Tim Kelly as offensive coordinator is a pick of complacency

Nearly a month ago, I got to sit in a press conference where Bill O’Brien said the same thing he says after every big loss. The Colts had just destroyed his offense, holding the Texans to seven points. In so many words, it was his fault, and he’d have to coach better.

The problem isn’t that O’Brien can’t coach better. I have a lot of respect for the things he handles well, and he runs a locker room as well as any NFL coach as far as demanding the respect of his players. The problem is that there’s no actual accountability for O’Brien to coach better — at the end of the day, he is accountable only to himself as far as improving. He hasn’t done much to improve his game-calling or situational issues. The same old issues crop up over and over again. The team plays too slow in hurry-up situations. The team comes out unprepared against any head coach who plays against tendencies. The offense wants to play their game and never what the defense gives them. And so on.

Ownership — busy dealing with the fallout of Bob McNair’s death — has rubber stamped “good enough.” Brian Gaine’s done a fabulous job during his first season but clearly isn’t O’Brien’s peer as far as final say, no matter what the job titles would lead you to believe. The idea of where this head coach’s coaching will improve falls squarely on the head coach.

Enter Tim Kelly, a lifetime O’Brien assistant coach, who worked with O’Brien at Penn State as a graduate assistant. This post is going to be fairly critical of Kelly’s hiring, but it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with him, because I don’t think anyone can tell you how Kelly will run an offense. Kelly has never been an offensive coordinator at any level. Maybe he’s been a terrific tight ends coach — I don’t know of any way to measure his work from the outside beyond conjecture. He was made available for one media session by the Texans this year. Best I can tell from my Google-Fu, he seems to be trusted to take scouting visits for the team as well.

O’Brien has been a head coach for five seasons now. The only assistant coach he’s had on his staff that has received a real promotion from an outside team is Mike Vrabel, and Vrabel is more Romeo Crennel’s assistant than O’Brien’s. Most have either made lateral moves like Sean Ryan did in heading to Detroit, or have headed down the food chain or back to college. Pat O’Hara went from offensive assistant to quarterbacks coach under Vrabel, I guess. Wes Welker may head elsewhere for a promotion on name value alone.

Remember George Godsey? I remember George Godsey.

This is not to say that Kelly can’t be a playcalling genius — maybe he’s a visionary and we’d have no idea from the outside. But the optics need to inform an outside take of this situation. Here are those optics: Bill O’Brien has never had a good coordinator waiting in the wings in his offensive staff, and he has promoted somebody who has never been an offensive coordinator before rather than chasing somebody, anybody, who could provide a different perspective. O’Brien has doubled down on what the Texans have already created, and offensive coaches have tended to flee his staff.

My read of the situation is that O’Brien believes he needs to have full control of this organization even though it’s clear from the outside that he is struggling with it. That it would be better off if he delegated some tasks. In the words of Richard Feynman, “you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” O’Brien believes it must all be on him, so it is.

We haven’t even gotten into whether Kelly will actually call the plays or not — maybe that’s something we get more clarity about once the hiring is official. But regardless, there’s not a lot I think anybody can be confident about with this move. If you want to explain it away from a place of optimism, you probably can. I’d just note that if the Texans hired, say, Todd Monken (to name one guy who settled for a similar job title) as their offensive coordinator, it would make me a lot more optimistic about their outlook.

A lot of a fan experience, I’ve come to realize over the years, is about expectations. What are your expectations for the season to come, and what is a reasonable expectation for this team? My expectations for the Texans are that they have so much offensive talent that, if everyone is healthy, they could still have a great offense even with mediocre playcalling. It’ll torch some other talented teams, and that will spark optimism. But my expectations are also that good coaching is necessary to beat the best teams, and nothing that O’Brien has done yet has backed up his frequent proclamations that he has to improve.

This press conference will be here next year.

I’m a big believer of the idea that your actions speak a lot more to me than your words do. It’s easy to talk about doing something better. Harder to actually do it when you make no changes. Hopefully Tim Kelly is the next head coaching superstar and this post gets retweeted at me over and over again years from now. I wouldn’t bet on the process that created him as an offensive coordinator getting it right.

Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson: The Battleground for the NFL’s Quarterback Wars

by Rivers McCown

The 2017 NCAA season was a disappointment for two quarterbacks that were highly thought of in 2016. Lamar Jackson, Louisville’s quarterback, saw his passing numbers stagnate while the Cardinals defense dragged the team down to an 8-5 record. The Cardinals allowed 30 or more points six times last season, going 1-5 in those games. Allen saw a massive statistical decline at Wyoming, going from 28 touchdowns to 16, and watching his yards per attempt drop from 8.6 to 6.7.

