Coaching Hot Seats

Is it too early in the season to talk about firing coaches? Well, it’s already on my mind, and there are some coaches who clearly are already feeling the heat, so let’s jump right in.

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Podcast with Inside the Pylon: Saints Talk

Once again doing a little crossover work with our friends at Inside the Pylon, I appeared on their Thursday podcast to talk about the Saints’ struggles. You can listen here.

(I apologize in advance for the excess of “Ummmmm”s. Even being prepared doesn’t help me in the morning.)

I didn’t get to cover everything I think about the Saints’ prospects for this season and beyond, so I’m hoping to do so in a future column.

Head Coach Rankings in the 2015 Offseason

A couple of weeks ago, NFL.com released a list of head-coaching rankings that seemed to be sorted exclusively by career win totals, with little regard as to any aspect of the job of being a head coach, or as to how a particular coach is performing at the present time. That was enough to stir me out of my summer vacation and come up with my own list, based on who I’d want running my team if I was an owner or GM looking to hire.

I even ranked rookie coaches based on my early impressions of them. That will probably prove to be a terrible idea, but since I was able to rationalize those rankings, I don’t really care. (After all, I’d hire some of the unknowns before some of the knowns, so, why not?)

Tier 1: THA GAWD

1. Bill Belichick, New England

With apologies to Bomani Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates, this seemed like the most accurate description of Bill Belichick. He’s the best gameplanner in NFL history and after a fourth Super Bowl win in six attempts has really left little doubt about his legacy.

 

Tier 2: Greatness

2. Sean Payton, New Orleans

Payton’s offensive innovations and forward thinking, and recognition of what an asset Drew Brees could be, have spearheaded the Saints’ decade of success. Payton and GM Mickey Loomis have generally done an excellent job of adapting the roster and juggling it to fit the team needs. Given that the push to take the team over the top last year resulted in a 7-9 season, Payton was willing to completely revamp the team’s offensive outlook to stock some talent on defense. We’ll see if it works. Now if only he’d lose the stubborn fourth-down play-calling.

3. Pete Carroll, Seattle

Still remarkable to me that he’s managed to be so successful after two previously failed stops. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. I won’t complain if you want to flip Payton and Carroll.

4. Chip Kelly, Philadelphia
5. Bruce Arians, Arizona

It’s remarkable that it took anyone so long to give Arians a head-coaching shot. I don’t know how he works his wonders, but he surely has for an Arizona team that has won double-digit games for consecutive years. Kelly is putting a lot on the line this year by taking personnel control, but like Arians, he’s led a team that had become moribund to consecutive double-digit wins and a playoff appearance. I have Kelly over Arians because I prize innovation, and what Kelly brings not only to offense but to the sports-science side of the game.

6. John Harbaugh, Baltimore

I don’t know much about Harbaugh, but his track record of keeping the Ravens consistently in contention, along with a Super Bowl win, speaks for itself.

 

Tier 3: Goodness (and Goodness Upside)

7. Bill O’Brien, Houston

It’s hard to overstate how impressed I was by the Texans’ turnaround after the Keystone Kops show the team devolved to in 2013. Without further information, I’m going to have to give the credit to O’Brien, especially considering he did it without anything worthwhile at QB and without the services of the #1 overall pick, or, for that matter, the services of most of the Texans’ 2013-14 draft classes. (He still should have banged the table to move up for Teddy Bridgewater, though.)

8. Mike Zimmer, Minnesota

The Vikings started 4-7 and won three of their last five, with the two losses each coming on the road and by only two points. I give Zimmer major credit for his leadership and his ability to turn around the defense and develop defenders; he gets high marks for what he’s done with Anthony Barr, and I expect him to prove he can develop other Vikings defensive draftees, like Trae Waynes, Eric Kendricks, Scott Crichton, and Danielle Hunter. On offense, he deserves credit for, if nothing else, trusting in Norv Turner and Teddy Bridgewater.

9. Andy Reid, Kansas City

He’s always been a difficult one for me to project. On the one hand, he seems to be one of the few NFL coaches who can consistently give you a baseline of above-average play. On the other hand, he makes obvious in-game mistakes that give away a lot of equity. I’m reluctant to elevate him over Zimmer or O’Brien, because they haven’t proven they don’t get it when it comes to big in-game decisions, clock management, and the like, while Reid clearly has.

10. Dan Quinn, Atlanta
11. Todd Bowles, New York Jets

Quinn and Bowles are, of course, total guesses, but I like the work they’ve done as coordinators (unlike some coordinators who seem to rise to being head coaches simply based on name or tenure) and the things they’ve said about their approaches to team-building. All I can say is that, based on my current information, I’d take a chance on either of them before the guys below, whose records don’t inspire me as much. (I’m looking to win a title, not go 9-7 every year.)

12. Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati

Like Andy Reid, only less so. (That is not a fat joke.)

