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Takeaways from Wildcard Weekend

Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports

Andy Dalton will face a lot more scrutiny in 2013.

It was an interesting wildcard weekend. For my picks, I went 2-2 against the spread and 3-1 straight up. Had Andy Dalton and Cincinnati been able to move the ball early on against Houston, and at least gotten a field goal on one of their early drives, I could have gone 3-1 against the spread. But alas, Andy Dalton proved to be Andy Dalton.

The Bengals didn’t even move the ball past Houston’s 45-yard line until midway in the third quarter. The big question that arises in Cincinnati after their loss to the Texans is whether or not Andy Dalton is really their franchise QB. What appears to be happening in Cincinnati is the classic case where people are more focused on wins than they are production. Despite the Bengals record under Dalton, he has showcased himself to be nothing more than a below average to average quarterback.

Dalton is still young and has a lot of development to do. I don’t want to sound like I’m writing him off after his second season. The Chargers basically did that with Drew Brees, and look how that turned out. But the thing that is worrisome about young quarterbacks is not whether they are missing throws, it’s missing reads and making bad decisions that is concerning. You can’t have a guy that is afraid or unwilling to pull the trigger. And you cannot have a guy that is not seeing the field. Dalton is now in his second year in Jay Gruden’s offense, and the Bengals should not be forced to manage him as much as they have this year. That’s not a good sign going forward.

It doesn’t mean that they need to not give Dalton another year to showcase his skills, but they need to start thinking about a contingency plan in case Dalton doesn’t show the strides in 2013 that they hope to see. The problem is that you don’t want to find yourself down the same path that the New York Jets went down. The Jets under Mark Sanchez were 19-12 during the regular season in his first two seasons, and 4-2 in the playoffs. The Bengals are 18-13 with Dalton and 0-2 in the playoffs. With Sanchez, the Jets won despite him. There are similarities with the Bengals. They have a very good defense and one of the top defensive coordinators in the league in Mike Zimmer. Their offense is also predicated on the ground game, although not quite to the degree of the 2009 and 2010 Jets (who ranked 1st and 2nd, respectively in rush attempts in those years). They have one of the league’s best offensive lines, and they have one dynamic weapon on the outside in A.J. Green.

They don’t need to do anything dramatic this off-season. But I think a contingency plan that involves having another young, talented QB on the roster waiting in the wings makes a lot of sense. You don’t want to go into 2013 with just Bruce Gradkowski and Zac Robinson as your backup quarterbacks. If they can find a Nick Foles type in the third or fourth round, I think Cincinnati should jump all over that.

A lot of the talk also today has been about whether the Redskins should have pulled RG3 from that game. I don’t get it. Maybe, I wasn’t watching the same game that everyone else was watching. But I don’t understand how people can say that the franchise quarterback that had practically single-handedly carried that team to a seven-game winning streak and into the playoffs, one of the few times in league history where a 3-6 team managed to make the playoffs, should be pulled from the game because his knee is hurt. His knee looked messed up the week before against Dallas, but they still won the game.

Look, you ride or die with that guy. If RG3 had thrown like 3 picks in that game, then you might have a case. But they were in it late in that game, as they were down one score when ultimately Griffin went down for good in the fourth quarter. After a low snap by center Will Montgomery, Griffin’s leg got stuck in the turf (or rather sand) of FedEx Field and it buckled as he tried to bend down to scoop it up.

We saw this two years ago with the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship Game, where Jay Cutler got pulled after hurting his knee (MCL tear, I recall?) and they went with Caleb Hanie. The Bears really had no chance after that point in beating the Packers, it just prolonged their misery. And the world called out Cutler for lacking toughness.

I like Kirk Cousins, but there’s no way you honestly think he’s going to win that game if they had gone to him in the second quarter (as I’ve heard some say) or the third. The Redskins had been stagnant offensively at the point when Griffin went down. At that point, you needed a boost. And Kirk Cousins is the guy that is going to give it to you? If you’ve reached that point where it’s going to boil down to “inspiration” leading you to victory, there’s no way you choose Cousins over Griffin.

Frankly, people should be heaping less blame on Shanahan for not pulling RG3, and more on the people tasked with keeping the playing surface at FedEx in good condition. If RG3 is playing on something that isn’t quicksand, maybe he fares better.

Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe not “love” but mostly my sentiments exactly.

