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 Denver Broncos are not going back to the playoffs this January after they kicked off 2016 by winning Super Bowl 50. Looking back on the Golden Anniversary Super Bowl not even a full year later, the Big Game of 2016, much like everything about that year, already feels really weird and out of character with the rest of reality. That Super Bowl was the Super Weird Bowl. The Carolina Panthers got there after going 15-1 in the regular season, and Cam Newton was the league’s MVP, and they lost. I would say Peyton Manning was a shell of his former self, but that would be unfair to other shells of former selves. In an era when offense reigns supreme and scoring records are broken they way every meaningful baseball was getting broken in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was a stifling defense that ruled the day, in spite of Manning’s poor play. Perhaps the weirdest about this Super Bowl is the fact that neither the Carolina Panthers nor the Denver Broncos made the playoffs the following year.
Carolina’s struggles can be explained a little more easily. The defense took some steps backward with Jared Allen retiring, Josh Norman signing with Washington, and Luke Kuechly missing time due to injury. Also, Cam Newton gets hit like no other quarterback does. People seem to think that since he is so big and so strong that he can get wrecked like QBs did before the NFL cared about player safety. Repeating the kind of results the Panthers got in 2015 was never going to be easy, but I am not ready to write them off for the rest of the decade.
The Broncos’ struggles in 2016 can also be easily identified, but are harder to justify when you realize that they could have been avoided. Denver was lucky to get as far as they did–not just lucky to win the Super Bowl, but lucky to beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, and lucky to beat the Steelers in the Divisional Round–with a so-far-past-his-prime-he-should-have-changed-his-name-to-not-confuse-people-Peyton Manning under center and shouting “Omaha,” but incapable of throwing the ball downfield at all. Attempting to do the same thing a second straight year, not measurably upgrading a quarterback position that could not get much worse, and expecting to get the same kind of game in and game out dominating defensive performance in an offense-driven modern NFL is playing with some serious fire. But that’s exactly what the Broncos did.
Broncos president John Elway has earned a significant amount of trust with Broncos fans, having led the team to seven Super Bowls (five as a quarterback, two as an executive), and winning a championship can buy you goodwill for at least a year or two, no matter how badly the year that follow go (the only time I know of when a fan base turned on a team’s management less than a year after winning a title was the Red Sox in 2014, and some of my posts on this blog are reflective of that), but he is pushing it with the way the Broncos went into the 2016 season. By replacing the retired Manning not with Brock Osweiler (who signed a free agent contract with the Houston Texans), but with Trevor Siemian, a 2015 7th round draft pick out of Northwestern, Elway placed lofty expectations on a Denver defense. The 2016 NFL Draft produced multiple quarterbacks that won games as rookies despite being picked outside the top two. I cannot help but wonder what Denver’s record would have been had Elway taken a chance on Dak Prescott or Jacoby Brissett, who appear poised to be the replacements to Tony Romo in Dallas and Tom Brady in New England, respectively.
While able to throw out incredible talent in pass rushers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, as well as with Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib in the defensive backfield, that defense deserves a better offense. The Broncos have been irresponsible in the way they built their offense, particularly the quarterback position, the same way the New Orleans Saints have squandered Drew Brees’ offensive brilliance for most of his prime by not building a good defense for him. That said, if for some stupid reason, the NFL decided to cut down to 31 franchises and merge two existing teams for the 2017 season, if the Saints’ offense merged with the Broncos’ defense, they would be the prohibitive favorites to win Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis.
The Broncos need to do something about the QB position, but right now, that is not even their most pressing matter. This week, head coach Gary Kubiak resigned due to health concerns after just two years on the job. Kubiak played his entire NFL career for the Broncos, as Elway’s backup, and served as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator for Denver when they won those two Super Bowls in the late 1990s. In his first year back in Denver, he led the Broncos to their third Super Bowl victory, and less than a year later he is retiring. Denver should, in theory, have no trouble finding a replacement, given how good their defense is and the fact that there should be more NFL quarterbacks available this offseason than most years, from Romo to Jimmy Garoppolo to Tyrod Taylor to Sam Bradford to Kirk Cousins.
The issue with Denver as a coaching spot may very well be John Elway’s ego. He is a top five or top ten quarterback in the Super Bowl Era and has enjoyed a good deal of success as an executive, but he is also the guy who ran Tim Tebow out of Denver when after getting the Broncos to the playoffs, and clashed with John Fox, who like Kubiak, left the Broncos a year after getting them to the Super Bowl, but not for health reasons. Sure, he brought in Peyton Manning, one of the handful of quarterbacks higher up than him on the all time list, but when Manning was at a point of desperation in his career, coming off a potentially career ending neck injury, and the coach he brought in to replace Fox was literally his former backup. I would not be surprised if Elway went with either defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who was previously Denver’s head coach in 1993 and 1994, or one of the Shanahans, whom Elway has a working relationship with from his playing days, but I do not know how many coaching prospects from outside Elway’s past work history would want to take this job. One person who will not be considered is New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, this year’s most sought after offensive-minded coach, whose only head coaching job was in Denver, and who was run out of town in his second season.
Regardless of what happens with the coaching vacancy, the Broncos need a quarterback, and if they do not get one, John Elway could be torn down as a fool just as quickly as he was built up as a genius.
