Replaying a Classic

Monday January 12th, 2015

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive."

—Sun Tzu, in the ancient Chinese military manual The Art of War.

* * *

FOXBORO, Mass. — In the spring of 2004, after the Patriots won their second Super Bowl, I was working on a Bill Belichick profile for Sports Illustrated. The New England coach agreed to show me his football library, which is believed to be the single biggest existing collection of books about the sport. I was surprised to see on one of the packed shelves The Art of War, old and tattered and thin.

"The Art of War," I said. “Wow. You read that?”

"Yeah," he said with a bit of a scowl. “I got something out of it. But, you know, ‘Don’t move your troops when the ground is muddy.’ I mean …"

Belichick learned more than that. He and his top offensive lieutenant, coordinator Josh McDaniels, used one of the strangest formations in recent history three times Saturday night, and their usage was a key element (but certainly not the reason) why the Patriots will be hosting the AFC Championship Game on Sunday evening back at Gillette Stadium. It’s the stratagem of the weekend, the stratagem of the season. It was also legal. Love Belichick? You’ll say, “This use of the rules is why. The man’s a genius, and knows how to use the rules better than anyone in the league.” Hate Belichick? You’ll say, “This use of rules is why. He bends the rules and does what he wants and gets away with unfair stuff.” Or something like that, with a Spygate reference thrown in for good measure.

• Rodgers’ Starr Moment: Limping around Lambeau Field, Aaron Rodgers threw for 316 yards and three TDs in an Ice Bowl rematch that rivaled the original drama

This weekend was dominated by some heart-stopping football, by the first serious questions about whether Peyton Manning has played his last game … and by the rulings of referees Bill Vinovich in New England and Gene Steratore in Green Bay, and by the opinions and interpretations of Dean Blandino and Mike Pereira and Mike Carey. Decidedly not what the NFL wants on the best weekend of football all year, four elimination games in 31 hours with the NFL’s Final Eight. But you’ve got three plays with a nonexistent left tackle in New England—a ploy that must stem from Belichick’s old friend Nick Saban using it in the Alabama-LSU overtime game this year—that enraged Baltimore coach John Harbaugh. And then you’ve got the most important, the most consequential and the most controversial replay in years—maybe ever—that helped Green Bay advance and prompted always-in-the-middle-of-things Dez Bryant to wail in the Dallas locker room, “WHY?”

In other words, a weekend that left much too much on the plate for us to dissect in one day. I won’t get to it all, which is why I plan to give you more than usual in my Tuesday column. Not enough hours in the overnight to do everything justice on a manic four-game weekend.

We’ll get to the Mysteries of Foxboro in a few moments. But we begin in Green Bay with a call, and a rule, that deserves an offseason of attention.

* * *

The NFL ruled this was not a catch because Dez Bryant never made a football move before losing the ball when he went to the ground. (David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB) The NFL ruled this was not a catch because Dez Bryant never made a football move before losing the ball when he went to the ground. (David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

Packers 26, Cowboys 21: “A bad rule, ruled correctly."

That’s how one longtime NFL operative referred to the call that changed the course of the season for Green Bay and Dallas at Lambeau Field. And when the play was adjudicated by referee Gene Steratore under the hood in Green Bay, connected to NFL vice president for officiating Dean Blandino in the officiating command center in New York, they made the call by the exact interpretation of the rule book. With just over four minutes left and Dallas trailing by five, the Cowboys made a strange call on fourth-and-two with the game on the line: a deep ball down the left sideline. Dez Bryant made a leaping catch over Packers cornerback Sam Shields. But as Bryant landed, the ball became momentarily dislodged. The initial ruling was a completed catch, gain of 31, ball down at the Packer one. Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy challenged the ruling on the field. After a long review, Steratore emerged from the hood and said the call was reversed; Bryant hadn’t completed the act of the catch. Bryant put his hands to his head and, wide-eyed, looked to be saying, “WHAT?! WHAT!”

America said the same thing. It looked like a catch. By my Twitter feed, a good 80 percent of the fans who opined considered it a catch.

For Steratore, this had to be an agonizing case of déjà vu. He’s the referee who ruled on a similar replay in 2010, overturning a potential winning touchdown catch by Calvin Johnson in Chicago. On that play, Johnson rolled over in the end zone, using the ball to try to spring up, and the ball skittered away. Steratore ruled that Johnson didn’t complete the process of the catch, and the league backed him on it.

Bryant pleaded his case to the refs. (Tom Lynn/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB) Bryant pleaded his case to the refs. (Tom Lynn/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

The vital and controversial part of this rule is that as a player falls to the ground in the continuation of the act of trying to make a catch, he has to maintain control of the ball when he hits the ground.

Here, Bryant leaped high in the air, had the ball in his control, took a couple quick steps and fell to the ground. Bryant said later he was attempting to stretch the ball across the goal line as he fell. That is a questionable claim. I’ve looked at the replay from different angles at least 25 times, and there’s no clear evidence Bryant was trying to reach across the goal line.

Bryant failed to maintain possession of the ball when he hit the ground while in the process of making the catch. The ground caused the ball to pop from Bryant’s grasp when his body hit the turf and the ball momentarily left his grip. He caught it while on the ground after the ball contacted the ground. Bryant would have had to possess the ball without the ground causing it to leave his grasp when he hit the ground.

Crucial point two: If Steratore and Blandino had ruled that Bryant fumbled the ball while making a football act “common to the game," they could have ruled the catch good and the ball down at the one. For instance, if they ruled that he caught the ball and then extended both arms “while making a football act common to the game”—that is, while trying to extend the ball across the goal line, and with the ball never being lost from his grasp—it would have been a catch. By a very close interpretation, Steratore and Blandino ruled that Bryant lost control, and not while making a football act common to the game.

Talking to a pool reporter after the game, Steratore said: “Although the receiver is possessing the football, he must maintain possession of that football throughout the entire process of the catch. In our judgment, he maintained possession but continued to fall and never had another act common to the game. We deemed that by our judgment to be the full process of the catch, and at the time he lands and the ball hits the ground, it comes loose as it hits the ground, which would make that incomplete; although he re-possesses it, it does contact the ground when he reaches, so the repossession is irrelevant because it was ruled an incomplete pass when we had the ball hit the ground."

A Catch Should Be a Catch
 
Another game-altering reception was erased by a confusing and illogical rule. The MMQB’s Greg A. Bedard says it’s time to get real—and to banish the phrase u201cfootball moveu201d forever.
 
FULL STORY
To me, this is a classic case of: Hate the rule, don’t hate the ref. I agree that it looked like a catch, but by rule, it wasn’t. “That’s an incomplete pass by rule," said FOX rules analyst Mike Pereira, who used to have Blandino’s job. “The rule is very specific. In the process of going to the ground, you must maintain possession. That’s what happened here. The ball hit the ground and popped out immediately." Two other former officials—Mike Carey on CBS and Jim Daopolous on ESPN—were similarly decisive.

