Every year, Black Monday brings out a catharsis for some NFL fans exasperated by their former head coach’s antics. After time, it releases hope as general managers seek the leader to put their franchises back on track.
The thing is, even if a general manager has his locked-in set of candidates amidst an exhaustive search, people with a new opportunity have to possess the desire to come to a new city and build a contender. After all, no one starting a fresh job wants to get off on the wrong foot with their team if they believe they haven’t been put in position to succeed from the start. That’s especially if it’s their first head coaching gig. You want to make an impression.
This is where the Bears come in. Because for as much as they’ll be seeking their Los Angeles Rams-like turnaround in 2018 to become a contender, they have to sell their potential orchestrator on the organization. Ryan Pace’s bid and pitch has to come with the detailed caveat of what he can offer his second choice at head coach. And he’ll have to do it against a slate of other general managers also looking for their hotshot coaches in return.
So, with the league’s coaching cycle set to heat up soon, the aim here is to take a look at how the Bears roster and pieces compares to four other likely (or already voided) head coach openings. For the purpose of this exercise, I’ve decided to narrow that expected group down to the New York Giants, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, and Indianapolis Colts. My three primary criteria for this attractiveness evaluation is as follows:
- Who is the quarterback, and what is his franchise potential?
- What kinds of roster pieces are already in place?
- What’s the draft capital and cap space situation?
For me, the first two weigh much heavier in the prospect of a new head coach. General managers look at draft picks and cap space, because they have a long leash of a rebuild. If they don’t hit on outside acquisitions, most of the time they get a few years. Their timeline is different. If this were about them, draft capital and cap space would come first, then quarterback, then roster pieces. Meanwhile, coaches are more immediately judged by results and therefore are seeking to win quickly. If an organization were seeking both a coach and general manager, this list would look different too. But that’s not the aim here.
(Note: all cap space is based off projected cuts and potential extensions in each city.)
Pace has his work cut out for him as he replaces John Fox, but perhaps not as drastically as some of the NFL’s other catastrophic situations. Let’s jump in and begin with the worst with some of Chicago’s Midwest neighbors.
QB: Andrew Luck
Notable roster pieces: T.Y. Hilton, Malik Hooker, Ryan Kelly
Draft capital and cap space: Top-five pick (projected), $84 million (projected)
Truthfully, the Colts would sit near the top of any attractive opening for a coach if there were assurances with a healthy Luck. This is a proven star quarterback that’s only 28-years-old and has shown the ability to put a mediocre franchise on his back the way the greats do. With how Indianapolis has struggled to effectively build around the six-year veteran, it’s been remarkable how he’s persevered to elevate that team time and again any time he’s on the field. Chuck Pagano has realistically only lasted this long because of how good Luck is.
Yet that health factor is a tremendous detractor. Luck has taken a beating behind a sieve of a Colts offensive line. Since he entered the league in 2012, he’s been the most hit quarterback of any by far. Indy is fortunate that Luck is built like a lumberjack, otherwise he might’ve fell apart earlier. That punishment eventually resulted in him sustaining surgery on his throwing shoulder (an injury he played through in pain during 2016), and having to miss the entirety of the 2017 season as he now sits on injured reserve.
Quarterbacks have come back from much worse to enjoy productive careers. Think Peyton Manning after neck surgery in 2012, or Drew Brees after tearing his labrum in his throwing arm in 2006. But both of those quarterbacks subsequently joined teams with quality offensive lines and well-designed offensive systems in the early 2010’s Broncos and mid-2000’s Saints. You can’t say that for these Colts, who will assuredly expose Luck to the same kind of beating in his (hopeful) return next year. Chris Ballard is a fantastic general manager in theory, but even he needs time.
Luck, in any other case, would be the golden goose for all coaching candidates. Guys would overlook one of the currently worst built rosters in the league for a star quarterback. The Colts will have all the flexibility in the world to fix their hollow roster, but no assurances they can actually take advantage of it. In this situation, with their top property, there’s too much danger involved.
QB: Eli Manning
Notable roster pieces: Odell Beckham Jr., Landon Collins, Evan Engram
Draft capital and cap space: Top-five pick (projected), (potentially) Sub-$15 million
You can look at the Giants’ situation, that saw former GM Jerry Reese and head coach Ben MacAdoo fired, in two ways if you’re a prospective head coach.
