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.
GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Seattle Seahawks forgot who they are.
And from that momentary lapse in identity came the worst play-call in Super Bowl history and a defeat that leaves the Seahawks historically irrelevant, further boosts the complicated legacy of Coach Bill Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots and ups the stakes for Deflategate even more.
All of that from a single misguided play-call?
But that’s the big picture. As the football world narrowed its view to Glendale Sunday, the virtually nonstop talk of deflated footballs, of potentially tainted legacies, of what this person did or what that person failed to do, of an NFL season that began and ended amid turmoil, finally gave way to a football game Sunday evening.
And what a football game it was.
The Seattle defense failed to do to Brady what it had done a year ago to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Brady threw the ball effectively. The Patriots had the early lead and had a chance to have a sizable early lead.
But just as they’d done in the NFC title game, the Seahawks minimized the damage and managed to hang around. They found an unlikely offensive standout in wide receiver Chris Matthews and they seemed to take control of the game in the second half. They had a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter and they looked to the most imposing defense in recent NFL memory to close the deal.
It didn’t happen.
[Read: Best of Super Bowl XLIX]
Back came the Patriots. Brady threw his third and fourth touchdown passes of the night, one to Danny Amendola and the other to fellow wideout Julian Edelman, as the Patriots roared back to reclaim the lead with just more than two minutes remaining.
Game over, right?
Not so fast.
Back came the Seahawks. Wideout Jermaine Kearse made a ridiculous juggling catch while on the ground — shades of David Tyree, the Giants receiver who helped end the Patriots’ unbeaten season in 2008 with a miraculous grab — and the Seahawks had a first down at the New England 5-yard line with a little more than a minute to go. Tailback Marshawn Lynch ran the ball to the one on first down.
One more handoff to Lynch, the sport’s most determined and hard-charging runner, and the Seahawks would be repeat Super Bowl champions. Brady, Belichick and the Patriots would be three-time Super Bowl losers since the last of their three Super Bowl victories at the end of the 2004 season.
But that next handoff to Lynch never came. The most viable alternative to one more carry for Lynch — a fake to Lynch and a run to the perimeter by quarterback Russell Wilson — didn’t happen. Instead, the Seahawks inexplicably attempted a pass. Patriots rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler made a break on the football, got in front of wide receiver Ricardo Lockette and made the interception of Wilson’s throw with 20 seconds to play.
And everything changed.
In the wake of Sunday’s spectacular finish, we’re back to the big picture. The Seahawks are one-time Super Bowl champions. And in the grand scheme of things, one-time Super Bowl champions don’t matter.
The Patriots are four-time Super Bowl champions with Brady and Belichick. They have been to six Super Bowls in tandem, and it is increasingly difficult to argue against them being the greatest coach-and-quarterback combination in the history of the sport.
What the league concludes about Deflategate matters even more. Now the question is whether a team knowingly broke the rules on its way to winning a Super Bowl title, not while en route to being a Super Bowl runner-up. That’s quite a bit different.
And what of the play-call? The explanation provided by Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll made no sense. Carroll said the Seahawks had three wide receivers on the field and therefore had the wrong personnel grouping to attempt to the run the ball at New England’s goal line defense. Carroll said the Seahawks planned to get, at worst, an incompletion on that second-down play and then come back and run the ball on third and, potentially, fourth down.
But the Seahawks had three wide receivers on the field by choice. No one made them do that.
And, really, so what? Run the ball anyway. Seattle is a straightforward, bruising team built around its defense and the workmanlike running of Lynch. What the Seahawks do is run the ball. It’s what they should have done with the Super Bowl on the line.
Patriots 28, Seahawks 24 was a classic. But the Seahawks have only themselves to blame for the way history changed on a single play.
… AND TEN
Now that the Super Bowl is over, Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is off to Atlanta. He is to be named the head coach of the Falcons as soon as Monday.
