NFL Conference Championship Graveyard
Plus, our review of Sunday's games
Congratulations to America, as we have been awarded one of the best Super Bowl matchups ever in two weeks. We get to celebrate either the full coronation of the next NFL mega star or we get to anoint the most annoying person in the world the greatest winner in sports (sorry Celtics fans, the NBA of Bill Russell’s day was nowhere near as competitive as modern football is). Either Patrick Mahomes goes back to back and solidifies himself as the best player in football, or Tom Brady gets lucky number 7 to pass Michael Jordan as the sports GOAT. SO. MUCH. FUN.
We aren’t going to look forward too much here though, we have two weeks to do that. Let’s look back at Sunday. Before we say goodbye to the Packers and the Bills, let’s discuss what happened. I have five things I want to mention.
Young head coaches are not ready for prime time if they can’t find the courage to go for it on fourth down.
Andy Reid drew rave reviews for his courage against the Browns two weeks ago. With the game on the line, he went for it on fourth down with his backup quarterback in the game. This week, Matt LeFleur and Sean McDermott looked more like Matt LeBlanc and Dylan McDermott. Both faced tough choices, being down in the second half to two teams with all-world quarterbacks. They both opted for field goals on fourth down plays when those field goals didn’t change the trajectory of the game at all. In the Packers case, they needed a touchdown with 2 minutes left, and kicked a field goal to remain down a touchdown. The Bills were down two scores in the second half and kicked field goals twice to remain down two scores. Never mind that these teams had been incredible all year in 4th down situations, and they both had championship level quarterbacks (as a bonus Josh Allen is an overwhelming short yardage runner). These are situations where BAD teams should be going for it. It’s not a coincidence that the aggressive, experienced coaches on the other sideline (Arians had Tom Brady throw a bomb to the end zone with 7 seconds left in the first half) won both games. Dylan and LeBlanc need to spend the offseason toughening up. If a QB threw a 4 yard out on 4th and 7 with a minute left, they would excoriate the player. They need to be willing to put the game on their shoulders too, if they expect the players to lift the same weight. Cowardice does not a championship make.
You need two cornerbacks.
One thing that was abundantly clear in yesterday’s game is the fact that an elite cornerback is not enough anymore on defense. Both the Bills and the Packers were marauded by wide receivers or tight ends exposing their weakness after their number one CB. The Bills (Tre’Davious White) and the Packers (Jaire Alexander) both have stars at the number one cornerback spot. And both teams have massive holes after them. In the Packers case, their number two cornerback Kevin King was treated like a decent person in a Saw movie. For the Bills, the Chiefs did exactly what I said they would in the preview column. They exploited the Bills lack of a coverage option for Travis Kelce. Kelce went bananas (B-A-N-A-N-A-S) with thirteen catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns. An elite cornerback used to be the thing to get to build an elite defense (the Patriots, Jets, Seahawks etc.). With the rise in elite WRs coming into the league, two is the new one. Expect to see the value of cornerbacks go up again this off-season.
Running the ball is not important. The threat of running the ball is.
Other than the Packers, none of the teams that remained in the final four were great at running the ball. When the games actually started, none of the teams ran the ball well either. It didn’t matter in the least, however, because both teams still piled up the scores. The team out of this group that was, by far, the worst at running was the Bills. The lack of the running game even being a threat was a major hinderance to the Bills this post-season. Their offense sputtered in the last two games, at least in part because the opposing defenses just keyed in on stopping the pass. For the Bills to make it to the next level, they need to make teams fear the other half of RPOs and play-action calls. These are two key pieces of modern offense that keep good defenses off-balance
You have to be able to make plays down the field in the modern NFL.
For years, short passing offenses were the rage in the NFL. Premier connoisseurs like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Alex Smith, all the way back to the original Joe Montana, exploited gaps in coverage to move the ball 4 yards at a time through the air instead of the ground. This had replaced the long time approach of moving the ball 4 yards on the ground each play. This low risk, high ball control approach kept the defense off the field and forced teams to take slow moving linebackers out, and put in smaller, quicker players. At this point, that change is mostly complete. Slow moving gap filler linebackers are gone. In their place are quick hybrid players like Jamal Adams or the honey badger Tyrann Mathieu. Those short pass windows are disappearing. Now, the teams that win have to exploit ALL areas of the field to move the ball. This means being able to do ALL of the following, run the ball up the middle, stretch the width with sprint outs, toss plays, roll outs, RPOs and wide receiver (or TE) handoffs, Throw the ball over the middle to a TE or slot WR, throw an out-route to a WR and hit the deep ball. The deep ball is the final frontier for a lot of offenses, as it is a risky play that might result in a turnover or a second/third and long. Just like comment number one, however, the good teams have learned to be aggressive and take risks. Even Tom Brady and his noodle arm has been pushing the ball down the field this year, to great success. This is no longer optional.
Black coaches are a cheat code in modern football.
Another NFL hiring cycle is coming to a close soon, and barring a massive surprise, the Texans look intent on hiring a white high school coach over numerous more qualified candidates (of every color) to push Deshaun Watson out the door for good. This means another year will go by without a new black head coach. I am not going to get into the reasons behind this, because I don’t really like questioning the motivations of individual people I don’t know. As a whole, however, I am very comfortable saying that the NFL has *at best* a mild aversion to hiring people of color to prominent positions. I’m not the only one who has noticed. Andy Reid and Bruce Arians are on to them. One of the biggest frustrations for great teams is losing your coordinators year after year to become head coaches elsewhere. It has happened bi-annually to Bill Belichick. If you have stood within 100 feet of Sean McVay in the last 5 years, you are likely to get hired. Andy Reid and Bruce Arians are now at the top, but they have figured out how to keep your team from taking their coordinators. Hire black people. 3 of the 4 coordinators on the Super Bowl teams will be black, and, trust me when I say, none of them are in danger of being hired this year. Even with draft pick compensation available, those three remain safely ensconced on the teams that are most likely to be the best this year and next year. I look forward to Steve Spagnuolo being hired to be a coach next year though. Again, I mean.
