Everything gets magnified in the playoffs.
Our sense of proportion gets distorted -- as the instant-diagnosis of Jay Cutler's injury from sofas across America indicated -- and the added importance of each snap tends to skew reality. The mundane becomes epic and the smallest of flaws, now exposed to the world in the postseason, seem to become massive fissures. A few good plays, some fortuitous breaks, and players and coaches can become short-term legends, able to cash in on the open market. A few gaffes, and a brutally bitter ending to what had been a successful season, and players and teams alike could be prone to a hangover that drags into 2011.
The heroes and the goats all have more at stake. Playoff football becomes like a unifying language, a series of cultural flashpoints in which hardcore fans and those generally disinterested now have something else to dissect at the water cooler beyond the merits of the new season of "American Idol." We tend to over inflate the worth of that which we last saw, which explains why otherwise anonymous guys like Larry Brown can go from surprising Super Bowl MVP to suddenly coveted free agent literally overnight.
Given the unique prism that the NFL playoffs provide, it's certain that the events of the last few weeks will have a significant impact on the futures of many individuals and franchises. That's always the case. The postseason is a small sample size from which certain moments and images become salient, sometimes career-defining, and resonate deep into the offseason and beyond (perhaps even more so now than ever with so much uncertainty about the labor situation and precisely when the next regular-season game will be played).
With that in mind, I wanted to take a look at some of the potential big winners from the month of January, when everything in the NFL seems a little more meaningful.
Nine months ago people could look for and find any reason to attack him, and rightfully so. The accusations against him and his decision-making and sexual indiscretions cost him a quarter of the season and threatened to put the Steelers in peril. Viewed through that light, critics could point to a lack of maturity, leadership and selflessness as major flaws on the field and off. His inconsistencies in games, his suspect practice habits, even the way in which he took to quarterbacking -- improvisational, holding the ball too long, making it too hard to block for him -- was under fire.
By all accounts Roethlisberger has begun to make necessary changes in his life and within his profession. No amount of progress will make him anything but a despicable figure in the eyes of some, but Roethlisberger's march towards redemption cannot be overlooked. He is one of the greatest playmakers to ever man his position. He is the best third-down performer in the NFL and continues to provide big moments -- third-and-19 against the Ravens; third-and-6 to close out the Jets. His improv skills, rather than held against him, are celebrated, and still just 28, he's being inserted into some of the "greatest ever" conversations. No matter what happens in the Super Bowl, he has made major strides to reclaiming his reputation and re-staking his identity. He just can't afford to slip up.
I will never forget making the 2-hour or so drive from Green Bay to Milwaukee following the Packers' loss at home to Miami in October for two reasons. One, I finally found a few decent back routes to get out of the stadium and to the highway. Two, I could not believe how many radio stations carried some sort of Packer postgame show, and how virtually every one of them was savaging Thompson, long in my estimation among the most savvy executives in the NFL. The man was getting verbally accosted for having not traded for a running back to replace Ryan Grant. His emphasis on the draft was being attacked. If we don't sign any free agents, and all we do is horde draft picks, then why don't we have any depth with all of these guys getting hurt? His personality, not the most endearing, sure, was seemingly fair game as well.
And this was only Week 6! The Packers were far from through getting hampered by injuries. Their depth was still to be tested. And we all know how this story ends (at least as of now). Thompson was wise again not to overpay for a Marshawn Lynch. He believed in his coach and the talent he had assembled, and he was rewarded for years of expert contracts and decisions (like extending Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings, Ryan Pickett, Donald Driver, Tramon Williams, Charles Woodson, to say nothing of all the sage draft picks and low-tier free-agent signings). The Packers are the ultimate small-market team and they have the perfect brain trust for the job. Thompson deserves a lot of credit, I can only hope the Wisconsin airwaves are a testament to that this week, and for years to come.
Some might put him atop the loser list, but I see things entirely different. Cutler was a figure of scorn and derision already -- as the passionate anti-Tweets his peers brought forth on Sunday pointed out. National columnists went out of their way to paint him as the ultimate heel. Perhaps no one in the NFL had his body language and personality more held against him ... And that was before Sunday's injury madness began.
