Photos from the 2011 NFL Draft

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Michael Porter Jr.'s Injury Craters Missouri's Hopes for a Dream Season

Every year, about 4,000 teenagers enroll as freshmen at the University of Missouri. Another 75,000 or so babies are born to families in the state. Many of those poor young people are doomed, in the sense that by virtue of their birthplace or their college admittance they will cheer for the Missouri Tigers.

I was both born in Missouri and chose to attend graduate school at Mizzou. I am twice cursed. I don’t remember the Fifth Down Game—I was about to turn three—but I lived through Frank Haith’s tenure as basketball coach and the loss to Norfolk State, the checkered career of former No. 1 football recruit Dorial Green-Beckham and Gary Pinkel’s revelation of a cancer diagnosis days after he’d managed his team through a divisive boycott. Really, even the good moments at Missouri often turn out poorly. In 2007, after its best season in program history, the football team was denied a BCS bowl bid that was given instead to Kansas—which it had beaten two weeks earlier. Quin Snyder, one of the NBA’s most talented coaches who was once the hottest name in college basketball, got his start at Missouri—where he embarked on a crusade of NCAA infractions and left the program in dire straits.

That is to say: I was totally prepared for Tuesday’s news about Michael Porter Jr. In fact, the minute I heard he tweaked his hip in warmups before the Tigers’ opening game against Iowa State, this scenario played out in my mind. Sure, I didn’t consider an L3-L4 disc issue—we Missouri fans are scarred, not clairvoyant—but that night I couldn’t help but explore worst-case scenarios.

And here we are. Porter, a former five-star recruit who had a case to be the No. 1 pick in next year’s NBA draft, had surgery Tuesday. He’ll be out for three to four months—so until February or March. That’s a nice way to say that the most exciting player in the history of Missouri basketball is finished playing for the Tigers exactly two minutes, two rebounds and two points into his career. (Please, I ask you, do not contemplate the idea that Porter might return to college basketball next year. I will plug my ears and hum R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts.” It’s too much to contemplate. He’ll still be a top pick even after missing the season.) It’s been five years since the Tigers made the NCAA tournament, and what seemed like a given with Porter, his younger brother Jontay and Jeremiah Tilmon anchoring this year’s team now looks like a stretch. Sure, Cuonzo Martin is a massive step up in the coaching department, but without Porter, the Tigers are going to have to work to find a consistent scoring threat.

Last Thursday, I ate dinner with three friends who also attended Missouri. Because the establishment where we chose to dine did not carry the Pac-12 Network, we weren’t able to watch the Tigers’ game against Utah. We were only able to watch on Gamecast as Tilmon registered his first foul 37 seconds into the game and proceeded to foul four times before scoring a point. The team lost to Utah and then four days later managed to win by only five points over the mighty Emporia State University Hornets. Thanks to that game being broadcast only on a platform known as the SEC Network Plus, many eyeballs were also spared this affront.

That said, this isn’t a lost season—the team looked good against Iowa State and Wagner, even without Porter, and it can be competent thanks to his supporting cast and Martin—but the dream of the Tigers making a deep tournament run and setting the tone for a new era of basketball in Columbia effectively died on Tuesday.

Through four games, two players from last year’s Missouri team are among the Tigers’ top three in scoring: Kevin Puryear (13.3 points per game) and Jordan Barnett (9.0). The team’s second-leading scorer, Kassius Robertson (13.0) is a graduate transfer from Canisius, and suddenly this Missouri team that was supposed to be powered by underclassmen looks a lot like one that’ll rely on veteran talent. With Martin’s experience, it’s possible to imagine the team still taking a step forward, and if Tilmon can control his fouls and Jontay Porter can be even half the player his brother is forecast to be (which he should), this will still be watchable basketball. And that’s all very nice, but it doesn’t change the fact that this was a horrendous day for Missouri sports.

The football team is bowl eligible, though, after starting the season 1-5. This is very good news, and it’s lovely that the school’s second hiring of a beloved graduate this decade might not end in despair. Missourians, shift your focus back to football! There’s hope!

…Until Drew Lock declares a year early for the NFL draft.

2018 NFL Draft Quarterback Stock Watch

Top of the Class:

1. Josh Rosen, UCLA (32-52, 421 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs at USC): It’s hard to look more physically impressive than the UCLA junior looked on Saturday night—one scout in attendance told me it’s the best he’s seen Rosen. And being held up against the unconventional Darnold probably helped, too, in highlighting Rosen’s pure, natural delivery. Rosen wraps up the regular season (and maybe his UCLA career) against Cal on Saturday.

2. Sam Darnold, USC (17-28, 246 yards, 0 TDs, INT): There were lots of cries that Darnold is overrated after he was a little up-and-down against the Bruins. What that felt like was people who haven’t been watching him need to get used to the third-year sophomore’s wonky style. Yes, there’s a little bit of a windup, and, no, it doesn’t look like it’s supposed to all the time. But the rebuilding Trojans have won the Pac-12 South, and the quarterback has done his part in brining a young team along.

3. Josh Allen, Wyoming (injured vs. Fresno State): A shoulder sprain kept Allen out of this one, and up next is what’s likely the final regular season game of his collegiate career, at San Jose State.

Helped Himself: Malik Rosier, Miami. Rosier is still a junior, and hasn’t been considered much of an NFL prospect by anyone I’ve talked to. But he acquitted himself incredibly well as a competitor in leading the Hurricanes back on Saturday, both with arm and head in the passing game, and with his feet on the ground. The Hurricanes closed the game with 30 unanswered points to win 44-27, and Rosier showed a ton of toughness in throwing for 210 yards and three touchdowns, as well as rushing for 38 yards and a score.

Hurt Himself: Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State. He did throw for 352 yards and three touchdowns, but he threw two more picks and came up short on a great chance to complete a furious fourth-quarter comeback. Does that mean he’s a bad player? No, but in that offense, you almost have to be close to perfect week-to-week to avoid validating the “system” arguments being used against you.

A Calculated Decision: Why John Urschel Chose Math Over Football

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In late July, John Urschel reported to NFL training camp, just like about 2,800 other players across the league. Urschel checked into the Baltimore Ravens’ hotel, dropped off his bag, and then went to the team facility, where he sat through a full team meeting and an offensive line session. His mind wandered as the coaches went on about goals for the season and what they’d be working on at practice the next day. As a backup offensive lineman, Urschel would be rotating in at center and have to fight all camp just to make the team.

That night, he returned to his room and spent the next couple hours debating with himself whether he wanted to show up the next day. He read math books, played online chess, texted his fiancée, FaceTimed with a friend, and stayed up until 3 a.m., turning the matter over in his head. The next morning, around 6 a.m., he called coach John Harbaugh and told him he was done. He was retiring at age 26, after just three NFL seasons.

“I really, really, really wanted to retire quietly,” Urschel says. “No one notice. Just retire and everything keeps on going, without a single story. Like one little byline, and that’s it. And then there’s nothing else, just ride off into the sunset.”

Instead, when the news broke a few hours later, it made national headlines. It was actually Urschel’s own fault. After the early retirements of Chris Borland and A.J. Tarpley, people assumed that Urschel was another young player leaving the game out of fear of concussions and the long-term affects of CTE. Another study warning of the dangers of football to the brain had been published just two days earlier.

The rest of the day, Urschel’s phone buzzed nonstop from reporters trying to get an interview. He released a statement saying he was excited about taking classes at MIT in the fall and that his fiancée was pregnant with their first child. But he didn’t clarify how he felt about head trauma, and so the reporters kept calling. “That was my worst nightmare,” he says. “I was physically unwell. I was in bed all day, for the first couple of days. Didn’t leave the house. Totally down.”

His phone rang and rang and rang. After a while, Urschel just shut it off.

Whether or not he knew it, Urschel had started on the path to retirement more than two years earlier. After his rookie year, in spring 2015, he’d decided to apply to the doctoral program in math at MIT, to take classes in his free time.

At first, the school was unsure what to do with him: the application deadline had long passed. Several department heads sent his application around to one another anyway. Some of them did not know who he was. They Googled Urschel and found videos of him mauling defensive tackles and giving lectures on advanced mathematical concepts.

“Usually we would say, sorry, it’s not the right time, apply again in six months,” says Michel X. Goemans, the current interim head of the department. “But it was a very atypical case.

Urschel had the requisite credentials to be accepted. He had bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math from Penn State, and he already had five research projects either completed or under way that would result in papers published in respectable journals. He was semifamous for being “the football player who does math.”

“We said, let’s take a risk,” Goemans says. “Let’s see how it goes.”

A year later, in the spring of 2016, during the NFL offseason, Urschel enrolled at MIT and took four classes as a full-time student. While his teammates were working out and vacationing, Urschel was living in Cambridge, Mass., studying numerical linear algebra and random matrix theory, spending his days working on complex mathematical proofs, attending lectures by visiting professors, talking math with people who enjoyed the subject as much as he did, loving every minute of life as an academic … until one day an administrator reminded him that, come fall, come football season, he would have to remain a full-time student. He couldn’t go part-time. The MIT doctoral program doesn’t make exceptions in that regard, even for professional athletes.

“It might’ve been relayed to me in an e-mail when I was applying,” Urschel says, “but I’m bad at e-mails.”

Now he had to figure out how to balance playing football and attending school full time, without offending his employer, the Ravens. When Urschel first applied to MIT, he had texted Harbaugh telling him vaguely that he’d decided to “finish his education.” Harbaugh responded that that was O.K. “Then they hit me back after some time,” Urschel recalls, “because I guess they were like, wait a minute, finish your education? What’s he finishing?” At that point, Urschel says he confessed to the Ravens that he was working on his Ph.D. at MIT, and both sides left it at that. It’s unclear whether Harbaugh understood the time commitment that that would involve. “No one really asked,” Urschel says. “And if you don’t ask me…” (The Ravens declined to make Harbaugh available for an interview for this story.)

So that fall, while living in Maryland, Urschel continued at MIT as a full-time student. He signed up for two classes worth of “reading” credits with Goemans and enrolled in one class on Probability Theory. “I had studied that exact stuff at Penn State,” Urschel says. “If you give me a textbook, and the homework assignments are in the book, I do not need to go to a single day of that class.” Instead, Urschel set up a routine that seemed to work for both sides. After a Sunday Ravens game, he’d spend the night and the subsequent Monday off day doing homework, which he would submit to his professor, Scott Sheffield, typed up neatly, via e-mail. When Sheffield would return the assignments in class, he’d call out Urschel’s name and joke, “Well, we know he’s not here…” Urschel only made it to one class all semester, during the Ravens’ bye week. He still got an A. “His work was consistently excellent,” Sheffield said via e-mail, “and he ended up with one of the top scores in the class.”

Meanwhile, Urschel was also periodically checking in with Goemans about the assignments for his reading credits. But “I’m, like, in season, so I’m busy,” Urschel says. “Michel was like, ‘Send me updates, let me know how it’s going.’ I’m really just skimming things. I’m completely blowing off this other stuff.” And the reading that Urschel was “blowing off” covered topics that would be included on his doctoral qualifying exam, which was coming up in February. If Urschel failed that test and didn’t subsequently pass in a certain period of time, he’d be kicked out of MIT. “Basically I’d be screwed,” he says.

After the Ravens’ finished that 2015 season 5-11, well out of the playoffs, Urschel spent all of January cramming for the qualifying exam. He’d work at the chalkboard in his house for 12 hours a day, reviewing the material, making stacks of notes. Then he’d have Louisa Thomas, his soon-to-be fiancée, quiz him into the night. When the test day finally arrived, Urschel was “nervous like I’ve never been before a football game,” he says. It was an oral exam, so he had to stand in front of three professors who peppered him with questions for three hours.

Well, Urschel passed, and that meant that he could now proceed with the next steps in his doctoral degree. He could pick an advisor, start on his thesis and take a lighter load of classes if he wanted. Suddenly it was that much easier for him to play football and pursue the MIT degree at the same time.

Urschel took no courses in the spring of 2017. He worked a lot on a proof involving combinatorial optimization, played a lot of chess with Louisa, and was settling back into the calm, quiet life of academia … until it came time for him to leave Cambridge and report to OTAs. This time, Urschel hesitated. That’s when a thought crept in, a thought that once would’ve seemed blasphemous to him, a thought he’d wrestle with all summer, up until the night before training camp: He felt guilty about his football career taking time away from his math one.

Math and football had always been linked in Urschel’s mind, for as long as he could remember, going back to his childhood in Buffalo. When he was 3 or 4 years old, his parents divored, and he was alone with his mother. As his mother, Venita Parker, juggled working full-time as a nurse and raising a son, she kept John preoccupied with math and puzzle workbooks. Urschel would devour them and then beg for more. His parents were both academically minded—his mother a nurse who’d later become a lawyer, his father, John Urschel Sr., a renowned thoracic surgeon—and he must’ve caught the bug, too. “Mentally, he cannot stay idle,” Parker says. “His brain is always going, and it’s going at a speed that’s faster than mine for sure. If he’s sitting there, his brain has to be playing some kind of mental sport.”

That carried over to school. Urschel was a quiet, shy, fidgety child, the classic smart kid lost in his own thoughts. After testing him, his elementary school recommended he skip the second grade, but Parker balked. She wanted him around kids his own age. “You could sit in your room doing math all day, and then you don’t develop social skills,” she says.

Playing team sports could help with that, too, and football seemed like a logical choice as he grew tall and put on weight. But he was too big to play Pop Warner, and then his middle school couldn’t find a helmet that fit his head. Now Urschel was chubby and insecure and going through the awkward stage that all new teenagers go through, and so his father retired as the chief of surgery at Beth Israel Medical Center in Boston and returned to Buffalo, to be there for what he considered a critical stage in his son’s life.

For about a year then, when Urschel was in the eighth grade, his father would pick him up from school and they’d spend hours working out, lifting and doing homework together. Around that time, the elder Urschel was taking masters-level math, economics and engineering courses at the University of Buffalo, “just to amuse myself, keep my brain going,” he says. Sometimes he’d take his son to class or review homework with him. “Maybe it was something I was thrashing with for a week or so, trying to get my head around,” John Sr. says. “I think I’m doing good with it. Then I give him a 60-second summary, and he’s off and running with it!” This was the first time they had really spent time bonding, father and son. That Christmas, 2004, Urschel’s father gave him one of his first books on mathematical proofs and wrote an inscription on the inside cover. Urschel still keeps the book in his home, 13 years later:

J.C.

To live a happy life, one has to be able to see the beauty that is around us. That sounds easy, but it is surprisingly difficult to do. It requires mental training. Studying mathematics is an ideal form of mental training. Mathematics strips away the dirt of the world to leaves the beauty and purity of mathematical reasoning.

Enjoy the beauty of reason!

Love Dad

Once Urschel reached high school and his body filled out, he started playing football, which led to his father only growing more involved in his life, more interested in his development. John Sr. would come to every game and stand in the endzone with a pair of binoculars, a pencil and a pad of paper. He’d watch every snap, jot down detailed notes and relay them to his son over postgame meals at TGI Friday’s.

John Sr. had played five years of college football in Canada, on the offensive line and then at linebacker, while he was studying medicine at the University of Alberta. He had enough talent that the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos expressed interest in drafting him, he says, but after graduation he decided to retire from football and start with his residency. “It was a no-brainer,” John Sr. recalls. “I had this figured out [early], that the CFL was a dead end.”

He got his football fix instead by teaching his son the game. The summer before Urschel’s senior year of high school, his father decided it was time he learned how to block the way they did in the ’70s. The elder Urschel bought two sets of used pads, took his son to a field, and had him line up across from him. “I just come out of my stance and wallop the kid,” John Sr. says. “And when I say wallop, I just buried my forehead into his forehead and knocked him back. He just looked at me like, what the hell, Dad?” They practiced the technique all summer until Urschel perfected it: explode out of your stance, meet the defender head-on, drive him back.

“That had a huge influence on my football style,” Urschel says. “Fire out, be aggressive, and just smack them”—he claps loudly—“like, right in the head. Smack them with the crown [of my helmet], right on their chin. Just get under them, smack them, and start driving.”

Using that approach, Urschel developed into the best high school offensive lineman in western New York, and that, in turn, earned him a scholarship to Penn State, where he really came into his own. He sped through two math degrees in four years, taught two undergraduate math classes and won the William V. Campbell Trophy, otherwise known as the Academic Heisman. He also started two seasons on the offensive line, was twice named to the All-Big Ten First Team, and made some of his closest friends on the football team. They were the ones who pulled him out of his office on the weekends in time for last call.

“After his last game at Penn State, he had tears in his eyes,” his mother says, “because he knew that he would never on the field with his friends ever again.”

Leaving Penn State was the first time Urschel had to choose: math or football. Should he start work on his Ph.D., or continue on to the NFL? He was projected to be a mid-rounder in the 2014 NFL draft, but in math “he was a top-five pick,” his father says. “An elite math mind.”

Urschel thought the choice, like his father’s 30 years earlier, was “a no-brainer,” too—but in the opposite direction. He figured he only had a finite amount of time to play football in his prime; he had the rest of his life to do math. The Ravens picked him in the fifth round, No. 175 overall.

Urschel learned quickly, though, that the NFL lacked the charm of college football. When you’re a rookie, he says, the veterans didn’t “even care to know your name.” Except for one, a guard named A.Q. Shipley. He’d gone to Penn State, too, and their college position coach had asked him to look out for Urschel. Shipley gave Urschel tips about technique, answered his questions and generally made him feel welcomed. Then at the end of camp, the Ravens kept Urschel … and cut Shipley. “John felt bad,” Parker, his mother, says. “He was like, Damn. He was used to the team being this brotherhood. … and then they’re gone.”

Even so, Urschel’s first year in the NFL went as well as could be expected. He began the season as a backup and then was thrust into action due to injuries, and he proved to be a good fit for offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s zone-run scheme. Urschel started five games—three in the regular season and two in the playoffs, on the road in Pittsburgh and New England. He now considers starting in those two road playoff games the pinnacle of his career.

All the while, Urschel was still doing math. “Remember,” he says, “I do math in my free time for fun.” He was working on various projects with Ludmil Zikatanov, a Penn State professor who had become a mentor and friend. Specifically, they were making progress on a paper titled, “On the Maximal Error of Spectral Approximation of Graph Bisection.”

It was after that season—after he had started two playoff games—that Urschel decided to apply to MIT. In college he’d been held up as the perfect “student athlete,” and he was proud of that moniker, and he felt as though he’d been neglecting the “student” part since turning pro. “I felt actually kind of guilty,” he says. “I was actually kind of ashamed of myself. I was doing math while I was playing, but I always really prided myself on doing what I wanted to do and not budging on things.” What he wanted to do was play football—and continue his formal education. Plus, he had taken GRE, the standardized test for prospective graduate school students, while at Penn State, and his score would expire in a few years.

A few months later, Urschel started his second NFL camp as a backup again. One day during practice, he was trying to catch the coaches’ eye, pulling around the corner on a power run, when a defender hit him smack in the temple: Urschel was out cold. The next thing he knew, he was in the trainer’s room. Witnesses told him they’d tried carting him off the field, but he’d waved them off. He’d wanted to walk off on his own. Urschel didn’t remember any of that. He had to watch the film to reconstruct what had happened.

Urschel was concussed. He had all of the classic symptoms: headaches, light sensitivity, anxiety, depression. After a few days he tried riding a stationary bike, and he had to stop, because his head hurt. Asked to describe the pain in better detail, Urschel says, “My head would bother me. Just, my head was hurting.”

After some time—Urschel isn’t sure when—the Ravens started giving him the baseline concussion test. Players take the test when they’re in a normal state, and then, after they suffer a concussion, the team re-administers the test to evaluate their cognitive functioning. Urschel had to take the test a number of times; he isn’t sure how many. “I must’ve done really well on that thing [in my normal state], because I was struggling [now],” Urschel says. “I definitely did way too well on that thing.” He remembers being asked questions about colors, shapes and words, as the test assessed his reaction time and memory. It’s meant to be tricky. For example, Urschel remembers that it opened with questions about a list of words—only to come back at the end and ask him to recall those words from the beginning. “I was like, f---, I forgot all of those,” he says.

The real test, in Urschel’s mind, was whether he could still do math. Before the concussion, he had been working on research on a topic called Centroidal Voronoi Tessellation. After the blow to the head, he says, “I tried working on some of this stuff, and it was not going. Just wasn’t going. It was kind of annoying. I was just having a hard time grasping things and following arguments. Visualizing, I had a tough time visualizing. It was just frustrating, really.”

Urschel eventually passed the baseline test and returned to the field, after missing about two weeks. Then the starter ahead of him got hurt, and he ended up starting seven games at center that year. His math ability didn’t return as quickly. “The math took a little longer, just because that’s really high, high-level thinking,” he says. “That took a little while. But before the season was over, I was back.”

Urschel’s third season in the league, 2016, started with another injury. During the Ravens’ first preseason game he hurt the AC joint in his right shoulder diving to cut block a guy. He missed the Ravens’ subsequent three preseason games and then was inactive for the first three games of the season. At one point he started worrying about his roster spot. “I don’t even know,” he told his father. “They might cut me next week.”

This was the season during which, unbeknownst to the outside world, Urschel was taking a course at MIT. The class wasn’t his only non-football activity, either. Urschel was doing additional research with a few of his MIT professors, putting the finishing touches on two papers they had been working on dealing with Determinantal Point Processes, and he was also getting more and more into chess, a hobby he’d picked up during college. He’d started practicing more and reading chess books in his spare time, and he’d befriended several chess masters. Before multiple games in 2016, Urschel would text Robert Hess, a chess grandmaster and a friend of his, asking for advice about chess strategy. “I’m like, John, you’re about to play in an NFL game, don’t you need to focus?” Hess recalls. “And he’s like, I am focused.” If it’s any consolation, Urschel only started three games all year and was mostly a backup.

The following spring was when Urschel passed his qualifying exam, settled into life at MIT, and got a glimpse into what life could look like post-football. He also learned then that Thomas, his fiancée, was pregnant with their first child, and that initiated a dialogue about their future and where football fit. Urschel thought about it a lot. He was in a good place financially; he’d made about $1.6 million in three years, and he’d saved a good chunk of that. If he retired, he could focus more on chess, and becoming a chess master, and on his studies at MIT. He had fallen for life at MIT in general. “It’s my favorite place in the world,” he says, grinning from ear to ear. “I love being here. I love every day I’m here. The happiest I’ve ever been in my life is when I’m at MIT. Ever in my life. EVER in my life! Happiest ever.”

Then there was the prospect of becoming a father. “I started thinking, like, you know, I want to start taking better care of myself,” he says. “Especially when I found out [I’m having] a daughter. The thought of, when my daughter gets married, I want to be there to walk her down the aisle. I want, like, longevity.” Was he worried about suffering another concussion and, down the road, developing CTE? “It definitely factored in,” he says.

Urschel decided that 2017 would be his final season; he even told his MIT professors that’d be the case. Only one thing was holding him back from retiring right then: He felt he had an obligation to the Ravens to play out the final year of his contract. Maybe deep down he felt he still owed the game something for all that it had given him. Urschel didn’t tell the team any of this, though. He attended the offseason workouts—as the Ravens installed a new power-run scheme that didn’t exactly fit his skill set—as if nothing were amiss. But leaving MIT was still hard. The first time Urschel left for OTAs, he asked an MIT friend to periodically rearrange the things on his desk, to make it look as if he were still there. If anyone asks, just say vaguely that I’m around.

The debate in Urschel’s head raged on through the summer. As training camp approached, his family and friends noticed he was getting more and more anxious. In those final days, Urschel had several conversations with his father, the only person close to him who wanted him to keep playing. His father’s thinking was: If he played well this year, he could test free agency and get a bigger contract. A psychologist might suggest that, after giving up on his own football career, John Sr. was living vicariously through his son. “He wasn’t accepting that this was going to be my last season,” Urschel says. “He was in denial.”

Then, two days before camp opened, the Journal of the American Medical Association released a jarring study: Boston University’s CTE center had found the disease in 110 out of 111 of brains of former NFL players it had examined. The study didn’t drastically change Urschel’s thinking, he says. He already knew about the dangers of CTE, and he believes the study suffered from self-selection bias—the brains were donated to the research center for a reason, weren’t they? But the study did spark another round of discussions with Thomas, his fiancée. (She declined to comment for this story.)

On the night after Urschel reported to camp, he stayed up until 3 a.m., thinking things over, texting with Thomas, and FaceTiming with Hess, his chess friend. “It was tense,” Hess says. “He genuinely didn’t know what to do. He’s a mathematician, so he’s weighing the odds.” Then Hess asked a question that cut through the clutter in Urschel’s mind: John, did you get to pick the length of your contract? He hadn’t. Everything clicked into place. “I was like, this is a stupid reason to be going back,” Urschel says.

The next morning he called Harbaugh and broke the news. A few days after that he and Thomas left on a nine-day vacation to watch a premier chess tournament in St. Louis—the first vacation Urschel had taken in he doesn’t know how long.

It’s a Wednesday in late September 2017, and Urschel and Goemans are sitting at a table, hunched over seven pages of notes spread out in front of them. Goemans, the interim head of the MIT math department, is Urschel’s advisor now, and they’re working their way through a problem that Goemans brought to Urschel after he returned from the chess vacation.

It’s called the Asymmetrical Traveling Salesman Problem. The general idea is that there’s a traveling salesman who needs to visit X number of homes, and the job of the mathematician is to figure out in which order he should visit those homes so as to minimize his travel time. It’s a classic problem, a famous problem, the kind that’s discussed in undergraduate courses all over the world. Goemans has been thinking about it for more than 20 years, and he’s enlisted Urschel to help.

This is Urschel’s life now. He’s taking one class at MIT, working on more research, hosting a weekly show on Chess.com, and preparing to become a father come December. He plans get his Ph.D. in the next few years and then apply for a job teaching and doing research at a top university. He’s as happy as he can be. He only hopes that you not lump him with the others who retired in their 20s over concussion concerns. His case is more complex—like one of his math problems. “I don’t regret playing football,” Urschel says. “[Do I have] some brain damage? I don’t know! I mean, I know a bunch of hits as an offensive linemen isn’t good for the brain. … I figured that, even if worst, worst-case scenario—like if I had issues down the road—I would still have a fair amount of time to do, like, good mathematical things.”

Today, Urschel and Goemans review the Traveling Salesman Problem, and Goemans shows Urschel some strategies and tools that he may be able to use to tinker with the problem on his own. They discuss it for more than 90 minutes straight, no breaks.

“Let’s stop, because my brain is exploding,” Goemans finally says, rubbing his forehead.

“I’m with you,” Urschel says, looking a bit dazed, too.

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A Calculated Decision: Why John Urschel Chose Math Over Football

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In late July, John Urschel reported to NFL training camp, just like about 2,800 other players across the league. Urschel checked into the Baltimore Ravens’ hotel, dropped off his bag, and then went to the team facility, where he sat through a full team meeting and an offensive line session. His mind wandered as the coaches went on about goals for the season and what they’d be working on at practice the next day. As a backup offensive lineman, Urschel would be rotating in at center and have to fight all camp just to make the team.

That night, he returned to his room and spent the next couple hours debating with himself whether he wanted to show up the next day. He read math books, played online chess, texted his fiancée, FaceTimed with a friend, and stayed up until 3 a.m., turning the matter over in his head. The next morning, around 6 a.m., he called coach John Harbaugh and told him he was done. He was retiring at age 26, after just three NFL seasons.

“I really, really, really wanted to retire quietly,” Urschel says. “No one notice. Just retire and everything keeps on going, without a single story. Like one little byline, and that’s it. And then there’s nothing else, just ride off into the sunset.”

Instead, when the news broke a few hours later, it made national headlines. It was actually Urschel’s own fault. After the early retirements of Chris Borland and A.J. Tarpley, people assumed that Urschel was another young player leaving the game out of fear of concussions and the long-term affects of CTE. Another study warning of the dangers of football to the brain had been published just two days earlier.

The rest of the day, Urschel’s phone buzzed nonstop from reporters trying to get an interview. He released a statement saying he was excited about taking classes at MIT in the fall and that his fiancée was pregnant with their first child. But he didn’t clarify how he felt about head trauma, and so the reporters kept calling. “That was my worst nightmare,” he says. “I was physically unwell. I was in bed all day, for the first couple of days. Didn’t leave the house. Totally down.”

His phone rang and rang and rang. After a while, Urschel just shut it off.

Whether or not he knew it, Urschel had started on the path to retirement more than two years earlier. After his rookie year, in spring 2015, he’d decided to apply to the doctoral program in math at MIT, to take classes in his free time.

At first, the school was unsure what to do with him: the application deadline had long passed. Several department heads sent his application around to one another anyway. Some of them did not know who he was. They Googled Urschel and found videos of him mauling defensive tackles and giving lectures on advanced mathematical concepts.

“Usually we would say, sorry, it’s not the right time, apply again in six months,” says Michel X. Goemans, the current interim head of the department. “But it was a very atypical case.

Urschel had the requisite credentials to be accepted. He had bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math from Penn State, and he already had five research projects either completed or under way that would result in papers published in respectable journals. He was semifamous for being “the football player who does math.”

“We said, let’s take a risk,” Goemans says. “Let’s see how it goes.”

A year later, in the spring of 2016, during the NFL offseason, Urschel enrolled at MIT and took four classes as a full-time student. While his teammates were working out and vacationing, Urschel was living in Cambridge, Mass., studying numerical linear algebra and random matrix theory, spending his days working on complex mathematical proofs, attending lectures by visiting professors, talking math with people who enjoyed the subject as much as he did, loving every minute of life as an academic … until one day an administrator reminded him that, come fall, come football season, he would have to remain a full-time student. He couldn’t go part-time. The MIT doctoral program doesn’t make exceptions in that regard, even for professional athletes.

“It might’ve been relayed to me in an e-mail when I was applying,” Urschel says, “but I’m bad at e-mails.”

Now he had to figure out how to balance playing football and attending school full time, without offending his employer, the Ravens. When Urschel first applied to MIT, he had texted Harbaugh telling him vaguely that he’d decided to “finish his education.” Harbaugh responded that that was O.K. “Then they hit me back after some time,” Urschel recalls, “because I guess they were like, wait a minute, finish your education? What’s he finishing?” At that point, Urschel says he confessed to the Ravens that he was working on his Ph.D. at MIT, and both sides left it at that. It’s unclear whether Harbaugh understood the time commitment that that would involve. “No one really asked,” Urschel says. “And if you don’t ask me…” (The Ravens declined to make Harbaugh available for an interview for this story.)

So that fall, while living in Maryland, Urschel continued at MIT as a full-time student. He signed up for two classes worth of “reading” credits with Goemans and enrolled in one class on Probability Theory. “I had studied that exact stuff at Penn State,” Urschel says. “If you give me a textbook, and the homework assignments are in the book, I do not need to go to a single day of that class.” Instead, Urschel set up a routine that seemed to work for both sides. After a Sunday Ravens game, he’d spend the night and the subsequent Monday off day doing homework, which he would submit to his professor, Scott Sheffield, typed up neatly, via e-mail. When Sheffield would return the assignments in class, he’d call out Urschel’s name and joke, “Well, we know he’s not here…” Urschel only made it to one class all semester, during the Ravens’ bye week. He still got an A. “His work was consistently excellent,” Sheffield said via e-mail, “and he ended up with one of the top scores in the class.”