It’s rare for a team with a head coaching vacancy to wait until after the Super Bowl to hire an assistant coach from one of the participating teams. That’s what the Falcons did with Quinn, who again oversaw the league’s top-ranked defense this season. No one was willing to wait that long to hire Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
But another head coaching opportunity probably is coming at some point for McDaniels after his turbulent stay in Denver. He said last week that he would welcome another chance but only under what he considered favorable circumstances.
“I have a wife and four kids,” McDaniels said. “We’ve done that one time. We moved a little bit in a few years. To be able to be here [with the Patriots] again, it would be hard for me to leave. I would love to have an opportunity to be a head coach again someday if it was ever the right situation for somebody else, if they felt that way about me. And then I would say the same thing for myself. I would want to feel the same way about them. But I’m really happy where I’m at.”
There were no surprises in the major awards announced Saturday night.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers won the league most valuable player award ahead of Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, who was named the defensive player of the year. The Arizona Cardinals’ Bruce Arians was named the coach of the year. New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. was the offensive rookie of the year and St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald was given defensive rookie honors.
But there was one major oddity.
Rodgers received 31 of the 50 MVP votes, to 13 for Watt. Dallas Cowboys teammates Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray received two votes apiece. Brady received one vote. And so, too, did Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner.
Wagner is a fine player on a superb defense. The Seahawks won their final six games of the regular season after he returned to the lineup Nov. 23 against the Cardinals after missing five games.
But Wagner played only 11 of 16 games during the regular season, meaning that he missed 31 percent of it. He was tied for 33rd in the league in tackles. He wasn’t close to being the league’s top defensive player this season, and he certainly wasn’t the MVP of the league.
ProFootballTalk reported that the vote for Wagner was cast by former NFL coach Tony Dungy, now an analyst for NBC. Dungy was a terrific coach who obviously knows the game inside and out. But that doesn’t mean that Wagner was the NFL’s MVP.
It has been widely assumed for some time now that the owners will vote in March at the annual league meeting to ratify a proposal to expand the NFL playoff field from 12 to 14 teams beginning next season.
It is a revenue-boosting measure that came to prominence as an alternative after the owners were rebuffed by the players’ union in their bid during the last set of labor negotiations to go to an 18-game regular season as a revenue-boosting measure.
But NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell cast doubt during his annual state-of-the-league news conference Friday as to whether approval of the expanded playoffs proposal indeed is a foregone conclusion.
“There are positives to it,” Goodell said. “But there are concerns as well, among them being the risk of diluting our regular season and conflicting with college football in January.”
It is an interesting change in tone.
The concerns about watering down the postseason field and reducing the value of the regular season have been present all along. Putting 14 of 32 teams in the postseason field would mean that 44 percent of the league would qualify for the playoffs.
Is that too much?
Does it diminish the accomplishment?
That’s what the owners will have to figure out.
The flip side, of course, is that the television networks undoubtedly would pay handsomely for two additional opening-round playoff games annually, one of which would be likely to be played on a Monday night. Under the proposal, seven teams in each conference would qualify for the postseason instead of the current six. There would be one opening-round playoff bye per conference rather than the current two, making for six first-round games league-wide instead of the current four.
It will be an eventful and intriguing offseason indeed in many, many ways.
Both Goodell and Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, said last week that the league will continue to examine the possibility of making extra points tougher.
The NFL experimented with a longer extra point during the most recent preseason. It went a step further during the Pro Bowl that was played a week before the Super Bowl. Extra points not only were longer during that game, but the goal posts also were narrower by more than four feet (14 feet wide instead of 18 feet 6 inches).
Adam Vinatieri missed two of the 33-yard, narrow-target extra points in the Pro Bowl. In regular season play during his NFL career, Vinatieri has made 710 of 720 extra points, or 98.6 percent. He last missed a regular season extra point in the 2009 season.
Vinatieri also missed a 38-yard field goal attempt in the Pro Bowl with the skinny goal posts.
The change potentially could be enacted for regular season play as the NFL tries to add at least a little bit of intrigue to one of the sport’s most automatic plays. Vincent said last week that the league and competition committee will continue to study the issue. He emphasized that the effort is not to take the kicker out of the game but simply to make extra points somewhat more exciting.
