Commentary

Falling far from the coaching tree

Mailbag: Playing for stats, the Colts in the playoffs and more

Originally Published: December 11, 2012
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The firing of Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was a surprise in its timing. But it also illustrates a problem in the NFL.

Where do coaches find the right offensive coordinator? The constant churning of head coaches is part of the problem. An average of seven coaching changes a year for the past three decades has gobbled up so many coordinators -- both on offense and defense -- it's not allowing a lot of coordinators to grow into head coaching jobs.

And clearly, it's put head coaches with defensive backgrounds in a tough spot trying to hire the right offensive coordinator.

John Harbaugh thought he had the right coordinator in Cameron, who was a Norv Turner disciple and who has a great knowledge of the "Air Coryell" type of offense. Even though there has been reported friction between Cameron and quarterback Joe Flacco through the years, the Ravens were always good enough to make the playoffs.

But the frustration built over the past year. For some reason, the no-huddle offense didn't work as well in road games. Criticism was always leveled against Cameron if his play-calling neglected Ray Rice in the second half of games. Losses to Pittsburgh and Washington led to the internal Ravens explosion that led to Cameron's firing. He was replaced by Ravens QB coach and former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell.

Caldwell will probably implement more no-huddle and install more plays Flacco likes. If that works down the stretch, Caldwell will probably take the full-time gig.

If that doesn't work, it won't be easy hiring an offensive coordinator. Look at the landscape. Seven head coaches call their own plays. Nine coordinators are former head coaches, but a 10th, Chris Palmer of the Titans, was fired weeks ago. That leaves 15 coaches who started the season as pure coordinators. Some -- with a list headed by Jay Gruden of the Bengals, Mike McCoy of the Broncos, Greg Roman of the 49ers and Dirk Koetter of the Falcons -- could be lost to head coaching jobs.

Former Raiders head coach Hue Jackson is an option, but he'll probably get the Bengals job if Gruden leaves.

Coaches may have to look to colleges to find options if the right fits aren't available in the NFL.

From the inbox

[+] EnlargeRay Rice
AP Photo/Nick WassMaybe Jim Caldwell will give Ray Rice the ball?

Q: What are your thoughts about Baltimore's offensive strategy? They continue to pass to set up the run, instead of the opposite, despite having one of the league's premier backs. It seems that in every loss this year, they have had a lopsided pass-run ratio. Take the Week 13 loss to the Steelers, one of the league's best pass defenses. They had 34 passes (and completed only 16) to 21 runs, only 12 of which went to Rice. And they opened the game with six straight passes, only three of which found their targets. Do you have any insight into their thinking?

Daniel in Atlanta

A: I have two thoughts. I don't think they use Ray Rice enough in the second half of games. I also don't think they take advantage of the speed on the bench. I'd like to see more clearing routes by Jacoby Jones to open up the middle of the field. When they don't have Jones or some of their speedier receivers out there, cornerbacks can neutralize Torrey Smith and the rest of the group doesn't get separation from defenders. But they do need to get more out of Rice later in the game. As it turned out, those problems led to Cam Cameron's firing.

Q: I always get the feeling that the Saints and Drew Brees are more about getting the records and stats rather than winning. Down 17-7 in the second quarter against the Falcons in Week 13, Brees throwing a check down inside the 10 yards with seconds left in the quarter and no time outs was the worst decision. It was clear that Brees wanted to continue his consecutive-games streak of touchdown passes, Saints could have easily opted for a field goal and made it a one-score game. Even during the rest of the game I got the feeling Brees was looking for that touchdown pass to extend the streak rather running the ball more as the Saints did successfully in the game where they defeated Atlanta this season. Your thoughts?

Moiz in Atlanta

A: Drew Brees is a winner. He wants wins more than the stats. And I consider trying for the touchdowns as a quarterback and an offense that is pressing rather than being offensively selfish. You would agree that the defense hasn't been good this year. Veteran quarterbacks will tell you that when you have a suspect defense, the offense is asked to score more points. In doing so, the offense takes the attitude that it needs to score touchdowns in every possession. When that attitude is there, the quarterback takes the mentality of thinking touchdowns, not field goals. That leads to mistakes -- interceptions, fumbles and botched plays.

Q: Is it possible for pass protection to be too good? Brandon Weeden has been one of the least sacked QBs in the league but he's near the top in passes batted down at the line of scrimmage. It seems to me that a fair number of these passes are batted down because the Browns offensive line is stoning opposing pass rushers at the line of scrimmage which, at least to my eye, gives those defenders that extra split second to knock down passes, especially on those shallow crosses and outs that the Browns run so often.

