Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where for once your humble Scramblenauts have our finger directly on the pulse of the league’s breaking news, rather than reacting a week later to events.
Bryan: As we speak — which is a day before you read this, because that’s how the process of writing works — news is breaking that the Carolina Panthers have fired head coach Ron Rivera. Secondary coach Perry Fewell gets bumped up to interim head coach, Norv Turner becomes his special assistant, and quarterback coach Scott Turner is the new offensive coordinator.
Andrew, you were very high on the Panthers this offseason. Any thoughts?
Andrew: I’m not saying I saw this coming, but this is a direct quote from my Panthers chapter in this summer’s FO Almanac:
[Panthers owner David Tepper] was willing to overlook the second half of last season because of [Cam] Newton’s injury, but even that excuse is unlikely to suffice if we witness a repeat in 2019. This offseason has seen a lot of turnover among the playing staff in a bid to avert that possibility; this year’s results will determine how much turnover we see among the coaching staff next time around.
I maintain that a healthy Panthers team could have been a Super Bowl contender, and I think Ron Rivera will return to the NFL as a head coach very quickly — possibly even this offseason. That said, when it became obvious that Cam Newton wasn’t going to be healthy this year, this outcome seemed inevitable in the absence of a miraculous discovery of heretofore untapped quarterback talent.
Bryan: I would also point out that Rivera is a defensive guy; his fingerprints are all over Carolina’s defensive scheme and the quality of players they’ve added. They’re just 21st in defensive DVOA this season, so it’s not all the Newton injury that ended up doing Rivera in. That being said, I agree with you — Rivera has been a very solid coach, and will have a new job sooner rather than later.
I do think that, at times, a coach’s effectiveness tends to wear off in the same place. Both the veteran players and the fanbase stop getting impressed by what they do well, and start getting frustrated with their weaknesses. You have to be a damn good coach or employed by Mike Brown in order to keep a job in the same city year after year after year. A new fanbase will get Rivera in the not-too-distant future, and they’ll be happy, at least for a while. And Panthers fans will get to enjoy someone new coming into town and bringing with them that New Coach Smell.
Andrew: Though I’m disappointed for Rivera, and caught slightly off guard by the timing, this all leads very well into our chosen topic for this week. As I mentioned, we finally have our finger on the pulse of league news: our plan all along was to write about potential coaching changes this week, and here we are.
No fewer than 15 different head coaches have been mentioned across a variety of hot seat rankings this week, and those didn’t even include the existing vacancy in Landover, Maryland. Are we really expecting half of the league to change head coaches? Probably not, but the Rivera news means our second chip has already fallen and we’re barely out of Week 13. Expecting a quarter of the teams to make a change looks to be a very safe bet at this point.
Bryan: If anything, it feels like the coaching carousel has sped up over the past few years, with teams being less likely to give coaches the once-customary three-year window to get things turned around. One just has to look at Steve Wilks’ extensive tenure in Arizona to see how itchy owners can get when the wins don’t start coming soon! Last year’s shiny new coach can become this year’s latest addition to the reject pile with alarming frequency. Let’s take a look at some of the coaches who may be updating their resume, and the situations they leave behind.
Bryan: So, what does Rivera leave behind him? There’s a decent bit of young talent; Christian McCaffrey is the rare running back who might be worth paying, D.J. Moore looks like a very good receiver for years to come, and Brian Burns is having a solid rookie year. Note that a quarterback was not on that list of solid young talent. Nor was a particularly high draft pick or oceans of cap space to find one.
Bryan: I’m also not sure “Come to Carolina, where you can coach Will Greir!” is the draw the Panthers hope it will be.
Andrew: No, of course not, but then technically the Panthers still have Cam Newton. Now the condition of Cam Newton, at this point, is anybody’s guess, but the existence of Newton is still verifiable. It is, however, an open secret that Newton might not be in Carolina much longer, as the Panthers can save a lot of money by moving on from him next year if they so choose.
There’s a lot else to like on the roster, really, which is why I was so high on them coming into the year. You’ve already mentioned McCaffrey and Moore, but Curtis Samuel is also a talented receiver, Ian Thomas has some ability at tight end, they have a deep pool of auxiliary pass-catchers and enough pieces to form a pretty good offensive line. Moving from Rivera to an offensive coach, assuming Sean McVay’s talent pool hasn’t been sucked entirely dry, could be enough to coalesce that talent around even a stopgap quarterback.
Bryan: I’m a little surprised that Norv Turner wasn’t tapped to be the interim coach, and indeed was moved on from his offensive coordinator role. It’s not immediately clear whether Turner’s new role is a promotion or a demotion, but the best bits of the last two years in Carolina have Turner’s fingerprints on them, not Rivera’s, so I would have thought he would have been the guy. That being said, I’m more surprised Rivera got fired midseason, so this whole Panthers situation has me blindsided a bit.
… you don’t suppose Dave Gettleman, ex-Panthers general manager, will reach out and give Rivera a job, do you?
Andrew: Will that job even be open? Has Rivera’s firing perhaps had a knock-on effect?
NEW YORK GIANTS
Bryan: Firing Pat Shurmur after two years would be violating my “give head coaches three years” rule. Then again, keeping Pat Shurmur after two twn-loss seasons would be violating my “don’t hire bad coaches” rule, so I’m torn. If I were in the Giants’ shoes, I don’t think I’d move on from Shurmur just yet; Daniel Jones is still in his rookie year, Saquon Barkley has been hurt, and a lot of talent left this offseason. I’d give it one more year to see if anything can be shaken out of this. Then again, there are a great many things that the Giants have done these last few years I wouldn’t have done.
