The Divisional Mailbag
The looming championship games this weekend suggest that we may be entering the golden era of new quarterbacks. Let's assume that Aaron Rodgers will play eight more years—which is a pretty big assumption for a guy who is 31 right now and has told me he wants to disappear and become a high school football coach when he retires. But if Rodgers does play until he’s 39, that would mean that three of the four quarterbacks playing in the title games this weekend, barring major injury, will all be in play until at least 2023. As I look back at the past few years, which have been dominated by elder statesmen like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, this looks like a breath of fresh air to me.
Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson were drafted in 2012 and are 25 and 26, respectively. Rodgers sat for the first three years of his career and has to be considered a young 31. That’s one of the reasons why I think football today holds so much promise for the next several years. Certainly the same four teams won’t be in the final four year after year, but there are several other young quarterbacks atop their divisions that make it seem like we will not be desperate for Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston to be great right away.
The other point about young QBs that is important to make right now is that so many of them are versatile weapons. Every time I say Wilson is a top-five QB in football, talk show hosts and Twitter followers and just plain folk tell me I’m out of my mind. Look at the stats and you’d probably agree. But Wilson is simply not a stat player. When he leaves the pocket, he’s looking to throw and not run. That doesn’t mean he’s always going to throw, but very often he does. I’m not sure if you noticed Sunday in Denver but Andrew Luck threw a pair of interceptions that essentially were punts. The CBS cameras even caught him on the sidelines celebrating after one of the interceptions and it was clear why he was so happy. He had pinned Denver back in its own territory, and the fact he’d thrown an INT meant nothing to him. To Luck, it was all about the team and the right play at the right time.
I love the fact that two of the quarterbacks playing this weekend are guys in their mid-20s who are going to be good for a long time and are going to be fun to watch for a long time. They are smart, athletic and great representatives of the future of the game.
Three more topics I’d like to hit today before getting to your Dez-mail:
1. We need to appreciate Aaron Rodgers and not take him for granted. I’m fortunate that I was sitting in my home in NYC watching the Dallas-Green Bay game, because it allowed me to express my feelings without worrying about being loud in a press box. Obviously, this was a terrific football game. One of the reasons it was terrific was because the two quarterbacks, Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers, were playing exceedingly well through exceedingly painful injuries. It’s a shame I have to give Romo short shrift because he was tremendous, particularly on the 31-yard strike to Dez Bryant that was overruled. Each QB was exquisite. Rodgers was better. When he retires, Rodgers is going to look back on a 24-degree January afternoon at Lambeau Field in mid-career in which he drove his team 80 yards in eight plays for the decisive touchdown in the fourth quarter to earn the Packers a trip to the NFC title game. What was so phenomenal about the winning touchdown, quite simply, is that it never should have happened. Rodgers, playing with a painful calf strain, was 7-for-7 on the drive that eliminated the Cowboys. And on the final throw, he evaded three Dallas rushers and threw a perfect 13-yard eye-of-the-needle strike to tight end Richard Rodgers. I mean, how many quarterbacks could have thrown a pass 24 yards in the air and inches away from the clawing grasp of two crossing defenders? I don’t know. But you will be making a huge mistake if you obsess on the replay reversal that was crucial in the Green Bay victory and ignore the player of the day in a great football game—Aaron Rodgers.
2. Scot McCloughan is not going to be a yes man. The former 49ers general manager has battled various demons, including a divorce and problems with alcohol, to earn his place back on the stage of the NFL, as an architect of a flagship franchise, Washington. One of the reasons he got this job, I am convinced, is that he is an iconoclast. He is not going to be a yes man to owner Daniel Snyder or to his immediate supervisor, club president Bruce Allen. I have known McCloughan for more than 10 years, and the one thing I’ve really appreciated about him is he is not a sugar-coater. We were talking about judging players the other day, and I brought up the fact that Bill Walsh would say during the scouting process that if he saw a prospect make a play once or twice, his staff could coach that player to do it consistently. “I disagree,” said McCloughan. “That’s not true. Why do some players always make 10 plays a game and some make three or four? It’s easy to say that you can make a great player out of someone who you’ve seen make a few good plays. I want consistently great players. And I believe we need to build through the draft. That is not something this franchise has always done.” That should be music to the ears of many Washington fans. For much of the past two decades, they have watched as Snyder has tried to outspend every other organization and win the free-agency standings in the offseason. Winning in April, however, means nothing. McCloughan is the right man to help Washington realize that.
