by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter
Bryan: Welcome back to Scramble for the Ball! Well, welcome back to all of you except Mike McCarthy, who was sent packing this week after the Packers' loss to the Cardinals. McCarthy is only the second Super Bowl-winning coach to be fired midseason, joining Don McCafferty. A very exclusive club.
Andrew: Sent packing? Unpacked? Packed off? Packing for the Crash?
Bryan: Packed away, without even getting the customary 21-brat salute or being drizzled in melted cheese. I assume that's how Green Bay salutes leaving legends, at least.
Andrew: McCarthy's interesting to me, as a guy who was hired as the head coach of an esteemed franchise the year after he coordinated the worst offense in recent league history, took that franchise from 4-12 to 13-3 within two seasons, and won them a Super Bowl, but still probably left fans with a prevailing feeling of underachievement. In the end, it sounds like he contributed largely to his own downfall, yet he will have no trouble being hired again in time to coach next season. His legacy and record are quite multi-layered, and don't really fit neatly into the usual talking-head brackets of "hard to work with" or "playoff underachiever" or whatever trite label sports talk radio listeners understand.
Bryan: It does amaze me that the architect of the 2005 49ers offense went on to have a very successful career as a head coach. He has more wins as with the Packers than Vince Lombardi did! No one would ever make the claim that McCarthy belongs within 100 feet of Lombardi, but to have that sort of extended level of success with one franchise is something very, very few coaches in NFL history can claim. He's probably a lock for the Packers Hall of Fame one day, when the bad memories of these last two seasons have faded away.
The best-case scenario for McCarthy is probably an Andy Reid-like revival somewhere else, with a change of scenery really helping out. But a) Reid was better than McCarthy before the change of scenery, b) Reid's departure also coincided with him stepping down from a personnel management role, allowing him to focus on just coaching, and c) Reid's last season in Philadelphia was besought by a personal tragedy, meaning that a change of scenery was good for him for reasons other than just football. McCarthy just ... coached badly. Not quite the same.
Andrew: Reid also had and has maintained a reputation as an innovative and adaptable offensive mind, capable of getting shockingly good performance out of questionable talent. He is always looking to learn and integrate and tinker to fashion something diverse and creative from the pieces available, as reflected in the performance of the Chiefs both last season and this.
The same is, charitably, not being written about Señor McCarthy.
Bryan: And so, McCarthy hits the unemployment line, where he has not likely to stay for too long. The hot seat is a-buzzin', and the good ol' coaching carousel is creaking into operation yet again. It's somewhat surprising that we have already had two in-season firings -- McCarthy joins Hue Jackson as coaches given their walking papers so far this year -- but we're likely to have four or five more a couple seconds after the season comes to a close. Someone is going to give McCarthy a second look, somewhere. Or, at least, that seems more likely than Hue getting a third job.
Andrew: Hue's chances of a third job probably depend on how much influence Marvin Lewis has over the choice of his successor when he finally "moves upstairs" in the Bengals franchise hierarchy, but that's another story.
Rumors already abound that McCarthy has been lined up as the successor to ol' Hue in Cleveland, but nothing is set in stone at this point. This seems like a good opportunity to look at the potential upcoming vacancies. If you were Mike McCarthy, which job would you want most?
Cleveland Browns (Gregg Williams, interim)
Bryan We know that the Cleveland job will be open -- I mean, they can't bring back Williams full-time, can they? He's got 27 other full-time coaching jobs to worry about, after all
Andrew: I'm still recovering from the shock that they finally replaced Hue Jackson. It only took a year or so longer than it should have. Cleveland is, to my untrained eye, by far the most appealing of the potential vacancies. It's not even close. Baker Mayfield looks every inch a franchise quarterback in his rookie year, and the amount of young talent around him is frightening. Two teams in the division are likely to replace head coaches soon, and the other has a soon-to-be 37-year-old quarterback who has taken an absolute pounding throughout his career. Also, any kind of winning in Cleveland will be considered a success there -- they haven't had a 10-win season in over a decade. If I'm looking for a situation that is set up for success in the very near future, Cleveland has everything I'd want.
Bryan: I think it's a bit closer than you're making it out to be, but I agree in general: Cleveland is the place to be. In addition to the best young quarterback of any of the potential vacancies (Aaron Rodgers still takes the crown for 2019, but what about 2022?) and the most young talent around, they also still have tons of cap space to work with! The Browns are $87 million under the cap for 2019, fourth-most in the league. Cleveland could actually become an exciting destination for free agents to go to, if they get a young, innovative coach in there. When was the last time we could say that? Never? I think it was "never."
On the downside, you have to deal with an ownership that seems chronically incapable of picking a plan and sticking to it; that's no good. Their talent is also young, which means it's not really fully polished yet; I don't think Cleveland will be a Super Bowl contender or anything in the next year or two. Then again, go 8-8 in Cleveland and you're proclaimed a conquering hero. It's the job I'd want, at least.
Andrew: I'd be confident in staving off ownership long enough to build a solid resume, because my guess is that ownership will relax a bit when the wins start coming. Most coaches will believe that they can generate the wins with that roster, so the fear of firing will be lower than it has been in the past.
Green Bay Packers (Joe Philbin, Interim)
Andrew: Clearly, this won't be the stop for McCarthy, but as the other open vacancy we ought to give it a look. This, to me, has a lot of the opposite feel to Cleveland: a patient ownership and a franchise that values stability, but outside of the aging quarterback they don't really appear that talented. That's not to say that they don't have any good players, of course they do, but they don't exactly look stacked either.