Meanwhile, Urschel was also periodically checking in with Goemans about the assignments for his reading credits. But “I’m, like, in season, so I’m busy,” Urschel says. “Michel was like, ‘Send me updates, let me know how it’s going.’ I’m really just skimming things. I’m completely blowing off this other stuff.” And the reading that Urschel was “blowing off” covered topics that would be included on his doctoral qualifying exam, which was coming up in February. If Urschel failed that test and didn’t subsequently pass in a certain period of time, he’d be kicked out of MIT. “Basically I’d be screwed,” he says.

After the Ravens’ finished that 2015 season 5-11, well out of the playoffs, Urschel spent all of January cramming for the qualifying exam. He’d work at the chalkboard in his house for 12 hours a day, reviewing the material, making stacks of notes. Then he’d have Louisa Thomas, his soon-to-be fiancée, quiz him into the night. When the test day finally arrived, Urschel was “nervous like I’ve never been before a football game,” he says. It was an oral exam, so he had to stand in front of three professors who peppered him with questions for three hours.

Well, Urschel passed, and that meant that he could now proceed with the next steps in his doctoral degree. He could pick an advisor, start on his thesis and take a lighter load of classes if he wanted. Suddenly it was that much easier for him to play football and pursue the MIT degree at the same time.

Urschel took no courses in the spring of 2017. He worked a lot on a proof involving combinatorial optimization, played a lot of chess with Louisa, and was settling back into the calm, quiet life of academia … until it came time for him to leave Cambridge and report to OTAs. This time, Urschel hesitated. That’s when a thought crept in, a thought that once would’ve seemed blasphemous to him, a thought he’d wrestle with all summer, up until the night before training camp: He felt guilty about his football career taking time away from his math one.

Math and football had always been linked in Urschel’s mind, for as long as he could remember, going back to his childhood in Buffalo. When he was 3 or 4 years old, his parents divored, and he was alone with his mother. As his mother, Venita Parker, juggled working full-time as a nurse and raising a son, she kept John preoccupied with math and puzzle workbooks. Urschel would devour them and then beg for more. His parents were both academically minded—his mother a nurse who’d later become a lawyer, his father, John Urschel Sr., a renowned thoracic surgeon—and he must’ve caught the bug, too. “Mentally, he cannot stay idle,” Parker says. “His brain is always going, and it’s going at a speed that’s faster than mine for sure. If he’s sitting there, his brain has to be playing some kind of mental sport.”

That carried over to school. Urschel was a quiet, shy, fidgety child, the classic smart kid lost in his own thoughts. After testing him, his elementary school recommended he skip the second grade, but Parker balked. She wanted him around kids his own age. “You could sit in your room doing math all day, and then you don’t develop social skills,” she says.

Playing team sports could help with that, too, and football seemed like a logical choice as he grew tall and put on weight. But he was too big to play Pop Warner, and then his middle school couldn’t find a helmet that fit his head. Now Urschel was chubby and insecure and going through the awkward stage that all new teenagers go through, and so his father retired as the chief of surgery at Beth Israel Medical Center in Boston and returned to Buffalo, to be there for what he considered a critical stage in his son’s life.

For about a year then, when Urschel was in the eighth grade, his father would pick him up from school and they’d spend hours working out, lifting and doing homework together. Around that time, the elder Urschel was taking masters-level math, economics and engineering courses at the University of Buffalo, “just to amuse myself, keep my brain going,” he says. Sometimes he’d take his son to class or review homework with him. “Maybe it was something I was thrashing with for a week or so, trying to get my head around,” John Sr. says. “I think I’m doing good with it. Then I give him a 60-second summary, and he’s off and running with it!” This was the first time they had really spent time bonding, father and son. That Christmas, 2004, Urschel’s father gave him one of his first books on mathematical proofs and wrote an inscription on the inside cover. Urschel still keeps the book in his home, 13 years later:

J.C.

To live a happy life, one has to be able to see the beauty that is around us. That sounds easy, but it is surprisingly difficult to do. It requires mental training. Studying mathematics is an ideal form of mental training. Mathematics strips away the dirt of the world to leaves the beauty and purity of mathematical reasoning.

Enjoy the beauty of reason!

Love Dad

Once Urschel reached high school and his body filled out, he started playing football, which led to his father only growing more involved in his life, more interested in his development. John Sr. would come to every game and stand in the endzone with a pair of binoculars, a pencil and a pad of paper. He’d watch every snap, jot down detailed notes and relay them to his son over postgame meals at TGI Friday’s.

John Sr. had played five years of college football in Canada, on the offensive line and then at linebacker, while he was studying medicine at the University of Alberta. He had enough talent that the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos expressed interest in drafting him, he says, but after graduation he decided to retire from football and start with his residency. “It was a no-brainer,” John Sr. recalls. “I had this figured out [early], that the CFL was a dead end.”

He got his football fix instead by teaching his son the game. The summer before Urschel’s senior year of high school, his father decided it was time he learned how to block the way they did in the ’70s. The elder Urschel bought two sets of used pads, took his son to a field, and had him line up across from him. “I just come out of my stance and wallop the kid,” John Sr. says. “And when I say wallop, I just buried my forehead into his forehead and knocked him back. He just looked at me like, what the hell, Dad?” They practiced the technique all summer until Urschel perfected it: explode out of your stance, meet the defender head-on, drive him back.

“That had a huge influence on my football style,” Urschel says. “Fire out, be aggressive, and just smack them”—he claps loudly—“like, right in the head. Smack them with the crown [of my helmet], right on their chin. Just get under them, smack them, and start driving.”

Using that approach, Urschel developed into the best high school offensive lineman in western New York, and that, in turn, earned him a scholarship to Penn State, where he really came into his own. He sped through two math degrees in four years, taught two undergraduate math classes and won the William V. Campbell Trophy, otherwise known as the Academic Heisman. He also started two seasons on the offensive line, was twice named to the All-Big Ten First Team, and made some of his closest friends on the football team. They were the ones who pulled him out of his office on the weekends in time for last call.

“After his last game at Penn State, he had tears in his eyes,” his mother says, “because he knew that he would never on the field with his friends ever again.”

Leaving Penn State was the first time Urschel had to choose: math or football. Should he start work on his Ph.D., or continue on to the NFL? He was projected to be a mid-rounder in the 2014 NFL draft, but in math “he was a top-five pick,” his father says. “An elite math mind.”

Urschel thought the choice, like his father’s 30 years earlier, was “a no-brainer,” too—but in the opposite direction. He figured he only had a finite amount of time to play football in his prime; he had the rest of his life to do math. The Ravens picked him in the fifth round, No. 175 overall.

Urschel learned quickly, though, that the NFL lacked the charm of college football. When you’re a rookie, he says, the veterans didn’t “even care to know your name.” Except for one, a guard named A.Q. Shipley. He’d gone to Penn State, too, and their college position coach had asked him to look out for Urschel. Shipley gave Urschel tips about technique, answered his questions and generally made him feel welcomed. Then at the end of camp, the Ravens kept Urschel … and cut Shipley. “John felt bad,” Parker, his mother, says. “He was like, Damn. He was used to the team being this brotherhood. … and then they’re gone.”

Even so, Urschel’s first year in the NFL went as well as could be expected. He began the season as a backup and then was thrust into action due to injuries, and he proved to be a good fit for offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s zone-run scheme. Urschel started five games—three in the regular season and two in the playoffs, on the road in Pittsburgh and New England. He now considers starting in those two road playoff games the pinnacle of his career.

All the while, Urschel was still doing math. “Remember,” he says, “I do math in my free time for fun.” He was working on various projects with Ludmil Zikatanov, a Penn State professor who had become a mentor and friend. Specifically, they were making progress on a paper titled, “On the Maximal Error of Spectral Approximation of Graph Bisection.”

It was after that season—after he had started two playoff games—that Urschel decided to apply to MIT. In college he’d been held up as the perfect “student athlete,” and he was proud of that moniker, and he felt as though he’d been neglecting the “student” part since turning pro. “I felt actually kind of guilty,” he says. “I was actually kind of ashamed of myself. I was doing math while I was playing, but I always really prided myself on doing what I wanted to do and not budging on things.” What he wanted to do was play football—and continue his formal education. Plus, he had taken GRE, the standardized test for prospective graduate school students, while at Penn State, and his score would expire in a few years.

A few months later, Urschel started his second NFL camp as a backup again. One day during practice, he was trying to catch the coaches’ eye, pulling around the corner on a power run, when a defender hit him smack in the temple: Urschel was out cold. The next thing he knew, he was in the trainer’s room. Witnesses told him they’d tried carting him off the field, but he’d waved them off. He’d wanted to walk off on his own. Urschel didn’t remember any of that. He had to watch the film to reconstruct what had happened.

Urschel was concussed. He had all of the classic symptoms: headaches, light sensitivity, anxiety, depression. After a few days he tried riding a stationary bike, and he had to stop, because his head hurt. Asked to describe the pain in better detail, Urschel says, “My head would bother me. Just, my head was hurting.”

After some time—Urschel isn’t sure when—the Ravens started giving him the baseline concussion test. Players take the test when they’re in a normal state, and then, after they suffer a concussion, the team re-administers the test to evaluate their cognitive functioning. Urschel had to take the test a number of times; he isn’t sure how many. “I must’ve done really well on that thing [in my normal state], because I was struggling [now],” Urschel says. “I definitely did way too well on that thing.” He remembers being asked questions about colors, shapes and words, as the test assessed his reaction time and memory. It’s meant to be tricky. For example, Urschel remembers that it opened with questions about a list of words—only to come back at the end and ask him to recall those words from the beginning. “I was like, f---, I forgot all of those,” he says.

The real test, in Urschel’s mind, was whether he could still do math. Before the concussion, he had been working on research on a topic called Centroidal Voronoi Tessellation. After the blow to the head, he says, “I tried working on some of this stuff, and it was not going. Just wasn’t going. It was kind of annoying. I was just having a hard time grasping things and following arguments. Visualizing, I had a tough time visualizing. It was just frustrating, really.”

Urschel eventually passed the baseline test and returned to the field, after missing about two weeks. Then the starter ahead of him got hurt, and he ended up starting seven games at center that year. His math ability didn’t return as quickly. “The math took a little longer, just because that’s really high, high-level thinking,” he says. “That took a little while. But before the season was over, I was back.”

Urschel’s third season in the league, 2016, started with another injury. During the Ravens’ first preseason game he hurt the AC joint in his right shoulder diving to cut block a guy. He missed the Ravens’ subsequent three preseason games and then was inactive for the first three games of the season. At one point he started worrying about his roster spot. “I don’t even know,” he told his father. “They might cut me next week.”

This was the season during which, unbeknownst to the outside world, Urschel was taking a course at MIT. The class wasn’t his only non-football activity, either. Urschel was doing additional research with a few of his MIT professors, putting the finishing touches on two papers they had been working on dealing with Determinantal Point Processes, and he was also getting more and more into chess, a hobby he’d picked up during college. He’d started practicing more and reading chess books in his spare time, and he’d befriended several chess masters. Before multiple games in 2016, Urschel would text Robert Hess, a chess grandmaster and a friend of his, asking for advice about chess strategy. “I’m like, John, you’re about to play in an NFL game, don’t you need to focus?” Hess recalls. “And he’s like, I am focused.” If it’s any consolation, Urschel only started three games all year and was mostly a backup.

The following spring was when Urschel passed his qualifying exam, settled into life at MIT, and got a glimpse into what life could look like post-football. He also learned then that Thomas, his fiancée, was pregnant with their first child, and that initiated a dialogue about their future and where football fit. Urschel thought about it a lot. He was in a good place financially; he’d made about $1.6 million in three years, and he’d saved a good chunk of that. If he retired, he could focus more on chess, and becoming a chess master, and on his studies at MIT. He had fallen for life at MIT in general. “It’s my favorite place in the world,” he says, grinning from ear to ear. “I love being here. I love every day I’m here. The happiest I’ve ever been in my life is when I’m at MIT. Ever in my life. EVER in my life! Happiest ever.”

Then there was the prospect of becoming a father. “I started thinking, like, you know, I want to start taking better care of myself,” he says. “Especially when I found out [I’m having] a daughter. The thought of, when my daughter gets married, I want to be there to walk her down the aisle. I want, like, longevity.” Was he worried about suffering another concussion and, down the road, developing CTE? “It definitely factored in,” he says.

Urschel decided that 2017 would be his final season; he even told his MIT professors that’d be the case. Only one thing was holding him back from retiring right then: He felt he had an obligation to the Ravens to play out the final year of his contract. Maybe deep down he felt he still owed the game something for all that it had given him. Urschel didn’t tell the team any of this, though. He attended the offseason workouts—as the Ravens installed a new power-run scheme that didn’t exactly fit his skill set—as if nothing were amiss. But leaving MIT was still hard. The first time Urschel left for OTAs, he asked an MIT friend to periodically rearrange the things on his desk, to make it look as if he were still there. If anyone asks, just say vaguely that I’m around.

The debate in Urschel’s head raged on through the summer. As training camp approached, his family and friends noticed he was getting more and more anxious. In those final days, Urschel had several conversations with his father, the only person close to him who wanted him to keep playing. His father’s thinking was: If he played well this year, he could test free agency and get a bigger contract. A psychologist might suggest that, after giving up on his own football career, John Sr. was living vicariously through his son. “He wasn’t accepting that this was going to be my last season,” Urschel says. “He was in denial.”

Then, two days before camp opened, the Journal of the American Medical Association released a jarring study: Boston University’s CTE center had found the disease in 110 out of 111 of brains of former NFL players it had examined. The study didn’t drastically change Urschel’s thinking, he says. He already knew about the dangers of CTE, and he believes the study suffered from self-selection bias—the brains were donated to the research center for a reason, weren’t they? But the study did spark another round of discussions with Thomas, his fiancée. (She declined to comment for this story.)

On the night after Urschel reported to camp, he stayed up until 3 a.m., thinking things over, texting with Thomas, and FaceTiming with Hess, his chess friend. “It was tense,” Hess says. “He genuinely didn’t know what to do. He’s a mathematician, so he’s weighing the odds.” Then Hess asked a question that cut through the clutter in Urschel’s mind: John, did you get to pick the length of your contract? He hadn’t. Everything clicked into place. “I was like, this is a stupid reason to be going back,” Urschel says.

The next morning he called Harbaugh and broke the news. A few days after that he and Thomas left on a nine-day vacation to watch a premier chess tournament in St. Louis—the first vacation Urschel had taken in he doesn’t know how long.

It’s a Wednesday in late September 2017, and Urschel and Goemans are sitting at a table, hunched over seven pages of notes spread out in front of them. Goemans, the interim head of the MIT math department, is Urschel’s advisor now, and they’re working their way through a problem that Goemans brought to Urschel after he returned from the chess vacation.

It’s called the Asymmetrical Traveling Salesman Problem. The general idea is that there’s a traveling salesman who needs to visit X number of homes, and the job of the mathematician is to figure out in which order he should visit those homes so as to minimize his travel time. It’s a classic problem, a famous problem, the kind that’s discussed in undergraduate courses all over the world. Goemans has been thinking about it for more than 20 years, and he’s enlisted Urschel to help.

This is Urschel’s life now. He’s taking one class at MIT, working on more research, hosting a weekly show on Chess.com, and preparing to become a father come December. He plans get his Ph.D. in the next few years and then apply for a job teaching and doing research at a top university. He’s as happy as he can be. He only hopes that you not lump him with the others who retired in their 20s over concussion concerns. His case is more complex—like one of his math problems. “I don’t regret playing football,” Urschel says. “[Do I have] some brain damage? I don’t know! I mean, I know a bunch of hits as an offensive linemen isn’t good for the brain. … I figured that, even if worst, worst-case scenario—like if I had issues down the road—I would still have a fair amount of time to do, like, good mathematical things.”

Today, Urschel and Goemans review the Traveling Salesman Problem, and Goemans shows Urschel some strategies and tools that he may be able to use to tinker with the problem on his own. They discuss it for more than 90 minutes straight, no breaks.

“Let’s stop, because my brain is exploding,” Goemans finally says, rubbing his forehead.

“I’m with you,” Urschel says, looking a bit dazed, too.

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A Calculated Decision: Why John Urschel Chose Math Over Football

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In late July, John Urschel reported to NFL training camp, just like about 2,800 other players across the league. Urschel checked into the Baltimore Ravens’ hotel, dropped off his bag, and then went to the team facility, where he sat through a full team meeting and an offensive line session. His mind wandered as the coaches went on about goals for the season and what they’d be working on at practice the next day. As a backup offensive lineman, Urschel would be rotating in at center and have to fight all camp just to make the team.

That night, he returned to his room and spent the next couple hours debating with himself whether he wanted to show up the next day. He read math books, played online chess, texted his fiancée, FaceTimed with a friend, and stayed up until 3 a.m., turning the matter over in his head. The next morning, around 6 a.m., he called coach John Harbaugh and told him he was done. He was retiring at age 26, after just three NFL seasons.

“I really, really, really wanted to retire quietly,” Urschel says. “No one notice. Just retire and everything keeps on going, without a single story. Like one little byline, and that’s it. And then there’s nothing else, just ride off into the sunset.”

Instead, when the news broke a few hours later, it made national headlines. It was actually Urschel’s own fault. After the early retirements of Chris Borland and A.J. Tarpley, people assumed that Urschel was another young player leaving the game out of fear of concussions and the long-term affects of CTE. Another study warning of the dangers of football to the brain had been published just two days earlier.

The rest of the day, Urschel’s phone buzzed nonstop from reporters trying to get an interview. He released a statement saying he was excited about taking classes at MIT in the fall and that his fiancée was pregnant with their first child. But he didn’t clarify how he felt about head trauma, and so the reporters kept calling. “That was my worst nightmare,” he says. “I was physically unwell. I was in bed all day, for the first couple of days. Didn’t leave the house. Totally down.”

His phone rang and rang and rang. After a while, Urschel just shut it off.

Whether or not he knew it, Urschel had started on the path to retirement more than two years earlier. After his rookie year, in spring 2015, he’d decided to apply to the doctoral program in math at MIT, to take classes in his free time.

At first, the school was unsure what to do with him: the application deadline had long passed. Several department heads sent his application around to one another anyway. Some of them did not know who he was. They Googled Urschel and found videos of him mauling defensive tackles and giving lectures on advanced mathematical concepts.

“Usually we would say, sorry, it’s not the right time, apply again in six months,” says Michel X. Goemans, the current interim head of the department. “But it was a very atypical case.

Urschel had the requisite credentials to be accepted. He had bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math from Penn State, and he already had five research projects either completed or under way that would result in papers published in respectable journals. He was semifamous for being “the football player who does math.”

“We said, let’s take a risk,” Goemans says. “Let’s see how it goes.”

A year later, in the spring of 2016, during the NFL offseason, Urschel enrolled at MIT and took four classes as a full-time student. While his teammates were working out and vacationing, Urschel was living in Cambridge, Mass., studying numerical linear algebra and random matrix theory, spending his days working on complex mathematical proofs, attending lectures by visiting professors, talking math with people who enjoyed the subject as much as he did, loving every minute of life as an academic … until one day an administrator reminded him that, come fall, come football season, he would have to remain a full-time student. He couldn’t go part-time. The MIT doctoral program doesn’t make exceptions in that regard, even for professional athletes.

“It might’ve been relayed to me in an e-mail when I was applying,” Urschel says, “but I’m bad at e-mails.”

Now he had to figure out how to balance playing football and attending school full time, without offending his employer, the Ravens. When Urschel first applied to MIT, he had texted Harbaugh telling him vaguely that he’d decided to “finish his education.” Harbaugh responded that that was O.K. “Then they hit me back after some time,” Urschel recalls, “because I guess they were like, wait a minute, finish your education? What’s he finishing?” At that point, Urschel says he confessed to the Ravens that he was working on his Ph.D. at MIT, and both sides left it at that. It’s unclear whether Harbaugh understood the time commitment that that would involve. “No one really asked,” Urschel says. “And if you don’t ask me…” (The Ravens declined to make Harbaugh available for an interview for this story.)

So that fall, while living in Maryland, Urschel continued at MIT as a full-time student. He signed up for two classes worth of “reading” credits with Goemans and enrolled in one class on Probability Theory. “I had studied that exact stuff at Penn State,” Urschel says. “If you give me a textbook, and the homework assignments are in the book, I do not need to go to a single day of that class.” Instead, Urschel set up a routine that seemed to work for both sides. After a Sunday Ravens game, he’d spend the night and the subsequent Monday off day doing homework, which he would submit to his professor, Scott Sheffield, typed up neatly, via e-mail. When Sheffield would return the assignments in class, he’d call out Urschel’s name and joke, “Well, we know he’s not here…” Urschel only made it to one class all semester, during the Ravens’ bye week. He still got an A. “His work was consistently excellent,” Sheffield said via e-mail, “and he ended up with one of the top scores in the class.”

Meanwhile, Urschel was also periodically checking in with Goemans about the assignments for his reading credits. But “I’m, like, in season, so I’m busy,” Urschel says. “Michel was like, ‘Send me updates, let me know how it’s going.’ I’m really just skimming things. I’m completely blowing off this other stuff.” And the reading that Urschel was “blowing off” covered topics that would be included on his doctoral qualifying exam, which was coming up in February. If Urschel failed that test and didn’t subsequently pass in a certain period of time, he’d be kicked out of MIT. “Basically I’d be screwed,” he says.

After the Ravens’ finished that 2015 season 5-11, well out of the playoffs, Urschel spent all of January cramming for the qualifying exam. He’d work at the chalkboard in his house for 12 hours a day, reviewing the material, making stacks of notes. Then he’d have Louisa Thomas, his soon-to-be fiancée, quiz him into the night. When the test day finally arrived, Urschel was “nervous like I’ve never been before a football game,” he says. It was an oral exam, so he had to stand in front of three professors who peppered him with questions for three hours.

Well, Urschel passed, and that meant that he could now proceed with the next steps in his doctoral degree. He could pick an advisor, start on his thesis and take a lighter load of classes if he wanted. Suddenly it was that much easier for him to play football and pursue the MIT degree at the same time.

Urschel took no courses in the spring of 2017. He worked a lot on a proof involving combinatorial optimization, played a lot of chess with Louisa, and was settling back into the calm, quiet life of academia … until it came time for him to leave Cambridge and report to OTAs. This time, Urschel hesitated. That’s when a thought crept in, a thought that once would’ve seemed blasphemous to him, a thought he’d wrestle with all summer, up until the night before training camp: He felt guilty about his football career taking time away from his math one.

Math and football had always been linked in Urschel’s mind, for as long as he could remember, going back to his childhood in Buffalo. When he was 3 or 4 years old, his parents divored, and he was alone with his mother. As his mother, Venita Parker, juggled working full-time as a nurse and raising a son, she kept John preoccupied with math and puzzle workbooks. Urschel would devour them and then beg for more. His parents were both academically minded—his mother a nurse who’d later become a lawyer, his father, John Urschel Sr., a renowned thoracic surgeon—and he must’ve caught the bug, too. “Mentally, he cannot stay idle,” Parker says. “His brain is always going, and it’s going at a speed that’s faster than mine for sure. If he’s sitting there, his brain has to be playing some kind of mental sport.”

That carried over to school. Urschel was a quiet, shy, fidgety child, the classic smart kid lost in his own thoughts. After testing him, his elementary school recommended he skip the second grade, but Parker balked. She wanted him around kids his own age. “You could sit in your room doing math all day, and then you don’t develop social skills,” she says.

Playing team sports could help with that, too, and football seemed like a logical choice as he grew tall and put on weight. But he was too big to play Pop Warner, and then his middle school couldn’t find a helmet that fit his head. Now Urschel was chubby and insecure and going through the awkward stage that all new teenagers go through, and so his father retired as the chief of surgery at Beth Israel Medical Center in Boston and returned to Buffalo, to be there for what he considered a critical stage in his son’s life.

For about a year then, when Urschel was in the eighth grade, his father would pick him up from school and they’d spend hours working out, lifting and doing homework together. Around that time, the elder Urschel was taking masters-level math, economics and engineering courses at the University of Buffalo, “just to amuse myself, keep my brain going,” he says. Sometimes he’d take his son to class or review homework with him. “Maybe it was something I was thrashing with for a week or so, trying to get my head around,” John Sr. says. “I think I’m doing good with it. Then I give him a 60-second summary, and he’s off and running with it!” This was the first time they had really spent time bonding, father and son. That Christmas, 2004, Urschel’s father gave him one of his first books on mathematical proofs and wrote an inscription on the inside cover. Urschel still keeps the book in his home, 13 years later:

J.C.

To live a happy life, one has to be able to see the beauty that is around us. That sounds easy, but it is surprisingly difficult to do. It requires mental training. Studying mathematics is an ideal form of mental training. Mathematics strips away the dirt of the world to leaves the beauty and purity of mathematical reasoning.

Enjoy the beauty of reason!

Love Dad

Once Urschel reached high school and his body filled out, he started playing football, which led to his father only growing more involved in his life, more interested in his development. John Sr. would come to every game and stand in the endzone with a pair of binoculars, a pencil and a pad of paper. He’d watch every snap, jot down detailed notes and relay them to his son over postgame meals at TGI Friday’s.

John Sr. had played five years of college football in Canada, on the offensive line and then at linebacker, while he was studying medicine at the University of Alberta. He had enough talent that the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos expressed interest in drafting him, he says, but after graduation he decided to retire from football and start with his residency. “It was a no-brainer,” John Sr. recalls. “I had this figured out [early], that the CFL was a dead end.”

He got his football fix instead by teaching his son the game. The summer before Urschel’s senior year of high school, his father decided it was time he learned how to block the way they did in the ’70s. The elder Urschel bought two sets of used pads, took his son to a field, and had him line up across from him. “I just come out of my stance and wallop the kid,” John Sr. says. “And when I say wallop, I just buried my forehead into his forehead and knocked him back. He just looked at me like, what the hell, Dad?” They practiced the technique all summer until Urschel perfected it: explode out of your stance, meet the defender head-on, drive him back.

“That had a huge influence on my football style,” Urschel says. “Fire out, be aggressive, and just smack them”—he claps loudly—“like, right in the head. Smack them with the crown [of my helmet], right on their chin. Just get under them, smack them, and start driving.”

Using that approach, Urschel developed into the best high school offensive lineman in western New York, and that, in turn, earned him a scholarship to Penn State, where he really came into his own. He sped through two math degrees in four years, taught two undergraduate math classes and won the William V. Campbell Trophy, otherwise known as the Academic Heisman. He also started two seasons on the offensive line, was twice named to the All-Big Ten First Team, and made some of his closest friends on the football team. They were the ones who pulled him out of his office on the weekends in time for last call.

“After his last game at Penn State, he had tears in his eyes,” his mother says, “because he knew that he would never on the field with his friends ever again.”

Leaving Penn State was the first time Urschel had to choose: math or football. Should he start work on his Ph.D., or continue on to the NFL? He was projected to be a mid-rounder in the 2014 NFL draft, but in math “he was a top-five pick,” his father says. “An elite math mind.”

Urschel thought the choice, like his father’s 30 years earlier, was “a no-brainer,” too—but in the opposite direction. He figured he only had a finite amount of time to play football in his prime; he had the rest of his life to do math. The Ravens picked him in the fifth round, No. 175 overall.

Urschel learned quickly, though, that the NFL lacked the charm of college football. When you’re a rookie, he says, the veterans didn’t “even care to know your name.” Except for one, a guard named A.Q. Shipley. He’d gone to Penn State, too, and their college position coach had asked him to look out for Urschel. Shipley gave Urschel tips about technique, answered his questions and generally made him feel welcomed. Then at the end of camp, the Ravens kept Urschel … and cut Shipley. “John felt bad,” Parker, his mother, says. “He was like, Damn. He was used to the team being this brotherhood. … and then they’re gone.”

Even so, Urschel’s first year in the NFL went as well as could be expected. He began the season as a backup and then was thrust into action due to injuries, and he proved to be a good fit for offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s zone-run scheme. Urschel started five games—three in the regular season and two in the playoffs, on the road in Pittsburgh and New England. He now considers starting in those two road playoff games the pinnacle of his career.

All the while, Urschel was still doing math. “Remember,” he says, “I do math in my free time for fun.” He was working on various projects with Ludmil Zikatanov, a Penn State professor who had become a mentor and friend. Specifically, they were making progress on a paper titled, “On the Maximal Error of Spectral Approximation of Graph Bisection.”

It was after that season—after he had started two playoff games—that Urschel decided to apply to MIT. In college he’d been held up as the perfect “student athlete,” and he was proud of that moniker, and he felt as though he’d been neglecting the “student” part since turning pro. “I felt actually kind of guilty,” he says. “I was actually kind of ashamed of myself. I was doing math while I was playing, but I always really prided myself on doing what I wanted to do and not budging on things.” What he wanted to do was play football—and continue his formal education. Plus, he had taken GRE, the standardized test for prospective graduate school students, while at Penn State, and his score would expire in a few years.

A few months later, Urschel started his second NFL camp as a backup again. One day during practice, he was trying to catch the coaches’ eye, pulling around the corner on a power run, when a defender hit him smack in the temple: Urschel was out cold. The next thing he knew, he was in the trainer’s room. Witnesses told him they’d tried carting him off the field, but he’d waved them off. He’d wanted to walk off on his own. Urschel didn’t remember any of that. He had to watch the film to reconstruct what had happened.

Urschel was concussed. He had all of the classic symptoms: headaches, light sensitivity, anxiety, depression. After a few days he tried riding a stationary bike, and he had to stop, because his head hurt. Asked to describe the pain in better detail, Urschel says, “My head would bother me. Just, my head was hurting.”

After some time—Urschel isn’t sure when—the Ravens started giving him the baseline concussion test. Players take the test when they’re in a normal state, and then, after they suffer a concussion, the team re-administers the test to evaluate their cognitive functioning. Urschel had to take the test a number of times; he isn’t sure how many. “I must’ve done really well on that thing [in my normal state], because I was struggling [now],” Urschel says. “I definitely did way too well on that thing.” He remembers being asked questions about colors, shapes and words, as the test assessed his reaction time and memory. It’s meant to be tricky. For example, Urschel remembers that it opened with questions about a list of words—only to come back at the end and ask him to recall those words from the beginning. “I was like, f---, I forgot all of those,” he says.

The real test, in Urschel’s mind, was whether he could still do math. Before the concussion, he had been working on research on a topic called Centroidal Voronoi Tessellation. After the blow to the head, he says, “I tried working on some of this stuff, and it was not going. Just wasn’t going. It was kind of annoying. I was just having a hard time grasping things and following arguments. Visualizing, I had a tough time visualizing. It was just frustrating, really.”

Urschel eventually passed the baseline test and returned to the field, after missing about two weeks. Then the starter ahead of him got hurt, and he ended up starting seven games at center that year. His math ability didn’t return as quickly. “The math took a little longer, just because that’s really high, high-level thinking,” he says. “That took a little while. But before the season was over, I was back.”

Urschel’s third season in the league, 2016, started with another injury. During the Ravens’ first preseason game he hurt the AC joint in his right shoulder diving to cut block a guy. He missed the Ravens’ subsequent three preseason games and then was inactive for the first three games of the season. At one point he started worrying about his roster spot. “I don’t even know,” he told his father. “They might cut me next week.”

This was the season during which, unbeknownst to the outside world, Urschel was taking a course at MIT. The class wasn’t his only non-football activity, either. Urschel was doing additional research with a few of his MIT professors, putting the finishing touches on two papers they had been working on dealing with Determinantal Point Processes, and he was also getting more and more into chess, a hobby he’d picked up during college. He’d started practicing more and reading chess books in his spare time, and he’d befriended several chess masters. Before multiple games in 2016, Urschel would text Robert Hess, a chess grandmaster and a friend of his, asking for advice about chess strategy. “I’m like, John, you’re about to play in an NFL game, don’t you need to focus?” Hess recalls. “And he’s like, I am focused.” If it’s any consolation, Urschel only started three games all year and was mostly a backup.

