December in the NFL also means coach, GM dismissals are imminent
The calendar has turned to December, which means two things in the NFL — playoff races and coach/general manager firings.
Two coaching vacancies already have been created, with Cleveland firing Hue Jackson and Green Bay firing Mike McCarthy. As many as eight more could happen between now and early January.
Let’s take a spin around the carousel to see who’s going, who’s coming, and what’s in store for Josh McDaniels and Nick Caserio, based on media reports and insight from two league sources:
■ Among the potential coaching vacancies, the Jets are almost certain to part ways with Todd Bowles after four disappointing seasons, though GM Mike Maccagnan appears to be on more solid footing. The Buccaneers are likely to part ways with Dirk Koetter, with his team going backward after three seasons, and GM Jason Licht is in trouble, as well.
In fact, all three Florida teams might clean house this offseason. The Jaguars taking a big step back from last year is a bad omen for coach Doug Marrone and GM Dave Caldwell. And the Dolphins are a wait-and-see team, as the final four games could determine whether GM Chris Grier and coach Adam Gase are back for 2019.
John Harbaugh’s days in Baltimore look like they have been numbered all season, but if the Ravens make the playoffs, one league source said that Harbaugh could stick around, if only because he is regarded so highly as a coach. It could be even harder to fire Harbaugh if the Ravens, only a half-game behind the Steelers, win the AFC North.
The Panthers likely have to make the playoffs for Ron Rivera to keep his job, but everything in Carolina points to a blowup. GM Marty Hurney and offensive coordinator Norv Turner are clearly in temporary roles, the Panthers have regressed this year under Rivera, and they have a new owner in David Tepper, who is not attached to any of them. Historically, when a new owner buys a team, he wants to make his mark with his own coaching and GM hires.
Steve Wilks is very much in danger of being one-and-done in Arizona, as the Cardinals are just 3-9 and the offense is ranked dead last in points and yards. Expect an offensive-minded coach to come in to work with quarterback Josh Rosen.
The Broncos are still a possibility if they don’t make the playoffs, but Vance Joseph may have saved his job with his recent three-game winning streak.
And Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is perpetually on the hot seat, though everyone expected owner Mike Brown to fire Lewis about six different times by now, so who knows?
■ This will be an interesting coaching cycle, because demand seems to far outpace supply. As one league source said, “There are no hot candidates.” Almost all of the names out there are ex-head coaches who failed elsewhere, or might not be ready for the top job.
McCarthy and Harbaugh are coming off multiple seasons of disappointment. Jim Schwartz didn’t have a great tenure in Detroit. McDaniels has his Denver experience, and going back on his word last year with Indianapolis. Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo was great in Philly last year but is struggling this year.
A few of the young up-and-comers, such as Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor, Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, Patriots defensive play-caller Brian Flores, Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, and Giants defensive coordinator James Bettcher, are probably not quite ready for a head coaching job.
Dallas linebackers coach Kris Richard, Saints assistant head coach Dan Campbell, and Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier will also be in the mix, but none really move the needle.
Harbaugh would likely be the top candidate for most teams if he becomes available, and he could have his pick of jobs.
■ As for the college coaches, Urban Meyer already told Yahoo! Sports this past week that he could never coach in the NFL, because of all the losing.
“Some of these guys, their record is 74-58. I could never do that,” Meyer said.
Nick Saban’s name will be floated, and the one blemish on his résumé is that he failed in his NFL stint. But one league source doubted he would leave his perfect situation in Alabama. And Saban is a defensive coach, which is not how the NFL is trending.
Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley is getting linked to the Browns job, but he’s only been a college head coach for two years and might be too young to make the jump.
Stanford’s David Shaw will be in demand, but he likely won’t leave his perfect situation. One league source provided an interesting name to watch for the Packers vacancy — Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, who took the Wildcats to the Big Ten championship game. Fitzgerald has a great relationship with Packers CEO Mark Murphy, who used to be athletic director at Northwestern.
■ The lack of “hot” candidates could actually help McDaniels, whose warts don’t seem that much worse than anyone else’s. Of the potential vacancies, I could see McDaniels showing interest in the Packers, Browns, Panthers, and Cardinals. Those teams have quarterbacks in place, and don’t offer much of a threat to the Patriots. The Jaguars are intriguing, with a great owner and Tom Coughlin running the show, but no quarterback. McDaniels is still going to be very picky about his landing place, so don’t rule out a return to New England in 2019.
