Here we are in the second week of January with four playoff games complete, eight teams left, and six games to the Super Bowl. Today I’ll be taking a look at the playoff teams who fell at the first hurdle and will run through the coaching news as I have it, although it will be worth you checking the usual places as events are picking up pace as teams start to hire.
The Texans made it to the playoffs but fell to their surging division rivals in the Indianapolis Colts. The Texans had a slow start to the season, and there was talk of Bill O’Brien’s job being in danger if they lost again and fell to 0-4. Instead they got an overtime win against the Colts, and then ripped off a further eight wins. The problem they have though, is whilst the front seven of their defence is strong, and they have one of the best receivers in the game as well as a dynamic young quarterback, there are holes in the rest of the team. This might not be surprising given they had to trade away picks to get their quarterback in Deshaun Watson, but they need to balance up the skill players surrounding DeAndre Hopkins or get them healthier and they need to improve the secondary of their defence. They have the sixth most cap space looking forward to 2019 so they have some room to manoeuvre, particularly with a young quarterback on a rookie deal, but they also have several picks in this year’s draft that have been traded away. More worrying is that whilst O’Brien keeps making the Texans competitive in the division, they have not quite convinced and the Colts look like they are shaping up to be a fearsome team in 2019. Experience teaches us that the Texans will likely compete for the division title again next season, and it was definitely great to see JJ Watt playing a high level again and who know what he might be able to achieve with a full off-season without a major injury to rehab. The Texans have gone to the playoffs four times in the last eight years, and twice under O’Brien, but in his five years as head coach they have only won one playoff game and that just makes me wonder if the owner will start to think about a change if the Texans can’t get a step further next season.
This is going to be curious one to write up as in a lot of ways the Seahawks defied the expectations coming into the season by finishing 10-6 and making the playoffs despite their young roster. The defence was overhauled and they committed to running the ball as their identity and that was good enough to make the playoffs, but my worry is that they will be too stubborn surrounding the offensive game plan. The repeated run on first and second down in their Wildcard loss to the Cowboys was not effective thanks to the Cowboys fifth rated rush defence. We have moved well pst establishing the run as a offensive philosophy and I very much believe that what you need is a credible threat to do either so that play action is effective. In Russell Wilson the Seahawks have one of the most effective quarterbacks in the game, and if they say ran play action on fifty percent of their first downs and threw in some mid-range passing they could be really effective without abandoning the run. I just don’t know if it is going to happen or not and it makes no sense to extend Russell Wilson as they will need to do shortly, and pay him the premium he is going to deservedly ask for if they don’t make the most of him. That doesn’t mean they should start running an Andy Reid style offence, but to my mind the offence needs tweaking. They have plenty of cap space and frequently draft well, but I just don’t if they are going to change spots now and I wonder if that will hobble them from getting back to the Super Bowl.
The Ravens got back to the playoffs after three years of missing out, and discovered the future of their offence in rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson. They can’t keep giving him carries at a record setting pace despite him only playing half a season, but he can throw the ball and the fact that he was able to get a couple of touchdowns in the fourth quarter of their Wildcard loss to the Chargers should reassure that he won’t be solved by a clever defence. The front office won’t be the same with Ozzie Newsome stepping down, but it feels like with the infrastructure in Baltimore they will be back and competitive next season. It certainly seems like John Harbaugh will stay as long as he gets the contract extension with the terms he wants. Unlike many defences, the Ravens always seem to be around the top five in the league and so you would imagine that the Ravens can focus on getting Jackson tools for the passing game, although you can never have too many pass rushers or corners. The Ravens are a little below league average for cap space in 2019 as currently constructed, but you would expect them to be there or there about next season and with a good draft they could be really scary.
The Bears loss in the Double Doink game was heart breaking, although the field goal miss has been amended to a block as a defender did get a touch. Either way, the worry for the Bears is that they had the number one defence in the league and couldn’t get the game won against the Eagles. They are twenty-third in the league in salary cap and there are players whose contract has expired. As defence is generally considered to be less consistent year to year (unless you’re the Ravens it seems), any step back from the defence would have to be countered by an improvement in the offence. Although Matt Nagy has improved the team, and there has been lots of focus on the way he called the offence, it only finished twentieth in the league by DVOA. I definitely thought that Mitchell Trubisky looked better this season, but he really needs to improve next year and there’s no way of knowing if it will happen. They also look like they will be without defensive coordinator Vic Fangio who is being looked at as a head coach candidate for the Broncos, who was the mastermind behind the Bears defence, and whilst they have a lot of talent, a new coordinator is not guaranteed to get the same result with the new roster next season. I do think the Bears can remain competitive, but there are enough factors to make Bears’ fans wary that it was a one season wonder. Hopefully a good pre-season and start to the 2019 season will put those fears to rest.
And so we move to the coaching carousel, where we have started to get some hires.
First up were the Green Bay Packers, who had a head start thank to their firing of Mike McCarthy mid-season. They are hoping to capitalise on the rise of Sean McVay by hiring his former assistant Matt LeFleur after one year of running the offence in Tennessee. It’s hard to assess how good a job LeFleur did with the Titans given the nerve injury Marcus Mariota battled through for large parts of the season, but at age thirty-nine with limited experience it is a risk. He’ll have been hired with a mandate to innovate and to get the best out of Aaron Rodgers, but as ever with young coaches it will all depend on how he builds his staff. I don’t think it is a coincidence that both McVay and Matt Nagy had first year success as a head coach and had very experienced defensive coordinators to lean on.
There will be no such concerns about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ new head coach, as they have hired Bruce Arians, who is one of my favourite coaches. I hope the year rest has helped his health as that is honestly my biggest worry, but he was attracted to the Bucs by his relationship with GM Jason Light and if anyone can turn around that franchise given some time it is Arians. I’m not totally abandoning my previous comments on the Bucs from last week as there is a lot to do, but I have about as much faith in Arians turning it around as anyone.
The Cleveland Browns have hired their temporary offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens as their new head coach, following the recent trend of teaming up an offensive mind with a young quarterback and we shall have to see how this works. Certainly the rapor with Baker Mayfield seems positive, but these hires haven’t always worke so we shall have to see.
The Arizona Cardinals have hired Kliff Kingsbury from college, and the honest answer is I don’t know enough about college football to judge this hire. It is deliberately an offensive coach to develop Josh Rosen and I’ve sean a video clipe of Sean McVaty praising him but only time will tell on that one.
Finally, at least of the ones I’ve seen confirmed, the New York Jets have hired Adam Gase to be another offensive minded head coach paired to a young quarterback, and Sam Darnold will have to hope to replicate the success of Peyton Manning than Ryan Tannehill.
There are other hires in the works as well as coordinators hired or staying so keep your eyes out and we’ll do a deeper dive when things calm down and we don’t have more important things like games to watch.