Almost 12 weeks of the 2011 season are in the books, and there are only so many things we know.
The Packers are good. The Colts are bad. And Ndamukong Suh is in trouble.
For the 30 other teams and 1,700 other players, who knows what’s going on? Let’s try to make sense of some of it via 10 of the story lines coming out of Sunday’s (and one of Thursday’s) games.
1. Texans need a proven veteran.
It’s pretty clear that the Texans have decided not to flirt with Brett Favre for the stretch run. But that doesn’t mean it makes sense to go with T.J. Yates, Kellen Clemens, and possibly Brodie Croyle at quarterback.
While that three-headed monster could be enough to fend off the pesky Titans for the AFC South crown, it won’t be enough to advance in a playoff field featuring the likes of the Patriots, Ravens, and Steelers.
And so the Texans need a proven veteran with playoff experience. Whether that’s Favre or Jeff Garcia or even Jeff George, the playoff-bound Texans will be a bunch of wide-eyed kids on their first trip to the amusement park, and they’d benefit from someone who has ridden a roller coaster once or twice.
Even Daunte Culpepper would be a better option than Yates, Clemens, and Croyle. After all, Culpepper has played in four playoff games, winning two and losing two.
Texans fans defended the decision to give the keys to Leinart by pointing out the low-risk passing game, the chains-moving running game, and the brick-wall defense. But that same reasoning applies to a veteran quarterback, too.
In the Texans offense, no quarterback will be expected to do all that much. A veteran with playoff experience will be far better suited to do what needs to be done, when it counts the most.
2. McNabb should pull an Orton.
After the Bears lost quarterback Jay Cutler to a broken thumb, Kyle Orton asked for, and received, his walking papers from the Broncos. So with the Texans needing a quarterback, why isn’t Vikings backup Donovan McNabb doing the same thing?
He claims he still can play, and he believes he shouldn’t have been benched. McNabb therefore should request his release and hope that he slides down to the Texans on the waiver priority list.
Even if he doesn’t, any chance to play is better than holding a clipboard for a 2-9 team. If McNabb is holding out any hope of getting a starting job in 2012, he’d benefit from being on the field in the 2011 postseason.
Until then, his failure to even make a play to get out of Minnesota should prompt legitimate speculation about his actual desire to compete.
3. High praise for A.J. Green.
Receivers taken in the first round of the draft often underwhelm at the NFL level. Bengals rookie receiver A.J. Green provides the latest exception to that rule.
He’s Randy Moss without the attitude, making great catches via a long body and uncanny ball skills that leave players like 2010 first-round pick Joe Haden helpless when trying to stop him.
Green’s three-catch, 110-yard performance against Cleveland included a 51-yard play that set up the game-winning field goal. After the 7-4 Bengals reversed a two-game losing streak by beating the Browns, Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis gave Green the ultimate endorsement.
“He’s the best first-round draft pick I’ve ever been around,” Marvin Lewis said, via the Cincinnati Enquirer. “He continues to amaze me, every day.”
How big of a deal is that? In 1996, Marvin Lewis worked in Baltimore, where the Ravens picked up tackle Jonathan Ogden and linebacker Ray Lewis in the first round of the draft.
Both are headed for Canton. In Marvin’s assessment, Green already is on the trajectory.
And Marvin is right.
4. Chris Johnson saves his job.
The bad news for Titans tailback Chris Johnson after a 23-carry, 190-yard performance against the Bucs? He still doesn’t have the explosiveness he displayed during the first three years of his career.
The good news? He’ll get the chance to find it in 2012.
Although the Titans retain the ability to avoid most of the supposedly guaranteed money contained in Johnson’s new contract by cutting him after the season, Johnson has done enough to persuade the Titans to stick with him. With the benefit of a full offseason program and training camp and preseason, Johnson could rediscover the quality that puts him a step ahead of all running backs not named Adrian Peterson.
It may not happen, but the Titans surely won’t risk that it will happen with another team.
5. The Tebowmania effect.
Lost in the impact that Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow has on his teammates is the impact he possibly has on his opponents. (And, no, I’m not referring to the entirely different kind of Tebowing in which Chargers kicker Nick Novak engaged on Sunday.)
Despite the obsession that some have with statistics, football remains the unique product of 22 moving parts, fueled more by intangibles than metrics, especially where the metrics tend to balance each other out. If 11 of the players possess genuine confidence in their skills, they can perform better than the sum of their parts. And if they lack confidence, the opposite can occur.
That’s the other side of the Tebowmania effect. The Broncos now believe that they can keep games close and find a way to win — and teams like the Chargers believe that the Broncos will keep games close and find a way to win.
With each passing week, the team that Tebow plays will have to overcome his uncanny ability to overcome. And that factor is far more dangerous than a rocket arm or a sub-4.4 40-yard dash or the ability to bench press 225 pounds up to 225 times.
Objectively, there was no reason that the Broncos should have beaten the Chargers in San Diego on Sunday. The home team had lost five games in a row, the head coach occupies one of the hottest seats in all of football, and the Chargers on paper seem to be the better team.
But the Tebowmania effect allowed Denver to keep it close — and to find a way to win. Unless and until someone breaks that spell, the Broncos will remain a serious threat not only to make the playoffs but also to do some serious damage once they get there.
6. “Fire Andy,” and then what?
The pitchforks and torches, which have been taken out and then put away and then taken out again and then put away again, are once again out. And this time they’re likely staying out for the rest of the season.
