Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
» What NFL teams should look for in prospective head coaches.
But first, a look at one rookie getting thrown into the fire on Wild Card Weekend ...
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Not so fast.
No disrespect to McGloin and what he has accomplished after entering the league as an undrafted free agent, but the game looked too big for him during the Raiders' regular-season finale, and I can't imagine him effectively handling the pressure of playing in a high-stakes playoff bout against the NFL's top-ranked defense.
That's why I believe that, after the soul-crushing injury to Carr, fate might've dealt the Raiders a winning hand when it came to who would replace the MVP candidate in the postseason, with Cook being forced into the lineup. The rookie is not only a superior talent as a passer/playmaker to McGloin, but he's built to play in high-pressure moments based on his experience at Michigan State. During his time as a Spartan, Cook posted a 34-5 mark as a starter, with a 4-1 mark in postseason play. Although he tossed an interception in each of his postseason appearances, he still managed to routinely get his team to the winner's circle, which is ultimately the goal of the quarterback.
Looking back at my notes prior to the 2016 NFL Draft, I thought Cook's awareness and management skills were his biggest strengths as a player. As the director of a pro-style offense that placed a number of responsibilities on the quarterback to make "check with me" calls or audibles based on defensive fronts or coverage, Cook was exposed to some of the nuances that are routine for NFL quarterbacks. In addition, he was taught how to play complementary football in a program that has produced a number of NFL quarterbacks in recent years (such as Kirk Cousins, Brian Hoyer and Drew Stanton). As a result, Cook concluded his college career with a high touchdown-to-interception ratio (71:22) and learned the importance of ball security as it relates to winning games.
From a physical standpoint, I loved Cook's size (6-foot-4, 217 pounds) and pocket-passing ability. He was one of the few prospects in the 2016 class capable of making every throw in the book to every area of the field. Most impressive, Cook could change ball speed and trajectory to hit receivers in open windows on timing or anticipation throws between the hashes. With Cook also adept at firing lasers to the boundary on comebacks or "Okies" (deep outs), the Sparty QB forced opponents to defend every blade of grass, from sideline to sideline and end line to end line.
From a critical perspective, I worried about Cook's inconsistent accuracy and ball-placement issues. He never completed 60 percent of his passes in any given season at MSU -- well below the standard for elite QB prospects. Although I thought some of his accuracy issues could be resolved with better footwork, Cook's puzzling misfires routinely stalled drives. With that in mind, I thought it was important for Cook to land with a team that already had a strong supporting cast in place. A talented WR corps with multiple pass catchers capable of expanding the strike zone would minimize his accuracy issues. In addition, the presence of a strong running game would alleviate some of the pressure on him to carry the offense on the strength of his right arm. When pressed to make a pro comparison, I frequently likened Cook to Carson Palmer, based on his skills and style of play.
Looking at the pairing of Cook and the Raiders, who selected him in the fourth round of the draft, I thought the marriage was a nice one, based on the personnel in place on the perimeter and along the line. If he was pressed into action, I thought Cook would have enough ammunition around to succeed as a young player in the lineup.
Evaluating Cook's performance in the preseason and in Week 17, I believe he is still a work in progress as a quarterback, but the traits that stood out on his college tape are still prevalent in his game. He can blow you away with his ability to drop the ball in the bucket on intermediate and deep throws, as evidenced last week by his 32-yard touchdown throw to Amari Cooper or his 17-yard completion to Michael Crabtree down the boundary.
Cook was efficient working from under center or in the shotgun, particularly out of empty formations that allowed him to quickly identify blitzes or static coverage. He routinely delivered the ball on time and excelled with quick-rhythm passes thrown within 10 yards of the line.
On the flip side, Cook committed two turnovers against the Broncos and didn't seem to fully understand how to secure the ball against strip-happy pursuers in the pocket. He must do a better job of protecting the ball when rushers are in close proximity or he will continue to struggle with fumbles. On his interception, Cook sailed the ball late over the middle of the field. Although pressure clearly prevented him from stepping into the throw, he has to anticipate the pressure and open window to avoid making a costly error.
Considering his problems in the preseason (Cook posted a 55.4 completion rate and a 0:3 TD-to-INT ratio), Cook will need to heed the messages of his coaches regarding turnovers to help Oakland return to its winning ways. Remember, the Raiders finished the season with only 14 giveaways (fourth-fewest in the NFL), and their ability to win the turnover battle was a major factor in their success.
In the end, the Raiders are still in good position to win their wild-card matchup with Houston, even with the rookie at the helm. Despite the concerns over his inexperience and judgment, he is a bigger threat at the position than McGloin, and the presence of a talented WR corps gives him a chance to put up big numbers as a passer. Part of his success will stem from having a full week of practice with the starters. The extra reps will lead to better chemistry with Cooper and Crabtree. Most important, the coaches will craft a game plan that is catered to skills as a playmaker from the pocket.
Before Carr went down, the Raiders were considered a Super Bowl contender because of a high-powered offense directed by an MVP candidate at quarterback. While Cook is certainly not on Carr's level, he is more than capable of driving the Raiders to the winner's circle on Saturday by following the script that made him a winning quarterback at Michigan State.
