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Knights of Andreas 7.04: The Deadline

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Knights of Andreas
FOUR YEARS LATER

 

Chapter Eighty-Five – The Deadline

“No such thing as a quiet week around here.” –Ron McKenzie

Sunday November 1, 6:22pm Central Standard Time, 45 hours until the trade deadline

From a suite atop Arrowhead Stadium, Phillips and Jensen endure the final minutes of a blowout loss. The final seconds tick away, fans in red jovially jog toward the exits, and Phillips looks at the scoreboard one last time: Chiefs 35, Knights 13.

Phillips looks down at his notes, though he doesn’t need reminding of what he witnessed. The defense that had looked elite was abused by an elite quarterback. The offense that seemed to be finding itself was derailed by a combination of good defense and mental errors. The result is not just a win for one team and a loss for the other; it is a story of two teams on two very different roads.

The Chiefs now advance to 7-1, unquestionably the league’s best team, and the Knights fall to 4-4. The AFC wild card race is a jumbled mess, as it often is after eight weeks, but even if the Knights ultimately earn one of those two spots, winning three road games is far from an ideal path to the Super Bowl. And facing a three-game deficit with eight games to go, a division win may now be impossible.

 

Monday November 2, 9:20am Pacific Standard Time, 28 hours until the trade deadline

The second floor of the MedComm Center engages in an annual spectacle, abandoning the typical weekly procedures in favor of all-out commitment to the deadline. Phillips and Jensen split duties for phone calls, agreeing to reconvene at 9:30. Schneider tells Phillips by phone he’ll attend if he can make it in time, but to start without him if necessary. Jensen knocks on Phillips’ open door ten minutes early.

“Finished a little early,” Jensen says. “How about you?”

“Same. Come in. Take a seat.”

Jensen does so as Phillips surveys the scant notes in front of him.

“Not much out there,” Phillips says. “Only names I got good buzz on were Wilkes and Randall, and neither for a price I’d consider. Not yet, anyway. And it’s not like we’re willing to move either of them.”

“What about Grodd?”

“I didn’t put his name out there. Did you?”

“Not deliberately. But he came up.”

“And?”

“Nothing we’d be interested in. Aren’t we close to an extension anyway?”

Phillips sighs. “No such thing as close. You either have a contract, or you don’t, and right now, Grodd doesn’t have a contract after this season.”

“Ok. Well, any targets on your end?”

“A few.” Phillips looks at the names circled on his paper, none of them impressive to him. “Actually, not really. We’ll monitor what happens today, but—what about you?”

“Uh…yeah.” Jensen shifts uncomfortably in his seat.

Phillips feels concern rippling through his body. He’s never seen his assistant GM this nervous. “Rick. What’s up? Talk to me.”

“I was talking to Les Snead, in Vegas, and I got a pretty big bite.”

“Who?” Phillips runs through the Rams’ roster in his head. “Kupp? Whitworth might be a good rental if he’s for sale.”

Jensen shakes his head, his face bursting with restrained enthusiasm.

“Ok, Rick, spill it.”

“Aaron Donald.”

A wave of shock and excitement permeates Phillips’ entire body.

“What?”

“Makes sense from their side. They’re 3-5, last in the division, Goff is regressing. Might need a quick re-tool.” Jensen pauses; Phillips says nothing. “It would cost a lot, obviously, but…”

Phillips doesn’t need Jensen or anyone to finish that sentence. Adding Donald to the Knights’ roster would—Phillips shakes it off. He can’t get deep into it just yet.

“Ok,” Phillips says. “What’s the compensation? What did Les say, exactly?”

 

10:06am, 27 hours until the trade deadline

Heads of every personnel department assemble in Schneider’s office for an impromptu 10am meeting. Schneider hurries through the doorway six minutes late, nobody acknowledges it, and everything begins.

Phillips briefs everyone on the broad strokes: the Knights have a legitimate chance to trade for Aaron Donald. The whole table launches into tangents about Donald in a black jersey, as Phillips knew it would.

