- A look at which teams will be in the market for a new leader, from the obvious (Giants, Bengals) to the coin-flips (Broncos, Titans) to the long-shots (Seahawks, Jets)
- Other sections include: the Falcons’ playoffs starting early; changes looming in Dallas; a word about Josh Rosen; the Jimmy Garoppolo lesson; and much more
Sixteen years later, Amy Trask still vividly remembers the moment she found out that the Jon Gruden Raiders-to-Buccaneers trade had been consummated.
Trask was the Oakland CEO at the time. And she was not pleased.
“My husband and I were coming in the house, it was 9, 9:30 at night,” Trask recalls now. “And the phone was ringing, my arms were full of things, and I remember picking up the phone and it’s Al (Davis). And I’m juggling things in my arms, and I’m so distracted and he says, ‘blah, blah, blah, trade.’ And I said to him, ‘Look, I’m gonna again ask you—please rethink this, I don’t think we should do this.’
“And his exact words were, ‘I don’t think you heard me. I just told you, I just did it.’”
That night, in early 2002, the Raiders sent Gruden to the Bucs for first-round and second-round picks in that April’s draft, a first-rounder in 2003 and a second-rounder in 2004. The Raiders wound up with corner Philip Buchanon, tackle Langston Walker, defensive end Taylor Brayton and center Jake Grove. Oakland made the Super Bowl that next season under Bill Callahan.
The Bucs, behind Gruden, beat the Raiders for the Lombardi. And because of that, history will tell you that Trask was right to tell Davis not to trade the coach, despite the tremendous haul coming back. So the question I had for Trask next was simple: Was there a point where she’d have signed off on dealing Gruden, something she’d been steadfastly against?
“Maybe,” she said. “I doubt it, but maybe.”
The coaching carousel is about to start spinning again, and we’re about to take you through all the rumors. But everything needs to be prefaced with the fact that, in this year’s market, supply is lagging behind demand. There have been 50 coaching changes in the past seven cycles, more than seven per year, and that’s dried out the pipeline. And with 8-10 openings expected this year, some teams may try to get creative.
So maybe the time has come to reprise the idea of coaches being traded. Texans coach Bill O’Brien is the most obvious candidate to be moved. But the idea of Browns coach Hue Jackson and Jets coach Todd Bowles going back to their old homes in Cincinnati and Arizona has been kicked around in league circles all fall, and those guys are under contract too. The wheels certainly are turning.
A trade is not the only way teams could think outside the box to find the right guy in January. Some might dip their toe in the college pool (Stanford’s David Shaw will get calls), others may look to position coaches (Philadelphia QB coach John DeFilippo) or special teams coaches (Kansas City’s Dave Toub), if they’re not satisfied with the class or can’t get one of its belles.
In this week’s Game Plan, Matt Ryan will take us inside the Falcons’ mentality with their season on the line on Sunday; John Lynch will explain why Bill Belichick’s actions brought to life his interest in Jimmy Garoppolo; and we’ll examine the unrest in Oakland and Dallas, and spin you through all the latest rumors.
But we start with all the teams that could be active on Black Monday, and I’ll break this into three categories for everyone. Let’s go …
• Chicago Bears: The writing has been on the wall here for a while. The expectation is that John Fox will be gone. What’s less certain is whether or not general manager Ryan Pace gets to pick the next coach, and whether or not the coaches pursued by the Bears dictate Pace’s fate.
• Cincinnati Bengals: Marvin Lewis’ impending departure has been on the table from the moment he and the team decided not to do another one-year Band-Aid extension, which sent him into a contract year. Word is, the Bengals will lean towards coaches they know, which is why Jackson and Jay Gruden’s names have been mentioned, as have internal candidates Paul Guenther and Darrin Simmons.
• Detroit Lions: With the Lions eliminated, I moved this one from the “maybe” pile, as rumblings have held for a few weeks that Jim Caldwell would be in trouble if he missed the playoffs. I’d expect Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to be a consideration if Caldwell gets whacked, with the possibility that Jim Bob Cooter and the offensive staff stay.
