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Blanket Coverage: NFL head coaching on a sharp downward trajectory

The battle of future Hall-of-Fame head coaches used to be a big draw, but now there is only one surefire Hall-of-Famer in Bill Belichick. Why the downward trend?

Everyone is searching for reasons as to why the on-field NFL product appears to be slipping. The practice restrictions in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement certainly have something to do with it. At the end of the last decade, Don Shula used to have three-a-day padded training camp practices with full tackling in the South Florida heat. Now the average is probably one session with thudding every other day. The CBA has also helped to eliminate many veteran players from rosters and replaced them with younger and cheaper versions. Some think the quarterbacks aren’t good enough today, although I disagree with that theory (more on that below). And don’t forget that the college game has changed as well with practice restrictions, and the best players are leaving from school early. That certainly doesn’t help.

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But if I were to pinpoint one reason why the game just doesn’t seem to be as good and compelling as it used to be, I would point to the headsets. We are in the midst of a brain drain, if you will, among NFL head coaches, and it’s difficult to see that improving.

Consider this: In 1985, you had seven future Hall of Fame coaches roaming the sidelines and doing battle (Don Shula, Tom Landry, Chuck Noll, Bill Walsh, Joe Gibbs, Bill Parcells, Bud Grant). Thirty-one years later, you have one: Bill Belichick. Maybe you could make the argument for Pete Carroll, but how many others?

Let’s even take a take step further by looking at good coaches who could hold their own with the best in their era. Certainly it’s a subjective list, but I came up with 10 additional good coaches in 1985. Some were no-brainers (Chuck Knox, Bum Phillips, Tom Flores, Dan Reeves, Don Coryell), while others could be argued (Raymond Berry, Mike Ditka, Sam Wyche, John Robinson). That’s a total of 16 good-to-great coaches in the then 28-team league, or 57%. Kids today don’t understand that those of us that grew up in the 1980s used to tune into NFL games because of the coaching matchups. Just in the NFC East alone, you couldn’t wait to watch Landry, Gibbs and Parcells match wits, and cross-divisional matchups that mixed in Walsh, Shula and Noll were a treat. Even watching a Wyche, Knox, Flores, Coryell or Reeves team (to name a few) was going to be worth your time because they were creative and/or well coached.

Flash forward to today, and there’s only one coaching matchup that would cause you to stop everything and watch, Belichick vs. Carroll. That’s it. (Although Carroll vs. Bruce Arians this Sunday night isn’t bad at all). The list of remaining good coaches today is definitely a point of contention considering that Andy Reid has never won a Super Bowl, Gary Kubiak was mediocre with the Texans, some Packers fans ask for Mike McCarthy’s firing on a weekly basis, and Mike Tomlin’s in-game strategies can be picked apart (sorry, Peter King). But my list for good coaches, with a chance to be discussed for Canton, would be: Carroll, John Harbaugh, Reid, McCarthy, Mike Zimmer, Kubiak, Sean Payton, Bruce Arians and Mike Tomlin.

Arians and Zimmer haven’t even reached a Super Bowl yet, Kubiak has gone to won one, and Payton could be looking at his third-straight losing season (would be fifth .500 season or less in 10 seasons), so we’re stretching to get a total of 10 good to great coaches in 2016 after a definite contender (Tom Coughlin) was let go after last season. That’s stretching to get to 31.3% of league is adequately coached.

You could also make the argument that the best coaches after Belichick aren’t even in the NFL, be it Saban and Jim Harbaugh in the college ranks, or Cowher and Gruden in the television booth.

That’s a significant drop off even from a decade ago, when Hall of Famers like Gibbs, Parcells, Tony Dungy and Belichick (HOF-to-be) had significant competition from Marty Schottenheimer, Mike Shanahan, Bill Cowher, Mike Holmgren, Dick Vermeil, Dennis Green, Jon Gruden, Brian Billick, Reid and Nick Saban. Nearly half the league (46.9%) had at least good coaching in 2005. Here’s another way to look at the coaching deficit. Belichick is the one sure-fire Hall of Fame coach, and Carroll will have a good case.

