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NEW TGS COVER STORY...NFL SEASON-END REVIEWS PART I

                                    by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

The NFL regular season concluded last week. But even for teams that don’t make the playoffs, it can be a newsworthy time. Especially for franchises looking for new head coaches (at the moment there are six...Cleveland, NY Giants, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Tampa Bay, and Tennessee, with Miami just filling its vacancy over the weekend).

Thus, the NFL version of the “coaching carousel” figures to continue spinning up to (and perhaps slightly after) the Super Bowl. Keep an eye on a collection of current NFL assistants that likely include Cincinnati o.c. Hue Jackson, Tampa Bay o.c. Dirk Koetter, NY Giants o.c. Ben McAdoo, New England o.c. Josh McDaniels, and Carolina coordinators Mike Shula (offense) and Sean McDermott (defense), plus former NFL HCs Tom Coughlin, Mike Smith, and Mike Shanahan, many likely to be interviewed soon, some others when their playoff assignments are complete, which could delay the eventual naming of head coaches by several teams.

Meanwhile, speculation also centers upon those teams that didn’t qualify for the postseason, and what changes might be in the offing in the coming months. As we usually like to do at this time of January, a quick review of the past campaign is in order for the non-playoff qualifiers, especially those teams in the market for new head coaches (we’ll include some other possibilities beyond those assistants listed above in our team-by-team reviews). All of that before updating NFL Division Round history and notes.

First, a quick look at the offseason prospects for those teams that did not qualify for the playoffs, listed in alphabetical order by conference. Straight-up records for 2015 are included. Further season-end reviews for playoff teams can be found in upcoming issues of TGS Basketball.

AFC

Baltimore (5-11)...For only the second time in HC John Harbaugh’s eight seasons on the job, the Ravens missed the playoffs. Which was totally understandable considering the casualty list (a league-high 20 players on injured reserve!) that effectively sabotaged the campaign. By December, QB Joe Flacco, RB Justin Forsett, and WR Steve Smith were all out, and 2015 never began for rookie WR Breshard Perriman, KO’d in preseason. Still, GM Ozzie Newsome enters the offseason with plenty of decisions to make, as the Ravens were probably due to groom some younger pass rushers even before OLB Terrell Suggs’ early injury, while the secondary could use an upgrade. The OL was also mostly a mess, though injuries were partly to blame. Smith has said he would like to come back for one more year as a target for Flacco, but Newsome still needs to surround his QB with more playmakers. There were a few green shoots on the otherwise barren 2015 landscape, however, as some youngsters (WR Kamar Aiken, RB Buck Allen & TE Crockett Gillmore among them) displayed promise after being thrust into the lineup sooner than expected, and the “D” still held up fairly well despite the injuries.

Buffalo (8-8)...In the end, the first-year pair of HC Rex Ryan and GM Doug Whaley did just enough to get invited back for a second season. But aside from a pair of tasty wins over Ryan’s former employer the Jets (the last KOing New York from the playoffs in the reg.-season finale), the campaign failed to live up to expectations. Mostly the expectations of Ryan, whose preseason bluster included prediction of a playoff berth at Orchard Park. Rexy’s patented defensive alignments and schemes did not translate to the existing stop unit, which, among other negatives, saw its sack total drop alarmingly from a league-best 54 to a puny 22. (Expect DE Mario Williams, one of the major disappointments of 2015 and an outspoken critic of Ryan, to be released, freeing up about $13 mill in cap space.) On the plus side, the Bills’ ground-and-pound attack led the NFL in rushing (152 ypg), Tyrod Taylor showed enough to be considered a long-term answer at QB, and second-year WR Sammy Watkins blossomed into a top deep threat. But with the Bills’ postseason drought now at a current North American major sports high of 16 seasons, it’s likely playoffs or bust in 2016 for Ryan, who was not hired to oversee a rebuild project.

