NFL Lessons Learned

Before he makes his playoff picks, the Sports Guy lists 10 things that added to his ongoing NFL education

You learn new life lessons every week. I learned last weekend that, when your young son becomes a huge wrestling fan, you shouldn’t ask him, “Hey, did you ever hear Billy Gunn’s entrance song when he wrestled as ‘Mr. Ass’?” Now we have a 6-year-old kid stomping around my house yelling “I’M AN ASS MAN!” and belting out lyrics like, “So many asses, so little time … only a tight one can stop me on a dime.” He’s definitely getting kicked out of school soon. Do you even need schooling when you’re an Ass Man? I guess we’ll find out.

Something else we found out last weekend: The abject wonkiness of the previous eight NFL postseasons (covered here last Friday) extended into 2014, yielding 14 relatively phenomenal hours of tackle football. We learned 10 lessons from these four games, some of which can even be used for wagering purposes. In no particular order …

Lesson No. 1: Colin Kaepernick is a man’s man.

Like everyone else with an IQ over 70, I watched that Niners-Packers game wondering, Why in God’s name would Kaepernick NOT wear sleeves in zero-degree weather? It was like watching one of those drunken maniacs in the stands who goes shirtless just to impress a bunch of strangers. The Wall Street Journal reports that, in the five coldest-weather playoff games of the last 10 years, Kaepernick was the only QB reckless enough to go sleeveless. You know who did opt for sleeves? Bart Starr and Don Meredith during the Ice Bowl! Exactly who were you trying to impress, Colin Kaepernick? But after seeing Kaep generate some monster plays down the stretch, avoid a double amputation and officially apply for “Packer Killer” status, I came to appreciate the no-sleeves idea. How could any Niners teammate let the windchill affect him when his lunatic QB wasn’t wearing sleeves???

In general, Kaepernick has to be considered our 2014 playoff wild card. He’s not as famous as Manning and Brady, as familiar as Brees and Rivers, as respected as Wilson and Luck, or even as hyped as Newton. In 23 regular-season starts, he’s thrown for 300-plus yards only two times, landed under 210 yards 13 times and rushed for more than 70 yards only twice. But he’s been better in his four playoff games — 256.3 passing YPG, 90.5 rushing YPG, three different come-from-behind fourth-quarter drives (none at home) — and along with Wilson and Rodgers, Kaepernick has to be considered a cocaptain of the “We’re Gonna Sack — Wait, How Did He Just Pull Off That 3rd-And-12?????” Club.

What makes him stand out other than the no-sleeves move? No QB vacillates between “Holy shit, that was amazing!” and “Oh god no, that’s getting picked!” quite like Kaep. You’re terrified when you wager against him … only you never feel comfortable if you wager ON him, either. That makes him this year’s winner of the Brett Favre Award for “Playoff QB Who Makes You Uneasy At All Times No Matter How You Wagered,” a trophy that has been hoisted by the likes of Jake Delhomme, Jim Kelly, Jake Plummer, Ken Stabler, Eli Manning, Aging Dan Marino and Boomer Esiason. I don’t know if I am taking Carolina or San Francisco in Round 2 yet; just know that I’m scared of Kaepernick either way.

Speaking of scared …

Lesson No. 2: Don Denkinger single-handedly prevented Kansas City from hijacking the “God Hates Cleveland” joke.

If Denkinger makes this call correctly …

… then the Cardinals win the ’85 World Series in six games, and Kansas City suddenly has this professional sports résumé: no championships since 1970 (Super Bowl IV); no Super Bowl appearances since 1970; 42 of 44 NFL seasons without a playoff victory (1993 excepted), as well as eight straight playoff losses (an NFL record); 28 Royals seasons without a playoff appearance; 24 straight Royals seasons in which they couldn’t win 87 games (including 18 of the last 20 when they couldn’t reach 78 wins); no NBA franchise because the Kings ditched them for Sacramento in 1984; the lifelong knowledge that their NBA team ditched them for Sacramento; a recent blog post on Arrowhead Pride called “Ranking The Kansas City Chiefs playoff losses by how much they sucked”; everything that happens daily on Rany Jazayerli’s tormented Twitter feed; the 453 much-ballyhooed Royals who never panned out; and, just last weekend, the second-biggest NFL playoff collapse of all time.

