Belichick, Carroll, Vrabel: What's next in the NFL?

Mike Vrabel: fired. Pete Carroll: put out to pasture. Matt Eberflus: back for 2024 (but most of the Chicago Bears offense staff: gone). New York Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale: grrrr. Arthur Smith: gosh, this week has been so long that it feels like he was fired in 2017.

Aaron Rodgers is off the air. Justin Herbert’s favorite playmakers are saying adios. Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota Vikings may be staying together for the sake of the children. The Bears love Justin Fields enough to set him free. And of course, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots said their mutual farewells after a quarter-century of success and three days of negotiations and speculation. 

There has been so much NFL news this week that the best way to stay organized while keeping you informed is to roll through the draft order as if this were a mock draft (skipping the Panthers, who spent the week scheduling about 100 interviews, and the Bengals, who have been characteristically quiet and primarily need a healthy Joe Burow), catch you up on each playoff-eliminated team’s top headlines, then offer some homespun, common-sense advice on how to proceed in the weeks to come.

Chicago Bears

Offseason Advice: Be patient.

Eberflus said all the right things about Justin Fields on Wednesday. “We love where Justin is right now. He’s done a good job growing … and he’ll continue to grow as we grow as a football team.”

General manager Ryan Poles had a little less of a growth mindset. “I did think Justin got better. I think he can lead this team. But at the same time, there’s a unique situation where I have to look and our staff has to look at everything, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.” (Quotes via Charean Williams at Pro Football Talk.) 

The best thing the Bears can do about Fields right now is nothing. Stay positive. Say the right things. And make sure the phone’s ringer is on. Once the coaching carousel stops spinning, some team might convince itself that it can turn Fields into Lamar Jackson and make an enticing offer.

While Eberflus saved his job, Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy and his staff got the ax for failing to accelerate Fields’ incremental development. Prospective offensive coordinators had better arrive at the Bears interview with a thoughtful answer to the Fields question. The winner of the job will likely announce that he’s thrilled for the chance to work with Fields, whether he means it or not. 

It sounds like Poles hopes to drum up a market. But if nothing develops and the Bears talk themselves into Year Four of Fields’ rookie year, then they should trade the top pick for enough additional picks to short-circuit a mock draft simulator. No matter what their plans may be, there is no reason to show a single card in mid-January. 

Washington Commanders

Offseason Advice: Set a new tone.

Josh Harris and the new ownership group appear committed to doing things the right way. They have started with a methodical search for a GM, in contrast to what many of us were expecting (offer Bill Belichick whatever he wants! A billion dollars! Complete control of everything! His own missile cruiser!). That’s the right move: After decades of the Dan Snyder circus, signaling to the rest of the NFL that the Commanders are professionally run and totally normal will pay greater dividends than just about anything else the franchise can do in 2024.

Let that blue-ribbon panel hire a general manager. Let that general manager hire a head coach. Let the two of them select a quarterback. Don’t do anything loopy in free agency. Don’t try to rebuild overnight. The results may come slowly, but they will come. 

New England Patriots

Offseason Advice: Embrace change.

For over 72 hours, Patriots headquarters was locked up tighter than a medieval papal enclave. Then, whammo: Belichick and the Patriots announced their separation. By then, the rumor mill was already in hyperdrive. The Patriots may pursue Matt Vrabel! Or maybe Josh McDaniels! Or simply promote Jerod Mayo! Or maybe they have a Belichick cloning vat beneath Gillette Stadium! 

As I wrote on Tuesday, some of the Belichick Buddy to Replace Belichick stories that are circulating right now are mere speculative fiction, fueled by league sources who love to gossip even more than fans do. But it sure sounds like Robert Kraft has grown comfortable in his ever-deepening rut and may believe that the solution is to keep digging. As I wrote on Thursday morning (it’s been a week), switching from Belichick to Diet Belichick isn’t going to change anything.

