize she’s holding a drink. So she’s drinking again, thanks to Mav. This is an absolute nightmare, but Merle can’t feel angry about it. Not tonight. Not with what’s weighing on him. Without a word, he plops down on the living room couch, Bowser laying at his feet, and turns on Monday Night Football. He gets to watch a few plays before Mav approaches. Merle doesn’t divert his attention from the game. “Look, coach, I know we gotta talk about this at some—” “Shut up, Mav. Leave me alone.” Bowser growls, but Mav doesn’t move. Finally, Harden says, “You’re not moving in, are you? Enough women live in this house already.” After the final executive meeting of the week, with the team’s flight to Kansas City twenty-four hours away, Phillips paces toward Keegan’s office. He’s glad Schneider and Stein have already left for the day. Through the doorway, he sees Keegan typing away at his computer, like usual. “Michal,” Phillips says. “You know, I just finished another free agency run-through, and it looks like the running back market will—” “Never mind that.” “What do you mean?” “How did Javad find out about the Maverick trade?” Keegan’s fingers freeze above the keyboard. “You’re the only other person who knew.” “Stein. Stein got it out of me a few weeks back. I wanted to tell you, but—” “He wouldn’t have leaked it. That doesn’t help him at all.” “Chance, listen, I didn’t—” “Did you talk to Javad?” “I didn’t leak the story, I never would have—” “Did you speak with him at any point?” Keegan pauses, struggling with his words, a rare occurrence. Phillips braces himself. “He called me on the phone, once, but—” “You’re fired, Michal. I’m sorry.” “No! Chance! I promise, I—” “Clear out your stuff, tonight or tomorrow. Monday morning, don’t be here.” Phillips walks down the hallway towards the elevator, unable to take the stairs, preparing himself for a long, slow drive home. The Knights take their final resting spot in the visitors’ locker room, hearing crowd noise from Arrowhead Stadium as they face their head coach. “Normally I wouldn’t get into this,” Harden says, “but the guys upstairs have informed me that our playoff situation is very simple. Win, and we’re in. Lose, and it’s over.” The players figured this would be the case all week. In some ways, it’s a relief that the final game isn’t part of a complicated set of tiebreakers, and the players like controlling their own destiny. “You all know what I’m gonna say. Playoffs start right now. Let’s go.” Alex Smith lobs a deep pass toward the sideline. Jeremy Maclin separates from Lucas and hauls it in, going down for a twenty-two-yard gain, putting the Chiefs in field goal range. Despite their team’s 7-8 record, Chiefs fans are content to play spoiler today, and the home team already has a 3-0 lead. Randall sets the defense and calls the play, everyone lining up in a 3-4. Smith pauses for an audible, so Randall switches to 4-3, the play remaining the same. With Grantzinger set to blitz, Randall stares down Travis Kelce. Kelce runs straight as Randall gets close to him, then cuts toward the sideline. Randall tries to undercut the route, but Kelce runs for the pylon instead. Half a step behind, Randall sprints as Kelce catches a pass, dives for his feet, and whiffs. Arrowhead explodes as Kelce crosses the goal line. “Fifty yards in two goddamn plays,” Harden mumbles to himself. Defenders return to the bench after the extra point, with Randall claiming responsibility for the touchdown. “Aw, shut it, Briggs,” Harden says. “We all sucked.” He spots Ripka coaching up Flash and feels an urge to interject. “And you, Flash! What the hell was that on the Maclin catch? The idea of double coverage isn’t to take your sweet fucking time getting over there! Got it?” Flash doesn’t say anything. Harden shoos Ripka away and kneels down in front of Flash, lowering his voice so no one else can hear. “This may be your last season with this team, but you will give it everything you have until the finish line.” “Or what?” Harden’s entire body flares with anger. “Or what? OR WHAT?” Other players and coaches notice them now, and he doesn’t care. “Or I’ll bench your ass. Better yet, I’ll put in a call to every team in the league, let them know what I think about your work ethic and your dedication to the team. How’s that gonna affect your new fucking contract?” Flash looks like he might jump off the bench and tackle his head coach right here, but Harden walks away. A few teammates look at Flash nervously, then turn their heads when he looks back at them. Second and goal, five yards from the end zone. Maverick takes the snap and rolls right, waiting for Watson to break from the slot. He does, open by four yards. Maverick fires, throwing behind him slightly. Watson spins to catch it, planting his feet before running out of bounds, and the ball bounces off his hands as he falls to the ground. “Catch the fucking ball, Joe!” Maverick screams before everyone huddles up again. McKenzie calls a jump ball for Wilkes. Maverick hurries the snap, looks to Wilkes, and Eric Berry shades his way. Not there. Stepping right to avoid pressure, Maverick sees Bishop, surrounded by red jerseys. He throws as hard as he can. Bishop ducks to shield defenders away, lets the pass hit him in the chest, and falls backward into the end zone. During the sideline celebration, Watson says to Maverick, “My bad. I got it next time.” “I hope so,” Maverick says. “Hey, it was a shit throw anyway. We both got it next time.” “The fuck, Mav?” Wilkes says. “You had me on the fade.” “Sit down, D-Jam. Berry was shading towards you. Wasn’t about to force it.” “Pussy.” Chiefs 10, Knights 7, 2:49 to go in the second quarter. Near midfield, the Knights find momentum on the ground, with Jameson chewing up tough yards between the tackles. He bounces off defenders one run at a time, trying not to think about his soon-to-expire contract. Second and four. Penner puts his hand on the ball and stares down Dontari Poe. Red jerseys shift as Maverick calls for the ball. Penner slides right to track Poe, doing a stunt, and sees a linebacker heading up the middle. He slides left, but it’s too late. Maverick flushes to avoid the free rusher, firing for Wilkes toward the sideline. Wilkes turns his head, but Sean Smith is already in front of it. He takes off toward the end zone, juking Maverick easily. Penner keeps a low profile on the bench as coaches show him pictures from that play. Yes, he had to adjust quickly to a speedy linebacker, but that’s a move he’s made plenty of times in his career. “Your shoulder okay?” Grodd asks, sitting next to him. “Ain’t the shoulder,” Penner says, sipping some water. When the Knights get the ball back, McKenzie refrains from going full throttle, fearful of another turnover. The Chiefs soon go into halftime leading 17-7, and Harden ponders how best to rip into his players. Chiefs 24, Knights 14, end of the third quarter. The Kansas City sky darkens behind the stadium’s lights with fifteen minutes of football remaining. About to start another drive, Maverick and McKenzie deliberate on the sideline. “We need something here, Mav,” McKenzie says. “We’re running out of time.” “I know. No-huddle?” “I was thinking about it.” “We’re ready for it, coach.” “Then let’s roll.” Maverick trots to the huddle and preps everyone for the no-huddle, reminding them of some important calls. As long as they keep the crowd noise down, they should be fine. From shotgun with three receivers, Jameson innocently takes a draw up the middle for four yards. Defenders slowly reset for second and six, and the Knights sprint to the line. They catch the defense out of position and Maverick slings a bullet to Watson for fifteen yards. They hurry to the line again. Maverick hits Bishop over the middle for nine yards. In a no-huddle, hurry-up offense, the Knights line up in the same shotgun formation with Maverick shouting play calls between plays. Wilkes for six yards. Bishop for seven. Larkhill for six. Watson for ten. Now on the Chiefs’ thirteen, Maverick sees Wilkes in single coverage. He takes the snap and throws it up in the end zone. Wilkes gets around Sean Smith and outjumps him for the ball, spiking it on the grass. Arrowhead is quieter than it has been all day. The Knights offense lumbers to the bench after going seventy yards in two minutes. McKenzie, especially, is all smiles. He’s been waiting to mix in the no-huddle since arriving in Los Angeles, but Maverick’s injury last year delayed things a bit. The crowd cheers, interrupting the Knights’ celebration, as McCabe’s extra point shanks wide right. Instead of a three-point game, the Knights trail, 24-20. One first down after another, the Chiefs run out the fourth quarter clock. Spencer Ware dashes through the front seven, putting the Chiefs on the edge of Cairo Santos’ range with the clock at 4:33 and counting. Fed up with the hybrid, Harden simplifies things, calling 3-4 plays exclusively. If the Knights can’t stop the run from their base defense, they deserve to lose. First and ten. Ware gets the ball up the middle. Randall converges on him, and Schwinn runs in to bring him down. No gain. Harden calls timeout, stopping the clock at 3:50. Second and ten. Ware runs off-tackle left, past Brock. Martin hits him but can’t bring him to the ground. A wave of players from both teams fights for leverage, with offensive linemen pulling the pile forward two yards. Harden calls timeout again. 3:43. Third and eight. Not sure what to expect, Harden calls an outside blitz. Smith lines up in shotgun and takes the snap. Brock bull rushes and gets planted. On the right side, both Luck and Grantzinger break through. Smith rushes a throw over the middle. Randall, covering Kelce, sees it coming his way and dives, feeling the ball strike his left hand. It sails into the air, and Martin gets under it, catching it as a red jersey brings him down. The Knights offense jumps from the bench, riding the surge of adrenaline onto the field. Instead of a punt pinning them deep or a field goal making it a seven-point deficit, they’re seventy-one yards from a game-winning touchdown with 3:37 to go and one timeout. “This is it,” Maverick says in the huddle. “Playoff drive right here, boys. Let’s get it done.” Both sidelines watch intensely as the game’s final drive commences. Withholding from the no-huddle for now, Maverick keeps it safe, hitting Wilkes and Larkhill on quick sideline routes for a first down with 2:57 on the clock. Bishop catches one over the middle, the clock running, but the Knights take their time. Maverick lines up in shotgun and watches the front seven spread out. He gets an idea, shouting an audible to the offensive line. He takes the snap and hands off to Jameson, who surges through the middle into open grass. He lowers his shoulders and pummels a helpless defender, falling down a few yards later on top of the Chiefs logo at midfield. 2:11, 2:10, 2:09… Maverick takes a deep shot for Wilkes that misses, and the clock stops for the two-minute warning. He finds Larkhill over the middle for five yards. Third and five. Maverick shouts McKenzie’s call, hurrying everyone to the line. Wilkes and Watson line up to Maverick’s right, attracting the attention of the defense. 1:25, 1:24… With Bishop blocking, Maverick sits behind a clean pocket, staring down Wilkes, who stops on his route. Maverick pump fakes, and the safety bites, leaving Watson a step ahead of his corner. Got him. Maverick bombs it. Watson gets under it, nearing the end zone. He extends his fingers and the ball hits them. He crosses the goal line as the ball hits his jersey and pops loose. He dives, sliding through the end zone as the ball bounces on the grass. Watson keeps his head buried in the dirt as the stadium roars. He eventually gets up, head down, and walks to the sideline as the Knights get in formation for fourth and five. There’s still 1:16 to go, but they need a first down. Maverick lines up in shotgun and drops back. Pressure comes up the middle. He rolls left, pressure there too. He runs full speed to avoid it and looks upfield, defenders surrounding him. The only target he sees is Bishop—covered, but he has no choice. He throws and takes a hit. Bishop and a linebacker get their hands on it. Bishop plants his feet, trying to wrangle the ball away. A red jersey runs in and hits both of them, jarring the ball free. It hits the grass, officials signal incomplete, and Arrowhead Stadium explodes. Still on the ground, Maverick looks up and sees Penner, who helps him to his feet, saying nothing. No words would be right anyway. The Chiefs take a few kneeldowns while the Knights sit in shock on their sideline, trying to come to terms with the reality that their season is ending so suddenly. In a suite atop the stadium, Phillips, Schneider, and Stein are silent too. Phillips keeps his eyes on the field, but he can sense rage in the seat next to him. “From Super Bowl champions to out of the playoffs,” Schneider says. “Definitely a disappointment,” Phillips says, aware of how generic he sounds. “Harden.” Phillips stares down Schneider. They’re not about to go down this road. Not tonight, anyway. “What about him?” “This might have been his worst season. His defensive strategy got exposed, and his leadership got exposed.” “Wayne, this is ridiculous. We’re both upset about—” “Tell me either of those two things is wrong.” Phillips believes at least one of them is, but he doesn’t see any sense in arguing. “You know, he’s right, Chance,” Stein says. “Shut your fucking mouth, Allan,” Phillips says. “Wayne? Rant all you want. We’re going to look at it in the coming months.” “You’re damn right we are. We’re going to look at everything. Absolutely everything. Every practice, every meeting, every draft pick, every roster spot. And if we find something that needs changing, it’s going to be changed.” “Fine,” Phillips says, rising from his chair, eyes on the hallway that leads to the elevator. “His act wore thin in Carolina,” Schneider says from behind him. “It’ll wear thin here too.” Phillips thinks nothing of that comment for now, heading for the locker room, expecting a gloomy atmosphere. It’s worse than he fears. Hardly anybody speaks, and the sense of dread in the air is both unbearable and inescapable. Players often leave points on the field, but today, they left their season on the field. Most players think of returning home, of offseason rest, but some have other plans. Brock faces the reality of no incoming playoff bonuses—and no paychecks until next September. There’s no denying it now; he’ll have to sell a few things to get by this offseason. But how much? Jameson takes his time removing his pads, sad to take off his jersey. He knows he should be excited about a big contract, but he really doesn’t want to leave the Knights. Flash calmly changes into street clothes, ready to leave this locker room and get back to Los Angeles, where he can clean out his locker and await free agency. This definitely isn’t how he wanted this season to end, but if it’s how his Knights career concludes, so be it. After Grodd gets out of his pads, he leans over to Penner’s locker, unable to delay the question. “You still retiring?” Penner doesn’t look up. He knew Grodd or someone who ask, and he knows his answer. “No,” he says. “Not after this.” Grodd nods and goes back to changing. This is welcome news, and it would feel a hell of a lot better to hear it under different circumstances. When Harden finally arrives in the locker room, he can’t think of anything to say. There’s too much running through his head, personally and professionally, to be summed up in a quick speech here. So, he reverts to one of his oldest coaching beliefs: if you’re not sure what to say, say nothing. So ends a lost season for the Knights. The NFL will now begin its postseason march toward Super Bowl 50 without them. The Westin Houston, Memorial City has various rooms and halls designed for corporate meetings throughout its 18-floor structure. This particular morning, however, the Azalea Ballroom on the fourth floor is the prime attraction. One by one, representatives of NFL franchises (owners, in most cases) stroll into the room, each with a conservative, expensive suit and a warm smile for the cameras positioned just outside the doorway. The date is January 11. The Divisional Round of the playoffs finished yesterday, and only four teams remain in contention for Super Bowl 50, but on-the-field play is not the headline of today and tomorrow’s discussions. Wayne Schneider presses a folder full of research against his chest and waves to the cameras, a hollow, politician’s wave, and the last time he’ll smile today. He finds the ballroom half-full, a few of his targets already here, Commissioner Goodell included. Seven days ago, Rams owner Stan Kroenke and Chargers president Dean Spanos formally filed for relocation to Los Angeles, each proposing their stadiums: the Rams in Inglewood, the Chargers in Carson. Both teams would relocate immediately, playing in L.A. Coliseum until construction finishes on their new stadium. A two-team share of Los Angeles was always on the league’s mind. But Schneider got the jump on all of them in 2010, striking a deal before anybody else had time to jump onboard. That was his first triumph against this crowd; it won’t be his last. At age 56, Schneider is one of the youngest voices in this room, but he’s among the most powerful. He first flexed his ability in 2010, during the inaugural season at Farmers Field, by nabbing Super Bowl 50. In the NFL, new stadiums in good-weather cities get Super Bowls. Schneider easily could have gotten the Super Bowl that year, or 2011, or 2012. But he didn’t. He waited, knowing he could play his hand just right and land the most coveted Super Bowl of the decade. And he got it. Now, he has to do it again. He takes his assigned seat among the chairs that face the stage, looking around at his fellow owners, hoping his strategy will work. With few exceptions, the other thirty-one owners believe they are preparing for an official vote tomorrow on whether the Rams or Chargers will join the Knights in Los Angeles. Today, they’re about to be hit with a wave of evidence against a second team at all. All assigned seats are filled by 9am, on schedule. Goodell steps to the front of the room, welcomes everyone, and proceedings begin.
  2. | | | | Knights of Andreas Part V Based on Characters Created by: badgers Bangy Barracuda Bay BigBen07 BradyFan81 BwareDware94 CampinWithGoatSampson Chernobyl426 CrimsonRaider DonovanMcnabb for H.O.F eightnine FartWaffles Favre4Ever GA_Eagle JetsFan4Life Maverick RazorStar Sarge seanbrock SteVo Thanatos Turry theMileHighGuy Vin Zack_of_Steel Chapter Sixty-Four – Final Warning The team captains meet at midfield inside Lucas Oil Stadium as the referee details the rules and regulations for overtime. The Colts win the toss, earning the first chance to break the 16-16 tie. The Knights defense confidently retakes the field. The only touchdown they allowed today was on a ridiculously short field thanks to a Maverick interception, and they’ve handled Indy’s offensive line from their 3-4 enough to let Harden dial back on the hybrid. The Colts make the mistake of trying to win the game quickly, and Andrew Luck gets sacked twice, once by Sam Luck, prompting a wave of horrible puns and bad jokes from both sidelines and the crowd. The Knights take over, the game now in sudden death. Players in the huddle look nervously toward Maverick, in the middle of his worst game in years. He never seemed to recover from throwing an interception on the game’s first play, missing open receivers and throwing into coverage all day. Jameson takes a few carries through the heart of the Colts defense, gaining enough yards to make McKenzie call his number again. Jameson is over thirty carries today, but McKenzie doesn’t care; he’ll ride him all the way to a game-winning field goal if it means a win. The Colts finally cue in and stack the box, bringing up third and five. Maverick drops back to pass, tracking Bishop. He sets his feet, throws, and the ball hits Bishop’s feet, bouncing off the artificial turf. Maverick keeps his head down on his way to the bench, just wanting this game to end. With subpar play from both quarterbacks, overtime continues the punt-filled field position battle that dominated the fourth quarter. With each failed offensive drive, everyone in the stadium looks up at the game clock, considering with increasing seriousness the implications of it reaching zero without a score. The Knights begin another possession with 3:26 left. As tired offensive players lean in to the huddle, Maverick screams, “This is it! No more fucking around! We’re winning this damn game, and we’re winning it on this drive. Let’s go!” Noticing Maverick’s intensity, McKenzie goes against his gut and calls play-action. Maverick sells a handoff and hits Bishop over the middle for fifteen yards. The next play, Maverick drops back and fires a bullet toward Watson. Twenty yards downfield, Watson catches it and plants his feet along the sideline, setting up the Knights on the Colts’ forty-yard line. McCabe warms up on the sideline as the Knights inch closer to field goal range. Jameson takes his thirty-sixth and thirty-seventh carries, bringing up third and three. Pass rush forces Maverick to throw it away, and the clock stops at 1:09 as McCabe comes on for a forty-nine-yard attempt. From the left hash, the kick booms the ball toward the goal posts, clearly long enough, and strikes the netting. The Knights rush onto the field in celebration, slowed by a swell of crowd noise around them. They look toward the goal posts, where officials indicate no good, wide left. The game remains tied, and the visitors’ sideline slowly repopulates. Knowing only an interception can win it now, Harden has his corners and safeties jump routes, not caring if someone gets beat deep. A tie is the same a loss to him. Luck throws short passes, Lucas and Schwinn each getting their hands on one but not catching it. The Colts manage one first down, but with 0:09 on the clock and the ball sixty yards from the end zone, it’s Hail Mary time. The Knights back up and spread out into a rarely used prevent formation. Flash, Stone, and Wilkes stand at the goal line, ready to swat away a jump ball. Luck takes the snap and the Knights rush five. This flushes Luck from the pocket, rolling right with Grantzinger closing in. He bombs it as blue and white jerseys converge in the end zone. “Short! Short!” “It’s not gonna make it!” Everyone runs past the goal line, where Flash leads a crowd jumping for the ball, tipping it backward into the end zone. It sails toward Wilkes, who extends his hands as a Colt tips it again, and it lands out of bounds. Everyone looks up at the clock: 0:00. Knights 16, Colts 16. A strange sight and mood hangs over the stadium as players and coaches shake hands. Both teams exhibit a sort of tired indifference, walking emotionlessly into the locker rooms, as if no game was played at all. Maverick and Wilkes frantically tap buttons on their PS4 controllers, playing another close game of Madden. Between plays, Wilkes looks around the mansion, which appears dirtier than usual, something he gladly uses as fodder for trash talk. “You’d think your ass could have cleaned up a little bit.” “Maybe if you hadn’t invited yourself and just showed up.” “Hey, you promised me a rematch.” A few minutes pass as they focus on the game. Maverick (playing as the Eagles) is beating Wilkes (playing as the Seahawks) 14-7. “You ready for Rose this week?” Maverick asks. “Oh, Imma get his ass good.” “Really? Okay, I’ll hold you to that.” “I’m more worried about you. What happened yesterday?” “Had a bad game, that’s all. I’ll be back next week.” Wilkes’ finger slips, calling the wrong play as he hears footsteps coming down the stairs behind him. “Didn’t realize you had company,” Wilkes says. “Like I said, if you hadn’t invited yourself…” “Jon,” a female voice says. “Yeah?” Maverick says without turning his head, focused on the game. “Do you have any orange juice?” The play ends, and Wilkes turns around, freezing in place at the sight of her walking past in a bra and underwear. “I think so, Trish. Check in the fridge, bottom shelf inside the door.” Maverick calls the next play, realizing Wilkes hasn’t touched his controller. Mesmerized, his eyes follow Trisha as she walks into the kitchen. Maverick snaps his fingers in Wilkes’ face. “Hey! Hey!” “Yo…” Wilkes says, shaking his head. “Yo, man…yo…” Trisha undoubtedly looks good in underwear, but Wilkes finds it impossible to focus on that aspect of the situation. Other thoughts run through his head, none of them appealing. “Just keep this between us, okay?” Maverick says. A bug-eyed Wilkes says nothing, redirecting his vision toward the TV screen, where he calls a punt return, not realizing Maverick is going for it on fourth down. Flash spends another Monday afternoon driving south on I-5, escaping Los Angeles and coasting along the Pacific Ocean. He exits the highway, navigating a string of turns he now has memorized, toward a gated community. The guard recognizes him, and he soon pulls into the driveway and rings the doorbell. “Not late for dinner, I hope,” Flash says as the door opens. “Somehow, you’re early,” Malik says. “Girls! Uncle Griswold is here!” Flash says hi to Eva and the girls before Malik shows him outside to the veranda, overlooking the adjacent golf course, with the blue water of the Pacific in the distance. “So, I guess I’ll see you Sunday, huh?” Flash says. “Yup. Tell D-Jam I’m comin’ for his ass.” “Tell him yourself.” “One of these days, Eva and I have to come up to your place for dinner. It’s not fair, you always driving two hours.” “What for? I won’t be in L.A. much longer.” “True.” “Hey, about that…did you talk to anybody?” Malik nods his head, looking off into the distance. “I did. I’m not sure it’s gonna happen.” “What? You said they’re probably letting Weddle go.” “I think we are, but I don’t know if they want to spend more money in the secondary. We need some run defense.” “Man…Who knows where I’ll end up, then.” Flash looks away, not wanting to contemplate a future he always assumed would include San Diego. “I guess the good thing about L.A. is being so close to here,” Flash says. “You gotta get past that.” “What do you mean?” “Start a family of your own, Griz. How long have I been telling you? Eva and I love that you visit so much, and the girls love it too, but you can’t be making decisions based on me. I didn’t pick San Diego so I could stay in touch with you, no offense.” “What other offers were out there?” “I don’t think about it anymore.” “You mean staying in the same division as the Knights didn’t matter at all?” Malik looks away. “Maybe a little.” Knights fans may have felt uncomfortable after the tie in Indianapolis, but the post-week 14 standings show the team still in a good spot. The Knights lead the wild card race at 8-4-1, a half-game advantage on the Steelers and Jets, both 8-5. The only other wild card chaser with a winning record is the Knights’ opponent this Sunday. The Chargers appeared poised for a lost season, falling to 2-4 after their trip to London and 3-5 a few weeks later. But they’ve since won three of four, within two games of a playoff spot at 7-6. Between some offseason preparation with Stein, Phillips finds time to visit Keegan’s office, knowing the two have a big day in a few weeks. Keegan will present to Schneider a culmination of his efforts, a metric for each position that considers all aspects of a player and synthetizes it into one overall rating. If it goes well, Keegan could play a significant role with the team’s decision making this offseason. Phillips feels optimistic. He trusts Keegan’s numbers because they confirm many things he has witnessed on the field this year. In most cases, they uncover something Phillips hadn’t noticed, and very rarely does he disagree with them. “Everything will be finalized by tomorrow,” Keegan says, “except quarterback. But everything will be ready for the meeting.” “Why the delay with quarterback?” “It’s a difficult position to evaluate. It’s not equal-weighted efficiency, like everything else.” Fascinated as always by Keegan’s rationale, Phillips asks, “Why not?” “Think of it this way. A QB might make two bad throws out of forty in a game, only five percent, but if those two are interceptions, that’s not a good performance. It’s a position that demands incredibly high success rates.” “Fair enough.” Phillips lets Keegan get back to it and finalizes his offseason report with Stein. He finds the perfect time to give it to Schneider, so that Stein isn’t there. Schneider, however, is busy working the phones. He hangs up another call just as Phillips throws a packet of paper on his desk. “More preparations,” Schneider says. “Only 55 days now.” Phillips looks at the countdown on the wall, realizing how quickly this season has gone by. “I won’t have time to sink my teeth into this until later, so give me the highlights. Free agents?” “We’re gonna play the market with Zeitler and Lechler. Jameson too, probably, but you know how I feel about running backs. I’d consider him already gone, honestly.” “Lecher is one of the best punters in the league, Chance.” “And if I feel we can draft his replacement without a serious downgrade and then spend that money elsewhere, it’ll be worth it.” “What about Johnson?” “Which one?” “Both of them, come to think of it.” “It’ll be a surprise if Alex is ready for week 1. Replacing him is more important than retaining him at this point. As for Flash, I want him back, but he seems intent on leaving Los Angeles. Franchise tag could be in play.” “Oh, that reminds me.” Schneider skims through the contact list on his phone and finds who he’s looking for. “Hello?” says a voice through the speaker. “Michal, it’s Wayne. My office. Now.” “Is this about his metrics?” Phillips asks. “No. Something more important. It’s probably best that you’re here, actually.” Phillips feels nervous now, no idea what Schneider is talking about and confused by Keegan’s involvement. Keegan knocks on the open door, and Schneider waves him in. “Michal,” Schneider says, “put your metrics on hold. I need—” “They’re pretty much done anyway.” “Michal, listen to me. I have a new project for you. It’s a little outside of your comfort zone.” “Okay.” “In a few weeks, I am going to meet with thirty-one owners. We will be reviewing relocation proposals, and Los Angeles is going to come up.” Phillips jumps in. “So it’s getting serious. Rams and Chargers?” “Yes. Inglewood and Carson. Official proposals got quite the reception a few weeks ago. Anyway, Michal, the Rams and Chargers are going to try to persuade the owners that a second team in Los Angeles is a good idea. I need to persuade them otherwise.” “Do you want me to present other cities as viable options?” “If you have time. The primary goal is to prove the city of Los Angeles cannot support two NFL franchises. I’m going to send you a lot of information I have, and I want you to get started immediately.” “No problem.” Phillips watches Keegan leave for his office, impressed. The fact that Schneider is calling on Keegan with such an important task is surprising and satisfying. Phillips would rather Schneider respect Keegan for his football chops, but it’s a start. “This is really happening, isn’t it?” Phillips asks. “Not if I can help it,” Schneider says, “but I’m not optimistic. You’ve heard me talk before about how fragile a market this is. Things are only stable now because we’re winning. Remember how close we came to losing sellouts a few years ago? Imagine another team drawing fans on top of that.” Phillips doesn’t want to, the gravity of everything finally hitting him. These are unpleasant questions to ask because they almost certainly have unpleasant answers. Even worse for Phillips, as much as he wants to help, this isn’t his battle to fight. The Knights finish another day of practice with the San Diego playbook nearly mastered, dressing in the locker room before reporters are granted access. About half the players take advantage of their option to leave early. Only a few reporters show up today, knowing good quotes will be hard to come by. Those who do aim for Penner, who has not been practicing and is listed as questionable for Sunday, with his shoulder iced and in a sling. Javad, however, heads elsewhere. He’s got a plan, and he’s getting straight to it today. He roams on the defense’s side of the room, thankful his target is still here. “Hey, Flash, got a minute?” Javad asks. “No recorder.” Flash purses his eyebrows, not sure what a journalist is doing interviewing a player if not digging for quotes. “Uh, sure,” he says, sitting down. Meanwhile, Maverick speaks quickly with a few reporters and finishes, left alone. A few teammates head his way and talk in hushed tones. Randall: “You’re crazy, Mav, you know that? Crazy and stupid.” Maverick: “What, D-Jam told you guys? Already?” Grantzinger: “Never mind him. What’s your problem?” Maverick: “What? I did something wrong?” Randall: “You’re an NFL quarterback with a hundred-million-dollar contract, living in Los Angeles.” Maverick: “And…” Randall: “You can bang any actress, any supermodel you want, and you go for Trisha Harden?” Maverick: “Worry about your own personal lives. I can take care of myself.” Jameson: “Can you take care of Coach Harden too?” Martin: “You’re not gonna try to keep this a secret, are you? I mean, shit, he probably already knows.” Maverick is ready to keep going, but Flash starts screaming from across the room. “NO! DON’T TELL ME THAT! DON’T COME IN HERE AND TELL ME THAT! GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!” Flash thrashes at the reporters still left, and players get in front of him, trying to clear the room at the same time. A few coaches run in, Harden included, just as the reporters leave. Flash still flails around uncontrollably as teammates try to calm him down. “Relax, assholes!” Harden says, getting between Flash and others, but the commotion continues. “SHUT UP!” That gets everyone quiet. “What in fuck’s name is going on?” “So, wait, what happened?” Schneider asks. “A reporter got Flash riled up,” Harden explains to Schneider, Phillips, and Stein in the owner’s office. “Apparently he was giving him some nonsense about how we were gonna trade Rose in the offseason before we cut him.” “Which reporter?” Phillips asks. “Couple players said it was Adam.” Phillips looks down, desperate to avoid Schneider’s glare. “Is he still here?” Stein asks. “Flash? I don’t know, I hope not.” “No, the reporter.” “I think so. Security pulled him in for questioning after all the nonsense.” “Good,” Schneider says, sitting back and relaxing his posture. “Alright, let’s figure this out.” Harden nods and walks away. “Hey,” Phillips says, “not gonna help us sort this out?” “I have an appointment,” Harden says flatly, disappearing through the doorway. “What’s this Javad guy’s deal, anyway?” Stein asks. “He’s a press contact of mine,” Phillips says before Schneider can get the jump on him. “We used to work really well together. I gave another reporter the scoop on an offseason story, and he took it personally.” “Which story? Why’d you screw him?” “All due respect, Allan, I don’t have to tell you the answer to either of those questions.” Phillips’ anger surprises himself, but he can never let Schneider (or anyone) know the real story behind Javad’s grudge. “Enough,” Schneider says. “Let’s stay on point.” “Yes,” Phillips says, pointing his entire body towards Schneider as if Stein isn’t in the room. “He’s taken an aggressive anti-team stance, which has gotten him some readers, I guess, but…Well, I should have settled it before things got out of hand. It’s gone on long enough. It has to stop.” “Indeed it does,” Schneider says. The guards still won’t let Javad leave. He’s about to initiate another around of pleading when the door opens, and Phillips walks in, alone. The head of security gets up to leave, but Phillips waves his hand. “You stay, Kinsey,” Phillips says. “I want you to hear this.” Javad watches one guard stay while the others go, leaving three of them in the room. “What’s going on, Chance?” Javad asks, standing up. “This is over,” Phillips says. “This back and forth between you and I, it ends right now.” Javad glances between the two men, uneasy. He has to figure out what Phillips is up to before knowing how to respond. Phillips puts his hand on the table and grabs the lanyard sporting Javad’s press credentials. “These are no good anymore. Kinsey? This guy tries to enter the building, you turn him around right away.” “What?!” Javad says. “You can’t do that.” “You will not set foot in this locker room. You will not be present for press conferences.” “Freedom of the press, asshole. Amendment number one.” “The MedComm Center no longer recognizes the L.A. Mobile as a major news outlet, so, right now, you’re on par with a high schooler doing a paper for his English class.” “Chance, what the fuck—” “I don’t enjoy doing this, Adam. We had a disagreement, fine. It happens. You be a man and get over it. Instead, you insist on playing games. Did you ever think there would be consequences?” “I can fight this. You can’t just shut me out of this building. I’ll be back in.” “After a while, sure. And in the meantime, you’ll miss out while the regular season goes down to the wire and into the playoffs. Not a good time to take a vacation.” Javad breaks eye contact. His eyes dart around the room, in thought, as if he finally understands the gravity of the situation. He refocuses as Phillips steps closer to him. “I told you not to fuck with me,” Phillips says. “Consider this your final warning.” Kinsey escorts Javad out of the building, without his credentials. Javad wears his disappointed face out the door until he gets to the parking lot, and it turns into a smirk. Phillips, finally able to take some deep breaths, rides the elevator to the second floor, walks to Schneider’s office, and falls into the chair across from his desk. “Taken care of?” Schneider asks. “Wouldn’t expect trouble from him anytime soon.” “Good. I know you don’t particularly enjoy dirty work like this, Chance. But just remember how this situation started.” Phillips nods. As much as he would like to blame Schneider—or blame anyone, really—this situation was his doing from the beginning. At least it’s finally over. “I have an idea,” Schneider says. “You ever watch Mad Men?” Confused, Phillips watches Schneider extract a small key from his desk and reach into a lower drawer, unlocking it and taking out a pair of medium-sized crystal glasses. “Name your vice,” Schneider says. “You too?” “I’m holding two glasses, aren’t I?” “Scotch, then.” Schneider unveils a bottle from the desk and pours both glasses about half full. Phillips grabs his and takes a swig before they toast to anything. They both sip their scotch for a few minutes, looking through the wall-to-wall windows towards the city skyline. The audio at Knight’s End alternates between Broncos/Steelers and Jets/Cowboys, each game in its closing minutes. The early round of week 15 games is wrapping up, and Chargers/Knights is minutes from kickoff. From their high top, Cooper and Sampson tap away on their phones, analyzing the league’s standings with games going final and checking their fantasy teams. “I guess Pittsburgh winning isn’t the worst thing,” Sampson says. “Drops Denver by a game.” “I gave up hope on the division weeks ago,” Cooper says. “They’ll fuck it up. Besides, the #5 seed is better.” “Going to Houston or Indy definitely sounds good, though we did just go to Indy, and…” “Or Jacksonville. They’re a game out of first.” Sampson laughs. “If the Jaguars make the playoffs, I’m shaving my beard.” “That’ll be the day.” Employees around the restaurant switch TVs around, changing the channels on almost all of them to the local CBS station broadcasting the Knights game. “So, I was thinking about something,” Sampson says. “God help us.” “Farmers Field. I want to go back. Haven’t been since ’12.” “So go then. Do you need me to sign a permission slip?” “You should come with me.” “I’m blacklisted, dumbass. Remember?” “Of course I remember. Okay, let’s go through this again. You go streaking, banned from the stadium for life. But you want back in, so, you use the fact that you know Merle Harden—which still blows my mind, by the way—and you’re back. But it’s in a luxury suite and you have to wear a disguise. You don’t like it very much, so, here we are.” “Yup. That sounds about right.” “So, what if I buy the tickets?” “What if…wait. What?” “What if I buy the tickets? How are they supposed to know you’re there? As far as they’re concerned, it’s two tickets under the name ‘Cassie Sampson.’ They don’t have your face on a wanted poster. Just keep a low profile and you’re good.” Cooper goes through every part of that scenario in his mind, picturing himself walking through the Farmers Field concourses again, trying to find the problem—but there isn’t one. “Holy. Shit.” Sampson smiles and raises his glass. “Sound the alarm, baby. Jay Cooper’s coming back to Farmers Field.” Cooper sure likes the way that sounds. He feels stupid that he somehow never realized this before, but who cares? “Damn, no more home games this year,” Cooper says. “Playoffs?” “Way too expensive.” “True. So we’ll wait for next year’s schedule to come out, pick a game or two. Shit, I gotta start saving money.” “Start? What do you spend your cash on besides beer?” “More beer.” “Touché.” They clink their glasses and drink as the sound from Farmers Field fills the bar. Penner jogs onto the field for warm-ups, thankful to finally be rid of the shoulder sling. There’s a slight chill in the air, another welcome change, reminding him of Canada. A lack of snowy football games is about the only bad thing about playing in Los Angeles. He runs through drills with the rest of the offensive line, feeling his shoulder tighten as he runs around. No problem, he just needs to get it loose. The five linemen transition to blocking drills against backup D-linemen. Penner leads with his left shoulder, letting the other get warmed up, feeling strength return to him. When he tries leading with his right shoulder, he gets shoved back, losing his footing and falling down, a rare sight that gets everyone’s attention. He tries again, staying on his feet this time but gaining no leverage. Trainers eventually take note and force him back to the locker room for evaluation. Penner walks into the empty area reserved for injured players as a trainer massages his shoulder. He ignores the pain. “Just need to get it right,” Penner says. “You can’t go,” the trainer says, shaking his head. “The hell I can’t. Just loosen it up, asshole.” “It’s not going to loosen. It needs to heal, Brian. It needs to rest.” “Bullshit. I haven’t missed a game in years.” The trainer looks around for something, while Penner refuses to confront the possibility of not playing. He’s getting on that field. They just need to figure something out. “Here,” the trainer says, grabbing a weight from nearby. He places it in Penner’s right hand and straightens his arm. “This is twenty pounds. Standard curl. Lift it.” Penner grips the weight and pulls. Pain flares up in his shoulder and shoots through his arm. His muscles flex but can barely move the weight. He stops, breathes, stretches his fingers, and grips it again. The weight comes up a few inches before Penner’s arm buckles. His hand tenses up. The weight slips out and bangs against the floor. “You’re out, Brian,” the trainer says. “I’m sorry. I’ll go tell the coaches.” Penner grabs his throbbing shoulder, unsure what to do, alone in the trainer’s room with no sound save for his breath. He hasn’t had a nagging injury like this since his last season in Buffalo, and even then, he played sixteen games. He always told himself he’d retire when the time came, though this season has definitely been sudden. Last year he was his dominant self for nineteen games. He can’t make excuses. If it’s time, it’s time. Philip Rivers leads the Chargers onto the field. On the Knights’ sideline, Maverick takes practice snaps from Adrian Dunn, third-round rookie and starting center as of twenty minutes ago. By the time he and Dunn feel comfortable with each other, the Chargers have a 7-0 lead. The Knights take the field. Around the stadium, more eyes than usual divert from the quarterback-center exchange, honing in on a receiver/corner pairing. Wilkes lines up and stares down Rose with a smile. The first few plays go away from Wilkes, who runs quick routes, Rose staying closer to him than any corner he’s ever played against. He’s practiced against Rose, though, and he knows he can wear him down eventually. He can beat him. The punt team comes out, though, so Wilkes waits. Harden attacks San Diego’s injury-riddled offensive line with blitzes, and the Knights rebound after their first drive, only allowing one first down. McKenzie gets the ball back with good field position and feeds Jameson. He plans on staying conservative today because run defense is San Diego’s weakness. Besides, there’s no sense in a pass-first attack against Rose, Jason Verrett, and Eric Weddle. Jameson finds plenty of running room. Banks eventually spells him, also gaining yards with ease and getting the Knights into field goal range. Wilkes finally hears his number called and lines up casually. He runs sideways, then cuts upfield, Rose right with him. The pass goes elsewhere and lands incomplete as Rose stares Wilkes down. Neither says a word as the field goal unit comes out, and the Knights are on the board. In the second quarter, the Chargers run more screens and misdirection on offense, an obvious attempt to get their pass game going and slow down the Knights’ blitzes. Harden has played plenty of chess matches with Daniel by now and is unafraid of any adjustment. The Knights put together another run-heavy drive ending in a field goal, and spirits are high on the sideline despite a 7-6 deficit. McKenzie hears Wilkes chirping about getting more looks but ignores him. In the half’s final minutes, the Chargers find traction in the run game, thanks mostly to a few missed tackles by Martin, who Harden promptly chews out. After crossing midfield, Rivers drops back and floats a perfect pass for Keenan Allen, who beats Lucas in coverage for the touchdown. Farmers Field is quiet and nervous as the Knights go into the locker room down 14-6. McKenzie lays the groundwork for an offensive explosion in the second half, but he can’t get things going. Wilkes is still blanketed by Rose, freeing the Chargers from the burden of double-teaming him, something every other defense has been forced to do this season. The Knights offense is reduced to a series of frustrating three-and-outs while the Chargers extend their lead to 21-6. McKenzie draws up a few plays to get Watson and Bishop involved, but pass protection falls apart in front of Maverick, who takes two sacks before the Knights punt again. Unrest fills the stadium. It is 28-6 by the time McKenzie feels completely hopeless. Without Penner, the offensive line is wearing down. Rose and Verrett are shutting out Wilkes and Watson. Bishop is the only reliable offensive target, and he’s unable to get first downs by himself. Meanwhile, the Knights defense is crumbling. The Chargers pick up nearly every blitz perfectly, allowing Rivers to have his best game of the season, tearing apart the Knights’ secondary one throw at a time. Harden expects a quiet fourth quarter, but the Chargers maintain aggression after taking over with about ten minutes to go. They mount another effective drive with fans heading for the exits, adding another touchdown to make it 35-6. Harden understands. In fact, he agrees with it. This is payback for London. Well, London was payback for the AFC Championship Game. Now there must be payback for this. But it will have to wait. Fans stick around for the end of the 42-6 defeat not out of optimism, but to enjoy the Knights’ last regular-season minutes in Farmers Field. They finish their schedule with two road games, now only able to make the playoffs as a wild card, where they will need further victories on the road to return to this stadium in February. Javad wakes up at 5:33am and instinctively checks for a text from his section editor, which he has finally received: “Last edit good. Article goes live around 5.” He springs out of bed and fires up his laptop, reading a few more unhappy texts from his editor-in-chief. Javad’s absence at the MedComm Center hasn’t been good for the Mobile’s sports coverage, but he is about to be vindicated. Ever since Phillips rebuked him in the offseason, he has worked every source he had and pursued new sources all over the country. Some good and bad luck later, he has found the big story he wanted. Somehow, he never thought to consider if he was looking in the wrong places. He brings up the Mobile’s web site, and there it is, front and center, with multiple links to the sports page. It’s a lengthy headline, but it works: “Sources: Knights had Maverick trade in place before Rose incident.” He clicks on the link, arriving on the article’s main page, which boasts a beautiful split-screen image. On the left: Maverick during a game, helmet off, sweaty, hands on his hips. On the right: Phillips during a press conference, wiping his forehead, slightly frustrated. Javad proudly reads the article’s opening paragraphs again: The Los Angeles Knights had a trade in place that would have sent Jonathan Maverick to an NFC team for multiple draft picks, sources within both organizations have confirmed. The deal was apparently abandoned after the Knights were forced to release Malik Rose.
