Each week, the Washington Post’s Mark Maske provides in-depth Monday morning NFL analysis with “First and 10,” a dissection of the league’s most important developments from a weekend of action.
First and 10: Jan. 12
1. Conference Championships picks | 2. Calvin Johnson Rule under scrutiny
3. Pass interference reviewable? | 4. Are Redskins’ latest hopes justified?
5. Complaint not really about tampering | 6. Goodell’s position strengthened
7. Pats’ gimmicks | 8. Flacco’s interception
9. Rex Ryan’s new gig | 10. More hirings soon?
Brady vs. Manning for a Super Bowl berth is so 2014.
It’s on to Brady vs. Andrew Luck.
The fortunes of Brady and Manning, the two greatest quarterbacks of their generation and dual contenders in the debate about which quarterback is the best in NFL history, diverged sharply over the weekend.
Brady moved past Joe Montana as the NFL’s career leader in postseason touchdown passes as he and the New England Patriots beat the Baltimore Ravens, 35-31, here Saturday. The Patriots will host Luck and the Indianapolis Colts this coming Sunday at Gillette Stadium in their ninth AFC championship game appearance with Brady as their quarterback and Bill Belichick as their coach.
Manning and the Denver Broncos will be conspicuously absent next weekend in Foxborough. A season that had a Super Bowl victory-or-bust feel to it for the Broncos went bust Sunday. Manning lost to Luck, the quarterback who took his job in Indianapolis, for the ninth one-and-done playoff exit of his NFL career.
Manning had his struggles in the second half of the regular season, throwing 12 interceptions in an eight-game span prior to the regular season finale, and he was ineffective in Sunday’s 24-13 defeat to the Colts. Manning had a passer rating of 75.5 in a 26-for-46, 211-yard, one-touchdown performance.
He turns 39 in March. He had four touchdown passes and six interceptions in his last five games of the season, including Sunday.
On Monday the Broncos ousted John Fox as their coach after losing their opening playoff game for the second time in three years. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase is a head coaching candidate for other teams. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio is a head coaching contender in Oakland. If next season is a start-over approach for the Broncos, will Manning want to be involved in that?
Manning previously said he plans to play next season, when he is due a salary of $19 million. But he was less committal following the game Sunday.
“That’s kind of what I’ve said all along,” Manning said in his postgame interview with Denver radio station KOA, according to the Denver Post. “But I can’t answer every what-if circumstance. What if you’re not as healthy? What if certain coaches leave? I can’t answer every what-if situation. I think I’ll have to take some time to see how I feel, see how I feel physically.”
The question of Manning’s NFL future was raised on the CBS telecast even before the game ended Sunday. Opinions on the topic were everywhere as the night progressed.
“There will be as many questions about Peyton if he plays next season as there were in 2012 when he was coming back from the neck surgeries,” former agent Joel Corry wrote on Twitter.
Former NFL executive Andrew Brandt wrote on Twitter: “Just my sense, but do not see Peyton retiring, nor Denver ‘retiring’ him even with $19 million number for 2015.”
It is easy to make a case that Manning is the greatest regular season quarterback in NFL history. He has been named the league’s MVP a record five times. He became the NFL’s career leader in touchdown passes this season. He set single-season league records for passing yards and touchdown passes last season.
But it is tougher to make the case that he is the greatest quarterback ever, without any qualifier. His career postseason record dropped Sunday to 11-13. He has one career Super Bowl triumph.
The Broncos, after losing last season’s Super Bowl in lopsided fashion to the Seattle Seahawks, made a push to help Manning to his second career Super Bowl victory this season when they upgraded their defense in the offseason by signing defensive end DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward. They also added wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.
It didn’t work. Manning remains stuck on one Super Bowl win. He couldn’t beat Brady during their regular season meeting in November in Foxborough, dropping his career record against Brady to 5-11. Now he’s headed into the unknown while Brady continues to chase what would be a fourth career Super Bowl victory in tandem with Belichick.
“After this weekend there will be four teams standing,” Brady said Saturday evening after the win over the Ravens. “Every team starts the year with great hope and we were one of those teams. And we’re still standing. So it feels good. We have a great opportunity ahead of us to play a championship game at home. We’re going to need our best week. … We’ve certainly earned it and we’re proud of it. But we have bigger goals ahead.”