Could Kansas City be slowly mounting a serious challenge to the Lennon and McCartney of tortured fan bases, Cleveland and Buffalo? I’d say the ’85 World Series and two Jayhawks hoop titles (1988 and 2008) knock them out in the Tortured Final Four, along with Minnesota (which won the World Series in ’87 and ’91). But the Denkinger call clearly chewed up nearly three decades of professional sports karma for Kansas City. How many cities could have been leading 38-10 in an NFL playoff game and made you say, “I’m absolutely gonna keep watching this — there’s no way this lead is safe”?

Yeah, I know Andy Reid was involved. And I know Jamaal Charles got shelved midway through the first quarter. And I know other important Chiefs kept getting hurt. But when you’re up 38-10 and your entire fan base isn’t even remotely celebrating, you’ve accomplished something truly spectacular. Check out this email from Chris K. in Lawrence:

Me and my buddy Yonsey have lived and mostly died with the Chiefs since grade school. When we scored to go up 38-10, there was no celebrating, no planning for next week, just nervous silence. Yonsey’s wife — who knows next to nothing about sports — walks by, sees the score and says, ‘Why aren’t you guys happy? Isn’t this good?’ Neither of us looked up. I remember exactly what happened next. I looked straight at the TV and said “If you say you’re not thinking about the Bills/Oilers wild card game, you’re a f*cking liar.” Yonsey was quiet. I looked over at him, and he didn’t speak, didn’t flinch, didn’t do anything. He just looked at the TV with no expression. Indy scored shortly thereafter, and aside from the occasional cheer, we watched the rest of the game in dismal silence. We weren’t even tormented or pissed, just … I don’t even know how to sum up the emotion. Maybe an annoyed half-eye roll describes it best? I just checked my Google search history, and “Frank Reich Comeback” is right there at 5:28 pm Central time. THIS IS WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE A KANSAS CITY SPORTS FAN.

(Of the 32 NFL fan bases, only Vikings fans, Bills fans and Browns fans could fully identify with that email.)

(Actually, you know what?)

Lesson No. 3: If I ever write another Playoff Gambling Manifesto, “Don’t Bet On Cleveland, Buffalo, Minnesota Or Kansas City For Any Reason” definitely has to be included.

I mean … why did that realization take THIS long?

Lesson No. 4: If I ever write another Playoff Gambling Manifesto, I need to convert last week’s Suggestion No. 6, “Before You Pick A Team, Just Make Sure Marty Schottenheimer, Herm Edwards, Wade Phillips, Norv Turner, Andy Reid, Anyone Named Mike, Anyone Described As Andy Reid’s Pupil And Anyone With The Last Name Mora Isn’t Coaching Them,” into an actual rule.

And Reid’s name might have to be converted to 18-point font. Of all the soul-crushing playoff losses that involved Andy over the years, Saturday’s colon-reamer in Indy was probably his most defensible performance; it featured two hours of brilliant play calling (much of it without Charles, no less) coupled with Alex Smith’s out-of-body experience, and if their wide-open 19th-string running back had hauled in Smith’s slightly overthrown, Charles-definitely-woulda-caught-it fourth-quarter pass down the right sideline, KC’s offense could have dropped 50-plus in a road playoff game.

(Hold on, big “but” coming … )


They also gave up five second-half touchdowns, blew their first two timeouts for indefensible reasons, and unleashed the incredible fourth-down sequence of “no timeout, run 20 seconds off for no reason to the two-minute warning, last timeout, receiver catches the season-saving catch out of bounds.” They also couldn’t score a game-clinching touchdown against a ravaged Indy secondary that included The Artist Formerly Known As LaRon Landry, a Hobbled Vontae Davis, The Guy Who Limped After Donnie Avery On That 79-Yard Touchdown Like He’d Just Been Shot From Behind, and a Playing-Out-Of-Position Patriots castoff Darius Butler.

And as their world collapsed over that last hour, Andy stood there staring down at some mysterious sheet of paper like he was trying to read a takeout menu. Jesus, even Art Shell and Jim Caldwell thought Andy needed to show a little more life. What a bizarre game in general. At some point during that fourth quarter, every Pats fan ran through an enticing “Which Opponent Do I Want To See Most In Round 2?” checklist that included …

A. Andy Dalton and Marvin Lewis
B. The aforementioned Colts secondary
C. Andy Reid and the injury-ravaged Chiefs

… then realized, “I’ll take any of these teams! This is the greatest! We’re going to another AFC title game!”

