Friday, 11 January 2019


Alongside picking the Wild Card weekend last week on my Patreon site, I also wrote the following essay recapping the seasons of each of the 20 teams that failed to qualify for the playoffs, and getting a headstart on the coaching carousel. Later today I will be posting a very long column at Patreon, analysing the coaching changes so far, addressing the question of racism, predicting who might get the two jobs still open, and of course giving a run down and making my picks of all four Divisional Round games. If you'd like to get current, you can subscribe at and get more background essays as well as picks of the season's final three games, including the Super Bowl. So here's last Friday's first post:

Black Monday is when the guillotine blade falls for coaches, and one-quarter (ie, eight) of the NFL's jobs seem to change each year. The main point being, not improvement, but blame. If you want improvement, you might make a move like the Browns did in midseason: a risk, but one that worked (and note they identified the offensive coordinator as part of the problem and fired him too) or maybe like the Packers did, which didn't improve anything but signalled something. I don't know what. Aaron Rodgers didn't look any more unhappy. It occurs to me that many of the same things being said about Ben Rothliesberger in Pittsburgh might well be said about AR.

But Black Monday really ought to be rebranded as Blame Monday. When I look at the six head coaches fired Monday, I don't see any whose performance screams 'this is not fair', except perhaps Steve Wilks in Arizona, who probably deserved another year with Byron Leftwich in the hope Steve Keim could put some talent around Josh Rosen. And that is the nub of the problem, because when I look at those six teams I see six who could have and should have fired their GMs before even considering what to do about the coaches. Only one, Miami, actually did, letting Mike Tannenbaum go and promoting Chris Grier, son of ex-New England personnel guy Bobby, but the problem in Miami is that owner Steve Ross is the interfering type, and wants a GM who can be influenced. Which is why Miami is what they are (as with all these points, see below).

If you can give me a reason why Keim, Jason Licht or Mike McCagnan should still be making decisions for a football team, please do. Obviously John Elway is safe in Denver for Elway reasons, and Mike or Paul Brown is safe in Cincinnati for Brown reasons, but unless those three guys were actually ceding personnel decisions to their fired coaches, which we all know they weren't, why are they still getting to choose another coach. Or hire consultants, as Licht did, to choose one.

I would add two more GMs to that list, Bruce Allen in Washington and Dave Caldwell in Jacksonville (or is it Tom Coughlin? Or is that the problem). Allen's locked to the Dan, but Jacksonville's problems are endemic, and 2017's season now looks like an outlier (and after all, was only 10-6 plus a 2 game playoff run). But let's start our rundown of non-playoff teams with the team that reminds me of Graig Nettles famous quote about the Bronx Zoo Yankees: 'when I was a kid I wanted to either play baseball or join the circus. With the Yankees I got to do both'.

Pittsburgh (9-6-1): Professor Tomlin's Fun Bunch strikes again! The Steelers by all rights should be in the playoffs—many people, including myself, had them as pre-season Super Bowl contenders, but the Killer Bs were struck by whatever it is that's decimating the bee population around the world. For all that James Connor gained the yardage LeVeon Bell might have, he wore down as the season progressed (think Jalen Samuels might have got just a few carries earlier in the year, Mike?) and of course Antonio Brown's hissy fit when he couldn't wear JuJu's MVP tutu kept him out of the season's last game. Which turned out to be academic but had the Browns won in Baltimore we would have enjoyed the soap opera around whether AB would play in the Card round. Which I think he would have: he's a prima donna but he's OUR prima donna being the Professor's thinking. Here's the thing though: Tomlin's approach means he has not backed himself into any corners with AB: Pittsburgh can't afford to release or even trade him ($21m plus cap hits for two years) so they need to take a Boston Red Sox/Manny Ramirez approach: “that's just AB being AB” because the bed is made and AB is fully tucked in.

