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Here is What Have We Learned from Week 17 of the 2015 NFL Season, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.
- Vikings have daunting Seahawks, but also division title– Whether or not the Minnesota Vikings were ahead of schedule in winning this division title in coach Mike Zimmer’s second season was irrelevant. The team reveled in what has been a recently rare win at Green Bay that wrested the NFC North away from the Packers.The accomplishment for only the third time in 15 years demanded celebration even with a daunting opponent waiting in the playoffs. The orange sports drink came pouring out of the chilly bucket onto Zimmer’s head in the middle of Lambeau Field. The players proudly wore their black T-shirts and gray caps announcing them as division champions, posing in small groups for selfies around the hallowed stadium.
“It feels good. We’ve been trying to get this for a long time,” said cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who could actually only relate to a portion of fruitless pursuits, having only been around for three seasons.
Even for a younger guy, the wait probably felt like double that. Having only beaten the Packers once in the previous 12 matchups, the Vikings were overdue. They played like it, too, in the 20-13 victory Sunday night.
“We were gassed. We had a couple guys throw up on the sideline, they were so out of juice,” Zimmer said.
The defense, on the field for the majority of the second half during perhaps its finest performance of the season, was needed all the way through the final play, when Anthony Barr batted down a desperation heave by Aaron Rodgers into the end zone.
Will the adrenaline level return to high next Sunday for the wild-card game against Seattle?
“It’s playoffs,” Zimmer said, smiling. “It’s time.”
The Vikings finished with an 11-5 or better record for just the sixth time in 38 years since the NFL schedule expanded to 16 games. In each of the last three such seasons (15-1 in 1998, 11-5 in 2000 and 12-4 in 2009), they reached the NFC championship game.
“I’ve been in the NFL 22 years and won the Super Bowl my second year and haven’t been back. It’s awful hard, and when you get these opportunities you have to try to take advantage of them,” said Zimmer, the defensive backs coach for Dallas in the 1995 championship season.
“I hope this is just a step, honestly. I don’t want this to be the defining moment of my career, for sure. I hope that there’s a lot more on the horizon.”
The Vikings lost to just one team that didn’t make the playoffs, a dud of an opener at San Francisco. They’ll take their share of flaws and vulnerabilities into the playoffs, but they’ve also been as consistent as any team in the NFL.
“It’s not a surprise that we are where we’re at, but they’ve earned this opportunity and we have to go take it,” Zimmer said.
The balance of confidence without complacency is a difficult one to strike, one that’s eluded the Vikings on several occasions this season. But Zimmer has masterfully guided this team to play to its ability and potential.
“He’s been preaching to us since Day 1 the type of team that we have and the types of things that we can accomplish, and how much he believes in us,” wide receiver Mike Wallace said. “From Day 1 he saw how much potential this team had, and now we are starting to see the fruits of our labor. This is just the tip of the iceberg with winning the division title.”
- Seahawks gets boost from rout of Arizona, now gets Lynch back– Perhaps Pete Carroll and the rest of the Seattle Seahawks were correct when they said their loss in Week 16 was a one-time aberration on their way to the playoffs.The Seahawks’ resounding 36-6 rout of Arizona to close out the regular season on Sunday backed what Carroll and his team had been saying all week in the lead-up to the finale: that they could recapture what had led them from a 4-5 mark to a fourth straight postseason berth.
And as they get ready to face Minnesota in the NFC wild-card game on Sunday, the Seahawks are also getting a familiar face back for the first time in nearly two months: Marshawn Lynch.
“This was about momentum,” Carroll said. “You guys ask about it. Do you need it? You want it if you can get it. We feel good about where we’re going. It was just fun to finish football playing like that.”
Seattle closed the season with six wins in seven games, and the blowout of the Cardinals answered all the questions that were raised when the Seahawks stumbled in a home loss against St. Louis a week prior.
Making Seattle’s performance even more impressive was the number of key contributors that were spectators. Starting offensive linemen Russell Okung and J.R. Sweezy, starting tight end Luke Willson and standout strong safety Kam Chancellor all missed the game with injuries.
And yet, the Seahawks built a 30-6 halftime lead and were able to pull most of their starters for the fourth quarter.
