Mike Tanier's Monday Morning Hangover: How to Interview a Head Coach Candidate

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterDecember 29, 2014

Bill Streicher/USA Today

Black Monday is upon us, which means NFL owners and top-level execs face a difficult decision.

No, not whether to fire Rex Ryan, Jim Harbaugh or any other hot-seated head coach. That is typically not too difficult a decision. It was made weeks ago in many cases.

The decision of whom to interview is not too difficult, either. Most teams cycle through the same dozen or so candidates. The Falcons actually hired a headhunting agency to help with their search. I picture a consultant photocopying a list of NFL coordinators and major-program college coaches and handing it to Arthur Blank with a six-figure invoice. In my imagination, the consultant looks like Dogbert.

Adam Schefter @AdamSchefter

Falcons have hired the search firm, Korn Ferry, to identify HC candidates in the event the team makes a HC change, via @mortreport and I.

Owners must decide what questions to ask the new applicants. That's the difficult decision. A lot of very ambitious, very similar men are about to blow through team headquarters looking for work. It's almost like the start of an old joke. An offensive coordinator, a defensive coordinator, a former head coach and a college coaching wunderkind walk into a bar. What'll it be, fellas?

Some owners/execs might dust off the same questions they asked two years ago, not thinking for a moment that if they asked better questions they would not have to ask them every two years.

Some will ask schematic and strategic questions, getting familiar responses. I will be attacking and aggressive on defense. I will be balanced and establish the run on offense. Wow: That will set you apart from the 31 passive, imbalanced NFL teams!

Some owners/execs will ask questions about player development and motivation. I believe in competition at every position. Steel sharpens steel. The coach using these cliches is guaranteed to then push to sign four 33-year-old backups from his last job.

Granted, guys are less likely to spout coach-speak cliches in a room full of decision-makers than when providing sound bites (terrible, terrible sound bites) to the press. But the wrong questions are sure to prompt the usual reassurances and buzzword-slinging.

The same is true at any job interview, even for the most forthright applicants. I spent a lot of time in August talking about "shareability" and "increased reader engagement" even though I only have a vague idea what those terms mean and planned to spend the autumn writing nonstop Redskins jokes no matter who hired me. It all worked out swimmingly in the end, but the fact remains that bad interview questions can result in a garbage-in, garbage-out situation.

So what would you ask a head coaching candidate? We can all cull a list of standard questions from our own interviewee/interviewer experience. What are your greatest strengths? (Flight, heat vision, invulnerability.) Your greatest weaknesses? (I try too hard and dedicate myself too much!) Where do you see yourself in five years? (Standing next to you, with five Lombardi Trophies in front of us.)

If the applicant is Jim Harbaugh 2011, Chip Kelly 2013 or some other ultra-coveted candidate, an interview might include such hard-hitting questions as "How do you like your surf 'n turf?" The whole corporate interview process, from the NFL to the everyday world, can be Kabuki theater if not done just right.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 23: Head coach Chip Kelly of the Philadelphia Eagles gestures during warm ups before a football game  against the Tennessee Titans at Lincoln Financial Field on November 23, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rich Sc
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Let's put ourselves in the shoes of these NFL owners and execs for a few moments. We must distinguish among the parade of coordinators and reclamation cases. We must cut through the cliches and gibberish.

What do we ask?

I have a list of five questions that can reveal a lot about a candidate's mindset, personality and overall readiness. Answer these to my liking, and I don't care how much "establish the run" nonsense you sling. Answer them badly, or fail to answer them at all, and you can use steel to sharpen steel elsewhere.

Question 1: What Is Your Media Management Strategy?

Many coaches like to claim that they get their players to "shut out the outside world and focus on football" the moment everyone sets foot inside team headquarters.

These coaches get that idea from their mentors, who got it from their mentors, who got it from Mike Ditka, who got it from Tom Landry, who got it from coaches from an era when "shutting out the outside world" meant not reading the evening edition of the Philadelphia Bulletin or listening to George Burns and Gracie Allen on the radio.

The "outside world," including vile media types like me, now sits in every player's pocket. Mid-round draft picks arrive for rookie orientation with 20,000 Twitter followers. Players grew up in a world of multiple ESPNs, talk radio, blogs and Madden ratings that matter to them personally. Thinking these players can "shut out" the outside world is naive.

It's also naive to think that old-fashioned motivational strategies, like a well-placed barb in a newspaper, still work in the 21st century. As Jay Gruden discovered this year, the coach who tries to "send a message" to a well-known player actually sets off a doomsday weapon. 

