$.01--There was only one game on the Week 17 slate with playoff implications for both teams. Detroit hosted Green Bay with the NFC North title on the line. The winner would be the 4 seed and hosting a game next weekend the loser the 6th and on the road to Seattle.
Detroit had visions of its first-ever NFC North title, but Aaron Rodgers and the Packers showed their experienced, winning mettle. I could go into great detail on how the Packers prevailed 31-24, but it all boils down to this…
Need players to make plays. Green Bay's did, Detroit's did not. Lots of other ways to slice it, but none more important than that— Jeff Risdon (@JeffRisdon) January 2, 2017
Rodgers was masterful in picking apart the Lions defense. Detroit didn’t really play poorly upon first blush. Green Bay’s offense, Rodgers in particular, were simply better. Passes which Matthew Stafford just missed, Rodgers hit. When the offenses needed a third down, Rodgers found a way, scrambling here or improvising there. Stafford tried but didn’t have the horses or the precision to match.
Green Bay captures the division title and with it the No. 4 seed. That means a date hosting the Giants next week. Detroit travels to Seattle instead of hosting the franchise’s first home playoff game since 1993.
It’s quite a rebound from 4-6 and national pundits openly speculating about Mike McCarthy’s job security in Green Bay. Now Rodgers is a legit MVP candidate. Stafford held that mantle as recently as a month ago but faded badly down the stretch. That’s why Green Bay wins and Detroit loses in a nutshell.
$.02--Just as there was only one game with dual playoff implications, there was only one team with a “win and get in” mandate. All Washington had to do was beat the rival New York Giants and they would have qualified for the NFC’s No. 6 seed.
The Giants were already locked in at the 5 spot, so they had little incentive to play other than to rain on a division rival’s parade. And rain they did. New York won going away 19-10, eliminating Jay Gruden and his team, who finished 9-6-1.
New York led almost the entire game, holding a 10-0 lead for well over half the contest, but Washington’s offense finally found a rhythm late. Kirk Cousins tied the game up with a couple of impressive drives, helped in part by their first semblance of a run game all afternoon. But when Washington needed someone to make a big play in a 12-10 game, it was the New York defense who delivered. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie picked off Cousins for the second time on a throw which sailed deep over the middle.
Washington’s D gave Cousins one last chance, but a desperation lateral gadget play went haywire and the Giants ultimately scooped up a fumble and ran it in for a gravy touchdown.
Cousins laid an egg in arguably the biggest game of his career. This is important because he played 2016 on the franchise tag. Now Washington to decide if he’s worthy of a pricey long-term investment, and the prism of judgment is this devastating loss. They could conceivably hit him with the franchise tag once again, but that would mean a cost-prohibitive $24M (approximate, figures won’t be known until March) one-year hit. All cash, all against the 2017 cap.
It’s a very interesting decision for GM Scott McCloughan, who has quietly gathered an impressive collection of talent. Cousins set Washington records for offensive production this year, but couldn’t engineer a return postseason visit. It’s hard to fathom Washington letting him walk, but then again if the two sides don’t reach a mutually beneficial deal it might be for the better for both sides as well.
$.03--For the third time in as many years, the San Francisco 49ers will take a spin on the coaching carousel, with Chip Kelly losing his job after one abysmal 2-14 campaign.
The Chip Kelly NFL experience is hopefully, mercifully over. After he took a flamethrower and pointed it in the wrong direction in Philadelphia, Kelly--somewhat amazingly--landed quickly in San Francisco. Niners fans, players and management quickly realized all of the negative hyperbole from Philly was perfectly valid.
Kelly’s up-tempo offense simply cannot, will not work in the NFL. Aside from the officiating interruptions, the lower play clock in the NFL leaves defenses better prepared for the fast pace. The negative downside continues to be something Kelly never fully figured out: speeding up his offense meant his defense would get little rest and often put them in extremely disadvantageous positions. No team held the ball for less time than Kelly’s Niners, the third year in a row his offenses finished last in time of possession and his defenses faced more plays than any other unit.
The more important firing in San Francisco is General Manager Trent Baalke, who was also let go in information leaked out on New Year’s Eve. Baalke had some initial success in overhauling what was one of the weakest rosters in memory, and hiring Jim Harbaugh as Head Coach was a home run. Alas, he couldn’t sustain the high.
