It’s OK, Green Bay—He’s Back
Not much happened on the last day of the regular season Sunday. Just:
• The greatest regular-season game of Aaron Rodgers’ career. I asked him where the 33-28 NFC North title game win ranked, the one with the 48-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb on 4th-and-8 with 46 seconds left to win it. "There’s the Super Bowl, and then the Atlanta playoff game that year," he said from Green Bay late Sunday night upon arriving home from the win in Chicago. "Then this game. Today’s in the top three of all of my games. It was special, for so many reasons." Including some eye-opening words about the team physician we all assumed he hated.
• A totally Brownsian firing. Can you imagine what it must have been like to be lifelong Browns fan and 2013 Browns coach Rob Chudzinski Sunday night around 9, getting blindsided by the rumors of your firing after the last game of the season in Pittsburgh, wondering on the two-hour bus ride home if they could possibly be true, and then listening to club president Joe Banner destroy your dream, dismissing you after just 352 days of a four-year contract? I can’t imagine a more unexpected and brutal way to go. I told the news to one of the stalwart Browns, linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, at 9:55 Sunday night. "We fired Chud? Are you kidding me?" he said, stunned. Wish I was.
• The wrong team might have won the sixth seed in the AFC. In the Year of the Blown Call, it’s fitting that as two officials from the Bill Leavy crew stared at a blatant violation on a 41-yard field-goal attempt that would have won the game for Kansas City, neither threw a flag. The kick went wide right. Ryan Succop should have had a second chance from five yards closer, but he didn’t, and San Diego won in overtime. If Succop had converted, there’d have been a five-way tie for the sixth playoff seed in the AFC at 8-8, and the Steelers would have won the tiebreaker. As it is, the Chargers finished 9-7 and play a wild-card game at Cincinnati Sunday. And Pittsburghers wake up this morning, read this, spit out their coffee and wonder, "Is this karmic payback for The Immaculate Reception?"
• Chip Kelly copped the NFC East in his inaugural NFL coaching season. Closer than anyone thought (Philly 24, Dallas 22), but the last team into the playoffs finished the season on a 7-1 run. The Eagles will be a tough out, and as long as Kelly coaches them, they'll be in a lot of big Week 17 games.
• The Eagles won a couple of other crowns. LeSean McCoy won the first rushing title by an Eagle in 64 years, and it wasn’t close: McCoy 1,607, Matt Forte 1,339. Nick Foles beat out Peyton Manning for passer rating, 119.2-115.1; these things happen when your touchdown-to-interception differential is 27-to-2. Pierre Garcon of Washington led the league with 113 receptions, and Robert Mathis of the Colts edged Robert Quinn of the Rams for the sack title, 19.5-19.
• Houston won the first pick in the draft by losing its 14th straight. GM Rick Smith was on hand to see the best game of Teddy Bridgewater’s college life Saturday night in Orlando. Owner Bob McNair will be in the house Wednesday to see Jadeveon Clowney play Wisconsin. The Texans might even find time to hire Bill O’Brien this week to spearhead the revival of the franchise.
• Peyton Manning finished his assault on history. He broke the record for passing yards in a season (5,477) by a single yard over Drew Brees, and extended his record for touchdown passes in a season to 55 with a four-TD first half at Oakland. He’ll need 18 touchdown passes next season, at 38, to pass Brett Favre’s career-TD record of 508. As one of my Twitter followers wrote, "So, Week 2?"
• Déjà vu all over again. Every one of the wild-card games is a rematch from playoff games past. Kansas City at Indianapolis (previous playoff meetings: 1995, 2003, 2006 seasons) and New Orleans at Philadelphia (1992, 2006) are the Saturday games; San Diego at Cincinnati (Freezer Bowl in Cincinnati, 1981) and San Francisco at Green Bay (1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2001, 2012) will play Sunday.
On with the show.
* * *
Aaron Rodgers is grateful for Pat McKenzie.
When the game for the NFC North championship was over Sunday at Soldier Field, and when the Packers—who won only twice in the two months Aaron Rodgers was missing with his broken collarbone—were back in their locker room after a 33-28 victory helped rescued by Rodgers, he found team physician Pat McKenzie in the din of a happy place.
Rodgers bearhugged McKenzie.
"I’ll keep what was said between us," he told me. "But I will say it was a good moment. I have so much respect for that man."
Waitwhat? Rodgers broke the collarbone Nov. 4 against Chicago, and for the past month, every week in Green Bay has been full of wonder over whether McKenzie, the Packers' team physician, would clear Rodgers to return to play. No clearance in Week 13. None in Week 14, None in Week 15. None in Week 16. As time went on, you could see the frustration in coach Mike McCarthy, and you could practically hear the grinding of the teeth when Rodgers would make his public pronouncements. The season was slipping away, and Rodgers wanted to play. Though Rodgers said most of the right things in front of the cameras, there were whispers that he thought McKenzie was being too cautious with him.
“Sometimes, doctors need to step up and save players from themselves, and I felt that’s what Pat did in this case. ... It wasn’t easy, but I can tell you, it paid off today.”
For years, players have thought team doctors worked for the team first and the player a distant second. That’s what was at the core of the head-trauma case that the NFL and former players settled for $765 million last summer—the assertion that doctors and teams were putting players back into the game for years when they knew there was some danger in doing so. And so here was McKenzie doing what players have wanted for years—a doctor putting the player first and the team second—and he felt the pressure from inside and outside the organization (and from Rodgers’ teammates, subtly) to put the savior back on the field.