Thirty years ago, a criticized player might have to endure some newspaper editorials, an embarrassing press conference and some phone calls from concerned family and friends. Now, he's the subject of public and national speculation/derision for a month, incapable of checking his smartphone without enduring the scorn of hundreds of strangers. It's counterproductive, which is why so few coaches do it anymore.

Gruden's predecessor in Washington discovered that another tried-and-true media management technique—the strategic anonymous leak to a cultivated reporter—can also backfire. As fans, you have become very media savvy about the origins of insider tidbits. You realize that while some scoops are just text messages from agents, others are agenda-pushing by a coach or exec who wants to provide a little motivation or disinformation.

When sizzling Redskins gossip is greeted with skepticism because we are playing a game of Mike Shanahan told X because he wants Y, it defeats the purpose of propaganda-mongering and can cause organizational blowback. And if the guys in the message boards have sussed out the source of a rumor, the players have taken it one step further.

So what's a head coaching candidate supposed to say in an interview?

The ideal candidate must make it clear that he is neither Gruden naive nor Shanahan manipulative. The spooky East German Bill Belichick model is also not ideal. Most Belichick imitators seem too dedicated to being mysterious for their own good. Instead of worrying about secrecy, they should be creating something worth being secretive about.

Beyond that, there is a wide spectrum of acceptable media philosophies.

Andy Reid mumbles polite nothingness. Tom Coughlin perfected "gruff but lovable" over the years. John Harbaugh is bland and professional. Mike Pettine seems to have sanded down the edges of Rex Ryan's bluster into a tone that sends a clear message (with a dose of wit) that players, fans, writers and the organization can take something positive away from.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 28: Head coach Tom Coughlin of the New York Giants meets head coach Chip Kelly of the Philadelphia Eagles after a game at MetLife Stadium on December 28, 2014 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Eagles defeated the Giants 34
Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Imagine how the Johnny Manziel circus (or the rumor that Pettine was hired as a Jim Harbaugh consolation prize) could have turned out if Pettine had not navigated this calendar year so successfully, media-wise. Let's see how he handles the next round of suspensions, keggers and whispers, but so far, so good.

Above all, the successful candidate must prove that he has thought carefully about his media management: How press conferences will sound, how gossip and scandals will be handled, how accessible players and assistants will be to reporters, how a small-market strategy might backfire in New York or Chicago, and so on. "The media" is now the air football teams breathe, not something that disappears when the locker room doors close.

A good head coach needs to think of it that way.

Question 2: What Is Your Philosophy About Fourth Downs?

A good head coach does not have to be up-to-date with cutting-edge analytic research about converting fourth downs. A good head coach does have to know that there is such a thing as cutting-edge analytic research about converting fourth downs.

Furthermore, a good head coach should not think that such research is only for Poindexters with pocket protectors who never played the game. It's for coaches like Belichick, Reid, Kelly and others who keep abreast of fourth-down percentages and trends, even if they draw different conclusions from the data.

I'm a data guy, so I am biased toward the facts: Any coach who subscribes to Phil Simms Young Earth Puntamentalism can leave his resume with the secretary in the lobby. Frankly, a go-for-it hardliner eager to adopt an only punt on 4th-and-20 from your own 10-yard line strategy would be even scarier, even if some of the research favors him.

Mike McCarn/Associated Press

There are things I do when playing Madden in the privacy of my home that I would never recommend doing in front of 70,000 paying customers. The coach who gets the job for my team will veer closer to Ron Rivera than John Fox in terms of aggressiveness on 4th-and-1 from midfield or 4th-and-goal from the 5-yard line, but that is a general rule, not a rigid one.

More importantly, the coaching applicant must show evidence that he has thought about the research and understands the implications of the percentages. He may be conservative on fourth downs because of an overarching philosophy—maybe he devotes extra time to punt-and-pin strategies during special teams drills. Maybe he is aggressive when avoiding a punt but conservative when settling for a field goal, for thoughtful reasons.

If he plans to be ultra-aggressive, he should have complementary strategies; a coach who plans to go for lots of 4th-and-1s must have a deep battery of effective packages and plays (Ron Rivera) instead of just a bunch of quarterback sneaks (like Mike Smith).

Coaches who talk about "going with their gut" or "the momentum of the game" get the dropped pencil treatment. (In case you haven't figured it out yet in life, the boss drops his pencil during an interview to signal to any assistants in the room that he does not like the candidate. I saw a school superintendent drop a stapler once.)

There are too many Joe Philbin-types out there who plan to be aggressive all week, then panic and punt on 4th-and-1. There are too many coaches burning timeouts to figure out what their philosophie du jour is. Be aggressive, be conservative, but have a good reason for doing what you do when you do it. And send the "stats are for losers" talk back to the 1970s where it belongs.

Question 3: What Will You Have Players Do During Minicamps or Training Camps That None of Your Predecessors Have Done Before?

