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FR: 2012 Coaching Changes

Each year, we review and compare new head coaches in the NFL. This year’s entries:
*Kansas City (Romeo Crennel, who was the interim, replacing Todd Haley)
*Jacksonsville (Mike Mularkey, replacing interim Mel Tucker, who replaced Jack Del Rio)
*St. Louis (Jeff Fisher, replacing Steve Spagnuolo)
*Miami (Joe Philbin, replacing interim Todd Bowles, who replaced Tony Sparano)
*Oakland (Dennis Allen, replacing Hue Jackson)
*Indianapolis (Chuck Pagano, replacing Jim Caldwell)
*Tampa Bay (Greg Schiano, replacing Raheem Morris)

We put these hires through the theory of relativity. We’ll do it on a 10-point scale, with 10 being the best possible hire, and 1 being the worst possible hire.

10 – Jeff Fisher, Rams – In an offseason where many big names circulated around the coaching carousel, Fisher is the one who actually landed. The former Titans coach provided stability for an organization that didn’t really have it otherwise in Tennessee, and the results were 142 wins, six playoff appearances, and one AFC championship over 17 years. Fisher never had elite talent, but he always had a physical team that played good defense and ran the ball well. And when he got a quarterback with toughness – as with the late Steve McNair – he won. Now he goes to St. Louis, where he becomes the seventh coach (including interims) since 2005. The Rams desperately need stability, and Fisher brings that. He should help a defense with nice, young front seven pieces play better, and he will set about fixing an offensive line that has struggled despite massive investment in the draft and in free agency. Most of all, his job is to develop a system that allows promising young QB Sam Bradford to prosper. (We covered what Fisher’s arrival means to RB Steven Jackson previously in this post.) Fisher may not be a Hall of Fame level coach, but he is a good one, and he should help in St. Louis.

9 – none

8 – none

7 – Chuck Pagano, Colts – I don’t know why I have such a good feeling about the fit of Pagano and the Colts. Pagano’s NFL resume isn’t that long – he has spent most of his coaching career in college – and he served as a coordinator for just one year at the NFL level. But his Ravens defense was solid this season, and he certainly had plenty of big personalities to contend with in Baltimore. Now this coaching lifer – who has also been a secondary coach in Cleveland and Oakland – leaps to the big job. When he has been in the media, he has showed personality, and all reports say he was hyper-prepared for his Colts interview. The one potential glitch in this mix is how Pagano will develop a young quarterback – either Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III – coming in as a rookie. Undoubtedly, the Colts asked that question in the interview, and they must have liked Pagano’s answer. And stepping into a situation with a franchise quarterback coming in off the bat is good fortune for Pagano. Plus, the recent history of Ravens defensive coordinators to become head coaches (Marvin Lewis, Rex Ryan for example) is pretty good. His staff will be key, but the early returns on Pagano and the Colts seem very promising.

6 – Mike Mularkey, Jaguars – We discussed the reasons behind hiring Mularkey and what his biggest job in Jacksonville is in this post. We like the move even more now that he has kept Mel Tucker around as defensive coordinator. Ultimately, we like this move more than most second-time coaches. Mularkey is still a good prospect and a worthwhile hire.

English: Tennessee Titans head coach on the si...

New Rams head coach Jeff Fisher. Image via Wikipedia

5 – Dennis Allen, Raiders – The Raiders, who were widely assumed to be importing a Packers assistant now that Reggie McKenzie is the GM, instead hired Broncos defensive coordinator Allen. Allen doesn’t have a long resume, but he did a nice job with the Denver defense this year after a few years as the Saints secondary coach. The fact that Allen was hired off John Fox’s staff could be a good precedent; a similar thing happened when Jacksonville plucked defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio off Fox’s staff after his first year in Carolina. Allen is just 39, but he’s obviously a sharp coach, and former players have credited his people skills as well. But the Raiders’ culture isn’t necessarily one bred for success at this point. There is a commitment to excellence, but there isn’t a commitment to the things excellence requires – like discipline, shrewd salary-cap management, and more. McKenzie will start trying to fix those things, but the question is whether being the first coach in the rebuilding process is ideal. Still, Allen inherits a talented roster, and he knows the AFC West. He needs to find a strong offensive voice, but that could still happen. So he has a real shot in his first head-coaching job – which isn’t a bad situation at age 39.

