I meant to start writing this earlier in the season, once it became clear that certain franchises were on a path of complete disaster, rotting through and through. But with two weeks left in the season and it having become quite clear who’s a contender, who’s got reason to be optimistic, and who just stinks, here is my list of the teams that need to make serious offseason changes and where and why:
1. Kansas City Chiefs.
The Scott Pioli era has been an unmitigated disaster. He bet big on Matt Cassel, and Cassel has demonstrated all the skills of a guy who backed up Tom Brady and caused the team’s offensive production to drop somewhere between 20-40% (depending on what measure you use) when he filled in for Brady in 2008. He has been unable to find a competent head coach, first clashing with Todd Haley and then promoting clinically dead Romeo Crennel because of a minor turnaround at the end of 2011 and Pioli’s seeming antipathy towards finding a coach he wasn’t already previously familiar with.
He hasn’t landed much talent in the draft, famously taking Tyson Jackson #3 overall (a player most people had pegged into the 10-12 range) because he thought of him as a perfect fit as a run-stuffing 3-4 defensive end. Even if Jackson played up to that description, the position is relatively unimportant; it’d be like, say, using a third-round pick on a punter (but we’ll get to that). But Jackson hasn’t even lived up to those expectations. Dontari Poe is a project. Jon Baldwin has been a disappointment (but this could easily be a product of the Chiefs’ dysfunctional passing game). Eric Berry has All-Star talent, but the jury is still out on him maximizing his potential after his ACL tear last year. The one true bright spot in Pioli’s drafting was last year’s third-round pick, OLB Justin Houston, who has turned into a top pass rusher already and is a Pro Bowl-caliber player at the position.
Most of the Chiefs’ real talent was on roster before Pioli arrived– Dwayne Bowe, Brandon Flowers, Jamaal Charles, Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali, Brendan Albert, Brandon Carr. The story of Carr might be the quintessential story of Pioli’s time in Kansas City: rather than re-signing Carr to the contract he deserved (and locking up the best young CB tandem in the league for years to come), Pioli declined to offer him a contract– and the rumors that came from Arrowhead were that he didn’t want to pay him a contract similar to that of Brandon Flowers because he thought Flowers’ ego might be hurt. Instead, he signed Stanford Routt (recently of Oakland), who was so good the team cut him after seven games.
That’s Pioli in a nutshell: Thinking of egos first and team-building second. It fits with all the stories in Kansas City about his bizarre need for secrecy and micromanagement. It’s so strange to me that, for all the success Bill Belichick has had in New England, many of the people who worked with him there seemed to have only learned one thing from him– to conduct business as though they are an unquestionable authority with limitless ego. (See: Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels, and now Pioli).
The Chiefs are 2-12 and Pioli has utterly failed to make them any better. They have more talent than a 2-12 team, but they have not appreciably added to that talent since Pioli became GM, and Romeo Crennel has not proven capable of getting any appreciable performance out of the talent they do have. It’s time for the Chiefs to clean out the front office and coaching staff and give the reins to someone with a sharp eye for talent who will make the right hires and fill in the big weak spots on the roster, starting at quarterback.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars.
I have a friend, or perhaps the more accurate term is “Internet acquaintance I regularly discuss football with”, who’s a Jaguars fan by happenstance of geography, and was genuinely excited when Gene Smith was named to replace Shack Harris as GM. It’s not hard to see why; Harris made some awful news, most notably cashing in nearly the entire 2008 draft for two pass rushers, Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves, who turned out to be complete busts. The team gave up a first, two thirds, and a fourth to move up to #8 to select Harvey; he was cut after three seasons and wasn’t even on a roster this year. GM Gene had to be better, right?
Not really. Gene Smith has committed nearly every GMing mistake imaginable: reaching for his preferred players (Tyson Alualu); trading future high picks for middling current ones (Derek Cox); overpaying players for seasons in which their TD count was flukishly high (Marcedes Lewis, Laurent Robinson); drafting a QB based on physical measurements as opposed to performance or experience (Blaine Gabbert).
