Imagine you’re Christopher Johnson, tasked with finding the Jets’ next GM, and you have to sell someone on coming to New York. Where do you start?
The Jets’ 2018 season ended with a coach just going through the motions while playing out the season, having known for weeks that he would be fired at the end. You let the now-axed GM lead the coaching search, and the candidates included a college coach who nearly landed the job but walked away after learning he couldn’t bring some of his desired assistants, and a college coach who flew in for an interview on short notice but accepted another job on his flight out, more or less.
After finally settling on a new head coach—a well thought-of, albeit just fired quarterbacks guru—you doubled down on the incumbent GM (the man you just fired) as the offseason kicked off, handing him a checkbook for free agency and the third overall pick in the NFL draft. Spend? Did he ever spend—assigning an aggregate APY (average per year) of about $40 million to tailback Le’Veon Bell, linebacker C.J. Mosley and receiver Jamison Crowder.
You did all of this and then fired him. If this was all part of a greater plan, it doesn’t look like a very good plan. And if it wasn’t? Well, it’s fair to reason that’s even worse, since that GM led the head-coaching search.
As for what’s ahead, depending in part on next year’s election, your brother Woody could return from the UK as soon as 2020 to take back control of the team, which will make that new coach and this candidate instantly the hires of someone else. So will the new GM be on the clock in a hurry? That’s not really for you to say.
Anyway… Anyone want this job?
In this week’s Game Plan, we’re going to get to all your questions from a week suddenly made much more interesting when the Jets fired GM Mike Maccagnan, including those on …
• The Dolphins’ long-term plan.
• How the Patriots now see old/new linebacker Jamie Collins.
• Where the Bengals plan on playing the 11th overall pick.
But we’re starting in Florham Park, which is the same as it always was.
With everything above standing, the Jets will find someone. There are only 32 GM jobs, and fewer than that come with full roster authority. This one has merits—Sam Darnold is, in some evaluators’ eyes, among the top three or four quarterback prospects to come into the league this decade, and Leonard Williams, Jamal Adams and Quinnen Williams give the defense a young backbone.
Conversely, there’s a lot that made it abundantly clear how badly the organization was misaligned—a result of too many people acting as foot soldiers and not enough stepping up as generals. There was no big blowup in the building, no public display of dissension. But there was plenty of passive aggression to make up for that.
• There was a widespread belief in the organization that the pursuit of Bell was spurred by ownership—or moreso that Maccagnan conducted it because he knew that’s what the Johnsons wanted. In the process, Gase informed others in the building that he didn’t want Bell, but said that, if Bell signed, he’d be fine coaching him. Fair or not, some saw that as Gase distancing himself from the decision, while lining himself up for credit if it worked, in large part because that matched up with his reputation in Miami.
• Mosley was a different case. Gase had him No. 1 on his veteran wish list from the start, I’m told, which explains the wild price the Jets paid to get him: $17 million per, which is nearly $5 million per more than Luke Kuechly made as the NFL’s highest paid off-ball linebacker in 2018. The coach saw him as the type of cultural tone-setter he wanted for his program. Even if no one was crazy about the price tag, the Jets knew they’d have to overpay to beat out Baltimore, which badly wanted to keep him. They wound up a full $3 million per past the Ravens in the process.
• Some friction ahead of free agency was settled well before the draft, and with goals accomplished on the veteran market, many in the building were led to believe that the Maccagnan/Gase partnership was moving forward. Then before the draft, another small sign that aligned with how the Bell situation was perceived cropped up. The coaches ranked Quinnen Williams above Houston DT Ed Oliver, but gushed over Oliver in meetings. This was seen, again, as coaches covering themselves on both ends of a decision, this time openly lusting for one player while toeing the line on the league-wide consensus that the other was better.
• Through it all, Maccagnan held the trigger, and came under criticism internally over a lack of decisiveness that matched poorly with others playing both sides of decision; he’d collect opinions but rarely came down strongly on one side or another in meetings. But free agency and the draft were his shows—In fact, in the war room on draft weekend, Gase was relatively quiet. So it’s easy to ask why Johnson allowed his lame-duck GM to run the bulk of the offseason, if there was a plan to go in another direction (and rumors were circulating about Maccagnan and potential replacement Joe Douglas weeks before the draft). In a similar situation two years ago, the Bills wound up quietly giving command of the draft to coach Sean McDermott, knowing Doug Whaley was on the outs. That didn’t happen here.
