The last time Ron Rivera watched the Super Bowl 50 film was just a few days ago. It was practical, not woeful. The Panthers open the 2016 season with the Broncos, and Rivera was checking the tape for a pattern of a go-to defensive call they like to use in certain down-and-distance situations. If I see it, he asked himself, do they see it? Of course, that’s just one of the lingering, leftover questions from that afternoon in Santa Clara, Calif.
“It is going to be that little cut that kind of festers,” Rivera said from his office last week. “It is going to be there. But I’m not going to ‘woe is me’ it. I’m going to use it realistically.”
The big MMQB boss is taking one of his rare Mondays off today, so I’m doing my best to not lose too many readers while substituting. Thanks for reading! We’ll get to what owners think of putting a team in Las Vegas, one person who is perhaps most excited about the Jaguars optimism, some Rex & Rob redux and much more. But first, let’s start in Carolina, where Rivera is embarking on a mission that no coach has completed in 23 years: Trying to get back to the Super Bowl after losing it.
Memorial Day Weekend falls at about the midpoint of the NFL offseason. About 100 days down, and about 100 to go until the season opens. If you ask Rivera, though, he’ll know exactly how many days. He’s keeping a countdown. I’ve always respected Rivera’s quest to tap into different ways to motivate his team, whether during the losing records early in his Panthers tenure, or the pressure of last year’s near-perfect season. Now, the challenge of regrouping his team for another run is … possibly the hardest a head coach could face?
“Yes. I think it is,” Rivera says. “From everything I have gathered, heard, listened to and read about.”
And he’s done a lot of all of those things. Bovada set the over/under for the Panthers win total at 10.5, tied for the highest in the NFL, meaning that Vegas thinks no other team has a better chance of being successful than Carolina. But over the past 25 years, Super Bowl losers have mixed results. The previous seven Super Bowl losers went on to qualify for the playoffs in the next season, and two made it as far as the championship game. However, nine Super Bowl losers in the past 25 years have gone on to miss the playoffs the following season; eight went on to have a losing record; and the last Super Bowl losers to make it all the way back to the big game were the 1991-93 Buffalo Bills.
“It is really important we don’t lose sight of what we accomplished, but the truth of the matter is, we didn’t complete it,” Rivera says. “That will continue to be the emphasis: We want to get it done.”
Rivera has spent an offseason researching how to tackle this season with his team. He studied press clippings from Denver and Seattle to read how John Fox and Pete Carroll responded to losses in Super Bowls XLVIII and XLIX. His takeaway: Acknowledge that you did lose, and then talk about getting back to work. He called his mentor, Hall of Famer John Madden, for some advice, too.
“One of the things John Madden and I talked about was getting started again,” Rivera says. “So my message with the players, when we first got together, was that in order to get to where we want to go, we can’t expect to start from where we finished. We have to start from the bottom and work our way up again.”
They began this spring with the most basic installs on offense, defense and special teams, rather than picking up with the things they were doing by Week 20 last season. Rivera referenced a Christmas gift he once received from Andy Reid when he was a linebackers coach on his Eagles staff, a thin book about teaching techniques. In it is the metaphor that fundamentals are the roots and trunk of the tree, and everything else branches out from there. Rivera is so precise in mapping out his messages for his players that he already has a PowerPoint presentation ready for each practice of OTAs and mini-camp through mid-June. On Tuesday, the team’s first full-squad practice since Super Bowl 50, Rivera picked this quote for the final slide of the team meeting:
Do not dwell on the past, do not dream of the future, instead focus on the present.
Out on the practice field, though Rivera didn’t quite see that message take hold. So afterward, he got on the players a little bit. The things he said publicly, about Cam Newton being “rusty” and needing to keep working on his footwork, were simply one sliver of his team-wide message. Don’t be complacent. Your fundamentals have to be perfect.
“Someone said, ‘You put Cam on blast.’ I did that to everybody. I talked about Luke [Kuechly]; Luke knows he can become a much better pass-cover guy,” Rivera says. “It is a challenge to everybody that, hey, we were pretty good, but honestly, I think we can be better. I did it right after practice [Tuesday], and I just wanted to make sure they understood that there is a sense of urgency, even though there are 107 days left.” (And counting).
