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Yo Gabba Gabbert

Chum in the water

Blaine Gabbert on the run. Image by vagabond by nature via Flickr

Let’s take a break from the ongoing lockout to dive back into the draft. Now, after analyzing Cam Newton and Ryan Mallett, we move to another prominent QB – Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert. Gabbert is the buzzworthy guy this week, even before his Thursday pro day. He’s shown up atop mock drafts on ESPN and Sports Illustrated, and he’s now considered the safest option among the top QB prospects.

But I’m not so sure.

For some reason, Gabbert reminds me of Tim Couch and Joey Harrington. Couch was the first of five quarterbacks taken in the top 12 picks of the 1999 draft. I was in NYC for that draft, and it was shocking to see how Couch rose to the top of the list. He had the size, the arm strength, and the accuracy, which is why the Cleveland Browns opted for Couch. Of course, Couch busted out (as did No. 2 pick Akili Smith of the Bengals and No. 12 pick Cade McNown of the Bears). Instead, Donovan McNabb, at No. 3, emerged as the best quarterback in the draft, with Daunte Culpepper at No. 11 also meriting his spot.

Here’s why Gabbert reminds me of Couch. The Missouri quarterback has prototypical size at 6-5, and he has pretty good feet as well. He also spread the ball around effectively in a college spread offense with good accuracy. But neither was known for his deep-throwing arm, which begs the question of whether Gabbert is a system quarterback, like Couch was.

And that’s where the Harrington comparison comes in. Harrington was the golden boy at Oregon when the Lions picked him third overall in 2002. The Panthers, who held the second overall pick that year, passed on Harrington in favor of DE Julius Peppers. Peppers went on to have a terrific career in Carolina, while Harrington was a failure in Detroit.

Maybe that memory is why I don’t see the Panthers, picking first overall this year, pulling the trigger on Gabbert. GM Marty Hurney, who made the 2002 pick, is still in charge, and he isn’t going to take a quarterback as a fallback. That’s what Gabbert feels like – the “safe” quarterback pick who isn’t the dynamic talent that most No. 1 QBs are.

Gabbert was good, not great, in college, and our sense is that’s his NFL ceiling as well. Later in the top 10 – to Tennessee at 8, for example – he makes sense. But any quarterback known more for efficiency than talent is a question mark. Making that pick is how you end up with a Harrington/Couch/Matt Leinart kind of disappointment. 

I don’t believe the Panthers will fall victim to that trap. And that means they won’t be saying Yo Gabba Gabbert at No. 1.

(And I didn’t even have to make this point to come to that conclusion.)

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FR: Players’ lockout pasttimes

With a one-week extension in the CBA negotiations between NFL owners and players, there’s still hope that a lockout can be avoided. But in case it can’t, several players are looking for alternate ways of spending their time and making a little extra money. We’ll compare these pasttimes via Football Relativity if we get enough entries, but for now here are some of our favorite multitaskers.

By the way, if you see a story about a player with an interesting pasttime, leave a comment or send us a note. (See the contact link for how.)

Hines Ward preps for DWTS, via accesshollywood.com

Steelers WR Hines Ward, part-time dancer – Ward joins a long line of football players who have participated in the ultra-popular dancing competition, although Jason Taylor is the only one who has done so during an active playing career. But Ward doesn’t run the risk of missing much offseason work, and with 13 years under his belt missing a minicamp won’t be a big deal. The dancing will keep Ward in aerobic shape, and it will also serve to raise his profile, which will help with post-career endeavors. Whether he wins the mirror ball or not, Ward will win in the court of public perception – as long as his purported dirty play doesn’t carry over to the dance floor.