  3. | | | | Knights of Andreas Part V Based on Characters Created by: badgers Bangy Barracuda Bay BigBen07 BradyFan81 BwareDware94 CampinWithGoatSampson Chernobyl426 CrimsonRaider DonovanMcnabb for H.O.F eightnine FartWaffles Favre4Ever GA_Eagle JetsFan4Life Maverick RazorStar Sarge seanbrock SteVo Thanatos Turry theMileHighGuy Vin Zack_of_Steel Chapter Sixty-Three – Beverly Park A large crowd of journalists assembles in the media room for a press conference scheduled thirteen hours ago. Such haste would normally draw small attendance, but when an NFL owner speaks, everyone shows up to listen. Schneider approaches the podium. NFL Network and local Los Angeles sports networks cut to a live feed of the Knights owner, who leans into the microphone not to talk about his team’s two-game winning streak, not about its 6-4 record, not about its playoff berth if the season ended today. “Good morning,” Schneider says. “For the millions of you who watched the Vikings/Knights game yesterday, you witnessed something that should never happen on a National Football League field. I’ll be frank; the playing conditions were atrocious. This was a result of excessive rain leading up to and during the game, compounded by a systematic failure in the stadium’s drainage system.” Schneider communicates his firm-but-likable personality with every word, a persona that has always resonated with fans, reminding them how great an owner he is, and how fortunate the Knights are to have him running things. “It was an unfortunate coincidence, and it was a one-time occurrence. Those who have watched Knights games regularly know this has never happened in our stadium’s five-year history. That being said, it was totally unacceptable. So let me, on behalf of the Los Angeles Knights, apologize to the Minnesota Vikings. More importantly, I want to assure all future opponents playing at Farmers Field, including and especially the eventual participants of Super Bowl 50, that it will never happen again. Now, I’d be happy to answer any questions.” After the conference ends, Schneider heads upstairs, where Phillips, Stein, Harden, and McKenzie wait for him. They get started immediately, with Schneider telling them about Bishop’s suggestion yesterday. Nobody noticed him and Bishop having an extended conversation in the locker room, so the discussion comes as a mild surprise, though the topic is far from profound. “I don’t see what’s wrong with the way we’ve done it,” Harden says. “I’m not sure requiring all the players and their families to come sets the right tone.” “Why is Bishop floating this?” Stein asks. “Why this idea all of a sudden?” “He didn’t give reasons,” Schneider says, “only said he felt it was a good idea.” “Where would we do it, if not here?” Phillips asks. “My house,” Schneider says. “I’ll do it nice, have food catered, hire a jazz band, the whole nine yards.” Nobody voices any objection. “Now, for a date. How about this Friday? The day after Thanksgiving would certainly make sense.” “No can do,” Harden says. “I’ll be here, but I know a few players have travel plans that weekend and won’t be back until Saturday.” “The week after, then,” Schneider says. “Gives me and the Mrs. more time to prepare. All the better.” “We’ve got Monday Night Football that week,” Phillips says, “so we could even do Saturday. Wouldn’t conflict with practice.” “I’m in favor of that,” Harden says. “So be it!” Schneider declares. “Saturday the 5th. Mandatory attendance, everyone is allowed a plus-one, and let’s say…seven o’clock?” Everyone nods in agreement. “One more thing, then, and this is perhaps the most important. Merle?” Harden’s eyes widen, surprised to be called out. “We can do this dry, if you want,” Schneider says. “Dry?” Harden says. “As in, no booze? No way. I won’t allow it. I’m comfortable in the presence of alcohol. You can ask Chance.” “It’s true,” Phillips says. “Melissa and I went over for dinner, Melinda served us wine, didn’t bother Merle one bit.” “Well,” Schneider says, “if it’s part of what’s kept you sober for a year, then I’ll trust it.” McKenzie fidgets in his seat and looks at Harden, who doesn’t blink. Fans tuning in to Sunday Night Football hoping for a fierce divisional rivalry between the Knights and Chiefs are quickly disappointed. The Knights start the game with back-to-back touchdown drives, sending Farmers Field into hysteria and seizing the game’s momentum permanently. The Chiefs never recover. Though Kansas City scatters a few field goals throughout the game, the Knights add a second half touchdown and field goal for a 24-9 lead, and the game devolves from uninteresting to boring. To Knights fans, this represents a best-case scenario: a confident win in a divisional game, extending their winning streak to three and maintaining a playoff spot. To the players, things aren’t so cozy. The Chiefs are in the middle of a lost season in the wake of Jamaal Charles’ torn ACL, so beating them is no achievement. Losing, in fact, would have been devastating. Despite this, the Knights play far from dominant. The defense allows five drives to reach field goal range, but Cairo Santos only makes three of them. A better kicker would put more points on the board, and a better offense would reach the end zone. The offense leaves points on the field too. Between drops, two interceptions, and one fumble, they never match the execution of the first quarter, bringing back forgetful memories of the Detroit game. As the final minutes tick away, Bishop wanders the sideline, sensing the same uneasiness among his teammates. He’s glad he talked to Schneider last week and looking forward to Saturday night. Players celebrate and change in the locker room. After the media has come and gone, Maverick spots Flash on his way out and flags him down. “Hey, Flash! Nice job on that deep shot for Kelce. I think you did a somersault. That’ll make the top ten.” “I should have caught it.” “Not sure Jerry Rice could have caught that one. Anyway, since Coach gave us the day off Tuesday, I’m throwing a party at my place tomorrow. You interested? Haven’t seen you much this year.” “Can’t. I got places to be.” “Yeah, I know where you’re going.” Flash watches Maverick’s excited face turn into resentment. Fine. Fuck him. Who cares if he knows? Who cares if anyone knows? Flash only has five weeks left anyway. With the calendar ready to flip to December, offseason preparations gradually take up more time for the front office. The Knights are poised to have a less eventful offseason than last year, though not without difficult decisions. To Phillips, the biggest challenge is free safety. Rose’s departure has left the secondary in shambles, making Flash extremely valuable to the Knights. But if he’s serious about refusing any contract offers—and all indications from his agent say he is—then the Knights can only apply the franchise tag. Would it be wise to tag an already disgruntled player? Is this a good time for the non-exclusive franchise tag to try for some draft compensation? The topic comes up in a meeting in Phillips’ office where Stein and Keegan are present, along with the defensive coaching staff. Phillips is glad to be running a few meetings without Schneider, who is in Dallas for owners meetings. “What’s your read on him, coach?” Phillips asks. “Can’t say, honestly,” Harden says. “He’s shut me out this year. Shut everyone out, really.” “Not everyone,” Stein says, lifting a piece of paper from the pile in front of him. “You guys heard these stories?” Phillips’ suspicions are confirmed as Stein passes the paper around and he sees a multiple articles from the L.A. Mobile with various sentences and paragraphs highlighted. Flash has been regularly driving to Malik Rose’s new residence in San Diego. Phillips doesn’t need to look up who wrote the articles, and he certainly doesn’t need more pressure from Schneider. He’s tried reaching out to Javad and gotten nothing, so maybe it’s time to get aggressive. “You’re okay with this?” Phillips asks Harden. “Of course. What a man does in his free time is no concern of mine. Or anyone else’s in this room, quite honestly. As long as he’s not giving them our playbook, I don’t give a damn.” “Plus,” Stein says, “if allowing it helps rebuild trust between he and the team, that’s a good thing.” “Allan, Michal?” Phillips asks. “How’s Rose doing this year, anyway?” “Picking up where he left off,” Stein says. “He shut down Jeremy Maclin last week,” Keegan says. “Zero catches allowed. Shut down Alshon Jeffrey two weeks ago. Two catches allowed for nine yards, no touchdowns.” Harden gives Phillips as angry a look as he can. The two don’t need to spar on this issue again, but Harden is eminently disappointed when he wonders what the Knights would be doing with Rose this season. He hopes Phillips is too. “Alright,” Phillips says. “Let’s just say Flash leaves and we don’t tag him. Any good free agents at safety this year?” “Eric Weddle,” Stein says. Phillips and Harden lock eyes, both raising their eyebrows. “There’s an idea,” Harden says. Later that day, Phillips leads a mundane press conference with a scant crowd of reporters. Without much news to speak of, they don’t seem to have many good questions, but Schneider insisted on some sort of press communication while he was gone. Phillips answers questions easily, stumbling only once when asked about Penner’s shoulder injury. He keeps an eye on Javad while the others ask questions, feeling some levity when one reporter makes a joke about this being a useless conference. Javad raises his hand, speaking before Phillips calls on him. “Is there any particular reason you guys just decided to mix up the program?” Phillips ponders his reply, suddenly restraining a smile, realizing he’s got him. “It coincides with the schedule we sent out Monday,” he says. “What’s the matter? Didn’t know how to read it?” The entire room erupts with laughter. Reporters sitting in the front rows spin around for a look at Javad, who turns red. “No more questions,” Phillips says, no longer hiding his smile. He steps off the stage, out of the sight of the cameras, and stares Javad straight in the eye. The Santa Monica Mountains extend west from Glendale to the Pacific Ocean, bookended by urban sprawls. Toward the eastern end of the range, north of Beverly Hills and south of Studio City, a tall gate borders Beverly Park, a residential community home to some of the most lavish estates in California. Many players and coaches carpool, per Schneider’s request, clear the security gate, and look in awe as they drive through a neighborhood of mansions, each more impressive than the next. They park in a circular driveway and look up at the sprawling, L-shaped mansion belonging to Wayne Schneider. For the players, this is a rare humbling moment. Those lucky enough to have big contracts could save up millions for a similar home, but this man has billions. Everyone is led through the house, past the dining room where they’ll eat dinner in a few hours, and into the back yard. Freshly trimmed grass arcs around the pool, encompassing a total area bigger than the house itself, it seems. Butlers circulate with trays of hors d’oeuvres and champagne-filled glasses, lines form around two open bars, and the Los Angeles Knights’ annual holiday party is underway. Everyone arrives in a suit, accompanied by wives or girlfriends in stylish but conservative dresses. Harden, of course, is the only one not wearing a tie. Players are disappointed to see Flash and Wilkes playing along, each donning a boring black suit. At an event like this, both are typically good for gaudy suits with bright colors. One of the most talkative players early in the evening is Brock, at the party without a date but frantically moving from group to group. He eventually encounters a crowd of linemen. Brock: “Yo, who’s up for an after-party?” Grodd: “Sean, we just got here.” Brock: “I mean for later, obviously.” Anthrax: “Hey, where’s Scarlett?” Brock: “Don’t know. We broke up.” Anthrax: “Shit, I’m sorry.” Grodd: “Guess you don’t have the most attractive girlfriend on the team anymore.” Anthrax: “Chase! C’mon, man.” Grodd: “Oh, sorry.” Penner: “This ain’t the place for a hook-up, Sean.” Brock: “Which is why I’m trying to put something together! I gotta find Mav.” Anthrax: “Shit, is that Logan?” Everyone looks toward the doorway that leads inside, seeing Bishop locking arms with a stunningly gorgeous woman. Penner: “That’s his wife, dumbasses. Her name’s Ashley.” Grodd: “You know what, Sean? I take it back. You wouldn’t have had the most attractive sidepiece anyway.” Brock takes off to find Maverick. A few seconds later, Anthrax excuses himself for a refill, leaving Grodd and Penner alone. “How’s the shoulder?” Grodd asks. “Sore as hell,” Penner says, surprising Grodd with such an honest answer. “Hurt my ankle last week too.” “You’re not breaking down on me, are you?” Grodd says jokingly. “I might be.” “Hey, what the fuck? What’s with you?” “Don’t be dramatic. Just listen to me. All the nicks and bruises are…Well, lately I’ve been thinking this is my final ride.” “Brian, don’t be stupid. You might not be in your prime anymore, but you’re still awesome. Better than most centers in this league. I always thought you and I had a couple of seasons left together.” Grodd loves playing next to Penner, as any left guard would, but he’s uncomfortable with the idea of Penner leaving. He’s not ready to be lead dog in the trenches. Not yet, anyway. “I never planned on sticking around past my prime,” Penner says. “What, stretch it out for a few more years, getting beat by guys I used to dominate? That ain’t my style.” Grodd doesn’t respond, studying his champagne glass. Penner’s glad for the conversation to be over, but at least he got it out of the way. He knows there are still five games left on the schedule, but five games feels like a lot right now. Watson comes by and shakes their hands, awkwardly jittery, and moves on to the next group. He feels himself sweating beneath his suit. Even worse, he feels his mouth fumbling over his words every time he speaks. These are his teammates, not the media. Why is he so nervous? After everyone has arrived and had a drink (or several), word spreads that dinner will be starting soon. When Bishop hears this, he notices Wilkes nearby, standing alone. He excuses himself from the group he’s with and takes a deep swig of champagne. “D-Jam,” Bishop says. Wilkes shows his usual look of indignation, then relaxes, finally realizing he can’t ignore this guy forever. “What’s up, Logan?” “I want to apologize. You were right. If I never told the guys upstairs, nobody else would ever know. I want you to know I was never out to get you, and I hate how this whole thing has turned out.” Wilkes has a mind to tell Bishop that he’s right, that he’s an asshole, and that he’ll never be forgiven. But the vodka is giving him a nice buzz and making him feel more diplomatic. “It’s all good. I mean, really, it’s not your fault. You ain’t the one who never taught me how. Know what I’m saying?” “Actually, I’d like to help you learn, if I can. I know it’s—” “They already got me with someone.” “Who?” “The team. Got a dude comin’ to my place once a week. A speech therapist, or some shit. Anyway, it’s not that I can’t read—I can—just not…” “Above a certain level?” “Yeah. Whatever that means. I see words, some of ‘em I know, some of ‘em…” He shrugs and sips his drink. Wilkes, instead of his usual frustration or anger, seems genuinely sad, a surprising emotion that dampens Bishop’s mood too. “Well, I’m glad you’re getting some help. I just want to make sure we’re good.” “What, you and me?” Wilkes pauses. Bishop looks as merciful as he can. Come on, D-Jam, give me a break here. “Yeah, we good.” He raises his glass, and they clink. “Now let’s go see that pretty wife of yours.” “Hey, careful there.” The party moves inside for dinner, then back outside, where drinks flow faster and the mood lightens. Maverick attracts a crowd, as always, trying not to get too drunk. This isn’t one of his mansion parties, after all. He finishes a swig of champagne and catches sight of a woman, about his age, in a stunning purple dress. He stops talking mid-sentence and watches her walk across the yard. Residual light from the pool glistens on her dress. “Hot damn,” he says, “she’s beautiful.” The first one who notices is Grantzinger. Instinctively, he says, “Oh no,” and gets in front of Maverick, signaling other teammates for support. “Get out of my way, Zack,” Maverick says, bobbling his head around for a good look. Reinforcements arrive. Jameson, Luck, Randall, and Martin try to interpret Grantzinger’s non-verbal cues, eventually connecting the young woman to Maverick’s entranced stare. “What’s with you guys?” Maverick says. “Do you see what I see?” “Dude,” Randall says, “do you know who that is?” “I don’t care.” Maverick takes another sip of champagne and starts walking. “Mav, no! Mav!” “Don’t do it, man! Don’t go!” He keeps walking as the teammates gather to watch nervously. Focusing on his posture, Maverick walks up to her. She notices him and seems to recognize him. “I don’t think we’ve met,” Maverick says. “I’m Jonathan. You can call me Jon, if you want. Or Mav. The players call me Mav.” They shake hands. “I’m Trisha. Most people call me Trish, including my dad.” Maverick looks back at the teammates, suddenly understanding. They’re still looking, bug-eyed. He’s seen Trisha before; how did he not recognize her? Maybe he’s just never seen her with make-up in a dress like that. She certainly looks amazing in that dress… “Still interested?” Trisha asks. “Oh, definitely,” Maverick says, as confidently as he can. “Well, that makes one of us.” “What do you mean?” “You throw too many interceptions, Mav. Or Jon, whatever. And for an experienced quarterback, your footwork is pretty erratic.” Oh my God. She knows football. This is a dream. This isn’t real. He’s had too much champagne. Maverick feels someone grab his shoulder. The observing teammates instantly turn around, unable to watch. “Yep, it’s over,” Martin says. “Lasted longer than I thought,” Grantzinger says. “Okay, guys,” Randall says, “let’s all say a prayer for our departed quarterback.” Maverick sees Trish smile before Coach Harden’s face is inches from his own. “Oh,” he says. “What’s up, coach?” “Don’t even think about thinking about it,” Harden says. “I will tear out your organs with my bare hands. Understood?” “Yes, sir.” When Maverick regains his senses, Trish is gone, and the ordeal has ended without incident. Another hour passes, and people start leaving, each thanking Schneider personally for a wonderful time. The party winding down, Schneider and his wife stand next to Phillips and Melissa. “I think this was a roaring success, myself,” Schneider says. “I’d say it could become a tradition,” Phillips says. “Oh, I never asked you about the owners meetings.” “You haven’t heard on the news? They weren’t good. Between St. Louis and San Diego, I’d say we’ll have roommates soon. Let’s change the subject. Oh, how fitting. Logan!” Nearby, Bishop latches arms with his wife and passes by. “Glad you made the suggestion?” “Definitely, sir,” Bishop says, half lying. This was a good time, no doubt, but he won’t know if it helped for a while. “Actually, if you’ll excuse me, Ashley isn’t feeling too well, so we’re gonna head home.” He takes two steps before Wilkes shouts, from across the yard, “Hey, Logan! You said you’d play pool with us!” Great. A chance to repair the bridge with Wilkes, and he has to miss it. “Hey,” Brock says, suddenly appearing, “I’m on my out anyway. If it’s kosher, I can drop Ashley off at your place.” “You sure?” Logan asks. “Totally.” “Hun, you okay with that?” “Oh yes,” Ashley says. “Stay, shoot pool. I’m just gonna fall asleep as soon as I get home anyway.” “Okay. See you later, then. Thanks, Sean. I’ll find a way to repay you.” “No worries,” Brock says. Ashley walks next to him as Logan departs, wrapping her arm around his shoulder. That was fast. “I’m not feeling well,” she says. “This is so nice of you.” She’s flirting with him! This is better than Brock could have ever hoped for. First he gets word of a wild party in Hollywood, and now this. He would never mess around with a teammate’s woman (especially a wife), but what’s wrong with a little harmless back and forth? He puts his arm around Ashley’s waist as they stroll through the house towards the driveway. “As long as you can tell me where you drive, we’re good.” “I can do that.” Brock looks around for anyone staring, then finds the right moment to slide his hand down her back, below her waist, hoping no one’s looking. Brock wakes up in his car, behind the steering wheel. Where is he? What the hell? He fumbles around with the GPS on his phone, eventually determining he’s somewhere west of Bishop’s house. Guess he never made it to that party. Wait a second—Bishop. Did anything happen? No, it couldn’t have. Brock’s suit is still buttoned, pants on, zipper up, belt on, everything. He must have just pulled to the side of the road and fallen asleep. Suddenly very thirsty, he goes back to the GPS and finds the nearest fast food place. On his way out of a Clippers press conference, Javad works the phones all the way to his apartment. He’s still heated about Phillips calling him out like that in the press conference. Even worse, it caused a spike in traffic to the Mobile’s web site, meaning his editor-in-chief loved it. He doesn’t want to get attention that way. If that’s the game Phillips wants to play, Javad needs to punch back. He could be on the verge of some ammunition. After working the Rose lead for months, getting in touch with sources all over the country, he knows multiple teams had trade offers on the table for Rose. He doesn’t have any evidence that the Knights were listening to trades, or even looking to make one, but it doesn’t matter. He’s close to something, he knows it. Another Sunday of football passes, and the playoff picture crystalizes in both conferences. For the Knights, week 13 has set up so that a win would put them in the 5th seed by themselves, a game ahead of the Steelers and Jets. They would still be two games behind Denver with a trip to Mile High Stadium in week 16. The hours pass Monday as the football world counts down to a Super Bowl XLIX rematch, Packers vs. Knights at Farmers Field. Brock creeps into the locker room and spots Bishop, already changing. Time to find out how much trouble he’s in. He walks in, trying to be casual. “L-Bish! What up?” “Hey Sean, what’s up?” That wasn’t so bad. He’s in the clear! Smiling, Brock sets up shop at his locker, black jersey waiting for him, and gets ready to change. Tonight’s gonna be a big game. Bishop tightens his belt and ties his shoes, ready for battle, and grabs his helmet by the facemask. He walks across the locker room. “Sean.” “Yeah?” Brock says, spinning around. Bishop lowers his helmet and launches it upward in one swift, violent motion. It strikes Brock square in the nose, squirting blood in the air as Brock hits the floor. Bishop gets on top of him and punches him in the face. Brock gets his arms up, but Bishop keeps swinging. He lands three haymakers before a bombardment of players pulls him backwards. Coaches hear the commotion and rush in to see Bishop restrained by four teammates and Brock lying down, his face unrecognizable in a pool of blood. Minutes later, all but two players have run out onto the field. Brock and Bishop sit in the locker room, Coach Harden standing before them, marveled at the sight. Brock has a splint across his nose, cotton up both nostrils, and is already wearing his mouthguard. Bishop can only fit gloves on his left hand because his right is wrapped in multiple layers of bandages. “Either one of you assholes have anything to say?” Harden asks. Brock and Bishop barely move, looking straight ahead or down at the floor, not at each other, and not at their head coach. “In that case, I’m just gonna consider this something you two settled on your own terms—or just Logan’s, by the look of it—and is finished. Any more from either of you and you’ll regret it. Deal?” Both players bounce their heads slowly in what could be considered nods. Harden shakes his head and walks toward the tunnel. “This fucking team sometimes, I swear to God.” Green Bay strikes first with an eighteen-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to Randall Cobb. The Knights respond with a twenty-yard touchdown run by Marcus Jameson. Rodgers leads another scoring drive, this one stymied in field goal range, and Maverick does the same. The game is tied, 10-10, near the end of the first quarter, and fans understand what to expect tonight: an exciting, back-and-forth battle worthy of primetime. The Knights operate their hybrid at full capacity, sometimes switching between 4-3 and 3-4 then switching back to their original formation before the snap. Stone and Lucas have their best game of the season, but Rodgers and his receivers are simply too good, executing multiple back-shoulder fades to perfection and scoring another touchdown. The Knights respond in the half’s closing minutes, but Clay Matthews torments Maverick, keeping him on the run and preventing any of the deep passes McKenzie wants to call. On the edge of field goal range, Maverick hurries a throw over the middle that is intercepted, and both teams head for the tunnels with the Packers leading, 17-10. Though Farmers Field buzzes with activity at the start of the third quarter, it seems that the first half intensity is gone—until McCabe jogs onto the field for a fifty-five-yard field goal attempt and nails it. The Packers eventually add a field goal, again up by seven, and the Knights respond. Leaning on play-action, McKenzie gets in rhythm and Maverick finds open receivers. Though Green Bay’s pass rush still disrupts timing on a few plays, Maverick is able to roll out and find other options, sometimes scrambling and picking up first downs himself. On the fourth quarter’s first play, Maverick hits Watson in stride for a sixteen-yard touchdown, and the game is tied. “Dig in, assholes!” Harden yells on the sideline. “No more points! It’s time to win this thing!” The defense is as confident as it’s been all year, with their shaky pass defense somehow holding it together against one of the league’s most effective passing attacks. The hybrid plays a big role, with pressure in Rodgers’ face almost every play. Brock breaks through for his second sack of the night and brings out the punt teams, though his nose starts bleeding again, and he gets some attention from the trainers. Maverick goes to work, looking for the Knights’ first lead of the night. Bishop, whose hand is so padded with bandages he can’t catch with it, is reduced to a pass blocking role, leaving Wilkes and Watson as the only viable passing targets. The Packers take note of this, shutting things down and forcing a punt. “Get ready, ladies,” McKenzie says. “Next drive is the winner. Get ready.” “We got this, coach,” Maverick says. “Hey, O-line! You guys keep me standing and this is all us.” Nearby linemen nod their head. Maverick turns to Bishop and says, “I guess that means you too.” Bishop smiles. Relentless Knights pass rush forces multiple incompletions, and Rodgers looks flustered. He drops back on third and ten with Grantzinger and Martin closing, tries to escape, and gets wrangled down for another sack. The stadium cheers, the Knights about to take over with under four minutes to go. McKenzie calls a few rollouts and simple sideline routes, taking the easy yards and stopping the clock. Maverick lines up under center with Matthews to his right. Bishop stares him down, their facemasks a foot apart. Then the Packers shift, and Matthews goes to Maverick’s blind side. The play clock is too low to adjust, so Maverick takes the snap and drops back. Matthews gets around Adams easily while Bishop swings across the line and levels Matthews with a crushing block. Maverick steps up, plants his feet, and bombs it down the field. Wilkes runs ahead of his man with a safety closing. The pass sails in, and Wilkes leaps, catching it and coming down with a Packer wrapping him up. Wilkes stops and throws the corner off him. The safety runs in for a tackle, and Wilkes extends a stiff-arm, hitting him square in the facemask and pushing him down. Wilkes runs into the end zone and dunks the ball on the cross bar as the stadium explodes. Maverick and Wilkes find each other on the sideline while McCabe hits the extra point and embrace. “We’re back, baby!” Maverick says. “Damn right we are!” Wilkes says. Fans settle down, knowing Rodgers still has 3:18 to force overtime. Harden isn’t changing a thing strategically, but he has his defense line up in 4-3—just to fuck with Rodgers. The Packers complete some short passes over the middle, and the two-minute warning approaches. Randall shows blitz, then backs up to cover Richard Rodgers. He gets turned around, sees the tight end extend his hands for a catch, and swings his arm blindly, somehow tipping the ball into the air. He loses sight of it, but Schwinn dives and gets his hands under it, cradling the ball and staying down for an interception. The Knights sideline goes crazy and stays that way as Jameson runs out most of the clock, Green Bay burning its timeouts with the Knights in field goal range. McCabe adds an insurance kick, and the Knights win, 30-20. A round of respectful handshakes unfolds on the field with Farmers Field in celebration mode. Fans of both teams would be eager for a rematch in February, and players would agree. During the final minutes of ESPN’s coverage of the game, commentators Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden wrap up their broadcast by discussing the Knights’ place in the AFC. Tirico: “So now, Jon, you see the standings there, Los Angeles is still two games behind Denver in the West, but they lead the wild card race at 8-4.” Gruden: “I tell you what, Mike, the Los Angeles Knights have won four games in a row, they’ve got this new hybrid defense that everybody’s gonna have to try and figure out, they’re getting healthy, and by the way, they are the defending Super Bowl champions. The rest of the AFC better watch out.” McKenzie loses sight of Harden in the post-game chaos, eventually catching up to him just before the tunnel. “Listen,” McKenzie says, “I don’t know whether you ever lost these players or not, but you sure got ‘em now.” “Damn right I do.”
