Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
16 Jan 2013
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
(Ed. Note: Today's Scramble for the Ball was written and compiled before this morning's surprising Chip Kelly news, so it discusses pretty much everyone else except him. Alas. -- Aaron Schatz)
Tom: Well, Mike, it is coach and/or general manager firing season in the NFL these days.
Mike: Pittsburgh isn't going to fire Todd Haley, which sucks.
Tom: At least Haley's offense did not score fewer points than any offense in team history. Tennessee allowed a franchise-high 471 points, and it now seems like Jerry Gray may be returning as defensive coordinator. The Titans, Lions, and Raiders are the only teams with a record of 6-10 or worse that have not yet fired their head coach, their general manager, or both. Also in the realm of sub-.500 teams that have made no such changes are the 7-9 Dolphins, the 7-9 Buccaneers, the 7-9 Saints*, and the 7-8-1 Rams.
Mike: Detroit makes sense, it's not really a six-win team. New Orleans is probably not a seven-win team.
Tom: Also, Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis, thus the asterisk.
Mike: Right. Tampa and St. Louis are in the middle of rebuilding. Tennessee and Miami are busy screwing around. And Oakland is busy ... doing whatever it is that Oakland does.
Tom: Miami was kind of rebuilding. Oakland just didn't have that much talent.
Mike: Rebuilding around what?
Tom: Going .500, give or take from now until the end of time.
Tom: It worked out so well for Jacksonville a couple years ago! I'm more sympathetic than that sounds. It's easy to get on a treadmill of mediocrity in the NFL, and hard to amass enough assets at the right time to have both a great offense and a great defense.
Mike: You don't really need a great offense and a great defense, though. At this point, you just need a great offense.
Tom: Well, the heuristic I'm looking at is the past nine or so Super Bowl winners. They've all been capable of playing great offense and great defense. They don't have to always play either, especially in the regular season. (New York Giants in 2007 and 2011, I'm looking at you.)
Mike: You're putting "great defense" and "New Orleans Saints" in the same lump, there.
Tom: True, and of course the 2006 Colts probably only played great defense in the playoffs. Those Saints had three games with a defensive DVOA of -30% or better in the regular season, and DVOA rated their performance against the Vikings in the NFC championship game fairly highly. The Saints spent a lot of time playing not-so-great defense, too, but they were still appreciably better in 2009 than they were in the other Gregg Williams seasons.
We've only seen one team that finished 2012 with a winning record fire their head coach. So, Mike, are the rumors true? Were you one of the many people Phil Emery interviewed in his attempt to find the Bears next head coach?
Mike: I was actually one of the beneficiaries of the "McCaskey Rule" which is a new and little-known rule requiring them to interview an actual realist for the head coach position. Sadly, the interview was just a formality, since the Chicago front office and coaching staff have been powered by rainbows and sunshine for quite a few years, now.
Tom: Oh, I thought the McCaskey Rule was the required interview of a former franchise icon in the hopes that his mere presence will bring back the glory days regardless of his actual credentials. And you earned that position by dint of your long-time Rex Grossman antagonism, while Mike Singletary got his by being part of a defense big and bold.
Mike: Part of me wants to see Singletary get the job. Just for the hilarious fallout that results. Then again, Belichick made good in New England, so we shouldn't write off unsuccessful first-time head coaches completely.
Tom: Yeah, maybe we shouldn't.
Mike: At least until he snaps completely and starts thinking that he literally is Samurai Mike and brings a no-dachi to practice.
(And lo, Marc Trestman, Esq. descends from the great white North to save the Chicago Bears. Hopefully.)
Mike: Well, that was ... unexpected. Trestman is a strange hire both because he is 57 years old and because he hasn't been in the NFL for nearly a decade. It also makes little sense to hire a quarterback guru without first putting the team's quarterback in a position where he can succeed. While I'm not nearly so sanguine about Jay Cutler as my fellow Chicagoans, wide receiver (yes, even with Brandon Marshall) and offensive line are still glaring problems that neuter his effectiveness. While Trestman has glowing recommendations from Rich Gannon, Bernie Kosar, and Steve Young, he has apparently also mentored Brock Osweiler, Jimmy Clausen, Jason Campbell, Brandon Weeden and Tim Tebow. That is not a great list. Still, the focus on offense by Halas Hall is encouraging, even if I think it won't really get them the returns Emery is hoping for. Especially if Trestman doesn't rewrite the halftime speech where he admonishes his team to fight for every metre on all three downs or the prime minister will have a very sad Boxing Day.
