If you did not enjoy this weekend's playoff games, then you are not watching football properly.
The first three divisional playoff games featured home favorites winning tight contests with toughness and brilliance while underdogs battled to graceful, hard-fought and honorable defeat.
The Patriots' 35-31 win over the Ravens was a tactical masterpiece for both teams. The Packers' 26-21 victory over the Cowboys pitted two banged-up quarterbacks against each other in the wintry mud with their reputations on the line; both the quarterbacks and their teammates responded with grit and resilience in an unpredictable, back-and-forth battle. The Panthers gave the Seahawks everything they had in a 31-17 loss that was closer than the score.
Everybody had something to be proud of.
For a grand finale, the Colts upset the Broncos 24-13 in a game that may someday be remembered as a changing of the guard and the first step toward upheaval of the AFC status quo.
If you came away from any of these games with snarky, prefabricated opinions—Tony Romo choked again; Cam Newton is a quitter; Joe Flacco is not elite; the refs cheated the Cowboys with a week-late makeup call; Peyton Manning has always stunk, and now we just have more proof—then you are just not watching the games right. Adjust your television. Maybe sit a few inches further away, like your grandma once warned you to. Perhaps drink a little less.
The NFL served up two classics, a resounding upset and one lost-cause battle that provided enough drama and highlights to keep Saturday night entertaining. It was two days of awesome. And you probably watched every moment of it.
Unless you are a fan of one of the four losing teams, the whole weekend was supposed to rekindle your football love, all the way back to the trail-of-rose-petals-to-the-boudoir stage. If it did not, again, call your cable provider or your psychologist and make sure everything is hooked up the way it's supposed to be.
Since we all saw the same stuff, and because I wrote a pull-out column on Aaron Rodgers' rise to immortality, I will keep the Hangover observations to a minimum. We have coaching news and other topics to cover. But let's tackle a few big ideas.
When the Music's Over, Turn out the Lights
It's too early to declare an end to the Peyton Manning era. But we need to be clear-eyed: Manning was the worst quarterback on any field this weekend.
You can argue that Newton was worse, with two interceptions and a lost fumble. Newton was facing the NFL's best defense with no wide receivers and an offensive line full of guys no one has ever heard of; he had to scramble, improvise and struggle. Manning faced a pretty good defense with a healthy line and a full complement of weapons. He stunk.
Manning was a little vague and cryptic after the game, stating that he still planned to return for 2015 but hinting that his health or other factors might sway his resolve. It is hard to imagine exactly what the end of the Manning era, or the Tom Brady era, will look like.
Y.A. Tittle knelt in the end zone, breathless and despondent, after throwing the pick-six that signaled the end of the line. Brett Favre endured beating after beating until we wished we could throw in the towel ourselves. Maybe it all ends in a teary press conference while hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, confetti everywhere, going out on top. Maybe a five-interception nightmare that forces a coach's hand.
But perhaps it will all just end by degrees: A typically great season becoming suddenly ordinary late in the year, followed by a season on the fringe of Pro Bowl quality, followed by a rickety victory lap around the NFL, the last few salutes directed toward the bench.
Manning spent Sunday overthrowing receivers. Sometimes, for variety, he underthrew them. His deep passes lacked accuracy and wobbled in the air, as if thrown with all his might. Short passes over the middle sometimes skipped behind their targets. The Broncos' passing game was dysfunctional, and there were no Seahawks defenders around to take credit for it.
Many, many Manning seasons ended like this, with ruminations about his future in the wake of a disappointing playoff performance. But Manning did not throw interceptions into the face of defensive trickery or a vicious blitz Sunday. He threw the football poorly, in decent weather, against a superficially straightforward game plan.
This is different. And it's scary.
The Broncos' offseason is going to be interesting. Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and others are facing free agency. The veteran team assembled for one last roundup is bound to disband to the point where it is hard to recognize. Maybe Manning comes back next year, if not as good as new, then as good as 2013. But it feels like things will never be the same again.
Ice, Ice, Maybe
Call that Packers victory over the Cowboys what you want. But don't call it Ice Bowl II, as Fox insisted on calling it.
The kickoff temperature in Lambeau was 24 degrees Sunday. The kickoff temperature for the Ice Bowl was minus-13. That's a 37-degree spread. Sunday's temperatures were as far from Ice Bowl temperatures as a 61-degree day in May would be from Sunday's conditions.
It has been in the 20s or below across much of the United States for a week; we all went about our lives, sometimes with our jackets unbuttoned after a little snow shoveling or a light jog. Most of us have played football in 24-degree temperatures, or sledded with the kids or taken a brisk walk around the lake.
At minus-13, you don't send the dog outside without a sweater.
