1. Penn State coach on all wish lists
Bill O'Brien took a disgraced, ruined Penn State football program—a program no one trusted and everyone buried—and made it respectable again. For that, every NFL team that will be in search of a head coach this offseason has him on its wish list.
And I mean every team. All will want to speak to O'Brien. Team officials say he's desired not because of some innovative offense or the way he develops quarterbacks. It's because of the total package. It's taking a dead program and making it whole again.
"He's done as good a rebuilding job as any college coach in the past 20 to 30 years," one NFC scout said.
And he meant in any sport. Not just football.
Rebuilders are valued for obvious reasons. Rebuilders who rebuild with limited resources the way O'Brien did at Penn State are extra-valued. The thinking is: If O'Brien can build Penn State back to relevance, think of what he could do with an NFL organization.
In just his second year with Penn State, he beat Michigan and Wisconsin. NFL team execs also say O'Brien has stayed in constant touch with his NFL friends since departing pro football. He has an excellent reputation and remember: He was an offensive assistant for five years in New England.
It will be expensive to get O'Brien—$6.48 million just to buy out his contract at Penn State, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. But teams don't seem to care.
Every NFL source, some of whom have spoken to O'Brien in the past few weeks, believe he is leaving Penn State this offseason. Doesn't mean it will happen. Just means NFL types believe he is setting up his departure and it will happen soon. Real soon.
Whenever he leaves, few will be coveted more. With good reason.
2. Kickers will kick your ass
Players are getting faster, bigger, stronger. They are more powerful than ever before. Their biceps could crush soda cans. In fact, these players eat soda cans. We've never seen anything like them.
No, not the new breed NFL linebackers or defensive linemen or running backs.
The kickers. The effing kickers.
It's no coincidence that a kicking record that lasted over four decades was broken this season. It's the culmination of about five to 10 years of kickers re-engineering themselves the way other positions have, using advanced training methods. Only instead of throwing the football longer or running faster or lifting more, kickers have used their training to kick the football farther than ever before.
This in turn has resulted in the kicking game leading to the NFL's offensive explosion almost as much as rules changes designed to protect concussed players.
Knowing that they have booming legs that can score from many different points on the field, offensive coordinators are being more aggressive, confident that if aggressive play-calling fails, they have kickers who can reach the uprights from great distances. Distances that kickers just a decade ago could only dream about.
Kicker Tom Dempsey some 43 years ago made a field goal from 63 yards. Not long ago, that record was considered safe for maybe another four decades. Then this month Matt Prater made one from 64. It's only a matter of time before someone makes one from 65 or 68 or even 70. At the rate this new breed of kickers is going, the latter could happen not in a few years but in a few games. Consider what Ravens kicker Justin Tucker told USA Today's Jim Corbett recently:
If I pulled out the 8-degree driver—on a day when I'm feeling real fresh—I could probably hit one from 70 yards. I hit one from 70 yards in pregame in Detroit this past Monday night. ...
In practice I've hit from 79 yards. That was in Denver before our opener in September. The weather was perfect; the field was good. With the altitude in the Rocky Mountains, the ball jumps off your foot.
Did he say 79 yards?
He did say 79, right?
What's happening? There are two major reasons why kickers are now making field goals from low orbit:
• Conditioning: Kickers work out with defensive linemen and running backs. They do the same drills, eat the same high-tech diets, lift all those weights. "Kickers lift and run the same as every other player on the team," Arizona kicker Jay Feely said.
The same way every other player has gotten stronger, so have kickers. All of that 'round-the-year-training leads to a better athlete kicker and thus longer field goals made.
• Longevity: This is perhaps the biggest reason. Better conditioning means kickers can stay in football longer. "The conditioning has lessened the effects of aging," Feely said. "Where great kickers of the past may have lost strength over time, it is not as pronounced today."
Feely is a good example. He just earned NFC special teams player of the week and has two game-winning kicks this year. Feely is 37 and almost as strong as he's ever been due to his high-level conditioning program.
Since kickers can now stay in the game longer, all of the knowledge they have accumulated along the way—the patience, the technique, the experience, the handling of pressure—is still there. It's now joined by a still strong leg.
A kicker that started losing leg strength in his late 20s now isn't until his late 30s. Along the way, he keeps all of that experience. It's like being in a time machine.
The atomic legs of kickers are also changing the way offensive coordinators call games. In past decades, if offensive coaches knew they had a 30- to 40-yard field goal try, they'd get more aggressive with their play-calling.
Now, coaches know many kickers can routinely make them from 50 and 60 yards. Or more.
This isn't universal, of course. There are still non-bionic, non-mutant, non-Klingon kickers that don't make 900-yard field goals.
We also saw how this weekend even the best of the best still miss kicks.
Something is clearly happening, though. There is a growing number of kickers who can smash the football. Bears kicker Robbie Gould on Sunday night hit a 50-yarder at the end of the first half and made it look so easy. Like he was kicking from 20. We take 50-yard kicks for granted, like they're routine, because kickers have gotten so good, they make monster kicks look easy.
This leads to more aggressive play-calling all over the field. There's no statistical data yet on this, but both kickers and coaches interviewed believe that the longer legs are one of the lesser-known reasons that scoring is up.
This is all theoretical, but it's a hell of a theory. If you have a kicker than can routinely make 60-something-yard field goals, that is a serious fallback plan. If you feel like a bunch of your offensive drives can always end with points—touchdowns or field goals—you get cockier with the calling of plays.
We are seeing a revolution. A kicking revolution.
Eighty-yard field goal, anyone?