About 98 percent of coaching is invisible to fans. It takes place in meeting rooms, fitness centers and closed-off fields of practice facilities. It takes place during OTAs, on Wednesday mornings in October, and in July walk-throughs that are closed to outsiders.

Much of this coaching is nearly invisible to the owners and top execs, as well. Just because Zygi Wilf rode through on a golf cart or watched with binoculars from an air-conditioned office doesn't mean he was deeply involved in the drills and instruction going on with the Vikings.

KANSAS CITY, MO - MAY 25:  Aaron Murray #7 of the Kansas City Chiefs participate in drills during the Rookie Minicamp May 25, 2014 at the Chiefs Training Facility in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

Most of us don't think about that 98 percent underwater coaching iceberg: A practice is a practice, a meeting a meeting. But a successful coaching candidate had better have thought about all of those nuts and bolts.

He has spent years running drills, meetings and walk-throughs as an assistant. He should have been taking note of what worked, what didn't, what his team should have done more of and what was some time-waster handed down from the days of the T-formation. Ideally, he should be eager to try a few new things while scrapping or downplaying some old ones.

So, Mister Longtime Coordinator:

  • Will your practices start at 1 p.m. (kickoff time), or in the morning (players are more attentive) or evening (out of the heat of the day)?
  • Would you prefer a whole training camp of joint practices with other teams or zero joint practices?
  • Will there be music or simulated crowd noise?
  • How often will the team focus on situations (goal line; two minutes and no timeouts, down by one point or four), and on which situations will they focus the most?
  • Is there a special series of anti-option drills or walk-through sessions that you are itching to use on your defense before facing the Seahawks?
  • What will the quarterbacks do when the other players are running special teams drills?
  • Do you like to use keep-things-loose activities, the way Mike Tomlin does during training camp: Quarterbacks throwing into trash cans, returners fielding punts with five footballs already in their hands?
  • Do you have a top-down radical Chip Kelly approach to everything?

If a coach doesn't come to the interview brimming with lots of process-oriented ideas, he may just be a weak-tea version of the men he followed to power. He may also be so accustomed to following the procedures of others that he has never really thought about those procedures.

Give me a coach who asks why offensive linemen lift weights on Tuesdays at 3 p.m. and do cardio on Wednesdays at 10 a.m. instead of just photocopying his former boss' schedules. As a team owner, I want the little advantages that greater attention to the details might provide.

Question 4: What Strategies Will You Use to Snap a Team Out of a Slump?

Jim Mone/Associated Press

Marc Trestman, scholarly and experienced in all facets of football, was worse than powerless against the Bears' midseason slump this year. It was depressing to hear a man who spoke like a literature professor say "we need a spark" after benching his quarterback in favor of a non-prospect. A man brimming with ideas had no clue how to stop Quitzilla from stomping through the locker room.

Jim Harbaugh and Rex Ryan were great coaches when things were going well but stepped on the accelerator when their teams were driving off the mountainside. Overemotional coaches can be a real problem when the default emotion in the clubhouse is either rage or misery.

It's better to avoid crippling slumps than seek torrid hot streaks. The Ravens and Giants proved in recent years that there are Super Bowls to be won by staying on an even keel and working your way out of cold snaps. The successful coaching candidate needs a plan for what happens after that 51-23 loss or back-to-back heartbreakers.

That plan can have many elements. Maybe he shortens a practice. Maybe he lengthens it. Maybe he invites team captains to his office for a meeting or encourages a players-only airing of grievances. Maybe it's time for a team-building bowling tournament or modified film meetings. ("We are only going to address our two biggest concerns today, not dozens of little ones.")

There's a story from Andy Reid's first season with the Eagles of the coach completely skipping the game film from one ugly loss, sending the message that players were better off looking forward than backward. That kind of emotional management can have long-term benefits.

This is another question that invites football-cliche answers from unwanted candidates: I expect my players to be professionals, rise and fall as men, etc. I expect my coach to be professional. That means recognizing he is in charge of 20-something-year-old men, not football robots.

Question 5: Besides Winning, What Do You Truly Love About Coaching?

Long ago, at a scouting combine far away in Indianapolis, Tom Coughlin grimaced and growled his way through a typically dreary press conference. After coaches suffer through 15 minutes of root canal at a podium, they retreat to a hallway where television crews and VIPs are granted brief, exclusive interviews.

The local press gives chase during these dashes to the hallway, often asking questions far more interesting than the ones we asked during the official presser. Someone asked Coughlin if he enjoyed the combine at all. The ever-dour coach suddenly stopped and beamed, looking like the Grinch after his moment of clarity.