4 – Greg Schiano, Buccaneers – The Buccaneers, apparently entranced by Jim Harbaugh’s first-season success, first chased Oregon’s Chip Kelly before landing Schiano from Rutgers. Schiano did a remarkable job of taking Rutgers from being the dregs of college football to being respectable, although he couldn’t take the final step to a BCS bowl out of the Big East. Still, he has a solid resume that includes NFL experience as a defensive backs coach with the Bears. He is well respected, and Bill Belichick’s public respect undoubtedly helped Schiano land the job in Tampa Bay. Now he must show that he can coach, not just recruit. The Bucs have a young roster, and the fact that Tampa Bay has taken a lot of gambles on talented players with questionable character certainly contributed to the 10-game losing streak that cost Raheem Morris his job. Schiano must make the team tougher as he develops the skills of guys like QB Josh Freeman, DE Adrian Clayborn, and MLB Mason Foster. That means Schiano’s staff will be of paramount importance. We never love the idea of college coaches going to the pros, and a coach who made his bones as a recruiter the way Schiano did is even more of a question mark. But if Schiano can add toughness, the talent is present for Tampa Bay to tick up quickly.

3 – Joe Philbin, Dolphins – Philbin, who spent his entire NFL coaching career with the Packers after joining the team in 2003, was an under-the-radar selection who gained serious momentum with the Packers’ offensive explosion this season. Everyone who has worked with Philbin speaks highly of him, both as a strategist and in terms of working with people. If that’s the case, then he could end up being a fine selection. But he represents a departure from the offensive system the Dolphins were using, and a transition to the West Coast offense could lead the team downward before it surges. Plus, owner Stephen Ross really wanted a high-profile hire – he chased Jim Harbaugh and Jeff Fisher the last two offseasons – so it’s hard to imagine how much rope Philbin will get in Miami. Philbin’s a good head-coaching candidate, but this is a strange place for him to land.

2 – none

1 – Romeo Crennel, Chiefs – We discussed why the Crennel hire is a bad idea in this post.

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Finding a Fit: Matt Light

After a few weeks off to focus on other news, go to Wayfarer Camp, and go on vacation, we’re returning to our Finding a Fit series. Our last edition focused on a right tackle, and now we swap sides to focus on Patriots OLT Matt Light.  This is the seventh edition in a series that will continue as long as the lockout drags on. In this series, we’re going to look at free agents and try to match them to their perfect fits. We’ll consider opportunity, skill specificity, personality, and even money as we do this.

Previous Finding a Fit features focused on Matt Hasselbeck, Nnamdi Asomugha, Ray EdwardsAubrayo Franklin, Plaxico Burress, and Tyson Clabo. Click through to check those out, and if you’d like to suggest a player for finding a fit, leave a comment or let us know on Twitter.

Matt Light blocks for Wes Welker

Synopsis

Light, a second-round pick in 2001, emerged as a left tackle starter right from the start, and as a rookie helped the Patriots to their first Super Bowl win. For the rest of the decade, Light remained a fixture at left tackle, eventually growing into a Pro Bowl-level tackle. With three Super Bowl rings and three Pro Bowl berths, Light is one of the great Patriots of the Bill Belichick era. Light was never a dominant player like teammate OG Logan Mankins is, but he was incredibly dependable in keeping Tom Brady upright and in opening holes in the run game. But with a decade of play under his belt, Light’s best days are now behind him, and the Patriots have invested high draft picks in young tackles Sebastian Vollmer and 2011 first-rounder Nate Solder in recent years. So it appears Belichick has a succession plan in place at left tackle. Now Light, as a 10-year vet, has the chance at one more decent contract. The question is whether it will come in New England or land him elsewhere as a free agent.

Potential Fits

New England – The Patriots could keep Light, who would provide a level of security for a team that remains a top contender. But with Vollmer and Solder in place, it’s hard to imagine New England anteing up all that much money or more than a year or two in a contract. Light will find a better offer elsewhere, which means he’ll only be a Pat if he decides to take less money to do so.

Buffalo – The Bills have spent high draft picks on interior linemen Eric Wood and Andy Levitre in recent years, but their tackles are huge problems. OLT Demetrius Bell has physical ability, but his level of play has been less than stellar. Light would be a perfect addition because he brings a veteran presence that they don’t have right now as well as intimate knowledge of a division rival. It’s kind of hard to imagine Light moving into a mentor role for a lowly team after so many years of contending, but if the Bills make him a priority the money may be too much to pass up.

Kansas City – The Chiefs have former first rounder Branden Albert in place at left tackle, but Albert’s play there hasn’t been great. Albert can also play right tackle, where he would be a big upgrade over incumbent Barry Richardson, and so adding Light would allow the Chiefs to upgrade at two positions, at least for the short term. Chiefs GM Scott Pioli, who spent many years with New England, has shown that he likes to bring in ex-Pats, so Light makes sense on that level as well. Adding Light on a two- or three-year deal makes a lot of sense for the Chiefs.

Atlanta – Like the Chiefs, the Falcons are led by an ex-Pat at GM with Thomas Dimitroff. The Falcons also have three starters on the offensive line hitting free agency in ORT Tyson Clabo and OGs Harvey Dahl and Justin Blalock. If Clabo leaves for bigger money, adding Light and shifting former first-rounder Sam Baker to the right side might be a solid, less expensive alternative. Baker hasn’t been a great player at left tackle, but his size could allow him to develop more on the right side. You’d have to think that keeping their own would be Atlanta’s priority, but if Clabo leaves Light enters the realm of possibility.

