Good football teams lose their coaching talent as the seasons go on. It’s a part of life. But the New England Patriots are able to hold things together remarkably well despite winning two of the last three Super Bowls. And even when they do lose their assistants to greener pastures of head coaching jobs elsewhere, the infrastructure with Bill Belichick at the top of the football operation must be trusted until further notice.
Before the Super Bowl was even played and regardless of the big game’s outcome Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was going to be the next head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, and even though the hire was not officially announced, everybody knew it. Kyle is Mike Shanahan’s son, he is 39 years old, and he has been one of the rising coaching stars on the offensive side of the ball. In his various stops, he has gotten quarterbacks of varying talent levels to realize their potential. Working under his dad in Washington, Robert Griffin III was the rookie of the year ahead of Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson, in Cleveland, former Tom Brady backup Brian Hoyer looked like a competent NFL starter before getting hurt, and in Atlanta, Pro Bowl QB Matt Ryan won the MVP and did not trail in the Super Bowl until the moment the game ended. Given his reputation, it is fair to assume that San Francisco’s next starting QB whether they stick with Colin Kaepernick, or they trade for Jimmy Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins, or they make a less exciting stopgap signing like Matt Schaub or Brian Hoyer, or start from scratch with a kid from the draft, that QB will enjoy an uptick in production from this past year.
Regardless of the second guessing of Shanahan’s overly aggressive play calling in the second half that gave the Patriots enough clock to work with to make their historic comeback, there is a lot of hope surrounding the downtrodden 49ers and also a lot of uncertainty for the Falcons because of Shanahan. Before Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons were a good offense and Matt Ryan was a good quarterback, but with him they were a great offense with an MVP quarterback. When the Patriots experienced a period of significant turnover after their Super Bowl XXXIX win over the Philadelphia Eagles, when offensive coordinator Charlie Weis took the head coaching job at Notre Dame and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel left New England to be the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Belichick promoted from within, making Eric Mangini the defensive coordinator and assuming the offensive coordinator duties himself, even though he is best known as a defensive mastermind, before eventually handing over the keys to Brady’s offense to Josh McDaniels when McDaniels was ready for the responsibility. Years later, when Dean Pees left the Patriots, Belichick assumed defensive coordinator duties until he felt Matt Patricia was ready for it.
Most coaches are not Bill Belichick, however, and Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, a defensive coach, did not go this way. Instead the Falcons hired former Washington and USC head coach Steve Sarkisian to run their offense in 2017. Sarkisian was most recently the offensive coordinator at the University of Alabama for one game, replacing Lane Kiffin for the National Championship Game against Clemson, which Alabama lost. Sark may not be the best college head coach ever, but he does have a good reputation as an offensive play caller. The problem for Atlanta is that they are bringing in a new voice with a new philosophy when they thing they were doing was working perfectly fine. It is hard to come back from losing the Super Bowl. Most teams struggle in the following year, and the 2016 Carolina Panthers are a perfect example, and changing more than you have to certainly cannot help.
The Patriots could have just as easily been the team that lost the Super Bowl instead of the Falcons, and the last two years both offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have gotten head coaching interviews. McDaniels, in fact, was in direct competition with Shanahan for the Niners job. McDaniels, who first joined the Patriots as a personnel assistant in 2001, left to become head coach of the Denver Broncos in 2009, got fired, worked for the St. Louis Rams for a season before getting his old job back in New England when offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien left to take the head coaching job at Penn State in 2012, has been careful in his pursuit for his second head coaching job to say the least. Many coaches get a second chance if they fail as a head coach once, but if you fail twice, the odds of a third head coaching job are very slim.
Two years ago, Chip Kelly was still believed to be a football genius, but a bad third season in Philadelphia followed by the awful football situation he inherited in San Francisco leaves his future as an NFL head coach very much in doubt. McDaniels wants both a good quarterback situation and a good ownership situation, as those are the two factors the best determine head coaching success. If the Colts job opened up, Andrew Luck is a very good quarterback, but Jim Irsay is not a great owner to work for. Bill Belichick even failed on the first try in Cleveland, and when he was given a second chance with the New York Jets, he famously resigned as “HC of the NYJ” after a day when the more appealing offer came from the New England Patriots. McDaniels has the luxury of waiting, as he is still only 40, and being Tom Brady’s offensive coordinator and working for Bill Belichick is by no means a bad gig.
The Patriots did lose a key member of the coaching staff, as tight ends coach Brian Daboll was hired by Nick Saban to replace Sarkisian as offensive coordinator at Alabama, of all things. Daboll, like McDaniels, left New England before, but they were the only two prominent assistants to come back for a second stint, unlike Weis, Crennel, Pees, O’Brien, or Rob Ryan. With McDaniels staying put in New England, Bama was Daboll’s best opportunity to be an offensive coordinator again, and it’s a winning program. The more head coaching jobs McDaniels turns down, the more likely it seems that he sees himself as Belichick’s eventual successor as HC of NE.