Andrew: I dunno, going from 5-11 to even worse, and potentially finishing last place in a division with this Washington team, is a strong indictment of a coaching staff that was theoretically hired to get the best out of the waning years of Eli Manning. Yes, it’s arguable that 5-11 was the best possible outcome for the waning years of Eli Manning, but I think the front office was expecting slightly more. I’m not arguing for Shurmur’s firing, but when I look at the decisions this staff has made, I think I would be seriously considering a total reboot if I were the owner.
Bryan: It’s easier to pull off a total reboot if you’re changing quarterback, general manager, and head coach all at the same time, but maybe Daniel Jones can be the Judi Dench to Shurmur’s Pierce Brosnan, and Rivera can be Daniel Craig.
Andrew: You’re struggling to bond together this analogy. I can tell.
Bryan: If Giants fans do, in fact, have a quantum of solace, it’s that they have a substantial group of young talent, plenty of salary cap space now that Eli’s moving on, and currently the second pick of the draft to grab Chase Young. If you had experience working on Gettleman’s secret service, this may not be the worst job in the world to go to, as long as Shurmur doesn’t live to die another day.
Andrew: We’re more likely to see the Skyfall in on them, in my opinion. I look at Gettleman’s decisions, and he could aptly be nicknamed Dr. NO!!! NOOOOO!!!! Just NO. At least the Spectre of Manning won’t be hanging around any longer. He sure sucked the living daylights out of the past few seasons.
Bryan: … something something 007 in New York.
Andrew: I’ll never say never again, but the world is not enough to persuade me that they should keep Shurmur.
Bryan: There may be plenty of other openings in the division, mind you. Diamonds may or may not be forever, but Jason Garrett’s hot seat certainly is.
Bryan: Allow me to introduce Exhibit A, a look at one site’s Coaches Hot Seat rankings at the end of 2015.
I just want to share this snapshot from just after the 2015 season. One of these things is not like the other… pic.twitter.com/brPtKPS0QS
— Bryan Knowles (@BryKno) December 2, 2019
Andrew: Garrett’s situation is really strange to me. The Cowboys have won their division in two of the last three years, and the title in between went to the eventual Super Bowl champions. The only year they haven’t finished in the top two since 2013, Matt Cassel was their leading passer in Tony Romo’s absence. That’s also their only losing record since Garrett took over from Wade Phillips in 2010! Most other franchises would love a run like that.
Bryan: You have to take into account Dallas’ historical situation. The Cowboys’ run of successful head coaches is basically unparalleled. They have had eight head coaches in franchise history; all but one have a winning record. Dave Campo is not spoken of any more in Texas. For Garrett, Coach of the Year in 2016? Three NFC East championships? It’s all well and good, but JerryWorld expects more. Especially with Dak Prescott under center, although he, Amari Cooper, and Randall Cobb will need new deals to eat up all of Dallas’ salary space.
Andrew: The lack of playoff success is, I admit, glaring. For all their regular-season competence, Garrett’s Cowboys teams have only made the playoffs three times and have never advanced beyond the divisional round. That probably has a lot to do with Mr. Jones’, let’s say lukewarm endorsement this week.
Bryan: In Jerry Jones’ regular appearance on Dallas radio, he was asked about Garrett’s credentials and his future. His reply?
“In my opinion, Jason Garrett will be coaching in the NFL next year.”
Ouch. If the dreaded Vote of Confidence is an ill-fated omen for a head coach, where does the “eh, he’ll probably have a job” comment rank? Because, uh, Jerry has a lot of control over whether or not Garrett will have a head coaching job in 2020 being, you know, his current employer and all.
Andrew: So Garrett’s job is on a shoogly peg, and he’s the head coach of the team that is currently leading this division. Shurmur’s job is on a shoogly peg, and he’s the coach of the team that is currently last. We’ve only made passing mention of the job that is already vacant here.
Andrew: Washington’s coaching chair has been vacant for about two months after the predictable early-season firing of Jay Gruden. The situation he left behind is … well, it’s typical Washington really. I think, somewhat akin to Rivera, Gruden has more chance of landing a better head coaching job next year than Washington does of landing a better head coach.
Bryan: If you’re taking over the Washington job, you’d better like Dwayne Haskins; your job security depends on it. You’ve also got some talent on that defensive line in Daron Payne, Jonathan Allen, and Montez Sweat and, at the moment, the third pick in the draft. Not a second-round pick, mind you; you used that for Sweat.
Andrew: The downsides are many, however. First, the obvious: you need to work under Dan Snyder and (presumably) Bruce Allen. You are absolutely wedded to Haskins, who was demonstrably not ready this season. Your franchise has a history of alienating its best players, blowing salary cap space on terrible free agents, and running any team manager with talent out of town for one spurious reason or another. You will be expected to win, and win often, without the organizational excellence elsewhere to justify such a demand.
Bryan: Cap space is another downside; Washington currently is 21st in available cap space for 2020, so your first moves as new head coach are probably going to have to be getting rid of Josh Norman and Trent Williams, and maybe Ryan Kerrigan and Jordan Reed to boot, so you can re-sign Brandon Scherff and make room for your draft class, and that’s before you can even start to think about bringing in free agents to run your system. That’s always a great first thing to do as a coach, right? Subtraction by subtraction?
Someone’s going to take this job, because it’s an NFL head coaching job and there aren’t that many available. For the life of me, though, it’s hard to think of a worse situation anywhere in the NFL. If Rivera — or Garrett any other coaching prospect out there — has a choice of locations, I can’t imagine him willingly picking the Washington job.