The attacks on Cutler from afar went so over the top, that in my estimation, it has served to make one of the least sympathetic figures in the NFL now sympathetic to many. Cutler didn't deserve all of those diatribes, and as Maurice Jones Drew and others backtracked in their remarks, it could only help Cutler himself. Most importantly, it served as a galvanizing event for the Bears. Brian Urlacher, long rumored to have issues with Cutler by those with a tabloid bent, could not have raced to the quarterback's aid any more fervently. As others like Chris Harris, coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo did the same, Cutler's standing in that locker room could only rise. I presume the last 48 hours or so resulted in plenty of Bears fans -- some so quick to burn his jersey Sunday night (seriously, how messed up is that?) -- to do an about-face as more facts and logic prevailed. As of the third quarter Sunday, Cutler had nowhere to go but up, and I believe he has done just that. This could become a powerful and seminal moment for him should he learn and grow from it.
Say what you want about the bluster and the bombast, but the dude backed it up. Again. Another figure that just could do no right to some outsiders, now perhaps can. Wes Welker's foot-centered comments, and the way in which Ryan handled that and then went about beating the Patriots and taking on Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and giving Bill Belichick ample respect afterwards showed another side of him. And above all else, Ryan's defense got it done, again. They faced a truly historically difficult path to the Super Bowl and nearly got there anyway. It wasn't always done in the style many would like, but Ryan personally has now been to three straight AFC Championship Games with two different franchises. He is clearly among the best young coaches in the game and his Jets are poised to make noise in 2011. Again.
People were still calling for his head back at the bye week; now it would be stunning if he doesn't get a contract extension. His team enjoyed great health, won the second seed in part by the Eagles blowing a game to the Vikings, got a bye and then got to face the Seahawks rather than the Packers in the divisional round. Even in defeat Sunday, some questionable coaching decisions were essentially totally obscured by Cutler-gate. And there were several -- having Caleb Hanie as the third quarterback; pulling backup Todd Collins before the fourth quarter (thus losing the ability to insert Collins or Cutler in an emergency); not using Devin Hester more under center; the bizarre end around on third down; a questionable use of a timeout; not trying an earlier field goal. All anyone seemed to really care about was how badly Cutler was hurt, and those attacks on Cutler gave Smith a forum to play the us-against-them card and rally support, without as much focus on his management of the game. The addition of a few years and several million dollars to his contract will make him a big winner as well.
Instant cult hero in Chicago. Showed great guts and fortitude and seemed like the anti-Cutler in many ways. Even gets style points for rocking the awkward, retro mustache. This kid is instantly marketable and despite the fact we still have no idea if he can play -- a half of football does not a career make, and let's not forget the coaches that see him everyday somehow felt Collins was still a better option (which tells you much about either Hanie, the staff, or both) -- his stock will rise exponentially.
An absolute beast of a pass rusher, and pretty darn good in coverage. He is truly one of the elite 3-4 outside linebackers in football and finally got a national forum against the Ravens and was a one-man wrecking crew. If anyone thought his 14.5 sacks in the regular season were a fluke, the way he tormented the Ravens' tackles left no room for dispute. The potential free agent will be franchised in a worst-case scenario and could end up with a DeMarcus Ware-type deal ($40-million guaranteed, average of $15-million a season over the first three years of the contract).
Winston Moss/Mike Trgovac
Teams are waiting on this pair of defensive assistants for the Packers, and for good reason. With each win, and each stout defensive performance, they become more attractive and more marketable as top defensive coordinator candidates. And with the Eagles, Raiders, Titans and Cardinals all still seeking coordinators, the prospects look good for both. Trgovac, who coaches the defensive line, already has coordinating experience and Moss, the linebackers coach, has been seen as an under-the-radar head-coaching prospect by some for a few years now.
Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, a grandfatherly type, never seemed like the prototypical fit to replace Rex Ryan as the leader of the Ravens' attacking defense. Blitzing didn't come naturally, and though I doubt his decision to leave for Michigan had anything to do with his telegraphed three-man blitz against Big Ben on third-and-19 with the divisional playoff game in the balance, it certainly didn't help endear him to Ravens fans (or some players). While Pagano, their new coordinator, lacks Mattison's experience, and perhaps some of his calm, the players see a lot more Ryan in him. Guys like Ed Reed love him, and you get the feeling that if he goes down, he's going to go down swinging. Either way, this opportunity is a blessing for him. Baltimore's defensive staff has spawned Ryan and Jack Del Rio and Mike Nolan and Marvin Lewis and Mike Singletary and Mike Smith, to name a few, and if you thrive in this role, opportunities will abound.