 

Tier 4: Some goodness, not a detriment overall

13. Rex Ryan, Buffalo

Rex Ryan is what he is. To paraphrase Football Perspective’s Chase Stuart, that means you get a guy who’s really good at defense, who fires up and inspires loyalty in his players, but who also can’t put a working offense together to save his life, and whose teams completely fail to show up 2-4 games a year. What’s that worth? Hard to say. If Ryan could ever figure out that good defense and good offense are not mutually exclusive, maybe he would belong higher.

14. Chuck Pagano, Indianapolis
15. Mike McCoy, San Diego

McCoy I regard positively given his rejuvenation of Philip Rivers and his surprise consecutive winning seasons (including a playoff win!), but unlike with, say, Arians or Kelly, I’m much less certain how much credit he gets compared to Rivers. This is also more or less where I stand with Pagano, given that Andrew Luck guarantees a certain level of play every year. (I have heard he’s gotten more out of the defensive talent than could reasonably be expected, but I’m not sure that’s true.)

16. Mike Pettine, Cleveland
17. Gus Bradley, Jacksonville

I like the things Pettine says, I like that he got seven wins out of Cleveland this year, and I liked the job he did with Buffalo’s defense. The jury’s still out on him in a lot of ways, some of which are caused by the inherent dysfunction in the Browns organization.

Bradley, like Quinn, is another guy I like as being good at what he does and inspiring his team’s confidence in his leadership. That said, he’s going to have to show some improvement from consecutive 4-12 seasons. Jacksonville’s roster is getting better; he needs to get the most out of it.

18. Ron Rivera, Carolina

Rivera backed off the Riverboat Ron approach somewhat in 2014, and since it was his major advantage, he’s back in the middle of the pack. One winning season in four years really isn’t that inspiring (even if one of those losing seasons came with a playoff win).

19. Tom Coughlin, New York Giants

In the good, he’s got a significant winning history, including two Super Bowls with the Giants, and seems to maintain a certain floor of play and professionalism. In the bad, he’s 68 years old and the game may be leaving him behind, particularly when it comes to player health and maintenance. (He’s sort of the opposite of Chip Kelly in this regard, which may have something to do with why the Giants lose so many games to injury each year.) Ranks this high on merit, but I’m not sure I’d want him as a new hire at this point.

 

Tier 5: The Tomlin Line

20. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh

I can’t figure out if Tomlin is a positive or a negative. On the one hand, the team keeps winning under him. On the other, that could be more due to Ben Roethlisberger and the surrounding talent– first the defense, then when the defense started to falter, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, and crew. Tomlin often makes baffling in-game decisions regarding clock management, challenges, fourth downs, and the like. I struggle to pinpoint what he does well, but his teams keep winning. And unlike other coaches where I can find much clearer and more frequent examples of their poor in-game tactics costing them wins and equity, I can’t actually say if Tomlin’s bad decisions are enough to make him a net negative. It’s baffling. And that’s why I called the line of whether or not a coach is a detriment to his team “The Tomlin Line.”

 

Tier 6: Probably a negative overall

21. John Fox, Chicago

Still an upgrade from Marc Trestman, whose total failure of leadership still leaves me scratching my head. That said, Fox is inexcusably poor at in-game tactics, and his unwillingness to play rookies over less-talented veterans is another strike against him. He’s the guy I’d hire if I wanted a pretty good defense and didn’t have ambitions of going better than 7-9.

22. Mike McCarthy, Green Bay

This ranking is entirely credit for developing Aaron Rodgers. I haven’t figured out anything he’s done that provides value aside from that. His in-game cowardice is astonishing, whether it’s being put to use kicking an extra point down two in the fourth quarter of a must-win game, or in turtling up and blowing a lead in the NFC Championship game despite the world’s best quarterback and every other advantage on his side.

23. Jeff Fisher, St. Louis

His offensive philosophy is 40 years behind the times. I’ve written extensively on this site about his scumbag approach to coaching, which seems to involve cheap shots, after-whistle hits, and other unsportsmanlike attempts to bait the opposing team. He’s basically John Fox if you want players who will also beat people up. (Was anyone surprised that the Rams selected this guy in the supplemental draft?)

24. Gary Kubiak, Denver

I agreed with John Elway’s assessment that John Fox would not be the guy to take them over the hump. However, I think Gary Kubiak is even less suited to the job. He’s an even more incredible in-game coward than Fox, and seems to have even less ability to adjust his offensive philosophy or his gameplan to his opponents. If you want a coach who has one offensive plan to drive for a field goal, and no idea what to do when that plan fails, you hire Gary Kubiak. (I have written even more extensively about him on this site than I have Fisher.)

25. Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay

Well, we’ve disproven the idea that he provides stability and a certain floor of play. How in the hell do you manage to make this team worse than it was under Greg Schiano? I don’t think Smith is creative enough to adapt to the talent on hand or to what is necessary in the modern game.

