Commentary

NFL should adopt seeded tournament

Originally Published: December 31, 2013
By Gregg Easterbrook | ESPN.com

Check the playoff card: 10-6 Arizona is eliminated, while 8-7-1 Green Bay hosts a game. Who does 8-7-1 Green Bay host? San Francisco, at 12-4.

This, in a nutshell, is why the NFL should switch to a seeded-tournament postseason format.

The NFL is supposed to be about winning, yet strong records may be overlooked while weak records are honored. The chart says it all. In the NFL's goofy system, a 8-7-1 finish can be superior to a 12-4 finish; one 10-6 record can be rewarded with a home playoff date while another 10-6 record is shut out entirely.

The NFL's conference-and-division format is a handy way to organize schedules and rivalries, but does not reward success. A seeded tournament would reward success. College basketball also has conferences and divisions to organize regular-season play, then uses a seeded postseason tournament. The result is excitement. Why doesn't the NFL shift to this model?

Since the NFL-AFL merger, there have been 36 teams that failed to make the playoffs despite a better record than a team or teams that made the playoffs the same year.

In 2008, 11-5 New England did not make the playoffs while 9-7 Arizona hosted a postseason contest. In 1985, 11-5 Denver was shut out while 8-8 Cleveland got in. In 2010, 10-6 Jersey/A did not make the postseason while 7-9 Seattle hosted a playoff game. In 1991 two 10-6 teams, Philadelphia and San Francisco, did not make the postseason as 8-8 Jersey/B did. In 2007, 10-6 Cleveland was shut out while two 9-7 teams were allowed in. Lack of seeding also leads to absurd results such as, in 2010, when 12-4 Baltimore opened on the road while 7-9 Seattle opened at home, or in 1999, when 11-5 Buffalo opened on the road while 9-7 Seattle opened at home.

A seeded NFL playoff format would reward success and increase excitement. Dynamics would change, of course. Had one been in effect this season, Green Bay would have been eliminated before Week 17, though Kansas City would have been playing to win. Seeding would reward fans of the best teams with home playoff contests. Seeding would reward the national television audience by showing the best teams facing each other at the last.

Here is the argument against an NFL seeded playoff: "But the way we do it is the way we've always done it!"

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Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsThe Cardinals won 10 times and were eliminated; the Packers won eight times and host a playoff game.

Here is what the playoff field would look like, if seeding were in effect. (To avoid spending hours running tiebreaker scenarios, I used net-points differential. A seeded format would use head-to-head and common-opponents as tiebreakers.)

Bye teams in order of seeding: Denver, Seattle, Carolina, San Francisco.

Opening round:

San Diego (9-7) at New England (12-4)

Arizona (10-6) at Cincinnati (11-5)

Philadelphia (10-6) at Kansas City (11-5)

Indianapolis (11-5) at New Orleans (11-5)

Considering the NFL format is what it is and 8-7-1 Green Bay hosts a playoff contest -- remember when the Pack was invincible at Lambeau Field after New Year's Day? Back in the day, Green Bay ran up a 13-0 home postseason streak. Since then, the Packers are 3-4 at Lambeau in the playoffs. During the 13-0 home streak, Green Bay allowed an average of 11 points per game. Since then, going 3-4 at home in the postseason, the Packers have allowed an average of 25 points.

But then offense rules, and resistance is futile. Turns out 2013 was the highest-scoring NFL season ever. Teams averaged 23.4 points per game, besting the 23.2 number set in 1948, when spread tactics made their first appearance. The Broncos were hardly the only reason. Had the Broncs scored at the rate of last season's highest-points team, New England, the 2013 season still would have set the record, at 23.3 points per team per game. That means it wasn't only Denver that was spinning the scoreboard.

There are worrisome signs for Broncs fans. One is that Peyton Manning is 9-11 during his career in the playoffs. More important, high-scoring teams tend to fade late, as defensive intensity cranks up. None of the eight highest-scoring teams since the merger won the Super Bowl: five failed to reach the final game. The team whose total-points record Denver just bested, the 2007 Patriots, averaged 37 points in the regular season, faded to a 23-point average in the playoffs and, on the final day, scored just 14 points while losing the Super Bowl.

TMQ's Authentic Games metric ends the regular season by predicting a Super Bowl of Denver (six authentic wins) versus New Orleans (five). Cincinnati also recorded five authentic wins; Arizona, Carolina, Indianapolis, San Francisco and Seattle posted four. Though my own metric predicts Denver versus New Orleans in the swamps of Jersey, that outcome seems unlikely -- my bet is the Broncos fade while a Saints-Seahawks playoff contest, if one occurs, would be held in Seattle, conferring the edge on the Bluish Men Group. So maybe my Authentic Games metric is nuts. But last season at this juncture, it projected Baltimore to reach the Super Bowl, and that seemed pretty unlikely.

