Scramble for the Ball: Out With the Old...
Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where last week's optimism about reaching the midpoint of the NFL calendar has since been tempered considerably, both by the ongoing situation in Baltimore and by watching Week 12's Broncos-Saints game. Though the advent of December brings with it the season of good will to all mankind, we know that several of your favorite teams (but not ours, oh no!) will make an exception for the incumbent in the coaching hot seat. Or former incumbent, in the case of one high-profile Thanksgiving turkey.
Bryan: You know your coaching tenure went great when former players -- and, for that matter, active players -- start celebrating your demise on Twitter. Matt Patricia's end came with a roar of approval from Lions players past and present. It's hard to think of coaching hires in recent memory that turned a promising team into a quagmire so very, very quickly. Patricia's biggest problem was his management of personnel -- both on the field, where he refused to adjust his scheme to meet the skills of his players, and off the field, where he antagonized and lorded over them, creating bitterness and resentment in the locker room. Other than that, his time in Detroit went great.
Andrew: It's one of the weird things about former Bill Belichick assistants, that so many of them seem to think that the success is based on dogged insistence on their way of doing things, when Belichick's own success is based on the exact opposite: constantly adjusting to take advantage of opponents' schemes, and using his players in the way best suited to them. Patricia is only the latest in a series of high-profile flameouts, another of which was finalized earlier in this same season.
Anyway, the demise of the now-former recent Lions head coach serves as the prompt for our annual look over the
wreckage situations of teams who might, probably will, or indeed already have made a coaching change for next season.
Bryan: We were told that COVID would probably dampen the coaching carousel this season, as finding and interviewing replacements would be difficult to do during a pandemic. The fact that three teams have already dumped their coaches, and a fourth kicked out their general manager, kind of puts the lie to that statement.
Andrew: If anything, it seems to have accelerated the firings, as teams recognize that the hiring process is now more complicated and look to get a head start. We should also note that two of the firings were obvious lame ducks coming into the year, and the third made a lightning rod for his own back with his offseason roster moves. So obvious were these likely outcomes that we predicted two of the three as our best value props in our preseason props column, and only looked past the third because he was the runaway favorite on short odds. If we're hitting at that rate on predictions, something must be pretty obvious.
Bryan: Let's deal with the flotsam before we get to the jetsam and look at the three teams with openings already waiting to be filled.
Bryan: Patricia should have been gone before this season began, right? I mean, his defensive guruness was never apparent on the field, and there were already rumblings of discontent throughout the organization.
Andrew: There's a strong argument that Patricia should never have been hired in the first place. If the successful Belichick coordinators make poor, or at best debatable head coaches, what are we to make of the unsuccessful ones? It always looked suspiciously like a buddy coaching hire by the new GM, and nothing that has happened since has dispelled that notion.
Bryan: I covered the Lions for the Almanac this season, and it took all my willpower not to say "our projection is just going to be wrong, because it can't account for Patricia's total and utter incompetence." I have never seen a head coach be so stubborn, sticking with things that are clearly and obviously not working. Even Adam Gase -- and we'll get to him in a moment, don't worry -- has shown a greater flexibility than Patricia did. I wonder if he even gets another defensive coordinator job after this -- I mean, probably, because the NFL is an old boys' club and he still does have that Belichick stamp of approval on him, but wow. The Lions were a moderate contending team before Patricia arrived, and he just killed them.
Andrew: While I do understand that the Lions under Jim Caldwell were probably not going to become a serious contender in the NFC, this is the Lions we're talking about. Two straight winning records is almost reason enough for a statue of the man. Caldwell was the first head coach to achieve that since Barry Sanders retired. The roster he left behind was in need of some upgrading, sure, but not a complete teardown and rebuild like you'd think if you listened to Patricia. Even now, there's talent here. It's just woefully underperforming, appallingly coached talent that has been given no chance to succeed.
Bryan: There's some talent here, sure, but it's hard to see what the draw is for a head coach considering Detroit. Most of the teams with potential openings have a load of draft picks to work with because they've traded away former stars. Detroit doesn't -- in fact, they're missing sixth- and seventh-rounders. They probably have the second-least draft capital of any potential opening. Their cap space is not great, and they have to find a way to re-sign Kenny Golladay, not to mention figure out what to do with Marvin Jones. Nothing here is really a disaster, but I think every other team has something where they can say "hey, this is a more appealing opening than Detroit!"
Andrew: Really, I think your opinion of the Lions vacancy really comes down to your opinion of the Lions quarterback. Matthew Stafford will be 33 in February, and as the cliché goes, he is what he is at this point. He has cast some doubt on his own future this week, and if you think you're about to be looking for a new quarterback, Detroit loses a lot of its appeal. They don't have a premium pick, they can't afford the capital to jump the queue, and they're still paying off Stafford's deal for another two years anyway. There are some good players on the offense -- Golladay, the offensive line, T.J. Hockenson -- but the defense needs a serious rebuild. It's a job you have to talk yourself into more than talk yourself out of.
Bryan: Their DVOA is "only" -13.4%, and you do have Stafford on the roster, so I don't think this is the worst opening or anything, but it's a below-average one. And that's disappointing for a team that had a winning record in three years out of four under Caldwell. Just a disaster of a hire from start to finish.
Bryan: Dan Quinn should have been gone before this season began, right? I mean, back-to-back 7-9 seasons saved only by second-half mirages does not a great coaching tenure make. The Super Bowl appearance probably bought him some time and good will, but the shine had really come off his bald head by the end of 2019.
Andrew: As a token of my agreement, you'll remember that Dan Quinn was my value pick for the first coach to be fired. I still can't believe Arthur Blank brought him back last season. The Super Bowl appearance might have bought him time, but it was a mental block his team just never figured out how to get past. Every time the Falcons were up big, you just knew they were going to blow it. Again and again it happened, to the point that it became a meme, it was so laughably predictable.
Bryan: Unlike Patricia, however, Quinn at least is highly respected by his players. His defenses were also decent, if rarely more than that. He might have been promoted above his ideal level, but I think that a lot of teams would be very interested in his services as a coordinator. If, for example, the 49ers lose Robert Saleh to his boyhood favorite Lions, I think they'd love Quinn as his replacement. His reputation is still OK. The Falcons', maybe not so much.
