We're back! Despite our protests, the NFL carried on with action even while Grantland was on a much-needed holiday break. As a result, we have so much catching up to do. There's no time to make fun of coaches! We're just going to have to touch on as many subjects from Week 17 and Black Monday as possible.
Good Riddance, Captain?
Weeks 16 and 17 seemed like games that the Rex Ryan-era Jets would typically win. After getting blown out in Week 15 by the Eagles, the Jets were supposed to back-door their way into the playoffs with dramatic wins over the Giants and Dolphins before launching on an improbable run to the AFC Championship Game and inspiring millions of words about how Mark Sanchez simply wins football games.
Instead, well, you saw what happened. The Jets saw their chances fall to "slim" after losing 29-14 to the Giants in the Meadowlands Derby, and they hit "none" after a 19-17 defeat at the hands of a Dolphins team with nothing to play for. Neither performance was pretty. They managed to lose to the Giants despite holding Eli Manning to a 9-of-27 day, thanks to some awful tackling downfield and a game plan that somehow called for 59 passes by Sanchez. The Dolphins game came against a team that was without its best player (left tackle Jake Long) and ended with star wide receiver — and Week 17 team captain — Santonio Holmes sulking on the bench, removed from the lineup by offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer amid attacks by his teammates. What are the Jets to do?
Ryan's got a way to solve the problems: Get rid of the captaincy! Of course, it's Ryan who turned the captain's role on the team into a cartoon by selecting a weekly captain or group of captains upon bizarrely thin criteria. Ryan memorably named emergency quarterback Kevin O'Connell as a team captain against the Patriots because New England had previously cut O'Connell. Plaxico Burress was team captain against the Giants during both the Giants-Jets preseason game in August and the Week 16 tilt in December. In Week 17, the team turned to Holmes as their sole captain and got his first game without a catch as a pro.
Part of the blame does belong on Ryan. For all of his abilities to scheme up his defense and deflect criticism from his frequently embattled team, Ryan's way to pump up his players is almost always to raise the emotional stakes even further. He's like the boyfriend or girlfriend who tries to get his or her way in every fight by threatening to break up. That might work once or twice, but eventually, it's going to become an empty threat. He's been bailed out in the past by those long playoff runs, but after the loss to the Giants in Week 16, the Jets were always drawing very slim to their playoff hopes. And even if they had gotten there, the postseason was going to hold a group of mostly superior teams.
The "collapse" is getting chalked up to a lack of leadership and fractious team chemistry, but there are more tangible reasons why the Jets failed to meet their expectations this year. After recovering a higher percentage of fumbles than any other team in football over the past two seasons, the Jets fell on just 21 of the 50 fumbles in their games this year. After dominating opposing defenses for years, the offensive line struggled with injuries (Nick Mangold) and poor play (Wayne Hunter). Teams looking for a way off of Revis Island were granted safe haven by Antonio Cromartie and overmatched safety Eric Smith.
One positive for 2011, though, is that the defense was a lot better than it looked. The Jets were 20th in points allowed, but that's exclusively because the team played at a bizarrely fast pace and alongside an offense that reveled in three-and-outs. The Jets faced 201 possessions in 2011, which was tied with the Bears and Lions for the most of any team in football. They were second in yards allowed per drive and sixth in points. Even if they do cut Bart Scott as rumored this offseason, the defense isn't the problem.
That leaves the question of what to do with Holmes, whom the New York Daily News is already trying to release. The reality is that the Jets are essentially stuck with Holmes for salary cap purposes, as he's already guaranteed nearly $8 million for the 2012 season and will be guaranteed another $8 million for 2013 if he's on the roster on February 8. Cutting him would create too much dead cap space for a veteran team that doesn't have the salary flexibility to eat Holmes' salary and find another top wideout. The Jets need to rehabilitate Holmes, not scapegoat him. They don't have much of a choice.
Narrative Death Match
In the battle of storylines between "The Cowboys can't win in December" and "The Giants quitting on Tom Coughlin," Dallas' tried-and-true formula prevailed by capitulating on Sunday night, consigning them to an 8-8 season and a second consecutive season without the playoffs.
