Last season, the New England Patriots became the first NFL team to post a 16-0 regular season record. They lost 2007 MVP Tom Brady to a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter of their first game in 2008 but rallied behind Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Matt Cassel to post an 11-5 record. Incredibly, that is not good enough to qualify for a playoff field that includes one division champion with an 8-8 record (San Diego) and another division champion that is 9-7 (Arizona).
Of course, New England's disappointment and frustration does not compare to Detroit's; this year the Lions "achieved" a dubious form of record setting "perfection," becoming the first NFL team to post an 0-16 regular season record.
The adoring media tried their best to turn 2008 into some kind of coronation for Brett Favre but his on field production simply never measured up to the hype and his season in New York ended exactly as I predicted it would: without a playoff berth.
Here are some quick hits about some of the Week 17 games:
*The Patriots concluded the season by beating Buffalo 13-0 on the road in a game that featured winds that were strong enough to literally bend goal posts. During the pregame reports, I thought that ESPN's David Amber was going to be whisked off to the Land of Oz; I've never understood why weather reporters and sports reporters file their reports from outside no matter what. In both cases, we know exactly where they are reporting from so why do they literally have to risk life and limb? Would you not believe that it is windy in Buffalo unless you saw Amber and his cameraman being tossed around Ralph Wilson Stadium?
Obviously, the blustery conditions all but eliminated the passing game; Cassel was an efficient 6-8 for 78 yards, which may not sound like much but translates into a 105.2 passer rating. Coach Belichick took the wind after the Patriots won the opening coin toss and he preserved that advantage by using his timeouts when the wind was at New England's back. Late in the game, he surprised the Bills by having Cassel unleash a 57 yard quick kick on third down and that huge shift in field position helped to seal the win. This is what is called "situational football": planning ahead so you know what is the right call no matter what situation develops (as opposed to what the Cleveland Browns do, which could politely be called "snafu football"--not planning ahead and thus being clueless about what to do even in situations where the right call should be obvious).
In order to make the playoffs, the Patriots needed the Jaguars to beat the Ravens or the Jets to beat the Dolphins. Neither of those results happened, so Belichick and company failed to qualify for postseason play for the first time since 2002; New England went 14-2 and won Super Bowl titles in each of the next two seasons, so whether Brady or Cassel is at the helm in 2009 the Patriots figure to be back in the playoff mix.
*Dallas-Philadelphia has been a heated rivalry for decades and the temperature for this week's matchup turned up a few degrees when events lined up to turn the game into a "win or go home" situation for both teams (when the day began, only Dallas had been in position to clinch a playoff berth merely by winning but that changed in light of the results of some of the 1 p.m. games). It would not have been surprising to see either team win an intradivisional matchup with playoff implications--but it was surprising to see one team basically roll over and die to the extent that early in the second half the announcers were already talking about the Eagles resting their starters for next week's playoff game.
The Cowboys committed five turnovers--including two fumbles and one interception by Tony Romo--and numerous mental errors in an embarrassing 44-6 loss. It sure looked like Terrell Owens (six receptions, 103 yards) was the only Cowboy who really showed up to play--and that is why it is baffling that in the first half, with the outcome still very much in doubt, the Cowboys inexplicably tried to feature receiver Roy Williams, who apparently does not even know how to properly run pass patterns; Williams had one reception for -4 yards (that is not a typo) in the first half. Do you think it might have made more sense to find more ways to get the ball in Owens' hands?
Despite being poorly utilized this year by the Cowboys, Owens still finished with 69 receptions, 1052 yards (15.2 yards per reception average) and 10 touchdowns. This is his eighth season with at least 1000 yards and 10 TD receptions. Here is the list of receivers in NFL history who have compiled more such seasons than Owens: Jerry Rice (nine). Owens is one of the greatest receivers in NFL history and he is still highly productive but, make no mistake, his numerous enemies in the media will be sure to spin the story of Dallas' collapse--not just in this game but throughout this disappointing season--so that Owens is the primary scapegoat. When someone says that Dallas lacks "chemistry" that is usually a code word to mean that Owens "poisoned" the locker room. Guess what? The Shaq-Kobe Lakers lacked "chemistry" but they won three championships and made it to the Finals a fourth time; the 1970s Oakland A's lacked "chemistry" but won three straight World Series titles. What you need to win championships is talent (obviously) and a group of players who are committed and focused. The Cowboys are not committed to playing winning football and many of their players obviously lack focus.
