Pink Slips Abound on Black Monday in the NFL
Black Monday delivered. The first morning of the offseason for 20 of the league’s 32 teams brought a stunning wave of pink slips, as more than half of those 20 teams responded to their disappointing campaigns by firing at least one prominent member of their front offices or coaching staffs. Most handled it with class. Bud Adams of the Titans fired his COO, former general manager Mike Reinfeldt, by noting “I think we’d be better off without him,” which is a total disregard for tact that you can only possess by being 90 years old and an NFL owner. It’s like sending a telegram whose entire contents read “IDGAF.” By the end of the day, seven head coaches and five general managers had hit the street, despite the continued employment of embattled candidates like Mike Munchak, Ron Rivera, and Jeff Ireland. Somehow, though, the only move that seemed truly surprising came out of Chicago, where Lovie Smith was sacrificed for the Bears’ second-half collapse.
It’s much easier to figure out which coaches and general managers are likely to be fired than fill those same holes with available candidates, so I’m going to avoid prognosticating here. My rule of thumb is that teams tend to notice their personnel’s weaknesses as they fire them and replace them with personnel of the opposite persuasion. If they’ve just fired an offensive-minded leader with a reputation for being a player’s coach, teams often look for a defensive coordinator with a disciplinarian streak. I don’t know that the pattern I’m describing is necessarily what teams should follow, but I think it’s a path that a fair amount of the league’s teams do, in fact, take.
So, with that in mind, I want to examine why these 12 men didn’t make it into 2013 with their jobs. Understanding what went wrong (or what was perceived to have gone wrong) should give us some insight into whether the moves made any sense and if the teams in question are actually going to improve by making a switch.
There’s no clear-cut smoking gun in every case, but there is one factor that plays an obvious role in many of these firings: disappointing quarterback play. By my count, the only firings on Monday that weren’t directly preceded by a failed season from the sacked employee’s quarterbacks were with Smith in Chicago and the combination of A.J. Smith and Norv Turner in San Diego. You can make a case that Jay Cutler and Philip Rivers didn’t quite meet expectations, but consider that each of the nine other candidates oversaw quarterbacks who will either lose their job or be in a battle for their previously secure starting job in 2013, and you have an idea of just how closely quarterback play and coach/GM job security are related.
Let’s start with the most surprising firing of Black Monday and work our way down.
Lovie Smith, Chicago Bears head coach
Let’s be honest: Had the Packers beaten the Vikings on Sunday and pushed the Bears into the NFC playoffs, Lovie Smith wouldn’t be getting fired this offseason. You can argue that new general manager Phil Emery probably wanted to hire a new head coach after taking over last offseason, but coaches with Smith’s track record and popularity within the organization don’t get fired after making a playoff run. Smith’s status as Chicago’s head coach is basically tied to a terrible game from Tramon Williams against the Vikings, which seems like too flimsy of a pretense to create an organizational shift. Making decisions based on what happened in Week 17 one day afterward is rash.
The public argument against Smith revolves around the idea that he wasn’t able to get enough out of the Chicago offense, which seems like an odd complaint to levy against a former defensive coordinator who mostly turned the offense over to former head coaches like Mike Martz and Mike Tice. And while Chicago’s offense was a dismal 26th in DVOA this season, it’s hard to argue that he had much to work with beyond the skill position troika of Cutler, Brandon Marshall, and Matt Forte.
Instead, the perpetual problem in Chicago is their grotesque offensive line, a grouping that has been among the league’s worst for nearly a half-decade by now. The Bears have attacked the problem a few different ways, but none of their methods have worked. Although they didn’t have first- or second-round picks in 2009 and 2010 (mostly as a consequence of the Cutler trade), they did use their 2008 and 2011 first-round picks on offensive linemen. They’ve gotten little from those picks so far: Chris Williams struggled with injuries and failed to emerge as the team’s left tackle of the future before being released in the final year of his rookie deal last October, while 2011 first-rounder Gabe Carimi missed virtually all of his rookie year and was benched during this past sophomore campaign. Going outside the organization didn’t offer much more. Former general manager Jerry Angelo placed a premium on acquiring versatile offensive linemen in free agency, but the players he signed — John St. Clair, Chris Spencer, and Frank Omiyale — weren’t actually good in any position. Hall of Famer–to-be Orlando Pace even showed up for a half-season, albeit years after he was broken down by injuries. The team would shuffle spots on the line every few weeks and bench a guy here or there, but outside of stalwarts Olin Kreutz (who left after 2010) and Roberto Garza, the Bears were constantly looking for answers up and down their line.
