When evaluating players over the long term, talent trumps everything. But in the short term, there are many other factors that come into play. A coach’s scheme almost always becomes crucial.
Two easy examples from the 2013 season were the “X” receiver in the Shanahan & Son offense (Pierre Garcon) and the tight end in the Rob Chudzinski/Norv Turner Scheme (Jordan Cameron). Garcon led the NFL in targets and catches, while Cameron trailed only Jimmy Graham and Tony Gonzalez in tight end receptions. They were layups.
This year, seven teams will have new coaches and 12 will have new offensive coordinators. A look at who has benefitted from the changes follows below. I’ll be back next with the coaching change losers.
HEAD COACHING CHANGES
Cleveland: Mike Pettine replaces Rob Chudzinski
Detroit: Jim Caldwell replaces Jim Schwartz
Houston: Bill O’Brien replaces Gary Kubiak
Minnesota: Mike Zimmer replaces Leslie Frazier
Tampa Bay: Lovie Smith replaces Greg Schiano
Tennessee: Ken Whisenhunt replaces Mike Munchak
Washington: Jay Gruden replaces Mike Shanahan
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR CHANGES
Baltimore: Gary Kubiak replaces Jim Caldwell
Cleveland: Kyle Shanahan replaces Norv Turner
Cincinnati: Hue Jackson replaces Jay Gruden
Detroit: Joe Lombardi replaces Scott Linehan
Houston: Rick Dennison has not been replaced yet.
Miami: Bill Lazor replaces Mike Sherman
Minnesota: Norv Turner replaces Bill Musgrave
New York Giants: Ben McAdoo replaces Kevin Gilbride
San Diego: Frank Reich replaces Ken Whisenhunt
Tampa Bay: Jeff Tedford replaces Mike Sullivan
Tennessee: Jason Michael replaces Dowell Loggains
Washington: Sean McVay replaces Kyle Shanahan
1. Gio Bernard, RB, Bengals
We’re going to talk a lot about Jay Gruden in this column because he had such a profound effect on the Bengals as the true boss of the offense. Gruden believes in rotations where possible, and also skews himself toward the pass (Bengals were 18th in rush attempts, 12th in pass attempts). It led to the electric Bernard getting just 170 carries as a rookie while plodding BenJarvus Green-Ellis got 220.
So based on the above, we know Bernard gets a boost simply from Gruden moving on. And Gio gets another boost as a second-year player entering his prime while 29-year-old (in July) BJGE continues to pile up tread. But the biggest boost comes from the promotion of Hue Jackson to offensive coordinator. Jackson has been a running backs coach for most of his career, ever since he broke into the NFL with the Redskins in 2001. When he’s been an offensive coordinator or head coach, his runners have usually flourished:
2001 Redskins: Stephen Davis 356 carries, 1432 yards, 5 TDs in 16 games
2002 Redskins: Stephen Davis 207 carries, 820 yards, 7 TDs in 12 games
2003 Redskins: Trung Canidate 142 carries, 600 yards, 1 TD in 11 games
2007 Falcons: Warrick Dunn 227 carries, 720 yards, 4 TDs in 16 games
2010 Raiders: Darren McFadden 223 carries, 1157 yards, 7 TDs in 13 games
2011 Raiders: Michael Bush 256 carries, 977 yards, 7 TDs in 16 games; Darren McFadden 113 carries, 614 yards, 4 TDs in 7 games.
Note that in two years (20 games) with Jackson, McFadden averaged 5.27 YPC and scored 11 touchdowns. In DMC’s other four years (47 games), he’s averaged 3.55 YPC and scored 12 touchdowns. Hue knows how to take advantage of running back talent and Bernard has gobs of it. Expect Gio to leave BJGE in the dust.
2. Robert Griffin III, QB, Redskins
In 2013, RG3 suffered from the syndrome commonly referred to as Adrian Peterson expectationitis. He blew out his knee in January, but everyone still expected him to step right in come September and improve on a record-setting rookie season. It was never realistic.
When Week 1 of the 2014 rolls around, Griffin will be roughly 21 months removed from his knee tear. And instead of the Shanahan & Son offense built around the zone-blocking run game, he’ll be getting the plays from new pass-happy head coach Jay Gruden.
Gruden is coming off a season in which he allowed Andy Dalton to attempt 586 passes (36.6 per game). That resulted in 4,296 yards, 33 touchdowns and No. 5 ranking among fantasy quarterbacks. RG3 is at least twice as talented as Dalton, boasting superior arm strength and mobility. Gruden plans to utilize that athleticism, which should be back near 2012 levels for 2014 Opening Day.
“I would be foolish to try to turn RG3 into a pocket passer. It would be foolish,” Gruden told MMQB. “The way he is as a runner, we have to take advantage of that. He strikes fear into defensive coordinators when he runs outside. I’m going to let him be himself.”
Add up Gruden’s penchant for the passing game, Griffin’s health and the plan to let him run wild, and we have the makings of a big bounce-back season.
3. Dennis Pitta, TE, Free Agent
Although Pitta technically plays for no team right now, we’re fully expecting him to re-sign with the Ravens. A big reason for that is the hiring of Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator. Here are Kubiak’s comments on the subject at his introductory press conference.
“I remember studying Dennis, and I’m very impressed with him as a player. I know he went through a tough year this year with getting injured, but that position has always been a big part of our offense. I’m sure it won’t be any different.”