Bryan: The Packers are 10th in DVOA this year, despite their record -- they have talent, and it's showing up on the field; it has been the coaching that's been the issue. The main problem is, that talent is old, and there's not a lot in the cupboard to replace it. We ranked the Packers 25th in our under-25 rankings to start the season; not the worst for any potential openings, but not great.
Andrew: I don't know. The defense is 23rd in DVOA, even with Mike Pettine (whom I rate very highly) as the coordinator. The offense is seventh, but with Rodgers as the quarterback that should really be the floor of offensive performance. The run game is going well, despite the inexplicable carry distributions, because the offensive line is good, but the receiving corps and offensive scheme need a lot of TLC. That's where your young, offensive-minded coach comes in.
Bryan: I'm just saying, it's not like Green Bay is full of scrubs. And really, the opportunity to coach Aaron Rodgers is a heck of a draw -- no other potential opening can boast a quarterback that good, that proven, and ready to win. Even in a down year, where he has been playing through an injury, he has still been a top-10 quarterback in DYAR and DVOA. A healthy Rodgers is a hell of a selling point, even if it means our New Head Coach is probably likely to get less credit for Green Bay's success than the next coach in Cleveland.
Andrew: I think I'd call this more of an intriguing vacancy than a compelling one. I mentioned a young, offensive-minded coach above, but I would guess that the Packers will go for an older name outside the pool of "hot" candidates -- possibly a veteran NFL coach, possibly a veteran college coach. I've seen Jeff Tedford's name mentioned, and that is an intriguing prospect. The Hall of Fame quarterback means they're set up in the short term, but there's quite a lot of work to do around him.
Bryan: I'd call this the second-best vacancy, and not just because there are currently only two vacancies. Give me Rodgers, and I'm going to look better than I am for a significant chunk of time. It sure went well for McCarthy for over a decade! Just ... be aware that it's very much a "win now" sort of situation, because when Rodgers eventually goes, this will have to be a pretty complete rebuild. Start putting together the eventual refurbishment now to soften that eventual blow.
New York Jets (Todd Bowles)
Andrew: Rumors have been swirling about Bowles since really the 2017 offseason, but it looks like the Jets will finally move on this coming January. I don't necessarily think Bowles has done a terrible job in the circumstances -- the Jets were bad before he got there, and a lot of the issues during his time originated with the previous regime -- but it's hard to escape some of the ugly results. That 41-10 loss to the Bills is a heck of a welt.
Bryan: Three losing seasons in a row is hard for any coach to bounce back from, regardless of the circumstances. Teams expect results faster than that, and for good reason. The 10-6 season from 2015 seems so, so long ago now. If anything, that harmed Bowles' long-term prospects, because they Jets went "ooh, we can win now!" and didn't really deal with any of the underlying issues that predated Bowles' arrival.
If there's one thing the Jets have going for them, it's cap space, and lots of it. The Jets are currently nearly $110 million under the cap for 2019, and while they have a lot of pending free agents, only Quincy Enunwa is really a player they have to re-sign. That gives the next head coach a lot of freedom to rebuild the team; there are plenty of resources available to work with. This is useful, because the Jets are really, really bad.
Andrew: As in, losing 41-10 at home to the Bills BAD. As in, how many players from their roster would you look to build around? Sure, there's Leonard Williams and Jamal Adams, but a five-technique end and a strong safety aren't exactly the key components of a rebuilding plan. The Jets have some good players, but most of them play positions that just aren't all that important in the modern game.
Bryan: The next head coach better also really like Sam Darnold. That's the problem with taking over a team after they've drafted their potential quarterback of the future -- you're saddling yourself to an unproven commodity. Darnold is third-to-last in both DYAR and DVOA, and he was the second-worst first-round quarterback in our QBASE projections back before the draft, just beating out Josh Allen. One bad season does not a bust make, but it hasn't been the sort of year that makes potential head coaches line up to sign up.
Andrew: In their favor: no team in that division is set for the long term at quarterback. Tom Brady, you might have heard, is kinda getting on a bit. Ryan Tannehill has been a question mark for about as long as he has been a quarterback, and the Allen Cannon is about as accurate as the average trebuchet, albeit considerably more mobile. There are questions around two of the head coaches too, and 66-year-old Bill Belichick might be thinking about his own long-term future.
Bryan: Yeah, I don't think this is a bad opening per se; it's probably in the upper half of potential openings for 2019. You don't have to go draft a quarterback, you do have all that cap space to work with, and at some point, Brady's going to retire. Right? We're pretty sure that's a thing? Like, 80 percent confident?
There are other jobs I'd rather have, but they might not actually come open. The Jets' job seems pretty likely to be available, and if Green Bay and Cleveland won't return my calls, heading to New York may not be that bad of a backup option.
Arizona Cardinals (Steve Wilks)
Andrew: If we're looking for a somewhat less appealing potential vacancy, this is it. Remember back in Week 1, when we discussed the new head coaches? I thought the Cardinals would be bad. Like, really really bad. One win in their first 12 games bad. (They actually got three, including two against the 49ers after Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL.) In fact, that is precisely what they are. Still, I didn't think that level of bad would have a first-year coach in danger of losing his job. I'm not really sure what ownership should have expected from this year. This roster is very poor, in a division with two of the top ten teams in the league by DVOA. The 3-9 record probably flatters the Cardinals, but I don't see how they could have expected much better than that before the season.
Bryan: Honestly, the win over the Packers might have saved Wilks' job, making it something of a head-coaching elimination match. That's something Wilks can point to as evidence that things are going to be fine in the long term. He needed one of those, because there's, uh, not much evidence of that anywhere else.