When McDaniels first came back to the Patriots, I wanted nothing to do with him as a candidate to be the Pats’ next head coach. His terrible two seasons in Denver that included the (even then) head-scratching decision to draft Tim Tebow in the 1st round was still fresh in my memory, and I thought he was just another Belichick assistant who was doomed to be a bad head coach. But as the years go by, and it becomes more and more apparent that the operation Bill Belichick has built is superior to every other in the game of football (I mean, seriously, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a model of consistency and continuity and have had the same number of head coaches since Watergate as the 49ers had in Barack Obama’s second term, and even they are nothing more than the Generals to New England’s Globetrotters, going 0-3 in AFC Championship Games against Belichick and Brady with none of those games being particularly competitive.), and the list of coaches I would rather have than Josh McDaniels to come in and try to tinker with it dwindles every year. At this point, I would have to think about Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, and that’s about it. I would rather have McDaniels than just about anyone else.
For now, the Patriots are going about their business, doing their jobs, but Brady will be 40 next season, and Belichick is probably closer to his last game as a head coach than his first, so as effective Belichick and Brady still are, a little continuity on the coaching staff certainly goes a long way.
My readers may have noticed over the years that even though the NFL is a juggernaut of a league, and even though my favorite team in said league is the most consistently competitive, I write about the Patriots less than I do the Red Sox, Bruins, or Celtics. This is partly due to my disillusionment with the NFL. Since Roger Goodell took over a decade ago, football, which was my favorite sport as a kid and the mechanism with which I impressed a bunch of strangers in my college dorm suite as a freshman at UMass Dartmouth with my knowledge of every NFL roster in 2008, has fallen out of favor with me due to their disregard for player safety and livelihood, and bad priorities when it comes to real world issues like domestic violence.
It is also partly due to my inherent superstition. As an aspiring sports writer, I want to be objective. I want to be able to be critical, to see the bigger picture, with regard to the team and the rest of the league. It’s much easier to be critical of the Bruins or the Celtics because in the years I have been following them, they have never had the best player in the league, let alone all time, nor the best coach in the league, let alone of all time. Ever since this run began for the New England Patriots in 2002–with the Tuck Rule, and the Steelers booking their flight to New Orleans for the Super Bowl before they played the AFC Championship Game, and Ty Law’s momentum-swinging pick-six, and Tom Brady’s drive down the field to set up one more game-winning kick for Adam Vinatieri (seriously, I watch the America’s Game documentary on the Super Bowl XXXVI team at least once a year and it never gets old)–the Patriots have been the standard bearers of the NFL, and Brady and Bill Belichick have been consistently making their case for greatest QB and greatest coach of all time, and as someone with a rooting interest in that happening, I do not want that to end.
Now it’s 2017, and before the start of next season, Brady will turn 40, and Belichick will turn 65. Any rational, reasonable Patriots fan has to think there are fewer of these days ahead of them than behind them, or if this run does continue, it would eventually be with someone like Jacoby Brissett at quarterback and someone like Matt Patricia as head coach. If this year is then end, it’s been an incredible run.
The numbers are staggering. With their upcoming game next week against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Brady and Belichick have been to 11 AFC Championship Games in 16 seasons, including each of the last six. Brady and Belichick have more 10 win seasons together than the Detroit Lions have in their 80 plus year history. Bill Belichick has not had a losing season since Bill Clinton was president.
The Pats’ divisional round game against the Houston Texans was not pretty, but they still won by a larger margin than the historically high spread Vegas set for this playoff game. In some respects, the game was only tight, and only had Patriots fans worried because of the standard of excellence we have set for the team. This Houston team is littered with ex-Patriots from Bill O’Brien to Romeo Crennel to Mike Vrabel to Larry Izzo to Vince Wilfork, but with a quarterback as not-ready-for-primetime as Brock Osweiler, none of that institutional knowledge could make a difference. Sure, they fared better than they did in the regular season, when they were shut out 27-0 without even having to deal with New England’s first or second choice QB, but even with Brady throwing as many interceptions in that game as he did the whole season, and Dion Lewis putting the ball on the ground twice (Houston recovered one, New England kept the other), it was still a two-score game at the end. Even when they are bad, they are better than most, and that is special.
