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NFL insider notebook: Vikings top ranking of head coaching openings, plus divisional round picks


Call me crazy, but I think the team with a solid quarterback, running back, offensive line and defense in place is the best head-coaching spot in the NFL right now.

I’m talking about the Minnesota Vikings, of course. Having asked around the league this past week, several coaches, agents and executives would agree. Mike Zimmer’s philosophies had gotten stale in Minnesota, but new blood can shake things up.

There are plenty of factors in determining “best spot” right now. Some of these teams don’t even have GMs yet. With some teams, you have to project to free agency what their chances are of markedly improving the team.

I have the Vikings No. 1 because you don’t have to worry about the QB position right now. Kirk Cousins is under contract and more than capable of getting you to the playoffs. That’s more than can be said about the overwhelming majority of teams searching for head coaches. On top of that, you have a patient-enough ownership group in the Wilfs that won’t meddle in your affairs.

Here’s how I see the jobs ranking, in order of best to worst: Minnesota, Chicago, Miami, Denver, Las Vegas, New York Giants, Jaguars, Texans.

The Bears are a legacy franchise that recently changed its reporting structure at the top. Ted Phillips is no longer the go-between, and the Bears have a franchise quarterback on a rookie contract in Justin Fields. (You’ll note much of this list is motivated by the *current* quarterback situation with respective teams.)

I think here is where the debate really starts, and if you want to switch these next two teams, that’s fine with me. I have the Dolphins at No. 3 because they have a quarterback in Tua Tagovailoa, a GM in Chris Grier who just had a fantastic draft last year (Jaylen Waddle, Jaelan Phillips and Jevon Holland), and upwards of $70 million in cap space come March. For as ugly as the offensive line is, you have the capital to make it better.

I have the Broncos next, and honestly I want to have them lower. After speaking with various sources who had the Broncos at 1 or 2, I decided to open my mind a little more to their situation.

I’ll start with the bad first: they don’t have a quarterback. Vic Fangio said as much the day before he got fired. The franchise hasn’t won since Peyton Manning was there. The team will soon be sold and who knows who the owner will be. A quarter of your games will be against Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert.

The good: You have a well-respected GM in George Paton, even if he’s still unproven after just one year. You have the ability to go out and get a quarterback. (If in two months the Broncos have Aaron Rodgers, this is the top job on the list.) You have your receivers and tight end under contract and a great crop of young defensive studs on the other side of the ball.

Those are enough pros and cons to land the Broncos in the middle of this list for right now.

Next up are the Raiders. Right now we have no idea who their GM will be or how that person will be selected. Mark Davis is currently deciding whether to keep interim head coach Rich Bisaccia while the prospect of Jim Harbaugh dangles over Allegiant Stadium. (Among those advising Davis are current Raiders fullback-turned-senior advisor Marcel Reece, team president Dan Ventrelle and former Raiders player and long-time personnel man Ken Herock.)

The Raiders are coming off a year where an adjective like “tumultuous” doesn’t do the situation justice. The team has resources and a quarterback in Derek Carr, but they’ve missed on recent first-round picks, and that’ll come back to bite them soon enough. And as mentioned above, they get the Chargers and Chiefs twice a year each.

The Giants are sort of this year’s definition of one man’s trash is another’s treasure. What do you do with Daniel Jones? Or Saquon Barkley? How about the $72 million receiver who didn’t catch a touchdown pass? Or the offensive line outside of Andrew Thomas? Or the pass rush? Maybe the next GM (Joe Schoen, Ryan Poles or Adam Peters) will make sense of this puzzle, install their top pick for head coach and hit the ground running with this legacy franchise.

But with only the Jets losing as much as the Giants have the last five years, plus all those questions, I can’t reasonably put New York above No. 6 on my list.

And finally we wrap up with the AFC South. The Jaguars could be higher on this list because they have Trevor Lawrence — whom you pray hasn’t been corrupted too much — and more than $60 million in cap space. But the next head coach gets to be paired with GM Trent Baalke, whose recent career is littered with head coaches who quickly become former head coaches while he remained in place (or got promoted!) There’s also the need for speed on offense, undoing the damage Urban Meyer did to the roster, dealing with a fan base that was once apathetic and is now angry, and an owner who a decade in is still making rookie mistakes.

Bringing up the caboose here is the Texans. Deshaun Watson likely won’t be playing for them in 2022, so they’ll have the No. 3 overall pick plus whatever three future firsts they wind up getting for him. Cal McNair has shown nothing to inspire confidence. The team just fired David Culley after one year after he was essentially set up to fail.

League sources feel this job will ultimately go to someone with Patriots ties to work with GM Nick Caserio. That head coach will obviously know the deal going in and not view this as the least attractive job on the market. But there are deep-seated issues in Houston that won’t be cleared up in a single season.

Mike McCarthy’s gamble

Listening to Mike McCarthy’s press conference Wednesday, I was struck by how he still doesn’t get it. The Cowboys coach was still deeply in denial about the final sequence in the wild-card loss to San Francisco that saw Dallas unable to fire off one shot into the end zone for the win.