The Cardinals are old and bad, and that's pretty much the worst combination you can have. They had the eighth-oldest opening day roster, and I imagine it'll be something close to that when we calculate snap-weighted ages at the end of the year. They're likely to have the worst DVOA of any potential job opening -- they're in last place now, and I doubt the 49ers or Raiders will make a move this season. Their young talent is basically three names: Haason Reddick, Budda Baker, and Josh Rosen, and Rosen's dead-last in our quarterback rankings so far this season. I have more faith in Rosen in the long term than Darnold, but Darnold has had the better results this year. True, $77 million in cap room is a nice thing to have, as is not having to draft a quarterback first thing, but that's kind of all Arizona has going for it if the job does become open.
Andrew: There are a couple of other building blocks, at least. Patrick Peterson is still here, though perhaps not for much longer if trade deadline rumors are any indication. David Johnson is still around, if you can find a coach who remembers he exists, and Christian Kirk is their leading receiver, though Larry Fitzgerald will probably overtake him now that Kirk is on injured reserve. Add in Ricky Seals-Jones and you might have a respectable stable of pass targets. The problem is the line is an absolute disaster, and a young quarterback behind a disastrous line is how you end up with the worst offense in the league.
Bryan: It's not the worst spot to end up in, I'd say, but it's trending that way. I do think Wilks keeps his job this year, though, so I suppose it's his mess to clean up.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Dirk Koetter)
Andrew: The one other possibility that has been discussed as a near-certainty this offseason is Tampa Bay. Dirk Koetter has been in charge for three years, and the Buccaneers are in a worse spot now than they were when he displaced Lovie Smith. None of that is necessarily the fault of Koetter, but he hasn't exactly done much to elevate the roster either. A tough division hasn't helped, and we could probably be here all day analyzing the quarterback situation, but the general consensus seems to be that Koetter will be replaced for 2019.
Bryan: The decision on what to do with Jameis Winston is priority one, two, and three for whomever Tampa Bay's coach will be in 2019, but it's far from the only problem they've got. They're tight against the salary cap with only 39 players under contract for next season; the only team with a tighter salary cap situation and fewer players locked up is the Saints. The defense is abysmal and the special teams aren't that far behind. If there's any bright side, it's the amount of young potential the Buccaneers have, especially on offense. Chris Godwin and O.J. Howard are both under 25, with Mike Evans being the old man at 26. Kwon Alexander made the Pro Bowl last season too, and I think last year's rookie class will continue to develop well. But man, are there a lot of issues Tampa Bay needs to solve, and not a lot of obvious solutions to them. I'd much rather be in New York, even with the brighter spotlight.
Andrew: The other glaring problem for the Buccaneers is the division. The NFC South might be the toughest division in the sport, with three teams that have established franchise quarterbacks and heaps of talent around them. Even if you had a high opinion of Jameis Winston and thought you could put in an offense to maximize his potential, you aren't likely to turn him into Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, or Cam Newton in one offseason.
I like the young talent on the Buccaneers. I've thought since the day he was drafted that Chris Godwin was a perfect fit for what they do. I've never quite understood the DeSean Jackson signing, but a trade might be able to free up the cap space to let them keep the better-suited Adam Humphries. The defensive backs are young and have flashed potential, and the defensive line has improved drastically with this season's additions, so there's enough here to work with. I don't understand why some of the staff are currently in place -- several of these units should be better than they are -- but there's a lot of potential here. It's just an awkward spot because the other teams are already ahead of Tampa Bay on the curve, so the margin for error is practically nonexistent.
Bryan: The best way to free up cap space, honestly, is to let Winston go -- and then you're starting all over at quarterback, with a draft pick in the back half of the top ten.
Andrew: I'd probably be willing to do that -- let Winston go and roll with Ryan Fitzpatrick -- if I had to, but I'd also consider trying to bring in a couple of veterans and let them hash it out for the first year while I churn the bottom of the roster. If I'm stuck between Tyrod Taylor and Fitzpatrick for a year, so be it. I do think Winston is good enough to win with, but he's not reliable enough to justify a $20 million fifth-year option.
Bryan: And yet, the Buccaneers probably have the best quarterback situation in Florida. This is not exactly an endorsement of Florida football.
There are building blocks here, like you point out -- the young talent might only be beaten by Cleveland when it comes to potential job openings in 2019. I just think the Winston issue, the related salary cap squeeze, and the general state of the defense is enough to make this the worst of the jobs we've discussed so far -- or maybe tied for worst with the Cardinals.
Andrew: I still think I'd prefer it to the Cardinals overall, and to the Jets if everything else were equal. It's just that everything else in the NFC South is not nearly equal to the AFC East.
Florida Football (Adam Gase and Doug Marrone)
Bryan: Both of the other two Florida teams have had at least some rumors of firing their head coach, and they each make Tampa Bay look like an exciting and happening destination by comparison.
Andrew: I would be stunned if the Jaguars fire Doug Marrone less than a year after making the AFC Championship Game. And affronted, frankly. This is a team that kept Gus Bradley on through almost four full seasons of five or fewer wins.
Bryan: Well, they've already fired Nathaniel Hackett, and defensive coordinator Todd Wash also appears to be on the hot seat per the Florida Times-Union, so I wouldn't call anyone safe in Jacksonville.
Andrew: My guess there, now that the dust has settled some, is that Hackett was cleared out specifically to make way for Scott Milanovich. Todd Wash would be less of a surprise, because he seems unable to sustain the performance of the defense as soon as even one of the top players is out of the lineup. The defensive excellence looks far more like the talent outperforming the coaching than the coaching elevating the talent. It also sounds like general manager Dave Caldwell is in line to be replaced this offseason, which is the unfortunate consequence of the way he has handled the quarterback position. Marrone should be safe for another year, though he will be under a lot of pressure to get results in 2019.