"Pat and I are really close," Rodgers said, "and now I respect him even more, after we went through this. Sometimes, doctors need to step up and save players from themselves, and I felt that’s what Pat did in this case. I felt every week he was doing what was in my best interests, even thought I didn’t agree with him all the time—not at all. All the time, we were looking at the same stuff on the scans , and he was saying what had to be said. It wasn’t easy, but I can tell you, it paid off today."
It paid off because Rodgers wasn’t in pain during the game, he said. "I felt really good," he said. "I never took any big shots all day." He was sacked three times, but never a shot that landed him on the area that was hurt 48 days earlier. The game was an odd one for Rodgers, because though he wasn’t rusty and didn’t feel that way, he made two uncharacteristic throws in the first 16 minutes that were intercepted and threatened to put Green Bay too far behind. "Poor decisions," he said. "But I expect to play better as we go along—and I’ll have to this weekend. But as the game went along, I felt good, and I really got into a rhythm." It helped that running backs James Starks and Eddie Lacy were so effective (68 of 80 yards on a third-quarter scoring drive came on the ground), and Rodgers didn’t have to do everything himself.
Down 28-20 early in the fourth quarter, Rodgers hit three of three on the first touchdown drive of the quarter. With 6:24 left, he took the ball at his 13, down 28-27, knowing that with Matt Forte having a big day on the other side, this might be his last chance; Chicago could eat a lot of clock with Forte moving the sticks. Packers coach Mike McCarthy clearly was not willing to take a chance at giving the ball back to the Bears. He went for it on 4th-and-1 from the Packers 23 and again on 4th-and-1 from the Green Bay 44. Fullback John Kuhn converted the first one, barely, and Rodgers hit Jordy Nelson for six at the two-minute warning on the second. But Rodgers missed two throws downfield, close calls; the first was an underthrow to an open Andrew Quarless, and the second, on 3rd-and-8 with 51 seconds left, was a throw behind Jordy Nelson, also open in the middle of the field. Uncharacteristic misses by a man playing a high-pressure game for the first time in seven weeks.
Last chance: 4th-and-8 at the Bears 48. Rodgers didn’t expect what he got. He had three receivers to the left and one to the right—and the Bears decided to blitz heavy. Three extra men coming. "They rushed seven," he said. "I was going to Jordy right away, but all that changed when they brought seven." As Julius Peppers steamed in, unblocked by a lineman, from Rodgers’ left, Kuhn dove at him to try to save the sack. Good move. Rodgers spun out of it and Peppers just got one hand on him. The Bears clearly were trying to stop the short completion, stop the Packers from converting, and safety Chris Conte sat near the first-down line, the Bears 40, stunned to see Randall Cobb—in his first game back, too, after rehabbing a broken leg—streak past him.
"I just wanted to be sure I didn’t underthrow him," Rodgers said.
He didn’t. Good throw. Touchdown. One of the biggest of Rodgers’ life.
"If I don’t get that block from John … " he said.
"I guess this is what the league wanted when they started scheduling all those divisional games for the last week of the season, right?" Rodgers said.
And so now 12-4 San Francisco comes to 8-7-1 Green Bay for a late Sunday afternoon game. The long-range forecast is for snow showers Saturday and a wind chill of between zero and 5 degrees at kickoff Sunday. "They’re saying maybe six inches of snow," Rodgers said. The California kid sounded happy.
What in tarnation are the Browns doing?
A little more than a year ago, when Jimmy Haslam bought the Browns from Randy Lerner, the most sensible thing he said concerned the coaching merry-go-round the team had been on. Haslam was a minority owner of the Steelers when he bought the Browns, and stability, obviously, was the Pittsburgh way of doing business. As he told me of the Browns: "They've averaged a new coach once every 2.8 years , and that's just not a good recipe." He was right. Excluding interim coach Terry Robiskie in 2004, Cleveland had five head coaches in the 14 seasons between 1999 and 2012, and that’s 2.8 seasons per coach.
More Haslam, from October 2012: "One thing I learned from watching the Steelers is the importance of consistency in coaching, and how much it sets you back when you're always making a change. When you change coaches, it can be a three- or four-year deal to get back."
That brings us to Rob Chudzinski. The new regime led by Haslam and president Joe Banner went through a battery of interviews, clearly preferring Oregon’s Chip Kelly. But Kelly wasn’t ready to commit, and then he committed to Philadelphia, so the Browns turned to Chudzinski, a Browns fan since his youth in Toledo.
The Browns have battened the hatches this year, preferring all information to come from Chudzinski and Banner. GM Mike Lombardi rarely speaks, on or off the record, and so the news that began to leak Sunday afternoon was stunning: Chudzinski’s job was in danger. Actually, it was more than endangered—the team had decided to fire him Friday, after less than a full year on the job, and tell him Monday. But when speculation following the season-ending 20-7 loss at Pittsburgh ran rampant, the club decided to move up the timetable, telling Chudzinski when he returned on the bus with the team from Pittsburgh Sunday night. By 9:15 p.m., it was done.
"We’ve had some crazy things happen since I’ve been here. ... But this one, this tops the list. This is just crazy." —D'Qwell Jackson
The Browns will meet the press today at 12:30 to explain themselves. I doubt it will go well. And it shouldn’t. If you give a man a four-year contract to coach your team and fire him after 11-and-a-half months, clearly you have either misjudged the man severely, had a shoddy coaching search in the first place or panicked. Or all three.
