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Ten ways to improve the Hall of Fame selection process

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Every year, on the Saturday before the Super Bowl, 44 men and women gather in the host city and determine the members of the next class of Hall of Famers.

Typically, the panel considers 15 modern-era candidates, which systemically is whittled down to five finalists for an up-or-down vote.  The voters also consider two previously-determined finalists determined by the Seniors Committee, which comes up with two players who, for whatever reason, were passed over during past sessions.

In the end, as few as four and as many as seven secure admission to Canton.

Every year, complaints inevitably arise regarding the persons who make it and those who don’t.  At times, those complaints are aimed at the process.  Usually, the debate fizzles by the next day, when the Super Bowl starts.

This year, largely through the efforts of Jason Whitlock of FOXSports.com, the criticism has lingered.  The fact that Whitlock’s opinions have sparked a pointed response from two of the voters has served only to give the discussion ongoing life.

Though some of the voters who perhaps feel a threat to their fiefdom may not like it, any effort to consider whether the process can be improved represents a valuable expenditure of time and effort.  In this vein, we now offer 10 specific ideas for improving the procedure for determining who gets in, and who’s left out of, the Hall of Fame.

1.  Expand the panel.

The panel currently consists only of media members, some of whom are unemployed, underemployed, self-employed, and/or semi-retired.  One voter is assigned for each team, even if the voter has no specific jurisdiction over that team.  For example, Len Pasquarelli of The Sports Xchange holds the vote that corresponds to the Falcons, even though he hasn’t focused his efforts on that team for years.  Ditto for David Elfin, the Redskins’ representative who no longer works for a Washington-focused publication.  Others, like Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer, had limited experience covering the NFL but was the only guy at the only paper in the town in which the team is headquartered.

That’s not a knock on Joe, whom we know and like.  But, surely, he’ll acknowledge that he had limited experience covering the NFL when he got the assignment.  Before inheriting the Bengals beat from Mark Curnutte in 2009, Reedy previously covered the Jets for two years (1997 and 1998) at the Post-Star in Glen Falls, New York and the Jaguars for one year (1999) at the Gainesville Sun.  Many would contend that three relatively distant years at non-first-tier publications shouldn’t be enough to secure 2.27 percent of the say as to who makes it to Canton.

The panel also includes one representative of the Professional Football Writers Association and 11 at-large media members.  That’s 44 total voters.

The panel, put simply, is too small.  (And, trust me, I’m not saying that because I’m angling for a seat at the table.  I don’t want one, I don’t expect to ever be offered one — especially after writing this article — and I wouldn’t have the time to do the assignment justice unless and until I become unemployed, underemployed, self-employed, and/or semi-retired.)  Because the human beings who comprise the panel are subject to the same human factors that influence us consciously or otherwise, one way to neutralize those realities is to involve more voters.

As explained below, that doesn’t mean more media members.  To enjoy the full faith and confidence of football fans, the process needs more voices, more perspectives, and less power in the hands of any one voter.

Many of the persons who hold these votes take great pride in the assignment.  As a result, they naturally will be inclined to resist any changes that will make the achievement less significant, such as adding significantly more people to the process.

Regardless, significantly more people need to be added to the process.

2.  Overhaul the Board of Trustees.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame is governed by a Board of Trustees.  Some of the names are instantly recognizable, like Commissioner Roger Goodell, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.  (One name is recognizable but curiously out of place. ESPN’s Todd Blackledge, whose bailiwick is college football, has a seat on the Board of Trustees.)

There is also a cluster of persons with no connection to the NFL, but who hold positions of prominence in and around Canton, Ohio, the geographic location of the Hall of Fame.

With all due respect to those Canton-area businesspeople, it makes no sense for the policies and procedures of the Hall of Fame to be set by folks whose biggest contribution to the process is the ability to show up for meetings without incurring travel expenses.  Though it makes sense for the Pro Football Hall of Fame to seek the support and involvement of the Canton business community, the Board of Trustees should be composed of folks who have a direct role in the game and who have the best interests of the game at all times in mind.

To the extent that there are some Canton-area businesspeople who have a direct role in the game, such as Packers great and successful Akron businessman Dave Robinson, they should have a seat at the table.  We also realize that some members of the Board of Trustees are instrumental in organizing the events that surround each year’s enshrinement ceremony.  But most of the persons who are setting policy for the Hall of Fame should have names that ardent fans and followers of the sport instantly recognize.

