des’per.a’.tion. the feeling of being in such a bad situation that those affected are willing to take risks to change it…..
An old NFL adage says: “Folks will remember what teams do in December.” The 2023 season is no exception. Unexpected losing streaks foster dissension in the ranks and panic in front offices. Historically, the schedule’s final month is rarely a good time for coaching changes and quarterback auditions—unless, of course, they yield winning results.
Here’s how several playoff hopefuls are handling 2023’s December Desperation.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills were struggling offensively for different reasons. Both teams fired then replaced their offensive coordinators. Several weeks ago, under new leadership, the Steelers moved the ball well but just barely eked out a 16-to-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, elevating their record to 7-4. Then starting quarterback Kenny Pickett injured his ankle, and the Steelers dropped three straight games.
His primary backup Mitch Trubisky proved to be useless. So last Saturday, head coach Mike Tomlin tasked little-used sixth-year pro Mason Rudolph—whose last Steelers’ start took place in 2021—to take over at quarterback. In a divisional rematch, Pittsburgh built a 24-to-0 halftime lead on route to a 34-to-11 thrashing of the Bengals, a team that was riding a 3-game winning streak under their own remarkable backup passer Jake Browning. Desperate moves, desperate measures.
Yes—somebody named Rudolph saved Pittsburgh’s Christmas while keeping the Steelers’ slim playoff hopes alive! There, I said it.
The Buffalo Bills fired their offensive coordinator on November 14th. Since then, they’ve won four of five games including their last three and suddenly control their playoff destiny. The Bills’ issue wasn’t scoring, it was reigning in quarterback Josh Allen, whose propensity for fumbling footballs and throwing interceptions while trying to win games singlehandedly was crippling Buffalo in key situations.
Since Joe Brady replaced Ken Dorsey as Buffalo’s OC, Allen’s turnover rate has dropped from 17.3% to 8.3%. Additionally, Buffalo is running the football more with much greater success. (Just ask the Dallas Cowboys about James Cook.) Allen will still run it himself when situations need resolution, notching two rushing TD’s in Buffalo’s 24-to-22 come-from-behind win over the Chargers. But he's no longer playing with December Desperation—and the Bills are better off for it.
Elsewhere, two other teams continue to thrive with backup quarterbacks. In Tampa Bay, former Heisman Trophy winner and #1 overall draft choice Baker Mayfield is putting up career-high numbers, and the Bucs remain atop the NFC South with a chance at a first-round home playoff game. This time last year, Baker was a Los Angeles Ram. The Bucs could clinch their division title as early as this week. What a difference a simple change of scenery has made for a career gone awry.
In Cleveland, 38-year-old Joe Flacco won his third straight Browns’ start, a 36-to-22 triumph over the Houston Texans. Flacco threw 3 more TD passes, giving him ten in December. A few more scoring tosses this Thursday just might result in Cleveland’s first postseason appearance since 2020. Wonder why the Jets passed on Flacco?
Meanwhile, last year’s Super Bowl participants both were dealing with bad cases of the "December Doldrums." After starting 7-2, the Kansas City Chiefs have lost 4 of their 6 games and looked bad doing it. In all of these losses, the Chiefs scored fewer than 20 points, a testament to shaky pass protection and a season-long cascade of dropped balls. Last week at home against the surging Raiders, Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes was getting flushed out of the pass pocket with frightful regularity.
So KC head coach Andy Reid turned to a trick play (a clever fake reverse not involving Mahomes) to score the Chiefs first touchdown and take a 7-to-3 second quarter lead. Not satisfied, on KC’s next possession, Reid again called a trick play. This one resulted in a fumbled handoff and an 8-yard Raiders defensive touchdown.
Mahomes—now feeling responsible and quite possibly a bit desperate—promptly forced a pass on a deep out route that Las Vegas cornerback Jack Jones picked off and returned 33 yards for another defensive TD, the Raiders second in just 7 seconds! The Chiefs never really challenged again. Suddenly, both the Raiders and Broncos are still alive for the AFC West title, which quite coincidentally, Kansas City has won seven consecutive seasons.
After a 10-1 start, the Philadelphia Eagles dropped 3 consecutive December games coming into their home field matchup on Christmas night against the New York Giants. Despite some sloppy play late in the second quarter, the Eagles held a 20-to-3 halftime advantage. Their doldrums appeared to be in the rear view mirror.
Suddenly, the gridiron demons that haunted the Philadelphia all month returned with a vengeance: a "Football Follies" type fumbled kickoff, blown pass coverages and missed tackles, dumbass penalties, etc. By the end of the third quarter, the Eagles' lead had shrunk to 2 points: 20-to-18.
Facing a third down and 20 on his own 26-yard line, Eagles QB Jalen Hurts rolled right away from pressure and launched a desperation pass deep down the sideline toward A.J. Brown, who collected it in stride for a first down in Giants territory. Soon thereafter, the Eagles scored a go-ahead touchdown. If this struggling team somehow manages to win a few playoff games and return to the Super Bowl, Hurts' third down and 20 desperation toss will go down as the team's 2023 turning point. But don’t count on it!
The Dallas Cowboys obliged the Eagles by scoring their go-ahead touchdown against the Dolphins at the 3:27 mark of the fourth quarter. Dallas 20, Miami 19.
All week long, I listened to pro football pundits tell me: “The Cowboys can’t win on the road” followed closely by “…and the Dolphins haven’t beaten a winning team all season!” So when Miami drove 64 yards in twelve plays then kicked the eventual game-winning field goal, the first piece of punditry was validated, right?
Sorry, but I’m calling bullshit here! Dallas’s 17 play, 69-yard drive to score a go-ahead touchdown was every bit as impressive as the Dolphins game-winning field goal drive. The Cowboys just left too much time on the clock. So where was the Cowboys defense when Dallas need a stop? Here’s another way to look at it: Miami’s offense gets paid too! Handsomely, I might add. And given the score, somebody had to lose this game.
This week, Miami gets to go on the road to Baltimore. Last week, the Ravens showed up in California as underdogs to the San Francisco 49ers. Said Baltimore rookie safety Kyle Hamilton before the game: “We feel a little disrespected by that.”
On Frisco’s first drive—a 4-play, 54-yard masterpiece that took the 49ers into the Ravens’ red zone—Hamilton dropped into zone coverage, read San Francisco QB Brock Purdy’s eyes the whole play, then stepped in front of wide receiver Deebo Samuel for a touchdown-saving interception! San Francisco’s defense subsequently rallied for a safety and a key stop that turned into a 5-to-3 first quarter lead. But the Desperation Dye was cast!
San Francisco’s dynamic offense—head coach Kyle Shanahan’s brilliantly designed and beautifully executed system that had been averaging 30.4 points per game before Christmas night—managed just one meaningful touchdown in the contest. Purdy, who’s apparently not accustomed to playing from behind, threw three more interceptions at crucial times. Baltimore converted San Francisco’s errors into a 33-to-19 victory, December’s most decisive winning statement.
The Roman playwright Terence wrote: “Fortune favors the bold.” In the NFL, this ancient wisdom is never truer than when December Desperation brings out the championship fiber in some men and teams, while revealing the challenges still plaguing many others.