Brady threw three touchdown passes Saturday to up his career postseason total to 46, one more than Montana.
“He deserves it,” Belichick said Saturday. “Tom’s a great, clutch player with tremendous poise, vision, accuracy. So he’s done it with a lot of different receivers, a lot of different situations, against a lot of different defenses. I think that speaks to his greatness and his ability to perform consistently under pressure. [There’s] no quarterback I’d rather have than Tom Brady.”
The Patriots will play in their fourth straight AFC title game. It comes in a season in which they started 2-2 and Belichick fielded a series of questions following an ugly Monday night defeat at Kansas City in late September about whether Brady’s most productive days as a quarterback might be, at 37, behind him. That led to Belichick’s famed (or infamous) mantra of, “We’re on to Cincinnati.”
Belichick said Saturday: “You play to win your division. You play to be in the postseason. And then you play to be in the AFC championship game and see what happens after that. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what you work all year for is to get to this point. Thankfully we’ll be playing next week. We’ve had Tom through all those years that I’ve been here. Again, it’s great to have him and his ability and his poise and presence as our quarterback. And obviously he’s done a tremendous job today and through all those years.”
The Patriots overcame deficits of 14-0 and 28-14 Saturday against the Ravens. Belichick said Saturday night, even before he knew the Patriots’ opponent in the AFC title game, that the Patriots would have to play better this weekend.
“Look, down by 14 points twice, I don’t think that’s a formula to win a lot of playoff games,” he said. “I’m sure there’s a lot more playoff games that have been lost by teams down by 14 points in the middle of the first quarter or middle of the third quarter than won them. But again … give our players a lot of credit. They’re resilient. They’re mentally and physically tough. They hang in there. We’ve had other games like this … I’m happy about that and that’s what I like about this team. They’re a tough group and they never give up, no matter what the situation is. We were able to make enough plays to win today. But we’re going to have to play better next week no matter who we play. We have to do that.”
… AND TEN
A 6-0 start to the postseason picks gave way to a 0-2 Sunday.
But there’s always next week.
So here goes:
NFC: No. 2 Packers at No. 1 Seahawks (Sunday at 3:05 p.m. ET)
The furor over the Dez Bryant catch that wasn’t (more coming on that) overshadowed the tremendous performance Sunday by Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the Packers’ win over Dallas. Rodgers clearly wasn’t himself. He clearly was bothered by his calf injury. But he still found a way to elude pass rushers. He was more and more effective as the game progressed, and he made two remarkably accurate throws for second-half touchdown passes.
This is a rematch of the NFL’s season-opening game won by the Seahawks. Rodgers refrained from challenging Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman in that game. He surely will throw passes in Sherman’s direction in this game.
But it won’t matter. The Seahawks are too good. They’re playing too well. And they’re playing at home. Winning this game would be an immense challenge for the Packers if Rodgers was at full strength. He isn’t, and it’s simply asking too much for him to go to Seattle and orchestrate a win under these circumstances.
AFC: No. 4 Colts at No. 1 Patriots (Sunday at 6:40 p.m.)
Luck makes his first career appearance in a conference championship game. This is a rematch of a Nov. 16 game in Indianapolis won handily by the Patriots, 42-20.
Unheralded New England tailback Jonas Gray ran for 201 yards and four touchdowns in that game against the Colts. Gray didn’t even play Saturday against the Ravens, instead spending the day on the Patriots’ inactive list. One would think he’ll have a role in this game.
Luck continues to get closer to a Super Bowl. But he won’t get there quite yet. The Patriots already have had their most unfavorable matchup of the AFC playoffs and survived it by beating the Ravens. Brady and Belichick get back to another Super Bowl.
There was plenty of talk Sunday about the so-called “Calvin Johnson rule” after Bryant’s apparent catch was ruled an incompletion via an instant replay review that followed a Packers’ challenge.
And indeed, it was that rule that was cited by referee Gene Steratore and Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating. They said the replay review showed that Bryant did not maintain control of the ball on the ground as the rules require to be awarded a legal catch.
“Bryant going to the ground,” Blandino wrote on Twitter. “By rule he must hold onto it [the football] throughout entire process of contacting the ground. He didn’t so it is incomplete.”
