Monday Morning Hangover: Playoff Teams Prove It's Best to Spend Smart, Not Big

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Monday Morning Hangover: Playoff Teams Prove It's Best to Spend Smart, Not Big
Mike McCarn/Associated Press

When you look across the 12 teams that reached the NFL playoffs, you will see Hall of Fame quarterbacks, up-and-coming quarterbacks, mobile quarterbacks, stationary quarterbacks and backup quarterbacks.

You will see head coaches with Super Bowl rings and head coaches who have never reached the playoffs before.

You will see shutdown cornerbacks, superstar wide receivers, terrible secondaries, terrible receiving corps, teams with great offensive lines, teams with the Seahawks offensive line, teams that enjoyed remarkable good health in 2015 and nine random strangers Bill Belichick found in a bowling alley sharing a huddle with Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski

You will see a lot of different types of players, units, coaches and teams. But you know what you will see very, very few of? Splashy, sexy, big-name, big-money offseason acquisitions. This year's playoff teams all have one thing in common: Their home-brewed, carefully developed rosters feature very few players who took part in the "Great 2015 Free-Agent Feeding Frenzy."

Let's run down the playoff list (in seeding order, starting with NFC teams) to see just how few of the free agents we drooled over in March still have games to prepare for after Week 17.

The Panthers have barely touched the free-agent market for several seasons, even at positions (wide receiver) where a little spending might have gone a long way. Ted Ginn Jr., a career backup receiver and return man, was their big signing of the offseason.

The Broncos made their share of splashy moves in the past (signing Peyton Manning, for instance), but their biggest moves for this season were on the coaching staff, not the field. The core of their roster has been in place for several seasons.

While the Cardinals have acquired their fair share of free agents in recent years and signed guard Mike Iupati to a sizable offseason contract, most of their veteran acquisitions (Carson Palmer, Chris Johnson, Dwight Freeney) arrived at bargain-basement prices. The Cardinals are built on drafting and tag-popping, not spending.

Jeff Haynes/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press
Carson Palmer

Most of the Patriots' free-agent action in the offseason involved re-signing incumbents such as Devin McCourty and Stephen Gostkowski. Their splashiest acquisition was Jabaal Sheard—a pass-rusher from the Browns.

The Vikings are built from the stockpile of first-round picks they obtained in recent years. The biggest player they acquired in 2015 was Mike Wallace, who is like the remote-control race car your kids got for Christmas, drove straight down the driveway into a gutter and then forgot about.

The Bengals are well-known in recent years for valuing roster stability. Nearly all of their significant players were drafted into the organization.

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images
Andy Dalton

After years of trying to win the Super Bowl the day free agency opened, the Redskins committed to developing in-house talent this season, give or take some cost-effective reinforcements on defense. Suddenly, the Redskins are trending upward instead of spending sideways.

The Texans relied on free-agent quarterback Brian Hoyer this season, but Hoyer barely counts as a "splashy" free agent, and he's not exactly as integral to the Texans' success as, say, Kirk Cousins was to the Washington renaissance.

When the Packers signed Julius Peppers in March 2014, it was practically their first major free-agent acquisition since Charles Woodson in 2006, and they have had none since Peppers. Just about every player on the roster is a home-grown Packers player, for better or worse: They could really have used a little jolt of new talent on offense this year.

The 11-5 Chiefs would probably be about 6-10 without Jeremy Maclin, but he was their only major veteran acquisition this offseason. Re-signing Justin Houston was their only other headline move in free agency.

Peter Aiken/Getty Images
Jeremy Maclin

The Seahawks traded for Jimmy Graham. He didn't fit the offense. Then he got hurt. Then the Seahawks offense got better. They also signed Cary Williams. They cut him, and the Legion of Boom got better.

The Steelers signed DeAngelo Williams on the cheap but otherwise promoted from within, even in an offseason full of defensive retirements. This has been the Steelers' management philosophy since the dawn of time.