And then Andrew Luck completed that go-ahead bomb to T.Y. Hilton for the greatest gambling push of my lifetime …

And … well …

Lesson No. 5: There’s a chance that “Don’t Bet Against Andrew Luck” could end up in Playoff Gambling Manifesto 5.0 soon.

Like, very soon. Maybe even next week. You know what I loved about Luck’s performance last Saturday? He didn’t play well for two solid hours, only it never felt like his confidence wavered. He always seemed like HE thought they were coming back. As I’ve written a million times, for me, the NFL quarterback position is 25 percent talent and 75 percent attitude/charisma/personality/intelligence/confidence. You have to be the coolest guy on your team, basically. You have to own the room. You have to be a leader of men. Both Luck and Wilson nail that 75 percent; that’s what makes them special. Say what you want about Phil Rivers, but he’s had three games this season — at Kansas City, at Denver, Cincy at home — that displayed that 75 percent. He believed, and he played like it … and eventually, his teammates followed him. Even Kaepernick playing without sleeves — maybe that was partly about earning the 75 percent. I’m as tough as you guys. I’m not afraid of cold weather — you shouldn’t be, either.

On a personal note, my single favorite thing about watching football over the past four decades — well, other than rooting for the Patriots, gambling, Madden & Summerall, and gambling on Patriots games that were announced by Madden & Summerall — has probably been watching certain QBs “own the room.” It’s the reason every Manning-Brady battle mattered, it’s the reason I have Elway and Montana ranked over everyone else, it’s the reason I still have flashbacks to Dan Marino terrorizing the Pats, and it’s the reason I love watching Paul Crewe upend the Citrus State Prison guards so much. There isn’t a more difficult job in sports than playing quarterback, so if someone thrives while also capturing that 75 percent to its fullest, as a sports fan, I marvel at that more than anything else. Knowing that we’re almost definitely getting 12 to 15 more years of those moments from Luck, and maybe Wilson, too, is pretty thrilling. Shit, that’s taking me into my late fifties.

Anyway, Luck made two insane plays that made Pats Fan Bill say to himself, “Let’s hope Kansas City wins because I’d love to avoid Andrew the Giant in Round 2.” I already mentioned the first one — Luck’s game-winning laser to Hilton (60-plus yards in the air!) was ridiculously clutch and even included a bonus underlying Eff You for Phil Simms. But the other play was better — that crazy fumble-recovery touchdown, which stood out immediately because of how quickly Luck decided “I’m plowing into the end zone.” He didn’t pause for a nanosecond. He just went for it. Like one of those old-school heady Derek Jeter moments when he finished off some unorthodox defensive play before you could even process it.

An Atlanta reader named Andrew wondered later, “How would the other playoff quarterbacks have handled that exact moment?,” eventually deciding that only Wilson would have plowed ahead that quickly and that fearlessly. I think Elway and Young Favre could have made that play. Rodgers and Much Younger Brady might have done it. That’s about it. I am absolutely frightened of you in Round 2, Andrew Luck.

Lesson No. 6: Lone Survivor is the most extraordinary war movie since Saving Private Ryan.

I know, I know. Even worse, my buddy JackO was bitterly disappointed that I didn’t fulfill our old dream of becoming the real-life versions of Spy Magazine‘s mock movie critic Walter Monheit. Back in college, we loved Monheit’s carefully crafted, over-the-top blurbs that were specifically intended to land on movie posters. Anyway, JackO was incensed that I didn’t go with, “You know who’s the real Lone Survivor? OSCAR!” I have a lot of regrets.

Lesson No. 7: When you’re picking games on Friday morning, make sure you’re factoring in the late-week possibility of a “Nobody Believes In Us” team emerging.

Last week, I picked the Chargers to cover and barely lose while carrying the “Nobody Believes In Us!” torch. But I also knew the whole “New Orleans has to win four in a row outside the Superdome, no way that’s happening!” story line coupled with “Dome teams are 3-22 in playoff games in 35-degree-or-less weather” stat propelled the Saints into “Nobody Believes In Us!” status. I even wrote about it. So how did I blow that Saints-Eagles pick? Because I suck at gambling! I thought you knew! I watched Saturday’s pregame shows thinking, Uh-oh, they’re really playing up this Saints-on-the-road thing. I may have shanked this one. And I did. What else is new?