"I love it!" he said. "I love talking to these young men and finding out what makes them tick!"

Some coaches, like Coughlin, enjoy the opportunity to mold and shape young athletes. Others enjoy the bustle of training camp, the long nights of strategizing, the rush of game day, the macho bonding. But a good coach has to love something besides winning games and championships, and some men who have been in the business forever lose sight of the fact that there really is more to life (and coaching) than winning and moving up the ladder.

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

Gary Kubiak suffered a stroke on the sideline last year. John Fox suffered a bye-week heart attack last year. Heart complications kept Jeff Tedford from the Buccaneers sideline all season. College coaches regularly work themselves sick. I don't want my head coach working himself into the grave in pursuit of a silver trophy. I want him pursuing a passion that brings him satisfaction, even when the season does not go according to plan.

It's not just a health issue. Greg Schiano abandoned basic sportsmanship and respect for his players. Other coaches have treated players and assistants poorly in the name of a single-mindedness that goes beyond "commitment" and "pursuit of excellence." There is a point at which head coaches stop becoming demanding and start becoming dictatorial. A coach with a passion for something besides the Lombardi Trophy has a better chance of staying grounded.

So what, dear coaching applicant, motivates you to keep coaching, besides the money, your ego and the brief adrenaline rush between Sunday afternoon's win and Monday's predawn planning session for the next opponent?

If you are struggling for an answer, then I may be doing you a favor by not hiring you.

Playoff Ponderables

One question for each of this year's playoff teams to consider, based mostly on Sunday's action:

Arizona Cardinals

Tony Avelar/Associated Press

What's wrong with the run defense?

The 49ers rushed for 206 yards on Sunday after the Seahawks rushed for 267 yards last week. This question is easy to answer, at least superficially. The Cardinals are forced to be too perfect on defense, taking risks in an effort to force big plays, and that can result in deep gouges by running backs and breakdowns when quarterbacks leave the pocket.

The problem is that Arizona faces the running-and-optioning Panthers next week, and the Cardinals will still have to manufacture points from flea flickers and whatever the defense can muster. They must win games when they score 17 points, because that's a volcanic eruption for their current offense. But the defense, particularly against the run, may have reached the snapping point.

Baltimore Ravens

Do they know that it is not 2012 anymore? Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Ray Rice and several competent cornerbacks are no longer on the roster.

We all know the Ravens can sleepwalk through three-and-a-half quarters and beat the Cleveland Teetotalers in the football equivalent of a long hike up a rocky hill. But this year's defense does not look ready to compensate for this year's offense when the opposing quarterback is better than your average practice squad rookie.

Carolina Panthers

Has the Panthers defense suddenly gotten good? Carolina has allowed just 43 points in its last four games, and rookies Tre Boston and Bene' Benwikere have added depth and talent to a secondary that was very beatable early in the season.

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 28:  Tre Boston #33 of the Carolina Panthers returns an interception for a touchdown in the second half against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome on December 28, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Panthers get the Cardinals in the opening round of the playoffs. If they keep playing like they did in Sunday's 34-3 win over the Falcons, they should win easily. In fact, if you throw away the records, the Panthers really do look like the fourth-best team in the NFC playoffs right now (above the Ryan Lindley Cardinals and fading Lions). It's funny how things work out.

Cincinnati Bengals

How far can they get without a pass rush? The Bengals were held sackless in both of their losses to the Steelers. Heck, Ben Roethlisberger barely had to move from his spot in the pocket for most of the Steelers' 27-17 Sunday night victory.

The Bengals finish the season with just 20 sacks (worst in the NFL), and while they got to Andrew Luck twice in their 27-0 loss in October, it did not matter much. Cincinnati looks too much like the team the Colts shut out: short on offensive weapons and unable to give its own secondary any support against a strong-armed quarterback.

The only thing standing between the Bengals and another early playoff exit is the Colts and their knack for early playoff exits.

Dallas Cowboys

Were 20 carries really necessary for DeMarco Murray on Sunday? Watching Murray run to the left with the ball in his right hand, consider switching hands for a moment, then keep the ball in his right hand (see the play where he breaks Emmitt Smith's Cowboys rushing record) was a reminder that Dallas has worked Murray to an illogical extreme.

That's especially the case in some late-season wins where Joseph Randle and his 6.7 yards per rush could clearly have taken on more of the load. There are some vicious-hitting defenses coming in the playoffs, and they will be pawing at Murray's left hand as his carries climb into the dangerous 400s.

Denver Broncos

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 28:  Kicker Connor Barth #1 of the Denver Broncos kicks a 21 yard field goal in the fourth quarter of a game against the Oakland Raiders at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 28, 2014 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Just
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

If the Broncos settle for 21-, 35- and 36-yard Connor Barth field goals after a bunch of Peyton Manning incompletions in the AFC Championship Game, will the Patriots win by 20 points or just 10?

