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• Tale of tape: 5-11 in 2014; Trestman was 13-19 in the regular season; Emery was 23-25 in three seasons as general manager.
• What went wrong: The defense was an overwhelming debacle this season, hence the 5-11 record and 27.6 points allowed per game (second most in the NFL). At the heart of both Trestman and Emery’s downfalls, though, is Jay Cutler.
Trestman, off a successful CFL stint and with multiple successes as an NFL offensive coordinator, was supposed to be the coach capable of taking Cutler to the next level. Emery showed his faith in that process, first by hiring Trestman and then by handing Cutler a seven-year contract extension worth $120 million.
“When you evaluate a quarterback, you say, ‘Does he have an inventory of passes? Can he make all the throws? Does he have mobility? Is he a quick decision-maker?’ Jay has all that,” Trestman said back in January, when the deal was struck. “He can do all those things. But what’s most important is, is he mentally tough enough? Can he fly the plane and not be on autopilot? And I think during this process he’s proven that he can do that.”
Fast-forward to Week 16 of this season, when Trestman benched Cutler in favor of the thoroughly uninspiring Jimmy Clausen. It was a move seen as a potential Hail Mary by Trestman — an attempt to save his job by tossing Cutler under the bus.
Obviously, the plan failed.
Cutler actually wound up starting again in Week 17 because of a Clausen injury. He and the Bears lost their season finale, 13-9, another half-hearted effort to wrap a season-ending five-game losing streak.
Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker will be replaced, as well, and that move probably should have happened weeks ago. While Tucker did coax a career-best 10.0 sacks out of free-agent addition Willie Young and rookie CB Kyle Fuller showed some early flashes, the Bears were laughable at times on that side of the ball. Seven times they allowed 30 or more points in a game; the Patriots and Packers hung 106 combined points on Chicago over a two-game stretch.
• Roster outlook: Whether Cutler is in or out as Chicago’s 2015 quarterback, the strength of this team sits on offense. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery posted 18 touchdowns and more than 1,800 yards between them this season. RB Matt Forte topped the 1,000-yard mark on the ground and caught 102 passes of his own. TE Martellus Bennett broke through with career-best numbers: 90 catches for 916 yards and six touchdowns.
Clearly, there is something to build on there. The next GM might explore his trade possibilities with Cutler, whose contract could prevent him from being moved. Otherwise, Chicago will move forward with a similar cast of characters.
Defensively, it is anyone’s guess as to how the depth chart will shape up come next September. Longtime stalwarts Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs almost certainly have played their final games in Chicago (Tillman appears set to retire). D.J. Williams, Chris Conte (who was awful this season) and Stephen Paea are among the other impending free agents in Chicago.
In a division featuring the high-powered Green Bay and Detroit offenses, plus an emerging Minnesota team, Chicago has to find a way to come up with more stops in 2015. That will be the case no matter what happens at quarterback.
• Possible replacements: Todd Bowles, Darrell Bevell, Dan Quinn, Rex Ryan, Mike Shanahan, Pep Hamilton, Adam Gase. Keep a keen eye on Shanahan, who recently talked up Cutler — the two were paired together in Denver for multiple seasons.
Chiefs‘ director of player personnel Chris Ballard already has been linked to Chicago as a possible Trestman replacement. The Bears may not be alone if they express interest in him. Ravens assistant GM Eric DeCosta is another name to remember.
• Tale of the tape: 66-46 in the regular season through seven seasons; 1-4 in the postseason. Smith led the Falcons to winning records in each of his first five seasons, including two 13-win campaigns (2010 and ’12), but was never able to make much noise in the playoffs, and the Falcons compiled a 10-22 record in the last two seasons. Smith is the winningest coach in Falcons history.
• What went wrong: Smith was an iffy in-game manager at best, and this showed up more and more often as the team’s talent base started to atrophy. But the primary issue over the last two years was that the roster choices made by general manager Thomas Dimitroff led the team in some unfortunate directions. It’s also been rumored that owner Arthur Blank may want to bring in more players who skirt the edge of the character equation, and that’s never been Smith’s style — he’s perhaps the nicest guy in the NFL, and he wants his team to reflect a certain level of class.
Dimitroff and Smith started off hot with the acquisitions of quarterback Matt Ryan, tackle Sam Baker, linebacker Curtis Lofton, receiver Harry Douglas, safety Thomas DeCoud, and defensive lineman Kroy Biermann in the same 2008 draft. That draft allowed the Falcons to immediately transcend the dregs of the Bobby Petrino era, and it was one of the more remarkable single-season transformations in NFL history (Atlanta went from 4-12 to 11-5). But over the seasons to come, the Falcons’ front office swung and missed on several high-ticket picks. From 2009 through ’12, outside of the costly Julio Jones pick (Atlanta gave up multiple picks for that choice) and some fringe talent, Atlanta was unable to restock the team’s depth through the draft, which is the most crucial way to do it. Most specifically, Dimitroff’s inability to acquire the right kind of long-term pass-rusher in the draft was a major problem.
• Roster outlook: As such, the Falcons have several deep holes right now. There’s still no top-shelf pass-rusher, the offensive line is an issue outside of left tackle Jake Matthews, the secondary is improving but needs some work, and the running back position is a work in progress. Julio Jones is a top-five receiver when healthy, but he’s missed 12 games in the last two seasons. Time is running out for Roddy White, and the team’s inability to replace Tony Gonzalez with a tight end who is even serviceable may be Dimitroff’s biggest miss to date. The Falcons’ new head coach will have a rebuilding process ahead of him — the team’s records over the last two seasons were not a fluke.
