1. The big news this week was the Cowboys belated decision to fire head coach Wade Phillips. At 1-7 and needing to win all of their remaining games to have a chance to make the playoffs, Dallas finally pulled the plug on Phillips’ tenure as head coach. He will go down as a figurehead of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, willing to follow the owner’s wishes in order to retain his coaching position. Phillips was never regarded as one of the league’s top coaches, and insiders have suggested he had no involvement in the team’s offense. His calling card was defense, but with the Cowboys having sprung several leaks on defense in the past few weeks, Phillips was doomed. In Dallas, the fans and media are questioning when Jones will fire himself as general manager, the consensus being that the Cowboys have benefitted over the past few seasons from the roster constructed by Bill Parcells. After such a disappointing season, amid aspirations of hosting and playing in the Super Bowl, there is a chance Jones will finally relent and bring in an established general manager to run the Cowboys.
2. Sticking with the Cowboys, Jones was forthright in suggesting that several Cowboys players will need to step up their performance to remain with the team beyond 2010. Although Jones is willing to spend to bring in and retain key personnel, he has also shown a penchant for releasing big-salaried veterans and for penny pinching at the bottom of the team’s roster. With the Cowboys underachieving, a number of high-priced veterans will likely be shown the door at season’s end. Among the players that could be looking for new teams in 2011 are running back Marion Barber, wide receiver Roy Williams, right tackle Marc Colombo, guards Leonard Davis and Kyle Kosier, and defensive ends Marcus Spears and Igor Olshansky. The team has also been disappointed in the play of some young veterans such as linebacker Anthony Spencer and cornerback Mike Jenkins, but those players are likely to be given another year to prove their worth.
3. Owners of LaDainian Tomlinson have likely enjoyed a healthy string of wins courtesy of grabbing LT late in their drafts or spending a few of their precious auction dollars on the former Chargers running back. After Week 6, Tomlinson was a top ten running back, but his production has leveled off over the past two games (180 total yards and no touchdowns). This week, Jets head coach Rex Ryan announced that he plans to lighten the load of his starting running back, resting him during the week and giving him fewer touches on game day. That limits LT’s upside and almost certainly relegates him to RB2 status over the balance of the season. It also increases the chances of Shonn Greene putting together another impressive late-season string of games, just like he had last year during his rookie season. Greene is built to pound the ball, which makes him more useful in the second half of the season as the weather gets worse.
4. Michael Vick has been on fire for the Eagles, and the key issue for Philadelphia’s management this offseason will be what to do at the quarterback position. Vick is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in 2011, and the team already has Kevin Kolb signed for next season at just $1.4 million. With the league and the players’ union unable to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement and the owners set to potentially lock out the players next season, Eagles management may be reluctant to offer Vick a lucrative long-term extension to remain in Philadelphia. However, allowing Vick to become a free agent and sign with another team will not sit well with the team’s fans, particularly if Kolb once again fails to impress as the starter. Look for the Eagles to slap the franchise tag on Vick, since it will meet the dual goal of ensuring he remains an Eagle while avoiding a long-term extension with a lockout looming.
5. With Terrell Owens becoming the main receiving threat in Cincinnati, Chad Ochocinco has seen his targets and his production decrease, and his frustrations boiled over last week against the Steelers. After spending the first half being used as a decoy, he slammed the ball to the turf following his first reception, earning himself a 5-yard delay of game penalty. It must have been irritating for Ochocinco to watch Owens take over his role as the lead receiver and then this week to watch him catch his 150th touchdown pass. Only Jerry Rice (197) and Randy Moss (153) have caught more touchdown passes than Owens.
6. Houston head coach Gary Kubiak is feeling the heat for his poor offensive game plan against the Colts and for allowing the road-challenged Chargers to come in to Houston to steal a victory. All seven of the head coaches who have been with their franchises at least as long as Kubiak has been with Houston have taken their teams to the playoffs at least twice. Kubiak has yet to accomplish that feat with the Texans. Of those seven teams, two have gone to the Super Bowl and one has won the Super Bowl. And this season the Bucs, Chiefs, and Rams have all made strides with head coaches in just their second year with their respective organizations. Simply put, given the parity in the league, a long rebuilding term is no longer required to turn around an organization, and Kubiak has had several years to get the Texans into the playoffs, without any success. If he doesn’t get them there this year, he is likely finished in Houston.