Currently, it’s roughly a 50-50 split.  That needs to change.

3.  Change the bylaws.

The Board of Trustees ultimately determine the contents of the Hall of Fame’s bylaws.  All too often, members of the panel who are faced with criticism of the selection process instantly explain that their hands are tied by the bylaws.

So change the bylaws.

Every year, the NFL changes multiple rules in the hopes of making the game better.  In the past half-decade, the only meaningful change to the bylaws occurred when the modern-era finalists were increased from 13 to 15.

The bylaws shouldn’t be used as a shield for avoiding change, but as a sword for implementing it.  All too often, the bylaws become an excuse for the status quo, not the impetus for improvement.  For that reason alone, the powers-that-be need to be willing and able on an annual basis (or more often) to look for ways to improve the rules that govern the selection process.

4.  Include Hall of Famers.

Every year, the winner of the Heisman Trophy acquires the ability to vote on all future winners of the award.  The logic is simple, and undeniable.  Winning the Heisman represents membership in an exclusive club, and the men who have won it should have a say in who gets it.

The argument applies even more strongly to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Hall of Fame coach John Madden believes that the busts talk to each other at night.  If they do, the first comment when a new crop joins them shouldn’t be, “Who in the hell let that guy in?”

They say it takes one to know one, and a Hall of Famer is in the best position to know another Hall of Famer.  Though giving Hall of Famers votes would introduce the possibility of biases and prejudices, those factors surely apply from time to time (or, as the case may be, every year) to the 44 men and women who currently have the keys to Canton, especially when players who earn a reputation for being hard on the media seem to have a hard time getting into the Hall of Fame.

The only requirement?  To vote, the Hall of Famer must attend the meeting.  No proxies or absentee ballots.  If they show up, they get a say in the process.

5.  Include coaches and other established football minds.

In responding to Jason Whitlock’s column calling for change, Bob Gretz argued that “Rick Gosselin has forgotten more football in a week than Whitlock has known in his life.”  That same observation likely applies to many of the folks currently on the selection committee.

And that observation probably would apply to all of them if, say, guys like Joe Gibbs or Ron Wolf or Bill Parcells or Chuck Noll were in the room.

So why not give people who have devoted their careers to coaching football and/or running football teams a direct say in who should and shouldn’t land in the Hall of Fame?  For those not already in the Hall of Fame, they’d have to forfeit their own eligibility for the Hall until two years after leaving the committee.

Frankly, those folks are far better suited to picking the new members of the Hall of Fame than pretty much everyone on the selection committee as its currently constituted.

6.  Categorize the candidates.

Every year, the finalists are thrown into a vat regardless of the position they played, with the new members of the Hall emerging from a stew that can’t distinguish between pancake blocks and pick-sixes.  It would make more sense to allow one new member per year from each of the various positions on the field:  quarterback, running back, receiver/tight end, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker, defensive back, and coach/G.M./contributor.

The finalists would be determined by position, with the list of candidates trimmed to three-to-five before the selection meeting, and with no requirement that a person be admitted from each position group.

This would expand the potential maximum size of the class from seven to eight, but the high-water mark of seven per year has been in place since 1964, the year after the charter class was inducted.  At the time, the NFL and AFL had only 22 teams.

Today, the NFL has 32 franchises, as a result of the addition of two in 1966, one in 1967, one in 1968, two in 1976, two in 1995, one in 1999, and one in 2002.  Moving the maximum annual class from seven to eight in light of the growth of the league isn’t simply justified, it’s overdue.

7.  Scuttle the Senior Committee.

The Senior Committee serves the purpose of allowing the selection committee to revisit two players from past seasons who fell through the cracks.  In other words, it gives the selection committee to right past wrongs.  By improving the selection process, there would be no reason to clean up past messes by devoting two of seven annual spots to guys who failed to get in when competing directly with their peers.

In his response to Jason Whitlock’s criticisms, Bob Gretz unwittingly proved our point.

Gretz explained that, ever year, a pair of Hall of Famers join the Seniors Committee to assist in the process of whittling down the previously overlooked players to two finalists, who seem to almost always get in.  For the 2011 class, Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham and Hall of Fame tight end Charlie Sanders worked with the Seniors Committee.

