AFC Wild Card Takeaways + Coaching Hirings

A saving error due to an attempt to write on an airplane without WiFi resulted in the loss of takeaways from the NFC games this past weekend, but it was made up for with some fresh thoughts on the recent head coach hirings throughout the league.

Here are some thoughts from Saturday’s action:

No one deserved to win the between the Texans and Bills

The referees seemed to do all they could to help Houston out and yet they still barely survived in Saturday’s 22-19 win over Buffalo.

It’s been weird to see there not be an outrage with the call at the start of the second half.  Down 13-0, Texans kick return DeAndre Carter fielded the second half kickoff as if it was any other return.  But after he caught, he took a couple steps, then threw the ball to the referee as if he had taken a knee or called a fair catch.  Carter did neither, and the referee got out of the way of the toss, letting the Bills score to go up 20-0 and almost have the game in wraps up three possessions.

Actually, that’s not what happened, according to the referees.  The call was that Carter gave himself up, even though he never did either of the two things that consist of a returner giving himself up (Kneeing and fair catch).

The ESPN crew, including their referee “expert”, said that it’s essentially common sense to forgive Carter’s mistake, and that out of pity the touchdown shouldn’t be counted.

If we’re going to apply common sense to this situation, how about injecting it into Carter?  This is the first round of the playoffs, and you forget to either call fair catch or take a knee?  It’s a spectacular brainfart, but it wasn’t even close to the only one in this game.

Bills fans should be pissed, and the lack of coverage from the media and outrage regarding the call is cowardly.  There’s an argument that Saturday’s call had just as big of an impact on that game as the non-pass interference call that went against the Saints did last January.  If the refs didn’t feel sorry for Carter, Buffalo goes up three possessions, making the comeback a lot harder and burying any confidence left in the Texans.

There is the “Don’t blow a 16-0 lead” counter here, but that’s not as insurmountable a lead.  It’s still two possessions – three is another animal.

The outrage won’t come.  It’s because Buffalo’s a small market.  Because they blew the lead.  Because we tend to feel bad for someone when they do something they didn’t mean to.  Because everyone is tired hearing about bad officiating.  Because there’s been a weird pushback to replay in sports recently, which is there to actually get the call right.

This isn’t soccer, where the officials can use their feelings to affect a game.  That’s most common when it comes to adding extra time to the first half or to the end of games.  There, referees have to gauge how the game is progressing and make a judgement for how much time to add.

No precedent in the NFL exists for a referee to make a call based on momentum or their feelings.  The call before half was a sympathetic one for Carter.  Are we going to let mistakes go without consequences now?

Mistakes without consequences was a common theme for the rest of this game.  After Houston starting throwing the ball to DeAndre Hopkins and DeShaun Watson found escape routes from his constantly collapsing offensive line, everything basically went to hell.  Buffalo, scurrying due to what was now a three point deficit (19-16), decided to go for it on 4th and 27 at the Houston 42 yard line with 1:35 left in the game instead of kicking a 59 yard field goal.  Stephen Hauschka’s career long is 58, and his season long is 51, so this would have been stretching it.  But it probably ranks second on the list of options in this scenario, as punting might have been most viable – the Bills had three timeouts.

The fourth down attempt was disastrous as predicted; Josh Allen took a sack that gave Houston the ball back at Buffalo’s 39.

Somehow, it didn’t matter.  Houston responded with a decision that might not of been dumber, but gave Buffalo a chance to make up for their boneheaded call.  After a drive which gained seven yards and killed little clock, the Texans decided to go for it on 4th and 1 instead of kicking a 47 yard field goal to stretch the lead to six.  A make would have forced Allen and Co. to go down the field and score a touchdown rather than settle for the field goal – an extremely difficult spot for an inexperienced and clearly rattled quarterback.  Instead, Watson QB-sneaked it and ended up short, giving Buffalo the ball back seven yards away from where they handed it to Houston seconds earlier.

The idiocy was not complete.  On the first play of the drive which sparked hope for the Buffalo, Allen took off running once again.  His legs worked much better than his arm did Saturday, as he rushed for 92 yards on nine carries while going 24/46 through the air for just 264.  But this time, Allen tried to turn into a dual threat guy.

This is the type of play you attempt when you’re messing around with some dudes after practice.  You don’t really even attempt it.  You try it and see if there’s any way it could possibly work before realizing that there is likely no possible way.

Allen decided that he would try it in a playoff game.  A playoff game in which he was down three.  With 1:14 left.  A playoff game in which he was attempting to lead a game-tying drive in.  That is when Allen decided to attempt it.

