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Week 17 Wrap-up: The MVP Finale

While Aaron Rodgers and J.J. Watt were making their award-winning cases, the Panthers were winning their division and Jim Harbaugh was going back to school.

The NFL’s Most Valuable Player race boils down to a Battle of Wisconsin. In one corner there’s the homegrown product: Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, who was born and raised in the Badger State before playing most of his college career at Wisconsin. Watt finished an incredible 2014 season with three sacks, a forced fumble, and a safety against the Jaguars, nearly leading the Texans to the playoffs after they went 2-14 a year ago.

Across the field, of course, is Wisconsin’s favorite adopted son. Aaron Rodgers is a Californian transplant, but he’s long since secured the love of his new home state for what he’s done as a Packers quarterback. He added another moment to his legacy Sunday, struggling through a calf injury that forced him to the sideline during the first half to lead the Packers to a 30-20 win, clinching Green Bay’s fourth consecutive NFC North title in the process.

So, with Wisconsin Past and Present represented in the race, who will win the league’s Most Valuable Player award?1 And — either more or less important, depending on where you’re standing — who deserves to win the award? Let’s run through the key questions surrounding typical MVP votes and see what that tells us about Watt’s and Rodgers’s respective chances of bringing home the hardware.


1.

As voted on by the Associated Press.

1. Is there a positional advantage for one of the candidates?

Very much so. Rodgers plays quarterback, which is obviously regarded as the most valuable position in football by every possible measure you can imagine, from compensation to draft status to, yes, award votes. Thirty of the 46 players who have won or split a share of the MVP award since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 are quarterbacks.

Of course, you can also make a strong case that the awards are inherently biased toward players who touch the football. Thirteen of the other 16 players to claim the MVP award during that span are running backs, a position that now seems more fungible than history suggested. A quarterback has won comeback player of the year in each of the past six seasons, which seems odd given the award’s criteria and the likelihood of players coming back from difficult situations at other positions.

Only three players have managed to win MVP despite playing a position that doesn’t involve handling the football on a regular basis. Vikings defensive tackle Alan Page won the award in 1971, Washington kicker Mark Moseley won one of the more bizarre and unlikely award votes in American sports history after the strike-shortened 1982 campaign, and Giants outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor claimed the prize in 1986. No defensive player has even received an MVP vote since James Harrison received three in 2008.

While Watt will surely become the first defensive player in six ballots to receive an MVP vote, Rodgers’s position gives the QB a major advantage.

2. Is there a success gap between the two candidates’ teams?

Again, yes. While it’s unfair to credit the success or failure of a team to one player, it would be naive to pretend voters don’t consider a team’s regular-season performance while filling out their MVP ballots. Mike Trout can tell you all about that. In this case, again, Rodgers clearly has an advantage. His Packers won 12 games, claimed the NFC North, and beat most people’s other pick for the best team in football — the Patriots — in November.

Watt’s Texans improved by seven wins from last year, the largest increase in the league by a full three wins. But that also took place in the weakest division in the AFC and involved a lot of wins against some pretty terrible competition. The only playoff team the Texans beat were the Ravens in Week 16; Houston’s only other victory over a team with a winning record came against the Bills in Week 4. It’s not a conversation that would matter if the Texans had squeaked into the playoffs, but it will now.

It’s virtually unprecedented for the electorate to pick somebody whose team was as (relatively) unsuccessful as Watt’s. The only time the voters chose a player whose team failed to win 10 games in a 16-game season was when Barry Sanders tied for the award in 1997 as a member of the 9-7 Lions. Even Sanders’s Lions managed to make the playoffs, though. The last MVP from a team that missed the playoffs was in 1973, when O.J. Simpson won the award for the 9-5 Bills.