3. For Ryan Pace, what a long, strange trip it’s been. Look at the New Orleans Saints roster. I did the other day when the Bears hired the Saints' director of player personnel, 37-year-old Ryan Pace, to be Chicago's youngest GM since George Halas built the roster. What I found was startling. On the Saints’ 53-man season-ending roster, there were seven players procured from other teams’ practice squads. The reason why that is a bit stunning is because if you peruse most rosters, you will see lots of free agents or undrafted free agents or other sorts of roster marginalia making up a team’s squad. But practice squad players are in large part the kinds of guys that no one builds rosters around. And it’s true that New Orleans had a poor season. But Pace became excellent at finding players that other teams passed up. That’s one of the reasons why Sean Payton will miss Pace terribly—he helped Payton fortify some very thin positions over the last several years—and why the Bears were so interested in stealing Pace from the Saints. Said Pace: "I'm so ready for this, so confident, because of what I got to do at the Saints. I had so many days where I'd sit with [GM] Mickey Loomis and we'd go over the important things about making a roster work. The reason I'm ready is the Saints included me in everything required to run an organization." It’s interesting. As much as I think that Pace is going to help the Bears, I also think his absence is going to have a significant impact on the Saints, because New Orleans is desperate for an infusion of youth, and Pace was the man most responsible for getting good young players on the roster for the past few years.
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Understandably, the reversal of Dez Bryant’s fourth-down reception in the NFC playoff game at Green Bay on Sunday triggered a lot of emotional responses to my column on Monday, and I’m going to use my mailbag column to simply let you vent. Whether you are a Dallas fan or a simply a fan of the NFL, this is the kind of play that touches a nerve with so many people because of the monstrous impact the call had on the end of the Dallas season and the continuation of Green Bay’s season.
So I’m going to start with what seemed to be the most common refrain in a very crowded e-mail inbox about the Bryant play—whether there was clear evidence for the call to be overturned.
As Mike from Yellow Knife, NT, Canada writes: You state, “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.” But since the call on the field was a completed catch, shouldn’t you instead be looking for clear evidence that he did not try to reach across the goal line? I thought this was one of those plays where it was so questionable that whatever was called on the field would have to stand because there was no clear evidence one way or the other. It’s very questionable whether he was trying to reach out for the goal line, but there’s no way you can say without a doubt that he was not reaching out and was just going to the ground as part of the catch. Since the call on the field was a completed catch, how could they overturn it without clear evidence that the reach wasn’t a football move?
Mike’s sentiment was echoed by Chad of Peoria, Ill.,: Can you explain how the Bryant catch was overturned? I understand the correct call of a bad rule. However, doesn't there have to be indisputable video evidence that he didn't make a football play? It is tough to say neither the number of steps taken after controlling the ball nor the stretch toward the end zone were not football acts common to the game. You mention no clear evidence he was trying to reach across the goal line, but isn't that backwards? Didn't there need to be clear evidence he didn't reach in order to overturn the ruling on the field?
Very good questions. While under the hood in Green Bay, referee Gene Steratore communicated with NFL VP of Officiating Dean Blandino and surely came to this conclusion: When Bryant fell to the ground, the ball was jarred loose when the ball contacted the ground. When the ball was jarred loose and flew into the air, even though Bryant caught it without hitting the ground after that, there had already been contact with the ground as ruled by Steratore and Blandino and so the play at that point was not going to be allowed to stand. That’s how I saw it.
Now, let’s go to the rest of your myriad questions, comments and quite frankly your venting experiences.
'I'M DONE, ROGER GOODELL.' The NFL just lost me as a customer and consumer of its products. If you have millions of dollars invested in electronic equipment, you ought to be able to align your rule book to make sense as well. I’m speaking of the Dez Bryant phantom catch. I’m done, Roger Goodell. Please write that in 3-inch block letters.
