NFLTR Review: Playing Head Coach Matchmaker

     

Happy Friday! The NFL season is entering the final stretch and we’re starting to turn our attention ahead to some bigger topics, including: 

  • Matching up this year’s top coaching candidates to the expected vacancies
  • The curious cases of Tom Brady and Carson Wentz
  • Previewing some quarterbacks who will be the talk of the 2021 NFL Draft

Coaching Matchmaker

The coaching cycle is still a month away from really heating up, but a number of teams have already elected to fire their guys midseason, an indicator of how fierce the competition for the top candidates could be this year. The Lions joined the Texans and Falcons in electing to wipe the slate clean midseason and get a head start on finding their next head coach. 

With head coaching vacancies for the Jaguars and Jets looking like just a matter of time, that’s five jobs you can just about lock in as being available, with teams like the Bears, Broncos, Chargers and Eagles worth watching for more changes. Last year there were only five vacancies, an aberration based on the average of seven from 2014-2018. If history is any indication, odds are one or two more teams will make changes on Black Monday. 

Though the picture isn’t fleshed out yet, we thought we’d play matchmaker with the potential vacancies as a way to preview the coaching landscape as half a dozen teams or more enter a new era. 

Falcons: Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy 

The Chiefs play-caller will be the top prize of the 2020 coaching cycle, as he’s long overdue to lead a team of his own. One of the vacancies this year will be his, it’s just a question of which one. It stands to reason the top job available will be Bieniemy’s if he wants it, but you can make a strong case for or against a number of teams. The Jets have the rights to Trevor Lawrence and a war chest of draft picks and cap space. The Jaguars have a slightly smaller asset collection but the benefit of a clean slate instead of an arranged marriage with GM Joe Douglas. And the Texans have the incomparable Deshaun Watson

But ultimately NFL teams are like most organizations: they’re only as good as the person or people at the top. The Falcons have an aging roster and face a challenge in getting their salary cap back to health. But they might have the strongest ownership situation out of all the pending vacancies. Making sure to be judged off the product on the field and not some power struggle in the front office should be a factor for someone like Bieniemy, who’s waited so long to get his first shot. 

Atlanta might also be the closest to contending in 2021 out of any of those teams. The talent in Atlanta hasn’t seemed to be the issue in recent years, getting that talent to perform to its potential has been. In fact, that appears to be what interim HC Raheem Morris has done so far and the Falcons are 4-2 under his watch. This might not end up being an available landing spot for Bieniemy if Morris stays hot.

But if he does come to Atlanta, Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley can still be a deadly trio. There’s a lot to work with on the offensive line and the defense has shown signs of life, enough for Bieniemy to compete right away while a new general manager rebuilds on the fly. 

Jets: Titans OC Arthur Smith

For as bleak as things are in New York right now, the future actually looks pretty bright for the Jets. Four of their five remaining games are against teams with winning records and Clemson honored Lawrence as a part of their senior day, which should help allay fears that he’s not declaring. The Jets have a lot of work to do on both sides of the ball but making sure that Lawrence doesn’t suffer the same fate as Sam Darnold should be their top priority. That means surrounding him with dangerous weapons, strong protection and a coaching staff that will work to his strengths. 

Smith would fit the bill for the last objective. As the Titans offensive coordinator the past few years, Smith has been pivotal to Titans QB Ryan Tannehill’s career resurgence. He’s a terrific, innovative play-caller and does a good job of highlighting his player’s strengths, whether it’s Tannehill, RB Derrick Henry or others.

Being a head coach involves much more than calling an offense but it does help prevent other teams from poaching your brainpower when your head coach is also the primary play-caller. Smith should generate a lot of interest this coaching cycle and would be a solid consolation prize if New York can’t land Bieniemy. 

Texans: Bills OC Brian Daboll

Since bringing on Jack Easterby, who’s now the interim GM and executive vice president, the Texans have shown a strong interest in the New England system. Though their pursuit of Patriots executive Nick Caserio as general manager was thwarted, they could look to dip back into the New England pool. Josh McDaniels is a perennially popular option but their best option might actually be in Buffalo, where Daboll has been pivotal to Bills QB Josh Allen’s third-year breakout. 

