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Mike Tanier's Monday Morning Hangover: Colts, Cam, Cowboys Conspiracy

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 5, 2015

Sarah Glenn/Getty Images

First, the team with no quarterback lost. Then, the team with no running back lost. Then, the team with no receivers lost. Finally, the team famous for losing because of penalties and weird calls lost, in part, because of a weird-call non-penalty.

Hey, let's celebrate the winners, too!

Here's a rundown of thoughts, opinions, conspiratorial ravings and first impressions of next week's games. I promise to stay more positive than most Internet journalists, which is really not much of a promise at all.

A Conspiracy That Explains Everything

Fox broadcast

Anthony Hitchens makes contact with Brandon Pettigrew without playing the football, flags fly, referee Peter Morelli announces pass interference, and suddenly a shadow conspiracy springs into action.

A shady Fox executive, played by Steve Buscemi, calls Roger Goodell. "We can't sell Lions-Seahawks and Panthers-Packers. It would be a ratings disaster. No national juice whatsoever. We need Cowboys-Packers, Ice Bowl, frozen tundra. That pass interference call cannot stand."

Goodell orders Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino to contact Morelli and overturn the call. "It will take me at least an hour to come up with a good excuse!" Blandino complains.

Goodell calls the Cowboys owner's box. Jerry Jones hands the phone to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Only quick decisions by Blandino and Morelli prevent every road within 15 miles of Blandino's home from being closed for the rest of January. "Just pick the flag up," Blandino orders Morelli. "Don't explain it!"

Everyone from Tony Dungy to Samuel L. Jackson complains about the call on Twitter.

Meanwhile, an unassuming operative played by Robert Duvall jams a syringe full of horse tranquilizers into Sam Martin's punting leg.

None of the events I just described after the Hitchens-Pettigrew play actually happened. Probably. But what did happen was stunning and inexplicable, something most of us have never seen before, not even during Super Bowl XL, the Area 51 of give the more nationally popular team the win fix-is-in conspiracy theorists. A game-changing flag was picked up without explanation after the penalty had been announced, establishing our national sports conversation for the week.

Here are my brief thoughts:

  • Hitchens interfered with Pettigrew. Period.
  • Pettigrew grabbed Hitchens' facemask early in the pass route, before Hitchens interfered with him. If Morelli's staff called offsetting penalties, it would have been completely justified. That would have given the Lions 3rd-and-1 instead of 4th-and-1, which is a huge difference.
  • That pick-up would never happen if it did not benefit the home team. Not in a hundred years—a thousand years in Seattle, Green Bay or Foxborough. Had the officials not thrown the flags at all, the Pettigrew incident would be just another home-cooked no-call. By next week, only Lions fans would have remembered it.
  • Sam Martin could have erased the pick-up from relevance with a coffin-corner kick instead of a 10-yard shank. The Lions defense could have minimized the damage with a fourth-down stop, or without a pair of flagrant holding penalties to keep the Cowboys' game-winning drive alive. When you are in opponent's territory with a three-point lead late in the fourth quarter, you should win the game if you keep your composure.

The Pettigrew incident did not remind me of Super Bowl XL, which remains the gold standard for horribly officiated important sporting events (non-boxing category). It reminded me of Game 6 of the 1985 World Series.

ROB KOZLOFF/Associated Press

The St. Louis Cardinals led the Kansas City Royals 1-0 in the ninth inning when umpire Don Denkinger missed a call at first base: Batter Jorge Orta was ruled safe when the umpire had a bad angle on a 3-1 grounder. Horrible call. But the Cardinals were still three outs from winning the World Series. Then first baseman Jack Clark missed a catchable foul ball, catcher Darrell Porter allowed a passed ball, and all sorts of composure lapses gave the Royals a 2-1 victory and a crack at Game 7.

The Cardinals sent Joaquin Andujar, the Ndamukong Suh of 1980s pitchers, into Game 7, and that's why the Royals had a World Series victory to look back upon this autumn. But if you talk to baseball fans of a certain age, they only remember the call at first, not Andujar and Whitey Herzog blowing their stacks at the umpire the next day in an 11-0 loss.