The following spring was when Urschel passed his qualifying exam, settled into life at MIT, and got a glimpse into what life could look like post-football. He also learned then that Thomas, his fiancée, was pregnant with their first child, and that initiated a dialogue about their future and where football fit. Urschel thought about it a lot. He was in a good place financially; he’d made about $1.6 million in three years, and he’d saved a good chunk of that. If he retired, he could focus more on chess, and becoming a chess master, and on his studies at MIT. He had fallen for life at MIT in general. “It’s my favorite place in the world,” he says, grinning from ear to ear. “I love being here. I love every day I’m here. The happiest I’ve ever been in my life is when I’m at MIT. Ever in my life. EVER in my life! Happiest ever.”

Then there was the prospect of becoming a father. “I started thinking, like, you know, I want to start taking better care of myself,” he says. “Especially when I found out [I’m having] a daughter. The thought of, when my daughter gets married, I want to be there to walk her down the aisle. I want, like, longevity.” Was he worried about suffering another concussion and, down the road, developing CTE? “It definitely factored in,” he says.

Urschel decided that 2017 would be his final season; he even told his MIT professors that’d be the case. Only one thing was holding him back from retiring right then: He felt he had an obligation to the Ravens to play out the final year of his contract. Maybe deep down he felt he still owed the game something for all that it had given him. Urschel didn’t tell the team any of this, though. He attended the offseason workouts—as the Ravens installed a new power-run scheme that didn’t exactly fit his skill set—as if nothing were amiss. But leaving MIT was still hard. The first time Urschel left for OTAs, he asked an MIT friend to periodically rearrange the things on his desk, to make it look as if he were still there. If anyone asks, just say vaguely that I’m around.

The debate in Urschel’s head raged on through the summer. As training camp approached, his family and friends noticed he was getting more and more anxious. In those final days, Urschel had several conversations with his father, the only person close to him who wanted him to keep playing. His father’s thinking was: If he played well this year, he could test free agency and get a bigger contract. A psychologist might suggest that, after giving up on his own football career, John Sr. was living vicariously through his son. “He wasn’t accepting that this was going to be my last season,” Urschel says. “He was in denial.”

Then, two days before camp opened, the Journal of the American Medical Association released a jarring study: Boston University’s CTE center had found the disease in 110 out of 111 of brains of former NFL players it had examined. The study didn’t drastically change Urschel’s thinking, he says. He already knew about the dangers of CTE, and he believes the study suffered from self-selection bias—the brains were donated to the research center for a reason, weren’t they? But the study did spark another round of discussions with Thomas, his fiancée. (She declined to comment for this story.)

On the night after Urschel reported to camp, he stayed up until 3 a.m., thinking things over, texting with Thomas, and FaceTiming with Hess, his chess friend. “It was tense,” Hess says. “He genuinely didn’t know what to do. He’s a mathematician, so he’s weighing the odds.” Then Hess asked a question that cut through the clutter in Urschel’s mind: John, did you get to pick the length of your contract? He hadn’t. Everything clicked into place. “I was like, this is a stupid reason to be going back,” Urschel says.

The next morning he called Harbaugh and broke the news. A few days after that he and Thomas left on a nine-day vacation to watch a premier chess tournament in St. Louis—the first vacation Urschel had taken in he doesn’t know how long.

It’s a Wednesday in late September 2017, and Urschel and Goemans are sitting at a table, hunched over seven pages of notes spread out in front of them. Goemans, the interim head of the MIT math department, is Urschel’s advisor now, and they’re working their way through a problem that Goemans brought to Urschel after he returned from the chess vacation.

It’s called the Asymmetrical Traveling Salesman Problem. The general idea is that there’s a traveling salesman who needs to visit X number of homes, and the job of the mathematician is to figure out in which order he should visit those homes so as to minimize his travel time. It’s a classic problem, a famous problem, the kind that’s discussed in undergraduate courses all over the world. Goemans has been thinking about it for more than 20 years, and he’s enlisted Urschel to help.

This is Urschel’s life now. He’s taking one class at MIT, working on more research, hosting a weekly show on Chess.com, and preparing to become a father come December. He plans get his Ph.D. in the next few years and then apply for a job teaching and doing research at a top university. He’s as happy as he can be. He only hopes that you not lump him with the others who retired in their 20s over concussion concerns. His case is more complex—like one of his math problems. “I don’t regret playing football,” Urschel says. “[Do I have] some brain damage? I don’t know! I mean, I know a bunch of hits as an offensive linemen isn’t good for the brain. … I figured that, even if worst, worst-case scenario—like if I had issues down the road—I would still have a fair amount of time to do, like, good mathematical things.”

Today, Urschel and Goemans review the Traveling Salesman Problem, and Goemans shows Urschel some strategies and tools that he may be able to use to tinker with the problem on his own. They discuss it for more than 90 minutes straight, no breaks.

“Let’s stop, because my brain is exploding,” Goemans finally says, rubbing his forehead.

“I’m with you,” Urschel says, looking a bit dazed, too.

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A Calculated Decision: Why John Urschel Chose Math Over Football

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In late July, John Urschel reported to NFL training camp, just like about 2,800 other players across the league. Urschel checked into the Baltimore Ravens’ hotel, dropped off his bag, and then went to the team facility, where he sat through a full team meeting and an offensive line session. His mind wandered as the coaches went on about goals for the season and what they’d be working on at practice the next day. As a backup offensive lineman, Urschel would be rotating in at center and have to fight all camp just to make the team.

That night, he returned to his room and spent the next couple hours debating with himself whether he wanted to show up the next day. He read math books, played online chess, texted his fiancée, FaceTimed with a friend, and stayed up until 3 a.m., turning the matter over in his head. The next morning, around 6 a.m., he called coach John Harbaugh and told him he was done. He was retiring at age 26, after just three NFL seasons.

“I really, really, really wanted to retire quietly,” Urschel says. “No one notice. Just retire and everything keeps on going, without a single story. Like one little byline, and that’s it. And then there’s nothing else, just ride off into the sunset.”

Instead, when the news broke a few hours later, it made national headlines. It was actually Urschel’s own fault. After the early retirements of Chris Borland and A.J. Tarpley, people assumed that Urschel was another young player leaving the game out of fear of concussions and the long-term affects of CTE. Another study warning of the dangers of football to the brain had been published just two days earlier.

The rest of the day, Urschel’s phone buzzed nonstop from reporters trying to get an interview. He released a statement saying he was excited about taking classes at MIT in the fall and that his fiancée was pregnant with their first child. But he didn’t clarify how he felt about head trauma, and so the reporters kept calling. “That was my worst nightmare,” he says. “I was physically unwell. I was in bed all day, for the first couple of days. Didn’t leave the house. Totally down.”

His phone rang and rang and rang. After a while, Urschel just shut it off.

Whether or not he knew it, Urschel had started on the path to retirement more than two years earlier. After his rookie year, in spring 2015, he’d decided to apply to the doctoral program in math at MIT, to take classes in his free time.

At first, the school was unsure what to do with him: the application deadline had long passed. Several department heads sent his application around to one another anyway. Some of them did not know who he was. They Googled Urschel and found videos of him mauling defensive tackles and giving lectures on advanced mathematical concepts.

“Usually we would say, sorry, it’s not the right time, apply again in six months,” says Michel X. Goemans, the current interim head of the department. “But it was a very atypical case.

Urschel had the requisite credentials to be accepted. He had bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math from Penn State, and he already had five research projects either completed or under way that would result in papers published in respectable journals. He was semifamous for being “the football player who does math.”

“We said, let’s take a risk,” Goemans says. “Let’s see how it goes.”

A year later, in the spring of 2016, during the NFL offseason, Urschel enrolled at MIT and took four classes as a full-time student. While his teammates were working out and vacationing, Urschel was living in Cambridge, Mass., studying numerical linear algebra and random matrix theory, spending his days working on complex mathematical proofs, attending lectures by visiting professors, talking math with people who enjoyed the subject as much as he did, loving every minute of life as an academic … until one day an administrator reminded him that, come fall, come football season, he would have to remain a full-time student. He couldn’t go part-time. The MIT doctoral program doesn’t make exceptions in that regard, even for professional athletes.

“It might’ve been relayed to me in an e-mail when I was applying,” Urschel says, “but I’m bad at e-mails.”

Now he had to figure out how to balance playing football and attending school full time, without offending his employer, the Ravens. When Urschel first applied to MIT, he had texted Harbaugh telling him vaguely that he’d decided to “finish his education.” Harbaugh responded that that was O.K. “Then they hit me back after some time,” Urschel recalls, “because I guess they were like, wait a minute, finish your education? What’s he finishing?” At that point, Urschel says he confessed to the Ravens that he was working on his Ph.D. at MIT, and both sides left it at that. It’s unclear whether Harbaugh understood the time commitment that that would involve. “No one really asked,” Urschel says. “And if you don’t ask me…” (The Ravens declined to make Harbaugh available for an interview for this story.)

So that fall, while living in Maryland, Urschel continued at MIT as a full-time student. He signed up for two classes worth of “reading” credits with Goemans and enrolled in one class on Probability Theory. “I had studied that exact stuff at Penn State,” Urschel says. “If you give me a textbook, and the homework assignments are in the book, I do not need to go to a single day of that class.” Instead, Urschel set up a routine that seemed to work for both sides. After a Sunday Ravens game, he’d spend the night and the subsequent Monday off day doing homework, which he would submit to his professor, Scott Sheffield, typed up neatly, via e-mail. When Sheffield would return the assignments in class, he’d call out Urschel’s name and joke, “Well, we know he’s not here…” Urschel only made it to one class all semester, during the Ravens’ bye week. He still got an A. “His work was consistently excellent,” Sheffield said via e-mail, “and he ended up with one of the top scores in the class.”

Meanwhile, Urschel was also periodically checking in with Goemans about the assignments for his reading credits. But “I’m, like, in season, so I’m busy,” Urschel says. “Michel was like, ‘Send me updates, let me know how it’s going.’ I’m really just skimming things. I’m completely blowing off this other stuff.” And the reading that Urschel was “blowing off” covered topics that would be included on his doctoral qualifying exam, which was coming up in February. If Urschel failed that test and didn’t subsequently pass in a certain period of time, he’d be kicked out of MIT. “Basically I’d be screwed,” he says.

After the Ravens’ finished that 2015 season 5-11, well out of the playoffs, Urschel spent all of January cramming for the qualifying exam. He’d work at the chalkboard in his house for 12 hours a day, reviewing the material, making stacks of notes. Then he’d have Louisa Thomas, his soon-to-be fiancée, quiz him into the night. When the test day finally arrived, Urschel was “nervous like I’ve never been before a football game,” he says. It was an oral exam, so he had to stand in front of three professors who peppered him with questions for three hours.

Well, Urschel passed, and that meant that he could now proceed with the next steps in his doctoral degree. He could pick an advisor, start on his thesis and take a lighter load of classes if he wanted. Suddenly it was that much easier for him to play football and pursue the MIT degree at the same time.

Urschel took no courses in the spring of 2017. He worked a lot on a proof involving combinatorial optimization, played a lot of chess with Louisa, and was settling back into the calm, quiet life of academia … until it came time for him to leave Cambridge and report to OTAs. This time, Urschel hesitated. That’s when a thought crept in, a thought that once would’ve seemed blasphemous to him, a thought he’d wrestle with all summer, up until the night before training camp: He felt guilty about his football career taking time away from his math one.

Math and football had always been linked in Urschel’s mind, for as long as he could remember, going back to his childhood in Buffalo. When he was 3 or 4 years old, his parents divored, and he was alone with his mother. As his mother, Venita Parker, juggled working full-time as a nurse and raising a son, she kept John preoccupied with math and puzzle workbooks. Urschel would devour them and then beg for more. His parents were both academically minded—his mother a nurse who’d later become a lawyer, his father, John Urschel Sr., a renowned thoracic surgeon—and he must’ve caught the bug, too. “Mentally, he cannot stay idle,” Parker says. “His brain is always going, and it’s going at a speed that’s faster than mine for sure. If he’s sitting there, his brain has to be playing some kind of mental sport.”

That carried over to school. Urschel was a quiet, shy, fidgety child, the classic smart kid lost in his own thoughts. After testing him, his elementary school recommended he skip the second grade, but Parker balked. She wanted him around kids his own age. “You could sit in your room doing math all day, and then you don’t develop social skills,” she says.

Playing team sports could help with that, too, and football seemed like a logical choice as he grew tall and put on weight. But he was too big to play Pop Warner, and then his middle school couldn’t find a helmet that fit his head. Now Urschel was chubby and insecure and going through the awkward stage that all new teenagers go through, and so his father retired as the chief of surgery at Beth Israel Medical Center in Boston and returned to Buffalo, to be there for what he considered a critical stage in his son’s life.

For about a year then, when Urschel was in the eighth grade, his father would pick him up from school and they’d spend hours working out, lifting and doing homework together. Around that time, the elder Urschel was taking masters-level math, economics and engineering courses at the University of Buffalo, “just to amuse myself, keep my brain going,” he says. Sometimes he’d take his son to class or review homework with him. “Maybe it was something I was thrashing with for a week or so, trying to get my head around,” John Sr. says. “I think I’m doing good with it. Then I give him a 60-second summary, and he’s off and running with it!” This was the first time they had really spent time bonding, father and son. That Christmas, 2004, Urschel’s father gave him one of his first books on mathematical proofs and wrote an inscription on the inside cover. Urschel still keeps the book in his home, 13 years later:

J.C.

To live a happy life, one has to be able to see the beauty that is around us. That sounds easy, but it is surprisingly difficult to do. It requires mental training. Studying mathematics is an ideal form of mental training. Mathematics strips away the dirt of the world to leaves the beauty and purity of mathematical reasoning.

Enjoy the beauty of reason!

Love Dad

Once Urschel reached high school and his body filled out, he started playing football, which led to his father only growing more involved in his life, more interested in his development. John Sr. would come to every game and stand in the endzone with a pair of binoculars, a pencil and a pad of paper. He’d watch every snap, jot down detailed notes and relay them to his son over postgame meals at TGI Friday’s.

John Sr. had played five years of college football in Canada, on the offensive line and then at linebacker, while he was studying medicine at the University of Alberta. He had enough talent that the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos expressed interest in drafting him, he says, but after graduation he decided to retire from football and start with his residency. “It was a no-brainer,” John Sr. recalls. “I had this figured out [early], that the CFL was a dead end.”

He got his football fix instead by teaching his son the game. The summer before Urschel’s senior year of high school, his father decided it was time he learned how to block the way they did in the ’70s. The elder Urschel bought two sets of used pads, took his son to a field, and had him line up across from him. “I just come out of my stance and wallop the kid,” John Sr. says. “And when I say wallop, I just buried my forehead into his forehead and knocked him back. He just looked at me like, what the hell, Dad?” They practiced the technique all summer until Urschel perfected it: explode out of your stance, meet the defender head-on, drive him back.

“That had a huge influence on my football style,” Urschel says. “Fire out, be aggressive, and just smack them”—he claps loudly—“like, right in the head. Smack them with the crown [of my helmet], right on their chin. Just get under them, smack them, and start driving.”

Using that approach, Urschel developed into the best high school offensive lineman in western New York, and that, in turn, earned him a scholarship to Penn State, where he really came into his own. He sped through two math degrees in four years, taught two undergraduate math classes and won the William V. Campbell Trophy, otherwise known as the Academic Heisman. He also started two seasons on the offensive line, was twice named to the All-Big Ten First Team, and made some of his closest friends on the football team. They were the ones who pulled him out of his office on the weekends in time for last call.

“After his last game at Penn State, he had tears in his eyes,” his mother says, “because he knew that he would never on the field with his friends ever again.”

Leaving Penn State was the first time Urschel had to choose: math or football. Should he start work on his Ph.D., or continue on to the NFL? He was projected to be a mid-rounder in the 2014 NFL draft, but in math “he was a top-five pick,” his father says. “An elite math mind.”

Urschel thought the choice, like his father’s 30 years earlier, was “a no-brainer,” too—but in the opposite direction. He figured he only had a finite amount of time to play football in his prime; he had the rest of his life to do math. The Ravens picked him in the fifth round, No. 175 overall.

Urschel learned quickly, though, that the NFL lacked the charm of college football. When you’re a rookie, he says, the veterans didn’t “even care to know your name.” Except for one, a guard named A.Q. Shipley. He’d gone to Penn State, too, and their college position coach had asked him to look out for Urschel. Shipley gave Urschel tips about technique, answered his questions and generally made him feel welcomed. Then at the end of camp, the Ravens kept Urschel … and cut Shipley. “John felt bad,” Parker, his mother, says. “He was like, Damn. He was used to the team being this brotherhood. … and then they’re gone.”

Even so, Urschel’s first year in the NFL went as well as could be expected. He began the season as a backup and then was thrust into action due to injuries, and he proved to be a good fit for offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s zone-run scheme. Urschel started five games—three in the regular season and two in the playoffs, on the road in Pittsburgh and New England. He now considers starting in those two road playoff games the pinnacle of his career.

All the while, Urschel was still doing math. “Remember,” he says, “I do math in my free time for fun.” He was working on various projects with Ludmil Zikatanov, a Penn State professor who had become a mentor and friend. Specifically, they were making progress on a paper titled, “On the Maximal Error of Spectral Approximation of Graph Bisection.”

It was after that season—after he had started two playoff games—that Urschel decided to apply to MIT. In college he’d been held up as the perfect “student athlete,” and he was proud of that moniker, and he felt as though he’d been neglecting the “student” part since turning pro. “I felt actually kind of guilty,” he says. “I was actually kind of ashamed of myself. I was doing math while I was playing, but I always really prided myself on doing what I wanted to do and not budging on things.” What he wanted to do was play football—and continue his formal education. Plus, he had taken GRE, the standardized test for prospective graduate school students, while at Penn State, and his score would expire in a few years.

A few months later, Urschel started his second NFL camp as a backup again. One day during practice, he was trying to catch the coaches’ eye, pulling around the corner on a power run, when a defender hit him smack in the temple: Urschel was out cold. The next thing he knew, he was in the trainer’s room. Witnesses told him they’d tried carting him off the field, but he’d waved them off. He’d wanted to walk off on his own. Urschel didn’t remember any of that. He had to watch the film to reconstruct what had happened.

Urschel was concussed. He had all of the classic symptoms: headaches, light sensitivity, anxiety, depression. After a few days he tried riding a stationary bike, and he had to stop, because his head hurt. Asked to describe the pain in better detail, Urschel says, “My head would bother me. Just, my head was hurting.”

After some time—Urschel isn’t sure when—the Ravens started giving him the baseline concussion test. Players take the test when they’re in a normal state, and then, after they suffer a concussion, the team re-administers the test to evaluate their cognitive functioning. Urschel had to take the test a number of times; he isn’t sure how many. “I must’ve done really well on that thing [in my normal state], because I was struggling [now],” Urschel says. “I definitely did way too well on that thing.” He remembers being asked questions about colors, shapes and words, as the test assessed his reaction time and memory. It’s meant to be tricky. For example, Urschel remembers that it opened with questions about a list of words—only to come back at the end and ask him to recall those words from the beginning. “I was like, f---, I forgot all of those,” he says.

The real test, in Urschel’s mind, was whether he could still do math. Before the concussion, he had been working on research on a topic called Centroidal Voronoi Tessellation. After the blow to the head, he says, “I tried working on some of this stuff, and it was not going. Just wasn’t going. It was kind of annoying. I was just having a hard time grasping things and following arguments. Visualizing, I had a tough time visualizing. It was just frustrating, really.”

Urschel eventually passed the baseline test and returned to the field, after missing about two weeks. Then the starter ahead of him got hurt, and he ended up starting seven games at center that year. His math ability didn’t return as quickly. “The math took a little longer, just because that’s really high, high-level thinking,” he says. “That took a little while. But before the season was over, I was back.”

Urschel’s third season in the league, 2016, started with another injury. During the Ravens’ first preseason game he hurt the AC joint in his right shoulder diving to cut block a guy. He missed the Ravens’ subsequent three preseason games and then was inactive for the first three games of the season. At one point he started worrying about his roster spot. “I don’t even know,” he told his father. “They might cut me next week.”

This was the season during which, unbeknownst to the outside world, Urschel was taking a course at MIT. The class wasn’t his only non-football activity, either. Urschel was doing additional research with a few of his MIT professors, putting the finishing touches on two papers they had been working on dealing with Determinantal Point Processes, and he was also getting more and more into chess, a hobby he’d picked up during college. He’d started practicing more and reading chess books in his spare time, and he’d befriended several chess masters. Before multiple games in 2016, Urschel would text Robert Hess, a chess grandmaster and a friend of his, asking for advice about chess strategy. “I’m like, John, you’re about to play in an NFL game, don’t you need to focus?” Hess recalls. “And he’s like, I am focused.” If it’s any consolation, Urschel only started three games all year and was mostly a backup.

The following spring was when Urschel passed his qualifying exam, settled into life at MIT, and got a glimpse into what life could look like post-football. He also learned then that Thomas, his fiancée, was pregnant with their first child, and that initiated a dialogue about their future and where football fit. Urschel thought about it a lot. He was in a good place financially; he’d made about $1.6 million in three years, and he’d saved a good chunk of that. If he retired, he could focus more on chess, and becoming a chess master, and on his studies at MIT. He had fallen for life at MIT in general. “It’s my favorite place in the world,” he says, grinning from ear to ear. “I love being here. I love every day I’m here. The happiest I’ve ever been in my life is when I’m at MIT. Ever in my life. EVER in my life! Happiest ever.”

Then there was the prospect of becoming a father. “I started thinking, like, you know, I want to start taking better care of myself,” he says. “Especially when I found out [I’m having] a daughter. The thought of, when my daughter gets married, I want to be there to walk her down the aisle. I want, like, longevity.” Was he worried about suffering another concussion and, down the road, developing CTE? “It definitely factored in,” he says.

Urschel decided that 2017 would be his final season; he even told his MIT professors that’d be the case. Only one thing was holding him back from retiring right then: He felt he had an obligation to the Ravens to play out the final year of his contract. Maybe deep down he felt he still owed the game something for all that it had given him. Urschel didn’t tell the team any of this, though. He attended the offseason workouts—as the Ravens installed a new power-run scheme that didn’t exactly fit his skill set—as if nothing were amiss. But leaving MIT was still hard. The first time Urschel left for OTAs, he asked an MIT friend to periodically rearrange the things on his desk, to make it look as if he were still there. If anyone asks, just say vaguely that I’m around.

The debate in Urschel’s head raged on through the summer. As training camp approached, his family and friends noticed he was getting more and more anxious. In those final days, Urschel had several conversations with his father, the only person close to him who wanted him to keep playing. His father’s thinking was: If he played well this year, he could test free agency and get a bigger contract. A psychologist might suggest that, after giving up on his own football career, John Sr. was living vicariously through his son. “He wasn’t accepting that this was going to be my last season,” Urschel says. “He was in denial.”

Then, two days before camp opened, the Journal of the American Medical Association released a jarring study: Boston University’s CTE center had found the disease in 110 out of 111 of brains of former NFL players it had examined. The study didn’t drastically change Urschel’s thinking, he says. He already knew about the dangers of CTE, and he believes the study suffered from self-selection bias—the brains were donated to the research center for a reason, weren’t they? But the study did spark another round of discussions with Thomas, his fiancée. (She declined to comment for this story.)

On the night after Urschel reported to camp, he stayed up until 3 a.m., thinking things over, texting with Thomas, and FaceTiming with Hess, his chess friend. “It was tense,” Hess says. “He genuinely didn’t know what to do. He’s a mathematician, so he’s weighing the odds.” Then Hess asked a question that cut through the clutter in Urschel’s mind: John, did you get to pick the length of your contract? He hadn’t. Everything clicked into place. “I was like, this is a stupid reason to be going back,” Urschel says.

The next morning he called Harbaugh and broke the news. A few days after that he and Thomas left on a nine-day vacation to watch a premier chess tournament in St. Louis—the first vacation Urschel had taken in he doesn’t know how long.

It’s a Wednesday in late September 2017, and Urschel and Goemans are sitting at a table, hunched over seven pages of notes spread out in front of them. Goemans, the interim head of the MIT math department, is Urschel’s advisor now, and they’re working their way through a problem that Goemans brought to Urschel after he returned from the chess vacation.

It’s called the Asymmetrical Traveling Salesman Problem. The general idea is that there’s a traveling salesman who needs to visit X number of homes, and the job of the mathematician is to figure out in which order he should visit those homes so as to minimize his travel time. It’s a classic problem, a famous problem, the kind that’s discussed in undergraduate courses all over the world. Goemans has been thinking about it for more than 20 years, and he’s enlisted Urschel to help.

This is Urschel’s life now. He’s taking one class at MIT, working on more research, hosting a weekly show on Chess.com, and preparing to become a father come December. He plans get his Ph.D. in the next few years and then apply for a job teaching and doing research at a top university. He’s as happy as he can be. He only hopes that you not lump him with the others who retired in their 20s over concussion concerns. His case is more complex—like one of his math problems. “I don’t regret playing football,” Urschel says. “[Do I have] some brain damage? I don’t know! I mean, I know a bunch of hits as an offensive linemen isn’t good for the brain. … I figured that, even if worst, worst-case scenario—like if I had issues down the road—I would still have a fair amount of time to do, like, good mathematical things.”

Today, Urschel and Goemans review the Traveling Salesman Problem, and Goemans shows Urschel some strategies and tools that he may be able to use to tinker with the problem on his own. They discuss it for more than 90 minutes straight, no breaks.

“Let’s stop, because my brain is exploding,” Goemans finally says, rubbing his forehead.

“I’m with you,” Urschel says, looking a bit dazed, too.

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A Calculated Decision: Why John Urschel Chose Math Over Football

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In late July, John Urschel reported to NFL training camp, just like about 2,800 other players across the league. Urschel checked into the Baltimore Ravens’ hotel, dropped off his bag, and then went to the team facility, where he sat through a full team meeting and an offensive line session. His mind wandered as the coaches went on about goals for the season and what they’d be working on at practice the next day. As a backup offensive lineman, Urschel would be rotating in at center and have to fight all camp just to make the team.

That night, he returned to his room and spent the next couple hours debating with himself whether he wanted to show up the next day. He read math books, played online chess, texted his fiancée, FaceTimed with a friend, and stayed up until 3 a.m., turning the matter over in his head. The next morning, around 6 a.m., he called coach John Harbaugh and told him he was done. He was retiring at age 26, after just three NFL seasons.

“I really, really, really wanted to retire quietly,” Urschel says. “No one notice. Just retire and everything keeps on going, without a single story. Like one little byline, and that’s it. And then there’s nothing else, just ride off into the sunset.”

Instead, when the news broke a few hours later, it made national headlines. It was actually Urschel’s own fault. After the early retirements of Chris Borland and A.J. Tarpley, people assumed that Urschel was another young player leaving the game out of fear of concussions and the long-term affects of CTE. Another study warning of the dangers of football to the brain had been published just two days earlier.

The rest of the day, Urschel’s phone buzzed nonstop from reporters trying to get an interview. He released a statement saying he was excited about taking classes at MIT in the fall and that his fiancée was pregnant with their first child. But he didn’t clarify how he felt about head trauma, and so the reporters kept calling. “That was my worst nightmare,” he says. “I was physically unwell. I was in bed all day, for the first couple of days. Didn’t leave the house. Totally down.”

His phone rang and rang and rang. After a while, Urschel just shut it off.

Whether or not he knew it, Urschel had started on the path to retirement more than two years earlier. After his rookie year, in spring 2015, he’d decided to apply to the doctoral program in math at MIT, to take classes in his free time.

At first, the school was unsure what to do with him: the application deadline had long passed. Several department heads sent his application around to one another anyway. Some of them did not know who he was. They Googled Urschel and found videos of him mauling defensive tackles and giving lectures on advanced mathematical concepts.

“Usually we would say, sorry, it’s not the right time, apply again in six months,” says Michel X. Goemans, the current interim head of the department. “But it was a very atypical case.

Urschel had the requisite credentials to be accepted. He had bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math from Penn State, and he already had five research projects either completed or under way that would result in papers published in respectable journals. He was semifamous for being “the football player who does math.”

“We said, let’s take a risk,” Goemans says. “Let’s see how it goes.”

A year later, in the spring of 2016, during the NFL offseason, Urschel enrolled at MIT and took four classes as a full-time student. While his teammates were working out and vacationing, Urschel was living in Cambridge, Mass., studying numerical linear algebra and random matrix theory, spending his days working on complex mathematical proofs, attending lectures by visiting professors, talking math with people who enjoyed the subject as much as he did, loving every minute of life as an academic … until one day an administrator reminded him that, come fall, come football season, he would have to remain a full-time student. He couldn’t go part-time. The MIT doctoral program doesn’t make exceptions in that regard, even for professional athletes.

“It might’ve been relayed to me in an e-mail when I was applying,” Urschel says, “but I’m bad at e-mails.”

Now he had to figure out how to balance playing football and attending school full time, without offending his employer, the Ravens. When Urschel first applied to MIT, he had texted Harbaugh telling him vaguely that he’d decided to “finish his education.” Harbaugh responded that that was O.K. “Then they hit me back after some time,” Urschel recalls, “because I guess they were like, wait a minute, finish your education? What’s he finishing?” At that point, Urschel says he confessed to the Ravens that he was working on his Ph.D. at MIT, and both sides left it at that. It’s unclear whether Harbaugh understood the time commitment that that would involve. “No one really asked,” Urschel says. “And if you don’t ask me…” (The Ravens declined to make Harbaugh available for an interview for this story.)

So that fall, while living in Maryland, Urschel continued at MIT as a full-time student. He signed up for two classes worth of “reading” credits with Goemans and enrolled in one class on Probability Theory. “I had studied that exact stuff at Penn State,” Urschel says. “If you give me a textbook, and the homework assignments are in the book, I do not need to go to a single day of that class.” Instead, Urschel set up a routine that seemed to work for both sides. After a Sunday Ravens game, he’d spend the night and the subsequent Monday off day doing homework, which he would submit to his professor, Scott Sheffield, typed up neatly, via e-mail. When Sheffield would return the assignments in class, he’d call out Urschel’s name and joke, “Well, we know he’s not here…” Urschel only made it to one class all semester, during the Ravens’ bye week. He still got an A. “His work was consistently excellent,” Sheffield said via e-mail, “and he ended up with one of the top scores in the class.”

Meanwhile, Urschel was also periodically checking in with Goemans about the assignments for his reading credits. But “I’m, like, in season, so I’m busy,” Urschel says. “Michel was like, ‘Send me updates, let me know how it’s going.’ I’m really just skimming things. I’m completely blowing off this other stuff.” And the reading that Urschel was “blowing off” covered topics that would be included on his doctoral qualifying exam, which was coming up in February. If Urschel failed that test and didn’t subsequently pass in a certain period of time, he’d be kicked out of MIT. “Basically I’d be screwed,” he says.

After the Ravens’ finished that 2015 season 5-11, well out of the playoffs, Urschel spent all of January cramming for the qualifying exam. He’d work at the chalkboard in his house for 12 hours a day, reviewing the material, making stacks of notes. Then he’d have Louisa Thomas, his soon-to-be fiancée, quiz him into the night. When the test day finally arrived, Urschel was “nervous like I’ve never been before a football game,” he says. It was an oral exam, so he had to stand in front of three professors who peppered him with questions for three hours.

