How Fast Can a New Coach Turn Things Around?, The ‘Catch Committee’ (and the Play of the Year), and Save Thursday Night Football

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1. I think Joe Thomas made me very sad earlier this week. In case you missed it, Jenny Vrentas wrote a wonderful and melancholy piece for our Corridor of Woe series, focusing on the Cleveland Browns’ frantic and seemingly endless search for the head coach since returning to the NFL in 1999.

“I don’t think you are going to win the Super Bowl the first year you have a new head coach. I look at my career, getting older and older, and saying, my window of opportunity is smaller and smaller. And when you have a new coach, it becomes even smaller, because now you are looking at, probably, legitimately, a three or four-year process to find out if he’s got what it takes, if they’ve got the pieces in place to win consistently. This is my ninth year, next year will be 10, so you do the math.”

That quote is a bummer! Thomas is a great player, and from all accounts he’s a great guy, and he’s fiercely loyal to a dysfunctional franchise with whom he’s spent his entire career. So I wanted to do something to make him feel better. And since Vermont Teddy Bear doesn’t make a “Sorry Your Football Team Is Bear-y Crappy” bear, I decided to look into just how long it takes a new head coach to make a bad team competitive.

My hypothesis going into this was that the coaching class of 2008 threw off everyone’s expectations. That was the year that John Harbaugh and Mike Smith took over the Ravens and Falcons, respectively, with rookie quarterbacks. Both teams went to the playoffs, the Ravens going from 5-11 to 11-5, the Falcons from 4-12 to 11-5.

Since I’m not writing this in real-time while you’re reading, why don’t I, y’know, just show you what I found after researching new coaches from 2009 to 2015.

I didn’t include 2015 because we don’t yet know how the season will play out. But from 2009 to ’14, there were 24 teams that made a total of 42 head-coaching hires.

35 of those hires came following a losing season. Of those 35…

14 (40.0%) eventually took their team to the playoffs, all of them within four years.

13 (37.1%) went to the playoffs within three years, 10 (28.6%) within two years, and eight new coaching hires by a team coming off a losing season (22.9%) went to the playoffs in Year 1.

I know what you’re thinking: This is like, Chuck Pagano taking the Colts to the playoffs because he got Andrew Luck, and the Browns still have no idea who will be playing quarterback next year. But, surprisingly, Pagano (well, Pagano/Arians) was the only one of those eight coaches to do it with a star quarterback coming in at the same time. Andy Reid got a pretty significant upgrade with Alex Smith taking over for Matt Cassel. But Mike McCoy (Philip Rivers), Jim Caldwell (Matthew Stafford), Pete Carroll (Matt Hasselbeck) and Jim Harbaugh (Alex Smith) did it with incumbents. John Fox (Kyle Orton to Tim Tebow) and Chip Kelly (Michael Vick to Nick Foles) had (we’ll be kind during this holiday season) lateral changes under center.

So, Joe, that’s not so bad, right? Just ignore the fact that four of those failed hires were by Cleveland.

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2a. I think, in regards to the new “catch committee,” well… at least it’s something.

One thing we can all agree on: It’s dumb that no two people, anywhere on the planet, can agree on what a catch is. Since I’m a charitable guy, I’d be willing to save the league a lot of time and effort (and money, my consulting rates are like 7% less than Ted Wells’). The competition committee seems to be dead set against a “two feet” rule, due to the possibility of defenders torpedoing receivers and immediately causing fumbles (because that never happens now, apparently). So my solution appeases everyone: The rule is two feet plus one more body part. The two feet (one shin, knee, thigh equals two feet) have to be in bounds. If it’s not a third foot, you have to maintain control through the moment that third body part makes contact with the ground.

So if you’re going to the ground, the only way it’s not a catch is if you lose control before the moment your knee/thigh/hand/shoulder/head hits the ground. No more having to maintain control as you steamroll into the guy holding the parabolic mic. If you control the ball, then you’re going to the ground, then your two feet hit, then your shin hits, then the ball hits the ground and pops out, it doesn’t matter. The catch was over as soon as your shin hit the ground.

There. Done.

2b. This all gives me a chance to share what I feel is the Play of the Year so far.

No, not Dez’s catch, which was very nice. The Play of the Year is what Byron Maxwell does here. He is done with the play for a full second, then comes in well beyond the time when any reasonable person would think the play was still going, and punches the ball out. And then he, quite sincerely it appears, argues that the ruling should be incomplete pass.

And we laugh, because our lives are so good that we can sit around and watch month-old NFL highlights. I mean, that’s ridiculous, right!