The result is a line filled with castoffs and accidents. J’Marcus Webb is nobody’s idea of a left tackle, but he’s spent most of the last two years in that spot by default while treating most pass rushers like he’s a store on Black Friday. Webb was a seventh-round pick, as was guard Lance Louis. Castoffs like Jonathan Scott and Chilo Rachal saw far too many reps, virtually by default. It was a line that nearly got Cutler killed and helped contribute to the disastrous stretch by Caleb Hanie that ruined the promising 2011 season.
You can argue it in both directions. Did Angelo deliver talented players to Smith, only for them to struggle under his watch and fail to develop into reliable starters? It’s always hard to tell, but I don’t think that’s the case. Williams was ruined by injuries, as was an earlier Angelo first-round pick at tackle, Marc Colombo. The spare parts that came in through free agency haven’t been any great shakes elsewhere, and the likes of Webb and Louis aren’t supposed to be key contributors to an NFL team. Emery might do a better job of delivering offensive line talent to whoever the next coach is, but I don’t think Smith could’ve done much more with what he had. With Brian Urlacher hitting free agency and the rest of Chicago’s defensive core looking very old these days, this could be the start of a rebuilding project in Chicago, even if Emery suggests otherwise.
Ken Whisenhunt and Rod Graves, Arizona Cardinals head coach and GM
Could you have imagined this at the end of September? The Cardinals were 4-0, having beaten the Patriots in Foxborough and blown out the Eagles at home. Heck, they even beat the Seahawks in Week 1, a win that looks better now than it did at the time. With the Rams and Bills coming up, you could make a case that the Cardinals were about to start 6-0. That’s contract extension time!
Instead, three months later, the braintrust that took the Cardinals to an improbable Super Bowl run in 2008 has been let go. In a way, Arizona might have been victims of their early success; this was probably just about the talent level of a 5-11 team, but starting 4-0 and finishing 1-11 makes 5-11 feel a lot worse than a less streaky season. If you stretch their great start back into the 2011 season, the Cardinals had famously put together a 10-2 run, one that saw them go 9-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less. Naturally, that wasn’t sustainable; they went 0-4 in those same games during the 1-11 finish. (Be wary, Colts fans.)
The problem with the Cardinals ended up being what everyone suspected the problem was with the Cardinals before the season: They had two quarterbacks and neither of them were any good. Graves didn’t deliver Whisenhunt any really effective options, but Whisenhunt made it worse by affecting his usual pattern of cycling back and forth between his choices, destroying each player’s confidence and any sense of rhythm with his receivers in the process. Those changes were initially forced upon Whisenhunt by injuries, with John Skelton going down in Week 1 and Kevin Kolb suffering what ended up being a season-ending injury weeks later, but he went back and forth with Skelton and rookie Ryan Lindley without rhyme or reason. An offensive line that rivaled Chicago’s as the league’s worst didn’t help matters, either.
Whisenhunt is actually a pretty good head coach once you get beyond his inability to handle quarterbacks, which makes him a great candidate for a team with a stable quarterback situation, like the Bears or Chargers. Of course, stable quarterback situations make a lot of head coaches look good, too.
Romeo Crennel, Kansas City Chiefs head coach
The surprise here isn’t that Crennel was fired, but instead that general manager Scott Pioli appears to be holding onto his job after a 2-14 season. Crennel was an ill-fated hire, an interim coach who got to keep his job because the Chiefs upset the Packers at home in his first game as interim coach last season. The track record of interim coaches is dismal, and Crennel’s awful year in Kansas City was no exception. Crennel hired Brian Daboll to run the Kansas City offense, but the unit descended into farce as the season progressed, with the combination of Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn seemingly not allowed to throw passes for quarters at a time. The staff had to deal with unimaginable tragedy after the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide incident, but Crennel simply wasn’t an effective football coach.
The case for Pioli is murky. His commitment to Cassel has held the organization back through the tenures of both Crennel and Todd Haley. The Chiefs have an elite core of talent with Jamaal Charles, Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali, and Brandon Flowers, but each of those players was drafted before Pioli arrived in town. Pioli’s drafts have been uneven at best, with the likes of Dexter McCluster, Javier Arenas, Jonathan Baldwin, and Tyson Jackson all failing to live up to expectations. With the first overall pick in the 2013 draft, Pioli seems likely to use another first-rounder on his defensive line, but his most important task this offseason is to move on from the Cassel era and find a quarterback.
Chan Gailey, Buffalo Bills head coach
Gailey is genuinely an innovative offensive mind. He was the first person to bring the Pistol offense to the NFL, back when he was stuck with a rookie Tyler Thigpen as an injury replacement with the Chiefs in 2008. He got a lot out of Fred Jackson over the past three years, and this season he turned C.J. Spiller into a superstar weapon, a player who did as much each time he touched the ball as any back in football beyond Adrian Peterson. And he did all that with an offensive line of no-names, a group that was mostly drafted and developed into a competent bunch in-house.