I expect Cleveland brass will say, politely, that the team simply wasn’t improving. The Browns looked like a strong defensive team in the first month (Cleveland started 3-2) and disintegrated into one that lost 10 of its last 11. The team that spent $40 million to import Paul Kruger in free agency and drafted Barkevious Mingo high in the first round was supposed to use those two as cornerstones of a ferocious pass rush; but Cleveland had only two more sacks this season than in 2012, and Kruger and Mingo combined for only 9.5. If Banner and Haslam tell the truth, maybe they’ll say not everyone is cut out to be an NFL head coach, and maybe Chudzinski was one slot above the job he does best: offensive coordinator.
And if they kept Chudzinski, they’d be asking him to develop the next quarterback, along with offensive coordinator Norv Turner. What if there was a disconnect between the quarterback the front office wanted (I hear Cleveland really likes Johnny Manziel, who is not the Aikmanish pocket passer more to Turner’s liking) and the one the coaches preferred? If they made a clean break now, they wouldn’t be delaying what they felt was inevitable.
The front office will definitely have to sell the players on the move. Because the players Sunday night were not happy. At all. The ultimate team guys and longest-serving Browns, D’Qwell Jackson and tackle Joe Thomas, were both upset by it.
Jackson told me: "On the bus back to Pittsburgh, Jabaal Sheard showed me a text from his agent that said Chud could be fired. I said, ‘No way. No way.’ After the Trent Richardson trade and our quarterback injuries, I thought for sure he’d get a pass. Not one year. Come on. One year? There’s no way. Chud was good for us, good for the team. He came in and did everything right, I thought.
"At the end of the day, you’ve got to trust Banner and company know what they’re doing, and have something planned for us."
Today, I hope someone asks Haslam about his statement to me 14 months ago. If I can talk to him, I certainly will. And about this: Pittsburgh has had three coaches since 1969. Cleveland will be hiring its 17th coach since 1969 in the coming weeks. Is that any way to run a railroad?
"Three since 1969?" Jackson said. "That’s incredible. Next year will be my ninth season here—and it’ll be my fifth head coach."
Jackson sighed. "We’ve had some crazy things happen since I’ve been here. This is actually the second time a coach got fired after we bused back from our last game in Pittsburgh. It happened to Romeo Crennel too. But this one, this tops the list. This is just crazy."
It’s going to be a crazy day in Cleveland. And the craziness isn’t over there.
* * *
Five things all over the map.
1. Miami sounded Sunday night like a place of change. I wouldn't be surprised to see coaching staff changes, and I’m hearing mixed messages about GM Jeff Ireland. Stay tuned. Owner Stephen Ross seems like he was ready to make some changes when he left the stadium after eight disappointing days for the Dolphins.
2. Be careful about making Josh McDaniels the next coach of the Browns. There is no doubt the Browns will be interested in northeast Ohio native and New England offensive coordinator McDaniels, even after his failed tenure in Denver. But those who know McDaniels tell me he’ll only take a job he’s convinced can be a winner. Right now, the Cleveland job has a moat surrounding it, with alligators swimming in it, so I think Cleveland will be hard-pressed to convince McDaniels it’s a great job for him. Maybe Detroit, if it opens, with a good quarterback who needs to be coached and some very good defensive talent, would be more up McDaniels’ alley. But he’s not the kind of guy itching to be a head coach, I’m told. He’s happy coaching Tom Brady and working under Bill Belichick, I’m told.
3. Once a Eufaulan, always a Eufaulan. As Rams GM Les Snead (a native of Eufaula, Ala.) sat in a Seahawks luxury box Sunday, watching the early games to see where his team would be picking in the May draft, he saw an unknown wideout, Jerrel Jernigan, lead the Giants to a win over Washington … and hand the Rams Washington’s No. 2 overall pick. Jernigan’s a Eufaula kid too, and had six catches for 90 yards and a touchdown, plus a 49-yard touchdown run. "He went to my high school," said Snead. "He was the quarterback on the team, and I’m watching him, and here he is, helping us get the No. 2 pick." Snead made it clear that, with the second pick, the Rams are open for business. He’d like to get an extra first-rounder out of the deal if possible, and with a major bargaining chip like Jadeveon Clowney or Teddy Bridgewater (if the Louisville quarterback comes out, as expected) in play, he may be able to reach his goal. "There are going to be some teams that want to pick a quarterback," said Snead, "and that could increase the value of our pick. I have told people I’m not sure I know how to draft without multiple first-round picks, so I’m always going to be interested when it comes to making sure I can continue to do that."
4. Fletcher and Gonzalez say goodbye. Any doubt Gonzalez could keep playing? His first year with Atlanta, at age 33, he caught 83 balls for 867 yards and six touchdowns. This year, at 37, he finished with 83 catches for 859 yards and eight touchdowns. He’ll go into the sunset to a TV job. As will Fletcher—or so he hopes. After his final game against the Giants Sunday (and it is final, unless he’s sitting around unemployed next fall and some team calls), Giants tight end coach Mike Pope, who has coached against Fletcher for years, found him on the field and told him, "I appreciate the way you play the game. I’ve been a fan of you for years." Said Fletcher: "The key to my career was I never got complacent, and I always studied the great ones." Talk about two players, and two people, who will be missed.