See below for TMQ's playoff capsules, and for my Happy New Year's wish. Check that -- for my New Year's bah humbug!

Stats of the Week No. 1: Cincinnati, New Orleans and Seattle finished a combined 23-1 at home.

Stats of the Week No. 2: Indianapolis won its final three games by a combined 78-20.

NCAABracket2011
ESPN.comThe seeded-tournament format is fantastic in basketball -- why not try it in the NFL?

Stats of the Week No. 3: The Packers are 6-2 with Aaron Rodgers and 2-5-1 with anyone else.

Stats of the Week No. 4: Nick Foles, who started the season as a backup, finished with 27 touchdown passes versus two interceptions, and a 119.2 rating. Joe Flacco, who started the season as reigning Super Bowl MVP, finished with 19 touchdown passes versus 22 interceptions, and a 73.1 rating.

Stats of the Week No. 5: Jeremy Kerley of Jersey/B finished with 523 receiving yards, which ranked 86th in the league -- and first on the Jets.

Stats of the Week No. 6: New England is on a 20-1 streak versus Buffalo; Pittsburgh is on an 19-2 streak versus Cleveland.

Stats of the Week No. 7: The Lions opened 6-3 and closed 1-6, failing to hold fourth-quarter leads in all late-season losses.

Stats of the Week No. 8: Cleveland had at least 10 losses for the sixth consecutive season.

Stats of the Week No. 9: Needing one victory to reach the playoffs, Miami lost its final two games by a combined 39-7.

Stats of the Week No. 10: Needing one victory to reach the playoffs, defending champion Baltimore lost its final two games by a combined 75-24.

Sweet Series of the Week: Leading 21-20 at Atlanta, the Carolina Panthers, stout on defense and sputtering on offense, had the Falcons facing second-and-3 with three minutes remaining. Carolina sacked Matt Ryan on consecutive snaps, forcing a fourth-and-18 punt. The Cats went on to victory and a bye week in which to contemplate their 16-4 streak.

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AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziAntonio Gates gives the home cheerleaders what the Miami cheerleaders didn't get.

Sour Play of the Week: In the late slot, a San Diego win would put the Bolts into the postseason; a San Diego loss would put the Steelers in. Pittsburgh faithful were steaming that Kansas City, which had already locked its best seed, resting many starters, sending in the junior varsity. Pittsburgh faithful were gnashing their teeth and rending their garments when the Chiefs missed a field goal to win at the end of regulation. San Diego should have been called for illegal defensive formation, granting Kansas City five yards and another try. As of 2013, there can't be more than six on either side of the center against a field goal attempt. The NFL has admitted the no-call was an error. Imagine if the replacement refs had done this!

Now facing fourth-and-2 in overtime against the Chiefs' practice squad, the Chargers went for it: lining up in punt formation but direct-snapping to the upback. He made the first down, then fumbled; the loose ball was scooped up by a Kansas City player who returned it for a touchdown, Kansas City wins and the Steelers get the final playoff card! Officials ruled the ball dead by forward progress, a judgment call that cannot be reviewed. The Bolts would win by a field goal.

Kansas City rolled over -- its choice to make -- then an officiating error plus a debatable zebra decision put San Diego into the postseason. Sour indeed for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Sour 'N' Sweet Play: Green Bay leading Chicago 13-7 in the third quarter of a winner-take-all, the Packers faced third-and-1 and threw a short slant, incomplete, rather than rush against a Chicago defense that allowed 5.4 yards per rush, worst in the NFL. Then Green Bay punted on fourth-and-1 rather than run against that same defense. The football gods punished the Packers by allowing Devin Hester a long return, followed by a Chicago go-ahead touchdown on the possession.

Now it's Chicago leading 28-27 late in the fourth quarter. Green Bay faces fourth-and-1 on its own 22: rush, convert. Then Green Bay faces fourth-and-1 on its own 44: short stop pattern to the sure-handed Jordy Nelson, convert.

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AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhA team that leaves a guy this open on the game-deciding fourth down doesn't deserve to make the playoffs.

