Category Archives: NFL

Aaron Rodgers has worst day as a pro thanks to dominating Buffalo Bills D

BILLS

(My pregame photo of Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers)

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‘That’s what we’re striving for … the greatest of all time’

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Not even the lauded Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions defences did anything like this to Aaron Rodgers:

–    Render him so ineffective, frenetic and frustrated as to miss on 25 of 42 throws (his worst career completion percentage, 40.1%) and the worst single-game passer rating (34.3) in his 10 seasons;

–    Force him into throwing two interceptions and commit a fumble that killed his team’s last chance to win;

–    Fluster him to the extent he twice didn’t spot a wide-open receiver for an easy touchdown;

–    And compel him to scream at officials a few times, for not calling pass interference when he thought his receivers were getting mugged.

The mighty — yes, mighty — Buffalo Bills defence did all that on Sunday in a shocking, memorable 21-13 upset victory at Ralph Wilson Stadium, in the Bills’ home finale.

Buffalo kept its AFC wild-card playoff hopes alive by improving to 8-6, which guarantees the team a non-losing record for the first time since 2004.

Green Bay dropped to 10-4, the same record atop the NFC North as Detroit, which on Sunday rallied to beat Minnesota. The Lions technically are in first place after having thumped the Packers in September, but the two teams play again at Lambeau Field on Dec. 28.

Rodgers entered Sunday’s game as the NFL’s hottest quarterback, guiding the league’s hottest offence, on the team riding the league’s longest win streak (five games).

But from the first drive to the last, Bills defenders made Rodgers appear as feeble as their own sorry quarterback — Kyle Orton — on arguably his own worst day. Some feat, that.

So is this Bills defence really the best in the league?

“Yeah, absolutely,” end Jerry Hughes said.

Added nickelback Nickell Robey: “We’re not shocked at all. I told (cornerback) Corey (Graham) in practice on Thursday that, if anything, other team’s offences need to be a little bit more worried about us than we should be about them.

“I said, ‘Corey, I don’t know if you’re a believer in that, but Sunday you’ll see.’”

He saw.

“We’re really good — really good,” Graham said. “To do what we’ve done the last couple of weeks against the best in the league, the best they have to offer, I mean it’s special.”

Linebacker Nigel Bradham even went a step further.

“We want to be the best in history — one of the greatest,” he said. “That’s what we’re striving for … the greatest of all time, not just this year or last year. We want to be one of the greatest of all time.”

Hypberbole, sure. But it speaks to the mindset of a unit that ranks in the Top 10 in every measurable that matters, and seems to be improving by the week. Particularly the past two.

Last week? Held Denver’s Peyton Manning to his worst passer rating (56.9) in six years after going 14-of-20 for 173 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.

This week? Held Rodgers — the leading contender for NFL MVP — to 17-of-42 for 185 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.

“Those numbers don’t lie,” Robey said. “Two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, holding them down to almost nothin’. They had some of their worst-ever performances against us.”

Rodgers, though, apparently was not in the mood to heap praise on the Bills.

“It was frustrating,” he said. “They did a good job on defence.

“Some days are going to be like this. We set the standard pretty high, and we like to live up to it every week … We just didn’t execute very well.”

Asked if Bills defensive backs were overly aggressive in pass coverage, Rodgers was not exactly coy.

“Well, I would say that it will be interesting to see when we go back through (the game tape). Yeah, we’ll see.

“They were physical and got away with it more than we expected.”

Buffalo scored its only touchdown in the second quarter on a 75-yard punt return touchdown by Marcus Thigpen, whom the team claimed off waivers on Nov. 26. The Bills offence with Orton at the helm is getting yet worse by the week.

Buffalo led 13-10 at halftime, and was up 19-13 with 1:58 remaining when Green Bay took over with a chance to drive 90 yards to win it.

But on the first play, hard-rushing Bills pass rusher Mario Williams knocked the ball from Rodgers’ throwing hand. It lay in the end zone.

Running back Eddie Lacy picked it up, attempted to run it out but failed. It didn’t matter. A fumble can be advanced only by the fumbler in the final two minutes. Once Lacy recovered, officials blew the play dead.

Safety.

Down 21-13, the Packers attempted an onside kick but Chris Hogan recovered to seal Buffalo’s big win.

Green Bay should have run it more. Lacy averaged 6.5 yards per carry in racking up 97 yards.

Was the plan to allow the Packers to run, so as to better stifle Rodgers and the passing game?

“Naw, that was NOT the idea,” Bradham said. “We wanted to shut down that run too, man.”

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From unwanted to picking off Aaron Rodgers twice

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — For about two months, Bacarri Rambo waited for the phone to ring, hoping to get a second NFL chance with another team.

The Washington Redskins drafted the safety in the sixth round last year, 191st overall, but released him after Week 2 this past September.

The Bills finally placed that call on Nov. 17.

On Sunday he got his first significant playing time in Buffalo when the second of two deep safeties ahead of him on the depth chart — Duke Williams, after Da’Norris Searcy — left the Bills’ game against the Green Bay Packers with a suspected concussion.

Rambo proceeded to intercept Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on consecutive possessions in the second half, as Buffalo upset Green Bay, 21-13.

“I’ve been preparing like I was starting because you never know when your chance is going to come,” the 24-year-old said.

The 6-foot, 211-pounder from Donalsonville, Ga., started three games for the Redskins before souring on him. Rambo said he never stopped hoping he’d get that second chance.

“I was out in Denver with my wife and my kid and her family. I was working out with (former 16-year NFL safety) Brian Dawkins.

“He was teaching me things, and giving me tips and advice to help me play faster once I got my chance.”

On his first interception — Rodgers’ fourth of the season, and the first that wasn’t tipped — Rambo jumped a deep pass intended for Randall Cobb, and returned it 16 yards.

On his second pick, Rambo was the beneficiary of a deflection off the hands of Packers receiver Jarrett Boykin.

“It feels good,” Rambo said. “Having my first career interception and my second career interception off him, it’s just a huge, huge confidence boost.

“I belong in this league.”

NFL December preview: Teams whose offence has improved the most are winning the most + remaining schedules for all contenders

Patriots, Packers, Broncos & Eagles offences are on fire
since September — and the numbers bear it out

Green Bay and New England wobbled out of the gate so badly this season, that entering October their offences ranked 28th and 29th in the league, respectively.

Fourth and fifth worst.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was so uncharacteristically awful, he was the 29th rated passer, worse than six QBs who’d be benched by mid-November.

Since then, as you are no doubt aware, the Packer and Patriot attacks have been sprinting like Seabiscuit with his tail on fire.

To try to quantify it, I pored over the NFL’s after-Week 4 team total-offence statistics, compared them with this week’s and calculated the team-by-team differences. (See chart below.)