The best part is as soon as Allen whips the ball up and behind him, Dawson Knox (#88) throws his hands in the air like “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?” before chasing it down and miraculously knocking it out of bounds, saving Allen from one of the most embarrassing and inexplicable turnovers in NFL history.

This all comes down to coaching – the 4th and 27 call, Allen’s lateral.  There’s just no excuse for either of those to ever occur in a football game.  The Bills had both happen in a playoff game where their season was on the line within minutes of each.  Sean McDermott did a good job this season, but those two instances were ridiculous.

Had the Bills not tied it up after the lateral (Allen’s scramble before that idiotic decision was the most important play of the drive), perhaps McDermott would be taking more heat.  But Buffalo fought through the adversity and got it to overtime.  A regulation loss would have perhaps been more brutal.

For awhile it felt as if we might need a second overtime quarter (Imagine if we got a whole second half).  Houston’s first drive was dud; so was Buffalo’s.  But like he did in the second half, Watson worked his magic with the Texans second drive of the extra period.  First, he converted a third and 18 after escaping pressure, thanks to the Bills leaving Duke Johnson open on a crosser out of the backfield.

It looks as if Matt Millano (#58) was villain of a blown coverage here.  Instead of taking Johnson out of the backfield, he drifts toward the sideline to help cover Darren Fells (Receiver at the top, #87), who has a man on him already.  Problem is, the corner on Fells dropped way back into no man’s land where no receivers were, leaving Millano to cover Fells in the flat.  Johnson was dealt with a lot of grass as a result.

Four plays later, Watson escaped even more pressure.  This time it was super-human.  And practically won Houston the game.

Watson’s wizardy has cost him at times.  He can take hits he shouldn’t.  He can lose the ball.  But most times it pays off, and on this play, it did so in the most epic fashion.

Had Ka’imi Fairbairn missed the field goal, Houston’s choice to kick right away instead of attempting to score a TD for the win would have been reprehensible.  It was scary in the moment – why would you make things harder for your kicker when  you’re not working against any clock at all?

Houston’s heroics in the second half and overtime were thrilling.  But there’s a chance that none of it comes to fruition if not for the call at the beginning of the second half.  Because of the results of the next game though, there will likely be little talk of it.

We should have seen this coming with New England

It was strange watching the Patriots play on the first weekend of the NFL playoffs.  Somehow things are now even stranger, as New England won’t even be playing in next weekend’s Divisional Round.

As stunning as Tennessee’s 20-13 win in Foxborough was Saturday, it served as an example for not buying in when you know things just aren’t right.

Tom Brady had been playing the worst football of his career throughout the second half of this season.  The Patriots offense suffered through the loss of Josh Gordon, the subtraction by addition in Mohamed Sanu Sr., N’Keal Harry’s rookie inconsistencies and Sony Michel’s one-dimensional presence in the backfield, which all took their toll at the end of the day.  When the playoffs started, we thought they would flip the switch back on.  It turns out the switch never actually existed.

Brady’s now-obvious decline and the Patriots offense not being good can be separate things.  New England could have made the Super Bowl if Brady played better – the Patriots defense was the best in the league and was putting up historic numbers early on.  But an offense that has one legitimate wide receiver (Julian Edelman) isn’t going to work for a quarterback that clearly needs all the help he can get at this point (Brady finished this season averaging 6.6 yards per attempt).

Things got so bad that they couldn’t even muster enough against a team with the 16th ranked defense in DVOA and with Ryan Tannehill as its quarterback.  Based on those two parameters, the Titans are the definition of average.

The Patriots defense should take their fair share of blame.  Derrick Henry was completely unstoppable Saturday, rushing for 182 yards on 34 carries.  Henry’s longest rush was 29 yards, displaying the down-to-down consistency he had throughout the night.  He was Tennessee’s whole offense – Tannehill threw for just 72 yards and a touchdown.  AJ Brown, the Titans’ most feared receiver, had one catch for four yards.  It was Anthony Firkser (Who?) who led the Titans with 23 receiving yards.

New England couldn’t even match that performance.  Perhaps that says a lot about Brady – that Brady isn’t the guy who can take a group of nothings and turn them into somethings anymore.  Perhaps that, for the first time in his career, he actually needs help.  Significant help.

It just wasn’t there Saturday night.

On Dallas’ hiring of Mike McCarthy…

The title on The Ringer’s Robert Mays’ story Monday said it best: The Cowboys Could Have Hired Anyone, and They Picked Mike McCarthy.

