Black Monday can be a snooze-fest some years. This was not one of those years. From the instant the coffee hit your cup Monday morning, blood was spilled across the NFL coaching ranks. The Bengals, Broncos, Cardinals and Dolphins wasted no time shuffling the deck, setting fire to their coaching staffs with a series of sweeping changes in the final hours of 2018. Including the two coaches let go Sunday and a pair of midseason firings, eight of the NFL’s 32 teams, a quarter of the league, enter the new year with head-coaching vacancies to fill. And that doesn’t even include all the coordinators, assistants and front office execs who spent New Year’s Eve cleaning out their desks.
To you, mayhem may be that character from the All-State ads, but for Steve Wilks, it came knocking at his door around 9 AM Monday morning. That’s when the Cardinals made their long-rumored decision official, cancelling Wilks after one listless season. It may seem abrupt—one-and-done coaches are not the norm in today’s NFL. But Wilks was always an odd fit in Arizona and rather than letting their initial mistake fester, the Cardinals opted for a clean break.
Maybe it was too much too soon for Wilks, who seemed out of his depth in his first and apparently only season as Arizona’s head honcho. A long-time position coach in the league, Wilks arrived in the desert with just one year of coordinating experience under his belt, which is atypical of an NFL head coach. That lack of experience may have played into some of his early gaffes, including his bizarre use of workhorse running back David Johnson, though some of the blame falls on offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, who was sent packing after Week 7. Relegating Patrick Peterson, one of the best shadow corners in football, to zone coverage was another mystifying choice that surely set off red flags in the Cardinals’ front office.
It’s debatable whether he should have been hired in the first place, but Wilks’ prompt dismissal from Arizona still feels a bit harsh considering the circumstances. Tasked with replacing widely beloved head coach Bruce Arians, Wilks had little chance of molding the overmatched Cardinals into a winner. Handed one of the league’s weakest rosters and a bare-bones offense featuring Johnson (coming off an injury-ruined 2017), aging pass-catcher Larry Fitzgerald and little else, 2018 was never going to be Arizona’s year. Obviously, Wilks’ brief stint in the Grand Canyon State didn’t go as planned, but at least he left Arizona a parting gift as the Cardinals will receive the first overall pick in the upcoming NFL Draft by virtue of their league-worst 3-13 record.
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Soon after news broke of Wilks’ departure from Arizona, the Broncos decided to follow suit, relieving head coach Vance Joseph of his duties after two years of uninspired play in the Mile High City. Similar to Wilks, Joseph joined the NFL’s prestigious head-coaching fraternity after logging just one year as a defensive coordinator, which came with Miami in 2016. The Broncos went a combined 11-21 during Joseph’s two-year stay in Denver, both years squandering fast starts (3-1 to begin 2017, 2-0 this season). Poor quarterback play was a staple of Joseph’s Broncos tenure as free-agent signing Case Keenum failed to improve on the mess left behind by replacement-level scrubs Trevor Siemian and Brock Osweiler. Denver’s passing offense showed little life with Keenum at the reins while the continued decline of Demaryius Thomas (who was eventually shipped to Houston at the trade deadline) and Emmanuel Sanders’ late-season Achilles tear did nothing to help the cause.
Some of the Broncos’ struggles can be attributed to bad luck and shoddy roster construction by slumping GM John Elway, but there’s no one to blame but Joseph for Denver’s collapse on defense the past two years. Armed with stars like sack machine Von Miller and slot ace Chris Harris, it’s puzzling, bordering on indefensible that Denver finished in the bottom half of the league in both rushing and passing yards per game, especially given Joseph’s defensive background. But that nightmare was the Broncos’ reality in 2018. After registering consecutive losing years for the first time in over four decades, it’s clear the Broncos need a fresh start and Joseph appears to be the collateral damage.
Not to be outdone, the Dolphins gave the coaching carousel another spin by showing the door to Adam Gase. That spelled the end of a deeply frustrating three-year experiment that saw the Dolphins, among other developments, snap an eight-year playoff drought and score a pair of rare wins over the hated Patriots, both at Hard Rock Stadium. But that wasn’t the frustrating part. Despite some successes including a 10-win season in 2016, Gase’s combative nature rubbed players the wrong way, creating such locker room turmoil and animosity that many in the organization openly applauded his firing. Lauded as an offensive prodigy at previous stops in Denver and Chicago, Gase made little use of former first-round pick DeVante Parker while failing to develop beleaguered signal-caller Ryan Tannehill, who has settled in as a no-frills game-manager in the mold of Alex Smith.
Gase was notorious for picking favorites, which is never a good look for anyone in a leadership role. The first-time head coach showed alarmingly little feel for his running backs, preferring backfield relic Frank Gore to up-and-comer Kenyan Drake while also shipping Jay Ajayi out of town, only to watch him immediately win a Super Bowl in Philadelphia. While Wilks and Joseph may have to settle for coordinating roles at their next gigs, Gase shouldn’t struggle for interest as a head coach. Teams are already lining up for his services including the Browns, who are casting a wide net in their coaching search. With Rookie of the Year favorite Baker Mayfield emerging as one of the league’s best young quarterback talents, Cleveland figures to be the most coveted opening in this year’s coaching cycle.