There are some surprising revelations. Not just about how much more prolific the Green Bay and New England attacks have been, but others too. By contrast, we can see the extents to which the faders have slowed down.

Total offence isn’t often a useful comparative stat, but the stark differences here inform.

The Patriots have picked up the pace more than anybody since the start of October. They averaged 299 total yards per game to that point. Since then, 421 — for an increase of 122 yards per game. Or 41%. That’s an amazing turnaround.

The only other team with a triple-digit increase in that span is Green Bay. The Packers averaged 307 yards per game after Week 4 and now, heading into Week 14, they average 414 — up 107.

Only two other teams have marked increases. Denver is up 93 yards per game (339 to 432), and Philadelphia’s up 73 (368 to 441).

These four teams’ increases aren’t just impressive; they’ve been integral to these teams’ mid-season success, in two ways.

First from a scoring standpoint. In Quarters 2 and 3 the Pats led the league with 298 points. Next, the Packers with 288. Next, the Broncos with 257, and Eagles with 253. Right, the same four teams.

From a victory standpoint, same thing. The only three clubs to win seven games in October and November were New England, Green Bay and Denver. Philly won six. Figure it out.

The Eagles’ average output in October and November of 441 yards led the league. How many other teams could do that after their starting quarterback went down halfway through? And, indeed, replaced him with Mark Sanchez? Yes, folks, Chip Kelly’s offence works in the NFL.

Six teams besides Philly averaged 400-plus yards in Quarters 2 and 3: Indianapolis (434), New Orleans (433), Denver (432), New England (421), Pittsburgh (420) and Green Bay (414). All are deep in the playoff hunt, even if the Saints can only claim to be so because they’re in a laughably bad division.

Besides the Broncos and Eagles, four other teams had double-digit per-game yardage increases after September. If I gave you all day you probably would never have guessed Tampa Bay (+34), Jacksonville (+32), Houston (+21) and Oakland (+15). But those increases probably speak more to how lamely those teams started, than to what they’ve done since.

Continuing down the list, only four teams had single-digit per-game yardage increases: Pittsburgh (+8), New Orleans (+7) and Seattle and Carolina (both +2).

The other 20 NFL teams — yes, 20 of 32 — saw their offensive production fade in October and November. Seven teams dramatically so: Atlanta (-105), New York Jets (-82), St. Louis (-74), Washington (-67), Minnesota (-65), Kansas City (-61) and Cincinnati (-59).

Minnesota had the least prolific attack in the NFL over the past two months, generating just 279 yards per game behind struggling rookie passer Teddy Bridgewater. The Jets were second worst, behind Geno Smith and Michael Vick, at 284.

One of the biggest surprises from this statistical analysis is the extent to which the Alex Smith-guided Chiefs attack has faded, from 353 yards per game to 292, fourth worst output in the league in Quarters 2 and 3. KC was fortunate to have won five games in that span. With its offence sputtering like this, KC’s playoff hopes are in serious trouble.

Another surprise is that the Buffalo Bills’ switch after Week 4 from second-year quarterback EJ Manuel to 32-year-old Kyle Orton has actually seen the team’s production drop by a yard per game, from 321 to 320.

Those who have been watching the Bills closely, however, understand that Orton, if nothing else, on one or two drives per game gets it together and expertly passes the team down the field for an important score.

In the accompanying charts, which lay out these statistics for all 32 NFL teams, you can draw myriad other analytical conclusions.

Just bear two things in mind.

First, for those teams that had a late September bye and, thus, played nine games in October and November, I prorated their totals down to eight, for an apples-to-apples league-wide comparison. Those teams were Cincinnati, Cleveland, St. Louis, Seattle, Denver and Arizona.

Secondly, none of these numbers of course mean a damn thing from this point forward. There’s nothing to prevent Green Bay or New England from regressing just as starkly back to their struggling September form.

Brady, for one, knows it.

“December is when football season is. This is what it’s all about,” the 15th-year Patriots QB said this week. “Regardless of what you’ve done to this point, everybody’s season is decided at this point in the year. This is when you’ve got to be at your best.”

They’re almost already there.

The chart:

TEAM Sept, tot yds/g Oct-Nov, yds/g Difference Oct-Nov wins Current record
New England

299

421

+122

7

9-3

Green Bay

307

414

+107

7

9-3

Denver

339

432

+93

7

9-3

Philadelphia 368 441 +73 6 9-3
Tampa Bay 291 325 +34 1 2-10
Jacksonville 279 311 +32 2 2-10
Houston 340 361 +21 3 6-6
Oakland 270 285 +15 1 1-11
Pittsburgh 412 420 +8 5 7-5
New Orleans 426 433 +7 4 5-7
Seattle 357 359 +2 6 8-4
Carolina 328 330 +2 1 3-8-1
Buffalo 321 320 -1 5 7-5
Cleveland 363 357 -6 6 7-5
NY Giants 352 345 -7 1 3-9
San Diego 357 343 -9 5 8-4
Indianapolis 444 434 -10 6 8-4
Dallas 384 374 -10 5 9-4
Chicago 349 336 -13 3 5-8
Miami 354 334 -20 4 7-5
Tennessee 327 307 -20 1 2-10
Arizona 336 312 -24 6 9-3
Detroit 363 335 -28 5 8-4
Baltimore 394 365 -29 4 7-5
San Francisco 351 313 -38 5 7-5
Cincinnati 384 325 -59 5 8-3-1
Kansas City 353 292 -61 5 7-5
Minnesota 344 279 -65 3 5-7
Washington 415 348 -67 2 3-9
St. Louis 368 294 -74 4 5-7
New York Jets 366 284 -82 1 2-10
Atlanta 444 339 -105 3 5-7

 

Comparing remaining schedules

It’s December. Time to separate the men from the noise.

Except for Dallas and Chicago, who played Thursday night, every NFL team has four games remaining.

Twenty-four remain mathematically alive for a playoff berth, but we say it’s 21 that have a realistic chance.

Thanks to the schedule makers and 2014 fortune, the degree of difficulty for teams’ remaining games varies appreciably, based on opponents’ current records.

In that regard, New Orleans has the easiest closing schedule (their opponents have a combined .316 winning percentage), while Buffalo and San Diego have the hardest (.667). Not even the Chargers, however, must still play 9-3 teams as the Bills do. Eesh.

Here, then are the remaining schedules of the 21 playoff contenders, with degree-of-difficulty stats and a comment on each:

 

AFC

 

EAST LEADER

New England (9-3)

@ San Diego (8-4)

Miami (7-5)

@ NY Jets (2-10)

Buffalo (7-5)

Foes with winning records: 3

Foes’ combined record: 24-24 (.500)

Skinny: After sewing up yet another division, Tom Brady and company aim to bag the AFC’s top seed. Life is good in Foxboro.