Tennessee (9-7): Crossroads for rookie coach Mike Vrabel, who could go the Jeff Fisher/Mike Mularkey/Ken Whisenhunt perpetual near .500 contender route, or perhaps build on the team's success this year. They were better defensively than I expected: Romeo Crennel did a nice job with a talented bunch, but offensively they will have decisions to make re Marcus Mariota, and it was odd how few big plays they got from Dion Lewis, which shows yet again the way the Pats scheme to get the best out of their parts, and why they are almost always willing to let them go.

Minnesota (8-7-1): Changing offensive coordinators was a short-term fix, but the emphasis on the run didn't help the pass game get better; in fact it seemed as if the ways DiFillippo schemed Thielen and Diggs open disappeared quickly, and the Vikes became easier to defend. Mike Zimmer's D hit a wall late in the season as well: if you can deal with his rush packages, you can beat them too easily. Their loss at home to Chicago was disappointing, more for the way their offense ground to a halt than anything else. Was Kirk Cousins THAT much better than Case Keenum? In some ways, yes, but they are going to need to rethink their offense in the off-season. It's worth noting here that the six highest-paid QBs in the NFL were Aaron Rodgers ($33.5m), Matt Ryan ($30m) Kirk Cousins ($28m) Jimmy G ($27.5m) Matt Stafford ($27m) and Derek Carr ($25). None of them are playing any more this year. This tells you two things. One: a starter playing well during his rookie QB salary capped contract is the most valuable commodity in the NFL and two: Cousins needed to throw for more than 131 yards last week.

Cleveland (7-8-1): FIRED (MID-SEASON) HUE JACKSON If every firing were so straight-forward, every team would do it every year they were losing. It's hard to say whether interim coach and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was the reason for the turnaround, because the defense played well all season, but the offense, minus Hue and Todd Haley, blossomed under Freddie Kitchens, with Nick Chubb and Baker Mayfield both blossoming. This creates a dilemma for the Browns: Williams' track record as a head coach is disappointing, while Kitchens has never been a head at any level. A lot of people will want to take over here, because the talent level is so good, and I think bringing in any offensive-minded coach (eg: Mike McCarthy) over Kitchens would be a mistake. I doubt Williams would stay on as DC if they hire a more neutral type (Jim Caldwell is being considered) but on paper at least, if Williams stayed, that would be the best idea—though in reality chemistry is a fragile science.

Landover DC Beltway Bandits (7-9): Jay Gruden did a pretty good job considering Josh Johnson is no Colin Kaepernick. The Skins seemed to be the most injured team in the league, yet their offense held together, and their defense played hard despite a questionable secondary, and of course the late-season release of DJ Swearinger—though you don't hear anyone complaining about a culture of indiscipline under Gruden minor. As I said above, it's Bruce Allen who ought to carry the can for the depth-free Skins, although he gets some points for a defensive line built in the past couple of drafts. I tried to understand the Alex Smith signing, but was he really any more effective than Josh Johnson Off The Street, and will they try to keep Johnson away from the San Diego Fleet next month? Or will they let him go and do the Right Thing and sign Colin Kaepernick?

Atlanta (7-9): The blame fell on the assistants, which is the other way out I didn't discuss at the start. I expected Steve Sarkisian to be fired; despite the idea that Calvin Ridley had helped solve their red zone problems early in the year, they were never as consistent as they ought to be, and Tevin Coleman was not able to be the every down back he had to be with Devonta Freeman's injuries. Marquand Manuel getting the chop was more of a surprise, as he goes back to Seattle days with Dan Quinn, and frankly, their D played no better or worse than in past years, which, considering the injuries was a positive. Sometimes it's not the quantity of but the quality: losing Deion Jones and Keanu Neal early was a blow Atlanta never seemed to recover from, though Damonte Kazee, drafted as a slot corner, proved effective as a strong safety.