Ham, per Gretz, made a strong case for linebacker Chris Hanburger.

“Ham told the group that when he went to the Steelers in the 1971 NFL Draft out of Penn State, the Pittsburgh coaches gave him film of Hanburger to study,” Gretz writes.  “There was no doubt in Ham’s mind that Hanburger was a legitimate candidate.  Whose word are your going to take on this subject:  Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham, or Jason Whitlock?”

Gretz essentially is admitting that the selection committee screwed up by not putting Hanburger in the Hall years earlier.  With the involvement on the selection committee of guys like Hall of Famer Jack Ham convinced that Hanburger should get in, that wouldn’t have happened.

In other words, if Ham and the other Hall of Famers had a seat at the table, perhaps Hanburger wouldn’t have been erroneously passed over.

After all, whose word should the Hall of Fame been taking on this subject:  Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham, or any member of the media?

8.  Embrace transparency.

Though many voters seek refuge in the bylaws and regard them as if they’d been etched onto stone tablets by the hand of God, many also will acknowledge the validity of Whitlock’s complaint that the process unfolds in secrecy.

Peter King of Sports Illustrated and NBC, who has nothing but the best interests of the process in mind (and I say that not because he’s a friend and a colleague but because I’ve spent enough time around him to know that’s who he is and how he operates), would welcome transparency.

I’d be fine with our votes being made public, which the Hall currently doesn’t want us to do,” King wrote in his February 7 Monday Morning Quarterback column.  “The feeling from Hall officials is if our votes are published, then some voters might vote differently; if a voter from Buffalo, for instance, didn’t vote for Andre Reed (and this is only an example, not the truth), he might face a backlash when he goes back to cover his team. Or in some small way it might affect his vote if he or she knew everyone would know exactly how the vote went. I believe it’s incumbent on us to not hide behind the privacy of the room. The Hall is a huge deal, obviously, with burgeoning interest every year. If we’re going to sit on the committee and sit in judgment of these men for enshrinement, I think you ought to know how we vote.”

If one of the most respected members of the NFL media believes that the process should be more transparent, then it’s fair to say that the process should be more transparent.  With an expanded panel of voters, anyone who covers the team on which a player played most or all of his career could abstain from voting, thereby addressing the biggest concern that King raised.

9.  Involve the NFL.

As mentioned above, the Commissioner and various owners occupy seats on the Hall of Fame’s Board of Trustees.  But the NFL should be even more involved than that.

Though it’s called the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it’s essentially the NFL Hall of Fame, and the NFL should be in position to propose changes to bylaws and initiate procedural enhancements aimed at improving the process of determining each class of enshrinees.

One change the NFL would likely make relates to the consideration of off-field conduct.  Currently forbidden by the bylaws, the reality is that plenty of voters consider the things a candidate did when not playing football, especially in close cases.  The bylaws, then, should change to reflect the reality of the process.

If the NFL is the perpetual custodian of the highest levels of the sport, the NFL should have much greater involvement in and dominion over the museum that celebrates those who made the biggest impact on the game.

10.  Commit to continuous improvement and change.

Most of the criticisms of the current selection process arise from a perception that the system is stale and stagnant, in large part because change doesn’t happen often and doesn’t seem welcome.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell repeatedly explains that the league constantly must look for ways to enhance and improve the game.  That same attitude must infect, and overtake, the Hall of Fame.

So many things about the selection process need to be changed because so little change has happened in the 48 years since the Hall of Fame opened.  Egos and agendas and pride and any other factor that stands in the way of change needs to be set aside, and folks need to look for ways to make the process better, and ultimately more fair.

We’re not advocating change for the sake of change.  But in this case there has been little or no change.  Changes need to be made, and then the Hall of Fame needs to be willing to consider future change without external calls for it.

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Cowboys bang MVP drum for Tony Romo

Tony Romo, Brandon Carr AP

Sunday was a good day for Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.

He led a 42-7 rout of the Colts that sewed up the NFC East title and returned the Cowboys to the playoffs for the first time since 2009. He also passed Troy Aikman to become the leading passer in the history of the franchise and continued a December run that’s been nearly flawless for both individual and team. Romo has 10 touchdowns and no interceptions while completing 79.2 percent of his passes in a closing kick that has some in Dallas talking about Romo as the MVP.

