By Julie Buehler

I love that feeling in September, it’s Week 4 of the NFL season and maybe your team is 1-3, or maybe they started 4-0 and you think, “There’s SO much season left.”

You tell your buddies at the bar there’s “SO much left to be decided” and try to stay steady because “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

And then it’s Week 8. You’re staring at cooler temps and falling leaves and your team has had moments of brilliance and moments of buffoonery but you don’t want to jinx it so you “take it one game at a time” and each of your coach’s press conferences you listen in hopes of hanging your hopes on his new idea.

You make it through the bye week, somehow, usually by paying even more attention to your fantasy squad. And then Week 12 shows up. Way too soon.

And then, just like that, the Week 4 questions and Week 8 wonderment feel like last year because now you’re staring and the final standings.

The end of the NFL season is a wrecking ball through the face of football fans.

You see it coming. Doesn’t matter. Still hurts.

So why don’t we gather ourselves and look back at what we learned this year:

  • The distance between good teams and bad teams widened. Remember when good teams didn’t make the playoffs and you were left wondering, “What if?” Well, not this year. There’s not a single team booking tee times that should be in the playoffs. The Jets gakked away their playoff hopes to their former head coach and the Bills. The Colts had too many injuries to compete this year and the entire NFC was locked up last week. Last year the 10-win Eagles missed the playoffs. The year before, the Cardinals were left out because there were too many good teams. This year, the bottom 4 teams have won as many games combined (11), as the 5-seed in either conference (Chiefs with 11 wins and Vikings with 11 wins). The gap between good teams and bad teams is getting wider.
  • And one of my theories for why is because being a head coach is a thankless job. Even for the best. And until ownership realizes the value of continuity, it will continue to be very difficult for teams to sustain success because they keep punting a guy after a year or two. Before the clock struck midnight on the final day of the regular season, 5 head coaches had been fired by their teams. Black Monday is expected to claim anywhere from 3-5 more. So we’re to believe the guy who was worth a press conference 2 or 3 years ago suddenly go stupid? Teams either need to do a better job vetting candidates or give a guy more time to learn. There are so many moving parts that need to work in synergy for a head coach to be successful, it’s nothing short of unfair to expect a guy to get it all clicking in 2 or 3 years. Sure you’ll see the occasion lightening in a bottle. But usually the division catches up and the tendencies exposed. So the coach needs to readjust and so-forth. That’s the process of the game. And the key ingredient is time. Look at the Bengals and Panthers. Both teams were rumored to be firing their head coaches, they didn’t and now both are some of the top seeds in their conference. Slow down owners, slow down.
  • Quarterback play has never been better. I’m not just talking about Brady and Brees, I’m talking about Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Kirk Cousins, Carson Palmer. More guys have passed for 30+ TDs this season than any other season ever.
  • And my theory for why that is: defenses have never been worse. If you love great defense, the NFL is getting hard to watch. I don’t blame the players; they get fined if they sneeze on a guy. But the arm tackling I see game in and game out that used to be reserved for poorly coached teams is now going on across the league. I’m hoping the Cardinals and Panthers restore some level of luster for this year’s playoff runs.
  • My theory for why defenses are getting soft: Concussions. The Movie was released on Christmas. The issue is now more mainstream than ever. What the movie did really well is highlight the NFL’s refusal to acknowledge the new science. The acting was superb and Will Smith deserves a lot of credit. What the movie didn’t do well is point the finger at the right commissioner. Paul Tagliabue had the information for a decade before Roger Goodell took over. And Goodell was basically trying to minimize the damage and get Tags out of the league with as little egg on his face as possible. He did that. But it was Tags who built the big-tobacco type of denial and deceit and created a culture to perpetuate that. Had the NFL admitted the risks of playing football decades ago when it was first discovered, players could have made educated decisions, as former 49ers linebacker, Chris Borland did, and go from there, the concussion issue wouldn’t be a football issue, it’d be a sport issue. But Tagliabue’s fear of reality drove the league to deny and hide and now people forget about the changes to the game of soccer and hockey and just look at football as the boogieman. It’s not, but Tagliabue and the NFL regime made it that way.

Another NFL season is in the books and while so much has changed, 4 teams made the playoffs that missed out last year, some things never change.

It’s still the greatest form of entertainment on the planet and regardless of what we learned this year, there’s still so much to be learned.

Julie Buehler hosted the Coachella Valley’s most popular sports talk radio show, “Buehler’s Day Off” every day for 3 years, but now she can be exclusively seen on KMIR sharing the coolest stories in sports and heard on 103.9 FM ESPN from 6-7 pm nightly. She’s an avid gym rat, slightly sarcastic and more likely to recite Steve Young’s career passing stats than American Idol winners. Tune in to KMIR’s nightly news or for her sports reports.