 

NORTH LEADER

Cincinnati (8-3-1)

Pittsburgh (7-5)

@ Cleveland (7-5)

Denver (9-3) MON

@ Pittsburgh (7-5)

Foes with winning records: 4

Foes’ combined record: 30-18 (.625)

Skinny: Brutal finishing schedule for a team doing it with smoke and mirrors. Don’t look for Bengals to remain up here for long.

 

SOUTH LEADER

Indianapolis (8-4)

@ Cleveland (7-5)

Houston (6-6)

@ Dallas (9-4)

@ Tennessee (2-10)

Foes with winning records: 2

Foes’ combined record: 24-25 (.490)

Skinny: Colts have had an easy schedule for a reigning division leader. We’ll find out about their iffy defence in Dallas.

 

WEST LEADER

Denver (9-3)

Buffalo (7-5)

@ San Diego (8-4)

@ Cincinnati (8-3-1) MON

Oakland (1-11)

Foes with winning records: 3

Foes’ combined record: 24-23-1 (.510)

Skinny: Homefield advantage is possible if Broncos win out, and the schedule isn’t difficult — if the O-line can protect Peyton.

 

 

AFC WILD-CARD CONTENDERS

 

San Diego (8-4)

New England (9-3)

Denver (9-3)

@ San Francisco (7-5)

@ Kansas City (7-5)

Foes with winning records: 4

Foes’ combined record: 32-16 (.667)

Skinny: With a schedule that horrific, QB Phil Rivers must summon his ass-kicking gunslinger and just let it rip.

 

Miami (7-5)

Baltimore (7-5)

@ New England (9-3)

Minnesota (5-7)

NY Jets (2-10)

Foes with winning records: 2

Foes’ combined record: 23-25 (.480)

Skinny: Ravens are desperate. Pats will be out for revenge from Week 1 loss in Miami. Easy last two games might not matter.

 

Pittsburgh (7-5)

@ Cincinnati (8-3-1)

@ Atlanta (5-7)

Kansas City (7-5)

Cincinnati (8-3-1)

Foes with winning records: 3

Foes’ combined record: 28-18-2 (.604)

Skinny: Steelers must cease being bad on the road — immediately. Need at least three wins here. Big Ben, Brown and the O are up to it.

 

Baltimore (7-5)

@ Miami (7-5)

Jacksonville (2-10)

@ Houston (6-6)

Cleveland (7-5)

Foes with winning records: 2

Foes’ combined record: 22-26 (.458)

Skinny: This is as favourable a last-month schedule as you could hope to have in the NFL. All starts with Miami — gotta win there.

 

Buffalo (7-5)

@ Denver (9-3)

Green Bay (9-3)

@ Oakland (1-11)

@ New England (9-3)

Foes with winning records: 3

Foes’ combined record: 28-20 (.667)

Skinny: Offence is truly lousy. No way the Bills can keep up with the 9-3 teams, right? Ah, but their D is so good ya never know.

 

Cleveland (7-5)

Indianapolis (8-4)

Cincinnati (8-3-1)

@ Carolina (5-7)

@ Baltimore (7-5)

Foes with winning records: 3

Foes’ combined record: 28-19-1 (.594)

Skinny: Probably have to win out to make the playoffs. At least the Browns get Indy and Cinci at home. Brian Hoyer, we’re all watching.

 

Kansas City (7-5)

@ Arizona (9-3)

Oakland (1-11)

@ Pittsburgh (7-5)

@ San Diego (8-4)

Foes with winning records: 3

Foes’ combined record: 25-23 (.521)

Skinny: Tough schedule, at the worst time for the Chiefs. Their offence has disappeared. Arizona’s ferocious D won’t help.

 

Houston (6-6)

@ Jacksonville (2-10)

@ Indianapolis (8-4)

Baltimore (7-5)

Jacksonville (2-10)

Foes with winning records: 2

Foes’ combined record: 19-29 (.395)

Skinny: Barely alive, but stranger things have happened. The Texans have playoff experience. Ya never know.

 

 

NFC

EAST LEADER

 

Philadelphia (9-3)

Seattle (8-4)

Dallas (9-4)

@ Washington (3-9)

@ NY Giants (7-5)

Foes with winning records: 3

Foes’ combined record: 27-22 (.551)

Skinny: That’s a tough lineup. The only defence that poses a threat to Chip’s buzzsaw is Seattle’s. Dallas game is pivotal.

 

NORTH LEADER

Green Bay (9-3)

Atlanta (5-7) MON

@ Buffalo (7-5)

@ Tampa Bay (2-10)

Detroit Lions (8-4)

Foes with winning records: 2

Foes’ combined record: 22-26 (.458)

Skinny: As easy a December as any 1st-place team could want. Still, a slipup before Dec. 28 and the finale might be for the division.

 

SOUTH LEADER

Atlanta (5-7)

@ Green Bay (9-3) MON

Pittsburgh (7-5)

@ New Orleans (5-7)

Carolina (3-8-1)

Foes with winning records: 2

Foes’ combined record: 24-23-1 (.510)

Skinny: Two tough games, then divisional arch-rivals to close it out. And three of the best passers in the league, coming right up.

 

WEST LEADER

Arizona (9-3)

Kansas City (7-5)

@ St. Louis (5-7) THU

Seattle (8-4)

@ San Francisco (7-5)

Foes with winning records: 3

Foes’ combined record: 27-21 (.563)

Skinny: As Cards offence shrivels behind Drew Stanton, the defence has to really step it up, or the unravelling will begin.

 

 

NFC WILD-CARD CONTENDERS

 

Dallas (9-4)

Already beat Chi on THU

@ Philadelphia (9-3)

Indianapolis (8-4)

@ Washington (3-9)

Foes with winning records: 2

Foes’ combined record: 20-16 (.556)

Skinny: NFC East title is still there. But must win at Philly next week. A win over Colts could be the playoff-threshold crasher.

 

Detroit (8-4)

Tampa Bay (2-10)

Minnesota (5-7)

@ Chicago (5-8)

@ Green Bay (9-3)

Foes with winning records: 1

Foes’ combined record: 21-28 (.429)

Skinny: A light schedule on paper. But Lions always lose at Packers, where they probably will need to win to make the playoffs.

 

Seattle (8-4)

@ Philadelphia (9-3)

San Francisco (7-5)

@ Arizona (9-3)

St. Louis (5-7)

Foes with winning records: 3

Foes’ combined record: 30-18 (.625)

Skinny: If the Super Bowl champs return to the post-season they’ll have earned it. Not even the Rams games is a breather.

 

San Francisco (7-5)

@ Oakland (1-11)

@ Seattle (8-4)

San Diego (8-4) SAT

Arizona (9-3)

Foes with winning records: 3

Foes’ combined record: 26-22 (.542)

Skinny: Presuming Niners beat Raiders, all comes down to next week in Seattle. Lose, and Niners are all but done.