The Ice Bowl was a turning point in NFL history, the last classic game before the NFL-AFL merger and the Super Bowl changed absolutely everything about professional football. Sunday's game was exciting and important in its own right, but playoff games in 20-degree temperatures are common. The Patriots and Ravens played one 21 hours earlier, and it was an even better game. So hold the Roman numerals, please.
That said, the Fox video crew edited together some amazing montages that combined the Ice Bowl with Sunday's game: Bart Starr suddenly becoming Aaron Rodgers through precise film splicing, Jim Taylor becoming Eddie Lacy, and so on. The montages were gorgeous. But both games belong in their own categories.
And yeah, I may have called it Ice Bowl II once or twice in the Aaron Rodgers article Sunday. It's convenient shorthand, but it's not an accurate description.
Favre looms large over this week's Hangover. Packers-Cowboys games always bring back Favre memories, as do images of a Hall of Fame quarterback suddenly looking past his prime.
One of Favre's greatest talents was his gift for making us sing his praises after games in which he threw two or more interceptions. When he threw touchdowns, he was magical. When he made critical mistakes, well, the lovable scamp was just so fun to watch that we forgave him.
Andrew Luck threw two interceptions against the Broncos. Both led to field goals. In a sane world where Peyton Manning did not look like Andy Dalton's clumsy older brother, the picks could have cost the Colts the game. Of course, Indianapolis would not be in the game, or near the game, if it were not for Luck.
Andrew Luck: the cause of, and solution to, all of the Colts' problems.
Luck is excellent but mistake-prone. He helps the Colts out of a lot of jams, but he uses a little too much force at times. If you want the guy who threads a 3rd-and-16 pass into Coby Fleener between three defenders, you have to live with the guy who throws an interception under similar circumstances on 3rd-and-13.
Luck will achieve true greatness once he minimizes the interceptions (and fumbles) as much as possible without negating his big-play ability. He will probably always commit a few more turnovers than he should, but he will balance those out with extra big plays. Kind of like Favre.
Luck and the Colts enter Foxborough next week with the best receiving corps in the playoffs right now, and maybe the best in the NFL. T.Y. Hilton, Reggie Wayne, Hakeem Nicks, Donte Moncrief, Fleener, Dwayne Allen: That's depth and breadth that even the Seahawks would (will?) have trouble defending. Luck can use the checkdowns as a surrogate running game because players like Allen and running back Dan Herron are almost guaranteed to find open space against spread-thin defenses.
The Patriots will be favorites, and Bill Belichick has Darrelle Revis and a plan. But writing Colts-Patriots off as another fly-swatting by the AFC power brokers is a big mistake, just as it turned out to be Sunday.
And Then There Were Four
Here's a diagram of the four-offensive linemen concept the Patriots used several times against the Ravens in the third quarter Saturday. The deep safeties are omitted to avoid clutter. The play shown prompted John Harbaugh to purposely take an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to complain to the referees about a tactic he felt skirted the lines of legality.
As you can see, the left tackle is really tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (47). He is an eligible receiver because he is on the end of the line of scrimmage. Shane Vereen (34) is ineligible because he is not on the edge of the line; Julian Edelman (11) is standing right on the line, not a yard behind it, "covering up" Vereen.
The Patriots announced Vereen as an ineligible receiver, just as a team must report a backup tackle as an eligible receiver if he enters the game as a goal-line tight end. New England even huddled, albeit very briefly, before its four-lineman plays so the team could not be accused of sneaking a weird personnel grouping onto the field in a no-huddle situation. (There are rules against having a player linger near the sideline as if he is not in the game, for example.)
Vereen is not allowed to catch a pass or run more than two yards down the field until after a pass is completed. He is, however, allowed to goof off behind the line of scrimmage by yelling for a screen pass that he would not be allowed to catch, freezing defenders who are unsure if they have to cover him. (If he drifts far enough into the backfield, he could even legally catch a lateral.)
Variations on this tactic are popping up around the NFL. Teams might bunch a tackle with several split wide receivers, giving them an extra blocker for a screen or an extra layer of subterfuge to fake a screen. The Ravens themselves used unbalanced lines years ago, with Todd Heap playing "tackle" while both starting tackles lined up on the same side. It was a favorite Cam Cameron tactic.
It's legal, and Harbaugh was silly to draw a penalty when the Patriots were driving for a touchdown. He should have called timeout so his defenders could formulate a plan.
The Patriots used this wrinkle a few times in the third quarter, but it's not something you want to try 30 times per game, unless you like the idea of Hoo-Man blocking Terrell Suggs without the help of a real tackle or blocking back.
New England simply unveiled a relatively novel situational-use strategy while trailing in the second half of a playoff game. Most teams don't play that kind of rope-a-dope, waiting until the playoffs to unleash something completely unexpected. Most teams don't draft a college quarterback, use him as a receiver-returner-dime-defender for six solid years, then call his first career NFL pass attempt to throw a game-tying third-quarter playoff touchdown.
