Nagy, Judge and The Great Coaching Hot Seat Swindle
NFL Week 14 -
Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where the advent of December marks a period of the tradition, and tradition means recurring columns, and recurring columns means it's time to talk about this January's potential coaching vacancies. The first head coach to vacate his position did so weeks ago as Jon Gruden resigned in disgrace following the release of a series of email communications between him and former Washington team president Bruce Allen. More recently, we have seen a couple of hotseat honchos scape their goats into the desert in the form of offensive coordinators Jason Garrett (Giants) and Joe Brady (Panthers). With rumors also swirling around Chicago's Matt Nagy over Thanksgiving weekend and Minnesota's Mike Zimmer after the Vikings ended Detroit's winless streak, it's time to survey our annual overlong list of the NFL's Not the Coach of the Year candidates.
Bryan: At this point of the season, nearly half of the fanbases in the league are grumbling about their head coaches at one volume or another. It's a lot easier to blame the guy holding the clipboard on the sidelines than the players on the field sometimes, and at the very least, they're theoretically easier to replace. Not all of that grumbling is really justified, mind you, but that's what we're here for—to help separate the mere disappointments from the coaches who don't have to go home, but sure can't stay here.
Andrew: With time closing on the NFL season, here are the teams who could be hoping their new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.
Bryan: We might as well start with the one seat that we know is open: the Las Vegas Raiders and interim coach Rich Bisaccia. There's, uh, no chance the Raiders just stick with Bisaccia in 2022, right? He's the steady hand trying to get the ship into harbor without blowing anything else up, not someone to lead the team into the future.
Andrew: I would imagine so. If his team had blown us away with their performances since being freed from Gruden's shackles, then maybe, but they turned a promising 5-2 start into four losses in their past five games. That includes defeats against the Giants and the Washington Football Team, probably the easiest two games on that portion of the schedule against teams the Raiders should have had the personnel to defeat quite comfortably. It's bizarre that the one team they beat over that period was the Dallas Cowboys; lose that overtime and they're on a skid that reinforces Gruden's credentials as a pretty good football coach.
Bryan: It's ironic that after years of picking Gruden as a medium-to-long shot for the first coach to lose his job, he ends up being sent packing the one year I give him a pass.
My real question here is what Mark Davis will do with the opening. There's some drum-beating for the Raiders to promote from within, to bring Gus Bradley up from defensive coordinator to run the show; he has NFL experience and Raiders fans seem more confident in their defense than offense (despite the fact that the offense has the better DVOA). But if Davis was going to do that, surely he would have named Bradley the interim coach, yeah? And then there's that Dabo Swinney sighting…
Andrew: Bradley's record as a head coach doesn't exactly scream "give me another chance." If Davis is smart, he'll try to find an up-and-coming guy with a reputation for innovation, who was fired for a dumb reason such as not running the ball enough. Which sounds like I'm angling for Joe Brady, and maybe I am, but the Raiders have a chance to move in a very positive direction here. Their roster isn't loaded with stars, but they have good-enough players at most positions. Somebody with a bit of inventiveness who can lead them into the future instead of reliving past glories sounds like an ideal follow-up to a Gruden hiring that didn't quite return them to their previous heights.
"If Davis is smart" is doing more heavy lifting than Hafthor Björnsson there, I freely admit.
Bryan: Yeah, I was going to say—the whole idea of bringing Gruden in was to relive past glories. That was, like, the selling point on the box. That's why I think Davis will pass up Bradley for someone with some shiny bling available. With a lack of Super Bowl-winning coaches lying around, Swinney would be the next logical choice—only I don't think there's a chance that Swinney leaves Clemson, no matter how many bad haircuts Davis offers. I imagine he'll end up going for someone such as Jason Garrett, which should send shivers down Raiders fans' spines.
Andrew: Whoever inherits this job has some decisions to make too. Derek Carr has proven that he is a good quarterback, but as he enters his thirties, he has also proven that he's not an elite one. Josh Jacobs is a potential stud at arguably the least valuable position to have a potential stud.
Bryan: We could go on for hours and hours about the odd situation the Raiders have themselves stuck in—not good enough to really challenge for the division and yet not bad enough to blow up—but we have a lot of other teams to cover, and if we spend a dozen paragraphs on each, you won't finish reading this before all the vacancies are filled come the end of February. So we'll move from jobs that are definitely going to be open to jobs that merely are nearly certain to be open.
Andrew: Everybody agrees that Matt Nagy's done for, right? We were confident that would be the case in preseason, the quarterback situation has been every bit as messy as we figured it would be, and rumors abound since before Thanksgiving that the only reason he hasn't been fired already is precedent. I suspect we'll see that one made official at roughly 4:30 p.m. Eastern time on January 9, just after they get done playing the Vikings.
Bryan: The Bears have never fired a coach midseason, as a number of people on Twitter were very happy to let us know when we picked Nagy as the first coach to lose his job this year. It may still come to pass that Nagy is the first coach actually fired (Gruden resigned, technically), because yeah, he's hanging on by the thinnest of threads of history, tradition, and not wanting to let the media win when they have reported that, shock of shock, Nagy's not a great coach. Maybe a 30-0 pasting on Sunday Night Football against the Packers might flip the needle a bit, but I think the front office has dug themselves in at this point.