Andrew: The Falcons, as currently constructed, are the epitome of the old coaching adage where the guy says to his young, but inconsistent star, "son, your potential is gonna get me fired." That defense is packed with guys who should be absolute studs based on their performances in that Super Bowl run: Deion Jones, Ricardo Allen, Grady Jarrett, Keanu Neal. Instead, they've had one 30th-place finish, a ton of major injuries, and exactly zero seasons in the top half of the DVOA table. That could change this year, as they're currently 15th, but boy is that some blown potential from where they were in late 2016. And now, they don't even really have the potential anymore.
Bryan: Yeah, you look around for young talent and you get crickets. Scott Spratt had the Falcons dead last in under-25 talent before the season because of the lack of performance from those young defensive studs. I mean, you still have Calvin Ridley, but he's not under 25 anymore. And, to make matters worse, the Falcons are $25 million over the projected salary cap for 2021 with only 32 players signed. "Projected" is doing a lot of work there, because COVID makes everything uncertain, but whoever takes over will find themselves in a difficult financial situation. What they do have is Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Calvin Ridley, and that's nothing to sneeze at. But you do need more than that to fill out a roster.
Andrew: So here's my question for the Falcons: do you go for an innovative offensive mind, somebody like Joe Brady or Eric Bieniemy, and hope to win track meets with your veteran, former MVP quarterback? Or do you go defensive again, and hope to avoid having to win track meets again and again?
Bryan: I think the next coaching staff needs that offensive mind there -- Ryan and your receivers are your biggest assets, and you should do everything you can to squeeze every drop out of them -- but I don't think it necessarily has to be the head coach. If there's a coordinator prospect you like, you could team them up with a defensive guy -- maybe Raheem Morris does get another chance -- and try it from there. Anyone know who Sean McVay has been seen having coffee with?
Andrew: I'm guessing the performance of Zac Taylor is demonstrating that we've firmly dried out the well of McVay proteges for the time being. Morris is an intriguing name because he was not good in his stint as head coach of the Buccaneers, but he has steadied the ship in Atlanta since Quinn's departure. I think I'd be inclined to look elsewhere, but I wouldn't be screaming to burn it all down if they did eventually settle on Morris.
Bryan: Morris seems like a fallback guy who might raise his stakes more if the Falcons can pull off a few more days like when they rocked the Raiders. If they beat the Saints this week, Morris' chances really do look quite good. "If" doing a lot of work in that sentence, mind you, but you've got to start somewhere.
Bryan: Bill O'Brien should have been gone before this season began, right? I mean, his tenure as general manager was malpractice of the worst kind, both this year with the Hopkins trade and in years past, with the Laremy Tunsil trade and massive contract extension being the previous high-water mark for questions.
Andrew: There's an argument that Bill O'Brien the general manager got Bill O'Brien the head coach fired, and it's one we even mentioned in our column the week of the firing, but on closer examination I'm not sure that's true. If anything, it might have bought him some time, because with general manager powers he could get rid of players he didn't get on with much easier than if he had to convince somebody with power over him that, say, his best left tackle needed to be traded to the Seahawks, and a replacement brought in at a crazy price from the Dolphins. It appears from the outside that O'Brien's personnel moves lost the talent, but his demeanor lost the roster. With hindsight, there's a good chance they were going to crash out this season even without the awful, horrible, historically terrible trade of DeAndre Hopkins. And I say that as somebody who pegged them at 9-7, maybe 10-6 in preseason.
Bryan: I'm torn what to think of about the Texans' opening. Obviously, O'Brien the general manager left whoever takes over with no room to work with. They have one pick in the top 100 in this year's draft. They are $9.4 million over the projected 2021 cap already, with Will Fuller a pending free agent. If you take this job, you're getting the team as it's currently constructed, and not much else for a year or two.
But the team as it's currently constructed has Deshaun Watson. The team as it's currently constructed has J.J. Watt, Laremy Tunsil, Brandin Cooks. The team as it's currently constructed has a DVOA of -3.1%, which is great for a team looking for a coaching change. Am I crazy, or is this a good spot for a coach to land?
Andrew: Honestly, the only thing that makes it a good opening is Watson. Watson just happens to be the single most important thing any franchise needs for sustained success in this century: a bone fide star quarterback. I love J.J. Watt, but he's going into his age-32 season, with a massive injury history, at a cap cost of $17.5 million with no dead money. That's a release/restructure if ever I saw one. Brandin Cooks is a strong candidate for a cap casualty, with no dead money and $12-million savings. David Johnson should be gone, saving you $6.9 million. So you can clear cap space, but other than Johnson you're losing talented players with it, with absolutely zero draft capital to replace that talent. Watson's a stud, but without some major bargain-hunting this situation is getting worse before it gets better.
Bryan: I'm also worried about Jack Easterby and his nebulous role as decision-maker in the front office. Rivers McCown has a whole piece that goes into the lack of trust the fan base has in Easterby and the rest of what's left of the front office; it's a very good read that goes further in depth than we can get into here. Belichick went out of his way to say that Easterby was not a personnel guy -- that's not typical Belichickian behavior, so you know something is up there. Watson covers for a lot of sins, but there's a lot of baggage to work through if you're taking the Houston job.
Andrew: I guess, even more than Atlanta, what you really want here is an offensive mind who can unlock Watson's full potential. We're seeing what he can do with absolutely no support this year, and it's impressive. Imagine if the scheme actually helped. Sure, the defense is also an utter wreck, but you can sort that out whenever you next stumble across an untraded draft pick in the back of a cupboard somewhere. The absolute highest priority, for next season, has to be Watson.
Bryan: So that sums up the three jobs that are already available, but I'll eat my hat if they end up as the only teams switching coaches this offseason. Next, we'll look at the coaches who have been rumored to be in danger of getting jettisoned. Our list of potential cuts comes from taking NJ.com's weekly hot seat rankings, noting who has appeared most frequently and highest on the list. No prizes for guessing who's No. 1.
Adam Gase, New York Jets
Bryan: Adam Gase should have been gone before this season began, right? I mean ... just look at him. Look at what he's done to New York.