Next week, the Patriots will have their hands full with a better Steelers team, but the Steelers seem to find new and creative ways to generate bulletin board material for Belichick. In 2002, it was the confidence and the audacity to book a flight to New Orleans before even playing the game, but now they’re broadcasting their true feelings about the NFL’s scheduling policy, albeit inadvertently, on Facebook Live, complete with Mike Tomlin simultaneously warning the players to not do anything stupid on social media. The Steelers, like the Patriots, are one of the NFL’s model franchises, and have been since the 1970s. When the San Francisco 49ers hire their next coach, they will have had more head coaches in four years than the Steelers have had since Watergate. But things like this, broadcasting their own trivial locker room talk to the world through Antonio Brown’s phone, is what keeps them a notch below the Patriots in the Belichick Era.
My biggest takeaway from the Divisional Round Weekend is just how scary good Aaron Rodgers is right now. I already knew that, but the end of yesterday’s game in Dallas reinforced that. This is a quarterback who has not been afforded the luxury of playing for a coach of Bill Belichick’s caliber. Mike McCarthy is a solid NFL coach, but had the Green Bay Packers not run the table, as Rodgers declared they would after starting the season 4-6, the Packers may very well be waiting for the Patriots’ season to end to introduce Josh McDaniels as their new head coach. Rodgers is the most talented person to play the QB position ever, and has not had the kind of running game Elway, Aikman, or Peyton Manning had in their best years, nor the superstar receivers of any other superstar QB. He is doing it all himself and making the players and coaches around him better in a way I have never seen, and oh, by the way, he regularly completes Hail Mary passes.
All of that I knew going into the Packers’ Divisional Round match up against the Dallas Cowboys, but then after rookie QB Dak Prescott rallied back to tie the game for Dallas, Rodgers had just enough time to get Green Bay into field goal range, with an incredible throw downfield to Jared Cook, who made a great dance move to keep his toes in bounds. Just like that, the Packers were kicking a field goal and getting ready to face the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome next week in the NFC Championship Game.
Some may say Brady has nothing left to prove to anyone. He won more games than Peyton Manning in 30 fewer games, he played in more Super Bowls than any other QB and won as many as Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw. But the NFL dragged his name through the mud over air pressure in a football and suspended him for as many games as they suspended Greg Hardy for something that should have put him in prison. And already, despite only playing in one Super Bowl, talk of Aaron Rodgers being the greatest ever is picking up steam. The thing that makes Tom Brady great is that at age 39, when he should not have to prove anything to anyone in the game of football, he is burning to prove the haters wrong just as intensely as he was when he was picked 199th overall. Brady is at his best when he is overlooked, and that is what makes him the best.
The NFL Draft is still a couple weeks away, but the most intriguing story besides Michael Sam, who I wrote about a couple months ago, is the draft prospect of Texas A & M quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. Johnny Football has been one of the most fun, most exciting, and most polarizing player in college football. Manziel has helped ease the Aggies’ transition from the Big 12 to the SEC, performing at a high level in the toughest division of college football’s toughest conference. Where he lacks in size, he makes up for it with a big arm and a boatload of swagger (try measuring that one Sloan Sports Analytics Conference). He’s been compared by college football analysts to Brett Favre, which is intriguing to me. While Favre’s act grew stale after nearly 20 years in the National Football League, there is definitely a place for that type of quarterback in the League today. There are many teams that could take a chance on Johnny Football next month, but some are better fits than others.
The Houston Texans. Houston has the #1 overall pick in the draft. New head coach Bill O’Brien, who was the head coach at Penn State the last two years, and the offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots before that, is one of the best quarterback gurus in the business. O’Brien has enough pressure going into an NFL market that really knows its football, and he would probably be better off loading up on defense in this draft and getting a game manager QB through free agency or the later rounds of the draft. Not getting picked by Houston might be better for Manziel. A kid from Texas with maturity issues getting selected with the top pick by a team in Texas after he’s already a state hero could be a disaster waiting to happen. Also, if the home state team passes up on him, it could put a chip on his shoulder that would make him more motivated to perform well for the team that does draft him. I expect the Texans to pick South Carolina defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney with the #1 pick. It’ll be fun to watch Clowney playing alongside J.J. Watt.
The St. Louis Rams (via the Washington Redskins). The Rams will not likely be looking for a QB. They traded the #2 pick to Washington two years ago because they were confident in Sam Bradford. Last season, the Rams missed the playoffs because they were in the NFL’s toughest division (the NFC West) and because Bradford got hurt. I expect them to stay the course again with Bradford and possibly trade the pick.
The Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jags could use a QB, but I really don’t want Manziel to go there. The Jacksonville Jaguars are the most boring franchise in the NFL. Nothing about them excites me. Tim Tebow would have been an intriguing choice because he’s from there, but not Johnny Football. I predict that that Jags will be the Los Angeles Jaguars by 2024. Johnny Manziel isn’t enough to change that.