The more I watch Dallas play, the more I am convinced that Coach Wade Phillips is a big part of the problem. The record shows that he has coached seven full NFL seasons and parts of two others without winning a single playoff game. Even more disturbingly, he's the "genius" who watched Doug Flutie lead the Buffalo Bills to 10 wins in 15 starts in 1999, then ostensibly rested him for the 16th game before benching Flutie for Rob Johnson in the playoffs. Johnson looked like a quarterback out of central casting (6-4, strong arm) while Flutie--generously listed at 5-10--did not. The only problem is that Flutie could actually play, while Johnson only looked the part on the sidelines but consistently came up short under fire. I've never completely trusted Phillips as a coach after that horrible lapse in judgment but Dallas' 13-3 record last year made me think that maybe he had become wiser with age. However, the undisciplined, disorganized team Dallas put on the field this season has Phillips' fingerprints all over it. During the Eagles game, Phillips had a dazed and confused look that has not been seen on NFL sidelines since Bruce Coslet was coaching the Bengals so ineptly that Corey Dillon refused to even go back into a game and participate in the farce (Bill Belichick, a real NFL coach who made Dillon a key player on a Super Bowl winning team, demonstrated that Cincinnati's problems had more to do with Coslet than Dillon).
Dallas owner Jerry Jones pledged before the Eagles game that he would not change coaches no matter what happened in that contest. Do you think he might want a mulligan on that one?
*The Browns finally fired General Manager Phil Savage, giving him the ax shortly after the team finished a 4-12 season with a 31-0 thrashing at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Coach Romeo Crennel will soon follow Savage out the door. Savage and Crennel arrived in Cleveland amid much hype about how they would run the organization better than Butch Davis did. Here's the bottom line: the Browns were 24-40 with no playoff appearances during the four year Savage-Crennel regime, while the Browns were 25-39 with one playoff appearance during the previous four years. Savage is a legend in his own mind as a talent evaluator but as Mary Kay Cabot notes, Savage's Cleveland legacy is a roster that not only lacks talent at key positions but is filled with overpaid underachievers; Savage also depleted the Browns' supply of draft picks through trades that hardly turned the Browns into a contender for anything other than NFL records for futility, such as their ongoing streak of 24 straight quarters without scoring an offensive touchdown; even the legendary 0-26 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and this season's inept Detroit Lions were not that impotent offensively.
Miami and Atlanta proved this season that rebuilding a football team does not have to involved enduring years and years of futility. Cleveland owner Randy Lerner owes it to the many loyal Browns fans to hire a real General Manager who actually understands how to build a football team and then Lerner must let that GM hire a coach who is on the same wavelength with him so that the management is not signing players who the coaching staff does not want to or know how to use. That sounds simple and obvious but for some strange reason Savage was bringing in players that Coach Crennel did not think fit into his game plans. Crennel took the high road publicly at all times, while Savage openly said that he had built a good roster and it was up to the coaching staff to get the most out of all of the wonderful players he had signed. It is pretty clear now that Ozzie Newsome, not Savage, is largely responsible for building Baltimore into a Super Bowl team previously and into a playoff contender once again; the Ravens sure have not missed a beat since Savage left the organization. If I owned the Browns, I'd basically write a blank check to Newsome to come back to Cleveland and help save the team for which he was a Hall of Fame tight end.
*The irony of the Brett Favre-Chad Pennington situation is so thick you could not cut it with a machete: before the season, the New York Jets cast aside Pennington like yesterday's newspaper in order to bring in Favre, a 39 year old quarterback whose offseason training program consisted of throwing some passes with some local high schoolers. Pennington proceeded to outplay Favre over the course of the season and then, with the AFC East title on the line in a game played in Favre's new home stadium, Pennington outplayed Favre decisively to help the Miami Dolphins to a 24-17 victory, winning the division and closing the door on New York's playoff hopes. Pennington went 22 of 30 for 200 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 113.2. This is the fourth straight game that Pennington has posted a passer rating of at least 100 and the Dolphins won each of those contests; he had a passer rating of at least 100 in eight of Miami's 16 games and finished the season with a rating of 97.4, second best in the NFL.
In contrast, Favre went 20 of 40 for 230 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions and a passer rating of 45.1 versus Miami. He did not post a passer rating higher than 61.4 in New York's last five games, four of which they lost, and he finished the season with a rating of 81.0, 21st out of the 32 passers who had enough attempts to qualify for the leaderboard. In those five games, Favre had two touchdowns and nine interceptions. Favre has recently been dropping not so subtle hints that he has a shoulder injury that may be affecting his passing. I realize that his consecutive games streak is precious to him--and that record is mindboggling--but the old saying is that if you are hurt you can play but if you are injured then you should sit out; if Favre is hurt, then he should have played without complaint (like just about everyone in the league is doing by this time of year) but if he is injured then he should have sat on the bench until the injury healed.
Pennington led the league in completion percentage and was among the league leaders for lowest percentage of pass attempts that were intercepted, while Favre led the NFL with 22 interceptions, four more than any other quarterback. Pennington also ranked sixth in the league in yards per attempt (7.67)--belying his reputation for not being able to connect on deep passes--while Favre was 22nd in the league (6.65) in this category.
It is an injustice that Favre--a mediocre quarterback at best this season--received a Pro Bowl nod but that Pennington did not. Perhaps Favre will rest his injured arm and give Pennington the opportunity to go to the Pro Bowl for the first time.