Two days later, he felt better about his players’ focus on the details, so he lightened things up with a quote he found on one of his go-to websites, BrainyQuote. Often Rivera will search for a word or topic, and build a theme off a quote he finds. “One of the things I am worried about,” he says, “ is that when you sit here and you talk to guys about what you are trying to accomplish, they don’t lose sight of the fun of the game.” So on Thursday, he left his players with this quote: When you can’t tell whether you are working or playing, then you know you love the game.
Rivera has also leaned on some insight he got from Admiral William McRaven, the former commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command. Rivera has a strong tie to the military, growing up on military bases as his father, Eugenio, served as a chief warrant officer in the U.S. Army. Earlier this year, McRaven gave a speech on the importance of football while accepting an award from the American Football Coaches Association. In the speech, which has made the rounds in the NFL coaching community, McRaven talks about how a memorable pep talk from his high school football coach gave him the confidence to become a Navy SEAL four years later.
Rivera later reached out to McRaven via email, for advice on how to lead his team after the Super Bowl loss. McRaven suggested Rivera use facts from last season—winning the NFC, with a 17-1 record—to remind the players of how close they are to succeeding. “And the next step,” McRaven wrote, “is to be completely all in.” Rivera incorporated these ideas into his PowerPoints.
One thing Rivera has on his side is that the core of his team is largely intact: His quarterback, his offensive line, his defensive front seven. The biggest changes are the return of WR Kelvin Benjamin from his ACL injury, and the loss of top cornerback Josh Norman, who signed with Washington in April after the Panthers rescinded his franchise tag. Rivera may end up playing two rookies among his top three cornerbacks this season, and he acknowledged the personality of the defense will be different without Norman. Obviously, money played a central role, but with Norman potentially holding out for a long-term deal, Rivera also indicated that they wanted to have all their pieces together as they try to coalesce the team this spring and summer.
“We were at an impasse, and things weren’t happening, and the one thing we didn’t want to do is go into training camp not knowing,” Rivera says. “I think that was part of the decision.”
After mini-camp in June, Rivera plans to visit Madden at his home in Pleasanton, Calif., while on a trip out West to see his parents. He’ll have a list of questions prepared for his mentor to help him shape his next round of messages, into training camp and the season. Rivera laughs when asked if the first game being a rematch against the Broncos makes it easier or harder to move on from Super Bowl 50.
“Ha! This will make it both,” he says. “We know we start off the new season with them, but at the same time, we have got to relive the situation.”
The Panthers would like to relive it this coming season—just with a different outcome.
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Las Vegas Raiders?
Commissioner Roger Goodell called the Raiders-to-Vegas talk “very premature” at the NFL’s quarterly league meeting last week in Charlotte, and that’s true. The potential move wasn’t an official agenda item at the meeting, because much is still TBD. The Nevada state legislature would need to approve any amount of public financing for a new stadium ($750 million has been proposed), and team owner Mark Davis said the Raiders are just beginning market research to see if the city of about 600,000 can support a local fan base. That research usually takes a couple months to complete. But there was plenty of chatter on the matter in Charlotte. Davis billed Las Vegas as a venue that could unite the Raiders’ Northern and Southern California fan bases, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones continued stumping for the entertainment appeal of the city over the league’s traditional aversion to having any ties to gambling. Since NFL bylaws require 24 of 32 owners to vote “yes” to approve any relocation bid, I polled a handful of owners, asking each the question: If everything lines up, would you vote to put a team in Vegas?
John Mara, Giants: “I’m open-minded. I would want to hear a presentation about it and the pros and cons, and obviously there are some concerns, but I am not going to rule it out. The gambling, is the market deep enough to support an NFL team, what kind of stadium would be there, what kind of support are they going to get from the community? Those would be the concerns.”
Do you think attitudes have changed within the league re:gambling?
“You might be right. But until there is actually a presentation with all the pros and cons, I wouldn’t bet one way or the other at this point.”
