Early thoughts on obvious candidates to replace Doug Pederson in Philly and where he could be headed next.
And we’re down to eight teams, with six games between us and Super Bowl Sunday …
• The outcome of the Eagles’ situation really highlights how coaching is more than a one-man show, and how a head coach’s job is so much more than just that of a play-caller. Doug Pederson won a Super Bowl three years ago. He made the playoffs the two years to follow, and last year with a legit skeleton crew. And now he’s out. Why? It’s not that complicated. In 2017, Pederson had a loaded staff. Then, OC Frank Reich left for Indy, QBs coach John DeFilippo left for Minnesota, DC Jim Schwartz didn’t get the second shot at being a head coach many thought he would, and the dynamics changed. Pederson’s turned over the offensive staff twice. Schwartz stepped away, as it looked like his time way coming to an end. And it was clear that owner Jeffrey Lurie, among others, thought that the staffing issue that cropped up after the Super Bowl title needed to be fixed once and for all. Sometimes, when there are disagreements on how to go about overhauling staff, bigger change comes naturally. This is one of those times. The first sign of this, for me, came a couple weeks ago, when I heard Pederson’s name pop up in connection to the Houston job, a sign that some contingencies may have been explored. So I don’t think this came out of nowhere for anyone, nor was it entirely unpredictable.
• The easy job to connect Pederson to next would be New York, with ex-Pederson co-worker/Jets GM Joe Douglas leading the search to replace Adam Gase. I’m not betting on that happening right now. Not saying it’d be impossible, but my guess is the Jets will go elsewhere with the hire. As for the Eagles, I wouldn’t be surprised if they take a good long look through the college ranks. The year he hired Chip Kelly, Lurie really liked Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly and then-Penn State coach Bill O’Brien too, so at least exploring a few college names would make sense. As for NFL names, Chiefs passing-game coordinator Mike Kafka is an obvious one to watch. Philly was very interested in bringing him aboard as offensive coordinator last year—Andy Reid didn’t officially block Kafka, but told the Eagles he would if a request was put in. And Lurie and GM Howie Roseman know Kafka well from his time as an Eagles backup QB.
• With the news that the Dolphins and Panthers are coaching the Senior Bowl, the week after the conference title games, we can share some details on how the week will be run in a very COVID-sensitive world. First, as we talked Monday, executive director Jim Nagy wanted to say this: “We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t think we could do it safely.” And, clearly, to do it safely, the Senior Bowl was going to need to make changes to its normal M.O., and a lot of new costs came up as part of it. That starts with the testing program. The game will basically create a bubble for the players, and the Panthers and Dolphins coaches for the week. Those guys will have to submit a negative test within 48 hours of arrival in Mobile, Ala., then take a PCR test a week from Saturday, stay in an off-site hotel that night, and come back and take a rapid test on that Sunday morning. Three negative tests will gain each guy entry into the game’s official hotel, which will house the bubble. From there, they, and everyone from the other 30 teams too, will undergo daily testing to stay eligible to attend practices and interviews. To make the interviews work, Nagy and his staff bought $12,000 worth of plexiglass and created two pods for each team in Mobile’s convention center, where the players will filter through each night, from 7-11 p.m., doing interviews. The plexiglass will separate the players from the team officials. And to guard against losing players during the week, since they won’t be able to shuttle guys in like they normally can, Nagy invited 130 players, up from the normal number of 115 to 120. To keep spacing as it needs to be, players will have their own rooms in the hotel, where they’d normally be doubled up. And as you might imagine, costs just start with the testing, the plexiglass and the hotel rooms. But seeing a relatively normal high school football season happen in Alabama gave Nagy confidence that, so long as they could make it work financially, he could pull off a game that’d be bringing people in from all corners of the country, in a way no sporting event really has since the pandemic struck almost a year ago. And in talking to his scouting friends, he knew how important it was to them that the event happened, particularly with the combine and pro days in serious peril. “They just wanted the event to happen,” Nagy said. “We’re grateful for them, being here so we can make it happen. And they’re just grateful it’s happening, the way the rest of spring looks, with it all up in the air.” Of course, the money to do it hasn’t been growing on the trees in Nagy’s yard. He said sponsors like Reese’s and Panini, and local businesses too, have stepped up. And for the first time, teams had to buy in to come to the game—and each club was limited to bringing 10 people, which was another way to keep costs under control. There were other ways that Nagy was creative, too. One was in selling suites at South Alabama’s new stadium to teams that wanted more interview time/space. And two weeks out, he’s confident it’s all going to work out. The hope, of course, is that he’ll never have to do this again. “We’ll be back in 2022 with fan engagement, but this year, the main goal is to make it work from a football standpoint.” And there’ll be great value in that for so many teams that have already had a hard time looking at the 2021 draft class and, by the looks of the spring, only figure to be faced with more challenges in preparing to make multi-million-dollar decisions for their teams.
