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NFL morning after: A great time for great quarterbacks

kaepernick AP

The NFL is, more than ever before, a quarterback league. And we’ve got some great ones playing in these playoffs.

If the wild card weekend taught us anything, it’s that the NFL in 2014 is dominated by quarterbacks. When quarterbacks are playing great football, like Andrew Luck and Alex Smith played in Indianapolis on Saturday, the results are spectacular. When quarterbacks are playing badly, like Andy Dalton played in Cincinnati on Sunday, the result is a team with no chance to win, even when its defense plays well.

The good news for fans who like offense is that next weekend’s four games have what may be the best quarterback matchups in NFL history. Just think about how good the quarterbacks are in the four divisional round games:

Philip Rivers vs. Peyton Manning: Manning will win the fifth Most Valuable Player award of his career for his record-breaking 2013 season, and he’s the best passer in football. But after Manning, the next-best passer in the NFL over the course of the 2013 season was Rivers. Rivers completed a league-leading 69.5 percent of his passes in the regular season, had 32 touchdowns to 11 interceptions and took a team that looked before the season like one of the worst in the NFL to the playoffs. This will be a great matchup of great passers.

Andrew Luck vs. Tom Brady: Luck threw for 443 yards and four touchdowns as he got the first postseason win of his career on Saturday, and now he’ll travel to New England and face Brady, who has 17 career postseason wins. If the Colts can pull the upset, this could be a changing of the guard: The quarterback who has three Super Bowl rings giving way to a much younger quarterback who’s probably going to win multiple Super Bowl rings before his career is over.

Drew Brees vs. Russell Wilson: Brees topped 5,000 passing yards for the fourth time in his career this season; no one else has reached 5,000 yards more than once. Wilson, who grew up idolizing Brees, may be the most exciting player to enter the NFL in recent years: He scrambles like Fran Tarkenton and has a gun like John Elway.

Colin Kaepernick vs. Cam Newton: This is the one that has me the most excited because it’s the one that has the greatest potential to show us what the future of football will be. Running quarterbacks are here to stay, and in Kaepernick and Newton we have the two best running quarterbacks in football facing off. Kaepernick has two of the three best rushing performances by a quarterback in NFL postseason history, with his 181-yard game against Green Bay last year and his 98-yard game against Green Bay on Sunday. Newton led all quarterbacks in rushing in the regular season, with 585 yards, and he’s the all-time quarterback record holder for rushing touchdowns in a season.

Quarterback matchups don’t get any better than that, and that’s what I’m most excited about heading into the divisional weekend. Here are my observations from wild card weekend:

There were no 100-yard rushers. The flip side of the NFL being a league of great quarterbacks is that the running game has been de-emphasized. There wasn’t a single 100-yard runner in the NFL this weekend. In fact, it was a quarterback, Kaepernick, who led all runners in the wild card round with his 98-yard game against the Packers. Running backs just aren’t the NFL’s marquee players anymore.

Smith had a game like no other. Until Saturday, no player in NFL history had ever passed for 350 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and added 50 yards on the ground in any game, regular season or postseason. But Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith became the first player to do it on Saturday when he passed for 378 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions, and added 57 rushing yards. Quarterbacks shouldn’t be judged on wins and losses: When a quarterback plays the way Smith played on Saturday and leads his team to 44 points, he shouldn’t be judged harshly just because his team’s defense gave up 45 points. But the reality is that quarterbacks are judged on wins and losses, and so a lot of people will choose to remember that Smith overthrew an open Cyrus Gray on what could have been a touchdown pass, that Smith lost a fumble and that Smith’s intentional grounding penalty took the Chiefs out of field goal range late in the game. Me, I’ll remember that Smith turned in the game of his life.

Hilton stepped up in a big way. T.Y. Hilton, who became the Colts’ No. 1 receiver by default after Reggie Wayne suffered a season-ending injury, had the best game of his career and one of the best games anyone has ever had in the playoffs on Saturday. Hilton’s 13 catches were tied for the second most in NFL postseason history, and his 224 receiving yards were tied for the third most in NFL postseason history. The Colts were very wise to take Hilton in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft, the same draft in which they selected Andrew Luck. Those two are going to be a great combination for many years to come.