Daboll has deep roots on the Patriots coaching tree. He got his start in the NFL with the team in 2000 and was there for all three Super Bowl wins in the first stage of their dynasty. After stints as an offensive coordinator with the Browns, Dolphins and Chiefs that weren’t that successful, Daboll returned to New England in 2013-2016 and had a hand in two more Super Bowl wins. He then was a co-offensive coordinator at Alabama in 2017 when the Tide won a title before he took his current job with the Bills in 2018. He has seen a ton of success and high-level football. 

What really drew attention this year though is the work Daboll has done with Allen, installing a spread offense that had him looking like an MVP candidate in September. As Houston moves into its next era, it needs to do everything it can to protect its massive investment into Watson and ensure he can continue to find success. Daboll’s Patriots pedigree and work with quarterbacks should make him an attractive fit for the Texans.

Lions: Panthers OC Joe Brady

Right after the Lions fired HC Matt Patricia, there was a ton of buzz linking 49ers DC Robert Saleh to the opening given he’s a Michigan native. But if Saleh goes elsewhere, as I think is possible if better jobs come up or another team hires his preferred GM candidate, then Detroit could turn to an offensive-leaning candidate given how teams often rebound with opposite types of coaches. 

Brady remains one of the hottest coaches in football given how well the Panthers offense has performed even without Christian McCaffrey in 2020. He’s probably a lock for some interviews, especially because Carolina won’t be in the playoffs. He has a reputation as a coach who relates well to his players and does a good job molding scheme to talent, which would be a refreshing approach after nearly three years of Patricia. 

Whether or not a team will judge him ready for a head coaching job is another question given his youth, but it’s worth pointing out Brady will actually be older than Sean McVay was when the Rams hired him in 2017. He’s more green in terms of experience — McVay was an NFL offensive coordinator, for three years before getting the job — but if Detroit were to go with Brady, it wouldn’t be completely unprecedented. 

Jaguars: Former Lions & Colts HC Jim Caldwell

After hanging on too long to a fluky run to the AFC championship in 2017, the Jaguars have finally cleaned house and are looking at a new general manager, head coach and quarterback to start the next chapter of Jacksonville football in 2021. Offensive expertise would be nice to help develop a young quarterback, but what the Jaguars really need is a steady, experienced leader to shape and guide what’s going to be a young team. It would be hard to do better than Caldwell in that regard. 

While the criticism of Caldwell has been he lacks the ceiling of some other coaches, he’s a proven program builder. He led the Lions to three of the five winning seasons they have in the past two decades and two of their three playoff appearances. He also has a strong record of developing quarterbacks.

Caldwell might lack the pizzaz of a hire like Brady but he makes a ton of sense for a Jacksonville franchise that needs to start making small steps back toward relevancy. 

The Rest

Out of the other handful of teams to watch for vacancies, we’ll make an educated guess that the Bears and Chargers end up with vacancies. The drumbeat out of Denver seems to indicate the current regime is safe, potentially until the ownership situation is resolved. Philadelphia is perplexing, but if Doug Pederson were on the market, teams would be lining up to add a coach who won a Super Bowl just three years ago. It’s a good bet Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie is aware of that, especially after just watching Andy Reid win a Super Bowl in February. 

The Bears are in a freefall right now. They’ve lost five straight, and while the schedule eases up considerably with the Lions, Texans, Vikings and Jaguars on deck, that makes losses even more damaging. Chargers HC Anthony Lynn’s game management is starting to look like a fatal flaw despite his terrific leadership and it’s not hard to connect the dots with his contract situation. 

Bears: 49ers DC Robert Saleh

Current HC Matt Nagy and GM Ryan Pace have drawn a lot on their experiences with the Chiefs and Saints, two of the league’s most potent offenses, in constructing the current Bears roster. But the attempt to bring a high-flying offense to Chicago just isn’t working and there’s no real identity on that side of the ball. 