The first piece of writing I published in 2016 was about the San Francisco 49ers, their decision to hire Chip Kelly, and Colin Kaepernick’s future. One day into 2017, Chip Kelly is out in San Francisco, the Niners rank high among the most incompetent franchises in all of sports, and Kaepernick is better known for leading a polarizing peaceful protest than he is for his play on the field. Looking back, it’s amazing how far Chip Kelly and the Niners fell together, but also amazing that I did not see it coming.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported early this morning that the 49ers have relieved head coach Kelly and general manager Trent Baalke of their duties. For Baalke, who has worked in San Francisco’s front office in various capacities since 2005 and has been their GM since 2011, much more of what has gone wrong with the Niners, while Kelly’s firing is more a part of the hard reset the team is poised to hit, and the next GM will want to bring in his own coach. Baalke was an instrumental part of making the 49ers respectable for the first time since the Jeff Garcia Era, helped draft and develop a very good defense, and was GM of a team that was a play away from winning the Super Bowl. Baalke was also the one who clashed with head coach Jim Harbaugh, who took the 49ers to three straight NFC Championship games in his first three years, and who has reinvigorated his alma mater Michigan’s football program since leaving San Francisco. Baalke was the one who hired Jim Tomsula to replace Harbaugh, and when that one season experiment failed, hired Chip Kelly. All while San Francisco’s record was getting steadily worse, while the 49ers opened a new stadium in Santa Clara, while San Francisco/San Jose/Santa Clara was the host city for Super Bowl 50, and a franchise that won five Super Bowls was becoming a laughingstock. Things definitely needed to change.
This may very well be the end of Chip Kelly as an NFL head coach, with his demise almost as meteoric as his rise. Two years into the Chip Kelly experience, when he was still the offensive mastermind from the University of Oregon, it looked like Kelly’s Philadelphia Eagles were the future of professional football. There were regular discussions on sports talk radio in Boston, both when Chip was at Oregon and in Philly, debating whether the Patriots should have Josh McDaniels be the head coach of the future when Bill Belichick eventually retires, or they should go after Kelly to be the coach in waiting. Kelly’s teams were exciting to watch, and Kelly himself was a fascinating figure to me. He was the guy from New Hampshire who developed this super-hurry-up offense and brought it to Oregon, putting up insane offensive numbers and employing a game-changing system of calling plays by flashing signs from the sideline to cut back on the time between offensive snaps, took the Ducks to a National Championship Game, appeared to be taking that system to the NFL by storm, all with Nick Foles as his quarterback.
After the 2014 season, when the Eagles had a winning record but missed the playoffs, Kelly gained more power over personnel decisions within the organization, and made a series of moves that I covered in more detail this time last year, but overall, while each move was individually defensible, it was too much change and too much turnover, and the 2015 Eagles fell on their collective face. The biggest impact move of the offseason was Kelly’s attempt to move up in the draft to acquire Marcus Mariota, and when he could not, trading Foles to the St. Louis Rams for Sam Bradford, while also bringing in Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow as QB options, and none of them being measurably better than Foles by all that much. Philadelphia fired Kelly, hired former Eagles QB and longtime Andy Reid assistant Doug Pederson, and then drafted Carson Wentz with the #2 overall pick, and even though they missed the playoffs in 2016, have to feel good about the way they bounced back from Kelly’s final year.
Kelly, on the other hand, landed not in Tennessee, where he could have coached his former Oregon standout Marcus Mariota, but in San Francisco with a highly flawed roster and two flawed quarterbacks. I got the sense Kelly did not want want Colin Kaepernick or Blaine Gabbert, but that was the hand he was dealt. Kelly and Kaepernick, to me, seemed like a good match, an athletic, mobile quarterback paired with an innovative, up-tempo offensive coach, but the pairing came a couple years too late, when Kaepernick maybe had been hit too many times and Kelly may have failed too many times to make it work, as neither was operating with the kind of confidence they had in 2012 and 2013.
One angle to Chip Kelly getting fired for a second time in as many seasons is the fact that New England Patriots and former Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount had a career year, and is running the ball as well as he ever has. One of my first football posts on this blog, back in 2013, was about Kelly and Blount, as Kelly was acclimating to the NFL and Blount was in his first training camp with the Patriots, and their shared history, when Blount ruined Kelly’s first game as head coach of Oregon by sucker punching an opposing player on the road in the Ducks’ season opener at Boise State. Given how short running back careers are, and how head coaches can last decades in the NFL, it’s amazing that Blount’s NFL career is now very likely to outlast Chip Kelly’s. The NFL is weird that way.
I have no idea what comes next for Kelly. As I alluded to in my Rex Ryan column last week (spoiler alert: the Bills fired Ryan after I wrote it, but before he had the opportunity to coach the Week 17 finale against the Jets), Kelly put himself in a no-win situation in San Francisco, and while the Oregon football program he was instrumental in building crumbled this season, culminating with the firing of Kelly’s former assistant Mark Helfrich just two years removed from their National Championship Game loss to Ohio State, the university did not wait for Chip Kelly to get fired by San Francisco to try and bring him back, hiring Willie Taggart away from South Florida instead. Kelly’s head coaching future appears to be at the collegiate level, unless he decides to bide his time and be an offensive coordinator for an NFL team for a few years, but the college and NFL hiring and firing cycles are different enough that he is getting onto the market at a time when the major desirable power conference jobs, Oregon, LSU, and Texas chief among them, have been filled already. Kelly bet on himself and his system, and I was rooting for it to work, but it did not, and now it may be a while before he is ever in such an important role again on the national stage, if it happens at all.