Burke Report: There’s no perfect way to pick a coach, more Week 17
In the end, it just didn’t work out. It seemed like it might, for a while at least—his first year produced double-digit wins, a division title and trip to the playoffs, after all. But the team and its coach buckled under the weight of expectations afterward, sending the franchise into an unexpected tailspin.
And that was it. Three years and out.
I’m talking, of course, about Pete Carroll, whose failed 1997–99 stint in New England actually marked his second foray into the NFL head coaching ranks. The Jets promoted him from defensive coordinator to coach in 1994, only to ax him a few months later, following a 6–10 season.
Carroll headed back to college after his Patriots tenure, which ended with an 8–8 campaign and a tie for last place. He then spent nine years orchestrating a USC powerhouse before returning to the NFL with Seattle—a marriage that obviously has been much more successful than Carroll’s prior pro arrangements.
The man who took over for Carroll in New England was on his second stop as a head coach, too. That was Bill Belichick, who made it to the playoffs just once in five seasons after taking over the Browns as the league’s youngest head coach. The Browns posted an 11–5 record in 1994 and won a game in the postseason. They were a popular Super Bowl pick the following year (including by this very publication), but floundered to a 5–11 finish as owner Art Modell readied the franchise for a shocking move to Baltimore.
Belichick was fired before the relocation, then spent the next four seasons as an assistant before New England tabbed him as Carroll’s replacement.
So, the point is: No one really knows what it takes to be a successful coach in the NFL. Trying to find the “right” head coach in the NFL is a process a lot like the eternal quest to land a franchise quarterback. There are a handful of teams lucky enough to find the perfect fit for a QB with the talent, mentality and swagger to handle such responsibilities. Everyone else spends each draft and free-agent period desperately pouring over the options, in hopes of uncovering the next great talent.
There is no magic formula. What if the Giants had fired Bill Parcells after he finished 3-12-1 in his first season as head coach? What if San Francisco had bailed on Bill Walsh after his 49ers teams went 2–14 and 6–10 during the 1979 and ’80 seasons, respectively?
Even when teams do seem to strike gold by plucking just the coach they need at just the perfect time, the nature of NFL parity makes it difficult to sustain. Just ask two-time Super Bowl champ Tom Coughlin, who could be pushed out the door following Sunday's Giants game, or Super Bowl XLIII winner Mike Tomlin, currently under fire as he faces a fifth straight year without a playoff victory.
Other teams would line up to chat with Tomlin if he ever was let go, just as there reportedly are several interested now in Chip Kelly. The Eagles thought they had solved the riddle by hiring Kelly, a brilliant—even revolutionary—offensive mind. He immediately turned a 4–12 team into a division champion. However, that turned out to be the high point, not a sign of better things to come.
Kelly’s desire for more control over personnel led to his rapid falls. His grating personality also sounds like it caused more problems than he could overcome with his Xs and Os.
Will his second NFL stop (it's safe to assume there will be one) result in happier days? Go ahead, throw a dart and guess. The answer lies in far more factors than simply the coach’s scheme or personality—the front office, the quarterback, cap space, depth, etc. The best a franchise can do is trust that its process will lead down the right path.
The Jaguars are bringing Gus Bradley back for a fourth year despite a 12–35 record; the Lions could can Jim Caldwell after his second season unraveled; Jim Tomsula might be out in San Francisco after just one year; Kelly is gone one game shy of three seasons. Which approach there is the smartest? Which will work out the best?
Rarely is a coaching search as simple as dropping in a touted candidate and waiting for the Super Bowls to start piling up. Rarely does everything go according to plan.
Here are four players I’ll be keeping a close watch on this week …
1. Mario Williams, DE, Bills. Rex Ryan will be back next season, Bills owner Terry Pegula announced Wednesday. Does that mean that Williams, about to wrap the fourth of six seasons on a $96 million contract, is headed out the door?