Pittsburgh – The Steelers went through left tackles like crazy last year after Willie Colon and Max Starks got injured. Now both players are free agents, which leaves a left tackle hole. But Light doesn’t fit the Steelers’ profile of massive linemen, and Pittsburgh’s selection of Marcus Gilbert in the second round seems to be a fallback if Colon and Starks both leave. This is a case where need and player don’t match.

Minnesota – The Vikings struggled mightily up front last year, as OLT Bryant McKinnie was inconsistent and young ORT Phil Loadholt took a step back. But like the Steelers, the Vikings have tended toward massive tackles, and Light’s not one. If the Vikes want to restart their offensive line, Light could be a factor, but the fit doesn’t seem to make sense.

The Best Fits

1. Kansas City – The Chiefs have the combination of need, style, and contention that could be enough to attract Light away from New England.

2. Buffalo – The Bills aren’t contenders, but they’re the team we could see opening up the wallet to overpay Light.

3. New England – If Light doesn’t want to move, we could see the Patriots bringing him back on a one- or two-year deal. But Light will have to take less money to stay in New England.

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Once a Buckeye, always a Buckeye: Vrabel retires from NFL

Mike Vrabel heeded the call of his alma mater, retiring after a 14-year NFL career to become the linebackers coach at Ohio State. (Excuse me – THE Ohio State University.) Below are some thoughts on Vrabel’s decision and his career; we compare his legacy to other NFLers who have retired this offseason in this post.

Mike Vrabel, courtesy nflgridirongab.com

Vrabel was the ultimate Bill Belichick player. After four seasons in Pittsburgh in which he was primarily a backup, Vrabel was one of the 19 unrestricted free agents whom Belichick signed for the Patriots after his first season, and thus he became a part of the team-first group that upset the Rams and won the Super Bowl. Vrabel became a mainstay for the Pats, starting at outside linebacker for eight seasons and providing solid play against the run, the pass, and as a rusher. His versatility didn’t just apply to defense; he also played a little tight end in goal-line situations, recording 10 TD catches over the course of his career. When Scott Pioli left the Patriots to become the GM in Kansas City, he got Vrabel as part of the Matt Cassel trade, and Vrabel started for two more seasons as part of the Chiefs’ recent renaissance. Vrabel fit the Belichick wish list to a tee – versatile, team-oriented, good but not overly talented, smart, and productive. Now he goes back to his alma mater to help the Buckeyes try to recover from the Jim Tressel mess. Vrabel left a bit of meat on the bone with his playing career, but if he takes to coaching he could become even more of a star in that arena than he was on the playing field.

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Divisional Round Sunday thoughts

Let’s look back at Sunday’s divisional-round games. (For Saturday game thoughts, click here.)

Greg Olsen beats Lawyer Milloy for a touchdown

Chicago 35, Seattle 24
*The hero of the game was Bears TE Greg Olsen, who beat Lawyer Milloy for a 58-yard touchdown on the first series of the game to get the Bears going. Olsen got deep, and Jay Cutler hit him with a beautiful deep throw that was more impressive given the snowy, windy conditions. Olsen added a 33-yard catch that helped to set up the Bears’ second score, and his 113-yard first half was a huge reason the Bears jumped out to a big lead.
*Cutler played pretty well, throwing for two touchdowns and running for two more. But he got lucky in avoiding the kind of critical mistake that has kept him from becoming an elite quarterback. At the end of the first quarter, Cutler threw a ball in the red zone that Seattle S Jordan Babineaux had in his hands but dropped. Instead of a pick 6, Cutler got another chance, and after he converted a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1, Chester Taylor scored a touchdown to give the Bears a 14-0. That could have been a huge turning point but instead ended up being the point when the Bears really turned on the faucet in the rout.
*Julius Peppers didn’t have a sack as the Bears built a 21-0 halftime lead, but he did snuff out Seattle’s third drive by drawing a holding penalty by rookie Seahawks OLT Russell Okung. Peppers has been an impact player all season, and his presence has helped the Bears’ D move back toward the great level this season.
*Overall, the Bears defense did a terrific job of snuffing out the Seahawks’ running game and of keeping receivers in front of them. The Cover-2 defense has fallen out favor in the NFL, and that’s in part because it’s not that flashy and doesn’t create a ton of sacks or turnovers. But the Bears show that how, with the right personnel (like DEs Peppers and Israel Idonije and LBs Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs), it can still be quite effective.
*Matt Hasselbeck completed only 10-of-20 passes in the first half, but it wasn’t all his fault. Cameron Morrah, Brandon Stokley, and Golden Tate all saw chances for big plays go off their hands, and Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman also made good plays on the ball to break up passes.
*Matt Forte had a real nice game for the Bears, keeping the chains moving both on the ground and through the air. Forte isn’t Marshall Faulk (who will feature heavily in our Hall of Fame post soon), but he is a threat both running and receiving, and that makes him a dovetail fit with offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Forte is a nice asset for the Bears to have.
*Raheem Brock continued his strong play with a sack in the first half that forced a fumble. Brock had eight sacks over the Seahawks’ last seven games (including playoffs).
*Devin Hester continued his game-changing play on returns with a 26-yard punt return to help set up Chicago’s second touchdown. Hester is a game breaker, and that’s crucial for a team that doesn’t have elite explosiveness on offense.
*The Seahawks kicked a field goal with 1:52 left to cut a 28-0 lead to 25 points. It made no sense to kick there, given that they still trailed by four scores. I understand Pete Carroll not wanting his team to get shut out, but that was a gutless call. But that wasn’t the worst coaching call of the game – those honors go to the Bears’ decision to have Forte throw a pass in the fourth quarter. That led to an unnecessary Seahawks touchdown.
*We asked on Twitter and Facebook Saturday night whether a Bears/Packers NFC championship game would be the biggest matchup ever between the long-time rivals. We don’t have the historical chops to answer that question (which we assume will show up across all media this week), but it will be a ton of fun to watch that rivalry on the big stage. During the game, we also Tweeted about classic Seahawks tight end names and the Tony Siragusa experiment by Fox. Follow along on Twitter for Football Relativity updates and other assorted fun!