Two big changes for the Saints panned out. After the Saints’ Week 15 loss to the Rams, New Orleans coach Sean Payton decided he had seen enough of struggling kicker Garrett Hartley and left tackle Charles Brown. And so the Saints cut Hartley and signed Shayne Graham to take his place, and benched Brown and promoted rookie left tackle Terron Armstead to the starting lineup. Both moves looked very good in Saturday’s playoff win over the Eagles. Graham went 4-for-4 on field goals, while Armstead held his own against the Eagles’ pass rush and helped keep Drew Brees upright. Give Payton credit for recognizing two spots on his team that needed to get better, and making the necessary changes.

McCoy couldn’t get loose. During the regular season, Eagles running back LeSean McCoy led the league in rushing yards and yards from scrimmage, averaged 5.1 yards a run and 10.4 yards a catch, and had 17 different plays of 20 yards or more. Against the Saints on Saturday, McCoy averaged just 3.7 yards a run and 3.8 yards a catch, and his longest play of the day was 11 yards. The ability of Rob Ryan’s New Orleans defense to keep McCoy in check was a huge part of the Eagles’ season ending on Saturday.

Lewis can build a defense, but he can’t build a quarterback. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has a well-earned reputation as a great defensive mind, and his defense was strong on Sunday, holding a good San Diego offense in check for most of the game. Unfortunately, Lewis has Andy Dalton as his quarterback, and Dalton was beyond terrible on Sunday, with three turnovers that pretty much handed the game to the Chargers. Lewis may need to sign or draft another quarterback this offseason because Dalton simply isn’t up to the task.

Keenan Allen plays the game the way it’s meant to be played. Allen, the rookie receiver who led the Chargers with 1,046 receiving yards, only had two catches for 21 yards on Sunday. So why am I singling Allen out for praise? Because I love the way this young man plays the game, even when he’s not getting the ball. Allen’s brutal but legal block to spring teammate Eddie Royal on a nine-yard run was my single favorite play of the weekend.

TV is better than being there. Three of the four teams that hosted games over the weekend had trouble selling out their stadiums, and no one should be surprised by that. The truth is, if you have an HD TV and a comfortable couch, sitting at home and watching the games for free is a lot better than paying a small fortune to sit in an uncomfortable stadium, often in terrible weather, surrounded by loudmouth drunks. I don’t blame the fans in Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Green Bay who were slow to sell out their stadiums last week, and if anything surprises me, it’s that Philadelphia fans sold out their stadium within minutes of the Eagles putting playoff tickets for sale. If I lived in Philadelphia, I would have much rather been at home on Saturday afternoon, watching that great Chiefs-Colts second half, than in my car fighting traffic on my way to the game. And I would have rather been at home to watch my team lose to the Saints than sit in the cold on Saturday night. The best place to watch football is at home.

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Packers fire special teams coach Shawn Slocum

Green Bay Packers 2011 Headshots Getty Images

The Packers gave up a touchdown on a fake field goal and saw the Seahawks recover a key onside kick during their NFC Championship game loss nearly two weeks ago and special teams coach Shawn Slocum gave up his job on Friday.

There was some talk that a change could be made following the loss and the team released an announcement on Friday afternoon that Slocum has been released. He’d been on the staff since Mike McCarthy became the head coach in 2006.

“I would like to thank Shawn for all of his contributions over the past nine years,” McCarthy said in a statement. “He was a positive contributor to our success, including helping us win Super Bowl XLV. We wish Shawn, Michelle and their family the best moving forward.”

The Packers hired former Florida and Illinois coach Ron Zook as an assistant special teams coach before the 2014 season, but there’s been no announcement about whether he’ll be elevated to replace Slocum.

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Chris Harris optimistic on Manning’s return, has faith in Osweiler

Denver Broncos practice at Dove Valley in Englewood, CO. Getty Images

During his appearance on Friday’s PFT Live, Broncos cornerback Chris Harris expressed optimism Peyton Manning would return in 2015, noting the lousy taste the divisional-round loss to former team Indianapolis had to leave with the future Hall of Fame quarterback.

“I believe he’s coming back,” Harris said. “I think nobody wants to go out losing to their former team and the new quarterback that replaced you. I don’t think Peyton wants to go like that at all, so I think he’ll definitely come back.”

