Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 8, 2017

Untimely Quarterback Injuries Dash Playoff Dreams

It is an old maxim, but no less valid for its antiquity. In sports, as in life, timing is everything. Such was the bitter truth visited upon fans of the Oakland Raiders, Detroit Lions and Miami Dolphins as the NFL playoffs got underway this weekend. These three squads were arguably the most surprising of the twelve teams to make the postseason. Yet only weeks ago fans of each franchise were reveling in regular season results that far exceeded expectations, and looking forward with high hopes to multiple playoff games. Now the Raiders, Lions and Dolphins are the first three teams sent packing, dismissed by superior opponents in drearily identical fashion – Wild Card games that were lopsided affairs, each essentially over by halftime. The hopes of fans in Oakland, Detroit and Miami were done in not on Wild Card weekend, but in the closing weeks of the regular season when each team’s starting quarterback went down with an injury.

The most precipitous fall was in the Bay area of northern California. The Raiders hadn’t come close to the playoffs since losing Super Bowl XXXVII to Tampa Bay in 2003. In the years since nine different head coaches and a long list of forgettable starting quarterbacks had failed to produce a single winning record. Back-to-back 8-8 seasons in 2010 and 2011 were Oakland’s high water mark until this year. But this season third-year quarterback Derek Carr, tabbed by the Raiders in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft, had a breakout performance.

Carr had signaled his ability in his first two seasons, throwing 53 touchdown passes, the second most by an NFL quarterback in his first two years of play. This year in Week Eight Carr set a franchise record with 513 passing yards in a win over Tampa Bay. Four weeks later he guided the Raiders to a 35-32 win over Carolina that pushed Oakland’s record to 9-2, thus ensuring a winning season. Then in the fourth quarter of the next to last regular season contest, Carr was sacked by Trent Cole of the Colts. It wasn’t until after Oakland held off a late Indianapolis rally that head coach Jack Del Rio announced his starting quarterback had suffered a broken leg and was out indefinitely.

Still Oakland went into its final regular season game at Denver with a chance to claim the number one seed in the AFC. To do so the Raiders needed New England to lose to Miami, and they in turn had to beat the Broncos. Instead backup quarterback Matt McGloin left with an injury, and rookie third-stringer Connor Cook was unable to generate any offense. Oakland lost 24-6, and when Kansas City beat San Diego the Raiders also lost their grip on the AFC West, tumbling from potential number one to the fifth seed and a road trip to Houston as a Wild Card.

In contrast to Oakland’s long stay in the wilderness, Detroit made the playoffs at the end of the 2011 and 2014 seasons. But both time the Lions lost in the Wild Card round, and those two seasons marked the only times the team posted a winning record since going 9-7 in 2000. In ten of the next twelve years Detroit staggered to double-digit losses, including the ultimate ignominy of 2008’s 0-16 record. But this season the Lions had a new general manager in Bob Quinn, a cheerleading squad for the first time in four decades, and a quarterback in Matthew Stafford who, in his eighth season in the league, has become the NFL’s master of late game magic.

In front of more than 61,000 fans at Ford Field in Week Fourteen, Stafford finished a late drive by running in for the score from seven yards out, capping a 20-17 win over division rival Chicago. It was the eighth comeback win engineered by Stafford on the season, and the twenty-fifth of his career, more than any other NFL quarterback since he debuted in 2009. The win also kept the Lions atop the NFC North.

The victory masked a sign of trouble brewing for Detroit, for in that same game Stafford dislocated the middle finger on his throwing hand. For the remainder of the season he played with a glove on his right hand, and was at time obviously in pain. His performance was at times painful as well, as the Lions finished the season with three straight losses to the Giants, Cowboys and Packers, all teams headed for the playoffs. The 31-24 defeat by Green Bay in the regular season finale also cost Detroit the division title, and sent them on the road to Seattle as an NFC Wild Card.

Like the Raiders and Lions, the Miami Dolphins have not treated their fans to much postseason play in recent years. The Fish last won a playoff game at the end of the 2000 season. Since then Miami had made just two trips to the playoffs, resulting in two quick exits. The second visit in 2008 was also the last time the team managed a winning record. In a division long dominated by the New England Patriots, Miami’s best hope for reaching the postseason was as a Wild Card, and even that seemed unlikely when this year’s squad was an unsightly 1-4 five weeks into the schedule. But fifth year quarterback Ryan Tannehill righted the ship, and Miami won seven of its next eight games.

But in the last of those victories, a 26-23 win over Arizona, Tannehill went down with what was initially feared to be a torn ACL, an injury that could cost him a year. In the end it was not so dire, but a sprained ACL and MCL meant that the Dolphins starting quarterback would play again this season only if the team advanced into the later rounds of the playoffs. Miami caught a break in the schedule, going up against the hapless Jets and Bills in two of the last three games. An overtime win against Buffalo pushed the Dolphins back into the playoffs.

Were this an inspiring tale for young readers, it would end with backup quarterbacks coming off the bench to lead their underdog teams to  thrilling victories and dates in the divisional round of the playoffs. But this is the NFL, where hard-bitten defenses of very large men show no mercy to the untried and untested.

Connor Cook never had a chance against Houston. Oakland failed to convert a third down situation until the game was in the fourth quarter, and Cook’s lone touchdown pass, late in the game, was more than offset by his three earlier interceptions. The Texans coasted to a 27-14 victory.

While Matthew Stafford didn’t throw any picks, he also couldn’t find the end zone. Detroit’s offense never got going, and the only team scoring in the fourth quarter was Seattle, as the Seahawks piled on late in a 26-6 rout.

In Pittsburgh the Steelers scored on their first two possessions, and by the time backup quarterback Matt Moore found Damien Williams for a four yard touchdown with just over six minutes to play the game was hopelessly out of reach; Steelers 30, Dolphins 12.

Three teams that weren’t supposed to make the playoffs wound up looking like they didn’t belong. Coupled with the Packers’ rout of the Giants in a contest involving two healthy starting quarterbacks, the games made for a less than scintillating Wild Card Weekend. But the Raiders, Lions and Dolphins were but shadows of what they were just weeks earlier.  In Oakland, Detroit and Miami, disappointed fans who are left to wait for another year can only wonder what might have been, but for an injury to their team’s leader that came at the worst possible time.

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