It’s the middle of February, and off-season fantasy football has already started. Discussions about cap space and free agent lists dominate the landscape. Fans and media alike love to play musical chairs with players and find solutions for the weak spots on every team. It’s a fun endeavor, to be sure, but thanks to the franchise tag, most of the top unrestricted agents end up staying put. And even though free agency can be a weapon if used correctly, it doesn’t usually pay immediate dividends to the most active teams. The Super Bowl champion Broncos had several key free agents (Emmanuel Sanders, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward), but they were signed in 2014 and gelled in the second season together.
Then we’ll get into the overblown coverage of the draft, which is vital but a lot slower to show returns than the coverage would dictate (the two Super Bowl teams combined for one rookie starter, Panthers LB Shaq Thompson).
• Subscribe to get the best of Sports Illustrated delivered right to your inbox
Personally, I like to use this time to go over assistant coaching changes around the league. It’s not exactly sexy, but the work that these people will do will have immediate and far-reaching impacts for their respective teams. Look at the jobs done by defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and defensive line coach Bill Kollar in their first year with the Broncos.
Below are five hirings that caught my eye, and two retentions that could be significant in 2016.
Ray Horton, defensive coordinator, Browns: That Horton was allowed to leave Cleveland after the 2013 season was just another one of the many errors made by owner Jimmy Haslam. Horton, who did great work as the Steelers’ secondary coach from 2004 to ’10, was the Cardinals’ defensive coordinator in 2012 when Arizona led the league in defensive passer rating but got caught up in the wash when Ken Whisenhunt was fired and replaced by Bruce Arians. He was hired by the Browns in ’13, and the Cleveland defense rose from 23rd to ninth under his watch before head coach Rob Chudzinski was fired after his first season. Instead of hiring an offensive coach and keeping Horton, the Browns went with former Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. That led Horton to Tennessee, where he’s been for the past two seasons. Horton plays an aggressive, updated zone-blitz scheme that players love. Hue Jackson made a shrewd hire here.
Vance Joseph, defensive coordinator, Dolphins: The worst kept secret in football was that Joseph, the Bengals’ defensive backs coach in 2014 and ’15, was actually the No. 1 choice of Gary Kubiak to be the Broncos’ defensive coordinator instead of Wade Phillips, but Cincinnati wouldn’t let Joseph interview with a year left on his contract (talk about things happening for a reason in Denver). Joseph obviously made an impression on Kubiak as the Texans’ defensive backs coach from ’11 to ’13. People around the league rave about Joseph’s defensive mind and his ability to communicate and teach. He’s never called his own defense, but it was a good move by Adam Gase to give Joseph his overdue chance.
Bobby April, special teams coordinator, Titans: Tennessee will be his ninth NFL team since he entered the league in 1991, but there are few with a better reputation among special teams coaches in the NFL than April. His units have consistently finished at or near the top in the annual special teams rankings put together by the Dallas Morning News. The Jets did finish 31st in ’15, and April was subsequently fired, but that move puzzled many across the league considering the Jets’ lack of talent in that area. Expect the Titans, which finished 28th last year, to make a big leap in ’16.
Brett Maxie, defensive backs coach, Buccaneers: Maxie, a 13-year player, was a rising star in the coaching ranks after stints with the 49ers (2002–03), Falcons (’04 to ’06), Dolphins (’07), Cowboys (’08 to ’11) and Titans (’12 and ’13) before he decided to stay in Nashville and jump to Vanderbilt the previous two seasons. With Tennessee, he helped Alterraun Verner make the leap to Pro Bowl player, and he tutored Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins with the Cowboys. Maxie will be reunited with Verner in Tampa Bay and needs to revive him, but the entire secondary is a bit of a mess. Maxie has the track record to work some magic.
Ken Flajole, linebackers coach, Eagles: I’ll readily admit I’m a little biased on this one, considering I spent a lot of time with Flajole for a story when he was out of work for the first time in 37 years in 2014. But in researching the story and reading the comments I received from other NFL coaches (and some of Flajole’s former players) as a result of it, I feel very confident in saying the Eagles are getting a terrific coach who commands respect in his room and the love of his players. I was also impressed with how Flajole would spend time at the University of Washington studying the upcoming college influences on the game. Flajole will hit the ground running in Philadelphia.