• Indianapolis Colts: Chuck Pagano kept his team competitive, and the front office respects the job he and staff have done. That said, GM Chris Ballard is almost certain to fire Pagano and hire his own guy. The attractiveness of the job Ballard will offer is, of course, tied to Andrew Luck’s health. Two of his ex-Chief co-workers, Toub and offensive coordinator Matt Nagy, have been connected to this one, and there are whispers that Indy could make a run at Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
• New York Giants: Much will depend on who the team hires as general manager, and many believe that Dave Gettleman will be involved in the remaking of the scouting operation, be it as the hire or in another senior role. While the attention has been on McDaniels, and a McDaniels/Nick Caserio package deal has been rumored to be a consideration, I’d expect both Patriot coordinators to be considered.
• Arizona Cardinals: Many have assumed that Bruce Arians will retire after this year. Is he having second thoughts? The Cardinals went through this last year—Sean McVay was atop their candidate list then—and are ready either way now. As we mentioned, the Jets could get a call on Bowles, and O’Brien might draw interest here too.
• Denver Broncos: John Elway is not pleased with how the season’s gone, and the expectation is there will at least be changes to the offensive side of the staff. A bad loss at home to the Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs could put Vance Joseph in peril. This one remains unpredictable.
• Oakland Raiders: Jack Del Rio is under contract through 2020, and so a big question here is whether or not Mark Davis would be willing to eat three years on a contract. Assuming he’ll give Del Rio another year, there are problems on the staff that we’ll detail a little later in the column that should lead to a significant shakeup. Another thing to note here would be Davis’ long-standing fascination with Gruden.
• Tampa Bay Buccaneers: There’s been some level of expectation that Dirk Koetter will be a casualty of the Bucs’ hugely disappointing 2017 season, and we’ve seen several on-field signs (most recently, with Jameis Winston’s display last Sunday) that he’s lost some level of control over the team. You know where this goes next: All eyes on Gruden. And if they can’t get Gruden, does Koetter get a stay of execution?
• Tennessee Titans: If the Titans beat the Jags on Sunday, they’re in the playoffs. If they lose, there could be a coaching change. And if there is one, I’d bet McDaniels is in the mix to reunite with his ex-Patriot colleague Jon Robinson.
• Washington Redskins: A change here would require eating three years of Jay Gruden’s contract, and I don’t believe Dan Snyder would be pumped to write those checks. I also believe many in the building there think Jay Gruden had a strong four years. But it’s Washington … so you can’t rule anything out.
• Cleveland Browns: Jimmy Haslam already said Hue Jackson will be back in 2018, and GM John Dorsey affirmed it upon his hiring. What if the Bengals call? Will 0-16 change anything? My belief is Jackson sticks, but I also know Dorsey’s done his research.
• Houston Texans: Simply, a reckoning is coming here. I’d be floored if O’Brien even considered signing an extension without changes to the way the football operation is aligned, and 2018 is a contract year for him. That would create a decision point for ownership—go forward for a year with a coach that would be the No. 1 guy on the market if free, or cut the cord now and move forward with GM Rick Smith.
• New York Jets: Acting owner Chris Johnson has proven to be very level-headed, and so I’d expect the little signs of encouragement that he’s gotten from the work of GM Mike Maccagnan and Bowles this fall would carry the current group through to 2018. But if Bowles has options, like Arizona, this could get interesting.
• Seattle Seahawks: Crazy? Maybe. But with the future of several big defensive stars in question, and a possible overhaul of the roster coming, could Pete Carroll, 66, retire to southern California? It’s not the wildest idea out there.