Andrew: There's reasonable argument to make that he should never have been ... wait, really? Yes, really. Gase's hiring was mystifying at the time, as somebody with a reputation for alienating players, going on power trips, and being unpleasant to work either with or for. Sure, he took the Dolphins to the playoffs, but with every passing season that looks more like a fluke of circumstance than a good coaching job. He's another coach whose own players couldn't wait to be rid of him, both in Miami and in New York. Unusually for a failed head coach, Gase doesn't give every impression of being an overpromoted former coordinator. He gives every impression of being an overpromoted position coach.
Bryan: The current story in the Saga of Gase is his refusal to admit just who is calling the offensive plays, as he feels that would put the Jets at a competitive disadvantage. I would argue that the people calling the plays are the competitive disadvantage, not the knowledge thereof. The only argument for keeping Gase around is that bringing in an interim coach now could jeopardize the run for the top pick in next year's draft. I'm not sure there's ever been a more obvious pick in NFL history -- Trevor Lawrence is far and away the best prospect in this year's class, he plays the most important position in football, and the Jets desperately need a new quarterback. Anything to ensure that they don't slip up and lose that to the Jaguars is probably worthwhile in the long run.
Andrew: That No. 1 overall pick is also, however, the only attractive thing about the Jets job. Seriously, look at them. Okay, there's also Mekhi Becton, so assuming the Lawrence pick is safe you have your franchise quarterback and your franchise left tackle, but yikes.
Bryan: I'd also point to the $80.1 million in cap space they have as an asset. You can use that to find yourself a top receiver to go with Lawrence. And, uh, an entire defense to go around C.J. Mosley. And they'll need every penny of it, because they're the worst team in football and it's not particularly close.
Andrew: Oh, now we're exaggerating, because it is close. If the Jaguars hadn't fluked a win in Week 1 against the Colts, we'd be talking about race between them and the Jets to go 0-16.
Bryan: It is a race for the top pick still, at the very least -- it's between those two squads, and no one else. It'd be just the Gase-iest thing in the world to win a couple of games in December and cost the Jets Lawrence, wouldn't it?
Andrew: Be that as it may, we'll get to the Jaguars in a minute, I'm sure. Gase has to be a goner, surely? So what you want is your pick of the quarterbacks, which is Lawrence, then your pick of the offensive-minded college head coaches to pair with him -- or Joe Brady, I guess, if you're sold on what he has done in Carolina.
Bryan: If I'm a top college coach, I'm not sure I want the Jets job, Lawrence or no Lawrence. I mean, it's far from the worst position to be in -- tying your fate to the top prospect out of college will buy you some time -- but you have to think about it like this. You either have your quarterback or you have the top pick in the draft -- when you take Lawrence, you don't have anyone to put around him yet, because that's your top pick. 2021 is going to be a long year in New York.
Andrew: However, if Houston with Watson is an attractive job, then the Jets with Lawrence is more so, because you have actual draft capital and cap room to work with. No, Lawrence is not proven at the next level like Watson is, but you have to believe that you can be the guy to make sure, by this time next year, that he is.
Bryan: Here's the thing: we know Watson is good. If Lawrence ends up becoming the next JaMarcus Russell -- or Josh Rosen, for that matter -- you've basically signed your own pink slip two or three years in advance, because they'll get rid of you before giving up on the No. 1 pick in the draft. I'd rather hitch my wagon to an established Pro Bowler such as Watson than an unknown, even an extremely enticing unknown.
Andrew: I understand that, but if you believe that Lawrence is The Man, then the Jets job gives you so much more to work with than the Texans job. And if you don't, then there's no point even considering the Jets job anyway.
Doug Marrone, Jacksonville Jaguars
Bryan: I'm a little surprised Marrone didn't go out with Dave Caldwell; firing just the GM and not the head coach is an odd choice. Some might say that that gives Marrone a puncher's chance to come back in 2021. I think it just prevents Jay Gruden from taking over and getting momentum as the interim, letting Shahid Khan run a more wide-ranging search for his next coach.
Andrew: I admit, when they hired Gruden as offensive coordinator, I very much suspected they were also hiring a potential interim for when it all went belly-up this season. It doesn't get much more belly-up than a franchise-record losing streak and a 1-10 record with five games to go, so I was more than a little surprised Marrone was still in place even before they fired Dave Caldwell. I hope they aren't talking themselves into an extension, based on the number of injuries this year, like I've seen rumored in certain circles.
Bryan: Oh, no, I think Marrone is gone too. I just don't get the point of firing just the GM in the middle of a season; what, exactly, does promoting Trent Baalke in December do for you other than run the risk of internal backstabbing and politicking? Weird choice.
At a -20.7% DVOA, the Jaguars are notably better than the Jets on the field in terms of performance, if not so much in the win column. And I tell you, I think this is the best opening in the league for a general manager, and not too far behind for a head coach. I really do.
Andrew: If you think the Jaguars are one of the best openings in the league for anything, I'm really not sure how I can help you.
Bryan: Alright, hear me out. The Jaguars have a load of draft capital coming up. They have the Rams' first- and fourth-round picks from the Jalen Ramsey trade; they have the Vikings' second-round pick from the Yannick Ngakoue trade. That means they currently have four picks inside the top 50 and six picks in the top 103. And they still have an outside shot of grabbing that top overall pick to boot. They also have the most salary cap space in the league, thanks to the Bears so kindly picking up the check for Nick Foles -- $82.3 million, more than even the Jets have to work with. They have more potential solid pieces than the Jets already on the roster -- Scott ranked them seventh in under-25 talent, thanks to players such as DJ Chark, Josh Allen, and CJ Henderson. They have intriguing players such as James Robinson and Myles Jack under contract. Even if they're stuck at the second or third pick, they get their choice of the non-Lawrence quarterbacks -- if they're sold on Justin Fields, they can take him. Otherwise, they could anchor their line with Penei Sewell and try to grab Zach Wilson in the middle of the first round, or Mac Jones or someone, with Gardner Minshew serving as a bridge until they're ready. There's a lot of material to work with here, even if the lot itself still remains empty.