“Gentlemen, stay with me,” he says. “Before we get too deep into specifics, we have to ask ourselves a philosophical question here.” The table goes quiet. “We’re 4-4. A strong finish to the year, realistically, puts us at 10-6. Barring something like a Mahomes injury, that’s a wild card. On the other side, things break the wrong way for us and we’re 8-8. Outside looking in.” He pauses to let that last line sink in, locking eyes with Schneider, who looks amused. “So, here’s my question. Are we buyers or sellers?”

The table responds with silence initially, then some murmuring. No one volunteers a straightforward answer until Jensen raises his hand.

“To be fair, Chance, don’t we need to analyze potential trade packages for Donald before making that decision? I mean, if compensation is too rich, then of course we’re out and maybe selling. But if it’s within reach—”

Other voices around the table pipe up now.

“Why are we selling? We’re in the playoffs if they started today!”

“Which players could we sell?”

“What’s the draft compensation for Donald?”

Decorum predictably melts into chaos. Phillips calmly stands up and summons a large mobile white board from the corner of the office. He erases some old notes and positions the board so everyone can see. By now, everyone has gone quiet.

“Despite the looming deadline,” Phillips says, “there’s no need for excessive urgency, gentlemen. Let’s work this through, every detail of it. Rick, walk us through potential trade packages.”

So begins a laborious but intriguing process. They discuss every angle and debate every question. How much is too much to trade for Donald? How far are they willing to compromise their limit? How stressed would Donald make the salary cap? If they make the deal, how do they shed salary elsewhere?

Of course, these procedural questions take a backseat to the hypothetical football playing in everyone’s mind. Aaron Donald and Zack Grantzinger on the same front would be the most fearsome defensive line in the league. Briggs Randall calling plays behind them makes it one of the best front sevens in football history.

It wouldn’t just be a spark to ignite a playoff run; it would launch the Knights into the league’s elite tier, 4-4 record be damned.

 

11:37am, 25 hours until the trade deadline

The suit jackets everyone was wearing at the inception of this meeting now hang on chairs while everyone moves around the office loosening ties and rolling up sleeves. The white board is now full of dollar figures and trade packages. Schneider’s cell phone buzzes, catching his attention.

“Heads up, everyone,” he says, silencing the room. “Doug Marrone fired. Jacksonville will announce it within the hour.”

“Their bye is this week,” Jensen says. “Figured it was coming.”

Phillips tries to find room for this subtopic in his brain. The Jaguars are 1-7 and about to change regimes. Are they players for the deadline now? He remembers Jensen inquiring about Logan Bishop weeks ago; maybe their price will drop. He walks around the table toward Jensen, reminding him to check up later, when he gets a breath.

 

3:22pm, 22 hours until the trade deadline

Javad taps away at his phone, stealing an occasional glance at ESPN on the nearby television. Jessica does the same from the living room, though they barely acknowledge each other, both deep into their work. The voice of Adam Schefter fills Javad’s office.

“Another team to keep an eye on is the Los Angeles Knights…”

Javad’s head snaps toward the screen.

“…according to many sources around the league, the Knights are being very aggressive in calling around, asking about players. No word on whether they’re looking to buy or sell, but you gotta figure, facing a 4-4 record, a disappointing season so far, general manager Chance Phillips is looking to make a big splash.”

Javad drowns out the rest of the words and texts every source he has. So far, he has no evidence the Knights are considering a move of any kind ahead of the deadline. Now that Schefter has proclaimed otherwise, he has to get an article published within the hour and he needs to send out a Tweet in the next ten minutes, preferably five.

“Rapaport said the same thing,” Jessica says, starling Javad with her presence. “Looks like they’re gonna be active. Have you heard anything?”

“No,” Javad says honestly. “But…” He hesitates. The usual issue has come into the relationship yet again.

“But what? Tell me.”

“I don’t want this to sound like I’m giving you advice, but—”

“Adam, just tell me.”

“Reach out to your sources often, as regular as you can keep it. Get a read on how quickly they get back to you.”

“Ok. Because…?”

“Because my source with the Knights never goes this long without at least responding to me. That tells me something’s up.”

“That’s nothing we can print.”

“I know. But it helps to be on alert.”

“I think we were already on alert.”

Jessica sighs and goes back to the living room. Javad doesn’t have time to give this anymore personal thought, waiting eagerly for Phillips’ response.