Miami (7-9): FIRED: ADAM GASE Who do you choose, Tannehill or Tannenbaum? Or neither. You could try to argue that when Tannehill was healthy, Gase's teams were competitive, and with Brock Osweiler they weren't, and you can also argue Tannenbaum had a penchant for  older over-paid stars who couldn't be coached into a couple more years of excellence because Bill Parcells or Rex Ryan wasn't coaching them. Which is why it seems Rex Ryan even though Tannenbaum is gone. And Rex got to the playoffs with Mark Butt Fumble. Remember it was Rex's father who said “"QBs are overpaid, overrated, pompous bastards and must be punished." What did Ryan Tannehill ever do to him?

Carolina (7-9): What looked like a Norvgasmic offense at the start of year floundered on Cam Newton's injured shoulder and the seemingly perennial problem of finding receivers.  Devin Funchess again under-achieved, though DJ Moore is a keeper for next year, though next year Greg Olson is not going to be back. They have decisions to make with injured/aging defensive stars like Thomas Davis, Julius Peppers, Luke Keuchley and Dontari Poe, as well as center Ryan Kalil for years their best and sometimes only decent O lineman. GM Marty Hurney's second draft should be a challenge. Christian McCaffrey had a hell of a year though, considering he was the only weapon teams needed to account for the second half of the year.

Green Bay (6-9-1): FIRED (MID-SEASON) MIKE MC CARTHY: Joe Philbin sure made a big difference. I think they need to let Aaron Rodgers decide whose offense he wants to play in, which would appear to be Josh McDaniels', but I kinda doubt JMcD is going anywhere, unless Bill Belichick tells him he has no plans to retire anytime soon, or Tom Brady says he does. The Packers, small-market as they are, and again being lumbered with the pre-Reggie White tag of not being a place urban free agents want to go, ought still to be a welcoming destination for a coach, especially with Rodgers in place. If Rodgers wants a QB innovator they could look at Kliff Kingsbury (who's barely older than AR), or maybe Baylor's Matt Ruhle, though being a great recruiter for a second-tier program, as Ruhle was at Temple as well, may be too close a match. He also isn't an offensive guru, being a defensive coach and an O line coach for a year under Tom Coughlin. Maybe Rodgers will consider Adam Gase, whose rep as a 'QB Whisperer' is based around a year of 'coaching' a good season out of Peyton Manning. Gase is like the Bill O'Brien of the other 44 states.

Detroit (6-10): I predicted the firing of Jim Bob Cooter a couple of weeks ago, because this year the short-pass game seemed to regress as if Matt Stafford pulled his head back into Cooter's shell. With Carro-On Johnson injured, you'd think they'd try to open things up, but of course trading Golden Tate made the pass game one dimensional, as he was their best short receiver. I suspect Matt Patricia will grab some ex-Pat offensive guy looking to take better advantage of Stafford's arm; I wouldn't be surprised if they draft or sign a slot receiver. The upside, the ceiling of all this, of course, is perpetual Tennessee Titanism. Fun Fact: the Lions went 9-7 under Jim Caldwell in 2017.

Denver (6-10): FIRED: VANCE JOSEPH: John Elway wasn't going to fire himself and no one else was either. He hired Joseph to be what Tom Boswell in a baseball context called a 'Peerless Leader' type: the square-jawed leader of men. Boswell said that archetype often stand firm while chaos swirls around them, doing nothing about it, which kind of describes Joseph's game management, but it's very hard to think that if he had just been a tougher ramrod Denver's season would have been much better. It was Elway who decided Case Keenum was the answer, and though he had an impressive draft (and landed Philip Lindsay undrafted, which I cheered) they seem to build their D as if a Manning were going to be building big leads, or a couple of ace rushers would do the job, when their secondary was a key to Von Miller's success. How Chris Harris comes back from injury is a big question, but the idea they are interviewing defensive guys like Vic Fangio and Chuck Pagano tells you something.

Buffalo (6-10): The Bills were sort of like Carolina lite, except Josh Allen isn't the passer Cam Newton was, and they don't have a Christian McCaffrey, but their receivers are a similar mismash and Brian Daboll may not have jumped onto that bandwagon. Defensively they were tough all year, but the Pats' ability to push them around and run on them was a revelation late. I'm not sure Sean McDermott has a long term plan for getting better, and I'd predict he gets closer to a hot seat next season.