But ask yourself: If this play were followed by a six-minute conference, then a 10-minute review, then ruled an incomplete pass because Dez Bryant did not “finish the process,” you’d be outraged. But would you be surprised? After this? And this? It’s simultaneously an utterly insane and a heads up play by Maxwell. The perfect play to encapsulate the 2015 season.

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3. I think Thursday Night Football is, still, routinely crappy football.

I don’t have any way of quantifying that feeling, save charting the number of times I turn to my cat during a game and ask “What the hell is this?” (It’s not even my cat. It’s my four-year-old’s. And it’s not even a real cat. It’s a beanie baby. Her name is Pepper. And she’s the only friend who will watch football with me.)

To be clear: Games can be close (and perhaps that’s why there hasn’t been as much uproar about the TNF slate this year) but still crappy.

Take Thursday night’s Cardinals-Vikings game, for example. Arizona was 10-2. Minnesota was 8-4. The Cardinals have an MVP front-runner at quarterback. The Vikings have the NFL’s best running back. Both have great defenses. Both are as well-coached as any team in football. Both have legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. That should be a great game!

This is what we got instead: The Vikings showed up with half a defense (maybe their guys would have missed a Sunday game too), they made one exceptionally sloppy turnover and another bone-headed play to seal the loss. The Cardinals seemed to be sleepwalking through the evening, Bruce Arians’ team looking oddly conservative (first-and-goal on the 2, and the touches go Stepfan Taylor, sack, Stepfan Taylor, field goal?).

One of the key plays of the final drive was a deflected pass to guard Mike Iupati that went for 10 yards (though Iupati did run better after the catch than anyone on the Packers does these days, YAC BURN!). Their final series included a back-up running back ignoring a wide-open hole and instead running into Larry Fitzgerald’s back before retreating for an eight-yard loss, and then tight end Troy Niklas shadowing Fitzgerald like a young Darrelle Revis would have, helping break up a potential game-clinching third-down conversion. (To be fair, I’m not sure if it was Niklas or Fitzgerald who was in the wrong spot, but either way it was ugly.)

It was close. It was exciting in the end. And it was bad football. But it’s understandable. Both teams just played two-thirds of a continent away on Sunday. Jim Nantz and Phil Simms (or, as they’re known by their “couple name”: Phlim Snantzimms) mentioned at one point during the broadcast that Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona’s Swiss-army knife defensive back, didn’t feel he had time to properly prepare during the short week.

And if you read my boss’s (ridiculously interesting) piece on what it takes for a quarterback to prepare during the week, you can probably guess how Carson Palmer felt during the short week.

So neither team had any chance to be at their best. Is that how we want to decide December games with playoff implications?

You’ve come here for solutions, and I have one. (Note: This has absolutely not been endorsed by Peter King, or anyone, really.)

The easy answer is to eliminate the Thursday game. I’d be willing to bet the majority of NFL fans like this idea. But, well, grow the business. So that’s out.

How about this: Multiple bye weeks. An 18-week (or 19-week) season, but still 16 games per team. Use the multiple bye weeks to eliminate short weeks; never again should a team play a Thursday game after a Sunday game.

The players lose a week of vacation, but certainly the owners could give them a (relatively meager) monetary concession to make it work. (And surely, the owners are capable of doing something to make the game better, even if it doesn’t make them money.)

Make that Opening Night a Thursday doubleheader, then have two of those teams match up in Week 2. That way, no one has to take a Week 1 bye.

Go ahead, poke some holes in that plan. (Seriously, go ahead. It’s the weekend, my brain checks out on Thursday.)

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4. I think, for as bad as that Thursday night game was, the world is a better place when Dwight Freeney is spinning and sacking quarterbacks.

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5. I think I’d like to take a moment to welcome back Johnny Manziel, Starting Quarterback.

I’ve shared my thoughts on Mr. Football (sorry, Deitsch) before, and I would like to address one common pro-Manziel argument, which goes along the lines of: “It’s tough on Manziel because he is a quarterback living in the social media age.”

What other NFL quarterback would put himself in these situations again and again and again?

What other NFL quarterback would put himself in these situations again and again and again?

This is a partial list of other quarterbacks coming up in the social media age: Matt Ryan, Teddy Bridgewater, Andrew Luck, Tom Brady, Blake Bortles, Cam Newton, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Jameis Winston, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tyrod Taylor, Andy Dalton, Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins, Jay Cutler, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota, Ryan Tannehill, Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford.

Certainly, some of those guys (Roethlisberger, Winston) have made negative headlines over the years. (And the things they were accused of doing are far worse than anything Manziel has ever done.) But no one repeatedly puts himself in bad situations with the frequency that Manziel does.

