It’s down to the last meaningful football game of the season now. (No, the Pro Bowl does not count, and never has.) Unfortunately, the game only has real meaning for the Super Bowl participants, the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers. Fans of the Dallas Cowboys had to content themselves with pulling for other teams to win playoff games. Or, more likely, for certain disliked franchises and/or players to lose.
But that doesn’t mean that there was nothing of interest in the games of January. Indeed, some things happened that could or should be taken to heart.
Andy Reid showed it can be done
For those who missed it, KC’s Reid has now led two different franchises to the big game. His first time with our beloved NFC East rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles, was all the way back in 2004, fifteen seasons ago. Only six other head coaches have done that, and none since John Fox took the Denver Broncos after the 2013 season, where they were blown out by the Seattle Seahawks.
Why is this significant for the Cowboys? Because one of the arguments against bringing a “retread” like Mike McCarthy in as the new head coach is how rare it is for those types to succeed. Now, Reid has reminded us that it is hardly unprecedented, and while seven total to do it may seem like a small number, it is also a simple testament to how hard it is to get to the pinnacle at all.
Further, Reid refutes another common assertion, that if a head coach hasn’t made the ultimate game in his first five seasons with a team, he isn’t going to. This was his seventh year with the Chiefs. Of course, he was hardly coming up dry before that, making the playoffs all but his second year in Kansas City and having made the AFC championship in 2018. We are all hoping for an immediate payoff with McCarthy, but Reid shows that a little patience, coupled with some steady improvement, can be worthwhile.
Flipping the script
Everyone knows it is a passing league. The only reliable route to the Super Bowl is to ride a stud quarterback’s arm.
Then this happened in the past three weeks.
Ryan Tannehill of the Tennessee Titans, 8 of 15 for 71 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, and a 20-13 wildcard win over the New England Patriots.
Tannehill in the divisional round, 7 of 14 for 88 yards, 2 TDs, 28-12 over the Baltimore Ravens.
Jimmy Garoppolo of the 49ers in the NFC championship, 6 of 8 for 77 yards, and a 37-20 win over the Green Bay Packers.
Of course, that means that the offense had to come from somewhere. Which means the running game. For the Titans, Derrick Henry had 182 yards and a TD to help eke out the win over the Patriots and 195 yards against the Ravens, while Raheem Mostert contributed a stunning 220 yards and four touchdowns for the Niners to send the Packers packing.
Those games were real throwbacks. To see just one performance like that in the playoffs would have been remarkable. To have three like that in one postseason is simply amazing.
So does that mean passing is about to become passe in the league? Of course not. What is does mean is that Tennessee’s Mike Vrabel and San Fran’s Kyle Shanahan went with what worked. It was situational football at its best. It was not establishing the run, it was exploiting it. Given that neither Tannehill nor Garoppolo were even in the top half of the league in yards per game, it was also being very aware of what their teams did and did not do well.
That is something that McCarthy has been talking about. He also has something that neither Vrabel or Shanahan did: A top five quarterback in Dak Prescott and a top five runner in Ezekiel Elliott. If McCarthy is serious about using his talent properly, and Kellen Moore is up to the task calling plays, the Cowboys may have the most potent one-two punch in the NFL.
So now we know that running backs matter - except when they don’t
It should be no surprise that Henry shouldered the load in getting his team to the AFC championship. He was the league’s leading rusher, averaging over 100 yards per game. It made all the sense in the world to keep feeding him the ball until the other team stopped him, which finally happened against the Chiefs.
But where in the world did Mostert’s incredible game come from? Prior to 2019, he had four year’s of experience in the league - and minimal carries as he bounced around from team to team. With the 49ers, he only had 297 total yards prior to last year, and hardly tore up the field in 2019, only accumulating 772 during the regular season.
The answer to that question may be that running backs are really interchangeable, and big games are more a result of blocking, scheme, and play-calling than pure talent. An inability to stop the run, as the Packers demonstrated, is also a big factor.
That does not mean that Elliott is a detriment for the Cowboys, at all. He certainly can be very effective. What is does mean is that he is likely overpaid. That is water under the bridge, and hopefully the cap space he is eating up going forward will not hamper the team.
Passing the torch
This may have been the year when the old guard of top quarterbacks really started to fade. Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers all were bounced from the playoffs. Ben Roethlisberger was hurt and went on IR early in the season, Eli Manning lost his starting job, Andrew Luck retired before the season even started, and Philip Rivers is now deciding whether to call it quits or find a new team.
Garoppolo is only in his sixth year, and the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes is in just his third season. Prescott of course is right between them, with his fourth campaign under his belt and a new contract looming. He had an impressive year statistically in 2019 to build on. McCarthy, before things hit the rocks with Rodgers, showed that he can get a lot out of talented quarterbacks. Prescott is poised to become part of the new quarterback elite.
It is the time of optimism in Dallas, of course, with a greatly revamped coaching staff and a returning (or soon to be re-signed) core of talent for next season. McCarthy made a great deal of his year of learning. Now he needs to continue learning from these developments in the playoffs. If he does, this could be a fun season coming up.