The Patriots should do what the Commanders are doing: Kraft needs to hire some smart consultants who can cast a wide net instead of just scouring his contacts list. 

Arizona Cardinals

Offseason Advice: Own the draft.

The Cardinals ended the season as spirited spoilers, bringing the Steelers quarterback controversy to a head, plunging Philadelphia into anarchy by beating the Eagles and throwing a scare into the Seahawks. Jonathan Gannon appears to have overcome his mumbly motivational reputation, and Kyler Murray proved that he’s still a franchise quarterback who shouldn’t be traded away for magic beans. Murray just needs help. Lots of help. 

The Cardinals possess the fourth overall pick, the Texans’ first-round pick, one second-rounder and three third-rounders. They can grab the best available non-quarterback here (“Marvin Harrison Jr.,” he typed, in compliance with internet law), then the best available athlete with each of their other picks, knowing that just about every position is a position of need. Or they can trade around to get even more players. There are practically no wrong answers for the first team on this list to have made very little news this week.

Los Angeles Chargers

Offseason Advice: Purge.

Austin Ekeler has already said goodbye. Keenan Allen went from "I don't want to go nowhere else” to “adios amigos” in the course of one interview, per ESPN’s Kris Rhim. Mike Williams fell back upon “all that stuff is going to play out itself," in the same article, while center Corey Lindsey sounds ready to retire due to a neck injury. 

No matter who takes over as head coach or general manager, the Chargers must let most of these veterans and others (Khalil Mack, Gerald Everett, perhaps even Joey Bosa) leave as free agents or retire, or else trade or outright release them. The only way forward is to take a step backward, clean up a messy cap situation, then rebuild from scratch around Justin Herbert. 

At least the Chargers can draft a non-quarterback with the fifth-overall pick. They need building blocks at other positions right now, not pricey veterans playing out the string.

New York Giants

Offseason Advice: Pick a lane.

The contentious Wink Martindale situation — the Giants parted ways with their defensive coordinator on Wednesday after days of reported feuding — illustrates the tension within the Giants organization. This is a franchise that is not sure whether it is rebuilding or trying to compete right now. Many 2023 decisions, from grafting Martindale onto the coaching staff to re-signing Daniel Jones to franchise tagging Saquon Barkley, suggested that the Giants started paddling in two directions at once when they unexpectedly went 8-7-1 and won a playoff game in 2022. 

Daboll could call Vrabel or Mike Caldwell to replace Martindale, or he could vulture an assistant from the Bills staff. The Giants could draft a potential replacement for Jones or try building around him again. They could pretend that Saquon is Marshall Faulk for yet another year or just let him sign with the Panthers for two years and $12 million (plus incentives!) But whatever they do, they cannot just keep overspending with their left hand while trying to cut costs with their right. Last year’s fluky playoff appearance granted Daboll one year of the benefit of the doubt. He just spent it, with a vengeance. 

Tennessee Titans

Offseason Advice: Get faster

With Mike Vrabel gone, general manager Ran Carthon is the primary voice in the Titans organization. Carthon came aboard in the 2023 offseason to make the Titans younger/cheaper/faster after the missteps of the Jon Robinson era, and he has a lot of work ahead of him. Carthon has most of the draft capital necessary to start a rebuild (though the Cardinals possess the Titans’ third-rounder), and allowing the Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill contracts to run their courses gave the Titans $71 million in paper cap space to work with in free agency.

The Titans’ 2024 goal should be simple: Get faster at wide receiver, in the secondary, on the edge and everywhere else. That way, if they wear their Houston Oilers throwbacks in 2024, fans won’t wonder if they are watching actual footage from 1977.

What about the quarterback? Will Levis may be as solid a prospect as whoever the Titans can draft seventh overall. A veteran challenger or security blanket may also be available via trade. Say, maybe the Titans should call the Bears …

Atlanta Falcons

Offseason Advice: Don’t reinvent the wheel.