Should we mention that Matt Nagy still has a winning record as a head coach? 2018 seems like so long ago now.
Andrew: That's an especially funny stat when juxtaposed with Kyle Shanahan having never had a winning record as a head coach. No doubt which of those two has the higher reputation at this point.
Bryan: I should clarify, because we'll get comments if we don't, and I do love the stat—Shanahan has never had a career winning record as a head coach, as he started 0-10 and hasn't dug himself out of the hole yet. Maybe in 2022, big guy. We'll get to you in a few sections.
But before we get there, we have to mention Joe Judge, who is just kind of flailing around aimlessly, yeah?
Andrew: Judge is the other guy who's essentially done for. Before the season, Giants co-owner John Mara was on record stating that he expected to win more games this year than last, and hoped to be a playoff team. It's still technically possible for both of those things to happen! Even if they did, I doubt many people would call it progress rather than a total fluke. The Giants are most likely to finish a very similar 6-11 or 7-10, assuming they do not in fact lose out to close the season.
Bryan: The one thing that might save Judge's job is that it feels like the Giants' ownership really wants to be right about him—Judge was kind of an odd hiring to begin with, a big swing on a special teams coordinator rather than a hot-shot offensive coordinator or a big college name. Firing him, and after only two seasons, is admitting that you made a mistake hiring him in the first place. Let's say that not every ownership situation in the league has the maturity to make that call.
Andrew: Sometimes that's a mistake that simply needs to be admitted. I don't think Judge is a terrible head coach, but I do think he has shown that he's a backward one.
Bryan: Oh, I do think he's a terrible head coach. In both his seasons now, he has fired an assistant when things have gone bad—Jason Garrett this year, Marc Columbo last year—and he seems more inclined to place the blame on others rather than take any responsibility himself for his team's performance. You don't become a good leader just because you order people to run laps.
Andrew: So what do we think about the potential vacancies? Which is the more appealing? The Bears, with Justin Fields, or the Giants, with a ton of capital to move around wherever you want in the 2022 draft?
Bryan: Oh, the Bears, easily. You have a first-round quarterback who has flashed, and you actually have cap space—the Giants are currently just $3.5 million over the projected 2022 cap and will have to make some significant cuts to be able to sign their draft class, much less any free agents. The Bears are $44 million under the cap, and while that doesn't include Allen Robinson, it's not like Robinson has exactly lit the world on fire in Chicago. Lots more freedom to work around there with a quarterback we expect to be pretty good, even without a first-round pick.
Andrew: Depending what happens with Aaron Rodgers, neither division is out of reach for the foreseeable future. I have the impression that both general managers will also get their jotters, and both ownership situations seem pretty darn favorable. It seems like in either instance, you'll get a fair crack at the job, and neither team is stuck in purgatory with a ridiculous Sam Darnold contract or something, so I think a head coach with options could do worse than either of these teams.
Bryan: We're bound to see more than three teams open up vacancies—about a quarter of the league changes coaches every season—so now we have to go hunting for more vulnerable slots.
The vibe I get out of Denver is just one of being exhausted. The Broncos aren't good enough to really compete but aren't bad enough to really ignore, and the post-Manning quarterback situation has been dire, to say the least. One of the people I follow on Twitter made a point of saying he no longer cares if the team keeps Vic Fangio, and he no longer cares if they fire Vic Fangio. Fun times being a Broncos fan! Excitement! Engagement! Ennui!
Andrew: There have been some rumblings around the Broncos about players being critical of the coaches for a perceived lack of accountability; that they hold the players to a higher standard than they hold themselves. I'm not completely sure what to make of that, other than to say it's not the kind of rumbling you want to hear in the third year of a regime, especially one that hasn't yet posted a winning record for any season.
Bryan: Fangio is certainly not the problem in Denver—unlike, say, Chicago, I don't imagine the Broncos could turn things around just by turfing the coach. They have a significant front office and general manager situation (and an ownership situation, for that matter), and it has been bad personnel choices that have really lowered Denver's ceiling. That doesn't mean that Fangio's not a problem, however, and in an offensive-focused league, the fact that Fangio can fairly reliably produce defenses that over-perform their talent/injury level isn't exactly the selling point he needs to say "no, I should be here, clear everyone else out."
Andrew: It does feel like they have dragged themselves back from the brink a bit. After opening an exciting 3-0, then dropping an alarming four straight, they have settled at the 6-6 level that I'd say has them pegged correctly. With games against the Lions and Bengals followed by a three-game divisional tour, they're on a collision course with the sort of 8-9 season that could go either way for the coaching staff. The problem is, that sets them up to be in exactly the same spot a year from now, and two years from now, ad infinitum until they make a change. Do that long enough and you become the Vikings.
Bryan: Mike Tanier keeps saying the Vikings are built for one-and-dones, both as a floor and a ceiling. And, well, he's not wrong. Even after the loss to the Lions, I fully expect the Vikings to get the seventh seed and get blown out by, oh, let's say Arizona in the wild-card round. It seems almost a fait accompli, a place of purgatory that Minnesota simply can not escape.
Andrew: As a fan of the only team the Vikings have beaten in the playoffs in the past decade, I both resent and wholeheartedly endorse Mike's opinion of them. They're a slightly above-average team who will always be a couple of lucky bounces from 11 wins and a couple of unlucky bounces (or Cameron Dantzler coverage snaps) from seven wins.