7. Another head coach clearly feeling the pressure to win now is the Dolphins’ Tony Sparano. Sparano chose to bench struggling third-year signal caller Chad Henne in favor of Chad Pennington, who hasn’t started since Week 3 of last season. However, Henne has not progressed as expected and has more interceptions than touchdowns for the second year in a row. With key matchups against the Titans and Raiders in two of the next three weeks, Sparano decided to make the switch now. Pennington is the most accurate passer in the history of the league, but he has accomplished that playing mostly in West Coast offenses that featured a short passing attack. Given that, it seems likely that Brandon Marshall will continue to struggle to post big numbers and score touchdowns in Miami.
8. The Panthers have struggled to run the ball for most of 2010, with running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart finding limited success due to the team’s poor play at quarterback and struggles along the offensive line. Carolina has been waiting for right tackle Jeff Otah to return from offseason knee surgery but finally gave up on that happening and placed him on injured reserve this week. Since being taken in the first round of the 2008 draft, Otah has been a key cog in the Panthers offensive line and a large reason for their success running the ball. He missed four games during his rookie season and three last year, and he will miss all of this season, making his durability a question mark and something the Panthers will have to address in the offseason. He has Pro Bowl potential when healthy, but he hasn’t been healthy frequently enough in the eyes of Panthers management.
9. Sticking with the Panthers, look for significant change in the depth chart at running back in 2011. Williams is scheduled for unrestricted free agency, and Stewart has been a big disappointment in 2010. With Tyrell Sutton and Mike Goodson ready to assume bigger roles, it is likely that either Williams or Stewart will be elsewhere next season. Look for the team to re-sign Williams and dangle Stewart during the draft in exchange for draft picks. With the roster in need of help in several areas, it makes little sense for the team to maintain a depth chart that has four solid players at running back.
10. When the Broncos acquired Laurence Maroney from the Patriots, the assumption was that the team would move to more of a committee approach at the running position. With Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter having split the work fairly evenly in 2009 and with Maroney being a more talented player than Buckhalter, that seemed a reasonable conclusion. However, with Moreno injured, Maroney has received extensive playing time but has struggled to find any running room, and Buckhalter has not been as productive in 2010 as he was last season. Over the last two games, Moreno has been the only Broncos running back to get a carry, and it now appears that he has assumed workhorse status for Denver. While game circumstances may have dictated Moreno getting most of the work to this point, the plan in Denver is to use him in a feature role. Head coach Josh McDaniels confirmed as much this week, stating that the goal is to get the running game going and that Moreno is the running back to make that happen.
11. Sticking with Denver, the team’s run defense has fallen flat in recent weeks after playing reasonably well early in 2010. In three of their last four games, Ray Rice, Darren McFadden, and Frank Gore have each topped 100 rushing yards. That has dropped the Broncos to 31st in run defense, and they now seem a solid bet to approach last season’s ranking, where they finished 26th against the run. In short, get your running backs in against a Broncos run defense that seems to be in free fall—much like the team’s record.
12. Another team struggling to stop the run is Seattle. With starting defensive tackles Red Bryant on injured reserve and Colin Cole out with an injury, the interior of the Seahawks defensive line has not held up, and teams are having much more success on the ground against them than they were having earlier in the season. The Seahawks run defense has plummeted in the rankings and is down to 19th overall. Look for that to drift even lower in the coming weeks.
13. LeGarrette Blount has added some life to the Bucs rushing attack, although he did come up short at the goal line late in the fourth quarter during the team’s Week 9 loss to the Falcons. With center Jeff Faine and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood expected to be healthy this week, Blount shapes up as a decent breakout candidate over the balance of the 2010 season. The Bucs are going to ease each player back into action, with Faine likely to get some time behind Jeremy Zuttah at center and Trueblood backing up James Lee at right tackle.
14. Looks like Bengals right tackle Andre Smith is going to miss the rest of the season. The 2009 first-round pick broke the fifth metatarsal in his left foot during practice this week and will likely be placed on injured reserve. This will mark the second consecutive disappointing season for Smith. While Smith has made progress this year, he remains inconsistent, but he will likely get one more year to convince the Bengals that he is the answer at right tackle.