What do you want under your favorite NFL team's Christmas tree this season?
While it may be comical to picture Commissioner Roger Goodell, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones or even someone like New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork up on Santa's lap, some of their wish lists for this time of year might be even longer than Sally's from A Charlie Brown Christmas. With the playoffs and draft season just around the corner, it's time to separate the naughty from the nice.
For the league overall, health might be at the top of the list, as the aftermath of looking past the concussion issue continues. With expanded rosters and a closer eye on head injuries, it seems like every week has been more of a M*A*S*H unit than a football squad.
Lots of teams will be looking for a little help for their playoff chances and seeding in Week 17 as well. More will be looking for a few balls to bounce their way once those playoffs start. Others will be hoping their draft pick pans out or that a prized free agent decides to give them a discount.
One thing is for sure: No matter how many wins or successes each team had this season, 'tis the season for wanting, and there is much to be desired heading into the most important time of the year for each and every team.
Carson Palmer doesn't lead the NFL in interceptions this season—New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning has 26 to Palmer's 21—but he does lead the league in my own subjective stat of: "mind-numbing interceptions hamstringing an otherwise playoff-worthy team" (trademark pending).
This gift is actually pretty easy and may make a great stocking-stuffer. Just print out a bunch of red and green dots on a piece of paper and see if Palmer can tell the difference. If not, the Arizona Cardinals may want to look into all-black uniforms for the time being, or maybe something with flashing lights.
No one really wants to see Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez retire from the NFL. Heck, many of us wanted to see him traded earlier this year just because everyone knows how good of a guy he is and that he deserves a Super Bowl ring as much as anyone.
Still, time stops for no man. Although, it's paused a lot for Gonzalez over the years, so if anyone can figure it out, it might be him. A nice veggie-based anti-aging potion would be just the trick to keep the Falcons' most reliable target on the field for a few more seasons as the rest of the team is re-stocked around him.
Look, I can't begrudge a man like Joe Flacco for getting his when it's offered, but the Baltimore Ravens probably could've shown just a little bit of restraint. No, I'm not blaming him entirely for their offensive woes this season, but it's clear he needs some help around him—help for which it would be nice to have some salary-cap space in order to get.
However many dozens of pages make up Flacco's contract need to be put in whatever industrialized paper shredders that mob lawyers use when the Feds are onto them. I've seen it in a movie...just get me one of those.
Back in April, I loved the pick of EJ Manuel, and I enjoyed the team the Buffalo Bills put around him. With plenty of speed and upside at the offensive still positions—combined with a great defense—the future looked bright. Yet, Manuel hasn't exactly closed the door on questions about his ability as a franchise QB.
The 2014 draft class is stocked with quarterback talent, but the Bills have to wonder if all they really need is time. If only they had a magic crystal ball to ask...
In Week 1, the Carolina Panthers had the Seattle Seahawks right where they wanted them–in Carolina, a close game, the No. 1 seed theirs for the taking. No, instead, the Panthers offense was only able to score seven points, and the opportunity was lost.
Think the Panthers wouldn't like to have that game (or even the second half) over again? They would, because now they're this close to having home-field advantage in the playoffs, and that would make life a whole lot easier in the month to come.
The Chicago Bears defense can't do anything, so maybe if the Bears just laid the actual "D" and "Fence" on the field, opposing teams might just trip over them. It's a thought. Heck, it might be the best thought the Bears defense has had all season long.
Visualizing success has to be difficult for a Cincinnati Bengals team that always seems just a step or three behind its actual talent level. The Bengals might be the most complete team in all of football, but that's been their story for seasons. Yet, when it's time to win a tough game—especially on the road—we all know where the Bengals usually end up.
'Nuff said? 'Nuff said.
Right now, Jerry Jones is the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, the general manager and the de facto decision-maker when it comes to most coaching decisions. Heck, the dude has a couple radio shows each week too, so he's basically the NFL's best example of judge, jury and executioner.
Only, the Cowboys kind of stink, so maybe this isn't a good thing...
Let's say three spirits visit him in the middle of the night and convince him to keep the idea of a general manager close to his heart. Or, hey, maybe he just eats some bad nachos and indigestion makes him realize that he shouldn't be such a control freak. Either way, Merry Christmas!
Here's what you do.
You know all of that bubble wrap from Christmas? OK, don't pop the little bubbles. No, don't do it. Stop it! I can hear you right now. Well, once you stop popping the bubbles, take the bubble wrap and put it back in the box. Throw in any packing peanuts or otherwise protective materials and ship to:
Peyton Manning c/o Denver Broncos 1701 Bryant Street, Suite 700 Denver, Colorado 80204.
This is the only way the Broncos are getting through the playoffs.
As I'm watching the normal Monday press conference (half-expecting Jim Schwartz to be fired during it), I hear Schwartz utter these magical words about the Detroit Lions' season: "I don't know if I'd be as strong as to call it a failure."
Lemme help you out, Jim. It was a failure.
