PONTIFICATING FROM THE SUNSHINE STATE – FEBRUARY 16
BY Leo Haggerty

NEXT MAN AND NOT NEXT MEN

There’s an old adage in the coaching profession and it goes “next man up” as it applies to the player that must replace a starter due to injury or other situations.  Please take note of the language inside the parenthesis.  It’s “next MAN up” and not “next MEN up” and I’ve got sooooooo tired of explaining this on social media that it’s time to just direct people to my column that will explain my rationale.

Let me give you four examples this NFL season of how next MEN just doesn’t work.  The first is Denver when the Broncos had all four quarterbacks ruled out due to the NFL Covid 19 protocol.  Jeff Driscoll had tested positive for the coronavirus.  The other three signal callers, starter Drew Lock and back ups Brett Rypien and Blake Bortles, were banned because they were not wearing a mask while in close contact with Driscoll.

So, “next MEN up” was practice squad wide receiver Kendall Hinton.  The 23 year old undrafted rookie played quarterback in high school and for some of his collegiate career at Wake Forest.  Now, he’s going to start an NFL contest against the New Orleans Saints.

How did that work out for the Ponies with their 5th string guy under center?  Hinton was 1-for-9 for 13 yards and two interceptions in a 31-3 loss to the Saints.  An unmitigated disaster but did anyone expect a different outcome?  I sure didn’t and a applaud Hinton for trying.

My second example is the Philadelphia Eagles.  The Birds, due to massive injuries on the offensive line especially at the tackle spot, were not only forced to play with back ups but 5th and 6th team players at that position.

How did “next MEN up” work out there? Philly was a miserable 4-11-1 and that landed Eagles in the NFC East cellar.

It wan not good especially for QB Carson Wentz.  #11, who is no longer the most mobile quarterback since his devastating knee injury when he was having an MVP season the year Philly won Super Bowl LII, was under constant pressure from Week 6 until the coaching staff decided to replace him with Jalen Hurts who has better mobility to avoid the rush.

Wentz’s horrific season was a direct result of the lack of pass protection specifically on the edges.  That made a franchise quarterback look like a journeyman because he couldn’t trust his line.  He started “looking at the rush” anticipating pressure instead of keeping his eyes downfield.  That led to all sorts of problems surfacing and have even got to a point where the Eagles are looking to trade their franchise quarterback.  If they do, some team is going to be extremely happy and lucky the team could not see that the problems were definitely fixable.

My third exhibit are the Buccaneers during the NFC title game against the Packers in Green Bay.  Why are you going there because Tampa Bay won 31-26, you ask?  Here’s why, my loyal readers.

Starting Safety Antoine Winfield could not play.  Midway through the third period, with the Bucs in complete control leading 28-10, disaster strikes.  The other starting safety, Jordan Whitehead, makes a hit but injures himself and cannot return.

When the Pack realized that the Pewter Pirates were playing with “next MEN up” at safety, Aaron Rodgers and Company went to work.  The Green & Gold climbed back into the tilt and we can only speculate what would have transpired if HC Matt LeFleur had chose to go for the touchdown on 4th down from inside the Buccaneers 10 yard line instead of the late game field goal.

My final piece of evidence is Super Bowl LV itself.  If someone who had never seen Patrick Mahomes play quarterback for Kansas City, you would have said why is everyone so excited about a very average quarterback.

What turned the Chiefs #15 “thoroughbred into a plow horse” in the biggest game of the season? Why, “next MEN up” of course.

Mahomes was running for his life all game long because KC was forced to play with both back up offensive tackles and couldn’t protect him.  This was a dream come true for DC Tod Bowles.  He was getting continuous pressure with four people.  That allowed the Bucs to play two high safeties, with both Winfield and Whitehead back, to take away the Chiefs deep threats.  Also, it allowed the five under defenders to take away the first move of the Kansas City receivers forcing Mahomes to hold the ball in the face of a withering rush. and then, “hit everything that moved” according to Bowles.

Now, with all that being said, I’m reminded of what Tampa Bay safeties Coach Nick Rapone said when I asked him during Super Bowl Week was he holding his breath when both starting safeties went down at Lambeau Field  He answered immediately, “Coach Arians tells us to love them all and coach them all.”

A perfect answer and I agree wholeheartedly with that supposition but what does that mean?  You don’t throw in the towel because a starter or two go down.  You “play to win the game” at all times.

All I am pointing out is there are times when there are situations that make winning extremely difficult.  “Next MEN up” at a specific position is one of them and cannot be ignored when analyzing the outcome of a contest.

With that, I rest my case.  What do you think?