Jan. 07, 2019
Who Fed It & Who Ate It: Wild Card Weekend 2018
Your humble scribe was planning to pen this post to combine this weekend's results with any coaching hires, but the new head coaches have been coming in fast and furious, so we'll run this on the fly.
The Green Bay Packers hire Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur as their new head coach. This has been a curious hire. Lafleur has limited experience as an offensive coordinator, where his proximity to young coaching phenom Sean McVay is LaFleur's greatest claim to fame. Yet, his primary objective will be to develop a new, dynamic offense with Aaron Rodgers, whose production this year suggests that his prime is waning. If LaFleur can reinvigorate a certain future Hall of Famer, then the hire under general manager Brian Gutekunst will be considered a success.
Bruce Arians is coming out of retirement to take over head coaching duties with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This has to be considered the biggest surprise of the hiring season. Arians retired last year from the Arizona Cardinals due to health concerns, but he was one of the most successful coaches in Cardinals history, posting 10 win seasons for 3 straight years. Arians' directive is clear: Turn QB Jameis Winston into a franchise quarterback. Both men are on the clock, as Winston's rookie contract is in its final year and Bucs management must decide on pulling the trigger on a fifth year option. If Arians can reach Winston, the Pewter Pirates can be set for the long term. And given Arians' reputation as a quarterback whisperer, his success or failure in central Florida will be measured in Winston's development.
The Arizona Cardinals reached into the college ranks, snagging University of Southern California offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury as their new sideline leader. It's not unusual for teams to bring up college coaches to the pro level to ply their craft. What is unusual is plucking a college coordinator to become an NFL head coach, which has precisely occurred with Arizona and Kingsbury. The move fits two narratives: One, given the hires (and meteoric rises) of younger offensive minds like the Rams' Sean McVay and the Bears' Matt Nagy, Kingsbury fits the bill. And second, which dovetails into the first point, is bringing in an offensive oriented coach to mold their future of the franchise in QB Josh Rosen. Notice the pattern of coaching hires that most revolve around finding an offensive coach for the express purpose of developing a young signal caller into a franchise cornerstone. If Kingsbury has any advantage, it's the fact that he takes over the league's worst team in 2018. With the bar set fairly low as a result, he should be given time to build up both Rosen and the Cards.
The Denver Broncos bring in Chicago defensive coordinator Vic Fangio as their new head coach. Two years ago, Broncos EVP John Elway tapped Vance Joseph as head coach, based on his defensive pedigree and making an impression on the Mile High Legend. Elway is keeping Denver's head coach as a defensive guru, and has opted to pick up the long travelled Fangio, who has been able to reach players as a defensive coordinator in many of his stops. That is the hope that his effectiveness can work as the head of the entire roster.
The Cleveland Browns, one of the more interesting vacancies, has promoted interim offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens to head coach. This promotion certainly has the feel of one coach moving up too soon. Kitchens was a position coach when 2018 began. Now, he will be the top dog in the Dawg Pound in 2019. But take that away, and it's a coaching model that others are using. Playoff qualifiers, especially in the NFC, have head coaches who also double as the offensive playcaller. Kitchens had shown he has a rapport with rookie sensation Baker Mayfield, and it seems that GM John Dorsey and/or owner Jimmy Haslam did not want to roll the dice with another offensive coordinator whose system may not fit Mayfield's skill set. If Dorsey can pick up a strong defensive coordinator, then the arrangement stands a good chance to be successful. Browns fans everywhere are hoping that Cleveland's strong finish to conclude the season will carry over into 2019 and beyond with this new structure.
Adam Gase has essentially made a lateral move, from being released by the Miami Dolphins to being named the New York Jets head coach. Let's see, team in malaise? Check. Young impressionable quarterback being viewed as the future of the franchise? Check. Team executives looking for an offensive minded coach? Check. Well, that sets up the Jets to go after a coach who has a history of maximizing output from the likes of Peyton Manning and Jay Cutler, and that leads us to Gase landing on his feet in New Jersey. His teams in Miami were wanting for leadership and offensive playmakers, as that unit would decay with marginal quarterbacks and mercurial skill players. He now inherits Sam Darnold, a raw talent who has shown flashes of brilliance. Can Gase redeem himself in his second turn as a head coach, or will he crash and burn, forever branded as out of his element when in charge of the whole roster? Only time will tell.