 

New Orleans (5-7)

Carolina (3-8-1)

@ Chicago (5-8)

Atlanta (5-7)

@ Tampa Bay (2-10)

Foes with winning records: 0

Foes’ combined record: 15-33-1 (.316)

Skinny: Easiest remaining schedule of any playoff contender in the league. Expect the Saints (still very potent on O) to win NFC South.

 

 

 

 

Toronto loves the NFL. Just not the Bills, in Toronto, at those prices, when the Bills suck.

BILLS

The Rogers Centre, during pregame anthems, prior to the last Bills-in-Toronto game between Buffalo and Atlanta, on Dec. 1, 2013. (my photo)

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The disastrous Bills-in-Toronto series is as dead as football atmosphere at the Rogers Centre.

Of all the places on this planet where football can be played — American football, Canadian football, Aussie Rules, footy, any kind — Toronto’s downtown dome is the most dismal.

Well, outside of a Shawshank-like prison yard.

NFL games, Argos games, Vanier Cups, Metro Bowls, soccer friendlies … even soldout Grey Cups can’t quite overcome whatever it is that sucks the life out of that cavernous, monstrous indoor/outdoor edifice that, in a couple decade’s time, surely will be replaced by another dozen jammed-in, glass-boxed Lake Shore condo towers.

The Buffalo Bills and Rogers Media Inc. on Wednesday morning announced they’ve finally put the ill-conceived Bills-in-Toronto initiative out of its misery.

The NFL team will no longer relocate one of its eight home games per season — and the occasional preseason game — to Toronto, as it did from 2008-13.

The Bills and Rogers had announced in March that this year’s game merely was “postponed.” The suggestion being that the four remaining regular-season games (and one preseason game) in the five-year Bills-in-Toronto contract extension would still be played.

Uh, no.

Everyone knew that was bull. It was just a careful, measured, half-step toward this exit, which both sides agreed to on Tuesday.

No money changed hands, Sun Media has learned. All sides just wanted to be done with it, and the lawyers drew it up.

It’s as easy as it is wrong to read too much into this failure. No, Toronto does not hate football. Especially NFL football.

The Rogers Centre notwithstanding, the Bills-in-Toronto series failed for four principle reasons:

 

1. MISREAD OF TORONTO NFL FANS

Those who conceived the series — Bills people, Rogers top execs and probably even some NFL owners — apparently believed Torontonians are Bills fans first, over any other NFL team.

Wrong.

That probably was true 20 years ago, when the Bills ruled the AFC and competed for Super Bowls every year, when you had to fight for a seat on one of the many Ontario charter buses headed to (then) Rich Stadium. But it for sure hasn’t been the case since probably the Doug Flutie years (1998-2000).

NFL Canada has known this for years. Based on NFL merchandise sales alone, the Bills have steadily dropped in popularity in Canada. They’re down to 10th, NFL Canada says, after Seattle, New England, Green Bay, San Francisco, Denver, Pittsburgh, Oakland, Chicago and Detroit.

Another NFL Canada survey recently showed the Bills have no more fans in Toronto than do a handful of teams, including the Patriots, Packers, Cowboys and Steelers.

So it’s not that NFL football isn’t wildly popular in Central Ontario; it is. NFL Canada for years has conducted empirical studies showing that in Toronto, and in other Canadian urban markets, NFL football trails only the NHL in avid fandom.

A study this past June by Lieberman Research Worldwide found this to be the case again.

 

2. MISREAD OF ONTARIO BILLS FANS

Bills fans in the Toronto area that I know, or have heard from, almost universally preferred the inconvenience of travelling 4-5 hours to and from the Ralph, over the convenience of watching the Bills play in their own backyard at the Rogers Centre.

Why? To enjoy Buffalo’s tailgating and raucous game-day atmosphere. Football tailgating is almost non-existent in Ontario, because it’s illegal to consume alcohol outside of homes and licensed venues. And, yeah, folks know how to tailgate outside the Ralph.

As I’ve written before, I know one devout Bills fan who lives literally across the STREET from the Rogers Centre who hated the Bills-in-Toronto series, merely because of the game-day excitement the Ralph provides — despite, as he wryly notes, all those heart-crushing losses.

There probably are tens of thousands of rabid Bills fans among the 8 million-plus who live in Central Ontario. Especially in the Niagara Region.

A Sun Media analysis of raw numbers provided in the summer by the Canada Border Services Agency shows that Canada-bound traffic on the four Niagara-region bridges connecting Ontario with New York state rose by an average of 5,300 vehicles on Bills home-game dates in 2012 and 2013.

That jibes with what the Bills said last year — that 18% of their ticket buyers now come from Ontario. One source said that the percentage has since grown, to just over 20%. That means for every game at the Ralph, some 13,000 to 14,000 drive in from Ontario — almost three per car, which sounds right.

And realize this, that for Bills fans in the Niagara Region the Rogers Centre is about as far, or farther, away than Ralph Wilson Stadium.

 

3. TICKET PRICES

The third reason the series failed is ticket prices. At first they were truly outrageous. The market never forgot, nor ever forgave, Rogers for its incredibly greedy, ill-conceived decision to screw over the Toronto NFL fan by charging the most expensive tickets prices in the league for the “privilege” of watching the Bills play in an awful venue.

Anyone who was a sports-loving adult in Toronto in the 1990s knows how hot this market was to obtain an NFL franchise. I remember friends saying at the time that a Toronto NFL club could sell 150,000 tickets to every game and not meet demand. And they might have been right.

On the heels of Toronto winning back-to-back World Series titles in 1992-93, and around the time the NBA signed off on the Raptors expansion franchise, this city for a time became absolutely obsessed with the idea of becoming a big player on the biggest American sports stages.

It would have been the perfect time for the NFL to have arrived. Alas, the long-time, tireless efforts of Paul Godfrey and others went for naught; expansion franchises instead went to Jacksonville and Carolina.

Fast-forward to 2007, when the late Ralph Wilson and the late Ted Rogers yucked it up at The Worst Press Conference Ever, about how much money Torontonians would have to shell out to watch these Bills-in-Toronto games. Stunningly unaware arrogance.

Still thinking that enough Torontonians would pay anything to effectively get that one-16th taste of NFL relocation, Rogers proceeded to poison the marketplace.

Average ticket prices in Year 1 were $183, compared to $51 for Bills games at the Ralph. A buddy said he had to pay as much for two tickets to the first Bills-in-Toronto game as he did for his two season tickets at the Ralph.

