While NFL teams are aggressive about making changes after the season is over, what we saw over the past 48 hours would qualify as a bloodletting by in-season standards. After a dismal performance on Thanksgiving, the Lions abandoned their attempt to re-create the Patriot Way in Detroit by firing coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn. On Sunday evening, the 1-10 Jaguars followed by dismissing longtime general manager Dave Caldwell, who oversaw double-digit losses in seven of his eight seasons on the job. Caldwell is already the fourth general manager to go down before we even hit the final quarter of the regular season.
As Caldwell saw during his time in Jacksonville, rebuilding an organization is hard. Let's run through the first steps that some of the league's worst teams should consider over the remainder of the regular season and into the offseason as they try to turn around their franchises. I'll take four of the league's rebuilding franchises -- including the Lions and Jaguars -- and try to carve out a new path for contention.
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Two teams that might be featured by their record but won't be included here are the Bengals and Cowboys, mostly because their paths largely involve fixing one positional group. For the Bengals, that's adding offensive linemen to play in front of Joe Burrow when the 2020 first overall pick returns from his knee injury next season. The Cowboys, meanwhile, need to add defensive backs to fix what has been a porous secondary in 2020. (After this year's events, it sure seems like extending Dak Prescott might be a good idea too.)
New York Jets (0-11)
1. Fire Adam Gase and replace him with an offensive head coach and Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator. I'm OK with the Jets following the Rams' model to replace Gase and try to rebuild around the few pieces they have and general manager Joe Douglas, who is likely to keep his job. Phillips has a track record of turning around defenses quickly, and while the Jets don't have many pieces on that side of the ball signed for 2021, he can start with linebacker C.J. Mosley and defensive tackle Quinnen Williams.
The offensive-minded coach can be one of a number of candidates. Eric Bieniemy (Chiefs) is long overdue for an opportunity to serve as head coach. Kellen Moore (Cowboys) is a viable option. Arthur Smith has done wonders with Ryan Tannehill & Co. in Tennessee. Joe Brady's offense has been solid in Carolina despite dealing with injuries to key players such as Russell Okung and Christian McCaffrey. Any one of those four with Phillips would be a victory for the Jets.
Jets fans might argue that anybody would be better than Gase, who continues to mine new lows as his team struggles through one of the worst seasons in league history. On Sunday, he denied a pregame report that he had taken over playcalling duties, but when prompted with specific examples of when offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains had clearly not been calling plays as Gase suggested, he suddenly remembered that he had been calling plays situationally:
Adam Gase says he did not take over the play calling— Jets Videos (@snyjets) November 29, 2020
"This is not hard" pic.twitter.com/esMzHerJaD
Gase's tenure with the Jets will go down as one of the worst performances as a head coach in NFL history, but years from now, we'll likely forget just how much disinformation and con artistry there was throughout his tenure. Earlier this year, his gimmick was promising that things were always one week away from being fixed; that the Jets would turn things around with one good week of practice or that Gase would solve his team's problems by "putting things in hyperdrive." Now that it's clear no solution is coming, Gase has resorted to some sort of playcalling shell game. Coaching a bad team in a major media market is hard, but it's not as difficult as he makes it for himself.
2. Draft a quarterback and trade Sam Darnold. Ideally, this would be drafting Trevor Lawrence with the first overall pick, but the Clemson star could still follow in Peyton Manning's footsteps and leave the Jets at the altar by returning to school for another season. The Jets have a 69.2% chance of finishing with the first overall selection, according to the ESPN Football Power Index (FPI), and could otherwise draft Ohio State's Justin Fields or North Dakota State's Trey Lance, who are seen as the next-best quarterback prospects in this class.