1. Falcons playoffs start Sunday. Atlanta’s rebound from its devastating loss in Super Bowl LI hasn’t gone exactly to plan. There was the string of blown leads in September and October, a couple cases of playing down to the competition after that (Jets, Bucs), and last week’s mistake-riddled loss in New Orleans. Yet, here the Falcons are with a chance to get back in the playoffs if they can beat Carolina at home on Sunday, and just one game off last year’s pace. And if they can get in, the guys there believe going through the 2017 ringer will help them in January.
“We’ve been in tough games and things haven’t always gone perfect,” quarterback Matt Ryan told me Wednesday after practice. “But we’ve been resilient, and I think that’s gonna serve us well. We’ve got a grit to us. It might not have always been pretty through the season, but there have been times where we’ve figured out ways to get it done. And that’s what we’re gonna need the rest of the way.”
It certainly wasn’t perfect last Sunday. Two Falcons drives short-circuited on the Saints 1-yard line to result in zero points; Devonta Freeman fumbled on one, and was stopped on fourth down on the other. Atlanta had 10 penalties to the Saints’ three, and two turnovers to the Saints’ one. The coaches preached this week about needing to capitalize better on their chances against the Panthers, which can be driven home by the impact that Julio Jones’ bad drop in Charlotte had their 20-17 loss on Nov. 5.
“It goes back to the same thing for us—that was a game of missed opportunities,” Ryan said. “So when we get our chances, which we’re going to get in this game, we’ve gotta nail them. If we do that we’ll be just fine.” That is one of three points of emphasis this week for the Falcons, along with winning the turnover battle and cutting down on penalties.
While Week 17 is largely devoid of drama across the league, the playoffs really do start Sunday for Atlanta. “For sure,” Ryan said. “That’s where we’re at right now. And I think biggest thing you learn going through those situations is, don’t make it out to bigger than it is. It comes down to, with all the hype and all those things, you don’t have be out of your mind. You just have to do what you do well. That’s gotta be the message for our football team. We don’t have to do anything extra special, we just need to operate at the level we’re capable of operating at, and just go out there, take a deep breath, cut it loose and have fun.”
2. Raider regression. One of the perplexing stories of 2017 has been the Raiders, in general, and Derek Carr, in particular, taking major steps back after last year’s 12-4 breakthrough. And Carr deserves and has taken blame for it. But the problems in Oakland go way beyond the quarterback. That’s why, as we said, you can bank on changes coming to the offensive staff.
It really starts with Carr’s back injury, which was a six-week injury that he came back from in two weeks. Carr won’t use it as an excuse, but there’s a widespread belief in the organization that playing through it led to on-field problems. From there, the personnel around him was tweaked, which created a major shakeup in the makeup of the offensive group. Receiver Andre Holmes (Bills), running back Latavius Murray (Vikings) and tight end Mychal Rivera (Jaguars) were considered glue guys in the locker room, and all three were jettisoned. In the places of Murray and Rivera came Marshawn Lynch and Jared Cook, and the affect of that tradeoff has been felt. And then there was left tackle Donald Penn’s holdout, and his subsequent mediocre play, which added to injury problems along the line that led to Carr getting hit a lot. All of that has contributed to a dropoff for Carr in completion percentage, TD/INT ratio, average per attempt, and quarterback rating. Add it all up, and the good thing the Raiders had going in 2016 flew off the rails in 2017.
The most obvious difference in staffing came with the call to promote Todd Downing from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator, and dump OC Bill Musgrave. Downing may be gone as a result. And just as chemistry in the locker room hasn’t been the same, the mix within the ranks of Jack Del Rio’s assistants isn’t ideal right now either, so Musgrave might not be the only one gone. Line coach Mike Tice, seen as a divisive force whose unit was a strength in 2016 and isn’t one now, could also be on the chopping block. And all of this is assuming Del Rio himself survives. Either way, changes are clearly coming.
3. Cowboys set to make changes, too. Jerry Jones has publicly proclaimed that Jason Garrett’s job is safe for 2018. He stopped short of giving the same assurance for Garrett’s assistants, and the list of those who won’t be examined closely next week is very short. I’m told plenty of assistant coaches have expiring contracts, which makes this an easy time for Dallas to overhaul the staff, if it so desires.
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is the coach who appears to be on the thinnest ice, in part thanks to an inability to adjust on a game-to-game basis, something that showed up against an Eagles team that is very familiar to Dallas, and in how the Chargers and Packers easily roasted the Cowboys’ man-to-man looks earlier in the year. The Cowboys turned over a lot of personnel on that side of the ball, of course, and that’s part of where the problems were, but there’s also a feeling not enough was done to prop up rookies like Jourdan Lewis and Chidobe Awuzie, who were quickly thrown in the fire.
As for the offense, if the changes aren’t as big on the sideline, I’d expect there will be some significant ones coming on the field. Dez Bryant clearly has lost a step, and his ability to extend his prime will come down to whether or not he can adjust his game the way Larry Fitzgerald did a few years ago—becoming better at the little things, and dedicating himself through training and nutrition. Even if he does that, it’s clear Dallas needs to get more explosive, with Bryant not the downfield threat he once was. I’d expect an effort to fix that, and maybe add some depth to an offensive line that clearly missed Ron Leary and Doug Free.
There’s plenty of work to do for the Jones family. The good news? The guys they’ve had in place, and that includes Garrett and personnel czar Will McClay, have done a pretty good job reworking the team as they’ve gone the past few years.
4. What will Mahomes show us? With the Chiefs locked into the AFC’s fourth seed, we’ll get our first full-on look at their first-round pick, and the guy they traded way up to get, Patrick Mahomes. The only reason we’re seeing him now is because the game in Denver means zilch, but he did have to earn the coaches’ trust and convince those there that putting him in a game, and a very different environment, won’t hurt his development. And the test he really has had to pass since April has been simple: Prove that when you break the huddle you know the offense so well, that all you’re thinking about or focused on is the defense.
Mahomes is getting there and a big part has been mastering the 40-second process between plays. For a guy who never huddled before this year, that meant learning to hear the play call, then call it in the huddle, and run motions and shifts from the line. More recently, he’s gotten down identifying the middle linebacker (calling out the Mike’s number as part of blitz pickup) and coverage recognition. The learning curve was steep, but the coaches see him as being way ahead of schedule. And if he’s ready to play in 2018, that’ll create some fascinating flexibility, with Smith set to play his contract year at an affordable rate of $16.5 million (plus a $500,000 workout bonus.)
First and 10
1. I think that based on the previous mistakes he’s made, it wasn’t very smart for UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen to say what he did this week about where he wants to play, something that flows right into his rep as a spoiled rich kid.
2. The Patriots’ signing of James Harrison grabbed lots of headlines, but I’m not sure it was worth near the attention it got. New England has struggled on the edges—Eric Lee and Marquis Flowers have been starting—and in its pass-rush. At the very least, Harrison should earn a part-time role there.
3. The Steelers staff hardly just dumped Harrison out of nowhere, by the way. The coaches felt like they made a major commitment to him in letting him skip most of the spring and summer; he missed OTAs and training camp. Based on the concessions made, Pittsburgh expected a great effort from Harrison and never got it.
4. Rumors on Packers GM Ted Thompson’s retirement date circulate every year, and this year is an interesting one because he has young up-and-comers underneath him. Scouting chiefs Brian Gutekunst and Eliot Wolf have interviewed for GM jobs elsewhere in the past, but I wouldn’t count out cap boss Russ Ball as a potential successor.
5. This could also be it for Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, and a few of his coaches. Worth mentioning: 2018 is a contract year for Mike McCarthy.
6. Despite the record, I’m with John Dorsey in saying the Browns aren’t as far off as people might think. There’s a solid nucleus in place along the offensive line, and some building blocks on defense (Christian Kirksey, Myles Garrett, Jamie Collins, etc.), and a ton of capital (five picks in first two rounds, $100 million in cap space) to spend.