3. Awful Lions
Whenever I've written that the Lions can't be trusted, I've received large numbers of grammar-challenged Tweets or e-mails or message-board posts from Lions fans—often filled with language fit for a longshoreman—calling me wrong about their team. Well, this past week's game is why the Lions can't be trusted. If you cannot beat a hapless Giants team, in what was effectively an elimination game, at home, then no, you cannot be trusted.
The larger issue is more problematic. The Lions couldn't win an Aaron Rodgers-less division. They couldn't win a division that saw Jay Cutler miss a nice chunk of time. They should have won this division by two games, at least.
Now comes the fallout, and I can confirm something that's been reported on ESPN. One thing I continue to hear from several league sources is that the Detroit organization wants to go in a totally different direction than a veteran NFL coach. They want a younger, college coach. At least for the moment that's the thinking. They are seriously interested in O'Brien (like a lot of teams).
It also seems Jim Schwartz is all but out, though he would be an extremely expensive dismissal, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Something drastic needs to be done. So the Lions can be...maybe...possibly…trusted.
4. Harbaugh and the Texas Longhorns
Jim Harbaugh can scoff at reports about his interest in the University of Texas all he wants. He can say he wants to stay with the 49ers long-term all he wants. But he does have interest. That doesn't mean he's leaving. In fact, everyone in football believes he will stay. One league source said it was 85 to 90 percent Harbaugh and the 49ers would work out a long-term deal.
That same source, however, said Harbaugh does have interest and hasn't been shy expressing how much he admires the Texas program to friends in the NFL.
Harbaugh, I'm told, views the Texas job as one of only two or three college head coaching positions that he would even consider leaving professional football for. I'm told another would be Alabama.
To NFL coaches, Texas and Alabama are basically pro jobs. In many ways, they are seen as better than pro jobs. Coaches can make more money, have total control, report to no one, have an adoring fanbase, the loyalty of players doesn't have to be earned (it's built in), and there's no salary cap.
One of the other attractions is that when a coach wins a Super Bowl, there is an, oh, five-minute grace period. The time you get to enjoy it is minimal. One national title in college buys you peace for years. See: Brown, Mack.
This is why Harbaugh, despite his quips, is interested. And I can't blame him one bit.
5. Aaron Rodgers' collarbone
Packers fans hate hearing this, but Green Bay has been handling the Aaron Rodgers injury over the past weeks exactly as it should. Exactly.
He had a freaking broken collarbone. It takes extensive time to heal, and it can be more severely injured if it doesn't get that time. It's Aaron Rodgers. Not Aaron Spelling. He has a solid five years of playing at the highest level left in that body. You don't risk maybe another Super Bowl or two or three for one season. Take your damn time.
The Packers and their medical staff have handled all of that perfectly. Where they have misstepped is not explaining it the way I just did. The Packers just need to say, succinctly, repeatedly: We are not risking his long-term future. Say it over and over and over.
UPDATE: Thursday, December 26 at 2:45 PM ET
Coach Mike McCarthy announced today that Aaron Rodgers has officially been cleared to play and will start vs. Bears on Sunday.
Mike McCarthy: Aaron Rodgers will start Sunday vs Bears.— Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) December 26, 2013
Rodgers is 8-3 in his career against Chicago, according to Pro Football Reference, and hasn't lost to them since Week 3 of the 2010 season.
6. Ed Reed whining
Safety Ed Reed is a Hall of Famer. He is one of the more impressive defensive players I've ever seen. He could change a game in an instant, and he was a brilliant leader. He was everything. He was simply…great.
I was wrong about Reed. When he signed in Houston, my belief was he would be a positive for that organization. He was a disaster. Still is with the Jets. What remains a truism in football is that the bodies age exponentially. Reed has aged in dog years the past few seasons.
He's now resorted to blaming the media. This is when it's officially sad. When a great player who now has lead in his legs blames the media for the aging process.
7. Tom Brady's division dominance
So many people love to hate Tom Brady. I get it. Jealousy is a strong emotion. But can we all take a deep breath and appreciate the following statistic:
Brady won his 11th division title. Eleventh. Diez y uno.
It's the most by a starting quarterback in NFL history. He's done it in a league that's geared toward eradicating dynasties with salary-capped equilibrium.
Go ahead and say the division has been crap. Some of that is true. Still 11 is 11. Brady and Peyton Manning are the only two starting quarterbacks to win at least 10 division titles. My guess: Brady gets two more before retiring, and no one will equal that mark ever.
8. Andrew Luck and Dan Marino
How good has Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck been so far in his young career? His win against Kansas City—as impressive a win as any this week—gave Luck 21 victories. That ties him with Dan Marino for the third-highest number of wins by a starting thrower in his opening two seasons since the 1970 merger.
9. How teammates feel about London Fletcher
This from Washington lineman Tyler Polumbus to me about retiring linebacker London Fletcher is, well, awesome:
"He's one of these guys I get to tell my kids I played with. He is a man of few words, but when he speaks, he grabs your attention. There were times when he spoke to the team and you wanted to do everything possible not to let him down. He's that kind of guy. His career on the field was obviously great, but what made him special was his professionalism on and off the field. He is admired by everyone in the locker room."
10. A helping hand
One last thing on Polumbus, and another reason he's become one of my favorite players. He's part of a charity that, to me, is unique and important. Here's what I mean.
It's called Camp Kesem. It's an organization that helps children who have parents fighting cancer. It helps the kids have outlets and a community that get what they're going through. Since it was founded in 2000, the camp has helped over 5,000 kids ages 6-16 attend college-student-run camps. It allows the kids, well, to be kids. Even if for a brief time.
"You knew there are kids who are fighting cancer," Polumbus said. "What I wanted to do was help kids who are enduring their parents fighting the disease. I think it allows them to get away and be themselves. They can enjoy life."
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.