26. Jason Garrett, Dallas

A 12-4 season moves him out of the basement tier– even with all the offensive talent on hand, Garrett still has to put it all together– but he’s also notoriously conservative in-game; Dez Bryant’s should-have-been-a-catch-by-all-logic wouldn’t have mattered if Garrett wasn’t afraid to put the pedal to the metal in earlier situations to actually try to score points.

27. Jim Caldwell, Detroit

A steady hand who provided an improvement over Jim Schwartz, which suggests that almost anyone would provide an improvement over Jim Schwartz. No coincidence that this tier has all three coaches whose cowardice cost their team NFC playoff games in January 2015.

28. Jim Tomsula, San Francisco

It’s not entirely fair to rank him this much lower than the other rookie head coaches, since I know so little about him. This ranking is entirely about how negatively I view San Francisco’s entire offseason process; apparently, Jed York is less interested in winning than in saving money, and Trent Baalke is less interested in winning than he is in having a coach who won’t make waves and doesn’t command any organizational authority. Tomsula has reasonable equity to be horribly in over his head, based on the circumstances of his hiring.

 

Tier 7: I would have fired them already

29. Jack Del Rio, Oakland

I would have fired Reggie McKenzie for making this hire. The only special thing Del Rio brought as a coach in his time in Jacksonville was an axe. McKenzie has now demonstrated, in two consecutive offseasons, that after clearing out cap space and getting to sign and hire his guys, that he wants to build a team of mediocre retreads. Last year, it was Matt Schaub, LaMarr Woodley, and Justin Tuck. This year, it’s Del Rio. When this fails, I assume Rich Kotite and Tommy Maddox will get the call next.

30. Joe Philbin, Miami

Any head coach who was so clueless about what was going on with his team that he was unaware of the locker-room bullying that went on with the Dolphins is a failure of a leader. (A head coach who manages to avoid responsibility for these things certainly is.) Any head coach who combines that with fearful in-game decision-making demonstrates a lack of both of the major qualities required of a successful head coach. Stephen Ross clearly likes Philbin a lot, given his insistence on keeping him as coach (an insistence which made it difficult for the team to land a GM). If I were running the Dolphins, I’d have fired Philbin and promoted Bill Lazor yesterday.

31. Ken Whisenhunt, Tennessee

On a 3-25 streak as head coach. Has a bizarre fetish for late-round QBs with big arms and no pocket presence or accuracy (Zach Mettenberger is Dan Marino compared to some of the QBs Whisenhunt tried to make it work with in Arizona). Two winning seasons out of a seven as a head coach, both of those bolstered by a future Hall of Fame quarterback.

I will say that Whisenhunt has more opportunity than anyone else at the bottom to elevate his ranking: If he can successfully develop Marcus Mariota, he can turn the Titans into winners, and he will deserve credit for that. I’m going to make him prove it before I raise him in my own rankings, though. (And this is as good a time as any to mention that I think Ruston Webster has a strong case to be the worst GM in the NFL.)

32. Jay Gruden, Washington

He’s too stubborn and inflexible to design an offense that suits his very talented quarterback. He publicly undermines said quarterback. He deflects responsibility and assigns blame. Nothing I see in Jay Gruden’s performance suggests head-coaching material. I’m shocked Washington managed to get worse at head coach after dismissing Negligent Mike Shanahan.

Thoughts on the recent NFL coaching changes

All in all, it was a pretty typical offseason as far as upheaval in the NFL head coaching ranks goes. Since the dust finally seems settled (only Atlanta’s head coaching job remains open, and it’s all but given that Seahawks DC Dan Quinn will immediately take it following the Super Bowl), I thought I’d look at all the moves made (and the moves not made) and offer my thoughts.

New York Jets

Though I like Rex Ryan as a head coach in general, I felt it was time for New York to move on from him. After six years, and nearly every major offensive component turning over at least once while Ryan was head coach– GMs, offensive coordinators, starting quarterbacks– the ultimate responsibility for failing to field an offense that could allow the team to compete is on him. (Chase Stuart of Football Perspective has a much more detailed account of Ryan’s flaws and the circumstances that demanded his firing.)

Todd Bowles has been a rising star in the coaching ranks after two years of maintaining the high standard of performance as Arizona’s defensive coordinator that was established when Ray Horton had the job. I think it’s a solid hire; I certainly prefer hiring a rising assistant to a known mediocrity.

I’m really intrigued by his hire of Chan Gailey as OC. While Gailey at first glance might seem like another face in a sea of retread coaches, he’s one of the more innovative faces there, having a history of developing unconventional offenses to maximize his talent at hand (most notably with Kansas City in 2008, when, left with only Tyler Thigpen at QB, he resorted to a spread attack similar to the one Thigpen ran at Coastal Carolina). That track record intrigues me, because it makes me think Gailey will do whatever is necessary to maximize his offensive talent and performance at QB– whether that QB is Geno Smith or someone else.