Williams has been outspoken in his criticism of Ryan’s scheme, and in particular the Bills’ attempts to match their personnel based on the opposing offense’s setup. “My mindset is if you're an attack defense, if you're a bully on the field you don't let anything else dictate what you do,” Williams said following a recent loss to Washington, via the Buffalo News. “We’re going to put who we put out there and then we're going to be able to execute and make plays with the guys out there. I don't need to wait on you to make a decision.”
Williams’s own production has plummeted—he has just 4.0 sacks this season after averaging 12.5 during his first three Bills seasons. Buffalo can save $12.9 million on its 2016 cap and $14.9 million in '17 by releasing Williams after this year, meaning Sunday could be his final game with the Bills.
But they need him, if they truly want to spoil the Jets’ season. The Jets have allowed just 21 sacks this season, second fewest in the league. With Buffalo’s banged-up secondary facing the task of defending Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker et al, Ryan has to find some way to generate pressure. A final flourish from Williams could be it.
However, Shorts’s absence from the lineup of late has propped open the door for Strong, whose rookie year has been mostly nondescript so far. That is, until he scored a division-changing touchdown at Indianapolis in Week 15. Strong caught two more passes last week, on five targets.
Barring a cataclysmic sequence of events, Houston will clinch the AFC South on Sunday and host a wild-card round game the following weekend. Strong’s skill set—he’s a sure-handed receiver who thrives in contested situations—could set him up to be a surprise playoff hero, of which a couple emerge each year. Getting him a few more looks vs. Jacksonville this week would help set the table.
3. David Bakhtiari (or Don Barclay), OT, Packers. While Green Bay was shorthanded all over its line in Week 16, no injury loomed as large as Bakhtiari’s ankle trouble. His replacement, Barclay, was carved up by the Cardinals’ Dwight Freeney, who notched three sacks and was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week for the first time in five years.
If the Packers are to find their footing in time for Sunday’s NFC North-deciding showdown with Minnesota, they must do a far better job protecting Aaron Rodgers—starting on Rodgers’s blind side. The Vikings have a trio of DEs (Brian Robison, Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen, who’s nursing a shoulder injury) capable of bringing heat.
4. Donald Brown and Danny Woodhead, RBs, Chargers. Two for the price of one here. All that stands between Denver and the AFC West title (plus a first-round bye) is a 4–11 San Diego team. The Broncos just waltzed past the Chargers a few weeks ago, 17–3.
Since then, the Chargers have placed disappointing rookie Melvin Gordon on IR and turned their run game over to Brown and Woodhead. The former rushed for 90 yards in Week 15; the latter scored thrice in that game and churned out 108 total yards last week. The second-place Chiefs have to hope the veteran duo can replicate those efforts, because only huge games from both will give San Diego hope of springing an upset.
Breaking it down
A deeper dive into the Week 17 matchups …
New York Jets at Buffalo (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
In the shadow of Tom Brady and Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Bills’ Tyrod Taylor quietly has put together a phenomenal season. Pro Football Focus has him graded as the 10th-best QB this year; he's fifth in passer rating, fifth in yards per pass attempt and has 20 touchdown passes—20 more than he had in his career prior to 2015.
In Week 10, the Jets kept him in check as well as any team Taylor has faced thus far. Buffalo won that game, 22–17, thanks mainly to four Jets turnovers, but Taylor mustered a season low in passing yards (158) and his second-worst rushing total (six carries, 12 yards).
Given how the Jets’ offense and Bills’ defense are playing at the moment, Taylor might find himself in a shootout, but only if he can find a little space against the Jets’ defense.
Interest level: 10. Assuming the Texans hold on to the AFC South, the Jets are in possession of what's really the only playoff spot up for grabs. Rex Ryan vs. his former team is tempting, sure, but the stakes are high enough on their own.
New England at Miami (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
The Patriots need this game to lock up the AFC’s top seed. They also already have a 29-point shellacking of Miami under their belts, so this could get ugly.