Bryan: I do feel like the loss to the Lions might be something of an inflection point, though. I mean, you lost to an 0-10-1 team. That's the kind of thing that can cost Mike Zimmer his job.
Andrew: That's exactly what I was going to say. If coaching jobs had tombstones, that's the result that would be carved into Zimmer's. It's the first time I have looked at a Vikings result and immediately thought, "yep, this is it for him." This is Year 8 of his regime. We shouldn't be talking about a 5-7 team being a couple of unlucky bounces from beating the winless Lions.
Bryan: And it's not just unlucky bounces. There were coaching mistakes in there, too: not pressuring Goff, the soft defenses on the final drive, the weird shuffling of the offensive line, et cetera. If they had lost on the back of a three-interception Kirk Cousins day or something, we'd be having a different conversation. It feels like Zimmer was outcoached by Dan Campbell and, while I do like Campbell, that's not exactly a great look.
I think Zimmer stays as head coach if the Vikings make the playoffs, though. Or at least, if they do so with a winning record; an 8-9 seventh seed maybe not quite so much.
Andrew: If he does, he does so on borrowed time, and I would fully expect to be having the same conversation about him next year. Him and Vic Fangio both. Zimmer's a good coach, and it'll be tough to find a better replacement, but he has just about run his course in Minneapolis. Fangio in Denver is in danger of becoming the exact same guy.
Bryan: Zimmer might be someone who gets fired and immediately ends up going to a terrible team in need of a reboot—someone to whom a .500 wild card-esque season would feel like a significant accomplishment.
And with that in mind…
BORN TO LOSE
Bryan: Remember when we were talking about the Giants, and how not all ownership is comfortable enough admitting when they have made a mistake? Well, Joe Judge has had at least two years to show whether or not he should be an NFL head coach. There are a couple guys out there who have shown in less than one that no, no, this was wrong, and things aren't going to get better until they're jettisoned.
Andrew: One of these two is worse than the other, but only by virtue of spectacle. Urban Meyer should have been fired weeks ago, and even with this being his first year, and all the issues with ownership, it really feels like that parting of the ways is close to inevitable. It's hard to think how this year could have gone worse. This is the worst head coach hiring since Bobby Petrino. At least Hue Jackson was just incompetent.
Bryan: I think comparing Judge and Meyer is very useful. I got on Judge's case for placing the blame on others and resorting to meaningless motivational tactics to encourage his players, but Judge's decisions have been that of a bad NFL head coach. Firing positional coaches and coordinators when their units are underperforming isn't crazy or unheard of. And if we're going to take up arms every time an NFL coach preaches toughness over sense—Take a lap! Do pushups! If you're five minutes early, you're late!—we're never going to get anywhere. Judge has made mistakes that you expect someone who's not going to turn out good to make.
But Meyer? Good lord, Meyer is making the sort of decisions that should keep you from being hired in the first place. From bringing in controversial strength coach Chris Doyle; to the Tim Tebow experiment in preseason; to violating the CBA with excessive contact in practices; to not giving Trevor Lawrence the starting job from Day 1; to being caught drinking and flirting and missing the team flight back from ballgames; to the constant, constant, constant passing of the buck on decisions regarding play calling, personnel usage, and every other aspect of game management (check the Confusing Coaching award for this week's James Robinson saga), Meyer is bumbling and stumbling his way through his NFL career in ways that go beyond parody. And he doesn't take the blame for any of it!
Andrew: On the one hand, with Lawrence and Robinson, the Jaguars should be a hot vacancy. On the other hand, nothing that franchise has done under current ownership has gone right. Sure, there was the fluke division win in 2017, but since Shahid Khan bought the team in 2011, that 10-6 season is the only time the team has avoided double-digit losses. Whereas prior to that, the team had only lost double-digit games once in seven years.
And yet, for all that, the Jaguars are not the least desirable landing spot in their own division, because good gravy, the Houston Texans.
Bryan: The Texans problems go well, well beyond David Culley; it's a team-wide culture infestation that really needs to be completely washed out and started from scratch. That being said, Culley isn't helping, and it's probably not ideal that as we were writing this on Tuesday, general manager Nick Caserio refused to comment on Culley's job status for 2022.
On the one hand, I don't know what Culley was supposed to do with this roster, and this quarterback situation, and I'm generally on board with giving coaches more than one year to try to establish something before moving on from them. But, on the other hand, I can't really tell you one decision Culley has made that is … good. Or hopeful, or positive, or pointing in the right direction, or something to build off of. Culley was a shock of a hire, and if you're going to go way, way, way outside the box like that, you have to show something pretty much right away to back that pick up. I haven't seen anything from Culley that would get me excited as a Houston Texans fan; just more flotsam and jetsam on the sorry rivers of fortune the franchise is cruising down.
Andrew: Culley is a desperately conservative head coach as a desperately conservative choice for a desperately conservative executive on behalf of a desperately conservative owner. The Texans aren't quite as bad as their record, even after a 31-0 embarrassment against the Colts, but there's no reason to believe they'll ever get better under their current leadership. They aren't loaded with young players who could gel together, like the Jaguars and Jets. They aren't looking for a star to return to form, like the Falcons. They aren't shedding dead money to make a proper go of a rebuild like the Lions. They're just existing. In a way, everything we said about the Broncos and Vikings applies here, except this is the absolute bargain-basement version of those teams.
