Cancel the Super Bowl. No one deserves to win it.
This was one of those weeks when it is easy to fall into that angry-barstool, midnight-talk show trap of thinking every team in the NFL is terrible. You know the logic: compare all 32 teams to memories of the 1989 49ers, find all 32 teams lacking, dismiss all 32 teams as frauds. Most weeks, such none of these guys could hold a candle to the 1985 Bears and therefore none are worthy rhetoric is easy to dismiss. This week, probably at the moment the Buccaneers took a 21-7 lead on the Seahawks, you may have found yourself spouting it.
It was easy to think that everybody stinks because the Broncos and 49ers, the two most likely Super Bowl participants, were on a bye.
It was easy to think that everybody stinks because the Chiefs and Seahawks, the two alternative channel Super Bowl selections, faced no-win situations against horrible opponents. If they accomplished anything short of 49-7 blowouts, both would be dogged by the questions they have faced for weeks, despite their gaudy records. Both the Chiefs and Seahawks came well short of 49-7 blowouts.
It was easy to think every team stinks because the Bengals, supposedly a next-generation contender, kicked the week off with a sloppy Thursday loss, and because the Saints, a previous-generation contender making a supposed comeback, spent Sunday afternoon getting shoved around the field like sacks of weed 'n' feed by the Jets.
It was easy to think that every team stinks because no one has any faith in the Cowboys, who can only beat bad opponents; the Panthers, who can only beat bad opponents; the Titans, who can only beat bad opponents, the Colts, who can only convincingly beat great opponents; or the Jets, who can only beat every other opponent.
It's easy to think every team stinks because the Super Bowl champion Ravens could not beat Jason Campbell's Browns and because the previous-champion Giants managed to lose a game in the standings during their bye week.
And so on. Eventually, two teams are going to reach the Super Bowl. And when it happens, we will all pretend we knew they were special all along. For now, let's wallow in the pessimism. Here's a rundown of our confidence levels in the top contenders that took the field on Sunday. Some of these teams are better than we think they are. A few of them almost have to be.
Chiefs: A 1980s comedian, one of those off-brand Seinfeld clones, used to have a gag about learning to catch a bullet in your teeth. How, exactly, do you learn to perform such a feat? Does someone toss a few bullets at you underhand, then train a gun at your face and say "this next one is coming in a little bit faster?"
The Chiefs must learn to catch the bullet in their teeth after their bye. The Case Keenum, Jason Campbell, Jeff Tuel Laff-A-Lympics are over. Peyton Manning faces the Chiefs twice in three weeks, with Philip Rivers in between and Robert Griffin batting clean-up. That's four straight REAL quarterbacks for a team whose biggest challenge since September has been Terrelle Pryor behind a makeshift offensive line.
There is no reason to mince words. If the Chiefs had played a Bills team with a real starting quarterback, they would have lost by two touchdowns. Their passing game was nonexistent. Their run defense was weak, despite the fact that they could load defenders in the box. The Chiefs' longest play from scrimmage all day was a 20-yard pass; the second longest plays were a pair of 12-yarders. The Bills outgained the Chiefs 217-115 in the first half and were about to take complete control of the game when Tuel misread the goal-line coverage and threw a pick-6 to cornerback Sean Smith. Even after that de-facto 14-point swing, the Chiefs needed another fluky Bills unforced error -- a barely-touched fumble by T.J. Graham -- to take the lead in what gurgled and grunted into a 23-13 win.
A month ago, the Chiefs were a very good team with an impressive defense, a ball control offense, and some surprising wins. They are now a pretty good team with an untested defense, a pea-shooter offense, and a string of fluky wins that would embarrass the 2011 Broncos.
No one is taking the Chiefs turnaround or promising new direction away from them. The Chiefs are just a 6-3 team in 9-0 clothing. Chiefs fans like to argue that their team should be taken seriously as Super Bowl contenders, but deep down, they know exactly what they are watching. These Chiefs are carbon copies of the Marty Schottenheimer Chiefs of 1995-1997. Alex Smith might as well change his name to Elvis Grbac. Like any carbon copy that has been lying in a file cabinet for 16 years, this one is not quite as good as the originals.
