It’s the first Monday of the year, and it’s the last Monday 10-pack of the year.
I miss the days when football season ended before December 31.
As a setup goes, that’s all I got. Let’s get on to the 10 takes from a 32-team season-ending Sunday.
1. Packers should strongly consider franchising Flynn.
In 2008, after the first annual Brett Favre retirement, the Packers drafted two quarterbacks. The gesture was interpreted by some (i.e., by us) as a bolting of the door behind Favre and the blocking of it with large pieces of furniture.
Brian Brohm, who entered the 2007 college football season as one of the top prospects, slid to the Packers in round two, pick 56. LSU’s Matt Flynn was an afterthought, with pick number 209 in round seven. Four seasons later, Brohm is long gone -- and Flynn showed on Sunday that he’ll be the hottest commodity in the 2012 free-agent market.
If he gets there.
Like Matt Cassel of the Patriots in 2009, the Packers should think about slapping the franchise tag on Flynn, in order to trade him to a quarterback-needy team. With Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III the best options in the draft, teams like the Redskins and Dolphins and Browns and maybe the Seahawks will be clamoring for a proven commodity like Flynn.
The risk, of course, is that Flynn would sign the franchise tag but no serious offers would come for his services, given that the starting point for a long-term deal would be the one-year guaranteed salary of $14.5 million or so in 2012. If that would happen, the Packers would be stuck with a backup earning roughly $6.5 million more next year than starter Aaron Rodgers, who is due to earn a base salary of $8 million next season.
The other side of the coin is that Flynn will walk away with plenty of coins in his pockets -- and zero compensation to the team that transformed him from a seventh-round pick into a guy who’ll be the most coveted quarterback not named Luck or Griffin.
2. Rex should be on the hot seat.
Though it’s too early to fire Jets coach Rex Ryan, who has two appearances in the AFC title game in three seasons as a head coach, he deserves the pressure that goes along with the accountability for guaranteeing a Super Bowl win (and, even more importantly in New York, a win over the Giants) and failing to deliver. Only so many times can a head coach protect his players and assistants by saying “put the blame on me” until someone decides to put the blame on him.
Yes, his players seem to still believe. More importantly, the owner seems to still believe. But the players and the owner may believe a little less in 2012 -- especially if Rex emerges from a disappointing 2011 season (in light of the expectations fueled by Ryan) as brash and bold as ever.
Beyond the boundaries of his team, Rex has become a caricature. (Some would say he already was one.) If that sense ever makes its way into the locker room, and eventually it should, it’ll be time to move on.
Apart from all the words, it’s one specific action that could, as a practical matter, put Rex in a position to be coaching for his job in 2012. The misguided decision to make receiver Santonio Holmes a captain, given that Holmes spent much of the year not acting like a captain, could come back to haunt Ryan.
Arguably, it already is. And now Rex has a mess on his hands, especially since a guy who spent much of Sunday acting like he didn’t want to be with the Jets signed a long-term, big-money deal before the season.
3. Steelers fleeced Jets on Holmes.
Speaking of Santonio, Steelers fans didn’t care much for the abrupt decision to trade Holmes to New York for a fifth-round pick in 2010. With a four-game suspension for violation of the substance-abuse policy coming on the heels of Ben Roethlisberger’s misadventures in Milledgeville, it was perceived that the Steelers’ decision was driven less by football strategy and more by public relations sensitivities.
But the Steelers were looking ahead. With Holmes due to miss the first four games of the 2010 season and one wake-n-bake away from a one-year suspension, the Steelers opted to unload a potential headache -- especially since the Steelers knew they’d never tie their hands by giving Holmes a huge contract.
And so the Steelers didn’t simply get a fifth-round pick. The Steelers also received the peace of mind that comes from dumping a wideout who would have been a major pain in the butt for the balance of 2010, and who simply no longer factored into their plans.
Meanwhile, the Steelers traded that fifth-round pick to the Cardinals for cornerback Bryant McFadden and a sixth-round pick. And with that sixth-round pick the Steelers found their 2011 MVP in round six of the same draft. Receiver Antonio Brown has become almost everything Holmes was as a player, without creating any of the headaches or other issues that go hand in hand with having Holmes on the team.
4. Texans-Bengals game could be the key to the AFC playoffs.
I’ve been concerned throughout much of the 2011 season that, once the Texans get to the postseason, a lack of playoff experience would keep them from being successful. But their first opponent is the Bengals, a team with young players having no playoff experience and, by all appearances, no players having any positive playoff experiences.
So the Texans, who beat the Bengals last month after trailing 16-3 at the half and 19-10 after three quarters, will have a very good shot at holding off the No. 6 seed. Taking a broader look at the AFC field, the outcome of that game could have a huge bearing on the determination of the eventual conference champion.
If Houston holds serve at home, it will be time for a return to Baltimore, where the Ravens’ eight regular-season wins included a trouncing of the Texans. The Steelers, after most likely beating Denver, will head to New England.
Though Baltimore would have to face one of those two potent teams (either Pittsburgh at home, where the Ravens won 35-7 in Week One or the Patriots in New England, where the Ravens won in the playoffs two years ago, 33-14), the Ravens wouldn’t have to play both of them. Which, for the Ravens, is nice.
If, in contrast, the Bengals upset the Texans, Cincinnati would head to Foxboro -- and Pittsburgh would return to Baltimore with a burst of momentum and a shot at becoming the latest wild-card winner to catch a division rival flat-footed after a bye week and knock them out of the playoffs. If Baltimore manages to beat the Steelers for a third time this year, the reward would be a trip to New England.