  4. | | | | Knights of Andreas Part V Based on Characters Created by: badgers Bangy Barracuda Bay BigBen07 BradyFan81 BwareDware94 CampinWithGoatSampson Chernobyl426 CrimsonRaider DonovanMcnabb for H.O.F eightnine FartWaffles Favre4Ever GA_Eagle JetsFan4Life Maverick RazorStar Sarge seanbrock SteVo Thanatos Turry theMileHighGuy Vin Zack_of_Steel Chapter Sixty-Two – The Line That Divides The pre-game excitement in Ford Field fades fast. Lions fans hoping that the firing of their offensive coordinator will spur some sort of comeback from their dreadful 1-7 record will have to wait at least another week, it appears. The visiting Knights dominate the first half, up 21-0 after one quarter. The home team’s lone highlight comes when ex-Knight Sebastian Janikowski makes a sixty-yard field goal, but the Lions trail at halftime, 24-3. The Knights come out confident and relaxed to start the second half. Jameson pounds away up the middle with Grodd and Penner leading the charge. Facing third and one, Jameson surges into a crowd and leaps for the needed yard. A massive pile of bodies ensues, and Penner finds himself at the bottom. When he gets up, his right shoulder feels stiff. “You good?” Grodd asks. “Just got crunched a little,” Penner says. “I’m fine.” The next play, Penner has difficulty pushing forward, holding his own but unable to lower his body and drive like normal. A few plays later, the Knights are punting. Penner fights off trainers and doctors on the sideline, though they eventually declare him fine to return without a trip to the locker room. Meanwhile, the Lions put together a solid drive resulting in another Janikowski field goal, cutting the lead to 24-6. Harden is ready to dive into some complex iterations of the hybrid defense when he sees Brock creep back toward the sideline, clutching his chest. “What’s the matter with you?” Harden asks. “Trying to block that kick, asshole speared me with his helmet. I can’t fuckin’ breathe, coach.” “Alright, take it easy. Trainers! Check him out.” Brock heads for the tunnel, propelling Jamari Price to a starting role. Harden considers whether he can run the hybrid with Price at DE/OLB, but then he remembers that Price played 4-3 DE in college. No problem. The offense retakes the field, Penner included, but the Lions apparently have everyone bottled up, prompting three consecutive incompletions by Maverick. “D-Jam,” Maverick says after a quick debrief from McKenzie, “what’s the matter? Can’t get open on a simple out?” “Yo, 23 is a baller, man,” Wilkes says, referring to Darius Slay, who has been all over him today. “I don’t care. Seventy-five million dollars and you can’t beat him?” “Hey, don’t do me like that, man.” Fans start screaming, and players look up at the big screen, seeing Eric Ebron run free. Flash narrows the gap, diving just before the goal line and tripping him up, but Ebron’s momentum carries him across the goal line. Randall bows his head in shame and finds a quiet spot on the bench. Sensing his frustration, Grantzinger takes the vocal lead. “Let’s go now!” Grantzinger yells. “We gotta put this thing away, motherfuckers. Stop dicking around and bury these assholes!” The Knights go back to work with a new atmosphere in the building, the defeated lull of the first half now replaced by a steady hum. Jameson gets going again, quelling the home crowd’s enthusiasm and taking the game to the fourth quarter. Wilkes finally beats Slay on a deep route, and Maverick bombs it for him. Wilkes tracks it, jumps, and plants both feet, one of them on the white grass. Maverick curses in frustration as the punt unit comes out. Still without Brock, the Knights defense operates the hybrid, much more comfortable with it after a long week of preparation. It doesn’t matter, though, as Stafford attacks the secondary. The Lions show a lot of different looks and formations, all of which seem to have an upper hand against the Knights’ 3-4/4-3. Harden watches Randall get beat again by Ebron on a crossing route and feels a tap on his shoulder from someone in a blue hat. “Schwinn’s gotta come out, coach.” “Who the fuck are you?” “Coach,” Dr. Evans says, also appearing out of nowhere, “this is the league neurological consultant.” “Nero-what?” “One of the concussion guys upstairs thinks Schwinn’s a little woozy after that last tackle.” “Thinks?” “It’s protocol, Merle. Schwinn’s gotta leave the field.” “Oh, fuck it. BOBBY!” It takes a few seconds to get Schwinn’s attention, but he eventually trots off the field and walks unwillingly toward the locker room. Harden knows enough about the league’s concussion protocol to expect he won’t return. The Lions march down the field, amping the crowd up with every first down. On first and goal, Stafford throws up an end zone ball for Calvin Johnson, who outreaches Lucas easily before Flash can get there. Incredulous, Harden calls his two-point conversion play, knowing the Lions have to try for a three-point game. Flash shades toward Johnson, corners inch up for press coverage, and linebackers prepare to blitz. Stafford hands off to Ameer Abdullah, who runs straight ahead into the end zone. “Right up the middle,” Harden says. “Unfuckingbelievable.” The contrast between both sidelines tells the story. A game that was 24-3 at halftime is now 24-21 with 10:25 to go in the fourth quarter. Harden finds McKenzie before chewing out his defense. “Put these guys away, Mac. Enough bullshit.” “We’re trying, coach.” The Knights get a few first downs with a balanced attack, ticking valuable minutes in the process. They’re near midfield with under seven minutes left when Penner’s shoulder stiffens up again, and trainers force him off the field. Without him, run blocking falls apart. The Knights run some more clock, but Maverick faces third and twelve. He rolls out under pressure, not finding any open receivers. Running out of room, he goes down, taking the sack and running the clock. The Lions take over from their own twelve with 4:02 to go. Without two starters, Harden calls plays like normal, putting pressure on Stafford and forcing him into quick throws. A mixed batch of catches and errant throws comprises an inconsistent drive that nonetheless moves the chains. The two-minute warning arrives with the Lions about fifteen yards from Janikowski’s range. Harden sends more blitzes, trying for a sack or interception. It doesn’t work. Stafford hits Abdullah out of the backfield, who gets around Price easily for a big play, and the Lions are in field goal range. The clock ticks as the Lions look for a game-winning touchdown. Stafford drops back and Randall, on instinct, runs through the offensive line. Stafford sees him late, runs away, and Randall swats his leg, tripping him up. The Lions decide to wind the last fifteen seconds of the clock before calling their final timeout. They do so with 0:03 left and the ball on the thirty-five. Janikowski lines up for a fifty-two-yard kick. “Overtime, ladies!” McKenzie tells his offense. “Be ready for overtime!” Harden, who never bothers with icing the kicker, watches as Janikowski boots it, clearly far enough. It wobbles a bit as it sails toward the right goal post and strikes the net. Both sidelines celebrate and clamor for a look at the officials, who wave their arms horizontally. White jerseys run out onto the field as the Knights celebrate. Dominating in the first half felt good, but hanging on for a tough win somehow feels even better. Now, they’re heading back home with a winning record. Harden takes the podium for his post-game press conference with a sheet of paper in front of him, a rare occurrence. “Alright, some injury news first,” Harden says. “Brian Penner had some stiffness in his shoulder. We’re not really sure what that is yet. We’ll know tomorrow, but we don’t expect it to be anything serious. Sean Brock has a bruised rib, so he’ll be questionable for next Sunday. Robert Schwinn is being evaluated for a concussion by the league, so who the hell knows when we’ll hear something there. Questions.” A few idiots give the usual bullshit, dancing around the important stuff, until one finally asks Harden for his evaluation of his team in the second half. “I thought we played soft, honestly. And I’ll give credit to Detroit, they played hard, they fought back. But we had plenty of chances to put ‘em away, and we didn’t.” “So, coach, how do you use this game going forward? Despite the way things played out, you’re coming off a win with Minnesota at home next week.” “It sure doesn’t feel like a win, I’ll say that much.” In a good mood, Phillips walks briskly to Schneider’s office to hand off some paperwork, seeing Schneider on the phone. “Alright, Pete,” Schneider says, barely noticing Phillips’ presence. “I’ll get back to you this afternoon.” He hangs up and rubs his eyebrows. “You look stressed,” Phillips says. “That was Peter O’Reilly.” “The Super Bowl guy?” “Senior Vice President of Events is his title, but yes, the Super Bowl guy. It all goes through him. Weather plans, halftime show, stadium parking…hell, even city traffic and hotel bookings reach his desk at some point.” Phillips subconsciously looks at the countdown that has been posted on Schneider’s wall for months. There are 83 days until Super Bowl 50. “You want to know something, Chance? I hope it’s at least ten years before we have to do this again.” “That bad?” “Beneath the glamour and the honor and the prestige lies a horrendous mess of details. And those details must all connect perfectly. That power outage at the Superdome a few years back? No way anything like that’s happening here. I won’t allow it.” “The stadium’s only five years old. I doubt we have any problems.” “I hope you’re right. Actually, I have to make a few more calls, so if you’ll excuse me…” “No problem.” Phillips leaves for Dr. Evans to get the latest injury update, then to Keegan’s office to dissect his midseason report. Players had planned to hit the field with some energy after winning three of their last four. They wanted to focus on putting together a good practice week to make it four out of five. Instead, they walk onto the grass with their head coach’s public comments echoing in their heads, one word in particular. Soft. To most of the players, there was nothing soft about Sunday’s performance in Detroit. Injuries piled up in the second half, but they hung on. Did they make mistakes? Definitely. Are there things they need to improve? Of course. Did they let the Lions back in the game with a lack of effort? No way. Coach Harden shows no desire to revisit his remarks, simply starting practice as he always does. Some players find this relieving, though most feel there’s something unfinished, uncertain, lingering in the air. What is certain is the Vikings come to Los Angeles this Sunday with a 6-3 record, in the middle of an apparent breakout season. The Knights seem to be aware of this, as practice is more physical than normal for a Tuesday. Once the pads go on, linemen push and shove each other after the whistle. Receivers and corners grab jerseys and facemasks jostling for position. Verbal jawing goes beyond friendly and borders contentious. One player who doesn’t think much of Harden’s comments is Wilkes, thinking only of himself for all the wrong reasons. Alex Johnson’s injury, though unfortunate for the offense as a whole, should have given him more targets, more catches, bigger numbers all around. It hasn’t. And the recent bullshit surrounding him definitely hasn’t helped, nor has Bishop constantly trying to be friends. Wilkes lets off steam one route at a time, lined up against Lucas in drills. He shoves at the top of every cut, throwing in some post-catch stiff arms for good measure. “Cool it with the OPI, D-Jam,” McKenzie says. “Let’s run ‘em clean.” “Maybe you should write that down for him, coach,” says an unmistakable voice. Wilkes ignores Schwinn and gets ready for another route. “So he can read it for himself.” “Get back to defense, Bobby, or I’ll sick Coach Harden on you,” McKenzie says. “Yes, sir!” Wilkes stares down Lucas, who looks winded, and runs a curl. He shoves off, and Lucas shoves back. He grabs Lucas’ jersey and throws him down. Maverick throws, and it goes over both of them as Wilkes extends his arm and hits Lucas in the facemask as hard as he can, ignoring the pain in his knuckles. A group of receivers and offensive linemen rush in to separate the two. Wilkes looks around at the rest of the field, practice still ongoing. He spots Schwinn running a cone drill and sprints straight for him. Schwinn sees him at the last second and takes off. “Whoa, what the hell?” A smile on his face, Schwinn tries to avoid the receiver, but Wilkes is faster. A mob of teammates tries to surround them both as the entire team takes notice. Wilkes grabs Schwinn’s jersey as they circle each other. Schwinn is lifted off his feet and latches around Wilkes’ neck from behind him. “Ride ‘em, cowboy!” With one swift, violent motion, Wilkes plants his feet and throws Schwinn to the ground. His back strikes the grass and his head snaps back, helmet smacking the grass. Half the team seems to get between the two, with Wilkes ending up on his knees, catching his breath again. “What the fuck, D-Jam?” “Hey, save it for Sunday, man!” “Bobby just avoided a concussion. You trying to give him one?” Wilkes sees a bare hand in his face, grabbing his facemask and twisting him upward, to his feet. He pulls back his arm for a punch and freezes, inches from Harden’s face. “Do it, motherfucker!” Harden says. “Give me a reason to kick you off this field. Please.” Wilkes breathes heavily, his heart pounding, and relaxes his arm. Harden pulls him closer. “You start running laps, right now, and you don’t stop until you throw up. Understand?” Silent, Wilkes makes his way to the track that surrounds the field and starts jogging. Harden commands everyone back to work, studying their faces closely. Wilkes loses track of laps after about twenty minutes. After an hour, when the players break for water, he feels his body turning on him, every muscle anxious to stop. He vomits ten minutes later, then again after another lap. Wilkes still feels sick when he finally gets to the locker room at the end of the day. The rest of the players steer clear of his locker, which is fine by him. Only one player actually says anything to him. “Yo, D-Jam.” He looks up from changing and sees Brock, shirtless, most of his chest wrapped up. “What’s with you, man?” Wilkes asks. “Bruised rib, remember? Can’t practice until Friday, they say.” “Oh. Right. You weren’t out there today?” “Nah, spent the day in physical therapy. Fucking bullshit. Anyway, I need some green, man. And I ain’t talking about weed.” “I’m short this week.” “Oh, c’mon dude, you’ve got—” “I’m short. Leave me alone.” Wilkes finishes changing and leaves, one of the first to reach the parking lot. He gets in his car, shuts the door, and checks his phone. He has missed calls and unread messages from multiple people, all of whom have the same request as Brock. These are people that need his help, people he wants to keep helping, but he only wants to talk to one of them right now. “Hey, Da’Jamiroquai!” the man says, answering after the first ring. “Uncle Linc.” “How’s the team?” “I don’t wanna talk about it.” “I was just talking to our athletic director today, and I told him about how you—” “Why didn’t you ever teach me how to read?” “What?” “Why didn’t you teach me? How come nobody never tried to teach me?” “Da’Jamiroquai, when I first took you in, you and I agreed that football was most important. You remember.” Wilkes chokes on his words, fighting back tears. He sees a few teammates emerge from the complex, suddenly thankful he paid for a dark tint on all his car windows. “Listen,” Uncle Lincoln says, “I wanted to ask you: can you send the money a little early this week? I’ve been having some difficulty with—” “You know what, Uncle Linc? I’m a little tight this week. I’ll send some when I feel like it.” He hangs up, tosses the phone into the backseat, and drives away. Less than three days until the game, Phillips is pouring over scouting reports in his office when a new email from Schneider goes out to the entire floor. He finishes reading it as Schneider himself walks into the office. “Did you get my email? Forecast is up to seventy percent.” “I just finished reading it.” “Merle should know, don’t you think?” “Somehow, I don’t suspect he’ll care, but I’ll pass it along nonetheless.” “Good. And one more thing, one I obviously didn’t include in the email.” Schneider closes the door. Phillips gets worried as Schneider steps toward the desk. “You been following these Adam Javad reports?” Schneider asks. “About how we were close to a deadline trade for a cornerback? Yeah, I’ve read them.” “Well?” “Detroit’s in shambles right now. Fired their offensive coordinator, Mayhew is probably on the outs too. They’re ripe for press leaks. What do you want me to say, Wayne? He was right. And for the record, the whole thing was sloppy. It was rushed, it was forced, and it’s not the way we do things around here. Part of me is glad we couldn’t make a deal.” Schneider grunts, an expression on his face somewhere between understanding and disappointed. After a moment, he says, “This Javad guy. I don’t know what you did to piss him off, but at some point we may have to do something about him.” “The L.A. Mobile, Wayne. He’s small time.” “He may not work for ESPN, but he’s shown his ability to give us headaches. Think about it.” Schneider walks out, leaving the door open. Phillips digs through his pocket for his cell phone, in which Javad’s number is still stored. A low, rumbling noise wakes McKenzie up. His eyes blink open and see darkness—it must still be the middle of the night—except for light from his phone on the nearest end table. He picks it up and has to blink a few times to make out the name. Once he does, he gets out of bed, thankful his wife hasn’t woken up. “Hello?” he says. “Mac! How the hell are ya?” “Merle, it’s…” He holds his phone away to check the time. “…two in the morning. We have a game in less than twelve hours. For fuck’s sake.” “Well, I know you said you’re not my sponsor anymore, but…” His sponsor. Oh, no, that’s it. How did he not realize? “Shit, have you been drinking, Merle?” “Do you have to ask?” “I hear rain coming from your side, so you’re on the porch. Let me guess, you’ve got the first glass of whiskey in front of you, you took a sip, and somehow I’m the first guy you call. That about right? Where are Melinda and Trish?” “Away for the weekend. I didn’t call you because you’re my goddamn sponsor, Mac. I called you because you’re my friend. And I’m three whiskeys in already. I think. Now get over here and have a drink with me.” He pulls into the driveway, stops behind Merle’s car, and hurries through the rain onto the porch. Behind the screen door, Bowser growls at him, showing his teeth. “Figured he’d run around outside like an idiot if I let him out,” Merle says. “Hope it’s not raining like this tomorrow,” Mac says. “That would certainly make things interesting. Take a seat.” Mac sits down, a table between his chair and Merle’s. Merle slides down one of two glasses. “On the rocks, for the pussy you are.” “I guess it’s not worth trying to take that away from you.” “Nope,” Merle says, gulping a good bit of what’s left in his glass. Mac accepts defeat and takes a sip. “Damn, this is good stuff,” Mac says. “A very old gift from my dad, going way back. It was the one bottle I didn’t pitch during the purge last year.” “Uh huh. So how’s it feel?” Merle feels—he’s still sober enough not to vocalize this, apparently—like seeing an old friend after a long time apart. He knows, however, that in the morning, he’ll wish they never met. “It feels like I’m drunk, Mac. No more dumb questions.” “How about a dumb comment?” “If you really can’t help yourself…” “Seriously, Merle. You and me—” “Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re upset about me liking Chet better than you. I’m drunk, not stupid. What’s with this team? Few weeks ago, Chance sat right in that chair and did the same thing. We’re all supposed to be professionals. Why’s everyone so goddamn sensitive?” “Professionals,” Mac says, eyeing Merle’s whiskey glass. “Fuck you. Anyway, you’re the assistant head coach for a reason, Mac. Anything happens to me, it’s your team, like it was last year, not Chet Ripka’s. He’s got a great knack for coaching, but for what it’s worth, I don’t see him as a head coach. Not any time soon, anyway.” “Is this the first time?” “The first time I’ve had an assistant get jealous of another one? No. Though you are finding your own unique way to go about it, I’ll give you that.” “No, damn it, I mean the first relapse.” “First since last November, yeah. At least I made it a whole year. Not by much, but hey, cheers.” “Why now, then?” Merle puts his glass down and covers his mouth with his hand, sliding it down past the edge of his facial hair towards his neck. Mac can tell from his face this isn’t going to be more drunken rambling. “The players,” Merle says. “What about them?” “They’re turning on me. I can feel it.” Mac doesn’t know what to say. He’s felt something amongst the players too, but agreeing with Merle won’t help. Not on this topic, anyway. “This has never happened,” Merle continues. “Hell, my first two years at Devil’s Lake, we won four games. Combined!” “And?” “And the players loved me. I’ve never known coaching another way. Never had to fight for the players. If I lose them, I think that’s it. I think I’m done.” “You giving up football is something I can’t see,” Mac says with a smile, satisfied with that comment and hoping Merle finds it encouraging. “We’ll see. And it’s not like I can do a whole hell of a lot about it. Can’t sit the team down around a fire and have a powwow. This ain’t high school.” “Stringing a few wins together isn’t gonna make things worse. I feel good about tomorrow. Well, today, I guess.” “That Viking defense is a bad matchup for you.” “We’ll hang thirty on ‘em anyway.” Minutes pass between talking. Occasionally, Mac turns around to look towards the screen door, met promptly by a fresh growl from Bowser. After a lightning strike a few miles away, Mac says, “Trish and Mel, they come back tomorrow?” “Monday.” “You gonna tell them?” “I don’t know,” Merle says honestly. He’ll answer that question in the morning, if he can remember to ask it. Knights fans without ponchos seek refuge from the rain, and half of Farmers Field’s seats are empty at kickoff. Light rain falls off and on throughout the first quarter, preventing either offense from getting more than one first down per drive. The rain eventually stops, and the dark, threatening skies overhead fade into a light overcast. The field, however, is in ruins. Clumps of soggy grass fly off the ground in the wake of running cleats. Players slip and fall down left and right. Maverick and Teddy Bridgewater each have an embarrassing moment where they drop back to pass and slip planting their feet, resulting in a comical sack. Knights players express frustration on the sideline, some requesting different cleats as McKenzie waits for the field to improve to expand his play-calling. For now, both teams operate a run-heavy attack, highlighted by their star runners, Jameson and Adrian Peterson. Jameson enjoys running behind Penner, who can’t feel his extremely small rotator cuff tear once the adrenaline gets going. After a while, Harden gets to the point where he’s legitimately enjoying himself. With Brock out, Price is getting yet another opportunity to prove himself, but the weather should prevent the Knights from being punished if he sucks. As McKenzie walks past, Harden says, “Ah, smashmouth football on a shitty field. Takes me back to the good old days.” “Like meeting an old friend?” Harden wonders what that means as McKenzie walks away, feeling his stomach grumble as it hits him. “Son of a bitch.” From their suite, Schneider and Phillips watch the game, though neither one finds the field conditions comical, Schneider especially. Once it becomes apparent the field isn’t improving despite the lack of rain, Schneider summons an usher. “Get me Frank right away,” Schneider instructs. Content to enjoy the show, Phillips adds nothing to the discussion and focuses on the game, though there’s not much football beyond basic running plays and muddy tackles. Moments later, Schneider spins around and faces Frank Serkin, President of Farmers Field, the kind of man only summoned by bad news. “What’s going on, Frank?” Schneider says. “It rained all day yesterday, and, regrettably, we had an internal drainage malfunction.” “Internal drainage malfunction. How many words does it take to say there was a fuck-up?” “The rain didn’t drain like it should until this morning, by which time—” “Will it be like this all game?” “No. I’d say by the second half it should begin to improve, as long as the rain holds out.” “Second half. Okay, Frank. Get out of here.” Serkin nods and disappears. “You know what everyone watching this game is thinking?” Schneider says. “‘This is where the Super Bowl is this year.’” For once, for maybe the first time, Phillips understands Schneider’s frustration, feeling as if this impacts him as well. “So what do we do?” Phillips asks, surprised at his own use of the word “we.” “We make a statement. I make a statement. Tomorrow.” In the closing seconds of the half, the Vikings reach field goal range and send out Blair Walsh to attempt a forty-five-yard kick, makeable in normal conditions. The ball sails over the players, then wobbles horribly, falls to the ground, and lands twenty yards short of the goal posts. This gets one last laugh from the crowd, and the game has the honor of being the first in the season, across the entire league, that goes into halftime scoreless. The grass seems less soggy at the start of the third quarter, though it’s still beaten up from the first half. Players resign themselves to a messy game until the end. Wilkes, in particular, has already given up. It rained, the new cleats aren’t working, and Maverick hasn’t targeted him the few times he’s actually gotten open. So, when he’s not forced to take the field, he finds an empty spot on the bench and covers himself in a large coat. Maverick has noticed Wilkes’ indifference, of course, but he has bigger concerns. Nobody can get open on this field, and too many drives are a repeat of run-run-incompletion-punt. This is Maverick’s most frustrating game in recent memory. Defensively, Harden grows nervous as field position tilts toward Minnesota. Though he stacks the box with Schwinn to keep Peterson from breaking free, Bridgewater spreads the ball around to various receivers for short gains. It’s a strategy pretty much every opposing team has employed against the Knights, but today, it doesn’t seem Bridgewater wants to throw deeper than ten yards. Desperate for a way to seize control of the game, Harden pounces. The defense returns to the bench, the game still scoreless. Harden kneels in front of Stone and Lucas, most of the defense within earshot. “Alright. They’re eating up the underneath stuff and they don’t want to go deep. So, start jumping those routes for a pick. Got it?” Lucas and Stone nod. “And front seven, get your hands up on the rush. We should have five batted passes by now, damn it.” The defense returns to the field shortly, and Harden’s strategy almost works. Bridgewater throws a pass that tips off Stone’s hands and out of bounds. The next play, Lucas jumps a route the same way, only to have Stefon Diggs take off behind him. Lucas trips in the grass, leaving Diggs wide open. The pass is underthrown, but Diggs has enough time to catch it and pick up speed en route to the end zone for the game’s first score. Walsh’s extra point wobbles low, bouncing off the left post and back into the end zone, though players don’t feel any momentum from the good fortune. Harden says nothing as defenders sit back down on the bench, offering Lucas vocal support while exchanging nervous looks with one another. A strange offensive day has led to Bishop being the team’s leading receiver for the first time this year, an honor he’s far from comfortable with today. After another disappointing drive, Bishop seeks out Maverick on the sideline, sitting next to him after McKenzie has thoroughly yelled at everyone again. “Talk to D-Jam,” Bishop says. “Talk? To him? Why?” “He needs it.” “He needs the sun to come out. He’s always been a bitch about bad weather.” “It’s not the rain, Mav. It’s the reading thing. He’s—” “It was you, right?” Bishop pauses, not sure if he should respond to that or just keep going with his argument. “I mean, that’s what he’s been saying. Personally, I’m not too hip on him ratting you out, but—” “Yeah, it was.” Maverick’s eyes widen, surprised Bishop admitted it so quickly. “I was trying to help him, so sue me. He won’t listen to me for a while. But he’ll listen to you.” “Like he and I are Bert and Ernie? You’ve been on this team how long?” “He does, Mav, when you’re not busting his balls. When you’re talking football, he listens to you.” Maverick shakes his head and gets up from the bench for a drink of water. He debates the proposition of coaching up his best receiver (Isn’t that what the coaches are for?), but a punt returns him and the offense to the game. Two Jameson runs and a missed pass for Larkhill bring out the punt teams again, and Maverick finds himself back on the bench. Bishop shoots him a look, and he gives up. Fuck you, Logan. Wilkes puts the coat on again, only to have someone peel it back from his face seconds later. So much for that. “Hey, sunshine,” Maverick says, taking a seat next to him. “Suck my dick.” “I didn’t want to bring this up, but I guess there’s no choice. I don’t give a fuck if you can read or not.” Wilkes grinds his teeth, determined not to show any reaction. “What do I care? You can get open, you can catch the ball. On that field, that’s all I care about. And I need you to do that if we’re gonna win this game.” “You ain’t slingin’ bullets in this shit.” “No, definitely not. But sooner or later a pass is gonna come your way, and when it does…” Maverick gets up. “…you better fucking catch it.” Wilkes stays under his coat, grateful to be alone again. The Knights offense retakes the field in the fourth quarter, and McKenzie gets creative with the running attack, incorporating reverses and double reverses with all kinds of misdirection. After Watson takes a reverse for twenty yards, the Vikings defense spreads out. This allows Jameson to find more room between the tackles, and the Knights put together their best drive of the day, entering field goal range (which is irrelevant). Maverick drops back as pressure comes up the middle. He throws one up off his back foot just as Bishop breaks on a corner. Bishop runs through a hole in coverage, but Harrison Smith closes the cap. Both players jump for it, get their hands on the ball, and land in the end zone, sliding through the mud. They fight for possession, but Bishop outmuscles him, and officials rule a touchdown. “Extra point, coach?” the special teams coach asks Harden, seeing him hold two fingers in the air. “No way. Noah misses enough in good weather.” Maverick lines up under center, then audibles to shotgun, sizing up the defense. He takes the snap and rolls right. Nobody breaks open. He stops, slips in the grass, gets back up, and runs the other way, narrowly escaping outstretched arms of defenders. He has a clear path to the goal line, but someone trips him up. Stumbling, Maverick realizes he won’t make it and looks towards Wilkes, who’s blanketed by a corner—with his back turned. Maverick shovels it just as his knee hits the ground. Wilkes, shocked to see the ball coming his way, slips as he reaches for it. The ball hits his left hand, and he pulls it towards his chest as the corner brings him down. Somehow, he clutches the ball and hangs on, unsure if he’s in bounds until he hears a thunderous cheer from the crowd. Players mob Wilkes in the end zone, and the receiver finally cracks a smile. The Knights have a strange looking 8-6 lead, and moments later, it feels more secure. Coaches feel a few raindrops, then a torrential downpour. The home team’s sideline celebrates, knowing the Vikings will struggle to score in this. “Thank you, Jesus!” someone yells. The Vikings take over with 8:46 left, forced to stick to a run-heavy attack. Bridgewater somehow completes a few passes as the downpour slows into a steady rain, and Knights players are sure the defense is about to blow it. The clock crosses the five-minute mark as Peterson breaks through the front seven and into the secondary. Schwinn and Martin latch on, slowing him down. Flash runs in and punches as violently as he can, and the ball squirts loose. A pile of muddy bodies forms, an awful mess for the officials to sort through. By the time they do, Julian Stone has the football, and the Knights take over. This proves to be the game-winning turnover, as Jameson runs out most of the clock, taking the Knights to first and goal, where a few kneeldowns end the game. On the surface, the locker room is a festive, humorous gathering of sweaty men in wet jerseys, a celebration of a hard fought football game that ended in victory. Deep down, however, players are worried. As much as everyone would like to celebrate the win and move on, they can’t help but wonder what today’s game would have been like in sunny weather. For whatever reason, Wayne Schneider joins the locker room and shakes hands with the players, one by one. Nobody knows why he’s here; it’s not like today’s win was particularly monumental, but players think nothing of it—except for Bishop, who gets an idea. Randall has been more sensitive to the growing locker room divide than anyone, but Bishop is close behind. He has felt it the last few weeks, like everyone else has. And, as evidenced by the last two games, winning won’t necessarily make it go away. “Fantastic win, Logan,” Schneider says, reaching Bishop’s locker and shaking hands with the tight end. “And great job on that touchdown catch. Outstanding effort.” “Thank you, Mr. Schneider. Actually, could I ask you something?” “Of course. What’s on your mind?” “It’s just something I’d like to throw out there and get your opinion on, an idea I had that I think might be good for the team. For the organization, really.” “I’m listening.” “Our annual holiday party, the one we always have at the MedComm Center and about half the team shows? I’m thinking we could do it a little differently this year.”
