One day into December, the San Diego Chargers were about as far from the playoffs as a team could be. The Chargers lost 17-10 to the Bengals on December 1, leaving them at 5-7 with four games to go. The AFC was still wide-open at that point, but the Chargers had been wildly erratic, mixing wins against the Colts, Eagles, and Chiefs with losses to Houston, Oakland, and Washington. They had three home games left on the docket, but their road trip required them to travel to Denver and face the best team in the AFC, the Broncos. NFL-Forecast.com estimated at the time that the Chargers had a 5 percent chance of coming away with a playoff spot. For reference, that came in just below the playoff chances of the Tennessee Titans.
Since then, the Chargers’ run to the postseason has been nothing short of miraculous. They’ve combined excellent work on their own with weeks of games around them going in their favor. Detailing the path they took to get to the playoffs reveals just how desperate the Chargers were, and just how preposterous it is that they’ll be playing meaningful football in January.
Of course, none of this happens without the biggest win of San Diego’s season, the 27-20 victory over the Broncos in Week 15. The Chargers were 10-point underdogs in that game; the Vegas odds suggested that the Chargers’ chances of pulling out that must-win game were a mere 17.5 percent. Against one of the greatest offenses in NFL history, a much-maligned Chargers defense came alive. San Diego took over the game during a 23-minute stretch of the second and third quarters when they scored 14 points while allowing the Broncos to pick up just one first down in four possessions. In terms of the Vegas line, San Diego’s win ranked as the third-biggest upset of the year.1
In terms of the playoff picture, San Diego’s win over Denver barely moved the needle. The Dolphins and Ravens each won big games in Week 15, leaving the Chargers on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. For San Diego to make the playoffs, it needed both Miami and Baltimore to lose out while the Chargers won both their games. Given that the Dolphins merely needed a win against the lowly Bills or Jets to make it into the playoffs, a Chargers celebration to end the regular season still seemed exceedingly unlikely. The odds that all six of those games would go San Diego’s way, again using the Vegas money lines, were just 3 percent.2 The Chargers had beaten the best team in their conference on the road and, somehow, their task had gotten harder.
In Week 16, just about everything that needed to go San Diego’s way did. The Chargers held up their end of the bargain by winning 26-13 against the Raiders, in a “home” game whose crowd had more fans dressed in black and silver than in blue and yellow. Everything else veered in their direction, too. The Ravens, slight favorites at home against the Patriots, were blown out by 34 points. Miami, also slight favorites in their travels to Buffalo, lost 19-0. Both of the starting quarterbacks for San Diego’s competitors — Joe Flacco and Ryan Tannehill — suffered injuries that slowed them at times in Week 17. And along with it, the AFC West cleared out for the Chargers to turn a tough matchup into a cream puff. The Colts came up with a huge road win in Kansas City, and combined with a Broncos win over the Texans, the Chiefs’ loss locked them into the fifth seed and gave them nothing to play for against the Chargers during their final game of the season. Had Kansas City beaten Indianapolis, it would have had a shot at competing with Denver for the top seed in the AFC in Week 17 and likely kept its starters on the field for at least half of the game against the Chargers. That might have been enough to swing the game’s outcome.
Even what amounted to a perfect Week 16 wasn’t enough to give the Chargers much more than a prayer heading into Week 17. At noon ET on Sunday, my estimate had the Chargers with a 15.5 percent shot at claiming the final spot in the AFC playoffs, placing them just ahead of the Ravens, but far behind Miami, which was projected to win the playoff berth in almost exactly two-thirds of the 10,000 simulations I ran of the final week. All Miami needed to do was beat Geno Smith and the Jets at home, which seemed like a foregone conclusion, considering it had stomped the Jets by 20 in the Meadowlands. And, even if the Jets pulled off an unlikely upset with nothing to play for, the Chargers would be eliminated by a Ravens win in Cincinnati, which seemed in the cards after Andy Dalton threw two interceptions early in the first quarter. By 1:45 ET, San Diego’s odds of making the playoffs had dropped to 10 percent per Advanced NFL Stats (which did an awesome job of tracking the real-time probabilities with this graphic). The Chargers’ chances steadily rose from that points.