Kubiak isn’t lying about his scheme. While playing for Kubiak between 1995-98, Shannon Sharpe averaged 69 catches for 923 yards and 7 touchdowns. He got his hands on Owen Daniels beginning in 2006. In the eight years they worked together, OD averaged 3.8 catches for 46.1 yards with 0.44 touchdowns per game.
Now Kubiak presumably gets to work with Pitta, a uniquely talented move tight end that I believe would have led the Ravens in catches last year if not for his hip injury. He perfectly fills the underneath and middle level routes Joe Flacco sorely missed with Anquan Boldin gone.
Turner got Randy McMichael’s career started in Miami with 88 catches for 1,083 yards and six touchdowns in his first two seasons. He helped make a superstar out of Antonio Gates in San Diego, as Gates churned out 377 catches and 49 touchdowns in their six years together (2007-12). Last year, Cameron ripped off a 80/917/7 line after amassing a grand total of 26 catches in his first two NFL seasons.
Rudolph will be entering a contract year in 2014, the Vikings should have an upgrade at quarterback, his foot should be healed and Turner will be making him a focal point.
5. Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions
At first glance, you might think Stafford’s stock can’t get any higher. He was fantasy’s No. 7 quarterback in 2013, throwing for 4,650 yards and 29 touchdowns. But he’s capable of so much more.
Stafford has the NFL’s strongest arm, throws the tightest spiral, plays in a soft division defensively and has the best receiver in the league. He should be in the Peyton Manning/Drew Brees/Aaron Rodgers tier. However, his completion percentage and yards have dropped in back-to-back seasons as he’s relied too much on raw ability and not enough on preparation/scheming.
That’s where new head coach Jim Caldwell comes in. Caldwell was Peyton Manning’s position coach from 2002-08 and then then Colts’ head coach from 2009-11. In 2012, he took over for Cam Cameron as the Ravens’ offensive coordinator in December and subsequently ignited the offense. It ended with Joe Flacco going on a remarkable four-game tear in the playoffs and winning the Super Bowl.
So Stafford can talk all he wants about how his mechanics don’t need fixing, or that he doesn’t want a personal coach. Caldwell is the head man and he’s not giving his mega talent a choice.
“We have used a set of drills in coaching over the years that I think has added some consistency to all the quarterbacks we’ve coached,” Caldwell said. “The great majority of poor throws – people look at the arm, and that’s important obviously, but I think footwork is the key. … We’ll work on it with Matthew, and he will do them flawlessly.”
Another boost for Stafford comes in the form of new OC Joe Lombardi, who has been working with Drew Brees since 2007 as an offensive assistant and quarterbacks coach. Brees has tons of respect for Lombardi.
“I feel like we were right on the cutting edge of creativity with what we were able to do with personnel and that kind of thing,” Brees said. “I see some similarities, obviously, to what Detroit has with their offensive personnel. I’m sure he’s going to be very creative with those guys. It’s just his talent.”
Stafford projects to be more efficient under the new regime and see his touchdown numbers rise. He’s not higher on this list because passing-obsessed OC Scott Linehan is out. We can’t expect 700 pass attempts.
6. Mike Wallace, WR, Dolphins
Mike Sherman was a complete disaster as the Dolphins offensive coordinator. He never gave the run game a chance, which allowed defenses to pin their ears back and attack his overmatched offensive line. It resulted in Ryan Tannehill getting sacked a league-high 58 times and not having enough time to let Wallace do what he does best.
New OC Bill Lazor helped install Chip Kelly’s offense last season as the Eagles quarterbacks coach. I believe Wallace is actually more talented that DeSean Jackson – he’s just as fast, but he’s bigger and is capable of running a more diverse route tree. Lazor won’t merely use Wallace as a $60 million clear-out route.
7. Ray Rice, RB, Ravens
Betting on NFL running backs to reverse a declining career arc when they already have 2,746 career touches is bad business. For every Fred Jackson, there are a million Shaun Alexanders, Larry Johnsons and Brian Westbrooks.
That said, the Gary Kubiak hire gives Rice a glimmer of hope to get his career back on track. Outside of Mike Shanahan, no one implements/executes the zone-blocking scheme better. While with the Broncos from 1995-2005, Kubiak made Terrell Davis a fantasy superstar, got a 1000-yard season out of Olandis Gary, made Mike Anderson into a brief household name, watched Clinton Portis rack up back-to-back 1500-yard seasons and somehow squeezed 1,240 yards out of Reuben Droughns. Once he got to Houston, Steve Slaton had one spectacular year and then Arian Foster became an annual fantasy dominator.
In addition to the presence of Kubiak, Rice’s 2014 stock will be boosted by a healed hip and Bernard Pierce’s inability to participate in any of the offseason program (shoulder surgery).
Also received consideration:
Kendall Wright – Posted the quietest 94 catches in recent memory. Now gets to work with passing game guru Ken Whisenhunt, who found ways to get Keenan Allen open at will in San Diego.
Victor Cruz – Kevin “KillDrive” is out, Packers product Ben McAdoo is in. We saw what the Pack did with Randall Cobb in the slot.
Delanie Walker – Whisenhunt and Jason Michael are both former tight end coaches. They’ve compared Walker to Antonio Gates.
Josh Gordon – With Kyle Shanahan using Josh Gordon at “X,” the sky is the limit. Easy second-round fantasy pick.