Baalke’s recent Niners have been nothing short of disastrous. He drafted too many players with major injuries or character concerns have decimated the depth chart. Waffling on quarterbacks, poor choices on free agent comings and goings and an inability to work well with Harbaugh have created a confluence of epic proportions.
Sunday’s meaningless finale, a 25-23 loss to the visiting Seahawks, made a mostly empty Levi’s Stadium seem like a Seattle home game. Baalke wasn’t officially fired until after the game, but the sight of all those high-priced empty seats did nothing but reinforce to owner Jed York he was making the correct decision.
$.04--One year after winning the Super Bowl, the Denver Broncos missed the playoffs. Shortly before Denver’s season-ending 24-6 win over Oakland, Head Coach Gary Kubiak announced he was stepping away for health reasons.
It’s a difficult decision but the correct one. You might recall Kubiak suffering a minor stroke on the sidelines during his time leading the Houston Texans back in 2013. Earlier this season Kubiak missed the loss to San Diego after suffering a serious migraine headache, one which landed him in the hospital. The longtime John Elway backup and confidant is 55 years old.
Kubiak leaves behind a team ready to contend for an immediate playoff run with one very real and important caveat: Denver doesn’t have a quarterback right now. Trevor Siemian proved in 2016 he is much better-served being a backup. Paxton Lynch, the first-round pick and my No. 1 QB in the 2016 NFL draft, wasn’t ready as a rookie and figures to struggle more than a tolerable level if he takes the reins.
My top candidate to take this job is Vance Joseph. Currently the Defensive Coordinator for the Miami Dolphins, Joseph was in charge of the secondary under Kubiak in Houston. The 44-year-old is widely seen as a rising coaching star. He’s earned respect for his ability to tweak game plans on the fly but also for his developmental teaching. He won’t try and fix what isn’t broken on the very strong Denver defense, but can also augment it with fresh eyes and more of an emphasis on internal improvement with the younger players.
For the playoff-bound Raiders, the worst possible scenario played out. Backup QB Matt McGloin left the game with injury, one week after starter and MVP candidate Derek Carr broke his leg. Enter rookie Connor Cook, a fourth-round pick from Michigan State who hadn’t even been active for most of the season.
The upshot is Cook played pretty well. The numbers weren’t great (14-for-21, 150 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) but he looked more at home than McGloin. Cook was sporadically outstanding in college but also prone to cold streaks. If he can avoid those, Oakland still has a shot to win a postseason game.
$.05--The Cleveland Browns tried very hard to win, and in the process they nearly blew earning the No. 1 overall pick. Cleveland fought hard against a largely disinterested Pittsburgh team, even going ahead in overtime before the Steelers sealed the deal with Cobi Hamilton TD pass from Landry Jones.
Now Cleveland is officially on the clock after the 1-15 finish, the worst in franchise history. The big question facing GM Paul DePodesta and his staff is whether they take pass rusher extraordinaire Myles Garrett or promising quarterback Mitch Trubisky. Garrett is the more NFL-ready player, and he sits firmly atop my current big board.
My sense in talking to Browns fans--I’m a Cleveland native and my Facebook feed is about 50% Browns fans--is they would prefer to roll the dice with Trubisky. The North Carolina QB is from nearby Mentor and showed a lot of very high potential with the Tar Heels. There are caveats however; he started for just one season and did so in a very passer-friendly system, though also a pro-friendly one.
Right now I would take Trubisky. Maybe I’m still drunk on my Cavaliers breaking a title drought dating back to Jim Brown’s heyday with a local hero leading the way, but I love the idea of someone who grew up dreaming of being the Browns quarterback taking control and leading them out of the cellar. Trubisky has the best chance to be the best quarterback in this draft, and that’s something the Browns have desperately needed since Bernie Kosar’s skills diminished some 25 years ago.
$.06--New Year’s Eve is all about the college football playoff semifinals. Hopefully you had other plans…
Alabama destroyed Washington 24-7 in the first playoff semifinal, also known as the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl. Clemson embarrassed Ohio State 31-0 in the Playstation Fiesta Bowl in the nightcap.