Bryan: They're building a culture, Andrew. You have to respect the creation of a culture. You know, like some sort of fungus!
Andrew: Sure, the next fun guy you find in the Texans front office will be the one who breaks the mold.
TAKE A CHANCE ON ME
Bryan: The Jaguars and Texans aren't the only teams with first-year head coaches that have seen some grumbling this season. Brandon Staley and Nick Sirianni are doing varying degrees of fine, but Falcons, Lions, and Jets fans have all had at least some grievances to air this season. Unlike with Meyer and Culley, however, I think the trio of Arthur Smith, Dan Campbell, and Robert Saleh get, if not a mulligan, then some understanding that they took over terrible teams, and it will take time to un-terrible-fy them.
That being said, though, boy howdy did Campbell and the Lions need that win.
Andrew: You mean just from a pure morale standpoint, or do you think it has made a material difference to Campbell's prospects of remaining employed by the team in 2022? 'Cause to me, what you said about un-terrible-fying applies doubly to the Lions: this is a franchise that surveyed the state of its roster this offseason and immediately traded its best player.
Bryan: I think if the Lions had gone through the season winless, then there had to be at least a conversation about Campbell; going 0-for-anything isn't something you can just ignore. I would have been on the side of keeping him even at that point for all the reasons you have mentioned and more, but zero wins at least means you have to answer questions. With a win under his belt, it's a lot easier to go through the "this was a learning season, we kept things competitive, we have more picks now to start a full rebuild," and so on and so forth. Victory soothes a lot of anguish.
Andrew: We have mentioned before that it seems like if any coach is worth his salt, he'll show that somewhere in his debut season's results. The win over the Vikings is only one part of a picture that has seen a terrible roster play tough, competitive football, with their head coach actively embracing underdog tactics in an aggressive way to try to claw back some of the talent deficit. I really hope that continues into next season, and I'd love to see some success for Campbell.
Bryan: I think Campbell is the first coach I have seen couple an attitude of "we hafta be tough and scrappy and real men and bite kneecaps and aaargh" with actual aggressive play calling. While he hasn't been perfect, he has made a lot of positive fourth-down calls and used proper underdog strategy, one of the reason the Lions are 8-4 against the spread right now. I find that most times when coaches preach that sort of aggressiveness, they shy away from actually backing it up with their decision-making. I wouldn't go so far as to say "Dan Campbell, Friend of Analytics," but he has been far more than the caricature I thought he would be after his first press conference. I was jumping up and down when the Lions pulled off their victory, and I'm not even remotely a Detroit fan. I have bought in!
Andrew: The one of these three teams that stands out for a different reason is the Falcons. You said that all of these teams knew they'd be bad; I don't think the Falcons would have agreed with that assessment, and I still don't think they would now. And that belief would be somewhat justified, as they're currently in the wild-card hunt and second in the NFC South! That has me slightly worried for Smith, if I'm honest, because it sure looks to me like a crash is coming. We have noted already this season that their record has been built against bad teams: their wins have come against the Giants, Jets, Jaguars, Dolphins before they learned what RPOs are, and Trevor Siemian Saints. They have given up 78 points in two games against the Buccaneers, been shut out at home by the Patriots, lost 32-6 at home to the Eagles, and lost 43-3 in Dallas. Maybe it's just that when games get away from them, they really get away from them, but half of their losses have been by at least three touchdowns.
Bryan: Some of those losses came down to the Falcons just not having any offensive weapons whatsoever—when Cordarrelle Patterson was out, and with Calvin Ridley off on mental health break. And Kyle Pitts, who has been good, is still just a rookie tight end. Smith can't run his Tennessee magic without, like, players—remember, Mike Davis was supposed to be the Derrick Henry-lite stud in this offense? Yeah, no. The Falcons are in a weird position, because they were kind of half-in as contenders (extending Matt Ryan and passing on quarterbacks for a tight end in the draft), and half-out as rebuilders (a new coach, trading away Julio Jones). Maybe it just sets them up to go "no, this is fine" no matter what happens—if the Falcons flop, they go "oh, well, we knew we had some work to do, and we're happy with Smith beginning to establish his philosophy here," and if they somehow, someway keep winning despite being the worst team in football by our numbers, then they go "oh, well, we knew we were contenders, we showed you!"
Either way, Smith keeps his job.
Andrew: For this season, at least, I agree. The one other terrible team whose coach is not yet in danger is the New York Jets, because again everybody knew this season would be terrible. The Jets have won some games they had absolutely no business winning, against Tennessee and Cincinnati, and will probably improve on last season's record despite what to my mind is a worse roster. They know this isn't a quick fix, and again we'll check back in a year to see where things have gone.
Bryan: I will say that when you bring in a defensive coach such as Robert Saleh, and you end up 32nd in defensive DVOA, that's a red flag—but not a fireable one, I'd say, considering the Jets spent the bulk of their free-agent budget and draft capital trying to repair the offense, and their big defensive signing, Carl Lawson, went down for the year early. Incomplete, must improve, but he'll get another chance.
