$.01--The most (and only) exciting game of the Wild Card Weekend was the finale. Seattle survived an early 14-0 deficit by scoring the final 24 points and vanquishing the Redskins. But the game loss is incidental to the bigger story regarding the Redskins, who may have suffered a much bigger loss.
Robert Griffin III entered this game very iffy with an injury to his right knee. He clearly was hindered last week, and his status for the game was openly questioned by preeminent athletic surgeon Dr. James Andrews. Griffin started the game very well but quickly declined, and by the middle of the third quarter he looked more like a lame racehorse headed for the glue factory than the best dual-threat QB in the league. Commentators on air and all over the internet were begging for Mike Shanahan to pull the plug and save RG3 from even further injury, not to mention giving the team a better chance to win with backup Kirk Cousins.
Shanahan stubbornly kept RG3 in the game, and it’s a decision he might regret for a very long time. In the fourth quarter Griffin reached down to snag a low snap and his lower leg jutted out at an angle that echoed of Napoleon McCallum all those years ago. It was sickening to watch. It’s even more sickening that it was completely preventable. Shanahan should be ashamed of himself for leaving Griffin out there, unable to protect himself and clearly unable to do anything positive for the team. I don’t doubt for a second that Griffin wanted no part of the bench, but this is where the team and specifically the head coach has an obligation to know better.
NFL fans can only hope the injury isn’t as awful as it looked, because it sure looks like the kind of injury that would forever alter the way RG3 has to play. At minimum, I’ll be very surprised if Griffin doesn’t miss the entire offseason and the early part of next year. Remember when Antonio McDyess was dominating the NBA with his above-the-rim play, and how after his knee issues he was a 6’10” guy that couldn’t dunk anymore? That’s the kind of injury we could be looking at here for Griffin. I pray that isn’t so. If it is, Shanahan should be fired, period.
$.02--In what was perhaps the least entertaining playoff game in years, the Texans beat down the Bengals 19-13. The game featured one offensive touchdown, an Arian Foster plunge early in the third quarter, and a dismal offensive performance from Andy Dalton and the Bengals.
Houston’s defense got back to being the Bulls on Parade of midseason vintage and not the leaky unit that finished the season losing three of four. JJ Watt was his typical MVP-caliber self, but it was the supporting cast showing up strong that made the difference. Former Bengal Johnathan Joseph eliminated star WR AJ Green from the field; Dalton failed to throw a ball his direction the entire first half. Connor Barwin had his finest game of the season with two tackles for loss and a deflected pass, plus a QB hurry on 3rd down that forced a punt. In fact, the Bengals had a whole lot of that on third down. They became the first team to fail to convert a single 3rd down conversion since 1989, when Boomer Esiason’s Bengals did so against the Bills in the game that sent Buffalo to its first Super Bowl. Houston nearly doubled the hapless Bengals in time of possession, a function of Arian Foster & friends running well in their 39 carries and the Cincinnati offense doing nothing.
That lack of offensive punch is something that punctuated the Cincinnati season for the last month. The NFL average for first downs in a game was a hair above 19. The Bengals topped that figure just once in their final five games including this loss. They didn’t score more than one offensive touchdown in the final three games. Dalton was sacked 21 times in those games, and his yards per attempt of 5.6 in that span would rank 31st over the length of the season. His erratic deep throwing caught up with Dalton, and it was evident in this game. Twice he had Green open in the end zone, and twice he just missed, one on a very good defensive play by Joseph.
The Bengals now enter the offseason with a lingering, quietly growing question about their quarterback. He’s been terrible in both playoff games, and teams are catching on that overplaying the shorter routes and getting pressure makes Dalton, and Jay Gruden’s offense as a whole, pretty ineffective and punchless. This team sorely needs a player who can create after the catch on the short throw, a player with quickness and dynamic versatility to make the first tackler miss and clear out the safety help on Green. Just to be safe, they probably need to tap into the second tier of QBs too. Dalton is entering a critical year, and Bruce Gradkowski as the backup is eminently replaceable.
$.03--Baltimore advanced to the Divisional Round with a convincing victory over the feel-good Colts, 24-9. The team might as well have changed their name to Rayvens for the day, as it was all about celebrating and reveling in all that is Ray Lewis. And Lewis and his defensive mates did not disappoint the purple-clad faithful.
