TGS SPECIAL REPORT...NFL 2018 SEASON-END REVIEWS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
The NFL regular season concluded last week, and that means the gridiron version of the “hot stove league” is upon us. Especially for teams that didn’t make the playoffs; after all, eight of those were looking for new head coaches after the annual “Black Monday” purge. How those jobs all sort out in the next few weeks will precede the free-agent period and then the draft. The NFL “coaching carousel” is thus spinning, though unlike past years, there doesn’t seem to be one or two du jour candidates. Instead there is a collection of NFL coordinators, former head coaches, a few college names, and even current NFL HCs (who might jump jobs) being tossed into the mix. These vacancies might not all be filled until after the Super Bowl, when assistants from the two finalists will be free to make any upward moves. Stay tuned for further developments.
As we usually like to do at this time of January, a quick review of the past campaign is in order for the non-playoff qualifiers, especially those teams in the market for new head coaches. Teams are listed below in alphabetical order by conference. Straight-up records for 2018 are included. Further season-end reviews for playoff teams can be found in upcoming issues of TGS Hoops, and we will revisit the NFL again at the end of the publishing season in April for TGS Hoops with our annual draft preview.
Buffalo (6-10)...Though the Bills didn’t come close to a return to the playoffs, they enter the offseason perhaps feeling a little better than they did at this time a year ago simply because they think they have finally solved their QB dilemma with ex-Wyo Josh Allen, who took over from the overmatched Nathan Peterman in September and used the rest of the season to get acclimated to the NFL. By the end of December, Allen was looking like a real NFL QB, and led the Bills in rushing to boot. They’re happy as heck with Allen in Orchard Park. And the defense was hardly to blame for the fall to beneath .500. Offense, however, is a different matter, and figures to be the main emphasis in free agency and the draft. With loads of cap room (approximately $85 million), GM Brandon Beane can spend; a top-flight wideout figures to be the main priority, with OL upgrades not far behind. We’d keep an eye on the situation with RB LeSean McCoy, whose off-field exploits have become a distraction, though the Bills say that McCoy will be back in 2019. But at least the franchise feels it has the right QB (Allen) and right coach (Sean McDermott, entering his third year next fall).
Cincinnati (6-10)...While HC Marvin Lewis finally used up his nine cat lives in Cincy, more discriminating observers suspect penurious owner Mike Brown might have a hard time finding another coach willing to work as cheaply as Lewis and still manage to make seven playoff appearances in 16 seasons (even though the Bengals haven’t won a postseason game since Sam Wyche was HC in 1990). Frugality still limits progress at Paul Brown Stadium; look no further than the backup QB spot, where Cincy could only turn to inexperienced Jeff Driskel after Andy Dalton went down just past midseason. Prior to that, the Bengals were hanging in the AFC North race, and, when all hands were on deck, the offense moved. But the D was statistically one of the worst in NFL history during the first half of the campaign, forcing Lewis to axe d.c. Teryl Austin midstream, and upgrades on the stop end will be the emphasis in free agency and the draft. Can the Bengals find a coach who can win as often as Lewis did over the past 16 seasons, working with the same limitations?
Cleveland (7-8-1)...Before we anoint the Browns as the AFC rep in Super Bowl LIV, let’s see if owner Jimmy Haslam gets his coaching hire correct. Even Haslam’s first good move with a coach (canning Hue Jackson at midseason) comes with an asterisk; the Browns caught fire for interim Gregg Williams, who was not considered a serious candidate for the permanent assignment. Thus, Haslam has been forced to at least consider Williams, who was not Haslam’s first choice, moving forward. That’s a risk that management takes when making a midstream coaching change. Cleveland might have stumbled onto something witho.c. Freddie Kitchens, promoted after the dismissal of the ill-suited Todd Haley. Kitchens, who developed a great rapport with rookie QB Baker Mayfield, would seem a good candidate to stay in his position, but that will be up to the new coach (if it’s not Williams). Assuming Haslam makes a decent HC hire, the pieces look in place, as years of high draft picks have produced a solid core, led by Mayfield and Georgia rookie RB Nick Chubb on offense, and varieties of former first-round picks on defense, including DE Myles Garrett and DB Jabril Peppers. Now, can Haslam get the coaching hire right?
