NFL

Sarah Thomas to be first female official at Super Bowl

By Sports Desk January 19, 2021

For the first time in NFL history a woman will officiate at the Super Bowl.

The league announced the officiating crew for Super Bowl LV on Tuesday and Sarah Thomas was named the down judge.

This will be the second playoff assignment for the 47-year-old Thomas, after she worked an AFC divisional-round game between the New Patriots and Los Angeles Chargers on January 13, 2019.

Thomas became the league’s first full-time female official back in 2015.

Troy Vincent Sr, the NFL executive vice president of football operations, said: "Sarah Thomas has made history again as the first female Super Bowl official.

"Her elite performance and commitment to excellence has earned her the right to officiate the Super Bowl. Congratulations to Sarah on this well-deserved honour."

Carl Cheffers has been named the referee for the championship game scheduled for February 7 in Tampa, Florida. Cheffers has previously officiated in 17 playoff games, and was in charge for Super Bowl LI in 2017.

Thomas and Cheffers will be joined by umpire Fred Bryan, line judge Rusty Baynes, field judge James Coleman, side judge Eugene Hall, back judge Dino Paganelli and replay official Mike Wimmer.

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  • Arizona Cardinals: Secondary help & support for Kyler next on the list after J.J. Watt lands in desert Arizona Cardinals: Secondary help & support for Kyler next on the list after J.J. Watt lands in desert

    It didn't take long for the Arizona Cardinals to make their first big offseason splash.

    For the second year running, the Cardinals took advantage of the dysfunction enveloping the Houston Texans to land a star player whom they hope will push them towards the playoffs.

    J.J. Watt has linked up with former Texans team-mate DeAndre Hopkins, signing a two-year deal to provide a significant boost to the Cardinals' defense.

    While Watt should unquestionably improve the Cardinals' odds of stopping opposing attacks, Arizona will need to take several other steps this offseason to have a chance of emerging from a hyper-competitive NFC West and progressing to the playoffs.

    The Cardinals looked ready to make such a leap in 2020 in the second year of the Kliff Kingsbury-Kyler Murray experience.

    But an ugly finish to an 8-8 season suggested this is still a team some way from true championship contention.

    Using Stats Perform data, we look at what was learned from that campaign and what the Cardinals must do in 2021 to ensure they have a winning record and are playing postseason football next season.

    Offense

    The Arizona offense was in the top half of the NFL in terms of yards per play, their average of 5.68 putting them 14th.

    However, the lack of progression from the passing game, even after the addition of Hopkins, held the Cardinals back from becoming one of the league's elite offenses.

    Arizona finished the year 18th in pass yards per play (6.48) but were ninth in rushing average (4.67).

    The Cardinals' underperformance in the passing game was not for lack of effort on Murray's part.

    Indeed, his completion percentage jumped from 64.4 in 2019 to 67.2, his passing yardage improved from 3,722 to 3,971 and he threw 26 touchdowns compared to 20 a year earlier.

    Yet his yards per attempt average of 7.12 was still only good enough for 22nd in the NFL, while his interception percentage of 2.2 was the third-most among quarterbacks to have started all 16 games.

    Given Kingsbury's expertise in the Air Raid offense, a system renowned for its reliance on downfield passing concepts, Murray's tally of 44 completions of 20 yards or more - tied for 15th in the NFL - was disappointing.

    But the Cardinals should continue to be excited about the offense's potential when they fully harness Murray's upside as a deep-ball thrower. Among the quarterbacks with at least 25 attempts of 21 or more air yards, his passer rating of 127.4 on such throws was the third-best.

    One of the most exciting dual-threat quarterbacks in the NFL, Murray again added significant value as a runner, rushing for 819 yards and 11 touchdowns. With 419 of those yards on scrambles, Murray continues to be one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the league when the pocket breaks down.

    Hopkins enjoyed a monster first season in Arizona - his 1,407 receiving yards were the third-most in the NFL - but the numbers suggest he could use more help.

    Deep threat Christian Kirk had six touchdowns but esteemed veteran Larry Fitzgerald's yards per catch average of 7.6 was the lowest of his remarkable career, indicating he may be reaching the limits of his longevity and that a more dynamic third option is required.

    Defense

    Watt joins a defense that performed at a high level in 2020.

    The Cardinals allowed 5.34 yards per play, the eighth-least in the NFL, while their average of 5.86 yards per pass play allowed ranked sixth in the league.