But one of these quarterbacks is the drum beat of MockDraftLand, a seasonal construct that takes over NFL news for three months, and the other is surrounded by accusations that he may need to move to wide receiver despite his statistical success. It’s worth taking a moment to wonder how we got to this point, and what it means.

Allen is, in many ways, the prototype scouting quarterback. Here’s why I think the prototype is failing us:

 

  • NFL Evaluators still make a big deal about Allen’s size, when we’ve proven that height doesn’t mean much at this level: Drew Brees is likely going to have the NFL’s passing record by the time he’s done playing, and he slipped to the second round because of his height. Russell Wilson isn’t six feet tall and is the most successful quarterback in his age bracket. Deshaun Watson, the NFL’s latest sensation prior to his ACL tear, was dogged for his lack of ideal build and his hand size.

    To a point, height does matter. It’s obviously better for a quarterback to have more visibility over an offensive line. It got ingrained as a scouting virtue for a reason. But when we’re looking at the recent history of quarterbacks, most of the ones drafted and hyped purely on their bodies have been busts. Brock Osweiler received the lowest QBase score in the history of Football Outsiders’ projection stat and continues to draw start after start despite this. Mike Glennon got a starting role because he was a giraffe and predictably flopped. Christian Hackenberg was a second-round pick purely for looking the part. There’s probably still a reason for scouts to hunt for the ideal size, but the degree of emphasis they put on it leads them to miss the forest for the trees.

    The ironic thing about making a big deal about Allen’s height is that he was discriminated against as a high school quarterback because of his size. A growth spurt at community college pushed him to 6-foot-5, from his old 6-foot-2, 190-pound high school frame. Now all of the sudden he gains three inches and NFL scouts drool. What’s the sense in that?
  • NFL Evaluators make a big deal about Allen’s arm strength, when we’ve proven that at the NFL level it’s a luxury item in a quarterback’s tool set: Atlanta’s Matt Ryan led the NFL in deep passing in 2016, under Kyle Shanahan, where he won the MVP. Ryan averaged 10.3 yards per pass out of play-action, ranking second in the NFL. Ryan’s lone NFL tool that keeps him from being Aaron Rodgers-great is that he doesn’t have a hose. These two facts may sound weird together, but they’re true. There are a lot of ways to attempt a deep pass in the NFL. Play-action matters, half-field reads matter. Many NFL defenses spend a lot of time in quarters coverage now, leaving the seams and posts as a major way to generate deep yardage. If the NFL were being played in a vacuum where single-high safeties made back-shoulder throws 35 yards down the field the only way to generate deep passes, I’d understand the emphasis on arm talent.

    Instead, we spend our days being bombarded by quotes about Allen’s arm talent. Mike Mayock says he’s the “biggest-arm quarterback” since JaMarcus Russell. Quarterback coach George Whitfield talks about how “there hasn’t been a talent like this come out of college football since Cam Newton.” There’s a ton of emphasis on this arm talent and not enough of it on what that will do for Allen at the NFL level.

    Joe Flacco won the Super Bowl and has spent every season since (outside of his year with Gary Kubiak) as a doddering sub-replacement level sieve. His arm can still make all the throws, and nobody in these credible NFL circles has talked about how he needs to be pushed out of Baltimore. But it doesn’t really matter how many throws you can make in theory if you can’t score points, right? The emphasis on arm talent treats these things as if they are one in the same.
  • NFL Evaluators scout the highlight clips and don’t put as much emphasis on down-to-down consistency: One buzzword that I think is a betrayal of NFL scouting is when they say that a quarterback “has toughness” or “resilience” to hang in through the bad times. Sometimes it is company to an injury. It showed resilience to bounce back from a torn ACL. But other times it hangs there as if to say “give him enough snaps and he’ll wow you.”

    And Allen is capable of making you say wow. When you look at his highlight clip, he delivers gobsmackingly great throws. I think that’s awesome, fun to watch, and don’t want to demean the fact that Allen can make these plays in any way. It’s a definite part of the ideal quarterback skill set to create in situations like that. At the same time, I’m reminded of a quote from NFL Films’ Greg Cosell, discussing a passer coming out of college for the 2012 draft. The quote was “if you looked at only this quarterback’s 10 best throws, he’d be the top prospect in the class.”

    The prospect was Ryan Lindley.

    NFL scouts see the raw talent and think that they can taper down on the easy mistakes, that every kid at a college program just needs NFL coaching to get better. NFL teams also handcuff themselves to Blake Bortles even when he readily admits to CBS that he is not a “natural thrower of the football.” There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance in the quarterback selection process. My belief is that NFL teams over-evaluate those best 10 throws and hope they can fix the 40 bad ones. After all, the kid has resilience.