“We’re pleased we were able to do that again, knowing what was coming up and we’d have to do this in the playoffs,” Carroll said.
Just in time for the postseason, the Seahawks will add Lynch back to an offense that averaged 32 points and 413 total yards per game over the final seven weeks of the regular season, including a 38-7 blowout at Minnesota in early December. Normally adding Lynch to the offense would be an instant boost but Seattle is still unsure exactly what it will be able to get from the bruising back.
Lynch has not played since Week 9 against Arizona because of an abdominal injury that required surgery on Nov. 25. He was rehabbing with his personal trainer in the Bay Area before rejoining the Seahawks on Monday. Lynch has played in just seven games this season and his 3.8 yards per carry is the second-lowest average of his career.
But that was before Seattle’s offense took off, ignited by the passing of Russell Wilson that complemented the running of Thomas Rawls, Christine Michael and Bryce Brown, all of whom have taken turns filling in with Lynch sidelined.
Seattle has an idea of what it’s getting with Lynch healthy and back in the lineup. Carroll on Monday equated Lynch returning at this point to the start of the regular season after Lynch has gotten very little playing time in the preseason. But they won’t know for sure until Lynch is out on the field practicing on Wednesday for the first time since early November.
Carroll believed the signs would be obvious in that first practice whether Lynch is back to his standard.
“We’ve been around him for such a long time we’re going to be able to recognize his movement. That’s all we want to see — him getting in and out of breaks. Things he always can do and that he can withstand the workload and all of that,” Carroll said. “It isn’t a rigorous time of practice schedule and we do build up throughout the week. The running backs do run at full speed. We’ll get to see him move and if we need to do anything extra we will.”
Lynch has carried the ball just 111 times this season and more than 21 times in a game only once. Carroll didn’t believe there would be an endurance issue if Lynch carried 20 or more times in the playoffs, but also said he’s been impressed with what Michael has done of late. Michael rushed for a career-high 102 yards against Arizona.
“We’re in good shape in that position now if (Lynch) is able to make it through the week,” Carroll said.
- AJ McCarron gets ready to try to end Bengals’ 25-year slump– The Bengals are preparing quarterback AJ McCarron to lead them into the playoffs, where they haven’t won a game in 25 years.He’ll be facing the team that knocked him around only three weeks ago.
And that’s not the only ominous part of Cincinnati’s return to the playoffs.
The AFC North champions (12-4) are back in the playoffs for the fifth straight season, a run of success unmatched in club history.
They’ve lost in the first round each of the past four seasons, a run of futility unmatched in NFL history.
Overall, the Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since the 1990 season, a 25-year streak of futility that’s the sixth-longest in league history. And now it’s McCarron instead of injured starter Andy Dalton practicing with the offense to start the week.
No pressure there.
“Regardless of Andy’s status, we’re going to go — right now, at least, the early part of the week — preparing with AJ,” coach Marvin Lewis said on Monday. “It’s important for the football team.”
Dalton was leading the league in passer rating when he broke his right thumb while making a tackle against the Steelers on Dec. 13 at Paul Brown Stadium. McCarron took over and threw a pair of interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
The Steelers dominated in a 33-20 win that left a mark on the Bengals. They dropped two of their last four games, missing out on a chance for a first-round bye that would have given Dalton another week to heal.
McCarron’s biggest improvement in his three starts was avoiding the interception, although he fumbled a snap in overtime that ended a 20-17 loss in Denver. Lewis wants him to get as much practice time as possible to prepare for the rematch with Pittsburgh.
“We felt good about his decision-making those (last) three games,” Lewis said. “We weren’t as thrilled with some of his decisions his first opportunity. He’s progressed.”
He’s facing long odds, too. The last quarterback to start and win a playoff game after making three or fewer NFL starts was Gifford Nielsen, who led the Oilers to a road playoff victory in San Diego during the 1979 season, according to STATS.
The only one under more pressure than McCarron is Lewis, who is 0-6 in the postseason. His teams have done so poorly in the playoffs that he’s compared himself to Susan Lucci, the television soap star who was nominated 19 times before finally winning an Emmy.
Asked what a playoff win would mean to him personally, Lewis said, “One-and-six. That’s all. It’s important to win and move on.”
