The NFL saw quite the coaching carousel during the offseason, with seven teams – the Bears, Cardinals, Colts, Giants, Lions, Raiders and Titans – bringing in a new head coach to lead the way. All of these teams combined for a dismal 44-66 record in 2017, so it’s safe to say things can’t get much worse and that change was imminent. Now, let’s dive into three coaching changes that will have the most impact on their respective teams for this upcoming season.
Jon Gruden Returns to Oakland
In 1998 the Oakland Raiders brought in Jon Gruden — a former offensive coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles — to be their new head coach. After two lacklustre 8-8 seasons (’98 and ’99) the Raiders stormed to a 12-4 regular season record in 2000, losing in the AFC Championship game to the eventual Super Bowl XXXV Champion Baltimore Ravens. The team fell short again in 2001 after a 10-6 finish and a postseason loss to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the proverbial “Tuck Rule” game. The rest as they say is history. Gruden was traded to Tampa Bay and would exact revenge against the Raiders, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy alongside Derrick Brooks in 2002. Now, the fiery coach returns to Oakland and it begs the question, what can we expect in his second stint with the Raiders?
* BOUNCE BACK. The Raiders are coming off a 6-10 finish and what most believed to be a dismal performance for a team with high expectations. Prediction: 10-6 regular season finish. Gruden’s ‘dark ages’ offensive philosophy will return with an immense effort focused on running the ball with Marshawn Lynch and the addition of Doug Martin, like they did in 2000 with Tyronne Wheatley and Napoleon Kaufman. Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington will also compete for carries out of the backfield.
* OFFENSIVE LINE PRODUCTION. The secret to the Raiders having a successful running game will be their offensive line. This collection of players needs to play to their potential, create open running lanes and keep Derek Carr on his feet. This was far from the case in 2017 — the Raiders ranked 25th in the NFL with 97.1 RYDS/G. If they can improve, and I believe they will, the Raiders’ rushing attack and play action passing game will thrive once again.
* WAKE UP AMARI COOPER. I think Gruden gets it done here. Gruden recently stated Cooper reminds him of Tim Brown. In 2000, Brown coasted through the season on his way to 76 catches on 133 targets for a respectable 1,128 receiving yards and 11 TD’s. Cooper has the potential to replicate these numbers if he is in the right mindset.
* DEFENSE… WELL, FIX IT. The Raiders struggled defensively in 2017 (at least their secondary did), finishing 23rd in total yards allowed and 26th in passing yards. The only thing that seemed to work was their front seven, en route to a respectable 12th in rushing yards allowed. They dumped David Amerson, Sean Smith and the oft-troubled Aldon Smith. They signed Marcus Gilchrist, Rashaad Melvin and Shareece Wright to try and address their pass defense. Not the headliner type of signings, but it should improve things from last year. Surprisingly, the Raiders used just one draft pick on a corner, Nick Nelson from Wisconsin, so time will tell how their free agent additions pan out.
‘Raider Nation’ got a taste of success in 2016 and they’re thirsty for more. I believe Gruden, although his style isn’t flashy, changes the culture in Oakland again and finishes the 2018 regular season strong at 10-6, but ultimately loses to the division rival Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) in a divisional round playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium.
Mike Vrabel Gets His Shot in Tennessee
Once a consensus All-American at Ohio State with over 30 career sacks, one would think Vrabel would manage to somehow earn a second contract with the team that gave him his first job in the NFL, but the Pittsburgh Steelers had other ideas. Vrabel has a long track record of winning in this league, at one time being signed by the Patriots as an UFA, going on to help them win three Super Bowls. A short stint as an assistant with his alma mater, a couple of seasons with the Houston Texans as an assistant and a promotion to defensive coordinator last year, would prove to be sufficient evidence for the Titans to determine he was their guy. Will they be right?
* Is he the right guy? Vrabel was recently quoted, “My No. 1 reason for coaching is to try and make players better, because somebody made me better. Somebody improved me.” This sounds like a fresh start for an underachieving team with a talented core that includes the likes of Jurrell Casey and Marcus Mariota, and recent first-round selection Corey Davis.
