In the post I wrote recapping the weekend’s NFL playoff games, I focused heavily on the New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers, incorporated their opponents, the Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys, and also felt the need to talk about the Pittsburgh Steelers, as they are the ones who will be coming into Foxboro to play against my Patriots next weekend. I mentioned the Atlanta Falcons, but did not even mention their quarterback, Matt Ryan, by name as I gushed over how good Tom Brady (who had an uncharacteristically bad game) and Aaron Rodgers (who has replaced Donald Trump, at least temporarily, as the protagonist of my nightmares). It was as I was writing that post that I realized how many thoughts I had about Matt Ryan, and how that deserved to be its own post, separate from the weekend that was for Brady and Rodgers.
There are four teams left in the NFL, and all four have quality quarterbacks, but Matt Ryan is not thought of the way the other three are. If Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisburger, and Aaron Rodgers never play in another football game, they are guaranteed to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio one day, and that is definitely not true of Matt Ryan. Ryan has the most to gain of the four by winning next Sunday.
In 2008, the same year that the Packers decided to make a backup QB named Aaron Rodgers their starter and trade away veteran superstar Brett Favre to the New York Jets, the Falcons drafted Matt Ryan out of Boston College with the third overall pick, and gave him an equally unenviable task of being the franchise QB for a team that had lost direction when Michael Vick went to prison, just as Vick was getting out of jail and getting his second chance in Philadelphia. For those who only remember the washed-up journeyman backup version of Vick we saw in recent years, pre-prison Michael Vick was must-watch television, even when the Falcons were bad, and a player so skilled that video game versions of him were borderline unfair to play against. Making Atlanta move on from Vick was no easy task, but Ryan came out of college with a decent amount of hype in his own right.
In his rookie year, Atlanta made the playoffs, but lost in the first round to the eventual NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals. In the years since, Ryan was one of a crop of QBs like Joe Flacco, Matthew Stafford, Andy Dalton, and Sam Bradford who were pretty good, but not great, and with the exception of Flacco winning the Super Bowl for the Baltimore Ravens in 2013, experienced minimal playoff success, if any.
Personally, I never really got the hype of Matt Ryan. He had a good career at Boston College, but I often find myself forgetting that he played college football in Boston, and I saw it. His final year at BC was my senior year of high school, the same year the Patriots went undefeated in the regular season. You would think BC would have a bigger fan base than it does, being one of only two big-time college football programs in Massachusetts, but Boston is a pro sports town, and there are so many other colleges in the area, nobody has a major incentive to root for BC unless they went there. Last year, BC played Notre Dame at Fenway Park, and Notre Dame was the home team. Boston College dominated the ACC for much of the 2007 season, but they were very much an afterthought with the Patriots reaching the Super Bowl, the Red Sox winning the World Series, and the Celtics winning their 17th NBA Title in the spring of 2008. The same thing happened a couple years later with current Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly. He was one of the most sought after draft prospects in the entire country, but his college career was largely ignored by the local football fans.
Ryan was nicknamed “Matty Ice” while he was at BC, and the nickname never quite fit his game. He never had a moment in his career where he marched the Falcons down the field for a tying or go-ahead score at the end of a playoff game, like Tom Brady did in two of his first three career playoff games, as if to suggest he had ice water rather than blood running through his veins. In his NFL career, he gets called Matty Ice ironically, but that can change if he out-duels Aaron Rodgers on Sunday. Rodgers also has a lot to gain by winning this weekend. He has only made one Super Bowl, and that was six years ago, despite being the most talented quarterback in the NFL during that stretch. But people also recognize what Rodgers has to work with, and how incredible he was the last six weeks of the regular season, not to mention through the first two rounds of the playoffs. If the Packers were to lose, the brilliance of Rodgers against the Giants and Cowboys will not be forgotten, and the loss would be chalked up to being on the road against another talented team with another QB having an MVP-type season.