Owner Jerry Jones said Romo is the MVP in his book, tight end Jason Witten admitted his bias while saying Romo should be in the mix and Dez Bryant is all for the guy who has helped him to 14 touchdowns this season.

“Hell yeah, he is. He’s the MVP,” Bryant said, via ESPNDallas.com. “Look at the performance. He’s giving ‘em hell in December. Icing on the cake. Give it to him. He’s doing a hell of a job.”

In addition to his strong finishing kick, Romo leads the league in yards per attempt and completion percentage over the course of the entire season and there’s no arguing with the leadership he’s provided to the division champions in Dallas. That should earn him a look from MVP voters, although Aaron Rodgers may ice his own cake with a big outing against the Lions in Week 17’s matchup for the NFC North title.

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Sunday Night wrap-up: Seahawks have too many big plays

Seattle Seahawks v Arizona Cardinals Getty Images

The Seahawks had more than enough offense to beat the Cardinals Sunday.

Actually, they had more than enough on four snaps.

The Seahawks traded on big plays and an opponent which couldn’t score, taking a 35-6 win over the Cardinals and the inside track for the NFC West title.

They racked up 596 yards, but 263 of those yards came on four plays.

They’re hurt up front and they’re thin in receiving threats, but they had enough Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch to make the difference.

Lynch came back from an upset stomach which kept him out for a quarter to run for 113 yards, including a 79-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Wilson’s 55-yard scramble was impressive, but it was his 80-yard touchdown pass to Luke Willson which gave the Seahawks a double-digit edge they weren’t going to give up. Throw in a 49-yard pass to Doug Baldwin, and they had enough home run plays to overwhelm.

Whether that’s enough to compete with teams that might actually be able to score points is another matter.

As long as they can run and play defense the way they do, they’re going to have a chance against anyone in the league.

But when they’re able to get yards in chunks the way they did this week, it might be hard for anyone to have a chance against them.

Here are five more things we learned during Sunday Night Football:

1. Back in my former life as a newspaper reporter, I covered one of the truly ridiculous games in NFL history.

With both teams beset by injuries at quarterback in 2007, the Cardinals and Panthers ended up competing for the signature of Vinny Testaverde. The Panthers won the battle and the war, as the Cardinals ended up signing Tim Rattay and then beating him the following week in Arizona.

Which is a long way of saying, either Testaverde or Rattay might be a better option than Ryan Lindley right now.

Bless his heart, the poor kid simply doesn’t look competitive, especially against a defense the quality of Seattle’s. The Cardinals even tried to run Logan Thomas out there for a change of pace (to throw a deep ball, not run), but it didn’t work.

At the moment, barring a Testaverde comeback at age 51 or Drew Stanton making a quick comeback, it’s hard to see how the Cards have much of a chance in the playoffs against anyone.

2. The Seahawks played without left tackle Russell Okung and center Max Unger. But they actually protected fairly well.

The Cardinals sacked Wilson seven times in the first meeting, but got him just once this week. Credit to Alvin Bailey and Patrick Lewis for replacing injured starters and allowing their offense to continue at record pace.

That’s a solid showing for the group they scrapped together, which they hope will be back to normal soon.

3. Cardinals coach Bruce Arians gets a lot of credit (which he should), but defensive coordinator Todd Bowles was making chicken salad too, prior to Sunday

The Cards are not just competitive, they’ve been good with a defense missing three difference-makers in Darnell Dockett, Daryl Washington and John Abraham, which is emblematic of their next-man-up approach.

They don’t really have what you’d call a pass-rusher, and they’ve got a bunch of role players like Larry Foote and Frostee Rucker playing bigger roles than you’d normally expect of them.

It was hard to tell against the Seahawks once the avalanche started rolling downhill, but this can still be a dangerous defense.

4. Should we be worried about Seahawks kicker Steven Hauschka missing three field goals?

Of course we should.

The misses are rare for Hauschka, and they were from distance. But kicking is a confidence game, and misses in big games can linger.

Until he hits something, it’s worthy of being concerned about, as you pick out every little weakness in a team playing well.

5. Willson, the tight end (man, that extra L in a similar last name is murder on spellcheck), can be a match-up problem for a lot of teams.

He seemed to surprise the Cardinals with his speed, but he ran a 4.51 40-yard dash prior to the 2013 NFL Draft, so he’s a legitimate threat to run away from linebackers.

