Anyone who’s ever heard the preachings of renowned pastors like Ron Jaworski, Tom Jackson, and Mike Golic knows how difficult it is to win a game in the National Football League. A week of meaningful practices. An impeccable game plan. A prepared, motivated group of guys. Precise execution. And so on, until every fan understands what it takes for a team to come away with a win.
Got it? Good, because it’s mostly true and impressive and should be kept in mind when criticizing players and coaches. And now that we’ve established how tough a league it is, let’s rein the whole thing in a bit and ponder what the hell just happened in Week 16.
Sunday’s slate of games was supposed to clarify the playoff picture heading into the season’s final week. It didn’t, which is fine, because sometimes things just don’t clear up until Week 17, when excitement hits a high. The questions remaining about who’s in and who’s out are perfectly acceptable. What isn’t acceptable is the manner in which we got there and the questions we’re left with.
Are there any great teams in the league? Are there even any really good teams? Are there more than ten coaches who know what they’re doing? Are there 12 teams deserving of postseason play? Does parity ruin the first two rounds of the playoffs? And why can’t so many potential playoff teams string together 60 competent minutes when it matters?
Before hypothesizing further, let’s take a look at some of Sunday’s action:
–Miami had a shot to move to 9-6 and, even though they didn’t know at the time because Baltimore had yet to play, ultimately control their own Week 17 destiny. They were shut out by the 5-9 Bills. The juggernaut Bills, who started someone named Thad Lewis at quarterback.
–Kansas City had already clinched a playoff spot and could have kept hope alive for a first round bye, but they lost 23-7 at home to Indianapolis. KC’s only excuse is perhaps they’re expecting Indy in Round 1 and didn’t want to give anything away. At least, that’s probably what Andy Reid’s excuse is.
–Dallas, in a tight divisional race against Philadelphia, had to come from behind to beat the lowly, 3-win, lame duck Redskins. Granted, Tony Romo got hurt, but they were already down at that point. Then again, it’s the Cowboys.
–Needing a win to stay alive in the divisional race, Detroit lost. At home. To Elisha Manning and the New York Giants, who were just shut out at home the week before and came in at 5-9. And Jim Schwartz thinks the Detroit fans were out of line to boo. In related news, Jim Schwartz and I will have the same job status a week from today.
–Green Bay lost at home to Pittsburgh, allowing 38 points and nearly being eliminated from playoff contention, had Chicago not saved them. No Aaron Rodgers, sure, but let’s never again hear about Lambeau Field being an advantage for the Packers.
–Knowing a win, because of Green Bay’s loss, would clinch the division and secure a home playoff game, Chicago was obliterated, 54-11, by the Eagles. Jay Cutler must have some dirt on Marc Trestman, because this should be Josh McCown’s team.
–Knowing Miami’s loss put them in the driver’s seat for the AFC’s final playoff spot, the defending champion Ravens got blown out at home, 41-7, by a Patriots team coming off a loss to Miami and near losses to Cleveland and Houston. As usual, Joe Flacco stinks in the regular season.
No-shows from teams coached by Joe Philbin, Jim Schwartz, Marc Trestman, and, amazingly, John Harbaugh. Each of the teams mentioned has its issues and its reasons for what happened, some more valid than others. But guys like Philbin and Schwartz should be ashamed of themselves and their football teams. It’s tough deciding what’s worse: getting shut out in Buffalo, or losing at home in overtime to the Giants. And what was Marc Trestman doing all week? Telling his guys it’s acceptable to lose by 43 points on national TV with the division championship in hand? It’s baffling.
Sifting through the carnage and incompetence from the weekend, let’s take another look at some of those questions from earlier.
The “great” team this year has been Seattle, who lost Sunday at home with a chance to sew up home field advantage. Hard to blame them, as it was their first home loss in eons and they played a desperate, well coached Arizona team. Still, that’s our great team, losing in Week 16 at home with something on the line. The best indicator of there being no truly great team is that every team has something to play for in Week 17. Seattle and Denver, the prohibitive favorites to make it to the Super Bowl, need to win to ensure home field. Tough to recall many times where there hasn’t been a “Should Coach X rest his starters in Week 17?” debate heading into the final week.
