Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins delivered a 306-yard, two-touchdown, no-turnover performance in a bounce-back win on the road over the New York Giants last week. It followed one of the worst games of his career in a defeat at Chicago.
Cousins drew the predictable praise from his team afterward, but he also caught the attention of a certain commander in chief.
He received a text message from his agent, Mike McCartney, who'd been contacted by the White House about President Donald Trump's desire to speak to Cousins, the former Washington Redskins quarterback he'd once played a round of golf with at one of his clubs in New Jersey.
"I said, 'Are you serious?' with a question mark, thinking it was a joke and I was going to call some prank number," Cousins said. "He said, 'No, very.' So I just called them on the bus heading to the airport. I didn't know. I was calling the White House, and they just said, 'Hold for the president.' It was just a 30-second call saying congratulations, and that was it. Very out of the blue, very random, but when the president calls, I don't care who it is, left, right, whatever, down the middle, if he says, 'Call me,' I'm going to give him a call and see what he needs, see what he wants."
So why would Trump bother to reach out after a rather routine regular-season game? Well, he had a rally scheduled in downtown Minneapolis on Thursday night, so Minnesota was likely on his mind. Perhaps Trump was hoping the local NFL quarterback would join him to help fire up the crowd, but Cousins said the subject of Trump's appearance did not come up in their conversation. He had no plan to attend.
Still, the current president has been a source of consternation for some players in the league. Coach Mike Zimmer was asked whether he worried about such a connection, even in an apparently innocuous and brief phone call, creating tension in the locker room.
"I'm not in charge of all those political things. I'm staying out of that," Zimmer said. "I don't really get into it. I'm a football coach. It's what I do."
BIG DATA BOWL
Add another bowl game to the schedule: the NFL's Big Data Bowl.
The NFL is calling on college students and experts to devise innovative approaches to analyzing rushing plays. The NFL captures real-time data for every player on every play. By adding insights to this data, the Big Data Bowl aims to analyze and rethink trends in player performance, and innovate the way football is played and coached.
Beginning this week, participants can sign up for the Big Data Bowl, and are challenged to devise an algorithm to predict how many yards a ball carrier will gain on rushing plays, using game and play characteristics, as well as Next Gen Stats tracking data from the moment a handoff is made. New this year, during Weeks 13-17, participants will be a part of a live leaderboard posted on Kaggle that scores competitors each week based on how accurately an algorithm predicted the ball carrier's performance. The top three submissions will share $75,000 in prize money.
In addition to the open contest, undergraduate and graduate student participants are also eligible to participate in a competition in which they share their methods and results with NFL team analytics staffers. The top collegiate finalists will be chosen based on a combination of innovation, accuracy, relevance and clarity. This portion of the competition will culminate with in-person presentations at the NFL combine in Indianapolis next February.
"The NFL uses data and analytics across all aspects of our business," says Natara Holloway, NFL VP of football strategy and business development. "While teams may use data to help improve their playbooks, we use it to track trends and develop insights to improve and monitor on-field performance. The Big Data Bowl allows us to find new ways of using football data and create a pipeline of talent for the next generation of industry leaders."
Following the first Big Data Bowl,11 participants were later hired by NFL clubs or affiliate vendors.
SOAKING IT IN
The Carolina Panthers hoped to get a little sightseeing in on their trip to London to play Tampa Bay. It started with their first practice of the week.
The Panthers have practiced this week at Harrow School, which opened in 1572, educated prime ministers, and was featured in some of the Harry Potter movies.
"It's pretty impressive," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. "They have great fields, the facilities are terrific. When you get a chance to look at it you feel like you're in a Harry Potter movie. I do understand Winston Churchill went to school here. So that's kind of cool. I got the chance to see a little history."
The Panthers also took part in an NFL flag football event and enjoyed interacting with the kids.
"I feel like I'm going to ship my kids away to school here because you guys carry on better conversations than kids in America do," tight end Greg Olsen told two of the youngsters.
Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette has a "ton of family" coming for Sunday's game against New Orleans.
Not all of them will be rooting for him.
"Some of them are Saints fans, some of them are Leonard fans," he said. "So they'll be torn between."
Fournette grew up in the Seventh Ward, and the Jaguars (2-3) released a mini-documentary Monday titled "In His Shoes" that follows Fournette around his hometown. It includes interviews with his parents and one of his former coaches.
He didn't grow up watching the Saints like just about everyone one in the area.
"I was outside playing football, doing things like that," he said.
So facing his hometown team means little. He is, however, looking for his third consecutive 100-yard rushing performance. The Saints (4-1) haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 31 games.
"I think football is wearing people down," said Fournette, who has runs of 48, 81 and 69 yards in the last three games — all in the second half. "Some guys mentally don't want to hit all four quarters. So eventually help out the pass game, help the quarterback out, help the wide receivers out, and that's when the bombs come."
Cincinnati's Zac Taylor is the 23rd rookie head coach since the merger to begin his career by losing at least his first five games. He will surpass Sam Wyche for the worst start by a new Bengals coach if Cincinnati loses at Baltimore on Sunday.
Of the previous 22, four were expansion situations and another replaced a coach at midseason. Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, who started out 0-4 in 2017 before winning nine of the last 12 that season, on Wednesday said his advice for Taylor or any other head coach is to look at the long-term road.
"If you believe in the process, if you believe in what you're doing, stay committed and keep emphasizing the things that you think are important," Lynn said. "A lot of times, we all have great plans. We all have great visions, but sometimes we just don't have the stamina and the guts to carry it out."
Taylor also has something else to believe in this week as 11 of the aforementioned coaches got their first win in their sixth game.
AP Pro Football Writers Barry Wilner, Dave Campbell Josh Dubow and Sports Writers Mark Long and Joe Reedy contributed.
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