Tom: The Bears hired an attorney as their head coach. Go attorneys! Trestman's apparently a smart guy and good with quarterbacks. This will either go well or end really poorly. I don't really know enough about Trestman to say more than that. I can't help but think of the study that looked at the backgrounds of coaches of successful teams and found Marty Mornhinweg was the best candidate. Naturally, he's gotten barely a sniff and is no longer even Andy Reid's offensive coordinator.
Mike: Naturally. Of course, this all means we're living in a reality where Lovie Smith was fired for missing the playoffs due to a tiebreaker in a division that claimed one of the wild cards. Which is, in a word, bonkers.
Tom: Yes, but the Bears when healthy were clearly better than the Vikings in 2011 and finished behind them in 2012. Anyway, am I crazy for wanting to compare what Andy Reid will do in Kansas City to Mike Holmgren's tenure in Seattle?
Mike: Why are you so racist against walrii?
Tom: It's not just that they're both walrii, but both are head coaches who benefited from an excellent front office in their first stop, then headed someplace where they had front office control. I know, Reid hired John Dorsey, who has some personnel background (working for Holmgren in both Green Bay and Seattle!), but I have to think he has 53-man control and the big say on everything.
Mike: I suppose we'll have to wait and see if he's up to the challenge.
Tom: Yup. The big question is quarterback. Holmgren was able to acquire Matt Hasselbeck for a reasonable price, and he proved to be an above-average (though not elite) passer. The Eagles probably aren't willing to part with Nick Foles, and I doubt Reid moves to acquire Michael Vick.
Mike: They could always pick up one of the quarterbacks flung from the Arizona
haunted house carousel.
Tom: Is there a guy there to really be interested in? I'm kind of skeptical about that one. When the Cardinals fired Rod Graves, they promoted Steve Keim from in-house, so we'll see which of the quarterbacks they've acquired while he's been there he actually has some interest in.
Mike: True. He could also follow the walrus path of drafting a bad quarterback in the first round because he's the only one available.
Tom: Yes, that's always an option. I generally recommend that strategy when you're on the hot seat, though. In your first year, you don't need the "(QUARTERBACK X) will be a lot better in his second season" excuse yet.
Mike: I would never recommend that strategy in any situation.
Tom: Well, the basic question is still "what do you do when you don't have an above-average or elite quarterback?" The answer cannot simply be to give up and not try. It's why some jobs are more attractive than others. And you look at Holmgren, he went from Brett Favre, who had three straight MVP seasons from 1995 to 1997, to Hasselbeck. Reid didn't enjoy that MVP-caliber level of play, but Donovan McNabb first and then Michael Vick later gave him average-to-above play for his Philadelphia tenure. Now he has a new job without an average-quality starting quarterback on the roster. Yes, the Chiefs have the first overall pick in the draft, but there's no Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin or even Ryan Tannehill-level prospect to take there.
Mike: Speaking of working with quarterbacks, McCoy seems to have received a great deal of head-coach attention based on his work with Tim Tebow. This strikes me as somewhat insane.
Tom: Then again, Josh McDaniels and Brian Billick were offensive coordinators for very highly-regarded passing offenses, and neither had much of a passing offense in their subsequent stops.
Mike: The notion that McCoy is going to waltz into town and magically fix the Chargers' problems, including the complete implosion of Philip Rivers, is bizarre.
Tom: I wrote the Texans chapter in Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 and had to look at why Wade Phillips tended to improve teams when he was first hired. Yes, Texans fans, Frank Bush was bad. But defense tends to be inconsistent from year to year, and bad luck is part of why coordinators get fired. What happened with Wade's teams is they tended to add like four or five new starters, and it's hard to tease out how much of the improvement comes from superior personnel and how much came from the genius of a new head coach. The Texans went from awful on defense in 2010 to great in 2011. They added Wade Phillips and ... Johnathan Joseph at $9 million a season, J.J. Watt in the first round, Brooks Reed in the second round, Danieal Manning in free agency, and Connor Barwin after he missed basically all of 2010. Mike McCoy will look like a genius if the Chargers add two good offensive tackles and Rivers plays like he did when he had some actual protection back in 2008. Who knows if Tom Telesco will be able to pull that one off.
Mike: That is a hire that I do like.
Tom: The Colts were still insanely lucky to finish 11-5, but they did add a lot of talent to a pretty bad roster. Ryan Grigson has rightly gotten a lot of praise for that, including being very active in turning over marginal players. We'll see if Telesco can do better from a less advantageous position.
Mike: As far as I can tell, he did a fine job helping to keep the Colts at or above "can help Peyton Manning win a championship" level, which was pretty hard considering the amount they were spending just on Manning and a handful of receivers.