These games were nearly as bad as Mariah Carey’s performance ringing in the new year.
The Crimson Tide defense suffocated Washington’s overmatched offense, while Alabama’s offense ran roughshod. Quite literally: Bama freshman QB Jalen Hurts completed just 7 of his 14 passes for 57 yards, but the Tide had little trouble moving the ball. Led by Bo Scarbrough’s 180 yards, Alabama rushed for 269 yards and two TDs.
Washington managed just 44 yards and 29 carries as the Bama front completely dominated the line of scrimmage. All the prominent draft talent, from end Jonathan Allen to LB Reuben Foster to CB Marlon Humphrey, seems almost impervious to blocking.
The Tide, as is their custom, scored a defensive touchdown with Ryan Anderson’s pick-six on a bad Jake Browning mistake. Opponents simply cannot make mistakes against Alabama. They’re too sharp and opportunistic.
Clemson was too. Ohio State, not so much. The Buckeyes laid a massive egg:
OSU halftime numbers:— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) January 1, 2017
2 missed FGs
1 Mike Weber rush att
The second half didn’t get any better. Clemson’s aggressive defense controlled Ohio State’s offense, and when J.T. Barrett did get chances to take shots the Tigers made the plays instead of the Buckeyes. This game was officially over when Ohio State fumbled away its first second-half possession. It reached humiliation when Van Smith picked off Barrett on 4th and 27 in the end zone and gallivanted 86 yards the other direction.
Alabama and Clemson have been the consensus top two teams all season, and they showed why in the final games of 2016. Now we get a rematch of the very entertaining, competitive CFB Championship from a year ago.
And a question: since we don’t have Chick-Fil-A in West Michigan (our very first opened this week, and I only go out to eat on Sundays), are peaches available at the restaurant? Otherwise they need to just drop the “Peach” from the bowl name…
$.07--The Orange Bowl was center stage on Friday night, with Michigan and Florida State battling in a game which merits “instant classic” status. There are so many storylines, so many rabbit holes to go down here.
Foremost is Dalvin Cook. Florida State’s running back was the catalyst for everything the Seminoles offense did, both good and bad. His first two carries went for 40 yards, and for good measure he mixed in a 45-yard reception. That helped FSU race out to a 17-3 early lead.
Then Cook did nothing for quite some time. His next 15 carries netted 36 yards, with four of them ending behind the line of scrimmage and not one producing a first down. But home run hitters only need one mistake from the pitcher to make things happen, and Cook took advantage of an overaggressive Michigan front for a 71-yard scamper on third and short. His acceleration through the hole and ability to set up blocks are special, and it’s why he is handily the best RB in this draft class on the field. I do have real reservations about his multiple shoulder surgeries, however.
Speaking of injuries, two for Michigan dominated the Wolverines story. Star defender Jabrill Peppers missed the game after tweaking a hamstring during Thursday’s practice. This was a stunning development and a major bummer from a scouting standpoint; Peppers vs. Cook was the marquee matchup and could have been illuminative on both prospects. It’s another down ending for the junior safety. I remain a big Peppers fan but two of the hybrid LB/safety’s worst games from a scouting standpoint came in the last three Wolverines contests, and his missed a final chance to impress.
Many were openly questioning whether Peppers was purposely dodging the game to either avoid embarrassment or protect his health. As soon as that argument started to get really animated on social media, Michigan tight end Jake Butt went down with a knee injury. All of the sudden, the debate evolved from (wrongly) questioning Peppers’ will to “why would any prospects play in a meaningless game?” Later reports indicate Butt suffered torn ligaments in his knee, a second devastating injury in the senior’s college career.
The timing of the injury here almost certainly wipes out his NFL rookie season and that directly impacts his draft status. Previously projected as a top 50 talent, now the talented Butt could fall as far as the fifth or sixth round in a very deep tight end class. Playing in the Orange Bowl cost him millions, and for what? Yes he has an insurance policy but if you’ve ever filed a claim you know it’ll be near impossible for Butt to win payment on that, and part of the terms of the policy are that he never plays football again directly--and solely--because of that one injury. Trying to prove that will not be easy.