What’s more, since first posting this story on Wednesday evening, reader Steven MacKinnon reminded me that in that first year, Rogers demanded ticket buyers pay for all eight games upfront! MacKinnon said he paid $500 per pair, per game, at the 35-yard line — $4,000. “Try to imagine,” MacKinnon emailed me, “my realization on Aug. 14, 2008 that I had just paid $500 to watch a (meaningless) preseason game in a crappy sports arena.” Rogers eventually issued such customers refund cheques as prices dropped for subsequent years’ games.

A shocked Rogers Media had to literally give away thousands upon thousands of tickets to fill up the dome that first year.

In Year 2, Rogers slashed ticket prices by an average of 17%, including offering 11,000 tickets for under $100. But the communications/media giant still had to paper the place, as it did again in 2010 and, to a lesser extent, in 2011.

Don’t think the Bills were blameless here.

Rogers top executives might have been dumb enough to agree to pay the Bills $78 million for the right to host one regular-season game per year from 2008-12, and three preseason games (one of which Rogers punted back).

But while laughing all the way to the bank in doubling their per-game profit from the Ralph, Bills bean-counters apparently never bothered to consider how much Rogers might charge Toronto-area ticket buyers to try recoup that senseless outlay.

Even in 2012 (the last year of the original Bills-in-Toronto contract)  and in 2013 (the first game of the five-year extension), Rogers quietly gave away freebies to try to fill up the Rogers Centre, even though most tickets by then cost less than $100. It was too late.

A seminal marketing case study is begging to be done on this aspect alone of the Bills-in-Toronto debacle.

 

4. THE BILLS SUCKED

They did, all the way through the life of the Bills-in-Toronto series.

There’s no way Rogers would not have sold more tickets — and no way more fair-weather Toronto-area Bills fans would not have got off their couches — had the Bills fielded winners.

Or just didn’t suck.

Since 2008 the Bills have been a 42-66 football team, with 7-9 being their best season. The Bills torpedoed walk-up sales in five of the six years by stinking. Their record the week of the Bills-in-Toronto game was 6-6 in 2008, 4-7 in 2009, 0-7 in 2010, 4-1 in 2011, 5-8 in 2012 and 4-7 last year.

You try to sell that.

The only regular-season game the Bills won was in 2011, when they beat an even worse Washington Redskins team before falling to pieces starting the next week.

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To sum up, the Bills and Rogers greatly misjudged the number of Bills fans in the GTA; never understood the things that attracted what Bills fans there are in the region to the Ralph in the first place; poisoned the market by brazenly, obnoxiously overpricing the tickets; and had a crappy product to sell.

Four strikes and yer out.

An American equivalent of the Bills-in-Toronto series would be if the San Diego Chargers sucked for 10 years, relocated one home game a year 90 miles up the Pacific Coast Highway to neutral-city Los Angeles, then scratched their heads in wonderment as to why that one game a year can’t sell out in LA. And it wouldn’t, my California NFL media friends say.

A year ago this week, I advocated for the end of the Bills-in-Toronto series. I’ll repeat what I wrote then: I’m an NFL columnist based in Toronto, and it brings me no joy to write this, believe me.

But the series was a failure for every party involved. An embarrassing failure. For the Bills. For Western New York. For Rogers. For the Rogers Centre. For Toronto. And for the NFL. Wednesday’s mutual, no-cost walk-away for all parties merely underscores it.

Torontonians still love the NFL, make no mistake about it. Just not the Bills, in Toronto, at those prices, when the Bills suck.

 

 

Bills, Rogers statements on the end

What the principals had to say Wednesday about the end of the Bills-in-Toronto series, in statements:

Bills president Russ Brandon:

“We greatly appreciate the support we’ve received over the past seven years from all of the tremendous people at Rogers Communications. We will continue to work hard to solidify our footprint in Southern Ontario. Our fan base in this region remains extremely important to our organization and their support has been well documented.”

Rogers Media president Keith Pelley:

“When we announced the hiatus earlier this year in March, we said we were going to make a full evaluation of the Bills-in-Toronto series. We’ve taken the time to discuss and review all aspects of the experience, and at the end of the day we’ve concluded that the best thing for fans on both sides of the border is to end the series. We’ve enjoyed a terrific relationship with the Bills and remain committed to delivering world-class sports experiences to Canadians.”

 

Bills-in-Toronto series: final scorecard

REGULAR-SEASON GAMES

2008: Dec. 7, Miami 16, Bills 3 (52,134)

2009: Dec. 3, NY Jets 19, Bills 13 (51,567)

2010: Nov. 7, Chicago 22, Bills 19 (50,746)

2011: Oct. 30, Bills 23, Washington 0 (51,579)

2012: Dec. 16, Seattle 50, Bills 17 (40,770)

2013: Dec. 1, Atlanta 34, Bills 31 OT (38,969)

 

PRESEASON GAMES

2008: Aug. 14, Bills 24, Pittsburgh 21

2010: Aug. 19, Bills 34, Indianapolis 21

 

Memo to Michigan, Nebraska, Florida or any other traditional U.S. college power looking for an iconic head coach: these are your seven vital search criteria

You’re a traditional college football power, and you’ve just run your failure of a head coach out of town. That’s the first step toward righting your listing ship.

What’s vital now is to get the next hire right. The last thing you want is for your program to slip into, or languish longer in, dreaded long-term mediocrity. Continuing irrelevance on the national stage is poison, as far as your hundreds of thousands of alums and millions of devout followers are concerned.

Ask Oklahoma about that in the ’90s. Or Notre Dame last decade. Or Alabama before Nick Saban came to the rescue. Or Michigan now.

Michigan has been in that boat since losing to Appalachian State in 2007. Head coach Brady Hoke was fired Tuesday afternoon, after four progressively worse seasons (11-2, 8-5, 7-6, 5-7). He took over for Rich Rodriguez, who was whacked after three controversy-addled years of mostly dreadful play (3-9, 5-7, 7-6). That followed almost four decades of consistent, top-shelf success under Bo Schembechler, Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr.

Michigan is one of three traditional national U.S. college powers whose search for a new head coach has officially commenced. Florida and Nebraska are the others.

Florida’s Will Muschamp already had announced his resignation before his last game on Saturday, a loss to arch-rival Florida State. Urban Meyer’s success-lacking successor since 2011, Muschamp went 7-6 and 11-2 with the Gators before last year’s implosion (4-8) and this year’s continuing travails (6-5).

Nebraska has wobbled on and off since the Tom Osborne era ended in 1997. Frank Solich, Bill Callahan and now Bo Pelini haven’t come close to matching Osborne’s incredible success. Pelini wasn’t a bum, either, but that’s the rub at the top of the college profession. Fans of big-time programs might put up with a rare clunker season, but what they absolutely cannot stomach is season after season of “almost there” success. That is, a 9-3 record or thereabouts just about every year. Never a great season, just a lot of maddening “almost there” seasons. That’s exactly why Pelini was fired Sunday morning. It’s why “Ol’ 9-3 Earle” Bruce was fired by Ohio State the first year he finally fell short of that maddening level, in 1987. And why many Michigan fans had tired of Carr before he was pressured out the door in 2007.