• Browns GM Andrew Berry can take a bow for the work he’s done—and how it showed up on a big stage with COVID-19 ravaging the Browns roster. M.J. Stewart, a former second-round pick in Tampa, was an August 8 waiver claim, and came up huge in relief of starting corners Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson with the pick of Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger that blew the game open. Guard Michael Dunn was signed on August 9, after playing for the Seattle Dragons in the XFL earlier this year. And the trade for Ronnie Harrison, a Jaguars third-rounder in 2018, paid dividends with Harrison giving the Browns a hammer from the safety spot. These moves, of course, are lower profile than, say, how Berry aggressively fixed a broken tackle position. But they matter, and provide more examples of why it sure looks like Cleveland hit a home run with their GM hire last January.
• One other interesting note—amid all the arguing over fourth-down decisions made by Colts coach Frank Reich, Titans coach Mike Vrabel and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, the Browns quietly had an interesting tweak to their gameday operation. Normally, Browns coaching assistant Ryan Cordell would be the game-management guy on the headsets on Sundays. But Cleveland’s staff was stretched thin with their COVID-19 situation, which pressed Cordell into having to take over for Bill Callahan as offensive line coach. In turn, Cleveland gave his game-management responsibilities to director of research and strategy Dave Giuliani both for Week 17 and Sunday’s playoff game. I can’t think of too many places where an analytics staffer is on the headsets—but it does make sense that Cleveland would be the team to tinker with the idea. (There were some among the coaches who interviewed for the Browns job last year that were told Paul DePodesta could be that guy, which was reason for some trepidation with those candidates.)
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• The work of Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale on Sunday afternoon shouldn’t be undersold. Some of the simplicity of the Titans’ offense, which allows Tennessee to play with tempo and precision, was turned against Tennessee by Martindale and the Baltimore defensive staff. The Ravens continually mixed fronts on the Titans, making it more difficult for Derrick Henry and the offensive line to get their bearings, or in any kind of rhythm. And similar multiplicity in coverage slowed Ryan Tannehill down, too. Which adds up to that defense-vs.-Josh Allen and Brian Daboll being a fascinating matchup for divisional playoff weekend.
• I don’t think the Texans will end up trading Deshaun Watson. But the idea of a deal with Miami, as ESPN’s Chris Mortensen suggested Sunday, is fun, and sensical, if the Watson/Texans dynamic is deemed to be unfixable. Of course, the assumption is such a deal would have 2020 fifth-overall pick Tua Tagovailoa going to Houston, and a fun sidenote to that is that Tagovailoa’s old offensive coordinator from his freshman year at Alabama, Bills OC Brian Daboll, figures to be in play for the Texans coaching job. Houston GM Nick Caserio and Jack Easterby are sorting through names now, as the team resets its coaching search with search firm Korn Ferry out of the picture.
• Two strong names on the GM circuit: Minnesota’s George Paton and New Orleans’s Terry Fontenot. Paton has emerged as a prime candidate for the opening in Detroit, and there are plusses all over the place on that one for the Lions—one would be his background with the Spielman family, with Chris now in a prominent role in the Detroit organization. And my sense is he’s in very good shape and may even be the leader for the Denver job, too, which would bring him closer to his West Coast roots. Meanwhile, Fontenot has really been at the top of Atlanta’s list for over a month, and stands a good chance of going wire-to-wire and landing the job, while also having impressed both Detroit and Denver.
• Pay attention to Colts assistant GM Ed Dodds’s name popping up in Detroit—as reported by the Detroit News’ Dave Birkett. Dodds is very high on 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s list, and Dodds’s name did come up during Saleh’s interview. That the highly-regarded Indy exec was a late add in the interview process would at least indicate there’s a post-interview level of interest from the Lions in hiring Saleh. And if Paton lands in Denver, maybe even more so.
• One last thing to file away on this front: Paton’s name is interesting in that it’s been connected to Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. To be clear, I have no idea when Fitzgerald would be ready to make the leap to the NFL. But I do know NFL people love him, and the idea that Paton could put Fitzgerald in play for you, either now or down the line, might be a nice side benefit to a candidate who’s widely considered a top-of-the-league evaluator on his own merits.