Both the Dolphins and Ravens saw their playoff hopes fly out the window with dismal performances. They each had their chances, even in Week 17, but failed to take them. Miami was down 14-7 in the third quarter, but Rishard Matthews was tripped up on what would have likely been a touchdown catch-and-run by the fingertips of Ed Reed, Mike Wallace failed to come up with a catchable pass in the end zone, and a slip by Wallace on third down allowed Dee Milliner to make a diving interception. The Ravens even came back from a 17-6 halftime deficit to tie the game at 17 with 20 minutes to go, but a 12-play drive from the Bengals led to a touchdown before a Flacco interception on the first play of Baltimore’s next drive wiped away the Ravens’ chances. The combination of Flacco and Tannehill was downright putrid over the final two weeks of the year: In their four combined contests, Flacco and Tannehill went 82-for-155 (52.9 percent) for just 738 yards, averaging a mere 4.76 yards per attempt while throwing two touchdowns against eight interceptions. Those are basically Kirk Cousins numbers from a first-round pick and a guy who collected $30 million this season. With the Steelers beating the Browns, losses by the Dolphins and Ravens eliminated both teams from the playoff hunt Sunday.
That left the Chargers a simple task: to make the playoffs, win at home as massive favorites against a Chiefs team that was sitting virtually every one of its starters. Their chances of pulling that off as they kicked off to the Chiefs were, depending on your source, between 80 and 85 percent. Because they’re the Jekyll-and-Hyde Chargers, that comfortable position lasted all of two minutes. The Chiefs shockingly marched down the field for 80 yards in five plays, with a long catch-and-run by 49ers castoff A.J. Jenkins preceding a 17-yard touchdown run by backup running back Knile Davis, giving Kansas City a 7-0 lead with 13:03 left in the first quarter.
It didn’t get easier for the Chargers. They tied the game, only for Philip Rivers to throw an interception that gave the Chiefs the ball on the San Diego 23-yard line, leading to a Dexter McCluster touchdown that made it 14-7. By the middle of the third quarter, a Ryan Succop field goal had given the Chiefs a 24-14 lead with 22 minutes left to go in the game — and, with it, the Chargers’ season. This left San Diego with just a 22 percent chance of claiming the sixth seed. The Chargers promptly ran off 10 points in the next 19 minutes of action, kicking a field goal from the 4-yard line to tie the game at 24-24 with 3:30 to go.
That restored their chances to a respectable 44 percent, only for things to go haywire again. A relatively quiet Chase Daniel woke up and started a 3:17 drive with three passes for a combined 49 yards, moving the ball into field goal territory as the clock hit the two-minute warning. The Chargers then started to use their timeouts (and got a break when the inexperienced Davis ran out of bounds on second down), but a first down out of the wildcat from Cyrus Gray seemed to take the life out of the Chargers. The Chiefs could get the ball where they wanted at that point, run the clock, and try a game-winning field goal inside of 10 seconds.
As Succop lined up for his would-be game winner from 41 yards out, nearly all of the many wins and situations that had gone San Diego’s way on Sunday were for naught. Their chances of winning the game and making the playoffs had fallen all the way to 16 percent, and even that probably underestimates the odds of the field goal succeeding in the ideal conditions of San Diego. At that very moment, the Chargers caught the two biggest breaks of their entire run. Succop failed to pull his 41-yarder inside the right upright, sparking wild celebrations on the San Diego sideline and in the crowd.
Meanwhile, Bill Leavy’s refereeing crew missed what should have been one of the most important penalties of the regular season. In their attempt to block the kick, the Chargers lined up with seven players to the left of the snapper, hoping the uncommon alignment might confuse the Chiefs and create an opportunity for a player to run free. It’s a neat idea, but it’s also not allowed. Before this very 2013 season, the league added a rule stating that no more than six defenders can be on the line of scrimmage on a given side of the snapper during a field goal attempt. The Chargers should have been whistled for illegal formation, which would have nullified the missed kick, given the Chiefs an extra five yards, and allowed Succop to attempt a second field goal from 36 yards out. There’s no guarantee Succop would have made the second kick, but field goals in that range have been successful 84 percent of the time over the past three years; the odds that Succop would miss two in a row3 are less than 3 percent. A missed call almost certainly kept the Chargers in the game and kept the Steelers out of the playoffs.