Apply the same rationale to quarterbacks. Tom Brady (definitely in), Drew Brees (nearly a sure thing), Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson have at least a good shot if they stay on their current career trajectories. Philip Rivers, Andrew Luck, Eli Manning and Cam Newton look like they’ll at least be discussed.

It’s not a passer problem, it’s a coaching issue, and the future doesn’t look a lot brighter.


(Graphic courtesy of Statista)

In a decade, the good coaching ranks have slipped from 46.9% of the league to 31.3%. Considering that Belichick, Reid, Zimmer, Carroll and Arians are either in their 60s or close to it, the ranks are threatening to dwindle even more. Forget about replenishing the number of good coaches; who is going to step up and at least be adequate to replace those that leave?

Maybe Rex Ryan, Dan Quinn, Jason Garrett or Bill O’Brien takes the next step. It’s certainly possible that hotshot coordinators like Teryl Austin, Kyle Shanahan, Frank Reich and Sean McDermott will bring new blood once they’re ready for their shot. Perhaps retreads like Josh McDaniels, Eric Mangini, Jim Schwartz and Scott Linehan will be better the second time around, if given the chance. Maybe Saban, Harbaugh, Jim Mora Jr. and David Shaw jump back to the pros from college. Or maybe Gruden, Cowher and Shanahan decide to give it one more shot.

It could happen a number of different ways, but the bottom line is the NFL needs an infusion of good thinkers that can at least approach holding their own with the likes of Belichick. Not too long ago, fans would tune in specifically for the coaching matchups, a meeting of the minds. With the current brain drain, fans are more likely to tune out due to the poor coaching.

Bring on the brains. Please.


Go crazy, folks

NFL, Giants look terrible on Brown: We had the TMZ video in the Ray Rice case, and now the reporting done by NJ Advance Media threatens to blow up the Josh Brown case right in the face of the NFL and the Giants for not doing their due diligence before issuing a limp one-game suspension. This case was the first big test of Roger Goodell’s hand-picked “Social Responsibility” team—set up post Rice to make sure the NFL didn’t look inadequate again—and the early returns are not good at all. Actually, it’s going to be a disaster considering there are allegations in an SNY article that the NFL had knowledge of the situation and had to step in on one occasion. This is going to get worse for the NFL and the Giants (they’ve been harder on Odell Beckham Jr.’s sideline antics than they have an admitted wife beater like Brown) before it gets better. Sorry, “They wouldn’t give us the documents we requested” is just not good enough anymore. If a media outlet can obtain them, the NFL certainly can.

Same with NFL, Bengals on Burfict: Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict blatantly went for the knee of Patriots TE Martellus Bennett (yes, there was a pump fake but there was plenty of time for Burfict to land someplace else) and stomped on the legs of RB LeGarrette Blount and all he got was a $75,000 fine? I’m no Patriots defender, but if Spygate can be used to throw the book at Tom Brady for Deflategate, than Burfict’s shoddy history should certainly have been used to set an example to other players in this case with a lengthy suspension. Hey Roger, if you want to pivot yourself as the player-safety commissioner, this was a really bad look. And Bengals coach Marvin Lewis totally excused Burfict’s actions. Does anyone wonder why his teams always implode in the biggest spots?

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Slow your roll

Don’t put it all on Rodgers: Sure, Aaron Rodgers’s performance has been off for almost a year-and-a-half, but that doesn’t mean that all of a sudden he deserves all of the blame. The truth of the matter is the Packers’ offensive struggles have been a collective failure—from GM Ted Thompson to coach Mike McCarthy to the players, including Rodgers. Thompson let the caliber of the receiving corps slip from a heyday of Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson and TE Jermichael Finley, to Nelson, Randall Cobb and a bunch of players that can’t get off man coverage and/or run precise routes. McCarthy has barely dabbled in the type of bunch formations, switch and rub routes that most teams use to combat the rise of man coverage. The receivers haven’t been as precise as they need to be, and Rodgers hasn’t been able to compensate for the shortcomings like many other elite quarterbacks do. It has been a collective failure, and it will take a collective response to get it right.

