If Tuesday was a time for prayer and Thursday was a time for relief, Wednesday was a time for discomfort.
On the second full day that Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin fought for his life in recovery from a cardiac arrest suffered when he collapsed on the field and lost his pulse after making a tackle against the Bengals on “Monday Night Football, news across the NFL essentially trickled out on social media like this …
Hamlin remains in critical condition … and can you believe how many non-playoff teams are starting second- or third-string quarterbacks in Sunday’s games?
Hamlin’s reliance on a ventilator to breathe for him has improved from 100 to 50 percent … and how is the NFL going to fairly handle seeding the playoffs without the same number of games for each team?
Hamlin has shown “signs of improvement” … and how bad was that call the officials made for offensive pass interference?
It was difficult to reconcile the two directions the NFL simultaneously was headed in.
Before it was revealed by doctors Thursday that Hamlin regained consciousness, communicated via writing while remaining intubated (on Friday morning, the Bills said his breathing tube was removed), showed signs that his neurological function is intact and displayed movement in both his hands and feet, it frankly felt inappropriate that the NFL continued unabated on its weekly cycle of injury reports and power rankings.
But the league office declared in a private memo that no changes were being made to the Week 18 schedule, so all 32 teams, including the Bills, were back on the field for a walkthrough or a practice and game-planning meetings resumed as Hamlin remained sedated.
No players called for the return to play to be postponed a week. None that we know of expressed reservations about what might happen to their bodies in the next violent collision, which was a stark difference from the reaction I witnessed at Rutgers after Eric LeGrand was paralyzed making a tackle in 2010. That Rutgers-Army game continued to the finish — unlike Bills-Bengals — and unpaid college athletes shaken to their core were back in action as scheduled one week later.
“I didn’t want to hit or be hit again that season,” one of LeGrand’s teammates told me a few years later.
It’s not that the league or the reporters who cover it (myself included) are unique in their approach. Malls, schools and movie theaters re-open after shootings. Airports remain busy after plane crashes. Society always goes back to business as normal after the initial shock and sadness of tragedy dissipates.
It just seemed as if the NFL went from its shining moment of saving Hamlin’s life — by executing with no margin for error the kind of emergency protocol that is never supposed to be put into action — to rushing back onto the field without concrete answers on his future.
And then Thursday happened. We learned Hamlin’s father said it was OK to play. Mario Hamlin even encouraged it.
“Mario talking to us as a team and the things that he told us — and really didn’t tell us, he demanded us — you can’t not honor his request to go out there,” Bills quarterback Josh Allen revealed, “and charge forward to the best of our abilities.”
Do the Bills really feel ready to play football again?
“I do,” Allen said. “[Thursday’s] news was a lot of tears of joy. That is what Damar wants, that’s what his dad wants. Guys are excited to get out there.”
“I do, as well,” head coach Sean McDermott said, sitting next to Allen. “The news we received was a huge lift.”
And so it goes on.
Super Bowl tiers
The NFL regular season is all about parity: In each of the past 33 seasons, including 2022, at least four teams have qualified for the playoffs that were not part of the field in the previous season.
The NFL postseason is about the top seeds. The Super Bowl LVI matchup between the No. 4 seed Rams and No. 4 seed Bengals last February was an exception to the rule that the powerhouses usually reach the finish line. With that in mind, Post Sports+ divided the playoff contenders into tiers:
The slight favorite
Kansas City Chiefs: A win Saturday against the Raiders secures the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye in the loaded AFC. Yes, the Chiefs already lost to the Bills and the Bengals, but often their biggest enemy is in the mirror. Things like letting the first-half clock run out inside the 5-yard line, as was the case in the last AFC Championship Game. Or forgetting to run the ball and manage the clock — a specialty of head coach Andy Reid in big games. But the Chiefs have the best quarterback, the best offensive line, the best pass rush and the most sideline experience of any of the AFC’s Big 3.
Buffalo Bills: There is no telling the effect that Hamlin’s injury will have on players’ psyches. Listening to players talk for the first time, it sounds as if they have a galvanized locker room. Football fans whose teams are no longer playing and casual fans alike will be quick to adopt the Bills as their new team to cheer on. It is possible a Bills-Chiefs matchup in the AFC Championship Game gets moved to a neutral site because of the schedule inequities of the cancelled game. This year’s team — and all future Bills teams until a championship is won — carries the pressure of the franchise’s four straight Super Bowl losses from 1990-93.