Jets LB Bart Scott, part-time wrestler – Scott debuted on TNA wrestling on Thursday night, scuffling with a couple of wrestlers before coming out on the wrong end of a fight with Kurt Angle. Scott’s boisterous personality fits in with the pro-wrestling world, and TNA has used other similar athletes (for example, baseball’s A.J. Pierzysnski) to bring in viewers. Scott technically can’t have a wrestling match unless the lockout becomes official because of his contract, but the way Thursday’s appearance ended, he may still find a way to stay involved in the world of wrestling.

Ravens S Tom Zbikowski, part-time boxer – Zbikowski, who has emerged as a starting safety in Baltimore, is also an accomplished fighter with a 75-15 amateur record and a first-round knockout in his only pro fight. If the lockout becomes official, Zbikowski had a cruiserweight fight on March 12 and won on a first-round TKO. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Zbikowski fully pursue a pro boxing career in the future, and if the lockout lingers another fight or two this summer could be in the offing.

Chad Ochocinco, part-time soccer player – Ochocinco, who got in a war of words with Zbikowski, thought better of a fight and instead chose a different sport – soccer. He’ll spend a day in late March training with Sporting Kansas City of Major League Soccer. The Kansas City team called what appears to be a promotional stunt a “tryout,” so it’s possible Ochocinco could find himself in an actual pro game. It’s a nice publicity move for the team, but we can’t see Ochocinco taking a soccer career seriously when he already has football and reality-TV irons in the fire.

Donovan McNabb, college basketball analyst – McNabb was a two-sport athlete at Syracuse, starring at quarterback and also playing for the Orange basketball team. So with the NFL shelved, McNabb spent the first Thursday of the NCAA tournament working as an analyst for Comcast Sports Net Mid-Atlantic, a Washington-based media outlet. The Redskins’ QB certainly has a future in TV, but getting a first shot covering hoops instead of the gridiron is just another strange sign of how the lockout has affected players.

Dallas Clark, actor – The Colts tight end used his lockout free time to try to start an acting career. His first role, a two-line cameo on CBS’s Criminal Minds, airs in April. We’ll have to see where this leads for Clark before moving him up the charts.

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Palmer’s plan

Carson Palmer under center against the Pittsbu...

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Last week, we created a post about quarterbacks who might be available on the open market this offseason. Over the weekend, reports emerged that added Bengals QB Carson Palmer’s name to the list. Palmer demanded a trade from the Bengals, threatening to retire if he isn’t.

Given that demand, we thought we’d look at Palmer’s worth and who he might be an answer for.

Palmer, the top overall pick in the 2003 draft, has been a seven-year starter for the Bengals. He’s played well at times, but since he suffered a torn ACL in the playoffs following the 2005 season, he hasn’t played at the same level. This season, he threw 20 interceptions but also threw 26 touchdowns, and his play after Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco were out for the year, he played better down the stretch.

The Bengals say that they won’t trade Palmer and won’t even listen to offers, and owner/GM Mike Brown is just stubborn enough to make that statement stick. But if Palmer threatens to retire – which is his only real leverage, given that he is under contract till 2014 – the Bengals may have no choice to back down. That could be awkward, because Carson’s younger brother Jordan is the Bengals’ backup right now.

Palmer is no longer an elite quarterback, but he’s still able to play at an above-average level. In a vacuum, that means he’s worth a price just below what the Eagles got for Donovan McNabb last season – a second-round and fourth-round pick. While a team in desperate need of a quarterback might be willing to pay that reasonable price, taking on Palmer’s high-ticket contract for the next four seasons is going to be untenable for most teams.

So that high price, plus the Bengals’ stubbornness, makes a Palmer deal look unlikely. And that means for Palmer’s plan to come true, he must play hardball and make retirement look more like reality than an attempt for leverage.

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Quarterback problems for 2011

Can Colt McCoy be the answer to the Browns' QB problems?

As a companion to our piece on potential quarterback solutions for 2011, we’re breaking down the NFL teams that face quarterback problems in the coming season. We’ll analyze what the problem is and what kind of quarterback might be a solution. Teams are listed alphabetically.