“I want to know why it wasn’t a catch," Bryant asked one wave of reporters. And then another: “Why? Explain why that wasn’t a catch.”

I just did, but Bryant may get some satisfaction this offseason because the rule is going to be debated. Again. For years, I’ve gone to league meetings and listened to debates about the rule. (Actually, the debates are fierce in the 24 or 48 hours after egregious plays; by the time the March meetings roll around, there are often long discussions but little passion about it. That could change this year, with the intensity of interest around this call.) One league source told me Sunday night that the Competition Committee will certainly look at the rule this offseason, beginning (likely) at the group‘s first meeting in February.

Maybe there will be enough momentum for a revolutionary change—for a catch to be catch as soon as a receiver gets two feet down and possesses the ball clearly. The problem with that in the past, as another source said Sunday, is “the cheap fumble.” Think of what happens when a pass, a catch by a receiver, a thudding hit by a defender and a fumble all occur at lightning speed. Did the receiver actually have possession before getting whacked and losing control of the ball? I can recall Jeff Fisher and Rich McKay, the Competition Committee co-chairs, explaining the debate over the rule at one recent meeting and saying, basically, We all agree we don’t love this current rule. We just don’t have a better one. It’s not an easy problem to solve.

With the anger over this call, expect debate to center on either two feet down and possession constituting a catch (with the requisite likely rise in the “cheap fumble”), or a proposal that a receiver doesn’t have to maintain control when going to the ground after taking two steps.

"We had some things that went against Detroit that I felt bad for their fans, and then we had some things go against us," Jerry Jones said. "That's the life we've chosen. That's part of the game."

For now, the Cowboys go home (I plan to have more on the Packers advancing to play Seattle on Tuesday), and it’ll take days or weeks for the sting from this one to pass. But understand one thing: These games are so close, and the calls made so agonizingly vivid and on a sword’s edge by replay technology, that you’re not putting the genie back in the bottle. There are going to be teams sent home by incredibly close calls now and into the future, because we can see these calls so well, and because replay is here to say.

As hard as it must have been for him to do, Dallas owner Jerry Jones was philosophical with NFL Network after the game in Green Bay. He said, “I want to make sure that everyone understands … As we get into these playoffs there is so much at stake. We have had some things that went against Detroit that I felt bad for their fans. I felt bad for Detroit. And then we had some things go against us. That's what we've all decided. That's the life we've chosen. And we will let these officials make this judgment. That's part of the game. And I can assure anybody that there is not an ounce of biasness in the halls of the NFL involving officiating, relative to any team or teams one way or the other."

His fans won’t be as philosophical for a while. Maybe ever.

Indianapolis 24, Denver 13: Peyton Williams Manning has some hard thinking to do.

It was not pretty watching Peyton Manning’s twilight. That certainly is what Sunday’s 24-13 loss to Indianapolis in the Broncos’ playoff opener looked like. And now, Manning, who turns 39 in 10 weeks, will have to decide whether he’ll return for a fourth season in Denver, and an 18th season in the NFL, in 2015. “I guess I can’t just give that simple answer right now," Manning said after his 53rd game as a Bronco. “I’m processing it."

Peyton Manning misfired on several throws in Sunday's loss to the Colts (Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB) Peyton Manning misfired on several throws and finished with a 75.5 passer rating in Sunday's loss to the Colts. (Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

Only Manning and a very select few close to him know exactly how he feels. But he’s clearly not throwing the ball as well as he did three months ago. On Monday morning Adam Schefter of ESPN reported that Manning had been playing for the last month with a torn right quadriceps, suffered in the Dec. 14 win over the Chargers. A torn muscle in his plant leg could explain why Manning's throws on Sunday looked so weak. If he can’t throw the ball better, and with more velocity, this spring, I wouldn’t be surprised if he retired. But I don’t believe that’s a decision he can make right now—nor a decision he wants to make right now.

In the fourth quarter Sunday, trying desperately to come back from 11 points down with four minutes to play, Manning threw a medium in-route for Andre Caldwell. Indianapolis cornerback Vontae Davis undercut the route, starting to do so even before Manning released the pass. “I was surprised he actually threw the ball," said Davis. “It caught me by surprise. Really, I was shocked he threw it.” So shocked that the ball bounced off Davis’ chest—an easy interception, dropped.

“Every March I do my neck check,” Manning said this summer, “but I do my heart check as well, my desire check.”

Manning threw a few balls late, or shy of their target. The crispness of a Manning march down the field wasn’t there. In his last 11 drives, two resulted in field goals; the rest, nothing. He had no zip on the ball. His downfield throws were consistently arced. He looked like, well, a 38-year-old quarterback.

You couldn’t see this coming in the season’s first two months. In late October, we were talking about Manning playing two or three more years. And maybe some of this is related to Julius Thomas's ankle injury, which limited Manning’s safety blanket for the last two-and-a-half months of the season. But a missing tight end has no impact on the soft throws coming out of Manning's hand.

  Pct. TD Int Rating Games With 100+ rating
Pre-Nov. 1 .691 22 3 119.0 6 out of 7
Post-Nov. 1 .632 18 12 87.2 3 out of 10

 

This is what Manning told me about his future in August:

“I’ve always said that I’m only gonna do it A) if I can help—if I can truly help—and B) if I still enjoy, not the playing—anybody enjoys playing—but enjoy the preparation and the work part of it. Right now I’m still enjoying those things. I’ve heard Drew Brees and Tom Brady say that they have this target, like, ‘I’m gonna play until I’m 45.’ I’m not in that position, I think because of my neck injury. But I think the smart way to handle it is, every March, I do this physical and we take a look at it. It’s the perfect time, because it says, ‘Hey, everything looks good.’ And it also kind of allows me to go, Do I still wanna go through a lifting, offseason schedule again? I do my neck check, but I do my heart check as well, my desire check. I like it when my heart says, ‘Hey, let’s keep this going.’ I’ve been encouraged."

“You nailed it there," said a friend of Manning’s Sunday night. “I think that’s pretty close to his thought process now."

That wasn’t me nailing it. It was him, five months ago. Greg Bedard of The MMQB was in Denver on Sunday reporting the game, and, for history’s sake, filed this about the end of Manning’s day:

6:03 p.m. Mountain Time: When reporters are allowed in the Broncos’ locker room, Manning is sitting at his locker in a towel doing the local radio broadcast. He concludes, hands the headphones and microphone back to the crew and thanks them.

6:04 p.m.: Big sigh as he stands up and checks the messages on his phone.

Manning (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) Manning (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

6:06 p.m.: Goes to the showers, but not before a civilian shakes his hand, puts his left arm on Manning’s neck and whispers something to him.

