AROUND THE NFL
The 15 Hall of Fame Finalists are announced. Barry Wilner of the AP:
Reggie Wayne and Troy Polamalu are among 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s modern-day 2020 class.
The former Colts receiver and Steelers safety are joined by five others who have never been finalists: Packers safety LeRoy Butler; Rams receiver Torry Holt; Panthers linebacker Sam Mills; Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas; and 49ers defensive tackle Bryant Young.
They are joined by past finalists Broncos/Jets safety Steve Atwater; Jaguars tackle Tony Boselli; Rams/49ers receiver Isaac Bruce; Steelers/Jets/Cardinals guard Alan Faneca; Seahawks/Vikings/Titans guard Steve Hutchinson; Colts/Cardinals/Seahawks running back Edgerrin James; Buccaneers/Broncos safety John Lynch; and Patriots/Raiders defensive lineman Richard Seymour.
These 15 will be considered for selection on Feb. 1 in Miami. A player must receiver 80% of votes from the selection committee. A maximum of five modern-day players can be chosen.
For the first time this year, the Hall of Fame also is adding 10 senior candidates, three contributors and two coaches to be inducted in the Canton, Ohio, shrine in August. That is a special selection in celebration of the NFL’s 100th season.
Lynch, now the general manager of the San Francisco 49ers, is a finalist for the seventh time. Faneca is a fifth-time finalist, while Boselli, Bruce and James are in their fourth year making the finals. Atwater and Hutchinson have done so three times, Seymour twice.
The class of 2020 will be introduced during NFL Honors, when The Associated Press announces its NFL individual awards winners, on the evening of Feb. 1 on Fox.
The entire 20-person class of 2020 will be on hand for the enshrinement week in Canton. Modern-era players along with contributors and coaches will be formally enshrined on Saturday, Aug. 8. The 10 seniors will have their own inductions the week of Sept. 16-19.
With all due respect to Butler, Mills, Thomas and Bryant Young, we think Ronde Barber’s career better qualifies him for inclusion.
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The DB has an awful history with playoff picks, but we endure.
In the AFC, Houston will get by Buffalo, but how about Tennessee will end the great Brady Era.
In the NFC, home teams win – New Orleans with some ease, Philadelphia in a close Seattle special.
Juan Castillo, a blast from Andy Reid’s past, is the new offensive line coach in Chicago. Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune:
Bears coach Matt Nagy moved quickly Wednesday to fill a vacancy on his staff, hiring veteran coach Juan Castillo to oversee the offensive line.
Two sources with knowledge of the situation confirmed the news, which was first reported by NFL Network and not announced by the Bears.
Castillo replaces Harry Hiestand, who was fired Tuesday along with three other assistant coaches. Nagy also dismissed offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, tight ends coach Kevin Gilbride and assistant special teams coach Brock Olivo. Nagy made those changes after the Bears finished 29th in the NFL in scoring and total offense.
Castillo, 60, was the Eagles offensive line coach in 2008 when Nagy got his first NFL job as an Eagles coaching intern. Castillo served as the Eagles offensive line coach from 1998-2010, at which time he became their defensive coordinator for two seasons.
Between 2013-2018, Castillo held offensive line coach and running-game coordinator titles with the Ravens and Bills. The Bills fired him after the 2018 season, and he did not coach in the NFL this season.
It was not immediately clear whether Nagy would give Castillo the title of running-game coordinator or, perhaps, use that to make the offensive coordinator vacancy more attractive.
One challenge for Nagy in finding a coordinator is that he is the play-caller and lead offensive coach. Whoever takes the job will do so knowing their stamp on the offense will not include that coveted play-calling role.
Helfrich’s duties included oversight of the running game, which ranked 29th in the NFL in yards per carry. Meanwhile, the Bears finished last in yards per pass and 31st in yards per play.
Hiestand also was heavily involved in coaching the running game by nature of his position group. General manager Ryan Pace views the offensive line’s poor season in 2019 as central to the offense’s regression.
In addition to the Bears’ 3.7 yards-per-carry average, their sacks-to-pass-attempts ratio increased from 6.5% (10th in the NFL) in 2018 to 7.8% (21st).
“We know (offensive success) starts up front with those guys,” Pace said Tuesday. “That’s something we’ve really got to look at. From a personnel standpoint, we’re going to look at it. From a schematic standpoint, we’re going to look at it. That was real this year. That hurt us.”