Oh yeah, the game; Florida State won despite a great rally by Michigan’s offense, which did nothing for most of the game. FSU defensive tackle Demarcus Walker and his mates terrorized a leaky Michigan offensive line for 15 negative plays. But when Michigan took the lead late in the fourth, things looked great for the Wolverines. A fluky kick return set up Florida State, and QB Deondre Francois found Nyquan Murray over Jourdan Lewis (his worst game) in the end zone for the go-ahead score. Michigan’s poorly conceived death gasp (a swing pass?!) ended with a whimper and the Seminoles hung on for a thrilling 33-32 win.
--The end of the season often means bad news for coaches. Such is the case in San Diego, where the Chargers fired Mike McCoy after a 37-27 loss to Kansas City. McCoy lasted four seasons, failing to make the playoffs in the final three. They won just 9 games the last two years and are way down in the AFC West cellar.
--Drew Brees continues to do things no quarterback has ever done before. The latest notch in his Hall of Fame belt…
Drew Brees has eclipsed 5,000 passing yards for the fifth time in his career. Nobody else has done it more than once.— Josh Katzenstein (@jkatzenstein) January 1, 2017
His Saints got destroyed in Atlanta but that doesn’t detract from the impressive accomplishment.
--Sam Bradford set the NFL record for single-season completion percentage at 71.4. That’s quite a feat, but context is important. Bradford finished dead last among qualifying passers in yards per attempt, and his steadfast refusal to even try and challenge the defense was a big contributing factor into why defenses loaded up to stop the run. Minnesota became the first team this century to finish with fewer than 2.5 yards per carry. They didn’t even hit 2.0.
--Colts pass rusher Robert Mathis announced he is retiring. He’s in the top 20 in career sacks with 122, including 11 in the last two seasons at age 34 and 35. Few had his electric first step. Great career for a 5th round draft pick from Alabama A&M.
--Also retiring, at least allegedly: Steve Smith, the loquacious Ravens wideout with the Hall of Fame swagger and the game to back it up. Of course he said the same thing last year and came back. Few receivers have ever gotten open as reliably as Smith even well into his 30s. He made sure everyone knew about it too, which made him one of the more polarizing talents in the league.
--I’ll let this one speak for itself, though it says a lot about why the Bills are an even bigger disaster waiting to happen than they showed in their 7-9 2016…
Former Jets LB Bart Scott to Bills DT Marcell Dareus: "We can’t put the playbook in crayon." pic.twitter.com/GtEuxWur61— Jordan Heck (@JordanHeckFF) December 30, 2016
--Rumors are flying there will be big changes coming in Indianapolis. Should owner Jim Irsay opt to pull the plug on GM Ryan Grigson and Head Coach Chuck Pagano after another underwhelming season, few Colts fans would shed any tears. It begs the question, why did Irsay give them both contract extensions after an even worse 2015?
--Somehow, some way, Reggie Bush ran for negative yardage in 2017. A midseason desperation pickup by Buffalo, Bush netted minus-3 yards on the season. That’s hard to do.
--There were no games on Thursday night. Did you miss it?
--Arkansas TE Jeremy Sprinkle is an impressive dual-threat prospect worthy of third- to fifth-round consideration based on his on-field play. However, one of the dumbest acts this side of the Darwin Awards jeopardizes his NFL future.
Arkansas played in the Belk Bowl, and each player received a gift card for a shopping spree at a Belk store. That wasn’t enough for Sprinkle. He was arrested for shoplifting at a Belk store. Aside from the criminal aspect, that level of egregious stupidity should turn off NFL coaches who have to take responsibility for Sprinkle. It’s worth noting this is his first known off-field incident.
--Texas A&M edge rusher Myles Garrett played like he didn’t want to get hurt in the Advocare Texas Bowl. He recorded just one tackle against Kansas State, which won 33-28. It’s not a great look for Garrett but given the context of the bowl game, it’s understandable. The shadow of Jaylon Smith’s devastating injury weighs heavier than you can possibly imagine for these top-shelf prospects.