The Falcons’ roster is pretty darn solid. They just need a coach who doesn’t scribble plays all over his office walls in crayon, plus a young quarterback who wasn’t driven to Lovecraftian madness by said coach. The Falcons could trade up for one of the top quarterback prospects without crippling their roster or be a comfortable landing spot for a B-tier prospect or a veteran. Heck, they could have gone 10–7 this year with Taylor Heinicke and the “Ask Madden” feature running the offense.

The one thing the Falcons don’t need is a big-name coach who comes in yammering about “culture” and eager to rebuild from scratch with all his favorite players from his previous team. Few teams would benefit more from a no-name coach with an upbeat attitude and a let the fellas do what they do best philosophy.

Belichick is already being linked to the Falcons by the matchmakers. Sigh. The best advice is usually unheeded. 

New York Jets

Offseason Advice: Set boundaries for you-know-who

Look, I am as tired of writing about Aaron Rodgers as you are of reading about him. But the Emperor of All Conspiracy Wingnuts simply refuses to shut his silly mouth. And that is a huge problem for the Jets; they simply cannot pretend that they can conduct business as usual this offseason when Rodgers feels empowered to pop off about anything that irks him every Tuesday afternoon.

ESPN has reportedly gotten fed up with Rodgers’ tinfoil-hat ramblings, which keep teetering toward the dangerous/slanderous. But Rodgers doesn’t need Pat McAfee to get the attention he craves. Someone in the Jets organization must stop the mayhem before he either starts commenting negatively upon the team’s free agent/draft decisions or starts accusing celebrities who have criticized him of having kidnapped the Lindbergh baby. 

Rodgers himself said that “the bulls--- that has nothing to do with winning has to get out of the building." Removing said offal begins by confronting the largest producer of it before the whole organization is buried.

Minnesota Vikings

Offseason Advice: Let him go. 

Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, who has sounded lukewarm about Kirk Cousins in the past, said earlier this week that he plans to bring Cousins back. Here’s the precise quote, from Ben Gosseling of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

"Kirk, the player, is someone that we saw what he does to this team. I thought we were playing really good football before he got injured, and it is the most important position in sports. Ultimately, it always comes down to, can you find an agreement that works for both sides and all of those things? But as a player, it is certainly my intention to have him back here."

Gosh, the “my intention to have him back” pull quote sure sounds a lot more certain than the full quote, doesn’t it? After all, Adofo-Mensah could have offered Cousins a contract extension any time in the last year to keep him off the free agent market. 

Adofo-Mensah is an analytics proponent, and he may be playing a combination of Moneyball and poker here: hope some other team offers Cousins $150 million, wishes him well, blames the market and salary cap for his departure. If Cousins finds no suitors, the Vikings will be there with a short-term lowball offer with enough bells and whistles for Cousins to save face. 

Hedging bets in mid-January is fine (see the Bears), but the Vikings simply cannot wait until the draft order, their cap situation and the stars align. They need to be willing to make a risky trade or endure a year of pain to get off the Cousins hamster wheel. The team probably knows this. And fans who are talking themselves into a Cousins encore will come around once they realize they have been settling for seventh best for six years.

Denver Broncos

Offseason Advice: Establish guardrails and benchmarks

Sean Payton and general manager George Paton both said on Tuesday that no final decision has been made on Russell Wilson, which is precisely what team execs say when they have stopped bothering to make their lies sound believable and hope they can find a patsy of a trading partner for an unwanted/disgruntled quarterback. 

Having won the Wilson power struggle, Payton now wields imperial power in Denver, and he’s the sort of coach likely to embark on an endless rebuilding project while blaming all setbacks on Wilson, the previous administration or his underlings. (For evidence, see how the 2023 season started.)

Broncos ownership must place some checks and balances on Payton’s power before he goes Full Gruden. Simple goals and limits will help. No trading Patrick Surtain, unless it’s for three first-round picks. You cannot enter 2024 with Jarrett Stidham as your quarterback. No, not Taysom Hill either. We expect x wins next year and (x+4) wins in 2025, or else.