Sanders and Simpson have something in common: Not only are they running backs, but they also won their MVP trophies in seasons when they hit a huge round number, each rushing for 2,000 yards. Simpson was the first back in league history to hit 2,000 yards, while Sanders was the third, and the first to do it in 13 years. The voters clearly value a 2,000-yard season as meaningful; four of the seven players to reach that mark have won the MVP award. So, naturally …

3. Did one of the players have a transcendent season with a tasty round number attached?

Of the two, Watt has the better case for this. Rodgers has a great touchdown-to-interception ratio, having thrown 38 touchdowns against just five interceptions, but the historically impressive round numbers that would seriously make an MVP dent would be either 5,000 passing yards or 50 passing touchdowns, and Rodgers will finish with just 4,381 passing yards and 38 touchdowns. Just. He finishes seventh in passing yards and third in passing touchdowns.

Watt did hit a big round number, becoming the first player since the stat became official in 1982 to accrue 20 or more sacks in two different seasons. That helps his Hall of Fame case, but what he did in 2012 shouldn’t directly affect his MVP case in 2014. Watt’s 20.5-sack campaign is wildly impressive, but it isn’t record-setting. It isn’t even the league’s leading total, as Kansas City’s Justin Houston also had a monster day in Week 17 to finish with 22 sacks.

Before 2014, there were nine instances of a player accruing 20 or more sacks in a single season. The first was Mark Gastineau in 1984, but Gastineau didn’t come close to sniffing the trophy, thanks to Dan Marino’s record-setting season for the Dolphins. Two years later, Taylor made it to 20.5 sacks for a dominant 1986 Giants defense and won the award in a year when there was no truly strong candidate at quarterback.

Since then? No dice. Not one of the seven ensuing players to produce a 20-sack season earned a single MVP vote, including Watt, who had 20.5 sacks during his breakout 2012 campaign.

Watt’s best case comes from what he does that isn’t included under the sack umbrella: He finished the year with 50 quarterback hits when nobody else had more than 28. He had 29 tackles for loss when the next-best guy (Houston) had 23. He recovered more fumbles than anybody else in football, with five, and scored more touchdowns than any defensive player in recent memory. Getting the voters to look at that stuff and properly value it in context is difficult at best.

4. Are there other players who could split the vote if the electorate is interested in a specific position?

There are, but that’s true for both players, and it isn’t quite as obvious a problem for Rodgers now as it was even three weeks ago. It seemed like Rodgers might get stuck in a situation in which as many as five other quarterbacks could be considered for MVP votes, but that’s not really the case anymore. Peyton Manning played through what appeared to be an injury, spent most of December handing off to C.J. Anderson, and performed poorly in a nationally televised game. Philip Rivers’s Chargers failed to make the playoffs, as did Drew Brees’s Saints. Even Andrew Luck slowed down in December.

If you want to pick a quarterback, it’s going to be one of three guys: Tom Brady, Tony Romo, or Rodgers. I wouldn’t blame you for picking any one of those three, but my guess is that Romo’s reputation (unfairly) precedes him in MVP balloting. Brady might have been the best quarterback in football during the middle of the season, but he got off to a shockingly slow start that included an embarrassing loss to the Chiefs on national television, and he didn’t dominate in December, either.

The other skill-position players are more likely to take away from the vote totals for those secondary quarterbacks. If you’re going to think Brady, you might opt to vote for Rob Gronkowski. If you’re thinking about voting for Romo, you can probably consider casting your nod for DeMarco Murray (or the Cowboys offensive line). Maybe you’d even consider a bid for Antonio Brown after what he did all year before stomping on the Bengals on Sunday night. There’s nobody on the Packers roster who will take votes away from Rodgers.

Watt obviously won’t have any other Texans getting in his way, but would it be crazy to wonder if Justin Houston might engender some consideration? Watt’s the far better player, but the category voters will point to is sacks, and Houston had 1.5 sacks more than Watt, highlighted by a four-sack performance to knock Rivers and the Chargers out of the playoffs. If Watt had been the only player over 20 sacks, his case would be stronger.