5. Remember this about being the top seed. In the last 19 seasons, only once (2009, New Orleans and Indy) have the two top seeds entering the playoffs advanced to the Super Bowl. In the last generation, home-field advantage has become decreasingly important. My two low seeds to watch this year: No. 5 San Francisco and No. 5 Kansas City.
The gift that keeps on giving.
No, it’s not the Jelly of the Month Club, all you Christmas Vacation devotees. It’s the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft. When the Rams traded down four spots last year, from No. 2 overall to No. 6, it allowed Washington to move up to take Robert Griffin III. In addition to the sixth pick in the ’12 draft, Washington gave St. Louis a second-round pick in 2012 and first-round picks in 2013 and 2014.
Sunday’s final scores mean Washington’s first-round pick is the second overall, and so the results for St. Louis are real, and they’re spectacular. (Okay, I’ll stop with the bad movie/TV references.) The Rams have made five trades involving the original pick or the tentacles of that pick, and have six players from the trade under contract today.
But at the end of the day, the original trade down with the Redskins will only be very good for the Rams if Sam Bradford becomes an upper-echelon NFL quarterback. And by the time the Rams know whether he will be, the fruits from the trade will already be used up. Bradford, of course, is about six weeks out from ACL surgery and is projected to be fully healthy for the start of training camp in seven months.
What the Rams have gotten so far:
Starters (4): Defensive tackle Michael Brockers (first round, 2012), cornerback Janoris Jenkins (second round, 2012), linebacker Alec Ogletree (first round, 2013), running back Zac Stacy (fifth round, 2013—he cost one additional sixth-round pick).
Backups (2): Running back Isaiah Pead (second round, 2012), wide receiver Stedman Bailey (third round, 2013).
Waived (1): Guard Rokevious Watkins (fifth round, 2012), now a backup in Kansas City.
The big whiff was Pead, who hasn’t been good enough to earn a No. 2 job; fifth- (Stacy, before being named the starter this year) and seventh-round (Daryl Richardson) backs have beaten him out for that. Jenkins and Brockers have been middling but solid starters, Ogletree has made some splash plays and looks like a keeper, and Stacy is one of the best 2013 draft bargains; he’s good enough that the Rams won't have to make running back a priority entering 2014.
Now? As you read further up, St. Louis brass is likely to look to churn the pick again this year. If Cleveland is in love with a quarterback and wants to move up—or if any team is—the Rams will listen and try to turn another high first-rounder into multiple good prospects.
* * *
My current problem with quarterback-prospecting …
... revolves around Matt Flynn. I look at Oakland, where Flynn was shipped in the offseason, and I see the Raiders floundering at the position after cutting bait with him nearly three months ago. I see the Bills, who did the same after a short trial with Flynn when E.J. Manuel was down. And I say: You’re telling me Matt Flynn couldn’t have helped either team, either playing or by providing depth? I say this after watching the Packers for the past month, because Matt Flynn saved their season. Matt Flynn made the return of Aaron Rodgers Sunday in Chicago relevant. Without Flynn, Scott Tolzien would have given it the ol’ Badger try ... and failed.
There isn’t a team right now in the NFL that wants to hand Matt Flynn the reins to run the team for the next five years. Understood. But the cavalier treatment of him, particularly in a quarterback-needy place like Oakland, troubles me. When I was in training camp with the Raiders, I remember GM Reggie McKenzie telling me Flynn wasn’t the most gifted athlete with the biggest cannon, but he was smart, confident and the right guy to lead the Raiders in a time of transition. Boom. Ten weeks later he’s on the street.
Finally back in his comfort zone, Green Bay, Flynn orchestrated a tie and two wins in his five games. He was good, not great. But I would submit that if you watched Flynn in the second half of the Minnesota tie and the two wins (Dallas and Atlanta), you’d see a quarterback who belongs on the roster of a good team, and starting for some teams. After trailing Minnesota (20-7), Atlanta (21-10) and Dallas (26-3) early in the third quarter, Flynn led Green Bay to 65 points in the three second halves and put up these numbers:
|Completions/Attempts||Completion %||Yards||Yards per Attempt||Touchdowns||Interceptions||Rating|
Bottom line: If you know what Flynn is as a quarterback—and former Packer exec McKenzie did know what he was—why be impatient with him? Especially when the realistic goal of the Raiders this year should have been to get the quarterback right for the future. Based on the last month, Oakland has zero idea who its quarterback is for 2014.
* * *
2014 scheduling tidbits I love.
With the end of the regular season, we can now look ahead to the intriguing storylines impacting games next year.
RG3-Luck. Washington is at Indianapolis, and the first two picks of the 2012 draft will, presumably, face off for the first time.
The tables, and home team, will be turned in Manning-Luck. Indy will play at Denver.
Brady-Manning XV. The most familiar non-division rivalry in recent football history, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, happens for the 15th time in 14 seasons since Brady took over the starting job in New England. Just think: If Manning didn’t miss the 2011 season with a neck injury and Brady didn’t miss most of 2008 with a torn ACL, it could be 17 times in 16 seasons. (Then again, maybe the Colts wouldn’t have dumped Manning for Andrew Luck if the former was healthy in 2011.)
Jim Harbaugh will get a closeup of what he missed. Niners at Denver. Harbaugh went after Peyton Manning two Marches ago and lost him to the Broncos.
