Nine days after 11-11-11, the 11th Sunday of the 2011 regular season was played.
In the AFC, we’re no closer to knowing which teams are the best teams. In the NFC, ineffectiveness and injuries are allowing two franchises with eight Lombardi Trophies between them to continue to separate from the pack.
But let’s go deeper than the same-old “if the season ended today” scenarios or the other fairly obvious stuff you’ll see on certain four-letter networks today.
For some reason, I always can come up with only 10 things to say.
1. Moral victory for the Bucs.
They say there are no moral victories. I say “they” say a lot of things, plenty of which are wrong.
In this specific case, here’s why.
Blown out 48-3 by the 49ers and 37-9 by the Texans, the Bucs desperately needed to avoid a similar fate at Lambeau Field. It wasn’t looking good early, what with the Packers up 14-0.
But the Bucs scratched and clawed their way back into the game, making it competitive and keeping the score respectable. For coach Raheem Morris, whose contract situation puts the team in a fire-him-extend-him-or-let-him-do-the-lame-duck-thing trilemma for 2012, avoiding an embarrassment was the next best thing to pulling what would have been a most unlikely upset.
That said, a couple of ill-advised onside kicks likely won’t help the “keep Raheem” cause. Overall, however, the Bucs have nothing about which to be ashamed — apart from their recent effort to make excuses for their 4-6 record by pointing out how difficult their schedule is.
2. Michael Bush, Kevin Smith prove the fungible nature of tailbacks.
On Sunday morning, an item from one of the Bay Area websites presumed that Raiders running back Michael Bush will be swimming in gold coins come free agency in 2012. Though Bush definitely won’t be pitching a tent in Zucotti Park, he will still be earning a fraction of the game’s truly elite backs.
Bush, while talented, possesses skills that aren’t uncommon at the NFL level. Every year, college programs throughout the country churn out men who will move the chains, with competent blocking. Though Bush, who would have been a first-round pick but for a gruesome leg injury in the first game of his final season at Louisville, lands on the high end of the curve, he’s not in the Adrian Peterson/Chris Johnson financial district, yet.
The performance of guys like Lions’ reclamation project Kevin Smith underscores that point, and eventually will undermine Bush’s case for big dollars. Unwanted by the Lions after three seasons with the team and drawing zero interest elsewhere, Smith hung around and hung around until the Lions decided that their running game was sufficiently bad to justify bringing back one of the lone bright spots from that 0-16 team of 2008.
Smith responded Sunday with 201 total yards and three touchdowns.
Though the performance may have given Smith a short-term assignment pending the return of Jahvid Best, Kevin Smith’s career nevertheless will be remembered more like Timmy’s than Emmitt’s. Yes, playing the position requires speed and toughness and courage and durability. But of all the things that NFL players are required to do (other than kicking, punting, holding, and long-snapping), those traits seem to be the most common.
That’s why only a few get paid a ton of money, and that’s why veterans like Larry Johnson, Clinton Portis, and Tiki Barber are spending the 2011 season unemployed, and flabbergasted.
3. Percy Harvin would be special, if he got the touches.
There’s a guy in Minnesota who has those interchangeable tailback skills, but at a far higher level than most. The only problem is that, for reasons neither known nor apparent, the Vikings don’t use him as much as they should.
Percy Harvin made a big splash in 2009 as a rookie receiver and kickoff returner. Lost in the shuffle of last year’s disappointing season, Harvin nevertheless had more yards from scrimmage.
This year, with not even a mention of an issue with migraines that previously plagued him at the pro level, his workload hasn’t spiked the way that it should for a third-year player who has shown a ton of potential.
Maybe it’ll come in 2012, after quarterback Christian Ponder gets more comfortable and the Vikings upgrade their offensive line via free agency and/or the draft. Maybe it’ll eventually have to come after Harvin joins a new team.
Regardless, at some point Percy Harvin deserves a chance to become the total package — whether as a full-time receiver or a part-time wideout/tailback or even as a full-time Darren Sproles-style option out of the backfield. Harvin could be so much better than he has been, and he’s one of the few true stars that remain on the roster of a 2-8 team.
4. Caveat emptor, quarterback edition.
Titans tailback Chris Johnson still isn’t earning his money. A week after racking up 100-plus rushing yards for the first time since getting paid, Johnson’s average plunged to 1.1, with 13 yards on 12 carries.
The lesson to the Titans, and the rest of the league, is becoming more obvious: Don’t pay big money to a running back who has held out for all of training camp and the preseason, especially when there are so many others who can do the job.