On the one hand, there is a good amount of star talent in key spots like Beckham Jr. and Collins: two All-Pro players when at their best. There’s a healthy cap investment in an overall roster that was largely built in March 2016 in a solid core that made the playoffs a year ago with 11 wins. If Manning - who will be 37-years-old by 2018 - were to come back for a swan song. If the Giants elected to upgrade their offensive line (there might not be a worse tackle in football than Ereck Flowers) with limited cap space. If New York were to extend Beckham Jr.: this team could realistically return to the postseason next year.
On the other hand, as slightly alluded, there isn’t much cap space to fix one of the league’s worst offensive fronts, because of all of those 2016 commitments to non-premium rebuilding assets such as Janoris Jenkins and Oliver Vernon. Jenkins and Vernon were talents you sign when you believe you’re on the cusp of a title and or are trying to max out the last year or two of your aging franchise quarterback. The only problem is, that with said horrid line and Manning’s general ineffectiveness in his own right in old age, he might already be maxed out. In that sense, the Giants have too much of a cap and roster imbalance.
There’s also the issue of whether the organization is going to want to extend Beckham Jr., who will assuredly command money among the likes of Antonio Brown and DeAndre Hopkins (approximately $17 million per season). And, if they’ll be able to keep Collins, as both the star safety and Beckham Jr. are due to be unrestricted free agents at the same time in 2019. If New York can’t extend their 25-year-old wideout this off-season, they might elect to move him instead of losing him for nothing as they’ll have but one franchise tag to keep either of their young stud talents.
So, if you trade Beckham Jr. and are down a franchise quarterback (which means you’ll probably have to draft one with your top pick in April), you’re in the midst of a full-scale rebuild with your new general manager theoretically tied to your hip. Some coaches would sign on for that undertaking, with the assurance they’ll have the similar leash to the guy they’ll report to turn it around. Others will see the more likely scenario of a team years away from contending, with talent in it’s prime like Vernon already nearing 30 wasting away. Then by the time they’re again ready to make the leap, he’s jettisoned. Not a good look.
QB: Trevor Siemian
Notable roster pieces: Von Miller, Chris Harris Jr., Bradley Roby
Draft capital and cap space: Top-10 pick (projected), $23.4 million (projected)
General manager John Elway doesn’t get enough flak for how he’s evaluated the quarterback position since losing the eldest Manning to retirement. A wasted 2016 first-rounder in 2016 on bust Paxton Lynch. Then wasting time on an ineffective glorified game manager in Siemian. Both have been extremely underwhelming and or difficult to even watch. If current head coach Vance Joseph gets the ax in January, blaming him totally when it was his quarterbacks’ ineptitude would be a mistake.
At any rate, this is a team that was still prepared to win following a Super Bowl victory in 2015, and largely has most of the same roster in place ready to compete barring a quarterback move. Miller is a generational pass rusher and future first ballot Hall of Famer that wrecks all offensive game plans any time he sees fit. Harris Jr., Roby, and Aqib Talib help comprise an impressive lockdown secondary (though Talib may be cut for expenses). Demayrius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are quality targets forgotten in an abhorrent passing game. There’s a nice, foundational core here ready to make the leap back into relevancy for another two to three-year window before it all collapses once more.
If say, the Broncos are able to lure the younger Manning away (should the Giants not retain him), this Denver team with a mostly locked in place roster is right there for the taking for a new head man roaming the sidelines.
QB: DeShone Kizer
Notable roster pieces: Myles Garrett, Danny Shelton, Jamie Collins
Draft capital and cap space: No. 1 overall pick (projected), $115 million (projected)
I’ve seen the Browns touted as this amazing perfect situation, ripe for the taking for a new head coach to finally turn it around in Cleveland. So let’s be clear: a perfect situation does not exist. But if the Browns were “perfect, I’m not sure why the comparison is made for a coach. And I’m not sure why everyone assumes Hue Jackson is safe, despite being retained following the firing of Sashi “trust the process” Brown as GM. If this team goes 0-16 again, unstable ownership in Jimmy Haslam could very well step in and let Jackson go, who has been very underwhelming this year. Which I predict happens.
Anyway, for a general manager, Cleveland is perfect, as it has been for the past few seasons. After cutting ties with Brown last week, the Browns went out and acquired one of the most respected personnel men in the NFL in John Dorsey: someone accredited with building a recent talented Chiefs roster. He has a lot to work with too.