Tellingly, of the handful of free agents mentioned above, several were well-known to the organizations that signed them. Maclin and Andy Reid share a long history. Hoyer and Bill O'Brien share a Patriots connection. Ginn was in his second stint with the Panthers, as was James Jones with the Packers (the closest thing to a big-time free-agent move that the Packers made).

Let's come at this issue another way.

Here's an NFL.com list of the top free agents available at the end of last February. It's a great list for our purposes because it excludes players who were franchise-tagged or were re-signed by their own teams. The only free agents among the top 10 who ended up on playoff rosters are Maclin and Iupati.

Expand the list to the top 25 and you find that Terrance Knighton (Redskins), Sheard (Patriots) and Chris Culliver (Redskins) are the only other top free agents to change teams and reach the playoffs.

Expand the NFL.com list to the top 50 and you will catch some players like Cecil Shorts III (Texans) and Stephen Paea (Redskins again) in the dragnet, but not many. Factor in big names who got traded such as Graham, Sam Bradford and Nick Foles and you will still come up empty except for some veteran role players like Jared Allen.

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Sam Bradford

Where did all the free agents go? Many went to teams whose head coaches and general managers are on the Black Monday chopping block, if they have not already been chopped.

Ndamukong Suh played well for the Dolphins when not jumping offsides once per week, but the Dolphins now know they should have spent their money more wisely. DeMarco Murray, Byron Maxwell and Ryan Mathews all ended up on the bonfire Chip Kelly built with Jeffrey Lurie's money.

Brian Orakpo didn't exactly terrorize AFC South quarterbacks for the Titans. Julius Thomas and Jared Odrick were in Jacksonville: Did you notice? The Colts gobbled up Andre Johnson, plus Frank Gore and Trent Cole from just outside the top 25. We all know how well that turned out.

This could turn into a trite lesson really quickly: FREE AGENCY BAD, DRAFTING GOOD. It's never quite that simple.

The Jets didn't make the playoffs, but Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brandon Marshall, Antonio Cromartie and Darrelle Revis (a mix of free agents and trade acquisitions) helped turn the franchise around. Maclin, Williams, Sheard and Iupati were impact performers.

Some teams must spend a little extra money on infrastructure players if they hope to develop their prize draft picks. The Redskins did a little of that on defense this year, and it paid franchise-wide dividends. And this year's free agent often contributes to next year's success; see DeSean Jackson and Emmanuel Sanders for top-of-the-head examples.

Matt Rourke/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press
DeSean Jackson

But this year's playoff field, coupled with the failed experiments in Philly and elsewhere, proves once again there is no substitute for drafting, sifting the waiver wire for low-cost talent, developing practice-squad players and excelling at the succession game: preparing this year's mid-round pick to replace next year's veteran who is about to get too much attention on the free-agent market.

The Patriots, Packers and Steelers have built rosters the home-cooked way for years, with the Patriots blending in some of their patented trash-to-treasure free agents. The Panthers, Bengals and Vikings have been laying the groundwork for their current teams over the course of several draft classes. The Redskins have just figured things out. The Ravens were masters of player development and the succession game until injuries reached a critical mass this year.

Do everything right and you can save free agency for surgical-strike situations, like when your team needs a wide receiver and a star your head coach developed on a previous team is suddenly on the market.

Teams undergoing regime changes must heed the lesson of this year's playoff field. Fans should also keep it in mind when in March we are refreshing Twitter every nine seconds like hungry lab mice. And playoff teams need to keep doing what got them here—the rest of the league will be coming for their free agents in March.

Playoff Fear Factor: Scary or Scared? 

Broncos

The Dolphins used a two-quarterback system in 1982. Athletic young sharpshooter David Woodley started games, but he gave way to aging journeyman Don Strock when Don Shula wanted more experience at the helm. The Dolphins rode that rotation to the Super Bowl, though Woodley did almost all of the quarterbacking in the playoffs.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Peyton Manning

That was 33 years ago, and Denver coach Gary Kubiak probably won't try anything nearly that zany as he goes into the AFC playoffs with home-field advantage. He didn't offer any clues after the game, and opponents must now prepare for both young flamethrower Brock Osweiler and not-dead-yet Peyton Manning, knowing that Kubiak has few qualms about reaching for the bullpen telephone.

