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:
» Questioning the "Madden" grade for one of the NFL's biggest stars
» The offensive coordinator under the most pressure heading into 2018
But first, a look at the top five play-caller tandems in the NFL today ...
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If you ask old-school coaches about the NFL, they will quickly tell you that it's a "players' league," but coaching matters when it comes to building a winning franchise. That's what my defensive coordinator (Willie Shaw) with the Oakland Raiders told me during my time in the league as a player and I believe his comments still carry weight to this day.
Teams that are consistent contenders in the NFL not only have great players at key positions, but they have coaches with the capacity to elevate the performance of those players with their play designs and play calling. I watched Mike Holmgren and the late Fritz Shurmur pull it off in Green Bay in the mid-1990s, when I spent parts of three seasons with the team. Holmgren designed an offense around Brett Favre that helped him capture three straight NFL MVP awards without a marquee receiver on the roster. No disrespect to Antonio Freeman, Mark Chmura, Keith Jackson and others, but the team didn't have an established A-level playmaker when No. 4 emerged as the best quarterback in the game.
On defense, Shurmur took a unit that featured Reggie White along with a handful of veterans and made it the No. 1 defense in football. While observers will remember how he unleashed White as a dominant pass rusher at the line of scrimmage, I believe it was his work with LeRoy Butler that really helped the Packers become a Super Bowl winner during that span. Shurmur put No. 36 in a position to thrive as a hybrid safety/nickel defender positioned near the line of scrimmage. Butler revolutionized the safety position as a "big nickel" defender with blitz and coverage responsibilities on the way toward becoming a perennial All-Pro player during that span.
Remember, safeties weren't being used in that fashion prior to Butler, and it took a forward-thinker like Shurmur to revamp his scheme to maximize his skills as the original hybrid safety. After watching how that move elevated Butler's game and helped the Packers' defense reach a championship level, I'm convinced a top-notch coach can make great players better while also transforming the play of the unit as a whole.
With that in mind, I believe this is the perfect time to take a look at the teams with the top offensive and defensive play callers on the same staff. Here are my top five offensive and defensive play-caller tandems.
1) Sean McVay and Wade Phillips, Los Angeles Rams: It's not a coincidence the Rams became Super Bowl contenders with a high-octane offense and a hard-hitting defense. McVay is an offensive wizard with a creative mind and an innovative approach. He not only elevated the play of a young quarterback (Jared Goff) who was viewed as a bust in some quarters but he revived a running back (Todd Gurley) coming off a sophomore slump that led to questions about his game. With McVay also creating an explosive aerial attack featuring a handful of receivers earning B or B-plus grades from the majority of evaluators, the Rams' young play caller deserves kudos for his ability to put points on the board with a bunch of moving parts. Defensively, Phillips is one of the best in the business, using a defense that's built around pass rushers and cover corners. The wily defensive play caller can help transform pass rushers into monsters (see Shawne Merriman, DeMarcus Ware, J.J. Watt, Aaron Donald and others) while trusting top-tier cornerbacks to hold their own against premier receivers. Given their collective ability to elevate the play of their players with creative tactics, McVay and Phillips deserve the top spot on the list.
2) Josh McDaniels, Brian Flores and Bill Belichick, New England Patriots: For all of the credit that Tom Brady gets for guiding the Patriots to the Super Bowl on what seems like an annual basis, you could make the argument that the team houses the league's best coaches based on their ability to win with a roster that lacks a lot of star power. McDaniels' brilliance is often overshadowed by TB12's greatness, but the crafty play caller earns high marks for his ability to build game plans and make in-game adjustments on the fly. Using a flexible system that morphs from a pass-centric approach to a run-heavy emphasis based on the opponent's weaknesses, McDaniels consistently finds a way to light up scoreboards around the league with a bunch of role-specific "specialists" crushing it as key contributors. The Belichick-Flores combination should continue to produce excellent results for the Patriots with the team intent on forcing opponents to play "left-handed" (away from their offensive strengths) in key moments. Although Flores, who's replacing Matt Patricia, will have to learn the ropes as a new play caller, Belichick's presence should help the Patriots' defense make the necessary tactical adjustments to play at a high level by the end of the season.