We got the chance to see Ray Lewis’ final home game in Baltimore on Sunday, and I for one am thankful for it. I tweeted this last week when news first broke that Lewis intended to retire at the end of the season, but I think Lewis is the greatest defensive player I’ve seen with my own eyes. I was born in 1983, started liking and watching football in the early 90s. My first real football memories stem from the 1991 season where I was watching the Mark Rypien-led Washington Redskins teams and the 2 Legit 2 Quit Falcons under Jerry Glanville. I’ve seen players like Reggie White and Bruce Smith play, arguably the two greatest pass rushers in NFL history. But during their heydays in the early and mid-90s, I was still a kid, who was more interested in simulating football on video games rather than watching it on television. But by the time I got to high school in the late 90s, that had changed. And I remember watching a young Ray Lewis, go sideline to sideline and just decimate ballcarriers and quarterbacks.

What made Lewis great was that sideline to sideline speed. We call it range, and there isn’t a player that in his prime did it better than Lewis. But also what made Lewis great as his career unfolded was how smart and instinctual he was. His ability to read and diagnose plays from the start, which even when he started to lose a step roughly 5 or 6 years ago, he was still able to make a ton of plays. He knew what you were doing at the same time you knew. That’s also what made his teammate Ed Reed great in the back seven. It makes me wonder about Reed’s future and legacy. Reed will likely go down as the best safety to play the game since Ronnie Lott when his career is over. Either him or Troy Polamalu. And I wonder would Reed had developed into that player if he had not been drafted by Baltimore in 2002. Like what if the Falcons had drafted Reed that year instead of T.J. Duckett, how would his career have turned out?

Probably still pretty good, but may not have been the future Hall of Fame career that we saw over the years in Baltimore. Because I think having a guy like Lewis as your mentor, as your leader, inspired Reed (and a number of other Ravens through the years) to prep and play at higher levels.

Ray Lewis is going to be one of those guys that I’m going to be one of those old guys talking about 20 or 30 years down the road. You ever need a pick me up, just head on over to YouTube and watch any of the multitude of videos that have Ray Lewis giving a pregame speech.

I’m going to be rooting for the Ravens to go all the way this year. Not only because they were my pre-season Super Bowl pick, but because I want to see the narrative develop where Lewis inspires the Ravens to go on this Super Bowl run. Similar to the 2005 Steelers, that with Jerome Bettis on the verge of hanging things up, the Steelers pooled together to “win one for the Bus.” At least that’s how the narrative goes. Looking back, their run probably wasn’t as improbable as it appeared at the time. That Steeler team was the 6th seed that year, but probably mainly because of the games that Roethlisberger missed due to injury. They were 2-2 in his absence, including an overtime loss a 6-10 Ravens team with Tommy Maddox at the helm. Ben plays in that game, and they probably win, which means they win the AFC North and are hosting Cincinnati in the opening round instead as the 3rd seed. And they play Denver in the 2nd round as opposed to the AFC Championship game that they ultimately do. That also means that Brady and Manning face off in Round 2, and the winner of that game is the team that they have to beat to go to the Super Bowl. Does Pittsburgh still go? Who knows. But it’s always interesting how many dominoes fall and/or change when you change a single variable.

But as far as narratives go, if this Raven team should make that run it will be much more improbable. That 2005 Steelers defense was among the best in the league. The 2012 Ravens unit, not so much. They were fairly mediocre even before injuries to Lewis and Lardarius Webb earlier in the season. But Paul Kruger looked great against that weak Colts front. Terrell Suggs even did some nice things, and looks like he’s finally get back to within the area code of his former self before the Achilles tear last spring. Reed hasn’t been his usual greatness this year, but if they can get guys like that, along with Haloti Ngata and some solid cornerback play, then we could see a resurgence of the Ravens defense this January. They won’t be on the level they once were, but certainly good enough to stall an offense like Denver next week, and then perhaps New England the week after.

But the big key for the Ravens playoff run is Joe Flacco. If Flacco plays like he did against the Colts, then they are in trouble. Ray Rice had an excellent game, if you discount the two fumbles. They will likely need to lean heavily on him going forward, and he needs to do a better job protecting the football. Flacco has been mediocre all year long. I think part of that was because of the presence of Cam Cameron. The feelings Falcon fans had about Mike Mularkey holding Matt Ryan back, the Ravens fans felt the same about Cameron. They probably waited 12 months too long to dismiss him.