Manning did not evoke memories of 2013 when he relieved Osweiler in Sunday's 27-20 victory over the Chargers, but he's still a heck of a guy to suddenly have to outwit in the fourth quarter.

It's bad enough dealing with a vicious defense, resurgent running game and the Mile High elements. Now opponents must brace for a two-headed quarterback attack.

Oh, and while we were all focused on Manning, Kubiak replaced right tackle Michael Schofield, one of the most overmatched pass protectors in the NFL, with Tyler Polumbus, who has the advantage of not being Michael Schofield. There goes the most obvious weak spot through which to attack the quarterback, whoever he may be. Scary.

Panthers

Last week's loss may have woken them up a bit. Very scary.

Patriots

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Tom Brady

Tom Brady took some nasty hits and left the game with what looked like a minor injury (he told reporters he'd be "all right"). For the second straight week, the Patriots could barely move the ball at all in a game they needed to win.

Of course, there's a segment of the Internet that believes the Patriots actually throw late-season games on purpose to gain arcane and inscrutable playoff advantages only Bill Belichick comprehends.

So, for that demographic: Yes indeed, Belichick meant for Ndamukong Suh and Olivier Vernon to play tug-of-war with Brady so the Patriots would have to travel to Denver for the AFC Championship Game. He's that brilliant. A little scared, but (because they are the Patriots) a little scary.

Cardinals

The Seahawks just did to the Cardinals what the Cardinals did to the Packers last week. Carson Palmer left the 36-6 Seahawks rout for his own safety. In fairness, they were playing a nasty opponent jockeying for a specific playoff opportunity. Still pretty scary.

Bengals

John Grieshop/Getty Images
AJ McCarron

AJ McCarron looked pretty good in a 24-16 win over the Ravens, throwing for a pair of touchdowns. The defense also performed well against the AFC's peskiest termite.

But the Bengals now have to face the Steelers again, almost certainly without Andy Dalton. Pretending to not be really, really scared.

Vikings

The three-game winning streak and division crown are great, and the Vikings have a "house money" vibe as playoff newcomers.

Sunday night's 20-13 victory over the Packers proved the Vikings offense (which needed help from a defensive touchdown to win) looks different playing a quality defense, as opposed to the Bears or Giants.

The Vikings are like the Chiefs of the NFC (defense, ball control and one deep pass per month), except the Chiefs get the very beatable Texans in the playoffs, while the Vikings somehow ended up hosting the Seahawks. Too elated to have won the division to be scared.

Texans

Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press/Associated Press
J.J. Watt

J.J. Watt, with his injured hand no longer in a cast, had a three-sack game in a 30-6 rout of the Jaguars.

Nothing the Texans did against the Jaguars can change the fact that Brian Hoyer is their quarterback and they consider a Jonathan Grimes Wildcat package to be a legitimate part of their weekly game plan. Too stubborn to be scared.

Redskins

On a giddy sugar rush against opponents whose coaches either already got fired or should be about to get fired. Think they are scary; should be scared.

Chiefs

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Alex Smith

Finished the season with a 10-game winning streak but a series of mostly close games against second-rate opponents, including Sunday's 23-17 win over the Raiders.

Alex Smith has not thrown for over 200 yards in five games. Chiefs fans, who endured last season's no touchdowns by wide receivers debate, can argue it doesn't matter how many passing yards the team has as long as it wins.

It's going to matter by the second round, folks. Not scared of the Texans, anyway.

Packers

They have scored 21 points in their last two games. The pass protection only improved slightly since the Cardinals massacre. A preseason Super Bowl favorite that started the season 6-0 must now travel to face the Redskins.