6:12 p.m.: Starts to get dressed as he talks for a while with media relations director Patrick Smyth.

6:15 p.m.: Coach John Fox makes a beeline for Manning and pats him on the back. They converse for a couple of minutes. Fox pats him on the back again.

6:17 p.m.: Packs suitcase.

6:18 p.m.: Fox comes back, gives him a handshake and then says, “Sorry, P” before walking off.

6:20 p.m.: Manning begins press conference.

6:27 p.m.: Manning exits press conference.

6:55 p.m.: Manning emerges from the family area with assorted family members, including his parents, wife Ashley and 3-year-old daughter Mosley. Mosley is dressed in an orange jacket with matching boots and is carrying a yellow balloon. Peyton kneels down to give her a hug and they walked hand in hand until Peyton parts with the group.

6:58 p.m.: Manning gets into his BMW, which was parked in the bowels of the stadium, with his father in the front seat, and mother in the back.

6:59 p.m.: Manning drives out of the stadium, for perhaps the final time as a player.

“What struck me was how matter-of-fact everything was," said Bedard. “It could have been a regular-season loss based on his reaction. There was no holding his head in his hands. No long stretches of staring off into space. No devastation. No sense of finality. It just seemed part of the process for him."

Said Vontae Davis: “I won’t believe it till I see it. I still think he can play forever."

Reality looked different on Sunday in Denver.

* * *

Patriots 35, Ravens 31: Thank you, Nick Saban.

On Nov. 8, on the first snap of overtime against LSU, Alabama lined up four offensive linemen in their usual spots but with a tackle, Cam Robinson, split out wide right, having declared himself to the referee an ineligible receiver before the snap, with a wide receiver to the right of him. A backup lineman, Brandon Greene, was in the left tackle slot, but he was actually an eligible receiver because Robinson, wide right, was not. At the snap of the ball, Robinson stepped back from the line and held his hands up for the ball, continuing the ruse. Greene lumbered up the left seam, and quarterback Blake Sims hit him with a pass. Gain of 24, to the LSU one-yard line.

On Saturday night, in the third quarter against Baltimore, New England lined up four offensive linemen in their usual spots but with a running back, Shane Vereen, split out wide right, having declared himself an ineligible receiver before the snap, with a wide receiver to the right of him. A backup tight end, Michael Hoomanawanui, was in the left tackle slot, but he was actually an eligible receiver because Vereen, wide right, was not. At the snap of the ball, Vereen stepped back from the line and held his hands out for the ball, continuing the ruse. Hoomanawanui lumbered up the left seam, and quarterback Tom Brady hit him with a pass. Gain of 14, to the Baltimore 10-yard line.

Exact same play.

Courtesy NFL Game Rewind Courtesy NFL Game Rewind

The New England play could not have been more of a carbon copy if Alabama coach Nick Saban or his offensive coordinator, Lane Kiffin, had flown to New England last week to help offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels install it.

I was in Gillette Stadium Saturday night for three such plays run by the Patriots on the same third-quarter scoring drive, but I didn’t fully understand what had happened during the game. I didn’t understand the genesis of it until a friend of mine said it was what Alabama did to LSU in overtime this season. I found the play on YouTube, watched it, and the light bulb went off: Belichick and Saban are very close. There is no doubt in my mind, based on the duplication of the play, that the Patriots got this play from Alabama. And good for them. It’s perfectly legal, despite Baltimore’s protestations to the contrary, and though officiating czar Dean Blandino told me Sunday the league is going to examine the play (actually, the Patriots completed three passes, for 11, 14 and 16 yards on the three plays they ran), what rule can the NFL change?

Baltimore coach John Harbaugh protested the play because he thought the Ravens weren’t given time to “match up” after the Patriots made their switch. Here’s how the rule reads: “If a substitution is made by the offense, the offense shall not be permitted to snap the ball until the defense has been permitted to respond with its substitutions. While in the process of a substitution (or simulated substitution), the offense is prohibited from rushing quickly to the line of scrimmage and snapping the ball in an obvious attempt to cause a defensive foul (i.e., too many men on the field). If, in the judgment of the officials, this occurs, the following procedure will apply:

“(a) The Umpire will stand over the ball until the Referee deems that the defense has had a reasonable time to complete its substitutions.

“(b) If a play takes place and a defensive foul for too many players on the field results, no penalties will be enforced, except for personal fouls and unsportsmanlike conduct, and the down will be replayed. At this time, the Referee will notify the head coach that any further use of this tactic will result in a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.”

I timed the three plays in question to see if Baltimore had been unfairly disadvantaged by the Patriot ploy, using NFL Game Rewind as my resource. Playing the NBC telecast back, I clocked the amount of time between referee Bill Vinovich’s in-stadium announcement of the “non-eligible player” (it sounded like that was what Vinovich called the spread-wide faux fifth lineman). By my count, seven, 10 and seven seconds elapsed between the announcements and the snap of the ball.

“The whole issue with Baltimore,’’ Blandino said, “is they felt they weren’t given enough time [to match up]. We will review the three plays, but it appears from a mechanical standpoint that the announcement was made properly, the defense was notified, and the proper mechanics were executed.’’

As Blandino explained, the offense must have seven men on the line of scrimmage before the snap of the ball. The outside two players are eligible receivers. In this case, wideout Brandon LaFell was split left and wideout Julian Edelman split right, with Edelman outside Vereen, who was the ineligible fifth offensive lineman. “Everyone on the line between the two outside receivers, all five other players, have to be ineligible,’’ said Blandino. (This, of course, doesn’t count receivers or backs in the slot, a step or two behind the line.)

There’s another advantage to this play, from New England’s standpoint. On the play I described, three Ravens—safety Anthony Levine and linebackers C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith—were pointing and shifting and moving with uncertainty just before and as the ball was snapped. On one of the other plays with the four-man line, Terrell Suggs shifted just before the snap and wasn’t ready to rush at the snap of the ball.

My feeling is Baltimore should have had a coach upstairs identify the New England weirdness as the announcement was made, and note that a tight end was playing left tackle. A coach upstairs should have the power to say in the headset to Harbaugh, “Call a timeout! New England’s doing something we can’t identify!” Or something like that.

But it’s not up to the referee to give the defense an unlimited amount of time. Seven seconds is enough for a defense to match up. In this case it was simply a great use of trickery by the Patriots, and the players weren’t giving much away in the locker room after the game. Asked about the formation, several replied vaguely, and with no details about what happened, or when it was practiced. Belichick has trained them well.

