Eagles: Tweak or tear at the foundation?
I don’t even know where to start with the Eagles.
A slide of epic proportions cannot be succinctly summed up in the spaces of this column. The 2023 Eagles ran the gamut of a catastrophe. They hit every note; from bad vibes seeping out of the locker room, to mystifying coaching decisions, to the real-time rotting of an aging core that was part of getting this team to the Super Bowl just one year ago.
The fact that the Eagles team we watched on Monday night was in that spot, with many of the same players, less than 365 days ago, seems unfathomable.
Yet, that’s what happens. Life in the NFL can come at you fast. You can be humbled in an instant and that’s where Nick Sirianni’s Eagles find themselves as the book closes on their 2023 campaign.
Scott Pianowski has a saying he often uses on the podcast, “when the cheese goes bad, it’s bad,” implying there is no turnaround point once the warning signs have transformed to full-blown mold. Usually, he deploys it as a harsh reality when it comes to individual player decline. I wonder if it applies to the foundation of this Eagles team.
Has the cheese gone bad? Is it too late to slice off a few questionable pieces and try to find one more way to serve this up in a tweaked fashion going forward?
That’s the big question Philadelphia decision-makers will wrestle with the next few days and are likely already weighing at this moment: Does this team just need a few tweaks around the foundation or has rot seeped in to the point we need to tear at the foundation?
Forget the defense for a second. That miserable unit is so beyond broken. A full-scale rebuild of that side of the ball from personnel to coaching and even, in my opinion, the allocation of positional resources needs to take place. The offense is where the crux of this decision will lie.
It was never more apparent than Monday night that something is fundamentally wrong. Jalen Hurts has struggled with the blitz all season. There are no hot reads in this offense, Hurts doesn’t progress well under pressure and because they have no backs who can pass protect. Don’t even let us get started on the fact they either cannot (because of the quarterback) or will not (because of stubborn dogma) go under center. It was an Achilles' heel all season, but you’d have to think with a week to prepare for the biggest game of your season against Todd Bowles, one of the most blitz-happy coaches of the last decade, you’d have a different plan. And yet...
It’s the third quarter and the Eagles offense still doesn’t have an answer for the blitz while facing one of the heaviest blitzing teams in the league.
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) January 16, 2024
No answers arrived. There can be no harsher condemnation.
The “we just line up and play because we have better players than you” can work. It requires every player to be at full health — which the Eagles are not — and it also has to come with a play-caller who knows how to push the right button situationally. They had that last year in Shane Steichen. They have not had anything close to that in 2023. Even when their record was good, you could feel his absence in every Eagles game this season.
Plenty of teams that lost in the wild-card round are heading for a difficult week filled with uncomfortable conversations. I don’t think any group of decision-makers are set for a more arduous week than the Eagles brass. This team consistently proved all season they do not have answers. They need to find them, and fast.
Steelers: Time to get serious about the offense
The Steelers' season ended with a double-digit loss on the road against a far better team in the wild-card round. Very few people on planet Earth thought Pittsburgh’s playoff journey was going to end any other way. It happened. It was always going to happen. Now it’s about moving forward and figuring out how to get over a stumbling block that’s starting to get embarrassing for this storied franchise.
Stunning but true.
Last Mike Tomlin playoff win: January 15th, 2017
Last Mike Mularkey playoff win: January 6th, 2018 https://t.co/V31hkynC6h
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) January 15, 2024
The “wow Mike Tomlin does it again and gets another winning record,” praise is adorable right up until the season ends the exact same way for the Steelers; outclassed and humiliated by the actual contenders in the AFC.
I understand why fans of this team are frustrated and outright done with the national media’s glorification of Tomlin. We can’t just continue to praise him for hitting the baseline with this Steelers group, no matter what you think of the roster. Because to be clear, to act like the head coach who has been on the job since 2007 has no input on how the team is built and the overall selection of players is silly. If the roster is bad, he’s culpable.
I don’t think getting rid of Tomlin would be the correct choice. To me, he’s still a clear right answer as head coach for any franchise in the league. Although, there is some smoke about his future in this gig and him walking off the podium as Brooke Pryor of ESPN was about to ask a question about his status does nothing to put out the fire.
“Mike, you have a year left on your contract…”
Mike Tomlin: 💨 ✌🏽 pic.twitter.com/ouAncRXTzy
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) January 16, 2024
Tomlin can still be the man to move this franchise to the next step, but it must come with a strict edict to get serious about the offense. Keeping Matt Canada as long as he did — when quite literally everyone else knew it was a mistake — as well as every move that’s been made at quarterback since 2019 has been a damning note on Tomlin’s resume.
It would be classic Steelers to open training camp in the summer pitching a camp battle between ousted first-round pick Kenny Pickett and Mason Rudolph, the “hot-hand” they rode to the playoffs. That simply cannot be allowed to happen. It would be the clearest sign of all that this franchise has lost the plot.