The Vikings should have RB DALVIN COOK good to go Sunday in New Orleans. Courtney Cronin of ESPN.com:
Not many NFL teams can boast about how healthy they are come playoff time, so the situation in which the Minnesota Vikings find themselves — with all of their offensive starters in line to play the Saints in New Orleans on wild-card weekend — is a luxury.
Running back Dalvin Cook, who took a hit to his left shoulder/chest area that sidelined him for the final two games of the regular season, said he’ll be at full strength for Sunday’s game.
“I wouldn’t put a percentage on it,” Cook said. “If I were whatever percent, I’d be out there on Sunday. So I’m gonna be ready to go, I’m gonna be at full strength, and I’m looking forward to a good football game.”
“I definitely feel refreshed,” Cook said.
It has been more than two months since the Vikings’ offense was at full strength. The last time Minnesota could tap into its wealth of skill players was Week 6 in a win over Philadelphia. The following week, wide receiver Adam Thielen went down with a hamstring injury in the first quarter at Detroit, and it took him until Week 15 to fully recover.
But as the Vikings got one player back, they lost another. Cook went down against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 15. He was a full participant at practice on Wednesday for the first time since the week leading into the Chargers game. Backup running back Alexander Mattison, who suffered a high right ankle sprain in Week 14, was also back on the practice field for the first time since early December.
With the NFC North in play against Green Bay and Cook and Mattison ruled out, the Vikings rushed for 57 yards as a team in a 23-10 loss. Having both players back entering a must-win situation might be exactly what this offense needs to get back on track amid a two-game losing skid.
“It’s never a good feeling when you don’t have a complete team or don’t have all your guys out there,” Mattison said. “Even if it’s one guy or two guys or a handful of guys, that can make a big difference. Hopefully us being back is big.”
Added Cook: “We’ve got two different things going on, but I’ve been encouraging him [Mattison], and he’s been encouraging me. Being in the training room a lot, it can kind of take a toll on your mind and mess with your mental a little bit. I know Alex is a young guy, so I kind of push him through it and make sure he’s here every day. Alex has been doing a great job of getting on top of his rehab.”
Cook has reiterated that he’ll “be ready to go” throughout the week and said his status for the postseason has never been in doubt.
“There ain’t nothing that’s going to hold me out,” Cook said. “Just get healthy, get strong and get back on the field.”
Minnesota linebacker Eric Kendricks, who is dealing with an injury to his quad, did not practice Wednesday, nor did cornerback Mackensie Alexander (knee), safety Andrew Sendejo (illness) and defensive end Stephen Weatherly (illness).
Andrew Bucholtz of AwfulAnnouncing.com on the odd way Daniel Snyder began the press conference that introduced Ron Rivera:
The Washington Redskins have long been cited as a franchise that doesn’t appear to understand what year it is, and owner Dan Snyder appeared to play into that Thursday. At a press conference to introduce new head coach Ron Rivera, Snyder opened up with “Good afternoon. First of all, Happy Thanksgiving to everybody.”
This was on Jan. 2, 35 days after Thanksgiving 2019 and 329 days to Thanksgiving 2020. Amazingly, though, none of the reporters in the room appear to have had much of a reaction, and Snyder just rolled right into “Today is the beginning of a great New Year for the Redskins’ organization and its fans.”
Mike Jones of USA TODAY on what’s next:
Daniel Snyder got his guy, as always.
The Washington Redskins owner has a track record of sealing the deal once he locks in on a desired target. By Wednesday, he had finalized a deal to hire Ron Rivera, one of the top veteran coaching candidates on the market.
That was the easy part. Now comes the hard part.
Details on the new power structure at Redskins Park, or Rivera’s coaching staff weren’t immediately available, and could take some time to complete.
But with Rivera in place, Snyder, who has witnessed only six winning seasons and just five playoff appearances since he purchased the team in 1999, must now return to the background in order for the organization to succeed. Snyder must withhold input and let Rivera execute this mission.
For the last six years, Snyder largely sat back and let Bruce Allen run the franchise into the ground. His fault was believing Allen, who had no successful résumé as a top decision maker, knew what he was doing.
Now, Snyder must let Rivera — a proven, winning football coach and leader — do what he is hired to do: rescue Washington from years of futility and rebuild them into a consistent playoff team, something the Redskins haven’t experienced in nearly 30 years.
Rivera knows a thing or two about reclamation projects. When he took the Carolina Panthers head coaching position in 2011, the team he inherited was coming off of a 2-14 season and had made the playoffs just once in five years.
There’s far more damage to undo in Washington, but the same approach will work if Rivera is given a chance.
Former players praise Rivera because of the way he carries himself and the respect he commands and the trust that he cultivates. He stresses character and accountability. He demands hard work and consistency, and that goes beyond lip service.
This is exactly the kind of culture that Washington’s players need.
Trust isn’t something that Redskins players have often had – not always in each other, not entirely in their coaches and not in upper management.
There’s always a power struggle at play, and questions abound about who’s really in charge. It’s hard for a franchise to move toward a common goal when those within can’t even get on the same page.
The Redskins’ position groups haven’t even worked with the same level of commitment. Part of the problem under Jay Gruden, who was fired in October after an 0-5 start, was the fact that things were too lax. Some players thought so little of Gruden and his assistants that they publicly called them out for the slack hand with which they ruled.
Interim coach Bill Callahan tried to correct some of this by directing more demanding practices. But it takes more than a couple months to change a culture. Snyder has been accused of complacency in recent years. But this week, he wisely recognized that a complete reset was needed.
Another stumbling block for Washington has involved talent acquisition and implementation.
The coaching staff and Allen weren’t always on the same page regarding which players to sign, cut or keep. And at times, Snyder and Allen’s infatuation with certain players meant talent didn’t always align with the vision of the coaches. As a result, skilled players floundered as ill-fitting pieces of the Redskins’ puzzle.
Rivera appears to be in line to have final say over his roster, something that no Snyder-hired coach outside of Joe Gibbs has had. It’s unclear if Rivera will bring in a general manager or work with the existing members of Washington’s front office, including vice president of football operations Eric Schaffer and vice president of player personnel Doug Williams, who are both well-respected around the NFL. But either way, the only way for this restoration project to succeed is for Rivera to convey his vision clearly and for his talent evaluators to operate accordingly.
When players understand the chain of command, it’s easier for them to respect authority and buy into the mission statement.
Rivera inherits a young roster that boasts talent at many key positions. However, those players remain in need of development and refinement. They still must learn what standards they must adhere to. And they require coaches who can identify their strengths and help them reach their highest potentials.
That’s another problem the Redskins have encountered. Drafting talent is not a problem. The Redskins and their fans have seen early- to mid- and late-round picks flash over the years. But many times, those same players struggle to capitalize on their ability. Washington’s decision-makers or coaches frequently have written off those players only to see them go elsewhere and flourish.
Rivera and his staff must end this trend. Around the NFL, winning franchises excel at building their roster with homegrown talent. Sure, a free agent signing might put a team over the top. But the core of that team is built through draft picks the coaching staff grooms into mainstays.
Former players credit Rivera for knowing how to get the most out of his roster, and that’s certainly necessary for this Redskins group, which Snyder hopes can be built around 2019 first-round quarterback Dwayne Haskins.
Part of the appeal of Rivera was the discipline he is known for instilling within a locker room. It’s important, then, for Snyder to let Rivera do just that. Far too often, he has found it hard to avoid undermining his coaches by developing friendships with his players.
But if Snyder truly wants his team to finally return to glory — if he sincerely wants the long-running bouts with dysfunction to cease and for Washington to no longer rank among the laughing stocks of the league — he must keep his distance and let Rivera fully lead.
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One thing that the DB thinks is telling about the Redskins is they have not had an “excellent” or even “very good” season since 1991 when they went 14-2 under Joe Gibbs and won the Super Bowl.
In the 28 seasons since then, they have gone to the playoffs six times which is not awful. They rank 25th with 187 wins in that span, but there are four teams that have come into existence since then (the Ravens and Panthers have more wins despite fewer years). Of the teams in existence in 1992, five have fewer wins than the Redskins (Cardinals, Raiders, Bengals, Lions and Browns).
Like the Lions, Browns and Bengals, they have never advanced as far as the Conference Championship game.
And this is where they are unique, they have never won more than 10 games.
In that period of 28 seasons, the Redskins are the only team not to have a single season with as many as 11 wins. The Browns and Lions have at least had one, the Cardinals, Texans and Jets have had two, the Buccaneers, Bills and Raiders have had three.
There have been a total of 193 seasons with 11+ wins, an average of 6.2 for the other 31 teams, topped by 17 for the Patriots and 13 for the Steelers.