Arizona Cardinals – The Cardinals fell off the map this season in part because of horrific quarterback play. Derek Anderson, who got a three-year contract in the offseason, proved to be far too mistake-prone to balance out his strong arm, while rookies John Skelton (a late-round pick) and Max Hall (who was undrafted) proved they are not ready for prime time. Hall or Skelton (or both) could still develop, but the Cardinals have to upgrade from Anderson in the veteran department in case that development remains slow. Suggestion: Add a competitive veteran

Buffalo Bills – The Bills may have at least a short-term answer at quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick, who threw for 3,000 yards and 23 touchdowns in 13 starts this year. So the Bills’ best move is to add a mid-round draft pick who could develop into a starting-quality guy in 2-3 years. Suggestion: Add a developmental rookie

Carolina Panthers – Matt Moore plummeted from late bloomer to mere backup, so he’ll be allowed to leave via free agency this offseason. The real question for the Panthers, then, is whether Jimmy Clausen is a potential quarterback answer. Clausen has talent but hasn’t been able to perform when put under pressure. The new coaching staff must decide whether Clausen will grow in that area or not. And with Andrew Luck returning to school, the Panthers probably don’t have the luxury of taking a chance on a rookie quarterback with the first overall pick. So the move right now is to add a competitive veteran, or at least a placeholding veteran, and make Clausen develop enough to win the job outright. If he can’t do so this year, then it’s time to start completely over. Suggestion: Add a competitive or a placeholding veteran

Cleveland Browns – The Browns got a promising performance from rookie Colt McCoy last season, and Jake Delhomme is still around. While we still question whether McCoy can be a long-term answer, the Browns’ best move at this point is to add a competitive veteran and see if McCoy can really seize the job. Suggestion: Add a competitive veteran

Miami Dolphins – Chad Henne had a bad year, losing his job at one point and struggling at many points. And Chad Pennington and Tyler Thigpen are both free agents. The Dolphins can’t go into the season depending on Henne alone. Suggestion: Add a competitive veteran

Minnesota Vikings – After the Brett Favre experiment went 1-for-2, the Vikings have to start over at quarterback. Tarvaris Jackson is a free agent, and Joe Webb, while promising, is merely a developmental prospect. The Vikings need to add franchise quarterback of the future this offseason if possible, and then bring in a placeholder veteran to serve as starter during the youngster’s development. Suggestion: Add an elite rookie and a placeholder veteran

Oakland Raiders – New head coach Hue Jackson’s mission is likely to turn Jason Campbell into a winner, but with Bruce Gradkowski a free agent, the Raiders may want to add a competitive veteran to ensure Campbell doesn’t collapse. Keeping Gradkowski would suffice. Suggestion: Keep Gradkowski or add a competitive veteran

Philadelphia Eagles – The Eagles are deep at quarterback with Michael Vick, Kevin Kolb, and developmental 2010 rookie Mike Kafka, so their problem is an embarrasment of riches that leads to future planning questions. Vick is a free agent, but there’s no way the Eagles let him leave the nest. The question is whether to keep Kolb or get a ransom of draft picks for him. That largely depends on how advanced Kafka is, which is a question only those who have seen him in practice can answer. So the safest move is to re-sign Vick and keep Kolb for one more year. Suggestion: Keep Vick

San Francisco 49ers – The Niners vacillitated between Alex Smith and Troy Smith last year, and now both are free agents. If they can bring in a veteran like Matt Hasselbeck or Donovan McNabb, that would be the ultimate move. If not, they need to add a young prospect and a veteran who can play well enough to force the prospect to take the job instead of merely having it handed it him. Suggestion: Bring in a starter

Seattle Seahawks – Matt Hasselbeck is a free agent, and given the Seahawks’ investment in Charlie Whitehurst in the offseason, it’s hard to see them giving Hasselbeck a multiyear contract to stay as their starter. We believe the best investment is to let Hasselbeck leave and bring in a cheaper veteran to compete with Whitehurst, who played well in his final start of the 2010 season. Suggestion: Add a competitive veteran to replace Hasselbeck