It was still a bit of a shock to see him pull away from a safety, but he has the kind of size and speed to create space, and make the most of it.

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Lynch caps touchdown with dive that probably will provoke a fine

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Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch iced Sunday night’s win over the Cardinals with a career-long 79-yard touchdown run.  He entered the end zone with a dive that included a crotch grab.

The maneuver was identical to the manner in which Lynch capped off the “Beastquake” touchdown run from the wild-card playoffs four years ago.  When he did it the last time, no one noticed — so he was neither flagged nor fined.

This time around, it was noticed.  (Even though it wasn’t flagged.)  Lynch will now be in line for a fine.

Last year, Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan was fined $10,000 for making the same gesture.

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Packers favored by at least seven points

Matthew Stafford, Aaron Rodgers AP

The Lions and Packers have identical 11-4 records. Moreover, Detroit won the first 2014 regular-season meeting between the clubs by double digits.

Nevertheless, in the rematch, host Green Bay is a big favorite to knock off Detroit next Sunday and capture the NFC North for a fourth consecutive season.

Oddsmakers have made the Packers 7- to 7.5-point favorites over Detroit at Lambeau Field, where the Lions have not won since 1991.

Per Spreadapedia.com, the Lions haven’t won as underdogs of seven points or more since upsetting Green Bay 7-3 on December 12, 2010.

The Packers, meanwhile, have not lost as favorites of seven or more since falling 27-20 to Chicago on November 4, 2013.

The common factor in both games? Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers didn’t finish the game because of injury.

Rodgers, of course, tweaked his calf in Sunday’s victory at Tampa Bay, but he played through it, and the Lions will likely need their best defensive effort to stop Green Bay’s powerful offense on its home turf.

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Steelers host Bengals next Sunday night

Roethlisberger AP

The final Sunday night game of the season has been announced.  And it won’t be the NFC South win-and-in-lose-and-go-home championship game.

Instead, it will be the AFC North title game, with the Steelers hosting the Bengals.  The league opted for Bengals-Steelers even though the Steelers already have clinched a playoff berth.  On Monday night, the Bengals can do the same, with a win over the Broncos.

Of course, Cincy’s Painfully Awkward Rob Lowe tendencies suggest they’ll lose on Monday night.  Which would make Sunday night the equivalent of a playoff game for the Bengals.

Which the Bengals would become more likely to lose because the game is being played in prime time.

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Seahawks offense finally wakes up, now up 14-3

Seattle Seahawks v Arizona Cardinals Getty Images

Marshawn Lynch is obviously feeling better.

The Seahawks running back, who missed exactly the first quarter with what was reported as an upset stomach, has now upset the Cardinals fans.

His touchdown run has given the Seahawks a commanding 14-3 lead, on a night which doesn’t seem to favor the Cardinals ever scoring that many.

The Seahawks scored the game’s first (and looked like possibly only) touchdown when Russell Wilson hit tight end Luke Willson for an 80-yard strike earlier in the second.

It was a surprising play for a number of reasons, including Willson’s ability to run away from the Cardinals secondary.

But the Seahawks Defense has put the clamps on Ryan Lindley, making a comeback look unlikely.

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Cardinals jump out to big 3-0 lead on Seahawks

Seattle Seahawks v Arizona Cardinals Getty Images

Points are so overrated.

The Seahawks and Cardinals are whaling on each other thus far in this one, and the Cardinals might have just taken a decisive 3-0 lead with a second-quarter field goal.

Cards sub quarterback Ryan Lindley is off to a rough start, hitting 4-of-10 passes for 39 yards. But he managed to scratch together enough short passes and Seahawks penalties to get Chandler Catanzaro in position for a short field goal.

That’s been enough so far, because the Cardinals Defense is doing its part.

Other than a 55-yard scramble by Russell Wilson, the Seahawks haven’t put together much offense.

Marshawn Lynch’s upset stomach miraculously cured itself at the end of the first quarter, but he hasn’t contributed anything to the stat sheet yet.

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Report: Harbaugh decision will be “swift”

Harbaugh Getty Images

No one still knows what 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh’s future will be.  Answers apparently will be coming soon after the regular season ends.

