Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
But first, a look at how teams searching for a new head coach should approach this monumental challenge ...
* * * * *
The annual mass exodus of fired coaches -- and subsequent circulation of the latest hot candidates -- has me wondering whether owners and decision makers really understand the traits needed to be a successful coach in this league.
I'm not proclaiming to be the unquestioned expert on head coaches, but I've been fortunate enough to play under a Hall of Famer (Marv Levy), Super Bowl champions (Mike Holmgren, Tom Coughlin and Jon Gruden) and distinguished winners (Marty Schottenheimer) during my time as a player, and I believe there are core traits that separate elite coaches from others in the league.
Contrary to the narrative that scheme and quarterback development are paramount when selecting a head coach, the entire team should be considered when interviewing candidates for the role. The best coaches in the league elevate the entire team with their presence and direction, and decision makers should focus extensively on identifying candidates with the potential to build an elite team instead of peppering them with questions about their fancy playbook and game plans.
Although coaches can come in different styles and flavors, the most successful coaches are excellent leaders, problem-solvers and teachers. Here's a deeper dive into each trait I would want my NFL head-coaching candidate to possess:
1) Leadership ability
Leadership is the most important trait that an NFL head coach must display on a daily basis. From the way he commands the room in team meetings to the way he manages and directs practice, players are looking to the head coach for guidance, instruction and expectations. The head coach should be a visionary -- and he should be capable of communicating said vision to his coaches and players, while also establishing the expected standard of behavior and performance.
When I joined the Buffalo Bills as a young player in 1994, they were coming off four straight Super Bowl appearances under Marv Levy. The coach had transformed the "Bickering Bills" into a resilient and determined squad that repeatedly bounced back from shortcomings and failures without falling apart. I watched him give the team a clear sense of purpose each week, while also keeping the long-term goal in mind. Despite advancing to four consecutive Super Bowls, Levy emphasized winning the AFC East, and he made winning the division title the primary goal for the year. He talked about how securing the division guaranteed the team a spot in the tournament, the most important step in making another run at the title. Though the team fell short that year, I saw how Levy's approach galvanized the locker room and staved off complacency.
In Jacksonville, Tom Coughlin ruled with an iron fist, but there's no disputing his ability to provide clear direction for the team at every turn. He set expectations in meetings and re-affirmed those beliefs on the practice field. Coughlin didn't relent in terms of what he expected from every player, and his persistence eventually wore down any detractors, who either came around (like me) or were dismissed. With the hard line established very clearly for each and every member of the team, the Jaguars were able to establish a winning culture that eventually resulted in four winning seasons in his first five years on the job, including a pair of appearances in the AFC Championship Game.
Reflecting on my interactions with Mike Holmgren, Jon Gruden and Marty Schottenheimer, I believe their leadership skills played a major role in their long-term success. Although they might have guided their teams in different ways, each provided a road map for their team, and they understood how to get back on track when things went awry. Considering the regular season is more like a marathon than a sprint, it is critical to identify a leader capable of creating a culture and providing a vision in the interview process.
2) Problem-solving skills
If you're going to succeed as a head coach in the NFL, you must be an excellent problem solver. The players look to the head coach to provide answers whenever they reach a sticking point. Whether he's encountering a tactical problem or working around personnel woes, players expect the head coach to come up with a plan that enables the team to win, regardless of circumstance. In addition, players want to see the coach make a decision that maintains the culture of the program and re-affirms the core traits that are supposed to be critical to the team.
When I played for the Green Bay Packers, I watched Holmgren nurture the team from playoff contenders to Super Bowl champions by leaning on his previous experience as an assistant coach on two Super Bowl-winning San Francisco 49ers squads to show us how to win. He came up with game plans that enabled us to pull off upsets on the road (see the win over the 49ers in the Divisional Round in the 1995 playoffs), and he repeatedly came up with in-game adjustments that showcased his superb football acumen.
While I don't believe coaches should be hired primarily for their scheme or tactical prowess, it is important for a head coach to be able to help his coordinators and coaches find solutions in the middle of a game. Better yet, the head coach needs to be able to map out a path to victory when the odds seem stacked against the team. Whether the team is facing injury or an overwhelming opponent, the best coaches find ways to play the game in a way that gives them the best opportunity to win.
Think about how Mike Tomlin keep the injury-ravaged Steelers competitive, and how Mike Vrabel's midseason quarterback change propelled the Tennessee Titans to a playoff berth. Those are the hard decisions head coaches must make, and how they handle those decisions greatly impacts the outcome of their respective seasons.
When conducting interviews, decision makers had better make sure that the prospective leaders in front of them have a track record of overcoming adversity and solving the problems that inevitably arise during the season.
