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Schultz: What to do when your team misses the playoffs

Chris Schultz
12/31/2013 1:13:57 PM
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It is somewhat amazing that within 24 hours of one of the best NFL Sunday's in memory, six head coaches (and likely most of their staffs) are unemployed. Think about this though:  Mike Shanahan leaves with $7 million in his pocket, while Greg Schiano and Rob Chudzinski had three more years on their contracts, and will be paid out handsomely.

I realize not all are as fortunate, but the majority of the time if you reach the head coaching level in the NFL, your bills are paid and debts are nonexistent.  It's not the financial blow that hurts.  It is more of a punch to the ego and a humbling moment.  When you realize your mission is not going to be accomplished, that is taken personally, and it's hard to take. 

Now, full disclosure – in general, I am not a fan of football coaches.  I have no doubt that is because my experience with most coaches was not very good.  Most were anything but teachers.  The majority of my coaches were experts at applying pressure and then dis-associating from the players when that tactic did not work or their own skill set did not provide an alternative.

There are some great coaches in football – no doubt – but in my experience I have also seen a level of incompetence that is shocking.  And it is prevalent at all levels.  I often get asked why I don't coach, and I always answer with, "why should I?"  Being a former player doesn't qualify me to be a coach, a teacher.

That being said, there are a lot of good coaches without jobs today, and there are other teams still wavering on a decision.

DECISION IN DALLAS

In Dallas, I think they need to keep Jason Garret and stay the course. Look at Ron Rivera in Carolina and Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati.  Logic may have dictated coaching changes for those teams in recent years, but they stuck with their people and now the Panthers are the NFC South winner and the Bengals are tops in the AFC North.  Patience can pay off and too many teams dump good coaches too early.

Take a close look at Dallas and you will see that almost getting to the playoffs was actually a pretty good accomplishment.  Football teams are built around controllable programs that the coaches put in place, but much of their success comes down to pure luck.  Things like drafting, teaching, developing and capitalizing on the "window of opportunity" are all relatively controllable. But luck can get in the way, especially when it comes to injuries.  If you can keep your 22 starters completely healthy and on the field for a whole year – that's good luck, not good coaching.  And Dallas was destroyed by bad luck for the second year in a row when it comes to injuries.  This was highlighted Sunday when they had to play a winner-take-the-division game against Philadelphia without their best player on offence (QB Tony Romo) and their leader on defence (LB Sean Lee). Good coaching kept the controllable parts moving effectively, though, and Garrett almost got the Cowboys to the playoffs despite the injuries.

KELLY'S HEROES

On the opposite side, how about the job Chip Kelly did with the Eagles?  He's an endearing personality and he "did it his way."  Kelly is known as an offensive guy, but one of the most impressive examples of his coaching ability was reflected in the development of linebacker Mychal Kendricks, a second year player out of the University of California. Great linebackers have to know what is going to happen before it actually happens, and Kendricks has developed that ability.  That is not just a natural talent – it's partly a matter of studying and learning about your opponent in advance, which is a controllable issue – a coaching issue.  There is no luck involved in his development under Chip Kelly.

NEVERMORE

We will see a new Super Bowl champion now that Baltimore failed to make the playoffs – something you could feel coming.  After three narrow victories down the stretch, the Ravens lost by 34 to New England and then were dominated in Cincinnati on Sunday in a must-win game despite making four interceptions. I have all the respect in the world for Joe Flacco, but his body language on the bench sure seems to reflect disinterest.  Compare his demeanor with Philip Rivers of the Chargers – there is no comparison!  It makes you wonder if the Ravens were suffering from burn out.  It is never expected  but it does happen in many occupations, and following their success last year, they sure looked burned out in December to me.

DEAD MONEY DANGER

In Oakland, they played the 2013 season with an astounding amount of dead money (roughly $45 million).  That's money they had to pay former players – all of which counted against their salary cap.  With the dead money off the books for 2014, the Raiders are suddenly cap rich. This is very dangerous as rarely can a football team be bought.  Teams have to be developed, and the Raiders need to remember that they are exhibit A in that discussion.  So how do they use that money wisely and successfully?  Well if you're going to overpay somebody, than overpay a good quarterback. That is obvious.  But depth players are critical. Your fifth defensive lineman, your sixth offensive lineman, those fourth and fifth receivers who can push for starting spots. 

On a 53 man roster, you have to project that the bottom third will eventually be your starters.  Some may have to step in sooner than later because injuries always happen in football, so these players need to be ready and able.  This off-season for the Raiders is critical for making decisions on these key  personnel.  They need to find a quarterback and then build a roster that can develop over time into a winning team around that quarterback.  They can't shoot for the moon all at once. Ask Washington owner Dan Snyder how that works out.

Speaking of the Redskins, Snyder has an interesting dilemma with quarterbacks Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins.  With RG3 shut down for the season, Cousins played well against Atlanta, was okay against Dallas and not so good against the Giants.  There is no doubt that RG3 will be the starter next year, but what does the team do with Cousins?  Do you keep him as an above average back-up or test his increasing value on the open market? Just one of many problems facing the Redskins.

KEEP CUTLER

Marc Trestman has a similar problem with the Bears. He inherited a 10-6 team from Lovie Smith and finished 8-8. But under Trestman, the Bears offence flourished .  Receiver Brandon Marshall is already a star, and Alshon Jeffery looks like another one.  Matt Forte is a Pro Bowl back. Kyle Long and Jordon Mills played 16 games as rookies and played well.  Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson earned their free agent value.   The problem is what to do with the quarterback position after two players did well in the role.  Jay Cutler is a pending free agent and after the big money has been thrown at Brees , Manning, Rogers, Flacco and Romo, he will looking for his fair value.  Can the Bears afford his expensive ticket, and the mistakes that come with his gun-slinging ways?  Especially when the much-cheaper Josh McCown was so good while Cutler was hurt? 

I think it's a no-brainer for both sides.  The Bears need to bring Cutler back, and he needs to re-sign fast.  With all the weapons in Chicago's arsenal, and Trestman to guide the way, it's a great fit.  Especially because of Terstman's ability as a developer of quarterbacks.  He may deserve a critical comment or two about the way the Bears defence folded, but he was brought in to turn the offence around and he succeeded in spades.  Look for the Bears to go after defensive help in the off-season, something that is easier and cheaper to find than offensive skills players.

REX STILL KING

I usually watch the NFL Network for an hour a day to keep updated, and when I saw Woody Johnson announce that Ryan was to be back next year as coach of the Jets, I expected mild applause and pats on the back. What I saw instead was a unique reaction of adulation and sincere appreciation. That surprised me.  Maybe Ryan is better in dealing with motivating and generating positive energy than I could understand, but that reaction said a lot of positive things about him.

So from 32 teams starting the season as Super Bowl hopefuls, we are down to 12.  All logic says it will be Seattle and Denver in New York come the 2nd of February, but if I had to pick to surprise participants, I like the Eagles and the 49ers.

And finally, I always have to take a moment and remember that for 20 teams, the season is over.  For the players, that means going from complete structure to no structure at all. No meetings, no practices, no games, no responsibility.  It's a great feeling and dangerous time wrapped up into one.  For these players, next season starts now.  And off-season responsibility is step one to a championship.

Chris Schultz

Chris Schultz

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