Love them or hate them, the Patriots do things their own way.
Look Before You Leap
Kam Chancellor turned in an outstanding performance against the Panthers: a pick-six, 10 total tackles, lots of plays where he left Cam Newton with nowhere to throw. Chancellor was also involved in some strange special teams chicanery.
The Panthers attempted a 35-yard field goal before halftime. Chancellor leapt completely over the line of scrimmage in an attempt to block the field goal. Graham Gano nailed the kick, but the Panthers were flagged for a false start.
Chancellor again hurdled the offensive line to attempt to block what was now a 40-yarder. A rattled Gano shanked the kick, but Chancellor bumped into him for a five-yard penalty. Gano finally banged a 35-yarder through the uprights on the third try; Chancellor did not attempt a leaping block, as an individual probably only has so many jumps like that in him.
Troy Polamalu is famous for leaps like those, whether on special teams or regular offensive scrimmage plays. Both Chancellor and Polamalu are/were outstanding safeties, with great athleticism to go with many other assets: intelligence, instincts, fundamentally sound tackling and so on.
While the "hurdle" trick requires great leaping ability and enough craftiness to time a snap count, it does not require many of the other skills that make Polamalu and Chancellor great. In other words, it doesn't take a Pro Bowl safety to jump over the line of scrimmage to disrupt a field goal, just a great athlete who has learned to time a snap.
The "hurdling block attempt" seems like a great thing for a team to have in its arsenal, particularly if that team is a contender and can afford some luxuries. Training one player to potentially obliterate a game-changing field goal seems worthwhile for a team like the Seahawks or Patriots, who know that the playoffs could come down to a 48-yard attempt in the fourth quarter. So why not train a designated "kick leaper"?
The "kick leaper" does not have to be a great safety, or even a safety. I bet Odell Beckham could hurdle the line and either block a field goal or give the kicker the willies. Imagine the Texans teaching D.J. Swearinger or DeAndre Hopkins to time the snap and leap for glory while J.J. Watt tears through the other side of the protection. Rob Gronkowski could probably hurdle the line, or Belichick could draft a high jumper from Rutgers in the seventh round.
The hurdle play would only be prudent in certain circumstances; if an offside penalty would extend a drive, the hurdle must be grounded. But as of now, it is extremely rare, despite the possible benefits. Last-second kicks before halftime or the end of game are common, and they are usually pretty crucial. If you have the opportunity to cause havoc for the kicker, you might as well use it.
Chain of Command, or of Fools
The question every fan wants the answer to these days is "who answers to who?"
The Dolphins hired former Jets exec Mike Tannenbaum as vice president of football operations. Does he answer to general manager Dennis Hickey, or does Hickey answer to him? The Falcons gave new responsibilities to assistant general manager Scott Pioli. Does he still answer to GM Thomas Dimitroff, does Dimitroff answer to him, or do both answer to owner Arthur Blank?
The answer to all of the questions in the paragraph above appears to be "yes." The Dolphins refer to Tannenbaum as a "point guard" (they are often confused that way), and while Pioli still ranks below Dimitroff, he now rules the kind of fiefdom that often has its own moats and defenses against the arrival of the archduke's army.
NFL teams are not always forthright about the precise nature of their executive decisional structure, and why should they be? They aren't public trusts. If Stephen Ross or Blank want to make an organizational flowchart that looks like a never-ending pasta bowl, it's their money.
Other chains of command are more straightforward. The Redskins hired talented but troubled Scot McCloughan as general manager. McCloughan now has control over the 53-man roster, though he still answers to team president Bruce Allen, who answers to owner Dan Snyder, who answers to Robert Griffin III's father.
Youthful Ryan Pace, 37, is now the Bears general manager, reportedly with full control over everything (even the coaching search), but he will answer to both team president Ted Phillips and chairman George McCaskey. The "answers to Phillips" caveat was apparently critical: Chris Ballard, leading candidate for the Bears job until the 11th hour, may have scared the Chicago brass by trying to scramble that structure a bit, according to a WSCR-AM interview (via the Chicago Tribune).
Answers to is a vague, loaded phrase. You answer to your boss, who answers to his or her boss. I answer to my editors; long ago, I answered to a principal, who answered to a superintendent, then a school board. Ultimately, we all answer to the readers, consumers, taxpayers, parents or fans, depending on the nature of the job.
At low levels of power, we answer to our superiors the way George Jetson answered to Mr. Spacely. At the level of executives like Tannenbaum, Pioli, McCloughan or Pace, there's much more consensus-building, compromise and give-and-take, plus lots of necessary delegation.