Jay Glazer of FOX Sports reported during the Sunday pregame show that a “swift” decision will come after the regular season ends regarding Harbaugh’s future.  The options are fairly limited in number:  (1) keep him for 2015, the final year of his contract; (2) extend his contract beyond 2015; (3) trade him; or (4) fire him.

The most likely options are No. 3 and No. 4.  It has been widely reported that the 49ers will try to trade Harbaugh, and for good reason; in February, they nearly sent him to Cleveland for a pair of third-round picks.

But it won’t be easy to accomplish a trade quickly.  To move Harbaugh, another team must fire its current coach, comply with the Rooney Rule by interviewing at least one minority candidate, negotiate a deal with the 49ers, and negotiate a deal with Harbaugh.  That only happens within 24-48 hours after the season ends if plenty of winking and nodding happens before then.  Which means that the minority-candidate interview will make a mockery of the Rooney Rule.

So if a swift decision is truly coming, it could be that the 49ers simply fire Harbaugh, get nothing for him, and possibly watch him drive up the Bay to coach the Raiders.

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Marshawn Lynch misses early work with upset stomach

Marshawn Getty Images

The Seahawks may be thinking about life without Marshawn Lynch after this season.

They got a sneak preview tonight.

Lynch wasn’t on the field for the start of the game, with what the Seahawks called an “upset stomach.”

In his place, Robert Turbin got the start and ran four times for 22 yards.

The Seahawks opening drive stalled at midfield, and it remains to be seen how much of a role Lynch is going to play.

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Cardinals won’t release Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald Getty Images

When Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill hired G.M. Steve Keim and coach Bruce Arians, no one expected them to face so much adversity due to injury — or to have so much success with a collection of next men up.

Next year, they also could be dealing with a salary-cap problem.

Receiver Larry Fitzgerald has a cap number of $23.6 million for 2015.  It’s widely believed he’ll be cut.  Per a source with knowledge of the situation, he won’t be.

He could be traded, he could restructure his deal, or he could elect to negotiate an extension.  But he won’t be released — even if it means carrying $23.6 million in cap space.

Few players other than quarterbacks have cap numbers even approaching $20 million.  For Fitzgerald, who remains a solid player but no longer dominant, that’s a huge commitment.  The Cardinals are willing to make it, if necessary.

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Bills eliminated from playoff contention with loss at Oakland

marcusthigpen AP

A promising season for the Bills has come to a disappointing end, as a loss in Oakland today has eliminated Buffalo from playoff contention.

The Raiders came out playing hard and surprised the Bills, winning 26-24.

Raiders rookie quarterback Derek Carr showed again that he’s a promising prospect, if not yet a great quarterback. He had his ups and his downs against a very good Bills Defense, but late in the fourth quarter, after the Bills inexplicably punted, Carr marched the Raiders down the field on a long drive that ended with a game-sealing touchdown pass to Jamize Olawale.

The win means the Raiders will not earn the first overall pick in the draft, but most Oakland fans are probably OK with that. The franchise quarterback of the future in Oakland isn’t Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota, it’s Carr.

For the Bills, who fall to 8-7, tough questions about the quarterback position will have to be answered this offseason: If Kyle Orton and EJ Manuel aren’t the right men for the job, who is?

The Bills have a good roster but no franchise quarterback. The Raiders don’t have a good roster, but in Carr, they seem to have a quarterback they’ll be able to win with in the future.

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Raiola could be facing a suspension after Sunday stomp

Raiola Getty Images

When the Lions head to Lambeau Field for the NFC North championship game next week, they possibly won’t have veteran center Dominic Raiola.

Raiola is facing discipline in the wake of his stomp on the leg of Bears defensive lineman Ego Ferguson.  That discipline could include a suspension.

“I want to emphasize that our number one goal and priority is protecting our players from unnecessary risk,” NFL executive V.P. of football operations Troy Vincent told PFT on Sunday afternoon.  “Actions or techniques that may result in harm or injury are unacceptable.  This will be reviewed and appropriate discipline will be applied to these actions and any potential playing rule violations.”

Vincent declined comment on potential discipline for Raiola.  The player’s history will potentially work against him.  Last month, Raiola was fined $10,000 for clubbing Patriots defensive tackle Zach Moore in the head.  Raiola escaped discipline for firing into Moore’s knees during a kneel-down snap to end the game.

