Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Desirability of the NFL Coaching Vacancies

UPDATE, 1/2/15: Since I wrote this blog post, Doug Marrone opted out of his contract with the Buffalo Bills. I have now added Buffalo to this list.


Six NFL teams will be looking for head coaches this offseason, and there will be plenty of people interviewed for those jobs. But how desirable are the available openings?

When you look at certain NFL teams, you find those franchises that have had plenty of success and those that have had struggled to put together winning seasons on a regular basis. The ones in the latter category tend to be those franchises which aren't run well, and much of that falls on ownership. The best owners are those that will allow their coaches and general managers to run operations as they see fit, and then evaluate them regularly. The least desirable owners are those who meddle too much in the day-to-day operations and get too worried about a coach who isn't afraid to express his opinion.

Additionally, what makes a coaching job desirable can also depend on the players already on the roster, how many of those players are expected to stay on the roster, and what the general manager situation is like. These factors can have an impact on how well the coach is able to do his job.
With that in mind, I've ranked the five head coaching vacancies in order of desirability:

Atlanta: Arthur Blank is not without his faults, but he has generally been an owner who will allow those he hires to run the team, be allowed to do so without intervening in the day-to-day operations. In his press conference, it was pretty clear he liked Mike Smith, the man who was removed as head coach, but felt there was no choice in the matter but to let Smith go.

Additionally, there are some good players on the roster, such as Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Desmond Trufant, so it's not a complete rebuilding project. It's not exactly a "reloading" situation, though, as the defense does need much overhauling and there are some positions on the offense to address.

The general manager, Thomas Dimitroff, has had a fairly good track record with his drafts, but his ventures into free agency have been hit or miss. And, while Blank isn't considered the impatient type, there might be some concern as to how much longer Blank will give Dimitroff to turn things around in terms of personnel decisions.

Still, the Falcons have the most desirable head coaching position. It's the one position I would accept if I were Rex Ryan, as he would be in a more stable situation than he was with his previous employer.

Buffalo: The Bills are now under the ownership of Terry Pegula, and while it remains to be seen how he will fare as the owner, it does appear that he will follow a similar path to Ralph Wilson, in that he will allow those who run the day-to-day operations to do so. A new coach will know he will get to start fresh with a new owner in building a good franchise.

And in Buffalo, there isn't that much building that needs to be done. The defense was very good and the majority of the players will return. There are some quality receivers and offensive linemen as well. The Bills do need a quarterback, and will have to determine what to do at running back, though, and this must be accomplished without a first-round pick in the 2015 draft.

That brings us to the general manager, Doug Whaley, who took over late last year. While it isn't clear how much influence he had on all of the Bills' recent draft picks, it does appear fair to credit him with the decisions made in the 2014 draft. Considering that he gave up a lot to move up in the draft to select Sammy Watkins, it's not quite a good reflection on his draft acumen. A new coach might wonder if Whaley might not be with the franchise for much longer, particularly if Watkins doesn't pay greater dividends next season.

That aside, there is plenty to like about the Bills' situation, so while it's not as desirable as the Falcons, it's still a good landing spot. As the Bills have a good defensive coordinator in Jim Schwartz, it's an ideal place for a offensive-minded coach who can help the offense improve, particularly at the QB position.

Chicago: The Bears ownership is not without its weaknesses, but again, this is a team in which the owners aren't constantly meddling in the day-to-day operations. So whoever is hired as a coach should feel comfortable that he will be allowed to do his job as he sees fit.

Additionally, whoever is the new coach will get to start with a new general manager, so there won't be any immediate concerns about a general manager who may be on a short leash. The new coach could work with the new GM to construct a roster that would fit a common vision.

There are some pieces in place on the offense, but the one issue is whether or not the Bears wish to keep Jay Cutler, given how undesirable his contract is, relative to his on-field performance. Would the new coach be willing to give Cutler a chance to redeem himself, or would he prefer to move on, and if the latter, could he do so without raising a huge fuss about it? Additionally, the defense must be rebuilt almost entirely, all while trying to deal with a few underachieving players who weren't signed to team-friendly contracts.