“I think we saw in the Pro Bowl [with] one of our best kickers, it’s not automatic,” Vincent said. “This is not to take the foot out of the game, and I think we did we did a poor job explaining that.”
The competition committee is to review the so-called Calvin Johnson rule this offseason in an attempt to clarify what is a legal catch and what isn’t. That review will come in the aftermath of the uproar over an apparent catch by Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant at a key moment in an NFC playoff game at Green Bay being overturned via an instant replay review and ruled an incompletion.
But Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating, said last week it’s not automatic, at least not in his view, that the rule will be changed.
“The rule is clear now,” Blandino said. “It’s a bright line. It’s certainly going to be discussed.”
The rule, named for the Detroit Lions wideout once involved in a similarly controversial play, holds that when a receiver goes to the ground in the process of making a catch, he must maintain possession of the football while on the ground to be awarded a legal catch. The competition committee has reviewed the rule previously without making a change.
But the intensity of the objections to the rule that were voiced following the Bryant play might lead to a modification this time.
Blandino said the Lions have made a proposal to expand the scope of instant replay reviews. That presumably means that pass interference calls would be subject to replay reviews under the team’s proposal. The Lions lost a playoff game to the Cowboys after the officiating crew threw a flag for pass interference against the Cowboys at a key moment, then picked up the flag and opted not to call interference.
But Blandino again sounded a note of caution.
“It’s a subjective call. … I don’t know if the ability to watch it again and again will necessarily eliminate any mistakes from being made,” Blandino said.
Blandino, speaking of the upcoming competition committee deliberations in the wake of the controversial calls during this postseason, said: “We can’t change a rule and be reactionary in every situation.”
But he also said he anticipates that he and the members of the competition committee will be “looking at a lot of video in the next month or so.”
The committee also is to review the chain-of-custody issue by which footballs, in games other than the Super Bowl, are given back to team-appointed attendants after being inspected by the officials 2 hours 15 minutes before kickoff.
Blandino said he was pleased with the results of the change enacted this season to enable the referee to be in communication with representatives of the league office during instant replay reviews. According to Blandino, replay reviews were, on average, 12 seconds shorter this season than last season. The average time of a game was down 1 minute 44 seconds from last season, Blandino said, despite an average of two more penalties per game.
Vincent confirmed that on-field incidents involving the use of racial slurs and other offensive language were down this season after the NFL enacted a ban on the use of such slurs.
He did not confirm the specific numbers of such incidents that members of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the diversity group that works closely with the NFL on the league’s minority hiring practices, say were given to them by the league in December in the annual meeting between the two sides. Vincent said he did not recall specific numbers being discussed.
“The basic discussion was we were seeing less,” Vincent said. “We know it’s down because it was a point of emphasis. I still think in the area of unsportsmanlike conduct and taunting, we can get better.”
Fritz Pollard Alliance representatives say they were informed by the league that there were six such incidents this season, down from 29 incidents, as reported to the league by game officials, during the 2013 season. John Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, said last week those were the numbers provided by the NFL during the December meeting about the hiring cycle and other issues.
The NFL used existing rules covering unsportsmanlike conduct to implement its ban on the on-field use of racial and homophobic slurs and other offensive language after the Fritz Pollard Alliance pushed last offseason for such a prohibition.
The Fritz Pollard Alliance also has called for the Washington Redskins to change their name after trying, so far unsuccessfully, to arrange a meeting between team officials and representatives of Native American groups to discuss such a change.
Wooten addressed the name change issue in remarks made during the Fritz Pollard Alliance’s annual Super Bowl reception Thursday night in the Phoenix area. According to one person who attended the event, about 300 people from a “cross section” of the league were in attendance and Wooten’s comments about a Redskins name change were met with a “good amount of applause.”
The NFL Players Association conducted its own investigation of the league’s handling of the Ray Rice case, separate from the NFL’s probe conducted by former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III. The union’s investigation was handled by the law firm Norton Rose Fulbright.