The Jets celebrate against the Patriots

N.Y. Jets 28, New England 21
*We were as surprised as anyone by the Jets’ ability to come out and stop the Patriots’ offense. The fact that David Harris picked off Tom Brady on a screen pass was a sign, given that Brady hadn’t thrown an interception in the second half of the season. New York continued to befuddle Brady through the game, and that was a big factor in allowing the Jets to build a lead that they never relinquished.
*One of the biggest reasons that the Patriots’ offense struggled was that the Jets were able to create pressure on Brady all day. Shaun Ellis led the charge with two sacks, but across the front Gang Green hit Brady time after time.
*There were heroes all over for the Jets, from Ellis to Santonio Holmes (who showed again that he loves to step up in the postseason). But you have to give Mark Sanchez credit for playing one of his best games of the year against a team that bedeviled him in the regular season. Sanchez threw three TD passes and hit perfect throws to Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery. If Sanchez can make 3-5 big-time throws a game, he gives the rest of a talented Jets roster a chance to do its job and win.
*The Jets continued to run the ball effectively in this game. That’s been an underrated reason for their playoff run.
*The Patriots have now lost three playoff games in a row, the last two at home. That’s going to lead to the question of whether something is missing in New England. The truth is that a young defense that played well in the regular season wasn’t able to step up to the challenge once the brightest lights were on. Plus, the fact that the Patriots hadn’t faced much adversity on the field over the second half of the season made it more difficult for the youngsters to rise to the occasion when trouble arrived in this game. Perhaps those issues can be resolved with experience, but it’s something that Bill Belichick must turn around if the Patriots are going to return to Super Bowl contention.
*It’s easy to why the Patriots took a shot on a fake punt late in the first half, but their inability to convert after Patrick Chung’s fumble was crucial. It sent the Jets into the locker room with a 14-3 lead, instead of the 7-3 lead they likely would have had if the Pats had simply punted. But the fact that the Pats couldn’t get anything going added a sense of desperation that caused them to a chance that they didn’t really have to take.
*Rex Ryan, meanwhile, has a team that isn’t always pretty in the regular season but that shows up in the playoffs. With four playoff wins (all on the road) in two seasons, Ryan has definitely given the Jets an attitude of refusing to give up or bend their knee to anyone. Ryan isn’t a conventional coach, and he isn’t a championship coach yet. But his unique style definitely is working for his squad.

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Browns murmur Shurmur’s name

The Cleveland Browns settled their head-coaching question Thursday, hiring Pat Shurmur as their head coach. Below are some thoughts on the hire; you can see how it compares to other hires this offseason in this updated post.