I don't believe Chicago is as desirable a landing spot as Atlanta, but it's not a bad situation overall. It just requires a coach who, along with the new GM, can clearly communicate with the fanbase about their vision and can delicately handle the quarterback situation.

Oakland: It's hard to figure out exactly what direction Mark Davis wants the Raiders to go, but at the very least, he's nowhere near as hands-on with team affairs as his father was. There are questions, though, as to whether or not he truly allows the men in charge to do their jobs. One only needs to look back at the Rodger Saffold situation and wonder what role Davis played in that.

Speaking of which, that brings us to Reggie McKenzie, who has been hit or miss with his personnel decisions. He's been solid from a drafting standpoint, but not as good in free agency. While he did get the cap situation back under control, his signings last season seemed more about showing he was willing to spend money, rather than improve the team overall. And there is the question about how long McKenize may last in his position.

With that said, some of the players he has drafted could pay dividends down the road. Khalil Mack looks like a very good find, Derek Carr improved throughout the season, and D.J. Hayden showed some promise when he was able to take the field.

The Raiders do have a few good selling points, but the questions surrounding ownership and the GM make this one not as desirable. It will certainly require a coach who is willing to show a lot of patience and can do a good job selling his vision.

New York Jets: We now come to one of the two teams with an owner who tends to meddle too much into team affairs. Woody Johnson is most frequently cited as the person who wanted Tim Tebow when the Broncos put him on the trading block several years ago, and reportedly had a hand in bringing Brett Favre on board. One has to wonder if he is going to be content to back away and let those who run the day-to-day operations, to do their jobs as they see fit.

Still, there are some desirable points to the job. The Jets will be looking for a new general manager, so as with Chicago, the coach and GM can be linked together for a common vision. The Jets do have a few quality players on both sides of the ball, although they do have plenty of positions that remain a question mark. 

Finally, there is the media presence to consider. The Jets come under far more scrutiny than the Giants do, in large part because the franchise has been so inconsistent over the years. It adds up to a position in which a coach might be able to find some success, but will need to clearly communicate that the team is rebuilding and that there is no quick fix. That's something he'll have to especially communicate to Johnson, who strikes me as an owner who wants to win now.

San Francisco: One would think the 49ers job would be a desirable one -- after all, look at all the talent they have, and they aren't that far removed from three playoff trips! Except a closer look reveals that the Niners are projected to be above the salary cap next season, they will likely cut loose several veterans, some of the younger players now carry question marks, and they could lose a few key free agents. In other words, the Niners might be closer to a team in need of rebuilding than one that needs to reload.

And then there's general manager Trent Baalke, who seems to have the trust of Jed York, but who knows how long that will last. Baalke's draft record has been spotty, and given the team's cap situation, the draft is where the team really needs to get it right. How can a new coach trust that Baalke will get it right, and that he will stick around for more than a season if things don't go so well in 2015?

Finally, there is Jed York, who has given me the impression of an owner who is more interested in having a coach who never expresses an opinion, regardless of what results he gets on the field. Jim Harbaugh can be a pain to deal with, but he gets results more often than not. Owners who aren't interested in meddling in the day-to-day operations of a team would happily keep Harbaugh around -- they might not always agree with what he says, but it wouldn't matter to them if their teams kept making playoff appearances and were a Super Bowl favorite.

York's response to those questioning what happened with Harbaugh is the reason I don't find the Niners' job to be very desirable. I suspect any coach who goes there will have a hard time finding success, particularly a coach who isn't afraid to express his opinion on the direction he thinks the team should take. The fact ownership in San Francisco seems more interested in having a "yes man" for a coach makes this a job I would not have interest in.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Oh Where, Oh Where, Will Our Little Jay Cutler Go?

It was just a few years ago that people were wondering why the Denver Broncos would want to trade a franchise quarterback.

Fast forward to today, and that franchise quarterback has been benched for Jimmy Clausen and may be on the move again.

The decision to replace Chicago Bears starting quarterback with Clausen would appear to signal the end of Cutler's tenure with the Bears. Cutler's story has been that of a quarterback who has plenty of talent, but has never been able to reach his potential.