But let’s be clear here: The rules involve more than that. They also say that if Bryant has possession of the ball long enough before going to the ground — that if he has possession of the ball long enough to make a so-called “football move” — he establishes himself as a runner and no longer is considered in the process of making the catch, and no longer is required to maintain control of the ball on the ground.
Bryant was stumbling and on his way to the turf but still managed to take two to three steps with the ball before going to the ground and, some would say, reached with the ball toward the goal line. Did that reaching of the ball toward the goal line constitute a football move and make it a legal catch?
Blandino said on the league-owned NFL Network Sunday night that he and Steratore considered that possibility while viewing the replay.
But Blandino said: “It’s got to be more obvious than that.”
It perhaps is time for the Calvin Johnson rule to go the way of the tuck rule. That, too, was a counter-intuitive rule that for years was retained by the NFL because the league’s rule-makers said they couldn’t come up with anything better. But they finally got rid of the tuck rule in 2013, and now it very well might be time for them to get rid of the Calvin Johnson rule and take a more common-sense approach to determining what is a catch and what isn’t.
Blandino said Sunday night that the NFL’s rule-making competition committee will study the issue during the offseason.
“It’s something that we’ll review with the competition committee,” Blandino told the league’s television channel. “We review every year. I understand that people are upset. It looks like a catch and I don’t think that’s that far-fetched. But it’s something in order to be consistent, we have to draw the line somewhere. And that’s where the current line is.”
It will be a busy offseason indeed for the competition committee.
One significant result of the flag pick-up fiasco from the opening round of the playoffs, in which the officials called a pass interference penalty against the Cowboys to give the Detroit Lions a key first down but then picked up the flag and decided there had been no interference, is that there likely will be serious consideration given this offseason to making interference reviewable by instant replay.
The issue is expected to be taken up by the competition committee. If the committee recommends a rule change, it would have to be ratified by at least 24 of the 32 owners.
Belichick in the past has suggested making all calls subject to potential replay reviews, even so-called judgment calls such as interference, while maintaining the current limit of two replay challenges per team, plus a third challenge if a team gets its first two correct.
It’s a long shot that the competition committee would go that far. But the uproar over the Cowboys-Lions non-call could prompt action on interference and replay.
There is, again, hope associated with the Washington Redskins, hope that they have made the move that will change everything and help them to recapture the franchise’s Super Bowl-winning glory days of Joe Gibbs’s first coaching go-around.
This time, it is the hiring of Scot McCloughan last week as the team’s general manager that has the Redskins and the most fervent—and optimistic—of their fans believing that better times and consistent success are ahead.
Are they right this time? Will the arrival of McCloughan end up meaning more for the Redskins than the arrivals of previous would-be franchise saviors Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier, Gibbs (for his second coaching tenure), Bruce Allen, Mike Shanahan, Robert Griffin III and Jay Gruden meant?
Perhaps. That remains to be seen. As with everything having to do with the Redskins, much will depend on the environment in which McCloughan works and the internal politics with which he must deal. Will he be given a chance to do a good job?
Those who know McCloughan echo what he said Friday at his introductory news conference. He is completely convinced, associates say, that Redskins owner Daniel Snyder will be supportive while staying out of McCloughan’s way and allowing McCloughan to chart the team’s roster-building course.
“He got the sense from Dan that Dan is learning what it takes to succeed,” said one person familiar with the deliberations between McCloughan and the Redskins.
The Redskins were among McCloughan’s clients while he ran his own scouting service this season. Allen, who surrendered his GM duties to McCloughan but retained his role as team president, had “made it clear Scot had a job whenever he wanted it,” said the person with knowledge of the deliberations. But it wasn’t until recent weeks, that person said, that it became clear the job awaiting McCloughan with the Redskins was the GM job.
Other teams had begun to contact McCloughan in October. So while the Redskins explored their options with other candidates, including New York Jets executive Rod Graves, McCloughan also was in discussions with two other teams. According to a Profootballtalk report, the Jets and Raiders remained in contact with McCloughan last week. McCloughan took the approach, associates say, that he would accept a job only in what he considered a great situation, and otherwise would stick with his scouting service.