Andrew: That's all true, and your optimism is laudable, but Jacksonville is where top-10 draft picks -- in fact, first-round draft picks -- go to die. Across multiple regimes, with multiple different approaches: Byron Leftwich, Blaine Gabbert, and Blake Bortles at quarterback. Reggie Williams, Matt Jones, Justin Blackmon, and something called a Rodney Jay Soward at receiver. Leonard Fournette, Luke Joeckel, even Taven Bryan already looks like a flameout.
Bryan: All true, but all picks made by people who will not be in the building in 2021. Are you suggesting TIAA Bank Field is somehow haunted? That no one can have success there?
Andrew: I'm suggesting that the issues in Jacksonville go beyond the name on the head coach or general manager's office. Shahid Khan bought the team in 2011, and they're already entering their third discrete rebuild. They've had exactly one season above six wins since Khan became owner, and they're about to have their fourth of three or fewer wins. In 10 years. That's Browns-level failure. Maybe Khan has just made poor hires, maybe (definitely!) they have just drafted bad quarterbacks, but for a team supposedly run along analytics principles, their process couldn't half use some results to back it up.
Bryan: With the exception of the very best or the very worst, I consider most owners much of a muchness. They make bad hires ... until they don't. They look like geniuses with who they bring in ... until they don't. I don't think that previous failings in the front office and coaching staff will impact the next Jaguars' braintrust; I'm not willing to put Khan in the Dan Snyder or Jimmy Haslam buckets just yet. His problem is that he sticks with his guys for too long, which is a moot point now that he's fired 'em. Unless he keeps Marrone, in which case all bets are off.
Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings
Bryan: Zimmer's not getting fired. He was all over the hot-seat rankings after the Vikings' 1-5 start, but we sort of knew this was going to be a retrenchment year. It started worse than one would have hoped for, but the Vikings have clawed their way back into NFC contention. I think they fall short this year, but I'm not blaming that on Zimmer.
Andrew: Minnesota has their issues, not least of which is the apparent hard ceiling of their very handsomely paid quarterback, but they shouldn't be looking to move on from a coach who hasn't finished worse than 7-9, hasn't had a losing record since his first year, has won the division twice without ever having the best starting quarterback in that division, and has two playoff wins in the past three seasons. As you say, this was always set to be a retooling year. They've retooled faster than I thought they would, and they're ahead of schedule for next season, so Zimmer should have at a bare minimum one more year to see how the project progresses. For me, the jury's still out on the quarterback far more than the coach. I would consider it a terrible mistake for the Vikings to fire Zimmer, and I'll be stunned if it happens. Let's move on.
Vic Fangio, Denver Broncos
Bryan: This is probably the first interesting "should he stay or should he go?" situation we've hit. There were rumors while we were writing this that Fangio was on the chopping block, though reporters have been debunking those all day. The Broncos are not good, and it looks like Fangio will start his head coaching career with two straight losing seasons. He'd be something of a scapegoat, though, if he was let go, right? On the other hand, has he shown anything to make you think that this is the guy to lead the Broncos into the future?
I think it's their eternal quarterback carousel that's bringing the Broncos down, and that falls more on John Elway's shoulders than Fangio's.
Andrew: Fangio has a few things going for him. His defense, despite all the major injuries, is still strong. His players love him and are competing hard despite the current record. That record can be largely attributed to injuries: the Broncos are down Von Miller, Jurrell Casey, Courtland Sutton, and Mike Purcell. They have had a slew of other short-term injuries, and have played three games without their starting quarterback (including, most recently, one without any quarterback whatsoever). With questionable quarterback play, the Broncos are competitive and a tough out for most teams. With even league-average quarterback play, they're a wild-card contender. They're roughly in the Rex Ryan Jets tier, without the bluster and bravado.
Bryan: I tend to agree. Plus, Fangio still has two years left on his deal, so cutting him this early would be a bit of a rash move; more rash than I generally would expect from this franchise. I do think that he'll be at or near the top of any hot-seat rankings for 2021, however -- if the team can't get their quarterback situation under control, Fangio will be the first casualty thereof. He'll also probably be asked to make some coaching changes this offseason as a way of demonstrating that they're working on the problem. Ultimately, however, I think the problem is the guy in the front office, and he's much harder to get rid of.
Andrew: That is the danger of working directly under a franchise legend in the front office. If he is not performing up to his reputation, you are the most likely person to carry the can.
Bryan: I'm sure, however, Elway will find a tall quarterback to fall in love with this offseason, and this time, it'll all work out. No worries.
Anthony Lynn, Los Angeles Chargers
Bryan: Man, I like Lynn. I like him a lot. But I don't think you can defend some of his strategic choices this year.
Andrew: I mean, we'll get to this in a little while, but if I was already unconvinced about keeping Anthony Lynn, this past weekend convinced me not to. Their performance against the Bills was shambolic. Not just bad. Not, say, Andy Reid clock management gaffes. The Chargers looked completely unprepared for the most basic situational football, incapable of making the simplest strategic decisions, and unable to adapt to the slightest change in their expectations from play to play. I've never seen a team look as inept as the Chargers did in the final minute. Not just bad, but utterly clueless.
Bryan: Not for a full sequence, at the very least -- plenty of bad teams make stupid mistakes, but the Chargers had a whole symphony of errors. It's almost hypnotic to watch, and yes, we'll cover that in more detail in the awards section.
Justin Herbert seems to like him, which probably boosts his chances, right? And the Chargers have at least been competitive in most of their games, even if they repeatedly come up short. It's not an Adam Gase or Doug Marrone situation where there's nothing here, but this feels like a real 50/50 shot.
Andrew: Players liking him helps his case, but it doesn't help the Chargers. My problem is that it's not just one thing, like Reid, one glaring flaw that you can overcome with the right combination of talent and circumstance. It's everything. They lose games they should win. They lose games they should lose, but are surprisingly competitive in. They regularly look outcoached. They regularly look unprepared. They regularly make bewildering or obviously wrong strategic choices. They are so, so conservative. Their only wins this year are against the Jets, Jaguars, and Bengals in Joe Burrow's first-ever career start. That's the three worst teams in the AFC.
What's the redeeming feature here, that says, "yes, keep this guy despite all of these glaring flaws?" Is it just that Herbert is a rookie? Because plenty of teams have won games with rookies despite significantly inferior supporting casts.
