It’s Playoff Time. But First...
So many stories on this Charcoal Monday. (Charcoal because it doesn’t feel like Black Monday, not with Dallas having pulled its coaching job back from the brink to secure, and Detroit, San Diego and Tennessee probable to do the same.) So much happening, really, that I am going to ask you to cheat at work this morning even longer than usual. Admit it: You’re pretending to work right now, staring intently into your computer, brows furrowed. That’s because you want to find out what idiot Manziel is doing—not what the markets in Dubai are up to today.
Skimming the news at the end of the NFL’s 96th regular season:
• There could be five or six coaching changes, lighter than expected. Out: Mike Pettine (Cleveland), Jim Tomsula (San Francisco), Chip Kelly (Philadelphia). A matter of time: Dan Campbell (Miami), Chuck Pagano (Indianapolis). Leaning toward leaving: Tom Coughlin (Giants). Fifty-fifty: Sean Payton (New Orleans). Looking safer than we thought a week ago: Mike McCoy (San Diego), Jim Caldwell (Detroit), Mike Mularkey (Tennessee). Announced he’ll return but with Jerry Jones you never know: Jason Garrett (Dallas).
• The playoff field is set, and is it possible that the best two AFC teams are the 5 and 6 seeds? Kansas City (five) opens at Houston, while explosive Pittsburgh (six) could be without DeAngelo Williams (right ankle) at rival Cincinnati.
• Peyton Manning’s career is not over. San Diego 13, Denver 7, mid-third quarter, and a loss means dropping from first seed to fifth seed in the playoffs. Pretty big. Off the bench came Manning, playing for the first time in 49 days. “Sometimes you just feel the team is looking around for ‘that guy,’” said coach Gary Kubiak. Manning led Denver to scores on four of the next five drives, and suddenly he’s That Guy for Denver’s playoff stretch.
• Charles Woodson’s career is over. I told Woodson, 45 minutes off the field after his last game in Kansas City, that Manning (1998 draft: Manning first pick, Woodson fourth) had just come off the bench to lead Denver to a comeback victory. “Are you kidding me?!” Woodson said. “You kidding me?! Wow. I guess the 1998 draft class ain’t done winning.” But the 39-year-old Woodson’s done, for sure. I asked one of the great defensive backs of all time how he felt walking off the field for the last time. “Tired,” he said. “Just tired. I’m ready.”
• Winning his third rushing title leaves Adrian Peterson “haunted a little bit.” Make no mistake—at 30 he’s thrilled to win the title (327 carries, 1,485), and he loves being the outlier as the only back in football this year with more than 290 carries. But he wants to pass Emmitt Smith’s all-time rushing record and … well, I’ll have his story for you lower in the column.
• “With the second pick in the 2016 NFL draft, the Cleveland Browns select …” The Browns have been so horrible at first-round picks lately (Taylor, Richardson, Weeden, Mingo, Gilbert, Manziel) that I hate to sentence Jared Goff or Paxton Lynch to a life on the Lake, but draw straws, gentlemen. Short one goes to the Browns. Tennessee has the first pick and could get a package of picks to move down with any number of QB-needy teams (San Francisco at seven, Chicago at 11, Philadelphia at 13, St. Louis at 15).
• Speaking of Johnny Manziel, he went AWOL Sunday. I reported on NBC last night that Manziel, who was supposed to be in the NFL’s concussion protocol (I am not so sure about the legitimacy of that, by the way) but was reported by USA Today to be at a casino in Las Vegas on Saturday instead, violated team rules by not showing up for a 9 a.m. Sunday appointment with a Browns medical official—then the team couldn’t find him for hours. Seems like he’s trying to party his way out of Cleveland. The team doesn’t want him anymore but won’t say so for fear of eliminating any trade value for him. Too late for that. I bet 25 teams in this league, at least, wouldn’t take Manziel off waivers right now.
• Kickers missed 71 PATs this year. Kickers converted the 33-yard extra point at a fairly predictable rate (94.2 percent). “I think it’s here to stay,” said Competition Committee member Marvin Lewis, who’s not crazy about the longer distance but understands that it turns a ceremonial play into a competitive one, one that on Sunday made Buffalo kicker Dan Carpenter (who has missed six extra points this year) slam his helmet to the ground in anger and have it bounce back up and ricochet off his face. Nice replays, CBS.
• Didn’t you used to be Green Bay? It’s going to be a short postseason for the Packers unless they find some miracle cure for what ails the offense.
• New England played a four-corner offense in losing to Miami. But the stall didn’t work. Tom Brady still got his ankle rolled by Ndamukong Suh and took three or four other killer shots. The Patriots had better use the 13 days between games to get some offensive linemen and weapons healthy.
• Rex came, Rex saw, Rex conquered. Nov. 12: Buffalo 22, Jets 17 … Jan 3: Buffalo 22, Jets 17. Let there be no doubt about the continued impact of Rex Ryan on all things Gang Green: The former coach of the New York Jets, relocated to Buffalo, is the person most responsible for the New York Jets not making the playoffs this year. Which is a good reason why the back page of the New York Daily News this morning blares: WRECKS RYAN.
Manning on Manning.
It was an unusually reflective Peyton Manning after he played a key role in the 27-20 win over San Diego that clinched the AFC No. 1 seed and home field in the playoffs for Denver. Quarterbacking for the first time in seven weeks, and the first time (obviously) since the Al Jazeera story linking his wife with HGH shipments, he played the final 23 minutes and moved okay on his injured foot (plantar fascia injury). More importantly, I’d estimate he threw the ball with 15 to 20 percent more zip on it than he had during the Nov. 15 Kansas City game, when coach Gary Kubiak benched him. If he wasn’t going to throw it significantly better than he did against the Chiefs, it didn’t matter how healthy his foot and ribs got; he wasn’t going to be able to be a competitive NFL passer.
But now it’s unlikely Kubiak will pull Manning unless his performance or health dictates it. The coach wouldn’t touch that issue Sunday, but what can he do, really? Brock Osweiler made some big plays in the second half against Cincinnati last Monday night, but he’d been pretty average otherwise. It’s a tough call for Kubiak. The Broncos want to keep looming free-agent Osweiler because of his upside, and getting benched might make him inclined to not play the loyalty card when it comes to re-signing. But Kubiak can’t be concerned with that now. I’ll be surprised if Manning doesn’t start the opening playoff game in 13 days in Denver.
Manning’s take on his first day back on the job:
“I’ve just never been through anything like that before. Four years ago I missed an entire season and thought, at one point, that I might get back out there and play in the month of December, and the doctors said to shut that idea down. I was kind of out that whole year. This has been different because I’ve never missed one game and then played the next week or missed two games. I’ve played every single game that I’ve been in football except for four years ago. I don’t really know what can prepare you for something like this.
“Obviously, I think [plantar fasciitis] just affects guys differently. I mean, Drew Brees had it and went out and threw for 400 yards the other day. It just wasn’t quite as kind to me—just sort of hung around, hung with me. It’s kind of affected the way I felt and the way I was stepping. I really have been pushing it in the rehab, trying to kind of see if it was going to hold up. Did that two weeks ago, then it held up during practice this week, and so I was encouraged by that.
“It held up okay. I didn’t have to move a ton. I tried to throw the ball on time. Of course, we ran the ball a decent amount. [Denver had 18 rushing attempts and nine passes after Manning came in midway through the third quarter.] I’ve been patient, I’ve worked hard in that rehab. It’s been a frustrating injury. You get better a little bit and then you start practicing and then it’s not feeling well. But I’ve really pushed it hard the past couple of weeks and it’s held up. I would certainly anticipate it feeling good tomorrow.”
Starting in two weeks?
