$.01--Seattle vs. Atlanta. Wow! This might go down as one of the most thrilling playoffs games in NFL history, replete with enough storylines to fill multiple newspapers.
The Falcons jumped out early and completely dominated the first half. I’d like to comment more in depth about it, but my plane landed in Tampa as the Falcons made the first field goal and I didn’t reach my hotel until halftime. This gives me a different perspective on the game, because the action I saw was a completely dominant performance by Seattle and the makings of an epic choke job by the Falcons.
That storyline kept morphing. Atlanta answered the first Seattle touchdown with a fantastic drive, and I thought it was game over. But Seattle took over the vast majority of the rest of the game. Russell Wilson was magnificent, darting and dodging, slinging and scoring. A great defensive stand by Seattle with just over three minutes set the stage for Wilson, and to quote Geddy Lee, “living on the lighted stage approaches the unreal.” You could think and feel Wilson willing the Seahawks into the end zone, and Marshawn Lynch did just that with 31 precious seconds on the clock.
Then I finally got to see Matt Ryan play well in this game. Two long passes quickly put the Falcons in field goal position, and both were absolute bullets with perfect accuracy. Matt Bryant missed the 49-yarder initially, but Seattle made the huge mistake of trying to ice him and called timeout just prior to the snap. Given a chance at a reprieve, Bryant nailed it and the Falcons jumped back on top. However, a panicked time out from Falcons coach Mike Smith left eight seconds on the clock for Seattle, and when Bryant shanked the squib kick Seattle had legitimate life. They needed about 12 yards in six seconds to get into replacement kicker Ryan Longwell’s range, but the quick first play netted just two. Wilson was forced to chuck a hail mary on the final snap, and Julio Jones, of all people, picked it off in the end zone.
This was an incredible game. The Falcons were on the verge of the biggest choke job since the Oilers gave up a 35-3 lead to Buffalo all those years ago. The narrative of Matt Ryan’s career was on the verge of being “playoff wilting flower”. The narrative on Mike Smith’s coaching career was set to be “great in regular season, playoff choker”. The epitaph of Tony Gonzalez’s career was already being chiseled “never won a playoff game”. All that changed in 30 seconds, and the city of Atlanta collectively exhaled a huge sigh of relief. Now the pressure is off, and I think they will wear that very well next week against the Niners. I’m not sure they’ll win, but getting that gorilla off their backs in such dramatic fashion makes me a lot more confident that they have a chance.
$.02--Baltimore and Denver kicked off the weekend with an entertaining offense bonanza. The Ravens ultimately won 38-35 in double overtime over an hour after the regularly scheduled programming block ended.
It looked bleak early for the Ravens when Trindon Holliday ran back the punt after the first drive 91 yards for a touchdown. Jacoby Jones fumbled the ensuing kickoff and dug Baltimore deep in its own territory. But the Ravens responded. More specifically, Joe Flacco responded. He really had the deep ball working, and Denver proved incapable of staying behind the deepest receiver. Watching Torrey Smith repeatedly torch venerable Champ Bailey over the top was embarrassing for the future Hall of Famer.
The inability of the Denver defense to cover deep proved their undoing. But that isn’t the only reason they lost. Peyton Manning threw a hideous interception late in the first overtime that set up the winning Justin Tucker field goal in double overtime. It was a throw across his body and across the middle of the field, a throw that you just never expect Peyton Manning to try, certainly not in a playoff game.
Or maybe we should expect it. This is the eighth time in 12 tries that Peyton Manning has lost his first playoff game in a postseason. Five of those eight were home games, including two games where the Colts were favored by more than a touchdown. For all the accolades you can throw at Manning, and he deserves to be prominent in the argument for greatest QB ever, he has a rather lengthy history of playoff ignominy. It goes back to his college days at Tennessee, where he could never beat Florida; it was the biggest pre-draft knock on Manning that he couldn’t win the big ones. It’s a reach to pin this loss squarely on Manning, but he was more a part of the problem than the solution. Sadly and strangely, that’s been true an awful lot in postseason games for Peyton Manning and one that stains his argument as the best QB to ever play.
