Two vets seeking first playoff wins
The coaching carousel, Jones-Drew's great year, the Haynesworth effect and more
This postseason will be about whether the Packers can win their second straight Super Bowl title, whether the Patriots can snap their two-game postseason losing streak and whether the Texans can show Houston what it feels like to win a playoff game.
Yet there will be other hard-to-imagine storylines that have been in the making for longer than any of those.
Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez has labored 15 seasons and 237 regular-season games in Kansas City and Atlanta without ever having won a playoff game. Gonzalez is 0-4 in the postseason, losing playoff games in 1997, 2003, 2006 and 2010, with each loss feeling worse than the one before. And Gonzalez's postseason drought is not even football's longest.
Lions kicker Jason Hanson has labored 20 seasons and 310 regular-season games in Detroit without ever having won a playoff game. He is 0-5 in the postseason, losing playoff games in 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997 and 1999, the last year the Lions made the playoffs.
No other players in the Super Bowl era have played as many regular-season games as Gonzalez and Hanson without winning a postseason game. It is a category that Gonzalez and Hanson would rather not lead.
Now, as speculation persists about how much longer Gonzalez and Hanson will play, they will have the chance to experience a feeling to which each is more than entitled. Atlanta and Detroit have clinched playoff spots, which means Gonzalez and Hanson have clinched another chance to end their postseason droughts.
It's hard not to root for them, especially considering how they have comported themselves as pros. But even if that weren't the case, sentiment still would be on their side.
No player should have to endure the amount of losing that these men have. No player should have to serve as long as these men without being rewarded for it in a non-financial manner.
The regular season wraps up Sunday before postseason preparations begin. Gonzalez and Hanson have worked all season, and really their entire careers, for the week and game that is almost here. Their teams will be forced to go on the road to win and they will have to do it at extremely challenging venues.
But those games can be no more challenging than living through the postseason disappointments they have. Another chance to end them waits.
On to this week's 10 Spot:
The interesting part of this year's coaching candidate crop is that, outside of former Titans head coach Jeff Fisher, there aren't any names that automatically go to the head of the class as there were when Jason Garrett or Jim Harbaugh was being actively recruited across the league.
Some could look to college for candidates. Others could easily remove the interim from the coaching titles of Todd Bowles in Miami, Romeo Crennel in Kansas City and Mel Tucker in Jacksonville.
But as owners are making their lists and checking them twice, here are 10 names, in alphabetical order, that are likely to be on many of the shopping lists:
- Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen: Players consider him to be calm and charismatic, and it helps that he has learned from Saints head coach Sean Payton and Broncos head coach John Fox.
- Seahawks offensive line coach Tom Cable: The Raiders have had a habit of watching some of their former head coaches, like Mike Shanahan and Jon Gruden, find success elsewhere, and Cable could do the same.
- Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski: Carolina knows how in demand Chudzinski will be and will make it as tough as possible for him to the leave the Panthers.
- Packers assistant head coach Winston Moss: An intense former player and current coach who has learned from some of the finest in the Raiders and Packers organizations.
- Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey: After helping mold Matt Ryan into the quarterback he is, Mularkey's name has been whispered for a while now in Jacksonville.
- Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer: New York might be struggling, but its red-zone offense is not, and Schottenheimer has the right pedigree and résumé to become a successful head coach.
- Montreal Alouettes head coach Marc Trestman: A sleeper, off-the-chart candidate who might be able to build a champion just as he has done in the Canadian Football League.
- Chargers assistant head coach Steve Wilks: His work in San Diego quietly has begun to get recognition around the league.
- Vikings defensive backs coach Joe Woods: Considered to have a similar makeup to Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, who also once served as an assistant coach with the Vikings.
- Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer: His players revere him and his defenses perform for him, and now the time should be here for him.
2. Quite the missing class of players: As we prepare to move into a new year, think about all those missing in action from this past year.
For the first time since 1990, Brett Favre is not on an NFL roster and is instead on his farm in Mississippi.
For the first time since 1995, Terrell Owens is not causing headaches for defenses and his own organization.
For the first time since 1997, Randy Moss is not torching defensive backs and caterers.
The players who have dominated headlines and their sport have left the stage and the spotlight, though not by Owens' choice. He's the only one of the three who pursued more work, a continuation of a career that has been both infamous and illustrious. At one point about one month ago, Owens' agent Drew Rosenhaus said there was one team "very interested" in his client, but now, with one week to go in the 2011 regular season, it looks as if his client, barring some unforeseen upset, is going to be shut out. Favre and Moss never considered returning, even if their names continued to generate more conversation with fans than front offices.
Football was not the same without three men who have been such a part of it. But the machine rolls on, as it always will. Tim Tebow has developed into the type of polarizing quarterback that Favre once was. Young wide receivers like A.J. Green and Victor Cruz have produced in a way that Moss and Owens did for seasons. And if the NFL needed new lightning rods, Ndamukong Suh and James Harrison helped fill that role.
Yet it is hard to imagine a football season without the men who now become eligible, together, for the Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 2016. Quite the class of players. Quite the careers for them.
3. Drew's spectacular campaign: This season alone, his longtime quarterback was cut, his head coach was fired, his franchise was sold and yet Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew has played better than ever. Heading into the last weekend of the season, Jones has a 128-yard lead on Eagles running back LeSean McCoy for what would be Jones-Drew's first NFL rushing title. What Jones-Drew has done this season is as impressive as what Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady have done at quarterback. He was his team's only legitimate offensive weapon -- and he still could not be stopped. Defenses knew he was getting the ball on almost every down -- and he still could not be stopped. Jones-Drew has accounted for 43 percent of the Jaguars' offense and 100 percent of the team's hope.