Cincinnati Bengals: That 0-2 start that had critics talking about the curse of the Super Bowl-runner up is ancient history. The Bengals look like a possibility to be the fourth runner-up to return and finish the job. They beat the Chiefs all three times they played during the 2022 calendar year. Joe Burrow, Joe Mixon, Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd form the NFL’s best offensive skill combination, and the blocking is better than a year ago. It is possible a Bengals-Chiefs matchup in the AFC Championship Game gets moved to a neutral site for the same reason.
San Francisco 49ers: With all due respect to Brock Purdy, it sometimes feels as if Kyle Shanahan could coach any quarterback into a winner. The 49ers got to one Super Bowl and within one win of another while handcuffing Jimmy Garoppolo from making risky throws. The defense looks better than ever, and Purdy (101.4 rating during 4-0 start) has earned the right to be given as many (if not more) opportunities to make big throws than Garoppolo had.
Dallas Cowboys:. If Dak Prescott were throwing passes to CeeDee Lamb … and the two-headed beast of Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott was running behind Zach Martin and Tyron Smith … and the duo of Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs was creating nightmares for quarterbacks … in any uniform other than that of an annual choker, universal belief would be higher. Head coach Mike McCarthy has seamlessly managed the pressure of the hot seat. The Cowboys lead the NFL in turnover margin (+11) and are third in point differential (+145).
Philadelphia Eagles: What have you done for me lately? A month ago, the Eagles looked like runaway NFC favorites. Now? How can you feel confident when, after a 13-1 start, the starters have to play in Week 18 just to win the division and secure the No. 1 seed? The severity of Jalen Hurts’ shoulder injury is the biggest underplayed storyline entering the playoffs. They aren’t exactly paper tigers, but the Eagles faced one team outside of the division that has locked up a playoff berth (Vikings). There are questions about whether the coaching staff is making in-game adjustments quickly enough.
Minnesota Vikings: On one hand, playoff games generally are decided by one score or less, and no team in NFL regular-season history is better in those games than these Vikings (11-0). And yet how many Super Bowl teams lost a game by 37 points (to the Cowboys) and trailed another by 38 (to the Packers) in the final seven weeks of the regular season?
Baltimore Ravens: Much like Hurts’ injury, Lamar Jackson’s ankle injury casts a shadow over what started as a promising season. If Jackson can’t play — or can’t run like himself — the Ravens are not capable of scoring enough points to hang in the shootouts coming to the AFC playoffs unless Justin Tucker’s 60-yard field goals start counting for five points.
Los Angeles Chargers: Looking for a team that could make a run like last year’s Bengals? Justin Herbert is the quarterback with moxie that is unknown in the playoffs. The defense is allowing 11 points per game during a four-game winning streak. Head coach Brandon Staley won’t go down relying on punts and field goals. And the most injured team early in the season is getting healthy at the right time.
New York Giants: The vibe in the locker room after clinching a playoff berth for the first time in six years was: “This is just the beginning.” Like the Chargers, an injury-plagued roster is getting whole just in time for the playoffs. Most of the roster is too young to know they don’t belong. The Giants looked like a team hitting a well-timed stride last week in their most convincing win in three years.
Other possibilities among teams still not clinched: Packers, Patriots
Just happy to be here
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: What a weird way to view a Tom Brady-quarterbacked team. That’s why Brady will be just happy to be somewhere else next season as a free agent. Don’t let his reputation distract you from the truth: This is a deeply flawed offense and conservatively coached team that only outlasted an awful division.
AFC South winner: The Jaguars’ season already is a success because they identified the right coach-quarterback combination with Doug Pederson and Trevor Lawrence. If they reach the playoffs for the second time since 2007 by winning their final five games, they officially will be ahead of schedule. If Josh Dobbs is playing quarterback for the Titans in the playoffs, it’s a house-money game for a team that underachieved.
Other possibilities among teams still not clinched: Steelers, Dolphins, Lions, Seahawks
Deal or no deal
With the coaching carousel already spinning and about to hit top speed, here is a look at whether it makes sense for four familiar head coaches to get another shot:
Sean Payton (59 years old): The Saints still own his contractual rights and reportedly will ask for a first-round pick in a trade.
There have been five head coaches traded for draft compensation in the past 25 years: Herm Edwards from the Jets to the Chiefs for a fourth-rounder; Jon Gruden from the Raiders to the Buccaneers for two firsts, two seconds and $8 million; Bill Belichick from the Jets to the Patriots for a first-rounder, a fourth and a seventh; Mike Holmgren from the Packers to the Seahawks for a second; and Bill Parcells from the Patriots to the Jets for a first, a second, a third and a fourth.
Belichick (six) and Gruden (one) brought Super Bowls wins to their new teams, Holmgren reached a Super Bowl and Parcells reached an AFC Championship Game. So, history suggests that winning follows the great coach.