Pat Shurmur

Shurmur, who has mentored Donovan McNabb and Sam Bradford, among other players, was Mike Holmgren’s choice to replace Eric Mangini as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Shurmur is different than Mangini – he’s an offensive coach, not a defensive coach, and he’s also got an extensive background in the West Coast offense under Andy Reid (another Holmgren protege). (Interestingly, both Shurmur and Mangini have ties to Bill Belichick, because Shurmur spent eight seasons under Belichick apprentice Nick Saban at Michigan State.) It’s clear that Holmgren was looking for a certain type of coach to take over the Browns. Shurmur faces a pretty tall task in Cleveland, because the offense has very few good pieces available. Peyton Hillis a workhorse running back, and the offensive line has terrific keystones in OT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack. But the quarterback question is still open, as it’s impossible to know at this point whether Colt McCoy is a long-term answer. Holmgren believes Shurmur can find out, given Shurmur’s background developing quarterbacks with the Eagles and Rams. Shurmur was QB coach for the Eagles for seven years, not only helping McNabb perform, but also getting good performances out of lesser lights like an older Jeff Garcia, Koy Detmer, and A.J. Feeley. Then Shurmur became the offensive coordinator with the Rams, and this year he helped rookie Bradford develop very quickly. If Shurmur is to succeed in Cleveland, he must either develop McCoy or make a quick decision that he’s not the guy and move on. It seems like Shurmur is positioned to do that. But Shurmur appears to be Holmgren’s henchman in Cleveland, and the question is whether any head coach could survive with the walrus looming over his shoulder. Can Shurmur be his own coach, or will he be under constant pressure to make the decisions Holmgren would make? Perhaps a coach a with greater resume could, and maybe Holmgren’s family ties to Shurmur (Pat’s uncle Fritz was Holmgren’s long-time defensive coordinator in Green Bay) will aid the relationship. But we don’t feel great that Shurmur can be his own man enough to place his imprint on a Browns team badly in need of a long-term plan.

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FR: 2011 Coaching Changes

First-year Stanford Coach Jim Harbaugh led Sta...

Image via Wikipedia

Each year, we review and compare new head coaches in the NFL. This year’s entries:
*Minnesota (Leslie Frazier, who was the interim, replacing Brad Childress)
*Dallas (Jason Garrett, who was the interim, replacing Wade Phillips)
*San Francisco (Jim Harbaugh, replacing interim Jim Tomsula, who replaced Mike Singletary)
*Carolina (Ron Rivera, replacing John Fox)
*Cleveland (Pat Shurmur, replacing Eric Mangini)
*Denver (John Fox, replacing interim Eric Studesville, who replaced Josh McDaniels)
*Oakland (Hue Jackson, replacing Tom Cable)
*Tennessee (Mike Munchak, replacing Jeff Fisher)

We put these hires through the theory of relativity. We’ll do it on a 10-point scale, with 10 being the best possible hire, and 1 being the worst possible hire. While the hires are pretty tightly bunched right now, we’ll still break them down on our scale.

10 – Leslie Frazier, Vikings – Frazier earned the Vikings’ permanent coaching job after going 3-3 as the interim head coach. Given the crazy circumstances Minnesota faced over the end of the year – a collapsed stadium, two postponed games, one rescheduled game, Brett Favre’s drama, and a third-string quarterback starting, 3-3 was a good result. Frazier has long been a respected defensive coordinator, and he had seven head-coaching interviews before finally landing a job. He’s an excellent defensive backs coach who has had success as a coordinator with the Bengals and Vikings. Frazier has what you want in a head coach – a steady hand, a great relationship with players, and good motivational skills. But he’s stepping into a difficult situation. The Vikings are getting old at a lot of key positions, and they don’t have a quarterback of the present or the future on the roster, unless Joe Webb’s development hits overdrive. Plus, the stadium situation in Minnesota opens the door to a lot of uncertainty and perhaps even a move by the team. So Frazier isn’t getting a plum job. But despite the negative history of interim head coaches over the last two decades, we believe in Frazier, and believe he’s positioned to succeed as a head coach.

9 – none

8 – none

7 – Jim Harbaugh, 49ers - Harbaugh was the hottest coaching prospect in America this year, with at least four NFL options – San Francisco, Denver, Miami, and Carolina – before him, as well as the high-profile job at his alma mater Michigan. After a series of interviews, Harbaugh decided that his gold mine was with the 49ers. It’s easy to see why Harbaugh was so highly regarded by NFL teams. After entering the NFL as a first-round pick, Harbaugh played for 15 years, starting 140 games for the Bears, Colts, Ravens, and Chargers. He’s also the son of the coach, and he acted as an assistant coach for his father at Western Kentucky during his playing career. After retiring, Harbaugh was a quarterback coach for the Raiders (including their 2002 Super Bowl season, in which QB Rich Gannon was league MVP) and then became a college head coach. At San Diego, a non-scholarship school, Harbaugh developed Josh Johnson into an NFL player, and then at Stanford he turned Andrew Luck into one of the best QB prospects ever. But despite his proficiency developing quarterbacks, Harbaugh has shown an old-school offensive approach featuring two running backs and a tight end. That pro style will move to the NFL far easier than a spread offense would. Plus, Harbaugh hired Vic Fangio, a long-time NFL assistant, as his defensive coordinator, and if Fangio moves with Harbaugh, he can take advantage of San Francisco’s talented front seven by continuing to use a 3-4 system and tuning up the aggressiveness. And Harbaugh’s charismatic personality will sell some tickets, even if it doesn’t play as well with pro players as it did with collegians. The question of whether Harbaugh can make the leap from college to the NFL is still a big one – history does not look kindly on coaches making the move – although Harbaugh’s 17 years of NFL experience as a player and assistant at least give hope. San Francisco is gambling big on Harbaugh, and while it’s easy to see why he’s flavor of the month, for some reason our hopes for Harbaugh aren’t as high as the hype suggests.

