The theatrics of this week’s collegiate coaching carousel make anything going on in the NFL seem quite boring by comparison, though Kliff Kingsbury's and Urban Meyer’s names have been sprinkled in just so we don’t feel left out. It also wasn’t a particularly banner week for the NFL product (see item No. 5 below), which only means that, according to Gary Gramling’s beloved Law of Averages, we are due for a wild Week 13. Until then, here are five things to know after Week 12:
1. Russell Wilson’s future in Seattle now takes center stage. Monday night’s loss to Washington, dropping his team to 3–8, virtually eliminated any hope the Seahawks have of making the postseason. This would be only the second time they’ve missed the playoffs since Wilson was drafted. So now attention turns to the question that had been lurking all season: Is a split coming? Wilson voiced his frustrations last offseason about the number of times he’s been sacked in his career, which was followed by his agent telling ESPN that Wilson didn’t want to leave Seattle but also releasing a list of trade destinations he’d accept. By the summer, though, Wilson was downplaying the offseason posturing and committing his focus to the 2021 season. But his Week 5 finger injury turned the Seahawks’ season upside down, not just for the time he missed but also because he hasn’t looked like himself since his hurried return from surgery. While he has insisted that’s not an issue, even head coach Pete Carroll acknowledged after the loss, “We’re missing some stuff,” the kind of throws Wilson usually doesn’t miss. That’s the crux of the Seahawks’ struggles in '21: This year they haven’t been able to count on Wilson to create some magic and mask other flaws. The Seahawks are looking more and more like a team headed toward a major overhaul, but the first question that needs to be answered is: Will those changes include a split with their 33-year-old quarterback?
2. The Coach of the Year will almost certainly not be a first-year head coach. Maybe this doesn’t sound surprising, but in three of the past four years, the winner was a new hire who turned their team around. The seven new hires this season, however, have combined for a 23–54 record. Only one, Brandon Staley of the 6–5 Chargers, currently leads a team with a winning record. And four of the five worst teams in the league (by win-loss record) are led by first-year head coaches. So who might win? Our two leading candidates: Matt LaFleur, who looks to be on his way to a third straight double-digit win season despite injuries to many of his key players, including Aaron Rodgers (infamous pinkie toe); and Bill Belichick, who hasn’t won this award since 2010 (but has won three Super Bowls in that span!) and is again leading a contender after a one-year postseason absence in which reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated.
3. The Panthers extended Christian McCaffery because he’s their best offensive player. The news that McCaffery will be out the rest of the season with an ankle injury, the fifth injury that will cause him to miss time over the past two seasons, has resulted in scrutiny of the team’s decision to award him a four-year, $64 million extension in 2020. He’ll have played a combined 10 games in the two seasons since. But his importance as a player is only reinforced by the impact that his absence will likely have on not only the offense but the team’s wild-card aspirations. There’s been plenty of discussion over the past decade about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of investing resources at the running back position. But it’s hard to knock the decision Carolina made in '20: McCaffrey hadn’t missed any time to injury over his first three NFL seasons, and he was coming off a '19 season in which he had 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving. Plus, Carolina was going through a QB transition at the time, cutting Cam Newton the same spring they signed McCaffrey to his extension. The Panthers wanted McCaffrey to continue to be the centerpiece of their offense and ease the transition to their next QB. Of course, none of that has happened as planned. When McCaffrey returns in '22, everyone will be watching to see whether this was just an unlucky run or the durability red flags are real.
4. The NFC East is still live, folks. Earlier this season, it looked like the Cowboys were running away with the division, avoiding our delightful December tradition the past few seasons of tracking which NFC East team would back its way into a playoff berth. Not so fast! After a 6–1 start, the Cowboys have lost three of their last four games, dropping to 7–4. Now, they have a COVID-19 outbreak among the team in advance of Thursday’s game at New Orleans. Dallas is still the clear favorite, but Washington (5–6) and Philadelphia (5–7) aren’t far behind, though the Eagles’ chances were dented with Sunday’s loss to the Giants. After the Saints game, four of the Cowboys' last five games are within the division, including two meetings with Washington. The fifth game is against the 9–2 Cardinals. Also: Washington has five division games left, and Philadelphia has four. It’s almost like the schedule-makers set things up this way.
5. It was a sloppy Sunday of football, and we have the stats to back it up. By “we,” I mean Gary Gramling, reporting from his proprietary spreadsheet that can accurately predict the Super Bowl winners for the rest of this century (if he chooses to share his results with us). Anyway, Gary’s secret number-crunching generated this stat that sums up Sunday’s games: There have been 21 occasions this season in which a team has turned over the ball four-plus times in a game. Four of those happened on Sunday (five for the Colts; four each for the Ravens, Eagles and Titans).
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