The moment was so poignant, it was almost too much to bear.
Six days after the horrifying cardiac event that nearly cost 24-year-old Damar Hamlin his life, the Buffalo Bills took the field once more, this time at Highmark Stadium for their regular-season finale against the New England Patriots.
An emotional ceremony just before the start of Sunday’s game honored Hamlin, the safety who had collapsed after tackling Cincinnati Bengals receiver Tee Higgins and was resuscitated on the field — a chilling scene that rocked the football world and galvanized well-wishers from coast-to-coast and beyond.
Now, with Hamlin having made a seemingly miraculous recovery in the days that followed, it was time to give thanks and play ball.
The Patriots’ Nick Folk booted the opening kickoff to the Buffalo 4-yard-line, where Nyheim Hines fielded it on the fly. Fans gasped as Hines ran toward the middle of the field, cut quickly to his right, got to the sideline and took it to the house for a 96-yard touchdown return. There were 70,753 blissfully overwhelmed spectators and tens of millions of others getting goosebumps from afar.
“OMFG!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Hamlin tweeted from his hospital bed at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
It evoked memories of Yussuf Poulsen’s second-minute goal for Denmark in its first full game back after star Christian Eriksen’s similarly scary cardiac episode two summers ago, sending a Copenhagen crowd into hysterics and launching an improbable run to the Euro 2020 semifinals.
Pick a stirring scene from any sports movie, and Hines’ touchdown return — and the celebration that followed — felt every bit as poignant and remarkable.
Then, in a matter of hours, reality returned with a thud, and we were reminded of the NFL’s imperfections and ugly underbelly.
In Pittsburgh, Steelers linebacker Alex Highsmith celebrated a late sack of Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson by lying on his back and having teammate Demarvin Leal perform fake chest compressions. I’m not making this up — it actually happened.
Highsmith, nominated by the team for the 2022 Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award (given each year to an NFL player “who best demonstrates the qualities of on-field sportsmanship, including fair play, respect for the game and opponents, and integrity in competition”), later apologized for the insensitivity of the timing, given that medical personnel had performed CPR on the field to save Hamlin’s life the previous Monday night.
“I just don’t want people to think of me that way and think I was doing anything (intentional),” Highsmith told reporters Monday.
Later that Sunday evening in Green Bay, Packers rookie linebacker Quay Walker took the inappropriateness to an entirely different level. The Packers desperately needed to defeat the Detroit Lions to reach the playoffs, and Walker helped hand them a 20-16 victory — by performing an act, given the context, that was almost unfathomable.
As members of the Lions’ medical staff rushed to the field to tend to running back D’Andre Swift, who’d fallen awkwardly after taking a swat to the head during a key fourth quarter possession, an agitated Walker pushed one of the trainers in the back, earning an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty and an ejection that helped Detroit complete a game-winning touchdown drive.
Walker later apologized, but … DUDE.
The Bills’ trainers had helped save Hamlin’s life, and an announcement before each of last weekend’s games thanked the first responders and medical professionals involved in his care. Of all the people to shove on national television Sunday night, Walker chose a trainer tending to an injured player?
You can’t make this up.
Then, as if to pile on, the Houston Texans made a dishonorable move Sunday night befitting the organizational dysfunction that has plagued them for several seasons, firing coach Lovie Smith after one season in charge.
Yes, the Texans had a bad year, finishing 3-13-1 after their 32-31 victory over the Indianapolis Colts earlier in the day.
No, Smith — a good man with a ton of respect in NFL circles — was not the reason they stunk.
From chairman Cal McNair’s cluelessness to recently dismissed executive vice president of football operations Jack Easterby’s shadiness to general manager Nick Caserio’s meddlesome ways, the Texans haven’t exactly been set up for success.
In addition to behaving as though he’s a de facto head coach, Caserio appears to be quite deficient when it comes to doing his actual job — putting together a competitive roster. Smith, naturally, was the one who took the blame.
Two years ago, the Texans shocked the NFL world by hiring David Culley — a longtime NFL assistant not regarded as a head-coaching candidate — who went along with Caserio’s intrusiveness and seemed content with taking the money and being “The Fall Guy.” He was fired after a 4-13 season, ostensibly because of philosophical differences.
Smith, who’d been Culley’s defensive coordinator, was hired as his successor — seemingly in response to fallout regarding the shoddy treatment of Culley, the push to hire a white candidate (Josh McCown) with zero college or NFL coaching experience and the lawsuit filed by another candidate, Brian Flores, alleging racism in NFL hiring practices.
The upshot: Smith, who (along with Tony Dungy) was the first Black coach to take a team to the Super Bowl, became a second consecutive one-and-done casualty of the Texans’ organizational absurdity.