Bryan: You can make the argument that Lynn has had more than his share of bad luck this season, with Derwin James on injured reserve and Joey Bosa in and out with concussions. I wouldn't hold his record to this point against him. I would, however, hold the play calling, the team's preparation, and his strategic decisions against him. His team is fighting for him; he hasn't lost the locker room like Patricia or O'Brien, and that does count for something. But unless the Chargers show signs of life down the stretch, I don't know how you justify bringing him back for 2021.
Andrew: Which then makes this, for me, the most enticing potential job opening this offseason. Justin Herbert already looks like a stud in the making. This receiving corps is wonderful. The offensive line, once a train wreck, now has several solid pieces in place. The defense is loaded, with bookend edge rushers, potentially the best multi-use safety in the game, dynamic linebackers, and a cornerback group that, though aging, is definitely solid enough to win with. Everybody expects the Chiefs to dominate this division for the next 10 to 15 years, so there's no immediate pressure. With the Patriots falling away and Ben Roethlisberger approaching retirement, the AFC is about to be wide open behind Kansas City.
The team's luck is another question, but a huge swathe of that comes down to coaching: situational football, preparation, and a solid understanding of strategy. There's huge potential here, alongside low immediate expectations. That's pretty close to a dream job, even if it does mean facing Patrick Mahomes twice a year for a decade.
Zac Taylor, Cincinnati Bengals
Bryan: You've been low-key calling Taylor out for ... well, pretty much his entire tenure in Cincinnati. And I'm not entirely sure you've been wrong to do so.
Andrew: I think there are reasons to overlook Taylor's win-loss record with the Bengals, to some extent.
Bryan: Though, before we overlook it entirely, we should mention that Taylor is the ninth head coach in NFL history to have four or fewer wins in his first 27 games. That's not the end-all, be-all of analysis, but there have been a lot of coaches in tough divisions before, and that's not a great stat to be near the bottom of. Dave Shula went 6-21 in his first 27. Dave Shula!
Andrew: When we looked at rookie head coaches last season, I think the closest we came to an actual conclusion is this: if your head coach is any good, it will show up somewhere in the first few games. Whether it's actual progress from the unit he's most focused on, a few players making surprise breakthroughs, a better-than-expected win-loss record, something. Where is that moment, or that unit, or that progress, for Zac Taylor? This year's roster is better than last year's, but they look very, very likely to finish with two wins again. Four wins and a tie from 32 games is desperate, almost Hue Jackson-level stuff.
Bryan: At some point, you have to win with what you have available. You can't wait for all the pieces to be in place before making a run; otherwise, you end up like Matt Patricia, always promising the next batch of talent will be the one that really gets things going, just you wait. A bad rookie season can be written off. But with such little progress in Year 2, where do you go from here? It's not like Taylor has a massive track record of success at any level to fall back on, either; Ol' Rough and Ready was promoted directly from quarterback coach and "guy who knows Sean McVay" to head coach with only five games as an interim coordinator back with the 2015 Dolphins to hang his hat on. It may have been too much, too soon.
And, of course, if you're looking at taking Taylor's place, there's a big ugly question mark floating atop of everything thanks to Joe Burrow's knee. With rumors that Burrow might miss the entire 2021 season, next year might be a thankless job in Cincinnati.
Andrew: Burrow's situation changes everything, of course. Burrow's knee injury was, at a minimum, a multi-ligament tear, which means delayed surgery for the ACL and a prolonged rehab. If there's any further damage, which it sounds like there is, then a 12-month timetable from initial injury to return is entirely realistic. If Burrow won't be back next year, then there's absolutely no point considering Taylor's position. You aren't getting anybody you want to come into that situation, so you may as well get one more look at the guy you have. That is one almighty question mark you mentioned, but honestly that question mark might be Taylor's best shot. Because if they do fire Taylor, and Burrow isn't going to be ready in 2021, there is absolutely nothing else here to recommend this job. Not ownership, not location, and not the roster. Yikes.
Doug Pederson, Philadelphia Eagles
Bryan: This is a huge fall from grace for Pederson, after bringing a Super Bowl to town. He's low on the list, and rightfully so, but it has to at least be discussed. The Eagles are an organizational disaster. The offense is fundamentally broken. It's a total loss; scrap it and start over. Except they can't, because of the contracts and whatnot involved. I see the path to fixing things for the Jets and the Jaguars, even if that's throwing everything out and starting from scratch. I do not see the road back to pleasant football for Philadelphia. The question is whether you trust Pederson to try to be the one to figure everything out, or hope someone else can come in and make something out of nothing.
Andrew: There is a growing and justified belief that Frank Reich was really the mastermind behind Pederson and Wentz's success in 2017, and that Pederson without Reich is not the coach we all thought he was back then. That's a little harsh, and I guess depends on how much you think Pederson's coaching is impacting Wentz, versus how much Wentz's decline is impacting Pederson. Those factors are tough to isolate.
Bryan: I think you keep Pederson around for next year, because you have to keep Wentz around. You just have to, thanks to that massive extension in 2019. Cutting him after this season would put $59 million in dead money on the salary cap. You can not do that; not in a year where the salary cap is projected to go down. Even designating him as a post-June 1 cut is not feasible; that puts $35 million in dead money on the 2021 cap and $25 million on the 2022 cap. Even a trade would put over $30 million on the cap, and no one's trading for Wentz at the moment. Wentz is in spitting distance of having the worst DYAR season we've ever recorded. He's at -829 DYAR at this point; the all-time record is -1,145 by Josh Rosen in 2018. If you prefer old-school stats, Wentz is one of six quarterbacks in NFL history to see his passer rating drop by 24 points over his average of the previous three seasons, per NFL Research. Four of the previous five quarterbacks retired, and the fifth, Mark Rypien, was done as a starter. This is a disaster.
Andrew: A fate which surely awaits Wentz too, if this continues to the end of the season. I broadly agree with you. For better or worse, the fates of Wentz and Pederson are intertwined for the foreseeable future. Working with Wentz is not the attraction it once was for prospective replacements, and the cap consequences are way too great to cut bait. Despite his appearance on this list, Pederson also still has just enough job security and kudos to make the move to Jalen Hurts if that's what the franchise needs.