The Redskins’ job met that standard, in his mind. He completed a deal with the Redskins last week after having a lengthy meeting with Snyder.
Now the work begins.
The complaint that the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the diversity group that works with the NFL on minority hiring practices, filed last week with the league over the Redskins’ GM search accused the team of violating the sport’s tampering rules.
The Redskins, according to the Fritz Pollard Alliance, properly requested the Jets’ permission to interview Graves last Monday but failed to file that request with the league office, as required.
But John Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, said in a follow-up interview Friday, the day after the league announced it did not consider the Redskins to be in violation of the anti-tampering rules, that the issue wasn’t really about tampering. It involved the procedures outlined in the tampering rules, but Wooten said tampering wasn’t the real issue.
It really was about violating the spirit of the Rooney Rule, Wooten said.
According to Wooten, the procedure of notifying the league office about interview requests is the Fritz Pollard Alliance’s only means of monitoring the interviewing process and making certain that things are done in compliance with the Rooney Rule, which requires each team with a head coaching or GM vacancy to interview at least one minority candidate.
“We weren’t really concerned about tampering,” Wooten said Friday. “Bruce knows when you’re requesting permission, you need to notify the league office. He knows that procedure. That’s the way we know what’s going on and can monitor things to make sure the proper procedures are being followed. We certainly aren’t against them interviewing Rod Graves. But how is the league going to know and how are we going to know that things are being done properly if the teams don’t follow the right procedures? That’s our point.”
Wooten, however, rejected the notion that the Redskins previously violated the spirit of the Rooney Rule, without the Fritz Pollard Alliance objecting, when they interviewed assistant coach Jerry Gray for their head coaching job prior to hiring Shanahan. The interview of Gray took place before Shanahan’s predecessor, Jim Zorn, was fired.
But Wooten said Friday that the Redskins interview Gray only after Snyder contacted NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who in turn got in touch with Wooten, to make sure it was okay.
“That was done the right way,” Wooten said.
Goodell emerged from Thursday’s release of the Mueller report, it seems clear, vindicated in the eyes of many of the owners.
The report by former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III following his investigation of the league’s handling of the Ray Rice case was critical of many aspects of what the NFL did. It concluded that the NFL could have done more with the information that it had.
But Mueller’s investigation failed to corroborate the Associated Press report in September quoting a law enforcement official, not identified by the AP, who said he anonymously sent the league a copy of the inside-the-elevator footage in the Rice incident before the video was released publicly.
That, it appears, was the key point to the owners. Goodell and other NFL officials repeatedly have said that no one in the league office saw that video before it became public. People familiar with the thinking of owners said throughout the process that Goodell’s job would be in jeopardy only if Mueller concluded that the commissioner was guilty of willful and egregious misconduct, such as a cover-up. Mueller reached no such conclusion.
Goodell and the league already have acknowledged making mistakes in their handling of the Rice case. So Mueller’s criticisms seem to have had little impact on the owners’ view of Goodell. Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II said there was strong support for Goodell expressed during a conference call of the owners Thursday to discuss Mueller’s findings.
Goodell sent a memo to NFL employees Thursday after Mueller’s report was released publicly.
In it, Goodell wrote: “Director Mueller found no evidence that any video had been sent to anyone at the NFL; that anyone at the league office had seen video from inside the elevator before it became public; or that anyone at the league placed a call to acknowledge receiving a copy of any video. These findings confirm what I have always believed to be true.”
Goodell concluded the memo by writing: “Again, my thanks to each of you for your cooperation with Director Mueller, but more important, for your commitment to the game, for your resilience, and for your support. I could not be more proud of you or feel more honored to work with such an outstanding group of colleagues. While this investigation has now concluded, our focus on the underlying issues and our commitment to positive change remain as strong as ever. We have all learned a great deal in the past months and expect to be judged by how we lead going forward on issues of domestic violence and sexual assault. I believe that the last six months have made us a stronger and better organization and look forward to working with all of you to make a difference in the years ahead.”
Belichick and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels showed plenty of innovativeness during the third quarter Saturday.
Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said that neither he nor anyone else, in Harbaugh’s estimation, ever had seen a team do what the Patriots did on several third-quarter plays Saturday and line up with only four offensive linemen.
