Why a game with two losing teams Sunday night? Come on now.
Obvious disclaimer: I work for NBC, so if you think that's going to so color my opinion on the game that's being aired in Week 17 Football Night in America, move along. Your call.
For those who stay, a couple of points. One: No teams are excluded from consideration for the final Sunday night game of the year. Networks cannot exercise veto power, as they can in Weeks 11 through 16, on some of their team's games. Two: The NFL has the juice to select the week 17 game. It's not something NBC strongarm. I said all along that the league would pick the game with the biggest playoff implications.
That game, clearly, is St. Louis (7-8) at Seattle (6-9) for the NFC West title Sunday night at Qwest Field in Seattle. It's the only game that you can look at, six days out, and say with certainty that it's a winner-take-all pre-playoff playoff game. And it's the only game, in my mind, that the league could have chosen to remain true to its word of putting the most playoff-significant game on TV in Week 17.
During Weeks 11 through 16, when NBC flexes games, there's no question that viewership has something to do with it. This weekend's choice of Philadelphia-Minnesota was obviously influenced by the raging success of Michael Vick as a TV draw, with the possibility that Brett Favre might play in the game. But in Week 17, all ratings concerns take a back seat to the game that mean the most to the playoff picture.
Overnight, I had scores of Twitter queries asking about three other games. Let's go through them and discuss why they weren't flexed into the Sunday night slot while the Rams-Seahawks was:
Chicago at Green Bay. It's a playoff game for Green Bay, but not for Chicago, which has already clinched the NFC North title -- and which could enter a Sunday night game having clinched the second seed in the playoffs. The NFL could not wait until Wednesday morning to flex out the game, and even if the league did, it would still risk the Bears entering a Sunday night game with nothing to play for because Philadelphia would have finished its game with Dallas before the Sunday-nighter started.
Tampa Bay at New Orleans. An intriguing game -- if the Saints lose tonight. (A Saints win at Atlanta tonight clinches a playoff spot for New Orleans.) But let's say the Saints lose tonight, and we enter next weekend with the scenario that the Saints would have to beat Tampa Bay to be assured of making the playoffs. The only way the Bucs can make the playoffs is if they win in Week 17 and either New York or Green Bay lose. If the Bucs-Saints is the Sunday-nighter, and the Giants or Packers both win earlier in the day, the Bucs would have nothing to play for.
Tennessee at Indianapolis. Other than the fact that the Titans look like your classic mail-it-in team with bags packed for the offseason, the AFC South race has one fatal flaw: If Houston beats Jacksonville earlier in the day, the Colts would be the division champs and have nothing to play for. And when the Colts have nothing to play for, it's Curtis Painter time. And nobody's watching that outside of the state of Indiana. And, come to think of it, probably inside the state too.
One side note: Looks like the league's plan to play all division games in Week 17 has panned out to give us at least one division title game in the last week of the season. Even though it's a title game in the worst division in NFL history, it's still a game where the winner goes on and the loser goes home.
This is a cyclical league. Bad teams get competent. New stars get cycled into the mix every year. Will Sam Bradford ever be a Manning? Who knows? But I think it's good to see new teams get exposure. You're going to be watching Sam Bradford play for a long time (and, from the looks of it, play big games for a long time). This is his first really big one, and it's the one most deserving of a national airing Sunday night -- even though, and I understand why, a lot of you will use the time to catch up on the Food Network episodes you've been DVRing all fall.
Hey Mike: I think President Barack Obama has a crush on you.
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie was surprised to hear the president's voice on the phone. Barack Obama had two things to discuss with Lurie: the redemption of Michael Vick and the alternative-energy plans Lurie unveiled this fall for Lincoln Financial Field. I talked about the Vick story on NBC last night.
"The president wanted to talk about two things, but the first was Michael,'' Lurie told me. "He said, 'So many people who serve time never get a fair second chance. He was ... passionate about it. He said it's never a level playing field for prisoners when they get out of jail. And he was happy that we did something on such a national stage that showed our faith in giving someone a second chance after such a major downfall.''
Lurie said Obama and he talked football. "He's a real football fan,'' Lurie said. "He loves his Bears. He really follows it. He knew how Michael was doing. It was really interesting to hear.''
The Eagles announced last month they would run the first self-sufficient alternative-energy sports stadium in the country. They'll install 80 spiral wind turbines to the stadium and mount 2,500 solar panels. Together, those devices will power about 30 percent of the stadium's energy needs. In addition, a biodiesel plant will be built nearby and that alternative energy source will help power (along with natural gas) the remaining 70 percent of the stadium's power needs. In addition, the project to install all the devices will employ 200 people for a year in, obviously, a down economy.
Over the course of the stadium's life, the team believes it can save $60 million in energy costs. That was big to Lurie, who's aggressively conservation-minded. He told Obama he was happy to put a plan like this in place, but he wouldn't have done it unless it made some financial sense. "It's good business for us, which is the point,'' Lurie said. "We talked about policy and what he hopes can happen with alternative energy, and he raved about us being the first to put a plan like this in place.''