Super Bowl Confidence: Low. Lower than for any 9-0 team in history.
Seahawks: One of these weeks, some team that isn't counting the hours until the joint forces of OSHA, FEMA, and Interpol drag their coach kicking and screaming out of his office is going to build a 24-7 lead against the Seahawks. When that happens, all the Skittles in the world won't hide their offensive line woes or passing-game predictability. The Seahawks have spent the last six days nurturing doubts while winning games; they would be 0-2 this calendar week against organized, motivated opponents.
Luckily, they faced MechaQuitzilla on Sunday. After one productive third quarter drive, the Buccaneers executed just 21 plays and managed only three first downs while the Seahawks executed 40 plays and four scoring drives, plus a fifth drive that ended in a turnover at the Buccaneers three-yard line. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when Greg Schiano went to work at halftime! Did he use the halftime speech to announce his candidacy for president in 2014? Did he "make adjustments" to Darrelle Revis' coverage technique? (Doug Baldwin was suddenly open a lot in the second half). Did players just look at Schiano, remember they hated him, and start shuffling through their motions? Perish the thought. But the Buccaneers played a miniature version of Schiano's career in one game: tough and creative at the start, increasingly embarrassing as it went on. And the Seahawks needed the Buccaneers at their worst to win in overtime.
Super Bowl Confidence: Low. That blowout of the 49ers feels like it happened in 2009.
Saints: Ugh. "Chris Ivory's Revenge Game" sounds like a parody of a storyline, not an actual storyline. But there was Ivory, turning routine off-tackle runs into 52, 30, and 27-yard runs against a defense that was allegedly championship-caliber.
While Rob Ryan outsmarted himself, Rex Ryan kept things simple against Sean Payton. The Jets physically dominated the Saints offensive line. When Rex mixed in the occasional blitz, Drew Brees and the offensive line reacted like they had never seen anything like it before. The Saints could not run at all, Brees threw many passes under duress, and Garrett Hartley tossed in a missed 43-yard field goal just to remind everyone that he is still a potential problem.
It's one thing to lose at the last second to the Patriots. It's another thing to lose some wild-and-wooly game to the Jets. But it's a totally different thing to just get driven off both sides of the ball by the Jets. That last thing does not bode well for a would-be contender.
Super Bowl Confidence: Low. The Saints' big win in the last three weeks is against the Bills, whose quarterback-of-the-week was playing through injuries.
Patriots: Here they are again, drafting behind the leaders like a veteran race-car driver on lap 120 out of 200. The Patriots opened the throttle against the Steelers, and the NFL heard it: 610 yards of offense in a 55-31 win. BRING ON PEYTON MANNING THAT WE MAY END THIS AFC CHARADE.
Manning arrives in three weeks. Until then, the Patriots can keep themselves grounded by remembering that the game was tied 24-24 midway through the third quarter. They can keep in mind that this year's Steelers are terrible. The Patriots also got a boost from the usual bonkers Steeler running back usage. Jonathan Dwyer gained 53 yards on two touches. On most teams, that would merit a third handoff or screen pass, but most teams are not coached by Todd Haley, whose numerologist told him that 2 and 53 were Dwyer's lucky numbers. At any rate, the Patriots allowed 108 yards to the run-challenged Steelers, but they reintroduced their run defense strategy from 2007: score 55 points.
Super Bowl Confidence: Medium High. To extend the racing analogy, the Patriots gained a lap while the Broncos and 49ers were in the pit lane. And everyone noticed.
Panthers: The Bengals of the NFC. Cam Newton has been outstanding for a month; Sunday's numbers weren't great thanks to some amazing defensive plays, but he is making tough throws and smart reads while barreling over defenders on runs. But the level of competition has been shaky. The Panthers are very good but still capable of getting in their own way. Super Bowl Confidence: Maybe in 2014.