Next Green Bay faced fourth-and-8 at midfield. Three consecutive fourth-down attempts have been super-short; the Bears expect something super-short. On the fourth-down conversion to Nelson, he stopped at the line-to-gain; corner Zack Bowman stopped there too. Now Green Bay puts two wide receivers left. One stops at the line-to-gain, in front of Bowman, who again stops there. Chris Conte, the safety on that side, runs toward the receiver stopping at the line-to-gain. Randall Cobb, the slot receiver, heads deep and immediately raises his hand -- Conte should have had Cobb, and instead Cobb is uncovered. Conte made the high school mistake of looking into the backfield trying to guess the play, rather than guard his man. With the 48-yard touchdown reception by Cobb, the Packers take the division and Chicago is eliminated.

Pro Bowl Animadversion: This season's Pro Bowl roster is more proof of TMQ's contention that offensive linemen are invited to Hawaii based on reputation, not performance -- which means even NFL coaches and players don't know who the best offensive linemen are. Trent Williams of the Potomac Drainage Basin Indigenous Persons, a highly hyped tackle who was fourth overall selection in his draft year, made the Pro Bowl despite having such a bad season that Persons coaches debated whether to bench him. Check film of the San Francisco at Washington game, Williams was awful. Eric Wood of Buffalo didn't make the Pro Bowl: for TMQ's money, he was the best center in the league in 2013. (No one from the Buffalo offensive line made the Pro Bowl, though the Bills were second in the league in rushing despite a revolving door of no-name quarterbacks, which means the blocking was good.) Zane Beadles of the Broncos, for TMQ's money the best guard in the league in 2013, didn't make the Pro Bowl, though both guards for the Saints did.

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AP Photo/Scott BoehmBrent Grimes, undrafted Division II gent who made the Pro Bowl.

Discounting the kicking teams, here are the Pro Bowl players who were undrafted:

Jason Peters, Eagles (made the Pro Bowl as an offensive linemen despite never playing this position in high school or college)

Marcel Reece, Raiders

Mike Tolbert, Panthers

Brent Grimes, Dolphins (played for Shippensburg in Division II)

Cameron Wake, Dolphins (got his start in the CFL)

Vontaze Burfict, Bengals

Stop Me Before I Blitz Again! The eight-man blitz rarely is seen because it's like handing the opposition a card that says, "Please score a touchdown." Minnesota leading Syracuse 17-14 with 1:21 remaining in the Texas Bowl -- which should be Texas Presents the Texas Bowl Sponsored by Texas -- the Orange faced third-and-8 on the Gophers' 12. The best outcome for Minnesota is to hold on this down, force a field goal and then use the remaining minute, plus the team's two timeouts, to try for a field goal to win.

Instead Minnesota brought the rare eight-man blitz, with double overloads on both sides. That left no one defending the middle: Syracuse quarterback Terrell Hunt went up the middle to the end zone untouched, putting the Orange ahead by four, and of course you know who won. Even if the blitz had created a loss of yardage, Syracuse still would have been in good field goal position -- thus Minnesota wagered losing the game, against a gain of little. Ye gods.

Maybe Robots Are Writing the Scripts: The new Fox series "Almost Human" posits that in the year 2048, cyborg cops will be required because, as a voiceover intones in the pilot, "crime has increased an astounding 400 percent." Four hundred percent compared to what -- to 2013, to 2047? Thirty-five years in the future, people still don't understand statistics.

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Paramount Pictures Does "almost human" apply to the acting?

The atmospherics are strictly "Blade Runner" -- lots of noodle shops and other Asian touches, floating neon advertising, constant rain. "Blade Runner" was a 1982 film set in 2019, about the same amount of time into the future as "Almost Human," and also involved lifelike cyborgs. Traditionally Hollywood has over-estimated the rate of future advances into space. In "Blade Runner," it's 2019 and humanity has already been to war in distant star systems. The 1966 television pilot for "Star Trek" states that the "Canopus planet" was colonized in 1996, and that by 2050, an American starship had reached the edge of the galaxy, some 25,000 light years away. Then in the 1967 episode that first gave viewers Ricardo Montalban as the sinister Khan, the Enterprise encounters a spaceship "built in the late 1990s" that has traveled a fair distance into the galaxy. Star Trek writers of the 1960s thought warp drive would be invented during the Clinton administration!

Say this for "Almost Human," there's no overestimation of space progress. It's the year 2048 and hardly anything has changed, except for cyborgs. Nothing going on in outer space. People talk exactly like they do now -- language hasn't evolved a bit. Cops still report for duty carrying coffee cups that obviously are empty. The show's protagonist, a detective played by Karl Urban (new, improved McCoy in the "Star Trek" reboot), walks into the precinct house holding a Starbucks-style cup sideways. Why don't directors point out to actors that they should hold coffee cups as though they were full of hot liquid? Hold empty suitcases the prop department provides as if they were heavy?