Buffalo Bills

In one of the most unusual moves in head-coaching history, Doug Marrone opted out of his contract due to a clause, that as far as I know, has never been executed in NFL history: The “If the owner dies and the team is sold, I can opt out of my deal after two years” contract. Marrone opted out of his deal, and though he was rumored as a hot head-coaching candidate for the available jobs, particularly the Jets and Falcons, he ultimately took the job of offensive line coach and assistant head coach in Jacksonville, not exactly a lateral move.

Marrone’s failure to find another head-coaching job wasn’t a total surprise; rumbles from Buffalo were that he was significantly overrated and had little to do with the team’s success (he’s an offensive coach, which means he is responsible for the team’s stagnant offense the last two seasons, and the complete disaster of the E.J. Manuel selection and development). Rex Ryan seems like a solid hire, although his specialty– rushing the passer– is something the team already does well, and he won’t fix the offensive problems the team has had the last several years.

Atlanta Falcons

I’m not surprised by Mike Smith’s firing: despite opening his career with five straight playoff appearances, the team cratered in 2013 and 2014, and while injuries and a thin roster played a serious part, so did his absolute terror at fourth-down situations and his inexplicable time management. The Falcons became a bad team at about the same time Smith lost his aggression on fourth-down situations.

I don’t know much about Dan Quinn, but he’s the second defensive coordinator to be hired away from Seattle since 2013, and I think Gus Bradley is doing well despite a poor record for two seasons. Without more specific information on Quinn, I expect he’s a solid hire, especially for a team that already has the most important building blocks to an elite passing offense and needs help revitalizing the defense.

Denver Broncos

I have mixed opinions about John Fox, but ultimately I think John Elway made a gutsy move to fire him. While Fox has always brought a solid defense with him wherever he goes, he actually doesn’t have a particularly impressive track record– only three winning seasons in ten before Peyton Manning became his starting quarterback; he’s basically the non-scumbag Jeff Fisher– and his overly conservative approach to offense was holding the team back. We saw it two years ago in the playoffs, when Fox sat on the ball at the end of the first half and again at regulation, despite having timeouts and, you know, possibly the greatest quarterback of all time behind center. This year, Fox seemed to not prepare for the divisional playoff game at all: the offense was anemic and a defense that had finished fourth in the regular season was invisible. I’ve heard rumors that Fox is one of those guys that treats the playoffs as “just another game,” not introducing new wrinkles or opponent-specific concepts into his gameplans. I think any coach that does this is giving up significant win equity, and in that sense, I absolutely agree with Elway that Fox would keep the team from reaching the next level.

Unfortunately, Elway replaced Fox with Gary Kubiak, someone even more averse to scoring points and offensive aggression (even more bizarre since he’s an offensive coach), and someone whose offensive system of play-action rollouts and bootlegs isn’t well-suited to Manning. I am skeptical this will work, and it would be a real shame if Peyton Manning’s career ended with another playoff upset caused in part by a head coach holding him back.

Chicago Bears

I ranked Marc Trestman much higher in my coaching rankings last year for a few reasons: I believed he had a much better sense of creating a strong offense and playing to his team’s strengths (Lovie Smith and his offensive coordinators stubbornly clung to deep dropbacks with a poor offensive line, subpar receiving talent, and removing Matt Forte at the goal line), as well as a much better sense of in-game situational management.

Fast-forward a year and it seems he completely lost the locker room. Obviously a guy has to go when that happens; what I don’t understand is how that happened. Without a better idea of why, I can’t say what Trestman should have done differently or if he deserves another chance to be a head coach someday. He’s on to be the new offensive coordinator in Baltimore, replacing Gary Kubiak.

John Fox is the new man in Chicago. If he can fix the defense, he’s a good hire, but you just read my concerns about him, and it’s possible he makes the offense even worse and more inconsistent than it was in 2014.

Oakland Raiders

Since the team dismissed Dennis Allen midseason and installed Tony Sparano as interim coach, a full-time replacement has been long in the making. I’m not sure why the team was so gung-ho about Jack Del Rio (and even more baffled that the team’s only apparent serious head coaching candidates were Del Rio and Sparano). Jokes about potentially dropping an axe on Khalil Mack’s foot aside, Del Rio has a 68-71 record as a head coach, with only two playoff appearances in nine seasons. The team looked at two mediocre retreads; I simply don’t understand the aversion to bringing in new blood, someone whose track record may be shorter but at least isn’t mediocre.

Del Rio’s first hire was Bill Musgrave as offensive coordinator. Musgrave’s history of coordinating NFL offenses is, frankly, not good. However, he was Matt Ryan’s quarterback coach for his first three years in the league, and I suppose Del Rio has some hope he can develop Derek Carr in the same manner. Or maybe Del Rio is just hiring his old buddy from the 2003-04 Jaguars (team record: 14-18). Given that Del Rio’s head-coaching record screams “mediocre retread,” my first thought is that Musgrave falls into the same category.

