Ken Dorsey, Mike Kafka, and the Usual Suspects
NFL Wild Card - In this izzy-dizzy coaching carousel edition of Walkthrough…
- Is Jerry Reese the grown-up general manager the Arizona Cardinals don't want but desperately need?
- Scott Turner leads a star-studded cast of fired coordinators.
Choose Your Fighter: Dorsey, Steichen, Johnson, or Kafka
Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey inherited Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs, lots of secondary playmakers, a capable and (relatively) deep offensive line, and a structure built by Brian Daboll. And Dorsey did fine with it. Just fine.
The Buffalo Bills finished second in offensive DVOA under Dorsey. That's good! But frankly, Dorsey should have been banished to a role as a Division IV quality control assistant. There's a lot to quibble about with the Bills offense: Allen ranking 19th in short-passing DVOA, the team ranking 14th in DVOA when winning big and 19th in fourth quarters, and more.
Where was Dawson Knox for most of the year? Yes, Gabriel Davis and Isaiah McKenzie both had the Turbo Dropsies, but is it that hard to scheme up jet-sweep/quick screen opportunities for them? (McKenzie and Davis were targeted at or behind the line of scrimmage a combined 11 times, per Sports Info Solutions.) Why was Allen always playing bombs away when the Bills were ahead? Why not run just a little bit more, especially when protecting leads against inferior opponents?
Dorsey is on the shortlist of hotshot head coaching candidates, otherwise known as the Carolina Panthers interview list. He is, in Walkthrough's opinion, the least impressive of the young offensive masterminds. Given filet mignon to work with, he served filet mignon that could have used another minute on the hearth.
Also on the shortlist/Panthers list:
Shane Steichen, PHI: Steichen looked like an ideal candidate until the moment Jalen Hurts got injured and he had no idea how to proceed with Gardner Minshew at quarterback.
It's also hard to gauge where Nick Sirianni's influence ends and Steichen's begins. Steichen is a young offensive coordinator working for a young coach who three years ago was a young offensive coordinator under a veteran offensive coach (Frank Reich) who had served under yet another offensive coach (Doug Pederson). At some point, the diminishing returns on a fourth-generation Andy Reid family tree sproutling are likely to kick in.
Ben Johnson, DET: Johnson didn't really have an outstanding offensive line to work with. He had outstanding tackles to work with, but the guard positions were in flux for chunks of the year, and Frank Ragnow isn't Jason Kelce. Jared Goff is also neither Allen nor Hurts, Josh Reynolds and Kalif Raymond were the Lions' second and third wide receivers for much of the year, and the Lions defense did their offense few favors. Dan Campbell is nominally an offensive coach, but Johnson is clearly the unit's caporegime. Johnson deserves lots of interviews.
Mike Kafka, NYG: The least-heralded of the offensive young guns, but perhaps the best candidate. Kafka is a direct Andy Reid offshoot (and former Reid quarterback) whose passing game finished 10th in DVOA with Daniel Jones passing to Richie James and Isaiah Hodgins.
Like Dorsey, Kafka is riding his head coach's coattails. But Kafka could probably have coached the Bills into second place in offensive DVOA. Based on what we saw this year, Dorsey would have coached Daniel Jones to 25 interceptions.
There's also Cowboys coordinator Kellen Moore, whom the Panthers also plan to interview. Moore always looks like a much better candidate in September than in January, which doesn't speak well to his self-scouting. This year, he did a fine job propping up Cooper Rush for several weeks but has aided and abetted Dak Prescott's turnover spree. Check out the three-receiver bunch in the vicinity of Dak's overtime pick-six against the Jaguars:
— NFL (@NFL) December 18, 2022
That play was either designed or installed incoherently. It looked like Mike McCarthy's handiwork. And if that's the case … why hire Moore?
Johnson would be Walkthrough's first choice for a team like the Panthers, who will likely have a rookie quarterback but a pretty good offensive line and playmaker corps in 2023. Johnson could build effective, unpredictable game plans in a hurry.
Kafka might be the ideal candidate for the Kafkaesque Houston Texans, and not just for ironic reasons. The Giants were a mismanaged mess on the road to nowhere this time last year; Kafka was in the passenger seat for a complete (and real) cultural turnaround. The Texans need a piece of that. Kafka's portfolio is also the scantest of the bunch, so the Texans have a chance of landing him.