Andrew: Especially when it looks likely that we’ll see much better openings elsewhere, such as a modern franchise with a supportive owner, franchise quarterback, and success-starved fanbase, in a division where every other team has some kind of question mark at the sport’s most important position.
Bryan: Dan Quinn tried to revitalize his coaching regime by firing all three coordinators this past offseason. Thirteen weeks into the year, I think we can safely say that no, that wasn’t the problem.
Andrew: This is exactly the scenario we discussed in the South Over/Unders this preseason. Once you’ve fired everybody under you, there’s nowhere else for the blame to go when results don’t improve. Quinn can point at injuries, certainly, but even a healthy Falcons defense never put up results commensurate with their talent — their highest DVOA rank in his tenure was 22nd. Quinn was ostensibly a defense-focused head coach, so that’s not going to reflect well on him.
Bryan: If the Falcons win out, maybe, just maybe, Quinn can save his job. The defense has looked better post-bye week, and Quinn could make the argument that this late-season defensive surge bodes well for 2020. Of course, he could have made that argument last year, and the year before…
Andrew: I’m of the opinion that the home defeat against the Buccaneers sealed it. The win in New Orleans was meant to be the yardstick for Arthur Blank, but that now looks like a fluke of timing and circumstance rather than a sign of things to come next season.
Bryan: Also, remember — the Falcons were all-in this season. They spent $250 million in contracts and contract extensions this last offseason; they were ready and roaring to go. Those expectations, and the resounding flop, not only pretty much seal Quinn’s fate, but also really hamstring his successor. The Falcons are currently over the salary cap for 2020, with basically only Alex Mack realistically available to cut. Austin Hooper and De’Vondre Campbell are free agents, Matt Ryan’s having a down year, there’s not a ton of young talent waiting to blossom … this is kind of a dire situation! It’s going to take Atlanta a year or two to dig themselves out of this crater. About the only things they do have going for them are Ryan and three picks in the first two rounds.
Andrew: I wouldn’t say it’s as bad as that. Ryan is a superb quarterback, albeit one on the back nine of his career, and the receiving talent is as good as anywhere else in the league. We’ve been saying the defense is young for about four years now, but it really still is surprisingly young. Some defensive guy is going to convince himself that he can generate a top-tier defense out of Grady Jarrett, Takk McKinley, Deion Jones, and Isaiah Oliver — all currently 26 or younger — and that Ryan and the offense already has most of what they need to keep up their end of the bargain.
Bryan: It would be a little bit unusual for the Falcons to replace Quinn with another defensive guru; most owners swing to the other side of the ball when swapping out unsuccessful coaches. That being said, I’ve thought Robert Saleh has been earmarked for this job all season long. Because again, what Atlanta needs to turn this defense around is a bald, Seattle-taught defensive guy.
Andrew: You really can’t argue with the success of Quinn and Gus Bradley. Which leads us nicely to…
Andrew: Like Quinn, it has looked for a few weeks now that Doug Marrone is simply playing out the string. Marrone gave the Jaguars their first winning record since 2007, and was very close to dragging Blake Bortles to the Super Bowl just two years ago, but pretty much everything since has gone wrong. Their star defensive back forced a trade to Los Angeles. Bortles turned back into a pumpkin, except Hallowe’en was long past and the pumpkin had rotted from the inside. They paid big money to Nick Foles for the most ridiculous reason in the history of ridiculous reasons, giving him the single daftest sports contract I’ve ever heard about.
Bryan: And, whether it’s Marrone or someone new, the coach of the 2020 Jaguars is going to come into an immediate quarterback controversy — big-money Foles or Gardner Minshew, who has actually won games this season. Minshew might save Marrone’s job with a good run down the stretch, but I’m not sure how a franchise can justify keeping that Foles deal on the bench. You don’t give that kind of money to a player you don’t think is The Answer, and maybe you throw 2019 out the window? It’s not a fun situation to be in, either way. And, that big Foles contract keeps Jacksonville tight against the salary cap next season, hindering any new coach’s ability to mold the team going forward.
Andrew: That quarterback situation is one of the many reasons I expect them to make a change. A new coach won’t be wedded to one guy over the other, and won’t be either “the guy who benched Minshew when we still had a shot” or “the guy who benched Foles after a couple of weeks.” The biggest issue I have here, as a prospective head coach, is the constant recent history of losing regardless of who’s coaching them. The franchise appears to need a clean slate.
Bryan: See, I wonder if that isn’t a reason to keep Marrone around for one more year. Foles can be cut loose after 2020 if he doesn’t get it together, so if things don’t turn around sooner rather than later, you can cut Marrone and Foles at the same time and get that full fresh start you’re looking for.
Andrew: I think that’s just as good a reason to make the change now. You know you’re making a change, so give the new guy the chance to evaluate Foles and Minshew. He knows that you can cut Foles loose at the end of the year if you need to, or keep him if he succeeds. The contract’s a sunk cost at this point, so just get what you think are the best pieces in place. I don’t think anybody still believes that’s Doug Marrone — and I say that as somebody who thinks Marrone is a very decent coach, but also that Jacksonville is not nearly as well-run as we like to think they are.
Bryan: You’re probably right. I just feel any coach who comes in in 2020 is going to be handicapped by that Foles deal in a way that’s really going to hurt their ability to change anything in Jacksonville. They’re 29th in cap space, Yannick Ngakoue might be out the door, their defense is aging fast, their best piece forced his way out of town … this is a job with a high degree of difficulty, if perhaps a low degree of expectations.