In Buffalo, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has provided another piece of advice for NFL teams: Don’t pay an up-and-coming quarterback during the season in which he’s up-and-coming.
Fitzpatrick’s game has evaporated since he put his name at bottom of a six-year, $59 million contract. Yes, the Bills celebrated the new deal with a 23-0 win against the Redskins in Toronto. But the team, and most importantly Fitzpatrick, had their mojo (along with their Deux Deux Deuxs) confiscated at the Canadian border.
Outscored 106-26 in games against the Jets, Cowboys, and Dolphins, Buffalo now finds itself in a 2008-style free-fall, with any realistic chances of a postseason appearance riding on the ability to somehow get their groove back.
And, please, don’t point out that the 2001 Patriots were also 5-5 after 10 games. The Pats’ arrow was pointing up a decade ago. The Bills’ tank is, by all appearances, on empty.
By giving Fitzpatrick that big contract, it will be harder for the Bills to effectively consider all their options come January, given the money that has been tied up in the contract for Fitzpatrick.
5. It’s time to extend the goal posts, somehow.
On Sunday, a pair of field goals created a little controversy, due in part to the fact that today’s kickers routinely blast the ball higher than the uprights extend.
In Cleveland, Phil Dawson believed a 38-yarder that would have put the Browns up by seven points late was good, even though the officials disagreed. The lost three-pointer nearly ended up haunting the Browns, who had to hold off one final charge by the Jaguars.
In Washington, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan didn’t agree that a 39-yard try in overtime from Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey had satisfied the standard for chalking up a field goal.
In both cases, the ability to determine whether the kick was good was complicated by the fact that the ball went above the uprights.
For kicks that go over the U-shaped structure, the rule book requires the ball to pass fully within the outside edge of the uprights. Which basically means that if an official standing directly under the outside edge of the upright looks straight up and sees no portion of the ball, the kick is good.
Good luck getting in the right spot and making the right judgment while the ball is soaring right through the air at least 30 feet above the ground.
The easy fix would be to make the uprights taller. Sure, they already look goofy with the extra-long extensions that would dwarf the H-shaped contraptions of yesteryear. And the laws of physics would result in much greater stress being placed on the corners of the crossbar as wind blows the very tops of even longer beams.
Still, it’s 2011. The NFL eventually found a fake grass that performs much better than green cement, and the NFL easily could find a material that would perform well when elongated by an extra 10 feet, even in high winds.
At a minimum, the league should consider a high-tech solution that would use sensors or lasers to visibly extend the post, or that would allow the officials to determine easily whether the ball indeed passes inside the outer edge of the uprights.
As the sport grows and the importance of the outcome of each game (or, for the fantasy football crowd, each extra point and field goal) becomes more significant, the league needs to be prepared to take all reasonable steps to iron out any potential glitches in the rules. After Sunday, it’s obvious that the league needs to address the height of the goal posts.
6. Sorting out the offsetting penalties in Eagles-Giants.
The PFT email box and Twitter pipeline exploded on Sunday night, after a penalty for illegal use of hands against the Giants during a 50-yard pass to Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson and a post-play taunting penalty on Jackson completely wiped out the gain and gave Philly an unwanted do-over from their own two yard line.
The prevailing thought was that Eagles should have been able to decline the penalty against the Giants, and then to have the 15 yards walked off after the play, giving Philly a 35-yard gain.
But the outcome reflected the proper application of a strange donut hole in the rule book.
The process gets started at Rule 14, Section 1, Article 9: “If there has been a foul by either team during a down and there is a dead ball foul by the other team in the action immediately after the end of the down, it is a double foul, and all rules for enforcement of double fouls apply (see 14-3-1).”
Regarding double fouls, Article 14, Section 3, Rule 1 provides as follows: “If there is a double foul . . . without a change of possession, the penalties are offset and the down is replayed at the previous spot.”
In this case, a key exception almost applied, but ultimately didn’t. “If one of the fouls is of a nature that incurs a 15-yard penalty and the other foul of a double foul normally would result in a loss of 5 yards only (15 yards versus 5 yards),” the rule book states, “the major penalty yardage is to be assessed from the previous spot.” Since the penalty on the Giants entailed a five-yard penalty AND an automatic first down, the exception didn’t apply in Jackson’s case. Even if it had (for example, if the Giants had simply been offside), the Eagles would have had the 15 yards walked off (or, in this case, half the distance to the goal) from the previous spot.
Either way, the penalty on the Giants ultimately penalized the Eagles. Though the officials sorted it all out properly in real time, the rule book definitely needs to be tweaked to prevent such unfair outcomes.
