This week’s dime of cents was split into two nickels. The first five cents can be found here.
$.06--The Lovie Smith era with the Houston Texans is over after just one season. The Texans fired Smith less than three hours after one of the weirdest wins of the season.
Houston had control of the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL draft for the entire final two months of the season. With just one win and one tie before Week 16, it sure seemed set in stone that the talent-poor Texans would own the top spot. Nobody in Houston seemed to mind that either.
Smith’s Texans picked a bad time to get hot. Houston won two of its last three, including an epic comeback to knock off the Colts in Indianapolis on Sunday. Davis Mills made the throw of his career to close the gap to 1, then made another strong play on the 2-pt conversion to snag the win. I understand the desire to win divisional games, but there was something larger at play for Houston and they lost by winning.
Ironically, the team benefitting from Houston’s late-season surge in Smith’s former employer, the Chicago Bears. Chicago recorded just one win in its final 14 games and wasn’t close in a vast majority of those losses. With no Justin Fields at QB in Week 18, the Bears seized the No. 1 pick with another blowout loss, this one to a Minnesota team that didn’t come close to offering its “A” game intensity.
The Bears need help everywhere. More than filling one specific position, Chicago needs impact talents. Plural. Lots of them. Fields may or may not be one; it’s difficult to judge his passing prowess while playing with a WR corps filled with players who are practice squad material for 20 other teams and a line that isn’t much better. You’re going to see a lot of advocacy for Chicago to trade out to a QB-needy team (Indianapolis, Las Vegas, New York Jets?) and land extra picks. It’s the smart move in theory, but pulling off such a trade is far easier said than done with no consensus top QB.
In Chicago’s favor for trade options: Houston desperately needs a QB with the No. 2 pick. Early indications are the Texans have already zeroed in on Alabama’s Bryce Young. Any team that covets Young or wants their pick of the QB litter will need to get ahead of Houston.
$.07--The Arizona Cardinals cleaned house on Monday. Arizona fired both GM Steve Keim and head coach Kliff Kingsbury.
The moves are not a surprise, not after a flatlined season that saw the Cardinals regress badly on both sides of the ball. Arizona won just one game after Week 7 and lost to fellow last-place teams Denver and Atlanta down the stretch. The disappointing 4-13 season culminated with a wildly uncompetitive loss to the 49ers in Week 18.
It was a precipitous fall for Kingsbury and the Cardinals from the 9-2 record they carried into the bye week in 2021. Arizona has gone 6-18 since, including a 34-11 drubbing in the Wild Card round after their limp to the finish a year ago.
Obviously, losing Kyler Murray at QB was a huge blow to the offense. But therein lies some of the damning of Kingsbury and especially Keim. There has been a decided inability to develop young impact players on offense, an offense that seldom threatened defenses vertically and didn’t have the offensive line facilitate a strong run game to open that up either. Keim’s medical leave of absence made his departure a mere formality.
Arizona is an interesting job opening for both coach and GM. Someone who believes in Murray, an enigmatically gifted former No. 1 overall pick, can find a lot to like as a coach. He’s not for everyone, however. The defense is loaded with positionally redundant players and no real identity or difference-makers outside of safety Budda Baker, the team’s only Pro Bowler in 2022. There is some core of talent that a savvy defensive mind can work with, but the Keim tradition of using premium picks on average NFL players at non-premium positions must be stopped.
$.08--LIke most of football America, I sat down on Monday night to watch the College Football Championship Game between Georgia and TCU. As someone partial to the Horned Frogs--my son’s favorite CFB team--I was hopeful the game would be entertaining and relatively close.
Those hopes were dashed almost from the opening kickoff. Georgia beat up TCU like it was one of the FCS teams that SEC powers always schedule right before conference rivalry games. The Bulldogs dominated everything all night long in cruising to a 65-7 win.
I won’t lie; I tuned out once Georgia’s Javon Bullard picked off TC QB Max Duggan with the score already 24-7 in the first half. I don’t enjoy watching defenseless animals get beaten and tortured in the way the Horned Frogs were.
TCU was a great story. Georgia was a great football team. The better team--more talented at just about every position on both sides of the field--easily prevailed over the plucky feel-good team.
There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about the validity of TCU making the final. It’s utter nonsense. Of course they deserved to be there. TCU didn’t blow it in the regular season the way Alabama or Clemson or USC or Washington did. Tennessee had its shot at Georgia and a berth and lost, albeit by a much smaller margin. Michigan blew their chance in the semifinal with TCU. Ohio State blew their shot against Georgia in the other semifinal.
College football is built around the importance of the 11 or 12-game regular season, making each game matter more than it does in any other sport at the college or pro level. It’s why so many fans stay so engaged throughout the fall. The outcomes have to matter, or else there’s no real point in playing the games. Having the best roster doesn’t trump outcomes. Take care of your business or else don’t complain.