• And while we’re there, amid all of Wednesday’s tumult, it took less than 12 hours for Gase to ship out Maccagnan’s big first-round miss as GM—linebacker Darron Lee. The previous regime had discussed a Lee trade with the Chiefs for a few weeks and was holding firm in asking for a fifth-round pick. Shortly after Maccagnan was fired, Kansas City sensed opportunity, and called to offer their 2020 sixth-round pick for Lee, who the Chiefs view as one of the best pure cover linebackers in football. As interim GM, I’m told Gase was indeed the one who did a deal that quickly finalized. That, by the way, leaves just three players (Leonard Williams, Jordan Jenkins, Brandon Shell) from Maccagnan’s first two draft classes, with players from those classes heading into Years 4 and 5.
Again, if you’re Johnson, can you sell that?
The lead candidate to replace Maccagnan is Douglas, the Eagles VP of player personnel, and one of the NFL’s most respected evaluators. He’d be Gase’s pick. And if the Jets can land him, I’d bet on the chance that having traipsed through this smoldering fire would prove worth it for New York.
But with all the associated rubble, Douglas would have a lot to consider before taking the job.
The ex-Ravens exec served 16 years in Baltimore, mostly on the road as a college scout, before a one-year stop in Chicago (where he crossed over with then-Bears OC Adam Gase) that led to becoming the Eagles’ No. 2 behind Howie Roseman in 2016. In Philly, Douglas helped build a Super Bowl champion team with staying power, and has positioned himself in a similar spot to the one Chris Ballard was in three years ago.
Coming up in Chicago, then landing in Kansas City as John Dorsey’s top lieutenant, Ballard turned down GM opportunity after GM opportunity, waiting for the right one to open up—with a quarterback and, preferably, in the Midwest—knowing that the Chiefs were stable and his stock was high. The benefits of that patience, and wisdom, are now on full display in Ballard’s Indianapolis.
So is this Douglas’s version of Indy? Darnold makes it enticing. Johnson could crash a Brink’s armored truck into his house, making it even harder to say no.
Douglas—who, from a reputation and demeanor standpoint, is actually similar to Ballard—is sharp enough to evaluate everything about his next step before he takes it, knowing, of course, that it’s the final rung of the ladder for a scout to climb. That’s why he very carefully has to consider what happened the last four months in Florham Park.
Maybe the deal is already done. That would explain the timing, among other things, of the owner’s move to fire Maccagnan three weeks after the draft. If it is done then, like I said, the likelihood is all this ugliness will be worth it, a sort of broken road to one of the NFL’s best personnel guys.
From there, Douglas would have a pretty daunting task ahead of him—one where the roster certainly wouldn’t be the first thing he’d have to fix.
On to your mail …
From Sam (@papacohen2000): Will Patrick Mahomes take a step back after losing Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt?
Love this question because it raises a very important point—young quarterbacks are largely at the mercy of the situations around them. Mahomes and Carson Wentz, two of the most successful young quarterbacks over the last four or five years, both have very good, quarterbacks-oriented head coaches, and play behind strong veteran lines with solid skill players around them.
The truth is, many quarterbacks (see: Alex Smith, Nick Foles) could be good in the situations that Mahomes and Wentz are in. Smith and Foles were both better than good, but being able to maximize a really good situation is different from being able to fix problems by lifting people around you. That, to a degree, is on Mahomes’s shoulders going into the 2019 season.
In this way, I always see 2006 as the season when we found out how good Tom Brady really was. In winning championships in 2001, ’03 and ’04, Brady was great in being a piece to the puzzle. In ’06, the team around him was aging, and he lost his two best receivers, so he needed to play at an off-the-charts level for the Patriots to compete for a championship—and he did.
Mahomes’s situation isn’t as shaky as that one was (the Patriots acknowledged the 2006 problems through their ’07 offseason acquisitions of Wes Welker, Randy Moss and Donte’ Stallworth). But if Hill’s not there, we will get a look at a young quarterback who has to elevate some of the other Chiefs on offense.