Detroit Lions

Are they ever going to change? Ten penalties, some cheap shots, lots of telegraphed passes to Calvin Johnson, a dopey safety: Conventional Lions football yields conventional Lions results.

Detroit had the score tied and Aaron Rodgers hobbling out of the locker room. Instead of seizing the opportunity, the team let its most hated rival play the hero in a 30-20 loss. Is this all there is to the Stafford-Johnson-Ndamukong Suh Lions?

The Cowboys have also been overpaid underachievers for years, but they at least are peaking at the right time this year. They should smoke this Detroit team we saw at Lambeau on Sunday.

Green Bay Packers

Dec 28, 2014; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) reacts after officials ruled a 2-point conversion attempt by the Detroit Lions failed in the fourth quarter at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

How's Aaron Rodgers? Will he be fine after two weeks? Let's hope so, because the fewer Matt Flynn-types in the playoffs, the better.

Also, next time you go for it on 4th-and-goal, could you keep Jordy Nelson and/or Randall Cobb in the game? Putting guys like tight end Brandon Bostick on the field just makes it easier for opponents to key on Eddie Lacy.

Indianapolis Colts

Do they know that they are only kidding themselves with the running back situation at this point? Forget 100 yards, Colts running backs only cracked 75 yards rushing three times all season: Trent Richardson in Weeks 2 and 7, and Daniel "Boom" Herron with the help of a 49-yard run in Week 13.

It would have been nice to see Richardson rip off an encouraging 90-yard performance in a meaningless win over the Titans. Instead, he rushed six times for 11 yards. 

New England Patriots

Nothing can be gleaned from Sunday's meaningless 17-9 loss to the Bills.

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 28:  Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots looks on during the fourth quarter against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium on December 28, 2014 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

New England fans start acting like dudes complaining about their wives at the bar this time of year, anyway: They can gripe about the Patriots all they want, but don't you dare criticize them. ("She's a harlot. She's the Shrew Empress." "Perhaps you two should consider counseling." "How DARE you suggest my wife needs counseling!" he shouts while breaking a beer bottle across your forehead.)

But leaving Sunday's Jimmy Garoppolo festival aside...has anyone else noticed how flat the Patriots offense has looked lately? (Ducks under desk.)

Pittsburgh Steelers

What is the plan if Le'Veon Bell (knee) is out or limited against the Ravens?

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 28:  Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers is injured after being hit by Reggie Nelson #20 of the Cincinnati Bengals during the third quarter at Heinz Field on December 28, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Grego
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Dri Archer is a screen-and-reverse guy, not an every-down back: He blocks like a bug hitting a windshield. Josh Harris had an impressive run called back by holding against the Bengals: He looks the part, but he was on the practice squad for most of the year.

The Steelers cannot get apprehensive and one-dimensional like they did in the first series after Bell was hurt on Sunday night. Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley need to trust the rookies. Neither has a habit of trusting rookie running backs, so that could be a problem.

Seattle Seahawks

Why does the NFL's smartest team for most of the field go all Dumb and Dumber from midfield to about the opponent's 30-yard line?

Russell Wilson threw a four-yard pass on 4th-and-5 and an interception with Seattle on the cusp of field-goal range on Sunday. He also mishandled a snap on 3rd-and-1 in Rams territory. The Seahawks won a Ravens-style game against St. Louis, pulling away for a 20-6 victory that masked how sloppy their offense looked for much of the game.

Seattle has a lot of those victories on its recent resume. The team works great in the NFC West, but the Seahawks must be prepared to do much more against the Packers or Cowboys.

Participation Trophies

Not everybody earns one, but everybody gets one!


Kenny Rogers Trophy

(Awarded to the coach who knows when to hold 'em or when to fold 'em.)

Connor Shaw is your quarterback? All the more reason to go for it on 4th-and-2 from the Ravens' 31-yard line! Shaw sprinted left from shotgun midway through the second quarter and squirted a three-yard pass to Andrew Hawkins. The Browns had to settle for a field goal a few plays later, but smart decisions like this one kept the pressure on the Ravens throughout the game.

BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 28:  Quarterback Connor Shaw #9 of the Cleveland Browns thows a pass in the second quarter of a game against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on December 28, 2014 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Cleveland might not have been in the game if Baltimore had not been stuffed at the goal line late in the first quarter. The Ravens' fourth-down play may have been ugly (Justin Forsett was doomed from the moment he touched the ball), but going for it was an acceptable risk. Baltimore could have taken Cleveland out of the game in the first quarter. When you have a chance like that, you take it.