Colts: Due to Daylight Savings Time ending, we are too tired to comprehend what happened on Sunday night. The only clear takeaway is that Trent Richardson was a waste of a draft pick, so all of Jim Irsay's electronics should be shut down after 9 p.m. every night. Super Bowl Confidence: Well, the Colts play better against good teams, so who knows?
The NFC East: The Giants took the week off and the other three teams won. Isn't that cute? More about these guys in the next segment. Super Bowl Confidence: No one has any confidence in an NFC East team winning the NFC East.
Titans and Jets: Don't tell anyone, but they are the exact same team. When they faced each other, a stunt double filled in for the Jets. Super Bowl Confidence: Let's be serious, please.
As a celebration of the outstanding and head-scratching strategic decisions in Sunday's early games, Mandatory Monday proudly presents Good Call, Bad Call, a kind of Goofus and Gallant with headsets. Just remember: any call that works is a "good call," and any call that fails is a bad one, even if the calls are exactly the same! That's the magic of a Monday morning column, folks.
Good Call: Cam Newton Rollout Pass on 4th-and-short.
Ron Rivera has not just found religion about going for it on fourth down. He has found ALL religions. On 4th-and-short, he sits in a tea house under a Bodhi tree facing Mecca while reading the Torah with rosary beads. The man who could not punt fast enough is suddenly a fourth-down gambling missionary. Soon he will be going door-to-door with pamphlets.
The rollout pass is a high-risk gamble on 4th-and-short, but it also brings big play potential, and Cam Newton found tight end Greg Olsen wide open for an 18-yard touchdown. Now that the Panthers have run a few sneaks and power running plays on fourth down, they have set themselves (and opponents) up for boot passes and other wrinkles. The more coaches go for it, the more they start to like it, and the more their playbooks open up … though Rivera may be starting to have too much fun.
Bad Call: Josh Hill end-around on 4th-and-short.
There comes a time in every offensive guru's life when he falls too deeply in love with his contraptions and starts doing crazy stuff. Sean Payton reached that point against the Jets. Trailing by nine points at the Jets 36-yard line early in the fourth quarter, Payton called a 4th-and-1 end-around to a rookie tight end who has touched the ball twice all season. The Saints offensive line was getting destroyed by the Jets front all afternoon, so the end-around to an inexperienced player with modest ball skills was a recipe for an eight-yard loss. Guess what happened?
Good Call: Looking for Dez Bryant in the final two minutes.
Tony Romo found the best healthy player on the Cowboys roster on a short slant from the Cowboys 45-yard line while trailing by three points with 1:35 to play, and Dez Bryant rumbled 34 yards to set up a game-winning touchdown that averted another Cowboys late-game disaster.
Bad Call: Ignoring Dez Bryant for 59 minutes.
Bryant caught just five of the ten passes thrown to him for 30 yards before that big reception, which explains why the Cowboys were in disaster-prevention mode.
Bryant did drop one potential big-yardage catch and gave a weak effort on another pass thrown behind him. He also killed a drive by drawing offensive pass interference, then unsportsmanlike conduct for griping about the call. You might imagine that Bryant's complaint was a cuss-filled rant, but the same folks who provided unedited audio of his sideline tirade against the Lions provided this word-for-word transcript of what he said on Sunday:
Golly, Mister Referee, but I disagree with that offensive pass interference infraction you called. If anything, I assert that Josh Robinson made inappropriate contact with my personage. I strenuously object, but ultimately I shall abide by your judgment.
Sounds like the refs overreacted. Audio of Bryant's remarks will be available as soon as Morgan Freeman finishes dubbing it. In the meantime, Bryant remains Bryant's second-worst enemy, behind his head coach.
Good Call: A fourth-down gamble when Adrian Peterson is your running back.
The Cowboys would not have been in their "we have no other choice, let's actually use our best player" predicament if the Vikings had not made great use of their best player in the fourth quarter. Leslie Frazier could have kicked a field goal on 4th-and-1 from the 11-yard line to tie the game. But Ron Rivera had just mailed him some literature, so Frazier decided to give Adrian Peterson a chance to give the Vikings a lead. Peterson carried half the NFL on his back for an 11-yard touchdown. Blair Walsh then missed the extra point, but it did not matter, and no one noticed because we were gaping at Peterson's run.