From A-Rod the phinphan (@AlexEst68236435): What is your outlook so far with the Dolphins? The team is rebuilding but I love this coaching staff, showing vigil and promise and a clear plan in place.
I like what they’re doing a lot, A-Rod. And when I talked to GM Chris Grier about it a couple weeks ago, he was quick to credit owner Stephen Ross, who’s certainly had his bumps as a boss over his first decade in the NFL. Ross, as it turns out, wanted a more deliberate plan—one that would eventually bring a long-term quarterback—with his new regime.
The fact that Grier has accumulated multiple picks in the second, fourth, sixth and seventh rounds of next year’s draft, is in position to get third- and fifth-round comp picks for Ja’Wuan James and Cameron Wake, and still took a pretty respectable swing at a quarterback of the future (Josh Rosen) is staggering. If Rosen works out, they’ll be in position to put a lot around him. If not, they can take one next year. Or 2021.
As always, this will come down to the ability to Grier and coach Brian Flores to get the right players on the team. They’ve amassed an impressive chest of assets to accomplish that with.
From RobG (@OnTourForever): Who will win more games this season? The Jets and the Giants combined or the Patriots?
I think both the Giants and Jets actually have a shot at getting to .500—and the Patriots aren’t going 16–0. So let’s go, conservatively, with the New York teams.
From new age professor (@nal53199): How does Le'Veon Bell go play for a coach that never wanted him? Seems to me that it would make for an awkward locker room?
That Gase was against signing Bell doesn’t mean he doesn’t like him as a player, it just means he was against the move. It’s not the first time we’ve seen a coach lukewarm on an acquisition, and it won’t be the last time.
In the end, my guess is the coach who was able to get a lot from C.J. Anderson, Montee Ball, Ronnie Hillman and Knowshon Moreno in Denver, and Kenyan Drake, Frank Gore, and Jay Ajayi in Miami, will do fine with Bell in New York. And if Bell’s a pro, he’ll have way too much prove to let a little pettiness get in the way of making up for his year away.
I wasn’t wild about the signing either. But I think he’ll play a good player there.
From Jim Smith (@jimsmithwiston): Is Joe Flacco suprised/pissed that Denver drafted a second-round QB? Would he have expected a similar situation as he was in last year when he got to Denver?
He should’ve expected it, because the rumors on John Elway being smitten with Drew Lock were there before Denver traded for him. And you mentioned last year—he’s been in this position before—when the Ravens drafted Lamar Jackson at the end of the 2018 first round—which I think is important to remember when you start assessing his comments about not mentoring Lock from earlier this week.
I wouldn’t be surprised if part of Flacco’s standoffish demeanor toward Lock comes from a desire to have the rookie earn his way a little before there’s any sort of hand-holding. Plenty of people brought up the Smith/Mahomes dynamic in this context, but it’s important to recognize how good Mahomes was about staying in his lane as a rookie, which lead to Smith wanting to help him.
Jackson, by the way, was the same way with Flacco last year before overtaking him on the Ravens depth chart. And if you look at how that one ended, I’d say Flacco handled it fine. So I think we should give Flacco the benefit of the doubt until there’s actual an issue here.
From Kevin Farrelly (@kfarrelly21): As a Jets fan, am I wrong to have little confidence in Gase’s ability to run an organization and build culture, let alone effectively coach the team?
I actually think the culture in Miami was really good last year after Gase cut Ndamukong Suh, and traded away Jarvis Landry and Ajayi, and brought in guys like Danny Amendola, Albert Wilson and Gore. But despite all of the good feelings, the Dolphins only finished 7–9 last season...
Part of coaching in the NFL is being able to manage people, and sometimes teams get themselves in trouble when they prioritize culture to the point where they’re at a serious talent deficit. It works in New England to some degree, because the Patriots have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. It’s proven harder to pull off elsewhere.
That means you’re sometimes going to have to handle guys who are gifted headaches, so to speak. Striking the balance between establishing the kind of culture he wants, and integrating a few of those types of players will be part of the challenge for Gase in his second shot at being a head coach.
From Big Wally ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Man in Members Only Jacket (@BostonWest80111): In New England, where would you see Jamie Collins fitting in? Pass rush specialist? Three-down LB?