Why the NFL needs a permanent, annual rivalry game for every team. San Francisco travels 38 miles around the Bay to face the Raiders—the first time since 2002 they’ve played in Oakland. Steve Mariucci and Bill Callahan were the head coaches that day, and Jerry Rice ran routes for the Raiders.
And speaking of rarely played intrastate rivalries ... St. Louis at Kansas City. Houston at Dallas. Games like this should happen every season, and those teams without a great natural rival should invent one. Dallas and the Giants are half a country apart, but that got to be a great rivalry because of the frequency of the game. It can happen anywhere, and the beneficiaries would be fanbases like Washington’s and Baltimore’s, where a great rivalry between those two teams would develop.
1. Seattle (13-3). That is some bitter relationship between Seattle and St. Louis. Glad no one was hurt out there.
2. San Francisco (12-4). Trent Baalke’s roster depth paid off Sunday in the desert. Colin Kaepernick’s 29-yard pass to the unknown Quinton Patton, a rookie fourth-round pick from Louisiana Tech, put the Niners in position for the winning 40-yard field goal as time ran out in Arizona.
3. Denver (13-3). Love this line from Mark Kiszla of The Denver Post midway through the first half at Oakland: "This score just in: Denver 17, Oakland doesn’t care."
4. Carolina (12-4). From 1-3 to the second seed in the NFC ... That is one heck of a coaching and playing job by the Panthers, and their reward before their next opponent comes to town in two weeks is a healing week off.
5. New England (12-4). Think of the agonizing four losses the Patriots have had in this four-loss season ... 13-6 in a torrential downpour in Cincinnati, 30-27 with that push-the-pile penalty against the Jets, 24-20 on the wrongly picked-up flag in the end zone in Carolina, 24-20 with four shots into the end zone to win in Miami. Amazing how close this team came to the best record in football with the mayhem it dealt with at the skill positions all year.
6. New Orleans (11-5). Wow: Drew Brees exceeded 5,000 passing yards for the fourth time in his career Sunday ... and no one else has done it more than once.
7. Cincinnati (11-5). But the four picks, Andy Dalton … that’s got to stop if the Bengals are going to win their first playoff game since forever.
8. Indianapolis (11-5). With a free month to get their act together, the Colts did just that. Trent Richardson even got into the act Sunday in the rout of the Jags.
9. Kansas City (11-5). Chase Daniel earned lots of respects, and probably some money, with an A-minus performance at San Diego.
10. Green Bay (8-7-1). Aaron Rodgers puts the Packers here, almost all by himself. What a performance, with the cobwebs hanging off him.
11. Philadelphia (10-6). Saints at Eagles Sunday. What a great game, even if the great outdoors is New Orleans’ kryptonite.
12. San Diego (9-7). "Go celebrate with the fans," coach Mike McCoy told his team, intelligently, after the harder-than-anyone-thought-it-would-be overtime win over the Chiefs. Great to see McCoy and Philip Rivers succeed together after some down years for the QB.
13. Arizona (10-6). What an admirable team, with a great future.
14. Pittsburgh (8-8). I wish they’d gotten in. I wanted to see Ben Roethlisberger take aim at the Bengals again. Would have been great theater.
15. (tie) Chicago (8-8). Matt Forte is one of the best players in football. I mean, top 20. What a tremendous performance he had in the loss to Green Bay—26 touches, 157 yards, three touchdowns.
(tie) Miami (8-8). With a playoff spot theirs for the taking, The Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Dolphins went 0-2 the last two weeks against the Bills and Jets. Score: Foes 39, Dolphs 7.
The Awards Section
Offensive Players of the Week
Aaron Rodgers, quarterback, Green Bay. Rodgers has had better days numerically that this one: 25 of 39, 318 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions, 85.2 rating. But the great ones play great when it’s most important. Playing for the first time in eight weeks in Sunday’s NFC North championship game, Rodgers led 77- and 87-yard touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, the last one capped by a 48-yard touchdown pass on a fourth-down scramble to Randall Cobb with 46 seconds left. Talk about a clutch return.
LeGarrette Blount, running back, New England. His season rushing high before the finale against Buffalo was 76 yards. The Patriots didn’t want the Bills, the leading sack team in football, to dominate this game, and so Tom Brady threw it only 24 times in the win over Buffalo. That’s also how often Blount ran it—for 189 yards and two touchdowns. That was a huge factor in continuing the Bills’ inability to win in Foxboro. They’ve never won at Gillette Stadium.
Marvin Jones, wide receiver, Cincinnati. The most unsung Bengal in an explosive offensive year, Jones made a ridiculous one-handed touchdown catch with Baltimore cornerback Lardarius Webb hanging all over him in the first half, keying Cincinnati’s 34-17 win. Touchdowns this season: A.J. Green 11, Marvin Jones 10. In the second half, with Jones leaping to catch his would-be 11th touchdown of the season, he was interfered with by Baltimore corner Jimmy Smith, and, with the ball placed at the 1-yard-line, Andy Dalton ran it in for the decisive score.
Defensive Players of the Week
Robert Mathis, outside linebacker, Indianapolis. At 32, Mathis won his first NFL sack championship Sunday, sacking Jacksonville quarterback Chad Henne twice, giving him 19.5 for the season. He edged Rams sensation Robert Quinn (19), and Mathis will be a threat to torment Alex Smith on the Lucas Oil carpet this weekend.
