What Changes Do Slumping NFL Teams Need to Make?
The Cleveland Browns of all franchises have become the organization to emulate. Seriously.
The Browns acted decisively by firing previous head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Instead of letting the situation fester, ownership did what was best for the team in both the short and long term.
Others should do the same.
Granted, not every franchise needs to do something as drastic, but there are numerous squads struggling to understand who they are.
Seven teams lost two or more games in a row after starting the season with a combined 21-21 record. These average squads served as the NFL's middle class with an opportunity to advance. Instead, they failed to improve their situation.
Changes are needed if they expect to achieve anything productive over the final seven weeks of the regular season.
A last-season playoff push isn't necessary to establish a level of success. The league's downtrodden can build toward the offseason by identifying problem areas and developing talent. Some will need to make certain changes in the coaching staff or lineup to ensure positive gains.
The Browns showed how cutting out a problem area could lead to a better situation for their No. 1 overall pick, Baker Mayfield, and the entire team. The same can be achieved for many of the league's underperforming squads through critical self-evaluation and decisiveness.
The Baltimore Ravens organization is in flux for the first time ever.
The franchise's only general manager, Ozzie Newsome, is stepping away after the season. Long-time head coach John Harbaugh, the league's sixth-longest tenured coach, is on the hot seat. Finally, Joe Flacco's time as a franchise quarterback in Baltimore is coming to an end.
Change is coming, and the Ravens must act accordingly over the final stretch of the season.
Short Term: Start Lamar Jackson
Flacco's 11-year run as the Ravens' starting quarterback is all but done. This became clear in April when the organization chose Lamar Jackson in the NFL draft's first round. But Jackson needed time to acclimate himself to the professional ranks, and Flacco still looked like a starting-caliber quarterback.
Now, the 33-year-old is dealing with a hip injury and is considered a game-time decision for Sunday's contest against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Ravens had a bye week to prepare Jackson for his moment, especially against the league's 32nd-ranked defense.
It's time to go with the rookie despite Harbaugh's proclamation Flacco will play if he can. The plan is both a short- and long-term gambit. Jackson can provide a spark as a true playmaker, and if he performs well and the Ravens remain competitive, it sheds a positive light on Harbaugh's standing.
Plus, the transition expedites the inevitable, as the Ravens can save $20.25 million by releasing Flacco this offseason. The team might as well get his successor ready.
Long Term: Purge the Old Guard
Flacco shouldn't be the only veteran to go. The Ravens can save significant salary-cap space and create opportunities for younger players by either releasing or not re-signing Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle, Brandon Carr and Michael Crabtree.
It's time to turn the page.
The Denver Broncos got more than they bargained for when they traded veteran wide receiver Demaryius Thomas to the Houston Texans. He hasn't been silent regarding his former team's direction.
"That's what they do over there," Thomas told NFL.com's Michael Silver about the Broncos' losing ways. "I ain't a part of that no more. We like to win over here."
The Thomas deal by itself signaled a team in transition, as Denver is no longer competitive with the AFC West's best.
Short Term: Fire Vance Joseph
Why delay the inevitable? General manager John Elway already considered the possibility after last season, and it's clear the team isn't any better.
"Absolutely, our team is desperate," head coach Vance Joseph said Monday, per 247Sports' Chad Jensen. "When you watch us play, we do play a desperate brand of football."
A desperate team can be a dangerous team, or it can be a team ready to fall apart. Joseph knows where he stands with an 8-17 record.
"I think as the Broncos' head coach, I just want to win more games. That's the bottom line. That's the business we're in. We're all judged on winning football games."
Long Term: Remove Malcontents
A new coaching staff is only part of the process, because another hire will only prolong the transition.
"I thought we were going to have a quarterback. I thought we were going to keep a lot of the guys on the defense," defensive lineman Derek Wolfe said, per Jensen. "That's why I took that [contract] haircut. ... Nothing against Joe Woods, I was just really comfortable with where I was at. Then everything changed."
Nothing Wolfe said is wrong. Clearly, he's not happy, though. The organization will have to find those who buy into the next system and discard those who don't.
The Detroit Lions are the NFL's version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The team's three wins came against the New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers and Miami Dolphins. Yet, the same Lions squad lost three straight by a combined 41 points to the Seattle Seahawks, Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears.
The inconsistency starts with an inability to protect quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Short Term: Fire Offensive Coordinator Jim Bob Cooter
Stafford has been sacked 16 times the last two weeks, including a franchise-record 10 times by the Vikings. Jim Bob Cooter's performance as play-caller has been unacceptable, and he knows it.
"Obviously offensively, I have to do a better job, and we have to do a better job, of protecting our quarterback through play-calling, scheme, execution, all those things," Cooter stated, per MLive.com's Kyle Meinke. "At the end of the day, we have to get that number down and do a better job with that. ... It starts with me. I have to improve the way we're going about doing that and fix some of those errors."
The Lions rank in the bottom half of the league in scoring, total offense, rushing offense and passing offense. Head coach Matt Patricia retained Cooter to provide continuity, but it hasn't worked.
Long Term: Feature Kerryon Johnson, Kenny Golladay
Step one is already complete with the Lions getting Kerryon Johnson 32 touches over the last two weeks. At this point, there's no reason for LeGarrette Blount to see the field.
The organization, meanwhile, paved the way for Golladay to become a bigger part of the offense with the Golden Tate trade, and the second-year receiver caught nine passes for 124 yards over the past two weeks.
As long as Stafford is protected, he should feed both.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are the NFL's most disappointing team. Their five straight losses are tied with the Oakland Raiders for the league's worst mark.