• Possible replacements: The Falcons have hired the search firm Korn Ferry to identify potential coaching candidates, which means that this process could go just about anywhere. Look for hot assistant coaches like New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase to get consideration, though it’s also been said that Blank may want to try and make a splash with one of the big names who turned to broadcasting like Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden. Cowher seems pretty happy with his current lot, though, and Gruden just signed a lucrative extension with ESPN. More likely, the Falcons will get one of the top assistants available.
New York Jets
• Tale of tape: 4-12 in 2014; 46-50 in the regular season overall; 4-2 playoff record, including back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances in 2009-10.
• What went wrong: This season, just about everything.
The problems began, as they so often do when these coaching situations go awry, back in the offseason. Despite Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie patrolling other secondaries, Idzik did little to help Ryan at cornerback, a position that serves as one of the centerpieces for Ryan’s multifaceted defense.
The D still managed to hold it together at times, finishing in the middle of the pack vs. the pass and top 10 against the run. The depleted secondary, however, produced just six interceptions — tied with Jacksonville and Kansas City for the fewest in the NFL.
Offensively, the same challenges that had been present throughout much of Ryan’s tenure as head coach lingered. A Geno Smith–Michael Vick QB duel unraveled quickly in the offseason, with Vick first saying he was content being the backup and then admitting he was unprepared when Ryan put him into the lineup.
Idzik did make significant moves, signing WR Eric Decker in the offseason and trading for WR Percy Harvin just before the deadline. Aside from a Week 17 outburst in Miami, the offense still showed little progress.
The Jets followed up a Week 1 win with eight straight losses. By that point, Ryan’s fate was all but sealed.
• Roster outlook: There are a couple of bright spots, notably up front on defense thanks to Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson. Decker also finished the year with 74 catches for 962 yards despite little help from his QBs.
Overall, however, this is at best a roster in flux. The quarterback conundrum remains a black cloud for the franchise. Vick is set to be a free agent but Smith is under contract for next season, so the next coach could try again to turn him into a true No. 1. The smarter play at this point would be to send Smith to the bench and attempt to upgrade the starting spot, either through the draft (New York picks No. 6 in Round 1) or a free agency/trade move.
There are minimal key players with expiring contracts: David Harris, a 16-game starter at linebacker, is the most noteworthy. A decision also must be made on Harvin at some point in the near future.
A one-year fix may be asking too much for the next regime, particularly with the unsettled QB situation. It will take some time for the new GM to undo Idzik’s mess and the new coach to shape the roster.
• Possible replacements: Josh McDaniels, Adam Gase, Dan Quinn, Darrell Bevell, Hue Jackson, Kyle Shanahan, Jack Del Rio. There is no shortage of options, both those somewhat tested (McDaniels, Del Rio) and those set for a first head coaching shot. McDaniels, Gase, Jackson, Shanahan and Bevell all would represent a shift away from the defensive-minded Ryan.
As far as the GM job goes, Tom Gamble and Brian Gaine could be among the names to watch. Both interviewed for the Jets’ job before Idzik was handed the reigns two years ago.
San Francisco 49ers
Mutually agreed to part ways with Jim Harbaugh
• Tale of the tape: 8-8 in 2014, 49-22-1 overall, and 5-3 in the postseason. Harbaugh became the first NFL coach to lead his team to the conference championship in his first three seasons, and the 49ers came within a couple of plays of beating the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII. He’s one of the most successful coaches ever to leave his team by virtue of mutual agreement.
• What went wrong: It’s long been known that Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke — two very intense guys — did not get along. Harbaugh inherited a roster that was more talented than the one he’s leaving behind, and that team was built primarily by former team executive Scot McCloughan. Baalke’s last three drafts have been iffy at best, and recent injuries and player suspensions led to a sub-par performance on the field in 2014.
Harbaugh came into the league in 2011, one year after former Pac-10 rival Pete Carroll took over the Seattle Seahawks, and the level of organizational control Carroll had from Day 1 is something that Harbaugh desires — and something he feels he’s earned. (He’s probably right about that.) There’s also the simple fact that Harbaugh’s sometimes caustic style tends to wear out its welcome — even more so when the team he’s coaching isn’t winning. Quite simply, no matter how successful Harbaugh had been, it was time for a change.
• Roster outlook: The 49ers were without inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman for the entire season, and Patrick Willis was hurt in-season. Rookie Chris Borland stepped up until he was upbraided by his own maladies, but this team should have a very formidable linebacker corps in 2015. Defensive tackle Justin Smith is likely to retire, leaving a huge hole in the front four, and Aldon Smith has been unable to shake off-field concerns. The team has an underrated group of cornerbacks, though young safeties Eric Reid and Jimmie Ward have a lot to learn about pass coverage.
On offense, quarterback Colin Kaepernick still needs a lot of development, and that was made apparent in 2014 when the offensive line and run game regressed. Frank Gore, who’s been the heart of that offense for the last decade, is a free agent and may go elsewhere. The 49ers do have an estimable young back in Carlos Hyde. Among the team’s receivers, only Anquan Boldin performed as expected — tight end Vernon Davis never really seemed to find his groove, and the passing attack they envisioned when they added receivers like Stevie Johnson never seemed to come together. This is a team with a lot of talent at a lot of spots, but there is a noticeable gap between the older guys on the downside and the younger players still coming into their own. Kaepernick’s development will be the key.
• Possible replacement(s): The hot name that’s been bandied about for months is defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, who would, we speculate, be easier for Baalke to deal with than Harbaugh was. Other possible candidates might be Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. One thing is for sure: If the 49ers let a coach this successful go for personal (as opposed to personnel) reasons, the ability to get along will be critical for the next man up — and Baalke will have to hope that it works its way into wins.