There was even more controversy in overtime, when the Chargers pulled out the most unlikely fake punt in decades. The Chargers were about to punt on fourth-and-2 deep in their own territory on the opening drive of the extra session when they snapped the ball to Eric Weddle, who ran the ball into the middle of the line for what appeared to be a first down before stalling out and having the ball knocked out of his hands, recovered by the Chiefs, and returned for a touchdown. The officials ruled that Weddle’s forward progress had been stopped, but former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira suggested after the game that the fumble and Chiefs touchdown should have stood. It was a judgment call, so it hardly had the surefire luck of the missed illegal formation, but it was still a decision that very easily could have ended the game for San Diego. Given that the Chargers only needed a tie to make the playoffs and were still 72 yards away from the end zone, a fake punt in that situation seems crazy to me, but I have to credit Chargers coach Mike McCoy for having the gumption to try something aggressive in a key moment. It very nearly became an infamous mistake.
From that point forward, the Chargers were the better team. They marched downfield before stalling in the red zone and kicking a 36-yard field goal to take the lead, and while the Chiefs got 28 yards on a big play by McCluster early in their ensuing drive, a busted Davis run got the Chiefs in a second-and-long situation from which they never recovered. An unseemly Daniel pass from two yards beyond the line of scrimmage on fourth down sealed an unlikely Chargers win and locked up an even more unlikely playoff berth for San Diego.
So, what should you make of the Chargers? They have some pretty impressive wins on their résumé; in fact, they have four wins against the other teams in the AFC playoffs, more than any other team in the bracket. Their surprising victories over the Colts and Broncos both came during rare excellent performances from their defense, which has been better during the second half of the season, if only from the dead-cat bounce. San Diego had the league’s worst DVOA against both the pass and the run during the first half of the season, which — no surprise — left them with the worst defense in football at the season’s halfway point. From Week 10 through Week 16, they were better, but not by much: They ranked 25th in defensive DVOA over that time frame, and while they might get a little boost from how they played in Week 17 against an underrated Chiefs offense, DVOA wouldn’t realize they were playing Kansas City’s second string. There are enough young players on the unit that you could wishcast some sort of huge leap in performance being taken by half of the defense at exactly the right time, but there’s little evidence of that right now.
Instead, it seems more likely that the Chargers will stay alive based upon the work of their offense, which probably deserves most of the credit for the 33-30 win over the Eagles and the 41-38 shootout victory over the (real) Chiefs earlier this year. The Chargers had the third-best offensive DVOA through 16 weeks, and they’ll likely finish in second after the Eagles had an up-and-down game against the Cowboys on Sunday night.
They’re going to be an interesting matchup for many of the AFC teams. They’ll have to become the first team to beat the Bengals in Cincinnati this season, but they match up reasonably well against a tough Cincinnati defense; the relative weakness in Cincinnati’s stout pass defense is covering backs and tight ends, and the Chargers go four-deep with options there in Danny Woodhead, Ryan Mathews, Antonio Gates, and freak athlete Ladarius Green. If they can beat the Bengals, they’re guaranteed a trip to Denver for a rematch against the Broncos, where they won against all odds a month ago. Then, if they pull off that upset for a second time, the Chargers would likely be looking at another possible shootout against the Patriots or Colts or a third matchup with the Chiefs, whom they’ve now beaten twice in 2013. It’s not simple enough to just pencil them in for wins because they’ve beaten teams in the past, but it is worth noting that the Chargers are capable of getting past just about anybody in the playoffs if their regular-season performance means anything. And after going from 5-7 to the playoffs, well, you couldn’t blame the Chargers for feeling like they can beat anybody right about now.