The converse is true for the Pats. A win by the Bengals keeps New England from having to play both Pittsburgh and Baltimore. If Houston wins, the Patriots would have to face a Steelers team that gave New England one of its three 2011 losses before inviting the Ravens back to town.
One way or the other, the outcome of Saturday’s game will make the path to Indy considerably easier for New England or Baltimore, by sending the Steelers to one place or the other.
5. Crossroads for Daniel Snyder.
The Redskins became the property of Daniel Snyder in 1999. In the 13 seasons since then, Snyder has employed (excluding interim hires) six head coaches. Other than Snyder’s boyhood hero, Joe Gibbs, no coach has made it more than two seasons on the job.
Mike Shanahan has just completed his second season on the job. Recently, Shanahan has been subtly justifying his two losing seasons by explaining that much work needed to be done to improve the bad team he inherited. And while there’s no indication that Shanahan will be fired, there likewise was no indication that the end was coming three years ago for Shanahan in Denver.
The bigger question for Snyder is whether he’s willing to stay the course not only now but after the 2012 season. If Shanahan and G.M. Bruce Allen position themselves to land Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III in the draft, it would be foolish to give Shanahan only one year to work with the new quarterback.
And so Snyder needs to realize that, by deciding to keep Shanahan now, Snyder essentially is deciding to keep Shanahan for 2013 -- and possibly for 2014.
6. Another Manning/Leaf dilemma coming?
Speaking (twice now) of Luck and Griffin, what once was a one-man show at the top of the draft quickly has become another Peyton Manning vs. Ryan Leaf conundrum. On Sunday’s Football Night In America, former Colts coach Tony Dungy explained that Colts vice chairman Bill Polian has shown a willingness to go against conventional wisdom in the draft, taking Edgerrin James in 1999 over Ricky Williams and Dwight Freeney over Albert Haynesworth in 2002.
Dungy even said he’d personally lean toward Griffin, the Heisman winner and architect of a 67-point explosion in Baylor’s bowl win.
Luck still has one more chance to create some separation, when Stanford takes on Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. Despite the obsession over measurables and the things a guy can do when not wearing pads, scouts seem to be influenced heavily by performances on the big stage.
What Luck does with it could ultimately determine whether Luck and Griffin will become another Manning and Leaf dilemma, which despite being a no-brainer in hindsight was a much closer call in 1998.
7. Pay the Cruz.
Giants receiver Victor Cruz has made, in two seasons, the unlikely climb from undrafted free agent to superstar. Nearly as shrewd as the Giants’ decision to give him a chance was their decision to sign him to a three-year contract.
And so Cruz remains contractually obligated to show up for mandatory offseason workouts and training camp in 2012, despite being slated to earn a paltry $490,000.
But the Giants need to send a message to the locker room that stellar play will be rewarded. While they could force Cruz to continue to prove himself -- and to bear the injury risk -- for the final year of his rookie deal and a season as a restricted free agent, the best move would be to find a way to pay him a fair salary that reflects not only his skills and abilities but also the contributions he made during a season that seemed destined for failure again.
In each of the last two games, a long-yardage catch-and-run from Cruz gave the Giants the upper hand. It’s only right to put a lot more money in the guy’s pockets.
8. Broncos should get Quinn ready to play Sunday.
Tebowmania landed with a thud 15 days ago, with the Patriots providing the rest of the league with the blueprint for turning the page on the NFL’s flavor of the month.
As a result, Tim Tebow has played worse than poorly the last two weeks, with as many turnovers against the Bills and Chiefs (six) as Tebow had in his 10 prior games combined.
Enter the Steelers, who have made crafted their legacy over the past two decades by methodically building a lead and then gradually choking off the opposing offense.
As a result, if the Broncos want to have a realistic shot at advancing, it may be prudent to be ready to pull off a Rocky-style switch to southpaw, by switching from the southpaw to Brady Quinn.
This isn’t a long-term indictment of Tebow. It’s a recognition of the fact that, at least for now, he has bumped up against his ceiling. The goal on Sunday is to win one game, and it could be that the only way to do that will be to know when to flip the switch from the unconventional quarterback to the guy whose abilities would defy the Steelers’ preparation.
9. MJD deserves high praise.
Every year, there’s a sense that Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew has reached the limit of his abilities, and that a regression is coming. Every year, he simply continues to play at a high level.
This year, on a team with no passing offense to draw safeties away from the box, Jones-Drew piled up 1,606 rushing yards, more than 240 yards better than Ray Rice, who finished at No. 2. Jones-Drew added 374 receiving yards, which gives him 1,980 yards from scrimmage.
At a time when former USC tailback Reggie Bush is still trying to become the best running back in the game, the former UCLA running back who entered the league in the same draft as an afterthought to Bush is what Bush has always wanted to be. Unfortunately for Jones-Drew, the Jaguars may not be able to develop a decent passing game before the window closes on his prime.
10. Packers defense is even worse than the Patriots.
All year, the media has harped on the Patriots’ porous defense, barely noticing the Swiss cheese sieve in Green Bay.
At the end of the season, the numbers don’t lie. The Patriots gave up 411.1 yards per game, and the Packers gave up 411.6.
The Packers also finished with a worse pass defense, giving up 299.8 yards per game. The Pats surrendered, on average, 293.9. That’s 34.1 yards per game more than the third-worst pass defense, the Saints.
Fittingly, the three worst pass defenses are complemented by the three best pass offenses.
And so, if the top two seeds make it to Indianapolis for the Super Bowl (or if the Saints get there instead of the Packers), it could be time to reduce the field from 100 yards to 50, put up nets at either end, and just call the game what it will be -- arena football.