What they’re trying to move beyond:
— The Bengals are the only team in NFL history to lose opening-round games in four straight seasons.
— Lewis is tied with the Giants’ Steve Owen (1939-50) for most consecutive playoff losses with one team.
— Lewis and Jim Mora are tied for most consecutive playoff losses to start a career.
— Lewis is tied with Marty Schottenheimer, Mora and Owen for most consecutive playoff losses at any point in a head coaching career.
And then there’s Dalton, whose four straight opening-round losses are tied with Warren Moon for the NFL record. It appears the Bengals will have to beat the Steelers with McCarron in order to give Dalton a chance to put his personal streak on the line later in the playoffs.
Beating the Steelers alone would be a breakthrough, as Pittsburgh is 14-3 all time at Paul Brown Stadium. That includes the Steelers’ 31-17 playoff win in the 2005 season.
Carson Palmer tore ligaments in his left knee and dislocated his kneecap when he was hit by Kimo von Oelhoffen on his first throw of the game, the only time the Ohio River rivals have met in the playoffs.
And here they are again, a totally different Bengals team trying to break out of the same, sad history.
“There’s not a correlation,” Lewis said. “Each and every time out there’s a new opportunity. It’s new folks, new faces, and a new situation.”
- A good year to be a wild card in NFL playoffs– It looks like it’s a good year to be a wild card in the NFL playoffs.The oddsmakers certainly think so, making Kansas City (3 points), Pittsburgh (2 1-2), and Seattle (5 1-2) favorites on the road in the opening round of the postseason. The only wild card that is an underdog is slumping Green Bay, and by only a point at Washington.
Those wise guys also have made the sixth-seeded Seahawks the third choice to win the NFC at 9-4, behind Arizona and Carolina, each at 2-1 odds. The AFC’s sixth seed, the Steelers, also are the third choice behind division winners Denver and New England.
As for the upcoming weekend, what they are thinking in Las Vegas is that none of the division winners — Redskins, Texans, Bengals or Vikings — is impressive.
Indeed, much of the talk the past few weeks around the league was about which opponent was a must to avoid, with the Seahawks, Chiefs and Steelers the front-runners in that race.
“You know what, I could honestly care less about what anybody says outside of this locker room,” Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce said. “We know that we line up against anybody that we’re confident that we’re going to get the job done.”
They have done what’s necessary in 10 straight games for one of the great turnarounds in NFL history. The Chiefs rank first in the AFC with a plus-14 turnover margin. The defense is formidable and might get back its best player, linebacker Justin Houston (knee). They’re 5-3 on the road and already have won at the Texans, in the season opener, when KC wasn’t nearly so strong.
“First of all they have a lot of good players and they have a really good coaching staff. That combination is tough,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said.
“On defense they’ve got really good pass rushers with (Tamba) Hali and Houston and they’ve got a good secondary playing at a high level, their linebackers fly around, their front seven is really, really good.
“Offensively Alex Smith’s had a good year, receivers, (Jeremy) Maclin. I know Jamaal Charles is on IR now, but they’ve still got running backs, Kelce the tight end, a really good offensive line. So it’s a big challenge.”
Although Pittsburgh stumbled badly in Week 16 with its loss at the Ravens, it got another chance when the moment proved too big for the Jets in Buffalo. Considering how the Steelers can ring up points on anyone, plus their strong postseason pedigree with leaders such as Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Cam Heyward, revitalized James Harrison and coach Mike Tomlin, the Bengals can’t be thrilled with Saturday night’s matchup.
Also remember the Steelers won in Cincinnati 33-20 a month ago, are 18-7 overall against their AFC North rivals since 2004, have won 21 of 26 at Riverfront or Paul Brown stadiums, and Cincy hasn’t won a playoff game since the 1990 season.
“The postseason is a different season,” Roethlisberger said. “You’re going to have to do your best, throw out all of the records, throw out where you are playing. Everybody has to step up and be ready to go.”
Steelers fans expect their team to be ready: Saturday’s prime-time affair is sold out and you can bet plenty of Terrible Towels will be waving in Cincinnati.