Tom: Sure, you're just always dealing with the unknown when you put somebody in charge for the first time.
Mike: That does bring us to the weird situations in Dallas and New York. Although I suppose it's not that strange that Jones would again refuse to hire a general manager, even after Bob Costas basically told him to his face that he was terrible at it. Sorry, implied heavily at his face. This is professional sports, we have decorum.
Tom: Ted Sundquist, one of Mike Shanahan's seeming scapegoats as Broncos general manager and a reported candidate for the Jets general manager job, recently wrote about the most important position on an NFL team: the owner. As someone who's a fan of a Bud Adams-owned team, I completely get that.
Mike: Considering the extremely consistent success of the Steelers, I also completely agree.
Tom: When it comes to Long Island's pro football team, apparently it's not attractive as a general manager to have Rex Ryan as your coach in place for one season.
Mike: I think it might be less Rex Ryan and more that the team is not on a great trajectory. The defense has deteriorated and the offense is a very slow train with a pair of drunken engineers.
Tom: Sure, but there are only 32 jobs and you should have a pretty free hand barring unsurprising team success in 2013 (which would probably earn you Executive of the Year votes). Then again, I just brought up the most important position. It seemed at times like the Jets might have at least three cooks this past season, so Woody Johnson may be a factor here.
Mike: That is true, and the dynamics between owners and general managers are always more treacherous than those between head coaches and owners. Owner-coach spats are rare to the point where they become big news when they happen (see: Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson, or Alex Spanos and Marty Schottenheimer), whereas almost every GM departure is accompanied by stories of acrimony between the manager and the ownership. Maybe it's the extra interaction, or maybe it's that managers tend to hang around a bit longer. But from that perspective, I can see potential GM candidates avoiding a dysfunctional ownership more than a head-coach candidate would.
Tom: Maybe. It's not unusual for teams not to have hired a coach at this point in the season, especially if there are attractive coaching prospects on the teams left in the playoffs. I have less of a feel for how unusual it is to not have a general manager in place. Given the long list of candidates the Jets have reportedly talked to, it seems safe to say something unusual is up there.
Mike: Sadly, general managers also don't really talk to the media. Or nobody in the media is asking. Take your pick.
Tom: It certainly seems fair to say that potential head-coaching candidates are easier for fans to identify than potential GM candidates. I'm not sure how much that matters, though.
Mike: Who's left, then?
Tom: Cleveland and Jacksonville, unless you don't have anything interesting to say about them.
Mike: I told my wife Julia this was what we were writing about and she told me she'd hurt me if we didn't discuss Cleveland.
Tom: Speaking of quarterbacks, what the heck do you do in Cleveland? You're guaranteeing most or all of Brandon Weeden's contract for the next three seasons.
Mike: Assume the fetal position.
Tom: He also turns 30 this fall. Yes, Rob Chudzinski did a nice job with Derek Anderson in 2007, but that was in a particularly advantageous situation. The Browns don't have receiving options with the potential of Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards right now, I don't think, no matter how promising Josh Gordon may seem.
Mike: Sorry, I'm still recovering from "nice job" and "Derek Anderson" being used in the same sentence. They also have the services of Sir Dropsalot, which is fantastic when you have a somewhat jittery and inaccurate quarterback.
Tom: Late in 2012, Greg Little was having trouble getting on the field in some games. In 2007, their quarterbacks were Derek Anderson, Charlie Frye, and Brady Quinn, and they won 10 games without a historically-awesome defense. That qualifies as a nice coaching job in my book.
Mike: They also crashed horribly halfway through the season.
Tom: That sort of thing happens sometimes with deeply flawed roster constructions.
Mike: That is a very good quasi-PC term for "this team is secretly bad."
Tom: I would not call them "secretly bad" with those quarterbacks. Besides, this isn't the NBA, where your right option if you don't have an awesome team is "trying to lose all your games."
I go back and forth on just how attractive Cleveland's future is, but I have a level of trust in Jimmy Haslam as an owner and Joe Banner as an executive.
Mike: Oh, I think their long-term future is relatively bright as far as you can tell that sort of thing from an owner/manager combination.
Tom: Yup. I'm just not sure about 2013 or 2014.
Mike: They will be awful. The other (rather good) defenses in the division will have a year of Weeden's bad tendencies on tape and will probably feast upon them. I don't think he's a franchise quarterback.
Tom: I'm not sure he is either, but given the 2013 draft class, I think they might be stuck going with him in 2013, or at least trying to find somebody on the cheap. Of course, we saw in Arizona this year how that kind of thing works out.