Bryan: If Pederson does go, this is the worst opening in the league, right? You've got a notoriously angry fan base, one that just won a Super Bowl so demands for a return to contention is high. You're already $65 million over the cap for 2021 before you deal with Carson Wentz in any way. You don't have young talent; you ranked 29th in our under-25 rankings with zero blue-chip players. It's a nightmare.
Andrew: Tied to an expensive, bad quarterback with a long injury history, with an aging, expensive roster? Yeah, it's hard to see a situation much worse than that. Even if Joe Burrow can't play next season, at least he doesn't cost you $34 million a season on a decreasing cap.
Bryan: At least your division sucks, which brings us to…
Mike McCarthy, Dallas Cowboys
Bryan: In most cases, I would say a coach in his first year dealing with his franchise quarterback missing most of the season deserves a pass. I think I'm still there with McCarthy, but oof. His one-year sojourn through the wilderness of analytics has not really paid off with, y'know, good coaching.
Andrew: Nor even good in-game decision-making, or macro strategy, the two things you would hope would be simplest to understand from an analytical standpoint.
Bryan: He has been good and aggressive at going for it on fourth down. He has that going for him, and we should acknowledge that. That's about all, but it is something.
Andrew: What buys him time, for me, is the Dak Prescott injury. Were they 3-8 with a healthy Prescott, that would look considerably worse than 3-8 with only five games of Prescott, even though they went 2-3 in his five starts.
Bryan: Plus, I don't see Jerry Jones admitting to a mistake this quickly; he's not an idiot or anything, but he's proud. Cutting McCarthy now takes a level of humility I don't think he has in his arsenal. McCarthy gets another year.
Andrew: Proud, and also demonstrably loyal when he thinks he has his man. The one thing you absolutely could not fault him for with Jason Garrett was not giving his coach enough time.
Bryan: Now, if he would only show the same loyalty to his franchise quarterback...
Matt Nagy, Chicago Bears
Bryan: We end with Nagy. Nagy is this low on the list because I counted how many times each coach appeared on the hot seat rankings, and Nagy wasn't being talked about after starting 5-1. Well, they're 5-6 now, and people are talking. There have been 242 teams in NFL history that started 5-1; only four of them ended their season with a losing record: the 2008 Bills, 1995 St. Louis Rams, 1986 Falcons, and 1926 Chicago Cardinals. None of them finished worse than 7-9, either, and even that many wins might be a tall order for Nagy this season.
Andrew: Nagy was, you recall, my longshot pick for the first coach to lose his job, and the season has played out almost exactly as I expected it to. They started out with a winning record against the easier portion of the schedule, and they're now hoping to grab a couple of victories from the final few to scrape six or seven wins.
Bryan: It should also be pointed out that the Bears weren't good at 5-1. They were skating by on luck and dreams; their current record is much closer to what their DVOA would suggest. It's not like things were going fine and then someone got hurt and it all went to pot.
Andrew: Instead, things were going non-disastrously, then somebody got benched -- that somebody being Mitchell Trubisky -- and it all went to pot. I noted in my preseason writeup that part of Nagy's problem is he doesn't have any of the excuses that usually buy a coach time. He doesn't have a rookie quarterback, and the team isn't obviously rebuilding. They aren't any better than they were when he took over. He isn't making a drastic scheme change, and it's not "his" side of the ball that's excelling.
Bryan: In addition, his answer to the quarterback situation was to bring in Nick Foles, as opposed to one of the better-on-paper options. Foles was his choice because Foles had experience in Nagy's system. Well, Foles has a DVOA of -17.4%, so that hasn't exactly worked out. When your big offseason gamble backfires, that does not do great things for your job security.
It's also not great when you go on a tirade against your players, demanding they have some "personal pride" after the blowout loss to the Packers. That's the sign you don't have any other tricks to pull out.
Andrew: That's a good way to lose the locker room, and losing the locker room is a good way to get fired. Ultimately it appears to have been that, not the record or the personnel decisions, that did in Bill O'Brien. Between that, and the fact that it's Nagy's offense, not Chuck Pagano's defense, that is ailing, I fully expect the Bears to make a change this January.
Which then raises the question, "is this an appealing vacancy?" In theory, it should be. This is a top-five defense loaded with talent, in a division whose best quarterback turns 37 on the day this article is published. The Bears have a stud at wide receiver, and an otherwise blank slate. Give an offensive coach the opportunity to either draft a quarterback or bring in a free agent ... and that, right there is where we hit a problem.
Bryan: I'm not a fan, honestly. Right now, the Bears would draft 16th, which is likely to be too late for any of the top quarterbacks in the draft. I don't think that improves enough to get into the top 10, so you're not getting Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, or Trey Lance. Zach Wilson is a "maybe"; Mac Jones might be more your speed. They don't really have the capital to move up, either. They are $600,000 under the projected cap, which is not going to help them sign anyone. -- and even if they did, what, are they going to outbid people for Dak Prescott? Philip Rivers isn't the answer for a rebuilding team, and you've already passed on him and Cam Newton once. No, I'm not a huge fan of the Bears' situation. There are certainly worse ones -- I'd rather be in Chicago than Denver or Philadelphia -- but I don't see how you answer the question at quarterback with any confidence, and in the modern NFL, that's question 1, 2 and 3.
Andrew: Alright, let's quickly bring this discussion to a close. We've briefly considered no fewer than 12 coaching situations, a normal playoff field's worth of teams, and determined that seven of those 12 are likely to be actual vacancies by the middle of January. Those seven are Houston, Atlanta, Detroit, the Jets, Jacksonville, the Chargers, and Chicago, with Cincinnati arguably joining them if they lose out. Of those eight, which is the least appealing, and why?
Bryan: For me it's the Bears. The other seven teams either have a quarterback you can win games with, a rookie who has looked sharp, or look to have one of the top two picks in the draft. It's reductive to turn everything into a referendum on the quarterbacks but, well, sometimes that's all it really takes.
Andrew: It's one of the real oddities of this sport, isn't it, that out of eight potential coaching vacancies, it's the team with the most wins that is the least appealing opening?