Andrew: Also a high degree of first-round picks, thanks to that Ramsey trade.
Bryan: That is something. I’d still rather have the high picks of the Giants or Bengals if I were shopping for a job, or the many, many, many picks of the Dolphins, but the Jaguars might be in the next-best draft position after those three. As long as the Mustache doesn’t go on too much of a tear.
It just feels like the Jaguars are a year away from even being able to rebuild; they may well be next year’s Dolphins or Bengals as they wait for bad contract decisions to pass them by.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
Bryan: Doug Marrone, a former Bills head coach on the hot seat, takes his Jaguars to play Anthony Lynn, a former Bills head coach on the hot seat. Insert pointing Spider-Man meme here.
I think Lynn’s seat is in danger for reasons that may be somewhat out of his control. The Chargers have seen a lot of injuries. They’ve lost a lot of close games, so their record is worse than their performance would indicate. And they play second fiddle in Los Angeles, so there may be some urgency to make a big-name hire to get take some kind of headlines away from the Rams. I don’t think Lynn’s a bad coach, but the situation is getting a bit desperate for him.
Andrew: Honestly, looking at the Chargers next season, this could almost be a mercy firing. That team is not about to get better unless somebody has the gumption to point out to the ownership that it’s time to move on from their decade-plus franchise player. They should have better health on defense in theory, but just how many years have we been saying the Chargers are due better injury luck? And field goal luck? And close game luck? And pretty much luck in general?
Bryan: Lynn has also already played his trump card, replacing Ken Whisenhunt. That gave the Chargers a short-term boost, but that’s already faded, and you can’t fire Whisenhunt twice! Scapegoats expire after they’ve been used.
I think Lynn has probably done enough to get another season in Los Angeles, but he’ll be at the top of the hot seat rankings for next year.
Andrew: At that point, you might well have your clean slate coach-and-quarterback changeover.
Bryan: The Class of 2004 is finally more or less done. Manning’s probably leaving after this year, Philip Rivers has cliffed, and Ben Roethlisberger is going to have to come back from a major injury. End of an era.
Andrew: Also, we haven’t yet mentioned that this was your big preseason pick.
Bryan: Yes, it’s funny how we didn’t mention that. I wasn’t expecting Rivers to fall off of a cliff. I wasn’t expecting the Derwin James injury. I wasn’t expecting the horrible voodoo curse that is Chargers existence to continue. I would like to point out that the Chargers are outscoring their opponents, and have yet to lose a game by more than one score, so they’re a rung above a lot of the other teams we’ve talked about today. But man, consider my lesson learned — never, ever, ever trust the Chargers.
Andrew: So we’ve now covered your big preseason pick, and my big preseason pick, so what about the computer’s big preseason pick?
Bryan: The computer clearly can’t handle the scruffiness of Matt Patricia’s beard.
To be fair to Detroit, they have had a lead in every game this season, a feat only matched by the 49ers and the Chiefs. That’s a good set of teams to be grouped with, and I’m told by reliable sources that taking leads is an important part of winning football games. Keeping them, on the other hand…
Andrew: Alternative interpretation: the Lions have blown a lead in nine of 12 games this season, a feat unmatched by any other team in the NFL. I don’t want to descend into that “knowing how to win” mumbo-jumbo, but this is a team that was 24-6 up against a rookie quarterback and a rookie head coach in Week 1 and ended up falling from ahead to scrape a draw. Matt Stafford’s injury probably gives them a pass for the past few weeks and buys Patricia time, but I look at where this team was when he took over, where they were last year, and where they are now, and that is not a favorable trajectory.
Bryan: I know backup quarterbacks coming in is used as a pass for coaches all the time, but … the Steelers are in playoff contention with a pair of backup quarterbacks. The Saints are the favorites to win the NFC because of their stretch with a backup quarterback. The Panthers and Jaguars both had stretches of success with backup quarterbacks. It feels like if you’re a decent coach, you can make things work with backup quarterbacks.
Andrew: Right, and the team has a losing record even with Matthew Stafford, so it’s not even like losing their key player was the critical difference in their season-long performance. Look at the rest of their schedule too: 3-12-1 is in play right now for a roster that should have been thinking playoffs at the beginning of the year. You can talk about the plan and buy-in and complementary football all you want, but that is a bad season even for the talent level of Miami and Washington. The Lions already have too much experience of settling for performance this bad. A prospective 0-5 December really should be enough to force their hand.
Bryan: Also hurting Patricia’s chances is the fact that he’s a defensive guy, and the Lions defense has been terrible. We mentioned that Carolina’s 5.1% defensive DVOA was enough to cast a shadow on Ron Rivera’s tenure; what does that mean for Detroit’s 10.7% DVOA? Or their 14.2% weighted DVOA, as they’ve just gotten worse as the season has gone along?
Andrew: What are the prospects for a new guy, if they do move on? I like Stafford; he’s far from perfect, but he should be at worst the second-best quarterback in the division if his coach is scheming correctly. He’s also 31, which is experienced without being old, and has a decent, if aging, supporting cast. Oh, and that offensive line is also pretty good.
Bryan: A top-six draft pick that you don’t have to use on a quarterback is probably the most enticing thing about the Detroit job. Rookie tight ends always seem to struggle, so maybe T.J. Hockenson can still develop in year two. Frank Ragnow is an excellent offensive lineman. They don’t have any stud defenders, but they have a lot of intriguing defenders who might be an interesting puzzle for, say, a Ron Rivera. Outside of linebacker, there aren’t really any gaping needs that have to be filled right away, so a new coach would have quite a bit of freedom to experiment. You can see why our model thought the Lions would be competitive this year, and maybe with a more solid coach, they’ll realize that potential in 2020.