Bob McNair, Texans: “I would look favorably at it. I would like to hear all the arguments, make sure we are not overlooking something. But you have gambling all around you now, lotteries on every street corner. I don’t think it is the issue we viewed it to be 20 years ago. We want Oakland to get a good facility, and have stability with their franchise, and if this is an opportunity to do that, then I think it is something we need to seriously consider.”
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Jeffrey Lurie, Eagles: “I’d be open to it. My only question is, is it a really good NFL market? I’m not totally worried about a lot of other things. I am more worried, is it a great market for the NFL? I don’t know enough about that. I never thought about it much before. It has to support 70,000 every weekend. It is not an NBA team, like say the Thunder, which does an incredible job of supporting their smaller market. We have got to make sure it really will support a team if a team goes there, but I am open to it.”
Jed York, 49ers: “I will wait to see, but if there is something that provides all the resources necessary, they go through all the steps and it is a project that works, I’d be supportive of the Raiders getting a new stadium anywhere. I know the Raiders have worked tirelessly to try to get a stadium done. It’s been difficult trying to move and have much progress in Oakland. They have been very upfront that they would like to stay, and if not, they need to make sure that they find a long-term home and long-term solution. … I think the stigma about Las Vegas is much different today than where it was in the past.”
Woody Johnson, Jets: “Las Vegas is a very exciting market. Nevada is a very good place from a tax standpoint, very low taxes and no income tax. It depends what the deal is with the stadium, and with operating it, and what the league and Mark [Davis] feel are the opportunities there—if he feels he can fill up the stadium and get enough economic traction there with sponsors and all that. … I don’t know if [gambling] is as dominant an issue now as it was 10 years ago.”
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The most patient Jaguar
The offseason optimism surrounding the Jaguars was tempered a bit by the news that first-round draft pick Jalen Ramsey needed surgery on the meniscus in his right knee. The official word from the team last week, though, was as good as could be expected: The standout defensive back is expected to return by the start of training camp in July. Jacksonville nabbed both Ramsey and UCLA linebacker Myles Jack in the draft; last year’s first-round pick, Dante Fowler, is returning after ACL surgery; and Blake Bortles is entering year three after passing for 4,428 yards in 2015.
It would be hard to find someone more hopeful Jacksonville can take a big step forward this year than Paul Posluszny, the tackle-accruing middle linebacker who has played his entire nine-year career without being part of a winning season. I covered Posluszny when he was an All-American at Penn State, and have noticed over the years both how productive he’s been in the NFL and how little attention he’s received for that, probably because he’s been on some lousy teams. In fact, the last time a team Posluszny played for even had a winning record was after a Week 1 win to begin the 2011 season. Through four seasons in Buffalo, and the past five in Jacksonville, his teams have had a cumulative 43-101 record.
“It’s been, by far, the most disappointing part of my career,” Posluszny said last week. “Just because everything we do, we do this to win, and have a chance to be in the playoffs and play for a championship. So when you put in all the work and you never see that, it is very difficult. I think winning brings a bounce. More winning, more success, more opportunities. And I haven’t had a chance to experience that. That is why I am so looking forward to this season. We just have that feeling that is right around the corner for us.”
Adding to his frustration is that Posluszny has been a workhorse everywhere he’s played. He’s had seven seasons with more than 100 tackles, and leads the league with 725 tackles since he became a starter in 2008, a fact most people probably don’t know. His role could change this year. He’ll be asked to help get Jack ready to play, and the rookie may challenge Posluszny and weak-side linebacker Telvin Smith for playing time depending on the defensive package. But part of Posluszny’s optimism for this season is the amount of talent and options on defense, as well as the new defensive coordinator, Todd Wash, who replaces the fired Bob Babich.
“The offense was scoring points last year, and defensively, we weren’t holding up our end of the deal. That will change this year,” Posluszny said. “The entire mentality of our defense will change with Coach Wash running things. It’s a little bit different than how we have done things in the past. All of our adjustments, how things need to be done, are very specific and exact. He is just more on the details, and he very much holds us accountable to that. For instance, if we lined up half of a gap off last year, we would say, ‘OK, let’s fix it.’ This year, that is stressed. We will be more disciplined, more detailed, and with the new guys we have on defense, we feel like we are really going to make an impact.”