 

On the other side of things is Jackson. His consensus in mocklandia is all over the board in the first round. Most of what is said about the Heisman winner in a negative point of view, and the reason that he’s looked at as far behind the other three first-round quarterbacks, can be summed up in ESPN’s terms through Bill Polian. “Short and a little bit slight. Clearly, clearly not the thrower that the other guys are. The accuracy isn’t there. … I think wide receiver. Exceptional athlete, exceptional ability to make you miss, exceptional acceleration, exceptional instinct with the ball in his hand and that’s rare for wide receivers. That’s [Antonio Brown], and who else? Name me another one, Julio [Jones is] not even like that.”

 

  • NFL Evaluators are nervous about quarterbacks that make hay in the running game: It even makes some sense that this would be the case, given how college football running attacks have fewer NFL-caliber athletes to worry about. Then, you add in the history of college running attacks around option plays, especially in the 80s and 90s, and realize that many of them didn’t go anywhere. Match this with an obviously talented physical specimen and, of course, a certain subset of people with worldviews farmed in that period are going to want to move them to a different position.

    But here’s a funny thing about the NFL: traditional running games in general don’t do much work anymore. Sure, you’ve got the odd case of the 2016 49ers giving it up to backs every week. You’ve got the game last year where the Bills were completely run over on the ground by the Saints. But think about the recent history of running backs making a lot of noise as they hit the scene. Todd Gurley electrified everybody for five weeks. So did Leonard Fournette. NFL game plans adjusted easily to them once they saw what both backs could do. But the most consistent driver of NFL rushing offense lately? A quarterback who can add rushing value. The Seahawks and Bills have consistently been among the best running teams over the past five years with Russell Wilson and Tyrod Taylor. Cam Newton is stuck in a dinosaur offense but still offers exceptional diversity in the red zone. Dak Prescott has helped keep the Dallas run game afloat even without Ezekiel Elliott.

    It’s not a surprise that this change has happened and NFL talking heads are the last to know. After all, they’re just shouting their worldview at the screen, and if their worldview could change, they’d still be employed by a team. Jackson’s versatility as a runner should be adding to our evaluation of him, not subtracting from it.
  • NFL Evaluators still remember Michael Vick and Robert Griffin III, and are great at typecasting: Vick was 6-foot-0, 215 pounds, and NFL teams went gaga for him despite the size, making him not only the No. 1 overall pick, but also a No. 1 overall pick that the Falcons traded up for. The Chargers received a third, a future second, and Tim Dwight for moving down just four spots.

    Vick’s career in Atlanta led off with promise as he outdueled Brett Favre in the playoffs, but ultimately was never a statistical success. Of course, that’s not necessarily all on Vick. The mid-2000s Falcons were coached by nepotism favorite Jim Mora Jr. The offense was coordinated by Greg Knapp, and didn’t use Vick’s run game abilities as much as it could have. Instead, they ran T.J. Duckett into the line a lot. And they still made the playoffs in three of the four seasons where Vick was a full-time starter, despite the Atlanta defense getting worse in every year of Vick’s career. In a different world, one where he was managed by a better offensive design and didn’t murder dogs, Vick could have been so much more. But instead, evaluators from this era learned the lesson that … he was too short.

    Robert Griffin III went 6-foot-2, 220 pounds. NFL teams went gaga for him despite the size, making him the No. 2 overall pick only because he was behind another generational prospect in Andrew Luck. To trade up to get him, Washington gave the Rams two future first-round picks and a boatload of other picks.

    Griffin’s rookie year was electric. He led Washington to the playoffs, and the Skins finished sixth in offensive DVOA. Griffin finished fifth among all quarterbacks in rushing DYAR, and would have been even higher had he not fumbled seven times. Griffin’s knee gave way on poorly maintained FedEx Field turf in his first playoff game against the Seahawks, and he was never the same player. Washington had an offensive formula that was working, but moved to try to make Griffin play Mike Shanahan’s preferred style of offense and the quarterback struggled. Not only was Griffin mismanaged, but we’ll never know what he would have been without the injury. Instead, evaluators from this era learned the lesson that Griffin was too small.

    Cam Newton succeeded, but he was 6-foot-6, of course he’d succeed! His body can take NFL punishment. No, I’ve never heard of Russell Wilson. Why do you ask?

    The idea is that every NFL player should be able to thrive in any system, but I’d argue that both Vick and Griffin showed plenty of flashes of success, if not outright success. The cocoon closed ranks and pretended that they were the problems, not the way they were coached or the outside factors. So, in retrospect, they must have been bad picks.
  • NFL Evaluators Think Stats Are For Losers: There’s not much to be said about that, I’m sure. Have scouts and stats ever been pitted against each other in an article or a book, anything like that?