5. Is it clearly a new peak level of performance for one of the players?

No. Rodgers was better in 2011 and possibly in 2012 than he was this season. Watt’s 2012 season was better both statistically and qualitatively than this 2014 campaign, although the gap between his 2012 and 2014 seasons is smaller than the one between what Rodgers did in 2011 and what he’s done this season.

6. Is one of the players clearly more important to his team?

You would lean Rodgers, but it’s tough to say solely based upon what happened in 2014. The Packers were mostly useless with Rodgers on the sideline or hobbling around in the lineup at something less than 100 percent, most notably during the second half of that loss to the Saints. Voters also will likely remember how bad the Packers looked during Rodgers’s collarbone-enforced absence in 2013.

Watt’s unbreakable. We don’t know what it’s like to imagine the Texans defense without him, but he was around last year and the Texans went 2-14. That, perhaps unfairly, hurts Watt’s case this season.

7. Would it be more fun to pick one of the candidates?

Yes. Award voters are subject to exhaustion bias, which often leads them to favor a new candidate over a previous winner. That’s no different here in 2014, with Watt up against a quarterback who won the MVP in 2011. It would be more exciting to pick Watt, from a neutral perspective. It would tell a different story, and while voters aren’t necessarily desperate to do that and vote against a quarterback in the process, that might do so this year.

8. Whom do you think the voters will pick?

I think they end up going for Rodgers, although it’s a closer vote than it might have seemed heading into Sunday morning. Voters don’t like giving MVP awards to players who don’t make the playoffs, which is a huge hit to Watt’s chances. Beyond that, Watt doesn’t possess that one smoking gun or statistical point that stands out as the obvious reason to vote for him. He didn’t set a single-season sack record or even lead the league in sacks. The touchdowns thing is cute, but most of that is just the Texans putting him on in goal-line situations and throwing him the football.

9. If you had a vote, whom would you pick?

After some serious thought, I think I would go with Watt. He’s simply more dominant over the competition at his position than Rodgers is at his. It’s tougher to see that, because there’s not a traditional, widely used number (like sacks) that can represent Watt’s value, but that freakishly high hits total tells you just how frequently he gets into the backfield and takes down opposing quarterbacks. I can imagine a quarterback playing better than Rodgers has this year. The only reason I can imagine a 3-4 defensive end playing better than Watt has in 2014 is because I saw Watt play better in 2012. That’s enough to narrowly push him over the top for me.

Carolina Panthers v Atlanta FalconsKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Fit and Working Again

The Carolina Panthers became the first team in NFC South history to repeat as division winners by blowing out the Falcons on Sunday, completing a stunning comeback from the bottom of the NFL barrel in the process. After the Panthers lost at home to the Falcons before their Week 12 bye to fall to 3-7-1, they had just a 7.6 percent chance of winning the NFC South. They came out of that bye and promptly lost by 18 points to the Vikings … and then won four straight by a combined 68 points to claim the division.

How did they do it? Well, on Sunday, they completed their transformation back into the 2013 Panthers by eating Matt Ryan’s lunch. In one of the most impressive performances by a pass rush I’ve seen all season, the Carolina front four simply destroyed the Falcons offensive line and took Atlanta’s playoff hopes down with them. Ryan came into Sunday’s game on a streak of 98 pass attempts without being sacked. The Panthers sacked Ryan six times, knocking him down on 12 occasions while forcing him into scrambles and pressuring him into the first of Carolina’s two pick-sixes.

There was no single culprit, no lone scapegoat on Atlanta’s side of the ball. Everyone sucked. Second-year right tackle Ryan Schraeder was tossed aside over and over again by star Panthers end Charles Johnson, who must have created a half-dozen hurries. Rookie first-round pick Jake Matthews was repeatedly overpowered by Wes Horton and Mario Addison, who combined for three hits on Ryan. Kony Ealy picked up a sack on a Falcons slide protection gone horrifically wrong.