  5. | | | | Knights of Andreas Part V Based on Characters Created by: badgers Bangy Barracuda Bay BigBen07 BradyFan81 BwareDware94 CampinWithGoatSampson Chernobyl426 CrimsonRaider DonovanMcnabb for H.O.F eightnine FartWaffles Favre4Ever GA_Eagle JetsFan4Life Maverick RazorStar Sarge seanbrock SteVo Thanatos Turry theMileHighGuy Vin Zack_of_Steel Chapter Sixty-One – Uneasy Lies Players stand idly by their lockers, glancing occasionally at the locked double doors from which reporters will soon appear. This media session shouldn’t last longer than thirty minutes, after which players’ only responsibility today is film review. Coach Harden historically gives his players very light bye weeks, and last Sunday’s win means this year is no exception. Three players huddle together near Watson’s locker, including Bishop and the man he picked to help him on this task, Sam Luck. “How do you feel?” Luck asks. “A little nervous,” Watson says. “Don’t be. You’re just having a conversation with these people.” “Don’t be nervous. Right.” “I’m no speech therapist, but when you get in front of those cameras, you gotta tell them what they want to hear.” “What they want to hear.” “Yes. More importantly for you, keep it short and sweet. Give them an answer and move on. The shorter your answers, the shorter the interview. Okay?” “Okay.” “And one more thing. If they ask you a really dumb question, a one-word answer is fine. Got it?” “Got it.” The three separate as reporters fill the room and find their first interviewees. The wide receivers draw plenty of attention with Alex Johnson’s gruesome injury a solemn, hot topic. Fans want to know how the Knights will replace a player who was on pace for 130 catches and 13 touchdowns. Javad walks in with the crowd, recorder in hand, and eyes his primary target. The locker has a big audience already, so he’ll wait. He can be patient on this one. In the meantime, he goes for another receiver. Watson focuses on his breathing and doesn’t stare into the lights. He maintains eye contact with the reporter asking the question, like Luck said. “Joe, what do you think will happen now, with Alex’s injury?” “Man, it was a tough one to watch, but, I think we’ll be okay. We have a good team.” “Will this mean an increased role for you in the passing game?” “Probably.” He wants to say more, but he remembers Luck’s advice about one-word answers. “Do you think your drops will continue to be a problem?” He hesitates. Of course someone would bring it up. But it’s fine. He just says, “No.” “Why not?” “I’m gonna keep working to be the best player I can be. That’s all.” Interviews continue and conclude around the room. Reporters circulate from locker to locker while some leave, business finished until Coach Harden’s presser this afternoon. Between interviews, Javad notices only two reporters around Jefferspin-Wilkes’ locker. He goes for it. “…so,” Wilkes says, answering a previous question, “I think we got the guys around us to be okay. We all feel for Alex right now, but we got to keep focused on football.” “D-Jam,” Javad says, extending his recorder and extracting a piece of paper from his pocket, “a writer at ESPN had some interesting things to say about your role in the offense, with Johnson hurt. What do you think of this?” He hands the slip of paper to Wilkes, who examines it as if it’s a piece of evidence from a crime scene. “Um. Interesting.” “Interesting? What do you think about what he’s saying?” Wilkes shifts his focus off the paper and towards Javad. In a blink, his face transforms from curious to annoyed as he crumbles up the paper. “You know what, what is this, man? You hand me a piece of paper and ask me to—You know, just ask me questions next time, man.” He flicks the paper back at Javad, who puts on a confused look. The other reporters seem confused as well. The camera captures Wilkes walking away, with Bishop and Watson shaking hands in the background, before switching off. Javad walks away calmly, his objective achieved for now. He doesn’t have anything against Wilkes personally; this is about making life difficult for Phillips, and it’s going to work. A few hours later, Javad does a phone interview with a reporter from the Knights official web site, something low key and off the radar, just what he wants. They talk football, the Knights and the league as a whole, eventually getting to today’s interview. “Adam, you had a strange moment with D-Jam today where he sort of just got mad out of nowhere. What was up with that? What happened there?” “Well, as you can tell, I wanted him to read a piece of an article I felt had a unique view of the Knights’ receiving corps. The section was a few paragraphs long, so I felt it would be tedious to say it all aloud. And…you know, this is a little strange…” “What’s that, Adam?” “I don’t know this for sure. It’s just something I’ve suspected for a while now…I don’t think he can read.” The coaching staff sits at the film room’s long table, glancing between the projector screen and their head coach. Everyone sits up, attentive and focused as Harden highlights a few things he wants to emphasize against Cincinnati next week: good tackling, intensity, proper audible execution. He calls to attention multiple plays where the Knights had to make a shift in the secondary, and they did so perfectly. “Good on the players to get this right,” Harden says, “but these are all perfect adjustments by Chet.” Near the middle of the table, Coach Ripka nods as fellow coaches pat him on the back. “If any of you clowns want to know what good in-game coaching is, take a look at Chet. Less than a year on the job and he’s already better than half of you assholes.” Some of the coaches chuckle as Ripka keeps smiling. At the front of the table, closest to Harden, McKenzie isn’t laughing. Something about this meeting makes him uncomfortable, and it gets worse when Harden finds more reasons to praise Ripka’s coaching prowess. McKenzie knows Harden rarely delves into offensive plays, but how about some recognition for putting 38 points on the board? McKenzie holds the rank of assistant head coach, but he feels invisible in his seat. Schneider assembles Phillips, Stein, Harden, and McKenzie in his office for what is surely the strangest meeting of the year. He keeps things casual, instructing everyone to relax as he leans against his desk. “There’s a rather odd story going around, and it’s gaining traction,” Schneider says. “I’m wondering if any of you have caught wind of it.” Nobody speaks, though a few have an idea. “Jefferspin-Wilkes.” Now they know. “The reading thing?” McKenzie asks. “Yes, the reading thing. I never thought we’d have to actually talk about this, but here we are.” Phillips rubs his temples, stressed and surprised that this has actually become a topic of discussion. He has let a few people know what Logan Bishop told him back in 2012, creating a rumor that had evolved into urban legend over time—until now. “Out of respect for Wilkes,” Schneider says, “we can’t admit this publicly. Imagine if it’s true, the poor guy. Coach McKenzie, see to it that he finds his way up here first thing Tuesday morning. In the meantime, we’ll draft a formal statement. That will be all, gentlemen, thank you.” All four spectators head for the doorway, but Schneider calls Phillips back into the room. “I want that report from Stein by Wednesday,” Schneider says once everyone else has gone. “What report from Stein?” Phillips asks. “The trade deadline. Potential targets and projected draft or player compensation needed to acquire them.” “I didn’t realize we were looking into a trade, Wayne. What positions?” “Cornerback. Do you really have to ask?” “Listen, I don’t think—” Schneider waves his hand. “Due diligence, Chance. Due diligence. Nothing more.” Phillips nods and walks down to Stein’s office. The league rolls into the weekend with the Knights on their bye week, though they still find themselves in the news. Alex Johnson’s surgery was successful, according to multiple reports. News of the Knights placing him on injured reserve surprises no one. His season is over, and his availability for week 1 next season will be unknown for months. The Jefferspin-Wilkes reading story is far from breaking news but still garners attention as the Knights issue a brief statement denying the allegations. Nothing new comes to light after that, but the story’s circulation in the media digs up old rumors. Wilkes was reportedly on academic probation at both USC and Coastal Carolina, though he was never suspended for academic reasons. A month before the Seahawks drafted him fourth overall, rumors spread that he scored a 9 on the Wonderlic. By the time week 7 has ended, the league has five unbeaten teams, including the Bengals, the Knights’ week 8 opponent. The locker room is half-full when Jameson arrives Tuesday morning. He gets ready to put on his pads when a voice calls from the other side of the room. “Marcus!” He spins around and sees Coach McKenzie staring him down. “Yeah, coach?” “My office.” Jameson leaves his locker and nervously takes a seat across from McKenzie, who looks surprisingly relaxed. “You’re going to learn this today when you see the playbook,” McKenzie says, “but I wanted you to hear it from me first.” “What’s up, coach?” “With Alex out for the year, we’re gonna have to lean on the run game a lot more. Like we did last year with Buchanan.” “I’m fine with that.” “That means a lot of carries for you, Marcus.” Jameson shrugs. McKenzie is talking like there’s some sort of problem. “This may not be my place, Marcus, but you’re a free agent after this year. I know my job is to keep you focused on this season, but you have to think, at least a little bit, about preserving yourself long-term.” “No,” Jameson says quickly. “That’s not the way football’s supposed to be played.” McKenzie smiles. “Good man. I’ll see you on the practice field.” Jameson smiles back and returns to his locker to change. On his way, he sees Wilkes walk in, visibly distressed. Wilkes keeps close to his locker, wanting to attract as little attention as possible. The locker room, however, is in need of comic relief, and the stories surrounding Wilkes make him an ideal target. “Say, partner,” Schwinn calls from across the room, “when you’re done with that new Dr. Seuss book, can I read it?” Wilkes ignores the laughter behind him. Happy to spearhead the insults, Schwinn keeps going. “Hey fellas, who knew when the scouts said ‘has difficulty reading coverage,’ that’s what they were talking about?” An even bigger round of laughs erupts. Wilkes tries to focus on putting his pads on properly, grateful when an assistant coach comes in to settle everyone down. A low level of chatter populates the room with no further insults. Forced to think about his situation, Wilkes replays Schwinn’s first insult in his head, about borrowing a book. It clicks. “Son of a bitch,” he says. He paces a few lockers down, where Bishop is almost done changing. “It was you, wasn’t it?” “What?” Bishop says. “It was you. Back when you wanted me to read that stupid book. You knew I didn’t read it somehow.” “Whoa, whoa—” “So then you go and tell the guys upstairs about it? Are you serious, man?” “Listen, D-Jam, I was trying to—” “Fuck you, Logan.” Bishop considers following him to his locker, decides against it, and throws on the rest of his pads in frustration. Farmers Field is loud to start the third quarter. A wild first half ended with the Knights on top, 21-20, and fans sense what a monumental victory this would be if they can hang on. On offense, the Knights show no side effects of Johnson’s departure. Watson slides into the number-two receiver spot, still working mostly out of the slot with Ben Larkhill outside, and employs a varied route tree, running slants, flats, curls, and deep routes, getting open almost every time. Wilkes does his part as well, thrilled to be back on the field after a dreadfully long bye week. Maverick stands fearless in the pocket, Bishop serving as an extra blocker to hold off the pass rushing duo of Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson. Penner holds the middle of the line, in a vicious dogfight with Geno Atkins. Atkins gets around Penner occasionally, but never in time for a sack. The Knights march down the field, capping their fourth touchdown drive with a shovel pass to Banks, taking a 28-20 lead. The Bengals fire back, with Andy Dalton throwing to A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert almost exclusively. Harden has Flash doubling Green with no exceptions; if he switches in motion, then Flash and Schwinn switch too. Randall hones in on Eifert, desperate to reverse his fortune covering tight ends this year. He doesn’t get beat over the top, but Eifert still racks up plenty of short catches. The pass game gets Cincinnati in field goal range, where they transition to a run heavy attack. Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill run through open holes, and Hill caps the drive with a powerful six-yard touchdown run. The score is 28-27, Knights, in an exciting duel between elite offensive coordinators. Harden doesn’t see it that way. He gazes toward Tom Everett, his former subordinate, trying to visually communicate his disgust. Everett was a Knight four years, and Harden knows him well. This is the first time the two have squared off since Everett’s departure, and Harden should be crushing him. McKenzie and the offense pick up where they left off. After a nine-yard Jameson run, Maverick bombs it for Watson on play-action, hitting him in stride for a seventy-yard touchdown. The Bengals respond. Green gets open on a few corner routes despite double coverage, and Dalton throws passes just out of Flash’s reach. Hill finishes off the drive again, and the crowd goes quiet. The fourth quarter begins. After an uneventful drive, the Knights punt, and Cincinnati goes back to work. Bernard catches a pass out of the backfield as a perfectly timed screen develops in front of him. Harden curses the world as Bernard surges through his defense for fifty-nine yards and a touchdown. Only up five, the Bengals go for two. Dalton fires a quick pass over the middle that Grantzinger bats down, and it’s 40-35, Bengals, 5:14 to go. The Knights take over, soon facing third and three. Maverick fakes a handoff to Jameson, turns, and gets crushed by Atkins. The sack takes some of the air out of the stadium, as fans and players feel doubt for the first time. On the sideline, Maverick takes a drink of water before seeking Penner. “What’s the matter, old man? Can’t hang in the fourth quarter?” “That fucker is good, but I’ll stick ‘em next time.” “I fucking hope so. Hang in there.” The Bengals take over with good field position and try to run out the clock. The Knights stuff the box, bringing up third and six. Dalton drops back in shotgun and throws over the middle for Green, and Flash gets in front of it. The crowd springs to its feet, a surge of energy returning to the stadium as the Knights set up on the edge of the red zone. Penner holds his ground as Maverick fires away between Wilkes and Watson. They reach first and goal at the two-minute warning. Maverick rolls out, looking for Watson—covered. Bishop—covered. He throws it away. Second and goal. Wilkes is isolated wide right, so Maverick hurries the snap. He sees a safety run to double Wilkes but lobs it up anyway. Wilkes tries not to run out of bounds as he jumps, catches the pass, and plants his feet. As he hits the grass, he’s not sure if he gets both feet down, but the official raises both arms, and Farmers Field goes nuts. Amidst the chaotic celebration, the Knights line up to go for two. Maverick audibles to a run, seeing a spread formation, and hands off to Jameson, who runs into a wall and gets dragged down by edge defenders. The score remains 41-40, Knights. Wilkes smiles on the sideline, less exuberant than usual, accepting high fives from anyone and everyone. “Great catch, D-Jam,” Bishop says, extending his hand. Wilkes looks up at him with a blank stare, slaps his hand, and looks down at the grass. Harden readies his defense as Dalton takes the field with 1:50 on the clock. The Knights can’t be soft here; even a field goal loses the game. Dalton works the sidelines, stopping the clock and gaining short chunks of yardage. The Bengals creep near midfield with 1:28 to play. Grantzinger and Luck break through on a blitz, forcing Dalton left. He throws against his body over the middle, and Martin intercepts it, going down immediately. The crowd and sideline erupt. Harden watches his team run out the clock, unsatisfied. The Knights are about to win courtesy of two horrendous throws by Dalton, not by any defensive supremacy. The clock hits zero, and the Knights celebrate their biggest win of the year, knocking off an unbeaten team and advancing to 4-3, above .500 for the first time this season. Harden shakes hands with Coach Lewis and hobbles off the field, the only unhappy person wearing purple and black. McKenzie walks through the main lobby and into a hallway of offices, surprised to see one already open. He’s even more surprised to identify it as the head coach’s office, where Harden is scribbling furiously on his whiteboard. “Strange to see you here so early,” McKenzie says. “I have shit to do,” Harden says, looking back and forth between the white board and a binder on his desk. “You’re something else, Merle.” “What?” “For seven weeks, your defense has been underachieving, and you just take it in stride. Now, we beat an undefeated team, have our best game of the year, and you’re upset about it.” “I know myself, and I know Tom Everett. He’s not a better coach than me.” “He was yesterday.” “You ever offer any support around here, Mac?” McKenzie feels glad he’s getting Harden riled up. He notices the iced coffee on his desk. “Mind if I sample that coffee? You know, check for added ingredients.” Harden flings his marker at McKenzie. It misses his face by inches, before he can duck. “Fuck off, Mac. I don’t know how many times I have to tell you people I’m not an alcoholic, but I haven’t—” “See, there you go. You want to know something? You got off easy, Merle. I’ve known you a long time, and I’ve watched you slowly erode parts of your life, including people you care about. It all came to a head last year, you had the entire football team protesting for you, and here you are saying ‘I’m not an alcoholic.’ Then, fine. I’m not your sponsor.” “Good. Glad we got that cleared up. Now, do you mind if I get back to coaching? Don’t forget we have a game Thursday.” McKenzie shakes his head and trudges down the hall, determined to craft an offensive game plan that can match yesterday’s performance. Phillips and Stein are summoned to Schneider’s office, arriving after a meeting with the coaching staff ends. Phillips can tell by Schneider’s face that something is up, unusual for the day after a win. “What are we doing here, Wayne?” Phillips asks. “Yesterday’s win was dramatic, but it didn’t subdue my concerns about our cornerback situation. And it shouldn’t have subdued anyone else’s either. The trade deadline is tomorrow at 1pm, and we are going to explore our options.” Schneider holds up a report recently finished by Stein. Phillips worked with him on that report, but the last version he saw was five days ago. He checks his watch: can they pull off a deal in thirty hours? Can they do enough research in thirty hours to justify a deal? “Allan, set up camp in Chance’s office. I want you both working the phones, going through every one of these names. We need to know if there’s interest. There shouldn’t be much, so we’ll have it narrowed down quickly.” “Hold on,” Phillips says, “shouldn’t we involve the coaches on this? Get them looking at film, at least?” “Unfortunately, there’s not enough time, with a game on Thursday. I already spoke with Coach Harden, and he supports any deal we make to bolster the secondary.” This isn’t right, Phillips feels. Pieces are coming together much too quickly for a decision of this magnitude. Regardless, he soon finds himself in his office, calling almost every team around the league in search of cornerbacks for sale. Most rebuke him immediately, but when some ask for trade compensation, he’s not sure what to offer. He overhears Stein mention high draft picks on a few of his calls. Eventually, they get a bite from Detroit: Darius Slay. Though still uncomfortable with the timeline, Phillips doesn’t hate the move, potentially. “Get a summary from the scouts,” Phillips instructs Stein. “From what I know, he’s in the middle of a breakout season.” “Why would Detroit part with him, then?” “They’re 1-7. They fired their offensive coordinator a few hours ago. It’s a lost season, so if they can get some draft capital, maybe they’ll go for it. Get with the scouts and present it to Wayne.” Stein nods, leaving Phillips alone, finally allowing him to make a meaningful phone call. It takes four tries before Harden picks up. “What do you want?” “Merle, things are moving fast so I’m gonna be quick. Did Wayne talk to you about a potential trade? “It’s a big fuckin’ mistake.” “And you told Wayne that?” “In less colorful language.” “We might have a taker in Detroit. Darius Slay. I gotta tell you, Merle, I kinda like the idea. Slay is an upgrade, we know Lucas is productive in the slot, and—” “I already got my corners, Chance.” “Yeah, but Merle—” “What did I just say? I have a game to plan for. It’d be nice if you idiots upstairs didn’t fuck everything up for us.” He hangs up. Phillips puts down the receiver and tries to think about both short-term and long-term consequences of a deal that sprung up so quickly. He struggles to focus on a potential trade, more concerned about the state of the team. The front office and coaching staff not on the same page is very dangerous, and something Phillips never thought he’d experience in this building. He eventually returns to Schneider’s office, where Stein is presenting something. Before Phillips can speak, Schneider says, “I like it, Chance.” “Like what?” “Darius Slay. Third-year player amidst a breakout season, under rookie contract through next year. He’s got the size and the physical tools Coach Harden likes. The torn meniscus is a slight long-term concern, but this is about bolstering the cornerback position in the short-term.” “Plus I just talked to Detroit,” Stein says. “You talked to Martin?” Phillips asks, referring to Lions GM Martin Mayhew. “Ken Lucas plus a third-round pick. I tried Stone, but it seems they don’t value him very highly.” Stein went behind Phillips’ back to manufacture a trade; this is something DeMartine would never have done. Everyone stays in Schneider’s office as communication resumes with Detroit. Phillips is powerless as modest negotiations bump the draft pick from a third- to second-rounder. Detroit indicates they’d like to sleep on it and make it official before tomorrow’s deadline, and Schneider agrees. At last, Phillips gets more solitude in his office, but he already knows where he stands. He actually thinks the trade is a fair deal, and one that would help the Knights win this season. But, after all these years, for some reason, he feels himself falling back on an old principle: never go against Merle Harden’s defensive decisions. Out of options, Phillips locks his door and calls Detroit on his cell phone. “Martin, it’s Chance Phillips…Things busy over there?…Yeah, here too. Listen, this is gonna sound incredibly strange, and it’s gonna have to stay between us, but I need a huge favor.” Harden goes through every play from the Cincinnati playbook, running different ideas through his head in search of legitimate options. He’s got a problem at cornerback, and he needs to solve it. No matter what anyone says, zone coverage is not the answer. It never has been, in thirty-seven years of coaching and calling plays on defense. Stone and Lucas are getting beat, yes, but if the Knights start playing zone, holes will pop up all over the place. The eight-yard routes receivers are running against them now will turn into fifteen- and twenty-yard gains. Harden has to do something to take the pressure off them. Flash helping over the top will continue, of course, but he needs a more permanent solution. He doodles some more on the white board, trying something he’s always had in the back of his mind. He goes through the Cincinnati playbook this way, growing fonder of the idea by the minute. Wanting a second opinion, he calls to the defensive subordinate he trusts most from a schematic standpoint. “Chet, can you come in here a second?” The words echo through the coaches’ hallway, where Ripka’s office is on the opposite end. Harden doesn’t hear any footsteps. “CHET!” he yells, straining his vocal chords. “GET YOUR ASS IN HERE!” Ripka springs out of his chair and bolts toward the head coach’s office. “What’s up, coach?” Harden clears his throat. “Remember what I said earlier about looking for a new wrinkle in the defense? I might have something.” “What is it?” “Take a look.” Harden slides his chair back and lets Ripka look at the plays drawn on the white board. They don’t seem any different. Various blitzes, some stunts—then he sees it. “It’s…it’s bold, that’s for sure,” Ripka says. “It’s nails on a goddamn chalkboard is what it is. But it might save our asses.” “When do you want to start it?” “This Thursday. In Pittsburgh.” “You want to institute this on our shortest week of the year. The defense would have to learn it—and so would we—in two days.” Harden nods. “It’s going to be a rough couple of days.” Phillips, Stein, and Schneider reconvene in Schneider’s office Tuesday morning with the deadline just hours away. There isn’t any other buzz around the league, so they are theoretically on the verge of making the league’s only deadline trade. “Let’s get on with it,” Schneider says, dialing Detroit’s number on speakerphone. “Chance, you take lead.” They get in touch with Mayhew, and Phillips says, “Martin, it’s Chance. You’re also on with Wayne and Allan. We have a deal?” “Actually, Chance, I’m sorry to do this to you, but it’s gotta be a first-rounder.” Phillips contorts his face into a look of confusion. Schneider says, “Martin, we had a deal!” “I’m sorry, but we really like Slay. He’s young, he’s improving, and we can’t part with him for less than a first.” “Let us call you back in a few minutes,” Phillips says, pressing a button to end the call. “I’m not trading a first-round pick.” Schneider looks defeated, while Stein looks defiant. “We can counter,” Stein says. “We’re only one round away, maybe we can—” “No,” Phillips says. “You heard Martin’s voice; he wants a first for Slay. How else are we supposed to match that value? Trade somebody like Flash? No, no fucking way.” “Chance is right,” Schneider says. “We’ll call back later to see if there’s a change of heart, but otherwise, nothing we can do. No deal.” The three soon separate, and operations at the MedComm Center resume normalcy as the players put in their only full day of practice for Thursday night’s game. The hours pass, Detroit doesn’t relent on their stance, and the trade deadline passes with no deal. The Knights will ride into the second half of the season with Julian Stone and Ken Lucas as their starting cornerbacks. After practice has ended, Phillips calls Harden’s office again. “Merle, just wanted you to know: it’s a long story, but there’s no trade. Your corners are your corners.” “Thanks, asshole.” Ben Roethlisberger hits Martavis Bryant over the middle, across midfield for another first down. Harden looks up at the scoreboard: Steelers 14, Knights 10, 6:29 to go in the third quarter. The Knights defense started the game dominantly but gave up a late touchdown before halftime. They gave up another to start the second half, and Harden fears they may be cracking. Debating the next play call, he sees Ripka walk up to him. “Now?” Ripka asks. “Now,” Harden says. Roethlisberger lines up under center and studies the defense. As he turns his head to shout an audible to his running back, Randall shouts, “Steel!” The three linemen shift to the left, and Brock joins them, in the three-point stance. The three remaining linebackers shift right to balance the formation. Astonished, Roethlisberger studies the front seven before him. The Knights’ 3-4 defense has shifted to a 4-3 in the blink of an eye. Roethlisberger calls timeout and heads for the sideline. An audible buzz circulates Heinz Field as attentive fans discuss what just happened. The Knights have run a 3-4 defense since their first season in Los Angeles, and Merle Harden has run a 3-4 all his life. When play resumes, the same thing happens. The Knights line up in a 3-4 formation, then shift fluidly to a 4-3: a Luck-Anthrax-Reid-Brock line, with Grantzinger-Randall-Martin linebackers. Roethlisberger hands the ball off, and DeAngelo Williams runs into a wall, thanks to a well-executed but basic play. Harden is keeping it simple for now. As he told the defensive linemen, “Sam and Sean, you sack the quarterback. Clayton and Anthrax, you stop the run. It’s not that fucking difficult.” The Knights defense recaptures momentum, showcasing their new hybrid scheme throughout the second half. They line up in both formations, sometimes switching, sometimes not. The misdirection keeps Pittsburgh out of the end zone and tilts field position in Los Angeles’ favor. Defensive players smile and laugh on the sideline, having genuine fun with the hybrid. Meanwhile, the offense goes down the field, slowly but methodically, until Bishop finds a soft spot in the end zone and Maverick puts it between his numbers. The Knights’ 17-14 lead carries into the fourth quarter, and both defenses settle in, making the three-point lead feel more secure. Pittsburgh takes over from their own ten with 9:33 to go, and Roethlisberger lobs one over the middle for Antonio Brown, who hops over Lucas for an athletic catch that puts the Steelers at midfield. Harden decides not to send Flash on any more safety blitzes. Two plays later, Brown goes deep and Flash follows, he and Lucas all over him. But Roethlisberger fires deep in the other direction, towards Markus Wheaton, who runs four yards ahead of Stone and catches the easy touchdown with Heinz Field roaring. A few minutes later, the offense goes three and out, and a confident energy fills the stadium. “Need the ball back, coach,” McKenzie says. “You’ll get it, Mac.” Roethlisberger hands off to Williams on consecutive plays, and the Knights stuff him from the 3-4. Harden has them line up in 4-3 for an all-out blitz on third and nine. He looks up at the clock. 4:03, 4:02, 4:01… Roethlisberger fakes a handoff and drops back, multiple white jerseys converging. He heaves up a pass off his back foot. Flash tracks it, heading his direction, but midjudges it. The ball sails over his head and just beyond Lucas’ reach into the arms of Antonio Brown. Lucas dives but misses, tripping up Flash and letting Brown run free into the end zone. Harden stands on the edge of the sideline, hands on his hips. Players can barely think with Steelers fans screaming all around them. This is a defensive meltdown reminiscent of the Knights’ early years, long before they were Super Bowl champions. Before they were a playoff team. Players filter in and out of the MedComm Center quietly Friday morning, only there to pick up pay slips and in no particular hurry. Days like today are always uneventful, but last night’s loss hangs over the entire complex, no one quite sure how to feel about a 4-4 record at the season’s halfway mark. Eventually, a small group gathers in the players’ parking lot, talking of weekend plans. Among them are Stone and Lucas, not hiding their shame from last night. Teammates offer generic words of encouragement, and they leave. “Those two are gonna cost us the season,” Grodd says. “Coach is gonna cost us the season,” Brock says. “Whoa,” Randall says. “Cool it with that shit, Brock.” Brock: “Can’t blame two rookies for being underachievers, can you? Yo Flash, what do you think?” Flash freezes just outside his driver’s seat, surprised to be included in the conversation. “Not gonna win a Super Bowl this year. Not unless anything changes.” Grantzinger: “As if you give a shit, Flash. You don’t have to pretend.” Flash faces the group and shuts the car door behind him. Randall: “Hey! Take it easy, motherfuckers. We got a long week to prepare for Detroit. That’s an easy win if we stay focused.” Brock: “No win’s coming easy with this defense. Stop with the bullshit optimism, Briggs.” Randall: “You are part of the defense you seem to be so eager to trash. I’m not buying into bullshit from one player, least of all you.” Maverick: “It’s not one player.” Everyone looks at Maverick in shock, not sure when he joined the crowd. Maverick: “Look, I love Coach as much as anyone, but it’s not hard to see what’s happening on defense. Flash and Bobby can only do so much.” Schwinn: “Amen, partner.” Randall looks around, astounded at his teammate’s faces. Randall: “So, we’re doing this? We’re really doing this? All of us?” Grantzinger: “Not all of us.” Grantzinger nods, and Randall looks around again. Not everyone looks as indignant as Brock, but he can tell a few agree with him. Some seem to side with him and Grantzinger, some look uncomfortable with the conversation, and some look unsure. Everyone stands around, waiting for someone else to speak again, but no one does. So they drive away, one by one, without another word.