Bad Call: A fourth-down gamble when Jeff Tuel is your quarterback.
Tuel, like every quarterback Doug Marrone gets from the temp agency, came ready to play against the Chiefs defense. He also came ready to overthrow all receivers slower than Marquise Goodwin (all other receivers in the NFL, in other words) and throw ugly 99.99 yard Pick-6 interceptions.
Mistakes aside, Tuel kept doing enough to keep the game close, but Marrone got a little crazy when he let Tuel throw a deep pass to T.J. Graham on 4th-and-2 from the Chiefs 36-yard line during a third quarter tie. At that point in the game, the Chiefs were averaging 3.6 yards per pass attempt, and their entire offense was in danger of collapsing into a quantum singularity, so punting may have been prudent. Also, both C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson were healthy and playing well, so rushing was an option. It is probably a good thing that Marrone did not have a rookie tight end available for an end-around.
Good Call: Giving Chris Johnson the ball around the opponent's 20-yard line.
CJ2K takes more than his share of abuse around here for being only good at one thing: the big play touchdown. Of course, if you are only going to be good for one thing, the big-play touchdown is a good choice.
The incomparable Chase Stuart studied the lengths of all the rushing touchdowns in NFL history and discovered that the average Johnson touchdown covers 27.2 yards. That's the longest average rushing touchdown in NFL history. Robert Smith, another big-play-or-bust guy, is second. Smith holds the record for longest median touchdown at 19 yards, with Johnson second at 16 yards. The median, mathematics fans, is less affected by extreme values like 99-yard touchdowns. No matter how you slice it, Johnson's big-play skill is a real skill, albeit one we need to see a little more of.
Johnson scored 19 and 14-yard touchdowns, so his average (arithmetic mean) went down, while his median remained the same. More importantly, the Titans beat the Rams 28-21, but don't stop me when I get on a roll about talkin' central tendency.
Also a Good Call: Giving someone besides Chris Johnson the ball inside the 10-yard line.
Johnson remains useless in tight quarters, so Shonn Greene gets most of the goal line carries. Greene carried nine times for 38 yards and a touchdown. Jake Locker also called his own number for a touchdown.
Locker could always fly, but last year he could only hit the broad side of a barn once out of every four throws. He has improved to twice out of every four throws. If he can take it up to two out of three, he can lead the Titans to the Super Bowl.
Good Call: The fullback plunge at the goal line.
The fullback plunge is the greatest play in all of football. It should be run 25 times per game. Sure, final scores would be 13-10, and we would all start wearing bell-bottoms, but those big guys are really hard to stop when they take a quick handoff between the center and guard from the I-formation.
Darrel Young actually earned five carries in the Redskins' 30-24 overtime win against the Chargers, but the game-winning plunge is the only one that matters. When the defense is worried about Robert Griffin and Alfred Morris, why not hammer the middle of the line with a 250-pound blocker?
Bad Call: The Danny Woodhead plunge at the goal line.
Better a 250-pound blocker than a 200-pound paper airplane of an all-purpose back. Mike McCoy has a Danny Woodhead fixation at the goal line. Woodhead failed on a goal-line fourth-down plunge earlier in the year, and he took a handoff right up the gut just after his near pylon-brushing touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Redskins. Woodhead was splattered, as you might expect of a great athlete with the physique of a delivery boy.
Yes, Ryan Mathews is scary at the goal line for different reasons, primarily the 99.99-yard fumble return the other way. But McCoy must stop throwing Woodhead under the steam roller. Maybe Ron Rivera can offer him some pointers.
Most NFL problems are different from our everyday problems. Most of us cannot relate to suffering a half-dozen concussions and a few hundred other blows to the head in a few years. We grasp intellectually that it's a problem -- though our grasp came up too short until a few years ago -- but most of us are incapable of fathoming the sheer magnitude of such a problem.