That's a long way of saying that the call was bad, the Cowboys won fair and square, and conspiracy theorists will always have their own interpretation of events.

The Lions were just angling for pass interference, anyway. They practiced that play all week. Bill Belichick has the video to prove it.

Problems Unsolved

The Colts have no chance of beating the Broncos if they play the way they did in their 26-10 win over the Bengals.

Make no mistake: The Colts played well in all three areas of the game. But they exhibited many of the same problems I wrote about in November when explaining why they remain one floor below the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning AFC penthouse. The Colts need to manufacture a pass rush on defense, and they are terrible at running the football in high-leverage situations.

DENVER, CO - SEPTEMBER 07:  Quarterback Peyton Manning #18 of the Denver Broncos runs the offense against the Indianapolis Colts at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on September 7, 2014 in Denver, Colorado. The Broncos defeated the Colts 31-24.  (Photo
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The leveraged running problem was evident when Indianapolis settled for field goals on three deep red-zone trips Sunday. Daniel "Boom" Herron did power into the end zone for a touchdown in the first quarter, but the Colts need more than isolated incidents of red-zone rushing.

When they got the ball at the 5-yard line late in the third quarter (after a penalty negated a touchdown), Andrew Luck threw a flat pass to T.Y. Hilton that was nearly picked off. Herron then took a halfhearted inside handoff. Finally, Luck and Herron attempted a shovel pass that was easily sniffed out.

Settling for three points against an opponent with no receivers or tight ends is one thing. Settling for three against the Broncos is a great way to trail 21-9 by halftime.

Lack of pass rush was more the Bengals' problem than the Colts' on Sunday, but Cincinnati illustrated what happens when you give a smart quarterback with tons of weapons lots of time in the pocket. Luck spent his day in the pocket drinking tea, doing crosswords, downloading software updates and checking down to his third or fourth options, particularly Herron (who finished with 10 receptions).

Given all the time in the world, eventually Hilton and other deep threats broke free after overcoming some first-quarter timing issues. The Bengals secondary played well for most of the game, but bad things happen when you have to cover a talented receiving corps for six seconds per play.

The shoe is going to be on the other foot next week. The Broncos can rush the passer, and they know they have no running game to worry about. The Colts defense, whose 41-sack regular-season total is inflated by blitzes and bad opponents (they sacked Jaguars and Titans quarterbacks 15 times, for example), will give Manning too much time to search his contact list for receivers.

It won't be ugly. It will just be a lot like Week 1's not-really-that-close 31-24 Broncos win.

At their best, the Colts remind me of the Packers without Eddie Lacy or Clay Matthews. Luck can look like Aaron Rodgers at times, and he has lots of guys to throw to, but goal-to-go plays were misadventures for years when Green Bay had no faith in its running backs.

Robert Mathis could have been the Colts' Matthews before suffering an Achilles injury, and the team has muddled through on defense without him. The Packers won a Super Bowl for the 2010 season when they discovered a wisp of a running game in the postseason, and of course they remain a perennial contender ready to face the Cowboys next week, so a Colts-Packers comparison is hardly bad news for Indianapolis fans.

Does that make Zurlon Tipton, the rookie who came off the bench to chew up the clock late in the game, the Colts' answer to James Starks, working-man hero of the 2010 Packers? Probably not. But at least the Colts' weaknesses are well-defined and easy to improve, next year if not this year.

Butler Did It

Titans punter Brett Kern is an unrestricted free agent. He netted 40.8 yards per punt this season. The Titans are not in position to splurge to keep their punter, so he will hit the market.

The top punter in the draft is Michigan State's Mike Sadler: four-year starter; 41.2 yards per punt in 2014; has run a few successful fakes in his career.

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 03:   Drew Butler #2 of the Arizona Cardinals stretches prior to the NFC Wild Card Playoff game against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on January 3, 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Ima
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Drafting a punter on Day 3 or dropping some extra free-agent cash on a veteran is not a terrible strategy for a playoff team with a serious need, like the Cardinals. Drew Butler was bad for most of the season and terrible Saturday night, with 20-, 28- and 31-yard punts; even the punt the Panthers muffed traveled just 33 yards.