(Yes, I used the phrase “mediocre retread” a lot. Get used to it. The NFL has Mediocre Retread Syndrome.)

San Francisco 49ers

Jim Tomsula may be an inspired head-coaching hire, but I strongly believe this was the culmination of a series of moves designed to compete long enough simply to secure a new stadium before returning to running the team on the cheap. Jed York should be embarrassed.

Other Situations

  • Miami: I don’t know why the team retained Joe Philbin. Bill Lazor was a smart OC hire, and one of the biggest reasons the team improved, but Philbin still seems clueless and cowardly when it comes to in-game decisions.
    Of course, the entire power structure in Miami is a mess, and the team just brought in Mike Tannenbaum for some reason, so I’ll continue to expect a certain level of dysfunction from the team as long as Stephen Ross owns it.
  • Tennessee: This is the horrible team no one talks about. Ruston Webster has been embarrassingly bad at identifying talent (the guy brought you the Shonn Greene – Bishop Sankey two-headed backfield; need I say more?). Without Kurt Warner to carry him, Ken Whisenhunt has never shown anything as a head coach except a fascination for QBs with huge arms and horrible accuracy.
    Bud Adams died (good riddance to the guy who robbed Houston of the Oilers franchise) and his son Tommy seems yet to have noticed how terrible his team is. I’d clean out everyone; Adams the Younger barely seems to have considered that option after a 2-14 season where the team was completely non-competitive outside of a bizarre fluke week 1 win.
  • Washington: Jay Gruden doesn’t want to work with Robert Griffin. Jay Gruden should be fired, then. Quarterbacks with Griffin’s talent are rare, and if you’re a coach who refuses to maximize those talents, you are not doing your job and should be fired for cause.
    Scot McCloughan is an inspired choice to head personnel, but who knows what actual power he’ll wield for the league’s most dysfunctional franchise? The most interesting thing about the Washington franchise is how deep Dan Snyder will dig in to embarrass himself over the team’s racist nickname.
  • Tampa Bay: Hopefully Lovie Smith’s performance this year forever dispels the myth of “steady veteran leadership” at the head coaching position. I didn’t think it was possible for this team to be worse than it was under Greg Schiano last year, but, surprise!
    The team is alarmingly bereft of talent and very few of their free-agent signings and draft picks have worked. (Really, the team should promote whoever’s in charge of wide receiver scouting to run things, because Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson have been the only clear successes.) Much like their South Beach counterparts, this team has a messy org chart and a certain level of dysfunction that seems to stem from the very top. (Jacksonville may well have the brightest future of the Florida teams.)

What’s Wrong with the Saints?

After the last few weeks, I can no longer pretend the New Orleans Saints’ fortunes this season are a result of bad luck, getting bad breaks at the end of close games. This may have been true early on, but it’s clear the team is overall performing significantly worse than expected this season, and, with the Carolina game as evidence, is capable of even lower lows than I’d previously thought possible. After playing arguably the worst game any team has played all season, a 41-10 home loss to a 3-8-1 team that was somehow not as close as that score suggests, New Orleans sits at 5-8, still with a chance to make the playoffs but with a team that is a total mess.

I’m going to try to take a look at what’s gone wrong this year, from specific problems to general trends. A game this week against a team that’s possibly more dysfunctional than the Saints might help, but they can’t count on that every week, so here’s what they need to honestly examine and start repairing.

 

Offense:

1. The receivers aren’t getting it done

Marques Colston has gone overnight from a receiver with excellent hands and body control to having one of the highest drop rates in the league. Jimmy Graham has disappeared from multiple games and seems increasingly averse to contact. Darren Sproles’ absence has really hurt the team’s ability to spread the field in the passing game. Brandin Cooks had been fine until he was placed on IR, but comparing the draft capital spent on him to the returns some of the other members of the 2014 receiver class have provided has to be a little disappointing.

Kenny Stills is the biggest bright spot, a steal of a fifth-round receiver who was used primarily as a deep threat his rookie year but has strong route-running and ball skills. Still, though, this receiving crew has turned thin overnight, and the team passed on a chance to add multiple parts in the draft this year (more on that later).

2. Brees has made some sloppy decisions

Drew Brees hasn’t declined as much as some observers want to claim, but at a time when the rest of the team seems to be slowly declining as well, any mistakes he makes are magnified. He’s made some baffling decisions that have cost games– think the late interception in Detroit. He’s thrown multiple pick-sixes again.

