$.01--It’s been a few weeks since the COVID-19 impact on the NFL has been the lead story, but the pandemic virulently attacked the league in Week 17. In the final weekend, with such high stakes in so many games, a plethora of key players around the league are sitting out due to COVID-19.
Among the players placed on the reserve list this week with either positive tests or close contact status: Saints RB Alvin Kamara, Browns CB Denzel Ward and TE Harrison Bryant, Dolphins QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, Steelers CB Joe Haden and TE Eric Ebron, Cardinals WR Christian Kirk. The entire Saints RB corps was ruled out. The Browns were without four defensive starters a week after they played a game minus their top four wideouts. The Lions played in Week 16 without a coaching staff. There will be big-name players missing from postseason games next weekend because the NFL demanded the schedule get followed no matter what. That’s not a success, Mr. Commissioner.
The NFL will triumphantly trumpet that it played a full 256-game schedule without a single cancellation. And while that fact is true, it obscures the ridiculous lengths to which the league itself willfully ignored outbreaks and put player safety and perhaps even lives at risk in its hellbent effort to make sure the show goes on. If you ever doubted that the NFL didn’t care about its players--and that the NFLPA is complicit in facilitating it--this week proved it beyond any doubt.
$.02--For the first time since 2002, the Cleveland Browns are in the postseason. The Browns held on for dear life and survived at home in a 24-22 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers to clinch the first playoff berth for the franchise since LeBron James was in high school in Akron.
It was not a game film either team will want to relive. The Browns were without six starters on defense due to injuries and COVID, while the Steelers rested their best players and had COVID issues of their own. It showed in the game play. Other than a fantastic Nick Chubb run on the first drive and a brilliant TD reception by Chase Claypool late, the offenses struggled. Mason Rudolph sailed a potential game-tying 2-point conversion out of the back of the end zone and the Browns celebration began.
It’s a tremendous accomplishment for rookie head coach Kevin Stefanski. Going 11-5 in a division that put three teams in the postseason is not easy. Doing it with several top players (Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward, Nick Chubb, Jedrick Wills, Wyatt Teller, Ronnie Harrison, Odell Beckham Jr.) missing multiple weeks--often at the same time--is a major testament to Stefanski’s coaching acumen. They’re an exciting young team that arrived a little ahead of schedule, something that is a very foreign concept for Cleveland football fans.
Unless the team performs a lot better next weekend, the playoff stay isn’t going to last long. Barely eking past Alex Highsmith and Chris Wormley won’t come close to beating the Steelers with T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward on the field on defense, not to mention Ben Roethlisberger over the Mason Rudolph/Josh Dobbs monstrosity at QB. I do expect the Browns to be better in the Wild Card round, but more importantly, I expect them to be making the postseason regularly under Stefanski. This might be the weakest team he fields in the next few seasons and they won 11 games. I love it for the long-suffering fans in my hometown.
$.03--The Chicago Bears roller coaster season ended happily, even with a Week 17 loss to the Green Bay Packers. Chicago snuck into the NFC’s final Wild Card spot thanks to Arizona’s wheels falling off down the stretch.
The Bears were once 5-1 and looking capable, winning several close games against what was seen at the time as quality opponents. Their flight up the hill hit the apogee and then raced at breakneck speed down a steep angle, losing six games in a row from before Halloween until into December. The negative g-forces incited vomitous reactions from Bears fans, eliciting calls for coach Matt Nagy to lay down on the track in front of the speeding train and maybe drag GM Ryan Pace with him.
Then the runaway train got back on track and cruised up. Chicago won three in a row to climb back into playoff contention in the oddly muddled bottom of the NFC playoff rankings. They needed only a win or a Cardinals loss to the Rams on Sunday to get the final spot. The Bears were no match whatsoever for the Packers, but Arizona couldn’t hold off the Rams in the heretofore unknown backup QB battle that decided a playoff spot.
Their reward for riding the coaster all the way until it arrived back in the station is a complete and final stop in New Orleans next Sunday. But making it as an 8-8 team with a six-game losing streak in the middle of the season is proof that it’s worth riding all the way to the end.