Cleveland (3-13)...The circus continues in Cleveland, now the clear frontrunner for the league’s most dysfunctional franchise. The Browns will be employing both their fourth HC and GM in five seasons when the 2016 campaign kicks off after Mike Pettine and Ray Farmer became the latest to be jettisoned by impatient owner Jimmy Haslam. Which was no surprise after Cleveland ranked in the bottom five in scoring, total D” and rushing “D” and won just once after October 11. Some of Pettine’s key players were injured, but there were too many flaws throughout the roster to keep pace in the AFC North. After deciding upon a new coach and GM, the Brownies must decide what to do with QB Johnny Manziel, whose off-field antics and lack of maturity make it highly likely that the Lake Erie portion of the “Johnny Football” experiment will end in abject failure after two years. Cleveland might decide to bring back QB Josh McCown, who performed decently when healthy, but looking for a long-term answer at QB is just one of many challenges for the new GM, who will start with the second pick in the draft as part of another likely overhaul of the roster.

Indianapolis (8-8)...When the dust finally settled on a topsy-turvy campaign, and the Colts had fought back to .500, even as they finished the season with Josh Freeman and Ryan Lindley at QB, HC Chuck Pagano was rewarded with a new contract from unpredictable owner Jim Irsay. Which appeared unlikely for much of December when rumors surfaced of rifts between Pagano and GM Ryan Grigson, and Irsay’s reported failed courtship of Saints HC Sean Payton. Which makes Pagano (who had rejected a series of one-year contracts prior to 2015) seem like an NFL version of LSU’s Les Miles heading into 2016. Still, plenty of clouds remain at Lucas Oil Stadium, as QB Andrew Luck had regressed alarmingly prior to suffering his season-ending lacerated kidney, and it took heroic work from 40-year-old backup Matt Hasselbeck (5-3 in two stints as the starter) to keep Indy in playoff contention before his body finally gave out in December. The OL was inconsistent, and skill-position upgrades from RB Frank Gore and WR Andre Johnson didn’t materialize as expected, though the attack became more functional after the midseason dismissal of o.c. Pep Hamilton and promotion of Rod Chudzinski, who was given the job full-time at the conclusion of the season. Moving forward, there are issues much deeper than Luck’s injuries, as the rush defense was porous, and there are glaring needs at RB, LB and along the OL.

Jacksonville (5-11)...The Jags showed enough progress under third-year HC Gus Bradley for him to be invited back for a fourth season by owner Shad Khan. Though the bar has now been set higher in Jacksonville, as Bradley will likely need to reach .500 and/or make a serious playoff run to stay in the good graces of Khan. But there is hope, as the “O” made major strides in the first year under coordinator Greg Olson. Especially 2nd-year QB Blake Bortles, whose 35 TDP represented 24 more than he tossed as a rookie in 2014. Young skill-position weapons including the “Allen pair” (Hurns and Robinson, both over 1000 yards receiving) at WR and Alabama rookie RB T.J. Yeldon did their parts, and the emerging OL allowed 20 fewer sacks than a year ago. Still, the “D” needs fixing, and quickly, after ranking 31st in points allowed, as most of GM Dave Caldwell’s FA additions for the stop unit have not delivered. Expect defense to be the focus in free agency and the draft, where the Jags will have the fifth pick in the first round. 

Miami (6-10)...Owner Stephen Ross effectively undermined the season at the end of the preceding 2014 campaign when deciding to bring back overmatched HC Joe Philbin for a fourth year. After three ugly losses in four weeks, Philbin was canned. And while Miami rallied briefly after Dan Campbell’s promotion as interim HC, the only highlight past midseason was a third straight win over the Patriots at Sun Life Stadium on the final weekend, just a few days after GM Dennis Hickey was fired. Ross moved quickly to fill Hickey’s post by promoting scouting director Chris Grier, and then hired the polar opposite of the stoic Philbin with highly-charged Bears o.c. Adam Gase, inked over the weekend with the hopes of rekindling the career of QB Ryan Tannehill, who regressed after a near-breakthrough 2014. Gase (who coordinated record-breaking Denver offenses for John Fox in 2013 & 14 and straightened out Jay Cutler this past season) will also have to figure out what went wrong with the defense, especially high-priced FA DT Ndamukong Suh, who failed to help upgrade a rush “D” that was one of the NFL’s worst.