■ The Browns job seems perfect — McDaniels was reportedly smitten with Baker Mayfield last year in the pre-draft process, the Browns are loaded with young talent and cap space, and McDaniels is from northeast Ohio.
But those reasons are why he’s going to have a ton of competition for the job. One league source predicted that McCarthy ends up in Cleveland. The Browns are run by a trio of ex-Packers — GM John Dorsey, assistant GM Eliot Wolf, and vice president of player personnel Alonzo Highsmith — who all worked with McCarthy in Green Bay. And before things turned sour with Aaron Rodgers, McCarthy was known as a top-rate quarterbacks coach.
■ In addition to potential GM openings in Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, Miami, and Carolina, the Raiders and GM Reggie McKenzie look like they may part ways after this season, with McKenzie not always seeing eye-to-eye with Jon Gruden. And the Giants’ Dave Gettleman, who is 67 and has been dealing with cancer this year, may step down for health reasons. The Ravens also have announced that GM Ozzie Newsome will retire and hand the reins over to Eric DeCosta next season.
■ As for GM candidates, Caserio will be in the mix again, along with the Jaguars’ Chris Polian, the Jets’ Brian Heimerdinger, and the Buccaneers’ John Spytek. A Caserio-McDaniels pairing in Carolina would certainly be interesting.
TIEBREAKERS MAY BE IN PLAY
AFC playoff races down to the wire
The AFC playoff race is incredibly tight this year, with the Chiefs leading the conference at 10-2 but the Patriots, Texans, and Chargers sitting right there at 9-3. So let’s take a look at the tiebreaking procedures for the No. 1 seed, and how they affect the Patriots:
■ In a two-team tie, the first tiebreaker is head-to-head, so the Patriots have a leg up on the Chiefs and Texans if they finish with identical records. But what about the Patriots and Chargers, who don’t play each other? The next tiebreaker is record in conference games, where the Patriots and Chargers both sit at 6-2, with four remaining.
The third tiebreaker is best W-L percentage in common games. The Chargers are currently 3-1 against common opponents while the Patriots are 2-1, with the Chargers having one game with the Chiefs left, and the Patriots having two games against the Steelers and Bills. The fourth tiebreaker is strength of victory, where the Patriots currently have a clear advantage — .528 to .352.
■ In a three-team tie for the No. 1 seed, head-to-head sweep is the first tiebreaker. So if it’s a tie between the Patriots, Texans, and Chiefs, the Patriots would get the top seed since they beat the other two teams.
If it’s the Chargers involved in a three-team tie, the next tiebreaker is conference record (Texans are 7-2 while the Patriots and Chargers are 6-2), followed by record in common games, then strength of victory. The Patriots have a clear edge in strength of victory over the other two, but there are scenarios where they lose out to the Chargers or Texans in common games.
BY THE NUMBERS
Third downs not in Patriots’ favor
■ Interesting stat posted by ESPN’s “NFL Matchup” on Twitter, pointing out that the Patriots are ranked 32nd in the NFL in “third-and-medium” offense, converting these opportunities (3-6 yards to go) just 35.4 percent of the time. The numbers check out — STATS, LLC considers third and medium to be between 4-6 yards, and the Patriots rank 30th at 34.2 percent.
The Patriots ranked 27th in this stat a year ago, but were fifth in 2016 and first in 2017. The real trouble spot this year has been the 4-5-yard range, where the Patriots have converted just 7 of 23 opportunities.
■ Rob Gronkowski committed three penalties in last week’s win over Minnesota, just the third time in 124 career games (including postseason) where he has committed that many. And it was the first time Gronk has ever been called for holding twice in one game (he has just nine career holding penalties). Gronk had four penalties in a win at Buffalo last December.
■ The Patriots are currently No. 7 in the NFL in points scored (27.6 points per game). They haven’t finished a season outside of the top five since 2009 (sixth).
■ The Patriots appear to have three impending free agents who could be candidates for the franchise tag: defensive end Trey Flowers, left tackle Trent Brown, and kicker Stephen Gostkowski. Only one player per team can get it each season.