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6. I think, after the smoke has cleared and we look back at the free-agent frenzy of 2015 (Suh! Revis! Maxwell! DeMarco!), the smartest signing of the offseason might have been Blaine Gabbert.

I briefly touched on the potential competence of Gabbert before his first start this season, and I’ve hammered this point home a couple of times: It’s okay for a young quarterback to sit and learn, no matter how high he was drafted. Gabbert was put in a position to fail in Jacksonville. And he did.

With the metaphorical walls crumbling around Levi’s Stadium, San Francisco gave Gabbert a two-year, $4 million deal that carried virtually no risk, but provided fodder for anyone who wanted to point and laugh at the Niners.

He sat the bench for the Niners for 20 months before his first start, and it seems Gabbert has been successfully reprogrammed. He isn’t going to be a star, but through a month of games it looks like he’s one of the 32 best quarterbacks in football. And now, he’s on the books for a very affordable $2 million next season.

The Niners can take a quarterback with their first pick in April. Then they can sit that quarterback and play Gabbert next season, rather than spoiling their next franchise QB while they re-stock the offense.

And in case you were worried: Gabbert is 2-2 as the Niners starter, but the team is still in position to get one of the (presumed) big three in the draft: Jared Goff, Paxton Lynch or Connor Cook. If the season ended today, the only other QB-needy teams in the top 10 would be Cleveland and St. Louis.

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7. I think I think some things about college football…

a. Good for Derrick Henry. I gave my Heisman vote to Deshaun Watson. He didn’t have an off game this year (he had some trouble passing in a monsoon against Notre Dame, but he did plenty of damage with his legs that night) and his team went undefeated. And I think for a running back to win the award he has to essentially blow away the field. Henry churned out a lot of yards on a lot of touches. Christian McCaffrey was otherworldly at times, but did nothing in a season opening loss at Northwestern, and very little in a scare against Notre Dame.

b. I think no one cares who got my Heisman vote. I mean that literally. I don’t have a vote.

c. Dynamite piece on Deshaun Watson, by friend of The MMQB Pete Thamel, over at Campus Rush.

d. It’s very early in the draft process, but I would like to purchase my tickets for the Corey Coleman bandwagon. Are they on sale yet?

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8. I think, while you’re counting down the hours to kickoff, you should spend some time with The MMQB Read of the Week: “A Revolving Door in the Factory of Sadness.”

Jenny Vrentas has been traveling the “Corridor of Woe” for our three-part special series. This one was a must-read, the tale of an organization that’s been spinning its wheels for 17 seasons.

More from Joe Thomas:

“We’ve had a lot of great coaches here that, if given the chance, I have no doubt they would have turned this thing into a consistent winner. Because I don’t think there are huge, vast differences in the quality of the coaches between staffs in the NFL. From what I have seen in my nine years, I just don’t think there is as big of a difference as fans and people outside the game want to believe. Bill Belichick is probably the greatest coach in NFL history, but he’s been blessed with Tom Brady at quarterback. Who’s to say that if a different head coach had been put in that situation with Tom Brady, he wouldn’t have also won a few Super Bowls?”

Oh, and LeBron weighed in too.

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You guys used to be so good together. Taylor Swift should write a song about this.

You guys used to be so good together. Taylor Swift should write a song about this.

9. Fourteen-plus things I think about Sunday’s 14 games:

a. There will be plenty of LeSean McCoy/Chip Kelly silliness to go around this weekend. LeSean McCoy’s “Chip Kelly is a racist” argument was wrong. So was Kelly’s notion that DeMarco Murray and Kiko Alonso were worth the price of McCoy. For some teams that trade off makes sense. For the Eagles, it didn’t.

In regards to the two backs, for 2015 and ’16, they’re essentially on the same deal. According to spotrac, McCoy will cost the Bills $5.5 million against the cap this year and $7.7 million in 2016. Murray will cost Philly $5 million and $8 million. McCoy could conceivably be cut after the ’17 season if his play has declines. Murray could conceivably be cut after the ’16.

McCoy has been more durable than Murray. And while Shady has logged more carries over the course of his career, Murray was coming off a historically large workload in 2014 (including postseason, 497 touches!). At best, longevity was shaping up to be a push.

