The Daily Briefing Thursday, November 15, 2018
AROUND THE NFL
NBC has FLEXed its muscles for the 3rd and 4th time this year, taking one from CBS and one from FOX. FOX gets both games back. Herbie Teope of NFL.com:
The league moved the Los Angeles Chargers at Pittsburgh Steelers game in Week 13 from 1 p.m. ET to 8:20 p.m. ET on NBC. The originally scheduled San Francisco 49ers-Seattle Seahawks contest will move from Sunday Night Football to a 4:25 p.m. ET slot on FOX.
In Week 14, the league flexed the Los Angeles Rams at Chicago Bears matchup from 1 p.m. ET to 8:20 p.m. ET on NBC. The Pittsburgh Steelers-Oakland Raiders game now moves out of primetime to 4:25 p.m. ET on FOX.
Making the changes now to maximize viewership and interest makes perfect sense given potential postseason implications.
The Rams (9-1), Steelers (6-2-1) and Bears (6-3) enter Week 11 leading their respective divisions, while the Chargers (7-2) are in second place in the AFC West behind the Kansas City Chiefs (9-1).
The Lions have shelved G T.J. LANG on IR with a neck injury. He’s in his 2nd season with Detroit after 8 with Green Bay.
A reminder of why the Eagles will be in green in New Orleans on Sunday afternoon on FOX. Tim McManus of ESPN.com:
The Philadelphia Eagles will be wearing their home green uniforms in New Orleans on Sunday for their matchup against the Saints, as Sean Payton’s bet with Doug Pederson is finally coming due.
Back in March at the owner’s meetings in Orlando, the two were paired up for the annual coaches’ golf outing, and decided to make it interesting.
“We wanted to liven up the match, and we decided to bet and we chose jersey colors,” Pederson said Wednesday. “Three holes into it, ended up beating him, and that was it.”
The Saints will be sporting their white “color-rush” jerseys Sunday — a fan favorite. New Orleans typically wears its black jerseys for home games, but not always. The Saints were in white for their Monday Night Football matchup with the Washington Redskins Week 5, when quarterback Drew Brees broke the all-time passing yardage record.
The conclusion of this wager has been a while in the making. Before July 1 each year, home clubs are required to report to the league their choice of jersey color for home games in their upcoming season.
The away team has to wear an NFL-approved non-conflicting color. The Eagles will be in their midnight green, a look typically reserved for games in South Philly.
Pederson and Payton squared off once again at the American Century Championship in Lake Tahoe in July, and once again, Pederson came out on top. This time, Payton had to pony up money to the Eagles Autism Challenge charity.
It was noted to Pederson that he’s had a nice string of success against Payton lately.
“No bigger string than this one,” Pederson said, pointing to Sunday’s game.
The 4-5 Eagles enter as eight-point underdogs to the 8-1 Saints.
Speaking of 4-5, the Eagles have a hard task ahead of them. More McManus:
Following a bad home loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night, which dropped the Philadelphia Eagles to 4-5 and put them two games behind the Washington Redskins in the division, quarterback Carson Wentz recognized that the bandwagon was likely emptying on the defending champs.
“We realize a lot of people are going to want to write us off at this point,” he said. “Now it’s just time to play ball and try and go shock some people.”
To do so, they’ll have to overcome not only a rash of injuries, but also the most difficult closing schedule in football.
Philly’s remaining opponents have a combined record of 40-23. That .635 win percentage is tops in the NFL, per ESPN Stats & Information research, ahead of the remaining schedule of the Raiders (.592) and Jets (.570).
The Eagles will face four division leaders down the stretch, including the Houston Texans (6-3), Los Angeles Rams (9-1) and Sunday’s opponent, the New Orleans Saints (8-1).
“Next week is as big as they come,” said tight end Zach Ertz of the trip to New Orleans. “I thought [the Dallas game] was as big as they come. Next week is as big as they come.”
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that four of the Eagles’ remaining games are against NFC East opponents, including two against the Redskins. If they can make hay there, they can conceivably claw their way into the playoffs.
As you try to assess whether the Redskins can defend their homefield against the Texans, winners of six in a row, note this. Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:
Washington running back Adrian Peterson has been playing through shoulder and ankle injuries the last couple weeks, but he says those injuries are no longer bothering him.
Peterson was limited in practice on Wednesday but it sounds like that’s just about giving the 33-year-old some rest than about any lingering issues.
“I’m feeling good. Last week I actually started feeling all the way healthy,” Peterson said. “My shoulder, I’m back to bench pressing. I hadn’t did that in three weeks. So, I’m back to kind of doing the normal things that I was able to do. My ankle is feeling good. My body is just kind of feeling refreshed. The second half has been a blessing to me. [It was] a grind the first eight weeks and here now, as I stand in front of you guys, my body is feeling amazing. That’s big [considering] that we just started the second stretch and we have a big game coming up.”
Peterson’s production this year has been amazing. After totaling just 679 yards from scrimmage in 2016 and 2017 combined, Peterson already has 840 yards from scrimmage through nine games this season. Washington will want him to carry another big workload on Sunday against Houston.
LOS ANGELES RAMS
Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com on the move to L.A. from Mexico City:
At least one report that emerged in the hours before the NFL pulled the plug on playing the Chiefs-Rams game at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City characterized the league as being “determined” to play the game as scheduled. That characterization was grossly optimistic, as best.
Per a source with knowledge of the situation, Rams field inspectors and NFL game-day operations representatives “immediately” realized that the field would not meet the NFL’s standard for play.
That realization came early enough to shift the game to L.A., but late enough to be an embarrassment to the NFL and an inconvenience to fans that had planned to travel to Mexico City for the game. Yes, the NFL did the right thing; based on the quality of the field, the NFL did the only thing it could have done.
Moving forward, what can be done (what should be done) is that these assessments need to be made much sooner than the week before the game. Even though the league requires the home team for international contests to keep its home stadium available, shifting an international game back to domestic soil less than a week before kickoff isn’t a good look, and it gives fans who already view dimly the effort to export the top American sport another reason to grumble about the league’s ongoing obsession with globalizing football.
RB Le’VEON BELL left some parting gifts for his now former teammates to vulture. Herbie Teope of NFL.com:
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did his best to keep communication lines open with running back Le’Veon Bell.
Roethlisberger told reporters Wednesday morning that he reached out to Bell ahead of the league’s Tuesday deadline for Bell to sign his franchise tag.
“I texted him yesterday before the deadline asking him — texted — saying I was hoping he was going to show up, and if he decided not to I wish him nothing but the best,” Roethlisberger said, via video posted by PennLive.com . “He was a great teammate and football player. To each their own on what they want to walk away from.”
Roethlisberger said Bell did not reply to his text message, and eventually Bell elected to not sign his $14.5 million franchise tender. By doing so, Bell will not receive the money and miss the rest of the season.
With Bell’s career in Pittsburgh almost certainly over, it appears his teammates have moved on as well.
After practice on Wednesday, multiple Steelers players raided Bell’s locker. According to multiple reports, they took his nameplate off his stall and divided up items they found in the locker. ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler posted a video showing linebacker Bud Dupree thanking Bell for his Jordan Brand cleats before putting one of the shoes on.
Before practice, Roethlisberger told reporters he couldn’t imagine sitting out a entire season like Bell has in his pursuit for a long-term contract.
“It would be tough,” Roethlisberger said. “Part of the great thing about this sport is this band of brothers, this group of guys in here. Being with them is kind of what keeps me coming back here, just so many years, too. But like I said, to each their own. Each guy has their own motives and motivations and I can’t comment on him. I am glad that we won’t talk about this anymore, though.”
In the meantime, the Steelers will now rely on James Conner, who has been a capable fill during Bell’s absence with 771 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns to go along with 387 yards receiving and a touchdown.
Conner suffered a concussion in Week 10, but the Steelers believe he should be ready for Sunday’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
– – –
Dan Graziano of ESPN.com makes the case that there is some sense to RB Le’Veon Bell passing on $14.5 million in 2018.
Think what you will about Le’Veon Bell’s decision to sit out the season in pursuit of free-agent riches, but the key word there is “think.”
It’s tempting right now to retreat to your corner and settle into some insta-conclusion supported by decades of old, established NFL thinking: Bell’s crazy. He overplayed his hand. He’ll never get what he’s looking for. He quit on his team. The Steelers are doing just fine without him. It’s silly to pay running backs.
The facts are that this thing isn’t over yet, that we can’t see the future, and that no final conclusions about Bell’s gambit can be made until March, when we find out what kind of free-agent contract he ends up getting. If he gets a Todd Gurley-style megadeal, then this was all worth it. But if he has to take a one-year, “prove-it” deal because not enough teams are interested, then this was a huge mistake. We don’t and can’t know the outcome yet.
What we do know is that Bell’s situation presents us with a chance — maybe even an obligation — to think differently about the NFL and its economic structure. One of the best players in the world just kissed off his age-26 season because he thought it was the smart long-term financial move. An employee used the maximum extent of his own leverage to try to gain ground in a system designed almost entirely for the benefit of the employer. If that doesn’t make us question what we thought we knew about how all of this works, that’s a missed opportunity on our part.
Let’s start with the franchise tag itself — a widely accepted fact of NFL economics but also an anti-capitalistic device designed to restrict the earning power of top players. The Steelers didn’t want to give Bell the deal he wanted and they also didn’t want to lose him. Fortunately, they operate one of 32 businesses in the world that can have that particular cake and eat it too. For as many as three years in a row, if it can afford to, a team can keep a player from hitting the open market simply by designating him its franchise player and assigning him a one-year deal for a collectively bargained salary.
It’s a crazy idea which the players should have never agreed to back in the early 1990s when it was first proposed. But like so much else about the NFL, it’s become ingrained, and fans just accept it — especially when it keeps your team from losing its best players. Even the players don’t really fight against it in collective bargaining negotiations, because the vast majority of them will never have to deal with it (a perspective that wrongfully ignores the principle that higher salaries atop the market are beneficial for all salaries throughout).
What Bell has done here is reject the notion that there’s nothing you can do about the franchise tag. The Steelers had it as leverage against him in contract negotiations and used it — two years in a row — to make sure no other team but Pittsburgh could offer him a long-term contract. The premise is that Bell had two choices: Sign a long-term deal under the Steelers’ terms or play on the one-year franchise tag. The deal the Steelers offered wasn’t the one he wanted, and the franchise tag meant they didn’t have to improve on it in order to get him to stay.
Turns out, Bell had a third choice, which was to flex his own leverage and withhold his services. Even when Bell telegraphed this back in January, almost no one believed him because … well, who does that? Sure, Sean Gilbert and Dan Williams did it in the late ’90s, but neither one of those guys was getting $14.5 million on their franchise tags, as Bell would have if he’d played in 2018. The size of that number and the assumption that playing football this year was among Bell’s top priorities made the threat easy to dismiss, pretty much up until he officially made good on it Tuesday afternoon.
Which brings us to our next point, which is the obvious but somehow overlooked fact that playing football and making $14.5 million were not among Bell’s top priorities for 2018. Bell’s priority all along has been the big free-agent contract he believes awaits him when he reaches the open market in March. He looked at what Gurley got from the Rams — $14.4 million a year for four years with $21.95 million guaranteed at signing and another $12.55 million in guarantees that kick in next March. No way did any offer from the Steelers, whose stubborn traditional contract structure guarantees only the signing bonus, look like that. And having watched Kirk Cousins try out a similar move this past spring, Bell rightfully believes an open-market free agency could land him even more than Gurley got.
But the part about playing football this year may be the most seismic aspect of all of this. Boiled all the way down, Bell’s decision was that, if he wanted to be in the best possible condition for free agency next spring, actually playing football this year was one of the worst things he could do. That’s the part that should grab everybody’s attention — the teams, the fans and especially guys like Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt, a couple of non-first-round star running backs who’ll be faced with similar decisions soon. Bell looked out over the 2018 season and believed the Steelers would use him the way they always have — 400 or so touches in the regular season and maybe ride him even harder through what they hope will be a deep playoff run. That kind of exposure to injury and to wear-and-tear didn’t appeal to a guy whose priority was to be as healthy as possible when talking to teams about a history-making deal next spring, so he decided not to engage in it.
The manner in which the Steelers have used his replacement, James Conner, proves Bell’s point. Conner’s 203 touches so far are second most in the league, behind only Gurley. And anyone who thinks the Steelers would have cut back on Bell’s usage because they had a capable Conner hasn’t spent much time studying the Steelers’ offense over the past half-decade or so. They use one back, over and over again, in the running game and the passing game. Had Bell shown up, it’s easy to conclude that that back would have been him, and the world still wouldn’t know what Conner could do.
What Conner has done has made it easy for the Steelers to look good in all of this. Their end of it fits conventional NFL wisdom perfectly. If you want to perceive players — and especially running backs — as replaceable widgets, the 2018 Steelers are your Exhibit A. If Tuesday was the finish line in the Le’Veon Bell saga, then the Steelers were the clear winners.
But Tuesday wasn’t the finish line, because this whole thing is bigger than Bell vs. the Steelers. This is about players vs. the system, and about new NFL thinking vs. old NFL thinking. If what you want is to believe the player doesn’t have to operate his entire career under the league’s and the teams’ economic terms, then Bell is still fighting your fight. And it doesn’t end for at least four more months.
TE ERIC EBRON is playing less and doing more than he did with the Lions. Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com:
Eric Ebron isn’t playing as many snaps as he might have imagined. He’s making more of those snaps than almost anyone imagined.
The former first-rounder, who was cast aside by the Lions this offseason, is flourishing with the Colts despite playing a limited amount of snaps each game.
Since he’s not the best blocker among their tight ends, they’re not asking him to block much. He’s played just 55.8 percent of their offensive snaps this year, and that’s higher than they wanted because of the injury to starter Jack Doyle.
That makes his 39 catches for 463 yards and 10 touchdowns even more impressive.
“I knew that they would allow me to make plays, allow me to be me and do what I do best,” Ebron said, via Joel Erickson of the Indianapolis Star. “It was one of the reasons why I came here, and I knew Andrew (Luck) would facilitate it all good enough. That way, I’d be open.”
Ebron played just 21 snaps last week, but scored three touchdowns.
“I’m OK with it, because I know that when I am on the field, it’s a presence,” Ebron said. “Whether it’s me getting the ball or not, my presence is felt.”
It wasn’t in Detroit, which made it easy for the Lions to walk away rather than pay him more than $8 million this year. But he’s found his niche in Indianapolis, and finally looks like the player many envisioned five years ago.
The Bills have brought back WR DEONTE THOMPSON. Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News:
You could say the Buffalo Bills are running an on-the-fly pattern with their receiving corps. They’re reshaping it as the season rolls on.
The overhaul continued Wednesday with the signing of familiar free agent Deonte Thompson, who was on the street after being released by the Dallas Cowboys five days ago.
Thompson played 11 games for the Bills last season, catching 27 passes for 430 yards and a touchdown. He started seven of those games.
The Bills let the 29-year-old walk in free agency after the season, and he got a one-year deal and a $1 million signing bonus from Dallas. The Cowboys cut him at the end of the preseason, then brought him back. He played eight games for Dallas, catching 14 passes for 124 yards.
Thompson has speed. He ran a 4.31-second 40-yard dash when he entered the NFL in 2012. That makes him the fastest man on the Bills’ roster, supplanting rookie receiver Robert Foster, who ran 4.41. But Thompson hasn’t parlayed his speed into big results.
Last year was his best NFL season. Combined with five games he played for Chicago in 2017, he finished with a career-high 38 catches.
Considering the limited production the Bills have been getting at receiver this season, Thompson could help. He gives the team another fleet option to go with Foster. Thompson had six catches of 25-plus yards for the Bills last season.
The Bills called up Foster from the practice squad last week, and he had three catches for 105 yards in the win over the New York Jets. The Bills also added second-year man Isaiah McKenzie to the receiving corps on Nov. 5. He was claimed off waivers from Denver, and he had four scrimmage touches for 46 yards vs. the Jets, plus a 21-yard punt return. McKenzie runs 4.42 in the 40.
While Thompson didn’t draw raves with the Cowboys, his release had to do with compensatory picks. By cutting him before Week 10, Dallas was able to assure itself of a fourth-round compensatory pick in the 2019 draft. That’s because he won’t count as a player added by Dallas in free agency.
THIS AND THAT
John Breech of CBSSports.com plays the playoff percentages:
Our weekly NFL projections will be coming at you with a twist this week.
Instead of just projecting the 12-team playoff field, we’re also going to list the playoff chances for all 32 teams. Since no team has officially been eliminated yet, everyone still technically has a shot to get to the postseason, well, except for the Bills. They’re literally the only team in the NFL that is being given a zero percent chance to make the playoffs by our projection computer (That doesn’t mean they’ve been eliminated from playoff contention, it just means that the computer thinks their playoff chances are dead).
Speaking of the computer, these playoff projections will be based on data from number-cruncher Stephen Oh of SportsLine.com. Basically, Oh plugged some numbers into his SportsLine computer this week and simulated the rest of the NFL season, and using those numbers, we’re going to let you know the playoff chances for all 32 teams, plus the projected 12-team playoff field.
Alright, let’s get to this week’s playoff projections, well, except for Bills fans. Since the computer has lost all hope in your team, here’s a mock draft for you to read, that will be way more exciting.
Note: Remember, this is a projection based on how we think the rest of the regular season will play out. If you want to see the current playoff standings, click here to see Will Brinson’s thorough breakdown of what the playoff race looks like as we head into Week 11.
AFC Playoff Projection
Projected wins in parentheses
1. Kansas City Chiefs: (13.2 wins) AFC West Champs
With a two-game lead over the Patriots for the top seed in the AFC, the computer thinks that Kansas City’s biggest threat might end up being the Chargers. With seven weeks left to play in the regular season, the Chiefs are being given an 81.2 percent chance to win the AFC West while the Chargers are being given an 18.2 percent shot. The AFC West title is a big deal, because if the Chiefs falter down the stretch, they could tumble from the top seed in the AFC down to the fifth seed. The Chiefs and Chargers still have to play each other one more time and that will come in the final Thursday night game of the year in Week 15.
2. New England Patriots: (11.5) AFC East Champs
Despite being blown out by the Titans, the computer still views the Patriots as the team with the best chance to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. The Patriots are being given a 31.26 percent chance to be the AFC’s Super Bowl team, while the Chiefs are a smidgeon back at 30.65 percent.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers: (10.1) AFC North Champs
After slaughtering the Panthers in Week 10, the computer now basically views the Steelers as a lock to make the playoffs. The Steelers are being given a 92.7 percent chance of making the postseason and an 88.1 percent chance of making the playoffs as the division winner out of the AFC North. Apparently, the computer is completely OK with the fact that Le’Veon Bell decided not to play this year.
4. Houston Texans: (9.8) AFC South Champs
The Texans might be on a six-game winning streak, but the computer apparently doesn’t like them anymore. The Texans fell from the third spot to the fourth spot in this week’s projections, even though they didn’t even play in Week 10. The good news for the Texans is that the computer loves their chances of making the playoffs (76.6 percent). On the other hand, the computer isn’t so sure they’re going to win the AFC South. Although the Texans are being given a 50.7 percent chance to win the division, the computer views the Titans (35.3 percent) as a serious threat.
5. Los Angeles Chargers: (11.5) Wild Card
Thanks to the Patriots loss in Tennessee on Sunday, the Chargers are now being projected to finish with the second best record in the AFC. Of course, the problem for the Chargers is that the Chiefs are being projected as the top team in the AFC, which means having the second-best record basically means nothing, because the Chargers are still going to have to play on the road in a wild-card game.
6. Tennessee Titans: (8.9) Wild Card
This is the third week of our playoff projections, and for the third week in a row, we have a new team in the AFC’s final playoff spot. First, we had the Ravens. Then, we had the Bengals, and now, we have the Titans. After shocking the Patriots on Sunday, the Titans vaulted into this spot, and the crazy thing is that the computer actually likes them here. The Titans have a 46.6 percent chance of making the playoffs, which is 20 percent more than any other team on the outside looking in. The computer views the Colts (24.3 percent), Bengals (23.4 percent) and Ravens (16.5 percent) as the biggest threats to the Titans’ spot. Oh, and the Titans play the Colts this week, so the computer might have to re-project things if Indy wins.
Just missed: Colts (8.1), Bengals (8.0), Ravens (7.8).
Here’s a list of all the other AFC teams (their percentage chances of getting into the playoffs is listed next to them in parentheses): Dolphins (11.6 percent), Jaguars (3.0 percent), Browns (1.6 pecent), Broncos (1.5 percent), Jets (0.2 percent), Raiders (0.1 percent), Bills (0.0 percent).
I’ll be honest, I don’t know why the Raiders have slightly better playoff chances than the Bills, but I’ve learned not to question the computer anymore, so we’re just going to roll with it.
NFC Playoff Projection
1. Los Angeles Rams: (13.2 wins) NFC West Champs
The computer was NOT impressed by the Rams shaky win over the Seahawks on Sunday. Although the computer still sees them finishing the season as the NFC’s top seed, the Rams are viewed as just the fourth best team in the NFL, behind the Saints, Chiefs and Patriots.
2. New Orleans Saints: (12.8) NFC South Champs
You know who was really impressed by the Saints 51-14 win over the Bengals? The computer. Although the Saints are projected to get the second seed in the NFC, the computer actually now views them as the best overall team in the NFL. Not only are the Saints now viewed as the most likely team to win the NFC title game, but they’re also being given the best chance to take home the Lombardi Trophy. The Saints are being given a 20.98 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl, which is higher than the Rams (17.47 percent), Patriots (17.21 percent) and Chiefs (16.58 percent).
3. Chicago Bears: (9.9) NFC North Champs
The Bears aren’t a lock to win the division yet, but the computer loves their chances of making the playoffs. SportsLine is giving the Bears an 80.9 percent chance of getting into the postseason. As far as the division goes, the computer thinks that the race is down to the Bears (60.8 percent chance to win the NFC North) and the Vikings (25.2 percent). If the Bears beat the Vikings on Sunday, the computer will likely view them as a lock to win the division.
4. Washington Redskins: (9.4) NFC East Champs
The computer might just be the Redskins biggest fan this year. SportsLine has been projecting for the past two weeks that Washington would win the NFC East and now the projection is moving closer to lock territory. With the Redskins now holding a two-game lead over both the Cowboys and Eagles, the computer is giving Washington a 71.6 percent chance of winning the division and a 79.9 percent chance of making the postseason. Of course, the computer isn’t factoring in the years of heartbreak and suffering that Redskins fans have gone through, so you probably shouldn’t go buying your playoff tickets just yet if you’re a Redskins fan.
5. Carolina Panthers: (9.2) Wild Card
The Panthers got beat down by the Steelers in Week 10, but the good news for Carolina is that the computer didn’t really seem to care. The Panthers were locked into the fifth slot in the NFC before the loss and they’re still locked into it now. As for Carolina’s chances to win the division, SportsLine was already projecting the Saints to run away with the NFC South and so the loss to Pittsburgh didn’t change things. Currently, the Panthers are being given just a 4.8 percent chance to win the division.
6. Minnesota Vikings: (8.4) Wild Card
The Vikings didn’t even play in Week 10, but they were still the biggest winners in this week’s projection. Thanks to Seattle’s loss in Los Angeles, Minnesota is now projected to be the second wild card team out of the NFC. Unlike the Seahawks, the computer actually likes the Vikings and is giving them a 51.1 percent chance of making the postseason. No other team in the NFC Is even being given a 40 percent chance with the computer viewing the Packers (35.1 percent), Seahawks (33.1 percent), Eagles (20.4 percent) and Cowboys (19.8 percents) as the biggest threats to Minnesota.
Just missed: Seahawks (8.2), Packers (7.8), Cowboys (7.8), Eagles (7.6)
Here’s a list of all the other NFC teams (their percentage chances of getting into the playoffs is listed next to them in parentheses): Falcons (17.9 percent), Lions (2.6 percent), Buccaneers (1.1 percent), 49ers (0.1 percent), Cardinals (0.1 percent), Giants (0.1 percent).
Wild-Card Round Projection
(6) Titans at (3) Steelers
(5) Chargers at (4) Texans
Byes: Chiefs, Patriots
(6) Vikings at (3) Bears
(5) Panthers at (4) Redskins
Byes: Rams, Saints
BILL BARNWELL AND THE JOB OPENINGS
Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com identifies 10 coaching jobs he thinks could open up. He’s not saying they will, just that they might. Then he looks at those 10 teams and says if you were a hot coach (like Lincoln Riley might be) which job would give you the best chance of winning.
With the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks playing Thursday night, it seemed like a good time to get to our annual look at which possible head-coaching openings might be most appealing this offseason. When I went through this exercise last year, the top two teams were the Houston Texans and Cleveland Browns, who didn’t change their coaches. The Browns have caught up since. The No. 3 team was the Chicago Bears, who made the right hire in Matt Nagy and find themselves atop the NFC North with seven games to go.
As you can tell by the Texans mention, there’s no guarantee that these coaches will all lose their jobs. I’m not suggesting that the 10 coaches I get to here even should lose their jobs. It’s no fun rooting for people to get fired. In the case that these jobs do come open, though, I think these are the spots that would be most enticing to coaches on the open market.
Let’s begin by starting with the jobs that narrowly missed out, either because they’re not likely to come open or because they aren’t exciting enough to make the top 10.
There are a bunch of teams that might consider firing their coach if they go on a long losing streak to end the season. Among 2018 playoff teams, I think Sean McDermott is safe in Buffalo, but the Jaguars might consider moving on from Doug Marrone if their season continues to go down the tubes. The Texans have a new general manager in Brian Gaine, and while Houston is comfortably in first place in the AFC South, a second-half collapse could inspire Gaine to look for his own coach to replace Bill O’Brien. Adam Gase is doing his best with Brock Osweiler in Miami, and I think the Dolphins would only look to replace Gase if Jim Harbaugh batted his eyes toward South Florida.
On the NFC side, I think Pat Shurmur will get at least one year with a young quarterback in New York before the Giants consider any big changes. Daniel Snyder’s track record suggests he would fire Jay Gruden if Washington doesn’t make the playoffs for the third straight season in the NFC East, but it is two games up with seven to go. The Falcons also have had a disappointing season and haven’t developed defensively under Dan Quinn, but it’s more likely that they move on from coordinator Marquand Manuel before making any decisions about their head coach.
That leaves us with 10 hot seats. Their relative desirability comes down to a combination of a few factors: the presence of a viable starting quarterback, the talent across the rest of their roster, their cap situation, and the track record of the team’s ownership in dealing with coaches and personnel decisions. We’ll start with the least desirable position by working our way out to the desert:
10. Arizona Cardinals
Biggest strength: Ownership stability
Biggest weakness: Roster talent
The Cardinals might be in line for a reboot. The Bidwill family has traditionally been conservative with coaches, as every single Cardinals coach since the family took over sole ownership has been given a minimum of two years to prove their worth. I would guess that Steve Wilks, who is at 2-7 in his first year as coach, won’t be the first one to break that trend.
The only reason I might wonder whether the Cardinals make a move is the status of general manager Steve Keim. After a run of success between 2013 and ’15, Arizona has collapsed under the weight of subpar drafting and decision-making from their GM. After Deone Bucannon leaves this offseason, the Cardinals won’t have a single player left on their roster from the 2013 and 2014 drafts. The 2015 draft was better, but the Cards haven’t found a single viable starter from their 2016 haul, led by disappointing defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche. Keim also was arrested for an extreme DUI in Arizona in July and spent two days in jail.
If the Cardinals hire a new GM, it will be tough to justify keeping Wilks. The Cardinals’ defense has remained effective on his watch, ranking sixth in DVOA through 10 weeks, but the future of the organization hinges on developing new quarterback Josh Rosen. If a new GM wants to hire an offense-minded coach to take over, I’m not sure Wilks has done enough to stand in the way. The most likely scenario is that Arizona keeps Wilks and new offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich to develop Rosen into 2019, but at 2-7, all options should be on the table.
9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Biggest strength: Cap flexibility
Biggest weakness: QB situation
Barring a miracle, the Buccaneers will miss the playoffs for the 11th consecutive season since firing Jon Gruden after the 2008 campaign. Even worse, what looked like a team that might be on the upswing after basically playing its second half to a draw last season — the Bucs went 3-5, but with a point differential of minus-7 over eight games — looks to be in significantly worse shape than it was a year ago. Quarterback Jameis Winston violated the league’s personal conduct policy and was suspended for three games, and the former first overall pick was benched after 10 interceptions in three starts when he came back. The Bucs seem set on sitting Winston before releasing him this offseason to avoid his fifth-year option in 2019.
The Bucs do have a core of young talent — wideout Mike Evans, tight end O.J. Howard, guard Ali Marpet, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and outside linebacker Lavonte David all have credible cases to perennially sniff the Pro Bowl over the next several seasons — but their defense remains a failure in progress. Tampa’s defense has technically improved from 32nd in DVOA a year ago to 31st this season, but its actual DVOA percentage has fallen. Its secondary has been a disaster for years, but unlike seasons past, Brent Grimes & Co. can’t blame their woes on an absent pass rush.
The Glazer family might be distracted by Jose Mourinho’s season-long temper tantrum at Manchester United, but the Bucs are likely going to fire coach Dirk Koetter and GM Jason Licht at the end of this season. Whoever comes in will inherit a clean cap, as the Bucs have consistently structured their veteran deals to avoid significant signing bonuses. Tampa is projected to have $15 million in cap space next year, but that could easily approach $47 million by releasing Winston and DeSean Jackson without incurring any dead money.
Having cap space is great, but the new coach will need to fight battles on multiple fronts, which makes it difficult to identify an appropriate skill set. Teams usually opt to replace a coach with someone whose strengths are the previous coach’s weakness, and while that’s usually in terms of skill set, it also can be in terms of temperament. Gruden was replaced by players’ coach Raheem Morris, who was swapped for disciplinarian and kneel-down attacker Greg Schiano. Schiano gave way to Lovie Smith, whom the Bucs regarded as another players’ coach. Smith was fired so the Bucs could retain Koetter, whose skill set is diametrically opposed to that of his former boss.
So, history suggests the Bucs will be looking for a defensive mind. That’s good, because Tampa Bay needs help in finally fixing its defense. The Bucs also have a black hole at quarterback and nobody to develop a passer. Can a team hire two head coaches? And if it can, why would either of them want to work with the perennially disappointing Buccaneers? This is going to be a tough sell.
8. Dallas Cowboys
Biggest strength: Roster talent
Biggest weakness: Ownership meddling
It seemed like the Cowboys job was about to become available as early as this week, but Jason Garrett shockingly found a victory in Philadelphia on Sunday night to keep alive Dallas’ playoff hopes and extend his job security. The 4-5 Cowboys have a 34.6 percent shot of making the postseason per ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI), but it seems likely that Garrett’s nine-year reign in Dallas will have to come to an end if they fail to make it.
Before Garrett, no Cowboys coach under Jerry Jones had managed to make it past five seasons in charge. You might chalk this up to the more enlightened approach of his son Stephen Jones, who presumably has more of a say in the day-to-day operations than in years past. Jones reportedly pressured his father to pass on Johnny Manziel in the 2014 draft for Zack Martin, but he also suggested before the 2018 season that Tavon Austin would be in line for 12 to 24 touches per game. (Austin racked up a total of 13 touches in six games before going down with a groin injury.) Win some, lose some. Regardless of who’s in charge, it’s clear that the role of head coach on the Cowboys is part-coach and part-actor in a reality show built around the Jones family.
Outside of ownership, there’s a lot to like about this opportunity. The Cowboys are finally out of their cap woes and have $47.5 million in space in 2019, although much of that will need to go toward re-signing DeMarcus Lawrence and locking up Byron Jones and Dak Prescott. Prescott will inspire a range of opinions from possible coaches; I suspect some will see him as a franchise quarterback and others as a possible albatross about to get paid more than he deserves. Rod Marinelli’s defense might be a bit overrated after that Eagles game — it ranks 19th in DVOA — but the Cowboys have young pieces in Lawrence, Jones, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch.
If anything, the Cowboys would be smart to retain Marinelli and hire an offense-minded coach to get the most of Prescott and new wide receiver Amari Cooper. The team is missing a first-round pick from the Cooper trade, and whoever takes over the job will have to contend with the Jones family having more of a say in personnel than just about any other ownership group in the league. Historically, that hasn’t been an appetizing opportunity for hot coaching candidates, with Bill Parcells, who retained personnel power for at least a period of time, as the lone exception.
7. Denver Broncos
Biggest strength: Roster talent
Biggest weaknesses: Uncertain ownership, QB situation
The Broncos aren’t as bad as they seem. Denver ranks ninth in DVOA after 10 weeks, ahead of teams like the Patriots, Panthers and Texans. They’ve played the second-toughest schedule in football and held fourth-quarter leads over the Chiefs and Texans. It’s great on paper, and it suggests that the Broncos will be a bounce-back team in 2019, but Vance Joseph is still likely to lose his job after the season. It might be more appropriate to blame years of subpar draft picks from John Elway, but you don’t need me to tell you Elway isn’t getting fired by the Broncos.
There’s no clear path to a long-term solution at quarterback, and it’s difficult to trust Elway is going to suddenly find one. Case Keenum has been passable behind a below-average, beat-up offensive line, but if the Broncos want to eat $10 million in dead money and dump Keenum after the season, the free-agent market doesn’t offer many inspiring alternatives. Are the Broncos a significantly better team with Joe Flacco or Nick Foles under center?
Elway passed on several of the quarterbacks in this year’s class to draft Bradley Chubb, and while Chubb has eight sacks, the Broncos aren’t well-positioned to grab Justin Herbert or any of the other top passers in the 2019 draft. FPI projects them to finish with the 10th pick, and with teams like the Raiders and Giants picking ahead of Elway, it’ll be tough for the Hall of Famer to move up and grab a franchise passer.
So, whoever comes on board might be stuck with Keenum for another year. The Broncos are projected to have $48 million in cap space and can get over $60 million by releasing Ronald Leary and Brandon Marshall, but they’re also looking at free agency for Matt Paradis and Bradley Roby, two of the few successful development stories on Elway’s résumé. Even they have asterisks, though: Roby has been extremely inconsistent this season, while Paradis just went down with a season-ending fractured fibula. And in the wake of longtime owner Pat Bowlen ceding control of the team as he battles Alzheimer’s, the team’s ownership council is fighting among itself for power. Elway and his Super Bowl rings can be charming, but this will be a tough sell.
6. New York Jets
Biggest strength: Cap space
Biggest weakness: Roster talent
The coach who replaced Garrett on the midseason plank was Todd Bowles, whose defense followed solid performances against the Bears and Dolphins by allowing 41 points to Matt Barkley and the Bills in Week 10. The 3-7 Jets have lost four straight, and with rookie Sam Darnold struggling, the natural logic is that the Jets will look for a quarterback whisperer to take over coaching duties come 2019.
Whoever takes the job will have $100 million in cap space with which to work. The problem, truthfully, might be spending it. The Jets could (at least theoretically) literally turn over their entire skill-position group this offseason, which might not be the worst idea given that Gang Green’s weapons ranked 32nd heading into the season. Tight end Chris Herndon should still have a role, but everyone else is flexible. Bilal Powell, Quincy Enunwa and Jermaine Kearse are unrestricted free agents. Robby Anderson is a restricted free agent. Isaiah Crowell has only $3 million in dead money on his 2019 cap charge.
Let’s say the Jets bring back Anderson and Herndon. Great! Now, who else is going to fill in those roles? The Jets can afford to pay Le’Veon Bell whatever he wants, but James Conner’s success in Bell’s absence makes the former Steelers star seem less special than he did before 2018. Maybe the Jets keep Crowell and sign someone like Tevin Coleman or T.J. Yeldon to serve as a complementary back.
More disconcertingly, though, is what’s really out there to add at wide receiver? The top of the class in free agency includes players on the wrong side of 30 (Golden Tate, Larry Fitzgerald, Chris Hogan), deep threats with injury issues (John Brown, Kelvin Benjamin, Donte Moncrief), slot guys (Adam Humphries, Cole Beasley, Randall Cobb) and size-speed guys who haven’t produced at a consistent level (Tyrell Williams, Devin Funchess). The Jets are going to be competing with a half-dozen teams that are desperate to give their young quarterback wideout help. Do you really want to go to $14 million a season for Funchess? All that cap space might not mean much in the place where the Jets need help most.
5. Cleveland Browns
Biggest strength: Roster talent
Biggest weakness: Ownership
I suspect some will find the Browns being this low as a surprise. On paper, this is an appealing job. The Browns have a ton of young talent after amassing draft picks during the Sashi Brown era, including a promising rookie quarterback in first overall pick Baker Mayfield. Cleveland is set with more than $81 million in cap space in 2019, and GM John Dorsey has a track record of success going back through his time in Green Bay and Kansas City. Cleveland is only 3-6-1, but when you consider that the Browns went 1-31 between 2016 and 2017, a .350 winning percentage was literally cause for free-beer fridges to be opened around the city. A 90th percentile-luck version of this Browns team could be 7-3 right now.
All that’s great. Any analysis of the Browns opportunity that leaves out ownership, though, is fatally flawed. There’s absolutely no reason to think that Jimmy and Dee Haslam have any idea of how to run a football organization or will stick to any plan for any meaningful length of time. Haslam already has been through five head coaches in less than seven years as Browns owner and will hire his sixth this offseason. The Browns pivoted to analytics and a long-term plan before 2016, then gave up after less than two seasons and hired Dorsey to run the team with a traditional scouting background. They retained Hue Jackson after one win in two seasons, then fired both Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley in midseason.
If you’re Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley and can basically have your pick of a half-dozen NFL jobs, would you be more influenced by the ability to coach Mayfield, or the fact that no coach has made it through three seasons with Haslam running operations? It’s tough to win without a franchise quarterback. It’s virtually impossible to win with a bad owner.
4. Detroit Lions
Biggest strength: Franchise QB
Biggest weakness: Roster talent
Matt Patricia might not be cut out for this. The Lions hired Patricia in February, but months later, it was revealed that Patricia had been previously indicted on sexual assault charges in 1996. Patricia denied the charge and the case never went to trial, but he also failed to tell the Lions about the indictment. The former Patriots assistant has been bizarrely testy with the media, coming up with an inexplicable argument for his timeout usage against the 49ers, then scolding a reporter for his posture weeks later.
Patricia’s former boss is similarly gruff with the media, but Bill Belichick can skate by on a track record of wild success. Patricia is 3-6, and while he beat Belichick and the Patriots in Week 3, the Lions have lost their past three games by a combined 41 points. If the Lions can’t come up with a victory during their upcoming three-game homestand against the Panthers, Bears and Rams, Lions fans might be combing through their closet for brown paper bags.
If Patricia goes, the Lions might look for another coach in his image. Detroit has been missing pass-rusher Ezekiel Ansah for most of the year and didn’t have Darius Slay for Sunday’s shellacking at the hands of Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears, but Patricia’s defense ranks 30th in DVOA after 10 weeks. The idea of hiring a defensive coach after firing Jim Caldwell wasn’t a bad one, but Patricia just might not be very good.
Ansah is a free agent in 2019, and the Lions have to seriously invest in their defense after years of focusing their efforts on offense. It’s a tough trick to pull with quarterback Matthew Stafford occupying $29.5 million of cap space, the second-largest cap hit in football. GM Bob Quinn’s moves to solidify Stafford’s offensive line by signing T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner haven’t worked; Lang hasn’t stayed healthy and hit injured reserve this week, while Wagner has allowed 10.5 sacks in 22 starts with the Lions after giving up seven in 47 starts in Baltimore. Starting with Stafford and an ownership group that has mostly been patient is a plus, but the Lions are a mess on the field.
3. Seattle Seahawks
Biggest strength: Franchise QB
Biggest weakness: Uncertain ownership
The tragic death of Seahawks owner Paul Allen throws a short-term wrench into Seattle’s plans. Allen helped keep the team in Seattle, and given the rabid fan base the Seahawks enjoy, it’s difficult to imagine the team leaving the Pacific Northwest even after Allen’s passing. Ownership transitions are difficult processes, though, and with the Seahawks likely to be sold, it’s unclear how the temporary ownership structure or the eventual replacement owners will run the team. Uncertainty is a problem.
As the Seahawks transition further from the Legion of Boom era, it remains to be seen whether their coach will want to be part of the process. Pete Carroll has coached well enough to keep his job, of course, but the 4-5 Seahawks have just a 29.9 percent chance of making the postseason, per FPI. Carroll turned 67 in September and will lose another set of veterans from that team in Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas this offseason. The Rams seem set to dominate the NFC West for the next several seasons. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Carroll take on the challenge and stick around as the Seahawks rebuild, but nobody would fault the former Super Bowl champion for retiring after the season, either.
If Carroll moves on, the Seahawks would represent an interesting opportunity. Russell Wilson, who turns 30 on Nov. 29, should have several more years left as an upper-echelon NFL starter. His offensive line finally looks like an NFL unit, although the new coach likely would look to replace both coordinators and offensive line coach Mike Solari, all of whom were hired this past season. The Seahawks also rank 10th in defensive DVOA despite losing Thomas for most of the season, which is a testament to the work Carroll has done in coaching up the likes of Shaquill Griffin and Tre Flowers.
Given the ownership upheaval, though, the Seahawks might not be players in free agency to plug holes on their defensive line. The roster doesn’t have much depth after years of poor drafts, and Seattle is missing its second-, sixth- and seventh-round picks in the upcoming draft. Few coaches inherit teams with a pair of viable Hall of Fame candidates in their prime as a new Seahawks czar would with Wilson and Bobby Wagner, but there might be less behind those two stars than it seems.
2. Baltimore Ravens
Biggest strength: Patient ownership
Biggest weakness: Young roster talent
Steve Bisciotti purchased majority ownership in the Ravens in 2004. After a 5-11 season in 2007, Bisciotti fired Brian Billick and replaced him with Eagles assistant John Harbaugh, who had been Philly’s longtime special teams coordinator before spending 2007 as defensive backs coach. Bisciotti hasn’t made a coaching change since. Harbaugh is in the middle of his 11th season in the job, and while the Ravens routinely made it to the playoffs and even won a Super Bowl during the first half of his tenure, Baltimore has made it to the postseason just once in the past six seasons. If Harbaugh misses the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season, it might be time to move on.
Whoever comes in will be taking over a team shedding its longtime identity. Legendary former tight end and current GM Ozzie Newsome is retiring after the season, and while deputy Eric DeCosta has been ticketed to take over the position for years, the Ravens will be losing a Hall of Fame executive. The Ravens also seem set to shed the onerous Joe Flacco contract after the season, a move that would free up $10.5 million and get them to $45.8 million in space as they start the 2019 offseason. They can create $14 million more by cutting Jimmy Smith and declining Brandon Carr’s option, although Baltimore likely would need to add a cornerback in the process. Stalwart edge rusher Terrell Suggs is also a free agent, though the Ravens might focus more on retaining Za’Darius Smith and giving C.J. Mosley a big deal.
The project for a new coach will be developing Lamar Jackson into a starting quarterback while integrating younger players at both cornerback and wideout, where the Ravens will be down to Michael Crabtree and Willie Snead. If Smith and Suggs both leave, the Ravens likely will want to add edge depth in the draft. Harbaugh’s would-be replacement will have the time to develop young talent. Given how out-of-the-box Harbaugh was as a hire in the first place, though, it would be naive to suggest that the Ravens are likely to lean toward a coach with any specific set of skills.
1. Green Bay Packers
Biggest strength: Aaron Rodgers
Biggest weakness: Young talent
The biggest weakness with the Packers, truthfully, is Mike McCarthy. Any coach coming in to replace McCarthy would have an enormous advantage by virtue of getting to work with arguably the most talented quarterback in league history in Rodgers. While Rodgers turns 35 in December, his contract suggests that the Packers see him as an essential part of their team through 2021. I don’t think I need to explain why Rodgers would be an enticing asset for a coach, so I’ll stop now.
The Packers are in reasonable cap shape and have an ownership group that has been extremely patient … outside of that time they gave Ray Rhodes one year as coach in 1999. Before Rhodes, Mike Holmgren was at the helm for seven seasons. After Rhodes, Mike Sherman got six seasons in charge, and McCarthy is working on his 13th season at Lambeau. Whoever replaces McCarthy will seemingly be fired almost immediately or get two presidential terms to work things out.
The only thing that isn’t quite up to task is the talent around Rodgers, which led to GM Ted Thompson getting kicked upstairs after the 2017 season. Thompson famously eschewed free agency in favor of amassing draft picks, and while that helped him build a Super Bowl winner, his drafting prowess waned in recent years. The 2012-15 drafts delivered four star-caliber contributors in Nick Perry, Mike Daniels, David Bakhtiari and Davante Adams, but the only other players left from those years on the Packers roster are Corey Linsley and Jake Ryan. While the Packers might have imagined a secondary with first-round picks Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Damarious Randall playing alongside second-rounders Quinten Rollins and Casey Hayward, none of those guys are left in Lambeau.
You know what? I don’t think the new Packers coach will be complaining too much. The Packers are 14th in defensive DVOA, and while Rodgers has been inconsistent while recovering from the knee injury he suffered in Week 1, there might not be another quarterback in the league you would prefer to put on the field for one final drive in the fourth quarter. Every coach wants to prove that he can mold a young quarterback into a successful NFL starter. Every coach also would prefer to take Aaron Rodgers if they had the chance.