“I don’t know. Look, we’ve got two weeks before we play again. I’ve got to see how I feel tomorrow, see how my foot feels. I got a good welcome back to on-the-field football by somebody hitting me hard and left a little message as he was getting up. He kind of used me to help him get up. My chest—he got me right in the chest. I’ve got to see how I feel tomorrow.”
A quick look at all the games...
4:35 p.m. ET: No. 5 Kansas City (11-5) at No. 4 Houston (9-7), Reliant Stadium (ESPN/ABC). The Texans have taken the Chiefs into their web of early wild-card-gamedom. Twice previously the Texans have played wild-card games, in 2011 and 2012, and, like this one, they were the 3:35 Central Time playoff-openers and Houston home affairs. This game matches the postseason’s two psycho teams. On Halloween both squads were 2-5. Since then they’re a combined 16-2. So you assume that because the Chiefs enter with a 10-game winning streak, the longest current streak in the game, they’re the unbeatable ones here. But Houston, in its last nine games, has allowed 6, 6, 17, 6, 30, 27, 10, 6 and 6 points, and now the Texans might have a legitimate partner in crime for J.J. Watt. Outside ’backer Whitney Mercilus (12 sacks) has emerged as a strong bookend rusher to Watt, and expect them to pressure Alex Smith and make him throw quicker than he wants. Looks like Brian Hoyer came through his first post-concussion game unscathed and will start for Houston. But make no mistake: This will be low-scoring, and the Texans’ defense is going to have to make some game-changing plays to win it.
8:15 p.m. ET: No. 6 Pittsburgh (10-6) at No. 3 Cincinnati (12-4), Paul Brown Stadium (CBS). Baaaad flashback for Marvin Lewis and many Cincinnatians. Jan., 8, 2006—10 years ago this week—Carson Palmer dropped back for the first pass attempt of the game, released a bomb downfield for Chris Henry, and got his knee caved in by Steelers defensive tackle Kimo von Oelhoffen. Completed pass; gain of 66. Torn ACL, however. And the Steelers stole a 31-17 win from the division champion Bengals. Lewis still hasn’t won a playoff game. This is his 13th season, and he’s 0-6. This time Andy Dalton hopes to be coming back from a broken thumb on his throwing hand. He’ll see a hand specialist today and hopes to get his cast removed and have enough range of motion to play a playoff game and exorcise recent playoff demons. Dalton’s pushing it, though, to think he can be normal and pick up where he left off 27 days after breaking the thumb in the first place. “Andy’s very optimistic,” Lewis told me Saturday. “I feel he’s got an opportunity to play next weekend—but we’re going to err on the side of caution.” The problem for Cincinnati: While backup AJ McCarron has played well in Dalton’s absence, it’ll be hard enough to win a shootout with Ben Roethlisberger if Dalton’s on the other side of the field. That just adds more pressure on Dalton to come back and win his first playoff game after losing the playoff opener in his first four NFL seasons.
1:05 p.m. ET: No. 6 Seattle (10-6) at No. 3 Minnesota (11-5), TCF Bank Stadium (NBC). The Seahawks took their turn as The NFL’s Unstoppable Team, beating up the Cardinals 36-6 on Sunday. You wonder how much motivation Arizona really had, knowing it had already clinched a bye week. The Cards certainly didn’t play with the urgency we’re accustomed to seeing in a Bruce Arians team. The Vikings, meanwhile, rolled to a 20-3 lead at Green Bay and seem to be a more diverse team than the one that got steamrolled by the Seahawks 38-7 at Minnesota a month ago. “Our confidence is pretty high,” Adrian Peterson said from Green Bay early this morning, before the Vikes returned home to prepare for the first outdoor playoff game in Minneapolis since 1976. “This feels like a real changing of the guard [with Minnesota and Green Bay].” Maybe. But it had better be a changing of the guard with Seattle from a month ago if the Vikings are to advance. Seattle outgained Minnesota 433-125 that afternoon and could have Marshawn Lynch (hernia) back for the first time in eight weeks. This needs to be an Adrian Peterson game. Minnesota has to play keepaway from Russell Wilson, who’s on the hottest streak of his career. One picky point: Seattle will be playing this game at 10:05 a.m. Pacific, and a win would send the Seahawks to Carolina for another 10:05 a.m. PT game a week later. Not very favorable scheduling for the NFC champs two years running.
4:40 p.m. ET: No. 5 Green Bay (10-6) at No. 4 Washington (9-7), FedEx Field (FOX). Great post-game nugget Sunday night from respected Packers guard Josh Sitton, asked about Green Bay’s 6-0 start. (The Pack is 4-6 since.) “Was that this year?” Sitton said to Packers beat man Jason Wilde. Everything for Green Bay is a struggle right now. The team would be 3-7 in the last 10 without the gift of the Hail Mary against Detroit. And the team that will be on the other side of the field in Landover late Sunday has scored 33 points a game in its four-game season-ending win streak. Really: Who’d have thought two months ago that Washington would be favored to do anything but show up if it met Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in the playoffs? But Washington opened as a two-point favorite and frankly, I’m surprised it’s not more. Rodgers hasn’t eclipsed 16 points in five of his past 10 games. Meanwhile, Kirk Cousins is playing like Aaron Rodgers over the last half of the season (19 touchdowns, two picks, seven of eight games with a passer rating higher than 101). On the one hand you could look at the playoff draw if you’re Green Bay and say, “Lucky we didn’t get Minnesota, at Minnesota.” I’d look at it this way: As well as the Vikings are playing, Washington’s been better. And the Packers will be going home for a long, cold winter if Rodgers and his receivers can’t make four or five very big plays on Sunday.
On Jan. 17, the one seeds (Carolina at 1:05 ET, Denver at 4:40 ET) will host the lowest remaining seeds from wild-card weekend. On Jan. 16, the two seeds (New England at 4:35 p.m. ET, Arizona at 8:15 p.m. ET) will host the remaining two teams.
After 271 games, it’s over for Charles Woodson
The finale in Kansas City, a 23-17 loss, was like so many other recent Raiders games played with Woodson in them: close, but not a win. He had no interceptions, and so finishes with 65, good for fifth all-time. The last tackle of Woodson’s career: corralling Kansas City running back Spencer Ware after a three-yard gain around left end midway through the fourth quarter. And when it was over, Woodson wasn’t particularly emotional.
“Any tears today?” I asked.
“I think I got them all out the day I told everybody I was retiring,” Woodson said. “Today I thought of it a few times, but I was able to put it away and fight hard and do everything I could to help us win. Like every other game. It never really hit me until I walked off the field as an active player for the last time, and I looked in the stands at a bunch of ‘24’ jerseys. It’s over. It’s over. I’m at peace with it. I feel I can breathe now. Finally, it’s the end.”
He said the talented Kansas City rookie cornerback, Marcus Peters, who is from Oakland, came up to him after the game and said: “I grew up watching you. Big fan.”
Woodson told him: “Don’t lose that fire to be the best. Always keep improving.”
“I love the game. I respect the game so much. It’s given me so much. But, like I said, it’s time. I feel I can get ready now for the next chapter in my life, whatever it is.”
Woodson’s legacy should be that greatness doesn’t last unless the desire to be great does. He wasn’t the kind of worker bee early in his career that he was later, and that helps explain why he leaves such an indelible mark on football. He played eight seasons, all in Oakland in his first go-round as a Raider, in his 20s. He played 10 seasons, in Green Bay and Oakland on his second go-round, in his 30s. Eleven of his 13 touchdowns were scored in his 30s; 48 of his 65 interceptions came in his 30s. His specialty was baiting quarterbacks—his bait-and-pick against Josh McCown in Cleveland this season was textbook. Defensive backs of all ages should watch and see how you wait until the quarterback’s arm is at exactly the perfect angle, too far into the motion to take it back, before breaking on the ball.