At Penn State, Posluszny was one of the captains in 2005 who led the team to a Big Ten championship after consecutive losing seasons. He has spent his whole NFL career willing another turnaround like that. He’s not alone in that in Jacksonville: Gus Bradley is heading into his fourth season as head coach, and patience could be running out if he doesn’t deliver. Posluszny, who has stayed the course through a lot of miserable seasons in his career, appreciates the patience Jaguars brass has shown. He hopes their patience, and his, can finally be rewarded in 2016.
“We are very fortunate that it’s the fourth year with these guys,” Posluszny said. “You know how the NFL is, normally you have 3 years, and if you don’t produce, we all get fired and they find other people. But our owner and our GM have done things a very specific way where they are going to build this team and the franchise from the ground up, and have a positive foundation, and that takes time. But now, when we take off, we feel like we are going to have great success because we finally are getting all the pieces we need to play at a high level. That’s why we are so excited.”
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Some more R&R on a holiday weekend
Thanks for all your feedback on the Rex and Rob Ryan “Talking Football” on Friday. The twins definitely had a few things they wanted to get off their chest. Taking a little space here to address a few things that came up in response to the article.
1. Saints coach Sean Payton told PFT Live that Rob Ryan’s assertion that the defensive scheme he was running the last two seasons wasn’t his, was “silly.” I’m not going to pretend I can look at the film, without knowing the play calls, and identify whose system they were running. I did see the Saints were using a cover-3 shell at times, which is a hallmark of the Seattle system Rob said those above him wanted to use instead of his system. There are clearly a few different perspectives on what happened. Payton added to PFT, “When you’re struggling as bad as we’re struggling for two years, and some of the same problems keep coming up—you know, 10 guys on the field—those are things that just are hard to live with.” You can see both sides in this thorough piece NOLA.com’s Katherine Terrell reported when Rob was fired last November.
2. Rex’s comment about not being sure if there was 100 percent buy-in for him at One Bills Drive, and naming the business staff, raised some eyebrows. I saw some speculation that he was referring to team president Russ Brandon, so I wanted to clear that up and say unequivocally that he was not. He and Brandon have a very good partnership, one that I have witnessed firsthand. Sometimes words look different in print than when said out loud, but I don’t think his comment was pointed at anyone. I think he was simply picking a department in the building that he doesn’t interact with on a daily basis, and making the point that they might not buy in because they don’t know him well.
3. In trimming down an 8,000-word Q&A, an interesting line from Rex got left on the cutting room floor. It was part of a meandering question and answer that I didn’t use, and I didn’t want to place it out of context. Rex referred to The Buffalo News report from January that Terry Pegula gave him and GM Doug Whaley an ultimatum: Make the fixes to get to the playoffs in 2016, or be fired. I’m not using it to dispute the report, but because it’s interesting to hear Rex’s outlook on his job security amid much external speculation. “The media looks at it [like], Well,we have to win this year,” Rex said. “Or what? Oh, I am going to be fired? I don’t think so. I’m not going to worry about it, because we are going to win anyway. But it’s like, that is an ultimatum. No.”
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Quotes of the Week
“The history with the league is, if you catch them, then they start to listen,” Pallone said.
—U.S. Rep Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the ranking member on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which authored the 91-page report rebuking the NFL for its handling of a $30 million grant for brain research to the National Institutes of Health.
Pallone’s comments to ESPN, whose reporting sparked the Congressional investigation, reflect how far public trust of the NFL has eroded. Even the federal government is weighing in.
“I haven't heard ‘no,’ let me put it that way.”
—Raiders owner Mark Davis, on the feedback he’s getting from other owners about the Las Vegas Raiders.
“I don't put anything past him. He’s about as predictable as a pair of dice.”
—Seahawks CB Richard Sherman, when asked by NFL Network’s Michael Robinson, “Will Beast Mode remain retired?” Marshawn Lynch remains an enigma.
“Just tell me when it’s done.”
—Jets coach Todd Bowles making clear that he’s not interested in incremental updates on the Ryan Fitzpatrick talks.
As Darrelle Revis’ (now former) agents liked to say during his last holdout, you’re either pregnant or you’re not. The Jets and Fitzpatrick are not.