Punters have their say.
The other day, I got into a Twitter spat with Minnesota punter Chris Kluwe (@ChrisWarcraft on Twitter). Kluwe defended Giants punter Matt Dodge for not being able to punt the ball out of bounds; Dodge's inbounds punt eight days ago against Philadelphia resulted in DeSean Jackson returning it for the winning touchdown in the Giants' stunning loss. I criticized Dodge for not being able to do something so elementary, and I defended Tom Coughlin's right to ream the kid out immediately, which he did in full view of the FOX cameras. My points: Punters ought to be able to punt a ball out of bounds 99 out of 100 times, and coaches ought to be able to yell at players who screw up. Anyway, Kluwe and I went at it, and I ended up calling him and offering him a chance to rebut me in MMQB. Not in a name-calling way, but in a way where he'd be able to explain why, in his mind, it's harder to punt it out of bounds than it looks. Here what Kluwe wrote:
Monday night against the Chicago Bears I faced a challenging returner, someone most people consider the best returner ever to play in the NFL, Devin Hester. Just like Matt Dodge the day before, I too was told to punt the ball out of bounds, a game plan we would implement all four quarters. In the first half I was able to execute the plan to perfection with out of bounds punts of 36, 25, 30, and 37 yards. In the second half, even though we were still following the same plan, I mis-hit a punt off the side of my foot. The result: a ball in the field of play and Hester returning it for a touchdown, making NFL history for the most kick or punt returns for touchdown (14) in a career. Allow me to give you a glimpse into the (admittedly very specialized) world of directional punting, and why sometimes even though we do everything we can to get the ball out of bounds it just doesn't make it there.
You have two seconds to catch the snap, take a proper line, position your drop, and then make the ball hit a precise spot 48 yards down the field. Quarterbacks practice like this throwing the ball into a trash can. You have to use your foot. Sound easy? According to many fans and pundits, yes. They would have you believe that punting the football out of bounds, while still maintaining a halfway decent average, is so easy that any one of them could do it given the opportunity.
I have some experience with kicking out of bounds. To get more input, I enlisted the aid of Brad Maynard (the best directional punter currently playing), Jeff Feagles (the best directional punter to ever play), Darren Bennett (all-decade punter for the 1990's) and Adam Podlesh (punter for the Jaguars). Whereas the average NFL punter kicks the ball out of bounds about 10 percent of the time, Feagles and Maynard are outliers, both above 15 percent. Those four men have more 60 years of combined punting knowledge. According to my panel, there are factors to keep in mind, all of which must be executed properly for a successful kick:
1. Body alignment, or where your hips are aimed down field.
2. The drop from your hands to your foot.
3. Weather conditions.
Body alignment begins before the snap. Most punters will set their feet and hips where they want the ball to go, which for an out of bounds kick is about 30 yards down the field to the sideline (since the ball MUST go out of bounds), and then swivel their torso to face the long-snapper. Any discrepancy in the snap requires an adjustment to the ball (which means moving your feet), negating prior aiming. At that point we utilize a fundamental punting technique called "winging it'' and all bets are off regarding where the ball will go.
The drop has to be absolutely consistent every time; any sort of variation in the forward tilt or sideways angle of the ball will cause a corresponding change in where the ball goes once kicked. The split second the ball leaves your hand and before it hits your foot you have absolutely no control over what happens to it, which leads to our third factor.
The weather. Wind is the punter's worst enemy. An inopportune gust can make a mockery of the best plans (just ask Sean Landeta). Good punters will compensate for this by holding the ball as long as possible in windy situations but you'll always have that moment of vulnerability as the ball free falls towards your foot. Also don't forget that you'll have to take the wind into account when you're aiming downfield. Do you aim a little further to avoid a 10-yard punt from a wind gust and risk leaving it in play? Or do you keep your aim the same and hope you get lucky?
Let's say you've successfully negotiated these three hurdles, and actually kicked the ball where you wanted. Congratulations! You just hit a 30-yard punt. If something went wrong (which it so easily can) and the ball happened to go off the side of your foot you've either hit an 18-yard punt or put it into the field of play. Failure.
No team has ever seriously considered kicking the ball out of bounds consistently as a viable punting strategy. If you could kick it 40 yards out of bounds every time, you would make the Pro Bowl every year. So if no team has ever had a punter it's asked to kick the ball consistently out of bounds in almost 30 years, it must be extraordinarily difficult to consistently kick the ball out of bounds where you want it to go. No high school teams practice it, no college teams practice it, and yet somehow once you make it to the NFL you're supposed to have mastered this extremely difficult skill set.
So the next time you yell at the punter, "Kick it out of bounds!'' remember this: It's not quite as easy as it looks.
Opinions on Kluwe's piece are welcome. I've given mine. Tuesday I'll run a couple of yours.