Steve Spagnuolo, defensive coordinator, Giants: The head job could have gone to Spagnuolo outright, but the Giants made the prudent decision to stay the course offensively with the promotion of Ben McAdoo. Smart first decision by the former Packers assistant to keep Spagnuolo, who showed he can still go toe-to-toe with the best (the Panthers and Patriots barely beat the Giants in the regular season) but who ultimately didn’t have much talent to build around in his first year back with Big Blue. The Giants need a lot of help on that side of the ball. I also liked the move by Spagnuolo to hire former NFL player Jeff Zgonina as defensive line coach. He may breed show dogs in his spare time, but I covered Zgonina as a player and he was a technical wizard. And he may have been the most intimidating player I’ve ever been around. There will be no slacking in that position group, that’s for sure.
Mike Vrabel, linebackers coach, Texans: The 49ers reportedly offered their defensive coordinator position to the former Patriot, but he turned them down to return to Houston. That was a good move, considering Vrabel could use a little more seasoning before calling his own defense, and with Houston he’s in a perfect spot to learn from and then take over for Romeo Crennel once he retires. It says a lot about Bill O’Brien that he allowed Vrabel and defensive backs coach John Butler to interview with the 49ers while still under contract; many coaches don’t allow that. The players in Houston rave about Vrabel, as does O’Brien. Everyone knows Vrabel will be a head coach in short order.
Wet Blanket Report
Peyton Manning: You can believe whatever you want about Manning’s incident with a trainer while at the University of Tennessee, and I’m certainly not going to defend Manning if you don’t think he has lived up to his “squeaky-clean image” (Who, exactly, is perpetrating that? These people are football players, not running for office). But my issue is why exactly is this news now? Has the alleged victim come forward? No. Are there new charges? No. So, apparently, this is only news because it didn’t happen in the social media era, and somebody decided it was time for it to get its public airing on Twitter and Facebook (and if a lot of clicks happen as a result, well, then I’m sure that’s just a happy accident). Awesome.
The bottom line for me is that I feel everyone deserves a chance to move on from past incidents, certainly 20 years after the incident itself. Whoever your favorite team is, there is likely a player who has a bad incident in his past (go look if you want). If they do something grand, like win a Super Bowl or make a game-winning catch, should we list their prior bad acts alongside every amazing athletic deed in perpetuity? I have no interest in that, but that could just be me.
Kirk Cousins: It’s that dead news time of the year, after the season and before free agency, when a lot of contract posturing will play out in the media. I wouldn’t pay much attention to any of it, because in the end most of these negotiations will end with a compromise that works for both sides. Take the case of Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins. There have already been conflicting reports about whether or not negotiations have been broken off. I’d be shocked if Cousins isn’t back in Washington, and it will likely happen with the franchise tag and then, later, an extension.
Roger Goodell’s compensation: The NFL commissioner was paid $34.1 million in compensation in 2014, according to an NFL filing, which brings his nine-year total to $180.5 million. Goodell couldn’t have had a worse year than 2014, when the Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson cases all came to a head. Yet Goodell still got a ridiculous salary. I don’t even have the words for how dumb this is, and it further illustrates (as if we needed any more evidence) how out of touch NFL owners are.
Scar is back: The last time we saw the Patriots’ offensive line, it was getting shredded in the AFC Championship Game loss to the Broncos. Line coach Dave DeGuglielmo was not retained after the season, and now retired coach Dante Scarnecchia is reportedly set to return to direct the unit. Certainly, Scarnecchia’s return is great news for the Patriots. His specialty is developing young offensive linemen, and the Patriots have a bunch that need work at the interior positions. But Scarnecchia’s return is not a cure-all for the group. The Patriots’ offensive line had plenty of underwhelming performances in big games under Scarnecchia’s watch. But it’s a good start.