It is not yet November, and we are just approaching the halfway point of the season, but it was difficult to watch the 1 p.m. games Sunday (oh, and the one 9:30 a.m. ET start from London) and not start mulling the future. Big changes are afoot for many of the franchises that played – or tried to play – in that window.
In some cases, it's hard to imagine the coaching staffs, and/or front offices, remaining in place. In others, it's going to take a massive change of events in the second half of the season to avoid significant upheaval. And that's not even including some of the teams on the bye that could be looking at macro-level changes for one reason or another in 2018 if things don't improve quickly (Cardinals, Titans, Giants). But for now, let's keep our focus on what we saw today.
Of the eight games that kicked-off at 9:30 a.m. (Vikings-Browns) or 1 p.m., six of them featured a coach who has to be, legitimately, on the hot seat. Once again, this window featured teams bereft of much hope offensively (in a recurring theme I have noted in the past, and will continue to monitor, some of the halftime scores: 15-7, 14-7, 17-0, 10-10, 14-3) and included a bevy of clubs struggling to establish themselves or needing to save their seasons. And this list doesn't even include the winless 49ers, who got drubbed mercilessly, again, but are just one year into the Kyle Shanahan regime, or the Raiders, who went meekly to 3-5 with Super Bowl aspirations but just tore up Jack Del Rio's contract before the season and aren't going to be blowing up his staff just yet (Mark Davis isn't in the habit of eating contracts to spend big on new contracts and he'd biding time until that move to Vegas).
Yet even with them out of the equation, the early games provided ample fodder to mull over as we head into the third month of the season (and make no mistake, by the end of November many an owner will already be deep into the process of trying to sort out his next head coach, whether through backchannels or otherwise). For some of these guys, 2017 was always going to be the end, barring a miracle, and time will tell if some of these owners opt to make a move sooner rather than later to jumpstart preparations for a better 2018.
Hue Jackson, Browns: This is a complete disaster in every department of the building. Watching rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer suffer again Sunday, falling apart in the second half, while other young quarterbacks soar, will doom every football person in that building. Because owners don't fire themselves. It's over for coaches and personnel. This ended up another lopsided loss, getting trounced in the second half by the Vikings in London. The Browns have one win since Jackson took over before the 2016 season and they have four wins since December 2014 (GM Sashi Brown, in differing roles, has been there for every single one of those losses). Cleveland is 4-41 in its last 45 games, an unfathomable degree of failure in a league of parity. They could easily go 1-15 again. It's over.
Chuck Pagano, Colts: With a new GM in place, one who did not come to Indianapolis with him, and with the Colts faltering in recent years and Andrew Luck yet to even dress for a football game, this was always going to be bleak. And this team has played hard and been better defensively in spots and been in most games … but it can't finish and keep leads, there is nothing close to a firm timetable for Luck to play and this is not a pretty picture. At 2-6, only the Browns (0-8) have a worse record in the AFC, they've allowed the most points in the conference and this team has come very close to making a coaching change each of the last two years. I'd be beyond stunned if rookie GM Chris Ballard is not working with a different coaching staff next year.
Dirk Koetter, Bucs: This was supposed to be their year to make a move in the NFC South and this was supposed to be Jameis Winston's year to join the elite quarterbacks in the NFL and instead, it's the "Hard Knocks" curse all over again. The Bucs finally played some defense on Sunday … and the offensive got totally strangled. Koetter was elevated from coordinator to head coach a few years back because of Winston's development, but that is going in the wrong direction now despite paying big money to DeSean Jackson and drafting OJ Howard high and getting ready to pay Mike Evans and having Cam Brate emerge as a redz one threat, too. Too much talent to be this inept and at 2-5, in last place in their division after four straight losses. But it's Winston's struggles (pedestrian rating of 88.3) that will command ownerships attention, above all else, after failing to do a full reboot when firing Lovie Smith after one season.
Marvin Lewis, Bengals: Yeah, they finally, barely, beat the Colts at home Sunday. However, they remain an undisciplined team (stupid personal foul penalties directly led to points again this weekend), they don't have the air of the postseason, the fans have seemingly seen enough and Lewis is out of contract at the end of the season. There have been rumors about him moving to the front office and maybe Jackson, the former offensive coordinator, coming across Ohio, from Cleveland, to take over. Maybe defensive coordinator Paul Guenther gets a look as well, as his unit has been faring well. But, after a long run without any playoff wins to show for it, and with this team in transition from the core that led to five-straight playoff berths to a younger group, even uber-loyal Mike Brown will very likely be looking to make a change. At 3-4, there is still time, but this also a team that whacked its offensive coordinator a few quarters into the season and has struggled to look decent even against the dregs of the NFL.