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Paramount Pictures All the way back to Fritz Lang's 1927 classic, movie robots are more interesting than people.

Lots of other things will be the same in 2048. Cops still never have any paperwork to do, just engage in gunfights in which hundreds of rounds are fired, then make a few wisecracks and go out for drinks. They still argue about who gets to drive. (Won't Google be controlling all cars by 2048?) During buddy-bonding conversations in the car, the scenery projected on the window still rolls by at a steady pace, as if there were no stoplights or traffic. Bad guys who are shot still die instantaneously, while good guys are never hit anywhere but in the arm, and it's still always a "through and through," which still is depicted as merely a scratch. (TV producers seem to think if a bullet enter one side of the body and exits the other, that means it did no damage; no more than a little gauze is needed.) Most important, buildings still have air shafts that heroes can crawl through.

Urban plays the lead -- in 2048, every police force still needs a tough-guy detective who ignores the rulebook -- but the best lines go to Michael Ealy, who portrays a cyborg sidekick. Consistently in celluloid, robots are more interesting than people. In "Star Wars," R2D2 and C3PO had the most personality; in last year's big-budget "Prometheus," the cyborg played by Michael Fassbender had a more interesting personality than any of the people. Brigette Helm stole the 1927 movie Metropolis as the Maschinenmensch. Why is it that writers can give more complicated motivations to robots than people?

A supporting role on "Almost Human" is held by actress Minka Kelly, who was Lyla on "Friday Night Lights." That series led to stardom for Taylor Kitsch (Riggins) and Connie Britton (the principal); Eric Taylor, Jesse Plemons and Michael B. Jordan from the show have done well. But there seems a "Friday Night Lights" Curse for young women who had important parts. Kelly was expected to become a heartthrob star, but her career has gone nowhere since she was associated with the 2011 attempt to reboot "Charlie's Angels," a prime-time fiasco canceled after four episodes, which was three too many.

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NBC/Universal Connie Britton, successful acting graduate of "Friday Night Lights."

Adrianne Palicki, who played Dillon High's whore-with-a-heart-of-gold, likewise was expected to become a star, but has been mired in B-movie supporting roles since being cast as the lead in the 2011 remake of "Wonder Woman," an NBC series so bad it was canceled before the first episode aired. The "Wonder Woman" remake was significantly worse than what the networks are willing to show -- that's a mind-boggling thought.

Denver's Own Personal Stats Item: The Broncos set the season scoring record; Peyton Manning set the season passing-yards and touchdowns-thrown records (although that's under review ), Manning throwing for exactly one yard more than Drew Brees in 2011, holder of the previous record, then leaving the game. Denver kicked 75 extra points, compared to Jacksonville kicking 22 extra points.

Blur Offense Takes Its Time: Philadelphia, leading 17-16 at the end of the third quarter, reaches first-and-goal on the Dallas 6, facing the league's worst defense. Chip Kelly sends in Brad Smith to run a trick play, the "gunslinger" pass back to Nick Foles. Smith was a fine college quarterback, but hasn't completed a pass in three seasons: on his career, a mind-numbing 20 percent of his passes have been intercepted. At least this pass wasn't intercepted.

Next Foles throws incomplete, failing to notice DeSean Jackson standing uncovered in the left flat for what should have been an easy touchdown. Kelly had a college-style deep sprint motion going all game; this was the one time it resulted in an uncovered man, but Foles didn't notice. Then Jackson catches a slant to the 1, setting up fourth-and-goal on the 1 against the league's worst defense. Kelly is known for spiffy goal-line plays, but instead this is just a power-formation quarterback sneak, no misdirection. The play is stuffed.

So Philadelphia couldn't score on first-and-goal from the 6 against the league's worst defense. But the Nesharim held on to win and now will host a playoff contest -- a fitting conclusion to a regular season that ought instead to lead to a seeded postseason bracket.

The Case Against Corporate Boards: During the 2010 period when she was under consideration to become chancellor of the New York City school system, Cathleen Black filled out some disclosure forms -- and revealed she was being paid about a half million dollars a year just to sit in on some corporate board meetings for Coca Cola and IBM.

[+] EnlargeBoard Meeting
Harold M. Lambert/Lambert/Getty Images"Gentlemen, this chart shows management's plan to loot the shareholders. All say aye!"