Teammate Demaryius Thomas, an earlier guest on Friday’s PFT Live, was more hopeful than certain on Manning’s return.

“I think he will,” Thomas said of Manning playing in 2015.

But Thomas added this: “I say that because I want him back, but I really don’t know.”

If Manning does step aside, it could open the door for backup Brock Osweiler to take the job. A three-season understudy to Manning, Osweiler has thrown just 30 NFL regular season passes.

Both Thomas and Harris believe Osweiler is capable of stepping in if needed.

Said Thomas: “I got all the faith in Brock Osweiler. He’s been around Peyton for three years now. He’s grown every year he’s been there.”

Thomas, for his part, told PFT’s Mike Florio that he would have no qualms returning to Denver if Osweiler, not Manning, were the starter. Thomas is slated to be an unrestricted free agent in March and figures to draw significant interest.

Harris, meanwhile, said he had “a lot of confidence” in Osweiler, a 6-8, 240-pound Arizona State product.

“He’s kind of like a young Joe Flacco,” Harris said of Osweiler. “He has that arm. I think him and (Broncos head coach Gary) Kubiak, I think they’re going to fit perfect together. With the way he ran the offense with the Ravens with Joe Flacco, I see Brock as a similar quarterback.”

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Roger Goodell sounded less optimistic about playoff expansion Friday

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At his pre-Super Bowl press conference last year, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said that he thought there were a lot of benefits to expanding the postseason.

Among the benefits he cited were a “more competitive” league with better matchups as the regular season nears its conclusion and “more excitement” for the league’s fans. Talks about adding two teams to the postseason never came to a vote with the owners last spring and there was debate about the need to involve the NFLPA, but Goodell continued to sound optimistic about it when it came up in 2014.

He didn’t sound so optimistic about it during Friday’s pre-Super Bowl press conference.

“The possibility of expanding the playoffs has been a topic over the last couple of years,” Goodell said. “There are positives to it, but there are concerns as well, among them being the risk of diluting our regular season and conflicting with college football in January.”

The latter concern wasn’t aired last year and the better matchups that Goodell mentioned would seem to run counter to the risk of diluting the regular season, so it seems significant that they were specified while the positives were left undiscussed. Owners like John Mara of the Giants and Art Rooney II have come down against the idea since it was broached last year and Goodell’s tone may suggest he’s heard likewise from other owners heading into this offseason.

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Rainy day in Arizona forces Seahawks indoors for practice

NOAA WEST AP

The host committee has clearly gone overboard making the Seahawks feel at home, dialing up a cloudy, rainy day in Phoenix.

As a result, the team that ought be to used to it is going inside.

Via Peter King of Sports Illustrated, who is serving as the pool reporter this week, the Seahawks will be using the practice bubble at Arizona State for today’s practice.

There’s a chance of more rain tomorrow, but the forecast looks clear for Sunday. With a retractable roof on University of Phoenix Stadium, the conditions can be controlled for the game, and the Seahawks elected not to soak themselves today.

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Greg Jennings: Not having Adrian Peterson had a great impact

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Vikings wide receiver Greg Jennings doesn’t have any more information than anyone else about whether running back Adrian Peterson will be back with the team for the 2015 season, but he doesn’t have much doubt that the team wants him back.

During an appearance with Mike Florio on PFT Live Friday, Jennings said that he thinks everybody from the front office down would be eager to welcome Peterson back to the team. That’s not too surprising, since he also thinks that not having Peterson in 2014 was a blow to the offense.

“It had a great deal of impact. Obviously when you’re talking about a guy like Adrian who any one of the other 31 teams would love to have as their running back, he changes the course of every game. … Not having him definitely impacted what we were able to do offensively,” Jennings said.

If Peterson does return, Jennings thinks he’ll find a coach in Mike Zimmer that has instilled the right culture for the organization and a quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater who impressed Jennings with his poise and maturity as the season progressed.

To find out what else Jennings shared during his visit to the show, check out the video of his entire visit.

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San Diego mayor creates stadium task force, including Jim Steeg

Kansas City Chiefs v San Diego Chargers Getty Images

While Roger Goodell was talking about the potential for the Rams to move to Los Angeles, another possible suitor was talking about plans to stay put.