Andrew: You mentioned Steve Wilks before; a few of the first-year guys are already being mentioned as prospective firings, and we talked about the group as a whole earlier in the year. Do any of those stand out to you?
Bryan: The Freddie Kitchens hiring, which so many people were excited about, now reminds me of another position coach bumped up to head coach after backstage drama — Jim Tomsula. Sometimes, people get promoted too quickly, too soon, and Kitchens has really, really looked like he doesn’t yet have the skills to manage a team. I’m not saying anything bad about his football skills, but his management skills leave a lot to be desired.
Andrew: Kitchens is the standout to me as well, for all the wrong reasons. That club looks like the one that could benefit the most from a Rivera-type: somebody who can get guys to calm down and focus on their jobs, deal with the hype, and generally get the place on an even keel. I was highly dubious when they appointed Kitchens, as a first-time head coach promoted mainly for being the quarterback’s buddy. Dirk Koetter in Tampa Bay is another guy who comes to mind, though at least he was the offensive coordinator. Sometimes, the quarterback is just the quarterback and the coach isn’t really the reason for that.
Bryan: The other one that really jumps out of me is Adam Gase. Kitchens seems like a mistake in retrospect; Gase seemed like a mistake at the time. Mike Tanier ripped the Jets apart for hiring Gase in Football Outsiders Almanac 2019, and the coach hasn’t really shown … anything? At all? To justify the decision to pick him. Now, Jets’ owner Christopher Johnson has publicly said that Gase will be the head coach going forward, as they don’t want to expose Sam Darnold to changing schemes year after year, and that’s fair enough.
Andrew: I think I’d be more concerned about exposing my quarterback/franchise to Adam Gase year after year, but this is one of about a billion reasons I’m glad I’m not Woody Johnson.
Bryan: It should also be noted that the Jets are the first team to lose to two 0-7 teams (or worse) in NFL history, so that’s a fun piece of trivia for you. I do think Gase survives because of the Darnold injuries, but again, we saw good coaches making hay with backup quarterbacks all year long; it’s kind of the story of the year. Gase, Quarterback Guru, couldn’t get a dang thing out of Luke Falk or Trevor Siemian.
Andrew: The other guy is Zac Taylor, whose win against Gase’s Jets might just have been enough to save him. We’ll see, though; it wasn’t enough for Cam Cameron back in the 1-15 Dolphins days. Taylor looks like another guy promoted beyond his ken, but in fairness to him Cincinnati’s roster is a wreck. Also, the Bengals aren’t exactly famed for their severance packages.
Bryan: Yeah, I’d give Ol’ Rough and Ready a second season. You know, with a quarterback of his choosing. And A.J. Green on the field for a game. One win is, well, obviously terrible, but an offensive guru needs offensive weapons to really judge him, and so I think Cincinnati can justify bringing him back for legitimate reasons, and not just the fact that they don’t want to be paying three head coaches in 2020.
Andrew: That brings us to 11 of the 16 names we had seen mentioned ahead of this article. The other five don’t seem at all likely to me at this point: Doug Pederson, Matt Nagy, Vic Fangio, Kliff Kingsbury, and … Mike Tomlin?!? THIS year?
Bryan: I also saw a list mentioning Brian Flores, as if the Dolphins weren’t trying to be bad and as if Flores hadn’t actually made them feisty down the stretch. The list that had Mike Tomlin on it is clearly insane. Some people just have weird grudges against particular coaches, as longtime Football Outsiders commentators will clearly remember.
Which brings me to Matt Nagy. Something’s gotta change in the Bears’ offense for 2020, but I’m pretty sure Mitchell Trubisky is going to lose that particular battle. Still, again, when you bring in an offensive guru, you expect to be above 25th in offensive DVOA. All the T-formations in the world won’t help you if you can’t turn the No. 2 pick into a functioning NFL quarterback.
Andrew: Counterpoint: all the offensive gurus in the world won’t help you if you’re spending the No. 2 pick on Mitchell Trubisky. Nagy is the reigning coach of the year, so he should get another season, but that seat is getting toasty. Doug Pederson’s in a similar boat: he still has all the good will from the Super Bowl win, and rightly so, but both the team and the quarterback are trending in very much the wrong direction.
Bryan: As for Vic Fangio, he didn’t sign Joe Flacco or get Drew Lock injured. He’s got Denver’s defense up into the top 12 in DVOA and turned Alexander Johnson into a potential Pro Bowl linebacker, though that’s an argument for next week. I’m not really sure what else you wanted Fangio to do.
Andrew: That was always a project situation, not “win now or else.” That’s the same reason Kickin’ Kliff is in absolutely zero danger right now. The Cardinals are clearly improving overall, even if last week’s mishap went against the trend. They might be the best set-up of any team in that division for the long term, as long as the Seahawks remain set on constraining their quarterback. Only an absolute and unmitigated disaster is ending his tenure after one year.
The Mike Tomlin suggestion is absurd. He would be hired before they’d finished serving him coffee in the firing meeting. The Steelers also aren’t that kind of organization.
Bryan: The Tomlin, Coach of the Year buzz I’m hearing also is way out there, but he’s closer to that than he is to getting a pink slip. Some people just aren’t happy with anything.