Well, Urschel passed, and that meant that he could now proceed with the next steps in his doctoral degree. He could pick an advisor, start on his thesis and take a lighter load of classes if he wanted. Suddenly it was that much easier for him to play football and pursue the MIT degree at the same time.

Urschel took no courses in the spring of 2017. He worked a lot on a proof involving combinatorial optimization, played a lot of chess with Louisa, and was settling back into the calm, quiet life of academia … until it came time for him to leave Cambridge and report to OTAs. This time, Urschel hesitated. That’s when a thought crept in, a thought that once would’ve seemed blasphemous to him, a thought he’d wrestle with all summer, up until the night before training camp: He felt guilty about his football career taking time away from his math one.

Math and football had always been linked in Urschel’s mind, for as long as he could remember, going back to his childhood in Buffalo. When he was 3 or 4 years old, his parents divored, and he was alone with his mother. As his mother, Venita Parker, juggled working full-time as a nurse and raising a son, she kept John preoccupied with math and puzzle workbooks. Urschel would devour them and then beg for more. His parents were both academically minded—his mother a nurse who’d later become a lawyer, his father, John Urschel Sr., a renowned thoracic surgeon—and he must’ve caught the bug, too. “Mentally, he cannot stay idle,” Parker says. “His brain is always going, and it’s going at a speed that’s faster than mine for sure. If he’s sitting there, his brain has to be playing some kind of mental sport.”

That carried over to school. Urschel was a quiet, shy, fidgety child, the classic smart kid lost in his own thoughts. After testing him, his elementary school recommended he skip the second grade, but Parker balked. She wanted him around kids his own age. “You could sit in your room doing math all day, and then you don’t develop social skills,” she says.

Playing team sports could help with that, too, and football seemed like a logical choice as he grew tall and put on weight. But he was too big to play Pop Warner, and then his middle school couldn’t find a helmet that fit his head. Now Urschel was chubby and insecure and going through the awkward stage that all new teenagers go through, and so his father retired as the chief of surgery at Beth Israel Medical Center in Boston and returned to Buffalo, to be there for what he considered a critical stage in his son’s life.

For about a year then, when Urschel was in the eighth grade, his father would pick him up from school and they’d spend hours working out, lifting and doing homework together. Around that time, the elder Urschel was taking masters-level math, economics and engineering courses at the University of Buffalo, “just to amuse myself, keep my brain going,” he says. Sometimes he’d take his son to class or review homework with him. “Maybe it was something I was thrashing with for a week or so, trying to get my head around,” John Sr. says. “I think I’m doing good with it. Then I give him a 60-second summary, and he’s off and running with it!” This was the first time they had really spent time bonding, father and son. That Christmas, 2004, Urschel’s father gave him one of his first books on mathematical proofs and wrote an inscription on the inside cover. Urschel still keeps the book in his home, 13 years later:

J.C.

To live a happy life, one has to be able to see the beauty that is around us. That sounds easy, but it is surprisingly difficult to do. It requires mental training. Studying mathematics is an ideal form of mental training. Mathematics strips away the dirt of the world to leaves the beauty and purity of mathematical reasoning.

Enjoy the beauty of reason!

Love Dad

Once Urschel reached high school and his body filled out, he started playing football, which led to his father only growing more involved in his life, more interested in his development. John Sr. would come to every game and stand in the endzone with a pair of binoculars, a pencil and a pad of paper. He’d watch every snap, jot down detailed notes and relay them to his son over postgame meals at TGI Friday’s.

John Sr. had played five years of college football in Canada, on the offensive line and then at linebacker, while he was studying medicine at the University of Alberta. He had enough talent that the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos expressed interest in drafting him, he says, but after graduation he decided to retire from football and start with his residency. “It was a no-brainer,” John Sr. recalls. “I had this figured out [early], that the CFL was a dead end.”

He got his football fix instead by teaching his son the game. The summer before Urschel’s senior year of high school, his father decided it was time he learned how to block the way they did in the ’70s. The elder Urschel bought two sets of used pads, took his son to a field, and had him line up across from him. “I just come out of my stance and wallop the kid,” John Sr. says. “And when I say wallop, I just buried my forehead into his forehead and knocked him back. He just looked at me like, what the hell, Dad?” They practiced the technique all summer until Urschel perfected it: explode out of your stance, meet the defender head-on, drive him back.

“That had a huge influence on my football style,” Urschel says. “Fire out, be aggressive, and just smack them”—he claps loudly—“like, right in the head. Smack them with the crown [of my helmet], right on their chin. Just get under them, smack them, and start driving.”

Using that approach, Urschel developed into the best high school offensive lineman in western New York, and that, in turn, earned him a scholarship to Penn State, where he really came into his own. He sped through two math degrees in four years, taught two undergraduate math classes and won the William V. Campbell Trophy, otherwise known as the Academic Heisman. He also started two seasons on the offensive line, was twice named to the All-Big Ten First Team, and made some of his closest friends on the football team. They were the ones who pulled him out of his office on the weekends in time for last call.

“After his last game at Penn State, he had tears in his eyes,” his mother says, “because he knew that he would never on the field with his friends ever again.”

Leaving Penn State was the first time Urschel had to choose: math or football. Should he start work on his Ph.D., or continue on to the NFL? He was projected to be a mid-rounder in the 2014 NFL draft, but in math “he was a top-five pick,” his father says. “An elite math mind.”

Urschel thought the choice, like his father’s 30 years earlier, was “a no-brainer,” too—but in the opposite direction. He figured he only had a finite amount of time to play football in his prime; he had the rest of his life to do math. The Ravens picked him in the fifth round, No. 175 overall.

Urschel learned quickly, though, that the NFL lacked the charm of college football. When you’re a rookie, he says, the veterans didn’t “even care to know your name.” Except for one, a guard named A.Q. Shipley. He’d gone to Penn State, too, and their college position coach had asked him to look out for Urschel. Shipley gave Urschel tips about technique, answered his questions and generally made him feel welcomed. Then at the end of camp, the Ravens kept Urschel … and cut Shipley. “John felt bad,” Parker, his mother, says. “He was like, Damn. He was used to the team being this brotherhood. … and then they’re gone.”

Even so, Urschel’s first year in the NFL went as well as could be expected. He began the season as a backup and then was thrust into action due to injuries, and he proved to be a good fit for offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s zone-run scheme. Urschel started five games—three in the regular season and two in the playoffs, on the road in Pittsburgh and New England. He now considers starting in those two road playoff games the pinnacle of his career.

All the while, Urschel was still doing math. “Remember,” he says, “I do math in my free time for fun.” He was working on various projects with Ludmil Zikatanov, a Penn State professor who had become a mentor and friend. Specifically, they were making progress on a paper titled, “On the Maximal Error of Spectral Approximation of Graph Bisection.”

It was after that season—after he had started two playoff games—that Urschel decided to apply to MIT. In college he’d been held up as the perfect “student athlete,” and he was proud of that moniker, and he felt as though he’d been neglecting the “student” part since turning pro. “I felt actually kind of guilty,” he says. “I was actually kind of ashamed of myself. I was doing math while I was playing, but I always really prided myself on doing what I wanted to do and not budging on things.” What he wanted to do was play football—and continue his formal education. Plus, he had taken GRE, the standardized test for prospective graduate school students, while at Penn State, and his score would expire in a few years.

A few months later, Urschel started his second NFL camp as a backup again. One day during practice, he was trying to catch the coaches’ eye, pulling around the corner on a power run, when a defender hit him smack in the temple: Urschel was out cold. The next thing he knew, he was in the trainer’s room. Witnesses told him they’d tried carting him off the field, but he’d waved them off. He’d wanted to walk off on his own. Urschel didn’t remember any of that. He had to watch the film to reconstruct what had happened.

Urschel was concussed. He had all of the classic symptoms: headaches, light sensitivity, anxiety, depression. After a few days he tried riding a stationary bike, and he had to stop, because his head hurt. Asked to describe the pain in better detail, Urschel says, “My head would bother me. Just, my head was hurting.”

After some time—Urschel isn’t sure when—the Ravens started giving him the baseline concussion test. Players take the test when they’re in a normal state, and then, after they suffer a concussion, the team re-administers the test to evaluate their cognitive functioning. Urschel had to take the test a number of times; he isn’t sure how many. “I must’ve done really well on that thing [in my normal state], because I was struggling [now],” Urschel says. “I definitely did way too well on that thing.” He remembers being asked questions about colors, shapes and words, as the test assessed his reaction time and memory. It’s meant to be tricky. For example, Urschel remembers that it opened with questions about a list of words—only to come back at the end and ask him to recall those words from the beginning. “I was like, f---, I forgot all of those,” he says.

The real test, in Urschel’s mind, was whether he could still do math. Before the concussion, he had been working on research on a topic called Centroidal Voronoi Tessellation. After the blow to the head, he says, “I tried working on some of this stuff, and it was not going. Just wasn’t going. It was kind of annoying. I was just having a hard time grasping things and following arguments. Visualizing, I had a tough time visualizing. It was just frustrating, really.”

Urschel eventually passed the baseline test and returned to the field, after missing about two weeks. Then the starter ahead of him got hurt, and he ended up starting seven games at center that year. His math ability didn’t return as quickly. “The math took a little longer, just because that’s really high, high-level thinking,” he says. “That took a little while. But before the season was over, I was back.”

Urschel’s third season in the league, 2016, started with another injury. During the Ravens’ first preseason game he hurt the AC joint in his right shoulder diving to cut block a guy. He missed the Ravens’ subsequent three preseason games and then was inactive for the first three games of the season. At one point he started worrying about his roster spot. “I don’t even know,” he told his father. “They might cut me next week.”

This was the season during which, unbeknownst to the outside world, Urschel was taking a course at MIT. The class wasn’t his only non-football activity, either. Urschel was doing additional research with a few of his MIT professors, putting the finishing touches on two papers they had been working on dealing with Determinantal Point Processes, and he was also getting more and more into chess, a hobby he’d picked up during college. He’d started practicing more and reading chess books in his spare time, and he’d befriended several chess masters. Before multiple games in 2016, Urschel would text Robert Hess, a chess grandmaster and a friend of his, asking for advice about chess strategy. “I’m like, John, you’re about to play in an NFL game, don’t you need to focus?” Hess recalls. “And he’s like, I am focused.” If it’s any consolation, Urschel only started three games all year and was mostly a backup.

The following spring was when Urschel passed his qualifying exam, settled into life at MIT, and got a glimpse into what life could look like post-football. He also learned then that Thomas, his fiancée, was pregnant with their first child, and that initiated a dialogue about their future and where football fit. Urschel thought about it a lot. He was in a good place financially; he’d made about $1.6 million in three years, and he’d saved a good chunk of that. If he retired, he could focus more on chess, and becoming a chess master, and on his studies at MIT. He had fallen for life at MIT in general. “It’s my favorite place in the world,” he says, grinning from ear to ear. “I love being here. I love every day I’m here. The happiest I’ve ever been in my life is when I’m at MIT. Ever in my life. EVER in my life! Happiest ever.”

Then there was the prospect of becoming a father. “I started thinking, like, you know, I want to start taking better care of myself,” he says. “Especially when I found out [I’m having] a daughter. The thought of, when my daughter gets married, I want to be there to walk her down the aisle. I want, like, longevity.” Was he worried about suffering another concussion and, down the road, developing CTE? “It definitely factored in,” he says.

Urschel decided that 2017 would be his final season; he even told his MIT professors that’d be the case. Only one thing was holding him back from retiring right then: He felt he had an obligation to the Ravens to play out the final year of his contract. Maybe deep down he felt he still owed the game something for all that it had given him. Urschel didn’t tell the team any of this, though. He attended the offseason workouts—as the Ravens installed a new power-run scheme that didn’t exactly fit his skill set—as if nothing were amiss. But leaving MIT was still hard. The first time Urschel left for OTAs, he asked an MIT friend to periodically rearrange the things on his desk, to make it look as if he were still there. If anyone asks, just say vaguely that I’m around.

The debate in Urschel’s head raged on through the summer. As training camp approached, his family and friends noticed he was getting more and more anxious. In those final days, Urschel had several conversations with his father, the only person close to him who wanted him to keep playing. His father’s thinking was: If he played well this year, he could test free agency and get a bigger contract. A psychologist might suggest that, after giving up on his own football career, John Sr. was living vicariously through his son. “He wasn’t accepting that this was going to be my last season,” Urschel says. “He was in denial.”

Then, two days before camp opened, the Journal of the American Medical Association released a jarring study: Boston University’s CTE center had found the disease in 110 out of 111 of brains of former NFL players it had examined. The study didn’t drastically change Urschel’s thinking, he says. He already knew about the dangers of CTE, and he believes the study suffered from self-selection bias—the brains were donated to the research center for a reason, weren’t they? But the study did spark another round of discussions with Thomas, his fiancée. (She declined to comment for this story.)

On the night after Urschel reported to camp, he stayed up until 3 a.m., thinking things over, texting with Thomas, and FaceTiming with Hess, his chess friend. “It was tense,” Hess says. “He genuinely didn’t know what to do. He’s a mathematician, so he’s weighing the odds.” Then Hess asked a question that cut through the clutter in Urschel’s mind: John, did you get to pick the length of your contract? He hadn’t. Everything clicked into place. “I was like, this is a stupid reason to be going back,” Urschel says.

The next morning he called Harbaugh and broke the news. A few days after that he and Thomas left on a nine-day vacation to watch a premier chess tournament in St. Louis—the first vacation Urschel had taken in he doesn’t know how long.

It’s a Wednesday in late September 2017, and Urschel and Goemans are sitting at a table, hunched over seven pages of notes spread out in front of them. Goemans, the interim head of the MIT math department, is Urschel’s advisor now, and they’re working their way through a problem that Goemans brought to Urschel after he returned from the chess vacation.

It’s called the Asymmetrical Traveling Salesman Problem. The general idea is that there’s a traveling salesman who needs to visit X number of homes, and the job of the mathematician is to figure out in which order he should visit those homes so as to minimize his travel time. It’s a classic problem, a famous problem, the kind that’s discussed in undergraduate courses all over the world. Goemans has been thinking about it for more than 20 years, and he’s enlisted Urschel to help.

This is Urschel’s life now. He’s taking one class at MIT, working on more research, hosting a weekly show on Chess.com, and preparing to become a father come December. He plans get his Ph.D. in the next few years and then apply for a job teaching and doing research at a top university. He’s as happy as he can be. He only hopes that you not lump him with the others who retired in their 20s over concussion concerns. His case is more complex—like one of his math problems. “I don’t regret playing football,” Urschel says. “[Do I have] some brain damage? I don’t know! I mean, I know a bunch of hits as an offensive linemen isn’t good for the brain. … I figured that, even if worst, worst-case scenario—like if I had issues down the road—I would still have a fair amount of time to do, like, good mathematical things.”

Today, Urschel and Goemans review the Traveling Salesman Problem, and Goemans shows Urschel some strategies and tools that he may be able to use to tinker with the problem on his own. They discuss it for more than 90 minutes straight, no breaks.

“Let’s stop, because my brain is exploding,” Goemans finally says, rubbing his forehead.

“I’m with you,” Urschel says, looking a bit dazed, too.

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A Calculated Decision: Why John Urschel Chose Math Over Football

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In late July, John Urschel reported to NFL training camp, just like about 2,800 other players across the league. Urschel checked into the Baltimore Ravens’ hotel, dropped off his bag, and then went to the team facility, where he sat through a full team meeting and an offensive line session. His mind wandered as the coaches went on about goals for the season and what they’d be working on at practice the next day. As a backup offensive lineman, Urschel would be rotating in at center and have to fight all camp just to make the team.

That night, he returned to his room and spent the next couple hours debating with himself whether he wanted to show up the next day. He read math books, played online chess, texted his fiancée, FaceTimed with a friend, and stayed up until 3 a.m., turning the matter over in his head. The next morning, around 6 a.m., he called coach John Harbaugh and told him he was done. He was retiring at age 26, after just three NFL seasons.

“I really, really, really wanted to retire quietly,” Urschel says. “No one notice. Just retire and everything keeps on going, without a single story. Like one little byline, and that’s it. And then there’s nothing else, just ride off into the sunset.”

Instead, when the news broke a few hours later, it made national headlines. It was actually Urschel’s own fault. After the early retirements of Chris Borland and A.J. Tarpley, people assumed that Urschel was another young player leaving the game out of fear of concussions and the long-term affects of CTE. Another study warning of the dangers of football to the brain had been published just two days earlier.

The rest of the day, Urschel’s phone buzzed nonstop from reporters trying to get an interview. He released a statement saying he was excited about taking classes at MIT in the fall and that his fiancée was pregnant with their first child. But he didn’t clarify how he felt about head trauma, and so the reporters kept calling. “That was my worst nightmare,” he says. “I was physically unwell. I was in bed all day, for the first couple of days. Didn’t leave the house. Totally down.”

His phone rang and rang and rang. After a while, Urschel just shut it off.

Whether or not he knew it, Urschel had started on the path to retirement more than two years earlier. After his rookie year, in spring 2015, he’d decided to apply to the doctoral program in math at MIT, to take classes in his free time.

At first, the school was unsure what to do with him: the application deadline had long passed. Several department heads sent his application around to one another anyway. Some of them did not know who he was. They Googled Urschel and found videos of him mauling defensive tackles and giving lectures on advanced mathematical concepts.

“Usually we would say, sorry, it’s not the right time, apply again in six months,” says Michel X. Goemans, the current interim head of the department. “But it was a very atypical case.

Urschel had the requisite credentials to be accepted. He had bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math from Penn State, and he already had five research projects either completed or under way that would result in papers published in respectable journals. He was semifamous for being “the football player who does math.”

“We said, let’s take a risk,” Goemans says. “Let’s see how it goes.”

A year later, in the spring of 2016, during the NFL offseason, Urschel enrolled at MIT and took four classes as a full-time student. While his teammates were working out and vacationing, Urschel was living in Cambridge, Mass., studying numerical linear algebra and random matrix theory, spending his days working on complex mathematical proofs, attending lectures by visiting professors, talking math with people who enjoyed the subject as much as he did, loving every minute of life as an academic … until one day an administrator reminded him that, come fall, come football season, he would have to remain a full-time student. He couldn’t go part-time. The MIT doctoral program doesn’t make exceptions in that regard, even for professional athletes.

“It might’ve been relayed to me in an e-mail when I was applying,” Urschel says, “but I’m bad at e-mails.”

Now he had to figure out how to balance playing football and attending school full time, without offending his employer, the Ravens. When Urschel first applied to MIT, he had texted Harbaugh telling him vaguely that he’d decided to “finish his education.” Harbaugh responded that that was O.K. “Then they hit me back after some time,” Urschel recalls, “because I guess they were like, wait a minute, finish your education? What’s he finishing?” At that point, Urschel says he confessed to the Ravens that he was working on his Ph.D. at MIT, and both sides left it at that. It’s unclear whether Harbaugh understood the time commitment that that would involve. “No one really asked,” Urschel says. “And if you don’t ask me…” (The Ravens declined to make Harbaugh available for an interview for this story.)

So that fall, while living in Maryland, Urschel continued at MIT as a full-time student. He signed up for two classes worth of “reading” credits with Goemans and enrolled in one class on Probability Theory. “I had studied that exact stuff at Penn State,” Urschel says. “If you give me a textbook, and the homework assignments are in the book, I do not need to go to a single day of that class.” Instead, Urschel set up a routine that seemed to work for both sides. After a Sunday Ravens game, he’d spend the night and the subsequent Monday off day doing homework, which he would submit to his professor, Scott Sheffield, typed up neatly, via e-mail. When Sheffield would return the assignments in class, he’d call out Urschel’s name and joke, “Well, we know he’s not here…” Urschel only made it to one class all semester, during the Ravens’ bye week. He still got an A. “His work was consistently excellent,” Sheffield said via e-mail, “and he ended up with one of the top scores in the class.”

Meanwhile, Urschel was also periodically checking in with Goemans about the assignments for his reading credits. But “I’m, like, in season, so I’m busy,” Urschel says. “Michel was like, ‘Send me updates, let me know how it’s going.’ I’m really just skimming things. I’m completely blowing off this other stuff.” And the reading that Urschel was “blowing off” covered topics that would be included on his doctoral qualifying exam, which was coming up in February. If Urschel failed that test and didn’t subsequently pass in a certain period of time, he’d be kicked out of MIT. “Basically I’d be screwed,” he says.

After the Ravens’ finished that 2015 season 5-11, well out of the playoffs, Urschel spent all of January cramming for the qualifying exam. He’d work at the chalkboard in his house for 12 hours a day, reviewing the material, making stacks of notes. Then he’d have Louisa Thomas, his soon-to-be fiancée, quiz him into the night. When the test day finally arrived, Urschel was “nervous like I’ve never been before a football game,” he says. It was an oral exam, so he had to stand in front of three professors who peppered him with questions for three hours.

Well, Urschel passed, and that meant that he could now proceed with the next steps in his doctoral degree. He could pick an advisor, start on his thesis and take a lighter load of classes if he wanted. Suddenly it was that much easier for him to play football and pursue the MIT degree at the same time.

Urschel took no courses in the spring of 2017. He worked a lot on a proof involving combinatorial optimization, played a lot of chess with Louisa, and was settling back into the calm, quiet life of academia … until it came time for him to leave Cambridge and report to OTAs. This time, Urschel hesitated. That’s when a thought crept in, a thought that once would’ve seemed blasphemous to him, a thought he’d wrestle with all summer, up until the night before training camp: He felt guilty about his football career taking time away from his math one.

Math and football had always been linked in Urschel’s mind, for as long as he could remember, going back to his childhood in Buffalo. When he was 3 or 4 years old, his parents divored, and he was alone with his mother. As his mother, Venita Parker, juggled working full-time as a nurse and raising a son, she kept John preoccupied with math and puzzle workbooks. Urschel would devour them and then beg for more. His parents were both academically minded—his mother a nurse who’d later become a lawyer, his father, John Urschel Sr., a renowned thoracic surgeon—and he must’ve caught the bug, too. “Mentally, he cannot stay idle,” Parker says. “His brain is always going, and it’s going at a speed that’s faster than mine for sure. If he’s sitting there, his brain has to be playing some kind of mental sport.”

That carried over to school. Urschel was a quiet, shy, fidgety child, the classic smart kid lost in his own thoughts. After testing him, his elementary school recommended he skip the second grade, but Parker balked. She wanted him around kids his own age. “You could sit in your room doing math all day, and then you don’t develop social skills,” she says.

Playing team sports could help with that, too, and football seemed like a logical choice as he grew tall and put on weight. But he was too big to play Pop Warner, and then his middle school couldn’t find a helmet that fit his head. Now Urschel was chubby and insecure and going through the awkward stage that all new teenagers go through, and so his father retired as the chief of surgery at Beth Israel Medical Center in Boston and returned to Buffalo, to be there for what he considered a critical stage in his son’s life.

For about a year then, when Urschel was in the eighth grade, his father would pick him up from school and they’d spend hours working out, lifting and doing homework together. Around that time, the elder Urschel was taking masters-level math, economics and engineering courses at the University of Buffalo, “just to amuse myself, keep my brain going,” he says. Sometimes he’d take his son to class or review homework with him. “Maybe it was something I was thrashing with for a week or so, trying to get my head around,” John Sr. says. “I think I’m doing good with it. Then I give him a 60-second summary, and he’s off and running with it!” This was the first time they had really spent time bonding, father and son. That Christmas, 2004, Urschel’s father gave him one of his first books on mathematical proofs and wrote an inscription on the inside cover. Urschel still keeps the book in his home, 13 years later:

J.C.

To live a happy life, one has to be able to see the beauty that is around us. That sounds easy, but it is surprisingly difficult to do. It requires mental training. Studying mathematics is an ideal form of mental training. Mathematics strips away the dirt of the world to leaves the beauty and purity of mathematical reasoning.

Enjoy the beauty of reason!

Love Dad

Once Urschel reached high school and his body filled out, he started playing football, which led to his father only growing more involved in his life, more interested in his development. John Sr. would come to every game and stand in the endzone with a pair of binoculars, a pencil and a pad of paper. He’d watch every snap, jot down detailed notes and relay them to his son over postgame meals at TGI Friday’s.

John Sr. had played five years of college football in Canada, on the offensive line and then at linebacker, while he was studying medicine at the University of Alberta. He had enough talent that the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos expressed interest in drafting him, he says, but after graduation he decided to retire from football and start with his residency. “It was a no-brainer,” John Sr. recalls. “I had this figured out [early], that the CFL was a dead end.”

He got his football fix instead by teaching his son the game. The summer before Urschel’s senior year of high school, his father decided it was time he learned how to block the way they did in the ’70s. The elder Urschel bought two sets of used pads, took his son to a field, and had him line up across from him. “I just come out of my stance and wallop the kid,” John Sr. says. “And when I say wallop, I just buried my forehead into his forehead and knocked him back. He just looked at me like, what the hell, Dad?” They practiced the technique all summer until Urschel perfected it: explode out of your stance, meet the defender head-on, drive him back.

“That had a huge influence on my football style,” Urschel says. “Fire out, be aggressive, and just smack them”—he claps loudly—“like, right in the head. Smack them with the crown [of my helmet], right on their chin. Just get under them, smack them, and start driving.”

Using that approach, Urschel developed into the best high school offensive lineman in western New York, and that, in turn, earned him a scholarship to Penn State, where he really came into his own. He sped through two math degrees in four years, taught two undergraduate math classes and won the William V. Campbell Trophy, otherwise known as the Academic Heisman. He also started two seasons on the offensive line, was twice named to the All-Big Ten First Team, and made some of his closest friends on the football team. They were the ones who pulled him out of his office on the weekends in time for last call.

“After his last game at Penn State, he had tears in his eyes,” his mother says, “because he knew that he would never on the field with his friends ever again.”

Leaving Penn State was the first time Urschel had to choose: math or football. Should he start work on his Ph.D., or continue on to the NFL? He was projected to be a mid-rounder in the 2014 NFL draft, but in math “he was a top-five pick,” his father says. “An elite math mind.”

Urschel thought the choice, like his father’s 30 years earlier, was “a no-brainer,” too—but in the opposite direction. He figured he only had a finite amount of time to play football in his prime; he had the rest of his life to do math. The Ravens picked him in the fifth round, No. 175 overall.

Urschel learned quickly, though, that the NFL lacked the charm of college football. When you’re a rookie, he says, the veterans didn’t “even care to know your name.” Except for one, a guard named A.Q. Shipley. He’d gone to Penn State, too, and their college position coach had asked him to look out for Urschel. Shipley gave Urschel tips about technique, answered his questions and generally made him feel welcomed. Then at the end of camp, the Ravens kept Urschel … and cut Shipley. “John felt bad,” Parker, his mother, says. “He was like, Damn. He was used to the team being this brotherhood. … and then they’re gone.”

Even so, Urschel’s first year in the NFL went as well as could be expected. He began the season as a backup and then was thrust into action due to injuries, and he proved to be a good fit for offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s zone-run scheme. Urschel started five games—three in the regular season and two in the playoffs, on the road in Pittsburgh and New England. He now considers starting in those two road playoff games the pinnacle of his career.

All the while, Urschel was still doing math. “Remember,” he says, “I do math in my free time for fun.” He was working on various projects with Ludmil Zikatanov, a Penn State professor who had become a mentor and friend. Specifically, they were making progress on a paper titled, “On the Maximal Error of Spectral Approximation of Graph Bisection.”

It was after that season—after he had started two playoff games—that Urschel decided to apply to MIT. In college he’d been held up as the perfect “student athlete,” and he was proud of that moniker, and he felt as though he’d been neglecting the “student” part since turning pro. “I felt actually kind of guilty,” he says. “I was actually kind of ashamed of myself. I was doing math while I was playing, but I always really prided myself on doing what I wanted to do and not budging on things.” What he wanted to do was play football—and continue his formal education. Plus, he had taken GRE, the standardized test for prospective graduate school students, while at Penn State, and his score would expire in a few years.

A few months later, Urschel started his second NFL camp as a backup again. One day during practice, he was trying to catch the coaches’ eye, pulling around the corner on a power run, when a defender hit him smack in the temple: Urschel was out cold. The next thing he knew, he was in the trainer’s room. Witnesses told him they’d tried carting him off the field, but he’d waved them off. He’d wanted to walk off on his own. Urschel didn’t remember any of that. He had to watch the film to reconstruct what had happened.

Urschel was concussed. He had all of the classic symptoms: headaches, light sensitivity, anxiety, depression. After a few days he tried riding a stationary bike, and he had to stop, because his head hurt. Asked to describe the pain in better detail, Urschel says, “My head would bother me. Just, my head was hurting.”

After some time—Urschel isn’t sure when—the Ravens started giving him the baseline concussion test. Players take the test when they’re in a normal state, and then, after they suffer a concussion, the team re-administers the test to evaluate their cognitive functioning. Urschel had to take the test a number of times; he isn’t sure how many. “I must’ve done really well on that thing [in my normal state], because I was struggling [now],” Urschel says. “I definitely did way too well on that thing.” He remembers being asked questions about colors, shapes and words, as the test assessed his reaction time and memory. It’s meant to be tricky. For example, Urschel remembers that it opened with questions about a list of words—only to come back at the end and ask him to recall those words from the beginning. “I was like, f---, I forgot all of those,” he says.

The real test, in Urschel’s mind, was whether he could still do math. Before the concussion, he had been working on research on a topic called Centroidal Voronoi Tessellation. After the blow to the head, he says, “I tried working on some of this stuff, and it was not going. Just wasn’t going. It was kind of annoying. I was just having a hard time grasping things and following arguments. Visualizing, I had a tough time visualizing. It was just frustrating, really.”

Urschel eventually passed the baseline test and returned to the field, after missing about two weeks. Then the starter ahead of him got hurt, and he ended up starting seven games at center that year. His math ability didn’t return as quickly. “The math took a little longer, just because that’s really high, high-level thinking,” he says. “That took a little while. But before the season was over, I was back.”

Urschel’s third season in the league, 2016, started with another injury. During the Ravens’ first preseason game he hurt the AC joint in his right shoulder diving to cut block a guy. He missed the Ravens’ subsequent three preseason games and then was inactive for the first three games of the season. At one point he started worrying about his roster spot. “I don’t even know,” he told his father. “They might cut me next week.”

This was the season during which, unbeknownst to the outside world, Urschel was taking a course at MIT. The class wasn’t his only non-football activity, either. Urschel was doing additional research with a few of his MIT professors, putting the finishing touches on two papers they had been working on dealing with Determinantal Point Processes, and he was also getting more and more into chess, a hobby he’d picked up during college. He’d started practicing more and reading chess books in his spare time, and he’d befriended several chess masters. Before multiple games in 2016, Urschel would text Robert Hess, a chess grandmaster and a friend of his, asking for advice about chess strategy. “I’m like, John, you’re about to play in an NFL game, don’t you need to focus?” Hess recalls. “And he’s like, I am focused.” If it’s any consolation, Urschel only started three games all year and was mostly a backup.