What’s Made Green Bay Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me)
Oh, you thought the Chargers skated through to the playoffs on a razor-thin margin of victory? Let’s talk about the Packers, who were basically written off after getting blown out by 30 points by the Lions on Thanksgiving Day. Green Bay then beat the Falcons and Cowboys by a point each before losing to the Steelers and, on Sunday, prevailing in a classic contest with the Bears that came down to one devastating play, Aaron Rodgers’s 48-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb on fourth-and-8 that gave Green Bay a 33-28 lead. It was a play in which the Bears tried to win the game with pressure, narrowly came up short, and were beaten by a pair of incredible individual efforts before beating themselves.
The whole play is dictated by Chicago’s decision to bring what amounts to an all-out blitz. The Packers line up with trips receivers to the left and a lone receiver split out on the right, while the Bears show pressure with a “mug” look, pushing both linebackers onto the line of scrimmage to create confusion as to who will come and attack after the snap. With five seconds left on the play clock, slot corner Isaiah Frey also sneaks his way into the box to make a seventh rusher. With four wideouts, the Packers only have six players who could conceivably block for Rodgers: their five offensive linemen and fullback John Kuhn. That’s enough unless the Bears decide to bring all seven rushers … which is exactly what happens.
Now, if you’re the 2013 Bears and you’re bringing seven men against six, who do you hope goes unblocked to get a free shot at Rodgers? Julius Peppers, right? That’s exactly what happened. When Frey moved onto the line of scrimmage and rushed, he forced left tackle David Bakhtiari to honor the inside rusher and block him, leaving Peppers a free run at Rodgers. The only reason the Packers are still alive right now is because Kuhn, lined up next to Rodgers on the opposite side of the formation, saw Peppers running free and sprinted across the formation to dive at Peppers’s knees in the hopes of slowing him down. He got to Peppers no more than a quarter-step before Peppers was about to engulf Rodgers and end Green Bay’s season.4 Peppers’s lunge still would have been enough to take down a fair number of quarterbacks, but Rodgers does just enough to elude Peppers’s outstretched arm and step to the left.
The hope with this blitz in this situation is that the pressure forces a sack, an errant throw, or a quick pass to a hot read that would allow the Bears to make a play on a receiver well before the first-down marker. By rushing seven and leaving four men in coverage behind the play, the Bears are exposed if Rodgers escapes the pressure and has a moment to set himself and throw. That’s bad. You know what would make that worse? If three of the four guys in the secondary blow the coverage, too.
When the Bears blitz Frey and leave four men in the secondary to guard four receivers, their coverage options are limited. On this play, according to coach Marc Trestman after the game, the four defensive backs are supposed to be in man coverage with no safety support behind them, a Cover-0 look. If you watch the play, you’ll see that the Bears corners peer into the backfield and sit at the sticks in zone coverage. Free safety Chris Conte — who might theoretically have been the person stuck covering Cobb — drifts into the flat. As Bleacher Report writer (and former Bears safety) Matt Bowen noted, the only person correctly playing man on the play was strong safety Major Wright, who might very well have committed an illegal-contact penalty while he was doing so.
Now, go back and watch Cobb. You know how soon he realizes he’s going to be wide-open? He’s signaling for the ball while he’s still three yards in front of Conte. The angle makes it impossible to see which route the near-side receiver ran, and Jordy Nelson gets laid out by Wright midroute, but it looks like the Packers were a team after our Chris Brown’s heart and ran four verts with their season on the line. Rodgers actually underthrows Cobb, but what he does on the play — elude a Hall of Fame–caliber defensive end, quickly reset, identify his open receiver, and get the ball out quickly and accurately without even really stepping into the throw — is incredible.
The offseason debate among Bears fans has already begun, as I suspect that some will be upset with defensive coordinator Mel Tucker for bringing a big blitz with the game on the line. I don’t think it was the wrong move or necessarily an obviously wrong call. How often do we hear that prevent defenses don’t prevent anything? The play call almost got Peppers a free sack on Rodgers to end the season. Peppers versus air with the season on the line is a good matchup for the Bears. The Packers overcame it with a heroic block from Kuhn and a moment of brilliance from their best player. And the Bears made an undesigned mental mistake that cost them the game behind the blitz.5 Had Peppers made it that one final step or gotten just enough on his lunge to trip up Rodgers, we would be sitting here talking about what a great call the blitz was and how Mike McCarthy’s mental mistake cost the Packers the game.6 I don’t think you fault the Bears for bringing pressure. I think you credit the Packers for what they were able to do on the biggest play of their season.