New York is likely drafting a quarterback because it can't really move forward with Darnold, who just hasn't shown enough to persuade the team to fully guarantee his 2022 fifth-year option. The Jets could try to structure an extension with Darnold that would allow them to avoid guaranteeing the fifth-year option this spring while retaining an opportunity to move on from him after 2021, but the coach and general manager who drafted Darnold are no longer in the building. If you're Douglas, do you want to tie your future to a player who hasn't been healthy or effective as a pro?
Darnold is essentially auditioning to either keep his job or establish meaningful trade value over the remainder of the season, but despite returning to the healthiest Jets offense of the season, the former USC star wasn't good against the Dolphins. The third-year passer did hit a few big throws early in the game, but he continues to make inexplicable decisions. For whatever you want to say about the coaching or the receivers, no quarterback in any scheme should be making this throw into double coverage:
3. Sign a No. 1 wide receiver. Whoever the Jets have at quarterback next year needs more help at wideout. Rookie second-round pick Denzel Mims has flashed since working his way into the lineup, and Jamison Crowder is an effective slot receiver when healthy, but Breshad Perriman is a free-agent-to-be, and tight end Chris Herndon has gone missing. The team should be willing to overpay if it can find a top option in free agency.
The good news, surprisingly, is that there might be a few options available. The free-agent market currently projects to have a handful of legitimate No. 1s in Kenny Golladay (Lions), Will Fuller (Texans), Allen Robinson (Bears), JuJu Smith-Schuster (Steelers) and Chris Godwin (Bucs). A few of those guys will likely return to their current teams, but in a year in which the league will be dealing with a reduced salary cap, the Jets might actually have a shot at getting one of these guys. I would prefer Smith-Schuster if given my choice of the five, but adding a wideout needs to be a priority.
4. Use cap space to take advantage of the market on defense. The Jets project to have more than $82 million in cap space next year, which will be a huge opportunity in a market where teams will be struggling with the first significant cap reduction in more than a decade. No team was budgeting or structuring its contracts to account for a $175 million cap in 2021, and teams are going to be forced to make moves accordingly. Veterans whose deals might have been safe in a normal year are going to be asked to take a pay cut, released outright or allowed to hit the open market. This should be a buyer's market for those few teams who do have plenty of cap room.
The Jets are one of those teams, and while their forays into free agency have been disastrous in years past, Douglas was smarter with his decisions this spring, signing players to add depth and mostly sticking to short-term deals as opposed to mammoth deals for stars like Mosley and cornerback Trumaine Johnson. In next year's market, Douglas should have the spending power to fill multiple positions without having to break the bank or make onerous long-term commitments. If he shops right -- and the Jets can persuade Phillips to come to town -- their defense could improve quickly on this year's 27th-ranked unit by DVOA.
Jacksonville Jaguars (1-10)
1. Figure out who you want to keep around next year, starting with coach Doug Marrone. It was conspicuous that the Jaguars did not follow in the footsteps of the Falcons and Lions by firing both their coach and general manager; despite the presence of Jay Gruden on staff, they did not choose to fire Marrone along with Caldwell. It's difficult to see how Marrone could be separated from his deposed general manager; while Caldwell was around for the entirety of the Gus Bradley administration, Marrone has been the head coach of a team that has gone just 12-31 since its run to the AFC Championship Game in 2017.
It's difficult to imagine that he would be able to save his job with an impressive end to the season, although the Jaguars have been competitive and playing hard in recent losses to the Packers and Browns. Given that they kept defensive coordinator Todd Wash on board when they fired Bradley and promoted Marrone, I wonder whether they might do something similar if they hire a defensive-minded head coach with Gruden. Robert Saleh (49ers) was once on Bradley's staff in Jacksonville, and if the Jags hired Saleh or another defensive coach to rebuild that side of the ball, they might consider keeping Gruden in the fold as offensive coordinator.
2. Determine what you want your identity to be and whether it's a good idea. The Jaguars had a firm sense of what they wanted to be at times under Caldwell, but neither plan looks great in hindsight. Under Bradley, they wanted to build a Seattle-style defense with the same style of players in the secondary and in the Leo edge-rushing role.
