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The final game of the NFL season is played today between the Ravens and Niners. We gather our thoughts and recap the season in advance of the last game, as well as look into the future.
As much as we pan the Pro Bowl for being something less of a fully-competitive game, one thing the NFL got right was putting the Pro Bowl in the bye week between the conference championships and the Super Bowl, because to me, it's only right that the season end on the highest note of crowning the league champion.
And it's on that note that I'd like to take some time this morning to revisit the NFL season that was and give my thoughts on some of the trends we've seen and key moments of the year.
1) Keeping in mind that I'm the same guy that preaches patience with judging Marc Trestman, both the Niners and the Ravens got it right with their "quick reaction/over-reaction moves" of benching Alex Smith and firing Cam Cameron. And ironically enough, both moves were made for opposite reasons. First, the Colin-Kaepernick-for-Alex-Smith move was building since his drafting last season - new coach, new quarterback prospect, that kind of thing. Add in one game of 621 total offensive yards coupled with three games of 13-points or fewer and a struggling passing game, well, given the opportunity to put in Kaepernick, the staff chose to ride out his "young-player-growing-pains." Kaepernick is a bigger-play threat than the more moderately-consistent Alex Smith, which makes an offense with an already-great rushing attack really pretty dangerous. Kind of unfair that the move came after Smith was concussed, but so it goes.
Contrast with the Cam Cameron firing, which the Ravens made because of a lack of using Ray Rice and needing more consistency on offense. I understand teams like to keep their stars fresh, but you don't force a dual-back system when one is an especially dynamic playmaker like Rice. Bernard Pierce isn't bad, but he didn't score touchdowns, he didn't catch the ball out of the backfield... Not an overly-necessary back-tandem. The Jim Caldwell move didn't take hold right away, but in three playoff games the team hasn't scored less than 24 points, so hey, it's worked well enough so far, and Rice and the Ravens' rushing attack have really resurfaced.
2) Bruce Arians deserved Coach of the Year. It's bolded because that's how strongly I believe he deserved it. He came into an interim coaching position in the worst of situations and helped get that team into the postseason. Here's hoping the best for Chuck Pagano and a postseason trip for him next year - I think that team's only just getting started. And good on Arians for turning the opportunity into his first true Head Coaching gig.
3) How does it feel to be Matt Flynn right now? He left Green Bay as a free agent for good money to have a shot at a starting job in Seattle, then couldn't beat out a third-round rookie quarterback, and after this season, he probably won't have a shot at starting there at all.
4) I get leery of any big branding like "Year of the Quarterback" or any phrasing like that, but it's really a good thing for the NFL to have a new guard of young potential franchise quarterbacks in good places - Andrew Luck in Indianapolis, Robert Griffin III in Washington, Russell Wilson in Seattle, and Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco, coupled with Andy Dalton in Cincinnati. Possibly Jake Locker in Tennessee, but his body of work hasn't been great and he's coming off injury.
5) He's not particularly "young" per se, but you can add Joe Flacco to that list as a franchise quarterback. He'll be a Raven next year, and even if he's not in that "elite" category, he's still really good.
6) I'll let this point be a question - Is this game's billable matchup Colin Kaepernick vs. Joe Flacco, or Frank Gore vs. Ray Rice?
7) If you have any doubts Adrian Peterson was the MVP, go rewatch the Vikings' last few weeks. And Peyton Manning as Comeback Player of the Year makes sense too - Peterson came back from a torn ACL, but Manning's career was in doubt and he still returned to normal, if slightly below, Peyton Manning standards.
8) The Tom Brady/Bill Belichick dynasty has really lost some of its luster the last few years - while they can clearly kick the crap out of the AFC East, do you still fear playing the Patriots like you did in 2008 or in their Super Bowl runs? I know it feels silly to ask that of a team that just went 12-4 and lost to the team going to the Super Bowl (twice), but until they shore up the defense, are they a Super Bowl team or can they just offense their way through everything again?
9) I'm not enamored with any of the quarterback options in the draft as a "franchise guy," and neither would I be too interested in drafting one as merely a stop-gap with a first-round pick. If the Jaguars and Chiefs start looking for a first-round franchise guy, I feel like they'll be back here looking for a franchise guy. Blaine Gabbert's not great, but the Jaguars need to have a little patience and ride it out with him and improve the situation around him, or continue to ride with Chad Henne as a stopgap and, again, improve the situation. (It carries the extra effect of, when you do add that franchise guy, he's the missing part instead of the base of operations.) Alex Smith could really help the Chiefs as a free agent.
10) I'd be especially surprised if the Bears' first pick this year isn't an offensive lineman - even if it's a tackle. Yes, J'Marcus Webb improved, Gabe Carimi still had a "throwaway" season after taking a year off from injury, and Jonathan Scott was moderately okay, but if a stud tackle falls to them, improving the edge isn't the worst idea in the world, even if you're dropping Scott off the roster. Can they get more improvement drafting interior? Of course, but you don't take a guy just because he plays a certain position.
11) The NFL replacement refs are replacements for a reason, but let's not pretend the "real refs" are perfect either. Either way, mistakes will be made. I predict tonight we see at least one "replacement ref" level mistake. Not "hail Mary" level, but "mis-spot for a first down" level.
12) Speaking of Peyton Manning above, how much longer can he keep going? I'd say he's got another couple years, enough that Brock Osweiler is no longer a viable option up there.
13) And speaking of rookie quarterbacks being given up on, the Browns shouldn't be writing off Brandon Weeden after one season after just spending a high draft pick on him. Weeden might be older and didn't have a great rookie year, but you spent a first round pick on him for a reason. Those aren't throwaways.
14) Tim Tebow is the least-deserving NFL story that is an actual story. He can be a good NFL quarterback if a team's willing to design an entire offense around him instead of just a package, but he just doesn't have the skills to be an NFL passer, and time's running out on his development. Speaking of being forced on a team, um, the Jets took a chance on him because they don't have a quarterback. And after acquiring him last offseason, they still don't have a quarterback. And without a good offseason signing, they probably still won't have a quarterback.
15) Number 15 really should have gone to Tebow (you know, synergy and all) but for the final note, I want to go back to the Bears and end this on our team's note, and more specifically, a few final words from me on Lovie Smith. Smith is a very good defensive coach and a successful head coach, but his problem is that he plateaued. With success comes a higher expectation of greater success, and two years after the NFC Championship Game appearance, no playoffs stings, even if one of them was out of the team's control - but it was in the team's control until those final weeks. One can say it wasn't in his team's control, but it got that way from the losses suffered on the way there.
That doesn't mean that Smith didn't have some good seasons while he was here. But if anything, the hot early starts of the last two seasons make it even more damning that the Bears couldn't hold two "bye-week" playoff spots. Of course in 2011 Jay Cutler went down and the Bears only won one more game the rest of the year, and saying you'd pull Caleb Hanie prior to the fourth loss is a degree of hindsight, but falling in 2012 against the Vikings and Seahawks, and losing that playoff spot to both... You can't say that you can't win with Lovie Smith, but you have to be able to coach well enough to hold onto a playoff spot, even if that means pulling the plug on a Hanie for McCown earlier.
Lovie was good enough to coach three "bye-week" playoff teams to the playoffs. He also lost three playoff spots outright and wasn't in contention for three more. He couldn't get into the playoffs with "non-bye-week" teams or teams that experienced adversity, and that proved to be his downfall.
We'll have our Super Bowl Preview for you a little later today, so stay tuned for that, but for now, what are your thoughts as we wrap up the 2012 season?