Commentary

Offseason decisions that backfired

Reed signing, Cowboys' defensive change among biggest mistakes of year

Originally Published: November 12, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Tuesday turned out to be clean-up day in the NFL.

The Houston Texans admitted a mistake when they released safety Ed Reed after nine non-impactful games. The San Francisco 49ers thought Kyle Williams could get them through their injury problems at wide receiver, but they released him.

November is a time to evaluate the moves, or non-moves, of the offseason. What were five of the biggest mistakes made this offseason?

1. The Cowboys going to the Cover 2: Monte Kiffin is one of the most impactful assistant coaches of his era. He helped make the Cover 2 defense a strategy that got franchises to the Super Bowl. His resume has been impeccable. But moving the Cover 2 to Dallas has turned into a historically bad decision. No team has given up an average of more than 300 passing yards a game through an entire season. The Cowboys are giving up 313 passing yards a game and have lost middle linebacker Sean Lee for 3-4 weeks with a hamstring injury. Following Sunday night's 49-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints, owner Jerry Jones said his firing of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan "doesn't look good right now." The Saints put up 625 yards on the Cover 2. Kiffin isn't getting fired, but he's only on a one-year contract and it's not like the Cowboys can promote Rod Marinelli to take the job. Marinelli is loyal to Kiffin and would reject being an interim coordinator. Jones wanted turnovers in making this change. The turnover to the 4-3 has resulted in 12 interceptions, but the Cowboys have given up 20 touchdown passes.

2. The Dolphins neglecting the backfield: General manager Jeff Ireland was the league's biggest spender this offseason. He invested heavy to build around quarterback Ryan Tannehill by adding Mike Wallace, Brandon Gibson and Dustin Keller. He swapped older, run-stopping linebackers for better blitzers in Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. He let two corners go and gave their positions to Dimitri Patterson and Brent Grimes. Aside from all the problems in the locker room, the Dolphins' biggest mistake was letting Reggie Bush walk and not having anyone ready to replace him. Bush is one of the reasons the Detroit Lions jumped from 4-12 to atop the NFC North. The Dolphins are averaging 87 rushing yards a game and have had three games in which they've been held below 25 yards.

[+] EnlargeAnquan Boldin
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsBecause of injuries and a lack of depth, Anquan Boldin has been the 49ers' only reliable wide receiver this season.

3. The 49ers neglecting the receiver position: Coach Jim Harbaugh was confident enough with his system that he thought he could get by until Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham came off the physically unable to perform list. The 49ers did well by getting Anquan Boldin, but the inability to add more has resulted in Colin Kaepernick's passing numbers to drop dramatically. Williams and Marlon Moore have been released. They contributed only 13 receptions. They traded for Jon Baldwin, but he has only three catches and spends his time on the inactive list. The offense hits a breaking point when tight end Vernon Davis goes down. When he's out, there is no pass-catcher who can get separation from a defensive back. Rookie tight end Vance McDonald has only six catches. Wide receivers not named Boldin have 20 catches in nine games. No wonder Kaepernick is completing only 56.4 percent of his passes and the 49ers are netting only 173.9 yards a game through the air.

4. The Ed Reed move: The Texans knew with a tight cap it was going to be tough to re-sign Glover Quin at the beginning of free agency. Quin got $4.7 million a year and is doing well in Detroit. To replace him at safety, the Texans gave Ed Reed a three-year, $15 million deal. It didn't work out. Reed came with a hip injury and left with a termination notice nine games into the season. Even though he was healthy Sunday, Reed was stripped of his starting job, used as a backup and was in for only 12 plays against the Arizona Cardinals. The Reed signing isn't the reason the Texans are 2-7, but it was a big-name move that didn't work out.

5. Teams getting caught short at backup QB: This is a list that will grow during this second half of the season. You start with the Buffalo Bills. EJ Manuel surprised everyone at camp with the look of being a decent young starting quarterback. But he missed preseason time with a knee injury. Another knee injury tested the Bills' backup situation. They shouldn't have let Tarvaris Jackson go in the spring. They entered the regular season with Jeff Tuel, an undrafted rookie, as the backup and then went to Thaddeus Lewis, who was on the practice squad. Some people outside of Green Bay wondered if Graham Harrell had the arm strength to back up Aaron Rodgers. The Packers gave up on Harrell and brought in Seneca Wallace, who went on injured reserve Tuesday. Scott Tolzien is now the starter. The Packers are fortunate the Bills released Matt Flynn, who was signed to be Tolzien's backup until Rodgers is healthy.

From the inbox

Q: Has the NFL reached its peak? With so many players injured this year and the rate of attrition of starting QBs lost for several games, if not the season, has the NFL reached the point that the game is no longer playable for long stretches by many skilled players? At this point, the teams that retain their starting QBs and a semblance of a healthy offensive line will make the playoffs. That just might be about four or five teams considering how many QBs are getting injured every weekend. (OK, so maybe I am exaggerating, but not by much.) The Lions got away with late hits on Jay Cutler and injured him. While the hits Peyton Manning took from the Chargers were legal, he is facing possible injury time. Jake Locker is out. Aaron Rodgers is out. Green Bay is using its third-string QB. The Eagles lost Michael Vick (for better or worse). Buffalo has a merry-go-round for QB due to injuries. RG III has not been the same from his injuries last year and the hits he is taking this year. How can teams hope to maintain any competitive edge when you have whole lines missing? Is it not time to increase roster size?