Executives always want the most direct possible route to the ownership level and the most available decision-making power, but absolute dictatorships are rare and usually not healthy for any individual or company, in any field.
Control over the 53-man roster sounds more precise than answers to, but that's also a little bit of a canard. If the person in charge of the salary cap says you cannot spend the money to sign Ndamukong Suh and Brian Orakpo, then you don't have complete control over the 53-man roster.
If the director of pro scouting is the person who assembles the list of available in-season free agents, keeps tabs on them and schedules the regular workouts, then you don't have complete control over the 53-man roster when six guys go on IR after an injury rash—the director of pro scouting does.
Similarly, the director of college scouting has probably done nearly all the legwork on players 75 through 475 on the draft board, and it's the coaches who actually spent months eyeballing those low-level rookies in position drills. The head coach also decides if you run a 3-4 or 4-3, carry an extra receiver or an extra running back, and defers to the special teams coordinator about the returner and kick gunner.
That's not the kind of 53-man roster control we usually think about, of course. We want to know if McCloughan and Pace have the authority to engineer a Robert Griffin-for-Jay Cutler straight-up trade if they so choose. We don't need a flowchart to know that something of that magnitude would have to clear ownership/chairman-level approval.
Demanding approval for or vetoing a seismic decision is not "meddling"; it's prudence. None of us would want to work for a company that didn't take decisions of that magnitude to the absolute top, nor would we want to hire anyone who would make such a call without getting the top brass on board. Again, everyone "answers to" someone except the team owner, who answers to the value of his or her investment.
Speculating and commenting on the minutiae of administrative control is a relatively new branch of football journalism. Twenty years ago, we did not think too much about the many substrata between coach, GM and owner.
It's also a dull conversation. We can see what head coaches do. Hire Rex Ryan and your team will look one way, Mike Shanahan another way. Coordinators are less interesting but easier to connect to the end result: Gary Kubiak brings zone-stretch running, a Dom Capers disciple zone-blitzing, and so on.
Executives arrive with indeterminate shares of the success (or failure) of past organizations. McCloughan helped "discover" Richard Sherman, Russell Wilson and a bunch of current 49ers stars. OK...Pioli has some pretty impressive discoveries on his resume too; just ignore everything that happened in Kansas City. Tannenbaum couldn't walk past an auto dealership in the New York area without paying double for the deluxe undercoating, but he may have only been following Woody Johnson's orders.
It's not that any of these executives are particularly awesome or terrible. It's that all of them are taking one set of successes or failures from a complex decision structure and applying them to another complex decision structure, and not even the most plugged-in insider knows both the past and future details of who really said or did what.
As someone about to enter his third week of hearing about the far-reaching implications of Chip Kelly's power grab in Philly, I can attest that front-office realignments make for less-than-scintillating storylines. In most cases, we have to inject the drama and draw the personalities in broad strokes.
Pace is a wunderkind triathlete! McCloughan is a troubled genius! Every realignment and clarification becomes Shakespearean intrigue. Each executive is just biding his time until he can rule his team while sitting upon a throne of skulls.
The reality is never quite that interesting. The general manager who "answers to no one" climbs to the top of the heap, then must turn around and ask his pro scouting director, college scouting director, capologist and coaches for lots and lots of help.
In about six weeks, each team will send one executive to drone to the media for a 15-minute press conference at the NFL Scouting Combine. That person, presumably, is the individual everyone on the football staff must answer to in any way that means anything to most fans.
That poor person will look like he is acutely suffering, as we ask him if there has been any progress on free-agent negotiations, what he thinks of the upcoming draft class and how much his organization uses "analytics" (another mind-bogglingly broad term) to make decisions. He will have risen to extreme power in the NFL ranks, and he will spend a quarter of an hour wondering why he was not more careful about what he wished for.
Executive and Coaching News Roundup
With that said, here are some first takes on some of this week's coach, coordinator and general manager comings and goings.
Bills Hire Rex Ryan
Hey, AFC East teams: It's OK to hire outside the AFC East. It might even help, seeing as though you have all been in the Patriots' rearview mirror since roughly the turn of the millennium.
Ryan goes from an AFC East team with a tough defense and major quarterback issues to an AFC East team with a tough defense and major quarterback issues. We get another indefinite period of Rex vs. Patriots storylines, when some of us were looking forward to a break.
The recent tendencies among AFC East teams to spin their wheels remains troubling. Which leads us directly to...
Dolphins Hire Mike Tannenbaum
The ideal Dolphins decision structure involves three coaches or execs hired at different times with different agendas navigating a complex organizational flowchart that dead-ends with an unpredictable and inconsistently involved owner. With Tannenbaum joining Joe Philbin and Hickey under Ross, Miami can now shout "Yahtzee!"
