Welcome to the last Fine Fifteen of the season. Another change at the top, though you won’t be surprised after last Sunday’s results.
First, though, let’s take a stab at the coaching openings, and the common-sense candidates to fill each one.
A few notes before we begin:
1. These are my suggestions, my best candidates for each opening … and not necessarily what I think is going to happen. It’s too early in the process. As one club official with a looming opening told me on Saturday night, “It’s impossible to tell you the best candidates for us yet … we haven’t talked to any of them.” You can guess, but you can’t know much now.
2. I’m going to include a few teams that, as of 11 p.m. on Monday, did not have an opening—yet. I mean New Orleans, Indianapolis and Detroit. There has been too much talk about these struggling franchises to ignore them. I’m also going to keep interim coach Mike Mularkey with Tennessee for now, even thought the Titans will interview others.
3. This is not science. It’s guesswork. Have fun with it.
In alphabetical order:
Adam Gase, offensive coordinator, Chicago
One of the whip-smartest play designers and callers, and he’s probably ready for a head-coaching job. I think he’d be a perfect three- to five-year mentor for the quarterback the Browns are sure to draft with the second pick on April 28. (I say three- to five-year mentor, because owner Jimmy Haslam won’t be able to be cavalier with his firing this time.) Another consideration: Not that he would come, but if I were Haslam I’d at least call Kirk Ferentz, the Iowa coach and former Browns aide, to see if the rock-solid Ferentz would ever leave Iowa City.
Jim Caldwell (incumbent)
His player leadership council unanimously backs him. I’m told it’s not just a mild backing but an enthusiastic you’d-better-not-fire-this-guy backing. The sentiment inside the organization is to take the guy whose team finished a ridiculous Hail Mary shy of 7-1 in the second half of the season and pair him with a strong GM for at least a year, to see if they meld. If I were Detroit, I’d call Bill Polian. He said when he was up for the Hall of Fame that he was absolutely, positively finished, but I’d make him say that to me directly before believing it. He’s a strong family guy. Why not suggest Bill Polian for two years, with son Chris hired as the assistant and in line to take over in, say, 2018? No idea if it’d work. But it’s worth a phone call.
Chuck Pagano (incumbent)
At 9:42 p.m. on Monday, the Colts sent out a press release saying owner Jim Irsay, GM Ryan Grigson and Pagano would be available at a 10:30 p.m. press conference, presumably not to have a UFC bout. Indeed, last night Irsay announced that Pagano had been given a new four-year contract, and Grigson’s deal had been extended three years, so the two would be together through 2019. This one doesn’t neatly fit the common-sense mold. Let’s review: Irsay didn’t trust Pagano to build a top-flight defense and thus didn’t offer him a lucrative extension last offseason; Indy was 25th in the league in scoring defense this year. Irsay didn’t trust Pagano to build a team to beat the cream of the AFC; Indy, with Andrew Luck playing, lost to New England and Carolina, and beat Denver. They lost to Jacksonville, 51-16, without Luck. Good for Irsay for being loyal, but what’s changed?
Hue Jackson, offensive coordinator, Cincinnati
I want two things if I’m Dolphins owner Stephen Ross: a coach who can whip Ryan Tannehill into being a middle-rung quarterback, somewhere between No. 12 and 17 (and Jackson has done a terrific job with Andy Dalton over the last two years, especially in the last 12 months) … and I want a coach who can tell Ndamukong Suh to, occasionally, stop being a jerk. Jackson’s tough. He can control a locker room, and he can win over a quarterback.
Doug Marrone, assistant head coach/offense, Jacksonville
It’s going to take a certain kind of coach to succeed Sean Payton, and to work with owner Tom Benson and GM Mickey Loomis—and, hopefully, to get two more good years out of Drew Brees. A trusted Sean Payton aide for three years early in Payton’s New Orleans tenure, Marrone understands the city and the team structure. And he’s a tough guy who can take a rebuilding period.
New York Giants
Chip Kelly, former head coach, Philadelphia
I don’t like the chances of this happening. At all. But this isn’t necessarily about what’s going to happen. It’s about a fit that I think would be smart. Kelly’s a brilliant X’s and O’s guy who says he wants no more of the personnel duties that he blew in Philly. Eli Manning is a sponge, a durable sponge, with three years left at least, and he’d be excellent for Kelly. What hurt Kelly most in Philadelphia was not having a quarterback to execute exactly what he wanted to do. Problem solved here. But there’s still a huge talent gap on defense, so I’m not sure this is the great job everyone’s making it out to be, even though it is the New York Football Giants. Tied for number two, if I’m John Mara: Stanford coach David Shaw and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Josh McDaniels, offensive coordinator, New England
McDaniels learned a lot from his 28-game Denver head-coaching debacle and is ready to take the next job. He’ll be a better communicator this time, and he’ll understand that just because he has been mentored by Bill Belichick for years, it doesn’t necessarily mean that players are going to respect him right away as they do Belichick. I’m bullish on McDaniels having gone to school enough on what he did wrong, and I think he’ll have a good chance to win the second time around. And for those who say he won’t leave Belichick? For the right job, he will. The Eagles, though, might not want to go the former head-coach route.