The Cleveland Browns. This is a great fan base and a franchise that has experienced a lot of turnover in the front office and the coaching staff over the last few years. Fans are growing restless. Johnny Football would be a good bone to throw them, but I’m not sure it will be successful. The Browns have made some atrocious draft picks in recent years (see Richardson, Trent and Weeden, Brenden), and fans should have no confidence in the teams ability to evaluate and pick the right players. At this point, whether they pick Manziel or not, the Browns will have made the wrong decision.
The Oakland Raiders. The Autumn Wind is Johnny Football. This is another organization that can’t do anything right, it seems, but he seems like a typical Raider. The Raiders branded themselves as an aggressive, gun-slinging team that would knock you down and laugh in your face afterwards. Johnny Manziel would have been great in the 70s. The Raiders have plenty of options at QB, and no matter what they do, they will initially get heckled for it, but if Manziel ends up being the guy to get Oakland out of the funk they’ve been in for over a decade, then the Raiders will have the last laugh.
The Atlanta Falcons. Another team like the St. Louis Rams that has a franchise quarterback, and Matt Ryan has had more NFL success than Sam Bradford, so there’s no way the Falcons take Manziel with the #6 pick.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs have hired a new head coach in Lovie Smith, and already have a pretty good defense. Tampa has three quarterbacks on the roster in Mike Glennon, Mike Kafka, and Josh McCown. Nothing to write home about, but serviceable options. Manziel could make things interesting for the Bucs, but they have plenty of areas of need, and if they’re not expecting to contend this year, the Bucs may decide to go for quarterback another year or later in the draft.
The Minnesota Vikings. I’m not draft expert, but I’d be shocked if Johnny Manziel makes it past the Minnesota Vikings with the #8 pick. The Vikes have a pretty good defense, good offensive options including superstar running back Adrian Peterson and wide receiver Greg Jennings, and they have a good new coaching staff headlined by head coach and former Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner. All they need is a quarterback and they’re a contender. Last year they had a tag team of Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder, and Josh Freeman at quarterback. Cassel is a good QB, and Ponder is awful. The Vikes are a franchise QB away from being a legit contender in the NFC. Johnny Football makes all the sense in the world for this franchise. It’s just a matter of if he falls that far.
This week, the Minnesota Vikings hired Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer as their new head coach. Zimmer oversaw one of the best defenses of the last few years in Cincy and has finally gotten the chance to run his own program. He’s passionate, capable, and tells it like it is. Not all coaching vacancies are created equally, and the most qualified coaches are not always the best fits for a franchise’s needs. Bill O’Brien was a great fit for the Houston Texans, and Ken Whisenhunt is a great fit for the Tennessee Titans, but I’m not sold on Jim Caldwell for the Detroit Lions or Lovie Smith for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (not because I think Lovie is a bad coach, but because he’s a defensive minded coach, and his downfall with the Chicago Bears was because of a lack of production on offense. Tampa is a team that already has a pretty good defense, but needs to figure out the quarterback situation.). I do, however, think the Vikings have hit a home run by hiring Zimmer.
Zimmer is inheriting a team with a lot of young talent, but does not have a franchise quarterback. They play in the NFC North against the likes of Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, Matthew Stafford in Detroit, and Jay Cutler in Chicago. In today’s NFL, you need to be strong at the QB position to win anything of substance. They have the best running back in the game in Adrian Peterson, but he’s never been enough to take the Vikes to the Super Bowl by himself in the past and he’s only getting older. Minnesota’s defense struggled last season, but Zimmer is the right guy to fix up the problems on that side of the ball.
The Vikings have also hired Norv Turner as their offensive coordinator. Turner was previously a head coach in Washington, Oakland, and San Diego, and experienced a marginal amount of success with the Chargers, but he is one of the best offensive play callers in the NFL. With the right quarterback, turner should be able to get Minnesota’s offense humming in no time. It’s just a matter of finding that illusive franchise QB.
Johnny Manziel might very well be the answer to Vikings fans’ prayers. Johnny Football won last year’s Heisman Trophy in his freshman year at Texas A&M, and has been one of the most exciting players to watch for the last two years. The Vikings have a chance to get him in the draft this year, and that could be a lot of fun for the NFL. A young, party-loving QB with a ton of talent playing in a passionate football market that has never won a Super Bowl? I’m already intrigued and excited. I’ll probably write another post about Manziel’s possible landing spots and career potential before the draft.
The Vikings have found a good coach who is hungry to prove himself and take the team to the promised land. Things looked pretty bleak during the season, but they’re already starting to turn around.