If it feels like the NFL has hit a lull in the second week of February, it’s because the doldrums of an off-season are fully upon us right now. No other major professional sport spends more time out of season than actually in it, yet no other league is watched, anticipated and discussed more than the NFL.
There is good news for those in need of a football fix though–the NFL Scouting Combine kicks off next week. Indianapolis’ Underwear Olympics will poke and prod relentlessly while firing off questions and heaping praise upon prospects, game-changers, and those players just hoping to get a chance at earning a spot on NFL teams’ 53-man rosters. Every prospect has something to prove at the NFL Combine and every organization is looking to make a lasting impact with a solid draft.
Of course the NFL Scouting Combine gives fans an opportunity to see coaches and GMs with stopwatches too. The Combine is a chance to hear about teams’ wishlists and weak spots while tweaking your favorite mock draft specialist’s big board. The Combine is a chance to talk about football again, with actual substance.
The Combine also provides newly hired coaches with their first real action, outside of filling their staffs. While some teams focus more on March’s free agent period than other organizations, the NFL Draft is the primary focus for every franchise right now.
The Chicago Bears, Buffalo Bills, Oakland Raiders, and Denver Broncos all have new coaches in place with previous NFL head coaching experience while the hopes for the New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons are that Todd Bowles and Dan Quinn will bring a fresh perspective along with an intense drive to prove they’re the right men for the job.
Which newly hired coaches face the biggest challenges? Let’s take a look, beginning with the NFC today and then the AFC tomorrow.
Think I’m right on or way off? Weigh in for yourself and Be Seen, Be Heard, Be a Fan!
Atlanta Falcons: Dan Quinn
The Super Bowl has come and gone and every NFL team now has a head coach in place. After weeks of speculation that Dan Quinn would be the next head coach for the Atlanta Falcons, owner Arthur Blank made it official the day after the Super Bowl. The Falcons, like every NFL organization, are back to the business of figuring out how they can improve and challenge for playoff berths and a Super Bowl title right now.
In a division known for its worst-to-first past, the Falcons weren’t too far off the pace in 2014. Most 6-10 teams can’t say they missed the playoffs by a single game, but the fact is that Atlanta’s 34-3 Week 17 loss in a winner-take-all game at home against the Carolina Panthers showed everyone just how far away this team really was last season.
But last season is gone. Dan Quinn comes to town not as the defensive brains and inspiration behind back-to-back Super Bowl appearances by the Seattle Seahawks, but as a rookie coach charged with turning the franchise into a consistent winner.
Quinn has some pieces in place, especially on offense. There’s no question that Matt Ryan is the future in Atlanta; equipped with one of the most spectacular receiving weapons in Julio Jones, the potential is there for Ryan to routinely put up 4000-yard seasons with 35+ touchdowns. But Atlanta has glaring issues that need to be addressed as well.
Atlanta’s defense is downright soft. Not a single pass rusher strikes fear into the opposition, their linebackers aren’t big run-stuffers or solid coverage guys, and the secondary allowed the most passing yards in the NFL last season with a tick below 280 per game. Atlanta needs to change the defensively mentality overnight and that’s exactly why Dan Quinn was brought in.
The Falcons haven’t been able to consistently run the football with any success for what seems like an eternity. The question now becomes whether Atlanta’s inability to pound the rock stems from below-average backs, inept offensive line play, or a lack of commitment to running the football from the offensive coordinator. Melvin Gordon III is the top prospect at running back, but with the NFL’s growing idea that solid backs can be found in the mid-rounds and coupled with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s past success of plugging in any RB into his one-cut zone blocking system, the Heisman Trophy runner up doesn’t seem like a good fit or optimum value at No. 8 in the first round.
With so many holes outside of quarterback and wide receiver, the Falcons will likely utilize a Best Player Available Strategy with all of their 2015 selections and let Quinn get to work on the defense and offensive line.
Chicago Bears: John Fox
I’m going to come right out and say it because my regular readers and followers know that I am thinking it: The Bears Still Suck!
While my friend and colleague @ScottPoppen is understandably optimistic that John Fox was the biggest fish in the NFL coaching pool this season, the road won’t be easy for the Chicago Bears to make the playoffs in 2015 or anytime soon either for several reasons.
In a division loaded with offensive difference makers along with current and former NFL MVPs, the Bears defense is atrocious.
Kyle Fuller began the 2014 campaign in strong fashion, but as the season wore on and the rookie CB put more plays on tape, opposing offensive coordinators quickly identified weak spots in his game while targeting and torching the Chicago secondary. If the Bears secondary is bad, their front-seven is even worse. Chicago got pushed around by cohesive offensive lines and too often failed to generate a consistent pass rush, leaving opposing QBs with all day in the pocket.
The Bears need to get younger and more talented on defense right away.
Some NFL teams have a pick-your-poison approach to their defense; either focusing on stopping the run or defending the pass with a strong rush, but most teams did whatever they wanted on offense, all game long against Chicago in 2014. Fox brought in former-49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to fix that side of the ball, but the Bears need better, faster, younger personnel before Fangio’s schemes will translate into stops and victories.
Adam Gase followed Fox to the Windy City from the Mile High one, but don’t expect the Bears offense to immediately resemble the efficiency and production of the Broncos for one, simple reason–Jay Cutler. Chicago’s QB is what he is–a strong-armed underachiever that doesn’t put the time into becoming an elite leader in the league. The light isn’t going to magically go off for No. 6 in 2015. Cutler trusts his arm too much, fails to identify coverage schemes and potential blitzers, and is prone to making big mistakes in the game’s most crucial moments. That being said, Cutler is surrounded by tall receiving weapons on offense, so if Gase can instill some sort of discipline and sound decision-making from the signal caller, the Bears will be competitive next season.
Fox will want to pound the ball while utilizing the height of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery to dictate mismatches in the red zone. Matt Forte provides veteran leadership, but one has to wonder how much the all-purpose back has left in the tank. The Bears will need to take pressure off Jay Cutler by being committed to the running game, something that was severely lacking during the Trestman era.
Which direction the Bears take with the seventh overall pick in the NFL Draft should provide a glimpse into the areas that John Fox and the rest of the staff feel needs the most improvement. Don’t be surprised if the Bears look to land some bigger names during the free agent period as well, specifically in the secondary and across the front-seven.
The potential is there for both the Falcons and Bears to earn playoff berths in 2015 or be picking in the top ten again.
Who said the NFL isn’t interesting this time of year?!
FanRag Sports Wants to Know:
Will the Bears or Falcons have a better record in 2015?
What are the biggest areas of need for Chicago and Atlanta?
Will John Fox or Dan Quinn have the longer tenure with their current teams?
Be Seen, Be Heard, Be a Fan!
Tweet your NFL comments, predictions and rants to @Pat_Whitehurst @FanRagSports and @TodaysPigskin.