John Fox, Bears: The next two coaches I am going to list are doing great work in a lot of ways. They have teams with not much talent in some key spots, who are playing very hard, and staying in every game and who actually should have even more wins than they have … but given the realities of their situations coming into the season, it's not going to be enough. The Bears defense is playing out of its mind with Vic Fangio leading that unit (more on that below) and won some games with raw rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, but the rumblings about imminent change in Chicago are strong. Fox has nothing to be ashamed of at 3-5 with this team, but even if they duplicate that record in the second half I foresee changes here after two already-lean years in Chicago.
Todd Bowles, Jets: Many of the above comments apply. And the Jets have outplayed most teams they have faced, and had Atlanta on the ropes Sunday, and then brutal fumbles and missed field goals and bad luck conspired again. A bad call crushed them against New England. They had Miami all but knocked out in Week 7. They are 3-5 when some expected 0-16, but the second half schedule is very tough and this team will be starting over with a new quarterback in 2018, and that means a coaching change will be strongly considered as well.
Fangio will be in high demand
The most coveted free agent in 2018 might not be a player. It might be Fangio. The Bears defense, with precious little talent and an offense that scores almost no points and which almost never plays with the lead, continues to play out of its minds. And Fangio, long considered one of the top defensive minds around, is out of contract at season's end, I'm told. He'll get a look or two at a head coaching job, I figure. And if nothing else will be sought after to join many an existing or new staff (if his old buddy Jim Harbaugh leaves Ann Arbor to put the band back together, don't think for a second he wouldn't want Fangio riding shotgun).
The Bears gave up a few big runs, but also forced repeated turnovers to stall and stick with the vaunted Saints offense. They held Drew Brees without a touchdown pass despite having a secondary most football fans couldn't name. His charges played with verve and gusto until the final whistle and they continue swarming people every week. His work has been nothing short of phenomenal.
Patriots have righted the ship
The Patriots defense just may have righted itself. I admit I was a skeptic when they shut down Atlanta last Sunday night, because, since Kyle Shanahan left Atlanta everyone shuts down the Falcons offense. But New England stifled the Chargers on Sunday, the Pats offense did a great job of ball control in the screen game to keep Philip Rivers off the field and New England is starting to look the part of a team built for January once more.
The past two weeks, after allowing 14 touchdowns passes against in their first six games, they've allowed just two (and one came from just a yard out), both of which came very late in the game with New England already having a multi-score lead. The gaping holes downfield are gone. They seem better without Stephone Gilmore, their big-money corner signing, than with him, and they are getting better pass rush. The run defense still is a big concern for me – Melvin Gordon churned up 132 yards on just 14 carries (9.4 per rush) – but given the way they can score points, it's most important they can get to the other QB and eliminate all the busted plays giving big chunks of yards away in the passing game.
In the second half of the season, New England's defense will rarely be tested, especially the passing defense. They get Miami, the NFL's worst offense by a lot, two times and get the Bills (who could certainly carve them on the ground) twice as well. Denver can't move the ball and the Jets, in Week 17, might not test them nearly as much then (perhaps with someone other than Josh McCown at quarterback) than they did the first time around.
So it might take until January – and a meeting with a robust and balanced offense like Houston, Kansas City or Pittsburgh – until we truly know whether this unit is shedding its early skin and built for the postseason.
Around the league
- It's time for the 49ers to end the CJ Beathard experiment. Two straight blowout losses is enough. Go back to veteran Brian Hoyer. He's been on this yo-yo before and will respond well to it. At least the losses were close when he was under center.
- The Jets should really think about drafting a kicker. Not like in the second round or anything, but, yeah, they need a kicker they can count on for more than a week or two.
- The Buffalo Bills are going to the postseason. They have been awesome at home, that defense and running game will travel and let me say for the 1,989th time that you can win a helluva lot of football games with Tyrod Taylor at quarterback. His team rallies behind him and he's getting it done without proven studs at receiver or tight end.
- Can't figure out some of the Chargers' play-calling Sunday, especially getting away from a very effective run game at critical times on third-and-short. They refuse to want to feature tight end Hunter Henry even though he was a mismatch as a rookie.
- The Falcons sneaked by the Jets on Sunday, with a lot of help, but that is not the same team from a year ago. Not close. Second half will be a lot like the first for them I figure.
- Expect a strong response from Saints running back Mark Ingram next week after two late fumbles nearly cost his team the game. He has been running like a man possessed and clearly took the mistakes to heart. New Orleans is for real.
- Awesome to see Luke Kuechly back on the field and picking right back up at his Defensive MVP pace after missing games with another concussion. Panthers' season would already be lost if that defense was not so superior drive in and drive out and coordinator Steve Wilks is going to get head coaching looks.
- I wonder if the Dolphins make a drastic move or two to shake up what has been a moribund offense. Far too many passengers on that unit than one would expect and the reason they are so dreadful in virtually every offensive measure isn't just about the quarterback position. With the trade deadline looming, I can't help but think Adam Gase – who saved their season with a significant roster shake-up a year ago – opts to go that route again. If anybody can scheme and will and prod them out of this slump, it's him.