$.01--The big NFL news during the week was the revelation of the Pro Bowl rosters. The NFL Network offered a heavily promoted primetime special to unveil the players who have been honored by fan and peer voting to the annual exhibition game.
Many of the players graciously accepted their Pro Bowl nods on social media and thanked fans and the league for the recognition. Others complained about being omitted. Scribes quickly penned the “biggest snub” lists for each team (a major challenge for Arizona writers) and for the league. The Pro Bowl dominated the conversation about all things NFL.
Flash forward to January 27, Camping World Stadium, Orlando. You know, the actual Pro Bowl game. A stadium filled to one-fifth of capacity with apathetic fans, friends and family of the players themselves, and bewildered tourists given free tickets as part of their Disney timeshares will witness a game nobody wants to actually play in...or watch on TV.
The same scribes trumpeting the Pro Bowl virtues of the players this week will pen scathing indictments on the frivolity and utter senselessness of playing such a wretched abomination and bastardization of American football. Instead of snub columns, we will be barraged with op-eds calling for the death of the Pro Bowl and the waterboarding of anyone who dares enjoy the noncompetitive de facto touch football game played without anyone from the two best teams, who will get together a week later for the Super Bowl.
There is a simple solution to the wild extremes: kill the game itself but not the honor. Earning a Pro Bowl nod can serve as a symbolic recognition of a great individual season. Give the players honored a family trip to Orlando, or even the old Pro Bowl home in Hawaii. Keep the contractual incentives. Celebrate the Pro Bowl players at the NFL Awards show, another all-expenses-paid trip for the honoree and immediate family. Just stop the damn game. Please...
$.02--In an interesting bit of timing, the Baltimore Ravens publicly pronounced they will retain head coach John Harbaugh for the 2019 season and are actively seeking to lock up their longtime head man beyond next year.
The Ravens have missed the playoffs three straight years. GM Ozzie Newsome, who has been with the organization since they defected from Cleveland, is retiring. It makes for a natural transition time for Newsome’s successor to make his own mark and install his own head coach. Then again, after Saturday’s win over the Chargers, Harbaugh has made a very strong case that he would be the best choice for any new management regime.
Baltimore smothered the Chargers attack, 22-10. Los Angeles had six drives last less than 2 minutes of game time. They managed just 22 offensive snaps in the first half, 9 of those coming on their final drive. Between the sharp defense taking away options--and the ball--and the Lamar Jackson ground-based attack, the Chargers had very little chance to do much of anything.
Give Harbaugh credit for implementing a prudent gameplan designed specifically to take advantage of what his team does well. Not enough coaches do that. He’s found a way to win with Jackson as his QB surrounded by skill players crafted around the diametric antipode of Jackson that is deposed starter Joe Flacco. That’s not an easy task or transition, yet here are the Ravens at 9-6 and in control of their own playoff destiny despite being 4-5 at one point this year.
It will be interesting to see how this team transitions away from Flacco and continues to overhaul a defense with a youth movement. Harbaugh has earned the right to oversee that transition, and the Ravens deserve credit for knowing it. Lesser franchises would have taken a different path.
$.03--Harbaugh and his Ravens will play for the AFC North title next week. Following their impressive Saturday night victory, Baltimore sat back and watched rival Pittsburgh fall in crushing fashion in New Orleans on Sunday.
The Steelers came up just short, falling 31-28 in a chance to maintain their own destiny. It was a game equal parts exhilarating and ugly, from some odd play calls (notably a stupid fake punt) to some shoddy defense and downright bogus officiating.
There was a terrible call in the game which directly impacted the outcome, unfortunately. Steelers CB Joe Haden was flagged for pass interference at the goal line, setting up the Saints for a TD.
"Pass Interference" called on Joe Haden pic.twitter.com/UbxKFCzTpt— Heart of NFL (@HeartofNFL) December 24, 2018
All the officiating analysts on all the networks agreed: the call was incontrovertibly incorrect.
Pittsburgh had a couple of late chances to overcome the terrible flag, but Stevan Ridley and Juju Smith-Schuster fumbled them away. Smith-Schuster had a great game otherwise, and he combined with Antonio Brown to each have top 10 catches and 100 receiving yards in the same game. Michael Thomas also hit those marks for the Saints. Good offense continues to trump bad defense.
The outcomes leave Baltimore a half-game ahead of the 8-6-1 Steelers. However, Pittsburgh has a much easier task in Week 17 than the Ravens. The Steelers host what’s left of the Bengals, which doesn’t include A.J. Green, Andy Dalton or likely Vontaze Burfict, among many others. Baltimore hosts the resurgent Browns, winners of 3 in a row and much more dominant in victory over those Bengals than the 26-18 score on Sunday would indicate.
To add even more pressure, the team that doesn’t win the AFC North is almost certainly eliminated from the playoffs. The only way Pittsburgh would get in if they don’t capture the division title--even with a win--is if Indianapolis and Tennessee (both 9-6 after wins) wind up tying.