3) Doug Pederson and Jim Schwartz, Philadelphia Eagles: If there were any doubts about the creativity and adaptability of the Eagles' coaching staff, they were answered during the team's championship run. Pederson put on a coaching clinic, tweaking the Eagles' offense to fit Nick Foles' talents as a QB2 after Carson Wentz went down with a knee injury. With Pederson, a former longtime backup quarterback, also credited with helping Wentz play at an MVP level pre-injury through his incorporation of run-pass options (RPOs) and a few other creative tactics, the Eagles head coach deserves props for his offensive wizardry as a play caller. Schwartz won't knock your socks off with exotic blitzes and intricate stunts, but he coaxed a top-five performance out of his unit with a straightforward scheme that allows his players to play fast and free between the lines. Whether it's the defensive ends harassing the quarterback from a "wide-9" alignment or the secondary cluing the quarterback in a simple zone scheme, the Eagles' defense plays like a pack of wolves when it takes the field under his direction. Considering the Eagles' success as a top-five scoring offense and top-five scoring defense, it's hard to think of many better combinations than Pederson and Schwartz.
4) Ken Whisenhunt and Gus Bradley, Los Angeles Chargers: The Bolts' late-season success was sparked by the offense and defense finding their rhythm down the stretch. The team reeled off six wins over the final seven games. The Chargers looked like a team no one would want to face in the postseason. Part of the team's success can be attributed to Whisenhunt's ability to design a high-powered offense around his veteran quarterback, Philip Rivers. The old-school play caller will set up "shots" (deep balls) for his quarterback off play-action while also scripting in some high percentage "layups" (short passes) to help the offense stay in rhythm. In addition, Whisenhunt will "feed the pig" to make sure his top offensive weapon (Keenan Allen) has enough touches to impact the game. He used this tactic to help Larry Fitzgerald play at an MVP level during a surprising Super Bowl run with the Arizona Cardinals in 2008. He dusted off that script to unleash Allen as a dynamic playmaker in 2017. With Melvin Gordon also finding his way as a runner under Whisenhunt's direction, the wily offensive architect certainly knows how to build an explosive offense that maintains enough balance to handle the physical defenses in the AFC. On the defensive side of the ball, Bradley keeps it simple so that his players can "hustle and flow" to the ball without hesitation. Pass rushers are the key to the unit's success and his creative deployment of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram creates chaos at the line of scrimmage. With his simple designs creating consistent pressure off the edges, Bradley sets the table for Casey Hayward and Co. to squat on routes and feast on tips and overthrows in the backend. The perfectly coordinated pass rush and coverage is a thing of beauty to watch, which is a testament to Bradley's attention to detail as a teacher. Given the presence of top-notch coordinators on both sides of the ball, the Chargers should be considered legitimate Super Bowl contenders this season.
5) Pat Shurmur and James Bettcher, New York Giants: Despite being dismissed as an afterthought in the NFC East, observers should pay close attention to the Giants due to the coaches' collective ability to elevate the performance of their players. Shurmur is a superb tactician with a solid reputation for simplifying the game for his quarterback and elevating the play of his team's primary playmakers through his play designs. Last season, he helped Case Keenum play at an MVP level and made Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen the league's most feared 1-2 punch on the perimeter as the primary play designer in Minnesota. With Eli Manning, a two-time Super Bowl MVP, at quarterback and a star-studded supporting cast that includes one of the most explosive playmakers in the game (Odell Beckham, Jr.) and three emerging stars (Evan Engram, Sterling Shepard and Saquon Barkley), we could see Shurmur put together the NFL's top offense in his first season on the job. Defensively, Bettcher doesn't get enough credit for his exceptional work as the defensive coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals from 2015 to '17. He not only presided over a defense that finished no lower than sixth overall in each of his three seasons at the helm, but he did it utilizing a blitz-heavy scheme that befuddled opponents with exotic five- and six-man pressures from every angle. Considering the success guys like Chandler Jones (NFL sack leader in 2017), Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson enjoyed in the system, it is easy to envision the Giants' top players -- Olivier Vernon, Landon Collins and Janoris Jenkins -- stepping up their respective games in a scheme that sets them up to make more splash plays in 2018. With that in mind, the Giants' coordinators snag a spot on this list in anticipation of a remarkable turnaround this season.