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Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
This July, the Jaguars are holding their first “Jaguars Academy” football camp at Britain’s Loughborough University for about 200 UK and Europe-based amateur football players. A handful of coaches, including Jags special teams coordinator Mike Mallory, will be running the three-day camp, which costs 250 pounds, or about $365, to attend. Says the website, “With the chance to show you what you can do on the pitch in front of current NFL coaches, who knows where it may lead?” The Jaguars also will be running a one-day coaching clinic afterward. Says the team, “This academy is part of a larger strategy the Jaguars are employing to grow the game organically in the UK.” (Hat tip to my colleague, Kalyn Kahler, for this note.)
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Travel Note of the Week
Wednesday morning, I flew from the league meetings in Charlotte up to Buffalo to meet with the Ryan brothers. Left Charlotte on a 5:30 a.m. flight (note to self: never again) to connect through Atlanta. Three very notable things happened.
1) I deplaned at Gate B9 in ATL, bracing for the arduous sojourn between terminals that is standard practice at that airport. Checked the monitor for my connection to Buffalo. Gate B7! Right next door?! An event so rare that I figured it would be my sole travel note, until…
2) A gray-haired man was settling into Seat 1D of my ATL-BUF flight. Flight attendant asked him what he’d like to drink. “Liquor,” he replied coolly. The time was 8 a.m. The flight attendant, unflinchingly, served him his liquor of choice: Jack and ginger, on the rocks. At 8 a.m.
3) Upon arrival at the Hertz rental counter at the Buffalo Airport, I encountered a peeved customer. “I am not the least bit interested,” he exclaimed, “in driving a baby blue Volkswagen!” The employee behind the counter sighed. “This is the second time this has happened today,” he said. When I got down to the garage, I immediately spotted the offending vehicle: indeed, a baby blue VW Beetle. I’d be very curious to know if they ever rented it out.
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Tweets of the Week
New Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett poking fun after making headlines for a good practice Thursday.
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Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think the Jets and Ryan Fitzpatrick should agree on a one-year, $12 million contract. It’s the perfect compromise. The New York Post first reported last week that the Jets have a long-standing, three-year contract offer to Fitzpatrick that includes $12 million guaranteed in the first year. The issue is lower compensation in the later years, bringing the average down. So forget about the later years. If everyone can agree on $12 million in 2016, then don’t worry beyond that. Fitzpatrick gets the chance to prove he’s worth that—or more—for 2017, and the Jets don’t have to worry about over-committing for the long term. And it gets Fitzpatrick in the building for this season, which is what everyone wants.
2. I think it’s interesting that the players unions for the other three major pro sports—MLB, NBA and NHL—will not be filing amicus briefs in support of the NFL Players Association and Tom Brady’s appeal of the quarterback’s four-game suspension to the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. I’m told that the other three unions sought and obtained consent to file, but will not. While it’s hard to know exactly why, it could be a reflection of how much of a long shot Brady’s appeal is, or an understanding of the fact that the commissioner’s powers are broader in the NFL than in other leagues.
3. I think that San Diego will get its downtown stadium, as well as one of the next two Super Bowls to be awarded, 56 (2022) or 57 (2023). It will be two more years until the owners vote again to award the next two Super Bowl sites, enough time for San Diego to agree on public funding and figure out how to move the downtown bus depot from the intended stadium site. The league wants to be in San Diego, and it wants another Super Bowl there, as soon as it has a venue for one.
4. I think the most thoughtful take I heard in regard to the scrutiny over the NFL’s handling of its $30 million grant to the NIH for concussion research came from Wayne Gordon, a Mount Sinai neuropsychologist who received $6 million through that grant to fund his research. He is studying the link between brain injury and CTE; specifically, whether that link is different for a singular brain injury vs. repetitive brain trauma. “I was grateful that the NFL gave the money, because without their giving money, we would know less than we know now,” Gordon said in a phone conversation earlier this spring. “I would like them to give more money, but the relationship [with NIH] is so bungled, I’m not sure if that is possible.” As I wrote earlier this week, all parties lose something in this.