Do it now, Broncos, before the bottom of your roster is Saints castoffs and Surtain gets dealt to the Eagles for Howie Roseman’s toenail clippings. 

Las Vegas Raiders

Offseason Advice: No more gurus.

For the second time in three seasons, the Raiders played better for an interim coach than they did for the much-decorated big-name franchise savior who started the year. The Raiders’ “culture problem” is not in the locker room, but at the top of the organizational chart.

Like the Falcons, the Raiders would be a fine landing spot for a no-name coach with a let’s-go-get-’em attitude. The Raiders have more rebuilding to do than the Falcons, but they also possess some blue-chip talent. Maxx Crosby, Davante Adams and others could lead the team to a 2024 Wild-Card berth if they buy into a new system that is not predicated on replicating the 2018 Patriots or 2000 Buccaneers.

The Raiders have started conducting lots of wide-ranging interviews. That’s a step in the right direction for a team that, in the past, would have already offered Jim Harbaugh two suitcases full of money. 

New Orleans Saints

Offseason Advice: Take your medicine.

The Saints enter the offseason $73 million over the salary cap. Yes, they can finagle their way to cap compliance, but all of their finagling will just result in another year of mediocrity, followed by another offseason of finagling. It’s time to make some hard cuts or lowball trades among still-productive veterans (Demarrio Davis, Taysom Hill, Erik McCoy, Alvin Kamara) rather than kicking the can for another year while missing the playoffs despite the NFL’s easiest schedule.

It sounds like the Saints are keeping Dennis Allen and his staff intact. That’s a discouraging sign of business-as-usual. At least a year of frugality and financial sanity might give the next coach a fighting chance.

Indianapolis Colts

Offseason Advice: Stay the course

Shane Steichen did a fine job keeping the Colts competitive despite the injury to Anthony Richardson, who had his moments when healthy. The Colts have all their draft picks and aren’t facing any cap crises. They just need to add talent.  

Seattle Seahawks

Offseason Advice: The future starts now.

Pete Carrol’s dismissal (he’s technically an “advisor” now, which means he is being paid to not work elsewhere, not really to offer tips on the team’s Slack channel), is a signal that the Seahawks don’t plan to keep building a roster just solid enough to appear in the 49ers’ rearview mirror. The Russell Wilson trade and Geno Smith comeback were fun, but it’s time for new schemes, new philosophies, and perhaps a new quarterback. Some old friends will be hard to part with (Bobby Wagner, again), some will be easy (Jamal Adams) and some might fetch a premium in a trade (Tyler Lockett, still effective but rather expensive). Why declare anyone “untouchable” after ousting Carroll? 

If they start their rebuild now, the Seahawks may be competitive again by the time the 49ers are torn apart by age and the salary cap. 

Jacksonville Jaguars

Offseason Advice: Practice, practice, practice. 

Doug Pederson fired defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell and a chunk of his defensive and offensive staff earlier in the week. That's what multiple circuit breakers tripping at once sounds like. The next Jaguars power outage will cost Pederson his job. He needs to change not just his staff, but his own habits. 

Remember when the Jaguars all but canceled minicamp last June? Remember when he did the same thing the previous June? We get it, Doug, you’re a players’ coach, and it’s swampy in Jacksonville that time of year. But the Jaguars looked like a team that did not know how to block, tackle or execute with precision for most of the season, particularly down the stretch. Minicamp is a great time to focus on third-down offense, red zone offense, two-minute offense, run fits, coverage assignments and all the nuts and bolts that came unfastened at the end of the year. So no more canceling weeks of practice, coach; the ice cream parlor will still be open after everyone hits the showers.

Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher (aka HP Pundit) is not a Democrat or Republican. He is a free thinking independent bringing you news and commentary with a dose of much needed common sense.

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