6 – Jason Garrett, Cowboys – Garrett took over the Cowboys as an interim head coach at midseason, going 5-3 over the second half of the season after the Cowboys had just one win in the first half. Garrett’s greatest skill is offensive design, but he showed good motivational skills and rapport with players over the second half of the season. Dallas’ offense thrived under Garrett in the second half, but the defense needed a ton of help after Wade Phillips’ departure. Garrett needs to find a defensive coordinator for 2011, and those kinds of hires can make or break coaches. The good news is that Garrett has a ton of talent on both sides of the ball, especially premium talent like DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Jay Ratliff, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten. The problems are the mid-level talent, as Dallas needs dependable guys, especially on the offensive line and in the secondary. To succeed, Garrett must avoid the tendency some offensive-minded coaches have to obsess over play-calling and run the whole team, much like Sean Payton does in New Orleans. But the offensive-defensive split we saw in Dallas over the second half of the season shows that such an attitude isn’t natural for Garrett yet. That’s a reason to be skeptical of his long-term success.

5 – Hue Jackson, Raiders – The Raiders made a strange decision by letting Tom Cable’s contract option expire after the head coach led them to an undefeated AFC West record and an eight-win season, the organization’s first year with more than five wins since their 2002 Super Bowl season. Since then, it’s become apparent that Cable and Raiders maven Al Davis were butting heads, as Davis so often does with his coaches. So Jackson is stepping into the least stable head-coaching post in the league, and one in which his contract will likely be disputed whenever his tenure is over. Still, it’s a first head-coaching job for a coaching lifer. He was an offensive coordinator in the Pac-10 at USC and Cal before moving to the NFL in 2001, and since moving to the pros he’s been a coordinator in Washington, Atlanta, and Oakland. Jackson has also been a running backs, wide receivers, and quarterbacks coach in the pros, and he’s respected at all three positions. Now Jackson must prove he can make the leap from calling plays and teaching technique to running an entire team. That’s the biggest leap for any new head coach, but at age 56 it’s now or never for Jackson to prove he can do it. We’re optimistic, despite the circus-like atmosphere around the Raiders, that Jackson can continue the progress for a Raiders team full of talent but usually inconsistent when it comes to performance.

4 – John Fox, Broncos – After a largely successful nine-year tenure in Carolina that ended poorly, Fox gets an immediate chance of redemption in Denver. He’s completely different than offensive-minded coaches Josh McDaniels and Mike Shanahan that have led the Broncos in the recent past. Fox is a nuts-and-bolts coach who plays conservatively on offense, depending on a running game, and aggressively on defense. That defensive emphasis will serve the Broncos well, because their inability to get anything done defensively doomed both McDaniels and Shanahan. With Elvis Dumervil returning in 2011, Fox will have a top-end pass rusher, but Dumervil has been a 3-4 player, and Fox has stuck with the 4-3 most of his career. If the Broncos change their system, it will slow down progress, but the front seven is so bereft of impact players that rebuilding is necessary either way. Fox’s other big decision right off the bat will be what to do at quarterback. Kyle Orton is a Fox type of QB, but the past Broncos’ regime invested so much in Tim Tebow that he needs to get a shot to play. However, Fox’s tendency in Carolina was to eschew young players in favor of more reliable veterans, even if they were less talented. That decision at quarterback will only impede Tebow’s development. And that’s the place where Fox’s tenure could break down. He’s a solid coach, but he must be more about development in Denver to rebuild a mediocre roster. Inexperienced Broncos exec John Elway and GM Brian Xanders will have to encourage and/or strong-arm Fox into playing young guys. If he doesn’t, it’s hard to see Denver climbing from its decline.

3 – Ron Rivera, Panthers – Rivera has long been a coaching bridesmaid – he’s been connected to at least 12 openings since 2006 – before he finally landed a head-coaching perch in Carolina. It’s easy to see why Rivera has drawn interest. He has been a successful defensive coordinator both in a 4-3 system (with Chicago) and a 3-4 (with San Diego). He’s learned from the hyper-aggressive Jim Johnson in Philadelphia and the conservative Lovie Smith in Chicago. So from an Xs and Os standpoint, he’s as versatile as defensive coaches come. He also has a strong personality who gets along with the media – he once was a Bears TV analyst – and should connect with fans. The question is whether he can fix the offensive problems that plague the Panthers. Carolina has decent defensive talent, and Rivera should help to unleash guys like Jon Beason and Everette Brown. But can Rivera fix the Panthers’ offensive problems? Can he hire the right offensive coordinator to either develop Jimmy Clausen or find a true quarterback of the future? These are questions that only time will answer. Rivera’s staff will be key to his success, and until those hires go through, Rivera’s uphill battle against Sean Payton, Mike Smith, and Raheem Morris in the NFC South looks even steeper. This is a solid hire by the Panthers, but the organization must let Rivera hire the offensive staff he needs or else success won’t be flowing Rivera’s way.