Perhaps most notably, Star Lotulelei delivered one of the most dominant series you will ever see from an interior lineman. After Kawann Short drew a holding penalty on Falcons guard Justin Blalock in the red zone to set up first-and-20, Lotulelei went to work. On first down, Lotulelei shoved Gabe Carimi backward and shed him aside to sack Ryan. On second down, he came around on a twist and helped force Ryan to scramble for a modest gain. Lotulelei then pushed through Blalock and shoved Ryan down as the QB attempted to step into a pass on third down, forcing an incompletion on a sailed throw, before finishing the series off by overpowering Blalock and shedding him for a second sack of Ryan in four plays. It was 34-3 by then, but a more impressive series you will not see all year.

It’s the culmination of an impressive post-bye return to form from this Carolina pass rush. In just about every pass rush category I can find, the Panthers have drastically improved during the final five weeks. They have almost as many sacks in the five games since the bye (17) as they did in their 11 games beforehand (23), increasing their sack rate from 5.4 percent to 8.9 percent in the process. Before the bye, they pressured quarterbacks on just 22.0 percent of dropbacks, the fifth-worst rate in the league per ESPN Stats & Information. Since they returned from their bye, the Panthers’ 32.5 percent pressure rate is the second-best in football, trailing only the Cardinals.

That’s been part of the drastic improvement in Carolina’s pass defense, which was 30th in QBR and 25th in passer rating before the bye and fifth-best in both categories afterward. It’s also only part of the solution, as the Panthers have also finally found a secondary that works. Carolina has been forced to shuffle through spare parts to piece together a secondary in each of Ron Rivera’s years with the team, and after losing three starters from last year’s surprisingly effective unit, it’s no surprise the Panthers had problems finding a workable secondary this season.

While the Panthers found an effective combination of starters with guys like Mike Mitchell and Captain Munnerlyn early in the 2013 campaign, the 2014 secondary didn’t come together until December. Three of the four starting defensive backs the Panthers sent out during their 2-0 start are no longer in the lineup, including second-year man Melvin White, the lone holdover from last year’s starting secondary. Josh Norman, himself benched during the 2012 season, replaced White and delivered more consistent performances.

The two key changes stuck for good after that loss to the Vikings — just before the four-game winning streak began — with the Panthers giving up on the two veterans who were supposed to shore up their secondary all along. The team cut cornerback Antoine Cason, a former first-round pick who had washed out of each of his previous stops, and replaced him with undersize fifth-round rookie Bené Benwikere. The Panthers also benched former Falcons starter Thomas DeCoud at free safety, replacing him with fourth-round pick Tre Boston. DeCoud spent the previous three games exclusively on special teams before hopping in during garbage time against his old team this week.

Roman Harper remains in the lineup, and while he did help give up a huge play to Jordan Cameron last week, he chipped in Sunday by returning a sailed Ryan throw for a pick-six. The end result has been a faster secondary, combining with a pair of rangy cover linebackers in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis to cover more ground behind the impressive pass rush. Harper and Boston each returned interceptions for touchdowns on Sunday, Carolina’s first two defensive return touchdowns of the season.

While Carolina was thriving, Atlanta’s pass rush again seemed to disappear when it was needed most. After a big game to knock out the Saints last week, the Falcons and their blitz packages simply couldn’t keep Cam Newton from escaping the pocket and making plays. Even with Desmond Trufant limiting Kelvin Benjamin to a lone catch for nine yards on five targets, Newton repeatedly wriggled out of shrinking pockets with little trouble to find open secondary receivers or scramble for decent chunks of yardage. When Newton kept the ball on the read-option, defensive end Malliciah Goodman couldn’t compete with Newton’s speed around the edge. The Falcons also mostly left promising defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman on the bench to give snaps to veteran Tyson Jackson, who has been wildly disappointing during his first season in Atlanta. The Falcons had just one sack, on a play when Newton gave himself up to set up a field goal. No Atlanta player finished the season with as many as five sacks or 10 knockdowns.