Steichen fits best for the Arizona Cardinals, whom we will discuss more in the next segment. He can import designed rushing tactics to revive Kyler Murray's career and may have the low-boil energy needed to get the whole organization focused on football again.
The Colts are interviewing Steichen, because the Colts haven't figured out that their "Eagles of the Midwest" strategy will never work. But Steichen, like Reich, could be a useful boiling chip, assuming the Colts don't spend $140 million on Derek Carr or something.
Dorsey? He's "next in line" for a coaching job based on how the old-boy network operates. He has a Panthers pedigree, and the Panthers organization loved keeping things in the family under former ownership. And of course Dorsey is one of many who can (and emphatically WILL) claim credit for turning Allen into Paul Bunyan.
The Panthers organization may be formulating some plan which involves drafting Florida's Anthony Richardson, who has Allen-like traits and should be available with the ninth pick, and pairing him with a coach who can work with a toolsy scrambler. That could be Dorsey. Or Steichen or Kafka, for that matter. But every team in search of a new coach had better make sure they pick one who made his offense great, not the other way around.
Sifting Through the Arizona Cardinals Rubble
Taking over as general manager and/or head coach of the Arizona Cardinals will be like taking inventory of a teenage mafioso's apartment after an arrest.
Five vertical receivers but no healthy top-tier offensive linemen? Several "positionless defenders" but no real linebackers and one half-decent defensive tackle? It's like having seven video game consoles but no shower curtain.
No team in recent history looks more like it was assembled by a subreddit than the Cardinals. The Texans? They're obviously the result of a half-decade power struggle between a rabid chipmunk and the guy who swindled your grandma into blowing her savings on faith-based roof insulation. The Cardinals are the result of a half-decade of "if you've heard of him, get him," unprepared fantasy football brother-in-law logic.
Kliff Kingsbury was fired this week, Steve Keim has left for health reasons, and the Cardinals are finally free to bring some adults into the room and learn the virtues of impulse control. Or hire Sean Payton as emperor so he can use the franchise as a hedge fund/keep-busy project. Either choice is an improvement.
The Cardinals plan to interview former Giants general manager Jerry Reese this week, and Walkthrough emphatically endorses Reese for the Cardinals. (Or the Texans, for that matter.) Reese is cautious to a fault. He'll self-scout carefully and approach the team's free-agent and cap issues logically. Reese abhors flashy signings and trades—he tried it once after the 2016 season and had a bad trip—but the last thing the Cardinals need right now is a freewheeler-dealer.
Assuming Kyler Murray trade speculation is mere clickbait (we're about 93% sure on that front), the looming/inevitable DeAndre Hopkins trade is the splashiest item on the new Cardinals showrunner's to-do list. Frankly, the Nuk trade is a no-brainer: contenders will come offering late first-round picks, non-contenders early second-rounders, and the new GM must play the suitors off each other for the best deal. That will be a slam dunk for anyone less self-destructive and impetuous than Bill O'Brien, which includes the vast majority of human society.
Here's a thornier issue: right tackle Kelvin Beachum; guards Justin Pugh, Will Hernandez, Max Garcia, and Cody Ford; and center Billy Price are all free agents. Center Rodney Hudson will soon be 34 and missed most of the season with a knee injury; Hudson appears to be done.
Other than left tackle D.J. Humphries, who also missed the second half of the season (back), and his backup Josh Jones (who played well), the Cardinals essentially have zero experienced linemen under contract for 2023. They also lack sufficient cap space to extend multiple players, even if they erase a chunk of Hopkins' compensation. Oh, and most of the linemen in the last paragraph don't really merit long extensions anyway.
Before anyone cites cap figures at us: Zach Allen and Byron Murphy are two of the best young players on the Cardinals defense. Both are free agents. The new GM will ideally franchise one and extend the other. There goes a hefty chunk of that $33 million you see on Over The Cap. Now start budgeting for things like specialists…
Keim's replacement doesn't have mere housekeeping to tend to. He'll spend this offseason getting the roster up to code. That's why this is a job for Reese, who seemed to enjoy fiddling with one-year contracts and restricted free agency tags when he ran Tom Coughlin's Giants, and not for Payton, who left New Orleans so he wouldn't have to open the credit card statements.