 

4:58pm, 20 hours until the trade deadline

McKenzie staggers up the stairs to the second floor and heads for the end of a long hallway. Sounds of hurried conversations grow louder as he approaches. He peeks his head in and grabs Phillips’ attention.

“What’s up, Ron?” Phillips says, meeting the head coach at the doorway. “How was practice?”

“Fine,” McKenzie says, glancing over Phillips’ shoulder to the large white board littered with curious names and numbers. “Always tough planning for these Thursday games, but we’ll be ready. What’s going—”

“Listen, you should know. We might be making a move before tomorrow’s deadline.”

“Arrivals or departures?”

“Could be a little of both.”

“I see.” McKenzie’s head falls, unsure how to process the ramifications of the Knights trading away someone at the trade deadline. From Super Bowl contenders to deadline sellers in eight weeks…

“Chance!” Jensen says, phone clinging to his ear. “I got something!”

Phillips holds one finger in the air to Jensen then shoots McKenzie a concerned look.

“Sorry, Ron, but I can’t give any details until we get a little closer. We’ll talk tonight once the water’s a little clearer. If you’re not still here, I’ll call you.”

“Yeah, ok. Um, thanks, Chance.”

Still not making eye contact, McKenzie drifts back down the hallway and the stairs toward his office, where he needs to grind out around four hours of film review before starting prep for tomorrow’s practice.

Back in Schneider’s office, Phillips studies Jensen’s notes from the previous phone call.

“Wayne,” Phillips says, “you should hear this.”

“Something new on Donald?” Schneider asks, rising from his desk.

Phillips: “Nope, a different front. One of ours.”

Schneider: “Who?”

Jensen: “Wilkes. Philly is willing to trade a third for him.”

Schneider: “What’s their angle?”

Jensen: “Their rookie receivers aren’t progressing quickly. In a tight race with Dallas, team good enough to win the NFC. An elite receiving threat puts them over the top.”

Phillips: “A third-round pick would help offset the draft capital loss from the Donald trade.”

Jensen: “Would offset the cap crunch, too.”

Phillips: “Run the numbers. See what happens.”

Jensen nods and rises, ready to set up on the other side of the table, close to the board, and do the math. Then he says, “One more thing. Roseman said the Eagles are shopping around for other receivers. I got the impression he was honest.”

Phillips ponders this wrinkle as Jensen walks off.

“What does that mean for us?” Schneider says.

“It means they could make a move for someone else and pull this deal off the table. So if we’re serious—”

“We may have to pull the trigger before the Donald deal is finalized.”

“Right.”

Schneider presses his fingers against his face contemplatively.

“I don’t like that.”

“Me neither,” Phillips says, glancing at the white board yet again.

 

7:09pm, 18 hours until the trade deadline

The hustle of the day has finally faded. Only three men now sit in Schneider’s office, each in a seat at the long table, eyes fixated on the phone in front of Phillips’ seat.

Hours of discussion, debate, more discussion, and more debate have ended. The Knights have considered every angle, both football and financial, for the 2020 season and beyond. Schneider has weighed everything and given his verdict: if it is agreed to be in the Knights’ best interest, do it. Green light.

The broad strokes of the deal, though flexible, are in place. The Knights will essentially trade two first-round picks: their 2021 pick and Riley Osborne, this year’s first-round pick. They will also give up a mid-round pick of some kind, which will ostensibly be recouped by a Wilkes trade. Then, there will be either a 2022 pick added or some exchange of picks in 2021 or 2022. Finally, there may be some conditional language which would complicate things, but the Knights are ready for it.

Phillips dials the digits carefully, looking around the table one last time, stealing a final glance at his assistant. This would typically be a conversation only Schneider, if anyone, overheard, but Jensen may very well be in the general manager seat by season’s end.

The call connects, and a voice Phillips recognizes says, “Chance, it’s Les. How are you?”

“Very good, Les, very good. You’re on speaker with Mr. Schneider and my assistant GM, Rick Jensen. You have my assurances that no one is leaking any of this to the press, and I’m sure it’s the same on your end. We’re not necessarily trying to strike a deal right now—I’d like to sleep on it first—but I felt it important for us to hammer down some details. So, let’s talk.”

