The Debrief, Wild Card Weekend: Potential coach-team pairings

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Gary Kubiak's decision to retire from coaching the Denver Broncos, officially announced Monday, raised the number of NFL head coaching vacancies to six. And then there was quiet. While there could still be a surprise departure on the way (Sean Payton? Ron Rivera?), Monday was a relatively calm first day of the offseason. 

The focus leaguewide quickly shifted from those who could lose their jobs to those with the power to hire. It was hard not to draw a contrast between the emotional family atmosphere in Denver saying goodbye to Kubiak and the sparring sessions in Buffalo and San Francisco.

Broncos VP John Elway has weathered many major shifts in a short time, from Tim Tebow's trade to John Fox's firing to the retirements of Peyton Manning and Kubiak. Since owner Pat Bowlen resigned control of the team because of Alzheimer's disease, Elway has been the organization's ballast. Where Kubiak is unassuming, Elway swaggers. There is a clarity of intent when he speaks, a stark departure from the question-dodging seen elsewhere around the league Monday.

We considered writing a group post on Around The NFL on Monday to debate the best job opening, but the idea was scuttled because nearly everyone chose Denver. Having an entrenched quarterback like the Chargers' Philip Rivers is great, but having steady leadership atop an organization is the ultimate NFL weapon.

Intriguing coach-team pairings

Our constantly updated coaching tracker has all the latest on where candidates are going. We'd rank the most intriguing potential pairings as follows:

1) Kyle Shanahan to the Broncos: It's almost too easy to connect these dots. If Shanahan could bring his offense and convince Wade Phillips to return as defensive coordinator, the Broncos could be right back in the championship mix. There are too many intriguing pieces on Denver's offense to struggle this badly two straight seasons. The Broncos are one of four teams Kyle Shanahan will interview with.

2) Sean Payton to the Rams: Payton took to the radio airwaves Monday to say that his "plan" is to "definitely be back" in New Orleans, something that you normally don't need to hear from a coach who just signed a long-term extension in the previous offseason.

Has the potential for a move already passed? NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported that the Rams weren't ready to fasttrack a Payton hire and wanted to meet him if they were going to entertain trading for him. Rapoport also reports the Rams weren't willing to give up a lot in a potential trade compensation.

The wording in Payton's statement allows some wiggle room to change once this story quiets down in the coming days, but it's clear nothing is happening quickly, if at all.

3) Ron Rivera to the Chargers: Rapoport tucked this line into an article about Payton's mutual interest with the Rams on Sunday:

"There are other candidates the Rams would consider, from Panthers coach Ron Rivera (who might be linked to the Chargers job if it comes open) ..."

Considering Rivera's history as defensive coordinator in San Diego, that is an eye-opening suggestion worth keeping tabs on.

4) Josh McDaniels to ... stay put?: McDaniels is expected to meet with the Rams, 49ers and Jaguars this week. Then he gets back to coaching, possibly until early February. Staying put is an option that hasn't been discussed much. McDaniels clearly wants to return to head coaching, but is there a right fit out there for him this offseason? The three teams he's meeting with this week all have significant hurdles. The Chargers could make some sense, but the team's potential move could scare him away.

A day of confusing press conferences

1) Bills general manager Doug Whaley said early in his press conference Monday that he speaks for ownership, then didn't say a whole lot more. 

Whaley was evasive during a contentious 38-minute session where he refused to admit to knowing the details of most anything related to Rex Ryan's firing. The Buffalo media and Whaley drilled down on this topic for a long time without getting anywhere, something you simply don't see very often.

Whaley, who also reportedly did not see eye-to-eye with previous head coach Doug Marrone, did not take responsibility or even address if he approved of Ryan's departure. At one point, a reporter said to Whaley: "I'm trying to figure out what you do for a living despite your job title."

It's clear Whaley is not comfortable with the media. That's not the end of the world. But the image that Whaley and the Bills presented was one of a muddled power structure and shaky communication. That's not an ideal image to give off in a competitive job market, especially with Whaley leading the job search.

2) 49ers owner and CEO Jed York's end-o'-season sparring session with the local media has become an annual event three years running. York was asked why he should be viewed as competent to run a job search considering his last two hires (Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly) each lasted one season. It was a fair question because of how far the 49ers have sunk in such a short amount of time. York essentially chose general manager Trent Baalke over Jim Harbaugh in a power struggle. York admitted that pairing defensive-minded Baalke with Kelly didn't make much sense and that he now realizes how vital it is that the GM and coach be pulling in the same direction.

While starting fresh at both coach and general manager at the same time is the most sensible way to built an organization (ahem, Buffalo), no extra credit should be given to the 49ers for giving up on mistakes quickly. This is the biggest rebuilding job in the NFL, including a roster in total disrepair. 

3) Colts coach Chuck Pagano's strange, exhausted, 1560-word, 11-minute preamble to his press conference was not easy to watch. He looked like a man hopeful that he would keep his job, yet not entirely sure. He talked up the restorative powers of barely beating a 3-13 Jaguars team. Gregg Doyel (Double G what what!) wrote a great piece in the Indianapolis Star about how Pagano's never-ending optimism is being tested. The most telling moment came when Pagano was asked if the Colts had better talent than their record says.

"More talent than 8-8? Great question, interesting question," Pagano said before a long pause.

4) Chargers coach Mike McCoy was dismissed just minutes after he made the case to the media about why he should keep his job. It was a strange capper to a strange day for the NFL team facing the most uncertainty. The Chargers job is enviable despite the team's potential move because general manager Tom Telesco has put together an impressive roster around Philip Rivers.