If Marrone is replaced, I do not envy the next man to take the reins, because that will mean that the ownership is thinking Super Bowl or bust. Without a franchise quarterback, that is a very tough ask.
Bryan: The Blake Bortles situation is terrible for the team, and a huge lead weight. Keeping him on the roster in 2019 costs $21 million against the salary cap. Cutting him gives you $16.5 million in dead money. Cutting him with a post-June 1 still leaves $11.5 million in dead money. And they're already over the salary cap for 2019! Financially, you can't afford to cut him. From a fan enthusiasm point of view, you can't afford to keep him. That extension was a tremendous mistake, based on ... well, hope, mostly. He managed to hit league-average DVOA last season, and the Jaguars thought that one data point indicated a trend. A potentially crippling decision.
Andrew: The biggest issue there is the quarterbacks they don't have because they invested so much in Bortles. The Jaguars passed on Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson, to name but two, in order to keep Bortles. Jackson is no sure thing, but the difference between Jackson at his salary and Bortles at his is more than enough to make you think that the uncertainty and inconsistency is a manageable downside.
I would be wary of the Jacksonville job for two reasons. One, I already mentioned: if it opens up, that means the ownership wants an immediate winner, and they aren't nearly good enough to justify that pressure. Two, this is a team with a lot of money tied up despite having no answer at the most important position in the sport. It really looks like the Jaguars peaked last season, and they're wearing away their fingertips scrambling to cling on as they slide back down the mountain.
Bryan: I'd still rank it above the Miami job because of all the talent on defense, so much of it still young and entering the prime of their careers. If you can get even average offensive production here, you can be a playoff team -- we saw that last season. Whereas Miami…
They're ranked 22nd on offense. They're ranked 22nd on defense. They may have the worst quarterback situation of any of the potential open jobs, as I think you could make a solid argument that Bortles has outplayed Ryan Tannehill this year. They don't have a lot of salary cap room, nor do they have a bunch of young potential stars under contract. They are below average at pretty much everything -- not terrible, mind you, but there's nothing here to hang your hat on.
Andrew: And yet, they're 6-6, and once again second in the AFC East -- as they have been in the last two seasons that their starting quarterback played.
Bryan: That just goes back to your point about the Jets job looking enticing. No one other than the Patriots are good in the short-term in the AFC East, and no one is set up for the long term. At least the Jets know who their quarterback will be next season! That's more than you can say in Miami for Ryan Tannehill, the Human Golf Clap.
Andrew: Unless the cost is prohibitive, I don't think Tannehill is the type of quarterback you move on from without a solid plan to replace him.
Bryan: Tannehill costs $26.6 million against the cap in 2019, sixth-most in the league. A post-June 1 cut would save Miami nearly $18 million.
Andrew: Which is great in isolation, but where are you spending that $18 million to make you better than having less cap space but a competent quarterback would make you? Unless you want to go full tank, which isn't exactly a selling point to a new coach. Part of Miami's problem may well be that they've never quite gone full tank -- the last time they won fewer than six games was the 1-15 year in 2007 -- but if that's the path you're taking, you might as well keep the existing coach around for another year while you do it rather than cutting the new guy's legs off as he walks in the door.
Bryan: The problem is, we're in year seven of the Tannehill regime, and we still don't know if he has any good or not. He has never ranked above 18th in passing DVOA, and has finished 25th or worse in all but one season. He's 26th again this year! That's not someone you can really build around going forward, and you're right -- they've never been bad enough to give them the excuse to pull the trigger and move on. They're stuck in below-average limbo, never improving and never getting bad enough to justify blowing everything up and starting over again. It's the worst potential job opening in the league in my book, by a fairly sizeable margin.
Andrew: I think the baseline competence does count for something, but I see what you're saying. There's no easy answer in Miami. I think Gase probably gets another year unless they utterly collapse down the stretch.
Season-Savers (John Harbaugh, Baltimore and Vance Joseph, Denver)
Bryan: Harbaugh and Joseph were both frequently listed as hot-seat candidates in the weeks leading up to this article, but their recent winning streaks have gone a long way to cooling those rumors off. Three-game winning streaks have a tendency to do that. If either job were to come open, I'd probably slot it third -- not as enticing as Cleveland or Green Bay, but better than any of the other potential job openings.
Andrew: Funnily enough, one reporter I follow on Twitter (Ben Allbright) has emitted a lot of rumblings about one of these two (Joseph) being replaced by the other (Harbaugh). Harbaugh is another coach in the McCarthy vein: a guy who might have overstayed his welcome in his current spot, but who would probably be hired again before he had finished cleaning out his desk. A lot there might depend on what he does when Joe Flacco is healthy: going back to Flacco seems like an effective way to ensure his own departure, even if he genuinely thinks it gives the team the best chance of winning its remaining games. Baltimore would be an appealing spot, if you're a coach who thinks he can mold Lamar Jackson into an upper-tier NFL passer.
Bryan: These two jobs are enticing for the very reason they're looking less likely to become available -- they're actually, uh, pretty good teams. Baltimore is right in the thick of the playoff race, and Denver would be ahead of them if it wasn't for a series of one-score losses to the Chiefs (twice), Rams, and Texans. I'd think I'd rather gamble on working with Jackson rather than Case Keenum going forward, but Denver might be the better overall team at the moment. Either way, I think both coaches had very successful Novembers and will continue to cash paychecks at their current addresses next year.
