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Reporters' Notebook

Playoff droughts busted, Wild Card Weekend's X-factor and more

With the Wild Card Round of the playoffs upon us,'s network of reporters collects the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

-- How Bills fans have been repaying an unlikely hero.

-- Kansas City's X-factor for Wild Card Weekend.

*-- The dysfunction that precipitated Jack Del Rio's firing. *

But first, Judy Battista takes stock of some extremely fresh faces on the playoff scene ...

Wild Card Weekend often feels like the warm-up act before the rock stars of the NFL, the top seeds in each conference, take the stage for the Divisional Round. But this weekend is also a chance to cast the spotlight on those who, not that long ago, were toiling on the outside looking in -- often way outside. Eight of the 12 teams in the playoffs are new this year, tied for the most in a season since 1990. The New England Patriots might be this generation's dynasty, but all that fresh blood in the postseason is a testament to one of the NFL's most hallowed principles -- the mechanisms that encourage parity give every team a chance.

It just takes longer in some places than others to take advantage of it. Most remarkable about this field is that four of the eight new teams are marking reawakenings, ending the long playoff droughts that for years defined these franchises as failures. The Buffalo Bills, of course, finally vanquished the longest absence, getting into the playoffs for the first time since the 1999 campaign by the grace of a stunning big play from the Cincinnati Bengals.

You can chalk up a good portion of the Bills' absence to having the misfortune of playing in the Patriots' division. Since 2001, the Patriots have won the AFC East an astonishing 15 times, meaning the only reasonable path for the Bills to reach the playoffs throughout most of their drought was via a wild-card spot. The Jaguars hadn't been in since 2007, the Titans since 2008 and the Rams since 2004 (that was the third-longest drought). Here's what's amazing about that -- 2004 was the Rams' 10th season in St. Louis. They would spend only 11 more seasons there before moving to Los Angeles.

There are common denominators here. The head coaches of three teams -- the Bills, Jaguars and Rams -- are in their first years heading said squads, and Sean McDermott (Buffalo) and Sean McVay (Los Angeles) are rookie head coaches. That suggests that there were plenty of valuable pieces already in place when the new coaches arrived, but the teams needed a new culture or a new scheme or a few tweaks to the roster to quickly maximize those pieces -- and those are things that usually accompany new head coaches. See: The magic McVay has performed with Jared Goff, or the discipline and mental toughness Doug Marrone was intent on instilling since the first day of Jags training camp, or the quality players the Bills sent packing this season in order to establish their culture.

What is most glaring, though, is how the successful use of high draft picks finally propelled these teams out of the cellar and into the playoffs. According to NFL Research, these four teams have combined for at least two of the top 10 picks in every draft for 10 consecutive seasons. The Jaguars alone have had a pick in the top 10 in each draft since 2008, and in the top five for the last six. That's how they got Leonard Fournette, Blake Bortles, Jalen Ramsey and Dante Fowler Jr.

The Rams have had a top-10 pick seven times since 2008, but only three remain on the current roster -- Goff, Todd Gurley and Tavon Austin. Still, 14 drafted players have started at least eight games for the Rams this season. The Titans have used their last three top-10 picks on offense: Marcus Mariota, Jack Conklin and Corey Davis. They also have 11 drafted players who started at least eight games for them this season -- the same number as the Jaguars have.

Most noteworthy is that this incarnation of the Bills has minimized the role of their drafted players. Only eight drafted players started at least eight games this season. None of the Bills' top-10 picks since 2008 remain on the roster. Sammy Watkins (2014), Stephon Gilmore (2012) and Marcell Dareus (2011) were all sent packing by the current regime in 2017, igniting speculation that the braintrust was preparing to tank to get a high pick in the 2018 draft. That speculation upset the Bills, and now it is clear that McDermott was jettisoning players he felt did not fit in with the team he wanted. It seems appropriate that the most important player on the team is not a home-grown talent, but LeSean McCoy, who spent the first six years of his career in Philadelphia.

On Sunday, the Bills and Jaguars -- their rosters constructed so differently -- will face off in Jacksonville's first home playoff game since 1999, when Tom Coughlin -- now the Jaguars' top football executive -- was the head coach. Coughlin planned to address the team before the season began about what winning big in Jacksonville would be like, because he alone on the team knew.

Bortles grew up in Central Florida, so he, at least, has vague memories of a time when the Jaguars went to the playoffs regularly. What was he doing as a 7-year-old the last time the Jaguars won the division and hosted a playoff game in 1999?

"I don't know," Bortles said this week. "Playing ding-dong-ditch in the neighborhood. A long time ago."

He continued: "I think there's been some of the original teams with Fred (Taylor) and Mark (Brunell) and Jimmy (Smith) and Keenan (McCardell) and those guys, and Tony (Boselli). Being so close to home, I knew of those guys and heard of them, and you watch them and all that. You didn't hear a whole lot about the Jaguars for a while. I think, to be a part of the group of guys that is changing the culture, is changing the perception of the Jaguars on a national level, is pretty cool. I've enjoyed every bit of it."


BUFFALO BILLS: A different kind of payback. If Bills fans are spending the week partying like it's 1999, who can blame them? Their team is back in the playoffs after a 17-season drought.