Lewis returned from a triceps tear wearing a brace that made my 4-year old daughter wonder if he was Darth Vader from Star Wars Episode III, the only watchable one of the first trilogy. He made his impact early, nearly intercepting a pass and clobbering Vick Ballard in the hole on a run. His pregame dance, replete with prop turf and choreographed pyrotechnics that KISS would admire, whipped the stadium and the Ravens defense into a frenzy that never really diminished. It certainly fired up Paul Kruger, who had the single most impressive weekend of any player with his utter and thorough domination of the beleaguered Colts line. Kruger got 2.5 sacks and menaced Andrew Luck into several hurried, awkward throws.
Joe Flacco had some of those as well, but he and Anquan Boldin hooked up on several big throws. Most notable was an 18-yard touchdown pass that Boldin somehow held onto despite having a defender’s arm between his hands and his body, an incredible display of hand strength and determination. Flacco continues his mastery of the Wild Card round, having won his first playoff game in every season of his 5-year career. Rookie RB Bernard Pierce provided a nice lift with Ray Rice being his usual productive self, and the Ravens are moving on at the expense of the hated former Baltimore team.
I will always remember this Colts season as the Chuckstrong season. Yes the team on the field was a very pleasant surprise, and Andrew Luck and his young offensive corps offer immense promise going forward. But the story of Chuck Pagano fighting leukemia, emotionally inspiring his team and triumphantly and humbly returning to the sidelines, that’s the 2012 Indianapolis Colts I will never forget. It will be very difficult for that team to replicate the magic next year, so Colts fans had better relish just how special 2012 really was for the team.
$.04--Green Bay blew the doors off the rival Vikings in one of the more one-sided playoffs games you will ever see. The 24-10 final was a lot closer than the game seemed after about the first 20 minutes. The big story from this one was Minnesota QB Christian Ponder not being able to answer the bell with an elbow issue, which forced Joe Webb under center on about three hours’ notice. The lack of prep time showed.
Webb looked very much like a player drafted to play wide receiver instead of quarterback. He made a few positive gains on the Vikings’ first drive with his legs, but beyond that he was wretched. His throws were often embarrassingly off target, and the Packers safeties caught on quickly that Webb was not going to threaten them with his arm. Green Bay adapted to the QB run with beautiful positional discipline and outside integrity from their LBs, notably Erik Walden. There was no mercy in the Lambeau dojo, as the return of Charles Woodson inspired the Packers defense to their best performance of the season. They stymied Adrian Peterson, never letting him get the edge as he had done so effectively, so frequently in the two prior meetings. AD still managed 99 yards but had over a third of that on the aforementioned opening drive.
Two things were very evident from this game. First, the Packers are going to be real hard for anyone in either conference to defeat this postseason. The defense is getting healthy and clicking at just the right time, and Aaron Rodgers is as good as any QB in the game. With the offensive weapons at his disposal, Green Bay should be considered no lower than 1A as a Super Bowl favorite.
Secondly, the Vikings absolutely must invest something fairly significant in their QB position this offseason. Ponder is wildly inconsistent and has a rather alarming propensity to be hurt at critical times. At Florida State he missed their bowl game in 2009, the ACC Championship game in 2010, and departed their bowl game in his senior season early. His throwing motion lends itself to chronic elbow issues. I can see giving him another season, but they must upgrade the backup situation. If I’m GM Rick Speilman, I’m taking a quarterback no later than the third round and/or looking at the veteran scrap heap.
$.05--The coaching carousel is in full twirl mode, and nothing is spinning more wildly than the recruitment of Oregon coach Chip Kelly. The Bills, Browns, and Eagles have all courted Kelly with the sort of fawning more common in Disney movies for cartoon princesses than the NFL. ESPN has reported as “breaking news” no fewer than 11 times the status of the suitors, and entire talk shows in both Cleveland and Philadelphia have devoted themselves to all things Chip Kelly.
As the process drew more excruciating and curiously more than a little Favre-esque in terms of attention whoring, the Bills and Browns decided to get off the carousel and go in different directions. Buffalo hired Doug Marrone, most recently the Syracuse coach but better known in NFL circles from his days as offensive coordinator for the Saints teams that put up ridiculous stats. It’s not exactly a sexy choice, but it’s probably a decent one. The Browns also interviewed Marrone but have yet to “restart” their search after deciding enough was enough with chasing Kelly, who is clearly enjoying the process.
Now Kelly is allegedly deciding between the Eagles gig or staying at Oregon. Except that nobody really believes he’s staying with the Ducks because the NCAA hammer is about to fall on them for some recruiting service violations that make Ohio State’s TattooGate seem like kindergarten play (or until Nike pays off the NCAA to look the other way, like south a few hundred miles). The Eagles are probably the best fit of the three, presuming they keep Michael Vick and at least some of the injured offensive linemen get close to normal upon their returns.