New England trailed 28-14 when it used those three plays, and a five-yard Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski touchdown pass made it 28-21 two plays after the Hoomanawanui play I described. Five minutes later, McDaniels pulled out a call that—for the first time in my visits to the 13-year-old New England stadium—made the stadium shake noticeably. From the Patriots’ 49, Edelman, an option quarterback in college at Kent State, went in motion from right to left, and at the snap, Brady threw a backward pass across the formation to him. Edelman took a running step forward, baiting cornerback Rashaan Melvin on that side.

Two fortuitous things happened on the play: Baltimore was blitzing from the left, taking away a cover linebacker from that side. And the Patriots had thrown so quick all night that the Ravens were used to biting on the short throws, rushing in to tackle receivers after the short routes.

Edelman, an option QB in college, had been dreaming of this chance. (Damian Strohmeyer/SI/The MMQB) Edelman, an option QB in college, had been dreaming of this chance. (Damian Strohmeyer/SI/The MMQB)

When Edelman took a jab-step forward, Melvin rushed forward. That left Danny Amendola, whom Melvin thought was a decoy, running free up the sideline.

“I’m not going to lie to you,’’ said Edelman afterward. “I’ve thought about making that play since I was about 8 years old.’’

Edelman reached back and threw a good spiral (not great; a slight wobbler) 37 yards through the air. “I thought I overthrew Danny, but he saved me,’’ Edelman said. Not true. The throw was perfect, right on target. Touchdown. Tie game. Stadium gone mad.

Who knows what’s ahead for New England, with surprising Indianapolis headed for Foxboro and an AFC Championship match on Sunday at 6:30 p.m.? But think about life without the imaginative calls Saturday night. Think of losing to the Ravens for the third time in six years in the playoffs. Think of the 10th straight year without a championship for the team of the generation. Think of the aging giants of the game: Belichick will be 63 next season, Brady 38. Would they ever have a better—or even another—chance to win a fourth Super Bowl? As several teams aged out of the playoffs over the weekend, Dallas and Denver especially, New England plays on, thanks to a team that thinks. With an assist to their friends from Tuscaloosa.

Kam Chancellor's 90-yard interception return for a touchdown is the longest play in Seattle's playoff history. (Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB) Kam Chancellor's 90-yard interception return for a touchdown is the longest play in Seattle's playoff history. (Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

Seattle 31, Carolina 17: The Enforcer shall lead them.

I didn’t see a lot of the Seattle-Carolina game, but what seemed to be the most impressive thing about it was the play of strong safety Kam Chancellor. The breadth of his talent was on display throughout, and it’s easy to see why the Seahawks feel they have the best pair of safeties in football and no other team is close for second place. (Earl Thomas being the other, of course.)

“I’ve had front row tickets to the Kam Chancellor Show for a while now," Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith told The MMQB’s Robert Klemko after a game that was tougher than the 14-point margin indicated. “Even if you don’t see it, you definitely hear it and feel it when he’s out there smacking fools. Sometimes I’m so in awe I don’t even celebrate. I’m like, is he alright?"

In this game, Chancellor covered, he hurdled the line trying to block kicks (twice), he tackled, he dove for fumbles. And the most impressive play may have been his not-so-chance meeting with a 250-pound bowling ball for Carolina, running back Mike Tolbert. With Seattle leading 14-7 but Carolina driving in the second quarter, Chancellor, at 6-3 and 230, met Tolbert with violence, full-speed with a shoulder to the ribs, a yard short of the first down. A guttural scream followed, as it often does. Said Smith: “He was just screaming after that. No real words.”

Chancellor was the real Superman in the Seattle-Carolina game. (Rod Mar for SI/The MMQB) Chancellor was the real Superman in the Seattle-Carolina game. (Rod Mar for SI/The MMQB)

Klemko made a great point to me: “That Chancellor is the third-biggest name in the Seattle secondary behind Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas says more about Seattle’s roster than it does about the fourth-year safety, who turned in perhaps the game of his career here. Eleven tackles and an interception returned 90 yards for a touchdown were enough to fill a stat sheet, but he also did things that don’t show up in the boxscore that make you go wow. Chancellor hurdled the Carolina line twice on field goal block attempts, and he somehow made Mike Tolbert go backwards.’’

One of the members of the Chancellor fan club, cornerback Richard Sherman, said: “I think every year he gets snubbed more than anybody else. I think this year he should have been first team All-Pro, and it should have been easy.”

Chancellor is a mild-mannered guy who is good buddies with Sherman but will never be confused with him in the press conference standings. In his postgame interview, he calmly assigned “all glory to God” …  and to his defensive line. He’ll be a tough assignment, along with his defensive mates, for Aaron Rodgers Sunday at noon Pacific Time in Seattle.

* * *

In the wake of the Mueller report ...

The 96-page report has been well-dissected in the four days since its release. But four points I think must be made:

1. Roger Goodell is in the clear in the minds of the 32 owners, but not in the hearts of the fans. Owners were waiting to see if Mueller, the former FBI director, found any evidence that Goodell had lied when he said he never saw the infamous videotape of Ray Rice striking his then-fiancée in the elevator of an Atlantic City hotel. Mueller said he found no evidence of that. But the public, wary of a probe financed by the league, is (and this is putting it kindly) dubious that the investigation was independent. Mueller said his team searched computers and mobile phones of Goodell and his senior staff, and found no evidence of the video on any of them. But that won’t assuage a skeptical public. It’s likely that in the court of public opinion, it will take Goodell several years to earn back the public trust.

2. The league didn't exhaust every avenue of trying to find information about what happened in the elevator that night, clearly. After the vivid TMZ footage of Ray Rice striking his then-fiancee surfaced, Goodell said the league had requested “from law enforcement any and all information about the incident.” Mueller found this was not true. As Mueller wrote: “League investigators did not contact any of the police officers who investigated the incident, the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office, or the Revel [the casino where the attack too place] to attempt to obtain or view the in-elevator video or to obtain other information. No one from the League asked Rice or his lawyer whether they would make available for viewing the in-elevator video they received as part of criminal discovery in early April.’’ League investigators should have gone to the police officers who investigated the crime to try to find out what happened.

• NO SATISFYING RESOLUTION: Andrew Brandt on the fallout from the Mueller report

3. It is befuddling that the league didn’t grill the Ravens for information on the case, and Mueller points this out starkly. The league, Mueller said, didn’t aggressively seek whatever information the Ravens—Rice’s employers at the time of the incident—had about the attack. Ravens officials, according to the Mueller report, “stated that if the league had asked them directly for information, they would have responded to the league’s request.” Though Mueller criticized the Ravens for not voluntarily sharing the information with the league, the level of oversight and digging by NFL Security in this case is troubling bordering on pathetic.

4. It’s clear the league trusted Rice too much as a good guy when the discipline was handed out. I wish Goodell would admit why he was soft on Rice in the first place. Not that it would make that much difference now, but it would shed light on how the league could go from a two-game ban to an indefinite one (which ended up being 10 games when Rice was reinstated in late November), just because a video surfaced that simply put an exclamation point on what was a scurrilous attack in the first place. The moral of the story is that nice guys can beat their wives and girlfriends. Being nice guys shouldn’t give them a pathway to a slap on the wrist.