Wally, I actually see him fitting right into how the Patriots have built their defense over the last five years or so—investing heavily in the secondary, and loading the front seven with hybrids that could be anywhere when the offense breaks the huddle. Dont’a Hightower is that guy. Kyle Van Noy is that guy. And Collins can be that guy again, with the versatility to rush and cover.
I like the signing. And I know the Patriots saw plenty of production on his tape. The problem was really in his consistency, and I think the hope would be if he can get a little lighter (he played heavy last year), his performance might wind up being a little more level.
From Ayyyyyo (@doc_tankles): Any thought to the NFL adopting a lottery for the draft? Tanking hasn’t been a huge issue in the league but as teams become more analytically savvy and looking for cheap franchise QBs is this something the owners would consider? Doesn’t hurt it would bring huge ratings for TV.
Ayyyyyo, I agree! Be sure to download this week’s podcast, and subscribe to it while you’re there. Jenny Vrentas, Conor Orr and I actually conducted our own draft lottery, followed by a mock re-draft of April’s proceedings with a new order.
In all seriousness, I think there’s merit to the idea. I’ll have a section in my Monday column on it.
From Beau Gleason (@BeauGleason): What position is Jonah Williams expected to play?
My understanding, Beau, is that the Bengals are going to start with Jonah Williams playing mostly at left tackle, his college position, while moving around some. I’d also say it’s important to mention that the Patriots (Isaiah Wynn) and Browns (Austin Corbett) did the same with guys who had questions on their ability to stick at left tackle last year. Corbett has since been moved. Wynn is coming an Achilles injury, but was moved around some too (he’ll get another shot at LT this year).
The bottom line for the Bengals is getting better in an area where they were excellent over their run of five straight playoff appearances (2011-15), and haven’t been since. That means getting the five best o-linemen on the field, and Williams’s versatility will certainly make doing that easier for the coaches.
From David Kromelow (@dkrom59): What is the view within NFL scouting and personnel circles on the potential QB class for the 2020 draft?
Right now, David, it’s seen as better than the 2019 class. Things can change, of course, but my sense most teams would have had Justin Herbert as the No. 1 quarterback this year if he’d declared, so he just has to maintain his growth this season. And Tua Tagovialoa has drawn comparisons inside the Alabama program to Drew Brees (Nick Saban knows well how good Brees is, too).
The caveat, always, is that the more time everyone gets to look at these kids, the more time everyone has to find everything wrong with them. But on the surface, a year out, and throwing Georgia’s Jake Fromm in there with the other two, it looks like a solid group.
From Mark Gill NFL (@MarkGillNFL): Does Maccagnan’s firing indicate Gase taking an O’Brien-like role in New York, being involved in GM search, etc.?
Mark, for everything I wrote above, I think Gase should be involved in, but not make, the GM hire. It’s vital that the head coach and GM are on the same page. And it’s hard to project whether they will be without giving the coach the ability to offer input, and seeing him with different candidates (unless there’s a pre-existing relationship there).
Also, if Douglas is the guy, then you’ll know Gase had some involvement.
From N.Kerem Üler (@nkuler): Are there any other examples of the coach and the GM reporting directly to the owner? I hate that structure and think it contributes directly to the ever-present dysfunction in the jets front office.
That’s what the reporting structure has been in Kansas City since Andy Reid arrived and, for the most part, it worked with John Dorsey as GM and has worked with Brett Veach as GM. Ditto for the Steelers, where both GM Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin report to owner Art Rooney. And the Cowboys, where coach Jason Garrett and director of player personnel Stephen Jones report to owner Jerry Jones, with scouting chief Will McClay reporting to the younger Jones.
Organizational structure is important. The people within it are more important.
From Dena Lynn (@peytonsgreat18): Is Manning ever going to say yes to Monday Night Football ... I would love to see him as a commentator.
Good question to end on Dena, and I’ll go ahead and cop out here—I’m going be out of the business of prognosticating Manning’s future, just because I’d have thought, by now, he’d be back in the league running a team. That’s something I could still see in his future. I could see him on TV too. And there have always been rumblings that the Mannings would eventually buy a team.
But what I have heard is that he really enjoys his life with his family in Colorado, and that may have slowed down any aspirations he had on post-playing pursuits. So I’m sure he’ll dive headlong into something eventually. I’m just not sure exactly what.
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