—Marvin, Waco, Texas
WHAT'S AN ACT? Maybe you can spend some column time defining what an “Act Common to the Game” actually is. I’ve heard it over and over and just don’t understand. To me, a leaping catch is common to the game. Landing on two feet with possession is common to the game. Taking three steps with possession is common to the game. Falling and stretching to the goal line is common to the game. So what more needed to be done?
—Mark, Flemington, N.J.
I understand your venom, Marvin. And Mark, that is one of the reasons why the NFL competition committee will be looking at this play and plays like it in the offseason, to try to figure out if there’s a better way to determine what a catch is. It might not be much solace for Dallas fans, but be assured there will be a thorough discussion by the competition committee to determine whether the rule as it exists now is going to survive.
WHAT ABOUT OTHER CATCHES? The Calvin Johnson—now Dez Bryant—rule is especially galling in light of the league's ridiculous duplicity when it comes to adjudicating diving/sliding catches where part of the ball may touch the ground—like the Randall Cobb completion on the first play of Green Bay's drive right before halftime. On the Cobb play, a portion of the ball clearly touches the ground and the ball clearly toggles before it is completely controlled by Cobb. It's ruled a catch on the field and by the replay official. It is mind-bogglingly frustrating that the league and its officials have so much difficultly determining the definition of a catch.
I remember being on the road last year with referee Gene Steratore doing a story on a week in the life of an officiating crew. (And coincidentally, Steratore was the ref in yesterday’s game.) Steratore told me—in fact several members of his crew told me—that although replay is a very beneficial tool in getting more plays correct, it has also made it more difficult for officials because the technology and the vivid pictures that are able to be seen on replay make so many plays seem so much closer. I went back and watched the Cobb play again, and though it appeared from the rear angle on the replay that the ball hit the ground, I don’t think it passes the test of indisputable visual evidence. It’s certainly very close but I don’t think it’s indisputable.
REF VS. NFL. You state that both Blandino and Steratore agreed the Dez Bryant play wasn't a catch. What would have happened if they disagreed? Whose opinion takes precedence—the VP or the game ref?
That is a fantastic question. I have asked that question and gotten iffy responses. The first response is always basically that the two sides will come to a meeting of the minds and draw a conclusion that is agreeable to both. And I think it is most likely, although no one will say this directly, that the on-field official will accede to the New York replay center if it is an extremely close call. That’s because the staff in New York sits in judgment of the on-field crews. So if your boss is telling you that this is not a catch and you are on the fence, it’s pretty clear that you are going to say it’s not a catch. Because if you do say it’s a catch, you know when the grades come in on Tuesday, you could be marked down for that. Although that sounds nefarious, I still believe it is much better to have New York involved. I can remember some horrible replay confirmations or reversals in the past made by referees who did not comply with the league’s mandate of indisputable visual evidence to overturn a call. With Blandino and his assistant, former ref Al Riveron, part of the review process, you’re sure to get a process more likely to result in a correct judgment.
GREEN BAY MAN SEES RED. Come on man! Are you kidding me? Are you really going to spend your entire DAL-GB section talking about Dez? Aaron Rodgers and his one healthy calf deserve better than that. Was Dez's play huge? ABSOLUTELY!!! You've gotta talk about that. But to completely neglect Aaron's heroics on one leg is just disappointing.
—Davis, Wausau, Wisc.
I’m in an interesting position on Sunday night when I sit down to write about these four games. I have to determine the most interesting and the most educational stuff to share with the readers. Because there were so many interesting and topical and controversial things that happened this weekend—the decline of Peyton Manning, the weird New England formations, the Dez Bryant controversy—I felt it as important to try to tell those stories with some insight and some authority rather than to cover them in a couple hundred words and try to hit everything. It’s always a difficult balance to strike, trying to figure out what stories to go in great detail on and what stories to either shirk or minimize.
I also took into account that The MMQB's Jenny Vrentas was at Lambeau and would be filing a compelling tick-tock of the weekend. You can find that story here.
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