Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Jets and Other Candidates for Regime Changes

It's easy for NFL fans to declare that a regime change needs to be made based on how poorly a team is faring.

Case in point is the New York Jets, who are 1-4 to start the season and don't appear to have any chance of turning things around to become a playoff contender this season.

Criticism, though, is not limited to Rex Ryan, who is likely to lose his job after this season. Much of the finger pointing gets directed at general manager John Izdik, based on facts such as that Geno Smith hasn't lived up to expectations, that 2014 fourth-round pick Jalen Saunders was released and that 2013 first-round pick Dee Millner has failed to impress.

As Bill Barnwell explains, though, the picture regarding Izdik is not that simple. Izdik is still trying to sort out the mess that former GM Mike Tannenbaum left behind. Tannenbaum mismanaged the salary cap, made bold draft moves too often at the expense of the team's depth, and made questionable free agent signings and trades.

Expectations were no doubt placed too high for the Jets based on their 8-8 finish last season and that Rex Ryan has been able to take past Jets teams that weren't really built that well, into the playoffs and even make a deep run. That's no doubt why Izdik chose to keep Ryan around last season. After the 8-8 finish, it would be hard to justify firing Ryan, but now, signs are pointing to that happening by season's end, given that Izdik is clearly in a rebuilding mindset, while Ryan continues to believe the Jets are a playoff contender.

You can read Barnwell's article for more details, but to sum up: Izdik has overseen just two drafts and didn't make bold moves up the draft board, he's tried to be smart with free agent signings and he's not spending his time trying to make a splash. The signing of Michael Vick hardly counts as that, as he signed a one-year deal for $4 million, which is the type of deal you give to a veteran who is supposed to be the backup and a mentor to the younger QB you want to develop.

Izdik has made strides in getting the salary cap situation resolved, but not all of the bad contracts will come off the books until 2016. Nick Mangold could be released this coming offseason to free up $17.6 million in cap space over the next two seasons, but the Jets will have to stick it out with D'Brickshaw Ferguson for at least another year, before they can gain more cap space than dead money through his release.

It might be fair to criticize Izdik for not doing more to improve the team's depth, but engaging in a rash spending spree when your team is in rebuilding mode doesn't make sense.

The Jets aren't the only team who will get talked up about making changes in the front office and/or coaching. Let's look at some others (aside from Oakland, who already fired Dennis Allen).

Buffalo: The main reason you might hear about changes coming is the fact that the Bills have been sold to Terrence Pegula. Buddy Nix had been general manager until May of last year, when he moved to a special assistant position and Doug Whaley, who oversaw the team's pro personnel department, took over as GM. Doug Marrone now enters in his second year as head coach.

It would be unfair to blame Whaley for the contract the Bills gave to Mario Williams, who has been a good player, but was overpaid, and the Bills are likely stuck with him through 2015. One can debate how much input Whaley had into the drafts that happened while Nix was general manager, in which there have been some good picks (Marcel Dareus, Cordy Glenn) and some that haven't worked out (EJ Manuel, Terrell Troup).

What is clearly Whaley's responsibility is the decision to trade up for Sammy Watkins, giving up a 2015 first rounder in the process. Watkins shows a lot of promise, but it remains to be seen if he'll be the impact player the Bills believe he will be. Most of all, Whaley needs to figure out what is next with his quarterback situation, should Kyle Orton not pan out, given that Orton would count for $7 million against the cap in 2015.

I believe Pegula should, and will, give Whaley a chance to prove himself next season. If the Bills don't make the playoffs, I don't believe firing Marrone is the answer, either, unless the Bills lose all their remaining games. Firing Marrone at season's end under most scenarios would strike me as a panic move on Whaley's part and could put Whaley into a "win or else" situation next season.

Jacksonville: There is one parallel between the Bills and the Jaguars that can be drawn, as in 2011, Shahid Khan purchased the team and questions arose as to the future of those in the front office. General manager Gene Smith fired coach Jack Del Rio at the end of the 2011 season, and then was fired himself after the 2012 season. The difference from the Bills is that Smith and Del Rio had been around far longer (Del Rio since 2003, Smith since 2009).

Smith did a poor job of drafting. Although 2009 first-round pick Eugene Monroe and third-round pick Terrance Knighton have been good players, Knighton didn't blossom until joining the Denver Broncos (where Del Rio is the defensive coordinator) and Monroe was traded to the Baltimore Ravens. Draft picks such as Tyson Alualu, D'Anthony Smith, Blaine Gabbert and Will Rackley have failed to make an impact and Justin Blackmon is serving a season-long suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.

The Jaguars are also digging out of some bad contracts, notably that of tight end Marcedes Lewis, who Smith overpaid. Current general manager David Caldwell will be able to release Lewis after this season and free up $6.8 million in cap space. The good news for Caldwell is that his more recent signings were given cap friendly deals that the Jaguars can get out of easily. Toby Gerhart hasn't proven to be the featured back the Jags need, but they could release him after the season with no cap hit, so long as they do it before his roster bonus kicks in.