$.03--San Francisco blew the doors off Green Bay 45-31 in the Saturday night game. There are a number of different angles and wrinkles with this game, but I am going to focus on what I feel is the most critical; this was a complete coaching mismatch and domination by the 49ers' staff over the Green Bay staff.
Here’s where Jim Harbaugh is a better coach than Mike McCarthy: Niners LT Joe Staley was clearly playing with no right arm, favoring it and often wincing in pain after every snap, yet the Packers never adjusted and attacked his right side. They kept lining up Clay Matthews far outside his left shoulder and never had the ends crash onto Staley’s dysfunctional arm. Contrast that with what happened when Packers G Josh Sitton had to leave the game, the net result of which was the rotting carcass of Jeff Saturday entering the game at center. First snap, Niners delay blitz Patrick Willis from outside the B gap across Saturday’s face and he gets to Aaron Rodgers almost untouched for a sack. You sense weakness and you have to attack it.
Need another example? How about early in the fourth quarter and the game still able to be salvaged with the Packers driving, with 4th & 5 at midfield. McCarthy chooses to punt and rely on his defense to win the game for him. That’s right, McCarthy consciously chose the defense that had already given up over 250 yards rushing and over 60% conversions on third down instead of MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers and the explosive offense. The Niners take the ball and run down the field, but stall for 4th & 1 at the Packers 18. Instead of kicking the field goal and expanding the lead from 14 to 17, Harbaugh leaves the offense on the field. Even though everyone in the world knows it’s a trap to draw the Packers offsides with a hard count the Packers bite anyways as BJ Raji shakes over the line. Two plays later Anthony Dixon is falling into the end zone and put the Niners up by 21.
But the most egregious example was the inability of the Green Bay defense to make any sort of adjustment to Colin Kaepernick operating the read-option offense. It was as if Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers had no idea it was coming or any clue how to stop it. Unless the defenders really are that awful--and they might be--it’s pretty clear they never practiced how to stop it. No, you cannot just simulate exactly what Kaepernick can do in practice, but you can work on principles and containment strategies. There was absolutely no evidence the Packers defense had one iota of preparation for what was coming in San Francisco. Capers is a coaching demigod, but this abomination comes on the heels of a 2011 season where his defense gave up more yards than any team in NFL history.
$.04--New England unceremoniously dumped Houston in the final game of the weekend. There was a little more intrigue and competitiveness than the last meeting, but the Patriots were clearly the superior team. Even though New England lost Rob Gronkowski once again to a re-injury of his broken forearm and Danny Woodhead also departed early, they still hung five touchdowns on the Texans.
Thus ends what was once an incredibly promising season for Houston. It’s fitting that the Patriots drove the final nail in the Texans’ coffin, since they also drove the initial nail that started all the bleeding. They headed to Foxboro for that Monday night at 11-1 and with all the confidence in the world and went home 42-14 losers. Houston never recovered from that drubbing. They put a brave face on it, and they were still good enough to beat Cincinnati last week, but their championship aspirations five weeks ago.
This is a very interesting offseason for Houston. The only real receiving weapon is Andre Johnson, who will be 32 and with a lot of miles on his surgically repaired tires. Matt Schaub is venturing into good but not good enough territory, and he’s also 32. Five defensive starters are free agents and the team is tightly pressed against the cap. More to the point, they must overcome what appears to be stagnation. This core group has hit its ceiling; they’re clearly not as good as New England, and the Texans team that finished this year stands little chance against Baltimore or Denver going forward either. And then there’s those rising Colts in the AFC South to challenge them. This is the time for GM Rick Smith to do something dramatic and bold. Last year it was letting franchise stalwarts Eric Winston and Mario Williams depart. This year there needs to be addition, be it a draft trade or splashy free agent maneuver.
$.05--The Cleveland Browns hired Rob Chudzinski as their new head coach on Thursday. To say the move has not been well-received by the Browns faithful is an understatement, if my Twitter and Facebook feeds are any barometer.