  6. | | | | Knights of Andreas Part V Based on Characters Created by: badgers Bangy Barracuda Bay BigBen07 BradyFan81 BwareDware94 CampinWithGoatSampson Chernobyl426 CrimsonRaider DonovanMcnabb for H.O.F eightnine FartWaffles Favre4Ever GA_Eagle JetsFan4Life Maverick RazorStar Sarge seanbrock SteVo Thanatos Turry theMileHighGuy Vin Zack_of_Steel Chapter Sixty – The English Way From the late hours of Sunday night into Monday morning, sports radio phone lines fill with angry Knights fans, fuming over the team’s 2-3 start. Last week, the officials spared the Knights—Merle Harden, specifically—from much of the blame, but last night’s primetime debacle has made the team’s woes all too obvious. “You have a rookie and a second-year corner, and you’re lining them up one-on-one against guys like Alshon Jeffrey and Demaryius Thomas? I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.” “I know Merle Harden has this weird reputation about never playing zone coverage. You know something? Maybe he should start. Because man coverage is not working.” “Malik Rose was cut in March. It’s been seven months. You mean to tell me they couldn’t find a solution better than this in seven months? Did they even try?” “Why is it that every time we have a pivotal game like this, it’s always against the Chargers? Always!” “It’s embarrassing. It’s an embarrassment to the city, and to the league. We’re supposed to be Super Bowl champions!” Journalists jump onboard as well. Knights beat writers adopt a critical tone towards the team, and towards Merle Harden in particular, with Adam Javad leading the charge. Javad pens a scathing editorial on the front page of the L.A. Mobile’s web site. He condemns the Knights for overrating their inexperienced corners and continuing the same defensive scheme from last year, insisting changes must be made if the Knights are to make the playoffs. Going further, Javad deems this situation an indictment of the Knights managerial structure, saying, “If the Rose release was purely a Wayne Schneider decision, as many have speculated, then the business and football ends of the Knights organization are not in harmony, a far more dangerous proposition.” Driven by lack of sleep, Phillips gets to his office before any coaches arrive. Per Schneider’s command last night, he has to spend today sitting in on all coaches meetings, yet again. Before that happens, though, he wants to speak with Harden alone. By the time Harden is supposed to be there, Phillips calls his office three times with no answer. He hangs up, takes the elevator downstairs, and steps into the doorway to see Harden doodling with X’s and O’s on his white board. “I hope you’re drawing up something creative, because we need it,” Phillips says. “Excuse me?” Harden says, freezing his marker mid-arrow. “What’s going on, coach? We’re 2-3. We can’t just parade around like everything’s okay, because it’s not.” “We’ll be fine. I have to set up for our meeting.” Harden puts down the marker and heads out the door, but Phillips follows him down the hallway. “We’ll be fine? Are you telling me I shouldn’t expect any defensive changes going into this Sunday’s game? That’s not gonna fly, Merle.” Harden stops walking and faces Phillips, their noses inches apart. “And what the hell do you know about it? You don’t know the first thing about coaching a defense.” “I know talent. I know when schemes are working and when they’re not. I gave you a loaded roster, Merle. I’m the best GM in the league. You’re picking the wrong battle.” “Fuck you, Chance.” Harden storms off. Phillips hesitates; he didn’t mean for this conversation to get so heated, so he tries to fix it. “You think I’m the only one thinking this way?” he says. Harden halts just outside the meeting room. “I’m talking to you right now to help you.” “Help me? What the hell are you talking about?” Phillips steps closer and lowers his voice. “If you lose in London…if we fall to 2-4, I can’t save you.” “Save me from what?” “I don’t know.” Harden looks down, as if he has finally realized how serious this is, then— “You think I’m scared of Wayne Schneider? Fuck him. I hope he fires me.” “You don’t know how.” “What?” “That’s it, isn’t it? You’re not afraid to change things up; you’re scared of the fact that you don’t know how to fix it.” Harden looks as if he might lower his head and charge Phillips right then and there, but he just sighs, saying nothing. “You want to know why Daniel got fired?” Phillips says, desperate to extend the conversation. “He was in the same situation, team in a tailspin. And he got fired because he didn’t know how to stop the bleeding. But at least he tried.” Harden thinks about that, remembering the horrible details of that fateful season. Then he disappears into the room, and Phillips feels his blood boil again. That “I hope he fires me” comment rubs him the wrong way. Harden is about to find out exactly what he’s dealing with. Phillips calmly tags along to coaches meetings, as planned, eventually sending Schneider a text: “Not impressed w/ Harden. No sense of urgency, no panic.” Schneider’s response comes almost instantly: “Both of you in my office. 5pm.” All the while, the Knights have a unique week to prepare for logistically, with Sunday’s game seven time zones away. The team will fly to London tomorrow and then start an adjusted practice week Wednesday. A few minutes after five, the game plan is finalized, and the playbook is being printed and assembled into binders for all fifty-three players. Harden shows up to Schneider’s office and finds Phillips already there, seated across from the owner’s desk. He takes the seat next to him. Phillips tries to channel his anger from earlier, eager to watch Harden be put in his place. But as soon as he sees Schneider’s face, he regrets it. “Merle,” Schneider says, rising from his chair. “Our 2-3 record is totally unacceptable. As lead coach over defense, the defensive breakdowns we have suffered the last few weeks are inexcusable, and they fall directly at your feet.” Phillips blocks the rest out, shooting a few quick glances Harden’s way. He looks stoic, of course, but bothered. This isn’t right. Dealing with Schneider is Phillips’ responsibility, not Harden’s. “Get comfortable, assholes,” Harden tells his players as they board the team airplane, which lifts off from Los Angeles International at 7:45am local time. The ten-hour flight will land at Heathrow Airport around 1am—the next day. This was not management’s preferred arrangement, but it’s Coach Harden’s call. The players get Tuesday off, a normal practice day; in exchange, no bitching will be tolerated at practice Wednesday morning. Most players settle in, assuming the mentality of a standard East coast trip. For this flight, though, players have been given the playbook for Sunday’s game. Most take some time to study it, and positional groups inevitably gather to review certain plays. Linebackers spend hours discussing the complex blitzes Coach Harden has dialed up this week. Receivers huddle up also, excited about the pass-heavy attack Coach McKenzie has prepared. Things are quiet when the flight hits the five-hour mark, longer than any team flight in Knights history. The plane flies above the North Atlantic, between Canada and Greenland, prompting Wilkes to look out a window, seeing nothing but hazy blue. Sitting nearby, Penner appears neither interested nor concerned. “Big oceans freak me out, man,” Wilkes says. “Like, if we go down, there’s just water everywhere. I don’t like it.” “And I don’t like pussies,” Penner says. “Get the fuck away from me.” Another hour passes, and a few players try to get some sleep. Bishop is close to nodding off when he feels a tap on his shoulder. “Hey, can I talk to you a sec?” It’s Watson. Bishop nods as if to say, “Sure.” Watson looks around nervously and motions toward the back of the plane, indicating he’d like some solitude. “Yeah, no problem,” Bishop says, getting up. “What’s the matter?” Grodd asks from the row in front of them. “You smell bad,” Bishop says. The two sit down a few rows back, and Bishop prepares himself, thankful he at least knows what’s on Watson’s mind. “Drops, right?” Bishop says. “Huh?” “You had a couple drops last week. Don’t sweat it; we all have games like that. I had so many drops my freshman year at FSU they almost cut me.” “Oh. Yeah. Um, no, something else, actually.” So much for that. Bishop realizes he threw drops into the conversation unnecessarily, making Watson feel worse. Nice going, Logan. “I mean,” Watson says, “it has to do with the drops. Sort of. I…” Bishop waits. “I have a stuttering problem. I stutter.” “You do?” Bishop says, genuinely surprised. “I never noticed.” “It was bad when I was a kid. I guess no one in my family knew how to fix it, so they always just said, ‘Talk slow!’ So I do. But man, when I get in front of those cameras, I get so nervous. My brain tells me to say two things at once.” Bishop doesn’t rush a response, only thinking, Why is it always me in this situation? He’s glad teammates feel they can come to him with problems like this, but that doesn’t ease the burden he faces when dealing with them. “Alright,” Bishop eventually says, “we just have to coach you up a little, make you feel comfortable in front of the camera so you don’t stress out about it.” “By who?” “Someone who’s an ace with the media. I have someone in mind.” The minutes drag as the plane coasts through the air. Trying to determine the time based on the plane’s location proves a frustrating exercise as the sky darkens. A few hours later, players and coaches feel their ears popping, finally indicating a descent. Players horde the windows for a view since none of them have ever been to London. Randall ends up with a row to himself, which lasts all of thirty seconds. “Got a second, partner?” Randall keeps staring out the window. “What’s up, Bobby?” “Wanted to talk to you about Flash,” Schwinn says, lowering his voice. “What about him?” Randall asks, still focusing on the now appearing landmass of Ireland. “Well, we’re roommates and all, and…things is gettin’ kinda awkward.” “What’s the matter, have a crush on him?” “No! He hates me. Every time I ask him a question, all friendly like, he shoots me this look like he’s gonna kill my ass. I’m scared to fall asleep!” “He’s just not very social this year. I guess he’s still pissed about the Rose thing.” “Nah, it ain’t that. I’m tellin’ ya, he hates me, that n—” Schwinn stops on a low, humming noise, then closes his mouth. Eyebrows raised, Randall says, “That what?” “That colored fellow.” “Colored fellow?” “Well, I used to say the other word, but folks always get offended and shit.” Randall buries his face in his hands, not at all wanting to see where this situation goes next. Mercifully, the flight eventually lands, a few minutes early, at 12:54am. Players get to their hotel rooms around 1:30, uneasy about practice in a few hours. A few young players contemplate pulling an all-nighter, and the veterans assure them that would be a terrible idea. After a week of sluggish practices and downtime filled with British culture shock, players dress in their road white jerseys in the Wembley Stadium locker room, eventually kneeling and standing before Coach Harden in silence, kickoff just minutes away. “We all know what happened when we played these fuckers last year,” Harden says. “It’s on all our minds, myself included. So let me say this now: I don’t want any dirty shit. If they want to rough things up, then we’ll play along, but we’re not gonna start anything. We have bigger things to worry about.” That last line hits hard for the players, very much aware of their 2-3 record and the implications of falling to 2-4. Minutes later, players run out of the tunnel to a wave of cheers and look around at the stadium. It doesn’t look terribly different from an American football stadium, though it is noticeably larger. Its 90,000-seat capacity tops all current NFL venues. Among the luxury suites looking over the field, Phillips and Schneider settle into the one assigned to them. Phillips gets his notepad ready, truly fearful of a loss today, but Schneider breaks his focus. “Chance, I want you to meet a few people.” Phillips gets up and shakes hands with two men whose names he quickly forgets. His attention peaks when Schneider adds, “These two would like to have an NFL franchise of their own.” “Quite right,” one of them says. “A wonderful game, and you can see the passion the English people have for it.” “No doubt,” Phillips says, putting on a fake smile. “Of course, there would be significant logistic hurdles to climb.” “Yes, we concede that,” the other says. “But we’ve been speaking with Roger and we think there are some rather creative solutions to them.” “Roger?” Phillips says. “Goodell?” “Yes,” Schneider says. “He’ll actually be joining us a few minutes after kickoff.” “Oh, excellent.” The Chargers take the field in their powder blues, home uniforms usually designated for San Diego. Randall crashes the line, sees Rivers wind up to throw, and hits him just after he releases it. The pass is completed, and Randall doesn’t help Rivers up. The next play, Grantzinger does the same thing, knocking Rivers to the grass and walking away. The Knights won’t be initiating anything dirty, as Coach said, but between whistles, they’re going to give the Chargers hell. The front seven, in particular, needs to show up today. With a shaky secondary behind them, they need to torment Rivers for sixty minutes. Harden’s play-calling showcases his trademark blitzing style, a different group of linebackers (and occasionally corners) blitzing from one play to the next. Brock gets in a good hit on Rivers half a second late, and officials call roughing the passer. Both sidelines stand on edge, ready for a fight, but neither team initiates one. Fans around the league are watching this game, wondering if tensions from the AFC Championship Game will spill over. So far, they haven’t. The Knights keep up the hits on Rivers and Jaxson, who finds little running room between the tackles, and the drive ends with a Nick Novak field goal. Maverick goes to work. He sits behind clean pockets, thanks in part to Bishop playing a bigger pass blocking role, and finds open receivers. Because Malik Rose is still suspended, San Diego’s only good corner is Jason Verrett, and Wilkes can handle him. Johnson eats Patrick Robinson alive, beating him on every route and racking up four receptions for 32 yards. Wilkes gets three receptions of his own for 29 yards. This gets the Knights in field goal range, where Watson catches a slant and sprints through defenders for twenty yards, getting the Knights to the eleven-yard line. Watson feels confidence returning to him as he flips the ball to the referee. Maverick calls the first and ten play and gets in shotgun. Bishop lines up in the slot, grass in front of him. He’s got an easy touchdown if Maverick slings it to him, but he hears an audible: line up next to the right tackle and block. Disappointed, Bishop jogs back toward Maverick and sizes up the front seven, which looks ready for a blitz. Maverick takes the snap. Johnson runs straight, looks up as if he’s waiting for a back-shoulder fade, then cuts toward the middle, extending his arm and getting in front of the cornerback. The pass hits him in stride, and he doesn’t drop it. The bipartisan crowd cheers for the game’s first touchdown as the Knights offense returns to the sideline, energized and confident. After positional coaches get a word in, Penner walks up to Maverick and says, quietly, “We got you today, boss. You just keep slingin’ it.” Harden’s defense continues the same strategy, with Rivers under pressure almost every dropback. The quarterback finds holes in the Knights secondary, however, and marches the Chargers down the field. Harden focuses on his starting corners and sees sloppy technique. Ripka confirms this multiple times, telling him, “No breakdowns or miscommunications, coach. Just bad coverage.” Though Flash prevents Keenan Allen from getting open downfield, Harden’s greatest fear, the Chargers mount an impressive drive one short pass at a time. Antonio Gates caps it with an end zone leap over Randall, and the Chargers take a 10-7 lead. Randall pats his jersey as he takes a spot on the bench. “That’s on me, guys. Can’t get beat there.” “Oh, fuck off, Briggs,” Harden says. “We all sucked on that drive. Let’s get it together.” Harden talks to his linebackers, dissecting the last drive, as Ripka does the same with the secondary. He crouches down in front of Stone, Schwinn, Flash, and Lucas, remembering once again that only Flash was a starter when he took this job less than a year ago. Joining a team with such a strong secondary (at the time) was undoubtedly a factor for him, but Ripka has been in the NFL long enough to know not to count on continuity. After Ripka points out a few obvious errors, he says, “Julian, Ken, you guys are both playing scared out there. Cut that out. Stop overthinking and just play, alright? Remember technique, remember footwork. Don’t get stiff, and don’t play scared. Alright?” The young corners nod. “We’re gonna throw in some corner blitzes before the end of the half, so listen up on play calls.” Ripka gets up and notices Harden has finished with the linebackers. “And Briggs, if I may? Gates loves routes like that where he cuts back and gets in front of you. So give him a good shove, up high, like this…” Ripka demonstrates, lifting his arms to his neck and extending them outward. “…and that’ll prevent him from getting behind you.” “Could give him an easy route to the flat, though,” Randall says. “Then you can tackle him for a three- or four-yard gain, which is much better than a touchdown.” Randall nods. Ripka walks away for a drink of water, surprised to see Harden follow him. “That’s good coaching, Chet,” Harden says. “Just trying to do my part, coach.” The score is the same when the Chargers get the ball back. Rivers connects on a few passes before Randall surges through on a blitz for a sack. The rest of the half, the Knights’ pass rush and improvement in the secondary combine to keep the Chargers offense in check. The Knights take over with five minutes on the clock, pinned deep in their own territory, and build some momentum with Jameson becoming a factor. After their second first down of the drive gets them some breathing room, McKenzie takes a shot. Watson lines up in the slot and, on the snap, jogs laterally, waiting for a screen pass. Maverick pump fakes, and Watson takes off, running deep. He runs past multiple Chargers and into open grass, knowing a pass is coming. He turns and sees the ball flying his way. Don’t drop it, don’t drop it. He slows down, adjusting to get under the pass, extends his arms, and corrals it against his chest. He realizes he’s only jogging and accelerates, barely avoiding a diving tackle. He sprints the rest of the way into the end zone, and Wembley Stadium rocks with noise. Watson’s smile shows through his facemask as he high-fives teammates and coaches on the sideline, giving an extra nod to Bishop in the process. The Knights carry their 14-10 lead into halftime, where coaches make few adjustments on either side of the ball. On the second half’s opening possessions, a trade of field goals brings the score to 17-13. Intensity sets in on both sidelines, each team knowing a 2-4 record waits on the other side of a loss. Whoever wins gets a very real chance to right the ship; whoever loses has a very long bye week ahead and a very long flight home. McKenzie reverts to aggressive play-calling, wanting to get the pass game back to its first quarter success. It works. Wilkes, Johnson, and Watson light up the stat sheet and Maverick makes it look easy. Across midfield, Bishop lines up to block yet again, but slides into the flat. Maverick dumps it to him, wide open. He turns upfield and breaks two tackles en route to a thirty-yard gain. Crowd noise increases as the Knights near the end zone. Maverick takes a snap and stares down Wilkes, who runs past the goal line with Verrett all over him. Maverick throws it up anyway. Verrett doesn’t turn around, and Wilkes times his jump perfectly, grabbing the pass and getting thrown down in the end zone, in bounds. The nearby official throws a flag for defensive pass interference, but it doesn’t matter. Wilkes celebrates wildly, spiking the ball and screaming, and McCabe’s extra point gives the Knights a 24-13 lead. After Wilkes settles down, receivers happily congregate on the bench. Johnson nudges Wilkes and Watson on their shoulders. “Hey, best receivers in the league?” McKenzie overhears that comment as he walks up with pictures, very little to critique from that drive. “Just might be,” he admits. “You all are certainly making my job easier. Let’s keep it up, ladies.” The Chargers take over with three minutes left in the third quarter and show a sense of urgency. Rivers operates a fast-huddle offense and releases the ball quickly, neutralizing the Knights’ blitzes. Harden decides to drop more guys in coverage. Still hurrying things, Rivers takes a quick snap and looks over the middle. He fires, and Martin deflects the pass, tipping the ball into the air. A bug-eyed Flash gets under the ball to intercept it—another white jersey comes out of nowhere and catches it. It’s Randall, running ahead while Flash stays where he is. After Randall is tackled, Flash waits for him on their way back to the sideline. Randall enjoys praise from teammates as he jogs toward the bench. Flash bumps him, which he interprets to be friendly. Then he sees Flash’s face. “What the fuck, man?” Flash screams. “That’s my pick! My pick!” Randall keeps jogging, hoping others notice what’s going on. “Relax, Flash, relax,” Randall says. “Nah, fuck off, man!” They reach the sideline, and a few coaches get between them. Players don’t have a clue what the hell Flash is upset about, but Ripka does. Flash finally gets forced into taking a seat, and Ripka walks up to him. Nearby, Harden watches. “Flash,” Ripka says. “That’s a Knights interception. You should be celebrating.” “Nah, man, that’s my interception.” “I know what’s going through your head, Flash. I promise I do.” Flash looks up, knowing that’s not true. He’s already trying to distance himself from this team, the team he’ll be leaving this offseason. The last thing he needs is people trying to get close. “But now’s not the time, not the place,” Ripka says. “You just keep playing football, because your teammates need you, and you need your teammates, whether you think so or not.” “Whatever, man,” Flash says, defiant but cooled down. Ripka counts that as a victory. The Knights take over on a short field, though Maverick milks the play clock enough to run out the third quarter. McKenzie digs deep into the playbook, looking for a final strike. The Knights line up in a trips formation with Wilkes, Johnson, and Watson all bunched to Maverick’s left. The Chargers defense panics, hurrying players to their proper place as Maverick takes the snap and drops back. From the trio of receivers, Johnson emerges open, streaking to the end zone. Maverick steps up to throw, but pass rush impacts his footwork, and the ball wobbles through the air. Johnson adjusts, jumps at the goal line, catches the ball with his fingertips, and plants his toes in bounds for a highlight reel catch. As the celebration fades, relaxation sets in on the Knights sideline. A commanding 31-13 lead lets players think about the plane ride home and bye week plans. Though he doesn’t know how to relax during a game, Harden watches confidently as his defense shuts the Chargers down. He looks across the field again at Caden Daniel, who looks more disappointed than panicked, apparently admitting defeat, just what Harden wants. He’s been ignoring Daniel’s calls and waiting for this game for months, and everything has set up better than he could have dreamed. The Chargers soon punt, and the Knights take over with 12:35 on the clock. Harden walks up to McKenzie. “Mac.” “Yeah, Merle?” “Keep it going. Full throttle.” McKenzie looks confused, but says, “You got it.” He disagrees, preferring to run the clock, and finds a happy medium: continue an aggressive, pass happy attack, but let the play clock run low on every play. Maverick eagerly fires away, still hitting open receivers left and right. The Knights are across midfield when Harden catches Daniel shooting him an ugly glare. Harden smiles smugly. This is what you get, asshole. Between plays, Ripka walks up to Harden and says, “All due respect, coach, but what are you doing?” “Extracting vengeance,” Harden says. The Knights put together a clinic on passing-game precision, and the London crowd loves it. One impressive catch after another, the Knights glide down the field. Maverick hits Bishop over the middle for a touchdown, and it’s 38-13, Knights. Another futile Chargers drive gives the Knights the ball back with 6:32 on the clock. “Call off the dogs?” McKenzie asks Harden. Harden shakes his head. McKenzie decides to mix in some safer plays this time, simply wanting to avoid a turnover at this point. The first call is a screen to Johnson, who lines up left, then motions right, next to Wilkes. Maverick takes the snap as Johnson steps forward. He leaps for the off-target pass, snags it, and falls to the ground with defenders closing. He feels a sharp pain in his ankle as he rolls toward the Knights sideline. He lifts his head, seeing commotion around him. He finally raises his leg to see his ankle, practically bent backwards, a piece of his bone sticking out through his sock. An intense, pulsating pain shoots through his entire leg, unlike anything he’s ever felt. His head falls back onto the grass, and he sees Coach Harden’s face appear on top of him. He feels someone grab his hand. “Alex. Alex. Look at me.” He quivers, unable to speak, as trainers surround him. “Alex. Breathe. Breathe. We need you to breathe.” “Is…is…is it bad?” “Breathe, Alex.” He feels his heart pounding as the pain comes and goes. The trainers don’t ask him any questions, and he doesn’t try to move any part of his body. Johnson’s teammates stand nearby as the entire stadium goes dreadfully quiet. Half fight off the queasiness in their stomachs, having seen the injury, and the other half look up at the replay, wishing seconds later they hadn’t. Minutes pass, an eerie sense of mourning now hanging over what was an exciting game. Johnson is eventually lifted onto a cart, prompting applause from the crowd. Players from both teams make their way over for words of encouragement, though Johnson, a towel draped over his head, doesn’t give the thumbs up to anyone. He remembers the next hour in patches, sometimes feeling like he’s about to pass out from pain, sometimes feeling like he has no leg at all. Harden, sick to his stomach, has McKenzie back down, and the Knights run out the clock. A plethora of cameras converges at midfield where Harden and Daniel meet for a handshake, where they say nothing to each other but “Good game,” and separate. Chance and Melissa get out of the car and hear a barking dog from behind the front door. Chance still feels extremely nervous; he hasn’t confirmed this dinner with Merle since their fight last week. It’s very possible he and Melissa could be heading home within minutes. Before Chance can ring the doorbell, the door opens, and a Doberman runs out, sniffing Chance and Melissa like crazy. When Chance looks up, Merle stands before him, dressed in a t-shirt, khaki shorts, and bare feet. Chance, in his sport coat, realizes he has overdressed for the Harden household. “Come on in,” Merle says, in a more friendly voice than Chance has ever heard. “Aw, what a good dog,” Melissa says, petting Bowser as she follows the men through the foyer and towards the kitchen. “Melissa, meet my wife, Melinda…Hey, Mel and Mel. You don’t go by Mel, do you, Melissa?” “No, Melissa’s fine.” “Oh, good. Don’t need two Mel’s in the house.” “Got the game on?” Chance asks, referring to Monday Night Football. “Yeah, but it’s a blowout.” They make smalltalk, eventually moving to the dining room. As they sit at the table with dinner ready, Merle says, “Hey, wait a minute. You didn’t bring a bottle of wine?” Melissa looks nervously at Chance. Both of them are unsure what to say and feel they should choose their words carefully. “Oh, he’s just kidding,” Melinda says. “I’ll get one from the kitchen.” “I’m sorry,” Melissa says. “We weren’t sure what would be…It doesn’t bother you to be around alcohol?” “Not at all,” Merle says. “I think it helps, if anything.” Melinda pours three glasses of cabernet and everyone covers their plate with baked chicken, au gratin potatoes, and mixed greens. Conversation is casual and varied. Chance notices no residual disdain from Merle, though perhaps he’s hiding it. They talk about kids. Trisha is working tonight; Jack has been trusted to babysit Max and Kimmy. They talk about how each couple first met. Chance and Melissa went to Penn State together; Melinda was a school board member in Merle’s district when he coached at Devil’s Lake. After everyone has eaten, they talk about football, though neither Chance nor Merle wants to delve into it. At some point, the group splits. Melinda and Melissa stay in the dining room, drinking more wine, while Chance and Merle sit on the front porch with Bowser. “I saw a couple trophies in there,” Chance says, “looked like they were from high school. You were a linebacker, right?” “Yep. High school and college.” “Inside? Outside?” “Can’t remember what I was listed at, officially. I played all over. Blitzed, covered, stopped the run.” “Which explains your coaching preference for all-around linebackers.” “Mhmm.” Chance smiles and leans down to pet Bowser. “What about you, did you play?” Merle asks. “Just high school. I was a quarterback, actually.” “Chance Phillips the signal caller. I can see that. What style QB?” “The style that throws a lot of interceptions.” “That would explain why you drafted Maverick, then.” They both laugh hard, and Phillips decides now is the best moment. “I’m sorry I jumped on you last week. And I’m sorry I didn’t stop Wayne from doing it too.” “Oh, kiss my ass. We’re all under a lot of pressure. It’s fine.” “I just feel like there’s been something between us…ever since that thing in the offseason.” “Forget it. I just said it’s fine, and I meant it. This job can burn you out at times.” “Sure can.” Phillips reaches up and grazes his hair. “I’m getting some gray around my ears, I noticed recently.” “Shit, at least you have a full head of hair.” “I just want you to know how much I respect you.” “Don’t go sucking my dick now. I’ve never cheated on Melinda, I sure as hell ain’t about to do so with a guy. We got off to a rough start, I admit, but we won Sunday. That’s what’s important.” “Yes indeed. I just feel bad for Alex.” “We all do. What’s the latest?” “Swelling is going down, so he’ll have surgery in the next couple days. He’s still in London, you know. They can’t put him on a plane yet.” “That’s fucked up. He’s stuck with those Brits and a shattered leg all by himself?” “No, his family’s out there. Actually, Wayne financed them to fly and stay out there for the surgery and recovery.” “Outstanding. Wayne’s a great guy.” “When he wants to be,” Chance mutters. “Huh?” “Oh, just a story about Schneider.” “What about him?” Chance pauses. He didn’t mean to go down this avenue. There’s a lot about Schneider he has always planned on telling Merle, at some point… “It’s nothing,” Chance says. “Another time.” Alex leaves his brother and parents in the waiting room as the nurse wheels him towards surgery. Other nurses soon appear to lift him from the wheelchair to the table. He tries not to look at his ankle. The operation is scheduled to take two hours, doctors say, but Alex will be under anesthesia for the duration of it. Then begins a long road of recovery, though everyone tells him he’ll play football again. That has been the refrain the last few days. “Don’t worry, you’ll be back on that field again.” “Just do what the doctors tell you, and you’ll be suiting up in pads in no time.” Though he hasn’t said it, Alex gives no thought to returning to football. If he had to decide right now, he’d never play again. He has tried not to think about the game since Sunday, but only a very small part of his life has nothing to do with football. Maybe that’s a sign something needs to change. Alex stares at the ceiling as surgeons enter the room, masks covering their faces. He feels no anxiety as they set up tubes all around him, poking his arm. He hears clinks in the background from objects that will soon be fixing his broken leg. “How are you feeling, Alex?” a surgeon asks. “You ready?” “Let’s get this over with,” he says. “Right. I’m gonna have you count backwards from ten, okay?” “Ten, nine…” It becomes harder to speak. He concentrates on the numbers and feels his voice weaken into a whisper. “…Eight… seven
  7. | | | | Knights of Andreas Part V Based on Characters Created by: badgers Bangy Barracuda Bay BigBen07 BradyFan81 BwareDware94 CampinWithGoatSampson Chernobyl426 CrimsonRaider DonovanMcnabb for H.O.F eightnine FartWaffles Favre4Ever GA_Eagle JetsFan4Life Maverick RazorStar Sarge seanbrock SteVo Thanatos Turry theMileHighGuy Vin Zack_of_Steel Chapter Fifty-Nine – Light the Road The clock hits zero, and the field becomes a platform for handshakes with a quiet stadium around it. About half of the Cleveland crowd has stuck around to watch the Knights throttle the Browns, 34-16, and they readily boo the winning team on their way to the locker room. Knights players ride the satisfaction of the season’s first decisive victory, briskly changing out of pads and warmly welcoming reporters as they circle the room for interviews, cameramen in tow. Maverick, of course, draws a large crowd and is thrilled to discuss details of a game in which he threw for 357 yards and four touchdowns (and one interception). On this particular day, however, he’s feeling more benevolent than usual. “You know, I have to give it to the guys around me,” Maverick says. “I got great protection all day, and guys were getting open. When those two things happen, my job becomes pretty easy.” “What happened on the interception, Mav, just before halftime?” “Well, hey, it was, what…17-0 by that time? We didn’t want to be too rough on them.” Maverick’s receivers attract plenty of attention for their stat lines, including Watson, who caught his first touchdown of the season today. “Coach McKenzie picked a good time for a deep shot,” Watson says. “I just slid in between the safeties and Mav threw a great pass.” “Joe, the series right after that, it looks like you guys tried a similar play and you got open but couldn’t make the catch. What happened there? Did you lose it in the sun?” “No, I had it.” The reporters stand idly and wait, slowly realizing Watson isn’t adding anything else. “But you dropped it.” “I mean, yeah. But, it wasn’t—I was tracking it and, um…Yeah. I just dropped it, yeah.” A scant batch of reporters stand near the offensive linemen, with Penner, as always, drawing the biggest group of microphones. “Brian, what happened on that fumble where there was a big pile-up? It looked like you were favoring your shoulder or neck or something.” “I’m fine,” Penner says. “It’ll be a little sore in the morning, I’m sure, but I’m good to go.” A commotion gathers everyone’s attention as Wilkes jogs over to Maverick, still answering questions, and throws his arms around him. “We got the real Johnny Football, baby! This the real Johnny Football!” Cameramen zoom in on the moment while teammates look on, some perplexed, some disgusted. “The quarterback-receiver bromance has begun,” Martin says. “God help us all,” Grantzinger says. The team’s relatively straightforward win leads to a quick and pleasant Monday at the MedComm Center. Coaches find few weaknesses to analyze on the Cleveland tape and assemble a game plan for the 0-3 Bears. The day passes even faster upstairs. The Knights are in a good place after three weeks, and a huge game against the 3-0 Broncos looms, but the focus is on Chicago for now. Schneider spends most of his day on the phone, working out logistical preparations for Super Bowl 50, and Phillips ends up in his car by four thirty, the earliest he’s left in a long time. He gets on the road early enough to escape the initial rush hour wave, gets bogged down as he’s leaving the city, and pulls into his driveway a little after five thirty. Chance wanders through the front door and into the kitchen of an oddly quiet house. Melissa walks down the stairs, looking at her husband with wide eyes. “You are home early,” she says, walking past him toward the living room. “Easy day, if you can believe it,” Chance says. “Give me the rundown.” “Kimmy made a new friend, Jack hates his geography class, and Max has been very busy playing video games lately.” “Hates his geography class? Hates school? That’s not like Jack.” “He’s really getting buried with homework. It’s an hour or two, every single night. And he doesn’t seem to care for his teacher, either.” “Alright. I’ll take care of it.” “Already done. I called and set up a conference for Thursday morning. Unless you can somehow take the morning off…” Chance shakes his head. As much as he wants to, there doesn’t seem to be much room for him to help Jack—or do anything else, for that matter. “Dinner?” he asks. “The chicken has to bake, so, it should be ready by seven.” Chance heads upstairs to see the kids, all of whom are busy with something, then comes back downstairs, meandering from room to room, unsure what to do for the next hour and a half. Chilly, fifty-degree weather greets the Knights on their way to the Chicago hotel Saturday afternoon. Once in his assigned room, Flash unpacks as quickly and quietly as possible while Schwinn loudly settles in on the bed next to him. He tries to forget he still has at least six road trips with this team. Players and coaches gather for the walkthrough, everyone full of confidence. On offense, McKenzie reminds his players of the change of pace this week; the Bears have good pass rushers but are weak up the middle, so the Knights will run to set up the pass. On defense, Alshon Jeffrey is the only player Harden mentions by name. Players get back to the hotel with temperatures cooling, and Flash finds himself in the same shitty situation. “Whad’ya wanna do tonight, partner?” Schwinn asks. “The fellas are watchin’ a movie, I think.” “I’m going out,” Flash says, hoping that ends the discussion. “Alright, alright. Who with?” “None of your business.” Schwinn hesitates. He didn’t say anything wrong, did he? “Hey, no offense intended. If there was a gathering, I just wanted to know who was going is all.” Flash doesn’t react. Schwinn gives up on the conversation, wondering what movie the guys picked for tonight. Players warm up on a crisp, sunny morning at Soldier Field. Phillips makes a rare appearance on the field, attracting the attention of a security guard after a few minutes of drifting around. “I’m looking for the GM,” Phillips says. He is directed across the field toward the opposite end zone. Phillips makes the long walk, greeting players and coaches along the way, eventually spotting DeMartine. “Paul!” DeMartine sees his old boss and separates from his crowd of colleagues. He and Phillips shake hands and embrace at the goal line. “Welcome to Chicago, Chance! How the hell are you?” “A little cold, honestly, but it’s a good day for football. We haven’t gotten the chance to talk in a while. How are you settling in?” “I’d feel a lot better if we weren’t 0-3, that’s for sure.” That’s what you get for leaving, Phillips thinks. “Hell of an offseason you had,” DeMartine says. Phillips smiles and nods. “Glad I wasn’t in the room when the Rose decision came down.” Came down—does he know that was all Schneider’s call? “It was a tough one,” Phillips says. “But thankfully, we were able to lock down quite a few big contracts after that, so, looking back I’d say it was a good offseason.” “Can’t disagree there. How are you handling Schneider?” “Fine,” Phillips says instinctively, not sure what that question means. The conversation continues with talk of families and weather as Phillips grows increasingly bothered. Where was this Schneider concern when DeMartine was in Los Angeles? Was that the real reason he left? “I wish you could have been there to lift the Lombardi,” Phillips finally says. “Me too, Chance. Me too.” The Bears get the ball first, and Harden fires away with blitz after blitz, attacking Chicago’s weak offensive line and hitting Jay Cutler multiple times. This brings the punt teams out quickly. A few Jameson runs go nowhere, and the Knights are punting too. Just as fans wonder if the game will somehow turn into a defensive slugfest, Cutler connects with Alshon Jeffrey on a deep post for eighteen yards, then again on an out for twenty. The home crowd cheers with the ball near the red zone, but a timely sack by Grantzinger halts the drive, and the Bears settle for a Robbie Gould field goal. Harden changes nothing, but on Chicago’s next drive, Jeffrey again moves the chains with big catches. Again, though, the Knights tighten up in the red zone, and another field goal makes it 6-0. Harden seeks out his first-round rookie on the sideline. “What the fuck’s going on, Julian?” Harden barks. “Alshon’s so strong, coach,” Stone says, gasping for air. “I’m trying, but I need all the help I can get.” Harden grumbles and walks down the bench. “Flash, you’re doubling Jeffrey from now on. Shut him down.” Flash nods, hoping he can use this opportunity to notch an interception or two. The second quarter begins with the same score. The Knights finally find traction in the run game, with Jameson running behind excellent blocking from the interior line and breaking multiple tackles at the second level. McKenzie opens up the play-calling, but Maverick gets flushed with pass rushers, forced to scramble on almost every dropback. The drive ends just beyond McCabe’s range, and Harden angrily orders out the punt team. “This ain’t the ’85 Bears, Mac,” Harden says. McKenzie ignores him, focusing on his players. “Talk to me, ladies!” Maverick takes a seat on the bench, knowing exactly what (or who) the problem is. Adams and Fowler are getting dominated on the outside, forcing him to step up, disrupting the rhythm of McKenzie’s calls. “We gotta mix things up, coach,” Maverick says. “Some rollouts, maybe.” Matt Forte puts together a couple of nice runs, reaching midfield. Harden calls an all-out blitz with Flash doubling Jeffrey. From centerfield, Flash stares down the 6’3” receiver as Stone bumps him and gets beat. Cutler lofts a pass as Flash reaches full speed with Jeffrey in his crosshairs. The ball sails out of bounds. Flash lowers his shoulders and crushes Jeffrey, whose