Oh, and he drafted a punter in the third round.
Even though Bryan Anger has been a pretty darn good punter, here’s the rub: a punter is a player who gets used more often the worse the offense performs. The worse the offense performs, the smaller the likelihood is that the team is actually winning. Ergo, rather than helping a team improve, a punter essentially gets more use, and thus is more valuable, the worse his team is.
Given, then, how inconsequential a great punter is to a team’s chance of winning, and how readily available a replacement-level punter is, spending a third-round pick on one instead of using that pick on a player who can more legitimately contribute to the team’s success is a disaster.
The truth is, though, the Jaguars have been terrible on offense, so they’re at least getting their money’s worth out of Anger– he’s third in the league in punts attempted this year. However, he’s 10th in gross yards per punt and 5th in net yards per punt. Fine, but not a single punter ahead of him was drafted before the 5th round. Instead of getting a solid starter somewhere else and waiting to land their punter a couple of rounds later, Gene couldn’t wait to take his guy.
More to the point, Anger is averaging just over 2 yards net per punt than the median team. The Jets are 16th at 41.3; Green Bay and Oakland are tied for 17th at 41.0; Anger is averaging 43.4. Is two yards per punt really worth a third-round pick?
Bill Barnwell has covered Gene Smith’s failures extensively already; most of these failures can be described as “bad process, bad result”. The roster has very little talent, and none whatsoever at pass rusher or QB– Gabbert has been an unmitigated disaster and the team should be ready to move on from him already. At least the Jaguars have a new owner in place, one who presumably notices this stuff and will be cleaning house to try to build a winner. (Even if that winner is playing in Los Angeles.)
Gene Smith has been so bad I didn’t even get to mention Mike Mularkey, because I have no idea if he’s been any good as a coach or not since his roster is so threadbare. I don’t think he’s ever shown anything special here or in Buffalo, though, and a new GM will probably want to hire his own guy.
3. Philadelphia Eagles.
Andy Reid is a great football coach. There, I said it. You can’t win as consistently as he has and not be a great football coach. For all his faults with run/pass ratios and clock management, he has put together winning teams consistently in Philadelphia for over a decade.
Reid’s firing comes down to one thing: He won a power struggle with Joe Banner last year for more roster control. He has it, and now that roster is crap. The all-star lineup of free agents and coaches Reid brought in have, to a man, underperformed. Despite Reid’s strengths, he’s going to have to fall on his sword for this one.
Nick Foles has potential, and the team has a fair amount of talent; it’s just time to bring in someone who will rebuild the weak spots of the roster through the draft, rather than splashy free-agent signings. The first place to start would be the offensive line.
4. San Diego Chargers.
Most Chargers fans are probably asking themselves the same thing: “Why now? Why not two or three years ago?” Owner Dean Spanos stubbornly stuck with head coach Norv Turner even when his teams grossly underperformed those of his predecessor, Marty Schottenheimer; he stubbornly stuck with GM A.J. Smith even as it was becoming clear that the team’s talent base was steadily eroding.
Spanos can’t ignore what’s happened to the team anymore. The Chargers are 5-9. The mighty defense of a few years ago is mediocre. The elite passing game is gone; Philip Rivers is showing his age, badly missing Vincent Jackson, or both. Ryan Mathews, the running back the team gave up a bounty to trade up for in 2010, has underperformed when he’s actually been healthy enough to make it onto the field. The team has been trending downward for several years now; they seem to have finally bottomed out to the point where Spanos’ hand will be forced after the season.
I’m not sure what the next step for San Diego is. They need to acquire as many draft picks as possible to rebuild their weak spots, especially when it comes to finding an offensive line and a new #1 receiver (shockingly, signing the Saints’ #4 receiver to play that role didn’t work). They also have to find their next QB; Philip Rivers will probably not be around by the time this team seriously contends again, and they could still pick up a decent bounty of draft picks if they move him soon.
