The AFC and NFC championship games are set, with Jacksonville and New England in the AFC, and Minnesota and Philadelphia in the NFC. Perhaps the most exciting play of the weekend came in the last second of the final divisional matchup. Minnesota QB Case Keenum found Stefon Diggs on a third down play with only seconds remaining in the game and no timeouts. After a missed tackle by the Sains Marcus Williams, Diggs managed to stay inbounds and run in for the score to send the Vikings to their first NFC Championship game since 2009.
The story of the weekend — though the credit goes to the players for the on-field execution (or lack thereof) of play calling — may be the play-calling of head coaches and offensive coordinators. Questionnable calls from Pittsburgh in the last two minutes of their game against Jacksonville were baffling, I think it surprised everyone that Jacksonville and Blake Bortles managed to put up 45 points against the Steelers. Steve Sarkisian, the Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator who replaced Kyle Shanahan at the end of last season, couldn’t manage to call any plays that suited the Matt Ryan offense. How do the Falcons go from Super Bowl appearance to losing to a Philadelphia team who lost it’s starting quarterback? It will be interesting to see if Dan Quinn shakes up his staff.
Speaking of coaching shake ups, Brian Daboll, former tight ends coach for New England, who just won a national championship as Alabama’s offensive coordinator in his first season on Nick Saban’s staff, was named offensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. It’s surprising to see Saban be out an offensive coordinator once again, but it’ll be interesting to see what Daboll can bring to the table on Sean McDermott’s staff. Mark Helfrich is the new Chicago Bears offensive coordinator. After speculation that he would make a return to college football, the former Oregon Ducks head coach (who served as Chip Kelly’s offensive coordinator prior to him leaving for the NFL) will make his return to the sidelines after a year as an ESPN analyst.
Jon Gruden was officially re-hired as the Oakland Raiders head coach — though the Raiders and owner Mark Davis are under investigation by the league for potentially having violated the Rooney Rule.
Let’s talk about the Rooney Rule. Established by the NFL in 2003, the Rooney Rule requires all franchises seeking a new head coach and/or general manager to interview minority candidates before filling their vacancies. In the case of the Raiders, when Mark Davis said at Gruden’s introductory press conference that he had met with Gruden on Christmas Eve and believed he had the hiring in the bag, the NFL questioned whether or not the Raiders followed the Rooney Rule. Though they interviewed their tight ends coach and Tee Martin (USC’s offensive coordinator), the question is whether or not the minority coaches they interviewed were ever considered.
Whether or not the Rooney Rule has improved the chances for minority coaches and executives to be hired — I think it is questionable. Making it a requirement to interview a minority may just make those being interviewed feel that they’re getting a few hours of time so that the franchises have met the requirements of the league. Currently, in the NFL, there are six minority NFL head coaches (Hue Jackson, Marvin Lewis, Todd Bowles, Vance Joseph, Mike Tomlin, and Anthony Lynn), while four teams remain without a head coach.
Nick Saban has made it clear: he is the greatest college football coach of his time, and may go down as the best ever. Here’s the thing about Nick Saban, his move to bench Jalen Hurts for the second half of the national championship game against Georgia (and replace him with freshman QB Tua Tagovailoa) isn’t something you’d see from guys like Urban Meyer or Dabo Swinney, maybe not even Jim Harbaugh. Saban does whatever it takes to win football games, and that starts with his recruiting process, continues in his on field coaching style at practices (not just towards players, but how he “coaches up” his assistant coaches). When Lane Kiffin worked as Saban’s offensive coordinator, there was a game in 2016 where Saban was caught on camera laying into Kiffin with some choice language on the sidelines. Saban has created a dynasty at Alabama. Yes, there is the argument against SEC teams in that they only play eight conference games as opposed to conferences like the Big10 who play nine (and often, play low-calibre non-conference opponents, like the Citadel). But despite the creampuff non-conference opponents that SEC teams tend to schedule, no SEC team has done what Alabama has done in the past decade.
It would be hard to imagine an Alabama team without Nick Saban, and while many speculate that his eventual replacement will be Dabo Swinney, it’s hard to imagine anyone ever being able to fill his shoes. The Crimson Tide have seen unprecedented success, have been home to two of the greatest coaches ever (Saban and Bear Bryant), and don’t look to be slowing down anytime soon.