If the rumors they want to take a QB high in 2015 are true, it only disappoints me even more that they didn’t stand pat at No. 27 and take Teddy Bridgewater. (If there’s one team that should appreciate an accurate, decision-sharp, but physically underwhelming QB, it’s the New Orleans Saints.) Of course, Brees’ struggles are in part due to points 1 and 3…

3. The line is not living up to expectations

The team let Brian de la Puente, a Pro Bowl center and another one of their undrafted free agent finds, walk in the offseason. They’ve generally done well with their next-man-up philosophy to not overpay middling or slightly-above-average talent, but occasionally they miss and don’t have a backup plan. Tim Lelito, a fine run blocker, wasn’t ready to take over at center, so the team signed 35-year-old Jonathan Goodwin back away from San Francisco (after they’d poached the New Orleans free agent a few years back). He has been… adequate.

Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs aren’t quite playing to their expected level anymore. The whole team is aging, and collectively, each player’s small decline is adding up to a serious decline overall.

4. The play-calling can get silly

Sometimes I think Sean Payton is a little too interested in coming up with clever or creative ways to get one yard. Other times I think he calls too many plays with limited options despite having a quarterback who’s among the best at surveying the field and making the best of multiple decisions. Other times, he leaves Jimmy Graham off the field in the situations he’s designed for.

Payton’s fourth-and-short play calling in the last two years has included a fullback dive, a designed pass to the fullback in the flat, a quarterback sneak by a guy who measures six-foot-even, quite a few tosses or slow-developing stretch runs to Mark Ingram, and, in the coup de grâce for opinions of Payton’s short-yardage play-calling, a third-string tight end getting a handoff on an end-around. Payton seems to love being either overly fancy or utterly predictable in these situations. The Saints are at their best when they do what they do best– namely, give Drew Brees options, and make sure one of those options is Jimmy Graham.

 

Defense:

1. An overall lack of talent

I’d like to take a minute to talk about how the current Saints roster has been a bit hamstrung by two things:

  • The Bountygate penalties stripped two second-round draft picks from the team, players who could reasonably be expected to be above-average starters. (Now that Roger Goodell has been revealed to be a total fraud when it comes to being moral and just in his adjudication, this seems much more unfair. You can read Houston attorney Stephanie Stradley’s excellent series on Bountygate for more detail; this is a good start.)
  • The Saints keep trading up in the first round, and it keeps costing them picks that could be used for depth.

Since 1999, the Saints have traded up six times in or into the first round. (The 1999 trade was all Mike Ditka, but the next five were current GM Mickey Loomis’ decisions, so he bears serious responsibility for this approach to drafting.) Some cursory research suggests this is easily the highest number of any team in this time. What’s worse, they keep doing it even though the results don’t seem to really merit it:

  • 1999: The Saints trade their entire draft, plus next year’s first- and third-rounders, to Washington to move up for Ricky Williams. He is with the team for three years before being traded to Miami, although the team does get a first-round pick back for him. Unfortunately…
  • 2003: The Saints trade their first-round pick (No. 17) and Miami’s first-round pick (No. 18), to move up to No. 6, while also moving up from No. 54 to No. 37 in the second round, and acquiring the No. 102 pick in the fourth round.
    At 6, they select defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan, who turns out to be a tremendous bust who ate his way out of the league after three seasons. To add insult to injury, defensive tackle Kevin Williams was taken No. 9; he enjoyed perennial Pro Bowls in his prime and is still in the league in his 13th season.
    (Another fun note: While No. 37 selection Jon Stinchcomb enjoyed a fine career as the Saints right tackle, the No. 54 selection was Anquan Boldin, of whom it’s safe to say he’s had the better career.)
  • 2005: The Saints trade No. 16 and their 2006 third-rounder to the Texans for No. 13. They take Jammal Brown, which was a surprise, as most pundits had Alex Barron as the higher-ranked OT. It was the right decision, though: Barron was a bust, as was DT Travis Johnson (the Texans’ selection at 16). Meanwhile, Brown made All-Pro in his second season. Unfortunately, a hip injury sidelined him for all of 2009, and the Saints, confident that 2007 fourth-rounder Jermon Bushrod could handle the job, subsequently traded Brown to Washington for what ended up being a 2011 third-round pick (see below as to how they used that pick).
    As a footnote, the third-rounder the Saints surrendered was used to select Eric Winston, who never reached the heights Brown did as a player, but was a very good right tackle for Houston who never missed a game in seven seasons. So if you’re keeping score, the Saints got four years of Pro Bowl-caliber play by trading a pick that netted seven years of above-average play– and this was one of their most successful first-round trades.
  • 2008: The Saints trade their first-round pick (No. 10) and third-round pick (No. 78) to New England for their first- (No. 7) and fifth- (No. 164) picks. This isn’t much value to give up, but the Saints select defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, who gives them five mostly disinterested years before retiring when his rookie contract expires. (Rumors were that the Saints wanted to give up a king’s ransom to move up to No. 5 to select Glenn Dorsey, which the Chiefs refused; that would have been much worse simply for the amount of draft capital lost.) Naturally, the Patriots’ selection at 10, Jerod Mayo, has enjoyed a career as one of the better inside linebackers in the league.
    This one has a silver lining, though: the No. 164 pick was Carl Nicks, who was one of the best guards in the league for the four years he was with the Saints, before signing a huge free-agent deal with Tampa Bay. (Tampa Bay being Tampa Bay, he then immediately suffered a toe injury and a MRSA infection that crippled his effectiveness to the point where the team released him (in a mutual decision) in July.)
  • 2011: The Saints trade their second-round pick and next year’s first-round pick for New England’s No. 28 first-round pick, then select Mark Ingram. You probably know how I feel about running backs as fungible assets. You probably also know how I feel about physically mediocre running backs with substandard moves and vision who take four years to finally become effective. An awful decision that even the best running of Ingram’s career hasn’t made look better. (Or the fact that by staying put in the second round, the Saints could have just drafted DeMarco Murray instead.)
    Some bad luck here: The Saints’ third-round pick was No. 72; the No. 70 selection was Justin Houston and the No. 71 was Murray. At 72, the Saints selected Martez Wilson, a similarly-graded prospect whom they released after two and a half seasons and who is currently not under contract anywhere in the NFL.
  • 2014: In the deepest wide receiver draft in history, the Saints trade up from No. 27 to No. 20 to select Brandin Cooks. Cooks was having a fine enough year (if not in the league of the other first-round rookies) until he went on injured reserve, but it’s arguable that the receiver Arizona selected with the Saints’ third-round pick, John Brown, has been nearly as productive as Cooks (and would be just as productive if the Drew throwing to him was named Brees and not Stanton).