Falcons executive Rich McKay, one of the big wheels on the competition committee, has long been an ardent proponent of reseeding spots three through six in the playoffs based on record. And Atlanta was one of the teams most directly impacted by the current format, facing the buzz-saw Packers in their first playoff game after a bye as the top seed, rather than the seven-win Seahawks. Not that I had much doubt already that a movement for reseeding would be afoot this offseason, but this provides further inclination. The Saints won four more games than Seattle, yet had to travel cross country on a short week (the wild-card game was played on Saturday) and ended up losing a close contest. Had that game been played in the Superdome, it's fair to assume a different outcome. I readily admit to being a long-time advocate of reseeding, so call it my bias if you will, but I don't think we've heard the last of this cause. The next vote on the issue could bring big change (remember, a year ago many doubted overtime changes would pass, but they did).
Todd Haley/Matt Cassel
Both men enjoyed had breakthrough, turnaround regular seasons after entering 2010 as targets. But their failures at the end of the regular season and in the playoffs cast a pall over all of that. Haley lost yet another offensive coordinator, this time Charlie Weis, to college, after Weis had helped Cassel have a tremendous season. Now Haley is under fire again for inter-personal dynamics on his ever-transitioning staff, the team still does not have an offensive coordinator, and the unit was horrible from the moment Weis agreed to go to Florida. Cassel made a tremendous return from an appendectomy, then stumbled badly down the stretch once the Chiefs clinched a playoff spot. The Ravens made him look like a shell-shocked, scared rookie as he imploded with turnovers, Dwayne Bowe was invisible and all of the progress this franchise made is at least somewhat obscured by the thud with which the season ended.
As a division winner, the Chiefs, who did not have to face many of the NFL's elite this season, will have a more challenging schedule next year, and the Chargers might not opt to let multiple star players sit out half the season again in 2011. Going to be a very interesting season for Kansas City, regardless.
Some in league circles see the Colts coach as someone who could be easily controlled by the front office. Some look at his tenure as head coach at Wake Forrest and wonder if it portends to a bright head-coaching future. He has Peyton Manning, and that's pretty much going to get you in the playoffs every year, history will dictate, but it's what the Colts do in the postseason that defines any real success.
Caldwell was badly out-coached in last year's Super Bowl and the same thing happened again in the wild-card round, despite being at home this time. His use of a late timeout, with the Jets driving, and his subsequent quasi-explanation, has done nothing to change any of these perceptions. Sure, the Colts had injuries, but so have the Packers (and the Steelers, for that matter). This playoff failure will remain a big topic in 2011, and with the Colts hosting the Super Bowl a year from now, Caldwell will be evaluated very closely (ask Wade Phillips about that). Another quick playoff exit could lead to a change here, especially with Manning about to shatter the $20-million a season threshold with his new contract, once again making him the highest-paid player in league history (Manning's poor winning percentage in the playoffs, and overall production, compared to his regular-season marks will lead to more scrutiny of him as well.)
Andy Reid doesn't really fire coaches, much less coordinators. Clearly, letting go of his young defensive coordinator was not easy. Reid said he was safe despite the loss to Green Bay in the wild-card round, then changed course days later. Another quick playoff exit meant someone might have to pay, and it began with McDermott and has continued through the defensive staff. Having to take over for legend Jim Johnson was never going to be easy, but McDermott was being mentioned as a possible head coach in the making, and the defensive version of Josh McDaniels just two years ago. That's a quick slide down. McDermott still has a bright future, as shown with the interest in him once he was fired (he landed with Ron Rivera in Carolina, a great spot), but this was someone who looked like he might be a mainstay there for years to come and/or a fast-tracked head coach. Deficiencies in the red zone and issues in the secondary were his undoing, but I'm also not sure that Aaron Rodgers and Co. would not have sliced through pretty much anyone in the early rounds of these playoffs.
Finally got his contract a few years back, going from afterthought with the Giants to the Packers' feature back. But then he missed all of the season with injury. Then the Packers finally found a running game late in the season, and now John Kuhn is a full-fledged cult hero in Green Bay and James Starks is grinding yards in the playoffs, and Grant can't even get in the team photo. The Packers realize with their passing game and Rodgers, they don't have to invest a ton in a running back to still pile up yards and points. Now Grant, coming off an injury, has a $1.75 million roster bonus due to go with a $3.5 million salary, and the Packers have Starks, a cheap, undrafted free agent, doing the job and a nice committee in the backfield. With guys like Cullen Jenkins hitting free agency, management knows that should you win a Super Bowl, everyone's worth (i.e. salary demands) tend to get inflated. All this could make for a challenging dynamic for Grant, who not too long ago was one of the real running back feel-good stories himself.