Based on projections posted last week by salary cap expert Joel Corry, Flowers doesn’t seem likely to get the tag, which is $17.291 million for a defensive end and probably out of the Patriots’ price range. But Brown is an interesting case — the tag for an offensive lineman is projected at $14.201 million, which would currently make Brown the fourth-highest-paid left tackle. Considering how well Brown has played, and how it’s only a one-year investment, it might not be the worst idea to keep him under the tag.
And Gostkowski could get the tag for the second time in his career. The kicker number is projected at $5.018 million, but Gostkowski’s number will be close to $6 million based on the 120 percent rule.
MEXICO CITY MESS
Waller role switch part of the fallout
Publicly, the NFL has played it cool regarding the decision to move the Chiefs-Rams game from Mexico City to Los Angeles because of subpar field conditions at Estadio Azteca. But privately it appears the NFL is fuming over this embarrassing situation.
Last month we noted how the future of the game in Mexico past 2019 is very much in doubt, and the three-year extension the NFL originally signed to play there through 2021 has been put on hold. And now comes word from the NFL that Mark Waller, the executive vice president of international endeavors since 2006 who has been instrumental in bringing games to London and Mexico, is leaving his post to become a “senior adviser.” He is being replaced by Christopher Halpin, whose title is executive vice president and chief strategy & growth officer.
The NFL isn’t announcing this as a demotion, but the timing makes it hard to view it any other way.
“We thank him for his substantial contributions and are pleased that he will remain an important part of the NFL family moving forward,” commissioner Roger Goodell said of Waller.
Smith’s career still on the line
Headlines on Nov. 20 read, “Alex Smith undergoes successful surgery,” but as Smith and Redskins fans have unfortunately learned, those types of headlines that come out right after surgery are premature. Per ESPN and other reports, Smith has developed a nasty and potentially career-ending infection in his leg following surgery to repair his tibia and fibula, which he broke in a Week 11 loss to Houston.
Infections can often develop well after surgery, as we saw with Tom Brady’s knee and Rob Gronkowski’s forearm. Smith is still in the hospital, three weeks after surgery, and his Redskins teammates visited him last week.
“I’ll continue to pray for him,” Adrian Peterson told reporters.
Smith has base salaries of $15 million and $16 million in 2019 and 2020 that are guaranteed for injury, and the Redskins will be obligated to pay and carry the salary-cap charges.
Incredibly classy move by the Packers to allow fired coach Mike McCarthy to address his players one last time on Wednesday. McCarthy, the Packers’ coach for 13 years, got a standing ovation before and after his speech. “To have that kind of closure, it was great of the organization,” linebacker Clay Matthews said . . . Smith wasn’t the only player to suffer a brutal injury recently. Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders tore his Achilles’ in Thursday’s practice, ending his season and possibly his tenure in Denver. He has a $10.15 million salary for 2019 that is technically an option year, and the Broncos can decline the option before the start of the new league year in March with no financial or salary-cap penalty. The timing of the injury could make it tough for Sanders to be ready for training camp or the start of next season, too, hindering his ability to sign with another team . . . The NFL’s hottest new officiating trend: missing blatant false starts on the offense on plays that subsequently become touchdowns. The NFL fired official Hugo Cruz in October for missing an obvious false start on a Chargers touchdown against the Browns, but no one was publicly chastised last week when it happened again in both the Chargers-Steelers and Eagles-Redskins games.
Interesting idea by the NFL, holding a Data Analytics Competition over the next two months to crowdsource possible changes to the punt play to make it safer. The NFL wants to address punts for next season after making several changes to the kickoff play in the name of player safety, and for the first time is looking for outside suggestions. The NFL says the concussion rate on kickoffs and punts is significantly higher than on regular plays from scrimmage. The NFL is providing data, and will announce four winners of a $20,000 prize at the Super Bowl in Atlanta. “One conclusion we’ve reached from work that’s been done thus far, especially around the kickoff, is that the multi-disciplinary teams of engineers and scientists and medical professionals and most importantly football specialists, has led to interesting and creative solutions,” said Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive VP of health and safety initiatives.