On the other hand, Matt Ryan has a chance to finally show us that he belongs in the discussion with Brady, Rodgers, and Roethlisburger. Right now, it is not enough that he convincingly won a division that also contains Drew Brees, Cam Newton, and Jameis Winston. Matt Ryan has had good regular seasons before. As long as he has been in the NFL, I have been waiting for him to get it done in January in order to take him seriously. We are almost a decade removed from that (over)hyped Boston College season, and I still have not seen it, but if he proves me wrong, I will admit it. LeBron won me over last summer, and I admitted it. Show me what you got, Matty Ice.
The Denver Broncos are not going back to the playoffs this January after they kicked off 2016 by winning Super Bowl 50. Looking back on the Golden Anniversary Super Bowl not even a full year later, the Big Game of 2016, much like everything about that year, already feels really weird and out of character with the rest of reality. That Super Bowl was the Super Weird Bowl. The Carolina Panthers got there after going 15-1 in the regular season, and Cam Newton was the league’s MVP, and they lost. I would say Peyton Manning was a shell of his former self, but that would be unfair to other shells of former selves. In an era when offense reigns supreme and scoring records are broken they way every meaningful baseball was getting broken in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was a stifling defense that ruled the day, in spite of Manning’s poor play. Perhaps the weirdest about this Super Bowl is the fact that neither the Carolina Panthers nor the Denver Broncos made the playoffs the following year.
Carolina’s struggles can be explained a little more easily. The defense took some steps backward with Jared Allen retiring, Josh Norman signing with Washington, and Luke Kuechly missing time due to injury. Also, Cam Newton gets hit like no other quarterback does. People seem to think that since he is so big and so strong that he can get wrecked like QBs did before the NFL cared about player safety. Repeating the kind of results the Panthers got in 2015 was never going to be easy, but I am not ready to write them off for the rest of the decade.
The Broncos’ struggles in 2016 can also be easily identified, but are harder to justify when you realize that they could have been avoided. Denver was lucky to get as far as they did–not just lucky to win the Super Bowl, but lucky to beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, and lucky to beat the Steelers in the Divisional Round–with a so-far-past-his-prime-he-should-have-changed-his-name-to-not-confuse-people-Peyton Manning under center and shouting “Omaha,” but incapable of throwing the ball downfield at all. Attempting to do the same thing a second straight year, not measurably upgrading a quarterback position that could not get much worse, and expecting to get the same kind of game in and game out dominating defensive performance in an offense-driven modern NFL is playing with some serious fire. But that’s exactly what the Broncos did.
Broncos president John Elway has earned a significant amount of trust with Broncos fans, having led the team to seven Super Bowls (five as a quarterback, two as an executive), and winning a championship can buy you goodwill for at least a year or two, no matter how badly the year that follow go (the only time I know of when a fan base turned on a team’s management less than a year after winning a title was the Red Sox in 2014, and some of my posts on this blog are reflective of that), but he is pushing it with the way the Broncos went into the 2016 season. By replacing the retired Manning not with Brock Osweiler (who signed a free agent contract with the Houston Texans), but with Trevor Siemian, a 2015 7th round draft pick out of Northwestern, Elway placed lofty expectations on a Denver defense. The 2016 NFL Draft produced multiple quarterbacks that won games as rookies despite being picked outside the top two. I cannot help but wonder what Denver’s record would have been had Elway taken a chance on Dak Prescott or Jacoby Brissett, who appear poised to be the replacements to Tony Romo in Dallas and Tom Brady in New England, respectively.
While able to throw out incredible talent in pass rushers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, as well as with Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib in the defensive backfield, that defense deserves a better offense. The Broncos have been irresponsible in the way they built their offense, particularly the quarterback position, the same way the New Orleans Saints have squandered Drew Brees’ offensive brilliance for most of his prime by not building a good defense for him. That said, if for some stupid reason, the NFL decided to cut down to 31 franchises and merge two existing teams for the 2017 season, if the Saints’ offense merged with the Broncos’ defense, they would be the prohibitive favorites to win Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis.