I bring up all this in the section on defense because the team likes to make mention of how many undrafted free-agent rookies they find and are able to get contributions out of. Well, it’s time to face the flipside of that coin: They often do this because they have to, because their trading up spreads their draft capital too thin. And this year, those guys have not been getting it done. (To be fair, neither have most of the drafted guys.) When you trade up constantly, you lose the steady stream of day one and two picks that are supposed to be your starters, the core of your team. When you lose that stream, you have to start looking at lower picks, undrafted free agents, and cheap veteran free agents to fill those roles.

Sometimes you get a great contributor (Junior “SACKMAN” Galette has been one of the more valuable UDFAs in recent memory), but more often, you have guys who are simply overmatched. While the Saints have found some late-round and undrafted gems, this well simply doesn’t have a high enough success rate to be able to sustain building a team this way in lieu of day one and day two picks. As a result, the overall level of talent is just not there. There are Pro Bowl players on the defense, but no real star. And once you get beyond the five or so best players on the defense, the cracks show pretty quickly.

2. Jairus Byrd might be a colossal bust

The Byrd signing was a gamble, especially given his history of foot injuries, but if he was able to play at the expected level, he would have been a valuable addition to the Saints’ defense, a center fielder who range would allow the team to mix and match a variety of looks and coverages in front of him. That never materialized. I certainly don’t regret letting Malcolm Jenkins (another first-rounder who never lived up to expectations) walk, but without either one of them, the position is undeniably downgraded.

The real issue is if Byrd can’t rebound: The Saints’ gamble on offering him a major contract may quickly turn into an albatross. Rebuilding will be even harder with the guaranteed money facing Byrd tied to the cap for a player who can’t play.

3. Still can’t find a second cornerback

The team might want to start thinking about finding some new scouting for the secondary, because this isn’t about a lack of capital. The team nailed the Jabari Greer and Keenan Lewis signings, correctly identifying underrated corners who were strong in coverage, but virtually every other move at the cornerback position has failed: from signing Jason David to drafting Patrick Robinson in the first round to drafting Johnny Patrick in the third round to signing Champ Bailey this year (a signing that cost them $500,000 guaranteed for a player who never played a snap) to drafting Stanley Jean-Baptiste this year, none of their significant moves have worked out. The team is getting significant minutes from Corey White (2012 fifth-rounder) and Brian Dixon (undrafted rookie) out of sheer necessity, because so many of their other attempts to find cornerbacks haven’t worked. And, unsurprisingly, they’ve been overmatched. (Greer’s ACL tear, which effectively ended his career, is the hidden explanation for the Saints’ struggles– the team simply no longer has a second capable cover corner.)

The Jean-Baptiste one is the most baffling. As someone who had Phillip Gaines rated as a first-rounder, it’s been a little frustrating seeing him move into Kansas City’s starting lineup while the Saints struggle at the position, but even so, I thought Jean-Baptiste was someone who had enough natural talent to get on the field right away. Instead, he’s played eight total snaps on defense this year. That’s less than one snap a game. I don’t know why SJB can’t get more playing time, unless he’s completely unable to pick up the defense. If that’s the case, it’s unacceptable to use a high pick on someone without verifying that sort of thing. (I admit, in my own ranking of Jean-Baptiste, I failed to account sufficiently for his combination of rawness and age– I can live with a 21-year-old who needs some time to get up to speed, but a 24-year-old needs to be able to contribute almost immediately.)