The problem is that they were competing with a number of other teams in copying that philosophy after the Seahawks had been able to take advantage of market inefficiencies and get big cornerbacks such as Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner on the cheap. The Jags were not ahead of the curve here, and that defensive style hasn't really been effective without stars at all three levels of the defense.
Under former vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin, the Jaguars wanted to be a power-running team and used a top-five pick on Leonard Fournette. They somehow managed to use a key pick in a draft full of star running backs and land on a replacement-level runner. That model can work -- look at the Titans with Derrick Henry -- but the running back is the least important piece of that puzzle. In going after Fournette, Coughlin and the Jags passed up superstar quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. Imagine how things would be different if the Jags had drafted Watson and used their second-round pick on the next running back to come off the board, Dalvin Cook. It's also not the smartest way to try to win football games in 2020, when the league has made it easier to pass than ever before.
3. Go after a general manager with a track record of drafting and developing talent. Research might suggest that there's no general manager who can beat the draft, but while I'm inclined to agree, the Jaguars should at least try to focus on drafting and development. Caldwell's run with five consecutive picks in the top five was brutal, with Jacksonville selecting offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, quarterback Blake Bortles, pass-rusher Dante Fowler Jr., cornerback Jalen Ramsey and Fournette. Ramsey was the only one to live up to expectations, and he's now on the Rams.
The Jags will have a top-five pick and the Rams' first-round pick in 2021, making this a critical draft as they continue through another rebuild. Targeting general managers with coherent long-term visions and drafting success is key. Every personnel executive misses on picks, but I wonder whether the Jaguars could persuade Ted Thompson to leave his advisory role with the Packers. Executives John Dorsey and Thomas Dimitroff are free agents. Reggie McKenzie, who rebuilt the Raiders before being pushed out by the Jon Gruden administration, has helped rebuild the Dolphins. There are options for team owner Shahid Khan, although whoever comes in needs to hold on to the picks and resist the urge to trade up. This team isn't one player away.
4. Don't go for short-term solutions. What works for the Jets might not necessarily work for the Jaguars. It didn't under Caldwell, who endlessly invested in middling, borderline-starter free agents. While Caldwell was presumably trying to fill holes on both sides of the ball in the hopes of accelerating Jacksonville's path toward contention, virtually every one of his mid-tier signings failed. The Jaguars cycled through guys like Dan Skuta, Davon House and Toby Gerhart with little success, eventually figuring things out only when Caldwell surrounded his homegrown talent with the likes of Calais Campbell and Marcell Dareus.
They can shop in the market next year and should try to build some infrastructure around their new quarterback, but papering over holes with replacement-level players didn't solve things under Caldwell. Their best hope in the long term is relying on those draft picks to emerge as contributors, even if it means taking some lumps in 2021.
Los Angeles Chargers (3-8)
1. Give Anthony Lynn the rest of the season to show that he's capable of improving his game management. While Sunday wasn't a heartbreaking loss for the Chargers, the team again managed to mix in some inexplicable game management from their coach. I'm inclined to give Lynn a pass for the most embarrassing sequence of the game against the Bills, when the Chargers completed a Hail Mary with 25 seconds left and then decided to hand the ball off with no timeouts. Then, with three seconds left in a 10-point game, rookie quarterback Justin Herbert inexplicably tried a sneak on a play where the rest of his line was pass protecting. Given that Herbert could have checked into the sneak at the line and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen is the playcaller, we can't directly pin those decisions on the head coach.
When it comes to timeouts, though, Lynn is the decision-maker, and that's a problem. At the end of the first half, with the Chargers trailing 17-6, they picked up 7 yards to set up a fourth-and-2. With two timeouts left and 38 seconds left on a running clock, he let 17 seconds run off the clock before taking a timeout and then deciding to punt. The Chargers, who went no-huddle for most of the drive, ran only six plays in 109 seconds despite getting the two-minute warning and holding all three of their timeouts at the start of the drive. They went into halftime with a timeout in Lynn's pocket.