The Broncos need to do something about the QB position, but right now, that is not even their most pressing matter. This week, head coach Gary Kubiak resigned due to health concerns after just two years on the job. Kubiak played his entire NFL career for the Broncos, as Elway’s backup, and served as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator for Denver when they won those two Super Bowls in the late 1990s. In his first year back in Denver, he led the Broncos to their third Super Bowl victory, and less than a year later he is retiring. Denver should, in theory, have no trouble finding a replacement, given how good their defense is and the fact that there should be more NFL quarterbacks available this offseason than most years, from Romo to Jimmy Garoppolo to Tyrod Taylor to Sam Bradford to Kirk Cousins.
The issue with Denver as a coaching spot may very well be John Elway’s ego. He is a top five or top ten quarterback in the Super Bowl Era and has enjoyed a good deal of success as an executive, but he is also the guy who ran Tim Tebow out of Denver when after getting the Broncos to the playoffs, and clashed with John Fox, who like Kubiak, left the Broncos a year after getting them to the Super Bowl, but not for health reasons. Sure, he brought in Peyton Manning, one of the handful of quarterbacks higher up than him on the all time list, but when Manning was at a point of desperation in his career, coming off a potentially career ending neck injury, and the coach he brought in to replace Fox was literally his former backup. I would not be surprised if Elway went with either defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who was previously Denver’s head coach in 1993 and 1994, or one of the Shanahans, whom Elway has a working relationship with from his playing days, but I do not know how many coaching prospects from outside Elway’s past work history would want to take this job. One person who will not be considered is New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, this year’s most sought after offensive-minded coach, whose only head coaching job was in Denver, and who was run out of town in his second season.
Regardless of what happens with the coaching vacancy, the Broncos need a quarterback, and if they do not get one, John Elway could be torn down as a fool just as quickly as he was built up as a genius.
In 2013, it looked like the Philadelphia Eagles had their next long tenured coach, ushering in a new run of contention after Andy Reid’s pretty good fourteen year run had come to an end. In 2013, it also looked like the San Francisco 49ers had their franchise quarterback, and franchise head coach, and would be Super Bowl contenders for a long time. Chip Kelly was going to change professional football the way he revolutionized the college game from the Oregon sideline, and Colin Kaepernick might just be the best of the crop of young mobile QBs. It’s amazing how much can change in three years.
Earlier this month, following a disappointing season in which the Eagles overhauled their roster but could not gain any ground in a putrid NFC East Division, Philadelphia fired Chip Kelly. After the season ended, the 49ers followed suit, firing first year head coach Jim Tomsula who led the San Francisco to a 5-11 season in a year when he had the unenviable task of replacing Jim Harbaugh. Colin Kaepernick had been benched in favor of Blaine Gabbert. Maybe things were never as good as they appeared three years ago, but I never thought it would get this bad.
This week Will Leitch wrote a column ranking the careers of every quarterback who ever started a Super Bowl, 57 in total through 49 games (spoiler alert: Leitch ranked Joe Montana #1 with the caveat that a couple of weeks from now, someone else might take that spot from him), and Kaepernick was ranked #53. Leitch gave the following explanation:
When they watch highlights of this game in 50 years, they’ll have no idea how he didn’t become an all-timer. I’m not sure what happened myself. Choose your next step carefully, Colin: It may be everything.
It’s a good point. Kaepernick was awesome in that game, and he was so close to knocking off a Baltimore Ravens team that didn’t even make the playoffs the following year. At the time, the narrative during the season was one that drew parallels to the way the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVI: the veteran former #1 overall pick gets hurt, the second year head coach gives the starting job to the second year quarterback, and lets him keep it, and they ride the momentum all the way to the big game, which is being played in New Orleans. As uncanny as all of that was, that is where the comparisons between the 2001 Patriots and 2012 49ers stopped, with all due respect to that Niners team. Alex Smith is a lesser quarterback than Drew Bledsoe, Jim Harbaugh is a lesser coach than Bill Belichick, Colin Kaepernick is a lesser quarterback than Tom Brady (but how many coaches and quarterbacks are greater than Belichick and Brady, in fairness?), and most of all THEY DIDN’T WIN THE SUPERBOWL!!!