On the Cardinals, who plummeted down the hill from 6-3 to 8-8 and missing the playoffs: they need to have a serious conversation about the coaching staff and the decisions made by Kliff Kingsbury. I won’t say he needs to be fired, but this team underachieved even in the face of injuries. That’s something Kingsbury’s teams seem to do routinely and it was not coincidental in 2020. Ownership had better have a very short leash in 2021.
$.04--The AFC playoffs are set, and it might surprise some to find the Miami Dolphins on the outside looking in. Two short weeks ago, Miami was sitting pretty; NBC’s oddly popular projection segment with Steve Kornacki had them with over a 90% chance to make it. Unfortunately for Miami, everything that could go wrong for them did, and it started internally.
Facing a win-and-in situation in Week 17, Miami was forced to start rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa after Ryan Fitzpatrick tested positive for COVID-19. Tua had played generally well enough to let the Miami defense win games, and that was fine. Not against Buffalo.
The Bills decided they really wanted the No. 2 seed and went out and seized it with a 56-26 curb-stomping of the Dolphins. Tua’s meek, scared performance was a primary culprit. Ignore the final box score that shows him throwing for 361 yards. When the game was still competitive, this was Tua:
Oh Tua... pic.twitter.com/hVwcOCeO1x— Jeff Risdon (@JeffRisdon) January 3, 2021
He seemed physically incapable of even trying to read routes down the field, let alone thrown them. Buffalo’s defense is good and brought the heat, but good QBs fight fire with fire. Tua’s dim flame stick was no match for the military-grade flamethrower Buffalo brought.
Tua’s rookie season ends on a sour note, but it’s a mistake to write him off too early. I think the way Miami’s coaching staff handled the No. 5 overall pick was terrible, constantly yanking him for Fitzpatrick and asking him to do too little. There are definite concerns to address, including one he can’t fix--his height, or lack thereof. If I’m the Dolphins, I take the training wheels off in 2021 and either let Fitzpatrick leave or (better) bring him back as a player/coach whose sole role is to mentor Tua while serving as the emergency-only No. 3 QB. Another year of the shuffling, or the plainly obvious conclusion that the 38-year-old journeyman is a much better player right now, doesn’t help anyone involved.
$.05--While the 10-6 Dolphins missed out on the postseason, the NFC East champs qualified to host a game next weekend with a losing record. Washington beat Philadelphia on Sunday night in the season’s final game, with some embarrassing assistance from the Eagles themselves.
The Football Team walked away with a 7-9 record, good enough to win the division. It took the Eagles not even hiding their desire and effort to try and lose the game to make it happen. When not one but two Eagles jumped offsides on a critical late 4th down, the fix was on full display. This was point-shaving and intentionally throwing a game so badly even Tim Donaghy was embarrassed by it, and everyone in the NFL watched the Eagles do it unapologetically. Doug Pederson and the Eagles shamelessly tried to lose, handing Washington the win even though the Football Team did their worst to almost squander it anyway.
No one should be more furious about what the Eagles did than Giants fans. And they have every right to question the integrity of the game.
The Giants beat Dallas to improve to 6-10 and eliminate the Cowboys earlier in the afternoon. New York got the ball rolling just a little too late in the season, going 5-3 in the second half of the schedule. How the Giants did it is sustainable into next season, too; Giants fans should feel encouraged by the uptick at the end and the way the defense came together under coordinator Patrick Graham. His unit survived the death by papercut offense of Andy Dalton. Dallas racked up 26 first downs on just 307 yards, and they settled for four Greg Zuerlein field goals when they really needed one more touchdown.
The Cowboys are an enigma entering the offseason. Dak Prescott is a free agent and coming off a major, perhaps career-altering injury. Dalton played well enough in relief to merit coming back, but another season of Dalton doesn’t seem like something Jerry Jones would be happy with They need at least five new starters right away on defense, and the once-vaunted offensive line is no longer a reliable asset either.
$.06--The calendar turn to 2021 did not go well for Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney. His Tigers got declawed in spectacular fashion on Friday night by an Ohio State team Swinney openly dissed.