The lopsided outcome was just as much about Georgia’s sheer dominance and superior playmaking ability. Head coach Kirby Smart somehow sold a wildly talented team on the disrespect card. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken was running NFL concepts with future NFL players at almost every position, something most college programs cannot do or even practice against. Oh by the way, Georgia did the same thing a year ago. The Bulldogs are the best team in the land and deserve the credit.
$.09--The Cleveland Browns did not fire head coach Kevin Stefanski, though many in my hometown Northeast Ohio clamored for Stefanski’s head after a last-place 7-10 finish. The Browns did clean out an assistant coach, however.
By wildly popular demand, defensive coordinator Joe Woods was fired. Even though his defensive unit did show marked improvement late in the year, the damage was done thanks to radical underachievement in the first half of the season. That pattern played out two years in a row for Woods. Once bitten, twice shy, won’t be a third try.
Woods is certainly not alone in culpability for the underwhelming showing. The front office has badly neglected the defensive line, a massive need for Cleveland this offseason (and last offseason, and the one before that…). Injuries dogged the LB corps, which left an undertalented group of backers behind a weak line. Defending the run effectively with that double dose of doom was a Sisyphean task.
But Woods shoulders his fair share of the blame. The Browns arguably have the best cornerback room in the entire league. Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome and impressive third-round rookie Martin Emerson are as good of a man-coverage trio as any team could ever hope to field. Yet Woods didn’t play man coverage very often. While playing zone over 66 percent of the time did help the LBs and safeties in coverage, it played against the strengths of the most talented, most impactful unit on the defense.
The dysfunction and deep cracks in Woods’ defense showed elsewhere entering Week 18. The Browns summarily dismissed starting EDGE Jadeveon Clowney after he proudly complained that the defense spotlighted all-world Myles Garrett instead of him. Clowney has always been an envious, needy type of player; he pulled the same act in Houston with J.J. Watt. There’s a reason why he’ll be on his fifth team in six years in 2023 despite being a solid all-around player. That’s obviously not on Woods, but it does reflect on the overall performance. If the Browns defense--and Clowney--played to their potential all season, Cleveland probably makes the postseason and we’re not having this conversation about Woods.
As of this writing, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer was still employed. That status could change by the time this sentence concludes; Priefer was given a vote of little confidence by Stefanski in Monday’s press conference, and few in Cleveland would cry if the Browns made a change. I do not expect Stefanski to be fired, but he’s deserving of having the best preseason odds for “first coach to be fired” in 2023 if the Deshaun Watson gamble doesn’t pay off and the defense doesn’t improve right quick.
$.10--Finding a head coach and going through the interview process is an arduous, complicated chore for teams. Picking the right candidate requires so many factors.
One of the biggest mistakes teams, and even more so fans make is to chase the hot coordinator. Sometimes that does work out very well. Sean McVay is a great example. But far too often, coveting an excellent coordinator fails miserably (see: Matt Patricia, Matt Nagy, Freddie Kitchens among too many recent examples).
I’ll draw upon my work background here. My first job out of college was as a front desk manager at a higher-end hotel in Cleveland. I landed that gig because I had worked in hospitality (hotels, campgrounds) through college. I replaced someone who was hired as the GM of a rival hotel because she was a great front desk manager.
Her jump from running one department to being in charge of the whole building did not go well. While she had limited experience working with a housekeeping staff, the challenge of overseeing that room quickly proved well beyond her range. Maintenance, sales, catering, advertising--all that was thrust into her sphere of responsibility even though she had zero familiarity with any of those things. She tried her best to learn on the fly. She also wound up taking the front desk manager job back when I moved on a little less than a year later. She happily stayed in that role for years.
That’s very similar to the difference between being a coordinator and being a head coach. It’s a related but radically different job that draws upon very divergent skills and mindsets. Leadership, organizational skills, adaptive thinking to administrate and delegate a wide range of assistant coaches and an ever-changing cast of players. Those are skills every good head coach has, but those are not skills readily evident or tested at the coordinator level.
Some of the best NFL head coaches weren’t necessarily great coordinators. Pete Carroll had his ups and downs running the Jets defense before becoming a head coach. Mike Tomlin’s one year as the Vikings DC saw his veteran-laden unit finish in the middle of the pack in scoring defense and at the bottom in pass defense (their run D was phenomenal). Mike Vrabel’s defense in Houston was dreadful, 32nd of 32, before he landed the Titans gig five years ago. Sean McDermott’s defenses in Carolina were all over the map before he landed the Bills gig, a job he landed coming off his worst season as a coordinator. All those guys have better head coaching skills than they have coordinator skills.
It’s difficult to ascertain those types of candidates from afar, even for those of us with some connections and experience around the league. Be careful as a fan in what you wish for, or how you react to a head coaching hire.