Corporate board memberships are among the greatest hustles in American commerce. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that large public corporations pay their directors a median of $244,000 annually, plus lavish benefits, merely to sit in on occasional meetings, often held at luxury resorts.

In theory, corporate boards exist to police management and protect shareholders, ensuring management doesn't loot the company at shareholders' expense. In practice, many boards are rubber stamps that let management get away with anything. The 2011 book "Money for Nothing," by John Gillespie and David Zweig, estimated that the typical public-company board awards 10 percent of the annual dividend pool to the CEO, regardless of his or her performance. It is nearly unheard-of for a corporate board to oppose lavishing a windfall on the CEO -- because any corporate board member who opposed CEO pay would be dismissed, losing access to his or her own hefty payday for doing next to nothing.

Shareholders could revolt against lapdog corporate boards. But since even the most excessive board deals work out to a few cents of a major company's share price, only those who hold huge blocks of stock have an incentive to fight corporate-board corruption. That's why two recent developments are encouraging.

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The mutual fund firm T. Rowe Price, with about $620 billion under management, has begun filing objections to directors who always vote to favor management over shareholders. (Owing shares of a company allows a person or business to file objections to a company's behavior; generally a large bloc must be held to make this worth one's time.) Institutional Shareholder Services, a private firm whose corporate-governance guidelines are influential, last week said that beginning in 2014, it will oppose the re-election of corporate directors who always favor diverting money from shareholders to management. If corporate boards were watchdogs rather than lapdogs, shareholders would be better served: and the sense that many CEOs are robbing the till might decline, which would be healthy for capitalism.

A lesser but still important concern about corporate boards is the number of university and philanthropy presidents present. Lawrence Small caused a 2007 scandal at the Smithsonian Institution when it was revealed he had been cheating on his expense account: in the aftermath of the scandal, a congressional report revealed Small was neglecting his duties to spend much of the year on multiple corporate boards, to pull in easy money. Too many college presidents neglect their duties in favor of what Michael Kinsley calls "buckraking" on corporate boards, and it's not because they are ill-paid. University presidents who are very well-paid should not be skipping work to fly to some vacation resort where they rubber-stamp a corporate plan, in return for a hefty check: university presidents ought to be spending their time and energy helping average people afford college.

Kansas City at Indianapolis: The Colts started strong, faltered, then finished strong -- and often, team sports is about who's playing well at the end. Kansas City started very well, then went 2-5 down the stretch -- and often, team sports is about who's playing well at the end. The last time the Chiefs bested a team that made this year's playoffs was Sept. 19, versus Philadelphia. The Colts have defeated Denver, Seattle and San Francisco. The Chiefs have nothing like this on their resume.

[+] EnlargeCardinals Cheerleader
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriThe Cardinals cheerleaders were pumped for a 10-6 finish that should have put the team into the playoffs.

Both teams protect the football -- Kansas City was plus-18 on turnovers, Indianapolis plus-13. So, expect a sloppy contest with lots of interceptions and fumbles.

New Orleans at Philadelphia: The Saints will match the league's No. 4 offense versus the Eagles' 29th-ranked defense; Philadelphia will match the league's second-ranked offense versus New Orleans' fourth-ranked defense. The performance of the New Orleans defense was among this year's leading surprises in the NFL. Considering Philadelphia just struggled on offense versus the NFL-worst Dallas defense, the Saints' defense may determine who wins this game.

The Saints were 8-0 at home, averaging 34 points scored, and 3-5 on the road, averaging 18 points scored. This is what experts call "a pattern." The Eagles were 6-2 on the road, averaging 28 points scored, and 4-4 at home, averaging 24 points. That's a pattern too, but inside that pattern is a late Philadelphia home surge -- the Nesharim opened 0-4 at home then went 4-0 at home down the stretch, including victories over contenders Arizona, Detroit and Chicago.

TMQ's sixth sense tells him the Blur Offense fades in this contest and that New Orleans will advance to a monster NFC playoff confrontation at Seattle. But my sixth sense also told me Sarah Palin would help the 2008 Republican ticket.

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AP PhotoThe 1982 San Diego-Cincinnati Freezer Bowl -- when it's below zero, manly men come out with bare arms.

San Diego at Cincinnati: The Bengals are undefeated at home, averaging 34 points per game on their turf, while in order to reach the postseason, the Bolts had to go to overtime against the Kansas City practice squad. So this game has the makings of a laffer. If it's cold Sunday, expect retrospectives on the 1982 Freezer Bowl title contest between these clubs. If it's cold the Bengals had better know their history and come out with bare arms!