So now the Wolverines, Gators and Cornhuskers search anew.

Each thinks it can get the “best man out there” because of the prestige of its brand and, in Nebraska’s and Michigan’s case, because of a tradition of long-term excellence few schools can match. There are no sure things in head-coach hires, however. Not even Jim Harbaugh, wishful Michigan fans. Or Chip Kelly, wishful Florida fans.

But recent and ancient history inform. If you’re familiar with the history of coaching at the top-end level of college football, the trends are unmistakable. Yet it’s stunning how often top football-playing universities ignore these lessons of the past and get their crucial hires wrong. Over and over and over again.

Following are the seven most important attributes that any traditional college football power, in any year, needs to seek in a new head coach — at least if it wants to give itself the best chance to some day chisel the next guy’s face into the granite mountain alongside the program’s other “Mt. Rushmore” coaching legends:

 

1. PREVIOUS HEAD COACHING EXPERIENCE

Nothing is as important as this. There is no substitute for it at the highest level.

No one ever better illuminated this point than Ara Parseghian. Years after he retired in 1974 as Notre Dame’s third legendary football coach, after Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy, Parseghian reflected on why his second successor, Gerry Faust, was failing so epically. Notre Dame had elevated Faust directly from the high-school ranks in 1981. Parseghian had been a successful college head coach since 1951 at Miami (Ohio) and Northwestern before the Irish plucked him in 1964. “I needed all 13 of those previous years as head coach to have any chance of success at Notre Dame,” Parseghian insisted to then CBS-TV broadcast partner Brent Musberger in 1985.

Let that sink in. All 13 years.

Parseghian didn’t need 13 years of experience to succeed at (no dig intended) Louisville. Or Illinois. Or Arizona State. Or Syracuse. Those schools elevate coordinators or other assistant coaches all the time, and some occasionally find success.

But at Notre Dame — or any other top-flight program, where the time demands are so much greater, the spotlight so much brighter, the fan bases so much more zealous, the margin of error evermore minute — Parseghian believed he needed all that seasoning.

History supports that assessment.

If we stay at Notre Dame and look at Parseghian’s seven successors since 1974, his wisdom is proved correct. Dan Devine, Lou Holtz and Brian Kelly are the only ones that had extensive previous head coaching experience. Devine and Holtz each won a national championship, and Kelly’s 2012 Irish played in the national championship game. Three of the other four — Faust, Bob Davie and Charlie Weis — had no college head coaching experience at all. They were abject failures. Fifteen years, down the drain. The other of the four, Tyrone Willingham, had taken Stanford to only four bowl games in seven seasons. A Rose Bowl season, yes, but losing seasons too. At Notre Dame he experienced big highs and huge lows in a truncated three-year tenure. That is, he merely did what he’d done. And people were surprised.

Alabama has gone through coaches like no other traditional power since 1983, the year after Bear Bryant died. Nick Saban is the ninth. Two of the eight before him had no previous college or NFL head-coaching experience — Mike DuBose (1997-2000) and Mike Shula (2003-06). Combined, they went 50-46. Seeya.

How about Florida? Lifetime assistant coach Ron Zook succeeded Steve Spurrier in 2004. Three years later? Gone. Similarly, lifetime assistant Muschamp, after four years.

At Oklahoma, following the glittering (if NCAA-alerting) successes under Barry Switzer from 1973-88, the school hired four new head coaches in an 11-year span. One, Howard Schnellenberger, had turned Miami (Florida) into a national power, but he quit after one awful season in Norman. The other three had no previous head-coaching experience. Gary Gibbs went 44-23-2 from 1989-94 before he was forced out. John Blake went 12-22 from 1996-98 before he was fired. The third, Bob Stoops, of course has worked out. But that’s only 1-in-3.

Stoops (who had been Florida’s defensive coordinator) and a small handful of other elevated coordinators prove it is not mandatory to have had previous head-coaching experience. Other examples include Carr (who had been the Wolverines’ defensive coordinator) at Michigan in the late ’90s and early ’00s and, now, Jimbo Fisher at Florida State (a lifetime assistant coach until Bobby Bowden retired in 2010).

But these men are the exception, not the rule.

 

2. … AND OVERACHIEVED AT THOSE STOPS, TOO

This is really 1b.

It isn’t enough to merely have had previous head-coaching experience. The common thread among most great coaches in college football history is that they overachieve at every college stop. And usually not just with one great season. Those can be flukes — or, if you’re into analytics, outliers.

For example, Hoke went 12-1 at Ball State after four losing seasons and a 7-6 season. But 12-1? Woot! San Diego State scooped him up, where Hoke went 4-8 then 9-4. Nowhere did Hoke show an ability to win consistently, but it was enough to convince then-Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon — urged by a small army of Carr loyalists — that the one-time Carr assistant was ready. Clearly he wasn’t.

If you don’t see overachievement on a coach candidate’s resume, by his previous schools’ traditional standards, then what would you must ask yourself: what makes you think he’d do any differently on your bigger stage? It’s amazing how many big-time athletic directors and their moneybags boosters fail to properly consider this elemental question.

Overachievement is relative. If a coach were to take, say, perennial Big 12 doormat Kansas to a mid-tier bowl game every season for 4-5 years, that’s impressive overachievement. That coach deserves a long look. But if he coached, say, Wake Forest or San Diego State or North Carolina State to more or less the same middling level of success as his predecessors, then why are you even interested in him?

Almost all great coaches overachieved at previous college gigs. Such as Bryant at Kentucky and Texas A&M before Bama. Or Woody Hayes at Denison and Miami (Ohio) before Ohio State. Or Holtz at Arkansas, Minnesota and other stops before Notre Dame. Or Meyer at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida before Ohio State.

Trends are not coincidences.

 

3. NICE GUY? FORGET IT

First, look for a bigger-than-life personality — the guy who owns the room when he walks into it. Morose men, or loners, almost never rise to become Hall of Fame coaches. Leahy was the all-time asterisk.

But just as importantly, if too many people say of your candidate, “Boy, he’s such a nice guy,” then drop him from your list. Fast. Nice guys rarely win big at the highest levels of football. Pricks win big. It’s just the way it is, by and large. The coaches who don’t give a rat’s butt whether anyone likes them, players included, stand a better chance of winning. “I’m not trying to win any popularity contests,” Hayes always famously said. “I’m trying to win football games.”

Players respected or even feared the likes of Hayes, Schembechler, Holtz, Bryant, Bobby Bowden, Joe Paterno, Meyer, et al — and similarly in the pro ranks the Bill Bilichicks, Don Shulas, Chuck Nolls and Vince Lombardis. But most of their players probably didn’t really like them until years later, if ever.