ON THE HOT SEAT? SARKISIAN MUST RISE TO THE OCCASION IN YEAR 2
Speaking of coordinators, I don't know if there is an NFL offensive coordinator with more pressure on his shoulders heading into training camp than Steve Sarkisian. The Atlanta Falcons' embattled play caller is facing criticism stemming from the offense's regression a season ago.
The NFL's most explosive offense in 2016 fell to 15th in scoring offense and eighth in total offense in 2017. That's a significant drop off for a unit that finished first and second, respectively, in both categories two seasons ago under then-coordinator Kyle Shanahan. With the offense also producing fewer first downs (from 23.7 per game in 2016 to 20.6 in 2017) and losing the turnover battle (from plus-11 in 2016 to minus-2 in 2017) with the same cast of players, the finger pointing goes to Sarkisian for driving the Lamborghini off the road.
The former college head coach was roasted for the unit's regression and some wondered if head coach Dan Quinn would even bring him back given the offense's struggles. To his credit, DQ didn't hang his coordinator out to dry after insisting that Sarkisian continue to run Shanahan's system instead of his own. In fact, Quinn appeared to expect a challenging transition for Sarkisian in Year 1, and now it seems he foresees his play caller finding his rhythm during his second season on the job.
"He's called plays for a long time before, but not in this system with this team with these players," said Quinn following an offseason workout in June, via ESPN.com. "So for him to know real clear how to feature and how to use it, and going through the entire offseason and the audit of stuff, that part has been pretty cool. ... Yeah, I would say you can certainly make a jump as a coach, too. I certainly did as a head coach."
Hmmm ... The Falcons' head coach certainly makes some valid points about his coordinator's growth potential in Year 2. Sarkisian spent 2017 essentially learning a foreign language through immersion and didn't fully know how best to communicate or orchestrate the unit. Sure, he might've understood which concepts he wanted to feature, but the verbiage can be radically different and the communication challenges might've kept Sarkisian from using some of the Falcons' best calls.
In addition, the language barrier likely distracted the play caller from fully studying the strengths and weaknesses of his top playmakers, which impacts how and where they get their touches on the perimeter. With a full offseason to master the verbiage and more time to study his players playing under his direction, Sarkisian should have a better chance of crafting a more efficient and explosive offense.
"I think the biggest thing for me is just overall comfort level," Sarkisian told reporters during organized team activities, per the team's website. "When I came in a year ago, it was learning the system that was in place. It was learning the players that were in place. In Year 2, I have a year into the system. Now [I] can make some of the tweaks that I feel like are needed for this offense to continue to grow.
"I've got a really good understanding of every player and the things that they're really good at, the things that maybe they need to work on, the things that I would be wrong putting them in position to do. I think all of those things just put me in a much different level of comfort, where you just feel good every day walking in."
I can't tell you enough how Sarkisian's complete understanding of the system and his personnel will help the Falcons produce fireworks this season. The coordinator now understands which routes are best suited for Julio Jones, Mohammad Sanu and Austin Hooper. He also has a better feel for the running game and how to best deploy Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
Although some would argue that a good coordinator should be able to quickly figure out how to get the ball to the team's A-List playmakers, I believe the challenge of learning a new system that isn't your preferred scheme while evaluating players makes it tough to operate at a high level.
"Think players not plays," said a former NFL offensive coordinator. "You have to figure out what your players do well and consistently put them in a position to do those things ... that's the challenge for most play callers. How do you mix the plays that you like with the ones that are best for your playmakers?"
It is even trickier when you don't know the system like the back of your hand because you can't call up the adjustments or tags needed to exploit a defense or enhance your playmakers' games. This is particularly challenging when trying to build a game plan around a quarterback who is comfortable with the previous scheme and how play calls were sequenced under a different play caller. That's why the Falcons' offensive improvement might hinge on the growing relationship between Matt Ryan and Sarkisian.
"I think at the end of the day, it's us being really wired in mentally in-game, where he can almost anticipate play calls that are coming," Sarkisian said of the next step with Ryan. "And he understands why those play calls are coming and what they're for. ... We'll take a significant jump just between Matt and I. He's starting to understand my personality of how I call it, and I'm understanding his personality of what he likes in specific situations."