7. Vince Young clinches a second chance to start.
The stats weren’t pretty, especially with three interceptions and a passer rating of 69.0, but Vince Young’s performance in the clutch during a primetime game for the squad he unintentionally gave the “Dream Team” label could go a long way toward giving him a shot at a starting job in 2012.
After Young signed with the Eagles following his unceremonious exile from Nashville, Eagles president Joe Banner told PFT Live that Young wanted a one-year deal, even though the Eagles had hoped to lock him up for two. Young’s insistence on a shorter term lets him get back to the market again in March. Even if he doesn’t take another snap this year, he has done enough to earn extra consideration in this quarterback-need league.
Young, quite simply, is Tim Tebow plus the ability to throw the ball reasonably accurately, albeit unconventionally. Young still can perform at a high level; the challenge will be to match him up with a coach who’ll be able to shepherd Young through the adversity he’ll inevitably face as a starting quarterback.
Young faced plenty of it last night, and he did enough to keep the “Dream” alive, even if it dies for good next week against the Patriots.
8. Eli catches the Romo disease.
Two weeks ago, many were singing the praises of Peyton Manning’s kid brother. Since then, Eli has been playing like the evil twin of Tony Romo.
Late turnovers in losses to the 49ers and the Eagles have dropped the Giants from 6-2 to 6-4, plunging them into a tie with the Cowboys and giving the Eagles a glimmer of hope, especially since Philly currently holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over both Dallas and New York.
In each of the last three weeks, Eli’s passer rating for the season has dropped. And last night’s 74.0 doesn’t take into account the play that killed the Giants’ late hopes for a comeback — a fumble when Eli was hit from behind by Jason Babin.
As the Giants find themselves in the midst of yet another late-season collapse, Eli needs to find a way to turn those late opportunities into something other than turnovers. If he can’t, plenty of jobs could be turning over in New York after the season ends.
9. Bears could be in a real bind.
Peter King explained late night for an exclusive SNF Extra video that the thumb injury to Bears quarterback Jay Cutler could be a killer for Chicago. Contrary to the classic design of the Mike Martz offense, Cutler had been moving more out of the pocket in order to buy time behind a work-in-progress offensive line.
With Caleb Hanie getting the nod, the Bears either need to get him comfortable doing what Cutler was doing, or hope the offensive line gets a lot better.
In the interim, it could mean more reps for Matt Forte, who’ll only add to his pay-the-man case if the Bears climb onto his back while Cutler is out.
And as to anyone who thinks that my lobbying last week for the Texans to pursue Brett Favre in lieu of Matt Leinart applies to the Bears, my perceived lunacy doesn’t extend to Illinois. The Martz offense is too complex, the Bears are too cheap, and Martz is too obsessive-compulsive to ever make Favre a potential match there, even though it would give Brett a shot at the Vikings and at least one crack at the Pack.
The best bet for the Bears is to hunker down with Hanie, and hope for the best.
Unless Marc Bulger, who ran the Martz offense in St. Louis, decides to emerge from retirement.
10. Catching up with what’s a catch.
It had been five weeks since the last time the Calvin Johnson rule reared its head in a game situation. On Sunday, the Bengals lost a touchdown pass to Jermaine Gresham via the application of a rule that routinely defies with the expectations of the reasonable fan.
Gresham bobbled the ball near the end zone, got possession of it in the vicinity of the goal line, took two steps, fell to the ground with the ball in one hand, and lost the ball when the hand holding it struck the ground.
This year, the league has emphasized the element of time, treating such plays as valid receptions if the receiver who, while going to the ground, had enough time to make a football move, regardless of whether a football move was actually made. And that seems to be what Gresham did. Or at least could have done.
Perhaps more importantly, the fact the officials in real-time called it a catch (and thus a touchdown) would require conclusive 100-drunks-in-a-bar evidence to overturn the play. With the question of whether Gresham had enough time to make a football move a topic that strays into the realm of professional judgment, referee Ron Winter should have deferred to the ruling on the field that Gresham had possession long enough to make a football move.
The outcome reconfirms that the league needs to clean up the rule book once and for all regarding what is and what isn’t a catch when a receiver hits the ground. The “football move” exception is a twist on the uncodified “second act” rule, which allowed the requirement of maintaining possession through the ground to be disregarded when the receiver manages to break the plane of the goal line while falling.
The NFL needs to just start over, crafting a simple rule that the officials can consistently apply — and that meshes with what a reasonable person would regard to be a catch, or not a catch.