Though Marvin Lewis has a reputation for ultra-conservative tactics, the Bengals went for it on fourth down 21 times this season, most of any team that made the playoffs. Danger sign for Cincinnati: Andy Dalton has thrown 20 interceptions. Manti Te'o quietly had a solid rookie campaign for San Diego (expect the national media this week to rediscover his imaginary dead girlfriend). Lord knows how they do it -- I've watched and I'm not sure -- but the Bolts were a league-best 49 percent on third downs.

San Francisco at Green Bay: Around Thanksgiving, TMQ took a lot of heat for saying the 49ers had no passing game. Now the season is in the books, and San Francisco finished 30th in passing. For the last several games, the Niners have using a lot of seven-man protections, so Colin Kaepernick has less pressure to deal with and simpler progressions to go through. But that reduces the chances of a man being open. Last year at this time, the Niners zone-read rushing offense bust out and carried the team to the Super Bowl. Can the Niners passing offense bust out this year? San Francisco is solid in all other phases.

Note to San Francisco scouts: With Chicago ahead 21-20 on Sunday at Green Bay, the Bears lined up trips bunch left. Tailback Matt Forte chip blocked then ran a leak route, coming out from the middle of the line, to the left. He was uncovered; the Packers defense had no one at all in the left flat. A long gainer set up a touchdown. It will be amazing if the 49ers don't try this action at Green Bay.

Bah Humbug: Christmas Eve is TMQ's favorite day: all of the year has built to that point of pure anticipation. Christmas Day is pretty good too. September through Christmas is my favorite time of year -- leaves are falling, football is being played, Christmas is coming, and everyone looks better in sweaters. My view of life is that one gets through two days each year of non-autumn to revel in each one day of autumn-to-Christmas.

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AP Photo/Mary AltafferNew Year's Eve -- bah humbug!

Then there's New Year's Eve and Day -- bah humbug! Another big holiday right after Christmas. Why not save New Year's for midwinter, when a holiday is really needed? Or move Christmas to then, since no one knows when Jesus was born. New Year's is especially hard on those who are not invited to any of the flashy parties that the media tell us everyone should be at.

For those who don't observe Christmas, New Year's is fine where it is. For me, it's always a letdown event -- plus means another year of waiting for Christmas Eve to return.

Buck-Buck-Brawkkkkkk: Trailing 10-6 in the third quarter, the Rdskns punted on fourth-and-inches; outraged, the football gods caused the next snap to be a Giants' touchdown, sealing the visitor's loss. Sure it was fourth-and-inches in Washington territory. But the team is 3-12, what did Washington have to lose?

Buck-Buck-Brawkkkkkk: Trailing 6-3 in the first quarter, eliminated from the postseason and losers of 19 of their past 20 to the Patriots, the Buffalo Bills faced fourth-and-3 on the New England 41, and punted. Outraged, the football gods ensured New England took the ball the other way for a 13-3 lead. Later, Buffalo tried and failed on fourth-and-1 from midfield, in a straight-ahead play that not only involved no misdirection -- that used skinny speed receiver T.J. Graham as lead blocker.

[+] EnlargeDolphins Cheerleader
Brad Barr/USA TODAY SportsThe Miami cheerleaders thought there was no way the Dolphins could lose in successive weeks to the Bills and Jets.

Challenge Yourself! Trailing Jersey/B 14-7 in the early fourth quarter, knowing a victory would almost certainly put the team into the postseason, Miami faced third-and-3 at midfield. A hitch screen to wide receiver Mike Wallace lost four yards; Miami punted, and the Jets took the ball the other way for a 17-7 lead that sent home fans streaming to the parking lot.

But Wallace dropped the ball! The throw should have been ruled incomplete, and had Miami challenged -- the Dolphins had a challenge -- the play all but surely would have been changed to an incompletion, as the pass clearly struck the ground. Changing the call to an incompletion would have given Miami fourth-and-3 at midfield: the Dolphins would have gone for it. Yes, it would be unconventional to challenge a catch awarded to your own team. But Miami would have benefited by losing a completion. Of course had Miami won a challenge, then coach Joe Philbin would have been criticized if a fourth down try didn't succeed. By doing nothing, Philbin avoided making a big decision.

In the endgame, leading 17-7, the Jets put three defensive tackles into the backfield. Rex Ryan seemed to be mocking Miami. True, the Dolphins choked in the final two games. But should a team that started the day eliminated be mocking anyone?