Still, this was a player whom the Bears rewarded with a contract that gave him $38 million in fully guaranteed money for the 2014 and 2015 seasons. If he remains with the Bears by the third day of the 2015 league year, he gets an additional $10 million in full guarantees for 2016. It remains a head-scratching deal for a quarterback who has been inconsistent throughout his career and, while he and the Bears did reach the NFC championship game in the 2010 season, he has no other playoff trips.

One might argue, at the time Cutler signed his new contract, that there weren't any better options available. Still, the Bears could have protected themselves with a contract that fully guaranteed his 2014 salary, then made his 2015 and 2016 salaries guaranteed for injury only.

But that aside, given that the Bears would take too great a cap hit by releasing Cutler after this season, and would still have to pay him $15.5 million, it means that their only option is to trade him. A trade would likely mean the Bears would have to agree to pay a portion of his 2015 salary. The Bears would also have to accept that they would, at the most, get a 2015 second-round pick and a quarterback in return, and might get a conditional pick in 2016 (said pick would be on the condition that the team who acquires Cutler makes the playoffs in 2015).

But who would be the suitors? There are a few teams who could be in the market for a quarterback next season, so let's go over them, from least likely to most likely.

Miami: There is some talk that the Dolphins might want to upgrade at quarterback in hopes of making that final push to the playoffs. And Ryan Tannehill would certainly be an attractive option for the Bears. However, the Dolphins are projected to be slightly over the cap next season (about $2.6 million) and would have to make a lot of moves to fit Cutler's deal under the cap. Since that would mean cutting some players who could help the Dolphins with a playoff push, trading for Cutler would be counterproductive. I think you can safely scratch the Dolphins from the list of suitors.

Philadelphia: The Eagles are a playoff contender that has some question marks at the quarterback position. Nick Foles regressed from last season, prior to his injury, and Mark Sanchez continues to be inconsistent. Philly would be an attractive landing spot for Cutler, as he would join a playoff contender with some good talent in place. And if the Bears get Foles, they would have a solid, young QB. The issue for the Eagles is their cap space is tight, projected at slightly less than $4 million. Philly might be able to free up some space by restructuring contracts, but failing that, they'd have to release some players. The question is whether or not Philly would feel comfortable doing that, and if they truly believe that Chip Kelly can correct Cutler's issues at quarterback enough to compensate for any players they part ways with. Call the Eagles a remote possibility.

St. Louis: The Rams make sense on the surface, given that Jeff Fisher supposedly liked Cutler in the 2006 NFL draft, before being pushed toward Vince Young. There is also a good amount of talent on the Rams, and they most certainly need a better QB, unless they really believe Sam Bradford should get one more season to prove himself. Again, though, the Rams are tight on projected cap space (about $5.3 million), although parting ways with Bradford would free up a lot of space -- but maybe not enough for them to accommodate Cutler's contract and still allow space for draft picks and low-cost free agents. The Rams may be more likely to pursue lower-cost options at QB. As with the Eagles, the Rams are a remote possibility.

Houston: The Texans certainly have the talent in place and a good quarterback could boost their chances of reaching the playoffs next year. Houston is projected to have $10 million in cap space, but could get some wiggle room by either cutting Ryan Fitzpatrick or including him in a trade with the Bears (Fitzpatrick would at least give Chicago a short-term solution). It's possible Andre Johnson could agree to restructure his deal if he believes Cutler could get the Texans back into the playoffs, and Houston could also cut underachieving cornerback Jonathan Joseph. Questions to answer, though, may be whether or not Bill O'Brien believes he can get the most out of Cutler, and if the Bears would be OK with Fitzpatrick in 2015. Call it a 50-50 chance.

Buffalo: The Bills have a lot of pieces in place except for one: A quarterback who can put them over the top. The irony of such a trade is that Kyle Orton would enter the picture again... if you recall, the Broncos acquired Orton as part of their Cutler trade. That doesn't mean Orton would be sent to Chicago, although it's not out of the question. It might also be the chance for the Bills to unload EJ Manuel and allow the former first-round pick a fresh start. The Bills, though, would have to do some maneuvering with the cap (they are projected to be $16 million under), and they might prefer to use that cap space to re-signing pending free agents, most notably defensive end Jerry Hughes. As with the Texans, it looks like a 50-50 chance that Cutler goes to Buffalo.