SEAHAWKS' IDENTITY CRISIS: What happened to the blue-collar bully?
You should, because it wasn't that long ago when Pete Carroll's bunch bludgeoned teams in their path on the way to making back-to-back Super Bowl appearances behind a punishing running game and a stifling defense. While the "Legion of Boom" and the rest of the defense deservedly received a lot of the credit for the team's extended run as a title contender, there are plenty of coaches who believed the Seahawks' success could be attributed to a smashmouth offensive style that perfectly complemented its defensive approach.
At a time when most teams elected to throw the ball all over the yard, Seattle was one of the few teams that preferred to run the ball down opponents' throats. Over the span from 2012 to 2015, the Seahawks ranked first in carries per game, rushing yards per game, yards per carry and rushes of 10-plus yards. Not to mention, the team ranked in the top four in rushing yards in every season during that span and frequently posted a 50:50 run-pass ratio at season's end.
Naturally, the presence of a five-time Pro Bowl back -- who boasted a rugged running style that combined nifty footwork with a healthy dose of physicality and violence -- made it easy to lean on the ground attack. Marshawn Lynch rumbled between the tackles with reckless abandon on the way to totaling 6,347 rushing yards and 57 rushing touchdowns in five-plus seasons with the 'Hawks. Those numbers speak for themselves, but Lynch's value extended beyond his pure production. He gave the Seahawks' offense an identity -- one that perfectly meshed with the "beat you up" persona exuded by the defense.
Although I certainly understood the rationale behind the Seahawks tweaking their offensive approach this season -- with Russell Wilson having inked a big-money deal in 2015 and really come into his own in the second half of last season -- I believed the shift to a pass-happy emphasis would take away the Seahawks' edge.
"There's something about being unable to stop the run that's demoralizing to players," a former NFL head coach/defensive coordinator told me. "The running game zaps your players' will ... It's like absorbing a ton of body blows as a boxer -- it's only a matter of time before you get knocked out."
Don't get me wrong: I'm not blaming the Seahawks for putting the ball in the hands of their best player, particularly after he set the league ablaze with his pinpoint passing during the 2015 campaign. Wilson had shown team officials that he was more than capable of leading the offense as a dynamic passer/playmaker, and he succeeded without Lynch for most of the 2015 campaign. The diminutive passer completed 68.1 percent of his passes, posted a 34:8 TD-to-INT ratio and finished with a 110.1 passer rating -- establishing new career highs in each of those respective categories. With the team also winning seven of its last nine games (including the postseason), the thought of featuring the passing game was sensible on paper.
That's the problem, though: Games aren't conducted on paper. And teams must find ways to impose their will on opponents.
For most of the Pete Carroll era, the imposition revolved around a running game sparked by a dynamic workhorse. It appeared that Thomas Rawls could be that guy, based on his spectacular flashes as an undrafted rookie in 2015. Rawls rushed for 830 yards and posted four 100-yard games in 13 appearances. Rawls' rough-and-rugged style was eerily similar to that of his predecessor, and it was easy to envision him sliding into the RB1 role with Lynch relaxing in retirement.
Unfortunately, Rawls hasn't been able to play up to the standard due to injuries and shoddy blocking in the trenches. In fact, the Seahawks haven't discovered any running back capable of playing above the line this season. The team has used 18 different players on running plays in 2016. The team's leading rusher (Christine Michael, 469 yards) was waived in the middle of the season and is now in Green Bay. Think about that: A team that has pummeled opponents with a hard-hitting running game for the past five years hasn't discovered a viable option to lean on this season. The Seahawksrank 25th in rushing offense (99.4 yards per game) and near the bottom of the league in explosive runs.
Without a strong running game to divert the defense's attention, Wilson has also taken a step back as a passer, with the lowest passer rating of his NFL career (92.6).
While it is easy to pin the blame on the Seahawks' leaky offensive line and Tom Cable's penchant for playing musical chairs with the starting front, I believe the questionable commitment to the run and lack of creativity has stunted the running game. Remember: The Seahawks ranked first in carries per game over a four-year period, yet they are 20th in rushing attempts this season. That speaks volumes about the lack of persistence and patience with the ground game.
Not to mention, Wilson is no longer a major part of the running game, despite having thrived in a complementary role earlier in his career. In the 2016 regular season, he posted career lows in rushing yards (259) and rushing attempts (72) after flirting with a 1,000-yard season (849 rush yards, plus six scores) in 2014.
Now, I completely understand scaling back on the quarterback runs to preserve the health of a $20 million signal caller, but the Seahawks got a lot of mileage out of their zone-read game with Wilson as a threat to pull and scoot around the corner. The mere thought of the slippery playmaker attacking the perimeter forced defensive coordinators to assign a defender to the quarterback, which removed a pursuer on inside handoffs to the running back. Considering how the offensive line is also struggling at the point of attack, the use of deception and misdirection on option plays could rectify some of the issues up front.