There are talented players on this roster. The running game was a revelation at times this season amid a split workload between Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. George Pickens and Diontae Johnson can be a great duo when they’re engaged in the process and deployed correctly. The offensive line took a step forward after three-straight years of misery. There are makings of an ecosystem that would be worth investing in and could help push this team over the one-and-done postseason hump.
None of that matters if the offense remains direction-less from a schematic standpoint and they continue to shoot for average behind center.
Tomlin must cast a net far and wide to find someone in tune with the offensive meta in the league right now. A creative mind who can unlock some of the ability we only see in spurts with these skill-position players. And those two men together must be able to launch a real vision for a quarterback answer that doesn’t involve pitching a rerun of anything we saw in 2023. If both of those things don’t happen, this team will once more be doomed to repeat its fate of the last few seasons.
Cowboys: A change in leadership is needed
They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The Cowboys certainly had to be close to the point of madness after nearly identical season-ending losses to the San Francisco 49ers over the previous two years.
Well, fear not, Dallas faithful. You won’t have to suffer through that duplicate conclusion for a third year in a row. You’re not going to make it that far. Even in a hypothetical world where they were good enough to slay the dragon and beat the 49ers — they weren’t — we’ll never know because they turned in an all-time humiliating performance against the Packers in the wild-card round. Owner Jerry Jones echoed that exact sentiment of embarrassment in his postgame media scrum.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter said his sources indicated that Mike McCarthy was always going to be judged by how the last game for the Cowboys played out. That rings pretty ominous on Monday morning.
In some ways, it’s rough timing to consider parting ways with the offensive play-calling head coach. Quarterback Dak Prescott is coming off his best season in years, leading the NFL in completions and touchdown passes. The aerial attack was the team's engine as the defense suffered through fits and starts and the running game with Tony Pollard as the bell-cow back was a failure. CeeDee Lamb graduated to not just the elite tier of wide receivers in the league but perhaps into the top three of the position. Ancillary players like Brandin Cooks and Jake Ferguson filled their roles beautifully. Prescott became enthralled with and fully bought into the West Coast offense under McCarthy. This should be an ecosystem worth building, not one we’re considering for a teardown.
However, if you take a talented team and show up wildly unprepared in Round 1 of the playoffs, you must go. Them’s the breaks.
The Packers weren’t doing anything new on offense and yet they shredded Dan Quinn — you have to wonder where his head coaching pursuits land after Sunday — and the Dallas defense. Green Bay’s own stop unit should have been one Prescott and Lamb could dog walk down the field. Instead, McCarthy was seduced by his underlying conservative impulses and unveiled a hideous “run, run, pass” game plan with their ineffective rushing attack.
McCarthy is also uniquely in trouble with the timing of this horror show. There are some verifiable big-name program-builders on the open market right now between Bill Belichick, Mike Vrabel and low-key, probably Pete Carroll if you can lure him from his new advisor role.
Jerry Jones and the Cowboys could run this thing back another year. It might be good for Prescott to master the West Coast offense further. There would be fantasy numbers galore next season, you can believe that. And yet, none of that matters. McCarthy was able to assume a larger role over the last year on the back of the argument he could fix Prescott’s “interception problem” from 2022 and maximize him as a passer. He did that. It got them right back to the same place.
No one can possibly believe that this team wouldn’t find a way to once again relive its own nightmares a year from now. For that reason, expect significant changes to take place in Dallas over the next few weeks and throughout the offseason.
Browns: Finding a way to sustain offensive momentum
The Joe Flacco run with the Cleveland Browns was a summertime romance.
A union of pure ecstasy where the chemistry and vibes were so strong, that despite knowing full well the odds stacked against the pairing, you couldn’t help but wonder why this couldn’t last forever. Cleveland was able to live out a relationship that burned fast and bright. If you didn’t let your own heart flutter at these two and the joy they brought each other when fate joined them unexpectedly, I question how much you love this sport.
He’ll never come out and say this but you can’t convince me the Flacco stretch wasn’t some of Kevin Stefasnki’s favorite moments as a coach. The aggressive veteran passer allowed Stefanski’s offense to spread its wings fully and revealed what a dynamic unit he’d designed around some quality talent.
But now, with a wild-card loss to the upstart Houston Texans, summer is over. They’re rolling up windows over the shops on the boardwalk. The cabana bar is closing down. Bags are being packed to head back to school.
The Browns' loss in the Wild Card round felt like the end of a summertime romance. pic.twitter.com/47ON7eAvHF
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) January 15, 2024
You knew Flacco and the Browns wouldn’t beat this summer. They just couldn’t. Flacco said of his time with what he called a special group of guys, “I'm super grateful for it. ... Stinks the way it ended. But it was a lot of fun and I'm grateful for the time that we had." That’s reality sinking in for the veteran quarterback, who could have a place somewhere in the league if he wants to continue playing. It just won’t ever feel like this again.
That descending autumn-like reality was surely settling in over the Browns’ decision-makers the last few days. The end of this summertime romance brings with it the need to face responsibilities and get back to real life.