Some believe the stakes of the game will be a factor in any decision to suspend Raiola.  Per a league source, that won’t matter.

Look for a decision to come by the middle of the week.  Raiola then will have immediate appeal rights, if he’s indeed suspended for Sunday’s game.

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Giants help Tom Coughlin’s cause with third straight win

Eli Manning AP

The two best arguments to use in favor of Tom Coughlin returning as Giants head coach for another season are that the team’s players still play hard for him and that the offense installed this season will be a strong unit with a year of experience under its belt.

Sunday brought support for both notions. The Giants may have been playing too hard for Coughlin, as evidenced by their excessive penalties and two ejections, but they certainly weren’t rolling over with their coach’s fate for 2015 publicly unaddressed. And their offense put up a great performance against a Rams Defense that hadn’t allowed a touchdown in its last three games.

The Giants won 37-27 as Eli Manning completed 25-of-32 passes for 391 yards and three touchdowns. Two of the scores went to Odell Beckham, who became the first rookie in NFL history to post at least 130 receiving yards and a touchdown in three straight games during his first pro season. Beckham had eight catches for 148 yards overall and the prospect of teaming him with a healthy Victor Cruz in 2015 is a pretty good reason not to rock the boat on offense for the Giants.

Rookie running back Andre Williams chipped in with 110 yards to add to the reasons for positive thoughts about the future on the offensive side of the ball for the Giants. Recent signs for Coughlin’s future with the team have been encouraging and this win shouldn’t do anything to swing the pendulum the other way.

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Cowboys rout Colts, win NFC East

Tony Romo AP

After an agonizing five-season absence, the Cowboys are back in the playoffs — and as division champions to boot.

Led by a spectacular performance by quarterback Tony Romo, the Cowboys rolled to a 42-7 victory over Indianapolis on Sunday afternoon at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Romo was splendidly efficient, completing 18-of-20 passes for 218 yards with four TD passes, three of which came in the first half as Dallas quickly burst clear of sloppy Indianapolis, which committed eight penalties and three turnovers.

With the win, the Cowboys (11-4) clinched the NFC East title. They are guaranteed of hosting at least one playoff game. They will be the only NFC East club in the postseason, as Philadelphia has now been eliminated from playoff contention.

The Cowboys made short work of the Colts (10-5), who saw their faint chances at a first-round bye go completely by the wayside. The Cowboys never trailed, scoring on their first drive and never looking back.

The game was decided in about a 15-minute span in the first half. After Dallas had taken a 7-0 lead about eight minutes into the game, Indianapolis tried a fake punt on its own end of the field. The play looked it would lead to a first down, but rookie defensive back Dewey McDonald dropped a pass from punter Pat McAfee.

On the next snap, Romo threw his second TD pass, hitting Dez Bryant from 19 yards out to make it 14-0.

And from there, Dallas poured it on. A minute into the second quarter, Romo threw another TD, connecting with Colt Beasley on a 24-yard score. And when tailback DeMarco Murray plunged in from a yard out later in the period, Dallas had a 28-0 lead.

Incredibly, the Colts’ first points didn’t come until about five minutes were left in regulation. By then, quarterback Andrew Luck had been pulled from the game as the AFC South champs looked ahead to January. And for as poorly as they played, the Colts will be one of 12 teams with a chance to win the Super Bowl.

So too will Dallas. And with Romo in sharp form and their defense holding up its end of the bargain, the Cowboys look like real contenders.

It’s enough to make 90s kids dust off their Apex One and Starter Dallas jackets. On Sunday afternoon, the Cowboys were back. And the NFC East, finally, is theirs once again.

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Twelve fans injured by indirect lightning strikes at Bucs game

Buccaneers Lightning Strike AP

A total of 12 people were injured, though it appears none were directly struck by lightning outside today’s Buccaneers-Packers game.

According to WFLA in Tampa, a dozen fans outside Raymond James Stadium were injured by an indirect lightning strike.

Tampa Fire Rescue got a call at 4:11 p.m., right after the Bucs lost a 20-3 decision to the Packers. First responders included crews who were already at the stadium.

Seven patients were taken the St. Joseph’s hospital in stable condition, and four or five more were headed there on their own.

Some of the injured were knocked to the ground when the lightning struck nearby.

Given the large amount of people in a large open space, it’s likely fortunate the injuries weren’t worse.

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