The Cardinals needed to be able to play field-position football to have a chance in their 27-16 loss to the Panthers. Thanks in large part to Butler, the average Panthers drive started at the 38-yard line.

Bruce Arians took Butler aside for a long talk after one shanked punt. What does a head coach lecture a punter about after a shanked punt? Stop shanking punts, kid. It's not like a quarterback not recognizing a coverage scheme, and it's not like Arians spends his days focused on the fine art of punter mechanics.

Maybe he was asking Butler if he knew Kern's phone number. Or if he could play quarterback.

To Senior, with Love

Jan 3, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith (89) runs with the ball prior to the 2014 AFC Wild Card playoff football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Do you think the Panthers were missing Steve Smith Sr. when they trailed the Cardinals 14-13 at halftime? Look at what happened in the first half of that game:

  • Brenton Bersin muffed a punt that gave Arizona life when the Panthers led 10-0 and the Cardinals had one first down in three drives. Smith knows a thing or two about returning punts if called upon, though it has been years since he was a full-time returner. In a playoff game, surrounded by inexperienced alternatives, he may have gotten the call.
  • Philly Brown suffered a shoulder injury while reaching for a pass in the end zone late in the second quarter. As everyone knows, Smith can simultaneously catch a touchdown pass and break his arm.
  • Cam Newton was starting to turn into Sad Cam after Antonio Cromartie baited him for an interception. It's not clear whether Smith's tough-love pep talks of the past helped or just created Sadder Cam, but things were looking desperate.
  • The Panthers kept calling the Ed Dickson wheel route and expecting results.

Carolina turned out to be just fine without Smith in the second half, thanks in part to an opponent with a fourth-string quarterback. Just think how much closer the Panthers-Seahawks game would look on paper if Newton had one reliable possession receiver to throw to.

Action Jackson, No Faultin' Dalton

Playoff losses are usually interpreted as referendums on the quarterback's value as a human being, but it is hard to fault Andy Dalton for the Bengals loss.

Jan 4, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Cincinnati Bengals running back Rex Burkhead (33) runs with the ball against the Indianapolis Colts in the first half in the 2014 AFC Wild Card playoff football game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-
USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals were not only using practice-squad running back Rex Burkhead as a combination H-back, fullback and slot receiver, but they actually made him a focal point of the offense, taking handoffs on reverses and earning three receptions.

Burkhead did his best Jeremy Shockey impersonation, but Brandon Tate, Greg Little and Cobi Hamilton combined for zero catches on eight targets. Little, one of the great talented teases of recent history, appeared to flash open on a deep Dalton pass but then slowed down while turning for the ball.

Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson did a great job making credible chicken soup out of chicken scratch for a half. The Bengals loaded up with six and seven offensive line formations, with backup linemen Marshall Newhouse and Mike Pollak providing extra muscle for Jeremy Hill and the short game.

Extra-lineman sets can be deadly in play action when Rob Gronkowski slips up the seam after a few handoffs. Unfortunately, Ryan Hewitt is not nearly so scary slipping up the seam, and the Bengals had to get the likes of Little and Hamilton on the field when they wanted to get serious about passing.

Jackson is apparently in the mix for the Bills' head coaching job, per ESPN's Adam Schefter. He got a little carried away when the Raiders gave him personnel control a few years agohe would trade draft picks for a set of Bengals drink coasters if given the chancebut he has serious strategic chops. As for Dalton: He has obvious weaknesses and obvious strengths, but Tom Brady would not have been able to beat the Colts by throwing to Rex Burkhead.

Speaking of Referendums on the Quarterback's Value as a Human Being...

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 04:  (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been converted to black and white) Quarterback Tony Romo #9 of the Dallas Cowboys reacts after the Cowboys score against the Detroit Lions in the second half during a NFC Wild Card Playoff game at AT&T
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Is the Tony Romo "choke" story finally dead? He led the Cowboys back from 20-7 in a game where his offensive line failed him, throwing two touchdowns and no interceptions under constant pressure from a great defense.