Greg Hardy, defensive end, Carolina. Attention, NFC, entering the playoffs: Seven sacks in the last two weeks for Hardy, the former sixth-round pick who has played in the shadow of many Panthers in his career. He tormented Matt Ryan with four sacks and four additional pressures Sunday in the 21-20 division-clinching win at Atlanta.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Phil Dawson, placekicker, San Francisco. For his 56-yard game-winner at Arizona, inside of two minutes, to go up by three and apparently win the game, and then, after the Cards tied it up with 29 seconds left, for his 40-yarder right down the middle as time expired for a 23-20 Niners win.
Coach of the Week
Mike McCarthy, head coach, Green Bay. I lost count of players on IR at 17 (including Randall Cobb, who was designated to return, which he did in a very big way Sunday), and then you have to add in the half-season missed by the most important player on the team, Aaron Rodgers. Still, McCarthy got this team to a highly unlikely division title and a home playoff game. A great coaching job.
Goats of the Week
Ryan Succop, placekicker, Kansas City. Missed the 41-yard field goal that would have beaten the Chargers in regulation and sent the Steelers to the playoffs. If you’re passing through western Pennsylvania in the near future, Mr. Succop, don’t wear Chiefs stuff.
The Bill Leavy officiating crew. Missed the illegal formation penalty against the Chargers on Succop’s 41-yard missed field goal attempt that would have given Succop another try, from 36 yards. If Succop had been given the second shot and made it, well, that would have put Pittsburgh in the playoffs, not San Diego. The worst part of this: Two officials—who appear from the tape to be side judge Keith Parham and umpire Ruben Fowler—were staring straight at the line from behind the Chargers rushers before the snap of the ball. They had to see the seven Chargers on the line to the right of the ball, which is illegal. Teams can have only six men on either side of the ball when it is snapped on a field-goal try.
Quotes of the Week
"I was shaking and sweating. There were tears in my eyes. It was really weird. Here was this Heisman Trophy winner, giving me a ball that he scored with."
Great idea: Scott Fowler of the Observer spent a month searching for kids who’d been gifted a football by the Carolina quarterback after he scored a touchdown. That’s been a Newton tradition since he became an NFL player in 2011; he’s done it between 40 and 50 times. Fowler found 16 of them, including a girl with ADHD and hearing aids who was profoundly inspired by the gift. Fowler gathered them for a photo at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, and Newton surprised them by showing up and spending 30 minutes with them.
It’s really a great read, and a great tradition started by Newton.
"For me, I’m really tired of living and dying with the game. Every game. I’ve tried to turn it off. I’m still trying. I can’t. It sucks. Believe me, it sucks."
—Tony Gonzalez, who played his last game Sunday against Carolina and is retiring after 17 years (and missing two games) as an NFL tight end, to me in an interview for The MMQB last week.
"It’s a conversation between me and the coaches."
—Quarterback (we think that’s the position he plays still) Josh Freeman of the Vikings, to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, on why he has been buried on the Minnesota quarterback depth chart for most of the three months he’s been employed by the team.
This is the strangest personnel story of the NFL season. Released by the Bucs in early October, Freeman signs with the Vikings for $2 million for the last 12 games of the season. He plays one game, poorly (37.7 percent completions, 40.6 rating), in a loss to the Giants. He is active for two others but doesn’t play. He is inactive for the other nine, including Sunday’s finale against Detroit. After he played the one game, he did have a concussion, but Freeman has reportedly been ready to play but not used for the last nine weeks.
Nice work if you can get it: One bad football game, 11 on the bench, $2 million.
Freeman will be an intriguing, and mysterious, prospect for some team in 2014: a 26-year-old quarterback with a 4,000-yard season under his belt, left to rot by two bad teams in 2013.
Factoids of the Week That May Interest Only Me
London Fletcher, the 38-year-old middle linebacker for Washington, played what we presume will be his last game Sunday. I say "presume" because he has left the door ajar slightly for a 2014 return for a limited number of games if a team needs a wise old owl in the middle of the defense.
But let’s say Sunday was his last day. Here’s what I find most amazing about Fletcher: Since he turned 30, he has played nine seasons in the NFL—two with Buffalo, seven with Washington. In those nine seasons, his teams played 146 games, 144 in the regular season and two in the playoffs. Fletcher has started all 146 games in his 30s.
That is an amazing fact, considering the beating middle linebackers take from physical tight ends on crossing patterns and from pulling guards and centers who outweigh him by 65 pounds.
We think of Ray Lewis as an ironman, right? Lewis’ Ravens played 142 games in the regular- and post-season after Lewis turned 30. He started 114 of them. Which makes Fletcher’s mark all the more impressive, at least to me.
So you want to be a football coach, eh?
Brian VanGorder is 54 years old. On Saturday, he accepted the 18th different coaching job in a 32-year coaching career. His last decade is the most intriguing:
2004—Defensive coordinator, Georgia.
2005—Linebackers coach, Jacksonville.
2006—Head coach, Georgia Southern.
2007—Linebackers coach, Falcons.
2008-11—Defensive coordinator (new staff), Falcons.
2012—Defensive coordinator, Auburn.
2013—Linebacker coach, Jets.
2014—Defensive coordinator, Notre Dame.
Not really the life for me.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Travel Note of the Week
Holiday time in New York. Tourist season. I was at Grand Central Station the other day, doing a little shopping in the concourse. The place was mobbed. There’s a huge Apple store there, and as I walked by, there was a crowd at the bottom of the stairs leading to the entrance of the store. Logjam. People couldn’t get by. And I looked up to see a line of tourists waiting to take photos with the Apple logo. Sometimes I don’t get America.
