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.)
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Our top 20 day-three draft values

I wanted to wait to write this column until the 53-man roster deadline had passed, until teams had used the waiver wire to stock the bottom of their rosters from other team’s castoffs. Now that the dust has settled, we’ll look at some day-three picks we really like. These players represent a combination of value at their selection, contribution right away, and potential down the line. I’ve ranked them by order in which we had them ranked.

20. Seantrel Henderson, OT, Miami-FL
Buffalo Bills, Round 7, Pick 237
#123 overall, #14 OT

Henderson was an unusual prospect to grade, with worlds of physical talent dragged down by off-field problems and laziness in developing his technique. It was never clear at Miami whether he just needed good coaching or didn’t have the mental attitude, but all indicators are that he’ll start at right tackle for the Bills over second-round pick Cyrus Kouandijo.

19. E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri
St. Louis Rams, Round 6, Pick 188
#112 overall, #13 CB

Gaines is currently penciled in as one of the Rams’ starting cornerbacks opposite Janoris Jenkins. He had some strong games in the preseason, and while we believed in his abilities as a solid cover corner in various coverages, even we didn’t project a week-one starter.

18. Ronald Powell, LB, Florida
New Orleans Saints, Round 5, Pick 169
#105 overall, #7 LB

It should be no surprise that Powell ended up on Rob Ryan’s Saints defense, as his versatility was a highlight on film. Let vix tell you more.

17. Jonathan Newsome, OLB, Ball State
Indianapolis Colts, Round 5, Pick 166
#104 overall, #15 ER

He popped on film, showing occasional flashes of high-level athleticism, but he also played at Ball State. Developmental, but loads of potential here.

16. David Fales, QB, San Jose State
Chicago Bears, Round 6, Pick 183
#103 overall, #7 QB

Fales has a subpar arm, but showed some good skills in read progressions and decision-making. He didn’t post another 70%+ completion percentage in his senior year, but he was accurate enough. If he can develop his arm strength and refine his skills, he could have a solid career in the league.

15. Corey Linsley, C, Ohio State
Green Bay Packers, Round 5, Pick 161
#101 overall, #2 C

Linsley was a late riser on our board, someone whose film turned out to be significantly better than expected. Conveniently enough for us, we’re going to see just how well that translates to the field very soon, thanks to J.C. Tretter’s injury.

14. Avery Williamson, LB, Kentucky
Tennessee Titans, Round 5, Pick 151
#92 overall, #6 LB

Williamson was a star on the field for the Wildcats, a legitimate three-down linebacker who is strong at shedding blocks and making tackles while also being strong in pass coverage. He held his own for an overmatched Kentucky team, and don’t be surprised if he’s starting in the middle for the Titans soon.

13. Tre Boston, S, North Carolina
Carolina Panthers, Round 4, Pick 128
#87 overall,  #6 S

Safety may be one of the more difficult positions for us to evaluate, as reliable all-22 film that includes full footage of the back end is tough to find. That said, Boston graded out well for us as a versatile safety who can tackle and hit. Given Carolina’s losses at safety in free agency (and the past-their-prime veterans they signed to fill the gaps), Boston could be starting sooner rather than later. At least he’ll have a front seven capable of making his job easy. Let vix take you into more detail.

12. Carl Bradford, OLB, Arizona State
Green Bay Packers, Round 4, Pick 121
#85 overall, #13 ER

Bradford needs some development to reach his potential but he showed high levels of athleticism, mostly as an edge rusher but occasionally in coverage too. He won’t be rushed into action in Green Bay; if he works on his craft and develops his technique and strength, he could be a solid all-around player.

11. Kevin Norwood, WR, Alabama
Seattle Seahawks, Round 4, Pick 123
#81 overall, #14 WR

Norwood was mostly regarded as a deep threat at Alabama, which is a little unfair, as he possesses quite a wide range of receiver skills, as well as good size and speed for the position. He had a camp injury that’s kept him buried on Seattle’s depth chart, but long-term he should be part of their rotation, perhaps even one day starting opposite Paul Richardson on the outside.