Despite his innovative offensive mind, though, Gailey has struggled to get results. Since returning from the college ranks in 2008, Gailey and his offenses have ranked 26th, 28th, 14th, and 21st in points scored. You can argue that he hasn’t had a ton to work with over that time, but it was Gailey who benched incumbent Trent Edwards and turned the team over to journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick, who then received an ill-fated contract extension after an unlikely hot stretch in 2011. Fitzpatrick has been a better quarterback in Buffalo than he was elsewhere, but at 31, it seems unlikely that he’ll take a leap forward. Gailey’s play calling was also curious, as the Bills blew late leads over the Cardinals (before eventually coming back to win in overtime) and Titans (no such luck) with ill-fated passes in clear running situations. If the Bills hold on for the win in those two games and stop a last-minute Rams drive in Week 14, they’re 8-8 and Gailey probably keeps his job.
Gailey’s other problem came in turning the defense over to trusted confidant Dave Wannstedt, who failed to inspire a defensive line that seemed dominant on paper. Injuries to the new Williams Wall — Kyle and record free agent Mario — didn’t help matters, but the Bills failed to put consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks and couldn’t reproduce the fluky high turnover rate of 2011, when they were fifth in takeaways. Wannstedt was also let go on Monday. It’s hard to see either Gailey or Wannstedt, both 60, running an NFL team again.
Pat Shurmur and Tom Heckert, Cleveland Browns head coach and GM
The Heckert firing was rumored for months, as incoming owner Jimmy Haslam brought along former Eagles president Joe Banner, who was expected to hire a new general manager at the end of the season. Heckert worked alongside former team president Mike Holmgren, neither of whom will look back at their time in Cleveland longingly on an America’s Team: Cleveland Browns broadcast someday. They left some talented draft picks for the new management team, notably cornerback Joe Haden, but the Browns are also without a second-round pick in this year’s draft after using a supplemental draft pick on wideout Josh Gordon.
They didn’t deliver much for Shurmur to work with, but it’s hard to see where Shurmur made things better. Brought in as an offensive mind after helping Sam Bradford along during his rookie year at quarterback, Shurmur failed to develop Colt McCoy into a reliable starter and didn’t get much out of Brandon Weeden during the 29-year-old’s rookie season. The team’s other young skill position players also stagnated, although Gordon showed some promise as a big-play threat during an 801-yard rookie season. Our Chris Brown referred to the Cleveland offensive scheme in December as “predictable, not creative, and incoherent.” Shurmur showed little aptitude as a play caller and routinely made strategic mistakes in terms of managing game situations. He might catch on with Andy Reid’s next staff, having spent seven years as quarterbacks coach in Philadelphia, but Cleveland’s next hire is extremely likely to be an upgrade.
Cleveland clearly can’t win with the talent they currently have on hand, so a team that’s seemingly been rebuilding since it came back into existence in 1999 will need to make some changes after finding its next head coach. Of all the teams in football, I think they have the least to lose by thinking out of the box and doing something radically different, both with their coaching hire and their subsequent personnel decisions. Going back to the well with a conventional coach and Weeden seems unbearable, and I’m not even a Browns fan.
Mike Tannenbaum, New York Jets general manager
I wrote about the mistakes made by Tannenbaum in mid-December, and there’s nothing new to add since then. The Jets would be wise to hire a replacement with more of a scouting background to try to rebuild through the draft, but whoever they hire will decide the fate of the 2013 Jets by determining what to do with Mark Sanchez and his contract.
Gene Smith, Jacksonville Jaguars general manager
The Smith era in Jacksonville was also covered at length here on Grantland in November. Since that article was posted, Russell Wilson has gone 6-1 and completed 67.3 percent of his passes while averaging 9.1 yards per attempt, throwing 14 touchdowns against two picks. It’s a little unfair to characterize Jacksonville as having specifically passed on Wilson, since every other team did too, but taking a punter five picks before what appears to be a franchise quarterback is going to be the epitaph for Smith’s run in Jacksonville.
The Jaguars are reportedly planning on signing Tim Tebow this offseason, a move that would come at the expense of Blaine Gabbert and apparently with the blessing of whichever general manager the team hires. Think about that one for a moment. If you were interviewing to be the general manager of an NFL team and you knew that you were going to have to give Tim Tebow, at the very least, a legitimate opportunity to be your starting quarterback, would that excite you? Would you only want to deal with that if you didn’t have other chances to be a general manager elsewhere? I think the likelihood of a Tebow deal will limit the options available to Jacksonville, but that remains to be seen.