But no, the "choke" thing will never die. The Cowboys won because of a call. If they win the Super Bowl, they will win because of a call. It's important to maintain consistency in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence.

The Idler Wheel

An Idler Wheel is: a) a Fiona Apple album that does not involve her lounging around in a bathtub at a barely consenting age, and was therefore ignored by mainstream audiences; b) a gear within a gearbox that simply transfers rotation, meaning that it spins wildly in one place without accomplishing anything significant in its own right; and c) a great metaphor for the Steelers' running back rotation Saturday night.

The Steelers rushed just 17 times for 52 yards if you take out a pair of Ben Roethlisberger scrambles. The three backs added seven catches for a non-nourishing 30 yards. But that does not mean Josh Harris, Dri Archer and Ben Tate were left with nothing to do: They spent lots of time running on and off the field.

True to his worst nature, Todd Haley obsessively rotated the backs, sometimes on a per-play basis, even though he had no intention of giving them a real offensive role. Haley may have been trying to exploit matchups or convince the Ravens that he was trying to exploit matchups, but it soon became pretty obvious that the substitutions were an elaborate pantomime: No one was going to get the ball in an important situation.

Here's a diagram of the blitz the Ravens used late in the game to generate Terrell Suggs' between-the-knees interception:

Tanier Art Studios

The thing to keep in mind is that the Ravens ran this blitz on 3rd-and-4, not 3rd-and-20 or something. Baltimore completely abandoned the middle of the field in a situation where a routine draw play or other inside run could net a first down. Once the nose tackle drops into zone coverage, with Suggs and two others stunting and blitzing on the offensive left, there are no defenders at all between the tackles.

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees knew Haley had abandoned even the pretense of the run, so he could do whatever he wanted. Pees called a great game, but Haley and Mike Tomlin made it easy. You can't spend an entire game bluffing about your running backs. And you can't enter the playoffs with no trust whatsoever in your second string.

Sore Winner

Cam Newton was moving like Old Mister Fredricksen from Up for most of the second half of the Panthers win. Newton was not signaling his first downs, even after scrambles, which is a bad sign: I know my eight-year-old is sick when he turns down ice cream, and it's a sure sign Newton is struggling when he is not doing goofy things. This is a guy who smiled for photographs while receiving medical attention after a truck accident last month, remember.

Bob Leverone/Associated Press

Newton revived Ray Lewis' squirrel dance before the game and wore a tuxedo to his press conference afterward, so perhaps all is well. Or perhaps the cummerbund is the new protective jacket for sore ribs. (Technically, Newton was not wearing a cummerbund, but he always wears one around his heart.) Newton may have been Puttin' on the Ritz just to put on a show of how healthy he felt.

After all, the Seahawks defense was watching.

Oh No, Not Them Again

Here's a little something to rile up the Patriots faithful as the Ravens come to town to do Ravens stuff in the playoffs next week:

  1. The Patriots have been a little gun-shy about their rushing game lately, with four games of 90 yards or fewer since the Colts' explosion of Week 11. Tom Brady has been wary of throwing more than 20 yards downfield to anyone but Rob Gronkowski since Randy Moss skipped town. New England better look at what a steady diet of wide receiver screens did for the Steelers.
  2. The Ravens' zone-stretch rushing game comes and goes (it did both in the Steelers contest), but it can cause a real problem when it is groovin'. The Patriots' run defense is ranked a respectable ninth in the NFL, but it isn't exactly the Seahawks' run defense, and there is precedent for Baltimore grinding New England underfoot in past playoff matchups. The 2009 season was long ago, but not long enough to forget.
  3. The Ravens are a terrible road team until the playoffs, when they become Johnny Appleseeds of doubt and self-loathing for the AFC's more glittery contenders. The John Harbaugh-Joe Flacco Ravens are 7-4 in road playoff games (not counting a win in a neutral Super Bowl) and 2-1 at Foxborough. The Patriots' home-field advantage remains real and significant, but the Ravens won't experience Bengals-style panic convulsions.

New England will probably win, Foxborough faithful. Nothing to worry about at all.