DeMaurice Smith, the union’s executive director, said during the NFLPA’s annual Super Bowl week news conference Thursday that the Fulbright report was done and was being sent to the union’s ruling executive committee later that day. It was not clear if the report will be released publicly at any point.
Other topics addressed Thursday by Smith and the union included:
Grievance: The union recently filed a grievance against the league over the NFL’s enactment of its revamped personal conduct policy in December. The union contended that the new policy should have been the subject of formal collective bargaining and the league refused to engage in that.
“What we insist on is the process,” Smith said. “And they violated the process.”
Smith said he didn’t know if the league would be willing to reopen discussions on the conduct policy with the grievance pending.
“The league seems always willing to engage with us when they want to,” Smith said. “It’s up to them.”
Under the reworked personal conduct policy, the league stripped Goodell of the authority to make initial disciplinary rulings in cases of off-field misconduct by players. Those rulings are to be made by a to-be-hired NFL chief disciplinary officer. (Goodell said Friday he expects that hire to be made soon.) Goodell retained his power to hear and resolve any appeals of the initial disciplinary rulings.
The union has indicated that it would be willing to agree to allow Goodell to continue to make initial disciplinary rulings if appeals are heard by an independent arbitrator.
Smith said Thursday he had “no regrets” about not addressing the issue during the negotiations that led to the 2011 labor deal.
“Who said that we didn’t push for it?” Smith said. “We were locked out…. Did we get everything we wanted under the collective bargaining agreement? No. Did the league get everything they wanted in the collective bargaining agreement? No.”
Goodell: Smith actually refrained from criticizing Goodell too sharply during the union news conference.
Asked for his opinion of Goodell’s performance, Smith said: “Both of us are acutely aware of what our jobs are…. He represents the owners.”
Smith said the current CBA represents the best of league-union interaction.
“Where it spins out of control,” Smith said, “is where the league believes it can do something unilaterally.”
Deflategate: The union will have a representative present at any interview the league conducts of a Patriots player in its DeflateGate investigation, Smith said.
That arises, he said, from qualms about how the league previously handled its investigation of New Orleans Saints players in the bounty case.
“The league made a decision to interview the [Patriots] players after the Super Bowl… We’re gonna be there… We made a number of those decisions in response to shortcomings in how we felt the league handled bounty,” Smith said.
Salary Cap: The union will, for the first time, make and disseminate its own salary cap projections, according to Smith, who said those projections will be released before the NFL scouting combine later this month.
Smith said the union believes that players and agents might have been placed at a contract-negotiating disadvantage in the past by salary cap projections in the media, based on information supplied by management-side sources, that were inaccurate, in the union’s view.
Former NFL defensive lineman Sean Gilbert is opposing Smith for the union’s executive director job. Gilbert said last week that when he addresses the player representatives from the 32 teams in March in Hawaii at the union’s annual meetings, he will reveal to them the basis on which he intends to make a collusion claim against the owners in a bid to void the collective bargaining agreement.
Gilbert said he simultaneously will e-mail details of that claim to the players’ agents, then encourage the players to contact their agents and evaluate whether they believe he has a legitimate collusion claim. Gilbert said he has been told by two major law firms that he has a legitimate case.
“The stick is collusion, which will void the CBA,” Gilbert said last week. “And the carrot is to grow the game.”
Gilbert previously revealed his intention to bring a collusion case against the league and owners to attempt to void the CBA under its anti-collusion provision. He has not said on what basis he would bring the collusion claim. He has said that his collusion claim is based on a different set of facts than an existing collusion case brought by the union.
Gilbert has been speaking to many players about his candidacy and said last week: “I would say I’ve made inroads.”
His address to the player reps in March will stress, he said, that Smith has been playing from behind, in Gilbert’s view, in his dealings with the owners, both economically and non-economically.