On the other hand, the elements are there for a Dolphins upset ... or, at least would be if the Dolphins weren’t a rather lifeless husk of a football team right now. New England is down OT Sebastian Vollmer, while LB Dont'a Hightower and S Devin McCourty are questionable. The opportunities should be there for Miami to establish a presence along both lines, maybe even to get Lamar Miller and Jay Ajayi involved. Do the Dolphins care enough to give it a shot?
Interest level: 3. New England would love that top seed, but it’s also not going to panic should the AFC championship road eventually lead through Cincinnati.
New Orleans at Atlanta (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
Is this the last hurrah for Drew Brees as a Saint? How about Sean Payton? Too bad the possible end of an era could come in such a throwaway Week 17 game. Subplot of note: Julio Jones needs 243 yards to break Calvin Johnson’s single-season receiving record. The Saints’ “pass defense” (cough) puts that in range.
Interest level: 2. Unless you’re feeling nostalgic about Brees and Payton, or dying to see like a 50–48 NFL game, find one of the matchups that matters.
Philadelphia at New York Giants (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
Speaking of the end of an era ... this could be impending free agent Reuben Randle’s final game as a New York Giant. Oh, is something else going on?
Interest level: 1. The Eagles already canned Chip Kelly, and the Giants could do the same with Tom Coughlin in the coming days. The 69-year-old Coughlin deserves a proper sendoff after 12 seasons and two Super Bowls in New York, but let’s wait and see if it is actually coming in the near future.
Washington at Dallas (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
The Cowboys will trot out Kellen Moore for his second start. His first was a bust: 13-of-31 for 186 yards and an interception in unfriendly weather conditions at Buffalo. Could this be a Colt McCoy game, too? The Redskins plan to start Kirk Cousins, but they should be resting starters as much as possible in anticipation of wild-card weekend.
Sorry, no Robert Griffin III appearances. He won't play for one of the many reasons he hasn’t even been backing up Cousins: a serious injury would trigger his $16 million contract for next season.
Interest level: 2. It’s still a heated rivalry, so expect the Cowboys to go all out. Their effort level hasn’t been the problem, though.
Tennessee at Indianapolis (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
Feel free to jump ahead. This is another dud, unless the Colts hit the jackpot with a win plus the eight other results they need to turn their way for a division title. We don’t even get Marcus Mariota vs. Andrew Luck as entertainment. Instead, it’s Zach Mettenberger vs. ...... uh ........ I want to say Jeff George, but that can’t be right.
Baltimore at Cincinnati (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
The Ravens executed their game plan to perfection in last week’s upset of Pittsburgh, asking the strong-armed Ryan Mallett not to stretch the field but rather to live underneath the Steelers’ coverage. He threw just two passes deeper than 20 yards, per Pro Football Focus, completing one—a 39-yard dart to Chris Givens. Mallett averaged a paltry 6.7 yards per attempt but didn’t turn it over, thrived on third down and control the clock.
Why does all that matter ahead of Baltimore’s Week 17 trip to Cincinnati? Well, mainly because much of Brock Osweiler’s success vs. the Bengals came in similar fashion. Osweiler attempted five passes of 20-plus yards but completed only one, an improvised heave downfield to Emmanuel Sanders. He connected on four passes to RB Ronnie Hillman, four more to slot receiver Jordan Norwood and had seven completions to Demaryius Thomas for just 59 yards.
The Ravens might be able to test Cincinnati with an occasional Mallett shot for Kamar Aiken. Their best chance of staying close is following last week’s (and the Broncos’) approach.
Interest level: 6. Curious to see how Mallett plays in his second start. More importantly, the Bengals still could finish first, second or third in the AFC.
Pittsburgh at Cleveland (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
When last these teams met, in Week 10, Martavis Bryant and Antonio Brown combined for 317 yards and three touchdowns. The Steelers won by 21, with Johnny Manziel under center for Cleveland. Even if Pittsburgh sleepwalks through this one the way it did its crushing loss in Baltimore, the Browns—now starring Austin Davis at QB!—are overmatched.