    Their success in that regard came despite losing star edge rusher Chandler Jones to a torn bicep, the three-time Pro Bowler denied the chance to maintain his streak of having double-digit sacks in every season of his Cardinals career.

    Stepping up in Jones' absence was Haason Reddick, who posted a career-high 12.5 sacks - including five in one game against the New York Giants - and 15 tackles for loss along with 16 quarterback hits.

    His contributions down the stretch helped the Cardinals produce 109 negative plays from their opponents for a total of minus 477 yards, the fourth-best mark in the league.

    Taking that into account, their takeaway tally of 21 may be seen as disappointing, though it was in line with the league average.

    Arizona's inability to trouble the upper echelon in terms of takeaways could be partially attributed to the play of veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson.

    Peterson had a burn percentage of 64.1 in 2020. A burn occurs when a receiver is open for a number of yards that take up a certain percentage of yards to go for a first down, depending on the down. The yardage is attributed to the defender regardless of whether the receiver catches the pass.

    He gave up 590 burn yards and had six burns for touchdowns, both team highs.

    The Cardinals have added a veteran presence to the front seven in Watt but, as with Fitzgerald in the receiving corps, a more youthful talent may be required to take on Peterson's role and help Arizona make key improvements in the secondary.

    Offseason

    Fitzgerald and Peterson make up two of Arizona's 23 unrestricted free agents this offseason, though if the former is not back it will likely be because he has decided to hang up the cleats.

    Peterson appears set to play his football elsewhere, with the Cardinals lacking the resources and perhaps the appetite to re-sign him based on his 2020 performance.

    The Cardinals are projected to have a little over $17.5million in cap space, assuming a salary cap of $185m, just above the league average.

    Arizona's addition of Watt to bolster the pass rush may mean Reddick and Markus Golden, who also helped fill the void in Jones' 2020 absence, are allowed to walk in free agency. Running back Kenyan Drake appears another likely departure.

    The draft is the likely avenue on which the Cardinals will focus most of their attention as they attempt to further supplement a roster that fell just shy of the postseason.

    Picking 16th in the first round, Arizona will be in a decent spot to address the cornerback position and find a replacement for Peterson who can help them better defend three NFC West rivals who all possess explosive offenses when at their best.

    Watt's arrival should improve their odds of keeping their division rivals in check but, after a strong showing on defense last year, this Cardinals offseason is one that will also be defined by what they do in terms of making life easier for Murray.

    Stronger depth at receiver and more dynamism at tight end, something which the Cardinals have long since lacked, should be on Arizona's wishlist.

    If they can check off those items and put a support system around Murray that allows him to have a breakout year three, the Cardinals will be in a good spot to celebrate a first playoff berth since the 2015 season. Should they fail, Kingsbury and general manager Steve Keim's jobs may come under severe scrutiny.

  • Houston Texans: Wantaway Watson's future dictates the path forward Houston Texans: Wantaway Watson's future dictates the path forward

    Unfortunately for Houston Texans fans, their team's offseason business has been more noteworthy than their performances on the field over the past 12 months.

    The Texans stunningly traded All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins last March and three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt has already departed this year.

    But the biggest move might be yet to come.

    Quarterback Deshaun Watson wants out and, although Houston insist they will not facilitate a move, the current impasse – with the 25-year-old seemingly prepared to sit if not granted an exit – suits nobody.

    Watson's lack of input in the team's search for head coach Bill O'Brien's successor was said to be the largest contributing factor when he first pushed for a trade in January.

    But the Texans had issues last year beyond the process that eventually led to the hiring of David Culley, crashing to 4-12 in 2020 as results on the field accurately depicted the overall direction of the franchise.

    A study of Stats Perform data shows the vast work to be done whether Watson stays or goes.

    Offense

    Hopkins had been Houston's leading receiver in each of the five seasons prior to his departure, including 104 catches for 1,165 yards and seven touchdowns in 2019.

    His shock trade to the Arizona Cardinals - which came under a year after the franchise had given up a boatload of draft capital to acquire star tackle Laremy Tunsil - meant a rethink.

    Will Fuller, second on that list with 49 receptions, was the obvious candidate to step up and he had 53 catches for 879 yards and eight touchdowns through 11 games.

    But a six-game suspension – one week of which remains – for breaching the NFL's drug policy ended his season early. Former Green Bay stalwart Randall Cobb, who started only two games, also missed the end of the year due to a toe injury.