Sean Payton, head coach, New Orleans
Payton and Saints GM Mickey Loomis were in meetings for hours in New Orleans on Monday. How it turns out, I don’t know. I do know that many around Payton think he’s ready to go—not that he’ll be miserable if nothing can be worked out with another team and he has to stay (he’s under contract with the Saints for two more seasons). But he understands that the defense can’t be built back up in a day, and he understands that if Drew Brees doesn’t take some sort of contract modification to lower his $30-million cap number for 2016, the Saints might have a different quarterback this fall. So it may be time to get out while the getting’s good. The Niners will have about 12 draft choices in 2016, with at least $52 million to spend under the 2016 salary cap. And they have the seventh pick in the first round, good for Payton to go find his new quarterback. All in all, there’s a lot about this job for Payton to like—and it would solve a major credibility problem for the embattled Niners czar, Jed York.
So, let the jockeying begin.
* * *
Now for the Fine Fifteen finale:
1. Carolina (15-1). Last week: 2. Ron Rivera barked at the non-believers last week, those who would drop Carolina from the highest perch in the league because they lost one road division game. I heard. His players did too, with the lopsided rout of the Bucs. Now it’s 13 days until—I’m guessing—the Seahawks come to town with what could be the biggest challenge of the postseason for Carolina.
2. Seattle (10-6). LW: 7. I am a victim of the What We Just Saw Syndrome. Seattle 36, Arizona 6 … Scoring 29 or more in seven of the last games … Surrendering 55 points in the last five games … Russell Wilson with 24 TD passes and one interception in his last seven starts … Marshawn Lynch likely back Sunday in Minnesota for the wild-card game. In other words, I’m pretty easily swayed.
3. Arizona (13-3). LW: 1. Speaking of being easily swayed, Arizona had something to play for, in a rivalry game, and lost by 30 at home on Sunday.
4. Denver (12-4). LW: 4. Look for Peyton Manning to take the first snap with the first team when Denver’s bye-week practices begin on Thursday. That doesn’t tell me the Broncos are a lock to make the Super Bowl. It’s just what I expect Gary Kubiak to do.
5. New England (12-4). LW: 3. I figure Bill Belichick will have a pretty representative team on the field a week from Saturday night. Seen this movie before.
6. Kansas City (11-5). LW: 6. Chiefs edge the Bengals for this spot, because I am unsure—as is the Queen City—about the Bengals’ quarterback situation Saturday night.
7. Cincinnati (12-4). LW: 5. Let’s say Andy Dalton plays Saturday night. It’s still just 27 days between fracturing one’s throwing thumb and dueling Ben Roethlisberger in a playoff game. That’s not optimal.
8. Washington (9-7). LW: 9. I like this team more than most people, because I think Kirk Cousins has gone from a let’s-build-a-strong-running-game-around-him player to a the-heck-with-the-running-game player. I’ve got to hand it to Mike Shanahan, who said even when he was laughed out of the room that when given the chance Cousins would turn into a top-10 quarterback. The jury is still out, but Cousins looked pretty good in the second half of the season.
9. Minnesota (11-5). LW: 10. Vikes will need more than 99 passing yards from Teddy Bridgewater—Sunday night’s output—to challenge Russell Wilson and the ’Hawks in the wild-card game.
10. Pittsburgh (10-6). LW: 12. Interesting trifecta for the Steelers: Pittsburgh will finish a three-games-at-three-AFC North-rivals-in-14-days tour Saturday night. Steelers have been to Baltimore (loss, 20-17), Cleveland (win, 28-12) and now to Cincinnati. I’d feel better about their chances if they’d been more explosive against the two lesser defenses the last two weeks.
11. New York Jets (10-6). LW: 8. Five wins in a row, then they lost to Rex “Kryptonite” Ryan. Can’t make them plummet over that.
12. Houston (9-7). LW: 15. The defense can definitely beat the Chiefs. Not sure the offense can.
13. Green Bay (10-6). LW: 11. This team doesn’t need a road trip to Washington right now. It needs a back-to-basics offseason.
14. Buffalo (8-8). LW: 16. Good springboard into the offseason. Of course, a bitter springboard into the offseason too, finishing 8-8 after the blusterous blustering of Rex Ryan for 11 months.
15. Philadelphia (7-9). LW: 19. Not sure why, but I get the impression most Philadelphians disagree with my Chip Kelly-got-a-raw-deal stance.
Also receiving votes:
16. Oakland (7-9). LW: 17. Jack Del Rio says the Raiders have everything it takes to be a 2016 playoff team. Mark Davis will hold him to that.
17. Detroit (7-9). LW: 20. Just think: If the right call had been made in the end zone in Seattle and Detroit wins that game, and if the longest Hail Mary in NFL had been knocked down by one of seven Lions defenders in the end zone against Green Bay, Detroit is 9-7 and we’re not talking about Jim Caldwell’s job.
18. Atlanta (8-8). LW: 13. Beating Carolina only goes so far.
19. St. Louis (7-9). LW: 14. Beating Seattle four times in four seasons only goes so far.
20. New Orleans (7-9). LW: not rated. Drew Brees at quarterback takes you only so far.
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