Via David Garrick of U-T San Diego, mayor  Kevin Faulconer announced a nine-member task force to create a proposal for a new Chargers stadium.

The group includes longtime NFL executive Jim Steeg, who worked for the Chargers for five years, but left in 2010. Steeg spent 26 years working for the league prior to that stint.

The group also includes local business leaders, but having Steeg on board will provide the kind of insight into league business they need, if they’re going to find a viable way to keep the Chargers for looking elsewhere.

But NFL commissioner Roger Goodell urged Faulconer to get moving during his press conference Friday.

“I’m glad to hear he’s got a task force going,” Goodell said. “But they’ve been working at this for 12 years, and it’s something we need to see tangible results sooner rather than later.”

That’s a fairly broad swipe at the city, which hasn’t been able to come up with a deal to upgrade one of the worst stadiums in the league.

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No decision on Marshawn Lynch fine until after Super Bowl

Marshawn Lynch AP

Among the questions that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell fielded at his press conference Friday was one on the possibility that Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch will face a fine from the league as a result of his appearances in front of the media this week.

Lynch has stuck to his routine of answering every question from reporters the same way with Tuesday’s “I’m just here so I don’t get fined” gaining the most attention this week. He’s also worn a hat promoting his own Beast Mode line of clothing, which Adam Schefter of ESPN reported could draw a fine because it isn’t licensed by the NFL.

Goodell said Friday that any decisions about fines will be announced after the Super Bowl and offered no comment about his thoughts on potential penalties.

“It’s part of your job,” Goodell said of speaking to the media. “There are things in your job that you might not necessarily want to do. I think Marshawn understands the importance of the Super Bowl and the importance of his appearance and the importance of him as an individual in this game.”

Goodell also responded to Lynch’s teammate Richard Sherman’s suggestion that Goodell be forced to meet with the media every week by saying that he’s available to the media almost every day.

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Shad Khan “very optimistic” about Justin Blackmon returning in 2015

Justin Blackmon, Chris Harris AP

It’s been a long time since wide receiver Justin Blackmon has played a game for the Jaguars, but owner Shad Khan thinks that will change in 2015.

During an interview with the Florida Times-Union, Khan was asked whether he would welcome Blackmon back to the team. Khan said that he would and that he feels good about the wideout’s chances of playing for the team next season.

“Absolutely. As a matter of fact, I’m very optimistic. I think he’s paid his dues. I think he’s got his life together. I think he can be a role model for people who have gone through hard times. We’re waiting for him,” Khan said.

Blackmon is free to apply to the league for reinstatement from his substance-abuse suspension. He’s spent time in a treatment program since being suspended and recently pleaded no contest to marijuana possession charges related to an arrest last July. Once Blackmon applies, the league has 60 days to make a decision.

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Deflategate and franchise relocation dominate Goodell press conference

goodell AP

If you had told NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a few months ago that when he gave his Annual “State of the League” press conference before the Super Bowl he wouldn’t have been peppered with questions about Ray Rice and domestic violence, he surely would have been shocked — and surely would have breathed a sigh of relief.

But at Goodell’s press conference today, domestic violence was not the primary focus — or even a focus of the questions at all, as questions regarding Deflategate and franchise relocation dominated the discussion.

We’ll have plenty to say here at PFT about Goodell’s answers to various questions, but right now let’s take a look at the questions themselves. Here are the 26 questions Goodell took, grouped into their topics:

Deflategate

Bob Kravitz, WTHR in Indianapolis: Robert Kraft said you owe his team an apology if nothing comes of Deflategate. What are your thoughts?

Howard Eskin, Fox 29 TV: Will you hold Bill Belichick to the same standards in Deflategate as you held Sean Payton to in Bountygate? And why aren’t you available to the media every week, as Richard Sherman suggested?

Mike Reiss, ESPN: Has the NFL ever tested the air pressure of footballs in the middle of a game, and how important is that as a frame of reference in this investigation?

Heather Yako, NBC News 11 in Arizona: Why was Arizona chosen to host the Super Bowl and has Deflategate detracted from the game?

Bart Hubbuch, New York Post: Richard Sherman suggested that you may show favoritism to some owners, including Robert Kraft. How do you react to that?