Most of us cannot relate to the stresses, temptations, and unanticipated consequences of being handed wealth and fame in our early 20's, only to see both suddenly disappear within a few years. Plenty of my middle-aged peers have outlined exactly what they would do with a $12 million contract. All of them, when they were 22 years old, were known to take the last 20 bucks in their bank accounts straight from the ATM to the lap dancer. None of us know what it like to be 50 times richer than anyone we know, to receive death threats for bad fantasy football weeks, to discover at age 28 that it's all gone except the mortgage.
The scale of NFL problems, compared to everyday problems for the rest of us, creates an empathy gap. It is hard to relate, and so it is hard to feel. But sometimes, NFL people have problems that any everyday Joe can relate to.
Gary Kubiak collapsed on the field Sunday night. John Fox collapsed on the golf course on Saturday. Suddenly, the NFL is facing a crisis all of us can comprehend: middle-aged professionals working themselves nearly to death.
Kubiak is a fit-looking 52-year old. Fox is slightly less fit-looking (though he could still kick my ass) at 58. Both live the mega-stress life of an NFL coach: 20-hour work days, seven-day work weeks in-season, meetings at 5 a.m. and/or 10 p.m., insane travel schedules, a cot in the office. How much of the work is really necessary has been questioned; whatever decisions are being made on three-hour's sleep might be better off not made at all. Yet coaches keep up the grind, partly because it is expected of them, partly because they expect it of themselves. The stress is its own feedback loop, one that inevitably will end in some heart attacks.
As stressful as the life of an NFL coach is, it is not that much different from the lives of hundreds of thousands of lawyers, executives, medical professionals and everyday workers around the country. The 40-hour week died the day the first cell phone rang. Everyone takes work home. Expectations and stakes are high everywhere. Lights are on well into the night, in office buildings all over America. When livelihoods are at stake, the third-quarter sales totals or a million-dollar lawsuit might as well be the Super Bowl. Fox and Kubiak have many kindred spirits who are working themselves into the same situation those two coaches faced this weekend.
Wade Phillips, Kubiak's chief lieutenant and a second-generation veteran of the coaching grind, called Kubiak's hospitalization "precautionary" on Sunday night. Texans GM Rick Smith provided the post-game good news that Kubiak was stable, making a terrifying moment sound like a routine fainting spell. Fox downplayed the severity of his cardiac incident as a dizzy moment on the greens; he will miss a month, due to heart surgery, and be back at work before the playoffs. That's another thing we can all relate to: shrugging off the incident, leaping back to work as soon as possible, probably with some folksy medical wisdom about lunchtime salads and an extra hour of sleep tacked onto our routines. The same impulse that makes a person work his or her way into illness makes that person want to return to work quickly after illness. Worst of all, trying to stop them doesn't help much.
There is not much we can do for Fox, Kubiak or NFL coaches. But there are things we can do for ourselves and each other. We can control our own stress and alleviate the stresses of our loved ones, employees and employers. We can put a little less pressure on ourselves and each other. We can switch our own cellphones off and stop calling others at crazy hours. Bosses can give a little more time off; workers can actually take what's being offered. We can rake the neighbor's leaves. Heck, we can let the leaves lie, unless we need some brisk exercise. And we can get the extra hour of sleep and eat lunchtime salad. Maybe if the rest of America stops working 16-hour days, NFL coaches won't feel compelled to outdo us with 20-hour days.
On that note, it's after midnight. I am going to bed.
But There Is More …
Nick Foles threw seven touchdown passes in the Eagles' 49-20 win over the Raiders. It was a validation of Chip Kelly's tactics, which looked untenable during a two-week slump behind a third-string quarterback. It was also a reminder that other teams could use danger and explosiveness that Kelly's options and no-huddle tactics provide. Here are five teams that should try to do things Kelly-style.
The Redskins won on Sunday, and Alfred Morris rushed 25 times for 121 yards. Did you know that the Redskins are 10-1 in the last two years when Morris carries the ball 20 or more times? That means the Redskins should force feed Morris the ball, right?
Wrong. Watch it, Mister: make mistakes like that, and you will wind up in Stat Court.