    Meanwhile, the running game – led by David Johnson, who made up part of the Hopkins trade – scarcely registered.

    Houston ranked 31st for rushing yards per game (91.6), 26th for rushing plays of 10 yards or more (38) and tied-30th for plays of 20 yards or more (five).

    And yet despite losing Hopkins, leaving Brandin Cooks as his top target, having no run game to turn to and playing behind a bad offensive line – he was sacked 49 times, second-most among all QBs – Watson remained one of the league's best.

    He topped the charts for overall passing yards (4,823), yards per attempt (8.87) and big plays of 25 yards or more (42). His passer rating of 112.4 trailed only MVP Aaron Rodgers.

    Defense

    Unfortunately, as Watson did all he could on offense to almost singlehandedly keep the Texans competitive, the defense also let him down.

    Houston ranked 30th for opponent yards per game (416.8) and per play (6.24).

    They were dead last for opponent rushing yards per game (160.3), where the failure to slow opponents over the ground could be attributed to D.J. Reader's departure in free agency and a shoulder injury to Benardrick McKinney that restricted him to four games and 19 tackles.

    Meanwhile, the Texans were 24th for opponent net passing yards per game (256.5). Whitney Mercilus and Watt were each another year older and saw their numbers decline as a result, although the latter still led the team in sacks (5.0), QB hits (17) and defensive TDs (one).

    And so with Watt's exit, the defense continues to lose talent just as it has in years past with Jadeveon Clowney and Tyrann Mathieu, both of whom left after a 2018 season in which Houston finished 11-5 and had six Pro Bowlers – including three on defense.

    Offseason

    Despite this grave picture, the Texans' reluctance to deal Watson suggests they have not given up just yet.

    But with so much to fix – arguably every aspect of the team besides the outstanding QB – the offer of a substantial trade package for an unhappy player might start to appeal.

    In another offseason in which a number of teams are looking for a new star under center, Watson, at 25, is the most valuable option on the table.

    Perhaps a franchise like the Chicago Bears – potentially a Watson away from being a major contender – would make sense as a trade partner, desperate enough to give Houston the sort of assets that could allow for a rebuild.

    But it may only be a team like the Miami Dolphins or New York Jets - with extra draft picks and young QB options to throw into the mix - who can come close to providing the sort of offer Houston would contemplate.

    The Texans are projected to have around $33million in cap space, assuming a $185m cap, but there simply appears to be too much to do even if they can convince Watson to stay and play.

    Moving on prematurely from the four-year, $156m deal Watson signed last year would provide room to manoeuvre in the years to come, too.

    Houston's decision is unlikely to prove popular whichever way they go.

    News of Watson's trade request prompted plans for a protest that the player himself had to call off.

    But keeping their talisman might condemn the Texans to many more years like 2020, without a talented roster to support one of the NFL's most valuable assets.

    Despite boasting one of the best QBs in the game, they are in an unenviable position of their own making.  

  • Eagles' Jason Kelce holds off retirement to return for 2021 season Eagles' Jason Kelce holds off retirement to return for 2021 season

    Philadelphia Eagles All-Pro center and Super Bowl champion Jason Kelce will return for an 11th season with the NFL franchise.

    Kelce ended speculation over his future on Friday, the 33-year-old star putting retirement on hold for another season.

    A vital member of Philadelphia's championship run in 2017, Kelce has reportedly reconstructed his contract to offer the Eagles cap relief.

    "I'm really fired up to be able to come back and play for the Eagles again," Kelce said on Friday.

    "I've always said I'm playing until I'm not and I still have a very strong desire to play the game of football. I still want to do it. I still want to be around the guys. I want to be around the building, around the coaches. I still enjoy that aspect of it and I'm not ready to stop doing it yet.

    "I'm excited with a lot of the energy going around right now and, also, I didn't want to end my career on a season like we had last year. It wouldn't feel right.

    "I want to leave the Eagles knowing that I left it in good hands."

    Kelce was selected by the Eagles in the sixth round of the 2011 NFL Draft.

    He is a four-time Pro Bowler, while Kelce has been named an All-Pro on three occasions.

    Kelce's return is a big boost for new head coach Nick Sirianni, who has replaced Doug Pederson, after the Eagles went 4-11-1 in a forgettable season.

    "I'm having fun and as long as I'm having fun and I feel I'm playing at a level I want to play at, I'm going to keep doing it," Kelce said. "I'm looking forward to what's ahead for us."

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