* One of the main focal points for Amy Adams Strunk, the Titans main owner, was to get more out of her team and its untapped potential. The Titans only won three games in 2015, then followed that up with the selection of Marcus Mariota. In 2016, the team improved to a 9-7 record. And, 2017 was somewhat of a success, as the Titans once again finished 9-7 to earn a playoff berth. They didn’t disappoint, managing a 22-21 road playoff win over the Chiefs in a tough environment — the franchise’s first postseason victory in 14 years. The taste of success left more to be desired for the players and fans in Nashville. Strunk shook the team’s foundations, hiring Jon Robinson as the GM and bringing in Vrabel to be the HC…she means business.
* One of the less obvious changes, the addition of Matt LaFleur — formerly of the L.A. Rams coaching staff — to come in and be the offensive coordinator. This may very well end up as one of the most important offseason acquisitions for this team. Rams HC Sean McVay believes that LaFleur will fit very well with Mariota, in that he has a very “even-keel demeanour” and that he will help to elevate the young QB’s game. LaFleur was instrumental in helping Jared Goff make the jump in his sophomore season and could be looked at as a large contributing factor to his success today. Under McVay and LaFleur, the 2017 Rams averaged an NFL-leading 29.9 PPG and Goff had a 28:7 TD:INT ratio. Also, it cannot be more understated, you might have heard of a Rams RB that had great success in 2017 under LaFleur and McVay, his name is Todd Gurley.
* Youth movement needs to hit. Since 2013, the Titans have averaged eight rookies on their opening-week roster. This past draft the Titans snagged Rashaan Evans from Alabama and Harold Landry from Boston College. In the Spring of 2017 the Titans ended the draft with Corey Davis of Western Michigan and Adoree Jackson from USC as their prized additions. The Titans will be relying heavily on youth at each position, with second and third year players at each position group. It’s imperative that Vrabel and his staff try to develop as much of the talent that they can from these young players.
* Vrabel will most certainly put his finishing touch on the defensive side of the ball. A unit returning players such as Casey, Wesley Woodyard, Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo that will look to continue building upon their success from previous seasons. Vrabel also brought in Malcolm Butler and Bennie Logan to fortify his defense. The Titans ranked in the middle of the league, 13th, in total yards allowed with an average of 239.3 PYDS/G allowed (25th). On a positive note, the defense only allowed 88.8 RYDS/G (4th).
* So, what do I expect the results to look like after all of these changes? Let’s not forget the path that Tennessee will face with the upcoming gauntlet, that is their 2018 schedule. Four games, which are divisional, against two of the top defensive units in the league, in Houston and Jacksonville. Got it. How about the rest? The NFC East which totes the reigning Super Bowl Champions in Philadelphia. Phew. Does it get better? Well, let’s just top it all off with the AFC East, which tosses in the reigning Super Bowl runner up in New England. They open today, as the Vegas Insider 50/1 favorites to win it all in the upcoming season, with a little less bleak outlook on the AFC Championship game, as they sit at 25/1 odds in that aspect. Personally, I can’t imagine it even being that close. Barring injuries to Houston and Jacksonville, I expect Tennessee to finish 0-4 against those two while splitting the difference between Philly and New England (1-1). I’m just not a Derrick Henry truther, and I don’t know if Dion Lewis can deliver on the type of season that the Titans paid him for. Although, I expect Mariota to improve and the offense and defense to perform above average as a whole, I am predicting a third place AFC South finish, and another 9-7 record for 2018. I expect the Titans to make things exciting with Vrabel in the fold, but it’s just not going to be enough to make the postseason in 2018.
The Giants Look to Rebound with an Offensive Mastermind in Pat Shurmur
Shurmur referred to himself as a “lifelong coach” in his introductory press conference. After he showed gratitude to his family and former employers, the Minnesota Vikings, he began to take questions from the media. Questions about Eli, OBJ, the coaching staff and many other hot topics regarding ‘Big Blue.’ In short, he is a lifelong coach. After playing football as a center at Michigan State University, he went on to be an assistant at his alma mater and finally the offensive line coach at Stanford. Shurmur then had stints as an offensive coordinator in Philadelphia, Cleveland and at the time the St. Louis Rams. He was hired to be the Cleveland Browns HC in 2011 and also served as the Interim HC in Philadelphia before returning to his old post as offensive coordinator in Minnesota. Personally, I think he was the most qualified coaching candidate of all individuals interviewed and hired this offseason. I feel New York snagged the biggest fish in the pond, in Shurmur.