The last decade has been an endless series of regimes grinding against each other as one pushes the other out. Dave Wannstedt begat Rick Spielman, who supplanted Wannstedt as player personnel exec before giving way to Randy Mueller, who started as a Nick Saban mouthpiece before Saban returned to college coaching and left Mueller to supervise Cam Cameron.
Bill Parcells' arrival appeared to bring stability in 2008, but owner Wayne Huizenga sold to Ross, who alienated the Tuna into delegating everything to Jeff Ireland, whose relationship with head coach Tony Sparano slowly deteriorated without Parcells there to make everyone look decent at their jobs. Dan Marino briefly showed up in the middle of all of this, looked around and ran screaming back to the television studio.
Ireland stayed on when Philbin replaced Sparano, though offensive coordinator Mike Sherman overshadowed Philbin from the moment the Dolphins drafted Ryan Tannehill, Sherman's quarterback (formerly wide receiver) at Texas A&M.
Ross finally tired of Ireland's nearly random approach to the draft and free agency and hired Hickey, who appeared to do a pretty good job cleaning up some cap messes and reorganized Ireland's acquisitions into a coherent roster. Without Sherman to run the offense or a Bullygate scandal to cope with, Philbin reaffirmed that his most interesting attribute is an ability to horrendously bungle late-game strategies.
Now Tannebaum is on board as a "gap-bridger" as the AFC East wannabes play Sisterhood of the Traveling Execs with each other's castoffs while the Patriots prepare to shed another layer of skin that teams like the Falcons will try to turn into a new wardrobe. Philbin retains his own degree of administrative control, and the Dolphins want to extend his contract for some reason, even though there are now two executives who were not on board when Philbin began history's slowest rise from 7-9 to 8-8.
This is why the Dolphins completely lack identity.
The concept of a gap-bridging point guard in the front office makes sense. But most teams usually fill that role from within instead of adding yet another layer to a decision structure that was already muddled. Tannenbaum is best known as the Pied Piper of crazy contracts in New York, where he showered money on midtier quarterback prospect of dubious upside Mark Sanchez and disappointing ex-Steelers big-play tease Santonio Holmes.
Tannehill and Mike Wallace must be doing happy dances.
Falcons Promote Scott Pioli, Retain Thomas Dimitroff
One of these days, somebody's going to collect all the Patriots castoff coaches and execs into something that looks a little better than the knockoff Fendi bags at the subway entrances. If Josh McDaniels is named head coach immediately following the Patriots' run, this will not be the time it happens.
Bears Hire Ryan Pace as General Manager
Here's a big chunk of Pace's profile from the Saints' website:
Entering his 12th year as a member of the Saints player personnel department, Pace spent the last six seasons as the club's Director of Pro Scouting. In addition to overseeing the club's staff of pro scouts, Pace's responsibilities included recommending player acquisitions by evaluating current Saints players and scouting current and future free agents from the NFL and other professional leagues, monitoring the waiver wire, researching possible trade opportunities and supervising the advance scouting of upcoming opponents. In addition, as the organization prepared for the NFL Draft following the season, Pace assisted in the evaluation of some of the top college prospects.
Prior to becoming Director of Pro Scouting, Pace served as a Pro Scout from 2004-06, with his efforts including evaluating veteran free agents, scouting upcoming opponents and evaluating college players in preparation for the NFL Draft. He had served as a Scouting Assistant for two years starting in 2002. His well-rounded experiences included evaluating players from around the league as well as prospects from NFL Europe, the Arena Football League and the Canadian Football League. Pace also tracked player movement, scouted college players and assisted in the preparation of the draft room.
Is that a profile or a LinkedIn account? It reads like my resume from the early '90s: As assistant math tutor, Tanier's duties included explaining standard deviation to psych majors, filing the tutorial paperwork, assisting in the development of weekly schedules, emptying the recycling bucket and taking the phone off the hook when the guys from Sigma Phi Epsilon crank called all afternoon. Pace may have walked into his Bears interview with his Saints Web profile photocopied onto fancy bond paper.
Anyway, that's a detailed description of what a director of pro scouting does. It does provide an informative, if dreary, look into the day-to-day operations of a front office. There is not that much whispering about blockbuster trades, opening suitcases full of money to impress superstar free agents or standing on tables and demanding your player, but there is a lot of evaluating, recommending, researching and monitoring.
Kyle Shanahan Leaves Browns
Shanahan now walks away from two exploding-oil-tanker quarterback situations in two years, each involving high-profile superstars. You will excuse me if I don't catapult him (or dear ol' dad) to the top of my interview list.
Johnny Manziel obviously came up a little short in the workplace-readiness department, so Shanahan shouldn't get too much blame for one awful game, an injury and some extracurriculars. It's just...Vince Young was notoriously unprepared for the NFL on a variety of levels, but Young did not look that terrible in his first few starts. (He looked pretty good after his first three.)