It's true the Jaguars have underachieved with Gus Bradley at the helm, but firing him after two seasons really isn't the answer. Caldwell needs time to fully implement his plan and Bradley needs at least another season to show he can get the team can improve.

Carolina: Marty Hurney had been with the Panthers since 1998, but it was apparent by the 2012 season that it was time for him to go. His mismanagement of the salary cap and some poor personnel decisions caught up with him, and while it may have been time for John Fox to go when he was fired in 2011, Hurney shared a larger responsibility for the team's situation.

The biggest problem with Hurney was his handling of the salary cap, in which the Panthers are stuck with DeAngelo Williams through 2016, when he will be 34 years old. A quick glance at how Williams' contract was structured will tell you all you need to know. Hurney also didn't structure well the deals for Jonathan Stewart and Charles Johnson.

Between the cap space tied up in those players, and the franchise tag being applied to Greg Hardy, new Panthers general manager David Gettleman had no choice but to release Steve Smith to get cap space freed up. That means Gettleman has to draft wisely to make up for the other cap issues. It also forces Ron Rivera (a Hurney hire) to work with the hand he is dealt.

Although Rivera was hired by Hurney, I believe firing him would be the wrong move, unless the Panthers finish with a losing record. Right now, the Panthers look like an 8-8 or 9-7 team, which might be enough to win the NFC South, given that no other team really stands out. As for Gettleman, the smart thing for the Panthers to do is to be patient until their cap situation is finally resolved

St. Louis: I've already read elsewhere about how it might be time for Jeff Fisher to go, with the claim that the Rams have shown no improvement under him. What these people forget, though, is not just that the Rams play in a tough division, but that they have had hard luck at the quarterback position. Sam Bradford's contract came before the rookie pay scale came into play and this past offseason was the first one in which the Rams could have released him without taking a large cap penalty.

Given that Bradford was respectable in 2012 (Fisher's first season) and was off to a solid start in 2013 before injuries ended his season, it is reasonable to assume that Fisher and general manager Les Snead wanted to give Bradford another chance to show he could be the franchise QB. His preseason injury, though, likely means they will part ways with Bradford this coming offseason.

I don't think Fisher is going with Austin Davis simply to see if he can save his job. Given that Bradford is not likely to be with the Rams next year, it makes sense for Fisher (and Snead) to find out if Davis is a quarterback they can build around, or if they need to address the position through the draft and/or free agency next season. That, along with the fact that Fisher is getting a lot out of a squad that doesn't have that much talent on offense, leads me to believe that Fisher will be back next season. As for Davis, thus far his drafts have been pretty solid, so there's no reason to make a change in the front office.

Miami: The Dolphins did the right thing by parting ways with Jeff Ireland after last season, and new general manger Dennis Hickey did the right thing by retaining head coach Joe Philbin. The Dolphins had plenty of problems, but most of them do not appear to be at the hands of Philbin. I don't imagine Hickey is going to fire Philbin after this season, unless the Dolphins fail to make the playoffs and Hickey is convinced he needs to find his own coach.

Of course, nobody is going to insist that Hickey be fired after just one season, and he'll need to wait one more season before he can get out of the deal Ireland gave to Mike Wallace. Ireland overpaid not only for Wallace, but several other players as well, which means Hickey will have to make some decisions to address the Dolphins' cap situation, as the team will be either be close to the cap or over it in 2015.

New York Giants: Some may wonder if this is the final season for Tom Coughlin, especially if the Giants fail to make the playoffs. He did get a contract extension through the 2015 season, though, so it's not a guarantee that he will be gone after this season. I suspect if he does depart, though, that it will be by his own choice. Of course, if the Giants do make the playoffs, I don't think anyone is going to expect Coughlin to depart.

Jerry Reese has done a fine job as general manager, so I would expect no changes there, regardless of what happens to the Giants this season. He's drafted pretty well and has been wise with most free agent signings, and the Giants' cap situation is in good shape.

Pittsburgh: There's likely to be somebody out there wondering if Mike Tomlin will be gone simply because the Steelers haven't made the playoffs in recent years. Anyone who does this, though, needs to remember that the Steelers are still sorting out their cap situation, in which they have to ride it out with a few veterans while drafting and developing their eventual replacements.

The Steelers have generally been a patient organization and understand that there may transitional periods in which the team doesn't always make the playoffs, but are then ready to reap the rewards of deep playoff runs once those transitional periods are completed. 

So I don't expect the Steelers to fire Tomlin any time soon. What they will need to do this offseason is draft wisely, as they are nearing the point in which certain veterans will have to be released to free up cap space, particularly with Ben Roethlisberger nearing the end of his current deal and becoming a likely candidate for an extension.

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