Denver (6-10)...Not sure where to begin with the myriad problems in Broncos Country. Quickly, start at the top; the ownership situation is in limbo, with Pat Bowlen incapacitated, and a nebulous succession plan causing a rift among some of the heirs, none of whom ever holding a position of any real significance in the organization. Lots of locals want the team sold, but that’s probably not happening soon, especially with values of NFL franchises skyrocketing faster than a SpaceX booster. Meanwhile, GM John Elway continues to spin his wheels, with the decision to not only hire HC Vance Joseph in the first place, but keeping him around another year after a disastrous 5-11 mark in 2017, proving a debacle. Now the Broncos are looking for their fourth coach in four years, and the team is no closer to finding a long-term answer at QB than it was after Peyton Manning’s retirement following Super Bowl 50. Elway’s magnetism helped bring Manning in 2012, but there are real questions in the Rockies as to whether Elway is the right guy for a required rebuild. Rough analogies to Phil Jackson, ill-suited for the complete re-boot needed with the NBA Knicks, might not be far off of the mark.
Jacksonville (5-11)...If a football fan went to the moon after the 2016 season and finally returned to earth last week, he or she might think nothing has changed with the Jags, still the same sad-sack operation they’ve been for the past decade. The in-between season of 2017, however, now looks like something out of a dream, when J’ville won the AFC South and advanced to the conference title game. They’re now back to where they were post-2016 after a shocking meltdown that almost cost HC Doug Marrone and team prexy Tom Coughlin their jobs; owner Shad Khan says both will be back in 2019, but there’s no more room for error. Such as Coughlin committing $54 mill over three years to QB Blake Bortles, who regressed this season and lost his job in December (before getting it back in the finale). Bortles is unlikely to return, even if it causes a cap hit, so Coughlin is going to probably scan the FA market for a vet QB instead of a rookie QB in a likely win–or-else year. There are internal issues galore, however, with RBs Leonard Fournette (who hasn’t been able to avoid injury) and T.J. Yeldon drawing public admonishments from Coughlin, and a clubhouse reportedly strained. The defense regressed significantly in 2018, too. But fixing the offense and finding a QB remain top priorities
Miami (7-9)...Three awful efforts to close the campaign after the Dolphins were hanging in the AFC playoff chase into mid-December would end up costing third-year HC Adam Gase his job. Which also probably means the end of the Dolphin era of QB Ryan Tannehill, who has had a hard time avoiding injury in recent years. Coaching speculation immediately centered upon Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, who was said to have been interested in the Miami job after he parted ways with the 49ers, only for Dolphins owner Stephen Ross to stick with Joe Philbin (bad move!) into 2015. Ann Arbor grad Ross, however, has said he doesn’t want to poach the football coach from his alma mater, though others believe if Harbaugh floats a trial balloon first, Ross might change his tune. Stay tuned. There are some pieces in place, especially on defense, but the offense was stagnant, so expect the new coach to have some background on the attack end and also have an idea about what to do at a QB position that likely won’t include Tannehill or backup Brock Osweiler. Improving a pass rush that generated only 31 sacks will be another offseason priority.
NY Jets (4-12)...A third straight double-digit loss season was the end of the line for HC Todd Bowles, whose eventual dismissal was telegraphed like one of George Foreman’s roundhouse rights aimed at Ali in the ‘74 Rumble in the Jungle. The new coach will at least have a QB in place, as USC rookie Sam Darnold displayed plenty of upside after being the third player taken in last April’s draft. But the QB position is about all that is settled on a roster full of holes. Feeling some pressure, GM Mike Maccagnan will be looking to surround Darnold with better support, starting with his new coach, likely to have an offensive background. The OL, receiving corps, and RBs could all use upgrades. With a whopping $100 mill in cap space, Maccagnan can be expected to be a player in the FA market. Le’Veon Bell, are you interested?