It is common for a player with a jersey number making him an ineligible receiver to report to the officials as an eligible receiver and line up as, say, an extra tight end in certain offensive situations. It is unheard-of for a player with a number making him an eligible receiver to report to the officials as an ineligible receiver. That’s what the Patriots did Saturday.
Harbaugh’s biggest complaint was not exactly that the Patriots were doing anything with their formations prohibited by the rules. It was that the officials, in his view, did not handle the situation properly and did not notify the Ravens long enough before the snap as to which player was ineligible.
That, it seems, was a legitimate complaint. But the Patriots gave no one, including the officials, much time to adjust to what they were doing and how to handle it, and that’s why the tactic was effective on a third-quarter touchdown drive. The Ravens clearly were confused and unnerved, and Harbaugh was given a 15-yard penalty for going on the field to complain to the officials.
Belichick and McDaniels weren’t done there. The Patriots’ other third-quarter touchdown came on a trick-play pass from one wide receiver, Julian Edelman, to another, Danny Amendola. Edelman, a quarterback in college at Kent State, threw a strike to Amendola after catching a lateral from Brady.
Edelman and other Patriots players said the team had been practicing the play for quite some time and picked a perfect time to use it. Edelman said he hadn’t necessarily lobbied for the play to be called any sooner, however.
“I don’t throw it as good as I used to,” he said. “I can’t lobby that much.”
8. Flacco’s interception
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco threw four touchdown passes Saturday in Foxborough and was up to 17 touchdown passes and no interceptions in his last five-going-on-six postseason games before throwing two late interceptions against the Patriots.
The second of those came with a little more than a minute and a half to play and it ended the Ravens’ last, best hope to win. Some might say that Flacco got impatient. On a second-and-five play from the New England 36-yard line, with the Ravens moving the ball steadily down the field and plenty of time on the clock, Flacco took a shot toward the end zone and threw a pass toward well-covered wideout Torrey Smith.
Patriots safety Duron Harmon was well positioned and made the interception. The Ravens would get the ball back for only one more play following a Patriots’ punt, and Flacco’s desperation throw into the end zone—with tight end Rob Gronkowski among New England’s “Hail Mary” defenders—fell incomplete.
Harbaugh wasn’t finding any fault with his quarterback, though.
“You can always look at it after the fact,” Harbaugh said. “If it was a touchdown pass, would you have accepted it then? Or would you have been critical of it then? Of course not. I mean, you can be critical of any play that doesn’t work, you know. Joe Flacco made a bunch of plays out there today. And Joe Flacco made a bunch of plays throughout the course of the season. You know, Joe Flacco is at his best in these kinds of games, and I thought he played well.”
The deal that was being finalized Sunday for Rex Ryan to head to Buffalo as the new coach of the Bills keeps Ryan in the AFC East to face the Jets, the team that just fired him, and the Patriots, meaning that Ryan can continue to vow not to kiss Belichick’s rings.
It also puts Ryan in familiar circumstances: He is with a team with an extremely capable defense but major quarterback issues. Kyle Orton has told the Bills that he is retiring, and the team must decide whether to turn back to EJ Manuel as its starter or seek a different solution.
Some in the league had thought that Ryan would end up in Atlanta, where he would have had a productive quarterback already in place with Matt Ryan. But a deal with the Falcons didn’t materialize.
The Jets were right to have fired Ryan. Things weren’t working and it was time to move on. But how Jets-like is it that Ryan quickly emerged as one of the most attractive coaching candidates in a mostly underwhelming market?
The Seahawks’ victory Saturday over Carolina means that their defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn, remains unavailable to be hired this week by an NFL team seeking a head coach. The same goes for McDaniels, with the Patriots still playing.
But Gase and Del Rio now are available to be hired for head coaching jobs with the Broncos’ defeat. Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, a highly regarded candidate for several of the teams with head coaching vacancies, was available even before this past weekend, as were offensive coordinators Hue Jackson of Cincinnati and Frank Reich of San Diego, Detroit defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and former Bills head coach Doug Marrone. Shanahan is in the mix with several teams.
Things could start moving now. The Chicago Bears have hired their general manager, in Ryan Pace, and the Jets appear to have settled on Mike Maccagnan as their new GM.
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