While we know that the Denver Broncos will need to make some changes to get back to the playoffs next season, the one thing we can take comfort in is that we have a management structure that wants to do better each year, yet is able to get its work done without too much interference from ownership and doesn’t fall into the trap of believing that the glory days will return if they just keep doing what worked before.
That is not the case with many of the teams who have missed the playoffs this season for one reason or another. I wanted to examine some of those teams who are already in the process of making regime changes or who might be mentioned as one that is due for a change. My purpose is here to remind everyone about the roads you don’t want the Broncos to go down and that, while every team needs to evaluate where it’s at regardless of the season outcome, the last things you want to do is go to the far ends of the spectrum, one being “hit the panic button” and the other being “we’ve always done it this way.”
Buffalo: The Bills have already dismissed Rex Ryan as their head coach, but general manager Doug Whaley has been running the team as if it was just a few players away from playoff contention. While the Bills have hovered around the .500 mark, their tendency to chase after players or give in too quickly to contract demands has done more harm than good. Whaley is responsible for signing Charles Clay away from the Miami Dolphins, who put the transition tag on him, and seemed so intent on taking him from a division rival that he gave him a contract that paid him like a top tight end when he was really a mid-tier option. The contract given to Tyrod Taylor was intended to reward him when he wanted an extension, but tied the Bills down to option years that would pay him far more than he was worth, when it would have been better to give Taylor a contract similar to what Andy Dalton got a couple of years ago. And the trade up for Sammy Watkins has not paid the dividends you would expect for such a move up the draft board. I think the Bills really need to find a new general manager who will revamp the organization’s philosophies, so that the team is more focused on rebuilding than thinking it needs to make just a couple more moves to reach the playoffs.
New York Jets: Jason Fitzgerald wrote at length about the Jets at Over the Cap, but I think you can boil the Jets’ problems down to their owner, Woody Johnson, who seems unwilling to admit that the team needs to start from the bottom and build up. When the Jets changed general managers two years ago, they had a lot of cap space but used it all up to chase after veteran free agents, then kept pursuing that model this past season. Their drafting has been spotty the past couple of seasons and their decisions to give Ryan Fitzpatrick the money he was seeking, rather than be patient, and to extend Muhammed Wilkerson after exercising the option on Sheldon Richardson’s rookie contract and having drafted Leonard Williams the year before tied up resources that could have been utilized elsewhere. Now they will have to release a lot of veterans to either get under the cap or move on from injury-prone players. I think head coach Todd Bowles got dealt a bad hand, because I don’t think general manager Mike McConaghan is the type of person who can sell an owner on a proper vision for building a team. The Jets are starting to resemble Washington of years past, in which Dan Snyder was smitten with free agency and it took the right general manager to sell him on the right ideas for building a team. Perhaps McConaghan deserves another year, but if his drafting doesn’t improve, the Jets need to find somebody who can do a better job selling his approach, then executing it.
Cleveland: The Browns have been a bad franchise for a long time and things haven’t gotten better since Jimmy Haslam bought the team. Sashi Brown and Paul DePodesta represent the fourth regime to serve under Haslam (Mike Holmgren was a holdover from the previous ownership) and what remains to be seen is whether or not Haslam will be patient with them. With that said, I don’t think the past two regimes had any idea what they wanted. Brown and DePodesta took the approach of accumulating draft picks, which I think was the right idea given how many mistakes previous regimes made. The current regime should come back for another season, along with head coach Hue Jackson, but now the regime must show they will stay patient with a rebuild and be able to keep Haslam sold on the approach. I don’t think the Jamie Collins trade was that bad of an idea, because the Browns had plenty of picks to work with and the pick they gave up wasn’t early in the third round and might actually be a fourth rounder if they don’t get the third-round comp pick for Alex Mack. Also, they could try out Collins for eight games and see if he fit the defense before committing to a long-term deal. Now they are more likely to explore free agency, given the cap space they will have, but they need to be smart and focus on veterans (preferably street free agents) who can provide leadership in the locker room, but are signed to contracts that take advantage of the cap space the Browns have to work with. Extensions for Collins and Terrelle Pryor should be on the table but need to be in line with their value and not just given big money as an excuse to burn available cap space. If the Browns aren’t smart with contracts, they’ll only worsen their position and Haslam may decide to make another abrupt change.
Indianapolis: Time and time again, we’ve discussed Ryan Grigson and the terrible job he has done with building the Colts’ roster. He’s used the contract Andrew Luck received as his excuse but the truth is he has done a poor job of drafting overall and trips over himself to sign mid-tier and aging free agents, often to deals for more than they are worth. His track record on extensions for players he drafted is mixed — the contract for TY Hilton was fine but the contract for Dwayne Allen was terrible. I think Chuck Pagano can do some good things as a head coach but it’s clear he’s not on the same page with Grigson. Jim Irsay really needs to fire them both, Grigson for being bad at his job and Pagano so he can get a fresh start elsewhere, then find a general manager who will take his time to figure out how to build the team around Andrew Luck.