3) Teaching ability
There more I'm around the pro game, the more I realize instruction shouldn't differ much from the directions given at the youth and high school levels. Players are students of the game, and they need teachers to show them how to play at an optimal level. The best school teachers provide their students with detailed answers that address the why and how behind the ideas being taught. Similarly, if players are able to understand why they're being asked to play with a certain technique or occupy a designated gap, they will more fully embrace their role in making the pieces of the puzzle fit together.
With the Kansas City Chiefs, I observed Schottenheimer utilizing a high school approach to help blue-chip players like Derrick Thomas, Dale Carter and James Hasty thrive as defensive playmakers. He was not only detailed with his instruction, but he slowed down the pace of installation to ensure everyone understood exactly how the scheme should be played. The instruction was easy to digest for me as a young player, and it also provided veterans with the details and nuance that they needed to excel within the scheme.
Additionally, Schottenheimer would teach running backs how to carry the football and encourage them to keep two hands on the ball whenever they ran in traffic. He implemented the "Seattle Rule" (runners were instructed to keep the ball tucked away while racing past a cone set 25 yards from the line of scrimmage, and they had to hand the ball to the ball boy behind the huddle at the end of plays) to promote ball security, and he constantly preached the importance of winning the turnover battle every day. The emphasis on fundamentals mimicked a youth football or high school practice, but it worked well, with the coach amassing 200 wins during his time in the NFL.
I watched Gruden and Holmgren operate in similar fashions while teaching the passing game to quarterbacks and skills players. Each coach would harp on the details, from quarterback footwork to the route depths from wide receivers and tight ends to the pass blocking from the running backs. The comprehensive instruction eliminated questions and ensured that everyone was on the same page.
In the NFL, players want to be taught and given tools that will help them perform at a high level. They understand that elite performance leads to a big pay day, and any coach that can provide a road map to better individual play will always have their ear.
From a team perspective, those in the locker room simply want to be led by coaches with the capacity to consistently build winning game plans while also showing outstanding situational management skills. Can the head coach force the game to be played on the terms that enhance the team's opportunity to win? Does the head coach have the ability to direct his coordinators to play a style that complements each unit and elevates the performance of the entire squad?
When decision makers are going through the interview process to determine which candidates are best suited to lead their respective squads, I can only hope that they take the time to assess the leadership skills and football character of the potential head coaches instead of asking about their playbook or their fancy schemes.
TOM BRADY'S DEMISE: Shockingly, New England has the worst QB in the playoffs
I know the Twitterverse will scorch me for disrespecting the G.O.A.T. after all that he has accomplished during a spectacular 20-year run that includes six Super Bowl titles, four Super Bowl MVP awards and three NFL MVPs, but there's no way that anyone can take an honest look at his 2019 performance and not reach the same conclusion.
Brady not only enters this single-elimination tournament with the second-lowest passer rating among playoff quarterbacks -- 88.0, ahead of only Josh Allen's 85.3 -- but his play over the last half of the season puts him at the bottom of the entire quarterbacking barrel. Since Week 9, TB12's completion percentage (56.9), yards per attempt (5.9) and passer rating (80.8) all rank 28th or worse (among quarterbacks who attempted at least 100 passes in this period). During that span, Brady had a lower completion percentage than Allen, a lesser yards-per-attempt figure than Duck Hodges and a worse passer rating than Mitchell Trubisky.
If that's not enough to make you queasy, just take a look at his numbers from the 2019 season after he torched the Patriots' first three opponents (the Steelers, Dolphins and Jets) with spectacular play from the pocket (SEE: 67.9 percent completions, 303.7 pass yards per game, 8.6 yards per pass attempt, 7:0 TD-to-INT and a 116.5 passer rating). Since Week 4, Brady's completion percentage (59.4), yards per attempt (6.2) and passer rating (82.0) all rank among the bottom six in the league, and his passing yards per game (242.0) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (17:8) certainly don't stand out as elite production.
If we took the name off the back of Brady's jersey, there's no way that you would fear the Patriots' QB1 in a matchup against any of the elite quarterbacks in the tournament. Brady would be the underdog in one-on-one matchups against Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson, and you can at least make a very strong case for Jimmy Garoppolo, Ryan Tannehill, Kirk Cousins and Josh Allen (running skills give him the edge) in shootouts against TB12.
I'm not being a hater. If you make the assessment strictly on how each quarterback performed on the field this season, you can't make Brady the favorite in any of those matches. Despite his playoff greatness and legendary status, he hasn't outplayed the competition, and the numbers speak for themselves. While you can make the case that Brady hasn't been helped out by a supporting cast that's struggled with the dropsies -- New England's 34 drops rank as the second-most in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus -- the quarterback hasn't performed up to the TB12 standard and it has seriously limited the Patriots' offense.