Cincinnati (6-10): FIRED: MARVIN LEWIS The idea that Hue Jackson might be next in line for the job is funny. Lewis went 16 season with the Bengals, ended with a winning record, the most wins in team history, and an 0-7 playoff mark. His teams were stocked with behavioural problems and character issues, but he avoided for the most part the Tomlin-out of control label in large part because everyone knew the Brown family were signing these guys with character issues because they were good value risks. One thing to remember, if you're a GM (or a coach, who should be given a sign-off on such moves) when you draft a guy with issues, you can't be surprised when he has issues, and if you don't know how to control them, you shouldn't be paying him the big bucks. I'm talking about you, Giants, not just the Steelers. Remember when the Pats brought in problem children like Corey Dillon (Bengals) or Rodney Harrison? Or Randy Moss, who had the huge season and then was dropped when the shine wore off? Vance Joseph, the peerless leader of Denver, appeals to the Bengals but I wonder if Eric Bienamy, latest Andy Reid assistant to get in the spotlight, might get a job here: he played in Cincinnati, and he's a strong players-type coach, not an offensive innovator. But the Bengals mediocrity is almost endemic: I trace it back to the Carson Palmer situation, when they were a team trying to compete with the Colts and let their best hope of doing so simply leave.

YOUR (?) Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11): The Jags put the blame on Nathaniel Hackett and fired him during the season. They were 3-8, with seven straight losses, and went 2-3 the rest of the year, with Todd Milanovich calling the plays and Cody Kessler starting at QB. Who thought that was a good idea? In those five games the Jags scored two touchdowns, one a Dede Westbrook punt return and the other a Leonard Fournette one yard run. Putting less than 10 points per game on the board means your defense has to be better than the Bears 85 or Ravens 2000 or Bucs 2002 if you are going to win. Yes Blake Bortles was bad, but who thought Cody Kessler gave them a better chance of winning? Who thought so after one week?

But the moment that may wind up defining the Jags 2018 season was Leonard Fournette, injured, and TJ Yeldon, in uniform, sitting together chatting on the bench for the whole of the their loss to Houston. How much did they have to talk about? Tom Coughlin vented about it afterwards (maybe someone might have broken up the gab fest by, maybe, playing Yeldon?) and in the best traditions of Coughlin and NFL punishment, Yeldon is certainly not coming back. Fournette has had guarantees in his contract voided for 2019, which means he might be on the trading block, as if Carlos Hyde were the Future in Florida. Remember, the Jags led the NFL in rushing in 2017, playing Tom Coughlin run the ball and play D football, so it's a little surprising Tyrone Wheatley, the RB coach and Pat Flaherty the line coach brought in this year to improve pass-blocking in particular, were both fired. Fournette's injury-pagued season certainly had a lot to do with their ills, but an inability to get good QB play had a lot more (and even in that famous Super Bowl win over the Pats in week two Bortles' scrambling and yards after the catch on throws were the key factors).

And the Sacksonville D of 2017 was very good, but its quality was exaggerated in retrospect. Turnover luck was a factor, and big sack totals in a couple of games against teams with bad O lines and/or QBs was another factor. Penalty luck came into it too, as it usually does against teams which play aggressive press-man coverage with corners, and hang-on coverage by linebackers.  Perry Fewell, another ex-Coughlin assistant brought in to work with the DBs, was also fired; as I said above, the Jags' D had nowhere to go but down, and you can look at indiscipline there, as Tony Boselli did every week on Gnat and my's Talksport radio coverage, but really? If discipline is your worry, do you fire the position coaches? The Jags may be the best example in this whole sorry catalgoue of blame dodging: the three men responsible for building the roster, for choosing the players, for setting the tone, for planning the games, the three men at the cutting edge of this 5-11 season have jettisoned almost everyone beneath them. Is this the British army in World War I? Send the soldiers over the top into withering fire, and execute for cowardice the few officers who survive.