He finishes his career as the only player ever with at least 50 interceptions and 20 sacks (he had 20). And, as fellow defensive-back lifer Rodney Harrison told me last month, he exits with another piece to him. “What I will miss is his class,” Harrison said. “Never did he draw attention to himself. He just played. Now a guys makes a tackle after a four-yard gain and he jumps up and says, ‘Look world, look at me!’ That’s not Charles Woodson. And that makes him even more special. You take everything about him, at corner and safety, and I believe none of them can do what he did, all the things he could do, year after year.”
Adrian Peterson is on a mission
Peterson turns 31 in March, when he will be the defending rushing champion. Only one player as old as 31—Curtis Martin in 2004—has ever won a rushing title. But that doesn’t mean Peterson is thinking about the end.
After winning his third rushing title this season, Peterson has something bigger on his mind: playoff wins—plural. And then something else significant: Emmitt Smith’s rushing record.
Peterson has 11,675 yards rushing after eight seasons (plus one game in his aborted 2014 season, when he was sidelined by the league while his disciplining of his son was investigated). He needs 6,681 yards to pass Smith. That means five more very good seasons, minimum. That has never happened, nor come close—a player in his mid-30s consistently running for more than 1,000 yards, and staying healthy.
“So I’ll have to work overtime,” he said from Green Bay early this morning. “I still think I can do it.”
Peterson said his goals before the season were winning the NFC North, rushing for 2,000 yards and advancing to the Super Bowl. The division title, won last night, “feels like a changing of the guard,” he said. But his personal goals, he said, made him feel “to be honest, bittersweet.” His 1,485-yard rushing total is not 2,000, and that’s a number that he burns to achieve every year. Though he told me a month ago he felt as if his break from football in 2014 gave him the ability to play more refreshed and healthier this year, he said from Green Bay that he does think about what he lost in a football sense by not playing last year. It’s a balancing act, though. He said several times this morning that his faith in God helped him, and he felt he was a better-balanced person after being charged with excessively disciplining his son.
“Not once did I doubt, ever, that I would be able to get back to the same level,” Peterson said. “I came in this year thinking it was very possible to get 2,000 yards again, and I still think it is.”
Wait till next year.
Three notes about the PAT …
Change is usually hard, even controversial, when it comes to the traditional NFL. But the automatic nature of the point-after touchdown was making it a waste of time—teams missed 37 of 6,153 kicks in the five seasons from 2010 to 2014. And so the league voted last May to move the line of scrimmage from the two-yard line to the 15, making the PAT, essentially, a 33-yard kick. This season, NFL teams were 1,146 of 1,217: 94.2 percent efficiency.
1. “I give the commissioner [Roger Goodell] a lot of credit,” said Competition Committee co-chair Rich McKay. “We had a league meeting where he asked every team and made them answer this question: ‘Is the extra point a competitive play?’ And of course it wasn’t. That was good setting the table. So by the time we got to the meeting this year , everyone knew it was a change that was good for the competitive nature of the game.”
2. McKay, like Lewis, said he didn’t think the teams would turn back from it. “I think the teams mostly are happy with the change,” McKay said. “We replaced a ceremonial play and interjected a competitive play.”
3. The Competition Committee estimated that the efficiency in year one would be between 92 and 94 percent. It was 94.2 percent.
The next step—I think—will be moving the line back a few more yards. Maybe as many as 10. Because if the efficiency of the field goal attempts between 20 and 39 yards is 93 percent (which it was this year), is that the level of efficiency you want for a scoring play? I’d prefer it be less, and if the percentage creeps up close to 95 percent next year, it’s conceivable Goodell or the committee, or both, could push for the line to move back.
1. Cam Newton, quarterback, Carolina. Can’t see this being much of a contest now. Newton wholly deserves it, for being the leader of a 15-1 team and producing 45 touchdowns.
2. Carson Palmer, quarterback, Arizona. I’d still love to see a championship game showdown of the two best offensive players in football this year, Palmer and Newton.
3. Tom Brady, quarterback, New England. I know the Pats slipped late in the year, but I do believe it was due in large part to the protection issues brought on by the injuries on the offensive line. Consider that the 38-year-old Brady exited the season in one piece, and consider that the running game was decimated with injuries to the two best runners, and consider that, well, this was how many players played each position on the offensive line during the course of the season, according to statistics monitored by Pro Football Focus:
Left tackle: 6.
Right tackle: 5.
Left guard: 5.
Right guard: 4.
4. Russell Wilson, quarterback, Seattle. Led the Seahawks to an 8-2 mark in the final 10 games. Look at this production over his past seven games: 24 touchdowns, one interception.
5. Antonio Brown, wide receiver, Pittsburgh. He and Julio Jones tied for the league lead with 136 catches, incredible production even in this day of silly passing numbers. In the past eight weeks, Brown had games of 17, 10, 16 and, on Sunday in the playoff-clinching game at Cleveland, 13 catches.
A year too soon
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, on coach Chip Kelly, on Sept. 11: “He's an excellent coach in this league, and there’s no question about it. He doesn’t need to prove anything. He’s a builder of a roster, a culture-builder. He’s everything that we all thought when we all interviewed him and more … I watch him relate to players. His door is always open. I’ve never even seen that before. He cares about the people, the players. I am just very proud and have complete respect for him as a person and as a coach.”
Lurie, on firing Kelly, on Dec. 30: “It was a clear and important decision that had to be made … This was a three-year evaluation of where we are heading, what is the trajectory, what is the progress or lack thereof and what did I anticipate for the foreseeable future … The end result was mediocrity.”
That first quote was Sept. 11, 2015. Sixteen weeks ago. In those four months, Kelly must have installed a dungeon in the Eagles’ NovaCare training complex in South Philly.
Three years ago today, Lurie and the Eagles management team fell in love with Kelly. Do you remember how hard the Eagles worked to get him? Lurie and his team spent nine hours with Kelly the day after Oregon’s Fiesta Bowl rout of Kansas State. Oregon was the second-ranked team in the country, and Kelly was the rising star. But Kelly didn’t take the Philly job, nor did he take the Cleveland job after a seven-hour interview with the Browns. Instead, Kelly went back to Oregon, said he was staying in college, and went back on the recruiting trail. It wasn’t until 10 days later that he began to waffle, and the Eagles, willing to let other candidates slip through their grasp, decided to wait until Kelly told them no again. At the opening press conference, Lurie talked about Kelly as if he was a combination of Bills—Walsh and Belichick. He was a coach ahead of his time.
And so last Tuesday—48 games into the Kelly Era, 23 days after Kelly and the Eagles went to Foxboro and shocked the world-champion Patriots (and the world) with a 35-28 win—Lurie fired Kelly.
I’ve heard there were three key reasons why he did so: the downward trajectory of the team in 2015 (duh), the lousy personnel moves, and how Kelly buried Lurie favorite son Howie Roseman, removing him from any football authority after last season. (To a lesser degree, Lurie disliked that there wasn’t harmony in the building. He likes harmony. There are huge posters of Mother Teresa, Dr. Jonas Salk and Martin Luther King Jr., in the lobby; Lurie likes to remind players and visitors that there’s another world out there, and that employees need to be good and harmonious people too. But the fact that the building was disconnected from Kelly wasn’t a big reason for the firing.)
Three interesting things I can confirm. One: Kelly had no idea this was coming. He was shocked. He figured the organization would rally at the end of the season and make a plan for 2016 that he hoped would include signing quarterback Sam Bradford long-term. Two: Lurie never offered him a chance to stay if he ceded personnel control. Lurie wanted Kelly out. Now. Three: Bradford won’t be motivated to return to Philadelphia over any other team now that free agency looms. His agent, Tom Condon, is a get-the-most-you-can-regardless-of-team guy, and Bradford isn’t crazy about Philadelphia the city anyway. He probably wishes there was a team in his favorite place, Oklahoma City. And who’s to say the next coach—current offensive coordinators Adam Gase of Chicago and Doug Pederson of Kansas City are popular early names—will want Bradford at $18 million a year or more?