And what of it. How many times have we heard of head-coach failures late in their regimes being described by empathetic TV announcers as super nice guys and, boy, it’s really a shame they couldn’t make it work. The two things are often correlated, people. Nice guys don’t finish last in this profession at the highest level. Usually just fired.

 

4. IS HE SECURE ENOUGH TO HIRE THE BEST ASSISTANTS?

How many times do we see head coaches fail at the big-time college level — if not more so in the NFL — because although they ably took care of one side of the ball, they refused to bring in a similarly competent, “big name” coordinator to run the other side? “Hey, he might steal too much of the thunder. Can’t have that.” You’d swear with some that that’s their thinking. If so, it’s so wrong.

The best head coaches are secure enough in themselves to embrace the fact it’s not just great players who make your team a lasting, huge success, but great assistants too. The most successful head men search far and wide for the best possible coordinators and assistant coaches, and successfully recruit them. Even big-ego guys.

If you want a prodigious coaching tree, you have to want big branches to sprout from it. Otherwise go play in the park, not the forest.

 

5. WHAT’S HIS PLAN?

A head coach needs to come in with a well-thought-out rebuilding plan, built in part — if not in whole — around how to knock the reigning king off the hill.

In a lengthy interview with me in 1991, Schembechler provided this fascinating insight — which I’ve never written before — about how he turned Michigan’s fortunes around upon arriving in Ann Arbor in 1969. The launch point to this discussion was why Schembechler installed the “angle” 5-2 defence, at a time when Hayes and Ohio State ruled the Big Ten roost.

“We brought it — and we coached it — with the idea of stopping the Ohio State offence,” Schembechler said. “That’s all we did. ’Cause if we can beat those guys, the rest of them will take care of themselves. So that’s what we did.

“We also simulated (Ohio State’s) offence with regard to the fullback play. Because the fullback play was the basis of their attack, and nobody in this Big Ten had the slightest idea of how to stop it. So we built the defence, put the off-tackle (fullback) play into (our) offence — because we play against each other more than we play against anybody else — and made up our minds that we’re going to stop that play.

“And THAT’S how the great series — that 10-year series — came to be, and THAT’S why they were great defensive battles.

“And they could talk to me all they want about, ‘Why don’t you pass (more?)’ … I only had one thing in mind: beat Ohio State. I didn’t care about anything else. Because if I can beat Ohio State, I’m gonna beat these other guys. And that’s what happened. And we didn’t beat them all the time, but we were in every damn game. And we won our share.”

Slightly more, in fact. Schembechler went 5-4-1 against Hayes through 1978, and three times Hayes had the No. 1 team in America.

Schembechler furthermore implied he had little respect for ‘system’ coaches — those who bring pretty much the same attack with them to every stop. That’s not how you climb back up the hill.

“You can’t just go in and say, ‘We’re going to put in our offence and da-deeda-deeda-dada,’” said Schembechler, who died in 2006. “You’ve got to zero in on some specific people that you know you’re going to play, year in and year out, and then DECIDE how you’re going to (beat THEM). Why would I put in an offense that’ll score 50 on Northwestern? To what purpose? That won’t do me any good.

“The dominant team in the Big Ten in the ’60s was Ohio State. They DOMINATED everybody, they RAN over everybody, and Michigan just came off a 50-14 loss to ’em when they were playing for the championship, in Columbus, in’68. I said to hell with that, they ain’t putting 50 on us EVER. We’re gonna play defence and we’re gonna stop that attack, that’s what we’re gonna do. And the next year they got TWELVE.”

In fact, in that memorable “Ten Year War” between Hayes and Schembechler, Ohio State’s offence failed to score an offensive touchdown five times (in 1971-74-76-77-78).

And when critics in the Detroit-area press carved Schembechler for running way too much, and for being so offensively conservative?

THAT’S ALL HOGWASH!” he shouted. “What we did was we stopped Ohio State’s attack … If we could NOT have taxed our defence with a similar-type offence, then we would NOT have had a defence to stop THEM.”

Schembechler paused and slapped his lap.

“Now, if they say when we went to the Rose Bowl it wasn’t as good? So what. Our objective was to beat Ohio State and win the Big Ten championship. (It) was the right thing to do, in my judgment. Maybe some say, ‘Well maybe you could have done it a different way.’ Maybe we could have.

“But this is the way we knew — we knew how to do it! We knew how to do it! We knew how to stop ’em!

“Hell’s fire, when we went in at halftime the first year against (top-ranked and two-years-undefeated) Ohio State when it was 24-12 (for Michigan), Jim Young — our defensive coordinator — is pounding on the blackboard: ‘It’s OVER, men. It’s OVER! They cannot POSSIBLY make up the deficit, because they AREN’T going to score AGAIN. Unless we make a mistake, they are NOT going to score again!’

“And he was absolutely right – they didn’t piss a drop the whole second half.”

Now that’s a plan.

 

6. DOES HE HAVE LOCAL RECRUITING CONTACTS?

Unless the new head coach is a well-known national superstar (such as a Nick Saban, or Urban Meyer or Jim Harbaugh) who brings instant recognition and the wow factor to recruits’ living rooms, he’d better know how to harvest the choice fruit from the primary local recruiting orchards.

Here’s a great example. Jim Tressel had been a head coach only at the FCS (nee Division I-AA) level, at Youngstown State, where he overachieved to a high degree (four national championships). That was in Ohio, and he knew every high school football coach that mattered in the whole state. When Ohio State hired him in 2001, Tressel faced no recruiting learning curve whatsoever. He hit the ground running and immediately went about locking up the best Ohio prep stars, year after year. By Carr’s last year at Michigan (2007) Tressel had completely shut off what once had been Michigan’s most bountiful recruiting pipeline of superstar talent (Ohio).

This is why you don’t often see star coaches in one region of the country get big jobs in other regions. Recruiting successfully in unfamiliar territory can take time. In a pressure-packed rebuild-it-now setting of a desperate traditional power, such time isn’t a luxury.

 

7. ATTENTION TO DETAIL

Great head coaches usually are detail freaks: practices planned to the nanosecond (that’s an exaggeration), linemen spaced to the inch (that’s not). Saban sure wasn’t the first of this ilk. It goes back to the 1890s, when college athletics leaders first discovered that teams possessing a coach who knew what the hell he was doing owned a huge advantage over those that didn’t.

A hundred years ago, head coaches would get down and dirty with their players at practice to show them exactly how a play should work. They or their assistants also could dispense a physical penalty for failing to achieve the required precision. Leahy in the ’40s had a Notre Dame assistant who was so merciless in that regard, players called him Capt. Bligh.