The reality is playing eight games a year in Soldier Field lends itself to a certain style of play. The Bears are at their best when they embrace that. Think the Monsters of the Midway or Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Peanut Tillman causing havoc for Lovie Smith. Not a befuddled Marc Trestman peering over his glasses or Nagy calling short yardage runs to Cordarrelle Patterson.

Enter Saleh, who’s received high praise for his charisma, leadership and flexibility. Those are attributes that tend to define successful coaches much more than being a scheme guru. While Saleh won’t have any particular expertise with the quarterback position, which has haunted the Bears for a long, long time, he can build the exact type of team that’s built to have sustained success in Chicago. Hard-nosed. Physical. The type of team no one wants to play on the road in January. 

Chargers: Colts OC Nick Sirianni

Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer raised the possibility of Patriots OC Josh McDaniels as someone who could fit with the Chargers. He’s the type of offensive coach they’d like to build a strong environment around QB Justin Herbert and he played college football with GM Tom Telesco. But if another team lands McDaniels or he decides to stay in New England again, Sirianni would check a lot of the same boxes. 

There’s already a fair amount of familiarity between the Chargers and Sirianni, as he was a receivers coach for the team in 2016 and 2017. He was hired by the Colts as an offensive coordinator in 2018 and while Frank Reich calls the plays, Sirianni has earned a strong rep around the league for his work with the unit. 

This would probably qualify as the surprise hire of this cycle. Sirianni hasn’t even interviewed for any positions yet, although he declined an interview with the Browns in 2018 while focusing on the playoffs. But he’s expected to draw interest after the season and Joe Judge proved you just need one really good interview. 

This Week In Football

  • In a move that couldn’t be classified as a surprise, the Lions fired HC Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn after a depressing pair of losses in a four-day span. The duo became the latest branches of the New England dynasty tree that failed to take root elsewhere. While things improved since a rocky start, the chorus of players publicly celebrating Patricia’s ouster show his methods clearly weren’t enough. 
  • The Jaguars joined the midseason firing squad, canning GM Dave Caldwell. The fact he lasted this long is a minor miracle in the patience-starved NFL. He was hired in 2013 and had just one season without double-digit losses. 
  • Jacksonville moved on from Caldwell because there will be stiff competition for the available general manager candidates this year. Houston, Atlanta and Detroit have already kick-started their search and more teams could enter the fray. One of the hot candidates they’ll be vying for is apparently former Chiefs and Browns GM John Dorsey. While he had a major role in building some talented Chiefs and Browns teams, Dorsey’s personality has grated on some and his decision to hitch his wagon to Freddie Kitchens as a head coach was disastrous. The report says this time that Dorsey and Bieniemy could be a GM/HC pair. 
  • Few players have had as dramatic a turnaround as Broncos LT Garett Bolles. Last year, GM John Elway was calling Bolles out for having the most holding penalties ever for a player in his first three seasons. This year, he was offering him a deal that will pay $17 million a year, making him a top-five highest-paid player at his position. Remarkable. 
  • While he’s one of the more unsung players on the Colts defense, DT Grover Stewart can’t say he’s underpaid anymore, as his new three-year, $30 million extension now reflects his importance to the team. 
  • On the flip side, Steelers OLB Bud Dupree was playing out 2020 on the franchise tag and heading for his own massive payday in free agency this offseason. That will be complicated by his torn ACL in Wednesday’s rescheduled game against the Ravens, as the typical year-long recovery puts his availability and effectiveness for 2021 in doubt. It’s a cruel blow and that fragility is what makes it so special when players like Bolles and Stewart are able to lock in their second contracts. Dupree will still collect the rest of his $15.828 million franchise tag this year, which ought to soften the blow. 
  • Speaking of complicating factors for pending free agents, Texans WR Will Fuller discovered Monday he was suspended for six games for violating the NFL’s PED policy. It knocks Fuller out for the rest of 2020 when he was on track to complete his first healthy season ever and will extend one game into 2021. In a twist, fellow Houston CB Bradley Roby was also suspended six games for a PED violation, apparently for the same substance. 
  • It wouldn’t be an NFL season without suspension news regarding WR Josh Gordon. After a long wait, practically a year, the NFL has reinstated Gordon and he’ll be eligible to play the final two games for the Seahawks. And of course, the playoffs. It’ll be interesting to see what he has left as he nears 30, though, as his game was always predicated on freakish athleticism. 