Emotions in Western New York have been real and raw: When I ran into Thurman Thomas at the team's Orchard Park facility Wednesday, he said he cried when the Bills' playoff ticket was punched. Buffalo had to beat Miami in Week 17and the Bengalshad to beat the Ravens. After the Bills' win, their locker room focus was squarely on watching -- and rooting for -- Cincinnati's dramatic triumph over Baltimore.

This week, Bills fans haven't been just giddy -- they've also been giving.

After Dalton's last-minute game-winning touchdown -- from 49 yards out, to Tyler Boyd on fourth-and-12 -- Bills fans rewarded Dalton with donations to the Andy & Jordan Dalton Foundation, which was founded by the Bengals quarterback and his wife to benefit seriously ill and special-needs children.

And did they ever donate.

In a wonderful grassroots gesture -- doesn't sports have a way of leading us there? -- thousands of Bills fans contributed, by the tens of thousands of dollars. As of late Wednesday, the totals exceeded 11,000 donors and $255,000.

Bills fans had every right to be selfish in relishing their return to postseason. Theirs was the longest playoff drought among our four major sports. (Major League Baseball's Seattle Mariners, who last made the playoffs in 2001, now own that distinction, if you're wondering.)

Instead, they wowed Dalton, and the rest of us, with their generosity.

After Sunday's games, Bills safety Micah Hyde delivered this message via the media: "Andy Dalton, you heard it here first, I love you, man. I love you."

Fans picked up on that sentiment and ran with it.

Since then, the Dalton foundation has rented space on five digital billboards in the Buffalo area, bearing the message, "Thank You Buffalo & Good Luck!" A Dalton spokesperson provided a statement to the Buffalo News: "We consider this a small gesture to express our appreciation to Buffalo and its fans. This continues to be so humbling, and we want to make sure everyone knows how grateful we are."

The billboards will run through Sunday, the day Buffalo plays Jacksonville in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs.

Bills fans should be proud of themselves and their team, which has reached the postseason in coach Sean McDermott's first season. These are good times in Buffalo. On and off the field.

* * * * *

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Tyreek Hill gives Chiefs the edge. If you want to pick one X-factor in this week's AFC wild-card game between Tennessee and Kansas City, go with Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill. He's produced 457 receiving yards in his last four games and he's averaging 21.8 yards per catch during that time. Since the Titans possess the 25th-ranked pass defense in the NFL, look for the Chiefs to push the ball downfield with the weapon who has improved immensely in his first year as a full-time wide receiver.

"He was a guy that hadn't played a whole lot of receiver before he got here, and to see how far he has come in two years, it is hard to believe it has only been two years," Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said. "I feel like the way he plays, the way he prepares, certainly he is mature beyond that. I really give credit to him, all the work he has put in and just continues to put in every day."

* * * **

EDITOR'S NOTE: After the publishing of this story, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported that the Oakland Raiders are planning to introduce Jon Gruden as their next head coach during a news conference Tuesday.

OAKLAND RAIDERS: NFL coaches say Gruden has made contact about joining his staff. Although nothing is finalized yet on former Raiders and Bucs head coach Jon Gruden returning to coach in Oakland, several league sources said it is little more than a formality. I have personally had conversations with assistant coaches from teams who said that they have been contacted by Gruden about possibly joining his staff.

That is nothing new. It happens all the time.

It did raise an interesting point with one executive from another team, who told me that since Gruden is not employed by an NFL team, he can line up his staff without asking permission from teams whose coaches he might attempt to poach. Once Gruden is hired, he'll have to formally be granted permission to interview prospective coaches who are under contract elsewhere, but that informal process is already underway.

Rooney Rule complications. With Gruden the targeted candidate to take over in Oakland, the Raiders had to adhere to the Rooney Rule -- interviewing a minority candidate -- before actually signing a deal with Gruden. The Raidersinterviewed two minority candidates with one being tight ends coach Bobby Johnson, according to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport. The other was an unnamed coach. The Raiders notified the NFL and the process was deemed compliant to league rules. John Wooten, head of the Fritz Pollard Alliance -- the organization that works with the NFL to identify minority candidates and to make sure teams adhere to rules -- said the Raiders followed proper procedure.

Wooten admitted that what happened in Oakland exposes a flaw with the Rooney Rule, where a team identifies a particular candidate -- especially one who isn't working for an NFL team -- and begins negotiations, which leads to the Rooney Rule being a mere formality instead of a true interview for the available job. That said, Wooten added that any minority candidates who are interviewed at least get to experience the process and get on a team's radar for potential opportunities in the future.

Wooten said that the Fritz Pollard Alliance does not feel the need to push for changes with the existing process.

Dysfunction had been bubbling in Oakland. Before and after head coach Jack Del Rio announced his own firing after the team's season-ending loss to the Chargers, several assistant coaches, staffers and players told me that this season has been one of dysfunction and frustration.

That's typically what happens when a team with talent and high expectations disappoints.

Several coaches, staffers and players said it started with the offseason firing of offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and the hiring of some assistants who didn't measure up. The in-season firing of defensive coordinator Ken Norton also was a point of contention, with some assistants feeling that replacement John Pagano should have been the DC all along and others, especially players, hating to see Norton go.

Two players said there were so many instances of inconsistency and instability that the season overall was hard to explain. That said, if the Raiders weren't sure that they could hire Gruden, some people with the team said that they feel Del Rio would have been retained, but some of his staff would have been let go.

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