Washington: We have all heard the stories about Dan Snyder and his love for making splashy moves. And as we all remember, Washington was close to acquiring Cutler back in 2008, when the Bears entered the picture and things unfolded differently. Washington's cap space is projected at $16 million, but Snyder has never been too worried about fitting name players under the cap. As for the Bears, they could get Robert Griffin III as part of the deal and choose not to pick up his 2016 option, while finding out if RG3 can resurrect his career. The only question, though, is whether or not Washington's past flirtations with Cutler were rooted in the idea that Mike Shanahan would coach the team, and we all know that's not happening again. A good, but not great, chance that Cutler ends up in Washington.

Cleveland: It's pretty clear that Brian Hoyer isn't the answer at quarterback, and now some doubts are creeping in about whether or not Johnny Manziel is the long-term solution, even though Manziel has just one NFL start under his belt. Some in Cleveland might think that acquiring Cutler would push the Browns into the playoff hunt, especially because the Browns will have two first-round picks in 2015 to address immediate  needs. Combine that with some players who will return from injury (most notable, center Alex Mack), and an offensive coordinator who might know what to do with Cutler (Kyle Shanahan, Mike's son), and it would appear to be a good fit. The wild card in this situation is obviously Manziel, who would likely become part of the trade package. But would the Browns be that quick to declare the Manziel experiment is already over? And would the Bears be welcoming of Johnny Football into their environment? Another good, but not great, chance of this happening. 

Tennessee: We have heard stories about how Ken Whisenhunt is good at working with quarterbacks, although he hasn't gotten much out of the passers he has in Tennessee. For all of Cutler's faults, he's certainly a better quarterback than any of the passers the Titans currently have. Tennessee is in position to finish with the second overall pick in the draft, meaning they may be forced to decide whichever QB that doesn't go first overall (whether that's Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston) is worth selecting. That could make them consider trading for Cutler, and they will have the cap space to accommodate his deal. With Tennessee, though, there really isn't a QB that would be worth it for Chicago to acquire in a trade, so the Titans might have to throw in a late-round pick in 2015. That alone shouldn't keep the Titans from being one of the more likely landing spots for Cutler, though.

Tampa Bay: Cutler played under head coach Lovie Smith for several years -- and, hey, the Bears could bring back Josh McCown! Seriously, the Buccaneers are definitely in the  market for a quarterback, and if they do get the No. 1 overall pick, who knows if they would be sold on Mariota or Winston. If the Bucs finish with the No. 1 overall pick, and were to acquire Cutler, they could then offer the top pick to the highest bidder. The Bucs do have the cap space to acquire Cutler, and while it's not a given that they would send McCown to the Bears, they could offer Mike Glennon, a very low-cost option. On top of that, the NFC South was a weak division this year and acquiring the right quarterback could thrust Tampa Bay to the top. Finally, Tampa Bay did inquire about Cutler back in 2008. The only question is whether the Bucs will prefer to build around a younger QB. But the chances of Cutler going to Tampa Bay are very good.

New York Jets: And here we go... we all know about how Woody Johnson wants the Jets to be the center of attention and to get back to the playoffs again. And look at all that cap space the Jets have. And consider that their chances of finishing with one of the top two picks are slim, and a couple of teams who may finish ahead of them in the 2015 draft, happen to need quarterbacks. What better way for Woody Johnson to make headlines and fill a pressing need than to acquire Jay Cutler? Of course, you have to remember that John Izdik is the general manager and would probably not want to bite the bullet on such a trade. But if Izdik is fired, Johnson could instead choose to bring in a GM who wants to spend that cap space. The Jets could offer Geno Smith in return as part of the deal, with the idea that Smith could benefit from a fresh start in Chicago. Even if Izdik sticks around, he could be under pressure to make a bold move, and acquiring Cutler would be just that. It's not a lock that Cutler would go to the Jets this offseason, but given the circumstances surrounding this team, the Jets would be the least surprising team to acquire him.