* * *

These three things are all I am going to say about the Cleveland Browns.

Jimmy Haslam (Nick Cammett/Getty Images) Jimmy Haslam. (Nick Cammett/Getty Images)

1. The past two times I have spoken to owner Jimmy Haslam, he has used the word “continuity" several times in each conversation. If he used it once, he used it 10 times.

2. Haslam has owned the team for 27 months. In that time, the Browns have had three head coaches and 53 assistant coaches—soon to be 56, when the Browns hire a new offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach and wide receivers coach.

3. When Haslam bought the team in October 2012, the offensive coordinator was Brad Childress. In 2013 the offensive coordinator was Norv Turner. In 2014 the offensive coordinator was Kyle Shanahan. In 2015, the offensive coordinator will be someone new, in the wake of Shanahan’s resignation last week.

If I were that new coordinator, I’d rent. I might rent month to month, actually. 


Earl Thomas (Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB) Earl Thomas and the rest of the Seahawks secondary set a physical tone in their divisional win over Carolina. (Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

The Fine Fifteen

1. Seattle (13-4). Seattle safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor had 22 tackles, a pick, a forced fumbled and three passes defensed Saturday night. They dominated, particularly Chancellor. The Packers will want to watch tape of Seattle's Oct. 12 meeting with the Cowboys for a clue as to how to limit the impact of the safeties. In a combined 150 defensive snaps three months ago, Thomas and Chancellor had a combined 12 tackles with no sacks, picks, forced fumbles or fumble recoveries.

2. New England (13-4). Smart coaching and a great quarterback are pretty tough to beat in the playoffs. (See number 7.)

3. Green Bay (13-4). One-legged Aaron Rodgers. Pretty good.

4. Dallas (13-5). Just a guess, but I’m thinking Dean Blandino won’t be getting any more rides on the Dallas party bus.

5. Indianapolis (12-6). Andrew Luck in the Final Four. It was a matter of time, and Year 3 seems just right.

6. Baltimore (11-7). Smart coaching and a great quarterback are pretty tough to beat in the playoffs … and Baltimore almost did. I know January Joe Flacco threw the late pick to quash Raven hopes, but he is one great postseason quarterback.

Joe Flacco's two interceptions were his first in the postseason since 2011, a span of six games. (Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB) Joe Flacco's two interceptions were his first in the postseason since 2011, a span of six games. (Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

7. Denver (12-5). One month ago today, who would have thought we’d be talking about a total reconstruction job of the team that John Elway so masterfully built?

8. Detroit (11-6). Mike Florio made a good point the other day: If the Lions franchise Ndamukong Suh, that’s $63 million in 2015 cap money tied up in Suh, Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. That’s 45 percent of Detroit's cap tied up in three players. As George Constanza would say, “Is that wrong?"

9. Carolina (8-9-1). Nothing to be ashamed of. The Panthers put up a good fight, and they should be well-prepared, with a rebuilt line and receiver corps, to make a run in the NFC South next year. 2015 will be a big year for Ron Rivera, who is 33-33-1 after four seasons as Jerry Richardson’s coach.

10. Pittsburgh (11-6). Ben Roethlisberger to miss Pro Bowl. The reason was undisclosed. I’ll give you one: Who, while trying to get a new contract to run the rest of his career, would want to take one scintilla of a risk that some lug falls into his knee in a meaningless game?

11. Cincinnati (10-6-1). Most important question the Bengals will answer this offseason for the future of the franchise: Who will be brought in to challenge Andy Dalton for the quarterback job? I’ll be clear here. Dalton shouldn’t lose his job because of the four straight wild-card losses. He has done a tremendous amount to help this team be a consistent contender. But it’s irresponsible for the team to not set up some competition at the quarterback position. Cincinnati is in a Groundhog Day situation. The very least the Bengals owe to their fan base is to have legitimate competition, and soon, at quarterback, with either a veteran with some possible upside—maybe Brian Hoyer—or a highly drafted rookie. Maybe it makes Dalton better. Maybe it results in him losing his job. But it’s a slap to the fans to do business as usual this offseason.

12. Houston (9-7). I’d be doing a ton of homework on Jameis Winston if I were the Texans.

13. Arizona (11-6). I’d buttress the quarterback position by overpaying a third playable one if I were the Cardinals.

14. Kansas City (9-7). I’d keep Tamba Hali if I were the Chiefs.

15. Buffalo (9-7). Rex Ryan is the answer for excitement, for a rebirth after the Doug Marrone jilting, and for having a legitimate chance to occasionally beat the big, bad Patriots. (Week 17, with nothing on the line for New England, doesn’t count.) And I like Greg Roman as an offensive coordinator. So … I just wonder about the fate of Jim Schwartz, who, by the end of this season, had built a top-three defense in Buffalo. What of Schwartz? What of his effective scheme? Why a defensive guy as head coach instead of the best available quarterback-whisperer? And who is the quarterback, while we’re on the subject?

The Award Section

Offensive Players of the Week

Aaron Rodgers, quarterback, Green Bay. When the Green Bay passer inflicted some Rodgers-on-Rodgers crime on the Cowboys—Richard Rodgers caught the winning touchdown pass, a 13-yarder from Aaron Rodgers, and both are from Cal—it capped a fairly amazing performance by a quarterback playing on one healthy leg. “Aaron Rodgers is truly special," Troy Aikman said on FOX. “His accuracy and velocity on the move is unprecedented." Rodgers completed nine of nine passes in the fourth quarter, leading the winning 80-yard drive in the process, and playing his best when the Packers had to have it. Rodgers knew he had to get rid of the ball quickly because he wasn’t going to be able to move around well with his bad left calf, and he was sacked only once on the day. With a 24-of-35, 316-yard, three-touchdown, no-pick day, he chose the right time to have one of his best playoff games.

Tom Brady operated from a clean pocket the majority of Saturday's game, thanks in part to tackle Nate Solder. (Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB) Tom Brady operated from a clean pocket the majority of Saturday's game, thanks in part to tackle Nate Solder. (Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, offensive tackles, New England. I’m sure Tom Brady, after one of the signature games of his sterling NFL career, and Julian Edelman, after the play of his life, will forgive me for honoring the Dr. Z Moment of the Playoffs. In the second half of the Patriots’ classic 35-31 victory over Baltimore, New England threw the ball on 27 of 31 offensive snaps. Tom Brady not only was not sacked, but he also wasn’t terrorized or consistently flushed from the pocket by the bookend rush of Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs, who had accounted for 31 sacks in the Ravens’ 17 games before Saturday night. “Those two tackles were absolutely terrific in the second half," said former top Jacksonville tackle Tony Boselli, who worked the sidelines for the Westwood One radio broadcast Saturday night. “You look at how impressive those rushers were for Baltimore all season, and then you see how Brady had time in the second half." Dumervil had zero stats in the game: no tackles, no assisted tackles, no sacks. I had him for one pressure. Suggs: two tackles, a half-sack. Just a tremendous job by two veteran protectors.