Tennessee Titans – The Titans want Vince Young out of town, and veteran backup Kerry Collins is a free agent. Rusty Smith struggled terribly in his lone rookie start, which means he’s nothing more than a development project right now. The time is now for the Titans to add a high-round rookie and a veteran to mentor him. Collins could serve as that mentor if the Titans want to keep him around. Suggestion: Add an elite rookie and a placeholder veteran

Washington Redskins – Rex Grossman is a free agent, and Donovan McNabb is under contract but out of favor. Ironically, the Redskins’ best move is to let McNabb go and keep Grossman, while adding a rookie who can develop into a starter. Redskins ownership will have to fall on their swords and admit bringing McNabb in was a mistake for this to happen, but wisdom dictates they must do so. Suggestion: Re-sign Grossman, trade McNabb, draft a developmental rookie

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Quarterback solutions for 2011

Matt Hasselbeck of the Seattle Seahawks

Matt Hasselbeck. Image via Wikipedia

We’ll take a brief break from our playoff coverage to try and give some hope to the teams who landed outside of the final four. To do this, we’re going to break down the quarterbacks who may be available to switch teams this offseason. We’re going to break them down by categories so that you can see just how likely it is that your favorite team can land each guy.

If you have ideas of great matches between a quarterback and a team, leave them in the comments below, and we’ll talk about it.

We’ve also created a post of teams with quarterback needs to help you play a matching game.

Unrestricted Free Agents (Free to sign anywhere)
Peyton Manning, Michael Vick, Matt Hasselbeck, Kerry Collins, Alex Smith, Marc Bulger, Rex Grossman, Billy Volek, Seneca Wallace, Chad Pennington, Luke McCown, Charlie Frye, J.P. Losman, Kyle Boller, Patrick Ramsey

First of all, cross Manning and Vick off your list. The Colts and Eagles will not let these franchise quarterbacks leave via free agency, unless something incredibly screwy happens with the new CBA (whenever it is signed). While Manning and Vick are unrealistic pipe dreams, the other guys on this list are on the market. Hasselbeck’s strong postseason play for the Seahawks likely increased his price tag, and he’s likely in line for a multi-year deal now, which may price him out of Seattle given the team’s investment in Charlie Whitehurst. The Seahawks say they want to keep Hasselbeck, but will they be willing to pay him $15 million-plus as a franchise player? We can’t buy that. Therefore, our hunch is that Hasselbeck is the one 2011 starter who could step in somewhere else – especially somewhere with a West Coast type of scheme like Minnesota or Cleveland – and provide an upgrade immediately. Collins and Bulger, both of whom were backups this year, are more of stopgap options. Collins played some in Tennessee with mixed results, while Bulger got a break from the beating he took in St. Louis by sitting behind Joe Flacco in Baltimore. Neither is a long-term answer, but both could provide competition for an average quarterback or serve as a placeholding starter for a team developing a young QB. Smith is the wild card of this group. He has talent, but it never worked out in San Francisco. But some team might choose to invest and take a look to see if he can step up his play in a more stable situation. Grossman is in the perfect situation in Washington because he’s been with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan longer than Donovan McNabb and seems to be favored over the higher profile QB. If Grossman wants another shot to start, now’s the time to leave after a solid end-of-season performance, but his best chance to succeed and maybe to start is with the Redskins. Volek showed flashes of ability in Tennessee years ago, and he could be a stopgap in Carolina, where the new coach and offensive coordinator saw him practice in San Diego. Wallace is a decent backup who can run the West Coast offense and also move around a bit, but aside from Cleveland president Mike Holmgren, few NFL types see him as more than a No. 3. Pennington was once a quality starter, but his shoulder’s in such bad shape that he’s just a No. 3 at this point. The other guys on this list are not starters but could provide some veteran assurance for a team looking for a third guy.