10. Bruce Ellington, WR, South Carolina
San Francisco 49ers, Round 4, Pick 106
#77 overall,#13 WR

Ellington is a unique player, a speedy little slot receiver with moves, maneuvers, and vision like a running back. He’ll never be a traditional #1, but he’s the kind of guy who can have a role right away, and I hope the 49ers make the most of his skills. Vix can’t say enough good things about him.

9. Pierre Desir, CB, Lindenwood
Cleveland Browns, Round 4, Pick 127
#75 overall, #10 CB

I had to look up where Lindenwood is, too. Small-school prospects with little to no film against comparable competition are always a gamble, but Desir’s size-speed combo makes him worth it. (Supposedly there’s a tape out there where Desir goes up against John Brown of Pittsburgh St. (KS), Arizona’s third-round selection, but I haven’t been able to locate a copy.)

8. DaQuan Jones, DT, Penn State
Tennessee Titans, Round 4, Pick 112
#67 overall,#8 DL

We may have been overrating the very large men who tend to leave the field during passing downs, as we put a number of defensive tackles higher on our board than where they actually were drafted. That said: Jones stands out a consistent, explosive force up the middle who if nothing else will force teams to keep blockers on him if they don’t want him in their backfields.

7. Caraun Reid, DT, Princeton
Detroit Lions, Round 5, Pick 158
#59 overall, #6 DL

Another guy whose level of college competition surely caused NFL teams to be more bearish on him than we were. We saw a guy who, when he wasn’t getting double-teamed, showed great quickness and pad level for his size and ability to rush the passer from a 3-technique. Perhaps Akiem Hicks is a good comparison for possible upside.

6. Ross Cockrell, CB, Duke
Buffalo Bills, Round 4, Pick 109
#56 overall, #8 CB

Not a prospect with outstanding measurables, but man, can he play. Watch his tape from the Chick-Fil-A bowl against Texas A&M: In a game the Blue Devils eventually lost 52-48 (!), Cockrell was largely left in man coverage against Mike Evans and held him to four catches and no scores.

5. Martavis Bryant, WR, Clemson
Pittsburgh Steelers, Round 4, Pick 118
#53 overall,#9 WR

Bryant is a very raw prospect, but he’s a physical specimen. Considering guys with his kind of measurables who are even less developed as prospects go in the second round (Why hello there, latest member of the Carolina Panthers practice squad). It’s always a risk whether or not a guy like this develops, but he has admitted that he didn’t take his game as seriously in the past as he does now, which is a great sign of maturity especially for a young prospect. Even though he was inconsistent in college, he wasn’t so much so that you couldn’t reliably throw to him.

4. David Yankey, G, Stanford
Minnesota Vikings, Round 5, Pick 145
#47 overall,#5 OG

Yankey was a prospect much more highly rated in the public eye until he started sliding close to the draft, winding up in the fifth round. We still liked what we saw: a guard with terrific athleticism and great ability to pull, whose blocking needed some refinement but who should still be a solidly capable starter sooner rather than later. Maybe teams didn’t like that he slid inside in 2013 to make room for top offensive tackle prospect Andrus Peat.

More on David Yankey.

3. Dakota Dozier, G/T, Furman
New York Jets, Round 4, Pick 137
#42 overall,#3 OG / #7 OT

What we liked about Dozier that elevated him over your typical small-school lineman prospect was what we saw in his footwork. He’s still developmental to a degree, naturally, but he has the feet to make us think he could play tackle someday (and has a non-zero chance to become a positive left tackle).