Kovacs in Dallas

A: You could be right. If the defensive player can't get to the quarterback, his job becomes disrupting the throw and knocking down passes. I think Pat Shurmur does a good job with young quarterbacks. He loves using the three-step drop. That's what worked well with Sam Bradford in his first year in St. Louis. Good observation by you.

Q: After watching team-after-team try and fail to put away a game by running the ball three straight times, I just do not understand why the offense doesn't go with a spread formation in those situations. After all, would you rather run against 11 in the box, all of whom expecting the rush, or seven or eight in the box who at least have to respect a possible throw? And if there is a one-on-one mismatch on the outside that can be exploited by a quick throw, isn't that just as good as a run?

Matthew in St. Louis

A: You are correct. Teams tend to get too conservative late in the game. A spread offense could help. Running out of the spread isn't a bad idea. Teams like to wear down defenses, but I think that's tough to do with all the players who are available on defense. I like your idea. The only issue is by going spread, you do give the defense a chance to go into zones and eventually get extra defenders near the line of scrimmage. Also, you have one or two less big blockers who can knock down defenders and get the rushing yards. It is important that the offense has a running threat. The running threat does create those one-on-one matchups because defenses have to commit to stopping the run.

Q: So I'm going to make a bold prediction. The Colts will make the playoffs (not that bold as the AFC is kind of weak this year) and they will win the first playoff game they play in. I'm not a Colts fan, but a fan of statistics. And the stats say that since 2006 there is one team that isn't that great statistically, and yet they all have won first week of the playoffs. Last year, it was Denver beating Pittsburgh. (How many saw that coming?) The year before, Seattle beat New Orleans. The year before that, Arizona beat Green Bay. Then there were the Giants beating Tampa Bay in 2007, then going on to win the Super Bowl. The Seahawks beat the Cowboys in 2006. So, based on recent history, I'm going to go with Indy.

Andrew in Fairbanks, Alaska

A: The only problem is that in most of those instances you note, the supposed "lesser" team was at home. The Broncos were an 8-8 division winner and upset Pittsburgh with Tim Tebow behind center. The Seahawks were a 7-9 division winner and had the crowd behind them in upsetting New Orleans. Arizona was at home when it beat Green Bay. The Colts should make the playoffs, but they will probably make it as a road team, making their chances of winning that much harder.

Q: If the NFL wants to stop helmet-to-helmet hits, why don't they institute a penalty box similar to the NHL? If a team had to play 10-on-11 for two- to five-minutes of clock time when a player commits a personal foul for helmet-to-helmet contact, I think the players would quickly eliminate such fouls.

David in Blacksburg, Va.

A: Some helmet-to-helmet hits are hard to prevent, so that move would be too drastic. Give an offense a one-man advantage, and they would turn a helmet hit into a touchdown. Seven points in football is different than a goal in hockey. No solution is going to cut down on helmet-to-helmet hits overnight. The current group of NFL players has been tackling a certain way since grade school. Retraining their techniques take time. To change the game like that would damage it.

Q: With hearing all the numbers of attempts Andrew Luck has been being asked to do this season (537 and counting) I was wondering something. I know that it is way different from baseball in both the number of throws and velocity, but how does throwing a football 40-50 times per game effect a quarterback in the long term? Can a QB kill his arm eventually?

Matt at Langley Air Force Base, Va.

A: Not as long as they train properly. Look at Peyton Manning. He hasn't had a problem throwing 40 to 45 passes in a game and he's coming off four neck operations. The only problem for a young quarterback such as Luck throwing so many passes is that the more you throw as a rookie, the more chances you have of losing. Luck is so good, he can throw 40 to 45 passes and win. Most other rookies need to stick to throwing fewer than 30 passes per game to be able to consistently win. Those who don't train right might get dead arm, but you rarely see that happen.

Q: I was wondering what you think are Matt Flynn's prospects for 2013. He was signed by the Seahawks in the offseason to a three-year contract with $10 million in guaranteed money to be the starter, but he's not a starter. Do you see any teams possibly trading for him in the offseaon or if he is released, do you think being benched in favor of rookie Russell Wilson will hurt his value in the open market next year?

John in Naperville, Ill.

A: As with most trades in the NFL, you look at the contract before you look at the player in a trade. Flynn has value, but the Seahawks can't get much for him in a trade. Maybe they can get a conditional sixth or seventh, but very few teams will want to pick up that $6.5 million contract. If he is cut, he'll have a few teams bidding on him.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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