The following spring was when Urschel passed his qualifying exam, settled into life at MIT, and got a glimpse into what life could look like post-football. He also learned then that Thomas, his fiancée, was pregnant with their first child, and that initiated a dialogue about their future and where football fit. Urschel thought about it a lot. He was in a good place financially; he’d made about $1.6 million in three years, and he’d saved a good chunk of that. If he retired, he could focus more on chess, and becoming a chess master, and on his studies at MIT. He had fallen for life at MIT in general. “It’s my favorite place in the world,” he says, grinning from ear to ear. “I love being here. I love every day I’m here. The happiest I’ve ever been in my life is when I’m at MIT. Ever in my life. EVER in my life! Happiest ever.”

Then there was the prospect of becoming a father. “I started thinking, like, you know, I want to start taking better care of myself,” he says. “Especially when I found out [I’m having] a daughter. The thought of, when my daughter gets married, I want to be there to walk her down the aisle. I want, like, longevity.” Was he worried about suffering another concussion and, down the road, developing CTE? “It definitely factored in,” he says.

Urschel decided that 2017 would be his final season; he even told his MIT professors that’d be the case. Only one thing was holding him back from retiring right then: He felt he had an obligation to the Ravens to play out the final year of his contract. Maybe deep down he felt he still owed the game something for all that it had given him. Urschel didn’t tell the team any of this, though. He attended the offseason workouts—as the Ravens installed a new power-run scheme that didn’t exactly fit his skill set—as if nothing were amiss. But leaving MIT was still hard. The first time Urschel left for OTAs, he asked an MIT friend to periodically rearrange the things on his desk, to make it look as if he were still there. If anyone asks, just say vaguely that I’m around.

The debate in Urschel’s head raged on through the summer. As training camp approached, his family and friends noticed he was getting more and more anxious. In those final days, Urschel had several conversations with his father, the only person close to him who wanted him to keep playing. His father’s thinking was: If he played well this year, he could test free agency and get a bigger contract. A psychologist might suggest that, after giving up on his own football career, John Sr. was living vicariously through his son. “He wasn’t accepting that this was going to be my last season,” Urschel says. “He was in denial.”

Then, two days before camp opened, the Journal of the American Medical Association released a jarring study: Boston University’s CTE center had found the disease in 110 out of 111 of brains of former NFL players it had examined. The study didn’t drastically change Urschel’s thinking, he says. He already knew about the dangers of CTE, and he believes the study suffered from self-selection bias—the brains were donated to the research center for a reason, weren’t they? But the study did spark another round of discussions with Thomas, his fiancée. (She declined to comment for this story.)

On the night after Urschel reported to camp, he stayed up until 3 a.m., thinking things over, texting with Thomas, and FaceTiming with Hess, his chess friend. “It was tense,” Hess says. “He genuinely didn’t know what to do. He’s a mathematician, so he’s weighing the odds.” Then Hess asked a question that cut through the clutter in Urschel’s mind: John, did you get to pick the length of your contract? He hadn’t. Everything clicked into place. “I was like, this is a stupid reason to be going back,” Urschel says.

The next morning he called Harbaugh and broke the news. A few days after that he and Thomas left on a nine-day vacation to watch a premier chess tournament in St. Louis—the first vacation Urschel had taken in he doesn’t know how long.

It’s a Wednesday in late September 2017, and Urschel and Goemans are sitting at a table, hunched over seven pages of notes spread out in front of them. Goemans, the interim head of the MIT math department, is Urschel’s advisor now, and they’re working their way through a problem that Goemans brought to Urschel after he returned from the chess vacation.

It’s called the Asymmetrical Traveling Salesman Problem. The general idea is that there’s a traveling salesman who needs to visit X number of homes, and the job of the mathematician is to figure out in which order he should visit those homes so as to minimize his travel time. It’s a classic problem, a famous problem, the kind that’s discussed in undergraduate courses all over the world. Goemans has been thinking about it for more than 20 years, and he’s enlisted Urschel to help.

This is Urschel’s life now. He’s taking one class at MIT, working on more research, hosting a weekly show on Chess.com, and preparing to become a father come December. He plans get his Ph.D. in the next few years and then apply for a job teaching and doing research at a top university. He’s as happy as he can be. He only hopes that you not lump him with the others who retired in their 20s over concussion concerns. His case is more complex—like one of his math problems. “I don’t regret playing football,” Urschel says. “[Do I have] some brain damage? I don’t know! I mean, I know a bunch of hits as an offensive linemen isn’t good for the brain. … I figured that, even if worst, worst-case scenario—like if I had issues down the road—I would still have a fair amount of time to do, like, good mathematical things.”

Today, Urschel and Goemans review the Traveling Salesman Problem, and Goemans shows Urschel some strategies and tools that he may be able to use to tinker with the problem on his own. They discuss it for more than 90 minutes straight, no breaks.

“Let’s stop, because my brain is exploding,” Goemans finally says, rubbing his forehead.

“I’m with you,” Urschel says, looking a bit dazed, too.

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2018 NFL Draft Quarterback Stock Watch

Top of the Class:

1. Josh Rosen, UCLA (32-52, 421 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs at USC): It’s hard to look more physically impressive than the UCLA junior looked on Saturday night—one scout in attendance told me it’s the best he’s seen Rosen. And being held up against the unconventional Darnold probably helped, too, in highlighting Rosen’s pure, natural delivery. Rosen wraps up the regular season (and maybe his UCLA career) against Cal on Saturday.

2. Sam Darnold, USC (17-28, 246 yards, 0 TDs, INT): There were lots of cries that Darnold is overrated after he was a little up-and-down against the Bruins. What that felt like was people who haven’t been watching him need to get used to the third-year sophomore’s wonky style. Yes, there’s a little bit of a windup, and, no, it doesn’t look like it’s supposed to all the time. But the rebuilding Trojans have won the Pac-12 South, and the quarterback has done his part in brining a young team along.

3. Josh Allen, Wyoming (injured vs. Fresno State): A shoulder sprain kept Allen out of this one, and up next is what’s likely the final regular season game of his collegiate career, at San Jose State.

Helped Himself: Malik Rosier, Miami. Rosier is still a junior, and hasn’t been considered much of an NFL prospect by anyone I’ve talked to. But he acquitted himself incredibly well as a competitor in leading the Hurricanes back on Saturday, both with arm and head in the passing game, and with his feet on the ground. The Hurricanes closed the game with 30 unanswered points to win 44-27, and Rosier showed a ton of toughness in throwing for 210 yards and three touchdowns, as well as rushing for 38 yards and a score.

Hurt Himself: Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State. He did throw for 352 yards and three touchdowns, but he threw two more picks and came up short on a great chance to complete a furious fourth-quarter comeback. Does that mean he’s a bad player? No, but in that offense, you almost have to be close to perfect week-to-week to avoid validating the “system” arguments being used against you.

For Thanksgiving, the Jets’ Terrence Brooks Pays It Forward

NEWARK, N.J. — Growing up in rural central Florida, Jets safety Terrence Brooks didn’t watch much football. His favorite sport was baseball and his favorite team, the Seattle Mariners, played their home games 3,000 miles away. His favorite player: the legendary Ichiro Suzuki.

As he got to Dunnellon High, though, “football got in the way.” That led to a scholarship at Florida State, a national championship and a third-round selection in the 2014 NFL draft by the Ravens. Two trades and a stopover in Philadelphia later, he’s a member of the Jets’ rejuvenated secondary.

But on a recent Tuesday afternoon in Newark, football is far afield—other than the green No. 23 Jets jersey Brooks wears as he walks down Grant Street into The Apostles’ House, a shelter for the city’s homeless single mothers and their children. The day’s objective? To serve up a big Thanksgiving lunch, a few weeks before the rest of the country celebrates the most quintessential American holiday.

“We always look to do something, particularly around the holidays,” says Carlo Filippone, a local chef and former bodybuilder who teamed up with Brooks to serve turkey, sweet potatoes and green beans to some 50 of the shelter’s women and children. “We were looking for somebody to partner up with anyway, and Terrence’s interests really matched up with ours.”

The shelter’s mission hits home with Brooks, who was raised along with his brothers by his single mother in Dunnellon, around an hour and a half north of Tampa in central Florida. That’s why, through his Terrence Brooks Foundation, his goal is to help single-parent households and at-risk youth.

“I came from a community that was not that great, so we came up through some hard times,” Brooks says. “I was able to have a few role models growing up but for the most part there were no people of this stature there for me, so this is only right for me to do.”

All of those role models were women, Brooks says, tearing up as he addresses the moms during lunch: “I truly salute you for what you deal with everyday. There were some days as kids when we didn’t have food, but we didn’t worry for long because my mom always found a way to feed us. I don’t know how she did it or how she had the energy to do it.”

Members of the Jets’ special teams unit have gone to the shelter on Christmas morning to bring food and gifts ever since former punter Steve Weatherford started visiting The Apostles’ House during his first year with Gang Green. Brooks hopes that will continue this year.

“It all began with Steve,” says Don Shauger, whose construction company worked with then-Newark mayor and current U.S. Senator Cory Booker to refurbish the shelter 10 years ago. This past May there was another renovation, as well as the construction of a new outdoor playground and computer center. “Now every Christmas, my family comes to The Apostles’ House too. It’s a tradition.”

Shauger’s childhood mirrors that of Brooks; he too was raised by a single mother, along with three brothers and a sister in nearby East Orange, N.J. Shauger and his brothers slept on the same mattress with just a single boxspring. “As I kid, I remember the week of Thanksgiving. When the basket of food would come from the church, it was really special,” Shauger says. “To pay it forward is really great.

“This is also at a time when you’re hearing a lot of negative things about the NFL right now. I don’t want to talk about that. You’re here and it’s making you proud to be a NFL fan to see that a NFL player would take his day off to spend it with homeless people.”

Homelessness is a serious problem in Newark, which is New Jersey’s most populous city but has seen many residents leave for neighboring suburbs as crime and poverty remain high. Essex County, of which Newark is the county seat, had 24 percent of the state’s homeless population, according to a study released this July.

One meal won’t curb the problem, but Brooks knows from personal experience that every such gesture, however small it may seem, makes a difference.

“It’s always been something that I’ve wanted to do,” he says, “to have this type of platform that I have to lift up people and motivate them, to keep people going.”

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For Thanksgiving, the Jets’ Terrence Brooks Pays It Forward

NEWARK, N.J. — Growing up in rural central Florida, Jets safety Terrence Brooks didn’t watch much football. His favorite sport was baseball and his favorite team, the Seattle Mariners, played their home games 3,000 miles away. His favorite player: the legendary Ichiro Suzuki.

As he got to Dunnellon High, though, “football got in the way.” That led to a scholarship at Florida State, a national championship and a third-round selection in the 2014 NFL draft by the Ravens. Two trades and a stopover in Philadelphia later, he’s a member of the Jets’ rejuvenated secondary.

But on a recent Tuesday afternoon in Newark, football is far afield—other than the green No. 23 Jets jersey Brooks wears as he walks down Grant Street into The Apostles’ House, a shelter for the city’s homeless single mothers and their children. The day’s objective? To serve up a big Thanksgiving lunch, a few weeks before the rest of the country celebrates the most quintessential American holiday.

“We always look to do something, particularly around the holidays,” says Carlo Filippone, a local chef and former bodybuilder who teamed up with Brooks to serve turkey, sweet potatoes and green beans to some 50 of the shelter’s women and children. “We were looking for somebody to partner up with anyway, and Terrence’s interests really matched up with ours.”

The shelter’s mission hits home with Brooks, who was raised along with his brothers by his single mother in Dunnellon, around an hour and a half north of Tampa in central Florida. That’s why, through his Terrence Brooks Foundation, his goal is to help single-parent households and at-risk youth.

“I came from a community that was not that great, so we came up through some hard times,” Brooks says. “I was able to have a few role models growing up but for the most part there were no people of this stature there for me, so this is only right for me to do.”

All of those role models were women, Brooks says, tearing up as he addresses the moms during lunch: “I truly salute you for what you deal with everyday. There were some days as kids when we didn’t have food, but we didn’t worry for long because my mom always found a way to feed us. I don’t know how she did it or how she had the energy to do it.”

Members of the Jets’ special teams unit have gone to the shelter on Christmas morning to bring food and gifts ever since former punter Steve Weatherford started visiting The Apostles’ House during his first year with Gang Green. Brooks hopes that will continue this year.

“It all began with Steve,” says Don Shauger, whose construction company worked with then-Newark mayor and current U.S. Senator Cory Booker to refurbish the shelter 10 years ago. This past May there was another renovation, as well as the construction of a new outdoor playground and computer center. “Now every Christmas, my family comes to The Apostles’ House too. It’s a tradition.”

Shauger’s childhood mirrors that of Brooks; he too was raised by a single mother, along with three brothers and a sister in nearby East Orange, N.J. Shauger and his brothers slept on the same mattress with just a single boxspring. “As I kid, I remember the week of Thanksgiving. When the basket of food would come from the church, it was really special,” Shauger says. “To pay it forward is really great.

“This is also at a time when you’re hearing a lot of negative things about the NFL right now. I don’t want to talk about that. You’re here and it’s making you proud to be a NFL fan to see that a NFL player would take his day off to spend it with homeless people.”

Homelessness is a serious problem in Newark, which is New Jersey’s most populous city but has seen many residents leave for neighboring suburbs as crime and poverty remain high. Essex County, of which Newark is the county seat, had 24 percent of the state’s homeless population, according to a study released this July.

One meal won’t curb the problem, but Brooks knows from personal experience that every such gesture, however small it may seem, makes a difference.

“It’s always been something that I’ve wanted to do,” he says, “to have this type of platform that I have to lift up people and motivate them, to keep people going.”

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Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

Ex-NFL Receiver Terry Glenn Dies in Car Crash

Former NFL wide receiver Terry Glenn was killed Monday morning in a car accident in Irving, Texas, according to media reports.

He was 43 years old.

The Dallas County medical examiner's office later confirmed Glenn's death saying the cause was a "suspected motor vehicle accident."

Police say the vehicle that Glenn was traveling in was headed eastbound on a highway and crashed into a concrete barrier which divides the express lanes from other lanes. The driver was ejected from the car, and another passenger suffered minor injuries.

Glenn played for 12 seasons in the NFL with the New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers and spent his final five seasons with the Dallas Cowboys.

Glenn was an All-American at Ohio State and won the Biletnikoff Award as the top wide receiver in the nation.

He was drafted by the Patriots in the first round of the 1996 NFL draft and caught 90 passes in his first season, setting a then-NFL record.

Glenn had 593 receptions for 8,823 yards and 44 touchdowns in his career.

Your Day-by-Day Guide to the Busiest Week of the College Football Season

Between the coaching carousel and games that will help decide conference titles and playoff berths, this will be the busiest week of the season. Here’s a primer so you can pencil in some time to cook a turkey.

Monday-Wednesday

The Chip Kelly Sweepstakes

Florida officials flew to New Hampshire on Sunday to shoot their shot with Chip Kelly. Earlier in the day, UCLA fired Jim Mora. The Bruins also want a crack at Kelly. He may also have other options that we don’t yet know about. At some point, he will decide what he wants to do. (Insert your own puff of white smoke joke here.) That point probably will come before other coaches become available to talk. The first such coach is Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, whose regular season ends with the Egg Bowl on Thursday.

Tennessee

If the Grumors are true and Jon Gruden becomes Tennessee’s next coach, I’ll have two bets to pay off.

I must eat a hat.

• This…

If the Grumors are true, that deal should be done before the first turkey is served. Like Kelly, anyone could hire Gruden at any time. Gruden would have to want to take the job, though.

In the far more likely event that Tennessee’s next coach is someone other than Gruden, the timeline shifts to when candidates would be available to talk. Mullen also would be an excellent choice for the Volunteers. Mike Norvell of Memphis likely will be leading the Tigers in the American Athletic Conference title game and wouldn’t be available to interview until after that game on Dec. 2. Washington State coach Mike Leach, who could be lured away by either the Vols or Gators, could be done Saturday or could be playing the following Friday in the Pac-12 title game if his Cougars beat Washington in the Apple Cup.

Thursday

Ole Miss

The Rebels play Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl this week, but they could be dealing with news earlier in the week. They’re past the window in which the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions usually would hand down a ruling on a case, so the COI’s ruling could come any day. That ruling—and the ensuing sanctions—will determine which coaches are in the pool for the Ole Miss job. If the COI rules harshly and tacks on a longer postseason ban and serious scholarship reductions, that pool will shrink. If the COI hands down a lighter sentence, quite a few coaches will want the job—which could pay big money.

Mississippi State

The Bulldogs escaped Arkansas, but they’ll deal with more noise all week. Mullen, who has interviewed for other jobs before, would be a good fit at Florida, Tennessee, Texas A&M or Nebraska. But might he want to stay in Starkville? He has a very good team coming back next year. He has a new operations building. He has a job that gets him extended rather than fired if he wins nine games.

Friday

TCU

The Horned Frogs close their regular season Friday against rival Baylor, which would love nothing more than to ruin TCU’s Big 12 title chances. But a TCU win would clinch a spot opposite Oklahoma in the championship game. A Baylor win would complicate matters, and I’ll let Scott Bell of the Dallas Morning News take it from here because the league might be going deeeeeep into the tiebreaker list.

Arkansas

The firing of athletic director Jeff Long seems to spell doom for Bret Bielema’s tenure as the Arkansas coach. The question now is with this many jobs open, can the Razorbacks lure an attractive candidate? Of course a faction wants former Springdale (Ark.) High coach Gus Malzahn, but he might have a pretty good thing going at Auburn. Former Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner put it well last week when I interviewed him on SiriusXM: The Razorbacks need an offensive identity that makes them different and gives them a recruiting niche. Triple option, Air Raid, it doesn’t matter which one. But Arkansas needs to be different in a good way.

UCF

The Knights will play USF at 3:30 p.m. ET Friday with a berth in the American Athletic Conference title game on the line. If UCF wins, it’ll be another huge step forward for a program that was 0–12 just two years ago. (And beating the nearby rival that spent years blocking UCF from the Big East would make it even sweeter.) It also means all those schools who want to interview Knights coach Scott Frost would have to wait another week. They can pass the time by reading my story on UCF linebacker Shaquem Griffin.

USF

Remember before the season when we penciled the Bulls into the Group of Five’s spot in the New Year’s Six bowls? Well, they’ve only lost once (to Houston), but they’re 11-point underdogs to Interstate 4 rival UCF. Coach Charlie Strong’s team still has a shot at a big-money bowl, but it has to beat its rival.

Nebraska

It’s not really a secret that the Mike Riley era at Nebraska will end after the Iowa game. The question now is where the Cornhuskers go from here. Former Nebraska quarterback Frost seems like the obvious choice, but the UCF coach likely will have other suitors. If Frost chooses another job or stays at UCF, what then? Current Nebraska AD Bill Moos hired Leach at Washington State. That could be fun.

Saturday

The Game

Ohio State’s playoff hopes remain alive, but they’ll be dead if they can’t beat Michigan. Meanwhile, a loss to the Buckeyes would drop Jim Harbaugh’s record against his biggest rival to 0–3. Someone is going to be very, very angry when this one ends.

Iron Bowl

The last time an Alabama-Auburn matchup was a de facto SEC West title game, this happened.

With both teams still in the playoff hunt, this one could be just as much fun. Alabama is banged up at linebacker but might have Christian Miller back. Auburn looked like a juggernaut against Georgia on Nov. 11. The question now is whether the Tigers can repeat that performance, because they’ll need to be just as good to beat the Crimson Tide.

Territorial Cup

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez appears to have saved his job—thanks in large part to the rise of quarterback Khalil Tate. Arizona State coach Todd Graham may have saved his job—thanks in large part to a glut of openings and a limited supply of qualified replacements. Still, Graham probably should avoid a performance like last year, when the Wildcats ran for 511 yards, won 56–35 and didn’t even feel the need to attempt a pass in the second half.

Texas A&M

It appears the Texas A&M–Kevin Sumlin marriage will end soon, and that might be best for both parties. The Aggies want more, even though their history suggests this is what they should expect while sharing a division with a team on an all-time run. Sumlin deserves better than constant calls for his firing for multiple years. If Kelly picks Florida instead of UCLA, Westwood could be a nice landing spot for Sumlin. As for the Aggies, they should load up as much as their boosters are willing to chip in and make that run at Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher. He might say no, but that’s not a foregone conclusion at this point.

A Random Ranking

I considered revisiting my Thanksgiving Side Dish Power Rankings from three years ago, but upon further review, they’re pretty much perfect. But since I will make multiple meals out of Thanksgiving leftovers, I’ve decided to rank the top five meals.

1. Breakfast
2. Second breakfast
3. Dinner
4. Lunch
5. Fourthmeal

Projected Playoff

1. Alabama

The winner of the Iron Bowl will face Georgia for the SEC title and for a playoff berth. This could be an all-timer.

2. Miami

The Hurricanes made an otherwise ho-hum Saturday interesting by falling behind by two touchdowns twice against Virginia. But they came back to keep their undefeated season alive. Mark Richt probably would prefer his team doesn’t make it so exciting against Pittsburgh.

3. Oklahoma

Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield made an otherwise ho-hum Saturday interesting by grabbing his junk on national television. He shouldn’t have done it, but it won’t keep him from winning the Heisman.

4. Wisconsin

The Badgers need to beat Minnesota for the 14th consecutive season for several reasons. First, they’d stay undefeated and have a chance to clinch a playoff berth against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. Second, they’d win Paul Bunyan’s Axe. Third, they’d win the Slab of Bacon trophy. No, really.

Big Ugl(ies) of the Week

It’s about time we honored some Wisconsin offensive linemen, and this week’s award goes to Badgers center Tyler Biadasz and right guard Beau Benzschawel. Watch these two pull and eliminate defenders on Kendric Pryor’s 32-yard touchdown on an end-around against Michigan. I’m expecting a bunch of of-course-the-big-guys-blocked-the-small-guys responses from people who don’t understand the athleticism required for 316-pound redshirt freshman to snap, pull, locate a fast-moving target and then eliminate him from the play. These guys also have held their own against the big guys in the trenches all season, but it’s also fun to watch them perform a little Bulldozer Ballet.

Three and Out

1. A little Biblical rain in Knoxville wasn’t going to stop Coach O.

2. But a shank and a nifty decoy play would keep UCLA’s punt coverage team from finding USC’s Michael Pittman Jr.

3. Last week in this spot, you read about Austin Peay’s attempt to go from the nation’s longest losing streak to the FCS playoffs. The Governors did beat Eastern Illinois 28–13 to finish 8–1 in FCS play, but the selection committee—yes, they have those in other divisions—made Austin Peay the first team out of the 24-team bracket.

For Your Ears

First, an update on the Chip Kelly situation (which hopefully will still be correct when you hear it). Later, Nicole Auerbach of The All-American joins to discuss the coaching carousel, Grumors and the pixelated version of Mayfield’s crotch grab.

What’s Eating Andy?

Perhaps the most incongruous scene from Saturday was the Kansas football captains refusing to shake Mayfield’s hand—a precursor to the aforementioned Mayfield junk-grabbing—while two very young Kansas fans stood next to them. Instead of a trash-talking barrage, Mayfield could have checkmated the Jayhawks by shaking the hands of the two kids who accompanied them to midfield. It would have been hilarious, and it would have been the perfect response. Instead, everyone chose the stupidest possible option.

What’s Andy Eating?

The server considered the order I’d just given him and walked toward the kitchen. Then he wheeled around and returned to the table. “Do you still want the biscuit?” he asked.

For the uninitiated, the answer is always “Hell yes I want the biscuit.” I’d sat down at Mama’s Boy in Athens, Ga., and ordered two entrees. I had only planned to order the pulled pork and potato hash, but then I read the chalkboard next to the door. It said this:

Fig & Rosemary Pancakes: Fig and rosemary pancakes with fresh sliced figs and housemade fig syrup topped with whipped cream and powdered sugar

I had to try these. And since Mama’s Boy offered a short stack for $4.99, it would only be a taste. But when the food arrived, I understood my server’s hesitation vis-a-vis the biscuit that came on the side of the pulled pork and potato hash.

The “short stack” consisted of three glorious, fluffy pancakes covered with just enough of the aforementioned fig syrup. This would be a full meal for a normal person. I, however, am not normal. So I grabbed the bowl that contained the hash and plucked the biscuit off the side.

Mama’s Boy does everything right, which is why the line to get in snakes around the building many mornings. If you don’t want to wait, go at 12:30 p.m. on a weekday like I did and simply order breakfast for lunch. (You can call it brunch if you want. I’d rather not skip or combine meals.) That biscuit was golden on the outside and fluffy on the inside and soaked up the blackberry preserves I spread on each half. The pulled pork and potato hash was even better. Home fries provide the base for a pile of pulled pork that is lightly coated with mustard-based barbecue sauce. If you read this space often, you know my feelings on barbecue sauce. But while I don’t always use barbecue sauce, when I do, I prefer mustard-based. Two poached eggs sit atop this creation, and after a few swipes with a fork all the ingredients blend together into a comfort food amalgam that should come with a warning label. The Surgeon General has determined you’ll need a nap after this. Hope you have some free time.

The pancakes were just as good. My one complaint with typical pancakes is that even the salty buttermilk flavor doesn’t completely counterbalance the sweetness of the syrup. The rosemary cuts the sweetness just enough here. These lit up every section of taste buds, and even though I was stuffed after the hash, I couldn’t stop eating.

I wanted to try one of the cinnamon rolls the menu had touted, but I knew when I saw a tray of them in the kitchen that I’d need to wait for another day. They were approximately the size of youth footballs, but if they were made with the same care as everything else I’d tried, they had to be the most delicious footballs ever baked.

Your Day-by-Day Guide to the Busiest Week of the College Football Season

Between the coaching carousel and games that will help decide conference titles and playoff berths, this will be the busiest week of the season. Here’s a primer so you can pencil in some time to cook a turkey.

Monday-Wednesday

The Chip Kelly Sweepstakes

Florida officials flew to New Hampshire on Sunday to shoot their shot with Chip Kelly. Earlier in the day, UCLA fired Jim Mora. The Bruins also want a crack at Kelly. He may also have other options that we don’t yet know about. At some point, he will decide what he wants to do. (Insert your own puff of white smoke joke here.) That point probably will come before other coaches become available to talk. The first such coach is Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, whose regular season ends with the Egg Bowl on Thursday.

Tennessee

If the Grumors are true and Jon Gruden becomes Tennessee’s next coach, I’ll have two bets to pay off.

I must eat a hat.

• This…

If the Grumors are true, that deal should be done before the first turkey is served. Like Kelly, anyone could hire Gruden at any time. Gruden would have to want to take the job, though.

In the far more likely event that Tennessee’s next coach is someone other than Gruden, the timeline shifts to when candidates would be available to talk. Mullen also would be an excellent choice for the Volunteers. Mike Norvell of Memphis likely will be leading the Tigers in the American Athletic Conference title game and wouldn’t be available to interview until after that game on Dec. 2. Washington State coach Mike Leach, who could be lured away by either the Vols or Gators, could be done Saturday or could be playing the following Friday in the Pac-12 title game if his Cougars beat Washington in the Apple Cup.

Thursday

Ole Miss

The Rebels play Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl this week, but they could be dealing with news earlier in the week. They’re past the window in which the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions usually would hand down a ruling on a case, so the COI’s ruling could come any day. That ruling—and the ensuing sanctions—will determine which coaches are in the pool for the Ole Miss job. If the COI rules harshly and tacks on a longer postseason ban and serious scholarship reductions, that pool will shrink. If the COI hands down a lighter sentence, quite a few coaches will want the job—which could pay big money.

Mississippi State

The Bulldogs escaped Arkansas, but they’ll deal with more noise all week. Mullen, who has interviewed for other jobs before, would be a good fit at Florida, Tennessee, Texas A&M or Nebraska. But might he want to stay in Starkville? He has a very good team coming back next year. He has a new operations building. He has a job that gets him extended rather than fired if he wins nine games.

Friday

TCU

The Horned Frogs close their regular season Friday against rival Baylor, which would love nothing more than to ruin TCU’s Big 12 title chances. But a TCU win would clinch a spot opposite Oklahoma in the championship game. A Baylor win would complicate matters, and I’ll let Scott Bell of the Dallas Morning News take it from here because the league might be going deeeeeep into the tiebreaker list.

Arkansas

The firing of athletic director Jeff Long seems to spell doom for Bret Bielema’s tenure as the Arkansas coach. The question now is with this many jobs open, can the Razorbacks lure an attractive candidate? Of course a faction wants former Springdale (Ark.) High coach Gus Malzahn, but he might have a pretty good thing going at Auburn. Former Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner put it well last week when I interviewed him on SiriusXM: The Razorbacks need an offensive identity that makes them different and gives them a recruiting niche. Triple option, Air Raid, it doesn’t matter which one. But Arkansas needs to be different in a good way.

UCF

The Knights will play USF at 3:30 p.m. ET Friday with a berth in the American Athletic Conference title game on the line. If UCF wins, it’ll be another huge step forward for a program that was 0–12 just two years ago. (And beating the nearby rival that spent years blocking UCF from the Big East would make it even sweeter.) It also means all those schools who want to interview Knights coach Scott Frost would have to wait another week. They can pass the time by reading my story on UCF linebacker Shaquem Griffin.

USF

Remember before the season when we penciled the Bulls into the Group of Five’s spot in the New Year’s Six bowls? Well, they’ve only lost once (to Houston), but they’re 11-point underdogs to Interstate 4 rival UCF. Coach Charlie Strong’s team still has a shot at a big-money bowl, but it has to beat its rival.

Nebraska

It’s not really a secret that the Mike Riley era at Nebraska will end after the Iowa game. The question now is where the Cornhuskers go from here. Former Nebraska quarterback Frost seems like the obvious choice, but the UCF coach likely will have other suitors. If Frost chooses another job or stays at UCF, what then? Current Nebraska AD Bill Moos hired Leach at Washington State. That could be fun.

Saturday

The Game

Ohio State’s playoff hopes remain alive, but they’ll be dead if they can’t beat Michigan. Meanwhile, a loss to the Buckeyes would drop Jim Harbaugh’s record against his biggest rival to 0–3. Someone is going to be very, very angry when this one ends.

Iron Bowl

The last time an Alabama-Auburn matchup was a de facto SEC West title game, this happened.

With both teams still in the playoff hunt, this one could be just as much fun. Alabama is banged up at linebacker but might have Christian Miller back. Auburn looked like a juggernaut against Georgia on Nov. 11. The question now is whether the Tigers can repeat that performance, because they’ll need to be just as good to beat the Crimson Tide.

Territorial Cup

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez appears to have saved his job—thanks in large part to the rise of quarterback Khalil Tate. Arizona State coach Todd Graham may have saved his job—thanks in large part to a glut of openings and a limited supply of qualified replacements. Still, Graham probably should avoid a performance like last year, when the Wildcats ran for 511 yards, won 56–35 and didn’t even feel the need to attempt a pass in the second half.

Texas A&M

It appears the Texas A&M–Kevin Sumlin marriage will end soon, and that might be best for both parties. The Aggies want more, even though their history suggests this is what they should expect while sharing a division with a team on an all-time run. Sumlin deserves better than constant calls for his firing for multiple years. If Kelly picks Florida instead of UCLA, Westwood could be a nice landing spot for Sumlin. As for the Aggies, they should load up as much as their boosters are willing to chip in and make that run at Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher. He might say no, but that’s not a foregone conclusion at this point.

A Random Ranking

I considered revisiting my Thanksgiving Side Dish Power Rankings from three years ago, but upon further review, they’re pretty much perfect. But since I will make multiple meals out of Thanksgiving leftovers, I’ve decided to rank the top five meals.