Considering how Minnesota has closed the schedule, winning three straight to grab the NFC North and also with a close defeat at Arizona before that, some might be surprised to see the Seahawks so heavily favored. If so, those folks have forgotten the shellacking Seattle handed the Vikings in Minneapolis in early December.
For further emphasis, this is a more balanced Seahawks team than the squads that reached the past two Super Bowls. Its defense might not be quite as dynamic, but its offense is vastly superior to 2013 and ’14.
And there is this: Seattle fears no one.
“I think people can sometimes forget who we are,” star cornerback Richard Sherman said. “We let a few penalties, weird calls or miscues change their perception, and then we come back and remind them.”
Only the Packers among the wild cards don’t seem fearsome, mainly because their offense has frozen. Yet they play the perceived weakest of the division champions, so no one is counting out Aaron Rodgers and company. Also the Redskins (9-7) didn’t beat a team that finished with a winning record.
This could be one of those years when being on the road in January matters little. Visitors went 118-138 this season, and the wild cards were a collective 19-13 away from home.
Plus, it’s not as if non-division champions can’t win Super Bowls. Indeed, the Steelers, Chiefs and Packers all have done it.
- Browns rebooting again after firing coach, general manager– Mike Pettine drove his pickup truck behind the team’s headquarters, backing the vehicle up to a rear door to load his belongings.Gone after two seasons as Cleveland’s coach, Pettine packed up and said goodbye.
The Browns are starting over.
One day after owner Jimmy Haslam fired both Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer following a miserable 3-13 season, the Browns cleaned out their lockers amid uncertainty, speculation and anger from some fans.
This team remains the NFL’s poster child of nearly constant change, unable to stick with a plan long enough to see if it will work.
And as he stood in the locker room towering over empty boxes following an empty season, Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas sounded as if he had had enough.
“Well, it doesn’t make you happy when you have to go through another coaching change,” said Thomas, who has played for five coaches since 2007.
“It’s tough on everybody. Coaching changes and organization changes always set you back. It’s a tough process to go through. Nobody is happy about it and it’s never easy.”
The Browns should be used to it. No team in the league has experienced more transformations than Cleveland, now searching for its eighth coach since 1999 and undergoing yet another front-office makeover.
Haslam has already fired three coaches in four years. For Thomas, Black Monday was nothing new. But the prospect of more change has the nine-time Pro Bowler re-assessing his future in Cleveland.
“As you get older, the tomorrows become fewer and far between and you become more reflective on your own football mortality,” Thomas said after the season-ending loss to Pittsburgh.
“Who knows who’s going to be back in this locker room next year? It becomes harder every time it happens because you realize you’re closer to your end.
“And every time there is a reset, it puts you further away from achieving that goal of making the playoffs and once you’re in, making that push for a Super Bowl, which is every player’s dream.”
For second-year offensive guard Joel Bitonio, seeing Pettine leave was harder than he imagined.
“I just feel bad,” said Bitonio, who spent a few minutes in the hallway speaking with Pettine. “I feel like we didn’t do enough as a team to keep him around.
“He’s one of the people who brought me in and I think you always remember your first NFL coach. He has a heavy place in my heart today. I know it’s part of the business, and I know you’ve got to win NFL games. But it was tough.”
Haslam and newly appointed football operations head Sashi Brown met with Cleveland’s players on Monday to explain why they intend to hire a coach before getting a GM.
Haslam’s plans to give full control of the team’s 53-man roster to Brown, a virtual unknown who previously worked as the team’s general counsel, created a stir with Browns fans concerned that the owner had already made an unwise move.
However, several Browns players seemed comfortable with Brown’s new role.
“He’s very impressive,” wide receiver Andrew Hawkins said. “I’m a fan of Sashi Brown and the way he approaches things and I think he has the knowledge. If he’s been in it long enough to understand everything, I’m all for it. I’m on the side of putting Sashi Brown in charge.”
As for the coaching search, the Browns have scheduled an interview with Detroit defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, who was a candidate last year in Chicago and Cleveland. Austin got a glowing recommendation from Lions coach Jim Caldwell.
“He’s been exceptional,” Caldwell said. “He’ll be an exceptional head coach. He’s a motivator. He knows football inside and out.”