2. Telvin Smith, LB, Florida State
Jacksonville Jaguars, Round 5, Pick 144
#34 overall, #1 LB

Smith fell in part because of a positive marijuana test at the Combine. He may have fallen in part because of his size. But for a linebacker prospect, his game speed is incredible, his coverage skills are excellent, and he’s still pretty solid at tackling and run support. C.J. Mosley is the better prospect as a classic every-down middle linebacker, but in a game that’s becoming less about big hits and more about speed and the aerial attack, Smith could be the kind of valuable coverage linebacker that doesn’t come along too often.

Our mystery mountain man of tape, vixticator, breaks him down further.

1. Zach Mettenberger, QB, LSU
Tennessee Titans, Round 6, Pick 178
#30 overall, #4 QB

vix’s breakdown

For perspective, we had Mettenberger ranked higher than Derek Carr. That was an outlier stance- Carr has much more physical talent overall, and comparing their athleticism would be unfair and mean– but Mettenberger combined a cannon arm with good decision-making and the willingness to stand in the pocket and take a hit. He played QB at a high level for LSU last year, and in the preseason showed some flashes he could develop into a throwback QB, a cannon-armed statue. Sadly for Jake Locker fans, I think that development may need to show as soon as next year.

Is this the year the AFC East becomes competitive?

Betteridge’s Law of Headlines suggests the answer is “No,” of course. But I have reason to believe, even if the division race ends up becoming another laugher the Patriots have locked up by December, that the other three teams are at least taking the right approach to building a contender. After a decade-plus of Patriots dominance, only occasionally interrupted by fluke ACL tears and standings tiebreakers, the other three teams have realized something New England has known since installing Tom Brady in the driver’s seat: the offensive passing game is the key to consistent long-term success.

Let’s look at what each of those other teams has done to upgrade their passing game this offseason.

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The Jets infusion of young receivers

I previously wrote that I wasn’t in love with the Jets offseason, but that it was decent enough.¬†Like any other fan, I’ve been slowly coming around on that. Unlike most other fans, it has been due to watching 2013 film of these prospects.

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Offseason GM: AFC East

Need to pick up the pace here as teams are already starting to make some moves; the Eagles have already resigned both of Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin, franchise tags have been used on Greg Hardy and Jimmy Graham, and Jordan Gross has retired. In other news, the official cap ceiling has been released, and it’s all the way at $133M, much higher than the initially projected $120M.

Next up in the Offseason GM series will be the AFC East. The AFC may be a bit weaker than the NFC, but this division is likely to improve quite a bit the next few years. The entire division is in a very sound financial position, and stands to be pretty competitive in 2014.

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Four More Teams, Part 3

I started this column by picking four teams whose drafts I wanted to critique, just as in the last two posts, but as I began writing, I started to include off-season moves and recent drafts for context, and I began to notice that these organizations all seem to have some systemic problems.

I try to examine why. Not surprisingly, I think in many cases it goes back to the owners. Poor owners make poor hiring decisions, either because they don’t evaluate front-office talent well or because good front-office talent doesn’t want to work with them because of the owners’ flaws, from stinginess to excessive meddling to general incompetence.

Let’s look at how the recent moves these teams made fit into a chain of bad decision-making– and, in one case, how they could be signs of an end of an era of it. This one’s a fair bit longer than the last two…

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Offseason Review: Kansas City Chiefs

(ed. note: This is cross-posted at Ditka in a Box.)

With 2012, the chapter was closed on a Kansas City Chiefs lesson the New York Jets, Cleveland Browns, and Denver Broncos already learned: Hiring someone from Bill Belichick’s crew to run your personnel department results in terrible talent evaluation and decision more often than not made for ego gratification as for putting the best team on the field. Kansas City fired GM Scott Pioli and head coach Romeo Crennel at the end of 2012, a 2-14 team season where the team’s six Pro Bowl players only served to underscore just how bad the rest of the roster had gotten under Pioli (and how completely disengaged Crennel had become from his job).

Owner Clark Hunt moved quickly: He hired Andy Reid as soon as reasonably possible and plucked John Dorsey from Green Bay’s scouting department to be his GM. The two men, both possessed of solid credentials, went straight to work building the team in their image.

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