helmet goes flying, along with a yellow flag. The crowd boos as Flash walks back to formation. Harden screams into his headset as the penalty takes the Bears inside field goal range. The next play, he watches a blitz surround Cutler, who throws up a deep ball. Forte streaks down the sideline, two steps ahead of Brock, and catches the pass in stride, strolling into the end zone. Gravity sets in for everyone in the stadium and watching on TV: the winless Bears are beating the Super Bowl champions 13-0. Harden chews out Brock for atrocious coverage but doesn’t change his plan. Maverick retakes the field ready for some rollouts, which work. He hits Bishop and Johnson for multiple first downs, and the Knights feel momentum swinging back their way. McKenzie calls play-action, and Wilkes surges through a hole in the secondary, running deep. Maverick doesn’t miss, and the Knights finally find the end zone. On their first possession of the second half, the Bears add another field goal. The Knights respond with more rollouts and max protection plays, reaching the red zone before Watson drops a would-be touchdown, and they settle for a field goal. The score now 16-10, Harden finds a rhythm with his blitzes. He times them almost perfectly with passing plays, and the Knights dominate the game, reminiscent of last year’s defense. A few drives later, the Knights offense gets the ball with great field position. Jameson breaks three tackles on a twenty-four-yard run, then Johnson runs a perfect post-corner route, and Maverick hits him in the hands as he crosses the goal line. McCabe’s extra point gives Los Angeles its first lead of the day. The defense picks up where it left off, forcing third and nine for the Bears. Flash tracks Jeffrey on a slant and runs for an interception, but pressure flushes Cutler from the pocket before he can throw. Flash keeps running toward the offensive line, finding a hole and going for the sack. Cutler sets his feet with defenders closing and heaves it up for Jeffrey, who leaps over Stone for an acrobatic fifteen-yard catch. The Bears ride the energy of the home crowd, leaning on Forte to get them in field goal range as the fourth quarter begins. Gould attempts a fifty-four-yarder, which sails low and down the middle, retaking the lead for Chicago, 19-17. Maverick relaxes the offense in the huddle, reminding them how much time is left. McKenzie goes back to his initial game plan, pounding the rock with Jameson. This gets a first down and quiets the crowd. Watson hears a call he likes, a complex passing play that has him running an option route, an old favorite of his at North Dakota State and another reminder how lucky he is to be playing for Coach McKenzie. He lines up in the slot and runs straight. Both safeties cover deep, so Watson cuts toward the sideline, into a soft spot in coverage. He sees the pass flying in, jumps, and it bounces off his hands. The third down formation returns Watson to the sideline, where he hides on the bench. The next play is an incompletion, and McKenzie walks up to him before the rest of the offense gets there. “I call those option routes that get you open so you can catch the goddamn ball, Joe, not drop it!” McKenzie says, remembering all too well Watson’s history with drops and confidence problems at North Dakota State. He doesn’t need them resurfacing now. “Yessir,” Watson says. The offense waits on the sideline down by two, glancing up at the game clock every other play, hoping for another chance. When Randall breaks up a would-be first down pass, they get it. They take the field with 8:49 on the clock. Maverick drops back, throwing for Wilkes before taking a hit. After connecting with Bishop for another first down and getting blindsided, Penner helps him up. He steps gingerly towards the new huddle, today’s hits finally taking their toll. He looks forward to a post-game ice bath. McKenzie is aware of the disruptive pass rush, but first downs are more important, and with his receivers getting open almost every play, he doesn’t change course. Johnson, in particular, has been open all game, but Maverick has thrown his way enough, so he doesn’t complain. A Jameson draw from shotgun gets another first down, into field goal range, and McKenzie hears Harden say, through his headset, “Milk it, Mac.” It’s not like Harden to be a master clock controller; does he not want Chicago to get the ball back? Is his confidence in his defense shaken? Whatever the case, after radioing the next call to Maverick, McKenzie adds, “Under six on the play clock from here out, Mav.” Doing so gets the game clock under three minutes as the Knights face third and five from the twenty. Maverick fakes a handoff and rolls right just as Watson breaks right, again finding a soft spot. Don’t drop it, he tells himself. He slows down, approaching the sidelines, and extends his hands for the pass, which hits his jersey and bounces out of bounds. McKenzie says nothing to Watson, or anyone, as the offense sulks to the bench. McCabe’s field goal splits the uprights, and the Knights take the lead, 20-19, with 2:52 left. Harden has Flash double Jeffrey every play, taking no chances, and doesn’t back off blitzing, knowing how valuable sacks now are. On the Bears’ first play of the would-be game-winning drive, Luck breaks through and brings down Cutler back at the fourteen-yard line. The Bears burn their second timeout. Two quick passes over the middle into tight coverage bring up fourth and three at the two-minute warning. Bears fans come to their feet, knowing this could be the end. Cutler lines up in shotgun and shouts audibles as the Knights set their defense. Randall calls an audible of his own, and the secondary shifts. Flash and Schwinn switch places, moving Schwinn to Cutler’s left. Then, Jeffrey comes in motion toward that side, and Lucas shifts inside to cover the slot, leaving Schwinn on Jeffrey. “Fuck me,” he says as Cutler takes the snap. Schwinn backpedals as Jeffrey runs deep. Schwinn runs as fast as he can, about to be beaten when Cutler throws up a wobbly pass. Both players realize it’s underthrown and try to get under it. Schwinn has good position and gets ready to jump. Jeffrey extends his arms and shoves Schwinn, who falls to the grass. He gets to his feet in time to tackle Jeffrey near the sideline, in front of Coach Harden, who doesn’t see a flag. “COME ON!” he screams to the officials, face red, shoving his hands out, indicating pass interference. “ARE YOU FUCKING BLIND? THAT’S A BLATANT PUSH!” The sideline around him clamors for the same call, but they don’t get it. The Bears set up on the edge of field goal range with the clock ticking. An enraged Harden blitzes aggressively, and the Bears only manage three more yards before calling their final timeout with 0:03 on the clock. “Block the fucking thing!” Harden says to the special teams group that takes the field. Gould sets his feet for a fifty-three-yard kick. The high snap is corralled and placed, and Gould boots it above outstretched arms, down the field, and above the cross bar. Soldier Field rocks in celebration as the Knights walk incredulously to the locker room, the final score somehow Bears 22, Knights 20. Today was not their best performance, but they fought for rightful control of the game only to have the refs take it away from them. This time, when the lights, cameras, and microphones swarm the locker room, players meet them with disdain. After any loss on the road, players want to get back home as soon as possible, and these post-game interviews are an extra step between them and the airport. Players answer questions in hushed tones with no propensity to elaborate or ramble. Bobby Schwinn draws the biggest crowd of reporters, all asking about the fateful play against Alshon Jeffrey. Schwinn only says, “He pushed off. It was pass interference. They didn’t call it. That’s that.” A few rooms over, Coach Harden employs more colorful vocabulary in his description of the play, calling it “utter horseshit” that a flag was not thrown and branding the officials “a disgrace.” Another player who unwillingly draws a crowd is Joseph Watson. The questions come like quick punches, one after another after another. Why do you think your drops are up this year? What was going through your mind? What did you say to your teammates? Watson answers slowly, taking long, extended pauses between sentences. “When you see a ball coming towards you…I-I just couldn’t…I let my teammates down, I think…and…” The heat from the lights burns on his sweaty face. The microphones feel like they’re pressing against his noise. “N-No more questions,” he says, sitting down at the locker, back to the cameras. Monday at the MedComm Center is a sharp reversal from last week. Bad officiating or not, the Knights are 2-2 and about to play the 4-0 Broncos on Sunday Night Football. Mercifully, the Chargers (2-2) and Chiefs (1-3) aren’t off to good starts either, but the Knights are Super Bowl champions. They should be contending for the division, not fighting for a wild card. Schneider keeps Phillips busy, insisting either they sit in on coaches meetings together or Phillips sit in and report back to Schneider. Phillips almost forgets about his scheduled meeting with Keegan, who has been finalizing the team’s quarterly report since last night. Last year, Phillips included Harden and DeMartine in this meeting; this year, it’s just Stein. He’s not quite ready to include Schneider on these directly, though Keegan is, in Phillips’ eyes, on his way to being in charge of the team’s analytics department. Such a department doesn’t exist yet, of course, but it soon could, depending on how useful Keegan proves. The three sit down in Phillips’ office and Keegan hands thick packets of paper to Phillips and Stein (much thicker than last year). Phillips wonders how Keegan can squeeze so much information out of four weeks of football. “Gentlemen, we’re off to a late start,” Phillips says. “I apologize, Michal. Things have been a little hectic today. Why don’t we cut to the chase, cover the highlights, do some independent studying, and then reconvene for more detailed discussion later in the week?” “Agreed,” Stein says. “Let’s just jump right in to the list of largest concerns.” Phillips almost corrects him, intending to start with positives first, but at least Stein wants to get out of here too. “Okay, there’s a summary on page three,” Keegan says. “The biggest positional problem is cornerback. Julian Stone and Ken Lucas are in the bottom quartile of the league in YSPR.” “YSPR?” Stein asks. “Yards of Separation per Route,” Phillips says. “I’ll explain later.” “Per Targeted Route,” Keegan says. “They’re both weak in coverage, allowing plenty of room for catches. And it doesn’t help that play-calling leaves them in single coverage most of the time.” “You want to tell Merle?” Stein says. “Best of luck to you.” “And Flash’s metrics are down too,” Keegan says in stride. “He’s still top quartile in the league, but not as good as the last two years. Whether it’s simple regression or something else—” “—is a long debate we don’t have time for,” Stein says. “Either way, the secondary is definitely the team’s biggest weakness.” “And the front seven?” Phillips asks. “Incredibly good. Similar metrics to last year. Some differences, of course, but again, it’s only four games.” “What about on offense?” “Same as last year, for better and worse. Offensive tackles still poor, interior line strong, though Penner’s numbers are declining. That’s expected with age, of course.” “So, let me ask this: is there any weakness on the roster as close to glaring as the secondary?” “No. Biggest weakness by far.” “Yeah,” Stein says, “but again, good luck talking to Merle about—” “We all know how Harden is about his defense, Allan,” Phillips says. “Michal, that will be all. As I said, we’ll get together later this week for more detail. For now, great work. Keep it up.” The next day, Schneider has Phillips monitor practice closely, a minor nuisance. Phillips is technically supposed to observe most of practice anyway, but he desperately wants to watch some film from the first four games. Schneider, however, wants to see some sort of spark or sense of urgency. Harden, however, kicks things off as if it’s a normal week. He seems more excited than stressed, looking forward to facing Denver with no mention of the Knights’ record. Phillips reports to Schneider that all is well, players are being properly motivated, and he is optimistic about a victory Sunday night. In fairness, McKenzie faces a greater challenge than Harden this week. After replacing John Fox with Gary Kubiak, Denver has started 4-0 thanks to its dominating defense. Coming off a game where Maverick was sacked three times and under constant duress, McKenzie must neutralize a pass rush including Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware while attacking a secondary led by Chris Harris and Aqib Talib. The Knights were relatively successful in the ground game last week, so McKenzie puts plenty of runs into the playbook. He channels his creativity in the pass game, incorporating lots of play-action, screens, and misdirection. It’s the most complicated playbook of the year, and McKenzie presses the players with what little practice time he has to master it by week’s end. The lights atop Farmers field shine against a cloudy evening as the crowd prepares for Sunday Night Football. NBC begins its broadcast with a montage detailing the Broncos/Knights rivalry, from which there is plenty of recent history: the Knights’ dramatic win in 2012 that put the franchise on the map, the blowout in the AFC Championship Game, Jonathan Maverick’s triumphant return from the injury report last year. The Knights get the ball first, lining up against a vaunted Broncos defense. Jameson finds little running room, and when Maverick drops back, he falls under pressure, reminding him of last week’s game. The Broncos fare no better on offense, with black jerseys crashing the line of scrimmage every play, rushing off-target passes from Peyton Manning and forcing a quick punt. McKenzie digs into his well of creative plays, dialing up a fake reverse pass. Maverick fakes a handoff to Jameson, then sells a reverse to Wilkes. He looks up, white jerseys all around him, and fires over the middle. It bounces off Bishop’s helmet and into the arms of Danny Trevathan, setting the Broncos up in field goal range. “That’s on me,” Maverick says on the sideline. “I hurried it. Stupid. Should have taken the sack.” “I should have turned quicker,” Bishop says. “It’s on us both.” “You shoulda handed it to me, man!” Wilkes says. “I had tons of space.” Harden watches as Denver rides its run game to the red zone, where Manning finally throws a good pass to Demaryius Thomas in the end zone, and the Broncos take an early lead. A few possessions later, the Broncos take over near the end of the first quarter. Harden calls an all-out blitz that forces a rushed throw from Manning towards Thomas. But the receiver and corner keep running, an apparent miscommunication, and Flash comes out of nowhere for the interception. His momentum carries him out of bounds, but the Knights take over in field goal range with the crowd back in the game. Two stuffed run plays bring up third and nine. Maverick drops back, feeling pressure, but waits for Wilkes to break. He steps up and fires, taking a big hit, and Wilkes runs into the end zone, open by half a step. He spins in mid-air and one-arms the catch, landing gracefully on purple grass, celebrating one for the highlight reel. Players and fans celebrate a tie game—until McCabe’s extra point bangs off the right post. The first quarter ends a few minutes later with the score 7-6, and a defensive battle takes place. While his defense rests, Harden watches in near admiration as the Broncos defense dominates. If there’s one thing, second to ambition, that propelled Harden’s climb from high school to college to pro, it’s defense. Only in the NFL are there defensive battles like this on a semi-regular basis. On the other side of Denver’s defense, the Knights’ offensive struggles don’t worry Harden. McKenzie will punch through eventually. And in a game like this, if the Knights can crack 20 points, that should be enough. The Broncos offense struggles too, unable to cross midfield. Though Ripka informs Harden of a coverage breakdown every other play, the Knights are spared by horrible, inaccurate passes. Harden remembers week 17 last year, where Manning looked like a shell of his former self. Tonight, he looks just as bad. When players take the field for the second half, they feel a playoff atmosphere in the air. Stakes are as high as they can be for a week 5 contest. The Broncos find rhythm on offense. Manning starts connecting on short, safe throws, which Harden gladly yields. This was his strategy against good quarterbacks even when he had Rose and Marshall at corner: give up the short stuff, just don’t get beat over the top. The chains keep moving. The Broncos are past midfield, then into field goal range, then into the red zone. Harden has Flash double Thomas as Manning drops back and lobs it up for Emmanuel Sanders. Lucas gets turned around in coverage, and Sanders makes an easy catch, keeping his feet in bounds for the touchdown. The Knights take over with a sense of uneasiness permeating the stadium. McKenzie has Maverick drop back on consecutive plays, falling victim to pressure off the edge. In the trenches, Grodd and Penner block their assignments easily but sense chaos around them. They can tell this won’t be an easy fight. Denver gets the ball back and resumes their strategy, eating up large chunks of yards in the pass game, working the Knights cornerbacks underneath. They mix in runs and screens at just the right time, crossing midfield. Harden considers a timeout just to yell at everyone as Manning calls audibles from under center. Defenders run around as Randall directs traffic, and Flash inches toward the box on a safety blitz. Manning takes the snap, drops back, and throws deep for Thomas, in single coverage. Stone runs with him, but Thomas outmuscles him in the end zone to come down with the touchdown pass. Harden is ready to chew out everyone on defense when Ripka gets in front of him. “We need some help in the secondary, coach,” Ripka says. “Julian won’t get beat deep like that again.” “It’s not the deep passes I’m concerned with. It’s all the underneath stuff. We need something to undercut them, some soft zones maybe.” “You use the word ‘zone’ on my sideline again, I’ll shove that playbook up your colon.” Maverick leads the offense onto the field down 21-6, trying to convey a sense of urgency to his teammates. It doesn’t work. Denver’s pass rush proves relentless, and the Knights go three and out. McKenzie unleashes one of his usual tirades, criticizing the offense for unacceptable effort and failure to execute before letting the positional coaches go to work. “Mav,” Wilkes says, trying to catch his breath, “what’s the sense in me running deep if you can’t stand up long enough to get it to me?” “Ask Coach, D-Jam.” “Fuck. C’mon, man.” In subsequent drives, the Knights manage a few first downs but nothing more, unable to string together enough to put points on the board. Watson has a particularly frustrating night. He wants to end his struggles with drops, but he sees no second half targets. A couple minutes into the fourth quarter, the Broncos offense gets rolling again, with Manning looking more competent than he has all year. From his suite, Phillips analyzes the game more carefully than the 72,000 angry fans below him, but he sees what they see: inexperienced, overmatched corners left on an island. He knows Harden only plays man coverage, but where is Flash? A different sort of blitz, maybe? There must be something. If there is, the Knights don’t show it tonight. Broncos receivers get the team into the red zone, where linebackers get crossed up in coverage against a five-receiver set, leaving Andre Caldwell wide open, and it’s 28-6, Broncos. On the sideline, urgency and panic give way to defeat. In the stands, anger gives way to resignation. The Knights are about to be 2-3, an uncomfortable record by any measure. Four weeks ago, fans left this stadium agitated at the Patriots loss but optimistic, aware of the long road ahead. Tonight, they leave wondering if it’s time to sound the alarm. Very few Knights fans stick around to see Ronnie Hillman make it 35-6. Chance closes the door gently behind him, trying not to make noise. Footsteps come running down the stairs. “Dad! Dad!” “Jack, it’s midnight. What are you doing up?” “Want to watch a movie?” “Jack, you need to go to sleep.” “I slept in till two today, I’m not tired. Besides, Mom already said I could stay up and watch Mad Max with you if I wanted.” “Well, if—the new one?” Chance looks between the top of the stairs and the living room. “Okay, set it up. I’ll be right back.” “Everyone else is already asleep, Dad.” Chance relents and stretches out on the recliner as Jack gets the movie going. Don’t fall asleep, he tells himself. The movie starts so loud Jack has to turn down the sound. Chance considers asking Jack about school, but now probably isn’t the best time. The special effects look terrific, though it takes a while for Chance to figure out what’s going on. Jack gets up to go to the bathroom. Should they pause it? No, he’s seen it before. It’s dark. The TV is off. Chance leans forward, and the recliner snaps back into place, waking him up. He rights himself and looks around, alone in the living room. Chance checks his phone, which is almost dead: 5:33. Without much time before he has to head in—and today promises to be a rough day—he considers his options. Wake the kids up, lay in bed with Melissa for a few minutes…he looks at the clock again. He doesn’t have time. He puts on a pot of coffee and hops in the shower.
  8. | | | | Knights of Andreas Part V Based on Characters Created by: badgers Bangy Barracuda Bay BigBen07 BradyFan81 BwareDware94 CampinWithGoatSampson Chernobyl426 CrimsonRaider DonovanMcnabb for H.O.F eightnine FartWaffles Favre4Ever GA_Eagle JetsFan4Life Maverick RazorStar Sarge seanbrock SteVo Thanatos Turry theMileHighGuy Vin Zack_of_Steel Chapter Fifty-Seven – Castles of Glass Javad types feverishly at his laptop, writing an article on the Clippers’ two-point loss to Houston last night while talking on Twitter about this bizarre Rose story. Currently, the rumors range from “Rose attacked the man with a knife” to “The entire thing was just a shouting match.” None of his key sources has responded to his texts. His phone vibrates nearby. He keeps typing, trying to finish this paragraph. The phone vibrates again. Then again. He slams his fingers against the keyboard and snatches the phone. This better be— “Oh no…” He minimizes his article and brings up multiple web sites: Twitter, Rotoworld, ESPN, NFL.com. All but ESPN have the story: the Knights have released Malik Rose. The fallout is clear and present on Twitter, where other Los Angeles writers have beaten Javad to the punch by minutes, an eternity in 21st century online journalism. He Tweets the news himself, refusing to give credit to a colleague who had it first. He tries to calm himself down and grasp the implications of Rose no longer being a Knight, and then it hits him. He feels his heart sink. The one-on-one interview, the job at the L.A. Times… He looks back at his phone. If this was the big event Phillips alluded to, why is Javad left out of the loop? Something is off here, and there better be a good reason for it. Javad finds the most recent text to Phillips and—actually, forget texting. He calls Phillips and puts the phone on speaker as he types. “You better fucking answer.” Malik closes the door behind him, a blank expression on his face as he studies the surroundings of the house he must soon move out of. Eva comes running from the other room, visibly shaken. “I just heard, baby, I’m so sorry,” she says, embracing her husband. Malik is about to say something to her when Flash appears. “You’re still here?” Malik says, separating from Eva. “I can’t believe it, man,” Flash says. “This ain’t right.” “It doesn’t matter, Griz. It happened. It’s over.” “There’s gotta be something we—” “There’s not.” Malik hears Jasmin’s hurried footsteps from the nearest hallway. She holds Tatyiana in her arms as she approaches the trio of adults, looking up at them. “Daddy, I don’t get it,” she says. “What’s going on?” “Say goodbye to Uncle Griswold, baby,” Malik says. “We have to pack.” “Okay. Bye, Uncle Griswold.” She hands Tatyiana to her mother, and Flash picks her up for a big hug before turning back to Malik. “I’ll call you,” Malik says, “let you know what’s going on.” Flash nods as he lowers Jasmin back to the floor. He says bye to Eva, and then he’s outside, staring at the closed front door in wonder. He walks toward his car, no longer within earshot of the kids, and lets it all out. He releases a wave of obscenities only he can hear, driving away and cursing the Los Angeles Knights. Once on the highway, he calls his agent, slightly more composed but just as angry. “We’ll make a statement tomorrow,” Schneider says to the congregation in Phillips’ office, “let things cool down first. For now, the football side of this is more urgent. Chance?” Phillips: “We’ve got holes at both cornerback spots, and the market is pretty thin. Revis, Maxwell, House, Cromartie are all gone. As far as guys we consider starters, there’s Chris Culliver, Tramon Williams, and Perrish Cox.” Schneider: “Merle?” Harden doesn’t look up, staring his bandaged knuckles. “Don’t know enough about any of ‘em to make a decision right now.” Stein: “We should also point out a couple things. Williams just turned 32; Culliver is about be signed by Washington, from what we hear; and Cox’s off-the-field resume includes sexual assault charges.” Schneider: “Let me worry about character. Merle, study up on Culliver and Cox, see what you think. Chance, work both agents, see if we have an avenue with either. And study tape with Merle so you guys are on the same page.” Harden and Phillips glare at each other as everyone scatters. Phillips spends the next few hours at his desk, on the phone, with people popping their heads in for seconds at a time. Chris Culliver is, indeed, on the brink of signing a contract with Washington, and without enough time to sufficiently study the cornerback, the Knights relent, and Culliver is a Redskin. Phillips rules out Tramon Williams due to age unless he can get a one- or two-year deal, but Williams’ agent insists on at least three years. With multiple three-year offers on the table, the Knights back out. That leaves Perrish Cox as the only viable option. From a few hours of film study, Harden simply says, “I like what I see so far.” Phillips knows Cox’s career was uninspiring before 2015 and suspects he won’t see him as a sensible investment. The Knights’ cornerback situation, though, is approaching desperate. Phillips works the phones until people stop answering and pours through film and scouting reports well into the night, sleeping at the MedComm Center a few hours before starting again. A full assembly of reporters looks toward the podium as Phillips, Schneider, and Harden deliver a formal statement with the cameras rolling. “I want to begin by thanking Malik Rose for his service to the team the last four years,” Schneider says, staring straight into the crowd, never glancing down at his paper. “Malik is one of the best cornerbacks in football, and he played an integral role in us winning a Super Bowl. For that, we will be forever grateful. Unfortunately, we had to make a very tough decision yesterday, and I want to stress that this was not a football decision. This was not an economic decision. This was a character decision.” As Schneider goes on, Phillips sees Javad in the crowd, a stern look on his face. Phillips hasn’t gotten the chance to speak with him yet, and he likely won’t any time soon, the way things are going. Schneider wraps up by reiterating the organization’s commitment to integrity and opens the floor for questions. Almost everyone raises their hand. “For all three of you, what are the plans at the cornerback position, with holes at both starting spots?” Phillips jumps in first. “I’ll start on that one, and maybe Merle can add to it. We’re looking at a few options available to us in free agency. We’ll consider draft options, as always. But we feel really good about Ken Lucas. We think he was highly productive last year in the nickel, and we think he’s only going to get better with a year of experience under his belt. So, would we like to add two quality cornerbacks? Absolutely. Do we feel we have to? No.” Everyone looks at Harden, waiting for his addition. “Ken is a good football player,” Harden says. “I’m comfortable with him starting on my defense.” “Coach, can you talk about what this defense will be like without Malik this year? You guys are still bringing back most of your starters, but how much of an impact did he have on the defense as a whole?” “An enormous one. Malik Rose isn’t a player you replace, plain and simple.” “Does that mean you’ll be making adjustments to the way you coach the defense, to the way you call plays?” “Can’t say right now. We’ll see.” “Chance, cutting Malik is actually gonna give you guys more cap space this year. How much of that was a factor here, and what impact does it make on your strategy moving forward?” “As Wayne said, this was not a money decision. We weren’t looking to cut Malik; we wanted to re-sign him. As it happens, gaining cap space is always a good thing, but that certainly wasn’t the objective here.” “Chance,” Javad says, “you’ve preached smart economics since you arrived in Los Angeles. You’ve earned a reputation for being methodical, for considering all aspects of a decision. Do you really expect us to believe money and cap space didn’t figure into this decision at all?” Phillips hesitates. Thanks for the unnecessarily aggressive question, Adam. “Yes we do,” Schneider says. “You’re right in that we consider all aspects of a decision when we make one, but sometimes, only one aspect is the driving force for that decision. And in this case, unfortunately, when you’re dealing with this kind of situation, despite Malik’s talent, despite his contract and anything else, this decision had to be made. And that’s that.” Phillips holds back a smile, more grateful for Wayne Schneider’s presence than ever as he watches Javad’s determined expression melt into disgust. In the hours following the conference, most Knights players remain publicly silent, though some voice reactions about their former teammate. In a phone interview with ESPN, Briggs Randall says, “He was a big part of our defense, and he’ll be missed. But no team is dependent upon one player. Just last year, we had to play without our starting quarterback for almost the whole season, and we rallied around it. We have to do the same thing this year.” A TMZ Sports reporter spots Sean Brock on Hollywood Boulevard with his girlfriend, Scarlett Lynn Smith. Brock says, “It’s a surprise to just let go of a guy that good, but it’s pretty messed up, what he did. I’d like to think if I punched out a random fan I’d be in serious trouble too.” All attempts to reach Jonathan Maverick directly fail, but he posts on Twitter: “Tough loss 4 our defense but we’ll fight back as always. Coach will figure it out! Go @KnightsNFL. #NFLoffseason #KnightsofAndreas” While leaving the MedComm center for the day, Chet Ripka gets cornered by a few reporters and says, “I’d like to know exactly what happened, and exactly what was said, because in the years that I got to know Malik Rose, I never knew him to just snap like that. None of us did. That being said, he’s gone, and it’s my job to make sure this secondary can do its job without him.” All these sentiments, however, get thrown to the background thanks to Griswold “Flash” Johnson. Flash unloads to every reporter who will listen, condemning the Knights for “a terrible decision” and claiming, “Our defense isn’t even close to elite anymore.” Perhaps more significantly, he claims to no longer be seeking a contract extension with the Knights, planning to explore free agency in a year and suggesting he’d be open to a trade. This prompts a wave of outreach toward his agent, who eventually comments publicly, saying, “Griswold’s words regarding his contract are accurate. At this time, we have ceased all negotiations with the Los Angeles Knights. Griswold intends to play out the final year of his contract and explore free agency next offseason.” Outside of the mixed signals in Los Angeles, the league’s reaction is universally positive. Reporters and fans alike express disgust at Rose’s assault on a Knights fan and applaud the Knights for placing integrity above football. A few even criticize Flash Johnson’s comments, saying he should be committed to the team, not to himself. While the football world centers on Rose, another story is brewing. That night, arrangements are made to transport Maverick’s agent to the MedComm Center privately, so no journalists can get the scoop. Some buzz accumulates regardless as negotiations continue, inching toward common ground. The voicemail on Maverick’s phone shoots a jolt of energy through his body. He hurriedly showers, shaves, and puts on his best suit. He has an inclination to buy a new one for the occasion, but he’d rather not delay the proceedings. He looks at the mansion as he backs out of the driveway; he hosted no gathering last night, but there sure will be a big party tonight. Maverick drives toward the MedComm Center trying to focus on the road, finding himself replaying the significant events of his football life in his head. The day he committed to Penn State, the dramatic Rose Bowl win over Oregon, the day he got drafted by the Knights, the Super Bowl win and MVP…and now this. He parks his car in the empty players’ lot and enters the building with a warm reception awaiting him. The mood in the building is a stark turnaround from recent weeks, and the minutes pass quickly. Thanks to an all-nighter of negotiations, the contract has been reviewed in detail by both sides several times over. It just needs the quarterback’s signature. Maverick finds himself seated in Schneider’s office with some team photographers there to capture the moment. He skims the contract, just to see the official numbers for himself. Six years, $126.6 million, with $55.4 million guaranteed, the second largest contract in NFL history. Cameras click as Maverick turns to the last page, presses the ink against the paper, and Jonathan Maverick is a Knight through 2020. Everyone in the room applauds, and Schneider starts planning the press conference. He doesn’t say it, but this will bring the Knights much-needed positive PR. Once Phillips finds the time, he goes to his office and the white board, erasing Maverick’s purple cap numbers and re-writing them in black. Phillips considered a structure that kept cap hits down in the first five years before an ugly spike in year six, but he’s sticking to his principles. Maverick’s cap hit will increase linearly by $1.2 million each year. The Knights’ team salary for 2015 now stands at $125.6 million. The rookie draft class should bump that up to $130.5 million, about $12.8 million under the cap, closer than it’s ever been, but still a reasonable figure. Phillips still hates the way Rose was let go, but the truth is it eased his financial worries. The Knights are, and will remain, comfortably under the cap. Lucrative extensions are looming for Jefferspin-Wilkes and Randall, but they’re set to count highly against the cap anyway. The player whose cap figures would be set to jump is Flash, but that situation is too complicated to assess right now. Phillips and Harden report to Schneider’s office, neither one of them sure how to feel about this situation. Harden only knows he’s confident as he and Phillips stand before the owner’s desk. “Merle,” Schneider says from his chair, “I’m aware you brought this to Chance’s attention a month ago. I hope you understand this is the first time I felt we had an appropriate moment to settle things.” “Fully understood, Mr. Schneider,” Harden says. “It’s like I told Chance, I’m not trying to rustle any feathers. I just know how to pick players for my defense.” “Very well,” Schneider says. “Let’s get this over with, then. I’m ruling in favor of Chance.” Harden’s knees feel weak. For a second, he focuses all his energy on standing upright. He doesn’t dare look sideways toward Phillips. “Chance is the GM, coach. Final say on personnel rests with him, as it always has.” “But, Mr. Schneider, if you look at—” “We’ve got a Super Bowl winning organizational structure. We’re not about to alter it. And don’t think of this as a diminishment of your authority, either. On the defensive side of the ball, your input carries a lot of weight in this building. Don’t forget that.” “Understood,” Harden says flatly, communicating he has nothing else to add. “Chance, anything you want to say?” “No, sir.” “Okay then. Adjourned?” Harden nods and paces out of the office, leaving Phillips and Schneider a little confused, but relieved. Merle slams his brakes at the end of the driveway and staggers toward the front door, more thankful than ever for the Doberman barking and jumping wildly, trying to claw the door down. “Alright, alright,” Merle says, petting Bowser as he wildly circles his legs and hops up and down. “Settle down, asshole, settle down. Let’s go outside.” He leads Bowser out the back and lets him roam around the fenced in, four-acre yard. As Bowser finds his peeing tree, Merle contemplates how to unwind. He seriously considers a drink—today seems a good day for it, though the way things are going, it’ll be needed at some point during the season—but one thing keeps him straight. A squeaky sound of car breaks reaches the back yard. Bowser hears it first, racing back toward the house. Merle knows who it is, thankful that weird coke addict Adam doesn’t visit anymore. Merle lets Bowser in, and they both eventually stand at the front door. Bowser starts barking and growling. “Sit,” Merle commands, and Bowser plops down, quiet, hair on the back of his neck raised. “Relax, asshole, that’s your mom and your sister.” He sees Melinda and Trisha emerge from the car. “Let’s go say hi.” He opens the door, and Bowser shoots out onto the porch, leaps onto the grass, and runs for the women, who don’t panic. They lean over, and Bowser’s ears flop down as he licks them both. “A big softie,” Merle says, walking toward them. “I take full responsibility.” “He’s bigger than you said he was,” Melinda says. “How old is he now?” Trisha asks. “Almost eight months. Still got some growin’ to do.” He reaches Melinda and gives her a kiss. “Great to have you home again. Both of you.” “Is there a pile of unwashed dishes waiting for me in the kitchen?” “Yep. And not for the last time.” Merle walks around the car toward Trisha and hugs her. “I’m sorry to take you away from your friends, Trish.” “It’s okay, dad. This is where we want to be.” Merle savors those words, knowing them to be true. He understood why they left a few years ago, and as much as he wanted to hate Melinda, it worked. Trisha and Merle have both been sober for a little while, and moving back in would do Trisha more good than harm, Merle and Melinda decided. They all hear the sound of a large vehicle approaching and see a moving truck pull into the driveway. “Oh, good,” Merle says. “I’ll help bring some stuff in.” “Merle, no,” Melinda says, “that’s what the movers get paid for, dear.” “It’s fine. I could use a little workout.” “Dad,” Trisha says, “let them do their job. Come inside with me.” “Oh, alright.” Merle walks toward the house, arms locked with his daughter, trying to savor the moment he has anticipated for two years, interrupted by Bowser, who he must order not to attack the strangers in the driveway. Just hours before the Knights formally announce a mega-extension for their franchise quarterback, Phillips excuses himself from the crowd and heads downstairs toward check-in, where one journalist is angrily waiting after being refused entrance. “It’s okay,” Phillips says to the security guards. “Escort him around back. I’ll meet you there.” Javad purses his lips but agrees, and he paces around the building, finding Phillips waiting for him in a shaded area next to the practice field, away from all the cameras and other reporters waiting for the press conference. “What the fuck, Chance?” Javad says. “You string me along for a Rose interview only to cut him out of nowhere. Then you don’t even give me the scoop on the Maverick contract?” “Things happened fast, Adam. That’s all I can say.” Phillips holds firm. Javad may have the upper hand in this debate, but he’s just a reporter, and Phillips is an NFL GM. He has all the power. “I was relying on that Rose interview. That was my ticket, do you understand?” “Then deal with it. Act professional.” “You’re telling me to act professional? What about agreements? What about helping each other out? You owe me a big story!” “I don’t owe you a thing.” Javad steps back and eases his posture, as if every hope he was clinging to has suddenly vanished. “You don’t like it, find a new career field. I’m sorry things turned out this way, Adam, I really am, but—” “You were gonna trade him, weren’t you?” Phillips feels his face get warm. He tries to breathe normally. “Who?” “Rose! You were gonna trade him. That’s why you kept deflecting me on the interview, isn’t it?” “No comment. I have to get ready for the conference. You ever feel like calming down, send me a text.” Phillips walks back toward the building. “I bet you were. I bet I can find out.” “Be my guest,” Phillips says as the glass doors shut behind him. He breathes slowly, his heart racing, trying to brush off that conversation. When he finally gets back to his office, he finds it crowded but silent. He looks around, waiting for an explanation. “Where’d you go?” Stein asks. “Needed some fresh air,” Phillips says. “What’s up?” “He doesn’t know,” Stein says to everyone. Phillips looks puzzled, and Schneider steps forward slowly. “Malik Rose,” he says. “San Diego Chargers, on a three-year deal. Hit the wire a few minutes ago; it’ll be made official this afternoon.” Phillips falls back into his chair and rubs his temples. “Can we ever release someone and have them land somewhere other than San Diego?” “Well,” Keegan says, “Jared Veldheer went to Arizona, Sebastian Janikowski went—” “Shut up, Michal,” Stein says. Phillips doesn’t like that sharp comment, but he’s far too stressed to deal with it right now. The calendar turns to April, and the league looks ahead to the draft, free agency all but over. The Knights own the 