$.04--Fresh on the heels of the disturbing Kareem Hunt incident, Washington suspended safety Montae Nicholson for an act of violence captured on camera. The second-year safety from Michigan State was arrested in Virginia for public intoxication and assault and battery.
The video leaves little doubt about the battery:
Redskins safety Montae Nicholson was arrested early Tuesday morning and charged with assault and battery and being drunk in public stemming from a fight near the team's practice facility in Ashburn, Virginia. https://t.co/qrP96SdOPs pic.twitter.com/NWqZhPxCz0— CBS Evening News (@CBSEveningNews) December 20, 2018
As of now, Nicholson remains on the Washington roster on the non-football injury (NFI) list. That’s different than the status Hunt has as a free agent after the Chiefs unceremoniously dumped the NFL’s reigning rushing champ. Hunt is on the commissioner’s exempt list, sort of a punitive limbo state while he remains too toxic for any team to touch.
It’s interesting the Skins have yet to sever ties with Nicholson, who is a good young talent but not close to the level of Hunt. There are now reports of a 2017 DUI arrest which will almost certainly result in an escalation of the penalties under the NFL’s disciplinary system. I tend to favor teams standing by their players to help them get through tough times, but I’m also a believer that actions need to have consequences.
What Nicholson did, regardless of the context prior to the criminal activity in the video, merits the end of his time in Washington and perhaps the NFL overall. Allow him to receive any treatment and counseling on the NFL’s dime, but Nicholson needs to prove he deserves another chance to earn the privilege of playing on Sundays again.
$.05--Bowl season is well underway at the college level. The teams from the smaller conferences and the lesser teams with non-losing records from the power conferences have engaged in over a dozen matchups in exotic locales like Boise, Birmingham and Frisco (that’s in Texas).
I tend to only watch college football with a scouting eye for NFL talent. Unless my Ohio Bobcats -- 27-0 winners over San Diego State in the Frisco Bowl! -- are involved, I have very little emotional engagement to any FBS-level game. Normally I use the bowl season to get a longer look at prospects from the more underexposed schools, but that aspect is going away too.
I’d say “unfortunately” going away, but that’s not intellectually honest. Aside from the fact bowl games tend to produce too many false positives in scouting, I don’t begrudge any of the prospects who choose to sit out the team exhibitions. That’s what they are, money-making (most of the time) exhibitions staged by glad-handed alums funneling cash through complicit sponsors, some of whom appear to be money laundering via their advertising budgets to get title recognition.
Unless the players are getting a cut of that action, there is no reason for them to play the meat puppet role. Recent devastating injuries to Jaylon Smith and Jake Butt in bowl games are prominent cautionary tales of lost potential millions for prospects who opted to show their fealty to the program over their individual interests. When guys like Ed Oliver, Rashan Gary and Darrell Henderson (the Memphis RB you need to know) skip the bowls, I applaud them. There is zero reason for them to participate in helping the college make more money and get more exposure at their pointless expense.
The goal of college is to prepare students for the post-collegiate workforce. These players have determined their career path involves the NFL. Prepping for the postseason workout and interview circuit is more valuable to their vocational path than risking injury or a bad day in a game that doesn’t count.
As a bonus, the more frequent and accepted it becomes for the prominent players to skip the bowls, the quicker the bowl system as it currently exists dies. That’s something we can all get behind.
$.06--Josh Gordon’s long, sad saga has taken another predictably unfortunate turn. The Patriots wideout has left the team to seek more treatment for mental health issues in relation to his chronic drug abuse and battle to get sober.
According to reports on Sunday morning, Gordon failed in his quest to stay clean. He faces indefinite suspension once again for his 11th documented failure of a drug test (presuming Adam Schefter & Ian Rapoport are accurate in their reporting) dating back to his days at Baylor.
There is a difference between how to view Gordon personally and professionally, a distinction I’ve had to make often in covering Gordon in his star-crossed Cleveland days. Personally, I desperately want Josh Gordon to get his life together and find some contentment and comfort in normal life without substance abuse. He’s an easy person to like, someone you pray for and want to see succeed.
Professionally, enough is more than enough. I don’t believe he deserved this last chance, not after enough strikes to change the inning in a baseball game. There’s a fine line between helping and enabling, and it’s long past the point of clarity that being an NFL player was enabling Gordon to fuel his addictions more than it was helping him try and get clean.
I hope the NFL will continue to help Gordon try and get his life together even if he’s banned from playing. The Browns organization took considerable criticism for standing by him during the three seasons he was suspended. I don’t see that negativity persisting now. It’s up to Josh himself to make it work, but the NFL would be smart to hold his hand and help him as much as possible. If he fails yet again, it’s all on Gordon. Again.
$.07--There are conflicting reports out there about the fate of Arizona Cardinals rookie head coach Steve Wilks. The most recent came out Sunday morning, indicating Wilks will not get a second season in Arizona.
