Well, the 17-week marathon known as the NFL regular season finally is over. Given the current labor climate, it may be the last 17-week season we ever have.
In 2011, there could be fewer than 17 weeks. By 2012, there probably will be more than 17 weeks.
But this year there were 17, and the 17th won’t truly be over for us until we offer up our 10 takes regarding the day that was.
1. Postseason turnover rate creates hope for all.
So how can every fan of every 0-0 team come up with a plausible path to the Super Bowl, regardless of how poorly the team played in the prior season? Look no farther than the annual playoff turnover rate.
This year, five of the 12 teams from 2009 were ejected from the postseason pool, with the Steelers, Chiefs, Bears, Falcons, and Seahawks replacing the Bengals, Chargers, Vikings, Cowboys, and Cardinals. In past years, six or more were given the boot.
But five is enough to give the 20 teams that didn’t make it reasonable hope that, come 2011, they have a reasonable chance of getting to the playoffs.
And once a team is in the playoffs, anything can happen.
2. Seahawks could be a tough out on Saturday.
Again, once a team is in the playoffs, anything can happen. The Seahawks aren’t easy to beat at home, as they showed on Sunday night against the Rams. When the Saints come to town on a short week to play in a loud stadium with no protection against the elements, who knows?
Consider the fact that the Seahawks will be maligned all week as a team that’s not only unworthy of hosting a playoff game but also unfit to even be in the tournament, thanks to their 7-9 record. Coach Pete Carroll can push the buttons of his players, reminding them that everyone is saying that they shouldn’t have a seat at the grown-ups’ table, like the 8-8 Chargers and the 9-7 Cardinals of 2008.
That year, the Chargers beat the Colts and the Cardinals nearly won the Super Bowl.
That said, San Diego had Philip Rivers and other very good players and Arizona had Kurt Warner and other very good players. The Seahawks have Charlie Whitehurst and/or Matt Hasselbeck and otherwise not many very good players, and they’ll be facing the defending champions.
But if the Saints’ smattering of injuries haven’t healed and if the Seahawks can hang around, who knows?
We’re not saying that the Seahawks are destined to play in Dallas five years after qualifying for Detroit. Once they go on the road, they’ll likely collapse. For one afternoon on their home field before a noisy crowd that’s sick of hearing how much the local team doesn’t deserve to be hosting a playoff game, maybe the Seahawks can pull it all together and ensure that there won’t be a repeat champion.
3. We won’t believe that Favre isn’t coming back until he doesn’t come back.
During Sunday night’s postgame show, Bob Costas and I took up the question of whether the most recent three years of Brett Favre’s career will delay his entry into the Hall of Fame. Due to his performance in 2010 and his high-profile failure in the 2009 playoffs and his entanglements with Jenn Sterger and the NFL’s decision that he essentially lied about it, I think Favre will definitely get in on the first try, but that some voters will want to make him wait a year or two.
The bigger question is whether the five-year waiting period finally will begin to run in 2011.
Favre says he’s done. Just like he said he was done after the 2007 season. And after the 2008 season. He knew not to pretend to slam the door after 2009, even though he badly wanted the media and the fans to agree with his belief that he was “going out on top,” despite the reality that he wasn’t.
Every January, he thinks he’s done. Every August, something happens.
This August, if the labor situation results in no offseason workouts and a truncated training camp, who better to play quarterback than a guy who has shown he doesn’t need those things? Moreover, there simply aren’t 32 quarterbacks in the world right now who are better than Favre.
He’ll be a free agent, and he won’t be bound to return to Minnesota, if he chooses to play. But if Leslie Frazier becomes the permanent head coach and if Darrell Bevell stays as offensive coordinator, Favre and Bevell could run the offense without Brad Childress telling Brett and Bevell what to do and how to do it.
Besides, what better way to atone for a nightmarish 2010 season of high expectations that couldn’t be met than to come back for one more season with reduced expectations that will easily be exceeded?
We won’t assume Favre is done until two seasons go by without Favre playing. There could be a year or two of Roger Clemens in Favre, where he swoops in for part of a season and continues to try to walk off into the sunset with that elusive second Super Bowl trophy.
That desire to duplicate John Elway’s Hollywood ending has yet to be quenched, and after five or six months away from the game Favre will start thinking again about whether he could pull it off with one more year.
4. Coughlin can’t be effective without an extension.
Promptly after the Giants’ season ended without a playoff appearance for the second straight year, the team announced that coach Tom Coughlin will be back.
But under what terms?
He’s signed through 2011, and it’s possible that Coughlin will simply finish out his contract and call it a career. Apart from the distraction inherent to having a lame-duck head coach in the nation’s largest market, the locker room may not respond well to a coach whom everyone knows is on his last tour. It happened to the Seahawks under Mike Holmgren in 2008, and to the Steelers under Bill Cowher in 2006.
Even if he intends to retire after one more season, the team’s best move would be to extend Coughlin’s contract by as little as a year, and to deny repeatedly that it will be his last season.
Even if it will.
5. Haley needs to overhaul his image now.
Chiefs coach Todd Haley already has developed a reputation for being a big-feeling pain in the butt, a Parcells-style hard ass who has yet to win anything that would justify his attitude or demeanor. The perception was underscored by the decision of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis to leave Kansas City for the same position at a collegiate program, a clear step down for a guy who had quickly rediscovered his NFL magic after a failed stint at Notre Dame.
It would make plenty of sense for Haley to pursue former Broncos coach Josh McDaniels to replace Weis. But Haley’s actual or perceived ego, insecurities, and/or arrogance possibly will get in the way.