If a team has one situation like this, it's a bad day at the office. He had another issue using his timeouts in the second half. Week after week, the Chargers have issues with managing the clock and using their timeouts effectively in the final two minutes of halves. It has cost them leads over the Buccaneers and Saints. They have cost themselves a full win of win expectancy in the final two minutes of halves this year, one of the worst marks in football.
Coaching is hard, and the most important parts of the job are the things we don't see. At the same time, timeout and game management are one of the few things a coach should be able to learn. Teenagers playing Madden know how to manage a clock effectively if they get enough reps. Lynn might very well be good at the important, unseen parts of the job, but he's costing his team wins with his inability to master or even improve at this very public, high-leverage part.
Other struggling coaches in the past have improved. Ron Rivera was one of the worst coaches in the league at managing in late-game situations early in his run with the Panthers, especially given that he had a young Cam Newton as a short-yardage solution. Eventually, after losing a close game in 2013 with more conservative decision-making, he snapped and started going for it on fourth-and-short. Riverboat Ron went 5-0 in close games the rest of the way, won the NFC South and saved his job. It's too late for Lynn to win the division, but the Chargers can't bring him back for 2021 unless he tangibly improves in these situations over the remainder of the season.
2. If that doesn't happen, bring in the best coach for Herbert. Lynn and Steichen do deserve some credit for helping to develop Herbert, with the Oregon product exceeding most expectations this season. If Lynn does get fired, the Chargers should prioritize adding a coach who can help Herbert excel. They'll be competing with a handful of other teams for guys like Bieniemy and Brady, but few teams have the sort of core and quarterback prospect the Chargers possess. This should be a very appealing job.
3. Go after offensive line help. The Chargers have to do more to protect Herbert, whose line has been riddled with injuries. Offseason additions Bryan Bulaga and Trai Turner have both missed significant time, and while they're on the roster in 2021, none of the other regulars will join them. Center Mike Pouncey, who hasn't played since Week 5 of the 2019 season, is an unrestricted free agent. So are lesser-known linemen Forrest Lamp, Dan Feeney, Sam Tevi, and Ryan Groy, who have combined for 2,647 snaps this season. The Chargers rank 32nd in pass block win rate and 31st in run block win rate, so while they won't miss the departing free agents, they'll need three new starters and depth up front.
4. Fix the special teams. The hidden factor killing the Chargers this season has been dismal special-teams play. They ranked 32nd in special-teams DVOA heading into Sunday's game, where kicker Michael Badgley missed an extra point. The bright side is that they were able to snap their streak of games with a punt blocked at two, although special-teams play has cost them multiple other times. They have lost a league-worst 1.58 wins on special teams this season, including a missed game winner by Badgley against the Saints, three blocked kicks and an illegal formation against the Panthers that turned a field goal into a touchdown drive. They couldn't even successfully execute an intentional safety against the Jets.
The Jets game led the Chargers to demote special teams coach George Stewart, who presided over units ranked 31st, 25th, 32nd and 32nd over his four years at the helm. Changing coaches probably won't do enough. As an organization, they need to prioritize adding players to the bottom of their roster who can make a difference on special teams.
Detroit Lions (4-7)
1. Pursue a coach and/or general manager who can establish their own culture. The Lions have tried all kinds of head-coaching options over the past 20 years with little success. Matt Patricia was supposed to bring the team a little bit of Bill Belichick. Jim Schwartz was going to bring over Jeff Fisher's culture from Tennessee. Rod Marinelli was going to bring a slice of Tony Dungy from Tampa. Steve Mariucci had his own success in San Francisco and was going to install the 49ers' way of doing things. Marty Mornhinweg was ... the guy the Lions hired before Mariucci from the 49ers to do that same thing.