What went wrong:
As noted above, when the moment was the brightest, Sean McDermott wasn’t up to the challenge. Hopefully he learns from this. All year long the Bills were a team very eager to kick field goals despite going 80 percent!?!?!? on fourth down. I suspect the lack of a running game is the reason they did this, but when Sean McDermott woke up this morning, he woke up in an NFL where throwing on 4th down is ok now. As for the rest of the team, it’s hard to bash them. The Chiefs are pretty damn awesome. Yeah, they couldn’t hold them under thirty. Well, pretty much no one can in the playoffs. I suspect they will get another shot at this next year. Hopefully they focus on trying to win next time.
What happens next:
Coaching: Sean McDermott isn’t going anywhere, and neither is Brian Daboll, which is good news for the Bills. Also, their defensive coordinator, Leslie Frazier, is black, so he is safe. This team has a good thing going with the synergy between the front office and coaching. I expect this team to improve next year as they add pieces and Josh Allen continues to grow. McDermott will grow as a coach too. The same heroic Andy Reid who’s every move is now near brilliance, was once viewed as a lumbering oaf who couldn’t figure out when to use timeouts or when to use a hurry up offense. Coaches can grow up with experience.
Other major issue: If they want to get over the hump of the Chiefs, they are going to need someone who covers tight ends. This is a gaping hole in their defense, and it is especially gaping vs. the Chiefs. Adding a better hybrid linebacker/safety should be a priority this offseason. An additional need for a better running back is also obvious, but teams don’t need to sink major cash or picks into that position. They should be able to get one in the draft or in what will be a majorly overstuffed free agent market. It is clear their offensive line needs some run blocking upgrades as well.
Good news: Before the season, I wrote that this team would go as far as Josh Allen allows them too. This offseason, Josh Allen is SO MUCH BETTER, that Josh Allen will go as far as his TEAM allows him too. That is an incredible change in one season. I have never seen a quarterback grow so far in one offseason as Allen did. He went from being straight up bad, to great. Major props to him for the work he put in. They are set at quarterback for the next 10 years.
What’s next: The Bills are lucky in the sense that they don’t have a lot of problems, but the ones they have are super obvious, with super obvious fixes. I don’t think this group will allow them to go unaddressed. The only negative thing looming over this team is Josh Allen’s upcoming extension. When the great quarterback gets the extension, everything about roster construction changes. A lot of supporting pieces are lost, and you have to choose carefully which expensive players you keep. The Bills are starting to have to make some of those decisions. The most valuable commodity in football is the great young quarterback on the rookie contract. The clock is ticking on theirs.
What went wrong:
When this play happened I told my dad that this would likely be the difference in the game. It was. Right before this, Bruce Arians pulled back the punting team and took a small chance, going for it on fourth down, to open the door for this play. When paired with the Packer’s pointless field goal, it was all they needed. When two teams are so evenly matched, the little things make all the difference, and Tom Brady has been making little things work out for his coach his whole career. As for Aaron Rodgers, he was ok. This is his fourth straight conference championship loss, and it is increasingly starting to feel like he might be part of the problem in big games. For years, I have insisted that he wasn’t. It was the lack of defense (true), it was Mike McCarthy (true), it was a lack of skill players (true) or it was just bad luck (also true). Now, though, those things aren’t a big factor. McCarthy’s gone. There are plenty of good players, and the defense is ok (not great). This game wasn’t lost by luck. It was lost because the Bucs offense was better. The end.
What happens next:
Coaching: Matt LaFleur has been a big improvement from Mike McCarthy, so no need to move on there. They might want to consider looking at the defensive side however. They improved as the season wore on, and they clearly still need some pieces, but taking a peek at the coach isn’t a bad idea. Anyone who was once a Browns coach (Mike Pettine) should be on a watch list just like anyone who storms our Congress.
Other Major issue: I mentioned the gaping hole at second cornerback. Their star, Jaire Alexander was listed at no. 2 in PFF’s ranking of top cornerbacks. Their number two, Kevin King, was listed at 152. At least get a 70-something in the middle there. This team also needs a little more beef in the trenches as the struggled against the run all season despite being in the lead most of the year. It’s tough to be a constantly winning team, and get crushed in the run game.
Good news: It’s not like there is some huge gap between them and the Bucs, or the rest of the NFC for that matter. If they run it back next year, there is no reason to think they won’t be in the mix. They have a very good balanced offense, a solid defense and a smart front office and coach. There is no reason to panic here. There is also no reason to move on from Aaron Rodgers who was great all year and had two bad games against the Bucs.
What’s next: Instead of wasting a pick on a project quarterback, they will need to focus on a number of holes that will appear on this team. Aaron Rodgers noted his concern about his own future with the team in his departing press conference, and seemed to leave the door wide open for a potential exit. I don’t see how that would be a good thing for anyone involved. The first item of business needs to be to clarify with him what his future is. No one likes to be left dangling on a string. After that, they need to address the holes in the defense. Sometimes, not tearing something down because of a bad game can be the smartest decision of all.