A lot of grief was spilled between Week 17 and the Wild Card round. A look at what portends for the teams thus far eliminated, which ones took a step forward and the ones that already received the ultimate disappointment.
A view of CJ Spiller and his separated shoulder, a general image of the entire Bills' season, and Chan Gailey's tenure there.
A lot of jobs opened up recently, but the people filling them may have a tougher go of it than the departed. Dallas, Pittsburgh, the Jets, and the Giants all decided to stay put with their current staffs, while Kansas City ended what may have been the most traumatic season ever experienced on a pro level by completely cleaning house, as did San Diego. As of tonight eight teams still have a shot at winning a Lombardi Trophy. That leaves 24 that are mothballing their uniforms.
Step Forward 0014
Agent 0014 Andy Dalton has all the makings of a secret agent: Clutch performances always avoiding unnecessary attention. And so what if he doesn't have the same spy chic as 007 Timothy Dalton? His cannon arm is more than enough compensation for Bond's diminutive handgun.
Plenty of teams had unusually good seasons in 2012, with the Colts' Chuck Strong campaign being the feel-good theme of the year. In the heat of the moment, it was easy for the sports media to ignore the players and teams that really played like they believed that the Vegas odds are just a number. Here are the sleeper teams of 2012:
- Miami Dolphins: True, they only went 7-9 and rounded out the season with a pathetic 0-28 loss to New England. But consider the circumstances with which they began: Brandon Marshall ditched town to rejoin Jay Cutler in Chicago. Joe Philbin, a rookie head coach with a rookie quarterback, and the rest of the team barely registering any recognition by the casual fan, apart from Reggie Bush and Chad Johnson. Then Johnson got arrested, and the season seemed doomed. Instead, rookie QB Ryan Tannehill of Texas A&M teamed up with Brian Hartline to pull off some impressive wins, such as a 17-13 road victory in Cincinnati. Miami had the seventh ranked defense in points allowed, even though they have only one big name player in DE Cameron Wake. The future seems bright for a team that has been overshadowed by its fellow South Florida teams, the Heat and the Marlins. Which means that in order to gain any attention, GM Jeff Ireland (former Cowboys director of college scouting) might as well just praise Fidel Castro or do an nauseatingly corny Samsung commercial.
- Cincinnati Bengals: This is the second consecutive year that I've noticed this story go unappreciated by the national media. At the time of his debut in 2011, Andy Dalton was considered dead on arrival, nobody was talking yet about AJ Green, and the consensus pick was that they would be dead last in the AFC North. Their hulking rivals, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, seemed destined to devour them, but in reality the Bengals hung tough in every game beside a 35-7 road loss in Pittsburgh and qualified for the playoffs. In a season where Cam Newton was the unanimous rookie of the year pick, Dalton actually earned his team an accomplishment. He went from strength to strength this year by improving Cincinnati's record and position in the standings, and finally gaining them their first victories over the Ravens and Steelers with him at the helm, and once again earned them a wild card spot while overshadowed by three rookie quarterbacks who also went to the playoffs. The Bengals now need to devise a new page of strategy for their play book: How to beat the Houston defense. In three games against Houston since last season they average exactly 14 points, whereas in all other games they averaged 21.7 (2011) and 24.4 (2012). I think we would be talking about them differently if the Texans hadn't eliminated them two years in a row in the exact same situation.
In like a Lion, out like a lamb
Jahvid Best's (L) season was cut short by a concussion. Steve Smith's (R) rowboat hit a sandbar.
It's very frustrating when your team has a nice breakout season only to have a regression the following year, but it's usually easy to figure out why. Either the rest of the league figures the scheme out, there's a catastrophic injury, or a free agent boom sours quickly to a bust. So it went for the teams that truly disappointed in 2013. And don't complain that ours isn't on it, because they truly have earned a permanent spot:
- Detroit Lions: It started when defensive lineman Nick Fairley tried to elude police while driving intoxicated in Alabama, along with a prior marijuana offense. RB Mikel Leshoure, who hadn't even played a down in his 2011 rookie season, also had two weed run-ins. Coach Jim Schwartz seemed to have turned the Lions ship around in 2011 by leading them to a 10-6 record and their first playoff appearance since 1999. How could it all unravel so fast? This during a season when Calvin Johnson broke Jerry Rice's single season receiving yards record. In many instances, the Lions defense led by Ndamukong Suh simply gave the game away, with the Lions ranking 26th in points allowed, even worse than Buffalo. The most ridiculous instance was in a 44-41 loss to the dysfunctional Titans. The previous season's indications showed the Lions reaching parity with the rest of the NFC North, yet this season they were the only team besides Kansas City not to win a single divisional game, an important factor in a division where two or three teams are often in the mix to the end like this year. The ugly Titus Young saga shows that many of these players really don't care about winning ball games, even if the rest of the Lions locker room repudiated his idiotic actions during the Green Bay game.