You need a really good 11-5, 12-4 or better type season at least once a decade to keep the fan base happy. Washington is closing in on three decades without one.
Owner Jimmy Haslam downplays the chances that Urban Meyer will be arriving soon to save the Browns. Rob Goldberg of Bleacher Report:
Despite reports linking the Cleveland Browns with former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, owner Jimmy Haslam appears to be looking in another direction for the team’s next head coach.
“Right now we’re just focusing on people with NFL coaching experience,” Haslam said Thursday, per Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com.
Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports previously reported the Browns have “strong interest” in Meyer, who retired after the 2018 season.
While Meyer has been one of the most successful college football coaches in the past two decades, he has never spent time in the NFL.
It would be a surprise to completely rule out a coach who won three national championships at the college level, but NFL experience could be a good place to start after a disappointing 2019 season.
QB JACOBY BRISSETT did not do enough in 2019 to gain an unbridled vote of confidence going forward. Nick Shook of NFL.com:
The Indianapolis Colts descended back to the morass of NFL teams not in the playoffs, but also not in a full-blown rebuild in 2019.
A big reason for their decline: quarterback play. The Colts were forced to adjust on the fly, thanks to Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement, and Jacoby Brissett’s struggle-filled second half of the season had general manager Chris Ballard answering serious questions about the future at the position Thursday.
“Jacoby did some good things and I don’t want to just look at the second half of the season and say he didn’t ’cause Jacoby did some good things,” Ballard said. “I think as a whole, one: Our passing, not just the quarterback position but our passing game has to improve unequivocally. That has to get better. You have to be able to throw the football to win in this league. I think we all know that.
“I think the jury’s still out, that’s why we did the short-term deal with Jacoby. Both from a standpoint of, one, to give us some security that we knew we had a player we liked and could go forward with but also, two, to see, time for us to figure out if he is the guy or not. Jacoby did a lot of good things. He also did some things I think he would tell you he needs to get better at but it’s a constant evaluation.”
Brissett’s play was passable at worst in 2019, a season in which he assembled his best passer rating (88) of his career and accounted for 22 total touchdowns (18 passing, four rushing). But after Brissett suffered a knee injury in early November, the Colts generally struggled to do much of anything right, losing seven of their final nine to go from 5-2 to 7-9.
Brissett only missed a game and a half with the injury, but it seemed to be the issue that started the avalanche. When the quarterback was able to fight through the injury to return, he frequently found himself with a thinned-out receiving corps. T.Y. Hilton was only able to appear in 10 games, and second-round pick Parris Campbell was even less available, battling multiple injuries to play in seven games as a rookie.
Add in injuries to depth players like Chester Rogers and Daurice Fountain, and a season-opening (and season-ending) collarbone injury to free-agent addition Devin Funchess, and you’ve got a decimated receiving corps. That — and a lengthy injury to bellcow back Marlon Mack — will only make the going tougher for Brissett.
“We’ve got to help him, we got to help him with better weapons at times and Frank’s got to help him schematically and then Jacoby’s got to help himself by playing better in specific spots,” Ballard said.
Per Ballard, one of those 2020 weapons will not be TE ERIC EBRON. Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:
Eric Ebron arrived in Indianapolis in 2018 and had an outstanding season, scoring 14 touchdowns and looking like one of the best tight ends in football. In 2019, things didn’t go as well, and in 2020, Ebron will be elsewhere.
When asked about Ebron today, Colts General Manager Chris Ballard said, “We’ll probably move on,” and then quickly moved on to the next question. Ballard’s curt tone made clear that he’s done with Ebron and doesn’t even want to talk about him anymore.
Ebron was less productive in Year Two in Indianapolis than he had been in Year One, and then he surprised the Colts by telling them in November that he couldn’t bear the pain in his ankle anymore and needed to shut it down for the season. Ebron, who becomes a free agent in March, appeared to be making a business decision.
The 26-year-old Ebron has a lot of talent, and he’ll have options in free agency. But he won’t have the option to remain in Indianapolis.
THIS AND THAT
FINAL AIKMAN RATINGS
The Raven head into the playoffs as the 2019 champion of the Aikman Combined Efficiency Ratings. With a final rating of 173.4, they go into the postseason 5.2 points ahead of the second place Patriots.
Despite some late season struggles, New England maintained a 4.0-point advantage over the 3rd-place 49ers who led a cluster of five tightly-bunched teams.