It seemed preordained. The last two seasons have seen the Cowboys battle through an up-and-down campaign before playing a division rival in Week 17 in what amounted to a play-in game. And then, given how many times the Cowboys seem to lose in that very situation, it would come down to one drive late in the game for their quarterback, who would invariably throw an interception with a chance to win the game. It was the scenario Cowboys fans feared all year and, somehow, it was exactly what happened to them for the third consecutive season. I know that most of America doesn’t exactly identify as Cowboys fans, but even the hardiest Cowboys hater has to feel full after a third helping of schadenfreude pie.
In a way, this feels like the least disappointing performance of the three heartbreaking games from the Cowboys. Obviously, it came without Tony Romo around. The injured Romo was replaced by Kyle Orton, whose late interception masked an impressive performance for a guy seeing his first meaningful reps of the season. (Who does that sound like???) Orton went 30-of-46 for 358 yards with two touchdown passes and two interceptions, one of which was hardly his fault. With Dez Bryant at less than 100 percent and DeMarco Murray held to three yards per carry on his 17 rushes, the Cowboys depended on Orton to find Jason Witten throughout the game, which he did with aplomb: Witten caught 12 of the 16 passes thrown to him on a perpetual stream of throws over the middle, producing 135 yards in the process. Witten or Bryant were the intended target on 29 of Orton’s 46 passes.
It was also a relatively impressive performance from the defensive line, which held one of the league’s most fearsome offenses to 24 points, seven of which came from a short field after a Murray fumble. The Cowboys got a ton of pressure on Nick Foles all night, often forcing him to scramble and preventing him from settling in the pocket. It was the most uncomfortable I’ve seen Foles look in a game since the first Eagles-Cowboys matchup. Dallas sacked Foles five times amid just 31 dropbacks, knocked him down seven times, and buzzed defenders around him all night. They even came up with a stop of Foles on a fourth-and-goal sneak attempt.
At the same time, though … the Cowboys’ defense didn’t really have much of an answer for the times when it wasn’t sacking Foles. When he did get his passes off, Foles completed 65 percent of his throws and averaged in excess of 10 yards per attempt. And while the Cowboys did a good job of attacking LeSean McCoy on screens and preventing him from bouncing his runs outside, Shady eventually got his on designed off-tackle runs and by bouncing up the gut. The five-minute-plus drive in the fourth quarter that produced Philadelphia’s game-winning touchdown basically came out of the run-heavy blueprint people have been shouting at Jason Garrett for avoiding over the past few weeks, with a 60-yard drive mixing nine runs with just two passes.
And, as it always is with these Cowboys, they were stuck using replacement-level players in meaningful roles because of their lack of depth (a.k.a. lack of cap space to acquire useful depth), and those guys got exposed with the season on the line. The Eagles terrorized overmatched rookie free agent Jeff Heath in coverage during the first quarter, with the Cowboys eventually benching Heath for third-rounder J.J. Wilcox. The absence of Sean Lee also forced Dallas to start rookie sixth-rounder DeVonte Holloman at middle linebacker, and while Holloman led the team with 11 tackles, he was relying on his athleticism and got caught guessing as to where McCoy would bounce his runs. Holloman actually played pretty well for a rookie who was suiting up out of position, but the fact that the Cowboys were stuck relying on a late-round pick to play every snap in their biggest game of the year says a lot about their roster construction and general team-building philosophy.
With Dallas having lost their third play-in game in three years, that’s the problem that would really upset me if I were a Cowboys fan. I don’t think you can fault the effort shown by the team in Week 17, but after three 8-8 seasons, what’s going to make the Cowboys suddenly change and get better? They might very well fire Garrett as early as Monday morning, but who is going to want to work for Jerry Jones? As I wrote about earlier this year, this team is already capped out and will be for the foreseeable future. Anybody who comes in to replace Garrett is going to have to make do with the players who are already on the roster, and that’s without assuming that the likes of Jason Hatcher and Miles Austin will be gone next year. Dallas is built to win now, and it’s not winning. For years, that problem was viewed through the prism of Romo as a possible solution. Now, with Romo absent, it might be time to realize that the Cowboys can’t win as currently constituted, with or without their star quarterback.