Final Cowboys-Lions Thoughts

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 04: Ndamukong Suh #90 of the Detroit Lions tackles Tony Romo #9 of the Dallas Cowboys during a NFC Wild Card Playoff game at AT&T Stadium on January 4, 2015 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Sarah Glenn/Getty Images)
Sarah Glenn/Getty Images

It can't all be about the call, right?

Ndamukong Suh made himself a lot of money with back-to-back sacks on Tony Romo. You live with the occasional roughness scandal when you have the chance to sign a defensive lineman who can take over a playoff game.

The average Lions drive began on their own 18-yard line. They executed a 99-yard drive early in the game, but those are hard to come by, and there was a reason Detroit had not quite reached field-goal range when it decided to challenge fate and pass interference interpretations.

The Cowboys' special teams played phenomenally: Downing punts, tackling returners and delivering high Dan Bailey kickoffs that were better than touchbacks. The Lions' special teams, of course, found an all-new way to make one last negative contribution.

Given the choice of head coaching candidates, I would prefer Arizona's Todd Bowles to Detroit's Teryl Austin because a) he appears to be more creative; b) he has some interim coaching experience; and c) I know more about Bowles from his Eagles days than I know about Austin. That said, Austin has done a lot with very little talent in the back seven this season. A team with massive problems in the secondary could quickly benefit from his magic with defensive backs. Are you listening, Bears?

Speaking of the coaching tilt-a-whirl, let's shift gears.

Love the One You're With (Even If He Is an Old Grouch)

If you are wondering why Tom Coughlin, Sean Payton and less celebrated coaches like Joe Philbin survived Black Monday—if you are wondering why the Eagles scrambled their front office to accommodate Chip Kelly or why Marvin Lewis' job is (probably) safe despite another playoff loss—consider what happened when Doug Marrone slid down the laundry chute in his Bills contract on New Year's Eve.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Owners around the NFL reacted as if a 39-year-old divorcee has just sashayed into the over-40 dance party at the airport hotel lounge. Jets owner Woody Johnson called Marrone's sudden availability "pretty good news," sounding halfway between an evangelical minister and Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth.

Marrone has a great rep among owners and execs despite the 15-17 record and loud whispers of discord in Buffalo. He has lots of next-gen offensive ideas that were put on hold when EJ Manuel proved incapable of reaching receivers 15 yards downfield on less than one bounce.

A winning record in Buffalo is nothing to scoff at. Still, you would think that the 1990s Bill Parcells had just stepped out of a TARDIS when Marrone and the Bills announced their New Year's Eve breakup, not an offensive guru whose NFL teams were famous for winning with defense, when they won at all.

Marrone is a former Jets assistant, so the mutual attraction was both obvious and a likely reason for him to tug on the parachute ripcord instead of risking placeholder status in the increasingly unsettled new Bills regime.

The Jets interviewed Marrone on Saturday, and the Falcons and Bears quickly queued up behind them. (That consulting firm really is earning its money for the Falcons, isn't it?) There was also the usual squicky talk about pushy agents foisting their agendas on teams, in part because so much of our information comes from the agendas of pushy, squicky agents. Either way, Marrone enjoyed popularity and newsworthiness in unemployment that he never enjoyed in employment.

Is Marrone a great choice for the Jets, or any other organization? He brings offensive ideas and modern managerial tactics (think: Chip Kelly with training wheels). At the same time, he bristled against both the change in management and the negativity of the media in Buffalo.

Going from the heavy hitters of the upstate New York media to the Jets press corps is like having someone toss practice bullets to you before trying to catch a real one in your teeth. Atlanta might be a better stop, but the guys at Dewey, Cheatem & Howe may have just reminded Scott Pioli and Thomas Dimitroff that they used to work for the Patriots (as if they ever forget such things): Josh McDaniels is high on their very predictable list, according to CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora.

Marrone envy was just one of many neuroses that set in after the dust of Black Monday settled.

Adam Gase's cellphone exploded by midday Wednesday: To be Peyton Manning's offensive coordinator is to be a man in demand during the wild-card bye week. Gase's predecessor, Mike McCoy, could lose his second offensive coordinator in two seasons if Frank Reich departs to be Buffalo's Jason Garrett.