For the Browns, that real life includes questions Stefanski, Andrew Berry and other decision-makers have likely been happy to put on the back burner the last month or so. Queries about why the quarterback Cleveland sold out to trade for and subsequently pay $230 million guaranteed hasn’t been able to get the offense rolling like it was with Flacco. No matter how much chemistry they had with Flacco, this team is married to Deshaun Watson. All Flacco did was show them that there can and should be something more to this Browns offense than what they got out of any other quarterback the last two seasons.
If the Browns hope to compete in a league that now has Jordan Love and C.J. Stroud knocking on the door to join one of the top two quarterback tiers, they need Watson to give them all that and more. But we’re essentially four years from the 2020 NFL season, which is the last time we saw sustained excellence from Watson. If that feels like a lifetime ago, it should. The longer we go, the more likely it becomes that any hope we see that version of Watson in a Cleveland Browns uniform reads like a fantasy.
Rams: Staying the course with the rebuild
Of all the teams to lose over the weekend, I’d argue the only one that can leave the wild-card round with their head held high is the Los Angeles Rams. They competed to the end with a quality Lions team in a hostile environment and got big, gritty performances from some of their best players. Head coach Sean McVay reflected on this group with one of my favorite quotes of the entire season.
"I'm so proud of this football team," Sean McVay said. "And the finality of it is still kind of ... it doesn't totally resonate. But man did I learn a lot and really appreciate this group. They helped me find my way again and how much I love this."https://t.co/RTbrA75NkQ
— Sarah Barshop (@sarahbarshop) January 15, 2024
If you’ve followed the Rams the last 12-to-18 months, you know how tortured McVay has been in the wake of the Super Bowl win. His lack of fulfillment in reaching the mountaintop was only made worse by the startling disaster 2022 season.
He was a razor’s edge from walking away from football and the team he helped build into a contender in his mid-thirties. When he ultimately decided to return, it was with the intent to fall in love with the actual job of coaching, developing and teaching the young players set to inhabit the Rams roster. This team making the playoffs was an emphatic symbol that this rededication by McVay was a rousing success and his words of “they helped me find my way,” perfectly told the story.
Now the Rams, McVay and this young roster of fast-rising players can walk into the offseason enthusiastically ready for the next step. To me, the young core of this roster around Matthew Stafford, the elder statesman at quarterback, is a garden that merely needs to be pruned.
There will be a temptation to return to the old Los Angeles ways of “F them picks” and aggressive all-in moves to get over the top. The Rams have lived that life before and it got them the prize, but that’s not the lesson here. The takeaway from 2023 for McVay and Rams brass is to stay committed to this new-look version. Continue to develop the young talent and replenish the roster with guys who fit squarely in the refreshed vision of the offense. That’s how they stumbled into stars like Puka Nacua and Kyren Williams. With even more high-quality resources to play around with this offseason, they can do it again.
They have an offensive ecosystem with room to grow, one I can’t wait to draft into when playing fantasy football next season.
Dolphins: We are reaching the end of this chapter
It’s ironic that the Dolphins' loss took place one day before the revenge-laced meeting between the Rams and Jared Goff’s Lions. In so many way, Mike McDaniel and Dolphins feel like they’re on a collision course with the moment McVay arrived at after the 2020 season. McVay ultimately decided that — I’m going to say this nicer than he probably did behind closed doors at the time — while Goff was a good quarterback and they had a good run together, he needed something else to take his offense into a new phase.
You couldn't watch the Dolphins and Chiefs game in the wild-card round and not come away with the takeaway that one of those quarterbacks has all the skills to master second-reaction football and win in any condition, while the other simply did not. The reality was inescapable as the results of the game screamed it with every passing drive.
Steve Spagnulo mixed up coverages on the back end to muck up the post-snap picture, the defensive line won at the point of attack against the run game and Kansas City took away the middle of the field. We knew there would be issues on the overly injured defense, but a lifeless performance on offense was something beyond troubling.
This has been a familiar refrain for the McDaniel Dolphins through two years. Against soft opponents in ideal conditions when they’re pitching their fastball, few offenses in the league can hang with Miami. When an opponent can get them off their game, the complete lack of a counterpunch is alarming. Frankly, it’s a damning feature of this chapter of Dolphins football. The team can’t afford to spin on this same hampster wheel much longer.
I am not saying the Tua Tagovailoa era is over in Miami. Frankly, with the structure of their team laden with veterans and high-priced salaries, and the lack of clearly available upgrades, I’m not even sure where they’d go searching for a replacement. What’s been made clear, however, is that one of the most dangerous scoring units in the entire NFL can all too easily be made toothless in certain instances. Worse yet, all the good teams know it.
Mike McDaniel and this coaching staff may have one more journey left with this core of the roster but one way or another, this chapter is coming to a close. They cannot keep taking the winding road only to stare down the same conclusion. How they respond when they finally turn the page and what the next phase looks like will ultimately be what defines McDaniel's tenure in Miami.