2 – Mike Munchak, Titans – Munchak, a Hall of Fame offensive guard, has been a part of the Titans organization since the Houston Oilers days. He was a top-10 pick, and in his 11-year career he made the Pro Bowl nine times. His No. 63 jersey is retired by the club. And since his retirement in 1993, he’s spent 17 years in the organization, the last 14 as the offensive line coach. He’s developed offensive linemen like Michael Roos, and the Titans have had stud offensive lines despite spending no first-rounders at the position. So he’s a good coach, and he’s a legend to owner Bud Adams. But can Munchak fill Jeff Fisher’s shoes? Fisher brought stability and toughness to the Titans, and that identity made them a strong defensive and running team throughout his tenure. Munchak should keep the same identity; the question is whether he can get better quarterback results than Fisher has since Steve McNair’s departure. And the leap from position coach to head coach skips the coordinator role, which is where coaches add and learn to manage many of the administrative duties that choke out many successful coaches. There will be an adjustment period for Munchak. So that begs the question:  how will Adams deal with Munchak’s struggles? The head-coaching role will take the luster off of the greatest legend, and Munchak is risking his status in Adams’ eyes. If Adams is willing to be patient, Munchak has the traits to be a good head coach. But being under the thumb of an aging owner and not having a good quarterback answer don’t seem to be a recipe for success.

1 – Pat Shurmur, Browns - Shurmur, who has mentored Donovan McNabb and Sam Bradford, among other players, was Mike Holmgren’s choice to replace Eric Mangini as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Shurmur is different than Mangini – he’s an offensive coach, not a defensive coach, and he’s also got an extensive background in the West Coast offense under Andy Reid (another Holmgren protege). (Interestingly, both Shurmur and Mangini have ties to Bill Belichick, because Shurmur spent eight seasons under Belichick apprentice Nick Saban at Michigan State.) It’s clear that Holmgren was looking for a certain type of coach to take over the Browns. Shurmur faces a pretty tall task in Cleveland, because the offense has very few good pieces available. Peyton Hillis a workhorse running back, and the offensive line has terrific keystones in OT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack. But the quarterback question is still open, as it’s impossible to know at this point whether Colt McCoy is a long-term answer. Holmgren believes Shurmur can find out, given Shurmur’s background developing quarterbacks with the Eagles and Rams. Shurmur was QB coach for the Eagles for seven years, not only helping McNabb perform, but also getting good performances out of lesser lights like an older Jeff Garcia, Koy Detmer, and A.J. Feeley. Then Shurmur became the offensive coordinator with the Rams, and this year he helped rookie Bradford develop very quickly. If Shurmur is to succeed in Cleveland, he must either develop McCoy or make a quick decision that he’s not the guy and move on. It seems like Shurmur is positioned to do that. But Shurmur appears to be Holmgren’s henchman in Cleveland, and the question is whether any head coach could survive with the walrus looming over his shoulder. Can Shurmur be his own coach, or will he be under constant pressure to make the decisions Holmgren would make? Perhaps a coach a with greater resume could, and maybe Holmgren’s family ties to Shurmur (Pat’s uncle Fritz was Holmgren’s long-time defensive coordinator in Green Bay) will aid the relationship. But we don’t feel great that Shurmur can be his own man enough to place his imprint on a Browns team badly in need of a long-term plan.

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FR: Biggest What Ifs of 2010

Mike Vick with Philadelphia

Image via Wikipedia

Each year, we look back at the NFL season and wonder what if? Let’s compare the biggest what ifs of the 2010 NFL season.

Feel free to add your own ideas via comment, and then we’ll include them in the comparison.

10 – What if the Eagles had stuck with Kevin Kolb as their starting QB? - After trading Donovan McNabb in the offseason, the Eagles anointed Kevin Kolb as their new starter. But Kolb was injured in the season opener, and Michael Vick played well in relief (albeit in a 27-20 loss to the Packers). Vick started in Week 2 against Detroit and played well, but Andy Reid said that Kolb would return as the starter when healthy. But after watching film, Reid reversed course, naming Vick the permanent starter. Vick has gone on to have an MVP-caliber season in leading the Eagles to the NFC East title, while Kolb went 2-1 starting for an injured Vick in the middle of the season. Given the Eagles’ young and sometimes porous D, it’s hard to imagine Philly as much better than 8-8 had Kolb gotten his job back in Week 3. Instead, they’re Super Bowl contenders.

