The last weekend of the regular season can create illusions. Teams that have already qualified for the playoffs often rest their starters. Teams that have long since been knocked out of the playoffs frequently use the last game to assess their talent for the next season. As a result, league history is filled with final game performances that look great in the paper on Monday, but ultimately don’t tell us anything meaningful.
A 100-yard rushing performance from a third-string tailback against a second-string defense. A 300-yard passing game from a backup against a lineup of backups and backups to backups. (And only time will tell whether Matt Flynn’s spectacular performance for the Packers on Sunday was an illusion. Given that he was playing against a mostly-inspired Lions team and looked absolutely composed all day, here’s betting that it was no mirage.)
For the teams that had already qualified for the playoffs, the final regular season games rarely provide memorable moments. And the playoffs provide the opportunities for those teams to leave their fans with memories — good or bad — for the off-season.
But for those teams whose seasons end in the final regular season weekend, that last game often provides an image that will linger for months thereafter. And that was certainly the case for two teams and their respective star wideouts — the Jets’ Santonio Holmes and the Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald.
With the Jets still fighting for a playoff spot in their game against the Dolphins, the cameras found their star receiver (and team captain!) Holmes sitting by himself at the end of the bench. Apparently, offensive coordinator Brian Shottenheimer pulled Holmes from the game before one of the Jets’ most important drives of the season because of Holmes’ conduct in the huddle , and teammates have since accused Holmes of quitting on the team. Subsequent reports have indicated that Holmes’ conduct on Sunday was part of his on-going brooding that included criticizing Mark Sanchez’s efforts to spark the team’s pride during meetings earlier in the week. Again, keep in mind that Holmes is one of the Jets’ captains, a decision that was questioned when Rex Ryan first announced it and that looks even worse now.
While Jets fans will be stuck with the image of Holmes sitting on the bench for the next several months, Arizona Cardinals fans will have a much more pleasing image in their minds. Like the Jets, the Cardinals didn’t qualify for the playoffs. But little more than an hour after Holmes was spotted sulking on the sidelines, his counterpart in Phoenix, Fitzgerald, put on a show for the fans in a meaningless final game, including making a spectacular, one-handed, diving catch over the middle of the field in overtime. Only later did we learn that Fitzgerald played much of the game with bruised lungs and was apparently spitting blood on the sidelines. No one would have blamed him had he chosen to sit on the bench as the season wound down.
Jets fans who happened to be watching Fitzgerald’s performance surely had one thought on their minds: Holmes wouldn’t even have been on the field during a meaningless game, let alone have dived for that ball. And all indications are that they would have been right.
In sports and in life, we often talk about the importance of character. Those two lasting images — one star receiver sulking on the bench while another star receiver refused to quit — is a reminder of why we do so.
Holmes and Fitzgerald played against each other in one of the most exciting Super Bowls any of us have ever seen. Holmes’ game-winning touchdown catch may have been our final memory of that game, erasing the memory of Fitzgerald’s own touchdown moments earlier. But there is a reason that the Steelers released Holmes after that catch, and there is a reason the Cardinals signed Fitzgerald to a long-term contract. It is the same reason the Jets will ultimately part ways with Holmes, and the same reason that it is Fitzgerald we will all remember 20 years from now.
Both the Jets and the Cardinals fell short of the playoffs this year. Holmes left the Jets and their fans with concerns and consternation. Fitzgerald left the Cardinals and their fans with smiles on their faces.
NFL Playoffs coverage from Washington Post Sports:
NFL Playoffs: Schedule and game previews
Post Sports Live: NFL wild-card weekend predictions