This is a coach who never met a mistake he wouldn't deny having committed. He believes his quarterback has perfect mechanics, the defense is fierce, the offense is dependable...yadda yadda yadda. If Santa Claus were in a Honolulu Blue suit, Schwartz would believe he was real.
For Christmas, here's a clue: Fire Schwartz. Hire a big boy who can admit when things have gone terribly wrong.
Whither art thou, Matt Hasselbeck?
The Green Bay Packers used to be known for great backup quarterbacks who were always ready to step in and eventually take the big payday elsewhere. What happened?
Hasselbeck, Mark Brunell, Aaron Brooks. Even Aaron Rodgers spent some time on the pine. This team has historically had great backups. If that had been the case this season, the NFC North would be locked up.
Instead, they have a Week 17 showdown with the Chicago Bears and tons of questions concerning Rodgers' shoulder.
I'm talking Teddy Bear people...don't get weird on me.
The worst thing that can happen for the Houston Texans, long-term, is not getting a quarterback with this opportunity at the top of the draft. Let's say they grab Jadeveon Clowney and pair him with J.J. Watt. A pretty good defense, right? Right. Well, Case Keenum is still your quarterback, and will be for a while as that defense you just put together has you drafting in the teens for the next decade.
No, you need a quarterback.
If University of Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater doesn't declare, things get dicey. If he does declare and the Texans don't pick him, someone needs to get fired.
The one receiver who knows what to do is hurt, but all the healthy receivers can't run a route or actually catch the ball if their lives depended on it. What's a quarterback like Andrew Luck to do?
What the Indianapolis Colts need this season, more than anything, is a crazy transformation where someone like Darrius Heyward-Bey and Reggie Wayne switch places for a day. No, they should not just wish for Wayne to be healthy. What are you talking about? This makes a lot more sense.
Mark it down—the Jacksonville Jaguars are going to be good...in, like, 2015.
This is a team with a vision. General manager David Caldwell and head coach Gus Bradley know what they are doing. The team is improving. The culture is changing. This is going to be something special—just, not in the immediate future.
Over the next few weeks, it's likely that we're going to hear how bad the Kansas City Chiefs are. At the very least, we'll hear about how they're not as good as their record suggests or ready to match up with the AFC's elite.
The Chiefs drafted first overall less than a year ago. Now, they're headed to the playoffs. That's an incredible turnaround. Of course, they're not ready! They shouldn't be! They should be much worse!
Instead of talking about how they're not good enough, we should be focusing on how they got so good so soon and where this team could be headed in the very near future.
The coach, Joe Philbin, is about as vanilla as it comes in NFL standards. The general manager, Jeff Ireland, is known for being abrasive and stand-offish (as well as asking idiotic questions to draft prospects). The owner once got into a bidding war with his alma mater that he financially supports—i.e. a bidding war with his own money—for Jim Harbaugh. The team still doesn't know whether to support Jonathan Martin or be B.F.F.s with Richie Incognito (a.k.a. the guy who was having meetings in strip clubs).
Overall, the Miami Dolphins aren't overflowing with "people persons." Good team...maybe headed to the playoffs, even...just not people persons.
If the season ended today, the Minnesota Vikings would be drafting eighth overall. As things currently stand, Oregon Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota has decided to remain as such and stay in Eugene for another season.
This could be terrible for the Vikings.
If Mariota declares, he could easily go as high as No. 2 overall, right behind Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater. In fact, it's not inconceivable that he might go first, depending on team preference, workouts, etc. He's a stud.
Now, while the Vikings don't have a shot at Mariota, the domino effect is what could really get them. With Mariota out, there's a chance that Bridgewater, Fresno State's Derek Carr and Central Florida's Blake Bortles could all be gone by No. 8.
The Vikings reached for Ponder a couple years ago when everyone knew he wasn't worth that draft slot. If Mariota doesn't have a change of heart, that very thing could happen again.
The New England Patriots can still conceivably overtake the Denver Broncos for the No. 1 seed in the AFC, and while they'd like that sort of gift under the tree, that's like actually getting a car with a big bow on it—it just doesn't happen, get real.
Instead, a much more realistic present is simply sticking with the No. 2 seed and not letting the Cincinnati Bengals in the back door. Traveling to Denver will be difficult enough for the Patriots, but they don't want to create a situation where they might have to play the Bengals at home (where the latter are a much more effective team).
Speaking of: "There's no place like home..."
The New Orleans Saints have already squandered away their own home-field advantage this season and may actually be in danger of missing the playoffs altogether. Their inability to beat other good teams (or even average ones) consistently on the road has ruined what many expected to be a cakewalk of a playoff season with plenty of home cookin' and blowouts.
Maybe a nice pair of ruby red slippers will be enough to remind the Saints that no matter how far they travel, home is always just a few heel clicks (and a charter jet flight) away.
The Cindy Lou Whos that make up the New York Giants organization aren't going to have the chutzpa to do what needs to be done this offseason—fire their longtime (and successful) head coach and rebuild before it is too late.