Jason Cole, Bleacher Report: How is throwing a deflated ball drastically different from throwing a spitball in baseball?

Mark Maske, Washington Post: Will the standards you laid out after Spygate for teams complying with rules continue to apply in Deflategate?

Franchise relocation and ownership issues

Jim Thomas, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: What is the league’s level of commitment to keeping a team in St. Louis and have the Rams’ owners followed the league’s relocation guidelines?

Sam Farmer, Los Angeles Times: 2015 marks the 20th year without a franchise in the nation’s largest market. Rams owner Stan Kroenke has the resources to move a team to Los Angeles. What criteria will the league use to determine whether a team moves to Los Angeles and what if an owner goes rogue and moves without the NFL’s blessing?

Amber Dixon, NBC Las Vegas: Las Vegas has long expressed interest in having a pro sports team. Could Las Vegas sustain a professional team?

Vic Carucci, Buffalo News: In light of the new ownership in Buffalo, what’s your perspective on the need for a new stadium?

Kevin Acee, San Diego Union-Tribune: Can you speak to the fans in San Diego about whether they need a new stadium and has Dean Spanos done enough to demonstrate that he’s tried to work things out locally?

Jeff Duncan, New Orleans Times-Picayune: A lawsuit has been filed in New Orleans questioning Saints owner Tom Benson’s ability to run the team. In your opinion, is Benson mentally and physically capable of running the team?

International expansion

John Sutcliffe, ESPN: It’s been since 2005 since the league has had a regular-season game in Mexico City and the fans don’t understand why. Can you explain why?

Neil Reynolds, Sky Sports: Why have earlier kickoff times been used for London games?

Ian Walker, London Evening Standard: What more does London need to do to grow the game and have a franchise there?

Goodell’s job performance

Barry Wilner, Associated Press: What do you plan to do, specifically, to restore face in the league and in the quote-unquote, Shield?

Darren McKee KKFN, Denver: A lot of people who had a job like yours would probably resign. Can you imagine any circumstances that would lead you to resign?

Rachel Nichols, CNN: A lot of issues have had a conflict of interest. When you hire an outside investigator like Ted Wells, you’re still paying him and Robert Kraft is still paying you. What steps can you take to mitigate some of those conflict of interest issues?

Ron Mott, NBC News: How would you describe your relationship with the players and how will you improve that relationship going forward?

Ken Belson, New York Times: Do you believe you deserve a pay cut for your performance?

Dan Kaplan, Sports Business Journal: Do you think you’ll reach your goal of growing to the point where the NFL will have $25 billion in revenue?

NFL’s youth football and Play 60 initiatives

Jason Winik, Dallas Sports Source: What can you do to get more participation in youth football?

Bobby Sena, NFL Play 60 Super Kid: “Play 60 is an important part of my life, but how do you play 60? I told you it was a tough question.”

Ticket prices

Dave Briggs, CNBC: The average ticket is more than $10,000. Is that a concern that the league has looked into?

Media

Mike Garafolo, FOX Sports 1: Marshawn Lynch’s cooperation or lack thereof with the media has become a big story. What’s your take on how he handled the media this week and will he be fined?

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Demaryius Thomas: Some Broncos looked past Colts

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On Friday’s PFT Live, Denver wide receiver Demaryius Thomas was asked what went wrong for the Broncos, who crashed and burned as big favorites in the divisional round to Indianapolis in January.

While Thomas pointed to injuries as one of the reasons for the club’s exit, he also indicated that the 2014 Broncos were lacking in other areas, too.

“I feel like some guys, you know, didn’t have the fight or whatever it was,” Thomas said Friday. “It was totally a different team than last year.

“I think we had more talent this year, but it was a little more fight in that team last year, I think.”

In a follow-up question, PFT’s Mike Florio asked: “How did it go wrong this year, then, from the fight standpoint?”

And here, Thomas indicated that Denver might have taken its off the ball against Indianapolis.

“I think one thing was, I feel like guys kind of looked over the Colts,” Thomas said. “You had guys always talking the night before the game, you had, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go to New England and play New England.’ And I think that was one of the big things.”

The Broncos fell 43-21 at New England in November, and they likely would have been underdogs in a rematch. But we’ll never know whether these Broncos could have turned the tables with a Super Bowl berth on the line.