Andrew: I didn't expect Joseph to last this long, as I thought he might be one-and-done in Denver. His team has performed better than I expected. His future might depend on who comes available, and how enticing those names are to his immediate superior.
I think the Ravens would be mad to get rid of Harbaugh, unless he really has soured relationships with the front office there.
Longshots (Pat Shurmur, N.Y. Giants and Sean McDermott, Buffalo)
Andrew: These are two potential vacancies that were rumored earlier in the year, but now look like longshots to actually come open. Both teams won more than they lost in November, both employ first-year head coaches, and both have seen progress in some areas as the season has gone on.
Bryan: Shurmur still is in the top 10 in most sites' betting odds for next coach fired, but down somewhere near the bottom. It's his first year, after all. If the job was to come open, I think it would be less enticing than that of their co-stadium buddies, the Jets. The Giants might have more overall talent at the moment thanks to their investment in their skill position players, and most of it is pretty young, too. Offensive line is a question, though, and then you have the great big problem that is Elisha Manning. That's not a situation I want to be in charge of fixing! The last head coach to bench Manning got fired, though admittedly there may have been some slight other issues involved there.
Andrew: The Giants defense needs more work than I expected, too. It does look like the offense has come together a bit more of late, though playing the 49ers and Buccaneers has probably helped with that, and I think Shurmur would be justified in feeling aggrieved if the Giants did move on from him after only one year. Still, there isn't a huge amount to recommend here, mainly due to the massive albatross in shoulder pads lining up behind the center. Manning isn't quite as bad as we make it sound, but he's old, expensive, and mediocre -- not exactly an inspiring combination. If you're going to fire Shurmur after one year, you're going to have a hard time selling the vacancy to a replacement, who would have to manage his way through the exact same issues that got his predecessor fired in Year One. I don't think the Giants make that move.
The same goes for Sean McDermott in Buffalo, with the exception that this isn't his first year. Everybody knew the Bills were looking to blow things up and start again. They made the playoffs almost by accident last year, and this season has gone more according to the script. The Bills are working on building a mean defense, and I'd want another year to see how that process goes before I made any judgment about McDermott's future. I think they've shown enough there to keep him employed, in hopes that they can show a bit more on offense next time out.
Bryan: Agreed on all counts, with the possible caveat that Buffalo appears to have no idea what they're doing or what their goals are, so predicting anything based on logical concepts may be a fool's errand there. Neither job would be particularly high on my wish list if I were the hot head coaching candidate, at any rate.
The Hottest of the Hot Seats
Bryan: It seems we're somewhat in agreement, then -- the best coaching spots are already open. Maybe that's one reason why Cleveland and Green Bay pulled the trigger when they did -- they get a head-start on the coach-hiring process, and get an extra month (or two months, in Cleveland's case) kicking tires and figuring out where to go. They know they have the most enticing spots, so by starting now, they can make sure they can get The Guy They Want before someone else snaps them up.
Andrew: It's unusual to see Cleveland at the top of a list of potential vacancies. If we can ignore ownership for a minute, because most of the owners are awful anyway, they're the team I most want to see make a good hire. That fanbase and franchise would benefit more than almost any other franchise in the league.
Bryan: To bring it ALL the way back around, would you consider Mike McCarthy a good hire? Because that's what seems to be the leader in the clubhouse at the moment, if you believe the reports: McCarthy in Cleveland and Josh McDaniels in Green Bay. Is that the move that will take Cleveland up to the next level?
Andrew: I'm going to say yes, it would. I think they have enough there that McCarthy will be successful. Whatever his flaws over the past couple of years, he has a proven track record of coaching players into good professionals, of preparing well during the week, and of producing fundamentally sound teams. A fresh start with an up-and-coming roster should be just what he needs. How many times could you say that about the Browns?
Bryan: And if you had told 2005 me that our terrible, terrible offensive coordinator would have a proven track record of anything, I would have not believed you. Just goes to show you, anything is possible -- even Cleveland making the playoffs.
Loser League Update
Quarterback: Where have you gone, Nathan Peterman? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you (woo woo woo). For the second straight week, every single quarterback scored at least seven points, as there were no truly terrible days out there. A pair of NFC South MVPs -- Drew Brees and Matt Ryan -- lead the field this week, with a low score of 8 points, which may be a record for highest low score in Loser League history.
Running Back: Jacksonville's run-first offense hasn't been working very well with Leonard Fournette in the backfield. Downgrading to Carlos Hyde did not produce significantly better results. Hyde did pick up 36 rushing yards on his 13 carries, but his fumble knocks him back down to just 1 point.
Wide Receiver: A quintet of Goose Eggers this week, though only John Brown was held without a catch. Ryan Switzer, Cole Beasley, Willie Snead, and Quincy Enunwa all had 8 or 9 receiving yards, falling just short of actually picking up a point. Nul Points.
Kicker: You would have thought this would be Sebastian Janikowski, what with two missed extra points, right? Nope! Instead, Steven Hauschka takes the low-water mark this week. He missed just one extra point, but also missed a field goal and didn't have many opportunities to make up points later, resulting in a score of -4 points.
Check your team's score and the Part II leaderboard here!
Keep Choppin' Wood: With three seconds remaining in their Sunday night visit to Pittsburgh, the Los Angeles Chargers lined up to attempt a 39-yard field goal. As almost anybody who follows the sport will tell you, that is no sure thing for any kicker in recent Chargers history: Michael Badgley was only on the field because previous kicker Caleb Sturgis had missed 10 of the 28 kicks he had attempted this season, and Badgley is the sixth different player to attempt a field goal for the Chargers in the past 15 months. Naturally, Badgley missed the 39-yard kick to send the game to overtime ... EXCEPT Steelers cornerback Joe Haden had jumped offside, allowing the Chargers a mulligan.