Oakland (4-12)...Jon Gruden is selling 2018 as the start of a complete rebuild; with 38 players on the season-ending 53-man roster who didn’t play a single down for the Raiders in 2017, no one would argue. Whether Gruden is on the right track remains to be seen. After all, it’s easier to tear down a roster than build one up, and only time will tell if Gruden got sufficient return for dealing away DE Khalil Mack (Bears) & WR Amari Cooper (Cowboys), who, respectively, ended up impacting the NFC playoff race. Moreover, there’s the matter of QB Derek Carr, who has only shown brief flashes of being the player he was before his late 2016 leg injury, and reportedly at odds with Gruden; Carr’s name has been mentioned in potential trades, always a possibility with Gruden. The post-Mack defense was awful, as the pass rush barely recorded more sacks (13) than Mack alone (12.5) in 2018, so that represents an immediate area of need. One need among many. Owner Mark Davis has hired TV analyst Mike Mayock as the new GM (replacing the discarded Reggie McKenzie) in hopes of forging a better working relationship with Gruden. Meanwhile, Davis has to figure out where his team plays in 2019 before the move to Las Vegas in 2020; as of now, the Raiders have no stadium lease for 2019. Expect that issue to at least be resolved before the end of February.
Pittsburgh (9-6-1)...After an exasperating playoff miss when losing four of their last six (and becoming only the third NFL team since 1990 to stand at least 7-2-1 after ten weeks and miss the postseason), all eyes are now on WR Antonio Brown, whose diva act on the practice field apparently caused his inactive status for the Cincy finale and now apparently will serve as his ticket out of Heinz Field, with it looking very likely that he will be moved. Which creates an extra question headed into the offseason in Pittsburgh where defensive upgrades, especially in the secondary, were likely to be the first areas addressed in free agency and the draft. If Brown departs, Oklahoma State rookie James Washington will get first shot at stepping into the breach alongside JuJu Smith-Schuster, but Brown would leave awfully big shoes to fill. At least there’s no talk like two years ago that Big Ben won’t be back, as he pushed the retirement talk down the road a year ago. Brown’s season-ending controversy, however, provided a grating bookend to the season that began with star RB Le’Veon Bell’s holdout that lasted the entire campaign Moving forward, can Mike Tomlin get back to the playoffs minus both Bell and Brown?
Tennessee (9-7)...In the end, under new HC Mike Vrabel, the Titans matched the 9 wins of a season ago for Mike Mularkey, though didn’t make it back to the playoffs because of a loss in the season-ender to the Colts. Tennessee had a bit of an excuse in the finale in that QB Marcus Mariota was sidelined, but that has become a bit too familiar of a theme these past four seasons, with durability issues limiting th ex-Heisman winner’s upside. Though he has shown flashes of stardom, Mariota has not proven to be the transformational player as once hoped in Nashville. And into the final year of his rookie contract next season, the Titans are going to have to decide soon if they want to make a longer-term commitment. Finding another big-play wideout and a pass-rush specialist to help shrewd d.c Dean Pees are likely top target areas in the offseason for GM Jon Robinson. Plus coming closer to a decision on Mariota for the future.
Arizona (3-13)...Though dismissing any first-year HC seems a tad harsh, it became apparent as the season progressed that Steve Wilks was in over his head, as the Big Red was non-competitive in too many games and communication between Wilks and players was said to be less than ideal. His ouster was justified, though team prexy Michael Bidwill could have just as easily given the boot to GM Steve Keim as well. Now it’s time for another coaching search, with rumors that Bidwill and Keim are going to ask Bruce Arians about a return engagement (considered a real longshot). The jury is still out on the maturity of ex-UCLA QB Josh Rosen, who had a few bright moments as a rookie but remains a definite work in progress. Quarterback is at least not a priority any longer in Glendale, but the Big Red has needs aplenty entering the offseason. More depth along the OL and WR, plus a couple of playmakers on defense, will be good places to start. The latter could be addressed with the first pick of the draft, but Keim has many holes to fill, and he’ll surely be tempted by trade offers for multiple picks down the board. First, however, he’s got to find a coach.