New Jersey Giants (5-11): Say, didn't you used to be Odell Beckham? The Giants thought they were a couple of pieces (Saquon Barkley, Nate Solder, Will Hernandez) away from a playoff run. Great as Barkley was, do you wonder if moving on at QB might have been a better move? The G men were competitive in many games, like the meaningless season finale against the Cowboys, though they couldn't close games out. Maybe Beckham makes a difference, and Eli is better with defenses playing the deep threat. Maybe a team with a great running back (with 88 catches, a rookie RB record for whatever that is worth) learns how to protect a lead? Maybe their D springs back to life? Maybe Pat Shurmer puts it all together. The Giants like to believe in maybes.

Tampa Bay (5-11): FIRED DIRK KOETTER: Koetter is another guy whose firing is hard to argue against, as he's had his chances, and he fired his former mentor Mike Smith as DC, not that it made a difference. But GM Jason Licht is the guy who traded up in the 2016 draft to take a kicker (!) Roberto Aguayo (!) who was out of the league quicker than Ryan  Leaf (while Kevin Byard, Yannick Ngakoue, James Bradberry et al were still on the board. Licht announced he was hiring a headhunter company to help in the search for a new head coach; are you kidding me? Koetter ought to be in demand as an OC somewhere, or maybe an HC back in college; I wonder if Todd Monken helped himself with the early season success with Fitzy; after that bubble burst Jameis Winston had arguably his best year.

Santa Clara 49ers (4-12): Monken was Nick Mullens' coach for a couple of years at Southern Mississippi, which is interesting to me, though irrelevant to the Niners, who could be good with Jimmy G back next year (no knock no Knick Mullens, who will be valuable as a really low-cost backup but might also bring a decent draft pick if they deal him now while his stock is high). The Niners have pieces to build around, the core of a good defensive front, and can improve their roster. Arrow is probably pointing up for them.

Raiders Formerly Known As Oakland (4-12): John Gruden's strategy this season seemed to be to make the team look worse than the one he took over was, in order to make what he hopes will be his improvements look even better. With Reggie McKenzie squeezed out, hiring Mike Mayock as GM isn't as silly a move as it seems: Gruden will be making the decisions and what he needs is a scout, and of the media guys Mayock is one of the best. Of course note I said of the media guys. They have cap room, they have draft picks, they have Jordy Nelson resigned for another year, and they don't have a place to play. Do you really think London would flock to eight games from this outfit? On the plus side, they could use Walter Raleigh as a Raider mascot.

Newark Airport Jets (4-12): FIRED TODD BOWLES Bowles had four years to succeed with the Jest, but how GM Mike McCagnan keeps his job is beyond me. I said before the season that hiring Jeremy Bates as offensive coordinator wasn't the best thing, and despite promising play from Sam Darnold, their offense was never consistent. Not that their defense, Bowles erstwhile speciality was either. But this situation might be a perfect one for Adam Gase to walk into, though I am not convinced he instantly creates a top offense here.  I do like the idea of AFC East coaches rotating around, as they always seem to (even Belichick came to NE from the Jest) to provide familiar fodder for the Pats inevitable stroll to the division title.

Arizona (3-13): FIRED STEVE WILKS: This is harsh after one season, with an injury-ridden club who have allowed themselves to be bled of talent, especially on defense, and who thought that Sam Bradford was the answer. Firing Mike McCoy and letting Byron Leftwich take over as OC was a bold move that had a good immediate effect, and it might have been worth giving Wilks another season to let that play out with Josh Rosen. GM Steve Keim has restocked the defense to a decent level, though not what it might have been, and he ignored a number of needs. Rosen may pan out, Christian Kirk was a good pick, and you might question some of the play-calling. But the lack of talent probably isn't Wilks' fault, and he shouldn't have been the one to pay the price. Rosen may want to apply for hazardous duty pay if he thinks Keim is going to build an offense around him.

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