That is not the gimme it looked like a month ago, and even if the Packers prevail, they are not playing well enough to come within two touchdowns of the top contenders. Very scared.

Steelers

DeAngelo Williams is hurt, so the Steelers might once again enter the playoffs with an obscure, barely used backup (Dixieland jazz pioneer Fitzgerald Toussaint) as their primary running back.

Ben Roethlisberger (two picks) had the kind of game we used to pillory Tony Romo for, but he got away with it because he was facing the Browns. Scary on the surface, scared on the inside.

Seahawks

Defending conference champions, 6-1 in their last seven games, coming off a brutal beating of an opponent that looked like Mechagodzilla last week. Very scary.

End-of-Year Performance Bonuses

Other weekly roundups select MVPs, Rookies of the Year and so on. Hangover looks at the NFL season from a different angle (upside-down).

Free-Agent Acquisition of the Year Bonus

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
DeAngelo Williams

DeAngelo Williams, Steelers. Signed to cover Le'Veon Bell's early-season suspension for a modest two-year, $4 million contract, Williams carried the Steelers' running game on his shoulders after Bell suffered a Week 8 injury.

Williams finished the season with 907 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns before getting hurt Sunday. Without Williams, the Steelers would not have gotten close to the playoffs.

Runners Up: Jeremy Maclin, wide receiver, Chiefs; Darrelle Revis, cornerback, Jets

Backup Quarterback of the Year Bonus

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
Brock Osweiler

Brock Osweiler, Broncos. Replace a Hall of Famer in the heat of the playoff chase. Defeat that Hall of Famer's Hall of Famer rival in overtime. Defeat your team's other biggest playoff rival in overtime a month later. It's hard to imagine a tougher set of circumstances for a young quarterback seeing his first meaningful action.

Osweiler isn't perfect, but he has a live arm and antifreeze in his veins.

Runner-Up: Matt Hasselbeck, Colts

Undrafted Rookie of the Year Bonus

Thomas Rawls, Seahawks. Rawls arrived in Seattle as an unheralded rusher with one great season at Central Michigan (and a few years on the Michigan bench) under his belt, pushed Christine Michael aside in the preseason, replaced Marshawn Lynch twice during Lynch's stints on the injured list and rushed for 830 yards and 5.6 yards per carry before a gruesome ankle injury in Week 14.

Rawls went from an emergency replacement to a better fit than Lynch in an offense now built around quickness and pocket passing instead of power and options.

Runners-Up: La'el Collins, guard, Cowboys; Will Tye, tight end, Giants

Special Teamer of the Year Bonus

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Justin Bethel

Justin Bethel, Cardinals. Bethel recorded 13 special teams tackles, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in punt/kickoff coverage.

Like any good special teams ace, he came off the bench to make a major contribution elsewhere as well, with two interceptions as a dime defender and injury replacement in the secondary.

Runners-Up: Marcus Sherels, Vikings; Dwayne Harris, Giants

Two-Point Converter of the Year Bonus

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers. The Steelers converted eight two-point attempts this season, by far the most in the NFL. Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown for two of them and also threw conversions to fullback Will Johnson and outlaw backup tight end Jesse James.

Coordinator of the Year Bonus

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Bob Sutton

Bob Sutton, Chiefs. Defensive coordinator Sutton kept one of the most creative, complex systems in the NFL working at peak capacity despite numerous injuries.

Cornerback Marcus Peters had a Defensive Rookie of the Year-caliber season, several players performed well in relief of Justin Houston and Eric Berry returned to the field as much more than a feel-good story.

Sutton made it all possible with a scheme that uses nickel and dime defenses as every-down strategies and sends blitzes from all over the field.

Runner-Up: Dave Fipp, special teams, Eagles

Position Coach of the Year Bonus

Bill Callahan, Redskins. Under offensive line coach Callahan, Brandon Scherff and Morgan Moses developed into quality linemen. Tom Compton and Ty Nsekhe played well in relieve of Trent Williams when he was hurt and as make-believe tight ends when everyone behind Jordan Reed was hurt. (Compton earns the coveted Sixth Offensive Lineman of the Year bonus.)

