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The NFL- How the Mighty Have Fallen

If you follow professional football, this past Sunday was one of those days that humble the nimblest of prognosticators. There was one upset after another but three games in particular that are worth mentioning as case studies in humility and perverse psychology; the Pittsburgh Steelers last second loss to the lowly Oakland Raiders, the New England Patriot’s defeat at the hands of the Miami Dolphins and, the doozy of them all- the crushing collapse of the Washington Redskins who were poised to shock the mighty and undefeated New Orleans Saints.

All three are storied franchises. Two of them, Pittsburgh and New England are newly in decline; the Redskins have been a complete basket case for years now.

Pittsburgh

The Steelers, of course, are the defending Super Bowl champs. They’ve lost four straight now and in excruciating fashion, giving up late 4th quarter leads. They’ve suddenly become unable to close the deal. And two of their four losses have come against the dregs of the NFL, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders. Their offense is fine. Their defense is suspect. People who know these things say they don’t have much of a pass rush anymore and just can’t put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. This leads to things like an Oakland Raider quarterback named Bruce Gradkowski throwing touchdown passes against them with 9 seconds left to play.

New England

The saga of the last three games for the New England Patriots has been fascinating in a macabre sort of way.

It started with the game against Peyton Manning and the still undefeated Indianapolis Colts when Bill Belichick, one of the great coaches in the history of the game took one of the strangest and most unorthodox chances of the last fifty years and decided to go for it on a 4th down situation from their own 27-yard line when all they had to do was keep the Colts from scoring a touchdown with about 2 minutes to play.

Instead of safely punting the ball away, the fabled Tom Brady completed the pass, but the receiver juggled the ball just enough to fall inches short. Enter Peyton Manning with a short field- touchdown pass- game over. People will talk about that decision for years. If the Patriots had gotten the 1st down they could have run out the clock and walked off with a victory. Basically, it was the biggest riverboat gamble since John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate.

In the next game, against the New Orleans Saints who are sporting one of the most prolific offenses in the history of the game, the Patriots were blown out and didn’t look like they belonged on the same field. Highly uncharacteristic. So after a crushing and humiliating defeat, you’d figure the best coach in history would have his players tuned up for a game against the Miami Dolphins who are a .500 team. After starting the contest off with a 14-0 lead it all fell horribly apart as the Dolphins awakened like Lazarus and kicked a last second field goal to send residents of New England into deep sorrow.

Washington

And then there are the Washington Redskins. After the glory years of Head Coach Joe Gibbs and the wonderful ownership of Jack Kent Cooke, self-made millionaire, Daniel Snyder bought the team ten years ago and they’ve never been quite the same.

Now widely acknowledged as the single worst owner in the NFL, he has literally been a case study in dysfunctional management as expressed most accurately in this piece  by Washington Post columnist, Sally Jenkins several months ago. He is a micro manager. He meddles, spends large bucks on old and decaying free agents, drives his own coaches nuts, sues his own fans in the middle of a recession when they can no longer make payments on their season tickets, and most recently, showed disdain for the 1st amendment by sending goon squads into the stadium in an attempt to ban derogatory signs brought in by disgruntled fans.

The Redskin season effectively ended many weeks ago so the passionate hatred for Snyder has eased somewhat mostly due to indifference. The players have shown heart in the last three games, playing tough teams close and finding one way or another to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory. But what happened yesterday at Fedex field in Landover, Maryland was beyond description.

They led the undefeated New Orleans Saints for most of the afternoon, poised for one of the greatest upsets of all time. But strange, very strange things began happening. A Redskin player intercepts a ball, then fumbles it and it gets returned for a touchdown. With about 2 minutes to play and getting ready to hit a short 23 yard field goal that would have put the Skins up by 10 and sealed the game, kicker Shaun Swisham, missed a chip shot. The Saints went on to score a game-tying touchdown, lost the coin-toss for overtime, but still managed to eventually march down the field to kick the game-winning field goal.

This man, Swisham, is the same guy I strongly suspect drove legendary coach Joe Gibbs back into retirement. Two years ago, after Gibbs had rallied the team following the horrible and untimely shooting death of star Free Safety, Sean Taylor; after they clawed and scratched their way into the playoffs and to a first round win against Tampa Bay- this guy Swisham missed right on a similarly easy, 30-yard field goal against the Seattle Seahawks, just as the Skins had managed an inspired and epic comeback. Gibbs would never say such a thing, but it was no surprise to me he retired the following year- and it had to be Swisham. You just don’t go through what Gibbs did that season, mend a team that had been grief-stricken at the loss of one of their teammates, rally them into an improbable playoff appearance, be one game away from the NFC championship and watch it all melt away because a 27–year old with a penchant for failure in the clutch, can’t make a little, baby field goal attempt.

The Take Away

So where to now and what are the lessons learned from the losses these three teams suffered on one Sunday afternoon in December? For fans of the defending champion Steelers, you accept your team has won two of the last four Super Bowls and hope they draft some really good defensive linemen next year. For New England, you accept a certain amount of humility and hope Bill Belichick can find a little too someday. And for the Redskins- you send Shaun Swisham to a sports psychologist to learn the art of visualizing success, owner Dan Snyder to a basic seminar on executive management and his players to a course on dealing with difficult people in case Snyder’s management seminar doesn’t take. And for those of us who follow this stuff and think we know what we’re talking about: we know nothing.

  1. David
    December 7, 2009 at 10:08 pm

    One correction. The Redskins won the toss and punted, the Saints got the ball and punted, the Redskins got the ball and fumbled, Saints went on to kick the field goal after pushing the ball to the 1.

    I already know the answer in my area, but why did Fox switch to the late game before letting this one finish? On the west coast, it’s because the home team had a game, but my mother in Atlanta was watching the tail end after they switched from the Falcons loss, they switched to the Giants game when it started and drove us Saints fans crazy. I had to follow the game on NFL.com.

  2. December 7, 2009 at 10:17 pm

    Thank you! Now corrected. I too, was without access to the game and, frankly do not understand the NFL’s policies on switching to the late finishing games. I mean this one was for the ages! Good luck with your Saints- they are scary good. My prediction: They beat the San Diego Chargers in the Super Bowl. The Colts just can’t seem to beat San Diego.

  3. David
    December 7, 2009 at 10:30 pm

    I love NFL Replay (when my team wins!). Saints/Redskins will be on at 9:30 ET on NFL Channel. The early game tomorrow is Raiders/Steelers…

    Maybe we’ll be able to get an answer from the Head Ref about that fumble. Skins fans are really hot about that and the interception/strip. I saw that the Skins safety did not have full control until he was out of contact with the Saints player, so I see that as a perfect call, because they couldn’t overturn the call on the field.

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