The Bengals executed a gorgeous 4th-and-3 conversion early in the Steelers game: Brandon Tate and Jermaine Gresham ran a kind of non-pick combo route, with Tate sneaking behind Gresham for an Andy Dalton strike while the tight end cleared out the defense. When you execute properly, three yards on fourth down should be no harder to gain than three yards on first down.

Awesome Meaningless Game Trophy

(Awarded to a game that was as meaningless as it was awesome.)

Most of Sunday's early meaningless games were a hoot (Jets score 37 points! Buccaneers squander 20-7 lead over Saints in fourth quarter!) But the Eagles and Giants put on the best show. The Eagles won 34-26, in large part because several of the Giants' biggest plays, including an interception of Mark Sanchez and an apparent 34-yard touchdown to Rueben Randle, were nullified by penalties.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 28:  Mark Sanchez #3 of the Philadelphia Eagles runs the ball against the New York Giants during a game at MetLife Stadium on December 28, 2014 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

Odell Beckham caught 12 passes for 185 yards and one touchdown on 21 targets. Since most Beckham incompletions are one-handed leaping miracles that are batted away by defenders at the last second, he essentially provided 21 highlights.

Sanchez merged Good Sanchez and Evil Sanchez into Unpredictable Sanchez for one compellingly watchable afternoon of meaningless football. At one point, he bootlegged off right end, faked an outlet pass Russell Wilson-style (he was about five yards downfield when he faked, but the Giants bought it), and sprinted for 15 yards.

The Eagles blocked one more punt as a going-away present for Tom Coughlin, who felt a sudden inexplicable urge to scream at Matt Dodge. The Eagles finish 10-6 but out of the playoffs. That's the way the cookie crumbles. The Panthers have played better football for the last month, for what it's worth.

Ref…er Madness Trophy

(Awarded to the officiating crew that was clearly smoking something.)

Eli Manning called timeout late in the third quarter. He then turned to talk to teammates for a few seconds, then began walking to the sideline as Giants players mulled. Suddenly, the referees threw multiple flags for delay of game.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 28:  Eli Manning #10 of the New York Giants passes against the Philadelphia Eagles in the first quarter during a game at MetLife Stadium on December 28, 2014 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Ima
Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

After some discussion and perhaps our last blown Coughlin gasket ever, the refs admitted that they did see the quarterback make an obvious timeout gesture. Sorry, Eli. Even the referees ignore you in favor of Beckham.

Bruce Stritesky and the Ravens-Browns officiating crew melted their whistles in the fourth quarter. Torrey Smith caught his game-changing bomb while wearing Joe Haden like a messenger bag. Once the Ravens took the lead, defenders from both teams were allowed to do whatever they wanted.

Like all sane earthlings, referees just want Ravens-Browns games to end.

Fantasy Leech Trophy

(Awarded to the fullback, tight end, fourth receiver or moonlighting linebacker who scored so your fantasy first-round pick could not.)

Fantasy season was over for most leagues, so it's unlikely that many owners were crushed when Matt Hasselbeck replaced Andrew Luck or Adam Thielen took away a Vikings touchdown that should have gone to Greg Jennings.

So let's use this space to celebrate Cecil Shorts' option-pass touchdown to Jordan Todman. Nothing says "late-season Jaguars football" like Cecil Shorts throwing to Jordan Todman.

True Grit Trophy

(Awarded for toughness above and beyond the call of duty.)

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 28:  Jermaine Gresham #84 of the Cincinnati Bengals dives for a touchdown in front of Mike Mitchell #23 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the third quarter at Heinz Field on December 28, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Jermaine Gresham caught three passes for the Bengals, including a touchdown, despite getting up after each hit like he was climbing out of bed for the first time after appendix surgery. Gresham finally left the game for good in the fourth quarter with "multiple injuries."

Salvador Dali Melting Clock Trophy

(Awarded for the strangest clock management of the week.)

The Browns got the ball back before halftime with 55 seconds left and two timeouts in a 3-3 game. They knelt twice to go to half. Sure, Connor Shaw was the quarterback, but coordinator Kyle Shanahan had already cooked up a few play-action tricks to move the football, and one defensive lapse could have gotten Cleveland into field-goal range.

Then again, the Browns had just seen Paul Kruger strip-sack Joe Flacco, with the ball getting kicked 22 yards backward by the scrum until lineman Jeremy Zuttah fell on it. There was no sense tempting fate with the football gods already so angry.

Necessary Adjustment Trophy

(Awarded to the coaching staff that figured things out.)

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 28:  Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots slides with the ball during the second quarter against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium on December 28, 2014 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Bill Belichick is wiser than all of us, so he surely had a good reason for playing Tom Brady in a meaningless game where Michael Hoomanawanui and Brian Tyms got starts over Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman.