Defensive Players of the Week

Kam Chancellor, strong safety, Seattle. The Seahawks beat Carolina 31-17, which sounds comfy and cozy and pretty easy. It wasn’t. Chancellor laid the wood to Carolina ball-carriers, as he always does; he is the enforcer on a defense that is as physical as any in the league week in and week out. And with the score 24-10 midway through the fourth quarter and Carolina driving for a last-gasp shot to make it a one-score game, Chancellor picked off Cam Newton and ran it back 90 yards for the clinching touchdown.

Colts cornerback Vontae Davis had five passes defensed in Sunday's win. (Justin Edmonds/Getty Images) Colts cornerback Vontae Davis had five passes defensed in Sunday's win. (Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

Vontae Davis, cornerback, Indianapolis. With five passes defensed (the last of which should have been an easy interception against the declining Peyton Manning), Davis continued to solidify his position as a top-10 cornerback in the league. And I continue to ask: What was Miami thinking, trading him to Indianapolis in 2012?

Coaches of the Week

Josh McDaniels, offensive coordinator, New England. The Patriots teetered on the brink of disaster for much of Saturday night, twice going down by two touchdowns. But McDaniels’ play-calling (and Brady’s excellence in executing the plays) was right at the right time, consistently. McDaniels kept his play-calling cool during a slow-starting first touchdown drive with the Pats down 14-0. On the TD drive with the Pats down 28-14 in the third quarter, he (and, I assume, Bill Belichick) green-lighted the four-offensive-linemen alignments three times in a five-play stretch, each of the passes resulting in gains of more than 10 yards. And then, to tie the game, calling the Brady-to-Edelman-to-Amendola 51-yard touchdown throw. It was a dream night for a play-caller. Lucky for McDaniels he had Brady at the controls.

Goat of the Week

Rashaan Melvin, cornerback, Baltimore. This feels almost cruel. Melvin is a limited cornerback, picked up out of desperation by Baltimore with a month left in the season because the Ravens’ secondary was being wiped out by injury. He played credibly in several games, making some big plays last week to help Baltimore win the wild-card game at Pittsburgh. But on Saturday night in Foxboro he got lit up by Tom Brady as few corners have been lit up in recent times. The very ugly numbers, per Pro Football Focus:

Targeted: 19 times.

Receptions surrendered: 15.

Receiving yards allowed: 224.

Touchdowns allowed: 2.

Quarterback rating allowed: 150.9.

Yikes. That is one burned evening.

Quotes of the Week

I

"I’m begging them: Please, please, please, take that rule out.”

—Dallas receiver Dez Bryant, after the replay reversal heard ’round the world Sunday in Green Bay.

II

“The draft is the lifeline of your organization. You start dabbling too much in free agency, [and] sometimes you’re getting older guys. The thing I liked about what we did in San Francisco, what we did in Seattle, we drafted our own, molded our own and re-signed the ones we wanted to re-sign. All of the sudden you train them how you want to train them. In Washington we’re going to draft these guys and mold them as Redskins. We’re not going to have to go out to other organizations and bring in 32-, 33-year-old guys who have different plans."

—New Washington GM Scot McCloughan, in the best news possible for fans of the team. More than any owner in football this century, Dan Snyder has spent poorly in free agency, and that, along with poor drafting and wasteful trading of picks, has seen to it that Washington has finished last in the NFC East in six of the past seven years.

III

“If Christie is still a serious presidential candidate, it was a very peculiar performance. In fact, it made sense career-wise only if he was campaigning for a future job as a team mascot. Look at the picture, and it’s hard to imagine him giving a State of the Union address, but you can really see him dressed up like a bumblebee or a duck, bouncing around the sidelines and firing a T-shirt cannon into the stands."

—Columnist Gail Collins of The New York Times, on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's awkward three-way embrace, caught by FOX cameras, with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and son Steven in the waning moments of the 24-20 wild-card win over Detroit.

Christie might be the only presidential candidate who may be able to look back on his career and say, “Rooting for the Dallas Cowboys cost me the White House."

IV

“Belicheat?”

—Don Shula, the NFL’s all-time winningest coach, on Bill Belichick, the NFL’s fourth all-time-winningest coach, when asked about New England by Dave Hyde of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. This is in reference to Belichick’s Patriots getting sanctioned by the NFL in 2007 for illegally taping coaching signals on the opposing sideline.

I don’t find it startling that Shula would have something against another coach, particularly one found to have violated NFL rules. I find it very surprising he’d publicly pick that scab. When you’re 85, the filter disappears, I guess.

V

"I’m resigning this position, not retiring.”

—Dick LeBeau, 77, announcing in his hometown Urbana (Ohio) Daily Citizen Saturday that he and the Steelers, by mutual decision, were parting. 

Stats of the Week

I

Talk about your workhorse back. DeMarco Murray was a monster in the Dallas season that ended Sunday in Green Bay.

Murray's previous high in rush attempts, season: 217

Murray's 2014 total (including playoffs): 436

Percentage increase over previous high: 101%

II

Starting quarterbacks in the AFC North over the past two seasons:

Team (number) Starters Starts
Baltimore (1) Joe Flacco 32
Cincinnati (1) Andy Dalton 32
Pittsburgh (1) Ben Roethlisberger 32
Cleveland (5) Brian Hoyer 16
  Jason Campbell 8
  Brandon Weeden 5
  Johnny Manziel 2
  Connor Shaw 1

 

In 2015, the Browns will employ Manziel and Shaw, neither of whom are likely to be the quarterback of the future in Cleveland. They have no coordinator right now. They have no quarterbacks coach right now. They have no idea which veteran and/or rookies will be added to the mix to figure out who plays the position next season and beyond.

Factoids of the Week That May Interest Only Me

I

Six of eight coaches in the playoffs this weekend, in this offense-mad league, have (at least in part) defensive pedigrees. As in:                                   

Team Coach Previous NFL assistantships
Baltimore John Harbaugh Secondary/special teams coach, Philadelphia
New England Bill Belichick Defensive coordinator, Jets/Giants
Carolina Ron Rivera Defensive coordinator, Chargers/Bears
Seattle Pete Carroll Defensive coordinator, Jets/49ers
Indianapolis Chuck Pagano Defensive coordinator/secondary, Baltimore
Denver John Fox Defensive coordinator, Giants/Raiders
Dallas Jason Garrett Offensive coordinator, Cowboys
Green Bay Mike McCarthy Offensive coordinator, Saints/49ers

 

II

Rams owner Stan Kroenke is trying to build a new stadium in Los Angeles and is likely to move the franchise back there after a 20-year absence. Kroenke, as you may know, is a wealthy man, with ranches totaling 1,164,000 acres in Montana, Wyoming and British Columbia. (He seems to like the great outdoors.) I’m more partial to his home in Malibu, a short drive up the Pacific coast from Los Angeles.