I get the personnel thing. It’s valid. Kelly went 10-6 in each of his first two seasons while running off some of his team’s best players (some because of the cap, some because they wouldn’t get in line with The Kelly Way), and this year he went all in on a cadre of new guys—quarterback Sam Bradford, running back DeMarco Murray, cornerback Byron Maxwell and middle linebacker Kiko Alonso. Bradford has been a C player. The other moves have been disastrous. Kelly as personnel czar had an awful year. There were other problems, namely rebellion. All-Pro tackle Jason Peters left last week’s game against Washington, and there were reports that Peters physically could have played but chose not to because of the lost Eagles season. Not good. None of it good.
For 14 years, Lurie stuck with Andy Reid, and the Eagles went to one Super Bowl and won none. Lurie went all-in before the 13th year, when the Eagles spent a jillion dollars in the Nnamdi Asomugha/Dream Team free-agency season, and the season was an unmitigated disaster at 8-8. Lurie kept the faith. Reid stayed. Then Reid went 4-12 and got fired. Lurie once had Steelers-like patience. Now? Less than four months after talking about Kelly like he was a young Paul Brown, saying he’s a “culture-builder” and an “excellent coach” whose “door is always open” and he is “everything we all thought when we interviewed him and more,” Kelly is a culture-wrecker, a bad coach, a poor communicator and showed sides they never saw in the interview. Interesting how none of those things surfaced in his first 31 months on the job. Only in his last four.
Owning an NFL franchise is tough when the team’s losing. It’s a cauldron of hate in Philadelphia when the Eagles are down. It’s tough to get slapped in the face, day after day, by fan and media anger with a disappointing team. But this move is so 2016 NFL. So precipitous. So impatient. So unlike the 2010 Lurie. He succumbed to pitchforks instead of ignoring them. Even the trigger-happy Art Modell kept Bill Belichick (20-28 in his first three years) after Belichick fired the beloved Bernie Kosar in year three. And Kelly (26-21) gets fired?
I can see Lurie this season questioning, deep down, the Kelly hire. I can see him quietly telling his close friends, Maybe I made a mistake. But there should have been someone in the building or in his life to tell him to buck up, go one more year with a man in whom he’d invested so much. There’s no guarantee it would have worked and that Kelly would have won. But firing a coach with a different philosophy struggling with a different program but beating the Super Bowl champion on the road during that struggle? I don’t like it. I just think it’s wrong.
Now from the land of make-believe …
Fun facts about Jimmy Haslam’s 39-month tenure as owner of the Cleveland Browns:
• The Browns have employed 61 coaches in those three-plus seasons.
• Haslam has fired two presidents/CEOs (Mike Holmgren, Joe Banner), and, by Monday noon, three general managers (Tom Heckert, Mike Lombardi, Ray Farmer) and three coaches (Pat Shurmur, Rob Chudzinski, Mike Pettine).
• Record since league approved Haslam as owner: 18-40.
• There have been four offensive coordinators on Haslam’s watch: Brad Childress, Norv Turner, Kyle Shanahan, John DeFilippo.
• The five first-round picks since Haslam bought the team: Barkevious Mingo, Justin Gilbert, Johnny Manziel, Danny Shelton, Cameron Erving.
Examining continuity in Haslam’s reign …
• Dec. 31, 2012, after coach Pat Shurmur was fired:
“We’re well aware that this has been a carousel,” Haslam said. “It’s our job to find the right coach and the right GM and bring stability long term for the organization.”
• Dec. 30, 2013, after coach Rob Chudzinski was fired:
“We understand the importance of continuity,” Haslam said. “But I think it’s really important to hear this: We also understand the importance of getting it right.”
• Feb. 12, 2014, after CEO Joe Banner and GM Mike Lombardi were fired:
“There’s no training manual for being an NFL owner,” Haslam said. “I do know from previous experience how important continuity is. Right now we have to make this change and suffer the pain.”
• Aug. 1, 2015, vowing not to make big changes no matter how the Browns play in 2015:
“We’re not going to blow things up, okay?” Haslam said. “We are not going to do that. I think we have the right people in place to over a period of time be successful. I feel good that we have the right people in the building now.”
• Monday, Jan. 4, 2016, after Mike Pettine was fired as coach:
“I don’t think anyone anticipated going 3-13,” Haslam said. "We were naïve when we came into the process. It’s much harder than we thought it would be.”
You don't say.
Haslam is extremely well liked by his fellow owners, and by nearly everyone he’s met in Cleveland since taking over. He’s really trying. I’ve had three or four conversations with him, and he wants to win badly, and his heart’s in the right place. But his actions are simply inconsistent with those of winner-builders. I can’t defend the performance of Pettine or Farmer. This isn’t about making some grand case for them to keep their jobs. It’s about making a grand case for an owner being mindful of longtime Browns owner Art Modell. “Art’s motto,” said one former team employee, “was always, ‘Ready, fire, aim!’ ” Not literally, but it’s how Modell acted.
Haslam has done piecemeal things, which this administration shows: having Banner and Lombardi oversee the Pettine hire, firing Banner and Lombardi, installing Farmer (a stranger to the coach, basically, before his hire), Farmer overseeing a ruinous first round (Justin Gilbert, Johnny Manziel), Farmer almost trading a franchise left tackle (Joe Thomas), the roster of coaches and players continually roiling, and now firing another coach and another GM and presumably a staff of coaches with a year left on most of their contracts and starting over. For the second or third time—but who’s counting?—in 3.3 years.
Already, I’ve heard, Pettine tried twice last week to get clarification on his job and the jobs of his assistants; twice he got no answer from Haslam. And Haslam already has an interview lined up for Tuesday—with former Buffalo coach Doug Marrone.
It looks like the Browns will hire a coach first, then take a longer view with a GM. That worked with Pete Carroll (first) and John Schneider (second) in Seattle, but most places hire the GM first and then the coach. If they’re interviewing Marrone first, maybe Haslam is going the experienced coach route, not the hot-coordinator route.
Whatever the coaching choice, this time, today hopefully, Haslam should do only one thing: Stand in front of his beaten-down fan base and say these words: “I—not we—I have abused your trust. And this I vow: The next general manager and the next coach will have a minimum of four years, guaranteed, to turn this team around. Those four years will happen with me standing on the outside, without interfering unless asked by them for assistance. Players and fans should know they need to get behind these two men and whomever they pick to play and coach the team, because they’ll be here through the end of the 2019 season. Guaranteed.”
If he says anything else, why would any Browns fan believe him?
No one wants to play the big, bad Chiefs
No matter that they’re the fifth seed and will (likely) have to play three road games to get to the Super Bowl. Kansas City’s 23-17 win over Oakland in the season finale Sunday gives the Chiefs a 10-game winning streak entering the playoffs. The Chiefs’ path could go like this: at Houston (where K.C. won 27-20 in September), at Denver (where K.C. won 29-13 in November), at New England (K.C. won a 41-14 decision at Arrowhead last season). Plus, Justin Houston is getting healthy at the right time after missing a month with a hyperextended knee suffered Nov. 29.
Then there’s the approach of coach Andy Reid. When Reid stands in front of his team, those in the audience in Philadelphia once told me, there is neither fire nor brimstone. Mostly it’s a matter-of-fact recitation of the message Reid wants to get across, with the expectation that the players will act on it appropriately. If they don’t, there will be different players in the team meeting room in due course.