My Pal the Tortoise
The Browns fired head coach Rob Chudzinski on Sunday night after just one year at the helm. It was one of the more surprising NFL terminations in recent memory. While rumors naturally circle around bad teams and their coaches during the second half of the season, there hadn’t been as much as a peep about Chudzinski’s status until Sunday morning, when beat reporter Tony Grossi tweeted that there were bad vibes surrounding Chudzinski’s future. Grossi later noted that embattled Browns owner Jimmy Haslam left the stadium during Sunday’s loss to Pittsburgh with six minutes to go in the game.
In a short statement, the Browns attributed the firing to the team’s “concerning step backward in the second half of the year.” It’s hard to argue with that statement, given that the Browns lost 10 of their last 11 games and went 0-7 after their bye.
That being said, it’s also difficult to imagine that the vast majority of coaches would have been able to do much more. The Browns were starting a combination of Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden at quarterback during that stretch, neither of whom is particularly good at football. Last year’s first-round pick, Trent Richardson, was traded away early in the season for a future first-rounder. The team was starting 2012 seventh-rounder Edwin Baker — playing for his third team this season alone — at halfback by the end of the year. Wide receiver Josh Gordon had taken a huge leap forward and become arguably the league’s top receiver. Would the team have fired Chudzinski if the Browns had held on late against the Patriots, who needed an onside kick to beat Cleveland in Foxborough? If they had cobbled together a win against the Jaguars or Jets late in the campaign? This wasn’t really a team built to win this year, and it didn’t. If Chudzinski failed to live up to the team’s expectations to such an extent that it felt it necessary to fire him, it seems more likely that the organization’s expectations were too high.
It’s also revealing that the Browns were so aggressive as to fire Chudzinski on Sunday night, before the traditional “Black Monday” firing spree that comes after Week 17. It seems to suggest one of two things. Given that there had been no chatter regarding the firing before yesterday, it’s possible that the Browns were only going to fire Chudzinski if they were able to hire a specific replacement. Cleveland could have surreptitiously reached out to its candidate, agreed to an outline of terms, and then felt confident enough about the pending hire to sack Chudzinski.7
Alternately, the Browns could have laid the hammer down this early to ensure they get to interview candidates before anybody else gets hired. The Texans have already been linked to Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien, but CBS’s Jason La Canfora reports that O’Brien did not interview well when he met the Browns about the job a year ago. A more likely candidate is Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, whom Browns general manager Mike Lombardi identified as his first choice for a would-be head coaching vacancy in 2011, while Lombardi was working for NFL Network. Because the Patriots have a first-round bye, league rules allow the Browns to interview McDaniels for their head coaching vacancy during the postseason bye week. Had the Patriots failed to claim one of the top two seeds in the AFC, the Browns would not have been able to interview McDaniels for another week. The Browns would have to travel to the East Coast to interview McDaniels, so now is about the time when Browns fans will start loading up flight tracking websites to find a private jet traveling from Cleveland to Providence.
Cleveland’s current coaches are left in a weird position. Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported on Sunday night that the Browns intend to keep their assistants on staff and hire a head coach who would inherit said staff, which is a move that doesn’t benefit either party. Head coaches want to hire their own staffs, and if the head coach who brought an assistant to town gets fired, the coaches underneath him probably want to be on the market as quickly as possible to find a new job. If this hiring process lingers for a couple of weeks and the new coach decides to bring in an entirely new staff, it’s going to be a frustrating situation for those assistants.
Chudzinski, meanwhile, gets stuck with a couple of bad raps. He left Carolina one year too early, as the defense took a leap forward and the team started to win close games while the offense he built around Cam Newton basically stayed stagnant. His year as a head coach was spent with a bunch of cast-offs at quarterback. Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron went through enormous development spikes anyway. Chudzinski probably also won’t get another NFL head coaching job anytime soon; teams will be hesitant to hire a guy who got fired by the lowly Browns after one season. He’s likely stuck either returning to the offensive coordinator ranks or becoming a college head coach. You have to feel for Chudzinski, a guy who said the Browns opportunity was his “dream job” when the team hired him. He deserved more time in Cleveland. And the Browns, meanwhile, will continue the league’s slowest crawl toward relevance.