Andrew: Overall, the teams I expect to make a change are fairly straightforward. We already have Washington and Carolina. I’m confident Atlanta and Jacksonville will join them. It really sounds like Dallas will too. I think Anthony Lynn and Pat Shurmur get another year, but the second-half collapse bodes poorly for Matt Patricia. That makes six, then there will be one “surprise” firing somewhere — possibly Nagy if the front office favors Trubisky. Oh, and Freddie Kitchens, so that makes eight.
Bryan: As per usual, we’re mostly in agreement. I’d tab Freddie Kitchens as the surprise firing, which means it won’t happen as it has been predicted in advance and now my head hurts. I’m not cut out for this hiring-and-firing wheel of craziness.
Andrew: That means it must be time to look at exactly why some of these coaches are being mentioned here.
Keep Choppin’ Wood
We already covered this in Audibles, but just in case you need a reminder:
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) December 1, 2019
That was Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen, ignoring a wide-open Jarius Wright in the end zone, fading backward into the abyss, drifting further and further out to sea and taking the Panthers’ drowning playoff chances — and head coach Ron Rivera — with him.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game
We’ve mocked Miami’s tanking strategy all season, so credit where credit is due: the players and coaches are definitely playing to win, and pulling out all the stops to do so. That includes surprise onside kicks as well as this glorious, glorious fake field goal:
— Miami Dolphins (@MiamiDolphins) 1 December 2019
Well done to Brian Flores for dialing up one of the most ridiculous successful plays in league history.
John Fox Award for Conservatism
Most of this week’s conservative coaching decisions were fairly run-of-the-mill, but one does stand out a bit. Matt Patricia will consider his fourth-quarter field goal against the Bears to be justifiable, taking a late lead with a third-string quarterback against a bad offense after being stuffed on third-and-1. Even so, the numbers say he should have gone for it, as even the downside of a stuff — pinning the Bears on their own 5 — is more likely to result in the Lions scoring next than the Bears. It may be a sign of how the league has progressed that we struggled to find something more egregious, or it may be a one-week aberration. We expect the latter, but we can always hope for the former.
Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching
Confusing doesn’t necessarily mean bad, and it’s possible that Freddie Kitchens’ decision to bench Damarious Randall makes sense if you have all the information … which we do not. Randall committed an unspecified indiscretion last week, and as a response, was not with the team during their 13-20 loss to Pittsburgh. Some rumors indicate it may be due to Randall’s reluctance to practice on Thanksgiving; others tie it to Randall’s ejection against Pittsburgh the last time they played, in the less-memorable of the two brouhahas that game. Kitchens opted not to explain the move at all, instead opting for cryptic comments like “when you make decisions like that, it’s for the 52 other guys as well” and “Damarious has my trust. It has nothing to do with trust. … What Damarious and I talked about is going to stay between Damarious and I.” Grammar quibbles aside, the decision to bench a starting-caliber safety in a near-must-win game likely deserves a more concrete explanation. Then again, I suppose poor decision making is to be expected from a coach who would wear a “Pittsburgh Started It” shirt before the rematch of a game which resulted in 33 players getting fined and where bad blood is still flowing on both sides.
‘Oh, Oh, Fitzmagic! You Know…’ Fantasy Player of the Week
It may not have been ideal for the Fish Tank, knocking the Dolphins from third to fourth in the draft order, but a little bit of Ryan Fitzpatrick can lighten up even the dourest seasons for the worst teams in the league. In his best fantasy performance of the year by quite some margin, Fitzpatrick tossed a trio of touchdowns, and his 365 yards are the tenth-most in his quite extensive and well-traveled career. The Eagles are just one part of the bigger bonfire that is the NFC East, and they seem to give up one of these huge games a month — Case Keenum back in Week 1, Kirk Cousins in Week 6 and now this Fitzmagic game. And yet, someone in that division will get to host a playoff game! Crazy, I know.
— No Huddle NFL (@NoHuddle_NFL) December 1, 2019
Garbage-Time Performer of the Week
I’m not sure you can get more garbage-timey than a touchdown down 38-3 with 45 seconds left in the game, so congratulations, Derek Carr, you did it! Derrek Carrier could share this award with him, having caught the touchdown, but Carrier had just two receptions on the day. Carr threw for 150 yards while the Raiders were down by at least three scores, so that might have helped someone, somewhere out there squeak into their fantasy playoffs. He certainly ain’t helping the Raiders get to the actual playoffs.
— NFL México (@nflmx) December 2, 2019
Side note — I wish I could find the English video here, with Tony Romo gleefully shouting that the Raiders were back in it after this score. We need more sarcasm in blowouts.
Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week
Five more teams were eliminated from playoff contention this weekend, predictably including the Giants, Cardinals, Lions, and — despite their win — the Dolphins. The most disappointing of the five, however, is probably the Atlanta Falcons: despite having easily the second-best starting quarterback in the NFC South and being second-favorites in the division before the season, the Falcons are currently on course to finish in last place for the first time since 2007. As we’ve already discussed, their head coach spot is widely expected to vacate in time for Hogmanay. The sliver of good news may be the continued emergence of Austin Hooper: despite missing most of November with a sprained MCL, the 2016 third-round pick is tied for the team lead with a career-high six touchdowns. Hooper is the unquestioned No. 3 target behind Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley now that Mohamed Sanu is in New England, and he is still young enough to be one of the league’s better receiving tight ends for another half-decade. Now if they could maybe, just maybe, pair a defense with their offensive talent…
Game-Changing Play of the Week
The biggest game of the week from a playoff perspective came on Monday night, with the Seahawks and Vikings entering the game in wild-card positions, both needing a win to tie the division leaders. Because it was a Seattle game, you could expect it to be close — eight of the Seahawks’ nine wins coming in had been by one score — and the first half played out that way. Then the third quarter happened, and the Seahawks just blasted Minnesota off the face of the Earth, culminating in this 60-yard David Moore touchdown.