So it was a slightly befuddled Reid who stood in front of his team in mid-October, when the Chiefs had just lost to Minnesota. Their biggest offensive star, Jamaal Charles, was lost a week earlier with a torn ACL. Their record was 1-5. Seemed to be just one of those years—a mulligan, a good team playing bad, a contender having to wait until next year. Reid recalled the scene last week, over the phone from Kansas City. In the same tone of voice—presumably—that a player would recognize from Reid, he said he remembered clearly what he told his players:
“I just told them, ‘I’ve never been 1-5. It’s a new experience for all of us, probably. The question is, What are we gonna do about it?’ ”
What they did, essentially, is what a Reid team always does—work consistently hard, without feeling the weight of the world on their shoulders from a coach dishing out the pressure to perform. In some places, high pressure works. But it’s just not Reid’s way. People in Philadelphia grew to hate his way. The move to Kansas City has been good in many ways for Reid, and not just because of the change of scenery. Kansas City has its share of desperado fans, but the culture isn’t as rabid and football-Armageddon-like as Philadelphia. A 31-17 regular-season record in Kansas City has been the result.
“I’d say a couple of the big things for us,” said Reid, “center on the fact we weren’t really all there early in the season. I really liked this team in training camp, but we had some important guys on defense coming back from injuries and illness—Eric Berry [cancer], Mike DeVito [Achilles tear], Derrick Johnson [Achilles tear], Dontari Poe [back surgery]—and we missed a starting corner, Sean Smith, with a [three-game substance-abuse] suspension. So in September, we were still really a work in progress.
“On offense, [wideout] Jeremy Maclin came in and brought a certain attitude, and it took some time to mesh there.
“And there’s some stat that probably says something—at one point we were playing more rookies than any team. So you take all those things, and it’s probably not unexpected that you’re not the same team early that you’re going to be.”
The imprint of Reid and GM John Dorsey shows in the lineup the Chiefs are fielding. An AFC-high 13 rookies and first-year players were on the Chiefs’ 53-man opening day roster. In the ninth straight win, over Cleveland, Kansas City started 10 players on offense and seven on defense who had been imported since the Reid-Dorsey regime took over 35 months ago. And the depth of the roster has been important. Kansas City is 10-1 without Charles, as a pair of street free-agent backs, Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware, have done well. They’ve combined to rush for 989 yards, at a combined 4.5 yards per rush, since the Charles injury. With 10 touchdowns. That’s approaching Charles territory.
The feel-good story of the year has helped too. Berry, diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the middle of last season, emerged from treatment at a slow, steady pace, and is now playing at near the same level that made him a Pro Bowl safety. Berry’s first interception after returning from cancer treatment came in the first game of the 10-game winning streak.
Then there’s Alex Smith. No quarterback is more an extension of his head coach than Smith. Be smart, don’t make mistakes, go through your progressions, lead the team … that’s part of the Reid mantra for his quarterback. Smith, the model for much of that, has four interceptions in his past 13 games, and finally has a field-stretcher, Maclin, to take the heat off the intermediate routes Reid loves. “It all goes around Alex,” Reid said. “It’s good when your quarterback is your hardest worker and your most unselfish player and as smart as he is.”
The way the Chiefs are playing, no playoff win is impossible. They’ve not been dominating all the time, but there’s something to be said in January for not beating yourselves. One stat Reid loves: Kansas City is second in the league in ball-protection, with just 15 turnovers in 16 games. In the current 10-0 run, the Chiefs have seven turnovers. Any team that careful with the ball is going to be a tough out in the playoffs.
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Cause of the Week: Vetsandplayers.org
FOX scoopmeister Jay Glazer has partnered with valiant U.S. Army Green Beret Nate Boyer (you know Nate if you’ve read this column) to form an organization called MVP: Merging Vets With Players. The idea is to partner a veteran struggling to return to civilian life with a former NFL player struggling to adjust to life after football … and to have them learn lessons from each other, to be counseled about job training and societal training, and, basically, to lean on each other for help.
I am neither a former NFL player nor a veteran. But being around players for 32 years, and then having taken a USO trip to Afghanistan in 2008, I empathize with the adjustment processes of both groups. I’ve seen scores of players have trouble joining the work force and finding meaning after football; and on that trip, and in other USO experiences since, it’s easy to see how much help veterans need. Glazer stepped up to try to make it happen.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been as passionate about a project in all my life,” Glazer said. “The special ops guys, the Rangers, they’re the NFL players of war—in a very exclusive club. And NFL players I know really admire guys in the military. I see guys on both sides struggling. They’re finished with football, or they’re finished with their service, and they’re lost. And I thought: These guys can help each other. That’s what this group is about.”
Said Boyer: ''Right now in America there are roughly 22 suicides a day by veterans. Post-traumatic stress is something that society tries to pin down as the reason for it, but the number one reason, truthfully in our opinion, is the lack of purpose. People say, ‘How can you compare the two, playing a game versus serving your country.’ But the fact of the matter is, in our society and in our culture, they are both important parts. When we bring these guys together, we’ve seen that when we have these conversations, they have so much more in common than they ever thought they would. These soldiers don’t need a handout, they don’t need people giving them things and taking them on trips. That doesn’t fix anything. They have to be self-motivated and need to find something they are actually passionate about. Some of these guys just need a point in the right direction from guys like myself who have had a successful transition.”
Glazer paired a former Oakland fullback, Oren O’Neal, with several soldiers, and they spent time at a Virginia retreat sharing experiences and trying to find new directions in life.
O’Neal was depressed after his short NFL career ended. “I was lost,” he said. “I was on my couch, contemplating suicide. I had no purpose. Like, life was over.” When he went on the retreat and began using some of the skills shared by the professionals there, and with his new Army Ranger friend, O’Neal realized he had more in common with talented people at the top of the military profession than he thought he would. “When Danny [the Ranger] got out, he missed being ‘That Guy,’ ” said O’Neal. “I realized I missed being ‘That Guy.’ He was the tip of the spear, searching out and disposing of IEDs. And I was the tip of the spear as a fullback. It’s totally different, but we did have a lot in common. I just want to let retired players know this organization can help them. It helped me.”
Glazer said he’s found no shortage of veterans who seek help from Vetsandplayers.org. But he hasn’t found as many ex-players. “Truthfully,” he said, “a lot of them are embarrassed. Some of them feel they have no worth, but they don’t want their friends to know about it. So they stay silent. We’ve got to get them to come out, to seek the help I know the veterans can provide.”
It’s a superb cause. It needs funding, and it needs players who need help and need partners in the military. I don’t often use this column as a megaphone to ask for help for various groups, but retired players and veterans, both adjusting life in the real world, could use your help. Please visit Vetsandplayers.org for more information.
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Quotes of the Week
“The Coney Island Thrasher! The Coney Island Thrasher! He’s playing for the Coney Island Thrashers, serving soft-serve ice cream at halftime! He still wins football games! … Guys, I have never been more proud … never been more proud, to be a coach in my life. I love every one one of you in this locker room. There is nothing—nothing!—I wouldn’t do for any one of you in this locker room right now. And I thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for fightin’!”
—Chuck Pagano, addressing his team for perhaps the last time after the Colts’ season-ending win over Tennessee in Indianapolis on Sunday. Pagano will meet with owner Jim Irsay today and could be fired. The “Coney Island Thrasher” he referred to was starting quarterback Josh Freeman, the former first-round pick of the Bucs who was playing for a minor-league football team in Brooklyn in the fall and was signed by the Colts after a run of injuries to the three incumbent quarterbacks.
“Some of our coaches want it more than some of our players, and that’s the bad part.”
—Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston, taking on a major leadership role with a whack at some teammates entering the offseason, following the lopsided loss at Carolina.
“It’s the hardest, most difficult end to a season I’ve ever had, in terms of how painful a loss that was.”
—Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Jets quarterback, after he threw three fourth-quarter interceptions in Buffalo to fuel the 22-17 loss that cost his team a spot in the playoffs.