Limbo Free Agents (Players with four or five years of service who would be unrestricted free agents in a system like 2009 or before but not under the 2010 system)
Tarvaris Jackson (5), Bruce Gradkowski (5), Matt Leinart (5), Kellen Clemens (5), Brodie Croyle (5),  Drew Stanton (4), Tyler Thigpen (4), Matt Moore (4), Trent Edwards (4), Troy Smith (4)

These players may or may not be unrestricted free agents, and all are risky. Gradkowski has had the most success as a starter, making up for physical limitations with gutty play, and it appears he’s not a favorite of Al Davis in Raiderland. He could be a decent stopgap somewhere. Leinart never lived up to his billing in Arizona, but we could see him getting one more shot to compete somewhere. Jackson had his moments in Minnesota, but he was never consistent, and the Vikings have decided he’s not their quarterback of the future. Clemens showed some promise with the Jets before getting stuck, first behind Brett Favre and then behind Mark Sanchez. A change of scenery should provide a better opportunity than he’s had in three years. Croyle is nothing more than a backup. Thigpen had a long chance in Kansas City and a brief chance for the Dolphins this year, but his win/loss record is abysmal. Still, he may be a guy a team wants to bring in as a competitor for a starting job. Stanton had shown little promise until this year in Detroit, where injuries to Matthew Stafford and Shaun Hill forced him into action. Stanton played well enough to at least move up from a No. 3 quarterback to a backup, and perhaps even enter a competitive environment. Moore and Edwards have had shots to start in Carolina and Buffalo, respectively, but both lost their jobs. They’re likely to fill in as backups instead of a starting candidates. Smith showed some spark in San Francisco this year, but he looks to be an energetic backup who can step up in a pinch instead of an every-week starter.

Restricted Free Agents (Players with three years experience who could move teams via offer sheet)
Dennis Dixon, Brian Brohm

Dixon, the Steelers’ backup, has had a couple of starting shots and has played OK. He’s not great, but someone might be enamored with his potential. If the Steelers don’t place a high tender on Dixon, he could be targeted. Brohm was a higher draft pick than Dixon, so an offer sheet is more unlikely. His Buffalo tenure has been uneventful.

Trade (These players are under contract in 2011)
Vince Young, Donovan McNabb, Kevin Kolb, Matt Flynn, Kyle Orton – UPDATE: Carson Palmer?

These names are more speculative, but they’re likely to be targeted to some degree or another. The Titans definitely want to be rid of Young, and if they can’t trade him, they’ll release him. At some point, some team will give up a late-round pick to get an exclusive shot at rehabilitating a former top-3 pick who has a winning record as a starter. McNabb may draw some interest as well, although he’s clearly in his decline phase and isn’t worth more than a mid-round pick. But with just one year left on his contract, don’t be shocked to see McNabb shopped. Like McNabb, Orton signed a one-year extension during the season, only to see the starting job go to a younger player during the year. Since Tim Tebow is longer for Denver than Orton is, the Broncos might consider dealing Orton at the right price – likely a mid-round pick. It’s unlikely that the Packers will deal Flynn, but after his solid debut start against the Patriots late this season he’ll be a dream answer for teams looking for a young starter. If the price gets high enough, the Packers might make a move. But the cream of this crop is Kolb, who has one year remaining on his contract at a reasonable price. Certainly, the Eagles would prefer to keep Kolb to back up Vick, whose versatile style exposes him to more of an injury risk than other QBs. But if the Eagles were offered a first-round pick, they’d have to consider trading Kolb and letting young prospect Mike Kafka step in as their backup. That’s a move that Andy Reid’s mentor Mike Holmgren used time after time in Green Bay to build draft equity. Kolb has shown enough in his starting stints to be considered an average NFL starter right away with the promise to emerge into even more.

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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...

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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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