JaMarcus Russell had some well-documented problems with the adjustment to the NFL, but he threw for 224 yards, one touchdown and one interception in his first start as a rookie. Ryan Leaf won his first two starts, with statistics that were not great but did not scream "cautionary tale that defines a generation," either.
It's no great trick to take a strong-armed, fleet-footed rookie and gingerbread a game plan to get him through a Bengals game looking quarter-way decent. Maybe Shanahan was in the process of doing that when Manziel got hurt and joined the cast of The Hangover IV. We will never know now.
After the 2012 season, Shanahan would have been a short-lister for teams seeking a coordinator/head coach to mold a young quarterback, particularly a mobile one. Now, I can think of about 100 coaches I would rather hire to work with Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Brett Hundley, etc.
Giants Fire Perry Fewell
Fewell's Giants defenses were never particularly noteworthy, even during the 2011 Super Bowl run. Here's a breakdown of their rush and pass rankings, according to Football Outsiders:
|Giants' Defensive Rankings under Perry Fewell|
|Year||Overall||Run Defense||Pass Defense|
That's certainly not a bad record, but it's not one that is trending in the right direction, either. In 2010, Fewell not only had Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Mathias Kiwanuka and Jason Pierre-Paul to spearhead the pass rush, but a healthy Terrell Thomas in the secondary with Antrel Rolle and Corey Webster.
Fewell did fine work with outstanding personnel. Since then, he has not done much to elevate the (not always stellar and shockingly injury-prone) personnel the Giants have given him. Fewell was innovative with his use of "heavy nickel" three-safety packages in 2010-11, but opponents have known what to expect since then.
The Giants could really use an influx of outside-the-box ideas, like a coordinator who wants to run a base 2-3-6 or get really extreme with defensive fronts in the Mike Pettine mold. Change for change's sake is usually a bad idea, but the Giants need new voices and new ideas more than they need anything else.
GM Jerry Reese, head coach Tom Coughlin and offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo all return, so the defensive coordinator position is the best place to splash a little cold water in the organization's face.
Rams Fire Brian Schottenheimer
Darn. The Rams were one year of double-drag routes away from getting every receiver, tight end and running back on the roster to average under 10 yards per reception.
Dirk Koetter Hired as Buccaneers Offensive Coordinator
Koetter went from Jacksonville to Atlanta to Tampa in the last five years. Coaches and executives often rattle around that part of the country for years; it's like a Bermuda Triangle.
It became common knowledge hours after the hire that Koetter coached under or alongside Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich at three different schools, giving the Buccaneers an inside track to drafting Marcus Mariota. As if they needed any more reason to do the excruciatingly obvious and draft Mariota.
Koetter could get some intel from Helfrich on whether Mariota slaughters and devours kittens in his downtime, perhaps. But if Lovie Smith decides he's going to lure Kyle Orton out of retirement and chain him to the huddle, nothing is going to stop Lovie Smith from luring Kyle Orton out of retirement and chaining him to the huddle.
Redskins Hire Scot McCloughan
McCloughan had a serious drinking problem, which led directly to his departure from the 49ers front office a few years ago. Seth Wickersham's excellent December profile of McCloughan in ESPN The Magazine is the official source document for most of our impressions of McCloughan.
I had heard others speak of his evaluative prowess in the past, but I have never met him, even at a press conference, or knew anything about his personal problems until reading Wickersham's piece. McCloughan is so candid about his drinking problem in the profile that it's disarming and refreshing. At the same time, he admits that he still drinks sometimes, albeit with much more moderation.
Everyone deserves second chances, even third or fourth ones, and I wish McCloughan complete success on the personal front. There was an extreme sense of kid-gloves treatment when the Redskins announced his hiring, however.
Lots of writers, experts and fans praised McCloughan's acumen and record in San Francisco and Seattle. The fact that McCloughan a) drank his way out of a job and b) admits to still drinking was a delicate matter that got downplayed by experts/organizations that usually err on the side of skepticism. No one wants to come down on a former problem drinker trying to turn his life around, but we shouldn't pretend that his background is just a minor detail, either.
Look at it this way. Say a quarterback who drank his way out of a program was entering this year's draft. At the combine, he talks about how he learned many lessons when he lost his scholarship, then mentions that he still sometimes has a beer now and then. How would the press handle that? How would fans?
His scouting report would certainly include a prominent mention of "character issues." Assuming the player got drafted, there would be controversy, and even the player's most ardent admirers would be forced to acknowledge that there is good reason for a little bit of doubt and caution.
McCloughan has earned this opportunity, and I hope and pray he makes the most of it from a personal standpoint, but he doesn't get any kid-gloves treatment that I don't extend to 21-year-old athletes just because he is a boss, or because he looks more like me than a 21-year-old athlete does.