Daniel in Denver

A: I don't necessarily agree that the NFL has peaked, but I definitely agree with your point about the rosters. It's time to use the inactive players. The Minnesota Vikings had seven injured starters and had only 43 healthy players for Thursday's game against the Washington Redskins. It would have helped to have 4-6 extra players at hand to fill out special teams. If you pay them, why not play them? Missed starts are up 14.3 percent compared to last year by my count (from 704 to 805), and the quarterback position is getting hit hard. Where I don't think the sport has peaked is that quarterback play is still at a high level and games are close and exciting. This offseason, though, the competition committee needs to seriously address the injury problem. It's a big problem, in my opinion.

Q: It seems as though people have forgotten that Nick Foles was part of that "historic" quarterback draft class last year. If Foles is able to close out this season healthy and ends up proving himself as a franchise guy with a passer rating of 100-plus (it's 132.5 right now), will the 2012 quarterback draft class be confirmed as the best ever?

Shane in State College, Pa.

A: I'm not ready to crown Foles great yet, but you are right about the concept. The 1983 class that included John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly had been considered the gold standard. The 2004 class of Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers might have been the next best thing. But if Foles works out, the 2012 class (also including Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Ryan Tannehill) might go down as the best ever. Great point.

Q: With the players growing more angry toward franchise tags, do you see a possible compromise with the owners giving it up in exchange for what the NBA does? In the NBA, a player can sign for a more lucrative contract by re-signing, thus creating a sign-and-trade market. The owners will still be able to get something for that player, and the player will be able to play elsewhere.

James in La Crosse, Wis.

A: The union doesn't have the leverage to be able to change that at the moment. The owners gained a major victory when they got the union to accept franchise tags at the five-year average instead of the previous year's tabulation. At some positions, the value of the franchise tag dropped by around 25 percent. I'm sure the NFL would make some concessions if the players were willing to go for an 18-game schedule, but I can't see the NFLPA using such an adjustment in the franchise tag as a chip in negotiations. It affects too few players.

Q: I want to make a comment on your midseason All-Pro team. How do you not have Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict on it? He leads the NFL in tackles! Not bad for a guy who wasn't even drafted. James Harrison is nothing but a one-down LB. He has done almost nothing for the Bengals' defense.

Steve in Goshen, Ind.

A: The reason I left Burfict off the team is I thought Lee had a better first half of the season. Now that Lee is out for three or four weeks with a hamstring injury, Burfict could move past him for the season-ending list. Stay tuned. The Bengals won their gamble of signing him as an undrafted free agent.

Q: Given Mike Shanahan's penchant for finding late-round running backs, what do you think Alfred Morris' trade value is? I know we're past the deadline, but maybe an offseason trade could be in the works. Also, any chance Shanahan could swindle an RB for a great CB (like he did with Bailey for Clinton Portis)? I'm thinking Patrick Peterson, Leon Hall or Joe Haden.

Jon G in Washington, D.C.

A: Depending on how this year plays out, Shanahan might not get his fifth season in Washington. Let's say that he does. As great as Morris is, would he net more than a second- or third-round choice in a trade? In 2013, only six trades involving players netted a fourth-round choice or better. Two involved running backs. Trent Richardson went to Indianapolis for a first-rounder, and that trade hasn't worked out so far for the Colts. Richardson is averaging only 2.8 yards a carry. Chris Ivory went to the New York Jets for a fourth-rounder, but his only good game was against New Orleans, the team that traded him. I'm not sold that a team will give up a high draft choice for a back at a time backs aren't getting 20 carries a game. Teams in need of running backs can draft their own backs. In my opinion, the Redskins would be better served keeping him than giving him up for anything less than a third-round pick.

Q: As a die-hard football fan under 30 years old, I think it's sometimes hard to determine what factors are influencing the success or failure of an NFL team's season. I watched my Atlanta Falcons go 13-3 by finishing some very close games on top last year, whereas this year they have lost those very same games. Looking at other teams, I see many normally competitive teams drastically going in a different direction than normal (Steelers, Giants, Texans), where some typically average or bad teams are going up (Chiefs, Seahawks). Even the battle between NFC and AFC has flip-flopped several times, as you often point out. Has the NFL always had this much change of who is good and who is not? What factors play the most in determining a team's success or failure?

Matt R. in Atlanta

A: Injuries and depth are toying with teams more than any year I can remember. The salary cap affected teams such as Pittsburgh, Atlanta, the Giants and others for quality depth. When Atlanta lost five starters in Week 3, the slide started. Change is part of the NFL equation. Normally, you figure there will be five or six new playoff teams a year. But the salary cap and injuries did more to alter the equation this year. The NFC did catch up to the AFC on Monday night in the inter-conference battle. It's now tied 23-23 with 18 games left.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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