This weekend's wild-card games are going to look amazing, 25 years from now. We will be thrilled, in 2039, when we rediscover them in NFL Films retrospectives. We will be inspired.
Our children and grandchildren will giggle at our clothes and hairstyles. "Check out Andrew Luck's beard, daddy. You didn't have a beard like that, did you?" Why yes, son. You had no chance of picking up a girl at a Mumford & Sons concert unless you looked like a man who owned his own butter churn. It's how I met your mother. We went straight home from the show and binge-watched a Netflix marathon of "How I Met Your Mother."
The NFL Films producers need to assemble the football media for talking-head segments now, while our memories are fresh and we still have hair. The categories write themselves:
Greatest Comebacks: Colts.
Biggest Flops: Chiefs.
Coldest Games: Packers-49ers -- Ice Bowl II.
Brownest Playing Surfaces: Packers-49ers. That's not frozen tundra, folks. It's the surface of an asteroid.
Worst Trades Ever: Trent Richardson, your young life is calling.
Greatest Redemption Storylines Everyone Wants to Bury: The Saints, though making a documentary about something may not be the best way to bury it. Unless it's on the Smithsonian Channel. No one watches that.
Worst Weather Forecasts: As a two-fer, this episode of NFL Films crew could bundle Week 14's Snowstorm No One Saw Coming with the Chargers-Bengals game, which was supposed to be played in a wintry rain, then Freezer Bowl conditions, then a snowstorm, and then finally was played in mild conditions that changed to a wintry rain. Let the record show that my midweek weather forecast in Game Riffs proved to be 100 percent accurate. (I do write for an almanac, after all: Prepare for an early growing season for lima beans.) The Ohio snowstorm hit to the north, and the deep freeze arrives on Monday, so the forecast was not all that incorrect. But if Jeff Triplette gets no slack, neither does the National Weather Service.
Most Diagonally Raining Games: Chargers-Bengals again, once the precipitation started. The rain fell at a perfect 45 degree angle. You could explain isosceles right triangles with that rain.
Least Likely Playoff Runs: San Diego Chargers. With an introduction from angry Steelers fans who should learn to let go.
Andy Dalton: A Football Life (the depressing sequel to Rudy).
Strangest Fashion Choices: Colin Kaepernick. I will let regular reader and Twitter follower @Shlockwave handle this one: "Seeing Kap sleeveless but in a balaclava makes me wonder if he wears black socks with sandals and shorts."
Most Retro Football Experience: Wild Card weekend, 2013 season.
This was the most retro of Wild Card weekends, with callbacks to the Frank Reich Bills of the 1990s, the original Ice Bowl of the 1960s, and the Dazed and Confused 1970s. Nick Foles is responsible for much of the 1970s vibe. We learned on Saturday that Foles and Drew Brees attended the same Texas high school! (We should have known this already, as only about 16,000 of us cover this sport for a living 24/7, but never mind.) Brees led Westlake High School to a state title in 1996, while the now 24-year old Foles somehow led Westlake to the finals in 1974, with Fred O'Bannion blocking for him. There's something about Foles' hairstyle that turns every photo into a faded Polaroid, every Camry in the background into a 1970 Chevy Nova, and all shorts into nut huggers. You can look at a photo for Foles from 2007 and have an uncontrollable urge to yell "Sock it to me!"
Either inspired by Foles' Leif Garrett looks or worried about the icy weather, the Saints and Eagles each unveiled a 1970s gameplan. Kelly's offense, like Andrew Luck's Amish-mafia beard, is self-referentially retro-chic. We will look back upon it in 25 years the way we now chuckle at the run 'n' shoot. Ha-ha-ha, the chuck 'n' duck, what a foolish concept, we now say, as four wide receivers run mirrored smash-and-corner-route patterns on 2nd-and-2. Chip Kelly, what a mad scientist he was, we will giggle in 2039, as teams rush to the line without huddling and coaches hold up 3-D play-call holograms of "classic" pop-culture icons like Steven Universe, or Kevin Durant wearing his "Generalissimo of Western American Federation" uniform. (The future is a dark, scary place, and that's before you realize the most popular art-rock band on earth in 2039 will be called "Luck's Beard.")
The Bengals and Chargers also played a strangely old-school football game. Frightened by a weather report that changed every hour and proved to be totally inaccurate, both teams adopted gameplans that would have appeared old-fashioned to Dan Fouts and Kenny Anderson in 1981. The Chargers benefited from 196 pounding rushing yards; the Bengals were doomed the moment Andy Dalton tried to throw into a slight breeze in the Chargers' 27-10 upset.
Even the sideline images in Sunday's early game seemed to have been lifted from an episode of "WKRP in Cincinnati". Andy Dalton's sideline telephone to coordinator Jay Gruden was like the bakelite my great aunt Martha kept by her bedside when her rheumatism acted up. Forget Gruden, the only people Dalton could call on that phone were Paul Brown and Mary Tyler Moore, plus perhaps Morpheus and the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar.