Given that second opportunity, Badgley's now-34-yard attempt was blocked by Artie Burns to send the game to overtime ... except Burns too was offside, and the Chargers had yet another attempt.
Given a third opportunity, Badgley's now-29-yard attempt went through for the win, despite yet another offside penalty against Burns.
The Pittsburgh Steelers special teams evidently forgot one of the fundamental rules of engagement: never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake. A 39-yard miss became a 29-yard game winner, and the Steelers have now fallen from 7-2-1 favorites for a bye in the AFC to 7-4-1 and a game and a half behind the current No. 2 seed. Now Pittsburgh must battle through a difficult December schedule to even stay a half-game ahead of the 7-5 Ravens in the race for the AFC North.
John Fox Award for Conservatism: Not only was he the sixth player in 15 months to attempt a field goal for the Chargers, against the Steelers Michael Badgley also became the sixth player to miss one. It's unfair to blame Badgley for missing a 52-yard attempt on the opening drive, however; kickers league-wide have only made 17 of 41 field goal attempts from 50-plus yards at Heinz Field since it opened in 2001, and only five of 21 from 52 yards or longer. On fourth-and-1 at Pittsburgh's 34-yard line, the field goal attempt was an extremely conservative call by Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn. Most teams, on that down-and-distance, in that stadium, would be far better served trying to get the first down. With Philip Rivers at the helm of an explosive Chargers offense, the Chargers are most assuredly in that category.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game: Even under John Fox, the Bears featured here on several occasions with creative halfback option pass plays, but they seldom ran those plays in quite such a high-leverage situation as we saw on Sunday against the Giants. Playing with house money after an onside kick recovery late in the fourth quarter, the Bears drove to first-and-ballgame at the 1-yard line, trailing by seven with only three seconds on the clock. This is what they came up with:
Tarik Cohen smallest player to throw a TD in NFL historypic.twitter.com/xb6AG5R6P0
— Barstool Sports (@barstoolsports) December 2, 2018
Though they came out in standard 11 personnel, the Bears lined up in shotgun with halfback Tarik Cohen split wide to the left and tight end Trey Burton flanking Chase Daniel to the right. Daniel handed the ball to Burton, who headed off left tackle, then pitched to Cohen on the reverse. Cohen then slowed up and fired a pass to Anthony Miller, who was running a shallow cross into the space vacated by the linebackers playing the run action. Though the Bears would go on to lose in overtime, this well-timed and well-executed reverse halfback pass was easily the highlight of their day -- the most remarkable touchdown in a game that featured a multitude of remarkable touchdowns.
Hue Jackson Award for Confusing Coaching: You may remember 2012, when then-Lions coach Jim Schwartz threw his challenge flag on a (wrongfully called) Justin Forsett touchdown. That resulted in a 15-yard penalty, the automatic scoring challenge to somehow be cancelled, and the NFL to quickly and quietly change the rules, removing any penalty for invalid challenge flags shortly thereafter. Well, maybe we need to put some penalty back in, after Jon Gruden threw a challenge flag on a scoring play this week -- and one after the two-minute warning, to boot. That's a double ineligible flag. After the game, Gruden said he did so intentionally, to "send a message" to replay head honcho Al Riveron, and to give him extra time to look at the play. This smells like a post-hoc excuse for a boneheaded decision, but even if it's true, it's confusing -- by rule, there's a 60-second limit for replay (though the average delay caused by a replay challenge is more in the range of 100 to 120 seconds), and that's not something they waive because the coach chooses to have a hissy fit on the sideline.
'Making History' Fantasy Player of the Week:: Only five percent of fantasy rosters were rostering Josh Allen coming into this week, and on the face of it, that makes sense: Allen is a bad quarterback on a bad team. But what he lacks in on-field success he may make up for in fantasy gold. This week, Allen became the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to put up back-to-back game with over 95 rushing yards. The previous record in back-to-back games, as far as I can tell, belonged to Terrelle Pryor, with at least 94 rushing yards in consecutive games with Oakland in mid-2013. Josh Allen is the third-leading rusher in the NFL over the past two weeks. He should be rostered in all leagues, if only as a running back playing under center.
— theScore (@theScore) December 2, 2018
Michael Vick holds the record for three consecutive games, with at least 73 yards rushing in three weeks straight with Atlanta in mid-2004. So 73 yards is Allen's magic number against the Jets this week. We'll be rooting for him!
Blake Bortles Garbage-Time Performer of the Week: The 49ers' season has gone quite poorly ever since Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL, but there have been some bright spots here and there. Last week's blowout in Seattle will not be one of those moments, but it did allow plenty of time for Dante Pettis to strut his stuff. With both Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin missing the game, the rookie flashed some explosive playmaking traits, hauling in five catches for 129 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He has flashed some great YAC potential this season, as he has regularly been a bright spot in the midst of major losses. 49ers fans hope that the trio of Goodwin, Pettis, and George Kittle provide a solid receiving corps for Garoppolo upon his return next season.
— FanDuel (@FanDuel) December 3, 2018
'Comfort in Sadness' Stat of the Week: In this weekend's 29-13 defeat against the playoff-bound Houston Texans, Baker Mayfield became the first Browns quarterback since Tim Couch to throw for over 2,500 yards in a season while completing at least 58 percent of his passes (Mayfield is currently at 63 percent). Mayfield is the only Browns passer to combine those two figures while also having a positive touchdown-to-interception ratio. Mayfield had a difficult first half in Houston, throwing three interceptions in the second-roughest outing of his young career to date, but he is on track to post the highest yardage total for a Browns quarterback since at least 2007, when Derek Anderson had 3,787. The Browns still have a way to go before they will be a serious threat to the AFC playoff field, but Mayfield is providing more reason for optimism than the Browns have had in at least a decade.