With the 4-7 Eagles needing to run the table and hope for plenty of help, what happens if (when) they fail to qualify for the postseason? The home crowd has begun chanting “Fire Andy!,” an indignity that hasn’t been loudly foisted upon anyone in the NFL since Matt Millen left Detroit for good. Given that the Eagles went “all in” for 2011, with president Joe Banner telling PFT Live that the line between success and failure resides at winning the Super Bowl, common sense suggests that failing to succeed means walking away from the table, not getting another stack of chips with which to go “all in” again.
So what happens if Reid gets fired? Does owner Jeffrey Lurie believe he can find someone as good, and hopefully better, than Reid?
Then there’s the issue of the front office. With Reid supposedly still in charge, Banner and G.M. Howie Roseman could be vulnerable if Lurie tries to hire someone like Bill Cowher, who would want to have the same power that Reid has enjoyed, along with the ability to hire a new set of lieutenants.
It becomes a complex and risky exercise for Lurie, making the status quo safer, and thus more likely. Even though things haven’t gotten better under Reid lately, they could get a lot worse.
7. Lame-duck reluctance could result in plenty of vacancies.
Through nearly 12 full weeks of the 2011 season, no teams have fired their head coaches. Once the 2011 season ends, at least six coaches will slide into the spotlight, for one very important reason.
For coaches whose contracts expire after the 2012 season, teams must decide whether to extend the contracts, to allow them to coach as lame ducks next year, or to move on and/or move out.
That dynamic applies to at least a half-dozen men: Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo, Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris, Chiefs coach Todd Haley, Colts coach Jim Caldwell, Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio, and Giants coach Tom Coughlin. Five of the six lost on Sunday, and the last one could lose on Monday night at New Orleans.
Over the past four weeks, those teams have generated a combined record of 5-20. Apart from the Giants, none are in serious contention for the postseason.
So when Black Monday (not to be confused with Black Friday) arrives the morning after New Year’s Day, pay close attention to those six teams. Assuming that none of them decide before then to make a change.
8. Niners are still in great shape.
It would be easy to assume that the 49ers’ bubble has burst, via a 10-point loss in Baltimore on Thanksgiving night.
It would be easy. But it also would be incorrect.
Look at the schedule and the standings. The 9-2 Niners still play four games — four games — against NFC West teams. And they play the hapless Rams not once, but twice.
Even if the 49ers lose to the visiting Steelers in San Fran on Monday, December 19, the 49ers easily should get to 13-3, which would be enough to secure the second seed in the NFC.
Yes, at some point they may face another defense that could chase Alex Smith all over the field. But that may not happen unless they face the Bears in the postseason — or until the 49ers take on the the Ravens again, not in Baltimore but at a neutral site in February.
Either way, the 49ers will continue to be a significant factor down the stretch. If anything, that loss knocks them toward the edge of the radar screen in the short term, which is probably where coach Jim Harbaugh would prefer to be anyway.
9. The DeSean dilemma.
Regardless of whether Andy Reid stays or goes, the Eagles have a significant personnel issue on the horizon: What should they do with receiver DeSean Jackson?
He’ll be a free agent after the season. In recent weeks, Jackson has been deactivated after missing a meeting, flagged for a taunting penalty that wiped out a 50-yard gain (thanks to a bizarre quirk in the rules), and benched in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s latest loss, following another key drop.
Once presumed the Eagles would use the franchise tag in the hopes of signing Jackson to a long-term deal, the team may now opt to make a change. But that doesn’t mean they’ll let him walk away. Instead, look for the Eagles to apply the franchise tag (which will cost $9.5 million in cap space), to make him available in trade, to search for a replacement via free agency or the draft, and possibly to rescind the franchise tender if they can’t move him — and if they can find another guy to return punts and run “go” routes.
The risk of that approach comes from Jackson signing the franchise tender, which would guarantee him a base salary of $9.5 million in 2012; it equates to more than 15.8 times his $600,000 base salary in 2011. And that would be Jackson’s smartest move, if he’s tagged. Otherwise, the Eagles could end up removing the franchise tender later in the offseason (like they previously did to Jeremiah Trotter and Corey Simon), making Jackson an unrestricted free agent well after the vast majority of the unrestricted free agency money has flowed.
For that reason alone, the Eagles possibly could decide not to apply the franchise tag at all, something that would be more likely to happen if owner Jeffrey Lurie decides to clean house.
10. “Bowe doesn’t know football.”
Last night’s far-closer-than-expected game between the Steelers and Chiefs included a late effort by the Chiefs to drive for the winning touchdown. Unthinkable given Kansas City’s recent inability to score offensive touchdowns but not impossible given Pittsburgh’s recent history of giving up big drives late, the Chiefs made it interesting.
Until receiver Dwayne Bowe blew it.
With the Chiefs facing first and 15 from the Pittsburgh 37, Bowe shot down the field, throwing his hand in the air — the universal football gesture that means, “I’m going deep.”
But then, right after Bowe called for a long throw, he broke to the post. Tyler Palko already had launched toward where Bowe would have been. And it landed where a Steelers defender was.
Making things worse for the Chiefs, and for Bowe, was a half-hearted (hoof-hearted) effort to catch the ball. Bowe jumped but he didn’t extend, possibly wary of a rib-breaking blow to the midsection.
Bowe’s effort, or lack thereof, drew harsh criticism from NBC’s Cris Collinsworth, a former receiver who has the experience and the knowledge to justify criticism of a current player at the position. And for a guy like Bowe, who’ll be heading to free agency after the season, a better try needs to be made in those situations.
It’s not as if a victory last night would have propelled the Chiefs back into the race for the AFC West crown or a wild-card berth, but it could have. The loss instead dropped Kansas City to 4-7, making it difficult if not impossible for the Chiefs to qualify for the postseason and/or for coach Todd Haley to keep his job.