Storylines that deserve more attention

1) Philip Rivers' second-half fade is a thing. For the last three seasons, Rivers plays like a near-MVP candidate in the first eight games of the season before playing like a mid-level starter down the stretch. The numbers are stark. Rivers has 53 touchdowns, 19 interceptions and 7.96 YPA in the first eight games of 2014-16. Those numbers dip to 36 touchdowns, 34 interceptions and 6.91 YPA in games 9-16.

Perhaps Rivers' collapsing offensive lines and increasing desperation each year are to blame, but it's worth wondering if Rivers wears down.

2) David Johnson's medical prognosis was one of the best items of news in an otherwise-dark Monday. He won't need surgery on a sprained MCL in his knee after it initially appeared things could be much worse. Johnson finishes with 2,118 yards from scrimmage and more receiving yards than Dez Bryant or Brandon Marshall. A young Matt Forte is the only running back I can remember who could consistently win on routes outside the numbers and deep like Johnson. Throw in Johnson's explosiveness as a runner, and you have a player earning those early comparisons to Marshall Faulk

3) The Seahawks are out of time to figure out their running back position. Consider all the varying setups they've tried this season, from Christine Michael to C.J. Prosise to varying versions of Thomas Rawls to rookie Alex Collins. It was an eye-opener to see the Seahawks struggle to move the ball early against a hapless 49ers defense in Week 17.

The un-Seahawks defense shouldn't be let off the hook, either. The unit failed multiple chances to close out the Cardinals late in Week 16, then allowed the 49ers to go up and down the field early Sunday. This just doesn't look like a Seahawks team ready to win on the road in the playoffs.

4) Could Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels be saving some plays for Dion Lewis? Lewis hasn't been a huge factor in the passing game yet this season, but his movement skills are clearly back. It would not be a surprise if Lewis took on a bigger role in the Patriots' offense, especially as a receiver, in the playoffs. 

5) After criticizing the Cowboys' pass rush for much of the season, it would be unfair not to mention that Dallas has more sacks since Week 13 than any playoff team.

6) The Chargers have been in San Diego for 57 seasons. If they bolt, that is the longest run of any NFL team in a city before choosing to relocate. This has received surprisingly little attention, in part because the Chargers get little press and in part because it's been threatened for so long. It's not easy to be a Chargers fan, and they have a lot of great ones.

"I remember walking out of here last year crying my eyes out, thinking it was the last game," season-ticket holder Terry Montello told me Sunday. "This year, I think we're convinced. We've accepted it."

Narratives that died this season

1) Whether it's the antiseptic stadium, Matt Ryan's personality or that low-wattage season of "Hard Knocks," the Falcons have long had the reputation as a boring team. The team's offense obliterated that notion this season, just like it did so many defenses. Ryan led the Falcons to their first three touchdowns Sunday against New Orleans in under four minutes combined, an appropriate regular-season sendoff.

2) Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Marcus Peters and Chris Jones were part of the youth movement in Kansas City that also helped the Chiefs shed their reputation as a milquetoast team to watch. There are roughly six to seven teams that could realistically win the Super Bowl this season, depending on how much latitude you wanted to give the sluggish Seahawks. The Chiefs are one of those teams. General manager John Dorsey and coach Andy Reid have laid down a blueprint for how to build a "program" with a shared vision the last four seasons.

3) It wasn't so long ago that I wrote about Mike McCarthy's long-term job prospects and his stale offense. Whoops. While Aaron Rodgers deserves the bulk of the credit, Packers receivers have been open the last six weeks. Rodgers is able to make faster decisions because McCarthy has done a nice job integrating all the new pieces in his offense. It turns out this kid may have a future in offensive coaching after all.

4) Carson Palmer is not cooked. He was one of the 10 best quarterbacks in football in the second half of the season and wasn't close to Arizona's biggest problem in 2016. Larry Fitzgerald's potential retirement looms, but the Cardinals are smart to try to run it back one more time with Palmer behind center.

Saying goodbye to some of 2016's pleasant surprises

1) In Tom Telesco's wildest dreams, the Chargers general manager could not have imagined cornerback Casey Hayward matching up one-one-one weekly with the team's best opposing receiver and shutting him down. From Mike Evans to Amari Cooper to DeAndre Hopkins, Hayward won his battles while leading the league in interceptions. The free-agent steal might just earn a first-team All-Pro nod.

2) This was easily the best season of Sam Bradford's career, and not only because of his 20:5 TD-to-INT ratio. He showed toughness and accuracy in the face of enormous weekly pressure. While the No. 1 draft pick of the Vikings, Laquon Treadwell, wasted away on the bench, Adam Thielen somehow evolved into Bradford's No. 1 receiver with 967 yards.

3) LeSean McCoy is a two-time first-team All-Pro, the type of credential that some Hall of Fame running backs don't have. That's why it shouldn't have been that surprising to see McCoy run with such aggression and flair all season. He won't get first-team (or second-team) All-Pro this year, because it was a loaded season at the position, but this was his fourth year over 1,600 yards from scrimmage. He's already topped that total more than Jerome Bettis, Marcus Allen, Terrell Davis or O.J. Simpson did in their careers.

4) Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey's December was so strong that I almost don't want to write about it, for fear of ruining its magic. It's worth wondering if the Jags' defensive talent will fit into the next coach's system, but Ramsey fits on any roster.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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