Stat of the Week
|W-L||Winning %||Winning % Rank (compared to other seven divisions)||Points For/Against|
|NFC West, 2010||25-39||39.1||8th||-322|
|NFC West, 2013||42-22||65.6||1st||+359|
How the feeble have risen in three short years.
Tweets of the Week
"Never before needed a Heimlich at halftime. (Or any time)! thanks Jesse Palmer! He saved me from death by dry chicken sandwich. Really."
—@cbfowler, ESPN college football studio host Chris Fowler, after Jesse Palmer Heimliched him at halftime of the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium Saturday.
"My wife says I can’t sit on the furniture, I told her I’m in the Hall of Fame I can lay down on it if I want to."
—@criscarter80, indeed a Hall of Fame player.
"Are these the same kids who can barely wake up for school?"
—@Hasselbeck, Indianapolis quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, tweeting at 5:40 a.m. on Christmas morning, presumably when his three children were tearing about the house like banshees, opening every wrapped item with reckless abandon.
"@PaulKuharskyNFL no I’m sayin yu got a smart mouth Only wen it come to this twitter thing. Matter of fact, let go for dinner. Talk like men."
—@KennyBritt_18, the Tennessee wide receiver, asking longtime Titans beat man Paul Kuharsky out for dinner, so they could discuss why Kuharsky has been critical of Britt.
* * *
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 17:
a. Ryan Tannehill, on his second-quarter touchdown throw to Mike Wallace, showed precisely what very good quarterbacks in the league have to show: accuracy and smarts under intense pressure, against a free rusher. He’s become a very impressive quarterback this year.
b. Good luck, Scott Green. You’ve been a good ref. The game will miss you. Sunday in Cincinnati was Green’s last regular-season game.
c. Great camera work by CBS in Cleveland-Pittsburgh, isolating on a dejected Josh Gordon, wide open in the end zone but not getting the ball. The camera lingered. Gordon looked like he’d just lost his dog. Great shot.
d. Cordarrelle Patterson is a really exciting football player. Best thing that happened to the Vikings this season.
e. Speaking of the best thing that happened to a bad team, have you seen Paul Worrilow play mike linebacker for Atlanta? Two plays in a row Sunday he crushed Cam Newton, continuing a season-long trend of always being around the ball. Not bad for an undrafted college free agent from Delaware.
f. What a catch in the end zone, Jerrel Jernigan. Giants have a valuable piece for 2014 in Jernigan.
g. Another play—an interception—by the terminally underrated Antoine Bethea.
h. Bilal Powell! With the assist! You’ve got to see the highlight of Powell blasting Geno Smith the final half-yard into the end zone when Smith was held up just shy. Gave the Jets a 14-7 halftime lead at Miami.
i. Jon Kitna giving his found-money game check of $53,000 for one week as a Dallas backup quarterback to the high school in Washington where he is a math teacher. Falls under the "what a guy" category.
j. The Tony Romo story is why Adam Schefter’s so good, people.
k. Anquan Boldin. Where would the Niners be without him and his 85 catches for 1,179 yards this year?
l. What a spin move and catch in the end zone by Brandon Marshall. Marshall and Alshon Jeffery might not be going to the playoffs, but they’re going to be big postseason players soon for Chicago.
m. The Jets keeping Rex Ryan. What option did they have, really? They had the worst collection of offensive skill players outside of Jacksonville (and maybe worse), and somehow they finished 8-8. Woody Johnson would have been ridiculed, and rightfully so, if he and John Idzik had cut ties with Ryan.
n. Good point from ESPNBoston's Field Yates: Scott Pioli, my NBC partner this season, had a role in drafting seven Pro Bowlers—four for the Chiefs and three for New England.
2. I think this is what I didn’t like about Week 17:
a. Interesting Baltimore defensive plan on the Cincinnati first-quarter touchdown bomb to A.J. Green: not covering him.
b. Matt Cassel failing to make a Metrodome memory in the last game ever there, missing a wide open Jared Allen (yes, Jared Allen) in the end zone in what would have been a second-quarter touchdown.
c. Come on, Jay Gruden. Run it in from the 1, especially when you’re running it so well. Why risk a bad fade? And a pick to keep the Ravens alive?
d. Mike Shanahan’s record this season (3-13), and his record in his last seven seasons as a head coach (three in Denver, four in Washington): 48-65, with zero playoff wins.
e. Tony Romo, who will be 34 next season, has now had two significant back surgeries. If I were the Cowboys, and I like one of the quarterbacks in the 2014 draft in the third round, I’d take him.
f. Jeff Fisher has to get control of his team. Way too chippy.
3. I think the Kansas City Chiefs have some pretty good depth. Impressive showing by Chase Daniel in San Diego, and if Ryan Succop makes one of the most makeable kicks a kicker could have, the Chiefs would have flown home winners while playing a backup team against a team fighting to make the playoffs.
4. I think I would not like to be officiating boss Dean Blandino when he goes into his meeting with senior staff, including Roger Goodell, today at the league office in New York. Too many mistakes, easily spotted ones, keep happening in the league. How on earth can you be an umpire or side judge staring at the defensive line and see seven players on one side of the center—clearly in violation of a league rule that says six is the most players on the line of scrimmage on either side of the center before a field goal or PAT—and not throw a flag? The league owes the Steelers and the people of Pittsburgh a mea culpa. And I’m beginning to think the offending officials on such obvious plays like that should have to sit a game. It’s just too important a situation for the only consequences during the season to be an offending official not making the playoffs. Coaches bench players if they don’t perform. Blandino should be able to bench officials if they don’t perform.