Atlanta (7-9)...In the end a 3-game win streak to close the slate kept the season from looking like a complete disaster at Mercedes Benz Stadium, but the Falcs could still lay claim to the title of the league’s most disappointing team. After back-to-back playoff visits including a Super Bowl appearance, Atlanta was a chic pick to win it all in the offseason before a near-complete unravel almost cost HC Dan Quinn his job. Walking the plank, however, were all of Quinn’s coordinators (including o.c. Steve Sarkisian and d.c. Marquand Manuel); in 2019, Quinn himself will be reprising his old d.c. role with the Seahawks. Injuries were rampant this past autumn, especially on the defensive end, and not all of the news was bad, as QB Matt Ryan tossed 35 TDP with only 7 picks. If Quinn makes the right hire at o.c. (Adam Gase, perhaps?), the pieces seem in place for a quick return to relevance in 2019.
Carolina (7-9)...Only a win over the disinterested Saints in the finale kept the Panthers from being the first team to lose eight straight games after starting 6-2. Hardly the way for HC Ron Rivera to impress new owner David Tepper, who was said to be contemplating change before deciding to stay the course for 2019. This season marked the ascension of second-year RB Christian McCaffrey into a mega-star, but Carolina is not going anywhere until QB Cam Newton gets back to his MVP-like form. He wasn’t in 2018, bothered by an ongoing shoulder injury that has limited his practice throws the past two seasons and caused Rivera and o.c. Norv Turner to shut him down the final two weeks of the campaign. Even Turner has admitted there is a “sense of urgency” to resolve Newton’s shoulder issues this offseason, as another rinse-and-repeat scenario will no longer cut it in Charlotte. With Julius Peppers long in the tooth and unsure of a return if he does play, the Panthers are also going to be looking for an edge-rusher in FA or the draft (or both). First priority, though, is to get Cam healthy.
Detroit (6-10)...We’ll never know if first-year HC Matt Patricia needed that 31-0 season-ending win over the disinterested Pack to prevent 93-year-old franchise matriarch Martha Ford from swinging the same axe that she used to get rid of HC Jim Caldwell after the previous season. Caldwell never had as many losses in Detroit as the 10 recorded on Patricia’s watch, nor did he ever alienate so many people around the team and organization. But GM Bob Quinn resisted hitting the eject button without a directive from Mrs. Ford, and Patricia appears to have survived into 2019, though also looking like the latest in a succession of Bill Belichick disciples who failed as head coaches. We’ll see if Patricia and his beard last beyond next season in Motown. Not coming back is o.c. Jim Bob Cooter, who had developed a good rapport with Matthew Stafford in the later Caldwell years but now a scapegoat for the decline on offense. Stafford’s dropoff was especially alarming in 2018, and Patrica’s o.c. hire will be closely watched. Straightening out Stafford, in whom the franchise has invested heavily, is priority one in the offseason. Priority two is finding another defensive playmaker, especially to upgrade a deficient pass rush.
Green Bay (6-9-1)...For years we had heard of a rift between HC Mike McCarthy and QB Aaron Rodgers (come to think of it, Rodgers seems to have rifts with a lot of people), which was likely a contributing factor to McCarthy’s dismissal in early December. A home loss to the woeful Cardinals might have also had something to do with McCarthy walking the plank. Whatever, getting the blessing of Rodgers for the new coach seems an imperative, as Danica Patrick’s boyfriend looks to have a few more good years left in him, though he’ll be entering his 15th season next fall (where did time go?). The roster could be in some transition; another mainstay, LB Clay Matthews, is likely to walk in free agency, as is underperforming DE Nick Perry. On offense, TE Jimmy Graham has not lived up to expectations. Rodgers, however, remains productive, and because of that the Green Bay job is still considered one of the best on the market, and a return to contention very possible with the right coaching hire.
Minnesota (8-7-1)...Back in September, we weren’t expecting to be including the Vikings in this annual non-playoff review. With high-priced FA Kirk Cousins enlisted in the offseason and looking to be an upgrade from Case Keenum (allowed to walk as a FA, eventually signing in Denver) at QB, Minnesota appeared a decent bet to go one step further than a year ago, when the Vikes made it all the way to the NFC title game. Cousins, however, did not live up to expectations, with too many costly errors, and unable to develop rapport with new o.c. John DeFilippo, a well-regarded addition from the Eagles’ Super Bowl staff who instead paid the price with his job in early December. Getting RB Dalvin Cook more involved with the offense would seem an easy answer for whomever the new o.c. might be, but upgrades along an underperforming OL will likely have to be addressed by GM Rick Spielman. The defense also slipped from its dominating 2017 form, and there’s a feeling that 2019 will be HC Mike Zimmer’s last shot to get it right.