I understand the trepidation. Chudzinski (hereafter “Chud”, which is what he answers to) is very familiar to Cleveland fans. He was the offensive coordinator under Romeo Crennel in 2007, the year where Derek Anderson, Braylon Edwards, et al somehow all clicked and the Browns were a top 10 offense and finished 10-6. He was also the OC in 2008, when the same cast of characters finished 31st in yards per game and 30th in scoring. His inability to make adjustments or comprehend the concept of “take what the defense gives you” got him run out of town after that season and he was not missed. Chud hightailed it back to San Diego and the comfort of being a tight ends coach, a position at which he just might be the best in the business. That acumen got him another shot as an OC, this time in Carolina with Cam Newton. A similar story played out as in Chud’s Cleveland days. The unknown commodity QB took the league by storm in year one, then suffered a terrible regression in year two that had players openly harping about Chud’s play calling as the promise of the prior year collapsed in a heap of poor communication and a lack of expanded vision.
New Browns owner Jimmy Haslam similarly showed a lack of vision with his first hiring. Cleveland fans are the most knowledgeable, most thorough fans in the NFL. They know exactly why Chud failed, and they remember Romeo Crennel covering for Chud as the good ship captain while Chud was the first guy into the lifeboat off the ship. They saw how he ran back to the relative comfort of lesser responsibility. Chud got his second chance, and the same thing happened as his first chance, starting strong before the bottom falls out in a finger-pointing mess.
I actually think the way Chud handled the adversity the second time around demonstrates his coaching acumen. After the brutal start, Chud finally saw the light and made viable adjustments. He communicated with Newton and settled their differences, and the offense rebounded to being very good by the end of the year. That in-season salvage job is a mark a good coach. Chud has been widely regarded as a bright rising star and future head coach; he interviewed for several head coaching gigs last offseason, and he was very likely to get a job somewhere within the next year. But it shouldn’t have been in Cleveland, the one place where everyone knew his name already and for all the wrong reasons. It’s akin to the Jets hiring Tony Sparano to run their offense after he proved terrible at running the offense as head coach of the rival Dolphins. Everyone in New York knew it was a terrible decision right away, and their instincts proved correct. That’s exactly the way I feel about this hiring. Apparently the new boss in Cleveland is the same as the old boss. Sorry Dad…
$.06--It was revealed late this week that Junior Seau suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. An autopsy of his brain confirmed what many had suspected at the time of his suicide last Spring. CTE is caused from repeated blows to the head and is unfortunately becoming a hallmark of suicidal former NFL players.
What really caught my attention was a small coda tacked onto the standard news wire stories. It said Seau was never officially diagnosed with a concussion during his career. Here is a player with confirmed brain damage caused by the violence of football, yet nobody ever saw fit to diagnose him with even a mild concussion? Or, perhaps even scarier, he really never did have a concussion and it was just the repeated and inherent blows to the head from playing all those years that caused enough brain damage for Seau.
For all of you slamming Roger Goodell for his “wussification” of the NFL, this is precisely why the Commissioner is doing it. A lawsuit from hundreds of former players essentially alleges that the NFL did not do enough to protect the players from the violence of the game, or themselves and their own barbaric behavior while active players. When it comes out that Seau never got diagnosed with a concussion despite his 17 years of instigating violent, aggressive collisions, that screams medical negligence. Either the team doctors were asleep at the wheel or the game truly is too violent and dangerous for even elite athletes to avoid permanent disability of some sort. Goodell has no choice but to try and make the game safer, or else the NFL is going to lose Billions with a B in lawsuits. You bet your booty they’re going to err on the side of hyper-vigilant caution when it comes to defenseless player designations and glancing blows to quarterbacks after they throw the ball. Cases like Junior Seau prove they have no choice.
$.07--Dallas owner Jerry Jones proved a man of his word when he promised significant changes to his toy, err, team. The Cowboys fired hirsute Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan after two seasons and replaced him with walking fossil Monte Kiffin, last seen patrolling the sidelines at USC as Defensive Coordinator to his son Lane as Head Coach.
