Sean Payton, Josh McCown, and the Broken Carousel
NFL Conference Championship - The New Orleans Saints are $74 million over the projected 2022 salary cap. Their only quarterbacks under contract are Taysom Hill and Ian Book. Important starters such as Terron Armstead and Marcus Williams are headed for free agency. Other top performers such as Cameron Jordan, Malcolm Jenkins, and Demario Davis are well into their 30s. And Michael Thomas is brooding like Rambo in a mountain yurt somewhere.
If you were Sean Payton, you would run screaming from this situation too.
Payton stepped down as the Saints head coach on Tuesday, ostensibly to retire from the rigors of the NFL, plausibly to hang out in Mike McCarthy's barn o' wisdom until they switch places in a
week year or two, but obviously to escape a miserable no-win scenario in Metairie.
The best Payton could hope for if he had stayed in the saddle would have been a 2021 Patriots-style mini-Renaissance: draft a Mac Jones, rally the veterans, win a bunch of games in a division with at least one doormat (and possibly without Tom Brady). That analogy falls apart quickly under close inspection. The Saints don't have money to grab a Hunter Henry or Matt Judon. They don't even have enough money to pay their own guys. Also, the Saints have never been as good as the Patriots: their roster is not as strong, well-constructed financially, or as relatively young as the Patriots roster was entering this season, even if guys like Armstead somehow stick around.
When you have coached for 15 seasons, reached the playoffs nine times, and won a Super Bowl, moving heaven and earth in the hopes of lucking into a quarterback and maybe producing a one-and-done wild-card team cannot sound all that appealing. Especially since Payton just tried that this year and failed.
With Payton's retirement, the Saints become the least appealing head coaching vacancy in the NFL with the exception of teams run by ersatz youth ministers. Payton's departure will send the free agents scurrying to market and could be the cue for some veterans to retire. Whoever takes over in New Orleans won't be rebuilding in 2022. He will be rebuilding in 2023. He'll be eating ramen noodles and dodging the collection agents in 2022.
And so it goes. At least the Saints have their memories.
And Taysom Hill.
The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down
Josh McCown is qualified for many football-related jobs.
Quarterbacks coach? Absolutely! Television talking head? He'd be fantastic! Small-college offensive coordinator? Gigs like that make tremendous learning opportunities for ex-NFL players entering the coaching ranks! Front-facing Director-of-Good-Vibes role in a front office? He would be swell, and the Texans could use someone like that. High school head coach? McCown's team versus Philip Rivers' team would make for a fun Friday night ESPNU showdown.
But if McCown is qualified to be a head coach, then I'm qualified to be Secretary of State.
The Houston Texans' insistence on floating McCown as a serious head coaching candidate has put many of us in the NFL media in a bind. McCown has been incredibly gracious to us over the years. He took the time to grant me an interview that became the centerpiece of a major feature a few years ago. I will pound the table for McCown as a head coach in about five years, after he helps some team with a Davis Mills-type prospect achieve a top-15 finish in DVOA and a wild-card berth. I love McCown. I love my wife too, but I would not claim that she's qualified to captain a mission to Mars.
Texans puppeteer-in-chief Jack Easterbasket wants to run the organization like a model train set, so naturally he is looking for another head coach like David Culley who is underqualified and therefore controllable; that McCown would get kid-gloves treatment from wiseacres like me is an added bonus. Pro Football Talk reported last week that Easterbabka even hoped another team would interview McCown to legitimize the Texans interest; if that report is true, it might be the ultimate textbook example of toxic CYA management. The Jaguars heard their entrance music and promptly reached out to McCown. Perhaps the Jaguars sensed an opportunity to help the Texans saddle themselves with an unqualified coach, though a team that keeps losing at tiddly-winks shouldn't play galactic chess. It's just as likely that the Jaguars heard about the McCown interest and didn't want to feel left out.
This year's coaching carousel has been moving with the speed of one of those revolving rooftop restaurants, in large part because organizations such as the Vikings, Bears, and Giants are filling their general manager vacancies first. The Jaguars face no such impediment and began their coaching search over a month ago. They may have been holding out for Todd Bowles, Brian Daboll, or a 49ers assistant. They may also be spinning their wheels. There's a fine line between being thorough and trying to appear thorough. Dysfunctional organizations walk that line like a drunk with vertigo on a fishing boat in a hurricane.