The big question: Since the Saints pulled off a road win in cold weather, can you still say nobody believes in them? Hold that thought. Speaking of Cajun heroes, let’s take a break for this commercial from our new sponsor, Bojangles’. That’s right, biscuit justice is served … Delhomme-style!

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Lesson No. 8: Picking Round 1 games might be as simple as (a) making sure one team’s strength of schedule wasn’t significantly harder than the other team’s strength of schedule, and (b) just grabbing any home dog.

With the Colts becoming a game-day home dog, then covering, playoff home dogs are a jaw-dropping 23-12-1 since 1990. Guess what else? If you ranked every playoff team just by Jeff Sagarin’s strength-of-schedule rankings, the team that played a harder schedule is 36-12 straight-up and 36-12 against the spread since 2002. When you narrow those numbers to teams that finished at least 10 SOS spots higher than their opponent, they improve to a staggering 23-3 straight-up and 22-3-1 against the spread (including New Orleans, Indy and San Francisco last weekend). FILE THIS SHIT AWAY FOR 2015, FELLOW GAMBLING JUNKIES!!!

And now, let’s break for another one of our new sponsors, JTM’s Beef Taco Filling. Mmmmmm … muy deliciosa! Buenos tacos, amigos!

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Lesson No. 9: Anytime a playoff team is laying more than a touchdown when (a) it hasn’t won a playoff game in 23 years, (b) its QB generated just 23 points in his previous two playoff games (both losses) and just had a four-interception game, and (c) its coach could tie Jim Mora’s record for “Most consecutive seasons with the same team without ever winning a playoff game,” it’s probably the right idea to grab the points.

And it was! Thank you, Cincinnati! You saved me from a winless weekend. So what should you do moving forward if you’re the Bengals? Check out the numbers of the last three quarterbacks who started 0-3 in the playoffs. One of the three is Andy Dalton.

QB 1: 558 yards, 50-for-105 completed, 2 INTs, 1 pass TD, 33 points scored.
QB 2: 584 yards, 70-for-110 completed, 4 INTs, 3 pass TDs, 47 points scored.
QB 3: 718 yards, 70-for-123 completed, 6 INTs, 1 pass TD, 33 points scored.

Who were they?

Let’s see …

QB 1: Peyton Manning.
QB 2: Matt Ryan.
QB 3: Andy Dalton.

Translation: As much as I want to do it, I’m fighting off the urge to add “Don’t bet on a ginger QB for any reason, but especially if he’s laying points” to the Playoff Gambling Manifesto.

As for Dalton’s long-term future, even if Bengals fans can’t be blamed for quitting on Dalton or being wildly intrigued by Dalton-related trade possibilities (Mays alert!!!), it seems reckless to dump a 26-year-old QB with a 30-18 regular-season record just because of 180 minutes of football. Could Dalton lose his confidence completely and go full-scale Ginger Matt Schaub on us? Of course! It’s a pulsatingly realistic possibility. (As I wrote in Week 6, once QBs lose it, they LOSE IT.) But what are Cincy’s other options? Kirk Cousins? A soon-to-be 35-year-old Josh McCown? Christian Ponder? Josh “Two-Time Coach Killer Even If There Were Mitigating Circumstances But Still” Freeman? They’re better off drafting another QB, challenging Dalton and seeing if those three playoff losses hardened him, and/or convincing him to shave his head bald. And if he keeps regressing, you cut bait.

For me, the Lewis conundrum is much more simple — an 11-year playoff drought extends well beyond a sample size. Again, it has happened only one other time in NFL history: Jim Mora … the guy who left us this magical legacy:

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Counting every head coach who took over an NFL team after the first Super Bowl (1967), every eventual Super Bowl–winning coach did it within six years of taking over, with two exceptions: John Madden (Year 8) and Bill Cowher (Year 14). So if the Bengals keep Lewis, they’re hoping he becomes Cowher 2.0. Here’s the problem — Cowher took Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl in Year 4, won five playoff games in his first six years, landed no. 1 seeds in 2001 (Year 10) and 2004 (Year 13), finally won the title (Year 14), and finished his career with a 149-90-1 record, giving him the 12th-highest winning percentage of anyone who coached 10 seasons or more (.623). Lewis had an 79-80 record heading into this season. He’s never won a playoff game or clinched a playoff bye. He’s not Cowher 2.0 — not even close.