5. Carolina Panthers.
The only reason the Panthers don’t rank higher is because they’ve already made a big move this season, firing GM Marty Hurney midway through the year (maybe owner Jerry Richardson read Bill Barnwell’s “how does this guy still have a job” column the month before). It’s pretty rare for a GM to be fired midway through the year; my theory is that Richardson was fed up and didn’t want Hurney to make another panic trade before the deadline in an effort to save his job.
Honestly, I’m not sure how he held onto the job for as long as he did. Hurney’s tenure was marked by an inability to recognize when players were no longer valuable (the Jake Delhomme extension); overpaying the team’s own free agents, even if (possibly especially if) the positions were relatively unimportant or redundant (see the contracts handed out to both Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, or the money paid the linebacker corps); and trading high future picks for middling current picks to select players who barely, if ever, contributed (Everette Brown and Armanti Edwards). Hopefully the next GM will be more savvy with resource allocation.
Firing Hurney wasn’t enough. Ron Rivera may be a nice guy and a good defensive coordinator, but he’s been a disaster as a head coach in Carolina, making many obvious mistakes with in-game decisions– the most famous being the decision to punt back to Atlanta on 4th-and-inches winning by 1 instead of allowing Cam Newton, an absolute beast in these situations, to sneak for the first down and the win. The Panthers actually pinned the Falcons on the 1 yard line, but Atlanta promptly completed a downfield bomb the next play and wound up winning. If you’re going to spend all that money on a rushing QB and two running backs, you should probably use them when the game is on the line. It’s not like anyone can point to anything that he’s done particularly well as head coach to offset these decisions, either. The Panthers are 5-9 and could be better with a better head coach.
The new GM is unlikely to have any attachment to Rivera and will probably let him go. The next step, after finding a guy who is actually going to use Cam Newton properly, is to fill in the talent holes, mostly at defensive tackle, defensive back, the offensive line, and finding a receiver opposite Steve Smith.
6. Cleveland Browns.
Again, another team that would rank higher if not for having already made a big move– when Jimmy Haslam bought the Browns a few months ago, he fairly quickly announced that Mike Holmgren would be leaving the team at the end of the year; he also hired the aforementioned Joe Banner as CEO. I’ll let Wikipedia tell the story of why Holmgren is out:
As president of the Cleveland Browns, Holmgren failed to improve the team, which was 5-11 the season before his arrival and has gone 5-11, 4-12, and 3-8 (season in progress) in the seasons since. His hand picked head coach, Pat Shurmur, has won only 4 times in 20 tries and Holmgren, despite his reputation as a quarterback guru, is on his third opening day starter in as many years.
Well, the Browns are now 5-9, but Shurmur’s record is still 9-21, and based on Jimmy Haslam’s reaction to Shurmur’s decision-making in the Colts game, he doesn’t seem to be a fan. (Down 17-13 with 6:38 left in the game, the Browns had 4th and 1 on the Colts’ 41 yard line, and Shurmur took a timeout– and then chose to punt. I feel like I could write a whole other article on coaches who don’t seem to factor “winning the game” into their decision-making process, but it’ll have to wait for another time.)
One more thing about Holmgren: After his failures with the QB position in Cleveland– Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, Colt McCoy– he zeroed in on Brandon Weeden this draft, intending to take him with the #37 overall pick, after he grabbed Baylor’s Kendall Wright at #22 overall to help out at wide receiver. But the Titans picked Wright at 20. So what did Holmgren do? Did he try to find a player whose value was commensurate with the 22nd pick? No, he just took the guy he was going to take at 37. Maybe not a big deal in the scheme of things, but it shows something of a fundamental misunderstanding of resource allocation. It’s deliberately passing on a better prospect. The Browns took OT Mitchell Schwartz at 37; why not take a higher-rated OT, like Iowa’s Riley Reiff, at 22 and then take Weeden at 37? If you expect Weeden to be available at 37, and that’s where you rate he’s worth taking, then you’re costing yourself value by taking him at 22.