NY Giants (5-11)...The G-Men have done a lot of gyrating over the past 14 months, canning HC Ben McAdoo, interim HC Steve Spagnuolo, and GM Jerry Reese all by the end of 2017. The new braintrust, featuring GM Dave Gettleman and HC Pat Shurmur, couldn’t forge much improvement in 2018 despite adding Penn State rookie RB Saquon Barkley, who mostly lived up to the hype. But if Gettleman and Shurmur are serious about keeping Eli Manning at QB for another year, they’d better be darned sure to pivot the offense around Barkley rather than Eli, whose good games are getting farther and farther apart as his career winds down. With Richmond rookie Kyle Lauletta considered a developmental project and not ready to step into the breach, Gettleman also has to decide whether it’s worth the risk to find another QB via trade or free agency (Derek Carr?Nick Foles? Joe Flacco?) as possible alternatives to Eli. Or, perhaps go QB with the sixth pick in the first round of the draft after skipping over Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, and Lamar Jackson last April. Beyond QB, Gettleman likely looks on the OL and everywhere on defense for help. But even Hoda and Kathie Lee know there is no more time to waste finding an eventual (or immediate) successor to Eli.
San Francisco (4-12)...Another mulligan has been granted HC Kyle Shanahan, who didn’t have a QB until Jimmy Garoppolo arrived in trade halfway thru 2017, and then didn’t have Garoppolo after late September of 2018 due to a gruesome knee injury in the Kansas City game. Hoping to salvage something for the rest of the season, Shanahan went thru backups C.J. Beathard and eventually Nick Mullens, the latter flashing a bit more upside but not much consistency down the stretch. After GM John Lynch gave Garoppolo a mega-bucks contract in the offseason, it’s safe to say the Niners are more than a bit worried about their big investment. At least ex-Iowa TE George Kittle (who set an NFL yardage record for tight ends) has emerged as an unlikely star. Garoppolo’s healthy return (not a given, at least for the outset of the 2019 season) is obviously going to be a key for 2019, when Lynch is also slated to get the second pick in the draft, which could be used for any number of impact defenders available. Adding a big-play wideout is also on the wish list, though D comes first. After a healthy Garoppolo, that is.
Tampa Bay (5-11)...The Bucs provided a few interesting storylines in September, mostly authored by an unlikely source in “The Beard” (QB Ryan Fitzpatrick), filling in while Jameis Winston served a 3-game suspension. Eventually, however, things unraveled, costing HC Dirk Koetter his job. Moving forward, the organization must soon make a decision on Winston, whose off-field problems have been unneeded distractions and whose rookie contract expires next year. Do the Bucs give Winston just a little more rope to see if he can turn it around for good under a new coach? If Winston sticks around, it’s going to be a make-or-break year for him in 2019. In the draft and free agency, the top priority is likely the secondary, after opposing quarterbacks had an NFL-high 110.9 passer rating when facing the Bucs. Just a thought, would trying to lure Bruce Arians out of retirement to steer Winston be worth a shot?
Washington (7-9)...Even Vince Lombardi couldn’t have survived 24 players going on injured reserve, so HC Jay Gruden has an excuse for a third straight playoff miss. In 2017, the Skins put 23 players on the I-R, so this has become something of an epidemic at FedEx Field, where a new physio might be the answer. It was remarkable that Gruden kept the Skins in the playoff hunt until the penultimate week, especially a stretch past midseason when starting four different QBs within a month, forced to pull Mark Sanchez (a disaster) and Josh Johnson (serviceable) off of the scrap heap after Alex Smith and Colt McCoy both went down. The 2019 status of Smith, who proved a capable successor to Kirk Cousins before a severe broken leg, remains up in the air and likely forces Gruden and prexy Bruce Allen into contingency plans either in free agency or the draft, when even if the 34-year-old Smith is deemed good to go for the fall (unlikely to be known in late April), an eventual successor needs to be be identified. The OL and secondary also likely get offseason attention. Just a note, but Gruden has already lasted longer (five seasons) than any coach on the watch of once notoriously-impatient owner Dan Snyder.
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