The Browns, barring a late season unexpected winning streak, will again have the No. 1 overall pick. Thanks to the Houston Texans floundering without Deshaun Watson, they’re set to have another top-10 pick. Thanks to more wheeling and dealing in previous years, they’ll have three second-round picks in 2018, and 12 overall. With the right selections, Dorsey can set Cleveland up for long-term contention for a good while. That’s an astounding draft haul.
Then, with some premium signings in free agency, this Browns team might even be ready to compete in 2018. Guys like last year’s No. 1 overall pick in Garrett, Shelton, and Collins are either set to be stars or are firmly underrated as some of the best defenders in football. Emmanuel Ogbah and Jason McCourty look like integral pieces. Josh Gordon might be a star receiver in his return.
The rub, is as always, “potential” and not enough immediate impact. Declaring the Browns ready to compete and the best situation for a head coach is a bit of a fallacy considering some of this young talent still has to come together and develop. The other holes on the roster, that can be filled with all of those draft picks, are still holes until proven otherwise. To Dorsey, these picks are godsends. To a coach, they mean nothing until they’re proven. Again, potential matters to roster evaluators. Impact and tangible talent matters to coaches.
Then there’s the issue of if Cleveland still believes in the 2017 second-rounder Kizer. The rookie has shown promise this year, but also leads the league in interceptions. Do the Browns elect to again start over under center? That’s a full scale rebuild in itself to develop someone anew at quarterback. If the Browns dump Jackson, whoever they hire after him has to be sold on the fresh turnaround and be assured he’ll have ample time to implement his philosophies. Since Haslam took over as owner in 2012, the team has had three head coaches since then. History doesn’t lie in terms of patience.
QB: Mitchell Trubisky
Notable roster pieces: Akiem Hicks, Jordan Howard, Leonard Floyd
Draft capital: Top-10 pick (projected), $33 million (projected)
It is in no way ludicrous to suggest the Bears are but a Trubisky reasonably expected development, and a few targets in the passing game away from playoff contention next season. This is the one team of all slated coaching openings that is the perfect juxtaposition to this year’s Rams. It doesn’t mean the Bears are absolutely going to make that leap in 2018. Football isn’t played in a vacuum. It merely means they can and that they’re not that far off in direct contrast to their counterparts. Whoever the new coach at Halas Hall will be, will see a roster ready to win now and a franchise quarterback he can grow with long-term. The two biggest marks every candidate will seek anywhere.
As to that Rams comparison: there’s a young quarterback going through growing pains (although Trubisky has been better than 2016 Goff to this point). A defense with star and growing players like Hicks, Floyd, Danny Trevathan, Eddie Jackson, and Eddie Goldman. And, an offense with most of it’s foundation in place aside from wideout that already possesses a bulldozing tailback in Howard, the future at tight end in Adam Shaheen, along with the explosive slash possession elements of Tarik Cohen and Cameron Meredith (provided he expectedly returns well from an ACL tear).
The track to succeed has been laid down. This is a very desirable job, contrary to only some’s belief.
Now yes, all of this hinges on the steps Trubisky will have to take after his rookie season. Not to mention surrounding him with those mentioned better weapons (which can happen in both free agency and the draft), once he grows up as a quarterback. But whomever the new Bears coach is going to be, will be the one to assist Trubisky in that fine-tuning while noting his accuracy, decision-making, and progress over the course of 2017. Trubisky is far from proven, but he’s healthy, has shown enough flash, and there’s a good team of support around him that just needs someone to steer it all into the right gear. The defense is mostly finished, and is a piece and new scheme away from running roughshod. The running game and offensive line is already a good buoy, save for a potential lone tackle upgrade.
As for Chicago’s oldest current starter? 31-year-old Josh Sitton.
Otherwise, the mostly youthful and in-prime roster is constructed for a desired upcoming four-year best title window (the duration of Trubisky’s rookie contract), and sustained excellence following a future quarterback extension of him then carrying the team.
Of all of the likely openings, the Bears for once have the best roster in place.
For once, they have the most promising quarterback.
Right now, somewhere, the next NFL coaching maestro is salivating at the prospect of what Chicago will offer his career.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron, and contributor to The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.