Interest level: 3, with an asterisk. If the Jets-Bills game stays tight, then the interest level here will creep up. Pittsburgh needs a win and Jets loss to claim a postseason berth.
Jacksonville at Houston (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
Bill O’Brien had this to say after his team's 34–6 mauling of Tennessee last week: “I’m going to give a game ball ... to the secondary. I think the secondary, when you watch the tape from yesterday, there were many, many snaps where there just really wasn’t anybody open.”
That’s all well and good against the Titans, but the Jaguars’ offense will provide a better measuring stick (likely) headed into the playoffs. Jacksonville has an aerial attack that could be playoff-worthy itself next season, complete with Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, Julius Thomas and now Marqise Lee. The Texans don't really need to risk their stars, yet they might want to tune up the secondary vs. a stout passing game.
Interest level: 5. Bank on the Jaguars earning some hype ahead of next season. This season belongs to the Texans, who should clinch the division Sunday.
Oakland at Kansas City (4:25 p.m. ET, FOX)
The Chiefs have their playoff spot reserved and, barring a stunning San Diego upset in Denver, they’ll be a wild card. So, let’s get as many Amari Cooper-Marcus Peters showdowns as we can in this one, please.
Cooper won’t win Offensive Rookie of the Year, but his impact on the Raiders’ offense—both now and as Oakland eyes the future—is immeasurable. Peters might win Defensive Rookie of the Year, thanks to his eight INTs and a second half of the season on par with just about any other CB. The Raiders’ star caught four passes for 69 yards when these teams met earlier, a 34–20 Chiefs win.
Interest level: 7. Among the better matchups Week 17 has to offer, as the Chiefs try to steal a division crown and the Raiders shoot for a .500 season.
San Diego at Denver (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS)
The Broncos’ Week 13 win over San Diego wasn't exactly a thing of beauty. Final score: 17–3, one of Denver’s two touchdowns coming on a pick-six by Danny Trevathan.
The AFC West leaders rushed for 139 yards in that game, but it took 39 carries—a very pedestrian 3.4 yards-per-attempt average. As a result, Brock Osweiler found himself in a host of difficult down-and-distance spots. He did not respond well, either, playing perhaps his worst game since taking over as starter. Denver has topped 100 yards rushing in five of its last six games. Establishing more efficiency in that department should be priority No. 1 this week.
Interest level: 4. The Broncos should wrap the AFC West without much trouble ... but they have been a roller-coaster ride for much of the season, so don’t rule out a stunner.
Tampa Bay at Carolina (4:25 p.m. ET, FOX)
What did Jameis Winston learn from facing Carolina the first time around? In terms of the rookie QB’s development, this matchup gives the Buccaneers one final benchmark. The Panthers picked off Winston four times back on Oct. 4, including a Josh Norman pick-six.
The Panthers would like to work out some kinks themselves on offense, where Jonathan Stewart is expected to sit again. Without him in the lineup at Atlanta, they really didn’t establish the run with much gusto. Stewart should be ready for the playoffs, but having a Plan B is always helpful.
Interest level: 4. The luster dropped from this matchup when Carolina lost its shot at an undefeated season. The NFC No. 1 seed is still there for the taking.
Seattle at Arizona (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS)
When the Cardinals and Seahawks played in Week 10, a thrilling 39–32 Arizona win, David Johnson received zero carries and caught just one pass for Arizona. Tyler Lockett’s offensive stat line in that game: one target, one catch, seven yards.
The uptick each of those players has received in his team's respective offense has been significant enough since that Johnson and Lockett are clear playoff X-factors. Johnson, doubly so. He averaged 128 yards rushing in his first three games as the Cardinals’ starting running back, then added 88 receiving yards in last Sunday’s laugher over Green Bay. He has proven to be an upgrade, at least thus far, on Chris Johnson—a back having a strong year of his own (814 yards rushing in 11 games).