I understand the fascination with Kelly. His hyper-drive offensive pace and use of speed all over the field has taken college football by storm. The Ducks often look more like a track team than a football team, and for certain types of opponents the game is literally over almost as soon as it starts. I think Kelly is smart enough to adjust his go-go scheme to the NFL confines of smaller rosters, faster and more physical defenses, and the perils of having a quarterback playing running back 20 times a game. I think his ego and his personality will work with NFL players the way it has for Pete Carroll, another enthusiastic, competitive, adaptive mind. But I’ll say this--Kelly has rubbed more than a few powerful NFL people the wrong way with his vapid, shameless courtship, enough that it had better work quickly or else…
**Late edit-Late Sunday night Kelly advised the Eagles he was returning to Oregon. After all that, plus his flirtation with Tampa Bay last winter, it’s safe to say Chip Kelly will never get another NFL opportunity. He’s like the buxom bombshell that refuses to do nude scenes in movies even though her cleavage is a supporting actress in everything she does. I’m looking at you, Scarlett Johannson!
1. Conventional draftnik wisdom is that the Colts will go almost exclusively defense in the draft, but their OL must significantly improve if they want to win a playoff game. Consider they have drafted nine O-linemen in the last 6 drafts, but only 2011 1st rounder Anthony Castonzo is still with the team. He is also the only one that was on an active roster in the final 14 games for any team. Bill Polian, meet Matt Millen.
2. The NFL chose the coaching staffs of the Lions and Raiders to lead the teams at the Senior Bowl in a couple of weeks. This is a huge advantage for those teams and a real coup for Jim Schwartz and the Lions, who coached there in 2010 as well. Aside from getting to know the players extremely well, it’s also a chance to field test some new schematic ideas. It’s worth noting that last year’s coaching staffs were Minnesota and Washington, two teams that went from top-5 draft status to the playoffs. My fellow Lions fans can only hope!
3. Glad to see that Kansas City learned from Cleveland’s mistake. When they decided that Andy Reid was their man as head coach, they quickly removed GM Scott Pioli. Reid comes from the Mike Holmgren coaching tree, Pioli from the Belichick stick. Just as Holmgren and Eric Mangini could never coexist in their awkward year together, this was doomed. Kudos to the Hunt family for making an emotional decision. It was the right one on all accounts.
4. All the coaching vacancies, all the names being tossed about and yet two coaches very deserving of second chances are invisible. What does Jim Fassel have to do to even get an interview? And is Brian Billick really that much more insufferably high-maintenance than Jim Harbaugh or Rex Ryan, to name two?
5. I’m happy to see the Panthers opted to stick with Ron Rivera as head coach for another season. Year Two was not up to expectations, but there were very legitimate signs of progress late in the year. He and Cam Newton appeared to find common ground, and the defense quietly became a beast. I predicted they were a playoff team this past summer, and that went horribly awry. I saw enough this year to make the same forecast next summer too.
6. If we all stop talking about the Pro Bowl and how ridiculous some of the players who made it over some others are, it will go away. Or so we must hope.
7. Cowboys majordomo Jerry Jones promised major changes, yet he’s not firing Jason Garrett or either coordinator. The only major change option remaining is for Jerry to fire himself as team GM. Sorry Dallas fans, as long as Jerry is the owner, Jerry is the GM.
8. The Jets have it worse than Dallas fans, however. In firing GM Mike Tannebaum but keeping Rex Ryan as coach, they have created precisely the sort of lame-duck, authority-clashing situation that Cleveland just went through. Except Rex Ryan is not going to be as tight-lipped and understanding as Pat Shurmur was as the dead man walking in Cleveland. No GM worthy of that title would consider walking into that flaming bag of dog feces. 2013 is apt to be more of a spectacular debacle than 2012 for the J-E-T-S.
9. Speaking of Rex Ryan, pictures leaked out that he has a tattoo of his wife wearing nothing but a Mark Sanchez Jets jersey, making bedroom eyes and perhaps Tebowing. Excuse me while I get some mouthwash to cleanse the taste of vomit I just choked back…
10. Not NFL related, but the NHL finally achieved some degree of labor peace and will apparently start playing fairly soon. I was once a huge hockey fan but the lockout before this one largely lost me. I will not be back, Gary Bettman.