Most importantly, Kirk Cousins developed into a reliable quarterback once Callahan's line began providing excellent protection.

Runner-Up: Ricky Proehl, wide receivers, Panthers

Game of the Year Bonus

Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Broncos 30, Patriots 24 (Overtime), Week 12. This game had everything: overtime drama, quarterback intrigue, massive playoff implications. Even snow!

Some dude in a Mike Vrabel jersey is practically ramming his fingers through the keyboard typing THIS CHOICE SHOWS THE AUTHOR HAS CLEAR ANTI-PATRIOTS BIAS. THE REFS ROBBED US. HATE US CUZ U AIN'T US right now, which only makes this an even better choice.

Runner-Up: Cardinals 34, Bengals 31, Week 11

Saddest Team of the Year Bonus

Tennessee Titans. When the season started, the Texans looked pretty sad (Arian Foster hurt, Ryan Mallett missing flights, etc.). The Texans turned out to be resilient, while the Jaguars were wacky and unpredictable, and the Colts occupied their own category altogether.

But the Titans kept losing by scores like 38-10, 27-10, 30-8 and 34-6, even though Marcus Mariota had a decent rookie season and the overall talent level should have at least kept them competitive in a weak division.

Hangover Player of the Year Bonus (awarded to the most Hangover-like player, not the best player)

Andrew Weber/Getty Images
Gary Barnidge

Gary Barnidge, Browns. Barnidge went from obscure backup tight end to fantasy football folk hero with his 6-105-1 and 8-139-1 stat lines early in the year. He then settled into life as a decent tight end who only looks great because the offense around him is terrible.

Barnidge remained the player most likely to score the Browns' lone touchdown per week until the bitter end, but let us not forget the heady time when Barnidge looked poised to steal the Madden cover from Odell Beckham Jr.

Runner-Up: Tavon Austin, wide receiver, Rams, for his continued dedication to the end-around—and only the end-around.

Mostly Meaningless

Much of Sunday's action was meaningless—or nearly meaningless. But the less meaningful the action gets, the stranger the action often gets.

Colts-Titans Quarterback Duel

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Josh Freeman

The Colts unearthed Josh Freeman this week and plopped him straight into the starting lineup at quarterback.

Because Freeman never had time to learn the two-minute offense, they assigned that task to Ryan Lindley. Sure enough, both quarterbacks threw touchdowns, and the Colts beat the Titans 30-24 despite a late-game comeback bid by Titans third-string quarterback Alex Tanney.

The Titans earned the first overall pick in the draft. The Colts get to wonder how their season would have turned out if Chuck Pagano had shown this kind of creativity earlier.

Wildcat Madness

The Jets missed the playoffs because of a sloppy effort full of dropped passes and kicking blunders in a 22-17 loss to the Bills.

At one point in the second quarter, the Jets let the Bills outsmart them before the Bills could outsmart themselves. Tyrod Taylor and EJ Manuel each took the field on 4th-and-short, but neither initially lined up at quarterback. Manuel eventually wandered over to the center and began an obvious pantomime to draw the Jets offsides. Don't fall for it, Jets! Oops, Sheldon Richardson fell for it.

The first down helped the Bills run out the first-half clock before kicking a field goal.

Cross Country Transatlantic Duel

Kathy Willens/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press
Jordan Matthews and Jayron Hosley

The Eagles and Giants played hard in an exciting, back-and-forth 35-30 shootout. The Giants were trying to prove how much they appreciated Tom Coughlin, while the Eagles were trying to prove how much they appreciated the absence of Chip Kelly.

The game had real significance for 2016, as the victory gave the Eagles second place in the NFC East. Yeesh. The third-place Giants now have to play a game in London next year. The Eagles, on the other hand, get the second-place finisher in the NFC West. That would be the Seahawks. In Seattle. The flight isn't even any shorter.