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AP Photo/Andrew A. NellesReplacement estimate: five days if privately funded, five months if government project.

Government Waste Update: Your columnist believes a reason the federal debt continues to grow, yet hardly anything gets built, is that federally backed construction projects are mired in corruption while strangled by bureaucracy and union work rules. That federal construction projects cost way too much and take way too long isn't just an accounting problem -- it means the public does not receive the improved infrastructure needed for economic growth.

Metro, the public transit authority for the Washington, D.C., region, just closed one of the entrances to a station for five months. Why? To replace two escalators. Five months to replace two escalators! Perhaps dozens of workers will mill around drinking coffee, supervised by top-heavy senior managers who argue about who gets to sign memos. If this were a private-sector project, it would take five days, not five months.

Just a few miles from the Official Home of TMQ, government planners want to put a pedestrian tunnel under a busy road, to make it easy for subway users to cross the street to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. This is a sensible idea. The problem: A short pedestrian tunnel and a few escalators are projected to cost $68 million and take three years to build. The original Bay Bridge, which is miles long and rises high enough over Chesapeake Bay to allow large vessels to transit below, was built in the 1950s in a little more than two years. Now we're told a short walkway will take three years and cost about $30,000 per inch.

Bay Bridge
Maryland State ArchivesToday's government takes longer to build a short pedestrian walkway than was required in the 1950s to build this gigantic bridge.

One reason for the glacial construction period and high price is that management is local but money is federal. When the federal government funds a locally managed project, the incentive is to drag feet and run up the bill -- that way there is a larger pot of gold for local pols to steal from. Not far from the super-slow tunnel project, a huge 23-acre resort complex with 18-story hotel will be built in less time -- using private money, and with accountability for the construction managers.

The Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River, north of New York, needs replacement. The project will cost at least $4 billion. Stated in today's money, the existing bridge cost $675 million. Surely the new bridge will be nicer -- but not six times nicer. Bribes and kickbacks, bureaucratic overhead and union work rules may be as much of the cost as steel.

It's not an abstraction when resources are wasted on too-slow, too-costly government contracts. The wasted money must come from somewhere -- either government services are cut, or taxes increased, or debt rises. Simultaneously, the tardiness of needed facilities slows economic growth. While the $68 million walkway will ensure years of luxury living for contractors, and perhaps no-show jobs controlled by local officials, tax-paying pedestrians must dodge fast-moving traffic as construction delays grind on. Who cares about them?

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United Artists No problem here that a nice bowl of smoking bishop won't solve.

Christmas Leftover: On Christmas Eve, your columnist read the Dickens original of "A Christmas Carol," which I hadn't opened in decades. I'd forgotten that Scrooge argues with the Ghost of Christmas Present, saying Christianity doesn't care about the working class. (Dickens felt that way; the comments seemed out of character for Ebenezer.) I'd forgotten that "thankee" was a common phrase in the period depicted. (The novella was published in 1843.)

And I'd forgotten that after Scrooge's transformation, he offers Bob Cratchit a bowl of "smoking bishop." This usually is reworded as hot rum punch. Apparently "smoking bishop" was a hot purple punch made with port, purple being the color of bishop's robe. Given the current foodie obsession with old cocktail recipes, one wonders if there is any high-end tavern in New York City or San Francisco where one could order a smoking bishop.

Reports of the Death of the Zone-Read Are Greatly Exaggerated: Though the read-option tactic is no longer the surprise it was in the 2013, it's still useful. Carolina, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle, which often use the zone-read, made the postseason. Eddie Martz of ESPN The Magazine (Published on Earth The Planet) notes zone-read rushing plays averaged 4.9 yards in 2013, versus regular runs averaging 4.1 yards.

The devil's bargain of quarterbacks exposed to injury continues: Should Robert Griffin III never recover his lightning speed, traditionalists will argue that only backup quarterbacks ought to execute the zone-read. Many innovations begin as ridiculed, then seem unstoppable, then settle down into another occasionally used element of the tool kit. This year's postseason may indicate if that's what is ahead for the read-option.

[+] EnlargeAmusement Park
George Rose/Getty ImagesCoaches take an annual year-end ride on the carousel.

Coaching Carousel: The annual coaching carousel has begun, the painted ponies going up and down. Coaches ought to sing, "We can't return we can only look / behind from where we came / and go round and round and round / In the circle game." Joni Mitchell wrote that song, but coaches may prefer the manly Tom Rush cover.

Many were fired on Black Monday not long after receiving the Kiss of Death. To quote this column from early November: "Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said last week: 'Leslie Frazier is not going anywhere. I am telling you that we are very committed to Leslie Frazier and this coaching staff.' So, Frazier is finished."