The Giants were a little lucky. Tony Romo's hand clearly wasn't healthy enough to take snaps from under center, forcing the Cowboys into a pistol depth at quarterback for most of the game and limiting the effectiveness of their running game. New York also managed to recover three of the four fumbles in the game, while a fifth fumble, recovered by the Cowboys, was wiped off the board because of a penalty. The real story, though, was how the Giants managed to make an expensively assembled defense look like something the Rams would frown upon.
The obvious lightning rod coming out of the game was Terence Newman, the 33-year-old cornerback who was nearly cut during the offseason after an injury-plagued 2010. The team reportedly wanted Nnamdi Asomugha, but ended up sticking with Newman after Asomugha signed with the Eagles.1 Asomugha didn't have a great year, and Newman made a number of big plays during the campaign, but he seemed to be at the helm for a disproportionate number of their collapses, too. That was certainly the case on Sunday night, as Newman was targeted on virtually every one of Eli Manning's big plays. It had to be the last straw for Newman, whose tenure in Dallas surely ended with their loss in New Jersey. The Cowboys locked slot cornerback Orlando Scandrick into a contract extension this season, but Scandrick is overmatched on an island outside. After Newman went down with an injury on the final drive, the Giants promptly threw an easy lob to Hakeem Nicks over the head of the 5-foot-10 Scandrick for a touchdown. Unless Alan Ball suddenly takes a leap forward over the summer, the Cowboys will need a veteran cornerback to play across from Mike Jenkins.
Spare some criticism, though, for safety Gerald Sensabaugh. The 28-year-old struggled to find a long-term contract when he entered free agency after finishing up his rookie contract with the Jaguars, but after consecutive short-term deals with the Cowboys, Dallas chose to lock him up in November with a six-year, $25 million contract that guaranteed him $8 million. On Sunday, Sensabaugh showed what he can do by taking one of the most embarrassing routes you'll ever see a safety take to a football on Victor Cruz's long pattern. With Newman in coverage on an out pattern and a pick rapidly developing, the deep-lying Sensabaugh apparently found himself solely capable of moving upon two axes. Instead of taking a conservative route and ensuring that Cruz would be limited to a first down, Sensabaugh acted like he was one of the ghosts in Pac-Man and blindly followed Newman, who was following Cruz, into the lane being created by the pick. The result was an easy touchdown for Cruz.
And as we mentioned when we chased scapegoats after the first Cowboys loss to the Giants, the inability of that Dallas pass rush to get to Eli Manning is awful damning. Manning dropped back 33 times on Sunday and was sacked just two times. In their two games against the Giants, the Cowboys sacked Manning on just 2.4 percent of his dropbacks. During his other 14 games, the opposition sacked Manning twice as frequently as the Cowboys did, taking him down on 4.8 percent of dropbacks. DeMarcus Ware had 1.5 sacks on Sunday, but opposite number Anthony Spencer failed to sack Manning and finished with just six on the year. Playing across from arguably the best pass-rusher in football, Spencer now has a total of 17 sacks in 47 starts over the past three seasons. He'll be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and during his time with the Cowboys, Spencer has shown little indication that he is worth keeping around.
The team will likely make other moves. Middle linebackers Bradie James and Keith Brooking are each in the final year of their contracts, and with declining skills, are unlikely to return. Perpetually disappointing defensive end Marcus Spears, a former first-round pick, somehow got a $19.2 million extension from the Cowboys over the summer before losing his job during the season, and he's likely to part ways with the organization as well. The offense will always attract the attention in Big D, but it's the D that needs big repairs if the Cowboys are to contend in 2012.
Flynn and Out
How selfish is Matt Flynn? With Aaron Rodgers' MVP candidacy sitting on the sidelines, Flynn could have boosted Rodgers' hopes by putting up awful numbers against the Lions, thereby signifying that Rodgers was uniquely special in producing fantastic performances with one of the league's best groups of receivers. Instead, Flynn had to go out and throw for six touchdowns and make himself into the offseason's most intriguing free agent.
OK, fine, maybe Flynn was just playing to the peak of his seemingly considerable ability. The numbers speak for themselves: 31-of-44, 480 yards, six touchdowns, one pick. That's against the Lions and without his team's top wideout, Greg Jennings. Not bad.