Kaepernick falling off the map this past season is not the only reason that game feels like it was ten years ago while Super Bowl XLVII feels like it was yesterday (and still hurts just as much as a Pats fan). Jim Harbaugh was coaching the Niners against his brother John, who was coaching the Ravens, and Jim wore out his welcome in San Francisco and is now coaching at the University of Michigan. Important players from the Niners/Ravens Super Bowl include Randy Moss, Patrick Willis, Ray Lewis, Ray Rice, and Ed Reed, all of whom are now out of professional football for one reason or another. In that matchup, it felt at the time like the Ravens were the team that needed it more, since they had more players near the end, while the 49ers seemed like the team just hitting their stride. Kaepernick gave San Francisco’s offense the spark it had lacked with Smith under center. Their defense was loaded, but they had a worthy divisional adversary in the Seattle Seahawks.
A year after breaking through and reaching the Super Bowl, the 49ers were back in the NFC Championship Game, but this time Seattle made the stop they needed to make at the end of the game, leading to one of the great remixes in the history of Youtube, and propelling them into their decisive rout of the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. That was the last we heard from San Francisco as a contender. I thought a few years ago they would have a chance to be the first true home team for a Super Bowl with Super Bowl 50 being played in Santa Clara, but they declined quicker than anyone could have imagined. 2014 ended up being Harbaugh’s last year in San Francisco, and the 49ers had no real plan to replace him. 2015 was a lost season for a franchise that was once the gold standard for the NFL.
As quickly as things fell apart for the Niners, it happened even faster for Chip Kelly in Philly. In his first two seasons, the Eagles won ten games each year, making the playoffs in 2013, but missing them by a game in 2014. After 2014, Kelly gained more power within the organization, and now had control over personnel decisions. With his new found power, Chip Kelly the GM put Chip Kelly the coach in some tough situations. He traded star running back LeSean McCoy to the Buffalo Bills, which was a bit of a surprise, but defensible because in return, the Eagles got Kiko Alonso, an athletic linebacker who is two years younger than McCoy, and who played for Kelly at Oregon. Running backs have the shortest careers of any skill position in football, so anytime you can trade a running back for a linebacker the same age or younger, you do it. The more baffling move was to replace McCoy by overpaying for former Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray. Murray is the same age as McCoy, and rushed for 1845 yards behind a really good offensive line in 2014 for Dallas. In Kelly’s offense in Philadelphia, Murray only had 702 yards rushing in 2015, by comparison. I’m admittedly not as close a follower of the NFL as I was a few years ago, and I do not have nearly the amount of football knowledge as someone like Chip Kelly, but this was one thing that didn’t smell right to me from the beginning. I’ve been Pro-Chip since he was at Oregon, and as someone who spent seven summers on camp staff in New Hampshire, I really wanted to see this Dover, NH native (fun fact: between Chip and Giants GM and Concord native Brian Sabean, both Bay Area teams with “San Francisco” in their names now have key decision makers who hail from The Granite State) succeed at football’s highest level, and his handling of the Eagles’ roster had me almost as worried last summer as Tom Brady’s predicament with the league.
Kelly lost his job with the Eagles more for the roster moves he made than the coaching decisions, but as long as he had been in the NFL, critics had been skeptical of his fast paced system, that it weakens your own defense if the offense keeps going three and out. Kelly’s system dominated in the college regular season, but struggled in bowl games in every year except his last at Oregon, when he was the sexy, outside the box head coaching candidate for a lot of NFL teams. The only playoff game he coached for Philadelphia, which I recapped on this blog the night it happened, was oddly reminiscent of the BCS National Championship Game he coached for Oregon in 2011. Both games ended with Kelly’s team losing at the mercy of a game winning field goal as time expired, because Drew Brees’ New Orleans Saints were able to slow their possessions down the way Cam Newton’s Auburn offense did.