NY Jets (10-6)...Though the season ended bitterly with a loss to former HC Rex Ryan and his Bills that would cost the Jets a playoff berth, it was an uplifting campaign for New York overall under first-year HC Todd Bowles, who proved a shrewd hire off Bruce Arians’ Cardinals staff. Bowles’ low-key, no-nonsense approach resonated much better with the roster than predecessor Ryan, whose bombastic act had worn thin. A major surprise was journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick, who mostly suppressed his career-long Mr. Hyde tendencies at QB by limiting characteristic mistakes to only a handful of games (though his three 4th-Q interceptions in the finale at Buffalo reminded of his former issues). Fitzpatrick was on only a one-year deal, but is likely to be re-signed and the QB going forward...not Geno Smith, whose preseason broken jaw might have unwittingly proven a godsend. Other offseason additions such as WR Brandon Marshall and CB Darrelle Revis proved crucial, though Revis slowed late in the season. The Jets have some salary cap issues that might prevent them from keeping both RBs Chris Ivory (1070 YR) and Bilal Powell (47 recs.), but optimism should be high in 2016.

Oakland (7-9)...The Raiders dealt admirably with the distractions of the potential move to Los Angeles thanks largely to first-year HC Jack Del Rio, who proved a significant upgrade from Dennis Allen and Tony Sparano of the previous three seasons. Second-year QB Derek Carr (3987 YP & 32 TDP) forged a significant breakthrough and developed dynamite connections with Alabama rookie WR Amari Cooper and FA Michael Crabtree, who combined for 157 catches. Meanwhile, 2nd-year LB/DE Khalil Mack became a defensive force and almost led the league with his 15 sacks, until Houston’s J.J. Watt passed him on the final weekend. Whatever happens (or doesn’t happen) with the move to L.A., the Raiders start 2016 on a higher plateau, though GM Reggie McKenzie must figure out how to replace vet S Charles Woodson, whose retirement leaves a leadership void.

San Diego (4-12)...If 2015 was the Charger swan song in San Diego, as it might have been with the pending move 120 miles north to L.A., it was not much to remember, as injuries would wreck the OL and in turn help sabotage a season that didn’t seem to be off the rails when the team started at 2-2. In the end, HC Mike McCoy was fortunate to hang on to his job, though there are still some whispers that the Spanos family might boomerang on its recent decision to retain McCoy if it consummates the move to L.A., which could be decided later in January. Given the OL issues, QB Philip Rivers’ 4792 YP was amazing, but he paid a heavy price with 40 sacks. The infantry also never got going, compounded by Wisconsin rookie Melvin Gordon’s fumbling problems. GM Tom Telesco will probably spend much of the offseason overhauling the defense, which likely will lose FAs ILB Donald Butler and S Eric Weddle.

Tennessee (3-13)...After a 1-6 start, Tennessee pulled the plug on former Super Bowl HC Ken Whisenhunt, just a year-and-a-half into his rebuilding job in Nashville. After winning 2 of 9 for interim HC Mike Mularkey, it’s back to the drawing board after also canning GM Ruston Webster, as the Titans have seemed directionless with front office leadership bouncing between various heirs of Bud Adams since the franchise patriarch passed in 2013. Aside from promise shown at Nissan Stadium by Heisman Trophy rookie QB Marcus Mariota, the “O” was atrocious, as Webster’s heavy investment in OL upgrades failed to deliver as reflected in a league-worst 54 sacks allowed, while the skill position weaponry, aside from underrated TE Delanie Walker, failed to excite. All negating some gains made by a “D” that would improve from 27th to 12th in yards allowed under the veteran eye of coordinator Dick LeBeau. The hot rumor by the banks of the Cumberland is that Mariota’s college coach at Oregon, Chip Kelly, is a top HC candidate after being released in Philadelphia. The new GM will also have the first pick in the draft, and with needs across the board, the Titans could go in any direction.

NFC

Atlanta (8-8)...For the first month of the season, Atlanta was staying abreast of Carolina in the NFC South as the Falcons appeared to be in the midst of a dramatic turnaround under first-year HC Dan Quinn, most recently Pete Carroll’s d.c. in Seattle. But a Week Six loss at New Orleans proved a harbinger of things to come as it became apparent Atlanta was playing over its head in the first five weeks. The only highlight over a discouraging second half of the season was knocking the Panthers from the unbeaten ranks in the penultimate week. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and his outside zone-blocking schemes will be under the microscope in 2016 after the late-season fade, as will QB Matt Ryan, who unraveled as the season progressed and finished with 16 picks. Also under the gun will be GM Tom Dimitroff, who survived the previous year’s purge that claimed Quinn predecessor HC Mike Smith. The GM will be looking for talent upgrades at all three levels on defense, as well as a complementary WR opposite Julio Jones, who posted MVP-caliber numbers (including a staggering 136 catches!).