Game-Changing Play of the Week: No one really expected the Cowboys to give the Saints too hard of a time on Thursday night -- after all, the Saints were third in DVOA and first on pretty much everybody's subjective power rankings. But sometimes, weird things happen on Thursdays, and the Saints found themselves down three points late in the fourth quarter. It's alright, though -- Cameron Jordan forced a key fumble with 2:35 to go, and Drew Brees had a shot at a game winning drive. Two plays later ...
Jourdan Lewis : 1 tackle & the game-ending INT with 2:08 left in the 4th quarter pic.twitter.com/YUTtM3UCzM
— Lee Harvey (@MusikFan4Life25) November 30, 2018
It's odd to see any pass of Brees' go wild like that, but Maliek Collins got quick pressure, forcing Brees to make a quick sidearm throw without stepping into it. The pass was behind Alvin Kamara, and Jourdan Lewis picked the ball off of his shoelaces to seal the game, capping off a heck of a defensive effort by the entire Cowboys team.
The loss meant the Saints didn't clinch a playoff berth last week, true, but that's relatively inconsequential in the grand scheme of things; they'll punch their ticket soon enough. More importantly, it gave the Rams possession of home-field advantage in the NFC once again. The Saints have the tiebreaker over the Rams thanks to that Week 9 win, but have now slipped a full game behind their rivals out west. Both the Rams and Saints have just one game left against teams with a winning record, so this is a huge break for the Rams -- if anything, they have the easier schedule remaining, meaning they should be favored to hold on to home field from here. Big loss for the Saints.
And a big win for the Cowboys, too. It gives them the full one-game lead over Philadelphia and Washington in the division; they also currently have the tiebreaker over both teams. As such, we now have Dallas as 70-plus-percent favorites to win the NFC East, something that looked very much in doubt when they were sitting at 3-5 with Jason Garrett on the hot seat. A 3-1 record from here will almost assuredly give Dallas the division title, and 2-2 is likely to do it as well.
Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week
Records to Date
Andrew: Hey, it's the Broncos again! A week after they shut down the Bengals in Cincinnati 24-10, Denver travels to play a San Francisco team that has well and truly crashed from the euphoria of Nick Mullens' Thursday-night debut. The 49ers have lost three straight, and haven't kept either of their past two closer than an 18-point final margin. Meanwhile, the Broncos are on a three-game win streak, having knocked off both the Chargers and the Steelers -- two teams with a combined 14-6-1 record heading into those games -- before the 14-point road win in Cincinnati. The Broncos have been playing above their record most of the year, and are finally bringing the two into closer alignment. They can take another step toward a wild-card berth with a win in San Francisco, and I expect them to do so with room to spare. Denver (-6) at San Francisco.
Bryan: It turns out that a healthy Russell Wilson provides a massive boost for Seattle's offense. We'll get more into the Seahawks in a few weeks when we look back at our preseason predictions (ulp), but suffice to say, a better offensive line means a healthier quarterback, which means a more productive offense. With that in mind, I think Seattle (-3.5) at home against Minnesota is a very, very weak line; the Vikings have been very up-and-down since mid-October, whereas the Seahawks have looked like one of the top teams in the NFC for a month now. This will go a long way to determining who the No. 5 seed will be in the NFC, and I like Seattle to take this one fairly easily.
Double Survival League
Bryan: Another perfect week for both of us -- we're getting too good at this, clearly. I'm quite happy I picked up the Dolphins win, as Andrew had them in their loss to the Lions back in Week 7. Andrew got back at me, though, by getting the Seahawks win that proved too tough for me back against the Chargers in Week 9. Ugh! So I'm still just one game back with three weeks to go. Andrew also has two winning teams left in the Rams and Steelers; only the Patriots are over .500 on my side. I may need a miracle to make up that ground...
Andrew: This is my last chance to pick the Steelers in a comfortable spot, as they travel to face a Raiders squad that is still in the hunt for the No. 1 overall draft pick, so despite their familiar road woes I'm going with Pittsburgh in Week 14. For my other pick, I'm going to close my eyes to what happened in Week 10 and take the N.Y. Jets in Buffalo. A game between two bad teams can often swing on a big play or two, and though the Bills are more likely to benefit from that, the Jets should have a better chance of the flukes falling their way in Buffalo than they do against Houston or Green Bay in their other two remaining games.
Bryan: My only chance, I think, is with some chicanery. And gamesmanship. And borderline cheating. With that in mind, I'll take Detroit over Arizona. They're coming off a very good performance against the Rams, and I'm really not a fan of either of their other possible matchups -- at Buffalo or home against the Vikings. I think this is my best chance to get a win with the Lions.
I'll also take Arizona over Detroit. They're coming off a very good performance against the Packers, and I'm really not a fan of either of their other possible matchups -- at Atlanta or home against the Rams. I think this is my best chance to get a win with the Cardinals.
Finally, we have some certainty! After 12 straight weeks of no one clinching anything, and then the Saints blowing their chance to be the first team in the playoffs with their loss to Dallas, we have some finalized results! The Rams, thanks to their victory over the Lions, became the first team to finalize their playoff positioning, but that's boring. The exciting bit was the race for the first team eliminated.