32nd overall pick, and last year’s wheeling and dealing stripped them of their second- and fourth-round picks. Compensatory picks help ease that loss, awarding the Knights a fourth- and sixth-rounder (for Jared Veldheer and Jerome Jaxson). That gives the team seven selections, and they plan to add at least one more. The trade market for Max Buchanan heats up. Buchanan’s stats during his fourteen-game stretch aren’t extraordinary, but in a league all about wins, the 10-4 record stands out. Yes, the Knights leaned on a strong run game and elite defense, but Buchanan had games where he was comfortable, in command of the offense, and avoided big mistakes. Limited potential is a concern (Buchanan was a sixth-round pick for a reason), but for teams in search of a franchise quarterback without a top draft pick this year, the 24-year-old is a viable option at the right price. Negotiations with the Bills, Jets, and Browns escalate into the third round. Phillips suspects no one will go higher than that and doesn’t want the market to cool, so he pounces. Buchanan is traded to the Bills for a third-round pick, 81st overall. The Knights are content with Kellen Clemens as a veteran backup and plan to draft a developmental project in the late rounds. Their target for the first round is, undoubtedly, a cornerback. Phillips hates narrowing draft targets down to one position, but he doesn’t have a choice. Even if Harden is right about Ken Lucas being good enough to start, the Knights need someone across from him. So the Knights seem poised to draft the best corner available at #32, barring a trade up. A few days later, the NFL announces a six-game suspension for Malik Rose, and Rose, surprisingly, says he will not appeal. The Chargers, it seems, are bent on rebuilding Rose’s image, as the Knights were. More significant news breaks when the Carolina Panthers announce an extension for Luke Kuechly, a five-year, $61.8-million deal. The benchmark set, Phillips gets in touch with Randall’s agent, though not with the aggression he had with Maverick. He’s not paying Randall $12.4 million per year, so Kuechly’s deal will not be surpassed. While recounting the one time he brought up the idea of letting Randall go (“Don’t you fucking dare,” Harden said.), he exchanges numbers with Randall’s agent, searching for another way. With the draft a few weeks away, players return to the MedComm Center for voluntary conditioning sessions, the first official phase of the offseason program. Players barely see the field, only allowed to work with strength/conditioning coaches, spending most of their time in the workout room. The only absent starter is Wilkes, whose agent has already communicated his client’s intention to sit out training camp without a new contract. Randall causes a mild surprise with his presence, a gesture his teammates and coaches respect. As he goes through workouts, however, the comments about his contract pile up, nagging him more than they should. He thinks about how much his signing bonus could be, about the three-story house in Brentwood Heights he has picked out, about spending his entire career in Los Angeles. Randall has always prided himself on focus, on and off the field. When he has days like this, he knows something has to change. At day’s end, he calls his agent from the parking lot. “Good afternoon, Briggs,” the agent says, picking up immediately. “No progress today.” “We need to make something happen,” Randall says. “Now, Briggs, I told you—” “You told me we would wait for Kuechly’s contract, and it happened. No more delays. I want a deal by the end of the week. Take a discount if you have to.” “Briggs, this is not—” “Something’s up with the defense. I can’t explain it. It’s like everyone’s wondering what’s gonna happen with Rose gone. This needs to get done, and it needs to get done fast.” Randall hangs up and drives home, planning to watch some college tape on potential cornerbacks the Knights could soon add to the roster. Three days later, weeks after announcing a long-term agreement with their franchise quarterback, the Knights do the same with their defensive captain. The six-year, $63.8-million deal is effective immediately, eliminating the fifth-year option Randall was set to play under this season. Technically, it comes with $31.28 million guaranteed ($21-million signing bonus plus 2015 and 2016 salary), but Phillips adds language that guarantees the 2017 salary on the third day of the league year. In agent speak, this is good enough to count as “guaranteed money,” and so the media reports Randall’s contract as worth $37.9 million in guarantees. Randall gets a higher overall contract and more “guaranteed” money than Kuechly, exactly what his agent wanted, and Phillips gets a deal with a lower average salary than Kuechly, exactly what he wanted. Randall doesn’t bother going home after workouts, simply heading upstairs to sign the contract on his way out for the day, and Briggs Randall is a Knight through 2020. A week before draft night, the sports world fixates its attention on the NFL for its annual schedule release. About an hour before it goes public officially, the Knights get their schedule and analyze it in Phillips’ office. “Knew they’d give us New England week one,” Schneider says, referring to the league’s kickoff game. “Pretty balanced,” Phillips says. “No three-week road stands, and we have three home games in a row in November.” “Three out of the last four away, though,” Stein says. “Oh! Week six, at San Diego. That’s the last game of Rose’s suspension, so we won’t see him until…week fifteen.” Everyone nods, in agreement that this is to the Knights’ benefit. “Hang on, that game’s not in San Diego; it’s in London.” “Stadium situation,” Schneider says grimly. Phillips recognizes his concern and is suddenly keen to change the subject, not wanting Schneider to rehash how difficult it was to get the Chargers and Rams off the idea of sharing Farmers Field, forcing them into stadium proposals of their own. “Five primetime games,” Phillips points out. They spend the next hour or so dissecting the schedule, each offering his own twist on predictions. They plan to finish the night by exercising Chase Grodd’s fifth-year option for 2016, but dialogue with Grodd’s agent escalates into groundwork for an extension. The two sides work unexpectedly past midnight, a deal nearly complete before everyone agrees to get some sleep. In the morning, they put the finishing touches on a five-year, $38-million contract, a victory for the Knights. With Brian Penner aging and Kevin Zeitler a possible departure next year, they now have their best offensive lineman (arguably) locked up. With Grodd plus both offensive tackles, the Knights have three offensive line positions under contract for the next three years. Grodd and his agent arrive at the MedComm Center a few hours later. The league’s most actively spending team scores another signature, and Chase Grodd is a Knight through 2020. The war room in Los Angeles tracks every pick of the 2015 NFL Draft, monitoring the top cornerback prospects and hoping one of them falls to tonight’s final pick. Trae Waynes is first to go, to Minnesota at eleven. Then Kevin Johnson to Houston at sixteen. Then Marcus Peters to Kansas City at eighteen. Phillips holds his breath at every pick in the twenties, only one first-round corner left on the board, in his eyes. He would normally consider a trade up in this spot, but he wants desperately to avoid one. He knows from his comprehensive study of the draft that the most successful teams prosper through quantity. He went against his philosophy last year; he won’t do it twice. Besides, the Knights roster needs depth. With Dallas on the clock at twenty-seven, the pick comes in from across the room. “Byron Jones.” Phillips slams his fist against the table. Even Harden lets out a deflating sigh, sad to miss out on the young man from Connecticut he deeply coveted. There’s still one of his targets on the board, though. A few picks later, the Packers make the penultimate selection of the evening, and the Knights are on the clock. “My gut says trade down here,” Phillips says. “We can probably drum up some interest.” “No need,” Harden says. “Our guy’s on the board, and he fits. I don’t give a damn what grade he has.” Harden scowls at the defensive scouts who have assigned a second-round grade to the player he refers to. This will be the last battle with Merle Harden for many of these scouts, heading to other teams after this weekend. Phillips doesn’t like any part of this situation, but he sees a firm look from Schneider, who doesn’t need to verbalize his opinion: Do what he says. We need a cornerback. Phillips relents, defeated but frustrated. Did he successfully refute a power play from Harden for nothing? Minutes pass with no trade offers, the Knights relay the pick to Chicago, and Commissioner Goodell announces, “With the thirty-second pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Knights select Julian Stone, cornerback, West Virginia.” The Chicago crowd reacts with the awkward silence of a reach. Stone is known as a second- or third-rounder by the majority of the draft community, and he’s undoubtedly a raw prospect. Harden concedes this but praises Stone for his physicality, already more polished in press coverage than some NFL corners. As Harden puts it, “He might get beat on little ins and outs by quicker guys, but you won’t beat him deep for long touchdowns.” Though happy to get a young cornerback, Knights fans agree with those who call the pick a reach. Many criticize Phillips for not trading ahead of Dallas to get Byron Jones. The war room reassembles for rounds two and three, though the Knights have to wait a while for another pick. Phillips feels relaxed, free to draft the best player available though he still considers the cornerback position a work in progress. In the third round, the Knights add depth to the trenches, drafting Mark Tarbell, defensive end from Maryland, and Adrian Dunn, offensive guard from Clemson. Phillips loves that Tarbell has experience playing the five-technique in the 3-4 defense and considers him the favorite to start, though Harden stubbornly insists Reid is his starter and complains of another wasted pick. Dunn has experience playing all five line positions and is an all-around backup with the long-term potential to start at guard or center. In the fourth round, Phillips and Harden finally find themselves in agreement when the Knights draft Stephen Ledger, cornerback from Florida who operated almost exclusively out of the slot. The Knights plan to insert him there immediately. With their final four picks, the Knights simply draft the best player available: Curtis Brown, outside linebacker from Baylor; Glenn Wheeler, offensive tackle from Oregon; Andrew Arcana, tight end from Boise State; and Brian Roosevelt, quarterback from Colorado. Javad stays up late, well into Sunday morning, typing up articles on the laptop he needs to replace, stuck in the apartment with the recently renewed lease. Though he alternates between his Knights draft recap and Clippers conference semifinal preview, his mind is elsewhere. He replays the conversation with Phillips in his head, remembering the look on Phillips’ face when Javad said the word “trade.” Maybe it was concerned, maybe worried, maybe anxious. It was subtle, but it was there. He may no longer have Phillips as an ally, but Javad has plenty of other sources now. He’s not going to disappear. Since he’s still stuck at the Mobile, he’s going to make Phillips regret screwing him, and that starts with investigating. Javad isn’t certain a Rose trade was in the works, but he has ways of digging. There’s definitely something Phillips kept from him, and he won’t stop until he finds it. By late June, mini-camps are in full swing around the league. The Knights, for maybe the first time, enjoy a year with plenty of continuity. Harden’s playbook for 2015 is nearly identical to last year’s, though he experiments in the secondary with his new pair of corners, moving them all over the field before deciding to restrict them for simplicity: Stone will play the left side, Lucas the right. On the offensive side, Maverick enjoys having the same offensive coordinator for the second consecutive year, and the same ten starters around him—except for his number one receiver, with D-Jam continuing his holdout. Teammates convey no anger about the situation publicly, making generic comments about the business nature of football and hoping a deal gets done soon. July 15 marks the deadline for players under the franchise tag to sign new contracts. This spurs action for two marquee receivers outside of Los Angeles. Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas sign five-year, $70-million contracts within minutes of each other, firmly setting the blueprint for Wilkes. Phillips spends the next few hours in his office, playing phone games with Drew Rosenhaus, the most notorious agent in football, in an attempt to sign what will be the Knights’ second largest contract of the offseason. Rosenhaus is immune to the wining and dining Phillips used with Maverick’s agent, but Phillips still knows his game—and how to play it. With Wilkes heading into the final year of an incentive-laced contract, there’s plenty to haggle over. Phillips’ first offer is a replica of the 5/70 deals Bryant and Thomas received. Wilkes shares the same off-the-field concerns as Bryant, so Phillips sees that as fair. Shockingly, Rosenhaus does not. He counters with 6/96, which Phillips laughs at and hangs up. Three days later, Rosenhaus calls back. Before he can state terms, Phillips insists on a five-year deal, then hangs up. Two days later, Phillips calls. After hours of exchanging rhetoric, Rosenhaus finally comes up with a figure: 5/80. Phillips suggests they meet in the middle at 5/75. The meeting in the middle process takes five days, with Rosenhaus negotiating every detail of the contract, made slightly more complicated because Phillips is spreading out the money over six years, this season included. This is a well-known tactic around the league, but every intricacy must go through Rosenhaus. Phillips keeps him happy by constructing a money structure that gives Wilkes more guaranteed money than Bryant and Thomas. More significantly, this will be the second richest contract for a wide receiver in football, behind only Calvin Johnson. The contract is agreed to and reported by the media two days before training camp opens in Valencia. It is reported as a five-year, $75-million deal, though Wilkes’ cap hit over the next five years will average $12.8 million before a spike to $18.6 million in the contract’s final year, Wilkes’ age-32 season. Wilkes steps foot in the MedComm Center for the first time since February, and Da’Jamiroquai Jefferspin-Wilkes is a Knight through 2020. Training camp begins across the league, and football returns to television in the form of preseason action. The countdown is on to Super Bowl 50. The Knights are considered among favorites to win it all this year, with pundits pointing to a majority of returning players, despite the loss of Malik Rose. One analyst writes, “If there’s one organization that can withstand the loss of their best defensive player, it’s Merle Harden and the Knights.” Concerns about Rose’s absence are further alleviated by the preseason, in which the starting corner duo of Julian Stone and Ken Lucas plays surprisingly well. They are aided by a productive front seven, leading the NFL in sacks throughout the preseason, an accomplishment Coach Harden calls “meaningless.” The Knights escape the preseason without any injuries to starting players, and Las Vegas has them at 5-1 to win Super Bowl 50, the best odds in the league.
  9. | | | | Knights of Andreas Part V Based on Characters Created by: badgers Bangy Barracuda Bay BigBen07 BradyFan81 BwareDware94 CampinWithGoatSampson Chernobyl426 CrimsonRaider DonovanMcnabb for H.O.F eightnine FartWaffles Favre4Ever GA_Eagle JetsFan4Life Maverick RazorStar Sarge seanbrock SteVo Thanatos Turry theMileHighGuy Vin Zack_of_Steel Chapter Fifty-Eight – The New Jungle Farmers Field is nearly full when the extended pre-game ceremony begins. Millions of fans tune in to watch the kickoff of the 2015 NFL season in primetime, though the sun still shines in Los Angeles. The defending champions run out to a rousing ovation in their home black uniforms, then the New England Patriots get booed taking the field in their road whites. Fans notice the gold-colored 50-yard-line marker, a symbol of the league’s golden anniversary that will be on every field this year. Everything goes quiet, the lights dim, and a montage plays on the stadium’s big screen in the north end zone, recapping last season with Knights radio announcers and dramatic music in the background. It starts on a sad note with Maverick’s shoulder injury, then picks up momentum with regular season highlights: the last-second defensive stand against the Cardinals, the grinding win in a testy game against the Chargers, Maverick’s triumphant return against the Broncos. The music speeds up as highlights shift to the playoffs. Fans clap and scream for the Knights’ offensive explosion against the Colts and their bloody victory against the Chargers. Then the montage culminates with Noah McCabe’s Super Bowl winning field goal, and the place goes nuts. A line of purple and white fireworks shoot into the air, and the PA announcer directs fans’ attention to the top of the eastern side of the stadium, where, among a line of banners recognizing division and conference championships, another banner is unveiled, larger than the rest. It bears the Knights logo and says, “Super Bowl XLIX Champions.” For a moment, Farmers Field is as loud and frantic as it was during last year’s AFC Championship Game. On the sideline, players scream and jump around, thankful for the extra pre-game motivation, eager to get on the field and use it. The ceremonies ultimately give way to the national anthem and the team’s usual pre-game montage, completing the Knights’ celebration of last year’s championship and beginning their journey towards another championship. The season finally gets underway, the home team receiving the ball first. Maverick hits Wilkes on play-action for fifteen yards, a symbolic opening play between the team’s two highest paid players. McKenzie spends the rest of the drive leaning on his wealth of receivers, Wilkes and Johnson hauling in three receptions each with Watson and Bishop getting one. The drive reaches the Patriots’ twelve-yard line, where Jameson gets his first carry on third and two. He runs off-tackle into a wall of defenders, and the drive ends unceremoniously. McCabe jogs onto the field, greeted by thunderous applause. He could be an underwhelming, inconsistent kicker the rest of his career, but one kick in February has made him a hero for life. He knocks the chip shot through to give the Knights their first points of the season. After a commercial break, Tom Brady stares down the Knights defense, and all eyes are on the secondary. Though fans have supreme confidence in Coach Harden, this defense is the best in the league, and it’s because of them the Knights won the AFC West without Maverick. If Malik Rose’s departure downgrades the defense significantly, the Knights are not a Super Bowl team. Brady comes out throwing quick, short throws that move the chains effectively. This is fine for Harden, who is thankful for this matchup. The receiving duo of Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman doesn’t scare him; it’s the ideal starting point for his young corners. Harden focuses on the front seven, waiting for some blitzes to punch through. But Brady keeps throwing, and the Patriots find themselves in the red zone. Martin and Brock blitz as Brady drops back in shotgun. They both have a free run at the quarterback and hit him just after he lobs a pass over the middle. Gronkowski beats Randall by a step and catches it in the end zone for a touchdown. Harden walks up to Ripka and says, “We might have to get creative with Gronk.” “Okay,” Ripka says. “We had a couple ideas that went well in practice; which one do you want to go with?” “None, for now. Not gonna jump ship after one drive. Just keep it in mind.” “You got it, coach.” Fans and players take a breath and watch an unusual sight: Gostkowski lines up for the extra point beyond the twenty-five-yard line, a new rule change this season. He knocks the kick through easily. The Knights show more balance on offense the rest of the first half, and Jameson finds plenty of running room between the tackles. Maverick hits Johnson on a wheel for the team’s first touchdown of the year, and their next trip near the end zone stalls, ending with a missed field goal by McCabe. On defense, Randall steps up his coverage against Gronkowski, saving Harden from adjusting. Stone and Lucas play solid enough in coverage with Flash helping over the top, though the Patriots mount another solid drive near halftime, and Amendola gets around Lucas for an easy touchdown. The Patriots take a 14-10 lead into the locker room. The second half starts under the lights. Excitement slowly builds around the stadium but is quickly deflated when Brady marches the Patriots down the field methodically and into the end zone, silencing the crowd. “Wake the fuck up, men!” Harden barks on the sideline. “Long way to go yet!” McKenzie tries to implement his game plan but struggles in the face of multiple adjustments by New England’s defense. He listens closely to information coming from upstairs, and the Patriots seem to be shifting their strategy with every play. Consequently, the Knights offense struggles, only managing a few first downs scattered between drives. The Patriots maintain their 21-10 lead. As the players traverse the field for the fourth quarter, Harden approaches McKenzie to needle him. “Outcoached by Belichick? No shame in that,” Harden says. “Not outcoached yet,” McKenzie says, looking up at the game clock, which resets to 15:00. When the Knights take over, Maverick gets in a rhythm, hitting Johnson and Watson. Wilkes can’t separate from double coverage, but it doesn’t slow the offense down. Bishop converts a third and nine with a clutch catch and broken tackle, and Maverick hurries the pace. McKenzie calls Jameson’s number, contrasting with Maverick’s urgency, but it moves the chains all the same. Approaching the red zone, Maverick drops back and sees a blitz. He bolts for the outside, barely escaping. He looks up, sees Bishop over the middle, and fires. The pass gets tipped by a Patriot and falls into Bishop’s arms in the end zone. The stadium cheers for the touchdown—and good fortune—with the Knights back in the game. McCabe comes on for the long extra point and shanks it wide left, suppressing the crowd noise. Brady retakes the field with a 21-16 lead and 11:32 to play. Harden remains patient, not wanting to force anything. The Patriots play small ball, Brady hitting receivers on five-yard routes mixed in with three- and four-yard runs. Harden doesn’t expect this to work the entire drive, but it does. Brady converts one third down after another, slowly draining the Knights’ confidence. Stone and Lucas give Amendola and Edelman enough space underneath to keep converting, so Harden finally decides to play press coverage and slow them down. This leads to two incompletions, but Brady goes to Gronkowski on third and ten, who catches a quick pass and muscles through Randall, lurching ahead for a first down on the eight-yard line. The Patriots run the ball twice, getting nowhere and bringing up third and goal. Brady drops back and scans, no one open. Martin comes late on a blitz, forcing a throw towards the corner of the end zone. Amendola separates from Stone and extends for the catch, landing safely in bounds for a touchdown. Gostkowski makes the extra point, capping a remarkably efficient drive that leaves the Knights trailing 28-16 with 4:54 left. In the miracle stage now, McKenzie has Maverick fire away. He hits Bishop and Johnson for a couple first downs and hurries everybody to the line. Then he fires deep for Watson, but the pass sails off target and into the hands of Malcolm Butler for an interception, effectively ending the game. Fans realize the Knights are out of time and make their way through the concourses to the parking lots. It’s always unsettling to start a season 0-1, but the Knights’ Super Bowl win has bought them extra patience with the fans. A long season lies ahead. Friday morning is typically an important day, the final full day of practice and preparation for Sunday’s game. This Friday, however, players report to the MedComm Center for a single reason: to pick up the first of seventeen pay slips. Brock speeds his Ferrari into the players’ lot, finding it strangely empty before walking into the locker room, envelopes sticking out from each locker. A few lockers down, Grantzinger has already arrived. “Oh, now this is a sight,” Grantzinger says. “So this is what it takes to get you here early.” “Hey, it’s been a long ass time since we got one of these,” Brock says, holding up his envelope. “You realize the money’s already in your account whether you pick this up or not, right?” Ignoring him, Brock scratches open the envelope and studies the deposit slip. Thanks to his contract structure, his salary increases a couple million this year, and the sight of a higher dollar amount on the check excites him at first. Brock’s 2015 salary of $6.3 million divided by seventeen gives him $370,588.23. The amount of money now in his account, however, is less than that. Federal withholding, Medicare, California state income tax…after many bites taken out of it, Brock’s net pay is $220,741.20. “Fucking bullshit, man,” Brock says. “How can they get away with this?” “That’s right, Sean,” Grantzinger says. “Make a stand. Take on the man.” Brock looks around the mostly empty locker room for allies, though players are starting to trickle in. Brock: “Marlon! Which states have NFL teams and don’t have a state income tax?” Martin: “I look like a fucking accountant?” Penner: “Quit whining, Sean. It’s too early in the morning and too early in the season.” Grodd: “Hey, you know that In-and-Out Burger around the corner? You can work there if you want to pay less in taxes.” Grantzinger: “You know something, your overrated ass makes more than me this year, and you don’t hear me bitching about it.” “Hey now,” Maverick says, just entering the room, “everybody calm down. It’s the weekend. There’s no game tomorrow. Relax! Who’s coming tomorrow night?” “You know I’m there,” Brock says, thankful for a party where he won’t have to pay for anything. Many other teammates confirm their attendance, and the mood turns cheerful before players leave for the weekend. The party has no start time, so people start filing in between six and seven. There are two help-yourself bars—one inside in the dining room and one outside on the back deck—and the refrigerator is jam-packed with beer. TVs are turned to college football but muted in favor of music, including the new, 80-inch 4K Ultra HD TV in the living room. Everyone can see Maverick has enjoyed spending the signing bonus from his new contract. Though Maverick’s mansion has hosted plenty of L.A. bigshots over the summer, tonight is a celebration for his teammates. A few actors or non-football athletes might swing by, but attendance will be mostly Knights—the single bachelors, especially. The married guys (Bishop, Penner, Luck) rarely come to these things. To be fair, there will be plenty of attractive women around, and very few men, if any, will be sleeping alone. The first guys to arrive gather together, drinking beer in the living room. As more people show up, various groups congregate around the house until it becomes a full-blown party. Eventually, Brock and Wilkes find themselves in a corner of the dining room, each drinking something with rum in it. They’re in the middle of a serious conversation, arguably too serious for the party taking place around them. “Yeah, I got you,” Wilkes says. “Just remind me after practice Monday.” “Cool, man. Real cool. It’s a long offseason with no money coming in, you know?” “I feel you, man. I woulda gone nuts without the new deal in July.” “How much was your signing bonus again?” “Eighteen.” “Fuck, dude.” “I know. I already spent half of it, too.” “You—what?” “Not spent. I mean, I got a lot of people I wanna take care of, you know.” “Oh. Yeah, I feel you.” One of the greatest parts of Wilkes’ $18-million signing bonus, besides finally being paid like the elite receiver he is, is being able to help out people who helped him back in the day. Old friends, mostly, from childhood and college, plus his Uncle Lincoln, who he now enjoys talking to regularly. Wilkes and Brock separate as women start coming in. Drinks flow faster, and music gets louder. They both eventually find themselves part of a group hanging outside on the deck. Everyone is drunk by this point, and Maverick is leading a raucous discussion, getting laughs and working the crowd like the star quarterback he is, when he pauses mid-sentence. “Oh, shit, look who it is. Casually late.” Through the back doorway strolls Schwinn, donning a large cowboy hat and a t-shirt/jeans combo that is at least one size too small. “You look fucking ridiculous,” Maverick says. “Thanks, partner,” Schwinn says. He looks at all the clear glasses everyone’s holding, filled with colorful liquids and ice. “Shit, y’all are drinkin’ some girly drinks. Where’s the beer at?” “Fridge, just inside that door.” “Much obliged.” Schwinn disappears and reappears with a glass bottle in hand, and the party carries into the early morning hours. Couples start leaving together—or finding a room upstairs—as festivities wind down. Maverick eventually retires to his bedroom with two women, one in each arm. In the morning, the mansion slowly comes back to life as multiple pots of coffee are drunk and take-out breakfast is ordered. Though a few more players go home, most stick around to watch some football, enjoying the rare opportunity to watch games stress-free. Any leftover happiness from the weekend is eradicated Tuesday morning when players get their first verbal lashing of the season from Coach Harden. He scolds his players for getting caught up in the Super Bowl hype and playing below expectations. His weekly refrain alternates between “We’re not champions anymore” and “We’re 0-1, that’s what we are.” So, as the Knights prepare for the Ravens, behind every practice rep, every missed tackle, every incomplete pass, looms the fear of a loss dropping the team to 0-2. It’s amazing how quickly a football season can appear to reach a critical point, even for the defending champions. As players transition from scrimmages to positional drills, Harden finds a quiet spot on the edge of the field and sips iced coffee, watching his linebackers. He’s about to yell at Brock for sloppy technique when McKenzie approaches without saying anything. “Something wrong, Mac?” He still doesn’t say anything, instead eyeing the condensing plastic cup in Harden’s hand. “Fuck, Mac, it’s not spiked. Give me a break. Want to taste?” He extends the coffee. McKenzie grabs it, takes a few sips, swishes it around in his mouth, and hands it back. He walks away and says, “We’re looking good on offense, coach.” “Asshole,” Harden says under his breath. The game plan for Baltimore takes shape. Once again, Harden faces a receiving corps he is unafraid of, though Steve Smith is a legitimate deep threat. He’ll be doubled by Flash every play, no matter which side of the field he lines up on, a luxury afforded by the Ravens’ lack of weapons elsewhere. The offense prepares a familiar strategy too. McKenzie enjoys what every offensive play-caller wants: talent at every position. Based on last week, his receiving corps is his strength, and he’s fine with that for now. Considering Jameson’s 400-plus carries last season, the Knights will embrace opportunities to keep him fresh. Besides, McKenzie wants desperately to avoid the word he has come to hate: balance. Yes, he tries to be balanced as a play-caller, but he doesn’t want a vanilla offense that’s simply good all around; he needs one part of the offense to be great, to give opposing defenses headaches every week. Is that his passing game? It’s too soon to tell. Knights 17, Ravens 13, 13:29 to go in the fourth quarter. Farmers Field has been frantic since kickoff thanks to a close, high stakes, back-and-forth game. Joe Flacco lines up under center for third and three as linebackers inch toward the line of scrimmage. Randall times his jump perfectly and surges through the offensive front. Flacco backpedals and hurries a pass in the dirt as Randall drives him to the ground. Knights celebrate while Ravens clamor for intentional grounding. The punt team runs off the sideline, and McKenzie paces in front of his offensive players. “Alright, ladies! Enough bullshit. We should have thirty points on the board by now, so stop dicking around. And Mav? No more goddamn interceptions.” Maverick nods, trying to erase both interceptions from memory and take command of the offense. The Knights get rough field position, backed up on their own twelve. Jameson pounds away with two solid carries, bringing up third and one. Maverick sneaks it himself, getting the yard and the first down. A receiver screen to Watson nets five yards, then McKenzie opens things up. Maverick operates out of shotgun with audible freedom. In no hurry, he finds receiver after receiver, slowly racking up first downs and building momentum. The clock crosses the ten-minute mark as the Knights move efficiently down the field, the gravity of this drive increasing with every play. The less time on the clock when the Knights score, the better. If they can tick a few more minutes off and get a touchdown, that might be game over. Momentum stops when Maverick misses Wilkes and Watson on consecutive end zone shots, but Bishop makes a tremendous catch in traffic (a near interception, to McKenzie) to move the chains. Maverick drops back with a blitz coming. He rushes out of the pocket and fires to Johnson, who adjusts mid-route to haul in the pass, going down at the ten-yard line with 8:30 to go. Fans come to their feet, a game-clinching score within reach. Jameson gets a carry inside for three yards, then Wilkes runs through a screen to the three. On the doorstep, Maverick gets the call for a quick pass. He drops back, sees Wilkes covered, and gets leveled by a defender, hanging onto the ball but smacking the grass. Fourth down. McKenzie tears into his offensive line on the sideline as McCabe trots on and makes the chip shot, extending the Knights’ lead to 20-13 with 6:35 on the clock. “You know what to do, men,” Harden says to his defense. “Finish it.” After the touchback, defenders huddle on the field during a commercial. Brock walks up to Grantzinger and says, “A thousand dollars to whoever gets the first sack.” “Knock it off, Brock,” Randall says. “We’ve been here before, haven’t we? Besides, I doubt Zack’s—” “You’re on,” Grantzinger says. They shake on it, and both linebackers get in formation with Randall looking panicked. “Hey! Both of you,” Randall says, “if the play call says drop back in coverage, you drop the fuck back. Good?” Both outside linebackers nod casually, not easing Randall’s concern, and both teams set for the first play of the drive. Flacco hands off to Justin Forsett, who runs into a wall. Anthrax brings him down for no gain as the crowd cheers. Second and ten. Both Grantzinger and Brock are called to blitz as Flacco lines up in shotgun. Brock accelerates and struggles to get around his man. Grantzinger breaks through, but Flacco shovels it over the middle to Maxx Williams. Martin tackles him immediately for a two-yard gain. Third and eight. The stadium video screen prompts fans to get loud as “Welcome to the Jungle” blares on the loudspeakers. Harden calls a weak-side blitz with Grantzinger in coverage. Brock hurries to his position, staring down the left tackle. He times the rush as best he can and spins beautifully around the tackle. He lowers his shoulders and crushes Flacco, hitting the ground hard, but nobody cheers. Brock realizes the ball is gone, looks up, and sees Steve Smith haul in a deep pass, open by five yards, sprinting into the end zone. “What the fuck?” Harden yells, looking for targets on the sideline. He walks up to Ripka. “I called Flash over the top.” “He was over the top, coach,” Ripka says. “Then what happened?” Nobody provides answers as the long extra point adds some minor drama, but Justin Tucker knocks it through, and the game is tied, 20-20, with 5:18 to play in a very quiet Farmers Field. Harden finds Flash through the wave of players returning to the sideline and gets right next to him as everyone grabs some water. “Flash, covering over the top means you cover over the goddamn top.” “I did,” Flash says. “Obviously not, because Steve Smith just got out his walker and limped into the end zone.” “He’s fast. He beat me.” “He—What? Since when do you call other people fast? What the fuck is that?” Flash doesn’t respond. Nearby, the offense gathers around McKenzie, who says, loud enough so Harden can hear, “Well, I guess it’s on us, ladies.” Harden shoots McKenzie a look like he wants to kill him on the spot, and McKenzie loves it. The Knights offense soon retakes the field with plenty of time and three timeouts. McKenzie communicates with his guys upstairs; he needs to know exactly what Baltimore is doing, because this drive needs to be perfect. He calls some conservative passes, slants and curls, trying to bait the defense into showing its hand. They do. “Double on Wilkes again, coach,” says a voice in McKenzie’s ear. The Ravens have shifted double coverage between all three receivers throughout the game, but now they seem to be targeting Wilkes exclusively. New England did this too, adding extra coverage to Wilkes in the fourth quarter. Perhaps this is the new standard against Los Angeles; defenses aren’t going to allow the big play to Wilkes with the game on the line. So be it. McKenzie keeps Wilkes on Maverick’s left and calls Johnson’s number repeatedly. Lining up in single coverage against Ladarius Webb, Johnson puts on a route-running clinic. Maverick’s passes fly in on point, and the Knights eat up a lot of yards in a short time, crossing midfield with four minutes to go. After a few running plays, Johnson hears another play dialing his number and jogs into formation. Staring down Webb, he runs straight ahead, reaches full speed, then plants his foot in the grass and cuts back toward the middle of the field. A bullet pass hits him in the hands, and he runs ahead before defenders close in, going down for a sixteen-yard gain. Johnson gets up, Bishop extends his arm for a high-five, and he excitedly slaps it. This is his prime, and a perfect way to get this season rolling. Wanting to slow things down and milk the clock, McKenzie calls Jameson’s number from a four-receiver formation that spreads the defense out. Jameson surges into open field, runs through the first defender that tries to bring him down, and gets gang-tackled twelve yards later. The Ravens call their first timeout, stopping the clock at 2:38 and declaring this set of downs as their last stand. McCabe warms up for what should be an easy kick, and McKenzie happily runs the ball. White jerseys stack the box, and Jameson fights for every inch, gaining six yards in two plays. The Ravens call their final timeout with 2:26 to play. Jameson gets the ball again, this time bouncing outside and stiff-arming a linebacker for a first down. This brings the clock to the two-minute warning with the Knights on the fifteen. Another Jameson run ticks more clock, and McKenzie goes for the win. Maverick relays the call in the huddle, one he has practiced hundreds of times with Wilkes and Johnson this summer. As both teams line up, the secondary shades towards Wilkes, and Johnson sets his feet. Maverick takes the snap and winds up just as Johnson cuts back for a curl. Instead of firing a bullet, Maverick lofts one to the back of the end zone, where Johnson runs free, Webb completely faked out. He leaps to snag the pass, plants his toes inches within the white paint, and holds onto the ball. The nearest official raises his arms as the stadium goes nuts. Johnson is the star on the sideline as McCabe’s extra point goes through and the Knights celebrate a 27-20 lead with 1:15 to go. Talk dies down once again as voices of announcers fill the restaurant, everyone’s eyes glued to one of thirty TV screens. “So, fourth and ten, only eight seconds left, the Ravens still seventy yards from the end zone. Here’s Flacco, dropping back, trying to roll out, but he’s under pressure, throws over the middle, and it’s intercepted!” The whole place screams and drowns out the game. Fans still watching the game see Grantzinger claim the interception and the Knights storm the field with Farmers Field celebrating. With the game over, the restaurant relaxes into social hour. Many patrons will close out their tabs and head home for the day, while others will stick around for a few more drinks. Among those sticking around is a party of two, seated at a high top near the bar. One, scruffy and crazy-eyed, wears a black Jameson jersey; the other, with a long beard touching the table, wears a white Jefferspin-Wilkes jersey. “Back on track,” Cooper says. “Cheers to that,” Sampson says, raising his glass. “So now, back-to-back road games against shitty teams brings us to 3-1—” “Did the Bears lose today?” “Yup. 0-2. Then we got Denver, San Diego, bye week. So, let’s just say we split the divisional games, and we’re 4-2 heading into the bye. I can live with that.” “Definitely.” Sampson’s eyes wander, eventually focusing above the main entrance on the neon emblem illuminating the establishment’s name. “Knight’s End…” “Huh?” “How many other Knights-punned bars are there in L.A.?” “Uh, let’s see…there’s End of the Knight, over on 7th Street. A little gothic, that place is.” “A little?” “You got Knight and Day on Sunset Boulevard, and of course The Dark Knight in Hollywood.” “And that English place, Fortknight. Really cool vibe, but they double down on authenticity and serve beer at sort of a lukewarm temperature, which, I believe, is a gross miscalculation.” “Why the hell are we talking about this?” “It’s just, weird names, you know? I mean, think about it. We go to these places, not just bars, but places, and we go there again and again, and we never really think about the name.” “Are you smoking weed again, Cassie?” “Only on weekends.” “It’s Sunday.” Sampson’s eyes circle his surroundings and his mouth hangs open. Cooper sighs and flags down a waitress. “Another round, please.”