To knock Payton for his record (152-89) being tied to quarterback Drew Brees is to ignore that the Saints essentially twice reshuffled the deck around their quarterback and had three different winning eras during Payton’s 15-year tenure. Is there another undersized, big-armed quarterback out there for Payton to build around? Paging Kyler Murray. Verdict: Deal. Best fit: Cardinals.
Jim Harbaugh (59): After he nearly left the University of Michigan for the Vikings last offseason, Harbaugh pivoted to sign an extension that includes a relatively small (to a multi-billionaire NFL owner) buyout of $3 million after this season. With speculation heating up that the Panthers and Colts are interested, Harbaugh released a weak statement Thursday that only will further fan the flames.
“While no one knows what the future holds, I expect that I will be enthusiastically coaching Michigan in 2023,” the statement read.
If the adage that winning cures all is true, how did Harbaugh get fired by the 49ers with a 44-19-1 record and three straight trips to the NFC Championship Game? Because his authoritarian style rubbed professional players and executives the wrong way. Becoming the unquestioned King of a University — a reality for many Power Five football coaches — only enhances those feelings, which is a big reason so many fail in the NFL. Harbaugh’s record in big games is an issue magnified by Michigan’s upset loss last Saturday. Verdict: No deal.
Marvin Lewis (64): It’s easy to forget how big of a laughingstock the Bengals were from 1991-2002, when they went 55-137 and were outscored by a total of 1,236 points.
Lewis (131-122) brought back respectability, but he went 0-7 in the playoffs from 2003-18. That unforgivable record and his decision to work as a co-defensive coordinator and special advisor to Herm Edwards at Arizona State over the last four years — a time of great change in NFL game management — rather than return to his roots as an NFL defensive coordinator and show he can shut down some of these new top gunslingers makes Lewis a hard sell even though he still has “the fire” to coach, he told ESPN. Verdict: No deal.
Jim Caldwell (67): Best known for coaching the Peyton Manning-led Colts to a Super Bowl (which they lost to the Saints) after Tony Dungy retired, Caldwell’s best work was in his second stop with the Lions.
Caldwell went 36-28 with two playoff berths, accumulating a better winning percentage (.563) over four seasons than any of the last 11 full-timers before him. He looked like Vince Lombardi compared to successor Matt Patricia’s tenure (.321).
This is probably Caldwell’s last realistic carousel ride given his age, so he can’t be picky. If only there were an opening to lead a team on an urgent timeline that needs to hire a candidate with a quarterback background who isn’t going to be afraid (like some younger offensive-minded coaches might be) to hitch his reputation to a possibly unfixable problem (i.e. Russell Wilson). Verdict: Deal. Best fit: Broncos.
An unlikely pair
The last two college quarterbacks standing won’t be first-round draft picks in April. They probably won’t be second- or third-round draft picks, either.
Georgia’s Stetson Bennett and TCU’s Max Duggan rank No. 8 and No. 10, respectively, in ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper’s quarterback rankings. Neither appears in Pro Football Focus’ list of the top 10 quarterbacks. So, odds are, when they go head-to-head Monday in the College Football Playoff national championship game, it will be the biggest game of their respective lives (past, present and future).
It’s ironic that NFL quarterbacks often are judged by wins and experience, but college quarterbacks are drafted on physical traits and potential. Duggan is 25-17 as a starter, and Bennett is 30-3 in a conference that will produce higher quarterback draft picks from Alabama (Bryce Young), Kentucky (Will Levis), Florida (Anthony Richardson) and maybe Tennessee (Hendon Hooker).
Let’s take a moment to appreciate the great college quarterback who overcame adversity and stayed in school beyond the first chance to jump to the NFL. Duggan is two years removed from a surgery to correct a heart condition — abnormally fast heartbeats for a period of time — discovered during a COVID-19 check-up. Bennett began his career as a walk-on and watched Georgia’s coaches try to give the job to everyone but him for years.
There’s a spot on an NFL depth chart somewhere for the kind of mental toughness these two seniors have displayed in their careers.
NFL owners absolutely should approve Friday the proposal to move the AFC Championship Game to a neutral site if the Chiefs only would be home against the Bills or Bengals because of a half-game lead in the standings.
Another solution temporarily floated publicly — to add an eighth team to the AFC playoffs to eliminate the advantage given to the No. 1 seed — was too messy: Was the NFC also going to get an extra team? Expanding the playoffs would bring back into the picture teams that already are operating as if eliminated. And other teams might have managed Week 17 differently had they known it was an eight-team race instead of seven.