 

8:58pm, 16 hours until the trade deadline

Grodd emerges from the bedroom and inches the door shut, trying not to wake the baby. He does so and walks to the living room to close the blinds for the night. In the process, he gazes to the front yard at the FOR SALE sign planted there.

He has talked to his agent twice today, and twice been told there’s no trade interest. By now, of course, he knows better than to trust that. A contract-year player on a team with a 4-4 record, Grodd is a very typical trade candidate and he knows it.

Yet, this is a wrinkle he had not prepared for with free agency looming. He and his wife have discussed it and are ready to move to whatever city signs him. What they have not discussed is the possibility of a trade, of Grodd living the next few months in a different city before signing somewhere else in March. He would probably just keep her and the baby here and live in the new city temporarily until free agency.

His phone buzzes. He snatches it as soon as possible, ready for life-changing news, but his nerves calm when he sees Wilkes’ name on the screen. This is either the third or fourth time he’s called, so Grodd decides to finally answer.

 

9:05pm, 16 hours until the trade deadline

“Don’t do me like that!” Wilkes says into the phone. “My agent says there’s somethin’ going on!”

“There’s something going on every year,” Grodd says on the other side of the line. “It’s just the deadline, D-Jam. Chill out and just see what happens.”

“Chill out?! Easy for you to say!”

Wilkes hangs up and taps his finger frantically, wondering whom he should call next.

His agent, ever since giving him a heads-up about a possible trade, has been unhelpful. Even after he heard his own name on TV as a trade candidate, he got no new information about landing spots. Maverick didn’t even answer. Now Grodd is more of the same.

His thoughts race around in his mind, sometimes escaping and flying around the house, then returning to him even faster. Wilkes tries to breathe. He knows what he has to do. One final scan of his contacts, and he decides talking to someone won’t guide him, so he gives it up.

He walks into his favorite room in the house, a bedroom that evolved into something much greater two years ago when he made this monumental lifestyle change.

Wilkes strolls through a house of sterile, grey-colored walls into a vibrant room of red and yellow. He flicks the switch, gently illuminating the space with dim, golden light. A stereo fires up, and soft music fills the room. He lowers himself onto the thick cushion in the center of the room and settles his posture, palms pressed against his thighs, back straight.

He closes his eyes and focuses on breathing. Inhale, exhale. His chest pumps hurriedly. He slows it. Inhale…exhale.

The enchanting harmony of singing monks fills his ears as he feels his breath slowing. The thoughts still race around in his mind, but quieter now. He thinks only of his breath, letting the surrounding ambience sooth him, calm him. Inhale…exhale…

 

Tuesday November 3, 7:52am, 5 hours until the trade deadline

Players enter the locker room, changing for day two of practice under a cloud of silence. Thursday games are always an awful grind; prepping for one during deadline week makes it even worse.

In just two days, the Knights will play their ninth game of the year, a very significant one against the Titans, also in the thick of the wild card race, which will put them at either 5-4 or 4-5, a huge swing for the rest of the season. In the meantime, any player, at any moment, could be pulled off the practice field with fateful news awaiting them. And still, practice must go on.

The usual chatter and buzz is nonexistent this morning, replaced with tense, uncomfortable looks. Grodd tries to seem stoic but can’t hide his concern. Rookies and young players seem most nervous of all, feeding off the anxiety around them. Wilkes, for his part, looks remarkably relaxed, energetically changing and charging out of the building onto the practice field.

When McKenzie appears a few minutes before eight to get everyone on the field in time, he delivers a meek, “Let’s go, guys, few minutes to eight,” rather than the usual “Get a move on, ladies.” The few players still changing don’t think much of it, preoccupied with reaching the practice field on time.

 

11:03am, 2 hours until the trade deadline

Javad stares intensely at his laptop screen, clicking between multiple tabs and windows. His trade deadline summary, obviously incomplete for the moment, is ready for editing with every move over the next two hours. If the deadline passes without a major splash for the Knights, he will have that sent to his editor by 1:30. If a deal is struck, he can write an article on it quickly, perhaps having it ready by 2, depending on the deal.

He hears a jingle of keys just outside the apartment, startling him momentarily before he ignores it.