One important thing to realize about football, and about all sports, is that no one system is going to work all the time. If that were the case, there would be no point in playing the game. Just declare Chip Kelly the genius who solved football and go home! What makes Bill Belichick so successful as a head coach is that he is not married to any one style of play, and has been able to constantly adapt and evolve his game plans with changing times and changing opponents. Another thing to realize about Belichick is that he was not great right away, and he is perhaps the best reason to be hopeful about Kelly’s future in the NFL.
Belichick has been working in football operations for NFL teams in various capacities every year since 1975. He never took a year off and never went into the college game. Even Lorne Michaels took five years off from Saturday Night Live in the early 80s. He was first hired as a “special assistant” by the Baltimore Colts, and did not get a head coaching gig until 1991, though he was run out of town along with the rest of the Cleveland Browns in 1995. It took another five years working under his mentor Bill Parcells with the Patriots and New York Jets before he took another crack at being a head coach again. By comparison, Kelly’s rise to the head coaching ranks of the NFL has been meteoric. He was a longtime assistant at the collegiate level, at Columbia, Oregon, Johns Hopkins, and his alma mater New Hampshire, eventually rising to offensive coordinator at UNH from 1999 to 2006. In 2007, he was hired as the offensive coordinator at Oregon, and was promoted to head coach two years later. He was only the head coach at Oregon for four years before the NFL came calling. His rise from offensive coordinator at a college campus in Durham, NH to head coach of one of the 32 NFL teams happened in the years between the Patriots’ last two Super Bowl victories. Most people to not rise that quickly in life, and it is remarkable what Chip was able to accomplish given how easy it would have been to be a complete failure.
As a Patriots fan, I am glad Bill got his growing pains out of the way in Cleveland, and I got to be witness to maybe the most dominant fifteen year run in football history. It would be in their best interest for the 49ers to be patient with both Kelly and Kaepernick, because the line between success and failure in the NFL is a lot closer than people realize. Imagine, for instance, if the Tuck Rule play had been assessed differently after review in the Snow Bowl between the Patriots and Oakland Raiders in 2002. The Pats were able to capitalize on a gift of a non-turnover, and force overtime, and win it in overtime, but it was kind of a weird rule that is no longer on the books. Belichick made a gamble that season by sticking with Brady when Bledsoe was healthy enough to play again, and we remember that as the right decision because they won the Super Bowl. What if that play goes differently, and the Raiders advance instead of the Patriots? Belichick obviously liked what he saw in Brady, and still may have traded Bledsoe to Buffalo that offseason, much the way the 49ers traded Alex Smith to Kansas City after Kaepernick took them to the Super Bowl eleven years later. For the 49ers, the second guess of Kaepernick over Smith was something that still got talked about in the years that followed, and was cited as one of the ways Harbaugh lost the trust of his players. Two years after Super Bowl XLVII, Harbaugh is out in San Francisco and Kaepernick’s confidence is shot now that the coach who lobbied for him is no longer there. The Patriots went 9-7 in the 2002 season, and let three time All Pro Safety Lawyer Milloy go in training camp in 2003. In the first game of the 2003 season, the Pats were trounced by (you guessed it) the Buffalo Bills, led by Bledsoe and Milloy, by a score of 31-0. In the moment, things looked bleak for the Patriots early on in 2003. Imagine how bad it would have been if they hadn’t beaten the Raiders, let alone the Steelers and Rams, in the 2002 playoffs. Belichick would have been gone in New England before he had a chance to go 14-2 in 2003 and eventually beat the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Chip Kelly and Colin Kaepernick are each other’s second lease on an NFL career. They need each other right now, and I think it has a chance to work. I want it to work, even. The biggest reasons for hope in this situation, is that Kaepernick responsive when he had a good offensive minded coach in Harbaugh, and that Kelly was able to leave Philly with a career winning record despite never having a quarterback anywhere near as good as Kaepernick. Kelly had a 