Mailbag: Is Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald on the Jets' Head Coach Short List?

Plus, answering questions on Philip Rivers's future in Indy, possible GM candidates for the Falcons and Texans, Seattle's return to the Legion of Boom and more.
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Week 12 is well underway, and so are we …

Northwestern Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald stands on the sidelines in a game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers during the first half at Ryan Field.

From Bo (@purpskultrooper): Any validity to the Pat Fitzgerald rumors of the Jets being extremely interested?

Bo, it wouldn’t surprise me for a second. Jets general manager Joe Douglas is mobbed up with college football connections from years on the road, and Fitzgerald (Northwestern’s head coach, for the uninitiated) is one of the most universally respected names at that level of the sport. I can also say there’s a widespread belief that his brand of program-building would work in the NFL—he’s been on teams’ initial coach-search lists going back eight or nine years now.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t just take a team wanting a guy like Fitzgerald. It takes a guy like Fitzgerald wanting that team back, too. And just about every indication I’ve gotten over the years is that Fitzgerald is going to be incredibly picky about taking a shot at the NFL. Which means you’ll have to have a very attractive situation to lure him. Maybe Trevor Lawrence and a treasure trove of picks does it. But the Jets’ past won’t help.

And while we’re there, I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again—Fitzgerald is smart to be selective, like Stanford’s David Shaw is smart to be selective. Both guys are living in areas of the country they have deep roots in, working at their alma maters, and making good money in programs, where winning nine games a year earns a statue on campus, not a pink slip.

So if you have all that, why would you leave? In Fitzgerald’s case, I’ve heard, at least short term, that the Bears would probably be the only team he’d consider. Remember, two years ago, he turned away interest from the Packers and president Mark Murphy, the former Northwestern AD who took a chance in making Fitzgerald the head coach there at 31 years old. Which is to say, if he’s gonna turn that one down, he’s not leaving to go just anywhere.

I’ve also heard his kids are a factor—his three sons are aged 11-16—and he may want to stay where he’s at to see them through school. If he feels that way then, as anyone who has kids knows, that is totally understandable. And underscores the facts here, which are that Fitzgerald’s probably not going anywhere (which shouldn’t dissuade any NFL team from trying).

From 385 Career Home Runs (@HOFDewey): What is the salary cap number looking like for next season?

385, if they punch the numbers into the formula (and that’s simplistic phrasing, I know), then my guess is that they won’t break the minimum threshold of $175 million, meaning the cap would be set at $175M. And that would mean a bloodletting of veteran players for teams to achieve compliance and a saturated free-agent market as a result. It’d be bad for everyone—for teams having to cut/trade players, for players losing their jobs and also for players scheduled for free agency, who now may be trying to get paid in a flooded market.

That’s why I think the league and players will do what they can to avoid the issue. One way to solve the problem that owners have broached aggressively in their own meetings (via Zoom, of course) is to try and get the TV deals done ASAP. Which is at least one reason why the NFL has been so insistent on getting games played, and played as close to “as scheduled” as possible—it’s important to keep the networks happy ahead of negotiations.

From Kevin W (@_wags): Why do the #Lions consistently stink? Why can’t they ‘fix’ it? Even with the #NFLs help, they’re bottom-feeders.

Kevin, with another gutting of the franchise on the horizon, I can see why you’d ask this because it certainly doesn’t feel it’s about a single regime—regardless of how you feel about Matt Patricia or Bob Quinn, or Sheila Ford Hamp or Martha Firestone Ford. The fact is, Detroit has picked in the top 5 (8 times) nearly three times as much as they’ve made the playoffs (3) over the last 20 years. At some point, it’s not bad luck anymore.

I think in this case, overall organizational alignment is a baseline element that’s been missing. Part of it is that the team’s ownership is pretty hands-off (which, to be fair, a lot of football people prefer). Part of it is that so much of the business operation is at Ford Field while the football folks are in the suburbs day-to-day. And this manifests without there being a ton of checks and balances over how the football operation is working.

My belief is that, over the years, that’s allowed for problems, wherever they may be, to fester. Again, most football coaches and scouts want relatively hands-off owners. But the truth is that most good owners are at least creating guardrails for the football people, and making sure certain standards are being upheld. Along those lines, I’m not sure the Fords have done enough in Detroit. Maybe new controlling owner Sheila Ford Hamp will be different. She’s got some big decisions coming.

From Bryan (@bryan07628819): Lawrence I select if I am the Jets, I keep Darnold over Fields and trade the pick for additional help. Thoughts?

Bryan, if Trevor Lawrence is available to the Jets—which would mean the Jets had the first overall pick—then there’s no decision to make here. You take Lawrence, trade Darnold, and you don’t look back. We can get in the weeds on why, but the big reason is easy. Lawrence is a generational quarterback, a once-in-a-decade type of prospect, and there are very, very few circumstances where you’d pass on one.

If the Jags slide past the Jets, and the Jets are picking second, things get markedly more interesting. I do believe Ohio State’s Justin Fields would be the No. 1 pick in a lot of years, he just won’t be this year. So do the Jets stick with what they know, in Sam Darnold, and auction the pick? Or do they draft Fields, knowing it starts the rookie-contact clock over again, which would give them a team-building edge through 2024 or so, and then flip Darnold for picks?

Knowing who the coach will be, obviously, would help in trying to assess that landscape and forecast what the Jets will do. But I would say now that Lawrence isn’t the only quarterback in the 2021 class good enough for the Jets to consider ditching Darnold for.

From Matthew Best (@msbest87): Sooo...did you get the pasta? Rolling on the floor laughing

From Yayger (@_Yayger): Did you get Steve his pasta yet?

Yeah, Steve got his pasta. And in case you’re wondering, here’s what I’m talking about …

This, for what it’s worth, followed his third on-camera appearance of the pandemic, none of which were authorized by management. We’ve taken his cases under review.

From Landon Jochim (@LandonJochim): If you are Chris Ballard, what do you do with Philip Rivers for next year? In relation to future available FA and the draft.

Landon, I think I might bring him back for one more year. Indy has demonstrated it can win with him, and whoever Ballard gets on the veteran market (save for maybe Darnold) will likely enter to the same situation Rivers did—Where the starting quarterback is a placeholder, buying time for the decision-makers to find a long-term answer. As I see it, you’re probably better off just hanging on to someone who knows your program/system.

But, sure, doing that wouldn’t mean they wouldn’t draft one in April. Remember, Ballard was part of the process in assessing Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City, and though he left before the Chiefs traded up for the phenom, he knew the ins-and-outs of how K.C. built their situation up. By the time Andy Reid signed off on that massive swing, he had the roster loaded for bear, and as a result, Mahomes entered into an insanely advantageous spot.

That’s taking nothing away from Mahomes, to be clear. It’s just reality. Mahomes would probably be really good no matter where he went. In Kansas City, he’s historic.

And Ballard has to think his roster’s getting there, and maybe to the point where they’d be comfortable packaging some capital to go up and get one of the top guys in this year’s class who, at this point, could be set up to win in a way similar to how Mahomes was. (Or he could just trade for Darnold, who doesn't turn 24 until June.)

From Jared Luginbill (@JaredL77): Hypothetically a team had an entire offensive or defensive staff in quarantine would the NFL force that team to play?

Yeah, Jared, I think they’ll make these teams play in most circumstances—delivering the inventory to the networks in a timely fashion is too important for all the reasons we laid out earlier. Your question’s an interesting one because it’s a hypothetical with chaos potential. But I really don’t think that would stop the NFL from having games played.

Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff (16) braces for the sack by Seattle Seahawks defensive end Carlos Dunlap (43) during the second half at SoFi Stadium.

From Patastrophic (@23coffeenw): Will Seattle be considered a top defense again after tuning up on the AFC and NFC LEAST the next few weeks?

Pat, no, I don’t think so. But there’s real room for improvement. Carlos Dunlap’s already making a difference as a pass rusher. The unit’s getting marginally healthier with Jamal Adams back, Shaquill Griffin coming, and second-round pass rusher Darrell Taylor’s NFL debut (he’s been on NFI all year) potentially on the horizon. And Pete Carroll is still the head coach, which gives me faith there’ll be growth.

How much? There won’t be a miracle, and the statistical trajectory of the Seahawks’ defenses over Carroll’s 11 years shows this isn’t all a fluke (Total defensive ranking: 27, 9, 4, 1, 1, 2, 5, 11, 16, 26, 32), and maybe we even should’ve seen it coming. But given Carroll’s reputation as a teacher, it’s fair to expect that things won’t remain this bad.

From Shedrick Carter (@shedrickcarter2): Who are all the hot name GM Candidates and do teams have to wait until after the season to interview them? Also, and Atlanta and Houston GM rumors?

Hey Shedrick, I don’t have GM names specifically for the Falcons and Texans yet, other than to tell you that both teams have been very up on minority candidates in both the scouting world and on the coaching side. And in that spirit, here are a few guys I think very highly of that are ready for their shot.

Cowboys VP of player personnel Will McClay: He may be impossible to get out of Dallas at this point, with how the Joneses regard and take care of him. But if he were to decide to leave North Texas, with his varied experience in scouting, coaching and analytics, he’d be at the top of a lot of lists. Maybe, because it’s close by, he’d consider Houston.

Eagles assistant director of player personnel Ian Cunningham: Learned at the heel of ex-Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome, and worked on the college and pro side in Baltimore—eventually winding up with the all-important Southeast as an area. He got to Philly as college scouting director, he’s been promoted since, and the Eagles had to block him from going to the Jets with Douglas.

Saints VP/assistant GM-pro personnel Terry Fontenot: Fontenot’s help to construct the best roster in football the last few years, and worked hand-in-hand with Jeff Ireland to run the team’s scouting department. You won’t find many guys that don’t really respect Fontenot.

Raiders assistant director of player personnel DuJuan Daniels: Daniels spent well over a decade in New England and has quickly found success with Raiders GM Mike Mayock. He might be a few years away, but he absolutely has a bright future and is well-thought-of in the two places he’s worked.

Cardinals director of player personnel Quentin Harris: He was seen as a rising star up until the team got old and collapsed a few years ago. Now that Arizona’s bounced back, it would hardly be a shocker to see his name start to circulate again.

From Philly Philly (@coachchrislu): COVID QUESTION: Several weeks ago games were being postponed, bets moved, etc., due to Covid cases. Fast forward to now and Covid cases are no different than a hamstring injury. What changed?

And we’ll wrap it here—Philly Philly, I understand your sentiment. I do think a few things have changed.

First and foremost, bye weeks are gone for 30 of the 32 teams, giving the league a lot less room to wiggle things around. Second, there’s been no proof of on-field transmission in the NFL or any other sport, so the games themselves aren’t the problem. Third, again, we’re getting closer to the negotiation of the new TV deals, and that matters plenty to the owners.

Remember, this is an evolving thing, and, as such, I think we all would’ve agreed back in the summer that there was a good chance things would get flipped around on the fly over the course of the 2020 season. Now that they have, I don’t really there’s reason to get all worked up over it.