Bryan: Well, the first step in rebuilding is admitting you have a problem. I don't think the Bears have done that yet, putting them a step behind everyone else. Except maybe the Texans but, again, they have Deshaun Watson, and that covers for a lot of flaws.
Andrew: And what about the most appealing, if you had your pick of the vacancies right now?
Bryan: If the Jaguars catch the Jets and get the top pick, I'm taking them. If they don't ... well, I still think I take them. I really like the freedom and flexibility they have to build upon, and their foundation is better than the Jets. If the Texans had draft picks, I'd be on their side, but, well, Bill O'Brien salted the earth before he left. You're still on the Chargers, right?
Andrew: Yep. I was not sold, at all, on Justin Herbert, but he has changed my mind in double-quick time. If he's anywhere close to the quarterback he looks like he will be, then they are well-equipped to be a very good team, for a very long time, if they can just finally be very well-coached. If only that would ever, ever happen.
Bryan: I'd rather have my own guy than someone else's rookie, but if I did have to take someone else's developmental seconds, I wouldn't be at all unhappy with Herbert. If the franchise wasn't built on a cursed burial ground, I might be with you.
Andrew: As with all of our potential vacancies, a man can dream...
Keep Choppin' Wood
After a down week for the lumberjacks in Week 11, so much wood was chopped in Week 12. We had the incredible Cowboys fake punt. We had the Vikings allowing two fumble return touchdowns on consecutive offensive snaps. We had the sublimely ridiculous Chargers end-game sequence (we'll get to that shortly). We had basically everything the Raiders did in Atlanta.
All of that pales into insignificance compared to the Denver Broncos Quarterbacks, whose decision to (reportedly) lower their face coverings to communicate in a meeting and while eating together resulted in all three other quarterbacks -- Drew Lock, Blake Bortles, and Brett Rypien -- being identified as close contacts when Jeff Driskel was placed on the Reserve/COVID list during the practice week. That forced the Broncos to play Sunday's game against the Saints with practice-squad wide receiver Kendall Hinton as probably the unlikeliest starting quarterback in the modern history of the sport. Hinton completed one pass to a teammate and two to Saints defenders as the Broncos lost heavily a game in which they could quite probably have competed with any of their regular passers. Whether you assign the blame to the players, the management, or even the league for not making an exception to their postponement rules for the quarterback group, this was undoubtedly the craziest game yet for COVID consequences.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game
With 35 seconds remaining against the Rams, the 49ers faced fourth-and-1 from the opposing 39-yard line in a tied game. This would have meant a roughly 57-yard attempt for a potential winning field goal, but it would also have meant handing the Rams a short field for their own game-winning drive if the attempt missed. Even if the attempt were successful, the Rams would still have had 30 seconds of game time to respond. Kyle Shanahan therefore made the smart decision to go for it, and got the first down with a plunge by fullback Kyle Juszczyk. This allowed the 49ers to drain the rest of the game clock while continuing to advance the ball, and also allowed them to kick the game-winner from the much friendlier distance of 42 yards as time expired. This is the sort of smart, aggressive decision-making that should be easy for a modern coach, but it was a pleasant relief for 49ers fans to see their coach make it.
John Fox Award for Conservatism
Trailing by 10 points with only a minute remaining in Buffalo, the Los Angeles Chargers were firmly in desperation mode when Justin Herbert completed a pseudo-Hail Mary to Tyron Johnson for 55 yards on fourth-and-27. What happened next was truly astonishing, even by the Chargers' standards, even by the standards of the ultra-conservative Anthony Lynn. We're linking it here rather than embedding it, because it's a long video, but it's worth checking out.
We urge you to watch that entire two-minute sequence. On first-and-goal from the 2, after completing a Hail Mary with 45 seconds left and no timeouts, down by two scores, the Chargers took 20 seconds to get lined up, then called a run play. When that didn't get into the end zone, and a further 16 seconds had drained from the clock, they threw incomplete and ran the field goal unit onto the field -- *then ran the field goal unit back off and instead ran a pass play*. Finally, for the coup de grâce, they took their top receiver off the field and ran a quarterback sneak, **except the offensive line pass-blocked instead of run-blocking**. We have seen some badly botched end-game situations in our time, but we're not sure we've ever seen anything quite like this. Not even from the Chargers. Not even from Anthony Lynn.
Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching
While we don't want to just gripe about failed trick plays, we were going to drag Mike McCarthy out here for his fake punt on Thanksgiving. Actually, we were going to make it the KCW play before the Broncos COVID crisis struck -- some weeks, you just don't have enough awards to hand out. On Monday night, though, Doug Pederson slipped in and stole the crown with his usage of Jalen Hurts.
There was some talk about Hurts replacing an ineffective Carson Wentz this week and, indeed, the second quarter saw Wentz headed to the bench and Hurts coming in under center. Now is the time to see what the Eagles have in their second-round pick; now is the time for him to get vital experience under center. Now is the time for ... a penalty, one snap, and a return to the bench? What good does that do anyone? It wasn't a trick play or a short-yardage swap; there was no strategic value for putting Hurts in the game. There's no developmental value from two isolated snaps randomly thrown around the game. What on Earth was the point of this mess?
'Yes, Yes, We All Know About Tyreek Hill' Fantasy Player of the Week
We like to award this to lesser-known players, in part because you can read about Tyreek Hill's day anywhere you like -- it was somewhat well-covered by the news media (and by us). But who will sing Collin Johnson's praises, hrm? No DJ Chark and no Chris Conley meant the Jacksonville offense was even less potent than normal, but the fifth-round rookie stepped into the void and had the best day of his career so far -- four receptions for 96 yards and a touchdown, all career highs for the kid out of Texas. It wasn't quite enough to upset the Browns, but the Mike Glennon-to-Johnson connection at least put a scare in Cleveland, a sure sign of a feisty bad team.