Later this week, Haslam is expected to interview Chicago offensive coordinator Adam Gase and Jacksonville offensive assistant Doug Marrone, Buffalo’s former head coach who interviewed with Cleveland three years ago.
Haslam knows the Browns’ track record could scare away candidates who might be leery of the lack of continuity. However, he’s confident someone will want to try and fix the Browns.
“I still think it is an extremely attractive job,” he said. “It is a great franchise, great fans and there is only one way to go with the franchise — 11 draft picks this year, some talented young players and we are totally committed to winning. Do I think it is easy? No, but do I think for the right person this is a great job? I absolutely do.”
On Monday, the last coach he felt that way about pulled away in his pickup truck for good.
- Two-time Super Bowl winner Tom Coughlin resigns as Giants coach– With the New York Giants facing a difficult decision on his coaching future after four straight years out of the playoffs, Tom Coughlin walked away gracefully, doing what was best for him.The Giants gave him 12 years to run one of the NFL’s flagship organizations. He delivered two Super Bowls and restored the franchise to the league’s elite for a while.
It was mutually beneficial, and so was the departure Monday when the 69-year-old Coughlin resigned rather than force co-owners John Mara and Steve Tisch to fire him.
The Giants announced the decision one day after the Giants (6-10) capped their third straight losing season with a 35-30 defeat against Philadelphia, their third in a row and sixth in seven games.
“I met with (owners) John Mara and Steve Tisch this afternoon, and I informed them that it is in the best interest of the organization that I step down as head coach,” Coughlin said in a statement. “I strongly believe the time is right for me and my family, and … the Giants organization.”
The move may signal the end of a 20-year NFL head coaching career for Coughlin, one of 13 coaches to win multiple Super Bowls. It also may not. Coughlin loves to coach and if the right job popped up, who knows?
“It is difficult to come up with words adequate to describe the appreciation we have for everything Tom Coughlin has done for our franchise,” Mara said.
“In addition to delivering two Super Bowl titles, Tom represented us with class and dignity, and restored the pride to our entire organization. He has all the qualities you could ever ask for in a head coach, and set very high standards for whoever will succeed him.”
Coughlin, Tisch, Mara and general manager Jerry Reese plan to hold a news conference Tuesday morning.
The league’s oldest active coach and third-longest tenured among the 32 who finished the season, Coughlin came into 2015 knowing he had to get the Giants back to the postseason to keep his job. It didn’t happen because the Giants lost six games either in the final 1:14 of regulation or in overtime.
“Obviously, the past three years have not been what any of us expect, and as head coach, I accept the responsibility for those seasons,” he said.
Where the Giants go from here is uncertain. They have traditionally hired from within or gotten someone with NFL coaching experience. A college coach would be a reach, especially a high-profile one who would want too much control.
Offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, who the Giants and Eli Manning like, might need more seasoning. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s unit was last in the league rankings, although he had very little talent on the roster.
Former Falcons coach Mike Smith might be an option, and there are a lot of coordinators around the league who are potential candidates: Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, Bears OC Adam Gase, Panthers DC Sean McDermott, and the Patriots’ Josh McDaniels (offense) and Matt Patricia (defense).
Coughlin’s future was the main topic as players cleaned out their lockers Monday. The coach had spoken to the team earlier in the morning and many were saddened by the thought he might not be back.
“It has been one of the greatest honors of my life and career to be led by Tom Coughlin; my life will forever be changed,” placekicker Josh Brown tweeted after the resignation.
This might have been one of Coughlin’s best years as a coach. He didn’t have a strong roster, and his defense spent the first two months with end Jason Pierre-Paul sidelined by a July 4 fireworks mishap that mangled his right hand.
Coughlin posted a 110-93 record in 12 seasons with the Giants, winning three division titles in addition to his two league crowns. He was 72-64 in eight seasons with the then-expansion Jacksonville Jaguars, winning two division titles and taking them to two conference championship games in their first five seasons.
Ernie Accorsi and Mara hired Coughlin in 2004 after Jim Fassel was fired.
“Tom Coughlin is a great coach and an even better man,” Accorsi said. “He has left his mark on this great franchise, and his legacy of excellence is secure.”