Of course, the bigger problem is that Weeden hasn’t worked out, either. If you take a 29-year-old rookie QB, he’d better play well right away. Weeden has pretty clearly been the worst of the first-round rookie QBs; worse than that, he’s also clearly worse than Russell Wilson, who was taken 75th overall by Seattle, and, frankly, you could make a case that Nick Foles and Kirk Cousins are already better– and they certainly have more potential, if for no other reason than they aren’t pushing thirty.
Holmgren has not done a good job identifying talent (he wasn’t a particularly good GM in Seattle, either), and that’s why he’s gone. Shurmur hasn’t done a good job coaching the talent he has, and that’s why he’ll be gone. The next GM needs to build a strong passing game (we’ve covered their QBs, and Josh Gordon is about the only thing the team has that approximates an NFL receiver), and the next coach needs to coach games like his goal is to win them.
7. Arizona Cardinals.
It’s not very often that an NFL team goes into a season with two hideous, obvious weaknesses, those weakness go unaddressed, and then said weaknesses subsequently sabotage the team, but that’s exactly what happened in Arizona. The quarterback situation was shaky at best, with an injury-prone, bottom-rung starter (Kevin Kolb) backed up by two sub-replacement level players (John Skelton and Ryan Lindley). The offensive line was atrocious to begin with, and then left tackle Levi Brown (a disappointment ever since he was drafted 5th overall in 2007, but still the team’s best option) was placed on injured reserve before the season started. When Kolb played, he took too many sacks and the offense was ineffective; when Skelton or Lindley played, the offense was a disastrous turnover machine. Not even Larry Fitzgerald has been able to turn either of those two into something resembling an NFL QB.
The team may not need a complete housecleaning– it’s hard to say whether head coach Ken Whisenhunt is the problem, but nine straight losses don’t help his case– but the team’s inability to find competent solutions at quarterback or on the offensive line suggest anyone who thought those positions were adequately manned probably needs to go. That probably means GM Rod Graves is out of a job unless he successfully scapegoats Whisenhunt. Either way, the team has a young, promising defense with several terrific players the team can build around (DE Calais Campbell, ILB Daryl Washington, CB Patrick Peterson). If the defense adds a real edge rusher, it can be truly elite. First things first, though, is fixing that awful QB/OL mess. At least there are three legit offensive tackle prospects in this year’s draft; the Cardinals should have a crack at one of them. (All the 2013 quarterback prospects are pretty shaky anyway; might as well wait until the second or third round to take one.)
8. Buffalo Bills.
Chan Gailey is a creative offensive mind but a poor head coach. The Bills frequently look sloppy and unprepared, and his handpicked quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, is playing like… well, like a guy who was drafted in the 7th round and was a career backup until a handful of good games in relief, because that’s what he is.
I’m not sure how much blame GM Buddy Nix deserves, either. On the one hand, he gave Fitzpatrick the big contract extension. On the other hand, even he seems to recognize the team should draft a young QB this year. The team has made some pretty good draft picks under Nix, and has a respectable front seven and a solid offensive line (when healthy). On the other hand, Nix is 73, and old people are useless / no good at anything / need to be isolated and studied so it can be determined what nutrients they have that can be extracted for our personal use (take your pick of Homer Simpson quotes).
I think Gailey is a goner for sure. The team needs to hire a coach who can actually command the respect of his players, and the defense needs a guy who can get the most out of players like Mario Williams and Marcell Dareus. I think Nix can stay for now (I’ve been reasonably impressed with him given how skeptical I originally was of his hire), but he needs to work on developing a franchise QB and finding a legitimate receiver besides Stevie Johnson.