Now, onto the Wild Card games...
The Indianapolis Colts handled the Houston Texans 21-7 in their 11th win in 12 games. There is no other team that is as hot as the Colts right now, as they turn in a near perfect first half to roll right past the Texans in Houston. Both sides of the ball are firing on all cylinders, with RB Marlon Mack setting a franchise record for rushing yards in a game (148), QB Andrew Luck has been both the gunslinger and field general that he was envisioned to be, and the defense has been nearly impregnable, forcing turnovers when not stopping opposing offenses. If there is another dangerous team in these playoffs, I'd love to see them (Sorry, Eagles fans... Philly has played well, but has not been dominant). Now, the Colts get the honor of playing the AFC's top seed in the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. A tough place to play, but the Chiefs have struggled at home in January in seasons past, so who advances, the NFL's hottest team or the AFC's best team over the course of the season?
The Dallas Cowboys played a tough game against the Seattle Seahawks, and was victorious in a 24-22 result. Teams who have similar styles when they play each other can make for some interesting games. However, given the hyper offensive environment the NFL currently resides, teams who play aggressive defense and prefer a run first offense can be seen as some as tedious. But if one enjoys a defensive battle with a collapse of the opposition late in the game, this was for you. The biggest takeaway from this game was QB Dak Prescott making plays with his arm and his legs in leading Dallas to their third playoff victory since 1996. The Cowboys may not come off as a Super Bowl contender, but their style of play travels well in the postseason. And the Cowboys head to Los Angeles to face the Rams, whose high flying offense is a polar opposite. The weather and home field favors the Curly Horns, but if Dallas establishes their game, they would be primed to pull off the upset.
The Los Angeles Chargers began the playoffs in Baltimore, and walked away from the Charmed City with a 23-17 victory over the Ravens, deemed by many as the most dangerous team in the playoffs. Two intriguing teams faced off against one another with only one being able to advance. The Chargers finished the regular season with a 12-4 record, but due to playing in the same division as the Chiefs, they find themselves on the road. The Ravens, meanwhile, come into the Super Bowl LIII tournament smoking, winning six of their last seven games to win the AFC North. Their fortunes changed when rookie Lamar Jackson took over at quarterback when Joe Flacco was injured, then head coach John Harbaugh kept Jackson in when Flacco was healthy as to not disturb the winning chemistry. In the playoff game, however, the Ravens struggled with ball security very early, fumbling the ball three times in their first eight offensive plays. The Chargers, meanwhile, were unfazed with both the magnitude of the game and their opponent, as they would turn in a wire to wire win. Because of the Bolts' unique stadium situation, they are battle hardened for a road playoff run. Their next stop will be in New England, a long time tormentor of this franchise over the career of QB Philip Rivers. The Patriots are still the Patriots, and will be considered a favorite to repeat as AFC champions until they are formally eliminated. But the ingredients are there for an upset, as the Pats are vulnerable and the Chargers are about as good as they're going to get.
The Philadelphia Eagles escape Chicago after a partially blocked field goal bounces off both the left upright and the crossbar to eliminate the Bears, 16-15. With Nick Foles under center in December and January, it seems that the Eagles can do no wrong, as Foles led his offense to a late score against the vaunted Bears' defense to take the lead in the final Wild Card game on Sunday. His counterpart, Mitch Trubisky, would put Chicago in position for a 43 yard field goal with only seconds to go. PK Cody Parkey, haunted by 5 FG misses that struck an upright (4 of which were in one game), saw his game winning attempt strike an Eagles' defender's index finger, which changed the trajectory of the kick to not only hit the left upright, but also fall to hit the crossbar with the ball landing in the end zone to end the Bears season. In an alternate universe, that ball goes in by caroming off one or both of those yellow bars, that is just how close that kick was. In stunning fashion, the defending champs now head to New Orleans for a regular season rematch against the Saints, a team that blew them out. Do the underdog Green Birds continue their run by gaining vengeance, or does the combination of Drew Brees and Sean Payton in the Crescent City prove to be too much for any team in the senior conference this year? We shall find out in a few days.