    That war was settled a long time ago. The answer was not scouts or stats. The answer was “yes.”  But what this more broadly points to is the idea of the “system” quarterback. Chip Kelly did a lot wrong as an NFL head coach, but one thing he did right was prove that his system could score points and work. The Eagles were an offensive juggernaut with Nick Foles. Many systems may work in the NFL, it turns out.

    Now, it may be the case that Lamar Jackson isn’t an ideal fit for Norv Turner’s 1990s Cowboys offense, which of course is the measuring stick all offenses are put up against. But Bobby Petrino seemed to have no problems using him to score a boatload of points, and he coached in the NFL. I would argue that head coaches and front offices that embrace the idea that all offensive players are only system fits or worthless are not long for the NFL. A lot has changed in a short time.

    Except in the media discourse, where a disproportionate amount of our attention is rationed out to provocateurs acting as analysts. Huh, do you think maybe all of this talk about Lamar Jackson as a wide receiver feeds people because all news in our society must make people angry or it doesn’t matter? Perhaps that’s why we can just ignore Josh Allen’s stats when people talk about them?

 

 

I think it’s pretty clear which side I am on in this debate from how this article is written. But let me say: I don’t think Josh Allen is a guaranteed bust, and I’m open to hearing about other things he does well. I don’t think Lamar Jackson is a guaranteed franchise quarterback, and I’m open to hearing about other things that might hold him back.

It’s just that, in my rational mind, there’s no way that these two quarterbacks are comparable prospects as far as risk goes. One quarterback has college success, is built to give his NFL team an edge in the running game, and throws down the field an awful lot for a player with no deep ball. The other quarterback couldn’t dent the scoresheet in the middle of nowhere and has several traits in common with, in my eyes, some of the biggest busts of recent NFL history.

These two players will define a lot about the elevated discourse of quarterback play over the next five years. I’m fascinated by how it will turn out. Just don’t tell me what Bill Polian has to say about it in three years.

The Eagles Struck A Blow Against Jeff Fisherism

When Philadelphia won a Super Bowl with their backup quarterback, they didn’t do it by getting lucky. Typical, conservative head coach dogma would look a little more like this:

We’ve got to shorten the playbook, we’ve got to play to keep the ball and take advantage of our opportunities. We’ve got to give our quarterback easy reads and keep on schedule. By playing total team football, we can win. 

The Eagles, instead, dropped 41 points on the Patriots. Not by being a conservative, run-first offense, but by engineering their quarterback to take advantage of the defense and being aggressive. They did it by going for it on fourth-and-goal with 50 seconds left in the second quarter. They did it by going for it on fourth-and-1 … in Eagles territory … and converting on their drive to get a go-ahead touchdown. This was the coaching equivalent of a Dominique Wilkins-Michael Jordan dunk contest, with each trick play raising the bar a little higher than the last one.

I’ve seen several pieces and stories either talk about or bring up in passing Jeff Fisher’s ineffectiveness with Nick Foles. (Or Case Keenum, or Jared Goff, if we want to expand the search area a bit.)  And yes, Jeff Fisher’s passing systems were antiquated by the end of his career. It is, in fact, pretty funny that the Rams faltered on his watch for years and suddenly went 11-5 when they brought in an offensive mind who seized the full meaning of his job.

But the important thing that this Super Bowl taught us was about Fisher’s mindset as a head coach, not his offensive schemes. A lot of other head coaches could have matched Xs and Os on Matt Patricia’s defense and found points. Some of them could have even done so with the brusque efficiency that the Eagles did: 6.1 yards per carry and 8.5 yards per pass.

I can’t think of a single other NFL head coach in my lifetime who would push the pedal like Doug Pederson did in the face of apparent disadvantages. I have no idea where his future takes him, if this was a one-time thing or not. But I was appalled, in a good way, to see someone seize the NFL’s biggest stage and out-aggro the best coach in NFL history. Nick Foles is likely better than some backup quarterbacks, but not by enough to make what happened on Sunday out of the line. The Pats finished 31st in defensive DVOA … but the Vikings had one of the best defenses in the NFL, and the Eagles ravaged them as well.

This game should be the beacon for the rest of the NFL to wake up and stop pretending that they have a Patriots problem. I don’t want to hear any excuses about offensive personnel in Cleveland when they can’t score points. I don’t want to hear about how the backup quarterback can’t be trusted. If it’s an old player who can’t make the throws Nick Foles makes anymore, perhaps that’s a sign of an evaluation failure by the front office! Find someone who can run an offense like this, then do it.

Because, in the biggest game of our lifetimes, the Eagles won by throwing the middle finger up at the entire accumulated conservative NFL establishment. Not only did they win with Nick Foles, they created an offense where they could win because of Nick Foles.

And if they can do it, you can too. Let’s put that copycat culture to work on something that might actually make football more exciting.