Garrett’s teammate Daeshon Hall had a great game, recording 2.5 tackles behind the line and consistently besting the blocking. He’s got experience being the No. 2 rusher on a team, an underrated ability as most pass rushers enter the NFL having been the top dog their entire careers. I still think it’s a great idea for the team who takes Garrett in the top 3 to come back and take Hall in the third or fourth round.
--One intriguing early entrant is Wyoming RB Brian Hill. It’s a very deep running back class but Hill stands out for his vision and acceleration at his 6’1”, 213-pound frame. He’ll need to prove he can catch (41 career receptions) and Hill did struggle against Nebraska and BYU (in a torrential downpour), the two best defenses the Cowboys faced all year. Right now Hill looks like a third-to-fifth-round pick.
--Northwestern ILB Anthony Walker declared for the draft shortly after the Wildcats’ impressive win in the Pinstripe Bowl over Pittsburgh. Walker is a fantastic tackler with good-not-great range, a limitation he often overcomes with outstanding play recognition and anticipation. He reminds me of Jacksonville’s Paul Posluszny when he was a second-round pick out of Penn State for the Bills.
--Miami FL tight end David Njoku declared shortly after a tour de force Russell Athletic Bowl win over West Virginia. He’s an outstanding physical specimen who progressively grew into a pretty dangerous receiver. Watch him rise into a top 50 overall pick. I haven’t yet evaluated him closely enough to know whether that’s a good idea or not.
$.10--The new year is a time for resolutions. Some are profound and grandiose, others are minor and perhaps silly. Among resolutions of New Years’ past for me:
- Dunking a basketball without traveling to do it
- Learning fencing
- Being a better friend to those who have been good ones to me
- Finish penning the book I’ve been writing in my head for years
- Returning to the competitive volleyball circuit
- Being more patient with my kids
All those are from the last five years, and I’m proud to say I’ve accomplished four of them. At some point I’ll learn fencing and finally wrap the 677-page-and-counting breakout novel (note: befriend an editor) too.
This year, in lieu of what has been such a divisive and stressful time for our country, my resolution goals are a little more vague and altruistic. They will be difficult to achieve, perhaps even more difficult to measure. Yet they’re also fiercely important to me.
My first resolution is to try and help everyone “just get along”, as Rodney King once famously pled. Politically and socially I am firmly in the middle between two widening chasms of increasingly divisive and hostile sides. Friends and colleagues to my left and right are both drifting farther away in those directions, and I firmly believe that is the No. 1 problem facing America today.
Compromise and reason have become bad words. Fighting words, even. It doesn’t have to be that way. There are too many arguments where both sides have perfectly valid, salient and important points. Maybe it’s my curse as a moderate pragmatist to see the truth and the folly in both extremes, but that’s where I live. I know I’m not alone.
So this post is to try and help achieve my insanely optimistic goal. Whether you think Black Lives Matter is a vital component of necessary socioeconomic change or a terrorist organization--and I have people I love on both platforms--there is a necessity to acknowledge the other side’s points. Even if you have no concept of understanding that point of view, they’re not just making it up to piss you off.
I’m not asking you to abandon your beliefs. I’m asking you to scale back the incendiary rhetoric. The only winner there is hate. Not you. Not the other side. If you actually listen, you might find the goals at the end of the divergent roads might actually come together.
My second resolution is building upon an earlier one: being a better, more supportive friend to those who have been one to me. As an example, I have a lot of friends and social media acquaintances who have resolved to lose weight and get healthier in 2017.
My resolution is to help y’all. I might ask you what you’ve eaten today, or how the trip to the gym went, or if you’re still making the concerted effort. It will be supportive and positive, but if you stray I’m going to do my best to get you back on the path. You might not want to hear it, but you might need to hear it. Just as I would want you to admonish me if I were to slip up by, say, eating an entire deep dish pizza for lunch or blow of a publishing deadline to day drink and watch Archer, I’m going to deliver some tough love. Understand it comes from a supportive, caring friend.
Sure, I’d like to lose 10 pounds. I’d like to curse less. I’d love to finish that damn (err, dang) novel, maybe read one too for good measure. But I’m a lot more worried about us than just me. I can’t be happy until we are happy.
I hope everyone understands that and tries to make these happen for everyone in their lives. They are the most important things each and every one can do in 2017. Happy New Year!