Upset wins by the Jaguars, Cardinals, and Giants kept the early games elimination-free, meaning the race to be the first team eliminated came down to a battle of the Bay Area. The Raiders and 49ers would each be eliminated with a loss, and it was some fearsome competition. The Raiders were behind the eight-ball for most of the day, as their game started a full 20 minutes before the 49ers kicked off. But while the 49ers were getting obliterated in Seattle, Oakland was trying to pull off a fierce comeback against Kansas City to stave off elimination. Alas, it was not to be, and Oakland was the first team to be mathematically eliminated, followed by their cross-bay (and a substantial bit of Silicon Valley now) rivals about 20 minutes later.
Twenty-nine teams remain for 11 slots! This week, the Saints, Chiefs, and Patriots can all punch their playoff cards with a win, while the Chargers and Texans can join them with a win and help elsewhere. The Cardinals, Giants, and Jaguars are all eliminated with a loss; the Falcons, Lions, and Browns are eliminated with a loss and help; the Jets are eliminated with a loss or help; and the Bills are eliminated with a loss and/or help. There are some odd scenarios out there -- check out the Falcons, who need a tie in the Dallas/Philly game to lose hope this week! -- but we should see some more clarity come Monday night.
Once again, to save space, we're not including elimination scenarios for home-field advantage, top-three seeds or top-five seeds. For a FULL list, you can click here.
- L.A. Rams can clinch a first-round bye IF L.A. Rams d. Chicago
- L.A. Rams can clinch a top-three seed IF L.A. Rams d. Chicago OR Philadelphia d. Dallas
- New Orleans can clinch a top-three seed IF New Orleans d. Tampa Bay AND Philadelphia d. Dallas
- New Orleans can clinch the NFC South IF New Orleans d. Tampa Bay OR Cleveland d. Carolina
- New Orleans can clinch a playoff berth IF New Orleans d. Tampa Bay OR Cleveland d. Carolina OR Seattle d. Minnesota AND Dallas d. Philadelphia AND N.Y. Giants d. Washington
- Kansas City can clinch a top-five seed IF Kansas City d. Baltimore
- Kansas City can clinch a playoff berth IF Kansas City d. Baltimore OR Houston d. Indianapolis AND New England d. Miami AND Jacksonville d. Tennessee
- New England can clinch the AFC East IF New England d. Miami
- Houston can clinch the AFC South IF Houston d. Indianapolis AND Jacksonville d. Tennessee
- Arizona can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Detroit d. Arizona
- Dallas can be eliminated from a first-round bye IF Philadelphia d. Dallas AND New Orleans d. Tampa Bay
- Washington can be eliminated from a first-round bye IF N.Y. Giants d. Washington OR New Orleans d. Tampa Bay
- N.Y. Giants can be eliminated from the NFC East IF Washington d. N.Y. Giants OR Dallas d. Philadelphia
- N.Y. Giants can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Washington d. N.Y. Giants
- Carolina can be eliminated from the NFC South IF Cleveland d. Carolina OR New Orleans d. Tampa Bay
- Atlanta can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Green Bay d. Atlanta AND Washington d. N.Y. Giants AND Philadelphia ties Dallas
- Minnesota can be eliminated from a first-round bye IF Seattle d. Minnesota OR New Orleans d. Tampa Bay
- Green Bay can be eliminated from the NFC North IF Atlanta d. Green Bay OR Chicago d. L.A. Rams
- Detroit can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Arizona d. Detroit AND ONE OF Seattle d. Minnesota OR Washington d. N.Y. Giants OR Philadelphia d. Dallas
- Miami can be eliminated from the AFC East IF New England d. Miami
- Buffalo can be eliminated from the playoffs IF EITHER (N.Y. Jets d. Buffalo AND ONE OF Indianapolis d. Houston OR Miami d. New England OR Tennessee d. Jacksonville OR Baltimore d. Kansas City OR BOTH Cincinnati d. L.A. Chargers AND ONE OF Denver d. San Francisco OR Carolina d. Cleveland OR Cleveland d. Carolina) OR Tennessee d. Jacksonville AND Baltimore d. Kansas City AND Indianapolis d. Houston AND Pittsburgh d. Oakland AND Denver d. San Francisco
- N.Y. Jets can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Buffalo d. N.Y. Jets OR Indianapolis d. Houston OR Miami d. New England OR Tennessee d. Jacksonville OR Baltimore d. Kansas City OR (Cincinnati d. L.A. Chargers AND EITHER Denver d. San Francisco OR Carolina d. Cleveland) OR Denver d. San Francisco AND Cleveland d. Carolina
- Indianapolis can be eliminated from the AFC South IF Houston d. Indianapolis
- Tennessee can be eliminated from a first-round bye IF Jacksonville d. Tennessee AND ONE OF New England d. Miami OR Pittsburgh d. Oakland OR Houston d. Indianapolis
- Tennessee can be eliminated from a top-five seed IF Jacksonville d. Tennessee AND Houston d. Indianapolis
- Jacksonville can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Tennessee d. Jacksonville
- Cincinnati can be eliminated from a first-round bye IF L.A. Chargers d. Cincinnati OR Houston d. Indianapolis OR New England d. Miami OR Pittsburgh d. Oakland
- Cincinnati can be eliminated from a top-five seed IF L.A. Chargers d. Cincinnati AND Pittsburgh d. Oakland
- Cleveland can be eliminated from the AFC North IF Pittsburgh d. Oakland OR BOTH Carolina d. Cleveland AND EITHER L.A. Chargers d. Cincinnati OR Baltimore d. Kansas City
- Cleveland can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Carolina d. Cleveland AND Baltimore d. Kansas City
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