It doesn't matter. The Eagles, Giants and Cowboys were so bad this year, they should be forced to play half of their home games in Bhutan.

Falcons-Saints Defensive Duel

Just when you thought it was safe to bet the "over" in a Saints game, they engaged the Falcons (another team never confused with the 1985 Bears) in a defensive battle that ended in a 20-17 Saints victory.

Granted, this wasn't exactly a vintage Mike Ditka/Bill Parcells-type defensive clash. Late in the game, the Falcons and Saints took turns driving to the 5-yard line and then fumbling.

It's as if they were saying, We don't want anyone to think our defenses have really improved, but we don't want any gamblers profiting from our shame, either.

Pryor Engagement

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Terrelle Pryor and Antwon Blake

Terrelle Pryor caught a 42-yard pass at a point in the Browns' 28-12 loss to the Steelers when a 42-yard pass by a former collegiate superstar quarterback could alter the shape of the playoff picture. It was Pryor's only catch of the year, on eight targets (six of them Sunday).

Dwayne Bowe, signed to be the Browns' top receiver this season, finished the year with five catches for 53 yards on 13 targets. By that standard, Pryor had a pretty significant impact.

What the Hekker

Rams punter Johnny Hekker attempted his fourth fake punt of the season Sunday.

We sent a Hangover intern to find all the punters in modern history to attempt four or more passes in a season, and after sifting out punter/quarterbacks like Danny White and Tom Tupa, we found Craig Hentrich, who completed two of four passes for the Titans in 2004.

Say, who coached the Titans in 2004? Oh yeah, Jeff Fisher. He has been overusing fake punts for over a decade but still expects them to work. Sunday's did not. It led to a 49ers field goal. The 49ers won 19-16, preventing the Rams yet again from reaching the .500 barrier.

Fisher's job is safe, by all accounts. Enjoy, Rams fans!

Last Call

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Odell Beckham Jr.

Here are some New Year's wishes from the Hangover crew:

  • May we finally determine what a catch is.
  • May we determine what offensive pass interference is. Seriously, every third reception looks like a moving-pick play these days.
  • May the teams that move to Los Angeles do so quickly, with a minimum of political skulduggery and the maximum possible respect for the fans they are leaving behind.
  • May we create some real consequences for coaches and organizations that shrug their shoulders at concussion protocols. If an entire coaching staff conveniently fails to see a quarterback writhing on the ground clutching his head, a one-game suspension for the head coach seems like a reasonable way to sharpen everyone's eyesight next time.
  • May Johnny Manziel figure out the basic rules of adult functionality. Right now, he is doing things that would get him fired as a junior high gym teacher, let alone an NFL quarterback.
  • May we make a logical rule for automatic ejections so we never see an Odell Beckham Jr. Week 15 head-butting tantrum again. Any combination of three unnecessary roughness and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties (offsetting or not) should trigger a trip to the showers.
  • May Peyton Manning retire with dignity.
  • May the coaching carousel churn up some interesting names, not the same bunch of cronies who earn interviews by riding the coattails of great coaches in strong organizations with awesome talent.
  • May touchdown celebrations achieve equilibrium. Perhaps the Internet can promise not to sneer like the world's grouchiest grandpa at every Cam Newton dance move if Cam (and others) can keep the choreography down to eight seconds or so.
  • May we never, ever again get caught up in an endless, pointless scandal that has nothing to do with on-field results, player safety or anything else except the fame of the characters involved, the rancor of fan rivalries and the media's need to swallow its own tail all the way up to the coccyx. In fact, may I never have to type the name "Ted Wells" again except as a joke.
  • May Jeff Fisher and Jason Garrett actually accomplish something next year, assuming they survive Black Monday. The whole concept of "meritocracy" in contemporary capitalism may hinge on it.
  • May the presidential elections not drive us all stark-raving mad.

May you enjoy the blessings of peace, good health and prosperity in the new year!

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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