Is there a better day of the year than the final Sunday of the NFL season?
If you love football, I don’t know if there is. The season’s final Sunday is the only day of the year in which all 32 NFL teams are playing, and it’s a day when so much is happening, all at once. The Bears are holding on to win narrowly at Detroit, briefly keeping their playoff hopes alive, while the Giants are blowing out the Eagles but getting eliminated anyway. The Colts are making a statement that they’re for real in the AFC, while the Texans are reeling and limping into the playoffs. The Vikings are furiously battling the Packers to reach the playoffs, while the Broncos are clinching home-field advantage by beating the Chiefs. The 49ers are clinching the NFC West by beating the Cardinals, while the Seahawks are facing a surprisingly stiff challenge from the Rams.
And to top it off, the night ended up with the Redskins reaching the playoffs by winning the NFC East championship game in Washington.
You might prefer Super Bowl Sunday, but that’s a day when the hype to actual football ratio is about 50:1. Or you might prefer Conference Championship Sunday, but if you’re a fan of one of the 28 teams that have already been eliminated, that day isn’t quite as fun. Or maybe you love NFL draft day, or the first Sunday of the season. If that’s your preference, I won’t tell you you’re wrong. But for my money, it doesn’t get any better than the Sunday of Week 17.
And then comes the Monday after Week 17, which is the worst day of the NFL year. Some people call it Black Monday. The day when a handful of head coaches, dozens of assistant coaches and quite a few team executives find out they’re fired.
Eagles coach Andy Reid, Chargers coach Norv Turner, Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel and Browns coach Pat Shurmur are almost certain to get fired today, and several other head coaches are in danger of losing their jobs. When you’re an assistant on a team whose head coach gets fired you’re almost always fired along with him, and there are plenty of assistants on other teams who get fired as well. General managers get fired, too. And although most of them don’t know it yet, there are hundreds of NFL players who were on active rosters yesterday and will never play in an NFL game again. It’s part of the business, but it’s depressing thinking about all these people going into a year in which they won’t have jobs.
At this time of year I’m always reminded of the end of the 1998 season, when then-Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson addressed the media on Black Monday. Johnson’s job was safe, and he was preparing to coach in a playoff game, but he could hardly contain his fury for the carnage in the coaching profession that took place that year, when five coaches were fired on the morning after the end of the season.
“I think it’s disgusting. Some of the better coaches in the NFL got fired today,” Johnson said on the Monday after the ’98 season ended. “I know we’re highly paid, but it’s a shame when coaches’ jobs are dependent on injuries, skyboxes, people in the stands and officiating calls. It doesn’t give me a good feeling about our profession when I see things like I saw this morning.”
These coaches are human beings, after all. They’re men with wives who relocated for their husbands’ jobs — usually men with wives who have already relocated several times, and know they’ll have to do it several more times. They’re men with kids who will go to school and hear taunts about their dads getting fired — kids who will wonder which city they’ll live in, which school they’ll go to, which taunts they’ll hear next year.
Yes, they all make a lot of money, and they’re living their dreams. I’m not playing a violin, taking up a collection or telling a sob story. But I do think that, as we reflect on how much we’ve enjoyed this 2012 season, we ought to reflect a little bit on how many of the men we watched on Sundays this year are losing their job on Monday. This game we love is a cruel, unforgiving business.
All those people losing their jobs are the ones I’m thinking about today. Here’s what else is on my mind:
Calvin Johnson is great — and so is Charles Tillman. I want to say a bit about what an amazing season Johnson had, but first this about Tillman, the Bears cornerback who deserves some consideration for Defensive Player of the Year: Tillman faced Johnson twice this season, and in those two games Johnson had 34 yards (his season-low, in October) and 72 yards (on Sunday). So in the two games when he was covered by Tillman, Johnson averaged 53 yards a game. In his other 14 games, Johnson averaged 133 yards a game.
Johnson fell short of 2,000 receiving yards this season, but he still finished the season with 1,964 yards, blowing away Jerry Rice’s old single-season record of 1,848. And Johnson outdistanced the rest of the NFL by a margin unseen in more than 60 years: Johnson ended up leading the league by a whopping 366 yards; the No. 2 receiver in the NFL, Houston’s Andre Johnson, had 1,598. The last time a player led the league by more yards than Johnson this year, it was Hall of Famer Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch in 1951, gaining 1,495 receiving yards in a year when the No. 2 spot was held by San Francisco’s Gordie Soltau, who gained 826 receiving yards. Johnson is nothing short of amazing.
The Falcons should have rested their starters. Atlanta had home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs locked up, so they had nothing to play for on Sunday against the Buccaneers. But the Falcons didn’t rest their starters, instead trying to keep the momentum going with a season-ending win over the Buccaneers. That didn’t go as planned. The Falcons lost to the Bucs, looked bad doing it, and can’t feel good about themselves heading into the playoffs. I sure don’t feel good about the Falcons going into the playoffs: The road to the Super Bowl may go through Atlanta, but I’ll be very surprised if this Falcons team gets to the Super Bowl.
Michael Vick was rusty. Vick, the Eagles quarterback who had been sidelined for the last six games, returned to the Eagles’ starting lineup on Sunday for what is presumed to be his final game with the team. He looked lousy. A Vick interception ended the first Eagles drive and set up the first Giants touchdown, and Vick completed just 19 of 35 passes for 197 yards in the Eagles’ 42-7 loss. It’s widely expected that the Eagles will release Vick after the season, and if Vick was hoping to showcase himself for some other team, he didn’t do a very good job of that on Sunday.
The AFC is coming down to Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady, again. Seven of the last nine seasons, the AFC leader in passer rating has been either Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. Eleven of the last 14 seasons, the AFC leader in passing touchdowns has been either Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. Ten of the last 15 seasons, the AFC leader in passing yards has been either Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. And seven of the last 11 seasons, the AFC Super Bowl team has been quarterbacked by either Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. With Manning’s Broncos having the No. 1 seed and Brady’s Patriots having the No. 2 seed, it appears that it’s going to be eight of the last 12 years with either Manning or Brady in the Super Bowl.
I’m ready for the playoffs. Today will be distasteful in the NFL, as we’ll spend most of the day talking about people losing their jobs. But tomorrow comes a New Year and a new NFL postseason. After binging on 16 NFL games yesterday, we only have 11 more games to enjoy until September. Let’s savor the playoffs.