$.01—The Buffalo Bills scored the most significant win of the New Year’s Eve slate. Their 22-16 triumph over the Miami Dolphins ends the longest playoff drought in professional sports. Buffalo makes the postseason for the first time in the 21st century, having last danced in January back in 1999.
When Jordan Poyer picked off David Fales to cement the victory, Buffalo went crazy. Social media was full of Bills faithful live streaming their reactions, and they were glorious. Many grown men were openly crying tears of disbelieving joy.
Think back to August. With all their “interesting” offseason choices, many believed the Bills were trying to tank the 2017 season. It certainly felt that way from the outside looking in. Even a midseason quarterback controversy and trading away starting defensive tackle Marcell Dareus—for a 6th round pick—couldn’t keep the Bills from success. It’s truly one of the more remarkable playoff seasons in a long time. Enjoy it, Bills fans.
$.02—Buffalo made it only because Baltimore collapsed. That’s the way the NFL works, unfortunately; it takes one team failing for another to succeed. Ravens fans have to be in shock that it was their team doing the failing, only to watch the perennial sad-sack Bills tasting the success.
The Ravens only had to beat the Bengals in Baltimore. Cincinnati entered coming off a spoiler turn a week earlier, knocking Detroit from the playoffs. That sure seemed like the happy moment for lame-duck Marvin Lewis to go out with, but the Bengals refused to make life easy for Baltimore.
Darqueze Dennard’s pick-six put the Bengals up 24-10 early in the third, and at that point I thought the Ravens were dead. But they rallied furiously and efficiently to take the lead, scoring on three straight possessions and forcing three quick points. They needed just one more defensive stop and the No. 5 seed was all theirs.
It wasn’t meant to be. On 4th and 12 at midfield, the Bengals were down to the last bullet in the chamber. Bullseye. Tyler Boyd caught Andy Dalton’s comeback strike, turned it up to the right and scooted into the end zone.
Two seasons ended on that play, and the team with the better record is the one feeling the pain. The shine is off for John Harbaugh in Baltimore, whose Ravens have now missed the playoffs in four of the last five years. GM Ozzie Newsome deserves blame too, as he’s missed too many draft reaches and made imprudent free agency and cap decisions. Either way, the Ravens wind up with a disappointing finish.
$.03—Jack Del Rio got to announce his own termination as head coach in Oakland. The bizarre situation only got crazier with the growing chorus that Dep Rio is out specifically because the team is poised to hire Jon Gruden to take his place.
I’ll just come right out and say it. This is a monumental error in judgment. Gruden is a wildly popular broadcaster for his jovial bluntness, willingness to follow non-sequitur rabbit holes in his colorful commentary and his outstandingly produced QB Camp tv show on ESPN. But the myth of what Gruden was as a coach, particularly at the end of his coaching run, dramatically exceeds what the reality was.
Gruden won a Super Bowl in 2002 after being dealt from Oakland to Tampa Bay. Despite coaching the Bucs through the 2008 season, he never won another playoff game. His Bucs went 45-49 after that initial 12-4 season. His abrasive aloofness started rubbing veteran players the wrong way, and his inability to adjust his schemes to the talent at hand was painful to watch.
He’s flirted with a return to the sidelines before, but never seriously. It has always been an ego stroke or a favor to his agent to help another client get a raise. Many thought that’s all this latest dalliance was, but Raiders owner Mark Davis called the bluff with a reported stake in ownership. It was an offer he could not refuse.
It’s going to be fascinating to see how this plays out. Gruden wasn’t exactly known inside the media industry as a guy who paid a lot of attention to the minor details, and coaches who don’t do that tend to flame out quickly. The game has changed dramatically in the 15 years since he was last successful. Yet he’s got an infectious energy and presence, and his exposure to all the other teams, schemes and players could be a major ace in the hole.
$.04—Chuck Pagano’s reign of ineptitude in Indianapolis is finally over. His luck ran out when Andrew Luck was no longer able to cover his misfit schematics or poor in-game choices, not to mention one of the weakest rosters in the league.
The Colts sent Pagano out a winner, beating the Texans to avoid finishing in the AFC South basement, but it was a foregone conclusion his time was up.
Pagano is one of the true good guys, and that was valid even before he gained enormous popularity for beating cancer in his rookie season in Indy, 2012. His feel-good vibe carried a young Colts team to three straight 11-5 finishes and an AFC Championship game berth. Since then, the wheels went from slightly wobbly to loose to flying off the axles.
During the week, Luck returned from Europe to update his shoulder status. He’s feeling better but still not ready to throw. If Luck isn’t guaranteed to return, and the new coach will be hired before anyone knows, the Colts are handily the least attractive of the job openings. This roster is in the bottom five in overall talent and that’s with a healthy Luck. Having a volatile owner in Jim Irsay only exacerbates that situation.
Expect Pagano to land on his feet as a defensive coordinator somewhere, likely before the Senior Bowl in three weeks.