The Ravens faltered in Week 17 with a 74.1 Aikman Offense Game Rating against the Steelers – and it cost them a piece of history. They drop to 99.7 in Aikman Offense and will rank 2nd in Aikman Offense history (since 1995) just 0.1 behind the 99.8 of the 2013 Broncos.
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The Aikman Combined Ratings usually identify the teams with the most wins on the year – and that was largely the case in 2019 with 10 of the top 11 Aikman teams making the playoffs and the top Aikman team in each conference getting the top seed.
There were two major outliers – both from Texas. The Cowboys ended the season in 4th place in Aikman Combined despite their 8-8 record. It should be noted that the Cowboys were 6th in point differential at +113 and 2nd in yards margin and a decent 18th in turnover differential. The Cowboys high Aikman Combined rating has a lot to do with their ability to win big and lose close.
On the other hand, the Texans went 10-6 and won the AFC South despite finishing 20th in the Aikman Combined. We will see how they do in the playoffs with a defense ranked 31st in Aikman Defense (and 28th by the NFL’s yards only method). The Texans were 8-3 on the year in one-score games.
The fact that the Seahawks lagged a bit behind the other playoffs teams is not surprising. Seattle was 10-2 in one-score games.
——- Aikman ——- ——— NFL ——–
Rank W-L Team Comb Off Def Off Def Comb
1 14-2 Ravens 173.4 98.7 74.7 2 4 6
2 12-4 Patriots 167.9 82.1 85.8 15 1 16
3 13-3 49ers 163.9 88.1 75.8 4 2 6
4 8-8 Cowboys 163.0 92.6 70.4 1 9 10
5 10-6 Vikings 162.2 87.1 75.1 16 14 30
6 13-3 Saints 161.9 92.0 69.9 9 11 20
7 12-4 Chiefs 160.7 90.1 70.6 6 17 23
8 9-7 Eagles 157.8 87.4 70.5 14 10 24
9 13-3 Packers 157.6 86.1 71.5 18 18 36
10 10-6 Bills 156.6 80.2 76.4 24 3 27
11 9-7 Titans 156.0 88.9 67.1 12 21 33
12 7-9 Buccaneers 154.7 82.3 72.4 3 15 18
13 11-5 Seahawks 154.2 87.8 66.4 8 26 34
14 7-9 Colts 153.2 84.9 68.2 25 16 41
15 9-7 Rams 151.9 84.3 67.7 7 13 20
16 7-9 Broncos 148.2 74.8 73.5 28 12 40
17 7-9 Falcons 147.6 82.4 65.2 5 20 25
18 8-8 Bears 146.9 75.0 71.9 29 8 37
19 8-8 Steelers 146.2 67.8 78.4 30 5 35
20 10-6 Texans 146.1 87.5 58.6 13 28 41
21 5-11 Chargers 145.6 79.6 66.0 10 6 16
22 6-10 Browns 143.4 80.2 63.2 22 22 44
23 3-12 Lions 143.0 81.5 61.5 17 31 48
24 7-9 Raiders 142.0 82.1 59.9 11 19 30
25 5-10 Cardinals 141.1 81.8 59.3 21 32 53
26 4-12 Giants 140.8 77.3 63.5 23 25 48
27 7-9 Jets 139.2 67.9 71.3 32 7 39
28 6-10 Jaguars 138.1 75.6 62.4 20 24 44
29 5-11 Panthers 135.5 76.0 59.5 19 23 42
30 2-14 Bengals 135.1 71.7 63.4 26 29 55
31 3-13 Redskins 132.5 72.3 60.2 31 27 58
32 5-11 Dolphins 131.7 74.6 57.1 27 30 57
NFL Average: 81.9 68.0
Sam Wyche, a coach with a unique skill set including magic tricks, has passed away at age 74.
Here is a good remembrance from Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com:
For Boomer Esiason, the day Sam Wyche’s life ended the stories were endless.
From the day of Esiason’s first NFL practice, Wyche told him he knew he was disappointed he wasn’t a first-round pick. But Wyche, the Bengals’ first-year head coach, thought he was not only a first-rounder but that Esiason could be a great quarterback and he was in the absolutely perfect place.
To the December Sunday Wyche ran across the Riverfront Stadium turf to steal a microphone and utter himself into lore “You don’t live in Cleveland, you live in Cincinnati,” is the NFL’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death.”