It goes without saying that you probably need to be good at your job to throw six touchdown passes in one game, but it's a little remarkable to consider the company Flynn just joined. The list of quarterbacks who have thrown for six scores or more in a regular-season game since the merger is basically a good cheat sheet for Elite Quarterbacks 101. It includes a bunch of guys who don't need two names to be identified, including Brady, Brees, Favre, Fouts, Kelly, Peyton, Marino, Montana, Namath, and Rypien. Only the most notable-and-simultaneously-delusional Jesse Palmer fans would suspect that he threw six touchdowns in an NFL game, but we'll note for history's sake that Carson was the Palmer who pulled it off, as did Bob Griese and Tommy Kramer. Kramer is unquestionably the worst quarterback on that list, and he started 110 games as a pro. Flynn could be onto something here.
Assuming that Rodgers makes it healthy through whatever postseason run the Packers embark on, we have likely seen the last of Flynn in a Packers uniform. He is an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and while the Packers might like to franchise him and then trade him to a team in search of a young quarterback, it's going to be difficult for them to fit the $20 million Flynn would make as the franchise quarterback underneath the cap.
So as an unrestricted free agent, where does Flynn end up? One obvious landing point is Seattle, which employs former Packers staffer John Schneider as general manager, but the Seahawks have Tarvaris Jackson signed for 2012 and are unlikely to have much cap space after their free agent spending spree last season. Our hunch is that Flynn gets about $10-12 million in guaranteed money on a multiyear deal, which leaves him with a limited list of suitors. One more plausible situation is Cleveland, where team president Mike Holmgren is likely a fan of Flynn's work in the West Coast offense.
The Packers, meanwhile, will likely turn to former Texas Tech star Graham Harrell as their primary backup for Rodgers. If Flynn succeeding in this system suggests that Rodgers isn't all he's cracked up to be, what would a big game from Harrell say? And after that, who else will the Packers bring in? An XFL practice squad guy? A particularly well-prepared high school backup? Somebody in Green Bay is either clearly committed to making Aaron Rodgers look bad or really, really good at scouting and developing quarterbacks.
Mendenhall for Naught
On the final play of the first quarter during Pittsburgh's 13-9 win over Cleveland on Sunday, Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL. The Illinois product will obviously miss the entire postseason, and he'll enter into the final year of his rookie contract with a knee that will likely still be healing for most of the season. It's a huge disappointment for Mendenhall and the Steelers.
Will it really affect the Steelers heading into the playoffs, though? It's debatable. Mendenhall certainly has the biggest name of any Steelers running back, but his production is positively ordinary. He's only averaged 4.1 yards per carry on his 228 rushing attempts this year. Meanwhile, primary backup Isaac Redman has averaged 4.4 yards a pop on 110 attempts, while third-stringers Mewelde Moore and Jonathan Dwyer have combined for 280 yards on just 38 carries, for a rushing average in excess of seven yards.
It's not totally uncommon for a backup to produce a rushing average superior to the starter, but that usually happens because the starter is accruing a large quantity of touches, including many in less-than-ideal situations for gaining consistent yardage. It's hard to fathom that Mendenhall is such a back, since he's only carried the ball about 15 times a game and had just one game this season with more than 19 carries. The DVOA statistic, which adjusts for quality of opposition and game situation, says that Redman and Mendenhall are virtually identical; Mendenhall's DVOA is at 3.8 percent, while Redman's is at 3.5 percent.
It would be one thing if Mendenhall had a history of success, but he now has 813 NFL attempts and a rushing average at those same 4.1 yards per carry. His case for being a star basically amounts to his status as a first-rounder and two big games in 2009 against the Chargers and Broncos, in which he combined for 320 yards against two below-average run defenses. He's never developed into a reliable receiver, catching just 68 passes in four seasons. We hoped and expected that he would take a step forward this season after a somewhat disappointing 2010, but if anything, he had taken a step backward before the torn ACL.
If the Steelers can get Moore back from a sprained MCL to serve in his customary role as the third-down back, chances are that they won't miss Mendenhall whatsoever.