5. I think the Eagles’ quarterback strategy comes down to playing the odds, at least as Jeffrey Lurie explains it. “We see it differently than I guess some other people may,” Lurie said at the league meetings. “We see Sam [Bradford] as absolutely the right guy to quarterback the team. We are so rarely able to draft in the Top 5 in the draft. It’s only been twice in about 15-20 years. So we saw the opportunity, and we liked two quarterbacks. We had to make the move to secure having a potential franchise quarterback for many, many years. Having a lot of assets at the most important position in the NFL is a good strategic move for now. And it can only benefit us. Because in the NFL, it’s the one position you can’t just go get. And so when you have an opportunity, you’ve gotta take your shot, and you’ve gotta be bold. Otherwise, if you say to yourself, you know, it is probably a 50-50 shot that maybe the quarterback will be really good, you can't let that deter you. So that’s how I look at it: You either have a really good QB and you compete for the Super Bowl, or you don’t and you are probably not competing for the Super Bowl. And that’s simple.”
6. I think you can bet New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie played a role in getting Woody Johnson to fundraise for Donald Trump as one of the Republican National Committee’s six finance vice chairmen. Sure, Johnson originally backed Jeb Bush over Christie in this year’s Republican primaries. But what better way for Christie to position himself as Trump’s potential running mate than by luring in a top party fundraiser? I’m picturing their pitch going something like this: “Woody, you backed Romney. You backed the wrong Bush. Why don’t you come and back a winner?” When I mentioned to Johnson last week at the league meeting that he may have a tough fundraising road ahead, he chuckled. “This is my Day One,” he said.
7. I think the remote-controlled tackling dummies beta-tested by the Steelers are a great way to maximize offseason workouts within the rules. No offense vs. defense in Phase Two of the offseason program? No problem!
8. I think it’s a big week for the L.A. Rams. They’re the last team to begin OTAs, after having last week off while some employees completed the move from St. Louis to California. Tomorrow is No. 1 pick Jared Goff’s first full-squad work as the new face of the new L.A. Rams. No pressure.
9. I think no poll will convince me that the Washington team nickname isn’t offensive and shouldn’t be changed. Two years ago, I visited the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Arizona to take the temperature of a Native American community’s feelings on the team name. I found a mix of feelings: People who weren’t offended by the name; people who had no opinion; and people who were offended. But my takeaway had nothing to do with a consensus or a majority. To me, it was the fact that I could make an impromptu visit to a community 2,000 miles away from Washington, D.C., and meet an artist whose work is devoted to an anti-mascot campaign; or randomly phone a member of the Blackfeet Nation tribal council in Montana and hear that his family has been called “redskins” in a town where they are denied service based on the color of their skin. I don’t know if there is a majority opinion among Native Americans. I don’t think that should matter.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a) One of the great parts of New York is that there are ceremonies at military monuments around the city on Memorial Day. I stumbled upon one two years ago at the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Riverside Park at 89th Street. It was a small, beautiful memorial service that served as a somber reminder of what the holiday is about. Keep your eyes open, New Yorkers.
b) Congratulations to my dad, Dr. Vrentas, who officially retires as a Dow Professor of Chemical Engineering at the end of June. Thirty-six years at Penn State, eight years at Illinois Institute of Technology and 10 years at Dow Chemical. I can only hope to have a career a fraction as long or distinguished as yours. And congrats to my mom, too, also Dr. Vrentas and his longtime research partner.
c) I think, having just traveled to Buffalo this week, one of the things I love about that city is the old-timey vibe in many of its restaurants. I ate dinner at Chophouse while Nat King Cole and Henry Mancini were playing over the speaker system. That’s my kind of place.
d) Winenerdness: Had the perfect summer rosé while having dinner with my mom at the Upper West Side Mermaid Inn: Jolie Folle. Crisp, light and totally drinkable.
e) Now that the Bachelorette is back (tonight on ABC, 8pm/7pm Central!), here are my Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise rankings for best fake occupation: 1) Chicken Enthusiast; 2) Hipster; 3) Free Spirit; 4) Bachelor Superfan; 5) Dog Walker. What am I missing?
* * *
The Adieu Haiku
Sing it with me now
Fitz, Jets, it’s always better
When you’re together
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