“This was the toughest season of my career. A lot of f---ed-up stuff.”
—Frank Gore, the Indianapolis running back, after the Colts’ season ended with a win over Tennessee. The year was marked by rancor between the coach and GM, and uncertainly over the future of both Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson.
The Award Section
OFFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson, running backs, Denver. The story of the day was Peyton Manning riding to the rescue of the struggling Brock Osweiler—and Manning deserves the headlines. But the game, to me, was won by 212 rushing yards on 30 clock-eating carries from the 1-2 weaponry in the backfield. Hillman’s 23-yard touchdown run around over right tackle with less than five minutes left gave the Broncos a 27-20 lead and home-field advantage through the AFC playoffs.
DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
J.J. Watt, defensive end, and Whitney Mercilus, outside linebacker, Houston. They combined for 6.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and 14 tackles. So is there a reason Houston used the top pick in 2014 on Jadeveon Clowney? Watt, particularly, was a pest to Jags quarterback Blake Bortles with his best statistical game … and could have clinched Defensive Player of the Year. Watt won his second sack title with 17.5, edging Oakland’s Khalil Mack.
Jerrell Freeman, linebacker, Indianapolis. Haven’t been many tremendous performances by the Colts defenders this year, but Freeman’s was pretty strong in the 30-24 season-ender over the Titans. He clinched the victory with a 23-yard interception return for touchdown, and added eight tackles and two sacks in the emotional likely last game for defensive mentor Chuck Pagano.
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Matt Prater, kicker, Detroit. After missing a 54-yard field goal try into swirling winds at Soldier Field, Prater lined up on the last play of the first half to try a 59-yarder into the same swirling winds. What’s great about the fact that he made it is this: Jason Hanson held the previous Detroit record for longest field goal (56 yards), and Hanson kicked more than half of his career games in a dome. Prater has kicked mostly outside, and imagine the heavy ball and the wind that plagued him on the kick.
COACHES OF THE WEEK
Tom Coughlin, coach, New York Giants. He didn’t win on Sunday. I don’t care. One of the most honorable men to ever walk an NFL sideline coached his 339th and perhaps final game Sunday in New Jersey, a 35-30 loss to the Eagles in a game that meant nothing except to him. Because every game did. Even the ones in August. Coughlin gathered his extended family with him at the Meadowlands before the game for a Team Coughlin photo, then coached the game. If this is it for the 69-year-old Coughlin—and we should find out today if the Giants fire him, Coughlin retires or the Giants retain him—he will leave football (at least for now) as a virtual twin in the record books with the man who hired him as receivers coach for the Giants in 1988, Bill Parcells. How fitting. Look at the numbers:
|Coach||Years||Reg. Season||Pct.||All Games||Pct.||Super Bowl|
George Godsey, offensive coordinator, Houston. Beating Jacksonville to finish 9-7 and win an awful AFC South is not anything to headline a lifetime coaching résumé. This is: Godsey, with mentor Bill O’Brien, made nine quarterback changes in the 2015 season, and lived to host a first-round playoff game. Houston went from Brian Hoyer to start the season, to Ryan Mallett in game two, back to Hoyer in game four, back to Mallett in game five and back to Hoyer later in game five. After game seven, the Texans released Mallett and signed T.J. Yates. Yates replaced a concussed Hoyer in game nine. Hoyer came back in game 11, but, concussed, ceded the job to Yates in game 13. Then Yates tore his ACL in game 14, and emergency signee Brandon Weeden got wins in games 14 and 15 (with a late-game assist from fellow emergency signee B.J. Daniels off the Seattle practice squad), before a clear-headed Hoyer returned for the regular-season finale against Jacksonville on Sunday. A crazy confluence of yankings and head trauma and Mallett’s immaturity and a torn ACL and Weeden showing Jerry Jones there was life in that Aikman-like arm of his … and of Godsey working overtime to teach the offense to three new quarterbacks who weren’t on GM Rick Smith’s radar screen on Labor Day weekend, but who all had to contribute to winning games in a very strange season.
GOAT OF THE WEEK
Ryan Fitzpatrick, quarterback, New York Jets. Sorry. I really am. Fitzpatrick had a great season, the best of his career. And he got creamed on one of his picks. But he threw three interceptions in the last 10 minutes of a win-and-you’re-in knockout game, and the Jets lost a heartbreaker to He Who Shall Not Be Named and the Bills, 22-17.
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Stats of the Week
News item (Dec. 31): Steelers sign veteran safety Ross Ventrone to the active roster.
It was the 41st transaction of Ventrone’s meandering six-year NFL career.
Transactions: 41. Tackles in games: 7.
Since being signed by New England in 2010 as an undrafted college free agent out of Villanova, the 29-year-old Ventrone has been the property of New England and more recently Pittsburgh.
In six seasons, Ventrone has been waived 13 times, signed to a practice squad 11 times, signed as a free-agent nine times, placed on an active roster seven times, and terminated as a vested veteran (fired, essentially) once.
Last week, he actually hit the daily double with Pittsburgh. After being unemployed since October, he was signed to Pittsburgh’s practice squad on Tuesday and then re-signed to the active roster on Thursday. On Sunday, the career special-teamer was active against the Browns.
But last week wasn’t the zaniest on his career zany scale. As a Patriot in 2011, he was active entering Week 11, waived early in the week, signed to the practice squad later in the week, and re-signed to the active roster even later in the week.
Jan Stenerud, the only player to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame exclusively as a kicker, retired in 1985. But considering the advances in the kicking game since he left the sport, his retirement seems like 1985 B.C.
Stenerud played primarily for the Chiefs—a total of 13 seasons in K.C. Comparing his accuracy in his Chiefs’ tenure with the accuracy of kickers this season from 50 yards and beyond:
Stenerud from all distances, 1967-79: .640
NFL kickers from 50 and beyond, 2015: .648
If you're curious, Stenerud's career percentage from 50 and beyond: .266 (17 of 64).
Average margin of victory of the eight college bowl games played on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1: 27.3 points.
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Factoids of the Week That May Interest Only Me
I don’t want to hear the phrase “hit the rookie wall” anymore—at least not for all the players on college teams that play in one of the 641 bowl games.
Giants rookie safety Landon Collins’ first professional season, after his career at Alabama, lasted 16 games. Days from first summer practice until the last game of the season: 156.
Alabama starting safety Eddie Jackson’s 2015 college season, in the secondary that Collins occupied last year, will last 15 games. (The 15th will be Jan. 11.) Days from first summer practice until the last game of the season: 159.
So … a college player (many of them, in fact) had a longer season than a pro player (many of them, in fact).
I get it—guys who play in the college playoffs will play longer than other players. But if you play a late December bowl game, and 13 or 14 games in all, there’s virtually no difference between the college season and the pro season. The rookie wall is passé. If anything, it’s made of papier mâché.
Cleveland has a history with Pittsburgh—and a history with firing coaches after season-ending losses to the Steelers. That’s the way it’s happened with five straight coaches.
|Season-ending debacle||Fired coach||When fired|
|2008 Week 17: Pittsburgh 31, Cleveland 0||Romeo Crennel||Day after season|
|2010 Week 17: Pittsburgh 41, Cleveland 9||Eric Mangini||Day after season|
|2012 Week 17: Pittsburgh 24, Cleveland 10||Pat Shurmur||Day after season|
|2013 Week 17: Pittsburgh 20, Cleveland 7||Rob Chudzinski||Night of last game|
|2015 Week 17: Pittsburgh 28, Cleveland 12||Mike Pettine||Night of last game|
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Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
Took the Amtrak Regional to New Haven for dinner the other night, a holiday family affair for the Connecticut Kings. It was the night Chip Kelly got fired. Three observations: Our second trip to Modern Apizza a mile from the train station was wonderful. Well worth the trip from New York. Fun place, jam-packed, thin-crust pies, fun times. The train was on time both ways. Love Amtrak, even when it messes up. Such a great way to travel. We need more trains, and more money for trains, in this country. I wrote on the train there, then made calls about Kelly on the way home from the café car. What a civilized way to travel.