Back to McCown. He could succeed as a facilitator/motivator type of coach by luring someone like Wade Phillips out of retirement and larding his staff with a mix of legends and up-and-comers. Dan Campbell worked a similar angle this year: I may be the guy who sets off the lunk alarm by grunting too loudly at the gym, but check out my awesome assistants! If hired, McCown could conceivably pull off the same trick without having to overcome the cement-head persona.
The problem is that a Texans job won't lure anyone out of retirement or coax anyone into missing a chance to climb the Shanahan ladder. Until Easterbunny gets ousted, the Texans coaching staff will be a breeding ground for opportunists and a clearinghouse for coaches on their way out of the NFL. It will be a Wild West saloon. And McCown won't get to be anything more than the tin-star sheriff who maintains a semblance of law and order at the behest of Boss Cattlerustler.
Of course, there's a non-zero chance that Easterby (yep, running out of puns), who is just too much of a big-picture guy to keep names and faces straight, has Josh McCown and Josh McDaniels mixed up and thinks he is in hot pursuit of the Patriots offensive coordinator.
Sexy Dan Quinn
The optimist looks at Dan Quinn and sees one of the architects of the Legion of Boom, a head coach who came within a historic collapse of beating the Patriots in a Super Bowl, and a coordinator who turned one of the most comically inept defenses in the NFL into a playoff-caliber unit almost instantaneously.
The pessimist looks at Quinn and sees a retread with a stale scheme whose Falcons sunk helplessly into quicksand after Super Bowl LI and who got a little lucky this year that Micah Parsons was an instant All-Pro and Trevon Diggs kept rolling boxcars instead of snake eyes.
The realist looks at Quinn and says: yes, that's an objectively solid head coaching resume, and who else are we going to hire?
At press time, Quinn is on the short list for the Bears, Giants, Vikings, and Broncos jobs, though the Broncos and Bears may now be heading in other directions. All of the semi-functional non-AFC Southlandia franchises are at least strongly considering him, which may be another reason why the coaching carousel is so gummed up: Quinn is the domino that must fall before the others start to topple. Internet smart alecks like me may have a hard time seeing it, but Quinn is sexy.
Quinn has coordinated three defenses that have ranked first in DVOA: the 2013 and 2014 Seahawks and the 2021 Cowboys. He was head coach when Kyle Shanahan coordinated the 2016 Falcons offense, which finished first in DVOA. Quinn ran a relatively tight ship until everything came unglued for the Falcons in 2020. He is well regarded in the coaching fraternity and should attract top assistants, including a Shanny-like offensive wunderkind. (Let's assume Quinn is promising teams a Steve Sarkisian- and Dirk Koetter-free experience).
But … but … 28-3! Yes, we all remember. Todd Bowles' defense couldn't stop Cooper Kupp when it mattered three days ago. Brian Daboll's offense scored six points against the Jaguars with a playoff superhero at quarterback two months ago. Nobody's resume is perfect. Some resumes are just emptier, allowing us to pour all of our hopes and dreams into the blank spaces.
Sure, we'd all love to see new faces and splashier hires. But if it was your money and reputation on the line, you would move the coach who has been to three Super Bowls to the top of the list too.
A quick look at some of the comings and goings around the league:
Chicago Bears Hire GM Ryan Poles
None of the McCaskeys can be bothered learning any new first names or changing the "R.P." monograms on the towels in the executive washroom, so this is a fine move.
But seriously folks: Poles is a 36-year-old rising star from the Chiefs organization, and Adam Schefter reports that Poles and former Lions head coach Jim Caldwell may be a matched set. The Bears went to the Chiefs well before with Matt Nagy, but whatever coaching strengths Nagy may have possessed (he looked pretty clever at first) were blunted by Ryan Pace.
Walkthrough knows nothing about Poles that cannot be found in a Google search, but we love the idea of Caldwell working with Justin Fields.
New York Giants Hire GM Joe Schoen
Welcome to the Giants executive honeymoon! It's a brief, joyous interlude when everyone is infatuated with the new guy's dewy, Bills-scented charm, a grace period before he and the franchise conspire to do something frustratingly shortsighted and insular…
We have completed a head coach interview with Bengals Defensive Coordinator Lou Anarumo
— New York Giants (@Giants) January 23, 2022
The "native of Staten Island" bit in that Anarumo tweet is a tell that the Captain Lou interview, while surely endorsed by Schoen, is a product of the MaraMind: John Mara thinks of the Giants as a conservatory of the Platonic ideal of "New York football," nestled as they are off Exit 16W of the New Jersey Turnpike, and honestly believes that Giants fans give a darn that their head coach grew up just across the Verrazano Narrows bridge.