Many, most notably Swinney himself, went into the game thinking it wouldn’t be much of a contest. Well, it wasn’t--but not in the way Swinney or so many experts expected. Ohio State flat-out dominated Clemson. The Tigers had no answers for Ohio State’s speed, power or precision on offense. Everything that was supposed to be true of Clemson greatness instead applied to Ohio State. The Buckeyes were better athletically and schematically, and they executed sharper too despite playing fewer games, too.
Swinney, as he is wont to do, made a complete ass of himself before the game, ranking the Buckeyes 11th in his ballot and disparaging Ryan Day’s team. After the game, it was truly delicious to watch Swinney eat his words and praise the Buckeyes for the 49-28 blowout win that really wasn’t that close.
The quarterback play wasn’t close either, and it didn’t favor Clemson. There will be some serious overreaction to the outcome of the game for Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields. Lawrence did not have a great night, while Fields put on a show. One game does not change the entire body of work for both QBs, who should be the top two draft picks in April. Great players, and I still believe Lawrence is great, will have games where they just don’t have their best. Fields was at his best, something he’s shown he can do but not consistently enough to overtake Lawrence as a prospect or shake the doubters. That’s okay.
As for the championship, gimme Alabama by 10 in what should be an entertaining game.
$.07--Saturday proved to be an interesting day on the college football coaching carousel. Texas opted to end the Tom Herman experience, while in the evening, reports out of Ann Arbor had Michigan and Jim Harbaugh about to agree on a contract extension through 2025. It’s quite the development at two schools whose impression of themselves as blue-bloods belies the last decade of results.
Herman sputtered to a 32-18 record in Austin, good but not nearly good enough for the prominent Longhorn fan base. Nor should it be. Herman went 1-4 against Oklahoma and failed to win a Big 12 title, posting a losing record against ranked foes. His personnel usage choices were not always popular with a booster base that might be the most powerful of any program, too. The fickle Texas fans seem as pleased now as when the Longhorns opened up the bank vault to lure Herman to Austin four years ago. Funny how that works…
Michigan fans are less enamored with their school’s decision to retain Harbaugh, whose star has fallen in almost as spectacular fashion as his Wolverines lose meaningful games. Harbaugh is 49-22 in six years at his alma mater. He’s finished above third in the Big Ten East exactly once, and he’s never beaten Ohio State. The Wolverines are also trending in the wrong direction; his best results came with the players brought to the school by reviled predecessor Brady Hoke. This year’s 2-4 record would have been considerably worse if not for the plug getting pulled due to more than half the program getting COVID late in the year.
Michigan is too good to bottom out but not nearly good enough to compete at the level their fan base believes they belong...just like Texas. For Jim Harbaugh, that’s good enough to earn a few more years. For Tom Herman, it means get out of town and don’t let the door hit you where the good Lord split you. It will be interesting to see how the contrasting decisions from the wanna-be big boys in college football work out for the Longhorns and Wolverines. Stay tuned...
--Adam Gase is done as the head coach of the New York Jets. No one is surprised by this, including Gase himself. It’s best summed up by my friend Mike Renner at Pro Football Focus:
It still blows my mind that the Jets saw Adam Gase mismanage a team IN THEIR OWN DIVISION and then said, “yep, that’s our guy” https://t.co/DEsORtvkoL— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) January 4, 2021
--If it seems like Brandin Cooks has played on way too many teams, consider this: On Sunday, Cooks became just the second player to record 1,000-yard receiving seasons with four different teams. And he did it in five years, starting in 2016 with the Saints through this season with the Texans. Brandon Marshall is the only other WR to ever do it.
--There are hints that Larry Fitzgerald is going to retire. If so, book a spot in Canton circa 2026 for the outstanding Cardinals wide receiver. And expect to see a lot of the mediagenic Fitzgerald, one of the most universally liked and respected guys who have laced them up this century.
--Marvin Jones isn’t a household name around the league, but the Lions wideout has quietly been one of the most productive receivers over the last few years. He’s a free agent and effectively said goodbye to Detroit this week. Jones will make an excellent No. 2 receiver for the next couple of years, and expect it to be with a West coast team for the California native. I’d love to see him join the Chargers. Jones is also one of the best human beings in the NFL and someone you’ll want your team to sign.