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Tweets of the Week
osweiler clapping like he just lost an oscar— Joon Lee (@iamjoonlee) January 3, 2016
The internet scribe, after watching Brock Osweiler’s reaction to the first apparent touchdown drive led by Peyton Manning. (The ball ended up being marked down at the half-yard line, but you get the point.)
All the best to Coach Coughlin, thank you for everything, you turned a lot of boys into men which is his greatest accomplishment! #NYG— Terrell Thomas (@TerrellThomas24) January 3, 2016
The onetime Giants defensive back lauds his former coach.
No player introductions for #Browns today. Team just went straight to sideline after entering from locker room— Keith Britton (@KeithBritton86) January 3, 2016
Had a hard time sleeping last night. Every time I'd start to hit a REM cycle, I imagined a guy cupping his hands and yelling, "Heisman!"— Sam Farmer (@LATimesfarmer) January 2, 2016
The LA Times writer tweeted this the day after some idiot verbal-bombed Christian McCaffery’s post-game ESPN interview, after the Stanford star shredded Iowa in the Rose Bowl, with cries of “Heisman!” and other inane yellings.
Christian McCaffery can always look back at this moment—one of the games of his life in the Granddaddy of Them All—with pride, but also with loathing that some jerk ruined the first time many people in the United States ever saw him interviewed.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 17:
a. Josh Freeman, winning pitcher (1-0). Now that is the coolest thing of the weekend. It may mean nothing, but Freeman, after playing in the bushes last fall, got called up to the bigs, got relieved in the seventh inning by Ryan Lindley, and gutted out a 149-yard passing day. It may be his last moment in the sun (or in the dome), but he’ll always have Jan. 3, 2016, in Indianapolis.
b. The Seattle D, which held explosive Arizona to 232 yards. Statement game.
c. And Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, with two sacks (combined) and six quarterback hits. Beware playoff quarterbacks.
d. Looks like the goodness of Cam Newton, and the meh game of Carson Palmer, clinches the MVP for Newton. Well-deserved.
e. DeMarco Murray’s 54-yard touchdown run, the first score of the weekend, and don’t think Jeffrey Lurie didn’t love that one. Murray too.
f. Newspaper lead of the week, from Ben Shpigel of the New York Times, from today’s story of the Jets’ loss in Buffalo: “The opportunity the Jets had been awaiting for a year arrived Sunday, and they seized it as if grasping at a tornado.” Great job, Ben.
g. Jamison Crowder, the 5-8 rookie wideout from Duke, with a typical slithery run through a Dallas secondary not quick enough to tackle him. Not bad for the 105th pick in the draft last spring.
h. The presence of Tyrod Taylor, who ran around the perimeter of the Jets’ defense for a first-quarter touchdown and had the smarts to tightrope the sideline and flick the pylon with the football. Good play.
i. Darren Sproles. The man is a threat in all games, meaningful and meaningless.
j. Chris Ivory, with an explosive 58-yard run, putting him over 1,000 yards for the first time in his career. Nice to see—he’s a very good back.
k. Good for Ryan Fitzpatrick, too: First quarterback in Jets history to throw 30 touchdowns in a season.
l. Great for Brandon Marshall: Holds Jets’ single-season records for receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
m. Tyler Eifert, with his 13th touchdown catch. What a weapon.
n. CBS’ Ian Eagle on the star-crossed Jets trailing in the second half and perhaps losing great defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson in the process: “This was either going to be one of the best days in Jets history or it could turn into one of the worst.”
o. Most artful play of the day: Houston free safety Andre Hal, with a leaping interception, the ball caught behind his head at its apex, and then holding onto it while he banged to the ground.
p. The always-insightful Sunday column of The MMQB’s Gary Gramling, who had this gem before Sunday’s Ravens-Bengals tilt hard by the Ohio River: “The last time the Ravens went to Cincinnati without Joe Flacco, Steve McNair was under center.”
q. Glover Quin’s game-sealing pick of Jay Cutler, reading it perfectly.
r. Jamarca Sanford, with the defensive play of the game at Atlanta, picking off Matt Ryan to lead to the game-winning field goal for New Orleans.
s. The blocked Oakland punt by Kansas City rookie linebacker D.J. Alexander, giving the Chiefs two points on a safety in a tight game against Oakland.
t. The Lions, doing everything they can to save the job of Jim Caldwell with a 6-2 finish—which, by the way, was a Hail Mary away from being 7-1.
u. Alex Tanney, the trick-shot artist, with a perfect fade to the corner of the end zone for Tennessee. Touchdown, Dorial Green-Beckham.
v. Carolina GM David Gettleman, for having more faith in Devin Funchess in the 2015 draft that any other GM, and picking him high in the second round, 41st overall. Funchess against the Bucs on Sunday: seven catches, 120 yards, one touchdown.
w. And Cam Newton, the new dad, with his 42nd and 43rd touchdown runs of his career, tying Steve Young for the all-time record for scoring runs by a quarterback.
x. With nothing to play for, against a top-five NFL defense, Blaine Gabbert put up a 354-yard passing day—and the Niners, with their coach getting ready to walk the plank, gained 458 and beat the Rams 19-16 in overtime.
y. NaVorro Bowman, ending his comeback season with a nine-tackle, one-forced-fumble day against the Rams.
z. Leigh Steinberg, the former super-agent, getting his first potential first-rounder in a long time on his comeback from the depths of addiction. Steinberg signed Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch, who could be a top-10 pick. Good for Steinberg, who’s been part of so many good stories in his career, and now has the chance to write another good one: his own.
2. I think this is what I didn’t like about Week 17:
a. Muhammad Wilkerson, in the last half of the last game of his regular season, suffering a broken leg at Buffalo.
b. Ryan Quigley’s 21-yard punt, a field-changer at Buffalo. Only good thing on the first-quarter wounded duck: Jim Kelly caught it on the Buffalo sideline and winged it into the stands. Crowd goes wild.
c. Kellen Moore, showing the league with an overthrow to Jason Witten (which would have been complete if Witten were slightly taller than Manute Bol) why he’s not gotten much of a chance to be anyone’s starter.
d. The drive-stalling drop by Brandon Marshall, an incredible rarity in 2015, with the Jets down early in Buffalo.
e. Dan (sixth missed PAT) Carpenter. At least he spikes his helmet well.
f. I don’t know that I’ve seen a team with above-average talent have as bad a season when the quarterback goes down—since the 2011 Colts—as this year’s Cowboys. Disgraceful performance in the loss to Washington. I still wouldn’t fire Jason Garrett. I’d give him one more year, minimum, with Tony Romo.
g. Come on, Jets. Cover Sammy Watkins.
h. Fellow Bobcat Mike Mitchell, the Steelers safety, with the inexplicable dropped interceptions.
i. Revis Island is no more.
j. Bummer: Malcom Floyd’s career ended with a concussion.
k. A sobering afternoon for the Cardinals.
l. My Fine Fifteen. I don’t know who belongs where.
m. The Packers. Talk about an offense, and a passing game, that must go back to the drawing board. Unfortunately, you can’t prepare for a playoff game and reinvent yourselves at the same time.
3. I think this is what I heard on Jaylon Smith, the highly talented Notre Dame linebacker and prospective very high NFL draft choice who suffered that terrible left knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl: Smith, a junior, was very likely to come out in the 2016 draft, and he would have been a top three to five pick if he came out healthy.