Then there were those chilidog cutaways that are used in every Bengals broadcast. They have used the same chilidog images for 30 years. If those dogs were available today, they would almost be spoiled. That's nothing, though; the networks have been grilling the same Philly cheesesteak for so long that you can see Ben Franklin building bifocals in the background. Who cares? Danny Woodhead makes a big play, and when a Bengals defender rips off his helmet, you discover that Woodhead is really Miami Steve Van Zandt, circa the Born To Run tour.
This weekend's games were so instantly classic that waiting for NFL Films to make them feel grainy and old would be a waste. No game brought the headline-to-documentary vibe quite like 49ers-Packers, with its low score, sepia-toned field and images of smoke-breathed players snorting at the line of scrimmage like locomotives. How excellent this game will look in epic slow-motion, on high-quality film, with overblown narration and a faux-classical score on Wednesday. It will look and sound much better with Scorsese-Sabol trappings than it looked on Sunday afternoon, which is the dirty secret behind everything from the original Ice Bowl to The Last Waltz. While the 49ers' 23-20 victory was overshadowed by Luck's Saturday heroics, it is a gem that will only grow more lustrous as time turns Jim Harbaugh into Hank Stram, Aaron Rodgers into Roger Staubach, and that final field goal (so … nearly … blocked) is shown from five angles while four of your favorite football personalities discuss the game's significance (that is, those of us who were not there explaining just how cold it really was).
Three great games, one soggy one. What does that leave us besides memories? The two AFC survivors might as well have "undercard" stenciled on their helmets. The anything-is-possible Colts and gift-certificate-cashing Chargers are fun, but they are not serious threats to the Brady/Manning hegemony. Ditto the Saints, now stout enough to win on the road, but not on the road through Seattle. The Panthers were the designated vulnerable-first-round-bye team heading into the playoffs, and the 49ers will give them a run. But the Panthers won the regular season meeting, and Kaepernick won't be able to scramble for a game-winning drive against a fully functional front seven.
Wild Card weekend also set the tone for the weeks to come. We saw a dome game, a cold game, a rain game and a really cold game. The Super Bowl will not be played in a dome, so our multiple choices are looking a little limited. Yes, folks, I am going there: the Bad Super Bowl Weather Storyline that the Internet Collective Intelligence has deemed overblown, uninteresting and old-hat, as part of a mass-denial defensive mechanism. Cincinnati missed a snowstorm by a few miles and degrees, the New Jersey high temperature drops to the single-digits on Tuesday, and planes were skidding into snowdrifts at JFK airport this weekend. But there is no reason for concern, as long as the winter weather systems of the East Coast choose to attack one at a time, like obliging Bruce Lee opponents, rather than all at once.
The good news is that New Jersey endured single-digit temperatures late last week. Locals learned that once you start shoveling, your circulation pumps up, and you can loosen the top layer of parkas. A half foot of snow can be plowed away in hours without the help of advisors from Wisconsin. If Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis can run bare-chested across Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia during warm-ups without suffering frostbite, Super Bowl attendees in North Face hats and mittens can get their money's worth.
The bad news is that this weekend proved weather forecasts to be as inaccurate as football forecasts. The most accurate Super Bowl prediction is a 100 percent chance of inaccurate Super Bowl weather predictions. It's best to enjoy the unpredictability that does not upset travel plans: historic comebacks, gritty road wins by hothouse dome teams, convincing beatings by lucky-to-be-here playoff afterthoughts, Kaepernick legs-and-arm heroics, final field goals that sail between outstretched arms before uprights.
Twenty-five from now, some NFL Films Road to Super Bowl XLVIII retrospective may dwell on rain, snow and cold. But it definitely will pause to acknowledge a Wild Card weekend that felt classic, even as it happened.
Given the choice of firing his assistants or taking a blue-and-white parachute to Happy Valley to coach-block Greg Schiano, Titans head coach Mike Munchak chose the latter. The Titans fired Munchak on Monday after a week of dithering and dangling, which everyone involved probably enjoyed to no end. Yes, team owner Tommy Smith is new to the job, but general manager Ruston Webster is not. Yes, publically agonizing over personnel matters might show that a front office is careful and prudent, but it really just makes them look bad at scheduling.
The meeting about staff changes, where Munchak was told who he would have to sacrifice, easily could have been held before Week 17. Two head coaches were hired while the Titans dawdled. Lovie Smith has already assembled a huge chunk of his staff; some Titans assistants might have enjoyed the chance to interview. College staffs are starting to assemble. You get the idea.
