Maybe it’s the dormant New Yorker in me, but few things have made me as inexorably angry – especially during a football game I was otherwise impartial about – than the way Andy Reid dawdled his way through the final few minutes of the Chiefs’ 27-20 AFC divisional round loss to the New England Patriots on Saturday. At some point, I started shouting insults at my television set, because I didn’t know what else to do, because there is nothing more infuriating than the slothful process of literally watching seconds of precious human existence tick away.
You remember that chapter in the children’s book The Phantom Tollbooth where our hero wanders into the Doldrums, and comes across creatures called Lethargians, who refuse to think and squander their days away doing nothing? Tell me you don’t feel that way watching Andy Reid attempt to manage a clock.
Reid has a habit of doing this with more aplomb than perhaps any other coach in modern history, and doing it at key moments and then rationalizing it in ways that are about as intellectually honest as the guy at the restaurant who answers the phone when you’ve been waiting two hours for delivery, your food sitting at his elbow, and insists its on its way. Well, here’s a dirty little secret, Andy: You’re not going to be around this game forever, because time is fucking finite. Maybe even if the Chiefs had figured out that there are effective offenses that do not require teams to fucking huddle and discuss candlesticks as a wedding gift, they would have lost this game anyway. But it would have been nice for Reid to at least act like he understands the concept.
I mean, nearly every other team that played a football game over the weekend efforted to bend time in their favor. In New England, you had the Patriots, seizing what may be one of Tom Brady’s final seasons as an elite quarterback to qualify for their fifth straight AFC championship game. All through the second half of the season, the Patriots had been fending off their own fragility, the dynasty maybe growing a bit stale, injuries eating away at their effectiveness. And then New England found a way to peak when it was necessary, because this is what the Patriots do: They don’t waste time (or energy) on frivolous pursuits.
And what about Aaron Rodgers, the new king of Hail Marys, throwing one deep ball laced with desperation to a 12th-string wide receiver named Janis, and then throwing another to the same guy in the waning seconds to tie the game? In the end, the Packers wound up squandering one of Rodgers’ prime seasons because they couldn’t contain Larry Fitzgerald, another star player in his 30s who bided his time for years playing with a series of execrable quarterbacks before a rejuvenated Carson Palmer came along to rescue him.
And then there are the Broncos, riding an even paler-than-usual facsimile of Peyton Manning into the AFC championship game, where Manning and Brady will meet for the 17th time in their careers, perhaps completing once and for all the defining quarterback rivalry of our time. The Broncos defeated the Steelers yesterday behind Manning’s wobbly arm and short throws and a defense that was good enough to force one key turnover when it needed to. Afterward, Manning essentially admitted that the Broncos defense was riding shotgun, that he had become a game manager, that all he could do at this point in time was try to ride through four quarters without making some kind of critical mistake.
This is how weird this NFL season has been: Everyone would agree that quarterback play is more tantamount to success than it’s ever been, and yet three of the four quarterbacks in next week’s conference championship games are on the decided downswing of their careers. Between Manning and Brady and Palmer, the average age is 37.7; every one of them heads into next weekend with the recognition that time may not afford them many more chances.
The one exception to this rule is Cam Newton, who at 26 is a full decade younger than that median quarterback we just concocted in the paragraph above. Newton is young and energetic and a little bit cocky and has a fantastic dentist; Newton is everything a star quarterback should be, and even after the Panthers took it easy during the second half after staking themselves to a 31-0 lead over the Seahawks on Sunday, it’s becoming clearer that the Panthers may in fact be the team to beat. Eventually, time catches up with everyone, and even as Andy Reid wrestles with that truth, the question now is who it will catch up with next?
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb