NFL fans in Pennsylvania are used to stability and success. The Steelers’ .649 win percentage since 2000 is second best in the NFL, while the Eagles are seventh at .580. The Steelers have more Super Bowl appearances (three) this century than head coaches (two), while the Eagles have dominated their division, with nine NFC East titles in 21 seasons.
But both teams in the Keystone State enter the 2021 offseason in a state of disarray. The Eagles are starting all over after firing coach Doug Pederson following a disappointing 4-11-1 season, and have a mess at quarterback between Carson Wentz and Jalen Hurts.
The Steelers just suffered an embarrassing home loss in the playoffs, and now face the prospect of Ben Roethlisberger retiring and much of the roster getting dismantled.
Complicating matters is that the Eagles and Steelers are also in salary-cap trouble.
“It has been a disappointment,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said this past week. “I’m not going to maintain status quo and hope the outcome changes. That’s the definition of insanity.”
The Eagles’ descent into dysfunction happened quickly. They began 2020 with Super Bowl dreams, but Wentz and the offense fell apart under Pederson’s watch.
Owner Jeffrey Lurie initially was going to keep Pederson, with the coach sitting next to GM Howie Roseman in a news conference two weeks ago to talk about fixing Wentz and the Eagles’ problems.
But Pederson got the hook a week and a half later after reportedly having strong disagreements with Lurie about the composition of the coaching staff — Pederson wanted to promote coaches from within, while Lurie wanted outside voices. Fox Sports analyst Troy Aikman said this past week that Lurie wanted to move forward with Wentz next year, while Pederson preferred Hurts. Lurie denied that Pederson’s embarrassing handling of the Week 17 loss to Washington factored into Pederson’s firing, but it surely couldn’t have helped.
Firing Pederson didn’t come lightly. He brought the franchise its first Super Bowl title three years ago, and pictures of Pederson and Lurie holding the Super Bowl trophy are plastered all over team headquarters. As noted by Paul Domowitch of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Pederson is just the fifth Super Bowl-winning coach in the last 30 years to get fired (joining Mike McCarthy, Jon Gruden, Brian Billick, and Mike Shanahan), and no coach had been fired sooner than six years after winning his title.
But Pederson was never able to re-create that 2017 magic — the Eagles ranked 12th, 18th, and 26th in points the past three years — and he alienated Wentz, who flopped this season and was benched with four games to go. Former Eagles executive Joe Banner wrote on The 33rd Team last week that Pederson never should have benched Wentz despite the quarterback’s erratic play this season.
“I would not throw in the towel and would not have done anything to permanently damage the relationship with the player,” Banner wrote. “I would have played Wentz through the season.”
Wentz may have played poorly in 2020, but the Eagles were much more invested in him than they were Pederson. They traded multiple first-round picks to get Wentz, then signed him to a $150 million contract extension. Moving on from Wentz would have saddled the Eagles with a massive salary-cap hit at a time when they are already $51 million over the cap. For Lurie, it is much easier and cheaper to just replace the coach than to move on from Wentz.
Now Lurie and Roseman must find a coach who can reclaim Wentz and deal with a lean year or two with the salary cap. It’s not the most attractive job for the top candidates, and the Eagles may have to settle on an up-and-comer such as former Eagles running back Duce Staley or Patriots linebackers coach Jerod Mayo.
As for the Steelers, Tomlin looks safe for a 15th season and beyond, despite yet another playoff disappointment. But big changes are coming in Pittsburgh, most notably with Roethlisberger, whose loss to the Browns last Sunday could be the final game of his NFL career.
The Steelers may need Big Ben to retire. Roethlisberger, who turns 39 in March, has a massive salary-cap number of $41.25 million next season, and the cap-strapped Steelers can save $19 million if he retires or is released. The decision has to come by the third day of the 2021 league year (March 20), when Roethlisberger is due a $15 million roster bonus.
And Roethlisberger may want to retire, given what the team will look like next season. The Steelers announced Thursday that offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner won’t be back, among other coaches. Because of their salary-cap situation, the Steelers have several free agents they probably will let walk, including JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Alejandro Villanueva, and Bud Dupree. They also have several veterans who could be cap casualties, including Maurkice Pouncey, Joe Haden, and Cam Heyward.
The front office could look a lot different soon, too. GM Kevin Colbert is under contract for just one more season, and salary-cap expert Omar Khan interviewed for GM openings in Houston and Carolina this month.
Even if Roethlisberger does return for one more season, the Steelers are turning the page to a new era.
“I understand we better make some changes in what we do — schematics, personnel,” Tomlin said. “I’m committed to doing it.”
New coach Meyer has near-perfect situation
The Jaguars were the first team to hire a head coach, and they made the NFL’s most fascinating hire since the Eagles pulled Chip Kelly from Oregon in 2013. Urban Meyer, 56, is a three-time national champion with Florida and Ohio State and will go down as one of the greatest coaches in college football history. But the one hole in his résumé is that he has never tried his hand at the NFL, and now he comes out of retirement to prove his mettle, going to about as perfect a situation as he could dream up.
The Jaguars have the No. 1 pick, and Meyer will get a crack at quarterback Trevor Lawrence, considered by some as the best prospect since Andrew Luck. The Jaguars also have extra picks in the first and second rounds, a boatload of cap space, and Meyer will be given full control of the football operation. It’s a big-time hire for Jaguars owner Shad Khan, who has invested plenty of resources into his football team and is desperate for sustained success.
Meyer is known as one of the greatest program-builders in college football history, and the Jaguars, with one playoff appearance and the NFL’s lowest win percentage over the last decade (.295), certainly could use a stronger culture.
But the NFL is a different ballgame. Meyer can’t recruit all of the best players like he did in college, and he now has to worry about the salary cap. He can’t keep a watchful eye on his players like he did in college. And Meyer doesn’t have a great history of developing quarterbacks for the NFL, with Tim Tebow, Dwayne Haskins, Cardale Jones, and even Alex Smith for several years struggling to adapt to the pros. It will also be interesting to see how Meyer fills out his staff, because all of the coaches from his tree, save for Mike Vrabel, are college coaches.
The history of college coaches going to the NFL is mixed. Pete Carroll (who had previous NFL experience), Jim Harbaugh, and Jimmy Johnson succeeded after making the jump. Kliff Kingsbury and Matt Rhule are still to be determined. Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier, Bobby Petrino, and Kelly flopped.
Meyer is walking into a near-perfect situation with the Jaguars and his likely new quarterback, Lawrence. He will go down as one of the greatest college football coaches of all time. Now he can prove that he’s a great football coach, period.
AROUND AND AROUND
Notes from NFL GM, head coach carousel
▪ The Texans have been late to the game in requesting head coach interviews. On Tuesday, they finally requested an interview with Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy — said to be the favorite of Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson — and on Thursday, the Texans put in a request to interview Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley. Ravens assistant head coach David Culley is expected to be interviewed soon.
It seemed curious that the Texans previously didn’t have Bieniemy on their list when he is such a hot candidate, and his exclusion reportedly upset Watson. But I was told last weekend that Nick Caserio was just getting his feet under him as the new GM, as Monday was his first day of work.
The Texans conducted coaching interviews with Marvin Lewis, Jim Caldwell, and Joe Brady before hiring Caserio, but it’s not a coincidence that this past week they started getting serious about their head coaching search. It’s a strong sign that Caserio has control over the process, as owner Cal McNair promised.
▪ Caserio and new Broncos GM George Paton signed six-year deals with their new clubs, a reflection that both teams are committed for the long haul. Given the dysfunction in Houston and Denver, six-year, fully guaranteed contracts were needed to attract top GM candidates. The Texans have an inexperienced owner, a disgruntled locker room led by the starting quarterback, and a tough roster situation, with no cap space and no first- or second-round picks this year. The Broncos are in the midst of a messy ownership succession battle among Pat Bowlen’s children that is set to go to court later this year.
▪ The Bears announced that GM Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy will return next season, but neither will get contract extensions and will have their jobs on the line in 2021. The Bears went 8-8 the last two years and whiffed on the decision to pick Mitchell Trubisky No. 2 overall in 2017, but Pace and Nagy are getting one more chance to prove themselves.
The first thing I think of when I hear that plan is that Bears chairman George McCaskey doesn’t want to pay two head coaches and two GMs next year. The second thing I think of is it is doomed to fail.
Having Pace and Nagy playing for their contracts will lead to short-term panic decisions that won’t be in the team’s best long-term interest. And as we saw with this season’s Falcons and Lions, and as I covered with the 2011 Dolphins under Tony Sparano, it is nearly impossible for a coach to have the respect of his locker room when every player knows the coach is one misstep away from being fired.
The Bears are likely to move on from Trubisky this offseason, and don’t have a solid answer at quarterback, making it an extremely difficult situation for Pace and Nagy. Barring a miracle, 2021 will be a lost season for the Bears.
▪ The Lions hired Rams college scouting director Brad Holmes as their GM on Thursday, hiring the man mostly responsible for the Rams’ uber-productive drafts, which have included Aaron Donald, Jared Goff, Cooper Kupp, and much of the team’s No. 1-ranked defense. Holmes’s hiring also makes the Rams the first team to benefit from the NFL’s new rule that gives a team two compensatory third-round draft picks (not in the same year) if it has a minority employee get hired away as a head coach or GM for another team.
The Falcons also are noticeably targeting minority candidates for their GM position. Saints assistant GM Terry Fontenot is reportedly the favorite for the job, while Holmes, Morocco Brown, Rick Smith, Anthony Robinson, Louis Riddick, Champ Kelly, and Reggie McKenzie were among other minorities interviewed.
▪ Former Falcons coach Dan Quinn landed on his feet as the defensive coordinator in Dallas under coach Mike McCarthy. And Jon Gruden filled his vacant defensive coordinator position by hiring former Jaguars coach Gus Bradley, who most recently was the Chargers’ DC. Quinn and Bradley will both implement the Seahawks’ Cover 3 defense that has become popular across the NFL.
Brady hit, and missed, a lot of deep balls
Pro Football Focus recently crowed about Tom Brady having the most deep-ball completions in the NFL this season, so I had to take a deeper look inside the numbers. Wasn’t this the same Brady who missed on 22 consecutive deep passes earlier this season?
Yes, it’s true, Brady had an NFL-high 31 completions that traveled more than 20 yards in the air. Aaron Rodgers had 30 and Russell Wilson had 26. But Brady also had by far the most attempts with 86, with Rodgers second at 70.
Brady’s 36.0 completion percentage on deep passes ranked 22nd. His five interceptions led the NFL, and his passer rating of 94.9 ranked 20th out of 40.
So, no, Brady didn’t suddenly master the deep ball at age 43. He just threw a lot more of them.
The Patriots didn’t have much of an offense and were inconsistent on defense, but they sure had great special teams this season. Punter Jake Bailey and punt returner Gunner Olszewski were named All-Pros, Matthew Slater and Bailey were named to the Pro Bowl, Nick Folk hit 26 of 28 field goals, and for the 2020 season the Patriots finished atop the famed special teams rankings of longtime writer Rick Gosselin. This marked the third time under Bill Belichick that the Patriots finished first in these rankings, which take 22 categories into account. They have nine top-five finishes and 14 in the top 10 … The Broncos’ situation in November, when they were forced to play a game without a quarterback because of COVID-19 close contacts, was a learning experience for other teams. Several playoff teams have noticeably added kickers, punters, and long snappers to their practice squads in recent weeks in case of a COVID-19 emergency with their starter. The Chiefs brought back 15-year punter Dustin Colquitt to the practice squad, the Saints brought in 42-year-old long snapper John Denney this past week, and the Packers, Rams, and Buccaneers added extra specialists in late December … Hat tip to former Boston College product Anthony Castonzo, who retired after 10 productive seasons as the Colts’ left tackle. Drafted 22nd overall in 2011, Castonzo started 144 games over 10 years and was a steady blindside protector for Andrew Luck. I’m surprised he was never voted to a Pro Bowl … This weekend’s playoff games feature three quarterbacks from the first round of the 2018 draft — Baker Mayfield (first), Josh Allen (seventh), and Lamar Jackson (32nd). It marks just the second time in history that three first-round QBs from the same draft are playing in the divisional round in the same year. The other was in 2008, which featured Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger from the 2004 draft.