But here’s where Kelly was so very wrong. McCoy is a special back. Murray is good but fungible; his fantastic ’14 season came in large part due to playing behind football’s best offensive line. Cap management is obviously a big part of building a roster, but with an injury-prone game manager in Sam Bradford coming in under center, and an unremarkable group of receivers, and a rebuilt offensive line, the Eagles desperately needed a dynamic star in the backfield (that’s why they seem to operate better when part-timer Darren Sproles is on the field). McCoy would have been worth every penny for this team.

b. The Lions may be playing out the string as they travel to St. Louis, but there should be some good vibes as they finish out the season. The performance of Matthew Stafford since the team returned from London (65.8% comp., 9 TD, 1 INT, 105.4 rating), with Detroit winning three of four (the lone loss coming on last week’s Hail Mary), should have solidified Stafford’s future in Detroit. The Lions aren’t that far away if they can re-work the offensive line and fix the running game, and if Martha Ford indeed wants to win ASAP, this is her quarterback. (And, considering he’ll be only 28 when next season kicks off, Stafford is probably going to be sticking around for a long time.)

c. Jameis Winston got his first NFL win at New Orleans back in Week 2, even though the Bucs had fewer yards of offense against the Saints (333) than any team in 2015 (even the Brandon Weeden-led Cowboys had more!).

d. The 49ers are playing the Browns on Sunday.

e. The schedule is softening up just in time for the Jets, who host Tennessee today and then travel to Romo-less Dallas before two big ones: Week 16 against the Patriots and 17 at Buffalo. With Darrelle Revis potentially returning this week, Todd Bowles could be able to open up an array of blitzes to attack rookie Marcus Mariota.

f. If there’s one game the Steelers surely wish they could have back this year, it would have to be the home loss to Cincinnati back in Week 8. Andy Dalton kept trying to give that game away, but Ben Roethlisberger, in his first game back from an MCL injury, just kept giving it back, throwing three picks in the 16-10 loss. The 57.8 passer rating Roethlisberger posted that day was his lowest in a game since 2011.

He goes into this game healthy and with all his weapons. Remember what happened when the Steelers visited Cincinnati this time last year? They rolled up 543 yards of offense and scored 25 points in a less-than-nine-minute span in the fourth quarter of a 42-21 win.

g. Stat that you’ve probably seen elsewhere at this point: The Colts are 15-0 against the AFC South over the past three seasons. They need this game against Jacksonville. And while it’s fun to say the Jaguars could be just a game out of first come Monday morning (if they win and the Texans lost at home to the Patriots), the Jags are most likely out of it due to three divisional losses already.

h. It is good to be the Chiefs, who play three of their final four at home, and each of their final four against teams that currently have losing records. That starts with Sunday’s home date with a Chargers team they just destroyed in San Diego. As I’ve mentioned a couple of times this year: Sometimes it’s all about the schedule.

i. Washington heads to Chicago, and they had to be tossing and turning all week after giving one away, at home, to a truly bad Cowboys team. They could be doomed, even in football’s worst division. Washington plays three of their final four on the road, and they’ve dropped nine straight away from FedEx. Kirk Cousins’ only road win as a starter came over the Brandon Weeden/Trent Richardson Browns in Cleveland in 2012. He’s dropped nine straight since then.


j. A win in Carolina on Sunday, that’s all the Falcons need if they’re going to stay relevant in the NFC wild-card race. (Spoiler alert: They’re not going to stay relevant in the NFC wild-card race.)

k. The Seahawks allowed 1,117 passing yards in Weeks 10 through 12. Last week their beleaguered secondary got a break with a matchup against a Vikings offense that doesn’t push the ball down the field. And this week they visit Baltimore and a Ravens offense that is basically the off-brand version of the Vikings offense.

l. Osweiler-Carr I.

m. I’m not quite sure the Packers fixed anything in their miracle win in Detroit. The offensive line is in shambles. David Bakhtiari (knee) will play against Dallas, but Greg Hardy is exactly the kind of speed-to-power rusher who can overwhelm him. On the other side, rising pass-rusher DeMarcus Lawrence will be going against a hampered Bryan Bulaga, or possibly shuffled guard T.J. Lang if Bulaga can’t go. The ball is going to have to come out of Aaron Rodgers’ hand quickly, and this Green Bay receiving corps has been stunningly anemic when it comes to making plays after the catch. If indeed Davante Adams has been arguably the NFL’s worst receiver this season due to lingering ankle problems, and if Randall Cobb is going to justify a No. 1 receiver’s contract, both need to step up and create some plays on Sunday.

n. Well, when you give up a 99-yard interception return TD, a blocked punt return TD, and an 83-yard punt return TD in the span of 11 minutes of gametime, it’s actually pretty impressive to even be competitive in that game. The Patriots are 5-1 against the Texans all time, with the one loss coming when they benched many of their starters mid-game in a meaningless regular-season finale in 2010. Coincidentally, it was Brian Hoyer who played most of that game in place of Tom Brady.

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10. I think, at 12:58 p.m. ET, you should turn your volume all the way up and press play…