Coaching Hot Seats
Is it too early in the season to talk about firing coaches? Well, it’s already on my mind, and there are some coaches who clearly are already feeling the heat, so let’s jump right in.
Greg Roman’s firing was the most transparent scapegoating in recent memory.
The Bills defense plummeted from 4th in 2014 with Jim Schwartz as DC, to 19th in 2015 under Rex Ryan. (That’s just using the NFL’s YPG measure. Advanced metrics are even worse: Football Outsiders had the Bills as the second-best defense in 2014, and 24th in 2015, with no real personnel changes.) Then they gave up 37 points to the Jets, made Ryan Fitzpatrick look like Dan Fouts, and lost 37-30. So, of course, they fired their offensive coordinator.
Usually, the “scapegoat for the hot seat” is at least involved with the unit that failed. But Rex Ryan wasn’t about to fire himself or his twin brother Rob. So the offensive coordinator goes instead.
But there’s no real reason to believe that move will solve their problems, because the problems are largely on the other side of the ball. For all his bluster, swagger, and reputation as a defensive mind, Ryan has turned a unit with a devastating pass rush into one that can hardly ever get to the QB.
Unless the Bills experience a serious defensive turnaround, Rex Ryan is probably done after this year, and should probably be done as an NFL head coach in general.
The entire AFC South
outside of Houston should be on the hot seat.
(Note: I wrote this headline before Thursday’s game. Now I’m not so sure Bill O’Brien shouldn’t be on the hot seat, considering that atrocious performance: Unprepared special teams, an offense that seemed afraid of advancing the ball, and allowing a third-string quarterback to more or less have his way. As far as I can tell, it’s the talent infusion that’s got this team performing better, not anything O’Brien has done particularly well.)
Mike Mularkey might be the most obvious, given that he was an entirely underwhelming hire to begin with. When Ken Whisenhunt was fired after starting his Titans career 3-20, Mularkey ascended to the top job despite his 2-14 performance the last time he was a head coach, in Jacksonville. Mularkey went 2-7 for the rest of 2016, and owner Amy Adams Strunk apparently gave him the permanent gig because giving it to the guy who was already hanging around the team facilities was easier than actually looking for a coach.
Mularkey’s plan for the offense was to turn it into a “power spread” with Marcus Mariota and run the ball a lot. So far this year, the Titans have lost to a team led by Shaun Hill, and have won by mounting a furious comeback against a Jim Caldwell-coached team, and did so by abandoning the offensive style Mularkey talked about installing all offseason.
What qualifications for the job does Mularkey even have? That win puts his career record at 19-40, a .322 winning percentage. That’s pretty awful– it’s one of the worst records in recent memory– but it’s not even the worst in his own division.
That honor belongs to Gus Bradley, whose Jaguars got completely stomped by a ridiculously shorthanded San Diego team on Sunday. That brought Bradley’s record, after 50 games, to… 12-38. A .240 winning percentage. The only coach in the history of the NFL to have coached 50 or more games and have a worse winning percentage is Bert Bell, and he last coached in 1941. (In fairness, 50 games is a bit of an arbitrary data point; coaches who are really bad for three seasons usually don’t get a fourth. Steve Spagnuolo and Rod Marinelli each put up 10-38 career records in three seasons, for a .208 winning percentage.)
Bradley’s held onto his job for so long because the Jacksonville roster was threadbare when he and GM Dave Caldwell arrived, because of the mismanagement of arguably the worst GM in modern NFL history, Gene Smith. But Caldwell has re-stocked the team with talent, and Bradley can’t seem to figure out how to get anything out of it. The defense is a complete mess, which is a bad sign given that that’s where Bradley’s background is. The Chargers without Keenan Allen, Stevie Johnson, or Danny Woodhead went up 35-0 on the Jaguars Sunday. (Oh, and even though Myles Jack fell in the draft because the concerns over his knee indicated that he might have a shortened career, Bradley isn’t playing him. You know the old saying: When a guy’s career length is going to be limited, you want to not take advantage of his good years.)
At this point, Bradley can’t use the talent excuse anymore. This team just isn’t competitive. I think his time is up.
And Chuck Pagano inexplicably got an extension this year, along with Ryan Grigson, a GM who is flat-out awful and has made, by my count, two good draft finds (T.Y. Hilton and Henry Anderson). Pagano is tough to evaluate because the overall record is fairly good, but it’s all almost entirely built on Andrew Luck’s back. Pagano’s a defensive coach, and his defense is bad; the offense seems to be built entirely away from the team’s strengths, doing things like asking a bad offensive line to protect on seven-step drops.