The Redskins made a bold, courageous move by hiring McCloughan, but also a risky one. It's laudable, and it often makes good business sense to give someone another chance. But you should always be clear that is what you are doing.
Not everybody earns one, but everybody gets one!
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.)
Tyler Clutts sounds like a made-up name for a Kevin James movie character. Tyler Clutts: Roller Coaster Operator. It also sounds like one of those ironic sports names, like Prince Fielder: Clutts should be a sleek 185-pound wide receiver who does somersaults after touchdowns, while the plodding fullback is named Jamir Elegance.
But Clutts is a beefy, 260-pound fullback who, while not French-detective clumsy, has caught just 10 passes for 53 yards in four seasons. Naturally, he caught a one-yard touchdown pass for the Cowboys against the Packers; you knew something like that would happen when you drafted DeMarco Murray to lead your playoff fantasy team.
Kenny Rogers Trophy
(Awarded to the coach who knows when to hold 'em or when to fold 'em.)
Fourth-down conservatism officially died Saturday night. The autopsy revealed that John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco were the killers. The weapons were a 4th-and-6 bomb to Torrey Smith from the Patriots' 36-yard line while leading by seven in the third quarter and a 4th-and-1 rollout pass to Kyle Juszczyk from the 36-yard line in the fourth quarter with the score 28-28. The Smith conversion led to an immediate touchdown; the Juszczyk conversion shortened a field-goal attempt.
Justin Tucker is one of the NFL's best kickers. The Ravens could have attempted a pair of 53-yard field goals; on 4th-and-6 with a lead, the long attempt would probably have been the "safe" play for many coaches. The Ravens were on the road and facing the greatest defensive mastermind of our generation. They started two rookies on the offensive line. There were plenty of excuses to play it safe. Harbaugh decided to put additional pressure on the Patriots instead, and it worked.
Those fourth-down conversions were a pair of big boulders in the avalanche of fourth-down modernism. The Lions' shanked punt after the Flag Picked Up 'Round the World of last week was another midsize rock sheering from the mountainside. Punting for 18 net yards of field position, or balancing a 61 percent chance at three points (the 2014 conversion rate for 50-plus-yard field goals) with a 39 percent chance at handing the ball to the opponent near midfield are becoming less and less appealing.
Those "vital signs" for fourth-down conservatism you thought you heard when Dez Bryant's fourth-down bomb was overturned Sunday was just the body venting gasses. A clean catch—and no, that was not a catch—would have won the game for the Cowboys.
A Dan Bailey field goal would have cut the score to 26-24 and given the Packers the ball back at a point when the Cowboys were incapable of stopping them. The attempt would also have been a 49-yarder, on the road, on chopped-up dirt, on a cold day when Bailey had already missed a long attempt. The Cowboys did the right thing and came within a Calvin Johnson rule of winning because of it.
There will always be a place for short punts and long field goals, and aggressiveness will still take a while to sweep across every coaching staff in the NFL. But Saturday night was a turning point, even though the Ravens could not quite pull off a victory in the end.
Ref…er Madness Trophy
(Awarded to the officiating crew that was clearly smoking something.)
It wasn't a catch. It looked like a catch live, but by the second replay it was obvious that Bryant did not have complete control of the football when his arm hit the ground. He made no "football move" between the catch and the bobble against the ground, just some off-balance stumbles after a tremendous athletic effort.
Cowboys fans may claim that it was a catch. Casual fans who don't watch 16 hours of football per week may claim it was a catch. Analysts who like to stoke the "problem with officiating" angle or bait outraged fans for clicks may claim that it was a catch. But it was so obviously not a catch that I was shocked when I realized there was a controversy about the obvious, obvious non-catch.
If that call came on a Blake Bortles-to-Cecil Shorts bomb in a Jaguars-Titans game, no one would say anything or think anything about it. If it came against Calvin Johnson, it would be yet more proof that the Calvin Johnson Rule was appropriately named. But it came in the fourth quarter of an epic playoff game between two teams with national fanbases, one week after one of those teams benefited from one of the most mind-boggling rule interpretations since "the tuck." So it's controversial.
But the call was correct. Anyone who insists otherwise is either highly partisan or trying to sell you something.
Meaningless Playoff Fantasy Touchdown Trophy
Playoff fantasy football is not like regular fantasy football. You cannot always avoid a bad matchup, like Cam Newton against the Seahawks defense, by starting whichever of your backups faces the Buccaneers this week.
If you had to gut through this week with Newton and Kelvin Benjamin in your lineup, you had to be thrilled when they hooked up for a touchdown pass to cut the Seahawks' lead to 31-17 late in the fourth quarter. It was probably the last meaningless fantasy touchdown of the year.