The only team that’s gotten less contribution out of a corner taken in the first three rounds is the Jets, who drafted Dexter McDougle early in the third round despite the fact that he missed most of his final season at Maryland with an injury, only to see him succumb to another season-ending injury before the year even started.

The Saints simply have to do better at identifying and developing starting-caliber cornerback talent.

4. Nobody can tackle

I don’t know how you teach a team to tackle. I also don’t know how you teach a team to take proper angles of pursuit. These are pretty basic fundamentals; NFL players should know them by the time they get to the Show.

The Saints have a lot of rebuilding to do. It’s possible the Drew Brees era is functionally over, due to the decline of the talent around him. By the time the cap room is cleared and the roster is re-stocked, he may be too old to benefit. For the most part, the Mickey Loomis – Sean Payton team has been able to build a contending roster around Brees that maximizes his skills. As he ages and the talent around him declines, though, it’s time they looked honestly at what they’re doing wrong in roster building and start making the changes that will allow them to return to perennial contention.

This story has been updated to reflect the Saints’ 2005 first-round trade. GM Mickey Loomis has traded up in the first round five times in twelve seasons.

Midseason Review: NFC South

I’ll try to get a series of midseason reviews about various divisions done this week. I may not get to all of them, so I’ll try to start with the ones that interest me the most.

NFC SOUTH

New Orleans Saints
Current record: 4-4

The Saints lead the division, although they’d surely like to have a better record at this point. Losing three close games on the road in rough fashion has held them back early on. That said, they did look shakier in the early season than they have since the bye, barely beating Tampa Bay and struggling to put away Minnesota.

Two solid wins against Green Bay and at Carolina indicate that the team is a lot better than the one that struggled for six weeks. The question is: Were the better performances the result of favorable matchups, or of sustainable improvements on both sides of the ball? It’s a question with evidence to support each argument: Green Bay only stopped scoring when Aaron Rodgers was hurt, and the Saints match up particularly well with a Carolina team with one serious receiving option and a porous offensive line. On the other hand, getting Mark Ingram and Kenny Stills back to full health opened up the offense, and Rob Ryan may have used the bye week to re-engineer a defense that was conceived around the free-range ability of Jairus Byrd. For those reasons, the Saints may be the most intriguing story of the second half of the season, as they try to prove they are a real Super Bowl contender.

Carolina Panthers
Current record: 3-5-1

Losing Greg Hardy has been more difficult on the defense than I think anyone anticipated. Kelvin Benjamin has played incredibly well, all things considered, but the same problems that were perceived in this team before the season continue to surface: An undermanned offensive line and receiver crew, running backs who can’t stay healthy, and a lack of talent in the back four on defense. This roster needs to be rebuilt, and it needs to be done before Cam Newton develops too many bad habits from working with subpar talent.

Atlanta Falcons
Current record: 2-6

All that draft-day trading up and top-heavy team-building has come to roost the last two seasons for the Falcons, as injuries and lack of cap room have left them with multiple subpar units. After 2012, it would have been crazy to suggest anyone in the Falcons’ braintrust might be in jeopardy, yet less than two years later, here we are.

The team needs to build a healthy offensive line and a pass rush before it can consider itself a playoff contender again. I know this is an unreasonably short writeup, but there’s not much to say: The good (Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Desmond Trufant, eventually Jake Matthews) and bad (just about everything else) with this team are pretty obvious.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Current record: 1-7

I feel like “solid” and “high floor”, when used to describe draft prospects, often means “low ceiling.” I can’t tell you how many guys I’ve heard described that way have just been complete busts (Aaron Curry and Jason Smith are two of the more recent ones; Luke Joeckel is heading there). All this is a metaphor for Lovie Smith’s “veteran coaching presence.” His supposed “high floor” isn’t manifesting itself; the roster has a decided lack of talent and he’s doing nothing to get any kind of special performance out of it. Lovie Smith was supposed to be a throwback to the Dungy era, but right now, it’s looking more like the Hugh Culverhouse years.

Mike Glennon is probably not the answer, but he hasn’t been outright terrible, either. That said, no matter how the team goes about it, they need a real passing game to compete in the modern NFL. Smith doesn’t have much of a track record of delivering those.

Post-script: After I initially wrote this, Smith announced Josh McCown would return to being the starter. He also said Mike Glennon was still “the future of this team.” Those things appear to me to be mutually exclusive, but what do I know, I’m not an NFL head coach (of a 1-7 team).

First thoughts on free agency

Jairus Byrd good! Chris Williams bad! Okay, now that we’ve gotten those two out of the way, let’s move on to the ugly. Just a quick thought about one team’s inexplicable move that I feel reveals a limit on their ceiling…

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