Given the importance of the relationship between quarterback and play caller, Ryan and Sarkisian must reach a level of trust that's forged on communication and cooperation. They must reach a compromise on how the offense will run and the best tempo to play at to help the quarterback perform at an MVP level.
"It's all about the quarterback," said the former NFL offensive coordinator. "As the play caller, you have to go to him to see what he likes and build around that. ... It doesn't matter how much you like a certain play or set of plays. If the quarterback doesn't like it or can't quite grasp it, you have to throw it out. ... He's the one with the ball, so you have to put him in a comfort zone that allows him to play well."
To that point, the offensive coordinator must manage that relationship while also getting the ball to the No. 1 offensive weapon in space. For the Falcons, it's all about feeding Jones and letting others eat his table scraps. He's arguably the best receiver in the game, yet he had just three scores in 2017 and converted only one of his 19 red-zone targets into a touchdown. That's unacceptable production for an elite WR1, and Sarkisian must find a way to address it to help the Falcons return to the ranks of the offensive elite.
Looking at the All-22 coaches' footage, the Falcons could benefit from taking more shots to No. 11 on the edge of the red area to avoid some of the tricky combination coverage that pops up inside the 20-yard line. Whether it is incorporating more double moves on the plus side of the 50-yard line or moving Jones around to prevent the defense from getting a bead on him, Sarkisian must find a way to create more scoring chances for his WR1 in 2018.
Given the make-or-break nature of this season for Sarkisian, it would be wise for him to get Ryan and Jones on the same page while crafting a script that allows all of the Falcons' top dogs to eat on the perimeter.
I know that's easier said than done, but the video-game-like explosiveness of the Dirty Birds needs to return for the team to play a home game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Super Bowl LIII.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) Pats shouldn't trade Gronk under any circumstances. I know we're in the middle of the dead period for NFL news but don't believe the hype regarding a potential trade of five-time Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski. Despite the contract impasse reportedly at the heart of the friction between the star pass catcher and the New England Patriots, there's no way Bill Belichick can sell that trading away No. 87 gives the team the best chance to win this year or beyond.
Now, I know Belichick has shipped off or dismissed the likes of Lawyer Malloy, Richard Seymour, Chandler Jones and others while they were in their prime, but there's something different about this one. Gronkowski is not only the Patriots' No. 1 offensive weapon, but he is Tom Brady's security blanket, and the offense isn't the same without him.
The 6-foot-6, 265-pound pass catcher led the Patriots last season in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown receptions despite double coverage and bracket combinations from opponents. The four-time All-Pro averaged a whopping 15.7 yards per reception, which is uncommon big-play production for a tight end. These numbers only add to a glowing resume that features 474 career receptions, 7,179 receiving yards and 76 touchdowns. Gronk is the gold standard at the position, and trading him away would leave the Patriots without one of their few A-level players.
Let's be real. The Patriots' roster isn't loaded with blue-chip talent (TB12, No. 87 and maybe Devin McCourty) and any subtraction would cripple the team's chances of making another run at a Lombardi Trophy.
Sure, the team has been able to absorb the loss of Gronkowski in previous seasons (see 2016), but those squads had enough ammunition in place at the slot positions (Julian Edelman and Martellus Bennett) to hold it down in his absence. Not to mention, you had TB12 in place to make everything right when things went awry.
In 2018, I don't know if you can continue to count on a 41-year-old quarterback to continue to do more with less. At some point, the Patriots need to prop up their veteran QB1 to alleviate some of the burden on his shoulders to carry the offensive load. Although the Patriots' running backs can become bigger factors in the passing game if No. 87 isn't on the field, I don't know if a backfield featuring James White, Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead and others is enough to spark a championship run.
"I like their running backs and how they create and exploit mismatches, but Gronkowski is the straw that stirs the drink in New England," said a former NFL defensive coordinator who spent years facing the Patriots. "He dictates the coverage and forces you to double-team or bracket him. When he gets all of the attention, it allows those other guys to work against one-on-one coverage. If he's not there, I don't think there's anyone else on that roster that makes you change your defensive plans."
With that in mind, I know there are some draft aficionados out there who would welcome the opportunity to parlay a perennial Pro Bowl player into a number of high picks down the road. The problem with that strategy is the unknown nature of what you would receive in return for No. 87 (multiple 1s is no guarantee). Although his dominance and production would suggest that he is worthy of multiple first-round picks, Gronkowski's long injury history diminishes his value on the open market. Not to mention, you have to draft the right players to provide an immediate impact.