9. New York Jets.
Rex Ryan is not the problem. Rex Ryan’s stubbornness in sticking with Mark Sanchez is not the problem. I really believe this.
The fact that Mark Sanchez is currently the best QB on the team’s roster is the problem. The fact that the Jets have been thin on draft picks in the Mike Tannenbaum era (4 in 2007, 3 in 2009, 4 in 2010) is the problem. The fact that those picks are occasionally used in wholly misguided ways is the problem.
Stephen Hill is a great example. Hill played wide receiver in college at Georgia Tech, a team that runs the triple option offense. This means that Hill had few chances to run routes and be expected to catch a pass, and when he did they were mostly deep balls (he averaged 29.3 yards per reception as a junior, before declaring early for the draft). Despite Hill’s relative inexperience, he is possessed of NFL size and speed, which made him an intriguing prospect for any team willing to take the time needed to develop him and see if he reached his potential. With that in mind, the Jets drafted him in the second round, 43rd overall.
There’s only one problem with this selection. The Jets are a team that recently made the AFC Championship Game twice, have a roster full of veterans, and a quarterback entering a do-or-die year. They needed a receiver that could help now. Instead, they chose a project. Hill is averaging 22 yards per game, and in five of the 11 games he’s played, he hasn’t caught a pass.
Two selections later the Bears chose Alshon Jeffery, a wide receiver of similar size who also seriously produced in college; Jeffery was once spoken of in the same breath as A.J. Green and Julio Jones (and with 88 receptions for 1572 yards his sophomore year, it’s not hard to see why), but after a disappointing junior year and questions about his work ethic (and some unfortunate photos of him sporting what appeared to be a fast food gut), he fell from a top-15 pick to 45th overall.
Jeffery may not have Hill’s top speed, but he is blessed with terrific body control and hands and is a pretty good route-runner. Even though his numbers haven’t been great this season (in part because of injury, in part because he has come back from his injury just as the Bears offense seems to be hitting the muck), he would have been a better fit for what the Jets needed. The fact that Jeffery has already won the Bears #2 wide receiver job opposite Brandon Marshall, whereas Hill plays pretty much only when injuries force him in, says it all. The jury is out, statistically speaking, but I feel ilke a proper process would have led the Jets to choose Jeffery over Hill.
Anyway, Tannenbaum has done a lot of good things in his time as well– he did, after all, trade up to draft Darrelle Revis– so the decision isn’t as cut-and-dried as it may seem. But the rest of the roster is looking mighty thin, and the offensive skill positions are atrocious. Mark Sanchez, the guy Tannenbaum pinned his franchise quarterback hopes on, has not only not panned out, but seems to be regressing in his fourth season. Unfortunately, Tannenbaum gave Sanchez a two-year guaranteed extension before the 2012 season, so the Jets will still have to pay him $8.5 million next year regardless of what they decide to do about the position. But they don’t have to pay the guy who thought that was a good idea.
As time goes on, more and more of Tannenbaum’s good decisions seem to be further and further in the past, and the team’s injuries this year have laid bare his inability to stock the team with talent. You can’t blame him for a Darrelle Revis ACL injury, but you can blame him for Kyle Wilson, the 2010 first-round pick who was supposed to eventually form a lockdown cornerback duo opposite Revis but has only broken the starting lineup because of injuries. You can blame him for Vernon Gholston, one of the worst draft picks in history (and part of the team’s peculiar inability to find a legitimate edge rusher). You can blame him for the team having fewer than the allotted seven draft picks for five consecutive years from 2007 to 2011, which means he is trading up and/or trading away his picks far too often. The draft is something of a crapshoot; the more picks you have, the more likely you will be able to find solid contributors to fill out your team. Tannenbaum’s draft approach more suggests someone who zeroes in on players too readily, always trying to move up to land a star, rather than recognizing that you have to use the draft to fill out the depth in your roster as well.