I’m not someone who likes to make light of addiction, but Jim Irsay’s addled decision-making seems to have trickled down to the rest of the team. The entire management needs to be cleaned out, including the owner.
Is Mike McCarthy in trouble?
This is a more interesting one. McCarthy is in his eleventh year as Packers head coach, and has built his reputation largely based on the performance of Aaron Rodgers. However, he’s always had bad clock-management and situational skills, and worse, a seeming inability to adjust his offense. Green Bay’s offense was stifled last year when Jordy Nelson went down and McCarthy couldn’t figure out how to get receivers open. Nelson is back, but he’s not playing at his old level, and the same thing seems to be happening: McCarthy’s offense depends on receivers winning one-on-one matchups, and nobody can do that. And instead of trying to adjust his playbook to scheme receivers open, McCarthy stubbornly sticks to the same thing. At some point, if you aren’t willing to adjust to find something that works, you aren’t fit to be a head coach.
(I honestly think Bill Belichick’s deserved reputation as the greatest of all time is in large part because of his adaptability: He is constantly tinkering his schemes to take advantage of his players’ strengths and his opponents’ weaknesses. Mike McCarthy seems to come from a distressingly popular coaching school of “This is what we do, and if it doesn’t work, we don’t win.”)
Other potentially open jobs
Washington: Looks like the bloom is off the Kirk Cousins rose. I’ve thought Jay Gruden was a bad coach almost from the get-go, with his transparent unwillingness to adapt his scheme to fit his players (see above) and the way he blatantly played favorites to the media (and probably to the team, too) with Kirk Cousins and Robert Griffin. Well, now he’s got the noodle-armed white quarterback of his dreams, and surprise! That guy is poor at reading coverages and doesn’t have the necessary arm strength.
Maybe now that he’s been exposed for what he really is, GM Scot McCloughan can try to find a guy who will work with talented players, rather than blaming everything on them and running them off while making excuse after excuse for his pet projects.
Detroit: Jim Bob Cooter seems to have done a great job as offensive coordinator. Jim Caldwell seems to constantly sleepwalk through games and coach as though a lead at the start of the second quarter means you can shut it down and play field position from there on out. Caldwell routinely blows games with his passive, don’t-try-to-score style, and I don’t see much evidence that he’s a good head coach. (His teams sure seem to consistently decline after he shows up.) If I were running the team, I’d likely dismiss Caldwell and promote Cooter.
Los Angeles: Sure, they beat Seattle again last week, but they always beat Seattle, because they match up perfectly: Aaron Donald is an absolute destroyer against Seattle’s mad science O-Line, and Seattle’s strength of pass defense is somewhat negated against Los Angeles, because the Rams don’t actually have a passing offense.
And therein lines the problem: the Rams never have a functioning offense, and even though they spent a ton of draft capital trading up for what they hope is their franchise quarterback, they don’t seem to have anyone on staff who can actually develop him. The defense has its bright spots, but there’s no indicator Jeff Fisher gets more out of them than anyone should be expected to with the talent on hand, and they just lost 28-0 to a team quarterbacked by Blaine Gabbert.
And then, of course, there’s the fact that Fisher collects violent players like action figures and cultivates a culture of dirty play and after-the-whistle violence. (This column was written in 2013, and just in the last year we can add Tyler Higbee and Isaiah Battle to Fisher’s list of violent players– and he spent draft capital on both. And guess who is still the defensive coordinator of the Rams? Fisher’s best friend and partner in scumbaggery Gregg Williams.)
However, the media has been reporting talks of a Fisher extension since August, which suggests to me that Stan Kroenke is just another owner who, like John York in San Francisco, is going to sit back and rake in the dollars and not care about winning now that he’s gotten his new stadium deal.
Seattle: Not Pete Carroll. He’s great. But I wanted this column to end on a lighter note, so I’ll mention it’s probably time for them to re-assess this whole Tom Cable thing. I’m all for unconventional approaches, but Cable has had his chance to target his preferred players and coach them up, to take late-round or undrafted defensive linemen and try to flip them to offense, and neither one has worked out.
Remember when Justin Britt was a “prototype right tackle”? After he couldn’t hack it there in 2014, Cable moved him to left guard in 2015, where he also couldn’t hack it, and now he’s a center, despite never having played there before. Time to get real offensive linemen (just because flipping J.R. Sweezy from the D-line worked out doesn’t mean you can do it with just anybody) and a real coach for them.