Jacksonville is far too talented to be in this position, and it starts with a different mentality than a year ago. The Jags became the plucky upstarts well on their way to usurping the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers as the AFC's bullies. Doug Marrone's squad fell for the hype.
Short Term: Stress Accountability
The attention to detail seen last season, particularly on defense, is dissipating. Statistically, the Jaguars are the NFL's top-ranked pass defense. Yet, they've been a disaster in that area the last few weeks with multiple breakdowns.
"To be honest, it has to be just total brain farts," safety Tashaun Gipson said of blown coverages, per ESPN.com's Michael DiRocco. "You're looking at guys running wild in coverages that we've been playing here for the first four years.
"Even back in 2016, we weren't a great football team, but it wasn't this many consecutive busts week in and week out. The busts came up in the Dallas game, and they've just been a reoccurring theme since then."
The coaching staff must demand more from itself and its players.
Long Term: Identify Offensive Building Blocks
Jacksonville's offensive line has been beset by injuries: Left tackle Cam Robinson and now center Brandon Linder are out for the season. Running back Leonard Fournette is only one game back from hamstring issues.
On top of that, the Jaguars still don't know if they have a franchise quarterback in Blake Bortles or a true top target. The next few weeks will be an indicator of who will or won't be with the franchise next season.
New York Jets
The New York Jets went from an early-season darling after their Week 1 drubbing of the Detroit Lions to a team in disarray.
Todd Bowles has a tenuous hold of the head coaching gig, and he should be looking to set up the team for the future. The Jets are in need of a galvanizing force.
Short Term: Coaching Staff/Front-Office Shakeup
The move doesn't necessarily have to be Bowles' dismissal. The franchise could fire general manager Mike Maccagnan or something on a smaller scale like removing a coordinator.
One way or another, a message needs to be sent.
"Honestly, I could sit here and sugarcoat everything, but things have not changed," safety Jamal Adams said during an interview on WFAN's Carlin, Maggie & Bart Show (via ESN.com's Rich Cimini). "Obviously, we're still losing. I'm not saying we have guys like that in our locker room, but at the same time, it's not changing."
Long Term: Let Sam Darnold Sit
Playing the 39-year-old Josh McCown has everything to do with Sam Darnold's development.
This year's third overall pick is nursing a sprained right foot. First, there's no reason to rush the 21-year-old back from injury. Second, Darnold can benefit by taking a step back and watching after throwing a league-high 14 interceptions.
"I want to be out there playing, so hopefully if I'm able to go out there and play Sunday, I will," Darnold said last week, per the New York Post's Mark Cannizzaro. "If not, I'm just going to treat it as another learning experience. When adversity hits, it's up to me how to respond."
Added perspective can't hurt.
Two straight losses to the Los Angeles Chargers and Los Angeles Rams is nothing to be ashamed of, but the Seattle Seahawks are now 4-5 and sitting a distance second in the NFC West with an outside shot of making the postseason.
This is also one of Pete Carroll's best coaching jobs. The roster has been overhauled, but the defense continues to play relatively well, and the staff finally found the right combination along the offensive front.
However, the Seahawks are still a step behind the NFC's best with plenty of work to do.
Short Term: Feed Rashaad Penny
After weeks of wondering why Rashaad Penny couldn't get into the lineup, one performance offset early rumbling of the running back being a draft bust.
Penny ran the ball 12 times for 108 yards and a touchdown against the Rams.
"I was patiently waiting. It was time," Penny said, per the News Tribune's Gregg Bell. "Once the opportunity came, I told myself, 'I can't shy away from this one.' Once that opportunity came, I took advantage of it."
Obviously, the Seahawks believe in Penny's potential after selecting him with the 27th overall pick. Chris Carson and Mike Davis are solid backs, but Penny should take on a featured role.
Long Term: Stay on Point
Carroll preaches a positive message, and it's infectious. His team isn't down despite a sub-.500 record.
"It's building character," quarterback Russell Wilson said, per Bell. "I think it's building belief. I think it's building who we're going to be, you know, for the rest of the season, but also for years to come. We've got a lot of great, young guys, and I'm looking forward to what's in store."
A competitive Seahawks roster will be dangerous next season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are trapped on a sinking ship; however, the talent level is far superior than their 3-6 record indicates.
A promising 2-0 start, including victories over the New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles, showed how explosive the Buccaneers can be.
The team couldn't maintain that pace, though. Tampa Bay lost six of its last seven, had its defensive coordinator fired along the way and now has offensive upheaval.
Short Term: Allow Todd Monken to Call Plays
The Buccaneers own the league's top-rated offense. The idea a head coach would strip his coordinator of play-calling duties doesn't compute, but that's what Dirk Koetter did Sunday, and the move reeks of desperation.
"It was just my own reasons," Koetter said after Sunday's 16-3 loss to the Washington Redskins, per ESPN.com's Jenna Laine.
Of course, the head coach can do whatever he feels is necessary, but the offense was never the problem. It just happens to be the side of the ball where Koetter established himself and felt the need to reassert some control since he finds himself on the hot seat.
Re-establishing the status quo with a coordinator who already proved himself would provide the team with a certain level of stability instead of highlighting the head coach's insecurities.
Long Term: QB Remains at the Forefront
Whether the Buccaneers still believe in Jameis Winston is inconsequential. He already showed who he is both on and off the field. Ryan Fitzpatrick is the starter, but the possibility of switching the two down the stretch remains an option.
The franchise's decision is crucial, because another look at Winston indicates the possibility of him remaining the long-term option, while Fitzpatrick finishing the campaign signals the end for Winston in Tampa.