1. Minnesota’s Brad Childress was the first head coach to be let go this season, followed by Wade Phillips in Dallas, Josh McDaniels in Denver, and Mike Singletary in San Francisco. Cleveland was then first off the block once the regular season ended, with Browns top executive Mike Holmgren giving Eric Mangini the pink slip. The pairing of the defense-first, ultra-conservative Mangini with the offensive-minded Holmgren was an odd one, a shotgun marriage that seemed bound to fail when Holmgren was hired last offseason, inheriting Mangini as his head coach. It was a surprise to most when Holmgren announced that Mangini would be retained, but his firing was expected after Cleveland had a string of disappointing games to end the season. The Browns appeared to turn the corner with a win over powerful New England, but then the wheels then came off. After that impressive win, they went 2-6, including losses in their final four games. The final straw was the team’s dismal performance in a Week 17, 41-9 home loss to division rival Pittsburgh. That spelled the end for Mangini, as Holmgren apparently couldn’t stomach losses to bottom-feeders Buffalo and Cincinnati (a loss that snapped a Bengals 10-game losing streak) as well as the Steelers and the Ravens. Look for Cleveland to turn to an offensive-minded head coach that utilizes the West Coast offense, as Holmgren attempts to find a balance between his offensive vision and that of his hand-picked coach.
2. Sticking with the head coaching carousel, the contracts of Carolina’s John Fox and Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis have expired and neither coach is expected to be re-signed. Other coaches whose situations are tenuous are Gary Kubiak of the Texans, the Titans’ Jeff Fisher, Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville, Tony Sparano of the Dolphins, and the Raiders’ Tom Cable. Add it all up and there could be a whopping 12 coaches with a new team in 2011, provided of course that the league and the players’ association can hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement.
3. Here’s my take on which of the above coaches keep their jobs: Kubiak and Del Rio. That’s it.
4. With their win over the Bengals in Week 17—coupled with a Colts win and a Chiefs loss—the Ravens will travel to Kansas City to play the Chiefs in the AFC wild-card round. That should bring a sigh of relief to Ravens head coach John Harbaugh since Baltimore hasn’t beaten Indianapolis since 2001 and the Colts have knocked the Ravens out of the playoffs twice in the last four years.
5. With the Seahawks’ unexpected win over the Rams in Week 17, Seattle captured the NFC West crown with a 7-9 record, becoming the first team with a losing record to qualify for the playoffs. Next up is a home date with the Saints, and you can expect that game’s spread to approach 20 by kickoff.
6. This season the Lions set the league record for most consecutive road losses before finally stopping that streak at 26 with a win in Tampa Bay in Week 15. That win also ended their streak of not having won consecutive games since 2007, as they had defeated Green Bay in Week 14. The Lions then proceeded to down the Dolphins and the Vikings to end the season. That four-game win streak bodes well for a Lions team that came together despite not having franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford for most of the season.
7. With their Week 17 win over the Chiefs, Oakland became the first team in NFL history to not qualify for the playoffs after going undefeated in their division.
8. Sticking with the Raiders, their 8-8 finish marks the first time since the 2002 season that Oakland finished with fewer than 11 losses.
9. Prior to the 2009 season, the Patriots traded defensive end Richard Seymour to the Raiders for Oakland’s 2011 first-round draft pick. With the Raiders now eliminated from the playoffs, that pick becomes the 17th overall selection. In two years with Oakland, Seymour has played in 29 games and has accumulated 67 tackles, 9.5 sacks, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Solid numbers to be sure, but hardly worthy of the first-round pick required to obtain his services.
10. Rams quarterback Sam Bradford is the hands-down favorite to win the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award, but there is a solid chance that two players from another team will finish second and third in the voting. Wide receiver Mike Williams and running LeGarrette Blount of Tampa Bay could finish right behind Bradford, and along with quarterback Josh Freeman they represent perhaps the league’s finest young trio of players from a single team. Look for Tampa Bay’s offense to take another step forward in 2011, making Freeman, Blount, and Williams (as well as tight end Kellen Winslow and wide receiver Arrelious Benn, provided he progresses well in his recovery from a torn ACL) solid fantasy options.