Andrew: There are two last-place teams we haven't yet mentioned in this article. One of those is Cleveland, who are not about to fire Kevin Stefanski for going .500 the year after winning a playoff game when his quarterback has been playing injured much of the year. The other is more interesting, because I get the very strong impression (as we'll also note in the awards) that, if not necessarily time, at least goodwill is running out for Pete Carroll in Seattle. The Seahawks were one of the most dominant teams in the sport in the early-to-middle part of last decade, but there have been all manner of grumblings since then culminating in a reported trade standoff between the team and star quarterback Russell Wilson this summer. Now, Wilson has been hurt, and the team is in danger of finishing last in the NFC West for the first time since the division existed in its present form.
Bryan: Carroll will not be fired, of course, but he may be kindly and forcefully pushed to retirement—a franchise legend now past his expiry date. It just seems like the Seahawks are in a position where they need to rebuild, and it's time to move away from a coach whose best days are behind him. His coaching hires haven't worked out, especially at offensive coordinator, and his defensive identity has slowly drained away as the Legion of Boom's final reverberations have subsided. At this point, what Carroll still does well is the enthusiasm, and the rah-rah inspiration stuff, and getting people to show up on a Wednesday morning eager to work. Gameday coaching has never been his strong suit, and we're at the point where enthusiasm and eagerness aren't enough anymore.
Andrew: I don't think they need to rebuild, per se. They still have Wilson, which alongside Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf gives them the firepower to compete right away. They do, however, appear to need a fresh approach, both to roster construction and game strategy. The run game hasn't been their strong suit since Marshawn Lynch left town, and Derrick Henry is the only player remotely comparable to Lynch in the league right now.
Bryan: Maybe not a full rebuild, but the offensive line, secondary, and linebacker corps all need a significant refresh. And they need a third offensive weapon behind Lockett and Metcalf, be it a slot receiver, tight end, or yes, running back. And they need to keep Wilson happy, which … well, we'll see about that.
Andrew: Right. A "refresh" is the word I'd use. They should have a few years left to compete with their current quarterback, so they need to put their effort into making that happen in a realistic way.
No, that does not mean trading multiple first-round picks for a safety.
Bryan: We're in the "laughing at Seattle" phase of the Jamal Adams trade which, if you remember from our Over/Unders a few years ago, came right after the "the Seahawks got Jamal Adams? Oh sh…" phase.
Andrew: I do wonder whether Carroll gets one more year at this, which is why we don't have this potential vacancy higher up the list. If they had lost to the 49ers, then I think he would be done for. Now, with a run-in that includes the Texans, Bears, and Lions, a seven-win season with a month of Geno Smith and four wins in the last six games might be just enough to persuade them to run it back one more time.
Bryan: Let me put it this way: I am a 49ers fan, and I want the Seahawks to keep Pete Carroll one more year (and trade Russell Wilson to get a first-round pick back). If your rivals think you should do something, you probably shouldn't do it.
Andrew: The other team that is not technically last, but is tied for last in its division, is one we already mentioned in the introduction. The Carolina Panthers fired their offensive coordinator six months after replacing Teddy Bridgewater with Sam Darnold. There might be no more unjust firing in the annals of NFL history.
Bryan: I do not understand firing Joe Brady on the bye week. He's going to get another offensive coordinator job, at the very least, right away, and I'd put far more of the blame on the Panthers' offensive struggles this season on the quarterback room and Christian McCaffrey's injuries than I would on the guy who was getting head coaching calls last year. It seems like a move Matt Rhule has made to show that he's Doing Something About This, and getting ahead of potential calls for the axe.
Andrew: Which I find a little weird, because although I called the Darnold trade potentially legacy-defining in last summer's Almanac, I didn't get the impression that people were calling for Rhule's job just yet. When he was hired, there was a recognition that the franchise needed a refresh, that this was a project, and that it wasn't an instant fix. He has done a good job assembling a defense, there has been obvious progress in terms of talent and average age on the roster. As much as I like Teddy Bridgewater, he was more of a stopgap solution than The Answer at quarterback. So I get rolling the dice; I just don't get rolling the dice on Sam Darnold specifically. Rhule's seat may be getting warm, but I suspect he gets another season to take a swing at the solution.
Bryan: Mike Florio has suggested that Brady is just the "opening salvo," with Rhule next on the block. I'm not sure I believe that, but, I mean, the guy's 10-18 and has bungled the quarterback situation very, very badly. He could have stuck with Teddy Bridgewater; he could have drafted Justin Fields or Mac Jones. The Darnold trade is, like you said, legacy-defining, and David Tepper may not be patient enough to let the legacy fully unfold.
Andrew: If that's the case, then some new hire is going to get a very exciting roster, albeit one missing that one vital ingredient that pulls everything together. Which could make this offseason's potential quarterback carousel very interesting indeed.
DID YOU NO WRONG
Andrew: We finish up with a handful of teams whose coaches had been mentioned in certain circles as having slightly warm seats earlier in the year, but whose firings we consider pretty darned unlikely at this point.
Bryan: Seats that were hot in October and not so much in December as things have unfolded, in most cases; patience is not always a virtue shown by the Twitteratti, for better or worse.