- Carolina Panthers: If the 2012 Panthers season were a children's book it would be called "the Pout that got a GM fired". The woes of this club were so bad at one point that once things got better nobody really had the energy to pay attention. The main cause of Carolina's lackluster follow-up to Cam Newton's rookie year was an offensive strategy that was heavily dependent on the pass. The Panthers had few threats at receiver, aside from Steve Smith, but were loaded at running back. Otherwise they leaned on Newton to carry the ball. Newton had a couple of admirable performances, such as wins at Washington and New Orleans. It's very difficult to prescribe a solution for this team without demanding a huge free agent buy or dedicating more to the run game and their three RBs. It is a shame, because in their case when the offense is stuck in neutral the defense usually gives up points, as happened in their game against the Giants.
- Buffalo Bills: The signing of Mario Williams was supposed to put some teeth on this team's defense, while the offense already had its choice playmakers, Ryan Fitzpatrick, CJ Spiller, and Stevie Johnson. On the field Williams presence was in reality irrelevant, as Buffalo was completely obliterated at home by New England and in Toronto by the Seahawks, giving up fifty points or more in both of those games. Chan Gailey had been brought in with the purpose of kickstarting Buffalo's offense after the firing of coach Dick Jauron, a defensive specialist. In 2011 the Bills were predicted to improve on Gailey's initial 4-12 season, but both then and in 2012 Fitzpatrick and the offense didn't justify his six year $59 million contract extension.
- Philadelphia Eagles: Even before a snap was played in 2012 it seemed that the Eagles were on the way to oblivion with the tragic and untimely death of Garrett, Andy Reid's oldest son, of a heroin overdose at training camp in Bethlehem, PA. The Eagles started out 2-0, before getting completely outplayed on the road in Phoenix. After another home victory against the Giants, the Eagles fell down the stairs and never got up. The main issues that hounded them were a leaky offensive line whose weaknesses allowed Michael Vick and LeSean McCoy to get injured, and the premature firing of defensive coordinator Juan Castillo that only exacerbated the defense's woes. In the course of the season Reid never was able to adjust to the trends that were hampering his team's results; Vick's running abilities weren't as good as before, and in any case he was taking too many hits. The vaunted secondary of Nnamdi Asomugha, Kurt Coleman, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie never was able to fluster opposing offenses like New Orleans and Carolina. Prior to their Week 10 match-up with Dallas, I and much of the media predicted that the coach whose team would lose that game would be out of a job after the season, if not before. It therefore comes as no surprise that Reid, the longest tenured skipper in the NFL, was sacked on Dec. 30 by Jeffrey Lurie, whereas Jason Garrett survived JJ's most recent purge.
A Word About Brothers
One final note about a story I wanted to comment on a few weeks ago. The word cornball is defined by Merriam-Webster's as an unsophisticated person, or somebody rather corny. The connotation that would come out of calling someone a cornball is that he is maybe a naive and unworldly person.
Yet one journalist took this weak insult and managed to make out of it one of the most idiotic and rambling statements in the history of sports. Rob Parker's assertion that Robert Griffin III, through his behaviour, politics, and relationship, was not black enough had everyone briefly scratching their heads. Most of the commentators recognized it for the nonsense it was. But even then some of them claimed it was ESPN's responsibility, because they deliberately seek controversial guests and manufacture issues that are until then nonexistent.
I think that Parker was liable for what he said, but nevertheless it baffles the mind how the whole issue was brought up. This was following the deaths of Kansas City's Jovan Belcher and Cowboys linebacker Jerry Brown, and at a time when a lot of off-the-field problems are occurring in the NFL not related to race. It seems bizarre that Parker would choose to attack RG3 as some sort of racial waffler because he may be a Republican, is married to a white woman, and otherwise doesn't behave up to his expectations. Ironically, Parker previously made a huge stink when he falsely reported that Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins (now Griffins backup) had been involved in a fight with the school's hockey team, when in reality he had been in church. Parker quit the Detroit News in 2008 after he asked Lions coach Rod Marinelli whether his daughter should have married a better defensive coordinator than Jon Barry, who was their DC at the time. If he had wanted a racial controversy, Parker should have chosen something like the image below where Griffin's head is superimposed onto the already inflammatory Redskins Indian head.
Parker (and ESPN) chose to attack a member of his race as a traitor rather than bring up a topic that truly related to how minorities are portrayed in sports. Slowly Indian mascots are being replaced at the local level among colleges and high schools, and we can only expect it to pop up again in the pros. But on the national level in sports racial issues related to blacks, no matter how trivial, get instant attention. Just look at the accusation from a couple months ago by local "community leaders" that the Minnesota T-Wolves are too white. The Redskins continue to have a massive African American fan base, even though their owner is trying to wangle DC into a stadium deal at the expense of the city's impoverished constituents.
So thanks to Rob Parker for putting the real problems of society up front. I'm sure he really cares about Griffin now that his knee is injured, and that with his Columbia University masters degree can write a nice cornball letter of apology for a person who makes the news instead of spins it.