I think the Ravens will be smart, regardless of how this season ends, to bring back either Hue Jackson or Jim Zorn as their offensive coordinator. Both were Flacco’s position coaches earlier in his career, Jackson when Flacco was a rookie, and Zorn in 2010.

Tonight will be the national championship game pitting Alabama against Notre Dame. I believe Alabama will win, and I assume most of the world thinks this. I have only seen either team play a couple of times this year. I’m probably assuming the greatness of the SEC over the lowly Golden Domers. I do think at some point, Saban and Alabama are going to lose a game like this. One where, we automatically give them the advantage because who they are and their past merits, and they wind up getting beat. I’m not sure if Notre Dame has what it takes to be that team. Notre Dame’s strength is their front seven, so on one hand I think this should be a game similar to last year’s title where it was two defensive-minded teams going at it in a low-scoring affair that could have meshed well with games played back in 1953. If Notre Dame had the offensive talent they had years ago under Charlie Weis, I think I might give them more of a chance. But I do think they have a shot, they just probably need to play a perfect game. Or get Alabama to not play one. Which is certainly possible since A.J. McCarron is their quarterback.

It appears that Chip Kelly will be staying at Oregon. I was looking forward to seeing Kelly in the NFL. His uptempo style of offense in my opinion is the future of the NFL. And I wanted to see that future begin now. Whether it was in Cleveland, Philadelphia, or some place else, I want to see another team besides New England try to win with that uptempo style.

I’m seeing a lot of juniors enter this year’s draft. The deadline for when underclassmen can declare for the draft is January 15. There have been instances where players will declare, and at the last minute renege and come back. You have that option as long as you don’t sign with an agent. But I have the feeling, you won’t see that happen this year. A lot of guys that I think really have no business coming out. Guys that are just going to wind up being third and fourth round picks because for whatever reason they were impatient. I don’t know what everybody’s family or financial situations are, but generally speaking unless you’re a running back, you should probably stay in school unless you’re a lock to be a Top 50 pick. And maybe I’m out of touch with who the top players in this year’s class are, but many of the players declaring I don’t see that being the case. Two guys from Michigan State: TE Dion Sims and DE William Gholston were two examples that jumped out. Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, and Utah DE Joe Kruger were other examples.

I doubt Sims gets drafted before Round 4. I think Gholston at this point might be a 3rd round prospect. Only 4.5 sacks this year after a 5-sack sophomore year. Gholston has the sort of size and potential (6-7/280) to get 1st round looks. He probably wouldn’t be that guy, but having a strong senior year could have potentially bolstered him as a Top 15 pick. Not a chance in hell he is that now.

Frederick probably will be the top center in this year’s class behind maybe Alabama’s Barrett Jones. Both will also be looked at as guards as well. Being the top center automatically means you stand a good shot of going Top 50. But I think with a strong senior year, Frederick might have solidifed him as a bonafide first rounder.

Kruger has talent, but hasn’t quite polished it up to a degree where he has maximized his draft stock. I think had he put together a really strong senior season, he could have potentially been a 1st round pick in 2014. But now, I think he’s probably just a 2nd round pick at best.

These guys are going to make a lot of money regardless, and I’m not going to say they were wrong for going pro, just slightly misguided.

But what happens is that the advisory committee tells them they are 2nd/3rd round picks, and then a bunch more guys with the same status enter the draft, and all of sudden they are now 4th/5th round guys just to the sheer amount of talent. I look back to last year’s list and see several names that I think fell into this trap. The Falcons very own Jonathan Massaquoi I bet thought when he declared, he was going to be a 2nd round pick. He wound up being a fifth round pick. Lamar Miller at the time of his declaration was being talked about as a late 1st round guy. He was an early 4th round pick. Bernard Pierce was also in that boat, mid-3rd rounder. Players like Eric Page, Chris Polk, and Cliff Harris probably all thought they would have the potential to be Day 2 picks. None were drafted. Jayron Hosley also probably had late 1st round aspirations, wound up being a late 3rd round guys. Terrell Manning, another Day 2 possibility, 5th round pick.

Some of these guys are getting bad advice, and it’s going to cost a few of them millions of dollars.

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Author: Aaron Freeman

Aaron is the founder of FalcFans.com.

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