You cannot possibly find two more divergent approached to defensive football than Ryan and Kiffin. Ryan loves to run a 3-man front that uses the line primarily to occupy blockers and let the linebackers and safeties make all the plays. He’s been known to blitz both corners and all four linebackers on the same play. Overload blitzes, dropping nose tackles into zone coverage, lining a safety up between the DE and NT on a run blitz, all these are vintage hallmarks of Ryan’s nonstop aggressive defense. He’s never seen a formation or situation that didn’t call for some exotic twist from his defense. As I’ve said before, Ryan wants the triple scoop hot fudge sundae with sprinkles, nuts, whip cream, and a cherry on top of a banana on every snap.
Kiffin is the scoop of vanilla ice cream you get free with your chicken dinner in contrast. The creator of the Tampa-2 defense, Kiffin swears by having four defensive linemen that are the primary playmakers on the defense. He once went three games in a row without dialing up even one blitz during his Tampa Bay heyday. Kiffin relies on the front four to do all the pass rushing, and he wants dynamic linemen at both end spots but especially at the three-technique tackle. His linebackers need to be speedy and have great range in the open field, and they frequently drop deep into zone coverage. The cover schemes are almost always some variation of Cover-2, though he will mix in press man on the outside and play some Cover 1 safety high. Where Ryan is all about keeping the offense guessing, Kiffin dares you to beat what you know is coming and relies on the individual abilities of his players to form a bend-but-don’t-break amoebic defense.
The transition from one to the other has the potential to be quite dramatic. And ugly. The Cowboys certainly have the linebackers to pull it off, with Sean Lee in the middle and Bruce Carter and Ernie Sims on the wings. Dan Connor can play in the middle or strong side as the top reserve. But the line is a different story. Certainly DeMarcus Ware can transition to 4-3 end, though it will take away from his quickness and rare greatness in open space. But the rest of the front needs an extreme makeover. Anthony Spencer is a free agent and not the kind of player you want as the base end in a 4-3. Neither of the current starting DEs, Marcus Spears nor Jason Hatcher, fit well in a 4-man front. Perhaps Jay Ratliff can bounce back as the dynamic 3-technique, but his best days appear well behind him. Tyrone Crawford is probably the best natural 4-3 LDE on the roster, but at 285 pounds he’s better-suited to gain another 10 and play inside than lose 10 to move outside. Kiffin is a coaching legend, but he has a lot of tough work over the next few months.
$.08--5 NFL Quickies:
1. The Super Bowl officiating crew comes from this weekend, and it’s pretty safe to say it won’t be Bill Vinovich’s crew. They completely butchered the Denver/Baltimore game. Beyond the barrage of downright wrong calls, there were three separate instances where the game action was paused more than 8 minutes while they attempted to sort things out. Nothing is worse than dead air, not even eleven (by my count) incorrect or missed calls in the game.
2. The St. Louis Rams chose interesting timing to overhaul their scouting department, letting go of their Director of Collegiate Scouting and two longtime scouts this week. The next two and a half months are when scouts are invaluable, and the information and opinions these men busted their butts for over the last six months is wasted. I get that the new regime from the summer wants its own people in place, but the timing on this is incredibly odd. It’s also why I will never work for a NFL team; the instability and moment’s notice job security is more than my heart can take.
3. New Jacksonville GM Dave Caldwell wasted little time in asserting himself on the job. He rectified predecessor Gene Smith’s glaring mistake of hiring Coach Mike Mularkey, firing him after the one dismal 2-14 season. Then at a press conference, Caldwell was asked about native son Tim Tebow. Caldwell spared nothing, declaring that he sees no scenario under which Tebow will be a Jacksonville Jaguar. Period. End of story. I don’t know if Caldwell will ultimately be successful in turning around this broken franchise but he’s off to a roaring start.
4. The incredibly classy gesture of Peyton Manning patiently waiting to congratulate Ray Lewis after the Broncos-Ravens game is something that every PE teacher and youth sports coach in America needs to embrace and show to their kids. Respect for your opponent and respect for greatness, two qualities that are sorely lacking amongst the youth of today.
5. Expect a great deal of the coaching vacancies, both head coaches and assistants, to get locked up in the next few days. Teams really want their staffs set before Senior Bowl week, which begins next Monday. The out of work coach trolling in Mobile is embarrassing and desperate, and teams want to avoid those awkward moments in the hotel lobby and stands of Ladd Peebles Stadium.