1. Breakfast
2. Second breakfast
3. Dinner
4. Lunch
5. Fourthmeal

Projected Playoff

1. Alabama

The winner of the Iron Bowl will face Georgia for the SEC title and for a playoff berth. This could be an all-timer.

2. Miami

The Hurricanes made an otherwise ho-hum Saturday interesting by falling behind by two touchdowns twice against Virginia. But they came back to keep their undefeated season alive. Mark Richt probably would prefer his team doesn’t make it so exciting against Pittsburgh.

3. Oklahoma

Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield made an otherwise ho-hum Saturday interesting by grabbing his junk on national television. He shouldn’t have done it, but it won’t keep him from winning the Heisman.

4. Wisconsin

The Badgers need to beat Minnesota for the 14th consecutive season for several reasons. First, they’d stay undefeated and have a chance to clinch a playoff berth against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. Second, they’d win Paul Bunyan’s Axe. Third, they’d win the Slab of Bacon trophy. No, really.

Big Ugl(ies) of the Week

It’s about time we honored some Wisconsin offensive linemen, and this week’s award goes to Badgers center Tyler Biadasz and right guard Beau Benzschawel. Watch these two pull and eliminate defenders on Kendric Pryor’s 32-yard touchdown on an end-around against Michigan. I’m expecting a bunch of of-course-the-big-guys-blocked-the-small-guys responses from people who don’t understand the athleticism required for 316-pound redshirt freshman to snap, pull, locate a fast-moving target and then eliminate him from the play. These guys also have held their own against the big guys in the trenches all season, but it’s also fun to watch them perform a little Bulldozer Ballet.

Three and Out

1. A little Biblical rain in Knoxville wasn’t going to stop Coach O.

2. But a shank and a nifty decoy play would keep UCLA’s punt coverage team from finding USC’s Michael Pittman Jr.

3. Last week in this spot, you read about Austin Peay’s attempt to go from the nation’s longest losing streak to the FCS playoffs. The Governors did beat Eastern Illinois 28–13 to finish 8–1 in FCS play, but the selection committee—yes, they have those in other divisions—made Austin Peay the first team out of the 24-team bracket.

For Your Ears

First, an update on the Chip Kelly situation (which hopefully will still be correct when you hear it). Later, Nicole Auerbach of The All-American joins to discuss the coaching carousel, Grumors and the pixelated version of Mayfield’s crotch grab.

What’s Eating Andy?

Perhaps the most incongruous scene from Saturday was the Kansas football captains refusing to shake Mayfield’s hand—a precursor to the aforementioned Mayfield junk-grabbing—while two very young Kansas fans stood next to them. Instead of a trash-talking barrage, Mayfield could have checkmated the Jayhawks by shaking the hands of the two kids who accompanied them to midfield. It would have been hilarious, and it would have been the perfect response. Instead, everyone chose the stupidest possible option.

What’s Andy Eating?

The server considered the order I’d just given him and walked toward the kitchen. Then he wheeled around and returned to the table. “Do you still want the biscuit?” he asked.

For the uninitiated, the answer is always “Hell yes I want the biscuit.” I’d sat down at Mama’s Boy in Athens, Ga., and ordered two entrees. I had only planned to order the pulled pork and potato hash, but then I read the chalkboard next to the door. It said this:

Fig & Rosemary Pancakes: Fig and rosemary pancakes with fresh sliced figs and housemade fig syrup topped with whipped cream and powdered sugar

I had to try these. And since Mama’s Boy offered a short stack for $4.99, it would only be a taste. But when the food arrived, I understood my server’s hesitation vis-a-vis the biscuit that came on the side of the pulled pork and potato hash.

The “short stack” consisted of three glorious, fluffy pancakes covered with just enough of the aforementioned fig syrup. This would be a full meal for a normal person. I, however, am not normal. So I grabbed the bowl that contained the hash and plucked the biscuit off the side.

Mama’s Boy does everything right, which is why the line to get in snakes around the building many mornings. If you don’t want to wait, go at 12:30 p.m. on a weekday like I did and simply order breakfast for lunch. (You can call it brunch if you want. I’d rather not skip or combine meals.) That biscuit was golden on the outside and fluffy on the inside and soaked up the blackberry preserves I spread on each half. The pulled pork and potato hash was even better. Home fries provide the base for a pile of pulled pork that is lightly coated with mustard-based barbecue sauce. If you read this space often, you know my feelings on barbecue sauce. But while I don’t always use barbecue sauce, when I do, I prefer mustard-based. Two poached eggs sit atop this creation, and after a few swipes with a fork all the ingredients blend together into a comfort food amalgam that should come with a warning label. The Surgeon General has determined you’ll need a nap after this. Hope you have some free time.

The pancakes were just as good. My one complaint with typical pancakes is that even the salty buttermilk flavor doesn’t completely counterbalance the sweetness of the syrup. The rosemary cuts the sweetness just enough here. These lit up every section of taste buds, and even though I was stuffed after the hash, I couldn’t stop eating.

I wanted to try one of the cinnamon rolls the menu had touted, but I knew when I saw a tray of them in the kitchen that I’d need to wait for another day. They were approximately the size of youth footballs, but if they were made with the same care as everything else I’d tried, they had to be the most delicious footballs ever baked.

Your Day-by-Day Guide to the Busiest Week of the College Football Season

Between the coaching carousel and games that will help decide conference titles and playoff berths, this will be the busiest week of the season. Here’s a primer so you can pencil in some time to cook a turkey.

Monday-Wednesday

The Chip Kelly Sweepstakes

Florida officials flew to New Hampshire on Sunday to shoot their shot with Chip Kelly. Earlier in the day, UCLA fired Jim Mora. The Bruins also want a crack at Kelly. He may also have other options that we don’t yet know about. At some point, he will decide what he wants to do. (Insert your own puff of white smoke joke here.) That point probably will come before other coaches become available to talk. The first such coach is Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, whose regular season ends with the Egg Bowl on Thursday.

Tennessee

If the Grumors are true and Jon Gruden becomes Tennessee’s next coach, I’ll have two bets to pay off.

I must eat a hat.

• This…

If the Grumors are true, that deal should be done before the first turkey is served. Like Kelly, anyone could hire Gruden at any time. Gruden would have to want to take the job, though.

In the far more likely event that Tennessee’s next coach is someone other than Gruden, the timeline shifts to when candidates would be available to talk. Mullen also would be an excellent choice for the Volunteers. Mike Norvell of Memphis likely will be leading the Tigers in the American Athletic Conference title game and wouldn’t be available to interview until after that game on Dec. 2. Washington State coach Mike Leach, who could be lured away by either the Vols or Gators, could be done Saturday or could be playing the following Friday in the Pac-12 title game if his Cougars beat Washington in the Apple Cup.

Thursday

Ole Miss

The Rebels play Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl this week, but they could be dealing with news earlier in the week. They’re past the window in which the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions usually would hand down a ruling on a case, so the COI’s ruling could come any day. That ruling—and the ensuing sanctions—will determine which coaches are in the pool for the Ole Miss job. If the COI rules harshly and tacks on a longer postseason ban and serious scholarship reductions, that pool will shrink. If the COI hands down a lighter sentence, quite a few coaches will want the job—which could pay big money.

Mississippi State

The Bulldogs escaped Arkansas, but they’ll deal with more noise all week. Mullen, who has interviewed for other jobs before, would be a good fit at Florida, Tennessee, Texas A&M or Nebraska. But might he want to stay in Starkville? He has a very good team coming back next year. He has a new operations building. He has a job that gets him extended rather than fired if he wins nine games.

Friday

TCU

The Horned Frogs close their regular season Friday against rival Baylor, which would love nothing more than to ruin TCU’s Big 12 title chances. But a TCU win would clinch a spot opposite Oklahoma in the championship game. A Baylor win would complicate matters, and I’ll let Scott Bell of the Dallas Morning News take it from here because the league might be going deeeeeep into the tiebreaker list.

Arkansas

The firing of athletic director Jeff Long seems to spell doom for Bret Bielema’s tenure as the Arkansas coach. The question now is with this many jobs open, can the Razorbacks lure an attractive candidate? Of course a faction wants former Springdale (Ark.) High coach Gus Malzahn, but he might have a pretty good thing going at Auburn. Former Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner put it well last week when I interviewed him on SiriusXM: The Razorbacks need an offensive identity that makes them different and gives them a recruiting niche. Triple option, Air Raid, it doesn’t matter which one. But Arkansas needs to be different in a good way.

UCF

The Knights will play USF at 3:30 p.m. ET Friday with a berth in the American Athletic Conference title game on the line. If UCF wins, it’ll be another huge step forward for a program that was 0–12 just two years ago. (And beating the nearby rival that spent years blocking UCF from the Big East would make it even sweeter.) It also means all those schools who want to interview Knights coach Scott Frost would have to wait another week. They can pass the time by reading my story on UCF linebacker Shaquem Griffin.

USF

Remember before the season when we penciled the Bulls into the Group of Five’s spot in the New Year’s Six bowls? Well, they’ve only lost once (to Houston), but they’re 11-point underdogs to Interstate 4 rival UCF. Coach Charlie Strong’s team still has a shot at a big-money bowl, but it has to beat its rival.

Nebraska

It’s not really a secret that the Mike Riley era at Nebraska will end after the Iowa game. The question now is where the Cornhuskers go from here. Former Nebraska quarterback Frost seems like the obvious choice, but the UCF coach likely will have other suitors. If Frost chooses another job or stays at UCF, what then? Current Nebraska AD Bill Moos hired Leach at Washington State. That could be fun.

Saturday

The Game

Ohio State’s playoff hopes remain alive, but they’ll be dead if they can’t beat Michigan. Meanwhile, a loss to the Buckeyes would drop Jim Harbaugh’s record against his biggest rival to 0–3. Someone is going to be very, very angry when this one ends.

Iron Bowl

The last time an Alabama-Auburn matchup was a de facto SEC West title game, this happened.

With both teams still in the playoff hunt, this one could be just as much fun. Alabama is banged up at linebacker but might have Christian Miller back. Auburn looked like a juggernaut against Georgia on Nov. 11. The question now is whether the Tigers can repeat that performance, because they’ll need to be just as good to beat the Crimson Tide.

Territorial Cup

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez appears to have saved his job—thanks in large part to the rise of quarterback Khalil Tate. Arizona State coach Todd Graham may have saved his job—thanks in large part to a glut of openings and a limited supply of qualified replacements. Still, Graham probably should avoid a performance like last year, when the Wildcats ran for 511 yards, won 56–35 and didn’t even feel the need to attempt a pass in the second half.

Texas A&M

It appears the Texas A&M–Kevin Sumlin marriage will end soon, and that might be best for both parties. The Aggies want more, even though their history suggests this is what they should expect while sharing a division with a team on an all-time run. Sumlin deserves better than constant calls for his firing for multiple years. If Kelly picks Florida instead of UCLA, Westwood could be a nice landing spot for Sumlin. As for the Aggies, they should load up as much as their boosters are willing to chip in and make that run at Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher. He might say no, but that’s not a foregone conclusion at this point.

A Random Ranking

I considered revisiting my Thanksgiving Side Dish Power Rankings from three years ago, but upon further review, they’re pretty much perfect. But since I will make multiple meals out of Thanksgiving leftovers, I’ve decided to rank the top five meals.

1. Breakfast
2. Second breakfast
3. Dinner
4. Lunch
5. Fourthmeal

Projected Playoff

1. Alabama

The winner of the Iron Bowl will face Georgia for the SEC title and for a playoff berth. This could be an all-timer.

2. Miami

The Hurricanes made an otherwise ho-hum Saturday interesting by falling behind by two touchdowns twice against Virginia. But they came back to keep their undefeated season alive. Mark Richt probably would prefer his team doesn’t make it so exciting against Pittsburgh.

3. Oklahoma

Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield made an otherwise ho-hum Saturday interesting by grabbing his junk on national television. He shouldn’t have done it, but it won’t keep him from winning the Heisman.

4. Wisconsin

The Badgers need to beat Minnesota for the 14th consecutive season for several reasons. First, they’d stay undefeated and have a chance to clinch a playoff berth against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. Second, they’d win Paul Bunyan’s Axe. Third, they’d win the Slab of Bacon trophy. No, really.

Big Ugl(ies) of the Week

It’s about time we honored some Wisconsin offensive linemen, and this week’s award goes to Badgers center Tyler Biadasz and right guard Beau Benzschawel. Watch these two pull and eliminate defenders on Kendric Pryor’s 32-yard touchdown on an end-around against Michigan. I’m expecting a bunch of of-course-the-big-guys-blocked-the-small-guys responses from people who don’t understand the athleticism required for 316-pound redshirt freshman to snap, pull, locate a fast-moving target and then eliminate him from the play. These guys also have held their own against the big guys in the trenches all season, but it’s also fun to watch them perform a little Bulldozer Ballet.

Three and Out

1. A little Biblical rain in Knoxville wasn’t going to stop Coach O.

2. But a shank and a nifty decoy play would keep UCLA’s punt coverage team from finding USC’s Michael Pittman Jr.

3. Last week in this spot, you read about Austin Peay’s attempt to go from the nation’s longest losing streak to the FCS playoffs. The Governors did beat Eastern Illinois 28–13 to finish 8–1 in FCS play, but the selection committee—yes, they have those in other divisions—made Austin Peay the first team out of the 24-team bracket.

For Your Ears

First, an update on the Chip Kelly situation (which hopefully will still be correct when you hear it). Later, Nicole Auerbach of The All-American joins to discuss the coaching carousel, Grumors and the pixelated version of Mayfield’s crotch grab.

What’s Eating Andy?

Perhaps the most incongruous scene from Saturday was the Kansas football captains refusing to shake Mayfield’s hand—a precursor to the aforementioned Mayfield junk-grabbing—while two very young Kansas fans stood next to them. Instead of a trash-talking barrage, Mayfield could have checkmated the Jayhawks by shaking the hands of the two kids who accompanied them to midfield. It would have been hilarious, and it would have been the perfect response. Instead, everyone chose the stupidest possible option.

What’s Andy Eating?

The server considered the order I’d just given him and walked toward the kitchen. Then he wheeled around and returned to the table. “Do you still want the biscuit?” he asked.

For the uninitiated, the answer is always “Hell yes I want the biscuit.” I’d sat down at Mama’s Boy in Athens, Ga., and ordered two entrees. I had only planned to order the pulled pork and potato hash, but then I read the chalkboard next to the door. It said this:

Fig & Rosemary Pancakes: Fig and rosemary pancakes with fresh sliced figs and housemade fig syrup topped with whipped cream and powdered sugar

I had to try these. And since Mama’s Boy offered a short stack for $4.99, it would only be a taste. But when the food arrived, I understood my server’s hesitation vis-a-vis the biscuit that came on the side of the pulled pork and potato hash.

The “short stack” consisted of three glorious, fluffy pancakes covered with just enough of the aforementioned fig syrup. This would be a full meal for a normal person. I, however, am not normal. So I grabbed the bowl that contained the hash and plucked the biscuit off the side.

Mama’s Boy does everything right, which is why the line to get in snakes around the building many mornings. If you don’t want to wait, go at 12:30 p.m. on a weekday like I did and simply order breakfast for lunch. (You can call it brunch if you want. I’d rather not skip or combine meals.) That biscuit was golden on the outside and fluffy on the inside and soaked up the blackberry preserves I spread on each half. The pulled pork and potato hash was even better. Home fries provide the base for a pile of pulled pork that is lightly coated with mustard-based barbecue sauce. If you read this space often, you know my feelings on barbecue sauce. But while I don’t always use barbecue sauce, when I do, I prefer mustard-based. Two poached eggs sit atop this creation, and after a few swipes with a fork all the ingredients blend together into a comfort food amalgam that should come with a warning label. The Surgeon General has determined you’ll need a nap after this. Hope you have some free time.

The pancakes were just as good. My one complaint with typical pancakes is that even the salty buttermilk flavor doesn’t completely counterbalance the sweetness of the syrup. The rosemary cuts the sweetness just enough here. These lit up every section of taste buds, and even though I was stuffed after the hash, I couldn’t stop eating.

I wanted to try one of the cinnamon rolls the menu had touted, but I knew when I saw a tray of them in the kitchen that I’d need to wait for another day. They were approximately the size of youth footballs, but if they were made with the same care as everything else I’d tried, they had to be the most delicious footballs ever baked.

The Award Section: Nathan Peterman Earns Goat Status for Five-Interception Performance

OFFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Antonio Brown, wide receiver, Pittsburgh. Three touchdown catches against the defense of Hall of Fame Steeler alum Dick LeBeau is impressive enough. But the third one was one of the prettiest catches of the year, a one-hander on the right side of the end zone, Brown securing the ball against his helmet as he fell to the ground. He continues to be 1 and 1-A with Julio Jones atop the NFL Receiver Greatness Board. For the game: 10 catches for 144 yards in the Steelers’ 40-17 rout of the Titans. This was the first offensive explosion against a good team that Pittsburgh’s had this year, and Brown was the keystone.

DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Casey Hayward, cornerback, L.A. Chargers. Per Pro Football Focus, Hayward allowed a 0.0 passer rating in the eight balls thrown his way, intercepting two, batting down two, and allowing one inconsequential completion in the incredibly weird 54-24 rout of Buffalo.

Anthony Harris, safety, Minnesota. With 4:11 left in the first half of a 7-7 game against the Rams, L.A. rookie wideout Cooper Kupp steamed toward the end zone and a Rams’ lead, but Harris, a third-year player from Virginia, forced a fumble at the 1-yard line that turned around a very big game. Harris added a team-high seven tackles in a statement win for the Vikes.

Landon Collins, strong safety, New York Giants. Collins in 2017 hasn’t had a lot of days like the 2016 Collins, the one who was a serious candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. But he was immense in the 12-9 stunner over the Chiefs. He had 14 tackles and an athletic interception of—I’m serious—Travis Kelce.

Matthew Judon, outside linebacker, Baltimore. The Ravens beat a toothless Green Bay team for the first Packers home shutout in 11 years, and Judon, out of that football factory Grand Valley (Mich.) State, led the way. By halftime, this is what he’d done: forced a fumble recovered by the Ravens, stoned Randall Cobb for zero yards, sacked Brett Hundley for minus-12 yards, sacked Hundley for minus-13 yards. The Ravens dominated the feeble Pack.

SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Stephen Gostkowski, kicker, New England. In a quarter-and-a-half of the high altitude of Mexico City, Gostkowski kicked field goals of 62 (a Patriot record), 51, 40 and 29 yards, missing none. One of the best days of an outstanding career.

Matt Prater, kicker, Detroit. On a day with 23-degree wind chill and 16-mph winds buffeting Soldier Field, Prater stepped up to try a 52-yard field goal in a tie game with 1:35 left. As with many of his pressure kicks in the past couple of years, Prater’s boot was perfect. Detroit 27, Chicago 24. Three wins in a row.

T.J. Watt, defensive end, Pittsburgh. Give an assist to special teams coordinator Danny Smith for a smart, overloaded-to-the-right field-goal rush early in the second quarter, with Watt cleanly blocking a 48-yard Ryan Succop field goal try that could have tied the game at 10. Sparked by this excellent field-goal block design, Pittsburgh outscored Tennessee 30-10 the rest of the way.

COACH OF THE WEEK

Ben McAdoo, coach, New York Giants. So the Giants were one big lost cause, 1-8 coming off an embarrassing no-show performance at the previously winless Niners last week. The owner had to release a statement saying he wouldn’t fire McAdoo during the season. The tabloids mocked McAdoo, and COO John Mara. McAdoo began meeting with his players individually, telling them the season was not lost. McAdoo appealed to fans during the week to come to the game Sunday against the AFC West-leading Chiefs—vanquishers of New England and Philadelphia—and said he loved their chances against Kansas City. In the game, the defense played like the 2016 Giants. The 12-9 overtime win wasn’t really all that surprising. Maybe the man does still have a grip on the locker room after all.

GOAT OF THE WEEK

Nathan Peterman, quarterback, Buffalo. His ascension to the starting job was controversial to begin with, replacing the popular Tyrod Taylor. And the fifth-round rookie had the kind of nightmare game that will be hard to overcome. First 18 minutes as a pro football player: four interceptions. Buffalo never had a chance. The Bills (5-5) lost their third in a row, and barring a miracle finish by the team, a generation of Bills fans seems destined to experience their 18th straight season cheering for a non-playoff team. One more thing: Peterman had more picks in 18 minutes than Taylor (three) had in eight games. Wait, another final thing: Peterman threw a fifth pick in the last minute of the half. What a disaster.

Connor Barth, kicker, Chicago. Down 27-24 with under a minute left, the Bears get a fourth-and-13 run for a first down from Mitchell Trubisky, then a pass from Trubisky to put Chicago in field-goal range. With eight seconds remaining, here comes Barth to try a 46-yard field goal to send the game to overtime. Snap perfect. Hold perfect. Kick 20 feet wide right. A miss is a miss, but this was a ridiculous miss.

Quotes of the Week

I

“It’s very simple. I cost us the game. … There’s your headline. You can write it.”

—Bruce Arians, Arizona coach, after he chose to go for it on fourth-and-one in his territory, down 24-21, in the fourth quarter. Adrian Peterson was stuffed for no gain, and Arizona lost.

II

“I was a little taken aback by it. But he was telling the truth.”

—Denver All-Pro pass rusher Von Miller, reacting after another loss Sunday night to the words of club GM John Elway, who called the team “soft” during the week.

III

“It's going to be hard to yank him out of there right now. He's playing good. I still have really high hopes. You know a lot of things happen throughout the course of this season so we'll just see how it goes.”

—Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer, on the dilemma of whether to continue to play Case Keenum, who has led the Vikings to 95 points in the last three games—all wins—or the man thought to be the long-term starter in Minnesota, Teddy Bridgewater. For now, it sounds like Zimmer will stick with Keenum.

IV

“If you think Bob Kraft came after you hard, Bob Kraft is a p---y compared to what I’m going to do.”

—Dallas owner Jerry Jones, in the ESPN.com story by Don Van Natta and Seth Wickersham about the battle between Jones and commissioner Roger Goodell over the suspension of Ezekiel Elliott, referring to New England owner Kraft dropping his appeals with the league over the four-game Tom Brady suspension in 2016.

That not a Quote of the Week. It’s the Quote of the Year.

V

“The arm had played a trick on everybody: It hid his brain. Stafford is a lot more like Peyton Manning than people realize.”

—Michael Rosenberg of Sports Illustrated, from his excellent profile of Matthew Stafford.

VI

“At the end of the day, there’s a First Amendment right as an American citizen. You have a right to protest peacefully. Protests aren’t supposed to be comfortable.”

—Giants defensive end Olivier Vernon, who is the only Giant to continue to not stand for the national anthem (he is kneeling), to Bob Glauber of Newsday.

VII

“Mike and Mike signing off.”

—Mike Golic, co-host of the ESPN Radio morning show “Mike and Mike,” in a pretty simple signoff after the 18-year run with Mike Greenberg ended at 10 a.m. ET Friday morning.

Stat of the Week

I’m not sure exactly what word to use about the state of Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, picked 1-2 in the 2015 NFL draft, after 2.5 seasons of their careers. Worrisome, perhaps, particularly with Mariota’s abysmal performance in Pittsburgh on Thursday.

If you combined their passing line in their third NFL seasons, Winston and Mariota, together, would be rated 25th. The combined numbers of the first and second picks in the 2016 draft, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, would place those two fourth in the ratings.

• Winston/Mariota: 83.4
• Goff/Wentz: 101.1

Here’s the stunner … and it is not exclusively the misguided, careless performance of Mariota on Thursday night at Pittsburgh. Touchdowns to interceptions this season:

• Winston/Mariota: 18-16
• Goff/Wentz: 44-9

Factoids That May Interest Only Me

I

In Dallas last week for a Jason Witten story for NBC’s “Football Night in America” show, I opened up the Dallas Morning News high school coverage on Saturday morning. Eight broadsheet pages, no ads, of high school football. You think the game’s going away? It’s endangered? Texas begs to differ. (And maybe it should go away. But man, look at Texas high school football. It’s ridiculously huge.)

On the endless page of agate, with scores from all over the state, I noticed this one: Plainview Christian 97, WF Christian 96

Whoa. I needed more info on this game. Googled it. Turns out that this was a Texas Six-Man football game. In six-man football in Texas, placekicks are more difficult, because with only four linemen, the path to block the kick is shorter. So a field goal is worth four points, and the extra point is worth two.

According to the Plainview Herald, Wichita Falls Christian, trailing 97-90, scored a touchdown with four seconds left to narrow it to 97-96. The kicker came on. After a 193-point game, it came down to this: make the PAT, and Wichita Falls Christian wins 98-97. Miss the PAT, and Plainview Christian wins, 97-96.

Snap. Kick. IT’S BLOCKED!

II

Texas Southern is the ultimate NCAA Division I college basketball mercenary. The Tigers do not play a home game this season until 2018. Their first 13 games, all non-conference, are roadies, in every time zone, and paychecks for a school that obviously uses its pre-conference schedule to raise money for the program. The non-conference schedule:

Eastern Time: Ohio State, Syracuse, Clemson, Oakland (Mich.), Toledo
Central Time: Kansas, Baylor, TCU
Mountain Time: Wyoming, Brigham Young
Pacific Time: Gonzaga, Washington State, Oregon

Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note

Delta flight, Dallas to LaGuardia, Tuesday morning. I board, take my aisle seat, and a few minutes after takeoff, open my MacBook Air to do some work. I hadn’t cleaned the screen in some time, and there was a large smudge in the middle of the screen. I do not travel with a screen care kit, or screen wipes, so I proceeded to begin to wipe the screen with the sleeve of my sweater.

I felt a tap on my shoulder, and I turned around. “Here,” the guy on the aisle one row behind me said, proffering me a single-pack screen wipe. “Know what that’s like.”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s incredible. Really—thanks so much.”

I don’t know exactly why that made such an impact, but I had to thank the guy at the end of the flight. He said, “Glad you could have a clean screen.” That’s a pretty cool thing.

Tweets of the Week

I

II

III

IV

New section of the column this fall—My MVP, as part of The MMQB’s partnership with State Farm. Each week I’ll ask an NFL person what his most valuable possession is, and why.

Latavius Murray, running back, Minnesota. “I have a custom chain that me and my boys back home from Syracuse had made to honor one of our best friends who passed last Thanksgiving. Actually, our friend was murdered. His name was Jonathan Diaz. So we had chains made for us to wear, and they say, ‘RIP, JD’ to honor him. That’s the most significant material thing I have. I cherish it.”

Pod People

From “The MMQB Podcast With Peter King,” available where you download podcasts.

This week will be a different podcast, dropping Wednesday morning, just in time for the drive over the river and through the woods to Thanksgiving dinner. I’ve gathered some voices from around the NFL—led by an emotional Chargers coach, Anthony Lynn—who have reason to be thankful this year. And we’ll get an interpretation of the Goodell-Jones conflict from ESPN’s Seth Wickersham, who co-wrote with Don Van Natta the powerful piece on the birth of the battle. I urge you to subscribe to the podcast. Lynn has a great message.

The Award Section: Nathan Peterman Earns Goat Status for Five-Interception Performance

OFFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Antonio Brown, wide receiver, Pittsburgh. Three touchdown catches against the defense of Hall of Fame Steeler alum Dick LeBeau is impressive enough. But the third one was one of the prettiest catches of the year, a one-hander on the right side of the end zone, Brown securing the ball against his helmet as he fell to the ground. He continues to be 1 and 1-A with Julio Jones atop the NFL Receiver Greatness Board. For the game: 10 catches for 144 yards in the Steelers’ 40-17 rout of the Titans. This was the first offensive explosion against a good team that Pittsburgh’s had this year, and Brown was the keystone.

DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Casey Hayward, cornerback, L.A. Chargers. Per Pro Football Focus, Hayward allowed a 0.0 passer rating in the eight balls thrown his way, intercepting two, batting down two, and allowing one inconsequential completion in the incredibly weird 54-24 rout of Buffalo.

Anthony Harris, safety, Minnesota. With 4:11 left in the first half of a 7-7 game against the Rams, L.A. rookie wideout Cooper Kupp steamed toward the end zone and a Rams’ lead, but Harris, a third-year player from Virginia, forced a fumble at the 1-yard line that turned around a very big game. Harris added a team-high seven tackles in a statement win for the Vikes.

Landon Collins, strong safety, New York Giants. Collins in 2017 hasn’t had a lot of days like the 2016 Collins, the one who was a serious candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. But he was immense in the 12-9 stunner over the Chiefs. He had 14 tackles and an athletic interception of—I’m serious—Travis Kelce.

Matthew Judon, outside linebacker, Baltimore. The Ravens beat a toothless Green Bay team for the first Packers home shutout in 11 years, and Judon, out of that football factory Grand Valley (Mich.) State, led the way. By halftime, this is what he’d done: forced a fumble recovered by the Ravens, stoned Randall Cobb for zero yards, sacked Brett Hundley for minus-12 yards, sacked Hundley for minus-13 yards. The Ravens dominated the feeble Pack.

SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Stephen Gostkowski, kicker, New England. In a quarter-and-a-half of the high altitude of Mexico City, Gostkowski kicked field goals of 62 (a Patriot record), 51, 40 and 29 yards, missing none. One of the best days of an outstanding career.

Matt Prater, kicker, Detroit. On a day with 23-degree wind chill and 16-mph winds buffeting Soldier Field, Prater stepped up to try a 52-yard field goal in a tie game with 1:35 left. As with many of his pressure kicks in the past couple of years, Prater’s boot was perfect. Detroit 27, Chicago 24. Three wins in a row.

T.J. Watt, defensive end, Pittsburgh. Give an assist to special teams coordinator Danny Smith for a smart, overloaded-to-the-right field-goal rush early in the second quarter, with Watt cleanly blocking a 48-yard Ryan Succop field goal try that could have tied the game at 10. Sparked by this excellent field-goal block design, Pittsburgh outscored Tennessee 30-10 the rest of the way.

COACH OF THE WEEK

Ben McAdoo, coach, New York Giants. So the Giants were one big lost cause, 1-8 coming off an embarrassing no-show performance at the previously winless Niners last week. The owner had to release a statement saying he wouldn’t fire McAdoo during the season. The tabloids mocked McAdoo, and COO John Mara. McAdoo began meeting with his players individually, telling them the season was not lost. McAdoo appealed to fans during the week to come to the game Sunday against the AFC West-leading Chiefs—vanquishers of New England and Philadelphia—and said he loved their chances against Kansas City. In the game, the defense played like the 2016 Giants. The 12-9 overtime win wasn’t really all that surprising. Maybe the man does still have a grip on the locker room after all.

GOAT OF THE WEEK

Nathan Peterman, quarterback, Buffalo. His ascension to the starting job was controversial to begin with, replacing the popular Tyrod Taylor. And the fifth-round rookie had the kind of nightmare game that will be hard to overcome. First 18 minutes as a pro football player: four interceptions. Buffalo never had a chance. The Bills (5-5) lost their third in a row, and barring a miracle finish by the team, a generation of Bills fans seems destined to experience their 18th straight season cheering for a non-playoff team. One more thing: Peterman had more picks in 18 minutes than Taylor (three) had in eight games. Wait, another final thing: Peterman threw a fifth pick in the last minute of the half. What a disaster.

Connor Barth, kicker, Chicago. Down 27-24 with under a minute left, the Bears get a fourth-and-13 run for a first down from Mitchell Trubisky, then a pass from Trubisky to put Chicago in field-goal range. With eight seconds remaining, here comes Barth to try a 46-yard field goal to send the game to overtime. Snap perfect. Hold perfect. Kick 20 feet wide right. A miss is a miss, but this was a ridiculous miss.