"I don't think you can get a No. 1 for him," said an NFC personnel director. "He has a high cap number and an injury history that makes it tough to commit more than a No. 2 for him. Plus, you have the rumors about a possible retirement on the horizon. ... I just don't think I can give up a top pick for him."
Another scout expressed a similar sentiment when I ran a possible trade scenario by him.
"There's a lot of information out there about Gronkowski considering retirement," said an AFC executive. "He's also had a series of serious injuries. ... If I knew I was getting a healthy Gronkowski, I believe he is worth a first-round pick plus, but this version is probably worth a No. 2 that can move to a No. 1 if he is able to stay healthy."
Based on those opinions, that might explain why the Patriots haven't dealt No. 87 at this point. They are possibly looking for a No. 1 plus another top pick for their marquee player, but teams might be balking at the price tag. Thus, they might be inclined to hold onto Gronkowski until someone sweetens the pot.
Regardless of his trade value, I don't think the Patriots can trade away their top offensive weapon if they're really trying to win a Super Bowl ring this season. Gronkowski gives the Patriots their best chance to win, and subtracting him from the lineup would send a message to the locker room that other things are in play in Foxborough. Considering the backlash Belichick has received from his own players and others following his last publicized personnel move (benching Malcolm Butler), a trade involving No. 87 could officially signal the end of his run as a championship coach in New England.
While observers wonder why players care about their rankings in a video game, I believe there is some value in checking out how the "Madden" staff rated the top players in the league due to the correlation between how their evaluators stack their boards and how NFL scouts rank players in their respective war rooms.
With that in mind, I couldn't wait to see this year's reveal to see the order of the top players and how the Madden folks valued certain players and positions. Although I'm not surprised to see quarterbacks and pass rushers dot the list based on the pass-centric nature of the game and the NFL, I was shocked to see J.J. Watt listed as one of the top 10 players. In addition, I can't believe he earned a 98 grade, which placed him on the same grade line as Julio Jones and Khalil Mack.
No disrespect to the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, but he earned the second-highest grade in the game despite missing most of the last two seasons with injury. While it is unfortunate that the injuries slowed down one of the most impressive four-year runs ever by a defensive player, you can't allow Watt's past performance to impact his current grade, particularly when he is coming off a pair of serious injuries.
These are the same struggles general managers, head coaches and scouts grapple with when evaluating their own players and potential free agents, and it's one of the things to watch unfold this season in Houston with Watt returning to action.
"Watching him and seeing him in the building every day, I would never bet against J.J. Watt," Texans coach Bill O'Brien said. "J.J. Watt is a generational player in this league and he'll be back. He's going to be back, and he'll be back to full strength and I just watch the way he is, that's why I feel so good about him."
Here is the thing. Watt is everything that O'Brien says, but his injury history is real. He has only played in eight games since claiming his third Defensive Player of the Year award and there's no guarantee that we will see him dominate the league the same way that he did when he amassed 69 sacks over a four-year span, exhibiting an exceptional combination of strength, power, and explosiveness as a designated playmaker inside the tackle box. Measuring 6-foot-5, 295 pounds, Watt played like a bull in a china shop, tossing blockers around at the point of attack. No. 99's brute strength was overwhelming for most blockers and his non-stop motor made him near unstoppable on pass-rush attempts.
That said, it is going to be hard for Watt to get back to his All-Pro level with leg and back issues. Considering how No. 99 dominated opponents with his explosive strength and power, he has to get his mojo back to be an A-level player as a versatile defender along the line.
For the Texans, Watt's return is critical because they have a huge decision to make with Jadeveon Clowney playing on the fifth-year option of his rookie deal. The one-time Pro Bowler has also battled an assortment of injuries during his time in Houston, and the Texans might be forced to decide which pass rusher to pay in the 2019 offseason.
Remember, the Texans can get out of Watt's deal at the end of 2018 with minimal damage due to the terms of the six-year, $100 million contract extension he signed in 2014. Thus, the team could consult the "Madden" ratings at the end of the year to determine whether to roll with the three-time Defensive Player of the Year or hitch its wagon to a younger defensive star looking to make his mark on the defensive line.