Upgrades can be underwhelming.  Both are true regarding the decision that Jerry Jones and Co. made when it comes to their next head coach.  Jason Garrett had to go.  He probably stuck around 2-3 years longer than he should have.  

Few options would have been worse than Garrett coaching the Cowboys next season.  The problem is that Mike McCarthy – while better – isn’t much better than Garrett returning for a tenth full season.

Mike McCarthy is generally a good coach.  He had a sustained period of success in Green Bay for a long time.  He won a Super Bowl.

But the reason McCarthy was ousted with the Packers was because once the talent was depleted, Green Bay fell off – massively.  That shouldn’t really be possible with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback.

When top-level talent doesn’t exist, it comes down to scheme and coaching.  Making things easier for players should be a coach’s number one priority in that scenario.  McCarthy’s offensive scheme didn’t do that during his last two seasons in Green Bay.  Dallas’ new head coach runs an offense where elite receivers are necessary.  Pass catchers in his scheme must be sufficient route runners.  They must get open themselves with little help from the scheme in place.

When elite receivers don’t exist – like they didn’t in Green Bay the last two years of McCarthy’s tenure  – things fall apart.  Then Rodgers gets angry.  Then you’re fired.

Dallas has had similar issues with receivers over the past two years, which has contributed greatly to Garrett’s shorten lease with the franchise.  The Amari Cooper trade last season represented a desperation move by the Cowboys to infuse their offense with more potent weapons.  Jason Witten coming out of retirement represents that as well.

This year saw some improvement – Michael Gallup emerged as a legitimate target and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore’s RPOs saw extensive use early on. Dallas finished second in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA, yet finished the season 8-8, missed the playoffs and looked like a group that a defense could get stops against easily during the second half of the season.

Dallas needs to lock up Amari Cooper, re-sign Dak Prescott and try and find one more elite weapon this offseason for McCarthy’s scheme to work.  The Cowboys need this thing to ignite.  McCarthy isn’t exactly the first guy you think of when you’re looking for an explosive offense.  But hey, Marvin Lewis isn’t exactly that guy either.  It could have been worse.

On Carolina’s hiring of Matt Rhule…

There’s no question as to why Baylor’s Matt Rhule drew such high interest from NFL teams.  What the 44-year-old has done at the Big 12 school the past three seasons is stunning.  The Bears won one game in Rhule’s first season.  In his third, they played in Big 12 Championship and Sugar Bowl while being in contention for a College Football Playoff spot for most of the Fall.  

What Rhule did this season though might be more impressive than what he did in between his first and second.  Baylor last year is comparable to Carolina this season: a .500 team stuck in the middle that has boatloads of potential and talent.  It just had to get over the hump.

Rhule got Baylor over that hump – quickly.  The Panthers are hoping Rhule can do the same for them – because no matter who the quarterback is, they’re close.

Rhule’s track record – in addition to his previous relationship with the franchise – also explains why the rumors about him coaching the Giants were so prevalent.  The Giants are in the same state Baylor was when Rhule took over: very bad and rebuilding.  It wouldn’t have been surprising to see Rhule follow the same trajectory he used at Baylor and apply that to the Giants, especially given the sneaky bounty of talent already on that New York roster.

But Carolina jumped the gun and pulled off the upset.  It should pay off for them.

On the Giants hiring of Joe Judge…

The Giants pivoted quickly after losing out on Rhule, who seemed destined to be in the Big Apple before the Panthers snuck in and stole him.  Joe Judge’s name had came up among potential candidates for the Giants job, but his inclusion felt more like a sign of respect or gauge of potential rather than him being an actual contender.

Judge must have killed his interview and really impressed New York.  He’ll hope to be unlike most of the Bill Belichick assistants who go on and get their own teams, though Brian Flores seems to be a home run hire by the Dolphins and should get some votes for a second or third place finish in the Coach of the Year standings.

Special teams coordinators have a stigma because of their unit’s limited impact on the average NFL game, but that decreased impact and limited workload means that more time can be spent elsewhere.  Special teams coordinators are typically involved with both offense and defense on coaching staffs, making them one of the more well-rounded coaches on a given staff.  To be that involved on arguably the best coaching staff in the league is impressive and important, and likely landed Judge the gig.  He has also has experienced under Nick Saban in addition to Bill Belichick.

The only concern is that Judge isn’t a proven offensive coordinator who can develop a quarterback like Daniel Jones.  The Giants took Jones where they did because they believed in him.  He’s their guy, and they should do whatever it takes to make sure that is and stays the case.  Judge may not have been the best option since Jones was majorly splurged on by the Giants.  He still needs a lot of help and work.  Judge may not be the guy to mentor him like that.