Norv Turner and A.J. Smith, San Diego Chargers head coach and GM
Legendary baseball general manager Branch Rickey was fond of noting that it’s better to deal a player a year too early than a year too late. Here, we have a management combination fired a year too late. Turner and Smith should have been let go after a disappointing 2011 season, but they stuck around one more year and needed a 3-1 stretch over the final four games to make it to 7-9. San Diego was 0-5 against teams with a winning record, including that Week 6 loss to the Broncos that saw them blow a 24-0 halftime lead, allowing 35 unanswered points in the second half.
Turner’s faults are already legend, so it seems petty to bring them up again. Smith’s regression seems more interesting, anyway. It’s difficult to overstate how talented the 2005-07 Chargers were, and that was even after letting Drew Brees leave for free. Injuries hit the young talent, as Marcus McNeill and Shawne Merriman went from franchise cornerstones to afterthoughts just as they were supposed to be peaking, but Smith’s acumen in the draft seemed to disappear overnight. He had a terrible four-year run that saw him take wideout Craig Davis, cornerback Antoine Cason, outside linebacker Larry English, and running back Ryan Mathews in the first round. Davis was a colossal flop who is out of football. Cason wasn’t able to contribute in the slot and has been a below-average starter on the outside. English has four starts and 8.5 sacks in four years. Mathews showed flashes of brilliance in 2011, but he’s been injury-prone (fracturing his collarbone twice this year) and hasn’t been able to hold onto the football.
Smith never learned his lesson with the running game, either. San Diego spent more on running backs than anybody else in football in 2009 to keep LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles around, but they had the worst rushing attack in football, averaging a dismal 3.3 yards per carry. Smith’s response to this, somehow, was to let them both go and use another valuable asset, a first-round pick, to draft Mathews. No wonder Mike Tolbert wanted to leave.
San Diego should be the most exciting job on the market, even beyond the fact that it’s a high-paying job in Simmons’s most-livable city. The Chargers have a bona fide franchise quarterback and play in arguably the league’s worst division, the AFC West. Instead, the sheer lack of talent on the roster doesn’t make it a particularly appealing opportunity.
Andy Reid, Philadelphia Eagles head coach
I wrote a postmortem for the Andy Reid era last month suggesting that the Reid epoch will look better with a little bit of perspective, something I still stand by. I agree it was time for Reid to go, that a change of scenery was probably going to be best for everybody involved, but I still haven’t heard a good answer to this question: Who are the Eagles going to hire who will represent a long-term upgrade on Andy Reid?
The best example I can think of is Bill Cowher, and the rumors around Cowher for years have suggested that he’s going to require personnel control if he returns to be a head coach somewhere. That’s not going to happen in Philadelphia, where owner Jeffrey Lurie holds general manager Howie Roseman in high regard. I don’t know that I would be desperate to give somebody like Cowher, who came out of the best drafting and development scheme in football — a scheme that was great both before he got there and since he’s left — full personnel control.
Would you prefer Jon Gruden? Gruden has a Super Bowl ring, but after winning the Super Bowl with the Buccaneers in 2002, his teams went a combined 45-51 while going 0-2 during their two trips to the playoffs. Compare that to the Reid Patrol, who feverishly note that the Eagles have gone 66-61 with a losing record (3-4) in the playoffs since Philly’s trip to the Super Bowl in 2004 as a sign that it’s time for Reid to go. If a Super Bowl win a decade ago is enough for you, why not go after Brian Billick? Or Mike Holmgren, Reid’s mentor in Green Bay? Are they really significantly better options in 2013?
The reality is that the Eagles would love to hire Andy Reid if it weren’t for the fact that they just fired him. His is the best résumé on the market, which is why you’ve already seen teams jockeying for position to get him in for possible interviews. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that a team like Arizona might not have fired their otherwise-competent head coach if it weren’t for Reid’s availability. The last guy to come onto the marketplace with a résumé like Reid’s is Mike Shanahan, and while it took a couple of years, he turned his new organization around.
Philadelphia will look at a variety of candidates. They would be a nice fit for Chip Kelly, who would allow the Eagles to give Michael Vick one final shot in an offense that could play to his strengths. If they follow the head coaching maxim, they would follow the Reid era by targeting a defensive-minded disciplinarian, which would lead them toward Cowher or Lovie Smith. I think whoever they hire will be a short-term upgrade on Reid, just by virtue of bringing in some fresh ideas and new motivational tactics to a group of players who had been used to the Reid Way. In the long-term, though, it’s going to be very difficult for the Eagles to find somebody who represents an upgrade on their departed head coach.