The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Long Season for the ’Bama Boys

Posted on | December 26, 2022 | Comments Off on Long Season for the ’Bama Boys

L-R: Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones

The NFL season is too long. The league’s decision to extend the season from 16 games to 17 was a mistake, as was the decision to expand the postseason playoffs from 12 teams (six in each conference) to 14 (seven in each conference). Under the previous playoff format, the two division champions in each conference with the best records (i.e., the #1 and #2 seeds) got “byes” in the wild-card round, but now only one team in each conference gets that precious bye. And an extra week’s rest really matters because, after playing a 17-game regular-season schedule, every team in the league has its share of injuries, major or minor.

Until last year, when the New England Patriots drafted Alabama quarterback Mac Jones in the first round, I hadn’t paid much attention to the NFL. But the idea of a ’Bama boy being tapped to fill the gigantic shoes of all-time great Tom Brady fascinated me, and having seen Jones lead the Crimson Tide to an undefeated National Championship season, I felt he was up to the challenge. The fact that he beat out former MVP Cam Newton for the starting QB job in New England, and led the Patriots to the playoffs as a rookie, seemed to confirm my judgment. Of course, the Patriots were “one and done” in the playoffs last season, and they have suffered all sorts of struggles this year — Mac Jones missing four games with an ankle injury, amid a misguided revamp of the team’s offensive scheme — but I still believe Mac is destined for NFL greatness.

Jones isn’t the only former Alabama quarterback in the league, however. At one time, Mac was the third-string QB for the Crimson Tide, when Jalen Hurts was the starter and Tua Tagovailoa was the No. 2 QB. Hurts had been the starter for the 2016 team that made it all the way to the National Championship game before losing to Clemson, and returned for the 2017 season, with Tagovailoa, a freshman recruit from Hawaii, beating out Jones for the No. 2 spot. That year, Alabama lost to Auburn, which cost them an appearance in the SEC title game, but the Tide made it into the national playoffs as the No. 4 seed, then upset top-seeded Clemson to make it to the championship against Georgia. That was one of the greatest games in Alabama’s long and glorious football history. At halftime, the Bulldogs led 13-0 and Coach Nick Saban made a shocking choice — the true freshman Tua Tagovailoa would start the second half. Tua did not disappoint, throwing for 166 yards and three touchdowns, leading the Crimson Tide to an exciting 26-23 overtime victory.

Tagovailoa remained the starter for ’Bama the next season and, although Hurts continued to see significant playing time as a backup, after 2018 he transferred to Oklahoma, where he passed for 3,851 yards, ran for another 1,298 yards and led the Sooners to the Big 12 conference championship. In 2020, both Hurts and Tagovailoa entered the NFL draft, where Tua was a first-round pick (fifth overall) for the Miami Dolphins and Hurts was a second-round pick (53rd overall) for the Philadelphia Eagles. Both Tua and Jalen had their struggles during their first two NFL seasons, but this year Hurts emerged as one of the most dynamic QBs in the league, passing for 3,472 yards and 22 touchdowns, adding 747 yards and another 13 TDs rushing. At 13-2, the Eagles have the best record in the NFL and are one win away from clinching the NFC East title, although Hurts has been sidelined after spraining his left (i.e., non-throwing) shoulder against Chicago in Week 15.

Meanwhile in Miami, after starting the season 8-3, the Dolphins have hit a four-game losing streak, including a Christmas Day defeat at home against Green Bay, when Tua threw three interceptions as Aaron Rodgers led the Packers to a 26-20 comeback win. Before the streak, the Dolphins looked like they might displace the Buffalo Bills as AFC East champions; now the Bills have clinched, and Miami is fighting for a wild-card playoff spot, a competition that will be highlighted on New Year’s Day, when Tua and the Dolphins play Mac and the Patriots in Foxborough. Both Miami (8-7) and New England (7-8) have lost four of their last five games — the Patriots haven’t won since beating the Arizona Cardinals on Dec. 12 — and, regardless of how the outcome affects the playoff scenario, there will be a definite factor of self-respect at stake for both teams.

Every team in the league is now banged up and had their lineup reshuffled since the season began. For example, look at the San Francisco 49ers, who have clinched the NFC West title with an 11-4 record. The Niners began the season with Trey Lance, a 2021 first-round pick, at quarterback. In the second game of the season, however, Lance suffered a broken ankle, and veteran Jimmy Garoppolo stepped in at QB. Jimmy G was good enough that San Francisco took a 7-4 record into their Dec. 4 road game at Miami, where Garoppolo suffered a broken foot on the opening drive. That left the 49ers to bring in rookie Brock Purdy at QB. Purdy was the very last player chosen (7th round, 262nd overall) in this year’s draft, and the idea that this low-rated prospect out of Iowa State would become the starter his rookie year was a million miles away from anything San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan had in mind.

Wow, a late-round draft pick stepping in at quarterback because of injuries — doesn’t that story seem kind of familiar?

With Purdy at QB, the Niners are undefeated, having won five in a row, and they’re unlikely to lose their last two games, against the Raiders and Cardinals, so that this long-shot obscurity — a kid that almost nobody thought had a chance to make it in the NFL — now appears ready to lead a division champion in the playoffs. And the toll that injuries have taken during this long season can be seen in the rosters of all the playoff teams, several of which will go into the postseason with players in their starting lineups who began the season on the practice squad.

The season is just too damned long, and any player who makes it through 17 games without a significant injury is just lucky. All three of the former Alabama QBs starting in the NFL this season have missed games with injuries, and the fortunes of the Philadelphia Eagles — the team with the best record in the league — hinge on whether Jalen Hurts can come back from his shoulder injury at full strength for the playoffs. As my brother Kirby has pointed out, the new rules surrounding concussions guarantee that many top players, including quarterbacks, will be forced to sit out at least one game during the year. Should the team owners and the players union try to make a new agreement to increase roster sizes, to ensure that teams have enough depth to be able to make it through the season? And wouldn’t it make sense to admit that the 17-game schedule was a mistake? Go back to 16 games and, while you’re at it, go back to the 12-team postseason playoffs. As much as we hate to admit it, we have learned that there is such a thing as too much football.



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