Regression Alert? Brady & Wentz

Given how much of an outsized impact the quarterback position has in football, it becomes a huge story whenever someone isn’t playing the way we expect — good or bad. In the case of Buccaneers QB Tom Brady and Eagles QB Carson Wentz, neither has played up to the standard they’ve set throughout their careers so far in 2020. 

Tampa Bay might be 7-5, but the Bucs are 1-3 in their last four games and Brady has an 8-7 TD/INT ratio in that span. That’s just three away from tying a career-high. The GOAT hasn’t had the smoothest transition to HC Bruce Arians’ downfield-focused attack and despite gobs of talent on offense that side of the ball regularly looks disjointed. 

As far as the interceptions, they appear to be a combination of not being completely on the same page with his receiving corps and just baffling throws/decisions. Take his game-ending pick against the Rams a couple of weeks ago. A look at the All-22 shows the Rams with two high safeties, but at the snap the one to the side Brady’s reading steps up, meaning single high. Brady doesn’t even check the other safety and lobs up a softball that will be one of the easiest picks of Rams sixth-round S Jordan Fuller’s career. Perhaps he was expecting the receiver to break flatter up the field but it’s still like he said: “bad read, bad decision.”

So why is arguably the best quarterback of all time making such apparently elementary mistakes? The always-excellent Tony Romo offered some terrific insight during the CBS broadcast of Buccaneers/Chiefs on Sunday, pointing out Arians’ offense requires the quarterback to do a lot of his reads after the snap. Tampa Bay is the most static offense in the league, ranking last in motion at the snap as of two weeks ago per ESPN

It doesn’t matter who you are, deciphering NFL defenses when bodies are flying is much harder than gaining an edge before the ball is snapped. Perhaps that’s why under Arians, the “quarterback whisperer,” a number of quarterbacks have all set career-highs for interceptions in their first season in his system, including Tim Couch (21), Andrew Luck (18), Carson Palmer (22) and Jameis Winston (30). Brady’s on pace to potentially join that group. 

The good news is Brady’s struggles don’t really appear to be due to any kind of declining skill set. He’s still among the most accurate quarterbacks in the league when not pressured and his arm strength looks fine. Tampa Bay’s ceiling this year will be dependent on how the adjustment process goes, with either Brady getting more used to what Arians’ system requires or the coach adjusting more to what his 43-year-old quarterback did for 20 years. Quarterbacks have tended to improve with time in Arians’ offense. Palmer’s second and third years with the Cardinals are a great example of what peak Brady in Tampa Bay could be. 

There’s not nearly as much optimism in Philadelphia. Wentz has played like one of the NFL’s worst quarterbacks this year and that was on display for everyone to see Sunday night. NFL Media’s Brian Baldinger had several terrific breakdowns, but this one of the Eagles’ three-and-out to start the game sums up most of it. The Eagles have simplified the offense to give Wentz the easiest reads possible and he still can’t pull the trigger. 

There’s much, much more. Baldy ends this clip muttering, “I can’t do this anymore” after Wentz passes up two wide open receivers to underthrow an open Dallas Goedert, and he’s left baffled again after Wentz passes up a clear read and throw to check down back across the formation to a running back. Benjamin Solak, who does terrific Eagles breakdowns for SB Nation’s team site, also weighed in on a couple of the same plays

“If your quarterback is confident in what he’s seeing and believes in his ability to read defenses, you just take the space as a busted coverage, throw it to Travis Fulgham and easy yardage,” Solak says. “But that player is not Carson Wentz. He’s not confident in what he’s seeing.” 