As regards the NFL, TMQ annually notes that most ticket sales occur in the winter -- meaning a team that had a bad year must give fans a reason to believe next season will be better. Firing coaches is the quickest way to achieve this. By October, many fans may wish the previous coach had stayed on. But in January, it's always "Throw the bum out." Someone must be blamed for a disappointing season -- and the owner, who hired the head coach and signed the players, never, ever takes any blame.

As regards the NCAA, TMQ continues not to understand why universities allow weasel coaches to sprint out the door whenever more money is waved. Penn State was a special case: to attract Bill O'Brien into its maelstrom, offering an out clause would have been a good negotiating tactic. But most college programs allow head coaches out for any reason, and so far as I have been able to determine, don't insist on the kind of non-compete clauses that moderate the movement of highly paid executives, engineers and artistic talent. Perhaps at some level, football-factory programs actually like the annual rite of the coaching carousel -- implying as it does that who coaches where is incredibly important.

Too bad Wade Phillips is unlikely to get the head coaching post at Houston. Three times he has come off the bench as backup head coach -- for the Saints, Falcons and now for the Moo Cows. So many backup head coaches have come off the bench in recent seasons (at Denver, New Orleans, Houston among others) that the league should create a coach's slot on the practice squad. That way there would always be a backup coach yelling and scowling at practice, getting reps in case he's needed.

ESPN's Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter call O'Brien the "overwhelming favorite" for the Texans job, though the team must first satisfy the Rooney Rule -- which, at this point, requires a club to pretend to be interested in a minority candidate even if it really wants someone else. Four of 32 head coaching posts this season were held by minority-group members. Better than in the old days, but nowhere close to the representation of minorities as NFL players or assistant coaches.

[+] EnlargeWeasel
Getty ImagesActual photograph of Greg Schiano after being informed of his dismissal.

Mortensen and Schefter say the Texans may interview Lovie Smith, which would satisfy the Rooney Rule even if Houston has no bona-fide interest. Smith would know this, so why would he play along? NFL head coaching is a fraternity; half-hearted Rooney Rule interviews have become a sort of hazing ritual for African-American coaches who are on the market. The alternative is to refuse, in which case you are expelled from the fraternity. So what choice does Smith, or any minority coach being asked to a sham Rooney Rule interview, really have in this situation?

No one is sorry to see weasel coach Greg Schiano fired. His first move in the NFL was to establish a bad-sportsmanship reputation by having his players attack the kneel-downs of winning teams. Then he boasted about it, though this tactic never worked at Rutgers and never worked in the NFL. A coach who's not only a bad sport but boasts about being a bad sport deserves to be shown the door.

As for the deposed Ultimate Leader, during the years Mike Shanahan had John Elway in his prime, he was 54-18, including the postseason. In all other years, Shanahan is 124-126. With each successive season, there seems more evidence Shanahan was just the guy who was standing there when Elway realized his potential, and otherwise is a mediocre coach.

The Football Gods Chortled: On third-and-32, Bill Belichick had Tom Brady launch a pooch punt.

The Football Gods Were Puzzled: Why was Drew Brees, and the rest of the Saints' starters, on the field in the fourth quarter with New Orleans ahead 42-17? Saints coach Sean Payton has always loved stats. But trying to run up the score isn't sportsmanlike, and can cause pointless injuries.

Adventures in Officiating: At Dallas, Nick Foles was called for intentional grounding when he threw the ball at the feet of LeSean McCoy to avoid a sack. The Eagles were trying to set up a middle screen. DeMarcus Ware was holding McCoy -- Dallas should have been called for defensive holding, resulting in offsetting penalties. In high school action, there is no pass interference behind the line of scrimmage. In the NFL, the receiver is supposed to be protected no matter where he is on the field.

The Cowboys' DeMarco Murray not called for lowering his head to use his helmet as a battering ram. This is the third season of emphasis on calling defensive players for deliberate use of helmet. The NFL said before this season began that offensive players would be flagged for the foul, too. But I didn't see any instance this year of a runner being called for using his helmet against a defender.

Next Week: Should NFL head coaches be hired through temp agencies?

In addition to writing Tuesday Morning Quarterback for ESPN, Gregg Easterbrook is the author of "The King of Sports" and eight other books, and is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. His website is here and you can follow him on Twitter here. Every Tuesday during the football season, at 3 p.m. Eastern, he will answer questions on Twitter about that day's column.

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