McCoy himself is not very popular with impatient Chargers fans, and Ken Whisenhunt just helped the Titans take a step backward in quality and relevance that did not seem possible when he was hired. Reich may lose the Buffalo job to Mike Shanahan, who alienated most of the NFL but still has some supporters in the NHL.

Wednesday also brought the firing of Eagles player personnel exec Tom Gamble, which set off an elaborate chain reaction leading to a wild-hare Friday afternoon rumor that Chip Kelly would be fired. The Friday evening resolution (news travels extra fast when it is barely news) left Kelly with increased personnel control while general manager Howie Roseman was "promoted" to Vice President of Keepin' It Real.

Gamble was cast as a "Kelly man" in the overheated New Year's hangover of a drama. Gamble and Kelly were indeed close, but Gamble's family has been involved with the Eagles since the Dick Vermeil era, so it's not like Kelly imported him from Oregon with a satchel full of protein-shake recipes. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie had a slow hook with Andy Reid and former team president Joe Banner, making him a strange choice to set fire to the organizational structure of a team that barely missed the playoffs.

Michael Perez/Associated Press

The effort to stoke Kelly-Roseman-Lurie up to Jim Harbaugh-Trent Baalke-Jed York levels was motivated as much by the need to talk about something besides four none-too-compelling Wild Card Round games on a Friday afternoon as by reality.

As a rule of thumb: If there is no power struggle whatsoever going on in a front office, then either everyone is smiling around the Lombardi Trophy on a February night or the team is doing things wrong. The coach, scouts and cap guy are supposed to disagree about immediate, short- and long-range goals. It's like research and development, marketing and accounting trying to get along: The big boss is more of a traffic cop than a dictator.

The Eagles have made Kelly the traffic cop, but there will still be traffic: Roseman is now a glorified capologist, but capologists can wield surprising veto power when contracts get big and budgets get tight. At any rate, the rapid shift from Kelly may be fired to Kelly assumes slightly more control proved a major letdown to people who enjoy football for the boardroom politics (none of us).

Replacing Kelly with Marrone would have been interesting. We got rid of Chip Kelly and got an uptempo tactician who was in college two years ago and who just left in a huff over a change of power structure! Hooray for lateral-at-best moves!

It's hard to imagine either Lurie or Roseman feeling satisfied if the Friday fiat ended with Kelly storming out of town while Roseman triumphantly left another message in Gase's LinkedIn inbox. How about Rex Ryan to Philly, Chip Kelly to Frisco, Marrone to the Jets, Shanahan to Buffalo? That would have been a story.

Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

I think Reich could make a great coach. Ditto for Gase or Dan Quinn, the meat in the Pete Carroll-outstanding personnel Seahawks sandwich who has interviewed for most of the available jobs. Heck, I like Marrone, though it is getting easy to be skeptical of offensive coaches who claim to be installing an "uptempo" offense then scrap the no-huddle after the first three-and-out (see Reich also).

But when choices devolve into grab the Bills coach, or Peyton's coach, or Peyton's ex-coach's assistant coach, then either the applicant pool is thin or teams are showing a lack of imagination. And it's not like the Falcons headhunters have found the next Vince Lombardi meditating like Rambo in Tibet.

So if Doug Marrone was treated like Scarlett Johansson at Comic Con for a few hours when he hit the open market, how would the league's motivated hirers have reacted to Payton, Kelly or Coughlin? Conversely, why fire a coach with Super Bowl rings or back-to-back winning seasons so you can take your turn in the eight-coordinators-or-fewer checkout line?

There are years like 2012, when Kelly was itching to move up, Bruce Arians had just done amazing "interim" work and McCoy shifted from Tim Tebow to Peyton Manning without whiplash, that playing the coaching market is fun. This was a year to give incumbents the benefit of the doubt.

The coaching digestive track is about to get a little more roughage with Teryl Austin and Todd Bowles entering the meat market: Both are more compelling head coaching candidates than the Gase-Reich-Quinn gang because they did so much with so little. But we are still trapped in a world of Bill Cowher rumors. And Bowles, like Gase and Quinn, would have been on a list of hot coaching candidates compiled on the Fourth of July, so it's hard to get pumped up about interview schedules.