While Sunday’s collective pile of garbage is Roger Goodell’s dream, it flies in the face of quality play, especially in the playoffs. The NFL won’t be contracting the amount of playoff teams anytime soon, but because parity is king and teams are so inconsistent, the league will continue to have overmatched playoff teams getting blown out during the first two rounds. You have the ’11 Lions getting smoked by the Saints, the ’11 Broncos getting annihilated by the Patriots, and the ’12 Vikings getting manhandled by the Packers. Obviously, not every playoff game can be competitive, but with 8-8 and 9-7 teams sneaking in year after year, the trend is moving towards poor teams making the playoffs and showing that they don’t really belong.
The most glaring takeaway from Sunday, however, is how shoddy the coaching is in the NFL. Yes, it’s tough, you can’t win them all, and sometimes a team will lay an egg. In fact, it’s reasonable for even good teams to throw up two or three stinkers a season, still manage to go 10-6 or 11-5 and have an overall successful year. But Week 16 showed that when push comes to shove, the number of coaches who can get the job done shrinks more and more every year. The players make the plays, but the coaches are charged with putting them in position to win.
Earlier this week on WEEI sports talk radio, Adam Schefter relayed a fascinating stat: Since the year 2000, there have been, on average, 6.8 coaching changes per year in the NFL. A staggering number, it means each team, on average, changes it’s head coach every 4-5 years. On average, by the time a player’s rookie contract ends, after his fourth year, the coach who helped draft and develop him will be fired. At the very least, it makes you appreciate guys like Mike Tomlin, Marvin Lewis, and Bill Belichick.
Digging deeper, it seems like we need Malcolm Gladwell to figure out why the hell NFL coaches are so interchangeable and why so few make a lasting impression. If Gladwell (or anyone else) has already done this, please let me know because I’d love to check it out. I’m not talking about why coaches get fired. No, I’m thinking about why so few coaches actually make a difference and consistently have their teams ready to play, especially in big games.
Which coaches in the NFL right now would you trust heading into a big game? The locks are Bill Belichick, John Harbaugh, Jim Harbaugh, Mike Tomlin, and Sean Payton. John Fox is in the conversation, as is Andy Reid. Sure, Mike McCarthy and Tom Coughlin are Super Bowl winning coaches while Jim Harbaugh has been to the big game, but McCarthy and Coughlin have been embarrassed enough times—regular season and playoffs alike—to be labeled as inconsistent and unreliable.
Anyone else? Mike Smith, Pete Carroll, and Jeff Fisher don’t make the cut, and guys like Chip Kelly, Bruce Arians, and Doug Marrone, while promising as rookies, are too green for this conversation. Again, it needs to be asked, why are there only a handful of guys in the entire world who can adequately prepare an NFL team for a big game on a consistent, year-in, year-out basis? NFL owners and general managers search high and low looking for the next guy. Maybe it’s Chip Kelly. Hell, maybe Marc Trestman, plucked from the CFL, beats Green Bay this week and guides Chicago to a deep postseason run. Maybe it’s someone like Ron Rivera, who keeps his job long enough to prove he belongs. The point is, we don’t know who that next truly competent, reliable coach will be and where he’ll come from.
It’s possible that we as football fans have underestimated how difficult it is to coach in the NFL. Still, it makes you wonder why such a high percentage of coaches fail. Do they not understand that it takes 100 hours of work every week? Do they not garner the trust of their players? Are they simply behind the curve when it comes to Xs and Os? As an observer, it’s impossible to tell if the majority of coaches just don’t belong, or if we should recalibrate the list of “The most difficult tasks in pro sports” to include “Coaching an NFL team” near or at the top. Until a new crop of truly trustworthy coaches comes along, let’s just agree that for now, it’s a combination of both.