That $9-million oceanfront home, a Tuscan-villa lookalike, was previously owned by the late Dodi Fayed; it was his U.S. residence before he and Princess Diana were killed in a car crash in 1997. Before that, the 2.5-acre spread was owned by Julie (“My Fair Lady”) Andrews. 

III

Past 25 months, at Lambeau Field:

Aaron Rodgers touchdown passes: 38.

Aaron Rodgers interceptions: 0.

Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week

Stayed at the Renaissance Hotel in the parking lot at Gillette Stadium over the weekend, in the growing Patriots Place complex.

There are Belichickian reminders around the place. Understated sign on one of the entry doors to the hotel, complete with a Patriots logo, and on one of the shops in the mini-mall here:

DO YOUR JOB.

Does Bill Belichick coach the store owners and hoteliers here too? “Do your job” is Belichick’s favorite statement to his team. He figures if everyone on the team worries about doing his job to the best of his ability, and all those efforts are combined, the Patriots have the best chance to win—rather than one unit wondering why another unit isn’t playing well, and maybe making suggestions, etc. It’s a mantra around the team, and apparently in the Foxboro Chamber of Commerce too. 

Tweets of the Week

I

The Wisconsin Republican congressman, from the stands at Lambeau Field, after the Packers' 26-21 win Sunday. 

II

 

The Washington Post columnist, on new Washington GM Scot McCloughan, introduced in a press conference Friday. The team has finished in last place in the NFC East in six of the past seven years.

III

The former NFL defensive lineman is now a Houston radio host.

IV

Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, on his Ravens-Pats wager with Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz.

After the Colts' win Sunday, Andrew Luck now owns a 2-1 record against Peyton Manning. (Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB) After the Colts' win Sunday, Andrew Luck now owns a 2-1 record against Peyton Manning. (Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

Ten Things I Think I Think

1. I think this is what I liked about the playoff weekend:

a. The death of the Dallas-bought-off-the-officials storyline.

b. Andrew Luck, on the read-option, beating DeMarcus Ware around the corner for a would-be touchdown. Though it was called back, that was a heck of an athletic move by Luck.

c. The 8-minute, 14-second drive led by Luck that resulted in Adam Vinatieri’s game-clinching field goal, putting Indy up by 11 with less than five minutes left. On the home turf of Peyton Manning, his Indy heir out-Manninged him.

d. Greg Manusky, the Indy defensive coordinator. Very good game plan. Got Manning off his spot consistently.

e. The incredible fourth-down conversion run by C.J. Anderson of Denver, temporarily staving off the inevitable against Indy.

f. Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields, who will be an asterisk in the Dez Bryant play—but whose aggressive coverage on Bryant was a major factor in the catch not being made.

g. Eddie Lacy, who can play for my pile-driving offensive attack anytime.

h. The class of Jason Garrett, who refused to blame the officials for the loss while making it clear he thought the Bryant play was a catch.

i. Amazing back-shoulder throw by Joe Flacco to Owen Daniels for his third touchdown. Perfectly executed. “Flacco doesn’t know the difference between playoff football and playing in the backyard," Cris Collinsworth said on NBC.

j. The emergence of Baltimore defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan.

k. Baltimore left tackle James Hurst, the rookie from North Carolina. The injury to left tackle Eugene Monroe that kept him out of the two playoff games should have been huge for Baltimore. It was a mere speed bump.

l. Dan Patrick’s clairvoyance. “Tommy’s gonna run it in right here," he said, watching Ravens-Pats just before Tommy (Brady) actually ran it in right there.

m. Al Michaels, with the comment after the Darrelle Revis interference call in the first half that Revis hadn’t been called for pass interference in 16 regular-season games. That’s an amazing factoid in and of itself.

n. Brady, inventing a completion, down 14-0, stuck on a third-and-eight in his own territory, saving the first touchdown drive with an athletic completion.

o. Good note, Joe Buck, on Gene Steratore reffing NCAA Division I basketball four straight nights last weekend on his off-NFL week: Saturday at Purdue, Sunday at Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne, Monday at St. Francis (Pa.), Tuesday at Minnesota.

p. Dallas fullback Tyler Klutts had touched the ball once in the 2014 season until Sunday. His second touch: the first points at Green Bay.

q. Julius Peppers, a free-agency bargain, as it turns out.

r. Russell Wilson. If there’s any debate about his worth, or his ability to lead an offense with both his legs and his arm, watch Saturday night’s highlights. He’s a great quarterback for this day and age.

2. I think this is what I didn’t like about the playoff weekend:

a. Watching Peyton Manning struggle like a great pitcher who’s lost his fastball.

b. The invisible Elvis Dumervil.

c. Carolina's pursuit on the 90-yard Kam Chancellor interception return.

d. One of the most egregious and stupid taunting penalties I’ve seen, the one by Patriot special-teamer Chris White.

e. Rob Gronkowski, left uncovered up the left seam on New England’s first scoring drive. I mean it: left uncovered.

f. Pernell McPhee, kneeing Brady after a second-quarter sack. Refs missed it.

g. Matt Elam missing a tackle he should have made (we’ve heard that before), on Danny Amendola, on what turned out to be a superb effort by Amendola, his second-quarter touchdown.

h. Julius Thomas. Just wasn’t Julius Thomas for the last two-and-a-half months of the season. Not his fault; that’s what a high ankle sprain will do to you.

i. Denver in the postseason. 2012 divisional loss as a one seed, 2013 Super Bowl loss as a one seed, 2014 divisional loss as a two seed. In my opinion, the Broncos were too good to be 2-3 in the last three postseasons.

j. The Bronco pass rush. Missing in inaction.