Chicago (6-10)...Though only managing one more win than in 2014, the Bears mostly punched above their weight for first-year HC John Fox, who seemed to restore order to an operation that had gone awry under predecessor Marc Trestman. The first rookie class of new GM Ryan Pace featured a few unexpected gems, including NT Eddie Goldman and RB Jeremy Langford, while new d.c. Vic Fangio’s stop unit improved from 30th to 4th in pass defense. Jay Cutler’s upgraded performance at QB (including a career-low 11 picks) was all the more noteworthy after various injuries depleted Chicago’s receiving corps. Moving forward, Fox has to replace o.c. Adam Gase, hired by the Dolphins as their new HC after coaxing the best season of Cutler’s career. Meanwhile, Pace will have decisions to make with FA WR Alshon Jeffery, and might decide to part with vet RB Matt Forte after Langford’s emergence. Free-agent and draft attention is likely to be paid to a defense that needs reinforcements along the line and at LB after being more than a bit ginger vs. the run (allowing 4.5 ypc).

Dallas (4-12)...True, Tony Romo’s mostly-aborted campaign due to two collarbone injuries can be blamed for the Cowboys’ dramatic regression, but 2015 was still a massive disappointment in Arlington, especially since several other teams were able to stay afloat with their backup QBs. Not Dallas, however, which struggled with Brandon Weeden (who would eventually win a couple of crucial games for the Texans in December), Matt Cassel, and eventually Kellen Moore, causing owner Jerry Jones to wonder if he should bring back HC Jason Garrett. In the end, Jones decided to stick with his coach, but the rumor mill is already whirring in Big D. Jones’ offseason shopping list will undoubtedly include more insurance behind the aging Romo (now 35), whose durability going forward is going to remain an issue. But the QB problems were only part of a system-wide Dallas breakdown in 2015, as the running game (minus DeMarco Murray) would regress and the “D” would generate only 11 takeaways, the lowest number in the NFL since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978. Jones, who also must decide what to do with numerous FAs on his roster, at least has a high draft pick (fourth) to use, or dangle as trade bait.

Detroit (7-9)...The Lions’ fast finish (6-2 last eight) has given HC Jim Caldwell, considered a dead man walking at midseason, a fighting chance to survive. His fate will be determined soon by just-hired GM Bob Quinn, the latest stage of a purge by franchise matriarch Martha Ford, who wielded her axe indiscriminately at midseason when canning GM Martin Mayhew and team prexy Tim Lewand. Caldwell would barely survive in late October, at which time he replaced o.c. Joe Lombardi with Jim Bob Cooter, who oversaw a renaissance in the production of QB Matthew Stafford. Once Caldwell and staff’s fate are determined, new GM Quinn has some roster issues, with the likes of LB Stephen Tulloch and TE Brandon Pettigrew possible cap casualties, NT Haloti Ngata and S James Ihedigbo on expiring contracts, and star WR Calvin Johnson’s contract status needing to be addressed.

New Orleans (7-9)...After much speculation that 10-year HC Sean Payton would move elsewhere, and that long-time GM Mickey Loomis might be relieved of his duties, the status quo remains for 2016 at the Superdome. But there are several moving parts in New Orleans, including franchise leadership, as aging owner Tom Benson is battling with family members who believe he needs to step down. That could eventually give Payton (who has missed the playoffs two years in a row) another reason to look elsewhere. Moreover, Loomis has to deal with a whopping $30 mill cap hit caused next season by QB Drew Brees, who will assuredly be asked to restructure his deal and accept a hometown discount. Which is going to be essential if Loomis is to address significant needs on the stop unit after the Saints posted some of the worst defensive numbers (especially vs. the pass) in league history, prompting d.c Rob Ryan’s dismissal at midseason. If the Saints flounder again in 2016, expect Payton’s future to again be a main topic of conversation.