Even though his Cardinals team sorely lacks impact talent, it’s not hard to see why the team is willing to pull the plug. Wilks was not exactly a sexy hire to replace Bruce Arians to begin with, and he’s done little in the way of innovation, scheme or player development to turn those initial frowns upside down. His offense, helmed by veteran OC (and former Chargers head man) Mike McCoy, is among the worst of any we’ve seen this century despite having David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald as weapons for promising first-round QB Josh Rosen.
That group got nothing going in a 31-9 loss against the Rams, save a trick play where Fitzgerald threw a TD to Johnson. Los Angeles netted 33 first downs despite not having MVP candidate Todd Gurley in the lineup, a pretty stiff indictment of the weakness of Wilks’ defense. Just for good measure to show the all-around wretchedness of the entire Cardinals team, the special teams botched the extra point on the lone TD.
If the Cardinals are not sold on Wilks as a long-term solution, dumping him now is a smart idea. The team is poised to land the No. 1 overall pick and already has a young QB in Rosen who can be built around. That’s an appealing situation which ownership can sell. They might need to sell it to a new GM, too; Steve Keim cannot feel comfortable about what his team has devolved into so rapidly, so thoroughly.
--ESPN’s My Wish feature on young Tennyson Erickson and his dream wish with Larry Fitzgerald and the Arizona Cardinals is something everyone should watch. The sincerity in which the Cardinals and Fitzgerald got involved is truly heartwarming. Go watch it.
--The one and only mention worthy from the Falcons-Panthers game:
--Congrats to the Cleveland Browns, who will not finish in the AFC North cellar for the first time since 2010. Based on how well the young talent has come together since Hue Jackson was fired, this might be the last year they don’t win the division for a few years. They’ve been one of the 6 best teams in football since Week 10.
--Didn’t get to see much of the game, but the Colts comeback to stun the Giants shows a lot of moxie from Frank Reich’s team. Win in Week 17 and they’re in the playoffs. That’s a situation every Colts fan would happily have signed up for last summer.
--Houston mounted an epic comeback of its own in Philadelphia, including a fantastic set of plays from Deshaun Watson to take a late lead on Vyncint Smith’s first career TD catch. But the Eagles mounted a quick-strike comeback of their own and kept their dim playoff light flickering when Jake Elliott nailed the game-winning FG as time expired. Philly needs a win at Washington and for the Vikings to lose at home to Chicago. It can happen.
--I try not to talk too much about my Lions in this space, but there is zero excuse for that franchise continuing to employ offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. If he returns, Lions fans should riot. In Sunday’s loss to Minnesota, the Vikings players were calling out the offensive plays for Detroit. That’s at least the 4th opponent this season to admit they knew exactly what the play call was based on down/distance, personnel package and alignment. That’s four too many...
--Reports are out that Ohio State QB Dwayne Haskins got a 1st round grade from the NFL’s evaluation committee. Those are rare for QBs. He’d be a fool not to declare in such a thin QB class. There should be very little competition for him as the top QB and a top-5 pick.
--Haskins’ coach at Ohio State, Urban Meyer, has accepted a teaching position at the university. Meyer retired from coaching at 54 and will teach a course in the tOSU business school entitled “character and leadership”. A man embroiled in egregiously mishandling scandalous situations in his too-big-to-fail football program, who fled Florida ahead of the maelstrom to spend time with his family only to grow sick enough of them within a month to take millions to go away, being an authority on “character”...are we sure this isn’t a class from the psychology department on irony?
--Several more underclassmen have entered the draft. One who caught my eye of late is Wake Forest WR Greg Dortch. He sat out the Demon Deacons’ bowl win over Memphis, but the 5-9 dynamo reminds me quite a bit of Seahawks standout Tyler Lockett. Others have compared him to Washington’s Jamison Crowder, and they’re indeed built quite similarly. He’s worth a Day 2 pick in a receiving class that lacks a standout but appears to feature a lot of useful wideouts.
--Shea Patterson will remain at Michigan for another season. That’s a surprise to many around the program. It’s also a curious decision for the transfer from Ole Miss; many Wolverine insiders believe he won’t be the starter in Ann Arbor next season. I’m not a fan of his NFL prospects no matter when he hits the league (he’s small in both stature and arm strength) but it’s still interesting that he chose to remain in school.
--Army 70, Houston 14. Final score of the Armed Forces Bowl. Pretty sure the US invasion of Grenada wasn’t that lopsided…
--Between the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl, the Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl and the Servpro First Responder Bowl, I’m genuinely shocked there is not a Geico Insurance Bowl.
$.10--It’s Christmas time, the peak of the holiday season for which we wish one another “Happy Holidays”. May your holiday season, no matter which one you personally celebrate, be filled with love, merriment and internal contentment for at least a day. We live in trying times and the more goodness we can find in the world and in one another, the better we all will be. That is all.