Chudzinski will hardly be the only head coach to lose his job this offseason; several will either have lost their jobs by the time you’re reading this Monday or will do so over the next couple of weeks. It’s easy to make a case for the likes of Mike Shanahan or Jim Schwartz to be fired. In what will inherently be a rough day for coaches, let’s make a few cases for coaches to keep their jobs.
Rex Ryan’s one coach who already got the good news he was looking for; the Jets announced after their win over the Dolphins that Ryan was going to remain the team’s head coach. It’s the right move. Ryan has done a fantastic job building a young defensive core in New York, with the likes of Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson maturing into stars on his watch. Milliner, the team’s other first-round pick (along with Richardson) in last year’s draft, has come on in recent weeks and played his best game of the year in the win over Miami. The Jets’ offense is terrible, but remember that Ryan also spent his entire time with the team stuck with Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith at quarterback. That he was able to coax an 8-8 season out of a team left for dead before the year is, frankly, miraculous.
The team Ryan beat should also give its coach another run. Dolphins fans will remember this collapse for a long time, but Joe Philbin has done a reasonable job during his time with the team and can expect the core of the roster to get better in 2014. Miami quietly has one of the better defenses in football, and the pairing of Philbin, Mike Sherman, and Tannehill has gone down better than most expected when the Dolphins took Tannehill earlier than just about anybody imagined in the 2012 draft. The Dolphins failed to protect Tannehill during their dramatic run to end the season, and they’ll need to do a better job of that. Philbin (and general manager Jeff Ireland) deserves one more year as a possible playoff contender before there’s a referendum to be had on the coach, general manager, and quarterback all at once.
In Oakland, the chatter suggesting that head coach Dennis Allen and general manager Reggie McKenzie might hit the unemployment line seems horrifically unfair. The Raiders have basically had to spend the last two seasons getting out from under a decade of bad contracts handed out in the last days of the Al Davis administration and the insipid Carson Palmer trade pushed through by then-coach Hue Jackson in the power vacuum after Davis’s death, a deal that cost the Raiders two high draft picks. The Raiders had a truly staggering $55 million in dead money on their cap this season, a figure that’s due to fall to a mere $9.3 million for 2014. They’ll have — not a typo — $66.6 million in cap space heading into 2014, in a market in which nobody has money to spend. Allen and McKenzie have had no hope of winning the past two seasons. Now that they’ve cleared the deck, they deserve time to work on building a winner in Oakland.
The Giants shouldn’t fire Tom Coughlin after his first sub-.500 season since Eli Manning’s rookie year in 2004. It’s been a depressing season for Giants fans all year, but the biggest problem facing the team has been injuries. That might very well have something to do with the players Jerry Reese has chosen. The Giants lost even more players to injury on Sunday, with left tackle Will Beatty suffering a nasty broken leg and even Manning going down with a high ankle sprain. I’m not in the camp that believes that Coughlin should be allowed to coach the team until he quits — another year like this and it should be time for him to go — but he’s still 90-70 as Giants coach even after this disappointing season. Given Coughlin’s résumé with the team, you can’t justify firing him after a 7-9 campaign.
There are other candidates who don’t deserve to take the heat for what happened to their teams. Leslie Frazier was saddled with a quarterback cycle of failure in Minnesota, but that didn’t help his cause. Mike Smith’s Falcons were waylaid by an insurmountable year of injuries. St. Louis should give Jeff Fisher a chance with the second overall pick added to the 2014 roster. Hell, it even seems silly to render a decision about Garrett’s status in Dallas upon whether Orton succeeds or fails on that final drive. Teams unquestionably see what Andy Reid, Mike McCoy, and Chip Kelly have done in their new digs and all want to have a turbo boost, but sometimes, you’re better off with the coach you know and the schemes for which you’ve spent the past few years drafting and developing. The success of former hot-seat regulars Ron Rivera and Marvin Lewis are a testament to that.