The two stars of Carolina’s 2013 season deserve credit for leading Carolina through the morass of mediocrity to prevail as defending champs. Newton, even as he looked injured as recently as that awful Monday Night Football blowout in Philadelphia, persevered through a wildly frustrating season and a December car crash to lead his team into the playoffs. How many other quarterbacks would have been volunteering to carry the ball on read-option plays and third-down sneaks for 3-8-1 teams? Newton has had to throw only 80 passes during his three appearances in this four-game winning streak, but his 87.3 QBR over that stretch is the second-best figure in football, trailing only Romo’s 93.0 mark.

The other star, of course, is Ron Rivera. Riverboat Ron hasn’t really had many fourth-down decisions to make this season, and he’s hardly been aggressive when given the opportunity. (Last year’s Ron Rivera probably isn’t kicking a field goal on fourth-and-2 from the 3-yard line, as he did on the opening drive of this game.) But his ability to piece together a competent defense and keep his team motivated amid adversity? That’s beyond reproach. It would have been easy for the Panthers to quit after their six-game losing streak, even with the NFC South title still faintly in view. Surely in part because of the changes made to go to their younger talent, Rivera’s team never quit. The Panthers delivered their two biggest performances of the season in a pair of blowout wins over division rivals that saved their campaign. They deserved to win the NFC South.

No, this team isn’t the 2013 Panthers. They were never going to be. Even as they declined by 4.5 wins from their 2013 record, the Panthers were still effective enough to win their division. And the good news is that they really don’t have to be the 2013 Panthers to advance in the playoffs.

They’ll face the Cardinals this weekend at home in the unlikeliest of playoff games, and because Arizona has Ryan Lindley2 at quarterback, the Panthers opened as 4.5-point favorites. After that, maybe they get lucky: If the Lions beat the Cowboys, and Rodgers can’t play for the Packers with what appears to be a reaggravated calf injury, the Panthers could theoretically make it to the NFC Championship Game by beating Lindley and Matt Flynn. It’s unlikely, of course. But with these Panthers, unlikely hasn’t been much of a problem.


2.

Who looked far better against the 49ers than he did during his previous NFL appearances and still managed to throw three interceptions, which should tell you a lot.

Arizona Cardinals v San Francisco 49ersDon Feria/Getty Images

You Can’t Trust It to Remain

It seems incredible that Jim Harbaugh is actually leaving the NFL to go coach at the University of Michigan, as multiple reports are suggesting. I didn’t believe it would actually happen until the moment the story broke on Saturday evening, and even then, half of me expected that we’d hear in the morning that Harbaugh wasn’t leaving after all. It only really hit home when Craig Dahl handed him the game ball after the safety’s game-sealing interception Sunday. It’s obviously Harbaugh’s right to take whatever available job he wants, and nobody can truly understand the pull his alma mater has on the departing 49ers coach. But this just doesn’t happen every day.

For one, coaches this good just don’t leave their jobs, let alone the NFL. Harbaugh is not Nick Saban, who went 15-17 with the Dolphins before returning to the NCAA ranks with Alabama. He’s not Butch Davis or Steve Spurrier. He took a 49ers team that had been wandering in the desert for nearly a full decade and came two turnovers away from leading them to three Super Bowls in his first three seasons. The professional ranks did not expose his weaknesses. They confirmed his strength.

Harbaugh leaves the NFL after Sunday’s win over the Cardinals with a 44-19-1 record and the fourth-best win percentage for a coach in modern NFL history (minimum: 15 games). As disappointing as San Francisco’s 8-8 record in 2014 has been, the idea that Harbaugh is anything but one of the best coaches in football at any level is downright absurd. In fact, there virtually aren’t any coaches in NFL history who compare to Harbaugh. NFL coaches who are this successful, this quickly, almost never leave this fast.