And, perhaps most to the point, you can blame him for Mark Sanchez. Much like Andy Reid in Philadelphia, this is a classic falling-on-your-sword moment: Someone has to take the fall for Sanchez’s failures, and while it might be Rex Ryan (changing offensive coordinators seems to have resulted in no discernible difference), I think of the two, Ryan brings more to the table. I would keep him and replace Tannenbaum with an executive who values his draft picks.
10. Detroit Lions.
Their collapse after last year’s playoff run has led to grumblings about head coach Jim Schwartz and GM Martin Mayhew, but I’m on the fence on this one. On the one hand, they did turn a team that was 0-16 in 2008 into a playoff team three years later, and they did it while hamstrung with several huge rookie contracts under the old collective bargaining agreement.
On the other hand, Mayhew has made some glaring draft mistakes: he seems overly fond of taking offensive skill position players early (two RBs and two WRs in the first or second round since 2010), which includes trading up into the first round to take Jahvid Best in 2010, a player with one of the lengthiest concussion histories ever found in a college player, and taking Titus Young in the second round in 2011, a wide receiver apparently so immature he pouted by purposely lining up in the wrong places in offensive formations, and who certainly won’t be back with the team next year. At least they drafted Ryan Broyles in the second round this year to replace him. But at some point Mayhew may want to beef up the trenches or the defensive backfield with his draft picks.
The other problem is that Jim Schwartz, while a bright coach, seems to have a discipline problem with both himself and his team. The Lions are developing a reputation as a dirty team behind the actions of players like Ndamukong Suh; they are heavily penalized (third in the league this year, second last year, fourth in 2010); Schwartz is known to fly off the handle on the sidelines (as evidenced with his postgame argument with Jim Harbaugh last year or with the illegal challenge against Houston on Thanksgiving); and the occasional player decides to mutiny, as I mentioned earlier with Titus Young– or, excuse me, YOUNG SR., as he prefers to be called as of this season; draw your own conclusions about the irony of a man emphasizing his fatherhood while acting like a total baby in his professional environment.
I can’t decide if their performance is enough to merit replacing them. On balance, I think I’d rather replace Mayhew than Schwartz, but I’d want to have a candidate for the job I felt solidly was better than him, and I’d want to feel reasonably sure I could sign him. On the whole, I’m inclined to give them one more year. The team isn’t as bad as the 4-10 record suggests, and the good things they’ve done in the turnaround suggest the problems are correctable. Another bad draft and underachieving season, though, and it’s time to clean house before Calvin Johnson’s prime is wasted.
Other teams to consider
The Dallas Cowboys‘ winning streak means Jason Garrett is likely safe, for now, although he does make some poor in-game decisions. Jerry Jones is the GM there anyway, so replacing the coach without giving the new one more authority over personnel won’t change much. If they fix the o-line and find one or two more bodies for the front seven, they’re a legitimate contender … the Tampa Bay Buccaneers may or may not be quitting on their coach again (as the grumblings about Greg Schiano have begun now that the team is in a losing streak), but the team is young and he won’t be fired after this year. They desperately need cornerback help and health. … the Tennessee Titans haven’t been very good, but they’re just getting the Jake Locker era underway, so the coaching staff and front office will get some time with him. The FO needs to seriously draft to repair the trenches this year, though– they’ve taken one lineman in the first round since 2003 (DE Derrick Morgan in 2010), and aside from Morgan, every first-round pick 2008 has been used on an offensive skill player. … the Oakland Raiders are really bad, but it’s year one of “clearing out the Al Davis deadwood”; it would be stupid to fire GM Reggie McKenzie or HC Dennis Allen for a season everyone knew was coming. … the Minnesota Vikings are 8-6 and won’t consider firing anyone, I imagine, but they need to admit that Christian Ponder has been execrable and the team badly needs a wide receiver opposite Percy Harvin. … the St. Louis Rams seem to be moving in the right direction under Jeff Fisher, although I still don’t think Sam Bradford is the answer at quarterback.