If I did not know better, I would think the hiring process was not designed to provide weeks of entertainment to Internet readers, but was in fact a slow, laborious process that took place behind closed doors. Three weeks from now, absolutely none of this will be remembered except who ultimately got hired.

The tales of Marrone, Kelly, Gase and Quinn make you appreciate the Raiders, who as usual appear to be playing a different sport in a different league on a different planet. Oakland's interview list looks almost nothing like other lists: It includes Eric Mangini, Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, Eagles coordinator Pat Shurmur, Cowboys passing game coordinator Scott Linehan and other roads less traveled.

DENVER, CO - SEPTEMBER 07:  Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton talks with quarterback Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts during a time out against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on September 7, 2014 in
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Interim head coach Tony Sparano has been left in limbo while the team zags instead of zigging. Sparano may not hit the open market in time to land a good coordinator job; my crystal smelloscope detects "special assistant offensive coach" for the Jaguars, Falcons or (yeesh) Redskins in his future. Or the Raiders could just reunite Sparano with Rex Ryan to recreate the magic of the 2012 Jets.

The Raiders really wanted Jim Harbaugh, of course. Maybe they thought they had a shot at a disgruntled Kelly. But they were never going to get a shot at Coughlin or Payton, and the Giants and Saints must be looking on this year's coaching carousel and nodding in satisfaction. They are not missing much.

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.)

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 04:  Quarterback Tony Romo #9 of the Dallas Cowboys celebrates with head coach Jason Garrett of the Dallas Cowboys after the Cowboys beat the Detroit Lions 24-20 during a NFC Wild Card Playoff game at AT&T Stadium on January 4, 201
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Cowboys converted a 4th-and-6 in the fourth quarter when Tony Romo connected with Jason Witten for the kind of strike the pair has nearly patented over the last nine years. The Lions' pass rush was nonexistent on the play, and Witten had no problem escaping James Ihedigbo, a hard-working journeyman safety who could have used help with Witten on a play where the Lions would not work to manufacture pass rush. To reiterate, the Cowboys won fair and square.

Jason Garrett (or Jerry Jones or Governor Christie or whomever calls Cowboys plays) went for it on 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line. An easy call when you have DeMarco Murray in the backfield and are trailing 20-7 perhaps, but still a correct call.

Ref…er Madness Trophy

(Awarded to the officiating crew that was clearly smoking something.) The non-Cowboys edition, of course…

The refs stopped the clock in the second quarter of the Steelers-Ravens game because they thought they counted 12 Baltimore defenders on the field. One awkward Sesame Street moment later, they realized only 11 were on the field. "Maybe they counted [Haloti] Ngata twice," quipped Cris Collinsworth.

A few plays later, the Ravens' field-goal unit really did have 12 men on the field, giving the Steelers a fresh set of downs. Like so many opportunities, this one didn't amount to much, as they settled for a field goal anyway.

Bob Leverone/Associated Press

There is going to be a ton of ref bashing this week, so we should also take note of a well-officiated game. Ed Hochuli's staff nailed several critical calls in Panthers-Cardinals. They correctly identified a Cam Newton fumble that looked like an incomplete pass to the naked eye: Sam Acho batted the pass from Newton's hand in the exact trajectory of a tipped throw. Marion Grice's touchdown for the Cardinals was ruled a fumble on the field, but it looked like a fumble on the field; a relatively swift replay session corrected the call. It was fine work on tricky calls under tough, rainy circumstances.

Granted, Hochuli nearly screwed up the opening coin toss (he quickly corrected the mistake) and left his stadium microphone on when referring to his replay official as "Jungle Boy." It only goes to show us two things we already suspected: 1) referees are a lot more fun in their personal life than they show while at work; and 2) Hochuli is the reincarnation of Rudyard Kipling.

Oh Ed, we sorely missed you Sunday.

Playoff Fantasy Leech Trophy

(Awarded to the fullback, tight end, fourth receiver or moonlighting linebacker who scored so the guy you drafted for your playoff fantasy contest could not.)