Jacksonville: Gus Bradley is already gone but general manager Dave Caldwell needs to step back and re-evaluate his approaches to team building. His drafting record wasn’t good to start, but has improved since then, somewhat mirroing the drafting record of Reggie McKenzie, so that’s a positive. The negative, though, is that while McKenzie has been mostly smart in free agency, Caldwell has been bad at it. From Zane Beadles to Toby Gerhart to Julius Thomas to Chris Ivory, there have been multiple bad contracts handed out to players who weren’t as good as they appeared to be. While it’s understandable that Caldwell may stick around for another season, he needs to re-think his approach to free agency if he wants to get the Jaguars on the right track. Just as importantly, he needs to keep improving in the draft. The right moves might make the Jaguars a playoff contender in a couple of years, but the wrong moves will mean Caldwell’s dismissal.
San Diego: Tom Telesco has been solid with team building but it doesn’t appear that Mike McCoy is head coaching material. I expect the Chargers will look for a new head coach. What Telesco must keep in mind is, while Phillip Rivers is aging and time is running out to get him a chance at getting to the Super Bowl, the worst thing the Chargers can do is start panicking and chasing after players. They need to embrace a “win now and in the future” philosophy and resist the temptation to pay big money to free agents, whether their own or from other teams, and not chase after players in the draft.
Chicago: Ryan Pace is only a couple of years into his tenure with the Bears and had to work around some bad deals that the previous regime gave to players. He’s now reached the point that he no longer has those bad deals weighing him down and should be in a better position to pursue the players he wants in free agency. He will need to decide if it’s worth keeping John Fox around or find another coach who could inject some new ideas. He also must play it smart in the draft, in which his player evaluation seems to be improving, and not chase after anyone. If Pace keeps drafting well, he could put the Bears back on track and they could be like the Raiders — a team that may not look like much now but becomes a bona fide playoff contender in a couple of years.
Carolina: Dave Gettleman was given a bad situation when he took over as general manager, needing to get the Panthers out of a bad salary cap situation thanks to Marty Hurney. However, along the way, Gettleman got impatient at times; specifically, the contract negotiations with Josh Norman. He might have been able to get the Panthers to come to terms with Norman, but chose to rescind the franchise tag and had nobody available to repalce him. He has reached the point in which he can be rid of the last of the bad contracts Hurney handed out and some of Carolina’s pending free agents are coming off disappointing seasons, so if he wants to bring any back, he should be able to do so under team-friendly terms. However, he can’t give up too quickly on negotiations and just let any old player walk. As for Ron Rivera, I believe he should be retained, though it’s understandable that he would need a winning record in 2017 in order to remain coach past that year.
New Orleans: I have mentioned several times that Mickey Loomis should no longer be the general manager of the Saints and he has kept his job despite the team underperforming from season to season. My only guess as to why Loomis sticks around is because he has a good relationship with head coach Sean Payton, who got a five-year extension last year. Payton is a good head coach but the Saints seem to act as though that he and Loomis need to stick together. The Saints will be getting out of their cap trouble after this season, but Loomis seems married to the idea that the Saints are just a few players away from returning to the playoffs and I’m betting he uses up that cap space to chase after players and put the Saints into a bad cap situation again. That’s only going to keep holding the team back, because this team can’t keep relying on the philosophy that Drew Brees and Sean Payton will someday get them back to the promised land. If Loomis is retained, 2017 needs to be his make or break season. If the Saints don’t return to the playoffs and firing Loomis means firing Payton, too, then so be it. New Orleans can’t keep living in the past and needs to move forward at some point.
Los Angeles: A common theme with teams owned by Stan Kroenke is that the people managing the teams aren’t able to do their jobs effectively. While there isn’t much evidence of Kroenke micromanging teams, he doesn’t seem to know what he really wants from his teams and thus doesn’t hire the best people for the job. No better example exists than the Rams, in which they tried to make a splash by trading up for Jared Goff, only to find out he needs development and that they don’t have an offense that is built well around him. The firing of Jeff Fisher seemed to happen less because of poor roster development (though a valid reason for not keeping him) and more because Fisher was engaging in bad public relations (again, a valid reason, but bad roster development should top the list for any coaching change). Kroenke desperately needs to sit down, figure out what he wants in a team and find the right people to build it. I don’t know if Les Snead is that person — reports vary in terms of how much input he had when Fisher was head coach. I suppose you can give Snead a couple of seasons to figure it out, but after the picks traded away for the right to select Goff, Snead will have a tougher path to getting it done than Reggie McKenzie did when he first joined the Raiders.
San Francisco: The past two seasons are more than enough to demonstrate that Trent Baalke is a bad general manager. Actually, there are more seasons that would demonstrate that, except Jim Harbaugh was such a good head coach that he was able to overcome the bad moves Baalke made. But Harbaugh has been gone for two seasons and Baalke has already made one head coaching change since then, with another one that may be about to come. Jed York is not what you would call a good owner, but it’s mind boggling that Baalke still has a job with the Niners. The team really needs to let Baalke go and start anew. I just don’t see any way the Niners ever get back to the playoffs under Baalke, unless they happen to be lucky enough to find a head coach that can work his magic like Harbaugh did.