You would figure that any game too unimportant for Edelman (who, to be fair, was dealing with a thigh injury and a concussionwould be an unnecessary risk for the 37-year-old QB, but Brady likes to get his work in with a bye week coming. And for Brady, tossing a few passes to Steve Maneri is like poverty tourism: It keeps him grounded and helps him appreciate all he has.

Jimmy Garoppolo replaced Brady at halftime of the 17-9 Bills win, and while the move had certainly been planned all week, keeping Brady on the field for a listless half of mid-August-caliber football represented a whole lot of risk for very little reward.

The First Annual Undrafted Rookie of the Year Award

May 8, 2014; New York, NY, USA; A general view of the stage and podium before the start of the 2014 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Long ago on a website far, far away, I promised my dozens of regular readers that I would select an Undrafted Rookie of the Year. Undrafted rookies often have a major impact on the season, but few do much more than show up at the non-glamor positions on All-Rookie teams.

There is no award for making it all the way from the fringe of employment to a significant contribution on an NFL team, so I figured I would create one. Little did I know that there would be almost enough high-impact undrafted rookies to field a whole team. This has been a banner year for the undrafted.

Citing an honorable mention list would mean leaving some fascinating and productive players off, but I will single out Saints safety Pierre Warren, Jets cornerback Marcus Williams, Panthers receiver/returner Philly Brown, Chiefs kicker Cairo Santos, Cardinals kicker Chandler Catanzaro and Bears linebacker Christian Jones as undrafted rookies who did far more than anyone could expect from them this season.

Now for some runners-up before the big announcement:

Allen Hurns, Wide Receiver, Jaguars

The Jaguars' leader in receiving yards and touchdowns. It's a testament to how deep the 2014 receiver class was that a University of Miami receiver with 50-catch potential was just hanging around after the draft.

Jonotthan Harrison, Center, Colts

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - AUGUST 07:  Center Jonotthan Harrison #72 of the Indianapolis Colts looks on against the New York Jets during a preseason game at MetLife Stadium on August 7, 2014 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

Harrison held down the starting job for much of the season. He mixed pretty good games with terrible ones before getting benched in favor of Khaled Holmes, but working your way into a starting job for a playoff team is no easy feat for the undrafted.

Branden Oliver, RB, Chargers

Oliver drew some Darren Sproles comparisons after back-to-back 100-yard games early in the season. Not every short rusher who wears No. 43 for the Chargers automatically becomes Sproles, and Oliver faded as the Chargers asked more and more of him.

Still, Oliver has been "found money" for a team that thought it was waist-deep in well-pedigreed running backs before the injury plague arrived.

And the Undrafted Rookie of the Year is…

Isaiah Crowell, RB, Browns

BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 28:  Running back Isaiah Crowell #34 of the Cleveland Browns rushes in the second quarter of a game against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on December 28, 2014 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images
Larry French/Getty Images

When I visited Browns camp in late July to lay my eyes on a certain quarterback, the local insiders raved about both Crowell and mid-round pick Terrance West.

Local insiders always rave about unknown running backs (they have a habit of running through unknown defenses during third-unit practices), but it soon became clear that Crowell and West's one-cut rushing ability made free agent Ben Tate completely superfluous.

The Browns jettisoned Tate mid-year, and while West gets more of the carries, Crowell was more productive for most of the year. Crowell ranked 24th in the NFL in rushing DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement), according to Football Outsiders. That's ahead of rookies like West, Oliver and Andre Williams, and in roughly the same category as Tre Mason.

Congratulations, Isaiah. And good luck to all of next year's undrafted rookies...though if you really have good luck, you won't be undrafted rookies.

Last Call

One last look at the sights of Week 17:

Like the Prom Queen Accepting a Dance with the President of the Audio-Visual Club

Words would spoil the moment here:

Rachel Nichols @Rachel__Nichols

Best pic of today's midfield hug between Jim Harbaugh & 49ers CEO Jed York is from @GettyImages. Frosty. http://t.co/uLfLnXRnaH

I have embraced overflowing diaper bags with more love and affection.

The Legend of Lambeau

Packers fans roared when Aaron Rodgers emerged from the tunnel after disappearing for a series with a calf injury. It was a powerful moment, made more magical by two quick Rodgers-led scoring drives against a Lions team that always welcomes an excuse to be rattled.

Rodgers waited for a lull between plays to take the field, knowing that his return would cause a commotion. Packers fans always compare Rodgers with Brett Favre, noting the things Favre once did that Rodgers cannot do. Rodgers just discovered theatrics, leaving Favre with one less characteristic to call his own.