4. One influential weekend: There are massive playoff ramifications in the Cowboys-Giants, Ravens-Bengals, Chiefs-Broncos and Raiders-Chargers games. Yet no game played Sunday will have the type of long-term ramifications that Sunday's Colts-Jaguars game will. If the Colts lose, they will clinch the No. 1 overall pick and the chance to draft Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. If the Colts beat the Jaguars, then the Rams would wrap up the No. 1 overall pick with a loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Should St. Louis come out of Sunday with the No. 1 pick, teams in Washington, Miami, Seattle and other quarterback-needy NFL locales would begin piecing together packages to try to entice the Rams to make a deal. One game between two bad teams could impact the NFL for the next 15 or so years.
Yet an executive on a team that will be picking in the top three believes the value of those top three picks just went up even more with Barkley's decision to return to school because of the simple laws of supply and demand for quality quarterbacks. Bottom line is a quarterback who has never played in the NFL, and won't play in it until the 2013 season, already has sent tremors through the league.
6. Reversal of fortunes: On Nov. 8, the New England Patriots cut defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, whom the team acquired last summer for the Washington Redskins for a fifth-round pick in the 2013 draft. The next day, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers claimed Haynesworth on waivers.
Since the Patriots waived Haynesworth, they have not lost a game and are 7-0. Since the Buccaneers claimed Haynesworth off waivers, they have not won a game and are 0-7. Now it's hard to imagine that Haynesworth is the sole or even primary reason that New England hasn't lost and Tampa Bay hasn't won; the Buccaneers deactivated Haynesworth for last Sunday's game against Carolina when their defensive tackle had a sore calf. But it's also hard to imagine that Haynesworth's departure and arrival haven't had some influence on the course of events that followed.
7. Great Defender: The anti-Haynesworth is Redskins linebacker London Fletcher, who never has missed an NFL game, who seems to be involved in almost every play and who, despite leading the NFL this season with 163 tackles, was not voted to the Pro Bowl this week.
"Man how has London Fletcher only been to TWO Pro Bowls in his career," Redskins wide receiver Donte' Stallworth tweeted this week, before his teammate was snubbed. "This dude is a monster, he brings it EVERY play!"
Now maybe those tackle numbers are padded slightly, but anyone who has watched Fletcher play this season might not think so. Plus, the defensive player second in the NFL in tackles is Cleveland linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, who has 145, a full 18 behind Fletcher. So Fletcher will likely finish this season as the league's leading tackler, and his timing is right.
Fletcher is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. The Redskins would be wise not to let Fletcher get away the way the Rams and Bills once did.
Minnesota will be reminded of its mistake Sunday, when it plays Bell and the Bears in the regular-season finale. Bell is coming off a Christmas night game in which he rushed for 121 yards and caught four passes for another 38 yards against the Green Bay Packers.
"When you see a player in a backup role and he performs that way," said Bears coach Lovie Smith, "you have to be excited about his future."
Bell is scheduled to be a restricted free agent this offseason. But the Bears recognize his value and would like to bring him back to Chicago as Forte's backup. He's the kind of backup the Vikings could use now to complement Toby Gerhart.
9. Smith picks his spots: During a season of rookie superlatives, such as Cam Newton shattering Peyton Manning's rookie single-season passing record, 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith is now on the verge of making his own mark.
With 14 sacks this season, Smith needs one sack Sunday versus the St. Louis Rams to set the NFL's rookie single-season sack record that former Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse set in 1999 with 14.5 sacks. The interesting part is that Smith is not a starter and every-down player. But San Francisco has figured out how and when to use him. And they're going to need Smith in the postseason to chase down quarterbacks like New Orleans' Drew Brees and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers. And yet, just as Fletcher was bypassed for the Pro Bowl, so was Smith. But Smith will have plenty of seasons to make it.
10. A most charitable Suh: Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has drawn enough negative attention this year. But he also has done good. Last week, Suh was named the most charitable athlete in all of sports, according to The Giving Back Fund, a Los-Angeles based nonprofit organization that charts celebrities' donations to charity, based on public records. Suh, ranked sixth on The Giving Back Fund's list of celebrities, donated $2 million to the Nebraska University athletic department and another $600,000 to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Engineering to endow a scholarship, the largest single gift from a former football player.
The only other football player on the list was Giants quarterback Eli Manning, at No. 18. The top ranking for most charitable celebrities went to actress Jami Gertz and her husband, Antony Ressler, who donated $10.57 million, followed by musician Herb Alpert, actor Mel Gibson, director George Lucas and writer Nora Roberts. So the year was not exactly all bad for Suh.
The Schef's specialties
• Game of the week: Colts at Jaguars. It would be easy to put down the NFC East championship game, but Indianapolis-Jacksonville has more on the line.
• Player of the week: Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. He closed 2010 with 10 catches for 156 yards and three touchdowns in the last two weeks of the season. He has a chance to end this season with the same type of production.
• Upset of the week: Cowboys over Giants. New York has struggled at home and Dallas is due to come through on a Sunday night, when it has gone 0-3 this season.
Adam Schefter is an ESPN NFL Insider.