11. Rams running back Steven Jackson topped 1,000 rushing yards for the sixth consecutive season, but he showed signs of wearing down near the end of the year. Despite having the second-most rushing attempts in the league, Jackson finished only eighth in rushing yards, averaging a career-low 3.8 yards per carry. He is generally the main focus of opposing defenses, but with Bradford leading an improved passing attack, Jackson faced fewer formations stacked to stop him than in 2009, when he finished with 1,416 rushing yards and a healthy 4.4 yards per carry. Look for the Rams to finally make a concerted effort to get Jackson a quality backup in order to reduce his wear and tear over the final years of his career.
12. The fantasy world will likely be down on Chargers running back Ryan Mathews entering the 2011 season, courtesy of his disappointing, injury-plagued rookie year. However, he played well in the Chargers final four games, posting 349 total yards and five touchdowns despite splitting time with Mike Tolbert in two of those games and giving way to Darren Sproles in passing situations.
13. Having thrown a touchdown pass in every game in 2010, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady became just the sixth player to accomplish this feat over a 16-game season.
14. Bengals wide receiver Jerome Simpson was the top fantasy wide receiver in Week 16 and finished with the second-most fantasy points among wide receivers in Week 17. Simpson had been regarded as a forgettable bust since being selected in the second round of the 2008 draft, but his solid performance to finish the season makes him the projected starter opposite Chad Ochocinco in 2011. With third-round pick Jordan Shipley having a solid rookie season and Andre Caldwell as a solid backup, the Bengals may forgo acquiring another wide receiver this offseason. Over the first 46 games of his career, Simpson had caught just three passes for 32 yards. Over his last two games, he had 18 receptions for 257 yards and three touchdowns.
15. The Jets have taken a fair amount of criticism for releasing Danny Woodhead in favor of rookie fourth-round pick Joe McKnight. Woodhead has been very productive in New England, giving the Patriots a solid receiving option out of the backfield and a change of pace to starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis. But with the Jets playing a meaningless game against the Bills in Week 17, McKnight got the start and showed the Jets faithful why he was kept around, putting up 158 yards on 32 carries.
16. The Seattle Seahawks took a fair amount of criticism for releasing T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the preseason, partly because he was their most productive wide receiver in 2009 and there seemed to be little depth behind him. They followed that up by trading Deion Branch to the Patriots five games into the season. However, head coach Pete Carroll felt that former bust Mike Williams was ready to launch his career in Seattle, and Williams came through with a solid season. He finished 2010 with 65 receptions for 751 yards and a pair of touchdowns despite playing hurt for much of the year, including missing two games with an ankle injury and leaving another in the first quarter. At just 25 years old, Williams clearly impressed Carroll with his production, and he was consequently signed to a three-year contract extension this week. With the team wanting to develop youngsters Deon Butler and Golden Tate and with Williams locked up long-term, it appears that Seattle is unlikely to use a high draft pick or to acquire a big-name free agent at wide receiver. Look for Seattle to also re-sign Ben Obomanu, who was productive this year when given an opportunity. That could round out the team’s receiving depth chart for the 2011 season.
17. The assumption in Denver has been that Kyle Orton will either enter 2011 as the team’s starting quarterback or battle 2010 first-round pick Tim Tebow for that spot. The more likely scenario is that the Broncos will move Orton in a trade at or prior to the draft in order to stockpile draft picks as the team enters what should be a rebuilding phase. The Broncos’ starting defenders are an aging group, and there is little young talent behind the starters. With Orton coming off a career year, his value is not likely to increase with more playing time. Look for Denver to move Orton while he’s hot and enter next season with Brady Quinn or another veteran signal caller behind Tebow.