To put it simply: if your play call resulted in your team having a zero-percent chance of winning, it wasn’t the right play call.

The Cowboys gambled by running a QB draw with 14 seconds left. Is it possible to run the draw, get up and get to the line, spike the ball and have at least one second on the clock? Of course it’s possible. But the reason why teams aren’t supposed to do that is because any number of real-life human factors involved could make that impossible.

“When you’re looking at a normal clock play, 16 seconds is the threshold, but then there is the tight clock play situation which we were in,” McCarthy said. “And when you’re trying to go from a different, the 40, 45-yard throw for the final play, because we’re in the last two-play sequence. This is how we train it. This is how we rep it every Friday and Saturday.”

I’m not blaming the officials. The umpire ran as quickly as he could from the spot he was supposed to be in to get in and touch the ball. Of course center Tyler Biadasz could spot his own ball, but he had it spotted incorrectly by at least a yard. That adjustment cost precious time the Cowboys couldn’t afford to waste. Plus, there was the collision between the umpire and Dak Prescott, which again was a natural potential circumstance considering the situation.

McCarthy is still so enamored with the play call that he could only find one place to lay the blame: at Prescott’s feet.

“But as far as the draw play, the execution, the only thing Dak and I talked about was put a yard limit on it,” McCarthy said. “Cut it to 10 yards. That’s probably going to be the change, the adjustment we make.”

Let’s play that out. Prescott slides after gaining 10 yards that takes Dallas from the San Francisco 41 to the 31. That would leave enough time for one shot to the end zone. No clue what the analytics say (and frankly it’s such a unique situation I’m not sure there’s enough data to accurately level a true percentage of success on such a play), but I would much rather have two shots at the end zone from 41 yards away with 14 seconds than one shot at the end zone from the 31.

Either way, the Cowboys got no shots at the end zone.

“No one is mentioning that Dallas likely practiced that play with Dak sliding before he got tackled,” a current NFL player said to me this week. “That screwed a lot of stuff up. the timing and the spot. Those plays are practiced in a way that tends to be different than how it happens in the game.

“When they rehearsed it, no player in his right mind is coming anywhere near Dak. So that :14 number is artificially low. Not to mention that the spotter in practice likely knows what’s happening beforehand, whereas that official may have been slightly caught off guard and a step slow.”

It reminded me of the end of the movie “Sully.” (SPOILER ALERT: If you still haven’t seen the film about US Airways Flight 1549 after five-and-a-half years and will be upset at me revealing the end, please skip to the next section.)

The National Transportation Safety Board runs simulations that show pilot Chesley Sullenberger could have landed the plane safely at an airport after the damage to the plane’s engines occurred. Sullenberger successfully argues that the simulations don’t take into account human actions and the time it takes to recognize what’s going on. Once 35 seconds are added to the flight simulation, it is proven that Sullenberger couldn’t have made it back to an airport and made the best decision possible.

In repping the 14-second draw, the Cowboys did not take human factors into account. They did not account for official error (if you must call it that). Or Prescott to be tackled. Or the center incorrectly spotting the ball. But all of those are reasonable circumstances that emerged from the play, and not accounting for them to take place in live action is a failure on the coaching staff.

It was the wrong play call and it will never be the right play call. Maybe McCarthy will realize that by the time training camp rolls around and they start practicing this again.

Divisional round picks

Saturday, 4:30 p.m.
TV: CBS | Stream: Paramount+ (click here)

I’ve gotten burned picking against the Bengals all season. I’ll be the first to admit I thought they were pretenders for most of the year, and even down to the final play last week I thought the Raiders would win. This game is sort of the Underrated Bowl, and I’m going with the team that’s overachieved the last several years.

The pick: Titans

Saturday, 8:15 p.m
TV: Fox | Stream: fuboTV (click here)

I love the physicality of the Niners, and it was easy to pick them last week. But it’s too great of an ask to have me pick them against the Pack.

The pick: Packers

Sunday, 3 p.m.
TV: NBC | Stream: fuboTV (click here)

Tristan Wirfs being injured and his backup being shaken up really gives me concern. At some point, the injuries are going to catch up to the Buccaneers. Plus I had the Rams in the Super Bowl this year.

The pick: Rams

Sunday, 6:30 p.m.
TV: CBS | Stream: Paramount+ (click here)

I stuck by my Chiefs Super Bowl pick when they were 3-4, and I’m not getting off that train now. Both teams had dominant performances last week. I’m just going with the better quarterback here.

The pick: Chiefs





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MD Abdullah
Abdullah is a former educator, lifelong money nerd, and a Plutus Award-winning freelance writer who specializes in the scientific research behind irrational money behaviors. Her background in education allows her to make complex financial topics relatable and easily understood by the layperson. She is the author of four books, including End Financial Stress Now and The Five Years Before You Retire.
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