Might as well start with my team, I suppose. Calls for Kyle Shanahan's replacement grew loud after a four-game losing streak knocked the 49ers to 2-4, and the confusion on what the heck was going on with Trey Lance (and, to a lesser extent, Aaron Banks and Trey Sermon and Ambry Thomas) bringing justified criticism as to his personnel decisions. As for DVOA, well, it had the 49ers in or near the top 10 the entire time, so the underlying performance was better than the record showed, but four-game losing streaks in the first season without an obvious excuse for them do rile up the faithful.
Andrew: Shanahan's my version of your Gruden pick, insofar as I view him as being a little closer to the hot seat than the general public does. There's no doubt that he's a brilliant offensive mind, but at some point being a brilliant offensive mind has to translate into wins, and losing three of his last five games (which includes the Bengals, Titans, and Rams) would give him his fourth losing season in five years as a head coach.
Bryan: I will point out that the 49ers went to the Super Bowl two years ago and are in great position to make the playoffs again this year, all with a quarterback who is considered bad enough that the team has already acquired his replacement. And they're fourth in offensive DVOA, meaning that Shanahan has had a top-five offensive DVOA in the two seasons where he has had a healthy starting quarterback.
Andrew: That's true, and I'm certainly not calling for his firing, but there's a little bit of the Mike Zimmer: Offense Edition sneaking into his record.
Bryan: I think the better comparison is Norv Turner. Turner was always lauded for his offensive play calling and often had his teams in contention, especially in San Diego where he had firepower to work with. And yet, despite that, Turner never had a career winning record as a head coach; 237 games without reaching .500, 100 more than the next-closest candidate (John McKay at 133, or Tom Landry, who finally hit .500 after 137, depending on how you want to call this). Shanahan is at 76 games and counting and cannot get his career record over .500 in 2021, so he's quickly climbing that particular leaderboard.
Andrew: That said, absent a shocking 1-4 or 0-5 run-in, I think Shanahan's job is solid heading into the offseason. It's next year, with Lance, that will define him. Flame out, and he's out.
Bryan: I think I agree—this year's struggles were more about eating up the long, long rope he has been given (and deservedly so, considering the state of the team when he took over, his reputation coming in, and the success he has had when things have gone well). Without that extra slack, well, we'll see what happens.
Andrew: As for Mike Tomlin, anybody who was suggesting that a coach of Tomlin's record and pedigree -- with multiple Super Bowl appearances, just a year off a division win, and having never had a losing record as a head coach -- was close to being fired is delusional. Everybody who has watched more than two drives of the Steelers this season knows Ben Roethlisberger is cooked. Anybody who watched the Lions game knows Mason Rudolph never even thawed out. Two wins in the last five games and Tomlin again avoids a losing season despite all that.
Next season might be different, because the Steelers need a quarterback who can step in immediately or they're going to have a problem, but Tomlin is surely about as safe as safe gets for this winter.
Bryan: I'm rooting for Russell Wilson to end up in Pittsburgh for both selfish and non-selfish reasons. But you're right, Tomlin isn't, and shouldn't be, going anywhere—at least, not until whatever post-Roethlisberger plans end up falling through.
Andrew: The final guy on our list has the most Jekyll-and-Hyde team in the league this year. Everything looked rosy in Week 1 when the Dolphins beat the Patriots in Foxboro, only for them to go into a seven-game losing skid that looked like it would get everybody fired. Now, they're on a five-game winning streak with the Jets and quarterback-less Saints to come. Miami could very easily go straight from 1-7 to 8-7, which even if they fell to 8-9 would surely preserve Brian Flores for one more year.
Bryan: The Dolphins were an eight-win team disguised as a 10-6 team last season. It'd be kind of hilarious if they end up as an eight-win team again after being disguised as a 1-7 team earlier in the year. But you're right: the winning streak seems more than enough to save Flores' job, especially because the defensive side of the ball is the one doing well. They have long-term issues at quarterback (Tua Tagovailoa does RPOs really well, and might eventually learn to do a second thing?), but when your bounceback is spurred by the stuff you're supposed to be the expert in, that helps with job security.
Andrew: I do see the Dolphins as a team with a lot of questions that need answered this offseason, but I think Flores both merits and gets one more shot at providing those answers. Like with these other guys, as long as they don't tank the final month, the head coach should be safe.
Andrew: So in summary, out of 14 potential vacancies, we know for sure the Raiders will be hunting for a head coach. We believe the Bears, Giants, Jaguars, and Texans will join them in the hunt, and that the Vikings, Broncos, Seahawks, and Panthers jobs might also come open.
Bryan: I think it might be better to phrase that as teams that "should" join them in the hunt, because I have very little faith in Jacksonville or Houston doing the right thing, but otherwise, yeah, I think that about covers our opinions.
Andrew: The clear best job on that list is the Seahawks, right, just because you have Wilson and those receivers? Is there another you'd prefer? The Vikings have a pretty strong overall roster, and you could do a lot worse than the Raiders.
Bryan: Assuming you have Wilson, then I think you're right, but that is an assumption, and there's the little matter of the lack of first-round draft pick that might give some people pause. But I would also assume that if the Seahawks get rid of Carroll, they'll be sure to ask their superstar passer for his input on the coaching search, so I'd put Seahawks first and Vikings second if those jobs both pop open. Of the five jobs we're more sure about, I'd be torn between the Bears and Raiders, probably siding with Las Vegas based on overall talent level.