Job one for Rex Ryan as Bills head coach will be finding a starting quarterback for 2015. (Rich Schultz/Getty Images) Job one for Rex Ryan as Bills head coach will be finding a starting quarterback for 2015. (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

3. I think the earth shifts so fast these days in the coaching search business, but here are a few things I hear about the status of certain jobs:

a. Atlanta, after Rex Ryan went to the Bills (too much uncertainty in the Falcons organization to hire him, from what I hear), likes two NFC West defensive coordinators—Seattle’s Dan Quinn and Arizona’s Todd Bowles. I bet they’d hire Quinn if he were available right now, but knowing he might not be on the street for three more weeks might play into it.

b. The Jets, I hear, were scrambling to interview Bowles last night or today. They love Quinn too. They may not be able to get Quinn. If I were Quinn, with no sure quarterback there and no great familiarity with prospective GM Mike Maccagnan, the Texans’ director of college scouting, I’d much rather have the Atlanta job, even though I have family roots in New Jersey.

c. Denver, I believe, is not going to replace John Fox. I hear there haven’t been any talks internally to replace him. But when Jay Glazer, who is close to Fox, says Fox may not be around if the Broncos lose, and then they lose, my antennae goes up. I do not believe Adam Gase would be the next coach if Fox leaves.

d. New England, I believe, will not lose offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. You never know if he’ll be the heir to Bill Belichick, but he interviewed in Atlanta and San Francisco. Not that either place would offer him the job—I hear nothing of the sort—but my guess is he would not leave New England for a place that didn’t have stability and a quarterback.

e. Oakland was down to Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and interim coach Tony Sparano, and I think the decision will be made this week.

f. Chicago GM Ryan Pace, hired last week, has a blank slate, but he told me he knows he wants a coach with a great message and a great presence. He knows (and likes, I am told) Doug Marrone, who took the money and ran from Buffalo, and would have liked to interview Gary Kubiak, according to Adam Schefter. But with Kubiak off the grid (he said Sunday night he was staying in Baltimore as offensive coordinator), Pace will have other ideas. I expect Dan Quinn to emerge as a possibility too.

g. Buffalo, quite simply, fell in love with Rex Ryan. Big question now is, can Greg Roman make a player out of E.J. Manuel—or the next-best free-agent who doesn’t cost zillions (Brian Hoyer, Mark Sanchez)? How incredible would it be, by the way, if The Sanchize signs in Buffalo, and Rex and Sanchez open the season in the Meadowlands against the Jets?

4. I think there’s a reason that Gary Kubiak was getting looks again as a head-coaching candidate. Just look at what he did in the last two weeks of the Ravens’ season. For the second straight Saturday night on the road in the playoffs, Kubiak’s play-calling acumen was on display. Last week in Pittsburgh it was six scoring drives and 30 points at the Steelers; this week in Foxboro it was five scoring drives and 31 points at the top-seeded Patriots in Baltimore’s 35-31 loss. Kubiak’s brilliance Saturday night was on display on the first drive of the second half, with Baltimore up 21-14. On fourth-and-six from the New England 36, logic would have said to punt and set up New England to drive 90 yards for a score. But John Harbaugh decided to go for it, and Kubiak decided to go for the jugular. He sent Torrey Smith deep up the right seam, and Joe Flacco hit him at the one for a 35-yard gain. When Smith got a taunting call and the ball was pushed back the 16-yard line, Kubiak called a brilliant misdirection pass to a wide-open Justin Forsett. The result: the easiest touchdown of the season for Baltimore. The past two weeks, Kubiak made a lot look easy.

5. I think the fact that the first of six coaching openings was filled on day 14 (Sunday) since the end of the regular season is actually a good sign. Teams are being thorough, and there’s no apple-of-everyone’s-eye, Chip Kelly-type out there this year. “Everyone’s looking for ‘the guy,’ ” said one coach-searcher Friday night. “There isn’t a ‘the guy’ this year." I keep hearing about a slew of impressive candidates, and obviously several of them won’t get jobs. But Teryl Austin (defensive coordinator, Detroit) and Todd Bowles (defensive coordinator, Arizona) and Dan Quinn (defensive coordinator, Seattle) have impressed multiple teams; at least one team thought Austin would be a year away but came away from the interview highly impressed at his state of readiness to be a head coach. Tony Dungy made an interesting point to me Saturday before our NBC show. “More teams make mistakes by jumping for a guy than waiting and doing a thorough job," said Dungy. “Mike Tomlin was hired by the Steelers on Jan. 22. I was hired in Tampa on Jan. 21.” I looked it up: Jan. 21, 1996, the day of the Dungy hire, was 29 days after the last game of the Buccaneers’ 1995 season. Turned out pretty good for them.

6. I think the Dick LeBeau “resignation” is certainly not good news for the future of Troy Polamalu in Pittsburgh. Not that LeBeau could have saved the declining, 34-year-old Polamalu after an invisible season. I don’t see Polamalu back in Pittsburgh.

7. I think yesterday’s deactivation of Trent Richardson in favor of a back Indianapolis signed on Tuesday, Michael Hill, likely brings to an ignominious end the Colt career of Richardson. It's remarkable that a top-five pick in 2012, who averaged 3.6, 3.0 and 3.3 yards per rush in his three Browns/Colts seasons, would be on the outs so fast—and that so many personnel men were so wrong about Richardson.

8. I think “Divisional Playoffs’’ is the worst name for any round of any postseason in any sport. What, “Interesting Playoff Weekend” was already taken? Should be “Conference semifinals," at least.

9. I think if Rod Marinelli leaves Dallas for Tampa Bay, as Pro Football Talk reported Sunday, I’d be significantly less bullish on the Cowboys' 2015 chances. Marinelli was a driving force behind a surprising defense with a bunch of non-stars.

Talk Back
Have a question or comment for Peter King? Email him at talkback@themmqb.com and it might be included in Tuesday’s mailbag.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. My heart goes out to that magazine staff in Paris. What a twisted, terrible, unjustified act.

b. Pause.

c. Congrats to Boston on being the 2024 Summer Olympics nominee by the U.S. Olympic Committee. I can’t see the Olympics in Boston—just seems too small—but people would have a great time in the summer in that area, I can promise that.

d. Ohio State 37, Oregon 30. But my knowledge of those two teams would fit on the head of a pin. I watched their two bowl games, and Ohio State has that won’t-be-denied air.

e. The NBA season is three months old and the New York Knicks have won five games. That Phil Jackson can sure build a basketball team.

f. I didn’t watch the Golden Globes, and I don’t feel like my life suffered for it.

g. First Joe Maddon. Now Ben Zobrist? Who are you, Rays?

h. Coffeenerdness: Very convenient, staying at Patriot Place. Very noticeable, no Starbucks. Actually, no Starbucks within a four-mile radius. Thanks for the dark roast, Dunkin Donuts. Got the job done.

i. Beernerdness: Tried the Smoke and Dagger black lager Friday night—I’d never heard of such a beer, a black lager—out of Jack’s Abby Brewing (Framingham, Mass.) Intriguing. A little bit of a porter, but lighter. Tasty winter beer. Countless number of those in New England. I don’t know how you choose.

j. So cool to rumble through Rhode Island and Connecticut in the dark of night post-Ravens-Pats on the Amtrak regional train toward New York, last one of the night, two hours after the football game. Nice people on the train at that hour. Very nap-conducive.

The Adieu Haiku

So: Whither Peyton?

Over-under for his call:

I'll guess March 7


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