Mike: I think the real question is whether Chudzinski can turn a bad offense into a merely mediocre one. While I'm not going to admit that his prior work in Cleveland was great, he probably got the most out of his talent, and he did a good job constructing an offense around Cam Newton. Of course, having two pretty good running backs and one very good wide receiver helped a lot in Carolina. But I'm willing to be cautiously optimistic that he keeps the Browns from being a horror show, at least until the ship is righted and they get an infusion of talent.
Tom: We'll see. I don't think they'll make much noise in the division for a couple years, but then again I thought the same thing of Minnesota before this season.
Mike: And you'll think the same about Minnesota next year, when Adrian Peterson has merely a very good season instead of a greatest-of-all-time season.
Tom: I think Minnesota's on a decent pace for improvement. The secondary, while still not good enough, has more potentially useful pieces than it did a year ago. The run defense was legitimately good at times.
Mike: I agree! I even said nice things about their secondary this year!
Tom: The book is still out on Christian Ponder and they could really use a starting-caliber wide receiver.
Tom: The other city where we've seen both coaching and general manager changeover is in Jacksonville, where GM Gene Smith is out and new general manager Dave Caldwell had the freedom to fire Mike Mularkey even after one season. Caldwell has drawn the most headlines for his strenuous opposition to bringing in Tim Tebow ("even if he's released"), but that team has a lot of holes. Granted, their division was the league's worst this year, but they're still the fourth-best team in it. At this point, I just feel sorry for Jaguars fans. They've sold out every regular season game for three seasons, too, plus at least one preseason game, so shush about the jokes.
Mike: I will never shush about the jokes.
Tom: Well, they need a coach, a quarterback, a couple offensive lineman, a pass rush, and something to make Maurice Jones-Drew happy. Good luck!
Mike: Play him off, whatever meme is doing that this week!
It is shaping out like a potentially interesting struggle. Danny takes a big lead, thanks to some high-powered Seahawks, but has lost his quarterback, both running backs, and two of his three wide receivers. Thanks to strong performances by Colin Kaepernick, Michael Crabtree, and Torrey Smith, Aaron took a big jump to second place, but has lost both running backs to elimination and both Steven Hauschka and Rob Gronkowski to injury. Sean is currently in fifth place, but has both running backs and Matt Ryan, plus two-thirds of the Falcons passing game. While he is currently 83 points behind Danny, he could still finish on top.
|FO Playoff Divisional Round Results|
|QB||Aaron Rodgers||Tom Brady||Peyton Manning||Russell Wilson||Colin Kaepernick||Matt Ryan|
|RB||Ray Rice||BenJarvus Green-Ellis||Arian Foster||Marshawn Lynch||Adrian Peterson||Frank Gore|
|RB||Alfred Morris||Vick Ballard||Michael Turner||DuJuan Harris||Knowshon Moreno||Stevan Ridley|
|WR||A.J. Green||Eric Decker||Andre Johnson||Demaryius Thomas||Michael Crabtree||Roddy White|
|WR||Reggie Wayne||Sidney Rice||Randall Cobb||Wes Welker||Brandon Lloyd||Jordy Nelson|
|WR||Pierre Garcon||Golden Tate||Julio Jones||James Jones||Torrey Smith||Brandon Stokley|
|TE||Jermaine Gresham||Aaron Hernandez||Jacob Tamme||Dennis Pitta||Rob Gronkowski||Tony Gonzalez|
|K||Justin Tucker||Josh Brown||Mason Crosby||Stephen Gostkowski||Steven Hauschka||Matt Prater|
We currently have a tie for the lead atop the Best of the Rest leaderboard, as Zac and mjb both have 141 points. At this point in the game, mjb must be considered a favorite to finish ahead as he has Bernard Pierce, Jacoby Jones, Vernon Davis, and Matt Bryant remaining and not in common, while Zac only has Jacquizz Rodgers. Lurking 10 points behind them is puffbronfman, the only participant to select Shane Vereen and benefit from his three touchdowns last week. Nobody else has more than 112 points, so they likely won't be able to threaten for the lead barring extremely odd happenings.
Keep Chopping Wood: The safety in a late game prevent defense-type situation is like his team's Omega Sector: the last line of defense. His job is not let an opposing receiver get past him. Oops, Rahim Moore.
Mike Martz Award: Word on the street is that Colin Kaepernick can run the football! Dom Capers should start looking for his own personal Huggy Bear, lest he continue to be a jive turkey.
15 comments, Last at 21 Jan 2013, 7:25pm by Sid