$.05—The team of my eternal fandom, the Detroit Lions, also made a coaching change. After destroying what’s left of the Green Bay Packers 35-11, the Lions fired coach Jim Caldwell after four years.
This one is more about an organizational realization that going 9-7 and finishing in second place in the NFC North every year is not good enough any longer. Caldwell is not a bad coach, and you’ll never hear me say one negative word about Jim Caldwell the human. He did a good job in Detroit, but his best wasn’t good enough.
Second-year GM Bob Quinn demands more. Nonagenarian spitfire owner Martha Ford does, too. It’s a huge step to raise the bar which determines success in Detroit, probably an overdue one. I applaud the change, even if it backfires. But I don’t think it will…
With Matthew Stafford in his prime, a highly-paid (though inconsistent) offensive line and gobs of cap room for the first time in decades, the Lions make a very appealing destination for a new coach. The defense needs at least three new starters in the front seven, preferably all of whom can rush the passer, but they have the resources to make that happen.
The leading candidates are Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, Texans DC Mike Vrabel and incumbent DC Teryl Austin, who will have interviewed by the time you read this. My personal choice is Vrabel, though I’d be happy with some other candidates.
I’m apprehensive on Patricia, who is an actual rocket scientist. He’s a tactical wizard, and his ability to improve this year’s Patriots from having the league’s worst D in September to near the best in scoring is a testament to his coaching acumen. But there’s more to being a head coach than just Xs and Os, and I worry Patricia will struggle with those. It’s a worry with every rookie coach, but especially with the gruff Patriot.
$.06—Change is constant in the NFL, but the turnover from last year’s playoff teams to this year is staggering.
All four NFC divisions have new champions. From East to West:
- Dallas to Philadelphia
- Atlanta to New Orleans
- Green Bay to Minnesota
- Seattle to Los Angeles
The Falcons are the only repeat playoff performer, falling from No. 2 seed to No. 6 despite winning just one fewer game. Carolina joins them to round out the playoff picture, giving the NFC South three of the six representatives in the conference.
The AFC kept three of the same six teams. New England, Pittsburgh and Kansas City all repeated as division champs, with New England and Pittsburgh combining once again for a 26-6 record.
Jacksonville is the big interloper, rising from worst to first in the AFC South. Last year’s Wild Cards, Oakland and Miami, both finished 6-10, at least 4 games worse than in 2016. The Bills and Titans replace them, with Tennessee (9-7) one of just two teams (the Jets at 5-11 are the other) to have the same record both seasons.
It should make for a very different playoff experience, particularly in the NFC.
$.07—Green Bay is making what constitutes radical changes for the Packer organization. Venerable defensive coordinator Dom Capers is out, probably two years too late. The bigger change is GM Ted Thompson moving into a lesser role. Thompson has been subtly slipping in recent years, and his absence at last January’s Shrine Game and Senior Bowl, where he was a prominent end zone fixture for years, was telling.
The Packers have Eliot Wolf in-house to promote, and he’s a fine choice. Wolf has been suckling at Thompson’s teat for years and could have left for any number of other jobs over the years. Alonzo Highsmith and Brian Gutekunst are also worthy in-house options and understand the peculiarity of working for a fan-owned team.
It will be interesting to see if this signals a change in the stark reluctance to explore outside free agents. Several draft misses by Thompson, above all else a scout, have left the team terribly shallow at many key positions and in need of immediate help that rookies are unlikely to provide. Currently they project to have just under $8 million in cap room and half the starting secondary is hitting free agency, so there might not be much ability to change right away.
In the spirit of full disclosure, this is how I voted in the PFWA awards for the NFL season. We also chose All-NFL and All-Conference teams too, but they’re too long to write out here.
Most Valuable Player – Tom Brady, Patriots
Where are the Patriots without Brady? Not as good as the Eagles without Wentz, the Rams without Goff or the Vikings without Keenum
Offensive Player of the Year—Todd Gurley, Rams
I have a personal rule where the MVP is automatically removed from consideration for other awards. Antonio Brown was a close second here.
Defensive Player of the Year—Calais Campbell, Jaguars
The defensive end might be the best free agent signing of the decade. Second in sacks (14) and QB hits (30), forced 3 fumbles and recovered one, but his impact on the Jaguars top-ranked defense cannot be overstated. He beats out New Orleans’ Cam Jordan, Arizona’s Chandler Jones, and Detroit’s Darius Slay.
Rookie of the Year—Kareem Hunt, Chiefs
The fourth-round RB slumped badly in the middle of the season, but his first and last months were superlative. Hunt led the league in runs of more than 20 yards and had almost 300 rushing yards more than Leonard Fournette.
Offensive Rookie of the Year—Alvin Kamara, Saints
Defensive Rookie of the Year—Marshon Lattimore, Saints
New Orleans struck gold in the draft with Lattimore in the first and Kamara in the third. Lattimore is arguably the best cornerback in the league already, a lockdown cover man with 5 INTs and very good run support. Kamara ran for 728 yards at an outstanding 6.1 yards per carry and also led all rookies in catches with 81 and receiving TDs with 7.