No, they need some grinchitude this holiday season. Someone needs to shrink their collective hearts at least three sizes. Loyalty is great, but some good old-fashioned holiday pink slips are just what the doctor ordered for Big Blue.
A few NFL players have taken to the holiday tradition of providing children in need with a shopping spree to get the presents they otherwise would not be able to afford.
The New York Jets need a store called "Skill Positions 'R' Us" and a massive offseason shopping spree. Without it, they'll never be able to properly examine Geno Smith and could be deep-sixing his career before it even gets started.
The Al Davis era ended very poorly for the Oakland Raiders.
Draft picks? Gone. Salary-cap space? Tied up in dead money. Talent? What talent?
General manager Reggie McKenzie needs time to build the shelves before he can even think of stocking them, and head coach Dennis Allen should be allowed the time to do his job with actual players under his wing than the hodgepodge he currently has.
While we talk, a lot, about how the Philadelphia Eagles' offense puts pressure on other teams, it's important to remember that the Eagles themselves have to keep up that pace. For the big offensive linemen and defensive players who have to keep trotting out onto the field more often than their peers in other cities, that can be a burden—especially toward the end of the year.
A whole mess of new oxygen tanks is just what the Eagles need to make sure their opponents are the only ones sucking actual wind come Week 17 and playoff time.
While the Atlanta Falcons just needed a little vial of anti-aging magic for Tony Gonzalez, the Pittsburgh Steelers need a lot more. Let's just bring down that pool that Wilford Brimley and company used in Cocoon. Then, after Troy Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger, Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark and others wade through it a little bit, the team can be whole again.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: The Steelers aren't "getting old" as a team, but the Steelers that are aging are a pretty important group.
Right now, the St. Louis Rams look like they'll have two picks in the top 15 in this year's draft.
Maybe they grab a quarterback to avoid the (non-guaranteed) big money on Sam Bradford's contract after next year. Maybe they grab another defensive pass-rusher to really harass the Colin Kaepernicks and Russell Wilsons of the world. Maybe it's an offensive lineman to protect their investments on offense.
Whatever it is, if the Rams miss, things aren't going to get better. This year is their big chance to take a leap forward into the playoff discussion. If they swing and miss—especially if they do it with both picks—it'll be rebuilding time in a hurry.
I believe in Mike McCoy, Philip Rivers and Tom Telesco. I just don't know if anything they do is going to be enough in the AFC West!
The Denver Broncos aren't going anywhere. They've got enough talent that it's easy to envision them restocking long after Peyton Manning's career is over. The Kansas City Chiefs are just starting their ascent. That leaves the Oakland Raiders who, frankly, are probably just a step or two behind the San Diego Chargers on the same sort of path upward.
The Chargers were a good team this year. Rivers was a great quarterback. In the AFC West, that just wasn't enough.
It might never be.
For a few moments on Monday night against the Atlanta Falcons, we saw what the San Francisco 49ers offense should look like—power running, well-timed strikes down the field, toughness, speed...
Then again, that was the Falcons defense. Teams like Seattle and Carolina aren't going to provide those same conditions for success. No, what the 49ers need is a little luck. The strikes down the field need to fall into the right hands. The holes need to open along the line just right. The ball needs to bounce their way.
The Niners have a chance to make some noise in the playoffs, but a little help never hurt anyone.
One loss to the Arizona Cardinals, and now the Seattle Seahawks are beatable?
Well, it's not just that. Remember the road woes with St. Louis and Houston? How about the stinker against Tampa Bay? Wins? Sure, but not the dominance that we've come to expect—especially at home.
Now, NFC playoff teams have reason to believe they can hang with the Seahawks. That's not ideal at this time of the year.
Yeah, Greg Schiano won a couple of games. If that saves his job, though, it will be a poor new year for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who need the courage to start fresh.
There's too much talent on this team to credit Schiano for doing much more than simply being along for the ride. He doesn't put that talent in positions to succeed and his coordinators don't really know what they're doing.
The Buccaneers have the talent to compete in the NFC South, but not the leadership.
It looks like quarterback Jake Locker is going to be back next year and head coach Mike Munchak may or may not be as well. Around Locker, there is plenty of talent, but not a lot of playmakers willing to step out of the pack and become consistent weapons for an offense that is usually more dull than explosive.
Maybe this wish isn't even that they're able to draft or sign new playmakers. Instead, maybe it's just the maturation of some of the ones they already have. Either way, Locker isn't going to last much longer without that happening.
It's been a rough year in Washington, D.C.
The team needs someone to convince owner Daniel Snyder that he continually looks like he's presiding over the smelliest dumpster fire in all of sports rather than running a professional business. While that person is at it, maybe come up with some names that (while supposedly entirely innocuous today) aren't steeped in ignorance and violence. That person could at least make it look like the coach and quarterback like each other, too.
It's probably too much to ask that all of that stuff happens at once, but if Washington could at least control the narrative around some of this, the terrible football product could start to improve.