The most obvious coach with a similar story would be Barry Switzer, who went 34-14 during his first three seasons with the Cowboys and won a Super Bowl before leaving after a 6-10 season in his fourth and final NFL campaign — but even his career path comes up short to Harbaugh’s. Switzer took over a team that had won consecutive Super Bowls and all but retired at the age of 60 after leaving the Cowboys. Pete Carroll was fired by the Jets after one year and went 27-21 with the Patriots before being let go for Bill Belichick and taking over USC as a third or fourth choice, which isn’t the same. Red Miller went 40-22 with the Orange Crush Broncos, but he was fired after an 8-8 season and would coach only part of a USFL season before becoming an investment broker. Harbaugh’s path — take over struggling NFL team, produce dominant results, leave to rebuild a college team — is, to my knowledge, unprecedented in modern football.

So why now? Why would Harbaugh do something that nobody expected? Well, given that most coaches who start 44-19-1 with their new teams don’t leave very frequently, it has to start with his current position becoming untenable. There was smoke surrounding Harbaugh’s tenure with the 49ers dating back to February, when rumors of a failed trade to Cleveland prompted stories about the split between Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke. Those stories have continued to sprout up during the 2014 season. It would be fair to conclude there was some fire to them.

Harbaugh might have also expected the San Francisco job to look less attractive in years to come. The 49ers have already committed $151 million to their 2015 cap, a figure topped by only the New Orleans Saints. The 49ers can create cap space by cutting Stevie Johnson (saving them $6 million), Ahmad Brooks ($6.6 million), and Phil Dawson ($2.6 million), but they also haven’t re-signed key contributors like Mike Iupati, Perrish Cox, and Frank Gore, while Justin Smith is reportedly retiring. There’s reason to believe the 2015 49ers won’t be as talented as the 2014 49ers. That alone might have been enough to encourage Harbaugh to seek greener pastures.

Expecting to leave, Harbaugh would have surveyed the NFL scene and rightly wondered if there was an available job worth taking. The Dolphins were seen as a natural landing point, given owner Stephen Ross’s public flirtations with Harbaugh in January 2011, before the pleated one chose to join San Francisco. You could make a tangible case that it would be a decent fit for Harbaugh; the Dolphins have a reasonably talented young quarterback in Ryan Tannehill, stars on both sides of the football, and appear to have stagnated at or around .500 under Joe Philbin.

But when Ross went in the locker room after last week’s win and proclaimed that the Dolphins were going to retain Philbin for another season, it appeared to bring the Harbaugh-in-Miami story to a close. It was, in hindsight, the first piece of critical evidence that Harbaugh was probably leaving the professional game. Ross surely wanted to get ahead of the story and make it seem like the Dolphins had turned Harbaugh down, even if that hadn’t been the case behind closed doors.

Harbaugh was otherwise most commonly linked to the Raiders, but that was always going to be a desperation ploy from Oakland. From Harbaugh’s perspective, why would he prefer the Raiders job to the gig at Michigan? The things that made the Raiders job palatable are also available at his alma mater. Harbaugh would have likely been in a position to demand full control of player personnel in Oakland, but he obviously will get that at Michigan.

A desperate Mark Davis surely would also have paid Harbaugh top dollar to stay by the Bay, but Harbaugh isn’t leaving any money on the table by going back to college. Rumors suggest he will sign a six-year, $48 million deal with Michigan, a deal that blows his five-year, $25 million deal with the 49ers out of the water and compares favorably to any coach’s contract at any level. Harbaugh would become the highest-paid coach in college football at $8 million per year, and while NFL coaching salaries aren’t public, published reports suggest that the highest-paid NFL coach is Sean Payton, who also makes $8 million. Harbaugh was reportedly miffed that the 49ers wouldn’t pay him the going rate for Super Bowl–caliber coaches. Now, he’s getting paid like he’s won one.

