1. With offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur leaving to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, St. Louis faced the difficult decision of finding an offensive coordinator to further the development of rookie quarterback Sam Bradford, the likely winner of the Rookie of the Year award. To avoid having Bradford learn two different systems in his first two years in the league, the Rams were expected to hire a disciple of the West Coast offense that Shurmur ran. San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith’s disastrous first few years in the league were the result of having to learn multiple systems, and his case was the most often cited rationale for the team wanting to use the West Coast system in 2011. However, after a difficult negotiation, the team instead chose to hire controversial former Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels. McDaniels coordinated the record-setting Patriots offense in 2007 and coaxed productive seasons out of Matt Cassel in 2008 and Kyle Orton during his stay in Denver. The decision to hire McDaniels will be much discussed, given his volatile tenure with the Broncos. But the issues that plagued him in Denver will not be present in St. Louis. Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo’s assistants rarely speak to the media, and McDaniels won’t have much say in personnel matters, which he proved in Denver is his worst attribute. The decision to hire McDaniels will likely be viewed in league circles as a boom-or-bust move, but, given his offensive pedigree, McDaniels represented more upside than any of the other candidates. And the downside risk is minimized by the fact that McDaniels will be looking to bolster his resume in order to secure his next head coaching position. In fact, the most likely downside for the Rams would be that McDaniels may help Bradford have a solid season and then land himself a head coaching gig in 2012.
2. The fantasy impact of McDaniels joining the Rams can be summed up simply as “more pass and less run.” McDaniels prefers to throw the ball, and with running back Steven Jackson coming off his worst season since becoming a starter, look for McDaniels to lean heavily on Bradford’s throwing abilities. It’s also worth noting that McDaniels coaxed a Pro Bowl caliber year out of retread Brandon Lloyd, as well as productive seasons from Jabar Gaffney and Eddie Royal. His ability to get the most out of his wide receivers reduces the likelihood that the Rams will use a first- or second-round selection on a wide receiver and increases the chance of rookie Danario Alexander having a productive sophomore campaign.
3. Over in Cleveland, Browns management chose the up-and-coming Shurmur over several other big-name head coaches. Shurmur’s ties to the Eagles organization when current Browns general manager Tom Heckert was in Philadelphia helped his cause, as well as did his West Coast system, which meshes well with the philosophy of head honcho Mike Holmgren. The knock on Shurmur was that he had only been an offensive coordinator for two years in St. Louis and that he failed to take enough shots downfield. On the plus side, it’s hard to argue with the solid development Bradford showed in his first year, and there were plenty of whispers in St. Louis that Spagnuolo had handcuffed Shurmur in his offensive play calling. With Shurmur having shown an ability to develop young quarterbacks and Holmgren there to mentor both Shurmur and rookie quarterback Colt McCoy, the odds of McCoy blossoming into a solid starter are more likely than they were with the departed Eric Mangini leading the team.
4. Leave it to Raiders owner Al Davis to inexplicably fire head coach Tom Cable after he lead the team to their first season with fewer than eleven losses since 2002. Apparently that wasn’t enough for Davis, the team’s legendary owner who has been in full-scale decline as an owner for close to a decade. During the press conference announcing offensive coordinator Hue Jackson as the team’s 17th head coach (sixth since 2002), Davis blasted Cable, calling him a liar, implying that he embarrassed the organization, and stating that he had done a bad job as head coach. Davis also informed the team’s fans that he had withheld $120,000 from Cable’s paycheck as insurance against the Raiders losing a lawsuit to a former assistant who accused Cable of injuring him in a physical altercation. Just when the Raiders looked ready to turn the corner, Davis puts on another theater of the absurd, increasing the questions about which direction the team is headed in and whether they can produce a winning record in spite of their delusional owner. Here’s a note for you, Al: If you plan on firing any employee who embarrasses the organization, how about starting at the top with yourself?
5. The Falcons’ loss to the Packers this week was hardly a surprise given Green Bay’s strong play of late. Atlanta had the look of a solid regular season team, able to pile up wins based on their ability to run the ball, avoid turnovers on offense and mistakes on special teams, and play stout, if unspectacular, defense. However, Fox announcer Jimmy Johnson gets kudos here for hitting the nail on the head. He proclaimed that running the ball and playing solid defense provides wins in the regular season, but in games between similarly matched teams in the playoffs, the one more capable of making big plays will generally come out on top. Sure enough, the Packers came up with several big plays in their win over Atlanta, particularly exposing the Falcons’ lack of a big-play threat outside of wide receiver Roddy White. While running back Michael Turner puts up impressive yardage totals, his ability to make big plays diminished in 2010. And tight end Tony Gonzalez no longer has the ability to stretch a defense up the middle. As for wide receiver Michael Jenkins, it will be a shock if the Falcons don’t use a high draft pick to provide competition for the disappointing former first-round pick.
6. My condolences to Broncos fans who this weekend will see former Denver quarterback Jay Cutler lead the Bears in the NFC Championship game against the Packers. Former head coach Josh McDaniels shipped away Cutler and a fifth-round pick in return for Kyle Orton, a pair of first-round picks, and a third-round selection. Meanwhile, in Denver, the team has hired John Fox to replace the departed McDaniels; Orton is apparently on the trading block; and the Broncos’ return on the draft picks they received from the Bears has been minimal.
7. Last offseason, the Saints shipped offensive tackle Jamaal Brown to the Redskins for a mid-round draft pick, choosing to rely on Jermon Bushrod at the all-important left tackle position that protects the blindside of quarterback Drew Brees. Bushrod had a solid season in 2009 when Brown was placed on injured reserve early in the year, and he was a key contributor in the Saints’ Super Bowl win. But Bushrod’s play slipped a little in 2010, and the Saints are now in a quandary at left tackle, with Bushrod likely to be an unrestricted free agent in the new CBA. His play in 2010 didn’t warrant the megabucks deal that most young, emerging left tackles receive, but the Saints only have untested rookie second-round pick Charles Brown in reserve. This shapes up as a very interesting dilemma for a team that clearly needs stronger protection on the blindside of their franchise quarterback.