A no-nonsense coach, Coughlin vowed to restore Giants pride and it didn’t take long. They won the division the following season and shocked the football world by knocking off the then-undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl in February 2008. The second came after the 2011 season, also against the Patriots.
- 49ers fire first-year coach Jim Tomsula after losing year– Jim Tomsula was fired by the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night after one disappointing season, with an announcement just more than two hours after the season finale.Elevated from his defensive line coaching duties in an unconventional, surprising promotion by CEO Jed York last January, Tomsula went 5-11 as the Niners missed the playoffs for the second straight season. They were 8-8 a year ago in then-coach Jim Harbaugh’s fourth season before his “mutual” parting with the franchise, as the team described it.
York was scheduled to address the media Monday morning at Levi’s Stadium, where San Francisco rallied for a 19-16 overtime victory against St. Louis in Sunday’s finale, but was booed again by the home crowd.
“Jimmy has been a valuable member of the 49ers organization for the last nine years,” York said in a statement. “We all know he is a man of high character, and his contributions on the field and in our community have always been greatly appreciated. This entire organization is proud and grateful to have worked so closely alongside Jimmy. We all wish him and his family great success in the future.”
Two years, two head coaches named Jim out for the once-proud franchise.
Tomsula waved and signed autographs upon walking into the stadium before kickoff, then kept the focus on his players after the win. He didn’t immediately respond to a text message.
Shortly after the firing was announced, now-Michigan coach Harbaugh appeared to chime in on Twitter: “Do not be deceived. You will reap what you sow,” he wrote.
York, who didn’t speak publicly about the team’s turmoil during the season, chose Tomsula last year to replace Harbaugh over departed defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and now-Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase. Before a home game against the Bengals last month, a plane flew over Levi’s Stadium with a banner that read “Hold Jed Accountable,” a reference to his remarks at the end of the 2014 season inviting everyone to do so. On Sunday, the message flying overhead read: “Jed Here’s Our Banner — Where’s Yours?”
York has often given the benefit of the doubt to general manager Trent Baalke, who just completed his fifth season as GM and 11th with the franchise.
The 49ers avoided their worst record since going 4-12 in 2005 during coach Mike Nolan’s first season and with Alex Smith as the rookie quarterback.
Now, the coaching search begins again.
A former NFL Europe coach, Tomsula remains far from polished. He has always exhibited a deep care for his players that they have regularly acknowledged, dating back to the start of training camp when he altered the schedule to better utilize time for meetings, practice and also down time. Yet Tomsula was all but labeled a lame-duck coach from Day 1 given he was charged with the daunting task of turning things around in short order.
When the 49ers parted ways with Harbaugh, York said on Dec. 29, 2014, that the organization needed to get back to winning Super Bowl titles — something it fell just short of after the 2012 season in a three-point loss to Baltimore. That denied the franchise a sixth Lombardi Trophy.
San Francisco went 1-7 on the road and got booed by its increasingly impatient home fans who were seeing costly penalties, mental mistakes and turnovers. Major injuries hurt, too, specifically to running backs Reggie Bush, Carlos Hyde and then Shaun Draughn.
Some things stacked against Tomsula from the start. In March, five-time All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis retired at age 30. So did heir apparent Chris Borland following his standout rookie season. Then right tackle Anthony Davis and veteran defensive lineman Justin Smith left the game.
Pass-rushing menace Aldon Smith was released Aug. 7 a day after his latest arrest.
Tomsula demoted struggling quarterback Colin Kaepernick — now injured and recovering from shoulder surgery — in favor of Blaine Gabbert in November.
The 47-year-old Tomsula, San Francisco’s defensive line coach for eight years before becoming head coach, also went 1-0 as the interim coach for the final game of the 2010 season after Mike Singletary was fired.
All along, Tomsula downplayed his unique path. He once lived in his car trying to make ends meet as a low-level assistant at his alma mater, Catawba College in North Carolina.
He wanted the focus on his players first.
“It’s rare in this league that you get a coach that truly, genuinely cares about his players,” safety Eric Reid said after Sunday’s game. “We all understand it’s a business and that’s part of it, but he’s one of the rare coaches in my football experience that you look him in the eyes and when he asks you how you’re doing, he really wants to know how you’re doing.
“I think that’s why the players love him so much.”