From the Monday he stripped off his sweat suit to give to the player of the game David Fulcher and how he spoke to the team standing in only a jock and a tin-foil necklace made by his loyal assistant Sandy Schick bearing the letters of Fulcher’s nickname “FulRock,” the one on Fulcher’s real chain.
To the day Wyche told Esiason in order to run his prized no huddle offense he had to learn not only every nook and cranny of it, but Esiason also had to learn how the coaches spoke to each other and how he would never, ever allow him to wear a wrist band. He had to know it and so he barraged Esiason with daily quizzes of formations, tendencies and personnel groups.
“He had a way of making you feel really good about yourself,” Esiason said Thursday, not long after learning Wyche didn’t make it out of one of his typically fast and furious fights, this one with melanoma. “He was one of a kind.”
So Esiason, who three decades ago ran Wyche’s cutting-edge offense so well he was named the NFL’s MVP of 1988, returned the favor when he texted Wyche’s daughter Kerry something like this:
“Your Dad made me into the NFL quarterback I became. He entrusted his own brainchild, the no huddle offense, to me and to nobody else. I’ll always be eternally grateful for that.”
“A sad day,” Esiason said. “Heartbreaking,” is what Esiason’s fellow Super Bowl Bengal Stanford Jennings called it. Gone three days before turning 75, Wyche guaranteed surviving in stories as long as they play in the NFL.
“You have to remember this, too,” said former Bengals safety Solomon Wilcots, one of their Super Bowl teammates. “He not only came up with the no huddle, but when he was coaching quarterbacks with the 49ers, he developed one of the greatest who ever lived in Joe Montana.”
Bob Trumpy, the game’s first modern tight end on those first Bengals teams that gave us the first glimpse of the 21st century game, broke into the league and life with Wyche in 1968.They were still laughing and pranking each other last Friday, when Bob and Pat Trumpy, dear friends of Sam and Jane Wyche for these 51 years, visited them at the Wyches’ ranch in Jane’s hometown of Pickens, S.C., where Wyche would pass on Thursday. Sam, near the end and losing so much weight, wanted to go out and get a steak and tried to put his shoes on over his slippers.
“You’re not contagious, are you?” Trumpy had barked when he walked in and he got one of Sam’s crooked smiles. It was the only way Trumpy could greet the guy he says had the “wickedest,” sense of humor he ever felt.
“You can say and there is consensus that Paul Brown revolutionized the game. You can say and there is consensus that Bill Walsh advanced the game with the West Coast offense,” Trumpy said of the man that founded those Bengals and his trusted offensive assistant. “And you have to say there is consensus that Sam did the same thing.
“I mean, you can’t watch a high school, college or NFL game and see them using the no huddle and not say, ‘That’s what Sam started all those years ago.’”
Anthony Munoz, the greatest Bengal of them all who played eight of his 13 Hall-of-Fame seasons for Wyche at left tackle and would have played a 14th for him in another city if his body held up, remembered the Wednesdays on Thursday.
“Sunday afternoons were fun,” Munoz said. “I mean we could open it up. But we could also get down and dirty and average five yards a run. I’m biased, but I still haven’t seen an offensive line and quarterback run the play-action pass the way we did.”
But it was the Wednesdays of the late ‘80s that Munoz remembered on Thursday and how Wyche and his coaching staff of coordinator Bruce Coslet, line coach Jim McNally, running backs coach Jim Anderson and tight ends coach Tiger Johnson had put together some fail safe game plan.
“You knew that these guys knew what they were doing,” Munoz said. “It gave you so much confidence. All you knew was you just had to go out and execute it.”
Like Esiason, Wilcots was thinking about his first NFL minicamp. Straight out of Bill McCartney’s button-down program at Colorado, where it didn’t grow warm and fuzzy, Wilcots had no idea what to expect in the pros. After that weekend there was Wyche pulling aside Wilcots, an eighth-round pick.
“He told me, ‘Look, I don’t know what happened, but you can play. Just relax and it’s going to work out for you,’” Wilcots said. “He’s a guy that led from in front. He didn’t lie to you or try to make you think he was doing this when he was doing that. He came right out and told you, ‘I need you do to do this, I need you to do that.’”
Bengals president Mike Brown always remembered his father saying about Wyche, “He had ideas.” Paul Brown could give no greater compliment. It was Mike Brown who signed Wyche as a back-up quarterback and as a Super Bowl head coach, and on Thursday he remembered a Tuesday. The Christmas Eve Tuesday of 1991. That meeting that went off the rails somewhere and Wyche either got fired or quit.