Several NFL insiders have done stories quizzing executives, scouts and others in the league about what is wrong with Wentz. The word that keeps coming up is broken. He’s not seeing the field well and he’s not trusting his eyes, his receivers or his protection. Injuries on the offensive line and younger targets exacerbate those issues and the coaching staff hasn’t been able to right the ship. There’s not one easy fix to get Wentz back to the level of play he showed in 2017 when he was an MVP candidate before a severe knee injury. 

But what if 2017 was the outlier and what Wentz has put on tape the past three seasons is who he really is? USA Today’s Steven Ruiz hypothesizes Wentz’s numbers in 2017 were inflated by unsustainable production on third down and in the red zone. While strong performance in those areas is important, it’s also more random and less “sticky” from year to year. In some categories, Ruiz notes Wentz was even worse in 2017 than he is in 2020. 

If Ruiz’s thesis is correct — Wentz is an average to below-average quarterback who took advantage of a massive season to snare a massive contract — the Eagles are in big trouble. Their options with Wentz are extraordinarily limited, they can’t cut him in 2021 and would need to trade him to avoid his contract crippling their cap flexibility. In a lot of ways, Philadelphia is going to sink or swim with Wentz the next year or so.

Right now, it looks like they’re sinking. 

Draft Season

Those of you who root for NFL teams that start with the letter “J” have already been keeping tabs on developments for the 2021 NFL Draft. But as the regular season enters its final quarter and college football wraps up, the rest of us will start to catch up with you. As we get closer to the end of April, we’ll try to have more content for what is unequivocally the best draft in sports.  

  • Anyone can do a mock draft, and as draft season rolls along they’ll become a dime a dozen. But there’s certain ones you’ll want to pay attention to and Dane Brugler’s mock over at the Athletic falls into that category. No surprises for the first pick, but where he slots the rest of the quarterbacks might surprise you. 
  • Shameless self promotion interlude for a moment: here at NFLTR we also are pretty good at the mock draft thing
  • This is shaping up to be a pretty strong quarterback class with some depth behind generational Lawrence. Alabama’s Mac Jones is generating some hype, as he’s reaching levels of production that not even Tua Tagovailoa did. Brugler has him landing in the first round and Rotoworld’s Derrik Klassen breaks down the pluses and minuses of his skill set right now. 
  • North Dakota State QB Trey Lance was a summer darling by a bunch of folks looking ahead to 2021. But the Bison played just one game because of the pandemic this year and it was primarily to showcase Lance. The Athletic’s Justin Howe tries to fill in some of the gaps on the draft’s mystery quarterback. 

Nickels & Dimes

Quick hits and thoughts from around the NFL…

The Bengals offensive line took a lot of grief after the catastrophic injury to QB Joe Burrow, but they weren’t the reason he got hurt. Freak injuries like that can happen no matter how good the protection is. However, improving the line should still be a focus of Cincinnati’s this offseason. Burrow was sacked 32 times in 10 games, and that level of punishment will accumulate over time… 

A lot of people are going to beat the drum for the Packers adding a wide receiver again this offseason. But the biggest weakness on this team is the defense, specifically DC Mike Pettine. Gap integrity appears to be more of a suggestion than a rule…

Not to mention this play from Week 11 where he had OLB Preston Smith trying to run vertically with Colts TE Trey Burton. There are personnel gaps at linebacker and defensive line but Green Bay needs a fresh face at coordinator more than anything else. Dalvin Cook proved a few weeks ago that the same recipe the 49ers used to embarrass the Packers in last year’s NFC Championship will still work…

Based on Pro Football Reference’s Hall of Fame Monitor, Peyton Manning, Alan Faneca, Charles Woodson, Zach Thomas and Reggie Wayne should be the favorites to be the five modern-era inductees for the class of 2021. My ballot would include Patrick Willis instead of Thomas. I thought about swapping Wayne for Calvin Johnson or Torry Holt,  but his sustained excellence deserves recognition. Plus it would be neat to see him and Manning go in together…

Some reports have indicated Adam Gase isn’t the most accountable behind the scenes and this certainly doesn’t do anything to dispel that…

I’m thankful 2020 hasn’t killed satire…

One last laugh to close things out…

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