Harbaugh won’t be the last NFL coach to see those sort of opportunities become available and be interested, either. The playing field between college and pro opportunities has been leveled to an extent that simply hasn’t been the case in decades. Top college jobs will match the money available to even the highest-paid NFL coaches while simultaneously offering greater job security.

Harbaugh would have likely found it difficult to extract a six-year deal from another NFL team, while the likes of Bob Stoops and Saban have recently received extensions through 2020 from Oklahoma and Alabama, respectively. And that’s before getting into the 10-year deal Charlie Weis signed to stay at Notre Dame through 2016. It would be foolish for an outgoing NFL coach to not at least consider using a college gig as leverage. And if the pieces come together as perfectly as they did for Harbaugh, it’s no longer out of the question for a coach to actually take the job and see it as a step forward.

As for the 49ers, the happy face they’ve placed on what amounts to a firing doesn’t make the task ahead any easier. Hiring Harbaugh was a transformative move for this organization, especially after the struggles of previous head coaches Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary. The odds San Francisco will find another leader of Harbaugh’s caliber are virtually nil, if only because a coach as good as Harbaugh simply doesn’t come around very frequently.

The most logical candidate would be defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who has kept San Francisco’s defense playing at an extremely high level during a season riddled with injuries and personnel changes. Fangio would be a viable interview choice for head-coaching opportunities in other organizations, let alone the 49ers, who should be familiar with his work. And if my totally anecdotal observation that teams tend to hire coaches who represent the polar opposite of the guy they’re replacing holds true, it would make sense that the 49ers would replace the offensive-minded, high-strung Harbaugh with a mild-mannered defensive coach like Fangio.

On the other hand, you can probably argue that the 49ers have a greater need for an offensive-minded coach, given how the Colin Kaepernick–led attack seemed to stumble this season. The problem is that the vast majority of the best candidates available are defensive coordinators. Would San Francisco fans really be happy if the Niners replaced Harbaugh with Josh McDaniels, Gary Kubiak, or Hue Jackson? Can they convince David Shaw or Kevin Sumlin to leave the college ranks? There’s no such thing as a foolproof head-coaching candidate — Harbaugh was hardly a surefire choice when the 49ers stole him away from Stanford — but there’s also not an obvious offensive-minded option available in this year’s crop of candidates.

If the Niners don’t promote Fangio, they run the risk of losing him to another team in the offseason shuffle, a move that could offset any improvement in their offense in 2015. That alone may be enough to justify giving Fangio the job. Regardless of who San Francisco does end up choosing, it’s about to embark on an offseason full of uncertainty. That’s unfamiliar ground for an organization that’s really been the envy of virtually all of football over the past three years. As its wildly successful head coach leaves, I can’t help but wonder whether the team he’s leaving will look back and wonder why it was so anxious to let him go.

A Postscript

I didn’t write about my preseason NFL bets before the 2014 campaign kicked off because there really wasn’t much to write. I only placed four over-under bets before the season began, supplementing them with a pair of small wagers on postseason long shots. Having written about the logic behind the bets I was otherwise making in various parts of the NFL season preview, I skipped the article and just tweeted out my bets on September 1.

In shocking, unlikely news, those bets turned a decent profit this year. The six bets I made and their return:

In all, I invested a modest $870 and returned $370.44 in profit for a gain of 42.6 percent. The only bet that was really in question by the end of the year was in Houston, but a 4-1 finish from the Texans pushed that wager comfortably over the 7.5-win cushion. In four years of writing about NFL over-under bets on Grantland, then, I’ve come away as a comfortable winner in two seasons and a slight loser in the other two:

It’s also true that I invested more in my bets and spread them around to a wider group of teams during those 2012 and 2013 campaigns than I did during the relatively successful campaigns of 2011 and 2014. I’ll keep that in mind when I make it back to Vegas this summer for the 2015 win totals. That, somehow, is only six months away.