Musings, observations and the occasional insight as the NFL’s annual firing/hiring season commences with Black Monday, a day for press conferences, packed bags and largely expected developments that have been signaled for weeks....
• Regrets, Woody Johnson has a few. But then again, not too few to mention. And perhaps that’s one contributing reason the sometimes tone-deaf New York Jets owner has had difficulty in the past coaxing the best possible candidates to work for him. Because when he opens his mouth, he inadvertently confirms that the Jets are not exactly run like a finely-tuned machine, and that arrow of blame always points right to the top. To him, and his knack for mismanagement.
In meeting the media after Monday morning's joint dismissals of sixth-year head coach Rex Ryan and second-year general manager John Idzik, Johnson acknowledged that he might have doomed both men to failure by tying their fate to one another two years ago, when Idzik was hired after a lengthy search. To a large degree, that search was lengthy because Johnson required his new GM to retain Ryan as his head coach, scaring off a lot of quality front office candidates with the kind of shotgun marriage that rarely ends well in the NFL.
Johnson now says he realizes his mistake in giving the incoming general manager that kind of limitation. So if you’re scoring at home, that’s pretty much two years of wasted time and effort admitted to in Jets-land, unless I’m missing something. Johnson also went on to say the relationship between a coach and a GM has to be "mutual," meaning one can’t be solely worried about winning right now and in a perpetual state of win-or-else, while the other is tasked with taking the long-range view of the organization. Sound familiar?
To be clear, Johnson deserves no credit or admiration for stating the obvious after the Jets’ tire fire finally burned out. Those were all potential pitfalls that many others recognized going into the final two seasons of Ryan’s coaching tenure, but Johnson chose to ignore them. The same way he now regrets not spending more of the club’s $20 million-plus in salary cap room last offseason, not making a more forceful attempt to re-acquire star cornerback Darrelle Revis when Tampa Bay released him last spring (with a potential tampering violation to boot), and for overvaluing Idzik’s skills on the financial side of a GM’s job description at the cost of the personnel evaluation and scouting side.
Johnson made this mess and now is tasked with again trying to clean it up. It’s encouraging that he’s enlisting the help of veteran football men like Ron Wolf and Charley Casserly to try to fill the pivotal and newly created openings he has to deal with. But ultimately, it’s up to Johnson to make the right calls on those hires and then get out of the way. Doing it his way, the Woody Way, hasn’t worked in a while.
"I get all the blame," Johnson said Monday. "I have to get a lot better."
Agreed. As starting points go, this latest Jets makeover has a chance to succeed if Johnson believes his own mea culpa.
• Marc Trestman’s firing in Chicago was no injustice, but I’m still convinced he could be a successful NFL head coach in the right situation. It’s just that the Bears were the wrong team at the wrong time for him.
Chicago had a lack of leadership problem, and forceful, vocal leadership is not the soft-spoken, cerebral Trestman’s strong suit. Having a certifiable coach-killer at quarterback in the maddeningly underachieving Jay Cutler only heightened the issue, because Cutler is no one’s idea of a born leader.
The reality is while Trestman did great work in getting the most out of Bears backup quarterback Josh McCown last year -- earning him a nice payday in Tampa Bay as a free agent this spring -- he worked no miracles with Cutler’s flagging fortunes. And when both Chicago and Detroit were gifted with a golden opportunity to win the NFC North last season, with the division’s most dominant player in Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers sidelined for almost half the year, neither the Bears nor Lions could take advantage of it.
That failure cost Jim Schwartz his coaching job in Detroit after last season, and now Trestman is gone as well. And don’t forget, the Bears' offensive talent wasn’t good enough to mask the glaring deficiencies that exist on defense in Chicago. The Bears allowed their two highest points per game average in franchise history under Trestman’s watch: 29.9 last season, and 27.6 this year.
• Mike Smith set the bar very high by Atlanta standards in the first five seasons of his Falcons tenure, with five consecutive winning records and four playoff trips. But going 10-22 since the start of 2013 doomed him, and he got the expected kick to the curb on Monday.