NY Giants (6-10)...One of the most exasperating seasons in memory has claimed 12-year HC Tom Coughlin, who reluctantly resigned rather than force co-owners John Mara and Steve Tisch to consider hitting the eject button. The G-Men would lead 11 of their 16 games in the 4th Q and would lose five games in the final seconds. But there were structural issues, especially a “D” that did not respond to the re-hiring of coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who held the role for the Super Bowl XLII team in 2007. The stop unit would rank last in total defense, though it had some injury excuses, as the platoon was impacted by the team’s 24 players lost to season-ending injuries, not to mention one-time star DE Jason-Pierre Paul being a shell of his former self after blowing off parts of his fingers in a silly fireworks accident. Among those injured in 2015, WR Victor Cruz, LB Jon Beason, and LT Will Beatty all have big cap numbers, while decisions must be made regarding FAs Pierre-Paul and CB Prince Amukamara. New York needs help with its pass rush, at safety, and at wide receiver opposite highlight-reel Odell Beckham, Jr. First of all, however, the G-Men need a coach.

Philadelphia (7-9)...Owner Jeffrey Lurie didn’t even wait for the season to end to run off HC Chip Kelly, dismissed before the regular-season finale vs. the Giants. Most of Kelly’s personnel moves had backfired after he won an internal tug-of-war with former GM Howie Roseman, who ironically resurfaces, effectively in a supremo role, in the organization after Kelly’s ouster. What Kelly leaves behind is an offense ill-equipped to run the fast pace Kelly expected of it and a “D” that too often disappeared and saw its sack total dip from 49 to 37 from 2014. Still, Lurie is not considering the Birds as a rebuilding job, which might be one of the reasons he has plans to interview ex-Giants HC Tom Coughlin. Whichever coach is hired by Lurie will also probably take a hard look at QB Sam Bradford, who stayed healthy for the first time in years after being acquired from the Rams, but didn’t always seem to be a long-term answer.

St. Louis (7-9)...Wins in three of the last four games, including an upset at Seattle (St. Louis’ second win over the Seahawks this season), has likely bought HC Jeff Fisher one more year to get the Rams in the playoffs. There is also a chance that owner Stan Kroenke makes a move with his coach once the franchise gets a yay or nay from the league on its plans to move to Los Angeles for 2016. Fisher, or whomever, will have to decide if Nick Foles is worth keeping at QB; most observers don’t think he is, and the Rams were playing just as well after Foles was benched in favor of journeyman Case Keenum at the helm in December. There could be potential huge holes to fill on defense, as starting CBs Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson are scheduled to become FAs. On the plus side, Georgia rookie RB Todd Gurley is already a star, and the “D” still dominated on occasion. But the biggest question regarding the Rams is where they might play next season.

San Francisco (5-11)...The year turned out to be a complete waste in San Francisco, as the doldrums deepened in the post-Jim Harbaugh era. The hire of longtime position coach Jim Tomsula to succeed Harbaugh was doomed from the start and failed predictably, as Tomsula was given little talent, while injuries and trades hampered his ability to field a winning team. Which apparently almost cost GM Trent Baalke (earlier at odds with Harbaugh) his job as well. The demise of QB Colin Kaepernick was perhaps the most-significant marker in 2015, and the QB situation is likely to be addressed immediately by the new coach. Blaine Gabbert’s serviceable work in the second half of the season after replacing Kaepernick suggests the ex-Mizzou Tiger should at least get a look from the new coach. And if healthy, RB Carlos Hyde can likely fill the role once occupied by Frank Gore. But the 49ers were not competitive in roughly half of their games, and the roster only has a handful of pieces remaining from the Super Bowl team of three years ago. Two of the better players left from the Harbaugh years, WR Anquan Boldin and C-G Alex Boone, are also pending free agents.

Tampa Bay (6-10)...Though not mentioned in most “hot seat” discussions in December, HC Lovie Smith would nonetheless lose his job after a slow finish (0-4) scuttled the longshot wild card hopes the Bucs were still entertaining in early December. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is one of the favorites to succeed Lovie and continue his tutelage of former Heisman QB Jameis Winston, who flashed plenty of upside in a mostly-uplifting rookie campaign. Meanwhile, RB Doug Martin, who challenged for the league rushing title en route to 1402 YR, is a pending FA; do the Bucs sign him, or let him walk and give most of those carries to capable backup RB Charles Sims while using that money earmarked for Martin to bolster the roster? In the end, too many mistakes and penalties, too few takeaways, and a lack of playmakers would doom the Bucs (and Lovie), all issues to be addressed by the new coach. But Tampa Bay at least seems to have its franchise QB in place.


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