Wow, what an amazing NFL playoff weekend! My head is still spinning from the relentless drama, the big plays, the curious coaching decisions, the dubious officiating. And if you thought the teams were flying into the end zone at a record pace, you were right.
The eight teams combined for 276 points, or 34.5 per game. All eight of them put up at least 28. That’s the most scoring in a four-game divisional playoff round since the current format was instituted at the time of the merger in 1970.
Of course, Buffalo fans experienced that all-too-familar sensation that comes from watching other, more successful franchises compete into January. Yes, it’s that jarring feeling you get when you’re reminded just how far the Bills are from being a legitimate contender.
There’s been a justifiable jolt of optimism lately. I’ve been at the front of the parade, waving from the float of forward thinking and young ideas. The hiring of Doug Marrone and his two coordinators is an encouraging sign, an indication that Russ Brandon is taking the franchise in a fresh direction.
But they haven’t played a game yet, and let’s face it, they’re only coaches.
I didn’t see any coordinators spiking the ball in the end zone over the weekend. The presumed genius of Denver’s Mike McCoy wasn’t all that evident. In the end, it’s about players — more specifically, the quarterback.
Say what you will about quarterback rating. The seven top-rated teams in the NFL all made the playoffs. You know it’s competitive at the game’s most vital position when Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson, who ranked 1-2-4 in QB rating in the regular season, got outplayed in the round of eight.
That leaves us with an intriguing lineup for next week’s conference championship games:
The Pats’ Tom Brady, the best ever, playing in his seventh title game at 35; Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco, products of the 2008 draft, trying to reach their first Super Bowl and erase the lingering doubts; and the Niners’ Colin Kaepernick, 25, who has started eight games in his NFL career.
Buffalo fans can be grateful to Ryan for leading a late, game-winning drive against the Seahawks. Otherwise, the NFC championship game would feature Kaepernick and Russell Wilson, two quarterbacks who were passed over by the Bills in the last two drafts.
I can imagine the tenor of the conversations in the living rooms of Buffalo fans as they watched Wilson — who was drafted in the third round by Seattle last April after the Bills moved up to get T.J. Graham — play so nobly in defeat.
And it must have been equally distressing seeing Kaepernick, who went two picks after the Bills took cornerback Aaron Williams in the 2011 draft, rush for a record 181 yards and throw for 263 in his first career playoff start against Green Bay.
The Bills weren’t the only ones to miss on Wilson and Kaepernick, dynamic runners who didn’t fit the conventional mold of the statuesque pocket passer. They’re cutting edge players, evidence that NFL coaches are finally moving away from a one-dimensional prototype of the franchise QB.
Suffice it to say, the Bills were well behind the curve. Buddy Nix failed to draft a successor of any kind to the marginal Ryan Fitzpatrick, and now he and his scouting cronies are feeling the pressure to catch up.
Presumably, Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett, his 33-year-old offensive coordinator, will have a big say in drafting the next franchise quarterback. It’s hard to have faith in Nix, who was apparently too locked into old-school thinking to see the possibilities of Kaepernick and Wilson. And if Doug Whaley is such a rising star, where was he during the process?
The experts say this isn’t a good year for quarterbacks. OK, there’s probably no Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III in this college class, but who can say there won’t be another Wilson or Kaepernick out there, or someone like Flacco, who went 18th overall out of Delaware five years ago?
Does the success of Wilson and Kaepernick prove the science of drafting franchise QBs has changed? If the NFL is moving away from a narrow model, does that mean you don’t necessarily have to get one near the top of the draft? Are there more out there than conventional wisdom suggests?
Or were those two guys flukes, deviations from the norm? The great fear for Bills fans is that the NFL just went through a hot cycle for quarterbacks. The law of averages says the cycle will swing back and the next batch will be more pedestrian – just in time for Buffalo to take one.
That makes it even more urgent to get it right in the draft. Marrone and Hackett have been around the college game. They’ve seen prospects running modern, high-tempo offenses. The question is whether they can translate college talent to the NFL any better than the Bills have done for a decade.
Maybe the Syracuse mafia will push for their guy, Ryan Nassib. Nassib made great strides at SU. He ran a no-huddle attack as a senior and set school passing records for an offense that averaged 30 points a game.
It’s a little too cozy. Marrone and Hackett enjoyed their greatest college triumphs with Nassib as their quarterback. You could argue that if not for Nassib, they wouldn’t have been in the position to get NFL jobs at this point in their careers. It might cause them to see Nasib in too positive a light.
Then again, Nassib is rated about the fifth-best quarterback in this year’s draft class. Kaepernick and Wilson weren’t rated even that high coming out of college. It’s an inexact science, and sometimes you have to get lucky.
But watching the weekend games drove home the essential point: The Bills are playing catchup at quarterback. They need to get the right guy, and fast.