Quotes of the Week

I

“It’s very simple. I cost us the game. … There’s your headline. You can write it.”

—Bruce Arians, Arizona coach, after he chose to go for it on fourth-and-one in his territory, down 24-21, in the fourth quarter. Adrian Peterson was stuffed for no gain, and Arizona lost.

II

“I was a little taken aback by it. But he was telling the truth.”

—Denver All-Pro pass rusher Von Miller, reacting after another loss Sunday night to the words of club GM John Elway, who called the team “soft” during the week.

III

“It's going to be hard to yank him out of there right now. He's playing good. I still have really high hopes. You know a lot of things happen throughout the course of this season so we'll just see how it goes.”

—Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer, on the dilemma of whether to continue to play Case Keenum, who has led the Vikings to 95 points in the last three games—all wins—or the man thought to be the long-term starter in Minnesota, Teddy Bridgewater. For now, it sounds like Zimmer will stick with Keenum.

IV

“If you think Bob Kraft came after you hard, Bob Kraft is a p---y compared to what I’m going to do.”

—Dallas owner Jerry Jones, in the ESPN.com story by Don Van Natta and Seth Wickersham about the battle between Jones and commissioner Roger Goodell over the suspension of Ezekiel Elliott, referring to New England owner Kraft dropping his appeals with the league over the four-game Tom Brady suspension in 2016.

That not a Quote of the Week. It’s the Quote of the Year.

V

“The arm had played a trick on everybody: It hid his brain. Stafford is a lot more like Peyton Manning than people realize.”

—Michael Rosenberg of Sports Illustrated, from his excellent profile of Matthew Stafford.

VI

“At the end of the day, there’s a First Amendment right as an American citizen. You have a right to protest peacefully. Protests aren’t supposed to be comfortable.”

—Giants defensive end Olivier Vernon, who is the only Giant to continue to not stand for the national anthem (he is kneeling), to Bob Glauber of Newsday.

VII

“Mike and Mike signing off.”

—Mike Golic, co-host of the ESPN Radio morning show “Mike and Mike,” in a pretty simple signoff after the 18-year run with Mike Greenberg ended at 10 a.m. ET Friday morning.

Stat of the Week

I’m not sure exactly what word to use about the state of Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, picked 1-2 in the 2015 NFL draft, after 2.5 seasons of their careers. Worrisome, perhaps, particularly with Mariota’s abysmal performance in Pittsburgh on Thursday.

If you combined their passing line in their third NFL seasons, Winston and Mariota, together, would be rated 25th. The combined numbers of the first and second picks in the 2016 draft, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, would place those two fourth in the ratings.

• Winston/Mariota: 83.4
• Goff/Wentz: 101.1

Here’s the stunner … and it is not exclusively the misguided, careless performance of Mariota on Thursday night at Pittsburgh. Touchdowns to interceptions this season:

• Winston/Mariota: 18-16
• Goff/Wentz: 44-9

Factoids That May Interest Only Me

I

In Dallas last week for a Jason Witten story for NBC’s “Football Night in America” show, I opened up the Dallas Morning News high school coverage on Saturday morning. Eight broadsheet pages, no ads, of high school football. You think the game’s going away? It’s endangered? Texas begs to differ. (And maybe it should go away. But man, look at Texas high school football. It’s ridiculously huge.)

On the endless page of agate, with scores from all over the state, I noticed this one: Plainview Christian 97, WF Christian 96

Whoa. I needed more info on this game. Googled it. Turns out that this was a Texas Six-Man football game. In six-man football in Texas, placekicks are more difficult, because with only four linemen, the path to block the kick is shorter. So a field goal is worth four points, and the extra point is worth two.

According to the Plainview Herald, Wichita Falls Christian, trailing 97-90, scored a touchdown with four seconds left to narrow it to 97-96. The kicker came on. After a 193-point game, it came down to this: make the PAT, and Wichita Falls Christian wins 98-97. Miss the PAT, and Plainview Christian wins, 97-96.

Snap. Kick. IT’S BLOCKED!

II

Texas Southern is the ultimate NCAA Division I college basketball mercenary. The Tigers do not play a home game this season until 2018. Their first 13 games, all non-conference, are roadies, in every time zone, and paychecks for a school that obviously uses its pre-conference schedule to raise money for the program. The non-conference schedule:

Eastern Time: Ohio State, Syracuse, Clemson, Oakland (Mich.), Toledo
Central Time: Kansas, Baylor, TCU
Mountain Time: Wyoming, Brigham Young
Pacific Time: Gonzaga, Washington State, Oregon

Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note

Delta flight, Dallas to LaGuardia, Tuesday morning. I board, take my aisle seat, and a few minutes after takeoff, open my MacBook Air to do some work. I hadn’t cleaned the screen in some time, and there was a large smudge in the middle of the screen. I do not travel with a screen care kit, or screen wipes, so I proceeded to begin to wipe the screen with the sleeve of my sweater.

I felt a tap on my shoulder, and I turned around. “Here,” the guy on the aisle one row behind me said, proffering me a single-pack screen wipe. “Know what that’s like.”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s incredible. Really—thanks so much.”

I don’t know exactly why that made such an impact, but I had to thank the guy at the end of the flight. He said, “Glad you could have a clean screen.” That’s a pretty cool thing.

Tweets of the Week

I

II

III

IV

New section of the column this fall—My MVP, as part of The MMQB’s partnership with State Farm. Each week I’ll ask an NFL person what his most valuable possession is, and why.

Latavius Murray, running back, Minnesota. “I have a custom chain that me and my boys back home from Syracuse had made to honor one of our best friends who passed last Thanksgiving. Actually, our friend was murdered. His name was Jonathan Diaz. So we had chains made for us to wear, and they say, ‘RIP, JD’ to honor him. That’s the most significant material thing I have. I cherish it.”

Pod People

From “The MMQB Podcast With Peter King,” available where you download podcasts.

This week will be a different podcast, dropping Wednesday morning, just in time for the drive over the river and through the woods to Thanksgiving dinner. I’ve gathered some voices from around the NFL—led by an emotional Chargers coach, Anthony Lynn—who have reason to be thankful this year. And we’ll get an interpretation of the Goodell-Jones conflict from ESPN’s Seth Wickersham, who co-wrote with Don Van Natta the powerful piece on the birth of the battle. I urge you to subscribe to the podcast. Lynn has a great message.

The Award Section: Nathan Peterman Earns Goat Status for Five-Interception Performance

OFFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Antonio Brown, wide receiver, Pittsburgh. Three touchdown catches against the defense of Hall of Fame Steeler alum Dick LeBeau is impressive enough. But how Brown made the third one was one of the prettiest catches of the year, a one-hander on the right side of the end zone, securing the ball against his helmet as he fell to the ground. Brown continues to be 1 and 1-A with Julio Jones atop the NFL Receiver Greatness Board. For the game: 10 catches, 144 yards in the Steelers’ 40-17 rout of the Titans. This was the first offensive explosion against a good team Pittsburgh’s had this year, and Brown was the keystone.

DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Casey Hayward, cornerback, L.A. Chargers. Per Pro Football Focus, Hayward allowed a 0.0 passer rating in the eight balls thrown his way, intercepting two, batting down two, and allowing one inconsequential completion in the incredibly weird 54-24 rout of Buffalo.

Anthony Harris, safety, Minnesota. With 4:11 left in the first half of a 7-7 game against the Rams, rookie wideout Cooper Kupp of the Rams steamed toward the end zone and a Rams’ lead, but Harris, a third-year player from Virginia, forced a fumble at the 1-yard line that turned around a very big game. Harris added a team-high seven tackles on a statement win for the Vikes.

Landon Collins, strong safety, New York Giants. Collins in 2017 hasn’t had a lot of days like the 2016 Collins, the one that was a serious candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. But he was immense in the 12-9 stunner over the Chiefs. He had 14 tackles and an athletic interception of—I’m serious—Travis Kelce.

Matthew Judon, outside linebacker, Baltimore. The Ravens shut out a toothless Green Bay team for the first Packer home shutout in 11 years, and Judon, out of that football factory Grand Valley (Mich.) State, led the way. By halftime, this is what he’d done: forced a fumble recovered by the Ravens, stoned Randall Cobb for zero yards, sacked Brett Hundley for minus-12 yards, sacked Hundley for minus-13 yards. The Ravens dominated the feeble Pack.

SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Stephen Gostkowski, kicker, New England. In a quarter-and-a-half of the high altitude of Mexico City, Gostkowski kicked field goals of 62 (a Patriot record), 51, 40 and 29 yards, missing none. One of the best days of an outstanding career.

Matt Prater, kicker, Detroit. On a day with 23-degree wind chill and 16-mph winds buffeting Soldier Field, Prater stepped up to try a 52-yard field goal in a tie game with 1:35 left. As with many of his pressure kicks in the past couple of years, Prater’s boot was perfect. Detroit 27, Chicago 24. Three wins in a row.

T.J. Watt, defensive end, Pittsburgh. Give an assist to special teams coordinator Danny Smith for a smart, overloaded-to-the-right field-goal rush early in the second quarter, with Watt cleanly blocking a 48-yard Ryan Succop field goal try that could have tied the game at 10. Sparked by this excellent field-goal block design, Pittsburgh outscored Tennessee 30-10 the rest of the way.

COACH OF THE WEEK

Ben McAdoo, coach, New York Giants. So the Giants were one big lost cause, 1-8 coming off an embarrassing no-show performance at the previously winless Niners last week. The owner had to release a statement saying he wouldn’t fire McAdoo during the season. The tabloids mocked McAdoo, and COO John Mara. McAdoo began meeting with his players individually, telling them the season was not lost. McAdoo appealed to fans during the week to come to the game Sunday against the AFC West-leading Chiefs—vanquishers of New England and Philadelphia—and said he loved their chance against the Chiefs. And in the game, the defense played like the 2016 Giants. The 12-9 overtime win wasn’t really all that surprising. Maybe the man does still have a grip on the locker room after all.

GOAT OF THE WEEK

Nathan Peterman, quarterback, Buffalo. His ascension to the starting job was controversial to begin with, replacing the popular Tyrod Taylor. And the fifth-round rookie had the kind of nightmare game that will be hard to overcome. First 18 minutes as a pro football player: four interceptions. Buffalo never had a chance. The Bills (5-5) lost their third in a row, and it is officially the 18th lost season in a row. A generation of Bills fans, barring a miracle finish by the team, seem destined to experience their 18th straight season cheering for a non-playoff team. One more thing: Peterman had more picks in 18 minutes than Taylor (three) had in eight games. Wait, another final thing: Peterman threw a fifth pick in the last minute of the half. What a disaster.

Connor Barth, kicker, Chicago. Down 27-24 and driving toward field-goal range, the Bears get a fourth-and-13 run for a first down from Mitchell Trubisky, then a pass from Trubisky to put the Bears into field-goal range. With seconds left, here comes Barth to try a 46-yard field goal to send the game to overtime. Snap perfect. Hold perfect. Kick 20 feet wide right. A miss is a miss, but this was a ridiculous miss.

Quotes of the Week

I

“It’s very simple. I cost us the game. … There’s your headline. You can write it.”

—Bruce Arians, Arizona coach, after he chose to go for it on fourth-and-one in his territory, down 24-21, in the fourth quarter. Adrian Peterson was stuffed for no gain, and Arizona lost.

II

“I was a little taken aback by it. But he was telling the truth.”

—Denver all-pro pass rusher Von Miller, reacting after another loss Sunday night to the words of club GM John Elway, who called the team “soft” during the week.

III

“It's going to be hard to yank him out of there right now. He's playing good. I still have really high hopes. You know a lot of things happen throughout the course of this season so we'll just see how it goes.”

—Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer, on the dilemma of whether to play Case Keenum, who has led the Vikings to 95 points in the last three games—all wins—or the man thought to be the long-term starter in Minnesota, Teddy Bridgewater. For now, it sounds like Zimmer will stick with Keenum.

IV

“If you think Bob Kraft came after you hard, Bob Kraft is a p---y compared to what I’m going to do.”

—Dallas owner Jerry Jones, in the ESPN.com story by Don Van Natta and Seth Wickersham about the battle between Jones and commissioner Roger Goodell over the suspension of Ezekiel Elliott, referring to New England owner Kraft dropping his appeals with the league over the four-game Tom Brady suspension in 2016.

That not a Quote of the Week. It’s the Quote of the Year.

V

“The arm had played a trick on everybody: It hid his brain. Stafford is a lot more like Peyton Manning than people realize.

—Michael Rosenberg of Sports Illustrated, from his excellent profile of Matthew Stafford.

VI

“At the end of the day, there’s a First Amendment right as an American citizen. You have a right to protest peacefully. Protests aren’t supposed to be comfortable.”

—Giants defensive end Olivier Vernon, who is the only Giant to continue to not stand for the national anthem (he is kneeling), to Bob Glauber of Newsday.

VII

“Mike and Mike signing off.”

—Mike Golic, co-host of the ESPN Radio morning show “Mike and Mike,” in a pretty simple signoff after the 18-year run with Mike Greenberg ended at 10 a.m. ET Friday morning.

Stat of the Week

I’m not sure exactly what word to use about the state of Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, picked 1-2 in the 2015 NFL Draft, after 2.5 seasons of their careers. “Worrisome,” perhaps, particularly with Mariota’s abysmal performance in Pittsburgh on Thursday.

If you combined their passing line in this, their third NFL seasons, Winston and Mariota, together, would be rated 25th. The combined numbers of the first and second picks in the 2016 draft, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, would place them fourth in the ratings.

• Winston/Mariota: 83.4
• Goff/Wentz: 101.1

Here’s the stunner … and it is not exclusively the misguided, careless performance of Mariota on Thursday night at Pittsburgh. Touchdown-to-interception ratio this season:

• Winston/Mariota: 18-16
• Goff/Wentz: 44-9

Factoids That May Interest Only Me

I

In Dallas last week for a Jason Witten story for NBC’s “Football Night in America” show, I opened up the Dallas Morning News high school coverage on Saturday morning. Eight broadsheet pages, no ads, of high school football. You think the game’s going away? It’s endangered? Texas would dare to differ. (And maybe it should go away. But man, look at Texas high school football. It’s ridiculously huge.)

On the endless page of agate, with scores from all over the state, I noticed this one: Plainview Christian 97, WF Christian 96

Whoa. I needed more info on this game. Googled it. Turns out that this was a Texas Six-Man football game. In six-man football in Texas, placekicks are more difficult, because with only four linemen, the path to block the kick is shorter. So a field goal is worth four points, and the extra point is worth two.

According to the Plainview Herald, Wichita Falls Christian, trailing 97-90, scored a touchdown with four seconds left to narrow it to 97-96. The kicker came on. After a 193-point game, it came down to this: make the PAT, and Wichita Falls Christian wins 98-97. Miss the PAT, and Plainview Christian wins, 97-96.

Snap. Kick. IT’S BLOCKED!

II

Texas Southern University is the ultimate NCAA Division I college basketball mercenary. The Tigers do not play a home game this season till 2018. Their first 13 games, all non-conference, are roadies, in every time zone, and paychecks for a school that obviously uses its pre-conference schedule to raise money for the program. The non-conference schedule:

Eastern Time: Ohio State, Syracuse, Clemson, Oakland (Mich.), Toledo
Central Time: Kansas, Baylor, TCU
Mountain Time: Wyoming, Brigham Young
Pacific Time: Gonzaga, Washington State, Oregon

Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note

Delta flight, Dallas to LaGuardia, Tuesday morning. I board, take my aisle seat, and a few minutes after takeoff, open my MacBook Air to do some work. I hadn’t cleaned the screen in some time, and there was a large smudge in the middle of the screen. I do not travel with a screen care kit, or screen wipes, so I proceeded to begin to wipe the screen with the sleeve of my sweater.

I felt a tap on my shoulder, and I turned around. “Here,” the guy on the aisle one row behind me said, proffering me a single-pack screen wipe. “Know what that’s like.”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s incredible. Really—thanks so much.”

I don’t know exactly why that made such an impact, but I had to thank the guy at the end of the flight. He said, “Glad you could have a clean screen.” That’s a pretty cool thing.

Tweets of the Week

I

II

III

IV

New section of the column this fall—My MVP, as part of The MMQB’s partnership with State Farm. Each week, I’ll ask an NFL person what his most valuable possession is, and why.

Latavius Murray, running back, Minnesota. “I have a custom chain that me and my boys back home from Syracuse had made to honor one of our best friends who passed last Thanksgiving. Actually, our friend was murdered. His name was Jonathan Diaz. So we had chains made for us to wear, and they say, ‘RIP, JD’ to honor him. That’s the most significant material thing I have. I cherish it.”

Pod People

From “The MMQB Podcast With Peter King,” available where you download podcasts.

This week will be a different podcast, dropping Wednesday morning, just in time for the drive over the river and through the woods to Thanksgiving dinner. I’ve gathered some voices from around the NFL—led by an emotional Chargers coach, Anthony Lynn—who have reason to be thankful this year. And we’ll get an interpretation of the Goodell-Jones conflict from ESPN’s Seth Wickersham, who co-wrote the powerful piece on the birth of the battle with Don Van Natta. I urge you to subscribe to the podcast. Lynn has a great message.

The Award Section: Nathan Peterman Earns Goat Status for Five-Interception Performance

OFFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Antonio Brown, wide receiver, Pittsburgh. Three touchdown catches against the defense of Hall of Fame Steeler alum Dick LeBeau is impressive enough. But the third one was one of the prettiest catches of the year, a one-hander on the right side of the end zone, Brown securing the ball against his helmet as he fell to the ground. He continues to be 1 and 1-A with Julio Jones atop the NFL Receiver Greatness Board. For the game: 10 catches for 144 yards in the Steelers’ 40-17 rout of the Titans. This was the first offensive explosion against a good team that Pittsburgh’s had this year, and Brown was the keystone.

DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Casey Hayward, cornerback, L.A. Chargers. Per Pro Football Focus, Hayward allowed a 0.0 passer rating in the eight balls thrown his way, intercepting two, batting down two, and allowing one inconsequential completion in the incredibly weird 54-24 rout of Buffalo.

Anthony Harris, safety, Minnesota. With 4:11 left in the first half of a 7-7 game against the Rams, L.A. rookie wideout Cooper Kupp steamed toward the end zone and a Rams’ lead, but Harris, a third-year player from Virginia, forced a fumble at the 1-yard line that turned around a very big game. Harris added a team-high seven tackles in a statement win for the Vikes.

Landon Collins, strong safety, New York Giants. Collins in 2017 hasn’t had a lot of days like the 2016 Collins, the one who was a serious candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. But he was immense in the 12-9 stunner over the Chiefs. He had 14 tackles and an athletic interception of—I’m serious—Travis Kelce.

Matthew Judon, outside linebacker, Baltimore. The Ravens beat a toothless Green Bay team for the first Packers home shutout in 11 years, and Judon, out of that football factory Grand Valley (Mich.) State, led the way. By halftime, this is what he’d done: forced a fumble recovered by the Ravens, stoned Randall Cobb for zero yards, sacked Brett Hundley for minus-12 yards, sacked Hundley for minus-13 yards. The Ravens dominated the feeble Pack.

SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Stephen Gostkowski, kicker, New England. In a quarter-and-a-half of the high altitude of Mexico City, Gostkowski kicked field goals of 62 (a Patriot record), 51, 40 and 29 yards, missing none. One of the best days of an outstanding career.

Matt Prater, kicker, Detroit. On a day with 23-degree wind chill and 16-mph winds buffeting Soldier Field, Prater stepped up to try a 52-yard field goal in a tie game with 1:35 left. As with many of his pressure kicks in the past couple of years, Prater’s boot was perfect. Detroit 27, Chicago 24. Three wins in a row.

T.J. Watt, defensive end, Pittsburgh. Give an assist to special teams coordinator Danny Smith for a smart, overloaded-to-the-right field-goal rush early in the second quarter, with Watt cleanly blocking a 48-yard Ryan Succop field goal try that could have tied the game at 10. Sparked by this excellent field-goal block design, Pittsburgh outscored Tennessee 30-10 the rest of the way.

COACH OF THE WEEK

Ben McAdoo, coach, New York Giants. So the Giants were one big lost cause, 1-8 coming off an embarrassing no-show performance at the previously winless Niners last week. The owner had to release a statement saying he wouldn’t fire McAdoo during the season. The tabloids mocked McAdoo, and COO John Mara. McAdoo began meeting with his players individually, telling them the season was not lost. McAdoo appealed to fans during the week to come to the game Sunday against the AFC West-leading Chiefs—vanquishers of New England and Philadelphia—and said he loved their chances against Kansas City. In the game, the defense played like the 2016 Giants. The 12-9 overtime win wasn’t really all that surprising. Maybe the man does still have a grip on the locker room after all.

GOAT OF THE WEEK

Nathan Peterman, quarterback, Buffalo. His ascension to the starting job was controversial to begin with, replacing the popular Tyrod Taylor. And the fifth-round rookie had the kind of nightmare game that will be hard to overcome. First 18 minutes as a pro football player: four interceptions. Buffalo never had a chance. The Bills (5-5) lost their third in a row, and barring a miracle finish by the team, a generation of Bills fans seems destined to experience their 18th straight season cheering for a non-playoff team. One more thing: Peterman had more picks in 18 minutes than Taylor (three) had in eight games. Wait, another final thing: Peterman threw a fifth pick in the last minute of the half. What a disaster.

Connor Barth, kicker, Chicago. Down 27-24 with under a minute left, the Bears get a fourth-and-13 run for a first down from Mitchell Trubisky, then a pass from Trubisky to put Chicago in field-goal range. With eight seconds remaining, here comes Barth to try a 46-yard field goal to send the game to overtime. Snap perfect. Hold perfect. Kick 20 feet wide right. A miss is a miss, but this was a ridiculous miss.

Quotes of the Week

I

“It’s very simple. I cost us the game. … There’s your headline. You can write it.”

—Bruce Arians, Arizona coach, after he chose to go for it on fourth-and-one in his territory, down 24-21, in the fourth quarter. Adrian Peterson was stuffed for no gain, and Arizona lost.

II

“I was a little taken aback by it. But he was telling the truth.”

—Denver All-Pro pass rusher Von Miller, reacting after another loss Sunday night to the words of club GM John Elway, who called the team “soft” during the week.

III

“It's going to be hard to yank him out of there right now. He's playing good. I still have really high hopes. You know a lot of things happen throughout the course of this season so we'll just see how it goes.”

—Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer, on the dilemma of whether to continue to play Case Keenum, who has led the Vikings to 95 points in the last three games—all wins—or the man thought to be the long-term starter in Minnesota, Teddy Bridgewater. For now, it sounds like Zimmer will stick with Keenum.

IV

“If you think Bob Kraft came after you hard, Bob Kraft is a p---y compared to what I’m going to do.”

—Dallas owner Jerry Jones, in the ESPN.com story by Don Van Natta and Seth Wickersham about the battle between Jones and commissioner Roger Goodell over the suspension of Ezekiel Elliott, referring to New England owner Kraft dropping his appeals with the league over the four-game Tom Brady suspension in 2016.

That not a Quote of the Week. It’s the Quote of the Year.

V

“The arm had played a trick on everybody: It hid his brain. Stafford is a lot more like Peyton Manning than people realize.”

—Michael Rosenberg of Sports Illustrated, from his excellent profile of Matthew Stafford.

VI

“At the end of the day, there’s a First Amendment right as an American citizen. You have a right to protest peacefully. Protests aren’t supposed to be comfortable.”

—Giants defensive end Olivier Vernon, who is the only Giant to continue to not stand for the national anthem (he is kneeling), to Bob Glauber of Newsday.

VII

“Mike and Mike signing off.”

—Mike Golic, co-host of the ESPN Radio morning show “Mike and Mike,” in a pretty simple signoff after the 18-year run with Mike Greenberg ended at 10 a.m. ET Friday morning.

Stat of the Week

I’m not sure exactly what word to use about the state of Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, picked 1-2 in the 2015 NFL draft, after 2.5 seasons of their careers. Worrisome, perhaps, particularly with Mariota’s abysmal performance in Pittsburgh on Thursday.

If you combined their passing line in their third NFL seasons, Winston and Mariota, together, would be rated 25th. The combined numbers of the first and second picks in the 2016 draft, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, would place those two fourth in the ratings.

• Winston/Mariota: 83.4
• Goff/Wentz: 101.1

Here’s the stunner … and it is not exclusively the misguided, careless performance of Mariota on Thursday night at Pittsburgh. Touchdowns to interceptions this season:

• Winston/Mariota: 18-16
• Goff/Wentz: 44-9

Factoids That May Interest Only Me

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In Dallas last week for a Jason Witten story for NBC’s “Football Night in America” show, I opened up the Dallas Morning News high school coverage on Saturday morning. Eight broadsheet pages, no ads, of high school football. You think the game’s going away? It’s endangered? Texas begs to differ. (And maybe it should go away. But man, look at Texas high school football. It’s ridiculously huge.)

On the endless page of agate, with scores from all over the state, I noticed this one: Plainview Christian 97, WF Christian 96

Whoa. I needed more info on this game. Googled it. Turns out that this was a Texas Six-Man football game. In six-man football in Texas, placekicks are more difficult, because with only four linemen, the path to block the kick is shorter. So a field goal is worth four points, and the extra point is worth two.

According to the Plainview Herald, Wichita Falls Christian, trailing 97-90, scored a touchdown with four seconds left to narrow it to 97-96. The kicker came on. After a 193-point game, it came down to this: make the PAT, and Wichita Falls Christian wins 98-97. Miss the PAT, and Plainview Christian wins, 97-96.

Snap. Kick. IT’S BLOCKED!

II

Texas Southern is the ultimate NCAA Division I college basketball mercenary. The Tigers do not play a home game this season until 2018. Their first 13 games, all non-conference, are roadies, in every time zone, and paychecks for a school that obviously uses its pre-conference schedule to raise money for the program. The non-conference schedule:

Eastern Time: Ohio State, Syracuse, Clemson, Oakland (Mich.), Toledo
Central Time: Kansas, Baylor, TCU
Mountain Time: Wyoming, Brigham Young
Pacific Time: Gonzaga, Washington State, Oregon

Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note

Delta flight, Dallas to LaGuardia, Tuesday morning. I board, take my aisle seat, and a few minutes after takeoff, open my MacBook Air to do some work. I hadn’t cleaned the screen in some time, and there was a large smudge in the middle of the screen. I do not travel with a screen care kit, or screen wipes, so I proceeded to begin to wipe the screen with the sleeve of my sweater.

I felt a tap on my shoulder, and I turned around. “Here,” the guy on the aisle one row behind me said, proffering me a single-pack screen wipe. “Know what that’s like.”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s incredible. Really—thanks so much.”

I don’t know exactly why that made such an impact, but I had to thank the guy at the end of the flight. He said, “Glad you could have a clean screen.” That’s a pretty cool thing.

Tweets of the Week

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New section of the column this fall—My MVP, as part of The MMQB’s partnership with State Farm. Each week I’ll ask an NFL person what his most valuable possession is, and why.

Latavius Murray, running back, Minnesota. “I have a custom chain that me and my boys back home from Syracuse had made to honor one of our best friends who passed last Thanksgiving. Actually, our friend was murdered. His name was Jonathan Diaz. So we had chains made for us to wear, and they say, ‘RIP, JD’ to honor him. That’s the most significant material thing I have. I cherish it.”

Pod People

From “The MMQB Podcast With Peter King,” available where you download podcasts.

This week will be a different podcast, dropping Wednesday morning, just in time for the drive over the river and through the woods to Thanksgiving dinner. I’ve gathered some voices from around the NFL—led by an emotional Chargers coach, Anthony Lynn—who have reason to be thankful this year. And we’ll get an interpretation of the Goodell-Jones conflict from ESPN’s Seth Wickersham, who co-wrote with Don Van Natta the powerful piece on the birth of the battle. I urge you to subscribe to the podcast. Lynn has a great message.

Bills WR Kelvin Benjamin Carted Off With Knee Injury, Out For Game

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin was carted off the field in the first quarter of Sunday's game against the Los Angeles Chargers. The team announced that he would not return for the rest of the game due to a knee injury.

Benjamin went down after completing a 20-yard catch from quarterback Nathan Peterman on the opening drive. It would be his only catch of the game. He entered the game with 35 receptions for 517 yards and two touchdowns.

He has not missed a game in 2017 but he tore his ACL and missed the entire 2015 season. He was acquired by the Bills in October from the Carolina pantehrs in exchange for Buffalo's third and seventh-round draft picks in the 2018 NFL draft.

The Bills entered Sunday's game with a 5-4 record. They sit in second place in the AFC East.

Week 13 Power Rankings: After a Quiet Week, the Iron Bowl Looms With Potential for Chaos

As the regular season winds down, we move from cupcake week to a feasting of good rivalry games that will not only settle conference and state bragging rights but also make the playoff picture a little clearer. This week we will focus on one game that could either create chaos or maintain the status quo in the SEC (until the next big game, which will happen the following week): the Iron Bowl.

The SEC West champion has won each of the last eight conference championships, and for Alabama and Auburn, this game could double as a playoff eliminator if the loser is forced to watch Championship Saturday from home and then falls on the wrong side of the committee’s cut line.

Many believe Alabama has just been going through the motions while beating lesser teams to a pulp. The two times they have been challenged in conference play, against Mississippi State and Texas A&M, they prevailed.

An Auburn victory in the Iron Bowl would thrust the Tigers into the thick of the playoff conversation, giving them two wins over No. 1 teams, something no other team in the hunt can even come close to touting when the playoff committee’s attention turns to strength of schedule.

Now on to this week’s Power Rankings:

1. Alabama (11–0, 7–0 SEC)

Previous ranking: 1
This week: Beat Mercer, 56–0
Next week: at Auburn

Not much needs to be said about the Mercer game, except that the Crimson Tide got plenty of rest for their starters in preparation for the Iron Bowl and Mercer got plenty of money for an expected and thorough beating.

2. Oklahoma (10–1, 7–1 Big 12)

Previous ranking: 2
This week: Beat Kansas, 41–3
Next week: vs. West Virginia

In Oklahoma’s 16th straight road victory, Heisman frontrunner (and crotch-grabbing repeat apologist) Baker Mayfield threw for 257 yards and three touchdowns, making easy work of the Jayhawks, whose one win this season apparently compelled them not to shake hands with Mayfield before the game. The Sooners, whose 469 yards of offense against Kansas were a season low, clinched their spot in the Big 12 title game.

3. Clemson (10–1, 7–1 ACC)

Previous ranking: 3
This week: Beat The Citadel, 61–3
Next week: at South Carolina

A glorified scrimmage took place in Clemson as the Tigers ripped apart a Citadel team that was clearly overmatched—in losing by 58 points, The Citadel pocketed a cool $300,000. The season finale against South Carolina looks like a tougher test than it did in the summer.

4. Wisconsin (11–0, 8–0 Big Ten)

Previous ranking: 5
This week: Beat Michigan, 24–10
Next week: at Minnesota

Wisconsin continues to get it done, whether it looks impressive to skeptics or not. Jonathan Taylor had 132 yards and quarterback Alex Hornibrook was his usual steady self, throwing for 143 yards and one touchdown. The competitive portion of the game ended once Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters left with an injury, as backup John O'Korn was completely ineffective in breaking down the Badgers’ stout defense.