Munchak at least will land on his feet. If I were the Penn State athletic director or some other decision maker, I would hire Munchak a dozen times before even considering Schiano; the whole "treating players with basic human dignity" element of Munchak's coaching style is a real plus. It is important to note that I do not think like a big-college athletic director and do not wish to have the lobotomy/alignment conversion to Lawful Evil required to do so. These folks are not in the human dignity business, and Sunday's Penn State interview with Munchak may have ended with examiners asking, "Are there any applicants who are more, you know, cruel?" That said, look for Munchak at Penn State next year, and for someone else on the Titans sideline, and for Schiano to growl and snap at some mid-major scholar-athletes for a year or two.
When all of the other coaches were fired last week, I analyzed the Job Desirability Rating of each new opening. It was really a brief state-of-the-franchise capsule, gussied up to coincide with the news of the day. (It's how we roll on this Internet, boo.) The Titans capsule was 95 percent written but saved in a corner of my hard drive when Smith & Webster waffled. So here it is, belated because it had to be. (There's a Jets capsule sitting in the same Word document, and I am not deleting that sucker until I see Rex Ryan in the flesh at the Combine. And I am taking Marvin Lewis notes, just in case.)
What Went Wrong With the Last Guy: No one knows. No one has watched a Titans game in its entirety since 2008. Watching a montage of Chris Johnson no-gain runs does not count, though it is a reasonable facsimile.
Boss Rating: Incomplete. New team president Tommy Smith is an unknown commodity. This week's twisting-in-the-wind routine was not encouraging.
Quarterback Situation: D+. The Titans can use this season to decide whether Jake Locker can stay healthy or hit the broad side of the barn, or they can cut bait without suffering a massive cap hit ($4 million is manageable). Both plans have their merits. The first is most likely, but the Titans will have to look long and hard at rookie quarterbacks in either case.
Building Blocks: D. The team's best young player, cornerback Alterraun Verner, is also a free agent. Their best-known player, Chris Johnson, is a millstone.
Young Talent: B-minus. Jurrell Casey, Kendall Wright, and a pair of rookies on the interior offensive line offer proof that the Titans cupboards are not completely bare.
Salary Cap Situation: D. The Titans are close to the cap, and the money is tied up in a bunch of mid-tier veteran starters: linemen Andy Levitre, Michael Roos and David Stewart, defensive backs Michael Griffin and Jason McCourty, and others have cap numbers exceeding $6 million. All of the players just listed are starters, and the Titans will absorb some dead money by cutting most of them. It's a sad example of a weak team forced to reduce assets in order to manage finances, and it may force the Titans to take a step back before they step forward.
Free Agent Issues: C. Verner's emergence compounds the financial problem. He will fetch shutdown-corner money on the market; the Titans cannot afford to lose him but cannot easily pay him, either. Other free agent decisions will be easier (sayonara, Kenny Britt), but the Titans may want to lock up Casey before his contract expires, and that money must come from another player's pocket.
Quick Turnaround Potential: B-plus. The best news for the Titans is that they play in a division with two teams in worse shape than they are, with a powerhouse that looks mighty shaky when they hit the snooze alarm too often.
Overall Desirability: C-minus. The late start on the coach search is no big deal: the Titans were not going to get Lovie Smith, and the hot coordinators are still preparing for playoff games. There's a disadvantage to being the fourth or fifth suitor on the answering machine, but the Titans' biggest problems are a weak quarterback situation, a pricey veteran core that has proven it will not take anyone to the playoffs, and a star cornerback who is on the record for expecting a payday the Titans are unlikely to be able to afford.
An Alabama Running Back Tale
Three former Crimson Tide running backs had career-defining performances during Wild Card weekend: two for the better, one for the worst. For more, click over to my Tailgater blog.
According a recent story by Rick Maese of the Washington Post, Dan Snyder gives Redskins employees bags of apples in lieu of holiday bonuses. A bag of apples. It sounds vaguely menacing. Mess with Mike Shanahan, and a goon squad beats you with bags of apples. Where's RG3? He's with Paulie Gatto. They're "sleeping in the orchard" tonight.
A bag of apples per day keeps Dr. James Andrews away for months. Which is good, because no one in the Redskins organization trusts that guy, either. Apples can be called "red-skinned" without making you sound like the villain in an episode of Bonanza, but knowing Snyder, they were Golden Delicious.
We laugh at Snyder and marvel at his bad bossitude with good reason. At the same time, he could have replaced the holiday bonus with no bonus, as thousands of employers have across the nation. I am guessing my Sports on Earth bag of apples got lost in the mail; more likely, my bosses worried that anything healthy entering my system would cause dangerous cardiopulmonary-digestive trauma. (Just kidding! Covering the NFL is all the bonus I ever need!)
So let's give Snyder the least possible credit, for putting the least possible effort into offering the kind of bonus that even Charles Dickens would find ruefully ironic. Dickens, reborn today, would use the acronym SMH a lot, and Snyder would not even rank among his top-100 big-business targets. Here's hoping Redskins employees enjoy those apples, then toss the cores on the FedExField surface. They make excellent fertilizer, and that field needs all the help it can get.