So what is he? He’s Jim Mora 2.0.

Lewis in Cincinnati: 11 years, 90-85-1 regular season, 0-5 playoffs.

Mora in New Orleans: 11 years, 93-74-0 regular season, 0-4 playoffs.

And no, Mora never did win a playoff game. Any Bengals fan should be exceedingly more pessimistic about Year 12 of the Lewis era than Year 4 of the Dalton era. And actually, maybe they should just be pessimistic in general. Keep your heads up, Bengals fans. And enjoy this commercial from another one of our new sponsors, the National Coffee Association. Mmmmmm … coffee …

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LESSON No. 10: In the Concussion Awareness era, every playoff game is now a Michael Conrad Memorial “Let’s Be Careful Out There” Game.

Once upon a time, well before NYPD Blue‘s groundbreaking influence on modern television dramas and Grantland’s game recaps, Hill Street Blues was considered the GOAT of police dramas. For the first three seasons, every episode started the same way: a likable police veteran (played by Michael Conrad) addressing the troops, then ending his morning report by urging everyone, “Hey, let’s be careful out there.”

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You could play that clip before every NFL playoff game in 2014. And even if everyone will remember last weekend’s spectacular slew of games for what they were — 14 hours of high-powered drama — for me, that Chiefs-Colts game signified something bigger. Like the day we drew a clear demarcation line between Old Football and New Football.

A quick recap: Jamaal Charles gets dinged on Kansas City’s first drive, lands face-down and doesn’t move for an extra few seconds. Injury timeout. Every Chiefs fan immediately thinks, Oh God … I hope he doesn’t have a concussion … please God …  as we head into commercial. When we come back, NBC shows the replay — turns out one of the Colts inadvertently clipped Charles in the head. Now we see Charles sitting on the bench as Kansas City’s medical staff examines him. He has the semi–Troy Aikman Face going. Everyone watching knows right there that the league’s best runner isn’t coming back. A few minutes later, they show him heading for the locker room and that’s that.

Now — think of how different that sequence was compared to the old days. First, any Old Football playoff player who got his bell rung would have returned to the game unless he got knocked out. And even then, he might have returned and wobbled around for a few downs. In New Football, you’re wiped out instantaneously — it’s like the light getting turned off next to every injured player’s number in Rollerball (the 1975 version, not the indefensible 2002 remake). Second, the fan reaction to those moments has been irrevocably altered. Whenever anyone was injured in an Old Football playoff game, you thought to yourself, As long as we don’t see that guy sitting on the cart, he might come back. With New Football, you know he’s not coming back. Almost instantly.

And third, unexpected feelings of guilt pop up from both ends — for the opposing fans (trying not to anger the Karma Gods by celebrating that Jamaal Charles can’t play anymore because, you know, his head just got effed up) and the player’s fans (who fight off the urge to say, “Come on, Jamaal, you’re fine, shake it off!” when they know it’s probably worse than that). As my Chiefs buddy Connor texted me after Charles’s injury, “I am the most pro-concussion-safety football fan in the world. Until our star running back gets his bell rung in the playoffs.”

It’s the black cloud that hangs over every game now, as well as one of our biggest ongoing gambling wrinkles — you just never know when your fortunes might flip because somebody’s knee mistakenly grazed someone else’s helmet, or someone landed the wrong way on a play they’ve pulled off correctly thousands of other times. Injury luck has become the fourth-biggest Super Bowl X factor, trailing only quarterbacks, coaches and Janet Jackson’s partially exposed nipples. Anyone can disappear at any time. Even if that used to be the case to some degree, now it’s REALLY the case. This is our American pastime in 2014. As a Sacramento reader named Patrick says, “While watching the third Chiefs player get pulled off the field for a possible concussion and listening to Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life play in Indy’s stadium, I realized that song is the NFL’s concussion policy — or at least the one they would like to have.”

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All right, let’s tackle the Round 2 playoff games. Don’t forget — for eight Round 2s in a row, at least one road underdog getting at least 4.5 points has won outright. You’re not allowed to make a three-team tease with Seattle, New England and Denver this weekend. If I find out you did, you’re grounded for a month. I’m not kidding. Don’t test me.

• CLICK HERE for Part 2.

Bill Simmons

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