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Roger Goodell says Tom Benson is in “complete control”

Tom Benson AP

Saints owner Tom Benson’s daughter and grandchildren claim that he’s not fit to retain control of his team.

But NFL commissioner Roger Goodell disagrees.

Goodell said he felt Benson was “in complete control” of the Saints, and perfectly confident in his ability to handle his business.

He said he spoke with Benson recently, describing him as “energetic” and engaged about league issues.

It was an expected vote of confidence for Benson, who wants to transfer control of the Saints and Pelicans to his wife Gayle.

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Jared Allen: Bears hired a “win-now” coaching staff

Dallas Cowboys v Chicago Bears AP

When defensive end Jared Allen was looking for a team last offseason, he said he was looking for a team that could at least contend for a spot in the playoffs.

Allen signed with the Bears, who fell well short of that goal during a 5-11 season that cost head coach Marc Trestman and most of his coaching staff their jobs. Allen was a guest with Mike Florio on PFT Live Friday and said he thought what Trestman and the other coaches were selling “didn’t come across.” He’s yet to meet with new coach John Fox or defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, but Allen said he thinks it’s a group that can send a message that will get across.

“What the organization’s done is they’ve really put together a coaching staff that’s a win-now type of staff. I think with the talent we have on our roster this can be a staff that can maximize everything that we do,” Allen said.

For the rest of what Allen had to say about quarterback Jay Cutler, his work to provide homes for wounded veterans and more, check out the video below.

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Roger Goodell: Rules more important than competitive advantage

Super Bowl Football AP

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said early in his press conference that the investigation into the #DeflateGate is continuing, but was careful to not draw comparisons to previous investigations.

Asked specifically about his “ignorance is no defense” ruling on Sean Payton during the Saints bounty scandal, Goddell said it was not fair to compare the two.

“We don’t know enough in this case to know who is responsible, or if there was an infraction,” he said.

While it would be convenient to keep them separate, the issues about the league’s handling of these cases continues to come under question.

He also called the NFL “a game of rules” when asked about the potential of punishment for balls being

“Whether a competitive advantage is gained or not is secondary in my mind to whether a rule is violated,” he said.

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Bret Bielema says talks to coach Dolphins in 2012 broke down over Russell Wilson

Penn State v Wisconsin Getty Images

Every team in the NFL except the Saints and Raiders passed on Russell Wilson at least once in the 2012 NFL Draft before the Seahawks selected him in the third round.

If Bret Bielema had been able to convince the Dolphins that Wilson was worth taking earlier on, Sunday’s Super Bowl might be very different. Bielema is now the coach of Arkansas, but he was the coach of Wisconsin during Wilson’s final collegiate season and was interviewing with the Dolphins about their head coaching job in early 2012 when Wilson’s name came up.

Bielema said he told General Manager Jeff Ireland and others that he thought the Dolphins should draft Wilson in the second round, but the team disagreed with his take.

“They all looked at me like, ‘You can’t say that,'” Bielema said, via ESPN.com. “That’s the difference between college and pro. He’s undersized. He can’t throw.’ I was like, ‘OK, all right,’ and I honestly, that day, kind of pulled myself out of it.”

The Dolphins wound up drafting Ryan Tannehill with the eighth overall pick after hiring Joe Philbin to be their head coach and Tannehill’s college coach Mike Sherman as their offensive coordinator, setting up a pretty sizable “What if?” to consider about the trajectory of Miami and Seattle over the last three years.

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Goodell: League is committed to keeping teams in markets

St. Louis Rams v Oakland Raiders AP

Even though Rams owner Stan Kroenke has been doing more than just making eyes at Los Angeles, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell reiterated a degree of support for St. Louis.

“We want all of our franchises to stay in their current market,” Goodell said, when asked about the league’s stance on the stability of the Rams.

That was followed by the annual question about the league’s interest in the L.A. market, and Goodell largely sidestepped the issue of Kroenke’s plans to build a stadium there.

“There have been no determinations of us going to Los Angeles,” he said, saying that covered any particular team or stadium.

It doesn’t seem like Kroenke got that memo, as he’s made plans that seem to be well-received by the league.

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