|Coach Killers is your weekly look around the league at those performances, decisions and "Wait, what did he just do?!" moments that put the guy in charge squarely on the ol' hot seat. (US Presswire)|
Perhaps Sean Payton, the Saints coach who was suspended for the season for his role in the bounty scandal, is more valuable than anybody thought. When commissioner Roger Goodell gave him 2012 off, most people figured that quarterback Drew Brees would become the de facto offensive coach since that's the role he pretty perfected since arriving in New Orleans in 2006. But it's not the offense that is most troubling. It's the other side of the ball, where those shortcomings had previously been masked by Brees & Company's ability to hang 40 points on just about anybody. Not this season
Here's the ugly truth: through two weeks New Orleans has given up 75 points and 922 yards, both of which are good for dead last in the league. As often happens in such situations, you scramble to find the silver lining, something to give you hope that this isn't permanent.
For defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, it's the 2007 Giants. He was the defensive coordinator in New York then and that outfit gave up 80 points in the first two games -- both losses -- before finishing 10-6 and winning a Super Bowl.
"Here's what numbers we've been stressing -- the three 0-2 teams that made the playoffs and won the Super Bowl (Dallas '93, New England '01, Giants '07) and the last one that made the playoffs and won the Super Bowl," interim Saints head coach Aaron Kromer said according to CBSSports.com's Guerry Smith. "He (Spagnuolo) has close information on obviously how that happened that year."
Spaguolo had taken the blame for the slow start, noting that he became too aggressive against the Panthers and Cam Newton Sunday.
"There's no question that offense is unconventional, it's different," he said. "But there's no excuse. Just because they run option football and we don't get to simulate it in practice, there's no excuse there."
We'll have a better idea of what this 2012 Saints team is all about when they host the hapless Chiefs this week. Win and it might jump-start New Orleans' season. Lose and … well, things could be over before assistant Joe Vitt returns from his six-game suspension.
Peyton Manning, QB - Broncos
When we list Peyton Manning here we do so with the understanding that he's not your typical coach killer. He's a 36-year-old future Hall of Famer who happens to be coming off four neck surgeries. And until last week's win over the Steelers, he hadn't played in a professional football game in 610 days.
Broncos executive vice president John Elway went all in on Manning this spring. By convincing him to come to Denver it immediately solved two problems (in theory, anyway): Tim Tebow was now out of Elway's hair and the Broncos were again legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
Tebow may be the Jets' problems but we're not convinced Denver is any closer to the Super Bowl now than they were back in January when Tebow was in the backfield during the team's two playoff games. Obviously, this has everything to do with Manning staying healthy and returning to his old, dominating form. So far, so good on the former. If Monday night's performance is any indication, the latter has yet to be decided.
Manning threw three first-quarter interceptions against the Falcons, and none of the "clearly the receiver ran the wrong route" variety. These picks were the ones we used to make fun of Tebow for. The difference: Tebow was a glorified fullback playing on his rookie contract, Manning is pulling down $96 million to bring Denver a championship.
"I won't make any excuse for it," Manning said after the loss in Atlanta. "We made poor decisions. Three throws into coverage. We just have to eliminate those."
Manning has said all along that he's not yet back to where he wants to be. Given what he's accomplished in this league it's fair to say he'll improve. The biggest questions are when and by how much.
Stephen Gostowski, K - Patriots
Through the first 59 minutes and five seconds, Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski had been perfect. He had converted all four of his field-goal attempts, including tries from 46, 51 and 53 yards. And while those 12 points were critical to keeping New England close, when it mattered -- when the game was on the line with seconds on the clock -- Gostkowski Vanderjagt-ed an eminently makable 42-yarder well left of the uprights.
(We used to joke that former Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt honked a game-winning kick against the Steelers in the 2006 playoffs so far wide of his target that if it had been soccer, the Steelers would've been awarded a throw-in. Gostkowski didn't miss by that much but it was clear as soon as the ball left his foot that it didn't have a chance.)
So what happened? Who knows. Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell says it was pressure. Not nerves (though it could've been that, too) but the interior rush from Arizona's field-goal block team where Campbell plays a prominent role.
"I love being inside because I'm 6-foot-8 and we'd gotten good push all game," he told NFL.com after the game. "We got good push again. We went after it as hard as we could. I think that had something to do with him pushing it to the left."