Coach of the Year—Mike Zimmer, Vikings
Zimmer won 13 games despite rolling with third-string QB Case Keenum and losing dynamic RB Dalvin Cook early on. His Vikings showed balance, discipline and unity, exactly what a coach needs to instill. Sean McVay of the Rams gets a nod for their amazing turnaround in washing away the stain of Jeff Fisher.
Executive of the Year—David Caldwell, Jaguars
He paid heavily in free agency for Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye and more, but it paid off with the team’s first division title in over a decade. He also found the right coach in Doug Marrone, an underrated hiring.
Assistant Coach of the Year—Todd Wash, Jaguars DC
Wash spearheaded the most aggressive unit in the league, and it worked. Blessed to have impact talent at all three levels, Wash smartly deployed them and kept the egos from clashing. Chiefs OC Matt Nagy is the runner-up.
$.09-- It’s not a prominent bowl game and featured two teams with limited appeal outside of their home markets, but I tucked the family in the car and made the 3-hour drive to Detroit for the QuickLane Bowl the day after Christmas. My son and I go every year, but this was the first time my wife and daughter joined us.
Duke vs. Northern Illinois was a game with no rooting interest for any of us. The MAC grads in us pulled for NIU but it was more about watching a football game and being entertained. Duke turned it into a blowout, but we had a great time at Ford Field.
This is what the bowls need to be more about, and to successfully market themselves as being. Family fun. Some 20,000 fans (and that number is legit) braved terrible road conditions to watch a football game. Tickets were quite affordable for a Ford Field event; we bought our general admission tickets on the secondary market for $8 apiece. Parking was $15 three blocks away. With concessions for dinner ($15 for a heaping artisan pulled pork nachos and a beer) we spent $82 for nearly four hours of engaged entertainment. One day earlier we saw the latest Star Wars movie, where tickets and concessions (including $12 for a 6 oz. bag of generic tortilla chips and lukewarm artificial cheese) cost us $94.
Not every bowl is in a major metro area, but if you live near enough to do a day trip to catch one, please do it. I’ve now gone to six different “minor” bowl games over the years and never had a bad time yet.
$.10—My year in music
Frequent readers know the tenth cent is my own personal off-topic board, and it’s often about music. I proudly did not watch a single episode of scripted television all year, primarily because there is almost always music flowing in my home.
I’m a Spotify addict, and the streaming service did something nice this year. It ranked my most-played songs. As just 3 artists comprised my entire list, I decided to go with the song I listened to the most from each of the 10 most frequent artists. I included links to YouTube clips for each song. Feel free to make it into your own metal/prog/rock playlist…
10. Iron Maiden – Wasted Years. I tend to listen to specific music when I’m doing specific tasks. Iron Maiden is my lawnmowing and snowblowing soundtrack, and this remains my favorite Maiden song.
9. Animals As Leaders – Ectogenesis. I’m a huge fan of the instrumental fusion metal band, and this one highlights bassist Javier Reyes’ incredible work. AAL is frequent background music while I’m writing the $.10 on Sunday nights.
8. Periphery – Marigold. It’s fitting that Periphery appears one spot above AAL. I saw those two bands together in November, a fantastic show. Such an oddly uplifting song for a chorus which includes the line “the misery is killing me slowly.”
7. Steel Panther – Gloryhole. Because sometimes we’re all horny 14-year-old boys. This song, and most certainly the video, are NSFW. I cannot stress that enough. It’s also insanely catchy and guitarist Satchel’s best riff.
6. Parkway Drive – Crushed. My theme song for the 2016 election, this politically-charged thumper is my angry music. Sometimes you just get mad at the world and need a release. This song is that release for me.
5. Ghost – He Is. I’m surprised this was my most-listened Ghost song, because Square Hammer and Absolution are both prominent on multiple playlists. So is this slower, lighter hymn…to Satan. The lyrics work just as well from a Christian perspective, which is part of what makes the Swedish shock-rockers so darn entertaining.
4. Twelve Foot Ninja – Invincible. The Aussie fusion metal band cannot churn out new music soon enough. They keep busy with gems like this. Kin Etik (get it?) shows his vocal range impressively on this one.
3. Avatar – The Eagle Has Landed. “Ladies and gentlemen, your hero has returned again, everything is going to be ok-ay-ay-ay.” Avatar equals workout music for me, and it’s often hard for me to not sing along to this one while at the gym. Very excited to see them in concert in May.
2. Avenged Sevenfold – Hail to the King. Not their most recent work, but still a classic. A7X dominates my radio when I drive long distances. This track edged out “The Stage”, which was right below it on the list.
1. Coheed and Cambria – Island. My favorite band for years, this song remains a criminally underplayed pop-rock masterpiece. This is my favorite song from the last few years and it shows; it’s been atop my playlist for two years. Five of my top 10 songs were from Coheed, proving you’re never too old to be on The Fence.