From a personnel standpoint, the Seahawks should consider reducing Rawls' role in the rotation. He has averaged fewer than 2.0 yards per carry in each of the last three games. Rookie Alex Collins has emerged as a viable option the past few weeks, as evidenced by his 83 rushing yards on 14 carries over the last two outings. He has shown better balance, body control and burst, giving the ground game some of the pop that's been lacking for most of the season.
If Seattle beats Detroit on Saturday night and advances to the Divisional Round, C.J. Prosise could return from injury and be a huge asset. He boasts an average of 5.7 yards per carry -- compared to the measly mark of 3.6 compiled by the rest of the Seahawks' running backs -- but has been sidelined since November with a shoulder injury.
At the end of the day, the Seahawks can make some noise in the postseason if they return to their bullish ways on offense. That means a renewed commitment to the running game, which includes Wilson reprising his role as one of the NFL's most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks.
We'll see if the "win or go home" nature of the playoffs helps Seattle recapture the identity that once made it the most feared team in the league.
ASK THE LEAGUE: What should NFL teams seek in a head coach?
With six head-coaching jobs open, I thought I would reach out to a few friends in the business to see what they value in a frontman. Here's my question and their responses:
If you were hiring a head coach, which essential traits would you demand?
NFC personnel executive: "He must be able to command the room. He needs to be clear and consistent with his messaging when it comes to establishing his culture. He also needs to understand how to utilize all of the talent on the 53-man roster."
Former vice president of player personnel: "He must be a leader of men. I also want a guy who is focused solely on winning games and developing players."
AFC senior personnel executive: "1) Ability to relate. 2) Teaching ability. 3) Adaptability. ... He also needs to have a knack for hiring good assistant coaches, specifically offensive coordinator, offensive line, defensive line coach and defensive coordinator."
NFC scout: "To be a good head coach in this league, you must be a leader of men capable of communicating in a direct way. He must hold true to his word when dealing with players because trust and communication is critical to building a great team. ... He must also be adaptable in today's game. He has to be able to put guys in a position to succeed based on their strengths. Whether it's tweaking the scheme or identifying a specific role for a player, a good head coach finds a way to maximize the talents on the roster. Finally, he must be self-critical. He needs to constantly evaluate the operation and make changes when necessary. Accountability is key to long-term success."
Whenever the coaching carousel starts spinning, the speculation automatically goes to the which hot offensive and defensive coordinators are ready to fill the vacancies around the league. While I have the utmost respect for play callers, I know that skill isn't necessarily a prerequisite for serving as the CEO of a football team. Sure, it is nice to have a head coach capable of lending his tactical expertise to one side of the ball, but the job of a head coach is to manage the entire football team.
From establishing the core philosophy of the team to creating the culture in the locker room to determining which players are "up" on game days to managing timeouts in critical situations, the head coach's job requires superb organizational, leadership and communication skills. Naturally, the position demands a high level of football intelligence and situational awareness, but those traits pale in comparison to the ability of getting a group of young men moving in the right direction.
During my time in the NFL as a player, I was fortunate enough to be around some of the best and brightest coaches in the game. It is hard to dispute the résumés of Marv Levy (Hall of Famer), Mike Holmgren (Super Bowl winner), Tom Coughlin (two-time Super Bowl winner), Marty Schottenheimer (200 regular-season wins) and Jon Gruden (Super Bowl winner). Although their coaching styles were different, they shared several core characteristics as team leaders.
First, each coach was a natural leader of men. They all commanded the attention of their players when they stood in the front of the room. Some were more demonstrative when addressing players (see: Schottenheimer and Gruden), but each exuded a level of confidence that permeated the room. Considering how teams reflect the image of the head coach, that confidence and presence is essential to establishing a winning culture.
In addition to having a commanding presence, each of the coaches had a clear vision for how he wanted the team to play and consistently conveyed that message on daily basis. For instance, Schottenheimer would impose the "Seattle Rule" (runners must carry the ball in a tucked position past a cone 25 yards away from the line of scrimmage and jog back to the huddle with the ball still in the tucked position before handing it to a ball boy) to emphasize ball security. Meanwhile, Coughlin created the "Concentration Line" at the edge of the practice field to remind players of the focus expected when they crossed the line for practice. Most coaches in the league use similar tactics with their teams, but all of the coaches listed above were diligent about expressing their expectations and followed through with their actions.
Finally, all of these coaches were adaptable to their teams. They were able to assess the collective talent of the roster and make adjustments to help the personnel reach peak performance. For example, Holmgren was a pass-heavy proponent during his tenure in Green Bay, due to the presence of a three-time MVP at quarterback (Brett Favre). Yet he became more run-oriented in Seattle when he discovered an MVP-caliber runner in Shaun Alexander. Despite wanting to put the ball in the air 30-plus times based on his success as a play caller in West Coast offensive schemes, he scaled back on his approach to enhance the team's chances of winning. In the end, it's about winning -- and coaches should be able to make adjustments to increase their chances of finishing on the right side of the ledger.
With plenty of teams searching for the right leader to reverse franchise fortunes, I just hope they know what they're looking for and make decisions based on core characteristics needed to lead a group in the right direction, as opposed to a sexy play-call sheet or gaudy stats.