* Why Shurmur succeeds? He’s an offensive-minded powerhouse of a coach that lands in the strongest offense of all available vacancies. Look at his roster on that side of the ball: Eli, OBJ, Sterling Shepard, Evan Engram and now some guy named Saquon Barkley. That’s a pretty good set up for a new HC. Also, to remind people, Mike Shula is coming along to be the offensive coordinator, the former Buccaneer player has now been a coach for 30 years. That three-decade span also included a three-year head coaching position with the Alabama Crimson Tide, from 2003-2006. The Giants are currently off of everyone’s radar after an abysmal 2017 campaign, which left them showing off a 3-13 record. However, Shurmur can thank Ben McAdoo for supplying his new staff with the high draft picks that landed the likes of Barkley and Will Hernandez. Plenty of firepower, a lack of focus on them as a team, health and now, the mind of an offensive guru has this Giants team poised to do some damage in 2018.
* Shurmur is well respected among NFL front office types and more importantly with the players as well. He is a no nonsense type of coach who expects hard work and just as hard of an effort from his players and staff. I truly believe that you won’t be hearing much from OBJ and any of the other ‘more outspoken’ players on the roster. As a matter of fact, Odell has recently made it very clear that he wants more money, which means a new contract. Lately the common theme among players blowing that horn, is to skip OTAs and Minicamp. I wonder if there is a reason he has been a full participant in OTAs this offseason, which are ‘voluntary’ or if it’s just coincidence that Shurmur is the new Sheriff in town?
* Okay, so we expect good things from the offense. What about the defense? James Bettcher, the former Arizona Cardinals DC, was a huge addition to Shurmurs staff in New York. Bettcher comes in to a pretty good group, led by Landon Collins, Janoris Jenkins, and Olivier Vernon. In 2016 the Giants Defense was something to fear, and they took a nosedive this past year in 2017 with the leagues overall 31st ranked defense. Bettcher ran the 3-4 in Arizona, which coupled with some other reasons – lead to the departure of JPP from the Defensive Line. Over the past 3 seasons the Cardinals had the second highest blitz rate in the NFL, whereas the Giants ranked 17th. Also and maybe more notably, the Cardinals Bettcher led Defense, was top 6 in overall yards allowed for all 3 of those seasons.
* Dave Gettleman didn’t draft a QB until late, in Kyle Lauletta, so it’s safe to assume they didn’t plan on replacing Eli in 2019 either. He didn’t sign a QB free agent so we now understand that the Giants front office has faith in Davis Webb and now Lauletta to backup Eli. It’s clear that they were loading up around Eli to make a run. They fortified the skill positions around manning. Drafted Will Hernandez to be an immediate starter upfront. Selected Barkley at No. 2 overall to be the future face of the franchise. Built depth. Tried to change the culture in New York. After a slew of bold moves, will it pay off?
* Philadelphia will be trying to avoid the Super Bowl hangover. Dallas is hoping to avoid regret over cutting Dez Bryant and watching Jason Witten retire. Washington brought in Alex Smith to be the face of DC instead of Kirk Cousins. There are lots of hot topic conversations all across the NFC East and their fan base. The Giants however, seem to be the least talked about. Maybe it’s because they didn’t do what everyone thought they should do, and draft Eli’s replacement at 1.02 this past April. The general public, outside of NYC, seems to be sleeping on the Giants.
They’re two seasons removed from the playoffs and having one of the best Defenses in the league, and their roster hasn’t changed all that much since then. In a way, you could say that aside from the departure of Jason Pierre Paul, it was nothing but improvements across the board for the G-men. They finally have quality and depth in the backfield. They have a great trio of OBJ, Shephard and Engram. Eli is a 2 X Super Bowl MVP. They have a solid Defense led by Landon Collins and one of the better cornerback duos in Jenkins and Apple, with a bright young linebacker in Goodson. Add all that up and multiply by the square root of Pat Shurmur and I think New York makes it to the NFC Championship game, not Philadelphia. I expect the Giants finish 11 – 5, and NFC East Champs and knock the Eagles out of the playoffs. You read it here first.
By Josh Deisinger – @SconnieJosh