5. I think, as I said on NBC Sports Network Friday night, that I can’t fathom the Bears paying Jay Cutler $20 million a year (the going rate for long-term good quarterbacks) on a multiyear deal, and I also can’t fathom them NOT tendering him as a franchise player. If the Bears tender him and another team signs him to an offer the Bears don’t match, they’d receive a first-round pick in return. So he’d either be a $16 million hit (the cost of the franchise tag) on Chicago’s salary cap in 2014, or he’d play elsewhere and the Bears would get a pick in return. But if the Bears don’t give him that $16 million qualifying offer, he could leave the team for anyone else, and the Bears would receive no compensation. It would make no sense for Chicago not to sign him to the one-year tender, even if GM Phil Emery decided the team was better off without his huge salary.
6. I think I agreed with NFL hearing officer Matt Birk, eliminating the Ahmad Brooks fine for clotheslining Drew Brees in the neck on a pass rush Nov. 17. I did think it was a penalty, because Brooks did hit Brees illegally. But the NFL has gone too far with fines of players. Players should be fined for egregious, over-the-top hits and cheap shots, not hits that are accidents, which Brooks’ clearly was.
7. I think—no, I know—that Greg Schiano has not been in contact with Penn State, and he is telling the truth when he says he has the only job he wants right now. The Penn State job would be a lot more desirable if it wasn’t facing two or three years more of mediocrity. That’s why you see Bill O’Brien exploring NFL jobs. He knows he’ll struggle to win there over the next couple of years, and by the time the program turns, he might not be the hot college name anymore. I’d be very surprised if Schiano isn’t back, by the way. But remember: A few years ago, Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen thought they were fine and got called into a Friday afternoon meeting by the Glazers and both got fired. That’s an ownership group that tells no one very much. But I have heard they like the direction of the team (the defense is very young, and improving) and think the quarterback decision (firing Josh Freeman and playing Mike Glennon) was the right one too.
Update, noon Monday: The Bucs fired Schiano and GM Mark Dominik.
8. I think the game Tony Romo played under the circumstances eight days ago should not be forgotten, and before the season gets too far in the rear-view mirror, understand that Romo executed that last scoring drive in a 24-23 victory over Washington with a herniated disk in his back. That disk require surgery on Friday and, of course, forced Dallas to play Sunday with Kyle Orton at quarterback. As coach Jason Garrett said: "He might have had his finest hour … We talk about mental toughness, being your best, regardless of circumstances. Somehow, some way, he helped us win that ballgame."
9. I think if there has ever been an interim coach with less of a chance to get the permanent job than Wade Phillips in Houston, I’d like you to point him out to me. The name Jim Tomsula (San Francisco, one game, 2010) comes to mind. But the list is pretty short.
10. I think these are my non-NFL thoughts of the week:
a. Best sight I saw all weekend: Notre Dame safety Austin Collinsworth, on what could be the last play of his college career (in Yankee Stadium, no less), intercepting a Rutgers pass to finish off a bowl victory for the Irish. The son of Cris, Austin’s a great kid who has had some rough patches in his college football career—he missed his junior season after undergoing two surgeries, one on his shoulder and another on his back—and it’s uncertain whether he will return for a fifth season under new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. If Collinsworth is done, that’s quite a way to go out. The pick gave him the team interception lead for the season, with three.
b. Best story I read all week. It’s from LA Weekly. It’s about a woman, Christina McDowell, whose dad was embroiled in the get-rich-quick scheme that ruined lives and spawned the movie The Wolf of Wall Street. She’s on a campaign to tell people how many lives were ruined by the greed. McDowell, who had to change her name because her dad kept trying to use it to steal more money, writes the new movie "is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals. We want to get lost in what? These phony financiers' fun sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth. This kind of behavior brought America to its knees."
c. So ESPN has gotten $260 million in subsidies from the state of Connecticut over the years for its state-of-the-art campus in Bristol, according to the New York Times? Dead serious here: Not only doesn’t that surprise me, but I’m a little surprised it isn’t more. Not justifying it or defending it in any way, honestly. But $260 million over a 12-year period from a state dying for employment and civic boosterism (ESPN employs 4,000 Nutmeggers, or those who have moved to the state to be Nutmeggers) actually seems like a good investment to me. The alternative, it seems to me, is some other close-to-New York boondock (and state) to come in and steal the most powerful sports media company in the world.
d. Good luck, Tyler Tettleton. You’ve made a lot of Ohio U. alums proud over the past three years.
e. Coffeenerdness: I went to a Dunkin’ Donuts with Tom Curran of CSN New England on Friday. His order: "Medium hot coconut, with milk, three Splenda, four ice cubes." Wh-wh-what? I then grilled Curran on his choice. Re the coconut: "Gives the coffee a tropical feel." Re the ice cubes: "Stops the coffee from being mind-bendingly hot so I don’t have to wait a half-hour to drink it." Whatever you say, Tommy.
f. Beernerdness: I'll be back with this next week.
The Adieu Haiku
London Fletcher, gone.
He loved the name I gave him."The Black Seau." Thoughts?