Andrew: Meanwhile, on the flip side of that, there's a reason we'd be talking about the second Texans or Jaguars coaching search in as many offseasons, and that reason is not ownership taking ownership of their mistakes.
Bryan: I'd still rather take the job in Jacksonville. I can't stand the taste of Kool-Aid.
Keep Choppin' Wood
At first glance, Gerald Everett's receiving statline of 4-of-6 for 7 yards against the 49ers looks bad, but just regular conservative Seahawks bad, not potential era-defining cataclysm bad. However, Everett not only gained just 7 yards on his six targets, he also fumbled one of them away in the first half to set up a 49ers touchdown drive, tipped one of the incompletions into the hands of K'Waun Williams for a goal-line interception, then fumbled another away in the fourth quarter, setting up San Francisco's ultimately-failed final drive. Without Everett, Seattle might have won that game handily. With him, they needed a goal-line pass deflection by Carlos Dunlap to see it out. A loss would have meant even more pressure on Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, whose goodwill from the successes of the mid-2010s appears to be running out. The win just about keeps the Carroll era alive, at least for another few weeks.
John Fox Award for Conservatism
Joe Judge 's fourth-down decisions against the Dolphins would have provided justification enough for this award by themselves, as he called for punts in the following situations:
- Fourth-and-3 from the opposition 47-yard line, tied 0-0 in the first quarter.
- Fourth-and-4 from his own 48-yard line, tied 3-3 in the second quarter.
- Fourth-and-2 from the opposition 46-yard line, trailing 10-6 in the third quarter.
Judge also called for a 51-yard field goal on fourth-and-8, trailing 17-6 with 5:04 remaining, though the 17-6 score does at least make that decision notionally justifiable. However, it's this justification for the punts on fourth-and-short in opposition territory that elevates Judge into all-time territory:
"We're executing for 60 minutes to try and win. We felt it was necessary to try and get Riley (Dixon) involved early, as we knew he was gonna be big for us this week."
— Wesley Steinberg (@WesSteinberg) December 6, 2021
Yes, that was a top-level professional football coach, playing against an opponent with a losing record, speaking of the need to get his punter involved early. Good job, coach. How did that work out for you?
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game
There are two plays we need to highlight from the end of the Ravens-Steelers clash on Sunday afternoon. The first is obvious: following a touchdown to make the score 20-19, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh made the bold decision to attempt what would probably have been a game-winning two-point conversion rather than kick for a tie. He explained afterwards that he took the decision as the team was out of cornerbacks due to injuries, so he felt better about their chances of winning on the two-point conversion than in overtime. We salute him for that.
However, overlooked in the end-game sequence is a clever moment of subtle situational awareness from Harbaugh. With Pittsburgh driving for the lead, a Benny Snell run brought up second-and-2 from the Ravens' 13-yard line. That is an extremely favorable down-and-distance for Pittsburgh, and would likely have resulted in either one or two rushing attempts to bleed more clock before trying for a touchdown (or possibly even a field goal) with as little time remaining as possible. Instead, Harbaugh had defensive lineman Chuck Clark jump offside and give the Steelers the first down, thereby guaranteeing (correctly assuming the penalty would be accepted) that Pittsburgh's drive would end with at least a minute remaining. So it proved; even scoring a touchdown on third down, the Steelers left the Ravens 1:48 to mount a touchdown drive of their own. Giving opponents a free first down is not usually smart football, but in this specific situation it was absolutely the right call, and smart use of the rulebook is a hallmark of Harbaugh's successful tenure in Baltimore.
Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching
Heard of "The buck stops here?" Urban Meyer hasn't. His usage of his running backs against the Rams was confusing, to say the least—James Robinson was benched for three drives after a fumble, but Carlos Hyde didn't get the same treatment after his fumble, for example. Robinson was also coming into the game banged up, and yet was still getting carries in the final two minutes with the Jags trailing 37-7. Now, maybe that's just regular "we're bad and don't know what we're doing" coaching, but it's worth questioning, and ESPN's Michael DiRocco brought it up on Monday, asking Meyer what was going on. Meyer responded that it was a good question, and that it didn't seem wise for Robinson to still be in the game, but running back coach Bernie Parmalee had a rotation going and "must have wanted to get Robinson a few more carries" at that point. Urban. You are the head coach. Any decision your staff makes is a decision on your shoulders. Throwing them under the bus like that—and this isn't the first time Meyer has done that this season—is a really bad look. What, exactly, does Meyer do here?
Jags RB James Robinson reacts to being benched after a second straight week with a fumble during his weekly appearance on @ActionSportsJax Jags Report Live. Watch the full video here (https://t.co/zje4Od0Ovy) for more thoughts on if he's getting the ball enough... #ASJax pic.twitter.com/pGiB6iu6AV
— BrentDanStuartMarcelAlivia (@ActionSportsJax) December 7, 2021
'It's a FAAAAAAAKE!' Fantasy Player of the Week
I mean, I'm not even mad, Travis Homer. You may not have done anything else all game long, but a 73-yard fake punt touchdown is one for the career highlight reel. And, hey, Pete Carroll finally got his ground game going!