Actually, the availability of McDaniels gives Haley a golden opportunity to change his image. If the perception is reality, Haley wouldn’t want McDaniels. If Haley hires McDaniels, then perhaps Haley isn’t so bad after all — and perhaps he’s capable of changing.
Either way, Haley needs a solid offensive coordinator. He didn’t have one last year, and the team suffered for it. This time around, Haley would be wise to reunite McDaniels with quarterback Matt Cassel, if Haley wants to actually achieve the kind of success that would partially justify the manner in which he carries and conducts himself.
6. Devaney deserves lots of credit for turning around the Rams.
The Associated Press coach of the year award could be given to several different candidates. Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley, Andy Reid, Lovie Smith, and Mike Smith all deserve consideration.
The executive of the year award, handed out most prominently by Sporting News, likewise could be given to one of multiple men. But none are more deserving than Rams G.M. Billy Devaney.
Even though the Rams failed to polish off their resurgent season with a spot in the playoffs, St. Louis won more games in 2010 than in 2007, 2008, and 2009 combined. And they have the foundation to contend over the long haul, thanks to the decision to use the first overall pick in the 2010 draft on quarterback Sam Bradford.
Devaney didn’t flinch, even though Bradford’s shoulder had been blown up during his final season of college football and despite the lure of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. It’s a quarterbacks’ league, and the Rams finally have a franchise quarterback again. Devaney deserves much of the credit for taking the risk that Bradford would be more like Peyton Manning and less like Ryan Leaf.
Sure, Devaney didn’t have much to lose (except his job). But Suh would have been the safe choice, and he would have made the Rams better. But not six games better.
7. Jones can easily prove that the Sherman interview isn’t a sham by promoting him.
Clearly, the Cowboys are going to hire Jason Garrett as the franchise’s next head coach. They’ll make the move after satisfying the Rooney Rule, which requires at least one minority candidate to be interviewed.
Even though owner Jerry Jones has denied that a decision has been made, his vow to move quickly means that, as a practical matter, a decision has been made. And that the decision will be to hire Garrett.
So what of receivers coach Ray Sherman, who’ll be interviewed for the head-coaching job? Well, if Jones regards Sherman as a serious candidate to be the team’s head coach, then Jones should consider Sherman to be a serious candidate to succeed Garrett as offensive coordinator.
Thus, if the interest in Sherman isn’t a sham, Sherman should be the next offensive coordinator of the Cowboys.
Let’s see if that happens.
8. Brady could be the best ever.
Early last year, we made the case that a win by the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV could put quarterback Peyton Manning on track to be known as the undisputed best ever, since he would be 2-0 in the games that matter most and on track to take all of Brett Favre’s career records (except the one previously held by George Blanda). When the Colts lost, the debate remained a topic on which reasonable minds could differ, with some folks lining up behind stats masters like Favre and Marino and others focusing on lords of the rings like Montana and Bradshaw and others considering men with a mixture of both, like Elway and Manning.
By the time his career ends, Tom Brady could be the one to unite both camps. He has three Super Bowl wins, he’s working on his fourth, and there’s a sense that he could end up with five. While his excellent 2010 season falls short statistically when compared to an uncanny 2007, Brady still had one of the best all-time performances this year, with a passer rating of 111.0, 3,900 yards on the nose, 36 touchdowns, and only four interceptions.
He has said he plans to play into his early 40s. He seems to be getting even more intense with age. And his lost season of 2008 due to a Week One ACL tear has given him a genuine appreciation of the possibility that it can all go away at any given time, so he gives all that he has on every snap.
For now, we’re not declaring Brady the best ever. But based on the way he is playing this year, he could finally provide some clarity to a question that currently has no answer on which a majority of NFL fans and followers can agree.
9. The Ravens will be a dangerous team in the playoffs.
Sure, their defense has had periodic — and uncharacteristic — collapses this year. Yes, some of their key players are getting a little older and a little slower. Obviously, the offense hasn’t had a much punch as expected.
But the Ravens show up for the playoffs, even without playing a home game.
In 2008, they played in three road playoff games, winning two. In 2009, they played two road playoff games, winning one.
Next weekend, they’ll head to Kansas City as the No. 5 seed, where they’ll be expected by many to put a dagger in the hearts of the Arrowhead faithful, setting up a division-round showdown with the Patriots or the Steelers.
Last year in the playoffs, the Ravens destroyed New England on their own field. Baltimore then gave the Pats all they could handle during the 2010 regular season. Though another blowout would be highly unlikely, it’s just as unlikely that the currently dominant Patriots will going away.
So keep an eye on the Ravens. As long as they can avoid having to play the Colts, who for whatever reason match up very well with the Ravens, John Harbaugh’s team could once again make some noise as a road team in the AFC postseason.
10. Division matchups partially obscured the mail-it-in mentality.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has made clear his feelings regarding teams not playing hard in the final weeks of the regular season. This year, a closely-packed chase for postseason positioning kept everyone focused and motivated through 16 weeks. In Week 17, a schedule featuring division-only games gave the league a strong sense of rivalry, prompting only a handful of teams to pull or limit starters and no one to really notice or complain about those that did.
In the end, it remains impossible to make meaningless games meaningful without truly finding a way to make them meaningful. But with a season that remained competitive through December and that featured games in Week 17 between teams that typically play harder against each other than they play against teams from other divisions or conferences, the last day of the season wasn’t as unsatisfying as it has been in past years.
That said, we still think that playoff seeding should be based on performance down the stretch, which would give teams a strong incentive to play all 16 games like they count — because all 16 games would.