5. Miami, FL (10–0, 7–0 ACC)

Previous ranking: 4
This week: Beat Virginia, 44–28
Next week: at Pittsburgh

The turnover chain made three appearances in Miami’s victory, but the big one was Jaquan Johnson’s 30-yard interception return, part of a 30–0 Hurricanes run that erased a two-touchdown deficit. Malik Rosier tossed three touchdown passes and Travis Homer added 96 yards rushing for Miami, which ends the regular season on Friday against Pitt before the ACC title game on Dec. 2.

6. Auburn (9–2, 6­–1 SEC)

Previous ranking: 6
This week: Beat Louisiana-Monroe, 42–14
Next week: vs. Alabama

There is no need to hype how big next week’s game is against Alabama in the annual Iron Bowl. Auburn is two wins away from a conference title and a possible playoff berth. As far as this game, the Tigers overcame a slow start to dispatch the Warhawks. Kerryon Johnson ran for 137 yards and a touchdown, and Jarrett Stidham had 235 yards and two scores through the air.

7. Georgia (10–1, 7–1 SEC)

Previous ranking: 7
This week: Beat Kentucky, 42–13
Next week: at Georgia Tech

Georgia didn’t need much to beat Kentucky. The Wildcats have one of the nation’s worst pass defenses, but Georgia stuck to what it does best instead of getting freshman Jake Fromm comfortable in beating a team by throwing the ball. Georgia ran for 381 yards with five touchdowns, so as long as that formula works towards the goal of stacking victories, there will be no argument here.

8. Ohio State (9­–2, 7–1 Big Ten)

Previous ranking: 9
This week: Beat Illinois, 52–14
Next week: at Michigan

The Buckeyes scored the first six times they had the football to clinch their spot in the Big Ten championship against Wisconsin. While the offense had its way with the Illini, the defense also did its part, limiting Illinois to five first downs and 105 yards of offense. A sixth straight win over Michigan would help keep those faint playoff hopes alive.

9. Notre Dame (9–2)

Previous ranking: 8
This week: Beat Navy, 24–17
Next game: at Stanford

Commend Notre Dame for doing what it could in the mere 17 minutes it had the ball against Navy. Brandon Wimbush threw for 164 yards and two touchdowns and Josh Adams added 106 yards on the ground as the Fighting Irish bounced back from their brutal performance against Miami to stay in the hunt for a possible New Year’s Six bowl.

10. Central Florida (10–0, 7–0 AAC)

Previous ranking: 10
This week: Beat Temple, 45–19
Next week: vs. South Florida

It doesn’t seem like UCF is distracted by all of the talk surrounding its head coach Scott Frost possibly being a candidate for several job openings around the nation. Quarterback McKenzie Milton had five total touchdowns with 208 passing yards, and the Knights’ defense forced five turnovers, quickly turning an early 10–7 deficit around by turning those miscues into 24 points.

11. USC (10–2, 8–1 Pac-12)

Previous ranking: 11
This week: Beat UCLA, 28–23
Next week: Off; next game, Pac-12 Championship Game on Dec. 1.

UCLA’s Josh Rosen prevailed in the battle of the potential first-round NFL draft pick quarterbacks, throwing for 421 yards and three touchdowns, but Sam Darnold and the Trojans beat the Bruins for the third straight year. Darnold threw for 263 yards and also ran for a score. USC now enjoys its long-awaited bye week to rest up for either Washington State or Stanford in the conference championship game in two weeks.

12. Penn State (9–2, 6–2 Big Ten)

Previous ranking:12
Last week: Beat Nebraska, 56–44
Next week: at Maryland

Saquon Barkley broke out of a prolonged rushing slump with 158 yards rushing and three touchdowns and Trace McSorley threw for 325 yards and three touchdowns for the Nittany Lions, who were outscored 34–14 by Nebraska in the second half. In the process, Barkley broke the school’s career touchdown record with his 39th score.

13. TCU (9–2, 6-2 Big 12)

Previous ranking: 13
This week: Beat Texas Tech, 27–3
Next game: vs. Baylor

All TCU needs to do next week is beat lowly Baylor to earn a rematch with Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game, after cruising in Lubbock without starting quarterback Kenny Hill, who sat out with an injury. The usually potent Texas Tech offense did nothing all day and the Horned Frogs played it safe with true freshman quarterback Shawn Robinson, who threw it 17 times for only 85 yards but did have a touchdown throw.

14. Washington (9–2, 6–2 Pac-12)

Previous ranking: 14
This week: Beat Utah, 33–30
Next week: vs. Washington State

Anyone that stayed up late to watch this one got a treat. Myles Gaskin had 52 yards and two touchdowns, the final one with 58 seconds remaining to tie the score, setting up Tristan Vizcaino’s game-winning 38-yard field goal at the buzzer. The Huskies now can only play Pac-12 spoiler for their in-state rival next week in the Apple Cup.

15. Memphis (9–1, 6–1 AAC)

Previous ranking:16
This week: Beat SMU, 66–45
Next week: vs. East Carolina

In a game that looked a lot like the defense-optional games native to the Big 12, the Tigers rolled up 664 yards of offense (331 passing, 333 rushing) to clinch the AAC West and now await the winner of Friday’s UCF-USF battle in the conference title game in two weeks. Riley Ferguson threw for 320 yards and two touchdowns for Memphis, which scored at least 10 points in every quarter.

16. Washington State (9–2, 6–2 Pac-12)

Previous ranking: 18
Last week: Off
Next week: vs. Washington

Washington State had the week off to prepare for the Apple Cup, which will give the Cougars a chance to exact revenge on their in-state rivals, wrap up the Pac-12 North and perhaps sneak into a New Year’s Six bowl.

17. Stanford (8–3, 7–2 Pac-12)

Previous ranking: 20
This week: Beat California, 17–14
Next week: vs. Notre Dame

Bryce Love ran for 101 yards on a bum ankle and Stanford kept its conference title hopes alive by beating Cal for the eighth straight time to set a record for consecutive wins in the series. Quarterback K.J. Costello went 17 for 26 for 185 yards and one touchdown in the victory, which made David Shaw the winningest coach in program history. The Cardinal will be watching the Apple Cup wearing purple and gold next week: A Washington victory sends them to the Pac-12 title game.

18. Virginia Tech (8–3, 4–3 ACC)

Previous ranking: 17
This week: Beat Pittsburgh, 20–14
Next week: at Virginia

Pittsburgh had four opportunities to score from the one-yard line with less than a minute to go and failed, handing Virginia Tech another close win. Josh Jackson had 218 yards passing and two total touchdowns as the Hokies were again inconsistent on offense, averaging 3.9 yards per carry. Jackson threw 20 incomplete passes and an interception but added 32 yards rushing to help Tech break a two-game losing streak.

19. Mississippi State (8–3, 4–3 SEC)

Previous ranking: 24
This week: Beat Arkansas, 28–21
Next week: vs. Ole Miss

Nick Fitzgerald’s six-yard touchdown pass with 17 seconds left lifted Mississippi State past struggling Arkansas. Fitzgerald had 153 yards and ran 22 times for 101 yards, his sixth game with 100-plus yards both passing and rushing. The Bulldogs were sloppy with the ball, fumbling four times and losing two. State bragging rights are on the line next week against Ole Miss, which has split the last four meetings with State.

20. LSU (8-3, 5–2 SEC)

Previous ranking:
This week: Beat Tennessee, 30–10
Next week: vs. Texas A&M

The weather in Knoxville was ugly—as was the special teams play—but it was LSU’s running game that made the difference. The Tigers ran for 200 yards on the backs of Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams and shut down Tennessee’s offense for their fifth win in six games. LSU has beaten Texas A&M six straight times heading into Saturday’s home finale.

21. Oklahoma State (8–3, 5–3 Big 12)

Previous ranking: 15
Last week: Lost to Kansas State, 45–40
Next week: vs. Kansas

Oklahoma State decided that Saturday was the day not to show up until it was down by 25 points in the third quarter. Its defense let Kansas State wide receiver Byron Pringle run free through the secondary, and Pringle responded with three touchdown catches and kick return TD. The Cowboys squandered their opportunity as a potential playoff team this season by losing three games at home.

22. Michigan State (8–3, 6–2 Big Ten)

Previous ranking: 23
Last week: Beat Maryland, 17–7
Next week: at Rutgers

Michigan State completed two passes all game against Maryland, but no one will blame the Spartans for not trying to force the ball downfield in rain and a snowstorm. The Spartans did run for 271 yards—the first time in four games that the Spartans ran for more than 100 yards as a team—led by L.J. Scott, who rumbled for 147 on 29 carries. The finish the regular season at Rutgers, then can hope for an invite to one of the Big Ten’s more prominent bowls.

23. South Florida (9–1, 6–1 AAC)

Previous ranking: 22
Last week: Beat Tulsa, 27–20
Next week: at Central Florida

The Bulls’ tune-up contest before their game of the year against UCF was not an exercise in fundamentally sound football. USF turned the ball over twice, wasn’t very efficient passing and needed a last-minute stop in the fourth quarter to beat a two-win Tulsa squad. Quinton Flowers had 261 total yards in his final home game and was helped out by a defense that had 13 tackles for loss.

24. Boise State (9–2, 7–0 MWC)

Previous ranking: 25
This week: Beat Air Force, 44–19
Next week: at Fresno State

Brett Rypien had 300 yards and three passing touchdowns to lead Boise State to its seventh straight win. The Broncos, who held Air Force’s triple option attack to 181 yards and forced three fumbles, will now play Fresno State two weeks in a row—first in their regular season finale and then the very next week in the Mountain West championship.

25. Northwestern (8–3, 6–2 Big Ten)

Previous ranking:
This week: Beat Minnesota, 39–0
Next week: at Illinois

Northwestern’s longest winning streak in more than 20 years continues, thanks to a dominant effort by the defense. The Wildcats forced five turnovers, quarterback Clayton Thorson had three touchdown passes and Justin Jackson added 166 yards rushing. With a victory next week against Illinois, they can stake a claim that they deserve to be in a top-tier bowl.

Out: West Virginia, Michigan. Maybe next week: Florida Atlantic.

What the Bills Are as the Tyrod Taylor Era Ends, Case Keenum and Playing with House Money, Jerry Jones Shoulda Listened to More Radiohead

1. The Buffalo Bills have changed quarterbacks. I have thoughts about that, and I have transferred those thoughts to the printed word. But first, because it all ties in, a quick look at the AFC playoff race.

It is technically true that Buffalo is in a playoff race. If Jerry Jones decided the regular season should end right at this moment, the Bills would be driving south in a convoy of 12-passenger vans, their destination a wild-card game in Jacksonville.

But let’s assume they will indeed complete the regular season as scheduled. If the Patriots fulfill their birthrights as AFC East champions forever, that leaves the Bills (5-4) battling the Titans (6-4) or Jaguars (6-3), Dolphins (4-5), Ravens (4-5) and Raiders (4-5, with Buffalo locked into the tiebreaker) for one of the two wild-card spots. On the surface, the odds seem favorable. The Bills are bad, but so are the Dolphins and Ravens. The Raiders might be a little better than that trio, but the Bills’ victory over Oakland essentially gives them a two-game lead over the Raiders with seven to play. The Bills’ path to the postseason gets tricky when you dive into the schedules:

Titans (6-4): They have an exceedingly easy month coming up: at Indianapolis, home against the Texans, at Arizona and at San Francisco. They’ll be favored in all those games, and even if they slip up they finish with not-easy-but-winnable home games against the Rams and the Jaguars (who they already beat in Jacksonville). Tennessee should get to 10 wins.

Jaguars (6-3): They’re at Cleveland on Sunday and later at San Francisco, and they still have home games against the Colts and Texans left. They’re also likely getting to 10 wins. The AFC South should get two teams into the postseason.

Ravens (4-5): They still get Houston, Indianapolis and Cincinnati at home, plus winnable road games in Green Bay (Sunday) and Cleveland. You’d probably put the win total over/under at 8.5 for Baltimore right now.

Bills (5-4): Let’s be optimistic and say they can get in at 8-8. There’s a 98% chance they’ll be swept by the Patriots and lose at Kansas City, so there’s seven losses. So to have a shot, they need to go 3-1 over the course of a road game against the Chargers, home game against the Colts and a home-and-home against Miami.

Here’s the M. Night Shyamalan twist at the end of this tedious exercise: I was dead the whole time.* Also, none of it matters because the Bills are a bad team. Not in the way the Ravens/Dolphins/Raiders are bad, but truly bad. (O.K., the Dolphins are also truly bad). Consider this: Buffalo currently leads the NFL in turnover differential at +11 through nine games. And, incredibly, they have a point differential in the red (-12).

It cannot be overstated just how atrocious you have to be to pick up an extra possession per game and still get outscored on the season. Over the previous 20 seasons, 41 teams have posted a turnover differential of +1 per game or better over the course of a season. If rabid squirrels gnawed off both your hands, you’d still have enough fingers to count how many of those 41 teams had a negative point differential that season (and you know damn well that not a jury in the world would convict those squirrels).

The Bills are currently on pace to finish the year at +20 in turnover differential. In that 20-year span, 14 teams had done that. The worst point differential among them was the 1999 Chiefs, at +68 (+4.3 per game). The Bills are at -1.3 per game.

Tyrod Taylor certainly thrives in the area of protecting the ball, but the Bills have no logical reason to think they’ll keep forcing turnovers at this rate. Even in Sean McDermott’s zone-heavy system, you either need a monster pass rush and/or especially crafty, ball-hawking defensive backs to pile up turnovers. Jerry Hughes has his moments, but this is largely a toothless pass rush—according to Stats Inc., they rank tied for 28th in pass-rush index (which takes into account sacks, hurries, knockdowns and opposing O-line penalties). They have some nice players in the secondary, but even if you squint none of them look like Ed Reed. This is a group that should expect to get a turnover every week, but not the two per game they’ve been getting. In short: It takes a certain degree of luck to lead the NFL in turnover differential. It takes even more luck than that for this team to be doing it. And even with all that luck, they’re sitting just one game over .500. What they’ve done nine weeks into the season is not sustainable.

*—To be clear, I wasn’t actually dead. But I was really bored running through playoff scenarios and schedule breakdowns of crappy teams.

2a. The information laid out above doesn’t beg any question because the phrase “begs the question” refers to a form of evasion through circular reasoning within the answer to a question and everyone uses the phrase incorrectly and should stop it. However, the information laid out above does raise a question: How much worse does the Tyrod Taylor benching make the 2017 Bills?

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a soft spot for the Bills. I have a few good friends who are Bills fans (hi, friends!) and I’ve watched this franchise (and, by extension, my friends) suffer and stumble aimlessly through the past 17 years. So, in short, I’ve paid more attention to the Bills than a national media member probably should.

I understand why a lot of people like Tyrod Taylor. By all accounts he’s a leader of men, respected and liked by teammates (you can re-visit Jenny Vrentas’s now-28%-sadder profile of Taylor from our “Corridor of Woe” series two seasons ago). He’s exciting—who doesn’t like watching a quarterback who can spin out of trouble and make a play? He doesn’t turn the ball over, which is a really good thing. And if, like most of America, you follow the Buffalo Bills strictly via box scores and fantasy leagues, Taylor’s basic stat line looks just fine.

And overall, he is fine. But Chapter 1 of the book on Taylor over the last three years has always been this: He consistently fails to target open receivers (as my podcast co-host and unlicensed financial advisor Andy Benoit always says, “There is no stat for throws that are open that a quarterback doesn’t make”).

Now, if you’ll allow me to oversimplify here for a moment (and I know you will because this article is already published and I didn’t show it to you beforehand): Abandoning play designs and playing off-schedule isn’t always a huge problem. Aaron Rodgers is the king of out-of-structure playmaking, and Russell Wilson is the prince. (And at this point, Deshaun Watson is, like, the very adorable baby prince.) Rodgers/Wilson miss throws, but when they go into scramble mode they consistently keep their eyes downfield and turn in big plays. For an opposing defensive player, seeing Rodgers or Wilson escape the pocket triggers the same reaction as the brown note. (Sorry if you were eating breakfast while you read this.)

Taylor tends to abandon play designs and pull the ball down. Which is fine, and has value. (And, to be clear, that is not the case on literally every play, which I have to point out because if this was Twitter someone would now post three GIFs of Taylor extending a play and throwing because what can't you prove with GIFs of three random plays, and then we’d all be a little bit dumber for it.) During Taylor’s two-plus seasons as a starter, the Bills are 30th in the NFL in passing plays of 20-plus yards.

With Taylor, you lose a lot of the designed plays, which is a problem not just because of a coach’s ego (though a portion of it is a coach’s ego), but also because your play-caller/play-designer has a strategy to exploit the defensive coordinator’s scheme and strategy. And, as we often forget when we chart individual plays, play-calls are not made in a vacuum. It’s game theory, the end result of an opponent’s tendencies and anticipating how they will react to a certain scenario, and play-calls are often built off previous play-calls. Playing out-of-structure undeniably makes the job of a play-caller more difficult (due to the fact that Taylor is not an aggressive, anticipatory thrower, your play-caller is already working with some limitations.) And, with Taylor, if you fall behind, as Saints DE Cameron Jordan pointed out last week, you’re basically done. Once the threat of the run game is out of the equation, the Bills are too easy to defend.

The end result is something of a conservative offense, one that has to consistently string together shorter and intermediate plays to add up to scoring drives, which is what just about every defense (especially Sean McDermott’s defense) in the league wants to make offenses do. Because it’s very difficult to do.

The positive is that the conservative style leads to fewer turnovers. But, again, the Bills are sitting at just 5-4 despite some very fortunate breaks with turnovers. And as I mentioned earlier this year, there are two teams in NFL history to average less than a turnover per game over the course of a season and finish with a losing record. One of them was the 2016 Bills.

2b. So bad. He’s bad, I’m saying Tyrod Taylor is bad because you’re either good or you’re bad and there is no in-between, right?

The fact is (as mentioned above) Taylor is fine. As with most things in football and in life, Taylor is somewhere between good and bad. But what’s clear is that he doesn’t provide what the Bills need in 2017, and there's no reason to think that will change. I’d like to now unsimplify things. Obviously, the Bills have a thousand problems beyond Tyrod Taylor. In August, Buffalo’s roster was bottom-five in the league. Trading Sammy Watkins and Marcell Dareus didn’t make it better. The offensive line, a relative strength the past two seasons, has slid back significantly. The receiving corps is bad enough that adding Kelvin Benjamin and Deonte Thompson marked significant upgrades because one is big and one is fast (respectively), and they did not have a receiver who was either of those things the first month of the season. The defense went from bend-don’t-break to curl-up-in-the-fetal-position.

Could the Bills have sat back and hoped for another seven week’s worth of good bounces? Sure. And it might have worked out; seven games is a small enough sample size. Instead, they decided they needed to make a significant change. I saw the deliciously snarky I guess it's Tyrod's fault the Saints ran for 298 yards takes that were so clever they could have been right out of a Leno monologue. The fact is, the offense’s 118 net yards over nine drives in the Saints game was just as egregiously bad as the defense's performance. They were both awful. You can’t raze your entire defensive roster midseason. If you want to make the kind of drastic change the Bills needed to make, and you think there’s even a chance you might have an upgrade on your roster, the logical spot is at quarterback.

2c. This likely marks the end of Taylor’s run in Buffalo. Did he get a fair shake? Put it this way: For two seasons he played in an offense customized for him, the complexity built into the running game. And it was O.K., good at times but built to win games in specific ways. His passing game weapons weren’t good enough, but even when he had Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods it wasn’t an explosive passing attack. He was the choice of a defensive head coach. He had two different offensive coordinators in that time, each of whom seem lukewarm-at-best on him.

The new regime brought in a new offensive system, one built around the passing game because, frankly, that’s what the current geometry of the NFL demands for sustainable success. They knew they didn’t have the roster to compete this year. And it was no secret that Taylor wasn’t their choice (even though offensive coordinator Rick Dennison knew Taylor from their time together in Baltimore). It wasn’t the right fit.

Where does that leave Taylor for the future? Well, here’s the wild conjecture you came here for: Despite being the darling of game-charters, there wasn’t a whole lot of interest in Taylor this past offseason. That’s in large part because play-designers and play-callers have a lot of say in who plays quarterback, and in Taylor they see a guy who does some specific things well but comes with limitations and might have reached his ceiling. If Taylor is a starter next year, it will take someone looking at the 2014/15 Bills and saying, That’s what we want. And the kind of team that would want that is one that already has a dominant roster otherwise. A year ago, I would have said Broncos, but their defense is sliding back to the point where I’m not sure they can think that way, and the development (or lack thereof) of Paxton Lynch complicates that potential marriage.

The only obvious answer is Jacksonville. They put themselves right up against the cap with the Marcell Dareus acquisition, so much so that they’ll have some difficult roster decisions to make this offseason. So getting out from under Blake Bortles’ fifth-year option ($19 million) and getting Taylor for maybe 30% less than that would make a lot of sense. They could have some fun with run designs in a Taylor-Leonard Fournette backfield. And even though it would ruin my secret fantasy of the Jaguars taking Lamar Jackson in late-Round 1 and riding a Jackson-Fournette backfield the next five seasons, I will give a Taylor signing my blessing. Other than that, I’d recklessly throw the Ravens out there as a possibility. Taylor was popular in that building, and they need a new offensive identity. Joe Flacco was once a good quarterback. Since tearing his ACL late in 2015, he has not been a good quarterback. But, of course, due to his contract the Ravens can’t move Flacco until after the 2019 season. I’m not sure they have the stomach for a QB competition.

2d. One more thing, which Taylor brought up a few weeks ago: the issue of race. He pointed out that, because he’s an African-American quarterback, he’s held to a different standard (this was a month ago, not in response to the benching). And, big-picture, he’s right. It’s 2017, and to argue that unconscious biases don’t exist would be absurd. We’re well past the “hey Warren Moon, you’ll make a great tight end” days, but race and implicit bias is absolutely still a factor when it comes to assessing quarterbacks (as well as a factor in, y’know, life).

(And, of course, if you want to get at the heart of racial bias when it comes to quarterbacks, I’d suggest backing off the Josh McCown hot takes and looking more at how socioeconomic factors, intertwined as always with the country’s history of systemic racism, combined with the geometric realities of NFL football that demand the sport be played differently than it is at lower levels, work against black quarterbacks. I know, I know, who’s gonna retweet that? Best just crank out a bunch of passer rating and QB Winz stats.)

I like Taylor, I’m hopeful for the Bills, and I’m bummed it didn’t work out. In short, for a flawed team, what Taylor brought wasn’t good enough, and he really hadn’t shown any signs that a drastic improvement was on the way. Are the Bills better off with Nathan Peterman under center? We have no idea yet. But they made the change because they wanted something different. This team was speeding toward the edge of the cliff, and sometimes you just gotta turn the wheel and hope for the best.

2e. So here we are:

Dennison surely knows that Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa are going to dunk all over his offensive line on Sunday, and I assume he’s come up with a workaround. As for what Peterman does on the field, we’ll see. This won’t be garbage time against the Saints’ shell defense. He’ll be working with one of the worst supporting casts in football against a quality defense.

Ultimately, Taylor is not the long-term answer in Buffalo. Peterman’s not likely to be the answer either. The only reason that scenario can even be entertained as a possibility is because we have no idea what he is. Is this the right move? I think the more appropriate question is, was there a right move for this team, with these options?

3a. When the season began, there was some question as to who would be the Vikings’ quarterback in 2018: pending (and then-healthy) free agent starter Sam Bradford, injured Teddy Bridgewater, or play Mystery Date next winter and hope you don’t get the dud.

The past week has proven that Bridgewater will almost surely be the choice. On paper, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s offense is a perfect fit for Bridgewater’s skillset (accurate, decisive and athletically nimble, his weakness being below-average arm strength). The stunning part is that, according to Jay Glazer, the Vikings were seriously considering turning the offense over to Bridgewater as soon as Sunday.

It’s been more than 22 months since Bridgewater last took a snap, and at that point Shurmur wasn’t even on the Vikings’ staff. Making the move to Bridgewater now would be aggressive. When you consider how well Case Keenum has played in 2017, it seems unnecessarily bold.

Though maybe this is as much about Keenum as it is about Bridgewater. Keenum’s first five NFL seasons would best be described as subpar with flashes of mediocrity. He’s playing at a much different level right now but, in terms that my fellow rec league basketball chuckers will understand, is this just a heat check for Keenum? The Vikings might realize that they’re playing with house money right now, and they know they might be moving away from Keenum too early, but wouldn’t it be worse if they got out too late?

3b. Also, REVENGE GAME! This is Keenum’s chance to stick it to the Rams for the $4 million they paid him over the past two seasons. They won’t get away with this!

4. You do it to yourself, you do / And that’s what really hurts
Is you do it to yourself, just you / You and no one else
You do it to yourself
Thom Yorke

On principle, Jerry Jones is right. Roger Goodell and the folks at Park Avenue do have far too much power, especially when it comes to a system of player discipline seemingly modeled after whomever your favorite third-world totalitarian dictator is. And that is exactly the kind of power Jerry Jones and the other owners wanted him to have. Jones was downright giddy when Goodell—let’s be honest about it regardless of your personal feelings about the Patriots—lost his mind during Deflategate. And he was surely thrilled to have Goodell serve as a heat shield when Jones and the Cowboys were the only team willing to bring Greg Hardy back into the league after this report came out (Goodell, at that point, was doing everything he could to keep Hardy out of the league).

Jones is also right in that there is a small, vocal faction of fans that is very upset with player demonstrations during the playing of the national anthem. And they’re being prodded by the candidate—the guy who built a campaign around a theme of racial divisiveness—Jones helped get elected to the nation’s highest office.

This is the world Jerry Jones created for himself, and for him, these are the mildly ironic consequences of living in it. (It’s like The Monkey Paw for one-percenters.)

5. Remember in the late 90s when Axl took complete control of Guns N’ Roses and started kicking everyone out until he was the only one left from the Appetite for Destruction lineup? (If memory serves, Conan branded them “Tubby Magoo and Five Guys Who Aren’t Slash.”)

That’s essentially what the Legion of Boom has become, and might be going forward, considering the severity of the Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor injuries. Just Earl Thomas and a bunch of dudes who aren’t Kam or Sherman. There are a couple of familiar faces, like Jeremy Lane (who they tried to trade just a few weeks ago) and Byron Maxwell (who nobody loved after he left Seattle), but L.O.B.’s next generation is cornerbacks Shaquil Griffin and Justin Coleman, along with the Chancellor replacements: Bradley McDougald (short-term) and Delano Hill (long-term).

The Seahawks had moved away from the Cover-3 approach that defined them during their best seasons, in part because the Falcons (who come to Seattle on Monday night) wrecked it when they came to CenturyLink Field last season. Also, their pass rush has not been quite what it used to be since Cliff Avril went down, further discouraging a zone-heavy approach. There might have been some comfort in plugging the new guys into a zone with Earl Thomas in the back, but this defense has to play a lot of man like they have been doing all season.

With Sherman out, Thomas has to play it straight as a free defender. Griffin is good, but no one is going out of their way to avoid throwing at him. For the first time in years, opponents will be feeling giddy when they think about throwing against this defense. And then there’s the psychological aspect to playing without Sherman and, especially, Chancellor. Here’s what Marquand Manuel, Falcons defensive coordinator and former Seahawks assistant, told Robert Klemko about Chancellor last summer:

“He’s the ultimate man’s man. If I could come back and do it again as a player, I would do it like him. Not just the physicality that he brings to the game, but the content of his character. Down in, down out, the integrity. The ugly jobs that no one wants; he takes them. He won’t raise a hand and claim credit for anything. That team is better because of that man. I love every player I get an opportunity to coach, but what he brought to the table probably will resonate with me for the rest of my life. [ . . . ] Not everybody is that mature right away, but he has something that God has given him. His soul is different.”

Hill, a third-round rookie and presumably the heir apparent as that high-hole safety in Seattle, is physical and impressive moving downhill. McDougald can hold his own. But good luck replacing that.

In the short-term, Monday could be a nightmare as the Falcons increasingly show signs of getting it together. And since it will likely take 10 or 11 wins to get to the playoffs in the NFC, Russell Wilson is suddenly going to have to carry an even heavier burden than he was before (when it was just a non-existent run game and no pass protection).

6. Please do not air today’s Cardinals-Texans game in front of your children unless you’ve already given them “the talk” about the dangers of atrocious pocket presence.

7. At some point last Sunday evening, you got the feeling that Chaz Green didn’t want to play football anymore. Adrian Clayborn not only dominated him, but Clayborn didn’t even get excited about it. Green seemed to reach that point where you just starting thinking, There is no salvaging this performance, but I could retire tomorrow and devote my life to eating Doritos and taking naps, and that’s not a bad way to live. On Sunday night, the Cowboys will likely be without Tyron Smith again, meaning some combination of Green and Byron Bell will be on Dak Prescott’s blindside .

Considering Clayborn probably couldn’t make the Eagles’ D-line rotation, the Cowboys know what they’re getting into when they host Philly. I’d imagine it will be a game-plan heavier on those three-tight end sets that they had some success running out of in Atlanta. And everything is going to have to be quick-strike in the passing game. It’s not ideal, but there are workarounds.

What I’d be more worried about (or, at least as worried about) is how this defense holds up without Sean Lee. Lee is as good as the Cowboys’ depth at linebacker is, well, not good. I remember two years ago, leading up to the draft, we were looking into doing a profile on Jaylon Smith, then a top-five talent who had destroyed his knee playing in the Fungible Corporation Bowl That Isn’t a Playoff Game in his final Notre Dame appearance. The feedback we had gotten was that, because of the nerve damage caused by the injury, Smith was firmly a Day 3 pick. It could have been smokescreens, and there were certainly a range of medical opinions, but it felt like a spit-take moment when the Cowboys took Smith 34th overall.

Smith redshirted last year. This year, he hasn’t looked like he’s back to where he was physically at Notre Dame. More troubling, he has looked completely overwhelmed against the run game. The Cowboys haven’t necessarily needed him to perform like a guy you’d take 34th overall, but with Lee out, the Cowboys desperately need Smith and Anthony Hitchens to step up. For the Eagles, there is a flashing neon sign that says “run here” in the middle of the Dallas defense. And if Philly takes it to them on the ground, there will be nowhere for Smith and Hitchens to hide.

8. Once the Browns draft a quarterback with the first or second overall pick this spring, the Chargers should go get DeShone Kizer to be the heir apparent to Philip Rivers. There I said it.

What’s going on in Cleveland has been in no way fair to Kizer from a development standpoint, but the physical tools are there and he’s shown some resiliency in what has become an absolute farce of a season. The Chargers should send Cleveland a fourth-rounder and everybody’s happy.

9. My guess is that, right now, Mike McCarthy likes the idea of putting Jamaal Williams behind fullback Aaron Ripkowski in the backfield, leaning on the power run game and then working the passing game off of that, staying in base personnel and simplifying things for Brett Hundley. But I’d be downright terrified of the thought of C.J. Mosley patrolling the middle of the field with his eyes on Hundley. Ravens-Packers is a make-or-break game for two flawed teams that both have legitimate playoff shots right now.

10. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Rupe Shearns!

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

NFL Draft Stock Report: Defensive backs

Minkah Fitzpatrick is maintained a high spot on Rivals NFL Draft Board for DBs.

NFL Draft Stock Report: Defensive backs

Minkah Fitzpatrick is maintained a high spot on Rivals NFL Draft Board for DBs.

NFL Draft Stock Report: Defensive backs

Minkah Fitzpatrick is maintained a high spot on Rivals NFL Draft Board for DBs.