“Got your fortress all set up, I see,” she says seconds after closing the door behind her.

“Gets more fun every year,” Javad says. “Usually there ends up being less news than buzz.”

“You think?”

He doesn’t look at her. He knows where this is going and wants her to get it there, however she wants.

“Look,” she finally says, “I know it’s a little weird, but…” Javad rotates his chair, facing her. “…if you have something, something you can give me…”

“I don’t have anything. There haven’t been any trades yet, you know that.”

“You know what I mean, Adam.”

He looks back to his computer, then his phone. All he has are nuggets, and a lot of them. Most of them will wither out into nothing by 1pm, but some may not. And while Phillips hasn’t been his usual self with leads (something Javad finds suspicious), he promised a heads-up on any deals coming. Javad considers everything at his disposal and, eventually, gives in to a decision he made hours ago.

“Wilkes,” Javad says, now wondering about throwing her a bone, though not one of his biggest. “Knights have gotten a market for him and are willing to sell if the price is right.”

“Thanks,” she says. “If anything else pops up, and you think you have time, you know…”

“Right. I’ll try. Listen, let’s do dinner tonight? Or maybe lunch, if there’s a presser at MedComm.”

“That sounds good. So I’ll see you either way.”

 

12:09pm, 51 minutes until the trade deadline

Schneider’s office again hosts a hectic congregation of suits, in even more of a frenzy. Phillips is constantly on the phone, checking in with Vegas and Philadelphia as often as possible. He wants to make both the Daniel and Wilkes trades official now, before anything changes, but the Rams are worryingly hesitant, and the Eagles are still shopping for other receivers. Meanwhile, Jensen oversees the tentative paperwork for both deals and stays in contact with the league office. The Knights can take this right down to the wire and still get both trades through.

“Anything from Philly?” Schneider asks.

“The same,” Phillips says. “A lot of receivers on the market. They’re doing due diligence.”

“What about Vegas?” Jensen asks.

“I’m guessing they want us to sweeten the deal, thinking we’ll be swept up by the possibility of getting Donald and do whatever we can to make it happen.”

Minutes pass. Tension persists. Phillips and Schneider lead the room with their composure, masking rising heart rates beneath their suits, only looking nervous when they check their watches.

 

12:52pm, 8 minutes until the trade deadline

“Damn it, Chance, I told you to get it done,” Schneider says.

“I can’t get a hold of Philly,” Phillips says, phone clinging to his ear. “Been trying for ten minutes now.”

“I know why!” Jensen says, holding his phone in the air. “They made a trade.”

“For who?” someone asks.

“Fourth-round pick for—”

“It doesn’t matter,” Phillips says, looking at the clock. “Official with the league office, Rick?”

“Yes, it’s going through now.”

Phillips whirls around to see the white board. Hanging on to Wilkes is fine, but losing the third-round pick changes the calculus on the Donald trade.

“I’m calling Les,” Phillips says, “dropping our offer down, as we discussed.” He gazes across the table to Schneider, pressing his clasped hands against his mouth, nodding slowly.

“Won’t he figure out that this is in response to Philly’s move?” Jensen says.

“It doesn’t matter; we’re out of time. Les! Chance Phillips. Listen, I’ll be brief since we’re up against it here; we gotta slide down the mid-round from third to fifth. I’m sorry to do this to you, but…Ok…Ok…Ok, two minutes.”

He hangs up, suddenly noticing the office has gone silent. People fidget in place, twirling pens or markers, finding something to do with their fingers while a blockbuster trade hangs in the air.

Phillips’ phone vibrates on the table. Everyone standing lurches closer to the general manager.

“Hi, Les…I get it. I understand…No, I won’t hang up. Let me mute you. Thirty seconds.”

He presses the phone and looks around the room.

“They’re not budging. The third stays a third, the deal stays the deal, take it or leave it.” Phillips reads the faces bearing down on him, knowing exactly what they’re thinking. It’s the difference between a third- and fifth-round pick. That’s nothing. We can get Aaron Donald! He knows most other GMs, maybe all of them, would have made the deal already. His gaze finds Schneider again. It’s not just the exchange of picks; losing the Wilkes trade means the Knights would have to endure a very tight salary cap for at least three seasons, tighter than Phillips has ever overseen. And yet, he could get Donald and Grantzinger on the same defensive line, right now…

“Your call, Chance,” Schneider says.