One Is the Loneliest Number

Except for zero. That's reaaallly lonely.

The Chiefs finished the season with zero touchdown receptions by wide receivers. Dwayne Bowe preserved the purity by fumbling at the goal line, with Travis Kelce retrieving the football for the Chiefs' lone touchdown in a 19-7 victory that knocked the Chargers out of the playoffs.

KANSAS CITY, MO - DECEMBER 28:  Tight end Travis Kelce #87 of the Kansas City Chiefs recovers a ball fumbled by wide receiver Dwayne Bowe #82 in the end zone for a touchdown during the game against the San Diego Chargers at Arrowhead Stadium on December 2
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Some Kansas City fans think the "no receiver touchdowns" storyline is a statistical technicality and not a big deal. They now have months to keep thinking that. The Chiefs need a real go-to receiver the way teams like the Buccaneers need a quarterback. They don't need someone to complement Bowe, but to take over his role in the offense. If the Broncos let Demaryius Thomas hit the open market, the Chiefs should not just try to sign him: Clark Hunt should adopt him.

Imagine the Chiefs with an Odell Beckham-level receiver, or even one of this season's second-tier rookies, and you will also quickly imagine a completely different AFC playoff configuration.

Don't Forget Billy Howton

Speaking of future New York governor Odell Beckham, he finished the season with 91 catches, 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns in just 12 games. Beckham tied Eddie Royal for second on the all-time rookie reception list behind Anquan Boldin.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

As an onscreen graphic during the Fox telecast noted while he was still racking up numbers, Beckham climbed past several rookies to finish fourth all time in receiving yards behind Bill Groman, Boldin and Randy Moss.

Wait…Bill Groman?

Yes, Bill Groman of the 1960 Houston Oilers, who, as recorded by Pro-Football-Reference, caught 72 passes for 1,473 yards and 12 touchdowns, mostly from George Blanda. Groman played for four AFL Championship teams: the 1960-61 Oilers and the 1964-65 Bills, though he was a bit player for the Bills. The 1960 AFL was more of a high minor league than the NFL competitor it would soon become, but it's great to take a moment to remember pioneers of the past as we enjoy the superstars of the present and future.

Beckham also passed Billy Howton, a great Packers end of the 1950s who caught 53 passes for 1,231 yards and 13 touchdowns in a 12-game season before anyone had ever heard of empty backfields or illegal contact for brushing against a receiver. Beckham is amazing, but some guys named Bill also did remarkable things in seasons past.

If the Lions Signed Goose in September, They Would Not Be in This Predicament

Alex Maxham @alexmaxham

Tony Siragusa drills a 25-yard field goal pregame http://t.co/pK6uFC2A4R http://t.co/HoiCNWRfHw

Tony Siragusa kicked a 25-yard field goal during Eagles-Giants pregame warmups. All Siragusa needs to do now is leap from a trampoline and dunk a basketball and the transformation to goofy mascot will be complete.

All Stadium Signage Must Be 100 Percent Literal

The CBS cameras spotted this sign in the crowd at Browns-Ravens: "Need a Win to Get In," with "And Some Help!" scribbled at the bottom in black marker. You see, Ravens football has this effect on people. It makes them incapable of understanding metaphor or nuance, like Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy.

Other signs from around M&T Bank Stadium included "With a Win, We Will be 10-6, While a Loss Drops Us to 9-7," "The National Aquarium Is Fun, but Usually Too Crowded," and the T-shirt-worthy "The Baltimore Ravens Are a Professional Football Team with Sam Koch at Punter."

All Ravens stadium signs must be approved by Gary Kubiak, which may explain everything.

Is His Name J.J. Watt? Then Who Cares?

Case Keenum's name was misspelled "Case Kenuum" on the Fox crawl:

Ryan, perdido en TX @RyanLostinTX

Case Kenuum, inventor of the vacuum. http://t.co/l3v8YTdymC

Keenum, who a) holds tons of NCAA records, b) started half the season last year, c) came within a Ravens offensive toe cramp of the playoffs on Sunday and d) has an easy-to-spell name, certainly deserves better than a crawl misspelling. This sort of thing never happens to any other Texans players, who all simply go completely unmentioned while we fawn over J.J. Watt.

That's not a criticism of Watt, who just posted the second 20-plus sack season of his career. Watt did everything possible to create a wild Tim Tebow-worthy (as in "unlikely like Tebow, but actually worthy") playoff scenario: three more sacks, a forced fumble, a safety. A little Watt fatigue has set in over the last few weeks, however, and the playoffs are better off without a quarterback whose name slips past the spell-checkers.

Wait...I have to watch the Ravens again next week? Can I watch Case Kenuuuum instead?

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


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