$.09--5 Draft Quickies:
1. I will spend the next few days in St. Petersburg for the East-West Shrine Game, attending practices and getting more background on some of the players. Stay tuned here and at DetroitLionsDraft.com for summaries and winners/losers.
2. Tis the season for early declarations, but this year the biggest surprise is who is staying in school. Offensive tackles Jake Matthews and Taylor Lewan were surefire top 15 picks, if not top 10 selections in the upcoming draft. But Matthews is headed back to Texas A&M and Lewan to Michigan, weakening the top of the tackle class. Nobody is very surprised about Matthews, but Lewan was a bit of a stunner. I never fault any player that elects to stay in school, for college is the best time of your life and you should enjoy it as long as you can.
3. The flip side of that coin is when a player who absolutely should stay in school departs. Such is the case of Texas DT Brandon Moore. Aside from the general perception from most Longhorns faithful that Moore wasn’t even likely to start in Austin in 2013, he makes the jump to the NFL. Compounding the issue is that Moore suffered a scary neck injury in the Oklahoma game and the defense got better in his absence. Let’s see, a guy who was going to lose his starting job in college and has a neck issue. Good luck with that, Mr. Moore…
4. A lot is being made of Manti Te’o and his terrible BCS Championship game with regards to his NFL stock. Here’s the reality: Te’o is still a very good NFL prospect. He’s still a first round pick. He’s still likely to start right away. He’s still quite apt to be an above-average NFL player for a very long time. But this game exposed what he isn’t, and never has been, and that is an elite playmaking talent worthy of top-5 or even top-10 status.
5. Perhaps no quarterback had a better bowl season in terms of draft stock than Matt Barkley of USC. He missed the Sun Bowl loss with a shoulder injury and the Trojans offense was completely inept without him. Factor in lousy games from Mike Glennon, Landry Jones, and Geno Smith and Barkley wins for not playing. Here’s a good litmus test for evaluating a draftnik: if they still have Glennon with a first round grade, they have no idea what they’re doing evaluating quarterbacks. I have a 6th round grade on him and even that seems high after his bowl debacle…which was far from his worst game of the year.
$.10--One of the more interesting things about moving from the Great Lakes area to Texas is the Texan phenomenon of grayshirting. That is the process of intentionally holding back children a grade (or two) strictly for athletic purposes. Something like that seems patently absurd to people up north, but down here it’s widespread and strangely encouraged at a very young age for 1st graders that show athletic promise. I got to see the downside of this startlingly common practice over the weekend.
My son Layne is playing in a second grade basketball league here in suburban Houston. He’s seven as are most of his teammates. But the opponent on Saturday featured two kids that are being grayshirted by their parents. Both will be 10 before the end of June, and the physical maturation between being a young seven and almost ten is as big as the gulf between playing high school football and the SEC. These two are so physically superior in terms of coordination, strength, and speed that it’s almost embarrassing. They are quite literally a two-man team; the other six kids on their roster took exactly one shot and grabbed two rebounds, and that includes a quarter where one of the over-aged kids sat out.
I understand why the parents do it. In fact, we’ve already been approached by the basketball coach of the high school where Layne will attend about doing it ourselves. I’d be lying if I said we aren’t tempted even though Layne is already bored with the watered-down curriculum of No Child Gets Ahead, the unintentional scholastic status quo of No Child Left Behind. But for the rest of us who aren’t banking on football scholarships (it’s almost always done for football purposes, including this particular case), it’s really discouraging and frustrating. And when you grayshirt your child and they dominate a game against kids who should be two grades behind them, kindly keep your mouth shut. I had one of the proudest moments of my parenting life when Layne blocked one of the kid’s shots, grabbed it before it went out of bounds and drew a foul on the kid when he pushed Layne. It can be done without giving your child an unfair edge. Of course Layne is the tallest kid in the league despite being the youngest kid on his team, but that’s pure genetics and not manipulating the system.
I used to wonder why all these great football athletes came out of Texas and Florida, where grayshirting is also endemic. Now I know.