THE ROOKIE! @Call_In_Johnson takes it 46-yards to the
— #DUUUVAL (@Jaguars) November 29, 2020
Garbage-Time Performer of the Week
Someone get Allen Robinson an actual professional quarterback, please. Robinson's first multi-score outing of the year came against the Packers in a game that was really out of hand well before halftime, as the once-5-1 Bears find themselves sitting on a losing record. Don't blame Robinson, who continues to put up yeoman's numbers in a remedial offense; a sure-handed option for surely terrible passers. His two touchdowns were not tough plays, mind you, but it was more than the rest of the Bears' offense could do, and easy touchdowns count just the same in fantasy.
.@AllenRobinson brings it home for the time tonight.
— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) November 30, 2020
Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week
This week, the Jacksonville Jaguars became the second team to be eliminated from the playoffs. (Both clubs are in the AFC, naturally, because somehow the four worst teams in the NFC all play in the same division and are therefore all in contention for a division title.) A shock win over the Colts on opening day temporarily obscured the fact that this is not a good roster, a fact that earned GM Dave Caldwell his walking papers on Sunday night. They do, however, have some talented young players, headlined on defense by first-round rookie cornerback CJ Henderson and on offense by undrafted rookie running back James Robinson. Robinson has piled up 1,170 yards from scrimmage - with four games to go, that puts him firmly in touching distance of Dominic Rhodes' undrafted rookie record tally of 1,328 for the 2001 Colts. It would be small consolation for Jaguars fans who are stuck watching yet another rebuild, but at least it would mean the franchise has set one positive record somewhere along the line.
Game-Changing Play of the Week
This was not a good week for game-changing plays in important games, if we're honest. Generally, the plays get bigger and bigger as the season goes along, as the number of weeks remaining drops -- each result becoming that much more important because there is less time to recover from losses or fall from victories. And yet, we have our least impactful winner from the last two months taking the crown today. It has been that kind of week, but at least it means we get to see Russell Wilson.
— NFL (@NFL) December 1, 2020
First of all -- what a throw. 50 yards through the air, and placed just about as perfectly as you could do it. DK Metcalf didn't end up in the end zone, but he should get at least partial credit for the touchdown. Yowza.
But why this play -- admittedly, a highlight, but in a 0-0 game in the second quarter? The fact that it essentially broke the tie is part of it, but this was also the most significant game of the week; the only one featuring a pair of potential division leaders. The Seahawks' win means they held off the Rams for control of the NFC West; the Eagles' loss means they failed to overtake the Giants.
Most other games this week couldn't come close to matching those stakes. Steelers-Ravens hasn't happened yet. Packers-Bears and Titans-Colts were not close games. I suppose you could make an argument for Rams-49ers, but San Francisco remains a longshot in the playoff race. It really came down to Metcalf's near-touchdown or one of Tyreek Hill's first-quarter touchdowns against Tampa Bay. This one happened later in the game with the score closer, so it gets the edge.
Bryan: A week to forget for your humble Scramblers. Of our six picks, five did not come through. Andrew was likely expecting that in our Double Survival league; he burned both the Jets and Bengals, and wisely so. Why he decided that it was a good idea to double down on the Jets in his Lock of the Week is a different issue, but it's dwarfed by me blowing both Arizona and Indianapolis in double survival, leaving me down three games with eight to play.
At least I got the miracle backdoor cover from Tampa Bay against the Chiefs, as Tom Terrific hasn't let me down yet.
Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week
Records to Date
Andrew: After doubling down by picks for the Jets last week, foolishly forgetting that they were returning to the still-hurt Sam Darnold, not staying with the kinda-in-form-ish Joe Flacco at quarterback, I'm making the altogether more sensible decision to double down against them this time out. The Raiders were taken behind the woodshed and utterly ruined by the Falcons in Week 12. They are much better than that performance, and remain in the thick of the AFC playoff picture. They should have a point to prove, and this is the perfect time to prove it. Las Vegas (-8) at N.Y. Jets.
Bryan: Under normal circumstances, I find it hard to believe the New Orleans Saints would be favored by just three points against the Atlanta Falcons. The Saints won their earlier matchup 24-9, and that was with Taysom Hill under center. Obviously, the Falcons' explosion against Las Vegas startled people into remembering that Matt Ryan and company can play football, but, I mean, the Raiders' defense is below average. The Saints' defense is very much not. I think they harass and harry Ryan all day and come home with an easy win, if perhaps not by double-digits. I'll take the Saints (-3).
Double Survival League
Andrew: CHI, CLE, DAL, DEN, HOU, JAX, LV, SF
Bryan: DEN, GB, HOU, LAC, LAR, PIT, SEA, SF
Andrew: CAR, CIN, MIN, NYJ, PHI, WAS
Bryan: ARI, CAR, CHI, IND, JAX, MIN, NYJ, PHI, TB
Andrew: Ah, the simple beauty of ill-timed coach firings. Despite the article content above, I'm highly frustrated that the Lions fired Matt Patricia this week, because I have consciously set my picks up so that I could pick the Bears against the Lions here. Another Patricia disasterclass would have gone a long way, so now I'm relying on the Lions playing out the string under Darrell Bevell rather than being inspired to prove a point. Still, the Chicago Bears should have enough on defense here, despite their remedial offense, and at least I'm not picking them against the Colts...
My other pick is the highly traditional "whoever is playing the Jets" selection, which happens to double up with my Lock of the Week. I'm picking the Las Vegas Raiders for the reasons given above, banking in this not being the week the Jets pick up their random upset victory.
Bryan: I had penciled in the Pittsburgh Steelers over the Washington Football Team months ago. An undefeated team, coming off a long rest after their Thanksgiving Day game, against an NFC East squad? I love it. Can't get enough of it. Obviously, that scenario is all discombobulated now -- it's Washington sitting on the long rest, while the Steelers have the rare Wednesday-to-Monday week to try to figure out. I think Pittsburgh is still the better team by a significant margin and should win this one fairly handily, but I'm now picking that game BEFORE they play their previous one. If Big Ben gets hurt on Wednesday night, this pick will look VERY dumb.
Meanwhile, after watching Monday night, I'm more comfortable than ever taking the Green Bay Packers over the Philadelphia Eagles, as I continue to pick on the NFC East. I know that last year, a banged-up and inferior Eagles squad won in Lambeau. Well, this year's Packers squad is significantly better than last year's, and this year's Eagles squad is significantly worse. And Aaron Rodgers knows how to hold a grudge.