In the wake of Week 7, Marc Sessler dishes on what's hot -- and what's not -- in the NFL:
1) "Who's the new guy?"
"What new guy?"
"The guy who isn't Drew Bledsoe," my Bartender/Friend asks while staring at the grainy set in the corner.
"Tom Brady? He's been starting since like Week 3. Were you with Patty Hearst all this time?"
"I have real responsibilities, man," Bartender/Friend informs me. "Besides, I'm rooting for the Raiders. Not these baby-soft Pats."
Jan. 19, 2002.
Lifetimes ago, when the more casual among us were still being intro'd to New England's rosy-cheeked quarterback. The same Tom Brady who would find himself, a mere 15 minutes later, at the frozen core of the Tuck Rule Game, with me watching in silent awe and Bartender/Friend suddenly morphing into Gene Steratore, shouting at the screen with authority: "Total robbery! Fumble! Call the cops!"
Our scene -- this little pub in Nederland, Colorado -- is mostly empty, save for a couple of lovebirds in the corner: a red-haired guy in dreads and a girl in tie-dye, both staring at the madman shouting at the television. Dreads is alarmed (and evidently quite high), asking: "What's going on, bro?"
"It's this AFC Divisional Round game. Patriots-Raiders," I tell them. "Huge clash in a snowstorm. And it looks like New England's quarterback, Tom Brady, fumbled. But the refs say he didn't, and Phil Simms is going crazy. Phil Simms, the former Giants quarterback."
"That's heavy, man," says dreads fellow in a way that tells me, That's Far Too Much Information So Let Us Go Back To Our Conversation About Sustainable Wind Turbines.
Thing is, it's nearly two decades later, and we're still talking about this player. Maybe not dreads and tie-dye, but the rest of us. Those mesmerized by Brady's longevity and those just waiting for him to finally flounder and fizzle out. The spectrum is vibrant.
I thought about that evening in the Colorado mountains on Sunday, watching (the now pewterized) Brady ravage the Raiders defense for 370 total yards and five touchdowns in a 45-20 romp that crystalized reality: Despite the flurry of poems over his soon-demise, Brady keeps penning signature victories. Over his past five games, he's whipped 15 touchdown passes against just one pick. A late-game stumble against the Bears brought out the haters, but Twitter Middle School can't lessen the glow of a 43-year-old signal-caller making throws players 20 years his junior struggle to pull off.
Tampa's search for itself on offense has rounded into something dangerous for the rest of the NFC. It begins with Brady's unchained youth, but it extends to a flock of surrounding pieces beginning to click in unison. Rob Gronkowski is finding the end zone again as something more than an ex-wrestler cashing in. Scotty Miller (6/109/1) crossed the 80-yard mark for the third time in four weeks. Mike Evans landed just two passes, but Bucs fans barely noticed as Tampa turned the Las Vegas defense into a traveling circus.
Off-the-field questions linger over adding Antonio Brown to the soup, but the football side leaves me asking: Where does he fit in? Who becomes de-emphasized? Maybe he is indeed just insurance, considering the banged-up status of Evans and Chris Godwin, who returned to great effect on Sunday (9/88/1) but is now out for Week 8 after having surgery on a broken finger. Those questions come next for a Bucs juggernaut with a genuine shot to play Super Bowl LV in the comfort of their own home. Right below that crusty, old pirate ship where Brady has seemingly locked up Father Time in the cargo hold.
2) What if Brady is just the beginning? A fellow ribbed for his strict dietary habits, but soon to be followed by the quarterbacks of tomorrow -- and today.
On-field longevity is beholden to a mysterious mix of DNA and on-field blessings, but is that all? How many 40-something chucklers ripping on Brady's food prep look 15 years older while shaped like waddling pears? Open-minded athletes are buying into diet and waving farewell to the big-armed swashbucklers who inhale red meat and canned beer before falling off a cliff at 33. Sports science, in general, is altering team-building forever. You don't sign Patrick Mahomes through 2031 -- contract quirks aside -- without a core belief that he'll remain viable. If Mahomes can duplicate Brady's brand of longevity, some kid today will be writing about him coming off a four-touchdown firestorm in October 2038. Imagine a 43-year-old Sam Darnold issuing pinpoint crossers in the autumn of 2040. Evolving longevity means everything for Ryan Tannehill, a late-bloomer commanding the mighty Titans at the tender age of 32. Josh Rosen could figure his schtick out five years from now and still be 15 years younger than Tommy Boy in the present.
1) The Dallas Cowboys are a radioactive jumble.
Beyond the terrible play -- with household names operating like disinterested clock-watchers -- there is zero sense of collaboration. The coaching staff appears dazed, with anonymous verbal darts from agitated players becoming normalized. But what about the players themselves?
Sunday's 25-3 loss to Washington saw Andy Dalton crumple in a heap after a head-first blast from Washington linebacker Jon Bostic that knocked off the quarterback's helmet. With Dalton languishing on the turf, where were his teammates? Barring a few linemen looking down on their signal-caller, nobody seemed too bothered by the soon-to-be-ejected Bostic's vicious hit. Life went listlessly on as someone named Ben DiNucci stepped into the fray to take over under center.
"We speak all the time about playing for one another and protecting each other," coach Mike McCarthy said in defeat. "So, it definitely was probably not the response that you would expect."
Yes, the Cowboys' injury-battered line is made up of mostly no-namers still acclimating to new roles. Still, these men weren't pulled from the nearest Hallmark store or lifted from a super-plush dad's group in West Los Angeles. These beefy warriors know the code. The same mantra that rang true in college circles and even on the high school fields of old. You protect your guy -- you make it clear he will be punished at a cost. Make all the excuses you wish, but isn't that exactly what the head coach is telling his own men?
The problem in Dallas: Nobody's listening.
Minshew's play has risen and fallen inside an offense bereft of star power. Thrusting him out there as a scapegoat, though, drips of desperation from a club in flux. Minshew makes mistakes, but he makes big plays, too. How many second-year passers are benched while completing 65.9 percent of their throws with 13 touchdowns and just five interceptions? Only eight quarterbacks have lobbed more scores, while his pick total sits lower than those of guys like Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield and Carson Wentz. If we see zero-wattage Glennon in the next few weeks, I'll have to question how this team self-scouts its own players. The coaches want to save their jobs, but benching the oft-frisky Minshew strikes me as a front-office pitch to win this year's derby-among-the-terribles for Clemson's Trevor Lawrence.
3) In case you haven't heard, the hideous NFC East enters Week 8 as the first division in league lore without a single team sporting three wins at this juncture.
A tough-on-the-eyes Eagles outfit (2-4-1) "flies" above Washington (2-5), the Cowboys (2-5) and the Giants (1-6). That definitely belongs in the NOT portion of this weekly newsletter, but here's something golden from the wreckage: Perhaps I alone wish for this, but nothing would excite me more than a 5-11 team taking the East before suddenly receiving a spiritual blessing from the Football Gods. Laughed at all autumn, said team would power up, Wonder Twins style, into a midwinter berserker that clips a stunned Packers squad (with Mike Pettine caught by FOX cameras flinging his hot cocoa across the coordinators' booth), then takes the Seahawks to overtime before 2,200 speechless fans at CenturyLink. What's remarkable is how entirely possible this seems in late October. In terms of strangeness, it's a minor request from 2020. This is begging to occur.
After all, the Patriots massively rot. Literally anything could happen next.