  10. | | | Knights of Andreas Part V Based on Characters Created by: badgers Bangy Barracuda Bay BigBen07 BradyFan81 BwareDware94 CampinWithGoatSampson Chernobyl426 CrimsonRaider DonovanMcnabb for H.O.F eightnine FartWaffles Favre4Ever GA_Eagle JetsFan4Life Maverick RazorStar Sarge seanbrock SteVo Thanatos Turry theMileHighGuy Vin Zack_of_Steel Chapter Fifty-Six – Hail to the King Fans pack the sidewalks on either side of Figueroa Street, standing in crowded bunches, shoulder to shoulder. A blend of excited conversation and celebratory screaming establish a festive atmosphere. Security guards line both sides of the asphalt, watching as fans extend their phones and hold up signs. The parade consists of three double-decker buses plus police escort cars. Players and coaches stand on the buses’ upper levels and move from side to side, waving at fans and enjoying the ride. Over the last seventy-two hours, between the celebrations and talk show appearances, the surreal feelings have faded. The Knights parade through downtown Los Angeles and let it all sink in; they’re Super Bowl champions, kings of the sports world. Though fan favorites are spread out between all three buses (as Schneider insisted), the first bus carries some heavy hitters. Maverick, Grodd, and Grantzinger stand near the front and draw huge cheers as fans watch their bus drive past. Toward the back of the same bus stand Phillips and Schneider, perhaps the two most important men on board, but less marketable in the eyes of fans. They’re not the stars today. Grouped with them is Coach Harden, slightly more popular with common fans, but he seems content to find solitude among the celebration, apparently grumpy about something. Nobody tries to cheer him up. Phillips goes through the motions of the parade waiting for the proper time. After about ten minutes, when the wonder of the celebration has faded slightly, he goes for it, inching closer to Schneider during a relatively quiet moment. “Listen, Wayne, I’m not sure when I’ll find a better time to say something, so…” Schneider looks sideways at Phillips but keeps waving at the crowd. “What’s on your mind, Chance?” “You and I. We haven’t exactly been a balanced ticket these last five years.” “No, we haven’t. Yet, here we are.” “Here we are indeed.” They wave and smile at fans as their bus crosses an intersection. Farmers Field becomes visible ahead in the distance. The sight of it reminds Phillips of the rumors circulating the league, of multiple teams gunning for relocation to Los Angeles. Phillips suspects the Knights’ stadium is about to become a western MetLife Stadium, but he brushes it off for now. Then Phillips says, “I was wrong about firing Daniel.” “And I was wrong about Harden being the right guy to replace him,” Schneider says. “Let’s put it behind us, meet in the middle?” They look at each other, and Phillips extends his hand. Schneider shakes it firmly, they both smile, and Schneider says, “Let the dynasty begin.” The second bus draws plenty of cheers. A group including Bishop, Randall, Jameson, and Brock talks about vacation plans for the near future as they wave toward the sidewalks. “Heading to Hawaii for a week with Ashley,” Bishop says. “How about you guys?” “Damn, that sounds nice,” Brock says. “I think I’ll be confined to SoCal. Might head up to Vegas for a few days.” “Not a tropical island kinda guy, Sean?” Jameson asks. “Nah, it’s just vacays like that don’t run cheap.” “Oh, what’s the matter, Brock?” Randall says. “Scarlett Lynn isn’t helping out with the bills?” “Mind your own fucking business, okay?” “Hey guys,” Jameson says, “forget about it. Let’s just enjoy the celebration.” The third bus holds arguably the most colorful personalities, with Wilkes, Flash, Rose, and Schwinn on board. Rose leans against the railing silently, studying the fans, noticing a suspicious lack of #25 jerseys. Multiple fans, upon seeing him, chant “Tor-rey” in his direction. So the Javion Torrey saga still lingers among fans despite Rose’s best to put it behind him. At least he has a Super Bowl ring, one that he earned. “Forget them,” Flash says. “Hey, you hear me?” Rose snaps out of it and looks away from the crowd. “Yeah, sorry. It’s cool. Don’t worry about it.” Rose focuses on the road ahead, lined with fans as far as he can see. He’s done a lot to change himself over the last decade, things fans will likely never know, and they’ll certainly never appreciate. Back on the lead bus, players move around, eventually standing towards the rear, and Phillips finds himself face to face with Maverick. He feels awkward, not sure what to do, until Maverick smiles and says, “Enjoying the celebration?” “Sure am,” Phillips says. His mind is full of thoughts about Maverick, none of which he has any desire to vocalize right now. Another thought, however, occurs to him. “Jonathan,” he says as Maverick is about to walk away. He steps closer. “Five years ago, I handed this team to you, not knowing where we’d end up. Now we’re celebrating a Super Bowl. One Nittany Lion to another, I’m proud of you.” “Thanks, Chance,” Maverick says, shaking the GM’s hand. “Thanks for putting the right guys around me. Keep this team together and we’ll have a few more parades like this.” “We’re working on it.” The long table centering Wayne Schneider’s office has a vibrant, mahogany finish that typically lights up the room. Today, binders and loose paper are sprawled all over the table, leaving the mahogany visible only in blotches. Schneider and head executives surround the table with the coaching staff assembling an outer row. This is the big meeting that essentially kicks off the offseason, a positional breakdown of the roster. Seated close to Schneider, Phillips leaves his binder unopened, everything already memorized. “Let’s begin,” Schneider says. “We have less than four weeks until free agency. We shall start, as always, with quarterback. Chance, how’s the trade market?” Phillips flinches. His entire body tenses up. Straining to speak normally, he asks, “What trade market?” “For Buchanan.” “Oh.” Phillips relaxes, trying not to let on how stressed that moment was. “Sorry, um, well, there are a few teams interested. Mid-round pick, most likely. Doesn’t seem like anybody’s jumping to get a trade done, so I’d say we can pull something off in April, before the draft.” “Chance,” the team president asks, “how are negotiations with Maverick?” “Going well, all things considered. We’re exchanging big numbers, obviously, but talks have been productive.” “That’ll get done, gentlemen,” Stein says. “Obviously we’re not going to play hardball with our franchise quarterback.” Phillips glances nervously at his new assistant general manager as the conversation shifts position. Running back. The Knights will carry the same top three (Jameson, Banks, NesSmith) and will only add one to the roster as an undrafted free agent, if at all. Jameson enters a contract year this season, but Phillips won’t entertain an extension until next offseason. Wide receiver. Phillips is working on an extension for Jefferspin-Wilkes but probably won’t strike a deal until well into free agency. Alex Johnson, meanwhile, is unofficially a free agent. “I don’t see any way he doesn’t reach the market, at least,” Phillips says. “The only way his agent accepts a deal beforehand is if we offer number-one receiver money, and frankly, we don’t see him being worth that. There’s a good chance we can keep him for number-two money, but given how Watson has developed, I’m comfortable letting him walk.” “I disagree,” McKenzie says from the outer ring. “Joe doesn’t have the ceiling Alex does. The slot is the ideal place from him, too.” “We can’t keep everybody, coach.” “I understand, just saying my piece.” “Coach,” Schneider says to Harden, “what do you say?” “On offense, I say whatever Mac says.” Tight end. Bishop brings obvious stability to the position, though someone mentions his 30th birthday is next week. The Knights will add a second tight end through free agency or the draft if the opportunity presents itself. Offensive line. The same five starters return, the Knights will exercise Grodd’s fifth-year option for 2016, and the Adams/Fowler tackle duo should improve this season. Long-term, however, there are some concerns on the interior. Zeitler’s contract is up next year, and Penner will be 35 when this season starts. The team makes adding depth a priority. At this point, Stein jumps in and says, “I know some of you may be concerned about the draft, given that we’re without second- and fourth-rounders, courtesy of trades made last year. But as Chance said, we’ll get a pick for Buchanan, and compensatory picks should be kind to us as well.” Defensive line. Luck and Anthrax are entrenched as starters, though Phillips doesn’t foresee an extension for Anthrax, entering a contract year. “That’s a mistake,” Harden says. “My defense relies on strength up the middle.” “Only so much money, coach,” Phillips says. Harden grumbles and crosses his arms. Right end Gregory Vance will be released. His production isn’t anywhere near warranting his $5.125-million cap figure. Harden says Clayton Reid (sixth-round pick last year) is a fine in-house replacement, but Phillips ignores him, establishing defensive end as a top need. Linebacker. With Randall entering a contract year, a long-term extension for him is a priority. Martin, however, is a free agent. “We’re being aggressive on him,” Phillips says. “I think if we let him get to the market, he’s gone. We don’t need to force ourselves here, though. Coach?” “He’s right,” Harden says begrudgingly. “I like Marlon. But with the front seven we have, I won’t be too angry if we gotta draft his replacement.” A few people raise questions about Brock and Price competing at right outside linebacker. “Let’s not mince words here,” Phillips says. “Jamari Price was a first-round pick, and he hasn’t delivered on his potential yet. This is a big season for him. As for Brock, I realize his cap figure jumps, but 8.5 million is a fair price for production at a pass-rushing position.” “That’s a higher figure than Grantzinger,” the team president says. “Which,” Schneider says, “is a testament to how great that Grantzinger contract was.” Phillips smiles, feeling satisfied for the first time in this meeting. Secondary. Richard Marshall and Sebastian Stevenson will not be re-signed. Harden makes a fuss about this, but Phillips deflects him by hyping up Robert Schwinn, the replacement at strong safety. Marshall is a bigger loss, but the Knights need money for Rose, who will be holding out this year. Harden hypes up Ken Lucas (seventh-round pick last year), who excelled last season in nickel formations. Griswold “Flash” Johnson is entering a contract year, and Phillips labels his situation similar to Jefferspin-Wilkes: an expensive extension is on the horizon, but not until after the draft. Special teams. McCabe is a candidate for a bounce-back year, and Lechler is under contract another season. Phillips will explore the idea of an extension later and draft a replacement if need be. The meeting concludes, the Knights’ plan for the coming months finalized. Phillips heads out the door first, ready for a barrage of phone calls with agents. Marlon Martin sits at his desk, eyes darting between his computer screen and a barrage of legal pads sprawled out across the desk and floor. Every few minutes, his phone illuminates with another incoming call from his former agent, and Martin ignores it. He’s been through enough nonsense with agents, so Martin now represents himself. That, of course, places a mountain of responsibility at his feet. This is the third day in a row he has skipped his scheduled workout regimen—important for a 32-year-old linebacker—in favor of sit-down work at his desk. With free agency weeks away, the Knights are the only team Martin hears from, which is what he wants right now: keep things simple and (hopefully) get a deal done before he has to work the phones with multiple teams. He needs a starting point in negotiations, so he skims through contracts of recently signed inside linebackers. Perry Riley got three years, $12 million from Washington; Stephen Tulloch got five years, $25.5 million from Detroit. Martin would like to end up somewhere between those figures. Maybe something like four years, eighteen million. Then again, that feels low. He doesn’t want to navigate free agency, but doesn’t he owe it to himself to get the best deal possible? D’Qwell Jackson got four years, $22 million from Cleveland, which sounds like a more appropriate starting point on his end. He spends another few hours running calculations and brushing up on contract verbiage before calling to negotiate with Chance Phillips. A crowd of men, ties loosened and sleeves rolled up, sets up camp in Phillips’ office. People come and go with news of contract numbers, rumors, and suggestions. A coffee pot in the corner of the office fills and empties every few hours. Phillips himself walks out periodically for private phone calls, always returning with something substantial. This time, he strides through the doorway, phone in hand, and the room goes silent. “That was Martin,” he says. “Not Martin’s agent?” Stein asks. “He doesn’t have one, apparently.” “Representing himself? That’s interesting.” “Interesting and fortunate.” Phillips steps toward his white board, erases the purple ink in the row labeled “ILB Martin,” and writes new numbers. “We move on this now, we can have a deal done tonight.” Phillips steps aside to let everyone see the fresh ink. “What’s this based on, Chance?” Schneider asks. “He wanted four years, I told him the only way we do four is if there’s no guarantees year four, so he conceded three. He wanted 5.5 million per year, I countered five, we agreed to meet in the middle. I think we can strike a deal around sixteen.” “Sixteen?” Stein says. “You led us to believe the final number would be close to ten.” “It’s not a terrible difference, in the scheme of things.” “It’s still sixteen million dollars.” “And it’s still much less than what he would get on the open market, which is why we need to get it signed before he realizes he could get thirty.” Stein still looks skeptical. “It only takes one stupid team, and this league has more than one. I’m calling him back.” Phillips steps into the hallway, about to call Martin, when he realizes he has a new text message from Maverick’s agent. Coincidentally, Keegan walks past, stack of papers in hand. “Michal,” Phillips says, lowering his voice. “I’m still waiting on that report.” “Which one?” Phillips steps closer. “Maverick.” “Oh. I’m almost done. You’re still seriously considering it?” “Yes, I am, but I want to see what you come up with first.” “Okay.” “Doesn’t sound like you’re in favor of this.” “I would never make an argument without data on either side.” “Then get some. I don’t want to do anything until then.” Hours later, the sun sets and fluorescent lights illuminate the MedComm Center, still humming with activity. Front office personnel wait for Martin’s arrival, contract terms agreed upon. It’s a nice start to the Knights’ offseason, though plenty of heavy lifting remains. Phillips enjoys a rare moment in his office without company, but it doesn’t last. Harden barges in, shutting the door behind him. “Hard to get you alone these days,” Harden says. “That time of year. Something on your mind, Merle?” “Yep.” He takes a seat across from Phillips’ desk, so Phillips sits down too. “I’ll keep this short and sweet. I want personnel control on the defensive side of the ball.” Phillips feels his eyes widen as his relaxed seating position crunches into an awkward lean forward. “Okay…before I respond, I guess I need to know what you mean by control.” “Going into the draft. I know it’s a little late for free agency, with the wheels already turning.” “Merle, our draft picks are a collaboration, as always.” “Yes, and if push comes to shove, and we disagree on who to take, I want the final decision to rest with me.” Phillips can’t think of a proper response, trying instead to see the bigger picture. “Where’s this coming from, Merle?” “Jamari Price. Didn’t want him. You drafted him. He’s a bum. Wesley Mann. Didn’t need him. You drafted him. Waste of a roster spot.” Phillips doesn’t hide how uncomfortable this is making him. He already knows his answer, but he lets Harden go on. “I wanted Flash in the first round. Would have taken Grantzinger in the third, maybe second. I know how to pick players for my defense, Chance.” Phillips opens his mouth to respond, and his phone rings. “Chance Phillips…Okay, I’ll be right in.” He hangs up and stands. “Marlon’s here. I’m sorry, Merle. The answer is no. I’m the GM. Final say rests with me, though you’re welcome to voice your opinion, as always.” Phillips moves for the door, opening it— “Then we take it to Wayne,” Harden says. “What?” “I’m sorry to go over your head, Chance, but I want Schneider to rule on this one way or another. You know I’m not the sort to scratch my own back; this is about the team.” Perplexed to the point of frustration, Phillips decides to end the conversation before it gets worse. “Fine. We’ll mention it to him later. I have to meet Marlon.” A congregation gathers in Schneider’s office as Martin arrives to review his contract: three years, $15.9 million, with $7.2 million guaranteed. The cheerful mood fades as the agentless Martin spends thirty minutes reading and re-reading the contract, one of the team’s attorneys reviewing some details with him. Finally, he signs his name, and Marlon Martin is a Knight through 2017. Phillips knows many will criticize this deal. Why should the Knights pay anything to an aging player when a cheap rookie could fill his shoes? But Martin is somehow still criminally underrated. His play ranges from very good to elite, and he should be getting paid around eight or nine million per year. To Phillips, that’s incredible value, which makes it a good contract. A few days later, Phillips heads to Indianapolis for the scouting combine. Though he’s less focused on the draft than usual (his scouts are doing the hard work now anyway), he has important business to conduct this week. Phillips crosses paths with Maverick’s agent, and the two walk off the field, away from cameras and microphones. They find a quiet spot in a tunnel and dive right in, haggling back and forth about contract details. “Look, Chance, I’ve got a right mind to play hardball here, wait until Luck or Wilson gets their deal, then insist we top it. But I’m trying to work with you.” “I know, I know. Can we agree to six years, at least? Right here, right now.” “In principle.” “Good. Let me crunch some numbers on my end and we’ll have a solid proposal.” They shake on it, and Phillips makes his way back toward the field, where top prospects Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota draw plenty of attention as they wait in line to run the forty-yard dash. Not far from them, Adam Javad stands among a congregation of journalists, taking notes on prospects and conducting brief, casual interviews. This is the first time the L.A. Mobile has partially financed a trip to Indy for the combine, though Javad is working other sports as well. Spring training is a month away, and both basketball and hockey season are heading toward the playoff push. “Good afternoon, Adam.” Javad sees Phillips approach and keeps jotting down notes. He looks around, hoping some of the cameras capture a picture of the two of them. “Good to see you, Chance. Hey, draft targets at thirty-two?” “Way too soon to tell. Good work on Alex Johnson, by the way. I hope you understand how much I appreciate it.” “I’ll understand a lot better once I get that sit-down with Rose. Time frame?” “After free agency winds down. April. May, maybe.” “That’s perfect.” Javad loses himself in thought again, running through ramifications of the Rose interview, not least of which is the looming position at the L.A. Times, the city’s most prestigious newspaper. “Listen, Adam,” Phillips says, “something else. Off the record.” Javad pockets his notepad as Phillips leans in, looking around for cameras. “Something big could be brewing,” Phillips says. “I can’t say more, and I can’t say when. Just keep your phone on.” “Gotcha.” Phillips nods and walks away. Javad keeps his cool, though he feels his fingers twitching. Something big…what could that be? A marquee free agent signing? The Knights are already set up well for long-term success; it makes sense that Phillips would consider an unexpected knockout punch. Could they somehow land Darrelle Revis to replace Marshall? Pairing him with Rose would make the Knights’ already-elite defense seemingly unstoppable. Maybe it’s something bigger, like a trade. But what kind of trade? Maybe Phillips is parting with a free agent he knows he won’t keep next year, like Wilkes. For a player? For draft ammunition to get an elite prospect? How about trading Wilkes for ammo to draft Amari Cooper? Javad finishes working and excitedly leaves the building, eager for hours of research in his hotel room. Back in Los Angeles, seven-day workweeks at the MedComm Center continue as the deadline to designate franchise tags nears. Phillips works the phones with Maverick’s agent (while taking more significant calls privately) with six-year contract figures bouncing back and forth. Talks reach an apparent impasse with the Knights offering $105 million, Maverick’s agent countering with $135 million, and neither side taking the initiative toward middle ground. This creates some downtime, during which Phillips seeks the opportune moment to visit Keegan’s office. He shuts the door behind him, and Keegan extracts a thick packet of paper from a locked drawer. Phillips flips through to the end. “Fifty pages,” he says, impressed. Lost in his personal struggle with this potentially monumental decision has been Keegan’s dedication, including and especially his ability to keep quiet about it. “Bottom line?” “Page three.” Phillips flips to the front of the packet and reads carefully. “Is this a math argument or a football argument?” “Both.” “Break it down for me.” “Okay. We start with a potential contract for Maverick. I came up with seven different projections, but I wasn’t sure—” “Let’s go with somewhere around 120.” “Okay. Six years, 120 million. That was one I used. Average cap hit of twenty million, structured with a steady increase, as you historically prefer. Divide that against this year’s salary cap plus my best projections over those six years, and Maverick counts, on average, 11.8 percent of the team’s cap space.” So, twelve percent, Phillips thinks. Twelve percent of all the money he has to pay players… “So,” Keegan says, “is Maverick really twelve percent of this team? Or is he more?” Phillips is surprised at Keegan’s bias in that comment. “Sounds like you think he is.” Keegan shrugs. “I can’t think of a quarterback as good as Maverick who’s worth less than twenty percent of their team.” Phillips tries to think deeper, but he won’t reach a conclusion now. “I’m going to keep this,” he says. “Thank you for your dedication and diligence, Michal.” Phillips turns to open the door. “I don’t know what trade offers are out there,” Keegan says, “and I probably shouldn’t, but they must be persuasive.” “They are.” Phillips walks out, pondering again the latest trade offer from Philadelphia: their first- and second-round picks this year plus first- and fourth-round picks next year for Maverick. He can add some late-rounders too, which would give the Knights an impressive array of draft picks. Phillips could load the roster for years to come. But then, who’s his quarterback? Is it Max Buchanan? He was good enough to get the Knights to the playoffs last year, but could he have won them a Super Bowl? Even so, he’s only under contract two more seasons, and then he’d get a big contract of his own. Maybe Phillips could put together a player/pick package and pull off a blockbuster to get Winston or Mariota. But why trade Maverick to draft an unproven rookie? Phillips heads back to his office, longing for some private time to think. The franchise tag deadline is a week away, free agency a week after that. Whatever his decision is, it must come soon. As daylight fades into a beautiful Monday night in Los Angeles, Jonathan Maverick’s mansion holds yet another extravagant party for A-list athletes and celebrities. There is no particular occasion, and while tonight won’t compare to the raucous weekend parties Maverick has been hosting lately, it’ll still be a good time. Maverick sips a vodka tonic, starting the night slow, stuck in a one-on-one conversation with D-Jam. They only say a few words before Maverick feels his phone vibrate with an incoming call. He picks it up. “C’mon man, don’t do this,” Wilkes says. “It’s my agent,” Maverick says. “I’ve been ducking him all day, I gotta answer. Hello?” Wilkes watches Maverick’s face as he listens to the other end of the call. “So be it. Alright.” He hangs up. “What’s the word?” “Franchise tagged.” “Damn.” “No wait, excuse me, I’ve been ‘designated as the franchise player.’” “Sounds all fancy and shit when you say it like that.” “It’s cool. Just another step.” “Man, this shit makes me worried, man.” “Relax, D-Jam. We’re not going anywhere, and we’re getting big money. Both of us. I’m not sure about Alex, though.” “I ain’t worried about him. That’s money they’re saving for me.” “Hey, speak for yourself. I need a number-two receiver.” Maverick gulps down the rest of his drink. “Okay, let’s have a good time. Forget about it.” “Sounds good—oh, shit, is that Blake Griffin? Fuck, he’s tall.” “Yeah, that’s him. Hey, ten thousand dollars says he beats you in an arm wrestling contest.” Phillips enjoys a rare morning at home, though he gets up earlier than everyone else and spends it alone. The kids are getting ready for school as he heads out the door. Free agency is hours away as Phillips drives to the MedComm Center, radio off the entire way. He focuses on the road, replaying his strategy to himself repeatedly. He arrives and steps through the second floor with a few people already gathering outside his office. He unlocks the door and says, “I need a few minutes first.” He locks himself in and steps toward the almighty white board, focused on the top row, labeled “QB Maverick.” That row has been the object of his speculation for months, and today, it ends. He places his first call to Philadelphia, getting an answer immediately. “Hey, it’s Chance…Listen, our deal’s a no-go. I’m pulling out…Sorry to leave you hanging. I hope you know I wasn’t just stringing you along…I’m sure I don’t have to point out the need for secrecy here…That’s right. It never happened.” The next call is to Maverick’s agent. “It’s Chance Phillips. I know things are going to get crazy today and we probably won’t speak, but when we have some time, let’s get together and hammer this thing out…Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking…Great. Talk to you soon.” Business on that end concluded for the day, Phillips opens his door, and everyone waits for 1pm, when the new league year officially begins. The Knights won’t be directly active today, but they must stay apprised of everything around the league. The year begins with a flurry of surprising moves. Phones ring constantly as news and numbers get tossed around. The Saints trade Jimmy Graham to the Seahawks for Max Unger and a first-round pick. The Ravens ship Haloti Ngata to Detroit for two mid-round picks. The Eagles and Rams strike a wild deal, swapping Sam Bradford for Nick Foles with draft picks involved. (So Phillips wasn’t the only one Philly was talking to about quarterbacks.) “Jesus,” Schneider says, “the whole league’s gone crazy.” Alex Johnson shuts the door behind him, walking through the studio apartment straight for the fridge, extracting a banana and some strawberries for a post-workout smoothie. Somewhere in between slicing strawberries and finding peanut butter, he turns on the TV, and NFL Network fills the apartment with background noise. Alex pours his finished smoothie from the blender and plops down on the couch. Soon enough, the free agency special gets to wide receivers, and analysts talk about the best free agents left at the position. Alex is momentarily proud to see his name listed first, with Michael Crabtree just behind. The analysts talk about receivers who have already signed. Alex doesn’t need a reminder of those numbers: Jeremy Maclin to Kansas City for five years, $55 million; Torrey Smith to San Francisco for 5 years, $40 million. The days of Alex expecting a contract like Maclin’s are gone, but Smith’s contract, averaging $8 million per year, sounds about right to him. The offers he’s gotten so far, however, aren’t in that range. He hears his name mentioned, and an infographic shows up, detailing Alex’s injury history throughout college and the NFL. These are facts he knows all too well, and they are the reason that despite such an active market including the Panthers, Chargers, Giants, Rams, and Knights, Alex isn’t seeing anywhere close to the money he wants. All teams negotiating with Alex’s agent say they value him as an elite receiver, but actions speak louder than words, and the league has spoken clearly: Alex Johnson is an injury-prone player, and not worth more than lower-end number-two receiver money. Alex studies that infographic one last time, noticing the most painful injury of his life isn’t listed. He walks toward a row of framed pictures resting on a mantle above the TV. Near the middle is a crowded shot of a high school football team celebrating a state championship. The picture was taken just minutes after the game ended, and the players glisten with sweat, their broad smiles illuminating the picture as they crowd around the championship trophy. Near the edge stands Alex, leaning in awkwardly, a white cast covering his left leg. This was eight years ago, though it feels much longer than that. He was the team’s star offensive weapon all season through the state semifinals, but they found a way to win the championship without him as he watched from the sidelines. He feels himself committing toward a decision, one that’s been lurking in the back of his mind for months, and maybe longer. Without much hesitation, he decides. Enough is enough. He paces around the apartment with the TV muted, trying to get in touch with his agent. Once he does, he outlines the proposal, fighting off his agent’s aggressive attempts to talk him down from it. They run over large and small details, and finally his agent says, “Alex, as your agent, I have to advise you against this. For the sake of your career, and your future, I’m begging you to reconsider.” The next day, Johnson arrives with his agent at the MedComm Center, and the Knights finalize the re-signing of their starting wide receiver, though with contract terms no one expected. Johnson signs a one-year deal worth $7 million, fully guaranteed, plus $3 million of incentives based on playing time and stats. Such a lucrative “prove-it” deal is an oddity, but it’s undoubtedly a win for the Knights. The only negative is the lack of a long-term commitment, but Phillips is never in a hurry to sign injury-prone players. After the signing, Phillips and others go back to his office, making Johnson’s cap figure for 2015 official. This raises the team’s salary from $104.3 million to $111.3 million, still far below the league’s salary cap for 2015: $143.28 million. “So that seals it, then,” Schneider says. “We’re bringing back twenty of twenty-two starters from a Super Bowl winning team, and the two losses we didn’t want back.” Everyone likes that line, suddenly realizing how impressive it sounds. “We’re off to a nice start,” Phillips says. “Once we get Maverick locked up, we can all breathe easier.” The lucky valet takes Malik’s keys and drives away to park the Charger while Malik and Eva walk toward the restaurant’s front door. Despite sunglasses, Malik is recognizable by many fans, and walking around in Los Angeles makes him a target. As he walks arm in arm with Eva through a narrow walkway, patrons seated at the outdoor tables take notice, whispering to each other and taking out their smartphones. “Hey, Malik! Super Bowl!” one fan shouts, getting everyone’s attention. Malik just bows his head and keeps walking. This is supposed to be a nice, quiet day out with the kids at home with the babysitter. He doesn’t want attention of any kind. “Oh look, it’s the mafia don,” another says aggressively. “Hey, Malik, can you give me your lawyer’s phone number? I wanna get away with murder too.” Malik feels Eva tug on his arm as they enter the restaurant. He suddenly longs to practice again, to play football, something he sadly won’t do for months. Throughout lunch, Malik tries to hide how distracted he is. He’s able to block everything out for a few minutes when Eva talks about school options for the girls, but by the time the check arrives, he’s somewhere else again. After about an hour, Malik and Eva leave, and Malik spots the same asshole fan. He continues taunting him loudly, grabbing the attention of everyone sitting outside, most of whom look uncomfortable. Malik blocks him out, but unwelcome memories play in his head: high school classmates whispering to each other as he walks past them, college fans of opposing teams calling him a “thug,” Alabama fans calling him “a disgrace to the university,” supposed NFL experts labeling him an “undraftable prospect with unforgivable character concerns.” Malik and Eva walk past the screaming man, who says, “Yo, does your wife know what kind of man she sleeps with?” Nobody sees the punch coming. The man’s head jerks to the side and his body falls backward onto the table that crumbles toward the ground. A panicked scene unfolds as countless people whip out their phones and attend to the man on the ground, who groans and holds his face, conscious but dazed. Malik takes out his valet ticket and speeds off. Schneider stands at his desk, pressing the phone to his ear. The office around him is silent as everyone waits for details. A few tap away on their phones, checking for information themselves. Schneider eventually sighs and hangs up. “Rumors are true,” Schneider says. “The fan’s got a broken jaw. Malik left the scene. No one captured it on video, thank God.” “That we know of,” Phillips says. “Was he provoked?” Stein asks. “Not physically.” Schneider looks around the crowded office. “Everyone out except Chance and Merle.” No one says a word as the room clears, leaving the team’s owner, general manager, and head coach alone with the door closed. Malik and Eva get home, neither saying a word to each other. They open the front door and Jasmin runs in with the babysitter behind her, holding Tatyiana. “Hey, baby girl,” Malik says, kissing his daughter. “Did you have fun with Uncle Griswold?” “Yeah!” Jasmin says. “I showed him how we make tea, and then we played with Legos!” “They were angels,” Flash says, handing Tatyiana to Eva with a look of concern on his face. “Yo, I heard, man. Everything straight?” “It’s cool. I gotta go in, talk to Coach. It’ll be fine.” “Listen, if—” “It’s cool, it’s cool. I gotta leave now. I’ll be back.” Rose drives straight for the MedComm Center, calling from the road to tell them he’s on the way. He just needs to talk with Coach Harden alone, and everything will be fine. He clears the security gate and parks in the front of an empty players’ lot. He strides toward the front door, and security guards approach him. “Where’s Coach?” Rose says. “Right here, Malik,” Harden says, appearing from the first floor hallway. Rose follows Harden, who walks toward his office. When they get there, Rose finds it empty. Perfect. Harden shuts the door and they both sit down. “Look, coach, I’m sorry. I’ll apologize, do whatever you guys want me to do.” “It’s not about that, Malik, it’s—” “I lost my cool, and it shouldn’t have happened, but…” “Malik—” “Coach, you know me, you know—” “Malik! We gotta let you go.” Rose realizes tears are forming in Harden’s eyes as the weight of everything hits him. “What do you mean let me go?” “You know what I mean. Don’t make this tougher, Malik. Neither one of us—” “No. No way. Jasmin’s starting school. This isn’t fair, coach!” “I didn’t say it was fair. But it’s done. Neither one of us can change it.” Rose wants to protest. So, this is it? There must be something he can say. It ends, just like this? “Fine.” Rose gets up and walks out of the MedComm Center for the last time. A few minutes later, Phillips appears in the doorway and sees Harden in his chair, wiping away tears. “He’s gone?” Phillips asks. “Yep. Thank you for that, by the way,” Harden says, staring at the floor. “Come on, Merle, you were there. It was Wayne. You were listening. Did it sound like I wanted this to happen?” “Do you have any idea what this football team just lost?” “Look, you want to play the sympathy game, go right ahead. A few weeks ago you’re making a power play on me, and now it’s my fault I don’t have enough control over Schneider? You can’t have it both ways, Merle.” Harden springs from his chair and steps toward Phillips, who backs up against a framed picture. Harden inches closer, his lips contorting like he’s about to scream, and Phillips wonders if he needs to defend himself. “Fuck Wayne Schneider, and fuck you too!” Harden grabs the picture from behind Phillips, who ducks, and throws it across the room. It smashes the wall and hits the floor, shards of glass flying in all directions.