Don't let Saturday's turnover-heavy victory over the Titans lull you into thinking that Anarumo has done some great job in Cincinnati. The Bengals have risen from 30th to 27th to 19th in defensive DVOA in his three seasons on the job, thanks largely to the free-agent arrivals of Trey Hendrickson, D.J. Reader, and Chidobe Awuzie. It's a static, inconsistent defense that looked great against stale Steelers and Broncos offenses. If Captain Lou was atop Schoen's short list, Walkthrough would hate to see his long list.
We will try to keep an open mind about Schoen, who comes with a thick portfolio full of recommendations. The Giants are still in the Quinn sweepstakes, such as it is, and of course Brian Daboll would be the most obvious Schoen hire. It's looking clearer and clearer, however, that the Giants' biggest problems start above the general managerial level.
Baltimore Ravens Fire DC Don 'Wink' Martindale
This move lies somewhere along the spectrum between blaming someone for circumstances far beyond their control and making a change one year early instead of one year late. Martindale has coached in Baltimore for a decade, and while catastrophic injuries in the secondary weren't his fault, it's easy to imagine John Harbaugh wanting a fresh voice and Martindale a change of scenery after a frustrating season.
The Ravens have reportedly asked to interview hot Cowboys assistant Joe Whitt Jr., and there's wide speculation that they have their eye on Mike Zimmer as well. Harbaugh can land his pick of coordinators, and a down year is a good excuse for some light housekeeping.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman appears safe at press time. Roman, the Ravens' option-heavy offense, and Lamar Jackson appear to be a bundle at this point: there aren't many experienced coordinators in the NFL ranks who could replace Roman without blowing everything the heck up. But if I were Harbaugh, I would start steering the Ravens offense a smidge closer to NFL norms, or assembling a contact list of collegiate hotshots with clever ideas for Jackson, or both.
Carolina Panthers Hire OC Ben McAdoo
So begins—or continues—the death spiral of the Matt Rhule regime.
Rhule sabotaged his reputation by firing Joe Brady and promoting loyalist Jeff Nixon as his replacement. Veteran coaches know a toxic situation when they see one, which is why top candidate Pep Hamilton nope'd out of a potential interview. McAdoo and Rhule don't appear to share any philosophical similarities, but David Tepper likely insisted that Rhule hire an experienced guardrail, while McAdoo—who is only 44 years old—needs to work his way back up the ladder after getting his foot caught in the Eli Manning beartrap in East Rutherford four long years ago.
This story ends with McAdoo serving as an interim coach next December.
Tennessee Titans Fire Jim Haslett, Other Assistants
Offensive coordinator Todd Downing was not among those assistants; he received a vote of confidence instead. Matt Vrabel is apparently going the Dan Quinn-Steve Sarkisian "eh, it wasn't really all that bad" route with Downing. We alluded to how that works out in an earlier segment.
Broncos May be Zeroing in on Nathaniel Hackett
Quinn and Rams assistant Kevin O'Connell were still in the running at press time, but connected Broncos reporters feel that the Packers offensive coordinator now has the inside track. Unlike Quinn, he's a young offensive guru, not a third-straight defensive tough guy. Unlike O'Connell, he can start work right away. Because, you know, the major college all-star game practices start next week. (Waltkthrough's bag is already half-packed).
First one in would seem to make Hackett frontrunner to become Broncos next head coach. Makes sense for building consistency w/your QB. Especially if QB becomes Aaron Rodgers. Dan Quinn also scheduled for 2nd interview at Broncos HQ. But if all goes well w/Hackett … #9sports https://t.co/LVjJ0kYRVp
— Mike Klis (@mikeklis) January 24, 2022
Broncos fans are already dreaming of Hackett luring Aaron Rodgers to Denver. Because, you know, Rodgers is well known for respecting and listening to his coaches.
Packers Special Teams Coach Maurice Drayton Still Employed at Press Time
Matt LaFleur may be slow-rolling his coaching decisions in anticipation of Hackett leaving: Drayton can be quietly let go amidst the shuffle.
There's no truth whatsoever to the rumor that LaFleur tried to kick Drayton out of team headquarters, but the kick was blocked.