“We mentioned this possibility yesterday. And we agreed.” He lifts his phone up and presses the button. “Les?…We’re out…Alright, I’ll call you later. For now, obviously it benefits us both to keep this trade in-house…Ok, bye.”

Phillips hangs up and sighs, breathing some air back into the room. He looks at his watch—12:56.

No one leaves the office as the final minutes tick down silently. The clock hits 1pm, Jensen and a few others work league sources to see if any other trades went down, and Phillips stands up and meets the large white board. He grabs the eraser and waves it back and forth, clearing every number.

“Thank you all for your diligence,” Schneider says, rising from his chair and commanding the room while Phillips keeps erasing. “This was probably the most tense deadline under my tenure, but I felt much better knowing I had the best team supporting me. Now, we go back to normal. But before we do, let me make something very plain.” Phillips stops erasing and turns around. “No one in this room is to leak one word of anything we explored to anybody. Period. If this gets out in any way, this group will convene again, and I assure you the tenor of that conversation will be much more severe than what this room has seen the last twenty-four hours. Is that explicitly clear?”

“Yes, sir,” everyone murmurs back.

“Good. Chance, find time to call Les back and make sure things are tight on his side as well. Rick, gather all paperwork on the trades and take them down the hall to the shredder. Get someone to help, if necessary.”

Phillips finishes wiping the final cash figures from Knights history, studies the now empty board, and turns back to the head of the able, where Schneider has sat back down. He studies Schneider’s face, seeing, he thinks, a hint of disappointment.

 

From their Farmers Field luxury suite, Phillips and Jensen watch Thursday night’s Knights/Titans contest. The stadium is about two-thirds full at kickoff, and the game matches the subdued atmosphere with a first half devoid of big plays and turnovers.

The Titans predictably try to establish a ground game with Derrick Henry, but the Knights’ stout run defense stands tall. Ryan Tannehill faces multiple third-and-longs, converting few. The Knights offense fares better, especially in the pass game, where Maverick distributes the ball between multiple receivers. Phillips feels strange when he watches Maverick cap a long drive with a successful jump ball to Wilkes in the back of the end zone.

The Knights take a 13-3 lead into the second half, and the grind continues. The Titans add another field goal, but the Knights respond with Maverick finding Hart-Smith uncovered on a wheel route. The running back sprints for a sixty-yard touchdown, by far the most exciting play of the game.

Down 20-6 in the fourth quarter, the Titans turn to a pass-first offense led by Tannehill, but the Knights lock things down with tight coverage and consistent blitzing. The minutes pass, and it becomes clear the Knights are on their way to a win and a 5-4 record. Still, Phillips watches his team closely, unable to wonder what the defense would look like with Aaron Donald in the middle, or what the passing game would look like without Wilkes.

 

The next morning at the MedComm Center is refreshingly relaxed. The players have been given the rest of the weekend off, a reward for last night’s win and much-needed rest for a pivotal divisional trip to Denver in nine days.

Phillips drops by Schneider’s office, surprised to see him there, to deliver some paperwork. As he leaves, Schneider’s voice calls him back.

“McKenzie is coming up,” Schneider says. “Wants to speak with us.”

“Interesting.”

Phillips waits awkwardly. Moments later, McKenzie staggers down the hallway and into the office, looking tired and worn. He shuts the office door, and Phillips nervously takes a seat near Schneider’s desk.

“Good morning, Ron,” Schneider says.

“Good morning.”

“I had intended on postponing our debrief to next Monday, in the spirit of getting back on our normal schedule, but if you’d rather get it over—”

“No, no, it’s not that.”

“Very well. What’s on your mind?”

McKenzie shifts his weight from foot to foot, trying to lengthen his back to stand taller.

“I want to get this straight with you two now and for the next few months, don’t want any press leaks. Plus, it’s fair to give you guys time to prepare.”

Phillips and Schneider share an uncomfortable glance, hanging on the head coach’s next words.

“At the end of the season, I’m stepping down as head coach.”

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Kinda plays into their hands, I guess, since they were gonna fire him anyway.

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