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 21:  Donte Moncrief #10 of the Indianapolis Colts watches play against the Dallas Cowboys in the fourth quarter at AT&T Stadium on December 21, 2014 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Donte Moncrief pulled double duty for the Colts on Sunday. First, he caught a 36-yard touchdown pass in lieu of T.Y. Hilton or Reggie Wayne. Second, he committed an illegal block back in the end zone to take a touchdown away from Coby Fleener, a very popular fantasy tight end.

That's some next-level leeching, Donte.

Sports Counterprogramming Trophy: The EUONYM

(Awarded to the strangest sporting event broadcast against NFL playoff games. Named after Rebecca Sealfon's triumphant spelling bee victory of 1997.)

The first annual EUONYM goes to Scorpion Bowling, which aired on ESPN opposite Colts-Bengals. I was hoping for some sort of extreme sport in which guys who look like my uncle bowled with scorpions, or tried to knock down scorpions, or just ate pizza with scorpion topping between frames. Or perhaps "Scorpion" is some new endorser, like a web browser, motorcycle, male-enhancement pill or all three.

But "Scorpion" refers to the oil pattern of the bowling lane; I would continue, but I have no idea what I am talking about and could not be any less interested in learning more.

Much cooler than a picture of bowling.
Much cooler than a picture of bowling.Piotr Naskrecki/Associated Press

Scorpion bowling was part of the World Series of Bowling, which takes place in Las Vegas, which is a heck of a city to travel to just so you can hang around a bowling alley. The real takeaway here is that while college football bowl game names get lamer and lamer, bowling terminology is getting cooler.

Georgia and Louisville should have faced off in the Scorpion Bowl last week while ESPN broadcast the Belk World Series of Bowling with Oddly Oiled Lanes on Sunday afternoon, is what I am saying.

Last Call

The Unbearable Lightness of Morning

In the same orbit, Sunday in Texas.
In the same orbit, Sunday in Texas.Brandon Wade/Associated Press

In case you missed it, gravity briefly stopped working on Sunday morning at around 9:47 a.m. Jupiter and Pluto were precisely aligned, and their combined gravitational pull made Earth a lava lamp for a few heady minutes.

Ryan Lindley could throw footballs that reached their targets. A controversial governor could sit on an NFL owner's lap without causing near-fatal crushination. Trent Richardson floated into a ceiling fan and got pummeled so thoroughly that he was unavailable for the Colts game, and there was much rejoicing.

Actually, none of that happened. The "gravitational fluctuation" was a Twitter hoax. The same hoax took on a life of its own last year, and the whole thing is based on a tongue-in-cheek joke by Patrick Moore, the Carl Sagan of Great Britain, in the mid-1970s.

Here's the ridiculous, fake-NASA tweet:

And here is the amazing Phil Plait, also known as The Bad Astronomer, explaining about 50 things wrong with the science of Jupiter-Pluto Gravitational Armageddon.

The gravity tale would have been the dumbest Twitter rumor of the week if I did not waste half of my precious "Friday off" tracking down Chip Kelly has been fired rumors. Still, it would have been fun to see a little low-gravity football on Sunday. Some hinky physics would have made Andy Dalton-to-Brandon Tate a more watchable passing combo.

Perhaps we did see some Zero-G shenanigans. Maybe the Hitchens-Pettigrew interference flag was not picked up at all. Maybe it simply floated away in the rarefied gravity. That flag is currently orbiting Jupiter. Someday, when we evolve as a species, we will send an astronaut and a crazy computer to visit it. The resulting creepy Space Baby can then return to earth and explain that freakin' no-call.

Hitchens-Pettigrew Interference. It sounds like a scientific theory, doesn't it? The Enterprise transporters did not work until Jordi cleared the Hitchens-Pettigrew Interference and beamed the away team to safety. We're on to something big here: Not football forces or political forces, but cosmic forces at work in the Cowboys-Lions game.

Then again, maybe bad calls and bad astronomy don't mix. The only thing both of them have in common is an ability to cause explosions on Twitter.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.