--Sunday was not a good one for the officiating crews. After completely botching two important calls in the Detroit-Minnesota game, enough that FOX officiating analyst Dean Blandino was openly chastising the crew, the next game featured the Packers having to blow a challenge on the opening kickoff because the crew blew the call. And the review also got it wrong. Bad, bad day for the officials.
--The Chargers quietly won their final four games to finish 7-9. The Raiders lost five of their final seven to finish 8-8, and one of the wins was a gift from the Jets that got New York’s defensive coordinator fired almost on the spot. There are calls everywhere for Anthony Lynn’s head as the Chargers coach, but there’s almost nothing said about Jon Gruden in Las Vegas. That’s not right.
--A slew of players declared for the draft at the end of the college season. Two of them caught my attention…
Tulsa LB Zaven Collins is a very good fit for where the NFL is going at the off-ball LB spot. He can run, he can flow, he can tackle and he can read plays quickly. Collins won the Nagurski Award as the best defensive player in the country (disclaimer: I am a voter and picked Collins). He’s not the fastest or most fluid, but he’s got enough of both of those attributes to stay on the field in all situations. He’s a top-40 overall prospect and could wind up in the first round.
LSU LB Jabril Cox also declared, leaving the Tigers after just one year. The transfer from North Dakota State was a bright spot on an otherwise disappointing LSU team. He’s someone I can see being better in the NFL than he was in college, and Cox was pretty impressive at both NDSU and LSU. He’s a cover backer with length and open-field tackling power. I wish he was a little more instinctive against the run, but Cox should be an NFL starter right away.
--I’m normally not a fan of boasting, or Lane Kiffin for that matter, but this is gold!
We did https://t.co/5nY0sVJ1aX— Lane Kiffin (@Lane_Kiffin) January 3, 2021
--This WR class looks loaded, and he might get overlooked as a result, but Ohio State’s Chris Olave can play for my NFL team anytime. He’s naturally elusive and changes speeds to get separation as well as anyone. Olave isn’t big, won’t time as well as some others and doesn’t have an imposing physique, but he’s a baller. He belongs in the top 50 overall picks though I can see him sliding well past that in the metric-obsessed draft boards.
--Congrats to Ball State for the first bowl win in program history. The Cardinals blew away San Jose State in the Arizona Bowl, racing out to a 27-0 lead before the Spartans realized the game was started. Great win for the MAC!
$.10--The end of the NFL season means many men are losing their jobs in the very immediate future. Some will have been fired by the time you read this on Monday morning.
I’ve always struggled with this aspect of football as someone who covers the league. Careers will be over for good men who did their best. These are coaches, yes, but they’re also husbands, sons, brothers, dads to people who love them, care for them and often depend upon them. And they’re being publicly paraded as a failure, paying for their football sins that sometimes are out of their own control.
I know I feed the beast myself when I call for coaches and GMs to get fired. But it’s important to temper the job performance from the human being. As an example, I screamed to high heaven for the Lions to fire Matt Patricia, one of the worst-performing head coaches in recent memory. But I know Patricia a little from covering the Lions. I know he’s a genuinely good guy, a proud family man who was sincere in engaging with fans. After getting off on the wrong foot with the media, he wound up being better to deal with than many others in his capacity, too.
So while I wanted Patricia gone from a Lions standpoint, I felt for Patricia the man. The same was true with Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati a couple of years ago. It was (past) time for his Bengals tenure to be done. Lewis is a great guy, someone you want to root for as a man. It stunk to have to write negative things about him, as it will when Chargers beat writers demand Anthony Lynn go away, or Jaguars fans want Doug Marrone gone so they can have Urban Meyer take over.
I try to remember to separate the job from the man. It’s not easy. I’m not perfect about it, unfortunately. But I’m going to try harder to remember. I hope fans will too. Criticize the job performance, that’s fair game. The coaches all know that going into the gig. Making it personal is not.