 
 

Calvin Johnson's would-be TD catch

 

9 – What if Calvin Johnson’s touchdown had counted in Week 1? – The Lions trailed the Bears 19-14, but Matthew Stafford led the team on a comeback that appeared to result in a 25-yard touchdown to Calvin Johnson in the game’s final minute. But thanks to a rule that receivers must complete the catch, when Johnson put the ball on the ground while standing up, the catch was overturned. The Lions lost the game, and Detroit ended up losing their first four games, three by one score or less. Had the Lions gotten a road win to start the season, our hunch is that they would have been able to build on that momentum to a better start. We see with Detroit’s current three-game winning streak that the talent is there. Chicago, meanwhile, started 3-0, winning all three games by one score or less. A Week 1 loss could have kept them from the NFC North championship season they’ve enjoyed. In fact, the hypothetical part of us wonders if these two teams would have switched places had the call gone the other way.

8 – What if the Patriots had kept Randy Moss? - Moss has been the biggest newsmaker in the NFL this season, starting with a postgame news conference after a season-opening win and then a series of transactions – a trade to Minnesota, a release by the Vikings, and a waiver claim in Tennessee. Through it all, Moss has done next to nothing on the field, with 27 catches for 315 yards and five touchdowns through Week 16. But what if the Patriots hadn’t dealt Moss after Week 4? The Patriots’ offense likely wouldn’t be humming along as well as it is with Deion Branch (Moss’ replacement), Wes Welker, rookie tight ends, and undrafted running backs. Our guess is that New England wouldn’t be the strong Super Bowl favorites that they currently are. And if Moss hadn’t been traded, the Vikings’ season might not have spiralled out of control the way it did. Perhaps Minnesota could be fighting for a winning record and Brad Childress could have at least lasted through the season. If Philly’s decision to go with Vick is prescient move No. 1 of the year, Bill Belichick’s choice to deal Moss was the second-best bit of preja vu all season.

DeAngelo Hall returns Tashard Choice's fumble

7 – What if A.J. Smith hadn’t let his ego get in the way in contract negotiations with Marcus McNeill and Vincent Jackson? – Andy added this suggestion about Smith, known around San Diego as the Lord of No Rings. Smith’s top two restricted free agents weren’t happy about not hitting the open market, and the Chargers took a super-hard line with them, reducing their tender offers in the offseason so that they would make far less than market value in 2010. McNeill missed five games before agreeing to a new contract, while Jackson stayed out (between his holdout and suspension) until Week 12. The Chargers started 2-3 without both players and never recovered from the slow start, falling behind the Chiefs and eventually losing the AFC West to K.C. While having McNeill and Jackson would have helped, the Chargers’ biggest issues were on special teams. But there’s no doubt that Smith’s hard-line, organization-uber-all approach cost the Chargers dearly this season.

6 – What if Dallas hadn’t gone for a score at the end of the first half in Week 1? - Dallas opened the season in Washington, and they trailed 3-0 late in the first half. When Dallas got the ball on its own 30 with 27 seconds left, Wade Phillips decided to go for a score. The Cowboys continued on the attack with four seconds left, but Tashard Choice was stripped of the ball by Lorenzo Alexander, and DeAngelo Hall returned the fumble for a 32-yard touchdown. Washington ended up winning the game 13-7, sending the Cowboys reeling. Dallas started the season 1-7 and Phillips was fired, and it’s hard to imagine things getting that bad had Dallas sat on the ball at the end of the first half and gone on to win the season opener.

5 – none

4 – What if Ryan Grant had not gotten hurt? - Grant, the Packers’  leading rusher for the last three seasons, suffered a season-ending ankle/leg injury in the season opener against Philadelphia. Since then, the Packers’ running game has suffered. The only two Packers who have averaged more than 3.7 yards per carry are Grant (8 carries, 45 yards) and QB Aaron Rodgers. While the Packers have fought through injuries to Grant and other key players, you have to wonder if their playoff future would still be in doubt in Week 17 had they had a consistent running game all season.

3 – none

2 – none

1 – What if the Cardinals had kept Matt Leinart? - The Cardinals jettisoned Leinart, a former first-round pick, before the season after he lost the starting QB job to Derek Anderson. Leinart has settled in with a clipboard in Houston and has not played all season. But the Cardinals have had some of the worst QB play in the league from Anderson and rookies Max Hall and John Skelton. Arizona has somehow squeezed out five wins, in part because of its horrific division, but we have to wonder if Leinart had stuck around if he could have provided an upgrade, at least over Hall and Skelton, and kept Arizona in the NFC West race until Week 17.

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