— NFL (@NFL) December 3, 2019
Win a no-prize if you can tell us what Xavier Rhodes was doing, or supposed to be doing, or thought he was supposed to be doing on this one. Cover-0 doesn’t mean “don’t cover anybody.” The Vikings ended up getting back into things late, as any Seahawks win must be a nail-biter by statute this season, but Seattle pulled out a much-needed victory.
The win vaulted Seattle all the way from fifth to second in the conference, thanks to their head-to-head win over the 49ers in their last Monday night appearance. Even better, they likely will have the tiebreaker over the 49ers at 13-3, even if they lose to San Francisco in Week 17 — the 49ers’ only real chance there would be if they beat the Saints next week to boost their strength of victory tiebreaker. As long as Seattle doesn’t screw up, they should be able to take care of the division. Minnesota, on the other hand, can probably kiss their chances at a bye week goodbye. They’ll need to run the table and have Green Bay slip up once more in order to take the North. That’s doable if you look at their respective schedules, but it would have been a lot easier had they come back on Monday night.
Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week
Records to Date
Bryan: The Cardinals-Steelers game opened as a pick ’em, but was quickly bet up. Everyone believes in Duck Hodges and the Steelers; they’re going to ride them all the way to the playoffs! Well, I do agree that we’ll see Pittsburgh in the postseason, but that’s more because of how bad the race for the sixth AFC seed is as opposed to the quality of Hodges. Color me skeptical. Plus, Mike Tomlin’s Steelers have gone 4-10 in the Mountain and Pacific time zones, 5-9 against the spread. They have not, historically, travelled well. So I’ll take Arizona (+3) to scrape themselves off the mat and keep it close, possibly winning in the desert.
Andrew: You once again take advantage of the early pick to grab exactly the team I would have chosen. Blast! This week’s Thursday night game is probably the strangest Thursday night game of the year: both teams come in with exactly a week of rest, having both played last Thursday night too in the Thanksgiving triple-header. That makes me slightly more willing than usual to pick the road team. I don’t think last week’s results are representative of the quality of these teams, as the Cowboys are almost assured better than the Bears. I’m not entirely convinced anybody actually wants to win the NFC East, but if anybody does it’s Dallas. This would go a long way toward sealing that deal. Dallas (-3) at Chicago.
Double Survival League
Bryan: Oh, this was my chance — my chance! Andrew’s Jets got entirely embarrassed by the previously winless Bengals; I could have cut his lead in half. Alas, my Panthers found a way to somehow pull out a loss against Washington, as the goal line proved far too difficult a barrier to cross. So here I sit, down two games with only six picks remaining. To make matters worse, I imagine we’ll pick the Dolphins and Giants and possibly the Seahawks, our shared teams, at the same time, so I really need to win the other three games to win — and since I generally pick first thanks to time zones, Andrew can play this softly if he wants and try to run out the clock. If there is a tie — and please, let there not be a tie — but if there is a tie, Andrew will be our champion; he picked the Lions in Week 1 and while they did not win, they also did not lose. Here’s hoping things do not come down to technicalities like that.
My choices this week are fairly forced. I have to take the Jets at home, trying to avenge their earlier loss to the Dolphins. They’re certainly not beating the Ravens on the road, and I doubt their abilities to handle the Steelers in Week 16, too. This is the final chance I have to pick them, and so pick them I shall. I have a little more freedom about the Falcons, but I’m taking them this week against the Panthers anyway. I’m not sure how much the extra rest might help, but it certainly can’t hurt, and we did just see the Falcons defense befuddle and squelch the Carolina offense three weeks ago. I thought about holding them for the Jaguars game in Week 16, but I fear the power of the Mustache.
Andrew: The return of the Red Rocket continues to frustrate me this week, as the Bengals head to Cleveland to take on the Browns. Cleveland’s failure to live up to the hype this year is well-documented, but surely they can take out the lowly Bengals at home, Dalton or no Dalton!
My other pick should be more straightforward: despite an upset road win last time out, Washington is not a good football team. Green Bay is more debatable, but not so debatable that they should be losing this game. I’m not so sure that they’ll cover the 13-point spread, but this ought to be a comfortable home win for the Packers.
Bryan: Playoff time is here at last!
…OK, so playoff time is not here at last, but we have at least a temporary substitute this week in our first elimination game — loser goes home, or at least has to play out the remainder of the schedule 100% certain that they’ll be home in January, instead of the current situation where they are merely 99.9% certain that they’ll be home in January. It’s the closest thing to playoff football either team will experience this season when the Los Angeles Chargers travel to take on the Jacksonville Jaguars!
Minshew-Mania is back on the menu as the Jaguars look to snap their four-game losing streak, each of them by at least 17 points. Meanwhile, the Chargers continue to explore the many ways to lose close football games — back-breaking interceptions are always a favorite, but they experimented with pass interference in their latest masterpiece. A ninth loss for either team mathematically eliminates them. The Chargers couldn’t win a 7-9 tiebreaker thanks to their terrible 2-7 conference record and head-to-head losses to Denver and Pittsburgh. The Jaguars can’t win a 7-9 tiebreaker because of their 1-4 division record and 2-7 record in common games versus Tennessee. Thus, it’s mustache versus bolo tie for the right to continue dreaming.