Don’t blame the player or league on Jordan Reed: The Washington Post reported that Jordan Reed knew he suffered a concussion in a game and kept playing. He told the team the next day once symptoms returned. Reed’s a player with a history of concussions so it’s not a surprise that he didn’t want to let medical personnel know. He knows the consequences that would come with his history, and he’s trying to avoid them. And if there’s not blatant evidence of a concussion, it’s hard to blame the league’s protocols. There is no perfect system to regulate player-safety in this regard. Things are going to fall through the cracks, unfortunately.

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Ten thoughts on Week 7

1. Give credit where credit is due, Ryan Tannehill had one of his best games against the Steelers because he played the position how it’s supposed to be played: get back to your drop and get rid of the ball, even if it’s a checkdown. However, it’s one thing to do that against the soft Steelers defense. Sunday’s game against the Bills will be a much bigger challenge.

2. Patriots receiver Julian Edelman only has 10 catches for 81 yards in his last three games, including two with Tom Brady. What gives? Some of it is increased touches for Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, but it looks like Edelman has been slowed by a foot injury. His cuts are nowhere near as crisp as they usually are, especially off his right foot, and it’s throwing off Edelman’s timing with Brady.

3. If the Steelers have any shot of upsetting the Patriots without QB Ben Roethlisberger, they have to be at full strength, which means DL Cam Heyward (out against the Dolphins with a hamstring), LB Ryan Shazier (knee) and safeties Robert Golden (foot) and Mike Mitchell (knee) have to be on the field and effective. The Steelers really missed Heyward and Shazier against the Dolphins, and both are vital to stopping the Patriots’ offense.

4. Don’t look now, but the Eagles and rookie Carson Wentz could be in trouble as they face a make-or-break stretch in the season. The Eagles have lost two straight (to non-world beaters Detroit and Washington) and now face the Vikings and Cowboys back-to-back, the Giants, and then the Seahawks, Packers, Bengals and Washington again. The first three games were a nice story, but now the rubber meets the road.

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5. Washington should continue to ride the running attack and Matt Jones against the Lions and keep the game out of Kirk Cousins’ hands. Detroit’s defensive front has not been very good, allowing 4.7 yards per rushing attempt (27th in the league).

6. The Broncos-Texans matchup won’t be determined by the former Bronco you’re thinking about: Brock Osweiler. If right tackle Chris Clark, a Bronco from 2010 to ’14 has to play against Von Miller, it could be a long game. Derek Newton should be back at RT, but this will still be a big mismatch.

7. Cardinals coach Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator James Bettcher have made the needed adjustments after their slow start, and it should continue to benefit the Cardinals. On offense, Arians has accepted that they need to dink and dunk down the field because teams are taking away their favored deep passes. And Bettcher countered some of their coverage issues by going with an extra defensive back. Both have made big differences.

8. It looked like the 46-yard touchdown by Falcons TE Levine Toilolo that caused so much drama among the Seahawks’ secondary (especially Richard Sherman) was just a coverage bust caused by a failure in communication. With Kam Chancellor out, it appeared that his replacement, Kelcie McCray, made a call that did not get to Sherman. It’s unusual for the Seahawks, but it happens. No big deal.

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9. Hope the coaches for the Seahawks and Cardinals give us what we want: Sherman vs. Larry Fitzgerald. What a great matchup between two old pros.

10. Good for MNF announcer Sean McDonough for pointing out the over-officiating in games and how it is turning off viewers. I can tell you that almost certainly didn’t go over well on Park Avenue, and McDonough probably heard about it in some fashion, but McDonough told the truth. His father, the late legendary Boston Globe NFL scribe Will McDonough, was likely smiling down on his son with pride. Nobody spoke truth to power as much as Willie.