One NFL scout who was at the Fiesta Bowl said Saturday he thought Smith was a top-three pick. Another who I spoke with Saturday said of the players he saw this fall, if Smith came out, he’d have been a strong candidate to be the top overall pick. “There is not a defense he would not fit in,” the second scout said. “This is a huge story.”
A bigger-bodied linebacker who plays the run well and could go sideline-to-sideline like an outside ’backer, Smith now will have to decide whether he wants to stay at Notre Dame and come out, potentially, healthier and higher in the 2017 draft than lower in 2016. Tough decision. Some might look at the Todd Gurley case and say that Gurley tore his ACL and was so immensely talented as a running back that the Rams took him 10th overall in the first round five months after his knee surgery. But there’s no telling how spooked teams would be about Smith, whose injury came almost seven weeks later in the season than Gurley’s.
Now for the aftereffects: Why would many/any great players with strong chances to be first- or second-round picks stay in college, seeing what happened to Smith? It’s one thing if it’s a player’s strong choice (such as Andrew Luck) because he simply loves the life in college and in college football, and knows even if he gets hurt he’s still going to be a very high pick. But for many it’s a game of Russian Roulette. “I know this is going to scare guys on the fence about coming out,” said the scout who was at the Fiesta Bowl.
As of Saturday night, 52 junior-eligibles had declared for the 2016 draft, and that doesn’t include most from power schools Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State. The deadline is Jan. 15, four days after the national title game between Alabama and Clemson.
4. I think, just for the record, I am dubious about the cause of Johnny Manziel missing Sunday’s game. The Browns said it was because of a concussion. He may well have had one. But I would ask this question: If you were going to sit a player—or if the player chose to sit himself—what’s the one unassailable reason for him to sit, the one thing that right now has the nodding assent of every owner, coach, player and fan? It’s that if there is any evidence the player has even a headache that has lasted a day or two, he enters the concussion protocol, and he’s in that protocol until his baseline tests comes out positive, and until he doesn’t complain of any concussion-like symptoms. I also doubt that Manziel will ever play another snap for Cleveland. What an absolute disaster that pick was. The reports of him being in Las Vegas on Saturday just add an exclamation point to that. I mean, who could trust Johnny Manziel now? And what could the Browns get for him in trade?
5. I think this is probably not the fondest way to remember the regimes of the past two Browns coaches: On the night of the last game of the 2013 season, a loss to Pittsburgh, the Browns fired coach Rob Chudzinski. On the night of the last game of the 2015 season, a loss to Pittsburgh, the Browns fired coach Mike Pettine. That means—he said, beginning to bang the same drum he’s been banging since Jimmy Haslam became owner—that when Cleveland hires its next coach, he will be the sixth head coach employed by the Browns since 2008 … while the other three teams in the division have each had exactly one each since then.
6. I think the craziest number in the 2015 season was this one: Ben Roethlisberger, with the most dangerous set of wide receivers in the league, threw 21 touchdown passes in 12 games. Marcus Mariota threw 19 in the same number of games—and in 99 fewer attempts.
7. I think I have no clue what the NFL is getting in either the apparently moody, non-leader Connor Cook of Michigan State or the inconsistent Christian Hackenberg of Penn State. Interested teams could set homework records on both. By the way, it was interesting how Hackenberg, thanking eight people in his announcement about going pro Saturday, included a staffer in the Sports Information Department office but didn’t thank head coach James Franklin.
8. I think Doug Atkins was one of the great pass-rushers of all-time, and he deserves your respect in the wake of his death last week at 85. Atkins, a not-so-gentle giant at 6-8 and 257 pounds, was a 1953 first-round draft pick by Paul Brown and the Cleveland Browns. He played 17 years for Cleveland, Chicago and New Orleans, 12 of them for the Bears, and is one of few men to make Halls of Fame in both college and pro football. He was an athletic freak and one of those from yesteryear who almost certainly could have played and starred today. A master pass-deflector and pass-rusher, Atkins was voted first-team All-Pro four times and had—according to noted football historian John Turner—at least 110.5 confirmed sacks in his career. That’s certainly low, because there are games for which no play-by-play of his performance can be found. (Sacks did not become an official stat for individual defensive players until 1982.) Turner found a great quote about Atkins’ performance and improvement over the seasons: "I talked to [Colts defensive end] Gino Marchetti at a Pro Bowl and was asking him for tips, and the first thing he told me is, ‘Get rid of all that extra equipment.’ I had been wearing high-top shoes, large pads on my shoulders and in my pants, and Gino convinced me to go with less, with less restriction and less for linemen to grab, and it really helped my career from that point on.” What pass-rusher wouldn’t want to end a career the way Atkins did? In the final snap of his football life, in 1969 for New Orleans, he sacked Pittsburgh quarterback Dick Shiner on the last play of the game, preserving a 27-24 New Orleans win … with rookie coach Chuck Noll and rookie defensive tackle Mean Joe Greene looking on from the Steelers sideline.
9. I think, for those who have wondered what the NFL will do with Christmas landing on a Sunday next year, and it being the Sunday of Week 16, I’ll use history as my guide. The last three times Christmas has fallen on a Sunday—in 1994, 2005 and 2011—the NFL played 14, 13 and 13 games on Saturday that weekend. (In 2005, there were two on Sunday and one on Monday. In 2011, there was one on Sunday night and one on Monday.) And I’m told in all likelihood the NFL will keep the same plan for 2016, playing most of that weekend’s games on Christmas Eve, a Saturday.
10. I think these are my non-NFL thoughts of the week:
a. Column of the week: Colleen Dominguez, who brought an age discrimination suit against her employer, FOX Sports, on standing up for herself, in the San Diego Union Tribune.
b. That’s an important column for women in sports media, and everyone in the field, quite frankly.
c. Great story about life on San Quentin’s death row by Paige St. John of the Los Angeles Times. “I’ve lost the ability to enjoy being around other people,” said a serial murderer, Wayne Ford. Quite a read.
d. Since I spoke to Christian McCaffery, and since his dad, former NFL wide receiver Ed McCaffery, told me Christian could easily play and play well in the NFL right now, Christian has played two football games against defenses designed to stop him … and he has gained 829 all-purpose yards.
e. That opening play in the Rose Bowl against Iowa. Wow.
f. I have no great knowledge of when TV should air certain shows, and I don’t know why the NCAA scheduled the two semifinal games for New Year’s Eve, which caused the audience to drop by more than a third from last year. But who in their right mind would think people are staying home on New Year’s Eve, watching TV? Why wouldn’t the NCAA put the games on the Saturday night before the full slate of Week 17 NFL games?
g. Beernerdness: What a boss I am. I had a spare Heady Topper (that great Vermont Double IPA that’s rarer than a platinum mine in Wichita), and I gave it to Mark Mravic, my partner-in-editorial-crime at The MMQB. Within three hours he texted back: “This is pretty frickin’ good.” Not going to be able to keep the secret of that Double IPA for long.
h. Cory Schneider Bobblehead Night tonight at the Prudential Center. Red Wings-Devils. And Mr. Devil himself, Tom Mantzouranis, will probably be there too. It’s a tripleheader! Three great experiences in one!
i. Penny for your thoughts, Trevone Boykin, after TCU rallied from a 31-point deficit to win the Alamo Bowl in triple overtime.
j. Just guessing: Gary Patterson must be a pretty good coach to keep that team together, to win a bowl game after Boykin’s arrest and suspension.
k. How great is it that walk-on TCU quarterback Bram Kohlhausen, who never started a game as a Horned Frog and whose father died Nov. 7 of cancer, got to pilot TCU back from the 31-0 deficit to the 47-41 win? What a story. And to bring his mother down on the field after the game, and for him to cry in her arms? What a moment.
* * *
The Adieu Haiku
Black Monday. Not fun.
Most head coaches will be fine.
Not most assistants.
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