Way to go, guys!
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.)
NBC Sports Network is always a reliable source of inexplicable programming choices. This is a network that regularly broadcasts cycling. Showing the Tour de France in its entirety makes some sense, but NBC Sports Network will broadcast events like Giro d'Italia, and if bad weather grounds the helicopters, NBC Sports Network will aim a camera at people milling around a finish line and narrate the bike race like a radio broadcast.
I know. I have watched. For some reason.
So Premier League Goal Zone is hardly a strange choice for a network that banks on America's love of international sport. The idea is to create an NFL Red Zone-type program that shows every goal from the week's Premier League play. There is only one problem: The 90-minute time block is long enough to show highlights from every goal in the history of organized soccer.
Click over to Premier League Goal Zone during a Packers-Cowboys timeout in the hope of seeing some fast-paced soccer highlight action, and you almost always saw two experts droning about a verbal altercation between fans and Queens Park Rangers players in clipped English accents.
Here's my theory about the appeal of Premier League soccer for Americans: American soccer fans like Premier League soccer, in part, because it does not have all of the trappings of big-time American sports, like 90-minute preview shows full of talking heads. It's all about the rejection of relentless narrative-spinning in favor of old-fashioned sports.
NBC Sports Network is giving soccer fans exactly what they are trying to avoid. But then, if the alternative is a 90-minute cycling talk show, maybe a little extra hype-mongering around one of the world's most popular sports leagues is actually a wise choice.
The Comedy Channel was airing a Futurama marathon, anyway: What more do you need during commercial breaks?
New York Bozo.
It's a play call.
I am not sure what it means. "Bozo" means different things in different systems, different things on offense and defense. New York Bozo sounds funny, but it sounds like typical playbook lingo.
Bozo, banjo, bingo: You will find words like these all over playbooks, because they have sharp sounds that can easily be heard through ear holes and crowd noise. City names are also common—hence "Omaha"—because they are distinct syllables that provoke images to the listener, making it easy to hear and remember the myriad bits of jargon that make up the verbiage of football strategy.
It's a stretch to go from New York Bozo to Chris Christie, a New Jersey politician who, while overweight and polarizing, is no more clown-like than any other politician and is held in high regard by a large percentage of voters.
Calling Christie a New York Bozo is a little like calling Aaron Rodgers a Wisconsin Dork: the connection is vague, inaccurate and ultimately not all that funny. And of course, no one really thinks that the Packers changed their play language before a playoff game to take a jab at a well-known Cowboys fan, getting their geography wrong in the process.
Well, a Web search of "Chris Christie New York Bozo" on Sunday night generated 56,000 results. A few headlines by major outlets suggest or insinuate that Rodgers was purposely "trolling" Christie. Here at Bleacher Report, we linked up a video of Rodgers' call but held back on the all-too-obvious yuks.
It's a funny-sounding play call. And the Christie connection, tenuous though it might be, leaps immediately to mind if you hear the call in context and have followed Cowboys storylines for a few weeks. Which is why the joke is so terrible: If it leaps immediately into 56,000 or 560,000 minds, then a joke is just too obvious to be funny.
OK, I am not the Football Comedy Police. But here's the thing. Some 56,000 people thought enough of the Cowboys-Packers game to watch it, or were assigned by editors to watch the game and comment or blog about it. Those 56,000 heard a strange play call in the first quarter and rushed into action as if they were court reporters who just heard the serial killer admit where he buried the heads.
(Yes, many of those 56,000 search results are mirrors, but the point is that tons of people around the world stopped the presses to talk about a play call none of them understood.) It takes about an hour to assemble clips, GIFs and enough sentences to justify a blog post's significance into something coherent; even if you are just harvesting tweets and embedding them into your own content (a soul-crushing exercise), that takes time.
Meanwhile, 56,000 people were not watching an exciting, critical Cowboys-Packers game, because they are all busy telling the same joke, which is not even very funny, about a play call that was one of the least interesting things about the game. They all wanted you to click their article, even though it was full of tweets you already saw, and you were watching the freakin' game and had no interest in reading a full article.
This is how we butter the bread. It's crazy sometimes.
We all love football in our own way. I like to diagram plays and track stats. You may like to assemble funny GIFs. An editor or Web producer may prefer your approach to mine. Some readers may want your five pictures instead of my 5,000 words; some find room for both. I may borrow your funny in-game creation; you may quote one of my remarks. Frankly, I always check GIF- and meme-heavy sites before I publish to make sure I did not miss any man-bites-dog stories while focusing on the touchdowns and turnovers.
But we all have an obligation to ourselves to use our own time as wisely as possible. If you are turning your back on a phenomenal, important playoff game because you must tell some jokes for fun or profit, I can relate. Just make sure you are not telling the same joke everyone else just told.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.