Black Monday’s final head coaching casualty was Marvin Lewis, who watched his Bengals reign meet its demise following a third straight losing season. The move was long overdue, though Lewis still deserves credit for elevating the Bengals from laughingstock status to one of the league’s better teams throughout his 16-year tenure. Injuries were the Bengals’ undoing this year as key play-makers Andy Dalton (thumb) and A.J. Green (toe) spent more time getting taped up in the training room than they did on the actual gridiron. That sapped the Bengals of most of their offensive strength, though it was Cincinnati’s defense that really bottomed out in 2018, finishing dead-last in both passing and total yards allowed.
Lewis led Cincinnati to five straight playoff berths between 2011-15, though all five resulted in first-round exits. It was a mild surprise the Bengals retained Lewis after last year’s disappointment, but this time he forced their hand by losing eight of his last nine games while guiding Cincinnati to its worst finish since 2010. Lewis compiled 131 wins over his 16-year run in the Queen City, but his Bengals legacy will forever be tainted by his lack of postseason success (winless in seven career playoff games). Unlike Wilks and Joseph, who should resurface in relatively short order, this could be the end of Lewis’ coaching career, though the 60-year-old could pursue front office work if he’s open to making that transition.
If you have a fever and the only prescription is more coaching news, well it’s a good thing you stumbled upon Rotoworld.com, because we have the goods. In addition to our always-popping news page and accompanying Twitter stream, be on the lookout for my Coaching Carousel column later this week. Nothing like a shameless plug to ring in the new year, am I right?
Quick Hits: According to Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Antonio Brown was benched for the team’s season finale in Week 17 after blowing up on teammate Ben Roethlisberger during a walk-through on Wednesday. Brown went AWOL from the team after Wednesday’s incident before showing up to Sunday’s game against Cincinnati, which he was inactive for. The Steelers had previously cited a knee injury as the reason for Brown’s absence … Marcus Mariota suffered a stinger in Week 16, though the injury won’t require surgery. With Blaine Gabbert filling in at quarterback, the Titans fell 33-17 in Sunday’s season-ending loss to the playoff-bound Colts … Four-time Pro Bowler Brian Orakpo announced his retirement from the NFL on Monday. The 10-year veteran and cupcake entrepreneur totaled 423 tackles, 66 sacks and 12 forced fumbles over 132 appearances for the Redskins and Titans … Hunter Henry is expected to make his season debut in the Chargers’ playoff opener Sunday at Baltimore. The third-year tight end is back to 100 percent after tearing his ACL this offseason. Melvin Gordon is also planning to suit up for Sunday’s Wild Card game after tweaking his ankle in Week 17 … Chris Harris has been medically cleared and shouldn’t have any limitations this offseason after breaking his leg in Week 13. The 29-year-old earned PFF’s No. 3 cornerback grade out of 123 qualifiers this season … Buccaneers GM Jason Licht confirmed to reporters Monday that Jameis Winston will be back as the team’s starting quarterback in 2019. Despite a brief benching and a season-opening three-game suspension, Winston still had a strong year statistically, ranking tenth in yards per attempt (7.92) while setting a career-high in completion percentage (64.6). 2019 will be the final year of his rookie contract … The Vikings are expected to bring coach Mike Zimmer back for a sixth season in 2019. Minnesota underachieved this year, falling short of the playoffs despite huge preseason expectations spurred by the arrival of free-agent prize Kirk Cousins … Johnathan Joseph is expected back for Houston’s playoff opener on Saturday. A neck injury sidelined the veteran cornerback in Week 17 … Browns GM John Dorsey said he hopes to re-sign impending free agent Breshad Perriman this offseason. After failing to make an impact during his three-year stint in Baltimore, the 2015 first-rounder shined in Cleveland, breaking out for 233 yards and two touchdowns over his final four games … Todd Gurley is expected to return for the playoffs after sitting out the final two games of the regular season with knee inflammation. The Rams earned a first-round bye, giving the star running back an extra week to recover … In addition to firing Adam Gase, the Dolphins are also reassigning Executive Vice President Mike Tannenbaum. His duties will be absorbed by GM Chris Grier … The Saints signed Josh Hill to a three-year, $8.85 million contract extension on Monday, locking him up through 2021. Hill logged 652 snaps while mostly functioning as a blocking tight end for New Orleans during the regular season … Kerryon Johnson (knee) said he’s at close to full strength and believes he would have been available had the Lions made the postseason. The 21-year-old Auburn alum impressed as a rookie, finishing second to Green Bay’s Aaron Jones in yards per carry (5.4).