All elite head coaches past and present have preached fundamentals and mistake avoidance, at all costs. These men have understood and appreciated, even if many fans still don’t, that football games are lost before they are won — by sloppy play. Precision play in all three facets — offence, defence, special teams — is the goal, and the best head coaches are able to coax, lead, drill, push, shove (whatever) their players closest to it.

You want your success-starved university to win year in and year out? You better have a coach who’s maniacal about paying attention to every detail, who plays smart football and whose players avoid killer mistakes more than their competitors, especially in big games — in whatever systems you choose to run. Losing teams and mediocre teams invariably make more dumb mistakes in games than winning teams.

 

*  *  *

 

Other criteria can be just as crucial at some powerhouse programs. For instance, after outsider John Cooper’s epic failures against arch-rival Michigan in the 1990s, it’s inconceivable that Ohio State any decade soon will hire a head coach who isn’t soaked to the marrow in all things Ohio. Meaning, he must not give a damn for the whole state of Michigan, since he was in diapers.

But the above seven criteria apply to all major U.S. college powers. They’re as universal as they are timeless.

 

 

No decision yet on Johnny Football’s royal ascension + Jim Harbaugh updates from San Fran and Ann Arbor

BROWNS

My photos of Brian Hoyer (left) and Johnny Manziel (I have no idea) pregame on Sunday before Browns-Bills.

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As Johnny Football Fever predictably swept Northeastern Ohio on Monday, it’s still not known whether the money-rubber is the new starting quarterback of the Cleveland Browns.

“(We’re) not ready to make a decision on that at this point,” Browns head coach Mike Pettine said Monday, a day after benching season-long starter Brian Hoyer late in a 26-10 loss at Buffalo, and inserting celebrated hotshot rookie Johnny Manziel.

BILLSManziel promptly led Cleveland on an eight-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, before meekly succumbing to the mighty Bills pass rush on his second drive.

Earlier, Hoyer threw two bad interceptions, took untimely sacks and mustered only three points through three quarters, this on the heels of a few other spotty November performances.

“I’m not leaning one way or the other,” Pettine said. “There’s a lot to consider.”

A decision should come by Wednesday, he said in reiterating what he’d announced after Sunday’s game.

“We will get together as a staff first. Then we get together as coordinators. (GM) Ray (Farmer) is a part of that meeting. We discuss it position by position what potential moves need to be made, if any.”

A clearly upset but admirably defiant Hoyer told reporters Sunday he was shocked by the benching, and he still considered the starting job his.

BILLSBecause he hasn’t been demoted, it was Hoyer’s turn Monday as starting quarterback to face the Cleveland press.

Does he still believe the job is his?

“Yeah, I don’t have any doubt in myself. I never have throughout this entire process, going back to last year.

“We’re 7-5. We still have a chance to attain all of our goals. It’s still there in front of us. That decision’s not up to me though, and I’ll be ready.”

Backup quarterbacks don’t meet the press on Mondays, so Manziel didn’t add to the humble comments he offered Sunday.

“I think that it’s obviously up to coach Pettine and some higher people than me in this organization,” Manziel said. “But if … my name is called, then I definitely will be ready.”

Stay tuned for more fun.

 

COUGHLIN’S RUN DONE?:

Tom Coughlin’s New York Giants can’t buy a break, but neither can they make a play when it counts at the end of ball games.

GIANTSThe Giants have lost seven in a row, after losing six in a row last year at one point. Sunday’s epic collapse in Jacksonville was the nadir: the Giants blew a 21-point lead to the 1-10 Jaguars and lost 25-24.

Coughlin said his message to players on Monday was, “Don’t worry about me. I’m worried about you. I want you to be together and be strong and I want dignity in everything that we do. And I want to see strength.”

How does he feel about the state of his team?

“Miserable. What else can I say? Miserable. But I’m not going to let it get me down.”

Quarterback Eli Manning, who of course contributed to the collapse with a disastrous turnover (a fumble-six), said of Coughlin: “It’s not his fault that we don’t finish games.”

Correct.

 

JIM HARBAUGH UPDATE:

At his first news conference since Thursday, after Seattle smacked his 49ers around, San Fran head coach Jim Harbaugh was asked a bunch of questions about his job status, his future and his relationship with club CEO Jed York. Harbaugh wasn’t going there. Finally asked if he wants to return in 2015 to fulfil the final year of his five-year, $25-million contract in San Fran, Harbaugh said. “What I want is to attack this week and get it right.”

Hmmmm. So often, it’s what they don’t say when given the opportunity that’s most telling.

There continue to be reports that the Niners might trade Harbaugh (yup, it can be done) to another NFL club in the off-season, such as to Oakland or the New York Jets. Don’t bet on it. They’d need Harbaugh’s permission. And those are cluster-firetruck franchises.

Meantime, the University of Michigan is expected to fire head football coach Brady Hoke as early as Tuesday morning. Good luck finding a single fan of the Maize and Blue who doesn’t ache for Harbaugh to “come home” and rescue his alma mater from nearly a decade of sub-standard mediocrity.

The Michigan sports news site TheWolverine.com, which falls under the Rivals.com umbrella, on Monday cited insider sources in reporting that the odds Harbaugh will succeed Hoke at Michigan are a “solid 50-50.”

Harbaugh was an All-American quarterback at Michigan in 1986. Before that, he spent seven years of his youth in Ann Arbor as a diehard Michigan fan while his dad, Jack Harbaugh, coached Wolverine defensive backs under Bo Schembechler.

This almost certainly would be Harbaugh’s last chance to coach his alma mater. He considered it long and hard in 2011 before finally taking the Niners job, reports have said.

 

COLT IT IS:

Redskins head coach Jay Gruden sure doesn’t sound as though he’s second-guessing his decision to start Colt McCoy over RG3 at Indianapolis, even though the Colts (not Colt) won 49-27: “Overall I thought (McCoy) did a nice job in the pocket. He threw for almost 400 yards or right around that, but the start was not very good … I was impressed with his performance as a whole … He did some good things.”

 

EXTRA POINTS:

Chip Kelly said his wounded-winged Eagles QB Nick Foles had a checkup on Friday. “His clavicle is healing but he hasn’t been cleared to play,” Kelly said. “The bone isn’t healed yet.” So expect Mark Sanchez to start against Seattle on Sunday … Bills WR Sammy Watkins hurt a hip against the Browns. Head coach Doug Marrone offered no other information. DT Marcell Dareus appeared to suffer a groin injury (he grabbed there right after it occurred), and the press box even announced he suffered a groin injury, but the team now says it is a hip injury. That could be a real kick in the hip … Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles bruised a knee Sunday night against Denver but should play this week, head coach Andy Reid said … Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians said he didn’t have to give a speech to his team about their awful play in a loss at Atlanta: “The tape is so bad it speaks for itself.”