Had the Patriots turned what appeared to be a powerful opening drive against the Jets into points, they might still be playing. And had Welker been on the field, perhaps it would have ended in something other than an interception. And had Welker not gone on his footloose and fancy-free covert monologue aimed at Rex Ryan, he would have been on the field and not benched by Bill Belichick. In the end, Ryan got the last laugh and Welker and the Pats' vaunted offense went very quietly. What had been a huge comeback season for Welker will now be remembered more for his foot jokes -- the ultimate un-Patriot thing to do, as they don't say anything, much less engage in word games -- and subsequent playoff exit. I'm among those who think Belichick's decision was bizarre -- so he can return punts right away but has to sit a series or two? Either bench him for a quarter or the game or just forget about it and let him play. However, Welker's words are what will be remembered here.
They played their hearts out against the Saints, but this is still very much a rebuilding team, as their regular-season record and series of offseason coaching changes would speak to. By making the final eight, they get to choose 25th overall, instead of picking in the top 10. And the Rams team that just lost out to them for the NFC West title will pick 14th. Matt Hasselbeck's sudden resurgence in the wild-card round puts more heat on the team to keep the long-time fan favorite around as well, even though many in the organization know they need to develop a young QB, ASAP. San Francisco's offense could be much improved next year as well, and by winning the division the Seahawks face a tougher schedule. Every playoff win is huge, but for the long-term growth of their program, this one seems like it might have come at a cost.
The Jets' vets
New York put together a mini Over The Hill Gang this season, adding experience and playoff presence. But change is essential in the NFL, and this looks like the end for cagey vets like Jason Taylor, Mark Brunell, Tony Richardson and Trevor Pryce. And though LaDainian Tomlinson could certainly be back, there are no guarantees he ever gets this close to a Super Bowl again. The Jets take a lot of abuse for their outspoken ways, but this group of veterans is classy and all enjoyed truly distinguished careers. A couple of them will end up in Canton one day. They just could be doing it without a ring.
The aura that the young quarterback, and his team, were somehow unimpeachable at home, was crushed when the Packers dominated them and threatened to put up 50 points in the divisional round. The Saints won in Atlanta a few weeks before that and without some good fortune, Baltimore and San Francisco could have done the same. The Georgia Dome is not a fortress, and, like almost every young QB in the history of the game, Matty Ice is not yet Super Bowl material. The postseason preys on young passers, and Ryan's horrific interception at the end of the half underscores how far he has to go. It was as egregious of a decision as any we've seen in these playoffs. This kid has Hall-of-Fame potential, but it takes a while to join the truly elite. No shame in taking his playoff lumps, and he's only been in two postseason games, with many more to go. But the idea that he's ready to join the top tier of passers now or is developed way beyond guys like Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez needs to be put on hold. The kid has got to perform well in a playoff game, and win a playoff game, first, before the hype gets ramped up to absurd levels. It's not fair to him at this stage of his career, anyway.
Some were surprised when the Saints opted to pay Bush $8 million this season. But then winning a Super Bowl, as I mentioned earlier, tends to portray everyone in the most favorable light, and the pressure to keep the roster intact for a shot at a repeat is always great. But with the Saints short at running back and desperate for Bush to do something to help them beat the Seahawks, he could offer precious little. It very well could have been his last game with New Orleans. No way the Saints pay the part-time player $11.8 million in 2011. He can make occasional explosive plays in the screen game and on special teams, but the Saints need to work in Chris Ivory and figure out what the future holds for Pierre Thomas. Bush might have made the case for a renegotiated deal with a strong finish, but seems more likely he's headed to free agency.
Overtime format complaints
A lot of people, and coaches in particular, spent an awful lot of time bellyaching about the changes to the overtime format, which in my opinion are not only fairer, but add strategy and excitement and reward aggressive play. All good things. Anyway, the reality is that overtime is pretty rare, and with so few playoff games every year, postseason overtime is even rarer. In all likelihood, coaches would have years to think about the scenario and hash out their philosophy before having to put it into practice. I look forward to the first game of this new format -- heck, could be the Super Bowl -- and eventually it's going to be a moot point, because I suspect it will be in place for the playoffs and the regular season soon enough.
Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @jasonlacanfora.