Brady used to carve up defenses attempting to rattle him with blitzes, but now he wilts under the pressure. After posting a 52.1 percent completion rate under pressure from 2016 to '18, per Next Gen Stats, he's only completed 37.4 percent of those passes in 2019 -- the third-lowest mark in the league this season. Brady has also struggled to throw the ball to the outside. He has the lowest passer rating (67.4) among 32 qualified quarterbacks on throws to wide targets, along with a 53 percent completion rate and a 5:6 TD-to-INT ratio on these tosses. Compare those numbers to Brady's production in the past three seasons:
2018: 63.4 comp%, 11:2 TD-to-INT, 101.4 passer rating.
2017: 61.1 comp%, 10:5 TD-to-INT, 96.2 passer rating.
2016: 60.8 comp%, 9:1 TD-to-INT, 101.6 passer rating.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I observe more accuracy and ball-placement issues from the veteran QB than I've ever seen before. Brady repeatedly misses open receivers down the seams or along the boundary on vertical throws, and his inconsistencies have prompted defensive coordinators to come after the 14-time Pro Bowler with reckless abandon.
"He's not the same player," a former NFL defensive coordinator who routinely faced Brady told me. "He's not as accurate and he's missing more throws than ever. Plus, he's more affected by pressure because he doesn't want to get it. The pieces around him aren't as good, either, but he definitely is not the player that made you pause before dialing up a pressure."
The Patriots have been able to win Super Bowls in a variety of ways during a remarkable two-decade run, but hoisting the Lombardi Trophy this February will require them to play around their quarterback. Despite his unparalleled resume, Brady will have to hope the squad can carry him to the title as the team's weakest link.
BAKER MAYFIELD'S PRESSURE TEST: Why 2020 could be a make-or-break year
The No. 1 overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft already waited his turn to hear his name called by the Cleveland Browns, but now he must prove to the organization that he is still the best choice to be the team's QB1 going into the next decade. After seeing his general manager and head coach ushered to the unemployment line, the young gunslinger should realize that he could be next to go if the Browns don't reverse their fortunes on the field.
I know it is uncommon for a team to move on from a so-called "franchise quarterback" so early in his tenure, but all bets are off when the team makes changes at the top of the organizational flow chart. The dismissals of Mayfield's biggest advocates in the building put No. 6 in a "prove it or lose it" scenario heading into 2020. John Dorsey and Freddie Kitchens were the quarterback's biggest backers, and their unwavering support enabled the young quarterback to act as the leader of the team, despite his inexperience. A strong endorsement from those two men empowered Mayfield to speak on team issues, previous coaches and future opponents without reproach. While a franchise quarterback is expected to serve as the unofficial spokesman for the team, I don't know if we've seen a young QB1 handle it in such a bold and bodacious manner. Mayfield's arrogant retorts and cocky behavior have certainly endeared him to his teammates and a faction of the Browns' fans, but some executives will only tolerate that kind of behavior if the production and performance stand out on the field.
Considering Mayfield's startling sophomore slump, the Browns' QB1 could find himself squarely in the crosshairs despite having authored an inspiring rookie season that provided the football world with a glimpse of his potential. The former Heisman Trophy winner's completion percentage (59.4, down from 63.8), touchdown-to-interception ratio (22:21, down from 27:14), yards per attempt (7.2, down from 7.7), passing yards per game (239.2, down from 266.1) and passer rating (78.8, down from 93.7) significantly declined from his rookie season.
What's most disturbing about Mayfield's regression is how he performed with an upgraded supporting cast that featured a bevy of explosive playmakers in prominent roles on the perimeter (Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and Kareem Hunt). Add in the fact that second-year back Nick Chubb also emerged as one of the top runners in football, and Mayfield seemingly had the kind of firepower that should've helped him to go from good to great in Year 2.
That's why all eyes will be on Mayfield when he steps into the huddle in the offseason program under the direction of a new head coach and general manager. Mayfield will need to show Cleveland's new leadership that he has cleaned up the sloppy footwork and scattershot pocket play that plagued his performance in 2019. Moreover, he will need to eliminate the turnover woes that substantially contributed to the team's underachievement.
While some of Mayfield's flaws can be attributed to playing in an ill-fitting offense that asked him to do too much and a leaky offensive line that kept him on the run, a No. 1 overall pick is expected to overcome those issues to keep his team in contention, particularly with a star-studded cast of weapons at his disposal. Say what you want about the lofty standard, but we've seen Jared Goff, Carson Wentz and even Mitchell Trubisky lead their respective teams to the playoffs in Year 2 despite issues with each of their rosters.
Considering Mayfield hasn't significantly raised the Browns' level of play since his arrival, the new leaders will closely scrutinize his performance to see if he is a "truck" (QB carries the team) or "trailer" (team carries the QB), according to the scouting parlance. Without an established supporter at coach or GM, No. 6 must prove his value as a franchise quarterback on the field, or the Browns could be in the hunt for a QB1 again in 2021.