Of course, the catch is that even the winner of this game could be eliminated, based on results elsewhere. The Chargers are out if the Steelers beat the Cardinals; the Jaguars are done if the Titans beat the Raiders. It’s OK, though — those two games kick off 20 minutes after the epic Chargers-Jaguars showdown, so the winner will likely still be in the playoffs for at least the time it takes to get back to the locker room.
With the Saints clinching a playoff berth last week, and the Cardinals, Falcons, Lions, Dolphins, and Giants all getting knocked out, we’re down to 25 teams fighting for 11 slots.
- Baltimore can clinch the AFC North IF Baltimore d. Buffalo AND Arizona d. Pittsburgh
- Baltimore can clinch a Top-Five Seed IF Baltimore d. Buffalo
- New England can clinch a Top-Five Seed IF New England d. Kansas City AND Arizona d. Pittsburgh
- New England can clinch a Playoff Berth IF New England d. Kansas City
- Buffalo can clinch a Playoff Berth IF Buffalo d. Baltimore AND Denver d. Houston AND Tennessee d. Oakland AND Tampa Bay d. Indianapolis
- Kansas City can clinch the AFC West IF Kansas City d. New England AND Tennessee d. Oakland
- Seattle can clinch a Top-Five Seed IF Seattle d. L.A. Rams AND Detroit d. Minnesota
- Seattle can clinch a Playoff Berth IF Seattle d. L.A. Rams
- San Francisco can clinch a Playoff Berth IF San Francisco d. New Orleans AND Seattle d. L.A. Rams
- Pittsburgh can be eliminated from Home Field Advantage IF Arizona d. Pittsburgh
- Pittsburgh can be eliminated from the AFC North IF Arizona d. Pittsburgh AND Baltimore d. Buffalo
- Cleveland can be eliminated from the No. 5 Seed IF Cincinnati d. Cleveland OR Buffalo d. Baltimore
- N.Y. Jets can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Miami d. N.Y. Jets OR BOTH Tennessee d. Oakland AND Pittsburgh d. Arizona
- Tennessee can be eliminated from Home Field Advantage IF Oakland d. Tennessee
- Tennessee can be eliminated from a First-Round Bye IF Oakland d. Tennessee AND Baltimore d. Buffalo AND New England d. Kansas City
- Indianapolis can be eliminated from a First-Round Bye IF Tampa Bay d. Indianapolis OR Buffalo d. Baltimore OR New England d. Kansas City
- Indianapolis can be eliminated from the AFC South IF Tampa Bay d. Indianapolis AND Houston d. Denver
- Indianapolis can be eliminated from a Top-Five Seed IF Tampa Bay d. Indianapolis AND Houston d. Denver AND ONE OF Pittsburgh d. Arizona OR Buffalo d. Baltimore OR Tennessee d. Oakland OR Kansas City d. New England OR BOTH San Francisco d. New Orleans AND Chicago d. Dallas
- Jacksonville can be eliminated from the playoffs IF L.A. Chargers d. Jacksonville OR Tennessee d. Oakland
- Oakland can be eliminated from a First-Round Bye IF Tennessee d. Oakland OR BOTH Baltimore d. Buffalo AND New England d. Kansas City
- Oakland can be eliminated from a Top-Three Seed IF Tennessee d. Oakland AND EITHER Houston d. Denver OR Kansas City d. New England
- Oakland can be eliminated from the AFC West IF Tennessee d. Oakland AND Kansas City d. New England
- Oakland can be eliminated from a Top-Five Seed IF Tennessee d. Oakland AND Kansas City d. New England AND Buffalo d. Baltimore
- Denver can be eliminated from the AFC West IF Houston d. Denver OR Kansas City d. New England
- Denver can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Houston d. Denver AND EITHER Tennessee d. Oakland OR Pittsburgh d. Arizona
- L.A. Chargers can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Jacksonville d. L.A. Chargers OR Pittsburgh d. Arizona
- Minnesota can be eliminated from Home Field Advantage IF Detroit d. Minnesota
- Minnesota can be eliminated from a First-Round Bye IF Detroit d. Minnesota AND New Orleans d. San Francisco AND Seattle d. L.A. Rams AND TWO OF Tampa Bay d. Indianapolis OR Philadelphia d. N.Y. Giants OR Houston d. Denver OR Jacksonville d. L.A. Chargers OR Tennessee d. Oakland
- Chicago can be eliminated from a Top-Five Seed IF Dallas d. Chicago AND EITHER Green Bay d. Washington OR Minnesota d. Detroit
- Dallas can be eliminated from a Top-Three Seed IF Chicago d. Dallas OR Green Bay d. Washington
- Philadelphia can be eliminated from a Top-Three Seed IF N.Y. Giants d. Philadelphia OR Green Bay d. Washington OR Minnesota d. Detroit
- Washington can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Green Bay d. Washington OR Dallas d. Chicago
- Tampa Bay can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Minnesota d. Detroit OR Indianapolis d. Tennessee AND EITHER Chicago d. Dallas OR ALL OF L.A. Rams d. Seattle AND Carolina d. Atlanta AND Denver d. Houston AND L.A. Chargers d. Jacksonville AND New Orleans d. San Francisco
- Carolina can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Atlanta d. Carolina OR Minnesota d. Detroit
- L.A. Rams can be eliminated from a Top-Three Seed IF Seattle d. L.A. Rams OR San Francisco d. New Orleans
- L.A. Rams can be eliminated from a Top-Five Seed IF Seattle d. L.A. Rams AND San Francisco d. New Orleans