Unlike Culley, Smith pushed back against Caserio’s Machiavellian tendencies, such as deciding which players would be inactive on game day. Caserio, according to a source familiar with the situation, wore a coaching headset during games (offering real-time suggestions during Culley’s tenure, before Smith shut that down), attended every staff meeting involving the head coach and, again with Culley, went so far as to try to make halftime adjustments in the locker room.
“They hired the wrong guy for what they wanted,” the source said. “They fired the head coach because he wouldn’t be their flunky. (Caserio) basically wants to be the head coach.”
Smith, 64, deserved better — but he went out with a bang. Trailing the Colts 31-24 in the final minute, the Texans tied the game on a fourth-and-20 heave by quarterback Davis Mills that somehow went through the hands of Indy defensive back Rodney Thomas before being caught in the end zone by tight end Jordan Akins.
Sensing that it might be his final game — though McNair, pressed by Smith earlier in the week regarding the coach’s future, had claimed he hadn’t yet made a decision — Smith went for two points and the win. Mills connected with Akins again, and the Texans held on for a 32-31 victory that surely rankled McNair and Caserio. The comeback win dropped Houston from first to second in the 2023 draft order, handing the first overall selection to the Chicago Bears.
Yep, that’s the franchise Smith took to the Super Bowl — with Rex Grossman as his starting quarterback — while compiling an 84-66 record (including playoffs) in nine seasons.
After what Smith did Sunday, in less than ideal circumstances, the Bears should erect a statue of the man outside Soldier Field.
His final act with the Texans wasn’t quite as storybook as Hines’ kickoff return, or Hamlin’s release the following day from the University of Cincinnati’s hospital and return to Buffalo (where he was transferred to another facility for further care and testing). It didn’t send an entire stadium into a surreal tizzy, and it didn’t provoke tears.
Yet in an entirely imperfect football universe, it felt oddly redemptive.
Lions quarterback Jared Goff, whose clutch fourth-down pass clinched Sunday night’s victory over the Packers, finished the season with a franchise-record streak of 324 passes without an interception — the fifth-longest streak in NFL history.
It represents a nice bounce back for Goff, discarded by the Los Angeles Rams two years ago despite having quarterbacked the franchise to a Super Bowl appearance and three trips to the playoffs. He had a healthy attitude when successor Matthew Stafford took L.A. to the Super Bowl (and ultimately won it) a year ago and has always been resilient in the face of adversity.
Of course, Sunday’s victory over the Packers (and fellow Cal alum Aaron Rodgers) could have been even sweeter, had the Rams, earlier in the day, held their late 16-13 lead over the Seattle Seahawks before falling in overtime. Alas, his former team failed him, meaning Seattle, rather than Detroit, was able to secure the NFC’s seventh and final playoff berth.
Then again, if you’re playing the long game: Rams coach Sean McVay may walk away from his job at a time when the organization does not appear set up for sustained success.
Goff and the Lions, meanwhile, will head into the 2023 campaign riding a wave of optimism. He, too, may get a chance to hoist the Lombardi when all is said and done.
He’s got swag
Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, 26, was asked by reporters Sunday about maximizing the team’s window of success. His answer: “The window is my whole career.”
Based on what we’ve seen thus far, the dude is not wrong.
He’s got … semi-delusional swag?
Zach Wilson, who appears to be a total washout after two seasons with the Jets, seems to believe he can still make it in New York (if not anywhere).
Asked by reporters Monday about the possibility of the Jets bringing in a veteran quarterback as the presumptive starter in 2023, Wilson, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 draft, declared, “I’m going to make that dude’s life hell in practice every day.”
A lot of people will have to see that to believe it, but you’ve got to give Wilson credit for bravado. Right now, the Jets appear to be a good quarterback away from playoff contention, and coach Robert Saleh can’t afford to get that wrong. For that reason, Wilson will have to raise the level of his game quite a bit to be considered for that role.
The Arizona Cardinals were a hot mess last offseason, and one of owner Michael Bidwill’s moves amid the maelstrom was to give long contract extensions to coach Kliff Kingsbury and general manager Steve Keim. Now both men are gone (the former fired Monday, the latter have stepped away for health reasons), leaving Bidwill to hire a new coach and GM who’ll inherit a dubious situation.
After quarterback Kyler Murray fought for and received a massive (five years, $230.5 million) contract extension of his own last July, “it was like they created a monster,” according to one Cardinals veteran I spoke to last Sunday. Once paid, the veteran said, Murray felt less compulsion to study his game plan or to fulfill the expectations of the franchise QB position than he had in the past, and the Cardinals’ collapse felt predictable.
Murray suffered a torn ACL in mid-December, and it’s unclear if or when he’ll be able to return in 2023. Because he now has financial security and relies heavily on speed and mobility, Murray may not feel compelled to push it.
Translation: The Cardinals had better have a strong contingency plan at the sport’s most important position next season — and it had better be cost-effective, too.