The greatest indictment against the Keim/Kingsbury era is that it was rarely fun. Injuries played a role, as we rarely saw Murray, Hopkins, J.J. Watt, and supporting characters such as Marquise Brown and Rondale Moore on the field at the same time. But Keim's all cookies/no veggies shopping habits kept the Cardinals from building a support structure for the stars, while Kingsbury's Big 12-approved game plans substituted play-call screen button-mashing for creativity.
The Cardinals tried too hard for too long to be too cool. By the end, they were exhausting and exhausted. They need to be boring before they can be successful. And few GMs Walkthrough has ever encountered can be as boring (in a useful way) as Reese.
News and notes from the coach hiring-firing cycle.
Denver Broncos, Carolina Panthers Interview Jim Caldwell
Would make too much sense. Cannot happen.
Caldwell has essentially not worked in the NFL since the Lions fired him after the 2017 season; he was briefly on Brian Flores' Miami Dolphins staff in 2019 but left for health reasons. Caldwell has a 62-50 record as a head coach and a Super Bowl ring as the coordinator of an offense (which ranked 13th in DVOA) led by Joe Flacco.
Covering this league sucks sometimes.
Denver Broncos Request Interviews with DeMeco Ryans, Dan Quinn
Walkthrough prefers the idea of hiring some defensive hardapple to act as the Sheriff of Russell Wilson Egotown rather than trading draft picks for Sean Payton: the Broncos need those picks, and Payton is too likely to play the "butt heads with Wilson in 2023/declare rebuild in 2024/get bored and wander off" parlay. Ryans, with some Kid Shanahan-type offensive coordinator, would be a fine choice.
New York Jets Fire Mike LaFleur
If you think the Texans head coaching job is unappealing, imagine sitting down for a job interview and hearing that you are supposed to fix Zach Wilson.
Rams Offensive Coordinator Liam Coen Leaves for University of Kentucky
The Rams also made it clear that other assistants can seek work elsewhere without getting blocked. Typically, an organization can block any lateral move; someone like Coen could interview for any head coaching job he likes but would not be allowed to interview as, say, the Patriots offensive coordinator.
Folks, Sean McVay isn't sticking around if it means replacing his entire staff. It would just make the job he's not sure he wants anymore much harder. Walkthrough wouldn't be surprised if McVay is gone by the time you read this.
Commanders Fire Offensive Coordinator Scott Turner
Ron Rivera has overdrawn his benefit-of-the-doubt account and is dangling by a thread after playing three-quarterback monte at the end of the season. Hence the sacrificial pawn, though Turner is more of a rook. Commanders fans sounded happy to see Turner go, but it's impossible to evaluate a coordinator tasked with explaining to Carson Wentz that interceptions are bad.
The Commanders fired Turner after the Rivera/Martin Mayhew end-of-year press conference so reporters could not ask questions about the dismissal. So yeah, everything is as ultra-professional as ever down in Ashburn.
Titans Fire Offensive Coordinator Scott Downing
Downing was too predictable at the start of his Titans tenure and somehow incapable of committing to a zone-read package to help Malik Willis or Josh Dobbs help themselves in 2022. He was also saddled with trying to build a passing game with no left tackle and rookie tight end Chig Okonkwo as his most dangerous healthy playmaker, but the general manager also got fired, so it's all good.
Mike Vrabel's benefit-of-the-doubt account is flush right now. That's a good thing as he makes his first major withdrawal.
Cleveland Browns Fire Defensive Coordinator Joe Woods
The Browns allowed 4.7 yards per rush this season but lacked the talent at defensive tackle to do much better. When it comes to an organization like the Browns, it's best not to ask questions like "Would Woods have kept his job if the quarter-billion-dollar scuzzball quarterback had played better in the final third of the season?"
Green Bay Packers Plan to Retain Defensive Coordinator Joe Barry
It's funny how a defense starts to look "too static" and "soft" when a) it loses an enforcer such as Rashan Gary on the defensive line; and b) the offense is no longer scoring 30 points per game.
Atlanta Falcons Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees Retires
Pees coached for Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh, as well as Mike Vrabel, Navy, Notre Dame, and Kent State (as head coach) over a 40-plus-year career.
The Falcons defense ranked 32nd in adjusted sack rate in 2021 and 2022. Grady Jarrett and A.J. Terrell are its only established stars worth mentioning. Pees' replacement has a bumpy road ahead, and the Falcons rebuild is taking its dear sweet time.