Smith is a good coach, an even better man, and his players genuinely loved playing for him. But a coach can only work with what he’s given by the personnel decision-makers, and that side of the operation hasn’t earned its money too well in Atlanta of late. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Jake Matthews were selections to relish, but there wasn’t much else coming via the draft or free agency in restocking the roster.
That sounds like the reasoning behind Falcons owner Arthur Blank’s less-than-ringing endorsement of general manager Thomas Dimitroff at Monday’s news conference announcing Smith’s departure, which the GM attended.
"Thomas is our general manager," Blank said, communicating quite a bit with his lack of expansiveness. "If there are any changes, obviously we’ll let you know about that."
Later he added: "Everything relative to football operations, outside of coaching, is up for scrutiny and for discussion. Everything."
Dimitroff kept his job on Monday, while Smith didn’t. But it sounds like Blank understands that it was at least a two-man failure in Atlanta the past two years.
• It’s fair to question whether Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has a different take on what third-year head coach Joe Philbin is building after Sunday’s dispiriting 13-point home loss to the Jets left Miami 8-8 for a second consecutive season. Ross came out after Miami’s overtime home win against Minnesota in Week 16 and declared Philbin safe for a fourth season in South Florida. But then, 8-7 with a winnable game at home in Week 17 sounded so much more hopeful.
Making late-season decisions based on wins and losses of games that don’t matter in the playoff picture are always tricky, because you can so easily overestimate the meaning. But Miami’s inability to ever put much of anything together for longer than two or three weeks at a time is getting very old, and it’s the only real consistency the Dolphins have exhibited under Philbin.
If you’re drawing up your coaching hot seat list for 2015, you’d have to put Philbin as the unquestioned No. 1 name on the list, with a bullet.
• League sources last week told me the 49ers front office has spent considerable time and energy studying Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, and according to ESPN, San Francisco wasted little time on Monday in requesting permission to interview the Seahawks assistant. The 49ers also reportedly asked for the right to interview both Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase, and those three names will likely be on the wish list of every team with a coaching vacancy.
With Quinn and Gase both working for teams that have a first-round bye, they’re free to talk with San Francisco this week. Bowles’ interview must wait, given that the Cardinals play at Carolina in Saturday’s playoff opener.
The 49ers must consider how to take quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s game back to its 2012 level, but raiding the Seattle staff for Quinn, a coach who is seen as a critical piece to the team’s dominant defensive success, sounds like a shrewd business move in the NFC West to me. One potential issue for the 49ers to deal with if they opt for Quinn: Current San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is extremely well-liked and respected by the 49ers defense, and bypassing him for the job would not be a popular move in the locker room.
• As I wrote last week in my preview of the NFL’s Black Monday, Oakland could very well wind up elevating interim head coach Tony Sparano to the full-time gig if Raiders owner Mark Davis doesn’t feel like he has a game-changing candidate to choose from. And with both Jon Gruden and Jim Harbaugh apparently having said thanks, but no thanks to Oakland already, we may not be far from the point where Sparano is the choice. He’d get a relatively short-term deal, but that fits both what his resume probably warrants and the reality of the Raiders’ situation: They still have no long-term answer on the stadium front, and they could be vying to relocate the franchise to Los Angeles in roughly a year’s time.
The Raiders could choose to pursue a former NFL head coach along the lines of Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, who has done strong work with the Broncos this season. But it’ll be interesting to see if the former Jacksonville head coach moves the needle enough for Davis’ tastes. Davis has been open about his desire to land a big-name head coach who will help revitalize the franchise and add cache to his quest for a stadium solution. But Davis selected another ex-Broncos defensive coordinator in Dennis Allen in his only other coaching hire, three years ago, and that fact could somehow work against Del Rio’s chances. Even though it shouldn’t.
• Just imagine if rookie receiver Odell Beckham Jr. hadn’t gotten healthy after that rough August and September, with his balky hamstring continually frustrating the Giants coaching staff. If Beckham hadn’t blown up as one of the league’s next superstars in the final 12 games of the season, do Giants coach Tom Coughlin and general manager Jerry Reese still have the same quiet Black Monday they wound up having? I don’t think so.
I can’t remember one draft pick ever having more of a direct impact on a team’s outlook coming out of his first season, but I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say Beckham’s monster production made it possible for New York’s ownership to choose the status quo.