27-21 record with the Eagles when his quarterback options were Old Michael Vick, Nick Foles, Mark Sanchez, Sam Bradford, Matt Barkley, and Tim Tebow (it’s worth noting that in 2008, Bradford beat Tebow for the Heisman Trophy, and in 2009 Barkley was Sanchez’ successor at USC when Sanchez was drafted by the Jets, but none of them have made it as quarterbacks in the NFL). It’s a quarterback league, but quarterbacks need coached. The other teams that hired new coaches did not do too much to rock the boat. The New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers replaced Tom Coughlin and Lovie Smith with their offensive coordinators, the Eagles reverted back to what worked for them before Chip Kelly by hiring longtime Andy Reid assistant Doug Pederson, the Cleveland Browns hired Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, but until they prove me wrong I’m just going to assume it’s the wrong move considering Cleveland’s steadily revolving door of quarterbacks, coaches, and GMs for over a decade, and the Tennessee Titans simply took the “interim” label off Mike Mularkey’s interim head coach title, but San Francisco needed an innovative hire after hiring the defensive minded Tomsula from within their own coaching ranks was a failed experiment.
This is a good situation to get a second chance, but if it does not work, both Chip Kelly and Colin Kaepernick will be remembered as cautionary tales instead of what they should have become.
What if Wes Welker and the New England Patriots had reached an agreement last February? Danny Woodhead? What if Aaron Hernandez wasn’t an alleged murderer? What if Vince Wilfork was healthy? Jerod Mayo? Sebastian Vollmer? Tommy Kelly? Rob Gronkowski? What if Aqib Talib hadn’t been injured by Wes Welker in the AFC Championship Game? These are the questions that will haunt Patriots fans until the start of training camp. If a year where so many “what ifs” broke the wrong way for them, there was still a lot to love about what they accomplished.
Peyton Manning is going to play in his third Super Bowl instead of Tom Brady getting to play in his sixth. The Denver Broncos are going for their third franchise Super Bowl title instead of the Patriots going for their fourth. Peyton will get to play for the the top of the football mountain in his little brother’s city and home stadium in two weeks. At 37 years of age, he’s put together one of the best seasons a quarterback could ever have. He proved today that sometimes the best defense is offense by maintaining possession of the ball for so long that Tom Brady could never get in any kind of rhythm. The Pats started the second half playing from behind, but the 3rd quarter was halfway finished before Brady even got to touch the ball. It was one of those days. The Pats had made improbable comebacks on a few occasions this season, including the biggest one against the Broncos in New England, but it wasn’t going to happen today.
The window is closing on the Manning/Brady Era, but we’ve been saying that for a solid five years now, so I’m not going to speculate about when it will slam shut. Both teams should be contenders again next year, but the new wave of superstar quarterbacks are already here. First there was Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Eli Manning. Now it’s Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III who are knocking on the door. Before we know it, Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Football will be in the mix as well. They’ll meet again in the regular season for sure, since they both won their divisions this season, but this was their first meeting in the playoffs since January of 2007, when the Pats played their last road playoff game before today and lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts. A game like this might never come again.
The Patriots need to address some issues on defense. The secondary shouldn’t rely so heavily on Talib that Pats fans spend eight months what iffing for eight months about back to back AFC Championship Games. The offense should be better with a healthy Gronk, but that’s something that seems to get said every year, too. At some point, Bill Belichick will need to draft Tom Brady’s successor, and maybe that year is this year. Aaron Rodgers was Brett Favre’s understudy for a few years, and Steve Young did the same for Joe Montana. If the Pats want to contend in life after Brady, they should look into doing the same. You can’t rely on getting lucky (pun intended) in the draft like the Colts did.
Another Patriots season is over, and the result is not the desired one, but at least they were in it, despite all the reasons they had not to be.