Meanwhile, Lockett has caught at least three passes in every game since his one-reception showing vs. Arizona. He scored twice in Week 11, did it again in Week 14 and found pay dirt one more time in Week 15. As the Seahawks continue their evolution into a dynamic passing offense, Lockett is an essential piece.
Interest level: 7. Aside from seeding, not much is on the line. Nevertheless, the Xs-and-Os showdown can set up a potential postseason rematch.
St. Louis at San Francisco (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS)
Rams can get to .500 with a win here. That’s about it.
Interest level: “My eyes! The goggles do nothing!”
Minnesota at Green Bay (8:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
The woes for Green Bay’s offense are no secret these days, from the wide receivers to the line to Aaron Rodgers himself. Also concerning ahead of this matchup and the playoffs, though, is the Packers’ inconsistency stopping the run. Dallas rushed for 171 yards against them, on just 20 carries; Oakland averaged nearly five yards per attempt; Arizona barely broke a sweat topping the century mark.
Considering Green Bay could face Adrian Peterson each of the next two weekends, this is a problem. The Packers did limit Peterson to 45 yards on 13 carries during an earlier 30–13 win over the Vikings. Their line set the tone, led as usual by Mike Daniels. Is a repeat, or two, in the cards?
Interest level: 10. Both teams are headed to the playoffs, so perhaps that tones down the drama a tad. Still, the NFC North and a postseason home game are up for grabs here.
Lock of the Week
Giants (-3) over the Eagles. The Eagles might get the post-firing bump from Chip Kelly’s dismissal. I’d bet instead on them trying to ease their way into the off-season, while the Giants shoot for one more win for Tom Coughlin ... just in case this is his final game.
Upset of the Week
49ers (+3.5) over the Rams. Maybe this is finally the stretch where Jeff Fisher’s Rams figure out how to maintain their top gear over multiple weeks. History suggests otherwise, and I don't trust them off an emotional win at Seattle. The 49ers stink, but they have played hard at home.
Mock Draft Watch
Using the current order, here’s a quick look at how the top five might go down if the draft were held this weekend:
1. Tennessee: Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss. Far, far too early to start locking anything in, but if the Titans wind up No. 1 Tunsil is a safe bet to be among the last two or three guys they discuss taking.
2. Cleveland: Ronnie Stanley, OT, Notre Dame. If you want the truth, some of this pick boils down to wanting a little change-up from past Cleveland picks here. It also works, if you account for Mitchell Schwartz’s pending free agency and Stanley’s obvious upside.
3. San Diego: Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State. The Buckeyes’ dominant defender won’t slip far in the draft. San Diego got almost no pass rush from its D-line this season, so Bosa could change that.
4. Dallas: Myles Jack, LB, UCLA. Pairing Jack and Sean Lee would make the Cowboys’ linebacking corps about as versatile as it gets.
5. San Francisco: Jared Goff, QB, Cal. Blaine Gabbert has earned a shot to be the 49ers’ backup next season. They still need a starter, even if they want to use Gabbert as a bridge QB as Goff eases his way in.
Each week, I’ll take to Twitter to take the readers’ pulse on a pressing NFL issue.
You're a GM. Your team needs a RB. Which of these potential free agents tops your list (ages in parentheses)?— Chris Burke (@ChrisBurke_SI) December 30, 2015
Impossible to account for all the variables involved in such a decision within Twitter’s character limit. Regardless, it’s still interesting to see Miller come out on top by such a large margin. The general consensus seems that the Dolphins have wasted his talents, for the most part.
Tecmo Upset of the Week
We’re simulating the entire 2015 season using updated rosters on the classic Tecmo Super Bowl video game. (Download the game at TecmoBowl.org.) Each week, we will spotlight the most surprising result: