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Mailbag: How Did GM Trent Baalke Survive in Jacksonville?

And what does it mean for the Jags’ coaching search? Plus, Watson’s next team, Matt Rhule’s future, Washington’s QB situation and more!

Shorter mailbag this week—we had to adjust the schedule to pay tribute to John Madden midweek—but I wanted to make sure I got to your questions this week. Here are a few …

From Señor Fuentes (@_SenorFuentes): Trent Baalke. Is he really safe or do you think he’s only going to be a part of the interview process?

From Richard Ito (@rich_ito): There seems to be more universal disdain over the Jags keeping Baalke than there even was for when it seemed like they might keep Urban. Can't find any local or national media defending it. What does Shad Khan know that no one else does?

Fellas, I think it’s first important to see why Baalke was retained—and how he wound up with the job in the first place. He was hired by former GM Dave Caldwell in early 2020 to replace director of player personnel Chris Polian, and over the course of that calendar year cultivated a good relationship with the Khan family, enough to where Shad and Tony Khan warmed to the idea of elevating him permanently after dismissing Caldwell and making him the interim GM. But part of that, of course, would ride on the call on the coach.

That call wound up being to hire Urban Meyer, and as the Jags courted Meyer, Meyer’s focus in negotiations was on getting promises on facility upgrades, support staff hires, and budget for his coaching staff. So, as I understand it, he was willing to give on the Khans’ desire to retain Baalke as GM.

And since? Well, it appears that Baalke effectively distanced himself from the mess that was created through Meyer’s 11-month stint, to the point where the Khans felt like it wasn’t fair to fire Baalke for Meyer’s transgressions. So that—the owner feeling that the GM doesn’t have blood on his hands in the wake of the implosion of this fall—seems to be the reason why the Jaguars plan to keep Baalke in charge.

On its surface, maybe that’s fine.

The problem is when you look at the bigger picture, it follows a pattern. In San Francisco, when a Super Bowl team crumbled under an avalanche of organizational in-fighting, Jim Harbaugh was ushered out the door. Baalke was the last man standing. When Baalke’s hand-picked successor, Jim Tomsula, fell flat on his face in replacing Harbaugh in 2015, amid much speculation that Tomsula had quietly aligned with Baalke when things went south with Harbaugh, a similar result followed. Tomsula was fired. Baalke remained.

And, of course, now twice in as many years in Jacksonville, Shad Khan has pressed the eject button on his football operation—with Baalke, again, the one guy being held over.

That’s why there are coaches who would’ve considered the Jaguars who probably won’t now. Of course, that doesn’t mean Jacksonville can’t get it right—it’s one of 32, the team has Trevor Lawrence to entice candidates, and there are capable people out there for the team to consider. But, to me, the key question is why Baalke was seen as such an indispensable part of the team’s future that it was willing to cut down, in a significant way, its pool of coaching candidates to keep him. And maybe the last 10 years would inform you on that.

Now, as to Señor’s question, I could see this going another way, and we can call that the 2013 Chiefs scenario. That year, Kansas City fired Romeo Crennel, and made the decision to keep Scott Pioli as GM. Pioli led the team’s coaching search, and when it became clear that Andy Reid was the target, the dynamic for the Chiefs changed. Reid wanted to bring his old friend John Dorsey with him if he was going to pick K.C. over Arizona. Pioli knew it, and so Pioli wound up stepping side to facilitate the Reid hire.

Maybe something like that happens. Otherwise, Baalke’s your GM, and you’re going to have to find someone willing to pair with him.

From braddougan_1987 (@braddougan87): They were players twice for Deshaun Watson will the Carolina Panthers pursue him yet again? Will the Panthers draft a QB in the first round?

Brad, yeah, I think the Panthers will be in the mix for Watson, and especially so if Watson’s legal situation gains some clarity in the coming months. My belief is Carolina would’ve gone the distance last year—and beyond the baseline of three first-round picks—to land him, at least before the lawsuits were filed (and the Panthers showed interest after that too).

Matt Rhule will very clearly have a lot personally on the line going into 2022. He has a defense that’s ready to roar. He has offensive skill players. He’s got room to add some offensive linemen (which would be a necessary step). What’s left to do is to find what’s undermined him this year, and that’s stability at quarterback. Accordingly, owner David Tepper has not been shy with people in the building about wanting to find a superstar at the position—meaning that any thought that Rhule might not be as free to go nuts and sell off assets to land the right triggerman this offseason can probably be dismissed.

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Now, would Watson go there? That’s probably the bigger question.

From Greg (@panther1gb89): Is Matt Rhule safe?

Greg, I think he makes it to 2022, but there’ll certainly be pressure on him to deliver on the groundbreaking seven-year deal Tepper gave him two years ago. And I do think the progress the team has made in assembling what should become a Top 5 defense—with young building blocks Derrick Brown, Jeremy Chinn and Jaycee Horn added to Ron Rivera holdovers Brian Burns and Shaq Thompson forming an impressive core—is enough to give the owner justifiable optimism that a similar transformation could happen on offense.

That makes three looming situations vital to Rhule’s future. Two are relatively obvious. One is the aforementioned search for the next quarterback. The other will be finding the team’s next offensive coordinator. But I think fixing the offensive line is right there with the other two.

(Full disclosure, I picked the Panthers to make the playoffs before the season, and Rhule to be the NFL’s coach of the year. I was wrong twice. But I do think, if they can get those three things right—and that’s not a small ask, to be clear—then these sorts of things can happen for the Panthers in 2022.)

From Patrick Sullivan (@psullivan4): How much has Urban Meyer poisoned the well for college coaches as candidates for NFL jobs? David Shaw would make a great pro coach. Unlike Urban, he was an assistant in NFL. Should that be the criteria?

Patrick, because the NFL is reactionary, there’s little question that Meyer’s failure is going to leave a mark that college coaches will have to wear for a while, through no fault of their own. But what’s more interesting to me is whether the idea that college coaches don’t work in the NFL is rooted in reality.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter posted this list Meyer was fired.

So … Let’s just throw Pete Carroll in there, since he was coming from USC, and make the timeframe 2010–21—a 12-year period. That means we’re looking at Carroll, Jim Harbaugh, Doug Marrone, Chip Kelly, Bill O’Brien, Kliff Kingsbury, Rhule and Meyer. Now, the facts …

• Carroll won a Super Bowl. Both Carroll and Harbaugh got to Super Bowls. Carroll, Harbaugh and Marrone all made it to the conference title round. So of the eight names there, three got to the NFL’s final four—and though Marrone didn’t make it with his first NFL team, the Bills, he got Buffalo to 9–7, the team’s first winning season in a decade, in his second (and final) season there.

• Six of the eight coaches (those three, plus Kelly, O’Brien and Kingsbury) listed got teams to the playoffs. Kelly won 10 games in each of his first two years in Philly. Kingsbury’s ground-up rebuild has Arizona in the playoffs in Year 3. And O’Brien made the playoffs four times in six-plus seasons in Houston, and advanced in the playoffs in two of those years.

My question, then, is this: Is that hiring track record necessarily worse than the track record teams have hiring other teams’ coordinators, or giving experienced NFL head coaches second chances? Now, I’m definitely not saying that hiring a college coach is a slam dunk. There’s no question it’s a projection—you’re hiring a guy into a job that has much different dynamics than what he’s been doing. But isn’t that the case with coordinators too?

I don’t know. It just seems to me that it’s overly simplistic for anyone to claim that college coaches simply can’t make it work in the NFL. But if your argument is that some NFL experience matters, then I can definitely buy that. Of the eight guys we listed, only Kelly and Meyer came in without having previous experience working in the league.

From Ray Moore (@RAYbeingRAY): Cards are in playoffs. But if we lose out and then lose in wildcard round, does Kliff come back?

I think so, Ray. But I do think it’s smart to take a look at the big picture here, since Kingsbury came into the season under a lot of scrutiny.

Kingsbury inherited a broken roster, one that had gotten old and deficient in Bruce Arians’s later years in Arizona, then collapsed during Steve Wilks’ single season. Kingsbury has, obviously, played a big part in building the road back. He also got the franchise out from underneath a young quarterback who’d wind up washing out of the league, Josh Rosen, and developed a guy few teams would’ve taken first overall, into a star. As a result, the Cards have steadily improved and are in the playoffs this year for the first time since 2015.

That’s the positive. The negative is that, for the third straight year, his team seems to be fading down the stretch, and age in some key spots on the roster makes it fair to ask if what the team has done this season is sustainable.

To me, laying all that out, the positive far outweighs the negative, and I think Kingsbury’s earned himself a fourth year.

From ryan (@ryanm008): If McDaniels takes a head coaching job is it reasonable to expect Belichick to bring in a young OC who has a new system that fits Mac better. The system they run now was built in the 90s think it’s time for an upgrade.

Ryan, I think you’re wrong—the system the Patriots are implementing and the personnel they’re deploying to execute it, as I see it, is exactly what you want if you’re bringing along a young quarterback. New England has, for the most part, kept itself out of consistent long-yardage situations and from playing from behind, and that’s made things infinitely easier on Jones, giving him a better environment to learn in.

In fact, it’s easy to look, and figure out that the difference the last two weeks for Jones has been playing from behind and in less advantageous down-and-distance situations.

So I don’t agree with your premise. But if you’re looking for the next Patriots offensive coordinator, there are two guys I think you need to eyeball. One is Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, who called plays in New England from 2009–11. The other is tight ends coach Nick Caley, a very well-regarded young coach whose promotion would allow Bill Belichick to follow his normal fill-from-within pattern of hiring into such positions.

From Jason Gruchala (@curseofthegooch): Since "Roll The Dice" Dan Campbell took over offensive play calling the Lions and Goff have vastly improved, what should the expectations be for 2022?

Jason, when Campbell made the call to take over play-calling, the intention was for it to be a temporary fix for the rest of 2022. But over time, he’s gotten more comfortable with it, with tight ends coach Ben Johnson taking on more coordinator-like responsibilities, and so now I think a couple things are on the table. They could stick with the current setup. Or they could make Johnson the coordinator and have him work with Campbell’s input. Or they could look outside the organization (which isn’t as likely as it was before).

One thing I would say is that my guess is current coordinator Anthony Lynn will be elsewhere next year.

From Kerim Asur (@KerimAsur): In what way do you see Washington addressing the QB situation this offseason? As a destination for veteran QB trades, we are never mentioned but with [Ron] Rivera being respected and a good roster with a good o-line and [Terry] McLaurin would the best QBs consider us?

Kerim, I think it made sense that someone will be. There are the reasons you mentioned, and it’s a chance to play in a big market for a historic franchise. Also, Washington should have capital to dangle in a trade, given that their slotted first-rounder now sits at ninth in the draft order.

I think they’ll investigate Watson and Wilson. Failing that, someone like Jimmy Garoppolo or Baker Mayfield could eventually be in play. And where they’re picking, it’s possible someone like Kenny Pickett could wind up being enticing.

I’d agree with your assessment overall, though, that more people should be mentioning Washington as a potential landing spot for a quarterback.

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