7. The Chargers might not make the playoffs, but a win over the Raiders on Sunday puts them at 9-7, which is incredibly impressive considering their 0-4 start. All the credit in the world to Anthony Lynn and staff.
8. Word spread a few months back that Carolina interim GM Marty Hurney wanted the job full-time. And with the team’s sale likely hitting the pause button on some major organizational calls, he’ll probably get at least an extended audition through the next calendar year.
9. The Kelvin Benjamin no-catch situation on Sunday was beyond absurd. A criminal standard, not a civil standard, is to by applied in replay judgments and this clearly wasn’t a 95-5 or 90-10 situation.
10. Suspended Giants corner Eli Apple had a reputation for being sheltered and introverted coming into the 2016 draft, and it wasn’t hard for teams to find out that his mother played a role in keeping him that way. So the fact that he went wayward shouldn’t have been a huge shocker to anyone paying attention.
LESSON OF THE WEEK
Are you smitten with Jimmy Garoppolo too?
Understandable. Right now, it’s hard not to be. He’s somehow made a 5-10 team one of the NFL’s most watchable, and provided light at the end of the tunnel on what looked to be a long rebuilding project in San Francisco. Garoppolo has completed 69 percent of his passes for 1,268 yards, five touchdowns, three picks and a 98.9 passer rating as a Niner. He’s 4-0 as a starter there, and 6-0 as a starter for his four-year career.
So when I was talking to San Francisco GM John Lynch, still flying high after the win over Jacksonville, we eventually got to how all of this came together. I’ve already told the story in this space about how Kyle Shanahan’s presentation to his scouts in February was loaded with Garoppolo cutups, and how that was a precursor to inquiries that were swiftly shot down by the Patriots in the spring.
And that was how we got to something really interesting on how the Niners’ belief that was strengthened Garoppolo could be the guy. It was a lesson, in fact, other teams could apply: They took into account how much the team he was on seemed to value him, and the track record of that team, and figured that should count for something.
“I’m not patting myself on the back, because I think a lot of people saw it,” Lynch said. “Other people tried vigorously to trade for the guy, because we all know at that position, when you think you have someone special, you do what you can to try to get them. The story’s been well-chronicled that I was rebuffed rather quickly, and that taught me a lot.
“You respect so much the way the Patriots do things, the fact they weren’t willing to let him go said something. And ultimately, I won’t speak for them, but I think it’d had run its course there. I just felt really good about it and that’s why we were so quick to pull the trigger when it presented itself.”
This wasn’t all just tea-leaf-reading from Lynch. In fact, at one point, during the brief talks that led to the trade consummation, Belichick flat out told the Niners’ rookie GM exactly how he felt about Garoppolo. And remember, the Patriots coach usually isn’t the sentimental type.
“Bill, beyond thinking this kid was a special football player, thought he was a special person,” Lynch said. “And he just said, ‘You’re gonna love the player, guys respond to him.’ I didn’t know what that meant. You think you know, but (we saw) that right away, even when he wasn’t playing. And mind you, C.J. Beathard’s a very popular player on this team, and we were liking the direction we were going. ...
“[Jimmy] just had command, he became a leader instantly. … And you kept hearing that from people at New England—the guys love him. You don’t really know what that means until you see it, and right away we saw it.”
The season will be over soon, and things will get a little complicated from there. Garoppolo has probably played his way from getting the non-exclusive franchise tag (expected to be around $23.5 million) to the exclusive tag (which now sits at $25.35 million and could rise before its final calculation in April) from the Niners, raising his leverage point and positioning him to be among the top paid guys in the NFL.
For now, we can just call that a good problem to have. And give Lynch credit for sniffing some of this stuff in becoming sold on his 26-year-old gunslinger. Sometimes, for all these evaluators, that can be about knowing what to look for, and knowing that the whole story isn’t on tape.
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