He will illustrate that concept, he said, by detailing to the player reps how the current labor deal has transferred $2.5 billion so far from the players to the owners and will transfer $10 billion over the course of the entire agreement. He will illustrate the concept in non-economic terms, he said, by telling the player reps that the union should have addressed Goodell’s power in disciplinary cases during the CBA negotiations rather than now.
Gilbert said he plans to stress to the player reps that he played the game and any notion that they need an attorney as executive director is misguided, in Gilbert’s estimation, because Smith is a lawyer and negotiated what Gilbert calls an owner-friendly labor deal.
Gilbert said he will push for transparency in the process by which the player reps will vote for executive director, attempting to avoid having the voting done by secret ballot.
It’s possible that Gilbert won’t be the only candidate opposing Smith. Two people familiar with the situation said last week it is possible that a third candidate will emerge, although they declined to identify that potential candidate. Any candidate would have to have letters from three player reps to be placed on the ballot.
It is a league of suspicion and paranoia.
It always has been and probably always will be.
And it’s more than the Patriots, more than Spygate and Deflategate.
The Falcons are being investigated by the league, according to a report Sunday by ESPN, for using artificial crowd noise at the Georgia Dome over the past two seasons. The ESPN report said the Falcons are expected to be disciplined and could be stripped of a draft pick.
The NFL also is investigating reports that a Cleveland Browns executive sent text messages about play-calls to the sideline during a game. League rules prohibit the use of cell phones and certain other forms of electronic communication on the sideline during a game.
Practically every year, league officials and competition committee members receive a series of complaints about this team doing this or that team doing that, supposedly in violation of the league’s competitive rules.
League insiders regulate circulate tales of this team piping artificial crowd noise through stadium speakers to disrupt an opposing offense, or that team using jamming devices to interfere with an opponent’s in-game communications.
It always is difficult to know which accusations might have merit, and which simply fall under the category of league folklore or overly paranoid delusions.
The league took steps in the Spygate aftermath, doing things such as conducting unannounced inspections of stadium communications equipment.
This offseason, the NFL almost certainly will address the chain-of-custody issue for the footballs, probably by putting them in the possession of league-appointed attendants (rather than team-appointed attendants) after they’re inspected by the game officials prior to kickoff.
But it is a league filled with hyper-competitive people.
It is a sport in which the stakes, especially financially, are high.
The acts of subterfuge, attempted acts of subterfuge and suspected acts of subterfuge almost certainly will continue mostly unabated, no matter what the NFL does.
A few final odds and ends from Super Bowl week:
Peyton Manning: The quarterback told reporters during an appearance in the Phoenix area late in the week that he hasn’t made a final decision about whether to return to the Broncos next season.
But some within the league are convinced there’s little to no chance that Manning will retire.
“No way,” a front office executive with one team said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not comfortable commenting publicly about a player under contract with a different franchise. “I’m thinking it’s pretty much definite that he’ll come back.”
Saints: Goodell expressed support Friday for Saints owner Tom Benson, who is being sued by his former heirs after announcing plans to leave control of his ownership interests to his wife. The lawsuit by granddaughter Rita Benson LeBlanc and other former heirs questions the competence of the 87-year-old Benson.
Goodell called the dispute “unfortunate” but referred to Benson as “a man of great integrity” who has demonstrated “complete control over what he’s doing to make sure that organization goes in the right direction.”
Helmet-to-helmet hits: Injury data released by the league showed a decrease in concussions suffered by players and concussions caused by helmet-to-helmet hits.
League leaders called that evidence that rules prohibiting such hits under certain circumstances are having an effect on the way the game is played.
“They adapted,” Vincent said of players. “They adjusted… We saw players adjust and we saw coaches teach a different technique.”
According to the injury data, concussions suffered by players during the just-completed regular season were down 25 percent from last season and 36 percent from the 2012 season. Concussions caused by helmet-to-helmet hits were down 28 percent from last season and 43 percent compared to the 2012 season.
Goodell cited the drop in concussions during his address Friday and announced that the NFL soon will hire a chief medical officer who will oversee all of the league’s medical policies and work closely with its medical committees and the NFLPA.
More from Super Bowl XLIX