The best coach the Lions have had over the last 20 years was Jim Caldwell, who went 36-28 over his four seasons in Detroit and became their only coach since the turn of the century to make two playoff trips. He had multiple reference points for his culture, having worked under Dungy in Tampa Bay before spending two years under John Harbaugh with the Ravens.
The Lions have focused on coaches who have spent the vast majority of their careers before joining Detroit learning from one coach or under one philosophy. It might make sense for them to pursue a coach who has worked at a high level under different coaches and in different organizations, in part so that the coach can take the best of what has worked across the board and apply it to Detroit. Saleh, for example, has worked under Gary Kubiak, Pete Carroll, Bradley and most recently Kyle Shanahan at various levels. The Lions wouldn't be hiring him to try to be their own version of a more successful coach. They would be hiring Saleh to be himself.
2. Re-sign wide receiver Kenny Golladay. While Golladay has struggled through an injury-riddled 2020 campaign, the 2017 third-round pick was one of the few bright spots for the Lions in the draft under Quinn. They have only $1.3 million in cap space next year, but they can free up significant money by re-structuring Matthew Stafford's deal or moving on from some of the more anonymous additions of the Patricia era, such as cornerback Justin Coleman or defensive tackle Nick Williams.
With Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola also hitting free agency, they would be down to Quintez Cephus as their top wide receiver if they didn't retain Golladay. The 27-year-old is going to be expensive, but Detroit doesn't have a realistic alternative to signing Golladay to a long-term deal. Its cap constraints might make a franchise tag financially prohibitive, and letting him walk is a total non-starter.
3. Fix the back end of the defense. The Lions rebuilt their defense under Quinn and Patricia with no success. Free-agent additions Coleman and Desmond Trufant have been disappointing. Teez Tabor, a second-round pick in 2017, is out of football, which led the team to use the third overall pick in 2020 on Jeff Okudah, who has had a disastrous rookie season. Amani Oruwariye, a fifth-round pick in 2019, has been the team's best corner for most of the season, but the Lions sorely need to solve their problems in the secondary.
Linebacker hasn't been much better. Jarrad Davis, a 2017 first-rounder, has disappointed and is likely in his final season with the team after it declined his 2021 option. Jamie Collins' bloated deal will keep him around next season, but the Lions simply overpaid for a guy who was a mess in Cleveland before having a bounce-back year with the Patriots at a fraction of the cost. They took Jahlani Tavai with the 43rd pick in 2019, just before the Packers took core lineman Elgton Jenkins. Tavai hasn't looked like an NFL starter. The next coach/coordinator might be able to get the most out of these players, but Patricia wasn't up to the task.
4. Don't trade Stafford and build around him as the focal point of the offense. Trading Stafford would basically lead the Lions to punt on 2021. They would save $10.1 million in cap space, but he would still be responsible for $24.9 million in dead money. Even if they drafted a quarterback in the first round to take over, whomever replaced Stafford would use up the majority of that new cap room.
Stafford has two years and $43 million left on the extension he signed in 2017. At 32, the first overall pick of 2009 should still have four or five years left as a starting quarterback. Barring an unlikely shot at someone like Fields in the draft, I don't see the logic in trading Stafford. The Georgia product isn't perfect, but on the list of problems with the Lions, he isn't even close to the top of the list.
What I would like to see instead, frankly, is an offense built to Stafford's strengths as a passer. Former coordinator Jim Bob Cooter's scheme protected Stafford, but led to quick throws and too much dinking-and-dunking. Stafford was wildly efficient in Darrell Bevell's scheme as a downfield passer in 2019 before getting hurt, but the scheme has been too run-heavy in neutral situations. Only seven teams have been more run-happy on early downs in neutral situations than the Lions, who have given most of those carries to a 35-year-old Adrian Peterson. We've seen what happened for the Seahawks when they let Russell Wilson cook. Why can't the Lions do the same with Stafford?