Black Monday Singles
The firings of Bill and Chris Polian in Indianapolis were unexpected, if not necessarily unwarranted. We just wrote about the Colts' failure to find players in the first round a few weeks ago, but it seemed likely that owner Jim Irsay would give Bill Polian a chance to rebuild the franchise, even if he insisted that the elder Polian fire his son and take over as the primary general manager. (It's entirely possible that this happened and Bill Polian refused.) Surprisingly, Irsay chose to pardon head coach Jim Caldwell, who had been a much more obvious candidate for the chopping block over the previous few weeks.
This could very well mean the end of the Polian Era in the NFL. Bill Polian has a reputation around the league as a rebuilding specialist after his work with the expansion Panthers and pre-Manning Colts, but he turned 69 in December; it's hard to imagine any team looking to do a comprehensive rebuild will turn to a general manager quite that old, although the 1-15 Dolphins went begging to a 67-year-old Bill Parcells after the 2007 season. Son Chris, meanwhile, has spent his entire career working underneath his father, starting as a scout with the Panthers in 1994 before being appointed Director of Pro Personnel with the Colts as a 27-year-old in 1998. He was named general manager in 2009, but it's hard to imagine that any other organization will give him a significant role in the immediate future without his father attached.
Raheem Morris oversaw one of the worst second halves put up by any team in recent memory. His Buccaneers went winless during their final eight games and were outscored by 158 points, the worst second-half point differential from a team since the 1990 Browns were outscored by 169 points during a 1-7 collapse to finish the year. It seemed like Morris was the last one to realize that his team wasn't any good, as the friendly schedule that his team rode to ten wins in 2010 gave way to what pro-football-reference.com called the league's second-toughest schedule in 2011. (Only the Rams faced a harder slate.)
At least some of the blame for the Buccaneers' problems must fall beyond Morris' shoulders. While Morris reportedly fought to keep troubled cornerback Aqib Talib after a felony arrest this offseason, general manager Mark Dominik filled the locker room with miscreants and gripers, even before he added Albert Haynesworth off of waivers from the Patriots. Meanwhile, the members of the Glazer family that own and operate the team appear more dedicated to their other sports franchise, soccer powerhouse Manchester United. The Buccaneers rank among the league leaders in available cap room, fewest real dollars spent, and blackouts. Whoever inherits Morris' job will have to deal with those same problems amid a division with three of the more promising teams in football.
Finally, while Steve Spagnuolo and Billy Devaney had the right plan in St. Louis, they failed to execute it when given the opportunity. Like many great teams, the Rams wanted to build through the lines out, so they focused on developing Chris Long at defensive end, used the second overall pick on mammoth Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith in 2009, and signed former Ravens center Jason Brown to a record-setting deal before drafting franchise quarterback Sam Bradford in 2010. With all the young guys likely to take a leap forward in 2011, the Rams were a trendy playoff team with a healthy bandwagon, led by yours truly at the helm.
Instead, everything beyond Long collapsed. It was a bad sign when the team moved Smith from the more important left tackle position to right tackle for rookie Rodger Saffold last season, and before he suffered a second season-ending concussion in two seasons, Smith was playing subpar football. Because of injuries, Brown was benched before returning to the lineup and when Bradford wasn't struggling with a high ankle sprain, he was watching his receivers drop passes and losing his confidence.
Unfortunately, the Rams never got to the point where they could build all the way out. They tried to get by with a group of journeymen and young talent at wide receiver, but the best guy of their group might have been Laurent Robinson, who ended up going to Dallas for free. Veteran Brandon Lloyd was imported in mid-season, but he failed to make an impact and is likely to leave alongside offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels this offseason. Meanwhile, injuries to the secondary flattened the defense, which failed to hold up on the plays where Long wasn't able to pressure the quarterback. St. Louis' first-stringers aren't great, and by the end of the year, they were basically down to a group of practice squad guys at cornerback. Their cornerbacks should be healthier in 2012, but the offensive line remains a total question mark. If Smith can develop and Brown stays in the lineup, the Rams can be competitive. If not, it doesn't really matter who takes the job.
Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.
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