They settled weeks later and it never shook the 50-year friendship of Jane Wyche and Nancy Brown. They came in together with the Bengals. Jane and Nancy and Pat Trumpy and Kelly Stofa. Always and still friends.
“I regret it, really. He got over it. I got over it. We stayed friends for decades after,” Brown said. “Sam was smart, funny, generous. He believed what he believed and he told you and the world in general.”
On the last day, Esiason, and it always gets back to Esiason when it is about Wyche, was thinking about the first days. How he met Wyche before the draft at his high school on Long Island in 1984, both eager as the spring about new jobs and the wind whipping their faces and Esiason splitting the blustery ocean cold with the football as Wyche gently warmed him up with kind words.
After the draft, he had just turned 23 when he walked out of that first Spinney Field meeting with Wyche.
Wyche and Esiason were always connected the eight years they were together.
“What I didn’t understand, what I didn’t know is that Sam was in that room with Bruce Coslet. Jimmy McNally and Jimmy Anderson were in that room,” Esiason said. “What I didn’t know is that my man Tiger Johnson was in that room and Paul Brown was upstairs. You think back to how good that coaching staff was. You find out when you go to pastures that aren’t as green as you think.”
On Thursday, it was Wyche. Last week it was Don Imus. Both men he worked with and learned from in his fields. Esiason, the no huddle king, is now in his fourth decade as one of America’s more recognizable no nonsense radio and television voices. It’s days like Thursday when a 58-year-old man who just found out he’s going to be a grandfather takes stock.
“When you lose someone like Sam,” Esiason said. “He had such an incredible impact on you that you don’t realize until your 58 years old just how great you had it. I think I speak for a lot of my teammates.”
On Thursday Esiason remembered how the days with Sam were fun. That’s what it was the Sunday Wyche grabbed the mike at Riverfront to stop them from throwing snowballs and he said the thing about Cleveland and Cincinnati.
“I never knew there was a microphone on the field. Did you?’ Esiason asked. “He runs across the field and all of a sudden he’s yelling at the fans and I say, ‘What the hell is the microphone doing on the field?’”
Then there was the Monday night in Seattle Wyche banned women reporters from the locker room and Wyche pulling Esiason out of the shower and telling him he had to talk to the lady from USA Today outside the door.
“Hey Sam, this isn’t the 1920s. We’ve had that fight,” Esiason remembers telling him. “But it didn’t matter. Then the next week in L.A. with every female reporter in the country there, he stands up in his press conference in a towel wrapped around his waist and no shirt.”
There’s no question about it. Esiason feels Wyche pulled a lot of his stunts in an effort to keep the heat off his players and on him.
“A hundred percent. A hundred percent,” Esiason said. “He was always distracting the media. It was always something else.”
It always came down to that sense of humor Trumpy saw for 50 years and Esiason saw at the worst of times. When Wyche’s promising broadcasting career was cut short two decades ago in a surgery gone wrong. Or when his heart failed and three years ago his transplant came at the last minute.
“He’d say something like, ‘I hope this heart is bigger than my last one,’ or something like that. Always cracking jokes no matter what,” Esiason said.
Wyche never turned down Esiason when he needed something for his crusade to find a cure for cystic fibrosis. And that wasn’t surprising. On Thursday, Esiason remembered Wyche reaching out to the homeless on those Sunday mornings of a game and how the people of Pickens revere what he put back into their community with his volunteer work on and off the high school football field.
“He made life very good for lot of people and tried to help everyone he could,” Esiason said. “With his first and second heart.”
Wyche was 87-109 as a head coach – 8 years with Cincinnati, 4 with Tampa Bay.
And then when the NFL stuff was over, he spent 14 seasons as an assistant coach at Pickens High School.
The DB was with Sam Wyche for his four years with the Buccaneers – and like everyone who spent time around him, we liked and admired him even as his sudden changes of direction could exasperate. We flew with him in his private plane, we watched him ride his motorcycle, we changed the charter flights to road games at the last minute, we listened to his rollicking press conferences, we knew his wife and kids, we watched him give kids trinkets from his desk shortly before he was going to be fired, we even had a tiny role in getting him hired in Tampa Bay.
A man who needed two hearts to keep up with. Godspeed, Sam.