— NFL (@NFL) December 5, 2021
Garbage Time Performer of the Week
I almost don't want to highlight Deonte Harris, considering he's now on three-week suspension stemming from a DUI from before the season started. But a 70-yard touchdown in the closing minutes of the Saints' loss to the Cowboys is up there with the least relevant scores of the season, and it was a heck of a weave through, let's say, indifferent Dallas traffic, so it gets the nod.
Deonte Harris runs it in for the touchdown 😤💨
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) December 3, 2021
Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week
The first home shutout in franchise history was the final nail in the already tightly sealed coffin of the 2021 Houston Texans, making them the first team eliminated from the postseason even ahead of the 1-11-1 Detroit Lions. Houston's season has been a disaster from the very start of the league year in March, from the Deshaun Watson situation to the random benchings of veteran starters for unspecified breaches of team rules to the injuries and trades that have depleted an already threadbare roster. The Texans have the fewest estimated wins of any team and rank 31st in both total and weighted DVOA. However, they do at least have the No. 10 DVOA defense, which is by a small margin the best defensive DVOA in the AFC South. If only they had anything else at all of promise.
Game-Changing Play of the Week
We covered the Ravens' two-point conversion above, so we'll go elsewhere here. And, honestly, we might have picked the Bengals-Chargers game regardless, considering how Cincinnati stormed back so much from a 24-0 deficit. They had scored 22 points in a row, as a matter of fact, and looked like they were well on their way to completing the comeback and sealing the win, with Joe Mixon running in Los Angeles territory…
— NFL (@NFL) December 5, 2021
Any scoop-and-score is going to be costly, but one when you're in position for a go-ahead field goal in the fourth quarter in a game with significant wild-card ramifications? That hurts. That hurts a lot. We don't like to use the M-word around here, but if momentum ever were a measurable thing, this is the point where it flipped; by the time the Bengals next gained a yard, they had gone from down 24-22 to down 38-22, and the game was essentially over. And to add insult to injury, Mixon had been the leader in rushing attempts without a fumble coming into the game. Just some terrible, terrible luck there that turned a tight game into an easy Chargers win.
Flip the result, and the 8-4 Bengals would be the second seed at the moment with the tiebreaker over the Ravens because of their Week 7 win. The Chargers would be out of playoff position, atop the 6-6 pile but behind the 6-5-1 Steelers for the all-important seventh seed. Instead, both are sitting in wild-card slots, with the Bengals facing a mighty tough slate to finish the season.
Records to Date:
Andrew: We're one week away from making it official that you would have won more betting against our picks than by betting with us. I feel like our double survival picks have been quite reasonable, allowing for the sheer randomness of a couple of weeks midseason, but I'm all out of ideas for how to break my malaise against the spread. I guess I'll look at the effect T.J. Watt has on the Pittsburgh defense, pit them against a quarterback who doesn't generally handle pressure well, and hope the Steelers keep things tight against a Vikings squad that lost the game, their second-best receiver, and their pride against the Lions. The Steelers can reinforce their playoff credentials in this one; the Vikings should have been automatically disqualified last weekend. Pittsburgh (+3) at Minnesota.
Bryan: I'm very tempted to go the other way, just because I think the Vikings will win that one and it would put one of us ahead of the other in the contest. Instead, I'll go with Carolina (-3) hosting the Falcons. The Panthers are in a bit of a state—coming off of their worst offensive performance of the year, without Christian McCaffrey, and now with a fired offensive coordinator. They're also coming off of a bye week, however, and the Falcons? The Falcons are terrible. I'll take a one-week "coach fired" bump to get the Panthers over the hump.
Double Survival League
Records to Date:
Andrew: DAL, JAX, LAC, MIA, NO, NYJ, SEA, TEN
Bryan: ATL, BUF, CAR, CHI, NYJ, PHI, SF, TEN
Andrew: Alright, we're down to the last handful of teams, so it's time to use those favorites in their favorable games. I lack confidence in the Tennessee Titans without A.J. Brown, but the return of Julio Jones makes me optimistic that they'll handle business against the Jaguars in what I'd guess is our simultaneous possession pick for this week.
Bryan already claimed the Dallas Cowboys earlier in the year, so I'll grab them on a long week of rest following their victory over the Saints last Thursday night. Washington is coming off an encouraging win against the Raiders, but the Cowboys should have more than enough to seal their place atop the NFC East as they begin their four-game tour of the division.
Bryan: Immutable Scramble Law strikes its head once again—I, too, am taking the Tennessee Titans, even as we're approaching a point where I'd better start making different picks to try to pass you. I really only see two more games on their schedule where I'd feel remotely comfortable picking them (remembering that we can't use Week 18 and the Houston game), so it's Jaguars this week or Dolphins in Week 17, and I don't think I can afford to use one of those Week 17 slots on the Titans over a suddenly warm Miami team.
I am not overly enthused by my second pick, the Carolina Panthers, considering they just fired their offensive coordinator, have lost their best player for the season, and are coming off of a nightmare of an offensive performance. They are also, however, coming off of a bye week, where maybe they could get rekafoobled a bit in time for them to face the Atlanta Falcons, who, to the best of my knowledge, are Not Very Good. This is also, frankly, my last chance to pick Carolina—the other choices I have are Buffalo, Tampa Bay, and New Orleans, which are nope, nope, and ugh, if I absolutely had to, respectively. The Panthers beat the Falcons without Christian McCaffrey earlier this year, and I suspect they'll be able to do it again.