Any push the Cardinals had in the four previous attempts didn't affect Gostkowski, who was understandably upset afterwards.
"You get an opportunity like that not very often and I have to do a better job of coming through for the team," he said. "There's probably not another game where I'd be more confident going out for a kick like that. It humbles you really quickly."
You can argue that the Patriots never would've had a chance to win if Gostkowski had been perfect up to that moment. Fair enough, but that's not the point. Each kick is a discrete event; no matter what happens before or after, Gostkowski is expected to make a 42-yarder. He didn't.
Blaine Gabbert, QB - Jaguars
Think about this: the league's worst passing team a year ago set a new low against the Texans last week. This was supposed to be the year Blaine Gabbert put it all together. As a rookie, he didn't have a chance -- the Jags didn't have receivers and running back Maurice Jones-Drew was the only legitimate scoring threat on the roster. But new coach Mike Mularkey had praised Gabbert through offseason workouts and the preseason, and the former first-rounder looked markedly better, including a two-touchdown, 260-yard effort in Week 1.
But things went horribly wrong in Week 2. Before Gabbert left with a thigh injury in the fourth quarter these were his numbers: 7-for-19 for 53 yards and a touchdown. The 117 total yards on offense set a franchise low.
While Mularkey might be privately concerned, he's not letting on. Instead, he points to Gabbert's youth and inexperience and part of this process.
"This is his 16th start in the National Football League as a 22-year-old man and he's going to have some learning curves every week, especially to have some consistent success," Mularkey said though he admitted that the offense "has some things to clean up."
Guard Uche Nwaneri was less diplomatic. "Just a bad all-around day for the offense, we shot ourselves in the foot and it just drowned us. When you can't execute, you're not prepared to be out there."
This summer we had Chad Henne, Gabbert's backup, as one of our top-10 2012 comeback players. (Of course, we also had Chris Johnson and Chad Johnson so what do we know.) But if Gabbert has a couple more games like this one it's reasonable to wonder if Henne will get the nod. Of course, this could've all been avoided had Tim Tebow just agreed to come to Jacksonville this offseason (this is a joke).
Jake Locker, QB - Titans
Last week in this space Titans running back Chris Johnson got a name-check. These are the unintended benefits to gaining four yards on 11 carries. Johnson didn't fare much better against the Chargers Sunday (eight rushes, 17 yards) but it's obvious to anyone half-paying attention that he's not the only problem with this offense.
There are also the injuries at wide receiver, the struggles along the offense line and the inconsistencies of second-year quarterback Jake Locker.
Kenny Britt and Nate Washington eventually will return to form, and teams can win with a mediocre line, but the Titans won't ever be more than a middle-of-the-road team without an elite quarterback. Yes, we know, it's too early to declare Locker a has-been -- and that's not what we're doing. But the reality is this: Tennessee took Locker eighth overall in the 2011 draft and while he showed glimpses of potential in spot duty as a rookie, he's been the victim of his peers to begin this season.
Most draft experts considered Locker a reach at No. 8 and those concerns are exacerbated by the early success of this year's class: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Russell Wilson and even Brandon Weeden's Week 2 effort.
Still, despite Johnson's frustration with the Titans' offense, coach Mike Munchak isn't ready to make wholesale changes, and that includes Locker.
"You guys are trying to bench everybody after two games," Muchak told the media. "You have any coaching questions? Next week that will be the next thing -- when are we going to make a change at the coaching spot?" he said while smiling. "We have a lot of work to do, but … we'd have to bench a lot of people if I was going to bench them about how we were playing. We don't have enough guys to back up and play if we're going to go by our production as a team.
"We are not losing confidence in anybody," he continued. "We have a long, long way to go. One week can change these questions dramatically. We just need to go out and play better."
Muchak's right: one week can change everything. (Seriously, just look at all the overreactions following Week 1 -- the Packers are done! The Broncos are going to the Super Bowl! etc…) But there's a reason the organization went hard after Peyton Manning this offseason. Locker's young, yes, but so are plenty of other NFL quarterbacks who are already having success. And while Locker's not solely responsible for Tennessee's struggles, he could do a lot to mitigate them.
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